* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Exodus 25-31: Being Specific About the Things We Call Sacred

The chapters that follow the Israelites’ agreement to Moses’ laws are extraordinarily detailed instructions about constructing holy places and items--the intended focal points of the culture. A tabernacle (or movable temple), a fancy container for the stone tablets on which their laws were carved, an elaborate breastplate for the high priest to wear, an altar table complete with golden plates and pitchers, and a lampstand. All of these items were representative of spiritual ideas that the Israelites valued. They also required an incredible amount of gold, acacia wood, and valuable gems—not to mention time and craftsmanship. Embedded in all of the detailed instructions for constructing these bits of religious paraphernalia are detailed instructions for consecrating the priests who would use it.

From a historical perspective, it’s hard to imagine the Israelites carrying around all of this wealth, but they did supposedly rob the Egyptians blind before their departure. All of the Israelites had been slaves in Egypt, but the instructions say that each person is to give the same amount to the temple, whether they are rich or poor. How are there rich and poor among the Israelites at this point? Or was Moses just thinking ahead? Or was this written at some later time and inserted among these other holy instructions to legitimize it? These instructions were, after all, supposed to be coming from God directly.

One could get lost in the details of these directions, which actually include the names of craftsmen God has chosen to oversee various parts of the project. The fact that so many details exist is worth noting, however. Anyone who has ever been part of a collaborative effort knows how much easier it would be if all of the instructions were spelled out explicitly and came from an infallible source. Often, people come to the table with their own ideas believing that their way of doing something is superior to everyone else’s and the bulk of the collaborative effort is spent just trying to decide how something is going to be done. That was not what the Israelites in the story needed to spend time on.

Giving people a clear task and setting them to it is a brilliant bit of leadership. Stay busy doing something sacred and you won’t be complaining as much. And the instructions came from God, so there’s no arguing with how you’re going to do it; there is only the task itself to focus on. On top of that, God named the people who are in charge of various tasks, so there’s no reason to argue with their authority. God has appointed them, so just follow their direction and focus on the task. Brilliant. Of course, as we see just after this span of chapters, people still have a mind of their own, but that’s beside the point.

It would be wonderful if we had such detailed instructions for the things we spend our time on. We could get a lot more accomplished. One obstacle is that we so rarely consider anything to be sacred anymore. Even people who spend a great deal of time involved in church activities do not really grasp the idea that what they are doing is somehow holy, elevated, or special. In many Protestant churches, there is still the problem of people who lack respect for their spiritual leaders and time lost debating whose idea is superior, with spirituality and faith being the furthest thing from the conversation. The religious implements that Moses described were something special. Work on them was meaningful because the end product was sacred. We don’t often have that sense of meaning in the things we do.

With an understanding that the divine is truly a facet of who we are, though, we can recognize our own authority to determine for ourselves what has meaning in our lives. We determine what is sacred and holy and special to us. We don’t require an outside authority to direct us with the details, and often we are culturally trained to question authority and challenge any manner of control that someone tries to exert over us. It becomes a fight to defend our autonomy rather than a calm and purposeful sense of what has meaning to us. Our energy gets spent on defending ourselves rather than doing the things that have real value.

There are times when partnership is necessary, too. How do we collaborate when each individual decides what is sacred and meaningful? We could just assign leadership, the way Moses’ instructions do. “This person is in charge of this task, no questions or arguments.” Of course, every collaborator would have to agree on who that person will be. The key is in realizing that the collaboration itself has something sacred about it. Here are these people, each embodying those divine qualities of truth, beauty, and creativity, all committed to a meaningful purpose. It isn’t necessary to be in control, or to defend one’s ideas. The role of each individual in that collaboration is to speak from a place of truth and inspiration that is deeper than ego and petty agendas. Partnership is something sacred. It’s something that calls forth the divine within us if we allow it.

In our own lives, we are in charge of what is sacred. And if we do not ascribe meaning to our activities, no one else will do it for us. It is our own responsibility to recognize what is holy to us. Likewise, it's not our place to decide for anyone else what is sacred or holy. Their own divine self will guide them in that regard. When we collaborate with others, we have an opportunity to share that sacred space with other people, to learn what means holiness to them and to share our own sense of meaning and purpose. When we begin to see how deeply meaningful our actions are, the sacredness of what we choose to do with our time and energy, perhaps we will put the same level of attention into our lives as Moses did when giving instructions about the Israelites’ implements of worship.

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