Fire can come from lots of places. Two years ago lightning started a forest on fire in the Black Range, 20 miles to the east of our house. By the time it was over more than 200 thousand acres were blackened. Black Creek ran muddy for months. But now the green is coming back in force, fertilized by the ashes of the previous growth. 8 years ago a squirrel got into the attic of the house of a member of my church and chewed through an electrical wire. The fire swept through the upstairs of the house, leaving them somberly grateful for what it did not consume. Every year in Honduras I visit homes where the food is cooked over an open fire in the corner of the kitchen, feeding the family, but blackening the roof with soot and causing eye and lung irritation. We love to see the bright flames in our pellet stove and feel the warmth it pumps into the house, even as we know that the bodies of living trees are giving up the BTU’s they stored from the sun while alive. Fire is a comfort, a threat, and a purifier.
And fire can come from heaven.
I remember when it fell for me. As Bishop Neptalí Larrea laid his hands upon my head I felt the weight of all the other priests in the church as they, too, laid their hands on my shoulders. When the bishop said those words, “y hazlo un sacerdote en tu iglesia,” (“and make him a priest in your church,”) fire fell from heaven. It was almost a physical sensation that left me knowing that, though I really had no idea what the future held, I was somehow different than I was before. It’s not that (and this is a bit tricky to put into words) I was suddenly something that I hadn’t somehow always been. The deep truth of who I was had come into expression on the surface of my being. By the help of God I was more fully who I was than ever before.
I preached a sermon to clergy during Holy Week when we all reaffirmed our ordination vows. I told them the story of the devastating work of that fire in my life, how over the years it has been burning away all the chaff that hides the one within, and who, now in concert with the One within, strives to live life differently than ever before. It was and still is a comfort in my weakness, a threat to my ego’s overblown ideas, and a purifier of my intention and my action. It has indeed, made me a priest in God’s church.
This Saturday I will be there when fire falls again. I will lay my hands on the shoulders of Sarah Guck along with all the other priests in the house as the Bishop lays his on her head and says those words, “make her a priest in your church.” I will probably not be dry-eyed at the end—and that’s OK. If I get burned a little on Saturday it will all be for the good.
Insanity has been aptly described as doing the same thing over and over again, each time expecting a different result. It would seem that our friends in Burns, Oregon, and now one near my own Silver City, New Mexico, are insane. We’ve been down this path before. It’s always messy. Misunderstanding, anxious people with firepower, and a doomsday attitude usually end up in death and destruction, and the ones who take the worst hit are the ones who get entrenched. Witness Waco, Ruby Ridge, Wounded Knee…
I am very aware that the ranching community here are angry. I have tried to figure out just what lies at the heart of it. Many of these ranching families have been in business in this neck of the woods for at least 150 years, and many of them more than twice that. The government biologists who come along and raise cain about them not being eco-friendly in their practices appear as arm-chair experts who don’t know what they’re talking about. There are just enough blunders on the part of these upstarts to strengthen the perception. I get that.
On the other hand, the land management practices of the ranching community are not always as eco-friendly as they are presented to be. They are practices developed in the context of a given economy, creating a sustainable use of the land for a given economic activity—ranching, and the practices work well for that. Impinging on these practices threaten the livelihood of the ranching economy and its long and venerable tradition. It’s good land management only after it’s good business, and it’s not always nice to some species of critters and plants out there.
So there’s good ideals, passion—and blame—on both sides… Feels like a recipe for messiness.
What to do? Most of us are not directly involved. Law enforcement will have it out with these guys, unfortunately. But on a deeper level we are all involved. As rapid change sweeps through our global village anxiety runs high. I think these situations are products of the general feeling of unease that goes with change. We can’t change the change, its driven by economic dynamics we are all invested in. What we can do is work on our capacity to handle anxiety. Blaming others for our upsetness only makes things worse. Digging a hole, crawling in and pulling the dirt in on top of ourselves is irresponsible. Jesus lived in anxious times as well. He was a master at being himself and engaging constructively with others. Maybe there is wisdom here. It’s the hard path, and it’s not always without messiness, but I suspect it’s the only one.
According to Mercy Corps 11 million Syrians have been displaced due to the bloody civil war that has ravaged the country over the last 4 years. 220,000 have been killed, half of who are civilians. We lost half a million in our Civil War 150 years ago and we still feel the effects. This is rocking the world and will shake us to the core.
I read a book recently about Islamic views on armed fighting. The Quran specifically requires honorable behavior in fighting and says, “To kill an innocent person is the same as to kill the whole human race.” That sounds pretty clear, but like in all instances of holy writ, we find it open to interpretation. Many would say that those civilians who have died are not truly innocent, for they are complicit in a corrupt and anti-Islamic government. Others would say that those who have perpetrated these crimes against humanity are not true to their own Islamic faith.
What does it mean to be displaced? It means to have your world torn apart, with gaps where parents, schools, friends and favorite places are missing. It means that one’s context in which one has meaning and direction and hope is confused and unclear. In some cases it involves denial of access to those holy sites that define and explain one’s world. Few of us know what that means, but all of us will feel the effects of these 11 million who do.
In the final analysis, however, it is probably not religion or government driving this atrocity, it will be money. Money can buy you forgiveness for a host of sins in this world. Thank God that heaven doesn’t deal in money! Maybe we can use our money to do something heavenly. We cannot replace what is gone, but we can fill in the gaps in these peoples’ lives with alternatives that are life-giving and ultimately sustaining. Money cannot buy forgiveness from heaven, but it can be used to express the deepest and truest faces of our common humanity.
On September 11, 2001 I was in Killeen, Texas, the new rector of a church that is 80% military, either active duty personnel or families thereof. Obviously the event shook the church as well as the community. The local Muslim community went into hiding—literally, afraid of the backlash that could have really made it much, much worse. Thank God it didn’t happen. However, in the ensuing weeks and years I remember saying more than once that I did not hear Muslim voices speaking in protest. What I now realize is that I wasn’t listening in the right places.
I am currently reading an interesting book: Humanity Before God: Contemporary Faces of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Ethics (Kindle Edition,) by William Schweiker (Author), Kevin Jung (Editor), Michael A. Johnson (Editor). It is a collection of lectures delivered at the 2003 Chicago Divinity School and Disciples Divinity House of the University of Chicago D. R. Sharpe/Hoover Lectures. One such lecture is a summary of a paper delivered in 2003 by a Sudanese Muslim, Abdullahi An-Na’im. An-Na’im calls on the Muslim community to put a space between religion and government. He declares that the establishment of Sharia law as the law of the land is a violation of basic tenets of the Muslim faith rooted in a commitment to the free choice of the human soul. He posits three great ideals to exist in the Muslim world in dialog and dynamic tension: Religion, Government and Secularism peacefully in the world community of religions.
How quickly we speak before we listen!
Atahualpa Yupanqui (RIP) was a country singer from Argentina who won fame and fortune writing songs that resonated with “los paisanos,” the average country folk. His lyrics were always insightful, dense and powerfully poetic. In one he chants rather than sings, and I translate, “Make sure your couplets go to the heart of the people, for what you lose in fame you gain in eternity.”
Two music festivals grace the recent days in Silver City. Last weekend was the Southwest Chicano Music Festival, complete with food, music and a car show. This coming weekend is Pick-a-Mania, headlined by the Black Lillies. Both are celebrations of music from the heart of the American people. American music, be it Chicano, blues, country, First Nation, or rock, is an expression of the heart of a group of people that, in spite of our differences, have much more in common. On one level or another these genre give expression to our collective soul.
People don’t talk much about our collective soul these days. When people get to talking they start highlighting differences and divisions, we and they, you vs. us. They get all antsy and upset and start beating up on one another. Not so with music. In music the heart sings, and when the heart sings other hearts who have also felt the same flows of the human soul sing with it. When we sing together what one individual may lose in name recognition one gains in permanence, in contributing to the collective soul rather than the fractured face of the American people. A wise old monk once said, “When you sing you pray twice.” Perhaps it’s the same with paint, dance, sculpture, drama, story-telling and, poetry.
I know some would disagree with me, but when the experts (the mystics) talk about prayer they talk about poetry, they talk about dance and drama, sculpture and song. Prayer is that which we do that transcends the ordinary superficial divisions that bedevil us and reach for the mystery of the One source of life and love.
Yesterday here in Silver City members of the Interim Water and Natural Resources Committee listened to testimony about the planned diversion project on the Gila River. There is great controversy about this project. A strong and loud group wants to keep the Gila River free of any diversion in the state, the last and only river to so qualify, as a symbol of the Gila Wilderness. Another part of the population can’t see just giving Arizona all that water in a thirsty desert Southwest.
I’m of a split mind over the diversion. On the one side the preservationist platform is idealistic to the core–noble, but I wonder how practical. The diversionists, if we can call them that, are perhaps more practical, but also rather selfish. What concerns me is what concerned the legislators who were at the meeting. The money allotted for such a project is only a small percentage of the actual cost of the project, and the diversionists are not talking very openly about where the money will come from. We all know–taxes and costs of water. This will ride on the backs of the every-day Joe and Jane who use water to wash dishes or irrigate fields. The issues generally thrown around have very little to do with the actual issue at hand: Somebody has a chance at getting quite wealthy on the backs of people who can ill afford it.
But isn’t that life? The issue is rarely the issue. The source of the anxiety that drives things is rarely owned publically, because it is so often unacceptable–so we find acceptable labels to put on it. The reality is that anxiety springs from within and is triggered by things around us. Blaming another for making me anxious is an exercise in diversion; it throws stones to hide my hands. As such it rarely gets what it is after. Making the other change rarely handles the anxiety within on a long-term basis.
What we need is honesty within and a capacity to sit in the anxiety until the real cause surfaces, which is usually quite a while. Can we as a people learn to hold the burn in our hearts without trying to shove it off onto another, who is already holding their own burn? Then might have a chance at growing up as a people, owning humbly our own agendas, and beginning to live in peace.
Our local Fort Bayard marked its 149th anniversary over the weekend. The head of the Historical Society is a member of the parish, and she and her husband appeared on the front page of today’s paper. They are out to tell the story of Fort Bayard, a landmark of huge historical significance in our area.
When I was a kid I was strictly instructed not to “tell stories.” Our reporting of misdeeds was to be factual and honest. What we quickly learned is what all kids soon learn, that factual and honest can be in themselves “spun” to a certain extent, to the benefit of one’s hide or personal freedom. I have learned through that and through many other experiences in life that story-tellers are the prophets of our age. How we tell our stories are how we live, and to change the way we live all we have to do is to change the way we tell our stories.
But stories mean nothing if there is no one with which to share them. We tell stories in community and we believe stories in community. The Christian Church is the society of those who tell the story of life through the lens of the person of Jesus Christ, and through the centuries we have done it a gazillion different ways. Some of those versions are less-than-compelling for today, some would be downright harmful. Others are being discovered that enlighten us and open to us the mystery at the heart of existence. Stories told by Meister Ekhart, John Scotus Eriugena, Dame Julian of Norwich, and even the maligned Pelagius of old, and in our day, people like C. S. Lewis, Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen, (to name but a few) are opening the doors to a vital and transforming spiritual walk with the Christian God to many who had been alienated.
Tell your stories. Never give up the power of the word—your words. And then listen to your stories. Do they give life or death? Do they enlarge or shrink? Are they loving or selfish? Do they honor or dishonor? In short, are they godly or not? You can always change the way you tell your stories, and hence, the way you live.