Tuesday, May 30, 2017

How Shall A Young Man Cleanse His Ways?

Some years ago I spent a lot of time wondering about the Mosaic Law. Specifically, I wondered why the Old Testament Jews seemed to love it so much. A lot of do's and don't's, perhaps immediate to them in their time, important to obey, but to love it, to praise it? Why?

Then a wonderful priest visited out parish (the Reverend Canon John Rettger (for those of you with Google) and gave a talk on the Mosaic Law and its many intricacies. Father Rettger is a learned cleric with a tender pastoral way about him. I asked him my burning question: why did the Jews love the Law so much? After a moment of thought, he directed me to Psalm 119. "Pray that psalm a few times and you might understand," he said.

Most people consider Psalm 119 to be simply tedious and repetitive. It is a one note samba whose message could be given in eight verses, not the 176 that comprise it. It has 22 eight-verse sections, one for every letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Our lectionary offers it only in eight-verse bits a few times each liturgical year.

I did, however, follow the priest's advice and read the psalm through, I can't say I "prayed" it then, but to my astonishment, I almost understood the deep and mysterious hold the Law had on people in the Old Testament times. We know, of course, that the Law was given to the Jews at Mount Sinai and that it is reiterated/paraphrased several times in the Torah. It defined and connected the people through their journey to the promised land and for many centuries after that. It connects them still.

In the Order of Julian of Norwich, it is our custom to pray the psalms each day, morning and evening, according to the schedule in the Book of Common Prayer. In this way the person praying will complete the Psalter each 30 day month. It takes two and a half days to pray through Psalm 119; we begin on the evening of Day 24 and finish on the evening of Day 26. Since my affiliation with the Order of Julian, I have read Psalm 119 more than thirty-six times, and it never fails to move me. At least one verse will stand out and call to me every time. Even as a post-modern, 21st Century, Protestant Christian, I can feel a feeling for the Law.

The Law, which the psalmist sings is the verbal embodiment of the LORD. It is evidence of God's love for God's people and their obligation to God.
You laid down your commandments,
   that we should fully keep them.  v 4

The way of the law is freedom. To obey the Law is a gift and an act of will.
My life is always in my hand,
   yet I do not forget your law. v 109

I will run the way of your commandments,
   for you have set my heart at liberty. v 32

There is no end to the Law. Mastering it is impossible. Its mysteries are deep but one must persist.
I am your servant; grant me understanding,
   that I may know your decrees. 

Oh, how I love your law!
   all the day long it is in my mind. v 97

Psalm 119 does not list the commandments but only sings of them. No time is given to the specific words from Mount Sinai; the difficulty or ease of obeying the Law is not an issue. It is, in fact, not a test but a gift. No specific commandment is mentioned because the Law is, for the psalmist, a single command. It is all one, beautiful and compelling. It is God's hand on our lives.

The Law comforts. It challenges. It teaches. It protects. It is the very bond between God and God's people. The Law reaches into every place and time in a person's life. To obey the Law at all times is to be with God at all times. It is to "pray without ceasing."

Outside the Law there is no freedom, no virtue, no love. The world is a trackless waste. The Law can follow you into any trouble, even the most desolate condition. It is priceless, sheltering, restoring, sanctifying.

Your statutes have been like like songs to me
   wherever I have lived as a stranger. v54

We draw lines. It's how we manage our world. The Law in the Hebrew Scriptures was all about drawing lines, ordering things, keeping categories apart, for safety, for ease, for ritual purity. But some of the lines that we draw are wispy and faint.

The line that supposedly separates Christianity and Judaism is such a line. Jesus was an observant Jew as were his followers. He and they quoted Scripture all the time. His ministry was based on the understanding of the LORD that he was taught and grew up with and experienced himself. How could it be otherwise? His Passion was replete with Passover imagery. Isaiah could have written his birth narrative.

I believe we can draw strength from the same source from which Jesus drew strength and I believe that, as he is the fulfillment of the law, we can view this long psalm from that perspective. Try putting "Jesus" in wherever there is a reference to the Law.

My life is always in my hand,
   yet I do not forget Jesus

I will run the way of your Son, Jesus
   for he has set my heart at liberty

Jesus has been like like a song to me
   wherever I have lived as a stranger

I'm not advocating Christianizing this or any part of the Hebrew Scriptures. We mustn't read the OT as if it couldn't stand on its own. I does stand on its own. But, as Christians, we have double vision. As far as we are able, we read that Scripture from its original perspective and from our own. How could we not? This exercise is just a way to help myself see what the Law might have meant to the Hebrew people, and, in turn, to see anew what Jesus means to me.

Outside the Law Jesus there is no freedom, no virtue, no love. The world is a trackless waste. Jesus The Law can follow you into any trouble, even the most desolate condition. He It is priceless, sheltering, restoring, sanctifying.

Friday, May 19, 2017

What's So Good About The Good Place?

I've been wanting to write about this show for months now. Maybe I'm a frustrated Television Without Pity (RIP) Recapper . Or maybe I can't get over what appears to me as a modern sequel to The Screwtape Letters. Either way, certain aspects of this show have stayed with me and puzzled and delighted me in surprising ways. So if you haven't seen season one of The Good Place and/or don't want any spoilers, stop reading this post immediately.

Here is a show in which a young woman, Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristin Bell) is welcomed to the afterlife by Michael - no last name (Ted Danson). Michael is clearly a bit nervous as he had just had a promotion in which he was allowed to design his own Utopian neighborhood in, select its citizens and keep everything on a heavenly even keel. Eleanor is assured that she is in the good place. "Whew," she seems to say.

How did she make it into the good place, she wonders? Michael assures her that this is a common question. The data of one's life are analyzed with each act given a number of points accorded by level of goodness to be balanced by each bad act and its negative points assigned in a similar manner. Now I don't know about you, but that was how I learned it in Catholic School. It was a bit less data driven, but basically your good had to outweigh your bad. Very transactional. Very bank account, business ledger-ish.

Problem is, of course, that Eleanor knows immediately that she is there by mistake. When she meets her "soul mate, Chidi (William Jackson Harper) and her near neighbors Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and Jianyu (Manny Jacinto), she is terrified that her own lack of virtue will come to light, she will be outed and sent off to perdition.

Eleanor is increasingly frightened about her fate. Chidi, a ponderous ethics scholar undertakes to teach her about ethics in an effort to "save" her after she confesses the mistake to him. She doesn't fit in with Tahani, the wealthy philanthropist and Jianyu a Buddhist monk whose vow of silence has accompanied him into the after life.

To everyone but me apparently, this is a light-hearted comedy, so fluffy, funny things happen. An even keel is not maintained. Michael just about goes bonkers as his perfect neighborhood becomes increasingly chaotic. Our four new residents are increasingly miserable and increasingly turn to each other for comfort with varying degrees of honesty.

Everyone knows that Kristin Bell can figure things out. Three seasons of Veronica Mars have not gone in vain. I had every confidence that she would survive this crisis as she had done so magnificently before. I had also begun to dismiss every bit of religious relevance in the show. Now I didn't care about that; I just hoped that Veronica, I mean Eleanor, would survive and the other three as well.

And I was not disappointed. Eleanor guesses that not only does she not deserve to be in the good place, neither do Chidi or Tahani or Jianyu. Is this a massive error on Michael's part? Nope. They are in The Bad Place. Their torture for all eternity was to be the way they would deceive and annoy each other. If you are Satan, this is a brilliant plot! Let that self deception and self loathing eat away at people for all eternity. Let them project their misery on each other. You can sit back and enjoy the show.

The problem is this: In their time together, these four condemned souls actually grew in every possible virtue known to network television. They became kinder, more honest, wiser, more generous. What Michael, and his many helpers did not reckon on was that divine spark in all humanity. Given a bit of time it will come out and we will turn around. Put us with each other and, if you're Satan, you just might be asking for trouble.

I think C.S. Lewis would have loved this show. Nothing like making Satan look a fool. Nothing like letting his evil plans blow up in his handsome face. Just like Wormwood at the close of The Screwtape Letters, Michael had to see his condemned souls find virtue, grow in love and be lost to him.

Of course, this is television and Season II is on the horizon. Michael has a plan to thwart these newly saved souls. Will it work? Or will Kristin Bell prove herself more than a match for any bad guy once more? I'll be watching.