(The painting above is "The Visitation" by Jocopo Pontormo)
For some reason this Advent I am really obsessed with the notion of Mary as theotokos (literally, "God-bearer.") The Greek word does not exactly translate in English. It implies a "bearing forth of truth and goodness" in literally an obstetric sense.
I think about my rotations on the Labor and Delivery floor in my training years. No two births are alike, yet all births are alike. All births--even the most routine ones--involve drama, expectation, fear, pain, fluids, and blood. The magic moment for me on that rotation was watching that baby's head pop out before the first breath is taken. The baby seems to be a mannequin of life, but once the baby is out, he or she takes that first breath, and all hell breaks loose, crying and wiggling and probably thinking, "Put me back where I was! It was warmer back there!" There is no going back at that point!
It's messy and beautiful all at once, and it actually felt kind of satisfying to be bathed up to my elbows in the wetness and smells of it all. I LOVED deliveries. I loved being the first person to catch and hold and cradle that baby before handing him/her off to the pediatrician. I wanted to believe that part of me would rub off, somehow. (It was the "gyn" part of OB/GYN I didn't like.)
I have thought a lot this week, how each of us, within ourselves, has a "holy child" of sorts, growing within us, but there is no time frame for when it's "due." The pregnancy could take months or decades. When we sit still, we might feel it "kick." Some of them occur in those of us who felt "barren" spiritually. Some of us, we might be "pre-pubertal". Some of us might be "of reproductive age." This pregnancy has no barriers as to sex--men can be just as spiritually pregnant as women.
This "holy child" within us comes with all the fear and anticipation real babies do. Will we be a good parent? Will we know what to do when it gets here? Will it have ten fingers and ten toes and be 'normal'? What will it grow up to be?
I kind of imagine God as the great baby-catcher in all this, like a father stuck birthing his own child in a taxicab. Maybe God is nervous and excited too. Maybe he sees this child take its first breath and says to us, "It's perfect! It's beautiful!" Or maybe it's maternal God who takes the baby and cuddles it for the first time, like a good midwife.
I don't understand why I am feeling this in middle age. I just know it's good. I know it has changed this month of Advent how I look at everyone in the street. I see pregnant people everywhere. Do you?
(The painting above is "The Visitation" by Jocopo Pontormo)
Well, in my mind it is not truly Thanksgiving until one sings the Rosannadanna Family Thanksgiving Prayer, the anthem for all of us who are accustomed to Thanksgiving being "not normal."
Long before Martha Stewart was a gleam in anyones TV eye, my mother, year after year, struggled desperately to have a Thanksgiving "like TV families have." In her mind, that was what families were supposed to be like. The problem was, she was dealing with a cast of characters for this production that ranged from James Dean to Don Rickles to Granny Clampett.
In other words, it just wasn't going to happen.
All the turkey printed napkins, matching plates, Butterball brand turkeys, and Better Homes and Gardens Holiday Decorating Hints were not going to change the fact that Thanksgiving in my family was going to be a collection of drunks, rednecks, antisocials, and smart-alecks eating a meal together, in a house not big enough to hold them all, and chairs enough not to feed everyone, with football constantly in the background, and a cloud of cigarette smoke in the air. I remember most vividly my constant need to go outside and get fresh air and "get away from all the people," and the constant pressure to "be nice" so as not to be named as the instigator when it all DID hit the fan.
One of my favorite stories was one year when my mom was simply tired of all of us, and wailed, "It's just not FAIR! Why can't we have Thanksgiving like NORMAL people? Why can't just once in my life, I can have a Thanksgiving where I am loved and appreciated for how hard I've tried to make this holiday special?"
My grandmother just looked at her and said, matter-of-factly, "Well, it's because we're NOT NORMAL."
I was about 12 or 13 at the time, and I remember the urge to laugh so hard I had to go outside to do it!
Well, and maybe that in itself is the miracle.
I'm going to be totally up front here. I don't do particularly well with either Thanksgiving OR Christmas. It is very important for me, on both days, to have some degree of "quiet alone time." I simply was not trained to learn how to enjoy large gatherings of people in a setting where the societal pressure is to "experience a day set aside for a particular purpose." I do great in impromptu large gatherings of people, where there are no expectations. In those settings, I can more or less let the joy evolve of its own accord.
But I admit Thanksgiving Day puts pressure on me to feel "thankful, or else," and if it doesn't look like the TV shows, to immediately go, "What's wrong with me? Am I a bad person because I don't enjoy this? Is something wrong with me because my first thoughts are not about my own happiness, but about the pain of those who are separated and alienated from this day of thanks because they are homeless, alone, or in pain?"
Thanksgiving Day has been a constant evolution in me in the past decade. I spent a lot of years simply trying to "be nice" and imploding. Most of the players in my immediate family are now dead, or divorces have estranged them, so that part of my family is now simply "my mom and me," and we have vastly different ideas on How This Day Should Be. It's also interesting that we have Vastly Different Memories of Thanksgivings Past. Hers are of a "day that never was"; mine are of "a day that probably wasn't as bad as it seemed to me at the time."
But what these various pieces of broken stuff have done, is forge a new, and good, role for me for this day.
I've discovered in the past few years, that I can earnestly and wholly fit into the role of Someone's Funny and Charming Thanksgiving Orphan. All the messed up stuff of decades past makes me the perfect flexible house guest for anyone's "Within two standard deviations, but not quite ordinary" Thanksgiving.
Why is that?
1. They're not MY relatives. I don't have to have a dog in the hunt when sides are chosen, and in fact, my indifference sometimes leavens the potential for conflict in others.
2. If my mom accepts the invitation, the presence of a room full of non-relatives gives her a lack of "hooks" on which to hang old patterns of difficult behavior (and my hooks, too, for that matter.)
3. I am generally very helpful and flexible about doing things like helping with the meal prep, bringing drinks and snacks to others, taking the various dogs out, and keeping an eye on various infants/children.
4. I get to hear different family stories, and enjoy the sharing and tag-teaming between their stories and my own. I'm a good storyteller, and people seem to enjoy me contributing in this fashion.
5. The expectation is to only hang around a few hours, and once the meal is over, and the cleanup finished, there's no pressure to hang out any longer than what I can stand to do before my, "Ok, this was all good but I'm ready to go home and be by myself" gene will allow.
I am incredibly grateful for this niche. So incredibly grateful, I barely have words to describe it. It is a spot in time and space where I can live and move and breathe, and both feel the joy of the season in a healthy way and the sense that I am contributing to a better holiday for others. I am grateful to God that I had the guts to try out this role for the first time a few years back, rather than be stuck in a rut of expectations in which I knew I could never live up. I have both the peace of part of this holiday alone, to reflect and pray for those who are alienated and alone, and be grateful at the same time for my own solitude, but not "alienation" or "loneliness," and the fellowship of others. Others whom I care for deeply, and care for me, and my presence fills their need to "do something nice for others" in this season.
It is all so very, VERY good.
May each of you claim your own special blessings on this day, unusual blessings blown your way by Ruach, the holy wind. She blows by all of us and leaves different things in our yards, doesn't she?
Well, we did a "provocative word" exercise tonight in EFM, and I want to take it a little further.
Here is the word they stuck in front of us...a very typical "Advent" word, since we are "preparing for the birth of Christ" in Advent:
We were then asked to reflect and describe on the word as it was shown to us.
Good old "geometrical me," I noticed first that the red "P" separated "Pre" and "are" into two equal halves. "Pre" as in the past, and "are" as in the here and now. The middle "P" is a "red letter."
Then this huge profound thought came over me. How in my life (and I imagine, in the lives of many others), there are all these things that move us from the "past" into the "present". They are often "red letter things." Red like how blood might be shed, in a psychological sense. How in our spiritual lives, as we move closer to the realities of God, we have to face old ghosts, shed old habits, and leave things behind on the journey into the reality of "now" that are not needed for this part of the trip. It's very much like when the pioneers went west. First they had to shed themselves of the possessions they would not need. No room for sentimentality. Then sometimes, on the journey, they discovered there was even more they did not need and left it on the trail.
How many times in our lives must we face "red letter days" to push us into the "reality of now?" If not for those "red letter days," we would never have faced "now." They are painful, but they are necessary. They allow us to turn our face forward, to face light instead of dark.
Then I thought about how that red "P" not only SEPARATES the word, it JOINS the word. Red, like the Blood of Christ. I thought about the Eucharist (one of my favorite things to think about). How the Eucharist joins what was, what is, and what will be. When "pre" and "are" seem so far apart in our lives, like two different planets, that red "P"--the Presence of Christ--can join them. They are never really separate when the Presence of Christ is in the middle of it!
Wow, that is a lot of interesting stuff all stuffed into one little red "P"!
I think I'm going to concentrate this Advent on that "red P". I think I'm going to spend the next few weeks looking for that Presence in all of the mess that I loathe about "commercial yuletide." I bet I find it behind the tinsel all over the place.
WARNING: Don't watch if you are easily offended by religious satire. Just remember, though, that if God is offended by this, He'd have to be pretty doggone thin-skinned. I just don't think He worries too much about this stuff!
Hat tip to my friend Bosco for the link.
The other day, I was trying to defuse the potential for one of my famous temper outbursts. Someone very close to me described my temper as such: "You take a LOT and say nothing, but it's kind of like blowing up a balloon that gets too full and then all of a sudden, someone lets go of it. You go zipping around the room, going "Pttffffftttthhhhhh," this way and that, banging into everything, and then all of a sudden you are out of air and you fall to the ground, limp and exhausted. Then you sort of lie there, dead. Then you look up and go, "What's everyone lookin' at?" That is pretty much how your temper works."
I've thought about how the image of the balloon works into our resentment and anger. There's a point where I have to stop and tie a knot in the balloon and let no more air inside. When we people of the "helping professions," or "caregivers," and we fail to find something that ties that knot, we overextend, and are at risk of shooting across the room. I am coming to realize that is part of where the act of prayer is a "space creator" for me. To stop, take time to pray for the intentions of others that I cannot take on at the moment, or to chant one of the chants from my monastic breviary seems to stretch the neck of my balloon to the point I can at least get a knot tied in it.
But even then, the work is not finished with the knot in place. That balloon is in danger of being carried by the wind to a dangerous place, like a sharp tree limb, and then, POP! Irreparable damage. It feels good to be free floating out there, and has the false sense of "movement" but the potential to take us to places that are not good for us, and we are filled with just enough of our own hot air that it seems "perfect."
I have come to realize there has to be a string on my balloon, to tether me. Too long a string, and the extrovert half of me dances around and bounces too much. Too short a string, and the introvert half of me pulls me in too close, withdrawing to the point I no longer feel the breeze. This string needs an adjustment depending on the wind. That is where the "connection" part of my prayer life comes into play. I have to be carried to the point where I can feel the "tug" back to earth.
The string itself is the act of discipline in prayer for me. To feel the connection to the ground each day. If I don't feel the connection, I can feel "set adrift", or filled with false adventure that can become dangerous, like a dog suddenly off his chain who knows nothing about cars, chained near the highway. I could simply "burst free" and, in that split second, be smashed by the oncoming car that I did not even see.
It's interesting that a single act of prayer represents "space", "connection" and "discipline" all at once in my life. If that can control my temper to some degree, what other things does prayer control in our lives that we sometimes find ourselves powerless?
I thought about how a loose balloon looks "endangered" and a perfectly tethered one looks so "free", dancing in the wind, weaving and bobbing with energy and purpose. It's an interesting paradox, isn't it?
22I had said in my alarm, “I am driven far from your sight.” But you heard my supplications when I cried out to you for help.
23Love the Lord, all you his saints. The Lord preserves the faithful, but abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily.
24Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord. _____________________________________________________________
"Well, you can't. As for you, my fine
friend -- you're a victim of disorganized
thinking. You are under the unfortunate
delusion that simply because you run away
from danger, you have no courage. You're
confusing courage with wisdom. Back where
I come from, we have men who are called
heroes. Once a year, they take their
fortitude out of mothballs and parade it
down the main street of the city. And they
have no more courage than you have. But!
They have one thing that you haven't got!
A medal!"--The Wizard of Oz to the Cowardly Lion
I have been thinking a lot today about all the acts of courage that people do every day, that they don't even realize are courageous acts--they might even feel they were acts of cowardice. Every day, someone--well, lots of someones, actually--do things that we don't necessarily think of as "courageous."
Maybe they change jobs where the new job may pay less money but lead to a more satisfying life. Perhaps they extracted themselves and possibly their children from an abusive relationship. They might have realized they have a problem with substance abuse and have agreed they have entered rehab. They might have answered God's call about something they have been trying to discern, or maybe even they simply have finally come face to face with something that we loosely define as "sin" that has driven a wedge between them and God.
If they had "run" from any of these things, they might feel they are not courageous at all, but cowardly. Some of the most courageous acts in our lives don't feel very courageous in that "epic" sort of way. We feel fearful and uncertain at the time we are doing them. We have no idea what lies ahead.
But the one thing that often happens that leads to that moment where we re-orient a part of our lives that feel out of kilter, is "indifference" in that Ignatian sort of way. Not that we don't care, per se, but that we no longer care if the outcome of this change is good or bad--we simply know it has to change from the familiar and uncomfortable way it has been. We only know it can't be like THIS anymore.
It's not that these changes don't have difficult consequences. Some of these consequences lead to "loss" in our lives. Grieving occurs. Some of it is the stuff PTSD is made of. We may even have moments where we look back and second guess ourselves all over again, long after we made the change.
Sometimes I wonder if we wouldn't handle it better, if we simply could be like the Cowardly Lion, and have the Wizard hand us a medal. We could look at it and be reminded that we DID, in fact, commit an act of courage.
Did you ever notice the shape of the Cowardly Lion's medal? it's a cross.
The cross is very likely the second most common shape of a medal, with only the medallion being more ubiquitous. Lots of very famous military decorations are crosses--the Distinguished Service Cross, the Navy Cross, the Croix de Guerre, the Victoria Cross, just to name a few.
You know, a lot of us already wear crosses or crucifixes. Maybe you're not the jewelry type. That cross they made on your head at baptism is also certainly a cross you have worn every day of your life. This is better than a medal. To win a medal you have to "do" something. The Croix de Christ is something we received simply for "being." The courage that emanates from it is already ours. But to occasionally think on those crosses, or look at them hanging from our necks, can be a powerful reminder that there is no feeling of fear or cowardice that can trump it.
What's interesting is that sometimes, simply having that cross traced on our skin can help us find the courage that already resides within us.
I'm kind of funny about Ash Wednesday. I actually LIKE getting that ashen cross smeared on my head. It's not about death and sin for me. It's about resurrection. In order to be resurrected we must be heated, like the logs in a fire, to the most essential parts of it. When that happens, the ashes are all that are left. It is the part that is not consumed. It's the purest, most rendered down part of us.
Then, what do we do afterward? We share the Eucharistic meal. We accept death down to ashes in order to be resurrected through the Body and Blood of Christ.
(Well, there's also the part where I like to go to Wal-Mart afterwards, just to see if someone goes, "Hey, you have a smudge on your head," but that's another story.)
Another time we can feel the tracing of that cross and the courage that resides within it, is when we ask to be anointed by a priest. I've thought about the last time I was anointed. I was going through a very difficult and uncertain problem in my life. I was afraid of losing so many things I consider "essential" in my life. The anointing was actually suggested, I didn't ask for it. I agreed simply to "go along for the ride." But as it occured, there was something really connecting for me that this oil, blessed by my Bishop as a symbol of his prayers for me, prayers uttered in the Prayers of the people for all of us in every Episcopal and Anglican church in the world, all representing the power of the resurrection of Christ, traced on my skin by the hand of a priest, made me feel a courage beyond me. It is odd how simple tactile sensations can become profound and mystic moments.
Sometimes, even praying with prayer beads or a rosary can connect us, simply feeling the outline of that crucifix-shaped dent in our palm.
When we are feeling a little like the Cowardly Lion, it's probably a good idea to get back in touch with what that cross that already is embedded in us feels like.
Those of you who have been following me and read a previous post know that have been working on some exercises that are Ignatian in origin, but I find them to be a really neat combination with my Benedictine leanings. My next few sessions in these exercises are difficult, in the sense that they deal with what is pretty much my least favorite spiritual topic--sin.
Sin is one of those topics that I tend to have this visceral knee-jerk reaction, because over the years, the things I have often struggled with in the years I had told the church universal to take a hike, centered around the way other people liked to beat me over the head with their concepts of sin. I'd rather just be like Calvin Coolidge and state "I'm agin' it," and let it go at that. We all tend to get just a little too self-absorbed about sin, either taking it to heart and over-personalizing it, or putting on our God hat and plopping our butt in the Seat of Judgment and proclaiming what's wrong with everyone else. I really get uncomfortable with my nature to do both of those things now and then.
I'm also very much not a fan of Hell, a la Dante's Inferno. I have a hard time buying into that concept. I mostly think the Hell of fundamentalist pipe dreams doesn't exist. But I do believe there is a "place" (and whether that place is spiritual, physical, or metaphysical, I don't know) where people can be totally separated from God, and in our quest to understand it or understand God's dominion over it, we assign a name to it, much in the same way that Adam getting to name the animals was a symbol of his understanding of his dominion over them. So we give that "place" names like Hell, Gehenna, or Sheol.
But one of the exercises asks me to ponder the nature of sin as it relates to the whole world, not just to me or to others. To think about what that feeling of separation is all about. To think about it in terms that even the angels have done it. To think about what its global nature is all about.
As I was sitting and meditating, an image for the power of how sin separates us from God kind of popped into my brain in a very innocuous package--the blind cave fish.
I've always been fascinated by these fish, even as a child--that they evolved over millions of years to have no pigment and no eyes. I've heard people refer to them as "ghost fish", and when you think about how a lifetime of sin without any desire for reconciliation and no insight from the metanoia of trying to do things better might affect a person, it probably is very applicable to think of those people as "ghosts" of themselves.
My mind's eye focused on a fish with eyes and normal pigment. I thought about how over millions of years, as these fish evolved, the slow, insidious, incremental loss of color they must have had occur, and the process of them "losing their eyes." Perhaps first their eyes clouded over. Then a thin membrane began to develop over their eyes, then fish skin. Then over more millenia, those eyes slowly shrank to mere stubs of eyes, then faded into nothing. Eventually, they were albino, and eyeless, with only divots to mark where eyes once were.
If you took these fish, and brought them to the light, they would not live their lives any differently in the light as they would have lived in the darkest blackness of a cave. They have no means to even see or appreciate the light.
Maybe that is how it is with our own problem with sin. Maybe that is what those people who are those people capable of the most evil atrocities in this world are all about--left alone in the darkness, evolving into a creature that no longer even has the sensory ability to recognize light. That thought filled me with an incredible sadness--that human beings with color and eyes to see light could evolve into eyeless albino ghosts with no color, nothing to link them with the color and vibrancy of humanity. They can't escape their fate because they no longer have the end organs that sense it. They are hopelessly trapped.
Then, as I was getting ready to find a picture for this blog post, something really interesting caught my eye as I was Googling for a picture. I saw a link to this article in National Geographic about something that is one of those "miracles of biology."
If you take these blind cave fish from different cave populations, and breed them to each other, within ONE GENERATION they can produce sighted offspring. Suppressed, mutated and inactivated genes from one population of blind cave fish are different genes in a different population of blind cave fish. In fact, the further the geographic distance the two populations originate from, the more likely they can produce sighted offspring!
That simple biologic fact buoyed me in a spiritual sense. When we think about that state of separation from God, and of concepts we have of these "places of separation from God," does this biological fact open a window of possibility and hope? Can the mutated spiritual DNA of these tormented souls, in the presence of each other, allow them to, in a sense, breed and give birth to a sighted being? I want to think it is something that might allow those people to "devolve" into an opportunity to at least see light, and move towards it--that they do not have to remain blind and colorless forever.
I realize that in some theological circles, this thought is out and out heresy--some might even consign me to that place for even saying I believe it--but I admit I really do like this thought and like entertaining this possibility. It's always seemed so "un-Gospel-like" to me to offer no hope for the hopeless, no relief of pain for the chronically and perpetually agonized, no salvation for any child of God who became overtaken by evil. After all, if Jesus conquered sin and death, there are mechanisms out there for that process. Perhaps those with a lifetime of being blinded by sin CAN eventually see light again.
As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
41He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
As was noted in our sermon today at church, this week marks Opening Day of the annual "Beg-a-thon" in the Episcopal church--stewardship drive season. The season of pledge cards and prayerful consideration of the same. I have heard this story many times about the faithfulness of this widow and her two copper coins, and all the praise heaped upon this poor woman for her ability to trust God. But you know, there's a back story here, and the back story is worth discussing.
I think back to something my buddy A. has told me in the past about "tzedakah." Tzedakah is one of those Hebrew words that doesn't quite translate. We think of it meaning "charity" but it really means "charity as it relates to fairness and ethical behavior." Judaism actually recognizes eight different levels of it, but the levels don't have anything to do about the AMOUNT. It has to do with the willingness of the GIVER, and the level of need the giver to be noticed or recognized for it. These levels range from the lowest one of "giving begrudgingly" to the highest one of "teaching the recipient to be self-sufficient by giving of not just your money but your time, your insight, and your love."
This is rooted in ancient Judaic law that outlines that all people have a legal right to the very basic level of food, clothing and shelter. When one cannot afford even the most basic, this law must be honored by those who CAN pay. In Judaism, it is not simply unjust for Jews to not give charity to those in need--it's illegal.
(Interesting when you look at that law in light of the recent health care debate, isn't it?)
Charity in Jewish legal tradition is therefore an obligation, a "self-taxation", rather than a voluntary "feel good" act.
The baseline in Judaism is in Deuteronomy 26, the base benchmark being the "tithe" or 10% of "what you have" whether that is money, grain, livestock, whatever. Rabbinic scholars have been wrestling with what that 10% is for thousands of years and we continue the tag team wrestling match. The Talmud defines it as giving at least ten percent of their annual net income to tzedakah. Maimonides later affirmed this. (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, "Laws Concerning Gifts for the Poor," 7:5). Some schools of rabbinic thought argue that giving ten percent can be a "sin" if you are capable of giving more than ten percent. Other rabbinic schools of thought state that giving MORE than 10% when you are not able to give more is a form of sin because it makes some people lazy about giving their ten percent, or discourages others from giving their ten percent ("I can't be as good as Moishe over there.") There's not much agreement on much except that the nebulous 10% is the benchmark.
In our modern Christian culture, we continue to wrestle with this benchmark. Is this 10% before or after taxes? Is this just for the church, or is this ALL charity since other forms of charity outside the temple did not exist in Biblical times? Lots of opinions, very little consensus.
Therein lies the back story in this text. It's too easy to simply (as much as it should be done) "praise the widow for her generosity and move on." I wonder if part of the reason Jesus showed this woman to the disciples, as we say around here, "put the red-ear on everyone"--to shame them just a little bit by example instead of talk. This woman didn't give ten percent--she gave 100%. She gave all she had. She walked away with nothing, including the knowledge of where her next meal was coming from.
The scribes and priests, all of them so knowledgeable in Judaic law, who KNEW that basic food and shelter was a right--did they make ONE move to stop this woman from putting in those two coins?
When they knew that it was ILLEGAL to deny food, shelter, and clothing to the poor, they just took her money and said nothing.
Now, one could argue that Jesus didn't either, but one of the things I try to "trust" in the stories of the Gospel was that "maybe something happened that didn't get written." I like to think by showing this to the disciples, maybe someone in the crowd, or one of the disciples, gave her a hunk of bread, or pressed a bigger coin in her hand, or shared what they had with her. She trusted in God to provide, just as the Hebrews of the Exodus trusted for manna to show up each day. I want to believe that trust was rewarded.
Every year, I sit down with that pledge card and stew, as do many of us. We all wrestle with whether we have the guts for that 10%, and how much of that 10% is for our parish. So many of us learned conflicting and difficult lessons in our families of origin about "trust" when it comes to money. Many people have learned more lessons in guilt and shame about money (or the lack of it) than lessons about "tzedakah." Honestly, I don't think there is a "right" number, or even a "magic" number. Maybe the trick in all this is to think about our Biblical family of origin rather than our biological one--a weighty proposition, indeed, and one that does not reflect a dollar value but a value of justice in God's reign.
In my next move in the book of Job, I decided to go through each of the "cycles" of his speeches. Chapters 8-15 historically make up "the first cycle of speeches." Bildad, Zophar, and Eliphaz, Job's friends, all mean well, but it's not making things any better. You need to read these chapters yourself to get the long version, but here's the "very short blunt version":
Bildad: "Aw Job, you can't be running around saying that God is not just. You're just asking for trouble. Your kids died because they were sinful and you can't do squat about that."
Job: "Bull. None of us are any more or less righteous than anyone else. Why would God whack one person over another? Leave me alone. I wish I had never been born."
Zophar: "You must have done something wrong. Maybe you're just stupid, and you ought to get your heart right with God and it will straighten itself out."
Job: "I'm not stupid, you know...and who the hell are you to tell me what I need to do with God? I just want my say with God here. I'm the one who's gotten hurt here. You're so sure I've done something wrong, you tell ME what it is."
Eliphaz: "Quit whining. You talk too much. Your wailing and carrying on is what is separating you from God. What can you possibly know what we, and the elders and sages don't know? Methinks thou protesteth too much, buddy. You're guilty of SOMETHING before God or else you would not be carrying on so much."
Job (I'm borrowing ahead in Chapter 16 here, we'll talk more about this in a later post): "Bite my ass, all of you. You just don't know. You can't possibly understand. I don't even understand why God has treated me like this."
So, in the first cycle of speeches, Job makes a shift. He had started out prior to Chapter 8, simply wailing he was miserable. Then he morphs from there to Bildad's speech where his reply is basically, "God, just kill me now. I wish I had never been born. I suck."
Zophar's speech ires him to the point that now Job shifts to a little more of the "I want my day in court," mode. Now instead of just being miserable in front of God, he wants to argue his case.
But by the time he gets to Eliphaz, now he's just tired of all of THEM, and lashes out at them, because who died and made them prophet?
How many times do we march through this drill when we've been hurt beyond belief ourselves? We withdraw in misery, sort of just wishing we don't exist. We ask God to relieve us of our pain, even if it means we die to escape it. That, I believe, is the place people get stuck when they decide suicide is an option. It just hurts so much, and they want it to go away, and if THEM going away is the way out, so be it.
That second shift in Job's attitude is that shift we see in the Kubler-Ross stages of death, dying and grief--bargaining. We want to have it out with the Almighty. We want some sort of "intervention" with others where we can have our say. We want someone else, or God, to be an impartial arbiter of our despair, and award us "damages" for it.
Job's third shift, I think, is that place where we just want our friends to shut up and get off our cases. I think of the well-meaning friends who urge us to just "drop it," "get past it," "let it go," and "get on with our life." They sometimes seem to side with the person who wronged us, or the situation that humiliated us. It's annoying as hell, even if there IS a kernel of truth in it. It feels like abject betrayal when they do that. It's heaping coals on what is already a furnace running at "red line."
But oh my gosh...it's so utterly human. It's timeless. It happened in Job's day, it still happens today. Painful as it is, it's also so REAL. I find the older I get, I'd rather take "real" even if "real hurts."
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
5The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” 8So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
Wow. There's a lot of human nature packed into nine verses, here. This was the lesson in my EFM class this past Sunday. I picked up on two things that sort of made me realize the J author of Genesis had a sense of ironic humor--one was that this "great edifice" was made of cheap mud brick, the "ordinary material" of the realm at the time--not the finest stone, which would have been the mark of a "good" building then.
The other was the builders think this tower is so tall, so wonderful, reaching to the heavens, and when God says, "Come, let us go DOWN..." Not "over". DOWN. Like, "It's pretty puny."
Isn't that how it always seems to be? The great edifices we think we are building for ourselves, our security, the things we think are our greatest testaments to ourselves...well, they're really just made of mud brick. Ordinary stuff. When we want to "show off" to God, He sort of goes, "Well, gee...that is a cute LITTLE thing...yeah, it's nice! Sorta SMALL, but nice. But let ME show you something..." and then he proceeds to humble us simply with what he is capable of on an ordinary basis!
The other part of this story that says so much more is the phrase, "confuse their language." I think about how, so many times, we all speak our native tongue, but our language is "confused." We certainly seem to have a lot of "confused language" when it comes to talking about God, and what worshiping Him is all about. We have confusion between liturgical and evangelical worship, theism vs. atheism, or even confusion between Episcopalians and "breakaway Anglicans." Yet we say every Sunday we are "one holy catholic and apostolic church." I don't think we're lying, but we certainly are confused about a lot of that.
I've come to realize that God doesn't really need edifices; He'd rather make US our edifices. His language, the language of the heart, is not confusing at all; we are the source of the confusion. The more I can take "me" out of the loop, the less confusing and more clear the language seems. Not a bad plan, actually!
As many of you know, nighttime "sitting in the sacred space of my yard" is one of my favorite "winding down" pursuits on a regular basis. I so often find myself enjoying special serendipitous treats that allow me to gently re-visit my day, both the good parts and the tough parts. A couple of nights ago I was treated to my yard in the light of the full moon, and noticed that my yard looked just like the background art of my blog! What a treat!
It's getting cool enough at night that making a fire has ceased to be a "bonus" and has become a "necessity" in my nighttime sacred space sitting sessions. So I built a nice hot one that I knew would run me out and make me back up from it a bit, to take the chill off the night so I would only need a sweatshirt.
My spiritual director has me on a "30 day Ignatian retreat" that he stretches out over 90 days for busy working people. One of the things that is key to the exercises is to let one's spiritual imagination loose and examine one's consciousness on a regular basis. So, ok, there's the Ignatian sitting by the fire.
I have also taken up the discipline of trying to read aloud at least one of the services from the breviary of the Benedictine monastery that has become in some ways, my spiritual home. I usually end up doing Compline by the time my day settles down, or sometimes Vespers. Whichever one I try to do, I try to do it at the same exact time they are doing it at the monastery. Not that God really cares about the clock, but I guess I just like MY sense of "us all doing it at the same time."
So 8 p.m. rolls around and I'm outside. Rather than go inside, I decided to bring my breviary outside and do Compline by my fire in my chiminea.
One of the things that has popped up in my Ignatian retreat is that I recognize one particular "dark place" in my soul that I can actually point at and call by name. I think sometimes the dark places in our secret hearts are hard to name, and are more nebulous. But this one, I definitely recognize its taxonomic family. I'm rather uneasy with this place, because it's a place that I recognize others in my life have owned, and have used in the past to hurt me. Maybe I even have an attraction for that place in others b/c it is similar to my own. It is a place that perhaps was cultivated as a survival skill that I no longer need. I have been mentally wrestling with it, now that I can name it.
I started to read aloud the Compline service from the breviary. Now the Benedictine is sitting by the fire, too. As I read the chants and psalms aloud, in the dark night sky, I realize my fire in the chiminea is bright enough I don't even need the flashlight I brought out to help read. The words are visible, and their power as I chant them is palpable. My imagination could see the monks at the monastery, much as I see them in my visits, chanting, or maybe even at their desks in their rooms as they often do Compline on their own, depending on their schedules. But I definitely did not feel "alone" even though there was not another soul within hundreds of yards of me.
Then I just happened to glance up. The fire I built was so rip-roaring that sparks were going up the flue and out into the air. I kept glancing back and forth as I read aloud, thinking about each of those sparks...little bright fiery specks of prayer buoyed by the rising heat and smoke of the fire at the core of my chiminea.
What it made me realize is that even in our "dark places," light can intrude, and we do not control the intrusion of light, nor can this intrusion even be stopped. I thought about what I had said in an earlier post about that eternal core of heat and light that makes up Heaven--the souls of the departed making up part of the "engine of prayer." Trying to stop that engine would be like trying to stop a speeding train. Can't be done.
We have a natural fear of the dark. Little children cause their parents hours and hours of lost sleep because of it. Horror movies make great fodder for our entertainment with it. The Bible constantly runs back and forth from dark to light. The angels seem obsessed with two things--bringing light, and telling us not to be afraid at times we would naturally be QUITE afraid! But what I discovered, letting the Ignatian and the Benedictine sit together at my fire, was that we are powerless, not to the dark, but the intrusion of light.
Well, now that All Saints Day has come and gone, I am still thinking about both Saints and "saints."
We celebrated all the "official" saints on Sunday, but I often find myself sitting in church during All Saints Day thinking about literally the hundreds of saints who have crossed my path in my own life. They will never be recognized in anyone's church, but they are saints just the same. They'll never get the nice "whitewash" treatment real saints get (ever notice how as the "official" saints become legends, they become more deity-like and less imperfect?) so when I think of their "saintliness," I also see their dirty robes and muddy feet.
Some of them don't even get my admiration for the rest of their life. I have a few "saints" in my life who now, won't even speak to me, and consider me a terrible sinner at this point, and I consider them jerks. But there was a window in time where they truly WERE saints, and reached out and fed me when I most needed their sustenance.
I never quite know what to do with those "saints." It seems counter-intuitive--if they're a "saint" then we should always be in this lifelong state of good feelings about each other, right?
Some of them, I don't even know where they are anymore. Our paths crossed, and we both went on with our lives, and I lost track of them, in that way people lose track of each other. I think about them now and then, and wonder where they are, and occasionally would like to find them, contact them, and see what their lives are like now. Oddly enough, mostly I do not act on that urge. Something tells me that if I contacted them, we would not be where we were with each other in that time, and trying to re-create a moment in my past just wouldn't work. We'd try to be good to each other, but really wouldn't have the time or energy to do it, and it wouldn't be the same anyway. We no longer share enough of our lives to make it work. Sometimes those "saints" have contacted me. I found myself being more UNcomfortable than comfortable about it, because I sensed to re-create the relationship was now more work than it might be worth. These encounters often sort of started with "let's keep in touch more," I go, "Sure," and it kind of just doesn't happen and dies a natural death again.
I think that is why the "official" saints matter to me. It is what creates stability in the comings and goings of the "saints" in my life. The "official" ones will always be around. I can think of their lives and remember the "unofficial" ones in my own life, and the "offiicial" ones can act as representatives.
Rarely, I think about the possibility that I am a "saint" in this world. I don't like to think about it much, as I know all my flaws better than anyone, and my knowledge of myself as a sinner gets in the way of thinking of myself as a "saint." But I suspect I have been one. I just don't like to admit it.
The timelessness of the "official" saints reminds me that all those episodes revolving around my personal "saints" are also timeless. I may never see them again in my life, I may never talk to them again in my real life, I may be on the "outs" with some of them for the rest of my life, but perhaps at the moment of death I will be reunited again with their saintliness, and it will be "all good." That's a lot of what "in hope of the Resurrection" means to me. Is that a "saintly" thought in itself?
33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” 38Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Ok, without getting totally gross here, I have to admit that when we are talking about that "stench" I have a VERY advanced handle on just exactly what that stench would have been like, having had rotations in my residency through the Office of the Medical Examiner.
I often imagine if I were one of the bystanders in this scene. In the Jewish theological sense, the belief was that your soul left after three days. In the biological sense, in a desert country, we are talking "heavy duty stench." Either way it shakes out, "Lazarus is really REALLY dead."
When Jesus said to take away that stone, I'd be going "AGGGGH! Oh, God, no! Are you NUTS? This is gonna REALLY stink. Someone's gonna barf. Hopefully, it won't be me."
But what happened, no one expected. Lazarus came out! Alive! WHOA!
How many times does the same thing happen in our spiritual lives? We do NOT want to uncover some of the sins that sit and putrefy in our secret hearts, even though they separate us from "life"--life with God's purpose for us. We do NOT want to even uncover these things in prayer, because we are absolutely sure the stench of them will run everyone out of the room, or make us barf, ourselves. We can be literally sick to our stomach over them!
But I have to confess...when I finally do roll those stones away, even if I am cringing and holding my nose the entire time...more often than not, I'm surprised by the lack of stench and the amazing life that comes forth from them. Maybe not immediately, but after a few days I "get it." It is how we really ARE resurrected and healed.
So...ok...(hold nose, grit teeth, and flinch)...roll away the stone! (I think!)