Posts Tagged ‘Sanctity of 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.

Receiving Others as Gifts: The Sanctity of Life

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In a way, this topic–the sanctity of life–is foundational to the entire series of receiving others as gifts. In fact, it is foundational to my entire life message and my worldview as a whole.

I could’ve put this topic first and built out from there, but it is a bit tricky to write about. I mean, I can, with one post, alienate just about everyone with my thinking on this issue. I myself don’t even live up to my own high-minded ideals about how very sacred and precious life is.

And so, I’ve buried this most-important topic in the middle of the series to work up the gumption to write about it. At this point, I don’t so much have more gumption as I have a sense of commitment to myself to write the whole series as planned.

Basically, when it comes to the sanctity of life, I think it is a lot easier to want to protect some lives and disregard others. But if we take seriously that each and every person belongs to God as God’s precious creation, then we are challenged to hold as sacred the lives of all people.

Let me give you an example. Sometimes I have heard people make a very impassioned case against abortion, yet those same people advocate for strict application of the death penalty. On the other hand, some people are pro-choice, yet staunchly opposed to the death penalty. For me, if life is valuable, then both the lives of the unborn and the lives of inmates on death row are valuable.

Both abortion and capital punishment are serious issues and I do not mean to make light of either the complexities of an unplanned pregnancy or that of serious violent crime. What I mean to say is that I lament any loss of life.

I figure if the good news of Jesus Christ is true, really truly true, then no one is beyond God’s love. Every life is worth saving in God’s eyes.

But the sanctity of life in my mind goes beyond just the overt taking of a life. We demonstrate respect for life and undermine it in a million small ways every day.

Some of the everyday ways we show respect for life, in no particular order, are when we:

  • care for the sick;
  • truly listen to someone who thinks different from us;
  • honor those who are vulnerable;
  • advocate for non-violent solutions to problems;
  • treat children with kindness;
  • give dignity to the elderly.

We undermine life when we neglect the above, abuse others with actions or words, infringe on others’ basic human rights, and more. These behavior undermine life because they violate others in some way. Whatever we do that violates others–even if they live through it–are offenses against their lives.

In this broad extension of the idea of the sanctity of life, there isn’t a person I know that isn’t guilty of some violation of another. Myself included. Having this perspective doesn’t make me perfect. But I do believe it with all my heart and try to catch myself whenever I recognize that I’m in danger of causing harm to another.

The good news is that we can begin anew each day. We can connect with our God who loves all of his created people and allow God’s Spirit to guide our words and actions as we receive others as gifts and honor the sanctity of their lives.

 

Read all the posts in the Receiving Others as Gifts series:

Everyone is Someone’s Child

Someone's Child

How King David Makes Me Mad and Helps Me Explain the Importance of Seeing Others as Gifts

There are things that annoy me and I don’t react well to them and then there are things that bring out a “holy anger.” I taught a Bible study yesterday that brought out that holy anger because the story involved treating human lives as if they were expendable.

I am taking a break from my series on Receiving Others as Gifts to talk about this story. But it is not really a break from the theme of “Others as Gifts” at all because honoring the very life of others—no matter who they are—is a basic premise of receiving them as gifts.

The study was from Gather: the Magazine of Women of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The Gather studies this academic year have been featuring different women in the Bible and this particular study was about a woman named Rizpah and her dramatic mourning over her sons. You can read the story in 2 Samuel 2:1-14.

Why did Rizpah’s two sons die? [WARNING: GORE ALERT!] Well, King David handed them and the five sons of Merab over to Saul’s enemies, the Gibeonites, to be impaled.

Why did David hand them over? Well, there was a famine for three years and David was freaking out. Meanwhile, apparently “the Lord” reminded him about the “bloodguilt” from the time when Saul put Gibeonites to death.

So, David figured if he appeased the Gibeonites then the famine would end. Easy peasy.

And what did the Gibeonites require? At first they behaved as if they couldn’t be appeased. But when David pressed them they suggested this eerily specific idea. David could hand over 7 male descendants (“sons”) of Saul for them to be impaled.

And David agreed!

Right there, my holy anger was already kindled, but that wasn’t what really set me off.

What really set me off was verse 7, “But the king spared Mephibosheth, the son of Saul’s son Jonathan, because of the oath of the Lord that was between them, between David and Jonathan son of Saul.”

Yes, yes, David was honoring an oath. How noble.

It was, in fact, an oath that he made with his best friend, Jonathan! Are you catching that? It was his best friend’s kid that he spared.
Of course, David would place a value on the life of his best friend’s kid.

But the other 7 that he handed over were expendable. Their lives didn’t matter to David.

And it’s not that he doesn’t know that life matters, because he spared the life of a prime candidate for the Gibeonites’ bizarre execution. David knew that life mattered, but he selectively denied the value of the lives of the seven.

But see, everyone matters. Everyone is someone’s kid! And Rizpah with her dramatic time of mourning over her kids wouldn’t let David ignore the value of all of the lives that he had handed over.

And that brings me to why I’m interrupting my series to write about this—because my whole bit about Receiving Others as Gifts is to remind us that people matter!

All people matter! Even people we don’t like! Even our enemies! Even people we don’t even know!

We don’t get to pick and choose!

The atrocities we’re capable of when we lose site of this are horrifying.

I want to be certain to point out that God never asked for the execution of the seven sons of Saul. That was sheerly the agreement between the Gibeonites and David.

I imagine God out there with Rizpah, wailing and lamenting the senseless loss of life. Because those were not just Rizpah’s sons, they were not just Merab’s sons, they were God’s precious created people.

They matter to God.

We matter to God.

Others matter to God.

I hope and pray that we find in our hearts to let others matter to us–to receive them as gifts.

Read all the posts in the Receiving Others as Gifts series: