Feb
18
2010

Gotta tend the earth if you want a rose

This Sunday, Feb. 21, we’ll meet at Karthaus’ at 4 pm. Our worship/discussion will be on Tokbox at approx. 5:30 pm. We hope you’ll join us! Read on to see what we’ll be discussing to prepare for the conversation, and if you can’t be with us on Sunday leave your thoughts and comments on the blog so we can include them. Here’s a taste:

Penance as guilt is just what our monkey minds want.  The part of our brain stem that focuses on survival and preservation of the status quo often gets its way by imposing anxiety and fear, and guilt just piles on to its agenda.  But repentance — the ultimate aim of “doing penance” — is about taking action. The word literally means to “turn around,” to “head in a new (right) direction.”  Guilt, though, feeds on our insecurities and need to blame and, left unchecked, leads us to despair.  It is the root of thinking that we’re not good enough, that we can’t do anything to solve a larger problem that causes the guilt, and so leads to inaction — the exact opposite of repentance. 

Read on for more reflections and discussion questions.

Gotta tend the earth if you want a rose

My family has the practice of giving thanks at each meal for the food we’re receiving, as we do before each Kairos community meal.  A recent article at the Sustainable Traditions website got me thinking, though.  How exactly do I give thanks for a burger that contributes to global warming (via cow emissions) or fruits and vegetables that have to be picked by migrant workers and transported to me at great costs of money and fuel?  The author poses a challenging thought:

We cannot properly call these things gifts of God; we must admit that much of what we have and consume are objects that we have obtained through unjust means and an unjust economy.? Surely we can give thanks to God for what he has provided, in spite of the injustices of our economy, but we must at the same time mourn the sustaining of our lives — our eating, clothing, housing, and transportation — through an economy of destruction.? The practice of actively turning our lives from sin and embodying our mourning for sin is called penance — an ancient practice that needs to be recovered in the lives of Christians seeking to live their lives holistically.

A call to grace empowered mourning (image: J Fowler)

A call to grace empowered mourning (image: J Fowler)

Ah, the “P” word.  Penance has gotten a bad rap lately, and with good reason.  Last week at Kairos we marked the beginning of Lent by burning palms and making the sign of the cross on our foreheads in ashes.  This ancient ritual derives from the even more ancient Jewish custom of putting on sackcloth — very rough, uncomfortable clothing — and ashes in times of mourning and atoning for sins and failings.  Through the centuries, Christians have applied the idea of penance to the body (fasting, flogging oneself, etc.) and the mind.  If you were raised in the church you might have learned to recite prayers or other talismans as penance, or you may have just learned to be really good at feeling guilty.

Penance as guilt is just what our monkey minds want.  The part of our brain stem that focuses on survival and preservation of the status quo often gets its way by imposing anxiety and fear, and guilt just piles on to its agenda.  But repentance — the ultimate aim of “doing penance” — is about taking action. The word literally means to “turn around,” to “head in a new (right) direction.”  Guilt, though, feeds on our insecurities and need to blame and, left unchecked, leads us to despair.  It is the root of thinking that we’re not good enough, that we can’t do anything to solve a larger problem that causes the guilt, and so leads to inaction — the exact opposite of repentance.

Indigo Girls sing about the difficulty of overcoming this inaction in their song “Hammer and a Nail:”

Clearing webs from the hovel
A blistered hand on the handle of a shovel
I’ve been digging too deep, I always do.
I see my face on the surface
I look a lot like narcissus
A dark abyss of an emptiness
Standing on the edge of a drowning blue.

I look behind my ears for the green
Even my sweat smells clean
Glare off the white hurts my eyes
Gotta get out of bed get a hammer and a nail
Learn how to use my hands, not just my head
I think myself into jail
Now I know a refuge never grows
From a chin in a hand in a thoughtful pose
Gotta tend the earth if you want a rose.

I had a lot of good intentions
Sit around for fifty years and then collect a pension,
Started seeing the road to hell and just where it starts.
But my life is more than a vision
The sweetest part is acting after making a decision
I started seeing the whole as a sum of its parts.

My life is part of the global life
I’d found myself becoming more immobile
When I’d think a little girl in the world can’t do anything.
A distant nation my community
A street person my responsibility
If I have a care in the world I have a gift to bring.

The imbalances of our economy may be larger than they used to be, but they are nothing new.  Luke’s gospel tells that many people came to John the Baptist seeking to get rid of their guilt with water rather than life change, and records John’s reaction to them:

When crowds of people came out for baptism because it was the popular thing to do, John exploded: “Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to deflect God’s judgment? It’s your life that must change, not your skin. And don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as ‘father.’ Being a child of Abraham is neither here nor there — children of Abraham are a dime a dozen. God can make children from stones if he wants. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.”

The crowd asked him, “Then what are we supposed to do?”

“If you have two coats, give one away,” he said. “Do the same with your food.”

Tax men also came to be baptized and said, “Teacher, what should we do?”

He told them, “No more extortion — collect only what is required by law.”

Soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He told them, “No shakedowns, no blackmail — and be content with your rations.” (Luke 3:7-14, The Message)

It’s interesting that John’s answers to the people’s question, “What are we supposed to do?” are all about relationships.  There was no United Way or Jerusalem Food Pantry at the time, so for the person with two coats to give one away she had to know someone who had no coat.  Tax collectors were called to honor the dignity of their fellow citizens and not view them as only pockets to be picked.  Persons in power, typified by soldiers, were called to wield that power fairly, and to be content with their pay.

Two-thousand years later, we still struggle with honoring the personhood of people who have less.  If you don’t believe me, consider the first two paragraphs of an article in the Feb. 15 Philadelphia Inquirer:

Last month, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer of South Carolina said that when the government helps the poor, it’s like people feeding stray animals that continually “breed.”

And just last week, Colorado state legislator Spencer Swalm said poor people in single-family homes are “dysfunctional.”

Shane Claiborne, one of the founders of Kensington’s Simple Way Community, spent time working with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, and quotes her as saying: “It’s very fashionable to talk about the poor but it’s not as fashionable to talk to the poor.”  In a YouTube video interview I saw recently Shane goes on to say:

I think we can (write) all sorts of checks, we can eat all fair trade, we can drive a hybrid car … and still not be in relationship with people who are hurting? The great tragedy of the church is not that rich folks don’t care about poor folks, but that rich folks don’t know poor folks. Because when we have an encounter across class lines the discomfort of the poor becomes our discomfort and it begins to challenge the things that we hold true.

Our always-buzzing monkey minds want to take our discomfort at recognizing our advantages and get rid of it as soon as possible.  Often this takes the form of doing a quick action that reduces our feeling of guilt.  Consider this thought from Sustainable Traditions about the true purpose of repentance:

…(P)enance is not meant to be a sign of our superiority over others; nor is it a replacement for the grace through which we live.?… What penance does is to keep me from simply saying, “oh well, so is the world.”

Questions for reflection:

  • What are some of the ways we receive sustainance through an “unjust economy”? What imbalances do we receive benefits from?
  • How might we move from “feeling guilty” to “taking action” to recognize and perhaps change these imbalances?
  • What can we do in our daily lives to “feel the discomfort of the poor” and talk to and get to know those who have less?

Written by Bob Fisher in: gatherings,lent,service,spirituality |

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