The Pieces of Ourselves that We Give Away

So I was dropped to my hands and knees, there in the hallway, just outside my classroom door.  I was desperately trying to gobble in some air.  For a moment, it didn’t seem to be working.  My coworkers were around, and the students, too, staring down at me. 

With the help of my classroom aide, I scrambled into the nearby principals office.  I began to put it all together.  It was hard to think, because their was this pain that dominated my whole consciousness in the side of my neck.  And there was something lesser, but unpleasant, going on in the back of my skull.

As I half turned in the doorway I saw that they were restraining the student (let’s call him Nate.)  And in something like a flash, I put it all back together.  I had just been assaulted.  He landed a closed fist on the side of my neck and I didn’t see him coming.

The idea that I hit the wall on the way down, I figured that part out later.

I teach at a residential facility for emotionally disturbed adolescents.  Being assaulted isn’t an every day occurrence.  But sooner or later, in places like this, it happens.

Several years ago, I spent three endless, pain-filled weeks on disability with a sprained back.  About once every couple months, I participate in restraints, keeping our students from hurting themselves or others.  I have had close calls.  I’ve been hit, spit on, and my experiences are nothing compared to some of the heroes I work with, who daily, regretfully, put their hands on our students; who have dealt with all manner of body fluids, who have been hospitalized, occasionally for quite lengthy stays.

My back still feels sore when it rains, after all these years.  I have been in a lot of pain today and spent the morning getting a cat scan to make sure I didn’t have a concussion.  I know that I will be feeling this one for quite some time.

These injuries that I carry with me, they have changed me.  Reduced how much I could, for example, wrestle with my youngest.  I was (if you must know the truth) feeling kinda sorry for myself this morning, as I sat in the ER, waiting for my number to come up.

And then I had this realization:

I am not any different than anybody.  Except that it’s just more obvious for me.

We are wounded by our work, whatever it is.   For all of us, our livelihood take things from us that they should not.  We give more than hours in exchange for our pay checks.  We give away parts of ourselves, and we know that these are parts are families deserve, but we have sacrificed them because we really don’t have an alternative.

Mostly I love my job.  I don’t have a solution, or a neat, happy thought to tie this blog post up with.  I guess I will leave it unresolved… like life.

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Starting with the Lunch

UK - Somerset - Bath: Roman Baths Museum - The...
UK – Somerset – Bath: Roman Baths Museum – The Altar (Photo credit: wallyg)

I understood something today.  I understood it suddenly and in a new way.

It was around how the Ancient Isrealites were expected to do these sacrifices.  Thier were pretty strict expectations about what animals would be sacrificed when.  And even more strict expectations about the conditions of these animals.  They were supposed to sacrifice the best.

We are freed of this expectation. 

But today, in church, I got it.

Church was awesome.  I don’t mean awesome in the 80’s surfer-sense of the word.  It wasn’t entirely pleasant.  It was, at times, so hard that I had to leave the sanctuary.   When I say that church was awesome, I mean that it quite literally inspired a sense of awe.  I suppose that this is one of the things church was supposed to do.

The gifted folks involved with the service are partly responsible for this experience.   They did a great– even exceptional– job.   But there have been other days when they were all doing an equally excellent job.  And yet, many of those times, it did not effect me.

There is some truth in talking about how the spirit moves where it wills.  Sometimes God makes himself known.

Yet…

This is also a cop-out and a ducking of responsibility.  They say that  we don’t have any control over where and when God shows up.   The problem is that this implies that God isn’t omnipresent.  It implies that there are some places where God is not.

What I am trying to say is that God is fully present in every service.  The thing that comes and goes is our own perception of him. 

Today, what I realized, is that one of the sacrifices’ values is that they smashed home, they made concrete a reality that it’s easy to lose track of.

That reality is that whatever we bring to a worship service is what we are going to get out of it.

Today I brought… a lot to the service.  It wouldn’t be wrong to call it baggage.  It wasn’t all kinds of warm fluffiness.  It was a whole dizzying array of conflicting emotions.  Pain, and anger, and hurt… Not just at life in general, but pain and anger and hurt directed right at God.  Those were all there.

God was happy to take it. 

It wasn’t a sacrifice worthy of him.  Even though there are all these descriptions about the sacrifice-victim be perfect and unblemished, I realized today, that being worthy was never the point at all.

The point is that whatever we bring to God is the material that God will work with.  He does his divine alchemy on what we bring.  He turns it into something else, something better.  Maybe he even enhances it, like Jesus beginning with the boy’s lunch and feeding thousands.  Despite the enhancements, there, though, the thing is that Jesus, did after all begin with boy’s lunch.

I could have shown up with nothing today.  God quite literally knows I have before.  Today I didn’t show up at the service empty handed.  And so… I didn’t leave empty handed, either.

The Mystery of Taking Up Our Own Cross

Of course eating is not our only need.  And so fasting need not be about physical food.  Anything we might become over-dependent on, over-focused on, this might be the subject of a fast.

Fasting is sacrifice.  And that word: sacrifice of course has a different meaning.  But here is another mystery: because when they killed an animal or burned those grains, they weren’t really so different from our modern sacrifices at all.

The sacrifice was this: proving that something that could have been consumed for our own selfishness will actually be given over to God.  Various times (including through Jesus himself) we are reminded that God doesn’t want sacrifices given robotically, unthinkingly, unemotionally.

Of course nothing is deeply and truly ours.  The raw materials for everything came from our creator.  The talents that honed these materials  came from him.  The dedication to maximize these talents came from him too.  The opportunity to get the thing.  None of these are ours.

And so a sacrifice is giving over to God something that was his anyway.  Whether it’s the slaying of a bull.  Or fasting from food, or the internet, or movies, or cafienne.  None of these things were ours, really at all.  Giving them up to God demonstrates our peace with this reality.

And what is more, sacrifice is a golden and inexplicable opportunity to stand in solidarity with God himself.  God opened himself to the possibility of suffering when he created knuckle-headed humans who possessed free will.  This possibility turned into an actuality with Adam’s and Eve’s betrayal.  It culminated with Christ’s suffering on the cross.

I do not believe that God wants us to whip ourselves, to have ourselves nailed to a cross.   But Jesus took on suffering voluntarily, that was a completion of God’s suffering in Eden.  And we can take on suffering, too, that is an echo, and a reminder of what he did for us.

Which is the greatest mystery of all: In suffering, we find the depths of God’s love.

First Fruits

I’ve pondered some of the significance of first fruits elsewhere in this blog… Jesus was God’s first fruit, the first offspring of each Egyptian family and animal was taken up in the passover, and (most importantly for the things I’m contemplating today) we’re supposed to give up our own first fruits.

I don’t think it’s wrong to interpet this as saying that we ought to make our offerings to God first.  I don’t think it’s wrong to think that our offerings out to take the form of our time, talent, and treasure.

(I’m not, just for the record, claiming I’m any good at this.  But I think it’s what we’re supposed to do.)

But if we just think of it in terms of putting God on the top of our list of priorities, I think we lose something.

As I was reading scripture today, when I got to the part about first fruits, I got to reflecting a bit about the nature of ancient societies.

In life B.G.C. (Before Grocery Stores) they didn’t have unfettered access to all the different kinds of food they wanted.  They didn’t even have unfettered access to the amount of food that they’d want.

Right after the harvest, of course, everything was ducky.  But right before the next harvest, things got pretty lean.  Malcolm Gladwell’s latest books describes how  midevil peasants went into a sort-of hybernation from lack of food.   Of course, things would vary considerably at different times and places.

But there’s no ancient society that it’s fun to be at right before the harvest.

I don’t know that the first fruits of any harvest are necessarily objectively better than what comes later.  But subjectively?

It’s like comparing the first watermelon of the summer with the one you have at the end of summer.  Except that you’re starving before you eat the first one.

It’s like fasting for God, and then, in the very last hour of the fast, stopping by a gourmet buffet and looking at all the food but restraining from touching them.  The first fruits, that which we offer to God, it’s not only supposed to be at the top of the list: it’s also supposed to be the very most precious that we’ve got.

God in the Cinammon Rolls

So, I’ve discovered cooking this summer.

I’m not up to anything elaborate.  Actually, nearly all of it has come from a cook book Emeril made for kids.  But it’s been both a yummy and interesting diversion.   It occurred to me that there all sorts of interesting theological ramifications to cooking.

This first occurred to me as I was measuring out the sugar for apple muffins.  I scooped out the sugar, and the measuring cup was almost full.  It occurred to me I had a couple choices: First, of course, I could declare that “almost full” is close enough.  If I did this, I’d dump it into the mixing bowl and continue on. 

Secondly, I could put the measuring cup back in the sugar bag and bring it out again.  When it came out, I knew it would probably be slightly over full. (Isn’t that how it always is: either too much or not enough?)

Finally, I could get all compulsive and level the top off with a knife if it came out that way.  Or I could pour the slightly over-full cup in the mixing bowl.

To use the under-full cup in the mixing bowl felt like an act of stinginess.  To pour in the overly full cup felt like an act of generosity.  And to level it off felt like an act of legalism.

I realize that this association probably says something about me having an unhealthy relationship with food.  But it also says something about the act of providing nourishment for my family, about taking care of their needs in a manner that is much more direct than what I am used to. 

 I’m the families “bread winner” (interesting term, that.)  Work can sometimes feel so disconnected from the money that pays our rent and grocery and other bills.  Investing some time in making some food is so much more of a direct line between me and the nourishment of my family.

As I was kneading the cinnamon roll dough, it was all between my fingers and smelling good.  The physical-ness of the act was probably therapeutic, but, it also felt somehow like an intimate connection between myself and my family, even though I was the only one awake at the time.   Maybe it was because it was like massaging somebody’s shoulders.  Maybe it was because generally I hate having sticky stuff on my hands and I was (in some tiny sense) sacrificing for them.  

I was putting those things together and hoping that it’d come out the way it was supposed to.

It’s instructive that God provides the building blocks in all sorts of different ways.  One of those ways is through the laws of physics and biology.  By all rights, flour and butter and cinnamon and eggs and yeast and stuff should just turn into a sticky mess when you throw them together.  But when you mix them and cook them in a manner that is consistent with the scientific laws that God set up, you end up with cinnamon rolls.

God actually does the real work in everything we do.   All we do is figure out how things work, put them together, and have faith and hope that it comes out the way it is supposed to.  We do the work of planting seeds.  Or sharing the gospel.  Or turning the key in the ignition.

God makes them grow.  Or speaks to the potential convert.  Or igniting the spark plugs.

And sometimes of course, the seed doesn’t grow.  The person doesn’t hear Christ in us.  The engine doesn’t roll over. 

Maybe these cinnamon rolls won’t turn out after all my work, too.  All we have in this life are recipes and hopes that they’ll turn out. 

Another theological ramification of cooking is what I learned about sacrifice.  If I had to kill the chicken I cook, I’d probably be more attuned to this.  I wonder if this is some of the reason that God doesn’t require animal sacrifice anymore.  (I know that there are theological reasons, but presumably, God could have arranged those rules differently if he’d wanted animal sacrifice to outlast the Temple.)  It’s hard for this representation of God’s love to resonate with us, now.

If I had lived in ancient Israel, I’d be killing an animal nearly every day to eat.   The act of sacrficing an animal would connect to my every day experience of killing an animal.   (Especially because of all of the perscriptions about blood and killing animals that the Hebrews contended with in the first place.)  If I lived in the time after Christ, I’d further connect these sacrfices with the crucifixion: if I knew my scriptures I’d know that he so often compares himself to water, and bread, and that this comparison is enacted in the Lord’s Supper.

It’s not even a meat-eating thing.  If I was a farmer, and I watched the crops I’d toiled “dissapear” into my families’ mouths, I’d still be aware that some things must die in order that my family might live.  In the act of cooking, I’m returning myself toward that realization.  The closer I get to making things from scratch, the closer I get to that realization: something had to die in order that I might live.

When I crack open an egg I am reminded that a chicken laid the egg.  If that egg had been fertilized life would have sprung from it.   When I pour in the milk I am reminded that a cow gave the milk.  In different circumstances, that milk would have nourished the cow’s young.  When I pour in the sugar, I know that sugar cane plants had to be hacked down, somewhere far away, in order for me to enjoy this thing that I am now making.

(There is a whole other thing in all this: connections are formed through my awareness that somebody hacked down the sugar plant, tended the chickens and cows, etc.)

If I’d bought one of those nuclear-power cinamon rolls thingees where you burst the canister and then heat the rolls inside, I might have reflected on the machines that created the thing.  Rationally, I’d know that just as many people (and other life forms) where involved in bringing together the various ingredients.  But this is just an after thougt: I’m not holding the eggs in my hands, I’m not pouring out the milk.   I’m not reminded of the fact that things have to die in order for my family to live if I’m operating in a world of prefabricated food stuffs.

It’s a subtle thing, not the first thing we might think about… but it’s incredibly important: things have to die in order for my family to live.

And it’s not a very long walk from this realization to a next one, so much more important: one of the things that had to die, so that my family might live, is Jesus.  His death allowed for the most important kind of life, a deeper life than merely living, a more eternal life than the body will experience.

I’m not saying that we ought to use cooking as a means of conversion, nor am I saying that cinnamon rolls are the place everybody will find God.  But He is everywhere, and as I reflect on this mornings cinammon rolls, I find him there in all sorts of ways.  (They were, by the way, delicious.)

This post was my submission to Watercooler Wednesday, Randy Elrod’s blog carnival.

Abraham

So I’ve been re-reading the story of Abraham. 

There are some things that don’t surprise me.  I still find parts of it difficult and wierd.  (Not that this is a bad thing.  I’d be much more suspicious that the bible was a human construct if it wasn’t for the wierd parts.)  I won’t go into these things that trouble me here.  If you know the story you already know the tough parts.  If you don’t, my one-sentence summaries won’t change that.

The thing I want to spend some time and energy on, today, is some things I never noticed before.  These things are kind of interesting and helpful, I think.

The first thing that I noticed is that it seems like Abraham, for all his flaws (such as being an apparent compulsive liar) is a prototype for how to live a whole life walking with God.

When we become adults, God asks us something.  He says, “Do you trust me?  Do you trust me to leave everything you’ve known behind?  Will you follow me, even though you don’t know where you’re going.”

God asked Abraham that question first, of course.  Abraham had a pretty good answer.

Abraham was traveling with Lot, his nephew.  Rather than let business get in the way of the important things, Abraham decided they would be wise to sever their “business ties.”  He didn’t try to leverage this into the thing that would benefit him the most.  He said “Look, we need to split up, here.  But you choose, Lot: If you want the left, you’ve got the left.  If you want the right, you choose the right.  I’ll be happy with the direction you don’t want.”

In some sense, Abraham shot himself in the foot.  He sacrificed the unimportant things for the important ones.  And he won even the unimportant things for all this.  It’s right after Abraham says he’ll take whichever side that Lot doesn’t want that God makes this amazing promise: “Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north and south, east and west. 15 All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring [a] forever. 16 I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted. 17 Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.”

(Lot, meanwhile, gets himself entangled in all sorts of nastiness and ends up needing to be rescued by Abraham, more than once.)

We begin life being challenged by God to live in a new way, to seperate ourselves from all that we’ve ever known.  We enter that stage when we’re tempted by career aspirations to forsake the important things, just like Abraham must have been.

As we get older we have kids.  But really, that’s all God.  and God says “Do you trust me?  Do you trust me enough to turn over the one you love the most?  Will you turn him over to me, even if you think your child will die?”

Abraham also faced that question.

And as he gave the right answers, God called him out deeper and deeper.   The connection between Abraham and God deepened.  Consider that whole circumcision thing.   There’s plenty of symbolic stuff that we can focus on.  But I think it’s a mistake to forget the literal aspects of this act: God says “Do you trust me enough to cut off a portion of yourself in the most sensetive area of your entire body?”  (My answer, by the way, would likely be “No.”)

Even into the end of Abraham’s life, we still see him modeling this.  There’s a sort-of wierd passage after Sarah’s death.  He’s insisting on paying the full and appropriate price for a spot to bury her in.  I think this can be read in the same light of the whole thing with Lot, all those years before.  Abraham could have used his position as the leader to say “I’m going to pick the direction that I want.” and he could have used his grief to have those around him hand over a place to bury his wife.  But in the middle of his mourning, he doesn’t forget to act with character.

There’s probably so much more to be said here.  (Isn’t there always with scripture?)  If I manage to accumulate a whole post’s worth, maybe I’ll add some more.