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.