Sunday, January 8, 2012

Midwinter Wisdom

Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic. 
When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,
In windless cold that is the heart’s heat,
Reflecting in a watery mirror
A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.
And glow more intense than blaze of branch, 
      or brazier,
Stirs the dumb spirit: no wind, but pentecostal fire
In the dark time of the year.
Between melting and freezing
The soul’s sap quivers.
    (Four Quartets: Little Gidding I, T. S. Eliot)

We often have a day or two of “midwinter spring” -  welcome days of warmth that melt the tops of frozen lakes and remind us that winter won’t last forever. This year, though, it’s been more like a midwinter summer. Our temperature reached 63 °C yesterday – a record high in a week that saw over a thousand new record highs.

I took my binoculars and new spotting scope to Marsh Creek Lake, not far from our home, and headed off on the dirt track on the far side of the lake. The path runs through thickets and brambles, skirting the foundations of old buildings abandoned when the lake was flooded back in the seventies. Dirt bikers plowed through muddy ruts, a young family scrambled happily over a massive downed sycamore, and a lomg line of gulls marked the half-way point in the perfect blue of the lake.

Normally most of the lake is frozen by this point in the year, but kayaks danced along in the bright little waves and a flat-bottomed fishing boat moved along so close to shore I could see the fishing line slice the water.
Kingfisher Pair, Suzanne Britton 

Pausing to watch a pair of belted kingfishers following each other along the lake edge, I found myself wondering: is this a good thing? This beautiful warm weather, this early pairing of solitary kingfishers? What if a day that seems like a reprieve is really a harbinger of harm?

I thought of a blog post I read just days ago: Scot McKnight, responding to a recent debate in The Spectator on global warming, asked “what would it take to change your mind?”  
“Put on the table one of your most cherished theological ideas — say creationism, the historicity of Jonah surviving in a big fish, Calvinism or Arminianism, penal substitution, the gospel as social justice, progressive ideas on the gay/lesbian debates… just put your major idea on the table and ask yourself one question:
What would it take to change your mind?”
McKnight’s book, The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible, documents his own change of mind on the topic of women in church leadership, but his question has far-reaching importance in this contentious political season.  How do we know what’s true? What kind of evidence are we looking for? Whose voices do we listen to? What are we willing to question?

The Pharisees were sure of a long list of things, which made it impossible for most of them to hear what Jesus had to say. They started from a position of theological certainty and spent their energy looking for ways to discredit their opposition, rather than taking time to listen to see what truth they could learn from a very new perspective.

Can You See the Writing on the Wall?
Mary Padgelik
Ah, but isn’t it dangerous to listen to voices you’re not sure of, to consider ideas that don’t fit the currently accepted grid?

Standing still in the late afternoon sunlight, I listened to the wild cry of a red-tailed hawk soaring overhead, and the secretive scuffle of the white-throated sparrows, hiding in low bushes along the trail. There are voices easy to hear, like the raucous chorus of crows, or the constant chatter of the chickadees. And there are voices we prefer to hear: the mockingbird song. The sweet chirps of the pretty red house finch.

What happens when we shut out too quickly voices that are new, or difficult, or threatening? What happens when we refuse to hear those whose message doesn’t fit our own?

In Soul of a Citizen, Paul Loeb talks of an “ethic of listening,” learning to act from an awareness “that our knowledge and perception will always be partial, and that we learn best from dialogue with others.” Loeb notes the need “to cultivate a bit of humility. To hear the souls of others requires silencing the clamor of our own obsessions about how the world should be.” (238)

Humility is one of those words we don’t spend much time with. We like to be people who know the answers, who have firm opinions, who are quick to make those opinions known.  We like to know which voices are approved, who is on “our side,” and who is not. Discussions move quickly from ideas offered to ad hominem attack. Once we’ve labeled someone a communist, fascist, racist, heretic, we can stop pretending to listen and go back to celebrating our own strong opinions.

I grew up in a household where argument was plentiful, in a church tradition where the stronger your opinion, the more you were admired. I realized early on that the motivation in most arguments had little to do with the point being offered. What I heard loud and strong in most discussions I witnessed was power, pride, and a deep disregard for the people most affected. 

Reading on my own, I came across James 3: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” I had seen enough to know that opinions held in pride cause harm, that real wisdom is gentle, and shows up in action more than bombastic argument.

The Fruit of the Spirit: Peace, Mary Padgelik
In my early twenties, I memorized James 3:17 and 18: 
“But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.” 
In this warm, strange, midwinter summer, marveling at the beauty of red hawks in flight, dodging mountain bikers who call “on your right!” as they pass me in the muck, I find myself repeating that ancient passage. I pray for humility, wisdom, peace. Not for myself only, but for all of us, fellow travelers on a tired planet, concerned citizens in a divided country. I pray for a wisdom humble enough to consider a change of mind, wide enough to hear all the voices crying to be heard, and for harvests of righteousness abundant enough to meet the needs of all.

Join the conversation: What would it take to change your mind? How do you know when you're holding an opinion from wrong motives, or pride?Where do you hope to see deeper dialogue in the year ahead?