Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Irony of Advent

Last night in our reflection group, we pondered the words “good” and “faithful.” When viewed in the lexicon of religion, there doesn’t seem to be much difference. Does not a good spiritual practice entail being good? Does not faith deepen as one gets better?

The answer, I suppose, would surely be “yes,” if the practice of faith were entirely up to me. Consider the Biblical story of Jacob, upon which our group was asked to reflect last night. Jacob is more trickster than saint. He’s a twin. He and his brother are born fighting. Later, Jacob tricks his bro, first, of his birthright, second, of their father’s blessing, and then, fearing for his life, hits the road. He falls asleep under the stars and receives a vivid message from God in the form of a dream of heaven, a stairway with angels, a glimpse of the divine mind, calling him to higher consciousness. There is absolutely nothing about Jacob himself that would merit such an experience, except that he has such ample room for improvement, but there it is. Except that it does not particularly change him. He goes on to engage in a difficult, sometimes deceitful (on both sides) relationship with his father in law Laban, and ends up fleeing him as well, not only having cheated him of the better part of his herd, but also having stolen Laban’s household gods, the source of his security and blessing. At the Jabbock, at the boundary between present and future and soon to come face to face with his past, Jacob is given yet another dream and wrestles with God all night. He wakes up wounded, but he and his brother are reconciled. A Jungian would say of this story that after many struggles, the persona and the shadow are united at last, but a person of our faith would say also that God never stopped bugging him.

By my standards of morality, Jacob seems hardly “worthy” of such divine favor and persistence. The moment I say this, however, I remember the wildness of grace. Grace cares not at all whether one is worthy. Grace only cares that you notice when the wild wind is blowing. God clearly liked Jacob, and Jacob clearly noticed God. Jacob was part of a story that did not begin with him, nor would it end with him. Many a “good” person has retreated into a comfy and domesticated world of “goodness,” while more rough hewn folk venture out to the crossroads. There’s a kind of faith in venturing out, in seeking encounters with others rather than affirmations of ones own goodness. Tricksters hold few illusions of sanctity, but they do know a good trick when they see one. God has been known to turn a few. Tricksters thrive on change, and they’re not afraid of tacky when tacky is called for. Often, in this world it is, or Jesus would not have been born in a barn.

Advent, like Jacob’s world, like the stable, like the crossroad, is a boundary place. It certainly overturns my sense of my own goodness. I expected that somehow I could write daily Advent meditations while being chaplain to 348 excited children in December. The children won. They always do. So much for being good at the tidy sequence of theological reflection that paves the road to Bethlehem. I have learned this year that sometimes it is better just to keep the faith and show up at my corner.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Notes from a Dream Weekend

I spent this weekend with my teacher and fourteen others in a master dream class focused upon Jungian theory. We spent a lot of time pondering the path to becoming fully human. I was reminded once again that true spiritual work is always done with others. A religious solitary can only be a solitary when the connection with others is so deep that others no longer need be physically present. For the rest of us, the inner journey is best taken in company.

For hundreds of years, however, spirituality has been privatized to the point of absurdity. If spiritual practice is how I come to know myself and my relation to the universe, how can I do that without being in relation to that universe? To discover what is real and not just my imagination running through the woods requires others to be in on it. It is why religious communities insist upon being community. They are also failing because if there is not some great big cause behind which to hide, people have difficulty just sitting face to face. I know this because I meditate with children. Do it some time. They have an incredible effect upon one another.

Which brings me to the quote that has become one of my mantras, namely, Joseph Campbell's "Myths are public dreams and dreams are private myths." I have written often how important it is to understand the public myths which guide our lives, how history takes on new dimensions and textures when it is read as dream. What is less intuitive is how our private dreams intersect with this public world. What is the authority of a dream? Since childhood, we have been trained to keep our interiority to ourselves. "Do whatever you want," runs the Edwardian proverb, "as long as it does not scare the horses."

Christmas is painful, I think, because it compels us to deal with spiritual things in a public way. At this time of year, I cannot fully retreat into polite silence. But after decades of struggling with this, I know all the way to my bones that growth cannot happen if I keep who I am to myself.

Which brings me to my final point. Whatever your faith tradition or lack thereof, this is a season that calls upon us to love: to remember the poor, to consider what causes we choose to support, to acknowledge, in love, both our blessings and our failures.

Remember, dear ones, if the cosmos didn't think we were worth it, we wouldn't be here at all.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The "J" Word

In a famous and oft reprinted essay, local columnist Jon Carroll laments that at Christmas “we are required to deal with the divinity of Christ.” I am not sure exactly what he means about being required to deal with divinity in a culture where only 8% of the population goes to church, but if using the phrase “divinity of Christ” is a cipher for other difficult issues that arise at this time of year, then I fully agree that this time of year exudes “soft emanations of uneasiness.”

I think that any season that lives at the edge between the holy and the profane is going to be uneasy. Whether or not we attend religious services, we are not an especially holy nation. We’re traders. We are a market culture; hence we celebrate the descent of heaven by going shopping. If there is anyone in the Bible whom we are like it is the moneychangers. These are the brokers in front of the temple who get a commission every time someone goes in to offer a sacrifice. We’re not a royal priesthood. Until we crash, we multiply assets, not loaves and fishes. Jesus may have overturned the moneychangers’ tables and liberated the animals, but the culture who embraced faith in his name soon put them back up, despite the protests of the holy ones.

When life as lived runs contrary to the sacred story, one or the other will change. Enter the American Jesus. There are two very good books that describe how Americans have reinvented the savior, so I won’t get into a history of Jesus the teetotaler, Jesus the biker, Jesus the shaman, Jesus the manly man. What I will say, from listening to hours of my friends’ sermons and reading reflections is that most accounts of Jesus say a great deal more about the writer than they do about the Messiah. My Jewish friends don’t tolerate the idea of God and human mushing up together the way many Christians describe Jesus, and I think they have a real point. If Jesus is God in human form, then it is just too easy to project myself upon that form and create a god who looks just like me. And since that projected God is made by human hands, then, bingo! I have created, not God, but an idol, and that, as my Jewish friends again remind me, is a very bad idea.

In addition, I suspect that it takes a holy person to accurately describe a holy person, and most of us who talk about Jesus are far from being holy. We can admire Jesus, but we cannot really see him. I can only see as far as I can see. I can only know the holy by its effect on me, and if it brings out the very worst, where’s the problem? With God or with me?

There’s an interesting observation in Carlos Castaneda’s “The Art of Dreaming.” As Carlos discovers his powers as a dreamer, he just dives into the universe like a daredevil, without giving the slightest heed to the possibility that disturbing the cosmos might be a dangerous enterprise, not only to himself, but to others. There are times, as a Christian, that I feel myself face to face with a daredevil church, leaping into controversy without the slightest thought that it might be harmful to the gentle practice of faith.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Tracking Season

Winter is the season of the old. The earth is spent and must rest. Darkness covers the land and people turn inward, toward the darkness of the soul. Things that can be ignored or kept at bay during the summer surface now that there is no sunlight to cover them. Northern people say that winter is a bad tempered being. Restless spirits come down, and children are warned not to go out alone. Rain, snow, and mist muffle sound and compel even the most busy and active to keep silence. Not everything can survive a winter. Birds fly south; some animals hibernate. Many people go to Florida or Arizona or Hawaii in search of sun. But if winter is dormant, cronish and bad tempered in many ways, she is also rich in stories, because winter gives us ample time to think and from that thought, much wisdom arises. So also does resentment, but that is a story I shall save for another time.

A tracker knows that he must be silent if he is to find his prey. In cultures that must track in order to live, even little children are trained to be as silent as air, to walk without sound, to pay attention to all the little signs that tell them who has been here. This is not only true of hunter cultures; political exiles have learned this as well. It was said that when the first Europeans crashed into the North American forests, people could hear them from miles away. Noise is an attribute of dominance.

While silence is a beautiful humility. Silence is the ground of prayer. When I keep silence, I cannot impose my views. When I keep silence, I am ready to meet and to know the Other as Other. The Other both humbles me and like the bear in the forest, helps me be strong.

Advent is a tracking season. People are on the move. There are voices in the wilderness. Pause and listen to them. They just might surprise you.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see?"

What does it mean to repent?

John used the figure of drowning. Water is a great leveler. It can ruin my soft robes or my remodeled kitchen. Save me O Lord for the waters have risen up to my neck. When I am in water up to my neck, my busyness ceases. My thoughts grow still. I become as a reed, shaken and bent. Baptism is ritual submersion. Let the waters rise. I have you in my arms, says John, says God who speaks through John, and when you come up again you will be new.

The Church speaks of Baptism as dying with Christ, but ritually, it feels more like being born with him.

Newness of life, not lifestyle change, is what repentance promises.

Consider any of the problems that beset us as a species. Huge corporations devour the earth. People forced out of their homes by war, fire, weather, foreclosure. The oceans emptied of fish. Animals hunted out of existence or driven from their habitats by climate change. A humanity addicted to poisonous oil. A population that keeps growing. We are hungry. There is no rational way out of this, because it was never rational in the first place, but there is a way.

That's because, every Advent, I am guided by John the Baptist. He comes to prepare the way. He drowns me. He overwhelms me so that I can neither see nor breathe, but he also holds me in his arms. And when I come back out, I realize only what a precious gift is life; what a wonder is breath. It is so simple. It is decent.

Repentance, in my view, begins not with change, but with emptiness.

Monday, December 8, 2008


Several years ago, a friend suffered a heart attack. On hearing the news, the eyes of one my close acquaintance's eyes lit up wickedly. "Hmm," she said, and not a little officiously, "looks like some lifestyle changes for him!"

I have always found lifestyle a particularly troubling concept. Style is something I choose. It's been about surface image since its inception to cover the body's nakedness. Style has almost always been an instrument of social control, a way of labeling social classes. In ancient Rome, one could always recognize a prostitute by her saffron dress. In the Middle Ages, sumptuary laws distinguished merchants from margraves. Today, uniforms and clergy vestments are reminders of how "clothes maketh the man." Even if my life is spinning out of control, I can always manage my lifestyle. Or so they say. But I did not choose to be born.

The word becomes even more troubling when applied to other cultures. When you talk of Alaska Natives living a subsistence "lifestyle," the suggestion is that one day they'll grow up and get over it and chose the more "rational" and "successful" path of consumerism. There's little space in "lifestyle" for wisdom passed over generations, for the deep bonds we hold for the land, the animals, the truth spoken to our ancestors in the distant time.

Spiritually, "lifestyle" also suggests that repentance is just a matter of changing some unhealthy details and managing my unruliness. Lifestyle repentance may be difficult and expensive, but it is, in the end, no more than a kitchen remodel of the self.

Maybe that works for some people. It has never worked for me. There is something in my nature that even if you dress me in the best expensive clothes, I'll still walk into the living room with my neckline askew. Indeed, the one time I actually had expensive clothes, the seams were so delicate that they came unraveled almost at once and I had to sit in the living room holding my skirt discreetly closed.

So I think there's a great deal more to human nature and human stubbornness than the word "lifestyle" implies. John the Baptist is up to something far more serious than that.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

A Voice in the Wilderness

The second and third Sundays of Advent belong to John the Baptist. Born at midsummer when the light overwhelms the darkness, John emerges full grown in winter's uttermost obscurity, waving the sparks of summer right before our eyes. The light is not lost! says John. It is coming! John, like the aurora, arrives to illuminate our way when in winter's gloom, we have lost it. He steps out of the wilderness, a tracker, one who points our goings.

John was a prophet. He spoke the word of God. Most popular depictions of John show a skinny wildman in skins, yelling at us to Repent! Next to the sweet babe of Bethlehem, he seems a crusty fellow, the sort one is reluctant to keep company with. And yet people did. They flocked into the wilderness to hear him preach.

Our age's discomfort with John may also be our age's discomfort with wildness. We may buy coffee table books that extol the grandeur of wild rocks and rivers, but when it comes to real life, we choose comfort. I know very few people who enter the wilderness simply to enjoy it. They go there to strive, to accomplish things: to climb mountains, to snowboard, to study science, to dare the rapids. Rare is the person who goes simply into nature to let it wash over and change them, to return to the places humans have called home for most of our time on earth. We prefer to impact others than to be impacted upon.

To those oppressesd by civilization, however, John brought comfort. He took people into the river and let it wash over them and change them. He showed the power and hope of wild places to those overdomesticated by empire. He acted as a bridge between the worlds: not, as most teach, between the Jewish prophets and the Christians, because there were no Christians when John walked the earth, but between the wilderness and the city, between Sinai and Jerusalem.

Most people who write about the forest and the city assume the one to be natural and the other made by human hands, but a city is really nothing more than the landscape of the human imagination. People who live in wild nature feel right at home amid the peaks and canyons of New York City. The problem lies with not one or the other, but with the split between them.

For most of our history, the wilderness was fully alive, sentient, a voice that, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, cried out. But with the rise of language, of grammar, of interpretation and social ordering, nature was silenced and only human discourse heard. But God is the God of all life, not just the human, and John incarnates the wilderness, just as Jesus incarnates the spirit.

In that spirit, it is interesting to note that John, the earthly one, for all intents and purposes, fasts, living only on locusts and wild honey, while Jesus is the spirited party goer. But that is true. To really live in nature, where food must be found and is often scarce, is to live lightly. It is only in the civilized world with its division of labor that some may always feast. The point is to reach abundance, of course, but we cannot do that if we do not, like John, practice restraint. Restraint is a kind of decency. By minimizing the gulf between the haves and the have nots, it acknowledges that we are all in this together.

Such is part of what John taught when he returned his followers to those waters which broke at their births.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Feast of St. Nicholas

The feast of St. Nicholas is about things that happen in the dark.

Nicholas lived in the city of Myra in what is today Turkey during the 4th century. It is said he was orphaned as a boy and left with a large fortune. Raised by an uncle who was a priest and blessed by a generous nature, Nicholas came to view his wealth not as an asset to be hoarded and multiplied, but as a gift to be given. Many stories attest to his generosity.

There was an impoverished man in Myra with three daughters. With no funds to either feed or dower them, he was going to be forced to sell them as prostitutes. No money, no life, no dignity. But while the family slept, Nicholas slipped three bags of gold through the window by night. In some versions of the tale, the father manages to stay awake and see the hand of God.

In another act of generosity, Nicholas took two bags of grain from a ship and with them was able to feed a multitude. Meanwhile, when the ship captain checked his stores, no bags of grain were missing, even though he had personally given away two.

The suggestion is that an economy of generosity works.

December 6 is the Feast of St. Nicholas. In many European countries, today is the day when children lay out shoes or stockings in hopes that the Saint will remember them. In some traditions, only good children receive gifts. Naughty children receive lumps of coal instead, which might say something about the energy industry.

Santa Claus is simply an Americanization of St. Nicholas. If you say it out loud, it’s easy to hear.

How a saving act of grace turned into a commercial feeding frenzy is one of the spiritual mysteries of our time. But if we are asleep, we might mistake the truths that happen by night as “only a dream.”

Give a little of yourself away today.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Children in December

If you wait, God will manifest Himself.
—Thomas Keating
Cistercian priest and monk (Explorefaith Advent Calendar)

If you have ever taught school, you know what happens to children in December. People blame it on the commercial frenzy of Christmas, but I think December's wildness would be there even if not a single gift were exchanged. There’s something entirely too magical about an approaching solstice. The air grows taut with anticipation. The days turn either magically long or magically short. At both ends of the year, light takes on an intoxicating quality. In a Northern Hemisphere winter, the sun hangs low, golden and slanting. Sunset and sunrise stain the horizon in fantastic colors. Dense mists hover close to the ground. The moon stays out for hours. In the summer, the light lasts so long it is as if life will last forever.

Deep seasons evoke wonder and children are nothing if not expert at wonder. Children express wonder when they blow smoke rings with their breath, when they squeal at the twinkling ring of lights around the lake, when they grow rapt at a flight of cormorants casting shadows upon magenta waters, when they burst into peals of silly singing.

We teachers tear our hair as our students turn cartwheels in the classroom, as they sit so vividly rapt in their daydreaming that even when I call their names they do not hear me. We blame it on the commercial frenzy, but this year, when the economy has tanked and no one has the slightest idea what the next commercial move can even be, the children are still singing and spinning and lighting up every room they enter.

As their chaplain, I do not need to teach them about excitement, but I do need to teach them patience. December may be exciting, but it is also about learning how to wait. To wait for the light. To wait for the whisper of love in the middle of the night. Wonder is too fragile to trust to mere chance. In too many cases, by the time the holiday finally arrives, the children are so overdosed on sugar plums that it becomes an ordeal rather than a celebration.

As Thomas Keating said above, to meet God is to practice patience. About trusting that the party will come and savoring way to the feast. About allowing the fragrance of the holy to waft across the ordinary tasks of the day, about sanctifying all those little things I take for granted.

All of which involves patience. “Keep awake,” says Jesus. “Keep awake.” The temptation of this season is to be so involved in my own dreams that I forget that God has an even more wonderful dream for me. "Keep awake." Even at the darkest time of the year, God will show the way.

Thursday, December 4, 2008


Isaiah is the book most read during Advent. It is a scripture Jesus loved and often quoted. Perhaps more fully than any of the prophets, Isaiah imagines the Kingdom of God; what it would look like, how we would live in it, what to look for.

As anyone who has studied the Bible knows, Isaiah is one prophet in three persons. The first Isaiah wrote before the Babylonian Exile, the second Isaiah wrote during it, the third Isaiah brings us home. One story, three voices.

The story is this. There was once a people who put their faith in God and God brought them to a broad and pleasant land. As they settled, however, they also grew unsettled, and they became not just a people of God, but a kingdom on earth. Did not Scripture say that God gave humanity dominion over the earth, to subdue it and have mastery? And so they became a power. Not the greatest of powers, but certainly not the worst, with kings and concubines and warriors with swords strapped to their thighs. Power made them expansive. They worshipped the local Baals and Astoreths until, one day, a superior power trumped theirs and they were carried off their broad and pleasant land with its divinity of place, and held captive in a vast city of wonders, a kind of nowhere where they could not sing their songs. Over time, they learned that God is not attached to place; God is not limited to Baal or Forest Deity, and perhaps it was there, when they were homeless and living in an unreal city, that the people made time, as well as place, sacred. At last, when enough time had passed, the people were allowed to go home. The temporal powers (and remember that temporal means “time”) were now assured that the broad and pleasant land would be best secured if the people took possession of it again, for they had proven themselves a bright and tenacious people with a loyalty that amazed them. And so they went home. Their land had not been cared for in their absence. Their cities were in shambles, their temple in ruins. All that they had was their story, a memory from which to rebuild their kingdom of God.

It is this story that we take up in Advent: the covenant, the exile, the return. And like scavengers, sifting through piles of straw for fragments, we search for a child, a hope, the beginning in our end.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

More Thoughts on Absence

Christian practice can be summed up by the word patience. In the New Testament patience means waiting for God for any length of time, not going away, and not giving in to boredom or discouragement.

—Thomas Keating
Cistercian priest and monk (from Advent Calendar0

Patience is not an exclusively Christian practice. Waiting, terrible waiting, is true in the Old Testament as well. It is to wait with Abraham for half a century until Isaac is finally born. It is to keep faith with the Hebrews for half a millennium of slavery in Egypt. To keep faith when dragged into captivity in Babylon, or, when returning, to discover that all that one has loved lies in ruins. Where is God in the midst of such discouragement or chaos? It is one thing to read the story when I know how it is going to end, when I can skip over all the fruitless years and be there for the good part. It is quite another to exist in the middle.

My Jewish friends say something very important when they say they are still waiting for the Messiah. They remind me that I am waiting, too. Even when one professes Jesus as the Chosen One of God, one also professes a teacher whose life and teachings were cut short by a cross. He may have been able to say all he needed to say, but we did not have time to hear. Which is one reason why he said he would be back. Which is why we have the Ascension to mark that though he rose from the dead, he’s also really gone. Christians, like Jews, live in world that is unfinished, and most of our fleeting lives are lived in the middle.

All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the LORD blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand forever.
Isaiah 40: 6b-8 (from the reading for the Second Sunday of Advent)

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

On the Absence of God -- Part II

Western culture is founded upon a principle of separation. In order for me to understand the nature of reality, I must separate myself from it and become its observer, leaving behind any personal baggage that might cloud the view. What is the world made of? asked Thales. Clearly the fact that the Hebrew Scriptures can be traced to four different sources rules out any divine inspiration, wrote the Biblical scholars whose scientific criticism of sacred text provoked an embarrassing backlash of fundamentalism. Objective. Only the world of appearances can be trusted. If it doesn’t appear right before my objective eyes, it cannot be real. I suspect that whatever clarity this has given me about the outer world has been more than offset by the terrible loneliness that results when I get disconnected. Stuff. Only the material world is strictly real, hence the obsession with wealth, but if my own experience is in any way informative, to live in a gated community is also to live gated from God who appears so vibrantly in others.

The philosopher Kant so separated subject and object that it became impossible to know anything in and of itself. This is, of course, a foundational teaching in Buddhism. Because all things are created of relationship – the bread I eat was once a seed, was once wheat, was made by many hands and delivered to me by even more processes and cannot even exist without all these different forms – nothing can have existence from its own side. All reality is a constantly shifting interconnection teaches the Buddha. When the West made its leap into separation, it could not trust the interconnection. When the philosophers named this separation of subject and object, cause and effect, they revealed not only knowledge, but a terrible and fatal alienation. Where do you feel lonely?

O come, O come, Emmanuel.

O God, you are my God,
I seek you, my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land
where there is no water.

—Psalm 63:1 (from Advent Calendar)

Monday, December 1, 2008

Absence: A Meditation

Advent always begins in absence. That discontent most of us feel at the beginning of the Holiday Season is not just what calls “The December Dilemma.” It is real discontent. In December, I always hit a wall. To be enveloped in the expectation of joy is to come face to face with all that is not joy. To be confronted with commercial images of abundance is, quite naturally, to feel my own emptiness and scarcity.

Despite robust calls to repent, to get over it, to pretend joy in the expectation that anything worked on hard enough will eventually become “real,” (remember how your mother always said, ‘put a smile on your face?’), to articulate what is lacking is very difficult. It is always easier to speak about what is there rather than what is not there. That may be why the first week of Advent simply invites us into emptiness. Allow yourself discomfort on this day. Nothing is forever.

Contemplative prayer also invites us into emptiness. Take a few minutes to sit quietly. As you breathe, follow the air as it fills the empty spaces inside you. See your body as empty, the air as that which fills. I find life in what lies outside me, and when I take it in, it becomes me. The mere fact that I must breathe, I must eat, I must drink reminds me that I cannot be sufficient in myself. Breathe quietly. When thoughts or feelings come, make a note of them, then let them go. I have thoughts, but I am not my thoughts. Focus simply upon your being. That is enough. I am. That is enough.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Advent 1: The Absent God

“Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man, setting out on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge.”

“Restore us, O Lord of hosts,
Show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.”

O come, O come, Emmanuel.

It is Advent. It is dark and I cannot see. Something’s coming. Let the Adventure begin.

One of the most enigmatic ideas in scripture is that of the Absent or Hidden God. It is a major theme in every one of the scripture passages appointed for today. If God were not hidden, then the prophet Isaiah could not ask God who has “hidden himself” to “tear open the heavens and come down.” Nor would the psalmist ask God to restore the light of his countenance so that we might be saved. In the Epistle, Paul writes to a community in Corinth who is awaiting the return of a Christ who has been taken away prematurely into heaven, as one untimely born, before we could understand him. Finally, in the Gospel Jesus himself evokes a leafless fig tree growing tender as a symbol of things to come and speaks of a master leaving home and putting his slaves in charge.

The idea of an absent God, a God who leaves home, is so incredibly and deeply troubling that most of us explain it away as metaphor: God is never absent from us, but sometimes it feels as if we are absent from God. It’s we who go away, not God. Right?

But what if it isn’t just a figure of speech? What is God really does go away? What if God really is absent sometimes? What if all those parables are, at some level, true, like the one we read only two weeks ago: “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.” What if God really did entrust the earth to us and went away, curious to see what we would do with the master’s treasure?

What would that mean for us? What does it say about God?
Isaiah, writing in the 6th century BCE after the Exile, has returned to the Promised Land and finds it a shambles. He writes:

We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.

Isaiah suggests that whenever God turns away his face, we lapse into bad behavior. Without God, we go all to pieces. We live such a short time, like grass that fades, that we never see the consequences of our lives and actions. What’s the point of a God who is forever when I am just here for a moment?

What do we mean when we talk about God? Present or absent, what do we mean? This is a much harder question than it looks. For millennia, people have tried the most basic thing: to simply prove that God exists. It is impossible. It is as impossible as telling a fish who dwells way deep in the sea to prove the existence of water. Or for someone who is alive to prove the existence of life. Or, even better, for someone who is dead to prove the existence of death. The only way to God is in the experience of God, and knowing and understanding that experience raises problems of its own.

Belief in God, says the Buddha, can divert us from the practice of God. We can get so busy finding the one that makes us behave that we forget to behave at all. Prince Siddhartha/Shakyamuni Buddha was an exact contemporary of Third Isaiah. He taught that a person could walk the eightfold path and reach enlightenment without faith or belief in a supreme deity. He did not deny the existence of God, but taught that belief could often be unhelpful as it could sidetrack a person away from wisdom, compassion and goodness, which is to say, the task of living rightly, and lead them into bitter, doctrinal battles about God. All we need to do is look at the raging disputes that are going on in God’s name to appreciate the Buddha’s good sense.

All these paradoxes came up for me as I was reading one of the classic books on climate change, The End of Nature by Bill McKibben. Published in 1989, as a hole in the ozone layer caught the attention of the world, it is considered the first popular book on the subject. It caught the attention of no one other than Al Gore, dubbed “the Ozone Man,” by then president George H.W. Bush. The End of Nature is a pretty powerful little book. Its first chapter is living proof that we knew then almost everything that we know now about global warming. Except for banning chlorofluorocarbons, we didn’t do much with what we knew. Mostly, for the next decade and a half we denied the problem by building bigger houses, driving bigger cars and heating up the economy to such a fever pitch of consumption that it, too, generated carbon. No matter how disturbing this is, there’s nothing new here. It is the second chapter that surprises. McKibben writes that humanity has by now so messed with the natural world that there is nothing natural left in it. We have killed lakes, clear-cut forests, fished out seas and leveled mountains and if we have managed to revive some of this, they will never be the natural ecosystems they once were. These restored lands are not wild but domesticated. We have pumped so much carbon into the atmosphere that it is closing in on us. Ice caps are melting. Storms are brewing. Species are going extinct and crows are taking over your neighborhood and all of this is caused by humans. There is no more nature separate from us into which we can go for refuge and renewal. The days when the progression of seasons formed a stable backdrop for human life is gone. Weather is a wild card. We cannot live in the changeless assurance that winter will be followed by spring, summer and autumn as we go about our daily tasks. We have turned earth into a theme park, and she is about to take us on a wild ride.

So I’m reading this and pondering it on my dog walk and nodding my head when all of a sudden I do a double take. What is this man talking about? When has nature ever been a backdrop? Are we not part of the world? Has Nature ever been a force of stability anywhere except in Hallmark Cards and Currier and Ives prints? We are mammals. We may be strange and terrible, but we cannot be unnatural.

Whatever we are doing to nature, we are also doing to ourselves, and to think otherwise is pretend we are separate from the Great Web of Life which is to say separate from Creation which is to say separate from the Creator which is to say we have separated ourselves right into a state of sin that no amount of church attendance is going to get us out of unless we wake up to the truth. Which is exactly why Jesus says, “Keep awake. You do not know. Keep awake.”

To look to Nature for stability has never been a good idea. The Greeks proposed the idea of a God who is unchanging because Nature was so frustratingly changeable. The Greeks strove for a kind of perfection that now we know can be found only in death. The essence of life is change. The real gift of the Seasons is the opportunity they give us to practice change. We practice sacred time so that we may live wisely in sacred space. God is leading us somewhere. In our western culture we fear change. We believe that life is fragile, that we only live once, that once our brief light goes out, night is one perpetual sleeping. We write tomes of history and philosophy, but we find no peace in our ideas. We build towers and computers, but cower in our beds like children. Jesus, like all the wise ones, knows that no matter how skilled we are, we spend most of our lives in a haze. I think I know God but I don’t. As long as God makes me angry, or wanting to punish a neighbor for his wrong headed views, or found my own church, or any of that, God is absent from me. I may love my opinions, but they are not God.

But when I catch myself knowing this, then am I blessed, for I have stumbled into Advent. It is dark and I cannot see. Something’s coming. Let the Adventure begin. For God will open the heavens. The real God, not the idol I cling to in my fear, will appear. Into the emptiness of our separation, in a dark night over a ruined earth, the heavens will come down, not as a fearsome storm, but as life. God will be born as a tiny Child. There is no separation. God is one of us. AMEN.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Advent is Coming

As November mists wrap the land in mystery; as Matminni (the Falling Leaf Season) gives way to Kumminni (the Rain Season), God's Sled Dog sniffs the air for homefires. For the time has come to set our sites toward home and to wait for the Christ Child to be born.

Advent circles through time and space and reminds us in very deep ways of what it means to be human. Join us next Sunday for Week One: Change. Week Two will explore Place, Week Three, Messages and Week Four, Answers.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Economy of Earth

A recent newspaper poll asked its readers the following: What is more important: saving the economy or global warming? One could answer in three ways. a) Global warming was more important; b) the economy was more important; or c) no need to choose – we could save both economy and earth. I do not know how you would answer this question, but the readers voted 65% for the economy, 23% for both, and only 12% for our poor old planet.

It is not the answer that troubles me as much as the question. When the economy is crashing, I expect people to be worried about money. But to assume that money can be separated from the earth, that anything in life is separate from the earth, tells me how cut off we have become. The mere fact that anyone could prioritize in this way reminds me just how few people have absorbed the simple fact that if our planet becomes unlivable, it will not matter how much money I have in the bank, because without a livable planet, I will not be able to live.

As I look at the wasteful habits of the rich, I cannot help but think that money has a great deal to do with the present condition of our Earth. (Double click the chart below to see the link between wealth and carbon emissions.)
For decades, thinkers have been trying to tell us that industrialization, which has made a more comfortable life for many possible, is also one of the root causes of all our ecological woes. Traditional societies cannot support the population and consumption levels that industrialization has allowed us to reach. More people and more technology have made fortunes, but they have also caused pollution, escalating carbon counts, global warming, and because industrialization depends upon cheap labor, a three billion person underclass of people who live on $2.00 a day or less. That the disasters predicted by Malthus and Paul Ehrlich’s population bomb have yet to happen is no cause for capitalistic triumph. The operative word is “yet.” God is slow to anger, says the psalmist. We know something is very wrong, but the way we have been taught to live does not help us. There may be a way to live sustainably, but nothing in five hundred years of western expansionism gives us much of a clue how to do it. Individualists have little experience of the life giving power of a community.

Nor is there much real roadside help along the information highway. The media culture blurs fact and fiction, horror and horror movie. We see most of the world on screen, or if we are traveling, through the windows of cars, buses, planes and cruise ships. Action is action. A horror movie about global warming doesn’t look much different to our senses than a horror movie about Godzilla. Both lie outside my daily life. I have neither melting glaciers nor large reptiles in my back yard and so must take both on faith. Both coming to me on a wide screen in an air-conditioned theater, I am just as separated from both. Separation is one of the hallmarks of the “objective” science that my society tells me is true. When the goal is to conquer, the best tactic is to divide.

But that is not the only reason we go on blindly eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage as if nothing were happening. We go on as usual, because actually, for those of us in affluent America, we can see no convincing reason not to. We are the rich country. Even a poor person can force himself into an emergency room in the United States. In Malawi, by contrast, AIDS patients who could be treated for $1.00 a day are stacked four to a bed, and only a quarter of them can receive the medicine thanks to the “hard” realities of Malawi's debt and the priorities of the world banking system. Dirty factories that were once in Indiana are now in places like China, India and Guatemala. We still enjoy the products of these dirty factories, of course, but in nice, clean neighborhoods. The richest of us can “build green,” and live guilt free in a mansion. The old stuff gets buried in a landfill. Nor do the nice “green” neighborhoods see the ruined, clearcut hillsides that were sacrificed to provide sparkling new remodeled homes. I recently stood in a “green” conference room that cost $4,000,000 to build. How can I get my priorities straight in a $4,000,000 room? How many Malawians die of AIDS while I'm at a conference?

Brian Dumaine’s new book, The Plot to Save the Planet is an example of the kind of pseudo holistic thinking that passes for environmental responsibility. The plot to save the planet is really a plot to save global capitalism. New billionaires are just waiting to happen, says this book, if we just apply our good old know-how. There’s a green frontier out there to be conquered. The book’s cover shows a man’s chest in an ordinary shirt, but with superhero spandex underneath, hands pulling away at the buttons to reveal the hero within. We can have our endlessly growing economy and save our planet at the same time! You too can be a financial superhero like Warren Buffett or T. Bone Pickens.

Superheroes are about busting limits, but the new technology is not super. Windmills kill birds and bats and might disturb weather patterns if put up in large enough arrays. We don’t know what will happen should we install alternate energy generators at the scale needed to fuel America’s insatiable needs. Tidal generators may disturb sea life and further deplete already emptied oceans. Has anyone wondered about the negative albedo of a huge solar energy array? Or the fact that freeways are harmful to animal lives? Earth is not an infinite cash cow. We have certainly been able to expand her carrying capacity, but that does not mean we can go on as we were. We cannot take without giving back.

The real green frontier is Alaska. But upon encountering a living wilderness, the entrepreneurs can only yell, “Drill, baby, drill!”

Perhaps the current financial crisis is Earth’s way of telling us we’ve reached her credit limit. Our note is due. Which is why it may not be possible to save the planet while glibly reengineering the economy. Earth’s economy is not a market economy. Earth works in cycles, in growth, maturity, decay, death, rebirth. In the market economy, cycles are not acceptable. The economy of earth is flow. There is no waste in the natural world. Wind, water, oxygen, carbon dioxide, nutrition, toxics, all flow in and out, never still, recycling, passing back and forth.

The market economy, on the other hand, always skims a commission whenever something changes hand. It is not exchange. The rest of us can only wonder why we are paying more and more and getting less and less, just as the animals who are the jewels in the earth’s economy, wonder what has become of their food supply, their abundance, their homes.

Earth was never meant to provide systematic surplus. In nature, surplus is a momentary bounty, the celebration of autumn, an unexpected catch. In capitalism, surplus is the constant that keeps all the rest going. Capitalism is like oil refining: taking out what you will not put back. The money does not circulate back to the source. Africa is bled dry of resources and left with crippling debt. The average American worker donates 1/5 of his or her pre-tax productivity to executive compensation and shareholder enrichment.

Again, most of us do not see this. The United States of America is today the most segregated society on earth. It is not race or religion that separates us, it is economic class. The poor and the rich do not live anywhere near each other any more, and the choicest holdings of the very rich are so gated that we are not aware of them. Each of us hangs out almost exclusively with our own social class. We can read statistics of how much of the world’s wealth this small group controls, but we cannot experience these statistics. Yes, we all know that Bill Gates has enough money to send every eighteen year old to college for four years, but it’s too abstract a statistic to arouse our outrage, just as the melting of ice in a continent we have never seen is too abstract to cause immediate alarm.

Therefore, it is easy for me, like the newspaper, to separate economy and environment, just as I separate body and soul, religion and science, home and work. The paradox is that such separation runs completely contrary to the global world that our economy has built. Perhaps the real question is, in such a world can our gated imaginations for long endure?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

A Sunday Sermon

Note to my friends: The sermon I preached this Sunday represents yet another attempt to explain the life-changing conversion that happened to me in Alaska. After I preached it, I could almost feel two of my Alaska friends sitting on either side of me saying, "You know, Carol, you've idealized us again. We're really not that hot." I almost burst out laughing as I apologized, once again, for my enthusiasm.

The Tattered Robe

Today I would like to say a few words about fasting. How many of you know how many days each year the Episcopal Church strongly urges us to fast? There are only two: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Most people don’t fast on either one, which is to say that fasting is a tradition that has mostly died out among today’s modern Christians. We worry too much about nutrition. Our lifestyle calls us to be full, not empty.

As it happens, I do fast on those days unless I am sick, a very moderate fast, nothing to brag about. I do it because fasting is very hard for me. I get grumpy when I don’t have anything to eat and fasting compels me to live with a side of myself that I would rather not. But this is not the only reason I fast. In emptying myself of earthly nourishment, and feeling grouchy, I begin to know without a shadow of a doubt that I would be toast without God.

Quite a number of years ago now, there was an Ash Wednesday when I was feeling pretty down to begin with and when I added not eating, I felt really bad. I wondered how I was going to get through the day. But because I had given the day to God, I was in for a surprise. It came to me in prayer that most of the people in this world don’t get enough to eat and they work harder than I do, because they have to work in the fields and not in front of an amusing computer. The world market lets no one rest anymore and if I don’t work my farm, an army of overnourished Americans in athletic clothes is going to turn up full of entrepreneurial ideas about my improvement and if I let down my guard, they’ll have my farm because they have money and top nutrition and I don’t and so I must keep working, as best as I can, no matter how I feel and even though I am undernourished, because if I don’t remain competitive, it will be all over for me. And the only way I as a poor person can do this is to throw myself into the arms of God.

I felt very humbled by my itty bitty very moderate Ash Wednesday fast in the face of so much injustice. I also realized my own inability to do much about it. Yes, I could give money and food, but I couldn’t change the system. I couldn’t be Don Quixote and tilt my lance at global market forces. Then I thought of Jesus. He didn’t change the system either. He taught people how to live in it. He fed people and he healed people and he taught them to pray. Maybe, I thought, I’m not supposed to change the world. Maybe I’m supposed to let God change me.

I don’t mean “change” in some big political way. I mean change in the way nature means it. The essence of the universe is change. Seasons change. People grow. Nothing stays the same. We are a nomadic people. So when I say “let God change me,” I’m saying that the only bad habit I’m letting go of is my illusions of control and stability. The technical term for this gift is repentance. Repentance is not about breast-beating or guilt trips. Repentance just means letting go of my own agenda. It’s admitting that I don’t know as much as I thought I did.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death--
even death on a cross.

The first time I read this passage in church, I actually wept. I don’t talk about these words very much, but they’ve sat at the center of my prayers for years. I can’t talk about them, because in a world full of power and might, where three billion people are impoverished so that a few rich folk can have what they want, the sheer emptiness of Jesus’ gift broke my heart. Emptiness, you know, is the Buddhist path to Enlightenment, and it is in emptiness, St. Paul says, that Christians will not only find God, they will become God. God is not the master of the universe; God is its slave. We were created to help others. We were created not to rise to the top of the class, but to live fully among the others in it.

This is radical stuff for me. I have lived almost all of my life as part of an ethic of attainment, and such is the blindness of that ethic that it is easy to see Union with God as the ultimate attainment, the ultimate ego experience. That is why the rest of the passage is so important. To become one with God means becoming a slave. In the market economy, in the economy of dominance, to be a slave is a bad thing, because in that culture, a slave exists only so that others may dominate and make use of me. Humility, in the ethic of attainment, is learning how to be a good winner. Humiliation is what befalls slaves. The culture of attainment wants humility without humiliation. Having experienced both, I can tell you that it isn’t going to happen that way.

But the slaves also know, better than anyone else, what’s really going on. Their very lives depend upon being awake, upon knowing what’s going on. They have no pretensions, no Joneses to keep up with, no illusions that God has chosen them to make fortunes. They have only despair, or faith in a God who will save them.

In the early Church, especially when it was taken over by Rome and popes and priests became emperors and proconsuls, a great many Christians chose to live with nothing. They gave up sex, money, clothes, privilege, all for the sake of serving Christ Jesus. In my culture of attainment, all this just seemed loopy. Why would one choose to live as a poor person? To not enjoy sex? To call their tattered cloaks “royal robes?” I could understand the element of protest: people going off to the desert because they did not like what the ecclesiastical hierarchy was doing to their radical equality, but protest is only the beginning. Protest is still about me. In God’s world, protest is turned into love: the hungry receive bread, the thirsty water, the sick their health. That is how we know God, says St. Augustine, for with God there is always a spirit of charity. Those who were divided become one. The tattered robe is us and God is the great patch maker.

I had to leave home to see this. No matter how hard I tried to find God in the culture of attainment, I was always arguing with that culture, seeing the divine in reaction to it. God is not a reaction either. God is a living presence. And so, just as God called Abraham into a new land when Abraham was stuck, so did God call me. I fell in love with Alaska, and after a long time, God finally put me in the very place where I could see her.

In Alaska God showed me what reality looks like. The experience is still so new and so transformative that I can but share the sketchiest set of words to describe what happened, but here are the words that shimmered through my days and in my prayers: fear, strangeness, love, gratitude, understanding, decency, kindness, diversity living world, blessing, friendship, humility, poverty, wisdom beauty. In a Native village, I was among people with far less formal education than I, but whose wisdom left me speechless. Everyone, rich and poor, lived simply, because, at least as far as I understood it, to flaunt difference was to threaten consensus. People also talked less, for to talk is to put oneself over others, and this, too, threatened the consensus. It was not an ideal world, it was a human world and therefore, there was sin as well as grace: kids were self centered, parents drank, people had to work hard to survive, bad stuff happened, but there were no scapegoats. People were who they were. Life was both hard and precious. It was inclusive. In a village of 200 people were many races, ages, abilities, and, I think, sexual orientations too. Everyone was essential. Two days before I left, Blind Louie brought in the biggest haul of silvers. In this wild place, the earth is alive and still creating itself. New islands and meadows were being born right before our eyes. Darting swallows flew with me on my walks snapping up mosquitoes on the wing; bears made special guest appearances at the airport to scare brash and brave young boys. Gnats and noseeums reminded me that I’m part of the food chain. And always, the Yukon River flowed in beauty, like the lifestream of the world and there was dirt under my feet and trees and God was everywhere and I saw that Bible was true in the same way that Native myths were true and that the two sets of stories were woven together. We talked in church about a living God. We talked about choosing the Good and how God was with us when we were afraid.

I have wept as construction crews and market forces have torn up my beloved California and in Alaska which, for the moment, is still wild, I knew I stood in the Promised Land. God gave me Alaska to love, not to own. She’s not mine. She’s God’s country.

Arriving back home was a spiritual shock. I woke up and stretched out my arms toward God and found the politics of God instead. It felt to me as if a Plexiglas shield had been erected to manage God, to admit only those parts of the divine as were palatable to me. Belief in God being strictly optional, the Divine Mind of the Universe was reduced to one more lifestyle option.

Beware, I say to my lower 48 friends both on the right and on the left, beware of a God who agrees too much with you. That was what Jesus was warning the Pharisees in this morning’s Gospel. In Jesus’ time, the Pharisees were the gatekeepers of political correctness and identity politics. They were so sure they were right that they could not imagine that God’s mind might differ from their own. And so they missed the living God entirely, even when God was sitting at their dinner table and talkin’ trash with them in the Temple. The Pharisees were the liberals. The Sadducees, the conservatives, just saw God as supporting their hierarchy and knew, before it all started, that nothing good ever came from Nazareth. If this sounds familiar it should. The same church politics that are tearing us apart today were alive and well in Jesus’ time.

It tells you how patient God is if God has been putting up with this nonsense for 2000 years. It takes time to grow and if repentance is sweet, it does not mean that any of us has to be sweet about it. Remember the reading from Exodus. The Israelites complain in the desert. The older son in the Gospel parable doesn’t want to work in the Vineyard. The younger son is nice to his dad and does nothing. The Bible says, throw all your gripes to the universe. Complaint is great – it’s the big bang of spiritual growth. But if the universe started with a bang, there would be no universe if it stopped there. During the forty years that the Israelites were in the desert, God turned rocks into water and dropped food from heaven. The test for them was: would they allow their culture of complaint to be transformed by love? Could they get over it? In true human fashion, some could, some couldn’t.

I could go on and on. But I’m going to stop. Knowing the Divine Mind is the work of a lifetime. So now that I’ve said all this, I ask you to forget it. Forget all of it. But do remember this: Love is the glory of God. God gives that love to all. All you need is Love. Amen.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Welfare Queens and Big Government

Warning: The dog's in her street corner prophet mode here. Strong opinions below.

To my mind, one of the most offensive propaganda images promulgated during the Reagan years was the "welfare queen." This mythical being, footloose, fancy free and living high off the hog, was often spotted being "driven downtown in her Cadillac" to receive the "taxpayers' hard earned money." This high living sponge became one of the icons in conservatism's war against the poor.

The conservatives wanted us to know that they did not want to compromise our honest work with dishonest handouts. The era of Big Government and Free Rides was at an end. From here on, it would be each one for ourself. Competition and market forces would determine the winners and losers, not some bleeding heart pity for the unfortunate. Government, too, fell under feminina approbation, being called "Mother" or "Nanny," exactly what no red blooded frontier boy could be expected to tolerate.

Reagan's doctrine had two big effects: 1) The end of the social safety net and 2) The biggest welfare state for the rich that history has ever seen. By deflecting public scorn against poor women, Reagan, and all his successors, were able to tip the scales towards rich, corporate folks, mostly white and overwhelmingly, men. By declaring the poor dishonest, the unspoken corollary was that corporations and rich people were honest and able stewards of wealth.

Few people have ever admitted that the poor mostly imitate what they see the rich doing.

No one declared a national crisis when 45 million Americans were found to be without access to health care. No bailouts were scheduled for those who had to declare bankruptcy to pay wealthy doctors needing cash for a second home or a vacation to the Antarctic; indeed, bankruptcy laws were tightened, lest someone get it in their head that they deserved help after such a reckless binge of spending.

During the past two weeks, some of the greatest fraud in American history stands exposed. Most of these men and their corporations have reviled big government and have been resolutely opposed to a social safety net as being too costly for the nation to afford.

My question to you: Why should the government bail them out?

Friday, September 19, 2008

Good Myth/Bad Myth: A Rambling Rumination about How Stories Creep Beneath the Skin

Many years ago, I had an unforgettable encounter with that most famous popularizer of comparative mythology, Joseph Campbell. Campbell was lecturing a group of educators about how to integrate mythology into their curricula. He concluded with an old Hindu fable about a baby tiger raised by goats. As a “goat,” the cub learned to bleat and eat grass. Although he did both well and dutifully, something still was not right. At last, along came a fellow tiger and showed the little cub his birthright. They ate the goats. The tiger bleated no more. He roared. “And now,” roared Campbell to the assembled teachers, “go out and be tigers!” His words were drowned in applause.

As one who also lives by stories, I could not believe my ears. Was Campbell really suggesting that we go out en masse and eat our benefactors? “He doesn’t have the slightest idea what he just said,” something inside me protested. Suddenly I was filled with images of predatory mass cultures, of Nazi soldiers, given permission to be tigers, marching to the roar of triumphal music. I rose to my feet and cried, “Dr. Campbell, what do you have to say about the six million Jewish goats devoured by Nazi tigers?”

Campbell paused, looked at me, cool as he could be and said, “Now that’s your problem, isn’t it?”

I had not even been alive when the holocaust happened. How could he call it my problem? But in the way of myth, it did become my problem, and ever since that night I have wondered what the encounter was really all about. If I can describe it at all, it was as if, when he told us to “go out and be tigers,” I was plunged into some strange and terrifying dream. All I could do in the moment was to jolt myself awake and speak my own raw images. I later wrote about this in a letter and ended up as a footnote in three articles trying to prove that Campbell was against the Jews. This may be true, for while Campbell loved myth, he did not like the Bible, not at all.

One of the powers of myth is the ability of its images to stir up hidden emotion. It is one reason why the pundits of mass culture like it so much. Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier’s classic book The Morning of the Magicians, first published in the 1960’s and still in print, is all about how all this manifests in history. One of its central points is that Hitler built Nazi Germany not as a rational state, but as a great, collective myth, the myth of Siegfried, the solar child, the blond boy of an incestuous union whose fiery marriage to the Valkyrie led to betrayal, death and the great heating up of the world in Ragnarok’s fires. All who joined with the Leader could become this numinous hero, lifted out of a wrecked economy back into forest purity. In this story the Jews were like the wealthy dwarves who forged swords and renounced love. Their eradication was necessary to the bright future. Hitler’s myth gave the dull old German people a new cosmic meaning unbounded by time and space, a thousand year Reich. Hitler so believed in his myth that he did not equip his troops with adequate winter gear for the Russian invasion because he knew that the sun of German manhood would melt the Russian snows. As a result, real flesh and blood boys froze to death.

Hitler was not the first to manipulate myth, nor will he be the last. Hundreds of American boys died of Yellow Fever while building the Panama Canal, because someone told them that pure American boys could not get sick, unlike their dirty, sexual, French counterparts.

As a storyteller, as a preacher, as a child who grew up with Aslan, Gandalf and Frodo Baggins in addition to all the wonderful stories of the Bible and Greek and Norse mythology, I know very well that, like anything powerful, myth has a great capacity to do good and an equally great capacity to work mischief.

The story of the tiger raised by goats is a case in point. It is, of course, a story about finding ones true identity. Every child is raised according to someone’s conventional wisdom. To be a child is to experience, like a goat, powerlessness. But as the child grows, she internalizes all this conventional stuff, and as she digests it, she transforms it. The result is the roar of her awakening self. Authenticity is never without risk, and this is one reason why the story must contain elements of violence. Taught by a spiritual master, it becomes a story on a par with the transfiguration. But told to a group of teachers over a dinner of rubber chicken in a Hilton hotel, it comes across as something very different. It resembles a kind of mass baptism, like those that happened at the point of a sword when Christianity invaded the northern forest. Such a baptism, the same thing happening to thousands of people, is glamour and illusion, not conversion. Conversion is a very one on one experience. My heart breaks to receive God. Mass culture is about breaking the collective heart and bolstering the collective’s power. On a November night in 1983 when everyone was tired, Campbell abused his shaman’s power of naming. He could not possibly have known which of us in the crowded room were tigers or goats or hummingbirds or mouse mothers or chickadees or beavers. Although I don’t think he was inciting us to take over the world, he was still using the story for effect, to wake up a room full of sleepy teachers and provide a dramatic conclusion for his evening lecture.

But now that I think of it, the fact is, at the time the lecture was given, America was three years into the Reagan administration, and very intent upon taking over the world. It needed tigers, not teachers.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythic epic The Lord of the Rings pits good myth against bad myth, the grace and courage of self-sacrifice against the transmogrifying power of acquisition. If the heroes risk all that they are, the villains always risk others. Saruman orchestrates destruction from his distant tower. His orcs are fallen elves, enslaved, forcibly bred, cloned, as they lack women, their immortality twisted into a hell of misery and vindictiveness. Sauron the dark lord only appears at a distance, protected by gates, towers, flying reptiles, magma, and all the powers of hell, guarded by numberless forces and accessible only through the palantiri, farseeing stones which he controls. Evil in Middle Earth is ultimate unhappiness. The dominators can end your pain, but only if you obey, and only temporarily, because pain is how they control. Thus torture is the norm, and Nature is to be exploited. The analogy between Sauron’s and Saruman’s attempts to control the world through sorcery and the persistent, machine driven ethos of industrialized civilization is impossible to miss.

Politics are not uncomfortable with myth. The deity emperors of Rome, the divine right of kings, the worker state, the democracy, all of these are social narratives. They are the truths that are “self-evident,” culturally binding and invoked in the liturgies of state. As long as a culture understands its narratives, it can live in creative tension with them. But the moment we cease to acknowledge the often arbitrary nature of our collective tale, it goes underground and becomes the hidden agenda: the unthinking response, the “knee-jerk,” the screaming rally, the irrational hypnosis of entire peoples in the name of “freedom,” “patriotism,” “the medical miracle,” “market forces,” the names are as legion as the Garasene’s demons.

The United States is “the city built upon a hill,” “the light to the nations,” “the land of the free.” We are also a nation founded to shatter the power of myth with reason. We were the first Enlightenment Republic, the first what I like to call “composed” state, in the sense that people actually came together and created a society as deliberately as Plato created his Republic, Benedict his Rule, or Sir Thomas More his Utopia. When, at the nation’s darkest hours, Lincoln invoked our myth at Gettysburg with the words “government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth,” he was tapping a deep well of hope.

If Alexis de Tocqueville warned that all this self-representation could explode into narcissism and demagoguery, the Civil War convinced us otherwise. War was our nation’s shining hour. We focused on the victory of the Union, not the demonic divisions and cruelties that led us to fight that war. The darkness of slavery did not fit the myth of “the city built on a hill.” It was a “peculiar institution,” an aberration that could only happen once and therefore in no danger of being repeated. It resembles in some ways the manner in which I have seen conversation about Hitler evolve. Once Nazism was a failed state from whose errors we had much to learn. Now it is only a monster, a one time event. No need to ask any questions about it.

I am aware that political forces are afoot in this country that do not want me to ask questions. They don’t want me to think about the Nuremburg rally, or about what happens when education is politicized. They don’t want me to ask why I am subsidizing with my work and my taxes the oil companies and mining concerns that are poisoning the earth. They don’t want me to ask why we can afford a war in Iraq and why we can’t afford medical care for our citizens. They want me to pinpoint germ plasm and not ask why girls want abortions. Since I cannot answer any of these questions, being neither economist nor analyst, let me share with you three American myths that I see stirring us up at the moment. The first is the Hero Quest. The second is that we are the Chosen People. The third is the myth of the frontier.

The Hero Quest, popularized by Joseph Campbell, turns up in ‘50’s westerns, Star Wars, super hero and berserker movies, celebrity culture, and “American Idol.” This is rugged individualism, “you are not the boss of me,” personal destiny, fame, the shining person who rises above the seething, meaningless mass, remembered while the rest of us lie forgotten. In this myth, the collective exists to be saved by the Great One. Government is a fussy “nanny,” or ruled by an evil emperor, or always taking away the fun. Success is what I take out, not what I put in. This hero myth is all about attainment. If sacrifice is involved, it is small. It only cost Luke Skywalker a single hand to save the entire universe.

Although Campbell states, quite rightly, in The Hero With a Thousand Faces that the hero is a generative figure, meant to return from his adventures and give the gift and wisdom of his quest to his community, the American hero myth parts company with this self-giving part of tradition. The American hero saves the town (usually violently) and rides off into the sunset, leaving the grateful masses to clean up after his mess.

The second myth, the Chosen People, is related to the Hero myth, but in this one, the hero has company. Like the Hebrews singled out by God in the Old Testament, so, too, were Americans singled out by God to be the light of the world, the light to the nations, the moral and spiritual leaders of humanity. Again, war brought out the best in us. After World War II, we rebuilt the world and showed that collectively, we were everyone's friend. Chosen People are capable of great good, but the danger is that they will come to idolatrize themselves and their goodness, which leads to complacency and worse. Sixty years later, the building up of the world has turned into the building up of the very rich. Corporations underpay their workers to bolster profits. The rhetoric of health care, building a network of cure, conquering disease, has turned into a cover letter for a self-congratulatory industry that gouges government and citizen alike, racking up profits while denying the sick their care. Still, as long as people can convince us all that we are chosen, that what we do is good, we won’t look too closely, for America, land of the free, can do no wrong. We are even surrendering our freedom to the idol of security as eagerly as the ancient Israelites sacrificed their children to Moloch. We want the tiger, but we don't want the risk.

Next time you are feeling chosen and set apart, go and study the history of the Jews. That story says that to know God is also to enter into the mysteries of suffering. But just as the American hero doesn’t want to clean up after the adventure, the chosen people pour another drink, pop another pill and say “no thanks” to suffering, unless it leads directly to personal success. War is OK as long as it validates us. And as was the case in Ancient Israel, we ignore the prophets who tell us we might be sacrificing at the wrong altar.

The two myths: individualism and Chosen People now combine into a third myth: the myth of the Frontier. This, too, has its roots in scripture, for the Frontier bears many resemblances to the Promised Land of the Hebrew Scriptures, the gift given us as a benefit of our being Chosen. The classic description of Frontier comes in Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 Atlantic article “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” Turner makes a distinction between the American and European concepts of frontier. He writes: “In this advance, the frontier is the outer edge of the wave -- the meeting point between savagery and civilization,” the boundary between owned land and free land.

The dream of free land, of something large in return for very little, once a reality for pioneer settlers like my great-grandparents who emigrated from Sweden to Minnesota, has embedded itself deep in the American psyche. During the California Gold Rush of 1849-1852, miners, hungry for instant wealth, grabbed whatever they could and dug without ceasing. Physical possession became the law. Without any consideration of who might have lived in, loved or found life in those lands, miners now staked their diggings with guns and posses. Indigenous Californians were wiped out by this gold fever. The Spanish and later Mexican ranchos and the culture that went with them were shattered. The lure of free land proved that greed was stronger than decency. Parts of California still lie scarred and sterile because of the deadly nature of gold extraction.

Rugged individualists, a Chosen Race, the Frontier – these are not the only archetypes that have shaped the American soul, but are important nonetheless. Although I rarely see these myths named as myths, I feel their effects in a rich variety of ways. I feel it in my own rugged individual resistance to and lack of trust toward a dominant culture that claims to speak on my behalf without consulting me. I feel a corrupt sense of being Chosen when conservatives seek to manipulate my individual fear with their group glamour of “freedom” and “patriotism” as an excuse for waging war and tightening security, using their “chosenness” to “protect” my individual rights. I see it in the preaching of some churches that equates being chosen by God with the right to be wealthy and consume, that being chosen is to be entitled to what I want rather than serving what God wants. As a Californian, I see the tragedy of frontier expansion in a relentless real estate and remodeling boom that has decimated forests and farmland, consumed unprecedented amounts of petroleum and created a culture of fear and now, foreclosure. I see more people working harder and longer to achieve the so-called American Dream and only ending up more medicated and unhappy. These very personal obsesrvations tell me that the archetypes may be beginning to stink.

Biology says unequivocally that the only creature that fouls its own nest is one so sick that it has lost all self-respect. That is what industrialism, led by American capitalists, is doing to the earth that all species share.

“Drill, baby drill!” Is that the cry of a vibrant political system, or a demented animal in its death throes?

Monday, September 15, 2008


These are serious times. As one whose second home is Alaska, I cannot remain silent while a former cheerleader cheers the pollution of life giving rivers and the slaughter of God's creatures. I'm a feminist dog, but Sarah's not a feminist. She's just a bone of contention, sent our way to distract us from the real work of making our nation great again.

Barak means "Blessed," you know.
So every time, you say:

God Bless America,

You are supporting the candidate who CAN DO IT!

Watch this blog for a reflection on the myths that shaped America and now threaten to tear us apart.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Woods Have Eyes

Note: This is the final essay I wrote in Alaska. I'm home now, and missing where I was very much.

Certain cosmic theologians and philosophers, Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme and others, say that to be in the image of God is to live in a universe that we don’t just look at, but which can look back at us.

I am now near the end of my time in Grayling and the Lower Yukon. On Monday, I’ll be packing up and doing the trip in reverse: Grayling to Aniak to Anchorage to San Francisco, with a 5 a.m. plane change in Portland. I will again see night. (It comes now, but at 1 a.m., while I am sleeping.) I will leave a small village surrounded by woods and water, and return to its opposite: a city that stretches farther than the eye can see. I will leave a world where work as we know it slows down on Saturday and closes down on Sunday: where the cycles of labor and rest are guided by the changing seasons. I will return to a world that is always running. I will leave a world defined by the awe of nature and return to one that is in awe of technology. I will leave a new experience and return to one that is old and familiar, for the Kingdom of Heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.

I go home knowing more about what it means to keep faith with my story and with God. I will miss friends whom I have come to love. In the chamber of my heart grows a pearl of great price.

Floating down the Yukon, sitting in a village, has given me ample time to think. Since the beginning, humans have sought the meaning and significance of our intelligence, measuring ourselves with and against the animals and plants with whom we share this earth, and with the Divine that gives us life. We have expressed ourselves in shamanic prophecy, healing, art, poetry, music, drama, dreams, agorae, villas, castles, cathedrals, caves, stupas, ships, planes, computers, peaks and parks. We have told stories whose meanings we are still pondering. We have also, in the Western version of this adventure, wreaked unspeakable destruction upon our earth, our souls and each other. Western man has been at war against himself ever since the Assyrians. That our common humanity has been so marred by separation, by wars and crucifixions and crusades and jihads and other horrors suggests how long the western culture of dominance has resisted coming face to face with itself. Dominance does not want a universe that can look back. It wants one it can control.

Not all ways of being human are based in opposition and violence. Not all ways of being human see greatness in rational detachment.

I went to Alaska because I have dreamed about it for forty years, ever since a husky born in Fairbanks turned up at the Berkeley SPCA and became my best friend. Forty years is a long time to journey toward the realization of a vision. The parallels with Egypt, the Wilderness and the Promised Land have not escaped me.

Forty years also remind me that things take time to unfold. Perhaps the greatest mistake is to think that there are ever instant answers, that education prepares us only to succeed at life and not to question it.

Alaska guards an ancient and important drama. Alaska is still a frontier. American mythology has reduced the frontier to raw materials to be conquered and developed, but that is just the wishful thinking of capitalists. A frontier is a borderland. A frontier is where one thing turns into something else. In the cold war spy stories, the frontier was what separated the captive countries from the free ones, the oppressive law from liberating grace. As people approached the frontier, they wondered. Would the way be open or shut? Would there be a way through?

There’s a saying around here that it’s good to eat food that one day might eat you. Implied in such a saying is both risk and relationship. Nature is not just blank slate or raw materials. She lives, within and without. Jesus refused to produce bread from rocks. He refused to dominate the land or use his power to lord it over others. Because he was God, he wouldn’t play God. Make no mistake. For the white man, Alaska is the temptation in the wilderness.

All life is a search for riches, but what it means to be rich differs greatly from place to place. As the frontier metaphor suggests, we are all explorers, whether for moose or the undiscovered country east of the sun and west of the moon. Even when every physical inch of the planet is known, there remains the infinite country of our own souls. It is there, wrote Alexander Solzhenitsyn, that good and evil reside, not between nations or political systems. Spiritually, as St. Paul and Buddha have both said, most of us are infants. It is time to grow up.

“There’s a great storm brewing and it is very near,” an elder said to me after church this evening. I am not the only one who feels it. The signs are too many and too obvious. The animals are disappearing. The air we breathe is polluted. Only a very sick animal will foul its nest to the degree that globalism has done in its search for material wealth.

My elder friend believes that Native ways are true and that we will know this at last in the end. I have no reason to doubt him. His culture has lasted for over 10,000 years. Something that stable must have much going for it, or it would have been abandoned long ago. What we call progress may be just another world for desperation. Jesus thought so. It is easy to forget that Jesus came into the world, not to promote progress, or attack the root causes of social ills, but to give us a second chance. “Today you will be with me in paradise,” he said to the thief as the two of them died on their crosses. We are a faith not of innovation, but of restoration.

So much Alaskan writing lives on the edge between then and now, like a tree stating its case before a logger, a developer stating his case before a bear. In his autobiographical novel Ordinary Wolves, Seth Kantner, an Anglo raised among the Inupiaq Eskimo people, writes of the exhilaration of finally getting a snowmobile and being able to outrun any animal with it. At first, pursuing his quarry, a wolf he has been dying to kill, he feels nothing but power over nature. But that power turns to remorse when he sees the broken, exhausted animal he has soullessly run to its death with a machine. It was no hunt, it was slaughter. It was terrorism. Something precious had been forever debased, a balance lost. This moment of conversion becomes the basis for all the novel’s later wisdom, after the narrator moves to Anchorage where everything, including people, are for sale, as run to exhaustion by money as the wolves were by internal combustion.

What the narrator learned was life is not what you get out of it, but what you put into it.

Few of us in Europe or North America will ever live as close to nature as the families who call Graying, Anvik, Shageluk, Holy Cross and hundreds of other Native Alaskan villages home. Even in many so called rural areas in the Third World, nature has been so degraded by overdevelopment, mining, smoking piles of trash and other blights that people don’t live close to nature there, either. But in Interior Alaska and also in certain parts of Arizona in Navajoland, whose people are related to the Athabascan people of the north, nature lives. It is the Native Way to know the earth as home, to learn its way and hear its voices, to keep track of the people, the trees, the animals, birds and fish, not as statistic but as living relationship, as love, as respect. There is nothing abstract in it. Respect the animals and they will increase and give themselves for food. Treat the animals like resources, like a crop to be harvested, a commodity to be marketed, a thrill of killing, and you will lose them. They will leave. This has nothing to do with climate change and everything to do with the climate of the human heart.

Monday, August 11

I am revising this at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. I have been back in civilization for about six hours, much of it sitting amid disgruntled travelers near the check in gate, as I wait to check my own luggage. I watch them, the white people, with their crates and coolers of fish, their sporting equipment, their complaints. I wash my hands beside a young woman who is scheduled to be shipped out to Iraq but can’t get on a flight home to say good bye. White people like to take up space. A few hours ago, in Aniak, a man dressed all in khaki was carrying on power business in the Quonset hut that serves as airport waiting room, while the natives greeted one another and shared news of grandchildren in soft voices, a network of acquaintance that stretches up and down the Yukon and the Kusko, into Anchorage and beyond, rather like the Episcopal Church at its best.

Coming back into this white world is proving difficult in unexpected ways. I find myself jarred by the way we stagger around, all the people with their cartons of fish and game, the vapid stares, the way so many of us behave like we are experts when in fact we know very little. After a month of living among native people, I have experienced my own capacity to be obtrusive. I have also had the chance to engage in the spiritual discipline of observation, observing my own ignorance, my own demons and personality defects and feeling the power of God’s grace and love. It is not about culture. It is about you and me.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Good Bye Grayling

I'm packing up now and turning my sights toward home. Thanks to all of you who have shared this time in Alaska with me. I'll be posting a wrap up later this week.


Saturday, August 9, 2008

Summer has finally arrived

The temperature hit 80 degrees Friday under perfect blue skies. Today was hot again, but the clouds gathered, and as I write, rain is falling, settling all the dust a dry week has stirred.

I began Friday morning with more berry picking.Sandy and I hit the woods in the company of her sister’s honest to god hunting Chihuahua, a fearless little tawny thing named Missy, who leaps over holes and slinks through the grass like a lion. The former family dog was a toy poodle named Odie, who once fell off a boat into the Yukon while the family was out fishing, swam to shore, and made such a racket that they could hear him calling from miles away.

A squirrel is trying to make a winter nest in the insulation of Sandy’s roof. The northern squirrels are red, with white rings around their eyes. It’s said that long ago, when squirrel was very cold, another creature, parka squirrel, lent squirrel his parka. But when parka squirrel asked for it back, squirrel cried so uncontrollably that to this day his eyes are ringed with white. “Even the names of plants have a story,” Sandy said. “There’s a bush near Anchorage that turns bright red in fall. In our language we call it ‘Hawk’s’ because the hawks eat its berries.”

We talked about how living in a place where you know everybody is different from living in a place where you don’t. In big cities, it’s easy to forget people. In a village, you see the whole bunch of us every day. “I really like that storyteller, Joe Campbell. All the characters in his books are right here. The hero, the fool. Everyone has a part to play.”

The high bush cranberries are almost all ripe now. The blueberries are beginning. After cresting yesterday, the river is settling down again and the beach is reemerging once again.

Sunday’s readings have Elijah in the wilderness, hearing God in the still small voice. Jesus walks on water. Both readings show the spiritual journey as movement, with God appearing in unexpected ways: as quiet, as a calm more powerful than the night’s most fearsome storm.

One of the girls and I watch fish from the bridge. The little specks are all tasty gnats.

On my Saturday afternoon walk, I ran into Sandy's dad. “You’ll be back in civilization soon,” he said. “Back in your real life.” I answered, “I guess.” He said, “It is your real life.” I answered, “Yes, it is my real life,” sad to be leaving here, but thinking about home in new ways. “It’s civilization.” “Is it?” I wondered. “Yes, it is civilization. That is what they call it, so that is what it is.”

The word civilization comes from the same root as “civic.” It is related to citizenship, to city. It is a way of looking at how people live together. We have come to a great crossroad in time where we are being called to look closely at how people live together. A wilderness without people to take care of it is as artificial as a city where all the trees are cultivated and all the animals either pets or pests. We are all connected. Buddha talks of Enlightenment as being the moment when we fully become part of the great interconnected Mind. Paul tells us that we are all part of the body of Christ. Modern “objective” thought has done a great deal to separate us. The writer of today’s reflection in Forward Day by Day writes of a verse in the Book of Acts that it “discloses that the early Christians were socialists. They were not Marxists, holding with atheism, class warfare, and suppression of dissent, but economic socialists – private property was unknown among them.” This statement reflects how tainted so many of us are by ideological “isms.” To have all things in common is really not socialism or any other ism. It is simply a fact of life on earth. We share air, ocean, land, mind, spirit, the adventure of being human. Hopefully, we share the gifts that have been given us with others. What I think I own, I really have on loan. When I am gone, it will be someone else’s turn to have a hand at my house, my library, my reflections, my successes, my unanswered questions, even as I have inherited all these things from my elders.

A Smokehouse. Smoked salmon last all winter. King Salmon run in June. The Silvers come in August.

Jesus arrived in the midst of a heartbroken people at one of history’s most difficult moments. He showed them a truth that was stronger than the attachment to wealth and the idolatry of Imperial Rome. That truth is alive and well. It is the light that shines in the darkness. It is the breath of the Holy Spirit, calling us across miles, ages, and terrains to find one another and reweave history’s tattered threads.

And so, on my evening walk, a rainbow.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Bear Tracks

Abby wanted to take me all the way to the end of town, so I appeared at her door at 9 a.m. this morning and she, the puppy Princess and I set off at a brisk clip into the woods. I have learned to read the side of the road for signs of bears. A crushed patch of grass usually means a resting spot, and of course there are the tracks themselves. The beach is covered with them. This morning, no one but birds disturbed our way. The skies are alive with black capped chickadees. At the end of the road a bridge crossed the creek. Beyond the bridge the hunting trails begin. I’ve now toured every inch of the village from the berry patches at the end of the single runway to the hill at the end of the road. But to say that is to say nothing. I could go on exploring this country for years and still be surprised by it, for the light never shines the same way twice, the river is sometimes swift, sometimes slow, sometimes mirrorlike, sometimes opaque. The energy of the village rises and falls. Nothing is routine. You have to be in a larger, more machine driven world for things to become routine. Not once, in four weeks in Grayling, have I heard the phrase “hard wired.” It would never occur to anyone to compare themselves with a computer.

The river is now so high from the flooding near Fairbanks that the northern part of the beach is almost entirely under water. We walked it with the children this morning. What was once a wide gravel walkway is now narrow and choked with driftwood. Angelina and Skyler settled down to play a pretend game of fishing, as they caught small pieces drifting by on the gentle current, and threw back the ones they decided were bad. Dallas the puppy finally befriended me and after a splendid day and night of freedom, white dog is now safely back at home.

Tomorrow is Friday. It will be my last formal day with the children. Children were the great work of the church when it first came to the Interior. In the old days, many of the missionaries maintained a genteel distance from village lifeways, but they embraced the little ones. I can think of no better reason to travel over 4,000 miles from home.

One of the Girls and Me