Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Prophet's Underwear

Thus said the Lord to me, ‘Go and buy yourself a linen loincloth, and put it on your loins, but do not dip it in water.’ So I bought a loincloth according to the word of the Lord, and put it on my loins. And the word of the Lord came to me a second time, saying, ‘Take the loincloth that you bought and are wearing, and go now to the Euphrates, and hide it there in a cleft of the rock.’ So I went, and hid it by the Euphrates, as the Lord commanded me. And after many days the Lord said to me, ‘Go now to the Euphrates, and take from there the loincloth that I commanded you to hide there.’ Then I went to the Euphrates, and dug, and I took the loincloth from the place where I had hidden it. But now the loincloth was ruined; it was good for nothing.
 Then the word of the Lord came to me: Thus says the Lord: Just so I will ruin the pride of Judah and the great pride of Jerusalem. This evil people, who refuse to hear my words, who stubbornly follow their own will and have gone after other gods to serve them and worship them, shall be like this loincloth, which is good for nothing. For as the loincloth clings to one’s loins, so I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me, says the Lord, in order that they might be for me a people, a name, a praise, and a glory. But they would not listen.  - Jeremiah 13:1-11

When the  tomb of Tutankhamen was opened and the contents revealed, surprisingly enough there were undergarments waiting for the Pharaoh's need of them. Looking at the tomb graphics and figures, many figures, including Pharaoh, are wearing short kilts or even just plain loincloths. Almost every culture has worn loincloths and some, like Sumo wrestlers among others, continue to wear them as part of their identification. Today we're more likely to hear about boxers, jockey shorts or even thongs, but they all started as an improvement (more or less) on the loincloth.

The story today begins with Jeremiah's underwear. Underwear isn't a subject often mentioned  in the Bible. In this story, God told Jeremiah to go get a new linen loincloth. Jeremiah was told not only to buy the undergarment but to put it on and wear it without washing it or letting it get wet. We aren't told how long he wore it but at some point God came and told him to take it to the river and hide it among the rocks. Some time later, Jeremiah was told to go dig it up and what Jeremiah found was a rotten, stinking mess that could never be used again. Symbolically, it represented the people who had once again proved unfaithful to God.

The job of the prophet was to warn people of the dangers of the course they were taking. It wasn't foretelling the future by saying something like "A week from next Tuesday a plague will hit and the people living on X, Y and Z streets will be decimated." It was seeing the cultural and religious bodies being infected from within and trying to tell them that they needed to change their ways of doing things or else.

God often made prophets do strange, not to say weird, things in order to get the people's attention. Isaiah had to walk around town naked for three years which must have scandalized the neighbors since even accidental exposure of certain areas of the body was not acceptable. Ezekiel had to lie on his left side for 390 days, then on his right side for 40 more before baring his arm and prophesying against Jerusalem. Ezekiel was also told to cook barley bread over a fire of human dung but he bargained God down to cow dung instead as human excrement was considered unclean while a cow's was a normal fuel. Jeremiah had to wear and then bury his underwear. In each case, using an extreme visual to go with a warning from the prophet was God's way of trying to get Israel and Judah to listen.

Occasionally something would get their attention and the people would return to the way it was supposed to be, but then they would slide off into apostasy, greed, selfishness and downright sin of any and all varieties once again. Another prophet would give them a message, but again like so many times before, the intimacy with God would be rejected in favor of being like the alien neighbors who seemed to be having so much more fun.

Some fancy stores have departments such as "Ladies' intimate apparel," a very dignified name for women's underwear. Intimate apparel suggests garments that cling to the body, close, familiar and comfortable. Intimacy is more than underwear, though. Intimacy is a relationship that is close, familiar, comfortable and sometimes even passionate. It's a kind of relationship that everyone craves but sometimes are too afraid to pursue. They fear disclosing too much and giving others power, especially the power to hurt deeply, that comes with a person sharing that information with another.

One thing we are assured of is that God loves us and wants the best for us, even if we don't know what that is for ourselves. God extends intimacy to each of us yet often we reject it or completely forget about it. We become the dirty underwear stashed in the crevice like Jeremiah's. We go chasing after foreign or false gods, becoming dirty in the process and straining the intimacy that we, and God, crave.

What does it take for us to return to that intimacy with God that we were intended to have? It isn't something that just suddenly comes on and sticks around; it has to be fostered, like adding kindling to a tiny fire to make it grow. Prayer and meditation can be a good start, as can being mindful of our actions and thoughts.

Where are we failing God when we mentally curse at the person who just cut us off on the freeway or whose dog left a "gift" on our front lawn? Where are we failing when we see pictures of hungry children and then blithely go on to our favorite restaurant for lunch or dinner that would cost enough to feed that child for days? When we fail at caring for others we fail at caring for God, for each of us carries some God-stuff within us. We fail when we forget to pray or when we only shoot up arrow prayers when we are in trouble but don't bother with thank yous for help received or for something good that happens.

Intimacy takes work, unlike underwear that just clings to the body. It is a relational thing that has to be carefully tendered. Yet intimacy is a gift from God that lies within us all and that we can return to God as our gift and our duty. Maybe we don't need a nude prophet or one with dirty underwear, but we do need to pay attention to those who tell us where we are failing in terms of God, our neighbors and even our planet.

Paying attention is another of those intimacy things--a closeness, familiarity and even passion--that will help grow a kingdom, God's kingdom, here and now.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, March 14, 2015.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Perpetua and Her Companions

 Commemoration of Perpetua and Her Companions, Martyrs at Carthage, 202

Daniel 6:10-16
Matthew 24:9-14

Saints come in all kinds. Recognized saints, by churchly standards, are classified in several categories: Priest, soldier, apostle, archangel, doctor of the church, mystic, founder (especially of a religious order), virgin, confessor, and so on. One of the big categories of sainthood is that of martyr, one who dies for the faith in a less-than-peaceful way. Confessors are those who stand up for Jesus but who die quietly and naturally (or possibly by accident), but martyrs are done in by others in sometimes rather gruesome ways. Take St. Lawrence, for example. He was martyred by being roasted on a grill. Legend has it that his final words were, "Turn me over, this side's done."

Perpetua was a catechumen, one who had not yet been baptized. She was apparently a young widow with a small child still being nursed. Her family was wealthy but apparently not Christian. When she was due to have a hearing in court, her father visited her and tried to persuade her to have mercy on him by renouncing this Christianity and returning to the kind of daughter he had known and loved. Perpetua, having had a dream or vision of a golden ladder and a fair land beyond it where the shepherd welcomed her, knew that she would not get out of this alive and so told her father that whatever happened would be God's will. He left dejected, probably to never see her again.

In another vision, Perpetua found herself struggling with a gladiator. She won the contest and understood this to mean that she would withstand the attacks of the devil and prevail even though she would lose her life in the process.

Her day of trial came. She, another female prisoner named Felicitas, and three men, Revocatus, Saturus, and Secundus, were taken to the amphitheater. Things did not go precisely as they were planned. Perpetua was led out, a wild cow threw her to the ground and tore her tunic but failed to kill. Felicitas had been wounded as well and Perpetua helped her to regain her feet. Saturus was mortally wounded by a leopard but the other animals, a bear who would not leave his cage and a wild boar who gored his keeper, did not attack the men.

After a short rest, all remaining prisoners were lined up to be executed by human executioners, much as the pictures of ISIS executioners with their prisoners in front of them. When Perpetua's turn came, the young executioner's blow only wounded her. Reaching up, she took the blade in her hand and guided it to her neck. Presumably, the executioner then completed his task. I wonder -- did Perpetua's courage make any impact on the young man who took her life? Did it make a difference at all?

Today we have so many news stories and articles about martyrs in various parts of the world. Over the past months we have become increasingly familiar with martyrdom on almost a daily basis. The recent beheading of 21 Christians, mostly Coptics, was just the latest atrocity in a long string of beheadings, kidnappings, and tortures in different parts of the world. We are horrified, but don't seem to be able to do anything to stop the carnage.

There are those, however, who consider themselves martyrs. No, not that they are being persecuted like the Romans did to Christians, Christians did to Muslims and Jews during the Crusades, or Muslims doing to Jews and Christians now. These are the ones who have staunch beliefs and believe everyone else should believe as they do. Because they frequently meet with disapproval or outright rejection of their beliefs, they consider that they are persecuted and are martyrs for their faith. Somehow I think Perpetua, Felicitas, Lawrence and all the others who endured excruciatingly painful deaths to earn the title "Martyr" would probably shake their heads in disbelief.

What would we do if we were placed in a position similar to Perpetua or her companions?  It would probably seem so easy to just deny their beliefs and save their lives. What made their faith so strong and unshakeable?  They knew the risks of even secretly practicing their beliefs, yet they continued. Why? What was so compelling about the message of Jesus that they would risk certain death if they were discovered?

Probably they would understand Luther's statement of "Here I stand, I can do no other." What they had to lose was their place in a kingdom where the slave and noble would be equal,  there would be no pain, suffering, or death, and they would be comforted and loved by the man who had been himself a martyr to prove that God's love was for all people and for all time. Their faith in that promise enabled them to stay strong and faithful, even in the arena where they faced certain death.

Even if martyrdom isn't a possibility or probability in our current lives, can we be sure how firm our faith is? Would our faith stay strong in the midst of persecution or would it crumble like a dried leaf?  Do we trust Jesus and his promises enough to stand on those promises, whatever comes? Are we as willing to build our faith as we are to tone up our bodies and strengthen our muscles? It all requires the same thing -- practice and attention. We can look to Perpetua and the other martyrs like her for examples.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café

Sunday, March 1, 2015


This very day the Lord your God is commanding you to observe these statutes and ordinances; so observe them diligently with all your heart and with all your soul. Today you have obtained the Lord’s agreement: to be your God; and for you to walk in his ways, to keep his statutes, his commandments, and his ordinances, and to obey him. Today the Lord has obtained your agreement: to be his treasured people, as he promised you, and to keep his commandments; for him to set you high above all nations that he has made, in praise and in fame and in honour; and for you to be a people holy to the Lord your God, as he promised. - Deuteronomy 26:16-19

During the season of Lent, there's a word that keeps cropping up: observe. We are urged to "Observe a Holy Lent" or we discuss various Lenten observances that different people find enriching or valuable to their spiritual lives. Again and again the word "observe" crops up, and there's no getting around it.

The word itself has several meanings, one of which is to watch, notice or study something as being significant. Another is to act or comply with a law or standard, be it legal, moral, religious, or ethical. We have professional war correspondents and peace organizations observing the action in war zones either to report the news or try to find a way to resolve the problems causing the aggression. Referees in sporting events are supposedly impartial observers whose job is to maintain adherence to the rules, keep order and adjudicate disputes. At Vatican II, non-Roman representatives of other denominations and faiths were invited to observe the historic meeting. And then we're told to observe the speed limit, observe holidays and city/town council meetings as well as trends in finance.

In the Deuteronomy reading, God commands the people to "observe these statutes and ordinances" and to "observe them diligently with all your heart and with all your soul." It isn't enough to just stand back and look at them, God wants the people to deliberately and fully keep the commandments, ordinances, and statues to which they had agreed and to obey God in all things. Those statues, etc., weren't just words laid out in a contract that could be ignored if it got inconvenient. They covered legal, ethical, moral and religious aspects of life, and if one in any one category was broken, it broke the chain that bound all four aspects together. The purpose of the observances was not only to do what God wanted, it was also to bind and strengthen the bonds between people and which included God as the center.

When we observe God's laws, we are responding to an agreement thousands and thousands of years old. Some of the laws might be outdated but we can look at what that particular law represented at the time it was first heard and find parallels in our own lives now. The price of ignoring the agreement and the things the people were called on to observe physically, emotionally, spiritually, ethically, morally, and just about any other -ly a person could think of, is living in disharmony with fellow human beings, nature and the many elements that compose it and with God as well. It is a sort of package deal. When one part of the  body is ill, the rest of reacts to it and tries to bring things back to normalcy. Something in disharmony does not function well, and we can't always just ignore it and think God will fix it for us.

During Lent we try not to do things we normally do and sometimes do things we ordinarily wouldn't do. We call them observances and we approach Ash Wednesday with a definite idea of what we are going to do to observe this Holy Lent. Some will give up some treasured little habits or vices like chocolate, sodas, smoking, or eating meat on Friday. Some will endeavor to pray more, take more exercise, save up the money they would spend on entertainment or coffee and giving it to charity after Lent is over, or do more spiritual reading. Some will take on things like helping in soup kitchens, food banks, and other places where they can be of service. At the beginning we fully intend to keep those observances we established for ourselves. Unfortunately, like a lot of New Year’s resolutions, they don’t make it past the first week.. Still, just giving it a try is a point in their favor even if it seems like a failure to them.

None of us will ever completely live up to the agreement made with God but then, even Babe Ruth never hit a home run every time he came up to the plate. The things is to keep trying, keep the eyes focused on God. Jesus distilled the agreement down to two simple things for us to do - love God and love our neighbor. If we can do those two things, observe them wholeheartedly and faithfully, especially during Lent, we might find our faith deepened, our lives more fulfilling, and the world a better place for us and for everyone else.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, February 28, 2015.