The Clock of the World (theology of social witness post 1)

For the next few months, I will be participating in a small group of UU ministers across the country who will be reflecting on the theological grounding of our work for social change and our ministry of social witness.  The group is facilitated by Kathleen McTigue and Tom Schade.

We’ll meet once a month, and each time we’ll be asked to engage a reading or two, as well as our answer to a question they pose.  To prepare for these monthly gatherings, I’m going to post my reflections on the readings and the question here on my blog….and today marks the first gathering, and so the first post.

Here are our readings:

Poem, by Muriel Rukeyser

I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.
Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
In the day I would be reminded of those men and women,
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.
I lived in the first century of these wars.

Barry Lopez, from his book Resistance
This passage is written in the voice of a North American man who has become an indigenous rights activist in the Amazon.

[Sometimes I dimly recall the days] when I felt, like many others, that my life served no purpose. Do you remember any such days? It was as though we all lived in tunnels then, crowded in with some stranger’s furniture, with more furniture arriving all the time. For me, the terrifying part was the ease with which you could lose your imagination – just abandon it, like a gadget. Everything was supplied, even if you had to pay for it all…In every quarter of life it seemed, we were retreating into fundamentalism. The yes/no of belief, the in/out of fashion,…the hot/cold of commitment,… the forward/backward of machinery, the give/take of a deal. Anyone not polarized became an inconvenience…People endorsed the identification of enemies and their eradication, just to be rid of some of the inevitable blurring. We didn’t hear enough then about making the enemy irrelevant. No one said, loud enough to be heard over the din…, “Let’s make something beautiful, so the enemy will have one less place to stand.”

And our question:

What time is it on the Clock of the World? (Inspired by the question from civil rights activist Grace Lee Boggs, who died this past year) 

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My answer:

It’s dark.  Dark like 6 a.m. in winter dark.  Dark like wind howling and disembodied whispers, dark like the disorientation of being awakened suddenly to a child’s call: mama.

Has there been any other time? They call one certain period “the dark ages,” but haven’t we always lived mostly in the dark, on the verge of dawn? The scale of the world is too big to be otherwise.  Trying to think about “the world” only  leads us to how little we actually know, how much remains unknown, unknowable, how much we try to grasp the ungraspable, contain the uncontainable: vegetable gardens, children, conversations, falling in love, life, God. 

My children are emerging from the time when all dark is scary, crossing over to knowing the comfort of the dark.  My son, 7, still likes a light on as he’s falling asleep, but he’s ok now when one of us comes in and turns it off after he’s out.  My daughter mostly sleeps in the dark these days.  My sisters and I used to say as we were going to sleep that we were bats, we loved the dark so much.  A heavy blanket, blackout curtains, shut doors on every side – heaven.  The dark is a luxury these days.  I long for more of it.

Darkness can be either, for any of us, and often is a mix of both: terrifying and treasured. Without judgment, it simply means things are hard to see, difficult to discern for sure what’s going on, who’s involved, what’s going to happen.  What I’ve discovered with my kids is that often the dark inspires them to action in a fight or flight anxiety – when truthfully, there’s nothing to be done except give in to the dark, surrender into it – relax, even sleep.  Let the world go on going on.  Rest up and renew so that we can be ready for the new day.  Ready with praise and thanksgiving, ready with songs, ready with partnership, creativity, curiosity, love.

Life today too often means resisting the dark, like my kids, trying to fix it, know what it isn’t time to know, act before it is ours to act, filling ourselves with busyness rather than presence, activity rather than reflection.  Darkness brings anxiety, but it doesn’t need to. As Rebecca Solnit says, “The future is dark, with a darkness as much of the womb as of the grave.”

Dr. Vincent Harding, beloved prophet and teacher, spoke about our role as midwives of a new world, helping a new world to be born, often simply with our loving, authentic presence, our partnership. We can’t do the world’s labor for it.  But we can keep showing up to the presence of America as both mother and infant, recognizing fear, honoring struggle, realizing that even as we yearn for the new life, there’s also a profound, urgent risk if this new life is to be born – if the dawn is to return. Loving the world as it is, trusting in the dark, letting the work be done, grieving and celebrating.

We always forget to tell how the Hebrew people suddenly wished for slavery once they were finally free.  And, we forget to tell how they repeated violence done to them as they arrived in the so-called Promised Land.  It is so common to transform the exterior without doing the inner work.  This darkness invites us all to do the transforming work of our pain – generational, systemic, institutional, personal – before we go on transmitting it, again, again. (Richard Rohr: “Pain that is not transformed is transmitted.”) We have so much more, healing and growing to do.  So many stories to hear, tell, unlearn, relearn, write, rewrite.  So many new relationships to make, old ones to sort out, so much re-membering. So much new life to imagine.  And so let’s be thankful for the dark, and do our work.

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About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley serves as the Senior Minister of the Foothills Unitarian Church in Fort Collins, CO. She's relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation and poetry, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy and often-great-depth of popular (and less popular) television and music. She and her partner of 17 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (10) and Josef (8).
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