Sunday, October 19, 2014

Belong where?

"Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." Matthew 22:20

The Pharisee's trick question about paying taxes was the Gospel lesson for today, the Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost. Jesus answer begs the question, doesn't everything belong to God?

I found myself thinking not about everything belonging to God this morning, but about that word belong and about what kind of economic model is implied or assumed in the statement "Everything belongs to God"? Capitalism? God is the owner and we are the labor force? More than enough evil for the day is apparent if you pursue that metaphor; neither God nor capitalists come out looking good. Feudalism? And we are all vassals paying tribute--even the emperor? Might be what Jesus' followers thought of, but we western European thinkers abandoned that Chain of Being social model sometime around the Enlightenment. 

What about other models of God's economic relationship with the world? I'm no ethnographer or scholar of world religions but I've lived with the mythology of the American West long enough to have heard that Native Americans didn't believe in owning land. The Great Spirit put it there to support and sustain all. Fuzzy, hippie thinking? Maybe, but it's a concept of God that will get you away from mental images of dividing piles of coins between taxes, tithe and treasure house. Or from belonging to God meaning servanthood or slavery, with no agency of one's own. It might even lead to better stewardship of God's creation.

When I sat down to blog this afternoon, I typed belong into the search box in the computer dictionary, expecting to have my prejudices about the economic taint of the word confirmed. But no--some other ideas showed up: 
with adverbial of place ] (of a thingbe rightly placed in a specified position: learning to place the blame where it belongs.
have the right personal or social qualities to be a member of a particular group: young people are generally very anxious to belong. 
God, to whom we ascribe personhood--which can be limiting, might also be thought of as something like an "adverbial of place"--an "up where I belong" or "at home where I belong." Even "with whom I belong." Giving to God what is God's might mean being rightly placed, rightly oriented, living as part of God's kingdom or reign or without all that kingship stuff--as part of God's life and breath here in the world.

Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's: taxes, coins, whatever. But for yourself, belong to God, with God, where God is.

(Of course, on Tuesday, November 4,  belonging to God's kingdom just might influence your vote!)

Monday, October 13, 2014

Island weekend

I haven't unpacked my suitcase yet, so let me try to explain about the Island.

The Island is Washington Island, off the tip of Door County, Wisconsin. You must cross Death's Door to get there—Death's Door being the name of the strait to the south of the Island that connects Green Bay with Lake Michigan. It was a dangerous place for sailing ships more than a century ago, but the Porte des Morts name probably goes back to the 16th century and the Winnebago Indians, whose demise as a tribe may have begun with the loss of 500 warriors in a storm on Lake Michigan--500 warriors sneaking up on the Potawatomi. It's confused as history--the Potawatomi may have been the bad guys in the story. 

Today you cross Death's Door on a ferry boat run by the Washington Island Ferry Line. It's a domesticated experience, doesn't feel risky or adventurous. On a windy day the boat goes up and down over the waves and cars at the front of the boat get wet. Walking across the deck might be hard on such days if you're timid or careful about your balance. But the engine churns loudly underneath you and you feel secure on these boxy vessels.

The Island is a small place, with a small population. In the height of the summer tourist season there may be 2000 people there including day-trippers. (I heard that somewhere, I'm not sure). Many people have summer homes on the Island and others (like my family) camp, rent cabins or stay at one of the quirky motels, hotels, or resorts.

This last weekend my daughter and I stayed at the Cedar Lodge Resort. The present owner has been there for 41 years and has been trying to sell for the last four. It's on West Harbor, with a beautiful water view from the lawn. Inside--butt-ugly was my first reaction, with an avocado green refrigerator, burnt orange vinyl flooring in the bathroom, and a cut-velvet greenish-gold sofa in the living room. It's not my favorite place to stay on the Island (that would be the Sunset Resort half a mile to the south), but it's what you can get last minute for Columbus Day weekend, the biggest weekend of the fall.

But a weekend on the Island is not about the decor. The gentility and consideration of Island hosts. is not stuck in the 70s. It's assumed and innovative. There was a night light in an outlet in the kitchen in our apparent. Seemed like a strange place for a night light but it was exactly what was needed to light the way to the bathroom from any bedroom in the middle of the night. There were cast iron skillets on the stove if we'd cared to cook. The space heater kept the living room warm. The shiny new chairs on the porch and the old chairs around the fire pit focused on what was important: the view.

You can sit and look at the water on the Island and people will let you be. You can talk, or not, knit, read, write, walk, poke around, go to an Island festival or go out to dinner. Low expectations are rewarded. The restaurants aren't extraordinary. The service is friendly but not super well-trained. If you're open-hearted and respectful, that's what you'll get back.

It's okay to just be on the Island. Maybe that's because as many times as I've been there, I am still a tourist, not a resident, someone who brings commerce to the place, who spends money on the Island. Whatever I do is okay, because I'm there and gone and will pay my bill. I'm just there for a short time and don't have to figure out how I fit into the overall scheme of things, the social system.

Or maybe it's because Washington Island has a tolerance for quirkiness--old Icelandic settlers who fished and farmed potatoes and must have been plenty quirky. Its map is marked with odd little places, businesses that come and mostly go, museums curated by retired volunteers with long memories. Some people succeed, some come and go and just keep trying things, whatever. The woods and the water dwarf everything else, and the clouds that blow across the sky bring fresh starts twice a day or more.

I go to the Island to turn my face toward the lake, into the west wind, out to the sunset and up into the night sky. I try to take it all in--pine trees, maples, rocks, forests, light, to live and breathe the chilling beauty of every moment I'm there. I know myself as a child of God in those woods even as the sky beyond the water tells me I cannot begin to know the depth and breadth and otherness of God's being.

I haven't unpacked my suitcase yet. Not yet.