Using Old Tools To Build A New House
Building Out Of Devastation
Sometimes when I sit down to write for all of you I have a really clear sense of what I want to write about. Sometimes I’m more like a scavenger, noodling along, picking up random ideas and words, carting them back to my secret clearing in the tangled woods of my mind. I lay all the things I’ve found out on the ground and sit with them, trying to see how they will all fit together. Sometimes I sit for a long time.
Eventually, I either start to see how they fit together, or I just see that I need to get a move on for one reason or another. So, I start writing, cobbling things together, trusting that by the time I’m done they’ll be another room on my mind-house which won’t fall over or leak too badly— a room that’s suitable for guests.
I wrote some weeks ago about whether or not God is required to live a life of integrity. That seemed a necessary question to ask at the outset because integrity is an idea inherently wedded to the idea of morality. Morality, in the United States anyway, has been the province of religion from the beginning, but the two are not inextricably linked.
Between the pandemic and the culmination of our political choices to increasingly empower corporations and disempower democracy, we are at an inflection point in this country. Communities have been sundered. Institutions are dead or nearly so. Infrastructure, as evidenced by the clusterf*ck that is the Texas power grid, is crumbling. America’s house is in shambles.
Our individual lives are, in many respects, similarly wrecked. Our ability to gather and feel connected has disappeared. For many of us, our livelihoods have evaporated. Any illusions we had about this country’s exceptionalism have been imploded. We have been forced to admit that we are just as screwed as everyone else, and maybe more so because we have allowed ourselves to be lulled into passivity for so long.
Having been through periods of my life in recent years that were ruled by devastation, when everything I thought my life was going to be about disappeared like a skyscraper imploding, I would argue that now is not the time to offer platitudes.
“Everything happens for a reason”, “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle”, and “crisis breeds opportunity” are, in the face of this moment, simply spiritual-bypassing.
Now is not the time to waste our breath on the meaning of the moment. We cannot know it. Now is time to figure out how we’re going to rebuild so we can get ourselves, and everyone else, in out of the storm. Thinking deeply and strategically about the tools and materials we use to rebuild our lives and this country is the foundation of building the house we need now.
Religion offers us tools that we can, and I believe must wield in our rebuilding efforts that do not require religion to be wielded, which means we all can use them. Integrity is one of those. Compassion is another. A friend posted an excerpt from Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim, which illuminates this disentangling of tools and motivation:
Atheists? There is a famous story told in Chassidic literature that addresses this very question. The Master teaches the student that God created everything in the world to be appreciated, since everything is here to teach us a lesson. One clever student asks “What lesson can we learn from atheists? Why did God create them?” The Master responds “God created atheists to teach us the most important lesson of them all — the lesson of true compassion. You see, when an atheist performs an act of charity, visits someone who is sick, helps someone in need, and cares for the world, he is not doing so because of some religious teaching. He does not believe that God commanded him to perform this act. In fact, he does not believe in God at all, so his acts are based on an inner sense of morality. And look at the kindness he can bestow upon others simply because he feels it to be right.” “This means,” the Master continued “that when someone reaches out to you for help, you should never say ‘I pray that God will help you.’ Instead for the moment, you should become an atheist, imagine that there is no God who can help, and say ‘I will help you.’”
Another tool of religion, specifically certain sects in Christianity, is Lent. I grew up Christian, but Quakers don’t practice Lent, so I’ve never really understood it. Yesterday, I received this Lenten sermon through Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bloz-Weber’s newsletter, The Corners. I encourage you to watch it, beginning at about the 16:00 minute mark. It lasts for about 12 minutes.
What do I think is essential to what Nadia is saying, whether or not you are someone who practices Lent, or even is Christian? What is the tool that Lent hands us?
Lent invites us to investigate the underlying premises of our lives by stripping away those things we thought we needed. Once we see what we’re left with we get to decide the premises upon which we rebuild. Then we can build what Nadia calls “seismic structures”, which “are built to withstand forces that aren’t present until they happen”.
I choose to wield the tool of integrity in building the house of my life, knowing that it will dictate to a large extent the shape and character of the house I’m able to build. That house will protect me from the weather, but it won’t likely be fancy. It won’t have all the bells and whistles that popular culture tells me make for a beautiful life— money, stuff, and the privilege to hold the pain of the world at a distance.
Standing in the crater left after this protracted worldwide period of deprivation and loss, now we have to decide what we want the shape and character of our country’s house to look like, and then build with the requisite tools. That country won’t be the shining beacon on the hill that we’ve conceived of in the past, elevated above the muck and mud of the rest of the world, our waste streaming down to bury our neighbors in filth. But if we get down in it with everyone, and reignite our moral imagination, I believe we can build seismic structures together.
What tools are you bringing to hand to rebuild these days? Where are you finding them?
Sending much love to each and every one of you. Thank you for supporting my work. Please share widely, like (click the heart!), comment, and SUBSCRIBE if you haven’t already. Let’s grow this conversation.