Thursday, October 29, 2009

RequiesCat for Akasha

Akasha in Redlands, California
July 3, 2009

Today was a very painful day. I took Akasha, my feline companion, to the vet to be euthanized. Since early last week, she had been very low energy and was not moving much. She spent most of her time laying on her mat in the kitchen and occasionally moved in and laid by her water dish in my bedroom. She also occasionally would get up on the bed, but with great difficulty. She was not eating much, and when she did, only ate a few bites at a time.

By the end of last week, I noticed that she was not having regular bowel movements. I noticed Sunday evening and Monday morning that she was trying to, but was unable to produce results. Monday morning I took her to the vet. The doctor’s preliminary diagnosis was kidney failure, and he ran some blood tests. I talked to him Tuesday and he said that the lab results are suggestive of kidney failure, although they are still functioning – not unusual for a cat of her age (17). She was suffering from anemia and had an elevated white cell count, indicative of some sort of non-specific inflammation (could be cancer or any number of other things). In short, there was a lot going on but nothing conclusive.

The vet said that all we could really do would be to subject her to all sorts of treatments in hopes of clearing up some of the problems, but there were no clear answers. Given her age, and not wanting to subject her to the trauma of continuous medical procedures with no certainty of any significant improvement in her health, we decided to do nothing of the sort. I told him Monday that I don’t want any heroic efforts. After talking it through with him, we were in agreement that the best thing to do under the circumstances, the most compassionate thing for her and for me, would be to let her go.

Since I did not want to just drop her off at the vet and have her spend her last moments of life alone, I opted to be with her when she is euthanized. The earliest I could get an appointment to do that was Wednesday. However, since I had a packed schedule, I would have had to clear my calendar to do it, and since there was no immediate urgency, I made an appointment for Thursday morning. That way, I would have a little more time with her, and I then take the rest of Thursday off, knowing I would be in no condition to work. Then I would have Friday (usual day off) to pull myself together.

This was a very difficult decision for me. I didn’t want to let her go, but know it is the best thing for both of us and was as prepared for it as I can possibly be. She was obviously uncomfortable and may well have been experiencing some pain. And I hated seeing her like this. I just couldn’t let her linger too much longer.

Last night, Akasha spent most of the night on my bed, lying up near my head – very unusual for her. She usually slept farther down on the bed. It was almost as if she wanted to be near me, that she knew something was up. This morning, I got up as usual and spent the last few hours before going to the vet with her. Before we left, I fed her a little bit of turkey – her favorite.

I got to the vet just before 9:40, the time of my appointment. When I arrived, my parents were already there, having driven over from Riverside to be with me. When I got into the exam room, the vet said she was going to give Akasha some “happy juice” to calm her down before the actual shot to put her down. I asked Dr. Blanchard if she could get something for the father, too. She said she is not allowed to treat priests. A couple minutes later, Dr. Blanchard came back and gave Akasha a shot of tranquilizer. Akasha calmed down, but after a couple minutes, started becoming agitated. Dr. Blanchard said that she thought she gave her enough given the fact that she was so scrawny, but apparently she needed more. So, she gave her another shot. Akasha calmed down again and we spent out last few minutes together, with me trying to comfort her and letting her know how much I love her.

After a few more minutes, Dr. Blanchard came back into the room and gave Akasha the final shot. She went peacefully and quietly, nestled in my arms. I spent a few more minutes with her before saying my final good-bye. Although she was gone and looked so peaceful, in death she looked so much more like her previous self.

When I left the room, I ran into Dr. Blanchard. We talked for a few minutes and she said that she hoped I would remember them when I was ready to get another cat. She said they occasionally have cats that they rescue or that people drop off. We talked about some of the cats they currently have. Then we went back to look at them. I think it was helpful to see some live cats. There were two there, just little guys, that were so adorable. I would love to have them, but know that I will need some time before getting any new companions.

After leaving the vet, the folks and I went back to my house and we talked a little bit before they left. It was a little strange coming home to an empty house. There have been a few times when she has been away, like at my parents’ house while I was on vacation. But to come home to an empty house and know that Akasha no longer lived here was kind of strange. The first time in 17 years that I have been truly alone in my own house.

After the folks left, I spent the rest of the day cleaning the house – cleaning out the litter boxes and food and water dishes, cleaning the hardwood floors, and mopping the kitchen and laundry room. All during the cleaning I was fine and at peace. Only afterwards did I occasionally have moments of breaking into tears and really missing Akasha. It’s the little things that remind me of her. Like going into the kitchen and having a clear spot under the window where her food and water dish used to be. Or going into the laundry room and having an empty spot where her litter box used to be. I know that it will take awhile to get over the pain and get used to not having Akasha around.

Akasha had a good life. She was born on May 2, 1992 in Grand Terrace, California. In September of that year, she and her brother Lestat joined the Fincher family. During her life, Akasha traveled to various parts of California, Illinois, and points in between. During her life, she lived in Highland, California; Riverside, California; Evanston, Illinois; Los Angeles, California; and Redlands, California. She even completed three years of seminary. She was a great and loving companions. She was preceded in death by Lestat (who died July 12, 2007), and is survived by her loving human companion, who will miss her greatly.

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Sunday, October 18, 2009

Glory: Throne or Cross?

Twentieth Sunday of Pentecost (Proper 24) – Year B (RCL)Isaiah 53:4-12; Psalm 91:9-16; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45
Sunday, October 18, 2009 –
Trinity, Redlands

Sometimes when I’m watching a movie or TV show, I find myself feeling really embarrassed for the character on the screen. It’s almost as if what were happening on the screen were happening to me. Even if the situation unfolding is not one that has ever happened to me, nor ever would likely ever happen to me, I still get very uncomfortable, as if I were the one in that situation. Well, I find myself feeling the same way whenever I read or her today’s gospel lesson – I always feel so embarrassed for James and John, the Zebedee brothers.

First off, they come in and have the gall to tell, not ask, but tell Jesus that they want him to do whatever they ask of him. But Jesus handles this open-ended demand with great tact. Then the Zebedee Boys come out with their real request. They demand that they be given the places of honor at Jesus’ right and left in the Kingdom of Heaven. In so doing, in the eyes of the other disciples, and in our eyes, they come off as brazen, opportunistic, self-centered, and uncouth. Again, Jesus uses great tact and finesse in responding. He doesn’t rebuke them for making such an outlandish and downright self-centered request. And he doesn’t flat out say “no.” Instead, he attempts to use the situation as a teaching moment. He says to them, “are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” Jesus is referring to his impending passion and death. He is referring to the woe and suffering he will face. But James and John do not get it. These same images of cup and baptism could also carry with them joy and salvation. And it is this latter interpretation that they latch onto. They still think they are going to have an easy road to glory. So Jesus must flat out deny their request, because what they request is not for him to grant. And he needs to further educate them as to what the Kingdom of God is really about. He says, you think the Kingdom of God is about being great, about being exalted and adored, about places of honor, about being fawned over and served. Wrong! The Kingdom of God is about service. It’s not about being served, it’s about serving others. And frankly, the service that is sometimes required will not be pretty. It requires humility. It requires loving others even when they may seem unlovable. It means sacrificing yourself for the sake of another.

Poor Sons of Zebedee. Brazen, opportunistic, self-centered, uncouth, and thick-headed to boot. But I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt for a moment. There’s no denying they are opportunistic and operating out of selfish motives. But we instantly assume that they are making a grab at power. That’s certainly what the other disciples seemed to think. Or maybe they were just upset because James and John had the nerve to act on what they had only thought about – that they beat them to the punch. But what if their motive wasn’t power per se, but something else? What if they were motivated by fear?

What we don’t hear in today’s gospel lesson is what happens immediately before this scene. Jesus tells the disciples for the third time that he will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, tried, condemned to die, handed over to Gentiles who will mock him, spit on him, flog him, and kill him. This is the third time he’s had to tell them this. Up until now, it just hasn’t really sunk in. But what if this time, it did sink in, at least for James and John? Maybe the Zebedee Boys finally got what Jesus was saying lay in store for him. I’m sure they would have been concerned about what would happen to their friend and trusted leader. But humans being who they are, they would have also naturally begun to have some concerns for themselves. They may have begun to fear for their own safety, to become concerned for their own security. After all, three years before, they had left everything – their fishing business, their family, to follow Jesus. And now, if what Jesus was saying was right, this was all going to come to an end. What would become of them? What would they do after Jesus was gone? Would those who sought Jesus’ life turn their attention to his disciples and start picking them off?

If all this were the case, James and John would have immediately started working on figuring out how to take care of themselves, on finding a way to insure their own safety and security. Jesus had done a lot of talking about this wonderful thing called the Kingdom of God. It sounds like a pretty safe place, right? Well, if they could get in on the ground floor of that proposition, they would surely be taken care of, be protected. In their minds, they had found a way to continue to be with their master, thereby providing the ultimate security, at least for themselves. And that way would also provide for their personal glory. Not a bad fringe-benefit.

Of course, as we know, their logic was a little faulty. James and John thought the greatest security, not to mention the greatest glory, would be achieved by being seated at Jesus’ right and left at his glory. But what they do not yet understand, despite hearing all of Jesus’ teachings on the subject of the Kingdom of God, was that the Kingdom was not like any earthly kingdom. The rules are completely different. In the Kingdom of God, the rules have been turned around. They have been turned upside down and inside out, so that they are not recognizable. Despite what Jesus had tried to tell them, James and John did not realize, could not comprehend, that the glory that Jesus speaks of is not a throne, but is, rather, the cross. They did not understand that Jesus would not be exalted with pomp and circumstance, but with the sound of hammer against nails. And perhaps the greatest irony was that in his glory on that cross, Jesus would not be flanked by two of his faithful followers. He would not be flanked on right and left by two pious, devout saints. No, he would be flanked, on his right and his left, by two criminals.

We should not be so quick to condemn or criticize James and John. They were operating out of fear. They were merely looking for a way to provide a secure future for themselves. That’s something we all want. Particularly in difficult economic times such as our world is in right now, personal security is of concern to all of us, to one degree or another. As a result, we often find ourselves in the grip of fear, making decisions based on our fears, operating out of a place of fear.

And the church, being a human institution, is no exception. The church (and here I am talking about the church in general, not necessarily this particular parish) is a place gripped by fear. For decades, the mainline churches in this country have experienced a decline in membership. Gone are the glory days of the 50s and 60s when churches were bursting at the seams, when they had multiple services on Sunday, each filled to capacity. Yet, so many churches try to hold on to the glory days of old. We used to be the biggest church, the best church. We just don’t know why people don’t want to come be part of our congregation. But if we work hard enough, we might just get more people in the doors. We just might be able to recapture the glory that we once knew. With this attitude, we are operating out of fear – fear for our own security. Because the unspoken message, which no one would admit to, is that if we don’t somehow recapture that glory, we may be doomed. So we need to get more people in the pews. We need to get their pledges so we have enough money to keep the doors open.

This is focusing on a mistaken sense of glory. This is focusing on the glory as seen by James and John, not the glory as seen by Jesus. And to this, Jesus has a message for us all. Glory is not what we think it is. It is not sitting on a throne. No, the true glory of the Kingdom of God is to be found in the cross. That’s what Jesus tells us in today’s gospel lesson. “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be [a] servant.” Whoever wishes to truly experience the glory of the Kingdom of God must give up notions of sitting on Jesus’ right and his left, and instead, be willing to take their place with him on the cross. “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” And we, his children, his brothers and sisters, likewise, are not here to be served but to serve. We are called not to be a church seeking glory but to humble ourselves and to serve our neighbors. This is true greatness in the Christian life – the generous, sacrificial, serving of others out of genuine love, even when some of our neighbors may not be so easy to love.

This is what is behind the strategic planning process this parish is currently engaged in. Over the next few weeks, the planning team will be discerning where God is calling us to go as a parish, discerning what God is calling us to do, not only within our own walls, but more importantly, what we are called to do out in the world, to provide service to others. After all, we are the Body of Christ. And like him, we are not called to be served but to serve. And when we boldly step out in mission to the community, we are not operating out of that place of fear that can paralyze us, but rather are operating out of the sense of glory promised to us by our Lord – a glory that not only benefits us individually and collectively, but also benefits the broader community of which we are a part. For as one commentator notes, “The promise of the gospel is that in the sacrifice of self for others, not only will a higher and better self emerge, but the reign of God will continue to unfold” (Thompson, 192).

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Thomson, James L. “Mark 10:35-45, Theological Perspective.” In Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, Volume 4, Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers17-Reign of Christ). Edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

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Sunday, October 11, 2009

Divine Economics

Nineteenth Sunday of Pentecost (Proper 23) – Year B (RCL)
Amos 5:6-7,10-15; Psalm 90:12-17; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31
Sunday, October 11, 2009 –
Trinity, Redlands

Let’s be honest. How many of us got just a little uncomfortable when we heard the Gospel lesson read just now? Well, maybe we should feel uncomfortable when we hear such words. If we feel uncomfortable, maybe there’s a reason for it. Because in addressing the rich man, Jesus is addressing us.

And if you didn’t feel a little uncomfortable, how many found yourselves thinking, “well, that doesn’t really apply to me. Jesus was talking about being wealthy, and I’m certainly not wealthy”? Guess again. The reality is that among the roughly 6.7 billion people on the planet, we are the wealthy. The median household income in Redlands is just over $58,000 per year. Someone with that income level is in the top 1.6 percent of the world’s population. Over 98 percent of the people on Earth earn less money than is earned in the average Redlands household. Even if you used the city’s per capita income figure of just over $24,200 per year, that would still put the average Redlands resident in the wealthiest 8.5 percent of the world’s population.

Pretty sobering when you stop to think about it. So what does this mean for us? What do we do with Jesus’ injunction to the rich that they need to sell what they have in order to follow him and to obtain eternal life? To answer that, we need to put the whole subject of wealth into its proper context.

The subject of wealth and the proper use of money is a common theme in the Bible – both in the Old and New Testaments. Our Old Testament lesson from the Book of Amos has some particularly harsh things to say about the use of wealth. This passage specifically deals with the treatment of the poor. At this point in Israel’s history, the rich have gotten richer by acquiring land from the poor in less than ethical ways, thereby depriving them of their means of livelihood. Amos’ prophecy is a not so subtle reminder to the people that not only is exploitation of the poor a grave sin, but so is the people’s complacency in allowing it to happen. Now, I seriously doubt any of us could be accused of making our livelihood through exploitation of the poor. I’m sure someone could try to make that argument, but no, we are not out there purposefully depriving the poor for our own gain.

But that does not let us off the hook. Jesus has a little more to say on the matter in today’s Gospel lesson from Mark, which explores the subject of wealth from several angles. To really help us understand what is going on here, we need to jump into the middle of the story, where Jesus is talking to the disciples, who are perplexed by what he has just told the rich man. You see, there is a fundamental misunderstanding between Jesus and his disciples about the nature of wealth. Jesus sees wealth as having an exploitative aspect, not unlike the prophesies of Amos. The disciples, on the other hand, see wealth as a blessing, the fruits of righteousness. Now in all fairness, this was the common notion of the day.

In that day and age, scholars studied the scriptures to figure out what they needed to do to gain God’s favor. They believed that life was a filled with blessings and curses. Do the right things, and you would gain blessings and avoid being cursed. Of course, everyone wanted to be blessed, and they believed that God’s blessing was manifest in material ways, through wealth. So, rather than sit idly by and trust that God would bless them, people attempted to dissect God’s covenant promises to find ways to get ahead. If you succeeded, so they thought, you were blessed. If you were down on your luck, hit a rough patch, you were cursed. Everyone knew this was how the system worked – the disciples, and the rich man. That’s why he came to Jesus, to try to get a new angle on the system. But Jesus had news for both the disciples and the rich man. That’s not how things really work in the kingdom of God. It’s not a patronage system.

But Jesus was not only concerned with wealth, but also the general view of salvation. When the rich man comes to Jesus with concern for his own salvation, Jesus immediately turns attention away from this concern to the concern for others. This raises not only questions about wealth but also questions about the rich man’s, and our, attitudes toward salvation. The connection between the two may not be readily apparent to us, but remember that under the prevailing notion of the day, there was a direct connection between wealth and salvation. According to this understanding, if a person was blessed, as signified by wealth, that person must also be assured of salvation, or at least have easy access to it, right? That’s what people of that day thought. And there are still people in our own day who hold this notion.

Yes, there is a connection between wealth and salvation, but not necessarily in the way one might think. We have all heard sermons about how money is not bad in and of itself – it’s how you use it that really matters. And I would have to agree. But the part that is not explored quite as often is the general attitude about money – what money can do for us. I think that what Jesus was decrying in his challenge to the rich man, and in his challenge to us, is how we view money. Jesus saw that money so often becomes a substitute for God. We are tempted to trust more in our financial resources than we trust in God. We are tempted to rely more on our ability to earn money, through our work and through our investments, than we rely on God. We are more concerned about the standing of our portfolios than about where we stand with God. Our secular society tells us that money is the source of our security and comfort, not God. Wealth becomes the source of our salvation, not God.

The irony is that our modern economic system was supposed to be the corrective to love and worship of wealth over and against the love and worship of God. “Sociologist Max Weber wrote that Christianity – particularly Protestant Calvinism – gave rise to modern capitalism because, among other things, it motivated Europeans to restrain their immediate desires and save money, thus creating the capital necessary for investment and economic growth. This worldly asceticism combined the discipline of people who could delay gratification for the hope of something better with the social vision of a world redeemed by its Creator. The Protestant ethic made it possible for people to put their treasure where they wanted their heart to be” (Wilson-Hartgrove, 23). While the motives were not completely altruistic, there was certainly an element that was geared toward making money not for self but to provide for the needs of others and to help further God’s work here on earth. But somewhere along the line, the experiment went awry. The focus shifted from wealth as a means to further God’s kingdom to obtaining wealth as a means of personal salvation. We stepped backward from Jesus’ understanding of wealth to the rich man’s understanding.

In this respect, Jesus’ message to the rich man is also a message to us. As one commentator noted, wealth is not a sin. It is more of a weakness – a captivity to possessions that prevent the rich man, and us, from living into the full life of the kingdom of God. It is a temptation to rely on something transient for our salvation, as opposed to relying on the one true thing that can insure our salvation – God’s unlimited grace.

Does that mean that in order to get back on track we need to do as Jesus told the rich man, to sell everything and give it to the poor, in order to truly be his followers? No. That might be the ideal. That might actually work for some people. Some people do manage to do this. Some people feel called to do this. Those who are called to monastic life must give up all their possessions. But for most of us who are not called to such a life that would not be prudent. Quite frankly, giving away everything we have would not be good stewardship. How would we survive? How would we take care of our families? In our society, giving away everything would merely be contributing to the problem. It would land us on the streets, hungry and homeless, in need of assistance from others, adding to the burden already placed on our over-taxed relief agencies and aid organizations.

So the good news is, we get to keep what we have. But that doesn’t absolve us of responsibility. Because the other part of Jesus message, in turning attention from the rich man’s concern for his own salvation to concern for the needs of others, is that we have a responsibility. If our primary concern is for our own salvation, we have missed the point of both faith and works. The point is not to focus on our own salvation, but to focus on God and on our neighbors, on those in need of our help. And in our society, that, of necessity, means being concerned with our wealth. More specifically, with how we view our wealth, with how we use our wealth. This means we are called to educate ourselves and to be examples of what it means to be good stewards of the wealth we do have, so that we may be better able to work not for our own purposes, but for God’s purposes – to help the poor, the widows, the orphans, the homeless, the hungry – the least of these among God’s beloved children, those who are our neighbors, our brothers and sisters.

This is what the youth of this parish are doing. Our senior high students are currently engaged in study of the economics of poverty. They are learning what it means for those who do not have the wealth they all take for granted. They are learning what those who must do without need to do merely to survive. They are learning how little help is truly available, and of that which is available, how frustrating it can be to locate needed assistance and how demeaning it can be to have to ask for help, to fight for limited resources, just to do something as basic as feed their children and put a roof over their heads. Our youth are learning what the basic needs are for mere survival, and how this truly compares with what they have. They are learning how truly fortunate they are and how they have more riches than they really need. By beginning to understand their own wealth in relation to the needs of others, they will be in a better position, as they grow into adulthood, to assess what their wealth truly means to them and to discern how they might use their own resources for not only their own but also for God’s purposes.

Maybe we can take a cue from our young people and begin to evaluate our own relationship with our financial resources. Rather than being like the rich man and asking what we can do to inherit the kingdom of God, maybe we can be a little more proactive, and use some of our riches not for our own salvation, but for the salvation of others – to help make the kingdom of God a reality here and now.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Wilson-Hartgrove, Jonathan. “Economics for Disciples.” Christian Century, September 8, 2009, 22-27.

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