Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Moment of Clarity

The current economic and political climate these days is worrying, to say the least. Yes, budget cuts are necessary but at what cost?

I was thinking about that this morning. I admit, I'm concerned about the financial backlash of a Washington shutdown and disgusted at the cuts Arizona legislators are proposing. I'm worried about the children, the elderly, the poor, the sick and especially anybody who depends on what are called "entitlements" for basic survival and to give them access to health care and education. In short, I am concerned that in the name of "budget cuts" some of the poorest, most disadvantaged and most helpless will get thrown under the bus -- all so politicos can swagger and brag about saving Americans money. But at what cost? Do they even think about the human face of budget cuts?

I found myself praying for those same legislators and bureaucrats who are making these decisions that will negatively impact so many lives. I prayed that they might stop and look at the people they were so blithely cutting off at the knees, the helpless ones that would be collateral damage while the legislators gleefully look at the bottom line without considering the human cost. I prayed they would remember those who paid the taxes that supported their schools and the opportunities they were given and what legislators now want to deny to the next generation. I prayed too that they would look at the children, the disabled, the immigrants, the invalids.....

And then I froze. In a flash of clarity I considered the word I had just used, "invalids". My heart almost stopped with the implication of what I was saying.

In medical terms an invalid is considered someone who is incapacitated by chronic illness or disability or injury. It's long been used as a term for someone who is bed-ridden or house-bound, someone who needs considerable help in order just to do the basic things of life like eating, bathing, getting to doctor's appointments and treatments, someone who needs almost constant tending. The British used the term "invalided out" to military personnel required to leave or retire from active service due to wounds or illness.

A more commonly used definition for "invalid" these days is to be faulty, based in falsehood, logically inconsequent, unfounded, or just plain no good. People working with computers frequently encounter "invalid" and the result is usually at least the utterance of a four-letter expletive.

But it occurred to me that using the term "invalid" to mean someone who is chronically ill, disabled or requiring a lot of assistance is to label them as in-valid. Not normal. Not functional. Not mobile. Not good. Not valued or valuable. Not worth an entitlement or assistance. It's this word we've been politely using and not thinking at all about the meaning of what we're saying.

But who is really in-valid? Who really has no worth at all? I could point to someone like Stephen Hawking, certainly trapped in a body that without great assistance would have crumbled to dust long ago but whose mind travels to the edges of the galaxy and beyond, taking us with him. If he lived in the US, he could be a candidate for cuts in his care that could lead to his death. What about the elderly veteran in a VA hospital, scarred mentally and physically from wounds incurred in the struggle to keep this country both great and free? Has he no value, no worth, no validity? What of the little six-year-old who didn't have much of a breakfast at home and who now must hear that the lunch at school s/he counted on to keep focused on schoolwork and not a growling, empty stomach has been done away with and that s/he is just out of luck because the free lunch program that has been cut. Those are only a few examples. Think of immigrants who must fear being turned in to the INS if they seek medical care for a preventable or easily-cured disease that must either become life-threatening or cause death before they dare seek help. Does their being in this country under less than legal conditions mean they are "in-valid," without worth or possibility of contributing positively?

That prayer this morning stopped abruptly. I think now that if I framed it I would be more careful of how I phrase things. No, not to be "politically correct," which, IMVHO, is a totally bogus and invalid charge often leveled against someone who says something somebody else doesn't like. I would still pray for the legislators who seemingly judge the value of others using a yardstick of their own fabrication and comprehension. I would pray that their hearts would be open, and their eyes as well, to the proven worth of the past as shown by our elderly who raised this generation of legislators, and the promise of the future as exemplified by our children who are the leaders of tomorrow. I would pray that their ears would be hearing the cries of the hungry and hurting, hearing the result of budget cuts that invalidates the poorest and not just the honeyed words of the lobbyists, the million- and billionaires and the special interests that want to keep increasing their own bottom line at the expense of others.

And I would pray for all of us, that we might also never be so complacent that we ignore the value of and the Christ-presence in every person, every human being, whether or not appearances might be to our liking, our understanding or even our comfort level.

Either that or we need to take that bronze plaque from off the base of the Statue of Liberty because it may have represented what we once were but no longer are.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Selective Perception

I found a book the other day by a couple of social scientists noted in the field of Biblical anthropology, Bruce J. Malina and John J. Pilch, that reminded me again how much I love that subject. The book is a social science commentary on the authentic letters of Paul. Like most books these days, it begins with a sort of lowest common denominator, defining terms and context for what is to follow. It points out that what modern readers understand when they read Paul's letters (or indeed, most other things, scriptural or not) isn't necessarily what those who read or heard them when the ink was barely dry would read and understand. They had a context that we don't: they had a common language and customs, understanding of how their world worked, familiarity with roles of individuals, interpretation of words, phrases and the like.

We, looking back two thousand years or so, bring our modern preconceptions along, seeing things that aren't there and missing things that are in what social scientists call "selective perception". Once we are aware of this, we can begin to learn about their world, learn to see what they saw, hear what they heard, and maybe understand some of the sayings, references and background that now eludes us and makes us question, "What the heck was he talking about? Why couldn't he just spell it out?" In his time, Paul didn't need to spell it out; it would have already been understood from the context of the letter and the community to which it was written by someone they knew and trusted.

I thought about this last night when a friend and I were talking about a social occasion she recently attended, a small group of couples and singles, mostly middle-aged and older, a mixture of new members of the parish and folks who had been there for years. Conversation ranged over a number of topics but eventually got to the common thread running through the whole group, their parish church and its family. Like any community that has existed for an extended period of time, the parish has had its characters and memorable moments. While the stories about them are funny, sad or instructive to people who hadn't been there as long, they had to apply a selective perception that the older members who had actually known the characters and often witnessed the events didn't need. In a way, it was like an inside joke – it may be funny, but it's a lot funnier if you know the back story, the actual character or witnessed the event.

When I first found out about social science and Biblical anthropology it was almost like opening a door to a light, bright garden that I hadn't known was there. It was a new way of looking at things I thought I understood. Turns out I didn't understand them nearly as well as I thought I did. I was a victim of an unknown and undiagnosed case of selective perception. Through reading and study I've learned a lot but I know there's still a lot of iceberg under the surface that I haven't plumbed yet. I do know that I have to consciously try to leave my perceptions aside and be open to the nuances and back stories, insofar as I am able to do so.

In a way, one of the greatest "AHA!"moments learning to put aside a selective perception came from our then-curate who had been an accountant (she called it being a "bean counter," a slang phrase that we would understand but Paul would have really wondered about) and who gave a stunning analysis of Jesus' first miracle. She laid out her steps, figures, and processes, calculating the size of the vessels, amount of liquid they held, and came to the conclusion that Jesus was an overachiever; he had changed enough water into wine to keep a normal-sized (for that time) village of 250 souls (men, women AND children) happily buzzed for a solid year or more! And the wedding party was only for a week! First-century Christians might have had a chuckle when they heard of that miracle but here in my lifetime it was simply a display of Jesus' divinity (and his doing what his mother asked him to do).

Something I'm learning from reading this book is that I need to listen with less selective perception and more just plain listening. I need to know how to ask questions instead of focusing on making statements. I need to remember that there's always stuff that I won't pick up on or expect, even if someone speaks of a scenario that I have experience with myself. Each of us is an individual with our own set of experiences, understandings, knowledge and context. I need to be open-minded enough to listen for the back story, the flash of connection, and the engagement of the heart and less busy preparing a quick riposte or often well-meant but perhaps seemingly insincere (and sometimes perceived as totally false), "I know exactly how you feel."

I need to learn to read Paul through lenses that are both more and less sophisticated. I have to learn as much as I can about not just the similarities with the Romans and Corinthians and Thessalonians but the vast differences as well. Not only do I need to apply this to Paul but to everything I hear, read, see or experience.

Sometimes it isn't enough just to accept what seems real and plausible. Sometimes I have to look for what I didn't expect or even know about in order to really understand.

And now on to chapter 2! I have a feeling this book is going to be intriguing.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Abba Mias and the Torn Cloak

A soldier asked Abba Mias if God accepted repentance. After the old man
taught him many things, he said, "Tell me, my dear, if your cloak is torn, do
you throw it away?"

He replied, "No, I mend it and use it again."

The old man said to him, "If you are so careful about your cloak, will
not God be equally careful with his creature?"

---- From the stories of the Desert Fathers

There's one thing about the stories from the Desert Fathers (Desert Mothers too, to be honest) and that is that they are pithy and carry a big punch line. No, not a funny one, like in ba-da-BOOM, but a punch that gets you somewhere around the solar plexus and makes you gasp for breath. So much wisdom carried in so few words -- it is mind blowing.

The first thing I thought about with the story was, of course, the reassurance that God takes care of his creatures, no matter how worn and torn they are. There are some who would say that one must repent long and heartily in order to be made clean in God's sight but I don't always think that it is God who requires that; more often I find I need it for myself.

Then I thought about the world in which Abba Mias and the soldier lived. It wasn't a world that just perceived limited quantities where if someone got a bit too much someone else didn't get the full measure. It was a true case of "Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without," a saying featured on posters during World War II but which people of Abba Mias's time didn't need to see posted on walls as reminders. It was a world where there were people who had a lot but most people didn't have very much. Two cloaks would have been a richness, a whole and undamaged one would have been wonderful but a torn one would still have provided warmth and comfort even if it weren't perfect. It was a tough world and probably there were a lot of cloaks that were almost more patch than original material. That's just how it was. Jewish law stated that if someone pawned their cloak for cash, it had to be given back to them at night so they did not suffer. It was a humane law that I bet we wouldn't see put into place today. But then, we aren't the community they were either.

I thought about the rents in the cloak that needed to be patched. I remember my Aunt Edie's farm house. Not a lot of luxuries but it was clean, neat and welcoming. There were scratchy-good wool blankets that had patches sewn on to cover the moth holes but that kept me warm and had a scent all their own that I just loved. The patches didn't matter; quite often they were the same material that bound the edges. It was the function that was important.

I was reminded of patchwork quilts last night in our theological reflection where we used Abba Mias's story. My aunts, including Edie, had those too, usually crazy quilts made of bits of fabric from the dresses they made for themselves and their children, old shirts that were too worn to patch but had material in them still too good to use as rags or throw away, even old patched blankets to use as filling. It was so much fun to point to a patch that I particularly liked and have the aunt tell me where it came from. Something that started as something damaged and useless became something beautiful, a series of family stories done in cloth and thread, worn and torn things given a second chance.

The story of Abba Mias, the torn cloak and God's grace is the kind of story that wraps itself around my heart like my aunts' quilts and patched blankets wrapped around my childhood self, maybe a little scratchy but warm and comforting. The scratchy part is a reminder that I mess things up and needing to repent, kind of like the nag of my conscience when I know I've done something wrong and need to fix it. The patch is the repentance I slap on and tack down, hoping it will hold and cover the flaw. The color and pattern come from God's feather-stitching around the patch, mending it with love and care and making it whole and serviceable again. Eventually my soul becomes a patchwork of mended places, all repaired by God in a way that doesn't let me forget that there's a tear under there but doesn't necessarily call it out for the world to notice. What they see is the pattern, the color, the arrangement of the patches, little knowing the story of each, stories that become part of the fabric.

I have a lot of things that need mending, both internally and externally. Abba Mias's gentle answer to the questioning and undoubtedly hurting soldier gives me a lot of comfort as I know it gave the soldier. God can take the uglinesses and nastinesses and make something useful -- and beautiful -- from it. I just have to get out of God's way and let God go to it. Oh, and remember to say "thank you".

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Hummingbird Theology

It's just past 7 am and the weather gizmo on my computer declares that the outside temperature is 31.8 degrees but feels like 32. The sun isn't up yet although the sky has red streaks in the clouds so the sun is progressing toward disclosure of itself in another sunny, or mostly sunny, day. The dew point is, thankfully, about 22 degrees. There were several times these past few days when it registered at -10 or so. I didn't know a dew point could go that low. Just goes to show you can learn something new every day.

It's been a frigid past few days -- lows from 24° to 29° or so, highs from 43°-55°. I hope I will remember these days when it turns to 110°-115°. We usually have at least two nights during the winter where it gets too or just passes the freezing point and people usually rush out to cover tender plants so they would not be damaged. Some have done that, these past three or so days, and admittedly I have covered the hanging baskets on the patio to protect the spider plants I've been cultivating for years. The rest of the plants are/have been on their own and it appears they have survived quite nicely, thanks be. When it warms up a bit outside (supposed to go up to 61° today) I'll go out and give them a good watering that they haven't gotten for a bit. That will give them time to soak up the water before nightfall.

One thing that started this whole train of thought was that I looked out the front door to see if my pet outside cat were around. I've worried a lot about him in the cold but so far he seems to be doing okay. Cats know where to go when things get tough. As I was looking out the door, though, I noticed a blur of motion that stopped and hovered next to the feeder. A hummingbird, out before dawn and looking for nectar (or sugar-water) to provide the energy for it to continue to survive. I'm always amazed at the resiliency of these little guys; it's so cold out and they are so tiny, but yet they are still around, still zooming around, still protecting "their" feeder from usurpers.

Ok, I know. They say we aren't supposed to feed hummers in winter to encourage them to migrate to warmer climates. I don't think anybody has told that to these little ones. Every winter there are hummers about, even if I don't put juice in the feeders for them. On a good day in the warmer months I can have as many as 6 dipping and zooming and climbing and diving through the air like well-trained dancers or skillful fighter pilots engaging in dog fights through the air. Even a couple of days ago I was outside talking to a neighbor and we got buzzed by a pair, one chasing another away from his/her feeder. The heck with those big lumps of whatever standing there mouths agape. Chase that (chitter chitter chitter) bird away from that feeder! I guess it was chitter, not being at all fluent in hummingbird language.

Somehow it's easier to believe that, in Dame Julian's words, "all shall be well, and all shall be well and in all thing all shall be well," when watching a hummingbird zooming through the air in temperatures that send me scurrying for sweatshirts and heavy socks. This tiny bird has somehow survived outside with no additional covering than its own feathers and what it can find in the leaves of the orange trees across the road, yet was able to emerge in the cold pre-dawn to visit the feeder Had hopefully be able to suck up a bit of energy to keep it going. Ok, so it's following a pattern set down for hummingbirds since Day One but that doesn't decrease the absolutely awe-inspiring fact that the tiny creature has survived great adversity to bring some brightness (and occasional amusement) into a world that so often seems cold, dark, unfriendly and even frightening.

The hummer doesn't have to deal with taxes, legal matters, a depressed economy, rising prices, decreased options and even occasional crises of faith that is pretty common in the world of the big lumps of whatever that hummers can zoom around with impunity. Of course, I don't have to survive outdoors with only what the Good Lord gave me for a covering in sub-freezing temps. I don't have to wait for either flowers to bloom (oh, the orange blossoms are nice but red flowers taste best!) or someone to fill a glass feeder with sugar water; I can open a can, go to the market or even occasionally pick something off a tree when I get hungry. Hummers have limited choices, but I have far more.

The songs of hummers are kind of like people who try to carry a tune but seem to have left it in a bucket somewhere. They make sounds, clicks and chitters it sounds like, but they certainly don't make the kind of music songbirds do. They can't even make the laughing sound of some gulls that so intrigues me when near the water or the honk of Canada geese flying in formation overhead. No doubt any and all those sounds are pure musical perfection to God, just like a Bach chorale or Taizé chant.

I don't know if they believe in a God, even a hummingbird-sized or -shaped one, or whether the bright colors (and the duller ones of the females) they flash while dashing through the air are a sort of visual prayer as they go about their daily lives. Perhaps their primary duty (besides survival, that is) is to remind people like me that the God who made the hummingbird with its beauty, speed and resiliency, also made us and cares for us.

I just went to the door and was only there a second or two when a ruby-throated male flew to the feeder, got three quick gulps and then flew off, perhaps to impress the ladies, perhaps to find shelter, who knows? What I do know is that the hummers live, look to me right now for sustaining food and, in the course of just being him/herself, remind me that there is not just survival but rather hope and even joy even in cold, gray dawns. They'll be around in summer, too, despite heat that wilts me. They'll still be buzzing about, chittering to other hummers, whirring of wings and zooming of flight, when I'm panting in the heat and sweating as I move albeit so slowly.

Hummingbird theology --- God creates, God watches over, God loves, and in turn, God accepts the kind of thanks and praise we can give, even if just clicks and flashes. Beyond that, all else is just sugar water.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Confession of Martha

On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother.  When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.

 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

“Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”    (John 11:17-27, NIV)
Martha was in a bad place.  Her brother was dead and the man who she felt could have saved his life didn't come quickly enough.  Hearing that he was finally almost there, she ran out to meet him with chastisement on her lips.  Undoubtedly grief would have driven her to words and deeds that were not really characteristic of her. Martha had a good heart but also liked things properly done. She had sent word to Jesus that her brother was dying, knowing Jesus loved Lazarus as she did, and praying that Jesus would come quickly to save him. It didn't happen and Martha couldn't understand why Jesus would have dawdled in Jerusalem when only a couple of miles' walk could have brought him to Bethany in very short order. 

Martha had faith, you have to give her credit for that. Jesus didn't come in time but Martha believed that if Jesus asked, God would do a miracle. Of course, Lazarus had been dead for a while, begining to decay and seemingly beyond resuscitation.  Still, Martha had faith that she wouldn't have to wait until the resurrection day to come for Jesus to bring her brother back to her.

The latter part of this passage could be considered the "Confession of St. Martha," so similar to that which Simon Peter gave to Jesus' question "Who do you say that I am?"  The answer was an acknowledgement that Jesus wasn't just another prophet, teacher, family friend or even good buddy.  In so confessing her belief, Martha, like Peter, pointed the way for others to see Jesus. Martha's confession doesn't have a special feast day like Peter's, but it still happened and it still encourages us to make the same statement.

But I wonder --- what if the question were reversed?  What if I asked Jesus who he said that I was?  I wonder if I would have the courage to hear the answer; I do know that one day I will have to. Will he say I'm a rotten sinner?  An unrepentant heretic?  A sheep of his own flock?  A beloved child of God? I can hope, but I don't want to stake my life on that hope.

The story of the raising of Lazarus becomes the story of someone brought back from the dead by Jesus. Martha becomes a bit-player in the drama as did her sister Mary.  Yet Martha speaks to me of what it means to be a confessor, one who proclaims.  It's a test of faith. Martha passed.