Friday, February 15, 2008

Call and Response

Part of my Lenten sacrifice is to give up secular reading. So I've put aside the George R. R. Martin fantasy series I'm in the middle of in favor of The Confessions of St. Augustine and Stewardship: The Biblical Basis for Living, by Ben Gill. The latter had a particularly thought-provoking section on God's covenant with His people and our responsibilities within it.

In the Bible, we see the word "berit" referring to God's covenants. In every instance it is God who makes the covenant with us. We aren't coming to God with our needs; He is coming to us, knowing what we need and offering consolation and salvation. His offer is unilateral and non-negotiable, but our "yes" cannot be merely a passive response, "Oh, you want to do this for me, God? Okay."

In each particular instance, God's covenants demand an active response. The covenant with Noah is the first time we see "berit" in the Scriptures and as Ben Gill puts it,

When God made a covenant with Noah the latter understood that covenant in terms of an immediate stewardship of the Earth's animal life. ... Noah's existence was devoted to God's command that he act as a steward for the preservation of the animal life God had created. From the very first mention of the concept covenant in the Old Testament, the word is always connected with a stewardship of that which God has given.

God comes to us, in His mercy, offering salvation. Our part of the bargain is to actively worship Him and by that worship, to care for each other and the Earth. The relationship entails a sort of call and response where God comes to us and we, in turn, reach out to Him and then to each other.

When God told Noah of the flood, his response wasn't to build a boat that would house his family and the animals that were his personal property. He built the ark, a massive construction designed to house every single animal; predators and prey, insects, reptiles, even mosquitoes I dare say. Noah's activities were not aimed at self-preservation, they were acts of stewardship for the good of God's creation in obedience to His command.

The proper response to God's covenant, therefore, is stewardship. It is at once entirely natural and entirely proper to respond this way. We were created to give back, and our nature leads us to that inclination providing we understand first and foremost that everything we have is from God. Once that humble acceptance has been reached, the next natural course of action is to make a return to the Lord. It is only when we allow ourselves to become distracted by the lure of worldly possessions and the competition for status in our society that we lose sight of what we are bound, through creation, to accomplish.

It is easy to fool ourselves into thinking that our position or possessions are the work of our own hands. After all, we learned the geometry equations that earned us our high school diploma. We studied the literature and sat for the exams that comprised our university degree. We applied for, solicited and dedicated ourselves to the job that furnishes our weekly paycheck. The sweat of our brow puts food on our table, a roof over our head and clothes on our backs.

We have to look deeper. We have to see farther.

We have to acknowledge the design and grace that put us in the path of the opportunities that led us to where we are. In the language of "berit," God descended to us with the knowledge, ability and opportunity for advancement. Our passive response was to capitalize on it for our own gain.

Now it is time for an active response, for us to make a return to God for what He has done for us. Up and out...up first in thankful appreciation to the God who is so generous, and then out to the rest of creation in responsible stewardship of our leadership role.

Without stewardship, we are not fulfilling God's covenant with us. The call and response is stymied. We are passive recipients, not members of the body of Christ.

Remember what God asks of His house in the parable of the ten gold coins...

So he said, "A nobleman went off to a distant country to obtain the kingship for himself and then to return. He called ten of his servants and gave them ten gold coins and told them, 'Engage in trade with these until I return.' ... But when he returned after obtaining the kingship, he had the servants called, to whom he had given the money, to learn what they had gained by trading. The first came forward and said, Sir, your gold coin has earned ten additional ones.' He replied, 'Well done, good servant! You have been faithful in this very small matter; take charge of ten cities.' Then the second came and reported, 'Your gold coin, sir, has earned five more.' And to his servant too he said, 'You, take charge of Five cities.' Then the other servant came and said, 'Sir, here is your gold coin; I kept it stored away in a handkerchief for I was afraid of you, because you are a demanding person; you take up what you did not lay down and you harvest what you did not plant.' He said to him, 'With your own words I shall condemn you, you wicked servant. You knew I was a demanding person, taking up what I did not lay down and harvesting what I did not plant; why did you not put my money in a bank? Then on my return I would have collected it with interest.' And to those standing by he said, 'Take the gold coin from him and give it to the servant who has ten.' (Luke 19:12-24)

God doesn't want passive self-preservation from us. He wants active, joyful, engagement.

He wants stewardship.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Lenten Joy

Ah, it's Lent! I love Lent. I love that all the world's Catholics are joining together in fasting, prayer and almsgiving. I love the anticipation before Easter, the solemn commemoration of the Passion giving way to the jubilation of the Resurrection.

I love how indelibly Catholic it all is: the communal aspects, emulating Christ's sacrifice, the repentance and symbolism that underlie every part of the season. I am never more proud to be a Catholic than at Lent.

I don't have anything profound to say. Just that I'm very happy right now and eager to do something good for God.

My biggest vice is my inherent laziness. After examining my day with a critical eye, I noticed that after the kids are in bed, my activities for the evening can be summed up as "wasteful sloth." I watch re-runs of TV shows I've seen a hundred times. I surf the web endlessly. I sit on the couch and don't even do anything but sit there. And all this when there are books to be read, rooms to be cleaned, prayers to be said and things to be organized.

So in addition to giving up secular reading, I am determined to spend my time serving God. If I have an hour, it should be spent doing something productive. If, at the end of the day, my Spanish homework is done, the kitchen is clean, my Rosary is said and the husband is occupied, then I can relax. Everything in its proper time.

I also thought I'd post a rice n'beans recipe for Friday nights. Since we are mostly vegetarians, having fish on Fridays would actually be an indulgence for us. So I limit our dinner to a simple meal of rice and beans. I'm extremely fortunate that, as it turns out, this is my husband's favorite meal. Go figure!

Moros y Cristianos

1 lb dried black beans, picked through and washed
1 small onion, halved
4 cloves garlic
2 bay leaves
1/2 green pepper, cored and seeded
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp dried oregano

1 T olive oil
1/2 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 bell pepper, cored seeded and chopped
3 scallions, trimmed and chopped

2 T dry white wine
1 T red wine vinegar
1/2 tsp sugar
salt and pepper to taste

In a large, heavy bottomed pot, soak the beans in cold water to cover for 6-8 hours. Drain off the soaking liquid and fill to cover by 3 inches. Add onion, garlic, bay leaves, bell pepper and spices. Bring to a boil and simmer over high heat for 1-2 hours. Add water as necessary to keep the beans submerged. (I do this in a crockpot for 6-8 hours, much easier and foolproof.) Prepare the sofrito: heat oil in saucepan and saute onion, garlic, bell pepper and scallions until soft. Stir into cooked beans along with seasoning ingredients. Simmer over very low heat 20 minutes, until beans are soft and most of the water has been absorbed. (The mixture should be soupy, but not watery.) Serve over rice.

Picture credit.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Industrial Waste

It's Fashion Week in New York right now, and I'm enjoying a love/hate relationship with the whole affair. I love parts of it and hate parts of it and I hate that I love it.

The models in a runway show are usually made up to look like they're half-dead, with hair a bird wouldn't nest in. Their expressions fall somewhere between vapid and predatory, which doesn't exactly inspire me to put on the clothing. Not that I could, considering how much the stuff costs. Or how much skin it usually shows.

When a woman comes down the runway looking like this, I find it easy to sigh at what the whole enterprise has come to, and move on without being affected.

But for the most part, I enjoy looking at the clothing many designers create. This, by Jamil Khansa, is beautiful. I understand other people may disagree; fashion (like art and beauty) is entirely subjective. What one person considers amazing, another person finds urbane, what to one is avant garde is to another garish. From its earliest conception, fashion has taken wild swings from the sublime to the ridiculous. Elizabethan England, anyone?

Despite my interest, I am very uncomfortable with most of what goes on in the world of fashion, especially all the exploitation and self-absorption. This article about the obsession many teens have with designer labels illustrates the problem with how fashion is currently defined. It's not enough to dress nicely in clothing that flatters your figure and is appropriate for the occasion. Fashion is now the exclusive property of the world's top 20 designers (Armani, Fendi, Dolce & Gabbana, Versace, Ralph Lauren, Marc Jacobs, etc.)

That's not right, especially considering the prices these dregs command.
Want a pair of Roberto Cavalli designer jeans? Blue jeans. Cotton. That'll be
$435. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. It's really the accessories -- shoes, handbags, jewelry -- that strain your wallet. I would certainly shell out more money for something of high-quality fabric, handmade and unique, but fashion pricing stems primarily from the designers' name, not their work. And considering the preponderance of discount fashion outlets (Bitten, Forever 21, H&M, Isaac Mizrahi at Target) it's very easy to look great for $50. The question becomes, then: How can you justify spending $5,000? Or even $500?

It makes me wonder if there is any way to support this industry at all without compromising my core values. I think the short answer is: No. But it's not because fashion or style is inherently bad. It's because, like with most other things, it is through industrialization that we as consumers lose our power to affect the standard.

I spend more for organic meat because I believe the food industry is dangerous, wasteful, immoral and unhealthy. I could apply all those labels to the fashion industry as well, and it makes me sad because at its core I think fashion should be art, not industry. Clothing is a form of self-expression -- and why not? What could be more natural than to adorn ourselves in a way that speaks to who we are as people? So much can be learned of a culture just by the way they dress; the colors they wear for certain occasions, the level of ornamentation, the style, flow and fabric of their garments, and certainly the form it takes on the human body.

I don't think there's any dispute that the gown worn by Katherine Parr (or perhaps Lady Jane Grey) is as much art as this painting of her wearing it. Both take tremendous time and talent, both are the privilege of the wealthy, and both speak to what we value as a society. It is very different from modern fashion, but not wholly unlike what Dior or Givenchy can send down a runway.

I'm not of the opinion that anything which doesn't turn our minds toward God should be shunned. We are not all called to aestheticism. Jesus did not walk the world in animal skins like his cousin, John.

But I can't understand how someone can spend $765 on a pair of green snakeskin Manolo Blahnik low-heel slides when you can get stylish, high-quality, fair-trade shoes made from organic, recyclable materials for less than $100.

I think it's all right to indulge yourself occasionally as long as you Take the Poor With You when you do it. It's fine to buy things you love. Just buy responsibly and keep things in perspective. Remember how many people around the world freeze to death in winter because they don't have coats. Or walk barefoot everywhere because they can't afford shoes. Or go hungry so they can buy their kids a school uniform.

Style should come second to soul.