Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Lent and Loan

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.  -- BCP

"Oh, good Lord, what do I give up THIS year?"

That seems to be a big question on the minds of some Christians when Ash Wednesday approaches. The usual answers are chocolate (or candy or sweets of any kind), sometimes coffee, eating junk food, or something that someone especially enjoys. Growing up a Southern Baptist I missed all the childhood angst of Lent since the SBs didn't acknowledge such a papist practice and besides, we were supposed to be penitent (but joyful in our certainty of heaven) all year so we didn't need a special season for it. The dichotomy was subtle, not at all like the bipolar shift from the raucous celebrations of Shrove Tuesday that suddenly and completely stop at the stroke of midnight and become the solemnity and quiet of Ash Wednesday. For SBs, "lent" was a word indicating that you had temporarily given something you owned to someone else with the expectation of getting it back at some point in time (although lots of neighborhood feuds have started over loaned items that never seemed to make their way home again).

Come to think of it, even though the word "lent" comes from the Old English word for "spring," "lent" in the sense of "temporarily relinquishing possession of " seems to work for me when it comes to the period of time between Ash Wednesday and Easter Eve.  The giving up of something (or several somethings) for that period is taking something I own, or something I enjoy, or even something that is very important to me and loaning it to God for the 40 days with the expectation of taking it back Easter Sunday morning as soon as possible.  It's the spring equivalent of New Year's when people make resolutions to give up bad habits and take on a new way of being, doing or thinking. Quite often the resolutions don't work and then there's the guilt to be dealt with. Lent gives me another shot -- a second chance. What I do with it is up to me. This time, though, it isn't just a promise I make to myself but a promise I make to God when I hand over, lend, my coffee, candy, cigarettes or whatever.

With the idea of lent as period of loaning something to God, the flip side is the church's newer suggestion of taking things on for Lent instead of merely giving something up. It's sort of like trading one thing for another but hey, if it works, do it. Going to church more often, developing a more structured prayer or Bible study practice, evevn doing more charitable work or more giving to others is also, in essence, loaning to God extra time and effort, with the expectation that at some point time and personal indulgences will be reclaimed. Duty to be penitent for a season will have been done and then  normal patterns of life can be resumed, the coffee gratefully sipped once again,  the exercises attempted (with more or less successful results) can be set aside and the time reclaimed for watching sports or the checking out the insides of the eyelids instead of watcing a round piece of unleavened flour and a cup of port being elevated.

The purpose of Lent is not just penitence, it's change. Unlike some denominations, Episcopalians aren't expected to wallow in contemplation of their sinfulness and their worthlessness without Jesus as a personal saviour and best pal. That isn't the Episcopal way. It is, however, an Episcopalian thing to be penitent in a quietly genteel way, remembering on Ash Wednesday and the 40 days of Lent following it that indeed we are and will always be dust. Not the center of the universe, not the ruler of all we survey, not even so good we can forget about acknowleging the little rottennesses we try to keep hidden in the darkest corners of our souls and psyches. We quietly struggle with the question of do we leave the ashes on our foreheads when we leave the church as a mark of our Christianity and our reminder to be repentant or do we rub them off because we don't want to brag about our piety by the quiet sign of the smudges and in obedience to the Biblical command not to show off our righteousness in overt, purely ritualistic ways. And over it all is the call to repentance and change, to remember that it isn't all about me and is all about God and God's kingdom.

At Easter we rise from the ashes of Lent. We gratefully grab that cup of cofffee, swipe a chocolate bunny or candy bar from the kids' Easter baskets, put the Bible and/or Prayer Book away for the next year and gratefully turn the alarm off and sleep in that extra hour on Sunday mornings. We take back the time, effort and energy we have loaned to God in the guise of giving up or taking on things for 40 short days, leaving 325 to indulge ourselves once again.

The ashes on our foreheads today are supposed to be a mark of commitment, personal commitment, to remember, to repent, to be deliberate in our choices, even to lend to God on a permanent basis. It's for our own good.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the
observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance;

by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and

editating on God's holy Word. And, to make a right beginning

of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now

kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.  - BCP, emphasis mine

Maybe it's taking it out of context but "make a right beginning" stands out. It's an almost irresistable invitation to me from God and the church. Do I have the courage to make something a permanent loan this Lent?

Therefore we beseech him to grant us true repentance and his
Holy Spirit, that those things may please him which we do on
this day, and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure
and holy, so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen  -- BCP

Monday, February 8, 2010

What I Learned from Honi the Circle-Drawer

Honi the Circle-drawer

It happened that they said to Honi the Circle-drawer:
--"Pray for the rains to come!"
He prayed, but the rains did not come. What did he do?
He drew a circle, stood in it and said before (God):
-- "Lord of the world, your sons have turned their faces to me,
for I am like a son of the house before you.
I swear by your great NAME: I will not move from here,
until you have compassion on your sons!"
It began to drizzle.
He said:
-"I didn't ask for rain like this, but for rain to fill cisterns, wells and caverns!"
A downpour threatened.
He said:
- "I didn't ask for rain like this, but for rain of good-will, blessing and grace."
It rained as it was supposed to, until, on account of the rain,
Israel had to go from Jerusalem to the temple mount...
Simeon ben Shetach [the leader of the Pharisees] sent to him and said:
--"If you were not Honi, I would have you excommunicated.
But what can I do to you?
You are presumptuous before the Creator and yet he does as you wish,
like a son presumes on his father and he does whatever he wishes."

--- Mishna, Ta'anith 3.8 (source was found here)

I have liked the story of Honi since I first read it a few years ago. It was a neat story, it was catchy and it was interesting. Over the years I've thought of Honi several times, most recently during a search for a TR topic for our EfM class and I remembered having read about him when a student. I decided to pull him out, dust him off and look at him again.

Honi was a person of respect and trust. People went to him when their very lives were threatened by lack of rain. Probably they'd tried praying for rain themselves but apparently God wasn't listening. So, like brothers and sisters in a family who knew who had more clout with Mother or Dad, they went to Honi to ask him to ask on their behalf. "If you ask Mom she won't say know. She likes you best anyway." Ok, ask Dad, since this was a period where Mom had little control of much of anything other than to incubate, raise the kids and take care of the house. Dad did all the decisions -- including whether somebody would get what they asked for, who would inherit the whole show and how much dowry to pay to get the girls married off.

Honi asked Dad but no rain. Finally, in what seems like almost a fit of petulance ("I'm gonna hold my breath until you say yes!"), Honi drew a circle and stood inside it, daring God to refuse him again. Well, the rest of the story is in the Misha. It rained. The people had their needed water, Honi was more revered than before and even the local head of the Pharisees admitted Honi had more connections than a mob boss.

I like Honi. He had guts. I learned a lot from this story because it is a teaching story as much as a story to record an event long ago. Lesson #1 is that it always helps to know somebody with more connections than I have in case I can't get a problem resolved on my own. But I have to try to resolve it myself first.

Lesson #2 , persistence pays off. Ask once and it may not work. Ask twice and the chances of an answer get upped a bit. Nag and it might try the parent's patience but like water dripping on a rock, but eventually I will get an answer.

Lesson #3, be specific. Honi needed water to fill the underground cisterns and reservoirs. A drizzle wouldn't soak in because the ground was too hard-packed and dry. A torrent wouldn't soak in for the same reason, the difference being that the torrential rain would run off quickly, seeking out crevices, cracks, dry stream beds and the like, causing flooding and possibly a lot of damage to mud-brick houses and the people in them. It would also contaminate the cisterns by washing dirt and rocks into the water supply. Honi stuck to his guns; he knew what kind of rain he needed and so did God.

Lesson #4, the text chapter for this week contained references to the ancient belief (which is also a modern one) that God wills it, Deus vult. The name for this is voluntarism and it's common in the three major religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. God wills a drought so no rain falls. God wills an earthquake and the ground shakes. You get the picture. Honi decided to challenge the voluntarism and ask directly for what was needed. It was a massive poker hand and Honi raised the stakes. We know how that hand turned out.

Lesson #5, be specific. If I need something, ask for it but ask in detail. Heck, it worked for Honi.

Lesson #6, don't be afraid to argue if necessary. Abraham did and Moses had a few words to say to God about something he disagreed with. God didn't whack'em for that; God even changed his mind on one and found an alternative way with the other. There's more than one way to ... (no, I will NOT say "skin a ....")

Lesson #7, and probably the most important one, I won't always get what I ask for. I may not be God's favorite daughter (because God has daughters and pro ably like a lot of fathers, has a special bond with them) but I'm still one of God's daughters so I have a right to ask without fear. I am still a daughter of God, loved and watched over, even if I stamp my foot and pout. I am a daughter of God. If that is all I bring away from the encounter with the circle-drawer, that will be enough.

Thanks for the lessons, Honi.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Callings, Transformations and Reality TV

I don't often watch reality shows (things like "Survivor", "American Idol", and the like leave me cold) although I will admit a secret liking for "Ice Road Truckers" and "Deadliest Catch" as well as "The First 48", "Dr. G" and stuff like that. It was, therefore, somewhat a surprise when last night I was flipping through the channels looking for something to lull me to sleep when I ran across a show I never watch, "What Not To Wear," and stopped. I had seen promos for this particular shows which piqued my interest -- making over an Episcopal priest. I didn't get to sleep until the last 5 minutes when they introduced the priest to her congregation and family in her new "incarnation" but I saw the whole rest of the program.

She had a lot going for her -- she was pretty, young, and had a collar. She also doubted her own ability to dress in a way that wouldn't cheapen her image as a priest or go together as a complete ensemble. I did have to admire her willingness to try and was very happy with the transformation. The hosts kept reminding us that she was a priest just as she kept reminding them that what she wore needed to be able to accommodate and be accommodating of her collar. Yes, Stacy, black clergy shirts are standard but why didn't anybody check into the colored clergy shirts before putting her into some glitzy t-shirt with a collar and dickey to go under the t-shirt?  Still, they did work wonders and the subject looked great.

While watching, though, it occurred to me that this young woman had received a calling by God and had that calling tested and verified by so many people -- her COM, her bishop, her professors, her associates -- and the end result was that she was ordained a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek even if some don't think that any of it was legitimate simply because of her plumbing, her genes and her profile.

I thought about this for a while. So many times over the past decade or two I've wished I could get a call from God that could be tested, verified and approved. No matter how I wished it, prayed for it, or looked for it, it didn't come. This woman (and her many sisters in the clergy) had -- and for them I am grateful and happy. They have received something that isn't guaranteed to anyone, male or female, and in some places only to some males, at least the approval part (I'm sure God doesn't restrict calling only to women in certain parts of the world). There are parts of the world where a woman in such a profession (as well as such a calling) could not exist. Even in first-world countries where equality is a somewhat given, there are still stained-glass ceilings set at basement level: you are a woman, so be satisfied to serve by arranging flowers, doing the linens, teaching the children, fixing casseroles for collations and setting the table where you will never be permitted to preside or even in some cases to serve visibly. Remain invisible, remain in your place because God doesn't want women in jobs where they may have authority over men. Luckily for this woman and her sisters, she didn't have to deal with that. She probably dealt with plenty but at least she had the opportunity to answer her call, even if she couldn't put a smashing social-occasion ensemble together, accessorize a perfectly-tailored suit or even find a comfortable pair of jeans that were flattering as well.

In watching her transformation another thought struck me. Transformation is the operative word. More than just a new hair color and cut, new lipstick or blusher, more than new duds in place of pieces that may be comfortable but not quite runway-quality fashion, transformation is an inside job. Looking at her reaction each time she saw a change in the mirror, it was easy to see the transformation taking place. I'm sure at her ordination she underwent a transformation as well, maybe not as visible but very probably an inward glow that moved outward like Moses' face when he returned from the tent of meeting. Maybe her face reflects this glow not only when she looks in the mirror but when she elevates the host or shares the bread with those at the rail. I like to think of her --- and all her sisters -- with that glow. Even all her brothers, come to think of it.

I"ll never be on "What Not To Wear" and that's fine since I hate spotlights. I wouldn't mind a transformation or two, though -- maybe a call to do something that I can recognize as a call. I thought I had one once but it turns out I didn't. I found that out for myself and I'm glad. I'd have been a total flop at it. There's no reality show on earth that can make that kind of transformation.

So meanwhile, in between watching guys cussing and catching deep-sea bugs that I won't eat on a bet,  accused criminals getting caught by folks with fingerprint powder and extensive knowledge of chemistry of all kinds of things, and dedicated forensic pathologists digging through bloody and complex bits to find the one clue to why somebody is no longer walking the face of the earth, I'll look around and see if there isn't something that is nagging at me, something pushing me toward something I'm either doing or not doing that might fulfill my wish, hope and prayer for a calling. 

That okay with you, God?