(Stone coffins at St. Peter's, Wolferton, Norfolk, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Proverbs 14:6 (KJV:)
A scorner seeketh wisdom, and findeth it not; but knowledge is easy to him that understandeth.
It's not often I choose a passage to blog about in King James language, but this one is applicable, because it's the only translation that uses "scorn" for the Hebrew word used for "scorn" in this passage, Luwts.
It's not much of a stretch to realize that one of the ways many of us scorn is by being sarcastic.
Hmmmm. Sarcasm is a hard topic for me.
One of the lessons I learned about "fighting back" in an alcoholic household, where I was not bigger or stronger than a bullying alcoholic family member was that I was smart enough to totally cut someone to ribbons with sarcasm in such a way that they were "too dumb to get it."
I had seen a picture on Facebook a few days ago where some people waited until their friend passed out in a drunken stupor at a party, and then they drew all over this person with Sharpies.
That is what I realized my sarcasm was, in the crudest sense of the word. Growing up, it was my way of taking a Sharpie and drawing on the alcoholic while they were passed out.
Over time, it became one of the ways of dealing with anyone I disapproved of, or feared. It was much easier to verbally cut someone to shreds surgically, with words. Now, what's interesting is the word "sarcasm" comes from the Greek word "sarcazo" (from σαρκασμός)--which literally means to tear flesh. Which, truthfully, is what we do with sarcasm--we cut them--and the end result is we have found a way to scorn someone. When we scorn, we make someone less than fully human. To use Baptismal Covenant language, we are failing to see their dignity.
What I've come to realize is that really, sarcasm is based in fear.
When we're good at sarcasm, it creates the illusion that we are cool and suave and in control of a situation--that we have power--that we are the "insider" in the situation and the "outsider" is to be scorned. It strokes our ego because people laugh and think you're clever.
But truthfully, a person who relies on sarcasm is really a scared two-bit hoodlum backed in a dark corner, stabbing outward with a switchblade at everyone who comes near, without first even bothering to check if the person wants to harm or hug them.
I'm coming to a place in my life where I'm discovering that my reliance on sarcasm needs to be buried. It needs to be put in a stone coffin and have the lid dragged over it. Now, that doesn't mean I need to stop being comedic. I think the part of me that sees comedy is one of my best parts. But the sarcasm needs to die. It comes from a dark place that tears down the body of Christ rather than builds it up.
I was reminded of something very important from one of our youngest parishioners, on Sunday, about the antidote for that.
Little Lilly was baptized in our parish, and even at her baptism she showed a great proclivity to be social. I remember when she was paraded around the aisles as the "newest member of our congregation" she tried to wiggle loose and get in my arms. Now she's a charming, bright, (occasionally noisy, but that's ok) toddler. She's at the age where it's fun to "mug" at her. Sunday I was spending more time than I ought to sticking my head below the pew in front of me and peeking out with one eyeball while she was looking backwards two pews ahead of me.
After church, she literally leaped into my arms. But I could tell she didn't really want to spend time with just me. Her little feet were pushing outward the entire time. She wanted to go see everyone.
So I sort of wandered from group to group chatting with each other after church, and let her pick her next "target." She'd pick out who she wanted and leap into their arms (ready or not!) I was having a great time being Lilly's "chauffeur" for this game. She'd leap into someone else's arms, leap back to me, push her little legs on my side to get me to move to the next group, and leap at her next choice.
Now, I'm sure Lily has done this game with other people, and I am also sure she's bumped her head a couple times or ended up on the floor when she has leaped on someone and they were not quite ready to receive her. But it hasn't seemed to stop her.
I thought to myself, "What would my world be like if I could have the ability again to leap and love, like Lily does? To just leap at the people I care about and love them with no preconceived expectations for their ability to interpret it?" I think Lily somehow innately knows that someone will catch her and that someone will hold her, even though I doubt that happens every time.
It's a good thought to consider the possibility that God holds onto us as we leap. Yeah, we might fall a little. But not as hard as we would when we leap only with the power of self behind us. Self-determination is not a bad thing, but it's not the only thing. But the vulnerability we need to have to do God's work in the world requires us, I believe, to put our sarcasm to rest in a sarcophagus.
(Originally posted on Speaking to the Soul, Sunday, August 28, 2011)
Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights!
Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his host!
Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars!
Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!
Let them praise the name of the Lord, for he commanded and they were created.
He established them forever and ever; he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.
Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command!
Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars!
Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds!
Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth!
Young men and women alike, old and young together!
Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven.
He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his faithful, for the people of Israel who are close to him. Praise the Lord!
The words of Psalm 148 might seem familiar to any of us who are familiar with an Episcopalian Morning Prayer service, because some of this rings familiar in the words of Canticle 12, "A Song of Creation." Canticle 12 comes from The Song of the Three Young Men (also known as the Prayer of Azariah) from the apocryphal portions of Daniel; this song is heavily based in several Psalms, borrowing not just from Psalm 148, but also from Psalms 103 and 136.
What always strikes me with this Psalm is it, as does Canticle 12, illustrates things I am normally not in the habit of praising, lifting their praise to God. Imagining the stars and heavens and trees praising God is easy for me--sea monsters, hailstones, and storms...not so much. What particularly comes to mind for me is the difficulty I had in praising God while volunteering in the aftermath of the Joplin, MO tornado. I stood beside my truck in the middle of the debris field, turning and seeing in every direction I turned, nothing but devastation in every direction of the compass. My first thought was, "Huumph. The insurance companies call these "acts of God"--and people are supposed to find God in this."
The irony, and the miracle, of course, in this, was at the end of my short volunteer stint, I had seen God in this--many times over. God was in the faces of the power and light crews from all over the country accepting Gatorade from the back of our truck. God shined like a beacon in the face of a woman who brought her toddler to the distribution center barefooted because he had no shoes. God shattered denominational boundaries by riding shotgun along with the Presbyterian minister and the two Mormon missionaries who were assigned to distribute supplies donated by Catholic Charities with me. God grinned through stained and missing teeth from the man who showed me his splenectomy scar from being pinned in his house, who told me in no uncertain terms that he had been blessed by this tragic event of nature. His words still ring out in the middle of the night--"I never knew the world was such a good place."
The words of this Psalm call us to a strange invitation--an invitation to consider the possibility that the things that we are absolutely certain God cannot possibly exist within them, are, indeed, singing praise to God. How are we called to respond to their song?
(Chastity belt courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Only way to begin.
Break free from the old mindsets, the labels,
the conditions in which society expects us to operate.
Be open to the renewing of your mind, the
possibility of new and richer understanding
as the years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, seconds
pass on into eternity.
Not a denial, but an acceptance
of your truest self and your purpose, mission,
vocation on your pilgrimage.
The greatest of these things is love.
Not the love of parent and child, or of friends, or of spouses,
but the love of Fourth and Walnut…
the love that in an instant can change a life, can change the world.
The love that brings with it the realization that
we truly are one body in Christ.
The love that sees each and every being as who and what
God sees it, as it was meant to be on that seventh day in Eden.
A love that embraces this world in all its broken beauty
and refuses to live in silence. A heart afire with zeal
burning brightly on the hilltop, witnessing to the Christ
- Joseph Madonna (2011)
I bumped into this poem from a link that my blog and Facebook friend Fran posted recently when a friend of hers took solemn vows in a religious order. It really spoke a lot of how I view myself as a deliberately celibate person. But it also illustrates my pet peeve about something.
I think "chastity" and "celibacy" are the two most misunderstood words and mistakenly switched words out there.
Celibacy, as some churches define it, is a vow not to engage in sexual relations. Celibacy, as I understand it, can also simply mean a choice to live a single life with a deliberate choice in that life not to engage in sexual relations. Non-vowed celibacy does not have to be permanent; but what it does mean is any choice to change that state should be viewed as an opportunity for discernment rather than a snap judgment to have sex with someone.
Chastity comes from the latin word castus, or "pure." To be chaste is so much more than our behaviors regarding sex. To be certain, it does include being sexually "pure." For single people, that may not necessarily involve being celibate. It could simply mean to be true to the person with one has a sexual relationship. It includes the concept that married people practice chastity when they have an exclusive sexual relationship with each other.
But chastity involves soooooo much more than sex.
Chastity means that we strive to be pure in who we are as a child of God. It means we take time to examine our conscience on a regular basis to see if we are being "pure" in our dealings with other people. It means being brave enough to take our own moral inventory and contemplating change in the places where we discover impurities.
Now, fact is, none of us can ever truly be 100% pure (Even Ivory soap is only 99 and 44/100ths percent pure!)...but I don't think it's about "how pure we are," it's about the desire and the quest for purity. It's about the willingness to become more authentic to our God-given selves.
I think chastity is a much more positively oriented activity than we have been led to believe, actually.
It also makes me think about what chastity is not. Chastity is not something we can force upon others. All one has to do is search the Internet to find woodcuts and manuscript from the 1400's to the 1700's to find cartoon-like illustrations of all the ways people managed to thwart chastity belts over the years. What we learn in those old jokes is that enforced chastity always has a negotiable price!
I think back to all the times other people (often people in authority figure positions) tried to punish me for my perceived "impurities." (Now, I'm not talking about punishments I deserved, here. I'm talking about things like being scapegoated, or being the "fall guy" for something that went wrong.) But of course, when I think about what others have done to me, I can't help but think about what I've done to others in the same fashion. What I've come to realize is that 99% of the time, when we enforce "purity" on other people, or tear someone down for their impurities, we are all usually chafing from our own. I've hurt people for the sake of my own impurities and others have hurt me for theirs, and when it's all said and done, all that says is "We're all in this together." All it says is that we all fall short of the glory of God, and we all are the recipients of grace. Even the people who have made me so angry I can't see straight are the recipients of as much grace as me.
Sometimes I shake my head at how we all act like grace is a finite commodity. That somehow, if that person that irritates us or angers us or hurts us gets some grace and we don't, that somehow, we got shorted. When I get in a rut about things being "dirty" or "messy" or "not pure," and find myself wanting to assign blame, I need to step back and remind myself that there is no grace shortage in God's realm. When I feel that someone has done me dirty, or made me out to be the bad one, and I know it's not true, I need to ask for God to show that person some grace rather than simply fire back at them.
The most important concept I see in it, and in the poem above, is that chastity is so much more about saying "yes" than "no." I think that is why Mary is a great icon for this; she was all about saying yes to letting the divine not just enter her heart, but in her physical body. It's about saying, "I know as a human being, I am a flawed, imperfect character, but I'm going to say yes to the possibility that every day, something just a tiny bit more pure than I am now, can enter me and change my life."
(Photo of candles courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
It is you who light my lamp; the Lord, my God, lights up my darkness.
My post title is a direct quote from the pastor of Marcellus Andrews, the 19 year old young man who was beaten to death in Waterloo, IA, while being taunted with anti-gay slurs.
There is a lot of darkness out there.
As of August 24, no arrests have been made.
As of August 24, the darkness specifically relating to this death is still out there.
Oh, I'm sure over time arrests will be made. I'm sure we will learn all about these perpetrators and their families just as we have learned about Marcellus and his family members. There's a high likelihood we will learn of some very tragic brokenness regarding the "perps" in this case.
That's when it gets complicated, because, you see, my Baptismal Covenant instructs me to "seek and serve Christ in all people," and it is going to be very, very hard for me to do that with Marcellus' killers.
It's so easy to see how the Light of God worked in Marcellus. He devoted a great deal of time to the Crusaders Drill Team of his home church, the Union Missionary Baptist Church. It's not as easy to see how the Light of God works in his murderers.
But it brings up another angle to the saint/sinner paradox.
I realize it is incredibly, incredibly easy to feel animosity towards people I don't personally know, as "bad people."
What strikes me, though, is how that can change when one actually knows the "perp."
I can say that because I have personally known, for at least a period of time in my life, known someone on Missouri's Death Row who was later executed. (He was my insurance agent and a friend in our local amateur radio club.) I was basketball camp roommates in high school with a woman who is currently spending life in prison for having, with an accomplice, killed her husband and disposed of his body in a vat of acid. When I lived in Columbia, I played softball with her and her late husband. At the time I knew these people, I would have never thought in a million years either of them were "bad people." I certainly would never have predicted how each of them would turn out.
Yet, I could see the humanity in each of these two people.
I am reminded that the only thing that dispels the kind of darkness we are talking about is divine light, as depicted in the line of the Psalm. It allows me to see each of these two people who were bathed in darkness as having at least a shred of divine light in them. I am sad for the pain these victims' families had to walk through.
It is easy for me to pray for the soul of Marcellus. It's a snap for me to pray for his family and for the children whom he instructed in his church drill team. But when Marcellus' killers are found, I need to remind myself that I found humanity, not once, but twice, in a very unusual place indeed, and to also pray for Marcellus' killers.
There is a lot of darkness out there. I can let my own dark thoughts contribute to the broken-ness of the world, or I can try to find light where none seems to exist. The choice is there for all of us.
(Painting of livery stable owner Thomas Hobson, the originator of the phrase "Hobson's Choice," courtesy of Wikipedia)
(Originally posted on Speaking to the Soul, Sunday, August 21, 2011)
2 Samuel 24:1-2, 10-25:
Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, count the people of Israel and Judah.” So the king said to Joab and the commanders of the army, who were with him, “Go through all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beer-sheba, and take a census of the people, so that I may know how many there are.”
But afterward, David was stricken to the heart because he had numbered the people. David said to the Lord, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, O Lord, I pray you, take away the guilt of your servant; for I have done very foolishly.” When David rose in the morning, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Gad, David’s seer, saying, “Go and say to David: Thus says the Lord: Three things I offer you; choose one of them, and I will do it to you.” So Gad came to David and told him; he asked him, “Shall three years of famine come to you on your land? Or will you flee three months before your foes while they pursue you? Or shall there be three days’ pestilence in your land? Now consider, and decide what answer I shall return to the one who sent me.” Then David said to Gad, “I am in great distress; let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into human hands.” So the Lord sent a pestilence on Israel from that morning until the appointed time; and seventy thousand of the people died, from Dan to Beer-sheba. But when the angel stretched out his hand toward Jerusalem to destroy it, the Lord relented concerning the evil, and said to the angel who was bringing destruction among the people, “It is enough; now stay your hand.” The angel of the Lord was then by the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. When David saw the angel who was destroying the people, he said to the Lord, “I alone have sinned, and I alone have done wickedly; but these sheep, what have they done? Let your hand, I pray, be against me and against my father’s house.”
That day Gad came to David and said to him, “Go up and erect an altar to the Lord on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.” Following Gad’s instructions, David went up, as the Lord had commanded. When Araunah looked down, he saw the king and his servants coming toward him; and Araunah went out and prostrated himself before the king with his face to the ground. Araunah said, “Why has my lord the king come to his servant?” David said, “To buy the threshing floor from you in order to build an altar to the Lord, so that the plague may be averted from the people.” Then Araunah said to David, “Let my lord the king take and offer up what seems good to him; here are the oxen for the burnt offering, and the threshing sledges and the yokes of the oxen for the wood. All this, O king, Araunah gives to the king.” And Araunah said to the king, “May the Lord your God respond favorably to you.” But the king said to Araunah, “No, but I will buy them from you for a price; I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God that cost me nothing.” So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen for fifty shekels of silver. David built there an altar to the Lord, and offered burnt offerings and offerings of well-being. So the Lord answered his supplication for the land, and the plague was averted from Israel.
Today's Hebrew Bible reading sets a chronological precedent in the story of "how people deal with God's will." Gad the prophet reveals for the first time in the Hebrew Bible that people are offered alternative choices in dealing with the Almighty. Prior to 2 Samuel, the standard operating procedure with God is "God speaks in some way, and the intended recipient either does it or doesn't do it." But what we come to discover in this reading is that these choices are really more of a Hobson's Choice than they are choices of free will.
Granted, these are not attractive choices. In my mind, David's choices for what to do with Israel run like this: 1) Punish everyone in Israel with three years of famine; 2) David can take the blame himself and be on the lam for three years; or 3) put Israel through three days of pestilence. One thing is clear: At this point, David is not ready to take the blame himself. He chooses "The hand of the Lord" (1 Samuel 5:6 establishes that this is a synonym for "plague") and, at that point, chooses to save his own hide. Some commentaries call this "David's strategy;" truthfully, I think that is rather charitable to David. He's been on the run before; it's not fun, and frankly, my gut reaction to his choice is that he's preserving his own skin, but he sort of lessens his guilt by picking three days over three years.
But what we discover, as the story unfolds, is when the angel of destruction appears on the scene, two things happen. First, God essentially says to the angel, "Sit tight a minute; let's not rush to judgment." This pregnant pause moment is all David needs to finally come around to his understanding of his own sins and the full meaning of the weight of his authority over the people of Israel. The sight of imminent destruction of innocent people gets David to finally come around to admitting, "I did it, this is MY fault," and he responds by making the appropriate sacrifices, even paying a fair price for the real estate for his altar, rather than simply having it given to him because of his power differential.
My gut feeling in this story is that it wouldn't have mattered which option David would have chosen--the outcome would have been the same. Eventually, David would have come around and chosen to accept the responsibility and make the appropriate sacrifices. Only the in-between in this story would have changed. I think about all the times we stress over "making the right decision" in our personal prayer lives, that somehow, we get into this delusion that we have power over God through our choices. We tend to discount the possibility that, no matter what we choose in our decisions over the most worrisome aspects of our lives, that God is perfectly capable of using the Hobson's Choice option on us--that no matter what we choose, we will eventually choose "taking it" over "leaving it," because we desire a relationship with God and God desires a relationship with us.
The various David stories in both books of Samuel are reminders that all of us, as God's anointed, do some really stupid things sometimes--we all sin, and we all have stories in our lives that we wish we could climb into that Back to the Future Delorean and change. But we don't get that option. We only get the option to move forward from where we are, with God's help. Today's story reminds us that even our wrong choices can, eventually lead to the right one.
(Present day view of the site of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Now after these things had been accomplished, Paul resolved in the Spirit to go through Macedonia and Achaia, and then to go on to Jerusalem. He said, “After I have gone there, I must also see Rome.” So he sent two of his helpers, Timothy and Erastus, to Macedonia, while he himself stayed for some time longer in Asia. About that time no little disturbance broke out concerning the Way. A man named Demetrius, a silversmith who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the artisans. These he gathered together, with the workers of the same trade, and said, “Men, you know that we get our wealth from this business. You also see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost the whole of Asia this Paul has persuaded and drawn away a considerable number of people by saying that gods made with hands are not gods. And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be scorned, and she will be deprived of her majesty that brought all Asia and the world to worship her.” When they heard this, they were enraged and shouted, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” The city was filled with the confusion; and people rushed together to the theater, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul’s travel companions. Paul wished to go into the crowd, but the disciples would not let him; even some officials of the province of Asia, who were friendly to him, sent him a message urging him not to venture into the theater. Meanwhile, some were shouting one thing, some another; for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together. Some of the crowd gave instructions to Alexander, whom the Jews had pushed forward. And Alexander motioned for silence and tried to make a defense before the people. But when they recognized that he was a Jew, for about two hours all of them shouted in unison, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” But when the town clerk had quieted the crowd, he said, “Citizens of Ephesus, who is there that does not know that the city of the Ephesians is the temple keeper of the great Artemis and of the statue that fell from heaven? Since these things cannot be denied, you ought to be quiet and do nothing rash. You have brought these men here who are neither temple robbers nor blasphemers of our goddess. If therefore Demetrius and the artisans with him have a complaint against anyone, the courts are open, and there are proconsuls; let them bring charges there against one another. If there is anything further you want to know, it must be settled in the regular assembly. For we are in danger of being charged with rioting today, since there is no cause that we can give to justify this commotion.”
One of the readings from Acts in the Daily Office a few weeks ago was this story. It's always a fun and slightly pithy one for me.
Paul's in trouble again, and it's because all his preaching and teaching has caused a bit of a lull in the Silver Souvenirs of Artemis trade. The folks in the souvenir trade got other folks all whipped up, (probably even a bunch of people who couldn't even afford a silver Artemis for the living room or kitchen table) and it took a wise and silver-tongued town clerk to calm folks down.
Well, and when it was all said and done, as you can see by the photo above, the religion of worshiping Artemis didn't withstand the test of time.
My fellow Joplin volunteer pal Christian posted this interesting article about the church and the language of grief and lament that really caught my attention a few days ago. In fact, in the last couple of years in particular, there's been a huge amount of press-inches devoted to various permutations of "The Death of Christianity," and "Is Christianity Dying?"
Well, to that I say, yes...and no.
I believe the church as America knew it in the 1950's is dying, if it isn't already dead.
I believe the church as a social organization is dying.
I believe the biggest thing holding back established churches at the moment is the maintenance of huge barns of buildings that they can no longer afford to keep up, heat, and cool--especially in small towns.
But here's what else I believe, based on a lot of reading and discussion:
I believe millennials desire God as much as any generation prior--but it has to be real and relevant to their experience. Many did not grow up as regular church or Sunday school attendees. My generation at least knew how to "go through the motions." But honestly, if I was a 20something, and my choices were, "God as evangelical Christianity portrays," vs. "atheism," I'd choose atheism. I don't think we tout nearly enough that there are other options, and so no one knows what we have to offer very well.
I believe that the more we begin to shed ourselves of the burden of maintaining too-big sanctuaries, and become more like the Early Church, we will find people who desire God and we, the already churched, will become more comfortable with change.
I believe the more we empower the laity, the more we get the laity in touch with their own fundamental priesthood as it relates to our Baptismal Covenant, the more tolerant we will become of change, both great and small, because we will feel "invested."
I believe that the more each of us begins to live the life of a baptized Christian, rather than a "churchgoer," we will become more tolerant of one another's human-ness, including the human-ness of our ordained clergy. What they do and how they do things with the little liturgical details in terms of their own personal piety won't matter as much, and we'll begin to get off our "But that's how we've always done it."
But the scary part is I believe in some ways, the church will have to die to itself in order to be reborn.
I think about the "little things" that my own parish has over-focused on in the past, and how we've over-focused on the priest as the engine of the liturgy in times past. I still remember the first time as acolyte in our interim period, and our interim had me behind the altar, looking out at the pews instead of to the side, looking at the priest. It slammed into me like a cinder block for the very first time that it wasn't the priest that makes the Eucharist happen, it's us. Granted, the priest has an incredibly important role as presider, as the person who sacramentalizes the process. But the fact remains--you can't have a Mass for one, even if the "one" is a priest.
In short, we have to stop treating the building, the priest, and the "way we've always done it" like silver souvenirs of Artemis.
I imagine the Artemis-worshipers of ancient times treated those little silver statues a little too magically now and then. Relying on magic, rather than the incarnation within each of us and the relational aspect of that to God, frankly, makes the experience less real. It takes us out of the loop as active participants.
But what I'm proposing--this notion that each of us needs to gain an awareness to our own fundamental priesthood--well, it can be dangerous business and filled with heavy uncertainty. It's also, sadly, very threatening to ordained folks who are not comfortable with their own fundamental priesthood or hide behind their ordained priesthood as a vehicle to fulfill their own inadequacies. My experience has been that clergy who are very comfortable with who they are in their own fundamental priesthood are not threatened at all by a lay person with a strong sense of his or her own fundamental priesthood.
The flip side is that laypeople who are not in touch with their own fundamental priesthoods, or are uncomfortable with them, lay things on the clergy that they should be taking care of themselves in terms of their spiritual growth. Seeing the priest as a magical shaman rather than an icon of our own priesthood causes laity to blame the priest for the oddest things.
I think back to the time of the Book of Acts. Paul had to put a great deal of trust in many, many empowered laity. Granted, he was not "ordained" in the sense we now think of it, but the geography and nature of his travels demanded an early church that had to understand their own priesthood as individuals. They could not depend on silver statues of Artemis to make things right.
Yes, there were mistakes. Big ones. But we still all make big mistakes in the name of the church--laity and clergy alike--and perhaps a better tack is to simply keep the dialogue going, and continue to worship together, rather than huddle up in little groups and stir people up like the silversmiths did.
Not long ago, I was involved as part of a "think tank" in helping a parish begin to facilitate a solution to some very serious problems they were having. Now, I doubt I know a single person in it, and they most certainly have no clue who I am, or that they even knew I was involved. What I discovered, as this "think tank" turned its gears, was that it required me to discuss my own learning regarding some of my own huge mistakes in life. I found myself filled with an odd sense of gratitude. What I had started out learning for my own sake, could actually be put to use to help others. Living through my own mistakes had value beyond myself.
An amazing thing happened. I found myself truly invested in people I didn't even know--not in the outcome, mind you--that's their row to hoe, not mine--but simply in the life and spiritual health of these people I would not know on the street if I walked by them. I found them in my prayers, and in my musings--and I found myself truly wishing them well, and asking God to give them every good thing that had been given to me--including the ability to learn from mistakes.
This, to me, is part of what being an institutional church is all about. Yes, we have an individual relationship with God, but it is our corporate life that is sacrosanct. We have to toss our silver statues of Artemis aside and stop believing in magic that gets showered down from above. We have to get our hands dirty and our noses bloodied. We have to care about people we don't even know.
Ultimately, I believe the church will survive--and not just survive, but thrive. But to do it, we have to be willing to change ourselves first, and not just holler for the church to change.
("Walking trees" along the shore of Loch Lochy, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can you see anything?” And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Then he sent him away to his home, saying, “Do not even go into the village.” Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Out of all the healing stories in the Gospels, this is one of my favorites, for two odd reasons. One is simply that Jesus had to make two runs at healing this blind man.
From a medical standpoint, I wonder if the man was blind from Chlamydia trachomatis, aka trachoma. It's often inherited trans-vaginally during the birth process (one of those "sins of the father/mother" sorts of things) and causes granules to form on the cornea. Before the advent of antibiotics, most "cures" involved physically removing the granules in some way.
In fact, I'd put my house payment on that was what was wrong with the guy, and oddly, my comfort with that speculative knowledge gets me flak from both ends of the religious/non-religious spectrum at times. My non-religious friends point with glee that there was no miracle at all, it was an ordinary medical cure of the time. My more evangelical friends tsk-tsk and shake their heads at me that I don't believe it was a "miracle." Neither end does my feelings about this justice.
First of all, a miracle does not have to be defined in terms of a magic trick. Modern medicine produces miracles all the time. What we now think of as simple garden variety generic antibiotics, at the time they were introduced, were, indeed, miracles. They alleviated death and suffering in a way not previously known. It's just a fact that yesterday's miracles are today's old news. In fact, a lot of antibiotics are no longer miraculous when it comes to certain organisms, because the bacteria have become resistant. I really believe there is a temporal aspect to miracles. They are miracles because they happened in a frame of time or history that this was not the expected outcome.
Second, knowing and believing there is a scientific principle to the healing miracles of Christ does not cheapen or dilute them in any way. Part of the miracle in this story is that mostly, the world in that place or time did not bother themselves with blind people. For Jesus to stop and interact with that man is another form of miracle--to see humanity in a way different than the typical rank and file person on the street.
But oddly, I really really like that it took Jesus two runs at curing this man's blindness.
I don't like some of the theological takes in this story that the reason it took two tries was because of some perceived lack of faith in the blind man. There's nothing in this story that even hints that the blind man is skeptical or unfaithful. I mean, for crying out loud, all the man did was admit the truth--that he could see a little but not a lot.
I honestly think it took two tries because it simply took two tries to remove enough of the granules...and there's no harm or denigration of Jesus because of that.
I think of my own relationship with God, and the true healing I've experienced in this relationship...and I can't think of a single time God did anything "healing" to me that got accomplished in one shot. Or two, for that matter. I think we are talking many, many runs at me to get me healed. Yet I feel healed by the grace of God just the same. I don't sit around and grump about "Well, gee. If God's grace were really worth a damn, he would have fixed this the first time."
Seems to me that we need a Jesus who is persistent enough to take more than one run at us, in our spiritual and psychological blindnesses. Honestly, I don't need a Jesus who takes a powder when I don't straighten up the first time, or dumps it back on me for not being faithful enough. That's not a loving relationship. That's abuse of power.
The other thing I like about this story is simply that the blind man spoke up that he was better, but not cured. I am so used to making do with the leftovers. I've told the story to you before about how it was well into my teenage years that I discovered most people think of over-easy eggs as the "good" fried eggs and the broken yolk ones as "failures." I have always been used to not getting the best product, being okay with the store brand instead of the name brand, and getting the "good" brand as a closeout or overstock. It seems to me the blind man had a pretty difficult choice to make in terms of speaking up or not. It would have been easy to think, "Well, I'm less blind than I was, so I guess I'd better shut up and say that's good enough." We forget that the blind in this era were not just visually handicapped, they were ostracized, ignored, and blamed for their own "sins" or carrying their parents' sins.
But our man in the story spoke up and told the truth. "Wow, it's better, but these people don't look like people. They look like trees walking." He gave Jesus accurate feedback which shaped Jesus' next move. I am impressed he did that. What right did an outcast of the times have to tell the great healer, "It's still not quite right?" Well, in the secular world of the day, none. In the religious world of the day, pretty much none, also, because it was clear people with infirmities were "unclean" in some way--that is why they could read the Torah in public or stand at the bima. I have to hand it to him for that.
It begs a great question. What do we do when we begin to "see" things in a new or undiscovered way? Do we settle for what we get, or do we speak up? Have we ever considered the possibility that God desires honest feedback from us, and is big enough to handle it?
It took me many years to be comfortable "praying angry," or "praying hurt," and it took me forever to even broach "praying when I was sobbing so hard any innocent bystander wouldn't have understood a word I said." For so long, I felt I had to be all emotionally squeaky clean when in the presence of the Almighty--that I had to use complete sentences and sound prayerful and look grateful. I am still no good at all doing that in the presence of other people, but I'm at least comfortable doing it off by my lonesome. I think it is because there were people in my family that if you cried, you became vulnerable and that set you up for being attacked, or the flip side--there were people in my family that if you did not "cry to their specifications," your feelings were somehow not as valuable, and they, the emotional, tearful ones in the family, well...their feelings were more important than yours then.
Cry and be stabbed and left by the side of the road for it, vs. don't cry and be devalued over the one crying. What a dilemma!
But as we learn to pray angry, pray hurt, pray with tears, and pray when we smell our own decomposition in our noses, something happens. We become less afraid to admit "Well, I only see people that look like trees, walking." When we work with a Jesus whom we discover doesn't mind a bit to take two, three, or 327 runs at us, we stop insisting on "all or nothing" as the result of our prayers. We stop clinging to the "my way or the highway" position for the difficulties in our life, and start engaging in a two way relationship with God--and even if the best it will ever be will be to see people like trees, walking, we discover we are not alone in our semi-blindness.
(Photo of William Porcher Dubose from the Holy Women, Holy Men blog)
Almighty God, you gave to your servant William Porcher DuBose special gifts of grace to understand the Scriptures and to teach the truth as it is in Christ Jesus: Grant that by this teaching we may know you, the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
--Collect for the Feast Day of William Porcher Dubose, Holy Women, Holy Men, p. 533.
William Porcher Dubose, whose feast day was August 18, seems to be a rather interesting character in our liturgical calendar. One one hand, he is considered one of the giants of theology in the early days of The University of the South (aka Sewanee.) He was one of the people who shaped the "Big Tent" theology of our modern Episcopal Church. He was virtually unknown as a theologian until age 56, yet his books still sell to this very day on Amazon.com and get high reader reviews.
On the other hand, he was a Southerner--and I mean a Southerner--in every sense of the word. He was an officer in the Confederate Army (there's a great story about him baptizing General John Bell Hood not long before he was killed by a shell.) He lived in the south during Reconstruction, and sadly, there is some speculation (although unproven) that he could have been a member of the Ku Klux Klan during the Reconstruction period. This allegation is rather unclear, and I honestly don't know if it is true or not, but it's enough of an allegation that there's been discussion about whether he should be removed from the liturgical calendar.
My gut feeling, though, is even if the allegations were true, leaving him on the calendar might be a wonderful testimony to the tension in which me must all live as Christians, and the unease we have to accept about some brutal mistakes we have made in the name of Christianity. I often think about what my atheist friends try to hang on me as a practicing Christian. They seldom want to fight with me and my personal theology. They seem, however, to be hell-bent for leather to make me feel some kind of guilt for every war, every aspect of oppression, that was condoned by the church or perpetrated by Christianity. It's impossible for me to accept that guilt, because, frankly, I didn't do it. I have compassion for how the church has wronged people over time, but the church is not the only oppressor of society, so is government, capitalism, etc., and I can't feel any more guilt over the church than I can feel for, say, American Imperialism.
It seemed no small coincidence that on the feast day of William Porcher Dubose a pile of interesting discussions broke out on Facebook regarding the recently released movie, "The Help." Elizabeth had posted this story on her blog, and also on the Episcopal Women's Caucus Facebook page. Religion Dispatches had posted this piece, which Jane Redmont had shared. NPR had posted this and this.
Now, I do plan to see the movie. But I also plan to participate in a discussion we will be having at Trinity-Kirksville about the movie. It's been my heritage to see things for myself. Years ago, my late grandmother specifically went to see The Last Temptation of Christ because it had been denounced from every pulpit in Macon, MO. (Her verdict? "I don't know what all the fuss was about. There was this dream scene where he imagined being married to Mary Magdalene and having children. Well, duh, if you were about to be crucified, wouldn't you want an escape option?")
The controversy about this movie reminds me of another controversy from years past, involving the actress Hattie McDaniel. She was the first African-American actress to win an Oscar--but these days, what she got an Oscar for is reprehensible--she got it for playing Mammy in Gone With the Wind. In fact, as time went on, Hattie caught a lot of flak for playing mammies and maids from groups like the NAACP. Yet, at the same time, she was a quiet champion for civil rights--helping overturn restrictive covenants in a neighborhood in Hollywood, and a well-paid, working actress and radio star at a time many African-Americans could not find a job with dignity. I find it interesting that she was a trailblazer in so many ways but regarded as a traitor to others. She had to find her own way in a stormy place...as, I suppose, did William Porcher Dubose, and each of us in different ways.
I carry my own version of this storm. My great-grandfather was known as a fair man when it came to dealing with the African-American community. He owned and raced harness horses, and often hired black horse trainers. Yet he could not let his best drivers race, because only white men could be drivers at the racetracks he frequented. On the other hand, he was the city marshall, and in the 1920's when there was a lynching in my home town, he did nothing. Nothing. Honestly, I suppose that was because as one man, there was nothing he could do, even behind the badge of the law.
But what that storm did was shape my grandmother and mother. My grandmother was an election clerk, and she tolerated no foolishness nor shenanigans when it came to letting everyone who was eligible to vote, vote. My mother was a junior in high school when the high school integrated, and she was one of the people who made the "newcomers" feel welcome. I've posted before on my own life about my favorite elementary teacher, Mrs. Ella Smith, and how this amazing African-American lady and I shared the school year of 1967-68. That was quite a year to share a classroom.
I don't think there's any right answer to what impact the movie "The Help" will have on race relations, if it has any at all, but I am not a fan of boycotting something on someone else's principle. Telling someone to boycott something, to me, smells of someone saying I'm too stupid to make up my own mind about something. Now, that doesn't mean I won't make a terrible mistake. I've made terrible mistakes in the past. I've eaten crow for many things. But if I trust in the power for God to make all things well, and the realm of God to emerge, I have to trust in the power of the storm and the tension of it.
I don't think there's a cure or an answer to how to deal with this tension that still exists in our society between black and white, but I know I have power as an individual to spread the love of Christ. I think about a young African-American man who is one of my medical students. Recently, his mother unexpectedly passed away. He grew up in "the hood" in L.A. He's had to come so far on such a hard road. He came by my office asking my advice on some things and I also told him he was in my prayers and, at the end of the visit, I gave him a big hug. There was a day in my lifetime that hugging a young black man was an unthinkable, unspeakable thing. I know things are not changing fast enough, but they are changing. I can only trust in God to help me live in the tension of it.
(Little Eddie and Boomer waste no time getting on the new bed!)
O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name.
My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips when I think of you on my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.
But those who seek to destroy my life shall go down into the depths of the earth; they shall be given over to the power of the sword, they shall be prey for jackals.
But the king shall rejoice in God; all who swear by him shall exult, for the mouths of liars will be stopped.
Well, at the time I read this, I thought, "I would meditate on my bed...if I had one." As part of the whole house remodeling thing, I slept on my couch from Feb. to August.
Then came the part where I actually bought a bed--a nice bed, a storage bed from Ashley Furniture, and could not use it until I got the new bedroom finished.
I had been "Mostly ok" with sleeping on the couch until I bought the bed. Then I got itchy to sleep in it.
Finally, the day came that I could move the bed in. I looked forward to sleeping in it...then I discovered...well...they hadn't sent all the pieces...namely the frame.
I loved how my friend Janie broke it to me. She called me at work (she was meeting the furniture store guys) and tells me how wonderful the headboard is and how sturdy the drawers were, and the mattress is comfy...and I finally realized she was holding out on me and I said, "But...????"
It was only then that she informed me the frame was AWOL.
At that point, I had a decision. Throw down the mattress and sleep on it? Or wait till the rest of the bed came in?
I opted for "wait." I decided that, given the fact I had never had a new bed in my entire adult life, sleeping on the mattress prematurely would sort of be like having one's first sexual encounter in the back seat of a '71 Chevy Impala. I had dreams of how my first night in my first new bed was supposed to be, and getting impatient would just ruin it.
When the rest of the bed came in, it was apparent it would be worth the wait.
So now I have a bed for pondering.
One of the places where I think we slip up in our prayer lives is it is probably our tendency to be pondering all the difficult things in our beds, staring at the ceiling. But how many times do we ever do like the Psalm suggests--pondering on our bed with joyful lips for God? Probably a lot less than the former scenario.
These days, my most joyful bed musing is gratitude for having a bed. My wonderful comfy mattress reminds me to be grateful. Much of the world sleeps on a straw mat. I don't mean that in a "boy, I'm lucky, look what I've got" sort of way but more in a "What can I do that can help others have a bed?" way.
What can we do for those displaced from their beds because tornadoes or floods whisked them away?
What can we do for those who have willingly left their bed and would live in fear if they returned to it?
What can we do for those who live in the parts of the world where almost no one has a standard American bed?
Yep, there's much to ponder on my bed!
"Remember, every connection holds within it a seed of holiness, which is the potential to notice the God who makes all connections possible. In my experience, successful practice of God's presence online has derived exclusively from cultivating these connections and properly attributing them to God's movement."
--Adam Thomas, from "Digital Disciple"
I thought the lunch Elizabeth packed me for my train trip home tells it all. Seeing it was a HUGE "gee whiz, aw shucks" moment for me. Seriously, I think the last time anyone "packed me a lunch," I was ten years old. I learned at an early age to make my own. Much of the pleasure of my train trip home was to savor the little snacks she put in there.
One of the things I dearly love about taking the train is I have hours and hours to be both social and quiet...but I particularly like the quiet. It's unencumbered time to think and reflect and read. My little bag of traveling food reminds me of the wonderful intersection of the IRL (" In Real Life") world and the virtual world that social networking has, if we are bold enough to embrace it.
I have been meeting various Facebook friends, mostly those connected to the spirituality blogging and "Episco-geek" world, for over three years now. When I have taken long trips to visit them, I have some fun playing a little bit of "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego" with the trip, on Facebook. The visits have always been rewarding and uplifting, and there is a real closeness that deepens with these people, who, were, already, in some ways, close.
The spiritual blogging community is an interesting critter indeed. Many of us started our blogging careers under semi-anonymity, and in looking back I don't know if that was because we thought we weren't going to be any good, or because what we were doing at the time felt too much like someone reading our diaries in public. I suppose many of us started blogging because we weren't always being fed in our churches, or we had a growing spirituality we didn't always understand. I don't think any of us thought we were God's literary gift to the church. But we started feeding each other somehow.
As Facebook got more popular, we started de-cloaking a bit via Facebook and got to know each other, from a distance, anyway. Elizabeth's blog was one of the first ones I started reading on a regular basis. Her self-revealing style gave me confidence to start telling my own stories in a more authentic way, and I am still appreciative of that. I didn't use to think any of my stories had any healing value for anyone other than me. She made me think otherwise about that. I came to appreciate it's not so much about my stories, per se, it's that there is a universality to all our stories. A story about my life may be close enough to someone else's, and in hearing mine they may find a handle on theirs...then they can begin to tell their stories, who will be heard by others, etc., etc.
So seeing that lunch bag took things full circle, with "being fed." It struck a huge chord with me, with what it is we bloggers are trying to accomplish. I don't think we write because we are frustrated unpaid writers, I don't think we write because we have big egos and want to splash them all over the Internet, I think we write because we want to feed people, with God's help. There is simply a place where our wordsmithing from a distance makes us hungry to share physical time and space with these people in real life. God's movement through cyberspace creates real connections, that, if we can manage to trust in that power enough to take a car or train or plane trip, can lead us to a new form of "family."
I always come away from these trips feeling like I've discovered a long lost relative--a relative in the Family of God--and if a blog or Facebook page can lead us to God's presence and a real sense of family, it's not much of a stretch to believe God sees us as "in the family."
(Paul confesses Christianity in front of the Sanhedrin, from St. Peter and Paul Church in Tyrol, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
(This post originally appeared in the Speaking to the Soul blog Saturday, August 13, 2011)
“After I had returned to Jerusalem and while I was praying in the temple, I fell into a trance and saw Jesus saying to me, ‘Hurry and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about me.’ And I said, ‘Lord, they themselves know that in every synagogue I imprisoned and beat those who believed in you. And while the blood of your witness Stephen was shed, I myself was standing by, approving and keeping the coats of those who killed him.’ Then he said to me, ‘Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’”
Up to this point they listened to him, but then they shouted, “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.” And while they were shouting, throwing off their cloaks, and tossing dust into the air, the tribune directed that he was to be brought into the barracks, and ordered him to be examined by flogging, to find out the reason for this outcry against him. But when they had tied him up with thongs, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who is uncondemned?” When the centurion heard that, he went to the tribune and said to him, “What are you about to do? This man is a Roman citizen.” The tribune came and asked Paul, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” And he said, “Yes.” The tribune answered, “It cost me a large sum of money to get my citizenship.” Paul said, “But I was born a citizen.” Immediately those who were about to examine him drew back from him; and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him.
Our reading from Acts once again describes something that is illustrated multiple times, not only in this book but particularly in the Gospels--the visceral response of crowds to hearing the revealed truth. In Paul's case, this seems particularly true--the stories in Acts illustrate more than once a crowd listening to him with rapt attention, and then suddenly something happens to turn the crowd against him in a heartbeat. In this passage, it appears that Paul's own words did the trick.
Have you ever noticed that there's something about the recognition of the revealed truth that sparks such a visceral reaction in people that their response, at times, can be a heated and rather vicious non-recognition of it? Our passage reminds me of the wave of heated responses to Rob Bell's book, "Love Wins." The moment a few people read the book and publicly stated, "You know, I think the guy is right--maybe we're a little off on that popular traditional version of that Heaven/Hell thing," a virtual tsunami of condemnation ensued among some segments of Christianity.
In light of this story, other stories in Acts, and several of the Gospel stories, we can see that one of the fundamental concepts of Christianity is this: If you are really, really listening to what the stories of the New Covenant are all about, it will turn your world upside down. Everything you thought you knew like the back of your hand will be questioned, and everything you believed will be thrown into doubt. It's very common for our initial reaction to something new and revealed in our hearing of the Word to be one of pushing back in some way--to shout, "No, that can't be right! Everyone knows that...(fill in the blank.)"
The issue, then, becomes one of how we react to this news. Do we attack the messenger? Do we close our ears to it, followed by closing our heart? Do we scream, "Heresy?" Or do we simply take a step backward and say, "Hmmm. I need to think and pray on this one a little bit," and prayerfully ponder the topic?
I remember the time it was first suggested to me that that place we call Heaven might well include some political figures I really, really dislike, or some people in my world that really, really did me dirty. My initial reaction, flashing in my brain in bright neon lights, was, "NO! They can't be there! Heaven is a good place, for good people, and I don't think those people are good at all." For me to be happy, they had to be out. But over time, as I mulled over this thought (and my reaction to it,) I became reminded of my own track record of "not good," and realized my very exclusionary criteria would, in fact, exclude me, too.
This passage calls us to simply think upon, but not necessarily immediately react to those moments that the Good News in Christ doesn't sound particularly good, or when that sudden new revealed truth we hear tells us that everything we thought we knew, maybe we didn't know so well. What would happen if we could only change one thing about our reaction to such things over the upcoming week?
Almighty God, we entrust all who are dear to us to thy never-failing care and love, for this life and the life to come, knowing that thou art doing for them better things than we can desire or pray for; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
A Prayer for Travelers, Book of Common Prayer, p. 523
Elizabeth took this picture of Theo in his car seat while I was in the convenience store getting some trail mix for my train trip. For a dog who was quite afraid of me in the beginning, and who still was a little spooky about me reaching out to him, his demeanor shows a huge change. He is truly anticipating my return to the car! Now, when I got back IN the car, he was still a bit pensive about me being forward towards him, but he didn't shake or shiver or bark.
What this photo makes me realize is that there is a joyful, happy, extroverted dog in there, that all the abuse and mistreatment of his formative years didn't extinguish. I think there will be a day that who he was when Elizabeth first got him, will only be a shadow. I think there will be a time that the only time we see the "old Theo" will be when his PTSD flares up, and if it does, Elizabeth has the skills and love to support him and help him back to his happy frame of dog mind. But it will be on God's time, not ours.
I believe that all of us have been in scary places in our lives--places that make us mere shadows of ourselves. When things happen to us in families or extended family structures, sometimes there are multiple people in scary places all at once. These things take time, and we can't force them. Sometimes, our shadows are interacting with their shadows, or a healthy us is interacting with their shadow, or vice versa. Our prayer from the BCP above is a great reminder that when we are dealing with those shadow places, there's usually not much we can do with how we are to be perceived, and that we have to give up our illusions of control and trust God knows how to level things.
When I find myself in those weird places with people, it has been a big jump in my life to finally be in the place, where, mostly, I can lay it on the altar. Theo reminds me that in everyone is a "happy dog," and it just takes time, and God's help to find their own happy barks and wagging tails.
(Rufus, in one of his multiple attempts to try to get Theo to play.)
O God, in the course of this busy life, give us times of refreshment and peace; and grant that we may so use our leisure to rebuild our bodies and renew our minds, that our spirits may be opened to the goodness of your creation; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
--Prayer for the Good Use of Leisure, Book of Common Prayer, p. 825
One of the more fascinating things I have been observing about Elizabeth's dog Theo has been in his interactions with Rufus, the Miniature Schnauzer that belongs to her other houseguest, Jon. Rufus is well schooled in play, to say the least. He attacks plastic soda bottles, chases balls, and does all the things that one would expect out of a dog bred to exterminate little critters.
Theo, on the other hand, finds these sorts of activities a bit bewildering. He seems to want to join in the fun, but it requires a certain amount of vulnerability towards not just Rufus, but everything and everyone in the room to do that. I imagine in Theo's world, growing up in a hoarding situation, survival meant claiming physical and psychological space, and the physical act of play demands giving a little of that up. In his old world, he would have almost certainly lost turf--turf that became just too hard to reclaim over and over.
One of the things I find myself able to do better and better in my own vacations is to truly "be on vacation." I think back to what I learned about vacations growing up. Most of my vacation trips were with my grandparents. As an only child and an only grandchild on that side of the family, it was about the three of us. Rarely, my mom would go, but they clearly treated her as an outsider, and in later years I discovered she felt like an outsider on these trips. You see, my grandparents had decided since I was a bright, curious child, these trips would be educational. They were intuitively right about this in one way--they wanted to expose me to things and places different from my small town life, but they were probably mistaken in not teaching me that vacation was also about play.
Vacation was Serious Business.
I realize now, that in my grandmother's eyes in particular, my mom's presence gummed up the works. Granny was rather Teutonic in how vacations were to be managed--there were schedules to make, times to keep, maps to follow, booklets to read even BEFORE you got to the museum or park. My grandpa was all about the car--having it maintained like an airplane on a transatlantic flight, keeping tabs of the gas mileage en route, the cost of gas in various states and how this affected the family budget. My grandparents, every year, religiously put a few dollars back a month in a "vacation club"--a special savings account our bank provided. I'm pretty sure we never went over that amount budgeted by much.
When my mom went along, it was clear my mom didn't understand that vacation was Serious Business. She saw things by the side of the road and wanted to see them on impulse. She wanted to go to waterslides and amusement parks. My grandmother would roll her eyes.
I still remember the time we did go to Disneyland. My grandmother mapped out the night before which gate we'd use, and how we would maneuver our way through Tomorrowland, Frontierland, etc., and how long we'd stay in each.
Well, you know, what I've come to realize is in this conflict between my grandparents and my mom was everyone was right, and everyone was wrong. I've come to realize it's a balance. Ten years ago my vacations were about seeing and doing things. They were enjoyable, and I'm glad I did them. But now, my vacations are about meeting my "Facebook friends I haven't physically met," and are more about "just being me" in their presence. Elizabeth and Jon and I have been having a running joke about how exasperated we've made her that we are truly happy to just do what she wants to do, because being with her has been the goal of the visit.
I look at little Theo, and I see how in so many ways, he doesn't even know who he is as a dog, yet. He doesn't know how to play because he doesn't quite know who Theo is and how he fits in the Kingdom of Dog.
When we extrapolate that to our own prayer lives, do we always understand that our relationship to God is also a balance between being guided/led/educated, and truly playing?
Or when I said that, dear readers, did a collective gasp emit and this thought emerge..."Oh no, our relationship with God is Serious Business.. Very Serious Business indeed. It's about our immortal souls, you know."
One of my biggest self-life lessons has been this: Yes, I have a job where some of my decisions are life and death. But not every single thing I decide out of the office is life and death. In fact, almost none of them are. Almost all of them can be reconfigured from a fallback position.
No doubt, those of us into high church liturgy understand there's some Serious Business involved in worship. There's Serious Business involved in maintaining a healthy, growing atmosphere in the life of the parish. It's important to understand the rules and the rubrics and the Canons and to take them seriously. Living up to our Baptismal Covenant is Serious Business. But it's important to leave room for play, too. It's important to have balance.
When we are comfortable enough in our own skin to be vulnerable in the face of God and in the lives of those dear to us, we create room to play, room to dream, room to imagine, and room not only to love, but to be loved for who we really are as a child of God.
Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in Scripture and the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of your love. Amen.
"A Collect for the Presence of Christ, Book of Common Prayer, p. 124
I'm spending my vacation with Elizabeth at her home along the canal here in Lower Slower Delaware. Now, it's been great to be here with Elizabeth. It's been great sharing my vacation time with her first, with Doxy, and now, Jon, but the true charmer in my trip has been "Mr. Wonderful"--Elizabeth's dog, Theo. (many apologies to Jon's dog Rufus, who is right behind Theo as a close second.)
Some of you know Theo's story. But for some of you who don't, Theo came from a home that hoarded dogs, and it's clear he has issues with strangers and trust. He's incredibly shy, fearful, and passive. It was clear the first day he met me, that he wanted to get to know me--I'm sure I reek of Boomer and Little Eddie--but he just could not bring himself to do it. Every move, every time I looked at him, he barked...and barked...and barked.
On day two, Elizabeth finally said, "I've had enough.". She promptly took out his leash, snapped it to him, sat next to me, and pulled him over between us. After five minutes of petting, he seemed okay with that, and she left him free to roam around with the leash still on. He still didn't want to come too near me, but there was no more barking.
Over the next 24 hours, Theo, still dragging his leash around, has improved by leaps and bounds. He now comes up to me unannounced. He walks by and sniffs me. He even hopped up in my lap to show Rufus that I was in his pack, not Rufus'. His face changed from eternally pensive to the smile you see in his picture. I suspect by the time I leave, Theo will be pretty okay with me.
Elizabeth and I have postulated what the deal is with the leash. Now, I'm not degreed in dog psychology, but I think it is this: Elizabeth's walks with Theo are a bonding experience between the two of them. The presence of the leash, even without Elizabeth at the end of it, makes him feel safer. Theo knows that relationship, and how it allows him to meet challenges.
Without Elizabeth's presence, sacramentally transmitted through the leash, Theo would rather bark than meet the challenge.
The prayer above, from the Rite II Evening Prayer service, reminds us of our own leash--not a leash designed for constant control, not a leash for God to pull us around at his "beck n' call," but one that simply reminds us of presence. Like Theo's leash, it connects us to a trusting, loving relationship, even when no one is tugging on the other end. If I can trust that Elizabeth would never leave Theo connected to his leash alone, and allow him to be entangled and snarled up, I can trust Christ to not leave me alone on mine.
(Amnon and Tamar, Jan Steen, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
(This post originally appeared in the Speaking to the Soul blog Sunday, August 7, 2011)
Readings for Sunday, August 7:
Psalms 66, 67 (Morning)
2 Samuel 13:1-22
Psalms 19, 46 (Evening)
Without a doubt, our Old Testament reading today, describing the incestuous rape of Tamar, is one of the most disgusting and one of the least redeeming stories in the Bible. It's hard to come away with any sort of redeeming lesson from reading this passage. Its place in the Daily Office, sandwiched between some fairly joyful and comforting passages, seems totally out of kilter in the day's readings. One has to wonder about the discussion that ensued in committee prior to its gaining a spot in the Daily Office. Where does one put this in the lectionary? What possibly is to be learned from such a brutal story? In fact, the richness of both the Gospel passage for today the Epistle, and the Psalms, provide a wonderful escape hatch, so that if one chooses to, the icky story of the rape of Tamar can be pushed aside entirely in our spiritual imaginations.
Yet, that tendency, to me, is exactly what this brutal story is all about--dealing with what I call "The Great Unspoken." The Great Unspoken is made up of all the terrible stories that all families have, and how unspoken it is often is directly proportional to the dysfunction the family has carried from generation to generation. It's made up not of what we say, but what we don't say. When we look at this story, the tempting tendency is to simply ignore it--and we see a lot of ignoring going on.
Let's start at the beginning--it seems rather implausible for Amnon to be burning with lust for Tamar as much as he was, and no one in the family even noticed. People don't just wake up one morning and say, "Gee...I think I'd like to have sex with my half-sister." David had to see something, and Absalom had to notice something, and royal households being a little bit like small towns, it just seems highly unlikely that the relatives and the hired help knew nothing. In fact, Cousin Johnadab's involvement in this story, and the fact he initiates the conversation with Amnon about how to trick Tamar affirms this. Tamar had to have noticed the extra attention she was getting and struggled with her own complicated feelings.
Meanwhile, The Great Unspoken keeps growing and growing. David sends Tamar in to Amnon without so much as a "be careful." Amnon intuitively knows what he did was wrong, going so far as to convert his unspoken shame to loathing for the victim. He even dehumanizes her vocally, calling to have "this woman" put out from his presence. (Shades of "I did not have sexual relations with that woman," a couple of presidencies ago!) Tamar, herself, loses the wise voice we saw earlier in this story and tears her virginal clothes, pours ashes on her head with the same hands that previously made a gift of bread, and Absalom more or less says, "get over it," but at the same time takes her in. (Did he do it to be kind, or did he do it because he knew and felt guilty, or did he do it because "this doesn't happen in 'nice' families?") As we travel further in the Daily Office this week, it will become apparent that the Great Unspoken will continue to wreak havoc in the royal family.
This story becomes a reminder that there are far better ways to deal with The Great Unspoken--whether it is among our kin, our network of friends, our workplace, or our parish. Yes, there are consequences to honesty or being proactive in the face of deceit or mental instability, but there are generally far worse and longer lasting consequences when we stuff those feelings or cause them to be manifest in a "sideways" fashion. I find it interesting in this story that nowhere do we see any of the characters approaching God for guidance, or lamenting or expressing their fears in the face of God. There's a Great Unspoken here, too.
The story of the rape of Tamar is a call to remind us that no Great Unspoken is too disgusting or nasty to take to God. It's a reminder that when we don't fully understand people, or they seem to behave in an odd or weird fashion, or over-react to a simple issue, that they may be carrying a Great Unspoken of their own. Finally, it's a call for us to address our own Great Unspokens.
What Great Unspokens block us in our own ability to be invited into full relationship with the living God? Are there Great Unspokens that create wedges in our relations to each other? Is today the day to fearlessly bring them first, to our prayer life, and later, to the place where reconciliation begins?
(Maze at Scone Palace, Perth, Perthshire, Scotland, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Daily office readings for August 6:
Psalm 87, 90
2 Samuel 12:15-31
Evening Psalm: 136
Children figure prominently in this sequence of readings. In 2 Samuel, we are shown the sequence of events surrounding the death of the child conceived as a result of David and Bathsheba's affair. Our Acts reading focuses on young Eutychus, who is literally "sleeping like the dead," and in Mark's Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that welcoming the child on his lap is to welcome both himself and God. We see children illustrated as symbols of grief and loss, mistaken perceptions, and divine hospitality.
Unlike today, where entire shopping malls are devoted to children's clothing, toys, and games, and a dropped pacifier in the grocery store is liable to result in a parent extracting a hermetically sealed, sanitized replacement in a zip-closure bag in a matter of seconds, children in Biblical times were expendable commodities. Children did work as soon as they were able. They were an insurance policy for one's well-being in old age--the more you had, the more likely you'd be cared for. If a family could not care for them, they were more or less turned into the street to fend for themselves, and generally, it was expected that a certain percentage of them would not live to adulthood.
All three readings show a certain degree of unusual behavior towards children and youth for the times. David displays what must have been, for his servants, a bewildering and unsettling amount of grief. Eutychus (whose name, incidentally, means "good fortune") is discerned to be alive when it's clear those who found him would prefer he be left for dead. Finally, it must have been bewildering for the disciples that Jesus would have grabbed up a dirty street waif, plopped the child on his lap, used the child as the gold standard of hospitality and welcome.
Bewilderment is as much a part of the Christian experience as joy, but we are not always accepting of it.
I've thought a lot about how as our relationship with God deepens and matures, there is a part of that growth that, frankly, doesn't feel like growth. Think about it like this. As small children, our notion of God is two-fold: God is this unseen being who protects us, and, in our child-like way of thinking, gives us what we want. As little children, we don't always know the difference between need and want.
I honestly think there are Christians who never get too far away from that notion. Even those of us who are more spiritually mature like to rationalize that "What I want is what God thinks I need."
Yet, as children, I think we are pretty accepting of God being the "in charge" one in this relationship. After all, everyone in our world at that age is in charge, and we're not. But as we become adults, we become accustomed to more "equal partner" relationships at home and work. Sure, there are people "in charge" of us at the workplace, but if we don't like it, we can find another workplace, or over time, we become the one in charge.
I think back to me as a young adult. My goal was to be in charge of my destiny. Many of my life choices were based on that. Now, in middle age, I am faced with this interesting bewilderment, because what I sense is coming through in the subtle ways God connects with me, is that God's desire for me is to be obedient in ways that have been the minority of my life experiences. At a very early age, I connected "obedience" to obeying out of fear. Fear of being beaten, fear of emotional abandonment, fear of humiliation. There were definitely times I obeyed out of love, but they were not the majority. I don't think it was some evil plot on the part of my family, I think it was just the offshoot of a family that historically lived an economically hard life with roots in the Depression and who knows what before that. When a family learns, generation after generation, that life is hard, there's simply an emotional hoarding that comes with it, and it's hard to reconcile that.
"To be in charge" meant to control the hard things, and to be independent, to not have to rely on another single person for your destiny. But I've come to realize other people did shape my destiny. I've really thought about that during the recent illness of a special mentor. He came from that kind of background, too, and I've discovered an odd bond begin to form between me and his daughter. She should be jealous of me, honestly. But she's not. She decided to assuage her own family hurts by showing me love.
What I've come to learn in my own spiritual maturity is that "being in charge" is not all it's cracked up to be, and in that journey, I've come to see that a relationship with God is, paradoxically, a very complex critter, indeed, but with simple requests. We are not always protected from harm. Bad things happen to us, and to those we love. We are abandoned at times in the world. We are humiliated. Yet the way to peace with God is to accept God doesn't "fix" all this stuff or give us our wants, like Santa Claus. To be raised from the dead emotionally and psychologically means we have to die inside at times and grieve. The paradox is that all God asks from us is to love, and obey--not obey from fear, but in love--to enter that childlike place where it's just assumed we are loved by God.
Frankly, for me, this is a bewildering place. I learned to love to please others. I have relatively few memories on which to draw where I "assumed I was loved." To go to that place with God seems like a "new" place although I'm sure it's not; I just don't have many conscious memories of it. The bewilderment, I think for many of us is that in middle age part of what we hear God telling us is "Stop giving so much of yourself to please others and care for yourself. Stop worrying about whether what you are doing is "productive" and simply spend time hanging out with me so you can see how much I love you." The catch, of course, is that this obedience requires us to give up some old goals of controlling our destiny.
I have always had a sense I was supposed to get along with less. I used to think it was so I could protect and insulate myself in my old age, so I would be independent and beholden to no one. I now realize I have been schooled in getting along with less because I'm simply supposed to get along with less "stuff" and shoot for more "relationship." What I'm starting to see in the generation ahead of me is no one can control that stuff--no one dies old and independent--everyone old has to depend on a lot of somebodies. Old age puts that belt around your waist and takes you where you do not wish to go, and the way to survive it is not to fight tooth and nail for our independence but to instead become accepting of our dependence. For me, the first step in middle age is to become open and vulnerable to love in new ways--accepting I'll be hurt now and then and accepting I'll grieve. Only then, does divine hospitality enter.