on earth day (in your neighborhood)

Today is Earth Day, so I’m offering a few thoughts on the earth and how we inhabit it. It seems to me that in order to think well about the earth we must first consider the way we share our human existence in it. I like to think of my approach to others as a community park where anyone can wonder in and enjoy sharing space, hardship or conversation. In reality, though, my default approach is often more like a country club where certain others are deemed worthy (or not) of welcome. This is the worst! It reveals my instinct to make my self and my preferences exceptional. I privilege me. Deep down, although I know I am ‘one of many’, I somehow keep behaving as if I am ‘the one.’ On this day set aside to honor the earth, it is a helpful exercise to think about the way we think we fit together. Fundamentally, do I want to share, or hoard?

God is a big fan of community. We know this because our origin story is not about a guy, but a community comprised of Father, Son and Spirit God. Genesis explains that God created Adam and Eve as partners, and later sent pairs into the ark in order to preserve life after devastating destruction. God also sent disciples out in pairs, and then made sure his mother and best friend did not forget to do the obvious—care for each other in his absence—upon his death.  God is a creator of community; long lasting, through cycles of scarcity and plenty, togetherness is one of the messages of Scripture. God’s neighborhood—God’s ‘us’—is bigger than ours.

God created the earth: Sky, light, sea, land, and all the plants and animals in it, and then proclaimed the creation “Good.” He created people and called them, “Very Good.” For the first work God asked Adam to build a community with the animals. To name them. To care for them. To be with them. This work gave Adam dignity and purpose, charging him with stewarding his dominion as a shared participant in the community. It was the second manifestation of God’s love of community. First, the Trinity.  Second, living things sharing space. Neighborhoods, if you will.

 Just as God created the cycles of day and night, the growing process had a cycle of working and resting. We work to plant the next harvest or child or litter, and then wait for life to come and grow. This waiting, being one part of a bigger whole, is a manifestation of the necessary humility built into the universe. We have the privilege to do our part, but we know our part is ultimately insufficient. Our human experience fundamentally reflects and mimics the experiences of others, following the earth’s rhythm repeated all over the world.

And yet, we do not think of ourselves as mimickers. We are not like them, those other living things. We are “very good”, not merely “good.” Our notion that we are not just different from but actually better than provides a foundation that allows stewarding dominion to become arbitrary abuse. Sharing becomes hoarding. We often are unthinking and selfish in the way we relate to natural resources, but some of us justify our abuse of the earth as somehow embodying the role given to us by our Creator. But we are not exceptional. We are part of the whole. We are one of many. 

The earth’s cycles speak of humility in the very sharedness of our neighborhoods.  We cannot live apart from the earth. We cannot live apart from other people. We are not self sustaining. In fact, we can only sustain our own lives when we acknowledge our dependence on and place in the whole.  A responsible ethic of living and stewardship must be rooted in recognizing that we are part of an ecosystem, and that our notion of community must expand to include the earth and all that is in it.  It is singularly terrible that in America, those who identify as Christians seem most likely to ignore the fragility of the earth and the people trying to live in it. Giving ourselves the mantle of ‘exceptional’ in our ecosystems has led to privileging our perspective, our needs and our wants over every other stakeholder in our environment. If we do not see ourselves as an important part of the fabric of sustaining life that God created then we will indeed, become exceptionally destructive, vulnerable, and, ultimately, unable to flourish in the world we were given, and then destroyed.

This Earth Day, might we each take a moment to recognize our dependence on the earth and those with whom we share it? Dependent humility, not exceptional arrogance, is the posture best suited for those of us trying to love our neighbors well. Sharing, rather than hoarding. How can your actions (in your very neighborhood) add to the flourishing of your environment (human and natural), rather than making sure you get what you want in the short term? Together, let’s do the hard work of expanding our thinking about neighboring to also include the animals and water and earth and food with whom we share the task of sustaining life.

on Easter

At Radnor, a State Park in Nashville, tiny buds and opening blooms sprinkle the ground and sky. I cannot scan any part of the landscape without being accosted by the green. New growth is nearly neon, glowing in intensity, while the maturing buds settle into a deeper, less pretentious green. It is gorgeous, but feels particularly aggressive on an early spring morning when the temperature is so low that such signs of life feel out of place. Walking in the cold, seeing my breath, surrounded by dead things, new life assaults the eyes.

My favorite thing about the Torah is the way God chooses unexpected people to lead and become heroes of the story. Jacob, a greedy liar who doesn’t understand family, becomes the selfless Father of the nation of Israel. Joseph, a self-centered jerk, given to hyperbolic delusions of grandeur, is mistreated terribly as God teaches him to embody patience, forgiveness and restraint as he saves a nation from starvation. Moses, adopted, a felon, and not great with words, is chosen by God to speak up to Pharaoh and lead Israelites out of slavery and into freedom.

The trend continues in the New Testament of Christians, as a random group of diverse and disagreeable men are united by Jesus to change the world through love. Jesus consistently elevates unexpected folks, from having dinner with greedy traitors, to often telling stories where the hero was a person shunned out on the street. Indeed, Jesus regularly invested in women, teaching them as if they had the intellect of rabbis, charging them as if they had the courage of warriors, and trusting them as if they had the loyalty of a close brother in a time when women had little to no legal or cultural standing.

Jesus consistently found value in folks overlooked or ignored by others. Like God in the Old Testament, the Christ saw value where others did not. It seems to me that the modern American church has lost sight of this core consistency strung through Judaism and Christianity. Most of us seem to have traded the God who crafts a story around a person usually pushed to the margins by making her the hero, for a God who backs the biggest, strongest, meanest guy in the room. Rather than going into the world with nothing, depending on our Creator to meet our needs, our Father to guide and comfort us, and our Messiah to justify and protect us, we horde wealth, blame others with fear, and pretend like God hates all the same people we do. We are, I’m afraid, terrible at bearing witness to the life and passion and purpose of Christ as the embodiment of the Holy Scripture.

This is why I love Passover and Easter. The central holidays of the Jewish and Christian calendar are about hope existing in the midst of death. For Jews, Passover reminds us that even when all seems lost, God will somehow provide protection. It reminds us that the way to be in the world is not to shout louder or to get a bigger gun, but to huddle close with those you love, share a fabulous meal and pray that God will protect you. Likewise, Easter reminds Christians that the way the God of the universe decided to take care of God’s people was through sacrifice. In the Christian story, pain and suffering are not meaningless, but are shared with hope. Death is not the end, but a natural part of a cycle always leading back to life.

The natural world reveals to us that there is no birth without rebirth. We do not live independently, but as part of vast ecosystems that follow a pattern: death and decay leading to nourishment and life. This Passover and Easter, I am thankful I follow a God who doesn’t ask me to win. Instead, God reminds me that getting low, being overlooked or betrayed, feeling wounded beyond repair, hurting deep in my secret places, is not the end of the story. In God’s telling, these places of pain and death are inhabited by the God who made us, and whose very world is predicated on the idea that death leads to life.

Easter, for me, is not about victory, or winning, or power. It is about a God who sends a tiny bud of neon green to light up a death-ridden forest floor. It is about a God who chooses a hero from a group of outcasts. It is about a God whose death destroyed his closest friends, but whose miraculous resurrection soon gave them hope, as he fed them a meal and gave them a communal purpose, inviting them deeper into the mysterious ways of God than they thought they could go.

This week, when the ubiquitous green catches you off guard, or when an overlooked colleague finds recognition, or when you find comfort in a painful moment, or when you feel solidarity with an ostracized person, I hope you will remember the arc of the story of the Judeo-Christian God is actually a cycle, where death is never the end, but a pathway to new life.

Happy New Year. Stop Lying!

A few years ago I decided to stop lying as a New Year’s resolution. This seemed like a reasonably positive development in my growth as a human. I would not have identified as a chronic misleader, or as a person with a strained relationship with the truth; I was certainly not pathological. My resolution was not an attempt to correct some deep character flaw unique to me. Rather, it felt like a worthy goal—and maybe a necessary one if I wanted to enjoy meaningful relationships—to raise my awareness of how I think and speak. I hoped to pay full attention to the way I characterized my actions in order to do the hard work of fully owning my junk.

 When I told others about my plan to stop lying, many laughed, intrigued, but some were appalled. They seemed to be mostly bothered by the implication I left floating out in the air: If I had resolved to stop lying then I was suggesting to others that I had a big problem with lying. They wanted to protect my reputation from me, and urged me to stop describing my resolution in a way that reflected so poorly on me.

In this way, they missed the point entirely. I resolved, in fact, to stop protecting my reputation. It is exactly the urge to protect ourselves that causes us to edit out our mistakes, misgivings, selfishness, and failings. It is our need to appear good that incentivizes us to not look too closely at our selves. I realized I had a tendency to revise my life in real time in a way that helped me seem awesome, with little regard for others. When I openly shared I planned to confront said tendency, some people lost respect for me, a fact that strikes me as absurd.

More than absurd though, such a reaction confirmed for me that most of us are wholly unwilling to even admit all the ways we subtly choose our own narratives over the narratives of others. Put another way, most of us are pretty good at critiquing others, but we often view ourselves sympathetically. The term myside bias sums this up nicely: we are more likely to truthfully and critically evaluate the arguments of others than we are our own. When it comes to self-reflection, it is difficult to see clearly. Indeed, we often even lie to ourselves, and we have to stop if we want to enjoy lasting community with others.

I have often shared my conviction that defensiveness destroys the possibility of meaningful relationships. In a very real way my commitment to stop lying was less about my own integrity and more about my desire to collaboratively create meaning with those around me. Driven by a need to defend ourselves, we cut off the possibility of discovering truth in community. On the other hand, what if we could learn a new way to be that makes self-defense an odd waste of time? What if we disciplined ourselves in such a way that overcame myside bias by actively inviting others to help us in the work of reflection?

Today, as 2019 begins, I’d like to offer self-honesty as a way to make room for meaningful relationships in our lives. For me, as we’ve just discussed, this work begins with a commitment to stop lying. It then quickly requires me to correct these mistakes, to confess and make amends every time I notice my need to revise history in a way that defends or favors me. My hope is that this personal work will impact our communities in transformative ways.

In the Holy Scriptures that record the life of Christ, there is a story of a man sent before the Messiah to prepare the way for the Lord. His job was to get people ready for the Savior who would bring Good News to poor and broken people. He did this in a few ways: First, he realized that the status quo was to live in a way that protected and defended the self at the expense of others. He instinctively knew this way of being in the world was incompatible with embracing the Messiah, so he rejected a lot of society and lived counter culturally. Next, he was crystal clear about his own weakness. He caused a stir everywhere he went, but he continually stated he was not the main event. He helped people realize they could be honest about their own disappointments and even failings because a Savior was coming to rescue them. Finally, and this is my favorite part, he loved to call out people so committed to their own lies about themselves that they could no longer see the impact of their selfishness on the people around them. He called them snakes sometimes, which feels a bit harsh. But he followed that up with this amazing suggestion: “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.”

Long story short, this man, John, who lived his life trying to help people get ready for a Messiah who came to create a community of honest people who thrived in their need for each other, knew that self-honesty always led to apologizing and forgiveness, and that doing that kind of self-work always produced fruit. The fruit of honesty is the ability to belong to a community. To be a part of a large and messy we. To stop trying to be right, or well-defended, or exceptional, or deserving. The fruit of repentance is an ever-expanding sense of “us.”

To be a person who fully owns her mess miraculously makes me a person safe for the mess of others.

In 2019, let’s stop lying. Let’s stop revising history to make us look good. Let’s be people willing to see our flaws, to name them, to repent of them, and then to enjoy the fruit John talked about. To enjoy each other, because we have lifted our eyes away from our own reflection long enough to see the beauty in those around us. Happy New Year.