Monday, April 16, 2007

Hawaii, Habu and Humility—the Mongoose Factor

Hawaii, where I live, and Okinawa, where my grandsons live, have something in common: the mongoose. This hyper-extended mammal lives in both places as witness to human capacity for miscalculation. In Hawaii the mongoose was introduced to rid the islands of mice and rats that had come on ships with the sailors who introduced all sorts of misery to the “Sandwich Islands.” On Okinawa, the mongoose was introduced to control the habu, a native poisonous viper. In neither case was the mongoose a solution. The reason: a miscalculation. Both mice and rats, and habu are nocturnal and the mongoose is a creature of the day. Hence a creature that was supposed to stabilize earlier human miscalculations further destabilized the environment and habitat.

Our human capacity for miscalculation is legion. Should humanity cultivate a deeper capacity for humility and husbandry of the earth? Obviously we should, but will we?

The current divide in American politics appears to have reached a tipping point. A nation that was largely in favor of toppling Sadaam Husein shortly after September 11, 2001 was in November of 2006 recognizing that the action had destabilized Iraq with no way to get the “tooth paste” back in the tube. Now in the first third of 2007, a majority of Americans want out but can’t agree on how to leave without further miscalculation and destabilization in the region.

Americans are equally divided on the question of global warming. Apparently the truth proposed in Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” is a contested truth. Are the calculations of the majority of scientists that we are heading for an environmental melt down going to be taken seriously or not? Bewilderingly, many conservative pundits are ready to bring in the economic and technological mongoose to correct the situation. The scary thing, as I see it, is that our island home—the planet earth—is all that we have. Oh, yes, space exploration may mean that we become the mongoose in some other intergalactic habitat, but so far we spending most of our money on the war on terror so we don’t have it for space exploration and our life raft to the stars. In the meantime, the smart wager is to take seriously both global warming and our human capacity to destabilize almost anything that we touch. (Chaos theory must have something to say to all of this, but I don’t pretend to understand it!)

I hardly dare to reference the Biblical narrative, but I will. The writer of Genesis puts in God’s mouth to the first humans the much abused manifesto: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.” (Genesis 1:28). Perhaps that was “good” before the Fall. (“Fall” as in Eugene O’Neill as much as Genesis 3) Did the Mystery also miscalculate what human perversity and grasping would do to destabilize “the fish of the sea and…the birds of the air and…every living thing that moves upon the face of the earth”? Call it the “mongoose factor.”

Humility and husbandry have something in common: the earth and all that makes for this incredibly rich, diverse, and evolving mystery we call life. Humus and humility (and human) come from the same root: the delicate generativity inherent in the gift of the earth (my hybrid definition).

Humility is the capacity to appreciate and reverence this gift and to recognize that the earth and all who inhabit are vulnerable to our misuse and miscalculations. Wendell Berry* writes, "We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us. . . We must recover the sense of the majesty of the creation and the ability to be worshipful in its presence. For it is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it."

Husbandry has to do with contentment and humility as stewards of the earth. It is seeking to live in harmony with the ecosphere, tending it, caring for it, investing ourselves in it without exploiting it, and recognizing that in its wellbeing is our own. Can our urban, technological culture appreciate and embrace this alternative way of being in the world?

We delay humility and husbandry as our common vocation at our own expense. The conversion will be necessarily radical and uncomfortable. The margin for error is great. Walking much more gently on the earth and tilling the soil with gratitude and proportion will be our prayer.

Bottom line, the mongoose won’t do it for us.


*Wendell Berry is a spokesperson for a contemplative husbandry in the emerging future. For a relevant work see his book, The Way of Ignorance.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Permission Granted—Grace in an Episodic World

“Permission” brought us together on the phone. He, in Michigan at a major university—a piano tuner, father, robust Catholic Christian, and much more than I will ever know. I, in Hawaii—retired, United Methodist Christian, working at play and playing at work, musing, making a gate so my toddler granddaughter won’t fall down the stairs when she comes to visit each day. He (I imagine) in snow boots and a heavy coat nearby (16 degrees on this February day). I, in my shorts and floppies—my daily uniform. I had emailed him early in the morning. He replied, “Call me” and gave his phone number. So we were talking on the phone by the weavings of grace. I had found (ah, Google search!) his posting of startlingly engaging photos of the baptism of his son and I wanted to use one of them for a web article I had written. He needed to know if the usage was legit and not some scam.

In this postmodern world grace is dynamic, seemingly random, and episodic. It happens in the *interstices of heart beats, butterfly wings and plumeria blossoms. What and how grace weaves into life’s fabric amazes me. I was prompted to write the above mentioned web article by a hilarious and very playful letter from a colleague who had been sleuthing the reason why her annual church meeting was not up to snuff on an official change in terminology for members—previously “full members”—now “professing members.” (United Methodists deal with such fine points!) My writing the article led to the photo search that led to the baptism picture that led to the permission request that…. You get the picture. What more will come of this twisting of threads will be known later.

Grace—call it friendships on the fly, episodic existence, moments of opening to the wider world—happens. I was encouraged by the mix of generosity, artfulness, and wariness of my “one morning friend” in Michigan. Over the years, on saint’s days, I have often used the Book of Common Prayer antiphon for “All Saints and Other Major Saints’ Days”—“Alleluia. The Lord is glorious in [the] saints. Come, let us adore him. Alleluia.” I felt it appropriate for this day too!


*For a short blog on “interstices” go to “Leadership & Wrestling” on Executive Zen by Toby Thompson.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

“Kyrie Eleison”—A Prayer for When We Don’t Know How to Pray?
President Bush just completed his speech from the library of the White House, outlining his current plan for a final go at victory/salvage in Iraq. By now the blogosphere is churning with positions on the Presidents proposal. Viva democracy in these United States. But what are we Christians to do? Shall we join in partisan debate, give thumbs up or down, and further enflame the polarization of America? Undoubtedly, many of us will do so, right, left and middle.

However, on deeper reflection, I wonder if as Christian communities of prayer, we should at least pray; indeed, is not prayer the distinctive thing we are called to do. But how do Christians pray in such times without rehearsing our own political views, telling God (and coincidentally, others with whom we pray) where we are as another hellish moment comes upon the world? Lord have mercy on us when we engage in extemporaneous prayer in such times: we will likely use way too many words and expose how little charity, grace and wisdom there is in our hearts, wherever we stand on the Iraq situation.

An alternative could be silence before firing off our opinions; a worthy prelude to any time of prayer. Or, in some traditions we could consider praying in tongues, trusting the Spirit to make good our prayer as we repent and rest from mental pugilism.

And, we could join the saints in praying or singing the ancient (dated at least as early as the 4th century in the East and the 5th in the West) Christian Greek prayer, Kyrie eleison (Lord, have mercy). It offers the church words with sufficient simplicity and depth to take us with our anguished world into the mercy of God. At its simplest, it is Kyrie eleison—Lord, have mercy. A latter elaboration (according to Gregory the Great in 590) is:

Kyrie eleison. Lord (Sovereign)have mercy.
Christe eleison. Christ have mercy.
Kyrie eleison. Lord(Sovereign) have mercy.

This prayer is so much a part of the liturgical inheritance of the church that it has been said in many ways, often in the vernacular, and sung with many settings.

Lucien Deiss (in Vision of Liturgy and Music for a New Century—The Liturgical Press, 1996) reminds us of this prayer’s biblical significance. Kurios=Lord/LORD in the OT was the stand in for the ineffable name of God, Yahweh. In the NT, kurios is evocative of the risen Christ and is the name above every name at which every knee will bow (Phil. 2:9-11). Christe is vocative—address—of the Christ, the Messiah. Eleison is the imperative form of eleein, to have mercy or pity. So, in the presence of God we implore, plead for, cry out for deliverance, salvation, wholeness and mercy. Like Bartimaeus (Mark 10:47-48; Matt. 20:31; Luke 18:39) or the dauntless Canaanite woman (Matt. 15: 22) kyrie eleison allows us an unrestrained ritual cry to God for a situation with which we don’t know how to cope. As Deiss puts it, “[t]he Kyrie eleison of the Gospels draws all the misery of humanity to itself, a humanity in search of Christ’s mercy.” (p. 164-165) There is also an eschatological dimension to this prayer which in one form or another we will breathe and sing until there will be no more chaos and war, no more night, no more crying, no more death (Rev. 21:1-4). Indeed, in this vein it could be seen as a militant anticipation, even a confrontation with the powers (Jaques Ellul).

This prayer is a cry of penitence, hope, dependence—exactly where God’s people always stand i and with world. It gives us a vehicle for saying what we have no other words to express. In a sense Kyrie eleison is a form of liturgical groaning—a deep, almost in articulate cry for mercy (Rom. 8:26-28) that the Spirit takes up in pleading to God. Its antiquity and ecumenical use connect those who pray it with all people in their cry for mercy.

Most of our hymnals and other collections of historic, ecumenical and contemporary song have eminently singable settings. The United Methodist Hymnal, which which I am most familiar has three (482 contemporary American, 483 Russian Orthodox liturgy, and 484 Taize Community). Any of these can be used by themselves or as a repeated response to biddings or segments of a litany.

Another, an extended kyrie found in The Faith We Sing (no. 2275, arranged by Ruth Elaine Schram) is based on Anton Dvoƙak’s movement II from Symphony No. 9 (The New World Symphony), familiar to many Americans as “Going Home.” Given its sustained flow and largo pace this setting allows feeling and emotion to well up and carry the assembly ever more deeply into the heart of Christ for the life of the world. I can imagine congregations singing supported by different instruments with each repetition while members of the congregation come to light candles placing them in a box of sand or a votive rack.

How shall we pray? How shall we cry out in this dark night? Kyrie eleison may be a good place to begin and return as the church’s cry for mercy.

As illustration I included a photo of Serb Orthodox Christians praying for missing and killed dear ones.