Category Archives: Spiritual musings

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. 

 

Gardener’s Song

Gardener’s Song   —by Jinny Batterson

(In memory of Nancy Small Van Dijk on what would have been her 72nd birthday; Nancy served for several years as HOA chair of our condo complex. During her term, she spearheaded an effort to get a “Welcome Garden” of flowering shrubs at our previously clay-slope entry drive.)

This garden is overgrown, the weeds are practically choking it.
I come here and sit alone, and wonder what will become of it.
Yet we started out as gardeners, as workers in the soil,
And we reaped a bounteous harvest from our ever-loving toil.

Some cities are overgrown, with drugs and crime and pollution.
We sit in barred rooms alone, each writing a rational solution.
Yet we’ve cities full of gardeners, of players in the soil,
And the plants and herbs and flowers reward our ever-loving toil.

Our planet is overgrown, wars, strife, disease, aggravation,
We stumble our lone ways home, uncertain of continuation.
If our world should blow to pieces, not survive its own turmoil,
Would we all come back as gardeners, blessed to ever-loving toil?

"Welcome garden" planted February, 2018

“Welcome garden” with Nancy’s sign soon after planting in 2018

Partial Truth

Partial Truth

I joyously affirm that I
Will tell the part of the truth
I can discern at this moment,
Not trusting solely
In my own instincts,
But drawing wisdom, too,
From my fellow humans
And other creatures, also,
As we strive to move closer
To the wholeness that nature
Reestablishes again and again
Now and forever.  

Is It Possible?

Is It Possible   –by Jinny Batterson

Is it possible
it’s not power
that corrupts, but
merely our surface illusions
of power, and that love,
deep, abiding love,
is absolutely
incorruptible?

The Doors of the Church are Open

The Doors of the Church are Open  —by Jinny Batterson

During my childhood and adolescence, I attended Sunday school. As a young adult, I took a multi-year sabbatical from organized religion, then resumed attending a small congregation—a chance to sing in the choir, I told myself. I liked being an alto. For the past several years, I’ve attended two different congregations. One is mostly white, generally affluent, with a mix of children and adults, trending toward the older end of the age continuum. The other is mostly black, less affluent, with a similar age distribution. The Unitarian-Universalist congregation has slightly more college professors than the African Methodist Episcopal congregation; A.M.E. worshippers include slightly more former college football players and basketball stars. Both groups have several hundred members on their rolls, some of whom show up most Sundays. As older members die off, our numbers dwindle.

The fastest growing religious segment of the overall American population are the “unchurched.” A 2014 Pew Research Center survey of more than 35,000 Americans found that the percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christians had dropped from 78.4% in 2007 to 70.6% just seven years later. Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated – describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – jumped from 16.1% to 22.8%. 

Many younger adults have little use for Sunday worship. Partly, this is because Sunday morning can be the only unscheduled interval in their increasingly busy lives. Another partial answer may lie in incidents of mass violence, like a 2008 shooting at a UU worship service near Knoxville, Tennessee or the 2015 assault on an evening prayer service at an AME church in Charleston, South Carolina. These two horrendous incidents are part of a series of mass shootings in churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples that can badly damage our sense of safety. The congregations I attend have trained our ushers to be alert to potential violence, defusing it if at all possible, otherwise sounding the alarm and limiting the damage.

In both congregations I attend, we wrestle with questions of how to affirm each other’s dignity, how to forgive each other and ourselves, how to help each other grow spiritually. Both congregations also grapple with hateful rhetoric coming from the highest levels of our government. The U.S. constitution forbids church statements in support of or opposition to specific political figures or groups. However, we allow support of or opposition to specific policies and behaviors. Right now, churches are often centers of opposition to inhumane treatment of immigrants or “others.” 

Despite many similarities, both of the congregations I attend feel incomplete to me. I wonder if it’s partly because they continue to reflect a situation that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. noted in a 1960 speech: eleven o’clock on a Sunday morning is among the most segregated hours in Christian America. In a religion whose basic tenets include “love one another,” such segregation of “white” and “black” (or any other group identity) is hypocritical at best. Is how poorly we walk our talk one important explanation of formal Christianity’s dwindling numbers?

Given its recent decline, it’s tempting to conclude that Christianity, even religion more generally, may not survive in 21st century America. I think it can both survive and thrive, but rejuvenating our faiths will take a lot more than one older woman crossing a racial divide to attend two churches.

After both the Knoxville and the Charleston incidents, church leaders reassured and challenged us: whatever losses we’d suffered, “the doors of the church are still open.”  Often I imagine church doors as fully hinged swinging doors—capable of swinging out as well as in, like the doors sometimes found between restaurant kitchens and dining rooms, or fronting saloons in old cowboy movies. 

Many church activities have little doctrine associated with them. They can happen outside the confines of church buildings. They’re not limited to a single day per week. They are just something we can do as Christians, as humans—social outreach, social justice, social uplift. Our faith encourages us to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, visit the sick and those in prison, comfort the bereaved.

From what I know of church history, the earliest Christians had no special buildings, very little liturgy, no delineated creeds. They just wanted to share the love of God with their fellow humans and with the rest of creation. Such sharing is not limited to Sunday mornings. It recognizes no artificial boundaries. The “doors of the church” in each one of us need to swing both ways. Maybe then the doors of our various denominations will be easier to keep open.      

Choosing Your Starfish

Choosing Your Starfish  —by Jinny Batterson

One of the years when I taught English in China, my students were fascinated by a story about an old man, a young boy, and a beach filled with stranded starfish. Many variants of the story have appeared. The one my students were most familiar with went something like this: 

  One morning after a storm, an older man went out for his customary walk along a gently curving stretch of beach. The weather had cleared. As he looked ahead, the man could see in the distance a small figure, also walking along, sometimes bending down, then throwing something into the waves. As the older man got closer, he saw that the other person was a young boy, perhaps twelve years old. The stretch of beach nearest them was littered with stranded starfish. Once in a while, the boy leaned over, picked up a starfish, and tossed it back into the sea.

“You’ll never succeed in making a difference for every living starfish,” the old man cautioned. “There are too many of them, and they can’t live very long on the beach.”

“That’s not the point,” replied the boy as he tossed another starfish back into the waves. “I made a difference for that one.”  

I didn’t remember having heard the story before. When I recently checked online for the story’s origin, I found it had appeared in slightly different form in 1969 as part of an essay titled “Star Thrower” by philosopher Loren Eiseley. A number of charitable organizations have since taken up the image of a rescued starfish as part of their name or marketing—groups for ex-offenders, for poverty-stricken children, for survivors of childhood abuse, for injured veterans, and so on. A variation of the story’s theme has been made into a children’s film, “Sara and the Starfish.”

The fable is both challenging and reassuring to me in these unsettled times. As someone with a tendency to obsess about all the actual and potential “starfish” I may encounter, I find the story helps me maintain or regain perspective. Of course I can never save all possible starfish. It’s important, though, that I pay attention to the starfish who get stranded on “my” beach with problems that match my resources and the solution skills I’ve developed. 

Who/what is your starfish?  

Building Lop-Sided Bridges

Building Lop-Sided Bridges    —by Jinny Batterson

About this time of year in 1997, I got a nasty shock. I was diagnosed with breast cancer. A set of cells had gone malignant and might soon invade the rest of my body. Several months earlier, I’d had my annual mammogram and was told it was normal. So at first, I wrote off the lump that showed up around Hallowe’en as just another annoying symptom of menopause. I was a healthy, middle-aged white woman. I ate well, exercised regularly, had gotten all my prescribed screenings. I made a comfortable living as a consultant, had two college-age sons, a husband who loved me, and no family history of breast cancer. The lump would go away on its own. It didn’t. Further tests showed an aggressive tumor. By early December, I’d had a modified radical mastectomy without reconstruction. I was pretty shaky both physically and mentally. 

As I began to heal, I tried to use my experiences as a teaching tool. Our Unitarian-Universalist congregation in Richmond, Virginia had long engaged in efforts to help promote racial healing. Each year about the time of the MLK holiday, we had a special service with a racial justice theme. This particular year, I’d been working for several months before my diagnosis on the planning committee for the service. As I began to regain strength after surgery, I asked if I could do a short talk about my “lop-sidedness,” using my body as a metaphor for the way our entire society was lop-sided and hampered by our history of individual prejudice and systemic racism. We all needed healing. I composed and rehearsed my talk. By early January I was confident that I’d have the physical stamina and the psychological strength to deliver a 10-minute talk, even with the prospect of six months of chemotherapy looming. 

Then I went to choir rehearsal. Our young choir director wanted to use spirituals to accompany the service. He’d chosen “Soon I will be done with the troubles of this world, goin’ home to live with God…” as the meditation hymn. I flinched. Jamie was a wonderful musician, but I really didn’t want to identify with that particular song at that particular time in my life. Privately, I asked if we could substitute something more upbeat. I got a reprieve. We wound up singing “I’m so busy servin’ my Master, ain’t got time to die…”  Both the congregation and I survived to continue our work. 

A decade later, I learned that my favorite college roommate had developed breast cancer. Beth had grown up near Richmond, graduated from our small liberal arts school, then gotten an advanced degree in library science. She’d moved to different parts of the country. She spent much of her career administering college libraries—first in Ohio, then South Dakota, then Florida. We kept up via holiday cards and occasional phone calls. In her 50’s, Beth had changed focus slightly and taken a post as director of a set of public libraries in an economically depressed part of lowland South Carolina. Beth had been in her new job only a year or so when the cancer hit. Her family and friends rallied to her support. Once her most intensive treatments were over, I went down for a weekend visit. We traded survivor stories. When she passed the five year mark without a recurrence, I sent hearty congratulations. Then, a couple of years later, a non-cancerous illness destroyed her kidneys and took her life with little warning. That April, I drove south through timber plantations, palmetto swamps, and railroad cuts festooned with blooming wisteria vines to get to South Carolina for Beth’s memorial service. I didn’t know much about her town, but suspected it would be as highly segregated racially as much of the South I’d previously been exposed to.

The small Methodist church was nearly full. Some of the mourners were family members I recognized, but I was surprised to see half a dozen older black women among the mostly white worshippers. I guessed at first that perhaps the women were maintenance workers at some of the libraries Beth supervised, then chided myself for stereotyping. At the reception after the service, I had a chance to talk with one of the women.

“How did you know Beth?” I asked.

“We were part of a local support group called ‘Bosom Buddies’,” the woman explained, pointing to the discrete pink lapel pin she wore. 

I never learned much about the group. Beth may have had a hand in creating this cross-racial sisters-beneath-the-skin effort in the area she’d made her home. Whatever her role, she’d reached out across any racial divide, creating enough of a bond so that six women had taken the time to attend her memorial service.

Our country remains in need of healing. Pundits of many political leanings expound on all the ways we are polarized— economically, racially, politically, spiritually. Income disparities persist; wealth gaps have gotten worse. Gun violence takes too many lives; “stop and frisk” procedures and mass incarceration further divide us. Health outcomes vary tremendously, based partly on income and ethnicity. We’re still lop-sided. We all need healing. Perhaps those of us who are physically lop-sided can continue to build lop-sided bridges.