Synchronicity

Synchronicity – the simultaneous occurrence of events which appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection.


I’m a Sunday School teacher.  I’ve been teaching at my church – an American Baptist Church – for over 35 years.  The class I’m teaching now is made up of adults approaching or enjoying their sixties.  I’ve been with this class for at least twenty years. We all know each other well. This past Sunday – yesterday, as I write this – I taught from a passage in Romans that has been a flash point for many over the years.  It’s the ninth chapter; the place where Paul writes something like “What if God chose certain people to be objects of His mercy and others to be objects of His wrath?”

The reason I taught this passage is that I believe I have just found the only satisfactory explanation of it that I’ve ever seen.  What confounds people about this passage is the idea that God makes the eternal/determinative choice between wrath and mercy not based on merit or on anything that the actors – some chosen for mercy, others for wrath – ever did.  The example cited is that of Jacob and Esau. While these twins were still in the womb, God made His choice: “Jacob I have loved and Esau I have hated.” Stated a little differently you have the idea of God’s sovereignty over all – even the hearts of individuals – and the idea that human beings – who cannot resist the will of the Almighty are yet held responsible – and punished – for wrong choices.

How can that be fair?  How can that be just? How can this be the action of the Christian God – a God of love and justice?  How can He punish – for eternity – rational creatures who have no real choice in the matter?

Some – many, maybe most – Christian teachers and commentators simply cite this passage as a statement of the sovereignty of God.  God is boss. This world, this universe is His creation. We are His creatures. He can do with us as He pleases. They take the passage as admonishing us mortals against even considering the question that Paul himself raises in the preceding verses: 

“But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God?  ‘Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’”  (New International Version)

Of course, God, as omnipotent creator and sustainer of the universe can do as He pleases.  But if He did such a thing as to punish – for eternity – those rational creatures who He created but did not chose for mercy, what kind of God would He be?  How could we rational creatures think of Him?

I’m not the first person to ever raise this question.  It was on the mind of Isaac of Ninevah way back in the seventh century.  Isaac is venerated as a saint in several eastern Christian churches, and he had this to say about the problem:

It is not the way of the compassionate Maker to create rational beings in order to deliver them over mercilessly to unending affliction in punishment for things of which He knew even before they were fashioned, aware how they would turn out when He created them – and whom nonetheless He created.

Ascetical Homilies, translated by David Bentley Hart

And old Saint Isaac was not the last person to be concerned with the problem.  That’s what actually inspired this post. Monday, the very day after I taught on this passage, I happened across a video of Joe Rogan’s interview of Megan Phelps-Roper.   Ms Phelps-Roper spent her young life enmeshed in the Westboro Baptist Church – the “church” that is infamous for picketing soldier’s funerals carrying signs that declare that the soldier’s death was God’s judgment against them.  Their signs also included such slogans as “God hates America,” and “God Hates Fags.”

Megan, in an act of impressive courage, walked away from the church a few years ago.  That meant leaving her mother and father and grandfather and other members of her family who more or less run that church and who consider her lost and unworthy of their love due to what they see as her apostasy.  Her parents no longer speak to her.

Megan’s story is fascinating, and she is herself a balanced, thoughtful, and articulate woman.  You can read her story in her new book, Unfollow, which, as they say in the movies, is available at your favorite bookstore.

But, I’m not here to sell books.  I am writing because I was struck – should I say “blown away” – by a reference Ms Phelps-Roper made during the interview that perfectly coincided with the lesson I taught to my class the day before. Synchronicity.

It would have been quite possible for a person like Megan to leave the Westboro church and remain a Christian.  There are churches in every town and city that do not hold to the Westboro church’s toxic beliefs. (In fact, it would be very hard to find another church anywhere that believes the same things as Westboro.) It was quite clear to me as I listened to the interview that Ms. Phelps-Roper was still unsettled in her beliefs and quite willing to listen to rational arguments that point in the direction of faith. It did not seem to me that leaving the cult-likeWestboro Baptist Church would necessarily mean for her a total renunciation of Christianity.

But, at the time of the interview at least, Ms. Phelps-Roper did not consider herself a Christian.  She has talked extensively with other Christians and Jews since her departure from Westboro, and thereby deepened and corrected her understanding about many aspects of the faith – such as what it means to love our neighbors.  But there was one part of the Bible that she had to reject, as she read and understood it, and she claimed that she had never been able to find anyone who could give her a coherent explanation of the passage that was not, as she bluntly put it to Joe Rogan, “evil.”

Phelps-Roper: (at 46:37)  “So, this is why I’m not a Christian anymore.  There’s this passage in Romans 9. I have real trouble with this . . . and it’s still hard for me to say that I think this is evil. . . but I think this is evil.  There’s this passage in Romans nine that talks about . . . that gives this analogy of God as the potter and humans as clay . . . it paints this picture of God . . . creating certain individuals for the express purpose of torturing them in hell forever. . . He makes you do it and then He punishes you for doing it.”

She reads this passage as further saying that no one can question this situation.  She says that she has spent a long time talking to other Christians about many of the toxic beliefs of the WBC and has been satisfied with many explanations offered to counter those ideas.  “But that one . . . I have not found any explanation for that passage that makes any kind of sense, that’s consistent with the text and not evil.”

I have.

In his book, That All Shall Be Saved, theologian/philosopher David Bentley Hart takes on this very problem head first.  He says that the passage has been misread and misinterpreted to mean the exact opposite of what Paul actually set out to say.  He says that the absurdity – “evil” – of the notion that God creates some people for the express purpose of torturing them in hell for eternity is exactly what Paul is trying to point out in the passage.  Paul is saying, according to Hart, wouldn’t it be awful if this were the case? If God actually operated this way?

And then Paul spends the next two chapters of his letter to the church in Rome to demonstrate that this notion is absolutely false – that God’s purpose in His every “election,” in his “loving” Jacob and “hating” Esau, is ultimately and finally redemptive, not just for those who are chosen, but for those who are seemingly rejected.  As Esau, in the end, is restored to prosperity and reconciled to his brother, (Genesis 33: 8-11) so will all at last be reconciled within the family of God. God allows some of His creatures to stumble, but He will not allow any of them to fall.

I know that I have not done justice to Hart’s exegesis here and I don’t have permission to quote him.  Let me just say that his explanation of this passage is elegant and insurmountable. Why, oh why, has no one seen this, offered this, before?  It has been a great comfort to me and I think it could be pivotal for honest, earnest seekers like Megan Phelps-Roper. I’ve tried every way I know how to get a message to her to share this, all to no avail.  If any of you readers have any connection with her, please tell her about Hart’s book.

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Morning Post, February 22, 2020

I’d love to go hunting again.  It’s been years, now.  Decades since I took to the woods with my gun and for so long I have never given it a thought.  Life was crowded and not in a bad way.  But now, alone and circumscribed by the limitations that have crept in on me, I look through my window at the winter sky and remember the days of strength and freedom and comradery.

The land I hunted had been in my family for three generations and I knew it with an intimacy and depth of a first and enduring love.  I have loved deeply since and been blessed with every blessing common to man, but little remains so vivid in my memory and heart as the paths and ridges of those ninety acres.  I knew the springs hidden beneath pine thickets on hillsides, encircled by moss and ferns that remained green even beneath the snow.  The icy, clear water that trickled into tiny branches that in turn joined the creek at the bottom of the hill.  The long pools in the creek and the red-gilled minnows there.

In those first days Dad would have breakfast on the stove before anyone else was awake.   He’d come into my room and wake me with his hand on my shoulder and say “Come on, let’s get going.”  I would have laid out my heavy underwear and jeans and boots on the chair by my bed and be dressed in a moment, feeling privileged and thrilled.

Dad loved to talk to me and usually took every opportunity to teach or to discover what was going on in my young life then.  But on hunting mornings we were quiet in the house and silent as we walked up the meadow to enter the woods, our breath visible in the cold air.   I thought then that the hush was to keep from waking the family and to avoid scaring the game we hunted but now it seems that it must have been inspired by a sense of the sacred.

In later days I’d go with my friends.  There were only a few that I trusted to let on our land with a gun.  I grew up with those boys and knew them in a way that you never know anyone else all your life.  We’d plan the night before and they’d leave their guns and boots in our mudroom off the kitchen.

I did not think of it at the time, but hunting demands much: strength of body and steadiness of mind and nerve, and it requires the freedom of open land.  All of that is gone from me now.   My land is gone; my friends are all gone; and I can no longer walk long in rough country.

I still have my guns somewhere in the attic but I cannot bring myself to take them down again.  Not long ago I opened an old trunk in my basement and saw the baseball glove my dad had given me on my fifteenth birthday.  For the rest of the day I fought back tears.

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Writing Lesson #2 Flight of the Bluebird

In my last post I wrote about how the best writing does not out and out tell you the bottom line or the point, but it drops convincing hints all along the way that lead the reader to conclude the bottom line or point with a certainty that they’d never have had if you’d just told it to them straight out.

The best example I can cite for this kind of writing is the short story “Friend of My Youth,” by Alice Munro. I don’t remember how it was that I came across it. I almost never read The New Yorker, but that’s where I found the story, years, maybe decades ago.

In the story, the main character has a problem. Munro never tells you what it is, but after you’ve read ther story, you’ll know. It will be inescapable. I remember thinking about the story, long after I read it, and it dawned on me, coming over me in waves, what had happened to that main character; why she had suffered the fate that she had. And I became ever more sure of what her problem was and how she was kind of at the base of all of it – the reason for all of it. And it resonated in life, too. I knew others who were like the woman in the story and now I knew what their problem was, too.

copyright 2020

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Writing Lesson #1

If you are going to write anything worthwhile, anything that anyone will be affected by or remember, know this: don’t even aim at catching the bluebird.  Just write as much as you need to to remind the reader that the bluebird was there and has flown. The reader already knows this, somewhere down deep inside.  He just needs to be reminded.

If the writing is really good you will awaken in the reader those dim memories of the bluebird and its flight and he will see once again the thing he really loved and learn once again the identity of the ghosts that haunt him.

Copyright 2020

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Morning Poem #2, January 30, 2020

Why does the snow capture me so?

These first flakes, few and far between

Dropping from heaven

Must be a sign

.

Do I dream of lighted hearths

And the return of those

Whose chairs have been empty

Now these many years?

Their boots, just the sizes we remember

Drying on the mat by the door

.

Time stopped

Supper simmering on the stove

And we sing the old songs

The ones we all knew.

copyright 2020

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Morning Poem, January 30, 2020

Now comes the snow

At last, a covering

Or so we will hope

On this grey day

.

All that is broken and dead

All that the turning of the earth

Has cast aside

Will disappear

.

And all will be new

And sins forgiven

And failure forgotten.

Copyright 2020

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How to Write Poetry

You must make the words roar like the ocean

The reader has to hear them.  Not the syllabic pronunciation,

But the noise of them.  The whisper and the moan.

The words must hit so hard that they make the reader sore in places

That is how and why they will be remembered.

You remember this:  There is no knowledge other than poetic knowledge

Even the best scientists know this.

Words approximate and evoke, they never describe

So they must burn and answer to some feeling inside the reader

That was there all along and not yet given a name

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How to Write Poetry

You must make the words roar like the ocean

The reader has to hear them.  Not the syllabic pronunciation,

But the noise of them.  The whisper and the moan.

The words must hit so hard that they make the reader sore in places

That is how and why they will be remembered.

You remember this:  There is no knowledge other than poetic knowledge

Even the best scientists know this.

Words approximate and evoke, they never describe

So they must burn and answer to some feeling inside the reader

That was there all along and not yet given a name

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Morning Poem

You walk along in this sea of summer green

And think all is normal

That all has been homogenized in this

Expanse of suburban lawn

And then you see it

Some flower, loud as a scream,

Singing the color of blood or new butter

Or scarlet desire

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The Old Mansion in Town

If the house could be said to have had a golden age, this was it.  The Phillips girls were all handsome and well dressed and they navigated the Walhonde High School social scene with aristocratic grace and confidence. In the late fifties and early sixties an invitation to the Phillips house was the high mark of status among the youth of the town.  Parents then trusted the good Colonel and his stylish wife as chaperones. Even in his vigorous sixties, Colonel Phillips was a squared-away, imposing figure who always found himself cleaning and oiling his handguns as he welcomed the young men of the town into his estate. None dared cross the Colonel.

In that happy time the house was filled after every ball game with kids sixteen to eighteen years old.  The Phillips bought an old Wurlitzer jukebox and had it installed in the third-floor ballroom. The high-school dances were still held at the school, but the real parties were afterwards and always at the Phillips mansion.  The house for a time set a higher tone for life in the town.

The eldest daughter, Jane, was a blonde with a sparkling smile and the largest reservoir of that mystique that only young girls have and only for a while.  There wasn’t a boy at Walhonde High School who wouldn’t have dropped his steady for a chance with her. In the fall of 1962, she attended an Everly Brothers concert in Charleston.  Phil Everly saw her in the crowd, sent word to her through a roadie and met her backstage. She invited the brothers to her house, went home with her three girlfriends and a chaperoning father, called other friends and put together a real party for Phil and Don, who came immediately.  Phil talked to Jane long into that evening until Colonel Phillips intervened. Before leaving he pressed her for her address and wrote to her for almost two years until Jane became attached to the local boy who would become her husband. Just before the letter writing ended, Phil had arranged for Jane to come to Philadelphia for a taping of American Bandstand.  The Everly Brothers were the musical guests for the show and Phil had high hopes that Colonel Phillips would bring Jane there so that, after his performance, Phil could be seen by teenagers all over the country dancing with the girl of his – and everybody else’s – dreams. Phil wrote a very polite and respectful letter directly to the Colonel and included airline tickets in the envelope, but Phil’s advantages of fame and fortune were finally outweighed by a strong and handsome young man who had the advantage of living in the same town and going to the same school as Jane and the Colonel never had to decide whether he would have allowed the trip to Philadelphia.

One boy who attended almost every gathering at the Phillips house in that day was Lawrence Hays.  He suffered from a terribly disfiguring cleft palate and the damage to hearing and speaking that such a condition usually caused in that early time.  This boy had been shunned and otherwise horribly treated in elementary school and was craven and terrified as he began high school in Walhonde. Jane Phillips would not have it.  She befriended the young man and worked through every channel she knew to encourage him to attend the parties at her house. When he finally made it there, hair combed, coat and tie, shined shoes, Jane without saying a word let it be known that she would judge all of the boys by the way they treated Lawrence.  In only weeks his carriage changed. In only months he began to participate in classroom discussions and it soon became obvious that he had a profound gift for drawing. He made a dozen sketches of Jane that the family hung throughout the house and went on to a lucrative career as a commercial artist for Monsanto Chemical Company.

All four of Colonel Phillips’ daughters made use of the advantages of such a home in such a town and found good husbands for themselves.  None of them remained in the house past their 20th year and all of them followed their husbands’ prospering careers to faraway cities in the south and midwest.   The Colonel and his wife kept house there until 1968. He was 75 then and she 71 and, although they loved their home and although they had maintained it well and even added to its glory, they knew it was time to simplify, reduce their workload and relocate themselves to a place with milder winters, nearer to one of their daughters.

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