Here's a little inside baseball for you, a little inside tarot, as it were.
This morning I had a mini panic attack. "Can I really do this? Why am I doing this? Am I stupid to be doing this? Can everyone just see how stupid I am? Who gave me permission to do this? Can I really pick a tarot card at random for the next forty days and rapidly, spontaneously, stream-of-consciousness blog about it, without any editing, and is that a good way to honor Lent? I can't do this."
I think most people decide about day three that their chosen Lenten observance is a bad idea.
I sat down with my tarot deck and pulled a card at random – the ten of wands. This card shows a human figure struggling while carrying a heavy weight.
I didn't want to blog about this card, because it reflected how I was feeling about this Lenten observance. It felt, this morning, like an effort, like a strain.
And so I told myself "This is the wrong card." In other words, I cheated. I threw the card back in the deck, shuffled the deck thoroughly, and drew another card.
Guess which card I drew?
You got it. The ten of wands.
That's inside tarot for you. It happens a lot. You tell the cards you don't like what they are saying, you reshuffle … and they say the same thing.
Okay. So, the ten of wands it is.
Our overly burdened man is pushing forward, against all odds. Is he to be admired, pitied, envied, or rescued? Do we identify with this would-be Hercules or are we observing him?
Are there any clues in the card? I see two clues. Not only is this guy carrying a heavy weight, he is holding it all wrong – right in front of the face. This person can't see.
One more clue, a less obvious one. He is on a stage.
Tarot readers debate what the stage is meant to mean. Was it just a careless touch or was the designer, Pamela Colman Smith, attempting to communicate something?
I don't know. I do know this. The stage enters into my interpretation of this card.
There is nothing I admire more than hard work and determination.
On the other hand, I feel no admiration for people who torture themselves as part of a public display, a calculated performance. Martyrs. "I have sacrificed so much for this family! I gave up my career in show business to raise you kids!" Using martyrdom as collateral in a game of manipulation.
This card makes me think of someone I know right now, a man who is killing himself through overwork. I don't admire him. I don't think that killing yourself through overwork is any more attractive than killing yourself through opiate addiction. I think that killing yourself is a bad idea, no matter what route you take.
I think working yourself to death in full view of your family is especially nasty. Won't his children hate themselves after he is dead? At some point they will realize that they purchased their I-phones and spring breaks at the cost of weeks or months of their father's life, and they will feel miserable. Is that, making others feel miserable, part of the goal of working yourself to death?
This card's opposite may be the two of coins. It depicts a jester in a storm doing something hard – juggling two coins within a lemniscate – infinity – while also dancing. The jester has grace. The figure in the ten of coins has only struggle.
In the Bible there are people who try and try and try and try, often very publicly, and who achieve little or nothing. And then there are people who are visited by grace, and everything works out. For me, as a reader, I find these scenarios frustrating and unfair.
Look at the parable of the prodigal son. One son is dutiful. He sticks around. He does everything his father orders him to do. He is a model of decorum and what society expects of a son.
The other son is an asshole. He runs away from home. He consorts with harlots, gamblers, and drunkards. He ignores his filial duties. When his luck goes south, he returns home, and his father embraces him and gives him his full inheritance.
The dutiful son says, "Wait one minute. I stuck around. I did everything for you for years. And this bozo gets as much as I get?"
And the father says, "Yup."
If that doesn't irk you, consider sisters Mary and Martha.
Jesus visits their home. Martha focuses on doing the chores necessary when you have a prestigious guest. Mary sits at Jesus' feet and listens to him teach. Martha says, "Hey, I'm doing all the housework and Mary just sits here listening to you. What's up with that? Tell Mary to help me with the work!"
Jesus says, "Martha, you are worried about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken from her."
Scholar Garry Wills says that Jesus is here declaring that women should not be relegated to housework, but should be part of preaching and teaching. Apparently all the misogynists who say that women's place is in the home, and not on the altar, are unaware of this passage, to be found, big as life, in their own Bibles.
Probably the most flamboyant Gospel celebration of grace over hard work is the anointing. Jesus visits a good man, a hard working man, a scrupulous man: Simon, a Pharisee. While Jesus is sitting there eating with Simon, a sinful woman enters, drops to Jesus' feet, washes Jesus' feet with her tears, dries his feet with her hair, and then empties an alabaster jar of perfume onto his feet, and rubs the perfume into his skin.
When I was a kid, and I heard this in church, I knew I was hearing something risqué. I can't say I've ever read a more erotic, intimate scene.
Simon objects. Jesus explains the scene to Simon. Interestingly, Jesus doesn't invoke sex or intimacy – rather, he talks cold, hard cash. Economics. Giving and getting. Accounts owed and settled. Red ink and black.
Two people owe a banker money, Jesus says. One owes five, another owes fifty. The banker forgives both debts. Who is more grateful, the one who owed five, and is released from repayment, or the one who owed fifty? This woman, Jesus explained, owed me more. I have forgiven her her many sins, and I have forgiven you your few sins. She, who had the bigger debt, is more grateful.
Getting and spending. Owing and forgiving. Money money money.
God's love is infinite. We don't get because of our ostentatious effort. We get because of grace.
I'll be honest – God's economics still irk me. I am with Simon, with the good son, with Martha, with the man in the ten of wands. I try, and try, and try, and it never works out. But I'm open to the idea of grace. Hear that God?