Stories of Shalom

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In my journeys this past year (2010), I have heard and told many, many stories. Some narratives have been shared through tear-streaked grimaces, revealing paths through valleys of pain, suffering, and unimaginable loss. Other accounts are told with smiles that exude great joy and thanksgiving: perspectives from mountaintop vistas, some having been attained after traversing deep valleys.

You know the stories. I know the stories. We tell them; and, we listen to them. Our stories chronicle, they shape, and they guide our destinies in and through the communities in which we live, work, learn, and play.  For all those who shared their lives, their resources, their stories with me and who listened to mine; thank you for enlarging the circle of community.

My grandmother, born in 1886 and died in 1968, often told me a story of her journey through the Great Depression (circa 1929-1935). Her story described loss, scarcity and suffering. She told of meager amounts of government-issued flour, salt, sugar and salt-pork that when added to their garden-grown produce, canned goods, and hand-me-down clothing (patches upon patches), provided just enough to endure. Yes, just as we hear in 2010, she also told of the wealthy that lived in luxury and opulence while the masses clamored and clung to life. My grandmother was a poet and short-story writer that has captured, often in great detail, much of her life for future generations to read and hear. As I now remember and re-read some of her stories, there is a powerful and moving element in my grandmother’s Great Depression account that most captured my ear and interest. She spoke first of her faith in God, and she described a community that graciously and collaboratively shared their meager resources in order to survive (shalom-making): “neighbors shared what they had and gathered round evening fires to tell stories of hope, imagination and determination”.

As we journey through the Great Recession, through our valley and mountaintop experiences, the importance of our being present to and for one another in our communities – sharing our resources and life’s stories – is vitally important to our collective future. It is the elemental stuff of building and sustaining community. Like my grandmother, who lived through the days of horse and buggy, and the advent of motorized cars, flight, and a person stepping onto the moon, we must share our resources, our hope, imagination, determination, and I add creativity in all the places where we live, work, learn and play.

In this season of light, joy, family, friends and hope, I conclude with two pieces of writing. The first is both ancient and contemporary: a beautiful account of a steadfastly loving and care-giving God. The second has been written in the past few days and mostly tells the story of both charity and shalom-making justice. The second is also personally pertinent in several ways; especially as I am enjoying the sweet, innocent, wholly dependent presence of my 16 month old granddaughter. I offer these stories, along with the many that you and I have shared in our journeys through this past year (2010): in the Spirit of hope, imagination, determination and creativity.�

First is a passage from Hosea 11:4: “I led them with kindness and with love, not with ropes. I held them close to me; I bent down to feed them”. 

The second comes from the writing of Rebecca Solnit: Vision: How a Better Future Is Being Made Right Now. Following is an excerpt from Rebecca Solnit’s December 22, 2010 article.


As 2010 ends, what really interests me aren’t the corrosions and failures of this system [Adam Smith’s Free Market], but the way another system, another invisible hand, is always at work in what you could think of as the great, ongoing, Manichean arm-wrestling match that keeps our planet spinning. The invisible claw of the market may fail to comprehend how powerful the other hand — the one that gives rather than takes — is, but neither does that open hand know itself or its own power. It should. We all should.

As 2010 concludes and 2011 arrives, may we in our communities find and share hope and apply the Power that is “now” working within and among each and all of us to accomplish abundantly more than we could ask for or even imagine.
 

In the Spirit of shalom,

Dave Cooper

Light bearer or light switch?

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In biblical terms, it is God who watches out for and rescues the “people of the land” (Hebrew: “Am ha-aretz”) bringing light to the darkness. Conversely, government and countless religious rulers, through most of history, have been less than benevolent care-takers of the “people of the land” (the poor/poverty-stricken). Yet, the Scriptures are filled with moral mandates for people to care for one another; and, it is especially those who posess and control substantial resources that are mandated by God to provide for the downtrodden, the poor, the oppressed. The moral, biblical mandate for mutual love, mutual care and equitable distribution of resources so that there are no poor/poverty-stricken remains a serious moral issue today as it has for thousands of years. Why? In the name of fiscal prudence, the resources that bring life (and light) to the Am ha-aretz (people of the land) are being shut off, leaving many in darkness. In a New York Times article, Paul Krugman writes that America Goes Dark. What shall people of faith, in fact what shall we all do in response to the countless millions that are crying out in anguish, hoping for rescue, as their lights flicker and threaten to be extinguished?
 

While it may be argued that social safety nets are in place for the “least of these” (poor/poverty-stricken, oppressed), the nets are torn, filled with holes and controlled by powerful and exclusive set of rules, regulations and power-holders. One does not have to look far to see that the support system (safety net) is badly in need of repair – rescue is on everyone’s mind. There is scarcely a private, public, or congregation budget and the safety nets they support, that has not been cut in the name of keeping the lights on (see Krugman’s article). Perhaps the time has come for the governing forces (those with power) to serve not as a strict parent that controls scarce resources; rather, to serve as a nurturing, morally prudent, beneficient care-giver (and care-receiver) – a light bearer rather than a light switch.

In biblical history, the Am ha-aretz are referred to as the common people left behind when the Babylonians removed the elite leaders and artisans to exile in Babylon in the late 6th century BCE. There was a sense of darkness that came with the removal of resources from the land by powerful rulers: rescue was on the minds of the Am ha-aretz as it was on the minds of the people that went into exile.
 
The concept of God’s providential rescue in early societies as well as the current day is problematic. Is “rescue” an eschatalogical concept that is relegated to another place and time (end times), a present reality of humankind’s collective role in shalom-making, or both? Is God the only one responsible for rescue? Who keeps the lights on when things go dark?
 

Throughout recorded history, people have prayed for rescue and release. Some have found eyes of faith to see and experience God’s rescue; whereas, countless millions of others suffer in horror as their babies were cut from their bellies (Assyrians known for this), they were ravaged by horse-mounted, fear-instilling warriors (i.e. Babylonians), were thrown mercilessly into prisons and put to death (all cultures up to the present), and torn asunder by lions and other wild animals (Roman Empire). Other destructive oppressors present in early Christianity were the wealthy, religious elite (Sanhedrin), the middle class, live and die by the letter of the law (Pharisees), the politico-religious elite (i.e. Herod Antipas), and of course the political rulers (Roman Empire). Much as in earlier history, today, we do not have to look far to see and hear the cries of the Am ha-aretz (poor/poverty-stricken) as they yearn and plead for rescue from social, political, religious, and economic storms that threaten to snuff out their lights.

Only after having critically read the Bible, studied theology, sociology, anthropology and psychology, and having lived and worked among the powerful and the less than powerful have I come to realize that the eschatological and practical concepts of rescue are very problematic. For instance, if God manifests perfect love and has no favorites, why are some rescued from horrific circumstances while countless millions suffer and die?  If God is omnipotent (all powerful), why does God not rescue all who are suffering (see Rabbi Harold Cushner and others)? Is God schizophrenic, pouring out vengeance on some while showing mercy to others? If the major and minor prophets spoke God’s judgment upon all who would oppress/harm anyone, especially people of the land, why do we still have so many poor and oppressed among us? What then shall individuals and communities do? Importantly, what are the roles of people, congregations, organizations, associations, and institutions as the current day powerful Sanhedrin, Pharisees,  politico-religious elite, and economic forces exert unilateral (dominate) power over others with threats of turning off the lights?

The U.S. is not there yet; however, it seems we are quickly approaching a “tipping point” at which the U.S. as a whole will either equitably unify and move forward (live), or inequitably divide and fall (die). Corporate and political profits must yield to the biblical prophets admonitions so that there is shalom (holistic well-being) in this land and across the earth. In Deuteronomy 15 and Acts 2 there are found the requirement and model for people to live and share equitably – together – so that there will be no more poor: the shalom community becomes manifest both now and in an eschatological future.

From as early as the eighth century BCE (nearly three thousand years and more), God’s mandate has been in place, re-emphasized by prophets, and yet the poor/poverty-stricken people of the land remain among us: we are they. How is God at work to keep the lights burning? What will we collectively do to keep the lights on?

 
 

 

Can we get enough of that good-time stuff?

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In our consumptive society, we are programmed to have a voracious (but conservative) appetite for “things”; however, the counter-voices that motivate us to be good stewards (wise-caretakers) of our environment from which all “things” come are far less prominent. Why? One reason is that wise care-taking does not satiate the gnawing hunger created by consumptive desire: we just can’t get enough of that good-time stuff.

With regard to Scripture and what its messages admonish us to “do” toward care-taking are these (and more): to love one another (John 13:34), to set the oppressed free (Luke 4:18), and to be shalom-makers (Matthew 5:9).

Perhaps we consumers are the oppressed; yet, who will set us free so that we can truly love one another and fully participate in holistic care-taking as shalom-makers? What do you think? What will you do?

A strong thread of shalom-making is caring for the earth (creation) for which all humanity is responsible. For a well-researched and developed discussion of “shalom” and “shalom-making”, see Robert C. Linthicum’s The Shalom Community: The Thread That Ties the Bible Together: http://www.piut.org/papers.htm.

And, for a good article and additional resources on caring for the garden (earth) in which we live and for which we simply “must” care, see the winter 2009 issue of Divinity: http://www.divinity.duke.edu/publications/2009.01/features/feature5/index.htm.

Finally, this 2007 statement of support for environmental stewardship by an array of evangelical leaders and scientists is a testament to broad support of wise care-taking as a necessary component of responsible consumption: http://www.pbs.org/now/shows/343/letter.pdf.