Sunday, October 20, 2013

Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places?

The Synchroblog topic this week is “What does social justice mean to you?”

After two months of exploring "God’s Green Equity," puzzling over environmental issues, grieving at the groaning of our sadly battered globe, social justice, to me, has much to do with our mistreatment of places. Social justice would mean clean water restored to the town of Dimock, now struggling with a toxic water supply after contamination from fracking wells. Restoration to communities impacted by mountain top removal in Virginia,West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and in places far beyond. Reclamation of the
Alberta Tar Sands
devastated tar sand region of Alberta, and repair of indigenous communities shattered by the “slow industrial genocide” of tar sand extraction. 

Social justice, to me, means wanting for you what I want for myself: clean air, clean water, good schools, decent jobs. It’s the logical extension of the command to love your neighbor as yourself. I was fortunate to have good public schools, grants and scholarships that made college possible. I want the same for my kids and grandkids, but also for yours, and the kids I know in Kensington, an urban neighborhood where schools are understaffed, under resourced, over-burdened with children who start off behind and never catch up.

This past week was “New Economy Week,” calling attention to the need to rethink our economic model. If you took time to watch the Wendell Berry portrait I linked to several weeks ago, you heard discussion about “the two great aims of industrialization: replacement of people by technology and the concentration of wealth in the hands of a small plutocracy.” According to Berry, both have been accomplished.

The New Economy Coalition invites conversation on the resultant issues: “growing inequality, chronic unemployment, financial instability, undemocratic consolidations of power, environmental crisis, and the
declining wellbeing of communities, families, and individuals.  Many of us have come to the realization that our economy is out of control, undermining many of those things we hold most dear. ”

Social justice suggests that love of my neighbor takes precedence over love of our current economic model, and the New Economy Week points to alternative approaches. In worker-owned cooperatives  (like REI, Equal Exchange  or King Arthur Flour), profit stays in the hands of those who create it. In localized food markets, food dollars benefit farmers who grow the food, rather than global corporations with huge marketing and lobbying budgets. In local credit unions, money stays in the community, and profits are shared by members. B Corps (or Benefit Corporations) another idea supported by the New Economy Coalition, are companies legally authorized to prioritize social and environmental needs equal to or above profit. These “triple bottom line” companies agree to sustainable practices, equitable labor arrangements, investment in local communities. Pennsylvania is one of 20 states that have passed B Corps legislation; 18 more are on the way.

Another piece to this past week, also part of my reflections on social justice, was a conversation with a friend. She is a very intelligent, thoughtful, generous person who told me when I first met her, over a decade ago: “I don’t believe the Bible, and I don’t like Christians.”

In many conversations since then she’s explained that in her experience, Christians are hypocritical, judgmental, often mean-spirited, rarely willing to listen to any view but their own. She continues to assemble evidence from colleagues and acquaintances; I continue to listen and grieve.

In this week’s conversation, we decried the amazing waste caused by the government shutdown, shook our heads at the disrespect toward the president shown at the veteran’s rally last Sunday, and wondered together at the adamant, continuing resistance to the idea of universal health care. To my neighbor, these
Confederate Flag in Front of White House:
Our Politics as War by Other Means
were more evidence of the illogical, unjust behavior of Christians. To her, the face of Christ is the face of the man waving the Confederate flag outside the White House, or the angry faces of her Christian acquaintances who enjoy good health care but can’t see why the government should get involved in providing care for those without.

An article two days ago in Huffington Post describes “The Far Right Christian Movement Driving the Debt Default.” Whatever you think of debt default, political parties, or the Huffington Post, it’s worth pausing to consider the energy behind efforts to defund public education and the new health care act. Public education was historically a high priority of Christians, people of “the book.” When did that change? 

And the extension of health care, historically, globally, has been driven by Christians, following in the footsteps of Christ, the healer. How did we lose that longing to see the health of others? 

Which leads me back to social justice: I would much rather have “socialized” health care, with everyone guaranteed coverage, and no insurance companies doling out treatment and extracting billions of dollars to fund an unneeded layer of profit-driven beaurocracy. But I’d rather have Obamacare – the Affordable Healthcare Act – than see teenagers miss months of school because their teeth ache too much to concentrate, or young adults veer toward suicide because they can’t afford good mental health care, or friends lose their homes because unexpected illness leaves them buried in unpayable hospital bills.    

I’ve been haunted this week by a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem: "As Kingfishers Catch Fire" (quoted in full below). Hopkins poems are hard to read, with strange use of language, and layers of meaning. The punctuation is odd, the accent marks disconcerting. To explicate them feels a bit like sacrilege, yet in this case, I’ll attempt it.

    Hopkins suggests that all creatures reveal their own natures, while also reflecting something greater. Kingfishers in flight reflect the sun on their shimmering feathers; dragonflies glisten with the flame of sun-rays. Stones echo back the sound of well depths beyond. Each “deals out that being indoors each one dwells,” that is, each reveals what it’s made of, what it is,  while hinting at something more. The creaturely call is “myself”: “myself it speaks and spells, Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.”

The just man goes beyond this: acts out the justice and grace inside in reflection of  the grace and justice experienced from God himself, takes on the role of messenger of love by acting out the role of Christ: “lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his.”

Each phrase of this poem could take paragraphs to explore fully: “lovely in limbs” reminds us of Christ’s limbs stretched out on the cross, in forgiveness and embrace. “Lovely in eyes not his” can be read in multiple ways: who is lovely? In whose eyes?  Like an endless array of mirror images, justice, grace and love reflect from God’s eyes, to Christ’s, to ours, to the watching world, and back to us again.

Here is the question that woke me up last night, that follows me through the day, that cries through every headline: why is the face of Christ, for so many, a face of judgment, anger, dismissal, rather than a face of love? 

How did we come to give our allegiance to economic power, political parties, religious traditions, rather than to the one who calls us to come die with him, arms outstretched in loving embrace of a hurting, watching world?

What would happen, to our economy, our politics, our churches, if we were lovely in limb and lovely in eyes, if we lived justice daily, if all our goings reflected grace?

What would it mean if we wanted for even our enemies the same welcome, forgiveness, generosity, health, joy, shalom we crave for ourselves?

What if we actively took steps to make that happen?

What if Christ played, through us, in ten thousand thousand places?

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.

This post is part of the October Synchroblog. Links to other posts:
It is also the concluding post of a series on God's Green Equity:

Earlier posts on the same topic:

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Generative Grace

My yard is full of ostrich ferns: tall, elegant, a sturdy green presence, shading toward brown as winter edges toward us. A friend gave me one, not too many years ago, and soon I had more. Then more. I dig them up when they crowd other treasures, move them to dark corners under trees, give them away. This week I’m moving some to a park, to replace invasive honeysuckle vines. If you’d like one – let me know. I have plenty to share.

My grandmother was a collector of seeds. At this time of year, she’d be pocketing things, planning where to grow them. She had flowers no one else had, from seeds friends gave her over the years: billowing annuals she grew along the edge of her little trailer home, or planted along the edges of her tiny yard. When she came to visit us in the first house we owned, an aging twin in West Philadelphia, she arrived with a small suitcase in one hand and a bag of twigs in the other, bare root plants for our first garden. We cleared broken glass from our little urban yard and planted what she brought: native phlox, lily of the valley, foam flower. They’re still there in that West Philly yard, lush and green in the alley between the twins. And I took starts of them with us when we moved to Virginia, then again when we moved to our home here in Pennsylvania. The phlox has spread, seeding around the yard in shades of pink and purple. The foam flower carpets patches of ground in my woodland garden, blooming in billowing clouds of white. I give bits away, scatter phlox seed in friends’ meadows. If you need phlox, or foam flower, or lily of the valley – let me know. I have plenty to share.

Last week I dug an armload of plants to take to a friend’s home. Her daughter and I planted their first flower garden, with brown-eyed susan, coreopsis, phlox, perennial geranium. Right now it looks like dirt and sticks, battered down by October rain. Next spring it will look like something new. By summer it will be blooming, a bright wash of color along a sagging fence.

As I dig, and plant, and watch the way things spread, it occurs to me that this is how grace works: we put ourselves in its path, align ourselves with God’s work in this world, sow our seeds of shalom, and then watch a mystery far beyond us. I’m not the one who makes plants grow. I have no control over where the ferns send their runners, little say about where the phlox seeds land. But I can shepherd the generous growth going on around me, share it, celebrate it.

Friends who aren’t gardeners are sometimes reluctant to accept gifts of plants, or seeds. There’s an invisible wall.  My space, your space. If they want plants, they’ll go buy them, thank you. No need for charity here.

What they miss is the joy of the interplay of plants: the give and take, the sharing of the mystery. Fellow gardeners get it. We walk each other’s yards, exclaim over unexpected beauty: vines in full bloom, unusual seed pods, a cotillion of butterflies in a patch of morning sun. We pause to ask about unfamiliar plants, to note how things spread, to offer additions. “Let me dig you a start of this!” “I’ll give you a cutting. Just stick it in the ground and it will grow.”

My friend shows up at our birdwalks some weeks with odds and ends she’s dug from her yard. She likes explaining them.  Cardinal flower. Blue lobelia. A baby juniper that seeded in her yard. I’ve promised her a start of my symphoricarpus orbiculatus – native coralberry. I have it growing in the shade, where it spreads by runners, looking for the sun. I need to start moving it to other places – the park, Sarah’s yard, a sunnier spot in my own. Again – if you want some? Let me know.

I have friends who say they don’t need grace. Don’t want it. Can live without it. God is a crutch. His love an illusion. My space, your space. If I need something I’ll get it myself. No need for charity. I’m fine on my own.


Entomologist Doug Tallamy, brilliant bug man at the University of Delaware, has written about the suburban yard: manicured dead zones where not much will live. Perfect grass. A few clipped shrubs. Everything under control. Nothing unexpected. No caterpillars, praying mantis. No loud bird song under the bedroom window.

C Judd Patterson, 2008, Backyards for Nature: Fireflies
His research is on bugs, the native plants bugs depend on to survive, the layering of nature that makes habitat for bugs, birds, bats. A healthy multi-layered yard holds water, breathes out oxygen, attracts pollinators, provides habitat for nesting birds.

And billows up in new life: tree seedlings, unexpected vines, spreading groundcovers, butterflies.

My neighbor mentioned that he and his daughter sit on their deck and watch the fireflies in our trees. They have some in their yard, now and then. But our trees are full of them. His daughter thinks it’s magic.

Fireflies, like many other native creatures, are disappearing due to habitat loss. They can’t survive in well manicured yards. They need fallen logs, leaf piles, lots of native trees and shrubs.

It’s possible to live a self-enclosed, self-motivated life, with nicely delineated borders, carefully manicured edges.

For a while.

As a culture we’re exploring that option: lives lived in reference only to ourselves. Neatly packaged food from well stocked superstores. Entertainment on individual screens. Personal cars parked in personal driveways. My space, your space. No need for grace.

The dead zones keep growing. In our bays, choked by the nitrogen runoff from our perfectly green lawns. In our cities, struggling under the weight of our self-referential neglect.

In our firefly-free yards. In our fractured families. In our carefully guarded hearts. 

But God’s generative grace is just a heart-turn away. Like the rain, that can run off to flood our streams and spillways, or soak in slowly around ferns, moss, willows.

Like the sun, scorching the chemical-laden turf, or smiling through the layers of locust, dogwood, fern.

Like the spread of sundrops, phlox, and foam flower: someone else’s sticks and weeds, in someone else’s yard. Or gifts of grace to be given, received, shared, swapped, enjoyed.

It’s the perfect time to be moving plants: cool, wet, still warm enough for roots to settle in. 

It’s also time for harvesting seed: aster, ironweed, goldenrod, rudbeckia.

And time, as well, for slowing down enough to think: how does grace flow from my life to others? How does generosity spill from me, to you, my yard to yours, my heart to yours, your heart to mine?

Need some coralberries? Phlox seed? Time? Prayer? 

Let me know. Some days - by God's generative grace - I have plenty to share.
Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. . . Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness.  You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.

This post is part of an ongoing series on God's Green Equity.

 Earlier posts on the same topic:

As always, your thoughts, comments, questions are welcome.   

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Summoned Toward Wholeness

This week's guest post is by Michael Whitnah, director of college age ministry the Church of the Good Samaritan in partnership with the Coalition for Christian Outreach, an organization devoted to "transforming college students to transform the world." Michael and others from our church went last week to "Summoned toward Wholeness: A Conference on Food, Farming, and the Life of Faith," hosted by Duke Divinity School. I had hoped to attend, but couldn't. According to Michael, it was a valuable gathering of farmers, students, professors and pastors: "lots of thinkers and lot of do-ers." The fact that it sold out quickly, with much interest in next opportunities, is a hopeful sign of a deepening understanding of the Kingdom of God and it's implications for care of creation.

Michael agreed to share some reflections from the conference as part of this ongoing series. The following is based on his response to sessions by Ellen Davis, professor of Bible and practical theology at Duke and author of Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the BibleJoel Salatin, practitioner and advocate of  alternative farming at Polyface Farms in Virginia, and Norman Wirzba, professor of theology and ecology at Duke Divinity School and author and editor of numerous books on the intersection of faith and environmental stewardship. 

Creation care is fundamentally a moral, ethical, and theological issue, not a technological, economic, or scientific one. The prevailing cultural “wisdom” which suggests that we will be able to fix our current disastrous environmental state through growth, development, and research is anything but wise. Indeed, it’s the very definition of insanity (doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result), not wisdom.

The call to proper stewardship is first a call to repentance, a turning away from sin and toward reconciliation. We sit down for dinner and many of us still say grace, or give thanks, but in reality, confession should be paramount in our pre-meal prayers. Confession that we participate in industrial food systems; confession that we welcome ignorance; confession that it’s easy to write fiery blog posts on a computer made 8,000 miles away in miserable conditions by desperately poor workers. To be summoned toward wholeness is to first acknowledge that we are not whole. Christians call that not-wholeness “sin”. Sin is far more than a list of right and wrong—sin is the state of affairs we find ourselves in, the not-wholeness of ourselves, our relationships, every aspect of the world around us. It’s not supposed to be this way.

Repentance, as I mentioned before, is not simply a turning away from, but a turning towards. Turning towards wholeness, seeking after what the Israelites called shalom. I’ve found that it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the crises of creation, and that leads to hopelessness and paralysis. In the midst of that hopelessness, cultivating an agrarian mindset proves to be the best, perhaps the only, remedy.

Ellen Davis identifies three main tenets of agrarianism, all found in and deriving their authority from the Bible. (Regardless of varying opinions as to the authority of Judeo-Christian scripture, the wisdom found therein speaks to our context, especially if we hold the understanding that these issues are primarily moral and/or theological.) 

First, “The life of the land is inseparable from our own life; its health is inseparable from ours.” The language of Genesis, in which God creates humankind, points to a relationship between humans and humus, between people and fertile soil, adam from adammah in Hebrew. Soil is like kinfolk, or a relative. The Israelites, virtually all of whom were farmers, would have understood the interdependence profoundly, especially as the land they inhabited was an incredibly fragile ecological niche. Thin soil, severe drought interspersed with heavy rain, and steep mountains reinforced their precarious relationship with the land. Their survival depended on nurturing the soil…something we seem to have forgotten.

Second, land is invaluable. Davis notes that there is no record of arable land in Canaan being sold by Israelites in the Bible. Property in the city is sold, land is redeemed by relatives, and farm land is sold as part of debt-slavery, but no Hebrew puts land up for sale. Land ownership doesn’t exist—land itself is an inalienable gift from God to previous generations, and it’s your job to care for it for your children, grandchildren, and so on. Note well, the language of inalienable gift vs. inalienable right, a la the Enlightenment. As soon as you view the land as your right, no one can tell you what to do (or not do) to it, and it’s only purpose is to serve your own happiness. But a gift, a gift is something to be cherished, and often transcends material value.
Working with, not against the materiality
of the earth: Polyface Primer

The third component of agrarianism is what Davis calls “humble materiality.” In short, we need to take seriously the materiality of our existence. We are humans, made from matter (which God pronounces “good”), and just as land and humans are inseparable, so are our spiritual and material lives. At its heart, orthodox Christianity offers a stronger affirmation of the material world than any other worldview. (The incarnation and bodily resurrection of Christ are the two focal points of Christianity. Whether you believe that or not is tangential—Christianity is dependent on those two events, and thus offers a high view of bodies, and thus matter). This has tremendous implications for a Christian understanding of eschatology, but also significant implications for land-use. It’s acknowledging that we are not the masters of the universe, we don’t get to decide how everything works, but that in turn gives us the freedom to enjoy and participate in the materiality of the Earth.

When taken together, these three ideas form a robust understanding of agrarianism. Human flourishing and land flourishing are interdependent, land itself is an invaluable gift, and our identity as humans is essentially material. Turning towards this understanding turns us towards wholeness, and away from the exploitive and destructive mindset of industrialized consumerism. It’s a call to rediscover that our primary identity is inexorably bound up with the land—we are called to be stewards, to tend and care for the earth, to be gardeners. If not literally (for a city can live symbiotically with its surrounding countryside), than with an awareness of the means of life; an agrarian awareness that permeates our decisions and actions.

For more from these speakers:

A bonus: A televised portrait of Wendell Berry was posted online this morning, with discussion of Berry's landmark work "The Unsettling of America," and what it means to advocate for stewardship of land, farming, and sustainable food systems. If our primary identity is inexorably bound up with the land, as Michael so eloquently expressed it above, how do we express that in practical, political, and personal ways? Wendell Berry offers a challenging example of faithfulness in this arena: 
"We don't have a right to ask whether we're going to succeed or not. The only question we have a right to ask is 'what's the right thing to do? What does this earth require of us if we want to continue to live on it?'" 

This post is part of an ongoing series on God's Green Equity.

 Earlier posts on the same topic:

As always, your thoughts, comments, questions are welcome.