Sunday, September 8, 2002

Earth Covenant Community: An Invitation

"In fact, all life on Earth is, in a sense, one organism, one being."
(John McConnell, Earth Care Campaign, Princeton Univ., Dec. 8,1982)

My family came into Texas from across two rivers and from two cultures. My great-grandfather on my mother's side crossed the Red River separating Texas from Oklahoma with his brothers shortly after the Civil War and eventually settled in the environs of Clarksville, Kentucky town and Whitewright where they farmed cotton. My great-grandfather on my father's side came to Texas from Mexico across the Rio Grande at a place called "Los Ebanos" (hence my moniker) during the Revolution of 1910 and settled in the Rio Grande Valley. He was a doctor and a pharmacist, a not uncommon combination in those days on the Border Frontier. Both of their last names were Austin, but no relation. Yes, there are Austins in Mexico who speak only Spanish. My parents met in medical school.

I write this meditation in English because that is the language we spoke at home in North Texas where I grew up so that is my native language. My Spanish is very poor and what I speak I have had to learn with some difficulty because my father refused to teach us to speak a language he considered would bring us the grief of discrimination he had experienced as a boy growing up in South Texas. I also write as a sixty-something married Protestant pastor, parent, grandparent, native of North Texas and lover of music who plays the piano and loves jazz, bluegrass and
gospel as well as Stravinsky and Prokofiev. (I play a little gospel myself.) That is all part of my ethos; the environment of beliefs, attitudes, habits, even geography that have made me who I am along with specific experiences and circumstances unique to me or my family. Such as the fact that all the men in my family die young and all the women are strong and a number of our children with my mother's genes have suffered from depression and bipolar disease and we moved around a lot while I was growing up.

For that reason, I'm not really a native of any one place and that has given me a sort of sense of dislocation on the one hand, but on the other hand, I feel at home anywhere. Once when I was lamenting the fact that as soon as we started feeling a sense of community and developing some good friends, the church moved us once again, my oldest daughter reminded me to "bloom where you're planted", a great piece of advice and she hadn't even read Jeremiah. She has been a vagabond by choice rather than situation having lived in Mexico City, Cordoba, Argentina and Washington, D.C. before finally returning to Texas for good (so far) after almost twenty years and has no regrets. She is joyously multi-cultural. We are only five hours apart now, the closest we've been since she graduated from high

Because of all this diversity, I have no illusions that my personal world view or religious experience is either uniquely true or the One True Faith. The more I learn about other people and ideas, the more I find we all have in common, in spite of cultural and religious differences. There are only so many ways to sort things out and theologians and philosophers of all cultures and religions have argued about a few opposing ideas for as long as we've been arguing; free will vs. determinism, faith vs. works, mechanistic or organic, divine justice and divine love, heaven and hell or reincarnation and nirvana. There aren't a lot of choices or solutions. The new physics, which has had a tremendous impact on thinking in philosophy and religion, (or was it the other way around?) argues that the position of the observer tilts the argument to one side or the other. In fact, boundaries between ideas are as fluid as rivers and some of what comes from one side inevitably gets deposited on the other side. We use myth, metaphor and model to express certain ideas about an entity or experience that cannot be satisfactorily expressed in any other way . But these metaphors and models are not the "thing in itself", only means to describe ends.

I celebrate the feasts and fasts of my church and follow the rituals because they tell a story and proclaim a kind of truth that is my own because it is part of my ethos and it gives guidance to how I live my life that is far greater than anything I am capable of constructing on my own. But these activities and thoughts are not the "things in themselves". They are means to an end and that end is to submit myself in awe, obedience and thanksgiving to that God or transcendent One in whom and through whom we "live and move and have our being." But I am aware that my thoughts, utterances and actions are no more than the falling of a leaf or the singing of a bird except inasmuch as I strive to do them for the sake of the One.

My father and his brother loved to joke around and tell stories. They'd be telling a story in English, but when they got to the punch line, they'd tell it in Spanish. When we complained, they would explain that the punch line wouldn't be funny in English. Some things couldn't be translated. I have read that the Eskimos have over a thousand words to describe snow. Once I described a snowfall I had experienced to a group of children in South Texas and they said they didn't believe me because none of them ever had experienced snow. I am sure children in the Northwest Territory of Canada once would not have believed you could swim in the Gulf of Mexico year round. Now television has made the whole world our backyard. No one lives in cultural isolation anymore unless they are very poor in some isolated places in the jungles or mountains of some Third World countries, or victims of media repression in a few dictatorships. Now the only thing that separates most of us is pride, ignorance and our own fiercely defended individualism.

No religion is able any longer to defend the position of holding an exclusive claim to the truth but most of religion still tries to do so. The result is a division in popular opinion. I'm right and no one else is right, or none of them are right and we'll just do our own thing. If I'm right and you are wrong, we will inevitably come into conflict. If I merely follow my own inclinations and am willing to let you follow yours, the result is social chaos. It is a problem of human nature that most of us are unable to see beyond our home range without much difficulty and none of us is really capable of going it on our own without some guidance. Our traditions are treasure houses of human wisdom.

There is a third option. We can covenant to respect our diversity and share what we know from our various experiences and traditions. We can dialogue about differences and learn from each other. We can recognize our interdependency and seek out ways to achieve our common goals. And reap great rewards in the process. All we need to
give up is pride, ignorance and determined individualism.