Sunday, October 4, 2009

In it Together? The Real Health Care Debate

When Dante lost his way and descended into hell, he found himself face to face with all the human depravity that his cultivated and poetical nature had previously resisted. In this same way, when a civilization falls apart, it, too, will eventually find itself face to face with its own fractures and contradictions, with the things that, in its rise to greatness, it conveniently set aside or ignored. Prison culture is one of these. But at this moment in the United States, there are few places where our contradictions and shortcuts are more in the limelight than in the health care debate.

Obama’s recent speech reminds us that the health care debate is a moral one, says an editorial in the most recent issue of The Christian Century. “Access to health care is something that we owe one another simply because we are all human and because ‘we are all in this together.’” The article goes on to cite T.R. Reid in The Healing of America who tells us that there is one major difference between the U.S. and the countries that have provided universal coverage: those countries have concluded that health care is a human right. Finally, the editorial says, “In the culture of readical individualism, the moral argument needs to be made again and again.”

These questions are important, but it has recently struck me that they are not the essential questions. Beneath ideas of rights and community lies a far greater question. How, in the United States of America, is the worth of a human being determined? The answer is that there is no single worth, no single human condition. We are not created equal. Some humans are worth a great deal more than others. Or, as a wealthy matron remarked to her hairdresser, "If we have universal health care does that mean that a homeless man can get a heart transplant?"

If you read the literature of health and sickness, there is one consequence of illness that emerges with greater frequency than any other: health and sickness affect productivity. Therefore, for example, obesity or smoking are bad, not just because they make people sick and miserable, but because they result in lost work hours and the bad habits of some cost honest people money. (In fact, these conditions pay for themselves, if you were worried.) I could give many other examples of how productivity dominates our social dialogue, but you have read the same articles that I have and the drift is clear: in this country, a human being is considered valuable in proportion to his or her ability to generate product and profit for the economy. Workers are paid a salary in consideration of the hours they put in at their jobs, but their purpose in working is not for their own dignity, but to generate profits for the company and its shareholders. This results in a kind of double taxation: you give a large proportion of your productivity to the company and then you pay another proportion to the government. (The Republican Right channels all the rage at the government when rightly, among the working class, it should be shared between capitalism and government.) When a person in this economy gets sick and cannot produce output, his or her ability to generate profits is greatly diminished and he or she is less valuable.

But – and there is a very big but here – if sickness itself can be made profitable, all is not lost. The for-profit insurance model apparently solved this dilemma, but it did not take long to discover that some illness is more profitable than others and that some things, like chronic conditions, can actually eat up your profits. Thus to insure a pre-existing condition, in the for-profit model, is like hiring a worker that you know will cost you. It’s not a good investment. The business model says to keep costs low and profits high. When the worth of a person is measured by his or her ability to generate profit for self and others at minimum cost, it only makes sense that even in sickness, a person must remain productive.

But if there is more to being a human being than mere output, to value us in this way not only makes no sense at all, it may actually be very dangerous.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Christian Myth of Hell

Ok, so I did what I said I wasn’t going to do. I complained about the current state of our national health. It’s hard not to. Jungian psychiatrist James Hillman was heard to say at a recent Bioneeers’ Conference that “the Economy is the Moloch to which we sacrifice our children.” When we begin to devour our own people for the sake of financial gain, we are truly lost. Dante tells us that when we’re that lost, the only way back out is through Hell.

Hell is not a place I particularly care to visit. Too many people I love have already been there: John West, Nadia and Vselvolod, Anna and Marina, Stella’s grandmother who spent her childhood in the woods while the Nazis hunted her like an animal.

The Christian legend of Hell tells us that Hell is forever. Hell is the sacrament of perfect stasis. In Hell, nothing ever changes. Sinners suffer in the flames of their torment for all eternity, separated forever from God. Never mind for the moment that flames are the most transformative of all elements: stasis as fire is the paradox of the Christian legend of the damned. Like all paradoxes, this legend says something about this culture's obsession with security, our rise to power and our market forces marking "the end of history." It's only another way of saying, we're above change. But to believe oneself above change is only to sink into the lowest depths of ignorance. That's Hell.

When Dante lost himself in the Dark Wood, he was so reduced that he had become his own universe, the only spot of awareness in a blind, unconscious place. A successful poet, he was trapped inside his own self-esteem. He was alone. Even as he was reduced, so was otherness reduced to a trinity of predatory beasts, panther, lion, wolf. They chased him through the inner darkness all the way to the jaws of Hell.

He did get out. But only after a harrowing journey. And not without reliving and healing all that on the Mountain of Purgatory. In another Christian legend, Jesus, too, released those imprisoned in the underworld. Both these tales contradict the official teaching. Hell isn’t really forever; it is but part of its evil to make us think it is. Another paradox is this. The beasts Dante saw as predators loped off to other forests. Only Dante was left to burn.

Dante reminds us that change is a word we humans greet with ambivalence. By midlife, which is when Dante’s adventure begins, most of us are tired of change, of growing edges, of the solicitous advice of others. We wish simply to have arrived, to be done with all that, to enjoy the summer days of household and child rearing. Change in midlife portends aging. Change threatens us with the loss of our hard won gains. It is no accident that Dante was thirty five when he lost his way.

On the other hand, in the world of politics, change is a positive word. “America needs a change!” shout the candidates. “A vote for me is a vote for change.” Knowing that change provokes both hope and fear, Barak Obama linked change with hope in his recent presidential campaign. Hope and fear are but another way of saying yin and yang, front and back. They are cut from the same cloth.

But if our political discourse, at least at its highest levels, claims to be progressive, the human person, as Dante suggests, is far more conservative. As if change in public is one thing and change in private quite another. It makes me wonder if, for all our faith in progress, we understand change at all. As a young girl during the ‘sixties, excited about riding the waves of change and believing that it was possible to build a just world, I thought change was wonderful. Growing up was exciting, full of hope and fear, at least until I crashed. More than forty years later, I see change as simply inevitable. I can no more manage change than I can manage the weather, but if I am wise, I’ll have a rain coat.

“Those who would save their lives will lose them and those who lose their lives for my sake and for the sake of the Good News will find them. What does it profit us to gain the whole world and to lose our very souls?”

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

From Your Grieving Friend

Hello, dear friends. Months have passed since my last post. I have been silent for a reason, resisting sharing my opinions of the health care debate – that we even need to debate this is a little odoriferous to me – we should have long ago joined the family of compassionate, civilized nations that offer either single payer or a hybrid public/nonprofit option. Illness should never be a weapon, although it has been used as such by Western Man for a very long time. A society that derives huge profits off the suffering of others does not sit well with my soul. It reminds me of the blankets infected with small pox that were given to our Native brothers and sisters. A preexisting condition. Which is to say, I’ve been grieving. If you’ve ever seen a dog grieve, you will know that she slinks into her corner, rests her head on her paws and falls into an observant silence.

It’s a humbling thing, this social racket. Long ago, back in the ‘sixties and early ‘seventies, the right accused my generation of being self-interested, that we were refusing to fight in Vietnam because we were cowards and wanted fun, not danger. Like all accusations in a politically polarized climate, this one had its elements of truth. In a New York Times interview with Donald Trump back in the ‘nineties, the rich man stated that he could not be bothered with Vietnam because it might interfere with his financial ambitions. “Let other people do the fighting,” he said. The conservatives in the days of the Draft saw serving ones country as an unbreakable part of the social contract. The liberals saw the war in Vietnam as unjust. These ideas are not equivalent, although they were taken to be at the time. Now history has revealed a third thread: that when a social contract is all about death, greed, murder, defoliation and drugs, when it uses people to fuel an idea – in this case protection of a capitalist way of life – the social contract itself ceases to look very good. For those who believe that we can get where we need to go if we only banish religion, let Vietnam serve as a reminder. Vietnam was a crusade and there was nothing religious about it.

Meanwhile we who are a social species withdraw into our shells and wonder why we are so unhappy.

As many of you know, I have been deeply formed by the work of C.S. Lewis. Lewis insisted that Imagination, not pragmatism, held the key to life’s most persistent and difficult questions. The children who enter Narnia leave a world of school, security and safety to encounter life’s real dangers and in facing them, become real themselves. Implicit here is the idea that our so-called “real world” may in fact be the fantasy, (and the world in which I grew up felt rather grotesquely made up). Another idea, less explicit but no less real, is that too much insulation from risk only turns people into bullies. Such was certainly Lewis’ boyhood experience. For all his being one of the most educated men of his generation, Lewis hated school. British schools were notorious for their bullies. Britain before World War I was also a superpower. Perhaps there is a correlation between bullies and superpowers, because the people I know worry about bullying quite as much as C.S. Lewis did. America is nothing if not a superpower and we spend billions each year to protect ourselves from risk. One of the unintended consequences of refusing to fight in Vietnam is that an entire generation believed it was entirely possible to insulate itself from risk, or in the case of extreme athletes and mountain climbers, to carefully control and orchestrate where risk is going to happen. In Narnia, C.S. Lewis charted a middle way. It is a very different thing, he says, to fight for what you love than to be canon fodder in some else’s army.

In the spirit of C.S. Lewis, upon whom World War I left an indelible mark, I’ve been in a conversation with myth as a way of imagining myself out of the grief I feel over what is happening to our nation. Myth has the uncanny ability to suggest that there is much more to life than the pundits are telling us. From the standpoint of myth, the fact that our real world is continuing to fracture into warring factions and reductionist views screaming slogans at one another is a very bad sign.

You know what I mean. Everyone has his own cause that must prevail over all the others. The environment will have to wait until we’ve fixed the economy. The economy cannot bear the costs of reforming and improving our health care system. We can’t worry about civil rights or torture when there’s a war on. Or – let’s score one for the mothers of my native Berkeley – fat people are really the problem and we can save humanity through diet and exercise.

During my months of silence, I have steeped myself in the stories of another age of social breakdown: the end of Roman Britain and the descent into the so-called Dark Ages. I say Dark Ages reservedly, because recent evidence, and my own readings of the time during seminary suggest that this age was anything but dark. Or if they were dark, it was the darkness of germination. “A sower went out and scattered seed,” says one of the stories they loved back then.

These early legends speak deeply to our present dilemma: what happens when very different cultures and outlooks meet? What happens when everything you’ve taken for granted falls apart? How does a brilliant tradition survive when another brilliant tradition seeks to erase it from the memory of all time?

How are we going to live?

Monday, May 25, 2009

All You Need is Love: A Sermon on the Sunday After Ascension

Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

We have come to the seventh Sunday after Easter, the Sunday after the Ascension. Jesus has been raised into heaven. Even though we’re still shouting alleluias, even though we’re still saying “Christ is risen!” it all takes on a different quality on the Sunday after the Ascension. For now it’s really over. He is risen indeed. He came back to us and then, as he said he would, he returned to his father. Jesus in the body is gone, like the landlord who departs from the vineyard and goes on a long journey, leaving us to be his voice in the world, calling us to use the talents he left with us.

Today’s Gospel is a haunting piece. It’s a text of departure, Jesus’ last words to his disciples. The hour is very near. Jesus has done the work God called him to do, and now it’s time to see whether we understood what he was about, whether we heard and saw truly what Jesus came to teach. We’re left in this world to do the work of God. Salvation is not a done deal. The evil one is real. He’s going to make an appearance very soon down in the Kidron Valley: scary evil, the kind that makes people betray their best friends: Jesus will be arrested, Peter will draw his sword, the disciples will scatter. It is haunting, knowing that this is going to happen, as Jesus says, “I guarded them.…I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.”

As long as we are in the world, Jesus says, we must deal with evil. We cannot make it go away. Even Jesus’ death and resurrection did not make it go away. No matter how hard we try, we cannot make it go away any more than we can make the morning fog go away. I can’t fight the morning fog, or design vast programs to rid the world of fog. On foggy mornings, I put on a coat and go forth.

Jesus did not come to change the world, he came to show us how to live in it. Over time, if we practiced life as Jesus taught it, the world would change, but not all at once. Also, as the world changed, so would our understanding of what Jesus came to teach. Such is the nature of spiritual practice. It is change, but slow change. Jesus left before it was apparent he had done much of anything. He didn’t form a political party or write a set of doctrines – all that would come later, as the people left behind tried to figure out what it all meant – Jesus came simply to show us the way through human illusion so that we might see the truth and be strengthened by it. Jesus only showed us how to live in the world as it really is. Jesus came to offer a coat to a people unable to find their way in the world’s foggy morning. In this image of fog is the blindness, the deafness of people in the world, the deafness and blindness of what passes for human genius. I cannot see what I cannot see. I cannot see what I need most to see. I need help. I need a community and a practice. I need a guide to help me take the steps that need to be taken. I need Jesus. And now Jesus is ascended to the father and it is up to us to continue his work of love and healing.

Today, many Christians equate salvation with getting into heaven after you die, which can sound a lot like getting into a good college as a reward for getting good grades in high school. Because we don’t know what to do with the reality of evil in the world, with the fact that sin and death haven’t gone away, over the years, this version of salvation has been promoted: be good and you’ll get to heaven, with not much thought about what Jesus means to life on earth. Which is to say that the “world” that Jesus is saving us from is not the same as the earth. Earth is God’s. World is man’s. But since individuals are easier to manage than communities, over the past five hundred years, this image of personal salvation has replaced others. Salvation is now the supreme achievement of a life measured by individual achievement. The Reformation theologian John Calvin viewed earthly success as the outward and visible sign of my being chosen by God. The Reformation itself didn’t like the compromises of community and so replaced impure people with what they thought was pure Scripture, which soon became a private act of reading and a provoker of arguments. Slowly, over the passage of centuries, community life gave way to individual life, because the locus of the divine wasn’t in community, it was in a book, and upon me and my salvation. The mega churches understand this: they can, from the outside, resemble one stop personal salvation service stations, complete with rock bands, couples counseling, espresso bar, gym and summer cruise vacations with the Pastor. “That they may be one as we are one” can be transformed into building up the Christian team, getting people on the right side, so that they can then go out and whomp the Muslim team, or even their own opponents in the Church, on the great playing field of life. Sometimes, of course, the mega churches find God, too, and are transformed.

It serves to remind us that any successful organization stands a long way from that night in Jerusalem when Jesus was dragged away to be killed, shattering his own organization, shattering every answer that his disciples thought they had.

All this came home to me when I again watched the film “Jesus Camp” with my 8th grade religion class. If you haven’t seen the film, it revolves around youth pastor Becky Fisher who runs a really slick Evangelical meeting: children speak in tongues, weep, wash away their sins with bottled water, preach and cover their mouths with red tape as a protest against abortion. I could say a lot about it – my students certainly did – but for today, I’ll share just this one moment, because it was pivotal to my own articulation of the faith I proclaim. Near the end of the film, a liberal Christian talk show host named Mike asks Becky, “Doesn’t it bother you that you are indoctrinating those children?”

“No, Mike,” she says. “It doesn’t bother me. The Muslims are indoctrinating their children, so why shouldn’t we?”

That, of course, represents every liberal’s worst fear: a Children’s Crusade on behalf of the Republican Party.

But that was not what hit me. What hit me was the Becky Fisher herself considered building the church as an act of indoctrination. Nowhere in the whole film does she touch on Jesus’ most important word, a word which we hear in today’s Gospel, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.”

Jesus is not a doctrine. I cannot indoctrinate you with him. He is the truth. I can only tell my truth and wait to hear yours.

That Jesus goes to the cross suggests that we don’t find God in our moments of radiant success, but when everything that we are is shattered by apparent failure. I say apparent, because the older I get, the less sure I am that there’s really any such thing as failure. I think failure is the world’s word, used to scare me into submission to it. What the world call failure may just be God’s way of helping me let go of what the world tells me I should want and listening to what God wants.

Which brings me to my final observation. Today’s teaching is all about letting go. Spoken at the threshold of the cross, it says that letting go is never easy – it may be the hardest thing I will ever do. It may very well look like failure. But what looks to me like failure may only be the breaking open of my heart. It may only be my illusions shattering. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus was tempted by illusions. So also, was he tempted at the end. Judas is necessary, not because Jesus had to be betrayed, but because Judas succumbed to the temptations that Jesus refused. Judas’ story shows us the terrible unhappiness that comes when I place my own ideas of what is right above all else. Jesus’ story shows us what happens when you let your heart be broken.

Being about love, Jesus is not a “he.” Jesus is “we.” Jesus and God are one. Jesus is “we.” Jesus ascends so that instead of holding on to him, I might become him, one with God, one with you. God loves each and every one of us. The path to God is not to assert myself over and above others; it is to realize that those I call others are really inseparable from myself. If I am in conflict with them, I am also, at some level, in conflict with God. All the fights and divisions in the church today are God’s way of telling us that it is time to grow up.

How do we know how we’re doing? There’s really only one test. We know that we’re doing God’s work the more we love other people, the more we love creation, the more we love the animals, the trees, the birds, the insects, even that person across the hall who’s driving me crazy. God’s work is the work of love. Love God. Love your neighbor. Evil remains real, and love, only love is strong enough to stand up to it.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Etiquette of Invective

"I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world." Jesus, John 12:47

I recently received an interesting, albeit far too long, note from an anonymous reader. It detailed some of the ways in which we ordinary folk have been fooled by the economic shenanigans of the outrageously wealthy. It raised some important questions about so-called philanthropy and warned of possible hard times to come. I was pleased to read it and would certainly have posted some of it were it not for one thing. The author indulged in name calling.

We're way beyond that, folks. The issues are far too important. Even the most difficult problems can be presented in a constructive manner -- indeed, constructive is just what we need at a time when so much we have taken for granted, both for good and for ill, just isn't there anymore. People may sound sure of themselves, but I'm not sure anyone knows what is happening.

My own spiritual practice has taught me that there is no sin that cannot be transformed into goodness if we can but open our hearts to the holy. Many of the folks that got us into this mess are brilliant and remembering Paul on the road to Damascus, or Milarepa, seeing the ruins of the village he had destroyed with his power, I pray not for their downfall, but for their transformation.

When I watched the film Jesus Camp with our 8th grade, we saw what a polarized nation we have become. The need to be right all the time is intellect run amok. No system has all the answers. It is time to forgive, not name call. Beneath all that rhetoric, we are more alike than we think.

The path toward truth is never paved with taunts.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Saturday Quotes

From Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

MOYERS: Why is a myth different than a dream?

CAMPBELL: Oh because a dream is a personal experience of that deep, dark ground that is the support of our conscious lives, and a myth is the society’s dream. The myth is the public dream and the dream is the private myth. If your private myth, your dream, happens to coincide with that of the society, you are in good accord with your group. If it isn’t, you’ve got an adventure in the dark forest ahead of you.

MOYERS: So if my private dreams are in accord with the public mythology, I’m more likely to live healthily in that society. But if my private dreams are out of step with the public –

CAMPBELL: you’ll be in trouble. If you’re forced to live in that system, you’ll be a neurotic.

The question that was not asked then: What if the public myth is neurotic?

Thomas Merton weighed in on this very thing in an article on the trial of Adolph Eichmann, a man diagnosed as sane, originally published in Ramparts (October 1966) and reprinted in the Essential Writings anthology:

"We can no longer assume that because a man is 'sane' he is therefore in his 'right mind.' The whole concept of sanity in a society where spiritual values have lost their meaning is itself meaningless."...God knows, perhaps such people can be perfectly adjusted, even in hell itself."

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Eagle Floods: God's Sled Dogs Rescued by Boat



Ice jammed the Yukon River near Eagle yesterday, creating the biggest flood in Eagle's history. If you have read John McPhee's Coming into the Country or follow the Yukon Quest sled dog race, you will remember Eagle. Thanks to musher Andy Bassich for a magnificent rescue.

With love from the Dog.

The Green Brain, Part IV: The Structures of Faith

In his book A New Kind of Christian, emergent church guru Brian McLaren speaks of the structures of faith, or, how the Church has built and expressed herself through the ages. When Rome fell, that structure was monasticism. At the height of the Middle Ages, it was the Cathedral. As the Reformation exposed and lamented the abuses of the Church, systematic theology became the architecture of God’s kingdom. All three: monasticism, building, theology have survived into our time. But none seem anymore to adequately encompass our relationship with the Divine. The question before us today then, is what might our own structure of faith look like?

Monastic communities preserved the cities of the Ancient World when its urban society collapsed. The word community comes from a Latin root which means “common wall.” Doing the work of civilization, keeping learning and literacy alive, the monastic world provided a haven for those whose lives had little place in the feudal economy. But as the Medieval world grew beyond the fiefs of warring lords, and cities returned, cathedrals with their walled closes arose. Cathedrals made possible a new kind of community, bringing together work teams such as had not been seen for a thousand years. Growing out of Roman collapse, the High Middle Ages knew both the fear of flame and the solace of heaven. The result was a society that was both structured and visionary. A cathedral represents the architectural expression of this tension. To walk into a medieval cathedral is to taste the meeting place of time and eternity. The ceilings soar almost too high for the eye to follow. The space is cold, a little inhuman, both echoing and muffling at one and the same time. Light casts beams through narrow, lancet windows, in patterns of color where stained glass remains. In some way, a medieval cathedral is the ultimate material monument to the spirituality of the Kingdom of God. It had material consequences, too. The Gothic cathedral sowed the seeds of the Industrial Revolution, Western man’s struggle to harness the power of the earth.

Just at the moment the medieval building boom reached its peak, however, it went bad. Selling indulgences to raise funds to build St. Peter’s led to the great mixup of values that made the Reformation possible, that turned the Church away from statues and incense to a stern, stripped down austerity: Sola Scriptura, Eucharist as memorial not miracle. The cathedral of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation era became Systematic Theology, a series of interlocking doctrines, whose wheels within wheels work with the dazzling consistency of a really good intellectual puzzle. To study, say, the doctrine of Creation is to see also in its prism the doctrines of sin, soteriology, Christology, ecclesiology and the rest. In the excitement of discovering this mental map, people forgot Thomas Aquinas’ final vision, when God both congratulated him for his system and then showed him that he hadn’t gotten it, hadn’t gotten it at all.

Theology has now grown so complex and so detached from other modes of knowing, like science and psychology, that to most of us it is just one more thing to cope with, like all ideologies, like all the competing systems dreamed up by men to occupy our minds.

The Church is both spiritual and material. To err on the side of cathedrals is to lose theology. To err on the side of theology is to lose the body. The point in our faith is the balance that makes a third thing possible. This third thing, said Jesus as he prepared to leave his fleshly life, is the Spirit of Truth. Truth is fusion. It happens, says Jesus, when the Divine finds itself in the flesh and knows it.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Green Brain, Part III: Thoughts as I Prepare to Leave the City

At the same time I was reading Jon Gertner’s article in the New York Times Magazine, I came across a video on the Times’ website. It previewed what the new green economy might look like. It featured freeways, cities, and a construction site, but nothing I would call green: no trees, fields or mountains. It leads me to conclude that when New Yorkers think green, they do not think nature. This is not surprising in one of the world’s great constructed environments. In that world, the ecology, that is to say, the interrelationships that give life, is commerce. By moving from dirty to clean energy, everybody wins and the money, which is as essential to life in New York as air, stays in circulation. The people who are already rich from oil and coal can stay rich. New fortunes can be made on clean energy. The economy is not significantly disturbed. When new money is added to old, gain rather than sacrifice becomes the order of the day.

That a great deal of the so-called “green” thinking that arises in New York City revolves around money and technology should surprise no one: wind power, fuel cells, solar arrays, alternate ways to meet the developed world’s perceived energy requirements.

Is that the energy we need, or do we need another kind of energy, one that has not been noticed yet?

To focus on fuel and finance, the energy humanity takes and burns, is very anthropocentric thinking. It privileges the human species above all others on earth, construing humanity’s Biblical dominion over the earth as management of resources, not love of Creation. But what if there is more to the current economic crisis than the shenanigans of bankers, medical insurance companies and oil executives? What if the economic crisis is Earth’s doing? I know it sounds weird to imagine that the planet might have an opinion of us, but it is the prerogative of a blogger to ponder all kinds of things.

As one who spends most of her life in cities, I am aware that it is hard to hear the voice of the earth over the noise of traffic and through the deep cover of pavement. I am doubly aware of this since I have spent time in Alaska where the earth is positively and wondrously conversational. Both here and there some still believe that a bulging bank account is a sign of divine favor, that control of the earth is God’s will. I know a great many people who have made fortunes. I grew up with them and a number of them gravitate toward my two fields of education and the church. Teaching and priesting attract people with independent incomes. It costs to get the necessary degrees. To serve others feels good and an independent income closes the gap between a rather low salary and what it costs to live, especially in a place like California or New York.

Returning to the assumptions underpinning the Columbia University survey with which I began these musings, most of the rich people I know are not particularly motivated by a fear of loss. They may capitalize on others' fear of loss, but they're rather fearless. They are explorers, and like explorers everywhere, they are risk takers. My friends’ hobbies include mountain climbing, skiing, aviation, triathlons, wilderness travel, all of which invite injury and sometimes death. I’ve lost some of them to spectacular accidents. Success in this world is not about avoiding loss, it is about going for the gold.

The rich do not fear present sacrifice; indeed, they engage in it. They give all their time and energy to work and play. They sacrifice the slow progress toward hard won wisdom in favor of the quicker, glitzier and more shallow manipulation of systems. In their dedication to making it to the top of the mountain, they sacrifice many of the delights and exasperations of the community that gathers at Base Camp. They have sacrificed habitat, clean air, species, the large middle class, the checks and balances that helped keep our society open. Information technology, which is how many of my friends made their fortunes, made possible a virtual culture and a virtual economy that was so well crafted that it came to feel very real.

For me, the outward and visible sign of California’s fall from innovation to manipulation came with the transmogrification of the Santa Clara Valley into Silicon Valley.

The so-called poor have a very different ethic. When people have less, generosity is more important than acquisition. Waste is a crime. Community is the source of life, not a collection of competitors.

The last people to measure present sacrifice against future gain were the Soviets. If you ever read much Soviet Literature and I read a good deal of it in the heyday of the CCCP, the parodies penned by dissidents usually showed people in a miserable present singing odes to a glorious future that all of us knew would never arrive. And yet it did arrive. And it was a surprise.

The real question is why are we so paralyzed by the very real evidence that we are poisoning our planet? The degradation of Earth is not some future cost/benefit event. It is happening now. The birds are disappearing. The mammals are disappearing. There used to be Steller jays in my backyard. Now we have crows. The deer used to be everywhere. The egrets and black crowned night herons no longer nest across the street from school. The spring may not be as silent as Rachel Carson predicted, but it is getting quieter. Do we not hear this over the roar of our internal combustion engines? Have we paved our world so thoroughly that we cannot feel our earth’s pain?

“Choose life,” said Moses to his people as they stood on the brink of the Promised Land. “That you and your children might live.”

Listen to the wind. Listen to your heart. Ask yourself what you really love.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Green Brain, Part II

You may have read the article with the long title in a recent Sunday New York Times Magazine. Here goes: “Why Isn’t the Brain Green? Decision scientists are trying to figure out why it’s so hard for us to get into a green mind-set. Their answers may be more crucial than any technological advance in combating environmental challenges.” (April 19, 2009)

And so we meet the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions. The Center’s own environment is a windowless basement at Columbia University. The walls are cinderblock, the furnishings tables and chairs and electronic equipment. Reading the description, I was reminded of the interrogation chambers of old. In this place where little life on earth is even visible, scientists are measuring how we make decisions about risk, benefit and preserving life on earth.

Author Jon Gertner writes: “Among other things, CRED’s researchers consider global warming a singular opportunity to study how we react to long-term trade-offs, in the form of sacrifices we might make now in exchange for uncertain climate benefits far off in the future.” This builds on previous work done in the field that has discovered that human beings have a number of automatic biases – “we’re more averse to losses than we are interested in gains. . . and we make repeated errors in judgment based on our tendency to use shorthand rules to solve problems.”

I don’t need a PhD in behavioralism to tell you that the word “sacrifice” will set off alarms in the average American. Indeed, it seems to me that the answer has already been decided in the question, or, to quote Gertner again, “I began to wonder if we are just built to fail.”

Ignoring for the moment, the obvious mechanistic assumption in the verb “built,” as if human beings were any more “built” than we are “hardwired,” (unless we have a pacemaker), let us consider the leading words in this so-called research question. I’ve already mentioned that “sacrifice” is a red flag word, especially in our instant gratification world. Now, how about the second half of the “research” question: “uncertain climate benefits far off in the future?” Although this is but the tiniest phrase in a much longer article, a rhetorician need go no farther. The whole phrase is a mess. Since when can anyone predict the future with certainty? (Classical prophecy only tells you how to approach the future, not what will happen.) But note that uncertain does not modify future. It modifies benefits. Benefit is the opposite of sacrifice. By the logic of this research, to change our lives in a more planet friendly direction is to risk our benefits. Further, such uncertain benefits as this change will support will arrive in a “far off future,” implying that we will be dead if they even happen.

In the name of researching how we make environmental decisions, this research, without telling me, encourages me to hold on to what I’ve got with all my heart, and then reports the data that human beings are more afraid of loss than they are desirous of gain.

There’s lots more that I could say here. I could talk about the phrase “delayed gratification,” pointing out that it implies that gratification, whether now or later, is the focus of human existence. Not all cultures would agree with that little “truism” of “human nature.” I could pause and once more write the history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in which billions of living creatures were sacrificed for the gratification of an ever enlarging population of rich people, leaving us as a species more terrified of death than we ever have been. But I will assume that we all know this.

My “research” question is far simpler. Do we as a species wish to live? Do we wish to live well? Do we want to be happy? If that is the case, what is the state of mind that will get us there, and, if we are able to name that state of mind, how, if at all, will it benefit the earth?

“Be in the world, but not of it,” say the great spiritual teachers (and happiness is most certainly a spiritual question.) Abraham left the city of his father to return to the wilderness and when the choice was before him, gave the cities of the plain to his nephew Lot. Moses led the Israelites out of a very developed Egypt into the wilderness. Prince Siddhartha left his father’s palace to go live in the forest, reaching enlightenment under a great spreading tree. Seeking a path of harmony in an age of warring states, Confucius wandered. As the ethic of war escalated in the West, resulting in the doublespeak of the pax Romana, Jesus went into the wilderness and called a little community to live outside conventional social roles and historical conditioning. Mohammed retreated into the desert. In indigenous cultures, in many ways much spiritually wiser than ours, it is not just the great teachers, but young people in general who go to deserted places, forgoing food and water for four days in quest of a vision. Indigenous cultures know that the sacred resides in the land. It is spiritual, not physical knowledge that both shows us what to do and keeps us from going mad.

As teachers and vision questers know, if you want to find the Truth, you’ve got to leave the city.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Green Brain, Part I

The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!" (John 16:32-33)


A man approaches the Teacher. “Teacher,” says he, “I have left home many times. I have traveled the world on business. On my vacations I have offered my services to restoration efforts in the Caribbean and public health work in Kenya. I love my neighbor and contribute to a microfinance network that helps women build small businesses. I believe that qualifies me to speak the truth.”

“You have done well,” the Teacher answers. “But you lack one thing. Sell all you have and let the poor come and help you.”

The man shook his head and walked away, disappointed. He had expected a more serious answer.

“What is technology?” asked another.

“In literal terms, technology is the logos of all craft. As logos, technology is also mind.”

“How can you say that tools have a mind?”

“Many cells comprise a mind. Many tools comprise a technology.”

“But teacher, technology cannot think. At least not yet. The technology itself is mindless. It is what we do with it that counts.”

“Is that so? There was once a very brilliant scientist. He believed that he could do with modern physics what no one had ever done before: bring the power of heaven down to earth. The rest of the world might have laughed him off as the fool he was, were it not for one thing. The Enemy was rumored to be doing the same. Because we were at war, it became imperative to get heaven on our side, so the government did what governments have always done: they gave this scientist a high place, a mountain in the desert. They also gave him leave to assemble the greatest minds of his time. From far and wide, the most brilliant minds converged on this mountain, where they ate, drank, smoked, and worked together. They were consumed by the intensity and enormity of their task, and driven by a need to save the world from the Enemy. The head scientist, especially, was stressed, and he smoked all the time, burning cigarette after cigarette as he pondered the secrets of celestial fire. From below the mountain, the people saw flashes of light and heard great booms and wondered what manner of salvation was being wrought there. Finally, the scientist was successful. He built a tiny star, all encased in metal. He took it down the mountain and set it on a scaffold like the hanged man. He planned to detonate in the hour just before dawn. The day was the Feast of the Transfiguration. That night, it rained and thundered. The men wondered if lightening would detonate their star. The scientist himself was nearly wasted away by this time, having smoked so much that now his six foot frame weighed only 115 pounds. His wife lay in a drunken stupor back up the mountain. Just before dawn, the rain stopped, and the desert, watered and refreshed, exhaled new life. Everywhere were frogs. The air was filled with their voices, just as once Egypt was filled with the voices of frogs when God told Pharaoh to let them go.

“At that moment, the scientist opened the star. There was an explosion such as the world has never seen. It vaporized the frogs and turned the desert sands to glass, for the power of heaven had indeed been brought to earth. And this scientist, practically wasted away in his obsession, now declared himself a god. ‘I am Shiva,’ he said, ‘bringer of death.’ We do not know whether, like Shiva, he danced.

“Now tell me, if you think that technology was but a mindless tool, when all the greatest minds of the time had worked so hard, in some cases risking their lives unto death, to build it.”

“It was necessary to bring the Enemy into submission. That so-called star saved millions of Allied lives. And besides, you did not mention that after that work was done, the scientist spent the rest of his life harnessing that same power for peace.”

“Can the fires of destruction ever be turned for peace? Can a man who does not hear the songs of frogs ever be trusted to preserve life? For what purpose does a mind exist?”

“To discover the secrets of the universe.”

“Did our scientist discover them, or was he possessed?”

At that, the second man, too, walked away. He was too old to spend this much time in word play, for he had great works to do.

It is said that the same technology that got us into our present mess can get us out. I wonder. For so long technology has been set against nature that it has ceased to be natural.

“There you go again,” says another listener. “You are giving a bunch a tools moral authority. Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”

Mankind would never have built guns had he no intention to kill.

The video below shows this story in its operatic version. On the eve of the detonation, J. Robert Oppenheimer sings John Donne's "Batter my heart, three person'd God."



You are correct that minds are ambiguous. Life, environment and temperament create mindsets. Mindsets create the structures that people mistake for reality for what we shrug our shoulders and say are “just the way things are.”

“It’s just human nature,” they say, when what they really mean is “this is the way this place and time has conditioned human nature.”

As a child growing up in a protestant church, I always imagined that when Martin Luther wrestled with salvation by works, he was really wrestling with the mindset of early capitalism, whose unintended consequences he was already able to glimmer, even if he could not fully map the extent of it. The sale of indulgences turned salvation into an indulgence for those who could afford it. Indulgences financed the erection of vast buildings and complexes that set the stage for the rampant materialism that now threatens to destroy the planet for its gratification. Today’s McMansion is nothing other than a retooled St. Peter’s Basilica of the successful, high achieving self. Today’s high priced health care offers salvation to the rich and death to the poor. Of course, Martin Luther could not see all that. All that he knew was that something was very wrong.

There is nothing that money and technology cannot solve, says the truism of this world. With that in mind, let us ponder how American know how addresses Mother Earth.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Why the Church Needs Jung: The Church Dream Group Movement

As a school chaplain, I spend a lot of time planning and writing curricula. In this work, I have been much inspired by Parker Palmer. Palmer envisions education as a circle of learners gathered around a Great Thing, a truth. In this model, the teacher directs the conversation, but does not necessarily initiate it. The initiator is the truth that sits at the center of the circle. In this way, teacher and student enjoy a peer relationship that does not happen in much traditional education.

At my school, we practice this form of learning with even the youngest children. The truth can be a poem, a play, a mathematical formula or an ear of corn. For me as chaplain, the truth that sits at the center of the circle is God.

That said, God is an elusive truth. Some say we can only know God by what God is not. Others speak of God's thousand masks. For many of us churchgoers, the experience of God is secondhand, mediated through old stories, sermons and classes that teach us about God and the Church without really bringing either one to life. One Sunday at the Church door, a parishioner told me that she only came for the Eucharist, because only in that very direct and unmediated encounter with bread and wine did God come to life for her.

Sacraments may be the outward and visible signs of inward and invisible grace, but God has a few invisible signs as well. God speaks to each one of us every single night in dreams. Whenever we dream, we step outside time and space to receive a teaching that is for us alone, and yet, because it comes from God, is also universal.

The Church is rediscovering this voice. Small groups are meeting and inviting their dreams to be the truth in the center of the room. This is the best possible curriculum. Dreams make no hierarchical distinction between lay and clergy, young and old, skeptic and mystic.

"But I have no experience!" you might argue. Do any of us have extensive experience of the infinite? The key to working dreams is to let their imagery wash over you, to apply active imagination in recreating their scenes, their characters and asking, "Why should this arrive in my soul just now?"

But no dream is just about you. Carl Jung believed that dreams and imagination have consequences for human society as a whole. Dreams are projective and teleological; therefore, when we work a dream in group, we are invited to project our own views. We do not project them unconsciously, however. We learn conscious projection. We embrace the other's dream as our own and in this way, practice compassion and empathy with the other. When I tell another what their dream would mean to me if it were my dream, I am literally including this other's experience into my own.

In this connection, it is wise to remember that no religion got its start as doctrines to which we must comply if we know what is good for us. Religions begin as people sharing a path toward truth. They start as people gathered around a table. In this connection, dreams may be the Eucharist of which each one of us is the unique priest, offering the sacrament of themselves to others, even as Jesus offered the sacrament of himself to us.

Want to know more? I recommend picking up and reading Joyce Rockwood Hudson's wonderful book Natural Spirituality, which is the best kitchen table discussion of Jung it has been my pleasure to peruse, or John A. Sanford's landmark book Dreams: God's Forgotten Language. Sanford wrote his book in the 'sixties while at the Jung Institute. It retains all the freshness that was the hallmark of the best of that decade. Or, if you want something really concise, go to http://seedwork.org/rose.html and read The Rose.

I'll write more about getting a dream group going.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Why the Church Needs Jung: The Problem of Opposites

To begin, some quotes:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding, V

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

"The way upward and the way downward are the same."
Heraclitus, Fragment 60

At the self-same moment, you died and you were born; and that water of salvation was both your grave and your mother.
Cyril of Jerusalem, Mystical Catechesis

The Rev. Robert Haden, Episcopal priest and founder of the Haden Institute which offers conferences on Christianity from a Jungian perspective, addresses this very separation, “Carl Jung expressed a Deep and abiding fear. His deep and abiding fear was that the Church was losing the experience of the Divine. If the Church lost the experience of the Divine, the Church would go down the drain, And if the Church went down the drain, Western Civilization would go down the drain with it.”

Few people in the West have explored human and divine more deeply and extensively than Carl Jung. For this reason, I call Jung, not a psychologist, but a theologian. His work bridges so many gaps between the physical sciences and the humanities, that it is a kind of unified field theory of the soul. Following Jesus’ own teaching in Jerusalem that “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” Jung explored many forgotten and rejected corners of the West’s intellectual and experiential history, Gnosticism and alchemy being his most obvious and famous examples. Gnosticism and alchemy are important, because the rejection of both resulted in orthodoxies, the first, the religious orthodoxy which hardened into Inquisition and witch burning in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, the second, the scientific orthodoxy which sought to brand much spiritual experience as psychiatric deviance. In both Gnosticism and alchemy, the tensions between the material and the spiritual world were explored. If the Gnostics denied physical reality, today’s scientism rejects spiritual reality.

My truth may be different than your truth, but my truth cannot exclude your truth. By shining the light of history and science upon the exploration of individual truth, Jung shows us a way to live this paradox.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Lord of Darkness Revealed: Playing Flashlight Tag in the Underworld

At the candlelit beginning of the Easter Vigil, the Exultat sings:

Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth,
bright with a glorious splendor,
for darkness has been vanquished by our eternal King.

What do we mean by these things? What is light? What is darkness? Is the darkness vanquished by Easter the simple shroud of the night or is it something more sinister, an evil hidden in the recesses of the human heart that is revealed in all its starkness when Jesus' death causes all the whitewashed tombs to open?

I suspect that my fascination with the dark stems from living more in it than I might care to admit. Although I cannot see it -- it is hard for a diurnal being to navigate by night -- the wise ones assure me that I am more unconscious than awake. The popular culture of literalism abounds with images of the Dark. Children thrill with recognition when it appears. Half my boy students identify with the powerful child Anakin Skywalker. From vampires who hide in the subway to Tolkien’s Sauron, Rowling’s Voldemort and Lucas’ Darth Vader, we look high and low for the lord of this dark and seek to vanquish him, thinking that in so doing, we have done the work of light. But have we? Are these stories correct? Can we vanquish the darkness or is something even greater required? Who, or what, is the Lord of Darkness?

I know this: everybody dreams about him. He’s the monster under the bed, the alligator in the closet, the reason why children are fascinated by dinosaurs and adolescent girls are seduced by strangers. My first remembered dream, dreamed at about the age of four, featured a huge, looming witch who emerged from the shadows to chase me through the night. Much more recently, one of my students dreamed of a soccer ball that rolled into a room where people were eating. Its pulsing black pentagons turned the color of blood. Smoke came out as the soccer ball split in half and turned into a monster which devoured them all. The dreamer survived.

That is a fact about dark lords. We all seem to survive our encounter with them. Even Cedric Diggory, slain by Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire reemerged in another film as the irresistible vampire Edward Cullen. Death, both in the dream world and in the Gospel is not the end we would have it be. It is, rather, transformation. Transformation is a great deal more complicated than death. Death says only it is all over. Transformation, on the other hand, says it is just only beginning.

This is such a very great mystery that no one has really come close to explaining it. Many have mapped the Paschal Mystery, but a map only shows us the landmarks, not why they are where they are or what they hold in store for us. The map allows us to enter into intriguing and important conversations with our skewed assumptions in a world turned upside down. What is the meaning of an empty tomb? What is the good? Is evil simply the absence of this good or does it have an independent reality of its own? If it has reality of its own, what is the nature of that reality? When we say that Christ was crucified for our sins, does it mean that our sins were laid to rest on the cross or that our sins put him there? What is the saving action that we celebrate during the Easter season? Is it an empty tomb that isn’t really empty because there are angels in it? Is it a resurrection body? And since we are on the subject, what, exactly, is a resurrection body? Mary didn’t recognize Jesus when she saw him, but she knew him when he spoke her name, (in the beginning, after all, was the word); Cleopas and his unnamed companion did not recognize his voice, but they knew him in the breaking of the bread. Paul remains, enigmatically, as one “untimely born,” his vision on the road to Damascus literally blinding.

In psychological terms, the events of the Triduum, the washing of the feet, the arrest in the garden, the strange, nocturnal trial, the cross, the tomb, the resurrection, are all about the release of the unconscious. When Jesus dies on the cross, the earth shakes, the tombs are opened, and everything that was thought to have been put to rest reappears. It is like encountering all the hidden and unacceptable parts of myself, set free in a single, saving act. All that I previously thought to be hideous and embarrassing is all of a sudden blessed. All that I thought was dead is suddenly very much alive. The resurrection wants me whole!

The spiritual life comes not to make me nice, or well behaved, although these might certainly happen, it comes to make me whole.

Meanwhile, the crucifixion teaches that there are very real forces out there that would like to keep me ignorant and in my place.

Like a pilgrim seeking to awaken all that is asleep within, Jesus descended to the dead to free the dead. In darkness did he defeat the darkness, for all that happened in the tomb beyond the reach of human eyes.

But during Easter, we get a glimpse. We can play flashlight tag in the underworld.

"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Persephone's Dream Show: Hot News from the Queen of the Dead

God walks among the dead on Holy Saturday, resting from Creation, touching those who also rest, kissing their cheeks gently, inviting us to leave our regrets behind and begin our walk back toward the light. As John Chrysostom says, “On Easter, all are forgiven.”

There are not many people who have walked among the dead and lived to tell the tale. Myth gives us a few names: Coyote, Savitri, Inanna, Orpheus, Odysseus, Aeneas, Psyche, but although they visited with the dead, they returned alone and empty handed. Psyche came closest to being an exception when she emerged with Persephone’s cosmetics box, but a cosmetics box is well, just a box. Only Jesus broke both into history and into death, and according to legend, when he came up from below, he brought others with him.

Philip Pullman, whose scorn for Christianity is legendary, attempts to “improve” upon the Easter story by having his heroine Lyra descend to the underworld in the third volume of His Dark Materials trilogy. Lyra is a liberator, but she is not a bestower of life. Lyra’s liberation is to allow the dead to finally die, to dissolve back into atoms, into the copious nothingness promised by classical rationalism and science, into a world which says “what you see is what you get, and if you get nothing, well, too bad.”

When death becomes more redemptive than life, I know only that I am living in a miasma of survivors’ guilt.

The Russian Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983) lived at a time when the materialist propaganda of the Soviet Union had reduced all religious truths to “primitive superstitions” and “opiates.” I do not know how aware he was to what extent Soviet Power built its small elite upon economic injustice and mass death, but he was very aware of how godlessness, by its denial of basic human truths, breeds a culture of fear. Death is fear’s indispensable ally. In a penetrating little essay on the subject, Schmemann wrote: “Antireligious propaganda likes to claim that one of the sources of religion is fear of death: people were afraid of death and so they invented immortality of the soul, the world to come, and so forth. The reality, of course, is that none of this exists. With physical death, human beings utterly disappear and turn into nothingness. It has always surprised me how fiercely and with what inexpressible inspiration propaganda fights for this nothingness.” (Celebration of Faith, pp. 111-12)

Today, it has been revealed that the entire financial catastrophe that impoverished Africa, created an unbridgeable gap between rich and poor, that provides life and health for the rich and suffering and death for the poor was created by those same atheists whose belief in scientific materialism inspired them to use the so-called universal language of mathematics to craft “market models” that masked the greatest and most efficient machinery of greed and self-interest that has ever been created. While the rest of the world faces an abyss of despoiled land and sea, a world that has been sold to the highest bidder and the money supply gone, those who created this disaster in the name of enlightened progress have enough wealth to last for several generations. It does not matter to them what happens now. They have their reward.

Such is the ethic of nothingness. Perhaps the Soviets articulated it first, but it took American know how to bring it off.

To live in today’s world is to have a more than passing familiarity with the underworld. We have all seen justice crucified on a dead tree in a clear-cut rain forest.

Today, more than ever, we need Easter. In another essay, Schmemann wrote: “What does it mean to celebrate Easter in a world filled with suffering, hatred, triviality and war? What does it mean to sing of trampling down death by death and to hear that ‘not one dead remains in the grave’ when death, disregarding all our day-to-day hurry, still remains the one earthly certainty?” (pp. 119-20)

Easter tells the story of one who fought against that certainty and who won. Someone who says that death is nothing more than the illusion of an easy way out, the wide road of social control and perdition. For too long we have lived in a world obsessed with security. As long ago as Ancient Egypt, the wise ones have known that it is not security, but change, the Nile’s flood, that gives life. Stability in Egypt is death. In the desert, mummies last forever.

Jesus was wrapped in winding sheets with a hundred pounds of aloe and spices, brought by Nicodemus who had come to him by night. He refused to stay wrapped up. In his refusal lies a key for all the rest of us.

On Easter Sunday, I invite us all to ponder what we are wrapped up in.

The emptiness into which the greedy have plunged us is a terrible thing, but, as this very old celebration of Easter suggests, if we are willing to really look into it, as Mary Magdalene looked into the empty tomb, we might just hear the words of angels. We might even be reunited with God in the Garden.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Darkest Day


Good Friday is the enactment of a choice that forever shattered the world. For better or worse the world has never recovered from it. I suspect that because of the darkness of it all, it is very hard to see through it to the light.

Jesus lived and breathed for a single purpose. Jesus came to show us what it means to be human. Jesus lived a most powerful and complete human life. Everyone, Christian or not, can learn from this life. Likewise, we can learn from his death.

But on Good Friday, I see the achievements of mankind mirrored in the face of a dying Jesus and I’m not very proud of what I see.

It is on Good Friday that the eyes of God bore all the way to my heart and break me in two.

Stay awake! cries my shattered soul. Face what you have done. Face your terrors. Face your anger at the great which impels you to overlook the small. Stop thinking you can change the world and find somewhere within yourself the courage to love it.

I do not like standing at the foot of the cross. I want to be anywhere but here, anywhere but in the frenzy of money, power and brokered lives. I am too vulnerable. The same people who hurt Jesus have hurt me. But if I can hold on to the whirlwind, sometimes I can catch a glimpse of what the fourteenth century holy woman Dame Julian saw so well and so clearly. It is an impossible text if read as an account of suffering; therefore, suffering itself must be faced in order to see what lies beyond. On Good Friday, from the foot of the cross, I share with you part of a reading from Dame Julian offered us by Father Tom Brindley while my friend J. and I were on Holy Week retreat at St. Columba parish:

Then our good Lord Jesus Christ said, “Are you well satisfied with my suffering for you?” “Yes, thank you, good Lord,” I replied. “Yes, good Lord, bless you.” And the kind Lord Jesus said, “If you are satisfied, then I am satisfied too. It gives me great happiness and joy, and indeed, eternal delight to have even suffered for you. If I could possibly have suffered more, I would have done so.” This experience lifted my mind to heaven... In his word, “if I could have possibly suffered more, I would have done so,” I saw that he would have died again and again, for his love would have given him no rest until he had done so….For though the dear humanity of Christ could only suffer once, his goodness would always make him willing to do so – every day, if need be….This is his meaning. “How could I not, out of love for you, do all I can for you? This would not be difficult, since for love of you I am ready to die often, regardless of the suffering.” And here I saw that the love that made him suffer is as much greater than his pain as heaven is greater than the earth.” (Revelations of Divine Love, pp 96-97)

Oh Lord and Master of my life, do not give me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power and idle talk; but give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, love and patience to your servant. Yea, O Lord and King, grant that I may see my own transgressions and not judge my brother, for blessed are You unto ages of ages. Amen. (The Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian)

It is finished.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

Every year on Maundy Thursday, my husband asks me how the disciples could have all fallen asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane. "How could they pass out on the one occasion when it was so important to stay awake?" I cannot speak for them, but do, on this holy day, share some thoughts about sleeping and remaining awake.

The Night Sea Journey describes the nocturnal passage taken by the Egyptian sun god Ra. During the day, he traverses the world above. At night he navigates the world below. Each dawn, he must do battle with Apophis the crocodile who guards the threshold between night and day. As I write these words, it is Maundy Thursday, as Jesus prepares for his perilous journey to the underworld where he will do battle with Satan before rising once again, transformed. For us mere mortals, the Night Sea Journey or the descent to the underworld is a very accurate picture of what happens to us when we sleep and are carried far away in our dreams.

To be fully human is to be fully awake. I am not certain any other animal can go as many hours without sleeping as can we. Look at your dog. Watch the Canada geese across the street tuck their heads beneath their wings, the cat dozing atop the stove, the fish resting quietly in their tank. Animals move effortlessly between wakefulness and quiet. Only we humans keep their eyes open all day, go to work for hours, stay up until midnight. Medical alarmists like to call us sleep deprived, but maybe it’s simply a misdirected quest for consciousness. “Be awake” is the first commandment in all the world’s religions. “Don’t let the evil one snatch you away because you were not looking. Let the ones who have eyes see, the ones who have ears hear. Keep awake, for you do not know when the master of the house is coming.” If I translate all these inner commandments into corporate politics, I’m not going to get very much sleep. Fortunately, it is never a good idea to take spiritual teachings literally and both sleep and wakefulness are very different than at first they seem. Without sleep, we can never be fully awake. Most corporate politics are a particularly virulent form of sleepwalking which may be one reason why both our economy and our earth are in such bad shape.

The Egyptians got it right. The sun has two aspects. As the daytime, sun is the symbol of our conscious life, the life we live by day, at work and at school, the life that leads to outer recognition and achievement. By night, the sun goes dark, and invisible seas mark the images and direction that our unconscious life takes. To become fully awake involves learning the language of both the day and the night, to slowly grow aware, even when I am sleeping. That is why both meditation and contemplative prayer are a practice akin to sleep, measured breathing, letting go the thoughts that race through and grip the mind.

I am not the first person to find this whole idea of cultivating the unconscious as a way of being more awake troubling. If what sets humanity apart is consciousness, why do I need all this sleep? What does Jung mean when he invokes the collective unconscious? I don’t share thoughts with my neighbor across the street, much less with a Tungus shaman in Siberia. Cultural difference is real. I could never be a groupie for the Taliban. My friend and mentor, the Unitarian Universalist teacher and dream worker Jeremy Taylor, suggests that we think of the unconscious as that which is simply “not yet speech ripe.” Who, he asks, but a crabbed Latinist would ever cobble together a word like the unconscious, anyway, a noun that combines consciousness, the very essence of being human, with a negative prefix? Is to be unconscious also to be inhuman? Does sleep rob us of that? (I do believe that some folks think so.) Having lived with this question for some time now, I think that “not yet speech ripe,” while a wonderful description of my fleeting dreams, may be too mild a phrase for the unconscious. I think we need both terms, that each proves the truth of the other. Something that is “not yet speech ripe,” in my experience at least, hovers right below the surface like someone’s name I have forgotten, or an insight right at the tip of my tongue which a little meditation and dream incubation can, with luck, draw out. Unconscious, on the other hand, is stone cold absolute utter darkness. It is what I cannot see at all. Unconscious is what happens to me under anesthesia, which knocks me out so deep I might as well have been dead.

Make no mistake. The dark is a scary thing. I hear things at night that I don’t hear by day. I have no idea whether that rustle in the grass beside me belongs to a flopsy bunny or a hungry tiger. Evolution counsels me to trust my fear. If it turns out to be bunnies, I can laugh about it in the morning, but if it be tigers, morning might not come for me at all. So I fear the unknown and I flee. In my fear I can fail to recognize how helpful much unconscious action can be – as Robert Johnson pointed out in his book Inner Work, so skilled are my reflexes that I can solve the world’s problems in my mind and still drive to work in the morning. I had no conscious sense of a mother’s love until someone put a baby into my arms and I clutched her to my heart as naturally as breathing. I love watching children grow and thrive, absorbing light and health without the slightest idea they are doing anything. As long as I am aware that things unseen are beside me, I can grant them at least some pride of place and maintain a garden-variety equilibrium. But as soon as I repress the hidden world, or even worse, dismiss it as some kind of “trick,” I will slip right back into fear. Fear may be the primal Satan, the Adversary, the Apophis I battle at the threshold of dawn. Too much fear is a very reliable sign that the unconscious is having a field day. We talk about being “possessed” by Satan. Fear can possess us, too. Fear is a very powerful instrument of social control, and that, too, says something about the power of the unconscious and the ruthlessness with which some manipulate it.

Carl Jung uses many images to describe the relationship between day seeing and night vision, between the conscious things that we can articulate and the unconscious things whose hold on us lies far below our awareness. One that I especially like is the water lily.

Like the sun rising past the jaws of Apophis, a water lily rises above the murky waters of its pond and blooms. Its center is golden, its petals beautifully articulated points. It has a perfection of form, folding up by night, unfolding with the sun. Water lilies have so captured the human imagination that in many cultures they are known as the flowers of heaven. Deities choose them as their thrones. They are a perfect image of the threshold between earth and sky, water and land.

They are also the product of an invisible and interconnected root system, nourished by pond silt they cannot see, floating in a medium that is shared with so much other life. My waking intelligence is like a single water lily floating in the Pacific Ocean; I may know much about myself, but there is a lot out there that is not me upon which my life depends. Further, I nourish much hidden life even as that hidden life nourishes me.

The more that I can learn about that hidden world, the better I can respond to its hidden messages. “I will open my mouth and speak in parables. I will reveal what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.”

There is no more accurate map of humankind’s universal, inner life than the sacred parables and tales we have told each other over millennia. As with dreams, the language of parable is symbolic and refractory, lacking in a fixed meaning, a narrative that is also a conversation.

Like any conversation, however, the mythic one has many sides. If it becomes one sided, it flattens and it dies. If it keeps its many sides, but turns into warring factions, it also dies. If it has many sides, but I choose only one, I have succumbed to temptation. Choice, suggests priest and therapist John Sanford, is the foundation of all sin. Choice is what both creates and divides.

Waking life cannot deal very well with choice, but dreams can.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Solar Myths and the Night Sea Journey: Speaking our Dreams, Part 1

I’ve been silent for quite some while, hibernating in the northern winter of my heart, an inner landscape muffled and transformed under the cover of snow and traversed by the curtain of the northern lights. Since my physical body lives in the Bay Area where it does not snow, I can only do this work imaginatively. Perhaps it is this imbalance, the lack of winter in waking life, that has given me my taste for sleep and dreams. My Alaska friends really see spirits in the aurora. They tell their children not to walk alone when the Northern Lights are out. The howling wind scatters all words. In my gentle clime, the only winter to be found is in my own depths. This is important, if one is to be a storyteller. The words of winter, as any Native knows, are the words, not of polemic, but of story, and stories are never understood all at once. I am part of a story that began thousands of years before me and will continue thousands of years after I am gone. That is what I teach in my dream classes. Dreams allow all the flashing lights of life to go dark. More than anything else, dreams connect us with a story that has been going on for millions of years.

But spring has come and it's time to talk again. Our California springs are almost suffocating with wind, pollen and the fragrance of a decaying world suddenly bursting into bloom. Spring awakens a very different imagination than winter. Winter preserves; spring transforms. Winter calls one to face the immensity of darkness; spring, the immensity of birth. They are, of course, but different versions of the same thing, for no new life can be born unless it first abide in the darkness.

In my other home of Alaska, Mt. Redoubt has been turning the earth inside out. Nature rages. Flights are grounded, forcing us all back to earth, to putting our feet on solid ground. That, too, is spring, for as John’s Gospel says, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

The cherry tree blooms. Bees are swarming in the courtyard. The children grow wild, reminding me that we in the west have no Confucius, no tradition of wise elderhood to bind them in love. Flowers and flares are the emblems of spring. Knowledge flowers. Tempers flare.

On March 17, the day before Lance Mackey blazed into Nome and one week before Tim Hunt blew out the widow’s lamp, ending another Iditarod, day and night were equal in length. Now day outpaces night in its own desperate race.

Back in the nineteenth century when Europeans began the work of reconnecting with their myths, the German scholar Max Müller hypothesized that all myths owed their origins to the Sun. This is not surprising for its time; the Aryan people, claimed as the ancestors of the Germans, were believed also to have forged the cultures of both Greece and the Indus Valley. The Aryans were patriarchal warriors and sun worshippers, and if they themselves never existed as a race, their legacy is clear for all to see. Zeus, Apollo, Hephaestus, Indra, Agni, Odin, Thor and Loki were all solar deities or fire walkers, as was the earlier Egyptian deity Ra. When God spoke to Moses, it was as a burning bush, as a pillar of fire or cloud, as a smoking volcano. Jesus became known as Sol Invictus, the unconquerable sun, a name taken from the Persian solar bull Mithra, an incarnation of the Golden Apis who blinded the Israelites in the burning desert.

When he visited Egypt, the Greek historian Herodotus believed he had entered the cradle of the gods, for it was in Egypt that religion was born. This said, he did not care for animal deities and considered his own religion an improvement upon the original.

In this same way, later theoreticians of mythology came to view Müller as overly simplistic, preferring their own syntheses, but as the light returns, it seems right to pause and pay tribute to this old solar vision. It lives on in the current ecological crisis. In his book The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, journalist Thom Hartmann speaks of petroleum as the stored sunlight that our current economy is consuming at an alarming pace. We are burning ourselves up faster than we can replenish the fires.

That is the danger of solar mythology. Rational, masculine, ordered, it is. But if it is not balanced by moist darkness, it burns everything up. Consider Phaeton, the son of Apollo, who stole his father’s chariot and watched the horses of the sun run away with him. Or Semele, who wished to see her divine lover in all his shining glory. Or to be less overtly mythical, my grandmother grew up Canadian when “the sun never set on the British Empire.” My grandfather was sent as fodder into the wars which consumed that empire in a blaze of terrifying fire.

If life is to continue, the sun needs to set.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Ghost of Christmas Past

It is done. The twinkling lights that guided us through December have breathed their last. The night grows dark. Cold closes in. Some of us are relieved to slip back into the routines of ordinary life. Some of us are wistful at the festive time’s passage. Some are still coping with what changed forever over the holidays. Wherever your heart may be, look back for just a moment, and hold the season that is past. The Maori say that the past is really our future and that we can only know where we are going when we truly know where we have been.

Most of us pay great attention to the beginning of Christmas. A certain excitement accompanies Advent, the Annunciation, the child in the manger, the shopping, the presents under the tree, family, stress, lights, all those things we encounter at the beginning.

By the time we get to the end of the season, however, many of us are ready for it to be over. We’re full to the gills with Christmas, tired, partied out, a little hung over.

It leads me to wonder if there is something about the end of Christmas that makes it harder than the beginning, something that is not just the effect of celebration.

There’s something about the story itself that has the power to set my teeth on edge. Here’s the way they taught it when I was in seminary.

The Christmas story marks a turning point in the world, a point of great reversal, said our teachers. God the all powerful comes to earth, but he comes as no power we would recognize. God arrives as a poor child, a royal prince born among the most ordinary animals. The Christ event (everything is an “event” today) means that the poor will rise. The rich will be cast down. Read the Magnificat. One of my professors said, “This is a story with winners and losers.”

I have always felt unsettled by this kind of theology, even if I do root for the underdog. It’s too easy to hear it as politics, as the superior moral position of the oppressed. The theologians call it “God’s preferential option for the poor,” but it can still, in some lights, be construed as Marxism in Christian vestments. This is not to say I have a problem with Marxism. I don’t. I’m glad Marx revealed what he revealed. But the idea that Christmas is about winners and losers too easily slips into dualism, the left’s saying in different words what the right has always asserted: God’s kingdom is by admission only.

There may be great differences in the world, but the world is not dualistic. The world is not divided into winners and losers, good and evil, black and white, high and low. The world should not be divided at all. Could we know ourselves to be fully alive without the presence of death? Could we have light without darkness?

If Christmas were really, at the literal level it was taught me, about the rise of the poor, why are the rich still dancing on their yachts? Am I missing something?

This year, with the world reeling with economic recession, I had ample time to ponder rich and poor, to ponder how God appears in the world, to travel the songlines that are the Christmas season. And here’s what I found. I found that the first part of Christmas is centered upon the poor, at least those we would consider poor: Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the manger, our children. But once that story is told, the action shifts toward those whom we would call the rich, Herod, his court and sages, the Magi from the East. Much reversal and surprise turns up in both places. I suspect Mary and Joseph were surprised to find themselves in a stable. I know the shepherds were amazed by angels. A world that appears constricted suddenly expands all the way to heaven. The poor are revealed as rich. The rich are revealed as poor. As Isaiah puts it at the beginning of Advent, the world grows level at the coming of God.

But leveling is still not sameness. Equality is not sameness. God happens differently to different people. This is not because God is different, but because we are different. Obviously we are meant to be different or God would not have created us that way. The task, it seems, is to bring all that difference together. Here, as I see it, are some ends of the continuum.

God comes to the poor as gift. Poverty is a condition of emptiness, and God may easily enter the emptiness.

The rich, on the other hand, are full of things, full of themselves. To the rich comes the rather more difficult task of finding the narrow hole in all that fullness and seeing what lies beyond. It’s a scary undertaking. What if God should come and ask for all that I have? Because of course God does ask for all we have. When all I have is myself, however, I cannot imagine that there might be anything more.

The characters who populate the latter half of Christmas are all rich.

The Magi are rich. They have the wherewithal to drop everything and follow a star. They know, for they have done their watching well, that the star is very important. They devote their fortunes to finding the birth heralded by it. They use royal language to describe it, because royal language is their way, a way that leads them to other royalty, to Herod’s court. They come as messengers, rather as the angels came to the shepherds, bearing news of a divine child.

And Herod is just as terrified as the shepherds to hear the news. Herod is not like the Magi. When Herod hears the words “king of the Jews,” Herod is afraid, “and all Jerusalem with him.” His is the literal world of winners and losers and he senses he is in danger of losing this one. He posts his guard.

The Magi keep watch. Herod posts a guard. There is a very great difference between these two ways of being rich.

The wise ones thank Herod for directing them towards Bethlehem, and go on their way. Then they do what the rich must always do: they offer their gifts. That is the whole point of Christian practice if we are rich. It is to acknowledge how gifted we are and to give others what they need. It is not to choose the gifts ourselves, but like the Magi to listen for the voice of God and let God tell us how and to whom to offer our gifts.

The Biblical Christmas story begins with people seeking what they need and ends with an offering of gifts.

Then the angels return. They come in dreams. First, to the wise ones: “Herod means the child harm. Return to your country by another way.” Then to Joseph: “Take your little one to Egypt and keep him safe. The gold received from the wise ones will pay your passage and keep you.”

The divine child vanishes into Egypt. The wise ones go home. The shepherds continue to abide in their fields. Another Christmas comes to an end. Stand in the darkness and remember. For God has spoken to you, too.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Twilight

As the little pic on the right attests, I got hooked by Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series over Christmas. On the one hand, it was bound to happen as I am chaplain to a school full of her readers, but on the other, not all fantasy series touch my heart in quite this way. The teaser: Edward and his family are not what they seem. As one who cruises the spirit world, I've met many a vampire and I don't keep company with them. But Edward? He's something else!

The sled dog wants you to know that Jacob is just as enigmatic. Go, read, have a good time. Like an Italian Baroque painting, it's absolutely over the top. I'll be back with more. Happy New Year!