Saturday, May 31, 2014

Creation Continues

For several weeks now I have been pondering the meaning of a horrific auto accident that involved our precious granddaughter.  In a fraction of a second, she went from being a happy, hilarious teenager, enjoying a vacation with friends, to being a critically injured patient in a neurological ICU at a major trauma center.  

In a fraction of a second, all life stopped.  As we received the news at home, hundreds of miles from the site of the accident, we felt suspended in a timeless zone where nothing and everything happens simultaneously.  With shaking bodies and dry mouths and minds that would not focus, we moved through the immediate shock and made attempts to order things just enough to be able to function.  Adrenalin works.  Helpless to do much else, we prayed and we were joined by “pray-ers “ all around country and even in other parts of the world as the news traveled through the ethers.

Four weeks later we are well on the other side of the shock and fear and anxiety of making our way through the unknown.  Our granddaughter is making a miraculous recovery and will be her incredibly lovely, courageously witty self as she moves ahead into her life.   The mysterious energy of prayer and the skill of western medicine have left us stunned with gratitude at the outcome. Still, I ponder what has happened ~ and again and again, the physics of it repeat in my brain: chaos > order; chaos > order.  Nietchze wrote: “You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.”  Carl Jung wrote: “In all chaos there is a cosmos; in all order there is disorder.”

Years ago I became acquainted with Ilya Prigogine’s “Theory of Dissipative Structures” – the idea of “open systems” that consume and exchange energy with their surrounding environment in the service of transformation.  (That is my layperson’s understanding  of a very complex theory.)  Human beings, families, communities - - all are “dissipative structures”.  Dissipative structures are unstable ~ subject to fluctuations ~ perturbations ~ that affect the organization of the structure, causing it to “disorganize” and then re-organize again.  In the re-organization, new and more complex connections are made within the structure and transformation happens. 

The Theory of Dissipative Structures has become my working metaphor over the last several weeks.  Our family, our community, our far-flung web of connections all were impacted by the magnitude of the “perturbation” of the accident and its effect on our beloved granddaughter.  The dissipative structure of all those interwoven relationships felt the impact of “disorganization”.   And yet, almost immediately, the re-ordering began.  Highly trained medical people swung into action and practiced their skills yet one more time.  Our local rabbi and minister swung into action and practiced their own healing skills by organizing the community into interfaith prayer.  Meals were organized.  Funds to help with medical costs were set up.  Our granddaughter’s classmates and fellow hockey players created healing messages for her hospital room bulletin board.  In many invisible ways, the chaos introduced by the accident set in motion a re-organization of interconnectedness at a much deeper and higher level of complexity than existed the day before the accident.

Indeed, the Spirit of Creation hovers over the face of the deep.  

The accident was a violent disruption.  But the open systems it affected were able to re-order and re-organize.  Even so, Ilya Prigogine  recognized that sometimes a fluctuation or perturbation in an open system can be so great that the system cannot “tamp” it down and reorganize.  When this happens, the system dies.  I cannot help thinking that this is what we witness in the violence of war where the disruption of interconnections between human beings is so violated that the system begins to die. 

Perhaps the key element in the transformation in our personal lives through our personal chaos is the element of prayer.  It has affected healing processes and it has deepened our human connections with one another.  Compassion and hospitality and generosity have broken out.  True, life will settle back into familiar patterns, but they will not be exactly the same.  A bit of evolution has happened.

When I read of the Pope praying for peace with Jewish and Arab religious leaders I could only hope that I was witnessing the Theory of Dissipative Structures in evidence again – that the open system of human relationships might be re-ordering itself just a little so that Creation might continue.

 Vicky Hanjian

Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day Choices

Memorial Day in the U.S. serves two purposes, and we should not lump one with the other. At its core, the holiday is a time to remember warriors who have died in military action. Most of us have at least one relative or friend who fought, died, and is now held dear on this day. If this remembering and holding dear were the extent of our observance, the day would serve us well. May our departed loved ones rest in peace.

The second purpose of the day extends well beyond our need to remember. Consider the familiar rites: we conduct military parades and wave the national flag; we bestow honors on all who have ever worked in the military; we set aside bravery and heroism as military traits; we speak of our need for military force, and how we could not be free without it; we rally moral support for current military activities; and we pray for divine intervention on behalf of our warriors in the field. In short, we create a civil liturgy that beckons us to greater militarization.
If we are not eager to spread militarism – with its attendant suffering, steep costs, environmental hazards, and challenges to the path of kindness – we can reconsider our role in this liturgy. We are permitted to separate the act of remembering our loved ones from the act of promoting militarism. We are not obliged to tie these two activities together.
This Memorial Day, we can consider some alternatives. For example, instead of praying for divine intervention to aid our warriors, consider petitioning the heavenly powers to assist our diplomats. If our prayers for diplomatic results are successful, there will be no need for military supremacy.
Instead of decorating the graves of warriors only, consider decorating the graves of all who have followed their consciences and given their lives to build a better world. By doing this, we set aside the myth that dying in the course of military action is a greater thing than dying in the course of diplomatic action, or community organizing, or parenting, or teaching, or providing social services. Sacrifice, commitment, and bravery arise in all walks of life.
Instead of organizing military parades, which celebrate our power to threaten, coerce, and harm when faced with conflict, consider organizing parades which celebrate our diverse communities and our power to engage one another with openness, respect, and collaboration. If waving our national flag is a potent symbol of our vision and commitment, consider how our future might be if we waved our world flag instead.
Instead of remembering only our unknown warriors, consider remembering all the unknown individuals who have been victims of war: the countless civilians, the countless innocents, the broken families, and all those who have suffered from the redirection of resources from social needs to weaponry. The tomb of the unknowns must have wide gates.
Memorial Day is a public liturgy. Our allies, our adversaries and, most important, our children are watching. As we remember those who have died in military action, our challenge is to remain aware of the messages we send. In our heavily militarized world, the way we observe this holiday makes a difference. With every symbol, word, and action we choose, we either lend our support to greater militarization or we take a step toward demilitarization.
Clark Hanjian - First published in the DMZ newsletter for Memorial Day 2014.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

All Things to Be Holy to God

As Torat Chayim, Torah of Life, the Torah weaves connections and brings us to see its truths in all the places where life is lived, in places unexpected, in places unknown to us even a moment before the seed of awareness sprouts. I encountered Torah recently in the words of a young Syrian-American poet, words that give reality to a teaching of that week’s Torah portion, Parshat T’tzaveh (Ex. 27:20-30:10), words so haunting and wrenchingly beautiful, carried recently on this blog, words of Living Nonviolence:

There will be a time when we can eat together
When we will build homes out of abandoned tanks
Peace is a rusted recoil
We will sip from the cups made of old grenades
And shades of green are only worn by nature
There will be a time when the fences choose to sit with us
Instead of standing between us
Amal Kassir

Ameen/Amen, so may it be, her prayerful words an expression of hope in spite of all that would deny it. From the heart and hand of the poet, an eighteen-year old Muslim woman, comes the vision of a world transformed through the transformation of things that destroy. All things are formed of material substance and given their use through human will and ingenuity. Whether to be used for good or evil, all things are held in the balance of human intent, from the same steel to create sword or scalpel, and once formed, the use or misuse of things is in our hands. Things have no mind, but humans do. A single stream of God’s thought as it flows from the horror that unfolds in Syria today and from a verse of Torah. There is to be placed on Aaron’s forehead a small diadem engraved with the words, Kodesh LaShem/Holy to God (Ex. 28:36). It is an expression of intent and direction, of hands and heart directed to Heaven in all that we do. And just a bit further on, Aaron shall lift away the crookedness of the holy things/v’nasa Aharon et avon hak’doshim. Even holy things, things dedicated for sacred use, can be made unholy through ill intent, made crooked, turned away from higher purpose. All things in their beginning, as drawn from creation’s gifts, have the possibility of holiness. From ore that is drawn from the ground can be fashioned tanks or tractors, steel to hurt or heal, the sword or scalpel. On Aaron’s task to raise up things to be fit for holy service, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch speaks from nineteenth century Germany of things that are removed “from that which is their purpose…. Their condition is one that contradicts the idea of their consecration.” All things created to destroy contradict the intent of creation itself, the very word by which we speak of the world’s coming to be.

The young poet envisions the raising up of weapons of war to be for holy purpose. Of tanks and rifles, grenades, uniforms, and fences, all things that divide and destroy transformed to be as they might have been from the very beginning with different intent, gifts of earth to be shaped by human hand and heart and mind. It is the vision of the prophets, Isaiah and Micah, of swords turned to plowshares and spears to pruning hooks, lo yisa goy el goy cherev, lo yil’m’du od milchamah/nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. It is the vision of Torah, all things to be “Holy to God,” and it is the vision of a young Syrian poet. It is all Torat Chayim, the Torah of Life. So may it be. Ameen/Amen.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, May 16, 2014


I once, again, find myself in a conundrum. I am a pastor of a small congregation of people who seek to come together in authenticity and intimacy creating a community where a voice of inclusion, justice, and hope is heard, but I am not trained in great systems of nonviolence or conflict resolution. Rather I am a child of the streets, a place where unrest is sometimes the only way to be heard.

The group of Jesus followers I am blessed to serve have been declined a facility to show a documentary that illuminates an injustice that has occurred within the world. The reason for the decline was the facility ‘will no longer be renting the facility on Sunday’ and ‘the film has created controversy in other areas.’ My initial response to this was a great sense of unease.

Is this decline a larger emulation of what is wrong with this world? That we, who seek change, are denied venues of bringing to light severe injustices that exist among our world? And then, as people of peace, how do we respond? Do we take the road of not wanting to create more confrontation and sit idly by not saying anything because to say something creates more unrest in a world already plagued with too much unrest? How do we create change among a world of exploitation and oppression when we long so desperately for the world to stop its violence but at times can see no other way but to create unrest? 

I recently heard that at times the best response is silence. I agree. There are times that the best response is silence…But did silence stop the oppression of African Americans? Did silence break the bonds that held women for so long? Is silence the answer to the inequality that continually finds its way back into the discussion of full rights and inclusion for people with all sexual orientations and gender identities? Is it silence that makes the injustices of our world fade away?

If its not silence, than what is it?

Kristi McLaughlin

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Each One a Tree of Life

In the mirror, I saw reflected through the window and overlaid upon my skin the bare branches of a tree. Projected onto my chest and shoulder, the fine network of lines seemed to radiate outward from my heart. In the hazy confusion of a day’s first moments of wakefulness, I did not realize what I was seeing. It seemed as though I was looking within myself and seeing the delicate web of my own veins. I smiled and breathed a breath of gratitude as the image came clear, crystallized yet shimmering. So compelling, I understood now the surface meaning of what I was seeing, as I tried to understand its deeper meaning. It seemed as though the tree of life was within myself, my own veins flowing with all life, sap and blood, human and tree, the world all around and within as one. From Deuteronomy (20:19), I thought of the verse, ki ha’adam etz ha’sadeh/for the human is the tree of the field.

The Torah weaves throughout its entire telling a thread of interdependence. That is at the root of what it means to be in covenant, in relationship, as we are with God, with the earth, and with each other. Through midrash, the rabbinic way of story-teaching, the rabbis imagine God telling the first human, and therefore every human of every generation, “do not damage or destroy my world, for if you do there will be none to repair it after you.” The comparison of the human to the tree becomes a commandment against wanton destruction of nature and of all things. If we are not to destroy a tree, then all the more so are we not to destroy a human being. Every person is a tree of life, veins within radiating outward from a heart filled with the blood of life, arms outstretched in prayer as branches of a tree reaching toward heaven. All life is woven together as one.

In the midst of each day, it is so easy to miss the greater whole of which we are each an intrinsic part. At the dawning of a day and at its end, the entire cycle of life in the circle dance of earth and sun and moon, so easy to look in the mirror and see only our selves. Reflected upon our skin and in the delicate skein of veins within is the entire tree of life. So too in reading sacred text, so easy to see only the surface meaning, caught up in details, not seeing beneath the skin to the essence of life within. Often read with spring’s first blossoms upon the trees, the Torah portions Tazria and M’tzora (Lev. 12-15) are perhaps among the most opaque of all portions of Torah, the most difficult from which to enter the garden beneath, from whose shore to draw from the waters of life. On the surface these two portions are about skin ailments, of discoloration and ulceration, of bodily fluids and sores that ooze. As our bodies can be afflicted, so too our homes, mold and mildew upon the walls, a house no longer a home, emptied out of all within. 

Bereft and empty for all to see, our bodies and our homes, so easy for others to point a finger and flee. Suddenly there are ripples of understanding upon the surface, as God’s breath once upon the water, light glinting, luminous. That is precisely the lesson of these portions, not to flee in fear and disgust from those who need us most, to turn toward and not away from those who suffer. A powerful midrash asks, why do tribulations come into the world? As though to disabuse us of the urge to blame, to point a finger and run, the midrash answers its own question, because of those who see and look and say, one who sins is stricken and the one who does not sin is not stricken. The all too common urge to blame the victim is turned on its head. Fearful and facile in our attempt to find order amidst chaos, to isolate all that threatens our ways and wellbeing, we turn away from what most gives meaning to life, the opportunity to help another, to foster human connection. In the midrashic mirror, we suddenly realize what we are seeing, a plea for interconnection. The source of so much pain and tribulation in the world is a lack of compassion that comes of finger pointing and blame, when all around and within there is such yearning for embrace. It is those who blame the victim that bring tribulations into the world by adding to the suffering of the afflicted. The lesson becomes clear; while we cannot remove all pain and suffering, when compassion flows we become a source of solace and strength in the face of suffering. Walking together on the path of life, roles blur and interchange, the afflicted and the comforter, each one a mirror for the other.

Telling of the interconnectedness of all life, compassion flows as a thread through these Torah portions. The way of compassion eases suffering and pain and removes the added tribulation of loneliness and guilt from the world of those who suffer. Branches upon our skin, veins within, we see each other in the mirrored image of our selves, each one a tree of life.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Soul of the Field

There are some young friends in India who have been working for years among the rural poor. They are development workers at heart. But they are committed to the kind of development that makes sense in that cultural context and coincides with the interests and wishes of the population. 

Going into that rural area for the first time they didn't have an agenda to advance. They didn't have a product to push. They didn't have a PhD in development studies, although they are certainly bright enough to earn one. They simply made a commitment to live with the people and see what it meant to be good neighbors.

The young man comes from a family that chose to live in the largest, most densely populated slum in Mumbai. He grew up believing that it was one's duty to share in the lot of the poor, till no one was poor. His wife grew up in a family that valued an ethic of "enough." They deliberately sought to make their ecological footprint as small as possible, out of respect and concern for those who had even less space or resources. 

The young woman was in South Dakota, before her marriage, for an intercultural education program. The program group was taking an evening off at a cabin on a near-by lake. Many of the group were taking rides on a pontoon, but she declined. When asked why she wouldn't enjoy a ride with the others, she replied she couldn't participate in an activity using fuel for pleasure. She had likely seen too many rickshaw drivers in India measuring gas for their tanks, at truly exorbitant prices, with a plastic measuring cup. She knew the price of gasoline for the world's poor.

For many months I got a modest report from this couple about their work. One experience they shared has stayed with me ever since. They were describing the way the local farmers plowed their fields. Initially, they couldn't understand what  was happening.

Tractors were out of the question in that area. The bullock pulled the plow. Believe it or not, working as if attached at the heart, farmer and bullock can make furrows as straight and true as any John Deere, with lots less compaction of the soil and no fossil fuels. And in this instance, they watched as the farmer finished the rows. Then, to their amazement, the farmer made a furrow stretching from one corner of the field, obliquely, to the other corner. When asked why he did this, the farmer replied, "that's the soul of the field."

On further examination, the couple discovered there was also the "soul of the house." In building a home, the same oblique line always ran in a contrary direction, plainly visible, one of a kind, lonely in the midst of the other house lines, visually dominant.

Symbols can be significant. There was a time when I was one of the lap swimmers in the SDSU pool. If you've been there and keep your eyes open as you swim, you'll notice that you're following the way of the cross. I'm sure not everyone sees it that way. But for someone who does and finds meaning in that symbol, it can change the very nature of your swim.

In the same way, if you wake each morning to the "soul of the house" and work with the "soul of the field," you likely begin to recognize the divine in the world around you and it changes your perspective and your behavior. It becomes a symbol, an invitation to the divine to inhabit the place and your consciousness.

Would we had more of the same in our culture; intentional and conscious ways of inviting the divine to reside with and work with us. Perhaps then we would be more like these young people in their service to their neighbors. 

The downright hatred of the poor in some quarters of U.S. society; the branding of the homeless and jobless; the hostility toward any kind of social safety net beyond private charity; the irony of Senatorial millionaires voting down a living wage;  the callousness of withholding medicaid funds out of political spite; the utter selfishness of some who have far more than they need; and the racial and economic discrimination still alive and well; all cry for the generous and caring people we have been and are meant to be.

Are we our brothers and sisters keepers? In another age there was no question! The Biblical injunction and the natural inclination was to help and serve the neighbor. It's a solid and enduring value, one we can perhaps better express in communities like mine, not too big and not too small, where we might actually know our neighbor. 

We all need symbols and value reminders. It's why we go to church, or take time daily for meditation, or visit the sick. So maybe I'll plow a "soul in my garden" this summer,  just to remind me of the deeper spirit that makes it grow and why I ought to share the harvest.

Carl Kline
Photo by Russell Clemings