Thursday, June 28, 2007

"I praise you for I am wonderfully made" was the response we sang for the Psalm last Sunday. A friend of mine who is a cantor remarked that she found it a bit funny to be singing those words from Psalm 139. We are taught to be so humble, and here it seems as if we are bragging about ourselves! We are wonders though, and we should be aware of and grateful for that fact! Psalm 139 is a well known favorite. This section of it states:

You formed me in my inmost being;
you knit me in my mother's womb.
I praise you, so wonderfully you made me;
wonderful are your works!
My very self you knew;
my bones were not hidden from you,
When I was being made in secret,
fashioned as in the depths of the earth.
-Psalm 139:13-15
Psalm 139 has been set to music in such well-known hymns as "You Are Near" by Dan Schutte and "O God, You Search Me" by Bernadette Farrell. While both songs emphasize the fact that God created us and knew us in the womb, Farrell picks up this specific line, "For the wonder of who I am, I praise you." I have always loved that line in her song and wonder how often we do stop and thank God for the wonder of who we are. Do we really look at ourselves and marvel at the creation we are? Do we marvel at our role as co-creators with God in choosing the person we become, realizing what an awesome gift and responsibility that is? In many translations of the Bible, this line is translated as "I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made." There is another song that I have always loved by a Christian singer Rich Mullins that picks up this theme. In his song, "We Are Not as Strong as We Think We Are," he sings:

We are frail; we are fearfully and wonderfully made.
Forged in the fires of human passion,
choking on the fumes of selfish rage.
And with these our hells and our heavens so few inches apart,
we must be awfully small and not as strong as we think we are.
This is one of the things that amazes me about human creation; we seem to be so incredibly strong and so very frail at the same time. We have an unending ability to hurt one another. There is a great vulnerability in being human, and it seems the more human we become, the more vulnerable we are. And yet we have this incredible strength to endure. The song always reminds me that that strength to endure comes from God; that in realizing our dependence on God, we find our strength and our freedom. It is when we try to shoulder the world on our own that we run into trouble. It also reminds me of our need for one another. The irony of life is that we depend on the very people to whom we become the most vulnerable and who have the greatest power to hurt us.

For me, it all comes back to this incredible gift of human life we are given, and how we choose to use it. Are we living the lives that allow us to actualize our full potential as human beings? Are we enabling others to do the same? In moral theology the basic criterion for judging issues is whether or not a certain action or course of action leads to human flourishing. Do our lives enable others to flourish? Are we ourselves flourishing, and if not, is there something we can do to change that fact? We praise God for the wonder of who we are by living our lives in a way that allows us to be the creation God intended us to be! We are only given one life, are we truly appreciating it? There is a great line that I have been reflecting upon lately and will leave you with:

"I gave my life to become the person I am today.
Was it worth it?"
- One, Richard Bach

Thursday, June 21, 2007

As someone who spends a good hour and a half to two hours on the road going to and from work, I was intrigued to hear that the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People had published a document entitled, "Guidelines for the Pastoral Care of the Road." The document made headlines for giving the "Driver's Ten Commandments":
I. You shall not kill.
II. The road shall be for you a means of communion between people and not of mortal harm.
III. Courtesy, uprightness and prudence will help you deal with unforeseen events.
IV. Be charitable and help your neighbour in need, especially victims of accidents.
V. Cars shall not be for you an expression of power and domination, and an occasion of sin.
VI. Charitably convince the young and not so young not to drive when they are not in a fitting condition to do so.
VII. Support the families of accident victims.
VIII. Bring guilty motorists and their victims together, at the appropriate time, so that they can undergo the liberating experience of forgiveness.
IX. On the road, protect the more vulnerable party.
X. Feel responsible towards others.
While there have been some amusing jokes made in the media about the Church speaking out on this issue, I actually think there is much wisdom in these guidelines. I will be the first to confess that I am an impatient driver, and I have a tendency to speed. While these "commandments" are a good reminder to all of us that when we take to the roads we have a responsibility for our own lives and the lives of those around us, the document actually goes far beyond simply stating these basic rules of the road.

While the document acknowledges the benefits of increased mobility in our world, it also uses our role as drivers as a metaphor for our approach to life. Are we aggressive, self-centered, and domineering as drivers? Do we manifest an attitude that respects the life, needs, and rights of others? What is it about driving that can bring out the worst aspects of ourselves? Being responsible drivers is not simply about "being nice," but can be a matter of life and death:
During the 20th century approximately 35 million people lost their lives in road accidents, whilst around one and a half billion were injured. In 2000 alone, deaths amounted to 1,260,000, and it is also noteworthy that around 90% of accidents were due to human error.
We literally hold one another's lives in our hands when we drive; and the tragedy of an accident is not only for the victims and the families of the victims, but for the driver who never intended anyone harm, but must now live with the consequences of the accident.

While the section on driving got the most (only?) press, it is important to note that that section is only one of four in the document. The remaining sections are on the liberation of prostitutes, the care for street children, and care for the homeless. The document speaks of the slavery of prostitution as human trafficking and exploitation. It recognizes that not just women, but also men and children are victims of this form of exploitation. The document notes that many prostitutes experienced violence and sexual abuse as children and that prostitution is often the effect of an unjust society where people are looking for a means to support themselves and their families or a way out of an impoverished country. The document states that:
The victims of prostitution are human beings, who in many cases cry out for help, to be freed from slavery, because selling one's own body on the street is usually not what they would voluntarily choose to do. Of course, each person has a different story to tell, but a common thread of violence, abuse, mistrust and low self-esteem, as well as fear and lack of opportunities, runs through them. They all bear deep wounds that need healing, whilst they seek relationships, love, security, affection, self-assertion and a better future for themselves and their families.
The "deeply rooted problems" of the "customers" are also acknowledged. A call is issued for churches to offer solidarity and compassion, engaging in an active involvement to bring about the end of this form of exploitation and to foster opportunities for the rehabilitation of its victims, both prostitutes and customers.

The section on street children, defined as "those with no ties to their families, which means that they have made the street their place of abode," notes that there are around 100 million children living on the streets, and the numbers are increasing. Added to this number are those who have a home and a bed they return to at night, but who spend most of their waking hours on the streets. The document notes the primary causes for this phenomenon as:
Increasing family breakdown; tensions between parents; aggressive, violent and sometimes perverse behaviour towards children; emigration, which entails uprooting from everyday life and consequent disorientation; conditions of poverty and hardship that destroy dignity and deprive people of the wherewithal to survive; the spread of drug addiction and alcoholism; and prostitution and the sex industry, which continue to take an extraordinary toll of victims, often driven by terrible violence to the most brutal kind of slavery. Other factors are wars and social disorder that upset normal life, including for minors, and the spread, primarily in Europe, of a "culture characterised by pleasure and transgression" -- which should not be underestimated -- in environments marked by a lack of reference values, in which young people in general suffer from loneliness and an ever deeper sense of the emptiness of existence.
Again we, the Church, are called upon to address these very serious issues in our society and our world.

The final section is on the homeless in general. It calls on us as Church "to accompany and serve these people whatever their moral or personal situation might be." Furthermore, we are called to recognize that:
People who live on the street are looked on with wariness and suspicion, and being homeless is the start of gradually losing one's rights. It is more difficult to obtain welfare, almost impossible to find work, and no longer possible to obtain identity papers. These poor people become a nameless and voiceless crowd, unable to defend themselves and find the necessary resources for a better future. The Word of God censures any form of irritation or indifference towards poor people (poverty fatigue), reminding us that the Lord will judge our lives by assessing how and how much we have loved the poor (cf. Matthew 25:31-46). According to Saint Augustine, we are requested to help any poor person so as not to run the risk of denying someone who might be Christ himself.

We are reminded that the homeless are in need, not only of food and shelter, but also of "kindness, respect, and human warmth." There is so much in this document to think about, pray about, and act upon! I am struck by how unfortunate it is that most of the time we hear very little about the wisdom that the Church offers in the documents it publishes and that when the media does pick up a story like this because of its "curiousity" element, it leaves out the most important parts. (Note: If you would like to read the document yourself, you can access it by clicking here!)

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Water is the source of life. This concept struck me profoundly as I flew to the west coast for the first time in my life this past weekend. I sat with my nose pretty much glued to the window for the last hour of the trip as we flew over Utah, Nevada, and California. What I saw was miles and miles and miles of completely uninhabited land in an overpopulated world and in a country that is currently debating the problem of immigration. So why is this land unpopulated? Granted, some of it is preserved as national parks, but mostly it is unpopulated because there is no water. What I saw from the plane was beautiful, but it mostly was rock and dirt with very little evidence of vegetation. I saw shades of russet and white and black, but no green, no trees that I could make out. Interestingly enough, during my morning commute this week I listened to a series on NPR about the struggle over water in the west, primarily focusing on the conflicting needs of rural and urban areas, especially the massive amounts of water used in Las Vegas. The main source of water for the region is the Colorado River, with its reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell. What I learned in listening to that series is that there is also water in that area in deep underground aquifers. Where that water springs up to the surface, life blooms in the desert. Little pocket communities develop around these sources of water.

Water is the source of life. We use it in baptism to symbolize our new life in Christ. We use it at funerals symbolize our being born into eternal life. We go through the desert of lent for forty days, only to renew our baptismal vows and be sprinkled with the water of life for the next fifty days. We use water to bless ourselves and our lives. Deserts also play a role in our spiritual life. We experience desert times, times where we wander as the Israelites did, unable to recognize God working in our lives. We experience the parched desert times when we thirst for God as did the psalmists:
Like a deer yearns for living streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. (Ps. 42:2)

At the same time, the desert is a place we voluntarily go, as did Jesus, to pray. In the early church there was a strong tradition of desert fathers and mothers who went out into the desert to live, to pray, and to be with God. The desert is a place where we can be alone with God, and in that solitude, come to recognize our thirst for God, our absolute dependence on God, and come to know more intimately the One who is the source of our life. Jesus offers us "a spring of water welling up to eternal life," (Jn. 4:14) so that we will no longer thirst. Water is sacramental. The next time we get a drink of water or wash our hands or dip our hands into the baptismal water fonts as we enter a church, the next time we turn a faucet and water comes pouring out, let us be thankful that we have water, that we have life, and most of all that we have a relationship with the one who is the source of all life.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

On Sunday several of the area churches sponsored an ecumenical program in which Dr. Calvin DeWitt, a professor at the UW-Madison Nelson Institute of Environmental Science, spoke on "Science and Religion: Partners in Environmental Understanding and Action." DeWitt has been instrumental in getting top scientists and religious leaders together to discuss how leaders from both areas can work together to protect the environment. DeWitt said that at one of these meetings, it was actually the top evolutionary biologist who suggested that they use the term "the creation" instead of "the environment." The reason was twofold, first to offer an olive branch, so to speak, to the religious community, but also because "the creation" includes humankind, not separating humans out from the environment in which we live. DeWitt explained that changing the terminology does away with the false dichotomy that raises the question of which we should value more, humans or the environment. You cannot choose between humans and the creation because humans are part of the creation.

Another important point that DeWitt made was about the translation of Genesis 2:15:
"The LORD God then took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it."
The Hebrew word that is translated "cultivate" in this passage (from the New American Bible) actually means "serve." It is the same word that is used in the conclusion of the book of Joshua, in which Joshua says to the people:
"Decide today whom you will serve, the gods your fathers served beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are dwelling. As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD." Joshua 24:15
The same word that is used to refer to our relationship with God is used to refer to our relationship to the world God has created. We are to serve both. We are stewards of the earth. DeWitt also spoke of the Endangered Species Act as today's Noah's Ark, saving the very animals that God created. When Genesis 1:28 speaks of humankind having "dominion" over the creatures of the world, it must be read in the context of what dominion means in a religious context. As DeWitt points out, our model for what it means to have dominion is Jesus Christ, who has dominion over us and all creation. We are to care for the creation as Christ's stewards, taking the same care as Christ takes with us. We have been given a divine mandate and responsibility; I would hate to think of standing face to face with a God who asks, "What have you done to my creation?"