Paying Myself First

27 Jul

My mother will be so proud of me. This week, I set up an automatic transfer of funds from my checking account to my savings account; a very modest amount once a month. Mom’s been preaching “pay yourself first” for as long as I can remember. I used to follow her advice when I was a recent college graduate making little more than minimum wage, but somewhere along the way I abandoned the habit when I accumulated enough to put a down payment on my first house and got married.

Why is starting a good habit so hard and losing it so easy?

Better still, why did it take me so many years to return to this sage and time-tested practice of the financially fit?

It’s because I couldn’t get past the idea that $30 a month is a pretty pathetic amount to save. Surely I should practice a bit more austerity than that! Yes, I could. But having that “not good enough” attitude for several years hasn’t yielded very good results. A little is better than none. It’s the habit that matters, not the amount. At least for now.

The story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 is not unlike my journey toward establishing a plan to save. The disciples were paralyzed by their perception of lack, or not having enough to make much of a difference. Five crackers and two sardines – some little boy’s lunch. Jesus could have asked the disciples to scan the crowd and accumulate more from all the other people. That would have been the sensible thing to do. But Jesus is rarely sensible. He blesses the generous but modest offering of a mere child, and somehow everyone in the crowd eats their fill.

I’ve always suspected it was the example of the boy that inspired everyone else to share what they had. Even if that explanation were true it wouldn’t be any less miraculous. In fact, that would be pretty darn stunning. These people were not the Jewish elites. They were the masses, the marginalized and poor. They were desperate for a miracle and they followed Jesus from place to place because he gave them hope. If they were packing eats, they sure wouldn’t be planning to share. That might be their only subsistence for the day, or the month.

The first reading from the second book of Kings is a mirror reflection of the Gospel. Twelve barley cakes made from the first fruits of the harvest were, by Hebrew law and tradition, meant to be presented at the temple and consumed only by the priestly class who served there. The prophet Elisha commanded that the cakes that are supposed to be set aside for God be given to a gathering 100 or so people during a time when there was a severe famine in the land. The protest of Elisha’s servant was not just because there were only 12 cakes to go around, but that they were dipping their hand into the proverbial offertory basket and taking out what was intended for the priests. The message of today’s first reading is clear – in God’s world, human need trumps human tradition.

The message of the Gospel takes God’s concern for His flock even further. Not only does God want to meet our basic human needs, but He also is not limited by our lack – of resources, talent, or imagination. God already has a solution to every problem we could throw at Him. A good friend of mine likes to remind me that there are no problems, only solutions I don’t like yet. Another friend says frequently, “God doesn’t call the qualified; He qualifies the called.” If I supply the willingness, God supplies the power, without fail.

Still, it is difficult for me to have faith in God’s care when so many people are suffering, both and this country and in many third world nations where basic needs like water and shelter are limited at best. I feel so powerless to do anything that I do nothing.

What if I paid myself first in heavenly currency? I know I can’t buy my way into eternal life – Jesus already did that – but there is plenty of scriptural evidence that my eternal reward will be proportional to my generosity and service in my temporal life. If I want to pay myself first in my “bank account” in heaven, I need to make that small step to be the hands a feet of Jesus to someone in need. Just like that $30 a month, it’s the habit that matters most, not the amount. And as I practice the habit, I can grow it. I can do more as the spirit leads.

Perhaps today’s act of faith is to sponsor a child in Haiti through my church, or put some spare change in the collection for the school we sponsor there. Maybe I can buy a $20 raffle ticket for the small inner city church we help support. Maybe school supplies for Appalachia. Maybe fresh blackberry jam for a friend or neighbor, or baby diapers for my favorite waitress whose baby is due next month.

There are so many ways any of us could multiply loaves and fishes. Sometimes when we give, it should be privately. Other times, sharing about the experience may be exactly what God will use to make a miracle happen.

Courage

20 Jun

The last few weeks since the athlete formerly known as Bruce made public the decision to change genders, I’ve seen a lot of Facebook chatter and memes about bravery and courage. The oneupsmanship regarding who is more courageous – an athlete missing limbs due to military service, or a retired olympic athlete who decides to go public about changing genders – was, to me, an irritating distraction from more important news.

I didn’t have any strong opinions one way or the other because, as Kermit the Frog would say while sipping tea, it’s not any of my business. I tended to fall in the “Kardashian celebrity stunt” camp more than the “she’s so courageous” camp. Maybe we throw around that word “courageous” a little too lightly these days, I thought. I did almost lose it when a media personality said how much courage it takes to refrain from killing oneself living in today’s world; since when has simply waking up in the morning become an act of bravery? Have we really lowered the bar that much? Today’s world, especially in North America, is pretty darn good compared with much of the rest of the world. Waking up in Somalia takes courage. Here?

Last weekend’s epistle from Paul to the Corinthians has me taking another look though, not at celebrities or transgender folks, but at myself. The passage starts off with a very bold statement: “We are always courageous.” Paul goes on to explain that while we are living on earth “at home in the body,” we are separated from God, and as people who walk by faith, not by sight, we long to be fully united with the God of the eternal. Living away from God is not our soul’s natural state. Yes, says Paul – simply waking up in the morning is indeed an act of bravery.

My former pastor Fr. John used to preach about what he called “the God-shaped hole in the soul” that only a higher power could fill. He often quoted the psalms to describe it: “As the deer thirsts for running water, so my soul longs for you oh God.” Or, the words of Saint Augustine, “My heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee.”

It takes courage to live with Restless Heart Syndrome, and many of us do lack the courage. We try to fill the God-shaped hole with substances, stuff, sex, and self-justifying spirituality, and we scratch our heads when these things stop working or fall short of bringing us relief.

Most everyone is familiar with the serenity prayer – God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. When I first read that prayer, I focused on what I thought my actions should be – accepting, changing, and knowing. But I can’t accept, change or know anything without first asking God for serenity, courage, and wisdom. My actions won’t earn me those qualities; they are gifts for which I must ask.

So I have a courageous announcement, and I hope you won’t judge me for it. I’m transhuman. I know on the surface, it looks like I’m a human being with skin and bones and organs. But deep down, I never really “identified” as human. I had trouble fitting in as a kid, because I felt somehow different than all the other humans around me, like I wasn’t human “enough.” I’ve spent the better part of my life learning to fake it so I can meet society’s expectations of me, but I’ve been dying on the inside. And yes, there were times when I wanted to die on the outside, too. I never wanted to kill myself per se, but waking up in the morning was not a cause for joy. How sad.

Being transhuman means that I struggle with being comfortable in my own skin. You see, I’ve known I’m a child of God almost as long as I’ve been self-aware. You can imagine the confusion this must have caused when the people I lived with called themselves Mom and Dad and exerted their authority and demonstrated love. My very survival depended on my accepting this social construct. Fortunately, my biological progenitors were also good parents, and they recognized and accepted me as transhuman and loved me even though it meant they had to admit they couldn’t control what was not truly theirs. Not all transhumans are so lucky.

Living as a transhuman means I’ve made plenty of errors and mistakes. Well meaning people will often say to me: “Don’t be so hard on yourself; you’re only human.” They don’t realize how insensitive that is! I’m NOT “only” human! There is so much more to me than who people see and experience on the outside.

I’ve been fortunate to meet other transhumans like me. They have helped me to embrace and live my spiritual life without denying the part of me that, whether I like it or not, IS human. The skin, bones, and organs are not just a husk, they are a home that was especially designed for the soul that dwells within. I don’t always like my body. Sometimes I punish my body. Most of the time, though, I just accept that it is what it is and I do my best to take care of it, because waking up isn’t so bad, really. In fact, I look forward to it, and it sure beats the alternative.

I also have some very “human-like” traits that aren’t so pleasant. Selfishness and fear are two big ones. I guess that’s part of being human too, because my “trans” identity is selfless and full of faith. Denying these parts of myself really only give them greater power, so I’ve found its better to face them, even at the risk of being a little hard on myself from time to time. I just remember that, in the words of Lady Gaga, I was born this way, and God makes no mistakes.

Living as a transhuman takes courage. Humans who don’t identify as “trans” often persecute us and belittle and intimidate us. Some of us fight back all the harder because of those human traits like fear and selfishness. The rest of us cower silently but hurt on the inside. Living courageously means standing up for myself without standing against others. It helps to remember all my trans brothers and sisters who could literally lose their lives in some countries and cultures, simply for acknowledging who they are. No matter who makes fun of me in my life, at least I don’t have to fear losing my life.

So yes, we always have courage. Even if it’s just to wake up in the morning and be who we really are. How much courage is really not relevant.

Charleston, Juneteenth

19 Jun

There is something special about a “black” church. I am blessed to occasionally attend Sunday services at a predominantly African American catholic congregation in Richmond’s Highland Park neighborhood. Until recently Highland Park had been a pocket of poverty pretty much since the desegregation in the 1970s, but today it is a popular “house flipping” area for investors and an “up and coming” neighborhood into which millennials are moving as Richmond continues to cater to the “pre- and post-school aged children” generations. As one of the parishioners said, without judgement: “We see a lot more blue eyes these days.”

They see a lot more coming to their church too. I go because I love their lily white pastor and his heartfelt homilies that cut through racial, cultural, and economic differences right to the heart of what unites us – the body and blood of Christ. To say he is beloved by his parishioners is an understatement. I think they would choose him over the Pope. My parents go there because of the welcome they’ve received, the bonds of friendship they’ve formed, and the true sense of community that you can find only in a small church. My kids love the gospel music, and the fellowship after special masses, and the opportunity to showcase their talents with their Richmond Public School peers at the parish’s first spring talent show, innocently unaware of the educational inequities between them four decades after “separate but equal” was declared unconstitutional.

I am painfully aware. I work with an organization that volunteers in city elementary and middle schools. I know first hand the dedication of teachers, administrators, and even the superintendent to give their young charges the best possible shot at post-high school opportunity. It is an uphill battle that those of us in the suburbs (white, black, or anything else) cannot fully comprehend. My heart aches at the inequity, and you know I’m no bleeding heart.

Being with my black brothers and sisters united by faith has made me more mindful, courteous, open, humble, and grateful. I can never know what it is like to walk in their shoes, to have experienced being shunned by the white Catholics who used to frequent that church before “white flight.” It was only a generation ago, and many of that church’s members recall stories of being told to sit in the back of the building after their former “black only” church had been disbanded in a show of support for desegregation by the Diocese. The unintended consequence was that hundreds of black catholic families lost their church community. I’m humbled by the grace and welcome I’ve been shown, because it is the exact opposite of the way they had been treated.

Being welcomed into a predominantly black congregation has opened my heart and my eyes to new ways of feeling and seeing. So when nine African American Christians were senselessly gunned down in Charleston, SC in their church at a bible study, I couldn’t help but think of the beautiful people I’ve gotten to know at St. Elizabeth. Because it could have been them. And that is unacceptable.

That the sanctity of any worship space could be so violated is beyond comprehension. That ignorance and hate could be so raw and violent makes my stomach turn.

When I saw the faces of the victims, my heart grieved for them not as strangers but as people I could have known and who would have loved and welcomed me like my friends at St. E’s. They are mothers and fathers who will be missed by parents and grandchildren and their entire community.

Apparently I’m not the only one who feels this solidarity, even though I will never comprehend what it means to be targeted as a minority race. Solidarity is not saying, “I understand how you feel.” It’s not presuming to be of any help, either, although I would never hold back. Solidarity means being present with. Just being. Being my suburban white middle class self, not out of guilt or duty, but out love. Today I am present through prayer, for the victims and their families, for black churches everywhere who fear incidents like this, and for all people of good will who want to be neighbor to each other.

We have a long way to go. It is human nature to fear what is different. But it is also human nature to find our common humanity in the midst of tragedy, if we choose. Charleston is a beautiful place filled with beautiful people tonight. May God bless them and comfort them and heal them.

Just Keep Walking

14 Apr

Olivia is afraid of bees. I suspect most of us were when we were six; I know I was. Last week my parents took her and the other two to the Norfolk Botanical Garden, and apparently there was a lot of screaming.

This Sunday, I decided to take the three of them to our botanical garden here in town, and sure enough, the fuzzy bumbles were out in force. I long ago made peace with bees when I discovered the delight that comes from trying to photograph them. Olivia still has a way to go. But as we were walking through the buzzing sentries escorting us through the garden, she clung to me and said, “Nana says they will leave me alone if I just keep walking.” Throughout our visit, “just keep walking” became a mantra.

The Internet is chock full of pastors who preach that fear is the opposite of faith. I don’t see it that way, and here’s why. I think of myself as a person of faith. I believe in God, I believe in Jesus, and I believe with all my heart in Romans 8:28. I’ve seen it with my own eyes in other people’s lives, and I’ve seen it in mine. Yet there are still times when I’m brimming with fear. It generally manifests in the question, “What if I’m wrong?”

What if I keep walking, and the bees don’t leave me alone?

And then, I catch myself questioning my faith, questioning my very belief in God, and pretty soon I’m not only feeling fear but am paralyzed by it.

Fear is not a lack of faith. It’s a feeling; just a feeling. One of my favorite moral axioms is “Faith is fear that has said its prayers.” That quote is a reminder to me that my feelings of fear are no reason to berate myself for lacking faith, but a call to act in faith in spite of my feelings.

So if fear is not the opposite of faith, what is? Doubt? This weekend’s gospel was the iconic story of “doubting Thomas,” who refused to believe in the risen Christ until he saw Him with his own eyes and touched His wounds. For 2,000 years, the poor man has been pegged as the poster child for what it means to lack faith.

Thomas doubted not because he lacked faith but because he was human. He was my kind of human, really. You can tell me until you’re blue in the face that something will or won’t work, but I’ll stubbornly disregard you until I try it myself. I put a lot more stock in my own experiences than I do in neat, tidy platitudes about how I should live or the consequences if I don’t. Unlike Thomas, I am willing to at least consider the experiences of others. Your lecturing will turn me right off, but if you tell me what happened to you when you found yourself in shoes like mine, you stand a good chance of changing my mind, or at least opening it to a new possibility. But given the chance, I’ll still run my own experiments, thank you very much. I need my own evidence.

Can any of us blame Thomas for doubting? They saw Jesus die. That’s some pretty hefty evidence, and rising from the dead is an outrageous claim.

Writer and speaker Anne Lamott says, “The opposite of faith is not doubt; it is certainty.”

The moment I think I know something, I’m in trouble. When I think I know something, I cease to be teachable. I become arrogant, and pride cometh before the fall. Knowledge is the currency of my ego, my “Edging God Out.” This is true whether I’m talking about evolution or heaven or the Resurrection, or having enough milk in the fridge to make a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Knowledge has its place, but not when it takes the place of imagination, especially God’s imagination.

I may believe things that I cannot know from personal observation, but I’d be lying if I said I don’t ever doubt my beliefs. Did Jesus really rise? I don’t know. I can’t know. What I do know is that His friends were pretty convinced that He did, so much so that they went to their deaths and started a movement that completely changed the world. It defied the might of the Roman Empire, Europe’s dark ages, the intellectualism of the Renaissance, the brutality of the crusades, the inconsistencies of the reformation, several Christian holocausts, and the hedonism, moral relativism and fundamentalism of the modern era. I have seen with my own eyes how people can be transformed when they become just a little bit willing to acknowledge some kind of higher power. So I continue to “just keep walking” in spite of whatever doubts and fears I might have. That stuff is just space between my ears, anyway. My actions are what matter.

Faith is not the the same thing as belief. Olivia believes that bees are scary and worthy of fear. She believes that bees can sting and she is convinced they will sting her. But she trusts Nana. And she just keeps walking because she can see with her eyes that Nana who doesn’t appear to be afraid. Olivia can choose to trust her belief, or choose to trust her Nana who loves her. She has decided to trust her Nana.

Faith is first a decision, followed up with action. It isn’t an opinion or a belief or a feeling. That’s what makes it so powerful. Belief and unbelief can be wrong, and our opinions can be fickle as our experiences and attitudes change. Facts and statistics can be used to justify our fears just as easily as our fantasies. But as this weekend’s epistle of John tells us, “the victory that conquers the world is our faith.”

How can I that be, especially in times when the world seems to be conquering faith?

When my fear says, “What if you’re wrong?” faith answers, “Then I’m wrong and with any luck I’ll have learned something.”

When fear says, “What if you lose your house or your car or your life savings?” Faith answers, “Something good will come of it and things will work out.”

When fear says, “What if you are killed?” faith answers that nothing goes to waste in God’s world, and that even the worst tragedies and atrocities can be the foundation for the greatest changes for goodness and light. (For what it’s worth, I don’t have this level of personal faith. But because of the saints and martyrs, including modern day ones, I have hope that this kind of faith is possible, even for me.)

We have faith that the sun will rise tomorrow morning. Olivia has faith that if she keeps moving in spite of her fear, the bees will leave her alone. I have a personal experience that proves otherwise; when I was about her age, I was stung by a yellowjacket. I didn’t provoke it, and I didn’t even know it was near me, but I was in my front yard and it got me right in the fleshy part of my behind that was exposed when I bent over. Fear of flying insects with stingers is not irrational. But I have faith anyway. I have faith that not every insect will sting me unprovoked. And I have faith that if by chance I do get stung, it may hurt but I will be ok. Faith teaches me that I can just keep walking.

Oh how I wish I could apply this faith to other parts of my life and not just garden walks with bees! But the thing about faith is that it takes practice, and it grows. None of us starts out with complete trust in Nana or bees or God or the divine providence of the universe. We let it grow in one area of our lives and it takes root elsewhere, and not just within us. Courage is contagious. Courage turned a small rag tag group of backwater fishermen into a force large enough and powerful enough to transform even a Roman Empire intent on extinguishing them. Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor was it toppled in one. Faith takes time and practice. In the mean time, just keep walking. What else are you going to do?

Excellence, Not Perfection

7 Apr

At church on Easter Sunday, the lady sitting behind me told me I had beautiful hair. I said thank you. 

But on the inside, I wanted to argue with her. I wanted to deny that my hair could ever be beautiful because it wasn’t perfect. I wanted to assure her that I have terrible hair. It’s so fine that if I don’t get it thinned every six weeks, it gets flat and just hangs there, lifeless. I wanted to tell her the only reason it looked halfway presentable is because I took the time to curl it. I wanted to point out the grays that seem to be multiplying like Easter rabbits. 

And as I was having these thoughts, it occurred to me – my efforts make a difference. And so does the raw material.

On Sunday, I DID have beautiful hair. End of story. 

I had beautiful hair because I took the time and effort to make it attractive. 

I had beautiful hair because, even at its worst, my hair has the potential to look incredible.

Just like every other part of my life. 

Our inner critics want to tell us that nothing we do is “good enough.” Our inner critics are right if the standard is perfection. Not a single one of us will ever be good enough to be considered perfect. That’s one of the messages of the Easter story; we don’t have to be perfect to obtain the rewards of perfection. Jesus’ sacrifice opened the doors of Heaven, and all we have to do is choose to walk through the gate. 

We don’t even have to change; we just have to be willing for God to change us. I think this is why Jesus warned us about judging others. The change doesn’t happen the moment we are baptized, or ask Jesus into our hearts, or say a silent prayer to God for help, or experience the sacrament of reconciliation. Conversion takes time, and some of us are further into it than others. 

“Good enough” is the lie Satan uses to keep us impotent. If you can’t do something right, he says, don’t do it at all. Which is really just a paralyzing invitation to laziness and a life of unfulfilling distractions from the resulting low self-esteem. 

The truth is, we all have it in us to achieve excellence, if not perfection. All it takes is a little effort, and others will notice. And even if they don’t notice, God does. 

Our second reading on Easter Sunday was proclaimed by a young woman who has Downs Syndrome. I love when she reads the epistles, which is usually once a month. Is her reading perfect? I guess that depends on your definition of the word. But she is always excellent. And always beautiful. You can tell she has practiced, that she takes her role seriously, and that she is honored to be a part of the liturgy. She is the embodiment of the presence of Christ proclaimed in the Word, and anyone who witnesses this on any given Sunday, but especially Easter Sunday, knows they’ve seen the risen Lord. 

Her life is God’s gift to her; what she does with it is her gift to God. To all of us, really. 

My hair is God’s gift to me. What I do with it is my gift to God. 

Substitute the word “hair” with “time” or “talent” or “treasure” or “faith.” And then remember that God is our father, our loving parent who cherishes crayon scribbles on notebook paper. This is the God that Jesus lived and died and rose again for us to know. Perfection be damned. It was on Good Friday. Our one-day-at-a-time excellence is more than enough.

The Memory of Choosing Not To Fight

3 Apr

Do me (and yourself) a favor. Turn off all your lights, quiet your mind and body, and listen to this song with your heart. It’s called Answer, by Sarah McLaughlin.

If you’re feeling especially in need of a good cry, watch the video.

Done?

I heard this song a few days ago when I was searching for another song from the same album, and I felt in my heart this song could be a meditation on Good Friday – the passion of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and one of my best friends.

I listened to it when I woke up this morning. What does Good Friday even mean? Each year as I get a little older, my answer gets a little simpler. A few years ago I’d have written a compelling reflection on substitutiary atonement. Today, the crucifix means one thing: none of us – Christian, Jewish, gay, not even the Son of God himself – is immune from persecution for being ourselves, whatever that looks like.

I believe that’s what my best friend meant when He told me to pick up my cross and follow Him. He wasn’t commanding me to be a perfect martyr; He looked at my shortcomings, my imperfections, my quirks, my skin and hair, and all the qualities I wish God would remove or heal, and He told me I need to embrace them. Embrace my sickness and sadness, when everything in me wants to walk away and be some dazzling white version of myself I can’t even imagine, who never sins, who never swears, who never entertains resentments or impure fantasies or jealousy or contempt. He looked at my beautiful, tender heart and He asked me to be willing to let it be broken when people betray or mock or simply don’t understand me.

And as I follow my best friend to the foot of His cross every Good Friday (and plenty of other days throughout the year too), I hear His own prayer and pray for the grace to be able to repeat His words: “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.”

He was the Son of God, yet He chose not to fight those who nailed Him to the cross. It truly is, in the words of Saint Paul, “something to be grasped.”

When I was about six years old, I asked my father on Good Friday what it meant that it was the day Jesus died. I couldn’t grasp the idea of something happening 2,000 years ago. I was worried, at six years old, that He was being crucified that very day.

He is. A cursory scroll through social media reveals that a man I love very much is being mocked and ridiculed right now. So are the people who love Him, and by extension, so am I. It breaks my heart. I want to obey my God when He commands me to love my neighbor as I love myself. Every religious faith on earth shares that common precept. I want to fight the injustice, but that is not what Jesus would do. He chose not to defend Himself. He became weak.

And yet, since when is the defensive a position of strength? In choosing not to fight, we choose a strength far greater than the strength of the powerful bullies. We are exalted, even as we suffer very real pain.

If it takes my whole life, I won’t break and I won’t bend. There may be days when I feel completely buried under the weight of my imperfections and brokenness. Moments of despair and hopelessness. Days when it seems the darkness has won not just the battle, but the whole damn war. The night is indeed unkind.

Cast me into Easter morning.

The Big Ten

10 Mar

For Lent this year I have been fasting from Facebook. The first week was rough. Real rough. To compare myself to an addict in rehab sucking nervously on a tootsie pop would have been accurate the first few days. I felt deeply in my gut like something was MISSING. Every morning when I woke up and didn’t wake up to George’s coffee memes. Every time I accomplished a task at work, and then couldn’t reward myself with a peek at Mary’s baby animal pictures. Every time I wondered how so-and-so was doing and didn’t check their profile page. Every time I wanted to post something encouraging, or feel the warmth of my virtual community lifting me up.

When I was curious about how the notorious “DT” was going to forecast the snow storm du jour and relied instead on my Weather Channel app or the local TV station website, I couldn’t trust how much bread and milk to buy. (First world problems?)

So I increased my Candy Crush and was kinda cranky with the kids for about a week. Or three. (Remember, we’ve had a LOT of snow days. Without Facebook. Cut me some slack.) I also reacquainted myself with Pinterest. Glorious Pinterest.

The other day one of my friends referred to it as “food porn.”

“Oh, you look at it for the recipes?” I asked her, silently judging myself for not doing something more productive with my online habits, like cooking for my cranky Facebook-free family. “I guess for me it’s ‘house porn.'” I said. We both laughed. Sort of.

I love searching the Home Decor category. It reminds me of my childhood when my favorite cousin and I would pour over the Sears and Pennys catalogs and make lists of every curtain, rug, towel, and placemat we wanted to purchase for the homes we were designing on graph paper. We’d even write down the prices so we’d know what kind of budget we’d need, all the while listening to Neil Diamond, another of the shared guilty pleasures we couldn’t tell to anyone outside the family, lest the deepest depths of our nerdiness be discovered.

Apparently this practice is now mainstream (minus the Neil Diamond). A lot of you reading this have repinned my pins. Consider yourselves outed, nerds.

I thought I had gotten over the hump. I’m still feeling the Facebook sacrifice but it is no longer an obsession; it’s an accomplishment of which I can be proud. I’m productive, less edgy, focusing more on personal relationships than virtual ones, and relearning how to connect with all of you in a way that doesn’t involve social media.

Patting myself on the back, I started to read this past weekend’s scripture selections with the intent of actually writing a blog post. I couldn’t make it through the first reading. It stopped me up short. It’s the Ten Commandments. When I got to the ninth one, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, I kinda broke the second one.

Yeah, I took the Lord’s name in vain.

Isn’t that what Pinterest is? Coveting? Maybe not for you. Maybe for you it’s “food porn,” which makes it ok. But for me, it’s about seeing all the stuff I wish I could do or have in my house, and creating pin boards dedicated to my categorized coveting. More that 1,500 and counting.

(Not Ryan Gosling. Someone else can covet him and his “hey, girl.” When I start pinning that silly goose, you’ll know I’ve hit bottom. Pour me the Candy Crush Soda, please.)

~~~

We tend to think of the Ten Commandments as a list of dos and don’ts from God, or a moral code by which to live. When I read the chapters following Sunday’s first reading selection from Exodus, I learned there were a lot more than just ten “commandments;” there are whole chapters in Exodus dedicated to all the rules set forth by God to govern the conduct of His chosen people.

For example, that whole “eye for eye” thing was instituted to prevent revenge, or taking anything more than was taken from you. It’s fascinating to read all the laws, as long as I keep it in historical and spiritual context; these laws were meant to set the Jewish people apart from their pagan neighbors so they would be a testament to the one true God. The Old Testament Jewish law was never intended, for example, to be used by modern day fundamentalists to justify racism or slavery. As a Christian it is important for me to remember the fullness of the law was expressed in the life of Christ, who said that loving God and loving neighbor were the summation of the whole law and the prophets.

Christ was also the fullest expression of God’s covenant with His people. The Ten Commandments could just as easily have been titled “the ten signs of covenant,” but I believe we humans are much more comfortable with a God of rules than a God of promises. Our egos find it much easier to rebel against and reject God if we think He’s always telling us what to do. After all that’s what Ego does – Edges God Out.

In the chapter preceding the Ten Commandments, God (through Moses) gave the people instructions for preparing themselves to hear God speak to them and make His covenant with them. On the third day, God would descend Mt. Sinai and they would hear His voice. This weekend’s selection is the spoken word of God to His people. They literally heard His voice. Later in Exodus, when the Hebrews were overwhelmed with their inability to follow the rules or presumably remember them, they asked Moses for written Commandments, and God wrote them on stone tablets not once, but twice. Those tablets were placed in the Ark of the Covenant along with the staff of Aaron and a pot of manna, and around this ark the Temple of Jerusalem was ultimately built (and then “cleansed” by Jesus in this weekend’s gospel).

But the first giving of the law was done orally, on the “third day.” It was a promise from God to His people, if they would accept that He alone was God, creator of the universe, and if they would live in the ways He instructed instead of the ways of the world, they would be a sign to the rest of that universe by their actions, and they would be blessed.

Replace the word “shalt ” with “will.” The passage takes on a very different tone:

You will not have other gods besides me or carve idols for yourselves or bow down before them.

You will not take the name of the LORD, your God, in vain.

You will rest on the seventh day, just as your Creator did.

You will honor your mother and father.

You will not kill.

You will not commit adultery.

You will not steal.

You will not lie about your neighbor.

You will not covet your neighbor’s house.

You will not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male or female slave, nor his ox or ass, nor anything else that belongs to him.

Change the “will nots” to “will no longer” and it gets even better.

When we follow the fullness of God’s law (put God first and love your neighbor as yourself), God will transform us from a group of coveting, gossiping, lying, stealing, lustful, life-destroying, disrespectful, prideful, cursing, idolatrous heathens into a people who are known as God’s people by our love.

As a sinner who has broken some of the commandments, sometimes repeatedly, the promise that I could be delivered from my compulsions and especially the consequences that usually follow is a wonderful message of hope. This is the covenant. We will not need the distraction of Pinterest or Facebook because we will be looking for the face of Jesus in everyone we see. We will no longer covet anything, because when we put God first, we will trust He has given us everything we need, and we will be content with that.

~~~

The Hebrew people were never content with that for very long, and God in His great compassion knew it. He planned for it in the covenant. Rather than demand perfection from His people, God set forth a process by which they could cleanse themselves from their sin so no one would be prevented from worshipping the Holy of Holies – He set forth rules for animal sacrifice, substitutiary atonement. In Moses’ day, the Ark of the Covenant was housed in a tent, but by the time of Jesus, the Temple in Jerusalem was where the symbol of God’s covenant, and presumably where God Himself, dwelt. The covenant was written so that sinners could still approach their God. (The covenant also wrote a pretty specific rule about lending money to fellow Hebrews and not charging interest.)

When Jesus “cleansed” the temple in this weekend’s Gospel, it was in part because the religious elites were creating obstacles to the atonement process. The reason there were livestock in the temple courtyard was because they were to be the blood sacrifices people would buy to kill and  atone for their sins. But the Jewish temple couldn’t accept the Roman currency that everyone used; Jewish people had to exchange their Roman coins for Jewish ones which they could then use to purchase the ox or lamb or doves or whatever other offering they could afford.

Obviously the ox was more expensive than the doves, so the wealthy were able to “atone” for more sins than, say, a poor widow who could afford to give only two coins in offering. And not only had the atonement process become unjust, but the money changers were very likely exchanging Jewish coins at an unfair rate. No wonder Jesus called them a brood of vipers and a den of thieves.

“Give us a sign,” the temple elites demanded after Jesus raged against the layers of injustice condoned and encouraged by the Levites and priests. They would have known the Exodus story intimately, yet they completely missed Jesus’ reference when he told them to destroy the temple (of his body) and he would raise it up on the third day. He used the exact same words his Father had used at Mt. Sinai.

Or, maybe they understood exactly what Jesus was saying, which is why they had him killed.

Jesus offered himself as the final blood sacrifice, once and for all, so that sins could be forgiven. God Himself would be the substitutiary atonement, and there would be no need for any more livestock or temple money exchanges. No one would ever be prevented from worshipping God because they were too poor to be anything but ritually impure. I believe Jesus’ angry expulsion of the money changers foreshadowed how his death and resurrection would expel all the forces that attempt to keep us from worshipping God.

There are money changers our heads. They try to convince us our mistakes are too big to atone for. They tell us there’s no use changing course since we’re already sinners and not likely to have much success changing that Why bother? Why keep setting ourselves up for another moral failure tomorrow by getting “right” with God today?

I accidentally ate bacon bits on my salad on Friday; I may as well order steak for dinner since I’ve already eaten meat once. That’s the logic of my money changers. I’m already a sinner, so I may as well sin big, they say. They have no concern about the guilt I will heap upon myself. Maybe not about eating meat, but definitely about the times I break one of the “big ten.”

God wants to throw the money changers out of our heads. He wants to silence the rigid elites in our hearts, too. Our hearts are His temple, and Christ died to cleanse them. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” he says, and the mercy starts with ourselves. There is no longer anything in the way of my turning to God whenever I need Him; nothing except my Edging God Out.

~~~

Coveting must be a pretty serious sin. It’s the subject of not one, but two commandments. That fact is worth contemplation.

What do I covet, and why? Ultimately the answer for me is comfort. I want to be comfortable and secure, and I mistakenly believe a beautifully decorated, perfectly organized home will do that. I believe the same thing of certain clothing, or even friendships and relationships. Coveting – the desire for “more” or “better,” and especially comparing myself to others and measuring myself against near-impossible perfection is not a very spiritually healthy way of life. Like the Israelites eating manna in the desert, I have everything I need, if not everything I want. The secret to happiness is contentment.

In a great twist of irony, I saw a great little article pinned on Pinterest – 10 Ways To Be Happier In Your Own Home.

Many of the tricks, like making my bed daily, keeping a gratitude journal, and displaying sentimental items, are things I do regularly to keep myself from coveting. The final item on the list is connecting with something greater than yourself. I certainly didn’t expect that from a “home decor” blog. It’s a return to the first Commandment – remember who is God, or at the very least, who is not God. It’s a good reminder whenever I struggle with one of the “big ten.”

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