Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A House Divided

It’s the morning after the election to fill the senate seat left vacant by the death of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, “Teddy.” All I can think of is the biblical phrase in the mouth of Jesus: "A house divided against itself cannot stand.: (Mark 3:25)

Is America that house?

In a heavily Democratic state (Massachusetts), devoted supposedly to progressive liberal politics and the common good for all, the likely candidate to win this election was Attorney General Martha Coakley. She lost to conservative Republican Scott Brown. Why?

I passed a station wagon yesterday with its rear door up and open to expose a sign propped against the seat on which was written in bold black letters: “The People Against the Machine.” I wondered if the subtext was “the people against the people.” Who/what/which the machine? Who/what/which the people?

Thirty plus years ago I changed my political party registration from Republican to Democrat. I snuck into the town hall furtively watching for my staunch Republican father around every corner. I switched my party allegiance because I thought the Democratic party platform more closely aligned to my Christian values, my biblical values. I thought Jesus would have voted to the left. Moses, the liberator, too.

Now I don’t know where and in whom those values live—values that trust in the elective process to elect government officials who will carve out policies that reduce the division between rich and poor, haves and have nots, a government willing to tax in order that those with wealth will provide some tax dollars for those who have less opportunity either by chance, bad luck, illness or even sloth, a government that really does represent a people who really do believe in and respect the dignity and worth of all human persons and the whole created universe.

I do not think either candidate in this election was particularly stellar (part of the problem), but I thought Coakley more qualified to continue the legacy of Teddy who, in a lifelong effort to make amends for a life run wild resulting in part in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, worked steadfastly with both innocence and wiliness to shape U.S. government policies in favor of the common not the particular good.

I admire President Obama though I voted for Hillary Clinton. Obama came to Boston to rally support for Coakley. He stuck his political neck out. Many say it was a bad move, one that would hurt his reputation. Why did he do it? Lots of reasons, chief among them the need for a favorable vote on his stalled health care plan. But I think he did it because he’s a nice man, willing to risk his own beloved neck. To be in politics today you have to be nasty or at least more nasty than nice and you have to be tough-skinned and bloody. Not a nice climate. What's the difference between courage and brash disregard? Dangerous spirituality.

I fear this vote was a vote of no confidence against Obama. But is it no confidence or is it fear? If so fear of what? I fear the return of conservative and exclusivizing ways that compartmentalize people and create a climate in which hate crimes can thrive. Less government is one thing; no government is another.

Government is needed just as parents are needed to guide and with benevolence guard the civilization and its citizenry from themselves. I’ve seen the movie and read Goldings book, “The Lord of the Flies.”
How much freedom is too much? Freedom can run wild.

Today I mourn for what seems like our reactive, get-even inflamed polis. People are voting for change, any change. Is there thought? Is there prayer? Is there informed reading? If it is ‘us vs. them,’ who are they? Do people vote like match on flint? I weep for Teddy whose devotion to justice with compassion for all marked his career. I weep for other heroes who lived the same: Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Deitrich Bonhoeffer, Jesus, Moses, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Catherine Macauley, the biblical prophet Deborah, Rosa Parks, and frankly, every woman, man and child willing to sacrifice and give a little something so more can have a little something.

In Jesus’ day there were many parties all of them lobbying for political/religions power and all of them hawking their own particular and limited view of Divinity. Jesus came on the scene hawking a particular view of humanity—that all are sacred and all are invited into the unimaginable, resilient, inexhaustible, everlasting grace of God. He wanted us to honor that grace in each other and behave accordingly. We killed him and others like him— and forgot.

I remember. I remember that, by the mysterious mix of divine grace and human good willingness, there are very nice people in this country and in the world.

I have no answers, just thoughts, feelings, pained questions—also another remembrance: that the long slow work of God through Spirit is just that— long and slow—always moving toward greater good by passing through periods of instability, including I suppose "divided houses."

What do you remember?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Boundaryhood and Brother/Sisterhood:Temple Tears

It was my oldest daughter’s birthday recently. She is forty-seven, beautiful, brilliant, political activist and feminist and mother of two daughters, thirteen and ten, who are equally winsome. I love them all.

I remember my nervousness about being a new mother, feeling scared of her infant power, adoring her with equal zeal. I remember wondering: Who is she? Who am I? Today I give thanks that most days I know who she is and who I am.

Boundary issues abound.

I also remember when a second daughter was born just 14 months later. I watched the intensity with which the sisters drew boundaries, staked claims and marked territories. They grew up and into a world of love, rivalry and boundaries—just as we all do.
It was also my oldest grandson’s birthday recently. He is seven, beautiful, sensitive, bright. I watch him and his little sister, four, do their boundary dance balancing war and peace with amazing grace.

Nations do no less than families and are still warring about territories and properties and who owns what. If you want someone else’s property you have to conquer it, or steal it. Just watch small children with their toys. Fierce.

In most churches, families and communities we teach and model compassion, sharing, brother and sisterhood more than any other values. We also teach the importance of having good boundaries so we can tell where we leave off and another begins and just how much personal space each needs for self and allows for the other. Life is demarcation and détente over and over.

Do we ever wonder about thinking, acting, living, loving outside the boundary?

In Hebrew legend there is a question: How did God choose the particular plot of land in Jerusalem where the Temple would be built? This parable is told.

There were two brothers who grew up together on the family farm. They lived there as adults, partners in the farming of one large field and sharing its produce. One brother we'll call A had a large family. The other brother we'll call Z had no family. A decided that Z had no family and should get more than half of the share of the resources from the field. So each night he went out after midnight to move the boundary of the field after the harvest so Z would have a bit more. Z, realizing he had no family responsibility had decided that A had so many responsibilities he should have more than half the crops, so he went out each night just before midnight to move the field's boundary so A would have more. This went on for a while but neither brother received more of the produce. They were puzzled at the mystery. One night A went out earlier and Z went out a little later so they arrived at the field to move the boundary at the same time. When they realized what had happened they fell weeping on each other's shoulders. The Temple was built on the spot where their tears fell because the essence of Temple is the ability to expand your boundary to include your wider self which includes everyone and everything else, and the width, breadth and depth of God. Tears wash away boundaries and therefore where Temple is built shows that all compassion and kindness are rooted in our radical interconnection.

Do you have a boundary you would like to move, seek to dissolve, strengthen? In yourself? With a neighbor or loved one? with Godde?

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Woman Who Named God by Charlotte Gordon

I recommend HIGHLY a book by Charlotte Gordon. The Woman Who Named God. It is biblical scholarship at its best and also story at its best—a rare combination.

Gordon blends exegesis ( biblical text analysis and interpretation,) narrative (just plain story and literary analysis,) and midrash ( a Jewish method of using creative imagination to plum a biblical story for its hidden meanings, its emotional nuances and its spiritual and theological significance, often buried in the words themselves.) The author weaves these three approaches together seamlessly with beauty and skill.

I love this book and plan to read it again. Of course the Bible is my thing. I love it for its wisdom and its story. The Old Testament is a particular favorite, not just because of my partial Jewish heritage, but because you’ll never find better more complex lusty stories than these. Probably every human experience ever visited on humanity is there and all of it is sacred.

The invitation to and definition of my professional pastoral counseling and spiritual direction practice is: “All Human Experience is Sacred.” The Bible tells me so. I give my heart to that truth and try as much as I’m able to live it as if I believed it.

Gordon’s vision and what she attempts to do, and I think does, is to make this book an instrument of peace. The book shows that there is no scriptural justification in the Hebrew texts for Jewish/Christian/Muslim animosity or warring. Quite a remarkable achievement I think.

Charlotte Gordon lives in Gloucester, MA. She grew up as an Episcopalian. Her dad was Jewish and converted. As an adult Charlotte became fascinated by the Jewish faith and converted. (See how we all are one!) Gordon learned Hebrew and Aramaic just to do this book. I'm impressed with her commitment, patience and zeal, to say nothing of her intelligence. She is also a lovely speaker, talking with wisdom and piercing clarity about her passion for the Bible and for religious peace.

The chapters and not long or ponderous and they are titled. Notes expand on certain texts for the nosey or diligent among us. The prose has an easy but not unsophisticated flow. There's even a chapter on Jesus coming for dinner in the desert! The book follows the ancient call and vocation of Abraham, no easy faith his. The woman who names God is Hagar. The Abrahamic family dynamic is the psychological lens through which scripture works out the nuances of overt animosity and comes to peace. God is a character in the story, an active player on the stage.

Gordon’s style is light, humorous, her prose not polemical or with "attitude." This book is clothed in compassion and has the potential to convert even the most stubbornly partisan to a more wholistic inclusive but spiritually grounded point of view.

Which reminds me of a quote I heard and know not from whence it comes. Something like, I know the voice of God in my head because it is the voice which is abundantly compassionate to everyone concerned. That is one way to describe this book.

Friday, January 1, 2010

New Year. New Resolve. Choose Life

Bare bones life itself can be terrifying—bad enough to die for, good enough to choose.

Martha Mason spent her life of sixty-one years in an iron lung. Stricken with polio in 1948 at age eleven, Mason, who had watched her brother die from the same disease, decided to outrun it. She was confined to an iron lung and given a grim one year’s prognosis.

The disease captured her entire body, turned her into a quadriplegic, confined her to a draconian contraption that looked like a rocket ship going nowhere, outfitted with pumps that inflated and deflated the lungs keeping her alive—after a fashion— and seemingly defeating the child’s decision to outrun this affliction.

I saw one of those full body tubes when I was about eleven. All you are is a head sticking out forced through a tightly sealed hole for your neck, worse than the snuggest of turtlenecks. I saw a young boy, Robin, a bit older than myself, the son of friends of my parents, in an iron lung. I had thought lungs were small but his substitute lung was monstrous. I didn’t know Robin well but ever since I saw him trapped in there with only his small frightened white face showing I have lived with a fear of being squished alive. Breathing though vital isn’t all there is.

Robin died. I was relieved thinking him better off but also glad I didn’t have to see that sight again. But it lingered in my dreams and even now is easy to conjure.

Would I have the fortitude, the cool to choose life under these circumstances? How would God be in this with me? I’d rather be crucified—I think.

But Martha Mason could talk, think, love, eat and read. She had a mother who stayed by her side, a college degree honestly earned, and friends who enjoyed her mummy-like company.

Reading about her recently in the NYTimes Sunday Magazine (112/27/09) evoked terror and admiration for this woman’s spirit so dramatically in love with bare bones life that she chose it.

Besides her inside and outside gifts, she had an unexpected grace left to her she pretended by her dead brother. It was a copy of Marcus Aurelius’s “Meditations.” In it she read this life-choosing, life-saving thought: “Take away the complaint, ‘I have been harmed,’ and the harm is taken away.”

It would be easy to chalk this wise thought off to the stereotype of stoicism—lots of denial and no fun.

Marcus Aurelius was a second century Roman Emperor, a good one in fact, and also a Stoic philosopher who proposed a government of duty and service. He also thought that every human being could participate in the beauty of good and the ugliness of evil though they often were unable to tell the one from the other. He wrote that all partake of this same mind and all possess a share of the divine.

This attitude, not of glib positivity fueled by denial but of wise appreciation for the mixture of life’s circumstances and choices, distinguished this thinker. It isn’t so much about stop your whining, suffer in silence as it is about choosing to embrace the life you have after you have grieved not having the life you want, and to do so with humbleness of heart and valor of spirit.

The Old Testament writer of Deuteronomy put similar words into the mouth of God: “See, I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you may live . . .” (Deut. 30:19 paraphrase)

In 2010, resolve to choose life!