Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Wendell Berry

Bill Moyers conducted an interview recently with a rather reclusive but amazingly articulate farmer by the name of Wendell Berry. He has spent his lifetime farming on the same Kentucky land that has been in his family for two hundred years. Besides farming, he writes. 

His first and perhaps best known work, written in 1977, was "The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture." In it, Berry argues that good farming is about culture. Farm culture functions in a context of community. Good farming values human labor. It respects nature and the land. It is concerned for the next generation and it is a spiritual discipline.

Berry believes agribusiness removes farming from its cultural context, under an economic system dedicated to the mechanistic pursuit of products and profits.

The interview is one of those experiences where you come away believing there is still such a thing as common sense, the wisdom of elders and concern for the common good. Held at St. Catharine College near Louisville, KY the interview tape is accessible on the internet and if you are able, you should watch it.

Since you might not, there is a response to one question that deserves sharing here. Berry uses the phrase "grace of the world" in one of his best known poems, "The Peace of Wild Things." Moyers asks him about that word "grace." It gives Berry an opportunity to express something of his religious convictions about our relationship to the earth. This is what he says.

"People of religious faith know that the world is maintained every day by the same force that created it. … All creatures live by breathing God's breath and participating in his spirit and this means the whole thing is holy, the whole shootin' match. There's no sacred and unsacred places, there are only sacred and desecrated places."

And because of that conviction about the holy, Berry says this about our efforts to stop the desecration. "We don't have a right to ask whether we're gonna succeed or not. The only question we have a right to ask is what's the right thing to do. What does this earth require of us if we want to continue to live on it."

Aware of how coal is mined these days, by blowing off the tops of mountains, his convictions led Berry, at 80, to a sit-in at the Kentucky Governor's office.

Now I'm aware that Berry is not alone in his convictions about agriculture. There are still men and women all over the state of South Dakota and throughout the world who still have a sense of farming as agri-culture. They carry that vision in a world where the principalities and powers are heading in just the opposite direction. These farm folk still believe there is something sacred in the land that will nourish and sustain future generations, if only it is treated with respect. They still attend rural churches, believe they set foot every day on God's good creation. They contribute to the well being of their community and their neighbors. They work hard and provide for their families in both sustenance and values. I know many of these people. I've seen them at work and play and in church.

Many of these folks share with Berry the Gandhian notion that tools are meant to be an extension of the human hand, or foot, or brain … not a replacement. Sometimes the fruits of technology are better left alone, not that we shouldn't know things but everything doesn't have to be implemented. We know smoking causes lung cancer but must we smoke?

As we continue to pretend that we know better than the creator how to sustain life on a finite planet, tinkering with moving DNA from one organism to another and poisoning living things with substances new to nature, we shouldn't be surprised that there may be some unexpected results. I'm grateful for the prophetic voices of people like Wendell Berry. He speaks his mind and shares his wisdom and faith. He also recommends the most appropriate place for finding healing from the cares of the world. It's in "The Peace of Wild Things." It's a poem you don't want to miss, especially if you know the serenity of a mountain stream in the Black Hills, or the solitude of a pasture sprinkled with flowers at sunset, or the special spot in the trees you retreated to as a child. 

The wild places are still sacred. They can heal and give hope for a rebirth of wonder and wisdom.

Carl Kline

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Power of Asking

Just a few days after the Thanksgiving holiday, I had a parking lot conversation with a friend as we were leaving a meeting.  I asked the usual, socially polite question: “How was your holiday?”  She answered with an emphatic “It was great!”   I asked: “What made it great for you?”   She proceeded to tell me how she and her family had been able to have some difficult conversations that none of them had wanted to have and that they had drawn so much closer because of it.

We ended our conversation with both of us expressing gratitude for the families we enjoy and for the friendship that allows us to have these amazing parking lot conversations.

A few days later, I received a lovely note from her saying “Thank you for asking…..”  The conversation had allowed both of us to articulate something important to us and to more deeply appreciate the spirit that connects us.  It also allowed both of us to go home appreciating life more deeply and to carry that energy back into our homes.

Sometimes asking a leading question gets me too much information - - more than I ever wanted to know.  But often, the right question at the right time has the potential for increasing the depth of a friendship, of allowing another person to be heard, and of permitting a healing process to unfold or to be more fully understood. 

In a world where I so often encounter a “shoot first –ask questions later” attitude, it is a continuing challenge for me to learn to be more ready to ask questions than to make judgments.  It has become for me a primary challenge in learning to “live nonviolence.”   I am finding that it takes a lot more courage on my part to ask the important questions than it does to make a judgment (often without enough information). 

John Wesley, the esteemed founder of the Methodist Church, used to encourage his students and friends to ask of one another “How is it with the state of your soul?”  It’s not a question I would normally think to ask of another person – often because if I ask, I need to be prepared to receive the answer - - - and that may take a good bit more time than I have to spend.   But, as I get older, I’m finding that it is, perhaps, a most important question to ask.   As I continue on this journey and appreciate more and more that my time here is finite, I find that I am more inclined to ask the question “How is it with the state of your soul?”  and then settle in for a cup of hot tea and a profoundly satisfying time of receiving and being received as soul meets soul.

Soul friendships are good for the world.   They require courage and seriously gentle cultivation.  They require unrelenting honesty and integrity and trust.  They become the practice ground for courageous living in all other relationships.  A soul friendship permits friends to “see” and honor the soul in others.  When this happens, even in the tiniest of increments, the world begins to change for the better.

                        “How is it with the state of your soul?”

Vicky Hanjian

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Gabby Giffords

It takes character to advocate for nonviolence when you have been a victim of violence. Sometimes it's difficult to shake off the hate for your violater. Sometimes it's impossible to keep a positive attitude about life and love and keep hoping and working for a better world.

Gabby Giffords, the Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives who was gunned down three years ago, is a person of character with a positive attitude. On the third anniversary of the shooting, that killed six and injured twelve others, Giffords went sky diving. It was her way of telling everyone what really mattered. "I'm alive," she said.

This is a letter she wrote to folks supporting her organization about the anniversary and the hard work ahead creating a less violent society.

"Three years ago today, a gunman walked up to one of my Congress on Your Corner events, shot me in the head, killed six of my constituents, and wounded twelve others.

I've spent the last three years learning how to talk again, how to walk again, and how to sign my name with my left hand. It's gritty, painful and frustrating work, every day. It's never easy because once you've mastered some movement or action, you move on to the next. There is no rest.

Along the way, I’ve learned that our campaign to change our gun laws has a lot in common with my difficult rehab.

Every day, we must wake up resolved and determined. We pay attention to the details, looking for opportunities for progress, even when the pace is slow. And every day we recruit a few more allies, talk to a few more people, and convince a few more voters. Some days it comes easy, and we feel the wind at our backs. Other times, we tire of the burden. 

I know this feeling … but I know that we’ll persist.

Since the shooting, eight days into the new year is when I mark my own new beginnings and make my annual resolutions.

One year ago today, Mark and I started Americans for Responsible Solutions and made it our mission to reduce gun violence in a way that was consistent with being gun owners ourselves.

This year, I resolve to draw strength from the Americans who have joined our fight, and cede no ground to those who would convince us the path is too steep, or we too weak.

Over the last few months, I have achieved something big that I’ve not spoken about until now. Countless hours of physical therapy - and the talents of the medical community - have brought me new movement in my right arm. It’s fractional progress, and it took a long time, but my arm moves when I tell it.

And maybe that’s what it will take to change our gun laws — determination, teamwork, and incremental progress.  

But I know we’ll get there, and I am thankful we’re in it together."

Gabby Giffords


“Oh, wonderful sky. Gorgeous mountain. Blue skies. I like a lot,” Giffords told TODAY’s Savannah Guthrie in an exclusive interview about her skydiving adventure. “A lot of fun. Peaceful, so peaceful.”

Carl Kline

Monday, January 13, 2014


As we look back at 2013 and forward into 2014, one hopes we will begin to see more coverage in the U.S. media of the most significant under-reported story of our time. It's the on-going disaster in Japan, at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility.

There are several things being reported elsewhere, but seldom in this country. For instance, the nuclear powered aircraft carrier U.S.S. Ronald Reagan responded to the tsunami and crisis in the Japanese countryside with a humanitarian mission off the coast of Fukushima Prefecture. In doing so, the carrier, with a crew of about 5,000, was exposed to the radiation coming from the three reactors that had melted down. Because the plant operator and the Japanese government minimized the radioactive releases, crew from the Reagan were in radioactive water rescuing survivors floating on debris, were bathing in and drinking desalinated ocean water that was contaminated, and washing down the deck and planes in a radioactive plume of air. They were stationed for about a month 10 miles off the coast before being informed of the seriousness of the risks.

In December of 2012, a law suit was filed by several of the Reagan's crew against TEPCO, the private operator of the nuclear facility. The suit alleges that TEPCO's lies led the Navy to sail into intensely dangerous waters and put the crew at risk. As of early this month, there are some seventy crew members who have joined the lawsuit, and as the health problems grow for Reagan crew members, the numbers in the suit will grow as well. Some anticipate as many as 1,400 eventual plaintiffs, not just from the Reagan, but from the 70,000 service members sent into harms way.

Many of the crew members in the lawsuit are in their 20's and have been diagnosed with leukemia, testicular cancer, gall bladder cancer and thyroid cancers. Others are experiencing rectal bleeding, hair loss, fatigue, gastrointestinal troubles, unremitting headaches and strange menstrual cycles.

One is reminded of those soldiers that were sent into the area of the first U.S. atomic bomb tests. They were told there was no danger, entering the zone shortly after the blast. It wasn't till years later that I visited one of those soldiers in the hospital, where he was losing a leg in his latest struggle, of many, with the results of that long ago exposure.

It happens so often we have almost come to expect it; sacrifices made by members of the military on behalf of political or economic expediency.

Another challenge not being reported is the growing threat to the Pacific Ocean. This is a huge body of water. But when you pour 300-400 tons of radioactive water into the ocean every day and threaten to stop storing contaminated water on site, as it leaks, and you can't build storage tanks fast enough to hold it, over time it creates problems for the ocean ecosystem.

Scientists are studying the demise of starfish off the West coast of the U.S. They seem to be melting on the bottom of the ocean, with an estimated 60% of them in some areas affected. Some are pointing the finger at Fukushima. Canadian officials have found amazingly high levels of radioactivity in sea bass. Scientists in California have found cesium 137 in 15 out of 15 bluefin tuna tested. Canadians have also discovered cesium 137 in 100% of the carp, seaweed, shark and monkfish sold to the Canadian public. And for more than a year those in Alaska who depend on seal, walrus and polar bears have been noticing severe sicknesses and die offs, consistent with radiation poisoning.

If that weren't enough, TEPCO, a private for profit company, accused of hiring untrained and sometimes homeless workers willing to risk their lives in challenging circumstances, (with some suggestions organized crime has gotten involved), are moving 1,500 fuel assemblies from unit 4 to safer storage facilities for at least the next year. Carefully, of course! Should they lose a damaged one in the process, or God forbid, should there be another earthquake before they finish, some are saying the West Coast of the U.S. should be evacuated and Japan would be history. 

If that possibility isn't worth a story or two in the mainstream media and an international takeover of the removal process, I can't imagine what is.

So when you make your plans for 2014, include some prayers and political action for the health and safety of the planet and the people and all life affected.

Carl Kline

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

By the Name God Calls Us All

The first time I used my middle name as it was meant to be was during the booking process upon entering the old Worcester County Jail. So many years ago, my name long since an intrinsic part of myself, the jail was to be home for the next ten days as the result of a draft board sit-in. I was told I had to have my hair cut or I would be placed in isolation. I chose isolation. When my clothes were taken away, I could only laugh at the ironic indignity of needing to wear baggy army fatigues. When I was asked my full name, I declared loudly and clearly, Victor Hillel Reinstein. The officer looked up and asked me to spell my middle name, which I did slowly and deliberately, H-I-L-L-E-L. On my birth certificate, my middle name is Hall, not even my parents quite understanding how it came to be so anglicized. The intent was to honor a beloved uncle of my mother, Feter Hillel, Uncle Hillel, as he was called. For years, I wanted my name to be as it was meant to be. At one point, I went to city hall to enquire about making a legal change. When I heard what seemed like an exorbitant sum to make the change, I put it aside, assuming that at some point, at the right moment, I would just do it, without need for paper to legitimate it. I knew that moment when it came. As the jailers sought to strip away identity and dignity, I defiantly declared for the first time my full name as it was meant to be, and so it has been ever since.

With the Torah portion called Sh’mot (Ex. 1:1-6:1), we begin the second book of the Torah, Sefer Sh’mot/the Book of Names. Not as Exodus in its English calling, but as Names. As the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt begins, the prison doors of a nation clanging shut around the most vulnerable within its borders, we are schooled in the way of liberation, of survival. The teaching is there from the beginning, in the very name of the Book, hold on to your names, your identity. That is the key to opening the gates of redemption, to insuring that there will be an exodus. The path to freedom and its long walk begin within ourselves; with remembering who we are, how we are called among our people and by God, not as we are numbered by the jailer. 

So the Book of Names begins, V’eleh sh’mot b’nei Yisra’el/And these are the names of the children of Israel who came down to Egypt with Jacob/ish u’veyto/each person and their household who came. In the interplay of plural and singular, we are joined to our people as individuals, to the human family, daughter or son of…, all the way back. The teaching glows, we are joined to past and present through our names, resistance to oppression in the naming of generations, the promise of a future. Four times in the Torah portion of Sh’mot/Names, God is referred to as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob. We are part of that unfolding, as we emphasize in Jewish prayer three times daily, though adding the names of our mothers. Taking our place in the great journey, strength in relationship, with God and each other, the God of each one, names joined, beginning with the mothers and the fathers.

Resistance to tyranny is named in the names of two women, Shifra and Puah, two midwives who bravely refused to do the bidding of Pharaoh and kill the firstborn males they delivered. Pharaoh’s own daughter defies the brutality of her father, drawing baby Moses from the reeds of his hiding place at water’s edge. She names him Moshe, one drawn from the water. And later, Moshe calls the name of his first son, Gershom, a stranger there, in a strange land. Moshe’s father-in-law, Jethro, appears in the portion by three different names Yitro, Re’uel, Yeter, different names for the same person reflecting different times and ways of being called and of responding. Naming becomes an act of resistance and survival, of hope. Even God is named in response to Moshe’s plea, what to tell the people when they ask who sent him, when they ask, mah sh’mo/what is God’s name? And God tells him, Ehiyeh Asher Ehiyeh/I will be that which I will be, and then for short, simply Ehiyeh/I will be. As we are formed in God’s image, so we are named in the image of God’s name, ever being and becoming, growing into our names as we fill them with our lives. 

The rabbis taught, every person has three names, one that the Holy Blessed One calls them, which is Adam/Human, one that their father and mother calls them, and one that they call themself. As a human being, we are each named in God’s image, each of our names and the essence we fill it with becoming a name of God. That is our claim to freedom, to dignity and identity.

I shared this teaching at an annual memorial service for homeless people who died on the streets of Massachusetts during the past year. One hundred and forty-two names were read, each one a reminder of the name given by God, Adam/Human, so easy to forget, not to see. The pain was raw and palpable in the reading of the names, so many readers homeless themselves, eyes blinking back tears, voices cracking, long pauses in the recognition of a name, not simply names, but people they knew. 

In all the ways of oppression and injustice, in the closing of a prison door, in the enslavement of a people, in the inequities of access to care and comfort that means some will live on the streets, in the myriad ways that souls are deadened and bodies too, we still have names that tell of who we are. We have names from all the way back that bring tears to the eyes of others when we are no more. We have names acquired in the way of our living, names that sing of deeds that were good and kind.

At times, as freedom’s midwives in the Book of Names, our names too are a song of defiance proudly declared; spelled out letter for letter before the jailer, before all the ways that would demean and deny. Children of God, we are joined to each other by the name God calls us all, each one as Adam/Human Being. And that should be enough.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Risk of Faith

I’d like to begin with an observation. Matthew is the only New Testament writer who tells us about Herod and the massacre of the children. The other gospel writers don’t say anything about this. We don’t read about it Paul’s letters or any other epistle. Maybe they did not know about it. Maybe they did not want to talk about it. We can think of lots of reasons for this silence but the fact remains that only Matthew tells us about Herod’s order to kill all the boy babies in Bethlehem and in the surrounding area. So it is fair to ask why Matthew thought it was important to include this event in his telling of Jesus’ birth?

That is an open-ended question. It does not have a right answer. It does not have just one answer. I want to suggest two possible reasons for why someone in the early church would want to include a story like this at the beginning of a story about the messiah.

One possibility is that Matthew wants us to think about a theology of life—and more than just think about it—Matthew insists that we should become advocates for life in a culture of death. He wants us to be lovers of life against all odds. The message could not be clearer. King Herod reigns over a culture of death. King Jesus is the “Lord of the Dance” (Sydney Cater) who leads us into a kingdom of love and delight. Matthew wants to draw a sharp contrast between these two kingdoms. That might be one reason for telling this story. Herod’s power, the ultimate power of the state, is the power of death. God has the power of life.

A second reason for telling this story here, at the beginning of the gospel, is to get us to face up to realities we would rather not acknowledge or confront. It is easier to look away from this scene of death than it is to look at it. But Paul Tillich, one of the pre-eminent theologians of the last century, taught us that if we want to communicate this gospel the first thing we have to do is understand our predicament. To illuminate what he meant by this, Tillich cited Pablo Picasso’s painting “Guernica,” which he called “a great Protestant painting.” It is a painting that crystallizes the horrors of the twentieth century.

It is an overpowering painting all done in shades of grey and white. Picasso created it after the Germans bombed the Basque village of Guernica at the request of General Franco in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. It is a complex painting. I cannot describe it other than to point to a few images. At one end of the painting there is a wide-eyed bull whose eyes are filled with fear. It is standing over a woman who is holding a child and weeping.  She, like Rachael, refuses to be comforted for she is weeping for her children who are no more. It is one of the saddest sentences in the Bible. She is weeping because her children are no more.

 At the center of the painting is a horse falling in agony. Above the horse is a light which represents the bombs falling. The light is drawn in such a way that it also represents the naked light bulb that hangs in the torturer’s prison cell. On the far right there is a human figure reaching skyward, and the image of an airplane coming to bomb the city. It is a powerful picture and once we look at it, we can’t look away. Tillich says that the only thing we can do after we see this painting is keep our eyes open, and look for the rise of new religious art.

I hear the voice of Bob Dylan singing “Masters of War.” He says of these masters, “You’ve never done nothin’ but build to destroy. You play with my world like it was your little toy.” In another line the song says “You’ve thrown the worst feat that could ever be hurled; Fear to bring children into the world.” This is the world of Herod, the king. In the words of Martin Luther King, it is a world of improved means that are being used for unimproved ends.”

In addition to these armed conflicts there is a less visible but no less cruel war in this country.There is an economic war being waged on the poor and working families. It is not only income inequality that we must fight but even more important is wealth inequality, which is more important because it determines social mobility. Let me offer just two figures. According to the most recent data that I could find, the top 10 percent of our population possesses 80 percent of all the financial wealth privately held—that includes income, pensions, investments, real estate—all forms of wealth. The top 1 percent possesses more wealth then the bottom 25 percent. It is a staggering figure. We cannot comprehend it or really believe it.

In this culture of death which masks itself as a culture of life and opportunity, we need to look for the rise of new religious art. Perhaps that is what Matthew means when he tells us that Joseph was warned in a dream to take his family to Egypt. Then in a second dream he was told it was safe to return home. And in a third dream he was told not to go to Jerusalem or Bethlehem, but to the north, to Galilee and to the city of Nazareth.

Do you remember in your English class you learned about the comparative and superlative cases: good, better, best; much, more and most. When we read something in the Bible and it is repeated three times like that, the writer is using the superlative. Matthew is telling us that this story of Jesus is the best story. This is the most important story. We have to pay attention to this story, because it is a story about the kingdom of life.

Now I don’t think that Joseph or Matthew were libertarians or cynics who believed that no government is good government, or that small government is the best government. Matthew’s point is that nations will behave as nations, and we should not expect them to do otherwise. Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, said in a recent interview that we need governments to help us solve problems that inevitably arise in the human community. That is a paternalistic and minimalist definition but it is better than some other definitions of the role of government. Given this definition, we are going to always need governments. The world population today is over 7 billion people. We are adding more than 100,000 every day; and over 80 million every year. That is a lot of people and a lot of problems.

But we can think of this data in another way, too. In a poem called For The Time Being: a Christmas Oratorio (Meridian Books, 1957), W.H. Auden says that God is charging into earth in birth after birth. It is like God is asking us, 100,000 times a day, “Don’t you get it?” I am the God of life, and I am not going away.

Matthew exposes us to what Tillich calls “the risk of faith.” The risk of faith is not a question of what deity we choose to believe in. The risk of faith is not, do you believe the right doctrine or teaching. The risk of faith is an existential risk. The risk of faith means risking where we will look for the meaning and fulfillment of our life. Matthew is urging us to take a risk on life.

David Hansen
Painting - Massacre of the Innocents by Giotto de Bondone