Black Friday Joys

Revelations from Dollywood…

Black Friday Joys – Merianna Neely Harrelson:

I have always found the juxtaposition of having Black Friday right before Advent begins jarring. Just as we are preparing to welcome the most powerful presence to earth in the humblest beginnings, our culture is flooding us with messaging that we need more and more, especially when it is a deal. Maybe instead what we need to start the Advent season is the joy of being present with each other and seeing the world through someone’s else’s eyes. Their firsts become our reminders to live here and now with gratitude.

My 12 Problems

Here are the “12 Problems” I’ve built my current life around. These are non-negotiables, and they are also the focus of everything I do. If a situation doesn’t fit into one of these problems, I’ll generally relegate it, delegate it, or ignore it. 

I don’t generally recommend this practice for everyone. It’s a very difficult ethical standard to hold, and it can be cumbersome to run the mental math of “which problem am I trying to solve?” at any given time.

However, this approach’s clarity and focus far outweigh the negatives.

Here are my 12 Problems. I highly urge you to come up with your own:

  1. How can I have a positive impact on this world?

  2. How can I thrive while operating contrary to the dominant social or cultural trends?

  3. How can I inspire young people to appreciate learning as a practice?

  4. How do I provide for my family while remaining true to my calling?

  5. How can I live with the most ethical sustainability while not sacrificing my enrichment in balance with the Creation?

  6. How can I be the best role model for my espoused ideals and ethics as presented to my children and students?

  7. How can I live according to nature (kata phusin in Stoicism)?

  8. What does it mean to really be an effective teacher who can make connections and expand the worldview of my students?

  9. How can I be a good Dad, and what does that mean?

  10. How can I be a good partner, and what does that mean?

  11. How can I explore my own self and brain and express that in my life?

  12. How do I always maintain my own curiosity despite the challenges that the outside world might present?

“It’s Like a Choir”

This has no bearing on your life and won’t change how you think about your drive to work.

“It’s like a choir, with all these supermassive black hole pairs chiming in at different frequencies,” Chiara Mingarelli, a NANOGrav scientist who worked on the new findings, said in a press release.

However, this is a HUGE deal. And those of us who follow these things are FREAKING OUT. Science is amazing. Life is amazing. This Creation that we get to participate in briefly is AMAZING!

Scientists Find the Gravitational Wave Background: What It Means:

Well, here it is. And it really is the big one!

Scientists from the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves (NANOGrav) have officially made the first detections of the gravitational wave background.

They made the first detections of what? Fair question, especially if you haven’t, in fact, been extremely tuned in to physics and astronomy Twitter. So let’s back up…

“What’s next is everything,” she said in a press release. “This is just the beginning.”

The Architecture of Life Sermon

I preached today at Garden of Grace UCC in Columbia, SC (where Rev. Merianna Harrelson is the Pastor). The main thread of the sermon and the service was a rumination on Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s talk at Barratt Jr. High School in Philadelphia in 1967. The video of his words was feared lost for decades until they were recovered and then posted here on YouTube. I have listened to many of MLK’s sermons available in various formats over the years, but this talk/lesson/sermon always resonates with me, given that I’m a teacher.

The basic idea is that we are all working on our life’s blueprint. That’s especially true for young people in school who need to hear this message. Good blueprints create good life patterns, whatever our age. What’s required is 1) deep belief in your own dignity, 2) determination to achieve excellence and 3) commitment to the eternal principles of beauty, love, and justice.

King distills so much wisdom and insight in these 20 short minutes. I highly suggest you watch it.

I’ve also attached the presentation from our worship service this morning with our Scripture from Deuteronomy and the accompanying liturgy.

How Angels Found their Wings

How Angels Found their Wings | History Today:

The angels of the Bible were not winged. (The winged Cherubim and Seraphim are figures derived from the Near Eastern tradition of winged zoomorphic guardian figures and are not angels since they perform none of the angelic functions.) In fact, in the Old Testament angels are often not clearly distinguished from humans at all. The New Testament letter to the Hebrews recommends: ‘Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.’ When angels are clearly identified in the New Testament, they are distinguished from ordinary humans by markers first found in Old Testament books, such as gleaming white robes, or a countenance like lightning – but no wings.

Imagining Jesus (Again)

One of my favorite Bible studies to lead every year is the “Imagining Jesus” series, where we look at historical, theological, and entertainment (movies, music videos, cartoons, etc.) depictions of Jesus. The ultimate point is to help the participant realize that we “imagine” Jesus’ appearance, demeanor, and personality based on a number of our cultural influences and personal ideas (and perhaps reading the Gospels and New Testament more closely can help us expand our preconceptions). As a Baptist, I heavily emphasize reading the Bible rather than taking someone else’s word for it.

When we get to the end, people often ask me, “ok, ok, this is all good… but what did Jesus really look like?”. To answer, I usually turn back to this explanation from my beloved Dura Europos and how the closest conception we can get to what Jesus might have looked like actually comes from a depiction of Moses in the Synagogue there (or Abraham / Nehemiah in the second image here… there’s still debate there).

Good read during this Christmas Season, nonetheless!

“For all that may be done with modelling on ancient bones, I think the closest correspondence to what Jesus really looked like is found in the depiction of Moses on the walls of the 3rd Century synagogue of Dura-Europos since it shows how a Jewish sage was imagined in the Graeco-Roman world. Moses is imagined in undyed clothing, and in fact, his one mantle is a tallith since in the Dura image of Moses parting the Red Sea, one can see tassels (tzitzit) at the corners. At any rate, this image is far more correct as a basis for imagining the historical Jesus than the adaptations of the Byzantine Jesus that have become standard: he’s short-haired and with a slight beard, and he’s wearing a short tunic, with short sleeves, and a himation.”

Where To Go Next?

It’s been an interesting week since I first posted about leaving the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship last Friday. I’ve had mostly pleasant conversations with old friends and partners in various ministries with lots of support and affirmation of my decision. There have been a few more confrontational DM’s and texts from those who felt that I was too harsh towards the Fellowship, but that was to be expected. Challenging the institution is the greatest of sins to some.

One of the things I’m personally considering at this point is the “what’s next?” question when it comes to my own nascent ministry a couple of decades too late.

The Alliance of Baptists is the obvious choice being my own baptist convictions, and that’s something I’ll continue to pursue.

My partner Merianna is now a Minister in the United Church of Christ after leaving the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship herself a while back. I attended a UCC church for a few years while at Yale Divinity School, so it pulls at my heartstrings as well.

Then there are Quaker groups and Unitarian Universalist fellowships that I could also see myself joining due to my own personal worship preferences and philosophies.

On top of those, there’s that still small voice telling me to take ministrieslab or Hunger Initiative seriously and pursue those as ministry opportunities in my anti-authoritarianism way. Both are registered 501c3’s and ready to go. I’m still thinking about that, but thinking that may be the way to go.


42 Year Itch

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’

My mom has always been highly allergic to poison ivy. I remember her having severe reactions to the plant after she would spend hours in her beloved gardens while I was growing up. I felt that I was immortal because I could basically roll in the stuff and never suffer a breakout or rash.

Then I got older.

And now I, like my mother, suffer harshly from interacting with poison ivy, sumac, or poison oak. The frustrating part is that as I get older, I enjoy gardening even more and that has been especially true over the past year during the Covid pandemic. My asparagus is now 4 years old and pretty amazing, btw. Thank God for Tecnu.

According to Genesis, we were created in a garden to enjoy the fruits of nature (plants, not animals… being omnivores wasn’t part of the created order, which is a point I like to make when people press me on literal interpretations of Genesis. Enjoy that steak… you’re betraying the created order. Don’t get me started on shrimp or wearing cotton and nylon together). Our created selves were breathed into by a God that walked in the Garden during the evening, looking to commune with us.

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’

Poison ivy, like mosquitoes, is one of those realities of living in South Carolina that reminds you that you are mortal. From dust, we came, and to dust we shall return.

Cursed is the ground because of you;
in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.’

This past weekend I was working in our yard and removing the inevitable weeds and unruly plants that have popped up over the last few weeks of a South Carolina spring. They always come suddenly and ferociously this time of year. Our well-trimmed and manicured winter lawn becomes a weed-filled garden of poison delights within a few weeks every April. I always remember to put on my gloves and long sleeves and identify plants at the beginning of May when I attempt to tackle this new growth from the earth.

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

T.S. Eliot

And now I’m reckoning with two armfuls of poison ivy rashes despite knowing I’d been tapped by those slick and sticky strands of green creation that always cause me to catch my breath. I quickly applied a good helping of Tecnu, thankfully. But still, here I am with two arms covered in red itchy bumps.

April is the month of reckoning. We must step back and examine the steps we made over the winter (even here in SC where the winters are milder than the Starnbergersee). We take stock of the first few months of the new year and we make plans for the rest of the year. There’s a reason Easter comes this time of the year.

There’s a reason we are reminded of our mortality and weakness to a simple plant while attempting to grow new food or beauty for our family and neighbors and communities. Gardening is not easy. It involves risk. Especially for those of us allergic to urushiol oil and too stubborn to remember to wear long sleeves when tending potatoes in the ground or Iris beds or clearing a path to show our children where the snake who shed a 5 foot long skin in our backyard last week probably lives.

The Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.

We are all on our journeys outwards, East of Eden. Those paths are not simple highways, but meandering roads that are filled with opportunities and options and trees of fruit and weeds of poison. As we travel, we grow and we learn. We are able to identify the poisonous plants and discern which fruits are good to eat. Through it all, we learn and gain knowledge from the trees. The wisdom of our humanity is not a curse, but a blessing.

Poison ivy blisters and all.

No Simple Highway, a Sermon

I’m was too young to see the Grateful Dead live with Jerry Garcia, but I’ve tried to make up for it over the years by going to shows by Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, and collective groups of the members of the band over the years. I particularly got into the Dead during my time in grad school at Yale in the early ’00s (lots of shows, bumper stickers, doing CD trading of bootlegs and soundboard recordings of old shows on Dead forums, etc).

I’m still listening to their music 20 years later and I’ve always marveled at some of the theology in the words and music that the band and lyricist Robert Hunter have brought into the world.

Particularly, Ripple is a song that exemplifies the human experience and the journey we all might take. It doesn’t have to be a “theological statement” but geez is it a good one if that’s your persuasion and what you hear.

I’ve been going through my own journey as of late, and I feel like I’ve stumbled and had to find my own path. It’s been a difficult season of listening, hearing, and discernment. I’ve been listening to songs like Ripple over the past few months as reflections of my own path and what may lie ahead in the Tarot cards of existing and the harps unstrung. Let there be songs to fill the air.

So when I happened to come across this sermon from 1988 that Elizabeth Greene gave to First Unitarian Church of Oakland about Ripple and her voice certainly came through the music and I held them as my own. What a beautiful hand-me-down.

Regardless of your religious persuasion, I urge you to click play on the video above and open up her sermon from all those years ago while you listen for yourself:

…The “ripple” image took on new meaning for me. It was as though the reaching out, one of us to the other, is what causes that ripple in the wellspring of God. It is our having the courage to ask and the love to respond that lets us partake of the fountain. When we do, we affect each other; when we try to let our voice be heard, we ruffle the water; when we hear each other’s voice, hear them with our hearts, we widen the circle.

My favorite line in this song (along with “no simple highway”) is, “If I knew the way, I would take you home.” I don’t know the way, and you probably don’t either. My path is for my steps alone, and so is yours. But when we truly say, “If I knew the way, I would take you home,” we have so much more than just our separateness.

We have the music. (The final part of the song is simple La-de- da-da-da, sung together in harmony.) We have the fountain, a wellspring of grace as we travel.

We have one another. We have the love that lets us hear each other’s voices, that lets us reach out when our cups are empty– and share when they are full. (I am vastly richer for having finally “heard” some of what my Deadhead friends hear.) We have our common yearning for home, the God-ache we all know in some form or other…

Source: No Simple Highway, by Elizabeth Greene

Just to close the loop because I wanted to know, I did some googling (I didn’t know Elizabeth Greene before stumbling upon this amazing sermon) and the journey she mentions here from First Unitarian Church of Oakland to the Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship was beginning. Turns out she pastored in Boise for 25 years and retired in 2013. What a journey. Goes along well with Ripple. Thank you, Rev. Greene.

Do fish feel pain?

Puts a different spin on that fishing trip after I’ve always told myself “it’s ok, fish don’t feel pain” (to paraphrase Kurt Cobain)…

I was the first to identify the existence of nociceptors in a fish, the rainbow trout, in 2002. These are specialised receptors for detecting injury-causing stimuli, and their physiology is strikingly similar to those found in mammals, including humans. Since then, my laboratory and others across the world have shown that the physiology, neurobiology, molecular biology and brain activity that many fish species show in response to painful stimuli is comparable to mammals.

Source: There is ample evidence that fish feel pain | Fish | The Guardian