Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Bread, circuses and Emmanuel

... Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man,
the People have abdicated our duties;
for the People who once upon a time
handed out military command,
high civil office, legions - everything, now restrains itself
and anxiously hopes for just two things:
bread and circuses.
Do you remember where you were when the planes hit the World Trade Center?

I do. It's sort of the New Defining Question for people of my age, replacing the moon landing and the Kennedy/King assassinations as the Moment When Everything Changed.

Except that it didn't, really. WE did. We comfortable Americans looked fear full in the face, and it changed us.

Like so many others, I was standing in my living room, toothbrush hanging out of my mouth, jaw agape as the horror and magnitude of the moment settled over me. I remember watching the flames and the shocked look on Matt Lauer's face, thinking to myself, "The world has just shifted. Nothing will ever be the same again. This will be a new Dark Age."

That was the shock and horror talking. But there are a lot of ways in which that has been true: War. Fear. Suspicion of our neighbors. A quest for personal and national security at all costs. A wish to not know what we know now: that life is dangerous, and our first-world sense of security and entitlement is an idol.

Really--no price seems to be too high in order to go back to a time when we average Americans didn't have to think of ourselves as vulnerable, of our archetype as anything less than heroic. We can no longer maintain our happy illusion that we're the cavalry, or at least the cowboy, in that Great Global Motion Picture. Because the danger and anger and insecurity of the world has landed on our own doorstep, and our hands have blood on them, too.

There have always been people who have been willing to try to see the world be true citizens of their communities, their countries, their world. And, well-fed as most of us in the States are, it's scarily easy to let others do that seeing for us, and to keep on driving to Wal-Mart in our gas guzzlers, one of the many versions of Clear Channel on the radio, seducing us into just one more level of disengagement.

If we can't have safety, we'll settle for the illusion of safety. We'd like our bread and circuses, thank you.

But what about those moments when life takes us by the hand and makes us see the burning building or the hungry child or the scary diagnosis? When our next-door neighbor loses her house to foreclosure, or when an angry, messed-up guy hoses a church sanctuary with gunfire? What do we do then? Turn up the radio? Buy a new toy?

Love to. But it doesn't really work, does it?

So then, the questions remain:
  • What do we do when we realize again we are not specially favored, safe from the vagaries of life?
  • How do we muster the courage to be more fully citizens of our world, our communities, and to really inhabit our own lives?
  • Where do we turn our faces when, on one side, there is the seduction of bread and circuses, and on the other, the blackness of the abyss (in any of its many forms)? How do we keep these things from distracting us?
No simple answers, least at the outset. But there's a way in which these questions lead us more deeply into our lives.

Did you ever wonder what was in Abram's mind when God said, "Pack up and go?" I mean, the guy just went. I feel more of a kinship with Moses and Jonah, who basically said, "Me? WHY? Ummm...I've got something in the oven. Let me just finish this project and I'll be right with you. No, really, ME? Do I have to?" Or listen to Jesus, praying in the garden of Gethsemane just before his betrayal, torture and crucifixion: "Father, if it be thy will, let this cup pass from me. And yet, not my will, but thine be done."

That last line is where the world turns. Because Jesus found a way out of that human "this is about me and I'm not enough" consciousness and a way into trust: "not my will, but thine." Jesus found a way to hear what God said to all those others in their moments of crisis: basically, "I will be faithful. I am in covenant with you, and I will be with you the whole time."

God is with us all the time. Now, it's easy...even reasonable to say, "So what?" when you're in your own Gethsemane moment. God's presence usually doesn't make the cancer go away or bring back the loved one or close that crack in the earth.

But God's presence gives us ground on which to stand. God's presence locates us in a deeper reality, where despair is not the final answer. God's presence locates us in a reality in which all roads lead not to Rome, but to love and grace.

This world is both beautiful and broken. Flowers bloom while steeples are falling. BUT the reign of God also underlays that world with something stronger and deeper. We can tap into God's reign when we co-create love and grace, when we see past our despair and fear and can truly pray, "Not my will, but thine be done." We tap into God's reign by acknowledging the mess we're in and by reaching out to one another anyway. By telling the truth. By putting one foot in front of the other, even when we're weeping or terrified. By trusting God's promise and sharing our bread.

We don't need to rely on bread and circuses; we have instead the reign of Emmanuel, God With Us. We have instead five simple loaves and two fish that create the abundance to feed, comfort and inspire not just us, but also our neighbor, through us.

So, friends, know that no matter where you are, God is with you. Share your bread. Love one another as God loves us. That's better than security; it's life itself.

Thanks be to God.


Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

Thanks for that encouraging closing. I love the reference to the loaves and fishes.

For a lot of reasons I don't need to elaborate on, I don't remember ever feeling safe in this world. Without knowing Jesus, I don't know how I would have survived. God is all we have really. My husband could die, I could become disabled in such a way that I can't work, I could lose my home.

But I can't lose God. And that's a promise.

Songbird said...

Beautiful, just beautiful.

Diane said...

I love what you say about the loaves and fishes. I've been thinking a lot about the question from Isaiah lately: "Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread?" Yeah. Why do we trust things/people which aren't trustworthy, instead of the One who is?

Mrs. M said...

I love this, I think it's spot-on, and i'm so glad you wrote it.

Cecilia said...

I started asking myself those questions again after hearing about those shootings... why do we think we are "safe"? I realized that I was listening to the coverage hoping to hear it was related to some domestic situation, or even some kind of crazy religious or political statement on the part of the gunman... anything but "random/ unexplained," because that's the scariest category, the one that leaves us utterly vulnerable.

But... your prayer is so right. God is with us, in the crisis and in the calm. Thank you so much for this beautiful reflection.

Pax, C.

Turbo: said...

Holy cow, and I don't mean sacred moo. That was a beautiful post and I love that it was just an average day on the calendar on which you put it up. I struggle with christianity, but know without any shadow of doubt you are completely and absolutely right. I know God is with me, never apart from me, it's only when I can "get over myself" that I can begin to think about will other than my own.

This post was a huge blessing. Thank you!


FranIAm said...

Wow- this is stunning. A brilliant post and one that will stay with me for a long, long time.

Thank you!