Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Speaking the Truth in Public, or the Descent into Hell

May I speak in Name of God, in whom we live and move and have our being. Amen.

Jesus said to his disciples, “You know the Spirit of truth because it abides in you.” Stop and think about that for a moment: “The Spirit of truth abides in you.” I wonder if you really believe that. Is that what you were taught?

I suspect not. I would wager that most of us have been taught that the truth lies outside of us. Truth is given to us by parents, teachers, experts, politicians, priests, bishops, and other authority figures. Our job is to receive the truth and conform to it. The promise is that, if we do, we will be rewarded.

That is not the kind of truth about which Jesus is speaking. Jesus speaks of a truth that lies within us. It emerges from the inside out, not the outside in. The truth about which Jesus is speaking is the truth about our identity. He is assuring his disciples that they will know who they are if they listen to the Spirit within. We must unlearn what we have been taught and return to the self we were before we internalized the pattern of cultural conformity.

Now I become myself.
It’s taken time, many years and places.
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces . . .

Like May Sarton, we wear other people’s faces, displaying to the world only what it wants to see or what we can bear to reveal. We spend the first part of our life trading in masks. But at some point, by God’s grace, we decide to become ourselves. We get in touch with the Spirit of truth that abides in us.

Jesus offers us a different pattern than that of cultural conformity. He offers us the deep pattern of his own life, a life transparent to God and marked by freedom, joy, and compassion. Jesus is wholly himself, secure in the truth that he is God’s beloved.

When Jesus tells his disciples “If you love me you will keep my commandments,” he is not calling for slavish imitation. He is inviting them to demonstrate their continuing love for him by discovering the truth within themselves through a similar openness to God. In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ “commandments” refer to all that he said and did in utter transparency to God. We discover our true nature by following a similar path of vulnerability to God.

Jesus promises his followers that if they embrace the pattern of compassion and vulnerability that marks his life, God will send an Advocate to remind them of who they are, the Spirit of truth within them that will defend them against the temptation to live a lie, to become someone they are not.

Rabbi Zusya, when he was an old man, said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya.’[ii] It is the same question we must ask if we are to be whole. God does not desire us to be anyone other than ourselves. A secure identity is not something anyone else can provide us. We can’t buy it, or earn it, or get it in any way. It is a gift, our birthright. It can only be remembered.

Do you remember who you were before you put on the mask of conformity, the protective armor beneath which you hid your true identity? Do you remember who you were before the sexual abuse began? Do you remember who you were before mom started drinking? Do you remember who you were before you were told that there were some things that only boys were allowed to do? Do you remember who you were before white people started to look a little bit afraid when you walked passed them on the street? Do you remember who you were before you were dissolved and shaken, before you begin to wear someone else’s face?

Sometimes, it takes many years and places to become ourselves, to throw away the masks. I was 35 years-old when I was ordained a priest. Before then, I spent many years struggling to discern a sense of vocation. As a young man I had internalized the cultural norm that a secure identity had to be earned and that it required success – status, wealth, power.

In college I majored in politics and aspired to public office. Although after graduating I ended up in seminary, after one year of theological school I withdrew and applied to law schools. I received a full scholarship to my alma mater’s law school and decided to return to seminary instead only at the last minute. It was hard for me to let go of the face of conventional success. It would take another decade before pursuing ordination.

But when I think back only a little bit further, I recall my nine year-old self playing “preacher,” delivering sermons to an imaginary congregation from my front porch. I was just being John. I’m still learning to accept that that is God’s will for me. Just to be John. That is the truth. The Spirit of truth in me, and in you.

But, as Jack Nicholson famously said, “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” The truth about ourselves can be hard to bear. Sometimes we’d much rather deny it, even die rather than come to terms with the truth. I vividly remember going to the emergency room at San Francisco General some years ago to see a former parishioner, Mary Ann. When I arrived, the doctor informed me that he’d never seen a patient with such a high blood alcohol level who wasn’t already dead.

Miraculously, Mary Ann survived after several days of treatment. Upon her release from the hospital she took a cab to the nearest liquor store and bought the biggest bottle of vodka she could afford. It was only a matter of weeks before her brother found her dead on the floor near her front door, leaving behind an empty refrigerator and countless empty bottles in every room of the house. She couldn’t handle the truth. And so she died.

In his Inferno, Dante described the descent into hell that accepting the truth sometimes requires:

Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell
About those woods is hard – so tangled and rough
And savage that thinking of it now, I feel
The old fear stirring: death is hardly more bitter.
And yet, to treat the good I found there as well
I’ll tell what I saw . . .

However painful it may be, how ever long it takes, we must accept the truth about ourselves – the whole truth – accepting the shadow and the light, if we want to live. This requires great vulnerability and risk, for the truth can hurt. But the descent into hell, into the darkest corners of our self, can be endured for there is good there also. There is the root of healing, the possibility for integration and wholeness. It is the price we must pay to become ourselves.

The plow has savaged this sweet field
Misshapen clods of earth kicked up
Rocks and twisted roots exposed to view
Last year’s growth demolished by the blade.
I have plowed my life in this way
Turned over a whole history
Looking for the roots of what went wrong
Until my face is ravaged, furrowed, scarred.

Enough. The job is done.
Whatever’s been uprooted, let it be
Seedbed for the growing that’s to come.
I plowed to unearth last year’s reasons –
The farmer plows to plant a greening season

The truth about ourselves is often a hard-won truth. With it comes acceptance, even joy. But with it also comes freedom, and with freedom, responsibility. The Spirit of truth is not simply our private possession. Although it begins within, it is meant to make of our life a greening season, a bountiful harvest not only for our healing, but for the healing of the world.

We can survive the descent into hell and come back to tell the good we saw there. Consider Father Michael Lapsley, an Anglican priest who was a chaplain to the African National Congress in Zimbabwe during the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Listen to how he describes his story.

“Three months after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, I received a letter bomb hidden inside the pages of two religious magazines that had been posted from South Africa. In the bomb blast I lost both hands, one eye and had my eardrums shattered.

For the first three months I was as helpless as a newborn baby. People have asked me how I survived, and my only answer is that somehow, in the midst of the bombing, I felt that God was present. I also received so many messages of love and support from around the world that I was able to make my bombing redemptive – to bring life out of death, good out of evil.

Quite early on after the bomb I realised that if I was filled with hatred and desire for revenge I’d be a victim forever. If we have something done to us, we are victims. If we physically survive, we are survivors. Sadly, many people never travel any further than this. I did travel further, going from victim to survivor, to victor. To become a victor is to move from being an object of history to become a subject once more. That is not to say that I will not always grieve what I’ve lost, because I will permanently bear the marks of disfigurement. Yet I believe I’ve gained through this experience. I realise that I can be more of a priest with no hands than with two hands.

In 1992, I returned to South Africa to find a nation of survivors, but a damaged nation. Everyone had a story – a truth – to tell. In my work I’ve developed a programme called the Healing of Memories. Our workshops explore the effects of South Africa’s past at an emotional, psychological and spiritual level. I try to support those who have suffered as they struggle to have their stories recognised.”[v]

The kind of truth of which Jesus speaks is not an idea, anymore than the love of which he speaks is just a feeling. Both truth and love are demonstrated in action. I become fully myself in relationship to you and to the web of life in which we are embedded. We need to hear one another’s stories in order to be whole, to give ourselves back to each other, to remember who we are. In doing so, we discover our vocation. Vocation literally means “to listen,” to listen to how the Spirit of truth within calls us to participate in the healing of the world.

Whatever’s been uprooted, let it be
Seedbed for the growing that’s to come.
I plowed to unearth last year’s reasons –
The farmer plows to plant a greening season


[i] May Sarton, “Now I Become Myself,” in Collected Poems, 1930-1973 (New York: Norton, 1974), p. 156.
[ii] Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: The Early Masters (New York: Schocken Books, 1975), p. 251.
[iii] Robert Pinsky, Canto I from The Inferno of Dante: A New Verse Translation (New York: Noonday Press, 1994), canto 1:1-7.
[iv] Parker J. Palmer, “Harrowing” in Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2000), p. 72.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Fast We Must Choose

People push to receive food distributed by the Kenyan Red Cross in the Mathare slum in Nairobi.

AFP / Getty

Yesterday I came across this headline in the Business Section of the San Francisco Chronicle: "Global Rice Shortage Now Hitting U.S. Buyers." Costco and Wal Mart's Sam's Club are now limiting the amount of bulk imported rice that customer's can buy. The world food crisis is beginning to affect U.S. consumers.

Perhaps you didn't know that such a crisis was underway. Food riots, violent protests, and regime changes have resulted from the escalating cost of food worldwide. Haiti's Prime Minister was ousted due to protests over rising food prices, and President Musharraf’s drubbing in the recent Pakistani election was due, in part, to similar concerns there. India, Egypt, Vietnam and Brazil are restricting rice exports for fear of shortages in their countries, and widespread unrest has been experienced in parts of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

According to the Chronicle article,

In London this week, the executive director of the World Food Program, Josette Sheeran, warned that more than 100 million people will be pushed into poverty by a "silent tsunami" of sharply rising food prices.

"This is the new face of hunger - the millions of people who were not in the urgent hunger category six months ago but now are," Sheeran said. "The world's misery index is rising."

Why the rising cost of food? What does it portend?

In February, Time Magazine reported that

The forecast is grim. Governments might quell the protests, but bringing down food prices could take at least a decade, food analysts say. One reason: billions of people are buying ever-greater quantities of food — especially in booming China and India, where many have stopped growing their own food and now have the cash to buy a lot more of it. Increasing meat consumption, for example, has helped drive up demand for grain, and with it the price.

There are other problems too. The spike in oil prices, which hit $103 per barrel in recent days, has pushed up fertilizer prices, as well as the cost of trucking food from farms to local markets and shipping it abroad. Then there is climate change. Harvests have been seriously disrupted by freak weather, including prolonged droughts in Australia and southern Africa, floods in West Africa, and this past winter's deep frost in China and record-breaking warmth in northern Europe.

The push to produce biofuels as an alternative to hydrocarbons is further straining food supplies, especially in the U.S., where generous subsidies for ethanol have lured thousands of farmers away from growing crops for food. "The area used for biofuels is increasing each year," says Nik Bienkowski, head of research at ETF Securities, a commodities-trading firm in London. To make matters worse, global stockpiles of some basics have dwindled to their lowest point in decades. Rice — a staple for billions of Asians — has soared to its highest price in 20 years, while supplies are at their lowest level since the early 1980s, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Meanwhile, the global supply of wheat is lower than it's been in about 50 years — just five weeks' worth of world consumption is on hand, according to the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization.

As always in a crisis, there are winners. The creeping fear that the world might actually run short of food — no longer simply the stuff of sci-fi movies — has led speculators to pour billions into commodities, further accelerating price rises. In a single day in February, global wheat prices jumped 25% after Kazakhstan's government announced plans to restrict exports of its giant wheat crop for fear that its own citizens might go hungry. Jittery officials in India and Egypt are also restricting food exports. "Prices have risen at a much faster rate in the last few months," says Fazlul Kader in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where he coordinates rural projects for the U.N.'s International Fund for Agricultural Development; there, soybean oil alone has shot up 60% in a year.

. . . Last October, shortly before food riots began exploding across West Africa, the WFP's director in Mauritania, Gian Carlo Cirri, flew to a donors' meeting in Senegal and warned Western aid officials that "2008 will be a very dangerous year," with rising food prices increasingly liable to hurt middle-class city dwellers, "who are prone to demonstrating." Similarly, von Braun says he has felt "like a Cassandra" in Washington in recent years, as he tried to warn U.S. officials numerous times that a global food crisis was looming. Even now, he says, "the specialists share our sense of urgency, but it hasn't broken out of that circle yet.

Indeed, you'd think that a global food crisis, and the underlying problems of global warming and unsustainable patterns of agricultural production and consumption, would be a major preoccupation of the current presidential campaign. Yet, we've heard nary a word about it from any of the remaining candidates. As one Newsweek editorialist points out, global warming has been "curiously absent" from the campaign trail.

National polls show that the environment ranks fairly low as an issue that moves voters. In the Pennsylvania primary global warming was such a peripheral issue that exit pollsters did not even bother to measure voter attitudes toward it. Many younger voters wish the candidates would talk more about global warming. But most voters worry more about jobs and keeping fuel cheap. Aside from speaking in broad generalities and making vague promises, the candidates steer away from involved debate on global warming. (Enabled, it should be said, by political reporters. Of the more than 3,000 questions asked in the more than 20 presidential debates, fewer than 10 mentioned global warming.)

The current food crisis is a red flag for those concerned about the future of the earth. In his book, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, Bill McKibben notes that

The median predictions of the world’s climatologists – by no means the worst-case scenarios – show that unless we take truly enormous steps to rein in our use of fossil fuels we can expect that the globally average temperature will rise another four or five degrees before the century is out. If that happens, the world will be warmer than it’s been for millions of years, long before primates appeared on the planet. We don’t know exactly what that world would feel like, but almost every guess is hideous. Since warm air holds more water vapor than cold air, for instance, we can expect more drought in the middles of our continents where grain growing is concentrated, and more floods on the coasts where many people live. The World Health Organization expects vast increases in mosquito-borne disease. Researchers warned in 2006 that climate change could kill 184 million people in Africa alone before the century is out, destruction on a scale so staggering it has no precedent. We might as well have a contest to pick a new name for Earth, because it will be a different planet. (pp. 20-21)

Hurricane Katrina, food riots from Haiti to Bangladesh to Egypt, water shortages, rising fuel costs, increased instability and conflict in resource-rich parts of the world such as Iran and Nigeria; these are harbingers of the new planet we are creating through environmental degradation. And the problem, as McKibben points out, isn’t simply that we are doing things badly, e.g. failing to put a filter on the smokestack. The problem is that we are doing too much, consuming too much, using too much.

The Earth is reaching the limits of unfettered economic growth and its effects. While those of us who are rich have long passed the point where more equals better, we continue a lifestyle that ensures that those who do not have enough will not be able to get more. Global warming boils down to a problem of collective greed and selfishness.

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

The prophet Isaiah reminds us that sometimes we must choose to fast – to change our lifestyle for the sake of justice – so that others may eat at all. Will we choose to fast, or to allow millions to die? That is the question that our politicians have yet to answer this election cycle. We need to starting asking it.