Sunday, March 29, 2009
Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton
The Wild Geese by Wendell Berry
Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear. What we need is here.
A Vision (Work Song, part 2) by Wendell Berry
If we will have the wisdom to survive,
to stand like slow growing trees
on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it...
then a long time after we are dead
the lives our lives prepare will live here,
their houses strongly placed upon the valley sides...
The river will run clear,
as we will never know it...
On the steeps where greed and ignorance cut down the old forest, an old forest will stand,
its rich leaf-fall drifting on its roots.
The veins of forgotten springs will have opened.
Families will be singing in the fields...
native to this valley, will spread over it like a grove,
and memory will grow into legend,
legend into song, song into sacrament.
The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling light.
This is no... dream (of paradise)
Its hardship is its reality.
Last Sunday following some after-church meetings, I headed down to the library with my kids in tow and we peeked into the chicken chat even sponsored by Groton Local and the Groton Reads program of the library. In case you weren’t able to make it, chicken chat was a chicken-o-centric event, including the film “The Natural History of Chickens” and a panel discussion on raising chickens at home. We didn’t stay because Caleb and Isabel had already attended one meeting with me and were finished with even token attempts to be quiet, so we went outside to examine the model hen house instead. But there wouldn’t have been room for us even if we could have stayed. I was amazed, almost stunned really, to see how many people were squeezed into the room to watch a documentary film on chickens and discuss chicken keeping. The future of the greater Groton community may include a lot of poultry.
After inspecting the sample hen house, beautiful by the way, Caleb and Isabel wanted to move into it — I had a chat in the children’s room of the library with someone about the strange lovely sense we both have had recently that some of the best, most spiritually sustaining things of the past are becoming new and even kind of hip again — things like kitchen gardens and chicken keeping, potluck suppers and clothing exchange parties called shop and swaps.
Once home again, I eagerly opened the Sunday New York Times magazine, my sign to myself that my work week has ended and my personal Sabbath has begun. The cover photo and story last week, as some of you might have seen, were about a 13 year old boy, whose basketball playing is so good he has attracted the interest of college recruiters, even though he is only in the 6th grade. The story told how all youth sports now operate on fast forward so it isn’t that unusual that his talented child is being jetted around the country by basketball promoters and a group called the Amateur Athletic Union, who all want him to play on their teams in tournaments so that they can win. He practices basketball an average of seven hours a day, seven days a week and has his own line of promotional clothing. His mother, sounded like a loving, caring parent, was quoted in the article as saying, “They are doing nice things for my son, things he needs and I can’t afford, so how can I say no?”
Beyond the cover story were the usual full page glossy advertisements. The first was for a luxury model Acura, which has a feature inside the car allowing its owners to instantly receive detailed dining recommendations per the Zagat Restaurant survey and make a reservation at a fine restaurant with just a touch of a blue-tooth enable phone, whatever that might be. Just out of curiosity, I looked of the price of the Acura RL, which started at about $54,000. The very next page invited me and presumably all women reading the Sunday Times Magazine to begin an enduring love affair with the Swiss watch company, Patek Phillipe. I tried to figure out how much such a love affair would cost me but their official website doesn’t list any prices. I did some quick research and found a watch similar to the one the woman was wearing in the ad which listed for $30,100. I also saw one watch with a list price of $325,000 or the equivalent of 6.5 years worth of income for the median American household in 2007.
The contrast between my chicken chat experience and the story of a young boy with his own line of promotional clothing was jarring and disorienting. It left me wondering which reality is the real one — the world of chicken keeping in a small town where people seem to get really excited by worlds like local and sustainable, or the world of wrist watches costing more than may houses. But both worlds are real of course. I encountered them both in the space of 30 minutes. All of us who live in this country, in this culture, must reckon with consumerism and the high value our culture places of buying, spending, getting and attaining fame. If we reed magazines or newspapers or watch any television at all, we see and hear our culture’s definition of the supposed good life, of success. We encounter this definition of success numerous times every day.
I know that for many people the story of the 13 year old boy epitomizes success. He has fame, growing wealth and the idolization of others and he has it all before he has gone through puberty. The fact that he has no time to play outside or ride a bike or skateboard or read whatever 13 year olds are reading these days does not seem to factor in the equation of his success, for him, for his mother or for any of the countless adults who support and encourage him. Nor does the fact that all of this will disappear in an instant, should this child not grow tall enough, not develop in the expected ways, not be able to keep winning and earning for those who are investing so much in him how.
I have spent the week wondering how we are impacted by the stories and ads we see defining the good life as one of material success and fame. Do these stories and ads stir up longings in us to live in a world of wealth and ease, such as the vast majority of the human population will never come close to experiencing? Do ads make us want things or do they speak to some innate desire to have, to own, to collect, to keep, to be recognized as an object of envy by others? I consider myself relatively impervious to the clamoring of our consumer culture and as some of you know I have a physical and emotional allergy to shopping malls, but the contrast between my own experience of the chicken chat and the NY Times magazine made me curious. How impervious am I really? I decided to do a bit of research on myself and keep track of everything I bought this week: Saturday to Saturday and it was fairly sobering to tell the truth, even keeping in mind that I did not do any of the grocery shopping this week, nor did I need to go to the drugstore or hardware store. Here is the list of what I bought:
None of these things was essential to our family’s well being. They were enjoyed for sure, except for one of the painting sets, which has not even been opened yet, underlining just how inessential it was, but we did not need any of them. In addition to what I did buy, I plan to buy more. I plan to buy a wooden stick horse for an upcoming birthday party and some fairy related object, as yet unspecified, for yet another birthday party. And even beyond the current and future buying, I thought about buying more. I sinned in my heart, as President Carter would say, because I poured over the sale items on the website of the Swedish children’s clothing retailer Hannah Andersson. I perused the children’s bathing suits on the Lands End website and even put things in virtual shopping bags.
In addition to all of this, I receive daily emails from a website called Apartment Therapy whose purpose is to share photos of beautiful apartments to give you ideas for simple, eco-friendly home design. Unfortunately the effect these emails have on me to inspire simple covetousness of the beauty, cleanliness, and elegance of other people’s houses. So I spent some time this week coveting not just individual items of furniture and objects, but entire rooms and houses full. I recognize there is irony in this. I have devoted my life to the making of spiritual meaning, to engaging with some of the deepest questions and longings of the human heart. And yet, and yet, some part of me still believes my life will be better if my children are dressed in organic Swedish cotton, and I am wearing nice shoes, and my house did not look like, well, like me and my family lived there.
I have long believed and long preached to you, that one of the most important roles of the church, especially now, is to redefine success. One of the most essential, the most life-giving kind of work the church can do, especially now, is to remind us, to call us, to live a good life, rather than the good life as currently defined by our society. The church, which is no more than us together, can offer an alternative, a life-saving alternative to the prevailing culture of our times, this culture of consumerism, materialism, competition, bottom lines and scare resources. That is because we have a very different bottom line here — a bottom line in which we help one another, especially those who are not surviving so well, a bottom line which values depth instead of surfaces, cooperation instead of competition and the slow unfolding of time as it passes here. We can be tender here instead of ruthless. We can know each other in ways that are unknown and little valued in the world outside these walls. Here, we can know each other in lovely and quirky ways, by the beauty we bring to others — she is the one who makes the church gardens beautiful or he is the one with that amazing tenor voice in the choir — rather than by our professional accomplishments or degrees. We can know each other by the excellent food we bring to potlucks rather than by our net worth, by our skills in knitting or writing or getting the cranky dishwasher downstairs to work, rather than by how we look or what we wear or own. I also believe our bottom line here is one of honesty — we can speak honestly here about what is joyful and painful, about where and how we are struggling, about what we most yearn for and how and where we have been lost and how and where we have been found.
Church consultant and critic Mike Durall defines this kind of congregation and the people who carry out its work as spiritually mature. In his latest book, The Almost Church, Revitalized, he writes about the role of the church in fostering simplicity and spiritual maturity among its members as utterly essential. Durall writes, “Regardless of theology, a prerequisite for spiritual maturity must include some refutation of the consumer society in which we live. This is the discipline of simplicity. Ever-longer work weeks, ever larger houses financed with ever greater amounts of debt, and acquiring ever more expensive consumer goods are not the pinnacle of American life, for church members, their children or their grandchildren. A major challenge is to redefine what the proverbial good life actually is.” (Durall, p. 55) Durall quotes one of my favorite authors, Kathleen Norris, who writes in her book Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, about moving from New York City to her grandparents’ old house in Lemmon, South Dakoka, population 1,600. Norris learned over time to feel not deprived but rather deeply blessed by living in a small rural community. Norris writes, “Surrendering to reduced circumstances enhances the whole person. It is a radical way of knowing exactly who, what and where you are, in defiance of those powerful forces in society — alcohol, drugs, television and shopping malls — that aim to make us forget.” (Durall, quoting Norris, p. 55)
Some of us, I know, are living in what Norris calls reduced circumstances by stark and sudden necessity rather than by choice. Economic anxiety is a frightening thing and sometimes all the choices seem like bad ones, but Norris reminds us that living a life of drastically reduced options has given her a clarity about herself, about who and where and what she is, that she never would have found otherwise.
What is a good life? What is a life in which we know who we are, whose we are, and where we live? What is a life defined by cherishing what we have instead of grasping for more? What is success? What is the legacy we hope to leave for those who come after us for the people we love and the places we love? My inspiration and source for wisdom and perspective is so often found in the words of environmentalist, writer and farmer Wendell Berry, who farms his family’s land in Kentucky and writes ceaselessly about loving the upon which he lives, the necessity of both revealing and recognizing the sacredness of the earth itself. I believe Wendell Berry would say that a good life is a life in which we attempt to restore the damage humankind has done to the earth. I believe he would say a good life in one in which we live so as to prepare for those who will come after us. He writes:
Those last two lines of the poem are so full of truth: this is no dream of paradise, its hardship is its reality. To live a good life, a life which enriches the place in which we live, both its people and the earth itself, is a difficult life in many ways. Such a life requires that we turn away again and again from the enticements of the culture in which we live. Forty years ago, Wendell Berry wrote words that seem to sums up our current situation rather precisely. Berry wrote in 1969:
“We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us. We must recover the sense of the majesty of the creation and the ability to be worshipful in its presence. For it is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it.” (From The Long-Legged House, p. 196)
In 2002, Barbara Kingsolver published a little book called Small Wonder. It is a book of essays she began writing the day after September 11. In one of the essays entitled Saying Grace, Kingsolver writes about visiting the Grand Canyon for the Thanksgiving holiday, a place near their home at that time, rather than taking their usual big cross country trip. She writes:
How much do we need to feel blessed? How much do we need in order to know that we are already blessed? Wendell Berry writes of the blessing of watching wild geese appear high in the sky over head, geese held to their ancient and beautiful ways of migration, certain of what they are and where they going: