The Son of This Slave Woman

The Son of This Slave Woman

Rev. Dave Fekete, Ph.D.

June 21, 2020

Genesis 21:8-21                                  Matthew 10:24-39                                           Psalm 86

            The readings from this week’s lectionary are extremely timely.  Well, they were written thousands of years ago.  But they are current, timely.  I write this talk conscious of the upheaval going on in the US.  But I am a Canadian Permanent Resident, and I write also conscious of my Canadian home.  The issue of these readings is privilege.  When Sarah says, “the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac,” she is claiming privilege for her son.  Hagar’s son Ishmael was of a different race from Sarah’s son Isaac.  Ishmael was Arab, Isaac was an Israelite.  Further, Ishmael was the son of a slave.  Isaac was the son of a free Israelite.  Sarah doesn’t want her slave’s son to share in the prosperity of her privileged son.

The parallels with the racial issues surfacing in the US are clear.  Protesters are talking about systemic racism.  And a primary indicator of systemic racism is the wage disparity between white Americans and Americans of color.  Another salient issue is the disparity in policing between white Americans and Americans of color.  The murders of George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and Breonna Taylor by police are but three examples of countless cases that people of color know about in their day to day lives.  A newscaster on TV brought up the fact that an African-American senator had been pulled over by the police seven times in the past year.  A US senator!  Then the newscaster looked straight into the camera and asked, “How many times were you pulled over last year?”  I haven’t been pulled over for about seven years.  And that time was because the Canadian police didn’t have a record of my US driver’s license before I got a Canadian license.  But this US senator had been pulled over seven times in one year for no other reason, apparently, than the color of his skin.

I suspect that I may be losing my Canadian friends at this point as I am talking about the US.  For Canada, our reading from Matthew seems more appropriate.  In Canada, we aren’t seeing protests but that doesn’t mean we’re insulated from racial injustice.  I think the line from Matthew 10:26 applies to life here, “for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.”  We don’t see racism in Canada because we are in the majority, what would be called privileged.  But even here, downstairs in this very church, we had a Muslim woman speaker who said some disturbing words.  She said people here in Edmonton tell her to go home, just because of the color of her skin and her religion.  And she was born in Canada.  Go home means stay in Canada!  She told us that she is scared for the wellbeing of her son, because of the color of his skin and his religion.  Carol’s own hairdresser, a Canadian of East-Indian decent, told her that when he and his friends went into a diner in Red Dear, the whole white crowd of customers were staring at him and his friends.  They left without ordering.

And in Canada, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission began in 2007.  That’s one year after I got here.  The Truth and reconciliation Commission was established to repair the damage from the Residential Schools.  The Residential Schools were set up to systematically destroy the Indigenous culture and spirituality.  To eradicate every vestige of Native life and to replace it with the culture of white Christianity.  Practically every Christian denomination was involved in the systematic obliteration of First Nations.  Children of children of the Residential Schools are still suffering the effects of the schools.  Their parents, who were interred in the schools didn’t grow up in families.  They grew up in huge dormitories with little sanitary facilities.  The Residential Schools largely succeeded.  Many spirits of First Nations individuals have been crushed.  Hence, their parenting skills are often diminished.  Life on reservations is often impoverished, some even lack adequate drinking water.  I’ve heard Canadians tell me that the government sends plenty of money to the reservations but the chiefs keep it all for themselves.  I know a chief who told me he made $30,000 when he was serving his Nation.  When I toured Blue Quills University in Saddle Lake, I noticed a stack of fliers that read, “Do you know anyone who has been murdered, or have you heard of anyone who was murdered?”  Then there was a number to call and an office set up to deal with these murders.  The fliers were just sitting there on the table.  Have you yourself ever in your life seen a flier asking you if you know someone who was murdered?  Then giving you a number to call?  What does that say?

These issues I have been discussing are our symbolic father.  They are the culture we have inherited.  They are the society that has given us birth and these issues are the issues we have been brought up in.  It is for this reason that Jesus says,

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

35 For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

The voices that are rising up in the US are the sword of truth.  In Swedenborg’s system of symbolism, a sword stands for truth.  Jesus does not bring peace when there are festering wounds infecting society.  Then Jesus calls us to set ourselves against our father, mother, and household when that family is diseased with injustice.

In Canada, we have issues of racial injustice, but no mass protests.  It was a brave teen-aged girl who used her smart phone to record the murder of George Floyd that set off the powder keg in the US.  We don’t have something like that smart phone recording here in Canada.  Though the power of privilege and racial injustices are rampant under the peaceful surface of Canadian society.

“Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”  That sword of truth is intended to cut through the peaceful surface of unjust social structures.  And we need to be swordsmen and women.  It is our duty to seek out the truth and to become informed.  I think it’s easy to go with what we’ve always heard.  It’s easy to go with opinions about issues that may not be true.  I personally know people in Canada who think that Muslim women like Salima are trying to overturn the Canadian legal system and replace it with Sharia Law.  They think this especially about refugees from war torn middle eastern countries.  It is opinions like this that need to be measured against the sword of truth.  One truth about this very issue is, “Which Sharia Law?”  There are at least four schools of Muslim tradition, much the same way we have Catholics, Lutherans, and Swedenborgians.  Each of the more than four schools of Muslim tradition have their own style of Sharia Law.  So the whole opinion that Muslims are trying to replace the Canadian legal system with Sharia Law falls apart when we ask which Muslim sect is trying to do this with what Sharia Law.

Swedenborg teaches that the religious life is characterized by a love for truth.  In fact, faith itself is called a cohering arrangement of many truths.  An incoherent mash of opinions is not faith.  As Christians, it is incumbent on us to search for truth.  As Christians, it is incumbent on us to measure our opinions against the sharp sword of truth.

And finally, Swedenborg teaches that the sword of truth must be wielded by a loving hand.  It was Gandhi who said, “When you have a truth to tell, it must be given with love, or the message and the messenger will be rejected.”  The riots and looting in the US got the attention of the world several weeks ago.  But I suspect that the subsequent weeks of peaceful protests will do more to make lasting structural change in the US.

Well, this is supposed to be a Fathers’ Day sermon.  I’ve gone all-in Swedenborgian, though, and spoken about father as our inherited evils.  Not personal evils, but collective social evils.  We Swedenborgians have an advantage in all this.  Repentance, reformation, and regeneration are central doctrines in our theology.  And never in my lifetime, has the call for repentance been louder.  And our world is in dire need of reformation.  And regeneration means re-birth.  If we are zealous about our repentance, and dedicated to reformation, we will see a rebirth in society.  We need to be aware of our privilege.  And being of the privileged race, it is especially important for us to educate ourselves.  And some of us may even be moved to wield the sword of truth to cut through centuries of oppression and social injustice.  And the children of enslaved persons will finally find their rightful share in the prosperity we take for granted.

 

YOUTH, AGE, DEATH

I’m not sure the way to think about death

Is to think about death

Mine will be around 30 years or so, likely

Some do not know 30 lived years yet

And to them, now, as it was to me, then, 30 years is a long time

But when your life is twice thirty plus

And 30 years ago means an ethics class on Charles Taylor at the University of Virginia

Vivid in the aging memory

Death is nearer

I say the young should not think about death

But revel in the animée of youth

Nor should anyone think about death

I believe we all should revel in animée

In age you mine the memory for what matters

Looking back over time, so many lives lived

Parent, child, sibling, friend, partner,

Student, apprentice, employee, employer, creator, maker, volunteer

So many ideologies following

Family values, local customs, blindly following the herd,

Breaking free of local customs, assimilating to new traditions

Ethical options adopted, opted for

Spirituality, religion, evolving principles of justice, righteousness

Age has much to sift through, choose, assent to, reject

Evaluating a life lived long

Choosing how to use life in remaining years

Anticipating life, how to live, live well, time that remains well

In remaining years, in future years

Possible eternity outside time and years and then where is death?

Options

Opting for a good life, life lived well, the good life, optimize

Exorcized ghosts of island martinis and beers past

Cast-off pass-times, past times, distractions, dreams of fame, cheering mobs, irascible passions

How to live, live well, care well

Caring for values that ground being

Ground of Being

And it is enough to be

Animée

Youth, age, death

Melanie: Woodstock’s Unsung Voice

We still hear about Woodstock, even in 2020.  But we hear only what the media wants us to hear about it.  Media accounts of Woodstock make it look like the festival was all about drugs, sex, and rock-and-roll.  But it wasn’t.  Peace and love filled to spirit of the festival.  Love isn’t just free love, or sex.  It is a love for each other.  And we don’t hear much about the spirit of Woodstock.  And spirituality at Woodstock.  Even in the four-hour documentary movie about Woodstock, there is no footage of Melanie.  Melanie’s take on Woodstock makes the festival a spiritual experience.  Indeed it was, or it wouldn’t be remembered.  No one would remember just a week-end of drugs, sex, and rock-and-roll.

Listen to Melanie’s words about Woodstock in her song, “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)”:

We were so close there was no room
We bled inside each others wounds
We all had caught the same disease
And we all sang the songs of peace
Some came to sing, some came to pray
Some came to keep the dark away

Melanie had a spiritual experience while performing at Woodstock, and the crowd knew it, and they were with her.  She says,

“At that moment, 500,000 people saw me have this spiritual awakening because I realised that I wasn’t a body. The body is a separate thing to whatever you want to call it, the spirit or the soul or whatever. The actual being of me was not that body. I left.  That moment that happened in front of those people, that was the uniqueness of Woodstock, for me. And even though people didn’t know what was happening, they knew something had happened. And they were with me.”

Melanie doesn’t use drugs, so the spirituality was real.  There was that spirit, that spirituality at Woodstock, too.  There were those who came to pray, to keep the darkness away, who sang songs of peace, who were so close they bled inside each others’ wounds.

For whatever reason, we don’t hear about that aspect of Woodstock.  And we don’t hear about Melanie.  She is Woodstock’s unsung voice.  But for those of us lucky enough to know Melanie’s music and beautiful spirit, Melanie’s take on Woodstock gives as much light as 500,000 lit candles raised against the dark.

25 YEARS

25 years largely lost

Doctors call it avolition

No will even to get up

Sleeping

Days, weekends

Those 25 years could have been:

Practice time

Gigging

Progressing

But . . .

25 years largely lost

 

Mind turned to fog

Memory shot

Which is an end to learning

Thought processes so slow

Which is an end to performance

Where I could have been

But . . .

25 years largely lost

 

I see my friends

Where they’re at

Where I could have been

But . . .

25 years largely lost

 

But then . . .

There’s the soul

“My kingdom is not of this world”

Spirituality

Humility, compassion, neighbor-love

“I do not give to you as the world gives”

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be.”

I could have come to worse

25 years of spiritual progress

Literary Criticism: Tom Wolfe

Tom Wolfe astounds me whenever I read him, and I am reading him again, now.  He is, perhaps, one of the most gifted writers of this generation.  Wolfe writes about the depth and surface of human experience.  People too often, and mistakenly, talk about Wolfe’s interest in status.  That’s there, of course, but Tom Wolfe can write with insight and sensitivity about the soul, about spirituality, and the conflict of spirituality with the contemporary world and its vapid secularity–giving all their own voice.

Sometimes it is difficult to recognize the shining stars in the age in which they live.  For instance, Norman Mailer was a sensation in his day, but I don’t think anyone will be reading him for much longer, if anyone still is.  Tom Wolfe will continue to be read for generations because his novels are engaging, profound, artistic, and bespeak truths about the human condition that are timeless.

Tom Wolfe’s work has received mixed critical response.  Some prominent authors of the generation preceding him panned him.  I don’t know what gets into critics’ heads, sometimes.  You often see hubris and arrogance in them that makes them think that they have an Olympian voice about everything beneath them from their lofty height.  Hemingway once said he thought he should break the jaw of one critic every year.  Wolfe’s works surpass the accepted authors preceding him who panned him.  Wolfe will live on while they are forgotten.

Wolfe delights, engages, paints realistic characters, realistic situations, and comments on the vital issues of human existence.  I am casting this criticism out into the cyber-world as enthusiasm which must find voice, and as a recommendation to anyone who hasn’t yet been touched by this abiding artist.

Religion and the Onslaught of the ’60’s

In the movie MASH Hawkeye observes Major Frank Burns praying, and remarks, “Have you ever seen this syndrome before?”  Duke replies, “Not in someone over the age of eight.”  That interchange captures the spirit of the late ’60’s/late ’70’s.  Irreverent, anti-authority, self-confident, free love,–and in the movie, elitist.

I grew up in the ’60’s/’70’s and feel that there is much to be treasured from that era, now gone.  Peace and love, philosophy, self-reliance, music, freedom, individuality.  But along with these ideals, this idealistic time, came the kind of spirit that MASH captures so well.  Religion is ridiculed and the religious Frank Burns is an intolerable character.

Where so we go from there?  The spirit of the ’60’s/’70’s declared religion to be childish and ridiculous, and irreverent camaraderie to be the virtue of the day.  I think society bought it, and that those values persist today.  People turn to pop-culture to find behavioral norms and proprieties.  And for some, probably a lot, there is no place for prayer, no use for prayer.

Churches are failing, even synagogues and mosques are seeing diminution in attendance.  A while back I thought we are in a “post-Christian” age.  Now I see it as a “post-religious” age.  Even the “spiritual-but-not-religious” demographic is less than half of North American culture, and only a fraction of the population in Europe.

Certainly there were bad ideas in religions.  Certainly there were abuses of power.  Certainly there was hypocrisy.  But religion also contributed some of society’s most glorious cultural artworks, literature, philosophy, and, of course, theology.  The religious and spiritual impulse is a beautiful aspect in the human situation.  It makes the psyche sing.  It gives us honesty, sincerity, generosity, care for others, the quest for truth, repentance and human perfection, and ecstasy.  Without spirituality, what are we left with?

“But on earth indifference is the least/We have to dread from man or beast,” the poet W. H. Auden writes.  I don’t know.  I fear indifference.  I can’t but feel that the indifference to religion and even spirituality is numbing society.  We’re getting bland to everything, getting bland.  And we are retreating into tribes.  Instead of spiritual community that reaches out to the stranger and foreigner, we are retreating into tribes that close off the other.  We ignore religion to the peril of the loving community that the world can be.  While religion is often castigated for causing wars, I think that the lack of genuine religion is causing us to be more xenophobic and antagonistic to the other.  Will the indifference of our age ever produce another work like Beethoven’s 9th?  Will we ever know again the peace that passes understanding?  Will we ever again sing, “Love divine!  All loves excelling!”

Personal Transformation at the 2018 Parliament of the World’s Religions

Over the dates November 1-7, I had the privilege of attending the 2018 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto, Canada—“The Promise of Inclusion, the Power of Love: Pursuing Global Understanding, Reconciliation, and Change.”  I will be posting a series of blogs about my experiences there, which were extraordinary.  I am not the same Swedenborgian I was before the Parliament.  I understand my own tradition differently, understand religion differently, understand more fully all the richness that God’s world is.  I learned in general that encountering other religions is much more than intellectually inquiring about beliefs.  I learned much about many traditions and perspectives.  But it would be a mistake to think that one now understands a tradition that others have spent their lives growing into.  The Parliament of the World’s Religions is a taste, not a meal.

The seminars were divided into 10 categories: 1) Justice, 2) Women’s Dignity, 3) Global Ethic, 4) Next Generation, 5) Countering Hate and Violence, 6) Sacred Space, 7) Indigenous Peoples’ Program, 8) Climate Action, 9) Interfaith Understanding, 10) Science and Religion.  As is always the case at these kinds of gatherings, you can’t do everything.  There are several seminars going on at the same time.  It took me about an hour and a half to figure out how to read the program guide and to decide on the seminars I would attend.

Sometimes what happens in the hallways between seminars, at conferences like the Parliament, is as valuable as what happens in the seminars themselves.  Previous to the formal opening, I had delightful conversations with a few people in the convention centre lobby while we were all looking over the 380-page program guide.  One couple from Washington State told me that they were from the Unity tradition, among other interfaith groups.  I asked them how their church was doing.  “If by ‘church’ you mean what is tied to a building, that might be questionable; but if you mean ‘church’ as a movement, I’d say it’s doing wonderfully well.”  Already, I’d learned something.  From my own tradition, I thought about what the New Church really is.  We were joined by another couple who were interfaith ministers.  They said that their outlook on religion is “not ‘instead-of,’ but rather, ‘in addition to.’”  By that I understood varieties of religion to supplement each other, rather than compete with each other for who’s right is righter than who’s.  I was off to a good start.

Attending the Parliament of the World’s Religions was spiritually transforming for me.  Such a compressed, intense exposure to leaders of other faith traditions must have a powerful impact on a seeker with an open mind.  Nevertheless, reflecting on my experiences, I realize that however intense my exposure was, my grounding is in my own tradition.  My own understanding has been given a good jolt in a positive direction.  Areas of my own faith that weren’t working for me, have been adjusted by techniques from other religions that do work.  I am enjoying seeing the world differently than I saw it before the Parliament.  I am enjoying the world more than I had before the Parliament.  I am enjoying my fellows here on earth better than I did before the Parliament.  It will take some time before I fully integrate my experiences at the Parliament into my spiritual life.

I didn’t expect to be so moved by the Parliament.  I did expect to learn and celebrate, but not to be transformed.  I will share meaningful experiences from those remarkable seven days in the upcoming posts.  It is my story, but others may find meaning in it, and may find inspiration to further investigate truths from the traditions I experienced by their own methods of spiritual questing.

THE LEXICON OF LANGUAGE

Human community is the lexicon of language
Shared speech defines word and syntax
I know holy language, spoken among
Those self-identified spiritual
The lexicon of holy books, prayer, chant, doctrines
To whom these matter
I know ecstasy and peace
I know sin and craving
Shadow only exists by sunshine
I know secular language, spoken among
Those self-identified disinterested to spirituality
The lexicon of sciences, literature, arts, pop-culture, ego-gratification, social standing
To whom only these matter, or matter largely
I know class, sophistication, cultivation
I act the fool, commit faux-pas, social blunders
What honest human doesn’t, can’t, won’t
Secular language grounds the holy
As bark encloses trees, skin encloses the body, callous
Only flowers are unprotected

Discovering Art

Good art affects me like symphonies.  Art moves my spirit and evokes states of mind in like manner as good music stimulates my feelings.  Colours laid together to create an effect, shapes, background, objects.  When I gaze on good art, I am lifted into a transcendental world and sacred space of the mind, heart, and soul.  Art is made of sensual materials–paper, visual shapes, and colors–and yet its effect is inner, intangible, spiritual.

I finally brought the fine art print I spent a lot of my liquid monthly income on (more than twice my monthly rent) into my home.  It’s a massive limited-edition print that covers almost half the wall from the ground to the ceiling.  I came home from church today, and when I looked at the print, I realized that the service wasn’t over for the day.  This work, “Spring Fed” by Andrew Wyeth, is both a realistic painting and not realistic at all.  It’s not really a painting of anything.  It is a painting of a square cistern in the foreground with a square window behind it.  You can see the square cistern in the foreground and look at the square window behind it, and the square window panes of the window, then look through the window at some cattle and a hill with patches of snow.  Is it a painting of a cistern?  Of a window?  Of cattle and a hill?  I don’t know how to consider the painting as a whole.  It is a magical complexity that is not an image of anything.  Then there are the colors.  The painting is almost a monochromatic.  The cistern is dark brown, the hill is brownish green, the cattle are brown, the walls are grey-green-off-white.  The complexity of the multiple layers of imagery and the color combinations create a wonderful effect that no photograph could.

Artists know that their work will end up on a wall, and that people will look at it day-in-and-day-out.  And yet the monochromatic color choices render the painting something that is even room decoration, too, and can be looked at again and again without tiring the eye and mind.  I say this with no deprecation of the greatness of it’s artistry.  Unlike a piece of music, which one can’t listen to over and over again without getting sick of it.

I have always enjoyed visiting museums and viewing art.  I’ve never owned a consummate work of this quality–even though it is a limited-edition print and not the original.  I don’t know of a purchase I have been happier with.  The cost is of no consequence.  My living room is transformed by this work of art, as I am, and will continue to be.