Friday, September 10, 2010

Remember and Do Not Forget (Exodus 32:1, 7-14)

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, "Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him."
The LORD said to Moses, "Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, `These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'" The LORD said to Moses, "I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation."
But Moses implored the LORD his God, and said, "O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, `It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth'? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, `I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.'" And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
Exodus 32:1,7-14

The Golden Calf episode (Exod 32:4) is a pivotal text in our history.  The people of Israel were slaves in Egypt. Now, it is important to note that they weren’t slaves the way you and I think of slaves. It wasn’t the depraved and incomprehensible atrocity enacted on African slaves in the United States; “Hebrews” in Egypt lived with their families, had livestock, etc.  But it was no picnic either.  Before they left Egypt they were cruelly worked and punished by their masters and threatened with genocide.  So, God intervened, Moses led them and they fled into the desert.

Today’s portion takes place forty days later.  Moses has gone up the mountain to have a confab with God and the “Israelites” have been left at the foot of the mountain to eat manna and wait. 

How long does it take lose faith? For the Israelites, evidently something less than forty days, because after forty days, they turn to Aaron, their erstwhile leader, and say, “What the heck are we doing? Back in Egypt, we had jobs and homes and regular meals. Now we’re out here in the desert living tents on manna.  Back in Egypt we knew our gods and how to worship them. Now, we don’t know what to do with the God of Moses and where is Moses anyway?  Let’s just build an idol, we know how to do that, and go back to worshiping the way we know how to do it.”

God looks down from the mountain and sees what the Israelites are doing and says, understandably, “Go down there and fix that or I will.”

Now there is a lot of interesting language in this text.  First of all, God says to Moses, these are “your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt.” Well, wait a minute, didn’t God bring them out of Egypt?  Or didn’t He at least give the marching orders?  They are not Moses’ people, are they?  They are God’s people, aren’t they?  

In making an idol and mistaking it for the god that freed them, the people of Israel appear to have chosen not to be the people of God.  They are now just a group of metal cow worshiping vagrants following a very embarrassed and absent prophet. And as such, God need have no compunction in wiping them out.

But Moses intervenes. We learned in the story of Abraham that God listens when we talk to Him, that He seeks to make Himself understood.  But unlike Abraham, Moses’ argument does not turn on who the people are, but on who God is.  He doesn’t even try to make a case for the Israelites, which is doubtless very prudent indeed.  Rather, he turns the focus on God because, I think, that is the point of the passage.

The Israelites lost sight of God.  They had all these signs and miracles at the beginning, but now it’s been a while since they saw any real evidence of God.  They have had to go along on faith, in the absence even of their prophet.  Their faith faded, their resolve diminished, and they lost sight of (or turned their stiff necks away from) God.

Moses resolves the issue by focusing on God. He says, “I know you to be the one and only, the merciful and just God of the Israelites.  But there are people who don’t know you. There are even those who those who suspect you. If you lose your temper and smite your own people, they will never see you for what you are, indeed they may hide their eyes from you in fear.”  Now, Moses knows, and God knows, and you and I know that God does not want us to fear Him and that His greatest pleasure comes when we turn our eyes and lift our voices and open our hearts to Him.  Clearly, Moses has a point.

And he pressed that point to the limits of chutzpah.  Moses goes on to say, “Also, you know us for who we are: weak and sinful, and dependant on you.  You have always guided us and you have promised always to guide us. You swore by your own self! If you destroy us now,” Moses seems to be saying, “Which of us would be turning away?”

Now, whatever you believe about how the Bible came into being, there is no doubt that there was a moment in time when it was determined that this was a story worth re-telling.  Why is that, do you think? I mean, it doesn’t reflect well on God, really, He looks a little hot tempered.  And Moses comes off looking like the captain of the debate team, which is less classically heroic than one might expect.  So what is in it for us?

Well, for me, today, this morning, it holds a frightfully urgent message.  Recently there have been those among the broad brotherhood of mankind who have lost sight of God.  They created for themselves an image of worship that was false and their pursuit of it threatened the unity of God’s creation, the peace He so earnestly desires, the efforts we all make at healing the wounds of the world, and potentially put at risk the lives of innocent and brave men and women whom I personally know and love.

Now, this morning, before dawn and the morning news breaks over the horizon, it looks as if that particular conflagration of sin has been averted. And what I take from this text this morning, is that I must forgive.  I may not reach out wrathfully.  I may not take my anger out in print or in deed.  I have been the object of God’s mercy, I have read the lesson of God’s grace. And I have been told: Remember and do not forget how you provoked the Lord your God to wrath in the wilderness; you have been rebellious against the Lord from the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place.” (Deut 9:7)
I must move on from here, grateful that they have seen and hopeful that I have seen, the true nature of a just and forgiving God.

Now, I would be a poor lecturer indeed if I neglected to tell you that as our story proceeds from this point, Moses himself goes down and opens up a can of whuppass on those idol worshipers… but that is a story for another time.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Caution: Student Driver

Amos 6:17, 1 Timothy 6:11-19, Luke 16:19-31, Psalm 146 1-9

The Scripture reading this week is full of prophecy and it affords us a brilliant opportunity to explore what prophecy is and what it is not.  Prophecy is not Edgar Cayce seeing a fixed, predestined future. Iit is not Professor Trelawney reading an imminent and unavoidable grim into a tea cup. It is Bob Dylan warning that if we don’t change our ways, a hard rain is gonna fall.  Like Scrooge in the final moments of his Christmas Eve dream, in prophecy we see the shades of things that might be, not things that will be.* If we mend our ways and “wake a new man” as Scrooge does, then our future is not set.

It is vitally important that we remember that distinction whenever we read prophecy in Scripture.  Fortunetelling is a promise, not a threat.  Prophecy is a threat, not a promise.

My eldest child is learning to drive this summer.  It will come as a relief to some of you to hear that it is not as stressful a process as you imagine.  In the initial stages, when she was learning the rules of the road and getting in the habit of rolling on her heel from the accelerator to the break, we drove around a cemetery and empty parking lots.  On those occasions I would say things like, “Okay, slow down around the curve” and “start to unwind your turn a little earlier…”  Initially I was training her to drive.  Now, I am training her to be the driver. 

Now that she has a clear idea of what to do, she drives to places, on errands and etc.  This process requires a very different set of instructions from me: “If you don’t want to drive down streets packed with parallel parked cars, how should we go” and “There is construction up ahead there, how will that impact you?”  In those first lessons I was helping her to learn how to be a driver. Now she’s the driver and I have to ask her whether she has thought about where she’s going.

Our Scripture this week does very much the same thing.

I can totally relate to Amos in this text. He’s sitting next to his readers in the passenger seat, his arms crossed over his chest, his lips pressed together with all his power.  When he does speak, its with considered resignation, he knows he’s going to be late at the least and there may be a five point turn in a parking lot in his near future.  “Are you sure you want to go this way?” he’s asking.  “Because I can see down this road and I know that if you miss the turn onto Niles Center you’ll end up at the Golf Course.” He shrugs helplessly and maybe even whispers, “I’m just sayin’.”

The authors of the letter to Timothy are in a similar place.  Timothy is in charge of a new church at Ephesus and this letter is written to give him guidance from knowledgable people who are, however, not actually in the car with him. It’s the next step in the evolution of the driver - one I have not yet made. The driver is left to her own devices and all that can be said is, “You know how to do it, just think about it before you do.” The authors of the letter are pretty good parents, to my mind, they express confidence, they promise goodness. And they place the burden of the outcome on the driver with the most important instruction that can be given, the one that was given by Christ with every parable: “You know how to do the right thing, just think before you act.” 

It may seem that I am avoiding the obvious meaning of this week’s readings, they are clearly about wealth, privilege and charity.  (We hate these passages, don’t we? The ones that point right as us and make us cringe?) I will tell you that I am never comfortable telling other people how to spend their money, or their time. I hate unsolicited advice and I avoid giving it at all costs.  I do not know, after all, who among my friends are wealthy and who are upside down in their mortgage.  I do not know who is generous with their time and talents and who is jealous of them.  I do not know these things, I cannot judge them, therefore I do not tell them how they should act.
But I know that they know. They know what God expects of them as regards their fellow man. They know who the Lazarus is at their doorstep and they know what they could do for him.  They know who in their lives has spoken a word of warning to them about their habits, about their reputation, about the path they are on.  And they are able to choose for themselves to heed or not to heed those prophets in their midst. This is, I think what is meant by the parable of the wealthy man.  He knows but he does not do. And when his actions lead to his inevitable demise and he pleads for another intercession for his brothers on earth he is told, “They haven’t believed anything they’ve heard so far, what difference could it possibly make to send another?”  This seems to be particularly pertinent in the 21st Century. Having ignored good advice your entire life, would you suddenly be convinced by a zombie in your office suite? Was Scrooge convinced by Marley, jangling the chains he forged in life?  Or by the prophetic spirits who illuminated the path before him?

The day may come when my daughter acts rashly or stupidly and breaks the law in a car. God willing, no one will be injured. God willing, the accident will be minor.  But in the moment that the police officer pulls her over, in the moment when the ticket is issued, in the moment when she stands before the judge and hears the age-old adage that “ignorance of the law is o excuse,” God willing she will remember that she knows the right path.  And God willing she will elect to follow it from there on out.

We are always encouraged to put our faith in God. But, I think it is just as important to remember that God has put his faith in us, first. He knows we can do it, he knows we are good drivers and capable of making safe and smart choices on the road.  Because he is a good and loving parent and, like all parents, wants only the best for his children.

You may think my metaphor, of the parent teaching her child to drive, is a silly one, but clearly I think it is apt.  Not the least because clearly the writer of the Psalm for today is praying like the Dickens that the God in whose hands he has put his life, or the life of his child, is a good and faithful and kind one.  Clearly, this is the prayer of a parent watching a child drive away for the first time.  But I also think the metaphor works because the stakes are the same.  When your child gets behind the wheel of a car they take their own life in their hands.  And potentially the lives of others.  You have to trust in them, believe in them, know you have done every possible thing to prepare them and then you have to let them make their way.  

God and God in Christ does the same for his children.  He offers us the rules of the road, he’s given us the best driving instructor we could possibly imagine, and he vests us with boundless and unyielding love. But it is for us to decide whether to steer ourselves along the road he has paved for us, or to depart from it, and pay the price with our souls.

*For this reference and analogy I am indebted to “Prophecy and Apocalypse,” a brilliant chapter of Barbara R. Rossing’s, The Rapture Exposed: The Messages of Hope in the Book of Revelation, (Oxford: Westview Press, 2004), 80-102.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Genesis 15:1-6: Disappointed (מאוכזב )

The word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, "Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great." But Abram said, "O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?" And Abram said, "You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir." But the word of the LORD came to him, "This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir." He brought him outside and said, "Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your descendants be." And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.

One of my favorite movies is A Fish Called Wanda.  It's completely dated and pointlessly vulgar.  Right up my alley.  And my memory of this movie is mercifully vague.  But as I recall, at one point, Kevin Kline is trying to steal diamonds from a safe.  He painstakingly breaks into the and when he finally opens the safe door, it is entirely empty.  He pants, calmly and then yells, "Disappointed!"

In our portion this week it seems to me that Abram is doing about the same thing.  Not stealing diamonds from a safe, obviously.  Not doing anything illegal or immoral or even funny.  And he certainly doesn't cuss up a storm as is the case in this movie.  But he has worked toward a goal, he is operating on faith that if he does the work, takes his time, is patient and diligent, that God will deliver on the goods.

But in this moment, Abram doesn't see any evidence of the goods.  Abram has done everything God has asked of him so far: dragged himself and his family into the desert; pitched battles; made odd sacrifices and acted generally irrationally in the eyes of the people around him. In exchange, God has promised to make his descendants numerous and blessed. But right in this moment, Abram doesn't see it.  He thinks everything he has worked for is going to someone barely related to him. He seems presciently to know about Ishmael and to despair of leaving him any legacy.  He is, shall we say, in a snit about it, and he is giving God a piece of his mind.

Which is kind of a lovely thing, really.

It says, "the word of the Lord came to Abram."  Abram is so in touch with the Lord that he is open at any given moment to receiving God's words of instruction.  God can speak to Abram and Abram can hear Him.  And Abram can, immediately and with full throated emotion, answer back. Abram and God are so closely entwined with one another that they can have a dialog. Further, God is so present for Abram that they can actually move around together.  God "takes Abram outside" and "shows him" something.  God is present for Abram and so Abram can hear Him and talk to Him and even fell Him.

Here's an adage for you: the path between the houses of neighbors who are friends is more easily trod than the road to a stranger, even a loving one. The conduit of communication is more easily traveled when we are open and frequent in prayer.

Readers of my blog will know that my Grandmother was a very formative person for me. And she was a person in perpetual prayer. When she wasn't singing a hymn, she was conversing with God about the candles she was dipping or the beans she was snapping. I still see her sitting on the stoop of her back door, a big old collie sitting placidly beside her, telling me about how well she and God understood each other: "God gave me curly hair because He knew I'd never get myself a perm.

And she had plenty of reason to toss her hands up into the air and yell "Disappointed!" at God. She was one of millions of barely-getting-by farmers in the middle west in the early parts of the 20th Century.  They were hungry, desperate, they had five kids, severe health problems and they were always only day away from the poor farm.  In his seventies, with advanced Parkinsons Disease, you could give my Dad a year - any year between 1932 and 1945 - and he could tell you how much his family owed the store in town. Her family was bifurcated over the Klan, her children suffered severe burns and epilepsy, her daughter was widowed within weeks of her marriage. Pedro was an icky pig, her real estate classes were a waste of time and the "pond garden" never ever worked out. And she survived her husband. She had plenty to be disappointed about.

Like Abram - like Sara, she walked in faith when there was no hope left. She praised God at gravesides and bedsides, over stacks of dishes and in the face of blazing fire. I know there were times when she appealed to God and He could not offer her the words she wanted to hear.  And I know she threw her hands up at God and yelled at Him. WHAT was He thinking?  HOW was this helping? Sometimes we pray and there is no consolation, but we must continue to keep the conduit open.

And that is what I take from today's portion.  We are aloud, in fact expected, to take our disappointment to God. We are aloud to question Him, to have moments of doubt and anger and fear.  In those moments we have not lost our faith, indeed, our faith is not even tested.  Any more than God's faith in us is tested when we disappoint Him. Because above all things the most important is not always feeling happy with God, it is not always to be blindly accepting.  Above all things the most important is to keep the conduit open.

So that God can hear you.
So that you can hear God.
So that God can be with you.
So that He can show you the stars.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Kenotic Qohelet

Ecclesiastes 1:12-14; 2:(1-7,11)18-23
I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.
[I said to myself, "Come now, I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself." But again, this also was vanity. I said of laughter, "It is mad," and of pleasure, "What use is it?" I searched with my mind how to cheer my body with wine-- my mind still guiding me with wisdom-- and how to lay hold on folly, until I might see what was good for mortals to do under heaven during the few days of their life. I made great works; I built houses and planted vineyards for myself; I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house; I also had great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem.
Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.]
I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me -- and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.
An emotion, a sensation, a sentiment, a smell, all of these things can be described, but they are not communicated with bare description.  Really good writing brings its subject into the experience of the reader.  When the reader says, “Yes!  I know!” the work is done. If the reader says, “Yes! I know!” without having had the experience themselves, it is genius. Qohelet, the “Teacher” in our text this week, is not such a writer. Usually. (I frankly have almost no use for Ecclesiastes, except for the charming memory of being in an Intro to OT class where I, one colleague and the professor were the only ones who knew who Pete Seeger was….)
In this case, though, he’s managed to capture a moment, a fleeting and very “non-verbal” instant that occurs in the mind, or perhaps the heart, of the person who suddenly believes. In seminary we call this a “conversion” moment, but I dislike that term. It sounds like the person was “persuaded” or worn down under questioning by a really great attorney.  If that were the case, I can think of at least two people who, enduring daily training under just such an attorney, will never be worn into submission or conversion. “Coming out” is a vastly better term, I think. Becoming a believer in God is a little like coming out: it’s the public acknowledgment of a truth that has resided inside for a while. But I think an awful lot of born-again people would be uncomfortable with “coming out” and so they don’t deserve to get to use it. 
In any case, the moment Qohelet is describing here is the moment before the “conversion” and the moment before the “coming out.” It’s the moment before the truth becomes clear.  It’s the pre-conversion moment that has no name, can’t be described, but is as tangible and coherent as can possibly be imagined. It is helpful to know, as we read it, that the “vanity” he is describing here is not vain, but in vain.  It is not the Carly Simon “You almost think this song is about you” vanity, rather it is Mr. Darcy’s “In vain have I struggled” vanity.  A good translation from English into English might be “to no avail.”
In today’s text, Qoholet describes a person who has aspired to great happiness and utterly failed.  He has had a brilliant academic career. It did not make him happy.  He has been a party animal. It did not make him happy.  He has been a brilliant businessman, built an empire, achieved great things.  And yet he is not happy. All that work, he tells us, was in vain.
It would be easy, here to say, “Well, that’s because none of those things gives pleasure.”  Easy and wrong.  All those things bring pleasure.  Education is the light that fills my life.  Partying must give pleasure, or we wouldn’t have New Years Eve. Successes in business, accomplishments, even wealth certainly do give pleasure, satisfaction and happiness, just as their opposites give disquiet, displeasure and sadness. So there is pleasure to be had through these methods, and yet Qohelet whinges on.  He isn’t satisfied, he isn’t content, he is still restless in search for meaning in his life. None of the things that were on offer in his world give him the rest and completion he desires. He finds all those aspirations are in vain.
I think it is interesting to look his language here.  He uses active verbs: “applied my mind,” “searched out by wisdom,””lay hold of,” “made,” “planted,””bought.”  Clearly he was hard at work trying to figure out how to be happy, trying to accomplish satisfaction, trying to acquire contentment.  And where does he end?
“All is vanity and chasing after wind.”
And here my point may shock you. I, who ardently embrace the dissection and criticism of Scripture, I, who feel that the first responsibility of faith is skepticism, I here acknowledge that the only remedy for this kind thoroughgoing angst… is resignation.
Because it is in resigning our feigned authority that we are brought under the wing of divine protection.  It is in acknowledgement of our ignorance that we are given to understand. It is by embracing our humility that we begin to comprehend His greatness.  Qohelet throws up his hands and stops trying to understand it, to obtain it, to bend it to his will:  I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.
Luke Timothy Johnson is famous for his dislike of polarities.  And I concur.  Most of our experience of life takes place on a continuum: of faith, of gender, of race, of power.  But there is one place that I can think of where absolutes apply: humility.  We must become entirely vacant in order for the Holy Spirit to enter. We must acknowledge our utter powerlessness in order to comprehend divine grace.  We must admit that ultimately all that we can do is vanity and chasing after wind.
It is called, elsewhere (and with great pretention): kenosis, the emptying out.
In the moment right after we do that, when the ghastly and gaping hole of insecurity threatens to engulf us, then, and maybe only then, can we begin the process that we call “reconciliation” or “conversion” or “salvation.” Regardless of what you call it, it begins now, right after the then. The then that Qohelet so admirably depicts.
NB:      Qohelet will go on, in this text, and complain about how others benefit from the fruits of his labors. He will gripe on forever about how some young whipper-snapper with an MBA is going to run his business into the ground when he’s gone. In answer, the Gospel of Luke reminds us that our earthly treasures are insignificant… but the genius of the Lectionary writers this week is in Colossians: 
            But now you must get rid of all such things-- anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth…. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.
Paul is telling us, in the nicest possible terms, “Here’s another chance to use resignation as a tool: Don’t let Qohelet’s complaining get to you.  Just smile and move on. Remember, you are an idiot sometimes, too. 

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A Lesson in Transparency: Abraham and God at Sodom

17The Lord said, ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? 19No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.’ 20Then the Lord said, ‘How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! 21I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.’

Then Abraham came near and said, ‘Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?24Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it?25Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?’ 26And the Lord said, ‘If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.’

27Abraham answered, ‘Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?’ And he said, ‘I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.’ 29Again he spoke to him, ‘Suppose forty are found there.’ He answered, ‘For the sake of forty I will not do it.’ 30Then he said, ‘Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.’ He answered, ‘I will not do it, if I find thirty there.’ 31He said, ‘Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.’ He answered, ‘For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.’ 32Then he said, ‘Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.’ He answered, ‘For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.’ 
(Gen 18:17-33)

In reading and commenting on this particular passage, I think we sometimes get off the track a little, thinking that this is an example of Abraham negotiating with God, that he is changing God’s mind. That would present us with a pretty frightening idea of God as someone who can be persuaded, influenced by flawed and fallen humanity. That would be terrifying indeed.  But, I don’t see evidence of that here at all. Rather, I see this as a passage in which God is instructing us, intentionally trying to teach us how to be in community with Him and with one another. God is teaching us to be transparent with one another by means of a very transparent narrative.  It behooves us to look at it closely.

Let us remember that this story takes place relatively early in God’s relationship with Abraham.  They are learning how to be with one another, the way we do when the patterns of friendships are forming.  And God is aware that he is teaching Abraham, who will teach everyone who follows him, how to be in a relationship with God.

17The Lord said, ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?

God could very easily have just done what he was going to do with Sodom. He did not need to consult Abraham or give him advance warning.  He can just say, “This is what I am doing,” that would be vastly easier, I should think. Why open the floor to discussion?

19No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.’ 

Aha! So that he may instruct Abraham in how to “keep the way of the Lord” in order to bring Abraham the great joy of relationship with God and so that Abraham in turn, can teach all of us who follow and wish to partake of that joy. So God is telling us – quite transparently, I think – “here is how you should act to me and by extension to one another.”

The next line begins with the word u·iamr “And He said.”  As a result of his reasoning in the sentence above, He makes the gesture to Abraham. He opens himself to Abraham deliberately. Importantly, He explains what He is going to do and it isn’t destroy Sodom.  He is going to go down and look things over and see what is needed. This is why I think the hullaballoo about Abraham negotiating with God is in error, God has not made up His mind, and Abraham did not change it. God did, however, admit Abraham to the wholeness of His experience.  This, I think, is the first lesson of how to be in loving relationship:  opening up to sharing in the experience: transparency.

It’s not an easy thing.  The person to whom you open may be critical, may ridicule or demean what you have shown them.  Or he may question you incessantly about it, which is what Abraham does.

Then Abraham came near and said, ‘Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?

Note that Abraham never implies that he intends to change God’s mind.  He only wishes to understand what God is doing?  He operates from a position of humility and love, thus: “I know you are just and righteous” and “I know that I can’t possibly understand it all” so help me understand.  Despite the inherent chutzpah of the act, Abraham is trying to understand God: what is the minimum number?  Where is the line where your wrath becomes mercy? Abraham never says the Hebrew equivalent of “Let’s make a deal” and God never says the Biblical equivalent of “Oy!  You’re right, Abraham!  I’ll change my mind.” Abraham is asking: “Let me understand you” and God is answering “Yes, you are welcome to ask and to try to understand and I for my part, will try to remain open to you and let you come in and understand me.” 

The next part of the lesson is in how Abraham responds:
27Abraham answered, ‘Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.
Humility is the essential ingredient in entering into relationship: “I cannot know, I do not know, therefore I ask, explain to me.”  Humility, you may know, means “from the earth” or for our purposes, from the ground up.  There is also present in this humility, a presumption of love. 
25Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?’

That is, we have no earlier baggage that causes us to suspect one another.  I believe you to be a good and honest person, I know you do not mean to be unfair - let me understand you.  I know you are a good person - let me understand how this happened. I love you and I know if you let me in, I will find inside you even more to love.

This, I believe is residue from an earlier broken relationship (Gen 8:9): we are our brother’s keepers.  You see none of us really thinks we are bad or evil inside, we think, “If only they knew my real motivation, they would not judge me harshly” or something like it.  Here is the chance, indeed the obligation, to open oneself to the understanding of your brother – and to expect to be met with loving kindness. Empathy emerges from understanding.

Implicit in this description is the implication that we should be able to question God. It is important to remember that to question is not the same thing as to doubt.  I believe questions are elemental to faith. We know God is great and trustworthy and ultimately good, and so we pursue an understanding of God with that certainty in mind, knowing that we will find that in the end. We do this because we love our God with all our hearts and all our minds. We must engage critical faculties to understand God – a famous theologian once said (roughly) “God did not bless me with intellectual powers and then expect me not to use them.”  Indeed, in this passage, God seems to be calling on Abraham to use them. And there is a tradition of questioning God in our Scripture.  Rachel, laments the death of her children (Jer 31:15) and God is called to account for what had transpired. And so we are called upon to ask and, like Abraham in this passage, to keep on asking.

It is not, you see, God's job to explain God to us.  It is our job to pursue an understanding of God.  If we wish to know God we must use our faculties and we must ask and ask and ask questions, down the last minutia, until we are at risk of getting on God's very last nerve.  That is what Abraham does here and guess what?  God is patient with him, God answers every question.  God does not jump ahead and answer more than Abraham asks, God never snaps at Abraham for being persistent in his pursuit.  In order for Abraham to lead his people into an understanding of God, he must ask and ask and ask. And here we see that God will answer and answer and answer. This, I believe, is the next step in the lesson on relationship: patience.

When our loved ones want to probe us, we must be willing to answer the questions that are asked, patiently, lovingly.  Because in so doing we open ourselves to understanding, to empathy and to love.  We must be guided by God’s gesture of openness to us. For if we are not, we risk being mysterious, unpredictable and ultimately alone.  

And when we want to ask the questions of someone else, to be able to understand and therefore to love them, we must keep asking the questions. We must risk irritation, redundancy, nagging, boring and being nosey. However, we must be lead by Abraham's example as well: we must operate from a position of love.  

It is a terrifying prospect for all involved: to expose one's self, to open oneself to questioning; and also to question a loved one and risk rejection. It is frightening to be vulnerable, it is frightening to be questioned, it is frightening to ask to be admitted into someone's heart.  It takes courage to be in relationship, with God or our fellow human being.  But it is, it seems to me, that courageous vulnerability is what God wants from us.  

But here is my post script, as well.  I said in the outset that this passage occurs early in the relationship of Abraham and God.  They learn to be in relationship with one another and their transparency and willingness to be vulnerable to one another leads them to an almost ideal intimacy. But what then?  Later in their relationship, God tests Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his son – the Akeda, the binding of Isaac (Gen 22).  In that text, Abraham does not ask anything of God.  He does as he is explicitly commanded – the polar opposite of this passage.

Perhaps Abraham participates willingly I the binding of Isaac because of this earlier experience with God. Perhaps God has the emotional currency with Abraham to be able to ask anything of him without question. We could argue that the kind of transparency we learn in this passage enables us to endure trials like the Akeda in our lives and relationships.

And yet that does not satisfy me. Because of the relationship of Abraham and God after the Akeda.  Never again does God speak directly to Abraham.  Never again does Abraham speak to God.  Can it be that in that moment -God by not opening up to Abraham and Abraham by not seeking transparency with God - they lost hold of the divine intimacy that they knew at Sodom?  I can’t help but wonder if Abraham had raised his voice at the Akeda, as he does here at Sodom, would his relationship with God have ended differently? 

Friday, July 16, 2010

Mary, Martha and Me

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 
She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying.  
But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me."But the Lord answered her, " Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many tings; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken from her.   (Luke 10:38-42)

The story of Mary and Martha, like so much of Scripture, has changed in meaning for me over the years. That's the beauty of Scripture, I think,that is it timeless. It can speak to us over and over again, continues to be relevant and contemporary, personal and corrective. It continues, indeed, to be needed. 

Occasionally, as a mother of three with a house and a yard and all kinds of driving to do, I am Martha. I keep everything and everyone clean, fed and put away. I do not get to read, go to the movies or get my run in.   I do (here imagine me closing me eyes and holding the back of my wrist to my forehead) what is needed for my family at my own expense. It is possible to read this passage as permission to be the martyred and under valued stereo-typical stay at home mom. 

On better days, I am Mary as Martha. Or maybe, Martha with an attitude adjustment. Martha did, after all, invite Jesus in. She knew there would be some work related to that kind of entertaining, she knew what needed to be done and she did it. I read this as permission to throw a Thomas the Tank Engine birthday party, plan elaborate and nutritious meals no on would eat, don a proverbial cocktail apron and putter around the house with a hot glue gun and colorful ribbon (after all, it says it is Martha's house). Jesus doesn't tell Martha to drop what she's doing, she's not doing anything wrong. I am doing what I needs to do at this moment. I needed to nurture my family.

But most days, a mother of three in graduate school for Bible and with other ambitions outside the home, I read this text in a whole new way. Martha and Mary. I am Mary: I want to be at the feet of the master, I desperately want six more hours of study time in a day, I would love to go to that conference in Fall...I am Martha who knows that the laundry, if let lie on the basement floor will get moldy and spidery and no one will have anything to wear.... and I know that I have a paper due on August 6th... and all the time that grass is growing and growing, higher and wilder.... 

But the text reads, "You are distracted by many things. There is need of only one thing."

Recently, my 8 year old daughter was sitting in the back yard with nothing to do, no camp, no summer school, no chores or lessons.  She said, "Mom, if time were money, I'd be rich."  I answered, "If time were money there would be no "rich." We all get the same amount of time."

My mother, who made her living writing fiction, would occasionally be told by a neighbor or friend, "I could write a novel if I just had the time."  She would answer, "I get 24 hours in a day. How many do you get?"
Her house, by the way, was always just one dust bunny shy of actual squalor and she was an absurdly contented person.

 "There is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."

We all have a certain amount of time and we all have to "spend" it on what is needed.  If we spend it doing something that we think isn't "needed," then we are wasting our time, our time is "taken away from us." 

Now it is important to note that "needed" is not the same as "valued" or "enjoyable."   It may be working a job that sucks but pays the bills, it may be having a PhD but sticking your hand in a clogged sink drain. And there are certainly times when very urgent and horrible things are happening in the playroom, when what I need is to shut the door to the kitchen and sing "Praise to the Lord Almighty" very loudly. 

The point is, needed comes from within. Only you know what is really needed in any moment. 
The question is not "What do I want?' or "What do I deserve?" but rather what, in this moment in time, in this context in my life, do I need to do.  

As long as we know in our hearts that what we are doing is "what is needed"  and not a "distraction" then our time is not "taken away from us" and we are "choosing the better part."  

In my mind's eye, verse 10:43 has Martha walking back into the kitchen and saying, "I need to know that these dishes are soaking. I will need to make Mary wash them later."  Then she walks back in and sits down at the feet of the Master, beside Mary and nothing taken away from either of them.


Friday, May 21, 2010

Bad Catholic/Good Christian

This week Sister Margaret McBride, a hospital administrator in Arizona who authorized an abortion in order to save the life of the mother, was excommunicated by the Catholic Church.  The press has made much of the double standard of justice in the Catholic Church and the perennial debate about abortion. Let me say at the outset that this essay is NOT about abortion. It is about a much more profound and far reaching issue in the church today: are we expected to be obedient to the doctrines of the church, or the teaching of Christ?

What is at issue here is what the Nun did and what the Church did.  The Church knew its doctrine and acted with swift and sure justice based on that premise.  The Nun knew her Bible and acted with unflinching courage and mercy, based on the truth of Scripture.  Faced with the prospect of letting a baby die or letting a mother die, she followed the advice of competent doctors, the ethical guidelines of the church and the wishes of the mother.  Most importantly, she followed the example of Christ.

You see, Jesus of Nazareth was confronted with just such a quandary in Mark 3:1-6.  He knew the constraints of the prevailing doctrine.  As an observant Jew, he was prohibited from performing work on the Sabbath.  And yet he healed an ailing man, asking not about the letter of the law but its intent:  “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath or evil?” 

As Christians and moral people, we throw around the word “obedience,” but what does it really mean to be obedient?  To obey means to hear, to really listen, not to the words, but to the message.   When my teenager is told not to go out after dark, and she goes out an hour before dark and stays out after dark, she is clearly not obedient. Similarly, when the Pharisees asked Jesus how he could heal on the Sabbath, they took the word but not the spirit of the commandment to heart.  Jesus was really listening to the commandment. Jesus was obedient. 

Similarly, Sister Margaret McBride violated the doctrine of the church (though it is important to note that she did not believe that she was at the time).  However, she obeyed the lesson of the Lord.  She was truly able to “hear” the  gospel  in this case. In the coming days her religious order may find that she is a bad Catholic. To my mind, and in my reading of the Scripture, she is, never the less, a good Christian.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

On Humus and Humility

Last year I put a lawn in from seed. A whole lawn. It was a terrible idea, don’t do it. It is far better to grow healthy children than a healthy lawn.  That said, this spring when my lawn came in, I had a gardening epiphany.

As part of the process of setting the seed, I turned out the decomposed material from my composter, sowed it into the soil as far as it would go and set the rest of the seed in chemical fertilizer. You can very easily tell by looking which parts of my yard had humus from the composter worked into them and which were chemically fertilized. The part that looks like Eden and needs to be mown all the time but never weeded, that’s the compost section, the spindly “hair club for men” section with the dandelions, not so much.
I have a composter still and I use it almost every day when I make meals for myself and my family and friends. I load it with the ends of things: the stems of zucchini and the rotted places on peppers.  I put in apple cores and tons and tons of egg shells.  I pile it high with steaming coffee grounds and all the things that don’t make it onto the table.  These are the bits and pieces of things that were not good enough. They are things that would have changed the taste or altered the texture in a way I did not want.  Sometimes all they are is not pretty.  Sometimes they have been let get actually toxic.  They have sat in a container in my fridge until I had to confront them.  They have molded while awaiting my determination to make the dish I bought them for. They are the by-products of the end product, the trash that didn’t make the table.

My composter sits at the far end of my yard, out of sight, in theory, and away from where the smell might bother people, though if you’re doing it right, this process shouldn’t bother anyone else. I have to load up a bowl and walk out, sometimes through snow, across a dark and untrustworthy lawn to put things into it.  And then when I open the lid it is frequently smelly and gross.  And it’s hot in there, even in winter, cooking and steamy and revolting.
Now, compost is not an easy pet to keep. It has to be turned. You have to get out with a spade every once in a while and dig it up and turn it over all the time bifurcating worms and not inhaling gnats and trying to keep the gagging to a minimum. One year I discovered a family of mice living in a space in my compost and I had to work around them all summer to keep from killing them… so they could grow big and strong and move out into my cupboards where I could self-righteously poison them.

And then the time comes to turn out the decomposed material.  It is not technically humus, but that is what we call it. Out it comes, black and stinky and sweaty and strange.  You spread it out in the sun for a day to let it “cure.” The sun dries it a little, the breeze carries its delightful stench into the neighbor’s yard. And then you work it into the dirt and the effect is magical. While it isn’t actually soil, humus is “the life-force” of soil that enables soil to hold water effectively and drain easily, to make nutrients available for growing plants, to help decaying material to decompose. Humus, from the Latin word humilis meaning “low” or “humble,” is also the root of the word “humility.”

It makes perfect sense, really.  Humility is anthropological humus.  When we go out into the world, we try to present the best possible version of ourselves.  We try to avoid those aspects of our personality that won’t constructively contribute to the whole.  We cut away the bruises to our egos, we trim off the unsightly failures and leave off the sour words of recrimination and the moldy hurts we’ve let fester over the years.  These things are not suited for public consumption.  Now, we can, if we choose, put them down a garbage disposal and have them rush away with the sewage.  Or we can toss them into the garbage to build up with the commercial baggage of our time in a giant landfill somewhere.
Or we can force ourselves to load them into a bowl.  We can troop out, even in the snow, and dump them into a pit with all the other leavings of our lives, to sit and stew and break down into elemental pieces.  We might have to work it, once in a while to confront the stink and the pestilence that it has wrought.  But over time, if we are diligent, those by-products of our world worthy self will break down into their elements. And then, if we are willing, we can pull it out, expose it to the light of day and see, once and for all, that all those experiences, all those feelings, all those aspects of ourselves that were so totally not going into the salad, have become something infinitely more useful. Those ends and pieces are the starting point for new lettuce and new strawberries, new strengths and healthy places that one day, if all goes well, will end up as the true fruits of our labors:  beautiful and fragrant, healthy and entirely organic.