Saturday, April 26, 2008

This is Our Father's World

Acts 17:22-31 (New Revised Standard Version)
22Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ 29Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

When I was in high school I attended a religion class at church every Wednesday night. One night I asked the priest “How do we know there’s a God?” It’s not that I didn’t believe there was a God. I just wanted something I could hold on to. His answer was “You must just have faith.” When I told my father about it, he said if I was being taught by a Jesuit instead of a Franciscan I’d have gotten a better answer. His answer was to take me outside and walk with me around the yard. He pointed out the perfection of the leaves on the maple tree and the enticing aroma of the roses, and said “none of this could have happened by accident. There must be a God who created all this and put us in the middle of it.” From that time on, when I wanted to be really close to God, I went outside. I still do. In the mornings, really early, I go out on my little patio and sit with my bunny rabbit, surrounded by lots of potted plants. I know a lot of people who seek God in nature - who grope for God in places where the human presence is a little less overwhelming. If we think about it even for a minute, we know the truth of what Paul said to the people of Athens. God is not in shrines built by human hands. God is not in images of gold or silver or stone, images formed by the art and imagination of mortals. There are even places in the Old Testament where God says (and I’m seriously paraphrasing here) “When did I ask you to build me a temple? All I want from you is your love and obedience.”

Paul said, While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent. If the hand of God is indeed to be found in nature, then we know just from looking around us that it is truly time to repent our disobedience and our ignorance.

Regardless of the opinion of some of our political leaders, we know the world is sick and getting sicker, and that we have had a lot to do with that sickness. In large part because of global warming, the largest contributors to which are industrialized nations like the US, weather patterns are changing all over the earth. Our trash heaps will take hundreds or thousands of years to turn back into soil if they ever do, as so much of what we throw away can’t be absorbed into the earth. The air is so dirty that asthma and other lung diseases are epidemic. People are starving where there used to plenty. Bees are dying, and we don’t know why. But we know if they all die, the food situation is going to get critical. And while people in Haiti and Kenya and so many other places starve to death, Americans and Brits are dying in record numbers because of an epidemic of obesity. There is something seriously wrong with this picture. We all know these things – and we all feel a little helpless. What can we do to reverse this?

The answer seems simple. Recycle, conserve, find alternative power sources. Simple. Save water! Stop using Styrofoam! Not using Styrofoam is all good. Inconvenient, perhaps, but all good. Some people say we should stop using paper plates and cups too, so we can save trees. But that also means washing more dishes, using more water, adding more soap to the waste water that will have to be treated chemically. Of course, with melting ice caps we may soon have more water than we want, so maybe using more water is ok. Use corn and soybeans to create fuel for our cars and stuff. But that reduces the amount of corn and soy available for food products and makes the prices go up – a real crisis for those who depend on corn and soy products. Hmm, maybe rethink that one. Buy hybrid cars! Great! But they’re too expensive for most folks, and mostly Japanese. Use cloth bags instead of plastic or paper for our groceries and other purchases. Ok, nothing can be wrong with this! But have you ever lived near a cloth dying plant? I have. The air stinks and the chemicals in the air burn your eyes and lungs. And the “cloth” bags I’ve been getting in the grocery stores aren’t all cloth. Fresh and Easy bags are 100% cotton bags, Vons bags are 100% recycled materials, Food 4 Less bags are 100% polypropylene, an easily recycled plastic. All of them are made in China.

Why do I mention where things are made? Because everything is related to everything –
the dollar goes down, so China stops exporting rice to the US. The price of corn and rice goes up and our mission dollars can’t supply as much food to the starving we want to help, and as the weather patterns keep changing, the numbers of starving keeps going up. We buy fuel efficient Japanese cars because Detroit still wants to sell gas-hogs, and tens of thousands of people lose their jobs. Prices of all kinds of American products and services keep going up, so jobs are outsourced abroad, and tens of thousands more are unemployed. How do they eat the fruits and vegetables they need to be healthy when all they can afford is pasta?

Making the environmental changes that need to be made; addressing economic oppression in our country and elsewhere; even feeding the hungry are all really complicated and inter-related problems. Anything we do to address one problem affects something else, and not always in a good way. The thing is, we can do a good thing, but just because it’s a good thing doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right thing. How do we obey God’s commandment to care for the earth and love our neighbor when it seems like they conflict with each other? What’s a Christian to do?

I don’t have an easy answer. I doubt if anyone does. And, to be fair, I have deliberately chosen problematic solutions to make a point. Each one of us really can make a difference in some small way. As they say on the Treehugger commercials, if every person makes one small change it will make a huge difference. So turn off the water while you brush your teeth, use cloth bags, recycle, and change your light bulbs. And learn as much as you can – According to Paul, it is our ignorance that God needs us to repent of. Learn, so you can see where your efforts will make the most beneficial difference in the life of our planet. Because it’s not really ours, you know. We’ve just been given the job of taking care of it. This is our Father’s world.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Like a Child

What an blessed morning I have had! Early on my challenge was to prepare a memorial service for a physically and developmentally challenged woman who suffered a fatal heart attack last week. The majority of the mourners present were going to be her friends and room-mates from the several group homes she has lived in and the day program she participates in. I was faced with writing a message and prayers that would be true to the Gospel, to the celebration of her life and also accessible to those whose language skills in any language were minimal. I also had to prepare the bulletins in both English and Spanish so those who can read could participate in their own language. Thank God for my copy of the bilingual La Biblia de las Americas and I was told to expect perhaps 40 people.

Maybe I should back up. Several years ago a non-profit group approached me about doing some work around our church. Their goal is to teach the developmentally challenged job skills and help them achieve self esteem by being productive. We thought this was a wonderful thing - a win/win ministry in which we got dusting, vacuuming and other indoor and outdoor tasks performed free of charge twice weekly, and the clients had an opportunity to develop job skills and self esteem. Our partnership over the last several years has grown so that now, when the administrators want to have a holiday party they can be fairly certain that we will make space available for them. Over the years I have gotten to know most of the job coaches, the administrators and a number of the clients fairly well. Tanya was one of those clients. When I learned last week that she had passed it seemed quite appropriate to offer to hold a memorial service at the church.

I was at the church at 9 am to set up the sanctuary for the 10 am service. Around 9:15 a dozen job coaches and clients from Tanya's day program had arrived bearing food and photo memory boards. Flowers, more food and more people started arriving, and it occurred to me I should probably have printed the 23rd Psalm and the Beatitudes in Tagalog as well as Spanish. By the time the service was to begin there were at least 80 people in the sanctuary.

There was a place in the service for statements of life. The administrators and job coaches and social workers and group home managers who had worked with Tanya spoke, many from prepared statements. All of them spoke of her innocence and love for everyone she ever met. All of them cried. And then the clients started to come up. Those with sufficient language skills said "She was my best friend. She was always nice to me." Some were only able to say "Tanya, I love you." One took a little while, standing at the pulpit with one hand in the air. Some in the congregation tried to help, shouting "Tanya es en cielo," but he persisted and was finally able to complete the sentence, "Tanya es con Dios."

Then it was my turn. Wiping the tears from my eyes I spoke of Tanya's child-like and constant offering of love, and her unfailing trust that everyone she met would be a friend. I reminded those present that Jesus said "Let the children come to me" and sang "Jesus Loves Me." The clients sang along with gusto. I encouraged everyone to try to be like Tanya, for we are all told we must be as little children if we want to enter the kingdom of heaven. And I dismissed the congregation with the charge to love each other the way Tanya and Jesus loved them.

I have never experienced anything like this before. Pray God that I will experience it again, and that I will remember to be like Tanya in the future.