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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Something to Keep

The Gift (by Li-Young Lee)

To pull the metal splinter from my palm
my father recited a story in a low voice.
I watched his lovely face and not the blade.
Before the story ended, he’d removed
the iron sliver I thought I’d die from.

I can’t remember the tale,
but hear his voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.
And I recall his hands,
two measures of tenderness
he laid against my face,
the flames of discipline
he raised above my head.

Had you entered that afternoon
you would have thought you saw a man
planting something in a boy’s palm,
a silver tear, a tiny flame.
Had you followed that boy
you would have arrived here,
where I bend over my wife’s right hand.

Look how I shave her thumbnail down
so carefully she feels no pain.
Watch as I lift the splinter out.
I was seven when my father
took my hand like this,
and I did not hold that shard
between my fingers and think,
Metal that will bury me,
christen it Little Assassin,
Ore Going Deep for My Heart.
And I did not lift up my wound and cry,
Death visited here!
I did what a child does
when he’s given something to keep.
I kissed my father.

A few weeks ago as I considered what I might preach on this Father’s Day, I cradled the final lines of this poem. I turned them over in the palm of my heart. The biblical scholar Ellen Davis says in biblical language, heart most closely resembles imagination in 21st century terms. As I imagined what a child does when given something to keep, when I imagined a father’s hands, two measures of tenderness… laid against [a] face/ the flames of discipline… raised above [a] head, I conjured images of Yahweh, the God of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament—a Creator both delighted and devastated by the creatures of his creation.

And as the days mounted and the news reports of the Deepwater Horizon explosion continued to gush oil and catastrophe in equal measure, I knew I would have to summon the courage to consider with you today the spiritual costs of this egregious environmental disaster.

For those of you who have not seen it, I encourage you to watch online Rachel Maddow’s version of the speech she wished President Obama had given Tuesday from the Oval Office. No doubt all of you have heard newscasts and read commentaries detailing the toll on shorelines and marine life, human beings and economies, international political and corporate relations. Millions of barrels of oil released, millions more to come. The iconic images of brown pelicans slick with crude, beaches black with tar. Docked shrimpers, dying turtles, eleven dead oil workers, no real end to the damage in sight.

It is a rapacious hunger we have for oil and the life of more. In 21st century parlance, it is an addiction to an unsustainable way of life where we, the addicts desperate for more, ransack our home, trash our relationships, and cast ourselves further into estrangement from what gave us life, what rooted us in belonging, what calls to us still.

The great wisdom in the modern recovery movement is the understanding of addiction as not just a physical disease, but a spiritual malaise. A recognition of an unquenchable compulsion for something to fill the black hole. Years before I found my way to AA, I sat in a therapist’s office noting that I would eat Ben and Jerry’s ice cream in a vain attempt to fill the black hole. When I got to the halls of AA and heard countless others use that phrase I knew I was home because I didn’t have to explain what I meant or how the black hole felt. In recovery, the black hole disappears as one gains or returns to spiritual alignment. I remember telling my counselor I came into the world with a black hole. No one made it, not my parents or peers or even strangers. I used to think it made me unique. AA suggests it makes me legion with millions of others. Contemplating the most recent horrific oil spill—a word frighteningly euphemistic—makes me realize the black hole of spiritual estrangement may well be a condition we all face.

Ellen Davis, the biblical scholar I mentioned earlier, who teaches at Duke University Divinity School, explained in a recent interview with Krista Tippet on the marvelous public radio program, “Speaking of Faith,” that human beings reading the creation accounts in Genesis overlook that we are indeed creatures, beings of creation, not separate and apart from creation but integral to it. We are placed into a context just as other creatures are. Professor Davis says, “We are living amongst creatures who are blessed before we even come into existence. I think that's an important thing to recognize.”

We live in a nation and function within an economy and political system informed by a biblical understanding based on a single verse in Genesis that appears to give humans dominion: license to manage, control, even exploit what we perceive as resources not fellow creatures. Ellen Davis, scholar of the Hebrew Bible, nuances the word that undergirds our assumptions and entitlement.

The Hebrew word is a strong word and I render it “exercise skilled mastery amongst the creatures” because…the notion of skilled mastery suggests…a craft, an art, of being human without taking away the fact that humans do, from the perspective of almost all the biblical writers — not every single one but almost all —occupy a very special place of power and privilege and responsibility in the world. But the condition for our exercise of skilled mastery is set by the prior blessing of the creatures of sea and sky, that they are to be fruitful and multiply. So whatever it means for us to exercise skilled mastery, it cannot undo that prior blessing. I think that's pretty convicting for us in the sixth great age of species extinction. 1

Whether or not we turn to Genesis in our own lives, its influence on the framers of history, the captains of industry, and the keepers of culture cannot be overlooked. So it is worth noticing as closely as we notice the solstice, as we notice the rhythms to which we were born, as we notice what calls us toward home.

Ellen Davis continues:
“Let the earth grasp forth grass,” the Hebrew says. “Let seed-bearing plants, fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it,” and it goes on for another verse. Continual emphasis on how the earth is a self-perpetuating system of fertility, of fruitfulness to provide for all. And then there is the creation of the earth creatures, including humankind. And then again at the very end of the chapter, God says to the humans right after they have been given the charge to exercise skilled mastery, God says, “Look, I give you every seed-bearing plant that's upon all the earth and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit that shall be yours for food. And to all the animals and to the birds and to the things that creep on the earth.” So food has been provided for all. 2

We come into being in the context of mutual relationship. We are not the favored children. We like all children receive particular gifts that carry attendant responsibilities. We are part of the family of creatures, of the cosmos. We live with and among the bacteria; our bodies contain elements common to stars; we slosh with water and breathe the air that levitates birds. The trees that give us oxygen relieve us of our carbon. The soil sustains us, literally, and then at our death, it welcomes us back. So how can we not be in a state of spiritual exile as we poison the soil, the water, the air? The poet, farmer and essayist Wendell Berry asks, “How much poison are you willing to eat for the success of the free market and global trade?” 3

How can we consider our condition anything other than spiritual exile—what recovering addicts recognize as the black hole?

Berry writes:
The world may end in fire
As prophesied—our world! We speak of it
As “fuel” while we burn it in our fit
Of temporary progress, digging up
An antique dark-held luster to corrupt
The present light with smokes and smudges, poison
To outlast time and shatter comprehension.
Burning the world to live in it is wrong.
As wrong as to make war to get along
And be at peace, to falsify the land
By sciences of greed, or by demand
For food that’s fast and cheap to falsify
The body’s health and pleasure—don’t ask why.
But why not play it cool? Why not survive
By Nature’s laws that still keep us alive?
Let us enlighten, then, our earthly burdens
By going back to school, this time in gardens
That burn no hotter than the summer day.
By birth and growth, ripeness, death and decay.
By goods that bind us to all living things,
Life of our life, the garden lives and sings.…
Unlike our economic pyre
That draws from ancient rock a fossil fire,
An anti-life of radiance and fume
That burns as power and remains as doom,
The garden delves no deeper than its roots
And lifts no higher than its leaves and fruits. 4

Our culture is rooted in a narrative of creation that begins with a garden.
The First Lady plants a garden on the White House lawn and we think it quaint. A movement of organic farmers emerges in this generation and we call it countercultural forgetting sixty years ago, all gardening was organic. The locavore impulse, the slow food movement, the spate of books calling for a return to whole food instead of non-nutritive edibles, the current work of evolutionary biologist and plant geneticist Wes Jackson of the Land Institute to change “the dominant model …[of] annual plants grown increasingly in monoculture [to] … perennial plants grown in polyculture” 5 —these are not just passing fancies or elitist ideas. They represent a human yearning to return to the garden Wendell Berry speaks of; the garden imagined in Genesis where God sees what God has created, including Adam from adamah—the Hebrew word for earth, and it is good; it is very good.

The catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico that erupted April 20th and continues to fume, bespeaks our ongoing alienation, our exile from the garden, from right relation with creation, dare I say our separation from God, from that wellspring of creative energy that spun our cosmos into being.

This oil spill did not create the state of exile. It emerged long before. I’m not suggesting as traditional Christian doctrine does, that human beings fell permanently from a state of grace when Eve ate the forbidden fruit. I am not suggesting any two people stood in a garden talking to God several thousand years ago. But I am positing that the exilic experience fundamental to Judaism, and common to hundreds of millions of humans now, is deeper than a literal separation from one’s geographic homeland.

Stephen Prothero, professor of religion at Boston University writes in his new book, God Is Not One, “…the problem of exile is chronic…so it is the job of the Jewish people to make things ready and to make things right—to “repair the world” and put an end to exile.” 6

I suspect however, it is not just the job of the Jewish people; it is the task of humankind, especially those of us who have traded in the garden, who have picked up that “shard of metal” and “christen[ed] it Little Assassin, Ore Going Deep for My Heart.” It is our reckoning to return home—not as the desperate addict does, to ransack the house in search for something else to sell, to feed the habit, to satiate an insatiable hunger—but to begin the arduous, painful, necessary work of making amends, mending the torn fabric of creation, healing the estrangement that has exiled us from our mother/father earth.

A few weeks ago I quoted Sister Joan Chittister who says war is not inevitable. A few days ago, Wendell Berry said in an interview, “I’m so tired of that word inevitable.”

As weary as he is, as we all are, of what we have come to accept as inevitable: oil spills that guarantee environmental disaster; wars that ravage the earth and the populations it sustains; a disequilibrium we call capitalism and sometimes scorn as greed—as weary as we are of what we accept as inevitable, our hearts long to end the exile: the state of alienation from our birthright of creation: a place in the garden: participation in the fecundity of life.

In the book of Genesis we are bestowed blessing and responsibility to “exercise skilled mastery,” to use our gifts wisely and respectfully, remembering that our blessing neither precedes nor supercedes the blessing or placement of any other being.

The tragic oil disaster that began on April 20th bears many costs, the greatest of which may be spiritual, if we do not notice and respond to the tug at our sleeve, the tear at our heart, the great gushing of grief from the creative energy some of us call God, from a cosmos so astounding and astounded that we have pillaged our home.

Wendell Berry writes “there are no unsacred places: there are only sacred places and desecrated places.”7

Ellen Davis asserts “in different ways the first and second chapters of the Bible are telling us about our place in the world, telling us about the web of relationships into which we are born as a species. And we are placed creatures.”8

Clearly, we have lost our place, gone terribly awry, not because we are bad, but because are estranged, wandering far beyond the garden toward industrial factories of agriculture we cannot even rightly call farms. Our appetites, our habits, our cathedral ceilings and large cars, our recreational pursuits and entire way of being have taken us further and further from a life planted deep in right relation. We can’t feel God tugging our sleeve. The consequences of this oil spill, of global warming and global inequity affect us all, not equally, not simultaneously, but spiritually, we all bear the cost.

Perhaps Fathers’ Day can call us back to “what a child does when he’s given something to keep.” May it coax us, the prodigal sons and daughters, to find our way home. Amen.

I leave you with the wisdom of Rumi:
Let yourself be silently drawn
by the strange pull of what you really love.
It will not lead you astray.

3 from “Questionnaire,” published in Leavings. Counterpoint, 2010
4 from “A Speech to the Garden Club of America,” published in Leavings. Counterpoint, 2010
6 Stephen Prothero, God Is Not One, HarperOne, 2010, pp.253-4
7 from “How To Be a Poet (to remind myself),” Given (poems), Shoemaker Hoard, 2005

Copyright Rev. Leaf Seligman First Parish UU, Fitchburg 20 June 2010