Reflections on “The Prioress’s Tale”

Let’s not make the mistake of turning those beautiful, rich colors and patterns we are a part-of into a jumble of pastels or shades of grey.

1280px-Cliffords_Tower_York_UK
Clifford’s Tower in York, England

I recently saw “The Prioress’s Tale,” an Operetta written by Delvyn Case as a retelling of Chaucer’s famous story.  The story as presented by Case describes a cultural clash between the Jewish and Christian residents of a medieval community.  While watching this tale unfold, I was struck by several thoughts…

First, I remembered an episode from my journeys as a student in England in 1983: One day, on a whim, I visited a tower built on a high mound just outside the walls of the city of York.  Now known as Clifford’s Tower, it stands on the site of a massacre that occurred in March 1190, when most of the Jews in York took refuge there, seeking to escape the riots that had erupted against many “outsider” groups as “Crusade Fever” swept through Western Europe.

I read a description at the site of what was found after the riots had ended: the tower’s courtyard was littered with corpses.  Surrounded and without hope of escape, the families had lain down together in the courtyard.  The fathers then killed their own children and wives before setting fire to the fortress and committing suicide beside the bodies of their loved ones; a very Masada-like scene.  Those who survived were later massacred by the mob that surrounded the burning tower.

I reflected that many of my ancestors came from Northern England.  Therefore, it is possible, if not likely, that some of my own forebears were in that mob.  Yet, my family does not preserve any stories of that time or those events.  (Similarly, whites in the south are often unaware of the brutality their ancestors inflicted upon African American slaves.)  History likes to remember and celebrate the times when we were brave or victorious; but tends to forget the times when we were cruel, avaricious, or oppressive.

Second, I was struck by how everyone in the Operetta was seeking to do the best they could, despite the fear, loss and pain they were experiencing.  They realized their actions were wrong only after the fact, when it was too late to repair the damage.

We have all been in situations where our own actions, undertaken with what we thought were the best of motives, have resulted in harm to others.  So, we must avoid being cocky about being more “enlightened” than those who came before us.  I’m reminded of what Jesus said in Matthew 23:30-32: “And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have participated with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ By saying this you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up then the measure of your ancestors!”

Finally, in the mid 1990’s, I was a member of a church whose membership was mostly African American.  One Sunday, I was the target of a shocking act of racial prejudice.  After listening to me recount this a few days later, a friend of mine from the church said “…what that teenage girl did was wrong, but you need to understand, you’re white: if you experience discrimination, you can always walk out the door and never have to deal with it again.”  She paused and then added: “I can never leave my skin.”

The two lead characters in this production were in exactly the same positions as “that teenage girl” and me: she lashed out in fear and anger because of what I represented to her, not because of what I’d done.  I learned from this that I may never fully understand what it means to be the target of discrimination.  I can empathize, I can work to promote understanding, but I am limited in what I can achieve because I am not a member (at least, not yet) of a group that experiences such things every day.

Does this mean I should ignore that discrimination and prejudice exist?  No. Should I wallow in guilt and remorse because of my own past actions, or those of my ancestors?  No.  Should I try and remold myself so that I will never offend or oppress another person in such ways?  No!

I’ve come to believe, as a speaker said after the performance, that we need to respect and celebrate our differences.  Our differences make the world a place of vibrant colors.  Let’s not make the mistake of turning those beautiful, rich colors and patterns we are a part-of into a jumble of pastels or shades of grey.

Text is copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).

Thoughts on Job

God has a plan for all of creation: it is a comfort to know that I have a part in that plan…

One message of the Hebrew Bible’s book of Job is that God’s view of what our best interests are is based on His perspective, which is universal and all-encompassing; unlike our perspective, which is inherently limited and focused on our personal needs.

We all go through “dark tunnels” from time to time. It’s an unavoidable part of life. In my case, the estrangement from my daughter has been the most heart wrenching.  A separation that I still do not fully understand why or how it happened, and one so complete that I have had no significant knowledge of anything that has been happening in her life for almost four years.  In any such experience, we have an immediate desire to have the situation resolved.  Unfortunately, Job teaches us that God does not think that way.

One thing I’ve learned from this experience is that when these things happen, God always seems to open up new doors for us as a result of it. If the relationship between my daughter and I had not been destroyed, I would still be sacrificing my own needs and life goals in the face of my desire to be the perfect Dad – as I’d been doing since she was born. In fact, I would have been working at it harder than ever.   It was only through losing her that I slowed down enough to realize there were big holes in my own life, and eventually learn what I needed to do to fill them. Because of this I found my wife, who I firmly believe is truly the perfect life companion for me, and also because of this I am now going back to school. None of this would have happened if my daughter was still in the picture, and I would never have worked on what I needed to fulfill my own potential as a person or to pursue my goals and dreams.

Does this mean that I’m glad my daughter is estranged from me? No. But, I’ve come to see that God is using the situation to help me grow and become a better, happier person than I would otherwise have been. If He is doing this for me, then I can be certain he is doing the same for her: He is not worrying about how our relationship was twisted and destroyed.  To God, what matters most is that we each acheive His plan for each of our lives within the context of His Great Plan for all.  This enables me to forgive and forget the fear, misconceptions and perhaps even lies that led to our separation, and enables me to hope that someday she will be able to share in the joy, peace and happiness that is in my life now.  But, even if she never does, he will take care of her, too – just as He has done for me.

Job’s message for me is that God is looking out for our interests, but is doing so in the context of the best interests for all of His Creation, and in the long term.  That is not a terribly comforting thought when you’re in the middle of gutwrenching crisis.  On the other hand, I’d rather have a God that does that, than one that caters to my own personal, immediate needs – or to the personal, immediate needs of others.  God has a plan for all of creation: it is a comfort to know that I have a part in that plan, as does my daughter.

Copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).

The Languages of the Eternal

Our Faith is a language: the language we use to explain and explore our relationship with the Eternal.

What’s both wonderful and  annoying about being a Divinity Student is that you are always thinking: thinking about the next paper, this morning’s lecture, conversations in the cafeteria, email exchanges with friends, etc.  It is a constant learning experience, both inside the classroom, and outside.

You are (or at least I am) always ruminating upon the implications of the things we are learning.  I am always seeking to tie my latest revelations into that tapestry that is the sum of what I’ve learned to date in the long and rather meandering path I’ve taken through life.  I also love to write and to discuss these thoughts with others. So, voila, time for a blog.

My viewpoint from a pastoral / theological point of view is this: that our faith is for each of us like a language.  It is a language that helps us explore and express our relationship with the eternal.  Everyone has such a language, whether we are a Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Atheist, Shamanist or we (as our Australian Aboriginal cousins do) walk in the Dreaming.

Our Faith is a language: the language we use to explain and explore our relationship with the Eternal.  A major interest of mine has always been to learn more about our own “eternal language” and those of others.

The “eternal language” I use to explore my own relationship with the eternal, with God if you will, is Christianity.  That I am a Christian is in large part due to the confluence of my origins as a child born and raised in the Reformed Protestant tradition, my deep familial roots in New England, my education, and the choices I’ve made in life up to this point.  Christianity works for me.  I am familiar with it.  It is part of the “cultural wallpaper” of my life, and I find that the concepts it embraces and expresses are excellent and familiar tools as I explore and learn more about my relationship with God.  This does not mean that I feel Christianity is the right “eternal language” for everyone, or even anyone, else.

When meeting speakers of languages like German, Spanish, Tagalog or Warlpiri, we do not condemn such people for not speaking English.  (At least, I do not!)  We (hopefully) recognize that their language is an integral part of who they are, how they view the world, and how they relate to the culture in which they were born and (probably) still live.  Their language helps define who they are and their place in this everyday world we both share.

Similarly, one’s faith defines one’s understanding of who we are and where we stand in relationship to the issues of eternity.  Faith answers questions like “Why are we here?” and “Where do we go when we die?”  Faith is the language we use to explore the eternal world, it also shapes our view of that eternal world, shapes our relationship with it, and is how we communicate our views on such issues when talking with others about them.

Therefore, every Faith has value.  Every one provides a viewpoint on issues of eternity – a viewpoint that can be a new perspective that helps us more fully understand both our own faith and how we relate to eternity.  So, I am always looking to learn about the faiths of others, so that I can more fully appreciate where they stand, and because I find that learning more about their faiths enriches my understanding and appreciation of my own.

Our faiths are the sum of the millenias-old legacy of thought and belief that has been passed down to us.  What I find both interesting and distressing about this is how so many of us (including myself) are often ignorant of that legacy.  In that ignorance, we often do not think-through the implications of what we believe, whether the reasons for a particular belief we have has relevance any more, or how our beliefs impact, or are viewed-by, others.

My goal in this blog is to explore Faith both in the general and in the particular: exploring my own views on Christianity and how it relates to my day to day experiences in this world, and reaching across the boundaries to explore the faiths of others.  I also hope to help both myself (and you) better understand other faiths and how their understanding of the eternal can shed light on our own understanding.

This blog is therefore an exploration and a learning experience.  I am glad that you have taken the time to journey on at least part of this path with me, hope you’ll share your own thoughts as we go along.

Copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).