Monday, March 28, 2011

Lenten Sacrifices, Water, and the News

This week leaves me dizzy with world news on global conflict. Official wars in Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq, unofficial wars in countless corners of the world, attacks on villagers in mining communities in El Salvador, another election in Canada, air attacks in Gaza, and sex abuse cases in Philadelphia. Then there was Earth Day reminding us of the constant threat of self-annihilation through greed and apathy. And who knows what we haven’t even heard about?

The news, any day, any week, reminds me that life is fragile, and that on a personal level, prayer is essential. Without the peace of reflection, the centring on God’s presence that Lent calls us to, the only possibility would be to dig my head in the sand and ignore all social responsibility.

That of course, is unacceptable. The Lenten season calls us to live intentionally, however difficult that may be. For myself, several things demand attention, and sifting through the different demands hasn’t been easy. In the end I set myself the Lenten goal of growing my personal knowledge about the water bottle industry and investigating the ways in which it operates both in North America and abroad. The recent movie ‘Tapped’ shows that companies like Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Nestle hold little regard for the ecosystems, political structures, or lives of the people in the places where they collect their water. Water, symbol of our baptism, source of our life, is more precious than oil.

I don’t drink bottled water very often, but I do like pop. So for Lent, I gave up soft drinks. It hasn’t been easy. By 1:00pm on the first few days, I was busily rationalizing why I could/should break my resolve, calm my nerves, and have a pop. I don’t drink coffee either, so soft drinks were my primary source of caffeine. My poor husband, children and colleagues demonstrated profound patience in the early days. But now that the cravings have subsided, I feel better.

I hope that I don’t go back to drinking soft drinks. The more I learn of the world’s water issues, the stronger my resolve becomes. There is this connection between the large issues of the world and the small issues that we deal with daily. Will the next war be fought over water? Corporations need to be held to account by the choices we make. So do governments. So do religious hierarchies. Whatever Lenten sacrifice you choose to make, may it enrich not only your personal life, but the life of the world.

ADDENDUM: Next week, Americans will gather in Washington DC to call for the closing of the School of the Americas (see blog post, December 11, below). They will fast for a week, and peacefully proclaim the need for justice in corporate and military ethics. My thoughts and prayers go out to them as they prepare for this event.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Heartbeat of Lent

In silence I hear the beating of my heart, a rhythm that mirrors the tempo heard in the womb of my mother. We speak of silence as if it exists, as if it is real, and yet we have almost no conscious experience of it.

Can we turn off our heart for a minute even? Can we turn off our thoughts? What then exists in that space we call silence? Only ourselves, only our God.

In the biblical book 1Kings, Elijah, the ancient prophet, journeys for forty days and forty nights to Mount Horeb (Sinai) where Moses received the Ten Commandments centuries earlier. Elijah wanders desperate, lonely and afraid. He drags himself on, outcast by rulers and priests alike, as the people turn away from God and God’s prophet.

Elijah would sleep, would let himself die, but God does not allow it. Instead he is sent to await God’s presence on the sacred mountain. Wind rends the mountain, but God is not in the wind. An earthquake follows, but God is not in the earthquake. A fire erupts but God is not there either. Finally in the silence that follows, God comes to Elijah as a ‘still small voice’ (1 Kings 19:12).

In stillness, God instructs Elijah of what he must do next. And Elijah follows, Elijah listens.

We too find ourselves on a Lenten forty day journey to come closer to God. We too are called to spend time with God in silence. Not forever, not for always. Elijah does not remain on the mountain. But we cannot act responsibly, sacredly, without first spending time with God.

In the New Testament, Jesus climbs a mountain with Peter, James and John, and stands transfigured before them, shining bright, with Moses and Elijah at his side. But when Peter urges Jesus to stay on the mountain, to create booths for everyone to remain above and away from the crowds, God refuses.

Like Elijah, like Peter, we stand at a moment in history when it appears as if cataclysm is imminent (and for many people in the world, including those in Japan, has already come). Environmental degradation threatens life itself, materialism fuels a sense of the self indistinguishable from selfishness, and religious hierarchies often appear more intent on control, exclusion and power than facilitating humanity’s ability to hear the still small voice of God.

What then are we to do amidst this cacophony of competing demands? Some flee to the mountain, refusing to return to the world, hiding amongst a self-centred charismatic and wasted faith from the dirt and uncertainty of life. Others remain unaware that the mountain even exists beyond the screen of secular busyness.

But the mountain feeds the valley as a stream splashes down a hillside into the lived world. So we move from one to the other in a heart-thrumming rhythm, a breath inspired and exhaled. Return to God. Reach for the world. Find that still small voice, that silent gap amidst the heartbeat of life. Listen, pray. Follow. Then act.

Once we have spent that time in silence, once we have climbed that mountain and beheld God, we are called to move beyond silence, to speak the words that must be said, to bend to the task of creating a world of peace, justice and love.

In the complexity of life, we need to move to the rhythm of our hearts and to the voice of our God. Like that moment between heartbeats, we need silence in our lives. But without the thump of life, of reality, we would be nothing. So raise your voice. Say your piece. Throw yourself in the fray, nourished always by that still small voice that carries through silence and noise, rest and confusion, laughter and tears, up and down, lost and found.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Lenten Peace

“Peace, peace, to the far and to the near says the Lord.” (Isaiah 57:19)

The world spins and crashes even as Lent calls us to breathe deeply, take this season slow. But earthquakes, tsunamis, riots, protests and nuclear meltdowns, not to mention the individual dramas of our lives that will never make headlines, do not concede us the time for breath, for reflection, for peace.

This may be the reason Jesus went into the desert. The harshness of the Judean desert brings a stillness that even two thousand years ago could not be found in daily life. And so for a moment we are asked to seek our own desert, our own place of peace.

A friend of mine struggles as she tries to enjoy a sabbatical year. Unable to relax, to spend time at peace, she drives herself to stay busy, to remain involved, to stretch herself. We all do this perhaps. Idleness can bring guilt, unrest. But stretching ourselves is dangerous on a continuous basis. Even elastics snap.

I suspect that few people reading this will be able to take forty days for contemplation, and even fewer can afford a sabbatical year. It isn’t necessary. It isn’t required. None of us are burdened with the salvation of the world. And yet, together, collectively, all of us share some responsibility for it.

If we are to feed our world, if we are to be there for our neighbour and for the distant stranger in the crises that inevitably come, we must allow time for thought, meditation, even prayer. We must divest ourselves of the guilt that forbids us to spend a moment in that empty space where nothing is a barrier to our God.

It is true, our reflections during lent should lead us to action, just as Jesus’ time away prepared him for his role in the world. They may lead us to cry out for justice with the people of Wisconsin or Libya. They may lead us to reach out in solidarity with the people of Japan. They may lead us to speak out for truth in our own nation. They may lead us to kindnesses within our own families and communities.

But action without thought, without preparation, can often do as much harm as good. Continued frenzied action that prevents time for laughter, games, quiet and prayer, is action that if nothing else, will eventually harm the soul.

So I invite you this lent, to claim that quiet space in your life. Find your peace, find yourself, find your God.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Truth in Ashes

Ashes and smoke drift toward me, the acrid smell drawing my attention.

I stand on the soccer pitch at Moleli High School, and watch the soaring flames move closer. The British teachers have mobilized the students with buckets filled with precious water, a line of them soaking the outer edges of the pitch, which in Zimbabwe in late September is mostly dirt anyway.

But the wilderness of trees beyond the field, twisted acacia, monkey fruit, and mopane, provide dried tinder that burns easily, happily feeding the flames.

I step toward the line of improvised firefighters.

“Don’t bother,” says a voice beside me.

Mai Chinogwenya, the head of the math department, stands beside me shaking her head, arms crossed.

“There’s no danger,” she continues.

“How do you know?” I ask.

She looks at me, probably wondering how anyone can be so stupid. Whoever has designed the school layout knows about fire. The dirt-covered sports fields ring the school, providing a natural barrier to flames. The buildings are mostly brick and cement anyway, so any would-be danger comes mostly from smoke.

Mai explains all this to me, then adds, “Besides, the wind’s changing direction. Anyone can see that. They’re wasting water, and their time.”

“They don’t know,” I offer.

She shrugs, too polite and good humoured to point out that they should ask. The brush fire has now reached the far edge of the soccer pitch. We watch the British teachers hit at small pockets of fire with brooms. Their student bucket-brigade moves slowly, clearly less-than-enthusiastic, well-accustomed to fire. Other Zimbabwean teachers cluster together, enjoying the spectacle, saving their energy to help only if it’s necessary. They’re amused, but indulgent of this Western tendency to rush into things, to sometimes miss the big picture and the local wisdom.

In the West (and North), many of us have forgotten things that people who live closer to the earth learn early in life. Like the fact that fire is natural and unavoidable, that it can be managed and lived with, that it can help not only for food and heat but for growth, and that it has a symbolic cleansing power that cultures have recognized for millennia.

Whether in the burnt offerings of the ancient Hebrews or the cremations on the Ganges, humanity recognizes that we have need in our lives to burn away the old to make way for the new. In our modern electronic culture, we can easily forget the basics, that those things that are most dangerous, like fire, like religion, can also be life-giving and essential.

As we enter the season of Lent on this Ash Wednesday, my thoughts return to that day, the ashes swirling, the heat, and the reminder to take it slow. Human life is short, fragile, burnable, but meant to be breathed in deeply, and experienced richly. We are surrounded by wisdom, pain, laughter, joy, loss, love - all the flickering colours of a flame. If we fight the truth that ultimately we too will be reduced to dust, we also fight the truth that we are part of something larger than ourselves, something deep, something necessary, something eternal.