Category Archives: Spiritual musings

Debts, Trespasses, Entanglements, Forgiveness

Debts, Trespasses, Entanglements, Forgiveness…    by Jinny Batterson

The household I grew up in spoke several dialects of Protestant religious traditions, so I was alternately exposed to variations of a basic prayer that asked forgiveness either of “debts” or of “trespasses.”  Not being a scholar of ancient languages, I’m not sure whether either term is close to the meaning of whatever word appeared in the earliest Biblical texts. Certainly, in modern times we’ve accreted lots of baggage to the words “debt” and “trespasses” both. 

While our national and global economies reel from the impact of a viral pandemic on systems of commerce and taxation that have relied heavily on buying more and more goods and services on credit, the notion of forgiving debts has a lot of appeal. Debt forgiveness, or “debt relief” as Wikipedia puts it, has a long and checkered history, with so far no great system for honoring both the forgivers and the forgivees of past debts (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Debt_relief).  

According to one Biblical scholar, the notion of “forgiving trespasses” came to prominence in England around 1600 as the enclosure movement gained momentum: “…the enclosure and privatization of formerly open farmland… left the aristocracy richer and commoners with nowhere to grow food. Prosecutions against commoners for trespassing on newly enclosed land … were a frequent activity by the wealthy and a tragedy for the lower classes, many of whom were sent to prison or the gallows.” (https://livingchurch.org/2017/03/14/forgive-us-our-trespasses/)  For the wealthy and prominent of their day, forgiving trespasses was both a worthy act and a way to express some contrition and solidarity with those less fortunate. 

A while ago, a friend sent me another prayer variation that spoke of releasing us from the entanglement of past mistakes. I liked the general tenor of the prayer, invoking at its beginning a “cosmic birther of all radiance and vibration,” rather than the “our Father” that I’d too often visualized as a vindictive older white male. It’s not clear to me where this prayer came from. It seems likely that it’s a “New Age” variation of the more traditional prayer rather than a more-literal translation of an ancient text (https://www.nas.org/blogs/article/o_cosmic_birther_the_lords_prayer_meets_the_american_college_textbook). Still, in my current circumstances, I resonate more easily with entanglements than with either debts or trespasses. 

What seems most pressing to me as our societies struggle to deal with past debts/trespasses/entanglements due to systemic racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, and a host of other “isms,” is that all of us are in need of forgiveness. To ask forgiveness requires that we acknowledge our brokenness and risk trying to do better. Defining forgiveness can be harder than working on debt or trespass or entanglement. It is easier to tick off what forgiveness is not: easy, quick, or painless. Nor does forgiveness mean forgetting the harm or relieving the debtor/trespasser of accountability. One touchstone for me in the process of seeking forgiveness and of forgiving others and myself has become a sequence outlined in Desmond and Mpho Tutu’s 2014 book, The Book of Forgiving: 1) Admitting the wrong and acknowledging the harm; 2) Telling one’s story and witnessing the anguish; 3) Asking for forgiveness and granting forgiveness; and 4) Renewing or releasing the relationship. 

May we seek forgiveness, may we forgive, may we do better. 

A Protest Lullaby Project

A Protest Lullaby Project   —by Jinny Batterson

My hope is that many of you can remember a time in your childhood when your mother or a special adult sang you a soothing lullaby.  One of my favorites is “All Through the Night,” originally a Welsh song. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KzFqirIGVB4) 

The past couple of months, especially the past couple of weeks, have been unsettling for me. As I write, the annual June anniversary of the use of repressive force in China in 1989 has nearly arrived. Many of us living in the United States of America are witnessing the use of repressive force on our own streets. In the wake of another senseless murder of an unarmed black man, demonstrations have begun and persisted in many American cities.  

At the same time, a global viral pandemic has hit our country hard, uncovering many inequities and rifts that those of us in comfortable circumstances have tried for too long to cover over. Concerns over the spread of the virus have dampened the public activism of many older Americans, those of us most vulnerable to serious illness or death from covid-19.

Many who are wiser than me have counseled prayer. Spending time on our knees is one good way to acknowledge both our pain and our solidarity. Another may be songs, both energetic and uplifting, and, at the close of the day, soothing.

My hope is that younger people in areas under curfew will continue peaceful in-person protests, wearing face coverings and observing as much social distancing as possible. Airing long-festering grievances and concerns, both in public protests and in virtual spaces, is crucial to beginning to address them.  

I suggest that we add to other protest rituals, a few minutes before curfews take effect, a lullaby. Let’s sing to each other, to ourselves, to our President and political leaders of all persuasions. Let’s choose whatever language and idiom most suits. Let’s mouth the words, silently or aloud. If we are not under curfew, let’s practice a lullaby a few minutes before sunset. 

Singing and praying to and for each other will not by themselves solve our problems. Nothing but sustained, concerted actions at many levels will. But a lullaby can offer a brief respite, perhaps open a greater possibility for healing our too-fractured world.   

Hush, my worldmates, peace attend thee, all through the night…

Wandering in the Wilderness of COVID-19

Wandering in the Wilderness of Covid-19 —by Jinny Batterson

When as a child I read Bible stories about the forty years the Hebrews spent wandering in the wilderness after they fled Egypt and before they entered the promised land, I could partly identify, as someone who easily becomes lost. However, even as a child, I thought forty years seemed a very long time. I guess they probably didn’t have an app back then for directions on their cell phones, but couldn’t they ask someone for directions?  Didn’t anybody have a map?

As we humans try to navigate our way through the covid-19 pandemic, I’ve become more appreciative of the Hebrews’ difficulties. It wasn’t just physical distance the Hebrews needed to traverse. Turns out, the space between one “normal” and the next was just as much psychological as physical. The Biblical Book of Numbers tells of the challenges of life in the wilderness. At first, some Hebrews wanted to return to Egypt. There, though enslaved, they at least had plenty of varied food:  “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers… and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” (Revised Standard Version, Chapter 11, verses 5-6). 

As they neared what they expected to be the promised land, overall leader Moses sent twelve tribal chieftains to assess the area: “Go up into the Negeb yonder, and go up into the hill country, and see what the land is, and whether the people who dwell in it are strong or weak … and whether the land that they dwell in is good or bad… Be of good courage, and bring some of the fruit of the land.” (Chapter 13, verses 17-20). The majority report, ten of the twelve, recommended giving up—the people already in the promised land were too strong. This majority even discounted the land’s good points, saying, in essence, that it was not worth fighting for. A minority of two believed the land was indeed worth trying to possess. They thought the challenges were not insurmountable, given spiritual assistance. It took an entire generation, plus lots of disease and death, before the rest of the Hebrews were persuaded.  

Another example, from the medical field, is closer to modern America in distance and time. It concerns the spread of the use of antiseptics to prevent post-surgical infections. In the nineteenth century, surgical advances made more complex operations possible, but deaths following surgery soared, sometimes taking half of all patients. One British professor of medicine then observed: “A man laid on the operating table in one or our surgical hospitals is exposed to more chance of death than was the English soldier on the field of Waterloo.” 

British surgeon Joseph Lister in 1865 read the results of experiments by French scientist Louis Pasteur, who connected microscopic bacteria with fermentation in foods and wine. Lister wondered whether what caused fermentation in food might also cause infections in wounds. In the late 1860’s, he began experimenting with different procedures and chemicals to reduce the chances of infection. He published the results of his cases in medical journals. Over time, he refined his approaches. Still, it took nearly a generation before antiseptic practices were widely used in hospital surgery wards. 

The wilderness of covid-19 response is disconcerting. Recommendations of currently available best practices can be confusing. As my home state of North Carolina begins the second phase of cautiously reopening its economy, the NC Department of Health and Human Services advises that I’ll still be “safer at home,” but that I’ll have an expanded range of businesses and non-profit groups I may visit. When getting my hair cut at a reduced-occupancy salon or dining in a reduced-occupancy restaurant, I’m advised to “wear, wait, wash”—wear a face covering (except, presumably, while eating), wait at least six feet from other customers, and wash my hands frequently (https://covid19.ncdhhs.gov/materials-resources/know-your-ws-wear-wait-wash). 

My guess is that it will be a good while before we’ll reach a post-covid “normal,” though I hope it will take less than forty years. Those of us who survive this pandemic will mourn our losses. In hindsight, we’ll realize that some preventive measures we tried were more effective than others. Some people will remain unenthusiastic about the longer-term changes we will need to make to reduce the threat of future pandemics. 

Still, we may take heart from the experiences of those venturing toward a promised land or safer surgery. The wilderness, however disorienting or longlasting, is neither uniform nor useless. It provides the venue and the time to develop and practice new skills we need. We cannot go back; with good guidance and courage, we can go forward. Please stay as safe and sane as possible, all, while we venture toward our post-covid world!  

 

The Wonders of Dual “Virtual Church”

The Wonders of Dual “Virtual Church”  —by Jinny Batterson

For the past few years, I’ve attended services at two different religious congregations, one a predominantly “white” Unitarian-Universalist group, the other a predominantly “black” African Methodist Episcopal church.  This “dual citizenship” religiously has enriched my spiritual life greatly while posing some practical problems. The physical buildings of the two congregations are several miles apart—a ten-minute commute by car. Both churches have traditionally held their in-person services at 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning, so I’ve had to decide each week which service to attend. Sometimes I can “double up” and slip belatedly into the latter part of the AME service, which tends to run a little longer. 

Enter the covid-19 pandemic. This viral scourge has caused lots of changes in our customary ways of ordering our lives, not the least of which has been a temporary set of restrictions on large interpersonal gatherings.  Now both churches hold their Sunday services virtually. If I set up my computer correctly, I can switch instantaneously between the two, catching both sermons and most of the music both places. Most weeks, the recordings of the services stay on the internet for a few days, so if I miss part of a reading or story, I can catch it on Monday or Tuesday.

This past Sunday, the UU sermon centered on learning to slow the pace of our often frenetic lives, to savor time with family, to relearn habits of connecting that may have gotten diminished or lost altogether in our pre-covid frenzy of work/commute/family/physical health activities. The AME service reminded us that God is the ultimate arbiter of our reality, not the latest breaking news, case counts, or polling results. “We shouldn’t discount the very real challenges,” the minister counseled, while he warned us not to focus on them to the exclusion of our connection with the holy.  

The wise words from both sources helped prime me for the week ahead. The music that went with each service was healing, too. In so many ways, I’ll be glad when we have fewer issues related to corona viruses. It will be special to be able to see fellow parishioners face-to-face rather than via computer or smartphone screen. Maybe eventually I’ll have chances again to shake the ministers’ hands. There’s something for me about the experience of physically worshipping together that no virtual environment can fully replace. Still, I don’t want to forget the spiritual gifts and scheduling flexibility that this hiatus from “regular church” has offered me. 

Please stay safe, pray a lot, and remember that the gift of life is just that—a gift, to be used as wisely as we can discern, with as much spiritual help as we can find.  

Earth Has Its Day

Earth Has Its Day   —by Jinny Batterson

Had this been a “normal” year, there would have been big crowds today commemorating the 50th annual Earth Day. There would have been lots of in-person speeches. There would have been live exhibits from corporations and non-profits with a mixture of important initiatives and “greenwashing,” spotlighting small impacts for mainly public relations value. There would have been more exhortations to “reduce, reuse, recycle.” 

This is not a normal year. A small pathogen whose exact origin is still unclear began spreading a respiratory ailment among the global human population in late 2019. As of today, covid-19 had caused nearly 2.5 million known infections and nearly 170,000 deaths. Much of the globe’s human population is on “lockdown.” Public gatherings are few. 

In parts of the world, other variations in nature are wreaking havoc in different ways: a plague of locusts in east Africa is destroying food crops, threatening the food supply of tens of millions; forest fires in Ukraine near the defunct Chernobyl nuclear power plant have recently caused the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, to have the worst air pollution of any place in the world; widespread bush fires during Australia’s 2019-2020 summer have blackened millions of acres and killed roughly a billion animals, endangering such unique species as kangaroos and koalas and putting Australia’s agricultural sector at risk; Greenland and Antarctica have ice sheets that are melting at increasing rates. 

Perhaps earth is reminding us, in increasingly urgent terms, that we are not the masters of the planet, but its guests and its (temporary) stewards. 

For much of my adult life, I’ve accumulated a clipping file of quotations and short pieces of prose that seem meaningful to me. During a personal or societal crisis, I reread them for wisdom. A while ago, I came across the World War II era diaries of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, War Without and Within, edited and first published long after that war was over, in 1980. Anne and her husband, aviator Charles Lindbergh, had spent part of the 1930’s living in Europe to regain some privacy after the highly publicized U.S. kidnapping and murder of their first child.  A pacifist often identified with her isolationist husband, Anne was deeply affected by the 1939 onset of war in Europe and the entry of the U.S. into a globalized conflict in late 1941. A diary entry from Easter Monday during the spring of 1942 expresses both sorrow and hope: 

“Today is the real Easter morning. Yesterday was overcast and chilly. This morning is still, warm, newly awakened. One walks out into it like a flower just opened. …
When I was young, I always felt a morning like this meant a promise of something wonderful … love in someone’s heart far away from me, or the success of some venture of my own. I thought–quite literally–it was a sign from heaven. The person who was ill would get well. … Or maybe something wonderful was happening for the world–some new spirit blooming. … the morning was a ‘sign.’
I still believe it is a ‘sign,’ but not for anything good happening to me or the world, anything specific. The love is not blooming in someone’s heart. The ventures fail. The one who is sick, dies, and the one who is lost is never found. Hate and cruelty and evil are still rampant, war goes on.
And yet it is a sign. It is a sign that in spite of these things beauty still exists and goes on side by side with horror. That there is love and goodness and beauty and spirit in the world–always. This is only one of the times when it is clothed in flesh–in the flesh of a spring morning.”

Amid the global concern about the covid-19 pandemic and the seemingly unending series of recriminations about whose “fault” the pandemic is, there have been occasional notes of clearer air in unexpected places, of a resurgence of birdsong alongside nearly empty highways. 

This morning where I live dawned crisp, cool, bright, with almost jewel-like clarity. May it be a sign. Happy Earth Day!   

Sluggish Livers, Fingers in Dikes, Resurrected Economies

Sluggish Livers, Fingers in Dikes, Resurrected Economies  —by Jinny Batterson

Those of us who’d previously lived comfortably sedate lives as middle class U.S. retirees have had our world shaken by a tiny virus. The Covid-19 pandemic has dominated our news cycles for weeks, causing disruptions in the daily habits of many not directly infected. Whether it’s making a face mask and wearing it on shopping expeditions, compulsively cleaning the bathroom for the fourth or fifth time, praying and worrying about vulnerable loved ones and friends near and far, or playing endless rounds of board games, our previous habits and perspectives have been called into question. A friend with connections in the airline industry recently forwarded a description of a passenger airline system that slowed from a torrent to a trickle practically overnight. Real estate transactions have become more difficult and more uncertain as financial systems try to change their in-person business practices and to adapt to widespread fear. Several personal analogies come to mind.

The one previous time I personally faced serious illness, an Asian friend with extensive training in traditional medicine explained to me that I had a “sluggish liver.” This did not necessarily pertain to a discrete organ, she told me, but a general slowness of circulating energy in my whole body. It’s sometimes seemed to me that our current distribution of wealth and income is a societal “sluggish liver,” one that I don’t pretend to know how to correct, but that does not serve our overall body politic very well. This pandemic has highlighted the differences in vulnerabilities and access to services among those at different places on the income/wealth distribution curve. However, some high-profile cases of the virus have also shown that wealth and privilege do not grant blanket immunity. 

Having a partially Dutch ancestry, I was raised on the story of the little boy who stuck his finger in the dike to forestall a major flood, while friends ran to get adults to engineer a more permanent solution. I’m tremendously grateful to the health workers and first responders who are currently putting their fingers in the dikes of our medical testing and delivery systems. I want to believe that at least some of our political and social leaders are the adults who’ll help create a more permanent solution. Perhaps a better “global pandemic warning” system is a partial remedy, vaguely akin to some improvements in the tsunami warning system that were put in place after a 2004 earthquake in the Indian Ocean caused widespread devastation and loss of life. 

In the religious tradition I’m part of, this is Easter weekend, a time of traditional gatherings to celebrate spring and the renewal of life, as embodied in the resurrection of a crucified savior. Other religious traditions have not-dissimilar celebrations: Jewish friends celebrate Passover at this same time of year; the Moslem holy month of Ramadan will start this year in late April. In China, an early April weekend features tomb-sweeping, honoring one’s ancestors. Most celebrations this year have been curtailed, transferred to “virtual,” or postponed or canceled in order to reduce the spread of contagion.

It’s too early to tell what our global society will look like after this pandemic subsides. Studies of previous epidemics and pandemics, whether the “Black Death” that wiped out nearly a third of Europe’s population during periodic outbreaks starting in the fourteenth century, or the 1918 flu estimated to have killed nearly 50 million globally, or smallpox, or polio, can perhaps provide clues. As I look forward to a somewhat muted Easter morning, I pray that the society and economies we come together to resurrect post-covid-19 will be more just, more responsive, more joyful. My best wishes to all for a blessed Easter.  

Year of the Phoenix?

Year of the Phoenix?   —by Jinny Batterson

During the shortest days of the year for the past several years, an exhibit of lighted figures has come to our town—a multi-acre display of LED-illumined silk lanterns produced in the Chinese city of Zigong, in Sichuan province. Zigong’s artisans have long crafted lanterns for Chinese festivals. In recent decades they’ve gained global fame for their beautiful handiwork. Increasing numbers of U.S. cities are using winter-dormant park spaces to mount both static and interactive displays. 

Our town’s display centerpiece is near the shore of a multi-acre lake: until this year a magnificent dragon (shown in a previous post—https://jinnyoccasionalpoems.com/2018/01/03/chinese-lantern-festival-an-american-version/).  When I attended this year’s event just before (western) New Year, I wondered, as I wandered down a slope decorated with shapes of real and mythical animals, if the dragon had taken its accustomed place. No dragon, not this year. Instead, an equally impressive floating display of a mythical phoenix, complete with pulsing lights going from head to tail.  

The night I saw the display, the weather was fairly mild for late December. Attendees from multiple cultural traditions mingled and oohed and aahed at the depiction of the fabulous bird. A little research about legends of the phoenix show the magic bird as a staple in the mythology of multiple civilizations, including Egyptian, Greek, and Chinese: 

“In Asia the phoenix reigns over all the birds, and is the symbol of the Chinese Empress and feminine grace, as well as the sun and the south. The sighting of the phoenix is a good sign that a wise leader has ascended to the throne and a new era has begun. It was representative of Chinese virtues: goodness, duty, propriety, kindness and reliability. Palaces and temples are guarded by ceramic protective beasts, all led by the phoenix.” ( https://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends/ancient-symbolism-magical-phoenix-002020; accessed 2020/03/27) 

When our town’s lantern display was packed up for return to Zigong in mid-January, it was nearly time for Chinese New Year (or “Spring Festival,” celebrated in 2020 starting on January 25). The upcoming Chinese year would start another cycle of the 12-animal Chinese zodiac, which includes the dragon, along with eleven other real-life animals (in sequence: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig). So far, the phoenix has not become part of the Chinese zodiac, though the mythic bird is often considered the feminine counterpart to the masculine dragon. 

Now that covid-19 has become a global pandemic, I’ve been asked, like more and more people all over the world, to self-isolate at home to reduce the speed of the virus’s spread, allowing health care systems time to adapt by “flattening the curve” of new infections. If I’m a bit bored, it’s a small price to pay for a larger social good. The next generation in our family includes two members of hospital medical staffs, and their safety is a big concern.  

This enforced time at home gives me license to engage in reveries about the mythical bird. Many legends of the phoenix depict it as an extremely long-lived creature who senses approaching death, builds her own funeral pyre, and then dies in fiery majesty. Shortly afterwards, the next generation of phoenix rises from the ashes.  

What might the symbol of the phoenix mean as 2020 begins with a global pandemic—the death of an overly competitive ethos and the dawning of an age of more thorough global cooperation? a rethinking of our interlocking systems of education, health care, corrections, and social welfare? a reining in of our preoccupation with material wealth? renewed reverence for the natural world that supports us all? 

Let’s hope that 2020 will turn out to be a year of the phoenix.   

Phoenix lantern at NC Chinese Lantern Festival

The Tulips Don’t Care about Pandemics…

Tulips and Pandemics –by Jinny Batterson

Doing a bit of “nature therapy” yesterday during a brief shower, and took a couple of pictures in our smallish condo complex. This morning got a link from a more media-literate friend, an opinion piece that long-term astronaut Scott Kelly had penned about coping with isolation. Very grateful that many of us have the technology to stay closer in touch via phone and internet. Glad there are parts of nature that seem little affected/afflicted by our current human pandemic. Please take care, all!

tulips in our condo complex

more tulips, oblivious to human worries

The Bus Seat Rule

The Bus Seat Rule  –by Jinny Batterson

(for Mr. McNeill on St. Patrick’s Day)

My long-ago high school chemistry teacher
Was an irascible Irishman, equally
Passionate for his subject and his students.
Not having chosen chemistry as a career,
I’ve forgotten much of the content he taught,
But I remember one teaching tool:
The bus seat rule.

As you watched a bus fill up with strangers,
He’d explain (or an atom with electrons),
You’d notice that, while any empty seats remained,
Each new passenger would gravitate to one.
Not until the last empty seat was taken
Would people begin to pair up.

Another lengthy telephone conference call.
Much time and attention devoted to
Seemingly trivial matters as other folks
Concerned themselves instead with global pandemics.

We reformers and activists can too often
Follow the bus seat rule–
Each staking out our solo seat
For saving the world.

It could be discouraging, unless we have faith
That more people are boarding the bus
Than are getting off, unless we can also imagine,
Even in trying times, a bus  brimming with
Reform-minded high schoolers,
Returning from the world’s ultimate field trip,
At the exact instant when the mood shifts
From levity to “We Shall Overcome.”

 

God, Father (a Meditation on Forgiveness)

God, Father  (A Meditation on Forgiveness) 

Some church people
Really have a nerve–
Trying to persuade me
That I should talk with you
As if it’s I that need forgiveness.
Do they take me for a total fool?

Arguably, you’re no great shakes
As a god or as a father.
For centuries, you harassed
Your chosen people, Israel,
Enslaving them in Egypt, then
Leading them into a desert wilderness,
Afterwards sending them to settle a land
Already claimed by tribes
Just as aggressive as they became.

You handled your anointed
Prophets roughly, too–
Disdain, isolation, ostracism,
Mental and physical abuse.
The crowning insult came when
You decided you should redeem
The world (not that it had
Asked for your help right then.) 

You imagined sending a child
Would provide just the right touch.
So you knocked up an
Innocent girl, then bolted,
Leaving Joseph to take up
A whole shitload of slack.

As your earthly son grew
In stature and wisdom,
You encouraged him
To develop his powers
Of teaching and preaching
And healing.

Separately, each of these
Talents would eventually
Have caused him trouble
With worldly authorities.
In combination,
They could only prove lethal.

When the expected betrayal
Came at last, and your only
Begotten son was writhing
In agony, impaled to die
As a common criminal,
What did you do?
Abandoned him,
Just like you’d earlier
Skipped out on his mother.

And I should ask for your forgiveness?
Yeah, right!
Yet in desperate moments
I confess
That I need to experience
Deep forgiveness
Before I can share
Its wonders with others,
That it takes
An overriding power to
Squelch the stern, unlovely
Authority I’ve internalized–
Demanding perfection,
The first time, every time,
Always.

I know, too, that the
Power of earthly fathers,
Lovingly exercised,
Mirrors that forgiving strength.
I know that sufferers of
Earthly oppression
Often pray to father
Gods for release.

So I strive to pardon
Both you and myself,
To become a better parent
To the child who at times
Still cringes inside of me.

I need to leave you while I work through
Misconceptions that have fermented
In our faiths for centuries.
Time and effort will be needed to
Mature my doubts into a worthy vintage.

I’m sure I’ll want to talk with you
Again, after a while.
Until then, please take good care of yourself.