Sunday, June 30, 2013

Peter, Paul and Candy Bars

Commemoration of Saint Peter and Saint Paul

Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up in response to a revelation. Then I laid before them (though only in a private meeting with the acknowledged leaders) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure that I was not running, or had not run, in vain. But even Titus, who was with me, was not compelled to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. But because of false believers secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might enslave us— we did not submit to them even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might always remain with you. And from those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders (what they actually were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those leaders contributed nothing to me. On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter making him an apostle to the circumcised also worked through me in sending me to the Gentiles), and when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. -- Galatians 2:1-9

Paul is writing what to an EfM group member would clearly be a spiritual autobiography, a story of how he came to be where he was in a spiritual sense and the people who had an influence, of sorts, in his ministry. He was establishing his bona fides, a resume, so to speak, of his religious activities throughout his life with particular emphasis on his post-conversion career change from persecutor to proponent. In this autobiography he speaks of his two journeys to Jerusalem and meeting with the leaders of the church. Funny, it always seemed like Paul should have been off to Jerusalem as soon after being healed of his blindness caused by the vision on the Damascus road but he waited three years before going to see Peter and the others for a brief visit and then went to foreign parts for another fourteen before returning for this visit to Jerusalem. The two meetings on Peter's turf were also accompanied by one meeting with Peter in Paul's territory. The relationship was sometimes rocky but eventually they achieved a peace and a balance.

Peter and Paul are like the twin columns that support a great arch. Neither can be weaker than the other and each must bear equal weight and upon them, the weight of the doorway to the church  and its teachings rests.  They were opposites in many ways: Paul was an educated Pharisee, Peter an illiterate fisherman; Peter was a disciple of Jesus while he was in his earthly mission but Paul never met Jesus in the flesh but only in a vision. Paul had a very real call to the gentiles while Peter was still convinced that the road to Jesus lay through being Jewish. They were very different people with different missions but had one thing in common: great faith in this Jesus of Nazareth who turned both of their lives upside down and inside out.

Christianity as a religion was built by both Peter and Paul as they taught the lessons of the living Jesus and the experience of the risen Christ. Peter quite often features in our lessons from the gospel, and many of the lessons we read in the epistles are from the words of Paul. It's hard to think of the church without them being in there somewhere. The churches they planted and fostered first around the Sea of Galilee and then around the Mediterranean have grown into a network that spans the entire globe.

I think about strange things when I'm out for my morning walk. Now and again though, something pops up and that happened while I was thinking about Peter and Paul. There was a jingle from an old 1970s candy commercial, "Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don't/ Almond Joy's got nuts, Mounds don't." What does that have to do with serious theological contemplation? Nothing, really, except the thought that but for that one ingredient, the two candies are just the same -- chocolate and coconut. Doing some digging, I discovered that Peter and Paul both may well have eaten coconut and almonds but I am pretty sure they didn't have chocolate. Oh, and the name of the candy maker was Peter Paul Halajian.

Christianity is something like Mr. Halajian's company. His candies use basically the same ingredients but put together in different proportions and with slight changes in one or more of those ingredients which produce a different kind of candy. That's how Christianity works, and that's how Peter and Paul seemed to see their various missions to spread the word of Jesus. Over the centuries various changes in the basic recipe took place. Modern Christianity takes the basic message and looks at it from different viewpoints and with slightly different doctrines to make denominations and churches that are unique and yet similar.

Like an opening line from one of Shakespeare's plays, Peter and Paul represent "Two houses, both alike in dignity"* despite their differences and their occasional disagreements. They both tried their best to spread the word about a Galilean peasant preacher/teacher/messiah who was the Son of God. I'd say they were remarkably successful in those ventures.

And I suddenly have a craving for a candy bar.

*Romeo & Juliet

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul  on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 29, 2013, under the title "Sometimes I feel like a nut."

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Why do Christians Do That?

I was driving down the freeway, minding my own business, going the speed limit and maybe a mile or two over when this car pulls out from behind me, zooms past me and cuts in front of me -- only to dive onto the off ramp. He got there approximately 30 seconds faster than he would have had he just kept behind me for the next 100 feet or so. Once I got over my annoyance, I thought  about all the times things like that have happened, more often than I'd care to remember. Then my thought hit on the question "Why do people do that?"  Is their time really so important and valuable that thirty seconds and a little patience is too much to ask for?  Again I ask myself, "Why do people do that?"

I hadn't gone a mile when I had another thought or two.

I ran into an old friend some years ago that I hadn't seen in some time. Instead of saying, "Hi, how are you?" or "Gee, it's good to see you," I was asked, "I have to ask you, how is your relationship with Jesus?"  Now why would a Christian do that to a fellow Christian?  She'd known me since about the time of my baptism at the age of eight. Then, when I'm 45+ she wants to know how my relationship is with Jesus?  Why would a Christian do that? (And Jesus and I are just fine, thank you.)

One thing I've liked about being Episcopalian is that I don't get beaten over the head with verse after verse, sermon after sermon, on what a lousy sinner I am. I know I am; I have never denied that. What I don't need is to be reminded fifteen times in the course of an hour. Episcopalians do hear the words "sin" and "sinner" several times over the course of a usual church service -- in the Gloria, the Creed, the General Confession, the Absolution, the Eucharistic Prayer (all of them, I think), and at least one version of the Our Father, so it's not like we ignore a word we don't like. But there are some Christians who insist on repeating the word like if they say it often enough they'll get points for each time of something.  Why do Christians do that?

With the Supreme Court decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act (why did it need defense? Was it that weak an institution?), the rhetoric has reached a new decibel level. Why are heterosexuals so threatened by two people of the same gender who love each other and want to have the same rights and benefits as their heterosexual counterparts?  Not Biblical?  Well, neither is concubinage (of which there is plenty of evidence in the Bible), abandoned spouses (check the disciples -- they left home for years!) or multiple wives (some of the patriarchs, among others).  Jesus was not, to the best of our knowledge, married but he didn't require that everyone who followed him to follow suit. Even Paul noted that not all were given the gift of celibacy, so why are there those who are demanding that because they believe they are the only "right-thinking" Christians that everybody else has to follow their belief system?  God didn't make cookie-cutter people; he didn't even make a cookie-cutter world. There's plenty of diversity and room for more all the time, so why are Christians so uptight about commitments they seem to want to corner for themselves (when they want it, but we won't talk about the divorce rate!) and deny to other people. Why do Christians do that? 

Jesus spoke a lot about taking care of widows, the sick, the dying, the poor and kids. With so much repetition of the ancient Jewish formulas regarding those same groups, why are so many Christians so determined to slash the programs that will help keep these folks from hunger, homelessness, going without education or medical help, even premature death?  The most vulnerable, those Jesus spoke of with the utmost care and tenderness, are the ones bearing the brunt of sequestration cuts in programs that are their only safety nets. Yet the Christians boast of their Christian-hood as if it were a badge for them to be proud of. Why do Christians do that? 

One other thing: a lot of people claim to be pro-life Christians -- when it comes to someone else's reproductive organs. They don't want abortions to be legal; it would be so much better if they were unnecessary but that's not likely to happen as long as women are made to take the blame for rape, incest, abuse and, on occasion, poor judgment. The ones who yell loudest about being pro-life Christians are the ones who fight so hard for the unborn but then vote for programs to harm the already born (see the previous paragraph) and, yes, folks, they usually favor the death penalty. How can you be pro-life up to the moment of birth and then pro-death penalty afterwards?  Why do Christians do that?

Not all Christians are like this, though. There are plenty of pro-life, pro-equality, pro-taking-care-of-others Christians who take Jesus' words and teachings very seriously. They volunteer at food banks, schools, hospitals, nursing homes, hospices, churches, community outreach programs and even circulate and sign petitions for causes that would make life better for someone (or a group of someones) who seemingly have no other voice. They don't just sit in the pews on Sunday, they actually go out in the community (or even visit communities far, far away) to do things that need doing, build things that need building, teach things that need to be taught and doing it all without getting paid for it. They follow Jesus -- seriously. They read the Bible seriously. They take their baptismal vows seriously and they show their faith seriously although with smiles, laughter and expressions of hope, happiness and joy. My question then becomes not "Why do Christians do that?" but rather, "Why don't Christians do that?"

Sunday, June 23, 2013

An Ear Worm

For the past couple of days I've had a hymn running through my brain at odd times, especially when I'm out walking early in the morning. My brain often gets in that particular mode at that time and sometimes it just refuses to get shaken loose, even though I can listen to a hundred different pieces of music during the day. It's called an "ear worm" and it can drive me nuts at times especially when it's a particularly irritating ditty from some commercial. As ear worms go, though, I guess this one isn't as bad as it could be. The verses may be out of order, but this is how the hymn sang in my brain.

(1) I love thy kingdom, Lord,
the house of thine abode,
the Church our blest Redeemer
saved with his own precious blood.

(2) I love thy Church, O God:
her walls before thee stand,
dear as the apple of thine eye,
and graven on thy hand.*

We used to sing this one a lot when I was growing up in the Baptist church. You could sing it out loudly and harmonize to it nicely. Even though I don't think I've ever heard anyone use "blest" in a conversation (although "blessed" is common) and "thy" and "thine" were reserved for readings out of what a friend of mine always called the "Saint James Bible," the hymn still had something that has stuck with me all these years.

(4) Beyond my highest joy
I prize her heavenly ways,
her sweet communion, solemn vows,
her hymns of love and praise.

Perhaps this verse is why my mind has been stuck on this hymn this week. I do love my church; I've tried other churches but I always seem to be pulled back to the Episcopal Church like a magnet. Every time I return I can almost hear God saying, "SIT!  STAY!" although God knows as a cat person I'm not too likely to be overly impressed with dog commands. But it's true. It is sweet to be with others in a flexibly-traditional way of worship, and heaven knows the Eucharist has sustained me through many things as well as fed me even when my faith was flagging. The part that perhaps resounds most for me right now is the "solemn vows" part since a new friend was just ordained to the transitional diaconate, a step towards his ordination as a priest in God's (and the Bishop's) good time.

One of the first things that grabbed me about the Episcopal Church decades ago was the liturgy. It had grace, it had flow, it had predictability, it had often-repeated prayers and canticles that could be easily memorized and pulled out of the mental filing-cabinet at need, and it had a noticeable lack of agitated and emphatic exhortations to repent every few minutes. Nobody interrupted the final hymn after every verse to issue yet another "invitation" to accept Jesus and go to heaven. Episcopalians were rather more formal; you were reminded that you were a sinner in readings, prayers and the confession, but you were also given words of forgiveness and a lovely meal to remind you that you were one of God's children and, even if nobody specifically mentioned the image, your picture was on God's refrigerator.

In the Episcopal Church there are a lot of "solemn vows," probably the catch phrase on which this whole mental ear worm of mine hangs. Ordination is really about solemn vows: vows to God, to the Bishop, to the assembly who are gathered for the occasion and to those with whom the ordained will serve and, with God's help, from whom they will be nourished as they continue on their spiritual journey. But ordinations aren't the only solemn vows.  Those married in the church take solemn vows, too often easily broken but none the less (hopefully) seriously taken at the time those vows were said. For infants, solemn vows are made on their behalf at their baptism, vows that are repeated by them as they make their confirmation and can speak those vows for themselves. For every baptized Episcopalian, those baptismal vows are repeated several times a year, whether accompanying a baptism or confirmation or on one of the days that the church traditionally sets aside as particularly appropriate for baptisms. Each time those vows are repeated, they are reinforcement of the life we're supposed to lead, a re-learning through repetition.  The Episcopal Church takes "solemn vows" very seriously indeed.

(3) For her my tears shall fall;
for her my prayers shall ascend;
to her my cares and toils be given,
till toils and cares shall end.

Reading through the lyrics of the hymn I saw this third verse, which I had forgotten, and I was reminded at how precious my church is to me. Is it perfect?  Heck, no. It's sometimes slower than molasses in January on some things I think should move a whole lot faster, and a bit quick on the trigger with some other stuff. But, given all things, it is in this church that I'm pretty sure God wants me to be and that it's not just a matter of personal preference (although I have to admit, God's preference seems to be just right for me).

(6) Sure as thy truth shall last,
to Zion shall be given
the brightest glories earth can yield,
and brighter bliss of heaven.

I hear this verse in response to those who say that my church, our church, is dying. Seeing seven people ordained, three of whom will go on to become priests, tells me that people are still being called to serve in Christ's church and are answering that call. Actually, there are a lot more people called to serve in Christ's church, just maybe not to the order of priests or even deacons. Every single person in our church is called by God to live out their baptismal covenant and to not just sit in the pew on Sunday and put an envelope in the alms basin and think that's it for the week. We are all priests by virtue of our baptism, even if we don't wear collars. We are God's hands and feet while we are on this earth and God rather expects that we will live up to that, not for glories in heaven but to bring about the kingdom of God NOW, in this time and wherever we find ourselves planted.
Maybe this particular ear worms was a way of God putting some things in motion in the brain that demand attention -- like the challenge to serve and to live the lyrics, not just lip-synch the words.

* The Hymnal, 1982, Church Publishing Company, #524.

The Price of a Lie

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means ‘son of encouragement’). He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. ‘Ananias,’ Peter asked, ‘why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!’ Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard of it. The young men came and wrapped up his body, then carried him out and buried him.
After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter said to her, ‘Tell me whether you and your husband sold the land for such and such a price.’ And she said, ‘Yes, that was the price.’ Then Peter said to her, ‘How is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.’ Immediately she fell down at his feet and died. When the young men came in they found her dead, so they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things. -- Acts 4:32 - 5:11
Sometimes when I read a lesson from scripture I am kind of left shaking my head. My rational mind tries to tell me that this can’t happen in real life, any more than the possibility of a man being swallowed by a whale and returning alive or a boy whacking a giant in the forehead with a single rock propelled from a slingshot. I’m supposed to take these as lessons in what God can do with ordinary human beings but I also have to look at them as creative non-fiction sometimes. They contain truth, just maybe gussied up a bit to make them seem greater or more wonderful or even more awe-inspiring. To me, the story of Ananias and Sapphira is one of those stories. There’s truth in it, but is all of it what we used to call “gospel truth” back home, meaning that it really happened just as it said?
The story really has two parts. In the first part we are introduced to a man named Joseph whom the apostles had renamed Barnabas. Barnabas represented the good guy. In the spirit of koinonia, he had sold a piece of land and brought the entire proceeds to lay at the feet of the apostles to be used for the benefit of the poor. It was a great gesture and certainly didn’t hurt his standing in the community at all. It showed his dedication to following the teachings of Jesus. Such dedication would have looked good on a résumé and probably helped to establish him in a position of trust with Paul as a traveling companion a bit later.

The second part, of course, has to contain the bad guys to balance out Barnabas as the good one. Ananias also brought a bag of money to be given to the apostles, ostensibly also the total proceeds from the sale of a piece of land. Ananias reminds me of the stereotypical snake oil salesman, the kind that tries to sell ice makers to people living in the Arctic. He was being slick. He told the assembly that this was the total proceeds when in actuality a chunk of it had been stashed away at Ananias’s house. It may have been for a rainy day, to cover some debts or maybe just for pure greed but all we are told is that he didn’t give what he said he had. Peter, whether based on inside knowledge, acute discernment, or maybe even a tweet from God, called Ananias on that lie and Ananias fell down dead. Did he die of shock and shame that someone knew of his falsehood and had exposed him before the entire assembly? Or did God strike him down for lying to the Holy Spirit? However it happened, his body was quickly wrapped up in trundled out to be buried immediately and without ceremony as befitted one who had lost all honor.

Then Sapphira, Ananias’s wife, showed up, wondering where her husband was because he hadn’t come home for lunch or perhaps tea as expected. Peter put the question to her also about the amount of money and whether it was the total amount of the sale as Ananias had claimed. She corroborated Ananias’ story and, lo and behold, she too fell down dead. She was also bundled out unceremoniously, without the wrapping as men were not allowed to perform that duty on a woman’s corpse. Presumably , though, she joined Ananias in his unmarked resting place. It must’ve been quite a lesson for the community about the value and necessity of being truthful.

As much as this lesson is about truthfulness and claiming no more honor than is truly due, and also about the importance of following Jesus’ lessons about caring for the poor and the members of one’s community, it is a lesson about community itself. Being in community implies an ability to trust one another and to be honest and transparent in one’s dealings with them. Most of all it is a lesson summed up by part of a verse from Numbers, “ sure your sins will find you out” (32:23d). A lot of very important people through the ages have found that out the hard and very embarrassing way.

The story of Ananias’ lie underlines what lies can do to a person, even if God doesn’t directly intervene. A person can lie to another person or even a whole group of people but if the lie is big enough and told to enough people, especially the wrong people, the truth will eventually show up and everything the person attempted to gain through the lie will come back to haunt them. Besides, being a good liar means a person has to have a really good memory; it’s harder to remember a lie than to remember what really happened. They have to remember which version of the truth they told to which person and after a while it gets tricky and very easy to goof up, even if there’s no apostle Peter around to call them on it immediately after the lie is told.

Maybe the story of Ananias and Sapphira is a cautionary tale if not an actual event. There’s an old saying that “You can fool some of the people some of the time” but there’s usually going to be someone somewhere that can spot the falsity and bring it to light. A person can even lie to themselves to the point where the line becomes a reality That can be quite harmful to them by forcing them to work harder to maintain the lie and to ignore other things that need attention. I wonder, though, is it really possible to lie to God, or perhaps the sin is believing one can even do that? Whichever it is, it can create a dead place in the soul, a place that shuts God and grace out. That is probably the greatest tragedy that comes from untruthfulness or dishonesty.

Ananias probably would have been okay had he just said that his gift was a portion of the proceeds of the sale. He would have been telling the truth, and, even though it didn’t show the generosity that Barnabas’ gift did, it still showed his commitment to the community as well as compassion for the less fortunate. Perhaps the lesson I need to learn from this story is that “Honesty is the best policy”, to quote Ben Franklin. That doesn’t mean I have to tell a friend that her dress is ugly or that he needs to go on a diet. I don’t think brutality in honesty is something God really requires. I do believe, however, that I am supposed to be honest in my dealings with people and not try to be something I’m not. I need to remember that if I lie to myself I am also lying to God.

Current culture says I need to be “authentic.” Culture or not, it would probably serve me better in the long run with God and my neighbor to just be honest rather than to try to pretend to be something I’m not or embellish my achievements to make myself feel bigger or more important. Perhaps the application of a bit of spiritual wart-remover is more in order than cosmetic surgery. Above all, though, I need to remember that God sees and knows everything already, so I may as well tell the truth and avoid the possibility of an early demise. But I shouldn’t do it just for that reason. I should do it because it is the right thing – for me and for any community in which I am part. That’s what God wants, so that’s reason enough.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 22, 2013.



Sunday, June 16, 2013

Mysticism and Mystics

Commemoration of Evelyn Underhill, mystic

Psalm 37:3-6, 32-33
Wisdom 7:24-8:1
1 Corinthians 4:1-5
John 4:19-24

Mysticism is the art of union with Reality. The mystic is a person who has attained that union in greater or less degree; or who aims at and believes in such attainment. -- Evelyn Underhill, Practical Mysticism

Mysticism is defined as a union with the transcendent or the ultimate reality of God, something people like Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Ignatius Loyola, William Law, Thomas Merton and Evelyn Underwood experienced and understood. To be joined with God, to be possessed completely by God, even if for a short period of time, marked them and changed them like a match changes a candle from a pile of wax to a source of light.

I guess I generally think of mystics as people with pious expressions, eyes cast upward as if to catch a glimpse of an angel's wing or a holy vision and with some sort of aura that kind of identifies them as something out of the ordinary. Maybe my view of mystics comes from seeing too many paintings, icons or holy cards, but that's how they all seem to be portrayed. What's easy to forget when I see them or read their words is that they are/were real human beings in many ways no different than a lot of people. It was their connectedness and response to God that separated them from the rest of us who don't get it, don't have it or don't know it can be part of our own lives.

Underhill was very much a part of the world of her time first as a daughter and then as a wife. There was, however, a growing contemplative side to her that led her to become a very popular retreat leader and respected writer as well as a mystic. Incorporating psychology with spirituality, her books have been read and re-read for the past century as authoritative resources on mysticism and the contemplative life not necessarily lived inside the cloister. Mysticism, written in 1911, is still considered one of the classics, if not the greatest, books on the subject. Looking at photographs of her, there are no eyes raised to heaven, no halo, no prayerfully-posed hands, just an image of a woman of her time, dressed as expected of one of her station in life, and with an honest, straight-forward gaze that seems able to see what is clearly in front of her eyes but also something greater beyond that. I wonder what it would have been like to have been a participant in one of the many spiritual retreats she directed. Luckily, some of those retreats have been captured on paper and are available for reading and study.

Being a mystic isn't something that you just wake up one morning and decide to be. I don't think any mystic in history has ever really done that or even said they wanted to be a mystic when they grew up. Julian of Norwich, one of the church's favorite mystics, had her visions during a serious illness. Others have received them after periods of prayer, fasting, even physical penance. Some can be somewhat embarrassing to onlookers such as  when Margery Kempe's copious bouts of weeping broke out as she contemplated the Eucharist, Jesus on the cross and any number of holy incidents and locations.

Mysticism is as much discipline as desire; it is a state that God chooses to bestow but one which the person must do some ground work first.  One of the first steppingstones is the development of the contemplative life, one where prayer and study are balanced with work and action whether the person is cloistered in a convent or monastery or quietly living a contemplative life in the middle of a noisy and busy world. Not every contemplative will become a mystic, but every mystic will have roots of contemplation in their souls.

I'm pretty sure I've met an honest-to-God mystic in the guise of a Russian Orthodox priest who, to my eyes anyway, seemed to glow from within and it seemed I could almost see that God's finger very firmly planted on the top of his head. There was no sign that said "Meet the Mystic" but there was definitely a sense of meeting the reality of God through the experience. I may have had a very brief mystical experience myself although the realist in me says it was probably a short circuit or a momentary blockage of a blood vessel or maybe even a performance high (I was singing at the time). But maybe it was something else, something more -- holy? With both experiences though I've felt God's immediate presence and often wish I were given more like them. Perhaps I have been but without being in tune enough to recognize them.

I think that's what Underhill's mysticism is about -- learning to recognize the mystery and to feel oneself totally joined in heart, mind and purpose with the Divine. That's something anybody can do, even me. If I'm willing to put some effort into it by learning to be more contemplative, more prayerful and maybe more alert to glimpses of angels' wings or feelings of transcendence then maybe, just maybe, one day I could be a mystic too.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 15, 2013, under the title "Evelyn Underhill, mystic."

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Moses and the HoA

Moses summoned all Israel and said to them: You have seen all that the Lord did before your eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, the great trials that your eyes saw, the signs, and those great wonders. But to this day the Lord has not given you a mind to understand, or eyes to see, or ears to hear. I have led you for forty years in the wilderness. The clothes on your back have not worn out, and the sandals on your feet have not worn out; you have not eaten bread, and you have not drunk wine or strong drink—so that you may know that I am the Lord your God. When you came to this place, King Sihon of Heshbon and King Og of Bashan came out against us for battle, but we defeated them.  We took their land and gave it as an inheritance to the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh. Therefore diligently observe the words of this covenant, in order that you may succeed in everything that you do.

You stand assembled today, all of you, before the Lord your God—the leaders of your tribes, your elders, and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your women, and the aliens who are in your camp, both those who cut your wood and those who draw your water— to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God, sworn by an oath, which the Lord your God is making with you today; in order that he may establish you today as his people, and that he may be your God, as he promised you and as he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I am making this covenant, sworn by an oath, not only with you who stand here with us today before the Lord our God, but also with those who are not here with us today. -- Deuteronomy 29:2-15

Deuteronomy is rather an interesting book. The fifth book of the Torah, the five books of Moses as they have been called, is all about covenant and how to live a covenanted relationship with God and with each other. When Moses first encountered God at the burning bush, he was reluctant to return to Egypt and lead the people because, as he said, “I am slow of speech and of  tongue." In Deuteronomy Moses seems to have found his tongue moved a lot easier than he thought. The section of Deuteronomy of which this reading is part follows a rather interesting list of positive and negative actions (blessings and curses) which, in short, upholds morals and standards of a righteous people and sets punishments for those who violate those morals and standards. This is part of Moses’ farewell address to a people he has led for forty years but who would soon be moving on without him.  He had to leave them with some sort of final set of detailed instructions.
Even though Moses may never have said all that Deuteronomy credits him with saying (or writing), the intent was clear. One way to get people’s attention was to attribute it to someone famous or perhaps a legendary figure of the time. With the Israelites, using the name of Moses would guarantee people would pay attention. Still, even if Moses never really spoke all these words, they still have something to say about being chosen by God, having responsibilities and punishments for refusing to abide by the covenant in ways that damage the community as a whole.

Those who would be covered under this covenant is an interesting bit in itself. The male half of the population already wore a sign of the covenant with Abraham, but here Moses was not only including them but also the children, the women and even the non-Israelites who traveled with them (see Exodus 12:38 ) as part of the retinue in this new covenant with God.
This living in covenant of which Moses spoke was serious business; it was marking out the responsibilities of a group of people God chose to call his own and the duties by which they were to maintain this covenantal relationship.

Today, when someone buys a house in almost any subdivision they encounter something called the Homeowners Association, the HoA. In order to live in that community the new owners have to subscribe to a code of behaviors the HoA dictates such as whether the garage door can be open when the car is not going in or out of the garage, what color the house can be painted, maintenance requirements and, almost to add insult to injury, the fee each homeowner has to pay each year as dues which are used to maintain the common areas and  the HoA's incurred expenses in regulating and enforcing the standards. In a sense, new homeowners are asked to subscribe to a covenant in order to live in that particular community. Moses was sort of spelling out the HoA rules that would apply in the new land his people would be entering without him. It was a way of ensuring that everybody knew what the rules were and what the infractions would cost them. It was to ensure conformity and harmony among individuals, families and tribes and set them apart from those in other communities, families and tribes with whom they might come in contact or who might live in the subdivision next door.  

I’m not saying that HoA agreements have the status of Moses and this covenant, but the idea is kind of the same: there are rules everybody knows or can read that preserve a unified, conformed, peaceful community. It’s amazing how many people gripe about HoAs and their rules, but they still move into the communities and sign the agreements. The Israelites wouldn’t always pay attention to this covenant and HoA rules and they quite often griped about things but that covenant and those rules were important enough to be written down many years later and long after Moses’ bones had turned to dust.  
I wonder, how many of us would be willing to sign on to a HoA-type agreement with God? God might not care if we painted the house blue in a neighborhood of yellow houses, but  certainly cares about how we treat each other and how we deal with others who may not belong to our community, our country or our particular faith. That’s made clear in the Bible over and over, but we still don’t seem to get it. The homeless person on the street corner may not be a neighbor in our gated community but is very much a neighbor, a part of our town or city and with as much right to be taken care of as the common greenways and curbside trees.  The stranger who comes to our church may not be a covenanted member of that parish but should still be welcomed as one of God’s children even if they're not dressed in the latest couture. Our children might be pampered and well cared for, but what about legislations that are passed in our name that deprive other children of food, shelter, and education that their parents are unable to supply? Isn’t that part of the covenant too? Isn't that part of the responsibility of ensuring harmony and unity not to mention safety?
As a Christian, I’m bound by a set of promises that form a covenant with God and with my community. Maybe I need a reiteration from a Moses every now and then to remind me what my obligations are and what price I pay for being part of that community. It may have about the same effect that combination of time and distance did for the Israelites time and time again, enabling them to forget about the covenant for a while and incur some fines and penalties, but maybe I need that kind of reinforcement Moses sought to bring to those men, women, children and aliens gathered before him in his farewell address.
Come to think of it, reaffirming my baptismal covenant from time to time is a way of doing just that, reminding me of what I have promised. Moses may not have written it, but the church, in its wisdom, saw the need and provided the means. That is, to my mind and to quote Harry Potter, "Brilliant!"

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 8, 2013, under the title "Moses and the home-owners association."

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Contemplating My Mortality...

They say getting old ain't for chickens, and the older I get the more I appreciate the wisdom of that statement. It's something everybody does but I think that only when you get to a certain point in your life do you really stop and think about it and what it means to be getting older.

At age five, getting older means next year you'll get out of kindergarten and into a real school. Age 12? Next year you'll be a teenager. Sixteen is a driver's license, 18 is usually high school graduation and perhaps off to college, 21 is voting and lots of other stuff. Thirty seems like the edge of beyond at that age, but when 30 comes there's the sudden realization that oh, brother, you're starting to get to the age that when, as a six-year-old, you considered "old". Forty? Even worse. Midlife crisis time, possibly menopause, seeing how your parents and sometimes even your peers are aging and realizing that they're watching the same things happen to you. Fifty? Time for an AARP card and the beginning of senior discounts at restaurants, hotels, even barber shops and hairdressers. Sixty? By now there are aches and pains that weren't there just a few years ago and your doctors are starting to give you supplements and medications for various things that are starting to act up -- or not work as the case may be. Sixty-five?  Retirement? Most today can't afford to do that, so it's more pills to try to counteract the natural progression of things wearing out. If you're fortunate enough to still have your parents you're becoming more and more aware of how their time is flying by and that each day becomes more precious because they are growing fewer and fewer in numbers. Beyond 65, you're still able to enjoy a lot of the things you used to, but it might take longer to play that eighteen holes of golf or it is harder to keep up with the grandkids like you used to do with your kids. You start to reflect a little more on your own mortality and you probably look at the people around you and wonder, "Am I going to end up like that?" "Do I look like that?" "Is this really all there is?"

Don't get me wrong, there are advantages to getting older. You're usually a little more willing to sit and think about things than you were at 21. You probably have a little more patience with little ones than you had at 30. You see kids rushing to grow up and become "adult" before they really even know what being an adult is about. You probably did the same things and made a lot of the same mistakes you'd like to keep your grandkids from making, but, being kids, they might think you're just being an old fogey even though they love you.  You have more time to read some of those books you've always been wanting to read or maybe start taking piano or painting lessons like you always wanted to do. You have time to do volunteer work at the hospital or the homeless shelter or even the church thrift shop and you enjoy it because it gets you out of the house and interacting with not just old friends but new people you've never met before. Funny thing, most folks I know who have retired usually say they're busier now than they were when they were working and raising their families.

Just because you get older doesn't mean life gets easier. Your pension might not provide you with the financial wherewithal to live the same lifestyle you lived when you were working full time. Trips to the doctor for checkups comes more and more frequently and you keep adding new doctors' names and phone numbers (and addresses, if you're getting as forgetful as I am) to your address book. Parts of your body that have worked perfectly well for the last five or six or seven decades suddenly start having problems and some of them require rather radical life changes to compensate for their failures. You get the nagging feeling something is wrong but it isn't always what you expect that it is. You keep getting these little messages that remind you how transient life is and how fast time is flying. It's like you're paying for sins you don't even remember committing -- like eating too many burgers and pizzas over the years or drinking all those six packs on an almost daily basis. It was fun while you were doing it but now your glucose level or your arteries or your liver tells you that there are always consequences.

You used to laugh at those Viagara and Depends jokes but now you try tucking your box of Depends under the other groceries in your basket and hope nobody you know sees you with them. That little piece of concrete on the sidewalk where you walk every day one day seems to jump up about a foot and you trip over it. If you're lucky, you just get a bad bruise or a scrape and you laugh at yourself for being so clumsy. It could be worse, you think, you could have broken a hip. Then one day in your kitchen you trip over the cat or you just plain put a foot wrong and down you go -- with a broken hip. What happens when your kids tell you that you've just told them the exact same story or anecdote three times in a row -- in the space of 10 minutes?  You find you have to write a note to yourself  remember to bring home milk, bread and eggs from the store when you used to be able to remember at least 10 items you needed just off the top of your head and yet when you get to the store you find you forgot to bring the note. The old jokes about losing your car keys suddenly aren't as funny because you've lost yours twice this week -- and at least once they've been in your purse or have fallen on the floor next to the front door. It's almost laughable when someone twenty years your junior asks how you are and when you tell them, they reply with "Oh, I know JUST how you feel because..."  Yes, they have to deal with their own pain and it is probably the worst in the world simply because they have to deal with it and I don't, but by the same token, I have to deal with mine and they don't, so saying they know how I feel is really rather presumptuous. Then I remember --- I've been guilty of that same presumption myself.  I'm finding, though, that as I get older, I'm less inclined to compare my stuff to someone else's simply because the disease or the circumstances is/are similar.

One thing that happens when you get older is that eventually you die. It's part of the natural progression just like parts wearing out on your car or the dog can't get around any more and has to be put down. I think about it now and again, wondering how it's going to happen and when, but I know it is going to happen, whether it will be how I imagine it (or even hope it will be) or not. I sort of get a kick out of people who go on about the joys of heaven and how they're looking forward to going there to see their friends and loved ones who have already passed over -- but who want to take every possible treatment or procedure to make sure that doesn't happen any time soon. They want to be with Jesus but aren't in any hurry to get to that meeting. Maybe it's perversity, but I just find it amusing to put so much thought into getting to heaven and so little into making the world a bit more like heaven right here and right now and  not just for me but for other people who maybe aren't as well off or lucky or healthy. I think that if I have any fear about death at all it is a fear of having to live in intolerable pain for a long period of time or perhaps not knowing that I'm living a long time with a brain that doesn't allow me to live in the present but only in fragments of the past and with a loss of cognition of the faces of people I've known and loved for years.

What brought all this cogitation on is the news that yet another friend has received a diagnosis that nobody wants to get. Whether they're 30 or 100, it makes me think more about my own life and mortality as I try to be a friend and support to them and those close to them. I'm old enough now to know that everybody is different and no two people will react the same way to the same situation most of the time. Oh, some of the reaction will be predictable but never with 100% certainty that it all will be. I'm not being maudlin, just thinking about stuff and choosing to work through it in my head as I put it down on paper (or pixels).

Maybe I should go to the gym Saturday morning instead of sitting at my computer? Maybe I should get up a little earlier and walk a little further in the morning before work just for my health's sake?  Maybe I should start cleaning out stuff I've accumulated but which I really don't use or need (although as soon as I get rid of something you watch, I'll need it within two weeks and have to go buy another one!)? Maybe I should just stop thinking and start doing something instead. I ain't dead yet -- even if I am a day or even a few hours closer to it than I was when I started this blather. There are dishes in the sink waiting for me. I'd hate to go with dirty dishes left lying around.

I just wish I liked doing dishes more. Or mowing the floors or washing windows or cleaning the bathroom or eating more vegetables. I guess I'm one of those who really is looking forward to meeting Jesus face to face --- just not too soon.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Paybacks are...

‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” -- Luke 16:19-31

There's something about a good story with a great plot. It captures the imagination and often has a lesson to be learned lurking somewhere in the meaning of it and this one is no different. It is a bit different than the stories Jesus usually told, however, since this time one of the characters is given a name -- Lazarus. In later centuries, the second character acquired a name, "Dives," meaning "wealthy." As in a lot of stories, the plot is that two men of vastly different circumstances find their situations totally reversed. It's a Biblical version of the Prince and the Pauper or maybe Cinderella where those who are poor or oppressed eventually win out over those who control their lives.

Dives, of course, was a rich man who spent lavishly to maintain his lifestyle, dining extravagantly, wearing expensive clothes, pampering himself with whatever his whims seemed to desire. Meanwhile, at his front gate, Lazarus, a poor man covered in sores and starving, waited in hope for even the scraps from Dives' table, a hope that apparently was never to be realized. Sounds a little familiar, doesn't it?

There's an old saying that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. There are lots of a situations similar to Lazarus and Dives where the rich enjoy life and all that their wealth can provide while the poor suffer and often die. I can't help but think of the current sequestration mess. I think particularly of Congress who, finding they might be inconvenienced by cutbacks to air traffic controllers, sought to relieve the pain of their fellow travelers (and themselves) by reinstating those controllers so that the public might travel relatively unimpeded. Meanwhile programs like Head Start and those which aid the homeless, Native Americans, veterans, retirees, school lunch programs, and countless other programs that affect millions and millions of people who can't afford to fly off on vacations or who might not even have a roof over their heads are left in Lazarus' position, begging at the doorways of Congress and getting about the same result Lazarus did. It was that way in Jesus' day and that plot line is still just as real to us today.

One of the main precepts we hear in scripture again and again is the oft-repeated social conscience -- care for the widows, the orphans, the sick, the imprisoned, the dying, the poor. It doesn't say anything about taking care of the rich people; they can take care of themselves pretty well on their own. It's the marginalized of society who always seem to bear the brunt when one group feels it is more entitled than all others. Jesus certainly preached about caring for the less fortunate, but considering that so many Americans feel they are Christians living in a "Christian nation,"  they don't seem to have been listening to the scriptures too closely -- or maybe they have had preachers preaching the wrong message. One bit of scripture we look at rather askance is the verse that begins with "The poor you have with you always" (Matt. 26:11a).  It may be so, but does that mean we have to grind them into the dust and leave them begging at the door with weeping sores that the dogs lick?  Just because they're always there, does that make it right? Or inevitable?  Or beyond change?

There are people in this world like Margaret Watson who serves as a priest in South Dakota among Native Americans who are among the most affected by the sequestration cuts. She wrote a  letter to her congressmen  about what she sees and experiences and has even extended an invitation for them to come and spend time on the reservation, seeing what their cuts have done to a group who is already existing marginally, but so far it seems like there's a fairly thundering silence from Washington. Yet those same congressmen can fly off to their vacations and their nice homes in the suburbs with a full refrigerator, more than one car in the garage and probably membership in the local golf club while people on the reservation die from lack of care, lack of help and lack of hope. Come to think of it, there are a lot of other people who aren't congressmen who can boast of the same lifestyle and who care about as little as congress seems to about those who don't have healthy 401ks or big stock portfolios or private investment bankers to keep an eye on their growing bank accounts. They are the Dives of this world who never seem to notice the Lazaruses at their gates except maybe to call the police to clear them out of the neighborhood or take away the food and/or hydration stations other and more conscience-driven people set up to try to help address the imbalance.

Upon his death, Lazarus was taken to rest in the bosom of Abraham, a place of high honor and a sort of heaven in Jewish theology.  Dives, however, was consigned to a place of fire, Gehennom, where he definitely learned the meaning of suffering. Their roles had been completely reversed and, as a popular saying puts it, "What goes around comes around."  Paul had another way of making the same point, "" reap whatever you sow" (Gal. 6:7c). Dives was reaping what he sowed, and despite his pleas to Abraham to send Lazarus down with a sip of water to quench his parched throat and then to send Lazarus to testify to his five brothers so that they could avoid Dives' own fate, he found out the wealth and power he had exerted in life did him no good in his current situation. As for his brothers, if they, like Dives, couldn't learn the right use of wealth and power from Moses and the prophets, a strange dude who had returned from the afterlife wouldn't have been any more believable.

I wonder -- what would make Congress change their thinking on assistance for the poor and not just benefits for the rich? I wonder if a Lazarus would move them?  Or maybe it would take some singeing of their toes to get their attention?   Or maybe they, and those of us who ignore the Bible and our duty to our fellow human beings, need a quick course in ethics because, in the words of some immortal, "Paybacks are hell."

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 1, 2013.