Saturday, August 29, 2009

An alternate reality

I'm a huge (and hopeless!) idealist. So if you find idealism frustrating - well, maybe you should skip this post. Don't say I didn't warn you! If you're a hearty realist, well, this one may be a bit frustrating...

When I was a teenager (many, many years ago!) I was intensely disappointed in the church. It seemed to me that if what the bible had to say was really true - and I believed that it was, albeit based on a somewhat limited understanding! - that the church wasn't living up to it's potential. It seemed that human frailties of various kinds - pettiness, ambition, intolerance, selfishness, pride - all conspired to undermine the church's integrity and effectiveness. Like many other young idealists, I suspect, I became quite disenchanted with the church and left, in search of a more authentic spirituality.

Fast forward about 14 years - the approximate length of that phase of my spiritual pilgrimage - and I had come full circle (including ups and downs and lots of spiritual experimentation) back to a pretty orthodox Christianity, including regular church attendance and even employment in the denominational office! And now, many years later again, I find myself STILL critical of the church as an institution. The difference is that as frustrating as I find the "church", I'm convinced that even with its flaws and foibles, it's the "body" of Christ. It's the "body" in that we Christians - still a motley crew - ARE the incarnational presence of Christ in the world. That is, we are the ones entrusted to carry on the work that Jesus began - the spreading of the good news that the kingdom is near.

What exactly did Jesus mean when he said (repeatedly) that the kingdom is near? If we don't have a clear understanding of this, how can we live up to our purpose? Here's where my idealism comes in, but it's also going to sound pretty critical. See, I think that Jesus intended for us to live and think very differently from the world around us and, bottom line, very differently than what we think and how we live today. I think that we've got caught up in all kinds of currents that have way more to do with how the "world" operates than how the "kingdom" operates. And to the extent we conform to the world, we're basically ineffective as witnesses.

So, you may be thinking that this doesn't sound like an idealist rant... quite true. But my point is simply this: if we are followers of Christ we should live as if we are already living in the Kingdom of God. We should live UP to what the vision is. We shouldn't live DOWN to what the world expects. The problem these days - or at least ONE of the problems - is that Christians are way too busy thinking about the future rewards and we're spending way too little time and effort living up to what we believe. I think we should live as if we are already IN the kingdom, which of course, we are!

What does this look like in practical terms? It means that we treat people as if they are honest and compassionate and hopeful and full of the fruit of the spirit - even when - and especially when - they don't act that way. We get past appearances and we fix our eyes on Christ and live the way He taught us to live, no matter what! That, I believe, is what it means to BE an incarnational presence of Christ in the world. We deny ourselves... we take up our cross (whatever burdens we bear)... and we FOLLOW CHRIST into the mundane, messed up, everyday world as a beacon of light.

This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine. This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine. This little light of mine - I'm going to let it shine, Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!

See, the thing is, we forget - we mean well and we are sincere when we think it's more complicated than this, but ANY effort on our part to do God's work ourselves, is doomed to fail. The battle is not against flesh and blood but against the powers of darkness. But we forget. We think we can take on the enemy. We think we know what we're doing. But we don't. Like Peter when he stepped out of the boat and was literally walking on water, we forget who's in control and we focus on our circumstances, our frustrations, our problems, the failures of others to be good people - the waves that threaten to pull us down...

If we are going to live in the Kingdom, we must live according to the principles of the Kingdom, even when they seem inadequate for the challenges of the day. Faith is believing in things not seen... rememmber? When we live by faith, and not by sight - well, then we will see the alternate reality. The realist - poor soul! - will never see past the reality that is to the reality that could be. The realist is trapped in the kingdom of this world and will live and die according to its principles.

Why not give it a try? Here's what I challenge you to do - give God a chance to prove that he's actually way bigger than your mind and imagination. Make a point of living idealistically - living as if the kingdom of God IS the reality in the here and now. And pay attention - you just might be in for an amazing ride!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Waste not, want not - really?

We live in a disposable society. Most of us recognize the strains that disposability are placing on our environment, but we sure hate to give up on our own convenience in order to be good stewards of our shared "nest". I remember visiting Cuba for the first time over a decade ago and being impressed by the resourcefulness of people in re-using and recycling just about everything. It seemed to me that nothing was wasted. Everything could be redeemed and refashioned and re-engineered. My husband, a commercial fisherman, who is always "rigging something up" was in his element.

An old adage reminds us that necessity is the mother of invention and I remember thinking how true that is in contexts where there's never enough. Rigging something up means using things and parts of things in ways that are non-traditional, or at least non-commercial. It's making do with something that may not be shiny and new, but which does the job. It's a useful art form for people who are creative or on a budget.

Another old adage is waste not, want not. Did you ever wonder who comes up with these pithy sayings? What purpose do they serve? Whose thinking are they meant to shape and condition? How might they distort our understanding of the realities of other people?

Wouldn't it be nice if it was universally true that those who are frugal and avoid waste and wastefulness, could be assured that they would want for nothing - or at least nothing basic, like food, water, sanitation, health care, education... It's ironic, don't you think, that this old adage can roll off our tongues even though we live in a society that has built whole industries - a huge economy, in fact - out of waste? And yet - for us - we want not whether we waste not or not. And, sadly, many people who know no other way than to waste not seem to be condemned to a prison of perpetual want.

Jesus said that he came to set the captives free. Hm. I wonder if he might have been anticipating THIS kind of captivity?

So - the writing of this posting was just interrupted by a fire alarm in the residence building where I'm staying. I'm on the top floor of a 5 story building. The alarm sounded and this is how my thinking went: it's probably a false alarm but just in case, maybe I should get outside. I am, after all on the top floor and even though I don't smell smoke or see any evidence that there really is a fire, it might be stupid to wait and take a chance. Take my key - find the stairs (I meant to figure out where the closest stairs are, but hadn't done it yet) - done the stairs and outside with the 4 other people already there. Thinking on the way down the stairs that I should have brought my car keys and laptop, just in case - rejected the thought of going back for them. Outside - looking at the building and seeing no evidence of a fire. Someone arrived to say we could go back in - they were just testing the alarms (yup - they work!). On the way back upstairs, reflected that if it really WAS a fire, the truth is that all that I'd really NEED to salvage would be my car keys and my laptop. Hm. I have filled this tiny (or so it seems) residence room with the comforts of home and yet, when it comes down to it, it's pretty much all disposable... and frankly, replaceable. If I lost everything in that room, I could be up and running in no time. A few quick shopping sprees and I'm good to go. I could probably even upgrade - that is, get newer models, more stylish clothes... My insurance would likely even pick up the tab. Waste not, want not?

Somehow I can't help but think that it's an adage from an era when frugality and thrift and humility and gratitude were more valued and it gave people something to aspire to. Now, it's like looking at an old photo. But I'm not suggesting that we go back. Nope - not an option. We need to go forward, but with eyes open. The new adage is this: live simply so that others may simply live.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Intellectual Property: Thoughts about Property and Profit

Have you ever thought about the way we attach an economic value to just about everything and then scheme and fight and maneuver to get more of whatever it is? We become downright obsessed with having things and defending our right to do as we wish with what is ours. The value of things is determined by how badly other people want them. The value of things goes up and down according to demand. Land, food, water, oil, energy, precious metals, "collectables", antiques - they are all bought and sold and we have developed elaborate legal systems to protect all of these things from thieves and to make sure that transactions are done properly, or at least legally. Well - that's the idea, anyway, wars and invasions and our treatment of First Nations peoples aside.

But there are things that it's a little more difficult to establish clear "ownership". Intellectual property, for example. Who "owns" ideas? Every now and again we hear about a legal battle where one artist - a songwriter, a writer, a comedian - claims that someone else has "stolen" their idea. There are very strict penalties for students who use someone else's ideas or words without giving proper credit - it's called plagiarism and it can be grounds for expulsion. I love ideas and I'm passionate about the pursuit of understanding and truth. I wonder - have I ever had a truly "new" idea? Have I ever thought anything that hasn't been thought before?

I love to read books of all kinds but I confess that I especially like to read books by authors who's thinking is consistent with mine. But it's humbling - and exhilarating - to realize that some of my favorite authors have written extensively on ideas that I've arrived at after much intense "thought". Whatever the topic or the particulars, they have arrived at the same intersection of idea fragments. Like travelers in a desert who come across a well, we - thinkers from across the ages - arrive at the same insight even though our path to that insight has traversed through different ages and cultural contexts. There is nothing new under the sun!

The pursuit of truth and of understanding is perhaps something that we should pursue corporately and collaboratively, rather than competitively and as individuals. Maybe if we were less concerned about making a name for ourselves, or using our ideas as a means of securing our own financial security, we would discover a deeper sense of elation - one that can't be measured by dollars and cents - when ideas hit the mark. I wonder if God finds it amusing that we go to such lengths to stake our claim to ideas that have some market value. Or does he find it sadly pathetic when we're more concerned with getting credit or making money than we are with sharing and helping and building and discovering for the sheer joy of it.

I love to think. I love those moments when I gain a glimmer of understanding that's new for me. But I am realistic enough to know that I haven't had a single "original" idea. Every idea is a moment in time when bits and pieces - fragments - of the ideas of other people come together in some coherent form in my mind and join with other ideas and fragments of ideas. It's a bit like a kaleidoscope - those tubes that turn and provide endless configurations with the same bits of color. None of the ideas are "mine". They don't "belong" to me. I have a moral obligation - it seems to me - not to hold onto ideas and try to extract all value from them, but to "catch and release" - to appreciate insights as they come and to give them back from whence they came.

Maybe if humanity's most clever minds were content with the intangible benefits of thinking and were willing to work with other clever minds, we would gradually see understanding, not through the grid of the market economy, but through the grid of truth, the realization of which IS the pearl of great price.