It’s On My Card: Dresser of Sycamore Trees
Me and my man, Amos, we’re two peas in a pod. He was a god-fearing man, born in a time of corrupt religion. In his day, religion wasn’t just the place you and the members of your family went to worship and get atonement for all the ways in which you were crappy to yourself and others. I mean, it was one purpose that religion did in fact serve in his day, but in the big picture, religion had a very different role that was as much if not more important. It was religion’s job to be a check on the corrupting influence that power has on people, most particularly in politics, most particularly in the king’s court. You see, every king had a prophet, or a school of prophets that when not corrupt themselves, had the delightful effect of moderating the king’s rule. When any king started lording it around, levying oppressive taxes, passing laws that benefited his wealthy associates at the expense of the scads of people living it poverty, it was the prophet’s job to tell him ‘God says knock that shit off, right now. The God you worship doesn’t stand for this kind of tomfuckery, and you bloody well know it. Also, your people are starving, jackass.’
As you might imagine, genuine prophets were frequently killed.
Now, by Amos’ time, the prophets were actually on the payroll of the temple which was in cahoots with with the palace. That right there is reason to bite your tongue if ever there was one. Want your livelihood cut off? Want to join the others in crushing poverty? Then by all means, speak out against the king, to his face, and if you’re lucky you’ll be alive after the fact and only jobless, homeless, and utterly without prospects or reputation. That’s if you’re lucky. If you’re not lucky, your head will shortly be severed from your body and your family will have to endure the everlasting shame of having your body eaten by dogs outside the city’s walls. Or maybe you’ll be stoned to death; even better. Much easier to rubber stamp the king’s desires and live to feed your children.
Clearly, one does not tell the king to ‘knock that shit off’ without some serious backing, particularly if you want to come out the other end alive, to say nothing of being a successful change agent. So, enter the big guns: God’s favor. Personally, I don’t blame any of the prophets for using, or overusing (some may argue) the God Card. When dealing with someone as powerful as the king, what other ace do you actually have? The only one more powerful than the king and his cronies is, in fact, God. But this isn’t why I so strongly identify with my man, Amos.
In the midst of this rather unpleasant period in Ancient Israel full of political oppression and religious corruption, we have Amos, who is a humble dresser of sycamore trees. This means he was essentially a gardner, or really, an arbolist. And at the beginning of the book of Amos in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), Amos makes a great to do, all in order that the reader should understand that Amos Is Not A Prophet. ‘Cause look at who the prophets are – corrupt sycophants in bed with the king. And Amos Is Not In A School Of Prophets. Talk about creating distance, and it makes sense why he should want to do it – systemically speaking, perhaps people will take him seriously. Personally speaking, perhaps he is ashamed to be associated with them. (Or maybe that’s just my own projection. I’m willing to own it, if that’s the case.) No, Amos is quite clear that he is not a prophet, or in a school of prophets, or the follower of a prophet… no, no, no thank you, Amos is a gardner. He’s just a humble dresser of sycamore trees… and yet, in this time of utter bloody insanity, God’s word must come to someone, and since the kings rarely bother to listen and the court prophets steadfastly refuse to do so, it comes down to the gardeners.
I’m suddenly reminded of Samwise Gamgee. What was it Elrond Peredhel said about Sam and Frodo in Fellowship of the Ring? ‘When the eyes of the great are busy looking elsewhere, it sometimes falls to the smallest hands to push the cogs that change our world.’ Not quite perfect, but that was the sentiment.
But badly quoted or not, so it was with Amos. And so, even while he’s distancing himself from the craziness of organized religion, Amos says all the traditional words that prophets were supposed to actually say in that day and age which include all manner of divine threat and divine promise. It may sound odd to our ears, but we are something like two dozen centuries and several cultures removed from Amos, so let’s cut him some slack. It’s true that some of the threats are pretty bloody awesome, but I won’t go there right now – that’s another blog post for another day.
And me? Well, there are days I think I’d put ‘Dresser of Sycamore Trees’ on my calling card, if anyone would get the reference. Which they wouldn’t. So I won’t. But I so get Amos on a level I never imagined I would. As I go around doing supply work (filling in for other priests on a Sunday morning) in my diocese (a geographic area encompassing seven counties of Western New York), I become more and more cynical about a) the health of our diocese and the majority of the churches therein, b) the ineffectiveness of mainline protestant flavors of Christianity to do anything like what they’re supposed to be doing, en masse (which honestly is a broad range of activities, but seriously now, pick one and do it well), and c) the eminent death of Christianity – eminent, you know, within the next 100 years. Because, let’s face it – if something becomes completely fucking useless, it either gets recycled into something useful, or it gets abandoned to decay. Well, conservative politics in America is more than happy to recycle mainline Christianity for its own ends, that much is abundantly clear. And there are a few places in each geographic region that are doing absolutely bang up jobs doing what they are supposed to be doing. And the rest? We’re moldering and decaying, like that old woman’s wedding dress in that freaky Dickens novel.
And here I am, nearly 32, a priest in a mainline protestant church. As an infant I was baptized into the family of Christ and yet, except for Christ himself, we’re a rather dysfunctional bunch, and I can’t blame all my cousins in this family for saying, ‘to hell with this shit, I can be dysfunctional on my own, thanks.’ And more and more I introduce myself as a writer first, and mention the priest thing later, if at all, and sometimes just for the shock effect. And yet, it’s part of my being, part of my very ontology. Storyteller and Sacramentalist. For me, they are one in the same, and it’s only in the exercise of it that I could be clearly defined as Writer or Novelist or FanFic Writer or Priest. And in a vacuum, I’m totally fine with that, but you put me out in the world, and I am ashamed of my religion, of Christianity in general, of the Episcopal Church in specific. And if I’m honest, I’m afraid of the censure I may receive for being a priest and yet writing stories that seem to me to be honest and true – censure from people who actually have power over me (my bishop, to name just one, my college of priests who can bring me up on charges of heresy and/or apostasy, to name another), and censure from people who have power over the zeitgeist (why hello, Conservative America, my name is Sare, but you can call me the Whore of Babylon for short). I am not ashamed of God, or the understanding of God that my religion has lent to me, my experience of God in the world around me, or the inspiring nature of God that has opened my eyes to see just how much work we have left to do; how could I possibly be ashamed of something so Wonderful? Nope. That’s just not my malfunction. But my religion? Yikes. Where my religion is concerned, I sometimes feel Kevlar and a very good disguise might be completely appropriate.
And so, I seek to transform the world, absolutely, yes, I’ll get right on it. After all, we’ve got some room for improvement when it comes to loving ourselves and loving our neighbors, which I’ve been led to believe is like unto loving God. And honestly, transforming the church, my religion, is sort of a distant second in my list of priorities, while yes, I am grateful for my ordination, it’s still not entirely clear to me that the church is worth the effort, or if it is, that I’m the one to do it. I think my energy would be much better spent on the former than the latter. I could be wrong. Who knows. But that’s kind of how it seems from the place I’m currently standing.
In other words, when you think of all the multitudinous things that are wrong with religion today, don’t look at me. I’m just a dresser of sycamore trees. Er, writer. I meant writer. But I’ve got a few things to say and I’m fairly sure it’s God who wants me to say them, so listen up…
sare thanks for your honesty and baring your heart. I sense you see so much that is wrong with church and you want to do something, yet what is it?? It is overwhelming.
I kinda always identified with these prophets since i first learned about them way back when as a boy, in hebrew School, and used to actually have dreams about them. One of the ones I remember to this day is my “prophet parade” dream. it was intense!! as you might imagine attending a parade filled with prophets could be pretty awe inspiring. .
But AS I am not good with writing or speaking what i feel God is saying to me, I am simply just now trying to be brave enough to figure out and accept who I really am, and then maybe somehow, I will be able to know God more intensely and be like him in my own littel way, in this world. at least thats what I believe now…
youre an inspiration to me. from your gardener friend….
Thank you so much for your comments, and for all of your support. It can be overwhelming, and certainly I sometimes feel overwhelmed by it, but other times I can take a deep breath and tackle all that can be done that day, and that’s enough.
i think thats wise, taking life 1 day at a time…
Thanks for the link, Sare. I really identified with a lot of your words. For whatever it’s worth, regardless of the survival of organized Christianity, true Christianity will endure. It may wear another name, but you know what they say about roses and other names. I sometimes think the problems facing organized religion stem from secular use of religious mores. It tends to warp perceptions on both sides. Not sure if there’s actually a practical solution to the problem, but recognizing issues is never bad.
I had some other stuff I was going to add, but I got distracted by the possibility of ice cream with fresh strawberries. Mmmm. Going to love myself with dairy and fruit. Thanks for the post. You do beautiful things for God, Sare.
You’re right. And while no one (or next to no one?) really remembers Zoroastrianism, the very best parts of each religion are present in several of the others. Names are less important.
Mmm, go love yourself with dairy. I’m going to avail myself of my sister’s TV and while she is at an airband concert with her daughter, I will attempt to turn the TV on and locate the Sabres game. Thereby I will love myself with leftovers in my sister’s fridge, and talented boys skating around on ice at zoomy-zippy speeds. And everyone wins. :)
Thank you. I am so glad I found you (via your post on how to be a Christian and not an asshole, via a Facebook rec from Stephanie Owen via the group “Christians Tired of Being Misrepresented”).
You speak to me, and for me, and inspire me. I’m partway through my own discernment year in our church, your age, and also RIGHT THERE on the whole love thing. (And a fanfic reader, too. :)) So I want to say THANK YOU for voicing my own thoughts, fears and heresies. Sometimes in this process I’ve wondered if I’m too out there in my theology – if my “exploded” vision of God might be TOO big. Well, maybe so, but at least I’m not alone.
You encourage me to pick up those pruning shears.
Which suggests a rec – and I’ve not read anything else of yours yet, so this may be unnecessary, but if you’ve never read anything by Theodore Sturgeon – do look him up. You might start with “Slow Sculpture”. It’s about arborists. Well, sort of.
Thank you so much for the delightful feedback, and thank you for telling me how you and about five hundred other people suddenly found my website. :) I too have wondered if I was the only one out there with these thoughts and concerns, and I’m not quite convinced that I’m not. There’s at least a whole generation of us, perhaps two or three generations of us who have found the good message of the gospel obscured and felt the corresponding alienation when our own insights, awarenesses and experiences of God are not validated by the very institutions that are supposed to be walking around pointing out the Holy to us. …and this is something that you and I and all the rest of us can fix.
So, now who is this Theodore Sturgeon person? Is this fic or actually published stuff I need to check out at the library?
Ted Sturgeon is one of the Grand Masters of science fiction, and an inspiration to a whole bunch of his contemporaries and may authors who followed. He doesn’t get the press he really should, sorry to say.
A little search later, and I am delighted to report that you can get the entire volume containing the story I recommended via Google books.
Here’s a link: http://books.google.com/books?id=4sjvaKta3wwC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false. If the link doesn’t take you to the story the table of contents will. If the link doesn’t work at all, you can Google “theodore sturgeon slow sculpture” and the book should be the first result.
I also highly recommend his short story “Thunder and Roses”, which doesn’t seem to be online but is collected in the volume of the same name and should be available at libraries. I don’t think I’ve ever read a Sturgeon story I disliked – though some were painful to read – and neither, I think, has my husband, who has read them all. From what I’ve read of your blog, I think you will like them too.
Now… on a more specifically theological bent… yes. If we want our faith to be relevant a century from now, it’s up to us. I truly believe this. The radical doctrine of LOVE – love that transcends fear, that refuses to be bound by creed or superficial differences – that’s the cure for the cancers that afflict humanity. And it won’t be fast, or easy, but we must carry on, do our best, keep loving as honestly and faithfully as we can. Because it’s all we can do, and because it’s all we need to do, and because it’s what we are called to do, what we must do.
So thank you, again, for being the reluctant voice of God.