Saturday, March 24, 2012

Reflections on Poverty

 Parts of this will be in my new book on Facing Adversity with Grace coming out later this spring.

I have to confess that I’ve long had a problem with those who prattle on and on about how poor Jesus was and how destitute the Holy Family must have been. Before anyone has a coronary, I agree that Jesus and the Holy Family were “poor,” but their “poor” and our “poor” aren’t quite the same thing. First of all, in first century Palestine, in fact, in first century almost anywhere, there were only two categories—rich and poor. The  “middle class” didn’t emerge until quite recently in history. Jesus and his family certainly weren’t rich, so by default they were poor. But being poor wasn’t the same as begging at the gates of the city for scraps and even first century Palestine had its share of beggars. Poor was what everyone (except the rich) was. Poor was average.  

To say that the Holy Family lived in abject poverty seems to me to be quite insulting to Joseph. He was a tekton, a skilled workman more along the lines of what we would call a contractor. He wasn’t whittling the occasional little bench or stool for his neighbors in exchange for a handful of grapes. He probably was involved in much larger construction projects, possibly even working in the nearby Roman city of Caesarea where massive public building was going on. If he was unable to adequately provide for his family given his talents and abilities and if they were reduced to begging for handouts from their neighbors, which is what the truly poor had to do, then he shouldn’t be held up as a model for husbands and fathers. The same goes for Mary. If she was such a poor homemaker, unable to manage with what Joseph provided, that the family was the poorest of the poor in their region, then why do we look to her as our role for ideal wife and mother?  

Those who want to call attention to how poor the Holy Family probably aren’t imagining that they lived under a palm branch at the city wall, digging in the garbage for their food and wearing cast-off rags, which is what the truly poor would have been doing. I know that people claim as proof of their destitution the fact Mary and Joseph offered a dove instead of a lamb in the temple at the time of Jesus’ birth. Again, I’m not so sure that’s proof positive of poverty. I personally think it’s more common sense. If you could get the same blessing for buying a dove instead of a lamb, wouldn’t you buy the dove? I may be wrong, but I’ve always thought of their action as more like buying “generic” instead of “name brand.” In addition, I have the hunch that the only people who bought lambs were those who wanted to show just how important and wealthy they were. Mary and Joseph had no need to show off, even if they did have an idea that their son would turn out to be someone quite special, so they didn’t splurge on a lamb.

It seems to me that instead of calling them “poor,”  it is much more realistic to think of the Holy Family as “average,” not the elite with their marbled baths and hummingbird tongue banquets, but a family who had adequate food, sufficient clothing and a satisfactory dwelling to be able to live a normal life. In other words, the Holy Family was pretty much just an ordinary family doing ordinary things. If you are still questioning this, then consider that when Jesus was 12, they traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. It wasn’t cheap to travel now and it wasn’t then. They had to pay for the caravan, their food, the temple sacrifice and all the other expenses that come along with a “vacation.” If the Holy Family were truly the poverty-stricken beggars of Nazareth, they wouldn’t have been going anywhere, much less to the capital city for the biggest festival of the year when all the prices would have been elevated to make a profit off the visitors. 

Or think for a bit about the Wedding Feast of Cana. If the Holy Family were the truly poorest folk in the village, why would Mary even presume to talk to the wine servers? She would have been grateful to be allowed into the festival at all, much less get involved with the matters of what was being served. She wouldn’t have been calling attention to herself or her son, but probably sneaking a few morsels into a bag for the next day’s meal. 

As for Jesus himself, it is true that he said he had no place to lie down his head, but again I think he said that for emphasis’ sake. After all, he did have a mother and family back in the old hometown and I’m pretty sure they would have found him a bed and a blanket if he knocked on the door. Moreover, the women who accompanied him and bankrolled his ministry, like Mary Magdalene and the Johanna, the steward’s wife, were wealthy. I can’t imagine that they didn’t provide more than adequately for his needs and those of his disciples. Why else would the gospels make a point of telling us that they were rich?

Jesus might not have had much money of his own, but his ministry was well off enough that he and his disciples had money to give to the poor, since we are told that Judas complained about spending money that could have otherwise been donated. If the disciples themselves actually were the poor, they would have been receiving money, not giving it away. In addition, they had sufficient funds to rent a place for the Last Supper and eat a full-blown Seder meal. Even in those days, the absolutely poverty-stricken couldn’t afford a lamb, much less the rest of a Passover meal. Jesus and the disciples had to have had sufficient funds to afford what amounted to a catered dinner. Finally, the robe he wore to his death was so well made that the soldiers cast lots for it. It couldn’t have been the rags of a beggar or they wouldn’t have bothered keeping it.

I expect some people will be shocked and even angered by this, but my point is not to say that Jesus was rich; he wasn’t. My point is to show that suffering from severe financial hardship doesn’t have to be considered a goal of our lives just because we have been taught that Jesus and the Holy Family were “poor.” Jesus said he came to bring us abundant life, not neediness and poverty. Moreover, being poor and in debt doesn’t automatically create holiness. If it did, the crime rates in slums and inner cities would be lowest anywhere. Of course, wealth brings its own set of temptations and struggles, but the reality is that even saints need money to do their good works, even if they merely have the money long enough to give it away. The only time that poverty is a true blessing is when it is voluntary. Having to worry about where the next meal comes from is suffering, not grace.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Mind Killer

 I've always loved this quote. Now, when I face fears I thought I had vanquished, it is even more meaningful.

“I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.”

Frank Herbert

Accepting New Normal

Today, the beginning of Spring, much of the US swelters in a heat wave.  Here in Oregon, we are having a new Ice Age. It's been several years since we've had this much snow...and to have it in March just isn't right. I mean it's REALLY NOT RIGHT.

I was completely snowed in this morning, and without internet, phone or tv. Cell coverage was spotty, only allowing for the occasional text  message to get through. Plus I have a horrible runny nose, itchy eyes and cough.  I'm not admitting to it being a cold, but it bears a certain resemblance to a cold.

So, as I have been sitting here, feeling a wee bit sorry for myself, I've been contemplating what I call my "new normal."  New normal is what happens to you after (or while you are in the midst) of a major shift in your entire life.  For me, it began with the death of my mother, or more precisely, a year before when she broke her legs and we started on the long journey home.  In these past 15 months, everything that I had thought was "normal" has been upended, from my role as her daughter and caregiver to finances, to becoming involved in a criminal investigation (not my own!) to spiritual shifts to...well, nothing that I had considered "normal" a year and a half ago now is the same. 

I've been bucking and snorting at the enforced changes. I don't like any of them, thank you very much.  I want to go back to the way things were...when I knew what normal was and could plan for my future. 

As if any of us can truly plan our future.  We might as well try to plan the past.

Which brings me back to "new normal." I have come to the conclusion (insert much bucking and snorting) that it comes down to one of two choices:  live or die.  I either have to accept what looks like will be normal from now and continue living...or fight it and die, either figuratively or literally.  Them's the only choices available.  Live or die. 

So what does "new normal" feel like?  For starters, it's very alone.  For my entire life, I had my mother with me and now I am truly and utter alone.  (Nefer and Basti would beg to differ, but feline companionship isn't quite the same thing as human.)

For another, it's scary. I never used to fear adventures or insecurity, but now everything from financial issues to fallen tree limbs from the snow feels frightening. The future, which used to seem rather far away, now skitters around the edges of my consciousness like a very nervous rabbit being chased by a starving coyote. It's easy to slip into full-on panic mode about tomorrow and the day after and the day after that.  In my imagining I'm living in a cardboard box, sleeping on a urine-stained mattress, eating cat food out of a dented can while dying from cancer because I can't afford treatment. (See Anxiety Girl.)

Finally, "new normal" doesn't feel very normal. Which makes the aloneness and the scariness of it even harder to accept. But it is what it is, as a friend tells me, and until I can come to grips with the fact that my new normal contains these elements, I'm probably going to be creating more of both the aloneness and the scariness. 

So today, as the snow starts to fall again (in March!!!), I am taking a few deep breaths and telling myself that what is now my life contain both both solitude and fear.  But I'm also telling myself that perhaps, just perhaps, once I embrace these two and invite them to warm themselves by the fire, that some other parts of "new normal" will also manifest themselves.

Like peace. 

Or, who knows, maybe even hope.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Fear, Excitement and Chemical Soup

A friend asked me today what was making my griefwalk so challenging.  I had been thinking about that myself and so I had an answer, or at least part of one.

For as many years as I can remember, back to my childhood, my mother was always the most significant figure in my life.  As she aged, and I took on more and more of her care, that central role became more prominent.  Now, at her passing, it's not just her death that I grieve, but a radical shift in my whole life.

My friend commented that such a place to be could be a bit scary.  And yes, it is.  For my entire life, I had one constant--mother, her needs, her wants, her presence.  Now, all of sudden, she is gone and there are possibilities and challenges opening up that I never even considered before.

I learned in a seminar that the chemical response to fear is only one molecule different than that of excitement. That's why things like roller coasters that terrify me can be thrilling to someone else.  In their chemistry, the experience is processed as exciting; in mine it comes across as terror. They think, "Woo Hoo. This is a blast!"  I think, "OMG, I'm going to die!"

Right now, my chemistry is looking into the future with terror, not excitement.  My heart pounds, not with the thrill of new horizons, but as if a rabid wolf who hasn't eaten in a month is right on my heels. So last night, I tried something.  I tried consciously to shift my feelings from fear to anticipation.

Now I'm not going to say that it was a resounding success and that I flashed from one state to another, but I did sense a tiny little shift in the chemical soup that is coursing through my veins.  It was if I could see that fear and excitement are truly close and that maybe, with practice, I might be able to create and hold that shift for longer than a nanosecond.

It's worth a try.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Sunday Gratitude for mid-Lent

I know that listing the things one is grateful for is an important way to refocus.  Sometimes it's easy to find dozens of things; other weeks, not so much.  That's why I'm limiting my list to five.  That way if I have more than enough, I can pick and choose and if I'm struggling, I only have to think of five. 

So this week's five:

  1. Lemon water.  I really like lemonade, but in a pinch, water with a squirt of lemon, even from one of those plastic lemons is thirst-quenching.

 2. Clean kitty litter boxes. Freshly bleached. Self-explanatory.

3. A pellet stove.  When it's snowing in March, nothing makes the room cozier.

4. Enough ice cream in the carton for a nice sized bowl.