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April 3, 2015

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When “Religion” doesn’t describe it

crown of thornsThe term “religion” turns pallid on Good Friday.  It’s an ashen and anemic word.  It needs to gulp down aspirin and climb back in bed.  The term conveys systems and structures and institutions, whether they’re of thinking or of administration.  It isn’t a bad term (spirituality and theology mandate structures like everything else), but it doesn’t do this day justice.

Good Friday cripples our systems and structures and institutions.  It’s a day of intentional, redemptive chaos: God, the creator and sustainer of the universe and the font of life itself, cries out alienation from himself and dies.  God has become human and walks the full human path.  God does not halt and howl “stop” before the horror.  He presses on.  The human God experiences our human condition, justifies us, (he has died for our sins), and represents us.  God drinks in our plea, melds it into himself, and shoves it into the heavens: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Which allows us to approach God with confidence.  As one New Testament author writes: “ Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:14-16).

“Religion” often portrays humanity’s pursuit of God.  Good Friday tells the story of God’s pursuit of humanity.  God hounded us so much that He lived a human life, endured the human horror, and fused our appeal into himself.

Much eloquence has been written in this year’s Tridumm.  Some samples:

Terrance W. Klein meditates on the “Savage Sacred” in the Jesuit publication, America.  A quote:

In teaching that the divine became the human, Christianity directly assaults the distinction between the holy and the mundane.  One might even say that there is something savage in the sacredness of the Christ.  If tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of heaven, it is because, in the ardent Christ, the kingdom itself has become aggressive, expansive.  It doesn’t stay within the boundaries, which the human requires to discern the holy.  The Gospel establishes a relentless vortex: the sacred maintains itself by raiding the secular.

For more, tap this link.

The Behemoth published a poem by Christina Rossetti.  It begins:

Am I a stone and not a sheep

That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy Cross,

To number drop by drop Thy Blood’s slow loss,

And yet not weep?

Here is the link to the full poem:  The Behemoth.

Joseph McAuley writes a letter to Saint Dismas, the legendary name for the “Good Thief” who begged forgiveness of Jesus on his cross.  That thief gives us much hope:

Your request and Jesus’ response present a very poignant moment on a very dark day. When all seemed lost and hopeless, that hill on Calvary presented something otherwise, which is why we call it “Good Friday.”  Because of your actions on that afternoon, Saint Dismas, you showed that nothing is impossible or unobtainable and that Jesus, even in His suffering, was more than eager to show that.  In doing what you did, and saying what you said, you showed everyone that in the darkest of moments, there is hope to be grasped and how badly we need it, in spite of who we are and whatever it is we have done; that it is possible to find our way out of the darkness and into the light, if only we are willing to recognize that. And you, the “thief,” in one last act, “stole” that opportunity for us, which resonates so much, even now.

For more, follow this: Good Friday, A Speaking Silence.

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April 1, 2015

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Those Fun and Crazy Guys: Humpback Whales

Kick back and relax.  Enjoy the concert in the BBC video below, which rolls footage also aired in a first-rate documentary, Ocean Giants.

Scientists ponder the motivation behind the songs of the male humpbacks – or, more technically, their hums.  Many thought they were typical men, shamelessly wooing the ladies in the open sea with nary a glance at the mortified barracudas.  No doubt they promise the moon: “We love you because of your minds.”

But there’s no recorded instance of females casually swimming past and peaking back. Which leaves us with one of two choices.  Option One: the men are a bunch-a losers. Option Two: We don’t know why they sing. I select option two, given that the species is still with us. I’ll throw in a theory and defend it triumphantly despite my lack of research and knowledge: The men are singing for the same reason Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck jam on their guitars. They’re groovin’ on the music and that’s all she wrote.  Their incredulous reply to our queries: “Stop asking those questions and push yourself onto the dance floor!”

All pet-owners know that non-human animals relish pleasure and fun.  Wrestle with your dog if you doubt me or throw a stick for a Labrador Retriever (I know: they’re bred to do that; but they also like it).  Cut humpbacks some slack. They’re some of the most intelligent animals on the Earth.

The video, followed by more comments:

A friend who labors in science shared how humpbacks frustrate his colleagues in other ways.  He said:

At work we analyze many thousands of hours of underwater recordings each year trying to figure out which whale species are where when. It’s very easy to believe that humpbacks are enjoying themselves with their elaborate songs. Even during the off season, they can often be heard singing song fragments, as if they were working out new themes and mastering their technique for the next season. The sounds humpbacks make can be a bit frustrating for us, however, since we use whale sounds to identify what species are present at dozens of sites around the globe at different times of the year. Whether through intentional mimicry or not, their vocalizations can sometimes be mistaken for that of other whales, which complicates things for us.

To which I responded:

I wonder: Is there a dialogue among the humpbacks? Maybe it goes like this:

WHALE ONE: “Hey Sam, I found another.”

WHALE TWO: “‘Nother what?”

WHALE ONE: “’Nother of those sound detectors. It’s the humans: They’re studying us again.”

WHALE TWO: “You don’t say …”

WHALE ONE: “Yup.  Time for fun.  Who’d you play last time?”

WHALE TWO: “The blue whale, like a thousand times before … ”

WHALE ONE: “Okay, you play the blue. I’ll play the killer …”

WHALE TWO: “You always get to play the orca. No fair …”

WHALE ONE: “Complain-complain. We’ve got a golden opportunity to mess these people up. You gonna sing or whine?”

WHALE TWO: “Put it that way, I’m singin’ the blues …”

WHALE ONE: “That’s the spirit. Okay, on three: A-one … A-two …

My friend responded:

You’ve re-created one of the standard conversations we have here when we get particularly frustrated with humpbacks. I do admire their virtuosity, though. They can sing songs that have pitches so low humans can’t hear them, and pitches so high they are near the limit of human hearing, all the time singing so loud that they can be heard for hundreds of miles. They can also sing two pitches at the same time, since like birds they have two voice organs. In fact, if you speed up playback, humpback song sometimes sounds remarkably like bird song. In this youtube video there’s a comparison of one particular humpback song with a nightingale:

After listening to the sped-up songs, all I could think of was this: “What a job.”

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March 17, 2015

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Saint Patrick: A man for all nations

Today, March 17, 2015, is the day when many will lift glasses of green beer, eat corn beef cabbage, and sing songs of the Emerald Isle. And that’s fine. Saint Patrick is worthy of celebration. He’s a bona-fide good guy, with no 18-minute gaps on any of his tapes. Here is the story of the […]

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February 23, 2015

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The winter of my contentment

Perhaps I’m experiencing a forgotten brand of gratification drawn from the test, or the trial, or the challenge. Human history testifies to a spark that rattles us out of mere comfort and propels us into arctic adventures.

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February 20, 2015

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So New England really is different

Prepare for the bombshell. Gallup surveyors did their tallies and found that frozen New England, my home since I was 15, is fit for fire and brimstone.

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February 5, 2015

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“Sonny, I get paid to make snap judgments and throw fits”

It’s coming back to me. I remember my lament while walking a newspaper reporter’s daily beat: “God,” I wailed, “Why didn’t you make me a sports writer?” I was suffocating in objectivity’s claustrophobic cave, squeezed by concepts of “fairness” and “evenhandedness” – with no opinions allowed – while they were paid to yelp, bark, and […]

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January 30, 2015

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Seeing the world through different eyes

Three legged tables crash when we slice off the third leg. Knives, forks, spoons, coffee cups, and plates splatter all over the floor along with the vase with the flowers. It’s an embarrassing mess.

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January 27, 2015

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Scientific discovery: When it snows a lot, there’s more snow than when there is no snow

The dire warnings were so dire they could only be described as “dire:” So much snow would swirl in Connecticut on January 27 that the local National Public Radio chapter cancelled its fund-raising event, which would have featured a panel of world-renown Emily Dickinson scholars discussing the topic, “Why Working Mothers No Longer Read 16th-century German Poetry To Their Five-Year-Year-Old Children, And The Devastating Consequences For American Culture.”

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December 26, 2014

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Is martyrdom marketable?

Slice another pie and mix up more stuffing. The religious festivals tramp on like salivating cholesterol monsters. The Feast of St. Stephens comes on December 26th, the same date as Boxing Day in the former British Empire and Wren’s Day in Ireland. It’s also the Second Day of Christmas (remember the thirteen-day season) and Rummage-through-the-leftovers Day. Because we can.

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December 24, 2014

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Mary & Joseph: Walking through the unknown toward destiny

We can take as our models Mary and Joseph, who had the right to be the two most confused people in history, who were confronted with something utterly baffling, but did what God was asking of them, anyway … Mary and Joseph do three simple but essential things: they listen, they trust, they love.

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