A few weeks ago we attended a Yes concert and much to my pleasure and surprise, the band performed a song from its Close to the Edge album titled Siberian Khatru that I first absorbed in my high school years.
The lyrics to that song might seem impossibly abstract to some people. But to me they have an almost spooky relationship with my own life, especially my running career at Luther College, where I just spent the weekend enjoying a track reunion with more than 100 other athletes.
The experience of going back to any reunion is famously challenging. We all have those thoughts of compromised self-esteem and the tendency to compare ourselves to others or whatever expectations we never met in ourselves. We all have our relative angsts. And then it’s easy to project all kinds of success onto others and to denigrate ourselves over any failings in life.
As I drove up to Luther following the casually precise directions of Google Maps, I thought about the many times I’ve come back to that campus and how I’d felt about it over the years. That fueled the instinct to let the flow of life pass through me. I use to romanticize those trips to Decorah and Luther so heavily that I honestly thought of the Driftless Region (such a metaphorical title) as a “better place” than wherever else I was living. But I now realize that the best place in this world is always where you are at any moment. Many moons may pass, but that is eternally true.
That brings me to the lyrics of Siberian Khatru, and how they seem to create a pastiche of time and place. I can’t explain why, but they also oddly reflect so many passages of my life right down to specific places I’ve been and things I’ve done. I’ll explain the bold words in a moment:
River running right on over then over my head
Blue tail, tail fly, Luther, in time
Sun tower, asking, cover, lover
June cast, moon fast as one changes
Heart gold leaver, soul mark mover
Christian changer, called out savior
Moon gate climber, turn round glider
I highlighted the “river running” because I’ve done that all my life, from the Fox River back home in Illinois to my time at Luther College, where the Upper Iowa River, a National Scenic waterway runs right through the campus. Many of my running routes followed these rivers. Even the hills that lined the Upper Iowa seem to flow above it. River running right on over my head…
Luther was also where I truly fell in love for the first time. Through that love I learned to transcend that part of myself that was a stumbling block to success. It helped me lead a cross country team to second place in the national meet.
I didn’t marry that gal, and hence the lyrics “Heart gold leaver,” describe the eventual pain of that breakup. Yet life goes on, and being forced to find yourself after a lost love calls up the deeper aspects of self. In the wake of that lost love I dove into reading to find myself. The books included everything from John Irving to John Updike, Tom Robbins to Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac and Ayn Rand. That all started in 1981 even as I started writing a novel myself, titled “Admissions,” based on my first job out of college as an admissions counselor. The underlying theme is that sometimes it pays to be dumb enough to accept what’s actually good for you.
That reading and writing turned me into a “soul mark mover” who found himself embedded in a twenty-five year personal and spiritual search within a conservative Lutheran denomination whose congregants were generally kind, yet whose theology embraced a dark vein of fundamentalist Christian fear and willing ignorance. It illustrated that what I’d learn in college was true. “The unexamined faith is not worth having.”
So it had to be abandoned. And I moved on. There is too much good in scripture to anchor oneself to the confined view that God lives where literalism reigns. In that context everything about faith becomes a defense of human rules about how and what God does things and what God wants from us in terms of ritual and display of devotion. That is the definition of bad theology. I decided to do something about it.
So I wrote my first book on theology titled The Genesis Fix: A Repair Manual for Faith in the Modern Age. That book engendered an encouraging response from a Luther College professor emeritus named Dr. Richard Simon Hanson, who mailed me a typewritten copy of one of his manuscripts titled “Religion From Earth.” It had a handwritten note inside, “This is yours to use however you might like.”
I’m now completing that collaborative project, a book titled Truly Sustainable Faith. The book addresses sustainability in terms of what keeps faith progressively in line with the full Word of God. It is not the ritualistic hypocrisy of legalism and or the literal interpretations of scripture favored by tradition or the bad theology of creationism. The research for this book is the cumulation of experience earned both on the road and between the pages of the Bible soaking up metaphorical depth like a walk through an old growth forest.
There are many kinds of forests in this world. And as I walked among the slightly bulging trunks of men who shared a track and field legacy, I pondered the meaning of our mutual presence; to celebrate the years but also to celebrate those moments when, in youthful competitive fervor and belief in a common goal, we all tried to do our best for Luther, in time.