Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Thanksgiving I’d Like To Forget

Thanksgiving is our least corrupted national holiday. That is perhaps because it is so simple. It is hard to make anything but giving thanks out of thanksgiving. No trees bedecked in dazzling ornaments, hardly any big cultural events outside of middle school concerts and dressing up as Pilgrims and Indians in the lower grades. Of course there is football and the ironically named “Black Friday” that are parts of the deal. But the Day of Thanksgiving generally lends itself to be exactly what it purports to be.

Compare Labor Day. It has its roots in the labor movement, now a vestige of what it once was. The vast majority of Americans do not celebrate American laborers on Labor Day. They are too busy picnicking and having end-of-summer parties. Nothing wrong with that, but it really seems wide of the mark of what the holiday is about.

Or the Fourth of July. Perhaps that is relatively uncorrupted, although one wonders just what expensively impressive fireworks really have to do with the national character, unless the latter is about being impressed with glitz and awed by spectacles that look vaguely like bombs bursting in air.

I could go on. But back to Thanksgiving. Perhaps the one place where civil religion and other religions share a similar vocabulary is the centrality that they accord gratitude. One does not have to be conventionally religious to grasp that gratitude is a most lovely virtue. It is hard not to be grateful for things appearing in our lives that make them better, sweeter, healthier, and more enjoyable than we are capable of arranging on our own. We forever discover that we owe somebody something for a good deed, or even a heroic one, that takes our breath away and leaves us grateful.

All of that documents the universality of what religious people speak of as “grace.” In fact grace and gratitude are linked by more than a linguistic bond. Psychologically we have a need to acknowledge good fortune. If you have a god or goddess that you can credit with luck or blessings, the natural thing to do is to thank him or her for being so nice. If you don’t, you still have a need to express something beside self-congratulations for the good stuff that you had nothing to do with—or maybe something but not everything to do with.

I have a memory of a particular Thanksgiving that frankly I would rather forget. It took place when I was eight or nine years old. My church did what churches typically did at Thanksgiving time in the 1950’s. They collected groceries and made baskets to be delivered to “the needy.” My Sunday school class fixed one of these baskets. I signed up to be one of the people that went with the teacher to deliver it on or about Thanksgiving Day. We drove down to a place not very far from where I lived. It was called “The Old Road,” because it had long been supplanted by the major highway running between Conway and Georgetown. The Old Road was where the city dump was, so there were piles of burning trash and a stench to match that would waft through the air when the weather cooperated. Down near the dump lived the needy family.

A woman came out to meet us. I guess she thanked us for the basket but I was distracted. A little boy was out in the yard in the November chill without any pants on. I had never seen a kid wandering around naked before. Somebody yelled at him to come inside and get some pants on. It seemed to be precipitated more by embarrassment at our seeing him than by concern that he might catch cold.

I made up my mind then and there that I really didn’t like the idea of Thanksgiving if it meant encountering people that seemed to have so little to be thankful for. Much later I was to learn that the quantity of goods, including food and clothes, that people have, has little to do with how grateful they are. It has perhaps even less to do with how happy they can be. Or how miserable.

We have come some way from the 1950’s. Some churches still gather canned goods and take them to “needy” families. Many of us have rethought the matter of seasonal generosity and have opted instead to work to change systems that keep people poor and hungry. Food pantries began springing up. Food stamps, much maligned by many, have become and remain a lifeline for thousands who are suffering. Hot meal programs and soup kitchens became more and more plentiful. Churches began regularly collecting non-perishable groceries throughout the year, and taking up collections of money for hunger relief. We have grown somewhat in the way we address the shadow side of Thanksgiving, changing the way we approach the poor.

All of that irritates and angers a huge segment of the population who always imagine that they are being ripped off by those who are themselves to blame for having no job, no health insurance, no social standing that buffers against economic disaster. And there are hosts of people who are eager to rescue the perishing because the rewards of doing so constellate in increased feelings of having done something, however small, to alleviate another’s suffering.

I am of the mind that Thanksgiving is less about counting blessings than about learning to live a generous life. It is not so much about being generous to those who are materially disadvantaged and vulnerable as it is about learning actually to love them.

Now that I think about it, hard as it is to think about, I think I have been a good bit of my life looking for some way to connect with that family by the town dump, to make friends with that little fellow that was outside with nothing but a tee shirt covering his little belly. I think maybe that Thanksgiving might be about learning that ultimately there is no divide between that kid and me, nor between me and the woman grocery shopping in the Giant across the street, riding in her motorized chair because her legs are the size of the columns on the White House because of her diabetes. Generosity may not be prompted so much by a sense that I am so blessed that I have an obligation to share as it is by knowing that I am no richer than the poorest of my neighbors.

It is all very ironic, Thanksgiving is. Fool with the idea of it long enough and you begin to see that giving thanks and practicing generosity really change the way you live.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2016.  All rights reserved.

Saturday, November 19, 2016


In just a week Advent will dawn, and we shall be hearing again in word and music elements of the birth narratives of Jesus. You and I know what images will come to mind: shepherds, star, Bethlehem inn, magi, the wicked King Herod. I can guarantee you that virtually no one will think about Caesar Augustus, even when he pops up in the well-known second chapter of Luke’s gospel on Christmas Eve.

Augustus Caesar
But Caesar Augustus is quite important to the story of Jesus, especially the story of his birth, and not only for the reason that he might have issued a decree that all the world should be taxed at about the time Jesus was to be born. Caesar held some interesting titles, one of which was “Son of God.”  Julius Caesar began to be called “Divine Julius” after his death by assassination. As his adopted son, Octavius, better known as Augustus, became known as the “son of God.” As you might guess or perhaps even know, quite a long and involved tale lies behind all that, but it brings us to a salient point today. In short, Jesus becomes the anti-Caesar. In the first place, he does not arrogate to himself the title “Son of God” but refers to himself frequently by the messianic title “Son of Man.” The Early Church, however, couldn’t leave well enough alone. By the time the gospels get to be written in the second half of the first century, Jesus was already Son of God.

It didn’t stop there. Within a century or two, one of the titles that the caesars used, βασιλευς, Greek for king, became of course a title that the Church bestowed upon Jesus. And that is where the trouble began. And that is the trouble today.

Today, the final Sunday in the Church Year, is popularly known as “Christ the King,” although the Prayer Book nowhere gives it that title. So what, you might ask, is the matter with that? Aside from the problems that a great many people have with the hierarchical and sexist overtones of “king,” there is bigger trouble.  It is what I would call the problem of imperial Christianity. Jesus the anti-Caesar morphed into another Caesar. What Jesus called his “kingship not of this world” became within a fairly short while precisely the opposite: a domination-oriented regime specializing in punishing people when they didn’t conform, amassing power for itself, regulating behavior by fanning fears of hell and worse, going to war against perceived enemies, and ultimately torturing people with unspeakable cruelty when they so much as appeared to be threatening the status of those in charge.

Not even Augustus, by all accounts the greatest and most successful of all the Caesars, was entirely comfortable with monarchical titles, referring to himself as the “Princeps,” the first citizen of the republic. Much less did Jesus align himself with either the prevailing power structure or its radicalized and revolutionary political opponents. But what Jesus talked about and taught about more than any other thing, by word and more so by example, was what he called the βασιλεια του θεου, the “kingdom” or “realm” of God. He never described himself as the ruler of the βασιλεια: that was not his point. Rather, Jesus focused on the radical shift in relationships in the βασιλεια, the manner in which its values are turned completely upside down. In the βασιλεια, the last are first and the first last. The child of no power and no account becomes the model for what the kingdom itself is like and what its members can and need to become. As the Magnificat puts is, the hungry are filled with good things, and the rich sent away empty. The proud are scattered in the imagination of their hearts; the humble and meek, exalted.

The slightest attention to all this should give us an unmistakable clue that God’s kingdom is, as Jesus once said to Pontius Pilate, not of this world. For nearly all human endeavor is organized along a different model. One way of putting it is that the world (St. Paul calls it “the flesh”) is run by the unbridled human ego, always interested in protecting itself, always plotting to triumph over this or that adversary, nearly always seeing things in terms of winning and losing. The losers in the world are frequently the saints in the βασιλεια of God. And the winners? They generally exclude themselves from God’s kingdom long before judgment day, so to say.

All this serves to clarify what the Epistle to the Colossians means by these words: “…He has delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved son, in whom we have redemption….” The power of darkness is in fact the age of Caesar, encompassing the systems of this world—economic, political, juridical, religious, even systems that ostensibly exist for the benefit of great good—education and health care, for instance. Evil powers infect and corrupt such systems, and we deny that corruption at our peril. Those who live in the kingdom are redeemed and freed precisely because they no longer serve the dark and insidious powers that twist and destroy the creatures of God. And when they do, they repent and return to the Lord, the king.

And speaking of repentance, that is not an incidental element in the life of the βασιλεια. You might wonder why today we hear a portion of the passion narrative. Why on this Sunday that is often associated with triumph and victory do we see a thoroughly humiliated and debased Jesus, crucified as a criminal? Tacked over his head is the ironic sign, “This is the king of the Jews,” a warning to all those who would follow him in renouncing the powers of this world. And what is his response? “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Truer words were never spoken. We have no earthly idea of what we are doing most of the time. As smart and clever as human beings are, we keep missing the obvious. Like the railing thief, even the most pious of us sometimes shout out, “What’s the matter? Aren’t you the all-important anointed one, Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the kingdom comes not with swords’ loud clashing nor roll of stirring drums, but in such humility as one finds in a simple miserere: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

So what about calling Jesus “king” and the reign of God his “kingdom”? Is that not just too old-fashioned, particularly in a democracy that long ago renounced autocratic rulers and know-it-all leaders? Is “king” not just an antiquated synonym of the idolatrous politicians who hold out the hope of salvation on the one hand but with the other snatch it away in schemes of self-aggrandizement and ego promotion? No, kingship has not passed away. Nor has the possibility of a kingship worthy of the holy Name of Jesus. For king is an archetype deeply embedded in the human soul. The soul knows that there is such a thing as an irony that in true submission is perfect delight. The soul knows that there is a form of king whom to serve is perfect freedom. Though it is an ideal that we rarely if ever see in this life, we know it is there. It does not belong to a particular religion because it belongs to the universe and to the ages. We see it in a St. Francis, in a Nelson Mandela, in a Desmond Tutu, in a Black Elk, in a Harriet Tubman, in a Hildegard of Bingen, in Teresa of Avila, a Rosa Parks. None of them is or was flawless. All were imperfect creatures just like us. All of them we remember because they found a ruler to follow, a ruler known by such names as Truth, Honor, Sacrifice, Kindness, Love.

Statue of Richard I outside the Houses of Parliament
In Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe, a mysterious character appears here and there in wars and skirmishes, always fighting alongside the troops struggling for justice and warring against the powers and principalities that threaten the good. He is known by the color of his dark armor, simply as “the black knight.” No one knows who he is or where he comes from. 

And then one day he reveals himself. He is their king, Richard the Lionheart, who has returned from his foreign wars to fight alongside his followers. That is not a piece of history. It is a deep truth that the soul knows best. We know in our souls that at last, when all now hidden is made known, our eyes will be opened, and we will recognize One who has been beside us struggling with us and for us all along. Call him what you will. He is the Lord of hosts, the king of glory. And he is for real.

Caravaggio, "Ecce Homo"

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2016

Friday, November 18, 2016


Autumn enchants me.  This afternoon I drove through a section of Rock Creek Park in a gray drizzle.  Light rain washed over a palette of yellows, reds, pinks, purples, browns, and the occasional splotch of green.  The day began fading from earth, leaving a mellow wistfulness in the air.

Wistfulness, yes, with its own strain of sadness.  Yet sadness sometimes has a beauty all its own.  There is something important about melancholy, something that the soul knows intimately.  It is counterpoint to joy.  Like Satie’s Gymnopédie, “Lent et Douloureux,” an autumn afternoon signals the descent of peace.  Sometimes peace, especially when it comes after great strife or stress, is tinged with sadness—perhaps regret, fatigue, or even profound relief.

Not all fall days are wistful.  Some are crisp, bright, breezy, chilly.  Sunlight sparkles on frosty mornings.  By noon, summer sometimes reappears for a brief reprise.

Nearly always I associate autumn with Edgar Allen Poe’s 1839 short story “The Fall of the House of Usher.”  I remember sitting one October afternoon in my college dorm room re-reading the story.  It must have seemed particularly appropriate to the time of year, beginning as it does on a bleak day in a place where signs of decay are omnipresent.  Although the Usher house, like its inhabitants, is outside any season save that of madness, death, and disease, the tale settled in my consciousness bearing the shadow side of autumn:  the loss of vitality, the degeneration of living things, the blurring of identities, the certainty of oncoming death. 

Why should I not run from these things?  Why let one gothic story commandeer a whole season making it not only sad but horror-bent?  Because there is a part of me that knows my own autumn.  It is at once natural and terrifying, beautiful and disarmingly hard, promising and depressing, refreshing and tragic.  It is easy enough, in one’s eighth decade, to associate the fall of the year with the ambiguity of aging, the prelude to the final season in which the last leaf left clinging finally floats to the ground and the spirit returns to the One who gave it.  But autumn is not fully known chronologically.  It keeps weaving in and out of my existence and always has, a finality that I keep resisting in many ways, yet one that inevitably comes to life’s stages and projects, its dreams and its torments.   Precisely because autumn can smell like maple syrup running over apple pancakes as well as the acrid smoke from piles of burning leaves, it is the outward experience corresponding to an inner state.

In his poem “Spring and Fall:  to a young child,” Gerard Manley Hopkins reflects on the sentimental tears of little Margaret reacting to falling leaves:

Márgarét, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Léaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Áh! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such slights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.[1]

Autumn may enchant me, but its spell does not put me to sleep.  I am mostly conscious of what this seasonal reverie is about.  It is less about oncoming death than the dynamic of decay that pervades all me and mine, indeed the world.  I know better than to feast on despair.  Winter is as necessary as summer, and spring is but a short distance away.  Nature will again break out into singing, beginning with the cockcrow heralding the reappearance of light.

Meanwhile, political upheaval, an imperiled environment, wars and rumors of wars, suffering among the disheartened and dispossessed:  all bespeak the fall.  As Hopkins wrote,

                               It is the blight man was born for,
                               It is Margaret you mourn for.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2016

[1] Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Spring and Fall: to a young child,” in Chief Modern Poets of England and America (New York:  Macmillan, 1962), page I-63.