Sunday, March 24, 2002

Community: Farm Sales

"I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and oliveyards that you did not plant."(Joshua 24:13)

This week a news program featured a story about an angry young man with a flushed face who shouted, "I don't owe anything to society; absolutely nothing!" Silly lad. Suppose community were suddenly taken away from him and he were deposited on an uninhabited island somewhere. No food, tools or implements, shelter, fire or clothing. He would be reduced to grubbing for worms and eating leaves. He wouldn't even have any language with which to upbraid the world, no expressive thought, no song. He probably would live only a few days at most. Absolutely everything we have is a gift that comes to us in and through community. Without community, we are nothing more than individualized consumptive egos lost in a wilderness. Aristotle said only God and beasts can exist outside of community.

Community has taken a beating in this century. Most of us have experienced a great loss of it in some way or other and this probably more than anything else is responsible for our chronic states of anxiety. One of the vows many religious monastics take is a vow to remain in one place, in community. Community is essential to spiritual growth and sustenance besides being necessary for civilization. We just don't do it alone. Even St. Patrick, who was captured by Vikings as a youth and marooned for decades in Celtic Ireland as a result of his captivity, survived by clinging to the idea of the community of which he was deprived. Later, when he returned alone to evangelize his captors, he was sustained by his mystical understanding of the "communion of saints" expressed so beautifully in the prayer attributed to him.

"I arise today through the strength of the love of Cherubim,
in obedience of angels, in service of archangels . . . . .
in prayers of patriarchs, in predictions of prophets,
in preaching of apostles, in faith of confessors,
in innocence of holy virgins, in deeds of righteous men. . . . "

At least three things are essential for community: history, values and a common life. I was fortunate to have spent a few years in the kind of real community that is fast vanishing from the American landscape in rural South Dakota. If there were some way we could designate our dwindling farming communities as National Historic Treasures and preserve them, I wish we could do so because they may be among the few places left where we can get a sense of what we were, what made us human and what we must try to recapture in some sense if we are to preserve our civilization. Many of the families in these communities have been there for three or four generations, sometimes living in the same house in which the husband or wife was born. Events that take place are lived and celebrated by the whole community. Births, baptisms, graduations, weddings, house building and barn raising.

Many rural church parishes in the Great Plains are multiple point charges of more than one denomination. Few churches, and those generally only in the larger towns, are large enough to support their own pastor so they team up with neighboring churches and utilize a single pastor. In addition, ecumenical parishes are common. One parish in central South Dakota included a United Church of Christ, Lutheran, Methodist and American Baptist mix, all sharing a joint worship service but rotating between two or more churches on a given Sunday. My own parish consisted of one United Methodist church and two United Church of Christ churches. Theological differences dissolve quickly when people cooperate for the common good.

Community support is the most important value in a small town. When there is a perceived need, everyone rallies to help and many essential services from fire fighting to emergency medical services are provided by volunteers. Tulare, South Dakota was so small they couldn't support a town cafe without volunteers so they hired a cook to manage the operation and townspeople took turns serving so people would have a place to congregate. At the suggestion of the church treasurer, a decision was made to keep certificates of deposit in the tiny local bank at a lower rate of interest rather than move them ten miles up the highway to a Redfield bank paying a higher interest rate. Supporting the local community was a higher value than how much money was earned.

Losses and sorrows are equally community shared events. Farm sales due to bankruptcy are a common feature in the Midwest as a changing economy and corporate farming have made it increasingly difficult if not impossible for an individual farm family to make it on their own. I had not been in one parish very long before a member of the church informed me that there was going to be a farm sale that Saturday. People who move to small towns after living their lives in the city have to learn how important everyone's participation is in rural community events as a sign of support and solidarity. A pastor's presence is highly important even though we do little more than stand around at the edges and watch the proceedings. It is only a narrow view of religion and ritual that confines the definition to what happens in a church.

A farm sale is like a funeral but it's not just one life that is taken. It often is the life of a husband and wife and children and a whole extended family. It is history that is being auctioned off; generations of work, struggle, hope, sorrow and a future that are being put on an auction block. It's not just a family losing their home and livelihood, it is a community losing a piece of itself, that sees itself shrinking to a point where it no longer can sustain itself. It is the future possibility of a school being closed because of a dwindling student enrollment, of a church not having enough members to continue, or a bank or hardware store or gas station shutting down. "No man is an island, entire of itself."

We gathered in quiet, solemn groups at sunrise. Long lines of cars, trucks, tractors and trailers lined the roads in all directions and filled up a nearby pasture. The women of the church arrived early and set up tables in the barn with gallons of coffee and large trays of bars and sandwiches which arrived in a continual stream throughout the day. Small groups of men conferred in low voices about the various implements and machinery and it was not unusual for a bid to go a bit higher then it might have in order to help the family out. The family would stand or sit at some distance to the side, not too close to the auctioneer with a few close friends in attendance, but the man would disappear for long periods out of sight and reappear only for brief intervals as the day dragged on. Everyone would come by and pay their respects throughout the day would call or come by for weeks afterward.

We don't walk the Tao or the Way alone. We can do or handle anything if we do it in community. Community is a faith commitment, a choice we must make in a nomadic society. There are many ways we can find or create communities of common needs and values or tasks and interests. It's just not something we can take for granted anymore because we've been three generations in the same place and people recognize us at the store. Wherever two or three are gathered together. It's saying, I need you. We're in this together. We'll work it out.

"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if farm of your friends, or of your own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." - John Donne

Saturday, March 16, 2002

Encounter: The New Year's Party

Awe, wonder, joy, reverence for life.

I spent much of my childhood in a small town in North Texas that had a population sign reading 570 for as long as I can remember. We were pretty well divided between Baptists and Methodists although there were a few Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ members in between. Most of the Baptists were pretty strict about having fun. It was considered a sin to drink, dance, smoke or play cards. The Methodists were somewhat less strict, but they believed it was possible to fall from grace and we knew that their faulty theology was probably responsible for their loose morals. My family were Baptists, but we were almost as easy-going as the Methodists. Most of the men in my family smoked cigars occasionally and my father smoked cigarettes. We enjoyed my grandfather's homemade blackberry wine over ice cream and my grandmother's special recipe eggnog at Christmas and we loved games of all sorts which included various varieties of card games. We were a family of musicians and the children all loved to dance.

My grandfather had a tall Edison Victrola with two drawers full of those thick old records ranging from Sousa marches to Caruso to foxtrots. We especially loved the foxtrots. My cousin and I would wind up the Victrola and dance ourselves silly around the living room carpet. There were no dance halls in our part of the country, thanks to the vigilance of the church. Community events consisted of church ice cream and watermelon socials and Sunday picnics. Then one year the Methodist Church announced that they were going to host a New Year's Eve Watch Party.

That was the year I turned thirteen. There wasn't a lot to do in Howe, Texas and the prospect of attending a New Year's Eve party was the most exciting thing I could imagine. Especially since the Methodists seemed to have more fun than us Baptists although that consisted mostly of being allowed to play card games. I had seen pictures of New Year's parties in magazines with people wearing funny hats and dancing and throwing streamers and confetti so I imagined that was the kind of exhilarating experience that was in store for us. The prospect of being allowed to stay up past midnight was almost more than I could stand.

That evening I joined the crowd of young people that arrived around 8:00 for the festivities. We played games, laughed and joked around, drank punch and consumed fudge, cake, popcorn and sandwiches and I wondered where the streamers and noise makers were and when the dancing was going to start. At about 30 minutes before midnight we were ushered into the church sanctuary and solemnly seated in the wooden pews that formed a semicircle around the chancel with its dark carved pulpit and Lord's Supper table. We sang a few hymns and heard a short address by the preacher. I glanced at the clock on the wall and could see it was getting close to midnight and started getting nervous. If we didn't finish up there soon, we might be late for the big event. The New Year was almost upon us. Then about five minutes to midnight we were all asked to bow our heads in silence and pray in the New Year asking forgiveness for our sins and promising to make a fresh start on our task of discipleship. And if there were any among us who had not yet accepted Jesus Christ as our Savior, there would be an altar call following midnight and we should all be praying for any lost who might currently be among us.

That was the longest and most miserable five minutes I had spent in my entire life. I could see the minute hand on the clock moving closer and closer to the hour and every cell and nerve in my body wanted to jump up and shout and run around the building shooting off firecrackers and ringing bells and and waking up the whole town. While the rest of the world was singing and laughing and dancing, we were being asked to sit covered in sackcloth and ashes in a grave.

I wonder how many other thirteen year olds that were there that evening started down the pathway of agnosticism as I did. I find it impossible to believe that God doesn't enjoy us having a good time. Otherwise, why would we given a world so filled with so many good things! Music, love, laughter, dance, starry nights and gilded sunrises. Life should be a celebration of wonder and anticipation, filling up and bubbling over, exploding with mirth. Those were the times I've always felt closest to God. "Let us shout for joy to the rock of our salvation." (Psalm 95) Jesus and his disciples were criticized for enjoying parties and being drunk and disorderly. The critics must have been Baptists or Methodists! An Encounter with God is something to celebrate, yet how many churches conduct worship services like funeral services. How many churches send their children out to "children's chapel lite" so they won't disturb or, God forbid, babble or laugh during the sermon? How often is Communion celebrated like a wake? In the words of St. Teresa, "God preserve me from sullen saints."

Thank Linda Underwood for this one:

All this talk of saving souls
Souls weren't made to save,
like Sunday cloths that
give out at the seams.

They're made for wear; they
come with lifetime guarantees.
Don't save your soul.
Pour it out like rain on
cracked, parched earth.

Give your soul away, or
pass it like a candle flame
Sing it out, or
laugh it up the wind.

Souls were made for hearing
breaking hearts, for puzzling dreams,
remembering August flowers,
forgetting hurts.

These men who talk of saving souls!
They have the look of bullies
who blow out candles before
you sing happy birthday,
and want the world to be
in alphabetical order.

I will spend my soul,
playing it out like sticky string
into the world,
so I can catch every
last thing I touch.

Saturday, March 9, 2002

Rocks in a Field - Three

My grandfather used to drive us up into the Arbuckle Mountains of southern Oklahoma to see a mountain laid on its side. As you looked out across the now horizontal slopes of the mountain there were long parallel ridges of rocks with bands of soil in between that looked like plowed fields. We didn't know anything about plate tectonics then, but that was the combination of forces that geologists now believe was responsible for creating land forms such as this.

The great continental land masses are like plates or saucers floating like pond scum on a molten mantle below the earth's upper crust. Far beneath the ocean the deep sea trenches constitute breaks in the crust that are continually being thrust apart as this molten mantle works its way upward like cherry pie filling leaks up through the crust when the pie is baked. The continual outward thrusting of the ocean crust or plates at the trenches results in these plates colliding with the continental plates at their edges known as subduction zones. As these two plate systems collide, the shoreline of the continents continually is getting rearranged, some of it being pulled down into the mantle, other parts being thrust upward into mountain ranges.

In the distant past . . .hundred's of millions of years ago, the continents floated together to form one supercontinent known as Pangaea before separating into the land masses we are familiar with today. We can see the way the continents fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. The Arbuckle Mountains once were part of a system known as the Ouachita Mountains which formed the edge of our North American continent. The Ouachita range now is mostly buried under sediment that accrued after the continents pulled apart again, but its ancient rocks are exposed in a few places such as the Llano uplift in central Texas and the Marathon uplift in the Big Bend area. Ancient schists and granites exposed in landscapes of much more recent origin.

We might think of the religions of the world like these continental plates floating on top of a molten mantle. At times they come together, getting their edges rearranged, sharing ideas, sometimes clashing and grinding against one another at subduction zones, reemerging and evolving. Our religious landscape today is much like Pangaea. We no longer can pretend to live isolated in separate oceans. Science and technology and the migratory spirit of humans has thrust us together in a world integrated as never before. We have the opportunity to learn so much from each other.

But even as things seem to change so much, there is so much that remains the same. The human condition, birth and death, youth and old age, pain and suffering, meaning and loss. There is an ancient stream of Wisdom that continually surfaces like ancient rocks in all the great religious systems that addresses our perplexing human situation. This Wisdom is the result of struggle, life and thought of countless generations of our ancestors and is articulated by our philosophers, prophets, gurus and seers in every culture. No matter how this Wisdom is articulated, it is much the same because the human condition is the same in all times and places, regardless of different languages and cultures. This Wisdom takes on different forms and shapes suited to the spiritual landscape in which it emerges, but its composition is very similar regardless of the form.

The spiritual pathways of the religions follow this ancient stream. What are some of the elements of this vary basic elemental stream of Wisdom?

Nothing created is permanent.
Ignorance, passion and inappropriate attachment create suffering.
It is possible to live in peace and harmony in spite of impermanent conditions.
The highest good is eternal Union with the Eternal Creative Force of the universe which goes by many names and which is the source of all Wisdom.
This Union is achievable by all persons.
The Way, Tao, Kingdom is discovered through self-discipline, self-renunciation,
fulfilling one's duty, obedience, faith and sacrifice.
The weaker may be saved through the merits of those stronger; through community.

Saturday, March 2, 2002

Rocks in a Field - Two

Many people like myself are intrigued by rocks. They are our most enduring natural substances and come in such a variety of forms, colors and compositions. I had quite a collection as a child and as an adult, with a passion for amateur geology, I've had to make some tough decisions about how much of my rock collection I could haul with me on frequent moves. Rocks have often served as metaphors for many aspects of the spiritual journey, lending themselves to a huge variety of interpretations and circumstances.

Once when my mother and I were visiting one of her friends, I was fascinated by a small bowl full of colored marble chips sitting on her friend's coffee table. The beautiful jewel-tone rocks were more than a small child could resist and when no one was looking, I slipped one of the chips into my pocket. If only I had asked for a chip, I'm sure that the lady would gladly have given me several, but as it was, I agonized for weeks over the immorality of my theft and even years later, the incidence haunted my conscience.

There is a story about the Israelites having escaped from slavery under the Egyptian Pharaoh only to find themselves lost in a desert without water. (Exodus 17:1-7) Naturally, they complained to God about their plight which suddenly was more important than the hundreds of years of slavery they had just escaped from. After all, what good is freedom if you die of thirst? The story was told as an example of the lack of faith. I could have had the rock if only I had had the faith to ask for it. They could have had their water. The story also is an example of God's compassion on people who are weak and needy. God told their leader, Moses, to strike a rock with his rod and get the water they needed. The hardships we endure often are self-inflicted because we lack the faith to ask for what we need, become overly focused on what we lack, or lack the courage to admit our need. Rocks can either be building blocks, or stumbling stones.

In his book, The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching, the Vietnamese Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, discusses a method for obtaining insight into dealing with problems by stopping, calming, resting and healing. When we feel we want something, or need something very badly, it can be such an overwhelming experience that we can allow ourselves to be carried away by our emotions. We may find ourselves grabbing or grasping inappropriately or even blaming God or others because we don't get what we want. Pretending to ourselves that we don't have a problem is just as big a mistake.

Stopping in our tracks, so to speak, gives us a chance to say ourselves, "I am being carried away by this need or emotion which is so strong I am being tempted to act in a way I may regret later." Or I may be so excited over the prospect of having something I want very badly, I'm tempted to rush full speed ahead and take it and ignore the consequences. It is helpful to know that our emotions are the result of a very strong chemical activity in our brain that is not the product of rational thinking. When we are feeling very strongly about anything, good or bad, this is a traffic sign telling us we may need to either pause or put on the brakes. When we express our need to God, this is called confession.

The spiritual journey actually begins with confession. I am not whole in myself. I am full of needs, emotions, anxieties, wants that I don't seem to be able to fix or satisfy. The prayer of a child may begin in thanksgiving; the prayer of an adult so often begins with confession. We are totally safe in confession because we can be assured that the One hearing understands totally, whatever it is we are confessing. There is no thing good or bad as far as God is concerned. We are finite creatures: God is infinite; all merciful, all compassionate.

"I am impartial to all creatures.
and no one is hateful or dear to me;
but those devoted to me are in me,
and I am within them."
(Bhadavad-Gita 9:29)

As long as we are charging headlong after what we want, we aren't paying attention to anything else around us, and especially to whatever wise counsel may be at hand. Prayer is first and foremost relinquishing our needs into God's lap, so to speak. This is the function of meditation; to give our bodies time to clear the toxic effects of our emotionally charged chemistry so we can return to equilibrium in the Tao. Equilibrium is when we give up being in charge of ourselves; where we recognize, accept, embrace who we truly are. It is where we understand how completely we are recognized, accepted and embraced by God as we truly are. No pretenses needed.

Once we can stop pretending to ourselves, and to others or God for that matter, then we can step back and refocus; look deeply into ourselves and discover things we may have missed. What made us so hungry, angry, fearful, needy, thirsty? We aren't looking for solutions. We leave that to God/Tao. Gaining insight into how and why we feel the way we do is major progress on the pathway to enlightenment.

One of my favorite hymns as a child was an old southern favorite, "Leaning On the Everlasting Arms". The fourth step, resting or leaning, recalls to me a time when as a child I had suffered a huge loss. I broke down in tears and my grandmother, "Mamacita", took me into her arms and held me and rocked me while she said over and over again, "Pobrecita, pobrecita.," (poor little thing, poor little thing). That's how I have pictured God; holding me, rocking me, like my grandmother. Thich Nhat Hanh says to imagine yourself like a little pebble that has fallen into a pond and sinks down, slowly, slowly to the bottom and just lies there quietly, resting, allowing the world to pass by.

We begin to discover a glimpse into the Great Mystery.

"Suffering produces endurance,
and endurance produces character,
and character produces hope,
and hope does not disappoint us,
because God's love has been poured into our hearts . . ."
(Romans 5:3-5)