Monday, December 5, 2011

The Way of the Artist

For the past few months, I have been working through The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, by Julia Cameron.  Going through the book has helped me to identify what I believe and what I want to do, to work toward a better balance in my life, and to improve my relationships.

For Ms. Cameron, being creative and making art are spiritual practices.  The creation of the universe was a creative act of a creative being.  In being creative ourselves, we share in that Creator's nature; that is why we were created.  Every person can be creative in some way, and find meaning and satisfaction in their lives.

But The Artist's Way is about more than just helping people create.  Ms. Cameron suggested ways to fix dysfunctional relationships because, for her, those dysfunctional relationships get in the way of being able to create.  One lengthy passage pulled me up short:
Often in troubled relationships, we settle into an avoidance pattern with our significant others.  We don't want to hear what they are thinking because it just might hurt.  So we avoid them, knowing that, once they get the chance, our significant others will probably blurt out something we do not want to hear.  It is possible they will want an answer we do not have and can't give them.  It is equally possible we might do the same to them and that then the two of us will stare at each other in astonishment, saying, "But I never knew you felt like that!"
I recognized myself in that description.  So, one of the things that I am working on is making myself not avoid difficult issues.  I believe that working on this issue has improved my relationship with clients as well as friends.  Addressing the conflict is never as bad as avoiding it.

In another place, Ms. Cameron wrote:
Many of us find that we have squandered our own creative energies by investing disproportionately in the lives, hopes, dreams, and plans of others.
It is good to be invested in other people's lives; the key word here is "disproportionately."  When we don't leave anything over for ourselves, our own creativity is frustrated, literally:  We feel frustrated all of the time.  The remedy to this situation is to take stock and draw appropriate boundaries with other people.

Ms. Cameron suggested several exercises to help stimulate these changes.  First, she developed a special type of journaling that she called "morning pages."  The morning pages are three pages of longhand stream-of-consciousness to be done first thing each day.  Her idea is to clear your mind of your anxieties by getting them out of your head and onto paper, so that you can do what you need to do during the day unencumbered.  "Brain drain," she called it, but in a good way.  In one way, the morning pages are a kind of active meditation.

The second practice that Ms. Cameron encouraged is what she called "artist dates," dates with your inner artist.  These dates are solitary, frivolous activities that you use to stimulate your imagination and attention to detail.  You may go to a museum, for instance, or hike to the top of a mountain.  Whether you consider yourself an artist or not, this unstructured time to yourself is precious to everybody's spiritual and mental health.

Another useful practice is to take up some repetitive activity.  Ms. Cameron used quilting, gardening, and swimming as examples.  Engaging in repetitive activities free up the artistic side of our brain to work out problems imaginitively without being stifled by the right brain.  Buddhists and Catholics know how soothing it can be to finger prayer beads while meditating.

Do I subscribe to Julia Cameron's diffuse spirituality?  Not entirely.  But I do know that these exercises have helped me identify and address problems with my life.  Instead of feeling a generalized and incapacitating sense of frustration, I am doing something about what is frustrating me.  As Ms. Cameron wrote, "the theory doesn't matter as much as the practice."  Right now, that's good enough for me.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Nehemiah and Occupy Wall Street

Sometimes different things occur at the same time, and they seem to connect.  Some people call that coincidence, and others call it synchronicity.  Coincidence or not, as the Occupy Wall Street protests were unfolding in the news these past several weeks, I was reading through the Book of Nehemiah.  The more I contemplated what I was reading, the more it seemed to apply to current events.

Nehemiah lived at the time of the Babylonian Captivity.  Earlier, the Babylonian Empire had conquered the Jewish people and carried them away from the promised land to Babylon.  Enslaving conquered people and carrying them away was a common practice for conquering armies in that time and place.  However, after some time, a new Babylonian king ascended to power, and he allowed a remnant of Jewish exiles to return to their land.

At the beginning of the Book of Nehemiah, the Babylonian king appointed Nehemiah governor of the then-province of Judah.  The Book of Nehemiah chronicles some of the activities during Nehemiah's leadership, including the rebuilding of Jerusalem's defensive walls.  In the middle of the Book of Nehemiah, which is mostly about rebuilding Jerusalem, Nehemiah takes the following digression to discuss how he dealt with a protest movement that threatened to derail his rebuilding efforts:
Now there arose a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brothers.  For there were those who said, "With our sons and our daughters, we are many.  So let us get grain, that we may eat and keep alive."  There were also those who said, "We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards, and our houses to get grain because of the famine."  And there were those who said, "We have borrowed money for the king’s tax on our fields and our vineyards.  Now our flesh is as the flesh of our brothers, our children are as their children.  Yet we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but it is not in our power to help it, for other men have our fields and our vineyards."

I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these words.  I took counsel with myself, and I brought charges against the nobles and the officials.  I said to them, "You are exacting interest, each from his brother."  And I held a great assembly against them and said to them, "We, as far as we are able, have bought back our Jewish brothers who have been sold to the nations, but you even sell your brothers that they may be sold to us!"  They were silent and could not find a word to say.  So I said, "The thing that you are doing is not good.  Ought you not to walk in the fear of our God to prevent the taunts of the nations our enemies?  Moreover, I and my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain.  Let us abandon this exacting of interest.  Return to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the percentage of money, grain, wine, and oil that you have been exacting from them."  Then they said, "We will restore these and require nothing from them.  We will do as you say."  And I called the priests and made them swear to do as they had promised.  I also shook out the fold of my garment and said, "So may God shake out every man from his house and from his labor who does not keep this promise.  So may he be shaken out and emptied."  And all the assembly said "Amen" and praised the LORD.  And the people did as they had promised.
Nehemiah 5:1-13 (ESV)

Poor people protested that they could not afford to feed their families or to pay their mortgages because times were so hard.  The situation was so dire that they had to sell their children into slavery.  This development was especially odious because the Jewish people had just been delivered from slavery in Babylon, and now fellow countrymen were doing the same thing.

This situation angered Nehemiah, and he "brought charges" against the rich and powerful nobles who were doing these things.  Nehemiah pointed out that he, among others, was loaning the poor money and grain without interest.  The nobles agreed to return the interest that they had charged and the collateral that they had seized, and to stop these practices. 

The parallels to today are difficult to deny.  Occupy Wall Street hardly could be described better than "a great outcry of the people."  Some people cannot afford to feed their families.  Some people are losing their homes to foreclosure.  Some people are suffering under an unfair tax system that coddles the rich and soaks everyone else.

Nehemiah's response is instructive in what he did do, and in what he did not do.  He did not tell these people to stop whining because they didn't know how good they had it.  He did not arrest them for holding an illegal assembly.  He did not tell them to go get a job.  Nehemiah did not do any of the things that today's smug hypocrites are doing. 

What Nehemiah did was he got angry.  Nehemiah got angry with the rich and powerful who were abusing the poor and suffering.  Nehemiah took their case as his own.  He brought charges against the people doing these things.

Most striking is that legality was not a defense then, and it should not be a defense now.  The footnote to Nehemiah 5:5 in the New English Translation (sponsored by the extremely conservative Dallas Theological Seminary) points out that these rich lenders were acting largely within their rights:
Moneylenders were loaning large amounts of money, and not only collecting interest on loans which was illegal (Lev 25:36-37; Deut 23:19-20), but also seizing pledges as collateral (Neh 5:3) which was allowed (Deut 24:10).  When the debtors missed a payment, the moneylenders would seize their collateral: their fields, vineyards and homes.  . . . Nehemiah himself was one of the moneylenders (Neh 5:10), but he insisted that seizure of collateral from fellow Jewish countrymen was ethically wrong (Neh 5:9).
 So, if the Bible should be any kind of guide for us, what should we do today?  Should we stand with the rich and powerful who take billions in bail outs but throw widows out of their homes?  Or should we stand with Nehemiah?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Genesis and "Care of the Land"

American Public Media distributes a radio program called "On Being," which showcases issues of religion and spirituality.  In the most recent program, the host, Krista Tippett, interviewed Ellen Davis, a professor from Duke University.  Professor Davis interprets the Old Testament from an agricultural perspective, which of course the Israelites had, being a farming people.  Professor Davis' interpretation is not confined to traditional environmentalism, however.

Professor Davis started by discussing the first chapter of Genesis.  In traditional translations, humanity is given "dominion" over the earth and everything in it.  Professor Davis instead would translate it as "skilled mastery."  The difference between the two translations is that a responsibility is implied in Professor Davis' version.  God, the earth's original master, gave humanity a chance to share in His mastery, but we would be required to care for God's creation as well as He would have.  Other scholars have called this concept "stewardship," but Professor Davis' concept is more nuanced and subtle than that.

According to Professor Davis, Genesis places "tremendous emphasis on the fruitfulness of the earth."  Not only does God create, but every one of His creatures also creates, too.  Plants, animals, and even people are fruitful.

Professor Davis' idea of "skilled mastery" extends to our bodies.  As she said, "I think we are beginning to wake up in this culture from a long period of obliviousness about what we eat. And we're also stepping out of our completely unprecedented lack of awareness that eating has anything to do with our life with God."  What does our eating have to do with our relationship with God?  First, because God gave us our bodies, we have a responsibility to treat them with respect.  Second, because God gave us the earth and all the plants and animals, we are to use them in a careful and mindful way.

In a similar manner, "care of the land" is more than simply about the land.  Professor Davis said, "How we eat and drink, how we sow our land, how we get food to our plates, how we use other bodies, other human bodies, in getting food and drink to sustain us, these are moral issues which cannot be separated from the very basic physical questions."  If we were wonderful environmentalists and took excellent care of the land, but continued to mistreat farm workers to keep food prices low, we would be hardly showing "care of the land" in the greater sense of the term.

Our use of the physical world rebounds to the spiritual world.  Professor Davis noted, "the best index in the Bible of the health of the relationship between God and Israel or between God and humankind is the health of the land of Israel or the earth as a whole, its fertility."  When Israel's relationship with God was unhealthy, then the land was not fruitful.  When Israel showed contempt for the land that God had given Israel, it was a sign that Israel's relationship with God was also troubled.

As reasonable as these observations seem, are they sound as a matter of textual interpretation?  Is Professor Davis uncovering something that the text has to say, or is Professor Davis putting words into the Biblical author's mouth?  First, the theme of good care of the land is mentioned consistently and repetitively throughout the Old Testament.  As Professor Davis put it, "As I started reading text -- well, first I thought that I was going to have to be very careful to find text that would speak to the care of land, and that turned out not to be true at all, that I could open up almost anywhere in the Bible and find something."  Second, Professor Davis appears to be aware of and to guard against her own possible bias.  She said, "I think that if one reads scripture carefully, one is continually challenged to rethink maybe everything that we take for granted.  I sometimes say to my students the best way to find your preaching angle for any text is to ask how it challenges or turns on its head your ordinary way of thinking about how things really are."  In other words, the interpretation of scripture that challenges your assumptions is more probably valid than the interpretation that confirms your assumptions. 

The entire interview with Professor Davis bears careful listening.  Check out the original show here: