Hurricanes to Hell

I first heard the claims from a Mormon colleague at work. The constellation Virgo was overlapped with some planets creating a configuration of twelve lights in the sky. On Monday night at Bible study the parallels with Revelation 12 (in which the Sacred Mother descends with twelve stars in her tiara) were elaborated further: one of the lights was Jupiter, which exited the constellation on September 23rd, the basis for claims that the seven-year trial of tribulation was now under way. Only one element was missing: the simultaneous descent of the dragon. The claim was that NASA had somehow “blocked out” that part of the sky, hiding one-third of the stars (the dragon’s tail?).

I kept on stating firmly “The stars in Revelation are angels,” but the speaker wouldn’t listen, doggedly pursuing the story, repeating “But there’s more.”

Given this propensity to seek material evidence of God’s forthcoming intervention, I find it wondrous that nobody has linked the first letters of Harvey, Irma and Maria to spell out “HIM.” Santa Maria is also Christ’s virgin mother. Powered by the sun and arriving in hurricane form, she struck Puerto Rico at night – I’d assume hiding a full moon.

For those that followed the video series out at Love Returns, we know that we’re well past Revelation 12, close to the seventh bowl in Revelation 16. I won’t support that claim here, however, for there’s something revealed more directly by the tragedy in Puerto Rico.

Samuel was the first to warn God’s people concerning the limitations of government, and the Resurrection itself must be taken as repudiating all earthly powers.

Puerto Rico is a potent support for the argument that government is destined to betray our hopes. As a center for drug manufacturing, the island had a successful economy until about 2005, when Congress ended tax credits that benefited pharmaceutical companies that manufactured there. Shipping goods from an island nearly 1000 miles from the mainland is expensive, and the factories soon closed, kick-starting Puerto Rico’s descent into poverty.

Maria devastated an island already on the verge of collapse.

Why did Congress end the tax credits? A hurricane is a dramatic event, focusing our awareness of tragedy, but many communities in rural America are facing similar circumstances. Corporate American has off-shored their jobs, and constricting government payrolls are knocking the legs out from under small town economies. Into that misery the pharmaceutical industry is pouring a torrent of opioids.

The anger of rural America delivered the White House into the hands of a petty tyrant. In tweets to his sycophantic chorus, Trump attacked the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital, stating that her incompetence was the reason that FEMA hadn’t been able to deliver aid to 3.5 million American citizens facing slow death from thirst, hunger and disease.

Trump’s cruelty was triggered by the words of Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, recorded earlier in the day criticizing the Administration’s characterization of the relief efforts as “wonderful.” Mincing no words, she pointed out that people were dying, and that if an effective response was not mounted immediately, the federal government would find itself presiding over a genocide. Clearly suffering from trauma, Cruz characterized Trump’s attitude as that of one consigning citizens to “die like animals.”

But of course.

It is not government that delivers us dignity. Government is not worthy of our faith. It is only in God that we find the strength to suffer in dignity. Facing death, it is only to the faithful that certainty is given that we possess a spirit intended to receive infinite love.

So, please, Mayor Cruz: don’t pray to government. Pray to Him, for it is the lack of Him that has brought us to this impasse. The physical and social forces that brutalize the poor are huge, and far beyond the capacity of governments to overcome. Security, dignity and grace are found only in God.

Exuberant Faith

In The Soul Comes First, in assessing the crippling effects of the heresy of Original Sin, I conclude:

The more serious fault […] is the conclusion that Humanity is a flaw in Creation. This is completely in opposition to the actual truth. Humanity is an essential and valued part of Creation, an element that is [be]held with the most tender concern and honored regard in recognition of the difficulty and importance of the work that we must perform, the pain and sacrifice involved in accomplishment of that work, and the joyous consequences of its eventual completion.

When I wandered with the Boy Scouts on backpacking trips, I would feel this shouted at me from the wilderness – the trees, birds and animals begging for relief from drought. When I paused to bless the land, raising my hands to remind the heavens that they suffered, one of the fathers snapped “Would you stop doing that?”

In my dialogs with those of conventional faith – once principally dogmatic Christians, but today including atheists – I am often dismayed by the energy they invest in running from the truth offered in that opening excerpt. I have come to understand that their rejection is rooted in the privilege of flesh that resists the primacy of spirit. For it is the flesh that suffers, and the spirit that reaps the joy.

Even Jesus struggled with that paradox, testifying at Gethsemane:

The sprit is willing, but the flesh is weak. [NIV Matt. 26:41]

This comment, at the end of his long journey of surrender to the limitations of his age, was prefaced by:

My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will. [NIV Matt. 26:39]

In that moment of weakness, with Simon Peter dosing nearby, I wonder if Jesus heard the echoes of the apostle’s complaint on the lake of Gennesaret. The fisherman, weary from his fruitless night and irked by Jesus’ commandeering of his boat as a podium, grudgingly responds to an encouragement to lower his nets in the deep water:

Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets. [NIV Luke 5:5]

And thus unfolds the little charade that Jesus had organized with the fishes, those quiet denizens of the waters that wait so patiently for us to assume our stewardship of the earth. Recognizing the Man that had come to show us the way, they spent the night lurking in the depths of the lake, teasing the fisherman. When the net enters the water at Jesus’ command, they surged exuberantly upwards, each calling to his fellows: “Come! Leap into the net! Show these fishermen his glory!”

But did Simon follow? No, condemned by religious teaching to believe that the sinner eclipses the saint, Simon falls to his knees and begs:

Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man! [NIV Luke 5:8]

This is the second great obstacle to faith: the conviction that we are unworthy to serve love.

Simon Peter, by nature extravagant in all things, expresses this with physical extravagance. Again at the temple, he cannot just deny Jesus once and then depart; he must amplify his shame by lurking in the shadows, watching impotently so that he may deny Jesus twice more. What would have happened if, recalling the fish, he had stepped forward brazenly to cast his arm around Jesus’ shoulders and proclaimed, “Look at the dignity of this man! How could he not be God?”

Instead, Jesus went to the cross, bearing the weight of the dependence of all flesh upon sin, and caught Humanity in the net of his heart. Some still fight to escape that embrace, but I for one hunger for the company of those that leap exuberantly into faith.

Me, Myself and Christ: Immersion

I had not set foot in church in almost twenty years when I began looking for a community to provide a moral foundation for my sons. I was pointed at the local Unitarian Universalist congregation, and found myself caught up almost immediately in their vision to establish commonality among all the world’s religions.

I was among them for only a few short weeks when disaster befell us on 9/11/2001. The minister was visibly shaken during her sermon that week, and one critic bemoaned the poor judgment she had shown in reaching out to an Islamic Center in the San Fernando Valley.

These two factors – the hope of uniting people of good will and the terrible cost of failing to do so – prompted me to start visiting the religious communities of the Conejo Valley.

The Catholic Church was not the first Christian congregation that I visited during this exploration. In fact, the evolving pedophilia scandal dampened my expectations that I would obtain any value in cultivating the priesthood. However, recognizing the strength of the Catholic community, I eventually concluded that I needed to experience the faith of the people in the pews.

The site was St. Maximilian Kolbe’s in Oak Park. The church has an unusual layout. The side entries funnel into an alcove before a pool of holy water. The crowd around the pool distracted me. I was feeling some anxiety, recalling my childhood impressions of the angry God. I turned toward the altar, and was astonished by the cross, set off to one side and dominating the space with a larger-than-life figure of Jesus suspended in front of crossed branches. Rather than anger, a deep enduring grief and sorrow beset me. Confronted with this image and personality of human suffering, my right hand went immediately to my heart, and without thinking, I held it out to him and thought “Use this for healing.”

Thus began a relationship that is so palpable and near to me that I never partake of the elements. That was meant for remembrance, and I am absolutely convicted that the time for remembrance is past.

There are several contexts in which that nearness manifests most powerfully. Early on, the passing of the elements itself would cause me to be overcome by sorrow. Tears would roll uncontrollably down my cheeks, and eventually I realized that the sobbing I heard around me was not unrelated to my emotion – a realization confirmed in part by the irritation expressed by celebrants. When Revelation Song was popular in non-denominational congregations, with the opening words I would almost collapse in grief, my entire frame shaking, and the people around me would huddle together in small groups.

I also experienced a particularly deep relationship with the crucifix at the Los Angeles Cathedral. Flanked by roughly shaped limbs and supported by the bruised torso, the peace-filled face embodies perfectly the savior’s surrender and victory. After my first Christmas midnight celebration, I waited patiently to address the cross, looked up into that visage, and – gesturing to the broken body – admonished “It’s time to clean all this up.” Later, I would stretch up onto tip-toes, pressing my hands against the sternum, trying to push strength back through the centuries to sustain him in his suffering.

And then there are the children’s choirs. They sing with perfect and innocent faith, free of the regrets felt by adults. At St. Paschal Baylon’s in Thousand Oaks, when they led the congregation in the Agnes Dei I felt the weight of heaven pressing down on me from above, an experience that persisted in other settings until I decided to push back.

Along with these emotional experiences came visions that I find very difficult to avoid reconciling against the verses of Revelation. I will summarize some of those in the final post in this series. I will conclude today with the culmination of my immersion in Christ.

When my father was working in the nuclear weapons laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, he and my mother liked to spend time in the mountains that in the last half of the twentieth century came to be known as “Sangre de Christo.” I was conceived there, and born in Los Alamos. For my forty-ninth birthday, I decided to take a trip out to Taos to connect with those roots. It was a remarkable experience in many ways, but the most important insight came as I drove down into the LA basin from the high desert. A palpable feeling of hostility mounted against me. I wasn’t wanted.

The next day, Monday, I was driving out to work from Agoura Hills to Camarillo, and could not shake his presence. The urgency and strain of his struggle on the cross came closer and closer. I was in tears as I descended the steep and winding Camarillo grade in freely flowing traffic, wracked by grief and trying to project that I was endangered. But he refused to let me go. He knew that he was dying, and refused to die until the work was done. We wrestled, back and forth, and finally the image of that first encounter in St. Max’s came to me, and our equanimity was restored as he pronounced:

Our heart is beating still.

To Have Meaning

In Islam, Ali, the son-in-law of the prophet, testified that there are three kinds of faith: that rooted in fear, that motivated by the promise of reward, and the faith of service.

When I first re-engaged the Catholic Church, the priest challenged me “Do you want to die, or live forever?” While that didn’t reach me deeply, it ties together the first two inducements: fear of death and the promise of eternity.

According to Jesus’s teaching, both outcomes will be implemented by God. For this reason, the Protestants sought for signs of God’s favor in this life.

But for most now living, fear is rooted in this life – in the pain of deprivation, or the reality of physical abuse. For those that suffer, it is not powers and principalities in the afterlife that stand as rewards, but simple justice: that those that prey upon them will be cast down, and comfort will be offered.

In the faith of service, we surrender personal fear – fear for our fate in the afterlife – and devote ourselves to bringing relief to others. The question is how we can best fulfill that role, for it has many aspects. The prisoner of fear may not be capable even of living outside the walls of their cell. The experience of freedom confronts them with choices that they are unprepared to navigate. So to simply provide for their needs is not enough to liberate their souls.

The wisdom of the Buddhist path is to encourage the sufferer to realize that if they can lift their heads up to study the world around them, they can make one small change after another until freedom is realized. A friend can help them make that journey, a journey from dependence to independence.

The danger is that in the context of tyranny this effort will flare into violence – either violence against the oppressor (whose children then become victims), or violence against those seeking freedom. Once violence is engaged, the dynamics of material power rule, and the oppressed are most likely to be destroyed. We see this everywhere in the world today.

How than are the oppressed to rise above fear and into service? As Jesus says that to serve is necessary to eternal life, how are we to achieve that reward if we are denied the means to serve? Life appears to be completely meaningless, and faith misplaced for all except the privileged.

The answer to this dilemma is that in suffering we serve.

It takes both great courage and great faith to so suffer. But when Jesus proclaimed “Pick up your cross and follow me!”, this is exactly what he meant. So to any offering service, the question must be “How do we support the determination of those that suffer?”

To serve in faith is to allow love in our hearts to control our decisions in life. It is to demonstrate that to offer ourselves to the redemption of the world is a source of greater joy than any material reward. To one that suffers, heart-broken, this appears impossible. Their heart lacks the strength even to redeem themselves.

My testimony of service is this: Only God can heal that wound.

So this is the ultimate act of service: to take into our whole heart the broken heart of a brother, and allow them to meet the healing power of God within us. It is to provide an irrefutable experience that there is no wound that God will not suffer with us, and finally no wound that God cannot heal.

The difficulty to those that serve in faith is that it hurts. They may have forgotten what it was like to be broken. They live in community that protects them from harm. Their defenses are weak.

But it is not upon us to survive this experience of receiving a broken heart within us. It is upon God. Ours is only to be available in that moment when grace can be received, and allow it to flow through us. Indeed, to try redeem another of our own strength is folly: it is to surrender ourselves to their experience of life, and so to be consumed by their weakness. No, ours is only to be the material manifestation of God’s love that wakens hope that change is possible. Once God moves into the sufferer’s life, the person of faith needs to get out of the way, lest the limits of human endurance infect the redeemed with doubt.

Only God can offer certain guarantee of meaning to those that suffer. Only He can say with assurance “You have meaning to me: there is no suffering that I will not share with you, and indeed reward eternally for your service in redeeming the world!”

Confronting Fear

Perhaps piqued by surveys that reveal that nearly half of all Republicans believe that our president is secretly a Muslim, Barack Obama has published a conversation with his favorite Christian author, Marilynne Robinson. The first half of the essay ends as a cliff-hanger, with Obama responding directly to Robinson’s declared pessimism with his own declaration of faith in the Christian virtue of doing quietly what is right. This practice is now his only explanation for why, despite appearing unwashed behind the ears, the candidate in 2008 became President. In retrospect, he now recognizes an inexplicable resonance with the small-town electorates that lead the primary schedule.

Eager for the conclusion, I did a number of online searches before returning to the New York Review and discovering that the transcript was a prepublication release for coverage to be completed on November 12. Intrigued by his celebration of Robinson, I followed the links to her recent reflection on Christianity and gun violence.

Since Roseburg, I have taken this topic up a number of times, arguing that both sound public policy (and other posts on 10/2 through 10/8) and Christian ethics requires that we improve our regulation of gun acquisition. But in reading Robinson’s essay, I was immediately disturbed. That essay has a subtly chiding tone, contrasting the rebelliousness of America’s modern gun culture with the patient and non-violent endurance of Christians confronting political persecution during both its early years and the Protestant reformation. It celebrates Calvin, who was the tyrannical overlord of Geneva, applying the ultimate sanction against the Unitarian “heresy” of Michael Servetus. Finally, while declaring that we should tread lightly lest we allow our own views to color our understanding of the mind of Christ, Robinson’s innate pessimism is reflected in her selected passage from scripture (“He who lives by the sword dies by the sword”) and invocation of the Final Judgment, which she implies will involve the destruction of those that idolize fear in the form of a gun.

I finished the reading in somewhat of a panic, and spent a good half an hour trying to find contact information for Marilynne. Her author page on Facebook receives little traffic, and it appears that she no longer holds an academic posting. So I went back to the NY Review of Books and submitted a letter to the editor with a link to my post on the relationship between government and self-governance.

In motivating my effort to contact Marilynne, I offered that:

The men “prowl[ing] in the woods” will not be swayed by an argument framed against the great sweep of history, but rather in terms both visceral and personal.

The solution, as I think President Obama would agree, is to manifest the strength the arises from the discipline that settles upon us as people of faith:

Christianity resolves the tension between vulnerability and freedom through celebration of the evidence in Jesus of the divine power that supports our capacity to love.

When we confront and accept that evidence, there is simply no room left for fear.

Truth to Tell

The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.

-Neil deGrasse Tyson


As a physics student, my undergraduate curriculum was dominated by physics and math classes. Even then, though, I had a penchant for philosophy that culminated with Paul Feyerabend’s course on the philosophy of science. I didn’t do terribly well in those classes, having a fundamental misconception regarding the purpose of the term papers. Rather than summarizing the text, I always set out to propound novel thought. The teaching assistants were not amused.

Feyerabend may have read some of what I had written, however, because he called on me in his final lecture and asked me to offer my thoughts on the scientific process. Never one to deny credit where it was due, I began “Well, my father says…” which caused the rest of the class to erupt in laughter. Paul waved his hand and told me “Write a book some day.”

deGrasse Tyson’s observation is representative of the philosophy of those inspired by the engineering marvels of the industrial age. The associated advances in the public welfare seemed to demolish all the works of the past. Philosophers did see the scientific mindset as a matter of concrete truth. But it is far more and less than that. “Less”, because the equations that we teach in introductory physics are wrong. A ball doesn’t fall in a parabola because it is subject to other forces than gravity – air drag is one. What the solution without drag offers is a sufficiently good approximation for most engineering applications. “More” because the engineers so empowered change the truth that we experience. They create microchips and vaccines, things that would never exist in the natural world.

What I had concluded, a few years after taking Feyerabend’s course, is that science is not important because it tells us what is true. It’s important because it guides our imaginings into what is possible. But if you talk to most scientists, that isn’t why science inspires them. Most of them study science because they want to do what others believe is impossible. That was certainly my case – when I went off to college, in the middle of “Whip Inflation Now” and the first OPEC oil crisis, it was with the stated aim of “figuring out how to break the law of conservation of energy.” I wager that many creative scientists feel the same – they actually don’t want to believe their science. They want to prove it wrong.

I know that was the conclusion of my own journey into understanding of the nature of spiritual experience (follow the menu to “New Physics”), and so see a certain myopia in Tyson’s statement. This came to the fore one Saturday afternoon during a workshop run by Tom Owen-Towles, the foremost modern theologian/philosopher in the Unitarian Universalist tradition. In responding to a point Tom made, I offered my observations of the nature of our engagement with the divine source. Before I could get to the main point, a loud, sneering snort came from the assembly behind me. I turned around to face the originator, a man older even than I, and then proceeded to make my point. For the next five minutes, I felt pressure building from my antagonist, and just let it flow into me, finally broadening the focus to embrace the community of atheists that he represented. When I had their full attention, I sent this thought: “And yet here I am.”

And so my response to deGrasse Tyson is this: “You receive love from an inexhaustible source. Whether or not you believe it, I am glad that it is true.”

Stopping the Violence

The exhausted pleas of the Mayor of Kansas City touched me deeply today. Decrying the shooting death of a one-year-old child, he observed that our city officials can’t be everywhere at once, and exhorted all of us to stand up against violence. As a policy prescription, that translates to instituting restrictions on gun access.

It is true that ready access to firearms inflates violent death. Emotional shock or dehumanizing abuse can create a driving urge to remove the source of our pain. When a gun is at hand and familiar to the touch, it represents an immediate solution. But equally true is that a strong person does not employ that solution unless life is under threat.

The problem is that people are becoming weaker, not stronger. This is obvious in the comments on conservative bulletin boards. A steady theme is that the average American is not valued by the social elite, whether political or business leaders. Looking at the decline of the middle class, it is hard to argue with them. We suffer from the naivete of politicians that believed that the war on drugs could be won through incarceration, or that growth would stimulate China to liberalize its economy. And we suffer from the greed of business leaders that lobby to hold down wages and weaken environmental and public health regulations, often using the threat of Chinese competition as a rationale.

A recent study on sexism and racism on gaming sites reveals the social dynamics of the downward slide. What the researchers discovered is that the most successful gamers are nice to everybody – it’s those that struggle that hurl abuse. That abuse is reserved for new entrants to the competition – the skill of winners is widely admired. The abuse is directed at those trying to enter the community and acquire skills. It’s a means of keeping down direct competition.

I think that this is an important aspect of America’s perverse love affair with guns. They provide a false sense of security to those that bear them. They allow the dispatch of the physical intruder that comes to take our property or our jobs, while the elite collects credit card interest every month, drives up working hours and pushes mortgages into default.

But the love affair doesn’t end there. Our over-sized military and jails are social support systems, providing for the basic needs of large cohorts of our society while incubating violence. Our media appeals to our primitive psychological urges with the portrayal of life-threatening circumstances visited upon sexually attractive people whose mastery of physical violence produces victory. And our sports heroes become ever more powerful and intimidating in their performances, to the point that no padding can protect them from long-term disability, and so we simply throw them into the arena without covering for anything except their genitals.

This sounds terribly gloomy, but the celebration of brute physical power above strength of mind and character has a silver lining. It makes those that struggle against violence all the more powerful.

It’s hard to explain until you’ve actually experienced it (though I try in Ma and Golem). It’s to be stalked by a mountain lion in the moonlight, and to calmly escape it from ten feet after freezing it with the mental command, “Go eat something that can’t talk.” It’s to react to the men squared off over a woman in a night club – not by screaming “take it outside” – but by sucking the violence out of the air to the point that the one that threw a punch actually fell over on the floor, reporting later that “I just got all weak all of a sudden.”

But it’s also to give of our selves. It was the CEO of FMC who, having planned a series of acquisitions that created a vertically integrated company without redundancies, offered to the employees of a small, struggling subsidiary that he had “felt your pain.” It is to look the homeless in the eye, validating them as people. It is to tutor in a school for children that walk mean streets every night to homes that may not contain food to fill their stomachs.

It is to let people in fear know that “Yes, this is what it is to be loved.” Once they know, the short-term thrills of adrenaline and lust just don’t have the same attraction.

And more: through an encounter with a disciplined mind and compassionate heart, the promises of our religious avatars become obvious truths. The overwhelming power of those instruments has no material support – they are what they are only because an infinite source of unconditional love enters the world through them. It is through this knowledge that the long-suffering find patience that blossoms into enduring hope. In that endurance and strength, the threat of violence loses the last of its power.