Us and Them

It’s one of the tracks on Dark Side of the Moon [Pink Floyd], it’s a mindset, and it’s a lie. Cosmically and religiously speaking, it’s all us  – it’s just that the us comes in many shapes and sizes. All of us are God’s beloved creatures, given the capacity to love and the terrible freedom to withhold it. My husband, siblings, children, and other relatives are part of us; the person in the grocery checkout, the driver cutting me off on route 3 are part of us; Barbara next door and the grieving people of Christ Church, New Zealand are us; even the ones who hurt and kill are part of us – just a part I’d rather not acknowledge.

Them is a false category, a dark place to put the people I don’t know or don’t like. But it comes at a cost: a piece of who I am always goes to the hell I wish for others.

It’s why Jesus advised us to judge not lest ye be judged (Mt. 7:1) – it’s as much to save us as it is to benefit the ones we would pass judgement upon…

Limited Time, Finite Life

The Sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older…

[Pink Floyd, TimeThe Dark Side of the Moon, David Gilmour and Roger Waters, recorded June, 1972 – January, 1973, released March, 1973: Harvest Records]

The predictability of the sun rising and setting, of the seasons coming and going, sometimes gives us the impression that nothing will ever change in a fundamental way. Biblically speaking, what has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9, NRSV) This pattern gives an unchanging structure to our days, weeks, months, and years. But within that structure, we change. We are born, we grow up, we age, and we die. We are finite, and our time limited.

The lyrics of Time tell this truth; although we age every day, we are apt to spend the life we’ve been given without thought or intention as if it were an eternally renewable resource. It isn’t. This is the truth we are asked to ponder during Lent; we will return to ashes, and the world which existed long before us will continue on its way well beyond our life span. We need to remember that out days are numbered and that, with few exceptions, we will not be remembered by the generations that follow after us. Without a larger perspective on the whole thing, all would end in tears and despair.

But there is a larger perspective, a larger reality that takes up all the days we live and all the days that came before us, and all the days that will follow. We are not a cosmic accident, alone in an indifferent universe. We are beloved creatures of the One who set this cosmos in motion. If we remember this, if we trust this, contemplating our own mortality leads to a greater love for life, a greater appreciation for the here and now we inhabit, and the possibility to see within our life’s limitations the hand of God and footprints of Jesus. We may not see the end, we may not be the center of the universe, but we are universally beloved. Death doesn’t change this.

I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by. (Ecclesiastes 1:14b-15, NRSV)

A different brick in the (ivy covered) wall…

I was going to write on Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall [The Wall, Roger Waters and David Gilmour, recorded 12/1978-11/1979, Harvest/ Columbia records, November, 1979], but some famous, wealthy parents are being charged with paying people to falsify test scores, to admit their non-athletic children as college athletes, and to fake disabilities -all this to get children into their preferred elite schools. The issue with this sometimes ivy covered brick wall isn’t an education that dulls the hearts and minds of its learners: it’s the difficulty of getting past the wall and into the classrooms it surrounds.

Even without cheating, wealth tips the scales in favor of its children. Here are just a few examples:

  1. Wealthy parents give their children educational advantages by living in towns with excellent public schools, enrolling them in private schools, and paying for tutors to improve grades.
  2. Wealthy children can afford to take a “college tour,” visiting several schools and talking with admissions workers: they are aware of the variety of options available and do not need financial aid to attend.
  3. Expensive standardized tests and college application fees aren’t a problem. The students who would need a waiver for the fees are often the ones who don’t know such a thing is available to them.
  4. Parents and other family members have attended college in the past, bringing their own experience in navigating the admissions process to their children’s advantage.
  5. Alumni/ae have helpful connections, and that helps their children gain admission.

 

Some of the disadvantages that lack of money brings:

  1. Schools in poor towns often don’t have the resources to help struggling students navigate the college admissions process. Guidance and connections are limited.
  2. Lack of resources often means lack of awareness of aid offered by top tier schools.
  3. Teachers may discourage bright but poor learners from pursuing an ivy league or other top flight college education.
  4. Taking a campus tour outside the immediate area is too expensive for many students and their families.
  5. Parents who haven’t been to college don’t know how to help their children get through the admissions process.

Wealth has always made getting to the other side of the higher education brick wall easier. Lack of money isn’t just a lack of wealth: it’s a lack of awareness of the possibilities that exist, and often a limited ability to imagine an improvement in life quality through education. While a change in the family bank balance may not be possible, increasing opportunity and awareness is. Public libraries offer free access to computers and resources, and assistance in using them. Learning readiness programs such as Head Start help children achieve future academic success by fostering their development. Mentors can help broaden a young person’s perspective.

Jesus didn’t say everyone would have the same advantages and opportunities; he recognized that the poor struggle in ways that the wealthy do not. But Jesus did realize that taking advantage of the poor by denying them opportunity or by gaming the system in favor of one’s own came at a steep price that no amount of money could equal:

For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? (Mark 8:36)

 

Can you tell the difference

…so you think you can tell heaven from hell…

[Pink Floyd, Wish You Were HereWish You Were Here, David Gilmour & Roger Waters, released September 12, 1975, Harvest (UK) and Columbia/CBS (USA)records]

In the 1970’s, I figured only clinically depressed and suicidal people couldn’t tell heaven from hell. But in 2019, I’m so sure. How many of us have wasted our numbered days chasing after more than we need: money, better job titles, and that extra square footage? How often, when none of it brings peace and joy, do we double down – as if more of what doesn’t work will miraculously do the trick.

Heaven and hell aren’t the penthouse and basement of reality. They aren’t the opposite ends of a punishment/reward yardstick. Heaven is knowing how much we are loved, and how much we can love self and others. Hell is both ignorance and rejection of that love, bringing a darkness into the soul and leeching everything that is good and lovely out of our lives.

You and I may get it wrong sometimes, mistaking that green field for a cold steel rain, but we know what choosing heaven instead of hell looks like. It’s choosing to see and help those in need, spending time on what enlarges the heart and soul, and knowing that wealth cannot bring joy or peace. If you and I remember how Jesus spent his numbered days, spotting the difference between heaven and hell won’t be very difficult.

Lord, may my eyes see heaven and my heart and soul choose it over hell. Amen.

Ash Wednesday: Remember you will die

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

Some day, this body I call my own will lose the life and breath that keeps it from falling into decay. My season of life will end as surely as every season does. I will become ashes and dust. I have an appointment with Death, minus the day, date, and time particulars. It may not happen tomorrow, next month, or even in the next twenty years. The cause of it remains unknown, but the certainty of it cannot be denied: I have an expiration date.

Will my impending return to ashes and dust lead me to appreciate every numbered day I have? Will fear of death goad me into fleeing  mortality’s reality  through cosmetic surgery and expensive drugs offering a return to youth? How will I number my days, and what do I want their sum to mean?

This Ash Wednesday, I ask myself: if my God given life is a blessing, is there also a blessing in my God given death?

Lord, my days are numbered. May they add up to something holy. Amen.

Laissez les bon temps rouler (Let the good times roll)

Bill Albritton kindly offered to write on a common expression. In honor of Mardi Gras, here it is…

Laissez les bons temps rouler

As Mardi Gras approaches, I think about this old Cajun French toast: Let the good times roll! A couple of key words here for me are let and roll. It doesn’t say that we have to make these good times happen—we let/allow them to happen. In other words, let’s not get in the way of them. All of our efforting, striving, manufacturing is of no avail and perhaps might even restrict these “good times”. It’s like telling someone You’re not in the mood? Well, get in the mood! Or maybe it’s like trying to be happy?
Did you ever try to stop rolling down a hill as a kid? If it’s a good hill, it’s pretty hard to stop yourself as I recall—and there were very few times I would want to do that, anyway. When you’re on a roll, you just enjoy it. Trying to roll is hard—rolling is easy.
Several books and a song have used Let Go and Let God in their titles. I’m taking this advice seriously this Lenten season—oh, but not too seriously.
[Bill Albritton offers his gifts of writing, teaching, singing, and praying to God, neighbor, church community, and world. I am grateful beyond words.]

Slippery Slope

It’s a slippery slope, my friend. In the literal sense, it’s a heads-up to step carefully on wintry roads, sidewalks, and ski trails. In a philosophical discussion, it’s a caution concerning the tendency to slide from one questionable act or assumption into another, gaining momentum all the way. In Lemony Snicket’s The Slippery Slope, book the tenth book in A Series of Unfortunate Events, it’s both.

A slippery slope turns tentative, tiny movements in a particular direction into a glide, a descent, and a velocity that cannot be controlled or stopped. It’s what makes navigating icy on-ramps dangerous and toboggan rides down snowy hills exhilarating. It’s momentum in a particular direction, and what comes of it – joy, pain, kindness, hurt – depends on the direction. Taking a few steps down the wrong path makes taking the next few easier until the ability to turn around is unlikely if not impossible. But the same may be said of taking those very same steps down the right path: baby steps in the right direction can turn into confident strides, then a glide into acts of peace and courage that are transformed into blessings for the world around and the soul within.

Falling in love or a descent into hell: it isn’t the slipperiness of the slope, it’s the direction that makes the determination. I take comfort in knowing that God offers a steadying hand when I need to climb my way out of a descent into darkness. I take courage in knowing that God will help me love beyond my own limits. I am filled with joy knowing the small love I offer will be transformed by God into a blessed forward momentum – steps to strides to glides, perhaps.

 [Library Slide in Winter, photo by Jared Fredrickson]

 

Get a Word in Edgewise

I’ve been in a few situations where I couldn’t get a word in, edgewise or straight on. When it happens, the same choice arises: make the effort to turn a monologue into a conversation or move on to a less forbidding dialogue partner. Whether to stay or go depends on the kind of monologue it is: one that only wants a passive and silent audience, or one that is sincerely seeking a conversation partner, but is having trouble making a connection. The first is a waste of time, the second is worth the effort to get that word in edgewise.

Sometimes, it isn’t a spoken word. Inked words on a page can be almost as one sided, especially when they are difficult to understand. Sometimes, the argument is too dense, an impenetrable hedge with no gate in sight. Sections of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time were like that for me – I understood all the words in the sentences, but couldn’t figure out what they meant strung together. It took me well over a month to get through the book, and a good couple of years before I understood it well enough to ask even the most basic questions about the ideas it contained. Why did I stick with this conversation when lack of understanding made it impossible to get a word in edgewise? I suspected there was something true and deep in Hawking’s printed monologue – something worth the attempt to change it into a conversation. Twenty years later, I felt the same about Sean Carroll’s The Particle at the End of the Universe.

I wonder how many people experience holy scripture of any kind – Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. –  as such a torrent of words that no one can get a word in edgewise. Holy writ is meant to be a conversation: it’s the best attempt of people throughout history to offer those who come after them an entry, constructed of words and prayer, into God’s infinite, intimate, loving reality. So get your word in, straight on or edgewise. It’s the conversation of a lifetime, and God eagerly listens for the word we offer.

Easy as Pie…A Piece of Cake…

The Phrase Finder‘s Gary Martin dates (as) easy as pie to the 1800’s, American in origin [www.phrases.org.uk). The easy part isn’t in the making of the pie, but in the ease with which it is enjoyed. He notes that cake is also related to pleasant, easy things – perhaps a commentary on how much dessert is enjoyed?

Being a baker myself, I am usually aware of the effort it took to produce what I eat – I’ve made countless cakes and I’ve witnessed my husband make dozens of pies over the past few years. Restaurant work paid my bills, so I don’t usually take entrees for granted much, either. But these sayings aren’t meant to be taken literally – they wouldn’t be common expressions if they were limited to that. So, I can’t help thinking that most things that are a piece of cake or as easy as pie aren’t worth a whole lot unless someone else invested the time and effort that make them valuable. I may never know who made things go so smoothly for me as to be as easy as pie, but I’m sure I owe him or her a long overdue thank you.

Don’t Blink

Don’t Blink – you just might miss it.

I used to say this about New Durham, the town I called home for almost a decade. It’s that blinking yellow light on Route 11, a couple of miles before you get to the Alton traffic circle, just below the southern edge of Winnepesaukee. Lots of trees, a lake, scattered ponds, and a brown raised ranch five miles from town center that kept me and my family warm and dry. A beach on Chalk pond and a canoe to paddle every inch of it, snow and ice for sledding and skating, and stars scattered through the deep blue sky every season of the year were waiting outside the door. Inside, the people I loved and laughed with. Back then, I didn’t know how fast those days and years would pass into other days, years, and places.

I have loved every place I’ve lived, and I’ve loved every stage of life. Each brought gifts and heartache – the unique contour and blessing of my life’s particulars. I wouldn’t go back, trading what is and will be for what was, but time’s passing has changed the meaning of don’t blink since that yellow light marked my home town and my teen years. Now it means something like this:

My life is one among billions, a small flicker lasting for such a short time. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a holy, crazy, blessed one-of-a-kind gift. It’s the same for every single life – yours, mine, and everyone else’s. If I’m too busy fussing about what isn’t perfect, I will miss it just as surely as a blink of an eye at the wrong time sends me right past that yellow light without a clue that it marks a place called home.

God, give me eyes to see this fragile, broken, beloved life that is your gift to me. May I see everyone and everything else as you do: beloved. Amen.

Moving into God’s presence through words