Saturday, August 25, 2018

QOTM* -- Dag Hammarskjöld: Peace at the Center and the Power of Nature to Undo Us

(*Quote of the Month)

In the church crowd I ran with while growing up, and on into my seminary days, it was not unusual to hear quotes by Dag Hammarskjöld. A name like that alone was memorable enough to a kid surrounded at the time by few others than Johnson, Hansen, Nelson, Larson, Anderson and Peterson. But even Hammarskjöld himself was a Swede, and a real one, from Sweden itself, unbeknownst to me.

A regional political and then world leader of the mid 1900’s, one rarely hears him quoted today, and this is a pity. He was an extraordinary man. Reluctant though remarkable leader, self-questioning, well-acquainted with the loneliness of leadership, even the periodic loneliness of life, yet deeply Christian, I find that the more I know of him the more moved I am. His musings strike a chord in my own spirit.

Dag Hammarskjöld served two elected terms as Secretary-General of the United Nations, the second in the U.N.'s history, and died what always seems to us a premature death at the age of 56, in a plane crash while on a UN peacemaking mission to Rhodesia in September of 1961. All his adult years he had kept a journal in which he had recorded personal thoughts and insights, some poetic, about hope, faith, doubt, and life in general, as well as some Bible verses and random quotes of others that were meaningful to him, all within the context of a lifetime of public service. It was published posthumously as a book in 1963 under the Swedish title Vägmärken (literally, Trail Marks), and translated into English as Markings. This selection is from a late entry titled, simply, 8.4.59.

In the point of rest at the center of our being, we encounter 
a world where all things are at rest in the same way. Then a 
tree becomes a mystery, a cloud a revelation, each man a 
cosmos of whose riches we can only catch glimpses. 
The life of simplicity is simple, but it opens to us 
a book in which we never get beyond the first syllable.

It’s a lovely observation, and this even in the midst of his frenetic and intense service as Secretary-General. He knew, as do others, that in the midst of overwhelming challenge, what’s at the center is what counts – a place of peace, of centeredness, where nature inspires, where mystery cheers, and where even very common things reveal deep truths. Such is the place where one is emboldened to find courage, reassurance and strength for the journey. Yet here, also, we realize we are ever but children in the school of life.

I am glad to have discovered that centered place, and yet shake my head in awe as I am undone again and again by the profundity of beauty and the wonder of God’s creation.

While I’m in Markings, here’s another beautiful excerpt, no extra charge. Titled July 6, 1961, it was penned mere weeks before his death.

And lonely
So tired
The heart aches.
Meltwater trickles
Down the rocks.
The fingers are numb.
It is now,
Now, that you must not give in.

On the path of the others
Are resting places,
Places in the sun
Where they can meet.
But this
Is your path,
And it is now,
Now, that you must not fail.

If you can,
But do not complain.
The way chose you –
And you must be thankful.


 ~~ RGM, August 16, 2018

P.S. With this blog entry, I return to a writing format I’ve not used in a couple years, my quote of the month. This is not an indication that I will necessarily start doing a monthly quote piece again, as I used to do regularly. But who knows? We’ve just come into a little more time on our hands these days than we’ve had lately, so maybe I’ll be able to get to more than one posting a month, which has been my modus operandi of late. Either way, grace and peace to you…

Sunday, July 29, 2018

From My Nature Journal: “Hey, Dad, The Millers are at the Door…!”

There is a lovely little, inch-long, brownish-gray moth here in Colorado commonly known as the Miller. It’s an interesting moniker, so I am told, coming from its dusty cloak that reminded yesteryear people of a miller covered with flour dust.

A couple times per year in mid-year months, Miller moths seem ubiquitous here on the Front Range -- once in the late spring when the adult migrates up to the mountains from the plains, following elevation gain to the later blooms of the kinds of wildflowers it likes, and then once again down from the mountains and foothills and back to the plains in the early fall to lay its eggs and die. The moths seem abundant due to their attraction to light, drawn to street lights and gas station overhangs, to the glow behind a garage door on its way open, or hovering around the windows and windowed doors of a house, ready to come in uninvited, two or three or more at a time, at which moment they normally fly clumsily for a lampshade or for the highest point in a room.

Once in, they’re not hard to catch. One can even snatch them midair if they can be nabbed before parking themselves on the ceiling. In that event, a well-aimed sock gives another chance for their capture. Invariably, if Gail and I are away from home for more than a few days during their migrations, we’ll return to find several that have suffered expiration on the living room carpet. How they got in is unknown.

Curiously, in spite of their diminutive size, Millers can be an important food source for, of all things, grizzly bears, who prize the moths’ fat content in preparation for hibernation.

I have a pastor friend who found his church’s auditorium infested with several dozen of them early one summer Sunday morning. In his opening welcome he jibed, “We want to give a warm welcome to the Miller family attending en masse today…” Few caught the crack, many looking around to see who he had been referring to. Some never did get it. I thought it hilarious.

There is a strange and problematic habit Millers have, though, that I just cannot figure out. I lit a campfire tonight in my backyard, and as the flame caught and roared its opening blaze, one after the other flew into the small inferno and perished. I stepped back and watched the scene with astonishment. It had been a while since I had had a campfire during a Miller migration.

What glitch has there been in this little creature’s evolutionary development that might lead it to do this? One would think that through the eons it would have learned to sense heat before casting itself headlong into the flame. In fact, I can think of no other organism in the animal kingdom that will run intentionally and recklessly toward its own demise, perhaps save man. Even the proverbial overpopulated lemming casting itself into the sea is a myth. Now, granted, moth brains cannot be very substantial, but is there not some powerful instinct in every creature for survival, for the capacity to endure, to persist, to last, to live? I don’t get it.

Yes, the only other creature that can display this destructive propensity is a human being. We often race toward things that can destroy us.

The Bible says that “…the wages of sin is death…,” a pretty costly price for what usually amounts to a bauble. And yet we run headlong toward it. What is sin’s ultimate attraction anyway? Now, I am not inferring that we, like the Miller hurtling toward the flame, are running eagerly toward the fires of hell; thankfully, there are lots of ways God can use to redeem us from our tendencies to self-destruction before it’s too late. I guess I am more inferring my confusion that we run away from the possibility of vibrant life to something hurtful, something far from life-giving in the end. I don’t get it.

Perhaps God doesn’t either.

I came across an old prayer recently: “Lord, grant me the fullness of your grace, that I, running to your promises, may become a partaker of your treasure.”

Now that’s something worth pursuing.

~~RGM, Adapted from a 2012 Entry
in my Leather Nature Journal

Friday, June 29, 2018

From My Nature Journal: A Seed and Me

Gail and I are currently serving a transitional ministry call among the good people of Trinity Covenant Church in Salem, Oregon. The state capitol, Salem nestles in the arms of the Willamette River Valley, the destination of several hundred thousand pioneers who undertook in the mid-1800’s the rigors of the Oregon Trail across the vast and little-known central expanse that would become Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho and Oregon. It’s a fecund and fertile wonderland here in the valley, among the richest farmlands on the face of the earth, predominating these days in the cultivation of grains, grass seed and grapes. Beside the crops, though, every square centimeter of uncultivated soil seems to sprout up with something or the other, so it has me thinking today about seeds.

I’ve heard it said that there are three possible futures for, let’s say, a grain of wheat: it can be left on the stalk or placed in a sack as feed for God’s beasts, ground into flour or otherwise transformed in a myriad of ways as food for God’s humans, or planted back in the ground and, under the proper conditions, allowed to produce the miracle we call a crop.

If I were that seed grain, my first inclination would be to prefer the last of the three. It sounds regenerative, even heroic. As surely as multiplication beats subtraction, so surely would I find this preferable to being eaten by cattle or crushed under the weight of a millstone.But what of that planted seed? Only on second thought do I consider the trauma necessary to accomplish its predestined regenerative glory. First I must be buried in the cold ground, concealed in the oxygen-less depths for the required time. Buried! It was writer Norman McLean who quipped something along the line, “There are certain things I am meant to do, and, as long as I am on the oxygen side of the earth’s crust, I had best be going about them.” But not the seed. It is covered, sealed, suppressed, hidden away, closed over by what the songwriter calls ‘the ‘whelming flood.’ Held fast by life’s perplexities, I lie immobilized, seized up, stock-still as death. Is it the stillness of the grave, separation from God? Or is it more rightly the gestation and constriction of a womb, secure within the bosom of God?

Thus abandoned beneath the earth, I wait in the dark. It may be the darkness of my despair or ignorance, the darkness of my sin or failure, the darkness of my isolation or loneliness. But when all around me seems pitch black and unintelligible, something, even within that dusky dungeon, quickens within me. Whatever it is, it, in concert with the moisture around me (my tears? the dampness of the divine breath? both?), breaks me open. As I simply submit to the regenerative power of God, my shell is cracked and something profound happens within my brokenness.

From my landlocked space in God’s grip, warmth and light begin to attract a strange and tiny marvel upward from within me, while light-repelling roots spread below to seek a footing, and my transformation proceeds -- sprout, blade, ear -- a metamorphosis. From the place where God bade me trust him in the darkness, I’m enlivened by the freshing of the Spirit, softened to a breaking point, and grow upward into the warmth, light and fruitfulness of a vital relationship with my Creator.

Jesus: “A sower went out to sow his seed… and some fell onto good soil (Luke 8:5,8).”

Again Jesus: “Most assuredly I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much… (John 12:24).”

~~ RGM, June 19 2018

Saturday, May 26, 2018

From My Nature Journal: Pastime, Passed Time, Past Time or Passing Time?

A day off…

I sit restfully on a dock and let time pass, contentedly watching not much of anything. A Kingfisher flits across the bay; something in motion flashes on an opposite shoreline; sunlight mirrors a lava-lamp effect on the rippling water; a squirrel leaps a gaping maw from a high branch of one hemlock to that of another; a stationary wolf spider ambles out to sun, or to watch for prey, or to do whatever it is that wolf spiders do, maybe, like me, just to sit restfully on a dock and let time pass, contentedly watching not much of anything.

Ten minutes? Thirty? An hour? Who knows how long I have been resting here? Oxymoronically, the time passes in no time. I feel fully alive, but still, somehow, sad.

What is it about the passing of time that makes for something of a sadness? It matters not that one is having fun, as the saying goes, though that is where the sensation can seem most acute. Family time, meaningful work time, free time, day off time, cabin time, friend time, vacation time, sabbath time, up time, down time: there is a kind of sadness when they’ve ended.

We long for the seemingly timeless moments, to feel free of duration, to enjoy interludes when the clock stands still, periods that constitute what author Sheldon Vanauken envisions as “…the dream of unpressured time – time to sit on stone walls, time to see beauty, time to stare as long as sheep and cows.” Such moments sear themselves in our memories, especially, for me, when they have been shared with a loved one. But those interludes are too rare, and we are held captive to duration, cognizant, oh so very cognizant, of the passage of time.

And yet this cognizance should not be all there is to the story. Again Vanauken: “Awareness of duration, of terminus, spoils now.” This is often certainly true for me. How frequently I find myself mentally, inadvertently, even against my will, counting off the vacation days like ticks off a timer, numbering each day backwards to zero.

Yet, as God’s creatures, for now, time is merely another dimension in which we must live. Like space, it simply is. In that regard it’s also not unlike the air we breathe, or the space we take up as we move: but we don’t sit around decrying whether or not we’re going to run out of air or the space to get around.  So, why time? A thousand generations pass, all bound by this same dimension, yet somehow we still let it not be simply what it is.

Back to the flitting bird, the jumping squirrel, the lounging spider. Animals do not sense time. They are completely at home in the present in their natural surroundings. I wish I could do that, live that way. Perhaps this longing for timelessness is a uniquely human curse. Perhaps, as a result, it also becomes a proof, or at least an inference, of the existence of eternity. Perhaps, just for now, timelessness can only belong to God and God alone. Just for now…

~~RGM, From an Earlier Entry
in My Nature Journal