Sunday, September 25, 2011

What I'm Up To

It’s been a year since I stepped out of full-time youth ministry to embark on my next great adventure.

Beach near Cape May Point
I loved spending time with kids, talking with parents, working side by side with some of the most gifted young and older adults I’ve had the privilege of knowing. I was honored by the goodbye celebrations the church and youth group gave me, and quite sad the night I finished cleaning my office, loaded the last of my photos, paintings, and boxes in the back of my Fit, and drove away in a heavy rain that matched my mood.

My plan was to spend the rest of the year in “Sabbath,” thinking, praying, reading, then to spend a few months in discernment before launching into whatever emerged.

I started with a week in Cape May, part retreat, part bird-watching marathon. A high point was sharing a quiet early morning beach with a young eagle that had just caught a fish for breakfast. It would have flown but didn’t want to leave its catch, so watched me warily until I left it to eat in peace.

I started this blog a week or two later, then traveled to Miami with my husband and wandered South Beach and Key Biscayne while he sat in a hotel conference room in meetings. Then we drove through the everglades, saw lots of alligators, and spent time on Sanibel Island, kayaking in a mangrove swamp and collecting shells on the beaches.

By the time we returned home I had a young adult novel spinning in my head. I finished that a few months later, then substantially rewrote a novel I started years ago, about a boy living in the Quaker town of Waterford, Virginia, at the start of the Civil War.

As I worked on that novel, The Quaker War, I realized I had never answered for myself the questions the story raised. What happens when private faith and public policy collide? Is it possible to work for peace when surrounded by the reality of war? What should citizens do when civil authority moves in immoral directions? How do we reconcile abstract ideals with the practical demands of daily survival?

By the time I had The Quaker War ready to submit to publishers, I was deep into the real work of this Sabbath time: What does it mean to be a “citizen”? What is my responsibility as a part of our democracy?

News of the “Arab Spring” unfolding in the Middle East spurred me in my wondering. I’ve always known that freedom is a gift to be treasured, but in what ways do we treasure it? And what does it require of us? Is there a recurrent cost, an ongoing debt? While men and women risk their lives to face down tyrants in the public square, what do I contribute to the ongoing story of freedom?

My husband and I traveled to France in June and the issues of freedom, citizenship and democracy became even more pressing. We ate lunch in Place Gutenberg in Salzburg, and admired the Gutenberg Monument crafted by David d’Angers in 1840. At first we wondered at the bas relief scenes surrounding the monument’s base: Ben Franklin and other revolutionaries with the Declaration of Independence. William Wilberforce and other abolitionists freeing slaves from their chains.

But then it became clear: the printing press, Gutenberg’s invention, allowed access to “the Word”, God’s word, but also the printed word, information, knowledge. And that access spurred the quest for freedom.

In Paris, Liberté is writ large across the tops of buildings, but also in the history of streets, squares, public places. We ate dinner on Rue L’Estrapade, a narrow road named for the form of torture carried out on Protestants who insisted on the freedom of religion. We walked through Place Maubert, where reformation-minded printers and booksellers had their tongues cut out before they were burned at the stake. We were reminded at almost every turn of revolution and resistance, the struggle for freedom, the costly stand against power seen from the time of the Roman coliseum, where we sat one peaceful evening to eat a sandwich, through the final days of World War II.

What are the responsibilities of a citizen? To vote and obey the law? Is there more?

Since our trip to France I’ve been reading Soul of a Citizen, Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time, a book Paul Loeb wrote in 1999 that was revised and expanded and reprinted earlier this year. In his introduction to the new edition, Loeb writes 
“In the personal realm, most Americans are thoughtful, caring, generous. We try to do our best by family and friends. At times we'll even stop to help another driver stranded by a roadside break­down, or give some spare change to a stranger. But too often, a wall separates each of us from the world outside, and from others who've likewise taken refuge in their own private sanctuaries--what we might call the gated community of the heart. We've all but forgotten that public participation is the very soul of democratic citizenship.” 
Loeb summarizes some of the challenges facing our nation, and our globe: shrinking salaries, disappearing jobs, environmental dangers, a complex global economy we struggle to understand. 
“How can we make sense of a world where Nike pays Michael Jordan more to appear in its ads than it pays all the workers at its Indonesian shoe factories combined? Or where the planet’s 500 richest people control more wealth than the bottom 3 billion, half of the human population? Or where financial speculation has become so omnipresent it can threaten the entire global economy? Is it possible even to grasp the process that led to these crises, and all the others we face?” 
Loeb goes on to say that we draw back from involvement because the problems are too complex, because there are so many pressing issues we don’t know which to tackle first. But he sees a greater problem at work: a loss of confidence in the possibility of impacting the public sphere. 
“We face a challenge that is as much psychological as political. . . . we need to acknowledge and confront the pervasive sense of powerlessness that afflicts our society. How did so many of us become convinced that we can do nothing to affect our common future? And, by contrast, how have others managed to remove the cataracts form their eyes and muster the confidence to work powerfully for change?” 
Loeb’s questions are the questions that have begun to shape my days. I believe in community, healing, compassion, truth, justice. I continue to look for ways to live those in my own life, to share them with those closest to me, but looking back through some of my earlier posts I can see the growing awareness that "the gated community of the heart" is profoundly affected by what occurs in the public square. If I care about poor kids living in inner city neighborhoods, single moms struggling to raise their kids, clean streams where my grandchildren can play, clean air for my friends with asthma, I need to leave that gated community and begin to speak for the things that I believe in. 

In another book I’ve been reading, The Scandal of Evangelical Politics, Ron Sider says “human experience proves that politics profoundly impacts billions of people. Bad political choices lead to dictatorship, starvation, and death for hundreds of millions. Good political decisions nurture freedom, life, justice, and peace. Politics matter.”

Unfortunately, as Sider demonstrates in his book, most Christians “have not thought very carefully about how to do politics in a wise, biblically grounded way.” My hope is to become a wise, biblically grounded participant in the political arena.

At the same time, I hold in mind Wendell Berry’s essay, "Think Little", which reminds me: “We need better government, no doubt about it. But we also need better minds, better friendships, better marriages, better communities.”
So, plans for the year ahead: 
  • Find publishers for my two middle grade/young adult novels.
  • Write another novel I have brewing, and explore more non-fiction forms of writing.
  • Attract even more birds and insects to my backyard habitat by continuing to learn about native plants and ecosystems.  
  • Look for practical ways to be a more consistent, compassionate, available friend, wife, mother.
  • Engage in building community through hospitality and other creative ventures.
  • Explore what it means to be an active, informed, politically engaged,  “living like Jesus” citizen. 
As part of those last two goals, I’ve been talking with my neighbor about starting a study group to read and discuss The Soul of a Citizen together, then see where that leads us. If you’d like to join our group, and you live nearby, we’d be happy to have you join us.

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