“Prayers are helpful,” A. J. Jacobs offers. “They remind me that the food didn’t spontaneously generate in my fridge. They make me feel more connected, more grateful, more grounded, more aware of my place in this complicated hummus cycle. They remind me to taste the hummus instead of shoveling it into my maw likes it’s a nutrition pill. And they remind me that I’m lucky to have food at all. Basically, they help me get outside of my self-obsessed cranium.”
Feb 7, 2010
Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him. Luke 5:1-11
Week before last I raised the matter of whether or not God wanted or needed our praise or what God wants and expects from us beyond our praise. The question was: “What Makes God Happy”?. Those of you who know me understand that where I was going with that was to point out how we, as followers of Jesus Christ and children of God, are to live rationally, responsibly and practically.
But, since then, in large part from reading The Year of Living Biblically by A. J. Jacobs, I’ve had a chance to re-think the matter and have decided that the whole tenor of the previous message lacked balance. Jacobs’ attempt to follow the Bible, literally, is both a daunting and dangerous proposition. He uncovers a most radical truth, a profound lesson for all of us – when it comes to the Bible there is always –but always– some level of interpretation, even of the most basic rules. His ‘for instance’ is God’s commandment to “Be fruitful and multiple”. That commandment is about human fertility not about math. Early in his book he tells us that while his family heritage is Jewish, to the same extent, he says, that Olive Garden restaurants are Italian, he had a real struggle with allowing his secular brain to acknowledge the likelihood that God exists. This experience made some real changes in his life.
Jacobs’ original plan was to follow all the rules every day. That turned out to be impossible. So he decided to focus on a particular rule each day and keep the other 600 plus in his peripheral vision. When exploring the Deuteronomy regulation about clothing, that, you can’t wear a garment of mixed fiber, primarily a mix of wool and linen, Jacobs asks “Why?” Why would God care? The answer is that we don’t know—we have no idea—but that is the law God gave and we have to trust God. God might have a different measuring scale then us. Matter of fact some insist that it is more crucial to follow the inexplicable rules because it shows that you are committed. Does that jar your practical, enlightened, logical sensibilities? The point is that we can never know what is important in the long term.
Right after Jacobs and his long suffering wife learned to their dismay that the babies she was carrying were both boys he recalled something he had learned from his spiritual adviser, Yossi: “What seems terrible at first may turn out to be a great thing.” That was the conclusion he drew from the Biblical story of Esther. It is something of an R rated Old Testament story of a pagan king who was on the search of a queen. It was a beauty pageant in which each contestant would be primped for an entire year – six months with oil of myrrh, six months with perfumes and spices – and then spend the night with the king. The winner – the one the king loved the most – was a Jewish exile names Esther. The king crowned her his queen. This mixed marriage was viewed with horror by the Jews of her day. But here is the twist: It turns out to be the best thing that could have happened because Esther ended up convincing the king to spare the Jews, against the wishes of his evil adviser Haman. Bad can lead to good. We don’t know the what God has in mind.
Jacobs noted that the Bible is filled with so many ‘Thou Shalt Nots’ that he decided to take advantage of anything the Bible does allow – by the way, that’s how he ended up eating a bug. Over the months of his strange journey he tried to abide by the rules explicitly listed in the Bible as opposed to the hundreds of kosher laws and that in itself was an enormous challenge. Mai-mon-i-des, the twelfth century Jewish philosopher, pointed out that the reason for following the religious food laws is that it sharpens your discipline. In talking with Yossi, one of his advisors, Jacobs suggested that he believed that as a society we’ve out grown them. Yossi shook his head “You can’t know the mind of God” “There may be benefits beyond what we know now or can imagine.” He began looking for one of those elusive benefits that come from following what God commanded and three weeks later he did. It occurred when he tried to deal with a commandment few Christians seem to know about, the Leviticus 19 commandment that you cannot eat fruit unless the tree that bears it is at least five years old. He researched which kinds of fruits in the grocery qualified. He couldn’t risk pears, they produce in four years, peaches in only two. But cherries, which take at least five to seven years from planting to produce, are safe. So he went to the store and bought a half pound and began eating them out of the bag on the walk home.
Each cherry took about three seconds to eat. Three seconds to eat and at least five years in the making. The least he could do was to devote his attention to the cherry in those three seconds, really appreciate the tartness of the skin and the faint crunching sound when he bite down. He said “I guess it’s called mindfulness. I’m in the moment, or making the mundane sacred.” The fruit taboo made him more aware of the whole cherry process, the seed, the soil, the five years of watering and waiting. That’s the paradox, he says: “I thought religion would make me live with my head in the clouds, but as often as not, it grounds me in the world.”
At one point he told Yossi how he had grown to love saying his prayers. “…they make me more grateful for life.” Yossi warns him that in that regard he was on thin ice and that he should stop looking at the Bible as a self help book. Jacobs admits as much saying how he asked himself “How can religion make me more joyous? How can it give my life more meaning? How can it help me raise my son so he won’t end up an embezzler or racketeer? Yossi tells him that religion is more than that and shares the story of two men who do their daily prayers at work. The first one spends twenty minutes in his office with the door closed and afterward feels refreshed and uplifted, like he had just had a therapy session. The second was so busy that he squeezes in a five minute prayer session between phone calls. He recites his prayers superfast in a supply closet. Who has done the better thing? Yossi asks. Jacobs replies, the first. “No” says Yossi, “the second, because he was doing it only for God. He was sacrificing his time with no benefit for himself.” Jacobs thought, “Imagine, prayers can teach us the concept of sacrificing our time for a higher good. Now I can sort of see why. It’s not for him. It’s for us. It takes you out of yourself and your prideful little brain.”
While on a trip he made to Jerusalem he was lost but found a cool and shady spot on a set of stairs which he reported had the texture of Rice Krispy treats. With head bowed and eyes closed he began trying to pray, but his mind kept wandering. He couldn’t settle down. He began thinking about an article he had just written for Esquire Magazine that, he thought to himself, wasn’t half bad. And then a realization hit him. Here he was, in Jerusalem no less, being prideful about creating an article for a mid-sized American magazine, and he thinks “But God, if He exists—He created the world. He created flamingos and supernovas and geysers and beetles and the stones for these steps I’m sitting on.” “Praise the Lord,” he hears himself saying out loud.
One more little story: He read in Deuteronomy that we should thank the Lord when we’ve eaten our fill – grace after meals. Christians, he notes, moved grace to the beginning of the meal. To be safe he prayed before and after. On this day, before tasting his lunch of hummus and pita bread he stood up from his chair, closed his eyes and, in a hushed tone said: “I’d like to thank God for the land that he provided so that this food might be grown.” Technically, he notes that’s enough. But not for him in that moment. He continued: “I’d like to thank the farmer who grew the chickpeas for this hummus. And the workers who picked the chickpeas. And the truckers who drove them to the store. And the old Italian lady who sold the hummus to me at the Deli and told me “Lot’s of love.” “Thank you.”
Prayers are helpful, he offers. “They remind me that the food didn’t spontaneously generate in my fridge. They make me feel more connected, more grateful, more grounded, more aware of my place in this complicated hummus cycle. They remind me to taste the hummus instead of shoveling it into my maw likes it’s a nutrition pill. And they remind me that I’m lucky to have food at all. Basically, they help me get outside of my self-obsessed cranium.”
On her web site Jan Richardson writes of her interest in the Irish Saint, Brigid, who became a formidable leader shaping the landscape of Irish Christianity. She was renowned for her hospitality and generosity. Accounts of Brigid’s life are replete with stories of how, in places of lack, her actions help to bring forth abundance, whether of food or drink or healing or justice. In these accounts, Brigid is a worker of wonders; her miracles echo the miracles of Christ and draw upon the same power by which he provided for those in need. She reminds us, Richardson says, of the ways that God is so often profligate toward us: how God, out of sheer, inexplicable delight and love for us, provides for us in ways that have the power to stun us.
The lectionary gives us this passage from Luke. Put out into the deep water, Jesus says to Simon, and let down your nets for a catch. Simon tells him what Jesus already likely knows: Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets. And what comes up sends Simon to his knees: net-breaking, boat-sinking abundance. In the place where Simon and his fellow fishermen had already been laboring, in the landscape they thought they knew, in the place where they had come up empty: a stunning catch, lavish beyond measure.
Luke’s fish tale and the feast of St. Brigid and A. J. Jacob’s viliant attempt to live Biblically have me wondering, what do I really believe about the ways that God works in this world? Have I grown fixed in my expectations about what God is up to? Do I have eyes to see the surprising ways in which God moves in the midst of situations whose outcome I think I already know? Is there deep water I need to put my net into—beyond what I can see, beyond what I know, beyond my familiar limits—to bring up an abundance that God has in store? What habits of wildest bounty might God be inviting me to practice?