Saturday, December 18, 2010

Looking for the Prince of Peace

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Isaiah 9:6

And I can't think of that verse without hearing this chorus from Handel's Messiah in my head.

This week one of my friends was missing from the Christmas Eve choir rehearsal because he believes in the Prince of Peace. Jim is a veteran and he was in Washington, D. C. with Veterans for Peace. On Thursday we got an email from our pastor that Jim had been arrested in front of the White House for civil disobedience. He was among 131 people arrested, including Daniel Ellsburg, who released the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War.

When I did a Google search on: Veterans for Peace arrest December 16, 2010, I got a number of internet blog entries, led by postings on the Veterans for Peace website, but there were no immediate hits from any major newspaper. Peace protests and 131 arrests are not news? When I searched on the Washington Post website, there was no mention of the arrests. Nor was there anything in the New York Times, except for this individual comment following an editorial about President Obama's remarks about Afghanistan. In the Boston area, there was only this article in the Merrimack Valley newspaper, but nothing in the Boston Globe.

On Veterans Day this year I started reading Shelly Rambo's book, Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining. Rambo speaks of three aspects of the "lens of trauma," "alterations in time, body and word" (p. 18-21). Trauma takes a person to an in between space, a liminal place, out of time, where at any time the person may re-experience the traumatic event—the past does not stay in the past. Trauma becomes part of body memory, bypassing conscious control by the brain over memories, so at any time body memory can be evoked by a sound, a smell, or a sight. In that way, trauma also bypasses human ability to put words to the event, because the suffering is imbedded directly in the body, and this isolates the sufferers because they can't access language to interpret their experiences. Rambo talks about the usefulness of theological language about and acts of witness as one way we can begin to be pastors and healers to those suffering from trauma. I have to confess that her book is one that I have needed to digest in small doses, but I was glad that I had read what I had about trauma when we heard from some of the veterans we were honoring after church the Sunday after Veterans Day.

The most memorable witness for me that day was the slender, even slight, young woman who was a Marine heavy diesel mechanic who, when she found out that she as a gung-ho Marine, couldn't get to Iraq using her mechanic's skills, volunteered for "mortuary affairs." It is clear that she really didn't know what she was volunteering for, and that perhaps there was no way in a two week training that she could have been prepared for what she would face. She shared a powerful witness to her time there: opening the body bags where every person was dressed like you, had the same kind of boots, dog tags, watch and wallet (because that's what the PX sold), and wondering which person you might find, and in what condition you might find this person's "remains." She now is studying to be a counselor, because she knows that veterans will need to talk to someone who understands. She is someone who speaks for peace, because she knows the cost of war.

For unto us a child is born…

I too have a yearning for peace. I want to stop grinding my teeth and tightening my muscles because I am stressed about budget cuts and increasing bureaucratic regulations at work that negatively impact thousands of elders, who are poor, sick, isolated and lonely people, because I am worried about friends and loved ones with chronic disease and pain, and because I have been confronted with the visible signs of incivility toward one another in this season in too many ways.

So today, instead, I want to celebrate and bear witness to the generosity of my colleagues who gave a thousand dollars so that we could buy grocery store gift cards for elders who don't have enough food to eat, and to understand that caring for people is an act of peace. I want to make my year-end donations to organizations that make a difference in my life and in the lives of the hungry in body and spirit, and in that act of giving know that our generosity and giving is a movement toward peace and healing and community. I want to applaud my friend Jim who has the courage to stand for peace and be arrested for his witness, and to shout out that ending war is a first step toward peace. Professor Valerie Dixon started each class session of "The Ethics of Peacemaking" with a time of meditation and prayer because she believed that we have to have peace inside, to know peace ourselves, in order to work for peace. We must know peace in order to do the work of the Prince of Peace.

My prayer today is that we each take the time to know or find a moment of peace within ourselves. Then may we share that peace with others and may we each be a witness for peace and healing, the holy wholeness that is shalom, in the world.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Heaven: sleeping in, where scrabble never comes

Trying to follow my own advice about paying attention to the rhythms of the season, I took a day off this week, and I slept in—that is, until it really was light out. That is not awfully decadent in some respects because I was up by 7 a.m., but in comparison to 4:45 a.m. or 5:15 a.m., when it is quite dark out, and I'm impelled out of bed by my alarm clock, it was amazing.

Then in a lovely piece of serendipity, I picked up Mending a Tattered Faith by Susan VanZanten and read this poem by Emily Dickinson.

Where bells no more affright the morn –

Where scrabble never comes –

Where very nimble Gentlemen

Are forced to keep their rooms –

Where tired Children placid sleep

Thro' Centuries of noon

This place is Bliss – this town is Heaven –

Please, Pater, pretty soon!

"Oh could we climb where Moses stood,

And view the Landscape o'er"

Not Father's bells – nor Factories,

Could scare us any more!

VanZanten says she likes this poem from the perspective of a night owl, as it describes heaven as a place where tired children get to sleep in without being awoken by the factory bells and where there is no early morning scrabbling into clothes and off to chores and work. How appropriate for a day off!

Dickinson's poem in the third stanza quotes a hymn by Isaac Watts: There is a land of pure delight. Watts' theology was that of looking to the future glory of heaven, but my understanding of Jesus' teaching of the kingdom of heaven is that we are called to kingdom building now. How else do we come to understand, as Jesus preached, that "the kingdom of heaven is at hand?" How do we live a life "where scrabble never comes?" Or at least, how do we minimize the scrabble in our spiritual life?

On Saturday morning I slept in again, and that put me at the breakfast table a bit later than usual, looking out the window at the bird feeder that I had restocked on my day off. Suddenly the birds of the air defined scrabble as they crowded around the feeder to eat and then, as quickly, chittered and squawked and flew away. This dance repeated several times during my breakfast. I was reminded of the passage from Matthew 6 about the birds of the air that neither sow nor reap, nor gather into barns, yet God feeds them. This passage is the one that goes on to say,

Stop worrying, then, over questions such as, 'What are we to eat,' or 'what are we to drink,' or 'what are we to wear?' Those without faith are always running after these things. God knows everything you need. Seek first God's reign, and God's justice (that is, the kingdom of heaven, in other translations), and all these things will be given to you besides. Enough of worrying about tomorrow! Let tomorrow take care of itself. Today has troubles enough of its own. (Matthew 6: 31-34, The Inclusive Bible)

I don't know whether rolling over until the sun comes up is something I can do every day, but certainly, turning over my troubles and worries to God and seeking to be an instrument of God's justice is a start on the way of the kin-dom of God. [See this note on kin-dom of God.] I pray that we all can scrabble less and seek that kin-dom more.

If we seek the spirit of this season, which is indeed the spirit of hope, peace, joy and love, rather than fall prey to the demands of this season, which seem to be greed, fear, competition and stress, we are more apt to be making way for God's presence in our lives and in the world. May we each take the time today to seek God's presence and to seek a place of bliss. My prayer is that, if we actually have done that, that we all are able to remember and carry that moment of heaven and bliss with us through the coming week, as we again (still) prepare the way for the Child who comes.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

There is a Season

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven: (Ecclesiastes 3:1)

You may know the words to this in songs: I enjoy this lovely setting by Alfred Fedak or the 70's hit by The Byrds or as revived more recently by Bruce Springsteen.

The natural rhythm of this season might be that of bundling up for forays out into the cold to do the last of the fall chores or to take a brisk walk; snuggling under the covers until the sun comes up; eating hearty soups and stews and hot cereal; and gathering around a fire with a hot drink, good conversation and some handwork. I say that's what the natural rhythm "might be," perhaps because that's what I'd like my days to include, or that's what my body might prefer given its druthers.

And of course, "'tis the season to be jolly," but that is also in response to the darkening days of the year.

But my days in early December don't seem to be much different than my days in May or September: my daughter and I are getting up for early rehearsals—except now it's dark when we leave the house; I'm still taking a salad for lunch most days—except now I know that this lettuce cannot be growing locally outside; we stay up well past sunset, in fact we're not usually even home by sunset, and we just turn on the lights, stay up and ignore our bodies' yearnings for more sleep in the darkening evening hours. I have to allow extra time for scraping the frost from the car windows on these early mornings, and sometime soon, I'll have to allow even more time (=less sleep) to shovel the snow so that we can get to the car and be on our way, but our schedules make no allowances for the sun, the dark, the rain, the snow, the cold, and in the summer for the light and the heat. We make no allowances for foods that are not in season, not grown nearby, and not readily available without preservatives and processing. In fact in this season to be jolly, there is yet more rushing around, leavened only in some few places and times by quiet candlelit moments of Advent and Hannukah.

Frank Lipman in Spent, also found retitled Revive, writes:

We evolved over thousands of generations as beings who lived and worked in harmony with the seasons, and as a result these rhythms became imprinted in our genes. They are part of every aspect of our body's inner workings. … Every system in the body is affected by circadian rhythms. … Science has show clear patterns of brain wave activity, hormone production, enzyme production, cell regeneration, and other biological activities, each linked to these daily activities.

As Homo sapiens, we are physically and mentally designed to eat natural and seasonal foods from our nearby environs and exercise in spurts—exert, rest, recover, exert, and so on. We are meant to have fresh air, sun, and water. We are built to sleep when the sun goes down and wake when it rises. And very few of us are living this way. … If we don't move back in the direction of our genes, we will all ultimately end up Spent. (p. 7)

[Spent=overwhelmed, exhausted, and afflicted with this disorder that makes us feel decades older than our years; burned out—physically, mentally, and spiritually, p. 5].

Instead we are ignoring our natural rhythms, sitting at a desk all day, getting up in the dark, pressing on without rest or breaks, in the glare of electric lights and computer monitors no matter the hour, eating the quickest snack at hand, often foods that are hard to digest and/or of low nutritional value. In his program to revive and restore people from that Spent state, the first thing Dr. Lipman does is have people cut out sugar and artificial sweeteners from their diets.

Sally Fallon in Nourishing Traditions writes that,
In 1821, the average sugar intake in America was 10 pounds per person per year; today it is 170 pounds per person, representing over one-fourth the average caloric intake. Another large portion of total calories comes from white flour and refined vegetable oils. This means that less than half the diet must provide all the nutrients to a body that is under constant stress from its intake of sugar, white flour and rancid and hydrogenated vegetable oils. Herein lies the root cause of the vast increase in degenerative diseases that plague modern America. (p. 23)

Sprouting, soaking in warm acidic water, sour leavening, culturing and fermenting—all processes used in traditional societies—deactivate enzyme inhibitors, thus making nutrients in grains, nuts and seeds more readily available. (p. 47)
Not surprisingly, all of those ways of preparing food take time that most of us no longer give ourselves. If I want oatmeal this morning for breakfast, I don't usually think about starting it to soak 24 hours before, but that is the more seasonally rhythmic and digestively accessible method that Fallon suggests.

How could we all begin to honor creation's rhythms more wholly and fully? Being made in the image of God, our rhythms are God's rhythms. We are called to "Praise God with tambourine and dance; praise God with strings and pipe!" (Psalm 150:4) Can we find our way back to the rhythms of creation's great dance of praise? I fear that we cannot easily start or sustain this alone as individuals because so much cultural presence is against us. We need to have community support. Is this a way that Christian communities might be healthily countercultural? As we live in the season of preparation for the time when the "Word became flesh and lived among us," could we think of how we really are incarnated, embodied, and honor the rhythms that our Creator built into our bodies and into our environment? Let us not be conformed to this world, but rather be transformed.

May the peace and hope of the season be made alive in you today. Find one way to honor the rhythms of this season of God's creation, and send me a comment and let me know what it was.