I’m presently reading a book about the importance of opening oneself to direct encounter with creation, in preparation for a 40 day hike in the Alps this summer. The author offers some of the best prose I’ve digested in a long time, but more significantly, exposes the frightful momentum in our culture towards a disembodied existence, spending most of our lives shielded by houses and screens from what God teaches us through cold and heat, wet and dry, light and dark, seasons.
David Abram recalls his childhood of embodied movement, interacting with nature, wild eyed with wonder as he listened to frogs, waded in creeks, and got drunk on looking at the stars. Then, in high school, he writes about hitting the books: “The prescription for my eyeglasses got stronger, while my skin wondered what’d become of the wind that used to explode past my face as I cycled the alleys and narrow woodlands…” He continues: “As I reflect on it now, it seems that my skin became less porous, less permeable to the abundant life that surrounds, as my conscious self steadily withdrew its participation from sensuous nature and began to live more in a clutch of heady abstractions.”
Why do we withdraw into walls, into our shells, into our heads? Abram posits our fear of death leads to creation of sanitized worlds so that we won’t be reminded of our impermanence. We’ve worked hard to create an alternate, techno/industrial reality in which we’re shielded from the moment by moment truth that we not only eat food; our bodies are ultimately food for others. Because this is terrifying to us, we build great systems to both stall death and hide it from our collective consciousness. He says this so well: “We cannot abide our vulnerability, our utter dependence upon a world that can eat us”.
Our attempts to avoid the truth, however, have come at a cost on several levels. Withdrawal from nature cuts us off from a source of revelation that’s healing and life giving in its own right, but more importantly, invites us to lives of gratitude and celebration, ultimately inviting us to Christ himself.
Fear of death keeps us locked up. Mosquitoes, ticks, bears, lightning, slipping on rocks, fast streams, cold, sunburn, heights. They’re all a threat. Why bother when you play Wii, stay indoors, and live to tell about it. The homeless, financially shipwrecked, mentally ill – these too are perceived as threats to our so called secure lives, and so we stay away. A bible study’s easier, in the comfort of the like minded. Thus does the bigger world, which not only heals and delights, but also hurts and terrifies, remain distant from most our daily lives. We’ve built a fortress and we’re hiding: from risk and our own suffering and mortality.
This alternative comes at a great price. Abram writes, “only now do we notice that all our technological utopias and dreams of machine mediated immortality may fire our minds but they cannot feed our bodies. Indeed, most of our transcendent technological visions remain motivated by a fright of the body and its myriad susceptibilities.” Or, to quote the bible, “through fear of death (humanity) has been subject to slavery…”
I love it when people who don’t show signs of having my same faith are saying the exactly what Jesus is saying: Fear of death will kill you early. You might live longer in terms of days, but surely not in terms of quality, because the reality is that everything worth doing in this life requires risk.
Crossing social divides requires risk, and we make the gospel real and visible when we take this risk because a core message is that the dividing walls are being broken down.
Living generously requires risk, because it means letting go of resources, whether time, energy, money, to be a blessing to others and as an act of worship, instead of storing them away for later or spending them on ourselves.
Getting out so that God can speak to you in creation requires risk, and this too has been a central reality in the lives of people who make the good news visible, from Abraham, to David, to Jesus, to Paul. Only in very recent history has our world so elevated convenience and safety that we can now live in climate controlled comfort 24/7, bug free, dirt free, and ostensibly risk free.
Recognizing that you are part of a life cycle and that someday you’ll be food, even as today you enjoy food, requires courage, but of course we see that Paul considered dying to be gain, not loss, and so was able to live fully, freely, boldly.
That passage quoted a few lines up, from the book of Hebrews in the Bible, is set in a context which basically offers the remarkably good news that we ca be free from the fear of death, and hence free from slavery to the Matrix that is our techno/industrial world.
How am I freed from the fear of death?
By entering eternal life now. – The future of wholeness, joy, and generosity that God is bringing as the climax of history is already here for all who want it. Embracing God’s reign now means that death is not a transfer of citizenship so much as a movement home to the fullness and wholeness of that which we now only know in part.
By embracing the reality of mortality. I was chatting with a friend on Monday who said that his dad, when in his 90’s, skipped a surgery that would have prolonged his life a few months and in the end, his choice was rooted in the belief that life goes on.
By cherishing the gifts of each day for what they are: foretastes of eternity. Crossing social divides, loving unconditionally, giving generously, and sleeping under the stars are all cut from the same cloth called “abundant life” and all of its available by entering eternity now.
The world has turned on big ideas, of course. Lincoln ended slavery in America. MLK gave birth to civil rights. Martin Luther brought the Reformation. Plato. Augustine. Hitler. Pol Pot. Lenin. Marx. Like the ideas or don’t; they’ve changed the course of the world.
And there are lots of other ideas as well, tens of thousands of “medium ideas” that have been shaping forces in still significant ways: Dorothy Day and the Catholic workers. Bill Hybels and the ‘seeker friendly church’. Bill Gates and software. Steve Jobs. Google. Facebook. Henry Ford and the automobile. Human flight. Eisenhower’s national highway project, Earth Day, and countless others at global, national, and local levels that have been impactful for better worse, ranging from multi-level marketing scams and schemes to remarkable non-profits whose intent it is to change the world, like International Justice Mission.
The thing all big ideas share in common is the notion of inviting others to step into a story “bigger than their own ‘small’ story”. Christianity in the macro sense, and local churches in the micro sense do this too, as they (we) should, because our founder, Jesus, had the biggest idea of all – the idea that the eternal reign of hope, beauty, justice, and peace is inevitable, so let’s get on with living into it now – becoming the presence of God’s good reign through our daily living as we bring hope to the hopeless in Jesus’ name. This is, of course, good and right and important. And yet….
I sometimes wonder if we’re not putting the cart before the horse, or even trying to bring mobility to the cart without even having the horse. There’s a huge risk out there among people who are living for big ideas. You find it in Taliban fundamentalists whose computers are filled with porn and Catholic priests who’ve been guilty of pedophilia. You find it in health foodists who covertly eat McNuggets, and environmentalists who speak inconvenient truths while residing in enormous, energy sucking homes. It’s the Marxist who dines on caviar while the masses stand in line for a loaf of bread. It’s the hawks who talk about duty and sacrifice, while pulling strings to exempt their own children from military service. What’s going on?
Big ideas become a danger fuel at times, feeding these wrong fires:
Hypocrisy is so common among idealists as to nearly be expected these days. Any of us can become convinced that our commitment to the big idea is all we need to live well, which of course is, to put it mildly, a pile of dung. It will always be true that the very first thing we need to do in order to live well is: live well. Beyond that, the 2nd thing we need to is live well, and the 3rd, and 4th, and it really never ends, because when it does, our success with the big idea will create a mindset that exempts us from the very thing our big idea is about. It’s no good. Life’s too short to be that misaligned.
Vicarious righteousness is a shade different than hypocrisy, and applies when we think that by contributing to big ideas, with some money, or maybe even some time, we’re suddenly deeply identified with that big idea. I give a few hundred bucks to some cause such as International Justice Mission and, presto, I’m part of the solution! Yes. But… if I continue buying cotton T-shirts at 3 for $10 down there at Wal-Mart, I’m still part of the problem, and probably a bigger part of the problem than the solution. If a preach about environmental stewardship and justice (and I have), ride my bike to work (and I often do) and then gorge myself on McDonald’s junk (yes… I have), I’m still part of the problem.
Distraction is the third fire wrongly fueled by our big ideas and causes because our love of big ideas can easily overwhelm our much needed commitment to personal integrity. In a word, we’re too busy and preoccupied with changing the world to ever change the sheets on the bed, or cook healthy food, or enjoy a walk in the forest. In the end, our lives become hopeless shells of what they could and should be, having been consumed by our need to do something great.
All these fires can be doused by one simple change: I must make sure that aligning my actual life with my values is the first, and highest pursuit of my life. If I’m trying to align with the big idea that is Christianity, that means taking Jesus’ teaching about loving others, simplifying my life, living generously, practicing hospitality, and crossing social divides must become values expressed in my daily living, not just my checkbook or my church’s teaching. It’s one thing to talk about giving stuff away. It’s another thing entirely to actually do it.
The problem with small ideas, especially for visionaries, is that they don’t bring a big adrenalin hit. There’s no big thrill is making my bed, or taking the time to cook a healthy meal about which nobody will ever read, or inviting a few people over to enjoy a glass of wine and some good conversation. It can all seem so unimportant in the light of world hunger, vast injustice, Syria, terror, and corporate greed. There’s no time for such low level living! There are wars to fight!
Yes. But first… pray. First…get enough sleep. First… begin to live the kind of life that represents what you say you believe in. First… relax and rest in the arms of Christ. After all, that is, more than anything, what he wants to offer you. Out from that soil of integrity, your calling and involvement with big ideas will come – but now in God’s scale, freed from your Messiah complex, and at rest with the notion that if you’re going to play a part in any big idea, you’ll do it better because you’ve learned to give attention to the small ideas that make up daily living.
She came in on a hot summer day to be treated for Asthma. Dr. Matt Sleeth treated the young child, born into poverty, and told little Etta for whom breathe had become a literal life and death matter, that he wouldn’t let her die. A few years later though, she did die, in a severe asthma attack – in prosperous America. Don’t worry – this isn’t a post about American health care system(s). It’s about something much more important- how our reading, or misreading, of the Bible shapes our actions and how those actions affect other people.
Dr. Sleeth gives us a hint of the issue when he writes that “to reduce traffic congestion during the Olympics, the city of Atlanta closed the downtown area to car traffic, increased access to public transportation through additional buses and tyrains, and promoted flexible work schedules, carpooling, and telecommuting for Atlanta workers. The result: for seventeen days, peak daily ozone concentrations decreased 28%. Concurrently, acute asthma events dropped as much as 44%. Atlanta’s inner-city children on Medicaid seemed to benefit the most, showing a more than 40% decrease in asthma related emergency room visits. After the Olympics, when Atlanta traffic patterns returned to normal, so did Ozone concentration, asthma attacks, and rates of emergency room visits among the poor.”
The colors of brokenness in our world are many: human trafficking, abortion, torture, totalitarianism imposed in the name of God, or the state, or both, addictive behaviors of every stripe, greed, loneliness, boredom, poverty, lack of access to clean water or health care. The good news is that for many of these issues, Christians are stepping up, painting the colors of hope on the canvass of their world. Soon, our church will begin partnering with a mobile medical clinic to meet the needs of an increasingly large uninsured American populace, which will better enable us to serve our world and make God’s reign visible.
There’s an area though of injustice and devastation that at best gets little attention among Christ followers. At worst this area is dismissed as snake oil science, or new age attempts at a one world government. The neglected area is environmentalism, and its well beyond time that the church wake up to just how central stewardship of the planet is to our calling. Scott Sabin, who directs a favorite project of mine (more about that later) has written a simple small book about environmental stewardship as a central element of discipleship. His thesis is that it’s central for __ reasons.
1. Our God given task has never changed. – Genesis 1 & 2 reminds us that our calling is to ‘serve’ (translated ‘work’ in most Bibles) and ‘protect’ (translated ‘keep’) the garden. It was, in fact, the very first job God gave to humanity, and though humans were removed from the garden, every indication of God’s dealings with his people (see especially the environmental laws related to Israel’s treatment of the land, and related public health laws having to do with water sanitation and waste treatment) is that this calling never left humanity. To the contrary, God’s judgement on Israel is that ‘the land mourns‘. When our lives are driven by greed and consumerism, we’ll overuse and abuse creation, and the result will be environmental degradation.
2. Our fallen world cries out for us to act. Romans 8 tells us that all of creation is longing for the redemption of humanity, that creation is groaning as humankind abuses creation. You see, in God’s creation mandate he told all creatures to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ so that the cycle of replenishment could continue on the earth down through the millenia. Instead, we’re presently seeing increasingly species extinctions that are caused by humans (especially through pollution, overfishing and over hunting). This isn’t just a problem for the whales and polar bears. The same causes of extinction create cultural crises, and environmental crisis, so that people, made in God’s image, suffer too. Cancer and Asthma are on the rise in America, but that’s less than even the tip of the melting iceberg.
3. It’s part of the upstream solution to numerous downstream problems. Scott’s book speaks of environmental as a justice issue because our failure to steward the earth has become a contributing factor to countless justice issues:
“There is a dramatic statistical correlation between race and proximity to facilities where hazardous waste is treated, stored, and disposed of.” (Scott Sabin) Entire communities are destroyed in Appalachia by “mountaintop removal coal mining practices” which blow the top 800′ off a mountain to get at the coal, destroying streams and water tables for communities below. It’s cheap and efficient if your only consideration is dollars. But if the long term well being of communities is worth anything, then we need to rethink this.
Illegal immigration? Countless immigrants from Mexico make their way to the states, not because they want x-boxes and flat screen TV’s, but because their land has stopped producing anything at all, having been stripped of its topsoil for a host of reasons. Astonishingly, some Americans have responded to this by saying we need to deport ‘these people’ so that we can collectively have a smaller environmental footprint. I can’t respond to that kind of thinking without swearing, so I’ll move on.
In Thailand, this same problem doesn’t lead to illegal immigration – it leads to parents selling their children, often unwittingly, into sexual slavery. That 13 year old girl sleeping with 20 men a night is doing this because her parents were unable to feed her, or themselves.
What does all this have to do with the Bible? Many of us remember reading John 3:16 as children and being told to replace the Bible’s words, “the world” with our own name. So, when I was in 4th grade, I stole a glance in Sunday school at the brown haired girl across the circle before reading out loud, “For God so loved Richard Dahlstrom that he gave his only son”. It’s great to be loved by God. It’s terrible to mess with the Bible that way. God was saying something significant here about his love, not just for me, not just for humanity even, but for the whole world – for rock badgers and mountain goats, salmon and honeybees, forests and mountaintops. By the reading the book of Job, I get the feeling that God loved the world because he delighted in it, and while that’s true, the more I understand the world, the more I realize that he loved every element in the world because every element needs every other element. The ones in charge of loving the whole world on God’s behalf? Well, these days, it’s supposed to be God’s followers. Instead, God’s followers are often too busy protecting free markets and deregulation, so they outsource environmentalism to “the world”. I, for one, am moving in a different direction because I can’t appeal to Genesis as the basis for marriage and continue to be silent on God’s words regarding care for the planet which come from the same chapter in the Bible.
I welcome your thoughts…