Tuesday, April 30, 2013


Pursuing a Leading Without Taking a Position

You know the experience. You passionately advocate taking action on climate change, and offend both the deniers and the moderates, who are people either on the fence or wanting to hedge their bets between really bad, bad, and “Maybe it's happening, but look at this unusually cold spring.” I once had a conversation at a Rotary Meeting in Burnsville with a nice guy who was advocating building new four-lanes through the mountains of NC and Tennessee. I replied, “I can't believe you said that.” And he said he felt the same thing of me. Classic end of conversation.

But what if I had engaged the man, asking how he thought the highway construction was a “moderate” position? What if I had cared about where and how he grew up, seeking common ground in beloved places of his childhood? Where are these places now (for all of us)? What if I had tried to learn what his “moderate” environmental values were? Instead, I angrily took a position, and he did the same in return. We were both reduced to ideological cartoons, rather than taking the opportunity to be grateful for our Mother's gift of these ancient mountains.

It's not that far from this conversation with a main street “enemy” to my series of spoken ministries at our rural Appalachian Friends Meeting. For years I have been called to speak about “the gravest moral challenge in human history.” Sometimes what I heard myself say felt prophetic. Observing that my listeners were seemingly unmoved (with a few exceptions), I repeated the message, always being careful not to except myself. There was usually a context, such as the yearly Conference of Parties sponsored by the UN, or a bill before Congress, or a tarsands pipeline to stop. So I would briefly outline this context. Increasingly, I found myself being eldered for bringing “politics” into our protected worship space ( I almost said quietist). After the third eldering, I essentially stopped speaking in Meeting on climate change.

But looking back, sometimes it worked. These were the times when I framed my message as a query, addressed to us all. And each time I actually felt the message being received, I noticed that my heart remained open: no judgments, no “them” in the room. So the key, from the mixed record of this series of vocal ministries, is to pay attention to the heart – before, during, and after giving a message. It is not possible to love the Lord without loving the listeners. And since I accept Thomas Berry's insight that “we are the universe reflecting upon and celebrating itself” - thus recognizing the divine within the whole, it is not possible to love the earth without loving God.

But don't folks need to hear sometimes that they are missing the mark? Isn't a prophetic edge to our ministry sometimes in order? We are a wayward people, leading the rest of the world into industrial consumerism, trashing the earth. The fact that my ministry felt shunned does not invalidate it. The point is, “us” can easily slide into “them,” my neighbor Quakers who don't see that we must change our lives in response to this huge moral challenge brought on by ecological sin which has become monstrous through the habit of unexamined life. In the Hebraic patriarchal culture, people responded to prophetic rebuke.  But in our liberal Quaker context, they hear the message better if they feel love and acceptance. But it's awfully hard sometimes to accept the actor while condemning the action. I struggled with these issues in a previous post (scroll down to April 13).

So is there an effective way to pursue a deep, tested leading without taking a strong position, which makes the other wrong? I have been enrolled for several years in a self-inquiry training in which we are taught, rather we come to realize from within, that taking a strong position invariably creates its opposite. They appear together, one necessitating the other. But if we we hold these positions together, not trying to resolve them, we honor them as contrairies, rather than negations, as the romantic poets realized. But what if I pursued a leading without taking a position?

We can still nurture our leading, and act upon it, without expressing it in a way that we demonize those who are not motivated by it. So what's left if we can't preach, demonstrate, and resist? The still small voice. And what about civil disobedience? The examples of both Gandhi and King show that one can love one's enemies, even as one challenges their habitual behavior and laws. Again, it's a matter of what's in your heart as you perform the disobedient act.

During my training with Joanna Macy in Northern California many years ago, some neighboring tree-sitters came to address us, asking for support in their efforts to halt timbering of old-growth redwoods. Immediately, most of the group volunteered not only to supply the sitters, but also to organize a protest at company headquarters nearby. A few of us, the “Stand-up Group,” thought this was precipitous and reactive. There was a 200-page description of the project from the state forestry office that needed to be read; it was a complex legal situation. So we had quiet discussions and prayed about what to do. When the time for the protest came, some of us stayed at the retreat. My friend Elizabeth accompanied the large group who went to the protest, but did not sit in, carry posters, nor chant rebukingly. Instead, she slowly walked walked back and forth along the picket line in meditation, holding both sides in her heart.

This example is what we need more of in the internal climate wars that are now starting in earnest. Ultimately, not only our neighbor, but our enemy is our very Self, and to witness otherwise is to treat the contrary as a negation, which does not encourage resolution. There is that of God in everyone – no exceptions. So yes, let's stand up for our leadings, but continue to hold all sides in our hearts in prayer, visualizing a resolution that is peaceful as well as just. This is a place for Quakers – as well as Green Advaitists - that is more consistent with being followers of the God-self within, rather than our minds, which are constructed of positions, of being right above all else.

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