October 25, 2016

Sacredness in the Vastness


Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’

I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

These two men at the temple have distinctly different approaches to their understanding of their relationship with God. The Pharisee compares himself positively with others: “At least I’m not like those guys over there. I follow the rules and, as a result, I know where I fit in the scheme of things.”

He relies on the hierarchies that people have created,rules that help us to make sense of a complex and unpredictable world on earth, and that we hope and have to believe, is what God wants from us in heaven.

The other stands before God, comparing himself not to others – and really, even a tax collector could compare himself favorably to someone else–instead knowing that he cannot through rules or comparisons understand or fix his position in God’s kingdom.

Where are these two approaches rooted? What is the source the Pharisee’s contempt? What is the source of the tax collector’s humility?

It seems to me that they are both rooted in that most common of human motivators: fear. We humans hate uncertainty, and so create structures to categorize and rank ourselves in the world: the size of our salaries, the titles we have earned, our looks and what we have done to create or improve them, the comfort of our homes, even our carbon footprints.

We have to do it, for to contemplate our miniscule place in the universe, that classic moment when we look into the starry heavens and suddenly perceive our insignificance, is, as a favorite literary character of mine says, “to cower naked under a blade of grass trying to hide.”

This is the emotional place where the tax collector dwells, in full fearful realization of his powerlessness within such immensity. The structures we build around ourselves, be they “humble homes” or stone castles, give us a sense of safety, and so do the rules that we invent to give ourselves standing within the model of God’s kingdom that we have created in our minds.

I had a pretty amazing experience of the immensity and grandeur of the universe this summer while traveling in Mongolia. To me, there’s nothing more exciting than the ways that people use the resources of their land, and how their land makes them form governments, worship, write, and make music.

For some reason Mongolia speaks my language. After I started teaching in a ger—a Mongolian round tent more commonly known here by the Russian word “yurt”—I thought about going over there more and more. Last year, the Rivers School, where I teach, provided me with an amazing chance to travel there through a Faculty Enrichment Grant.

The land is definitely the star of the show in Mongolia. The broad steppes stretch for hundreds of miles in every direction. The mountains, some jagged, dry, grey, and mineral-filled, others green and forested like the Alps, roll or spike up into the always blue sky. Along rivers and streams from the air of our Fokker 50 planes, we saw tiny white round gers, usually alone, but sometimes in twos or threes, tiny outposts of nomadic herders in summer pastures fattening their camels, horses, goats, sheep and yaks for the all too quickly returning winter.

We were lucky enough to stay in gers instead of hotels, and to wake and sleep with the sunlight through the open door. Inside was safety, warmth and human life; outside was wild land, miles and miles from the next human place, and a lot of work to do with flocks and herds.

No fences divide the land; no paved roads or electric lines crisscross it; it seems little in the way of rule has made its way here. Herds of dozens, hundreds and thousands make their way chomping across the landscape all around.

Like in our homes and even in stone castles, the fear of winter and hunger cause the Mongolians also to make rules about how to insure their own place in the kingdom. The location of deities within their gers, the orientation of the front door towards the south, the designation of odd numbers for joy and evens for sorrow, the Buddhist Khadag, flags of blue symbolizing eternity and peace are some of the rituals they keep to protect themselves and their flocks from drought, storm, famine and accident.

And like we do, they take every step to make sure that they do their jobs; to take care of the herds that feed them.

I had a lot of fear before I went to Mongolia. Distance, food, being offline, and having no language skills made me lose sleep. I prepared everything, obtaining insurance for every eventuality, checking and rechecking packing lists, stocking up on medical supplies and palatable snacks just in case, emailing itineraries to anyone who could help us abroad.

I was like the Pharisee going through the ritual motions to solidify my safety in the world. I followed each and every rule. Like the Pharisee, I went to Mongolia to make comparisons, ready to make sense of the experience in that way. I thought beforehand that I would be thanking God that my life was not like the lives I would see there.

If I’m honest, I will say I am happy I will not be living there this winter. However, once there, I was not so tempted to make comparisons as I was to recognize just how small and just how far away from the normal rules I was. I experienced the humility of the tax collector as I realized how utterly unequipped I was to survive in that land.

The land was so beautiful and the people so warm that all I wanted to do was give thanks for the opportunity to be there, to feel safe within that immense landscape and to try to gain an understanding of it. There, in my fear and wonder and humility, I knew God’s power and abundance much more immediately than in the nominally “safe” environment that I usually inhabit. If only I can bear here at home to face my utter powerlessness and to accept the mercy that it offers me to be dependent, to reach out to others, to free myself from the contempt of not being in control.

I think that this is our way forward from our fear –we must just accept our miniscule power with humility. Then we can see our beautiful earth as God’s great gift, not fear it as a place too complex and unpredictable to enjoy.

It is not God’s will for us that we must understand or fix everything, but ask for His mercy to help us to love and care for what He, in His generosity, has given us as best we can. It is God’s will for us that we free ourselves from the prison of comparative understanding of ourselves against our brothers and sisters, and all together to welcome the unpaved, unfenced, un”ruly” complexities as opportunities to know Him in the bold face of His glorious creation.

I began with the gospel, but I will end with the psalm, which celebrates the immensity of God’s rich earth:

Awesome things will you show us in your righteousness,
O God of our salvation,
O Hope of all the ends of the earth
and of the seas that are far away.

You make fast the mountains by your power;
they are girded about with might.
You still the roaring of the seas,
the roaring of their waves,
and the clamor of the peoples.
Those who dwell at the ends of the earth will tremble at your marvelous signs;
you make the dawn and the dusk to sing for joy.

You visit the earth and water it abundantly;
you make it very plenteous;
the river of God is full of water.
You prepare the grain,
for so you provide for the earth.
You drench the furrows and smooth out the ridges;
with heavy rain you soften the ground and bless its increase.
You crown the year with your goodness,
and your paths overflow with plenty.

May the fields of the wilderness be rich for grazing,
and the hills be clothed with joy.
May the meadows cover themselves with flocks,
and the valleys cloak themselves with grain;
let them shout for joy and sing. Amen.