Sunday, August 29, 2010

Thoughts on the Sabbath

This is the first Sunday in I don't remember how long that I haven't spent most of the day working on something that needed doing right then. The book went to the printer (hopefully for the last time) on Thursday, the laundry got done, I got the cat food on Friday, and yesterday I mowed and mopped the floors, did the dishes and several other domestic duties that I'd put off because I had to get something done on Ginger's book. Not that I minded, really; it was fun for the most part but still a stressor that may or may not be completely finished, depending on whether the proof copy looks good. Anyway, there not being much to do in that direction I took today off from just about everything.

I got up today at the usual time of 5:30. My alarm goes off Monday - Friday at that hour but the fur-footers seem to think on any day of the week any time after about 4:30 am is borrowed time and they are going to starve to death if they can't get me rousted from the bed as early as possible. Today I refused to be cajoled, bullied, or forced into rising before i was ready (and the boys have some pretty definite ways of getting me out of bed). I got up anyway, fed them, got my first glass of iced tea, read my email and suddenly was so tired I was having trouble staying awake. I gave in. I went back to bed and slept until nearly 9.

I got up for about 3 hours and darned if I didn't feel the need of another nap, this time only a 2-hour one. I did get up and get enough energy to cook up a pot of squash (they were on sale this week, thank you, God!) with bacon and onions for my meal and read the online manual for the Kindle which hopefully will appear tomorrow. Other than that, I've done just about nothing.

I guess I was a lot more tired and stressed than I knew. Sure, I take a nap every possible day but there's been a lot of stress in my life lately and even with the naps there have been strings of nights when I haven't slept well, wakened early and didn't do more than lightly doze until the alarm clock went off -- or a cat had a hairball. 

It brought to mind a discussion we had at our mentor's training session last weekend, namely how to actually observe a sabbath.  Sure, most folks go to church on Sunday (some on Saturday night) and that is what they consider their Sabbath "duty". The rest of the day is spent in recreation -- picnics, playing in the pool with the kids, watching the Cubs lose yet again (Lord, how have they offended thee to cause so many losses over so many years?) or hoping the Redskins or anybody who plays Dallas wins. We also do the chores we didn't have time for on Saturday because Susie had to go to gymnastics or Bobby had soccer, if he didn't have to play on Sunday morning. By Monday we're still tired and not really ready to head back to the office for another week of work before repeating the process again and again.

Genesis tells us that on the seventh day God rested. I wonder what God did on that day since the Cubs, soccer, swimming pools, trips to visit Grandma and playing golf hadn't been invented yet? I'm sure it wasn't laundry, getting groceries, cleaning the bathroom, or even spending time answering emails and trying to figure out what needs to be done on Monday much less ordering the flowers to bloom, ensuring the lions were playing nicely with the lambs, the natural laws set in place were working and everything was being fruitful and multiplying like they were supposed to do.

Jesus told us that "the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27).  The synagogue officials we heard in the Gospel last week certainly didn't dig that; after all, no less than God Almighty had written it in stone that people were to "Remember the Sabbath day" (Genesis 20:8) and, by the Eternal, they were going to make sure people did, even the upstart teacher who presumed to heal a bent-over old woman ON THE SABBATH IN THE SYNAGOGUE ITSELF!!

Which brings my thoughts back to the discussion. It was easy to think of places were we "do" ministry of various types --- at church, with the scouts or civic groups, etc. We even do ministry at the office, the golf course, even at times in the grocery line (including the 15-item-or-less lane where someone is bound to have at least 22 items to check out). The one place we forget to observe the Sabbath is within ourselves. We forget that we are duty-bound to minister to ourselves if we are to be able to minister to others in whatever manner we are called to do so. We have to take time for ourselves, even if the world says that's horribly selfish of us.

Today has seemed like a pretty long day, truth be told. Still, I feel a bit more rested than usual, a little more ready to face the slog tomorrow -- and the day after, and the day after that, etc.  In fact, I think I will turn off the tv, the computer and hopefully the cats and go to bed early. And I may try that a little more often in days to come. I've found that if I don't minister to me, it won't get done. I'm worth it and God sort of expects it.

Whether the Sabbath is Saturday, Sunday or even ten minutes in the middle of a busy Tuesday, the Sabbath was made for me, not me for it. So long as I thank God for giving me the day, the hour, the minutes to take a breather, recharge my batteries a bit, then I am obeying the 4th Commandment and doing what Jesus said.

Now off to observe some Sabbath time. Goodnight and God bless.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The woman with the Bent Back

And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, "Woman, you are set free from your ailment." When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.--Luke 13:11-13

The story begins with Jesus teaching in the synagogue. That's cool; that was a job that was permitted on the sabbath, unlike things like cooking, cleaning, doing farm work and what have you. You could be kind and move your livestock to water and feed them so long as you didn't have to light a fire and cook the food.

Enter a woman, most likely an older woman, one who most probably had no husband, son, brother, father or other male relative to look after and escort her out in public. There isn't even a mention of a slave accompanying her. We don't even get to know her name other than the description "woman with the bent back."  Of course, there are many other stories of unnamed women -- Jarius' daughter, the woman with the hemorrhage, the Syrophoenician woman, the woman with the alabaster jar, the woman at the well, the unnamed followers of Jesus who along with Mary Magdalene supported Jesus and his ministry. The woman with the bent back is another in the cast around whom pivotal deeds and teachings swirled and appeared.

If you saw this woman walking around you would see that it wasn't easy to move when bent over like a human question mark. She had been bent this way for eighteen years, a  number that is represented by the letters of the word chai, Hebrew for "life." It must have been a hard life but she coped as best she could even to walking to the synagogue to worship on the sabbath as the law commanded.

I wonder what she thought when Jesus summoned her to him in the synagogue. To be summoned by a male stranger, even a teacher, was almost as unheard-of as a Jewish woman with male relatives or even male servants walking around in public. Was she startled? Afraid of what the teacher might say or denounce? Anxious that she would be singled out even more than her deformity already did?  Curious to hear what he wanted?  Wanting badly to run away but being totally unable to do so? In think perhaps all these ran through her mind in the space of a heartbeat or two. Still, she did as Jesus asked and approached him, probably with fear and trembling and perhaps resignation because I doubt seriously that she had any hope of anything in her life changing substantially.

What a surprise she got. For the first time in eighteen years she could stand erect. Muscles that had been cramped and bones that had been twisted straightened in a flash. For the first time in eighteen years she could see not just people's feet but their faces and eyes. perhaps it was a mercy not to have seen them when she was in her former shape; it might have caused more grief had she known of the glares of distaste for a handicapped person to dare to be seen in public, the quick glances of pity and the upraised looks of "Thank God I am not like that one!"  At any rate, here she was, standing tall and proud, cane or staff tossed aside and hands raised in thank giving to God as the officials turned their backs and berated the one who, through the power and mercy of God, did the deed that set the woman free. The synagogue officials overlooked that entirely; they were too busy pointing fingers and proclaiming the unrighteousness and sabbath-dishonoring of someone who dared do a healing on the sabbath instead of waiting decently until the next day. They left God out of the equation in their attempt to protect God and the laws God had given on Sinai.

Jesus cured the woman's bent body, restored it to health and functionality. People with disabilities and deformities are still present in society yet many of us avert our eyes or move slightly away as if it were some kind of contagion we must avoid. In that way we're not really much different than the people on the street the woman with the bent back passed so many centuries ago. To the ancients, and even to some modern people, such illnesses and deformities are manifestations of sinfulness and unclean-ness. If only they believed, if only they acknowledged their sins, if only they said the right words everything would be made right and all would be well. Jesus didn't ask for her conversion first before healing her, though. He didn't ask for her acknowledgment of sin before she could be cured. Instead he put love of God and love of neighbor ahead of purity laws and even the literal reading of the commandment to "Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy."

Sometimes doing good is a more important -- and more holy -- sabbath act than sitting in church and listening to sermons about how to obey the law. Somehow an act that appears to be work on a day dedicated to rest, re-creation, restoration and reverence can be a response that enables another to experience the mercy and grace of God. Perhaps something done with kindness and attentiveness to a need can change another's whole life, even if done on the sabbath.

Just ask the woman with the formerly-bent back.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Coming down from the mountain

I've been home a little less than three hours from a training session for EfM mentors that started on Thursday at 2pm and wound up today (Saturday) at 2pm. we spent 18 hours in class, learning how to do administrative stuff, figuring out how to do theological reflections and common lessons so that we as mentors are not teachers but guides, practicing new skills and even familiar ones in new applications and situations, and in general talking about God, theology, and service. not a bad way to spend time over three consecutive days.

Now comes another phase of the work --- processing what I have learned, organizing and filing all the handouts and materials and notes, and starting to get ready for the next year's sessions. There's always an excitement about beginning a new year of EfM, visiting a different set of common lessons, preparing materials and formats for reflections, preparing the mind to switch gears from student in training to mentor in class.

Still, the aura of the training sessions haven't worn off yet. People I didn't know from Adam's puppy dog Thursday at 2pm are people I have things in common with, people I've shared meals and activities with, people with whom I've shared worship in various forms including a Eucharist. We may never be bosom buddies and, in fact, I may never see most of them again (although I've learned never to say "never") but the hugs, the laughs, the sharing of stuff that really matters to all of us brought us together and bound us together with ties as fine as spider silk but as strong as our commitment to the program.

So now to work. Well, maybe not right this minute or even this evening. I still want to mentally process being home again after coming down from the mountain (ok, maybe only a hundred or so feet higher in altitude but you know what I mean) and think about what I've learned, experienced and received. 

And I can't wait to begin to work through some of the stuff that seemed so incomprehensible just a day or two ago. First, though, I need some Sabbath time.

Thank you, God, for this program, those who work with it, those who train the workers, the students who are embarking on a period of serious study, and for the chance to be part of it all.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

When I say "I believe..."

This afternoon I spent some time studying, something I haven't had a lot of time to do lately. It felt good to put that particular harness back on, even for a little while. It will be good to get EfM started again this fall because that will give me a focus and impetus to spend more time doing something  I dearly love doing -- studying. Too bad I didn't find studying in college as much fun and as interesting but better late than never, I guess.

This year there's a very challenging common lesson on "Mapping Your Theology."  It asks the student to examine various categories and to think about their beliefs, how they came by those beliefs, what the beliefs mean and a whole bunch of other stuff. It can be fairly daunting but it's also enlightening. I'm glad I've got my previous work to fall back on but also glad I have more experience under my belt as I tackle it yet again. It won't be on the class radar screen for months but I believe in getting things done early (except for housework, that is).

At church we recite the creeds, the "I believe" and "we believe" statements of faith that form a framework of our faith. It's kind of easy to use the words as a guide without really stopping to think what it is exactly we mean when we say "I believe in God," etc. 

"I believe" is the result of a lot of factors: what my culture thinks and how it presents me with options, my tradition (yes, the "faith once delivered to the saints", whatever that may mean in a given situation or faith community) gives me what our common history has contributed to what I believe and how; what my experience and reason tells me about what I think, perceive, understand; and where I stand in relation to all these and how it all comes together in how I think and practice my faith.

This isn't one of the easier exercises. If anything, it's an experience in frustration and head-banging, sort of like going through labor pains. It hurts like hell at times, there are periods of relative calm in between but at the end there's a feeling of accomplishment, satisfaction and, yes, insight. Working through this is like the difference between babysitting your brother or neighbor's kids and actually going through a birth process and having your own child put in your arms for the first time. And with the "I believe" exercises, the process repeats with each topic -- God, Jesus, the Spirit, the Trinity, the Church, Evil, etc.,

I can recite both the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds by memory but now I'm learning what it is precisely I'm "giving my assent to", as "believe" is often translated. For every head-whack there's also a corresponding "Aha!"  Oy, what a journey!  But you know, I can't think of a better journey to be on right now.

Monday, August 2, 2010

When Church Hurts

There is a lot of talk this week about author Anne Rice quitting Christianity because of all its hostility, backward-looking and anti- any number of stances on issues she believes are not only important but integral to the true practice of Christianity. All the disputes, hypocrisy, the stubbornly clinging to the status quo which might have been appropriate in previous centuries (or even milennia), the negativity towards those who do not practice the kind of Christianity that restricts women, GLBT folk, Democrats, secular humanists, those who believe in science, etc., have been the wedges between her and the church although not, as she says, between her and God and Christ. In short, the Church has become a club of like-minded folk rather than a place where one is met where one is rather than the place where someone else thinks they should be.

It's hard not to be disillusioned with the church sometimes. For every story about individual churches, parishes and congregations reaching out to the communities in which they live, move and have their being, there's usually one about how Christianity is being lost to non-believers who don't accept "the faith once delivered," who believe in science instead of just scripture and who are so certain who and what it is that God hates --- which usually looks very much like the people that group find so distasteful. God can be so convenient sometimes.

But churches can hurt in other ways. I remember my adoptive mother and the Babdist (as we pronounce it) church back home. She'd been a member of the women's Sunday school class, one of the flower ladies and took her turn chopping up the white bread cubes and filling the little glasses with grape juice for communion once a month, not to mention making countless angel appurtenances like robes, wings and halos for the Christmas pageant and countless cookies and gallons of fruit punch for the Vacation Bible School students every summer. That is, until she got so ill she could no longer get to church much less contribute in her usual and accustomed manner. I went into her room one afternoon and found her crying, something I seldom if ever saw her do no matter how much her pain and frustration with her situation caused her. When I asked what was wrong, she told me several women from her Sunday School class had come to visit and had asked if she minded having her name removed from the rolls because her continued absence was bringing down the average attendance! Even my middle school-aged self could hear, see and understand that numbers were more important to the group than the cord that bound a sick and homebound (or, increasingly hospital-bound) soul to her faith community. Sure, the preacher visited. After all, he'd been an unofficial member of our family for longer than I'd been around but the hurt never left. I saw those same women every Sunday and they were present at her funeral a few years later. I knew them to be decent, kindly women but I also saw the hypocrisy and hurtfulness they caused.

My adoptive father too was very active in the church -- as a deacon (the elected kind, elected to a specific period of service), church Treasurer, taking his turn at maintenance and cleanup, etc., etc., etc. I don't remember so much the specific incident that caused him to leave the church but it hurt that he didn't feel he could even come to hear me sing solos or participate in the Christmas play. What hurt even more was that from my place in the choir I could look out the window and see the front of my house and knew that Daddy was in the kitchen reading the paper while I sang about God's grace and glory. He reconciled with the church at some point but for years he spent Sundays doing other things because he just couldn't face the church that had hurt him and hurt his beloved wife.

I too have left a church I loved and which i still believe in. Oh, not the Church but rather the congregation in which I no longer feel a part. I've felt the hurt that a church can lay on someone and I've seen it happen to others as well. Church has often become more about money contributed and numbers rather than the virtues expounded from the pulpit and to solemn nods in the pews but laid aside in the sacristy and the narthex. Looking at the news of ecclesiastical misbehavior, abuse of and even encouragement of abuse of children, women, GLBT folk, even other Christians, it's not hard to lose heart and lose faith in the institutional church at the parish level as well as the Communion and Papal levels.

I have no doubt of my faith in God, in Christ, in the Holy Spirit, but most days I struggle with doubt when it comes to the Church. I can't divorce the Church as Anne Rice has. All I can do is pray that this is just a temporary separation and that one day I can have faith and trust in it again. I'll keep struggling until then.