Saturday, December 31, 2016

Cycling Chiloe in Chile

I am in southern Chile on the main island of Chiloe on the Pacific Ocean for a week-long self-guided bicycle tour. As touch points for this tour, my friend Fred Milligan and I are riding to towns and villages in which wooden churches were constructed in the 19th century. Some of these churches are now designated by UNESCO and have been or are being carefully preserved.

These structures are unique in that they were intended to be stone buildings and are built according to plans shipped from Europe and based on European stone churches and cathedrals. But the needed stone does not exist as a resource in the area. So, Chileans creatively used local boat making knowledge and skills to build the churches out of wood. It's quite a feat.

The main island of Chiloe (it's actually an archipelago of islands) is about 80 miles long and 40 miles wide and is very hilly. The undulating terrain is tough on day-long bicycle rides. Not any one of the hills is too hard to climb, but the accumulation of them over the course of 40 to 50 miles takes its toll. The last few miles of a day of such riding makes even the mildest hill seem like Mt. Everest to hill-weary legs.

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Last to Arrive?

We take our place at the continuing gathering that centered in Bethlehem

Christmas arrives. Or, we arrive at Christmas--sooner or later. In our faith-formed imagination we are invited to take our place in the Nativity. In this poem, I imagine the unusual and continuing draw of unlikely people to an unlikely place: Bethlehem.

First, census-responding throngs
swell the local populace,
burgeoning homes and hostels
with not-so-welcome guests.

Then, a young man and pregnant girl
arrive, seeking vainly for a room.
Bedding down in a stable,
she gives birth among livestock.

Later in the night, gnarled shepherds
traipse in, finding their way
to the mangered newborn,
just as an angel had told them.

How much later we do not know, Magi
come with gracious gifts,
following a star that draws them
from beyond any traceable map.

And later still, from the four corners
of earth and time, we make our trek.
Are we the last to arrive
at the gathering in Bethlehem?

Years from now, until the end of ages,
more will be drawn and find the One
whose birth angels once proclaimed
and so shall forevermore.

Graphic by Janet McKensie -

Monday, December 19, 2016

Settling for a Little Togetherness at Christmas

I've backed off of most of my holiday insistences in favor of something more profound.

What more can be said of Christmas that has not already been said, written, sung, drawn, or dramatized? Nothing, really. And yet I keep trying simply because it inspires and possesses me so. As I see it, there will always be rich angles and new perspectives and cultural combinations that somehow bring the ancient stories and traditions into intriguing--if not new--light. This is why I keep writing of Advent and Christmas.

Year by year, I try to pay attention to the way I anticipate Christmas and experience its traditions. I note that my observance of Advent and Christmas and my perspective on them keeps evolving, even if subtly and slowly. 

Some things about the holiday that I once held passionately—even self-righteously—have faded in importance to me. For instance, I'm not as much a stickler for trying to convert people to observe Advent. Once convinced that if folks only knew about Advent-keeping--its rich roots and spiritual promise--and had practical tools with which to observe it, they would. I've also tried to get folks to practice/observe the Twelve Days of Christmas tradition. I've pretty much failed on both fronts.  For whatever reason, most churches I know and most people I know--including my own family--don’t really care much for the full practice of Advent, even if they dutifully observe it. Though I grieve this a bit, I've let it go.

Most people I know, more or less just join in the predominant anticipations and preparations for Christmas that are typical of mainstream American culture.  For better or worse, American Christmas seems to defy any specific tradition or order.  What I sometimes call kulture krismas is a diverse, eclectic, inconsistent, and conflicting mix of themes and practices and meanings that more or less get at the heart of Christmas in one way or another.  However it is approached or practiced, most of us usually “get it” sometime between the 1st and 31st of December. 

While I still think “we’re missing so much” and “we’re watering down meanings” and “this is too secular,” these days my level of Christmas holiday satisfaction seems to be determined less by appropriateness and more by togetherness.  So we miss lots of opportunities to express and experience the depth of this season; what matters more right now, at least to me, is being together—belonging, being present to and with and for one another.

While I'm not sure either of these family traditions will continue, there are a couple of  activities our tribe seems to be engaging in repeatedly these days.  One is attending the city's Homeless Memorial Service on the first day of winter each year. At least part of our immediate and extended family go to Christ Church Cathedral on Monument Circle at 11 am on Winter Solstice to join with homeless advocates to memorialize all who died in Indianapolis due to their homelessness during the year. It’s somber, but also clarifying and challenging. I suppose this practice as much as anything else brings Christmas into focus for us individually and together. Whatever else happens afterward, that is something of a conscience marker.

We’ve also gotten into the habit of going to a movie together on Christmas night. After all the gatherings are over and the presents are unwrapped, we pick out a movie to see together and take it in.  Sometimes the movies are poor, but we share the experience and have fun talking about it afterwards--sometimes for years. None of us will ever forget seeing the movie “Meet the Fockers” one Christmas night some years ago. Bad movie. Stupid movie. Inappropriate movie for kiddos. But we have the most fun laughing about that experience every year now.

Don't get me wrong, our family has layers of family traditions. But I think we've turned a corner from keeping tradition for tradition's sake.  I'm learning that when insistent traditions unravel or lose their meaning, go for togetherness. Just maybe out of the richness of a valued  and intentional presence to one another, something new and wonderful--even inspiring or transformational--might begin.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Urban Squirrel

Squirrel inhabit trees,
regardless the location.
To them, trees are
trees--whether urban
foliage or ancient
forest. Risks and
survival tactics vary
per setting; this
rodent readily adapts.
An electric highwire
is mere passage
to food, cover.
Perhaps preferred
to scampering down
a tree trunk only
to be snared by
a stealthy fox.

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

What Squirrel Teach the City

The poetry of a city
compacts and intensifies
what we contemplate in
forest, stream, and wilderness.

The human animal figures
more prominently in urban settings--
a beast of wild capacities
and transcendent grace.

That carrion and rodent
and an occasional coyote or deer
persist amongst our density
brings wonder and hope.

That they put up with us,
make the high-risk effort
to bear with our strident civility,
is a sign that we may yet be saved.

Few though they may be,
their presence startles us,
endears us, reminds us,
subtly reorients us to life.

From our sanitized windowed perches
they beckon to us that we are not alone,
that we are late on this scene,
that we are but a part--not the center.

All it takes is a squirrel or two--
a hawk nesting on a high rise,
a deer wandering a city street--
to reset reality, restore sanity.

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Friday, December 9, 2016

Rethinking John the Baptist in light of Donald Trump

After a nasty election ordeal and the rise of Donald Trump as President of the United States, John the Baptist starts to make some sense to me for the first time. Maybe we now have a political and religious context that begins to bring John's life and message into focus.

This year's Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings for Advent in the Gospels are taking us through Matthew's writings about John the Baptist. Week after week, the RCL keeps rubbing our noses in this iconoclastic character's stark life and startling words. Where's the comfort? Where's the hope? Where are the endearing pastoral scenes of Mary being chosen and shepherds being visited and angel choruses singing? Instead, we get a wilderness wild man acosting everybody with his one-word harangue: "Repent!"

A year-long campaign season featured daily lies, fake news, ugly scandals and relentless mudslinging. Just about everyone seems to have been dirtied, contaminated, and somehow diminished. Seductively, Hillary supporters, Bernie people, Trump followers, and even innocent bystanders were mimetically drawn into a costic back-and-forth. Wouldn't a dunk in the Jordan River feel refreshing? Might raw repentance and cold baptism help us break from the recent past and turn us, clean and fresh-faced, to the future?

In Trump we have a morally and emotionally flawed governmental leader as slippery and conniving as Herod--playing the ends against the middle, promising prominence to religionists while co-opting their integrity, slyly working the angles to maximize his power and image at the expense of, well, just about anyone and everything.

Particularly, single-issue religionists have been taken in, sacrificing much of the predominant message of Jesus for the hope of finally rolling back Roe v Wade. Flying the banner of religious liberty, today's Saducees and Pharisees feel their power: the fleeting satisfaction that they have put in place a leader who will do their bidding on abortion. Yet, the handwriting is already on the wall that their champion new Herod will do his own bidding in his own way in his own time at their expense, just as their chosen heroes of the past have done.

Then, there are progressives (like me) who feel let down and forelorn and lost as much as resentful and angry and resistant. To many of us, this election wasn't just a shocking loss, but a thirty-year rollback of basic liberal democratic values. The conversations in my circles continue to include lots of disbelief and grief and handwringing. Democrat-type folks are fearing the worst and trying to figure out where to go from here.

And into this politcal and religious paradox steps John the Baptist. He comes from out of nowhere. He doesn't figure into the religionists' grand compromise. He doesn't care about progressives' losses. John has no respect for the latest Herod and his coercive plays to consolidate power. He is deaf to political subtleties and cares less about offending the lowest and highest. John speaks truth equally to the powerful and powerless.

To all, he calls: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" (Matthew 3:1-6). I suppose who and where we are at the moment conditions how we hear his call. Some hear it as a threat to political arrangements they've just painstakingly won. Some hear John as one more desperado trying out yet another cynical spin on the disenfranchised. Some hear it, however, as a compelling invitation.

Religionists will try to use John in the same way they think they've successfully used the new Herod. Who couldn't use a little repentance and isn't it nice that someone is back to baptizing reprobates like in the good ol' days? But John will have none of this. He calls them out: "You brood of vipers!" To those who hide pride behind faith and hatred behind banners of religious liberty, John commands: "Produce fruit in keeping with repentance!" (Luke 3:7-9).

To disheartened liberals and cynical millenials and disenfranchised citizens and aliens, John calls: "Share what you have." (Luke 3:10-11). Open your doors. Open your closet. Open your heart to those you've disregarded or demonized. That's how this coming kingdom works. In the face of ideological vascillation and rollback of essential social and healthcare safety nets, expressing rudientary, practical love for neighbors has never been more critical.

To those being payed to work for the new Herod, who carry out his alt-right inspired policies, John beckons: "Be fair!" (Luke 3:12-14). Don't falsely accuse people. Don't distort truth to get a conviction. Don't bully vulnerable aliens. Don't be taken in by tax reforms and economic policies that extort the poor and diminish the middle class while lining the coffers of the rich. If you work for the government or implement its policies in your company, use all the leeway you have to help people live well in spite of a flawed and mean-spirited system.

To the new Herod, John just tells the inconvenient truth. He doesn't tip-toe around him. He doesn't avoid confronting him. He does what the relgionists, in their compromise with this devil, failed to do: John rebukes him for his infidelity and adultery. John also rebukes Herod "for all the other evil things he had done." (Luke 3:19). Someone had to do it. The moral universe demanded it. The future needed it. The way for a future of hope had to be cleared and the ground of justice and grace prepared.

Of course, no one stopped Herod. Herod did what Herods do: he used his power to add evil upon evil and threw John into jail. Ultimately, he had John beheaded and served up the Baptizer's head on a platter for entertianment. Such is the brutality of coercive power then and now.

John didn't survive. But survival was never the issue for John. Maybe it's not the critical issue for us, either. Preparing the way for the future was the issue for John. It called for a radical break with idolatrous political and religious arrangements and reliance on mere ideologies and systems. It called for repentance--a remorse and turnaround deep enough to bear fruit in changed lives and socially transformative behavior. Preparing the way for a fair and just and grace-filled future may require speaking truth unflinchingly to power today--and that may come with a high price.

The new political and religious reality helps me understand and appreciate John. I'm starting to like him. I salute John. But shall I join him? Shall we?

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA