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Saturday, February 28, 2015

Dolly Parton and the Kingdom of Heaven

Image result for garden tomato image Matthew 13

In the parable of the sower, Jesus tells a story of a man who sowed seeds into different ground, but only one of those kinds of grounds actually received the seed and produced something.  He tells the story to "great multitudes" who gather on the shore while he speaks to them from a ship.  Just after he tells this story, his disciples enter and ask what he's doing, and the rest of the chapter appears to be an in-depth explanation of his doctrine, one that is meant strictly for these disciples.  He tells them it's because they get to know "the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven," but the rest of the population doesn't. 

This could sound pretty biased and exclusive.  Only a fraction of the people who hear him get to know what he's really saying?  But when he tells them the meaning of the parable of the sower, it becomes evident why. 

First, he goes through what each kind of ground represents: people who never really understand and are easily deceived, people who are happy to find truth  but have "no root" in themselves (they can't stick it out) and get offended, people who care more about worldliness.  Last is the good ground, and the only real distinction Jesus makes between this ground and the rest is that, not only do these people hear the word, they understand it.  That's it.  Once that happens, they bear fruit.  But they also bear different amounts of fruit; the amount itself doesn't seem to matter so much as that fruit happens.  That's the object of sowing seeds, after all. 

For the last month I've been listening to a book on tape called Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver.  It's an account of her family's year-long goal to only eat food they have either grown or raised themselves or that has been grown or raised in their community by someone they know personally.  It's inspiring, and I think about how beautiful her descriptions of tomatoes are as I eat my peanut butter and honey sandwich made out of store-bought bread, mass-produced peanut butter and (okay, I did one thing right) my cousin's homemade honey.  Then I wash that down with store-bought, pasturized, 1% milk and a delicious processed chocolate bar.  I love the idea of eating the way Kingsolver does.  I even do a lot of the things she suggests.  But when it comes down to it, to eat exactly the way she does, well, that's a kind of devotion I'm just not ready to fully embrace. I believe in it, but I feel daunted by the task of changing my everyday habits.  Maybe I just don't fully understand  yet.

Kingsolver is a terrific example of someone who knows what sowing seeds and using good ground means because, in this one-year experiment of hers, that's her life.  So far, nearly half the book has just been her planting and reporting how her seeds are doing and how delicious those fruits are when they come. She watches the process unfold from that tiny tomato seed to the full, robust, hearty Dolly Parton tomato whose seductive shape speaks for itself.  She gives so much care to her garden, so much thought to planning out what to plant and when, how to avoid frost, how to keep out the weeds, that when that fruit finally shows up you can hear thehallelujah! in her voice. 

I'm happy to say that I do know what that feels like.  Every year we plant a garden.  Instead of a 40 acre garden like Kingsolver's, it's a tiny kitchen garden (just outside our kitchen window) that provides the perfect herbs and basic vegetables for me to run out just before dinner in the summer and gather whatever is ripe and plentiful, wash it, chop it up, steam, sautee or toss it in a salad, and enjoy its fresh flavor while my kids pull faces and beg to be excused from the table. That fruit sustains us through a good part of the summer, and those that don't get eaten immediately float in their glass jars on the shelves of the storage room until we gobble them all up in due time. 

Fruit, in the literal sense, takes a long time to develop.  Asparagus, one of the slowest growers, can take three years after it's been planted to finally show signs of life, but once it does, it becomes a perennial crop for up to 20 years.  (It's grown from "crowns" - the bulbs of one-year plants -  instead of seeds, but the ground is still a prime participant since it's got to be babied all that time in just the right drainage and mulch.)  In the meantime, the gardener goes by faith that, after all her best and continued efforts, something will come of it.  I'm guessing that fruits, in the context of the parable, are not simply actions then, but the results of those actions, whatever develops from them. And maybe, like the asparagus, they keep developing a long time after those actions.

Jesus essentially says that people who do not use the word (the seed) are unfruitful.  And this is when it sounds really radical to me.  They don't produce any fruit?  Understanding has nothing to do with talent or wealth, and certainly nothing to do with intellect.  For all the rewards we give people who embody those attributes, Jesus doesn't think much of them (on their own) in the end.  Understanding suggests a sincere desire to "get it."  It means we take something into ourselves and are changed by it.  In this way, Jesus's definitions of plentiful and barren are vastly different than the world's.

A pile of dirt (like our garden spot is from late October to early April) can become almost tropical, a maze of green with bulbous, bright yellows and reds hanging from their stems like cheerful holiday lights.  In a few weeks we'll start that process again.  We'll churn the dirt with our new tiller, open it with our trowels and gloved hands and drop in our heirloom seeds, one by one.  We'll water, and wait. 

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Job Description

Image result for counterfeit money images   Matthew 9 & 10

Maybe this week I feel a little more empathy for that writer whose remarks spurred this response, this blog.  There is plenty in the Bible that is terrifying and strange. The New Testament is full of seeming contradictions, confusions, betrayals, jealousies, and a full display of all of the weaknesses of humankind.  And that's just the disciples.  You'd think these twelve men whom Jesus hand-picked would turn out to be the saintliest of men, but anyone who knows the whole story knows that looming in those chapters only a dozen or so pages away wait 30 pieces of silver and a cock who crows three times.  

There are bleak moments in this story.  But in order to understand the men better, to be fair to them, it helps to remember how it all started.  Here's a recap of how they got recruited: they were at work.  Some were fishing.  One was tax collecting.  They were punching the time card or filing papers at the office or whatever example parallels your job now.  This man comes by and tells them to follow him.  And they do.  And then suddenly (because the accounts in this book are so brief that it sounds as if everything happens instantaneously) they find themselves in the middle of miracles and controversy.  And just as they are all gathered, probably still getting their bearings, maybe scratching their heads a little, this man finally discloses to them exactly what it is they are supposed to do.  Here's the job description:

1) Teach the Jews, nobody else.
2) Tell them "the kingdom of heaven is at hand."
3) Heal the sick. Even bring the dead back to life.  
4) Pack lightly.  You'll earn your keep.
5) When people reject your message, leave peacefully.
6) Be wise and harmless.

Aside from #3, these sound like simple principles from the Jewish do-gooder handbook.  #3 is daunting, but to be given the power to do that would be amazing.  Maybe at this point their mission sounded a little refreshing, even exciting.  But then come the occupational hazards:

1) You're going to make people angry.  Really angry.  
2) They'll take you to their leaders, both political and religious.
3) When that happens, don't even think about what you're going to say to these guys.  God will put the words in your mouth.  

In other words, instead of being a superstar, you'll be bullied and held captive.  You also cannot rely on your own intellect to get you out of it.

And then the description grows increasingly more troubling.

4) People are going to put each other to death over what you teach them.  You will break up families.  
5) Everybody's going to hate you.
6) When you have to run for your life, just go to another town, and start this process all over again.  
7) Whatever awful things they do to me (Jesus), they'll do to you, BUT
8) Don't be afraid.   

(That last one actually made me laugh last night because, really, the hardest thing of all of those would be to not be afraid.)  And then Jesus outlines for them his job:

1) Stand up for people who stand up for me.
2) Bring "a sword" instead of peace because I will   
      3) divide families because 
              a) anyone who loves even family members more than me isn't worthy of me, and
                     b) whoever isn't willing to suffer the way I do is also not worthy of me.

Of course, along the way Jesus has said that they'll be rewarded for this work.  They'll be "saved."  They'll be doing God's work and God is aware of them, even of the hairs on their head.  

And all of this sounds eerily similar to what I am reading in the paper these days.  Only it occurred to me that everything has its counterfeit.  If this whole story is true, if Jesus really did come from God and teach absolute truth, then some twisted version of this same story will surface.  And look really convincing.  And if it's successful, it will surface over and over again.

Counterfeit money imitates vast sums, not pennies or nickles.  It's not worth someone's time to imitate what is barely valuable but to imitate what is of most value.  

The biggest difference I can detect here is that, instead of being violent himself, Jesus predicts that the reaction to his message will be violence.  His followers are, if anything, supposed to be completely peaceable. (Remember the healing part?  Even bringing people back from the dead.  That's a mercy many people would give anything to have.)  He himself is peaceable save for saying things that really upset people.  But if his doctrine is proof enough, if the works we are supposed to judge people by are so obviously good in his case (ridiculously good, for how many healing stories do we have to read before we start getting that picture?), then why shouldn't we love him more than anyone else?  

Because that requires a kind of faith that seems almost impossible to muster.  And yet, we know that, for all of their failings, a small group of men did.  They went out and did what he asked of them.  They left behind families and comforts.  And safety.  They made mistakes, some grievous, but they devoted the rest of their lives to this work.  And many of them died for it.  They didn't explode themselves or fly their aircraft into buildings or, so far as we know, even lay a hand on anyone but to heal them.  Instead they died at the hands of people who just couldn't stand what they were saying.  And that distaste for their message has lived a long, long life. 

Friday, February 13, 2015

A Motley Crew

Image result for empty chairs images  Matthew 8

Recently the world celebrated the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  In one of the news articles that ran, one woman who survived that camp said that what got her through it was the fact that 1) she was imprisoned with her mother and childhood friends, and 2) they helped her remember herself so that, rather than losing her identity in the number on her arm, she kept alive within herself her own story: that she has a name and a family, memories and feelings and experiences that are entirely her own.  She feels that generalizations or groupings are not useful.  She even dislikes being called "a survivor" because there are many different things people have survived, and each experience is different.  She sees the world as a world of individual stories.

All through the gospels, Jesus meets individuals.  He must have met hundreds, probably thousands of people, but we only know of a few dozen, and we know them through their stories.  A woman with an issue of blood.  The demoniac of the Gadarenes.  The daughter of Jairus.  Zacchaeus, the short publican.  And my favorite this week, the centurion with a paralyzed servant. Each of these is healed or taught (and used to teach others) in a totally unique way.

In Matthew Chapter 8, the centurion takes up a total of 9 verses, but he leaves his mark.  He lives in Capernaum.  He comes seeking Jesus.  He's not worthy for Jesus to come to his house, but, as a man of authority himself, he understands the power Jesus holds.  He knows Jesus can simply tell his servants (the elements,  unclean spirits, even the bodies of other people) what to do and they'll do it.  He knows Jesus can heal this servant just by saying the words miles away.  His faith is so strong that it says, "Jesus marvelled" and says "I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel."  And then Jesus does a curious thing.  He considers this guy - Roman, a non-Jew, a military leader - and teaches his followers a critical point: it's the personal faith that matters.  It's the individual, not the group.  He sees this man wholly and clearly for who he is.  And for the reasons that really matter.  And he says to his followers, "many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven."  You can almost see him holding his hand out toward this man to say, "Like him."

I can't help but imagine what the kingdom of heaven will look like.  Pretty eclectic from the sound of it.

And this is the message I get from this week's reading: 1) God sees us as distinct individuals.  We see ourselves that way.  God sees and judges us that way.  He sees far deeper than, say, our race or occupation or even the religion we happen to belong to.  Not that these things do not matter.  They all matter because they inform our lives and shape our stories, but they are never the ultimate distinction.  The ultimate distinction is what we believe and whether or not we believe in him.  Because if keeping our identity alive for ourselves (I have a name, I have a family) means we can overcome the most horrific of experiences in this life, what about keeping alive a deeper identity?  We belong to a broad and holy family.  God has called himself our Father for a reason.

2)  We do last.  Maybe our life as it is doesn't last (we see the changes around us, the minutia shifting or dying, or we live through the world turned upside down), but we do.  That is why the kingdom of heaven is there, couched in future tense and glimmering with the faces of the biblical fathers.  They are waiting for us to bring our selves to the table, to pull up a chair.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Gentle, Bearded Men

John Muir
Matthew 7

By the time he was 11 years old, John Muir had the New Testament memorized.  Not purely out of interest (though he loved and used the language), but because his over-zealous father punished him if he didn't.  But the language stuck with him.  You can hear it, this undercurrent, in everything he writes.  He said, "Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places we can play in and pray in."  He's this bearded 19th Century prophet ambling through wilderness and writing sermons about Yosemite and the water ouzel.  Besides founding the Sierra Club (and helping Yosemite become a National Park), his most famous work is petitioning to save the Hetch Hetchy Valley, a valley technically part of Yosemite Park that, by his estimation, was the prettiest site in the park, and, as it just so happened, the favored spot for San Francisco city to dam and use as a water source for its growing population.  He wrote letters, garnered a group of supporters, employed the newspapers to publish his plea.  If they did this, the flora, fauna, geography of the place would never be the same.  It would be unrecoverable.  Besides, there were other places they could use instead, places that would hold more water and do less damage.  He was a famous writer already, so I'd guess a lot of people listened.  But, then, the city wanted this place.  Politicians got involved.  They were hungry (okay, thirsty) for it.  And they claimed it wouldn't hurt anything.  Everything else would be left intact.

Centuries before Muir lived another tender-hearted, bearded man.  Incidentally, he was also a great writer, and he too loved nature and celebrated simplicity.  I read Thomas More for the first time about three years ago, when I was forcing my English 2010 students to read an excerpt from "Utopia," and what surprised me the most was how much I laughed.  He had a quick answer for everything, but he wasn't malicious, and he was honest in a way that would make most people uncomfortable.  Fashion: "those fine clothes were once worn by a sheep, and they never turned into anything better than a sheep."  Excessive "pleasures" (getting drunk.etc.) that become addictions: "...if you think that sort of thing will make you happy, you'll have to admit that your idea of perfect felicity would be a life consisting entirely of hunger, thirst, itching, eating, drinking, rubbing, and scratching - which would obviously be most unpleasant as well as quite disgusting."  He was known to be not only highly intelligent but also kind, gentle, and loyal.  But, then, he didn't agree with his friend Henry VIII's decision to marry Anne Boleyn and create his own church.  As Lord Chancellor to the King, he had to take a stand somewhere.

I was sitting in the bathtub thinking of this week's reading, how Jesus says we shouldn't give that which is holy to the dogs or cast our pearls before swine.  How many good causes are thwarted.  How many people - innocent, gifted, vulnerable - find a sad end.  Of course, life is life, you can say.  It has to have the good and the bad.  I get that.  But sometimes seeing what is precious fall into the hands of people who are mercenary at best and totally unconscionable at worst wears on you.

Maybe I'm taking this more personally because on Saturday I went to the funeral of my friend Diana, who I wrote about a few weeks ago.  It was always sad that she had health problems, but to add to it, just when her health was starting to decline, just when she needed family and friends the most, she was whisked away to live in another state in social isolation by her older sister, the sister she had never liked, the sister who had given her so much anxiety that she would get physically sick when she came to visit.  The same sister who has sued or alienated nearly every relative (save her own mother).  This is who oversaw the care of my sweet friend.

Yes, "the end" is not really the end, if this whole story of the New Testament is true.  But the end in this life can still be hard to face.  Hetch Hetchy was dammed.  Thomas More was beheaded.  Diana passed away peacefully but thousands of miles away from most of her family, who never got a chance to say goodbye.

When he's standing in front of Pilate for questioning, Jesus doesn't talk much.  I always figured it was because he knew Pilate wasn't ready to hear the truth.  But looking over the general workings of the world, there are other ways that pearls are cast before swine, every day.  Maybe what Jesus gave wasn't just good advice (we should avoid doing it if we ever can), but a chance to spare us the intense pain that inevitably accompanies such an error.

In context, that advice comes just as Jesus is telling us how to judge wisely.  By their fruits, he says.  A park.  A book.  A life.  That's a good place to start looking.