Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Love is... (pt 2)

Readings: Genesis 25:19-34, Psalm 119:105-112, Isaiah 55:10-13, Psalm 65:9-13, Romans 8:1-11, Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Though he’s an ancestor of our faith and beloved to us by default, the barest truth regarding Jacob is that he was a bit of a rascal. Prone to sneaking his way to success, his story is peppered with instances of less than stellar ethical decisions, including the narrative we read this week.

Jacob and Esau were twins, though Esau, born (if by minutes) first, was culturally entitled to the birthrights of the eldest son. We’re told that Jacob resisted this even in the womb: he emerged into the world holding Esau’s heel, as if saying, “not so fast, brother!” (Genesis 25:26).

Jacob’s concern seemed to be what he would be denied; he displayed little linked, inherent appreciation for what he already had.

Jacob’s need to best Esau led to continual problems between the brothers. Our reading continues to a recounting of Jacob’s decision to trick Esau out of his birthright. Jacob waited for his exhausted brother to come in from the fields, hungry and weary, and then bribed him out of the first born position with the evening meal, a bowl of lentils (Genesis 25:34).

In effect, this left Jacob triumphant in his efforts. Practically, it also sullied his relationship with Esau, with whom he’d never enjoy perfect fraternal harmony again. In his fervor to come out on top in their family, Jacob ensured continual discord in it.

Jacob is not someone who we fully want to mimic. If we consider the results of his selfish, if wily, actions, we come to the realization that these are the inherited impulses of his which we have to resist.

We don’t really hear about what Esau feels, beyond his justifiable anger. In his shoes, how would we react?

He, the hard worker, the still less loved son, is continually bested by his mischievous younger brother; he repeatedly loses in their family, despite his certainly superior integrity. Indeed, he’s not even the focus in the biblical narrative which remembers him. Is his story the progenitor to our classic “good guys never win”?

My guess is that we’re not supposed to come up with an outlook so bleak. Perhaps we can read this tale as a cautionary one, particularly in regard to our personal values.

If, as the gospels suggest, we’re supposed to regard the human community as our family, and the parts of it as our brothers and sisters, then perhaps what we can take from Jacob and Esau is a degree of care when dealing with one another.

There’s nothing wrong with seeking the best conceivable life for ourselves. Jacob’s mistake was not that he wanted more; it was that he ultimately took more at the expense of his brother. He could not adopt the perspective that his own blessings were great; he had to, in order to feel secure about his own blessings, erode his brother’s blessings. This was Jacob’s great failing.

What would his family have been like had he not made such decisions? What sort of home would Leah and his children have been welcomed into had his methods not continually alienated others? Did not the costs outweigh the apparent “boons”?

It seems to me that Jacob’s shallow personal desires were akin to the seed sown among thorns (Matthew 13:22). His thirst was for a life that would be admired: for the best portion of his father’s house; for the prettiest partner; for the best portions of his father-in-law’s flock. At each turn, someone lost: Esau, Leah, Laban. And so the life he envisioned—happy, gilded, perfect—could never fully take root.

What if his desire had been guided by the full picture of what makes life good—by the understanding that our personal successes are always mitigated by the effects they have upon those around us?

Jacob’s pursuits echo rhetoric in our own time. Pursuit for wealth that does not consider those hurt in its pursuit; images of family which are only acceptable if they are better than other family images. Why do we need to justify our lives in accordance with our disapproval of the lives of others?

I think of the marriage debate; I think of the continual refrain, from some, that suggests that inclusive marriage—a redefinition in our laws which would make marital relationships accessible to all—corrupts the notion of marriage. As if family only has value if some are excluded from it. As if our margins, or the decision to leave some at the margins, makes the middle stronger, or better.

In our fervor to be worldly and to make our own relationships understood to be the best, we sometimes make these mistakes—and in so doing, in not electing to understand what is purest about those relationships, we toss our seeds among the thorns.

Marriage, like many voluntary relationships, is best because of its most gentle aspirations. Throughout the books of the Bible we read of the virtues of love: of selfless self-giving, of the care for another which, in turn, makes us internally richer, adds depth to our own lives, and to our relationships with the Holy.

We idealize marriage, when only one couple is our concern, as two becoming one; we think of married couples as new centers for the work of the Holy Spirit. Love transforms those beloved, and the glow spreads outward.

This is the dearest hope of the Bible when it speaks of love; and love is marriage’s best potential. It is, consequentially, confusing that any Christian would want to deny access to such relationships to anyone.

We, like Jacob and Esau, are born with certain predetermined blessings, amongst them our ability to grow into loving adults. The way this works in relation to gender varies, but most now understand gender preferences to be predetermined.

We love best as we are made to love, which makes inclusive marriage moves not only just, but essential. Our laws should enable the gifts of God to shine fully through us; and interpersonal relationships are an important facet of our potentialities.

Though New York state’s inclusive marriage laws will never have personal implications for me, I celebrate them. They opened a space for my brothers and sisters to pursue the fullest and best expressions of their hearts, regardless of orientation. I expect that the world will become a better place because of such measures—measures which struggle to understand, and take care with, the soil in which we plant our dearest ideas. I pray that other states will follow quickly behind.

We undermine ourselves if we seek to be too much like Jacob, if we forget that we are born with what we need to make our lives their own best possible versions. We get no further in the world by entering it holding fast to the heels of others—slowing one another down costs us as much as it costs those we cause to falter. We should, instead, enter it with our hands held high in gratitude, and should do all in our capacity to ensure that the path is cleared for others to celebrate their own blessings in the same measure.

Love is a gift which God left open to all; only we prevent its fullest expression.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Love is...

Readings:Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Psalm 45:10-17; Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Zechariah 9:9-12; Psalm 145:8-14; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Our week begins with marital verses. The chapters include both narratives and metaphors—from the story of Isaac and Rebekah’s marriage to comparisons of Israel to brides, wherein its relationship becomes as a marriage to God.

In a way, these readings fall into appropriate time. We emerge with them from June, which is, contemporarily, deemed “wedding month.” We are familiar with announcements and celebrations, are weighted down with words of flower arrangements and festivities.

We treat such occasions as epochs, and not unjustly so: two lives winding into one new life warrant a little poetic imagination.

But such occasions also sometimes carry the burden of expectations. Paul and his letter to the Corinthians are often invoked during wedding ceremonies, and so too are other biblical images, some which have a less comfortable inheritance.

Throughout the year, we encounter such verses: insistences that wives be obedient to their husbands. Glorification of wifely quietude.

Even readings like this week’s can prove a danger: in hasty hands, they can be made to suggest power structures which do not perfectly enable marital partnership, but rather set up something archaic, something against which we, in accordance with our values, struggle.

Abraham sends a servant to the land of his ancestors—the land of his fathers, the chapter says—to retrieve from amongst them a suitable wife for his son. And when the servant claps eyes on her, he claims her: he bejewels her, owning her for Isaac by proxy (Genesis 24:37-38, 47).

There exists, here, a residual sense of property exchange: of marriage being more like ownership than partnership.

Our reading from the Psalms might be made to reinforce this: it demands that the “bride”, presumably a metaphor for maiden Israel, “forget your people and your father’s house” in favor of becoming a queen, bejeweled before all the nations (Psalm 45:10). The bride seems to enter a new life herein, one in which what came before ceases to matter; what she becomes as the wife is endowed with the utmost value.

I have been thinking lately about what we expect of marriage. Most women I know balk at outward suggestions of “property” exchange. We are beyond the age of dowries, obviously. Fathers still give daughters away, but the action is now infused more with affection than anything else.

We choose to read from Corinthians at weddings because Paul encourages steadfast love within it; it sounds more like the partnership which we desire than do portions of his other letters which talk about marital submission.

Still, the message is mixed. The portions of Paul which we carefully avoid during June are brought to the attention of married partners when disharmony is reported—we act as though relationships are boats which should never be rocked. The effusive joy of “wedding season” is confused by conflicting attitudes toward marriage throughout the rest of the year.

We still do not make it easy for Christian women to confess marital unhappiness, even when their safety is at stake. We remain wary of divorce. We are dogged about the term “forever”, even in the face of distress. Discord exists between what we expect of marriage, and what we insist that individual people are entitled to, in terms of respect, in general.

This confusion only deepens if we allow ourselves to get moored in the culture of the scriptures, acting as though it ought to always be reified in our own time. Stories such as Rebekah’s retrieval, on Isaac’s behalf, as well as portions of Paul, can muddle our ideas about relationships, though they ultimately need not to.
What was expected of Abraham in ancient Mesopotamia does not exactly correspond to our own situations; Rebekah and Isaac don’t have a love story which necessarily begins as ours do. Nor do the relationships of Paul’s churches perfectly correspond to our own: Rome had its own mores, its own expectations.

And yet there are portions of all of these books with which we can identify. Rebekah might not enter Genesis perfectly—there is an underlying sense that she is more like her father’s “property” than she is an autonomous being, worthy, owing to her own human merit, of love and respect. Yet this subset of the tale runs out of steam quickly.

Rebekah is brought to Isaac—a prize to her triumphant. But the triumphant groom does not lord over her. Instead, our reading ends with this: “she became his wife; and he loved her” (Genesis 24:67).

The hope is in the conclusion, in the assurance that he loves her. Rebekah becomes a comfort to him. Their relationship becomes a mutual exchange. She becomes, in the words of Song of Solomon, beloved: someone upon whom he depends, as much as she depends upon him.

The scriptures are insistent about the nature of love, and none of their ideals focus upon power. It is selfless self-giving—loving another as we would wish to be loved. It has been articulated as self-emptying, of the abandonment of personal impulses in deference to another. It is an exchange. It is symbiotic.

How much better our world could be if we talked of marriage this way, and not just of the wedding. That too many expectations still arise from the uglier side is attested to by incidents of domestic violence, and by silence surrounding such difficult topics in “polite” Christian society. We recite Corinthians at the wedding—and then we fall silent.

We bemoan “mistakes” when they happen, but often too late, prompted by tragedy, impervious to daily necessity.

I’ve been thinking about relationships lately, worried by the ways in which they go wrong. I lost a beautiful friend, a bright Christian woman, this summer to domestic violence. She was fortunate enough to have supportive family, and a supportive church community, at her back as she combated her difficult situation, though ultimately this proved not enough.

I’ve been thinking about how I’ll speak of relationships now, having seen the worst end to one in which the woman wasn’t afforded her due respect. Too late, I crave the images of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians for my friend: never jealous, never petty, always kind. I crave them for all brave enough to forge marital relationships.

We don’t make much use of terms like property exchange during the “wedding season”; we pretend as though we’ve gotten beyond such things. Yet it seems that not enough respect is given between husbands and wives after the wedding lights dim. We forget to parlay the ceremony’s readings into our lives.

“And he loved her,” Genesis says. Such a quiet, simple statement; so succinct after the rambling story of how Isaac “met” Rebekah. And yet all of the work of a marriage lies therein—indeed, all of the work of any Christian, any believer.

He loved her.

I wish the hope, the confusion, the hard work and the joy of that line upon the marriages which began, are beginning, are midstream, are aging and are anticipated right now. The best lessons of our Bible are incumbent on such love. We are to struggle toward it, and to renew it continually once we’ve attained some measure of it.

He loved her; that remains the example which we’ll be better for trying to emulate. It stands at the heart of our faith.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Because I Have Loved You

Readings:Genesis 22:1-14,Psalm 13, Jeremiah 28:5-9, Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18, Romans 6:12-23, Matthew 10:40-42

Our readings this week begin with the akedah, the story of the binding of Isaac. Not due to this story alone, Abraham stands as a paragon of obedience to God’s word.

While biblical scholars haggle over whether or not Abraham believed he would actually be required to sacrifice his son, the details of the story stand: the doting father, when asked by God to offer up his beloved son, without hesitation set out on a journey whose practical end was compliance.

The journey to Moriah took three days. For three days, Abraham and his son travelled to the mountain, the boy with the kindling for his own eventual burning on his back, the father weighted down by the implications of the horrible task at hand.

They woke on the third day, looked toward the horizon, and saw the mountain in the distance. The whole situation was hopeless and foreboding.

What impresses us is that Abraham seems never to waver. He’s cryptic about details when talking to Isaac and otherwise stoic through the whole of the mission. Though his soul must have been crying out for reprieve, he goes so far as to climb the mountain with his son, to bind the boy, and to raise the knife for the sacrifice.
Not until the angel cries “stop!” do we receive any indication that Abraham ever would have. He was poised, fully willing.

We comfort ourselves when reading this troubling story by assuming God never meant to let the sacrifice happen. Still, Abraham’s three days of torture, and Isaac’s own trauma, seem an unnecessary cruelty to inflict upon two human beings simply to test their obedience.

We hope the story is told as an allegory, a way to assert Abraham’s superior qualities whilst exaggerating the real details, but we have no way of knowing. We are left to admire the patriarch, the whole time quietly struggling not to bestow too much credit on him for his cofounding willingness. We respect him. We do not always know why.

We read Abraham’s story, and wonder. Would we? Would God ask it of us? What incredible sacrifices are solicited from us instead?

These readings collectively suggest that obedience to God’s word becomes a sacrifice in and of itself sometimes, in that it often requires relinquishing our attachment to personally beneficial reasoning. So the Psalmist is able to bemoan God’s hidden face while still discussing Divine generosity: the Psalm knows that God is good without pretending to understand how (Psalm 13:1, 6).

Similarly, Paul speaks of obedience as a kind of slavery, a life to which one gives oneself over at the cost of some autonomy where tasks like love are concerned (Romans 6:18). What God asks is not always easy: the task to love one another without condition itself is one which we, in our particular situations, often are left struggling against. Yet if we love God, we are to bind ourselves to it; we are to become servants to God’s will therein.

Sacrifices are easy enough only in theory; “love” is an easy word to make use of; but who hasn’t wished for reprieve when confronted with a “neighbor” who’s wronged them terribly? We accept and laud God’s word, but it’s human to tacitly hope that there are unspoken conditions, limitations which we’re not expected to love, or obey, beyond. Our readings struggle against that hope: obedience is to be absolute; it is to forego our personal, earthly desires.

In every age, believers are faced with the din of critical voices, voices which decry their obedience as foolhardy or antiquated, as silly and without merit. They flay believers with recollections of an unhappy history wherein God has not always rescued the godly from persecutions which occur despite their obedience.
They mock concepts like absolute love, burdening them with added conditions: are we to love dictators, murderers, thieves? The “yes” we borrow from our Bible only redoubles their scorn; obedience to it resists the “acceptable” limits of reason, and so they reject the obedience of the faithful.

In past ages, some not so distant, obedience has faced such contempt that it’s even been legislated against. Thus we have the examples of the Acts of the Apostles, and of Roman history, which indicate that Christians were persecuted for their beliefs.

We have too the history of anti-Semitism, wherein even Christians have sometimes been wont to forbid their Jewish brethren, by and bye, to be obedient to God’s word. At various times, it has been a dangerous thing to keep kosher, to observe the Sabbath, to celebrate a bris. Such things have been made illegal; they’ve been turned into markers, and used to justify the unspeakable.

We have, sadly, contemporary examples as well. In San Francisco, a group of activists is currently attempting to push through a law which would make circumcision illegal, punishable by fines and imprisonment.

Though these activists insist that their motivation exists wholly in the realm of human rights, it has recently come to light that one of their leaders is responsible for conceptualizing and circulating an anti-Semitic comic book which depicts mohels as monsters, and those who bar the covenantal tradition as saviors.

Despite this exposure of the nastier elements of their ideology, the group continues its campaign. They hold themselves up as enlightened and decry those who would be obedient to the tradition as “barbaric.” It has always been so, and has always so lacked substance.

Abraham was asked to do much which he did not understand. God asked that he become a wanderer, that he leave his home and move toward a land promised to his posterity. God asked that he sacrifice his son, eliciting his obedience without actually requiring that the task go through. God made a covenant with Abraham, and as a sign of it God established the bris, a ritual which would draw believers into the covenantal community on the eighth day of their lives.

God gave Abraham much room, and many ways, to be obedient; he did not provide corresponding whys. They are beyond our purview. We do not need them to justify our obedience. They are almost in the realm of “because I said so”; they are more nearly “because I have shown you so much love, and asked of you so little.”

We honor Abraham for his obedience this week in our readings, and must so honor those who continue to exemplify it. Obedience to God’s word, even if in areas which we think are replaced, for us, by our own “covenant” in Christ, is to be admired and applauded by all who believe. It’s something which we should always defend.

In San Francisco, the obedient are currently under fire. It is hardly the only city on Earth in which believers of various faiths face challenges, but it presents a particular opportunity for us to raise our own voices in defense of obedience.
Our Jewish neighbors, and our Muslim neighbors, are affronted by such laws, which would necessitate their disobedience to God in the name of obedience to a legislative body which is supposed to protect their religious rights.

Our gospel reading this week insists that those who love righteousness for
righteousness’ sake are beloved by God (Matthew 10:41). We don’t always understand righteousness as it’s been presented in the Bible; gracefully, we don’t need to.
God asked that we love one another. God asked the Jewish covenantal community to do this too, but also to perform other acts of obedience, of which the bris is one. Our gospels assure us that such obedience is righteous; we are to awe over, and protect the rights of, those who display it.

People of faith are all asked, in some measure, to travel to their own Moriahs. We face our own tests, and we confront the possibility of faltering each step of the way. Can we, ourselves, bring ourselves to bind that which we love? Can we do these things without asking why?

We hope, but never know, that a voice from Heaven will cry “stop!” at the opportune moment. We hope. Yet our job as people of faith is not to listen for the voice; it’s to do as we were asked. Because God loved us enough to make Divine and incredible sacrifices. Because God has asked, of us, so little in return.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Majestic is Your Name

Readings: Genesis 1:1-2:4a, Psalm 8, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13,Matthew 28:16-20

We complex creatures, though created in God’s image, have sometimes indulged in the unfortunate habit of being wrong, of mistaking the purpose of our creation. The notion of dominion, in particular, has proven particularly irksome in our fallible hands.

We have interpreted the Genesis instruction that we “subdue” the earth to mean that we can bend it to our wills and whims (Genesis 1:29). We have not always paid homage to God’s creations; we have often humiliated them.

Environmentalists have long and loudly bemoaned the manipulation of that verse. We have exercised our dominion by mining our lands for resources, bleeding them until they collapse, exhausted and anemic. The notion of “dominion” has felled forests and hills. It has enabled us to taint and otherwise alter our oceans and fresh waters in the name of progress. The idea of dominion over animal life, similarly, has led to willfully taken liberties which are hard to excuse.

And yet our readings this week highlight a further area of abuse: they align creation to God’s goodness, align existing in the Divine image to the spreading of the gospel truth. To be an evangelist, in the Gospel sense, means to spread God’s good news; this extends to the gift of creation, to the beauty in all formed by heaven’s hands, and to awe over those gifts and blessings. In the 8th Psalm, the psalmist, with wonder, says “when I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:4-5)

The offering of “dominion” to humankind was not the passing of a baton: God did not make us rulers over the earth, nor was true control over it relinquished. We were made, as many have suggested, its stewards. We are its tenants and the beneficiaries of its grandeur. We have the dominion, the power and the room to love it; we do not have the right to reduce it. The Psalm thus winds out of our consciousness this week not focusing on us, but on the whole of creation as a testament: “O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Psalm 8:9)

To love God, we must honor what God made. The good news, and the challenge, is that this extends to ourselves. We were blessed with self-dominion: the grace of awareness, the ability to form a conscience guided by holiness, informed by wonder.
It extends, further, to one another. The gift of Christ was a reminder that we can live in radical community—that love can become a method by which we bind to one another, by which we strengthen and affirm our ties to the Holy. Paul enjoins “agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you” (2 Corinthians 13:11). Where we are conscientious, where we invite the Spirit and welcome grace, there is God. There our “dominion” comes to fullest fruition.

Alongside environmental injustices, therefore, we have to reckon the injustices which we visit upon one another. Environmentalists and animal activists have long denounced what we’ve done to the natural world in the name of dominion; our need to control and subdue one another has proven similarly disastrous. We raise ourselves unnaturally high and then forget to take care of our neighbors.

From Syria, we hear news of hundreds of innocents falling beneath a callous government which seeks to punish the population for breeding dissidents. Our president is pressed to declare war on Libya, where injustices against our neighbors are also rampant. The so-called “Arab Spring” is so colored by atrocities against mankind that the vibrant evocations of the name come to seem inappropriate. Life has become less, not more, verdant for so many who offended those in power simply by asking that their dignity be honored.

Here at home, we hurt each other, too. We restrict programs which aide those in need with arbitrary and humiliating new requirements, often in the name of respecting the limitations of our budget. We demonize our neighbors to the South, absurdly turning “immigrant” into a slanderous term, forgetting that we, ourselves, are a nation of immigrants. We allow fear to make us cruel.

Our women are subject to violence. There exist serious gaps in legal systems which could prevent it, but find themselves ill-equipped to actually do so. In all of this: we fail to respect the implications of the “dominion” which we were formed to exercise.

In our reading from Matthew, Jesus sends the disciples out to spread word of the Holy. He proclaims total authority in heaven and on Earth, and simultaneously enables them to proclaim this. As a grace. As a gift. As a continuation of creation.

“I am with you always, till the end of the age,” Jesus proclaims (Matthew 28:20). This serves as a clarification of the first chapter of Genesis: God, resting from the work of creating, gives human beings dominion not in God’s stead, but so they may understand, from a blessed perspective, the goodness of the gift. God stands them up before all created under heaven and declares, “this was for you.” God is with us always, until the end of the age.

To dishonor what God formed disgraces the gift of radical Divine love. When we are careless with the Earth, with its living creatures and with one another, we effectively forget these humbling and wonderful verses. We are careless with the Word when we are careless with creation.

We cannot claim, with integrity, to belong to God without also respecting the godly—a spectrum which encompasses all of creation. The gift begins and ends with us.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

In Memory of

Readings: Acts 2:1-21, Numbers 11:24-30, Psalm 104:24-34,1 Corinthians 12:3b-13, John 20:19-23

Conceptually, the Holy Spirit is enigmatic. Not until we discuss the specifics of the Spirit at work do we begin to understand the Pentecost: we less can explain Holy Spirit than we can the Spirit manifest.

We’ve all known people through whom we know God is at work. Acts of extraordinary generosity expose them, or instances of everyday and awesome kindness. There are those from whom the Spirit shines.

Paul said, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7). God will work through some by making them prophets, through others by gifting with them with the ability to impart faith, or knowledge, or healing (1 Corinthians 12:6-10). Where the truth of the Holy shines most brilliantly through, there are the Spirit filled—those chosen by God to be as angels to us during our time here on Earth.

I was fortunate enough to see the Spirit at work through my friend Shannon, who had the ability to increase the faith and awe of others just by being who she was. I’ll always think of her presence in my life as a grace.

I met Shannon in college. My roommates and I sent an e-mail through the church listserv seeking a new housemate, and Shannon was our fortunate find. We loved her instantly. She was bubbly and kind, and when she spoke about God, her words were filled with a grace that humbled. Her days were infused with faith. She wanted to make the world better.

Shannon had a habit of forcing me to be a better Christian. During Lent, I got up early to make 8 a.m. Mass with her, driven mostly by the agreement we’d made to both go. She encouraged me to attend evening rosaries. We talked about God and the future of the Church, and Shannon’s insights were unflinchingly optimistic.

Inside of the pews, and outside of the church, her face tended to be incandescent: she was lit by her prayerfulness and her hope. I couldn’t always summon up faithful feelings beyond my cynicism, but it was as if Shannon didn’t know doubt.

None of this is meant to suggest she was superhuman. My friend also had an uncanny sense of humor, and probably made mistakes of which I am not aware. What I know is that, even when I disagreed with her, I couldn’t lose respect for her: her positions and opinions were never selfishly derived, which lent her, in all situations, moral credibility that couldn’t be pierced.

After college, Shannon became a mother, and began passing her verve for life onto her little girl. We stopped seeing each other daily, but I kept track of her as her days progressed. She continued work with Pure Fashion shows, which she’d always told me encouraged women to be cute and fashionable while still commanding the respect they were due as human beings. She reentered school. She welcomed a second beautiful, and beloved, baby into the world. She fell in love.

I’ll never doubt that the Holy Spirit was at work in my friend Shannon. By example, she encouraged me to be a better Christian and a more hopeful human being. She was the beacon of joy to counter doubt I felt in my spiritual life; she was the certitude that cancelled out confusion. Heaven was at work in Shannon. God was at home amongst us in her.

It is easy for us to spot the Spirit at work in such people and impossible to make sense of it when that light is snuffed out. Certainly the world is rife with God’s creatures, but we don’t often meet such shining examples of his work; losing one is a blow equal to the feeling of having God hide the Divine countenance from our sight (Psalm 104). If we come to know God through the works of the Spirit, how do we make sense of the loss of the Spirit-filled?

My friend Shannon was murdered this weekend. Her two babies lost a wonderful mother, and her friends and loved ones a source of great joy, love and spiritual sustenance. Nothing can be said to make sense of this. There is no positive spin; there is no appealing to fate; there is only the void. This world that she lit feels her loss.

In our grief we feel only her absence. It’s my hope, though, that someday her children will be blessed with stories of the beautiful life which Shannon led: of the work which she did, of the goodness she embodied, of her loving generosity, and of the gifts she worked diligently to give them. It’s my hope that they, too, will come to see that the Spirit was at work in Shannon, and that they’ll know that for a brief time, they were blessed by having her as a mother.

God was at work in my friend. I pray that God will continue to be.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Full of Grace

Readings: 1 Samuel 2:1-10, Psalm 113, Romans 12:9-16, Luke 1:39-57

Mary, the mother of God, is upheld as a paragon of virtue. Across denominations, Christians ask for her prayers, honor her sacrifice, and encourage her emulation. We are asked to be like her, and yet the task seems impossible. A mother whose virtue risked malignment from her own community, she raised the child she was blessed with only to watch him die a horrible death for others.
She stands with the other women in our readings as one to whom we are less comfortable relating than we are awing in. Renderings of her often do not ask us to meet her eyes: she stares down benignly, or clasps the boy Jesus in her arms, or cradles the crucified son; she calmly gazes at her bleeding heart.
It is easy to understand why some have worried that the adoration of Mary moves toward deification; such virtue seems to transcend our humanity. In her shoes, would we not be resentful? Would we rage against God, refusing to hand our children over, refusing to stand demurely by while others presume things of us which cannot be borne out?
And yet Mary discusses her pregnancy with Elizabeth, herself carrying John the Baptist, as a blessing. She bravely walks into a future we might call unhappy, fully willing to be the mother of the boy Jesus, destined to die on our behalf.
She calls this a blessing, not a curse. In general selfishness, I sometimes think I could not do the same. I am sometimes happy not to have to meet her eyes, when the blessings I crave would bring happiness without the later dismay.
The women in our readings for the week all bring the parameters of “blessed” into such perspective. Their names, and the names of their children, are among the most evoked in human history. Yet for all of their notoriety, they far from had it easy.
In the second chapter of 1 Samuel, we encounter Hannah at a complicated moment in her life. After coming through the grief of being apparently barren, and having God answer her prayers by blessing her with a son, Hannah is compelled to fulfill her promise to God by delivering her son to the priest Eli, his own life now dedicated to priestly service.
Hannah loved Samuel dearly; he was the fulfillment of her most cherished hopes. Even his name evokes the fact that Hannah appealed to God for him. And still she’s hardly able to know her son before she must give him up.
Quite conceivably, Hannah could be prompted to grieve, or even to “forget” her promise, clinging to her son. The sacrifice she had promised to make seems of the sort that can overwhelm. And yet our passage is a prayer of thanksgiving, empty of mourning or regret.
Hannah does not rage against God for giving and then taking away. Instead, she exalts God. Though undoubtedly heart-rent, she expounds upon the gifts of heaven.
She rejoices that heartbreak can be reversed—that the hungry are eventually sated by God, that through the Divine, the barren bear children and the poor are brought to honor (1 Samuel 2:5, 8).
Hannah’s prayer concentrates on the fluidity of our situations. What pains us most is blessedly finite, thanks to God; if the unjust exist in comfort and enjoy apparent ease, Hannah knows that that, too, can be reversed.
Hannah is thus able to dedicate her most beloved son to God as she promised; her awe soothes the pain of separation, her gratitude outweighs the coming loneliness.
The prayer of the second chapter of 1 Samuel compels us to transcend our angst over moments of tribulation, as well as our doubt; it insists on lifting up news of God’s greatness, even in times when we’d rather concentrate on the ways in which we are tried.
From Hannah’s story we move into Romans 12, which also insists that all be steadfast in faith, regardless of transitory conditions. We are enjoined to love with sincerity, to trust in God without wavering and to be sympathetic to one another, in recognition of God’s equal love for each of us.
Romans doesn’t promise continual sunshine or otherwise perfect days. In fact, it takes troubled times for granted: weeping, suffering and persecution are all anticipated. To be loved by God is not to escape hardship; loving God isn’t fed by the evasion of difficulties.
In the first chapter of Luke, we meet both Elizabeth and Mary during their respective pregnancies. Mary is weathering slight scandal as she visits her aunt; though betrothed, her pregnancy had raised eyebrows.
Nor had Elizabeth, married for many years and perpetually childless, been expected to be a mother. Her pregnancy recalls Hannah’s: she, too, had thought herself barren; she, too, experienced late motherhood as a blessing.
She, too, would ultimately be asked to dedicate her son’s life to God. Mary, too, would have to relinquish her beloved son to God’s ultimate cause. Motherhood required much of these women.
Yet Mary says “my soul magnifies YHWH, and my heart rejoices in God my savior” (Luke 1:46-47).  Her impulse is to praise God, not to snipe over coming hardships. She regards her child as a fulfillment, and as part of God’s great history of reversing misfortune: God has shown strength, has fed the hungry, has made Israel great.
Hannah, Mary and Elizabeth become the mothers of our faith. Their children each furthered God’s work on Earth, each made great sacrifices to bring the words and goodness of the Divine to fruition.
The humility and grace of the women who gave them life stand as examples for us. From those to whom much is given, so much is required: God’s conditionless love empowers us to love selflessly and without condition. There is a mystery to this which we cannot always unravel.
Understandably, we often stand uncomfortably before figures like Hannah, Elizabeth, and Mary. The great challenge of our faith, however, is that it compels us to join in on their prayers, to confront the possibility of giving praise when the reverse seems more natural. Loving God, in thanks for God’s love, purifies us of our worst impulses; it removes the sting of our pains. Or it can.
Our scriptures assure us that it will.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Tried as Silver is Tried

Readings: Acts 17:22-31, Psalm 66:8-20, 1 Peter 3:13-22, John 14:15-21

At the dawn of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine observed “these are the times that try men’s souls.” Then, the relative calm of provincial colonial life had transformed into tumult. Peace people had taken for granted seemed fragile and happenstance.

Paine’s neighbors were “tried as silver is tried,” the fires of circumstance laid upon them until they were reduced to their “elements”; reconstruction took time, strife and considerable introspection (Psalm 66:10).

Such people are never ultimately alone; they stand in history with all of those who have been shaken, faced with tribulations, and asked, despite this, to come out whole.

This week, that burden falls heavily on our neighbors in Joplin, Missouri, where devastating tornadoes destroyed most of the town. The images we receive from the tragedies are horrific, and are too infrequently interrupted by stories of heroism or rescue. So many were lost. There is so little sense to it.

In the face of such circumstances, “faith” can come to seem a superfluous or unhelpful term. Faith didn’t prevent the disaster. Faith can’t provide those in need with food, or shelter, nor can it return loved ones who were senselessly lost. It seems callous for us to demand that faith live in Joplin today.

Such times are times which do try our souls. It seems almost easier to put the God-talk aside and get down to the basics: to place our hope in FEMA or groups dedicated to disaster relief, to direct our tithing to the Red Cross instead of the collection plate.

That impulse cannot, and should not, be undercut. That we want to help our neighbors is good. It is, in fact, an imperative of the gospels. We simply should reject the notion that we have to push God aside to do so.

One of the photos which came across the wire from a CNN reporter was of a church in Joplin which was destroyed by a tornado. Its walls are gone; its pews and appurtenances are rubble. All that remains erect is a cross, which stands brazenly against the devastated backdrop.

The image is compelling. It provokes us in multiple ways, evoking both our passage in Acts, which insists that God lives in no one place, and the John excerpt, which says that, even when we feel orphaned, Christ is coming out toward us.

Even when it appears that God has left, God approaches. Even when we feel terribly alone, God’s love stands with us.

Such assurances are hard to internalize in these times which try our souls. That’s okay. We shouldn’t denigrate ourselves for being unable to scream the gospel truths out at times when our throats have been worn raw from expressions of grief and need. Burdens are laid on our backs; we go through fire and water (Psalm 66:11-12). We don’t see the promised “spacious space” beyond this in the midst of our suffering; it may be so distant that we lack conviction in its deliverance.

We don’t need to be sure that relief is coming to enable it to come: “God has not removed God’s steadfast love from us” (Psalm 66:20).

Our expectations of love lead us to believe that it means freedom from pain. This is not always the case. If we expect that of God’s love, we wind up disappointed: this very fallible, beautiful world which God gifted to us is laden with waiting pains. It also has such boundless promise. Dark days see dawns, even when they seem to stretch on interminably. We know this, even if we, permissibly, forget it in the darkness.

God made this world and all that is in it, Acts tells us (Acts 17:24). That decision on the part of the divine isn’t aided or purified by our impassioned recognition of it: it is and always has been the case. It is a gift not deepened by our praise, not intensified by our shrines; Acts assures us that God does not need our supplications to feel justified to be gracious.

God knows that there are days in which we will “grope to find him [sic],” despite the nearness of Heaven to all of us. We sometimes cannot see beyond our troubled times. Groping is permitted; fumbling is allowed.

Loving God and doing good are meant to be mutually inclusive acts for people of faith, though they occur, practically, with varying pronunciation of their parts. In these troubled times, doing good can be the beacon; it can be what makes our communities strong.

Those of us left standing after the skies cleared over Joplin can do godly work without being sanctimonious. We can donate our time and our care, can send money and good wishes; we can be shoulders and support for those left in sudden need. We can mourn the senselessness of the events and hope for, and work toward, a more promising tomorrow. We can surge toward recovery. We can do this without ostensibly proclaiming God; doing it alone makes use of the gifts of Heaven.

God still stands in the midst of this; the promised “Advocate” is present when we opt to answer our inward compulsions to do well by one another (John 14:16-20). Our confidence is shaken but our abilities remain strong; if we make use of the best within us to help one another, conviction will follow in time.