Sunday, October 30, 2011


My husband says I have a hyperlink mind. I want to know how things connect, love to link one idea to another. I’ve been known to jump up from the dinner table to Google some phrase or word to see how it fits in our dinner conversation. I expect to find connections, even with people I’ve never met, in places I’ve never been.

In college, I set off to major in physics, hyperlinked to math, then found myself completing a double major in humanities and literature. It’s all connected: nuclear “strong force” theory sets me thinking about the passage in Colossians 1 that says Jesus “is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Discussions about Genesis 1 raise questions about language, how we understand words, the relationship between poetry and truth. Simplistic thinking in one area leads to error in another, but our world parcels out ideas to different disciplines, ensuring that knowledge is fragmented, meaning is lost. I want to pull ideas back together, rebuild connections, make the meaning clearer.

Teaching lit at the college level gave me some scope for that endeavor, but not as much as I had hoped. My years at home with kids left me consigned to teaching freshman writing and I found myself repeating rules about adverbs and adjectives and the uses of the semicolon, rather than leading scintillating discussions about ideas and their consequences.

Building connections in Philadelphia.
Yes, that's me in the middle in my orange tie dye shirt. 
An unexpected move into youth ministry allowed new kinds of connections. I enjoyed fostering friendships between our youth and the children of Kensington, or North Dakota, building bridges between our group and youth in Bolivia, or Northern Uganda. Discussions about scripture and what it means to follow Jesus led to conversations about science, politics, literature, the possibility of knowing not just truth, but Truth.

I was sad, leaving youth ministry, to lose the constant, ongoing conversations, with ministry colleagues, teens and volunteers, parents, even grandparents, about what church is meant to be, and what it means to show God's love in a broken, fractured world.

I began this blog a year ago, partly to hold myself to the discipline of bringing thoughts to completion, but also, I realize now, as a way to continue the conversations.

The conversations aren’t just between me and you, readers known and unknown. Not just posts and responses, or passing conversations in the church parking lot about a recent post.

Illustration of Wangari Maathai, by Kadir Nelson
 from Mama Miti, by Donna Jo Napoli
The conversations, I’m realizing, are between different ways of seeing, different constructs, different disciplines. Last week I posted about two African women whose lives challenge mine. One was a biologist, the other trained in restorative therapy and peace-making. Both were shaped by conversations that took place years before they stepped into leadership. Both were sustained and encouraged by conversations with women in other parts of the world, in very different walks of life. Reading their stories, writing about their lives, drew me into their conversation, reminded me that a small stone thrown today can ripple across decades and continents.

The week before I posted my own thoughts on scripture I was reading, but also shared from blog posts by people involved in the Occupy movement. A few weeks before, I shared from a blog I follow written by a Christian leader in Sri Lanka. As I’ve been blogging, I’ve find myself posting comments on other blogs, including some on other continents, some from very different points of view.

Conversation, for me, is a way to see around corners, to understand what’s beyond me, to hear sounds outside my range.

What happens when we burrow too far into our own ways of seeing? When we think our own perspective is always the right one? When we only hear what we choose to hear, only talk with those who share our opinions? When we listen just long enough to label, or correct?

House that exploded from methane gas build-up
Photo J. Trallo  from photolog
I posted not long ago about hydrofracking, a process of drilling for natural gas that has raised deep concerns from health professionals, mortgage bankers, the tourism industry, fishermen, environmentalists, homeowners whose properties have lost value, whose water is no longer drinkable, whose way of life has been shattered by the noise and traffic of industrial wells built in once pastoral settings.

I’ve had people I value send me links to clearly biased sources that say “hydrofracking has been proven to be safe” and “fracking fears are unfounded.”  I understand why those in the natural gas industry would want the public to believe that, but I’m puzzled at those who think the conversation is over if a partisan source says there’s nothing to fear.

I’ve also been interested to receive the same kind of feedback about the Occupy movement. Of course there are sources resistant to financial reform, groups unconcerned about money in politics, industries committed to policies that benefit rich rather than poor. And there are justifiable questions about the impact of ongoing protest communities in the middle of working urban areas. But sources dismissing the Occupiers as “kids” or anti-capitalist socialists have little to add to the conversation.

Interfaith clergy at Occupy Wall Street
photo by peacecouple/fllickr
For me, the first step in conversation is the knowledge that my understanding is incomplete.  I know in part, and understand in part. I see through a glass, darkly. It’s not my job to label and dismiss. It’s my job, first, to listen, to hear what’s being said, to understand who is saying it, and what might motivate them to say it.

What makes it hard to listen? Sometimes, other voices are drowned out by our fear. If what you say is right, I might have to change. And I don’t want to.

Sometimes, our ears are stopped by our own allegiance to money or power. There’s an ongoing conversation about energy use, banking, finance, the ways our economic system works. Most of the louder voices in our culture have huge financial investments in keeping the status quo. It’s important to hear what they have to say, but it’s also important to understand why they say it.

My neighbor and I have begun a group we’re calling “Democracy Dialogues.” I hosted our first meeting, last Monday evening. We talked about why it’s hard to talk about politics, about the constraints on real dialogue about things that matter. Often, we feel we don’t know enough to offer an opinion. We don’t want to be labeled, and we don’t want to be judged. We don’t know how to find out what we need to know, and we don’t know who to trust.

Several evenings later, I met with a very different group of people to "Occupy Phoenixville." Phoenixville is a town just north of where I live; the group gathered in the local coffee shop included people involved in local politics, several reporters, parents, young adults, all interested in making government more responsive, community more possible. Our first step is to prepare a voters' guide for the upcoming election. No mention of socialism, or capitalism, although everyone present agreed on the right to public protest, and the need for citizens to "occupy the polls."

Conversation is messy, and building bridges can be risky. What if friends decide I'm a left-wing radical? What if someone wonders

 why I'm drinking coffee with "those people" - whichever group "those people" happens to be?  

It often seems easiest just to segment things: politics here, faith here, environment here, economics over there. We set all the "big ideas" aside and focus on our families, our jobs, our busy schedules.

But what if it’s all related? What if unexplained fatigue and the epidemic of new allergies are caused by changes to our food supply? What if the food supply is linked to how we treat our land and water? It’s not hard to show links between agribusiness and the way our economy works. Link that to governmental policy and we’ve almost gone full circle.

But faith has nothing to do with all that, right?

Except that scripture has far more to say about food, money, land, good governance than most of us like to acknowledge. And if we’re committed to following Jesus, we need to spend time thinking, and praying, about his concern for the poor, his thoughts about power, what it means to love what he loved. His first public statement (in Luke 4) was about poverty, healing, oppression, and freedom. Mary’s song celebrating his coming birth called attention to the same themes. 

Wendell Berry, novelist, poet, essayist, farmer, professor, environmental activist, shuns computers: he writes in longhand, just as he plows his fields with a team of horses. But he’s a model to me of the hyperlink life: love of words led him home to a love of land. Love of land led him to a prophetic political voice insistent on the relationship between unexamined growth, abuse of power, racism, sexism, environmental destruction, loss of community, dependence on war and the instruments of war. His essays often lead back to the same point: it’s all connected. Wholeness is impossible without addressing fragmentation:
"A medical doctor uninterested in nutrition, in agriculture, in the wholesomeness of mind and spirit is as absurd as a farmer who is uninterested in health. Our fragmentation of this subject cannot be our cure, because it is our disease. The body cannot be whole alone. Persons cannot be whole alone. It is wrong to think that bodily health is compatible with spiritual confusion or cultural disorder, or with polluted air and water or impoverished soil. Intellectually, we know that these patterns of interdependence exist; we understand them better now perhaps than we ever have before; yet modern social and cultural patterns contradict them and make it difficult or impossible to honor them in practice. 
"To try to heal the body alone is to collaborate in the destruction of the body. Healing is impossible in loneliness; it is the opposite of loneliness." (The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry, p. 157)
As  Berry says, “Persons cannot be whole alone.” Healing can’t take place in a vacuum. Fragmentation “is our disease.”

Which leads us to conversation. Not just with those who affirm our ideas, who make us feel good, who say “yes, I agree,” but with those who challenge, question, point us in new directions, call us to account.

This blog is a record of my own conversation, with you, with other bloggers, with the wider world just a hyperlink away.

My hope is to build connections, community, a view of what it means to live in this fragmented world. To catch, and to give, at least a glimpse of wholeness.  

And by the way - if you disagree with anything I've said, or want to talk about it, please do! That's how conversations grow. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments. 

Sunday, October 23, 2011


Watch the video
I believe in moms. Average, every day moms. Busy, distracted, usually a little frazzled.

Which is why a link from an email this week, "It only takes one mom," brought tears to my eyes. Check it for yourself. Can you watch it without tearing up?

I believe everybody needs a mom: a sometimes practical, sometimes sentimental, always available female elder. My mom was my grandmother, strategically augmented by an aunt who was good at listening, some female teachers and professors who helped me get my feet pointed in the right direction, and a generous, gracious mother-in-law.

Everybody needs a mom. And every community needs a mom. Preferably more, but at least one: a doorbell (or cell phone) you can always ring, someone who knows what to do about a bloody nose, a baby who won’t stop crying, or those strange dots that show up on small children just to make their parents worry. Someone who wants to see every kid in sight grow up strong, healthy, cared for. 

My community mom, when my kids were small, was a neighbor named Sheila Allen. She had the answers. Even more, she had the time, and the heart, to open her door and life to young families around her.  When she moved away, she handed off to me: when the first desperate younger mom with a bleeding child appeared at my townhouse door, I thought of Sheila, and knew what to do.

Every community needs a mom, or five, or fifty. Every school, every church.

And yes, - we need dads too. More than ever. But that’s another blog post. So forgive me if you think I’m being sexist and let’s leave that for another day.

I’ve been reading autobiographies of two world-class moms. One, Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, environmentalist and political activist, died last month at the age of 71. The other, Leymah Gbowee, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize just weeks ago, along with two other women, for her work in organizing a prayer movement that helped end civil war in Liberia in 2003, and inspired the of the first female president on the African continent.

Both women are far more than mothers. And both struggled with the challenge of caring for children while pursing the paths they found stretching out before them.

But if you listen to what motivated them and kept them moving through fierce opposition and threat of physical harm, it was love of their children, the children who would follow, and the world those children would find.

For Wangari Maathai, the first female Kenyan with a PhD in biology, the presenting challenge was deforestation and the attendant erosion, loss of clean water, and rural poverty. In the 1970s, still a young woman with small children, Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, an organization committed to planting trees and promoting the rights of women. Under Maathai’s leadership, the movement spread to other African nations and has been responsible for planting more than 30 million trees while helping nearly 900,000 women earn a modest income.

Along the way, Maathai spoke out for freedom in a repressive regime, aligning herself with mothers whose sons had been imprisoned for dissent, living as part of a rotating hunger strike for most of a year in All Saints Cathedral, the seat of the Anglican Archbishop in Kenya, along with a community of other mothers.

She also spent time in hiding, spent days barricaded in her own home, was tear-gassed, beaten, repeatedly imprisoned, consistently ridiculed and defamed. Her courageous work for women, freedom, and the environment helped lead the way to a freer, more democratic Kenya. In 2004, she became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, a tribute to her work in "development, democracy and peace." When she died, the entire conservation community mourned the loss of “Mama Trees.”

Leymah Gbowee is younger, just 39, the mother of six children, three from an early, abusive marriage that ended as Liberia, Leymah’s home country, was plunging into civil war. After a period of chaos, in her own life as well as the life of her country, she volunteered to work with the Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Program at the Lutheran church she’d attended as a child. She was trained to work with boy soldiers, newly released from dictator Charles Taylor’s infamous “Small Boys Brigade,” young boys kidnapped and trained to attack schools, villages, churches, markets. Drugged and armed, the boys were part of a bloody regime that killed over 250,000 people in Liberia’s First Civil War, from 1989 to 1996.

Leymah’s work brought her into contact with a group of Mennonite peacemakers who offered her books, training, and experience in conflict resolution. In 1999, as Liberia was descending into its Second Civil War, Leymah was invited to the first meeting of the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET) in Ghana. Later, Gbowee wrote: "How to describe the excitement of that first meeting...? There were women from Sierra Leone, Guinea, Nigeria, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Togo -- almost all the sixteen West African nations.”

Gbowee went home to enlist other women in peacemaking and to begin an branch of WIPNET in Liberia. One night, she dreamed of a group  of women gathering to pray. When she told others of her dream, and asked who would lead such a movement of prayer, she was told the calling was hers. “The dream belongs to the dreamer.” 

She enlisted friends to help her invite women to pray for peace, reaching across ethnic lines, visiting churches to hand out fliers, approaching women in the markets, inviting Moslem women to join them because “Does the bullet know Christian from Muslim?

The movement grew until there were thousands of women gathering to pray and sing, then to hold non-violent demonstrations and protests, dressed entirely in white, hair wrapped in white headscarves.

Through months of protest, demonstration, and prayer, Gbowee led the women of Liberia, finally convincing President Charles Taylor, in April of 2003, to listen to their requests. With two thousand women praying for her outside the presidential mansion, Gbowee stood in front of the ruthless dictator and delivered her message:
 "We are tired of war. We are tired of running. We are tired of begging for bulgur wheat. We are tired of our children being raped. We are now taking this stand, to secure the future of our children. Because we believe, as custodians of society, tomorrow our children will ask us, 'Mama, what was your role during the crisis?'"
Taylor agreed to attend peace talks in Ghana later that summer. More months of protest and prayer led to growing international pressure, which in turn brought about a peace settlement and the end of civil war, with Taylor resigning and disappearing into exile. In 2006 he was found and brought to trial for a long list of war crimes. That same year, Gbowee and the women working with her were part of a massive move to register women voters, resulting in the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first and so far the only elected female head of state in Africa.

Both Wangeri Maathai and Leymah Gbowee faced great personal danger, painful sacrifice, and the frequent sense of being in far over their heads. They lived in cultures where women were expected to mind the children and be still, in places and times where powerful, dangerous men made the rules, with little thought for the needs of the weak or poor. Yet, in their love and concern for the generations to follow, they stood strong and spoke out in ways that shocked those who watched them, bringing hope and courage to the women and children who joined them. 

Video of Maathai's Hummingbird Story 
On a recent speaking tour in the US, promoting her book and her continuing work for peace in West Africa, Leymah Gbowee often began, or ended, with the familiar gospel song “This Little Light of Mine.” She says, “For the past 16 years I have done nothing great; just let my little light shine.”

Wangeri Maathai, when speaking about her own work, often told the African story of the hummingbird, a small, seemingly powerless bird that did what it could in the face of overwhelming danger and difficulty. 

Little light, helpless hummingbird. As Maathai's hummingbird story concludes: “I may feel insignificant, but I will do the best I can.”

I confess, there are days when "the best I can" seems less than insignificant. Sign up with the One Mom's movement? Sure -but what will that help? Spend an afternoon with a needy kid? Sure, but what does that change? The dangers that confront us in the west are small compared to those faced by women like Maathai and Wangeri, but the temptations to cynicism, apathy, lack of involvement are great. 
"What I have learned over the years is that we must be patient, persistent, and committed. When we are planting trees sometimes people will say to me, 'I don't want to plant this tree, because it will not grow fast enough.' I have to keep reminding them that the trees they are cutting today were not planted by them, but by those who came before. so they  must plant the trees that will benefit communities in the future. I remind them that like a seedling ,with sun, good soil, and abundant rain, the roots of our future will bury themselves in the ground and a canopy of hope will reach into the sky."  Wangari Maathai, Unbowed, p. 289
I'm praying for that canopy of hope, and looking for ways to plant seedlings that will take root. And thankful for those amazing moms, who changed their part of the world through their faithfulness to the next small step.

Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments. 

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Big G

Reading this morning in Ephesians 5, I was challenged and comforted by the first two verses: 
"Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ love us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." 
I’m always comforted at the thought that we are dearly loved children, and challenged by the idea of living the kind of love that embraces sacrifice for others.

I’ve read those verses before, as I’ve read the verse that follows. But this morning, verse 3 hit me hard: 
"But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people." 
I’ve heard a lot, more than a lot, about sexual immorality. But staring at that verse, I found myself wondering when I last heard a sermon about greed. Or when I last heard a Christian politician speak of greed. When I last heard calls for legislation limiting, outlawing, punishing, greed.

Greed is part of the fabric of our lives. It’s the fossil fuel that powers the machine. It’s the engine that drives the global economy. It calls to us from our tv screens, sings to us from our radios. To question it is somehow un-American. Unpatriotic. Communist, maybe.

 “Greed is good.” according to Gordon Gecko, the stock speculator in the movie, “Wall Street.” “Greed is good. Greed is right. Greed works!”

When stock speculator Ivan Boesky said "Greed is all right . . .greed is healthy " in 1985, his audience cheered. According to Donald Trump, you can never be “too greedy.” For him, wealth is a way of “keeping score”:  "I don't make deals for money. I've got enough, much more than I'll ever need. I do it to do it." 

Walter Williams wrote about “The Virtue of Greed” in Capitalism Magazine
“You can call it greed, selfishness or enlightened self-interest, but the bottom line is that it's these human motivations that get wonderful things done. Unfortunately, many people are naive enough to believe that it's compassion, concern and ‘feeling another's pain’ that's the superior human motivation.” 
According to Williams and others, greed is essential to capitalism, progress, the American way.

It hasn’t always been so. Wasn’t greed one of the seven deadly sins? Is it still?

Scripture has a great deal to say about greed. Most listings of sins to be avoided include greed. The prophets, from Isaiah and Jeremiah to Hosea, Amos, Micah, warn about God’s anger against those who trust in riches, who hoard wealth, who gather more than their share, who misuse the land and exploit their workers.

Just a quick sampling: 
"Your rulers refuse to obey the Lord. They are companions of robbers. All of them love to accept money from those who want special favors. They are always looking for gifts from other people. They don't stand up in court for children whose fathers have died. They don't do it for widows either." Isaiah 1:23
“From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain; prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit." Jeremiah 6:13 
"You accept money from people who want special favors. . . You charge too much interest when you lend money. You get rich by cheating your neighbors. And you have forgotten me," Ezekiel 22:12 
We somehow have missed the point God makes very clear in the words of the prophets: anyone who has far more than he needs has gained it at the expense of someone else, and at the expense of resources God entrusted for future generations. In a global economy we don’t see those we’ve harmed, the landscapes destroyed, but when we buy cheap goods or expect huge profits, someone has been underpaid, undercut, exploited, and too often, resources have been extracted in ways that leave water fouled, forests ruined, gaping holes in someone else’s land.

Thomas Aquinas warned that greed “is a sin directly against one's neighbor, since one man cannot over-abound in external riches, without another man lacking them.” 

photo from Damon Dahlon for AOL
On Friday, October 7, day 21 of Occupy Wall Street, some Jewish residents of New York decided to begin their Yom Kippur celebration with an evening service in New York's financial district. Yom Kippur is a time of repentence and forgiveness, and the first service starts with something called Kol Nidre, a renunciation of vows of allegiance and loyalty that have been taken under duress, in collusion with ungodly powers or kingdoms. A facebook invitation posted just days before drew a crowd of almost a thousand to a corner of Zuccotti/ Liberty Park, and the service took place without amplification, with speakers pausing after each sentence for the crowd to pass the words on to the outer rings in a way that no doubt echoes communication in pre-amplification days, but also has become standard mode of discourse for those involved in Occupy Wall Street. The service has been described in numerous blogs by those who were there. For many, it was a profoundly meaningful and personal event.  

Getzel Davis, a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Boston, delivered a sermon explaining the appropriateness of the unusual Kol Nidre location: 
"Yom Kippur is the day that we are forgiven for worshipping the golden calf. What is the golden calf? It is the essence of idol worship. It the fallacy that gold is God. How do we become forgiven for worshiping gold?
"I believe that God is infinitely forgiving. The harder question is how we forgive ourselves. How can we forgive ourselves for failing to live up to our own ideals? How can we forgive ourselves for failing to recognize others’ humanity? How can we forgive ourselves for remaining silent for so long in the face of injustice?
photo from @aimeeweiss/Twitter    
"Forgiveness is important because once we can mourn our mistakes then we are no longer ruled by them. We are free to create things anew." 
The service included prayers of repentence, and a time for those in attendance to call out their own repentance, echoed back through the crowd for all to hear.
Similar services took place in Boston, LA, and other cities where Occupy groups have become active. A blogger recounting his experience in Boston reflected on the call to repentance experienced standing in a public square: 
"When we read Isaiah on Yom Kippur, he inveighs against the sins of our society, in which we all bear a hand. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible.” The sins of Wall Street and corporations are all our sins – we buy the consumer products, we put our money in the banks and the mutual funds, we elect the leaders who fail to remedy corporate excesses. We are all the beneficiaries of these sins, even when we protest against them. Tonight at Dewey Square we inveighed against – and sought forgiveness for – and forgave sins like foreclosures, inadequate health care, cuts to social services, climate change, and countless other crises born of and worsened by corporate greed, we were forced to acknowledge our own role in them, and the benefit all of us derive from them. " 
from Faith in Public Life
At the same time that the Jewish community was planning the Kol Nidre services, a Catholic man named James Salt was working on a papier mâché model of the golden calf. Inspired by the actions of Occupy Wall Street and his own time or reflection on a recent retreat, he wanted to lend spiritual and biblical support. A group called Faith in Public Life rented a van and brought his creation to Manhattan, delivering it to Judson Memorial Church, where it stood overnight. Last Sunday afternoon, a group of ministers and other church leaders carried it through the financial district streets to Zuccotti / Liberty Park for a prayer vigil and interfaith service of repentance.

I’m impressed with the call to repentance in the face of greed, and that the call is personal: yes, they, the wealthy, powerful 1%, are guilty. But we are guilty too.

Change begins with repentance. Personal repentance, then corporate repentance. Personal change. Then corporate change.

Thinking about greed, about change, about repentence, I’ve been struck by a comment in Getzel Davis’ sermon: 
"When people think about oaths, they usually think of verbal promises. In Judaism though, most of our oaths are “Chazakas” – or oaths taken through repeated action. By doing things again and again, we make internal promises about how we want to live. Other names for these might be habits, preferences, or addictions. These chazakas rule our lives, making things simpler by allowing us to live on autopilot ."
I would never articulate a loyalty to money. I would object to the idea that I worship the golden calf, or that my life is based on greed.

Yet, what are the chazakas in my life? The oaths taken through repeated action? The little compromises to material things, the quiet dependence on financial security?

Repentance begins with acknowledgement: we’ve gone the wrong way. But if it doesn’t become personal, and practical, it’s repentance in word only.  John the Baptist called for repentance, and insisted on “fruit in keeping with repentance.”

I’m not sure what that fruit looks like. I’m not sure where to start.

But I am sure repentance is needed, that greed is a bad foundation for a life, an economy, a nation. And that once we repent, God can point us toward something new, if we’re willing to listen and obey.

Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments. 

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Mystery Fruit

Last fall we said goodbye to a craggy crab apple tree that stood between our driveway and backyard. We had enjoyed its spring cloud of pink blossoms and the way they drifted down to carpet the ground below, but the trunk was rotting, it was a matter of time before it died, and we needed it out of the way so we could replace an old shed that was about to collapse around us.

The tree was cut down, the shed was replaced, and last spring I noticed that we suddenly had a sunny corner, big enough for a raised bed of vegetables. I edged it with lengths from a trunk of a locust that came down in a recent storm, filled it with good dirt from our compost pile, and planted potatoes, lettuce, beets, swiss chard, and beans.

I missed the pink blossoms, and the birds missed the bugs, crab apples, and nesting places they’d enjoyed in previous seasons. But it was great to have just-picked beans, the robins were happy with the worms in the raised bed, and the backyard bunnies quickly discovered the lettuce.

Mid-summer I noticed something odd. There was a vine growing from the corner of my raised bed. It had huge leaves – some almost two feet across – and it was heading off through the shrubs and hostas that grew near my vegetable bed.

I pull known weeds and thugs, but I keep an eye on plants I’m not familiar with. Sometimes they turn out to be exciting additions: native trees seedlings, unexpected wildflowers.  My guess was that the mystery vine was some kind of squash, maybe from a seed in my compost? I watched with interest as it grew.

And grew. And grew. When it threatened to choke something I redirected it. When it headed off across the driveway I moved it to the new arbor I’d put up over the walk.

Eventually, it bloomed. Huge, yellow-orange blossoms. Then small green fruit began to form. Larger, then larger.

Squash? Gourds? First there was one, narrow on top, heavier on the bottom, hanging from the arbor. Then another, more symmetrical, along the driveway’s edge.

One of my daughters congratulated me on my watermelons. Really? I went to look again. Almost overnight they’d taken on a classic watermelon shape: long, fat oblongs, bright, shiny green. How do you know when a watermelon is ripe?

A few weeks later, my other daughter laughingly pointed out that watermelons are smooth. Very smooth. My mystery fruit were creased from end to end. Pumpkins. She assured me they were pumpkins.

Sure enough. While smaller green fruit formed, the green on the largest fruit slowly faded from green to a dull orange. The orange grew brighter. And there they were: two beautiful pumpkins. My first ever. The most spectacular fruit of my backyard season.

I was telling about my pumpkins when someone asked why I didn’t pull the vine out. Why would I let something I didn’t plant take over my garden? 

There are lots of things in my life I didn’t plant. Mystery seeds take on lives of their own on the edges of my well-laid plans. I find myself watching with wonder as life unfolds far bolder than I imagined, and spectacular fruit takes shape while I wait to see what it is.

When I pause to look back, I’d have to say that the most rewarding fruit so far grew from things I didn’t mean to do. I didn’t mean to stay home ten years with kids, but things unfolded and drew me in and there I was, waiting to see who they’d become. I didn’t mean to get involved with local school politics, but the time with my kids brought me into the life of their school and there I was, leading the PTA in a fractured school at a critical time, with rich fruit for everyone involved. I didn’t mean to do youth ministry, but seeds planted decades before spread into something new; that vine took over while I watched in wonder. I started a youth ministry network without even thinking: the soil was right, the moment came, and that vine jumped to life before I knew it was there.

Seeds start small. In fact, for a while, they’re invisible, somewhere in the ground, waiting for the moment when the cell wall softens and the soil is just warm enough. Some seeds wait years for just the right moment. Some seeds never start.

This fall, I’m watching a new vine, growing faster than my own mystery vine. Three weeks ago a handful of people moved into Zuccotti Park, a small urban park between Wall Street and the World Trade Center, a block up from the historic Trinity Episcopal Church. They had been gathering on Saturday evenings for over a month, discussing peaceful protest and how to be heard in a system where the rules, more and more, seem to be made by those with money, influence, power.

They call themselves Occupy Wall Street, and already that vine is reaching far beyond Zuccotti Park and Wall Street. Two weeks ago someone started an website, which listed a handful of other locations. Last week the number of cities with meetings listed was in the hundreds. Now it’s over a thousand, with groups in every state, on every continent.

Who are they? What do they want?

They are people who feel shut out by the current political and economic systems. People who believe it’s no longer possible for the average American to have a legitimate say in how our country works, people who can’t find a job that pays enough to live on, who have lost their fragile economic hold because of unemployment, medical bills, situations beyond their control. Many share their photos and stories on

And what do they want? At first there was talk about “the one demand.” But over the last decades the rules have been changing in complicated, inter-locking ways. To address that will take a corresponding web of changes in election law, finance regulation, tax codes, defense spending, food production, energy consumption.

Trying to understand this vine, I’ve spent some time studying the fruit taking shape. It’s available for anyone to see . There are currently eight “official” proposed demands, but it’s a fluid process, with room to comment on existing demands or offer additional proposals, and an invitation to vote on existing suggestions. Last time I looked there were 27, with a month to vote on each demand listed.

There are plenty of voices suggesting this vine should be pulled out fast. The “occupiers” have been accused of being communists, socialist, fascists, anarchists, hippies, moonbats, and much much worse.

Jesus said “You can tell a tree by its fruit.” He also said “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers. Good people bring good things out of the good stored up in their heart, and evil people bring evil things out of the evil stored up in their heart. For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks."

The fruit of angry, dismissive name-calling is obvious. We’ve seen too much of that already. But the fruit of a new attempt at direct democracy? I’m watching with hopeful interest.

On October 5, Trinity Church, Wall Street, just down the street from Zuccotti Park, issued an official statement of invitation to the protestors: 
Trinity Wall Street respects the rights of citizens to protest peacefully and supports the vigorous engagement of the concerns that form the core of the protests – economic disenfranchisement and failure of public trust. 
 As a prayerful community with a deep history of relationships in Lower Manhattan, Trinity continues its pastoral outreach and welcomes any of those involved in the ongoing situation to parish spaces. Many protestors have found the opportunity for rest and revitalization in Charlotte’s Place, Trinity’s new neighborhood center, and have expressed deep appreciation for the hospitality there. We welcome any of those involved in the protest for pastoral care and reflection. 
 With its long history, Trinity is also a place where meaningful conversations between people with divergent viewpoints can happen. We also offer our meeting spaces to groups for conversations and forums on issues of public concern 
 As the protest unfolds, I invite you to hold all those involved in your prayers: the protesters, neighborhood residents and business owners, the police, policy-makers, civic leaders, and those in the financial industry – all – and to consider the ways we might take steps in our own lives that improve the lives of others. 
 Faithfully, The Rev. Dr. James H. Cooper, Rector, Trinity Wall Street 
I’m thankful that historic church is playing a part in this important time, and thankful for the reminder to pray.

And thankful for the call to consider the ways we can improve the lives of others.

Where will it end? How far will the protests spread? What happens if demands aren’t met? What will the next steps be?

It takes time for fruit to grow. And this is a new vine, with fruit we’ve never seen before.

Join me in praying it will be good fruit, much needed fruit. Spectacular fruit.

From the Book of Common Prayer:
Lord God Almighty, you have made all the peoples of the earth for your glory, to serve you in freedom and in peace: Give to the people of our country a zeal for justice and the strength of forbearance, that we may use our liberty in accordance with your gracious will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments. 

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Faith in Politics: Prince of Peace

Is a Christian more likely to be Republican, or Democrat?
Conservative, or liberal?
Red, or blue?
Is a Christian more likely to be for or against affirmative action?
For or against food stamps for the hungry ?
For or against the EPA?
Quick: what does the Bible say about immigration reform?
Labor unions and OSHA rules?
Public education?
Free trade?

Today is Pulpit Freedom Sunday, promoted by The Alliance Defense Fund, a nonprofit legal group founded in 2008 to defend “the right to hear and speak the Truth through strategy, training, funding, and direct litigation” and to “defend Our First Liberty – religious freedom.” The idea is for pastors to assert the freedom of political speech from the pulpit, and to challenge congregations to vote for specific candidates who affirm core Christian values. Pastor Jim Garlow, of Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego, has become the unofficial spokesman and has been widely quoted this past week regarding his own plans for today’s sermon:
“I would say the following candidates have the following positions as it relates to abortion, as it relates to the definition of marriage, as it relates to their view of the national debt - because the national debt is a moral issue, thou shall not steal from future generations. And, that being the case, here's the following candidates that hold these various views of these three and perhaps many other topics. 
 “Having said that, here's what the Scripture teaches specifically about that. And, after I go through that, as fully-devoted followers of Jesus Christ, we would not want to elect individuals - given the fact that the Bible has a great deal to say about economic, or life principles, or the definition of marriage in a scriptural context - we would not want persons who are in defiance of God's will in positions of authority over us. What fully devoted follower of Christ would want to defy God's will for how national and community life is to be ordered according to the Scripture?"
Garlow’s comments raise plenty of questions. A timely new book, Left, Right and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics, calls attention to some of these in its promotional press releases: 

  • Can a Democrat be a Christian?
  • Should the government take care of the sick?
  • Do legalized abortions increase the number of abortions?
  • Is the definition of marriage universal for all?
  • Does a free country mean that everyone is free to live here?
  • Does defending our nation mean we should kill our enemies?

I'm looking  forward to seeing what the authors, progressive Lisa Sharon Harper and conservative D.C. Innes, have to say. I’m also curious about how many of the “pulpit freedom” sermons will talk about what it means to be peacemakers, or how God’s view for the poor informs their candidate endorsements.

I went to a Wesleyan college, and for decades now I’ve considered myself an Evangelical Christian, although both “Evangelical” and “Christian” have been so misused and misrepresented I’m hesitant to use either term. I share Garlow’s concern for aligning my vote with what I see in scripture.

But how do we decide which standards should be held closely by people of faith, but not legislated for those who don’t share our beliefs?

And who gets to decide which priorities trump all others?

Maybe most important, how should we respond to those who disagree with us?

Garlow says “we would not want persons who are in defiance of God's will in positions of authority over us.” But from what I’ve seen of how our parties work, God’s will is rarely the bottom line.  And it’s a very rare candidate who lines up with scripture in all the ways I would wish, from economic policy, to care for creation, to promotion of peace, to compassionate regard for immigrants, offenders, the weak, the sick.

Defiance” is a strong word: is it possible that we could disagree about what God’s word says about particular current issues? Is it possible we could disagree about how best to see his will pursued?

This is an important time in the life of our country, in the unfolding story of global democracy, and in the sometimes contentious discussion regarding the role of faith in the public arena. 

A friend recently pointed me toward a blog by a Sri Lankan Christian, Vinoth Ramachandra. He earned a PhD in engineering at the University of London, then went back to Sri Lanka to help start a ministry to university students. He served for years as the South Asian Regional Secretary for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES) and now provides leadership to IFES in Dialogue & Social Engagement, giving public lectures and seminars in universities, inviting students to think Biblically about the issues confronting them in their own nations.

I'm reminded every time I read his blog that as an American I have great power and opportunity to create change, not only in my own country but for people around the globe, and that as an American Christian I have the responsibility to use that power to demonstrate and make visible the kingdom of God as described by Jesus in the sermon on the mount. And I'm reminded that to many Christians around the globe, American Christians seem self-centered, naive, and out of step with the gospel. 

To quote Vinoth's blog
 Jesus expects that the Church that is proclaiming the Gospel among the nations is also living out that Gospel before the nations. Namely, she is committed to peace-making, hungering and thirsting after justice, loving her enemies, healing the sick, sharing wealth with the dispossessed, striving for unity in the midst of differences . . .
I'm not sure those are the priorities that will be discussed this Pulpit Freedom Sunday.

Peace-making: Who can explain why our military budget is larger than the next six nations combined? 

Hungering and thirsting after justice: Even to speak of economic justice is to risk being called a socialist.

Healing the sick: What’s behind the opposition to national healthcare? Who benefits from our current system? Who doesn’t?

Sharing wealth with the dispossessed: Isn't that socialism? Communism? Both? And aren't the dispossessed somehow at fault? 

Unity in the midst of differences . . .   I can't quite picture that.

I’ve set myself a goal of spending an hour a day trying to understand where we are, how we got here, where we should be heading, how to help.

It’s worse than I thought, harder than I imagined. Democracy in the US is in a difficult place; divisions seem deeper every day. 

Overcome just thinking about how how far we are from unity, I close my eyes, and I’m drawn back to the narrow churchyard at the Free Church of St. John in Kensington, Philadelphia.

On one side is the old stone church, the first church in Philadelphia to provide pews without charge to any who came to worship.

Heather Micklewright, 2010
On the other side is the Conwell Annex, an old brick building that once housed St. John’s Sunday School, and now provides overflow classrooms for a middle school three blocks away. It has grills on the windows, lots of painted-over graffiti.

I’m surrounded by kids: tiny kids leaning against my legs, bigger kids, catching my eye and mugging for a smile. Teens, some from my suburban church, some from the surrounding neighborhood, a bright mix of sizes, colors, personalities, all wearing team tee shirts and name tags. Singing.

The song we’re singing is King of Kings and Prince of Peace, Jesus! Allelujah. Behind us cars screech across pot holes. Neighbors sit on porch steps, smoking, watching. A few blocks off the el rattles by. Sirens nearly drown out our voices.

Again, faster: King of Kings and Prince of Peace, Jesus, Allelujah. I’m remembering that feeling of being tired before I start, overwhelmed by the need around me. Not sure our team is up to the task, not sure we can make even a tiny a dent in the sadness and anger and brokenness that surround us.

Yet as we sing I’m reminded of what Father Graff, St. John’s now-retired vicar, has told me more times than I can remember: we’re not called to be successful. We’re called to be faithful.

I’m reminded of what I’ve seen again and again: our small offerings are multiplied, like bread and fish, far beyond our imagining.

And I feel that peace beyond understanding, that peace promised and received by faithful followers of the Prince of Peace across the centuries, around the globe. 

I’m not yet sure what it means to be faithful in our current political context, not sure what it means to be a fully-devoted follower of Christ in a confused, divided, complex world. Yet as I pray, I picture a Christian community that loves what God loves, that speaks, lives, and stands firmly for compassion, forgiveness, mercy and healing in a way that reflects Jesus himself. 

And I ask God to trust me with some small piece of that, as Jesus trusted the loaves and fish to the hands of his doubting disciples.

Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.