Friday, February 23, 2007

I'd rather be dead! (Part 2)

Part 1 of this story can be found here.

My basic approach to scripture can be found here.

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You would have thought Jonah would get the message that God was serious about his going to Nineveh. But, like most hard-hearted human beings (and I count myself amongst them, I’m sorry to say), Jonah wasn’t willing to give up his privileged position as one of God’s Chosen People to spread the love a little bit.

I strongly suspect that he thought the worth of God’s love would be cheapened if it were freely given even to those godless, pagan Ninevites.

I suspect that feeling is at the heart of the church’s recent controversies over the ordination of women and the full inclusion of GLBT people—the fear that, if God offers Her love to everyone, there won’t be enough to go around, or it won’t mean anything because everyone will have it.

As Christians, we must understand the love of God as something costly. After all, we believe that God poured Herself into human skin in order to redeem us from a Hell of our own making.

At some instinctive level, we recognize that the cost of doing that was unimaginably high for God, and we have some deeply felt need to recognize the price we believe She was willing to pay to span the unbridgeable distance between Creator and created.

We grasp, however imperfectly, the significance of cost---and we live in a world run by markets and “supply and demand.”

Things that are in abundant supply are not costly. Not “special.” Not really desirable.

Bottom line---common things are not worth giving your life for. And our faith demands that we give everything we have and are and will be to the One who made us.

Faith, in its highest and purest form, is dearly bought with heart, soul, mind, and body.

As reflections of God’s love for us, human love and fidelity are also seen (rightly, in my view) as costly and important values. Because we understand that “marriage” (define that how you will) between two people is endangered and cheapened when one of them gives love outside the relationship.

Many of us know this all too well. We’ve experienced the pain of finding that the one we loved wasn’t honest or faithful, and it can be devastating. Given the limits on our all-too-human understanding of love, it is hard to believe that God can love me infinitely and faithfully when She is loving those Ninevites/gays/conservatives/out-group-of-your-choice. She can’t think of me as special or beloved when She’s messing about with “them.”

We want our special status as God’s Beloved---we don’t want to open the circle and allow Her to love others as well, because we know that we cannot love that freely and keep our love pure and holy.

And it’s true. We can’t do that. We aren’t strong enough, patient enough, willing enough---infinite enough---to love the way God can and does.

So we act like Jonah.

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Jonah finally went to Nineveh, but he did it muttering under his breath the entire way.

I know that attitude well---since my 10-year-old son displays it several times a week. It’s the “You can make me do it, but you can’t make me LIKE it!” approach.

God really doesn’t give a damn whether Jonah likes it or not---as long as the work gets done, She’s happy.

And Jonah was right from the get-go. Those cursed Ninevites repent when they hear his call. They actually repentdespite my strong suspicion that Jonah insulted them in every way he could possibly think of, so that they wouldn’t. They turn to the Lord and put on sackcloth and ashes to show their contrition.

Even their KING gets into the act. In fact, the king actually goes them one better. He decrees that even the herd animals will have to fast and wear sackcloth! (What do you want to bet he was a Leo drama queen too?)

And God---because She is just and merciful---relents. Jonah knew God was going to wimp out and let them live, and now She has.

So what does he do?

His response is to beg God to let him die.

Think about that for a minute.

Jonah says, in essence, “I’d rather be dead than have you love the likes of them!”

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Most Christians are aware of the doctrine of Original Sin, but I don’t believe that many of us like it very much. The Orthodox* think that the doctrine of original sin is where the western church began to go so very badly wrong, and, in the main, I would agree with them---mostly because that doctrine has become so tied up with the notion of sex as the ultimate evil. As I understand their arguments, the Orthodox* believe it was Augustine’s formulation of original sin that has turned most western Christians into thinly veiled Gnostics with a deep distaste for the body.

(BTW, please note the capital “O”---despite my heterodoxy on the issue of why God created us, I still claim the small-“o”-orthodox label, since I can say the Nicene Creed without my fingers crossed. Most days.)

But the case of Jonah pushes me to consider that Augustine may have been on to something.

There is something so broken in us…so wounded and full of the need to hate and exclude. We are so desperate for love, yet often so unwilling to see anyone else receive it.

We long, I believe, for the ultimate love and reunion with the One who created us, but our brokenness always seems to get in the way.

Thankfully, God knows this about us and refuses to countenance our childish attempts at exclusion. This is where the vision of God as Father or Mother is so helpful to me, because I see my own little ones jockeying for position with Mom. I’ve learned to counter their petulant question “Which one of us do you love more?!” with a list of the ways each of them is different.

Special.

Beloved.

I suspect God does the same thing with us…if only we would listen.

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Jonah goes to the edge of the city and builds himself a booth to sit and sulk in. The Bible says he went to watch what would happen to the city---hoping beyond hope that God will have an 11th hour epiphany and wipe out those detestable reprobates. That maybe, if Jonah is really lucky, the Ninevites’ piety will be shown to be a sham and they’ll get the Sodom and Gomorrah treatment.

It’s hot in that booth. Dry and dusty and so very, very hot. Somehow, I suspect that the fire of Jonah’s self-righteous anger made it even hotter…

So God, to teach him a lesson, causes a bush to grow up over his head and give Jonah some much-needed shade. For the first time in this story, Jonah takes pleasure in something. The bush is beautiful, and it keeps the hot sun from beating down on his unprotected pate. For a moment, he is allowed to revel in this gift from God. But, quick as lightening, God sends a worm to kill the bush and causes a “sultry wind” to begin blowing, making Jonah miserable and angry enough, once again, to demand that God kill him.

Jonah does not get the last word in this story. In the Biblical account, he does not repent of his own murderous instincts, his jealousy, or his anger. We never hear another word after he admits that he is “angry enough to die.”

God ends the story by saying:

You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?

In other words, “I love them too. Deal with it.”

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I like to think that Jonah eventually came to see the good in the Ninevites. That, as he sat, sulking and suffering in his hot little booth, some kindly Ninevite woman took pity on the grumpy prophet and brought him food and water.

At first, he would have eyed it with disdain. “Food for idols!” he would probably have thought. But after a while his hunger and thirst would have gotten the better of him, and he would have found that the Ninevites had some great food he hadn’t tasted before.

Maybe the food-bearing woman was a widow…and rather attractive at that. And she wanted to hear him tell her about the One True God, and…

Well, you get the drift.

I like to think that Jonah was drawn into relationship with those he most despised, and that he came to bless God for Her mercy and justice for the Ninevites. That he came to be grateful God had not honored his request for death and thankful that She had held his life to be more dear than he had. I like to think Jonah learned to laugh at the arrogance of his demand that God love only those he deemed worthy.

There are parallels here, of course, to the situation currently going on in my church. To me, Jonah represents those who would keep the church “pure” by denying the gifts of women and GLBT people. God keeps sending the word that She loves everyone---but the modern-day Jonahs would rather be dead than include “those people” in their communities of faith.

But I also recognize my own Jonah-like tendency to run from God’s call and to wish a bad end (metaphorically speaking) on those whose views, attitudes, and action are so painful to me. It is very tempting to build the booth and then wait for the lightening bolts to start flying…

I pray that I can incorporate God’s lessons for the ancient prophet into my own life. That I can recognize that my life is not my own, and remember that it is my mission to bring mercy and peace into the world. That, even if I cannot see God in the face of those I consider my enemies, I can be the face of God for them. That I can embody the message of love and grace found in the story of angry, hard-hearted Jonah.

And I pray that it won’t take a thunderstorm, or a mutant fish, to force me to do it.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

I'd rather be dead! (Part 1)

Today’s reflection was inspired by yesterday’s Old Testament reading for Morning Prayer, which came from the Book of Jonah.

It is long. Very, very long. I meant to comment on the section where Jonah actually goes to Nineveh, but somehow the fish part seemed important and…well, it got a little out of hand. Sue me.

As a result, however, I’m going to post it in two parts. I'm still working on the conclusion, to be honest, but I'm counting on the pressure of having the first part out there to force me to finish it soon. ;-)

I state at the outset that I do not believe this story to be “true” in a factual sense, but I am going to write about it as if it were---it’s a lot more fun that way!

(I never really got to have fun with the Bible as a fundamentalist. Pun intended.)


I *do*, however, believe it to be “true” in the sense that it tells us something very important about God—which is how I look at everything in the Bible.

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Jonah knew God tended to be loving and forgiving—and he didn’t like it one little bit.

When God told him to go to Nineveh and call on the residents there to repent from their wicked, wicked ways and turn to God, Jonah ran away rather than do it. He didn’t want God to forgive those nasty Ninevites. They deserved to be smitten, and if God was too nice to see that, well…Jonah wasn’t going to stick around and participate in God’s rolling over like a submissive dog for “those people.”

As we all know, God didn’t take too kindly to Jonah’s defiance.

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First there was the incident with the boat, the storm, and that big fish.

Jonah ran off to Joppa and jumped on a boat headed for Tarshish—which, to the average person in the 5th or 4th century BCE (when the Book of Jonah is believed to have been written), was essentially on another planet.

According to my New Revised Standard Version Bible, both cities were outside Israelite territory, so one wonders if Jonah believed God couldn’t get a visa to work over there. The Middle-Eastern Divine Immigration Service apparently missed the fact, however, that God didn’t have a green card.

“Our God is a mighty and awesome God!” This is a phrase very popular among the evangelicals I grew up with—and the story of Jonah proves the point. There is no subtlety in God’s response to Jonah’s desertion. There is no still, small voice (like that which woke tiny Samuel from his dreams) that calls inexorably to The Fugitive—no gentle exhortations to “do the right thing.”

No, there is one helluva thunderstorm.

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God seems to be big on thunderstorms as teaching tools. I get this, because I love them myself. Unlike a lot of people (my children included), I am not afraid of thunder and lightening. Respectful and cautious, yes—but not afraid. There is very little in nature that excites me quite as much as the grandeur of a lightening storm.

(If you are freakish like me in this respect, and you want to experience really grand thunderstorms, I recommend a trip to Wyoming. The two most amazing storms I’ve ever experienced took place there. But I digress…)

Storms get your attention. And they especially get your attention when you are on the water. They are frightening enough on land, but you can generally find some protection from the elements in a house, cave, etc. until the storm passes.

On water, however, you are very, very vulnerable. You lose any sense that you have power when you are in a storm on the water. Water offers no protection or respite from the deadly wind that would sweep you into it; the sheer weight of it will force the air from your body, as it rushes in to fill the void in your lungs. It will crush you as it drowns you.

I suspect that is why storms on the water appear so often in the Bible. Biblical writers saw them as God’s reminder to us that, no matter how much we would like to convince ourselves otherwise, we are puny little stick figures in a gale-force wind. We can—and will—be tossed like foam on the unyielding waves of the unimaginably powerful sea.

In sum, we are Not. In. Control.

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To be honest, I think God is a bit of a drama queen in this respect. She seems to enjoy engaging in The Big Production to remind us of our insignificance. Catastrophic floods. Burning bushes. Pillars of fire. The big voice, booming from on high.

As a stereotypical, attention-seeking Leo, I can’t really blame Her, I guess. Humans don’t tend to do subtlety well, and since She’s got the capability, why NOT make a splash?

So God gets Her mojo working, and it must have been a doozy. When the storm begins to rage, it doesn’t take long for both Jonah and his sailor friends to figure out what is going on. Some deity, somewhere, is *pissed* with one of them.

Now the Bible tells us they already knew that Jonah was running from God because he told them so, so I figure there was one of two things going on here.

Either they aren’t very bright, or (and this is my bet) several of them are on the run from God themselves, so they can’t be sure that Jonah is the sole cause of the Divine Disturbance. So they draw lots to find out—and Jonah gets the short straw.

As we shall see shortly, Jonah doesn’t seem to hold the value of his own life very dear. He tells them, “Throw me overboard. God is mad at me, not you.” To their credit, the sailors initially try to save him. They row and row until they are exhausted, trying desperately to reach land—but it doesn’t work. They resist Jonah’s solution to the problem for as long as they can because they don’t want his blood on their hands.

But, eventually, they recognize that there is nothing for it but to pitch him over the side.

(As a side note, several of those sailors repented and apparently made some sort of religioius vow to God. Which further confirms my theory...)

Years ago, I read somewhere that drowning was supposed to be a “peaceful” death---but I’m not sure I believe it. I can imagine Jonah struggling to keep his head above the crashing waves, then struggling even harder to breathe as he was pulled inexorably under. I can imagine the fear and the panic and the desperate, futile thrashing...

I have difficulty imagining, however, what it would be like to be swallowed by a giant fish.

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This story is such a part of our cultural landscape that I doubt many of us ever take the time to think about *that* aspect of it. Here’s Jonah, sinking deeper under the waves with each passing second, his life presumably flashing in front of his eyes, and the next thing he knows some gigantic, freakazoid fish is rushing toward him, its mouth growing ever wider---and swallows him whole.

If it had been me, I guarantee you my thought would have been: “This day is going from bad to worse…”

Once, when I was visiting an aquarium in Key West, Florida, I met a man who had almost been swallowed by a giant fish. My tour guide---a certified scuba diver---told of a dive when he accidentally backed into a grouper that was four times his (large, adult male) size.

The point of discovery came when the grouper latched on to his wetsuit-clad backside. No damage was ultimately done---but my guide talked about the incredible sucking power he felt in that grouper’s mouth and the rush of fear he had felt at the size of that giant fish. Until that moment, “grouper” had been something on the menu at his favorite restaurant---not this giant behemoth that threatened to turn him into the day’s “seafood special.”

Jonah didn’t even have the advantage of a wetsuit.

I doubt that spending three days in the guts of a big fish was all that much fun (for either Jonah or the fish). The irony is that it didn’t improve Jonah’s attitude toward God or the Ninevites one iota.

(To be continued...)

Wrestling with Scripture

Part of my Lenten discipline this year is to spend some time reading scripture and writing about it.

I’ve had a rocky relationship with scripture as an adult. I was immersed in the Bible as a child. I attended a fundamentalist Christian school, K-12—which meant Bible class every day, chapel every day, and the expectation that you would appear at your local Church of Christ three times a week. I know the Bible a lot better than your average Episcopalian, because it was part of the fabric of my everyday existence during my formative years.

But that Bible was often used as a weapon to bludgeon, frighten, and shame. Proof-texting was a favorite sport in my church---we could always find a verse to condemn anyone who was Not Us. You will not be surprised to learn that a good bit of time was spent on verses prescribing the proper (i.e., subordinate) role of women.

Much of the rest of the time was spent telling us (I was a teenager, remember) that sex was dirty and sinful, and should therefore be saved for the person we were to marry...

When I left that church behind, I pretty much left the Bible behind too. It was only when I enrolled in the Education for Ministry (EFM) program (in my late 30s) that I was forced to take the Bible seriously again.

The first two years of EFM were really difficult for me. I was 38 years old before I realized that there were two creation stories in Genesis, and I was knocked for a loop by the discovery that Moses didn’t write the Pentateuch. We won't even get started on the New Testament...

I thought I had left my fundamentalist baggage behind me, but I hadn’t. Finding that what I thought I knew about the Bible was wrong was deeply unsettling---and even worse was the realization that, unconsciously, I still carried so many literalist attitudes about scripture.

Biblical criticism was tough for me to accept because a voice in the back of my head kept saying "But what if it's wrong?!" I hadn't even known there was such a thing, and I was stunned to learn that there were whole libraries full of it.

I know, I know. Seems crazy, doesn’t it? Especially when you think about the fact that I have a master’s degree and am ABD in political science from Vanderbilt---which, perceptive readers will note, has a well-respected Divinity School.

Let’s just say that my particular department frowned on forays into any other disciplines except economics or statistics. (The director of graduate studies once denied me permission to take a graduate history class because it focused on women, and he felt it was a waste of time and money.)

So what I did, once I discovered this Brave New World, was to focus on the biblical criticism and stay the hell away from the Bible itself.

That was useful for a time---a necessary corrective, I think, to the long years of a fundamentalist approach to scripture. But I’m feeling the pull of the Bible again, so I told myself that I would “wrestle with scripture” this Lenten season.

My main project for myself is to write a reflection on the Gospel reading for each Sunday in Lent, but I’ll probably write some other things too. I’ve already started a reflection on the story of Jonah (inspired by the readings in the lectionary for Morning Prayer), and I’ll post that soon.

I should note a few things as I begin this project:

First: I have very little training in theology (basically what I got through EFM as student and now mentor and lots of extracurricular reading), and I make no pretence to being a biblical scholar. As I have noted in a post below, I am a Happy Little Heretic—but, if you feel it is your mission in life to argue with me, I am willing to be persuaded that my interpretations are wrong.

Second: If you are a biblical literalist/inerrantist, save your breath. I spent most of my life with those folks, and nearly gave up on God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit forever as a result. I cannot go back to that way of thinking, and any argument based on the presupposition that God wrote the KJV and dropped it out of the sky is not going to carry any weight with me.

Third: If you are one of those people who gets your knickers in a twist over the use of a female pronoun for God, my advice is...get over your precious self. Jesus prayed to the Father and referred to himself as Mother, so I alternate using He/She as the Spirit moves me---because I’m comfortable with both and find meaning in both.

Since God is neither male nor female (according to Christian tradition and every reputable theologian I’ve ever read), I doubt very seriously that God minds whatever pronoun we decide to use. And if God is that easily offended, we are all screwed anyway.

Finally: Given my Disclaimer#1, my musings are likely to be puerile, vapid, uninformed, and biased in the extreme. Whether or not *I* am spiritually edified by this process remains to be seen...but, in true Lemony Snicket fashion, I will tell you that you are much more likely to be spiritually edified by reading the phone book.

You have been warned.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

And so it begins...

As Lent began last year, I was spiraling out of control. To the outside world, I may have looked a little more preoccupied than usual, but you wouldn't have known that I was coming apart at the seams.

I had dropped 20 lbs. and it had been months since I had really slept. The marriage that had been limping along for years had died, and, to protect my two young children, I was trying my damnedest to carry the rotting corpse by myself.

My prayers were anguished cries of "Help me, dear God...please help me." I couldn't pray anything else and I couldn't see any way out but death. I was so very, very tired, and death offered what I couldn't seem to find in life---the promise of rest.

But apparently God had other plans for me, because another Lenten season has rolled around, and I am still here. Deo gratias.

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I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian church that knew nothing of Lent---I'm sure because it smacked of Catholicism, and we all knew that those Mary-worshipping, anti-Christ-Pope-following Catholics were on the fast-track to Hell.

But when I was in college, I joined a sorority, and about 75% of my friends were Catholic. They introduced me to Lent, and I have blessed them for it ever since.

I love Lent. Love the fasting and the prayers. Love the ashes and the mindfulness and even the tears.

It's funny---conservatives frequently charge that liberals aren't willing to give anything up for Christ. I wait all year for a season in which to sacrifice my compulsions and vanities and burdens to the God who created me. To examine my life for the sins that infest it, and to vow to amend my life and to become the person God has called me to be.

I somehow doubt that I am the only progressive Christian who feels this way.

This year, I begin Lent with a new sadness. My beloved community of faith, the Episcopal Church, appears ready to sacrifice my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters on the altar of "unity" with those who refuse to grant even their humanity, much less that they are beloved of God.

I have spent the last couple of years arguing that we must find a way to stay together with those who oppose full inclusion for GLBT people---that we would be better witnesses to the saving love of Jesus Christ if we did so.

But, once again, I am very, very tired.

Tired of explaining---over, and over, and over---why I believe God is calling us into love and inclusion. Tired of watching those I love become the sacrificial lambs for a gospel that brings good news only to the already-privileged. Tired of my anger and my disappointment and the pain that so many of us feel at being asked, once again, to wait for justice and to forego mercy in order to placate the church's unconverted Sauls.

In this Lenten season, I will offer my anger and disillusionment to God. I know God can heal those things, because I wouldn't be here to write this if He could not.

I will offer my life and my labor, in the hope that I can help to usher in God's kingdom, here and now.

And I will thank God for Lent. For the chance to draw near to His presence, and to lay my burdens at the foot of His cross. For the opportunity to examine my life and amend it, in the hopes of becoming more like Jesus (however remote that possibility might seem...).

And for the fact that, this time last year, God threw a lifeline to me and gave me another chance to live, to know God's infinite love, and to praise the name of the One who creates, redeems, and sustains.

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us, but if we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
1 John 1:8, 9