Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Who and What of Thanksgiving

Thank you, Lord,
for singers of songs, for teachers of songs who help me sing along the way ...
and for listeners.
Thank you, Lord,
for those who attempt beauty rather than curse ugliness,
for those who take stands rather than take polls,
for those who risk being right rather than pandering to be liked,
for those who do something rather than talking about everything.
Lord, grant me grace, then, and a portion of your spirit
that I may so live as to give others cause to be thankful for me,
thankful because I have not forgotten
how to hope, how to laugh, how to say, "I'm sorry,'
how to forgive, how to bind up wounds, how to dream,
how to cry, how to pray, how to love when it is hard,
and how to dare when it is dangerous.
Undamn me, Lord,
that praise may flow more easily from me than wants,
thanks more readily than complaints.
Praise be to you, Lord, for life;
praise be to you for another chance to live.
Excerpt from Guerrillas of Grace

When I was young, my family had a ritual we followed on Thanksgiving, one with some variation you may have followed in yours. In turn, each of us around the table named something we were thankful for until we ran out of them. In those Great Depression days
in South Dakota, it didn't take long to complete the ritual. As things got better over the years, the ritual took longer and longer. Sometimes we still do that on Thanksgiving, and occasionally at other times. It's a good reminder that most of us have much to be thankful for so I applaud you if you do it, and encourage you to give it a try if you don't.

And yet, here's the caveat: the ritual is not as simple as it seems if you take it seriously. Everyone, or nearly everyone, can come up with a list of things to be thankful for when they give it a shot. But the real issue is not just what we are thankful for, but who we are thankful to. Surely we are thankful to a lot of people, probably several groups, at least a few institutions. We might even include God in the list along with all of those we're thankful to. But that's where the caution flag gets waved. Is God just one of many and not really very different?

Consider how Martin Luther put it: "What you give your loyalty to and get your sense of worth from is properly your god." If we add "thankful" to "loyalty" and "worth" we begin to feel the pinch. By Luther's definition, which is a provocative and fairly accurate one, we all have a pantheon of gods -- self-interest, career, possessions, status, science, reason, health, family, clubs, culture, country, causes, church, popularity, political party ... and on and on. Most are very good things to be thankful for. But gods?

So, what gods are yours? And mine? We all have them even if we scoff at those who worshipped idols like a Golden Calf the Hebrews put together on their Exodus from slavery in Egypt or the images of gods in ancient Greece and Rome where emperors elevated themselves to that status. We're more enlightened than those ancients and certainly more subtle, Our gods are less obvious. But aren't they just as misleading and self-serving? Just what or who do you give your loyalty to, your deepest loyalty, and from what or who do you get your sense of worth, your truest sense of worth. Who are you thankful to? Is it one of the things or persons you are thankful for? Don't we have many gods because not one of them is really enough - true, lasting, deep, broad, good, satisfying enough?

Now do you sense the caveat, feel the pinch? Or maybe not? In any case, it's not such an easy, simple ritual, is it, this thanks giving. It tests our hearts, souls, minds, strength which are the very things old Moses came down from Sinai to tell us God asked us to love God with, and that centuries later Jesus confirmed about God in his teaching and with his life. Okay, if you don't see it that way, what way do you see it? What is your god, or gods? Once you start down the thanksgiving trail, you meet yourself and find out more and more about not only what you're thankful for but who you're thankful to. It's a trip worth taking, especially in this season set aside for it but observed by many who don't know how essentially challenging it is and how deep it really goes.

To help a bit, here from Barbara Brown Taylor, is a small compass for the trip. "... science cannot explain how human consciousness works or where it comes from. It is as much a mystery as the moment before the universe began ... I spoke earlier of how much time is required for an eyeball to look back (through a microscope) at a light-sensitive cell (from which it evolved). How much more time does it take for quantum particles to mature to the point where they may compose hymns of praise? Whether your answer is seven days or fifteen billion years, it remains a miracle that we are here at all, able to praise our maker. God may well prefer the sound of spring peepers, but I have to believe there was joy in heaven when the first human being looked at the sky and said, 'Thank you for this.'" (1)

And then there's the Psalmist: "Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament. Praise him for his mighty deeds: praise him according to his surpassing greatness... Let everything that breathes praise the Lord." (2)

Think about it and have a real thanksgiving. Ted

(1) From The Luminous Web: Essays on Science and Religion."
(2) Psalm 150 NRSV

Thursday, November 12, 2009

2nd What You See is What You'll Get-- Greed Vs Need

"Great God of Truth, we grieve for the wounds of your beautiful earth, wounds inflicted by our own carelessness, ignorance, and greed. Merciful God, open our ears to the groaning of creation: glaciers melting into a rising sea, polar bears swimming to exhaustion in search of ice, wetlands drying to parched cracks, songbirds seeking ancient sanctuaries in vain, coral reefs bleaching in polluted waters, whales beaching themselves in despair.
Awaken us, Good Lord, to our responsibility for this earth over which you made us stewards. Give us your spirit of compassion for all you have made ... Help us to know deeply the truth of our interconnection with all creatures (and) perceive how the limited store of earth's elements cycle round from age to age, that we may keep committed to keep them clean and pure ... Teach us to so value our vocation as caretakers of creation that the earth and every thread of her living fabric may, as you have promised, come to share in the very freedom of the children of God."
Prayers for The New Social Wakening, edited by Christian Iosso and Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty.
Excerpted from a prayer by Marjorie J. Thompson.

Winston Churchill is reported to have said, "Americans always do the right thing, but not until they have exhausted every possible alternative." I'm not sure Churchill is right about always but it does seem we're often prone do the right thing as a last resort. Why is that? No doubt there are many reasons. I propose that a primary one is that we don't feel the pinch of the consequences of our procrastination, self-preoccupation and bumbling until some kind of disaster happens -- such as the present economic crisis. It's a crisis caused in large measure by the seduction of not "right" alternatives to which we all too readily succumbed. Basically it was the seduction of greed and the misguided proposition that greed is good. The crisis was/is a painful way to learn that greed isn't good at all, but rather is corrupting and destructive.

Yet maybe that lesson still isn't painful enough for a majority of us to learn it. Consider that most of the talk about economic recovery centers on getting back as quickly as possible, with only minor adjustment here and there, to the way it was before the crisis. And who isn't looking forward to that -- to more shopping, more jobs making things and consuming them, making the wheels of commerce spin faster, having things which supposedly define our status and promote our self-esteem? Too many of us have participated a rerun of the story of Adam and Eve in Eden, namely willingly letting ourselves be seduced into trading one piece of fruit for the whole garden, as if that would make us like gods.

Of course, that is understandable. It was a way of exhausting alternatives. And it had some benefit, such as beginning an industries of making clothes and farming and other supporting businesses. But was it the right thing? Is it the right thing now? What do we really need to live well enough as human beings in a human family? Need is about what's sufficient and greed is about what's excessive. And that isn't just a subjective or personal choice, as many would argue it is. Nor is just about the freedom we insist we have to exhaust every possible alternative until we might finally get around to doing the right thing. The core of this issue is what it means to be human -- fully, responsibly, joyfully human which is really the truest and deepest need any of us have.

What I'm getting at is the urgency of global warming as a challenge we can't keep postponing until we're sure we've exhausted every possible alternative. We've already done that. We don't have much time to keep avoiding doing the right thing about global warming. We are close to global warming being an irreversible crisis. That's what every qualified scientist is trying to tell us. Our common need, for the sake of our own humanity and the human family present and future, is to do something about it now. That is the only right thing. How to do that, that's discussable, but not whether or when. It is time to get urgently underway discussing how and taking action.

In his new book, Our Choice, former Vice President Al Gore tells us that truth in clear, well-researched terms. The good news is that Gore adds that we have the technology, the tools to begin now to turn things around. And that as we do, we'll have the growing capacity to create a "green" economy that will put people to work in new industries: making and installing cheaper, more efficient solar panels; constructing a new continental grill to replace the present antiquated one to carry electric energy from wind, tidal and thermal sources to every corner of the country; building more energy efficient intra-/inter-city public transportation; developing and manufacturing electric cars which are already in trials. It can be done, and fast enough to reverse global warming before it's too late to do the right thing.

What keeps us from doing it? All of us do! What's lacking is the collective will. We still fall
for the sirens of greed rather than the summons of need: the need deeper than consuming and possessing; the need to respond to what our hearts know makes life enduringly meaningful and right. Being aware of our deepest need is a religious or spiritual issue because faith isn't something we have so much as it something we are and strive to be. It's a vision, an awareness of, even just an inchoate longing for, something or Someone who has us and summons us to be stewards of, and partners in, the ongoing creation. In essential ways that is the prominent theme of the gospel story of Jesus and his appeal to us.

In his book, Gore writes that his favorite quote is from philosopher Theodor Adorno: "The conversion of all questions of truth into questions of power ... has attacked the very heart of the distinction between true and false." That pretty well sums up our ongoing struggle as human beings, as people with mustard seed size faith, and as stewards of our common home on earth. It will take hard work to mobilize public opinion -- meaning the will -- to resist the reducing questions of truth into questions of power, to resist those who exercise power greedily in the effort to prevent change, to promote greed in an effort to defend their entrenched positions to appeal to our own addictions and sell any and every alternative in the marketplace to avoid doing the right thing.

To resist means paying attention, joining organizations like Earth Justice or the Sierra Club or Common Cause or any of the many other groups working to reverse global warming and change
what is causing it. It means writing to our congress people telling them this isn't a partisan issue so stop the mud slinging and procrastination. It means promoting the business enterprises that shift to a green economy approach. It means being persistent, imaginative and courageous. For example, what if for starters we encouraged churches in this country to start installing solar panels on their buildings which are usually large and energy inefficient? What if we began doing that for our homes? What if we did all the little but crucial things we can to save electricity and use less fossil fuel and recycle everything possible? It can be done but not without us. Without me and you and you and you ....

In Cormac McCarthy's novel, No Country for Old Men (got a copy yet?) the old sheriff (think Tommy Lee Jones who played the part in the movie) asks one of his deputies, "What is it that Torbert says? About truth and justice?" The deputy replies, "We dedicate ourselves anew daily. Something like that." And the sheriff says as he goes out the door, "I think I'm goin' to commence dedicatin' myself twice daily, It may come to three fore it's over. I'll see you in the morning."

Feels a little like the tug of the gospel, doesn't it? You up for it?

Think about it. Ted

P.S. Damn, I do get carried away and long, don't I? Sorry, I'll keep trying to shorten up. In turn, maybe you can start dedicatin' anew at least once or twice daily.

Monday, November 2, 2009

1st What You See Is What You Will Get

Dear Friends,

After much reflection about it, I've decided to continue posting my blog, at least for a while. A knowledgeable friend advises me to make them shorter and in a more regular sequence. I'll try to do that, in part by writing briefer installments of my reflections on a theme. Here's my first effort.

Praise be to you, gracious God, for this day, this earth, this life,
for the weave of miracles blessing us and for your quiet power sustaining us.

We praise you for times of laughter and tears. risk and reconciliation,
reflection and healing, and for the stubborn presence of your spirit
making it all sacred.

Praise be to you, awesome God, for the holy mysteries
of our struggling and wondering ... and all that moves us to awe.
to love, to pray, so serve, since it is your Spirit that moves us so
and is creating us still .... Amen.

Adapted from My Heart in My Mouth: Prayers for Our Lives.

In a recent column in The New York Times a British author, A.N. Wilson wrote about the startling invitation of Pope Benedict XVI to welcome disgruntled Anglicans laity and priests (even married ones) into the Roman Catholic Church.

Wilson gladly concluded that this move would make it impossible for the Church of England to survive and end the idea of there being an Established Church of England. Wilson concludes,
The paradox is that a move by a conservative pope to ease the tender consciences of conservative-minded Anglicans will actually be a move toward the complete secularization of Britain, and the acceptance of its new mulitcultural identity.
Far more critical than Wilson's circuitous thought process or the motives and complexities of the organized churches, is the question Wilson unintentionally raises about how to see the world, see the earth itself. Are we to see the earth in secular terms as primarily an economic resource to be used a our discretion?; or are we to see it in at least somewhat religious terms as essentially sacred gift to be respected as an inviolable trust?

Variations of this question run through most of the pressing issues facing us -- economic development, poverty, energy policy, living standards, taxation, consumer driven markets, international competition, weapons development and use, even armed conflicts.

And most critically, how we see the world, the earth is THE question regarding global warming or, if you prefer the less graphic term, climate change. The answer to the question has enormous consequences which might be summed up by a slightly different wording of the familiar phrase, "What you see is what you get", namely "What we see is what we WILL get."

For instance, concern for the economic impact of efforts to reduce carbon emissions, a major factor in global warming, generates great resistance to taking any serious action on the issue. If that's how we continue to see the world, what we'll get is a world become a cinder. And by "we" it may not be us of this generation, or just the poor, or the under-developed countries, or China and India, but the United States, our kids and grandkids. future generations, everyone from whom we will have stolen the gift of the earth.

So rather than putting protecting our economy the first priority shouldn't we put protecting our planet first, and begin changing our economic interests and practices accordingly, perhaps even altering our standard of living somewhat?

And that confronts us with what we see as the meaning of life, what its core value is, what its essential purpose is, and to whom we owe what and why. Those are basic human questions and, I think, religious questions -- not so much for religious institutions who seem to lose their fundamental purpose in pursuit of their own economic ends, but for the religious spirit, that is, the spiritual longing that keeps interrupting and summoning us in sneaky ways and curious times and reminding us. What you see, and how, will be what you get.

More later. For now, think about it.