Sunday, September 27, 2009

Spirit Surprise (9/27/09)

Spirit Surprise
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

September 27th, 2009

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Mark 9:38-50

Yesterday about thirty of us gathered in Martin Hall for the Awakening the Dreamer symposium. I was impressed that so many took an entire day, their Saturday, and spent it at church in a conference about serious things. It wasn’t a trip to the ballgame.

People came from all over. In addition to people from this congregation there were folks from around the Tri-Cities as well as Asheville, Raleigh, and Columbia, South Carolina. Dr. Vinita Eusebius who is in the United States for a month as an International Peacemaker, was there.  She received the prize for the longest distance traveled as she flew in from India.

She will be in Holston Presbytery this week talking about poverty, children at risk, the empowerment of women, and water. We are all talking about the same things. She will be speaking tonight at 7 p.m. again in Martin Hall.

This weekend we were addressing topics that one might say was beyond the scope of our concern and the sphere of our influence. We were contemplating global issues like economics, the environment, poverty, the state of the planet, the extinction of species, and the fate of the human race. This was no Saturday afternoon matinee.

At the same time while thirty of us were meeting in a church basement in a little town in East Tennessee, another meeting was underway up north. The leaders of the twenty wealthiest nations on the planet were meeting in Pittsburgh.

They are talking about serious things, too. They are talking about economics, and trade, and the International Monetary Fund, and geopolitics, and how the wealthy countries can get the poor countries to keep sending the wealthy countries the good stuff. They are talking about how we can keep this energizer bunny, this globalized industrial economy growing and growing and growing.

One might be tempted to say to the little group meeting in the church basement in Appalachia:

“Why are you worrying your pretty little heads about all of this? The folks in Pittsburgh will take care of it. You don’t need to be thinking about these serious things. Take it easy. Treat yourself. Go down to the Wal-Mart and buy yourself a toaster oven. Prices have been rolled back. The big boys will take care of the heavy thinking.”
Those of us in the church basement heard that before. We have heard that many times before. We listened to it for too long. We obeyed for too long. For too long we denied what our senses have been showing us.

With our eyes, ears, noses, fingers, and tongues we know what is happening. We know it. We can see it. We can hear it, smell it, touch it and taste it. We know what is happening to our home, Earth, and our fellow sisters and brothers and all the other creatures that evolution took 14 billion years to bring to life, and that we have taken less than a century to bring to the edge of permanent death.

The dream of the leaders of the 20 wealthiest nations is a dream that is killing this planet and us. It is not a dream. It is a nightmare. It is the nightmarish dream of unlimited exponential economic growth. It is pumping out that oil 24/7 and producing plastic clock radios non-stop.

Meanwhile, our arctic ice is melting; our oceans are filling with plastic; and we are dying.

The vision of our leaders is what has led us to this situation. As the late Thomas Berry wrote in his book, The Great Work:
The ideal is to take the greatest possible amount of natural resources, process these resources, put them through the consumer economy as quickly as possible, then on to the waste heap. This we consider as progress—even though the immense accumulation of junk is overwhelming the landscape, saturating the skies, and filling the oceans. (p. 76)
So, yes, we are worrying our pretty little heads about it in the basement of the church.

During the program we heard from a great number of thinkers, poets, and activists. One poem stuck with me. We heard just a few lines from it. It was enough to haunt me. It was written by a young man by the name of Drew Dellinger. It went like this:
it's 3:23 in the morning
and I can't sleep
because my great great grandchildren
ask me in dreams
what did you do while the earth was unraveling?
In the basement of the church we worried and wondered and wept just a little.

So while the G20 was in Pittsburgh surrounded by their stormtroopers for protection, we were in the church basement. The police were ready in Pittsburgh. They were decked out in riot gear like a Star Wars army. They had tear gas which they used.

They had a new toy, a sonic cannon. It is a long-range acoustic weapon. The U.S. military has used it against Somali pirates and Iraqi insurgents. This weekend they used it for the first time against American citizens. The media called those who dared to protest the G20 “anarchists.” So if they are anarchists I guess it’s O.K.

I am thinking about one of the participants at our symposium, though. He is a second year student at Warren Wilson College. He drove himself up from Asheville to spend his Saturday with us. He is majoring in environmental studies. He told me that some of his friends, his fellow college students, had gone up to Pittsburgh to protest the G20 summit. Anarchists they must be, these students from Warren Wilson College.

They should know better than to get in the way of the stormtroopers who are protecting the dream. They are protecting our Wal-Mart purchases. They are protecting uninterrupted access to all the comforts to which we have grown accustomed. Don’t look too closely to what the G20 is doing. Don’t look at the destruction of ecosystems and entire peoples. Don’t pay attention to the man behind the curtain says the wizard, or else you will face our tear gas and a blast from our sonic cannon.

It takes a lot of energy and military firepower to keep a dying dream alive. The dream of unlimited industrial economic growth is dying. My money is on a new dream. This is a dream that is being articulated in unexpected places all over the world.

In our two readings from scripture, the Spirit is unleashed on the unexpecting and the unexpected. Moses gathers his 70 elders into the sacred tent of meeting. The reason he is gathering them is that Moses realizes he has a resource problem. The people want meat and Moses knows they do not have enough. Moses says to God:

“Even if we butchered all of our sheep and cattle, or caught every fish in the sea, we wouldn’t have enough to feed all these people.”

The Lord says to Moses: “I can do anything. Just watch and see my words come true.”
Moses gathers the leaders into the tent and Spirit pours out upon them and they prophesy. Some of this Spirit spills out on Eldad and Medad, who were outside the tent. They begin to prophesy. They are outside the sacred tent. They are outside the place of authority.

Moses’ assistant knows that. He tells Moses, “Hey you need to stop these guys! This can’t possibly be from God. They are working outside the system!"

Moses sees the situation. "No, I am not going to stop them," he says. "I wish the Lord would make everyone a prophet."

The new dream of sustainability, social justice, and spiritual fulfillment is unfolding all over the world including in church basements in Appalachia. Old structures and systems cannot contain the dream. The dream of Spirit is too large and too comprehensive to be managed by corporate profit and loss statements.

People all over the world are catching the dream of Spirit. They are outside the sacred tent—outside the places of authority—outside traditional structures of power. No one is running the dream. No one is in control. Spirit is spilling out all over. People are growing gardens and learning about rainforests and protesting economic summits and doing all kinds of things because Spirit is showing us a new dream.

It is the dream of people living with Earth and in relationship with all the inhabitants of Earth including the two-leggeds and the four-leggeds and winged ones. It is a dream that the G20, the IMF, Wall Street, Wal-Mart, the World Trade Organization and all the rest cannot imagine.  It is not that they are bad people. They are simply working from an outdated manual. The dream of unlimited economic industrial growth has ended. We need a funeral. The dream of exploiting Earth’s resources indefinitely is over. Earth itself is saying, “Enough. You need to find a new way, a new-ancient way.”

People are beginning to awaken from a centuries-long slumber. They are weeping. They are recognizing the cost of this former dream. They are grieving. They are realizing that if they are going to be ancestors the dream will change. They know that they will be participants in this new dream. They are uncertain and anxious because they do not know what to do or where to start. Of course, “they” are us.

The path we are exploring during the season of Fall is the via negativa or the way of letting go and letting be. It is a path of depth. It is emptiness and emptying. It is the path of emptying ourselves of old images, models and ideals, of becoming a vessel so that we can make space for new visions. We don’t have to have the answer. We don’t need the solution. We need to trust that the Universe wants us to ask the questions.

Only with a healthy via negativa that dances with the via positiva the celebration of life can we be open to the via creativa the way of imagination, creativity and Spirit, which then leads us to the via transformativa the way of justice-making the way of sustainability, social justice, and spiritual fulfillment.

These paths are not linear, they flow into each other. They are like a spiral. We are simply invited to recognize and explore them. The spiritual path of letting go can be the most difficult because we spend a lot of energy, psychic energy, keeping a lid on it. We don’t want to feel the sadness so we put a lot of effort into denying it, covering it, avoiding it, or numbing it. The spiritual path of letting go invites us to explore it. Rather than spend our energy controlling it, we allow the energy to come up through it.

Then and really only then can the creativity of our species really blossom. That is the Spirit spilling out all over the place. Our ancient texts tell us this. Our ancestors knew about that. They knew you couldn’t control Spirit. Moses and Jesus are spiritual leaders, wise ones, because they could sense the activity and presence of Spirit.

In the Gospel reading, the disciples are upset that some other guy is casting out demons in the name of Jesus, and he is not a card-carrying member of the Jesus team. We stopped him of course, they said. Jesus said to them, “Don’t stop him. Whoever is not against us is for us.”   That is openness to Spirit. Get allies when you can. We are in this together.

Our descendants are counting on us. They are asking us in our dreams what we did when Earth began to unravel. They are asking us what life means for us. That is the spiritual fulfillment part. I am going to close with a quote that was given to us at the symposium yesterday. This is from George Bernard Shaw:
“This is the true joy in life … being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one … being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy … I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die. For the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me. It’s a sort of splendid torch which I’ve got to hold up for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing on to future generations.”

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Awakening the Dreamer (9/13/09)

Awakening the Dreamer
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

September 13th, 2009

I am sure you have played this game before.

If you could get in a time machine and go back to any time period in history and watch the events unfold, where and when would you go?

I can think of a few times and places I would like to visit. I would like to see the birth of the first of the species homo sapiens, the invention of the wheel, the invention of agriculture, the building of Pharaoh’s pyramids, Jesus “sermon on the mount” or perhaps his famous question to his followers, “who do you say that I am?” and so forth.

It would have been fun to witness the moment when Constantine dreamed up his scheme to Christianize the Roman Empire thereby making all his imperial decisions “holy” ones. I would have liked to have been there when Galileo realized that Earth moved around the sun.  It would be fascinating to see first hand the great events that turned society one way instead of another.

But of all the significant times and places to be throughout history, there may be no time or place more significant than right here and right now.

The human beings alive on this day, September 13
th, 2009, will do more to shape the future, either by action or inaction, than any other people in any other time.

That sounds like a grand, hyperbolic statement. Are we that important? Yes and no. We are only important because we live in an important time.

The irony is that most of us are completely oblivious. We are oblivious to the importance of the time and the events that are unfolding. Also, we are oblivious to our own power to respond to these events and thereby impact outcomes.

We need to awaken. Awakening or waking up is a spiritual concept inherent in all wisdom traditions. When we read the gospels we find both John the Baptist and Jesus saying, “Repent!” As in “Repent! The kingdom of God is near.” Or “Repent and believe the good news.”

What does “repent” mean? I had previously thought that it meant that we need to feel bad and confess our sins and try to do better. It is often placed in the context of being saved so you can go to heaven when you die.

The word in Greek is metanoia and it has a variety of meanings including turning, or returning. Changing or reorienting are other possibilities. Underneath it is awakening. It is a change of awareness. Jesus and John the Baptist before him were calling on people to “Wake up!” Wake up and smell the coffee!

When you read the Bible and run across the word repent, substitute “wake up” and see how it changes the meaning. Wake up, become conscious, open your eyes, open your ears.

My fifth grade teacher always had a yard stick with him. He would swing it around and every now and then he would whack the top of his desk or one of the student’s desks. “Wake up, people!”

The idea here is that we are sleeping. We are going through the motions. We are not aware of what is happening, not aware of our surroundings, and not aware of the changes that are taking place. We are setting ourselves up to be unconscious victims rather than conscious actors.

The message of Jesus, John the Baptist, and the Hebrew prophets was essentially the same: Wake up, wake up, wake up. Buddha and Muhammad offered the same message: wake up. Be conscious. Be aware.

In a couple of weeks we are hosting a symposium, entitled appropriately enough, Awakening the Dreamer. It is an interesting play on words. Awakening from slumber is one part of that. We are also awakening the dreamer in us; awakening our imagination. The idea is to awaken within us our creativity and imagination. The task before us is to rethink meaning, value, and purpose.

I just finished an important book by a journalist who has written extensively on environmental issues, Dianne Dumanoski. Her latest book was just published this July. It is entitled, The End of the Long Summer: Why We Must Remake Our Civilization to Survive on a Volatile Earth.

The Long Summer she refers to is the last 12,000 years. This past 12,000 years have been a period of rare stability in terms of Earth’s climate. This stability has allowed for the emergence of complex civilization. This stability is changing, in part because of human impact. She invites us to imagine a goldfish who somehow climbed out of the tank and started messing with the controls. According to Dumanoski, the changes have been set in motion and are not likely to be reversed. Our role is to adapt to them.

She writes:
The End of the Long Summer looks anew at the human story and sets forth an account radically different from the onward and upward progress narrative of the modern era. The source of its hope lies not in the belief that humans are destined to achieve dominion but rather in the evidence that we are a stormworthy lineage that has managed to flourish on an increasingly volatile Earth. We come from a long line of survivors who were tempered in the crucible of climatic reversals and catastrophic change. This book also explores the challenge of living in a time of great uncertainty—a challenge our forebears faced repeatedly in their evolutionary passage—and what this moment requires of us. Above all else, it concerns, “the obligation to endure.” P. 3.
I recommend her book for the scope of the challenge. The challenge is not how we are going to solve particular energy or environmental problems. The challenge is how we are going to respond and survive to changes that are upon us. That will depend on how we see ourselves.

  • Do we see ourselves as entitled? Entitled to a lifestyle of energy consumption beyond our means?
  • Or do we see ourselves as flexible and adaptable, living within the means of Earth and its bounty?

  • Do we see Earth as a storehouse of resources to accumulate, use, and discard?
  • Or do we see Earth as a living organism in and of itself of which we are a part?

  • Is our role to accumulate enough wealth so we can spend the last 20 years of our lives playing golf in Florida?
  • Or is our role to give away and share not only material things but eternal things like wisdom and skills, especially to our children.

I think we have but one role. That is to prepare our children for a future that is beyond prediction, beyond what we can construct, beyond what we know. What will this preparation involve? Practice. Practicing flexibility.
Practicing creativity.
Practicing cooperation.
Practicing collaboration.
Practicing trust.
Practicing goodness.
Practicing dreaming.

This is the most exciting and perilous time to be alive. It is times like these that the great masterpieces of civilization are written. The legends and the great myths were all written for times such as these.

Forget Frodo Baggins and Lord of the Rings.
Forget Moses crossing the Sea of Reeds.
Utnapishtim surviving the flood with his little boat.

This is our time. The adventure before us is nothing less than the great adventures of the gods and the goddesses.

When I say “forget” I mean that rhetorically of course. We need to remember and learn those great stories.

  • All of those stories are about change and how the heroes and the heroines responded to change.
  • All of those stories are about how they discovered within themselves the skills and the character to survive.
  • All of these stories, all of our wisdom tradition, is preparation for what we are going to face in the coming decades.

When I say coming decades, I mean starting now. We are in the zone.

To illustrate the changes coming I refer to two news stories that have appeared in the last couple of weeks.

British Petroleum is celebrating the discovery of an oil field, 250 miles off the coast in the Gulf of Mexico. 250 miles in the water. Six miles below the surface. They are celebrating the great technology they have to drill that deep and that far out.

We should be asking what does it mean that we have to go to that extent to find oil?

This is the Tiber field and BP is calling it a “giant” find. According to the article:
BP says it could hold between 4 billion and 6 billion barrels of crude and natural gas…. Of that total, the companies might be able to extract the equivalent of 450 million barrels of oil.”
450 million barrels of oil. That’s a lot. Until we consider. How much oil does the world consume everyday? 80 million barrels.

Every day, the derricks are pumping around the clock. We produce and consume about 80 million barrels of oil a day. The United States consumes a fourth of that, 
20 million barrels every day.

450 million barrels divided by 80 is almost six days. Not quite a week.

What if they were to get all 6 billion barrels? How long would that last?

75 days. Between now and Thanksgiving.

International Energy Agency reported last year that the world will have to discover fields as big as six Saudi Arabias every year by 2030 to meet demand.

How important is oil? Excuse me while I blaspheme:
O Cheap Oil: In you we live and move and have our being.
For the past century, life as we know it has been based on the abundance of cheap oil. Everything we have and value is because of petroleum. Oil, natural gas, coal, the big three. These gifts of life millions of years past are finite and each is reaching its peak in terms of production capacity. That means life as we know it is peaking.

I won’t argue the point. I refer you to a website, The Oil Drum. Also, authors who have written about these things include Richard HeinbergJames Howard Kunstler, and Paul Roberts.

I will stop beating this horse. Perhaps you don’t believe them. Let’s say for sake of argument that there are 200 trillion barrels of oil that we somehow missed in North Dakota. Let’s say we could keep this party going for another 100 years.

Well, there is another side of it. We are caught between oil supply and the effects of oil consumption. Because of fossil fuels, our global population has expanded to over 6 and ½ billion. That population has doubled since I was in the 6th grade. The strain on fisheries, food supply, fresh water increases each day. Not to mention pollution of air and water and the grim reaper, climate change.

Here is the second story that is a sign of our times. For the first time in the history of human seafaring, a ship is crossing the arctic. This is from the Independent:
It has been one of the elusive goals of seafaring nations almost since the beginnings of waterborne trade, but for nearly 500 years the idea has been dismissed as an impossible dream. Now, as a result of global warming, the dream is about to come true.

Within days, a journey that represents both a huge commercial boon and a dark milestone on the route to environmental catastrophe is expected to be completed for the first time.

No commercial vessel has ever successfully travelled the North-east Passage, a fabled Arctic Sea route that links the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific far more directly than the usual southerly cargo route. Explorers throughout history have tried, and failed; some have died in the attempt.

But early next week the German-owned vessels, Beluga Fraternity and Beluga Foresight, are scheduled to dock in the Dutch port of Rotterdam. It is the culmination of a two-month voyage from South Korea across the perilous waters of the Arctic, where an unprecedented ice-melt has at last made the previously impassable course a viable possibility.
We have been burning the candle at both ends and it is getting shorter.

Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the anointed.” Jesus then proceeded to tell them that the Son of Man or the Human Being, the anointed, must undergo suffering, death, and then rise again.

The anointed human being in a perilous time, a time of great change and challenge, must learn to let go, to lose all claim to entitlement, to discover one’s soul, and to find the resources of strength, courage, and life. We are called now to awaken. We are called to prepare our children for an unknown and unprecedented future.

It will be fraught with uncertainty, fraught with danger, and filled with life. Quoting Dianne Dumanoski:
Looking ahead it is natural to focus on the dangers, but those who will be making their way in this uncertain future will also have unusual opportunities….In the struggle to continue the human journey, they may live lives enlarged by a shared sense of great purpose, leavened by imagination, and enriched by the creativity that survival has always required. P. 252