Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Angel Memories

Recently while clearing my head of other things, I used Google Earth to look up my old neighborhood. It’s here in Memphis, but a satellite view seemed just the thing rather than a drive. I entered my old address and clicked. In a few seconds, I was hovering over the house I lived in for the first twenty years of my life.

I have the most wonderful memories of that neighborhood. I knew all its twists and turns, the good people, the odd people and the occasional bad person. The alleyway two houses away from my house, allowed access for the few people who owned garages to park their cars in the rear of their house. Sanitation workers used it to collect our garbage. We kids used it, among other things, to treasure hunt. For at least two summers, we made a contest out of finding bits of glass in the gravel. Each color had some predetermined value; red more valuable than beer bottle brown, blue more valuable than either. Broken Pepto bottles were a great find!

One house to the north of mine was Cambridge Avenue. It was almost two blocks long with a dead end at a good sized field. I played lots of “war” in that field. There was a shallow depression in the center which was our foxhole from which we defended our neighborhood and our country. The other end of Cambridge was about a block long and it was a dead end too. There was a sweet gum tree at the end that supplied us with countless sharp pointed little balls we could throw at each other. When they were green, they were hard and stung as if a rock had hit you. When they dried out, they stuck your skin, leaving a half dozen or so little “wounds.” Great fun. Almost as much fun as our rubber gun battles in which pieces of innertubes were fashioned into half inch wide rubber bands and shot at each other. Totally unpolitically correct today, along with the water pistols we used to cool off on those hot summer days.

Just off that dead end, St. Thomas Catholic Church had their school playground. In the 40s and 50s when I played there, it was gravel. That didn’t stop softball, hardball and even football games from being played by the neighborhood kids. Behind the Church, actually the convent, there was a garden and a grotto. The backside of the grotto, was about eight feet off the ground, and formed a little space we pretended was the conning tower of a submarine. We were frequently run off from there by Mr. Kerbackie, the sexton. He also rang the Angelus on the church bell every morning at six, at noon, and at six in the evening. You could set your watch. I can almost hear it now as I type this.

Just down the street, less than a block away, we had a little shopping district. A small grocery, an ice cream parlor, a hardware store, a five and dime, a barber, and a doctor. Across the street we had a shoe repair shop, a dry cleaners and one of two beer joints. A few hundred feet away, we had a service station, a drug store, a dry goods store, another beer joint, and the Royal movie theater, where I spent an untold number of Saturdays watching a double feature, a serial and a cartoon. All for fifteen cents until I turned twelve. Then it went up to thirty-five and the owner and his wife knew exactly when we turned twelve.

From my front porch swing, we could watch the neighbors go by on Lauderdale. We could see the Catholic priests in the two story rectory just opposite us come and go and sometimes, we could watch them play poker in front of a second floor window where they could catch the breeze. Hardly anybody moved in or out of the neighborhood in the many years I was there. When it did happen, we were ready to meet their kids to see if they’d fit into our tight little group of fifteen or so. The did.

There is so much more I could tell you about that neighborhood and its people, all the adventures we had together from backyard camping to summer nights of capture the flag. But, that’s not the point of this post. From my sky view, I could see the bell tower of the church was half gone, a huge hole in the roof of the church was were the first quarter of it used to be. The service station opposite was an empty slab and the drug store, dry goods store and more were gone. The grocery, and all the wonderful little businesses I spent so much time and so many dimes in, were gone. A pile of rubble was clearly visible where the grocery had been. The field at the end of Cambridge had been paved over, connecting it to a cross street.

It’s been a long time since I’ve looked at the old neighborhood. It wasn’t like this then. Oh, I knew the Catholics had torn down the school and the convent, but the church was still functioning. That is until they sold it to the Baptists, who sold it to COGIC, who left it to decay. Oh, did I mention my elementary and high schools had both been torn down too? But seeing all the rest was a visceral shock to my system. Not only did I feel sad, and more to the point of this post, I felt completely disconnected from my childhood. Frankly, it was a rough couple of days.

What I finally realized was, that though the structures and people were gone, the way in which they had shaped and formed me were not. I still remember the lady up the street who used to invite me to her porch when I still had baby teeth, just to talk. I remember the pain of being “kicked out of the club” by my next door neighbors, David and Johnnie, and the encouragement Lily, who ironed for us once a week, gave me to play by myself in the backyard as if it didn’t matter I was alone. “You watch,” she said. “When they see you having a good time without them, they’ll invite you back.” She was right and I also learned I could very well entertain myself without them anyway.

I remember the “old couple” who must have been at least fifty, from the church in which I grew up, also in that neighborhood, spending their time with rowdy and unruly teenagers, loving us into good behavior. I remember sitting on the porch with my best friend from our nursery days together, comforting each other when life handed us something bad. We did that off and on until she died two years ago. In short, these people who loved and accepted me, who give me fifteen cents worth of ice cream when I only had a dime, who told my momma on me when I misbehaved around them, who taught me in school and in Sunday school, these people

Yep, the bottom line is these people, and I’m hoping we all have some like these in our lives, these people are counting on us to continue to accept, support, encourage, teach and genuinely love those around us. When the “structures” of their past are gone, we will still be with them, angel memories in good time and dark times. Just like all those from my old neighborhood who still live in my head and heart even though wreck and ruin wiped out my neighborhood.

At least, that’s what I think.

Peace, Jerry+

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Keep the Main Thing, the Main Thing

I once had a secretary who kept a little saying taped to the phone on her desk. It said, "Keep the main thing, the main thing." I loved it. Today's blog is about "the main thing."

This coming Sunday, the Gospel reading from Luke is a story about Jesus and a woman in need.  Jesus is in a synagogue, teaching on Sabbath day. As he taught, a severly crippled woman, bent over, likely with some spinal disease or deformity, is sighted by Jesus. There’s no indication she approached him and asked for help. She knew her place. She was almost certainly in the balcony, the area reserved for women. Perhaps Jesus saw her as she ascended the steps toward that gallery, or perhaps he saw her once she was in place. We don’t know.

What we do know is that when he saw her, he called her over to him, and healed her. She immediately was able to stand up straight for the first time in eighteen years. What do you think the reaction would be next Sunday at your church if someone were healed of a long time infirmity? I suspect even in the more staid of our parishes, there would be some gasps, maybe even a few “Oh, my God!” prayers of astonishment. 

Maybe that happened back then too. We don’t know, because the very next verse tells us that the synagoge leader or president, was horrified. Maybe he was happy that the woman had been released from her burden of pain somewhere deep inside. But his immediate reaction was to, in modern language, freak out. Not because she was healed, but because she was healed on the Sabbath.
The Jewish Law forbade any work on the Sabbath and since healing was the work of a physican, as far as the leader was concerned, Jesus had violated a major tenet of Judaism regarding keeping the Sabbath. Jesus was not pleased with the synagogue leader’s reaction which was, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; the Sabbath isn’t one of them.” So displeased was Jesus, he called the leader--and others present--hypocrites. “You water your cattle on the Sabbath. That’s work is it not? Why would you forbid this woman to be set free on the Sabbath?”

Well, that’s the story, but is there more to it than appears? What’s the motivation of the synagogue leader to focus on Sabbath keeping rather than on this act of power and grace? To vastly over simplify the concept of Jewish Law, it was understood to be a way of life, the path one should follow as a part of the Chosen. As my first Old Testament professor taught, “The Law was not a penal code; it was a means of grace.” It’s purpose wasn’t to restrict activity; it was to assure that one’s life was pleasing to God--a duty owed to God.

With that understanding, the synagogue leader is probably thinking something like this: “Yes, this is an act of kindness and mercy, but it could have been done tomorrow as well as today. If we begin to pick and choose which statute to follow, where will it end?” It’s an example of the “slippery slope” school of thinking, and in some important ways, it’s hard to argue with. 

Jesus isn’t persuaded, however. There are seven separate instances of Sabbath healing by Jesus in the New Testament. Pretty clearly Jesus must believe that, as important as Sabbath keeping is, it’s not the be all and end all. “The Sabbath is made for us, not us for the Sabbath,” he famously said. Jesus clearly believed that the whole of the Law was summed up in what we call the Two Great Commandments--love God, love neighbor. Following that precept, loving this woman called for immediate action, not a delay of even a few hours. 

Perhaps we can call this story to mind when we get bent out of shape over some “violation” of our own religious traditions or rules.

Peace, Jerry+

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Mary the Virgin?

Thursday 15 August is a feast day for Mary, Jesus’ mother. In the Roman Church, the Orthodox Church and a few Anglican Churches, it is celebrating her assumption into heaven at the end of her life. This idea, which has no clear Biblical support, became dogma on 1 November 1950, which Pius XII defined the dogma. The was pronouncement is the only time a pope has issued an infallible teaching since 1870 when the Church declared his ex cathedra pronouncements infallible. (It’s a long, technical story which has nothing to do with this post, so I’m not going there.) Whether or not Mary was dead when the assumption took place is left unspecified, so one may believe she was still living when taken to heaven.

The idea of her assumption flows naturally, the Church argues, from her perpetual virginity and the doctrine of her as Mother of God, as some call her. However, it’s interesting to note than for about the first 50 years after Jesus’ resurrection, belief that she was a virgin was not on the radar.
Paul’s surviving letters date from the 50s and 60s. These were the first known Christian documents and, in none of them does Paul mention directly or indirectly Mary’s virginity. For that matter, he also makes no mention of the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. Paul’s Gospel is built around the idea of Jesus’ death and resurrection and their benefits to humankind, and in fact, all creation. 

Did Paul know anything about Jesus’ birth or his mother and just failed to mention them? It’s possible. We know that he visited Jerusalem and met with at least some of the Apostles. One would imagine they talked about more than whether Gentiles could become followers or whether they need to be Jewish first. But, there is no evidence to support that idea. Could it be that Mary as a virgin wasn’t a belief of the early Jerusalem followers?

Well, twenty years after Paul started writing, a Gospel emerged which came to be called Mark. This is generally believed to be the first Gospel and it dates from about 70. Mark’s story of Jesus begins with his baptism. He isn’t interested in Jesus’ birth or its circumstances. The next Gospel Luke or Matthew, date from about 15 to 20 years later. Both have well developed stories of the birth and seem to indicate that Mary was a virgin. Ten or so 15 years later, John’s Gospel is written and Mary isn’t a part of the story. The take away is that for many years, pockets of Christians did not hold the belief that Mary was a virgin as a part of their core beliefs.

The earliest baptismal creed was the statement, “Jesus is Lord.” In the second century, (125 or 135) Rome seems to have developed a creed which has come to be called the Old Roman Symbol (or Creed) which was used at baptisms. This Creed includes the phrase of Jesus that he, “Was born from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary.” The Apostles’ Creed is thought to have developed from this older and shorter creed.

So, somewhere between 85 or so and 135 or so, those to be baptized had to profess their belief in the virgin birth. Prior to that it is likely that some communities required it and some didn’t. With this background, we can now ask, “So what?”

I take the minimalist position on Mary. We certainly owe her a debt for her part in rearing Jesus, no matter how he came to be conceived. I think she was present at his death, and I can’t imagine the pain she must have felt to have lost her son this way. Was she a virgin when he was conceived? 

In Hebrew, the word that was translated as virgin in the Old Testament is more correctly, “young woman” or “woman of marriageable age.” Which in Mary’s day would have been sometime close in time to a girl’s first menstrual period, probably 13 or so. In the Greek of the New Testament, the word used in the story is parthenos which can mean “virgin” or “chaste.” When Matthew 1:22 states (quoting the OT), “A virgin shall be with child, and bring forth a son, etc.” he uses parthenos. But, as stated above, the Hebrew word he is translating is ambiguous. Bottom line on the question: many Christians have believed she was a virgin, others never made it a test of faith.

What you decide to do about Mary can be supported by tradition and/or by reason. Both are necessary as we shape our beliefs. For me, it’s not troubling to think she wasn’t a virgin. But, then, I’m okay with the idea that Jesus might have been married. Both ideas give you something to chew on. Finally, more important than Mary’s virginity is the baby she bore, our relationship to him, and our faithfulness in living what he taught. At least, this is where I come down.

Hope you’re not too confused. Jerry+

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A Reader's Question Answered

My Faithful Reader sent me an email question. “Is God truly ‘immutable and eternally unchangeable’? If so, why do we pray?”

Before I offer my opinion, let’s talk about “immutable and eternally unchangeable” as a characteristic of God. What does this mean and who established this as one of God’s characteristics? The words essentially mean the same thing: unchanging over time or unable to be changed. From where does this idea come as applied to God? Quoting from NewAdvent Catholic Encyclopedia, 

“In God there is no change, nor shadow of alteration" (James 1:17); "They [i.e. "the works of thy hands"] shall perish, but thou shalt continue: and they shall all grow old as a garment. And as a vesture shalt thou change them, and they shall be changed: but thou art the selfsame and thy years shall not fail" (Hebrews 1:10-12, Psalm 101:26-28. Cf. Malachi 3:6; Hebrews 13:8).” 

There are other references, but these make the point. But why attribute this characteristic to God? If we believe God is in God’s being, perfect, then there can’t be a movement away from perfection to become less perfect, or by definition, God isn’t God anymore. Nor can God become more than perfect, since by definition, perfect--like the word “unique”--describes a singular state than can’t exist in degrees. To wit, if you’re almost perfect, you ain’t perfect. And if you’re perfect, well then, you can’t be more perfect.
This characteristic of God describes God’s being, nature, and perhaps ultimate will for creation. Yet, we read in Genesis 6:

5 Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 
6 The LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. 
7 The LORD said, "I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky; for I am sorry that I have made them." (Emphasis mine)

Pretty clearly, God changed from viewing all creation as good, to being sorry about creation. Did God make a mistake? I think we can say, “no.” It was not creation that was no longer good, but humankind that was evil. Having been given free will, humankind decided to use that will inappropriately. God’s greater plan for communion with humankind endured--Noah, et al--and was ultimately expressed in Jesus.

So why do we pray to an unchanging God? Because that God is a God of love and mercy, who apparently longs for the best for willful humankind. [For more on prayer, see my blog series on prayer than began in January 2013.] This God is not immobile, just unchanging.

Okay, now to part two, who established unchangeableness as one of God’s attributes? When the Catholic Church was the only game in town, it spent a lot of time and energy nailing down the answer to all kinds of questions, including the one: what is God like? These musings became doctrine or dogma. And the Church was, and still is, rigorous in assuring that Catholics believe these. But, we aren’t Catholics. So are we bound by these formulations? Of course not.

Still, many Protestant theologians also assert unchangeableness as a God characteristic. Are we bound by their assertions? Nope. The Reformation changed a lot of things and one of them was an individual Christian’s ability to think for him/herself and to develop his/her best understanding of faith. Of course, this is best done in community so others can help you test your beliefs, but, right or wrong, we have the right to come to answer faith’s questions for ourselves. This is why we have functional heretics who are avid, active and devoted Christians--they just differ from the mainstream in their beliefs about various things.

Hope this helps, Faithful Reader. If not, I can probably change it.

Peace, Jerry+