16 June 2018

The Dust of God

There is a lot to work with in the readings for Friday in the season of Pentecost, Proper 5. Not the least because it is interesting to look at the difference and similarities in translation between the Book of Common Prayer and Robert Alter's The Book of Psalms.

Let not those who hope in you be put to shame through me,
  Lord God of hosts;
let not those who seek you be disgraced because of me,
  O God of Israel.
...

The afflicted shall see and be glad;
  you who seek God, your heart shall live.
~Psalm 69:7, 34 Book of Common Prayer

Let not those who hope for You be shamed through me,
  Master, O Lord of armies;
Let those who seek You be not disgraced through me me,
  God of Israel.
...

The lowly have seen and rejoiced,
  those who seek God, let their hearts be strong.
~Psalm 69:7, 33 The Book of Psalms by Robert Alter*

The words that arrested my attention are similar in both texts. The psalmist is suffering from many afflictions in this psalm and is calling out to God to save them while also naming all of the suffering and uncertainly they are experiencing.

However in the midst of their own suffering, they take a moment to hope that their shame does not reflect badly on other people who wish to follow God. They express the hope that their visible suffering will not dissuade others from finding a relationship with God.

I think of this in relation to my own private theology and in a modern context. For example, I don't believe in prayer as a vending machine: put prayer in, get results out. I believe that prayer is a way to talk to God about what is going and, in the process, to bring my thoughts and desires into line with what I believe. Prayer doesn't change God, or make God act. Prayer changes me.

I also don't believe that God saves people from harm. If I believed that, it would mean everyone who dies or is hurt does so because God chose for it to happen. To me, that negates the entire concept of free will. If God is doing the choosing then nothing we can do has any meaning.

That does not mean that our will can override our circumstances or the randomness of the universe. If I die from getting run over by bus, or get cancer, or live to be 99, none of that is in my direct control, but neither is is God's choice for me. I think that God hopes I will make good decisions with my life, but in order for it to be my life, God can't step in and 'save me' from myself or from just plain bad luck. I am tiny, the universe is unfathomably large and will affect me in strange and unpredictable ways-- it the same way that a breeze blows a dust mote around. I can't choose actions of the breeze, but I can choose to remain in relationship with God while being blow along.

Going back the psalmist: if people know that I worship God and try to live by the rules God gave me, and I still visibly suffer, how can I hope to be a helpful representative of God to others?

I think the psalmist answers their own question in verse 34: The lowly have seen and rejoiced, those who seek God, let their hearts be strong.

The path to God is not easy. Life itself, with God or without, is hard. It is full of 'the slime of the deep', 'the water depths', and '[our] folly.'

But God, while respecting the boundaries of our free will, can still be a companion in our distress. The psalmist calls on God's kindness, clear sightedness, steadfastness, and compassion. God's attention to our prayers can help us rescue ourselves, not from death and destruction as that comes to everyone in time, but from losing our faith in God's abiding love for us.

One day we will all return to God. But while we are here on Earth, God lets us all find our own way, painful though that process might be. God always "listens to the needy" (Psalm 69:35a) and makes space for us inhabit as we offer ourselves in prayer.

...and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it.
~Ecclesiastes 12:7
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*Mr Alter uses a different numbering system on this psalm than is used in the Book of Common Prayer.

All bible quotes are from the NRSV text at Bible Gatewayor the Book of Common Prayer. A pdf of the Book of Common Prayer which contains both the lessons for Sundays and the Daily Office can be found at: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/book_of_common_prayer.pdf

Mission Clare is a good resource for daily morning and evening prayer online.

01 June 2018

What Price Love

In reading for the daily office for today, I found verse 15 of Psalm 31 speaking to me.

My times are in your hand;
rescue me from the hand of my enemies,
and from those who persecute me.
~Psalm 31:15

I noticed how the psalmist made a distinction between 'enemies' and 'those who persecute me' and it made me think about how often the worst damage done to people is not by enemies by friends or family.

How many of us actually have 'enemies' in reality? I would guess very few.

On the other hand, how many have had a relationship go bad, or had to learn how to create and enforce boundaries with people we thought we could trust, or had to cut off contact with a family member or friend because the relationship had become toxic? I suspect a great many more people have gone through this than have ever had an enemy.

The Psalms have a lot to say about enemies. There are over 80 references to enemies in the NRSV translation alone. Interestingly there are only 11 references to 'friend' and nearly all of those are the psalmists complaining about friends who have done them wrong*.

Looking at this, it feels like it was easier for the psalmists to complain to God about all of the evils their 'enemies' were doing to them, than to bring up issues they were having with their friends.

This is not surprising to me. It is much easier to dehumanize someone from a distance and put them into the category of 'evil enemy' than it is to stand up to friends or family who 'done you wrong' especially if those people are deeply enmeshed in your life. It is feels easier in the moment to make excuses for their behavior and hand wave it away than it is to confront them.

This is very true in close-knit communities where everyone knows everyone else and risking being the one to speak up can mean risking, not one, but all of your relationships in that group. It gets even more complicated when that group is a faith-based community that tries to take seriously Jesus's command:

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
~Matthew 22:36-40

If we are called to put love first, what do we do when someone in our community acts badly? The temptation is try to preserve the community by sweeping the issue or behavior under the rug and pretend that it didn't happen.

Or, if you were ever like me as an earnest 20-something, spend hours working with the person and the group to try to find a solution. Not realizing that in some situations there is no good solution that will work for everyone-- especially if any of the people involved are acting in bad faith.

It took me a long time to learn that not every relationship is worth saving. Part of what delayed my learning was the idea that I should love my neighbors, all of my neighbors. In part, my issue was a lack of understanding of the complexity and fierceness of love. My early ideas of love were a lot like the fiction I wrote at the time: everyone hugs at the end and feels better. That rather one-dimensional view of love left no room for dealing with the damage a close friend or family member could do. If there was no way to 'hug it out' because the relationship was toxic, the person was spiraling out of control, or they were abusive, what then?

How to protect myself from "those who persecute me" when those people are my friends and family and not an isolated 'enemy'?

The key, I think, is in Jesus's command itself-- we are to love others as we love ourselves. We are to love our neighbors, yes; but not at the exclusion of caring for our own needs. When we find ourselves in a relationship that is damaging, then we need to love ourselves enough to take action.

Embracing love as Jesus calls us to, does not mean embracing being passive. I firmly believe that the love Jesus talks about is an action not a feeling. It is something we are meant to do not just experience. Part of loving our neighbors and ourselves is setting healthy boundaries and calling out destructive behavior when we see it.

Jesus called us to make heaven on earth through love. To do that we need to make it clear that abuse, bad actions, and bad faith are not, and never have been, any part of love.

-=-=-=-=-

*Which makes me think that the Pslams and the Blues have a lot more in common than I ever realized.

All bible quotes are from the NRSV text at Bible Gateway or the Book of Common Prayer. A pdf of the Book of Common Prayer which contains both the lessons for Sundays and the Daily Office can be found at: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/book_of_common_prayer.pdf

Mission Clare is a good resource for daily morning and evening prayer online.