Life vs. Life in the Machine #5
by Bobi River Wolf(the following is a version of a talk given at cornerstone festival in July of 2008)
"Rejoice, young one, during your youth, and let your heart be pleasant during the days of young adulthood. And follow the impulses of your heart and the desires of your eyes. Yet know that God will bring you to judgment for all these things. Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near when you will say, 'I have not delight in them.'" Ecclesiastes 11:9, 12:1
A Journey from which you shall never return
Today, in this moment we have together, I want to speak about freedom, and the break that we must (and can) make with our chains. I don't know if you feel like you are in chains or not, but my presumption here is that we are all bound by a myriad of oppressions. "If you see oppression of the poor and denial of justice and righteousness in the province, do not be shocked at the sight..." (Ecc. 5:8a) The bible is very realistic. It knows that oppression for all is business as usual in a culture founded on separation from the Creator. A culture which can otherwise be recognized as civilization itself. Ecclesiastes is a good book for helping us take a concise, yet penetrating look past single issues of oppression into it's origins and subtle manifestations. One main theme that i get from reading Ecclesiastes and really anywhere in the Bible is that our chains are pretty much everything civilization has taught us life is about. I feel like i have a lifetime of lies to unlearn and truth to find out. Yet at the same time the real world consequences of these lies are not waiting for me to repent. The current world situation seems too urgent to allow for a lifetime of figuring things out. Something needs to be done now. People are suffering all over this very moment. The whole Creation is groaning. Genocide, Ecocide, Suicide... But as i stand overwhelmed before the Shadow of Death that is blanketing the earth and as i ask, "What should I do? What can I do?" the answers don't come quick. I strain my eyes peering out into this dark reality and am forced back onto the quest for truth, the struggle for wisdom. It leads through tension and wrestling with God. What are the origins of this Shadow? How can it be stopped? How can i stop perpetuating it? Before we can actively resist it, we need to break from it's ranks (which we were born into). So, a lot of what i want to talk about here is this initial dropping out. I hope to help re-awaken our desire to be fully alive. To remind us to pay attention to that ache in our guts, that hunger i expect many of us share which cannot be satisfied by the dominant culture around us. That hunger to be free. I conceptualize being free as being alive and in harmonious relationship with everything else that is alive. None dominating or domesticating the other. But even in the act of fighting and hoping for this we can experience it some. Freedom demands us to take risks; to take seriously God’s gift of existence, and to take that existence out of the hands of cultural institutions that are constantly trying to steal more and more life from us to power their own purposes. We must learn to trespass back onto that stolen land. Ecclesiastes reads like an intro to the field manual for the vagabond and freedom fighter. It teaches that to live we must have hope, but that to hope in what does not deceive, we must first lose hope in everything that does deceive. The writer of Ecclesiastes attempts to critique every aspect of human civilization until we have no where left to turn except the One Sheppard from which all wisdom comes. I don't claim to have wisdom, but I have some ideas for how to expose ourselves to it and recognize it when it comes. I've been learning lately that it cannot be discovered primarily through the mind, but with our entire selves -body and spirit. Much wisdom seems unable to be passed on directly through words, so we are encouraged to set off on our quest that experience may be our teacher. We must live our lives and undertake many adventures. Count the cost before you get too far down the road. Jesus said we shouldn't look back, but there is a point of no return when there is nothing to look back to. A time may come when you wake up realizing that you have severed your old ties completely. When you have been so changed by your journey that you ain't got no home in this "world" anymore.
You will be forgotten"Because in much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain." (Ecc.1:18) One point I'm trying to get across is that some of the pain that comes with knowledge is the estrangement and rejection you will feel from many people around you when that knowledge holds you responsible to actions those around you do not understand or approve of. That is the sword Jesus came to bring. But first I want to make clear a few things that I am not saying. (1) I’m not speaking here with the aims of a commencement speech, or a Hallmark card, or political propaganda (even though those use similar words like “life”, and “freedom” and "hope"). I am not saying you can go out and do whatever you want in life or be anything you want to be. That would be lying. Even if you had no good reason to hold you back (but I hope you do) not everyone can be the rich or the famous or the leader (seems like every educational institution these days claims to be preparing everyone to be the leader). Or if you have already given up on those cliche ambitions, I'm not saying go be a rock star or revolutionary or some other sub-cultural hero instead. I often have to remind myself how stupid it is for me to try and play the hero when I don't even have the discipline to do the small deed at hand that I ought to do. Really I'm not trying to inspire ambition at all. You can be you and that’s about it. But that’s a good thing. God has made you well. You are a physical being, on a physical earth, with physical limits. I’m not talking about trying to be successful, or making a name for yourself, or leaving a legacy, or even being the saint that saves the world. Ecclesiastes warns us sternly enough that everything we will ever do "under the sun" has been judged ahead of time. It is all vanity and we will all be forgotten sooner than we think. I am talking about finding out what is true and dealing with the implications. (2) This is not a call to hedonism, doing whatever you want, and following your desires by any means possible. I’ll try and stay within the dialectical framework of Ecclesiastes. Though we are called to follow the impulses of our heart at the same time we are called to remember our Creator. Therefore not every means will be desirable to us. Not every means of following our impulses is an expression of freedom. Some are a mere regurgitation of lies we have been taught and assimilated into by the dominant culture. (3) I am not speaking about a merely inward freedom.That does not exist. I’m not saying, “Love Jesus more in your heart and you will be free and happy.” We can’t love Jesus in our hearts, if we do not love him with our hands, our actions, our entire self. And if we do that we can be sure that many things this culture sees as aspects of freedom will be taken from us by this culture, and we won’t be happy all the time. Yet joy will always be possible. A radically free Christian life will constantly touch the two extremes of joy and sorrow. (4) I’m going to use the word and encourage the act of experience. But I don’t mean that in the shallow sense that you can feel when you ask someone how an event was and they say, “well, it was an experience” meaning “I was there, but that’s about all.” I use the word to mean full participation in your existence rather than being a spectator.
Trouble is on the wayThe weight of hope scares me. When you hope in something that you can't see evidence of anywhere (which is the only situation where hope is possible, as St. Paul says -we do not hope for what we can see) you face a lot of contradictions to agonize over. I pray the Lord's prayer in hope, "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.", but Christians have been praying this prayer for a long time and I don't see the earth becoming more like heaven. But still I have hope because of personal experiences I have had with God and faith He has given me in his promises. But it makes me feel vulnerable. If you try and organize your life around an impossible dream that your culture does not share than you loose the security that culture claims to provide. Yet pursuit of security is directly opposed to the pursuit of freedom. So to loose our cultures security is to break from one of our chains. Even though it may seem like jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. Our culture has been teaching us to look to so many false hopes since the day we were born. It has taught us to hope in technology, the power of America, money, philosophy, addictions, soldiers and police, voting, entertainment, art, taking care of your own –looking out for number one, recycling, going "green", etc. and the attractiveness of most of these false hopes comes from a panicked desire for security. Whether it is security from terrorists, being physically uncomfortable, negative influences, boredom, hunger and homelessness, pain, danger, letting another person know you completely, all of these forms of security (at least within the context of civilization) cut us off from experience, which is being cut off from that which can truly teach us to discern between wisdom and foolishness, which grows in us the maturity to understand how to be responsible with freedom.
A party school of hardship
We were created for experience. Which in it's true essence is relation. We now live in a world of alienation, but we can break from this. We can relearn how to participate in the community of life. The teachers are all around us. In our bodies, in the earth, in God's Spirit which moves through all things.
Think about the most basic level of human existence –our 5 senses. We didn’t have to buy them, they were there when we were born. Think about all that we can see and hear and taste and touch and smell. Take some time to focus on your senses and you will start to realize all the possibility they hold of deepening our relationship with life, if only we would use them more. Wander through wild nature. Do anything that can make you feel again. Lay down in a puddle during a rain storm. Feel each drop, smell the wet earth, quench your thirst, and become thirsty for more. Make a habit of going out of your way to exercise senses you’re not use to. This is one of the ways to become responsible to our humanity. Imagine Adam and Eve immersed completely in God’s good creation (physical reality), their senses absolutely attentive to the totality of the living world until civilization appeared with Cain the city builder and the civilized built up the work of men’s hands around themselves, shutting out God’s good creation and so atrophying our natural ability to participate in reality. For Christians especially, I think we express our participation in the work of redemption by reawakening our physical senses.We have also been freely given memory which keeps important experiences alive after they happen so we can continue to learn from them. Memory is nothing like storing things in computer files with clear dates and times and boundaries, as some are apt to speak of it. Memory is beyond the civilized construct of time. It is an imperfect process, and remembering something in our own slightly revised personalized way is part of what makes it so meaningful for us.
We also have a whole set of spiritual senses waiting to be awakened that we may participate in the supernatural realities all around us right now. Pray that you may be taught to use these.
We are given these gifts to experience life. We were not created to be spectators but participants in God’s good creation along with every other living thing. But civilization makes us afraid of life. It keeps us passive and conformed to its boring and so-called “safe” ways. That’s why Ecclesiastes has to be so drastic with its advice. Yes, follow your impulses and desires, even if you make mistakes. It is better than just going along and making nice with the way things are, because the way things are is the real danger to everyone. I don’t think that is an extreme statement when you take even a cursory look at the ecological crises at hand, the rise in violence at every level, mass depression and unhealth in the first world, deprivation of the third, etc. life in civilization is a disaster, but to avoid our fears, and at root to avoid reality, our culture teaches us we just need better laws, weapons, alternative energy, diets, experts, time management skills, religion, information... We all know there is more than enough information floating around, but it is a mile wide and an inch deep. Deep down what we really need, and all we need is more Life. Of course we know that Jesus is Life, but we must remember that God does not desire us to live a disembodied spirituality. "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might..." (Ecc. 9:10).We must live and participate in this life physically and deliberately. Therefore we must follow the impulses of our heart in youth. We must guard ourselves from being sucked into this cultures ideal of a good life –university, career, money, retirement, blah, blah, blah; or with the reactionary path, which is just the other side of the same coin –sub-cultures, constant entertainment, immaturity, aimlessness. Yet most important of all is to dive into experience. To stay immersed in relation. It is our teacher whether we want it to be or not. It will shape our values.
Out in the real worldAt the same moment that we are following the impulses of our hearts we must remember our Creator. For so many of us it is hard to figure out what we are supposed to do with our lives, but if we can hold to our impulses and our Creator simeultaneously we need't worry. We'll find ourselves on a meaningful road without being sure exactly how we got there. Notice that God does not force himself upon us, or plow over us with his demands. The Holy One doesn’t say, “submit to me now or perish you clump of dirt!” We must simply remember and let ourselves be affected by that. If we have been meditating upon His words and deeds like a parched land awaiting rain our wild fruits grow with no need for domestication. We must remember him not only in the youth of our years, but in the youth of each day, in the youth of a relationship, in the youth of a new project we undertake. Remembering God orients us in the direction of freedom, and then we must do the work of freedom within our particular vocation. Sometimes God will seem like a mere memory, but at times (in his own time) He will bless us again with a more direct sense of His presence and we will know we are not alone through all this hard travlin'. We will be reminded through imediacy that we are a creation, not the creator; and acknowledging that is the eden of worship growing out of us in response. And if the blossoms of our worship continue to bloom perhaps we will never have to see the days when we say, "I have no delight in them."
See you in courtAs we remember God we remember that God will judge us for all that we do. And this is a good thing. Because our judgment is not that we get sent straight to hell. Much of our judgment is that God allows us to be wounded by our own mistakes (and by others we are in relationship with). But if we constantly turn ourselves from our mistakes to face our Creator our wounds can become a doorway for his Spirit to re-enter our lives, or for his Spirit to be released out of us into the lives of others. Our wounds can become landmarks on our journey to maturity. Our wounds lead to repentance. God will use them for good, so we needn’t be afraid of pain or struggle. We must instead fear the upholstered furniture and suburban walls of safety and security that barricade us from the movement of the Spirit. There is nothing more damaging to our spirits than a secure future in this culture, because this culture is suicidal. If you are a Christian you should give up any hope of ever being safe and secure in this culture. Take risks! Don't wast your life!
Some of our wounds come from our mistakes; others come from the necessary struggles, and changes that we have to make in our lives as part of our conversion. We have many deaths and rebirths to go through. As we break from our chains we may become broken ourselves, but the One who is making all things new will put us back together. We need to have adventures that make it harder and harder for us to backslide into what is considered normal, into our old selves. Not adventures of selfishness (but know that the very thing you must do may be considered selfish by those around you who are married to the status quo), but adventures that challenge and resist the dominant culture and that help others to do likewise. Just think: even now the gate is open for us to enter life. Go out past the city walls while you can, before the door is closed and locked forever. Then when we take our stand, we can testify first hand to the poverty of civilized safety, the poetry of danger, and the possibility of freedom on earth.
I don’t sleep I just waitWe need the urgency of a person who even when forced to rest lies awake in bed with their boots on plotting and anticipating how they'll begin again at dawn. I’m always having to remind myself that I have but a short time to walk this earth. And that this, here, is my life right now. I’m not preparing to live I am living, and what I choose to do now is what I will have to look back upon as my life. The time is short, but it is a gift, and I don’t want to miss out. I especially don’t want to waste it on myself. All of our fulfillment in life is found in relationships. As Ecclesiastes reminds us “two are better than one…” Relationships are sustained by mutual giving. Most of the living world, besides civilized humans, know that their lives and freedom depend on giving back at least as much as they take. Fish in the Washtanong Sepe (Grand River) near my home consume from the waters, but they give back to the river community, with the nutrients of their bodies if nothing else, and so participate in a healthy symbiotic relationship. They freely receive and so freely give. And the Indians who lived here before Europeans, must have been living in healthy symbiotic ways because all the accounts of the first settlers talk of this place as if it were the Garden of Eden itself. But the culture I come from didn’t understand what a real relationship was. They took more than they gave (and still do), and now when I bring visitors to town I’ve never had anyone mistake Jackson for Eden, rather it looks just as much like hell as their own town. Because our culture is a machine culture, and all machines take more than they give. Ecclesiastes urges us not only to give as much as we take, but to just keep on giving and giving even absurdly. Give it all away, God will take care of of what needs care. “Cast your bread on the surface of the waters, for you will find it after many days.”, absurd? –yes, but perhaps squandering what we think we need is our chance to escape from it becoming a master over us. Beware, says Ecclesiastes even of worldly things that may be of some good "of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh." (Ecc. 12:11) Yet embrace wise counsel from the wise. "The sayings of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings which are given by one Shepherd." (ECC. 12:11) Listen to wise people, animals, plants, and the earth itself. All of creation is waiting to teach us about life and the Creator if we will be attentive, because creation knows if we don’t listen to it the suffering of every living thing will only continue to increase.
Where the wind blows I goIn John 3:8 Jesus says, “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from or where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” I think this is one of the goals of true maturity –to be able to follow the wind of the Spirit. It certainly won’t make us more respectable in the eyes of the world, but it will make us more useful to the Kingdom of God. It takes time. We have to start by following the impulses of our heart in youth. We have to make that initial definitive break with the dominant culture and dig ourselves into a hole of being an outcast that is hard to get out of. We have to force ourselves not to settle into situations that we know at some point down the line would make it hard for us to follow the wind of the Spirit in the moment wherever it may lead. We are going to make mistakes in this process, we are going to find there are still more changes required after we thought we had already changed everything, we are going to be wounded, but as we repent the Spirit comes through those wounds and we are converted again. New adventures are then open to us.
If we all followed this mysterious Wind the corrupt systems of civilization could not stand because there would be no one to support them. We couldn’t go to our regular jobs and classes every day and keep this machine running if moment by moment we were being sent off on adventures by the undomesticated, fiery Spirit of Christ. Who could sit still at some desk that was full of true joy? No laws, traditions, buildings made by men could contain us.
“it is good that you grasp one thing and also not let go of the other” –Ecc.Following this wind does not mean forsaking good commitments. True freedom must be communal. We need to make and stay faithful to commitments with others and with a particular land base. Clearly state your intentions and be true to your word. At the same time give up control of everything and follow the Spirit into the night never looking back. Leave you life in the hands of God as uncivilized peoples do naturally. They don’t try to micro-manage the world with technology. They freely receive and freely give. We are called to be wandering poets of deed, and at the same time fierce warriors of soul dedicated to the good fight.
“... and it made all the difference” -R.F.There is a way that leads to life and a way that leads to death. A way of life that is free, and a way of life that is slavery. Seek and find the good way. Experience everything you can, study everything you can, listen to everything you can, pray without ceasing (Ecclesiastes even says that we should sleep less to give more time towards this pursuit of wisdom), and when you figure something out and make your secret plans (remembering that nothing ever goes as planned) then break from the passiveness of just letting life happen to you and calling that God’s will because you are afraid that anything you choose will be selfish and against God’s will. That is to live without courage (I’m challenging myself here). We must choose a time to act and not just be acted upon. Pray, and then do something that you think we should do. Be brave. May the Good Lord stop us from living lives of quiet desperation that go along with what the dominant culture calls good and then say that is Christianity. If Jesus or the apostles are any indicator the path that the Spirit wants to lead us down will look just the opposite of what most people call a good life or being a good person. It may seem ungrateful to your family to give up on their dreams for you. It may seem disrespectful to those who sacrificed for this culture if you reject it’s inheritance , but what else are you going to do? Just go along with it so you don’t hurt peoples feelings?
There are so many things a person could do with a life. And just realizing that is one of the most freeing experiences you can have. Civilization ends in a singularity, a mono-culture, a society of technique. But God has a unique secret with each of us that civilization doesn't know about. A secret to a life that never ends. A secret that if we are true to will make us collectively more diverse and particular. We may find ourselves engaged in activities that no one we know has ever thought of before. Not that all of those things you may do are ends in themselves. The end I’m looking for is that of civilization and the eventual coming of the Kingdom of God. Communities of train hoppers, Catholic Workers, luddites, or any sort of alternative to the norm are not the Kingdom, but if you are considering I'd say go for it. In my experience any adventure like that which wakes you up to the fact that there are more possibilities in existence than our standardizing, techno-culture admits can be the necessary first steps in the Exodus we all need to take. Everyone talks about the road less traveled, but few take it, even though we all realize there is “something missing” in what passes for life in our present age (even for committed Christians). Many others start down it, but get swindled or scared back into being a part of the culture. Few endure until the end. Let us try and take that road less traveled, and let us finish well. It is open for us to try, at least right now, for who knows what tomorrow will bring. See what happens. This is God’s gift to us. May the Lord go with you.