Sunday, April 29, 2012

April 28 - A Dwelling Place for God

The Lord said to Moses: Tell the Israelites to take for me an offering; from all whose hearts prompt them to give you shall receive the offering for me. This is the offering that you shall receive from them: gold, silver, and bronze, blue, purple, and crimson yarns and fine linen, goats’ hair, tanned rams’ skins, fine leather, acacia wood, oil for the lamps, spices for the anointing-oil and for the fragrant incense, onyx stones and gems to be set in the ephod and for the breastpiece. And have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them. In accordance with all that I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle and of all its furniture, so you shall make it.

They shall make an ark of acacia wood; it shall be two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. You shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and outside you shall overlay it, and you shall make a moulding of gold upon it all round. You shall cast four rings of gold for it and put them on its four feet, two rings on one side of it, and two rings on the other side. You shall make poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold. And you shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark, by which to carry the ark. The poles shall remain in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it. You shall put into the ark the covenant that I shall give you.

Then you shall make a mercy-seat  of pure gold; two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its width. You shall make two cherubim of gold; you shall make them of hammered work, at the two ends of the mercy-seat. Make one cherub at one end, and one cherub at the other; of one piece with the mercy-seat you shall make the cherubim at its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy-seat with their wings. They shall face each other; the faces of the cherubim shall be turned towards the mercy-seat. You shall put the mercy-seat on the top of the ark; and in the ark you shall put the covenant that I shall give you. There I will meet you, and from above the mercy-seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the covenant, I will deliver to you all my commands for the Israelites. --Exodus 25:1-22

One of the most interesting things about visiting foreign places is to visit not just the tourists sites that are generally the reason for visiting in the first place, but wandering about the local markets. Not the stores with antiseptic-looking rows of packaged goods, but the place where stall after stall or small shop after small shop stand cheek-by-jowl, selling all kinds of wonderful things with a personality and individuality that you just don't find at Saks Fifth Avenue or Wal-Mart. Brightly-colored cloth is sold next to shiny brass and metal implements while the spice stall, woodworker's shop and the leather store add their pungency in various quarters. Incense and jewelry of precious metal, colored beads and gemstones can be had there and, not far away, rows and rows of fresh vegetables and fruits tempt the eyes and the palate. Bazaars and marketplaces like that exist all across the globe, and the chance to visit one of them is a sensory treat that can seem almost overwhelming but is something that is hard to forget.

Reading the list of materials God required for the building of the tabernacle, the place where God would be present among them, I had the picture in my mind of a colorful bazaar, its sights and sounds and textures. I can't help but wonder where in the world would a bunch of wanderers in the desert come up with such a wealth and diversity of gifts with which to build and furnish such a structure, much less a portable one? The Priestly source, I understand, was very much concerned with sacred things and so that writer would undoubtedly have rejoiced in the item by item list of building materials much as a contractor might pour over the list of stone, cement, lumber, glass and all the hundreds of different kinds of materials from which he will direct the erection of a building, be it skyscraper, cathedral, school or ordinary house.

Usually when I think of the exodus and the journey to the promised land I think of a journey where folks had maybe a change of clothes and traveled light. No overhead bins, no extra baggage in the hold, no trunks and portmanteaus with an entourage to manage stowage, packing, unpacking and serving as each day required. Then I remembered that before they left Egypt, Moses was told to "[t]ell the people that every man is to ask his neighbor and every woman is to ask her neighbor for objects of silver and gold”(Ex. 11:2). They not only left Egypt, they didn't go empty handed.

Then it hit me. Part of those gold and silver objects might not be for the Israelites to deck themselves out in or to use like folks in my mother's generation would save for "good", occasions like the preacher or other company coming for dinner or even special family holiday meals. Those gold and silver objects might have been for survival; the Israelites might trade them with caravans they might run across, or to pay for provisions in places like oases that might have marketplaces or small bazaars. But part of it, perhaps all of it, I don't know, might have been for just this construction project God had in mind. In my mind's eye, I see a desert landscape, dry and dusty and brown, but I see rising up a singular construction, full of color and brightness and rich scents, roughness and smoothness, all present in a place where God would dwell among God's people.

There are many times when my life feels like the desert in which I live: dry, dusty, barren except for scrub and the occasional spiny cactus. Nothing is really easy there, and to one who loves the million shades of green of forests and meadows and gardens, it's not a beautiful place although many would disagree with me on that. I have squirrelled away bits of brightness and familiar weaves, hoarding them -- for what?  They've been in my baggage as I've wandered through both the literal and figurative trek through the desert, and I'm saving them for what?

What if I took those bits and pieces, those treasured items, experiences and memories and put them together to create a place for God to dwell? What if I found a resting place for an internal ark containing not just the symbols of covenant but a mercy seat, a thin space between God and me, a place of presence? What if I could look across the landscape of my soul and see this tabernacle standing out as a reminder that God is present -- not just in the abstract but in actuality, not just around but within as well?

I think I have some plans to look over and some inventory to check. I may be needing to do a little construction job in here.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 28, 2012.  Thanks to Ann Fontaine for the title of the reflection.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

April 21 - Sometimes Ya Just Need a Hand

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarrelled with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’ Moses said to them, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?’ But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?’ So Moses cried out to the Lord, ‘What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.’ The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.’ Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarrelled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’

Then Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim. Moses said to Joshua, ‘Choose some men for us and go out; fight with Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.’ So Joshua did as Moses told him, and fought with Amalek, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses’ hands grew weary; so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side; so his hands were steady until the sun set. And Joshua defeated Amalek and his people with the sword.

Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Write this as a reminder in a book and recite it in the hearing of Joshua: I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.’ And Moses built an altar and called it, The Lord is my banner. He said, ‘A hand upon the banner of the Lord!  The Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.’ -- Exodus 17:1-16

The Israelites were out of Egypt and on their way to ---- where?  The reality of the trip was finally getting through to them and, what was worse, here they were, tired and thirsty, but there wasn't any water!
"Moses, you idiot! What are we doing here in this desert with no water and no real idea where we're going or when we're going to get there? DO SOMETHING! And do it NOW!"
I have a feeling that after this, Moses probably would have welcomed another round or two with Pharaoh. As before, many times, God had the answer. "Just go over here, take your staff of elders and your staff of wood and strike the rock. They'll get their water." It happened, just as God said it would. Another crisis averted.
And then here came the Amalekites, bent on eliminating these interlopers. Joshua got the command to take some guys out to meet and fight with him while Moses, Aaron and Hur would go watch from the top of a nearby hill. It didn't sound too promising except that Moses promised that as long as he held his staff in the air, Joshua's team would win. All was well for a bit, but holding a wooden staff in the air for a long time gets to be pretty painful, so Moses would have to lower his hand and the Amalekites would start their surge. It was almost like watching a conductor of a large group of singers who burst into song the moment the conductor raised his hands but if those hands dropped the sound stopped completely. I can imagine the conductor having fun raising and lowering his hand quickly just to listen to the disjointed music, but for Moses it wasn't that much fun.
Aaron and Hur had a solution. While Moses was still able to hold up the staff, they dragged a rock over to the place where he was standing and watching the battle. Finally Moses could sit down but holding the staff was more and more painful.  Aaron and Hur each took an arm and held it up until sunset when Joshua finally routed the Amalekites. I can imagine how relieved Moses was to finally be able to lower his arms and take the strain off his back and shoulders, not to mention have his band of dependents safe.
That part of the story made me think of the times I've felt like I've had to hold up a rod of heavy wood and not put it down lest the world, my world, anyway, fall apart totally. The life I figuratively held in my hands was my own, and the Amalekites were various people, things and events that came crashing like storm waves over a sea wall. Many times I've felt I've faced the Amalekites totally alone, and the struggle was exhausting physically, mentally, emotionally and, often, spiritually. There have been many times, though, when someone saw my need, pulled up a rock for me and held my hands up until I could breathe again and move ahead. Even if the fight with the Amalekites wasn't totally over, I had the help that gave me time to figure out what to do next.
Moses built an altar to commemorate the event, naming it the "The Lord is My Banner," signifying the victory God had given them. I'm not much good at building things, much less altars, but what I have built is a support network of people who have held up my arms when I didn't have the strength to do it, and for whom I would do the same. It wasn't just me who built it though; it was the people who showed up when they were needed most and, most fortunately for me, many have stuck around. They have been not just supporters but friends, and true friends like them are truly signs of God's care for me. It’s hard to think that any thing or anyone but God could have put them where and when they were most needed. Some have come and gone when the battle was over, some are still there after years and years.

I know the relief that Moses felt when he had friends (ok, and a relative) to do what was needed when he hadn't the strength to do it himself. His testimony was indeed written down in a book while mine will be written in a blog. Still, whether saving one life or a hundred thousand or more, I have a feeling that God is, if not directly pulling the strings, at least laying a trail of breadcrumbs  or the hint of an oasis nearby, with a rock and a good friend or two waiting to be discovered.
For M, JJ, S, HH, HL, MC, J, B, and my cast of thousands. Thank you all.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 21, 2012.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

April 14 - The Travelogue Begins...

When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, ‘If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness towards the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of the land of Egypt prepared for battle. And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph, who had required a solemn oath of the Israelites, saying, ‘God will surely take notice of you, and then you must carry my bones with you from here.’ They set out from Succoth, and camped at Etham, on the edge of the wilderness. The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.

Then the Lord said to Moses: ‘Tell the Israelites to turn back and camp in front of Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baal-zephon; you shall camp opposite it, by the sea. Pharaoh will say of the Israelites, “They are wandering aimlessly in the land; the wilderness has closed in on them.” I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, so that I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army; and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.’ And they did so. -- Exodus 13:17-14:4

The Israelites had made it out of Egypt, ending over four hundred years of sojourn in a foreign land. God wasn't going to let them go the easy way, though. They had lived there for many generations, and it was a lead pipe cinch they'd undoubtedly picked up some beliefs, practices and the like that smacked of a syncretism God wasn't going to have them take into their new/old home. So, rather than hand them a Garmin or Tom-Tom that would give them directions straight to the Promised Land, God gave them pillars of cloud and fire to shepherd them on the way, the long way around.

God, having already given the Egyptians ten plagues to prove God's power, determined that there was to be one more confrontation to prove to Pharaoh that God wasn't someone to be trifled with and neither were the people of God. So instead of leading the people away from Egypt, the pillars turned the people around and led them back in the general direction they had just come from, almost as a taunt to the Egyptians. The plan seemed to be that Pharaoh, hearing that the Israelites were headed back, would have jumped at the chance of trying to at least regain some of his pride back by sending his army to round up the escapees and returning them to their former servitude.

In the meantime the Israelites have already listed several of the places they had been on their early journey out of Egypt. Succoth, Etham, and Pi-hahiroth, places that probably meant something to the people then but which are pretty much just names to us. When I looked at maps that purport to trace the route of the exodus, I am amazed at how different many of them are in where they locate the places that were named. Even with modern GPS devices, we would probably never be able to accurately follow in their footsteps with any degree of accuracy. But then, few of us would be willing to walk in the desert for about 40 years either.

Deserts are funny things. People like to go out into them for brief periods but most are never really prepared for it. Oh, most trips turn out well; people can go and see the minimalist landscape of sand, hardpan and rock, with places where scrub brush and/or cacti of various types prove that there are things which can thrive in a very harsh climate and then return to their air-conditioned cars and retrace their steps back to their suburban homes. The Israelites were somewhat used to the climate and the heat, but they were also used to being able to draw rations from the Egyptian stores, things like bread and beer and onions. Now they were on their own, with no McDonald's or roadside pub to look to for refreshment. What they did have was a cloud and fire, visible signs that although they might be hot, tired, thirsty, footsore and discouraged, their God was still there, guiding, drawing them on and keeping them focused on why they were there.

Often when I find myself in a spiritual desert I honestly wish for some sign, some pillar that would suddenly appear and guide me or direct me to answers I seek, solutions I need and rest I must have. I have a feeling that saintly people like Mother Teresa have had the same kind of feeling, maybe even more dire and desperate than I do, but who endure because no matter how shaky it might be, there is a tiny flame of faith down there somewhere just waiting for a little tending, a little fuel and a little patience to grow into a bonfire that will light up the sky. Even if I seem to turn around to return to something that I  thought I had left behind, there has to be something there that I have to learn or maybe re-learn, do or re-do, in order to progress on the road. There are times when I can almost list people or places that marked where I met a kindness or a bit of refreshment that gave me the courage and impetus to move on, much as the places the Israelites listed in their travelogue. Thing is, my journey may last more than 40 years, but, like the Israelites, I have faith that there will be a promised land somewhere, sometime, somehow.

I may not be able to find Pi-hahiroth on a map, but I can probably find a similar place in my spiritual topography. God may not be setting the stage for a great victory but perhaps a small one is all that is required of me.  Perhaps what I just need to remember is to check my spiritual GPS and trust that when it says to turn left or right, I'm ready to do it.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 14, 2012.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

A Real and Virtual Thin Place on a Festival Day

Christos anesti!  Alleluya!

It's Easter morning and I've just "attended" my second service of the day, the second live broadcast from the National Cathedral, a place I know and love so deeply. This morning's services were, as usual, Episcopal to the core-- great liturgy, great music, great images and very much like a rich banquet where one doesn't know what to taste or smell or sample first.

Several images stick out in my mind, like the presentation of the offering baskets at both services, not ushers with baskets of money but children from toddlerhood to perhaps mid-elementary school age bringing baskets of flowers and other "stuff". One little girl had on bunny ears and several small ones seemed to want to stay and look at all the people looking back at them. They were adorable. Who couldn't smile and be happy to see them? 

Another impression was the strength and beauty of the pipe organ, an instrument of which I'm inordinately fond. How marvelous it must be to be able to command that power and range of sound and to hear it reverberate through the open spaces and bounce from stone vaults and pillars and walls. It's a power and a majesty that bring out feelings too deep for me to be able to describe. 

My voice might be silenced but my heart and my mind sang the traditional hymns with the choir and the assembly at the Cathedral this morning. "He Is Risen" affected me in a way I haven't  felt in a very long time. Maybe it was the organ, maybe the sound of all the voices singing --- I don't know. It just felt like a song to truly celebrate the greatest event in the world.

What brought tears to my eyes, though, was seeing the crucifer and torch bearers in perfect harmony leading the processions and acolytes with their long poles topped with white streamers making those ribbons dart and dance above the heads of the crowd like great white birds. It reminded me of the presence of the Spirit moving through the world, going where it will and rejoicing in the joy of flight and freedom, praising the Creator who made it possible in the first place. Why did that affect me so much?  I don't know, but me, stoic that I am, I got tears in my eyes.

Ok, so I sat there and watched two Easter services on the computer instead of going to a "real" church and participating in a "real" service. Had I gone to a "real" church, we probably would have sung the same hymns, the readings would have been the same, the sermon would have perhaps been in different words and expression but the message would have been nearly identical. The nave would have been as full, the children as cute, the choirs as rehearsed and the flowers as colorful and fragrant. So why not just go to a "real" church instead of sitting in my pajamas in front of a monitor watching something take place 2000 or so miles away? 

The answer is simple -- for me, anyway. I want to be in a place where my heart is not just touched but torn open, where my eyes and ears are full of sound and pageantry, and where I always feel a thin place between heaven and earth, a tabernacle where God is present and glorified with all the beauty, all the ritual, all the textures and mystery that the Cathedral has exemplified for me for decades, ever since the first day I walked into it. I wanted an Easter in that place, an Easter that didn't just celebrate the resurrection but shouted it to the vaults and rang from the bell tower extravagantly and exuberantly,  a place where the Spirit danced like the fluttering ribbons and blossomed like the great baskets and garlands of flowers, and a place where small children with Easter baskets (and bunny ears) and dignified vergers met together to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord.

I found it today on my computer, but it makes me long for more like that. I long to be involved in such a place, not as one of the visible, important people but as one of those who serve in humble ways. Sure, I'd love to be able to preach, but it would be enough to polish the brass and silver. I'd love to wave the Spirit pole but I'd also love to be a catechist, sharing my love of God, the church, the practices and beliefs and the preparation for a ceremony of commitment to the covenant. I'd love to be a singer in a large choir with an extensive repertoire spanning the many centuries of inspired church music, but I'd love to sit and listen to them as they practice. There's so much --

So why not bite the bullet, be part of the local parish and do those things there?  It's complicated, but the answer is that I don't want to be a small fish in a small pond. I want to be a small fish in a very large one, where I have room to grow, like goldfish when taken out of a glass bowl and put into a large tank. I want to be surrounded by stone and stained glass and state trumpets. I'm sure I could find those things in other places, but for me, there will only be one National Cathedral. Just being part of it on this festival day, even from a distance, makes the thin place present even here where I live and where the darting and swooping of wings are those of hummingbirds outside.

I celebrate Easter and the reason for Easter and feel blessed. Tomorrow will be business as usual, but today, I can join in the response "He is risen indeed, Alleluia!" with all the feeling and emotion within me.

Christos anesti!  Alithos anesti!  Alleluya.

April 7 - Holy Saturday

Psalm 95 (Invitiatory), 88 [AM]
Psalm 27 [PM]

Lamentations 3:37-58
Hebrews 4:1-16 [AM]
Romans 8:1-11 [PM]

Holy Saturday is an odd day in the church calendar. Lent has been building up to the two great moments in the season: the pain and agony of the events of Good Friday, culminating in the death of Jesus on the cross, and the joyous, exuberant celebration of his resurrection from the dead on Easter. Between the two there is a kind of void, a sort of emptiness and, in a sense, aimlessness. It is like the period of fog between the death of a family member or loved one and the funeral, a time when grief and loss are very much present but held in suspense, waiting for the final closure of the funeral. With Jesus, though, the funeral was brief and hurried. Still, the mourning rituals continue in the church that grew around this Jewish son of a Jewish mother, stepson of a Galilean carpenter or tekton, and the Son of God.

Holy Saturday in the church may be a sort of waiting-with-bated-breath kind of day, but anyone involved with a church like ours will tell you that it is one of the busiest days of the busiest weeks in the entire calendar. The church itself is quiet and bare, the aumbry door wide open and showing the empty space within where consecrated elements reside during the rest of the year. The red shade that holds the sanctuary light is a darker, duller shade without the twinkling of the candle that burns inside it when the elements are present. The altar has only the dark maroon cover that usually lies on the cere cloth and fair linen but now covers only the bare wood of the altar's top. The crosses are still veiled and statues draped with black or deep purple. This is how it was left on Good Friday at the conclusion of the Eucharist for the day, the silence hanging thick and heavy as if it too expressed the grief and loss that Good Friday represented.

Holy Saturday comes and with it a lightening of the grief although it is never far from the mind. At the church the lights go on, the vacuum whirrs, dust cloths seemingly fly about, the scent and finally sight of white lilies and other flowers creep into the nave. The clink of crystal and metal in the sacristy testify to the cleaning and polishing going on while the crosses are unveiled and the altar is set. The baptismal font is readied and the big silver ewer set on the counter in the sacristy, ready to be filled with water for the font which will be then blessed and used for baptisms at the first celebration of Easter, the Great Vigil.

The afternoon brings quiet once again until dusk when the people gather around a fire pit, the fire is lit and the Pascal candle is lit. The cantor begins the chant of the Exultet, part exhortation to rejoice, part remembrance of the Passover and part prayer to ask God's blessing on the candle which will, throughout the Easter season and other times during the year, represent the eternal light of Christ in a visible and recognizable form. The vigil of death has ended, the Vigil of resurrection has begun.

Ash Wednesday began the journey to Easter and, in a sense, I can experience a smaller, quieter version in any given week. Ash Wednesday reminds me that I am indeed a sinner and that this is something of which I need to repent. Lent is a time that should cause me to think about what has gone before, how it has affected me, those around me and, most of all, fractured my relationship with God. Lent calls me to repent, to turn around from the missing of the mark which is what sin is, and repair what I can while trusting God to do the rest. Good Friday drives the point home, not necessarily as a substitutionary atonement but as an example of how far God is willing to go to show God's love and forgiveness to a world that cannot really understand or accept how great that love is. What other gods have undergone such an ordeal for their people?  What other gods have stepped down from their gilded thrones to become the same as any person by whom they were considered a deity? Jesus did, and as a result we have Holy Saturday, the day between death and despair and the day of greatest joy and celebration.

Holy Saturday, for me, is the time just before dawn when the world waits for the first glimpse of the rising sun. The hush and quiet needs to remain with me for a few more hours, but as the sun sets, I see the light breaking slowly but most surely. Today's readings may be mostly readings of lamentation, penitence and call for repentance, but I am reminded that, as another Psalm tells me, "Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning." (Ps. 30:5c, NRSV)

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café  on Saturday, April 7, 2012.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Different Kind of Holy Week

While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant-girls of the high priest came by. When she saw Peter warming himself, she stared at him and said, ‘You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth.’ But he denied it, saying, ‘I do not know or understand what you are talking about.’ And he went out into the forecourt. Then the cock crowed. And the servant-girl, on seeing him, began again to say to the bystanders, ‘This man is one of them.’ But again he denied it. Then after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, ‘Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean.’ But he began to curse, and he swore an oath, ‘I do not know this man you are talking about.’

At that moment the cock crowed for the second time. Then Peter remembered that Jesus had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.’ And he broke down and wept. - Mark 14:66-72

The Daily Office usually gives me a lot to think about, but this Maundy Thursday evening it isn't quite enough. I can read the story of the first Eucharistic meal, perhaps hoping against hope that the accusation of Jesus would not be true this time, but it always is and I know it. Still, we have the Eucharist to sustain us through the next few days when our emotions will be again made raw by the remembrance of the suffering of Christ on this night and his crucifixion on "Good Friday." Holy Saturday will be one of quiet waiting until the glorious explosion of joy, pageantry and thanksgving erupts at the services that mark the feast of the resurrection. But those days are in the future; tonight I come back to the portion of the gospel that is part of the story but not part of today's readings.

Following Jesus' arrest in the Garden, Peter followed Jesus surreptitiously; after all, it would do him no good to come right out and claim Jesus as his teacher and mentor when Jesus had just been arrested. Sounds like so many people who are part of an investigation into an alleged crime, "Nope, I wasn't there; I was somewhere else, don't know anybody, didn't see anything, don't know anything about it." Jesus had said that Peter would say something like that not once but three times and Peter just pooh-poohed the idea. He loved Jesus, he would never, ever deny Jesus -- but he did. Sometimes it is easier and safer to deny something rather than speak the truth and face the consequences.

Denial is a strange thing. It's a way of avoiding facing something that a person would rather not face. It attempts to avoid consequences that sooner or later will catch up to the person, only they usually think they can escape those consequences. Occasionally it may work, or work for a time, but eventually there will be consequences, often worse than would have been had they not been evaded. Peter was trying to save his own neck, a neck he would eventually have to stick out when it became his turn to first preach and teach the message of this Messiah and then run afoul of the authorities only to end up on a cross himself. Still, he managed to evade those consequences for some time, trying, in a sense, to make up for those minutes of denial. In a sense, he strove to redeem himself -- whether to God, to Jesus, to the other disciples or maybe to himself, who knows?

I've done enough denying in my life to know that consequences catch up. In the past few years I've had a nagging suspicion about a health problem but nah, I could justify ignoring it, thinking it was just temporary discomfort or just the result of getting older but never really wanting to face it. Then, more or less out of the blue, the time came when I couldn't ignore it any longer. There it was, staring me in the face. The time for paying the consequences had begun.

Lest anyone think I'm being melodramatic, I'm really trying not to be. Last Friday afternoon, after having seen my primary care physician on Wednesday, I got a message from his office stating that my blood sugar level was 260 and, with the symptoms he and I had discussed, he wanted me to make an appointment as soon as possible. I saw him on Monday afternoon and now I not only have a diagnosis, I have a major lifestyle shift to make. I have medications to take, finger-sticks to do and dietary limitations that are the hardest part of all. Instead of a whole cluster of grapes I am now limited to 17. Who counts grapes? Well, I guess now I do, huh?  Big Macs may not be gone forever but now I will have to plan my whole day's diet around that one Big Mac -- and forget the fries, at least for now. It's not fun, but I'm really not whining. I'm just looking at the consequences.

Ok, so my denial isn't on par with Peter's, in the greater scheme of things. I haven't denied the Lord or that I knew him, but what I have denied is that I have done a lousy stewardship job on my body. It's easy to say my denial isn't as bad as Peter's, but it's my own denial that I have to pay for, just as he did. I read once somewhere that I can't compare my pain, my feelings or anything else, including denials, to anyone else's because I have to deal with mine, not theirs. Mine are the worst in the world because they are mine to face and deal with. I can empathize, I can sympathize, I can even identify with another but I can't walk in their shoes or completely understand how they felt or why they react as they do. I'm not minimizing their pain or inflating my own; I'm simply stating the truth as I see it, right or wrong in anyone else's eyes.

Holy Week is supposed to be about focusing on the events leading up to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. This year, however, part of my focus has been a focus on my own trial, crucifixion of a way of life I'd found comforting, and a potential resurrection of a new and healthier me. Maybe it's petty, but it's the way I am looking at it at this moment.

I believe I am going through a strange and different kind of Holy Week observance, but in the end, I have hope of my own new life. I have the example of Jesus to look to and follow.

Have a blessed Tridiuum.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

March 31 - Plagues, Pharaohs and Parallels

Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand towards heaven so that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be felt.’ So Moses stretched out his hand towards heaven, and there was dense darkness in all the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another, and for three days they could not move from where they were; but all the Israelites had light where they lived. Then Pharaoh summoned Moses, and said, ‘Go, worship the Lord. Only your flocks and your herds shall remain behind. Even your children may go with you.’ But Moses said, ‘You must also let us have sacrifices and burnt-offerings to sacrifice to the Lord our God. Our livestock also must go with us; not a hoof shall be left behind, for we must choose some of them for the worship of the Lord our God, and we will not know what to use to worship the Lord until we arrive there.’ But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he was unwilling to let them go. Then Pharaoh said to him, ‘Get away from me! Take care that you do not see my face again, for on the day you see my face you shall die.’ Moses said, ‘Just as you say! I will never see your face again.’

The Lord said to Moses, ‘I will bring one more plague upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt; afterwards he will let you go from here; indeed, when he lets you go, he will drive you away. Tell the people that every man is to ask his neighbour and every woman is to ask her neighbour for objects of silver and gold.’ The Lord gave the people favour in the sight of the Egyptians. Moreover, Moses himself was a man of great importance in the land of Egypt, in the sight of Pharaoh’s officials, and in the sight of the people.

Moses said, ‘Thus says the Lord: About midnight I will go out through Egypt. Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the female slave who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the livestock. Then there will be a loud cry throughout the whole land of Egypt, such as has never been nor will ever be again. But not a dog shall growl at any of the Israelites—not at people, not at animals—so that you may know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel. Then all these officials of yours shall come down to me, and bow low to me, saying, “Leave us, you and all the people who follow you.” After that I will leave.’ And in hot anger he left Pharaoh. -- Exodus 10:21-11:8

The story of the plagues of Egypt reads something like a soap opera with twists, turns, double-crosses, accusations, and personalities. Pharaoh the protagonist, Moses the hero and, above all, God acting as the controller of all the action. The script becomes predictable, almost like a rubber band:

Moses approaches Pharaoh with demand from God to release Israelites
Pharaoh nixes the request
God sends plague
All Egypt held for ransom by plague
Pharaoh changes mind, agrees to request
Israelites get ready to leave
God hardens Pharaoh's heart
Pharaoh does a 180 and says no again
Moses approaches Pharaoh with demand from God to release Israelites

This is the final time God will harden Pharaoh's heart in order to prove God's own greatness over all the earth, including Egypt. I often wonder, though, how did the ordinary Egyptians, the farmers and herders, weavers and brewers and washerwomen, felt about all this really bad stuff happening to them. Since there was no ENN (Egyptian News Network) to call a play-by-play in real time, I imagine most would only be aware that bad stuff was happening, not why. I have to say, though, that I feel sorry for them, paying the price for the hardheartedness (and hard headedness) of the guy who was, in their minds, the image of the gods.

When rotten stuff happens, it's all too easy to blame God (or the image we have of God). What did I do to cause this to happen to me? Why do I have to suffer so when I really haven't done anything that seems to warrant this kind of punishment? Why is God doing this to me? There are really rotten people out in the world walking around in perfect health, financially well-off, seemingly living the good life while I'm here stuck in this awful situation. Why me?  Where is Moses when I need him, interceding with the Pharaohs of my world for me?  Is God hardening the hearts of those with whom I have problems and who seem to hold the power to bind or release me at their pleasure? WHY ME?

I was taught as a child that troubles come to make me a stronger person, to learn to rely on God, and to show my faith in the face of adversity. I have found that having gone through struggles in my life, I certainly have become a stronger person. I do look to God for guidance but when I read this passage where God deliberately hardens Pharaoh's heart to prove God's own superiority, punishing innocent people for one man's decision, I have a real problem trusting that God. It's like saying that with Adam's sin (or Eve's, depending on the interpretation and denomination), every person in the world has to die as punishment. I still have trouble getting my head around that one.

Some folks in various churches seem to think that we are in a time like that of today's passage and that we need a Moses to prophecy what will happen if we don't straighten up and fly right, according to their lights anyway.  We're being tested by God with natural disasters ("acts of God"), bad things happening to good people with no real apparent reason ("acts of Satan") and being really rotten to our neighbors ("acts of enemies/non-Christians/this or that political party, etc"). Seems like we wait for a Moses with a clear-cut message from God to go stand up to the bullies like Pharaoh and end all our problems. Today it seems like we have a whole lotta Moseses but even more Pharaohs.  A Moses speaks to the issue but Pharaoh hardens his heart and the lives of everyone pays the price in one way or another.

Like all good soap operas, today's reading sort of gives me the "stay tuned for exciting scenes from tomorrow's episode of..." The story of Moses, Pharaoh and the plagues is familiar so I know how it ends, but every time I read the story I find something new about it that I hadn't considered before. I confess, this time it's the plight of the people all down the food chain, the ones who pay the price for the arrogance and stubbornness of the Pharaohs. Maybe one day the voices of those nameless, faceless, genderless people will be heard and the Pharaohs will hear and heed the message of God.

Meanwhile, I will read on and see the parallels to the world I live in. It's only March* and a very long time until November, but I have a feeling the hearts of Pharaohs across the country (and across the world, if truth be told) will continue to be hardened, by their own wills rather than by God. Meanwhile the "plagues" will continue and everyone will point fingers and blame others for them.

Egypt's Pharaohs were born to the job or fought their way into it. Ours get elected, either by us or by some religious group who believe theirs is the only way. 

"Stay tuned for the next exciting episode..."  God hasn't finished talking yet.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café on Saturday, March 31, 2012.

*Corrected from February in the original article.