Self-Inflicted

My child, if sinners entice you, do not consent. If they say, “Come with us; let us lie in wait for blood; let us wantonly ambush the innocent; like Sheol let us swallow them alive and whole, like those who go down to the Pit. We shall find all kinds of costly things; we shall fill our houses with booty. Throw in your lot among us; we will all have one purse” –

My child, do not walk in their way, keep your foot from their paths; for their feet run to evil, and they hurry to shed blood. For in vain is the net baited while the bird is looking on; yet they lie in wait – to kill themselves! and set an ambush – for their own lives! 

Such is the end for all who are greedy for gain; it takes away the life of its possessors.

Proverbs 1:10-19 NRSV

When you grab all you can get, that’s what happens: the more you get, the less you are. Proverbs 1:19, The Message

Years ago, I watched a biography of Michael Douglas. Most of it, I’ve forgotten, but one part stands out still. When asked about one of his most famous lines – “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good” (Gordon Gekko, Wall Street)- he said with some astonishment: “I was amazed how many people adopted that as a creed. They missed the whole point.”

Gordon Gekko the character has a Wikipedia page; he was the archetype for many a Wall Street player who contributed to the destabilization of the financial market and the disappearance of untold retirement fund millions a decade ago. Many were never prosecuted and it seems that most paid very little if any cost for the devastation they caused. They robbed others to live a life of luxury, and they got away with it…or so it seems.

The older I get, the more I am convinced that there is no such thing as “getting away with it.” There’s a spiritual and emotional cost to the damage a greedy person inflicts on others. The bill that comes due may not be a prison sentence or a revoking of civil liberties. For a short period of time, a thief may even think himself or herself fortunate for dodging consequences. But the harm we do others for material gain we don’t even need is real and it’s deadly. The Ferrari may still be in the garage, the ocean view stunning, and a continued life of luxury guaranteed. Yet, such an opulent stage won’t bring happiness, peace, or the ability to escape the spiritual cannibalism that is no less deadly for being self-inflicted.

 

Fear, reworded

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction. Proverbs 1:7

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. Proverbs 3:5

Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. Proverbs 3:7

NRSV

Fear is not a good translation in this modern age because it’s understood as an emotional response rather than a philosophical or religious perspective. For most of us, fear is the same as terror, fright, dismay, or anxiety. Fear understood this way leaves no room for trust, much less a whole-hearted trust!

A more accurate definition of Fear in these verses would be something like this: 1)awareness of both our own mortality and limitations and 2) of God’s eternal, infinite, and loving nature, and 3) respect for the difference.

I favor Eugene Peterson’s translation, found in The Message:

Start with God – the first step in learning is bowing down to God; only fools thumb their noses at such wisdom and learning.

Trust God from the bottom of your heart; don’t try to figure out everything on your own.

Don’t assume you know it all. Run to God! Run from Evil!

The Message (NavPress, 2016 – online at Bible Gateway)

The world did not begin with us, and it will not end when we die. Life managed to exist before us and will continue on after us. There are untold marvels that came before us and countless miracles that we won’t live to see. Everything begins with God, even you and even me. The wise experience this truth as a blessing; the foolish reject it for the curse they assume it to be.

Proverbial Knowledge

The proverbs of Solomon son of David, King of Israel:

For learning about wisdom and instruction; for understanding words of insight,

for gaining instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice, and equity;

to teach shrewdness to the simple, knowledge and prudence to the young – 

let the wise also hear and gain in learning, and the discerning acquire  skill,

to understand a proverb and a figure, the words of the wise and their riddles.

Proverbs 1:1-6 NRSV

 

Grocery bags are cut to cover the new chemistry book. A pencil is sharpened. A turkey wrap joins some grapes and pretzels to fill up the gecko covered insulated lunch box. Such are the simple, ordinary things that mark the beginning of a new school year. Studying and acquiring knowledge happen in the larger context of a gracious life, and this context contains so much that isn’t often noticed or appreciated (until or unless something goes awry!).

The book of Proverbs is advice on this larger context, a pithy poetic essay on how to live a good life. Much of it is practical – be honest in your negotiations, find good friends, keep your word. Some of it is “advice to a child,” and some just general advice to no one in particular. The questions it answers: what does a life well lived look like? What is a wasted life? Will you choose the path of the wise or will you stray into foolishness?

It’s been some time since I reflected on the wisdom of Proverbs. With the yellow school buses soon on their way, it seems like a good to crack it open…I hope you join me.

18 Years and Counting…

I’ve lived in this 1950’s Cape longer than I’ve lived in any other home. When we moved in, my older son was just starting preschool, and my younger son had just learned how to walk. Many things have changed since then: kitchen appliances, beds, sofas, curtains, and wall colors. Some things have been added (several bookcases, tables, chairs) and some things subtracted (high chair, crib, vcr). The bathroom has been redone and recently tiled. Garden beds were added along the front walkway, on the side of the house, and in the front corners inside the shrubs along the front of the yard. Some of the books on the shelves moved in with us, but many more have come along since. Life within these walls has changed this house, but so incrementally that it almost escapes notice. It’s only when I take the time to count the changes that the magnitude of it is revealed.

I think the same is true for my interior life. My prayer life is different than it was 18 years ago, but I can’t say that I made any huge or sudden changes. How I understand “love God, self, and neighbor” has undergone renovation as well, growing out of one awareness and into anther. Taken altogether, though, these accumulated adjustments have kept my inner life relevant to who I am rather than who I was.

The life my family and I have been given within these walls, and the interior growth living in this place has brought, hasn’t always been convenient and has never been perfect. But it has always been gracious and precious. Another house in another town might have brought as many blessings, but they would have been different ones. I wouldn’t trade the ones I have found in this home. What I have is enough, where I am is sufficient, and God has dwelt in this place. And I am thankful.

A Carriage House in New Hope

Attached to a barn, with beat-up linoleum in the kitchen and wide plank boards of uneven width and length on the second floor, was the loveliest home I could ever want. I didn’t own it – it was part of a larger estate, rented for less than a cramped apartment cost in that area. The owners offered us the carriage house not for the money, but to see a mother and father walk the grounds with their young son.

It was a quirky place, converted from the carriage house to an artist’s studio with a kitchen in the 1950’s. Seems the owner/artist’s wife had died and he didn’t want to live in the main house without her, so he added paintbrush shelves to the walls and new glass to the windows. He offered the place to other artists – Jackson Pollack took him up on the offer, leaving a few paint splatters that were buffed off the floors long before I walked them.

It seemed to me a house all about love and loss, a refuge for a man who lost his beloved wife and later for me and my husband to delight in our older son’s growing and to welcome our younger son into life. The carriage house offered a rich life that had nothing to do with money.

Some years ago, for reasons unknown to me, the carriage house was torn down. Only in pictures and memory does that lovely old home live on. In another couple of decades, I may be the only one who remembers with love its walls, stairs, windows, and doors. But like all things lost to the passage of time, its value is safe in the blessings of the lives made better by its existence.

It gladdens my heart to know this truth: nothing is lost that was loved. God holds all things and all people – sometimes in carriage house shaped hands.

Between Garden and 10th Avenue

It’s now the High Line Hotel. Before that, the Desmond Tutu Conference Center; right before that, the Chelsea apartment I called home for a year. It stretched the width of the building, wrapping around the grand marble staircase leading to General Seminary’s vaulted refectory. Windows on one side revealed dumpsters, a dilapidated parking lot, and the 10th Avenue municipal maintenance facility for Manhattan’s trash and utility trucks. The window on the opposite side offered a leafy view of a quiet garden alive with birds, butterflies, squirrels, and brown rabbits. This gothic building, along with several others, formed the wall that surrounded the entire block along 9th and 10th avenues, between 20th to 21st streets. My older son learned to walk on its painted wooden floors and its hosta-lined garden paths while my husband learned how to be an Episcopal priest and I wrote my dissertation.

It’s a curious space to occupy, the residential barrier betwixt garden and city traffic. In recent years, I’ve come to see it as an image of the spiritual life. Cultivating a quiet space of reflection and communion with God on the inside while living in the world of noise, opportunity, strife, and beauty. Without the larger world as a reference point, my spiritual life can become disconnected – something that only has to do with me and my particular understanding of God. Without a quiet space of reflection and worship, the noise of everyday life drowns out angel song and prophetic vision alike.

There were a lot of inconvenient things about living between garden and avenue – car exhaust sprinkled fine black powder on the window sills every day, the closest exit to the street was a half block walk, and there were three keys necessary to get from street to my front door. But I am grateful for all of them: a deeply faithful life that connects inner peace with the broken, beautiful world isn’t lived at my convenience – nothing true and sacred ever is, was, or could be convenient.

[For images, go to www.thehighlinehotel.com or gts.edu.]

103 Farber Road, Apt. 7b

It was a second floor apartment, circa 1950’s. The balcony was concrete with decorative cinderblock walls. A walk-through galley kitchen, a Pepto Bismal pink bathroom, large bedroom, and a living/dining space that made the best of its 650 square feet. It was the first home my husband and I shared. The first time we set foot in our new home, we found champagne on ice, a cooler full of smoked salmon and cheese, and a basket with crackers and chocolate mints. A vase of flowers sat on the cooler with a “Congratulations!” balloon attached – gifts of kindness from our friends, Tim and Joicy.

There were many meals together and many with friends in the four years we lived on Farber road. We had a cat to love and good neighbors below and on each side. It was where we welcomed our first son into the world.

A few years back, the seminary tore it down and replaced it with something more modern – WiFi enabled with energy star windows and a basement that doesn’t flood in the Spring. There are some nice extras in the new places, but that’s what they are: nice extras, not necessities.

Many people look back on their first apartments with sentimental fondness, but wouldn’t want to live in such a place again. I can’t say the same. If a time comes when I no longer need the extra square footage I have now, I’d be pleased to end up in a place like Apartment 7b. I’d have to lose some of the nice extras I’ve collected, but I doubt my life would be the poorer for it.

This is one in a series. Click “No Place Like Home(s)” above for more in the series.

2nd Floor Alex

It was the first thing I saw when I drove onto campus. Alexander Hall, Princeton Theological Seminary’s first building: four stories of beige and brown stone, mortar, with the old lecture and worship hall on its second floor, it was one of the three dorms for seminary students. I called it home for the better part of three years – rooms 205b and 203.

It wasn’t a place I chose for myself, and dorm living brought its share of frustrations – sharing a bathroom with twenty or so other women and the necessity of cafeteria food because I had no kitchen. I hadn’t planned on moving to New Jersey, so far from family and the New England coast that I called home. But I soon found my place among new people. I also discovered that New Jersey had a lot to offer.

Before returning to New England, New Jersey gave me many friends and several years of deeply satisfying study and work. I also met my husband there, and gave birth to both of my sons. Who would have guessed that a small room on the second floor of Alexander Hall could contain such marvels?

610 State Street, Apartment F

[Google Maps image]

It’s a block from the John Paul Jones house, half a mile from Prescott Park, and across the street from the old Whipple Elementary School. After a brief search and a good scrubbing, it was my first home that wasn’t my parents’ or a student apartment. 

It took a bit of paint and some wallpaper, but it felt like home within weeks of moving in. My bedroom was three stories above street level; when fog rolled in, the ground disappeared in streetlamp haloes. The kitchen window was my doorway to the flat roof and thank-God-never-needed fire escape. I registered to vote and settled in. It was my refuge when work was difficult, and a place I shared with friends, family and roommates. Until I drove to graduate school in New Jersey, its four rooms-plus bath and large entry hall were where I laughed, cried, smiled, and mourned.

To this day, part of me considers Portsmouth, New Hampshire home. I learned to love coastal small city life because of its people and places. Had I not lived here in an old three story house, I doubt I’d be in this Southcoast Cape style home I’ve loved for the past sixteen years…

For four walls and a roof, thanks be to God.

For more on this series, click “No Place like home(s)” above.