Imbolc and the Picture of Jesus

 

If it weren’t for Punxatawny Phil, and Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day, this obscure holiday would probably be ignored even more than it already is.  How does one celebrate Groundhog Day?  To figure it out, we have to go back to its Celtic roots as one of the eight holidays on the wheel of the year—two solstices, two equinoxes, and four cross-quarter holidays. The cross-quarter holidays are midway between solstices and equinoxes, so February 1st (or sometimes 2nd) is Imbolc, the first cross-quarter holiday of the calendar year. Imbolc mean’s ewe’s milk.  This is a time of lambing, and a celebration of new birth in anticipation of spring.  In some places,  January Jessamine and forsythia are blooming, and the crocuses and daffodils are poking their way through the soil. In case you are curious, the May 1st holiday, Beltane, is a fertility festival; the August 1st holiday, Lammas, is a first harvest festival, and Samhain has been rebaptized into Hallowe’en or All Hallows Eve to be followed by the Christian observation of November 1st as All Saints’ Day.

So how did our Celtic ancestors celebrate this holiday? They cleaned house!  The greens (now brown) they brought in their homes for the winter solstice were thrown out, the fireplace where the Yule log burned at solstice was wept out, and all was made new again. In other words, spring housecleaning was a form of spiritual practice.

I am intrigued at the sanctification of housecleaning.  We think of cleansing our souls, and our bodies, but why not our homes? Shedding the detritus of the past, scrubbing the windows and floors, recycling our no-longer used possessions for others to use, all relieve our dwelling of the weight of the past as we look to the future.

When I was young I read all my mother’s books (and everything else, even cereal boxes). That heritage was full of pious 19th century tales of brave little girls defying their fathers’ orders to paly piano for visitors on the sabbath, or other forbidden acts. But one pious tale stayed with me, because it rang true.  The church lady came to visit a widow and her invalid daughter and brought a picture of Jesus for the child’s room. When the church lady left, the mother went to hang it up and discovered the walls were dirty. So she cleaned the walls, only to  notice how dirty the curtains were…and the windows. and the floor…and on and on until the whole house was clean.

My friends all enjoyed this little moral tale as a metaphor.  You start cleaning, or anything, and one thing lead to another, so the half hour you intended to spend on this project wound up taking the whole day. I can say to a friend, I started to clean out the pantry and it turned into a picture of Jesus, and they totally understand.  But there is another message here, too, about the integrated whole that is our life, our community, our living space.  The butterfly flapping his wings in China that causes storms in Idaho. We humans break down the cleaning process into segments ,but they are all intimately interconnected.  If I need to relocated old books and files in my office to the laundry room or the bedroom, I have to prepare that space.  When I find a left-behind Christmas ornament I start to think about where best to store seldom used items, and a new plan forms.

Housecleaning doesn’t just require energy, commitment, and elbow grease. It also calls for us to rethink the habits that undergird our dwelling place, to be imaginative and creative in organizing and brightening our habitat. So just as the groundhog peeps out of his underground domicile to look around, perhaps it’s time for you to do the opposite.  Spend this last stretch of indoor living, long nights, short days, and no yard work to prepare your dwelling place and yourself to burst forth into the larger world knowing that you have a better place to come home to.

 

 

 

Beyond Tribalism

The principal enemy of democracy is hierarchy in all its forms—patriarchy, oligarchy, totalitarianism, any kind of system that gives the few power over the many.  But another, more subtle enemy of democracy is tribalism—building our fortresses of like-minded people who only talk to each other and read the same books and watch the same news stations and affirm their certainty about being God’s chosen.  People who feel threatened by the idea that others who don’t see the world the same way may have a valid and defensible point of view. Because within tribalism is the desire that power should be in the hands who share my tribe, my world view, my religious understanding, my values. Both sides are tribal.

My oldest daughter told me that her daughter, now a college junior, has found her tribe.  I am happy for her, but I hope she doesn’t stop searching. My youngest granddaughter is 15, and she has three tribes: Girl Scouts, tap dancers, and science nerds at her High School, Aiken Scholars Academy. My sister’s granddaughter found her tribe in a sorority.  I, too, have found my tribes over the years. Academics. Economists. Unitarian Universalists.  Members of the League of Women Voters. Feminists.  The UConn Huskies of my alma mater and the Clemson Tigers whose presence is very large in my adopted home town. These are my people.

There’s lots of overlap among my subtribes.  I  am drawn to the ones that share and affirm my values and my worldview.  They are the ones I seek out to do things with, to talk to, to exchange information and sigh together about the state of the world.  I am sure that you, too, have circles of people that matter to you that are part of overlapping tribes.

Some of these tribal members are more my people than others.  I probably  don’t have a lot of common ground with a white male Southern Baptist real estate developer and Trump supporter other than skin color and being a Clemson Tiger fan.

In our search for power over our own personal lives we often seek advantage in those aspects of our identity and our tribe that help others identify with us.  Good old boy networks. Alumni of the same college.  White people. Good old girl networks. We join lobbying efforts to confer advantages on us because of our group membership, whether it is farmers, hedge fund managers who will vote for Trump if Elizabeth Warren is the Democratic candidate, or members of AARP. That’s not to condemn all political tribes as self-serving.  The League of Women Voters, the Sierra Club, the NAACP, the Moral Monday folks  are all tribal groups that seek to build community by allying with members of their tribes of progressive Christians,  senior citizens, environmentalists, and African-Americans. They are tribal in their shared values but inclusive in other important ways. The League welcomes male members, NAACP is happy to have white folks join, and Moral Monday includes some agnostics, heretics, Jews and Muslims  All of them believe in intertribal alliances.

One often overlooked message in the Christian story is that Jesus came from a tribal people.  Twelve tribes, tied together by their history, their land and their distinctive religious beliefs and practices which survive to this day. Part of the success story of Christianity was in moving beyond tribalism to proclaim a message of hope  and shared humanity to all people, at least all the people they knew about. Of course, tribalism frequently reasserted itself rather violently , erupting into nationalism and warfare and battles for power. Non-Christians, especially Jews and Muslims, were the other, fair game for conversion or extinction. Christianity did not bring about world peace, or end misogyny, or result in equality.  But it did from time to time hold up those lofty ideals.

Finding your identity is an important challenge of adolescence. It is a stage in our personal, moral, and spiritual development as we recognized our membership in ever larger communities. But we ae no longer adolescents, and we need to outgrow the narrow comfort of tribal identity to truly connect with the interdependent web of all existence.  Political engagement with others not of our tribe is an important part of that growth.

Great thinkers of our time have described this challenge to further growth in various ways.  Catholic theologian Richard Rohr describes the task of adolescence and early adulthood as building an identity, and the task of the later years of tearing away that outer identity shell as a scaffolding we no longer need.  James Fowler, in writing about stages of faith development, sees a steady growth from o a narrow we to a more inclusive we to a global we as we pass through the stages of moral and faith development. According to Fowler, there are six stages, from the infant’s tribe of one growing to two and then three  plus any siblings, to larger groups, until they find a tribe or tribes with which they can identify.  Nelson Mandala, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King were sixes. I am not.  Nor, I expect, are you.  But we can move beyond tribalism to embrace those who are different from us in many of the ways that divide us.  4 is a lot better than 2. Even a 5, which is not quite universalism but well beyond tribalism, is an attainable goal if we work at it.

How do we begin? First, we need to recognize tribalism in ourselves and how it keeps us seeing members of other tribes as not quite as fully human as we are. Many faith communities are bumbling through efforts to conquer certain forms of tribalism, especially the often unconscious racism toward African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans. But tribe is not just race. It also includes age, gender, sexual orientation, class, and ability or disability.  And even access to and mastery of technology that splits us  into separate and often warring tribes of troglodytes and geeks.

One of the important lessons of colonialism in the Americas was the ability of colonists to pit tribes against one another in order to gain power over all the natives. That is what we are experiencing in American politics today. Each major party is a coalition of tribes, bound together by a mix of self-interest and certainty that their understanding of the way things are and the ways things should be is the right one.  No one is immune from that kind of tribalism.  A bigger tribe with subtribes is still a tribe.

What are our tribes? How do they call forth the best in us and affirm the worst? Awareness is the first step. Acknowledging our tribes and the shared world view they embrace and being open to criticism of that worldview. Taking the uncomfortable step of affiliating with other tribes where we may be a minority, like male members of the League of Women Voters or white folks who join the NAACP, is a possibility.  Searching for common ground with people whose world view is different from yours is uncomfortable, but it’s a part of your spiritual growth challenge. So let it begin with me. And you.

Disengaging the Albatross

 

I live in a townhouse in a retirement community, and am part of a volunteer corps that tries to make life easier and more meaningful for those living in apartments, assisted living, memory care, and the nursing home. One of the many projects—the only one I participate in regularly—is to help people dispose of possessions as they downsize, move to assisted living or the nursing home, or move away, often to be closer to family.

Often the family just walks away with most of the furnishings and possessions left behind. We sell what we can, deliver some to charitable organizations for thrift shops, and throw a lot away.  It’s a sobering experience about being prisoners of our possessions, about preparing for the inevitable, and about the excessive attachment to material objects that is not good for our spirits or for the planet. We are a link in the chain of recycling, but the amount of stuff that goes to the landfill is troubling. We also make some money that is used to provide equipment, supplies and services to the residents of those facilities. And finally, it also saves the families the expense of hiring someone to  dispose of these possessions.

Lessons learned?  Lesson #1, possessions for which there is no market.  Cassette tapes (LP records are another matter). Old electronics, which are a disposal challenge.  Framed pictures. Knicknacks. Mismatched glassware. Empty vases and flower pots. Outdated electronics. Holiday decorations do surprisingly well.  A friend of mine organized an annual holiday giveaway of decorations to families served by the local food bank.  We are among the many who ply her with used decorations from artificial trees to ornaments to gift wrap, and it is all claimed by clients of the food bank in a couple of hours.

Lesson #2. Organizations that do this kind of work on a volunteer basis are few and far between, so be kind to your children and heirs and clean out now, starting with the stuff on the list above. It requires some skills in pricing and finding outlets like consignment shops and a lot of hours. The maintenance staff at the retirement community is a big help in the final cleanup. Think about finding an organization like this to work with–or start one!

Lesson #3.  It’s Christmas, when we buy each other things.  My oldest daughter asked for more experiences and consumables.  Theater tickets, wearables, spices  for the cooks are a bigger part of my holiday giving this year, along with a gift card for each family member to select a charitable cause for their/my charitable donation of $25 each through Global Giving online. We pass around the laptop and enjoy seeing what worthy cause strikes their fancy.  It may be chickens for an orphanage in Africa, or solar power for villagers in Asia, or protection for the rain forest or endangered species in Central America. I refuse to give up buying people books, though—and they are definitely recyclable!

So in this holiday season, let’s remember the planet, the wasteful consumption and the challenge of reusing those items in our storage sheds, cabinets, drawers, closets and garages. If you are old like me, consider the burden  on your children of disposing of your stuff.  If you are young, watch your accumulation, and  help your parents or aging relatives find creative ways to disposed  of surplus possessions.  If you are shopping, focus on consumables and the ability to recycle. Grandma, Mother Earth, and the beneficiaries of your creative recycling and restrained consumerism will be grateful.

How Does It Feel to Be a Resource?

 

As a teacher, a preacher, and a writer, I have been called many things.  An expert. A content provider (that in the world of textbook publishing). A repository of information.  An entertainer. But the one thing I refuse to be called is a human resource.  And likewise, I refuse to regard our mother earth as a natural resource.

Both terms reduce the glory and complexity of life to its usefulness. I don’t mind being useful, and I appreciate the usefulness of nature in providing me with light and dark, food and water, warmth and cold., But the reductionism that has overtaken my original profession of economics has no eye for beauty, no heart for compassion, no soul for soaring. It has escaped its boundaries of addressing only the material side of life to proclaim that materialism is the highest purpose.  The servant of our needs has become the master.

Economic materialism means that if something—a person, an acre of land, a forest, oil beneath the soil, the oceans, then it should be put to use to serve whatever human purpose we may choose. People, likewise, are measured by their value added to the GDP.  An unemployed person is a wasted resource. When a person is killed by the negligence of others, compensation is offered by measuring how much that person would have earned had he or she lived out their natural lifespan. The value of a human life is the discounted present value of expected future earnings.

Charles Dickens captured the barrenness of what has been called the dismal science in his novel, Hard Times.  The central character was  Professor Gradgrind, a soulless utilitarian who subjected everything to a calculus of cost and benefit.  He was baffled when his  grown children forsook him and his careful instructions about how to live, choosing lives that were more filled with meaning and joy than pursuit of material success.

Economics was born as a descriptive social science that has over time evolved into a prescriptive one about how to live and where in life we are to seek for utility, satisfaction, meaning.  It is grounded in an individualism that ignores the joy and meaning that comes in connectedness, in companionship, in relationships not only to one another but to the earth on which we dwell as our homeland, not just a package of natural resources awaiting our exploitation.

I love my profession.  It is rich in insights about the material side of life.  It has taught me to avoid absolutes, to seek changes in increments, When it is joined with its sister social sciences, especially those that focus on relationships and collaboration rather than individualism and autonomy , it can make useful contributions to our common life, our government, our communities, our grounding to the natural world. But like the Minotaur, like nuclear weapons, it needs to have its boundaries patrolled lest it encroach too far on the important things in life—purpose and meaning, joy and companionship, and a world in which all life can be nurtured and flourish.

And now I’ve gone to preachin’, wayward human resource that I am. May it be so.

 

 

 

 

 

A Pilgrim Was NOT a Puritan

Every Thanksgiving I am reminded of a humor column—Art Buchwald, I think—about Thanksgiving that was full of  fractured French. Les pellerins are indeed pilgrims, but is a turkey in French really a dindon? Maybe.  For sure, Thanksgiving Day does NOT translate to “le jour de merci donée.”

In any case, it was not my fondness for the French language that set off alarm bells in my head but a line from an article in Time this week about teaching children about Thanksgiving. It included the following mind-boggling statement: “The Puritan separatists were  rebranded Pilgrims.”  Ouch.  Okay, I’m really interested in religious history, having grown up in a New England Congregational Church attending Pilgrim Fellowship and singing out of the Pilgrim Hymnal, and yes, that church of my ancestors was later formed by a merger between the two groups, but no, Puritans were not rebranded Pilgrims.  Pilgrims came on the Mayflower in 1620. Puritans weren’t even present at the shindig in 1621.  They were still back in England annoying King Charles I with demands to purify the Church of England, a demand that eventually would lead to his loss of his head (literally). By then our American Puritans had set sail for the New World, arriving about ten years after the less numerous Pilgrims.

Pilgrims were separatists.  They didn’t want the state running the church.  They chose to be self-governing.  They believed in religious democracy, up to a point.  You did have to agree to a certain amount of Christian orthodoxy in order to be a member of the church, but there was more emphasis on right living and mutual respect and having genuine religious experience. No bishops, no popes, no hierarchy, no divine right of kings or the monarch as head of the church.  God was the only external authority, and discerning what God wanted them to do led to a lot of church meetings.

Roots of American democracy came from many sources.  New England religion was an important one. The less numerous Pilgrims even persuaded their Puritan brothers (sisters didn’t vote) that democracy should be the way to govern themselves in both church and civil society.

So while you are celebrating the jour de merci donée with your dindon, remember to thank the Pilgrims and yes, the Puritans who embraced it as well, for the gift of democracy.  And keep in mind that democracy is a fragile gift, one that needs to be honored, practiced, and  polished regularly. And protected from all enemies foreign and domestic. Just sayin’.

Celebrating Women

 

Lots of our holidays celebrate men.  Martin Luther King Jr. President’s Day. Saint Patrick’s Day.  Jesus, several times, particularly Christmas and Easter. Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day, until recently mostly about men, now including a growing minority of women. Founding fathers on the fourth of July. Christopher Columbus, still has fans not so much as before we were invited to view him from a Native American perspective.  Yes, women get Mothers’ Day and men get Fathers’ Day, but where are the specific women whose lives we celebrate? We can’t even get one on the twenty dollar bill to invade the space made sacred to men in political leadership.  We sort of honor women generically by granting them the entire month of March as women’s history month.  But there is no woman in particular and no day that in particular is dedicated to a designated woman as a leader, an achiever, a hero.

So I would like to suggest that one day in March (Maybe the Ides of March, the 15th?) we designate as An Alphabet of Women Day and recite the names of some heroic, path-breaking American Women.  Here is my list, mostly American but with some entries from elsewhere. No explanations provided.  You can find them in Wikipedia. Or you can celebrate one a day until you run out of alphabet on March 26th, or fill in the last five days from the dates with more than one candidate.  You can also create your own list.  Suggestions welcome!

Abigail Adams

Boudicca. Betty Friedan (tie)

Caroline Chapman Catt

Dorothea Dix, Doris Kearns Goodwin (tie)

Eleanor Roosevelt, Eliza Pinckney, Emily Dickenson (tie)

Frances Perkins

Gloria Steinem, Greta Thunberg (tie)

Harriet Tubman, Helen Keller (tie)

Ida B. Wells

Jane Adams, Jane Fonda (tie)

Katherine Graham

Louisa May Alcott

Margaret Fuller, Margaret Thatcher (tie)

Nancy Pelosi, Nancy Reagan (tie)

Oprah Winfrey

Patricia Schroeder, Pat Nixon (tie)

Queen Elizabeth I and II

Rosa Parks, Rachel Carson (tie)

Susan B. Anthony, Sacajawea (tie)

Theresa (Mother), Tallulah Bankhead (tie)

Ursula LeGuin

Victoria Woodhull

WACS and WAVES

X—for the unknown woman

Young women, the leaders of tomorrow

Zelda Fitzgerald

Making the Right Mistakes

Fear of doing the wrong thing is often what holds us back from taking actions or making decisions.  But not to decide is to decide.  It’s easy when there is a right answer, but usually there is just a better answer, and we’re not sure how to determine what that is.

Martin Luther recognized that challenge in one of his most pungent observations: “Sin boldly.”  He knew that there are few unmitigated good actions. Most of them have at least some negative consequences, some unexpected, some minimized while  focusing on the positive outcomes, some just intentionally ignored. Driving a car is good. Polluting the air is bad.  Disposable diapers are convenient but fill the landfill.  Washing cloth diapers has its own consequences. Working more hours at a challenging job can bring financial rewards and satisfaction, but at what price in terms of health or family time?

Statisticians know this well.  They have invented a useful and, of course, measurable (that’s what statistics is!) yardstick called Type I error and Type II error. It’s a decision tool for the particular purpose of determining whether a theory is supported by the facts.  A researcher proposes a hypothesis that left-handed people are more prone to violence than right-handed people. Various kinds of evidence is brought to bear, such as police records.  Type I error is the probability of accepting this hypothesis as true  when it is actually false. We don’t want that to happen, or at least not very often.  Lives may depend on getting it right. As a left-handed person, I don’t want to be discriminated against for something I not, just because I belong to that category.  Truth has consequences. (Yes, I know that’s and old TV show and also a city in New Mexico.)  So keeping Type I error as low as possible is the safe strategy.  But guess what? When you minimize Type I error, Type II error increases.  Type II error is the likelihood of rejecting something as false when it is actually true. Maybe we really should be wary of left-handed people!  After all, the Latin word for left-handed is sinistra.  You can miss out on a lot of good choices if you let fear of Type II error get in the way.

Two lessons: listen to your gut, which is where your fear of bad consequences is at war with your sense of adventure, but also listen to your brain. Get good information so that you can assess what the benefits are and the downside of each alternative you are looking at. Martin Luther took the riskier choice and started the Protestant Reformation, knowing what the consequences might be for himself, his family, his supporters, and peace in Germany. So every time I find myself leaning toward the safe choice, I conjure up my inner Martin Luther and say to myself, Sin Boldly!