Ramblings: The Magnificent Material, Part I

Sunday mornings has always been a morning I like to “sleep-in,” which means sleeping until 7 AM or maybe 7:30 AM. But once awake, it is a morning when I like to make breakfast (for myself or Denise and me) and return to bed to eat it. When I had TV, I would watch a morning news show. But I also like to descent into a world of music videos. My taste in music is a little eclectic. These videos can arrange from Pink Floyd to Train, to Bruno Mars, and Johann Sebastian Bach.

This Sunday, my first video took me to a live performance of What a Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CWzrABouyeE). It has been one of my favorites as of late. From that one, I went to one of my favorite singers, Eva Cassidy. Some have called her the greatest American voice of all time (although many people have not heard of her as most people were listening to Brittany Spears singing about not being that innocent). I love her version of Fields of Gold. However, on Sunday, I was not satisfied with the same old songs. I knew she had died at a young age of 33 from melanoma. I was curious to know more. I stumbled on an excellent documentary about her by the ABC Nightline (https://youtu.be/bXU219b3Zdw). I also learned that her last performance was in a cancer fund-raiser, where she sang a wonderful version of What a Wonderful World. Her best friend said that she had to take a huge amount of Morphine to  be able to get on stage as the cancer was all through her bones. Someone recorded her (cheap, not professional) singing that song a year or two earlier in the same club where she sang it for the last time (https://youtu.be/c_GKZNvPD-4). I listened to it in tears. I felt this strange connection to her. She knew she was dying (she died 3 weeks after her last performance) and she must have felt this tremendous love for this wonderful world. I felt her pain as she was saying her goodbyes, not just to friends, but to this planet and the world of people. I’m sorry Louis, but I have now put Eva’s version one notch above yours.

About 6 weeks ago I was laying in a hospital in a step-down unit in shock (emotionally) from being in renal failure and having cancer. It was very dangerous time for me those first few days. My nephrologist, who was very smart–but not that compassionate—kept telling me that they were trying to save my life and they were not sure they could. I was in acidosis and my potassium kept rising to a lethal level. My body became her personal chemistry set for a few days. I was coming out of that fog of possible death (after saying my goodbyes and planning my funeral) I pulled up Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World on my tablet. Ten days later, when I got to go outside to the well enclosed Koi garden, I felt a drop of Pacific NW rain on my face and I touched a rock, a simple river rock on the ground, and the tears filled my eyes. I thought I would never touch this planet again.

Now, I must confess that I’m deeply in love with not just this planet, and not just this world with all it’s wonderful people groups, but the entire universe. Hubble has opened my eyes to the glory and mystery that carries us 14 billion years away. I know that by me saying I’m a in love with the universe makes me sound like a “Protlandia” person.

I remember a time in my life, when I was an evangelical, that saying this I love this world would show others that I was not a spiritual person, because a good Christian would know that this dirty earth was nasty and was destined to be destroyed by God. They would also believe that Jesus was coming soon to rescue us from this horrible place. A good Christian would also know that the focus of our minds should be in Heaven, where we could float on clouds, walk streets of gold, and pet smiling unicorns.

I grew up in the Bible belt. Our weekly drive to church was one of my favorite trips, not because of the church as much as the drive. It was only 10 miles from the community of Fall Branch to a smaller community of Lovelace. The narrow black-topped road entered an area of woods where a creek, to our right, tumbled over a series of limestone rocks and ledges, just short of a waterfall. Near the bottom of this cascade sat an old, two-story gristmill. It was really old, built around 1820. The old, rotting wheel sat static over the creek.

Also, along this lovely road, tucked back between the ash, maple, and oak trees, where several large piles of garbage. I remember a puzzling conversation when my dad made a comment about how it “Burns him up” to see people dumping their garbage in the woods. Then, either he or my mom, sitting in the front seat of our pale-yellow, Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, said something about Christians dump in the woods because they know that “They know its all going to burn up.” Speaking of burning, a group of teenagers burned down that old, wonderful mill on a Halloween night around 1970. I was deeply grieved about the loss of the history. But, like the plant, it was seen as garbage by the community.

About the same time, I started to notice that 90% of the hymns that we sang in that little white Baptist church in Lovelace had the lyrics that about this world was insignificant and our hearts and minds should be in Heaven. I heard the same from the sermons, especially sermons given at funerals.

Then, in 1977 something unusual happened to me. I climbed a mountain, alone, on clear autumn day with a cheap and leaky pup tent. I spent the night on a 5600-foot bald (which is high in the Appalachians). During that night, I experience so many inspiring things. In the evening, the clouds covered me (the patch of mountains has the nickname of “Cloudland” because it as often in or above the clouds). I was drenched during the night as the thick clouds around me condensed on the walls of my K-mart tent. I thought I was going to freeze as the temperature was hovering in the thirties. I hardly slept. By morning, the sun rose over North Carolina and it was spectacular. My rocky perch was then above the clouds. In all directions I saw nothing but thick, white clouds below me, save a few “islands in the sky,” being the mountains—like Mount Mitchell—that rose near 7,000 feet. I know it sounds corny, but I fell in love with nature during that experience and have been deeply in love with her ever since. John Denver captures what I’m saying in his The Mountain Song (https://youtu.be/7aREZFsdh-8).

One of the biggest mistakes the Christian Church has made over the centuries is their relegation of nature to something to we should loath. Today, the evangelicals don’t believe in global warming, not because the science hasn’t convinced them, but because they really don’t give a damn. Let the planet over-heat and bake itself into oblivion. Maybe such an event will usher in Jesus’ return.

All ideologies eventually have blood on their hands. It comes at the juncture where the idea behind the ideology supplants the value of the individual. Religious ideologies have, historically, been some of the worse and Christianity is no exception. So, while at this moment in history you can make a clear argument that Islamic splinter groups have taken the lead in the instigating of violence of humanity against humanity, that has not always been true. In seventeenth century Europe, more than one million people were killed by horrible acts of violence between the in-fighting of Christian splinter groups. To the Aztecs, Incas, and Mayan civilizations, Christian armies such as those under the leadership of Hernando Cortés, Pedro de Alvarado, and Francisco Pizarro were no less than Isis or Al-Qaeda in their use of terrorism and torture to conquer in the name of a religious ideology.

However, one of the greatest transgressions the historical Church has committed, beyond the use of violence or things like sexual abuse, has been this relegation of the material world to the inferior if not the evil.

Okay, a word of warning. I’m about to go down a historical-philosophical rabbit hole and not everyone will want to follow me. This is getting long and my “hunt and peck” typing with one hand from a dialysis machine is getting long. So, I will divide this up into Parts I and II. I will be back in a couple of days to finish up this thought.

6 thoughts on “Ramblings: The Magnificent Material, Part I

  1. This is one of the best of these ramblings. The Church has been tempted with Gnosticism since the first century and evangelicalism is deeply infected with it. The church needs St Francis and Wendell Berry.

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  2. I look forward to Part II. This ‘material world’ that God set us all in is indeed spectacular and stunningly beautiful. Though today the Catholic church is deservedly under fire for some who have repeatedly used power to ruin innocent lives ( a whole other topic), one thing that attracted me was a more accurate and balanced view that the spiritual and the material ‘live together’ in the story of redemption ..and that both are good, indeed very good, as clearly stated in the Creation story of Genesis. I could go on…

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  3. Once again I find your thoughts very interesting. I don’t always follow everything because you vocabulary is way above mine, but I get the jest of what you are saying. I am looking forward to what you have to say tomorrow and also the results of your tests that will show you are on the mend. You and Denise must have some deep conversations, which makes for a good marriage when you are both willing to learn from each other.

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  4. I don’t know how much time you spend with Richard Rohr, but here is one paragraph from yesterday’s meditation:
    “Perhaps the primary example of Christians’ lack of attention to the Christ Mystery can be seen in the way we continue to pollute and ravage planet Earth, the very thing we all stand on and live from. Science now appears to love and respect physicality more than most religion does! No wonder that science and business have taken over as the major explainers of meaning for most people today (even many who still go to church). Christians did not take this world seriously, I am afraid, because our notion of God or salvation didn’t include or honor the physical universe. And now, I am afraid, the world does not take Christianity seriously.”

    He contends that creation( birthed out of the divine dance of the Trinity) was the first visible incarnation, Jesus was the second. Thanks again for your thoughts.

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