Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Among the ashes (Ash Wednesday rambling)

There was something different about my popcorn this evening.   After I had a few handfuls I noticed some black specks, as if I had burned it on the stovetop.  But I had not.  I pride myself in a perfect pot of corn on a regular basis.

But there it was, tiny blackish- gray specks in the handful of kernels I held close for examination.  And then I saw it.  Not on the corn.  On my fingers. With which I had scratched my forehead.  Which was covered with ashes from the mark of the cross drawn on my head earlier this evening at an Ash Wednesday service.  A little gross I know.  But ashes are disinfected, right?

The ashes did not have a taste and added no noticeable texture to my popcorn.  They made no difference at all.

From ashes I was made and to ashes I will return.

After my time has come to return to ash, it will be too late for me to make a difference in this world. But in the meantime there is much to be done, much flavor and texture to add to this world while I still can.  Forget the shadowy greys and blacks of the ashes, I want a neon electric rainbow.

That's what the Ash Wednesday Service means to me.  Not the beginning of forty days of gray, but rather a reminder that I have been given a few moments in the in between of important, vibrant, precious  life in this world, and all of its miraculous wonders.    So, what is required of me?  How best to spend these brief moments between the ashes?

To act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.  At least that's what Micah of the Hebrew Bible said.  And I like that.  It is a short, simple and elegant statement of the calling of humanity, and how the Creator wants the created to turn out.

Perhaps it seems too tame too spend a life on. Especially when time is too short.

But there are few who can make that criticism with integrity.  Because few of us have tried it.  Most of us have become spectators,  too afraid or prideful to be in the world. We keep a safe distance and yell our critiques. The Creator said nothing about requiring that we watch. Or that we yell our commentaries.   We are called to act, to love, to walk.  All require action.  All require interaction.  In the world. With people.  With God.  Not a whole lot of spectating called for.

To work for justice and to show mercy will be no tame matter.  It will probably be the craziest thing we have ever done.  It will take us to countries, or even tougher, to neighborhoods that we have never been,  to do and say things we have never said, to people we never would dream of challenging or even harder, loving.     It requires either a confrontation with power, or standing with the oppressed,  or both, wherever they may be found.  

 And walking with God?  It really helps as we try to do the first two things.  I often joke that being in relationship with God is not so easy.  It's tough loving somebody who is always right.  On the other hand, God never gets lost.  But God likes to go everywhere.  Yes, it is a comforting thought to believe that God watches over us.  But God is a God who has a reputation for coming, for showing up.  Anywhere. Everywhere.  Shaking us awake. Helping us lighten our load so we can move quickly.  God wants us to walk along. 

That is what the time between the ashes is supposed to be.

A walk with the Creator.



Saturday, February 14, 2015

We hold these truths to be flexible . . .

Saturday. Sofa. Coffee.

It is a beautiful day, perfect to get outside and load some firewood and bring it up to the house in preparation for the pending Winter Storm.  It will be a little tricky because before I left the hospital Sunday night without my appendix, the nurse told me, she even wrote it down, that I should not lift more than ten pounds for two weeks.  My immediate thoughts were to question her as to how it would be possible to lift this body out of bed each morning. or whether that ten pounds was cumulative or started over with each lift, or a couple of questionable, yet hilarious quips which I will continue to keep to myself. (I was still a little drugged so give me a break)  But she had the power to release me from my confinement so I kept the sharp sarcasm inside.  It hurt. No, literally. It hurt.

There are probably ways around the ten pound limit.  Did she mean ten pounds per arm?  Did she account for the mechanical advantage created by a fulcrum point?  Is it ten pounds if the wood were green, because it's dried out now?  We'll see.

I'm thinking of taking my bathroom scales out into the field with me, and roll each log onto it before I lift. If it's 10.00 pounds or less I'll lift away.

Because clearly, it would never hurt me to lift 10.00 pounds or less.  And clearly, if I lift a nanogram over 10 pounds (yeah, I know I mixed my mass units, but I don't know the word in the English system) my abdomen will explode through my navel.

And if I could wait until that fifteenth day I could lift and throw the biggest log I could find.  But if I try to lift a smidgen over 10 on the 14th day it will be entrails everywhere.

Because that's what the nurse said.  She even wrote it down.

Actually what she wrote down was:

Lifting Restriction: >10 lbs for 2 wks.

It's pretty clear the real truth she was trying to say.

"You just had surgery.  Don't be stupid. Don't lift much of anything for a few days."

It was as if she knew me. It was a truth.

Writings that are meant to help, to explain, to instruct, are perverted by our selfish, short-sighted, self-centered perspectives.  I want to go load up all the firewood today despite what the nurse's order says. I want to dissect and pick her words and orders apart, instead of accepting what I know the clear message in context to be. I want to find loopholes, exceptions, acontextual interpretations that will let me do what I want. I want to use her words as my tools, my weapons, my way to get what I want.

As if the writings were the truth here, rather than just an attempt to describe and direct us to an unknowable, indescribable truth.  

The Biblical gospels, which are the accounts of Jesus' life and teachings, death and resurrection are the most obvious targets of our need to make exception.  You may have noticed this lately.

Love and serve everyone, no exceptions, especially your enemies.  Include everyone in your love and service, no exceptions. Judge no one. Forgive everyone.  Feed the hungry, heal the sick, visit the lonely and imprisoned, clothe the naked, give water to the thirsty, stand with the oppressed, be kind to the foreigner. Take care of the poor, the widow, the orphan.   Do not store up treasure. Sell what you have and give to the poor. Your love is how they will know you. 

It is pretty straightforward.  And yet, we continuously try to make exceptions.  Several have been in the news lately.   "It is obviously necessary to judge  in order to make good decisions for our country, our families, our children."  "The evil our enemy has done calls for an equal response, a head for a head."  "They don't appreciate anything and waste what we give them."  "Why should we welcome someone whose very presence here is a violation of our laws."  "Welfare just encourages laziness."  "The Lord helps those who help themselves."

I was guilty just this morning. It was on purpose to make a point, and I have asked for forgiveness.  In pointing out how the Bible is being used to defend all kinds of non-Jesusy behaviour lately, I found support for a friend's direction for someone to kiss her ass.  Matthew 5:39. We are told to offer, or turn the other cheek.

It is a horrible and sad thing this perversion of the Gospel of Jesus.

Or the U. S.  Constitution  (14th Amendment):

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Equal protection?  State governments must treat every person equally under the law, regardless of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.  Therefore, if the State makes laws regarding marriage, it cannot make distinctions based on those designations.  Crystal clear. 

But wait, we say. Surely the government can say that marriage can only be between a man and a woman?  Or surely the government can make a law to keep another Mosque from being built close to Ground Zero in NYC?  Or surely a Chief Justice can keep a monument to the ten commandments in the rotunda of a State Supreme Court?  Or surely a governor can keep black folks out of our schools?  Or surely judges can presume that women are naturally superior to men to have custody of children?  Or surely a state can pay women employees less than men, or discriminate against women in hiring if it chooses?

The U. S. Constitution is clear. Neither the state nor the federal governments can. It's not hard to understand.  We all, and each of us, have equal rights under the law.  We should all be celebrating that to the rooftops.

We do it all the time. I'm a lawyer. I'll admit it. It's a lot of what I do. We attempt to find a way around the clear language of a contract, a statute, or a judge's order.  Alabama Probate Judge's did it all week, with absolutely no legal leg upon which to stand, as they pretended to be confused about an abundantly clear Federal Judge's Order.   

We all do it. We do it to get what we want.  Even if what we want has nothing to do with Truth.

And all when we really know, in our hearts, the Truth.

Love. Include. Serve. Forgive. Do not judge.  

All are equal under the law. 

What men or women have written down, others will pervert.  And so writings, however great, will never save us.  

But the Truth that inspires them  will.

And all that may have been just a little too heavy a lift for me today.  But at least the firewood will seem light by comparison . . . oh yeah, I think I'm on to something there.


Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Appendectomies, personal and social . . .

Saturday evening, at half-time of the Alabama-LSU basketball game, I admitted to myself that I might have appendicitis and probably should go to the doctor.  I had not felt well for a week, but Saturday the pain intensified as the day went on. I struggled to straighten upright from the sofa and shuffled off to the car.  Five or six hours later the ER doctor confirmed my diagnosis, had me strapped to a gurney and hoisted into an ambulance which whisked me to St. Vincent's East, lights flashing and sirens blaring.  I was delivered directly to my room. It was after midnight by then. The EMT guys dropped me off at the door of room 614 and left before I could tip them.  No one was around.  It is an odd feeling to be completely alone in a hospital. Seriously, there was no one around.  I knew I was at least supposed to get one of those nifty peek-a-boo gowns before getting into bed, but there was no gown to be found.  So I just lay down, fully dressed.  I had appendicitis after all. It was an emergency.   Ultimately a nurse came, gave me the peek-a-boo gown to put on and an I.V. and left.  I went fitfully to sleep, waking myself with my own snoring from time to time because when you have a raging appendix you have to sleep on your back or die. The rest of the hospital stay went very well and Sunday afternoon they removed the offending appendix.  I was back home on my sofa, sans appendix, a little more than 24 hours after I left it, in time to watch the end of the Grammies.  Amazing.

I had to fill several of those 24 hours with something other than pain.  So I did a little Internet research on appendicitis to make sure things were going according to the book.  It was.

Vestigial organ.   The term has nothing to do with the rise of contemporary church music. No, it is a physiological term which describes an anatomical structure which has survived evolution despite having ceased to perform it's purpose.

It has outlived it's usefulness.  Like my appendix.

There was a time when the appendix was important.  It probably was a place where huge amounts of good bacteria were stored which helped our ancient ancestors digest a diet which included much more cellulose, found in raw plants, leaves and grasses. It was necessary for survival. Thousands and thousands of years ago.

But we stopped eating that stuff a long, long time ago.  We did not need that bacteria anymore.  The appendix got smaller, but never disappeared.  Even though it does not do anything anymore.

Except cause trouble.

It is hard to choose to get rid of things.  Just check my kitchen drawers.  No, please don't.  Sometimes it  hurts a lot to get rid of a useless thing because  the thing is so embedded and entwined with things that are still doing very important things.  It is easier just to let it be, to not disturb it's useless existence.

Until it causes trouble. Until it becomes inflamed and enraged, and causes everything around it to become inflamed and enraged. Even though there is no longer any purpose to its rage at all, except perhaps that it is now has no purpose.   So it threatens those things around it that still perform a vital purpose.

We can deny the discomfort, deny the irritation, but when the pain becomes unbearable, and the danger of destruction imminent, we must remove the useless thing or suffer the serious consequences.

Things change. Sometimes we need to help the change along before it becomes so painful.

Physical organs are not the only things that become vestigial.

Vestiges of feudalism. Vestiges of colonialism. Vestiges of apartheid. Vestiges of slavery. Vestiges of segregation. Vestiges of racism. Vestiges of sexism.  Vestiges of Reconstruction. Vestiges of the Confederacy. Vestiges of . . .  a few more should easily come to mind.

It is often a painful thing to deal with the vestiges of harmful social and cultural institutions which have met or are meeting their demise.  The  harmful remnants of useless or destructive things that themselves have been rendered non-functional are sometimes stubborn and will not go quietly. So we must help them leave.  And we must find ways that cause the least harm (like laparoscopy, Hallelujah).

It is important that we do.

Because when they are gone, we all feel a whole lot better.


Monday, February 2, 2015

It's Only Make-Believe (Apologies to Conway Twitty)

I have a few recurrent dreams.

In one I am under the basket on a basketball court,  in a real game because we are all wearing uniforms. I catch the ball on the low post, a dream in itself, then gather myself and explode upward, breaking free of the defender's arms that are grabbing and slapping. Upon reaching that height which, in the real world, was always my limit, I keep ascending, higher and higher, in slow motion, hanging in the air for seconds before coming down to slam the ball through the hoop, doing a pull-up on the rim and dropping neatly to the floor.

It is a great dream.  And I wish it were true.  But it is not.

Gravity is real.

In another dream I am swimming under water.  Someone is waiting to shoot me when I surface. As I begin to panic I start to breathe . . . underwater.  Suddenly I realize that if I suck water in slowly through my clenched teeth I can breathe just fine, stay under as long as I want, and convince my enemies that I have drowned.

It is a great relief, this ability to breathe underwater.  I wish it were true. But it is not.

If I breathe in water, I will drown.

When I was a child I would climb on top of our long picnic table, run the length of it with my terry cloth towel cape flapping behind me, and launch myself into space at the other end of the table, sure that I would be able to break the surly bonds of earth and fly.  I believed that my new P. F. Flyer tennis shoes with the secret built in wedge would make me jump higher and run faster.  I would walk down the hall of our house punching the wall after eating a bowl of cheerios or gagging down a helping of spinach because the Cheerios ad and Popeye told me I could.

When I was 13 I watched the TV in horror as my hero, Robert Kennedy, lie on the floor of that hotel in California, blood flowing from his head after being shot. His eyes were open. The news later said the wound was most likely fatal.  But his eyes were open as he lie on the floor. That was what I saw. That meant he was obviously doing better than they said.  His eyes were open. The doctors were wrong.

But I could not really fly, or run or jump higher or punch holes in walls (a blessing in retrospect).  It was make-believe.  Great fun. But make-believe.  And Robert Kennedy died that night.

I am never hurt in my dreams. I wake up just fine. My child-hood make believe flights and sparring rounds with the wall offered little chance for serious injury.  And there was nothing I could do for Robert Kennedy.

But living in a dream or playing make believe or thinking that we can do nothing about the problems that face our grown up world is dangerous, and deadly, for us, and even more sad, for the generations that follow.

Climate change is real.  Vaccinations are essential for the safety and health of our children and pose little risk.  Water is a limited resource.  Pollution threatens the health of our environment, and the health of humanity.  Oil extraction, on land and water, exacts a devastating toll on the environment.  Coal extraction is no better.  The burning of fossil fuels is a major contributor to climate change, and air and water pollution.  Alternative fuel sources are viable.  Corporate agriculture is polluting our rivers and the Gulf of Mexico with fertilizer and insecticides, subjecting our crop land to over use, and threatening our health with livestock additives designed for heavier weights in less time.  And much more.  Add by commenting if you wish.

Some of you are already denying, finding the exceptions to the general rule to prove your point.  You may be right about the exceptions.  You may be wrong.  As might I.

But there is this thing about facts.  They are self-confident.

What you or I believe about them makes no difference.

But what we do about them makes all the difference in the world.


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