16 August 2007

Absurdly happy, part two

The theme of being absurdly happy, which paradoxically came to me at the Northwest Yearly Meeting sessions that heard David Niyonzima's reflections on civil war and trauma in central Africa, has lingered within me.

How do I describe this undercurrent? Thomas Kelly helps, especially these famous words from his Testament of Devotion: "There is a way of ordering our mental life on more than one level at once. One level we may be thinking, discussing, seeing, calculating, meeting all the demands of external affairs. But deep within behind the scenes at a profounder level we may also be in prayer and adoration, song and worship and a gentle receptiveness to divine breathings." But I can't take credit for "ordering" this intentionally.

First of all, it's not that neat! On that surface level, I don't just think, discuss, see, calculate, write checks, make swift and wise decisions, dazzle my friends and family with a sure and steady hand!! I worry, grumble, get disheartened. I lose my temper. I react to the misfortunes of the politically wrongheaded with unseemly joy, at least until I remember I'm supposed to be praying for them.... I wonder whether we'll have enough money. I wonder why we have so much money. I miss my dead sister, I feel guilty for not missing my mother.

It's impossible not to have one's heart in one's throat when following stories of trapped miners in Utah. I search for scraps of good news--miraculously found survivors, for example--buried in the midst of the earthquake news from Peru. When yet another explosion wipes out Iraqi neighborhoods, I'm temporarily undone.

And also, it's not as if my underneath reality were some constant sublime Kellian "gentle receptiveness." I do love the Jesus prayer, and it has become part of my heartbeat, but my relationship with God is a mixture of admiration and impatience. For example: Reading the Bible is an interesting emotional roller coaster for me. Last night I was finishing up Isaiah. (My sophisticated Bible reading program: I just read the thing through every year. Genesis 1 on January 1. Four chapters a day about hits it, allowing for a few days' break here and there.)

Isaiah 63 says, in verses 7-10 (The Message)
I'll make a list of God's gracious dealings,
all the things God has done that need praising,
All the generous bounties of God,
his great goodness to the family of Israel—
Compassion lavished,
love extravagant.
He said, "Without question these are my people,
children who would never betray me."
So he became their Savior.
In all their troubles,
he was troubled, too.
He didn't send someone else to help them.
He did it himself, in person.
Out of his own love and pity
he redeemed them.
He rescued them and carried them along
for a long, long time.

But they turned on him;
they grieved his Holy Spirit.
So he turned on them,
became their enemy and fought them.
So I asked, "Why were you so sure that your people would never betray you? And if that statement is just a rhetorical device, how many more of these devices do you inspire your writers to use in this book? And how many times does this cycle repeat, and where are we now?" That's how peaceful my piety is.

A lot of the time I think the word "receptiveness" is about right, but I wouldn't call it gentle. The best description is one that Contemplative Scholar used in her outstanding post, "On being an animal." When I got to the following words in her post, I had a burst of recognition: "But for now, I just want to be a wild animal, quiet and shy, alert and tuned mostly into the pure present moment. I want to eat and sleep and run in the woods. I want to watch beautiful sunsets and let them work their magic on my soul." Exactly!

CS is talking about a vacation or retreat mode, before having to return to the world of power and negotiation and mutual obligations, but I find that some of this reality lingers for me all the time. Only, being a family person and a city boy, the streets are also a home for me. In my college years, I occasionally spent most or all of a night walking on Ottawa's streets, relaxing my brain so that some scholarly puzzle piece would fall into place. And I spent a whole year walking the hills of rural Pennsylviania, three miles twice a day, to and from the place I met my ride to go to the factory where I worked. I'll never forget the sheer physicality, the sense of watching and being watched, the closeness to heaven, that I got on those walks. The names of the roads--Reeds Road, Creek Road, Hopewell Road, Rock Raymond Road--still evoke powerful memories.

Now, some of the same quiet ecstasy comes over me when I'm sitting quietly with my family, or centering myself at Reedwood. When I get distracted and forget myself, and then return, it feels like the current never stopped. But is this just me? Is it dependent on having enough affluence that my existence isn't threatened in the short term? Or is it a current we share by being human, or being creatures, but also affected by various circumstances and various temperaments?

On being an animal: The word "animal" in Contemplative Scholar's post is crucial for me. Owning the reality of being an animal is a declaration of independence from all false claims on me. I pay taxes because they're a reasonable contribution to our sector of the animal kingdom. Pragmatically, taxes and voting and jury duty are all patterned ways of being together and caring about each other beyond our family's boundaries. Countries and nations organize these patterns, and we can feel genuine affection for the ways those organizations turned out, and how they reflect some of our habits--and how they sometimes are the long shadows of our most exemplary ancestors. But that's it: these patterns have no reality beyond what we give them, no matter how shiny the badge or how loud the boast or how big the gun. I'm just an animal with smooth skin and a complex psychology, and so are Dick Cheney, Elizabeth II, Billy Graham.

The Jesus prayer represents, for me, a freely accepted allegiance. By honoring and submitting to this relationship with God, I'm not giving up being a creature, nor am I giving the church permission to become a coercive set of patterns alongside the coercive patterns represented by nationalism, tribalism, or addiction. I still want to be "quiet and shy, alert and tuned mostly into the pure present moment." But this time it is Jesus himself who draws me into a new set of patterns, a desire to be in the company of other believing creatures, whose bond with each other isn't a myth of power or superiority, nor denominational shadow governments, but love that comes directly from God, the One who loved us into existence in the first place.

Righteous links:
  • All of the above presupposes that God exists, despite Christopher Hitchens' disapproval. Here's yet another debate about all that.
  • "Why the political press loved Karl Rove," despite their crucial (not to mention patriotic) obligation to use their critical thinking on our behalf!
  • Speaking of patriotic obligations, Dick Cheney apparently knew all along that Iraq would be a disaster! And in 1994 he made the case for not invading with the same offhand condescension he now uses to dismiss doubters. (reference from moveon.org)
  • From the shy wild animals of the Christian forest to the law of the nuclear jungle: Christianity Today's columnist Agniezcka Tennant muses on Niebuhr, Langewiesche, and the understandable logic of nuclear proliferation. And is there anything familiar about her description of those who might most easily keep an eye on a world with nuclear players, including non-state players? Her argument reminds me of an attempt I made to conceptualize Christians organizing to spot threats to world order while they're still manageable--instead of constantly being boxed into "what if" situations that, owing to everyone's passivity and inattentiveness, have gone out of control.
  • As long as I'm pretending to be a realist, let's think about oil and energy. This article by Michael Klare on the tomdispatch.com site, "Tough Oil on Tap," made me wonder if anyone other than imperialists are truly planning for the depletion of the "easiest" sources of fossil fuels. ("Easiest" is in quotation marks out of respect for coal miners.) A Musing Environment might remind us that Klare is pretty much silent on other energy sources, including nuclear. In any case, in reading Tom Engelhardt's introduction and Klare's article, my mind went back to our evening at Reedwood last week with Joe Volk. One questioner asked Joe how oil factored into Iranian-USA relations. Joe's reply reminded us that there was a time, a generation or two back, when the USA was encouraging the adoption of nuclear power as an alternative to oil. Ironically, Iran's population has now tripled since then, with a corresponding need for more energy, just as the depletion of accessible oil supplies is possibly coming into sight. Joe said that Iranian advocates of nuclear power sounded to him just like GE a while back. Question: If the USA could align its diplomacy with a genuine concern for the well-being of Iranians as well as its neighbors and ourselves, could we imagine a more respectful and pragmatic approach to our outstanding nuclear disagreements? Can it be that the cynicism with which every American pronouncement on Iran is laced is itself an impediment to progress? Are other countries allowed to be patriotic (and occasionally hypocritical in playing shell games with national values)? Now who's the realist?

Serbian blues guitarist Ana Popovic is a credit to our species!

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