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

GOD'S SLED DOG BLESSES BARAK

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.