Tuesday, September 20, 2011

"And God said..." Oh, really?

tears from heaven
“Clean around your own back door, Celeste,” she said to me softly.  

I was hurting, filled with righteous anger, when I told my grandmother about the afternoon’s encounter. In my monolog, I had ascribed motives to the other person and recited a litany of wrongs committed against me.  When I had finished, she waited a moment and invoked The Gospel According to Henrietta Kirkley.

My grandmother distilled scripture and parceled out essential truths in her southern vernacular, in this case, Matthew 7:3-5. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” Granny’s version: “Clean around your own backdoor, Celeste.” 

My grandparents lived on a farm. In front of the house, a small grass lawn was enclosed by a fence.  Beyond the fence, dirt.  Every morning my grandmother swept the dusty side yard with a homemade broom, straw bundled into a shaft and held together with wire. Even weeds had utility in her world.  As she swept, she sang, usually an old hymn.  Her repertoire was varied but the favorites dominated: “Abide With Me”. “In the Garden”, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.”  By my twelfth year, I towered over this tiny woman.  She stood 4’11”, weighed 88 pounds soaking wet, and wore a size 3-1/2 shoe. But her love was huge. 

LIfe had challenged her. She buried a child - a toddler, my mother’s identical twin - and raised three more. Worked - without conveniences - to make a home. Picked cotton in the fields. The chicken she fried for Sunday lunch didn’t arrive wrapped in plastic. She chased the bird down and wrung its neck. Farm life and comfortable illusions rarely coincide. Especially the illusion of control. Her power lay only in her choices, her responses.

The religion of the rural south in which she was raised was often harsh, a theology of retribution, not grace. This mirrored a culture shaped by the Civil War, Reconstruction and the Depression. During a conversation with a psychologist a few years ago, he said that he felt the singularly most significant event in our country’s history was the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. As he talked, I thought of that great but complex man. A man of sorrows indeed. Had he lived, the speaker continued, he would have been a healing force for this nation. “Before the Marshall Plan that followed WWII, Lincoln, I think, would have sought repatriation by reaching out.” None can know what Lincoln would have been able to achieve in the aftermath of the war. But the policies that followed were in contradiction to what he had espoused, both in words and action.

Last week, I wrote a food blog (of sorts). Now I’m tackling - not as an apologist - politics and religion. Another “never” bites the dust. But when I heard a politician ascribe the recent earthquake and floods to God’s displeasure with America, one thought immediately surfaced: more likely the tears and sobs of a loving father who watches his children make a mockery of truth. And I felt very sad. Sad that toxic religion can drive people away from grace. Frustrated with pious phrases that mask a desire to control, to gain and preserve power. And that’s just within the congregation. Apply this to the nation, to the world…how complex and maddening. 

I am a failed - and failing - human in need of mercy and forgiveness. These are my credentials. Jesus looms large in my life. He loves me and I love Him. Remember the rubber bracelets imprinted WWJD (the acronym for What Would Jesus Do)? Perhaps the first question might be “What DID Jesus do? He was certainly no stranger to trouble. Peaceful but resolute. He didn’t force himself on others nor did he waiver in his message. Even at death’s door. At the heart of his ministry: a passion for the poor, for children, widows, lepers, the downtrodden,  for “the least of these”, for the most vulnerable in society. He overturned the tables of the money changers in the Temple because of where they sat. In front of the Court of the Gentiles. Unable to enter the Temple, the Gentiles were allotted a place near the entrance to worship their gods. The sound of animals being sold as sacrificial offerings in the Temple, the shouts of the moneychangers and the noise of the crowds would have disrupted the Temple. Better to bother the Gentiles. Did Jesus demur? No, he overturned the tables and loosed his wrath, all in defense of the least of these.

In the Sermon on the Mount, he said, “Blessed are the meek.” But meek isn’t synonymous with weak and wishy-washy. The word from which this was translated referred to domesticated animals such as horses and oxen, powerful creatures who submitted their will to a master. When two are equally yoked - respecting each other, each willing to pull a share of the load - much can be accomplished for the greater good.

I know that it is not enough to recognize rhetoric and call others out. Feels good for a little while. But I seem always to have some sweeping up of my own to do. Daily. My up-front, ready-for-prime-time visible stuff isn’t nearly as important as what lurks out back. Hidden from public viewing, the detritus of life accumulates. My prejudices and opinions. My scars and fears. Lists of labels. These fence-builders and shadow-casters grow larger with neglect.    

Yet even a personal inventory can be a thing of pride. Here’s an old Hasidic story.  The rabbi enters the synagogue, lies prostrate on the steps in front of the altar.  “I am nothing, Lord!” he cries out. “I am nothing.”  Upon hearing this, the cantor joins him, repeating the rabbi’s words. Touched by these leaders, the cleaner lays down his broom and lies down where he is. “I am the least of these, Lord. I am nothing.” At which point, the rabbi glances at the poor man and says to the cantor, “Look who thinks he’s nobody.” 

“Clean around your own back door, Celeste.” 

“Yes, ma’am.”  

Time spent DE-planking: a good thing.


GretchenJoanna said...

I love that Hasidic story! And the simple phrase about cleaning around our own back door -- I want to remember that.

Celeste said...

And I loved your "how not to enjoy a hike" post!!! I have to tell you that, when I bumped into your blog and discovered that you live in northern California, I felt as if I had a neighbor waiting when I moved here. Love your reading list...so many books in common and others that I've since added to mine.