Friday, March 27, 2009

spring in three frames

Washington, DC was beginning to break into spring.  This saucer magnolia blew me away.  It was just a block or so from our hotel.  
I admit, though, great joy in returning to San Diego, where the early evening still was warm enough to be coatless as I waited for Matt to pick me up at the airport.
And, I love being back in my crazy little neighborhood, where I can catch a Chinese dragon rehearsal on a Saturday afternoon if I'm lucky.  They didn't have the costume on, but it's still a good time.

wonderings and wanderings

I hiked a piece of the AT with my brother. It wasn’t at all like I’d imagined: flat and in the company of humans. The piece closest to his home runs across a valley between the edge ridges of the Appalachian Mountains and the end of the Blue Ridge. There, in central Pennsylvania, the trail makes its way across farms, above marshy lowlands on a wooden walkway, across an interstate highway on the shoulder of 4-lane overpass, and above the Pennsylvania Turnpike on a concrete walkway.
My brother maintains this is the most “honest” section of the AT: it keeps us from romantic ideas of wildness, separated from human life and development. It also reminds him of the footpaths he enjoyed while living in England—public ways maintained by foot, opening up pathways through farmlands and private property. There, as in the other bits of Europe I’ve experienced, nature’s beauty doesn’t depend on our strange American notions of wilderness landscapes requiring the editing out of human interventions. But our wild lands, at least in my imagination, are only truly wild when I can cut development out of the frame.
The hike seemed even more honest, coming the day after he showed me a film he’d planned to use in the classroom, teaching about sustainability in a global context: Manufactured Landscapes. An exploration of Edward Burtinsky’s strikingly beautiful and unsettling photographs of landscapes created by modern human industry. Red rivers of copper mining trailings, monstrous and oddly squared-off canyons carved in granite mines, the endless stretch of a Chinese factory and its masses of their employees, the geometric patterns of masses of e-waste piled in a dump—the images capture an unmistakable beauty in a landscape that embarrasses.

I finished Michael Pollan’s Second Nature on this trip, too, and have been considering my own framework for care for the earth. I like the clarity with which he suggests a way past the dominant message of nature conservation, which seems to believe that a pristine environment, free of the taint of human interaction, could be preserved. (And, hiking through a state park made of second-growth pines replanted after 19th-century cast-iron factories burned the earlier trees to fuel their furnaces, I see a certain short-sightedness and forgetfulness in the idea, too.) A garden, he suggests, might be a better metaphor for nature: a realm to be tended for its beauty as well as its usefulness, and from which to gratefully draw things that will sustain our lives.

In the creation-care class at my church, someone raised the idea of the goodness and beauty of creation, at its beginning—suggesting a call to work at restoring Eden. While I like most things circular (restoration, recreation and renewal, for example), I also want to give resistance to the idea that we need to get back to the good old days, to repair things the way they used to be. I feel God drawing us forward—not to replacing what was, but to reimagining what could be. A spiral, perhaps, demanding our full engagement in cultivating ways to care for each other and the earth.

In Washington, with church folks charged to help implement the social principles we say we stand for as a United Methodist Church, we talked some about the impact of our present environmental crises on the world’s poor—on people already made vulnerable by economic systems that keep them out of power. In the present climate of economic crisis, it’s far too tempting to forget the poor, and just focus on protecting ourselves, or the people we know who are like us. If there are going to be bail-outs, we know we don’t want them to go to AIG executives, but we are skeptical that there will really be enough for everyone, so we’d just as soon protect our pension plans and investments.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve lost sleep over the mess I’m in, having taken out a mortgage I worry about being able to keep up with, on a house now worth half of what I owe. For now, though, I’m trying to remain grateful that I can pay that mortgage, that I have a decent place to live, and some space to grow some of my own food.

I’m glad for this church meeting, for helping lift my gaze beyond my own yard, to reconnect to my belonging in a global body of Christ, unbounded by national borders or economic systems. We advocate for serious climate control legislation, eager to find a way of living on this planet that won’t put us all—and, particularly, the poorest among us—in eminent danger.

Conversation among our politicians seems to have settled on carbon trading as the “feasible” solution for our time. And, yet, it leaves me unsettled: as our international economy proves itself insecure, do we really want to rely on the market to shape our solution to carbon emissions? And, what kind of strange values are embodied in the creation of a market for the trade of the right to destroy our environment in measurable increments?

As the global poor suffer disproportionately the effects of our industry’s carbon emissions, what recourse or remediation to they have in such a market?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

broken things

I’m flying home from a meeting of our General Board of Church and Society (more about this later), in Washington, DC. The flight has been long enough to read a book I’d been wanting to read, and it moved me.

Sara Miles’ Take This Bread honors the mysterious, transformative power of sharing in the body of Christ—communion, wherever it can be found, meeting the hungers of our world. Our faith us bodily—at the center of our worship is Christ’s broken body, giving us life. Church is real when we become the bread.

I’m looking forward to our congregation’s planned community family meals at the Normal Heights church just after Easter. I’m eager and hopeful that they will be communion, too. I’ve been frustrated and disappointed with myself that it’s taken us long to get to this place where we will host them.

But, I remind myself again, that mystery is really, quite completely, beyond our control. This past week, I was playfully and seriously advocating attempts at relinquishing control. (Really, that’s already a given; I just need help remembering not to waste my time seeking after the illusion of control…)

I struggle, though, at knowing what it looks like to press on and to organize, without ever believing I’m in control. I still remember deep frustration with a then-boyfriend who refused to work on things: “It’ll work out if it’s meant to be,” he said, shrugging off my attempts to negotiate real obstacles in our relationship. I don’t ever mean to abdicate responsibility, but I do mean to tap into a confidence, power and hope that doesn’t depend on abilities alone.

At the heart of the difference is my recognition that I’m a part of God’s mystery, and a part of an unfolding story of the Church that is better than I could think up on my own.

Which, it will not surprise some of you to hear, brings me to my frustration with strategic plans, measurable outcomes and annual assessments.

My UM church is anxious about its decline, and aware of the growing burden of maintaining the structures and commitments we have in place. “Ineffective” clergy are often blamed for our problems, as we continue to lose numbers of members, and struggle to employ those we have ordained. We all know folks who we judge to be ineffective, who seem to be doing just enough to get by and wish they could afford to retire. But, really, they’re not the folks around me. The clergy I know well are dedicated, hard-working, imaginative, often-frustrated innovators, doing the best of what they can to be in faithful ministry in a compliated world.

I have this sense that we’ve created a good part of the problem. And, I think our efforts to help clarify the problem have made it worse: I blame our systems of assessment.

Periodic evaluation of our effectiveness is a good thing—self-reflection and conversation with others to talk through the ways we’ve failed and succeeded helps us grow in ministry, and remain faithful to God’s call.

Mostly, though, I think we reduce our serious evaluation to things that are easier to count and further from the heart of what gives us life. We chart changes in attendance and membership, count hours spent in continuing education opportunities, and ask what measurable objectives we have pursued.

Ministry has never seemed to me to be something I could measure in a quantitative sense: the most wondrous, transformative bits defy objective analysis. Like the oft-celebrated heart-warming experience of John Wesley, the best stuff exists just beyond our reach. Sometimes, it takes years to take root. Other times, I get to step into someone’s life just in time to see a dramatic conversion that was years and many earlier communities in the making.

To be asked to reflect on those interactions and then to fill in rather trivial, fact-like details makes me feel like the church doesn’t trust me, and also like the body of Christ has missed the point.

In the end, we have to trust each other—that what we’re doing is a part of something impossible to measure, made real in relationships and lives that cannot be quantified in objective terms. The pressure to “factify”—to reduce the unquantifiable into something that can be carefully and seemingly objectively measured—is constraining us by keeping us focused on things that don’t really matter.

Besides, I’m still on my soapbox about our distraction with anxiety over death of the United Methodist Church, all while we’re preaching freedom from our slavery to sin and death in our communion liturgy and in Christ’s resurrection.  

It's almost Holy Week.  As good a time as I know to think about brokenness, to reflect on what is at the core of our faith and practice and to make a change.  Thoughts?

Sunday, March 15, 2009


How did you celebrate Pi Day?

I attempted what I believe to be my first totally-whole-wheat pie crust.  With apricots inside.  Clearly, my crust-making skills could use some perfection...

Thursday, March 12, 2009

flowers in the yard

Spring has come to San Diego, and I'm enjoying the chance to play with flowers from the yard.  I've been enjoying the delightful distraction of learning more about flower arranging, occasioned by my plans to be the florist for a family wedding this summer.  It's nice to have excuses for spending time with beautiful things.  This past week, the poppies and irises started blooming, and they're lovely.
And, this week, we finally finished the giant head of cauliflower we picked out of the front yard.  That's a whole lotta cauliflower.  
And now it's time to dream of summer gardens.  The tomato seeds are germinating away in their starter trays...