I wonder what first time visitors to these islands think when they run into the weather we are having now. This morning I woke up, as usual, a bit before dawn to begin Morning Prayer. The wind was howling with a hard rain. Furniture on the lanai was being moved around. It looks like the day could bring more of the same. Locals are complaining that we tourists may think it’s warm, but they are freezing their okole off (sorry, can’t add the diacritical marks for okole).
I love my firefighters. They are young, bulletproof, courageous, irreverent, and sometimes willing to take risks they shouldn’t, which is why there are captains, spouses and, of course, chaplains. Last night my guys tried to fight a fire in two adjacent old RVs in which people lived. Three of the residents died. The majority of firefighters in our town are also paramedics, and the others are all EMTs. For them, life is all about saving lives, not losing them. Under the worst of conditions they will do everything possible, and sometimes more than that, to bring someone back from the brink of an untimely death. It troubles me to be so far away from them right now as we continue our vacation in Hawaii. The most I could do was to send a note of prayer reminding them that the saving work of God is done mostly through human hands, and never more than through the hearts and hands of firefighters. Sometimes that saving work is beyond what we can do, but what is not possible for us is always possible for God in his time and space that is not ours to comprehend.
With Ash Wednesday still lingering in my mind, I read the letter to Titus this morning. How quickly the church came to a place where one faction stood ready to condemn another, and leaders commanded to silence those who taught otherwise. It doesn’t even seem to be a matter of obvious heresy, but of a fight over who can claim to be the righteous tax collector in the synagogue, and who can be accused of being the self-righteous Pharisee.
No doubt like you, I have a couple of friends who insist on forwarding all kinds stuff they think are cute or humorous. I got one this morning including a citation from Peanuts saying something like, “If it’s raining, learn to dance in the rain.” Yesterday and today have been like that with storming seas, high gusty winds and occasional fits of sunshine. It has not stopped our morning walks along a rocky trail above cliffs being pounded by the North Pacific. It’s not the same as similar trails on, say, the Oregon coast. The same waves with the same violence crash high on the rocks and sometimes overwhelm the land behind, but there is a certain comfort in knowing that an entire continent is backing you up. Here there is a certain awesome wonder that a small group of islands over two thousand miles from any continent can exist at all.
Ordinarily that would give me fodder for an Ash Wednesday meditation, but this morning I got an e-mail from a friend who spent yesterday in Honolulu waiting with his partner to testify in favor of pending civil union legislation. He wrote that he has never experienced such blatant hatred, abuse and physical assault (requiring police intervention) from anyone, much less the crowd of rabidly anti-gay protesters. These protesters were not the nut gang from Topeka. They were so-called Christians from local churches whose presence and behavior had been well organized by their pastors.
As I prepare to attend Ash Wednesday services this evening I will have my own struggle with some of the prayers such as these in our Litany of Penitence:
“Accept our repentance, Lord, for the wrongs we have done; for our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty.”
“Accept our repentance, Lord, for all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us.”
I will be deeply conflicted as I approach the altar rail to receive my ashes. I will be filled with the anger of Peter, the doubts of Thomas and the confusion of Nicodemus, but I will go nevertheless in the sure and certain hope that in whatever state I approach him, Christ will be there to calm me, guide my hand to touch him and reveal to me yet more about what is true and good. Maybe I will learn something about dancing in the rain.
So, we have the dividing of the waters with Moses, Joshua, Elijah and Elisha. That dividing is always God’s work, but completed through human hands. For Moses and Joshua it was a part of taking a people out of slavery into their time of formation, and out of that time into the promised land. For Elijah and Elisha it was about a more individual encounter with God. For one, his time of departure from this world to another. For the other, his time of transformation from a man servant to a God servant. I wonder what you make of these water crossing events? What metaphorical meaning might they have for the momentous transitions in your own life where the waters parted and you were able to cross to another place on dry ground?
What if we add the water crossing events recorded in the gospel accounts? In them there was no parting of the waters, but the presence of the Christ who had authority over the waters, indeed, who could transform their threatening chaos into a blessed calm and bring all who were with him to the place where they were going. How much is that like the Spirit of God wafting over the waters of creation? Maybe there are times when all we can do is yell out, “Hey God, can’t you see what’s happening here; my boat’s about to sink.” Maybe there are times when we even dare to climb out and take a step or two on the water before being pulled to safety by God’s outstretched hand.
Tell me more about water crossing events.
Morning Prayer today began with a reading from Deuteronomy 6 that included these words: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord…And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” These are the words of the sh’ma that are written on a small scroll enclosed in a mezuzah to be attached to the doorframe of a home. What a wonderful way to be reminded in our coming and in our going that we are to love God with all our being, that it should be a part of our conversation whether at home or away, and that our particular household is intentionally cognizant of that. Observant Jews always do that. Maybe we Christians should take up the practice as well.
During my years at St. Paul’s I had one class of Cub Scouts whose parents wanted their boys to get the Cub Scout version of the God and Country badge. I worked with one of the parents who organized craft projects for the boys that were connected to each of the lessons. One of those projects was to make homemade mezuzahs out of empty prescription bottles and fill them with hand written strips of paper that included the sh’ma according to each boy’s own interpretation of it. Most took theirs home, but one boy’s parents objected for whatever reason. I taped his prescription bottle mezuzah to the doorframe of my office, and there it stayed for the duration.
It was a constant, and often much needed, reminder of who I am and where I was, and what that was supposed to mean for the way I behaved. The allegorical meaning of that little scrap of paper in a prescription bottle was not lost. Now and then I was tempted to add a label: No. of refills: unlimited. I miss that little bottle. Maybe I should add a mezuzah to the doorframe of our house. Maybe you should too.
The local paper on Maui published an op. ed. piece by a local developer a few days ago. His basic argument was that local planning and zoning laws interfered with the organic development of communities that they enjoyed in the old days, which was the very thing that gave older towns so much character. The natural operation of a “free market” is what makes that character building organic development possible. Free markets make good decisions. At least that’s the way I read it.
It probably comes as no surprise that the residents of one of those older towns opposed his plans for developing a huge mixed use project on top of them. What amused me by his letter was his supremely self-confident abundance of ignorance about urban development and planning, and his faith in the “free market.”
It doesn’t take much study to discover that most old communities, both here and on the mainland, did not develop spontaneously with some unstated collective sense of place. They were settled by people, or chartered companies, that had definite plans for what would go where. The Europeans who flooded across North America were seldom without a well thought out plan for what their communities should look like. Where do you think all those town squares came from?
Europeans brought that same thinking to Hawaii, but found themselves confronted by even more well thought out urban and rural plans already in place. The kings and ruling elite of Hawaii had at least one thing down pat, and that was land use planning.
Modern urban planning simply codified what preceded it in ways that could more effectively accommodate changing conditions, including problems of developer greed that didn’t really care very much what was good for the greater community, and often caused almost irreparable harm to people and property. My guess is that the driving force behind the need to codify land use planning was the downside of the industrial revolution combined with the unrestrained growth of private enterprise based industrial/commercial development. I think we can see some of the same thing happening right now in places like China. In any case, our own treasured, and truly worthy, system of private enterprise has become enshrined as a “free market” that must somehow be embedded in the Constitution somewhere. But it’s become a bit idolatrous, and any criticism of it is too often rebutted by shouts of “communist,” “socialist,” or at least “radical left-winger nut.” It tends to shut off reasonable debate.
The problem is that it is a very misleading myth. The myth that a free market can somehow make sound land use decisions makes two egregious errors. The first is that there is a free market. There isn’t. All markets are defined and regulated, at least in some sense, by government policy. That definition and regulation may give extraordinary privileges to developers, but those privileges come from government policy just the same. The second is the personification of that non-existent free market as a decision maker. The market is not a person and does not make decisions.
There is a second myth that is very strong in America, and that is the idea that “a man’s house is his castle” and that he, or she, can do whatever they want with it. Our ownership of property, and the rights that go with it, have limitations. We live in community and whatever we do with our property affects our neighbors. Likewise, whatever they do with theirs affects us. So communities need to come to some sort of agreement about the way they are going to live with one another. Moreover, we are never really the absolute owners of any property. We are merely the temporary stewards of it. Someone else owned it before we did, and someone else will own it after us. Regardless of whatever deed or paid off mortgage we may have, we have a greater responsibility to recognize our short time of possession as one of stewardship, and that means being responsible to the community and to those who will come after for how we exercise our stewardship.
I’m sure that the developer who wrote the op. ed. piece already knows all of this and was simply a bit careless in what he wrote.
The gospel reading for Morning Prayer yesterday was that little passage from Mark 11 where Jesus cursed a fig tree that had no figs, even though it was not the season for figs. His disciples passed the tree later in the day and saw that it had withered and died, and, being a bit curious asked Jesus about it. I’ve wondered about that episode. It seems so out of character for Jesus. The tree was just being a tree. Figs were not in season. Why would Jesus curse it to death in what looks like a rather childish fit of pique?
I’m not sure why it has taken me so long to notice, but instead of explaining the fig tree to his disciples, Jesus talked more about the nature of prayer and it’s power, and Mark ended the passage with these words: “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against any one; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” (RSV) Consider that the innocent fig tree was an object lesson pointing to our thoughts, words and even prayers that condemn and damn rather than forgive and bless.
How often have we heard, or perhaps said, words of damnation in God’s holy name? How often have our thoughts of getting even, taking vengeance, taken on the form of prayer? Do we think they just bounce off the ionosphere and fall back as harmless syllables? It’s not that I think God hears our prayers of damnation or vengeance and gives us our desire. Not at all. But those thoughts and words do have the power to kill, if not our intended victim then us, slowly at first, but like a cancerous parasite deep inside, killing bit by bit until there is nothing left.
Late in the afternoon I was on the beach near a man who brought the whole thing home. He was on the phone and cursing whoever was on the other end with his heartfelt enraged desire that they be goddamned. His grandchildren and adult kids showed up after a while, and his behavior toward them became a combination of affection, overly harsh kidding, and bursts of cursing. Now it may be that he was rightfully anxious about some difficulty in his life, but I wonder if a lifetime of curses has effectively killed whatever budding figs may have been growing on his tree. As the psalmist said, “He put on cursing like garment, let it soak into his body like water, and into his bones like oil.” (The psalmist was on pretty thin ice himself, don’t you think?)
I don’t think that’s an extreme example. Think about it; it’s a fairly common one. But how often do we do the same, maybe not just that way, maybe in smaller thoughts and words that still mean the same? Maybe that’s why Jesus said that we should pray that we be forgiven our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Maybe that’s why Jesus was so insistent that we learn to love our enemies, that we bless and not curse. This is not about bad language; it’s about the power of evil that lies within that language just as much as the power of God’s love lies within the language of forgiveness and blessing.
Almost everyone of a certain age or older knows what a Humuhumunukunuku apu a’a does; it goes swimming by. One granddaughter was willing to learn that song as long as she didn’t have to come face to face with one in the water. Until now, swimming was great as long as no fish were around. But in the last three days we’ve accomplished something of a transformation. Slowly at first, but now with more boldness, we go out together into deeper and deeper water seeking out all the fish of the reef. She’s become reasonably comfortable with a mask and snorkel, and has even managed a couple of shallow dives. She wasn’t too keen on the large Spotted Trunkfish that kept coming near to let us know we were infringing on territory. And she hasn’t quite got the hang of flippers yet, so I end up towing her a bit. But the point is that she’s now eager to go. In fact, this afternoon she even went without me or grandma into fairly shallow water to look around on her own (with her older sister nearby). We have two more grandchildren who are yet a bit young for this, but they have grown up with a surfing father and lots of water time, so maybe they’ll start a little earlier too.
I was honored to have been invited to preside at the table this morning by my friend Bill Albinger, rector of Holy Innocents in Lahaina. God has used Bill’s talents to accomplish some wonderful things in this once dying congregation that is now filled with people and Spirit. This morning’s service used one of the Eucharistic prayers from Enriching our Worship, but after church an irate man pounced on us for showing such disrespect for the Holy Eucharist.