I remember, after I had been ordained–three years ago this October–though there were many emotions present, there was one with a very particular outlet.
I was excited, finally, to be able to have something to say that I ‘do’ when crossing the border from Mexico to the US and being questioned by the border guards. Up until that point I had tried to describe it–well, I’m in the process of becoming a Presbyterian minister, but I’m also a photographer and a writer and I travel a lot–but now I could just say “I’m a Presbyterian minister.” Easy. Done.
My first time crossing, after being ‘official’ as a minister I drove up to the gate (this was pre-SENTRI pass for those who pay attention to such details) ready to give my answer.
Sure enough the guard asked me, “What do you do?” Almost too proudly I responded, “I’m a Presbyterian minister” to which his immediate response was, “Recite the 23rd Psalm.”
I blanked. Totally blanked. This was not what I was expecting from the US Border Guard.
“Yea though I walk thru the shadow of death…” I tried, starting in the middle and stopping far short of the end.
“Keep going,” he said.
“Well, I don’t have it memorized,” I had to admit to him. “Do you?” I asked him in return.
“Yep,” he responded.
“Well, you must be Catholic,” I replied, to which he, smiling, answered in the affirmative.
“I’m Presbyterian, we don’t have to memorize Psalm 23,” I responded, rather pathetically, I can admit.
He, smiling, waved me through as I, in my shame, crossed over to the other side.
The very next time I crossed, not to be dissuaded, I planned on the same answer–though I still hadn’t memorized the 23rd Psalm.
“What do you do?” the border guard asked me. “I’m a Presbyterian minister,” I responded.
“Do you have any drugs, tobacco or alcohol with you?” he responded.
Oh, so you must be Presbyterian too…
It is said that on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, God writes each person’s fate for the coming year into the Book of Life, and on Yom Kippur those records are sealed. The time between, then, is a sort of ‘purgatory’ if you will in which one can, if necessary, attempt to change the outcome.
What is interesting is that the two days are not back to back, one right after the other. They are separated by ten days, what are known as the Days of Awe. This ‘grace period’ in a sense, is a time of penitence, of repentance, of considering what one has done that is not exactly what might have been best, and what one might do, in the coming year, to change that.
The new year begins with repentance. Ten days of repentance. It’s not unlike the New Year, the January 1st one, being a time of making resolutions. Though with the Days of Awe there is more of a focus on this need to cleanse that which has kept one distant.
Many of you know that I like to work in my garden. I’ve given you a break from garden stories for the past few months, but you know that can last only so long…
Lately I’ve been planting fruit trees. Many fruit trees. At last count I’ve got 15. You name the fruit, I’ve likely got it. except for Quince, which I had to look up when the plant guys were trying to sell me a membrillo to see what that meant. Even having the translation, knowing that the tree was a quince didn’t help me much. I’m not sure what to do with a quince.
But mango, apple (yes, I do have both mango and apple planted in the same yard…we’ll see how that goes) peach, nectarine, plum, avocado, guava, pomegranate, pear, tangerine, lemon, lime, grapefruit and, most recently, orange. I’ve also got an almond tree, a pistachio bush, and two grape vines.
Not that long ago I posted a photo of my grape vine, newly purchased, and captioned it ‘grapes!’ A friend on facebook correctly pointed out that, in fact, this was not a photo of grapes, but of a grape vine (with not even a flower at this point) and that by calling it grapes I was expressing something that I ‘saw’ but that clearly was not yet realized.
Which, of course, is what I think the ‘Days of Awe’ are all about…
Jesus, himself a Jew, who, it happens, liked to tell stories from the garden, is said to have put it this way in the book of John–the most poetic and mystical of the four gospels:
I am the vine and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit. (John 15:1-5)
Pruning, abiding, and bearing fruit.
It seems to me that the word ‘repentance‘ has got a bit of a PR problem. I think that the idea ‘repentance’ can be a word we don’t necessarily like talking about. It too easily can bring up images of hate mongers, standing on the corner spewing vitriol, or protesting whatever they see as the current threat, while waving signs that say “Repent!”
If that’s what ‘repent’ is, I want nothing to do with it.
But in Hebrew, which is the language of the Jewish Scriptures, the word translated as repent is most often the Hebrew word Shoov, which, literally, means to turn. When I was in seminary, studying Hebrew one summer, my friends and I had to memorize something in the range of 40 words a day. The mnemonic which we used to remember Shoov was the image of your shoe, turning around. That’s free of charge. There was also another word, Ohell, which we remembered as “Ohell there’s a bear in the tent” but I can’t remember if the word means ‘tent’ or ‘bear.’ Since there are more tents than bears in the Bible, I’m guessing it was the former…
I also took Greek, which is the language of the Christian Scriptures, known often as the New Testament. In Greek the word for repent is most often metanoia, or to change ones mind.
So repent literally means to turn around–to stop going in one direction and turn, or return, in the opposite direction. It is a changing of ones mind.
It is not so much about “Horrible me, I’m an awful person, what must I do to rid myself of my horrible-ness.” It is more like ‘pruning’ which is an entirely different concept altogether. I’ve seen it primarily in my bougainvillea.
Last winter I gave the bougainvillea what I would call a good haircut. So good, in fact, that people who saw it wondered if it would ever come back. It had been a few years since I had pruned it, and in the intervening time it had gotten rather ‘leggy’ and not very full. So I pruned it. It was not because I was mad at it, or because it is an awful plant and needed to be punished–I pruned it because I wanted it to grow well. And this summer? The blossoms are abundant, the foliage is dense and green.
The Days of Awe give us an opportunity to reflect, to prune.
But the thing about pruning, and about bearing fruit is that they both, of course, assume planting. There is a Chinese proverb–the best time to plant a tree is 100 years ago. The second best time is today.
The thing is, if you want to eat grapes now, you don’t plant a grape vine. If you want to eat grapes now you go to the fruteria and, provided they are in season, which they are currently, you buy yourself some grapes.
Planting a grape vine is something different entirely.
Though I have 15 fruit trees, this summer I can tell you exactly how much fruit I ate from them: three nectarines and one plum. That’s it. Four pieces of fruit. Granted, they were delicious. The best nectarine you’ve ever eaten. A plum that was sweet beyond anything that you’d buy at the store. But, that’s something in the range of $50 per piece of fruit, if you do the math.
It’s not exactly a great deal. At least not yet.
Right now, in fact, it seems a bit absurd, really.
But give it time. It will most definitely seem absurd. But, I trust, for entirely different reasons.
For I remember, as a kid growing up, we had a plum tree in our back yard. There were three of us–my mom, my dad and I–and we could not possibly eat all of the plums that came from that tree in a given summer, making jam with some, and giving the rest away. In fact, I was born in June, and that summer the plum tree on Snug Harbor Road had a bumper crop. Let’s just say, my mom learned the hard way that what she ate, I ate. But, I like to think that the love of plums, fresh from the tree, was instilled within me from the very milk that I feasted on when I was only weeks old.
That was one tree, with three people. I’ve planted 15 trees. I hope you all like fruit…
The Days of Awe invite us into a time of reflection, of repentance, of turning away from certain ways of being, pruning if you will, and turning toward that which bears fruit, abiding.
We are invited to consider that which we need to let go of, that which binds us, that which keeps us from being who we already are.
The fundamental question asked, in the ten day period represented by the Days of Awe, is ‘will my name be written in the book of life?’
We are called to turn, to change our minds, to repent.
But, at the end of the day, the point is not the pruning. The point is to bear fruit.
Jesus, when he preached among the people, put it this way: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”
Turn. Return. Change your mind. That which you are seeking, it is not ‘out there’ distant in some far off place or for some future time. Believe. It is right here, now, among you, within you.
You are already who you are still becoming–like a Presbyterian minister who doesn’t know the 23rd Psalm. Like a fruit tree. Like a grape vine. This process doesn’t happen over night or immediately. It is not instantaneous. There is a time, a grace period–the Days of Awe–a space between the New Year and the Day of Atonement.
It’s like seeing that young vine, still only a plant, no fruit yet to speak of, and proclaiming, “grapes!”
*presented at Not Church September 9, 2012