I was explaining to someone the other day that so many little things have gone wrong in the past month or so, I am starting to feel a little bit cursed.
Right after Thanksgiving, the water heater broke, flooding the basement. After that, the heat went on the blink, requiring 9 or 10 visits from the plumber and some freezing nights (and he likes to talk!). A week before Christmas, my computer crashed and I lost the entire contents of my hard drive. I caught two colds pretty much in a row. A romance ended. The guys at the Jiffy Lube broke my car sound system. By far the worst, I came home Tuesday afternoon to find my cat gasping for breath and near death. She' s home from the hospital and doing well for now, and we are cautiously optimistic, but as they say, when it rains, it pours.
When I shared this laundry list of woes with a woman at the animal hospital the other day, she said, "God is trying to tell you something."
I said, "God broke my water heater and made my cat sick so She could tell me something? This had better be good."
I think she had never heard anyone refer to God as "She" before, so she was kind of startled.
We sat there in silence together for a moment, and then she said,
"I hope your cat gets better." And I thanked her. What I wanted to say was, "That second thing you said was a lot more helpful than that first thing you said."
When Moses went up that mountain top those thousands of years ago and brought down the Ten Commandments, the third one on the list was short and simple, and actually quite mysterious. It says, "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain."
ve all had your own experiences with people breaking this commandment. It happens when you'
ve had a death in the family, and some well-meaning person says, "God must have needed him." Or when a flood wipes out a village, "It'
s all part of God'
s plan." I know these phrases are meant to be comforting. But they'
re not. They'
re actually thoughtless clichés, lazy expressions of the worst kind of hand-me-down kind of theology.
I always want to ask, "Explain exactly how God needed my loved one who has died. How does this work? Theologically, how does this work? Are you sure of this? Did you just get off the phone with God?"
Or, "If it was God' s plan to destroy this particular village and not another one, how so? How do you honestly conceive of this as part of the holy vision for the world, exactly?"
I know that'
s not fair. And I am not myself innocent of breaking the third commandment. I break it all the time. Have you ever heard me say, "I swear to God!" or "Oh my God!" Sure you have. Next time you hear me say it, stop me. Ask me what I mean. If I say, "It'
s just an expression," feel free to remind me that I am breaking the third commandment (When I say, "God bless you," however, I have really thought that one through. Feel free to ask me exactly what I mean by that any time).
Perhaps if challenged to think through what we mean when we so casually invoke the name of God, we might enter into illuminating conversations about our concepts of God, and our belief or non-belief. Maybe that' s the ultimate aim of this commandment: to get humans to be mindful and intentional about the way they invoke the most high. But until we are appropriately mindful, the third commandment cautions us not to toss the name of God around when we don' t know what else to say. I irreverently paraphrase the third commandment this way: "Thou shalt not throw the name of God around when you want to sound deep." Or, "Thou shalt not use the word God' as a pet explanation for everything random that happens in the universe."
I have no doubt that this commandment is equally important to the ordering of a moral society, but I' m not sure why it gets included in the same list as "thou shalt not kill." Contracts used to be sworn "in the name of the Lord," and when broken, the offending party was said to have taken the name of the Lord in vain. However, there must be a spiritual relevance to this commandment that transcends the legal and binding use of the name of God in contracts and oaths.
Perhaps the third commandment calls us to awareness that human maturity and human integrity require us to abide with the mysterious unknowability of things with all the courage we can muster, in solidarity with other human beings walking together into the great unknown. If we invoke the name of God for any reason, this commandment says, let it be as a way to honor the vast, magnificent intensity of the universe and our reverent place in it, not invoke the name of the Lord as frightened children cling to a teddy bear in the dark.
To take the name of the Lord in vain is to trivialize a concept that has already been trivialized and denigrated enough through the ages.
I drive around, I see bumper stickers that say "God bless America." Seems harmless enough, patriotic, a positive American thing.
I think about it, and I wonder: is this not another kind of violation of the third commandment?
When the God Bless America flag stickers started coming out after 9/11, I understood that we were all frightened children looking for comfort. We were using God as the biggest big protective brother of all time. "You can' t hurt us! God is blessing us!"
At that time, I put a bumper sticker on my own car that said, "God bless the whole world, no exceptions." I got lots of thumbs up for that one, and sometimes a flash of another, less friendly finger. I believe then as I believe now that any concept of God that blesses one nation more abundantly than another is too small a concept of God to have any integrity.
God is not a mafia don. You know as well as I do that those bumper stickers might as well have said, "God bless America
and our enemies can go to Hell." It'
s true that God behaves very much like a tribal warlord in much of the Bible"wacking" the enemies of Israel and other sinners, but is that the nature of the Almighty, or is that the mistake of the ancient people who wrote the original Bible stories, and who were doing the best they could in their own limited way -- to relate the nature of the incomprehensible, eternal spiritual power that they felt was ultimately creating, preserving and guiding the world and the human heart?
Unitarian Universalist methods of interpretation would say the latter.
We should have moved on from that kind of nonsense by now. God does not bless this flawed people and refuse to bless that flawed people.
It is my own belief that God is the spirit of blessing itself, the eternal Source of our desire to live lives based in generosity and love rather than territorial fear.
How truly sad and ironic that in our own age, we should have such good cause to fear when leaders of nations start taking the name of the Lord in public. At one time, American leaders did so in order to petition God for guidance and blessing. In recent years, however, American leaders have positioned themselves as prophets of God, announcing God' s desire for America and the rest of the world. It is a subtle and profoundly important rhetorical shift.
It has always been a particularly American sin to promote that idolatrous notion that God favors their nation over another. Many of the founders of the United States sincerely believed that America was first among God'
s favorites, and we have throughout our history relied on that foundational belief as an excuse and as permission to make war and seek global domination. America likes to break a lot of the commandments, but lately there seems to have been a special commitment to breaking the third.
Maybe it is true that democracy is the most morally righteous and therefore "godly" way to govern a nation. I like to think so, (with a strong leftward lean toward socialism). But to be faithful people means always to be open to new truths and new insights. There may be forms of government we' ve never thought of that would allow for a much better flourishing of human community based on justice and equality. We' ve got to think that there must be better ways to encourage democracy than by imposing it militarily. We don' t have all the answers. We may never have them. Now we see in a glass, darkly. We do the best we can. But while we do, we should not fling around the name of God like God is some kind of mascot for our team.
Remembering that awe and responsibility are the greater part of reverence, ethically religious people caution against comfy, clubby theologies that neatly correspond to their own social, economic and political interests. Ethically religious people know that the work of discernment is never done, and that the hard work of self-examination and questioning assumptions is central to human moral evolution.
s got time for discernment? Who'
s got time to just sit around and think about how we'
re living, and why, and under whose authority we make decisions that can have planetary consequences?
Which brings us to the fourth commandment, the longest of the ten. Here it is in its entirety:
"Remember the Sabbath day, to hallow it. For six days, you are to serve, and are to make all your work, but the seventh day is Sabbath for YWHW your God: you are not to make any kind of work, not you, nor your son, nor your daughter, not your servant, nor your maid, nor your beast, nor your sojourner that is within your gates. For in six days YHWH made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in it, and he rested on the seventh day; therefore YWHW gave the Sabbath day his blessing, and he hallowed it." -- Translated by Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses
I once read that the Sabbath is the Jews gift to the world. If so, it is a gift that Western society has left unused in the garage for a long time now. Maybe we' d like to "re-gift" it to a more peace-loving part of the globe, say, some remote corner of Mongolia? Maybe they' d know what to do with it!
You can' t help but notice how clear the instruction is here. On the seventh day, you "are not to make any kind of work." None. Not you, not your son or your daughter. Not the help, not the person visiting you.
And why is that?
Because our souls need the Sabbath like our bodies need sleep.
You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain, and you shall honor the Sabbath. Considering the third and the fourth Commandments together in this way, I begin to see an important chronological significance to them:
Perhaps the reason we are asked to honor a Sabbath is to give ourselves the necessary time to contemplate what it is we actually believe is holy.
Especially in this era when it is so obvious that human beings possess tremendous power and that we actually hold the fate of the planet in our hands, it is crucial that we stop to ask ourselves, what God or gods are we worshiping? Are they true gods or false idols? How shall we ever know unless we provide our hearts and spirits the time to reflect on that question? How can we recover from the daily project of living into the full potential of our humanity unless we make at least one day for quiet, for healing, for processing through it all, and for setting our hearts on the right path as individuals, as communities, and as a species?
"The seventh day is for your God." So says the fourth commandment. And we ask ourselves, what is that God? What is it that is most High, the Source of that calling to which I live my life in response?
I leave you with a most cherished and very short story.
There was a rabbi who prayed every morning for an hour. He was a busy man, very involved with the life of his congregation and the world beyond that. A member of his congregation asked him how he could possibly devote so much time to prayer, considering all of his other obligations and activities. The rabbi responded, "Yes, I am a busy person, like so many others. It is hard to devote an entire, uninterrupted hour of my day to prayer, but I rise early, I cherish my time with God." The man asked, "But rabbi, surely on the busiest days, the days when your list of obligations is even longer than usual, surely you don' t pray for an entire hour on those days?" And the rabbi responded, "Oh no."
"On those days, I pray for two hours."
Sabbath blessings to you, my friends. Sabbath peace, devoutly guarded, and the subsequent wisdom to know who you are and Whose you are.