Posts Tagged ‘Life’

Are We Bound By a System?

Bound

In Mark 6:14-29, we learn that Herod is haunted by thoughts of John the Baptist because he ordered John’s beheading despite himself. Are the forces that led to Herod making this choice that different from forces still at work in our world today?

Lectionary Thoughts for July 12, 2015
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year B

Text: Mark 6:14-29 (Quotations here are from the NRSV)

“The king was deeply grieved” by his daughter’s request for the head of John the Baptist (v 26) because “he liked to listen to him” (v 20). Up until this point he had protected John the Baptist from his wife’s grudge against him (vs 19-20).

What changed in this incident that he would retract his favor from a man he feared, revered, protected, and liked listening to (v 20)?

“Out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her” (vs 23, 26). 

He gave his daughter a wide open promise that she could have anything she asked for (v 23). And he had witnesses to this promise he had made—for he made the promise in front of his guests. Honor was at stake.

If this happened to one of us, we’d probably clarify that we meant “anything within reason,” or “anything *you* want, not what your mother tells you to ask for.” And everyone would understand the limits implied in such a promise.

We would not have to worry about disgrace for refusing the girl’s request. But that was exactly what Herod was facing. Refusing the request would have been to disgrace himself and to disgrace his guests. How could they ever trust his word thereafter?

I imagine he got considerably more careful about the promises he made after that. But this one, he had to keep.

He just had to.

Even though Herod liked to listen to John’s teaching…

He just had to go through with it.

He was bound by the system of which he was a part. In Herod’s case it was the system of honor and shame. He would not go back on his word; the honor and shame system required him to keep his word in order to keep his honor and to maintain the honor of his guests.

Who of us can do better when we remain bound to systems that conflict with our values?

It is easy for us as outsiders looking into the honor and shame system to say we wouldn’t do that. We can see a different path because we are not bound to that system in the same way. We critique it from a safe distance.

But are we so scrupulous, so savvy about the systems to which we are bound?

Do we even recognize them?

Dylan Roof sat for an hour in Bible study. He almost didn’t go through with his plan.

But he just had to.

Even though the group was so nice…

He just had to go through with it.

He too was bound by a system—some system in which he had only one choice that made any sense to him.

That system of thought rose up among us, on our soil, in our land.

It’s harder when it’s so close to home to see ourselves as bound to a system that would extinguish life in order to preserve the system.

Do we even recognize it?

Small Children Are Whole People -or- “What do you mean, ‘and a half’?!!!”

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A nearly-forgotten pet-peeve resurfaced for me the other night: It really bugs me when people talk about a baby as “half” a person!

This came up while my husband, son, and I were playing a family game. My son got a question about how many pets he would like to have. His answer was 5 1/2. Puzzled, I asked him about the “half” pet.

“Well, you know, like a little baby pet of some kind.”

And I think, or at least, I hope, I mustered a smile and an uncomfortable laugh before I gave my son my thoughts on the “half” verbiage.

I don’t think I would have thought quite so deeply about the “half a pet” explanation he gave me if, when he himself was a “little baby,” I hadn’t already thought quite a lot about how younglings are not “half” anything. When he was very young, I was keenly aware of how wholly there this tiny person was.

Back then, I always felt indignant when staff at restaurants would observe that we had “two and a half” in our party. Inside I was thinking, “What do you mean, ‘and a half’?!!!” My baby being only a fraction the size of a mature human did not mean he was only a fraction of a person!

I worked at being gracious when people referred to my son as “a half.” I didn’t want to be unkind, but I felt like I needed to say something. Quite often I used a little humor to make my point and would playfully mention that we think of him as a whole person.

On a strictly practical level, I can tell you that keeping up with the demands of an infant is no small undertaking! When sleep is scarce, showers get further apart, and conversation becomes increasingly child-related, it is clear that this small person is all there, all the time.

But on a deeper level, I’m big on the sacredness of life and part of that means that I honor and treasure the lives of even very young humans. Treating kids as whole people, respecting them as beings all their own, is really important to me.

I know that my son didn’t mean any harm by talk of half a pet, and restaurant staff don’t intend disrespect by referring to a babe in arms as “and a half.”

But how we talk about this matters. The words we use hold meaning.

It matters if we verbally discount another person (or pet, or any other living being). Even if that person is very tiny, that person is worthy of our full respect.

In fact, I would go further to say that especially if another person is tiny, or vulnerable in any way, the onus is on us to make sure that we honor the agency and dignity of that one.

So, I tried to explain some of this to my son. And I tried to do it light-heartedly enough, because it was game night, after all. I didn’t want to make it too heavy, but I do hope it gave my son something to think about.

If nothing else, my son got to hear about how his mom defended his honor when he was too young to do it himself. And I think, or at least, I hope, that matters.

(Another) One Fallen Too Soon

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Last week my cousin died. Her name was Melissa Zygadlo Thomas. She was 40 years old and leaves behind a dear husband and two young children.

Cancer.

Damn cancer.

I was glad I got to return home to Ohio to be at Melissa’s funeral. It was good to be there, to be with the family.

This was the first death in my generation on my dad’s side of the family. My cousins Michael and Phillip, who both died in their twenties, were on my mom’s side of the family.

So it was important to be there with and for my dad and brother and the others.

“It’s good to see you,” everyone always says at funerals, and we mean it more dearly than ever for the present loss magnifies how precious we are to one another, “but I wish it was under different circumstances,” we are always quick to add.

Different circumstances…I wish the circumstances were different–that our restoration to one another was not at Melissa’s expense.

I hate death.

I feel no need to cancel out or console this hatred of death. My grief will not be undone by some supposed higher consciousness of “death as part of life.” No, there is weeping and gnashing of teeth–real, and raw, and painful–because death is the end of life as we know it. And life as we (I) know it is all I know in any tangible way.

Oh, yes, there is the here-after, there is the resurrection of the dead, and there are all of the great promises of something else, more, better in the time to come. These promises run through the scriptures I cling to, the faith I hold dear. Yet these promises are of little consolation in the actual here-and-now of living this life as we know it without Melissa as we knew her…or Elaine as we knew her…or Phillip as we knew him…or Michael as we knew him…or grandparents and great-grandparents and Amos & Opal as we knew them…

I think I feel this inconsolable sense of loss–this hatred of death–most keenly with these cousins of mine–Melissa, Phillip, and Michael–because they died so young. I think of these as untimely deaths.

But, truth be told, I wasn’t ready for any of them. The world doesn’t make sense anymore since Elaine died and she was in her 80s–not so very young, but still she is gone too soon.

And Opal…I have not written nearly enough about Opal…her passing was far, far too soon.

Opal too died of cancer.

Damn cancer.

I still hate that Opal is gone from this life as I know it…that loss was decades ago…but even all these years later, there is still an Opal-shaped hole in my heart, my life.

Opal and her husband, Amos, were like grandparents to me in a time when my grandparents and great-grandparents had either passed away already or lived too far away. I could ride my bike to Opal & Amos’s house…my brother and I would go there and play checkers with Opal and drink Coca-Cola, poured from glass bottles into Tupperware tumblers–nearly as tall as the bottles themselves–which we first filled with crushed ice from the mystical phenomenon of a freezer with an external ice-dispenser!

And I don’t remember stories about Opal so much as just the unconditional love that radiated from her. My heart knows who she was to me and that memory of her is so deeply a part of me. But I don’t know if I can ever, ever capture her importance in words.

This is the hole that death leaves. Ones so dear, yet nothing we can say or recall–even if we had kept detailed journals of their lives as we knew them–nothing can resubstantiate who and what they were.

I’m still in my mind and in my heart pondering the stories I want to tell about Melissa. If I’m counting right, she was closest to me in age of all my cousins (on both sides of my family)–Melissa was closer to me in age than even my own brother who is only two years older than I am.

There were “girly” toys we played with together–things my brother turned his nose up at. There were chats about school, and boys, and make-up. There was this extended family that we shared that we tried together to make sense of.

When we were both grown and had become mothers, we had a few occasions to talk about parenting. I admired how at-ease Melissa was in her role as a mother. With my son a few years older than her firstborn, I was still trying to recalibrate life as a mom, but she was a natural. She told me once that she didn’t see much use for a lot of parenting books, but that she would just trust her instincts. But oh, how I myself had poured over so many books!

Yet, Melissa’s instincts and all of who she was as we knew her are laid to rest.

And even as I try to remember what I need to remember about her, the memory of her is all there is.

I know there is something else, more, better for Melissa, Elaine, Michael, Phillip, Opal…

As the appointed leader of a congregation, I have had occasion to conduct two funeral services for members of the church where I’m serving. And in these times, it is my job to point the people to the life that really is life that is promised to us in Christ Jesus. And I believe it full well. It’s just that I’m not afraid of the hope and grief commingling–neither diminishes the other.

Hope isn’t some salve we put on our grief to make it go away. True hope in the God of the universe doesn’t fill in the grief-shaped hole. The hole remains. Hope doesn’t need to fill in the hole in order to function.

And the hole has plenty of its own work to do and is not at all interested in swallowing hope.

Really, if anything, the hole–holding that loved-one-shaped place in our hearts–can be for us a well, reflecting back to us the glimmer of light and life and love of the one we’ve lost.

I just wish it were under different circumstances.

Still, it is something–even if not tangible.

And even cancer and death cannot take away the glimmer–even if our words fail us to do justice to the life of the ones we have lost–the glimmer of their memory is as real as breathing.

Oddly, it is in hating death–in feeling it so hard and true and real and deep–in despising death I can begin to love life harder and truer and realer and deeper.

I hate death because it takes what is precious–life–the lives of those we love.

I despise these circumstances because I love life.

And if life is worth loving, and worth living, if lives are worth remembering (and they are!) it is because the Author of Life–the Creator of all things in heaven and earth has made life good.

And the Author of Life knows every story that I’m forgetting–and even those I never knew–about Melissa, and Opal, and Elaine, and Phillip, and Michael.

I may not have Melissa’s motherly instincts in which to trust, but I do trust in God–my God, the Lord of Life. And my hope in the Lord of Life abides alongside my grief.

I trust that Jesus is greater than anything we can experience in our living, in our loving, or even in our losing and dying. It is as Jesus promises, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

Oh God, into your hands I commit life as I knew it, life as I know it now, and life as I can’t imagine in the yet-to-come. Into your hands I commend the lives of those I have loved and lost too soon.

I Just Can’t Can’t

IMG_3962My mother-in-law, Elaine Marie Oslund Tinker, died on Wednesday, October 8 and I feel a bit like nothing is quite as it should be.

And yet, the rest of the world is moving on just fine. And I just can’t can’t right now. I have to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

I’ll be honest, I don’t even want to drag myself out of bed in the morning. (Or in the afternoon if I can get away with sleeping that long.)

But somehow I do keep getting out of bed, and I made bread one day, and I’ve built backyard fires two nights in a row, and I’ve had good conversations that aren’t just all about my grief, and I’m making plans for my future, and I’m starting negotiations for a new job…

And life is going on. My life is going on.

And that’s as it should be, but it doesn’t feel like it should be.

There’s part of me that wants to just stop. To just make everything stop.

And that part of me is dragging me down. And it’s making me not want to write.

I deliberately gave myself permission to not write when I was spending so much time caring for Elaine and when we were all caring for one another in the time after her death. Those were the days–or hours–that we all just took one at a time.

Writing, though integral to who I am and what I’m doing, writing just had to wait for the most part.

And even now I’m not entirely sure what to say about those days. And part of me feels like I can’t. But I just can’t can’t. I have to say something even if I don’t know what I’m saying.

And the “have to” is not some weird pressure I’m putting on myself. I promise. I would tell you if that was what it was.

The “have to” or the “can’t can’t” is this feeling deep down that I know, know, know there is more for me in life.

I said before that I felt like everything in my life prepared me for my ability to be present with Elaine as I did–I felt that same sense throughout even the worst of her illness and even in her dying.

And it would be so gratifying if I could kick back and say, “Ah, Lord, I see my work here is done.”

But God keeps nudging me, “I’m not finished with you yet.”

And as much as I felt like all my life prepared me for what I’ve just been through, I feel as though what I’ve just been through has prepared me for more, more, more.

And so, I just can’t can’t.

And so I press on.

Drought-Tolerant Faith?

 

Scorched trees near Bastrop, TX affected by drought-related wildfires of 2011 with dying grass affected by current drought.

Scorched trees near Bastrop, TX affected by drought-related wildfires of 2011 with dying grass affected by current drought.

I got to preach again last weekend, and although I was the one coming in to bring the word, I had an important word imparted to me about our present drought in Texas.

Now, you have to know that the summer before we moved here there was a terrible drought in the area. Livestock herds could not be maintained. Wildfires swept through the area. Even though we weren’t living here at the time, I’ve heard stories and seen pictures.

Growing up in Ohio, we had drought, but I didn’t understand the meaning of drought until I learned of what they went through down here.

It has had me scared, really. We’ve been behind on precipitation and have been under “burn bans” a good deal of the time we’ve lived here.

I’ve worried and wondered, what if it gets like it was back before we moved here?

Things were looking up over the summer. No burn bans meant I’ve had lots of my backyard campfires which I love. (Apparently according to a quiz I took online, my subconscious is obsessed with nature, so my urge for backyard campfires makes sense.)

But rain has not been coming and we are back under a burn ban…and inconveniently that means no more backyard fires…but more seriously, it has rekindled my worry.

When I was at church on Sunday (one of two churches I preached at that day), I made small talk before the service, “Have y’all gotten any rain yet up this way?” (I mean, the weather is always a good topic for small talk, right?)

But no, there hadn’t been much to speak of up that way. The next statement schooled me, “I guess we don’t need it. We think we do but I guess we really don’t.”

What could I say?

I wasn’t personally convinced, but I learned a long time ago not to argue with other people in how they size up a crisis they’re experiencing firsthand.

But then, after the service was over, I had a similar conversation with another person who said nearly the same thing: We think we need the rain. But we must not need it.

And I’m a little slow, so it took me hearing it twice over the course of that morning for it to have its full impact.

If it would have just been the one person who said it, I could have dismissed it. I mean, we need the rain because life and crops and all rely on it! And what is God thinking not providing rain when we need it? That’s sweet to let God off the hook like all that, but I expect a bit more from The Almighty!

But when the same sentiment was spoken twice, and both times it was spoken by people who lived through the major drought what with livestock and forests in danger and all…

Perhaps they knew something, they discerned something that I was missing.

In my fear and worry about the devastation I knew the last drought caused…and I had to face it, with my irritation about not being able to have my backyard fires…well, I was missing the really big picture.

But they knew better.

They knew to wait patiently, to trust that what we really need isn’t always what we think we need or what we fret about.

And my own worry and fear were once again exposed. Oh Lord, how many times must I need reminded of your provision? Of your goodness? Of your faithfulness despite what seems impossible?

In this way, I was among those who received a word that day I preached. Oh Lord, give me a drought-tolerant faith like theirs.