Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Signals of Oddity: Sabbath Economics

Barefoot Rick
Originally uploaded by paynehollow
I'm going to post an excerpt from the sermon by our dear friend, Rick, who preached the last two weeks at Jeff St on the topic of the Sabbath. (That's Rick in the photo, barefoot and ready to preach!) The Bible passages he refers to are the story of Joseph the dreamer - found in Genesis 47 - and the story of the provision of manna to the people of Israel - found in Exodus 16.

This is just a very brief excerpt from a larger and wonderfully challenging sermon...

...In one of the great ironies of literature, Joseph is praised for resisting the designs of his boss’s wife, while his role as the inadvertent catalyst for the eventual enslavement of his own people is ignored.

Of course, Joseph probably couldn’t have known what his program [gathering together huge amounts of grain, centralized in Egypt - dt] would lead to. But future generations in Israel reflected on their long nightmare in Egypt and filled their literature with warnings about concentrated economic power.

Of course, the Hebrews finally escaped from Egypt. The Exodus from enslavement was the great liberating event of their history. And in the lore that developed about their deliverance, Hebrew storytellers emphasized some intriguing imagery that signified a different way. Manna in the wilderness.

The tale of the manna is much more than a miracle story. It envisions an economic alternative! It’s the symbolic charter for what we call “Sabbath economics.”

*Work in the place where you are.
*Take just enough for your family’s needs.
*Depend on the abundant provision of creation.
*Hoarding and excess result in rottenness.

The dream of Joseph envisions more and more.
The vision of the manna says enough is enough.
The dream of Joseph is take all you can.
The vision of the manna is share what you have.
Accumulate or cooperate.
One dream uproots - and turns into a nightmare for others.
The other dream plants - and prioritizes the needs of others.
The symbol of the manna is the visionary charter of an unseen conspiracy, the seed of change, quietly operating just below the surface.

The manna imagery even takes root in Israel’s national covenant as they develop the Sabbath economics consistent with their faith a God who liberated them from empire.

*Their gleaning laws allowed the poor to gather food off the land. (Deut. 24: 19-22)
*They outlawed interest rates that might lead people into spirals of debt servitude. (Ex. 22: 25)
*They set aside Sabbatical years to protect the land and to free the poor from debt. (Ex. 23: 10-11).
*Even the Sabbath has a humanitarian function (Ex. 23: 12).
*They envisioned periodic years of Jubilee to challenge accumulation of wealth, by redistributing land to level out patterns of concentrated ownership (Lev. 25: 10, 13, 28).

Some Jews even rejected monarchy itself, because it grafted political authority onto economic power. It was too much like Egypt’s system of an all-controlling center, enriched by an impoverished periphery...

So what do these ancient stories mean for us?

Of course, the same competing visions grow in the soil of our history as well. In our society, wealth has been redistributed upward for 30 years, toward greater concentration at the top, and increasing dependence at the bottom. Our nation has the largest gap between rich and poor in its history. The top 1% of Americans now possess 40% of the nation's total wealth.

We’ve been through the worst economic crisis since the Depression — an era also characterized by excess and scandal on Wall Street. Our largest banks are under investigation for complex financial maneuvers that profited from misleading their investors.

We’re now accustomed to terms like hedge funds, derivatives, debt swaps, and mortgage-backed securities — which symbolize the flagrant unchecked greed of an unfettered oligarchy, speculatively gambling with the nation’s wealth for the enrichment of a few, profiting even from the nation’s housing meltdown.

The other side of this coin is millions of homes in foreclosure…

Today, the reintegration of commercial and investment banking has yielded mega-banks so gigantic that their collapse threatens the entire financial system. And most of us are carrying their credit cards — our money, our homes, our welfare all tied up with their power.

We can scarcely imagine an alternative.

Now considered “too big to fail,” the mega-banks appropriate even more of the nation’s wealth unto themselves, gobbling up tax-funded bailouts while awarding themselves multimillion-dollar bonuses. And the recent financial regulation bill may not change as much as we’d hope.

So we’re faced with the age-old choice:

The dream of Joseph or the vision of the manna.
More and more, or enough is enough.
Take all you can, or share what you have.
Accumulate or cooperate.

The danger is more than economic. Justice Louis Brandeis was right when he said: "We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both.”

With millions spent on lobbyists, the mega-banks aren’t just “too big to fail,” but too well-connected to fail.

It’s a dream come true.

The trouble is, while modern-day Josephs dream of profit piled upon profit, we can’t seem to do without a system we now depend on.

For three months, we’ve watched as the BP oil spill has exceeded 100 million gallons, leaving 11 workers dead, unparalleled damage to an ocean ecosystem, fragile wetlands polluted, pelicans and sea turtles coated with petroleum, fish suffocating in underwater plumes of oil.

It’s the terrible price of a crude addiction we cannot shake...

The official history of our era is the story of the powerful — bank bailouts, financial flows, military campaigns, election returns… But do not be deceived. There’s another story.

There’s something going on underground.

It’s the quiet revolution of mustard seeds. The conspiracy of the seemingly insignificant...
It’s the story of countless unnamed midwives to a history flowing forward in a simple basket of reeds.
It’s the story of Shiphrah and Puah, Moses and Amos, St Francis and Dorothy Day, Gandhi and Wilberforce, Sandino and Mandela, Cesar Chavez and Rosa Parks.

What’s happened at Vacation Bible School this week (the kids collecting money and things for the needy) doesn’t seem like much. The gardens we’ve planted in our back yards seem so small. The Tuesday Farmer’s market you’ve worked so hard on is tiny.

But in a concentrated agro-industrial system, these mustard seed realities are nothing less than a new vision germinating in the midst of the old.
Yes, three corporations control the world’s grain trade.
Yes, Monsanto controls three-fifths of the world’s seed production.

But the dream that envisions a local, sustainable food economy can reconnect more and more of us with the source of our food and the rhythms of the earth. This is the odd vision of Sabbath economics, the peculiar practice of the manna alternative.


Thanks, Rick!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Signals of Oddity: Sabbath, 1

Bouncing Rick
Originally uploaded by paynehollow
We begin our year long look at our "Signals of Oddity" - those practices we have that make us peculiar - with our dear brother Rick leading us at a look at the notion of Sabbath...

Terri reminded us last week of Flannery O’Connor’s famous quip, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.” I love that oddity is the theme for our sabbatical period.

This year, we're considering our “Signals of Oddity: Worship as a Counter-Cultural Practice.” The idea is to study how worship functions as an alternative to the dominant culture. It says that one of our church’s challenges is to preserve our radical edge, our salty flavor, our oddity, our peculiarity.

Now on one level, a quick glance around the room suggests that peculiarity should not be a challenge for us! We are indeed an odd bunch. And the idea of Sabbath is pretty odd and countercultural too.

So what are we doing here? Really. Here we are, this odd collection of people — male and female; black and white; gay and straight; single and coupled; older and younger; homeless and housed; people with psychological and physical challenges; students and professionals, employed and unemployed, believers and seekers…

The welcoming diversity of this church, in itself, is a blessed oddity. One reason we’re here is the people we’ve come to love.

And there’s something pretty special about being with people with whom we can share our joys and concerns, knowing there’s a place where we belong. In this individualistic society, that’s pretty odd too. But to clarify why Sabbath signals a blessed oddity, I want to go back to the beginning – all the way back to Genesis 1 and 2, where Sabbath is first established. Because the Hebrews were saying something that’s remarkably relevant to our time.

So turn to Genesis 1, the first of two creation stories in the opening chapters of Genesis. They come from oral traditions of two different regions of Israel in two different centuries. They even use different names for God (1:1—God/Elohim—and 2:4b—Lord God/YHWH Elohim). They’re different stories. So we can’t read them as science or historical reporting of actual events. That would misunderstand the nature of this literature. These stories present a worldview—symbolically.

The first story uses old Babylonian imagery by starting with a formless watery void, and portrays the whole drama of creation as a triumph of order.

1:2—“The earth was formless and empty; darkness was over the surface of the deep; and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”

The chapter shows God simply speaking Order into existence. It’s one of the most carefully designed literary units in the Bible, with a structure crafted to reinforce its message—that we’re part of this marvelously complex patterned structure, an abundant, harmonious order. It’s amazing how the text’s form serves its function. Notice:

1) There are seven days—each paragraph set apart with repeated refrains in a richly patterned prose. You can see the order on the page.

And each paragraph has three repeated refrains, giving a symmetrical pattern to the whole structure:
*Each paragraph begins with, “And God said.”
*Each repeats: “And God saw that it was good.”
*And each day ends with the refrain, “And there was evening and there was morning, (another) day.”

The intentional sense of Order is impossible to miss.

2) But there’s another layer below the surface, adding a deeper complexity of more profound patterns. The structure includes two 3-day sets —the first set (days 1-3) introduces created contexts, and the second set (days 4-6) introduces the inhabitants of these settings.

For example, 2 and 5 are parallel to each other. The sea creatures and the birds created on the 5th day fill the sea and the heavens created on the 2nd. And the land animals created on the 6th day inhabit the dry land set aside on the 3rd. It’s an amazing symmetry!

3) And it gets more complex. At a deeper level, each paragraph contains structured pairs of opposites—darkness/light, heaven/earth, male/female.

It’s an intricate, multi-layered creation unfolding its richness as each interconnected level reveals deeper structures, carefully designed order — so many patterns in each layer that we can’t help but marvel at the intricate complexity of this literary creation, even as we do when we observe the perfect pattern of a snowflake, the colors of a prism, the interconnectedness of a forest ecosystem.

Textually, the chapter’s refrains, parallels, and pairs speak to us on a level beyond words of something that’s beautiful in its symmetry, and dependable in its complex patterns. The passage itself reflects the order of the natural world. Its form evokes its message: We live in a stable, ordered, abundant world that reflects the goodness of a loving God.

Now, just as we’re marveling at the design of this amazing literary creation, something breaks the pattern! In most Bibles, you can see it on the page. Your eye is drawn to something new and different inserted into this carefully patterned prose—verse 27.

So God created humans in God’s own image,
in the image of God, God created them;
male and female God created them.

The creation of humanity is the appearance of something entirely new, so special that it can only be expressed as poetry in the midst of prose.

Here, the written form contains the message about the Hebrew view of humanity: In this marvelously ordered creation, humans are God’s poetry. YOU ARE GOD’S POETRY!

The God who speaks in beautifully structured prose in the created order, switches to poetry in the creation of humanity.

Look at the faces of the people around you. Each one divine poetry. Creation’s lyric verse.Each one an ode to the divine consciousness, reflecting the mind of a Master Poet. Here, the text says “very good.”

Then, after all the action, all the ordered patterning, the parallel structuring, the now familiar routine, the next paragraph doesn’t follow form.

The seventh day doesn’t have the same refrains as all the other days.

It throws out the pattern. It’s got a different rhythm. No structure. The routine is dropped.

That’s Sabbath. So the passage isn’t about creation, it’s about our lives.

Our need for a break in the routine. We stop. We rest. We ponder the patterns of which we are a part. And we worship.


Signals of Oddity: Sabbath, 2

Mountain Sunset
Originally uploaded by paynehollow

So, in chapter 1, divine consciousness speaks creation into existence, replacing a formless watery void with sublime Order. We learn that the world is good. Humans are good—the climax of God’s handiwork, the image of divine reality, the only creatures with God-like qualities—reasoning, creative, relational, responsible beings—God’s poetry in a world of beautifully crafted prose.

And the poetry that is humankind finds its voice when it breaks from routine, takes moments to ponder, to wonder in awe, to perceive what is good.

Now, the 2nd story... The Torah’s editors were compiling a collection of religious lore that would unite the north and south, and they knew that southerners had their own creation story. It’s pretty different. It begins with dry desert. A human is created first, not last, and not from a spoken word but out of dirt, before anything else is created. Then come plants, then animals, and birds, and then a woman (poetry again!).

And even though this more ancient story was different, they wisely included this one too. Remember, they weren’t writing a science text or a history text.

Factual consistency is a modern concern belonging to our scientific age, which is why we argue about literalism in these texts and thereby miss their point (and their power).

So why the second story? I think these editors wanted to guard against any self-satisfied conceit the first story might create. Its exalted view of human nature needed some balance. So the second story shows a God scooping up some dirt to form a human. Here, the first human is molded out of mud.

Now there’s an interesting wordplay in this story, at chapter 2, v. 7.
In Hebrew it says, the Lord God formed man (“adam”) out of dirt from the ground (adamah). Adam is made from adamah. Humanity is of the earth. In other words, we are “earth creatures.” That’s how “Adam” should be translated.

The point that comes from the balance between the two stories is that we are indeed unique and god-like—the very image of God—but we are also dust, tied to the earth, terrestrial not heavenly beings, finite, and subject to limits.

THIS IS ANOTHER REASON WE NEED SABBATH. We have forgotten. Sabbath is not only time to take a break, to ponder the beauty of creation and the majesty of a creator, to take stock of our purpose. It also helps us remember our finitude, our earthiness, our limits. In short, Sabbath is the time we set aside to remember that God is God and we are not. And this basic stance of humility is odd, peculiar, weird.

It’s about limits—a word humans have never liked. The rest of this story shows humans rebelling against limits, trying to escape their finitude, trying to build defenses against the fragility that is part of the human condition. We’re OK with the “image of God” part of our nature, but not so keen on the finitude and limits side of things.

Reinhold Niebuhr summarizes our human dilemma well when he says: “We are mortal. That is our fate. We pretend not to be mortal. That is our sin.” So humans eat the fruit of the tree we think will make us divine. God responds in chapter 3 (22-24), they are trying to become divine…

So they’re expelled from the garden. Unwilling to accept mortal limits, their quest for security gets them insecurity. And it gets worse. Soon they’re scheming to “build a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves.” Babel. We build empires, towers, marvels. And we congratulate ourselves for our achievements. It never ends. We never stop. We work and work and work. No time for Sabbath.

The Hebrew writers knew the pattern and imagined a divine response that reflected their warning (11: 6): “This is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”

In other words, one of the great dangers of the human condition is our tendency to build fortresses of security and power we think will shield us from our limits, satisfy some inner quest, protect us from our mortal frailty and the existential uncertainty that’s always in the back of our minds. Ultimately, these efforts only lead to confusion, insecurity, and dissatisfaction.

So the thrust of the story is that we are finite. Mortal.Tied to the earth. And we’ll find our deepest fulfillment only when we cease the endless striving, accept that we’re not ultimate, and reconnect to what’s real.

And this is the purpose of Sabbath. It critiques a society that believes bank accounts and insurance policies make us secure; it challenges a society that accepts technology as the new reality in which we live and move and have our being. In the world we’ve created, the relentless pace of technological advance seduces us.

The natural environment seems almost secondary. The environment we dwell in is technological —computers and text messages; fully digitized economic, transportation and communication systems; whole mountaintops removed to air condition our homes; whole ocean ecosystems fouled so we can drive to corporate stores to buy industrially-produced food raised from genetically-modified seeds.

In this techno-Babel environment, it’s truly countercultural to acknowledge that we’re not God, that humans are not the source and end of all value, that human creation is not the only creation, that there’s something greater than us. Sabbath gets us in touch with who we are.

The truth is, we really need times of worship to get in touch with “the beyond in the midst of our lives.” Sabbath is when we set aside the routine to nourish an inner life.

The more we’re surrounded by technology, the more pressed for time on an anxious treadmill of work and consumption and bills, the more alientated, the more essential it is to break from our distracted busyness to make reflection and worship a part of our lives...

Signals of Oddity: Sabbath, 3

Signals of Oddity 10
Originally uploaded by paynehollow
In our context, it’s odd to acknowledge that there’s more to life than work, making money, building security, consuming, being busy, achieving tasks. Sabbath sets that aside for a time. And Jeff Street is one church where it’s OK to say that Sabbath is about much more than church.

Wendell Berry says it beautifully in his collection of poems entitled, Sabbaths.

I go among trees and sit still. After days of labor,
All my stirring becomes quiet mute in my consternations,
around me like circles on water. I hear my song at last,
My tasks lie in their places and I sing it. As we sing,
where I left them, asleep like cattle... the day turns, the trees move.

These beautiful phrases catch the essence of Sabbath:
My tasks lie in their places.
My stirring becomes quiet.
Mute in my consternations, I hear my song at last and I sing it.

Intentional time like this, free of distractions, really can condition us to notice the color purple on a summer day, to hear the song of the lark, to feel the breeze on the skin, to breathe in the honeysuckle on a warm summer evening, to notice in the eyes of the neighbor a kindred spirit. And to relish each of these as gifts of love and goodness. In a culture that’s all about busyness and achievement and cynical hardheartedness, Sabbath rest is countercultural because it locates value elsewhere and opens us to genuine gratitude.

But we really do have to tune out the static. Turn off the TV and the computer. Give stuff away. Simplify. Stop talking. Reinsert ourselves into natural settings and communal settings that remind us who we are. Reconnect with our finitude, our limits.

Years ago I was in Guatemala on a Witness for Peace delegation in a community of returned refugees who had established a new community –- building houses, planting crops, tending animals, raising kids… One afternoon, while people were bringing food from the gardens to cook, feeding cattle, hanging clothes out to dry, this powerful tropical storm came up. And everything stopped. Here’s what I wrote about it in my journal:

7/11/97—Much of the afternoon was spent waiting through a powerful rainstorm. Here, when it rains like this, daily work simply comes to a halt. People wait. Nature takes over. The earth replenishes itself. The cycles integral to the life of creation are part of daily human existence and there’s no attempt to go on as if creation was something separate. Here, existence conforms to the rhythms of life. I think of modern culture, an intentionally fostered alienation from what is real. When it’s hot, we turn on the AC, when it rains, we can still get in the car, or continue our office work. When it’s dark, we turn on the lights and prolong the day.

Here, each casa is glows briefly with evening candlelight before an early bed time. People eat for today because leftovers can’t be refrigerated. They coexist with the animals that share their space and provide their sustenance. They know how to gather from what the land provides—mangoes and bananas or maize and frijoles. Here, in this rainstorm, creation took over for a while, a reminder of the rhythms into which our lives fit despite our denials and our alienation, our pretensions to separateness.

Huddled together under the roof of the tienda, we’re awed by the power of the rain, the strength of the wind, the grandeur of the thunder and lightning. Little rivers form from all directions, filling the stream with rushing water. Talk gives way to the sound of relentless rain and wind. We sit together, silenced, enveloped, connected, aware, sensing the presence of what is. For a moment there is no past, no future, just now.

Three volcanoes dominate the horizon, arising like phantom silhouettes in the darkening night sky. That night, we sit again, witness to the primeval sight of earth re-creating itself. Picaya rumbles. The mountain erupts with bright flashes of orange. The clouds and ash above take on a soft red glow. A faintly visible flow of lava appears and disappears along the eastern edge of the volcano—a primordial beauty occurring before our eyes.

In the distance, flashes of heat lightning brighten the purple sky. The ground shakes. The orange glow visible again. The earth is alive. These moments are mystical, full of power and energy, exotic, utterly fundamental; inspiring wonder—a beauty that touches the deepest places.

But the pain of this community dwells even deeper. Orange flashes of gunfire from weapons provided by my government, long ago drove them from ancestral lands. Churning memories ready to erupt at any moment, phantom silhouettes looming on a dark emotional horizon.

The children are sick. Babies have pneumonia and diarrhea. Kids have pink-eye and rashes. Latrines are filthy and unsanitary. Chickens and turkeys wander through kitchens searching for scraps— flies gathering on their feces, the same flies exploring the food on our plates. The dogs are starving. Mucous oozes from the eyes of the children.

The government, conforming to IMF requirements, has cut funds for health care … I go to the river to bathe. I need cleansing…

So, this creation narrative suggests that creation is unfinished business. Another reason we need Sabbath: It’s odd for those who have all they need to acknowledge that all human beings have inherent worth and dignity—and therefore, that something is required of us. Sabbath helps us connect with community and the responsibility community calls us to. In our context, this is countercultural.

Something important happens to us at Sabbath rest. As Thomas Kelly says,

“God plucks the world out of our hearts, loosening the chains of attachment, and God hurls the world into our hearts, where we and God together, carry it in infinitely tender love.”

Genesis reminds us that we share responsibility for creation, and that as social beings, we share responsibility for one another. For the child who is sick, whose dog is starving, whose entertainment is the flash of a volcano but whose nightmare is the flash of an American-made gun. In Sabbath time, we reaffirm the inherent worth and essential equality of every human being created “in the image of God.” And we find ourselves saying, “Creation isn’t finished. It has been good to rest. It has been good to reconnect with what is real. Now, we have work to do.” That’s why we’re here.

So that’s the truth. It will make you odd. And it will make you free.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Signals of Oddity, 1

We have begun a New Thing at Jeff Street this week. Two new things, actually.

Our pastor, Cindy has just left for Sabbatical - a time of rest, reflection, recuperation, rejuvenation and restoration. She will be gone for three months and rejoining us in October. As part of our service Sunday, we sent her on her way with our blessings.

Cindy will be considering "Listening In On the Outside" as she takes her break and she plans to be intentional about listening to those voices on the margins that we often don't hear, including spending time with "outsider" artists, transgendered persons and Christians in China, amongst others. Cindy, we will miss you and pray for you to have a wonderful time of Sabbath. May the peace and power of God be with you.

Also this last Sunday, we began what will be a year long consideration of our Signals of Oddity - those practices of church in general (and Jeff Street in particular) that make us Odd, and to celebrate, explore and embrace that very real oddness.

The notion of being an odd people, a peculiar people, a people called out to be different... this is a theme found throughout the Bible and, at our best moments, we still find it today.

For instance, one common odd practice amongst nearly all churches is the practice of Giving. In a world where we are tempted to - even told to - consume much stuff for ourselves and to horde much stuff for ourselves - people of faith the world over, each and every week, take up offerings and often those offerings are going to help those in need. We freely and gladly give so that others may have and this is too often an Unusuality, but a good and blessed Unusuality. So, we shall explore this Oddity and celebrate it.

Other Signals of Oddity will include our practice of Communion (of sharing the bread and the cup together), the sharing of our joys and concerns, the practice of Sabbath... These and other practices we will be considering more carefully and thoughtfully over this next year. We'll be sure to post our progress here as the year passes.

Yesterday, as we celebrated and blessed Cindy to send her on her way, and as we consider the whole notion of our Peculiarity, we spent some beautiful time recounting some of the Stories of Oddity that have been part of our history at Jeff St.

We share many of those stories here below and in the next two posts.


Signals of Oddity, 2

Signals of Oddity, 3

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Cap'n Mellow

Cap'n Mellow
Originally uploaded by paynehollow
Cap'n Mellow (age unknown, identity unknown) is our masked caped crusader for Truth, Justice and a Groovy Jazz Riff. The Good Captain (Seen here in his epic battle against the Men in Suits) is a peace-lovin', hipster doofus with flaming fingers chillin' on his Guitar of Smmmoootthhh Lovin'.

Can you dig it?