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Blog of the Grateful Bear

ramblings of a freelance panentheist {"all things are in God, and God is in all things"} . . . musings on Emergent spirituality, powerlifting, LGBTQueer issues, contemplative prayer, mysticism, cats, music, healing, and more. I like my coffee and my existentialism dark-roasted.

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Location: Marietta, Georgia, United States

I'm an LPC (Licensed Professional Counselor), in private practice in Marietta, Georgia. My writings on queer spirituality have been published in Whosoever and several other magazines. I live in a house-in-the-woods (Bear's Hermitage) in Marietta with Leonidas (Lenny) and Guy, Mighty Warrior Cats, and way too many books.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Say No to Death Squads in Iraq

Many thanks to cyberfriend Jon (Jedi Life in the Real World) for bringing this important news to my attention:

Newsweek has uncovered the Pentagon’s plans for "The Salvador Option"—creating counter-insurgency groups in Iraq modeled after the notorious Salvadoran Death Squads funded by the Reagan administration.

Sojourner’s has an online form that will use the address information you provide to automatically sent your representatives an email condemning this proposal. If you do not want any further email from Sojourner’s simply uncheck the box at the bottom.

Happy Birthday, Richard Brautigan

Today is the birthday of Richard Brautigan, a Beat writer who had a huge influence on me when I first read his works in high school. That was during the 70's, and I was fortunate enough to have hippie English teachers who introduced me to Brautigan as well as to Kurt Vonnegut and, of course, J. D. Salinger. To a teenager growing up in a very fundamentalist culture, reading Brautigan was a liberation. He was my introduction to the Beat Writers, and his way of writing, both poetry and prose, influenced my own style of writing more than any other author. Brautigan could mix together the absurd and the profound in a single poem, or in a single short prose-poem, which is what many of the chapters in his novels actually are. (I like to think my poem Gnostic Cat shows some of his influence.)

I still remember the day in 1984 when the news was broadcast that Brautigan's body had been found, an apparent suicide. I was a student at Georgia State University, and I skipped all my classes and spent the day in Little Five Points. I remember going to Charis Books & More (still my favorite bookstore) and buying one of the few Brautigan books I didn't already have. They had heard the news also, and were saddened. I remember eating lunch at the Atomic Cafe (now the Flying Biscuit) and talking with others I had never met before, who were stunned and saddened by the news.

Brautigan's birthday is remembered today on Garrison Keillor's The Writer's Almanac, where he is described as "an important cult and literary figure in the counterculture movement of the 1960s. He was called a 'hippie author,' but most of his writing was about death, anxiety, and change." Here's an excerpt from today's Writer's Almanac:
Brautigan moved to San Francisco, where he wrote his best-selling novel, Trout Fishing in America (1967). The back cover has only the word "Mayonnaise" in white letters on a solid red background. It's a tradition to flirt in coffee shops by showing someone the back cover from far away and then refusing to explain. Brautigan said, "If you get hung up on everybody else's hang-ups, then the whole world's going to be nothing more than one huge gallows."

It's a little disappointing that Garrison Keillor's poem of the day today is by someone other than Brautigan. So here are two poems by Richard Brautigan, lifted from his book The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster. (According to a prefatory note written by Brautigan in 1967, "Permission is granted to reprint any of these poems in magazines, books and newspapers if they are given away free." Blog of the Grateful Bear is a free website, so here goes:)


All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.


The Galilee Hitch-Hiker
Part 1

Baudelaire was
driving a Model A
across Galilee.
He picked up a
hitch-hiker named
Jesus who had
been standing among
a school of fish,
feeding them
pieces of bread.
"Where are you
going?" asked
Jesus, getting
into the front
"Anywhere, anywhere
out of this world!"
"I'll go with you
as far as
said Jesus.
"I have a
at the carnival
there, and I
must not be

Monday, January 24, 2005

Gilead: Light Within Light

I just finished reading a deeply beautiful and wise novel. Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, is at the very top of The New York Times list of The 10 Best Books of 2004 -- and deservedly so. The novel is at times humorous, at times moving, at times profound. Gilead is written in the form of a letter, written in 1956 by a 76-year-old pastor, John Ames, to his 7-year-old son (his son by a marriage to a much younger woman). The letter explores the aging minister's relationship with his own father as well as his grandfather -- who were both also ministers, and who came into conflict during the Civil War (the grandfather advocated, and participated in, violence against slaveholders). Ames' relationship with his best friend, who is struggling with the effects of aging, is at the heart of the novel, as well as his relationship with his best friend's son -- a "prodigal" who challenges Ames' reluctance to provide easy answers to the theological questions that burden him. ("Is that what you do when some tormented soul arrives on your doorstep at midnight? Recommend Karl Barth?")

The novel goes off on theological tangents at times (which I found to be fascinating), but it always returns to the heart. Here's a small excerpt, written as Ames is preparing a sermon about Hagar and Ishmael being cared for by the angel in the wilderness:
The moon looks wonderful in this warm evening light, just as a candle flame looks beautiful in the light of morning. Light within light. It seems like a metaphor for something. So much does. Ralph Waldo Emerson is excellent on this point.

It seems to me to be a metaphor for the human soul, the singular light within the great general light of existence. Or it seems like poetry within language. Perhaps wisdom within experience. Or marriage within friendship and love. I'll try to remember to use this. I believe I see a place for it in my thoughts on Hagar and Ishmael. Their time in the wilderness seems like a specific moment of divine Providence within the whole providential regime of Creation.

"Light within light" could also be a metaphor for this deeply meditative novel. Gilead is a meditation on Providence and on trusting in Providence even when events in our lives -- or our relationships -- are difficult to understand.


P.S.: You can read an excerpt from Gilead at The New York Times website (requires registration, which is free).

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

The Fragrance of Gratefulness

My fellow blogger Meredith has written a beautiful entry on Gratitude at her blog, Graceful Presence, which includes a great quote from John Milton:
Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.

Meredith's entry inspired me to look for teachings on gratitude/ gratefulness within the Sufi tradition. Here's a quote from The Art of Personality by Hazrat Inayat Khan, founder of the Sufi Healing Order:

Gratefulness in the character is like fragrance in the flower. A person, however learned and qualified in his life's work, in whom gratefulness is absent, is devoid of that beauty of character which makes personality fragrant. If we answer every little deed of kindness with appreciation, we develop in our nature the spirit of gratefulness; and by learning this we rise to that state where we begin to realize God's goodness towards us, and for this we can never be grateful enough to His divine compassion.

The great Sufi poet Sa'di teaches gratefulness as being the means of attracting that favor, forgiveness, and mercy of God upon ourselves in which is the salvation of our soul. There is much in life that we can be grateful for, in spite of all the difficulties and troubles of life. Sa'di says, 'The sun and moon and the rain and clouds, all are busy to prepare your food for you, and it is unfair indeed if you do not appreciate it in thanksgiving.'

Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927)

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Books I've Recently Read...

The Preservationist, by David Maine. A novel about Noah and his family, before, during, and after the great flood. This is a "biblical" novel, but you won't see at the Family Christian Bookstore. It's very earthy, crude, and at the same time both reverent and irreverent. Noah and the other characters are presented as flawed, human beings who are (like all of us) sometimes likeable, sometimes not.

For Us, The Living, by Robert A. Heinlein. I always feel a bit uneasy reading novels published years after the death of their authors. In this case, Heinlein (one of the grand masters of science fiction) has been dead since 1988, and you have to figure he must have had some reason to not publish this novel when he was alive. This is his very first novel, written in 1939, a Utopian tale of a man who has a car wreck in 1939 and wakes up to find himself in 2086. As in many stories of this type, much of the dialogue is nothing more than thinly-veiled lectures about how much better the future is, what reforms have been made, etc. Heinlein's ideas of free love, free-thinking humanism, and libertarianism are kind of old hat nowadays (thanks in large part to groundbreaking novels like his 1962 classic Stranger in a Strange Land), but in 1939 they were daring and shocking. One thing that particularly caught my eye was his description of a crusading hellfire preacher who gained political power: "he claimed to represent the whole population and claimed a majority of the population as his personal following." (Did Heinlein have a prophetic vision of Jerry Falwell and the "Moral Majority" way back in 1939?)

Black Money, by Ross Macdonald. A 1965 mystery novel featuring private eye Lew Archer. I was a bit disappointed; Macdonald is supposed to be the literary successor to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, but this novel took about 70 pages to get me interested in the story, and it never really got me interested in the characters. I like the novels published by Hard Case Crime a lot better (I've read 5 of the 6 novels they've published so far).

Abandon, by Pico Iyer. This is a romantic novel that did snag my interest, with very real characters that I came to care about. The protagonist, John Macmillan, is a scholar from England who comes to grad school in California to study Sufi literature and poetry. He falls in love with a free-wheeling California woman who distracts him from his studies; he also finds himself distracted by a seemingly-ancient manuscript which may or may not contain lost poems by Rumi. (I guess in these days of The Da Vinci Code and The Rule of Four, a "secret manuscript" is almost a requirement...) Macmillan is a brilliant scholar who has trouble opening his heart to love, both human and divine: although he can analyze Sufi poetry, he never truly experiences the reality the mystics are writing about.


Saturday, January 01, 2005

The Call to Compassionate Response

The recent tsunami disaster in Asia -- which, as of this morning's count, has claimed 140,00 lives -- has prompted some serious theological questioning. Was God in This Disaster? asks a very thought-provoking essay on Beliefnet from Rodger Kamenetz, the Jewish-Buddhist author of The Jew in the Lotus. After a rather disturbing quote from the Talmud, and a more comforting one from the Dalai Lama, Kamenetz writes:

I don't believe that a mass disaster, in and of itself, tells us anything about God. I don't believe in a God who punishes through disaster. The disaster is. That is exactly the way I would understand it, without adding my own interpretation, without supplying a meaning or completing the sentence. The disaster is. The tragedy is. And I need to abide with it, and feel it, instead of seeking an answer, because the answers just make me complacent and take me away from the children on the beach, and the father with the dead child in his arms.

There is no God in the disaster.

I think there is God in the response, in the human hearts of those who are feeling and responding to this, the families and neighbors of the victims, and the rest of us, the bystanders, and us, too. The whole world is feeling it.

I agree wholeheartedly that we can see the hand of the God in the response to the disaster, in the overwhelming display of compassion and support from people all over the world. (Two of the many fine organizations providing relief and assistance to the tsunami victims are the Rainbow World Fund and Episcopal Relief and Development.) And I agree with Kamenetz that we often search for meaning in such tragic events in order to distance ourselves from the victims. If I can find a reason for peoples' suffering, I don't have to deal with the suffering people themselves. The search for a reason takes us away from our hearts and puts us in our heads, trying to figure it all out.

But I don't agree with Kamenetz that "There is no God in the disaster." As a panentheist, I believe that all things are in God, and God is in all things. So I do believe God was in the tsunami -- but that doesn't mean that God caused the tsunami. I believe God can bring good out of bad events, but it doesn't necessarily follow that God caused the bad events in order to bring about the good.

The search for meaning in tragic events, or in the face of outright evil, is as old as the books of Job and Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Scriptures. There will always be those who seek to find blame for disasters -- as Jerry Falwell did following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when he said: "I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen.'" (Later, of course, Falwell "apologized" and said he didn't really mean what he had said.)

Jesus himself was confronted with those who sought to find such blame, even from among his own disciples:

As he [Jesus] passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” Having said these things, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva. Then he anointed the man's eyes with the mud and said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). So he went and washed and came back seeing. (John 9:1-7, ESV)

Jesus' disciples assumed, wrongly, that since this man had been born blind, someone must have sinned -- either the man (before birth?) or his parents. They had to find someone to blame. But Jesus didn't buy into their blaming. He didn't have time to engage in finding blame but emphasized "working the works" of God who had sent him. In other words, action -- compassionate response -- is what's needed, not blaming. Using the elements of the earth, Jesus healed the man. Jesus calls himself "the Light of the World" in this story, but elsewhere (Matthew 5:14-16) he reminds us that we -- all of us -- are the Light of the World. And we are all called to let that divine light within us shine forth, and to respond to events we can't understand with acts of compassion, not reasoning or blaming.

Many thanks to Kay McCall for sending me the link to the Beliefnet article.

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