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 paths of least resistance (and destruction)

On a recent hike through Montgomery Bell State Park, I was struck by the way the trail was carefully created to offer challenge followed by beauty. I have done this particular hike several times, once getting so lost that I thought I might become an unofficial and very smelly backcountry groundskeeper. Remembering that disorientation, I was keenly aware of my surroundings, and paid attention in a way that I normally don’t.

 Nashville had record-breaking rainfall this winter and spring. Although the Appalachian Mountains on Tennessee’s eastern border are famously home to generations of Scotsmen, middle Tennessee recently mirrored Scotland with months of gray rainy days. Walking though the woods, the evidence of the rain was everywhere. Soggy ground sprang under each step, and rivers’ voices were louder than normal as the water rushed past. Tracks of mud were evident as rivulets large and small formed during the most ardent downpours.

 Montgomery Bell’s trails are well cared for and defined, but now, because of the rain, there were huge gashes of mud and mulch that crossed the curated paths, at times making it difficult to find the way forward. Heavy rains gorged the earth, scarring thoughtfully laid paths with newly formed trenches that led nowhere. Walking along, it was easy to follow the path of least resistance, to go along with the rain until I realized that once again I had lost my way and wondered off the path and into a ditch.

 In my fifth decade, I am often struck by how difficult survival can be. Carefully choosing my steps, searching for the trail’s progress, I considered the many ways we move through life. The act of forward movement can feel impossible sometimes, especially when the best path is unclear. Particularly challenging is the choice to resist the instinct to function out of our most entrenched places. Sometimes it is hard to even recognize when a choice will take us into a ditch or elevate us to higher ground. Like pouring rain that falls, carving deep ravines across a more thoughtfully laid trail, our worst instincts tempt us to leave the best route and instead follow a path leading to our own destruction.

Consider the way we engage with difference. We know by now that we cannot talk with people who come from different walks of life without first recognizing our own bias, remembering that our experiences shape us in meaningful ways, that these experiences are incredibly different, and that in order to walk toward others we should expect to hear new ideas and different perspectives. When we enter into these conversations, it is rather easy to wonder off the curated path, stepping unknowingly onto the rugged path cut through the earth from the many downpours that came before. We say we want to learn something new, but then we hear a different experience, we react badly, and we end up in a ditch, often without even realizing we stepped away from the path created for our own good.

 We feel skeptical when another’s experience seems to challenge our understanding of how the world works, and we step into the ditch.

We feel attacked by the hard reality someone else lives, and we step into the ditch.

We feel exhausted by the effort it takes to keep moving forward in awkward conversations, and we step into the ditch.

We feel defensive when we hear the unfamiliar perspective of another, and we step into the ditch.

We feel confused and alienated when we perceive that “normal” for others is wildly unfamiliar for us, and we step into the ditch.

Like accumulating water, gathering into franticly formed streams, we look for the path of least resistance. As spontaneously formed rivers cut a new path that leads nowhere, the meaningful path becomes harder to discern, until one day it is hard to see at all. Our interactions are like that. The more we follow our instincts, defensive and touchy, easily offended and looking for a way to escape the discomfort that comes with reaching across lines of difference, the more we find ourselves on the unstable ground of recently moved earth. We look up to see we are in a ravine—with like minded others—trapped in a dead end and far from a path made for many feet.

When we follow our worst instincts, we lose our bearings, and eventually, our hope, finding ourselves in a muddy ditch rather than on a path toward a clearing where we can share ideas and form a society with room for all. However, when we keep our footing and avoid the destructive streams rushing by, we quickly recognize that engaging with others who experience the world differently inspires our own curiosity, increasing our capacity for mystery, humility and wonder. It becomes obvious that the carefully laid path is the one that leads to wonder, to curiosity, to walking with another person who stands in their own shoes and interacts with the world differently than you do.

Walking on the shared path is difficult, and requires a deep focus on context, on orienting ourselves to our surroundings. It requires us to step over small currents that can sweep us away, to maintain our bearings, to choose our steps—and words—wisely. It requires skill that can be honed and strengthened. We can get better at this! It begins with a commitment to notice the rivulets, to observe how they end, and to choose instead to keep walking on the path toward a clearing.

How easily we stumble onto the path of least resistance, haphazardly created by a downpour.  The rains will keep coming, and the way forward will continue to be obscured by destructive habits. A better way is to slowly walk the trail meant to take us through challenging terrain with others, but ultimately, toward beauty.

squishy skin and other unmentionables: a path toward belonging

Sitting on a beach near Miami recently, I was struck by all the beautiful bodies. South Florida: land of sensory overload. Bodies seem sculpted, perfected through multiple interventions. Couples look so perfect, so fashionable, that it is easy to believe every other person must be someone famous, right? In a place like that it is tempting to lose your self in the watching of others.

The striking image of one couple is seared in my mind. I have not forgotten seeing them together, and although we did not speak, they taught me a great deal about how to live a meaningful life. I was not struck by their perfect chin lines, yoga arms, mirrored glasses, bangled wrists, or loafers covered in the sheen of wealth. I was not tempted to think they were famous, and I did not envy the perfection they displayed to those around them.

In fact, they were old and flabby, and our only interaction involved me watching them as they put sunscreen on each other.

The man wore swim trunks, pulled up high, just below his rib cage in the way that elderly gentlemen often do. His wife’s face was framed with white frizzy curls, her body in a floral one piece that had seen many a season. They shuffled onto the pool deck together, like so many other retired couples in South Florida. As they began to settle in to chairs, getting out their books and bottles of water, she seemed struck by the ocean before them, and paused, taking it all in. Meanwhile, he reclined, and soon she sat and began putting sunscreen on. She used the good stuff, thick, and so hard to apply one can only hope it created a formidable block to all those carcinogenic rays. Done with the places she could reach, she handed him the bottle, held up her hair, and, without a word, turned around.

He rose from his chaise lounge, poured sunscreen into his hand, and then began to rub it all over her back. She was chunky, so his fingers squished the skin, pinching and rolling her excess, rubbing every square inch, in full public view. In a place where every body is perfect, such a scene felt almost offensive. How brave she was to stand there with her squishy skin exposed! It was a little gross, but I was mesmerized. They were so clearly comfortable together, so aware of their imperfections and their need for each other just to get through a day at the beach, that the eyeballs of the world were irrelevant to them.

It was ugly, but it was also beautiful. (As life often is).

 Here is what they taught me: if we want to be known, to walk through life growing in meaningful connections with others, we have to expose our ugly parts. Many of us can access our desire to belong, to be in easy community, to be a part of an “us.” When told it will require vulnerability, honesty, and exposure, however, most of us decide to pass. We want the easy comfort of being known and loved despite (or, dare I say, because of?) our infirmities, but we don’t want the daunting challenge of admitting we need another person to get all up in our business in order to do life.

We do though. Watching this anonymous older couple forced me to pose a hard question: If I share a lot of life with someone else but s/he never gets to lay hands on my ugly squishy parts, then what am I doing with my time? Moreover, are meaningful, life giving relationships possible if I am always mindful of how much I share, deciding when to be authentically honest and when to hold back just in case it is not safe to go all in?

If we long to be known, cherished and held onto, we have to expose our vulnerabilities.

The hard to reach places on our backs are small reminders that we were made to depend on others. We thrive when we belong, when we are reachable. Interdependency works best when we are open about the parts of us that aren’t camera ready.

As I often find in the beautiful truth of an image that imprints the soul, I also noticed that when we allow ourselves to be touched in the most embarrassing parts, we might find ourselves helped and even protected. Truth be told, the sweet old man was not particularly loving in his sunscreen application; still, he was willing to get messy, all up in his wife’s business, to protect her. The truth is that we can’t make it on our own. We need each other in ways we can’t even imagine. What a worthy thing to know, to say out loud, and to try to live by.

Of course, the best part about all of this is that those places we love to hide are also the places that long for an embrace. When we are touched there, in the spots we want to ignore, we know, deep in our bones, that we are not alone. Such a connection with others is incredibly beautiful, and worth exposing ourselves for. In ways small and large, I suspect we could all benefit from a little less curated image, a little more here I am, in all my (damaged) glory.

 Believing, as I do, that we all carry the imprint of God in our created selves, I suppose the lesson here for me is that we diminish our capacity to thrive in community when we hide any part of our being. While it is true that it is scary to expose ourselves, I suspect it also feels really lovely to be seen, touched and known.