Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Solitary Confinement

The last few months have been full of intense experiences and it takes time to process everything. It is also clear that while Jan, KJ, Krista and I have all been at the same physical locations, we have not experienced the same things or understood them in the same way. Perhaps this is one of the biggest problems facing the human family. I know that it certainly affects our own. Perhaps I might use some experiences from our time at Koinonia Farms as an example.

Virtually everyone who came to support Koinonia embraced a common set of values and ideals. These shared beliefs are expressed in Koinonia’s mission statement : “We are Christians called to live together in intentional community sharing a life of prayer, work, study, service and fellowship. We seek to embody peacemaking, sustainability, and radical sharing. While honoring people of all backgrounds and faiths, we strive to demonstrate the way of Jesus as an alternative to materialism, militarism and racism.”

You might think that a mutual and sincere commitment to this clear statement of belief would allow people to work together in a constructive way - and for the most part, you would be right. Unfortunately, there were also some big exceptions. Long-time community members were alienated by the rest of the group and big differences of opinion would flare up over the meaning of sustainable agriculture or fair labour practices. Even the trip to Missouri to receive the Peace Prize led to conflict among community members.

When these problems occurred, I pondered why people couldn’t understand the source of the problems and come to a reasonable compromise. Eventually it became clear to me that we are all living in our own reality. We are trapped in our own life experiences and prisoners of our own perceptions. Sometimes it seems like we are in solitary confinement and we ache to share our reality with someone else. Words are the only tools we have to break down the walls of our individual realities and find common ground with another human being. Unfortunately, Words are only symbols and their very meaning is shaped by our own individual experience.

How do you explain a sunset to a blind man? What does “Love” mean to an abused child? What is “Justice” to a someone who can’t find a job because of the color of their skin?

I pondered these questions in my final lunch-time devotion at Koinonia. I had been studying Hebrew and noticed some fascinating things. First I need to explain that the Hebrew language doesn’t generally use the verb “to be”. For example, when we say “a tree is big” a Hebrew speaker simply says “tree big” or “the tree is big” is translated as “the tree the big”. However, God’s name, rendered I AM THAT I AM in English translations, comes from a Hebrew verb HYH - which means “to Be”. First person of the verb is EHYH - I AM - or perhaps something like “I AM Eternally Becoming” or “I AM Ultimate Existence”. Third person of the verb is YHYH or YHVH (Jehovah) or “HE IS”.

Most of us are familiar with Descartes’ famous words “Cogito ergo sum” - “I think therefore I am”. Unfortunately, this thinking is the product of an existence that is severely limited in both time and space. We can’t even focus our attention on more than one thing at a time. Perhaps this is more like “i think therefore i exist”. Compared to God, we exist in a very narrow place.

In an earlier entry, I wrote about the name of Jesus - Hebrew YESHUA - and how that name can be interpreted as He-Saves. I further detailed how the word “Saves” comes from another Hebrew words meaning to “deliver from a narrow place to a wide open place of safety”. From this I inferred that Jesus takes us from our narrow individual reality, which is bounded by birth and death / place and perspective, and leads us to the wider Reality. Recently, while attending synagogue, I learned that the Hebrew word for Egypt “Mitzreem” also carries the connotation of being “The narrow place”. This further connects us to the idea that God told Moses to lead us from slavery (to our limited perceptions) in the “narrow place” of individual existence to a life of responsibility in the promised land of unlimited existence. All of this is interesting to someone like me - who has a fascination with obscure details. Does it have any practical value in the “real” or “day to day” world?

The Torah relates the story of the Tower of Babel. It starts with the words “At one time, all the people of the world spoke the same language and used the same words.” According to Jewish midrash, Nimrod used this amazing language to unite the people and use their efforts to build a tower that promised to make them independent of God. The biblical narrative continues that God observed “The people are united, and they all speak the same language. After this, nothing they set out to do will be impossible for them.” So God confused the languages. People could no longer understand each other, construction efforts ended, and the people scattered.

Personally, I believe this story is meant to be interpreted in a mythical sense. Certainly I see that communication failures threaten one human endeavor after another. It was true at Koinonia and it even happens in our small family.

Given these incredible obstacles, how can it be possible to bring the human family together before we devastate the world through environmental destruction, resource depletion, over-consumption and armed conflict?

And the photo - It's the moon setting over Koinonia at the same time the sun was rising.

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