Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria. Amos 6:1
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Back in 1972 when we were married, my aunt gave us £30 which we spent on a Vango “Force 10” tent from Blacks of Greenock. I was glad to see that in a photo of one of the Everest expeditions they were using our tent. We spent our days off camping in different parts of Britain; we still have it, though we do not use it often. It protected us from hurricane winds and torrential downpours. On various occasions we hosted friends whose tents leaked, soaking their clothes and sleeping bags.
On a number of occasions I have been backpacking in the Sierra. I enjoy the sensation that I am carrying everything I need on my back far from civilization. Life becomes very simple. There’s nothing to do except hike to our next campsite. At night I hear the sound of the wind in the trees and I look up to see the stars and in August the Perseids (shooting stars). There are no shops to buy things–so there’s no point in having a credit card; and there’s no cell-phone coverage. Up above 10,000 feet the air is thin, the sky is blue, the lake water is clear and stocked with golden trout. (more…)
According to the Oxford Dictionary, wealth is defined as, “an abundance of valuable possessions or money.” Its synonyms include affluence, prosperity, riches, substance, and well-being. A person’s understanding of how much wealth they have can be based on a comparison to what someone else has, otherwise known as keeping up with the Joneses. A sense of wealth can also be a measure of what possessions and money represent: status, having “made it,” “living large,” “buying what I want when I want it even if I don’t really need it cause I just want to have it syndrome.” (more…)
It’s a little silver Celtic cross I wear on a chain around my neck. My parents gave it to me when I was in the first grade. So the three years I’d been wearing it by then pale in comparison to the thirty-three years I’ve been wearing it now. But even then, it had been almost a third of my life.
My friends and I had taken to doing some wrestling at recess, in a wooded area of the schoolyard somewhat screened from interfering adult eyes. And mid-wrestle, I heard the jingle of a snapped chain and felt it slip from around my neck. I cried out, and my friends must have sensed my genuine distress, because the roughhousing stopped and we spent the rest of recess searching the leaf-strewn ground. To no avail. (more…)
It was 1862. It was wartime. But despite the Civil War, the new dome was still in progress on the U.S. Capitol building. The last piece was the great statue of Freedom for the top. It had been shipped from Italy in five sections and temporarily plastered together. But there was a problem. It was time to separate it again for the final casting, and no one knew how to get it apart. The seams were hidden by the plaster. One skilled laborer saved the day. He attached a pulley to the top and pulled up just enough until the seams began to show. The casting could proceed, and the statue stands atop the Capitol to this day.
That man’s name was Philip Reid. He was a black man. And he was a slave. Or rather, he was one of many, many enslaved people who provided the labor for the Capitol Building, most of whose names we don’t know.(more…)
I’m one of those rare people who have never watched an episode of the show Game of Thrones: all I know is context-free cultural references. But over the past eight years it’s been impossible not to hear about things like the Red Wedding, the White Walkers, dragons, armies, and a gripping mix of violence, intrigue, and high fantasy, all centered around the manipulations, alliances, and betrayals involved in jockeying for the right to sit on the Iron Throne.
Palace intrigue, jockeying for position: it’s a formula that seems to work for TV in general. It’s been at the heart of other recent series from The Tudors (set in 16th-century England) to House of Cards (set in modern-day Washington). The record-setting number of hirings and firings in the current presidential administration means we hear a lot about the game of power in real life too. It’s a game with lots of strategies. But false humility is often a good one. It pays to be visible, but not too visible. People in power don’t like to be outshined. You don’t want to overplay your hand. Better to bide your time, kiss up to the boss or king or president, and then bask in their praise when it comes your way. (more…)
That’s one of the Ten Commandments, either #3 or #4 depending on whose numbering system you use. They aren’t actually numbered in either of the two places they appear in Scripture, so Jews, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and other Protestants have all developed slightly different numbering systems.
Those two places are the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy. And each one gives a different rationale for this commandment. Exodus says: “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy … for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the seventh day and hallowed it.” So in Exodus the Sabbath is based on God’s own day of rest after the creation. Deuteronomy: “Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy … (for) you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” So in Deuteronomy, the Sabbath is based on liberation: the day of rest is a sign that the people of Israel are no longer slaves who must work seven days a week, but the free people of God. (more…)
Fire! Ominous-sounding baptisms! Divisions among families! Threatening signs of social disaster!
Sometimes I fantasize about publishing an expurgated version of the Gospel. You can bet the section we just read wouldn’t be in it! In fact, I think most of us operate on a sort of mentally-expurgated version of the Bible, where the parts that threaten us most–or fit least well with our personal experience–just disappear.
Some of you know that my husband used to be the Protestant Chaplain at Napa State Hospital, a hospital for the criminally insane. I asked him whether he would preach on this passage to his mental patients, and he said, “Absolutely not! They need to hear about peace and love and forgiveness.” I knew he would say that. But I couldn’t help thinking, “Isn’t that what I need to hear, too? Isn’t it what all of us need to hear? Peace and love and forgiveness? Why do we have to deal with these nasty sayings of Jesus? And more to the point, what do I think about Jesus–and my commitment to Jesus–if he really said things like this?” (more…)
“You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” Luke 12:40
I thought of calling this piece, “Defensive Living.” I wanted to write about being prepared for such things as drivers who run red lights, or for checking out where the emergency exits are located or even for preserving your teeth by flossing. Jesus spoke about defensive living in his parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids. The wise bridesmaids took enough oil for the lamps, plus some in reserve. The parable concludes with the same exhortation as today’s parable: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” We need to be prepared for the crisis that is to come (we are all too familiar with devastating fires, earthquakes and El Niño floods). We need to keep our gas tanks filled, our cell phones charged, our bicycle tires inflated. We need to keep our emergency pack handy (ours includes a flash light with spare batteries, a wind up radio, a can opener and a space blanket among other things). But I find “Defensive Living” is already taken as the titles of a couple of books whose message is that you need a handgun to protect yourself. (more…)
There are a lot of clichés associated with this gospel passage, about how possessions don’t do us any good after we die. Fairly often we hear people say “You can’t take it with you.” Sometimes people facetiously say, “The one who dies with the most toys wins,” and presumably they don’t mean it literally but as a commentary on how empty that philosophy is. More creatively, there was a country song a few years ago that said, “You’ve never seen a hearse with a trailer hitch.”
Those clichés have value as far as they go. Death is a reality for us and we have to come to terms with that as human beings. Piling up possessions, for those who are able to do it, can be one way of trying to hide from our mortality. Life is short, and we don’t know when it will end, and we need to see our lives in the light of eternity. (more…)
I tell you, even though he won’t give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will give it to him.
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This passage has a special resonance for me now that I have a three-and-a-half-year-old who’s a master at the dark arts of negotiation and stalling.
I actually wonder if she’s been reading this passage. “They might not give it to you because they’re your parents, but at least because of your persistence they will give it to you!” This does work sometimes. Some of the things I’ve been asked for in the last several days include: permission to eat a strawberry before washing it. Permission to eat the dessert watermelon before having at least two bites of squash. A real jump rope. Seven different toys from a small toy store in Guerneville. Not to have to take a bath. I’ll let you guess which ones I gave in on. (more…)
I had never seen a snow-plant until I was walking in a grove of sequoias a year or two ago, up at Lake Tahoe, and there they were, two or three of them, poking up from beneath the pine needles, looking like red torpedoes, or fat red asparagus, or some kind of lumpy red mushroom. I stopped in amazement, and crouched low over them, with my hands clasped behind me, to look closely without disturbing them. And someone, it seemed, had taken the trouble to make sure I didn’t disturb them, because around them was drawn a circle in pinecones. (more…)
I spent this Fourth of July at a local celebration in the neighborhood Julia grew up in in Palo Alto. It’s a festival we’ve been to many times before, almost exactly the same every year: the neighborhood band playing “Stars and Stripes Forever” and sometimes a Queen or U2 song thrown in for variety; floats kids and their parents build out of wagons; dogs and bikes and babies on parade, sack races and three-legged races and a balloon toss; the adorable drill squad of six-year-olds moving their flags in unison, with the only change in the routine from fifty years ago that boys are now on the team too. The first time I went to this celebration I almost couldn’t believe it existed, so perfect in its quintessential Americana-ness. I almost expected to see Harold Hill from The Music Man walk around the corner. (more…)
I don’t know how many times you’ve moved in your life. Some of us here today may have lived in the same place our whole life. Others may move from place to place each night looking for a safe place to sleep. And for others of us it may be in between, moving around every few years or so.
By my count I’ve moved about 14 or 15 times in my life. Growing up, my family moved roughly every three years. So I’ve had a lot of practice with the winnowing process of what to bring along and what not to. And yet all that practice doesn’t make it easy. I once had a Halloween costume with a pirate hat and plastic sword. I only ever wore it one time, but for some reason that hat and sword made it through more than one move. It just kept making it into a box. I might need it someday! (more…)
They wanted to be somebody. To be big. To be famous.
So they decided to make a big tower.
Of course they did, right? It’s classic. Powerful people build things—particularly powerful men. To show how important you are, build something. A statue, a pyramid, a skyscraper, whatever it is, but make it huge. The bigger the better. Bigger than anybody else’s. That’s how you know you’re important. That’s how other people know you’re important. (more…)
Back when I was doing a yearlong residency as a hospital chaplain in Seattle, and then again during the years I was working on a doctorate in Berkeley, I often used to serve as what church lingo calls a “supply priest.” This is a priest who’s available to cover Sunday services when a congregation’s regular clergy aren’t available. It’s sort of like being a substitute teacher, except with vestments on, and with usually a better-behaved clientele. (more…)
Last year I met a youngish woman named—well, let’s call her Naomi. Naomi arrived at the church office one afternoon and politely asked for help charging her cell phone. She was in the process of making a long list of phone calls, looking for a place to live.
After years on the waiting list, Naomi had finally received a Section 8 housing voucher. Good news—or so it seemed. Because having a voucher can help you pay the rent … but only if you can find a vacancy with a landlord willing to rent to you in the first place. In California, unlike many other states, it’s legal for landlords to simply refuse to take Section 8 vouchers. But if you don’t use the voucher within a certain period of time, it expires. At the time I met her, Naomi had three weeks to find a place to live, or else be sent to square one to start all over again. There are 26,000 people on Sonoma County’s Section 8 waiting list. There are only 3,000 rental properties known to take Section 8 vouchers. And each year only about 300 of those actually turn over. The odds didn’t look good. (more…)