Thursday, September 15, 2011

Why We Ignored Jesus

And when you fast, do not look miserable as the actors and hypocrites do when they are fasting--they walk around town putting on airs about their suffering and weakness, complaining about how hungry they are. So everyone will know they are fasting, they don't  wash or anoint themselves with oil, pink their cheeks, or wear comfortable shoes. Those  who show off their piety, they have already received their  reward. When you fast, wash your face and beautify yourself with oil, so no one who looks at you will know about your discipline. Matthew 5:16-18a, The Voice
If you know me on FB or IRL, you have probably heard about the fast that Laura I undertook for 5 days. It was a vegetable and fruit fast, which means we could eat and drink only those foods. If you've heard about it, it's because we haven’t exactly been quiet about it, even though Jesus said what you read above. To be fair, my transgression has been way more egregious than Laura’s, but she’s not exactly been closemouthed (except toward meat and bread and all grains and legumes and dairy and anything else you would ingest that isn't fruit or vegetable) either.
So how do we justify our total disregard for Jesus’ words?

Well, looking righteous wasn't our reason for advertising the fast. And if you're tempted to think we're wonderful for undertaking this fast, you are very generous (thank you), but you should know that we quit a meal short of our goal (unfortunately that one meal wasn't very satisfying). So we are at best one meal shy of wonderful.

We also did not publicize our venture to gain pity, although I sometimes live like a disciple of Seinfeld’s George Constanza who once said, "Pity's very underrated. I like pity. It's good." Any pity I solicited (one person called me "grumpy") or mock guilt I inflicted was just for entertainment, pretending that we were actually suffering. The truth is we burdened ourselves with eating and drinking only all the fruits and vegetables we could--no real burden.

Ours was not a true commitment; it was an experiment. It all started when Kimberly texted her mother to recommend a movie about fat. I didn't care to see it, but with only end-of-the-summer TV to relax with, I agreed to give it a shot. The movie was Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead, and 30 minutes in, we stopped it and went out to buy a juicer. 

People fast for any number or reasons. Our fast was for physical health reasons, not for spiritual purification or growth or for political or spiritual leverage, although we are well aware of the connections between our spiritual, mental, and physical health. And we are aware that Jesus is an equal opportunity physician--healing body, mind, spirit, and even the social order.

In sum, I don’t believe our fast has anything to do with what Jesus was talking about.  The attitudes and actions Jesus warns against were about self-congratulating and solicitation of pity. We had neither of those intentions. 

We did, however, want people to know about our fast. Did I mention that we couldn't eat meat, bread, grains, legumes, or dairy? They even frowned upon potatoes. Potatoes!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Out of Tragedy, Triumph?

This morning after listening to Neil Young’s “Let’s Roll,” I played the collection America: A Tribute to Heroes, from the 9/11 telethon. Lots of moving music, but for me the standouts are always this rendition of Sting’s “Fragile,” and Celine Dion’s classic version of “God Bless America.”

Then we headed for church, where we read together Isaiah 43:2-3b,

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
And through the rivers, they shall not overflow you.
When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned,
Nor shall the flame scorch you.
For I am the LORD your God. (NKJV)

(When I got home, I heard similar themes reflected in Psalm 46, which President Obama read at Ground Zero. It reads in part:
God is our refuge and strength,
         A very present help in trouble.
 Therefore we will not fear,
         Even though the earth be removed,
         And though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;
 Though its waters roar and be troubled,
         Though the mountains shake with its swelling.  Selah  
There is a river whose streams shall make glad the city of God,
         The holy place of the tabernacle of the Most High.)

Our pastor, Stephen Handy, commemorated 9/11 with four statements.

He said, “In the midst of tragedy, there is triumph.” Surely he speaks truth. First we heard the heroics of firefighters, police officers, EMTs and ordinary citizens--not the least of whom were a small band of airplane passengers--who risked their lives preventing further tragedy. The days and weeks that followed 9/11 showed a renewal of the American spirit of community, as President Obama highlights in his USA Today op-ed.

Reflecting on the horrors of the day, Pastor Stephen also noted, “God is still with us.” Look around, and while you might find reason to convince otherwise, open eyes will se that if God was ever with us, God is still with us.

Pastor Stephen concluded with the statement “So I thank God for 9/11.” I can share his gratitude, simply because I find it helpful to thank God for nearly everything, looking for the good even in the midst of horrifying bad.

But this commemoration taxes my gratitude efforts because of Pastor Stephen’s first statement. He declared, “We are better people because of that day.” I love and respect our Pastor, but I can’t agree with this statement. Thanking God, even in the midst of tragedy, draws on faith in a loving, just, good God. God’s goodness is at the core of my faith, a starting place.

I need that faith because humans do not command that same confidence. I can agree with both my pastor and our President that we saw better people during the attack and in the immediately following days and weeks, and we have seen better people in the sacrifices of those who have enlisted and served to assure that this kind of tragedy won’t happen again. But I cannot say with any degree of confidence that we Americans as a people are better. We came together as a community and we began to remember our presence as part of the global community—all for a mere moment. 

Since then we have seen the most divisive and mean-spirited attitudes I can remember in my adult life—all without any real cause. To me we are an uglier people.

But perhaps with these memorable songs, these moving commemorations, these somber remembrances, we can also remember those post 9/11 days and try to recapture that spirit. Perhaps we can remember the God who walks with us through fire, storm, and unbelievable horror. And perhaps we can become the better people my pastor calls us.