Sunday, May 31, 2015

God’s Economy: What You Count

GDP on
What you count, you get.

As I mentioned last week, if you count varieties of violets, you’ll start to see more varieties of violets.

Count offensive behavior and you’ll see it everywhere.

What we currently count, as indicators of our country’s health, are narrowly focused economic indicators. 

One of my favorite radio voices is Kai Ryssdal, host of NPR’s Marketplace, weekdays at 6:30 p.m, “the most widely heard program on business and the economy – radio or television, commercial or public broadcasting – in the country,” according to the show’s own totally unbiased webpage.

Ryssdal interviews economists, explains terms and trends, and midway through each show, he says, in a cheerfully irreverent tone: “Let’s do the numbers!”

The numbers? 

DOW, NASDAQ, GDP: the numbers that declare the health of our corporations, the  size of our profits, the all important growth in our domestic production.

Our economic construct is devised to feed those particular numbers. 

And those numbers are predicated on consumption: more cars, more burgers, more houses, more gas.

What I enjoy about Ryssdal’s show is that he’s not convinced. He does a great job of explaining the numbers, suggesting connections, describing the way things work.

But he also does a good job of holding those all-important numbers at arms length. Do they matter? Sure, to someone, somewhere. To him? Maybe not so much.

And yet, what you count is what you get.

Publicly owned American corporations, companies that have sold stock to investors through publically traded offerings, focus strongly on the numbers: primarily production and profit. In 1919, Henry Ford found he was paying unexpectedly large dividends to shareholders and created a plan to adjust his economic model to allow  lower prices, better quality, and generous benefits for workers.

The Dodge brothers, key investors who had already enjoyed great returns on their initial investment, took Ford to court. In the ensuing lawsuit, the judge sided with the Dodges. According to that historic decision: 
A business corporation is organized and carried on primarily for the profit of the stockholders. The powers of the directors are to be employed for that end. The discretion of directors is to be exercised in the choice of means to attain that end, and does not extend to a change in the end itself, to the reduction of profits, or to the nondistribution of profits among stockholders in order to devote them to other purposes.  
As corporate litigation has unfolded across time, it’s become clear that attention to quality is okay as long as it benefits the bottom line, that care of workers is fine if more motivated, healthier workers can produce more and better products.

But there’s one bottom line, easily captured by numbers, and one, all-consuming goal: income up, expenses down, profits maximized. 

According to our current economic model, it’s a moral good to pay as little as possible, even if that means sweatshops in Bangladesh or child slaves on cocoa plantations in West Africa.

The numbers offer no incentive to curb excess consumption, treat employees fairly, shift to sustainable models, provide family friendly benefits.

What you count is what you get.

Johann Christoph Weigel, Germany, 1695
Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”
And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’
“Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’
“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
“This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”   
It’s a jarring story that calls into question much of what we assume about profit and wealth. 

According to Jesus, the rich man didn’t earn the profit himself. It was “the ground” that yielded the harvest. 

And while we might think it’s wise to store up surplus for ourselves, God says, emphatically, “You fool!”

The story challenges the political linkage between the Christian faith and free-market capitalism as it critiques our reliance on a material bottom line, suggesting other metrics are needed.

In the US, a new brand of corporation has been emerging that attempts to broaden the bottom line and apply new metrics to corporate life. Benefit Corporations, orCertified “B” Corps, incorporate with a triple bottom line: accountability not just to shareholders to create profit, but to workers and suppliers for fair, safe, and healthy work environments, and to communities to protect the environment and function in sustainable ways that benefit rather than harm local economies. 

It’s a growing movement. As of today, there are almost 1300 Certified B corporations in 41 countries and 121 industries, and 30 US states have passed legislation recognizing Benefit Corporation contracts

That’s a start, but critics of our consumptive economy suggest we need to reject completely an international metric that measures growth in consumption, since growth in GDP is by definition dependent on growth in consumer demand, which is in turn dependent on making consumers want more, newer, bigger, better, to the detriment of happiness, stability, and environmental resources.

In 1971, the Buddhist nation of Bhutan rejected the GDP as the way to measure progress and created in its place measurable indicators of gross national happiness (GNH) based on equitable social development, cultural preservation, conservation of the environment and promotion of good governance. Since then, despite low per capita income and stagnant GDP, key indicators like levels of clean drinking water, literacy, and life expectancy have been on the rise. 

In 2010, Maryland became the first state to explore an alternate metric, adopting the GPI: theGross Progress Indicator. The 26 indicators address issues like pollution, wetland health, college completion rates, employment, housing, cost of ozone depletion. 

Vermont and Oregon have since implemented the same GPI and together those states have found that during the decades their GDPs were rising, their citizens saw little benefit: “Their workers have longer commutes, they have depleted natural resources, volunteerism and free time have declined and income gains have been unequal."
from Questioning Economic Growth, Peter Victor
Nature, 18 November 2010

What you count is what you get. 

Reading through the Maryland indicators, I find myself wondering what measurements would point us toward an economic model more like what God had in mind. 

Acreage set aside as food for the poor?

Single mothers and children well cared for?

Less homes lost to extortive debt?

A slowing of the mass extinction of species?

I’ve been posting for the last few weeks on God’s Economy. Next week my goal is to highlight indicators that would be worth measuring in a new economic model.

What would it be called? What would be the most important things to measure?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Check back next week for the final installment. 

This post is part of a series on God's Economy. Other posts:
Fruit that Will Last April 19, 2015
God’s Economy: Subtract or Multiply?  April 26, 2015
God’s Economy: Inescapable Network of Mutuality  May 3, 2015
God's Economy: Generational Investment May 10, 2015
God's Economy: Managing Anger Assets  May 17, 2015
God’s Economy: Muchness and Delight May 24, 2015

Sunday, May 24, 2015

God's Economy: Muchness and Delight

The whole earth is filled with awe at your wonders;
    where morning dawns, where evening fades,
    you call forth songs of joy.  Psalm 65:8 
A few weeks ago a friend and I went to visit Shenk’s FerryWildflower Preserve, a narrow cut of land that follows a steep ravine draining into the Susquehanna. In spring, it’s carpeted with native wildflowers: thousands of trillium, bluebells, trout lily, and more.

I mentioned to an older acquaintance that I would be going and how surprised and amazed I was the first time I went, and she smiled, and nodded, and said “It’s the  . . . . “ 

She looked around, as if looking for the exact right word, then smiled even more: “the muchness of it.”


I’ve been trying to find a proper word for what she meant, and in English, we don’t have one. Plenty, abundance: those refer to quantity, but don’t capture the idea of more than enough in both quantity and diversity, the rich, varied, suprising “muchness” evident at Shenk’s Ferry.

Amazing that a forgotten strip of ground, owned until recently by a local power company, barely accessible by steep, rocky, rutted roads, would explode into beauty every spring. There’s no way photos can do justice to the effect, or capture the delight of standing on the narrow path, surrounded by the fleeting loveliness of flowers rarely seen in such stunning multitudes.

For those who make the pilgrimage, there’s a sense of wonder in looking over the flowers, trying to identify the unfamiliar, marveling at the variation in shade, size, combination.

Sitting on the stones by the stream at the head of the ravine, I found myself wondering what the world was like, before so much was flattened, and plowed, and rearranged to look so much the same. I found myself reflecting that our vision of control runs contrary to God’s original design. Our monolithic, monoculture,  “my way or the highway” steam-roller approach has cost us much of the beauty and abundance initially intended. Small pockets of beauty have barely escaped; Shenk’s Ferry itself was targeted for a new pipeline, just recently rerouted to cut along existing farmland instead.

Another spring activity for me is bird-watching more than usual, in hopes of seeing the migrating birds that pass through our region on their way further north, or of spotting where returning birds build their nests. Our Thursday morning bird walks lengthen as we linger to identify unfamiliar warblers, or wait to see where the Orchard Oriole is building its intricate woven nest.

With birds, as with wildflowers, there is muchness and delight: birdsong, if you can hear it, in the middle of the night, as songbirds pass on their nocturnal flight. Birdsong before dawn, as wrens and warblers announce the coming of the dawn. Delight at the loveliness of tiny acrobats, capturing invisible insects to take back to their tiny moss-lined nests. Delight at learning to recognize the exuberant song of a warbling vireo.
my backyard House wren; photo by Leslie Peed

One of our birding group, decades older than me, sometimes announces with great satisfaction at the end of a morning walk: “Well, I learned something again.”

Yes. Muchness and delight. We will never come to the end of it, no matter how we try.

This week I attended the graduation exercise of our local community college. I’ve been to many graduations, Ivy League and small liberal arts, public and private high schools. This time I was seated where I could see the faces of the graduates just before they turned to mount the platform to receive their diplomas.

I had never seen such a varied group of students: old, young, dignified, merry, every shade and texture of hair and skin.

And I had never felt such joy in a graduation ceremony: the sense of accomplishment, of relief, of a step toward a hard-won future.

Watching the faces, it struck me, forcefully, that God sees and delights in them, the muchness of them, the vivid variety, the unique, intricate beauty, the way wildflower enthusiasts delight in the flowers of Shenk’s Ferry.

I found myself envisioning God lingering over each, as we linger over the migrating birds: look at the energy and endurance here. Look at the gentle dignity here. Look at the sweet spirit, the stunning smile. Look at the tender, teachable heart.,Look at the lovely lively laugh.

I enjoy learning the names of wildflowers. I find it a form of poetry: Trillium grandiflorum. Anemone Canadensis.

I hear that same poetry and joy in the voices of those learning to recognize new birds: Blackburnian warbler. Acadian flycatcher. Swainson’s thrush.

Far beyond that was the reading of names at Thursday’s graduation: Anna, Asher, Abdul, Abdalaziz, Amber, Andrew, Ayodeji, Amir, Afrin, Alan, Angel.

Today is Pentecost Sunday, the day we celebrate the work of God’s spirit in breaking down walls, reuniting his people, empowering his body to live and work as one.   

The poetry of muchness and delight is part of today’s reading: 
“Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontusand Asia,  Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome(both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”  Acts 2:7-11 
Around the globe today that reading will be heard, in Greek, Arabic, Mandarin, Urdu, Gujarati, Assamese, Maori, Zulu, and more than two thousand other languages. 

God’s poetry of Pentecost continues.

The more we learn of microclimates and living systems, of microorganisms and cell biology, the more clearly we see the reality ofinterdependence, the need for a grand diversity in people, plants, creatures.

Yet there’s something in God’s economy that goes past need, past utility, that passes over into art, beauty, exuberant delight. How many variations of common violet do we need? 

For utility, maybe one. 

For delight? Apparently many: more than five hundred, in a wild array of colors, shapes, and patterns.

Left to ourselves, we want what looks like us, what’s most familiar, easiest to understand.

God’s economy lifts us beyond that, into a rich world of muchness and delight, more varied, more beautiful, more vibrantly healthy, more endlessly joyful, than we can yet imagine.   

How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
    The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house,
    and you give them drink from the river of your delights.  Psalm 36

This post is part of a series on God's Economy. Other posts:

Fruit that Will Last April 19, 2015

Sunday, May 17, 2015

God's Economy: Managing Anger Assets

The Synchroblog invitation for this month said “Let’s talk about anger.”

My first thought was "Yes!"


Thank you!

We are surrounded by explosive anger: road rage on pot-hole riddled roads; long- repressed fury on the streets of Baltimore; on-line ad hominem attacks on anyone who doesn’t share our views.

Is anger contagious?

Is all anger the same?

Is anger always bad?

If anger is always wrong and harmful, what is it's role in God's economy?

I grew up in a household divided by anger. My grandfather arrived from Italy in 1903 at the age of three, experienced the anti-immigrant/anti-Italian sentiment of early 20th century New York, watched the abuse of workers during the struggles of unionization, built a family, a business, a civic reputation, all fueled by a deep, unquenchable anger.

My grandmother was an Oklahoma farm girl who became a Christian in her early twenties and never argued, never shouted, never swore. I don’t remember seeing her angry. Ever. She read widely, held strong opinions, but would quietly leave the table when she disagreed with what was being said. She’d share her own thoughts, later, when no one else was around, or quietly in the kitchen, while she washed and I dried dishes. She was often dismissed, marginalized, pushed aside by leaders who thought women should be silent, by those impressed by titles or connections. She never spoke back. 

Growing up, I could see very clearly that unrestrained, unresolved anger was a deadly, destructive force. My grandfather’s four sons scattered, in part driven away by his constant anger. That anger was like a toxic cloud around our heads, a constant grit between our teeth.

But I was never quite comfortable with my grandmother’s alternative.  It seemed sometimes a sharper response might have saved her children, or grandchildren, pain. And it seemed her silence sometimes made her complicit in situations that to me looked unwise or unjust.

The question of anger was placed in context, for me, by four big issues that shaped my young adolescence: 
  • The role of race, the reality of prejudice, and the willingness of some to ignore the rights of others. 
  • The role of “woman”, and the constant barrage of “because you’re a girl” offered to justify endless slights and deflections. 
  • The unregulated industrial waste that made the Hudson, not far from my home, a fetid stew lined with rotting carcasses of fish. 
  • The mounting demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, and the daily depictions of burning villages, crying children, 

I was aware, even as a young teen, that some forms of anger were wrong: from my bedroom window I could see the smoke from fires burning in the Bronx. That anger was destructive, unfocused, uncontrolled. 

Yet when Pete Seeger appeared with his banjo in our school auditorium, singing about the Hudson, the war, the ways our culture controls and confines us, I heard and saw a different kind of anger: fierce, determined, yet strangely cheerful. Not focused on people or things, but on systems and structures, ideas and their inevitable consequences.

A stanza from his song Letter to Eve gave a hint of his vision, placing love and anger together: 
Well want to have great love, you're gonna have great anger want to have great love, you're gonna have great anger
When I see innocent folks shot down,
Should I just shake my head and frown?
Oh, Pacem in Terris, Mir, Shanti, Salaam, Hey Wa.
(Peace on earth! in Italian, Russian, Sanskrit, Arabic, and Japanese)
Reading through the Old Testament, I see a link between God’s great love and an accompanying slow, burning anger. His love for creation eventually demands response when nations misuse and abuse it. 

His love for the weak, the poor, the widows and orphans, demands response when communities oppress, ignore and trample those God commands we protect..

His promise of peace depends on the firm application of slow, steady, righteous anger when injustice
seizes power.

About the same time I heard Pete Seeger sing, Martin Luther King was assassinated, and the airwaves were full of rebroadcasts of his speeches. I remember feeling the crackling anger in his voice, carefully contained in the sonorous scriptural cadence of his words: 
There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: "For Whites Only." We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until "justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream." 
Anger has many sources, many expressions. James 4 describes angry disharmony, even violence, springing up from our own selfish agendas:  
Why do you fight and argue among yourselves? Isn’t it because of your sinful desires? They fight within you. You want something, but you don’t have it. So you kill. You want what others have, but you can’t get what you want. So you argue and fight. 
When I look at my own anger, I realize some is prompted by an over-full schedule, by a sense of feeling slighted, by things that don’t go the way I wanted. By over-ambitious plans and sometimes too little sleep.

Most of that anger I need to work through and let go. 

I need to spend time reviewing my own priorities, need to put things back in perspective. Sometimes I need to take a long breath in, and a longer breath out. Or go for a walk in a beautiful place. Or spend an hour or two weeding by myself.

Sometimes I need to confess my anger and ask for prayer.

Sometimes I need to journal through the incident, and ask God to remind me how much he loves each person involved.

But some anger I need to hold, and manage, like a precious, hard-won asset.

I know – just a little - what it feels like to be denied opportunity and experience because I don’t fit the desired demographic.

And I know – just a little - what it feels like to lose a job, lose a friend, lose a dream, because I’m not part of the privileged group.

I know – just a little – what it feels like to be on the wrong side of inequity. To see others enjoy what they didn’t earn while I work hard for crumbs from their table.

I’ve let go, or worked to let go, the personal offence.

I’ve forgiven the offenders, and prayed for their good.

But if I close my eyes for just a moment, I can still feel the injustice. I can feel an inner fire that affirms King’s fiery tone when he said “no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until ‘justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.’”

I am angry at injustice.

Angry that kids I love who happen to live in Philly don’t receive the same education as kids who live just ten miles away.

Angry that girls with gifts are still silenced and shut down and pressured to care more about how they look than what they can do and think and say.

Angry that so many many men and women waste months waiting trial because they can’t afford inordinate bail and adequate legal defense. 
I could go on. 

I am angry at injustice.



Angry when I’m the victim.

Angry when I’m the beneficiary.

I bring most of my anger to prayer and leave it there. But there are times when that anger forces me to step up, to speak out. 

To take on tasks I’d like to ignore. 

To intervene when it would be easier to look the other way.

In Ephesians, Paul said 
“Our fight is not against human beings. It is against the rulers, the authorities and the powers of this dark world. It is against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly world.” Ephesians 6:12 
When we find ourselves mounting personal attacks against individuals, it’s likely we’ve missed the point.

Instead, we might pause to examine systems, explore our own complicity, consider the ideologies and idolatries that fuel our disagreements.

And take time to consider: if God’s slow, steady anger burns at injustice, and intervenes on behalf of the weak, what would it mean to love like he does?

Is it true: "if you want to have great love, you're gonna have great anger"?

Pete Seeger's Guitar

 This post is part of the May Synchroblog “Let’s talk about anger.” Other Synchroblog posts:
And here's a bonus: a link to a Tim Keller podcast The Healing of Anger. Plenty to think about.

I’d love to continue the conversation. Feel free to post comments, offer correctives, or point us to other resources.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

God's Economy: Generational Investment

  Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
  (Mad Farmer Liberation Front, Wendell Berry)

It’s planting season here in Pennsylvania, and I’ve been planting in my yard and in Exton Park, a nearby habitat where I sometimes lead bird walks or help with the Weed Warrior group I helped form. 

In the park, I've been working with friends to plant ferns, wildflowers, native shrubs and trees.

In my own yard, I’ve been moving oak seedling and dogwoods, checking on pawpaw seedlings from several years ago, trying to envision our little grove of trees decades from now, when the new seedlings shoot past the aging stand of locusts.

While I work in the park, I listen to the birds around me: Baltimore orioles whistling to their mates, a vociferous brown thrasher singing from the top of a tree.

At home, house wrens follow me, their bubbling song both complaint and celebration. After starting a nest in every bird house in the yard, the pair have settled in a house hanging from a sagging branch, just above a stick pile left for their enjoyment along the rotting fence.

A pair of northern flickers have been working for days excavating a hole in a half-dead locust tree. There are plenty of holes to choose from, but it seems each year they make a new one. This year I saw their little dance of agreement the day they decided on the perfect spot, and I’ve watched as they’ve taken turns drilling deeper and deeper into their new home. For a day or two all I could see were tail feathers shaking and occasional wood chips flying out. Now the hole is done, and the wild mating calls announce their intent: soon there will be eggs to guard, and then baby birds crying plaintively for food.

This time of year it seems as if all creation is intent on forming the next generation. On Wednesday, carrying my buckets for water for new plantings in Exton Park, I paused to see what a dad and his small children were watching so intently in the little creek flowing from pond to wetland. A large brown snake was coiled among the grasses, and while we watched, another came swimming toward it and the two intertwined, then slithered out of view.

On Thursday, our birding group stopped to see what was causing a ripple in a wetland pond, then watched in fascination as two large snapping turtles came into view and began roiling the water in a strange, muddy water ballet.

In my yard, chipping sparrows carry wisps to a hidden spot in a misshapen spruce, while chickadees and house finch hurry to claim the bird houses abandoned by the wrens.

Generational investment, for most creatures, is innate, instinctive, almost automatic. Procreation is triggered by length of day, change of temperature, availability of certain foods. Parenting is determined by sex and species: turtle moms lay their eggs, then swim away. The babies are on their own. Northern water snakes (those brown snakes I saw in the creek) give birth to live young, 8 to 30 at a time. The babies swim off as soon as they’re born and the mother is done for another year.

For birds it varies by species: baby geese and ducks are ready to follow their parents just hours after they’re born. Baby raptors may stay in the nest for weeks, then need some intensive coaching before they’re able to feed themselves. I’ve watched osprey parents diving for fish while their young circle behind them, crying for food, then seen the parents coaxing the next generation to take the plunge themselves.  I first saw the lesson take place near Sanibel Island, Florida, then again on the Northeast River, in coastal Maryland, and again on Marsh Creek Lake, not far from my home. Same begging young, same coaxing parents, same breathless wait as the first brave fledgling plunges downward for the first self-caught fish.

There are occasional exceptions to the deeply embedded parenting process. Brown-headed cowbirds lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, so occasional wrens, warblers or other small birds may find themselves parenting a baby bird that eats more than usual and doesn’t move on at exactly the right pace. Maternal mammals sometimes adopt and care for young from other species.  

But even those exceptions demonstrate the deeply embedded pattern of care each species is hard-wired to give.

Except humans.

As I garden, listen to birds, watch baby bunnies appearing, I find myself thinking about generational investment from a human point of view.

Children? Yes, no, later?

Our options for choice go far past the obvious.

We’re the only species that can decide to plant trees. Or not.

Pave over fields. Or not.

Drain aquifers, strip mountain tops, spray our food with neurotoxins.

We can choose to live in the moment, pocket the profit, forget the future.

We can choose to invest in our own offspring: their immediate happiness, their immediate safety, their immediate future, with no regard for the children of others.

We can choose to invest in a broader way: in the lives of generations that follow us, known and unknown, near and far. In sustainable practices, just policies, accessible education, enduring beauty.

Or not.

Today is Mother’s Day.

It’s the day we share those expensive Hallmark Cards we remembered to buy and celebrate the mothers still with us.

It’s the day we grieve the mothers we’ve lost, or never knew, the children we never see, or never had, or lost too soon.

And it’s the day we give thanks for our children, those who came in the usual way, or in other ways: adoption, marriage, extended family, friendship.

Turtles do fine never meeting their mothers.

Birds enjoy two parents for a month or two, then they’re on their own.

But the truth is that for humans, one parent isn’t enough. Or two. Or three.

Some years ago, Search Institute assembled a list of "building blocks of healthy development—known as Developmental Assets—that help young children grow up healthy, caring, and responsible." I often referred to Asset #3 in our youth ministry training sessions: 
"Other Adult Relationships | Young person receives support from three or more nonparent adults." 
What Search Institute's research found was that even a young person with strong support from two loving parents needs input and support from three or more additional adults: caring teachers, youth leaders, relatives, family friends.

Our own kids have talked about how important their extended family has been in shaping their faith, careers, mental health, social skills.

But some kids don’t have strong, caring extended families.

And some kids live in places where the embedded social structures undermine the best efforts of every caring adult.

Scripture talks much about generations: the need to teach our children and their children, but “children” widely interpreted: the next generation. Those who come behind us.   

Read through the letters of the early church and it becomes clear that for Paul and John, those who followed were in many ways their children, sometimes referred to as “beloved children,” even more as “little children.”

Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 2: “we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.” And in Galations 4: “my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” Amazing images from a fast-moving man like Paul. 

I’m thankful for the mothers and fathers in my life. My own parents were a dim absence, gone before I was two. My paternal grandmother took the place of both, teaching me to read, to cook and sew, to climb trees and grow tomatoes.

But there were many others: a strings teacher who invested far more than the job required in helping me love and understand music. A camp director who gave me a first glimpse of grace and generosity and steady hard work toward a distant goal. Uncles who taught me to dance, to drive, to survive conversations with scary adults I didn’t know. Teachers who taught me to write, to think, to weigh ideas carefully and follow them out to their logical conclusions. Compassionate, gracious in-laws who continue to teach me about love and family, about how to continue learning, serving, changing.

At a recent retreat, our speaker Paula Rinehart spoke of her own uneasy relationship with her mother, and the way God gave her many mothers, women whose photos she framed and set on a table by her bed to remind her of how well she’s been parented.

I am thankful today for my own many mothers. And many fathers.

For those I will never know or name whose investments of time and love have kept this part of the world lovely, who made my education possible, who imagined a way of life that has made my own life possible.

A Greek proverb says “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”

Trees grow faster than we think.

So do children.

Our best investments carry no guarantees.

Yet, even as I write this, my youngest daughter appears with a cup of coffee, a small vase full of flowers, a promise of cinnamon buns heading to the oven.

Beyond my window, birdsong fills the air.

This is the fourth in a series on God’s Economy. Ealier posts: 
Other Mother's Day posts:

Sunday, May 3, 2015

God’s Economy: Inescapable Network of Mutuality

For Christmas this year I received a book I’d been eagerly awaiting: The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden, by Doug Tallamy and Rick Darke. I’ve heard Doug Tallamy speak twice, once at Jenkins Arboretum, and again at a West Chester Bird Club meeting, and his first book, Bringing Nature Home, sits on the table beside my bed, its pages worn and earmarked.

Tallamy is an entomologist and Darke a landscaper, and both have spent years exploring the connections between plants, bugs, birds, and people. They write with passion and eloquence about biodiversity and its essential role: 
The ecosystems that support us - - that determine the carrying capacity of the earth and our local spaces - - are run by biodiversity. It is biodiversity that generates oxygen and clean water; that creates topsoil out of rock and buffers extreme weather events ike droughts and floods; and that recycles the mountains of garbage we create every day.  . . Humans cannot live as the only species on this planet because it is other species that create the ecosystem services essential to us. Every time we force a species to extinction we are encouraging our own demise.
I have been gardening for years now with Tallamy’s plant lists as a reference: adding layers of native shrubs, studying groundcovers that offer pollen to pollinators, leaving layers of leaves and piles of sticks in corners of my yard. Each year I have more species of birds and insects taking refuge in our suburban half acre. So far this spring, I’ve seen chipping sparrows, chickadees, house wrens and crows carrying nesting materials, and for the past week two busy flickers have been excavating a new nesting hole in a half-dead black locust tree.

As I garden, I think and pray about the news of the day: thousands dead in the slums of Katmandu. Protest and prayer in the streets of Baltimore.

My life is tied to the tiny bees buzzing around my foamflowers. It is also tied to the dead so painfully extracted from the rubble of Nepal, the angry, fearful young men gathering to grieve the death of yet another angry, fearful young man. 

One of the bloggers I follow, Sri Lankan Vinoth Ramachandra, friend of a friend and part of the senior leadership team for International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, wrote this week of the earthquake that has claimed over 7000 lives:
When the Indian Ocean nations were devastated by the tsunami of 26 December 2004, I raised the question: why is it that when hurricanes and earthquakes hit places like Florida or Japan, the loss of life is minimal; but that when the same disasters occur in Central America or South Asia, the devastation is mind-boggling? The answer is simple and straightforward: poverty. Or poverty combined with corruption and incompetence on the part of government officials. In South Asia, annual warnings about floods and cyclones are routinely ignored when the technology needed to save lives and property is readily available. Coral reefs and mangrove swamps (that absorb much of the impact of tropical storms and ocean surges) have virtually disappeared from our coastal belts. Building contractors frequently violate safety standards, even when building in earthquake-prone areas.
. . .  It is sinful human actions (including wrong priorities) that result in the heavy loss of life, much of which is preventable. Poverty and economic inequalities on the scale seen in our world cannot be blamed on God. They represent a violation of God’s will for humanity. . . Natural events such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis are a painful reminder of our fragility, our interconnectedness with and dependence upon nature. . . .
There will always follow the clamouring existential questions and our feeble, stuttering human answers. But more importantly, what we experience is a sense of indignation that “the same thing” always happens and “the same people” always suffer; and a yearning for things to be different some day.
I live daily in the yearning for things to be different, the longing for a world where care of creation is valued above profit margins, where adequate housing, good jobs, safe streets are a reality for even the poorest of the poor Yet I know that reality is not mine to accomplish. I spent time earlier this year working my way through The World Is Not Ours to Save by Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, who wrote at length of the prophetic vision of Micah 4.
Everyone will sit under their own vine    and under their own fig tree,and no one will make them afraid,    for the Lord Almighty has spoken.
As individuals, organizations, churches, communities, even nations, we are not capable of creating peace, restoring justice, or designing a world where there is plenty for all and no one is afraid. There is a sense in Micah’s vision of people, nations, coming on their own volition, “streaming” to an irresistible new way of life, choosing on their own to beat spears into pruning hooks, drawn by a compelling vision of something beyond human agency. 
We can’t force people toward that vision, can’t compel compliance to the ways of God.
As Wigg-Stevenson reminds us, “the world is not ours to save.
Yet we are instructed to pray for peace, live in the expectation and promise of peace, to practice peace-making in every context and conflict.
That means praying for peace with those who disagree with us. Living as peacemakers in places of division.
Reading and praying about the events in Baltimore in the past ten days, it occurred to me that much of Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail (written in April, 1963) reads as if written now, fifty-two years later:
I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.
You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city's white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.
I was seven when that letter was written, just a child dimly aware of the rumbling of racial discord, barely aware of the work an uncle was doing in registering African American voters in poor neighborhoods of New Haven.

I was a few years older when the Bronx erupted into riots, just miles from my home. I could see the smoke from fires from my bedroom window.

I was powerless then to intervene, to have a say, to act for change.

Am I powerless still, a half- century later?

In that same letter, King wrote: 
Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. 
In our current economic and political systems, we are valued as consumers: passive receievers of goods and services, silent participants in a market tailored to our individual needs and wants. We are disconnected from those who grow our food, sew our clothes, patrol our streets, decide our futures, implicitly endorsing supply chains and partisan elections that create great wealth for a powerful few and push the poor and powerless into more and more dangerous margins.

As I quoted Doug Tallamy earlier: “Every time we force a species to extinction we are encouraging our own demise.”

Even more: every time we force a class of people to the margins, we undermine our own well-being, push our world, both national and global, one step closer toward violence and collapse.

In God’s economy, we are called to be active participants, creators of sanctuary, agents of reconciliation.

As Wigg-Stevenson notes, while the world is not ours to save, “the corollary to the truth that we are not everywhere and everything is that we are somewhere and something. We inhabit the portion God gives us.”

I grieve the social stagnation of the past century, and my own decades-long appalling silence.

And challenge myself, and other "good people of good will" to devote time to listening to other voices, then to pray, think, and speak against the appalling silence that undermines our mutual health and joy. 
From my friend and godfather to my granddaughter:
The Duhmanizing Gaze and Thug Life
What My 10 Year Old Daughter Taught Me about the Death of Freddie Gray 
From a woman of color in Washington DC:
Dear White Facebook Friends: I Need You to Respect What Black America Is Feeling Right Now 
From the Baltimore Sun:
Sun Investigates: Undue Force 
From Vinoth Ramachandra in Sri Lanka:  God and Natural Disasters 
From Martin Luther King Jr:
Letter from a Birmingham Jail
This is the third in a series on God’s Economy. Ealier posts: 
Fruit that Will Last, April 19, 2015
Gods’ Economy: Subtract or Multiply? April 26, 2015