Thursday, July 22, 2010

Silence and Speech

Recently I was visiting with my friend, Steve, and his 19 month-old son, Kieran.  I've seen Kieran almost weekly since his birth and it has been amazing to see how quickly he grows and changes.  This last visit he was vigorously ordering Steve about, with a particular interest in commanding "Daddy crawl" and then, as his father scooted about on hands and knees, delightedly pushing him from behind.  "Mommy up!" was another favorite, reminding me of my own son's cry of "Uppie" when he wanted to be carried.

I remarked to Steve that it was fascinating to observe Kieran exploring the power of words to make things happen.  Steve responded that Kieran also is learning, less happily, that words don't always secure what we want.  Indeed!

Even so, words can be powerful.  They can create or destroy.  As the Letter of James puts it, "How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire." (James 3:5b-6)  In his book, Spaces for the Sacred, Philip Sheldrake reminds us of the importance of the practice of silence as a prelude to what Buddhists refer to as "right speech."  Edifying speech emerges from silence.
The monastic tradition from its origins has witnessed to the truth that it is important to take care with words.  Language without thought can be misunderstood and destructive.  'One of the old men said, "In the beginning, when we came together, we spoke to the good of souls, we advanced and ascended to heaven; now when we come together we fall into slander, and we drag one another to hell.'"  A key to monastic spirituality is the centrality of discernment and this applies above all to speech.  This enables the person to distinguish between language that is destructive and language that brings life.  Words, most of all, only have value it they are an expression of a life of integrity.  An old man said, 'Spiritual work is essential, it is for this we have come to the desert.  It is very hard to teach with the mouth that which one does not practise in the body.'  Silence, therefore, is not anti-social nor self-punishment but a necessary reticence in order to correct over-hasty or unproductive speech. (pp. 105-106)
Perhaps this is why Master Eckhart famously said that "Nothing is so much like God as silence."  It from the place of contemplative insight and awareness that we gain the perspective we need to speak rightly and well - or not at all.  It is from the abyss of silence that the creative Word - and word - emerges. 

In a sense, then, our use of language is a continual opportunity to practice discernment, the cultivation of a wide-open awareness of the presence and will of God in our lives.  Each speech act can be an expression of prayer, an alignment of our will and our lives with that which is life-giving.  All speech, like prayer, has the capacity to give expression to the deepest desire of the heart for wholeness.

Speech-as-prayer operates in the middle voice, to borrow an analogy from grammar.  As Eugene Peterson notes,
When I speak in the active voice, I initiate an action that goes someplace else: "I counsel my friend."  When I speak in the passive voice, I receive the action that another initiates: "I am counseled by my friend."  When I speak in the middle voice, I actively participate in the results of an action that another initiates: "I take counsel."  Most of our speech is divided between active and passive; either I act or I am acted upon.  But there are moments, and they are those in which we are most distinctively human, when such a contrast is not satisfactory:  two wills operate, neither to the exclusion of the other, neither canceling out the other, each respecting the other . . .

We neither manipulate God (active voice) nor are manipulated by God (passive voice).  We are involved in the action and participate in its results but do not control or define it (middle voice).  Prayer takes place in the middle voice.  (The Contemplative Pastor, pp. 103-104)
What Peterson says of the language of prayer is ideally how all our speech should operate: as a means of fostering relationships free of domination or submission.  Such speech is concerned with truth and not simply with power.  It must emerge from silence (however brief) such that the thread of the conversation or action that God has initiated can be joined.  It is a speaking-with-God that requires listening.  And listening takes time.

It is precisely this refusal to listen, the impatience of our speech, that is undermining the civility and truthfulness of discourse in our culture.  We use language to manipulate and divide rather than to con-verse, literally to be turned toward, live, or remain with another.  This was exemplified most recently in the controversy surrounding the willful misrepresentation of the words of Shirley Sherrod and subsequent reactions to it.  A life-giving speech about racial reconciliation and healing was distorted to promote the political advantage of those who benefit from racial discord, triggering a reactive response that was equally impatient with truth in its haste to preserve the appearance of political correctness.

This debasement of language obscures the lives, needs, and hopes of actual people.  It represents and reinforces a loss of connection with reality.  If we are to recover that connection, we must regain a capacity for silence, for listening, and for speaking in the middle voice.  Then our language might just serve the construction of a shared world of meaning, a speaking "with" rather than simply "to" or "about," much less "against."

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Book Review: The Contemplative Pastor

I'm a little bit embarrassed to confess that I've only just now read Eugene Peterson's The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction.  It is one of those books that countless people have told me I "should" read.  Now I know why.  Thanks to a wise friend and mentor who recently sent me a copy, it has arrived at the right time.  

Peterson is a Presbyterian pastor, author, teacher, and poet.  He has penned more than 30 books in the areas of biblical studies, pastoral theology, and spirituality.  He was the founding pastor of a congregation in Maryland where he served for 29 years before leaving to teach at Regent College in Vancouver.  What he has to say is rooted deeply in his experience of prayer, study, and listening; which are, he argues, the essential tasks of ordained ministry.

In this book, Peterson's concern is to recapture a sense of the essential work of ordained ministry: being a "pastor."  Writing in the late 1980s, he argued that the understanding and practice of pastoring was "defined by parody and diluted by opportunism." (p. 15)  When clergy are not considered quaint and even rather silly, almost as useless as they are harmless, they are seen as predatory parasites.  Between the huckstering of televangelists and the scandals of clergy sexual abuse, little has transpired in the past twenty years to dramatically shift that perception.

At the same time, there is something of an identity crisis among clergy, many of whom feel relegated to being little more than managers of religious businesses; the parish as franchise providing a standardized packaged product to spiritual consumers. Sinking beneath the high tide of institutional decline among mainline Protestant denominations, the pressures upon pastors to increase revenues - to become financially sustainable - are enormous.  It takes some effort to remember what congregations - and pastors - are for. 

For Peterson, the recovery of the "forgotten art" of the "cure of souls" is the solid, high ground upon which pastors must stand in the face of the forces eroding their sense of integrity and purpose.
Until about a century ago, what pastors did between Sundays was a piece with what they did on Sundays.  The context changed:  instead of an assembled congregation, the pastor was with one other person or with small gatherings of persons, or alone in study and prayer.  The manner changed:  instead of proclamation, there was conversation.  But the work was the same:  discovering the meaning of Scripture, developing a life of prayer, guiding growth into maturity.

This is the pastoral work that is historically termed the cure of souls.  The primary sense of cura in Latin is "care," with undertones of "cure."  The soul is the essence of the human personality.  The cure of souls, then, is the Scripture-directed, prayer-shaped care that is devoted to persons singly or in groups, in settings sacred and profane.  It is a determination to work at the center, to concentrate on the essential. (p.57)
Peterson contrasts this with "running a church," the reduction of pastoral work to institutional duties.  Now, such duties are necessary, but they are not sufficient for, much less central to, pastoral work.  The cure of souls does not exclude the managerial and programmatic, but it makes them subservient to the cultivation of "a way of life that uses weekday tasks, encounters, and situations as the raw material for teaching prayer, developing faith, and preparing for a good death." (p. 59)

The contrast between "the cure of souls" and "running a church" is sharpened by several examples.  "In running the church, I seize the initiative.  I take charge . . . By contrast, the cure of souls is a cultivated awareness that God has already seized the initiative . . . Running the church questions are:  What do we do?  How can we get things going again?  Cure of souls questions are:  What has God been doing here?  What traces of grace can I discern in this life?  What history of love can I read in this group?  What has God set in motion that I can get in on?"  (pp. 60-61).

The contrast also can be noted by the way in which we use language.  "Running the church" language is descriptive and motivational - it is the language perfected by advertising.  It is about trying to get people to understand and do something.  "But in the cure of souls I am far more interested in who people are and who they are becoming in Christ than I am in what they know or what they are doing." (p. 62)
We have, of course, much to teach and much to get done, but our primary task is to be.  The primary language of the cure of souls, therefore, is conversation and prayer.  Being a pastor means learning to use language in which personal uniqueness is enhanced and individual sanctity recognized and respected.  It is a language that is unhurried, unforced, unexcited - the leisurely language of friends and lovers, which is also the language of prayer. (p. 63)
Finally, the focus of running a church is on solving problems; the cure of souls on cultivating gratitude and wonder.  Peterson quotes Gabriel Marcel, who wrote that life is not a problem to be solved so much as a mystery to be explored.  Problems are endless, and their resolution a full-time job.  If we get "hooked" by continual problem solving, we will miss the primary responsibility of pastors, which is to invite people into the scary but ultimately more satisfying experience of the numinous.  The focus of pastors is to be "guides through the mysteries." (p. 64)

What this means for pastors is that we need to get clear about our purpose and our priorities.  Peterson confirms a suspicion I have had for some time that while not all spiritual directors need to be clergy, clergy need to be spiritual directors.  Along with Peterson,
I want to cultivate my relationship with God.  I want all of life to be intimate - sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously - with the God who made, directs, and loves me.  And I want to waken others to the nature and centrality of prayer.  I want to be a person in this community to whom others can come without hesitation, without wondering if it is appropriate, to get direction in prayer and praying.  I want to do the original work of being in deepening conversation with the God who reveals himself to me and addresses me by name.  I don't want to dispense mimeographed hand-outs that describe God's business; I want to witness out of my own experience.  I don't want to live as a parasite on the first-hand spiritual life of others, but to be personally involved with all my senses, tasting and seeing that the Lord is good. (pp. 19-20)
Don't we all want such a person to be our pastor?  Don't we wish to be such a person?  The Contemplative Pastor is a reminder of our deepest desire and a hedge against the forces that erode our willingness to nurture that desire.  I recommend this book to clergy and laity, especially those whose congregations are in transition.  It provides a helpful nudge to look beyond clergy job descriptions and resumes to grasp the heart of the matter.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Irrevocable Grace

I'm in a fallow period: in between cures, as they say.  It is a humbling experience, and a little bit scary.  Cut loose from the normal routines of pastoral ministry, I am thrown back upon the present moment and forced to confront myself without the trappings of role or office.  Who am I?  What does it mean to be a priest - especially one without a pulpit or altar?  Being "in transition" feels at times as if my self-image has been punctured and my identity is slowly leaking out.  What will remain?

Then, like a thirsty man discovering an oasis in the desert,  I stumble upon today's lesson from Paul's Letter to the Romans: "the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable." What a relief!  Priesthood isn't my possession, it is God's gift.  I don't own it.  I can't control it, manipulate it, or bend it to my will (I can try to, but, my oh my, at what cost!).  It is more akin to a renewable source of energy, always available if I willingly undertake to honor and maintain the conditions necessary for its ongoing life.  The gifts and calling of God are inexhaustible.  Grace is irrevocable.

It is good for me to experience this time as a reminder that we are saved by faith, not by works.  "For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all."  How quick I am to think myself exempt from this truth.  "Who, me, disobedient?  In need of forgiveness and mercy?  Dependent upon the grace of God?  Maybe those poor souls I'm supposed to help, but not me!  I've earned my place at the table."  But the truth is that, like everyone else, I am dependent upon the mercy of God. Even my gifts and calling are given by Another, and not of my own making.

What a relief!  God makes use even of my disobedience, by limitations, my arrogance, my sense of entitlement, as an opportunity to reveal his irrevocable mercy.   The gifts and calling are not mine, that is true.  But they are a renewable resource from which I can draw again and again.  I can refuse them, but they can not be taken from me. Neither is the "use" of them a garuantee of my salvation, the justification of my existence.  That, too, is God's gift.

St. Paul reminds us that this is true for Jews- "and so all Israel will be saved" - it is true for Christians; it is true for me and for you.  Our short term disobedience, brokenness, even uselessness is, by the grace of God, in the service of a long-term, indeed, unending, experience of mercy.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Derrick Jensen: Civilization and Enlightenment

Derrick Jensen is one of the most provocative philosophers and activists working today. I'm rereading his two volume work, Endgame. This will give you a taste of what he is up to. He is a voice literally crying in what is left of the wilderness. We need to listen.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

After Apocalypse

The New York Times today reports - this is news? - that the oil industry is heavily subsidized by U.S. taxpayers:

When the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform set off the worst oil spill at sea in American history, it was flying the flag of the Marshall Islands. Registering there allowed the rig’s owner to significantly reduce its American taxes.  
The owner, Transocean, moved its corporate headquarters from Houston to the Cayman Islands in 1999 and then to Switzerland in 2008, maneuvers that also helped it avoid taxes.
At the same time, BP was reaping sizable tax benefits from leasing the rig. According to a letter sent in June to the Senate Finance Committee, the company used a tax break for the oil industry to write off 70 percent of the rent for Deepwater Horizon — a deduction of more than $225,000 a day since the lease began.

With federal officials now considering a new tax on petroleum production to pay for the cleanup, the industry is fighting the measure, warning that it will lead to job losses and higher gasoline prices, as well as an increased dependence on foreign oil.

But an examination of the American tax code indicates that oil production is among the most heavily subsidized businesses, with tax breaks available at virtually every stage of the exploration and extraction process.

According to the most recent study by the Congressional Budget Office, released in 2005, capital investments like oil field leases and drilling equipment are taxed at an effective rate of 9 percent, significantly lower than the overall rate of 25 percent for businesses in general and lower than virtually any other industry.

And for many small and midsize oil companies, the tax on capital investments is so low that it is more than eliminated by various credits. These companies’ returns on those investments are often higher after taxes than before.
What the article doesn't reveal is why these subsidies continue in the face of the manifest greed and ecological suicide it represents.  In his book, Endgame, Volume I: The Problem of Civilization, Derrick Jensen tells us why.

The United States economy is dependent on oil from the Middle East, South America, and around the world.  American lives are dependent on it: the agricultural infrastructure - from gasoline to pesticides - rests on the foundation of oil and natural gas.  It's not too much to say that we eat refined and transformed oil. (p. 104)
This is a problem for many reasons, not the least of which is that oil is a nonrenewable resource that is becoming rapidly depleted.  Hence, the attempts to extract it with high-risk methods from difficult-to-reach sources - such as deep sea drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. 

Discovery of oil and gas peaked in the 1960s, and the situation has deteriorated enough that by now the world consumes more than three times as much oil each year as is discovered.  Do you think the oil industry is aware of oil field depletion?  Of course. Its their business.  Why do you think no new supertankers have been built for twenty years?  A report written for oil industry insiders and priced at $32,000 per copy concludes that world oil production and supply peaked in 2000, and will decline to half by 2025.  The report predicts large and permanent increases in oil prices for the very near future. (p. 111)
The government subsidizes the oil industry directly through tax policies and indirectly through its military presence in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere, in part to keep down the cost of our insatiable thirst for it; or, at least, to keep the costs hidden from view.

Our entire economic system is based on these subsidies, from agriculture to manufacturing to energy.  Especially energy.  That's why oil is so cheap right now.  Just including the cost of the Persian Gulf military presence - for which we taxpayers foot the bill - would at least double the price of oil.  The thing that scares me even more than monetary subsidies, however, are the hidden subsidies that can never be accounted for.  Can you put a price tag on global warming?  Can you put a price on a pristine lake or river?  The so-called economic view of our planet and life is anti-life. (pp. 112-113)
Eventually, quite possibly within my lifetime, the oil is going to run out.  Even before then it will become so prohibitive in cost as to be inaccessible.  So why does the government continue to subsidize the oil industry?  Because its scarred shitless about what the end of oil means for our way of life and will do anything in its power - no matter the cost to human beings or to the planet upon which all life depends - to keep it flowing for as long as possible.

Our government is subsidizing oil in a self-defeating attempt to buy time; self-defeating, because its pro-growth economic policies only promote oil consumption and hasten the eventual collapse of the fossil fuel economy.  I don't know if our leaders - like the rest of us - are in denial about this looming crash or clinging to a technological panacea or both.  So, we tootle along with business as usual while the planet burns and the clock is ticking.

Industrial civilization is not sustainable. Our energy consumption is overshooting the carrying-capacity of the planet and creating a toxic stew in its wake.  We are in a no-win race to see which comes first: the collapse of industrial civilization or the collapse of the ecosytems it is destroying, which is another way of saying the same thing.  Jensen argues that the only question for us is the extent to which we can mitigate the violence and degradation that this collapse will entail, and begin to plant the seeds of a sustainable culture.

Jensen challenges us to squarely face the consequences of our choices.  He is worth quoting at length:

We all face choices.  We can have ice caps and polar bears, or we can have automobiles.  We can have dams or we can have salmon.  We can have irrigated wine from Mendocino and Sonoma counties, or we can have the Russian and Eel Rivers.  We can have oil from beneath the oceans, or we can have whales.  We can have cardboard boxes or we can have living forests.  We can have computers and cancer clusters from the manufacture of those computers, or we can have neither.  We can have electricity and a world devastated by mining, or we can have neither (and don't give me any nonsense about solar: you'll need copper for wiring, silicon for pohotvaltaics, metals and plastics for appliances, which need to be manufactured and then transported to your home, and so on.  Even solar electrical energy can never be sustainable because electricity and all its accoutrements require an industrial infrastructure.)  We an have fruits, vegetables, and coffee brought to the U.S. from Latin America, or we can have at least somewhat intact human and nonhuman communities throughout that region . . . We can have civilization - too often called the highest form of social organization - that spreads (I would say metastasizes) to all parts of the globe, or we can have a multiplicity of autonomous cultures each uniquely adapted to the land from which it springs.  We can have cities and all they imply, or we can have a livable planet.  We can have "progress" and history, or we can have sustainability.  We can have civilization, or we can have at least the possibility of a way of life not based on the violent theft of resources. 
We can't have it all.  The belief that we can is one of the things that has driven us to this awful place . . . To pretend that civilization can exist without destroying its own landbase and the landbases and cultures of others is to be entirely ignorant of history, biology, thermodynamics, morality, and self-preservation. And it is to have paid absolutely no attention to the past six thousand years. (pp. 148-149)
This is quite an indictment.  It raises all kinds of questions that we would rather avoid.  But we can't.  It is time for us to begin to imagine what kind of life is possible, what kind of cultural is desirable, after apocalypse.  Beginning from a very different set of assumptions, Alasdair MacIntyre came to a similar - now, seemingly prophetic - conclusion in his After Virtue:

What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us  . . . This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time.  And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament.  We are not waiting for Godot, but for another - doubtless very different - St. Benedict. (p. 263)
It is not the intellectual and moral life, but life itself, with which we must be concerned.  And we cannot wait for this new and improved St. Benedict.  It is up to us.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Mood Altering Substances

Today I was feeling a little down as a took my morning walk around Lake Merritt.  As I was walking, I decided to offer a simple prayer of thanksgiving by naming all the people in my life for whom I am grateful.  This readily filled the hour or so it takes me to get around the lake. 

By the time I got back home, my spirit was soaring.  Movement plus gratitude equals a natural high.  I recommend it the next time you are walking, hiking, swimming, biking, or running (so long as you can do so safely!).  Our moods are largely a function of our thoughts, and our thoughts are subject to the direction of our attention.  Prayer is a form of attention.  Feeling follows focus. 

The substance of our attention is mood altering.  What we pay attention to matters.  I need to remember to pay more attention to the experience of joy, as well as the experience of suffering, in the world.  Both are real, and both are deserving of my energy.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Work Done Secretly

St. John of the Cross, 16th. Century Carmelite Monk

From St. John of the Cross' Sayings of Light and Love:

"God is more pleased by one work, however small, done secretly without desire that it be known, than a thousand done with desire that men know of them. The person who works for God with pure love cares nothing about whether men see him, but does not even seek that God Himself know of them. Such a person would not cease to render God the same services, with the same joy and purity of love, even if God were never to know of them."

What could be more counter-cultural than this sentiment? It is my good fortune to have encountered such souls. I recall having dinner with my husband in a restaurant some years ago, when I noticed a member of my parish at the time - a well-known theologian - walk into the restaurant with a woman and her children. We had walked passed the same family on our way into the place. They had been sitting on the sidewalk, passively begging for assistance.

Without much ado, our theologian friend got them a table, spoke quietly to the waitress, and handed her some cash. He then left just as unobtrusively as he had arrived. The family enjoyed a good meal. What our friend didn't know is that we, too, had been fed spiritually by his example.

Of course, his generous action wasn't done for me or for him. It was done for the glory of God, which is the human being fully alive, including those human beings that we so easily walked past on the street eager to fill our own bellies. The kingdom of God is established on the basis of such hidden labors and the movements they create for justice and peace. For every Dr. King or Mother Teresa there are thousands upon thousands of these humble souls bearing them - and the world - upon their shoulders.

One of the most beautiful examples of this truth is the work of City Slicker Farms in West Oakland. They are creating urban farms and gardens in one of the most economically and environmentally exploited communities in the Bay Area, providing food security and building a healthy, sustainable economy. This emerging alternative food production and distribution network, focused on those most in need, is quietly fomenting a revolution; a nonviolent secession from the global economy so that families no longer need beg outside of restaurants.

Learn more about urban farming in Oakland here.