Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Guest Meditation (by Joe Martyn Ricke): Memories of the Fall (2001)

Memories of the Fall (2001)

It was just after 7.50 on the morning of September 11th, and I was ducking out of my office to teach an 8.00 A. M. World Literature class. My office door at Taylor University opened directly to the desk of our secretary, Rhonda Gretillat, without whom nothing. Rhonda usually had her radio on and usually kept us informed. I was, as usual, rushing off to class, so it took me a minute really to tune in to what she was trying to tell me.
“One of the World Trade Centers has just exploded in New York City.” Rhonda knew that I used to live in New York, that I love New York, and that, like most [former] New Yorkers, I am often talking about New York. Stunned and foggy, I didn’t mention the news at all in that early morning class. I didn’t want to freak out or freak out the students only to discover later that World War III had turned out really to be just an electrical fire. 
Like a lot of people around the world, my colleagues and I spent much of the rest of that day around radios and televisions for further news. I remember the absolute despair and disgust (a literal “sinking feeling”) that came, first, when we heard that the second tower had been hit and, later, when we heard the incredible news that a tower had collapsed.  I thought, selfishly, of one of my favorite spots on earth.  Just off the shore of lower Manhattan, riding back at night towards the city on the Staten Island ferry, with the proud Towers dominating the skyline.  The bright vision, the beautiful world of my youth, gone. 
But the day wasn’t over. I had to teach again. As a professor in a Christian college, I thought that I should try to relate the events of the day to some larger picture, some ultimate story within which it could be framed (at least) if not understood. 

I wanted to help my students connect our experience with the lives and concerns of other people who have faced and still are facing similar horrors. Some people experience 9/11 every day. To them it’s just called . . . life.

So when I came back to my afternoon World Literature class, I came with the words of C. S. Lewis from a talk he gave to Oxford students during World War II, called “Learning in War Time.” Lewis, who had seen World War I from trench-level and was now trying to teach his students during another great war, points out that if human beings had stopped teaching and studying every time the level of human suffering reached something like crisis proportions (whether a World War or a world-changing terrorist attack), we simply would have shut down all our schools a long time ago. 

Moreover, if we could really see things as they are, we would realize, as the scriptures and Christian traditions teach, that the world is always at war, that a battle is always pitched, and that we are always living in crisis time. How dare we stop living (learning, marrying, building and cultivating culture) when an external, physical conflict touches our lives, if, as our religion teaches, every single day a dangerous, terrible (and terror full) conflict rages all around (and, more importantly, within) us?

Then, having asked their permission, I went on to talk about World Literature.  Specifically, we discussed the amazing fact that, when he finally arrived at the destination of his great Odyssey (his homeland of Ithaca), the great Odysseus, conqueror of Troy, Cyclops, and pretty much all the known world, was, not very heroically, fast asleep.

Maybe, I thought afterwards, September 11th was a great personal and communal “wake-up call.” Not in the jingoistic sense that Americans now will be sure to remember that they really are the center of the universe and everybody else better be careful or we will kick their non-American butts (one version often heard on popular radio programs). But a call to wake up to our lives, to our journeys (our Odysseys), to our homes (both here and in our ultimate Ithaca). To the great and awful responsibility we have of living in this dangerous, beautiful world. To remember that every time we wake up, or every time we walk out of our office door on the way to class, some miracles and some tragedies are not just waiting to happen. They are happening. People are suffering. Some people are sacrificing everything for a greater cause, for the good of their fellow creatures.  Some people are finding ultimate meaning even on the brink of despair and, yes, death. People are, to put it mildly, reordering their priorities.

A final note. Just around September 11th, my friend Twyla Lee told me about an alternate route to Upland from my home in Huntington.  Instead of driving to I-69 and fighting the Indy traffic through the relative “sameness” of the Interstate landscape, she said I should try taking Country Road 300 W (which later becomes State 5), going past the lovely Huntington Landfill, the little towns of Lancaster and Van Buren, Eastbrook High School, and some incredible barns. “It’s all two lane farm roads, but it’s about five miles shorter,” she told me.

Dear reader, to the degree I know what it is to love anyting, I  fell in love with every inch of that stretch of country road the mornings and afternoons after September 11, 2001. I can’t describe how comforting and reassuring it was through that horrible time to drive past school buses on their way to Lancaster Elementary and Eastbrook High or to get stuck on that winding rural road behind combines and tractors bringing in last fall’s good harvest. "God and the farmers are back on speaking terms," I remember saying to my wife after seeing so many good people bringing in their sheaves one day. 

Thanks to that 8 A.M. class, I even was privileged  to see the early morning sun rising above the old landfill and the Lancaster cemetery day after day after day.  The old barns, the little dying farm towns, the corn stubble which glistened with dew every morning and shone like gold in the late afternoon sun—these bright things will forever be connected to the dark memories of that autumn.

I don’t think I’m making this up; but we all seemed to be waving like neighbors to each other those days, giving the thumbs up instead of the more offensive digital gesture I usually get from other drivers. In slight, almost invisible, ways, we were doing significant healing work. Even rolling down the windows and talking to strangers about things I knew nothing about--like harvesting soybeans or the Eastbrook football team—took on a deeper meaning.

Sometimes people in these parts are labeled as narrow-minded. Perhaps a bit stuck in the mud. More than a little old-fashioned. Those things looked a lot different to me during the autumn of 2001. Through that hard fall, it felt good to be in the heartland.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Ben Camino's Ironic Advent Meditation 2018 #5: St. Nicholas Day and Meaty Theology

Ironic Advent Meditation 2018 #5: 
St. Nicholas Day and Meaty Theology*

Cue Garrison Keillor, reading with his heavy-lunged NPR'd woebegone smoker's voice:

"And this is the feast day of St. Nicholas, who, on a mission caring for the hungry during a terrible famine, discovered that a nasty butcher had murdered and slaughtered three theological students who had asked him for hospitality
(after the butcher had said to them, truthfully but ironically, "I'd like to have you for dinner").

The cherry-nosed saint exposed the butcher and his wife--who had disposed of the three guests by baking them into meat pies--and resurrected the terribly thankful clerks from their doughy coffins.

Jolly Old St. Nicholas was reported to have left coal (considered inedible even in the quaint mythical country in which these tales always take place) in the stockings of the still-hungry butcher and his wife. Ever since then, small meat pies in the shape of theological students are found in the shoes of children and eaten in the saint's honor during the first week of Advent. Especially, for some reason, in this specific part of Germany (it is said that there is only one true vegetarian in the entire region, and even then, it is rumored that this vegetarian theologian doesn't realize that there is fish in the dressing of Caesar Salads). 

Yet, despite the passage of more than seventeen centuries (not to mention the formulation of the Nicene Creed), famine endures.

And bloody butchers, their wives, and all who are sick and tired of theology and hungry to eat truth lament their loss.

Be well, do good work, and . . . O Come, O Come Emmanuel."

*Alas Ben Camino is suffering from a serious case of Adventitis tendinitis in his rotator cuff. But fear not, oh ye, fearful of . . . being baked into meat pies. Most days, he plans to post something to disrupt your pine scented Advent even if it's not entirely new. This meaty meditation was first posted on Saint Nicholas Day in 2012, back when Garrison Keillor references made sense. It was part therefore of the original run of Ironic Advent Meditations (ooooh aaaaah). Those were never added to the blog, but instead were simply written and posted on Zuckerbook day by day for friends. Thanks to some excavation work, now you have it, whether you want it or not. You can find three other St. Nicholas Day meditations on the blog: St. Nicholas Punch and St. Nicholas: Heresy Hunter. They, too, are rather tasty.

Image result for Saint Nicholas Meat Pies

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Ironic Advent Meditation 2018 #3: Bite the Postman

Ironic Advent Meditation #3
Bite the Postman
Image result for beware of poet

I have a friend who once wrote a poem about a having a sudden urge to bite a postman. So I wrote a song about it. That's what I do. I'm an idea thief. I wrote a song called "Beautiful Eyes" because, you guessed it, somebody had beautiful eyes. I mean, the bite the postman song is a good song and everything, but I feel a little guilty about it. OK, not very guilty. Not guilty enough not to sing it. Not guilt enough not to write this meditation.

Why would anyone write a poem or a song about biting a postman? I'm so glad you asked, dear interested reader. If I understand the original inspiration, the idea was to write something a little weirder than usual (can we agree that it was, indeed, that?) in order to get past a kind of writer's block. But then the thing opened up into something pretty interesting and meaningful. As in, we just don't get nearly enough connection in this numb world of ours, so some times we just want to take it to the next level. The teeth level, for example. I assume most of us don't want to be the teethed, but we might, at least in some weird moment, like to be the teether. [Editor's note: I think I should turn off the comments for this meditation]

Anyway, or anyway(s) as Jennifer Lynne Ricke and the same friend who wrote the original bite the postman poem like to say, this reminds me of Advent. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha, I can hear all the Jennifers, especially the one with several  names ending in Tait, laughing in iambs at my oh-so-quick transition from biting U. S. government employees to the liturgical season for which I am bound (like Prometheus on a high mountain) to write ironic meditations. I say unto thee, Mock not that ye be not mocked, Oh ye Jennifers of the world. 

But seriously, or seriously ironically I guess, do you get me, my sharp-toothed readers? The entire first verse goes like this: "Bite the postman on your porchstep/good and deep dear, he won't mind it/if he's like me he'll say that he's a lucky stiff/cuz' I can't get close enough to you." I mean it's a song and I'm not Bob Dylan, so there is no chance for a Nobel Prize or anything I know. But in the song there are some interesting variations and intonations to hold the listener's interest (just like a teeth holds . . . skin, you might say), but essentially, that's the point of the song. There's an eternal connection equation that always longs for + x. Whether a postman on the porch or someone we love in a Waffle House parking lot, sometimes we just get this overwhelming yearning for more and deeper human connection. 

And if you're thinking that I'm thinking what you're thinking about what I'm thinking, you're thinking wrong. That's way too easy. And way too cliche. And way too . . . not what I'm thinking (or feeling). Because that (what you are thinking) is exactly one of the many things that is NOT enough. On the other hand, some folks might say that that (what you are thinking) is all there is. OK, I hear you. I just can't accept it (and please don't show me any charts or graphs or evolutionary psychology textbooks to the contrary).

Advent is, obviously, about radical (weird) connection. It preaches or anticipates or maybe just dreams about the most amazing connection of all. Which, of course, is a kind of fantasy. But not that kind of fantasy. YOU (ooh, all caps, wonder what that means?) want to be . . . with me? Connected to me? Well, just in case you wondered, I want to be connected to You. More than I can say. 

Advent says get ready kids because the big love, bigger than postman's postbag at Christmas, bigger than the All American breakfast at Waffle House, bigger than you can imagine, wants to set up a house and be with you, with us. Can you believe it? 

And, of course, I answer -- not really. At least, not usually. And I'm sure lots of you feel the same way. I can try my best, but I'm pretty sure I cannot get me or you guys over that particular hurdle of belief (if it is one). I'm just saying that I can at least remember the longing. I crave human connection, more and deeper, but even more than that, I desire or remember desiring or am nostalgic for  the desire or the memory of desiring that this story be true. That "love came down at Christmas time" as Christina Rossetti put it in her lovely nineteenth-century poem/carol. 

Sometimes I'm close to believing it. The refugee family, the nasty ruler, the cold dark world -- hard to believe any of that could ever happen, right? The mother, the baby. The mysterious sign of power and love together, desiring connection with me. And you. Whoa, Advent, I feel like saying. Where you been all my life? Or at least for the last eleven months?

I'm not saying anything new. And, in truth, I'm mostly numb these days. But I think I could get my teeth into that. And maybe I will. It's a little early for presents, but Here is a lovely rendition of Christina Rossetti's "Love Came Down at Christmas"

For "Bite the Postman" you will have to wait until I record the family-friendly version. You might have to wait. Maybe a long time.

Peace and love anyway(s). 

Monday, December 3, 2018

Ironic Advent Meditation 2018 #2: Abusive Advent

Ironic Advent Meditation 2018 #2: 
Abusive Advent


Ain't nobody in his or her right mind saying that the church is not a wreck. We are wrecked, brethrens and sisterns. Of course, I know for certain that some of my readers do not identify with "the church" or any church of any kind, or, like me, the One, True, Holy, and Apostolic Church (see the Baltimore Catechism and the Apostles Creed). I have a feeling that a few who have done so in the past are not doing so any more. I get ya.

But that makes it tough on those of us who make our living off of Advent, which is part of the liturgical year, which is part of the tradition of the church, which, as you all know, pays the big bucks. Friends of Ben Camino know that, in fact, he has never made a penny off of the entire Ben Camino Ironic Advent Monolithic Empire, because by now you recognize irony when you see it. Although, in truth, we are working on the Ironic Advent Candles (they only spurt) and t-shirts (they force your torso into a shrug.)

But statistics tell us (slay me if I ever really look up any statistics), that people -- church people, non-church people, people who want a church but are afraid of what my phony statistics tell us, and, in truth, people who are mourning the loss of what they believed or wanted to believe was one of the last true "safe zones" -- are fed up with stories (not fictional stories, the other kind, the kind that, when counted, become statistics) of abuse and horror.

As a victim of abuse (the non-church variety) myself, I totally believe that the church has to face this honestly. Here we are, some of us anyway, preparing for Christmas, trying (at least) to incorporate some practices and disciplines into our lives as part of a special time of waiting (see yesterday's meditation), and there is, to say the least, this freaking elephant in the closet. Who wants to be part of this abusive system anyway? Why play this little game when it to some degree reinforces a system that hurts people. 

Please don't expect Ben Camino to solve this problem today. I can't. And it would be an easy out, and not totally irrational, to "solve" it by announcing in my Ironic Advent Meditation 2018 #2 that I have had it with the church, churches, and even the one true church. (By the way, did you hear the one about when I was beaten --I know that word gets used imprecisely but not this time -- by my fifth-grade nun/teacher because I had forgotten my bible story book at the ironically named Our Lady of Mercy elementary?). 

But I won't. I can't. Or I won't. Or I can't. As you can see, I'm not sure which it is. But I know I won't. These sins (for once we all agree about that word) break my heart. They are literally horrible. And yet, at the same time, I know so many wonderful people who have given their lives to serve the church (and to serve the world by serving the church). They are not exploiters, they are not abusers, they are not monsters. They are agents of love and mercy and justice. They walk with Jesus (or try to do so) and they try to follow his teachings (the easy ones, like "take up your cross and follow me"). Like John the Baptist, my patron saint of Advent, they scream a counter-cultural message and then they live it. Often at great cost to themselves. 

But none of what I just said cancels out the reality of the exploiters, the abusers, the monsters in (and, of course, outside as well) the church.  Can you just imagine, friends, what old John the Baptist would say about them? He'd probably get himself thrown into prison or killed or both. As the single greatest Saturday Night Live skit ever produced (years ago during the Penn State child abuse scandal) suggested: this stuff makes the devil himself sick.  Go to SNL link here.

I have no more details to share. Just love for the people I love. And anger and disgust at the horrors of abuse. Baby Jesus, in his mother's womb, made the Advent journey to Bethlehem -- vulnerable, exposed to the elements, and protected perhaps by angels but definitely by a good working man named Joseph. According to the stories, not many years later, some religious people stood by and agreed to his abuse, his torture, his unjust execution. Not all the religious people, I'm sure. But some. 

I plan to continue, like Ricky Bobby, to follow Baby Jesus, although I really love the adult prophet/rabbi/healer/friend of sinners too. I am horrified, as are you dear readers -- those in and out of churches and those in the liminal space between, leaning one way or the other from hour to hour -- by church abuse, especially the sexual abuse of children. Of course, it's not just a problem in the church, but the church is a place we look to and go to for safety, for hope,  for healing. Not for criminal abuse. Or criminal negligence on the part of those who overlook the abuse. 

Ironic Advent has meant many things over the years. Advent itself is an ironic disruptive force built into the practice of following after (the meaning of Bonhoeffer's word nachfolge, translated discipleship). But if Advent becomes just another smooth entry way into a system prone to abuses of power and coverups of the same, then it fails to prepare the way, to level the mountains and raise the valleys, to speak with the voice of the one who loved justice enough to lose his head. I love Advent and all the rest of the story. I hold on and follow. I assume, at this point, that I will continue to do so (even though I know that my doing so bothers some very good friends of mine). But I hold on ironically, detached enough to realize that no church is above the claims of its founder. And that nothing in this world can justify the massacre of the innocents.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Ben Camino's Ironic Advent Meditation 2018 #1: Advent Imperative(s)

Ben Camino's Ironic Advent Meditation 2018 #1: 
Advent Imperatives

I have a friend who is prone to loading me up with imperatives. And they are not usually nasty, wearisome things like "take out the garbage," "make sure to get to work on time," or even "please don't wear those jeans again." They are nice imperatives. Like "remember to look at the sky," "breathe deeply," "reflect on your blessings," and "commit your ways unto the Lord, and He will direct thy paths" (OK, in truth, that's never been one of them, but I have a feeling it's lurking in the background). 

Today, for example, I got this brief list of imperatives:  Enjoy hike. Be safe. Inhale deeply. Look at peeking blue sky. Consider hope. And, a little later, enjoy the concert. Still later, I got this: "communion?" but I think that was a legitimate question not a command for me to communicate. But, ya never know. Once you start imperating, sometimes you just think you can command what you will, as Augustine commanded the Lord to do to him. 

How did I do with all those commands? Well, I sort of enjoyed my hike. I guess I was safe except when that one car kept coming at me and I had to move to the other side of Dimond Street. I assume I breathed, but I know for a fact that I forgot to inhale deeply (although I may have done so accidentally when the car wasn't slowing down). The sky really was quite majestic, if gloomy (and believe me, Ben Camino is all about majestic gloom). Massive cloud formations loomed with a very rare glimpse of the peeking blue. Finally, towards the end, things cleared to the west and lo He came with clouds descending. Well, not exactly. What I mean is, the sun came out for awhile. Consider hope? Well, my usual m.o. is to move from hopeful to not hopeful several times a minute on average, so I assume that there were some hopeful moments. But I'm pretty sure they didn't come from considering hope. I was probably thinking about the ridiculously nerdy kids I saw in the park with shields and some kind of spear things (with lots of padding) playing some kind of game that could easily have originated in Viking times of something. I'm not making this part up. This actually happened. And it made me hopeful for humanity. 

Six people, seven counting me, were not inside watching the NFL (Colts game sucked anyway) or binge watching old Law and Order episodes or playing some kind of shield and spear game with their virtual Viking Wii game. We were, perhaps, heeding some unspoken or untexted inner imperative to be human animals.  Even if it meant taking a long walk on a winter's day in a deep and dark December (Simon and Garfunkle) or playing an archaic  live-action war game of some sort bashing each other (on shields) with foam padded spears (It's called Dagorhir, as it turns out, as in the rather embarassing picture above). 

Don't get me wrong. Human life, especially the flourishing life like Wendell Berry and four other people, requires some imperatives. I just need it simplified a bit. That's all I'm saying. Like I said to my friend, how about just "take luck" (Brian Regan reference, I can maybe handle that. Or "eat your key lime pie." I know for a fact I can do that one without requiring too much focus. That slice of pie was amazing. 

Anyway or anyways as Jennifer Lynne Ricke and some other friends of mine like to say, that would suit me just fine. "Give what thou commandest Lord, and command me one thing at a time and especially command me to accept good fortune and eat delicious pie." I think I could get the hang of that. 

Unfortunately for me and you, dear reader (fellow prisoner of the Ben Camino universe), today's gospel reading sounds annoyingly like my imperious friend, with the Lord slinging out one obligation after another on me and my fellow would-be happy holiday shoppers. 

Jesus said to his disciples:
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,
and on earth nations will be in dismay,
perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves.
. . . . . . . .
But when these signs begin to happen,
stand erect and raise your heads (that's one or two?) because your redemption is at hand.

Beware (that's two) that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness
and the anxieties of daily life,
and that day catch you by surprise like a trap.
For that day will assault everyone
who lives on the face of the earth.
Be vigilant (three) at all times
and pray (four) that you have the strength
to escape the tribulations that are imminent
and to stand before the Son of Man.”

I realize that we have several options as to how we respond to these disruptions/instructions from the one who claims to be the boss. And, if you know Ben Camino, you know that he sympathizes with all of the above (OK, there's nothing above, but you get my metaphor) EXCEPT for the one that says, well, I'm going to go ahead and have my Pumpkin Spice Advent anyway(s) or my two minutes of inspiration for busy holiday shoppers and pass that off as a "good enough Advent." After all, peace on earth and Juniper Lattes and stuff. But, sad to say, there has never been a "good enough Advent." 

In another reading on another day, we will hear the big Advent imperative which is "Prepare Ye." In modern English that means, "You all Prepare." That don't pay me the big English professor bucks for nothing. I translated that like a boss. 

Advent candles, wreathes, calendars (with or without chocolate or whiskey) can obviously be rather annoying and Ben Camino is on record as being easily annoyed. Yet, they can (if we let them) help point towards the ultimate point of Advent (and prepare children for a mature Advent later on). Prepare. Take some actions that get you ready, and Somebody is assuming that the same old same old isn't enough. Advent is a beautiful . . . disruption. Things will change radically (the sky will be falling, for example), and we need to prepare by changing too. Lift up our heads, be worried (I'm good at that one, Lord), be vigilant, pray.

Of course, this assumes that we take the voice in the gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent seriously. And I know for a fact that I have had lots of readers over the years that do NOT. Or, like me with hope, they move back and forth between some kind of belief several times a minute, or an hour, or a day. Please stay with me. Today's meditation is specifically my best effort at reminding those of us who want to "celebrate" (?) Advent what it might mean for us. But there are three weeks still before Christmas in which I and some other friends will be talking about despair and hope, faith and doubt, sorrow and joy, God and nothing, in ways that maybe you haven't heard before. Or maybe you have. I don't take anything for granted. Or for granite as my writing students sometime say. 

For now, for some of you, some of these imperatives might be a bit much. The Christ who commands may seem more like a bully not worth paying any attention to. I don't think so, at least not most of the time, but I get ya. So, for you, I still think there are some very worthwhile spiritual exercises you could be doing. I suggest that you start here, in the words of my friend and sometime spiritual director: Enjoy hike. Be safe. Inhale deeply. Look at peeking blue sky. Consider hope. And, enjoy the concert (even if it's just one in your earbuds from Spotify). 

And if you are not in the habit, try getting quiet, opening up the palms of your hands, and whispering thank you for those nerdy kids in the park playing Dagorhir.