“. . . the morality which they had in mind was not the private morality of detached pious souls but the social morality of the nation . . . “ (Walter Rauschenbusch, 1920)

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The Union Pacific Railroad Station, Kearney, NE (Photo: FamilyOldPhotos.com)

The Union Pacific Railway station in Kearney, Nebraska, was familiar to my family in about 1951. We went to the station regularly for a full school semester to take my father to the train and to pick him up. He went (perhaps weekly) to Denver to study at Iliff Theological Seminary. Several years before he had finished most of the work for his degree at Central Baptist Theological School in Kansas City, but he had not completed the final work, writing his thesis.

Why he chose to go to Iliff instead of Central Baptist I do not know. It was theologically a much more progressive school. Kearney is a college town, and my guess is he was influenced by the well-educated members of the Baptist Church of which he was pastor. That is pure speculation.

My father’s thesis was a study of the “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew chapters 5-7) interpreted in light of the writings of Walter Rauschenbusch, a leader of the “Social Gospel” movement. Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) was a theologian from Rochester Theological Seminary and a Baptist pastor. He was the great-grandfather of Paul Raushenbush whom many know from his years as Religion Editor for the Huffington Post.

Much of my father’s preaching on the Sermon on the Mount over the years is clear in my mind. I think his study of Rauschenbusch was an academic pursuit and did not overtly influence his preaching. Its basic tenet that the Christian gospel demands a morally responsible and compassionate approach to social problems, however, was at the heart of my father’s life and teaching. He and I often disagreed on how that was to be achieved, but the goal of a benevolent society and government was never in question. My father was often surprised when my understanding of some issue obviously came directly from what he had taught me but with widely divergent conclusions.

I have been trying to imagine what my father would think of Trump. My father, who worked closely with the Mexican Baptist Church in Scottsbluff, NE, which is still in a joint ministry with the First Baptist Church 60 years later. My father, who supported his friend Emily Wilks, member of the school board in Scottsbluff, as she worked to enhance and improve the public schools of the city. My father, who considered Edwin T. Dahlberg, pacifist and President of the National Council of Churches, a friend and teacher. My father, the Baptist preacher, who never once in my life admonished me or rejected me because I am gay, and who traveled across the country to spend time with my partner and me.

My father was not a saint. I was disappointed, particularly in his later life, with some of his intolerance, with his support of the Iraq War (simply because President Bush was a Republican), with a few of his other attitudes and beliefs. However, at age 90, he read Bishop Spong’s Why Christianity Must Change or Die when I gave him a copy, and we had lively discussions about it. A couple of years before that we had the same interaction with Oliver Sacks’ A Leg to Stand on.

This writing did not begin as a remembrance of my father. I would be foolish to attempt that because my memories are my memories. They bear a strong resemblance to the truth, but they obviously come from my perceptions of events from 50 or 60 or even 70 years ago. They are also, as all childhood memories are, shaped by my relationship with my father – over the years at times good, at times strained.

This writing began as an attempt to explain to myself the ground reasons that I am so repelled by Trump and so appalled that he is President of the United State. One of my professors of rhetoric in graduate school said, “We write to know what we think.” I am trying to ascertain what I think.

This began with my father because I am trying to understand where my ideas about government and politics came from. He was a conservative Republican. But his understanding of that mindset was far different from what I hear today. He was not interested in making anyone wealthy. He was interested in justice and equality, and he thought “big government” gets in the way of those ideals. I would have to have long conversations with my siblings and the few friends I have left who knew him in order to sort out all of those political ideas.

But I am absolutely certain that my father would have been heartbroken if he knew that his President purposefully and with ulterior motives made up and spoke “alternative facts.” He assumed that much of what passed as political discourse was alternate interpretation of facts, and he assumed that those alternatives were used as propaganda to change people’s minds to win elections. However, it would have shocked and angered him to hear the President lie – purposefully and blatantly – about the size of a crowd, for example.

I believe that my father and the vast majority of his generation expected political discourse to be grounded in truth – with strong disagreements, but with the integrity of the truth. He, for example, told me many times that he hated the atomic bombing of Japan and President Truman’s justification of it, but he understood why Truman had made the decision. I am most likely being Pollyanna about this. Politicians lie. They always have lied. They always will lie.

Lying to win a political conflict, however, is different from making up a wholesale alternative reality in order to get and keep power. Where is the line between the two? I don’t know. I only know that we have crossed it. The problem(s) or situation(s) Trump’s alternative realities are meant to fix or change will pale in significance in comparison to the destruction of the fabric of our society that will be the result of the triumph of “alternative facts.”

(Note: My own attachment to the religious texts Rauschenbusch quotes is so tenuous that I hesitate to copy his writing here. I do not mean to imply that our nation needs to be in a relationship with a particular God or concept of God. I simply mean to offer Rauschenbusch’s words on the moral responsibility of a nation.)

from Christianity and the Social Crisis
By Walter Rauschenbusch
London: Macmillan 1920

The prophets were public men and their interest was in public affairs. . . . Our philosophical and economic individualism has affected our religious thought so deeply that we hardly comprehend the prophetic views of an organic national life . . . We usually conceive of the community as a loose sand-heap of individuals, and this difference in the fundamental point of view distorts the utterances of the prophets . . . [The prophet] ridicules the attempts to appease the national God by redoubled sacrifices; he urges instead the abolition of social oppression and injustice as the only way of regaining God’s favor for the nation. If they would vindicate the cause of the helpless and oppressed . . . then their scarlet and crimson guilt would be washed away. . . Of course the text is nobly true when it is made to express God’s willingness to pardon the repentant individual, but that was not the thought in the mind of the writer. He offered a new start to his nation on condition that it righted social wrongs. We offer free pardon to individuals and rarely mention social wrongs.

We have seen that the prophets demanded right moral conduct as the sole test and fruit of religion, and that the morality which they had in mind was not the private morality of detached pious souls but the social morality of the nation.

Rauschenbusch’s book is available here.

 

. . . seeing daily a geological dirt and stone formation the mystery of which is that it exists at all . . .

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Scotts Bluff from the east, as migrants on the Oregon Trail would first have seen it.

Between August 18 and August 25, 2016, my sister, my brother, my sister-in-law, and I made a small pilgrimage to the cities in Nebraska where we lived from 1950 to 1969 – Kearney, Scottsbluff, and Omaha. Scottsbluff, 21 miles from the Wyoming border, is where we have the most memories in common. Scotts Bluff National Monument dominates the horizon from Scottsbluff the city, as it does all of the small cities in the area, Gering, Mitchell, Bayard, and others. The bluff is to this day a constant in my memory. I wrote the following shortly after our trip to try to explain the significance of Scotts Bluff to me.

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From the southwest, approaching from Gering.

As geological formations go, Scotts Bluff National Monument in far Western Nebraska is not overly impressive. Its elevation above sea level is only 4,659 feet, and it rises only 800 feet above the North Platte River at its base. The Riverside Park in the City of Scottsbluff, is on the other side of the river.

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From the south. A quintessential Nebraska view.

As a kid I discovered in the Encyclopedia Britannica that if the Empire State Building were in Riverside Park in the city of Scottsbluff, it would be almost half again as tall as the Bluff. I used to try to imagine how that would look, but I could never in my mind’s eye get the New York building even as tall as the Bluff.

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The South Butte of the Bluff.

My birthplace is Douglas, WY, at the base of Laramie Peak. I have memories of the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming from the first five years of my life. I went to college at the University of Redlands, nestled at the base of Mt. San Gorgonio in Southern California. I lived in Upland, CA, for several years at the base of Mt. San Antonio. I know mountains. I know Scotts Bluff is not a mountain.

However, the Bluff dominates the lives and thinking―the consciousness―of the people of Scottsbluff (2013 population, 15,023), Gering (2013 population 8,084), Mitchell (2013 population 1,685), and several other small towns in its shadow.

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From the top of the Bluff looking southeast.

Scotts Bluff still, 56 years after our family moved from Scottsbluff to Omaha, in some way I cannot explain, dominates my consciousness. This past week I was in Scottsbluff for only the fifth time in those 56 years. Driving across the plains of Nebraska and seeing the Bluff come into view brings me to a place of peace and self-knowledge that I have achieved nowhere else I have ever been.

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From the top of the Bluff looking east toward Gering.

The Bluff apparently gave many of the settlers 150 years ago crossing the country on the Oregon Trail a sense of peace and understanding, or at least hope and courage.

Many times in my life I have wondered how I would be different if I had spent the 10 most formative years of my life in the shadow of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, or the Library of Congress in Washington, or Mount Vesuvius, or the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, or the Great Wall of China, or La Scala Opera House in Milan.

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Looking northeast toward Scottsbluff the city.

If I had read Proust or Heidegger instead of Mari Sandoz and Willa Cather.

It is, of course, pointless to speculate how my life might have been. I know only that my consciousness was shaped in part―a very large part―by seeing daily a geological dirt and stone formation the mystery of which is that it exists at all. The processes of the gathering and demise of the great North American inland sea, and the uplift and erosion of mountains are fairly obvious here. The geological history spans 33 to 22 million years.

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Looking west toward Laramie Peak (128 miles away and visible on a clear day).

The history for me began in 1950. It is the history of knowing day after day the power of the natural world to create itself, to build structures that show us―me, at any rate―how little power or control we have over anything.  The Empire State Building may be taller than the bluff, and we could build another one exactly like it. But we could not―cannot― build another Scotts Bluff. It is not spectacular like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon. It simply is. The bluff is the farthest extension of a reality stretched across the horizon of my life, the edges of my mind, reminding me that we, all of us humans together, cannot, did not, and could not create anything remotely like it. It is the embodiment of the mystery of my life.

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Sunset from the base of the Bluff looking toward Laramie Peak.

“. . . What hand plucks With what bird’s quill. . .” (Luis Cernuda)

The First Baptist Church of Kearney, Nebraska

The First Baptist Church of Kearney, Nebraska

Yesterday, Valentine’s Day, I began writing. I was distracted by another line of research. I forget what. Now I’m back to yesterday’s thoughts.

My, oh my, as Grandmother Peck used to say. I had a Valentine’s Day e-card from a friend in Paris. He lives there three months of the year. Some old queen left him a time-share condo in his will, or something like that. I don’t remember.  When one gets too old to make memories (I didn’t say too old to do new things—but they don’t become “memories”—there isn’t time left for that), one is ambushed by memories from ages ago for no apparent reason.

Why should a Valentine’s Day e-card bring up memories of the First Baptist Church of Kearney, Nebraska? A card that says only “One is loved because one is loved. No reason is needed for loving.” Paulo Coellio, The Alchemist. No pictures, no music, nothing more.

Suddenly I was thinking about the monumental stained glass windows in the old First Baptist Church building of Kearney, Nebraska. I wonder if the building still stands. It was (is) a red sandstone Richardson-Romantic style building. How it came to be built in Kearney, Nebraska, I don’t know.

The building has much significance for my family. My father was pastor of the church, 1950-1952. My sister was born in Kearney. When she was about two years old, just getting teeth, she fell on the concrete steps of the church, breaking her two front teeth—and was without those teeth until her adult teeth grew in several years later. People (who?) tormented her for years singing, “All I Want for Christmas is my Two Front Teeth.”

He hardly needed to be "out"

He hardly needed to be “out”

I remember standing in the balcony in the rear of that church sanctuary and touching the glass of the rose window. I remember being down in the front of the sanctuary on a Sunday morning, sitting on the floor with the other children as my dad preached a “children’s sermon.” Perhaps someday I’ll write about it—one of those lessons that we could never be good enough. Baptist preachers, even my gentlemanly father, are prone to preach those sermons. No “No reason is needed for loving” there.

Robert Lowry (1826-1899) was responsible for about 500 of the most popular and musically most pedestrian hymntunes in the American church repertory, tunes using basically only tonic, dominant, and sub-dominant chords.

I learned his hymn (both words and music) “Low in the Grave He Lay” at the First Baptist Church of Kearney. One might well ask how I can be sure because I learned so many hymns as a child in so many different churches. I can be close to certain because I have the picture, the sound, even the feel of standing on a pew leaning against my mother in that sanctuary singing that hymn.

It’s a perfectly mundane, shall I say “silly?” tune. But it’s fun to sing. As a university music student years later I learned academeze for the melody that rises through the tonic chord at the beginning of the refrain. It’s a “Mannheim Rocket.” I had more than a passing interest in the tune. I was fascinated even then by the raised tone (f-sharp) at the end of the verse, the leading tone of the secondary dominant (G major) preparing the “chorus.”

For reasons I cannot fathom I was, yesterday morning, thinking about that Richardson-style buildings and music of the blandest style—both as a result of opening an e-card for Valentine’s Day.

Born in Seville in 1902, the poet Luis Cernuda left Spain in 1938 for permanent exile. With Federico Garcia Lorca and others, he is one of the Generation of 1927, the important avant garde Spanish poets influenced by surrealism.

Cernuda was an openly gay poet in the day when no one was openly gay. I have written about him before—his poem “Musical Instrument.”

“Musical Instrument,” by Luis Cernuda
If the Arab musician
Plucks the lute strings
With an eagle quill
To awaken the notes,

What hand plucks
With what bird’s quill
The wound in you
That awakens the word?

What hand plucks with what bird’s quill the wound in me that awakens the word? I am not a poet or even much of a writer, but I have words.

Those stained-glass windows. That maudlin tune. That e-card valentine. And now the Arab musician plucking his lute’s strings.

What hand is it that plucks the wounds that awaken my words?

My writing plan yesterday (and again today) was to explore poetry by contemporary Arab and Arab-American poets. Obviously, opening the folder “Arab poets” on my desktop turned up the Cernuda poem. Not an Arab poet, but writing about an Arab musician—in a country with an undeniable Arab past.

But that was before I opened the e-Valentine.

My, oh my, as Grandmother Peck would have said.

The point! The point?

“The poet is also a tragic figure because of his conflict with society; his connection with the daemonic power [beauty] gives him the status of a prophet, an interpreter of the divine law,” writes Dereck Harris (1) and quotes Cernuda saying

Su destino todos lo conocemos: enfermedad, pobreza, inforunio. Pero no nos lamentemos de ello ahora: sería farisáico. A nuestro lado puede repetinse en alguien más aquel destino ya cumplido en otros; no nos importaría. Mientras la sociedad esté organizada de la manera que lo estuvo entonces y lo está hoy, el infortunio de Bécquer es y será possible (2).

What else can be the fate of the poet who is concerned “with the relationship between the temporally circumscribed existence of the individual and the eternal spirit of life itself. . . the poet’s aim is to halt the flux of time. . .” (Harris).

The misfortune of Bécquer (and Cernuda, and the Arab poets I’m trying to study) is to write the “relationship between the temporally circumscribed existence of the individual and the eternal spirit of life itself.”

My temporally circumscribed existence, 1950 to 2015, I know. However, the relationship. . .
__________
(1) Harris, Dereck. Luis Cernuda-a Study of the Poetry. London: Tamesis Books, 1975 (page 98).
(2) My translation—I hope it captures at least the gist of the passage: We all know his [the poet’s] destiny: illness, poverty, misfortune. But we should not lament him now: that would be Pharasaic. On the one hand one can repent and, on the other, destiny has made us complicit; it does not matter to us. While society is organized as it has been then and is today, the misfortune of Bécquer is and will be possible.
[The poet Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, considered the founder of modern Spanish poetry, died of tuberculosis before most of his work was published.]

"Arab Musician," by al-Brazyly

“Arab Musician,” by al-Brazyly

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