Friendship and Theology up on Caney Creek

Mary Magdala Community

2nd Sunday of Advent, December 4, 2022

Rev. Jim Ryan, Ph.D.

Several of life’s most important lessons came my way in the southern mountains of eastern Kentucky.  One of them, for example is the value of spending an entire afternoon porch-sitting without moving.  Here’s another:

At the time I lived in Floyd County, that is, the late 1970s, the number of Catholics was less than ½ of 1% of the entire population.  This was the case of all the surrounding counties, the total area of which comprised 3,500 sq. miles – larger than the states of either Delaware or Rhode Island.  Many of these counties did not have a Catholic Church let alone an official representative of the Roman Church in physical residence.  Knott County, with its county seat of Hindman, was one of those surrounding counties.  It did have institutions and organizations.  It was the home of the Hindman Settlement School, had a branch office of the United Mine Workers, Alice Lloyd College and numerous Baptist and Old Regular Baptist churches – but no Catholic church.

            Three or four times a year there was a Mass on the campus of Alice Lloyd College which was located outside of Hindman up on Caney Creek.  It happened because the pastor, Rev. Bill Poole, celebrated Mass that was not based on denominational separations.  All were welcome to fully participate and to share Communion with each other.  Mass took place in the home of a faculty member and attracted the very few Catholics on campus as well as individuals who were happy to have a spiritual gathering with people in a more ritualized form of worship.  (Liturgical structure not being a strong point of the Old Regulars.)  Those who gathered for the Home Mass also welcomed the discussions that ensued.  The first Home Mass that I led was the occasion for my meeting Joe Erdman.  Joe was the Business Manager of the college.  Clara, his wife, taught Psychology.  Joe was raised and received a foundational education in his Lutheran faith, beginning in his childhood spent in northern Ohio.  He enjoyed a good theological conversation, so he came to Mass.  Did I mention that a potluck supper was also involved?

The conversations between Joe and me began a friendship that lasted for over 30 years, ending only with his death.  Actually the friendship was the four of us, Clara and Joe and Jean and me.

Now, let’s fast forward to 2022.  As you know, I have been reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer this year.  Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran Pastor and Theologian who was executed within days of the ending of World War II for his participation in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.  This reacquaintance with Bonhoeffer’s life and thought is coming to an end for me now as 2022 draws to a close.  As I finished reading his 2nd dissertation entitled “Act and Being,” which was written in 1929-30 when he was 23, I also became reacquainted with his thought which was so deeply embodied in Lutheran theology.  This embodiement would change radically and expand exponentially by the time of his death in 1945.

Over the past couple months while reading Bonhoeffer those fiery conversations with my friend Joe as we gathered in those hills up on Caney Creek have been rekindled.  Not surprisingly, given Joe’s background, our conversation revolved around a very Lutheran viewpoint (Joe initiated it) of the depravity of humankind generally and each human being individually.  My counter-point was on the innate perfectibility of the human species and each human being individually.

Have you ever had this conversation?  Did it go late in the evening?  I mean, you can throw Martin Luther and Thomas Aquinas into the mix until the rooster crows.  Then Joe would keep me honest by letting me know which contemporry theologians he was reading and asked who were my favorites.  Have you ever had that conversation that resulted in a 30 yr. friendship?  I mean, Joe and Clara arranged and performed the music for our wedding not so many years later.  When I received my doctorate, they gave me a T-shirt with special lettering that said, “Dr. Ryan, I presume?”

Now, let’s recall there was a time when such a conversation could get one of the parties to it imprisoned.  These days such conversations become offsetting views of appreciation for the revelation of God’s love and grace.  It’s the view of nature and grace, sin and reconciliation.  At the time, I did not appreciate Joe’s view of sin; it was separate from focusing on mere moral flaws and evil actions.  His Lutheran view was that because the self cannot place oneself into truth (meaning, of course, THE truth) then that absolute barrier was clear proof of the sin of separation from the infinite.  This barrier, or this distance, alone makes humans sinners;  sinners in need of God’s grace who is, after all, the Infinite One who is Truth – well, actually, the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  All this is what I read this past month in Bonhoeffer, whose gift to me in 2022 is to even more deeply appreciate my friend, Joe, and our friendship that began up on Caney Creek.

What of the human capacity of perfectability?  Who are we, the ones who do not create truth – certainly not from the beginning?  Who are we who become perfect, who become divine?  As St. Irenaeus said in the 2nd century, “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.”  And as St. Athanasius said in the 4th century, “God became human so humans could become divine.”  How could they have gotten it so right so long ago and the institution so balled it up ever since?  I prefer to think that’s exactly how a friendship lasts for 30 years and more by seeing the truth that covers all. 

Then there’s the tree stump of Jesse and its blossom of new life (Isaiah 11:1).  This image has served for over 2,500 years as a message of hope and renewal, as well as a message of sin and death’s powerlessness when confronted by reconciliation and incarnation.  There is no moral fault here, rather there is closing the gap between the divine and the human, the coming of the Word made flesh.  Sin, separation, and distance are overcome.  Advent’s message of Incarnation, of Word made flesh, of God becoming human is the acknowledgement of that undeserved gift of new life emerging from the sin of separation.

Several years ago we put a new roof on the barn.  The time was way overdue in needing replacement.  The holes were so large that a nest of turkey vultures was lodged in the hay loft.  A few of the holes were formed by years of tree branches beating against the shingles.  So, to protect the new roof we had the tree cut down.  We had Keith, our tree cutter, leave the trunk at about 8 feet high.

At that same time in Cherokee County (where the farm is located) an invasion of ash borer moths chewed to death all the ash trees.  Today you can drive through the towns of the county and see dead ash trees among the living trees.  Ash trees grow fast – for a tree – and give great shade.  Streets were full of them just for those reasons.  Now those streets are full of dead trees.

The tree next to the barn is an ash tree.  In the last couple years new blossoms have started to grow and fill out above that 8ft. trunk.  By cutting it down when we did we saved the tree from the ash borers.  Of course we didn’t know any of this at the time.  And now that they have chewed their way through Cherokee County’s ash tree population the moths have moved on.  One result has been that by a combination of grace and dumb luck, according to Keith our tree-cutter, this ash tree may be the lone survivor in the county.

Sometimes life emerges from death, grace replaces sin with hope especially when sin is about separation with noone particularly at fault.  This is Advent’s reconciliation promise of joining the divine with the human.  Your thoughts?

An Advent Celebration of Reconciliation

(wherein we are the ministers of forgiveness)

All:  I have acted without regard to the Way of Jesus.

Presider:  We pause to reflect with a few moments of quiet.

                 Now looking at each other, we say:

All:   I ask forgiveness.

Sing “Christ, circle ‘round us.  Christ, may your light surround us.

         Shine in our living.  Fill our hearts with great thanksgiving.”

All:  I have not acted with love as Jesus commands us.

Presider:    We pause to reflect with a few moments of silence.

                   Now looking at each other, we say:

All:   I forgive you.

Sing   “Christ, circle ‘round us.  Christ, may your light surround us.

           Shine in our living.  Fill our hearts with great thanksgiving.”

All:   God’s gifts are the sign of care for all creation.

Presider:    We pause to reflect with a few moments of silence.

                   Now looking at each other, we say:

All:   We become One with the Word made flesh.

Sing   “Christ, circle ‘round us.  Christ, may your light surround us.

           Shine in our living.  Fill our hearts with great thanksgiving.”

Presider:  We are ministers of forgiveness.  May this divine absolution

              prepare us for the coming of the Incarnate One who is ever-

              promised and ever-present,  Jesus, our brother and savior

              now and evermore.

All:   Amen.                                               

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