The Liability of Mobility

Happy New Year, Reader!  I hope your holiday went well, or at least was tolerable.  I didn’t get into any fistfights with family this year, so I’m counting that as a win.

The bar is low in my life.

But while I’m sitting at my desk waiting until a concert tonight (the centerpiece of which is Holst’s Planets suite, which is one of my favorites), I keep looking over my shoulder at the parking lot behind my building and worrying.  The thing is that I live in a city and, in cities, parking is an incredibly tricky concept:  there are lots of cars, but not lots of spaces.  And they’re currently resurfacing my parking lot, which means I had to find somewhere else to put my car.

First world problems, I know; you may even be wondering why I have a car, living in the city.  I don’t use it much here—I walk to anywhere within about a mile and a half radius, which is the vast majority of the pieces of my life.  But I have it so that I can leave here.  My friends are several states away and I can’t afford to buy a plane ticket when I want to go home to see them; I sometimes have people or places I need to visit that are definitely not within walking distance and aren’t on any of the bus lines, either.  (Sadly, my city doesn’t have a subway or el system.)  I also have it so that I, as an up-and-coming pastor, don’t have to rely on the vagaries of public transit (rather less reliable and far-reaching here than in, say, NYC) to be able to get to my church or the hospital or one of my parishioners’ houses.

I also, to be perfectly honest, still have my car because of the freedom in it.  When my grandfather finally had to give up his driver’s license because he simply couldn’t see anymore to drive safely, he didn’t give it up voluntarily.  His sons had to wrest it from him because it was his last link to not having to depend on the rest of the family to get him around; it was his way of telling himself he wasn’t being a burden.  I get that, at a visceral level.  As a hella independent woman, I love that my car affords me the opportunity to leave if I must and go wherever I want (provided, of course, she holds together; she is almost 15 now, but I can’t even handle the idea of her demise and so refuse to acknowledge it).

In America, a car is a ticket to anywhere you have enough gas to go.  A car is a home—literally, for some, and I admit to having spent some nights in my car when I was travelling and couldn’t afford another option.  And my car is currently sitting in a lot where it might be towed.

Before you lecture me on taking risks with the possibility of towing, dear concerned Reader, let me say a) I know; there’s a story about a van in Chicago and a middle school youth group that has made me painfully aware of city towing consequences, and b) I did play by the rules for part of this.  One of the frustrating things about this parking lot makeover is that we weren’t given any avenues about what to do with our cars by the folks who own the building, simply the command last night to move them (I’m bitter about this mostly because they were supposed to do this repair over the holiday break when most of us weren’t here anyway, but nooo, now we’re all in the way…damn right I’m being petty about it).  So this morning I actually put my car in a lot, which wasn’t cheap.  But I could only leave it there so long, and besides, I had to get to work.  For the remaining hours, it’s not so much that I couldn’t afford the cost of meters or garages or whatever (I could definitely jostle other things in the budget to make it work, because even in being poor I’m pretty fortunate about the financial burdens I have; trust me, I’m aware that I could be a lot worse off and this is a tiny expense); it’s that it’s frustrating to me that I should have to simply because a company couldn’t be bothered to honor its commitments and my building super couldn’t be bothered to help a bunch of graduate students re-house their cars for a day.

sesser-pd-012Why am I complaining about so small a thing, you may well ask?  And what on earth does this have to do with God, especially as the first post of a new year?  Part of it is the simple amount of mental energy I’m putting into this.  My car has been tucked into the back of a lot that is usually half-empty for about three and a half hours now hoping against hope that the school that owns the lot won’t do a random sweep, and I tell you I have been nervous the entire time.  It’s exhausting, quite frankly, and of a far higher cost than the stupid garage would have been.  The principle of the thing is super ridiculous beside my concern that I might have to go rescue my car from the impound.

But what if I were even half as aware of God as I am currently of my car?  I don’t mean that someone could take God away from me, but how often have I considered the freedom God gives with the dedication I have to the freedom of this vehicle?  In this new year, how do I understand God’s place in my life—in relation to the car or not?  How can I live with the passion of appreciating God even more than that with which I appreciate my car?

UPDATE:  The lot is finished, my car was not towed, and she’s safely back in her spot.  I’m almost ashamed of how much my body unwound, Reader, when I saw her sitting right where I left her.  When have I ever had that intense of a reaction to realizing God is still, and always, with me, right where I walked away from Him?

 

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.  (Matthew 6:21, LEB)

A Come to Jesus Moment

I’ve been quite purposefully staying away from this blog for a minute, Reader, while I calmed down about the recent American elections.  I realized it wouldn’t do anyone any good for me to get on here and swear a blue streak, although I must admit that’s what I wanted to do.  I’m mad at conservatives who decided supposed economic security was worth selling the safety of various groups; I’m mad at liberals who can’t seem to hear their own narrow-mindedness while yelling at others for theirs; I’m super, super mad at the fools who didn’t vote at all.  And on top of that I’m utterly heartbroken and ashamed that my country is so broken that a misogynistic asshat is going to be the president.

Right, so as you can see I didn’t get all of my angry out.  And I don’t actually plan to; I think I need angry right now, not in the sense of the “rah burn shit down” kind of rage but in the “power music to change the world” kind of focus.  Righteous anger—that’s right, righteous, with all the forceful overtones that carries—is something that we need to redefine and reclaim.  I agree with the idea that this is the best thing to happen for the Church because it is so easy to align ourselves with the ideals of this world and that ain’t it.  The Kingdom of God is brought with a sword, not in the Crusader sense of hacking people apart but in the sense of refusing to stand by and allow injustice simply so we don’t have to inconvenience ourselves.

We Christians are called to take up our cross and follow Jesus.  By Jesus.  And that verse has been used so often and we have gotten so used to the cross that we think of it—that I think of it—as oh, man, I have to be nice to people at Thanksgiving.

No.  Christianity is not about nice.  Crosses are not about nice.  When Jesus was crucified, it was the most shameful and exposed form of death the Roman Empire could find for those it deemed counter-cultural and dangerous.  It was a slow death in which people’s own body weight killed them as they bled out, naked in front of whoever decided to come watch.  It was a statement that robbed the dying of anything even resembling dignity and made sure they had plenty of time to mull over the fact that the Empire had won.

Let me be clear—I am not advocating that people overthrow the Trump government any more than Jesus suggested His people overthrow Rome.  (His refusal to do so, in point of fact, was part of what endangered Him.)  Nor am I saying that people should just shoulder whatever comes as their own cross, their own burden.  I’m saying that we are called for just such a time as this every bit as much as Esther to risk ourselves for the safety and well-being of others.  If literally all that you can do is wear a safety pin and be prepared for whatever comes with that, that is your cross; bear it.  But do not build the cross of wearing the pin and then walk away when people call you on it, refusing to carry the burden of its realities.

Beyond that, get involved.  Research the things your friends say, whether you agree with them or not; do not blindly agree because something fuels your anger or hurt or fear.  Keep an eye on what is going on in your state legislature, your town councils, the federal congress.  Call offices, take surveys, send emails.  Make your voice heard by the people who can effect change on the topics that most concern you.  I don’t mean that you should make of yourself a 24-hour governmental watchdog (exhausted people are unhelpful to themselves and their movements, so know your own limits), but I do mean that your reaction—and mine—to the new administration must run deeper than Facebook comments and blog posts.

Remind yourself that there is an outside world.  Yes, there is much to be said about the election fallout, but Flint, Michigan still doesn’t have drinkable water.  East Tennessee is currently on fire.  Syria is still being torn to shreds by war, part of which is the fault of us, of America.  Brazil is still grappling with economic insecurity as its government shifts unsteadily.  Great Britain is still figuring out how to deal with the fallout of Brexit.  Boco Haram is still wreaking havoc in Nigeria.  America is not the only nation with problems, nor is the election America’s only problem.  Remember that we, as Christ’s hands and feet, are needed in more than just Washington, D.C.

And start praying right now, Reader, as to what is important to you about what America is.  A lot of promises were made on the campaign trail that shake down the dignity of the very citizens the American government is supposed to protect.  So fight for what you believe, speak out for that which is important to you, but know yourself:  are we willing to stand for those who cannot?  Are we willing to speak for the voiceless?  Are we willing to bear the crosses of seeking justice and extending mercy?  I have to pray my own prayers of reflection.  Am I willing to carry the cross of feeding the hungry, loving the leper, eating with tax collectors, healing the sick?  Am I willing to challenge legislation and to speak against communication that endangers or dismisses those who are female, who are LGBT, who are of color, who are refugees, who are immigrants, who are poor, who are survivors of sexual assault, who are human?  I don’t have to agree or support; I have to protect.  My safety cannot be more important than another’s.

You alone can’t fix the world, so please don’t try to engage every injustice and burn yourself out totally.  But do see the places around you where Christ beckons, come, pick up your cross.

May His yoke be easy.

Because this won’t be.

 

 

Thus says the Lord:

“For three transgressions of Israel,
    and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they sell the righteous for silver,
    and the needy for a pair of shoes—
they that trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
    and turn aside the way of the afflicted[.]”  (Amos 2:6-7b, RSV)

The Unstoppable Eucharist

Here’s the good news:  I’ve signed up for classes for next semester and my schedule will be slightly less ridiculous, which means I can settle into a regular posting schedule again.  The bad news is that I’ll continue to be spotty for this semester.  I’m sorry about that.

Halloween is Monday, which is crazy to me.  I have no idea how it’s Halloween already, and the weather here at the Wicket Gate hasn’t been at all cooperating in helping me believe that we’re this far into the fall.  Global warming is crap for polar bears like me.

Halloween is in the running for my least favorite holiday because I’m pretty much a coward and hate frightening things.  An entire holiday designed to scare you is just about the worst (also, waaaay too many spiders), but Halloween is also an interesting time of year for people of the Christian faith.  There’s definitely the segment of folks who can’t abide Halloween because of its supposed connections with Satan and his ilk (y’know, witches and all that).  But I read an article about how All Hallows’ Eve is actually pretty amazing for Christians considering it’s another way for us to celebrate Christ’s victory over death—and I like that spin.

So in that spirit, and in the recognition that I’ve had several God-moments around this particular sacrament lately, let me talk about the Eucharist, that memorial meal of the Resurrection itself.

At my div school, there’s a Eucharist service on Fridays that is a handful of students and the occasional professor gathering purely for communion.  There’s no sermon, no announcements, just some hymns, prayer, and the sacrament itself.  It’s become one of the most important points of my rhythm here, partly because I’ve always been deeply connected to this particular ritual but also because it is an outrageously human part of my week.

Here’s the thing:  because it is almost entirely students, there are so many things that go wrong.  We don’t have a sound system, but one week the person supposed to bring the bread and grape juice (hey, it’s run by Methodists) and so we legit used a bagel from Coffee Hour and some juice the presiding chaplain happened to have in her office.  Twice now I’ve been asked to step up and read the Scripture of the day because they didn’t have anyone and I was, well, there.  This past week no one had remembered to print off the bulletins that provide the liturgy, so part of it we read from the UMC hymnal and part of it we just listened to while the people leading said it all by themselves.

And here’s the thing—God still shows up.  This service is so important to me for a number of reasons, but one big one is that I’m in a program training people to be able to handle holy ritual and sacred relationship and we are still so incredibly not God.  Even when I graduate I still won’t be God (I think knowing that in my first semester will help tremendously in this degree) and I will screw things up a bunch when I work in a church.  But that doesn’t mean that Jesus won’t come to those services; thankfully, He doesn’t wait for our perfection to manifest Himself among his people.  Where two or more are gathered, right?  Right.

In the third and fourth centuries, there was a huge upheaval in the Christian community about the grace of the sacraments.  One of the things people were trying to hash out was the role of the priest; if the priest was a heretic or a traditore (since Christianity wasn’t legal until the mid-4th century, there were a handful of persecutions in which some priests decided martyrdom wasn’t their thing and so “handed over” Christian documents and renounced their faith; this is where we get the English term “traitor”), was their whole flock damned with them?  Or was God’s work God’s work no matter whose hands delivered it?

Thankfully, most people fell on the side of God’s grace being stronger than any individual priest’s faith/correctness, but there was much ink spent on the idea; if you listen to the way people talk about preachers and the relationship they have with their pastors and, through them, with God, I’d argue we’re still having that fight.  But this weekly Eucharist service is amazing to me because it’s super true; God’s grace is unstoppable.  This sacrament in which Christ is present and remembered can’t be shut out by our ineptitude or even by using a bagel.  And it never will be.  There is nothing I can do as a worship leader that will stop God from coming to God’s people, and that is the most incredibly heartening news.

And just as Jesus isn’t restrained by my saying the perfect words, He isn’t contained in that worship space.  Since there aren’t that many of us who attend, there’s always bread leftover.  In the UMC (and most Christian traditions that I know of) you can’t just throw out consecrated bread; it’s a respect thing.  Either you have to return it to nature (i.e. feed to squirrels or somesuch) or you have to eat it yourself.  I have class right after this service, so I often end up taking the leftover bread along with me and offering bits of Jesus to my classmates.  It’s a pretty amazing ritual in and of itself, that we divinity students take handfuls or just tiny pieces of the challah or the naan or the sourdough or whatever bread we had that week and munch contentedly on this tasty tasty Jesus, and it’s not at all sacrilegious.  Far from it—we are sharing in community, hashing out the history of the early Church even as we are filled with this element so laden with grace and hope and possibility even as it’s just really delicious bread.

And in that, too, is Eucharist.  In people gathering to discuss this Christ with Whom we disagree, Whom we keep learning we don’t really know, Who yet comes and shares this meal with us just as He shared with 5,000 and with 11, we are honoring the sacrament and remembering.

Until He comes again.

 

 

 Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.  And one cried to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
The whole earth is full of His glory!”  (Isaiah 6:2-3, NKJV)

 

 

 

Greetings from the Wicket Gate

In case you’re wondering where that is, here’s a short explanation.  As Magister so rightly pointed out, everywhere I go is the Land of Pilgrims, but I’m definitely in a different geographical spot than I was a week ago.  And you still don’t need to know exactly where that is; as ever with this blog, I want what I’m doing to be more important than who I am or where I’m living.  I also want you, Reader, to be able to map your own pilgrimage onto parts of mine, not because we’re doing the same thing but because any similarities our paths have may help us understand each other and this God Who sees the whole of it that much better.

So I’m here, and I realize that the metaphorical name for it doesn’t quite fit; as with any borrowing of metaphors, it’s not perfect.  I’m at seminary (at long last, you might be saying) and to say that it is the only narrow way to the King’s Highway would be a terrible miscarriage of what seminary is and what the King is expecting of His people.  But for me, Reader, this is a start to the journey even as it’s a continuation of what I’ve been doing and what God has been doing through me.

For now, I wanted to check in and let you know I’d safely arrived; thank you for your prayers and hopes for me in the transition, as it was quite a whirlwind.  I’m now mostly unpacked (no one needs this many towels, where did they all come from?) and convinced that I’m never allowed to have a full-sized house since I accrue stuff at an alarming rate if I have space for it.

And if I don’t.

It’s funny how one of my primary desires is to find home here—and, equally, to accept that I won’t.  My heart was left behind in the Land of Pilgrims and I don’t see that changing any time soon; I lost it in church this morning as I drowned under the first wave of homesickness for my family, my congregation, my rhythms and rites.  Yet even in that moment of missing people and place so much it hurt to breathe, the service reminded me that God goes where I go—rather, I go where God goes because He was there way ahead of me, waiting.  Communion here still involves bread and grape juice and the challenge of community just as it has in so many churches not only in this country but in others.  Music here—some of it the same that we sang at camp, which I think was God being rather heavy-handed in underlining the continuity—still has so much variety and breadth and is still calling me to pay attention to God’s presence in this sacred space.  The Bible here is still God’s word, and Jesus goes by the same name here.  Yes, it’s a whole different world and my home church doesn’t have a jazz trumpet in the praise band, but God is God is God is God no matter where I am, geographically or spiritually.

What an incredible gift.

And in the midst of all this change, I’m still connected to that family, that home; technology, that hated love of mine, has ensured that Interpreter, Prudence, and several others have been at my very fingertips while I navigate orientation and moving in and unpacking and job interviews and all manner of things that are oh-so-daunting.  The relationships will change, for sure, and I can’t say that I’m thrilled about that, but change does not have to equal challenge.  In fact, having them come along for this adventure can make the relationships that much more multi-dimensional.

And you, Reader, come with me.  No matter where you are, we remain in this corner of the internet together—and I can’t tell you what a gift it is to know that you are still here exploring with me, cheering me on, sharing parts of yourself and accepting these offered parts of myself.  Thank you for being my travelling companion, Reader.

And hang on.  This gate is going to be pretty intense.

 

 

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad and easy to travel is the path that leads the way to destruction and eternal loss, and there are many who enter through it.”  (Matthew 7:13, AMP)

No Justice, No Peace

Sorry this is late, Reader; I had half an entry written yesterday and then left work early to sleep because I was exhausted on every possible level.  I napped for a good chunk of the afternoon and then slept ten hours last night and I’m still tired to my very bones—but I’m working on it.

I did take the time, however, to get up last night and go to a gathering in support of Black Lives Matter here in the Land of Pilgrims.  I would say sorry, this is a blog about living into Christianity and I’m going to detour into politics, but that would be untrue.  Living into Christianity, I’m learning, is politics.  I’m not saying that we all have to declare a party, but I am saying that we’re doing something wrong (or not doing something) if we sidestep politics, especially if it’s so as not to upset people.  Jesus was an upsetting dude; He rattled the cages of a lot of folks in His day simply because He understood Himself not to be bound by the conventions of His leadership.  We as His followers have to step into the uncomfortable places where we find injustice to be light and salt and all that other stuff that would be much easier if it didn’t involve pushing other people’s buttons.

So I went to this thing because seriously, enough is enough.  I cannot in good faith—literally, in my faith—continue to say “oh, what a shame” and then pass on the opportunity to put body to voice.  Facebook rants are not enough.  Interpreter tossed this my way, indirectly, so I moved some other plans and roused myself to go on a steamy Friday night to listen.

That, actually, was my main purpose:  to listen.  This was a gathering where folks who are black could speak their piece and not have anyone talk over them, not be told they shouldn’t be angry, not be told that it wasn’t that big a deal.  I stood in this park and listened to rants, to slam poetry, to raps, to pleas, to stories of persecution and pain and loss, to exhortations, and to sorrow stretching hundreds of years because this was not a place for me to talk.  I’m white, and regardless of my feelings about that it is a biological fact.  I can’t speak to the black experience in America because I don’t have a clue about it, so I went, and I listened.

I’m glad that I did; some powerful things were said.  It was in a sense even more powerful because a family member had texted me as I was on my way over to tell me something and asked where I was going.  On my response that it was a Black Lives Matter rally, she responded that white lives matter too, that all lives matter.  They do not matter equally, I said, one white person to another; if saying that Black Lives Matter makes you defend your own racial value as though there is a limited number of resources that their assertion is taking away from you, then no, not all lives matter.  It’s an imperfect world, she responded; as long as we treat others as we want to be treated, that’s all we can do.

Wrong.

God has not called us to try, Yoda that He is.  God has called us to do, on a systemic level.  If you love your neighbor as yourself but see that they are wounded by another and do nothing, where is your love?  If you patch up a wounded man at the side of the road but don’t take him to an inn for long-term treatment, do you still get to claim being the Good Samaritan?  If we as people of faith content ourselves with simply being nice on a person-to-person level, then change will only happen on a person-to-person level.

I’m not saying that that’s bad or that that can’t change the world; it can, most certainly, and it is on that individual level that change happens at all.  But looking at the imperfections of the world and saying it will always be that way is saying that I don’t need to build the Kingdom because it’s not meant to be here on earth.  False!  We are called every day to be ready for Christ’s return; we are called every day to do something with the gifts that are given to us.  If we are just burying them in the ground and saying the world is frightening and imperfect, do we truly think Christ is going to be pleased with that?

So that was an awkward conversation.  But then I was at the rally and listening—and then I was marching.  The organizers decided to shut down one of the main shopping areas downtown with a long march of these hundreds of people to say that we are here and we are not going away, and I must say I was very unsure of whether or not I’d stay.  The police were out in force, several counter-protesters gathered with their American flags and their hatred, death threats had been made on the event’s Facebook page.  I’m moving soon, I need to avoid things like being arrested or shot.

Then I realized I was thinking that and that that was why I needed to stay.  Walking away is an option for me; if something had gone down, my being a white churchgoer would be a source of great protection for me.  My fellow gatherers of color likely wouldn’t have that; so I marched with them, clapping along to the chants—-but often being unable to speak them.

Here’s the thing:  I’m not into groupthink at all.  I also think words carry great power.  So it was hard for me to shout things like, “No justice, no peace!” because I want peace.  I have no desire to start a fight.

But am I not already in one?

 

 

He who justifies the wicked, and he who condemns the righteous, both of them alike are an abomination to Yahweh.  (Proverbs 17:15, WEB)

Having My Head Examined

I feel part of this journey into ministry is the act of sharing it with those around me, both demystifiying and humanizing the “transition” from laity to clergy.  It’s a fascinating process, if exhausting and bizarre.  In my tradition (United Methodist), there are a great many steps toward ordination.  One of them is quite possibly the least pleasant part:  a psychological report.

There’s, first, a battery of some four or five psychological assessments that you have to sit down and take, among them the MMPI-2.  This is 567 true/false questions meant to chart your overall psychological map (anxiety levels, relationship with your own health, cynicism, self-esteem, familial relationships, etc.).  There’s also a fill-in-the-blank test that measures your mental health by how you respond to certain prompts (“I wish my mother would…,” “My biggest challenge is…,” “When I don’t know anyone at a gathering, I…”).  And there’s another true/false set-up of another 400 or so questions, and then a 200-question test…I took most of them right in a row (in retrospect, perhaps not the wisest thing to do but I did so want them over with) and it took me about five hours to get through everything.  (One other test didn’t have to be proctored by another person, so I took that home and did it while lying on my floor and wondering whether the Church was seriously worth seven hours of intense self-examination.  So the joke some folks make about I should have my head examined for wanting to be a pastor?  It’s not funny anymore.)

On every test there is the admonition to “be honest” and not try to answer the questions the way you think the Church wants you to answer them.  You know those kinds of questions; it’s like Buzzfeed quizzes on which Avenger you are.  The ones that slant toward Iron Man are pretty obvious and you’ll pick those if you want to be Iron Man.  But the Church wants (or says it wants) who you really are, and that is TERRIFYING.  I’ve done psych evals, I’ve been through therapy; I know what it looks like when I answer certain questions certain ways.  I know that this is not the “right” answer, that this is going to be a flag of some color in my mark-up.  Perhaps the hardest part of the tests was not the taking of them but the allowance for myself to be honest about the places I’m not all that well adjusted yet.

Once you’ve done the tests, they are sent to a psychologist who reviews them and also sits down with you for two hours to get a measure of who you are when you’re on the spot.  If you think the tests are fun, than this part is a rollicking party.  Said psychologist gets to ask anything he likes—and you can refuse to answer, of course, but that is itself an answer.  Again, the hardest part for me wasn’t necessarily the conversation but resisting the very strong temptation to shape the interaction so as to make myself look tremendously healthy and awesome.

Armed with the tests and this interview, the psychologist writes up a report about you and (after talking it over with you to see if you see anything egregiously incorrect in its representation which he may or may not change) that gets sent on to the various boards of the Church for their review and then FOLLOWS YOU FOREVER.

So do other reports, so it’s not like this is the end-all-be-all description of who you are.  But it is part of it, and it is unnerving as all get-out to have a nine-page (in my case) breakdown of all your insecurities and faltering places that complete strangers get to read.  Complete strangers who get to decide whether or not to support my call to professional ministry.  Complete strangers who get first this statement of clinical detachment from who I am and why I do things and how really, I’m not so bad once you get to know me.

I didn’t react well to this report at first, as you might imagine.  How could I?  It’s a hell of a thing to feel…well, to feel so very exposed.  I realize this is a hilarious thing to come from a weekly blogger, but both you and I know that I control how much of me you see, Reader.  I don’t lie to you, but neither do I come even close to telling you the whole truth—because you don’t need to know it.  And you do the same in your life; no two people hold the same information about us.  It would be silly to try that because our spouses should never be in the same kind of relationship with us as our parents or our bosses—but our spouses should know us deeply and truly and in the places where we cringe against the light because those aren’t beautiful.

So to have Church officials see those kinds of places?  Tough.  I don’t want them to see those, I don’t want to be that kind of vulnerable because it’s so easy to see the (constructive) criticisms and hear not that I don’t do well in this area but that I am bad, that I as a person should not do ministry; having your fears and anxieties and history on display like that is hellishly intimate in a very public kind of way.

But as I was striking out against that report in anger driven by fear and frustration (about which I’ll say more the week after next—which, oh, there won’t be a post next week because I’m off to be in a wedding.  I’m sorry I almost forgot again!), I realized God sees this all the time.  God doesn’t have to wait for a typed report to tell Him that I pull away from some situations, that my anxiety levels are not healthy, that it’s far easier for me to walk away from relationship than to stay in.  He knows that; He’s always known that.

But He loves me fiercely and He calls me to His service.

Whom then shall I fear if God sees infinitely more than psychological assessments and yet still values me as His daughter?  And what right have I to believe that I am less because of these imperfections when He continually makes me more by His love?

 

 

Lord, you have examined me;
    you have known me.
You know when I rest
    and when I am active.
You understand what I am thinking
    when I am distant from you.  (Psalm 139:1-2, ISV)

People of the Books: Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz

Hullo, Reader!  Thanks for your patience with me in my not warning you I’d be dropping off the radar last week; I had a conference last weekend (and also confirmation at church), so I wasn’t able to get to this.  But I’m back now (albeit a day late)—happy Saturday!  Have a book review!

Quo Vadis (which has apparently been made into a movie that I’m going to have to see now) is another of those books that somehow magically made it into my library when I wasn’t paying attention.  I have no memory of buying this or being given it, but I know I’ve moved it from at least one place to another with me.  In my great I Have to Read All These Books Before I Move Them Again project (yeah, it’s not going well; Reader, I own a lot of books) I finally decided to sit down with this one.

I must say, it was slow going at first.  Sienkiewicz doesn’t pull punches in how he sets up the story; he expects you to keep up as he throws you into 60s A.D. Rome under the craziness of Nero’s rule.  But stick with it; once you get situated in the overwhelming city (fortunately, my version had a map at the back so I could follow Sienkiewicz’s characters talking about where things were), you realize this is a pretty epic story.

The basic premise is that Marcus Vinicius, a nobleman of one of the ancient families and a decorated soldier now hanging about in Rome, falls in love with a gal named Ligia.  Add in the complication—Ligia is a Christian.  This is a time when Christianity was kept on the downlow because it wasn’t outright illegal but it definitely wasn’t liked, so Ligia’s faith is already questionable but also it’s a totally foreign idea to Vinicius.  He has all the power and wealth he could want; why on earth would someone want to follow a faith that tells you to give up stuff like that?  Foolishness.

So with this very simple plot, off we go.  Of course it gets more complicated; it’s set against the backdrop of Nero, who was batshit crazy and a half.  Petronius, Vinicius’s uncle, is one of Nero’s advisors (of a sort) and through his eyes we get to see the court falling apart as Nero loses touch with reality more and more.  The main punch of the book is when Rome gets set on fire, which Sienkiewicz described brilliantly, hauntingly, and horrifyingly.  For a city that large and that flammable to catch fire would indeed have been a sight for the ages, but the amount of people it displaced for the whims of a mad emperor is just staggering.

And then Nero blames it on the Christians—cue lions, torture, gore, and all of the awful debauchery that Rome could offer.  We of the 21st century are scary good at causing pain, but we have nothing on Rome.  They were terrifying in the amounts of ways they concocted to kill people; it’s even reflected in the language.  There are over thirty different verbs for “to kill” in ancient Latin.

I do try to correct folks when they think everything from Jesus to Constantine was lions eating Christians because that isn’t true.  Wide-scale persecution was relatively rare; most of the time Christians were mistrusted and ignored or simply thrown in jail for a while.  But sometimes they became scapegoats of epic proportions, and Sienkiewicz does a fantastic job of capturing how frightening and overwhelming that would be.  And one of the best parts about this book is that it makes you look at Christianity itself all over again.

Christianity is so completely embedded in modern Western culture we simply can’t look around without seeing it.  But when it was new and weird and secretive and still being ironed out—I don’t want to romanticize that at all, but I do love reading stories that make me remember it.  This is a time where there aren’t written stories but instead you would hear the Gospel from Peter himself (yeah, Peter and Paul have bit parts in this; it’s pretty awesome because I’m always ready to have them be ornery humans with their own doubts and fears, not knowing how much they would become pillars of the Church).  This is a time when there are the earliest of hymns, when people were still using the fish (ichthus) to identify each other, when books like Revelation make sense because people really did think Jesus was coming back any day because surely the world was tearing itself apart at the seams.

Sienkiewicz definitely has an angle—Nero bad, Christians good—but this isn’t at all a religion pitch.  He returns over and over again to how hard it is to be part of this faith and how different the early version of it was compared to what we know.  And the remarkable thing is that he was writing at the turn of the 20th century yet you can tell his heart is in the history of this rather than any attempts to convert the reader (of course, he would likely have assumed all of his readers would have been Christian already anyway).  Some of the characters don’t get Christianity and end the book still not getting it and yet being fully themselves, and five million points to an author who respects his/her characters enough not to try and force them into conversion moments.  My only real problem with characterization is in how Sienkiewicz talks about Ursus, Ligia’s bodyguard; a lot of the language there is very much about how this barbarian (they’re political hostages from a northern kingdom) is so very slow and more brawn than brains.  That caught me up several times because it’s so bald, but Ursus was still a real and marvelous character who actually stands in for the reader sometimes when we’re trying to understand what’s going on.  He also becomes a paradigm of loyalty and an example to be followed.

There is violence and sex and this is not for the faint of heart, Reader, but it is well worth the time, especially in this more modern translation (mad props to W. S. Kuniczak).  It’s a great story as well as a really well-written imagining of the early days of Christianity. I’ll definitely be keeping this on hand.

 

Rating:  4.5/5 stars  People of the Books:  Why I Am a Catholic by Garry Wills