“. . . illumine the world with your image . . .” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship)

The Transfiguration of Christ, Lorenzo Lotto, 1511

The Transfiguration of Christ, Lorenzo Lotto, 1511

You like to think about synergy and coincidence and “a god thing” and other spookinesses. That is, you like the logical fallacy of Post hoc ergo propter hoc, assuming that if ‘A’ occurred after ‘B’ then ‘B’ must have caused ‘A.’

In 1456, the Ottomans laid siege to Belgrade in Serbia. They were repelled, and the Christian world of Europe rejoiced. News reached Pope Callixtus III on August 6, and he declared the date The Feast of the Transfiguration, the liturgical remembrance of Jesus’ appearing in light to the disciples (Protestant liturgical churches recently moved the Transfiguration to the Last Sunday in Epiphany).

In 1945, the United States and Japan were locked in the last stages of WW II. President Truman ordered the atomic bombing of two Japanese cities to end the war and “save lives.” Hiroshima was bombed on August 6.

Synergy, coincidence, a “god thing.” The Feast of the Transfiguration celebrating the end of the siege of Belgrade and the bombing of Hiroshima come together on the same day. Does this convergence mean anything?

This convergence was pointed out to me by the widow of Admiral Robert A. Theobald, a commander in the Pacific fleet who accused the Roosevelt administration of knowing the attack on Pearl Harbor was immanent and doing nothing about it in order to bring the U.S. into WWII. Betty Theobald, a cellist of some renown and a member of the altar guild of my (Episcopal) church in Salem, MA, gave me a history lesson from personal experience, her understanding of many coincidences and ironies of WWII.

On August 6, 1787, the U.S. constitutional convention began. On August 6, 1806, Francis II renounced the title “Holy Roman Emperor” ending the empire. On August 6, 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Russia and Serbia beginning WWI. On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.

Unrelated (or are they?) events on August 6, starting with the defeat of the Ottomans who were besieging Belgrade, giving the Christians of Europe reason to rejoice and proclaim a Feast of the Church to mark the day.

This year on August 6 the world was in turmoil: Putin getting ready to invade Ukrainia. Landslides at Mt. Baldy. Ted Cruz running the House of Representatives. Fugitive children massed on the southern border of the US. A lull in the murderous siege of Gaza by Israel. And so on.

We need a victory as decisive as the end of the Siege of Belgrade or the bombing of Hiroshima to lead us out of this morass of bad news, of gruesome events over which we apparently have no control.

We need to figure out how to change the bizarre and dangerous coincidences of our lives, both personal and national.

We need a victory we can mark with a national or religious holiday and move on in the assurance that God’s in her heaven, and all’s right in the world.

We need to learn to accept all of the “coincidences” of our lives or to change the horrendous situations we can change. We need to begin to understand the difference between accepting and changing.

For several days I have been immobilized by a thought I’ve not been able to write.

It’s a simple thought. In our admirable attempt to be “charitable” and “diplomatic” and “equitable” we (all of us, but especially “educated” and “liberal-minded” folks) work hard at trying to “understand” in order to find “fair” solutions to any and all problems. We know every conflict has two sides. Accept or change?

The brightest man made light

The brightest man made light

However, the simple act of saying “there are two sides” means almost certainly we have accepted one side of the argument. Should LGBTQ folks marry or not? Was “Hobby Lobby” the right Supreme Court ruling? Has Edward Snowden helped or hurt Americans? There are two sides to all of these arguments.

I’ll bet everyone has an opinion about each of them. Does anyone really think there are two equally correct sides to those questions?

Is Israel justified in bombing Gaza to rubble?

Of course you have an opinion. If you think Israel has a “right” to bomb Gaza, you a priori think the Gazans have no “right” to fight back against the blockade that has kept their children hungry and their society imprisoned for seven years.

I can hear the most liberal, the most thoughtful, the most fair-minded folks saying, “Well, yes, it’s horrible, it’s gruesome, it’s disastrous, but Israel has a right.” I wish those people—particularly those who make some claim to having a sense of morality—would play that back in their minds. If it’s horrible, if it’s gruesome, if it’s disastrous, then Israel has no right. Period. Whatever the attempt at justification, it is not “right.” Period.

We love synergy, coincidence, strange concurrences. We love the heavenly light of the Transfiguration of Jesus juxtaposed with the brightest light ever created by mankind in the bombing of Hiroshima.

We—especially we liberals and wanna-be intellectuals—love to think we can be reasonable and hold murder and destruction in our minds along with righteousness and light.

I’m not that clever. I think bombing innocent civilians of Hiroshima was an act of violence that haunts our nation 69 years later. And bombing innocent civilians of Gaza will haunt not only Israel but also the United States—which provides the munitions of destruction—for at least 69 years.

gaza bombThe prayer Lutherans read on the Feast of the Transfiguration says,

Almighty God, the resplendent light of your truth shines from the mountaintop into our hearts. Transfigure us by your beloved Son, and illumine the world with your image, through Jesus Christ, our Savior, and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Whether one is a Lutheran or not, or a Christian or not, or an atheist or not, “The resplendent light of truth” is not the light from bombs exploding. Some synergies simply aren’t.

“Live in the layers, not on the litter. . .” (Stanley Kunitz, 1905 – 2006)

My Big Horn Mountains - tectonic uplift

My Big Horn Mountains – tectonic uplift

Stanley Kunitz was 73 (three or four years older than I am now) in 1978 when he wrote his poem “The Layers.” He lived another 28 years and died in 2006 at 101. Remarkable by almost any family’s stats.

My mother lived to be 92, my father lived to be 97 and His father lived to be 92. I could continue the list of my close relatives who lived to be nonagenarians.

By the laws of averages and statistics, it seems to me that I may be hanging around here for some time (I’m only 69). Given simple genetics, I have some time left to enjoy myself—or do something, at any rate.

I want to spend more years in the mountains. The real, majestic, overwhelming mountains. Mountains like the Big Horns in Wyoming, at the western slope of which I lived my first five years. Or the San Bernardino Mountains in Southern California, in whose shadow I lived for 11 years.

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.

I am not who I was though some principle of being myself remains.

Of his poem Kunitz said,

“I wrote ‘The Layers’ in my late seventies to conclude a collection of sixty years of my poetry. Through the years I had endured the loss of several of my dearest friends. . . I felt I was near the end of a phase in my life and in my work.”

He went on to say that the lines “Live in the layers, not on the litter” came to him in a dream. I suppose if one is a poet, lines appear in dreams.

Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!

If I think about the tribe of friends and family I’ve had in my life so far, I understand the notion of the tribe scattered. I’ve been watching a TV program about the geological history of Australia. I’m fascinated that the geologists and zoologists and anthropologists can look at layers of rock and decipher the ages of fossils they find there (I’m fascinated that they can pick up what appear to be scattered rocks and put them together to form a dinosaur fossil).

My beach at Winter Island

My beach at Winter Island

The earth has—apparently world-wide—a layer of what used to be soot (it’s black, at any rate) that has been compressed into rock. Geologists find it almost anywhere on the earth they look. The residue of earth’s crash with an asteroid caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Anyone who knows even the little I know science/evolution/geology knows about the great Yucatan Asteroid Smash, a cataclysmic event. And one which is revealed through the constant movement, the uplift, of the earth’s outer shell (made up of the “layers”), the tectonic plates.

Stanley Kunitz (as poets do) gave me a new way to think about the layers of the earth—the layers of my life. Childhood. Teen years. College. Floundering. Graduate school. Failed marriage. First partnership with him. Second partnership. College teaching career. Third partnership. More graduate school. University teaching. Topsoil. Retirement/whatever.

My favorite geological wonder is the uplift of mountains. How do the tectonic plates move? Is the uplift sudden and earth-shattering, or slow and deliberate (apparently it’s slow—the Andes, I’ve read somewhere, are getting taller by a milli-inch every year)? I want to know the mountains.

The uplift, the earth-shattering experiences of my life (yes, I am a drama queen). Moving from Nebraska to California for college. Getting married. Moving to Iowa for graduate school. Getting divorced. Moving to Massachusetts to be with him. Then the next him. College teaching. The real him and moving to Dallas.

The uplifts, the layer-shattering experiences of my life seem to have involved moving from one place to another.

Or simply visiting one place or another.

The greatest tectonic uplift of my life was my first trip to Palestine in 2003. Nothing about my life was unaffected by that experience. All of the layers were dislodged.

OK. I’ll stop with the (by this time over-done and corny) metaphor.

I understood there for the first time how costly, how inestimable human life is. I realized for the first time the meaning of one sentence I learned from the foundational “layer” of my life. The way I learned it first was something about losing your life to find it. I like Eugene Peterson’s translation of Matthew 16:24-26. I met people in Palestine who

Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. . . Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way. . . to finding yourself, your true self. What kind of deal is it to get everything you want but lose yourself? What could you ever trade your soul for?

I met people in Palestine—Beit Sahour, Bethlehem, Rafa, Gaza City, Ramallah, Jenin, Hebron—who know about keeping themselves but losing everything. I’ve purposefully left out the phrases in the quotation that make it explicitly “Christian.” I know some of my friends would have visceral negative reactions to that. They’re missing the point.

I’m not saying people who know about losing everything (the shattering crush of the “tectonic plates” of their lives) and saving themselves don’t live elsewhere. But most of the people I met in those places, especially the Salsa family in Beit Sahour, showed me (I still have not learned the lesson well) what little is worth “. . . trad[ing] your soul for.”

Of course, the Palestinians have been forced to learn. But they have learned. Those whom I met in 2003 and again in 2009 know about the value of life in a way almost no one else I know does. They know how to live in the layers of their lives, not in the litter around them—even the cataclysmic earth-shattering events of their lives.

“The Layers,” by Stanley Kunitz, 1905 – 2006

Know how to live in the layers, not the litter

Know how to live in the layers, not the litter

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.