Early Friday morning my parents packed up their meager breakfast, their computers, their small bag of clothes, and checked out of the Candlewood Suites where they had slept that night, and went out to the big horrible overflow parking lot to climb into their Uhaul truck to continue driving across the US with all their stuff—thirty years and longer worth of things stored by my aunt in her attic for them as they continued life in Mali, and then Cote d’Ivoire (which this morning is in violent political turmoil), and finally Kenya. But, you know, covid. So this April, instead of going back to Kenya from Mali where they spent two short weeks, they came to the US. They took up their sojourn in my house in two not terribly small rooms—a bedroom with an ok closet, and the sunroom with a nice view out over the hills and a big tree. They unpacked the stuff they grabbed along the way—Gladly the Teapot and some village clothes. Finally last month my mother bought some closed shoes because it was too cold for sandals.
As covid ground its way along, my mom and dad sorted out various financial somethings, so that finally, at the end of August, they were approved for a loan and began to look at houses here in Binghamton—a place where normally there are tons and tons of houses and nobody wanting to buy them. Because of covid, of course, everyone in the world decided to buy a house, and so they had to steel themselves to be able to say yes or no the moment they walked in anywhere that seemed basically fine. They looked for several weeks, but then a perfectly sized house, with a good sweep of garden, came up and they said yes. And then waited for the 6 weeks or so before the house closing, got the keys, finally, and they made arrangements to go to Oregon to get all that stuff they’ve been keeping for such a time as this.
Stuff that I enumerated on Friday. Some of it feels like a second death to me, because it was moved up into the attic when my grandmother died so suddenly. She had gone to a nursing home to play the piano for a church service there (imagine, going into a nursing home to worship). She sat down, arranged her hands over the opening cord, pressed down, put her head forward on the piano, and was gone—like Bilbo, my mother said, rushing out of his house without anything. But also, there were boxes of language data, and nice stuff from Africa, and some good furniture. Pictures and so forth.
Two weeks of sorting and getting it into a truck, and then all of it is gone in the night, taken by someone who doesn’t know anything, probably, except how much big screen tvs will go for. Unhappy for that person, the only electrical device in the back of that truck is a toaster.
Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength!
8 Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
bring an offering, and come into his courts!
9 Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness;
tremble before him, all the earth!
10 Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns!
Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved;
he will judge the peoples with equity.”
So cries the Psalmist, shouting at a nation of people whom Malachi, accordingly as the organizers of the Lectionary have so arranged, indicts in that last chapter of the Old Testament:
8 Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, ‘How have we robbed you?’ In your tithes and contributions. 9 You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you. 10 Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need. 11 I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it will not destroy the fruits of your soil, and your vine in the field shall not fail to bear, says the Lord of hosts. 12 Then all nations will call you blessed, for you will be a land of delight, says the Lord of hosts.
The thing is, as I have been muttering to myself over the last two days, everything belongs to God. He can do what he likes with it. Though my house is full of stuff, and though I am always wandering around the wasteland of American box-stores, trying to find things I can afford to buy, it is a great deception to think that the money attached to my card is even really mine, or that the breath in my own lungs is sustained by anything less than the provident will of God himself
This goes both ways. He gives it all so that I can use it, so that I can take care of myself and my children and any person at all who happens to wander by, so that I can ascribe to him the honor and glory that belongs to him in the first place. But he can also take it and have it at any point. And if taking it means letting it sit abandoned somewhere, robbed, devoured, that is his prerogative.
The Pharisees, in the days before Jesus would offer up himself as payment for the sins of the whole world, trying to trip him up, asked Jesus about paying taxes. Should we pay them, on account of the face on the coin, it being Ceasar’s? Jesus held up such a coin and said “render” give up, rather like surrender “to Ceasar that which is Ceasar’s, and to God the things that are Gods.” But everything is God’s, of course, even the things that belong to Ceasar. Everything is already his—the work, the years of plenty, the years of deprivation, the years of struggle, the stuff that should have belonged to the impoverished guard at the gate, the things that we take thinking it won’t make any difference.
I’m crying, of course, because I feel an immense and terrible loss right now. But I’m sort of grateful, weirdly, because my mom and dad, and their parents before them, have never held a single thing back from Jesus and his gospel. They always, as one might say, put their money where their mouth is. In times of plenty, and in times of poverty, they ascribed to the Lord the honor due his name, they went to the far corners of the earth to give to him what is most precious—the lives and souls of people who need him as we all do. This kind of gospel is almost an anacrhonism, it feels like, as the church in the west founders on unbelief and bad behavior and all kinds of strife.
Apparently, in that truck, wherever it is, there is a stack of papers full of the funny things that I, as a child, said. The only one my mom and dad remarked, as they packed up the truck, was that I was inclined in my youth to say “heart-rendering” instead of “heartrending.” This must be due to the fact that my grandmother, when she wanted you to put your arms in the air so she could pull the sweater off you, would say, “render,” which is always what I think of when we come to the line in the Eucharistic Prayer, “rendering unto thee most hearty thanks for the innumerable benefits procured unto us by the same.” Give up, give it all to the person who owns it anyway. Including yourself. It’s an act of worship. A painful one, today, but no more painful than Jesus, his arms stretched wide on that hard, cruel cross so that everyone might come within the reach of his saving embrace, endured so that we might sing one new song—the one where every single thing that you give to him, he keeps and preserves against the day of judgment.
Go to church. That’s all I have to say. Go to church.