catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 8 :: 2013.04.12 — 2013.04.25


Counterspeaking contradictions

On Saturday, March 30 — Holy Saturday, sandwiched between Good Friday and Easter — a group of about 50 people gathered at the Hermitage Community in Three Rivers, Michigan for a service of lament and hope.  The service was prompted by the impending construction of a crude oil pipeline owned by the Canadian energy transport company Enbridge.  The current right of way, which contains an older crude oil line and one carrying natural gas, cuts through the Hermitage land on its way from the Canadian border to a refinery in northwest Indiana, not far from where I grew up.  The construction stands to devastate miles of forest, soil and farmland, along with all of the creatures who call those places home.  On the Hermitage property alone, hundreds of trees will fall in the path of the machines.

The Hermitage acreage is far from the only property that will be broken open for this project.  What sets the Hermitage apart for me, however, has been the articulate response crafted by the center’s directors, David and Naomi Wenger, along with their board members.  In a report from their Pentecost 2012 newsletter, board president Kevin Driedger summed up the center’s decision not to pursue a daunting legal process to intervene in the Enbridge plans, saying, “I want the Hermitage board, staff, and other resources to be used for things that lead to life, and participating in this process does not feel like an activity that leads to life.”  Naomi Wenger articulated the alternative practices that the board and the extended community of Hermitage supporters committed to:

First, we will continue to be a voice of protest. Second, when the date for commencement of work is known, we will schedule a public service of lament for the loss of woodland to the destructive practice of transporting dangerous chemicals in underground pipes. Third, we will admit to our complicity in the “public need” for this pipeline and use the proceeds from any settlement with Enbridge to fund energy conservation efforts and alternative energy production at The Hermitage. Fourth, we will seek to commission a work of art to be installed as a permanent symbol of our commitment to be good stewards of the earth. Finally, we determined not to vilify the laborers on the pipeline, making them bear the brunt of their employer’s choices, but will welcome them as Christ among us and work to help them understand our values and purposes at The Hermitage: a place and a way to pray.

And so, on March 30, we gathered at the Hermitage to confess our complicity in the multi-faceted havoc wreaked by the collection, transport, processing and consumption of oil.  (Another group gathered the same day on part of the line in Manitoba.)  We began in the chapel with artistic and poetic expressions of lament, and then moved outside to walk the land, processing in prayer to the construction site.  Silence is the core practice of the Hermitage and we spent time in quiet attention to the land as we tied strips of a mural to the trees standing in the way. And yet, in the midst silence, I was struck by the sounds that echoed from both the east and the west: a neighbor’s chainsaw on the one side, and on the other, heavy equipment clearing a nearby field that had lain fallow for decades, likely to be planted with GMO corn.  

The sounds taunted us with the futility of our efforts.  For months now, we’ve been fretting and wringing our hands about the pipeline coming through and the destruction it will bring to our cherished land.  And yet, with no such fanfare, nearby acres have fallen over the past month, the smell of their funeral pyres filling the neighborhood for miles.  What’s more, through no discernible human fault, a tornado ripped through the area two years ago, leveling acres of trees that still have not been cleared, despite tremendous effort.  In the midst of all this, tying a strip of fabric around a sumac sapling seemed a bit precious.  If the neighbors thought we were crazy as we played and sang and danced a song of hope to close the service of lament, they were right.

Even as we sought to commit ourselves to a less destructive way of life, the destruction happening all around us served as a humbling reminder that our efforts are small, and that hope in something beyond ourselves might just be a matter of survival. In The Fingerprints of God, Robert Farrar Capon writes,

The Word speaks all things into being at the beginning. But then, when his creatures deface the world by contradicting his speaking (by denying their own natures as he has spoken them), the Word just keeps on talking. At the very instants of their contradictions, without a single throat-clearing or a moment’s hesitation, he counterspeaks their contradiction in his same, original voice. In him, creation and redemption are one act; both have always been going on full force in everything. True enough, it took time for Scripture to reveal that gracious gift. But when it’s all set down in black and white, grace is its ultimate point. It proclaims that the Word who makes the world is identical with the Word who saves the world, and it says he’s always been doing both jobs. No matter how lost the world may get, it’s always been found in the mystery of its Maker.

Before I left for the service of lament that Saturday, I took the time to face a task I’d been dreading.  My sister, who’s been experimenting with indoor vermicomposting, had given me a bunch of worms a few months ago.  In a spirit of giddy spring hope within the deep freeze of winter, I set up a container under our sink…and then proceeded to let it turn into a black, slimy, buggy mess.  With regret for my carelessness for living creatures, worms though they be, I hauled the bucket out back to commit their bodies to our compost pile.  The slime sloshed out with a confetti of flies.  However, nestled in a lower layer of coffee grounds, a whole colony of worms was still going at their earth-making work.  And not only were they producing rich castings, they were seeking the welfare of the mess I had placed them in by having families, multiplying and not decreasing.  I quickly cleaned out the container, gathered some of their favorite foods, and scooped them up to begin again with greater resolve to deface the world a little less this time. 

Whether I succeed or not is, in some ways, beside the point.  There’s creative redemption going on that is both bigger than and as small as a bucket of worms in my kitchen or a tank of alternative fuel in my car.  Beneath and through and before and beyond such specific practices is a deep longing to embrace a Word-shaped way of life because within this life is the truest kind of joy, hope, love and peace.  However, one of the paradoxes is that the deeper that longing digs into our beings, the more we also feel the scars of creation.

We are not created to go to a place of such intense joy and pain alone, which is why I am so grateful for the Hermitage Community and all of the others who gathered on March 30 here and elsewhere as witnesses willing to look destruction in the face and dare words of confession, transformation and hope.  In The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day writes,

We cannot love God unless we love each other.  We know him in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone anymore.  Heaven is a banquet, and life is a banquet too — even with a crust — where there is companionship.  We have all known loneliness, and we have learned that the only solution is love, and that love comes with community.

I envision a picnic with those who come to work on the pipeline in Three Rivers, perhaps on a grassy slope overlooking the spectacle of de/construction.  It will be about more than just lemonade and sandwiches, offering the nourishment of hospitality to those who’s migratory lives have been as disrupted as the soil along the line.  Call it idealistic, precious, cute — but counterspeaking contradictions in such ways puts us in good company with each other and with a mysterious Word, lonely no more in our present taste of the life to come.

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