The Last Three Chapters of Judges, Part 3 — We Are So Very, Very, Very Sorry, and Let Us Show You How Sorry We Are

Last time my exploration of the last three chapters of the Bible’s book of Judges — which I’m convinced is the most horrific story in all scripture — ended with the massacre of nearly every Israelite in Benjamin. In the process, Israel put most of the “province” — the land allocated to Benjamin when the conquest of Canaan began — to the sword and burnt most of its cities and villages down. Continue reading

The Family That Prays Together…

This morning, the batteries on my iPod Shuffle ran out (in the middle of an episode of Tales of the Texas Rangers I think, though I can’t be sure, since I drifted in and out of sleep as I listened) and so I was forced to listen to AM 1710 Antioch on my iPhone (BBC World Service runs Sports World on Saturday mornings; while it’s the BBC, sports are still sports, even on the BBC), a little radio and Internet station in Antioch, Illinois that plays Old Time Radio shows around the clock.

This morning it was Family Theater, an anthology program that ran ten years on the Mutual Radio network from 1947 to 1957. This is the high water mark of American Christendom, and the program reflects its grounding in the Family Rosary Crusade and the desire to encourage family prayer. “The family that prays together, stays together,” is the program’s motto. In case you’ve heard it but had no idea where it came from. Continue reading

The Church and Modernity

Peter Berger makes an interesting point over at The National Interest:

The term “Islamophobia”, as used in current Muslim usage, refers to the negative attitudes of non-Muslims toward Muslims. This is generally a problem for Muslims living in the diaspora, who are afraid of what the non-Muslims do or might do to them. In Muslim-majority countries the fear is generally the reverse—the others are afraid of the Muslims. One can understand why Muslims are worried about anti-Muslim feelings and actions. But going on and on about Islamophobia may also be a convenient way of avoiding the central problem for Islam in the contemporary world: What has been and what should be the relation between Islam and modernity? [Emphasis in original.]

Islam is not the only creed that is dealing with this. But it is the creed where this debate over the kind of modernity (and note, it is not a dispute for or against modernity, but what role religion will play in organizing and shaping modernity) has become the most violent. Continue reading

The Lectionary This Week: The Love That Surrenders

Where I contemplate on the Sunday scripture readings according to the Revised Common Lectionary.

Epiphany 4, 01 February 2014 (Year B)

  • Deuteronomy 18:15-20
  • Psalm 111
  • 1 Corinthians 8:1-13
  • Mark 1:21-28

Let’s start this week with Jesus teaching in the synagogue — a Good Greek word which means “assembly” — at Capernaum. It’s Friday evening, most likely, and he is busy teaching. I find it interesting that Mark constantly tells us Jesus teaches “with authority, and not as the scribes” but we don’t actually have the teaching here.

Mark is a short Gospel, and Jesus teaches mainly in parables and acts of healing. This is not like Matthew’s or John’s gospel, in which Jesus talks and talks and talks. He’s on the move here, constantly, and he says comparatively little. It’s as if here, in Mark, for the community Mark is relating this story to, the words of Jesus actually get in the way of meeting Jesus.

Or perhaps more importantly, for Mark, the actual words of Jesus aren’t so important. What’s important is who Jesus is, and in getting Jesus, in being with Jesus, in watching him work, we’ve met God.

The only words of Jesus actually quoted in this passage are his response to the man with the unclean spirit, who cries out: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are — the Holy One of God.”

“Be silent, and come out of him!” Jesus says.

The unclean spirit knows who Jesus is. And confesses it publicly, before the gathered crowd of worshippers at the synagogue. And Jesus silences that spirit, and the man it inhabits, by casting the spirit out.

So, we know who Jesus is largely by what he does but at the same time Jesus is constantly telling those he heals and cleans and forgives, and those (largely forces of evil) who confess his real identity to be silent. It’s an odd juxtaposition. This is a gospel of silence, and all we can do is marvel at the authority with which he preaches, an authority seen even before he cast out a demon.

“And at once his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee.” As much as he wants us to keep our mouths shut about all this, we tell the world about Jesus. “Can you believe what we’ve seen?”

This probably anticipates what some biblical scholars see as the original ending of Mark, where the two Marys find the tomb empty and see an unnamed “young man” telling them that Jesus of Nazareth “has risen.” And that he is heading back to Galilee, where all the action started.

And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

(A few verses were likely later added giving us a great commission, an ascension, and the disciples finally going out an telling the world. Interestingly enough, Jesus has to rebuke those who don’t believe, but send them out to “proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” anyway.)

And yet, even afraid of all the signs and wonder, even in our silence, somehow we’ve told the world.

Because we’ve seen signs and wonders. Real authority. And it has been given to us. Real authority. And the ability to work signs and wonders.

* * *

In the reading from Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul is concerned about the way our love expresses itself for each other. Especially as we live together as followers of Jesus.

1 Now concerning food offered to idols:we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. 2 If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. 3 But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.

4 Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” 5 For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. (ESV)

So, Paul asserts a right here — that he can, in fact, eat food sacrificed and devoted to idols, to false gods, because those gods are not real, and therefore the sacrifice made to them has no value. It cannot condemn the one who eats in and of itself.

But he goes on. Because this isn’t so much about rights as it is about… well, I’ll let Paul say it.

7 However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8 Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9 But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? 11 And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. 12 Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.

Paul here is not talking about compromise, he’s talking about surrender. Yes, he can claim a right — and I think he rather noisily does half the time he claims he isn’t — but here the principle is clear. Even if meat sacrificed to idols has no moral value, there will be believers out there whose faith still puts them in fear of those false gods. Or who believe that consorting with such puts the one who eats at risk.

Claiming the right is pointless when it wounds the faith of others, and when it divides the church. Paul is clear about this.

And this is a difficult teaching. Because surrendering rights — even surrendering the claim to be right — is difficult. Perhaps impossible at this point in time. It certainly is something no one wants to do.

I think of the issue that has divided the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (and the wider US church) so much in the last few years — that of the place of homosexuals in the community of the faithful. Can they lead? Should they lead? Can they even belong? So many claims to righteousness here, so much justifying positions of the basis of scripture and reason. Claims of truth, of right, demanding adherence and compliance. Pronouncements of anathema to those who believe is practice differently. Nowhere has anyone sought to surrender their rights, or the claims to be right. For too many people, too much is riding on this.

For many, the very claim to be church rides on this.

I’m not sure what surrender of rights would look like here. For some, it means their continued abuse and exclusion from a community they feel called to belong to (or the abuse and exclusion of those near and dear to them). For others, it means accepting as righteous something that God clearly proclaims as sin. Maybe this is a matter bigger than mere meat sacrificed to idols. And certainly, no one in a fight like this is going to surrender first.

But this is also a hard teaching because it puts the weakest, and often times the shrillest, often times the most narrow minded in charge of what faith means, of how it can be expressed publicly. It suggests no one’s conscience can ever be offended. And it has the potential to put the most narrow minded and pietistic in charge.

It would help if this were truly a mutual process. And ideally, it should be.

However, that’s not what Paul writes here. Paul is talking about the kind of surrender Jesus made. A surrender based not on reciprocity (or even its possibility), but one made solely in faithfulness to God. It’s a risk we’re asked to take, and a very difficult one at that. He says nothing about the surrender of those with weak faiths or narrow minds (though one hopes at some point they toughen up and broaden their understanding a bit), and he does this with real concern about their well-being. I am my brother’s keeper, Paul tells me. The well-being of their souls matter to me. Because they matter to Jesus.

This injects a tension into the community. Because it’s important to walk into dark and difficult places to preach the gospel and meet those most in need of hearing the gospel. And yet, frequently, they will be in disreputable places, surrounded by disreputable people. And I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard some version of, “If you lie down with dogs, don’t be surprised when you get up with fleas.” Wisdom spoken by good, faithful people, as if it were the gospel.

Which it isn’t.

There is no way to solve this. It just needs to be lived into. Because this tension, between those whose faith and understanding allows for the eating of meat, and those who do not, will always be at odds with each other.

Such is our life together. Never solved and never perfect.

When No One Protects You

This piece from The Atlantic really speaks to me today.

Intimate partner battering and its effects (once commonly known as “Battered Women’s Syndrome”) are often described as a set of behaviors where women follow their abuser because they are afraid and traumatized. Its symptoms are most similar to PTSD, according to Rummel, and less similar to mental illness, a common misconception.

Arguments like the one Kelly’s prosecutor made are based on long-standing prejudices that such women who live with abusers are selfish and manipulative. In a report submitted in support of Kelly’s habeas petition, Dr. Geraldine Butts Stahly pointed out that women respond to severe and prolonged physical and sexual abuse through a series of survival mechanisms, such as learned helplessness (where victims are too afraid to defend themselves) and traumatic bonding (where victims form an emotional attachment towards their abuser).

The law permits survivors of abuse to present relevant testimony at their trial to show that they may be less culpable for their actions. But many women facing criminal charges never have this opportunity, either because the attorney fails to produce a suitable expert or because the jury misinterprets evidence of abuse. In addition, criminal laws are more male-centered. “When men experience violence,” said Rummel, “they react immediately. The laws are based on duress and provocation.”

Women, on the other hand, often experience ongoing violence, many times from the very people who are supposed to protect them. “They may not react immediately,” Rummel said. They go about their lives. They raise their kids. They move on. Then their rage explodes.”

I appreciate the focus here on women, and especially women in intimate relationships, but I think a lot of these features — learned helplessness, traumatic bonding, lack of immediate reaction — are a significant portion of any kind of abuse suffered by anyone at the hands of “people that are supposed to protect.” Maybe not always, but often.

Our understanding of agency here is agency under optimal conditions — that of a good, well-behaved and well-adjusted (white) bourgeois American. Someone with a modicum of economic and social support, someone who isn’t an abuser willing or able to help. So, an abused (or traumatized) person is seen as having the same kinds of moral agency as someone who has not been abused (or traumatized), and judged accordingly. The question, “why didn’t you leave?” assumes that leaving is seen as an option. Or even a possibility. But what if it’s not? And what if there’s no place to go, or no one to go to?

What if violence and abuse is all there is and all there has been? What if there is no one or no place that is not violent? What then?

What Success Looks Like

Some months ago, I was chatting with my daughter Michaela via FaceTime (she’s Slovak, lives in Slovakia, and attends university in the Czech Republic, where she’s studying Arabic and Islamic studies — this makes her “old man” very, very proud — and so all we have right now is Internet chatting; someday, I shall explain how she became my daughter, but it was an act of proclamation, the grace of God, and not biology) when she asks me, quite bluntly:

“What if your book fails? Because here in Slovakia, lots of people dream big, but it doesn’t work out. What’s your Plan B?”

Always practical, that one.

I hemmed and I hawed. Well, I said, success could look like many things: my book getting on Oprah’s book club, Hollywood wanting to make a movie (all possible; unlikely, but possible), and given the story I tell — American Muslim and one-time wanna be jihadi meets Jesus underneath the burning towers of the World Trade Center on 9/11 and goes to seminary to become a pastor — a silent thud in the American marketplace is unlikely. Possible, but unlikely.

So, I told her, I defined success very simply — one offer to be a pastor somewhere. I think that’s a potential outcome. I worry that with the things I reveal about myself, I will be completely unemployable (that too is a possibility in our society of no mistakes allowed), that no one anywhere will want me as their pastor. But I trust God, I told her.

And besides, I did up a nice Europass CV so she could give it to the language school where she teaches English. (A resume service recently rated my CV “poor,” giving it a 5 out of 10, because I only listed job duties, and failed to note how I “added value” to the companies I worked for. Really? That’s a thing now? Is it a sad admission to say I couldn’t even begin to imagine how I’d done that?) That’s my “Plan B,” I told her.

Honestly, though, I don’t even have a Plan A right now, much less a Plan B. Jennifer and I are winging it, making it up as we go along. We’ll see how that works out.

The truth is, however, I know exactly success looks like. It looks like this e-mail I got late Sunday, unsolicited, from Soren McMillan, who has apparently followed my writing career for at least 10 years (I have a follower?) and has just read my book. I’ve never met Soren, and am deeply touched by his response. I reprint this with his permission:

Charles, I wish I were in the position to invite you to my church, but I am “between churches”, looking for a new one.  I just want to say thank you for your book.  I read it over a couple of days, and now my parents are reading it as well.  I first encountered you years ago on the Lew Rockwell web site and appreciated your writing then.  Your book resonated with me as I am a seminary graduate who, in my view, has “lost my way” in many respects, wondering exactly I will do.  I am zealous of the Lord’s leading toward the next step.

From everything I read in your book, I believe that I would love to be a part of a church where you are a pastor.  I think one of the greatest virtues in a godly pastor is transparency, over against a pretense that always places a wedge between the shepherd and his sheep.  Thank you for your transparency.  I may end up buying several copies of your book for my friends – I think your message is that important.  I am far away in South Carolina, but would love one day to hear you preach in person, my friend.  God be with you as you seek his leading.

Regards,
Soren McMillan

This. More of this. This is success.

* * *

Soren, you will hear me preach. Jennifer and I are going to hit the road, likely soon, traveling from town to town, church to church, bookstore to bookstore, and I speak wherever I can and to whomever wants to hear.

And I hope we can even go as far as Slovakia…

When Kinship Doesn’t Work

I am not one to quote from unz.com posts, especially ones on biology. (I visit the place mainly for Phil Giraldi.) The site is home to too many authors who see a genetic or biological determinism in human difference, and while they may not label some people as morally superior to others, a lot of what gets posted there on the subject seems to lean in that direction.

Whatever value that kind of thinking (and talk) may have (from a scientific perspective), it still tells us little about what public policy should look like in an ethnically diverse society. And it says absolutely nothing about obligations we have to each other.

But this piece, which is a complex look at the some differences between cultures that grow rice versus cultures that grow wheat (it’s not simple determinism, but expression, and it’s a fairly measured piece at that), has a fascinating beginning. In part, because I’be been spending a great deal of time lately thinking about kinship and how we express different ideas of kinship in modernity.

Kinship is the organizing principle of small human societies, such as bands of hunter-gatherers or small farming villages. This is seen in their notions of right and wrong—the same behavior may be wrong toward kin but right toward non-kin, or at least not punishable. Morality is enforced by social pressure from fellow kinfolk, which in extreme cases can lead to ostracism and banishment.

This kin-based morality breaks down as societies grow larger and as the circle of regular interaction spreads beyond close kin. Wrongdoers are less easily brought into line because they and their victims no longer share the same kinfolk. Wrongs have to be avenged through vendettas: my clan against yours. Since vendettas can go on indefinitely, causing much more harm than the initial wrongdoing, a society cannot be both large and orderly unless it can resolve disputes between unrelated individuals. Hence, the development of codified law and justice systems. Hence the prohibition of violence as a means to resolve personal disputes.

In much of the world, this is as far as cultural evolution has gone. The circle of trusting relationships extends no farther than one’s kinship ties; beyond, morality is enforced only by the force of law, and court justice is expensive, time-consuming, and not always impartial. So dealings with non-kin are kept to the minimum necessary. This low level of trust restricts trade, keeping it bottled up spatially and temporally in marketplaces and family businesses. A true market economy cannot self-generate.

Kinship ties. Particularly the morality that derives from understanding and expression of kinship, especially in what Frost describes as “notions of right and wrong—the same behavior may be wrong toward kin but right toward non-kin, or at least not punishable.”

There are, I think four different real expressions of “kinship.” (Think of this as an analog scale.) There’s real kinship, in which we really are related to each through some common ancestor (“gentile” comes from a latin term gent, which supposed shared relationship through some male progenitor); and a host of fictive or imagined kinships: confession, in which we are related to each other because we confess a common faith; citizenship, in which we are related because we belong to the same polity; and universal, in which we are related because we are human beings. That last is the most abstract and the most difficult to actually sustain, and the first — real kinship — is the most concrete and the hardest to overcome.

In-between, there are various different levels of imagined kinship. Who can be trusted, and why. Who is owed an obligation, and why. (Much of the problem of the world in which we live focuses on the collapse of trust, and of trustworthiness. Who can you trust? How can you trust them? Why should they be trusted?) For example, at root, the dilemma of race in America is really a dilemma of citizenship, and thus of a kind of kinship. For some white Americans, blacks represent an “other” who can never properly be kin. For many others, blacks can if they assimilate to white norms — that is, do the work of becoming kin. And for some, white Americans need to do the bulk of the work of accepting black kinship. People are owed because they are Americans, versus people aren’t owed anything unless they become Americans. Differing notions of what being an American means.

It doesn’t help that central to the construction of American identity — perhaps foundational — is the denial of black citizenship. (Law, culture, and custom were built on this, and so it’s difficult — perhaps impossible — to untangle or deconstruct and meaningfully remake it.) Society could make certain claims on black lives and liberty, especially in wartime (though only with great reluctance on the part of whites), but mostly blacks were not entitled to the same kind of citizenship as whites were (given that whiteness was not always a static thing either).

This wasn’t intended as a discussion of race so much as it was a consideration of Frost’s statement on right and wrong — things that can be done with impunity to non-kin that cannot be done to kin.

What happens to those for whom kinship does not work?

I’m thinking here of the fictive kinship of citizenship (though given my experience of the last few years, why not confession as well?). What happens when there are people who are abused and not protected, but citizenship is ascribed to them anyway? How is this morality — this notion of right and wrong based largely on the identity of who is doing and who is done to — supposed to work for those who find themselves labeled as kin BUT are without any effective protection from other members of the in-group? How are they supposed to understand this fact that things can be done to them with impunity and there is no one to avenge the wrongs done to them?

Because yes, this is about me. I think of what I wrote in my book, The Love That Matters, about Upland, the miserable place where I more or less grew up in:

What was worse, after all this, after eight years of brutality and abuse, this community could turn around and demand my love and loyalty. And act as if somehow they were the injured party when I was something other than fervently in love with them.

They got neither my love nor my loyalty. They hadn’t earned it.

I wish I had a better answer than this. I’m somewhat still in this place, though nowhere near as angry, not as perplexed, and not as alone either. And that may end up being the best I can ever expect. But otherwise, I do not have an answer. I think it’s an insoluble problem. Kinship does work that way sometimes — think of the story of Joseph in Genesis — though I suspect few overcome it as well as Joseph did. (And few tormentors are probably as subject to the mercy of the one they once tormented as Joseph’s brothers.)

I have long believed we are wrong when we tell ourselves that history is a story told by winners. History is a story told by survivors, and that is not the same thing. Often times, I suspect history is told by the losers, simply because those with power — those who win — don’t think they have to write anything down. (Here I am reminded of the words of Lubavitcher Rabbi Menacham Schneerson, I think, who said that the kings may have ruled, but who remembers what they said? It’s the words of the prophets that we kept, not the words of the kings.) Many of our stories are likely told by those abused and discarded in kinship relations (whether real of fictive), especially quests and adventures where someone leaves home or finds themselves among strangers or in a far-away land (or both).

Because really, who else is going to leave home and go on adventure looking for his (or her) fortune — or place in the world — in the first place?

Things I Learned Writing A Book — God Is Not Fair

An occasional series where I reflect on the things I learned from writing my memoir, The Love That Matters

The things we learn by doing. And can only learn by doing. If I had it to do all over — writing my first book — knowing what I know now, I’d finish the final draft, hand it over to my editor, and say, “let’s let it sit for three months so I can cogitate and contemplate for a while, and then I’ll go through it again.”

Because I learned a lot, about myself and my life, saw things I’d never seen before, writing this book. And since we didn’t do that — it felt like a rush, and then nothing for months while the finished book sat in Wipf & Stock’s editorial queue — I’m going to use my blog to contemplate some of what I learned here.

Audrey West really puts her finger on things when she describes my life as “a quest for ‘home,’ and experience of safety and rest.” I’d probably go a little farther and say my struggle was to find a place and people to belong to. But she nails it, solid. I’m glad she saw this. Because i’m not certain I could have. Not in so many words.

If there was a thing that simply did not work in my young life, it was belonging. It was fitting it. It was conforming. It was being accepted. It was finding a place among the people I was with in which I was valued, in which I contributed something useful, was wanted, was accepted on some level for who I am.

My mother told me a story a couple of years ago, and I struggled with including it in the book. Because I couldn’t testify to the truth of the story — it wasn’t something I witnessed — I decided not to.

I do remember some pressure my freshman year, it was fairly subdued, on the part of some folks at Upland High School, to have me play football. (In this, I have to thank Coach Beresford, who was really quite kind and supportive during the two years I had to take physical education, which I dreaded, and which he made whole lot easier.) I don’t remember much, and my answer was always no, sports simply did not interest me. (At SF State, when the athletic department took out an advert in the student paper looking for football players, I gave the matter some thought — at that point, it seemed like something worth trying at least once, at a place where winning couldn’t possibly matter.)

But my mother tells a different story. At parent meetings, they got a lot of pressure from other parents (and maybe from teachers?) that I should play.

“But he doesn’t want to,” was my mother’s answer.

“What does it matter what he wants? You should make him play,” was the response, according to my mother.

I believe her. In part, because I saw that happen to a couple of high school students at the church where I served my first internship. I wish my parents hadn’t shielded me from this, if for no other reason then I needed to know that they were actively taking my side on something.

But in part I experienced this part of “life together” in other ways.

Our children are strangers when they arrive in our midst. And our calling is to turn them into friends and loved ones. We form them, help them figure out who and what they are and how they belong. But in the process, their presence in our midst should change us as well. We should be formed by them at least as much as they form us. It is, or it should be, a real relationship, in which a functional human being is formed and fashioned and in that process, we continue to become more human ourselves.

ADDITION: We don’t do ourselves any favors when we treat people as mere means to an end. That the only value they may have, and their only use, is the one we ascribe to them. If we’re just giving them something, or worse, compelling them to do or be something against their will and without any sense of who they might be (or might be called to be), then we do nothing but cause trouble. Because some people need more work, and more help, than others do.

I feel like I’m not putting this well.

One of the things I came away with from growing up in Upland, California, is that there was nothing I brought to the community that the people around me valued. I did not find people willing to meet me in any meaningful way. Unwilling to be formed by my presence in their midst. How could I really meet them if they wouldn’t meet me? Whether I triggered something that simply brought the abusive out in them — Ms. Johnson, my fifth grade teacher, is the prime example of this, though there have been others — or they simply found me too puzzling or perplexing, and because of that they simply did not know what to do with me or what to make of me, it hardly matters. There was no reciprocal relationship here, no attempt to form me and no willingness to be formed by the encounter with me.

Upland was a very conservative Southern California suburb, and the community was deeply attached to social roles (to the extent they existed in an atomized bedroom community). And this appears to work, more or less, for lots and lots and lots of people. It didn’t work for me. The place had little imagination or patience to deal with those who needed a little — or a lot — more work to figure out who they were and how they belonged. You can’t hand me an identity, a place in the community, or a social role out of box that I would or could easily or willingly accept. This was something I needed to craft with my own bare hands, and I desperately needed the help of others, and there was likely no way this was going to be easy no matter where I was or who I was with.

It wasn’t easy at seminary. But I found people at LSTC willing to do the hard work of helping me become the person I was supposed to become, and in that process, they were changed by me.

One of the things I have learned is that I am a deeply relational person. As gruff and fiercely independent as I can be (and I am; my mother will attest to how difficult it was to raise me at times), I really truly do best when I am deeply embedded in a community of people where I am valued and I belong. I truly needed others to help me figure out who I was, and I was lost otherwise. “What will I be?” was never merely a question of best career choices for me. It was existential. It is existential. And I still struggle with it. I am called to preach and teach, and was formed in that calling by a church which decided in the end that I am unfit for that calling. At least in their midst.

That ought to hurt more than it does. But it doesn’t because of one of the other things I have come to accept: God is not fair. In fact, God is deeply unfair and unequal in the treatment and attention doled out. The fairness of God is a conceit of our democratic modernity, which tries to create a banal universalism and meaningless equality when, in fact, God shows love and attention and affection to some far more than others.

This is not a good thing, however. Because I understand completely St. Teresa of Avila when she said, “God, if this is the way you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them!”

Because this deeply unfair love of God is troublesome. Some people are marked, given wounds and burdens, are made strange and different in ways that strike us as deeply unjust. I ache to belong to people, to a community, in a way that I will likely never be able to belong. (In fact, the very belonging I seek is some unobtainable combination of Grampie and Grammie’s ranch and White Sands. I still ache for the Army!) Our modernity tells us this is a problem to be solved, with therapy and medication and modification and punishment. Because there is no unfairness, and no inequality, not in nature, not in the creation. There is no one that doesn’t fit, or can’t be made to. (God loves each and every one of us THIS MUCH! And no more!) Anything that appears to be bent or broken can simply be straightened or remade. There isn’t anything we can’t or shouldn’t try to fix. Or apply technology to.

But the wound is a witness. The ache is a witness. The longing is a witness. The seeming incompleteness is a witness. It says something to the world that the world needs to know. I’m not sure what that is, aside from the profound love of God for the world, and even that must simply be apprehended, and not reasoned. Perhaps it says something about the God in whose image we are made. God as God really is, and humanity as that very real image, rather than some idealized and perfect (and well-adjusted) mankind.

Maybe it’s a mirror to hold up to a world that prizes ordinariness and normality and conformity that God is present in the strange and the odd, in the misfit and the malcontent, and perhaps more powerfully there than in the order of the ordinary. It’s a testimony in face of the belief that all things should be the same, that all substances should be as they appear, all appearances should match every substance, that no, in fact, God does plant strange seeds in our midst to grow up crooked and curious. That some appearances belie the substance they cover. That taking the time to appreciate this has value.

Finally, I have learned that my life does not belong to me. (And if you’d told me that at 16, I’d of kicked and screamed and run away, because it meant my life belonged to you. I needed to fight for my life, and find value it it, in order to have something I could surrender utterly to the divine. Otherwise, you’d of been taking something from me that I wasn’t sure you valued — wasn’t sure entirely that I valued.) My life makes sense to me, but now, it makes sense in the surrender to that call. Not in trying to assert some idea of who or what I am. And that’s how I can live with being a witness to something greater than me. That I am complete, aches and wounds and all.

And I belong. Aches and wounds and all.

* * *

This was something of a ramble, and I’m not sure I say any of this well. *Sigh* I will have a whole lifetime to figure out how to do this.

The Lectionary This Week (Part 2): Judging Nineveh

Where I contemplate on the Sunday scripture readings according to the Revised Common Lectionary.

Epiphany 3, 25 January 2014 (Year B)

  • Jonah 3:1-5, 10
  • Psalm 62:5-12
  • 1 Corinthians 7:29-31
  • Mark 1:14-20

I didn’t plan to do a second lectionary blog this week. But a conversation on the ELCA pastor blog alerted me to something in the Jonah text I hadn’t paid close attention to.

Mostly, when I see passages like the Sunday Jonah text, where some part has been left out, I pay special attention to what has been left out. Too often, the revised common lectionary leaves out passages liberal Christians might find too awkward or difficult to deal with. And I glossed over what was left out as I focused on the Gospel this week.

Besides, Jonah. I’ve spent a lot of time with Jonah, and so I thought: what more was there to deal with?

But let’s spend some time with Jonah. The whole passage:

1 Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days ‘journey in breadth. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.

6 The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles:Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, 8 but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. 9 Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”

10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it. (Jonah 3:1-10 ESV)

The focus of this tends to be on God and Jonah. After all, God told Jonah, “Go to Nineveh, tell them to repent!” And Jonah said, “I won’t! I won’t! I won’t go where I’m sent!” (That’s from a song I wrote…) Jonah refuses, because he’s afraid of God’s mercy, and that God’s mercy might extend even to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, the nation that conquered Israel and waged war against Judah.

It’s about mercy, we say. Because Jonah is. “And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” God asks Jonah in the very last verse of the book? Reminding us that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is also the God of Heaven and Earth. The God of Israel is also Nineveh’s God, even if Nineveh doesn’t know it.

But mercy doesn’t come without judgment. And God has judged Nineveh. We’re not given a bill of particulars here — Nineveh’s sin is not laid out. Jonah preaches the shortest sermon ever: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (ע֚וֹד אַרְבָּעִ֣ים י֔וֹם וְנִֽינְוֵ֖ה נֶהְפָּֽכֶת) So, here’s this stranger, a foreigner, one of Assyria’s conquered peoples, delivering a message to the entire city. One that comes from nowhere (no deity is attached, it doesn’t say “says the Lord, the God of Israel!”) and no accusations are made. It’s a little like one of those strange things Dan Rather would occasionally say at the end of a newscast in the 1980s.

“Courage!”

What the people of Nineveh are to repent of is anyone’s guess. And yet, apparently they do. They believe this strange little message. They mourn and they fast.

But it’s in the bit left out of the lectionary reading where it gets interesting. As this popular wave of repentance overtakes the city — and how else can you describe it? — the king joins the throng. He issues a decree: mourning clothes for everyone, no eating for any living thing, and constant prayer to God (note: this is prayer to Elohim, אלהים, the word the King uses, the more generic name for God, and not to YHWH יהוה, the proper name of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the name used whenever God speaks to Jonah — the people of Nineveh are not on those kinds of terms with God). The king then also says:

8 Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. 9 Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.

Evil and violence. Jonah may not deliver the particulars, but the people of Nineveh know what they are guilty of. They know their sin.

And they repent.

The prophet Nahum delivers a much more detailed indictment of Assyria in his short (though much longer than Jonah’s) warning to Nineveh:

1 Woe to the bloody city,
all full of lies and plunder—
no end to the prey!
2 The crack of the whip, and rumble of the wheel,
galloping horse and bounding chariot!
3 Horsemen charging,
flashing sword and glittering spear,
hosts of slain,
heaps of corpses,
dead bodies without end—
they stumble over the bodies!
(Nahum 3:1-3 ESV)

There’s more, and the fate awaiting Nineveh is brutal (rape, murder, destruction) and cannot be avoided:

2 The Lord is a jealous and avenging God;
the Lord is avenging and wrathful;
the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries
and keeps wrath for his enemies.
3 The Lord is slow to anger and great in power,
and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty.
His way is in whirlwind and storm,
and the clouds are the dust of his feet.
4 He rebukes the sea and makes it dry;
he dries up all the rivers;
Bashan and Carmel wither;
the bloom of Lebanon withers.
5 The mountains quake before him;
the hills melt;
the earth heaves before him,
the world and all who dwell in it.
6 Who can stand before his indignation?
Who can endure the heat of his anger?
His wrath is poured out like fire,
and the rocks are broken into pieces by him.
(Nahum 1:2-6 ESV)

Nineveh’s sin is empire. It is the bloody city full of lies and plunder, built upon the crack of the whip and the strength of the horseman. (God has a special problem with cavalry, and holds standing armies, particularly cavalry armies, in contempt, as in the brief warning in Deuteronomy 17:16 and expanded upon in Isaiah 31.) And Nahum’s warning is a reminder from God that there have been other empires — Egypt in 3:8-10 — that have come and gone. Empires come and go (Daniel 11, for example), but the God who created heaven and earth, who called Abraham to wander, is forever.

To be an empire is to trust in wealth and power. It is plunder and conquest, to do violence not only to those you conquer, but to all who must bear the costs of the glory of empire. Yes, this is a condemnation of an empire which conquered Israel (Assyria is being judged, as Babylon will be judged), but it is also a veiled critique of Solomon’s state, which itself was, for the period of his kingship, an empire, reliant not upon God for protection, but Solomon’s huge (and costly) professional standing army (1 Kings 10:26-29).

Jonah also suggests that an empire can repent. At least for a time. That’s an unsettling thought for me, because I’d rather have my empires damned eternally and burnt down to the ground. But what does a repentant empire look like? How does an empire NOT rely on its wealth and power? Is that repentant empire Christendom? The baptism of the Roman Empire didn’t keep the empire from evil and violence, and did not keep human beings from trusting largely — or exclusively — their own wealth and power.

And the whole history of Israel itself suggests that even repentance on the part of Israel would only stave off, and not cancel, a coming judgment.

ADDITION: As I was driving around this afternoon, it occurred to me that something else was at work here. This message that Jonah preaches to Nineveh is not “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” This isn’t even “change your ways, for the end is nigh!” He simply tells Nineveh, “In forty days y’all are f**ked.” No possibility of repentance, no room for change, is presented in the message, which states simply that Nineveh is finished and its fate sealed.

But all of Nineveh takes a risk and presumes that with this message of impending doom the possibility of repentance exists. “Who knows?” the king asks as he orders all to fast and mourn and pray. “God may see our repentance and relent.” There is no promise here of mercy. Not even a suggestion of it. Yet Nineveh risks that possibility, and for no obvious reason (save maybe to piss Jonah off). Because there is an alternative, to say “we’re doomed, we might as well enjoy ourselves before the end comes.” To drown doubt in an orgy of violence and evil, to grasp all the sensual pleasure the Ninevites can grab before fire and brimstone rain down upon the city. But the people of Nineveh, moved by a message of doom, turn. They take the harder path. And God hears.

This is something to keep in mind when reading Nahum, with it’s fairly bleak and unrelenting judgment of Nineveh. And something to keep about about any pronouncement of judgment itself.

I’m not sure how I’d look at this Christologically. Or how I’d preach this. Perhaps it is enough to say here that God cares even about empire. Or else why judge it? Because without that judgment, no possibility of repentance, redemption, and reconciliation exist. (That itself is an important message the liberal church seems to have largely forgotten.) I don’t have any problem with that individually, but this suggests a collective aspect as well. And I am not sure what to do with that possibility right now. This shakes some fairly solid beliefs for me.

The author of Jonah puts it best: When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.

The Lectionary This Week (Part 1): Why Not Zebedee?

Where I contemplate on the Sunday scripture readings according to the Revised Common Lectionary.

Epiphany 3, 25 January 2014 (Year B)

  • Jonah 3:1-5, 10
  • Psalm 62:5-12
  • 1 Corinthians 7:29-31
  • Mark 1:14-20

Today’s gospel passage is a fairly typical synoptic “call story” — Jesus calls someone to follow, and immediately (καὶ εὐθὺς) they drop everything and follow. Jesus is baptized, and now he begins his proclamation of “good news” (τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ) to the world:

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” 16 Passing alongside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 And going on a little farther, he saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 And immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and followed him. (Mark 1:14-20 ESV)

Jesus is calling a bunch of rough, hardscrabble fishermen (ἁλιεῖς) to become “fishers of men” (ἁλιεῖς ἀνθρώπων). Fishermen he meets along the way. There’s a couple of ways we can tell this story, bare of detail as it is in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus has been busy proclaiming the fulfillment of time, the on-handedness of the Kingdom of God (yeah, it’s awkward), and calling on those who hear to repent and believe in this good news. He’s been doing this long enough that everyone, or nearly everyone, has seen him doing this strange thing. They’ve heard him. So, when he gets past the preliminaries, and starts calling folks to follow him, this isn’t so strange. They know who he is, they’ve heard him preach, they are primed and ready for that command: “Follow me.” Maybe they’ve even been subconsciously waiting for it. Or … They don’t really know who Jesus is or what he’s said. And he just walked into their lives, unannounced, with the command to follow. The response is still the same — Jesus calls, and we follow. Throughout the synoptic gospels — Matthew, Mark, and Luke — when Jesus calls, we follow. And Jesus does just walk into our lives. He chooses us. We do not choose him. And this is true regardless of which reading we follow. Even if they’d watched and listened to Jesus, and talked about him (“No good can come of him,” I suspect was one reaction, and may have even been Simon’s), and considered him from afar, they were still not ready for that moment when he walked up to them and said: “Follow me.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. That’s how you respond to the call of Jesus. Except, well, not everyone does. Jesus sees John and James, the two sons of Zebedee, and he calls them, and they leave their father and the hired men in the boats and followed. Zebedee and the hired men are left behind. Are they not called? Do they not respond to Jesus? And why not? Why not Zebedee? The name Zebedee makes four appearances in Mark’s gospel, two of them in this chapter. Aside from these two references, where he stands silently in the family boat and watched while his sons leave the family business for the utterly unrewarding career of preaching the Good News (think about it — it ends badly for just about everybody), the name Zebedee never appears except to note that John and James are brothers. It’s used to mark the identities of James and John, and really, nothing more. But why not Zebedee? Why is he left standing there holding a fishing net? Why doesn’t leave the boat as well? Why don’t the hired men follow? Partly, this is an acknowledgement of the very subjective nature of the experience of God, even when we meet Jesus. (Perhaps especially when we meet Jesus.) Not everyone hears the call the same way, and as stunning as it sounds, not everyone hears the call at all, and not everyone drops everything to follow. This isn’t some deep theological point (such theological conversations make my head hurt), but an appreciation of reality — God calls some and not others. We can speculate all we want about the nature of the call of God, about why God called me, and not you, or them, and not those others, or why we seemed to respond in this way to the call, but you did not, but all of that is attempting to reason our way out of something overwhelmingly subjective. God called us, and we followed. What others do, or do not, is not in our control and, in the end, not really our concern. We were called to follow. And so, we left everything. And followed. (One of the things I’m looking forward to as my book makes its way out into the world is — did anyone else at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, meet Jesus there?) So, in the end, we cannot know why Zebedee watched his sons abandon the family business. We could say, well, Jesus knew someone needed to stay and take care of the family business, but what about Andrew and Simon a couple of verses earlier? Did they have family dependent on their efforts? Was anyone left on their boats? So, we cannot really justify or even explain what happened here that way. We have no explanation. Just the encounter with the incarnate divine. Just a call, a command to follow. And the realization that we who are called cannot say “no.”