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cross with notesYesterday at our Ash Wednesday services, the people were invited to write on a post-it note and stick it to the cross on their way up to communion and ashes. They could put whatever they wanted, but in general, the idea was to write something that might be hindering the way to the cross: a sin, a habit, an attitude.

At the end of the evening, we hadn’t really discussed how to handle the slips, but I felt they were important and so I gathered them up as gently as I could and carried them home. I wanted to pray over them, yes, but I confess, my analytical self was curious. What had people written to Christ. What had they asked about. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be drawing from these confessions for many mirrored my own: there is nothing new under the sun.

yokeIs not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke? [Isaiah 58:6]

We are all hoping to be set free from the yokes that bind us, the repetitive scripts in our heads, the damaging attitudes that habitually frame our responses.

Naturally, there were notes that rendered their sins of the flesh as getting in the way of their journey to the cross and there were individuals named specifically or by relationship: mother, father, mother-in-law, son, daughter, and so forth. But most of the words that were placed on that cross, that symbolic torture chamber, came from within.

Anger was repeated over and over and over again. Unforgiveness came next.

I can almost hear the cry of the heart saying, how do I find you Jesus when my mind and heart are filled with such rage, when I can only playback the injustice or the betrayal or the damage done to me.

anger-blocks-a-miracleLast week, I was in a workshop in which the facilitator reminded us that there are four primary emotions: Fear, Joy, Sadness and, of course, Anger. And really, I’m guessing that unforgiveness is rooted in anger.

The good news is that no anger is greater than God’s love. That sounds cliche and yet it’s true. People seem to think that their emotions are stronger than anything anyone else can handle. I remember being in a counseling session and telling the therapist that felt as though I would explode, literally. Of course, I didn’t and couldn’t. How often has a person said, “If I start crying, I’ll never stop.” Again, not true. And so it is with anger. It will not win. Love wins.

Lent begins in earnest today. Was I angry today? I was. Did I harbor a grudge or two or pull up an old exasperation about some behavior or another by this or that family member? I did. I see that. Now what?

Confess, accept, move on. Wash me Jesus in the water of grace.

ash-wednesdayTonight our church entered Lent with two Ash Wednesday services. One of the themes was “keys” and how we can use those keys to unlock those places hidden away inside our hearts.

Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” Rend your heartand not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. [Joel 2:12-13]

We mark the beginning of Lent with this day. It can become a mere ritual of ashes, bread, and wine, or it can be enriched with commitment and desire. Do I want more of God in my life? Do I want to surrender the secret places?

Lent is not just a time of “giving something up.” It’s a time of exchange. I will to exchange one time sucker, one habit, for something new, for devotion, for meditation, for prayer, for reading, for conversation with Spirit. I not taking away. I am adding. I am making a promise. That is the message of Ash Wednesday and Lent for me.

One of the stations we had was a cross where we could affix a simple post-it note with something (or someone) that is hindering our journey to the Cross. This roadblock we gave to Christ. As one of the organizers of the Ash Wednesday service, I feel compelled to treat these requests with respect. And so, as part of my devotion, I will be praying over and with these requests along with those who left them there. I will be their Aaron for these 40 days, as God reveals.

 

If Only

regretWhat a pathetic phrase, “if only.” It’s all about yesterday, the milk is spilled and the people whine. Oh, if only I hadn’t said that or done that or gone there or looked there. So sorry. If only I could change it back to the way it was.

All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?” [Numbers 14:2-3, NIV]

If I hear myself actually use this phrase in regular speech, I’m going to excise it as fast as I can.

This was the Israelites lament in the desert after Moses had sent a representative from each clan to scope out the promised land. Out of all those emissaries, only two came back with courage, trusting God to fulfill the promises. After all, this was the same God who had poured out lamentations about the Egyptians and who rested on the Tabernacle in a cloud by day and a pillar by fire at night. This was the God who had orchestrated the great escape from the Egyptians through the Sea (one way or another). This God had shown God as miraculous and specifically in their cause. Why was this day different? What made the giants and foreigners of the land of Canaan so frightening, so indomitable?

Did the Israelites forget what God could do? Why? The only thing I can imagine is that their eyes became stronger than their faith. What they saw overwhelmed what they could not see. And lastly, the messengers themselves were suspect.

Had the spies who went into Canaan come back with confidence, the people would have followed. Instead, those men sowed fear and discord, questions and distrust. It was those few who did not believe who led the majority astray. And that’s a lesson as well.

Who do we believe? Who do I believe? The Press? The politicians? The blogs?

In some ways, I think it’s my own fault when I am so easily swayed. I am turned when I don’t have enough reliable information. I am unsure when I have not invested in discovery and latched on to the easy answer. And then, what about those trustworthy characters? What exactly draws me to trust in a leader?

I remember how appalled I was the other day when a person I have always admired in politics, suddenly took a turn in a direction I could never have foreseen. Has the person’s character changed or merely his/her point of view. Do I move my point of view along with the person? Or was the person’s change merely politically advantageous or necessary for success or advancement?

The Israelites chose to believe their representatives and in the end, as a result, they lost the promise altogether and were “banished” to the desert for forty years, two full generations. They paid a steep price for their herd mentality.

They were afraid of the unknown future so much that the past, as wicked as it was seemed more appealing. They remembered the foods and some of the minor comforts, but forgot the violence and the slavery. The future is always a surprise. That’s true. But, if we have just enough confidence in God, to believe that our lives are ultimately fashioned by the Spirit, then we should never go back. It’s unproductive to even contemplate it. In fact, it’s Lot’s wife, looking back toward Sodom & Gomorrah.

If only. . . no more. Instead, I will say when.

 

The Nazirite Vow

NaziriteI ever realized that women could become Nazirites until this reading of Numbers. All this time, I had assumed that this vow was made only by men. And clearly, the rules for the Nazirite have the feel of being for men what with the growing of hair and abstinence from drink. Nonetheless, women could do take such a vow as well.

The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If a man or woman wants to make a special vow, a vow of dedication to the Lord as a Nazirite, they must abstain from . . .’” [Numbers 6:1-3a, NIV]

In a nutshell, the Nazirite abstained abstained from alcohol, fermented drinks of any kind, grapes, or raisins; refrain from cutting one’s hair; and finally, avoid defilement by a dead body (or place that a dead body has been).

When I looked up additional information about the Nazirite vow, I was surprised to find that it evolved over time into three types of vows, depending on their length. In general, such a vow was made for a minimum of 30 days and for the common person, my guess is that this was the norm. However, there was a permanent vow (in which the Nazirite would cut his/her hair once a year for convenience) and there was a “Samson” Nazirite who was permanent, but did not have to abide by the dead body rule.

I believe, over time, these permanent Nazirites became known as monks. But isn’t it interesting that the Christian monks (and nuns) in later centuries were known for shorn hair and not long hair at all. Another reason why the Nazirite tradition ended was the loss of the Temple where the many sacrifices had to be made at the end of the vow. No temple : no end.

It’s a fascinating topic really and even includes some references to Jesus entering into a type of Nazirite vow at the Last Supper. But, of course, that is speculation as are many ideas about this tradition.

In any event, this ritual had to do with setting apart and holiness (see Holy Objects & Holiness post). The person perceived a need to separate himself or herself from the norm, even to the point of stepping away from family obligations (as might be the case in the event of a relative passing away). These vows were quite serious and if one was broken, the person had to “start over” again.

Jesus made some references to vows or promises in Matthew 5:37 in which he told the people to allow their “yes” to be yes and their “no” to be no. I believe he was alluding to people who made promises they did not mean or were unwilling to keep.

wedding ringsBut I would add, if we do make a vow, then we should treat them with more respect. Marriage vows have become the most abused of all. It is not enough to say, “well, I meant it at the time,” for that changes nothing except to imply that one did not know one’s own mind at the time or the implication of the promise. I would recommend people stop using the marriage vow at all if the intent is not binding. Or, perhaps like the Nazirites, the couple, if the vow is broken, starts over again.

Of all the many things that women were excluded from in Old Testament times, this is not one of them. Both men and women can experience holiness and set themselves apart for God. And secondly, their vows are still binding.

 

Holy Objects and Holiness

holy objects TabernacleBack in the day, they had some seriously sacred and holy objects. Everything in the Tabernacle (tent of meeting) was holy and could only be handled, touched, or carried by certain people and in a certain way. Any deviation could mean death. Does anything in our contemporary world compare?

They [Kohathites clan] are the ones who shall deal with the most sacred objects associated with the congregation tent. . . . When Aaron and his sons are done covering all the holy objects and furnishings, then and only then (so that they don’t touch the sacred things and die), the Kohathites can approach. They are the ones who shall transport these items of the congregation tent. [Numbers 4:4, 15]

There are religions around the world that do have sacred objects and although none have the death penalty, they do carry severe holy eucharistpenalties. In Western culture, mostly it’s the high church denominations such as Catholicism and Orthodox who revere things, be it the Eucharist (sacramental bread), icons, relics, or specific objects that have been blessed or designated for holy use. In Muslim culture, it’s my understanding that the Quran (book itself) should never touch the floor or have anything laid on top of it and believers should not touch its pages without formal ablutions.

But the idea of holiness in our midst, whether in objects or places, has been lost, in large degree, by the vast numbers of believers who have embraced a friendlier God whose grace extends to jeans, casual environments, electronic texts, and handy communion elements. I am not condemning the practice per se; after all, I attend such a church myself. It’s modern and relevant and loud; it appeals to a broad range of people and is designed to be accessible to both believers and non-believers alike.

cross and rosaryIn Christianity, the cross, the instrument of torture used by the Romans to execute criminals has become so ubiquitous that both believers and non-believers can be seen wearing t-shirts, earrings, and tattoos with the cross prominently displayed. Go figure.

What is holy in my own life? I find myself hungering sometimes for the holy or sacred experience. In new cities, I love finding older church buildings and sitting in the quiet spaciousness of the place. I love to listen to sacred music alone or practice the praying of the hours. There is a respect for the time and the place that feels different, that engages me spiritually in a way that other things do not. Don’t get me wrong, I love contemporary worship with its upbeat sound, waving hands, and corporate experience. But it does not speak of holiness. It’s praise and adoration of a type, but I would never assign the word holiness to it.

There are times in nature when I have felt a holy presence, but it cannot be re-created at home. And I have had remarkable revelations while reading my Bible and yet, I know I treat the book itself somewhat cavalierly (besides, I must have about twenty different versions all over my house). If I can’t find one, there’s always a back up. It’s not holy or sacred in that other way at all.

Of course, one cbasilicaan ask if holiness or sacred objects are needful in today’s culture? Perhaps not. But I wonder, are we missing something?

My husband’s conversion story includes a moment when he heard the voice of God ask what he would do if Christ appeared to him in the flesh? And Mike’s internal response would be that he would bow down and worship him. For him, a holy moment, no doubt. But we have so few of those moments today. Bowing down as a symbolic gesture of surrender or subservience is foreign to most of us. In the face of foreign “royalty,” Americans tend to bristle a little at the idea of bowing to them. Even the idea of a “king of kings” is honestly unfamiliar. These are merely words, not actual feelings of reverence or awe.

As I think about Lent, I want to search out the holy in my heart as well as my environment. It will be the focal point, I think, to my 40 day journey.

Counting

3 Million people to see/hear Pope Francis

3 Million people to see/hear Pope Francis

This is the first census of the Israelites and based on the line, “who were able to serve in Israel’s army,” this was a census to determine their military strength. The Levites, however, since they would be responsible for the Tabernacle, were not counted; they would not participate in war. And of course, no women were counted and no children or teens under twenty.

. . . and they called the whole community together on the first day of the second month. The people registered their ancestry by their clans and families, and the men twenty years old or more were listed by name, one by one . . . All the Israelites twenty years old or more who were able to serve in Israel’s army were counted according to their families. The total number was 603,550. The ancestral tribe of the Levites, however, was not counted along with the others. [Numbers 1:18, 45-47, NIV]

So how many people were really out there in the desert? Most scholars say upwards to 3 million. That’s a lot of people in one place. That would less people than in Los Angeles proper but more people than Chicago. That would be more than Lisbon, Spain but less than Warsaw, Poland. That’s more people that live on Jamaica but less than live on Puerto Rico.

It’s a big number.

But let’s go back to the men. They listed each one by name on what? I don’t really know. Papyrus maybe, animal skins? But let’s imagine that they had 8 1/2 by 11 inch pieces of paper. That’s 4,020 sheets of paper, assuming 150 names per sheet. That’s 8 reams of paper (almost a case). I’m just saying, if they really “wrote down” all the names, 600,000 is a lot of names and a lot of ink and a lot of surfaces to write them.

The business of “census” was huge. The time to do it was huge as well. In ancient times, let’s assume it took 30 secopapyrusnds to write one person’s name (ink, dip, dip, dip), that would be about 208 days if they worked non-stop, 416 days if they worked 12 hour days which is also unlikely, but if they only worked 6 hours a day, it would have taken more than two years just to write down everyone’s name at 30 seconds per name if only one person was doing the work. Okay, that’s unlikely, so let’s assume that 12 people were doing the writing (one per clan), then maybe only half a year or so.

In any case, that’s a long time.

Just this reason alone would have made it unreasonable to count the girls, I guess. But we all know about that part, that women were property and so, they would get counted until they decided to count the sheep and the goats. And then, it would be a one potato, two potato kind of thing, not by name. Hate that, but it was the way of their world.

Why do we count? In the U.S., we count for political and social reasons, not unlike David who got into all kinds of trouble for calling an unauthorized census [2 Samuel 24]. It’s as though the numbers are the proof. How many people came to the program? How many people came to church? How many people got saved? How many people are a particular race or size or whatever. How many dollars were accumulated? We are obsessed with counting. And in the end, it’s just arithmetic. There are so many reasons, so many exclusions, so many circumstances. What do the numbers mean? They are a photograph of a moment and nothing more.

I think we need to find other ways of measuring success, other ways of measuring life.

cemeteryAnd interestingly enough, while we are preoccupied in the numbers when it comes to collecting or promoting or showing off, we seem to slide over the numbers of tragedy: 230,000 in the 2004 Japanese tsunami; 159,000 in the 2010 Haiti earthquake; over 3 million in the Chinese floods of 1931; 60 – 80 million in World War II, 16 – 30 million in World War I; up to 4 million in the Vietnam Wars and 1.2 million in the Korean War (and these are just in the 20th century). These are numbers we toss out like so much salt on a winter road.

What are you counting today?

A Year of Jubilee

jubilee2Just try to figure out how that actually worked back in Old Testament times. If you think scholarship over the New Testament issues is hot and contested, check out the controversies over this Levitical proclamation in chapters 26 and 27. At first, it seems relatively clear cut, but apparently, a closer examination reveals a number of issues.

Count off seven sabbath years—seven times seven years—so that the seven sabbath years amount to a period of forty-nine years. Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land. Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields. In this Year of Jubilee everyone is to return to their own property. [Leviticus 26:8-13, NIV]

Entire articles are written on whether the Year of Jubilee is indeed the 50th year in addition to the 49th year which would make it a Sabbath Year times two (really? two years with no planting?). Others argue over the start date, when is year one? And then still others question the intricacies of all of these transfers of property and slaves in the same year throughout the land. Havoc.

Honestly, I’m not that interested in the intricacies of implementing this law. But I do find the concept fascinating. In essence, ownership of land or slaves had an original possessor (in this case, based on the tribes and families who entered the promised land upon leaving Egypt). And as a result, anything and everything after that, was a lease, a rental, a borrowing contract. Nothing outside of the original grant was permanent.

native americansThis idea reminds me of some of the historical documents that reveal a basic misunderstanding between the Native Americans and the white interlopers from Europe. While the pilgrims and pioneers thought they were buying the lands, the Native Americans always considered these agreements to be temporary and somewhat silly. How could they sell to the whites what they did not own. The land belonged to nature, to God, to Spirit.

How different things would be if we understood today that our lands as well as our wealth and buildings, out cities and our systems are merely leased for a season. God can take them all back in a moment. Nature can easily supersede our so-called ownership and if left fallow, even for a short time, man-made things are engulfed and buried, if necessary, to start anew.

I don’t know when year one is in God’s eyes either. But there is some evidence that our lives and our world do run in cycles. I seriously doubt I could figure out that cycle, but in the spirit of Jubilee, I could proclaim it. I could choose a year of Jubilee, a year of letting go, a year of freedom, a year of rest, a year of renewal. What would I do in a year like that? A true sabbatical.

ResetI don’t really honor the cycle of seven days, resting on the seventh (as in Sunday). Every day is full of activity and obligations, shoulds and musts. Nor have I considered the seven year cycle, re-evaluating my world each seventh year. It’s not required anymore, I know that, but there might be something in this idea of rest and renewal, stopping and starting, taking a deep breath and releasing the past.

In October of 2014, I will reach the 9th set of sabbatical years. I would like to mark the following year as a Jubilee. I’m not sure what that will be exactly, but I’m putting it out there now. To ponder, to think, to imagine, to plan, to reset.

What would you do in a year of Jubilee?

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