What We Are Here For

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“Life is the expression and fulfillment and celebration of beauty. This is what we are here for.  We’re not here to do anything else.” (Sarah Susanka in The Not So Big Life)

Perhaps this is an odd sentiment, when so much in our country is going wrong these days. Aren’t we also here for justice, for compassion, for interconnection?  But what is beauty anyway?  Is it the unexpected sighting of a wild raccoon near the brook during a morning walk?  Is it the fluid colors of the sky in the dawn?  Is it a coating of ice or snow on the branches of every tree and bush in the neighborhood?

Why do these things enliven our souls?  Perhaps beauty is the mark of an essential wholeness, a harmony we can recognize with our eyes, our ears, our hearts, our whole being.  If that is the case, then I believe beauty also includes justice, compassion, interconnection.  We recognize instinctively the wholeness within justice, within acts of kindness, the miracle of our interconnection.

Beauty has something to teach us about how to work for justice as well.  To express and celebrate beauty is to turn our attention away from the ugly hatefulness we deplore, toward acts of creating what we aspire to.  This is why I love permaculture and solar panels and work parties and gardens.  We are bringing into being the wholeness we hope for.  I am not saying that protests are not important as well.  On the contrary.

But as Rebecca Solnit promises, in her book Hope in the Dark,

…if you embody what you aspire to, you have already succeeded. That is to say, if your activism is already democratic, peaceful, creative, then in one small corner of the world these things have triumphed. Activism, in this model, is not only a toolbox to change things but a home in which to take up residence and live according to your beliefs, even if it’s a temporary and local place… Make yourself one small republic of unconquered spirit.

May you be a beacon of beauty today!

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Prophecy, #5

To be a community of prophecy, to see what is happening, we must listen to the voices that are speaking the truths we cannot see ourselves. We must listen to history, we must listen to the earth, we must listen to people of color, and we must listen to the voice from within, the power in our spirits.

And then we must say what is happening, and act in accordance with what we know. I am reminded of the words of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who said, “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

There are many ways to speak and act. I was inspired by the Hollywood actors and singers who refused to perform for the Inauguration—in this way using their influence and their silence, as a voice to send a loud message that they could not support the racism and misogyny of the new president. I was inspired by the woman who tendered her resignation from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, when they chose to participate—because she could not condone a presidency that went against all her values.

We have more power than we know. We can’t lose sight of that. It is so easy to get swept up in horror over what the leaders are doing, that we can forget to use our own power for good. African American lesbian activist Audre Lorde said, “Use what power you have to work for what you believe in.”

One kind of power is to march and protest, and it was heartening to learn that 10,000 people marched in the streets of Portland on Saturday January 21st—10,000 in our small city!  There were also more than 10,000 in Augusta, Maine. Hundreds of thousands marched in DC and many more in other cities around the world. That is a lot of marching power.

Myke in Hat

[Photo by Barbara Freeman]

Another kind of power is to knit, and I was thrilled to know that members of our congregation were knitting pussy hats for marchers. I wasn’t able to march, but they gave me a hat too.

Not everyone can march, but Michael Moore suggests that we all commit to calling our congregational representatives every day for the next 100 days. Or if that 3 minutes a day is too hard, call them on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, when congress is in session. 

Not everyone can put their bodies on the line, like those who go to Standing Rock to protect the water there. But some people have been moving their money out of banks that support the Dakota Access Pipeline, or the tar sands in Alberta, and opening accounts with local credit unions instead. We have only begun to explore how to act for justice in our time.

To be a community of prophecy is to see what is happening, to say what is happening, and to act in accordance with what we know. Not that it will be easy. We are in for some hard times ahead. As the great African American abolitionist, Frederick Douglass once said,

“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.”

This is what we are facing, dear ones. My colleague, Wayne Arnason, said “Take courage, friends. The way is often hard, the path is never clear and the stakes are very high. Take courage, for deep down there is another truth: You are not alone.”

Prophecy, #3: The Limits of Fact Checking

For those who love the truth, the current administration can be maddening.  I just think about the rejoinder used by Counselor to the President, Kellyanne Conway, in which she defended White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s false statements about the numbers of people attending the inauguration.  She said, they had “alternative facts.

But, then I found this post on Facebook at Rising Tide North America, which put a new layer into the equation for prophetic witness.  When Trump or his staff make outrageous untrue statements, these are not statements of fact, but statements of intent, stating what would have to be true to justify their next actions. Thus, we should not be trying to fact-check their big lies, but rather read into them what we can expect will be the next assaults on all that we hold dear.

Fact checking inadvertently legitimizes Trump.

For ex., Trump is not saying that 3 million undocumented people voted. What he’s saying is: I’m going to steal the voting rights of millions of Americans.

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ARMY CORPS DECISION: WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

Reposting from Andy Pearson on Facebook.

On Sunday afternoon, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied the easement for the Dakota Access Pipeline to cross under the Missouri River at Lake Oahe, just north of the encampments at Standing Rock. This is amazing, virtually unprecedented, and a movement victory — and the water protectors who have led the fight are right to claim it as such. It’s also likely temporary and by no means the end of this fight. Here’s some context and paths forward as best I understand right now.

WHAT HAPPENED: The Corps denied the easement and ordered an Environmental Impact Statement, which is a formal study which will compare various route alternatives. Denying the easement was a stepping stone to getting to an EIS here for the Corps, and doesn’t mean that the pipeline won’t be built in its current alignment near Standing Rock eventually. The Corps is essentially hitting the pause button and initiating further study.

HOW DOES AN EIS GO? There are usually three phases to conducting an EIS: Scoping, Draft, and Final. The public can generally comment during each phase. The purpose of scoping is to identify what should be studied in the EIS — the scope. Then the Corps and their EIS contractor prepare and release a draft, which the public is invited to comment on. They then rework the draft in light of public input and release a final version, which the public can generally also comment on. The process usually takes several months, and can last for years depending on the project’s complexity. A generic timeline would be about nine months, but we don’t have any actual guidance yet on the timeline for this particular EIS.

WILL THIS ACTUALLY STOP CONSTRUCTION? Debatable. It would be illegal for Energy Transfer Partners to drill under the Missouri, but that’s not to say they won’t do it and opt to pay whatever legal penalties they incur. That would be a fairly shocking move on their part but they’ve hinted they may be open to doing it. It’s easy to imagine that an incoming Trump administration would do their best to make the penalties as minimal as possible.

WHY IS IT IMPORTANT FOR ETP TO DRILL RIGHT NOW? Contracts with oil shippers. These contracts, called take-or-pay contracts, obligate shippers to pay money to the pipeline company over a long, committed period of time regardless of whether they have oil to actually send or not. It’s a great deal for DAPL but not so good for the oil shippers, especially now that the Bakken oil boom isn’t so hot. These contracts expire if the pipeline isn’t substantially complete by January 1, and there’s somewhat of a chance that some shippers will choose to drop out at that point due to changing economics in the industry if the pipeline isn’t complete. Sunday’s decision by the Corps means that the pipeline won’t be complete by January 1 unless ETP breaks the law and drills anyway.

WHAT ABOUT TRUMP? Oh, you had to ask. He’s a problem here. Once he’s president, he’ll be able to stack the deck at the Army Corps so that the EIS is weak or biased in favor of DAPL, and he might be able to stop the EIS process altogether and reinstate the permit, though I don’t know the legal specifics here yet. It’s very doubtful that we’ll see a full and robust EIS with him taking office. The upshot of Sunday’s decision as I see it, assuming that ETP chooses to follow the law, is that it delays approval of the line until after Trump takes office, giving time for the contracts to expire and letting the worst of winter slide by without the need for full forces at the encampments.

WHAT CAN WE DO IN THE MEANTIME? We can continue the work we’ve been doing, because it’s all still relevant and helpful, and will become quite urgent again in at most a few months. We can go after the banks harder than ever to cut off funding to DAPL. We can continue to spread information, lobby elected officials, lobby the Corps, hold events, train for direct action. We can engage in the EIS process once it begins. This isn’t the end of the fight by a long shot, but it’s a brief respite between battles and a sign of how far we’ve come thanks to the indigenous leadership and water protectors at Standing Rock. Let’s celebrate and reflect and keep fighting. #NoDAPL

The Power of the Story

Today I am concluding my series of blogs about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in honor of the anniversary of his death, April 4th. I have been exploring what his life can teach us about the experience of the Divine Mystery.

I don’t understand the mechanics of experiencing the divine presence. I wonder if, as for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it has something to do with the commitment to give oneself to a sacred calling, or to do the work of justice. I don’t know why some people call for help, and never seem to hear an answer. There is no formula that I can teach you, except to say that trouble can sometimes be a doorway, too, if we knock.

It makes me think about something my grandfather wrote in a little black notebook that disappeared for many years. April 4th, the anniversary of King’s death, is also the anniversary of the death of my grandfathers, one in 1964, and one in 1967. My grandpa Johnson died when I was not quite 11 years old. He was not a Catholic, which was a big deal in my family. But I am told he had been a spiritual man, and had even considered a call to ministry as a Unitarian or a Lutheran. The story I remembered from the notebook was this: My grandfather said that my young cousin Michael at the age of three had gone into a church building and was looking for God. My grandfather commented, “If you can’t find God outside of the church, you will never find him inside the church.”

But just before Easter a few years ago, while my uncle was dying, another cousin sent me a message on Facebook, about going through papers of her father, and finding a copy of Grandpa’s note. It turned out the actual quote was slightly different than I remembered. He had written, “I hope you keep looking. And when you find him don’t keep him confined in church.” But it speaks to the same impulse—that God is beyond what happens in church.

Grandpa's Notebook

Grandpa’s Notebook

Even without a formula, even without a sure way to find this God who helps the lowly, I believe the stories of such a God can give us hope and courage. I am reminded of an old Jewish legend recounted by Elie Wiesel. Whether it is true or not, I do not know. But that is the thing about stories. The truth to be found in stories is not about whether or not they are factual. Some of the most helpful stories happen only in fiction.

This is a story about a Jewish community who had a very wise and powerful Rabbi. When the people were in trouble, their Rabbi used to go into the woods, to a special place, where he prayed a very special prayer, with ritual and song, and the people would be helped. But eventually the rabbi died, and his successor did not know the full ritual with all its songs. So when the people were in trouble, he went into the woods, and prayed the special prayer, and it was enough, and the people were helped.

Eventually, he too died, and the next Rabbi who came to them did not know the place in the woods. But he did know the special prayer, and so when the people were in trouble, he prayed the prayer, and it was enough, and the people were helped. Finally, he too died, and the next Rabbi didn’t know the rituals or the songs, he didn’t know the place in the woods, or even the special prayer. But he knew the story. And it was enough. And the people were helped.

Leslie Marmon Silko writes, in her novel Ceremony:

I will tell you something about stories,…
They aren’t just entertainment.
Don’t be fooled.
They are all we have, you see,
All we have to fight off
illness and death

You don’t have anything
if you don’t have the stories.

I found God in myself and I loved Her fiercely

I am continuing in my series of blogs about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in honor of the anniversary of his death, April 4th. I am exploring what his life can teach us about the experience of the Divine Mystery.

I want to acknowledge that there are many people who do the work of justice, without relating to a God of justice. Their work comes out of a belief in human dignity and connection, and God has nothing to do with it, for them. And that is really fine with me. When we have experienced the connection we share with other human beings, I believe it naturally leads to a concern about justice and equality.

But for some of us, there have been moments when we were in despair about injustice, or afraid of what our truth was revealing to us, or ready to give up, like Dr. King had been in his moment of despair. And in those moments, we also felt a divine presence, a presence of courage and hope and strength, empowering us into transformation. This God may not have intervened to take away a difficult challenge, but rather enabled us to find wholeness and self-worth in the meeting of it.

For me, the divine presence gave me the courage to leave the church of my childhood, and leap into the unknown, to find myself as a woman, as a whole and equal person. When all around me the church was saying that women had their place, and it was not in the priesthood or the leadership, when I was hearing that women were weak and vulnerable and needed men to guide and protect them, something enabled me to reject that characterization, and claim fullness. Something I barely even had a name for—but it was a sacred power nonetheless.

Photo by Rick Kimball

Photo by Rick Kimball

For me, the risk involved imagining that God might be a woman, a Goddess. That I might be created in the image of that Goddess. And even though there was nothing in the Bible that described this Goddess, yet it was still the stories of the God of justice that led me out of those old male-dominant images and into new possibilities. As Ntozake Shange put it, “I found God in myself and I loved her fiercely.”

This experience in my own life became a window to understand, at least in part, the kind of transformation the slaves had experienced. How miraculous and lonely it could be, how long the journey, and how frightening the desert. But yet, something unmistakable like a fire to guide the way. It taught me that the divine is a power beyond institutions, beyond containers, yet able to be present in our lives—especially in those moments of transformation, when “the mighty are cast down from their thrones, and the lowly are lifted up.”

I do not ask that anyone believe in the God of my own transformation. It doesn’t work like that. But I do offer it to you as an option of hope. If you are going through a hard time, if you are discouraged, if you are seeking to follow the truth of your heart, if you are sore oppressed. If you are having trouble believing in your own worth and dignity. I invite you to call on that God, and see whether there might be a presence that can help you through.

The God of the Bible is the God of Justice

I am continuing in my series of blogs about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in honor of the anniversary of his death, April 4th. I am exploring what his life can teach us about the experience of the Divine Mystery.

mlkmemphisspeech1968On April 3rd, 1968, the night before he was killed, Dr. King delivered a speech in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had come to support the sanitation workers’ strike. There had been threats against King related to this trip to Memphis; he mentioned the threats in his speech. He mentioned earlier dangers, too, including the time he was stabbed by a deranged woman in New York City. But he talks more about his gladness. He speaks about his gratitude for being alive to witness the sit-ins, and the bus boycott, and all the other ways that black people had aroused the conscience of the nation and stood up for freedom. He encourages the striking workers not to be afraid, and talks about all the practical necessities of their current struggle.

He ended his speech in words that his listeners would have known were an echo of the story of Moses. As the Hebrew people were close to entering the promised land, God brought Moses up on a mountain, where he could see the promised land, even though he would not be allowed to enter it with them. It was on that mountain that Moses died.

Here is what Dr. King said:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

There is power in a story. For Dr. King, the story of Moses was a doorway into the power of God to lift up the lowly. King said that preachers should draw on the prophet Amos to say, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” He said that preachers should say with Jesus, who himself was quoting the prophet Isaiah, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to deal with the problems of the poor.” Dr. King took the stories of the prophets and wove them into new words of hope and liberation, words that gave people the power to make a change.

There are still many people who try to argue against this justice-loving God of the Bible. Four years ago, just a few weeks before the anniversary of Dr. King’s death, Fox News commentator and radio personality Glenn Beck attacked churches that preach a gospel of social and economic justice. Glenn Beck said if your church preaches that, you should “run as fast as you can.” According to Beck, social and economic justice are code words for communism and Nazism.

Rev. Jim Wallis, founder of the progressive Christian group Sojourners, responded to Beck on his own videoblog. He said,

When I was in seminary, we did a study of the Bible and we found 2000 verses in the Bible about the poor, about God’s concerns for the left out, the left behind, the vulnerable and God’s call for justice. One of my classmates took an old Bible, and cut out every single reference to the poor, to social justice, to economic justice, and when we were done, the Bible was just in shreds. If I were ever to talk to Glenn Beck, I would like to hand him that old Bible from seminary and say, Glenn, this would have to be your Bible. …The God of the Bible is the God of justice.