2021 05 09 Alan Storey
Peeling Back Prejudice. Peter’s Process.
In the introduction of his mesmerising book, Entangled Life: How Fungi make our worlds, change our minds, and shape our futures, Merlin Sheldrake writes:
I attended a conference in Panama on tropical microbes, and along with many other researchers spent three days becoming increasingly bewildered by the implications of our studies. Someone got up to talk about a group of plants that produce a certain group of chemicals in their leaves. Until then, the chemicals had been thought of as a defining characteristic of that group of plants. However, it transpired that the chemicals were actually made by fungi that lived in the leaves of the plant. Our idea of the plant had to be redrawn. Another researcher interjected, suggesting that it may not be the fungi living inside the leaf that produced these chemicals, but the bacteria living inside the fungus. Things continued along these lines. After two days, the notion of the individual had deepened and expanded beyond recognition. To talk about individuals made no sense any more. Biology – the study of living organisms – had transformed into ecology – the study of the relationships between living organisms. To compound matters, we understood very little. Graphs of microbial populations projected on a screen had large sections labelled ‘unknown’….
Many scientific concepts – from ‘time’ to ‘chemical bonds’ to ‘genes’ to ‘species’ – lack stable definitions but remain helpful categories to think with. From one perspective, ‘individual’ is no different: just another category to guide human thought and behaviour. Nonetheless, so much of daily life and experience – not to mention our philosophical, political and economic systems – depends on individuals that it can be hard to stand by and watch the concept dissolve. Where does this leave ‘us’? What about ‘them’? ‘Me’? ‘Mine’? ‘Everyone’? ‘Anyone’? …. It made my head spin to think of how many ideas had to be revisited, not least our culturally treasured notions of identity, autonomy and independence. It is in part this disconcerting feeling that makes the advances in the microbial sciences so exciting. Our microbial relationships are about as intimate as any can be. Learning more about these associations changes our experience of our own bodies and the places we inhabit. ‘We’ are ecosystems that span boundaries and transgress categories. Our selves emerge from a complex tangle of relationships only now becoming known.21
The study of relationships can be confusing. Almost all are ambiguous. Have leafcutter ants domesticated the fungus they depend on, or has the fungus domesticated the ants? Do plants farm the mycorrhizal fungi they live with, or do the fungi farm the plants? Which way does the arrow point? This uncertainty is healthy.
Reading these words made me think of our readings from the Gospel and Letter of John these past two weeks. They both refer to the wonder of indwelling the Divine and being indwelled by the Divine…“Abide in me as I abide in you…” [John 15]. “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” [1 John 4:16]. Talk about entangled life!
And then of course what if we take Jesus literally when his says: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” [Mark 12:31]. What if Jesus is not simply speaking about the extent of our loving but the extent of our actual selves? In other words, could Jesus be commanding us to expand our own sense of identity to include our neighbour? If so, then we are more than our skin can hold. If so, what happens to our neighbour happens to us for we all share entangled life. If so, then murder and war is suicide. If so, then an injustice to one is an injustice to all.
If so, what “concepts dissolve?” What “associations change?” “What culturally treasured notions do we need to revisit?”
A growing consciousness of our oneness with neighbour, the Divine, and the natural world lies at the foundation of the world’s salvation (healing and liberation). And obviously not simply a growing consciousness, but a way of life both personal and political, individual and systemic that abides in this consciousness and in which this consciousness abides. I would call this consciousness of our oneness, Christ consciousness as Jesus prayed: “May they be one as we are one.” [John 17], but others may call it by other names. What we call it is less important than whether we live into and out of it.
If this makes our head spin – let us embrace our “disconcerting feelings” and rejoice that our many “unknowns” if nothing else, help us to walk our entangled life more humbly.
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Life-giving God, our hearts overflow with gratitude in response to your overflowing generosity. Over millions of years, you worked with loving patience to bring together in perfect proportion all the ingredients necessary for there to be life on this tiny planet we call earth. With perfect precision everything connects together for the good of the whole. In perfect balance every part gives of itself and receives for itself. With breath-like-rhythm, giving and receiving … receiving and giving … nourishing and being nourished…loving and being loved.
No part of your creation stands on its own, for you have not created anything that is self-sufficient in and of itself. Everything is humbly interdependent on everything else. Humble interdependence is the very fabric of creation. No wonder the web of life threatens to unravel, when this humble interdependence is rebelled against and broken.
Life-giving God we confess that we have rebelled against the humble interdependence of your creation and of our being. We have done so in ignorance and arrogance. We have done so unaware of the infinite knock-on effects of our actions. We have done so believing it is our privileged right as so-called “superior” beings to play by different rules. We have done so stubbornly refusing to listen to the mystics and prophets who called us to honour the perfect oneness of your creation. We think we are exempt from the perfect rhythm of giving and receiving … so we take more than we give. We take more than we need and more than what we can ever return and replace. Not content with living from the balance of the present, we consume from the future … and we rob the future of life.
And now the deathly consequences of our stubbornness are already being felt – the natural world dominos into deathly extinction – but many of us continue to live in denial. While others of us feel powerless to make the changes that are now urgently necessary: they feel too big, and we feel too small. And besides we have become dependent on the very things we need to change, for our survival. Some of us even campaign for change to happen, but we secretly hope that change will take place without us ourselves having to actually change.
We ignorantly thought it would be impossible to use up all the ingredients for life on earth – but our unlimited greed is fast revealing the limits of your creation when forced out of it replenishing rhythm. Your creation that promises there to be more than enough if only we do not take more than we need. We not only take more than we need but we envy those who have taken the most – we read their books and listen to their podcasts to learn their secrets of “success”. As of old, we choose Barabbas and crucify Jesus. We worship the killers of life and crucify the life saviours of the world. Life saviours who invite us to walk more gently, justly and humbly … or simply to walk more and drive less.
We confess, we are fools – we contaminate the soil in which our food grows – we poison the water we drink – we pollute the air we breathe. Thinking only of today we destroy tomorrow … which soon becomes today. Truly we have unpicked the fabric of humble interdependence and even done so with pride, believing falsely that so-called self-sufficiency is the highest virtue.
Life-giving God, it has only taken us a few hundred years for us to threaten and destroy what has existed for millions of years – making us the most destructive animal that has ever lived on earth. And yet you continue to follow us with goodness and mercy. Your grace is embodied in your creation, responding with mercy the instant we stop and turn from our abusive ways. Your creation imitates your own heart of forgiveness and resurrection power by restoring to life that which was dead … that which we have killed. We have seen this with our own eyes during the forced standstill brought about by Covid that revealed to us that the instant the natural world is left alone it returns with abundant beauty.
By your mercy help us to honour the humble interdependence you have created us for. Amen.
This past Sunday we noted that forgiveness is nothing less than an act of resurrection. In short: To forgive is to resurrect. We noted how the story of the forgiven prodigal is framed as a resurrection story: “My child was lost and is found, was dead and is now alive”. To say that we believe in the resurrection while withholding forgiveness is equivalent to saying we love God while hating our sisters and brothers. This makes us liars. [1 John 4:20]
Forgiveness is not only a gift of new life to the forgiven, but also a gift of new life to the forgiver. To forgive another is to be resurrected from our own death that results from us not loving. As we read in 1 John 3:14 “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death.” Still further, to forgive someone is to resurrect them from the death of being “dead to us”. Our act of forgiveness brings them alive to us. Alive so we can be for them and no longer against them or indifferent towards them.
These were just two pieces of the forgiveness-jigsaw-puzzle that we mentioned last Sunday. We did not complete the puzzle, I am not sure one ever can, but our hope was to find and place enough pieces of the puzzle to give us a sense of what forgiveness is.
I ran out of time last Sunday to link the Acts 4:32-35 reading to the theme of Forgiveness and Resurrection. This link is crucial if forgiveness is going to be known at societal level. And what society is without sin? The recurring sin of society is the exploitative and exclusive debt economy that eventually makes slaves of the majority of people to sustain a small elite.
Forgiveness as resurrection is made real within society through the implementation of Jubilee. Jubilee is the “every-fifty-years-forgiveness-of-debt” policy. Financial debt. We would prefer forgiveness to leave our finances alone. No wonder we have changed the word “debt” in the Lord’s prayer, to the more general, “trespasses” or “sins”. “Forgive us our debt as we forgive those in our debt”.
Jubilee is a forgiveness-financial-policy of debt cancellation. To the extent that we practice Jubilee is to the extent that we will come alive as a society. If we don’t do so – we abide in death. And this death will eventually swallow us all up. Once again, the first letter of John asks the pointed question: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” [1 John 3:17]. This question is even sharper for us who live in the most unequal country in the world and therefore the country that has the greatest need for Jubilee economics.
The difference of course between forgiving others who have hurt us and practicing forgiveness as Jubilee in a society, is that when we practice Jubilee and cancel the debts of others we do so as those who need forgiveness. We need forgiveness because (even unwittingly) we have benefitted from systems that carry the favour of some at the deathly expense of the many. It matters not whether we like or dislike the systems that benefit us or not. The reading from 1 John 3:17 does not ask us if we designed the system or not. It does not care how hard we have worked for what we have. John simply says that if we have and withhold what we have, while others do not have, then we can’t say that the love of God is in us. As Rabbi Abraham Heschel says: “Some are guilty, but all are responsible”. Practicing Jubilee is “the all” taking responsibility.
A Universal Basic Income Grant is one way in which we can practice Jubilee. It is probably the very least of ways. We could call it “Jubilee lite”. I believe that South Africa’s resurrection depends on it.
There is a lot of information about a Universal Basic Income Grant on the net. Here is an introduction via The Daily Maverick podcast called: Don’t Shoot the Messenger, by Rebecca Davis.
Last year I attended a seminar by Laurie Garrett, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and public health expert. Hearing from Garrett about the human impact on the environment and the resulting emergence of new and mutating deadly viruses was frighteningly enlightening. As early as 1995, Laurie Garrett’s book, The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance pointed to the present we are now living.
Before I share a passage from Garrett’s book, the thing that struck me from her seminar was the sad pattern of human response to plagues:
1] Garrett stated that religious bigotry and religious exceptionalism accompanied plagues throughout history. We only have to think of HIV. Religious bigotry creates division: “us versus them”; “clean versus unclean”; “protected versus punished”. Religious exceptionalism encourages non-compliance of health precautions and reckless complacency towards the disease. The pandemic is spiritualised, for example, Covid-19 is seen as a demon, not a disease; a test of faith, not science.
2] Blaming the victim also stains the history of plagues. Today we note an increase in the stigmatisation of those who test positive for the coronavirus. This is very concerning. Blaming and banishing the victim creates a context of fear that ultimately discourages people to be tested and to seek care. https://www.iol.co.za/capeargus/news/call-to-stop-covid-19-stigma-as-it-often-causes-people-to-avoid-care-47923253
In response to this sad human pattern, we ask: “What does the Lord require of us in response to Covid-19?” Answer: What the Lord has always required of us. Namely, “To do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God” [Micah 6:8]. I invite you to allow this single sentence to take hold of you. Take time to reflect on what, justice, mercy and humility mean in our pandemic present. We will re-visit this question over and over again.
I now share with you an extract from Garrett’s fascinating and detailed book, in which she introduces us to the human lung and viruses and the 1970s oil crisis and globalisation via the airline industry. Her gift is seeing connections where none may even look. It is the gift of a prophet. Another name for prophet is a ‘seer’. A seer of the past and present with such truthful clarity that she enables us to see a bit of tomorrow…
The human lung, as an ecosphere, was designed to take in 20,000 liters of air each day, or roughly 60 pounds. Its surface was highly variegated, comprised of hundreds of millions of tiny branches, at the ends of which were the minute bronchioles that actively absorbed oxygen molecules. The actual surface area of the human lung was, therefore, about 150 square meters, or “about the size of an Olympic tennis court,” as Harvard Medical School pulmonary expert Joseph Brain put it.
Less than 0.64 micron, or just under one one-hundred-thousandth of an inch, was all the distance that separated the air environment in the lungs from the human bloodstream. All a microbe had to do to gain entry to the human bloodstream was get past that 0.64 micron of protection. Viruses accomplished the task by accumulating inside epithelial cells in the airways and creating enough local damage to open up a hole of less than a millionth of an inch in diameter.
Some viruses, such as those that caused common colds, were so well adapted to the human lung that they had special proteins on their surfaces which locked on to the epithelial cells. Larger microbes, such as the tuberculosis bacteria, gained entry via the immune system’s macrophages. They were specially adapted to recognize and lock on to the large macrophages that were distributed throughout pulmonary tissue. Though it was the job of macrophages to seek out and destroy such invaders, many microbes had adapted ways to fool the cells into ingesting them. Once inside the macrophages, the microbes got a free ride into the blood or the lymphatic system, enabling them to reach destinations all over the human body.
The best way to protect the lungs was to provide them with 20,000 liters per day of fresh, clean, oxygen-rich air. The air flushed out the system. Dirty air—that which contained pollutant particles, dust, or microbes —assaulted the delicate alveoli and bronchioles, and there was a synergism of action. People who, for example, smoked cigarettes or worked in coal mines were more susceptible to all respiratory infectious diseases: colds, flu, tuberculosis, pneumonia, and bronchitis.
Because of its confined internal atmosphere, the vehicle responsible for the great globalization of humanity—the jet airplane—could be a source of microbial transmission. Everybody on board an airplane shared the same air. It was, therefore, easy for one ailing passenger or crew member to pass a respiratory microbe on to many, if not all, on board. The longer the flight, and the fewer the number of air exchanges in which outside air was flushed through the cabin, the greater the risk.
In 1977, for example, fifty-four passengers were grounded together for three hours while their plane underwent repairs in Alaska. None of the passengers left the aircraft, and to save fuel the air conditioning was switched off. For three hours the fifty-four passengers breathed the same air over and over again. One woman had influenza: over the following week 72 percent of her fellow passengers came down with the flu; genetically identical strains were found in everyone.
Following the worldwide oil crisis of the 1970s, the airlines industry looked for ways to reduce fuel use. An obvious place to start was with air circulation, since it cost a great deal of fuel to draw icy air in from outside the aircraft, adjust its temperature to a comfortable 65°—70°F, and maintain cabin pressure. Prior to 1985 commercial aircraft performed that function every three minutes, which meant most passengers and crew breathed fresh air throughout their flight. But virtually all aircraft built after 1985 were specifically designed to circulate air less frequently; a mix of old and fresh air circulated once every seven minutes, and total flushing of the aircraft could take up to thirty minutes. Flight crews increasingly complained of dizziness, flu, colds, headaches, and nausea. Studies of aircraft cabins revealed excessive levels of carbon dioxide—up to 50 percent above U.S. legal standards. Air quality for fully booked airliners failed to meet any basic standards for U.S. workplaces.
In 1992 and 1993 the CDC investigated four instances of apparent transmission of tuberculosis aboard aircraft. In one case, a flight attendant passed TB on to twenty-three crew members over the course of several flights. Similar concerns regarding confined spaces were raised about institutional settings, such as prisons and dormitories, where often excessive numbers of people were co-housed in energy-efficient settings.
In preparation for the June 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the World Health Organization reviewed available data on expected health effects of global warming and pollution. WHO concluded that evidence of increased human susceptibility to infectious diseases, due to UV-B immune system damage and pollutant impacts on the lungs and immune system, was compelling. The agency was similarly impressed with estimates of current and projected changes in the ecology of disease vectors, particularly insects.
It wasn’t necessary, of course, for the earth to undergo a 1°—5°C temperature shift in order for diseases to emerge. As events since 1960 had demonstrated, other, quite contemporary factors were at play. The ecological relationship between Homo Sapiens and microbes had been out of balance for a long time. The “disease cowboys”—scientists like Karl Johnson, Pierre Sureau, Joe McCormick, Peter Piot, and Pat Webb—had long ago witnessed the results of human incursion into new niches or alteration of old niches. Perhaps entomologist E. O. Wilson, when asked, “How many disease-carrying reservoir and vector species await discovery in the earth’s rain forests?” best summed up the predicament: “That is unknown and unknowable. The scale of the unknown is simply too vast to even permit speculation.”
Thanks to changes in Homo Sapiens activities, in the ways in which the human species lived and worked on the planet at the end of the twentieth century, microbes no longer remained confined to remote ecospheres or rare reservoir species: for them, the earth had truly become a Global Village.
Between 1950 and 1990 the number of passengers aboard international commercial air flights soared from 2 million to 280 million. Domestic passengers flying within the United States reached 424 million in 1990. Infected human beings were moving rapidly about the planet, and the number of air passengers was expected to double by the year 2000, approaching 600 million on international flights.
Garrett, Laurie. The Coming Plague (pp. 569-571). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.
You can find her book: https://www.amazon.com/Coming-Plague-Emerging-Diseases-Balance-ebook/dp/B005FGR6RO Or follow her: Twitter: @Laurie_Garrett.
Please email firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like the zoom invitation for the post-sermon connection and chat on Sunday at 11h11.
It was lovely to see so many of your faces on Thursday evening during our Zoom test / connect. It felt Easter-ish: Facial recognition resurrects relationships! To hear familiar voices and laughter is life-giving.
A group call with so many people can be quite chaotic. But as the angels say: “Be not afraid” for there is beauty in the chaos, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaos_theory. As we keep open to learning how to be with each other in this new way, let’s double up on patience, kindness and a sense of humour. When in doubt, breathe and smile. We are not all the same. What energises one, drains the next. As we are attentive to our different experiences, may we feel free to express our learnings, ideas and suggestions so that we all take responsibility for the space we share. The feedback, since Thursday has already been helpful. Thank you.
It would be rather entertaining (and concerning) were someone to get out of a swimming pool and walk on dry ground while continuing to wave breaststroke arms. In other words, a new medium invites a new way. Similarly, it is not possible nor wise to try and replicate the actual with the virtual. This means there are going to be some things we simply miss as they are irreplaceable because they are bound within a particular medium.
Learning what we miss can also be a gift. I have realised over the last few weeks that preaching is a particular medium that cannot (certainly not for me) be replicated by a podcast. I was always taught that true preaching is relational, but I have only now come to see that to be true. Missing the congregation has revealed this to me. If I am honest, podcasts feel kind of dead. (Please stop reading and take a moment to pray for the resurrection of dead podcasts … and a particular struggling podcaster.)
I have also missed liturgy, prayer, readings and song in their own right, but also in the way in which they support and stretch the sermon. Sunday services are more than the sum of their parts. A sermon is a thread, while Sunday services are a tapestry. I miss this greater sense of wholeness. The different voices from different perspectives addressing life as we know it from the uniqueness of our hearts, hands and voices.
In the light of all of this we are going to try something new this Sunday. At 11:11 we will have a conversation (on Zoom). The springboard for our conversation will be the Sunday readings and reflection. Please email Adrienne at email@example.com for the Zoom link if you would like to be part of this. We will stick to 50 minutes max (like therapy – except it will not be therapy!). In our quest to be a questioning community, this Sunday we will simply ask the question: “What questions arise for us from the readings and reflection?” Instead of brainstorming answers, we will brainstorm questions.
One of the concerns about all this online stuff is how exclusive and excluding it can be. It is dependent on having access to data and internet access as well as the technology in the first place. We know therefore that many at CMM are excluded from this form of gathering. This is a concern. I am not exactly sure what the answer is but would like us to be mindful of it. If you can help bridge the gap with those who you know from CMM who are not online, please do. Any suggestions?
On Thursday I shared a bit about the present state of the sanctuary (stripped bare) and the new opportunities it presents for us, especially in relation to a different form of seating that will allow greater flexibility for the use of the sanctuary and to make it more functional in the service of the community. This discussion is important not only regarding the historical nature of the building, but because it raises questions about who we are, and who we are called to be as followers of Jesus.
Yet the challenge is, this window of opportunity coincides with restricted interaction and limited channels of communication. We would like as many people as possible to be part of these conversations. I therefore appeal to you, if you have thoughts and questions about this, please contact me. We want to make this journey together.
I am mindful that as a community we moved straight from housing refugees for 5 months to Covid-19 lockdown. In other words, from one challenge to another even greater challenge without time to process the first. This is not healthy. We have much to learn from the last 6-7 months as a community. We need to be deliberate about coming back to it when we are able to do so.
Lastly, a big thank you to those who continue to generously support the ministries of CMM as well as Stepping Stones Children’s Centre.