Glimpses

I wrote this poem for inclusion in the collaborative art book entitled Box of Darkness, downloadable here. On New Year’s Eve 2022, with time’s passage so palpable, I share this revised version as a reminder of our mortality.

Glimpses

I glimpsed him briefly
at the end of an alley,
his face illumined in the sudden flash
of a cigarette lighter.
He seemed to be looking my way
before he turned and vanished.

I saw him hanging his head
from the highest gondola of a Ferris wheel,
its neon flickering in the twilight.
He looked directly at me,
smiling and mouthing a message
that was lost in the shrieks of children.

I saw him deep within the smoldering confines
of my bathroom mirror,
his shape flickering, shifting,
his eyes like those of a panther at night,
intent, prowling true to its nature.

I saw his visage flicker
across an infant in her stroller.
Or was it a cloud,
or the shadow of wings
from gulls crying and wheeling overhead?

I do know this.
Someday we will stand before each other:
no distance, no buffers, no distractions.
No objections.
And in that bright and final light
I will laugh in his face.

WHAT GIVES ME HOPE, by Hanna Leigh

As I sat with this question, allowing it to lead me down trails of inspired reflection, colorful thoughts and memories from my life showed me two interwoven themes: the kindness and resilience of the human heart, and the regenerative power of the natural world.

I believe there is goodness at the core of every human heart. There may be calcified layers of fear and hatred, often from centuries or even millennia of unprocessed ancestral trauma, but I believe that underneath those layers exists a seed of goodness. This belief fills me with the warmth of hope, and frankly, I am not willing to carry the burden of believing the opposite.

One of the ways I see and experience an uncovering happening (so that the kindness of the human heart can beam forth more clearly), is through people gathering to enact grief rituals. “Griefwork” is gaining popularity as many people come to see that their unprocessed emotions clog the free-flowing experience of their natural buoyancy and wellbeing. Some of the elder teachers that have helped normalize the need for processing our collective grief include: Malidoma Somé, Joanna Macy, and Martin Prechtel.

Drawing from West African, Tibetan, and Guatemalan wisdom, a common thread is the importance of providing a communal space to share the more challenging emotions of being human. Most of us live in cultures where we rarely feel safe enough to express our deeper feelings. In the grief rituals in which I’ve participated (inspired by the work of Somé and Macy), the rhythm of drums, song, and dance help facilitate the process. I have found it incredibly freeing to have a space for releasing these natural human emotions. These intentionally-held spaces allow us to do so without being shamed as inappropriate, crazy, extreme, or any other societal judgment. Being held in community while working through our personal and collective grief, is one beautiful way for the goodness and resilience of the human heart to be washed clean and remembered.

Just as the renewing power of tears can refresh and renew the human heart, so too does Nature show us abundant ways that life is continually renewing itself. One of the major champions of renewal, which to me embody a sense of hope, are the mushroom people. I use the word “people” from an animistic viewpoint, recognizing that there are many nations on earth, and that the human nation is just one of them.

Mushrooms represent the alchemy of turning death and decay into beautiful thriving life. These beings—neither plant nor animal—have vast mycelial networks that run beneath the earth’s topsoil. The majority of their organism is underground, and the little bit we see on our forest walks is just “the tip of the iceberg.” Literally, it is “the fruiting body of the mycelial network.” Taking certain medicinal mushrooms as nutritional supplements can actually help with brain cognition and pattern recognition. They help us see the wider web of which we are a part, because they are experts at living within this unbroken connection. This awareness of our interconnectedness is medicine for the rampant loneliness that exists within modern individualistic societies.

In these transformative times we’re living in, with decomposition happening everywhere, it brings me hope to know that nature is an expert at taking what is no longer working and turning it into new life. This is not the hope of having some sunny future free of suffering and hardship, where everything is working perfectly. But rather, a hope that is at peace with the cycles of birth, death, and rebirth. Not some kind of escape from a karmic cycle of suffering, but acceptance of, and harmony with, the natural order of things. It brings to mind a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh that has always spoken to me:

“The world is not a problem to be solved; it is a living being to which we belong. It is part of our own self and we are a part of its suffering wholeness. Until we go to the root of our image of separateness, there can be no healing. And the deepest part of our separateness from creation lies in our forgetfulness of its sacred nature, which is also our own sacred nature.”

So, rather than hoping that sunny and positive times will unfold in perpetuity, it is my prayer that within the natural cycles of life and death, we will continue to find ways to both regenerate the kindness in our hearts and cultivate thriving green spaces on this planet.

Hanna Leigh is a singer-songwriter, entrepreneur and devotee of this precious, living earth. In the past twelve years, she has made home in alternative communities across the globe, including Peru, Oregon, Hawaii and England, pursuing what it means to walk in a good-hearted and sustainable way on this planet. Her current work focuses on supporting people to utilize their singing voices in ways that build community and connect them more deeply with nature and themselves.

OF EYES AND NOSES, by Heiwa no Bushi

Whether you consider Jesus a real historical figure or merely an imagined apparition of our greatest spiritual aspirations, he had the ability to be far more altruistic during his time as a human than most beings.

When we examine the Gospels containing his words and actions, we clearly observe that with all the religious and spiritual devotion we have, with all of the churches erected, and with all the people of faith screaming “faith and faith alone,” we have had very little committed practice of “being” as Jesus was.

Why do I say this? I make this assertion because of how the human population is doing in our world at this very moment. All the obvious pain and tragedy worn on the faces of people of our society is clear evidence that heaven and hell have been eclipsed by human sadness and depravity of multiple forms.

People will say, “Well, God allows a certain amount of negativity, violence, and chaos to test us, or to show us something.” They believe this so deeply that beyond this realm of belief lies an absence of basic sanity that divorces us from proclaiming a proper Gospel. The hardest part of living the way of Christ, of having his mind, is getting into those psychological nooks that keep us from action and change.

There are a number of years unaccounted for in the story of Jesus. Whether he was in the east studying the Upanishads, sitting with Buddhist monks, or just taking an extended time apart to prepare himself—imagine him returning with the primary purpose of loving other entities, including his enemies. He immediately encountered resistance, and even now this is a test for any human being—to consider those who are in opposition to us as worthy of connection and friendship. It is our psychological barriers that keep us from developing the skills Jesus requires for connection with other human beings.

People often say, “Then tell me the process, the protocol, for loving others in the manner of Jesus, especially those we consider as a potential threat.” The process is to just “DO IT”. So often we think that we must follow the dots in a formal or protocolled sequence to arrive at an answer. This is not the way to cultivate genuine empathy. This is not the proper way to listen to the human beings around us. We simply must engage them, sometimes on the most uncomfortable plateaus of our own psychology. This engagement is what teaches us to how reach harmony or koinonia with other human beings.

So, we must push ourselves, just as we would in applying our will to diets, exercise, or completing a paper for school. If we are to do the “Jesus thing”—loving others and seeing our neighbors more clearly—we must psychologically push ourselves beyond our usual notions of grace, mercy, and compassion. Then, do the unthinkable, and act as Jesus did.

Dr. Cornel West once said, “Understanding is not a requisite for cooperation.” Jesus understood this quite well. This is the reason we find it so difficult today to do what Jesus did. We want answers, info, and data to determine whether making contact with or befriending other people is worth the investment. When we have minds that put everything through an initial battery of tests, this is certainly not a way to do Christ’s work.

Every day, in order to remind myself of our basic humanity, I reflect on a teaching of Bodhidharma, the monk who brought Buddhism from Tibet to China. To cultivate equality, he said, focus on two particular things when meeting any individual. One, we all have horizontal eyes. Two, we all have vertical noses.

What does this mean? First, when we focus on the eyes, we realize that they are windows to the soul. This is a living being, one of God’s people, no matter how different thy may be from us!

Second, focus on the nose. People laugh and say, “Why the nose?” Because we have so many preconceived notions about other people—how good they are, how bad they are—and as we get wrapped up in these thoughts, our breathing changes. When we don’t like something, our breathing becomes more exaggerated and rapid. When we’re comfortable, it eases. We can hold our highest prejudices or virtues in our minds, but if we hold our breath at the same time, which one is going to last the longest? Our breath!

So, when it comes to understanding our connection to others, let their eyes remind us that we all have a soul; and let their noses remind us that we all breathe God’s breath.

The differences outside of this don’t matter.

Born Again?

There are people with stellar IQs who are short on common sense. People who exhibit genius within the narrow bandwidth of their expertise but lack any breadth of cultural literacy.

Conversely, there are human beings who will never be labeled brilliant by societal standards but who startle us with insights about life. I know this firsthand as father to a special-needs son. Kristoffer often voices simple nuggets of wisdom that awaken me to what is truly important.

I believe there is one definition of intelligence that is sorely needed in all of us. It is the ability to get outside ourselves and our given culture. The ability to see our reality in time and place, then respond (not react) to it with a fresh, objective perspective.

Sociologists say that when it comes to our cultures, we are like fish in water. We swim in the conditioning of our upbringing, our genetic makeup, our juncture in history. Often, we never rise above these determining factors. We never decide what to claim and what to reject, what to shed and what to make part of our flesh. Examples are rife in our world.

  • People who adopt the spoon-fed religion of their tribe or nation, then wield it as an exclusive truth that trumps the faith and beliefs of others. James Fowler, in his Stages of Faith, called this Stage Three—Synthetic-Conventional Faith—a closed mindset that prevents us from celebrating the mystery of spirituality in all its diversity.
  • People reared with a righteous sense of patriotism, an idolatry of their country’s identity and flag. American Exceptionalism is a tragic example, but history is replete with similar examples of dangerous nationalism.
  • People indoctrinated with racism, sexism, or homophobia who never rise about the fear that promotes their exclusion and hatred.
  • People whose skin color or class has afforded them a privilege that traffics, consciously or not, in systemic injustice.
  • People raised to put their trust and security in material things.
  • People trained to gauge their worth by the hollow standards of power and prestige.

In the Christian Gospel of John, Jesus has a clandestine meeting with the Jewish leader Nicodemus. He says to him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” (John 3:7) It’s a pity that these words have been coopted by Christian fundamentalists as being “born again,” a pat phrase that means conversion to their brand of Stage Three Christianity.

I see them as a deeper call to wake up, to be born outside the determinates of our lives, to recognize the timeless existence of Source’s liberating presence that permeates everything around us.

When this happens, the scales fall off our eyes in a kind of conversion experience. I believe we ALL need this transformation. It helps us evolve into citizens of the world, not just the territories of our genetic and cultural conditioning.

This is hard work. It begins with a sobering analysis of our own habitual thinking, our prejudices and privilege. It often requires repentance, amends, even restitution. But the resulting freedom is well worth the effort!

How did Jesus describe this freedom in that conversation with Nicodemus? “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” In a mysterious and beautiful way, this is a powerful image of liberation.

Kristoffer recently said, “Dad, there will never be peace unless people change.”

Amen! I could phrase it another way. There will never be peace until more people are born again into the ENTIRE human family, not just their tribe or nation.

Are you next?

LIVING LESSONS FROM A DYING RURAL CHURCH, by Le Anne Clausen de Montes

Fall 2022.

I pastor a living, dying, rural congregation. 

In the world of church work, people often label these parishes as “hopeless” situations. You rarely hear them discussed in seminaries, and pastors aren’t eager to serve them because they are “old” and “set in their ways.”

This congregation called me at a moment in my life that seemed especially counter intuitive. It had no children’s programs, and I have four young, energetic kids. Cornfields surround it in every direction, while my training was in urban and suburban church growth. It had no technology when nearly every pastor had just gotten a pandemic crash course in using Zoom to foster virtual church life. In one of our buildings, it’s difficult for me to get cell phone service, let alone GPS. Most folks in the congregation don’t use email, YouTube, or Facebook. Altogether, there are two dozen households, and on a “good’ day” we have 20 in worship.

There was a surprising frankness about them when we first met. They do not deny being in their final years. They were honest about their age as individuals and as a congregation. Many of our most vibrant folks are serving in their 80s and 90s. You would think by their level of energy and determination that they are much younger. This year, they are making school supply kits, gathering monthly collections of food and money for the community pantry, baking pies for community fundraisers, taking treats to shut-ins and nursing facilities, delivering Meals on Wheels, and volunteering at the Church Women United thrift store. Next year, as a way to celebrate 150 years of service to farm families in the area, they plan to enter a float in the town parade They held a dinner this summer to mark the same occasion, and friends from far and near filled the building.

They are dying, yet they are very much alive, and their vibrancy has taught me something about hope. When we lament that we don’t have enough resources, or we are afraid our small efforts are meaningless, these church members remind me that we CAN make a difference wherever we are and with whatever we have.

The rural church is a symbol of the rural landscape itself, especially following the 1980s farm crisis. Other artifacts from that time include empty storefronts, closed and consolidated schools, and so many abandoned farm buildings succumbing to the elements. Children grew up and left to get jobs in the cities. Many of their parents commute long-distance and juggle outside jobs along with farming or have rented out their fields and moved to town. There can be a sense of hopelessness and desolation when driving into a rural town–that is, if the highway hasn’t moved to bypass the town entirely. Even here, however, I have hope that a new chapter is soon to written in these rural landscapes. High-speed internet, the inflated cost of living in cities, and the renewed interest in sustainable farming may signal a return to the land for many families. It’s not guaranteed, and it will certainly look different than the past, but I find the possibilities intriguing.

So, let us be clear: this church’s ending is not a failure. Rather, it is the fulfillment and completion of their mission. Church founders built the congregation to serve farm families in the area when cars did not exist. People arrived on foot or by horse–just like the preacher who rode on a circuit. Now, a century and a half later, that mission is nearly complete.

As a pastor and community organizer, I’ve had other projects that were active for a season and then waned. Some may have seen these as failures, but I see them as having met a need at a particular point in time.

This is not unlike how the traditions of a family wax and wane over time. We may upsize and downsize family homes according to our changing needs or shift the location of holiday gatherings to a different relative’s home. Our families, too, adapt and change with each new generation.

An outsider might ask, “Why not just close this church or merge it with another in the next town? Wouldn’t that be more efficient?” And yet this congregation is still an extended family, ministering to each other in a way that closely resembles the house churches of the early Christian movement. They celebrate weddings and holidays, provide food to the hungry, serve meals when someone has died, farm each other’s fields in times of injury or illness.

Their original mission was to minister to farm families in the area. That mission is reaching its fulfillment. They are dying well, the way most of us would want to die—able to be active until the end while surrounded by loved ones. 

Dying well. Ending well. Well done, good and faithful servants!

I pastor a dying, living, rural congregation. 

Rev. Le Anne Clausen de Montes (she/hers) is a pastor, hospital chaplain, writer, composer and community organizer based in North Iowa. She has served congregations in the PCUSA, UCC, ELCA, and UMC, primarily in transitional ministry in small-town and rural settings. Prior to seminary, she spent five years in international human rights and peacemaking work in Palestine/Israel, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. She serves as a Ministry Advocate for Accessibility, Equality, Inclusion and Welcome and is currently creating the Center for Faith and Peacemaking.

SUBVERSIVE HOPE, by Chad Presley

When I was a kid, I never thought about hope. I felt so good about the future that I assumed everything would be fine and wonderful. But time has a way of opening our eyes and tearing down our illusions. In my early years of ministry, I was no longer so naïve. I saw the world more or less as it is, but this time, instead of a blind belief that things would be great, I chose to hope instead. I chose to believe (paraphrasing Dr. King) that despite any hardship we currently face, the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice, no matter how long it takes. There is a rebellious and subversive element to this idea. These very words speak hope into a world that that doesn’t seem to warrant it.

But the world isn’t content to let us have such hope. Trauma, pain, disappointment, and loss have a way of beating us down until we no longer feel like being subversive. At some point, like the Empire in Star Wars, life strikes back, and no amount of willpower will allow us to simply keep hoping against hope. We realize that the evils of this world won’t go away. Even if enough people believe in Jesus. Even if the right person becomes president or they install the right pope. Even if we cancel all debts, the economy is good, employment is down, and they renew our favorite TV show for another season. The world will never be simply fine and wonderful.

So, this is where I am.

The posture of subversive hope is hard to access. I no longer desire naïve assurance, and that’s hard to live with, at least for me. Yet there is still something inside of me that refuses to accept the status quo, even in my darkest moments when I fear things may never be OK.

My religious tradition is fraught with things I wish I could change or at least dissociate from. But one of the things I appreciate about it is the room to distinguish belief from faith. Belief is being confident that something exists. Such assurance is hard to come by in a postmodern age, where all beliefs get equal voice, and the foibles and failings of all religions are on display.

However, faith is different from belief. It invites us to action, not simply brain activity. Faith is acting as if something is true, whether we fully believe it or not. Faith has room for doubt, growth, trauma, and pain. Faith is what we do even when we stop believing, momentarily or chronically, because we are committed to it, even if we no longer know why.

It may sound odd and a bit foolish to act as if something is true, even if we don’t believe it. But here’s my secret. I have found that people lean into me much closer when I behave this way. I don’t insist on my beliefs. I question them, even change them, but I always try to be faithful to what I’ve learned.

For instance, I don’t know if Jesus is God or if the miracles were real, or if the Gospels are historically reliable. But I do know what Jesus has asked of me as a follower. He’s asked for humility, love, kindness, and grace. So, I doubt all the time, and my beliefs are in flux, but my faith—trying to act upon what Jesus asks of me—is intact.

What I find fascinating is that as I travel the world with this kind of faith, it works! I don’t mean more people come to church with me (although that has been true in some cases). I don’t mean more people convert to Jesus or stop cursing, smoking, sexing, or voting Republican. I mean that I see community forming. I see people getting healed. I see people opening up, sharing, overcoming past trauma. I see opposition to injustice and the powers that support it. I see people rising up and refusing to take part in the slow rot of unkindness.

My rejection of assurance, but acceptance of radical faith, has placed me in the path of these minor miracles quite often. I have almost come to cherish the pain and trauma that allowed me to finally arrive at this place.

When I act faithfully, despite my wavering belief—and it works—I find myself believing a bit more. And that, in turn, gives me hope.

Rev. Chad Presley is Pastor of Westside Presbyterian Church in Fort Worth, Texas.

REGARDING HOPE, by Steve Nootenboom

I consider hopelessness as a form of fear and anxiety, a frame of mind that is unable to see all the options, and it triggers the survival mode in the back of my brain. Conversely, I see hope as a source of calmness and peace running in the front of my mind and activating logic. To quote Bruce Lee, “Calm is a superpower.” If I am calm, I know I’m not just in survival mode.

There are three ways I bring myself back to calmness and hope: looking at others’ successes, reexamining my own history, and manufacturing hope on my own.

First, when I see other people succeed, I say, “Why not me?” If it worked for them, then it could also work for me. It’s like putting together a puzzle. It’s just a matter of time and I can figure it out for myself.

For instance, 40 years ago I was building custom homes for other contractors, and I decided I wanted to get my own contractor’s license. It requires a lot of study and a tricky six-hour test. I found it threatening, but when a friend of mine took the exam and succeeded, it gave me hope. If he could do it, why not me?

I did take the test and I failed. I studied even harder, then went back and took it a second time. Once again I failed. I started researching the best material for studying, then purchased that material and studied even harder. I went back and took the test (three strikes you’re out on this one!) so it was due or die. I passed that six-hour exam in one hour and went on to build custom homes and commercial buildings for many years to come!

Had I not seen other friends passing that test, I don’t think I would’ve had hope. I found out later that several of my friends actually did not pass it. They just said they did. Had I known that I might never have tried.

Second, when I examine my own history, I review situations that seemed hopeless at the time. Some of them were remedied with tenacity—trying to solve the puzzle and succeeding. Others seemed to miraculously solve themselves. I get great hope from looking upon this landscape of the past. Sometimes, the state of hope it creates is enough to carry me through.

For instance, 25 years ago I had a daunting situation with the IRS. My knees were knocking as I entered into negotiations, trying to stay calm through a long, drawn-out review of books and records. Within a year it was behind me and I was a free man. It seemed miraculous in many ways how things unfolded in my favor. I often reflect back on that situation to give myself courage or hope with any present challenge.

Finally, I manufacture hope in several ways. One way may seem perverse, but I make a list of the worst possible outcomes for a situation, then try to embrace them and make peace with every possibility.

Then I take the opposite approach by dreaming. I visualize the best outcomes, looking at every possible silver lining. I make a list of these best scenarios and imagine the joy of what those happy endings would really feel like. Generally, it seems nine out of ten challenges have turned out positive. Maybe one in ten doesn’t go the way I planned, but eventually I end up seeing the positive I can take away from it. If nothing else, it becomes a lesson, which is always a benefit.

I once visualized owning a particular piece of property that I had my eye on for years. The property was not for sale, and the appraisal was far more than I could imagine paying. I proposed a purchase to the owner. Six months later they said, “Make an offer.” I offered them all the money I had which was less than 80% of the appraisal. They did not bat an eye. 30 days later I owned my dream land!

For me, hope is clearly my choice. Unlike many other factors in life, it really is within my control. The term it left me hopeless implies I have no choice in the matter. But it is certainly in my power to keep my chin up or give up.  I have heard it said that 90% of what we worry about never ends up happening anyway. So, mathematically, it’s logical to stay hopeful. If, in the end, things don’t go the way I hoped, at least I can go through any challenge with my body and mind infused with the superpower of calm!

Steve Nootenboom is an artist, filmmaker, builder, rock climber, sailor, and pilot. His artwork, collected worldwide, has been seen on album covers, TV ads, and hanging in the California state capitol. His work as an art director in the film industry spans 46 years, and in 2003 he won a prestigious award for his work on the film “Alliance.” As a builder/designer, he has overseen construction of everything from homes to movie sets to custom off-road machinery. In the climbing world, he made his mark leading an expedition up Mt. Ararat in search of Noah’s Ark, and he helped establish a retreat route down Yosemite’s El Capitan. He started flying hang gliders in 1977, and his family enjoys sailing in their 40-foot catamaran. “I have a great life,” he says, “and that’s mostly because of my family. Without my wife, kids, and grandkids, my life would be reduced by 90% on the fun index.”

Texas Naturally! The Rise of the Texas Master Naturalist Movement

It was my privilege this past year to write and edit Texas Naturally! The Rise of the Texas Master Naturalist TM Movement. The book celebrates the 25th anniversary of our movement’s founders – the Alamo Area chapter based in San Antonio. Since those early years, the phenomenon has spread throughout Texas, the United States, and even internationally. Over 20 Texas chapters graciously assisted me in highlighting their projects. Here is a link to download a copy. I wrote it with the hope that it will unite Texas Master Naturalists across our state and spur even greater creativity. Again, many thanks to the people who received a complimentary hard copy of the book by supporting a crowdfunding campaign for the Alamo Area chapter’s Junior Master Naturalist program!

HOPE FOR A NEW WORLD, by Melinda Sposto Harrelson

While the world seems to be in a state of destruction, I honestly couldn’t be more elated about our future.

Creative minds are coming up with inspiring new technologies and a fresh perspective on unity, consumerism, and poverty. Like-minded individuals are bonding to create communities that inspire and support each other. The possibilities are endless! So many amazing ideas are on the table, like self-sustaining gardens in every city, organisms and bugs designed to eat and break down plastics, and batteries made with simple items like copper, zinc, and saltwater. Just these few ideas alone could have a hugely positive impact on our future.

As mysteries of the universe and ancient history unravel before our eyes, we are more clearly recognizing our problematic systems with each dawning day. I can see and feel a togetherness happening all over the world, and my heart couldn’t be more elated.

Advancements in technology, along with all the brilliant minds yet to be discovered, will usher in a much-needed change. A promising New World is on the horizon, and I believe the best is yet to come!

Melinda Sposto Harrelson loves diving into the depths of quantum physics, ancient history, philosophy, and religion. She is currently writing a book that explores her theories of how these realms interconnect. Most of her life has been dedicated to the research of human nature and religion. Her hobbies include martial arts, poetry, amateur photography, and music.