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…