Sunday, July 25, 2010

Working On Purpose

We have a hummingbird feeder hanging from the eave of our porch roof. It is located in the corner, above the outdoor dining table at which, weather permitting, breakfast, lunch and dinner are eaten. Sitting in the shade of that great southern porch, surrounded by views of woods and mountains, enveloped in the constant cooling breeze that offsets the summer’s heat, allows one to take moments to reflect on the sights, sounds and rhythms of the nature that surrounds. (And yes, this is often what passes for simple entertainment when you live an hour from “normal” civilization!)

Sitting at the dining table the other day, I studiously watched as 3-4 hummingbirds took advantage of the sugar-water in that feeder. They would dart down from their perch in a nearby tree, hover mid-air at the feeder, insert their long beaks into one of the feeder holes, drink quickly or sit and indulge awhile, and then zip off in an instant to rest from their work.

And so this pattern continues all day long. But with variations. Perhaps with an occasional side-trip to one of the many brightly colored flowers in the garden. Some hummingbirds would notice me sitting there and fly away, suspicions of my presence interrupting their work. Occasionally a dominant hummingbird would attack another feeding bird and chase it away – obviously claiming the feeder as its own selfishly-entitled property. (We have since installed a second feeder to try to prevent the kids from fighting with each other.) And then other wildlife got into the drama as a bee finds the feeder and decides to also claim it as its own, thereby chasing away all of the hummingbirds. (Stingers apparently trump comparative size.) The fact that the bee cannot get to any of the sugar-water seems to matter not a twit in this scheme of escalating dominance.

In the meantime, a small bug of some sort (my knowledge of bugs is quite limited in detailed recognition skills) lands on one of the cut flowers in a vase on the table. He also goes about his task – exploring and draining from the core of one flower, then jumping to the next, making the rounds of each available flower. All while the many butterflies of various sizes and colors flutter from one flower in the garden to another, seeking out the fruits of their searches.

It is actually fairly easy to sit and watch this broad scenario of life throughout the day, day after day, in its continual repetition. It will go on for months, until the approaching winter drives all of these creatures into their next phase of migration or hibernation. While I watch all of these “doings,” I am struck that:

• for each creature, this is “their work”;

• doing that work requires consistent daily attention;

• each creature has an absolute clarity about the work they are to do that day, that moment;

• there is a complete orderliness and framework within which that work is done – individually, collectively, and among the various species.

It causes me to wonder sometimes how few of us share that same sense of clarity of purpose in our lives, and the ability to simply go about fulfilling that purpose each day. I doubt that that hummingbird, bee, insect or butterfly spends too much time trying to figure out their career path, their next job to take on. It all seems pretty intuitive in the land of the hummingbirds. Even the birth → maturity → death cycle, and the evolving changes undergone through these cycles, have that same orderliness and predictability to them.

Why is this not so inhuman life? Some might argue that it is because we are of higher intelligence. Yet, as has been shown many times over in the daily news headlines, higher intelligence does not necessarily make us any smarter. Or maybe it is argued that, as human beings, we have so many more options to consider and explore than does the hummingbird. But if that is so, why do so many spend time in worry searching for THE ONE THING we should supposedly be doing with our lives to fulfill those things that appear to drive our needs. Yet we are usually never satisfied with the interim answers we come up with along our way. Leaving us with a sense of restlessness, anxiousness, and incompleteness to reflect on in the quiet of our evenings.

I suspect that, in truth, the hummingbird has it pretty right. There are a few basic truths of hummingbird life that need to be followed (feeding, pollinating, reproducing, safety, and seasonal mobility), and God-given tools provided to accomplish each of these truths. Whether food comes from our feeder, the flowers in our garden, or from nectar from miles away, is not really of great consequence. Whether shelter comes from a constructed nest or from sitting on a branch under a leaf, it is still shelter. Mission and need accomplished. Sitting in a pretty tree is just a bonus.

It is likely that human beings are way too smart for their own good. We do not lack for our own simple and clear purpose in our life. However, we typically layer so much unnecessary baggage on top of that purpose that clarity has been destroyed. We are so preoccupied with the laundry list of HOW we will live day-to-day that WHAT we set out to do has long been made invisible. Job, income, location, automobiles and houses have become the false purposes instead of the tools to achieve True Purpose. Perhaps we all need to find the hummingbird inside each of us, where True Purpose sits. All of the other considerations are just the mechanics, pliable details best left in God’s hands. We simply need to remain flexible and open to these details as they are brought to us, connecting them all to a renewed clarity of True Purpose.

Monday, July 12, 2010

A Christian Nation

“America is, and was founded as, a Christian nation.”

In the need of certain people/groups in America to continually sow divisiveness and bigotry, statements such as the above have emerged as one of the latest lines of attack. This maneuver seems to come from either a fear of losing one’s own religious freedom and belief simply because others practice different beliefs, and/or the need to justify the correctness of one’s religious affiliation by making it dominant over others. Peaceful religious coexistence – i.e. “you go your way and I’ll go mine, but we do not have to adversely affect each other” – does not seem to be an acceptable option to these individuals. In this environment, one religious doctrine/affiliation is seen as needing to dictate public religious practices; political leaders need to be of a particular religious affiliation and agenda; mosques are not to be built because “that religion is evil and doesn’t worship my God” (i.e. “they” have no right to be in America); and one form of prayer and belief should drive our legal rulings (e.g. gay marriage, “God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, particular religious symbols on public tax-supported properties).

All of the above single-mindedness is set against the fact that 25-30% of Americans do not claim to be of the Christian faith; of those that do, this includes Christians of all denominations, with Roman Catholics holding at their traditional 25%, plus all of the various Protestant or independent Christian forms. Given the significant differences in dogma, ritual and practice among all of these Christian groups, and indeed even among groups within a particular parent denomination (along with their history of bigotry and violence towards each other), I am not even sure what version of Christianity an “all-Christian nation” would look like, or what Christianity’s unifying role could even be.

I have written about a number of these “religion in the public arena” issues in previous blogs. What disturbs me now is that the previous “America is a Christian nation” argument is now being advanced to a 2nd tier – “Our Founding Fathers created America as a Christian nation.”

No they did not. But to suggest that they did is pretty scary for America’s future as the Land of the Free for all who come here. If “Founding Father precedence” is allowed to become a justification for religious bigotry, then support for freedom of religion gets turned on its head. The promise of Freedom of Religion, one of our greatest gifts to human governance, has to then become a change of America’s constitutional intention, instead of fulfilling its original intention. So let us see if we can pull the rug out from under this subversive attack on religious freedom.

Recently, a longstanding friend forwarded to me a widely distributed email he received containing a copy of the Declaration of Independence, with a request for all readers to read it as part of the 4th of July observance. A very good idea. I replied to him that not only should people reread this marvelous document regularly, but they should also read the equally marvelous Constitution each September 17th, the anniversary of its signing. I also suggested that each should be read “not only for what they say, but also for what they do not say.” Because, for political advantage, both documents are continually misquoted and presumed to say many things that are nowhere to be found there.

In the case of the topic at hand – America’s purported founding as a Christian nation – the realities are these:

1. In BOTH the Declaration and the Constitution, (including the 27 Amendments), the words “Jesus,” “Christian,” or “Christianity” are nowhere to be found. Not once. Nothing. Nor the mention of any particular religion, church or other religious figure.

2. In the Declaration, the word “religion” is nowhere mentioned. There are four references to a generic deity greater than our human existence, a deity attached to no specific religion in particular: “Nature’s God”; “Creator”; “Supreme Judge”; “Divine Providence.” These general terms are applicable to, and can be found in, most all religions (Christian, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, etc.).

3. In the Constitution, the word “religion” is used twice, in both cases prohibiting a specific religion as a criterion of citizenship: Article 6 – No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States; 1st Amendment - Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. Pretty clear and pretty firm. The closest the Constitution comes to referencing any religious person is in the closing ratification date: Article 7 - the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven – the conventional date format of the time.

How anyone can conclude that our two supreme founding documents established a specifically and exclusive Christian nation is beyond my understanding. Quite the opposite – in wording by both commission and omission, the attempt to remain unattached to any specific religious group seems much in evidence.

Some people also have a practice to lump the Founding Fathers into one homogeneous virtual person and mindset. Nothing could be further from the case. In almost all instances they did believe in some greater spiritual power, but they held different beliefs about how that power interacts with this world. Though they were all members of some Christian church, they held a range of religious views, affiliations and levels of engagement with their churches. From Congregationalist Samuel Adams’ religious fervor, to Jefferson’s more rationally-driven approach to religion, to Franklin’s evolving religious views, to Washington’s virtual silence on the subject. The Declaration of Independence and Constitution were products of intensive political negotiations and compromises among men of wide-ranging and strongly-held differing beliefs on questions of economics, politics, religion, and America’s destiny. But after their experience of the tyranny of kings and the negative consequences of a state church receiving political favoritism, they certainly shared a suspicion of unchecked government and politicized religion.

The Founding Fathers’ belief in a god and their affiliation with various religions did NOT translate into making their individual religious views into general law. Any more than Henry Ford created an Episcopal automobile, or Albert Einstein created a Jewish scientific theory, or Chief Justice John Roberts interprets American law from a Catholic directive. The Founding Fathers, in their collective wisdom, clearly understood that the only way to guarantee the right and security of any one faith was to allow equally for all faiths. To the preference of none, to the exclusion of none. Religion was to be left to home, church, synagogue, mosque, and monastery, not the workplace or the government office. Everyone to be free to adopt and practice his/her choice, in privacy or with their peers. They affirmed that quite clearly from the very beginning of this country. It seems that every now and then we must all speak up loudly to reaffirm it again.