Reflections from Vacation on Religion and Renewal

RCL – Year B – Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost – September 2, 2012

Song of Solomon 2:8-13 with Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9  or
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9 with Psalm 15
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

This week I am writing while enjoying the last few days of my vacation. I haven’t paid too much attention to the happenings in the world during my time off. But what has filtered through to my relaxing brain, has not been entirely pleasant. The ongoing defining of rape and contraception disturb my peaceful thoughts. Racist remarks and actions coming out of the GOP convention are unsettling. Shootings in Maryland, California, and New York as well as violence in Syria and Pakistan cause ongoing distress. I also happened to catch a few Facebook posts advocating for social justice instead of vacations. None of these things make much sense from where I sit.

I was lucky enough to spend part of my vacation in Puerto Rico with my spouse. We watched tropical storm Isaac blow across the island and marveled at the power of nature. We explored Old San Juan in the rain, sat in a cathedral that was built in 1521, and observed mass being celebrated. There is something almost mystical about sitting in a place that has been a house of worship for nearly 500 years.

I also had some more personal spiritual experiences while on the island. One afternoon I walked to a grocery store and was surprised when the cashier assumed I lived there; she spoke to me in Spanish. I cannot explain the sense of acceptance I felt in that moment even though she was just telling me that the store didn’t accept the credit card I had given her. It was much more welcoming for me than the English greetings and offers of assistance I received in the tourist shops. On my walk back to the hotel, I thought about what it would be like to live in Puerto Rico. It is a beautiful place, but it is not perfect. And while I was pleased by the assumption that I belonged (or at least spoke Spanish) in that grocery store moment, I realized that I am privileged to live in a country where women can be ordained and, in a growing number of states, marry other women if they so choose.

On our last day in Condado, I went for a morning swim. There were few people on the beach and the waves were relatively small. As I floated and pondered the power and beauty of the ocean, a pelican swooped down for breakfast a few feet away from me. I was awed by the grace of the big, awkward bird. It floated for a few minutes before taking off again. I doubt it noticed me much at all.

During that same swim, I found a sand dollar in about 10 feet of water. I dove down to retrieve it, only to discover that it was still alive. As it floated back to the bottom of the ocean, I thought of other times I’ve found sand dollars. I’m not much of a believer in signs, but when sand dollars have turned up in my life, there has almost always been some significance attached to them. I’m not sure about this one, except that it made me happy in a grateful, joyful kind of way. And just so I didn’t float off into a mystical realm of dreaminess, shortly after letting the sand dollar go, I was stung by what may or may not have been a small jellyfish. It was not serious in any way and, somehow, just served to deepen my sense of gratitude for life – mine and the abundant forms of life around me.

Without these more spiritual experiences, I’m not sure I could face the chaos of what goes on in the world on a daily basis. So much hatred and ignorance are proclaimed in the name of one God or another. Christians (Republicans and Democrats, conservative and progressive) spend a lot of time and energy judging others who do not believe as they believe. It’s heartbreaking, really. Many of us have missed the point of the Gospel and transformed our religion into an idol.

If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

Perhaps we should all write the words down and read them to ourselves before passing judgement in the name of Christ or claiming to know the mind of God. I don’t know about you, but if I did not have moments with my spouse, pelicans, and sand dollars every now and then, the stains of this world would wipe me out. Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said, “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”  There is a fine line between advocating for justice and overpowering those who think and feel differently.

I am horrified at some of the sound bites that have been repeated ad nauseum over the last several days. Ignorance is pretty scary when it is mistaken for righteousness in those with power. The racism displayed over the last few days is equally horrific. But so, too, is the needless violence happening throughout the world. These things are made worse when they are connected to people who are “religious.” Hatred for women, abuse of power, and racism are not among the teachings of Christ or any other God as far as I know. We have a long way to go to wash ourselves clean of the things that defile us. Maybe if we all spend a little more time with ourselves, with those in need, and with our God, we might worry less about what everyone else is doing.

I know that fixing what is wrong in the world isn’t that simple, of course. Consequently, many of us feel called to work against injustice in very active ways. The work is often exhausting and painful and, more often than not, rather sisyphean in nature. It does not mean that we can return hatred for hatred or violence for violence. Take a breath. Take a vacation. Be still. God is present in the face of suffering and oppression, but God is also present at the beach, in the flight of a pelican, in the simple complexity of a sand dollar.

And if this is not enough, read Psalm 15 and imagine what it would be like to live in God’s tent on God’s holy hill.

O God, who may abide in your tent?
   Who may dwell on your holy hill?

Those who walk blamelessly,
   and do what is right, 
  
who speak the truth from their heart,
   and do not slander with their tongue, 

and do no evil to their friends,
   nor take up a reproach against their neighbors;

in whose eyes the wicked are despised,
   but who honor those who fear God;

who stand by their oath
   even to their hurt;

who do not lend money at interest,
   and do not take a bribe against the innocent.

Those who do these things shall never be moved.

I don’t know about you, but I have a long way to go. In the meantime, there is forgiveness, grace, and gratitude.

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