Thursday, May 28, 2009

Compare to what?


The word of the LORD came to me: What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, "The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge"? As I live, says the Lord GOD, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die. Ezekiel 18(NRSV)

This morning's lesson from Ezekiel is one that I have often quoted. It seems to fit in with looking at community and family issues from a systems perspective. When one generation or group experiences, or perpetuates, a cycle of addictive or abusive behavior it is often those who follow that wind up reaping the whirlwind of their predecessor's choices. A mouthful, no? Makes more sense to quote scripture and say that the children's teeth have been set on edge after their parent's have eaten sour grapes. Anyone who has brushed their teeth and then drunk orange juice knows the mouth-puckering sensation of having their teeth set on edge. To equate that to a spiritual, emotional or physical state in light of living in a community broken by sin makes perfect sense.

Still, today was another "first time, again" moment for me. I have read Ezekiel any number of times, and this passage again and again. Yet, today I saw something new in the passage. God is offering a rejoinder to the proverb-to the human proverb-and challenging the way we project onto God the reactions we have come to expect from fellow mortals.

"All life belongs to me," says God. Sins don't transmit from generation to generation, at least not in God's book and on the divine balance sheets kept by eternity. What we perpetuate on earth between us mortals is ours and sin is something we are personally responsible for. The suffering of subsequent generations is something else; and though it is a terrible thing to see abuse and addiction transmit continually from group to group-it is a human thing and human beings have choices to make about what they accept and what they suffer.

But, suffering does NOT come from God when a child suffers because of its parent's choices. I must confess, that twists me up. The Reformation, the fight of Civil Rights in the USA and for the end of Apartheid in South Africa are simple examples of generations fighting for the end of abusive cycles. Children DO inherit sour grapes from their parents. And yet, with courage and honest conviction, change can come...

Having been a priest for more than a decade and change, I can tell you that I have seen systems (healthy and NOT healthy) perpetuate in families and congregations for years. What one group visits on-and teaches-another in terms of systemic tendencies is not only established in scholarship...it is felt at the deepest levels of human relationships. I have seen people who purport to love each other do the worst things to each other without thought or regret. I have seen addicts abuse themselves and others without an ounce of self-reflection or repentance. I have seen some of the worst and ugliest actions and reactions in parish and diocesan life...and it would be tempting to look to God and wonder what possible purpose it could have that God would allow this ugly crap to go on and on.

God decries that accusation, that projection on my part. In the passage from Ezekiel, God is directly confronting my supposition that these experiences somehow come from some divine plan...or that suffering is anything else other than the abusers choices made manifest in the self, the family and the community. The sour grapes are the responsibility of the one who creates the mess...not the inevitable heritage of the children (genetic or spiritual) who follow.

Still, we see the cycles of abuse and addiction perpetuate. The children's teeth are set on edge. How do we change that reality, that one that God puts squarely in front of us-reminding us that healing from that teeth-edging experience is on our shoulders and NOT the Creator's.

It comes back to choice. We can choose to reject old, addictive and abusive behaviors. We can seek God's-and our neighbor's-forgiveness. We can seek reconciliation while invested in what is true as opposed to what is supportive of our own political or personal opinions.

Those brothers and sisters in recovery from their sour grape experiences like alcoholism have it right when, in the twelve steps, they take on the personal responsibility for a "searching moral inventory," take responsibility for their wrong doings while under the influence of active abuse and then begin to seek to make amends.

Yet you say, "The way of the Lord is unfair." Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair? When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it; for the iniquity that they have committed they shall die. Again, when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life. Because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions that they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die. Ezekiel 18 (cont.)

God's intent is clear...make the choice, the conscious and mindful choice, to walk in the light of truth while seeking forgiveness and the iniquities of the past will be forgotten. Life and sobriety will follow. Challenge and amend the systems that perpetuate abuse and there will be healing. It will hurt at first...but at the least we will be able to leave those sour grapes behind. In their wake, at least from a Christian perspective, is the fine wine of the Blood of Christ-poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins and for the life of the world.

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