Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Where's the Good News?

I've given up watching local news and I'm about ready to give up on reading local news online. It doesn't take more than a perusal of a paragraph or two of a news story or sometimes just a headline or two to turn me off. Ok, call me an isolationist but I just can't handle what I hear and read. It frightens me -- and makes me worry about not just myself but others.

I live in Arizona. 'nuff said. Cut education but not law enforcement. Cut Medicaid and the medical safety net for the poor but not raise taxes for the rich and big business. Cut support for Planned Parenthood but don't support things that benefit the already-born (like education, health care, food subsidies for poor families, etc). Support carrying concealed guns (in bars, on the street, and now even talk of allowing them on campus) even though that got 6 people killed and 13, including a member of the legislture, injured. Have I given you a picture of how I see our legislature? It's no different nationally. I hear about lots of cuts to programs I might need or use and certainly many of my neighbors could as well, but I don't hear a d***** thing about legislators cutting their own salaries or benefits. I'm betting they'll find a way to increase them, if given half a chance. It'll just be buried so deep it will take dynamite to dig it out of the verbiage of the multitudinous bills passing through the various houses. Oh, and I can bet certain pet projects that will benefit the rich and the powerful will never be touched. Talk about sacred cows....

This morning I consider Jesus's words, "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. " (Luke 12:22b-23) Dang. He sure doesn't make things easy, does he?

There are so many in-your-face problems these days to worry about: foreclosures, cuts in programs I and others depend on, rising prices for necessities with more and more chance of cutbacks or layoffs in the work environment, more and more fear that something's going to go catastrophically wrong (which, as I age, is becoming more and more probable) and there will be no safety net to catch me or even break the fall. Then I read where Jesus tells me not to worry about things. Oy vey.

Sr. Joan Chittister remarked, "It's not the grappling with a thing that defeats us; it is the unknown answers to the hidden questions that wear us down."* I know what it feels like to be paralyzed by fear, unable to think even past the next breath. I've learned the hard way to concentrate on the next thing, not ten things down the road. In short, don't worry about more than the immediate until I am able to breathe freely and focus on the bigger picture. But when I can focus, I need to look beyond the just me and how stuff like the shennanigans in the legislature affect me to how they will affect people around me, people who don't have the resources I do or even the experiences I do. I need to be their advocate instead of just sitting like a lump and trying to keep myself out of trouble.

* Chittister, Joan D., Scarred By Struggle, Transformed By Hope. (paperback ed. 2005) Grand Rapids MI: William B Eeerdmans Publishing Co. (46).

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Incongruities (the Samaritan woman at the well)

I was reading Ann Fontaine's Lent 3 sermon notes and got to thinking about the Samaritan woman at the well in the gospel lesson for tomorrow (John 4:5-42). It's one of those stories where a woman appears, a nameless woman, but upon whom the whole story turns as much for her words and actions as much as Jesus' own. It is just full of incongruities which makes it an interesting story in itself.

She meets Jesus at a well in or just outside a city called Sychar. It was high noon, an odd time for a lone woman to be going to the well; most went first thing in the morning when it was cooler and when they could gather together to hear and pass on news, gossip, troubles or thanksgivings with each other. Gathering water was womens' work, but being women, they could turn a chore into a pleasurable activity of visiting with the neighbors without being accused of slacking or wasting time that they should be using to cook, clean, sew, watch the children, or tend to their part of the family business. This woman, though, came at noon, a time when nobody would be there, perhaps just so that she would not meet any of the other women and not have to hear the whispers and slurs and have to ignore the back-turning and giggling behind hers. She came at an unusual time so she could avoid other people -- except this time there was a man sitting there.

Jesus the Jew was sitting by the well when she got there. He even spoke to her, asking for water since he had nothing from which to drink it. Incongruity number 2 in this story. First the hour and now a Jewish man speaking to a Samaritan woman. Jews avoided Samaritans like they would have done with pork chops; Samaritans and pork chops were on about par in their eyes. Samaritans worshipped God in a different place, on Mount Gerazim, rather than Jerusalem, and their worship was supposedly a dilution of Judaism with pagan practices.

The third incongruity was that Jesus the male was speaking to a woman, not only a "foreign" woman but one to whom he was not related and with whom he was not acquainted. "Good" women did not permit themselves to be put in this situation and "good" men didn't approach such a woman unless she were a prostitute and they were looking for action. So did Jesus consider this Samaritan woman a prostitute? It's possible, given the statement he made to her regarding the number of her husbands.

So a lone woman goes to the well at an odd time and meets a man who normally would have stayed a country mile away from her, much less ask her for a drink of water. He gives her a shock when he details for her the shameful situation that kept her isolated and scorned. Evidently this man was a powerful prophet to have seen and understood such a thing without her having had to explain it. This was something the rest of the city needed to hear, so taking her tattered pride and fear in hand, she rushes off to tell anyone who would listen to her that someone special, someone prophetic, had come to their well and they needed to come quickly to hear what he had to say.

Jesus's disciples finally amble in with the food they'd gone off to buy and were surprised to find him in conversation with a woman who quickly ran off, leaving her water jar behind. They encourage him to eat, but he turns down the food and instead tells the disciples that what he feeds on is doing God's work that was given to him to do, even among outcast people. As the Sycharian townsfolk arrived, he teaches and preaches, staying there for two days. We are told that many came to believe in him and his message despite the differences in their religious upbringing and practice.

Two things come to mind in considering this story. One is the outcome for the Samaritan woman. She appears to have regained some credibility with the townspeople by her identification of and invitation to go and hear this wonderful prophet who told her about herself without any input from her other than "Sir, I have no husband." The argument could be made that she was the first evangelist outside of the disciples, the first to bring the good news to people who turned out to be receptive to that good news.

The second thing that I think about as I read and ponder this story is that I wonder if Jesus remembered this encounter when he had his debate with the Syrophoenician woman about healing her daughter? He had already brought his message to people "not of this fold" of Judaism and who had brought healing to a foreign woman although she did not really ask for any such healing. Did Jesus change his mind about the Syrophoenician woman because of the encounter he had with the Samaritan one? Who knows?

A "bad" woman turned evangelist, a foreign woman of probably very loose morals who was one of the first to pass on the good news that Jesus was there and preaching marvelous things. Now there's a story that I can sit and contemplate -- and find good news for myself as well.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

On Translation and Reality

The news lately has been of one disaster after another. It seems Mother Nature isn't letting Lent get in the way of boogyin' down and havin' a whole lotta shakin' goin' on. Lying in my nice warm bed at night after a nice hot supper and a bit of TV and computer stuff to keep me occupied, it's very easy to feel relief that the disasters haven't hit us here. It's also very easy to say a prayer or two that those who have been hurt, harmed and made homeless, jobless, power-less and hungry may soon find rest, respite and reconstruction. It makes it easier to put things in a bit more of a perspective, realizing that no matter what my struggles are (and even though they are the worst in the world becuase they're all mine) there are probably a billion or two who are immensely worse off than I am.

Sandwiched in with the disasters was a news piece on the reaction of some Christians to the new 2011 version of the New International Version of the Bible. In the course of retranslation it seems to have gone too far in the direction of inclusive language for some, not far enough for others. One point of argument is that it goes too far theologically simply by changing "brothers" to "brothers and sisters" if the word in the original language is one that indicates an inclusive reading. Compared to the death, destruction and dis-ease around the world right now, for me it isn't really a blip on the radar, but it seems to be for some.

The book I've been reading this week made the article about the squabble over "brothers" vs. "brothers and sisters" particularly irritating. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunty for Women Worldwide by Kristof and Wudunn is about women -- women who face real discrimination and often death from those to whom the words "brothers and sisters" simply don't apply; only "brothers" count. These women live in worlds where their beatings are common, rapes a fact of life, sexual slaveries rampant and deaths from preventative causes almost normal . It is normal -- for them; they have almost no way to escape and no place to go if they did. Men rule and women are only pawns to be used, abused and tossed aside on a whim. It was a tough book to read, even if I had heard some of these stories before. It battered me with its presentation of lives of women and sometimes mere girls who face what to me is almost unimaginable.

Now I grant you that I read the Bible in translation; I'm not nearly clever enough to learn to read Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek. The translation I use is probably flawed in some ways, 100% faithful in others. I don't think there's one out there that isn't. I notice Jesus healed women, though, and I don't think that is something that could be changed to make it more PC (pardon the term). I don't remember Jesus saying anything about "I can't do anything for you because you're a woman or even a member of the right club or tribe." I don't remember him saying he came for the men of Israel, not women of Israel, even though he did tell one woman he came for Israel only. She put up a persuasive argument and, like God the Father in the Old Testament, Jesus changed his mind and did something he hadn't really planned to do.

Some of the problems of the Majority World (the world outside the West) are the same as some women face here today. Some men will take most or all of the paycheck the family depends on for food and shelter and head for the nearest bar, casino, drug dealer or prostitute. Some women are beaten almost daily and almost to death. Some women can't afford prenatal care and so have complications that could easily have been dealt with with earlier intervention or have babies that are smaller, sicker and with problems that could cripple them for life. Some women here work menial jobs (or several of them) to try to feed and house their children, and for whom dreams just aren't on the program. There are women who yearn for educations that could mean better lives for them and their families but there's no money, no one to help with the children and they know of no network to help them achieve it.

For most of the world, education of women is a major contributor to the problems they face. Imagine not having $7 - 21 A YEAR to send a child to school with proper clothes much less money for books, slates, paper, pencils and the basics. Imagine being a woman who burns to learn but who cannot attend school because (a) she's a woman and (b) brothers are more valuable and so are sent to school, whether or not they want to go. Imagine being a girl in her very early teens, married to a much older man, made pregnant and then left alone in a dirt-floored shack to deliver a baby from a body not mature enough to handle the delivery and with no doctor, no nurse, not even an older woman to help her. The damage is often a fistula which leaks urine and feces constantly and the girl, maimed for life and often with a dead baby, is sentenced to living alone in a shack far from the main house where her stench can't reach or upset anyone. These are women, women who are children of God regardless of where they live, their ages or what (if any) faith they practice.

For too long, reading "brothers" instead of "brothers and sisters" has been a way of tossing a small bone to a hungry dog, intimating that yes, the dog matters but not very much. It's being given a bone to sop the conscience of the one who eats the whole meal.

I think if God had wanted a one-gender world, he'd have fixed it so that reproduction would rely on beings that were capable of self-fertilization. If God wrote the Bible (or did a divine dictation to scribes) in and for a brothers-only world, tales like that of Sarah, Hannah, Miriam, Tamar (both of them), Rahab (think there were two of them too), Mary (lots of them), Martha, the woman with the hemorrhage, the Syrophonecian woman, etc., would be unnecessary. There would be no need for images of God as hen with chicks or any of a dozen feminine-related word pictures.

This Lent I must think more of my sisters around the world who face unimaginable hardship every single day. I must do more than just pray for them and their release from the situations that imprison them, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. I must do more than just intend to do something constructive to help. I must, for they are my sisters and, inclusive translation of "brothers and sisters" or not.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

I keep getting stuff in my email or reading it in various places, "Join us on Facebook and...." I'll get anything from an unlock code for a game I don't play to a coupon for something I don't buy to inclusion in a group I believe in but not to the point of wanting to rejoin Facebook.

I was "on" Facebook for over a year. I had a number of friends who really were friends but a lot who were "game" friends -- folks I'd never heard of but who needed another body to increase their game power just as I did. It was fun for a while but then it just got realy old really fast. I wasn't really enjoying the social network all that much either. Yes, I was able to keep up with some people I really wanted to hear from but I heard a lot more from folks who populated my wall with their daily "I went to the store and got...", the daily weather report where they were, the latest cute cat (or kid) trick, or superficial stuff that really didn't matter all that much to me. Granted, I posted some very superficial stuff too, and it received about the same amount of commentary that I provided to other people.

I did learn some things from Facebook, though, some of them pretty important lessons.

1. I learned that most people really don't care as much as Facebook (and they) would like a person to think.
2. There can be real support given by people from far away when there's an illness, death or tragedy, but it's no substitute for a real person who can hug, listen or just sit in silence.
3. A social network can be a very isolating place to be.
4. How important is it for me to notify the world that (a) I have a bad cold, (b) my boyfriend cheated on me and what do I do (No, I don't have a boyfriend but this is an example), my job sucks rocks and boulders and I should look for something else (Not something I'd like my employer to read, and again, for example only).
5. How much feedback should I expect on whatever I put on my wall? Does anybody really read this stuff or do they push "like" or "dislike" by whim?
6. Why should I put personal information at the fingertips of people who don't know me and who are up to no good with that information? Why should I do it even if there is a group I'd like to be part of but can't because I'm not on Facebook?
7. It wastes a lot of time every day just reading all the notes and comments. I'm amazed how much more time I have to read these days, now that I don't have to check my Facebook page to see who's doing what, to whom or with whom, and why or why not.
8. It can be a great thing for people to keep in touch either visually or verbally, especially people who are family or old friends from back in the 'hood where I grew up, etc.
9. If I ask someone I know to friend me and then I wait and wait and wait for a response and never get it, I wonder what I did wrong, why no answer, do they even remember me or whatever. It can be hard on the ego and tends to become more important than the positive response from another friend request can be.
10. I don't need to do it simply because more and more people are and I should be part of it. Church groups, educational groups, political groups, game groups, neighborhood, relational or affinity groups -- some can provide interesting conversations and valuable networking contacts, but on the whole, the risk for me is greater than the payoff.

I'm not opposed to Facebook (or any other social networking). It serves a purpose and if someone finds value in it, great. I'm really glad for them. Me, I'll curl up with a good book, go out and be aruond people, or simply shut the computer down and take a nice nap. If you want to get in touch with me, leave a comment, send me an email or give me a call (if I trust you enough to give you my phone number). Otherwise, you can say what you like about this or anything else on your Facebook page. I won't see it and won't care. Nothing personal, you understand, just personal preference.

There. I feel better now.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Bent Tracks

What is wrong with this picture? Train tracks are supposed to be flat and straight with an occasional wide curve or reasonable grade but not bent in such a way as this. What is wrong with the world of this picture? Something has happened that has sent the normal away and substituted something that shouldn't happen – yet it did; the picture is proof. The normal laws of physics and railroad construction have seemingly been abrogated by something we can't or didn't see but which left very telltale marks behind.

What has caused this stress in the world? Mother Nature stirred and stretched, causing the earth to move in ways that can be understood (sort of) but not controlled. Tectonic plates rubbed along, building up stresses and strains until, like a rubber band stretched to its maximum, it broke loose and things moved around. That was un-normal enough to disrupt life for miles around and sent complacence flying out the window, so to speak.

What would set this world right? For those in the area of these tracks (near Christchurch, New Zealand), probably some reassurance that the earth isn't going to move any more, won't shake down any more buildings or kill, maim or render homeless and jobless any more people. A small victory would be to replace the warped tracks with more smooth, straight ones and the tracks once more put into useful service carrying people and goods from place to place as was intended.

Looking at the picture, I think about what tradition says about sudden changes in the normal routine and the sidetracking of the expected. Jesus certainly was a disruption in the normal life and teachings of his world. His parables certainly had an unexpected kink in them that pointed to a different conclusion than would normally be expected. His healings and teachings spanned the normal range of people he might have been expected to reach, women, lepers, people crippled in various ways, social and cultural outcasts, non-Jews and even the dead. His death on the cross was certainly a kink in the tracks to his disciple just as surely as Rome and the Sanhedrin thought they were straightening out some tracks bent in ways which they could not and did not approve. His resurrection certainly put an unexpected jolt in the community of followers and just as surely creates those same waves today.

Where this impacts my life is that even if things are going along quite nicely and normally, something will happen sooner or later to shift the tracks and cause a major slowdown or even a dead stop if not a derailment that will have to be cleared before I can proceed. There are times something seemingly as small as a grain of sand will do it while other times a mammoth earthquake feels like it has disrupted the whole of my life. Like the people of New Zealand and any place that has had a major shakeup, I have to rebuild and hopefully modify and strengthen what I rebuild so I can continue on with my journey. Sitting on a dungheap and covering myself with ashes won't work; I have to get up and do something about the situation, even if I am not precisely sure how to proceed. Still, one small step can begin the rebuilding and every step makes me stronger when I face the next stressor. I can then pass the lessons I've learned along to someone else who may have hit a bump in the roadbed that they weren't expecting.

The bent tracks for me are a metaphor for both life and faith; they represent things that can and do need to be repaired, replaced or even just have attention paid to it for whatever reason. I can't stop the earth from moving but I can re-lay new track to replace the displaced ones. Now if I just have the courage and strength to do it – and let God the surveyor set the line and the grade for the construction.

Picture from Sean OShea at http://www.alexbealer.org/page.php?id=105, accessed 3/7/11