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Sunday, January 19, 2020

Proverbs and the seduction of the fantasy life

“Why be seduced, my son, by someone else’s wife,
and fondle the breast of a woman who belongs to another?”
–Proverbs 5: 20
Before I leave the book of Proverbs, I wanted to take a moment to address this passage, that seems (on the one hand) to be advice for a young husband.  Of course, there is much value in such advice.  How many marriages are broken up by a husband who keeps looking for something more, as if his wife were just some kind of relationship place-holder, a kind of security blanket that can be replaced when a newer or “better” version comes along.
When I first read this passage, I was a little stunned that it was in the Bible.  The boldness of it, the matter of fact sensuality, the image of lust:  fondle the breast of a woman who belongs to another.  It gets right to the point.  I was also struck by what it reveals about men.  I had harbored a theory that perhaps our cultural obsession with women’s anatomy (in advertisements and movies, etc) was nurtured by the pornography industry that became so ubiquitous in the 60’s & 70’s (i.e. Playboy, Penthouse, even Esquire and Cosmopolitan, etc).  These publications with their nude or nearly nude pictures were treated as serious magazines by many people[1].  And so common place and accepted that at our house they were often sitting out on the coffee table[2].
 But clearly, this isn’t totally Hugh Heffner’s fault.  It has probably always been this way.  That is not an excuse, just an acknowledgment of possible fact.
Another thought: There is something Hellish in this vision of desire: of seeking pleasure in something that doesn’t belong to us.  It is a vision of desire that can never be fully satisfied.  It is a vision of hungering for something that we can never have.  It’s right there in the words: why fondle the breast of a woman who belongs to another?  She isn’t yours. She can never be yours. And in the end, it isn’t the fondling that we actually want. It’s the belonging! What we really want is to have someone who is ours. Not because we own them or possess them, but because they give themselves to us.  In the end, we want to belong. We want to be connected.  We want to give ourselves and be accepted, not as property, but as gift.
And (for me that speaks to what is actually wrong with pornography. It isn’t about giving, it’s about taking.  And it isn’t even about taking what is real. It’s about taking something that doesn’t actually exist, it’s a fantasy of filling our hunger with imaginary bread!  It promises a fantasy of connection, without the risk of relationship –without the obligations of belonging. On occasion, I have heard that absence of risk and obligation presented as a positive aspect. But, risk free isn’t reality; to truly fill that void within us that seeks intimacy requires risk.  That is part of what makes it so fulfilling. We risk everything, reveal everything and are still accepted; still belong.  That is the affirmation we are all seeking. That we are loved not for who we want to be or could be, but for who we are.
In essence, pornography is a cheap picture of a cheeseburger and a milk shake offered in place of food to a starving man.  It is a kind of Trojan Horse: a fantasy promise of pleasure and satisfaction that is secretly designed to only stir up more appetite. Think of it this way: it is like handing a man dying of thirst, a cool glass of water that is secretly filled with salt.
In essence, I hear in this message not only a warning against lust, but a warning against coveting. Against stirring up my own appetite for what belongs to another. It is a warning against fondling, even in my imagination, the treasures, the joys, the reputation, of another. And a call to reconsider the gifts, the treasures, the joys that I have been given. To find my calling, my place, my sense of belonging not in some fantasy, but in the actual gifts and opportunities that have been given to me. 
Part of that gift may even include the blessing of something that looks like a cross, and the opportunity to take it up, hold it close, and bear it humbly and with love.  In other words: Why be seduced by someone else’s lifeWake up and live your own.

[1] Heck, in 1976, President Carter was famously interviewed by Playboy Magazine. 

[2] Recently, while clearing out my Mom’s apartment, I discovered a suitcase full of old family pictures and mementos. At the bottom of the suitcase, beneath all the family memories was an old copy of Cosmo wrapped in a plastic bag. When I took it out, I noticed the headline: First Male Centerfold! (FYI: the center-fold was a picture of Burt Reynolds. And, as awkward as this is to say, it was a very well-worn copy. MOM!!)

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Obedience and blindness

Mass Reading
22 December 2019

“…the obedience of faith…”
--Romans 1:5

I am still thinking about the Mass readings (Isaiah, Romans & Matthew) from last Sunday (Dec 22) the last Sunday before Christmas. Something about these readings, has lingered with me these past few days, haunted this beginning of the Christmas season. Arising from these three distinct strands, is a harmony of meaning that feels best expressed by Paul’s phrase:  the obedience of faith, from the beginning of his Letter to the Romans. In our contemporary culture, obedience is often seen in a negative light. Too often, it is linked with the word “blind” (as in blind obedience or blind faith), to imply an irrational belief or behavior, even a blindness to common sense. But what if the obedience of faith isn’t about “blindness,” but about having our eyes opened? What if the obedience of faith is a way to open our eyes to the wonders of grace? The possibility of miracles happening, even today, even to us, even in our everyday lives?

The first reading was from Isaiah 7:10-14. It was the story of King Ahaz being offered a sign from God, anything he asks for, “…whether from the depths of Sheol or the heights of Heaven…” But Ahaz refuses the offer. In fact, he seems frightened by it. “I will not ask!  I will not tempt the Lord.” (7:12), he replies. Which isn’t a ridiculous response; on some level it seems quite appropriate.  In Deuteronomy 6:16, Israel is specifically warned against putting God to the test:  
“Ye shall not tempt the Lord your God…”

But obviously, that isn’t what is going on here. God is extending the offer, and Ahaz is avoiding it. He closes his eyes to the possibility of God actually speaking to him through the prophet. Instead of opening his eyes to the possibility, he hides behind the law.  He uses obedience to the Law, to protect himself. Through obedience to the Law, he protects himself from the inherent risk involved in obedience to God, the vulnerability of submitting himself fully to God.

In contrast, we have the Gospel reading (Matthew 1:18-24) telling us about Joseph, the righteous man, who turns away from the Law in order to obey God.  As opposed to Ahaz—the corrupt king who uses the law to his own benefit—Joseph is a man who observes the law with compassion.  We are told that when he finds out his new bride is already pregnant, he is “unwilling to expose her to shame,” and intends to “divorce her quietly;” (1:19) acting within the law, but not hiding behind it with righteous indignation, only following it with compassion for Mary and her situation, which –according to Deuteronomy 22:23—might have called for her to be stoned outside the city gates. And yet, when Joseph hears a command from heaven that seems crazy, seems to flaunt the Law, probably goes against everything he has been taught, he listens, and follows God’s command.  To the world around him, Joseph must look like a fool.  He is what the medievals would call a cuckold. But Joseph accepts that risk, that vulnerability, that public shame even, and instead of being obedient to the Law, is obedient to God (the author of the Law). Joseph's obedience is the obedience of faith, not fear. It is an obedience that fills the heart with joy, with hope, with courage; an obedience that opens our hearts, our minds, our souls, our eyes!! to possibilities beyond our imagining,

That is what I hear in these readings. A call to an obedience that opens our lives and the world to the possibility of miracles! It is an obedience that will be a sign to others, a witness to the world that “God is with us.” 

And the sign will be: an innocent baby lying in a manger, rejected by the world, yet offering Himself for our salvation.   

Believe, not with "blind faith" but with your eyes opened by faith; do not be blinded by fear. Instead, be brave. Be bold. Be kind. Be compassionate. Be generous.

Be obedient--with the obedience of faith.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Talking too much (and not enough) --the fool at the gate

“For a fool wisdom is an inaccessible fortress;
at the city gate he does not open his mouth…”
--Proverbs 24:7

Because I was thinking about talking too much in my last mediation, this verse about the fool not opening his mouth seemed an appropriate follow-up.

Here is a little vision of my reading process:
When I read this the first time, I thought: the first clause (before the semi-colon) is perfectly obvious: the “fool” knows of the kingdom of wisdom but cannot find any way to enter it. The gates are locked, the draw bridge is pulled up, the walls are too high, and maybe there is a shark infested moat surrounding it.

But then, there is that part after the semi-colon about being at the city gate and not opening his mouth. As I read it initially, I thought it was a sign of the fool’s untapped wisdom:  he doesn’t open his mouth.  For a fool that could be a good thing. He doesn’t have any wisdom to offer, so he keeps his mouth shut.

I don’t know if my mind was wandering, but I was treating each part as a separate, almost unrelated, statement.  It was as if I had wandered out of the metaphor the author was creating (a fortress) and into the streets leading up to a common city where people gathered at the gate to talk and share news and greet one another—to begin the business of the day.  And in my imagination, there was this fool with his clothed mouth, experiencing the benefits of restraint. No wisdom to share, nothing to say. Just listening and learning.

But then, realizing that this didn’t seem to make sense, I looked back and realized that the city gate comes within the context of the metaphor of the fortress of Wisdom. And then I realized that the reason the fool cannot access the kingdom is because he will not open his mouth; he won’t ask to be let in. He’s too foolish to ask for access. It perfectly dramatizes the depths of his foolishness:  this is a person who doesn’t even know enough to ask for help.

The second part of the statement develops the first.  Now, to most people this may seem rather obvious in itself, but for me (a librarian and writer) it is a lesson I am always having to relearn.

At moments like this, I wonder if anyone else reads like me; as carelessly, as foolishly.  And I wonder if my carless reading comes from lack of focus, from being unable to shut down all those voice in my head and just attend to the moment (the word on the page).  This sounds like an odd struggle for a writer to have, getting lost midway through a short sentence. I wonder if it is related to talking too much?  To those voices in my head that are constantly trying to interpret and decipher and dissect each and every situation, experience as if I were constantly trying to discover some hidden coded truth, constantly trying to prove myself, to justify my existence?  

And so –I will write one more thought –nay two-- then then hold my tongue; reading this passage I come away with 2 lessons:
1. There is wisdom to be found in remaining silent, or as Proverbs says:
If the fool holds his tongue, he may pass for wise. (17:28)
2. And there is wisdom in speaking out. When you are standing at Wisdom’s gate, don’t be afraid to open your mouth and reveal you are a fool in need of assistance.  It’s the only way you will be able to ask for help.
3. (okay –one more) And where better might we find the gates of the Kingdom of Wisdom, than in God’s word. So, when you are reading The Bible, don’t be a fool, humble your heart, open your mouth and ask for help.  In fact, the author is right there standing at the gate, waiting for you.  Just say the word and He will open the gate and let you in.