God Said to Noah….

I’m working on a song — a children’s song, no less — about the Genesis story of Noah and the flood. (Genesis 6-10, more or less, if one includes all the genealogy of which people are descended from which sons of Noah.) And I’m always still a little shocked at how we sanitize scripture for our children. A story of God destroying the world becomes a series of cute drawing of a man with a beard, a bunch of animals (the kind you might find painted on a nursery wall), a great big boat, and a rainbow.

God being sorry for human wickedness and vowing to eradicate it all becomes the animals went in two-by-two.

We don’t just do this for our children, either. This sanitizing of scripture becomes something we as adults do, too. There’s a lot of violence in scripture. God does a lot of violence in scripture. To God’s people. God threatens, cajoles, throws tantrums. God is at God’s utmost worst in Numbers, behaving much like an abusive parent who you dare not offend or annoy lest you get struck down with plague or by an angry, deputized Levite wielding a sword.

I try not to shy away from this. Whatever the nature of God, the human experience of God, as related in scripture, at time is a very violent one. That is, we understand God to be violent or we understand God in violence. I do not quite know why we have sanitized scripture. I like to blame the bourgeoise sentimentality of modernity for such sanitizing, and maybe there’s something to that. Bourgeoise moderns like to believe they are civilized and non-violent, but really, most have exported and abstracted their violence to the state, where it becomes bureaucratic and impersonal — drone strikes, mutually assured destruction, the fine grinding violence of systems of administration, law and so forth that destroy those who cannot or will not conform. None of this, however, is the point of this essay.

So, as I have been trying to find a hook for this song, I have been asking myself — what is the meaning of the Noah story in scripture? Why is it there?

And I think I have found it. The story explains why there is evil in the world.

Let’s start at Genesis 6, which begins with some strange allusions to Sons of God making babies with “daughters of man” and creating “the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.”* The authors/editors of Genesis outline the situation this way:

(5) The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (6) And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. (7) So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” (8) But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD. (Genesis 6:5-8, ESV)

God is sorry. God is angry. God regrets all this creation that was, only six chapters earlier, “good” (טוב). God tells Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh,” which is clearly a lie, since God is saving Noah and his family and gives explicit (though confused — two of every sort or seven of the sacrificial things, “clean animals,” which have not been specified because it isn’t Leviticus yet?) instructions on how to be saved. God is going to destroy the world, and make an end of most flesh. But not all of it.

And it rains. And rains. And rains. And everyone and everything dies. (La la la la la!) This you know. God eventually remembers Noah, and finds a place for the great big boat to land. And once the waters subside enough, Noah builds an altar and makes a burnt offering to the Lord. (God and the Lord are not interchangeable terms, and seeing where a one is used to the exclusion of the other can help you figure out where scripture was edited.) At that point, the authors/editors of Genesis 8 write:

(21) And when the LORD smelled the pleasing aroma, the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. (22) While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” (ESV)

This, so far as I can tell is the point of the story. God is sorry for having created, and now God seems to realize that God acted in haste and anger in destroying everything. God’s actions here changed nothing. People are evil from their earliest days. And so, knowing this, God promises so long as there is time, as there are seasons, as long as the earth remains, God will tolerate evil. Because the Good God moved to rid the world all of evil was the same Good God who was moved to regret having done just that. And moved to regret by the smell of a burnt offering, no less. God would later protest God didn’t need burnt offerings. But on this day, God needed the smoke of a barbecue.

No apologies and no explanation from God. Just a promise. “I will never again curse the ground because of man … neither will I ever strike down every living creature as I have done.” And that is why there is evil in the world. God made a promise. So far, it appears to have been kept.
Now, I suppose someone could argue: God is all-powerful, and could strike the evil people down without destroying those who found favor. (As in the Noah story, or the story of Lot and Abraham in the unwelcoming cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.) As a matter of reason, sure, why not? Zap the wicked, leave the good standing. Or rapture the good away, and leave the wicked to suffer. But as a matter of experience, as relayed in scripture, God’s power seems not so tightly focused. It seems to catch the good and evil up in its midst at the same time. It’s a big jawbone and we all get smoted with it.
Or maybe there aren’t that many good people to rapture. There was just Noah, after all. His family seems to have been saved merely on his account.

* And leaving aside for now the fact that Genesis 10:8 says: “Cush fathered Nimrod; he was the first on earth to be a mighty man.” Consistency is not one of scripture’s virtues.

The Very Strange Gift

This is what happened to Jacob on a dark night as he prepared to meet his estranged brother Esau in the desert:

22) The same night [Jacob] arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23) He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. 24) And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. 25) When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26) Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27) And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28) Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” 29) Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30) So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” 31) The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. (Genesis 32)

* * *

I have this gift. It’s hard to explain, and I’ve not really done so previously, because I’ve never been sure how to. I also don’t want to come off as conceited either. I’ll try and describe it to the best of my ability. Because it’s not the kind of thing that makes much sense. Even to me.

(And I’m not purposefully trying to tug at heart strings with this and the previous blog entry. It’s just where I am right now. Cavanaugh and Kim Jong Un can wait.)

I listen. I listen well. I am extremely tolerant of the very odd. And the very marginal, especially the homeless. Homeless African American men seem to get this. Perhaps it is my physical size, and they assume I will not be afraid. But whatever the reason, I often find the homeless talking to me. On occasion, I will get whole life stories — that happened once at the 55th St. Green line station, a man in the bus kiosk sat down next to me and just started telling me his life story. And we talked — well, he did most of the talking, telling me how he was homeless but got off the streets into subsidized housing and how grateful he was for that, and then about his family life grown up in Chicago, and his mama, and all sorts of things. I get that a lot, life stories. For some reason, strangers seem to know that I can be trusted to listen. And I do listen.

I even listen to the mentally ill. In fact, I try to especially listen to the mentally ill. When I was working for The Oil Daily in Washington, there was a homeless woman who would arrive (or was deposited) at the corner of 14th St. and New York Ave. Time and the elements had not been kind to her, and it was impossible to tell how old she was. But she always had nice clothes, and three very fat suitcases in very good condition. Wherever she slept, it appeared she was safe and warm. But she couldn’t stay there. And so, she wandered the corners of 14th and New York, chain-smoking, having animated conversations with people who were not there, loud conversations about laser-beam eyeballs, the theft of souls, the Central Intelligence Agency and federal prison. (It was like listening in to one side of a phone conversation.) It was fascinating watching this woman function. She rarely stopped talking, and never seemed to engage in conversation in the “real” world. And yet, she was fully cognizant of the world around her — she could get out of the way of things, navigate around people, handle coffee and lunch. She never begged, at least for nothing more than cigarettes.

But always talking loudly about eyeballs and souls. And going to prison.

Mental illness fascinates me. I think it says something interesting about God in whose image we are made. My wife Jennifer is dyslexic, quite severely. That is how God made her. It is not a disorder to be fixed. Her dyslexia, and what is very likely very mild Asperger’s, are who she is. And this tells me something of the God in whose image she is made. Because she is whole. Complete. And so, the schizophrenic is whole and complete too. And in the image of God. So, our task is not to “fix” those who are “broken,” but to make room for them with us in God’s world. Because they too are created in the very image of God, and how they are made tells us something of the God whose image we are all made in.

So, because I think because I am open to the encounter, in particular, with the mentally ill — because I am not frightened by them — I have been the recipient of a great deal of grace. Of life stories. It’s only increased as I have done my seminary studies, learned what this being a pastor thing is really all about. Wear a clergy collar on the streets of some Chicago neighborhoods, and it’s as if you are wearing a big blinking, neon advertisement for this kind of thing. Yeah, people will ask you for money. I take seriously Peter Maurin’s admonition that meeting a beggar is meeting Jesus, and I always try to have something — even a small blessing, even a silent prayer — for someone who begs.

But some will ask for more — your time, your attention, your effort. And they may even give you something in return.

I have received a lot of grace in these encounters. I have had to accept that they happen when I least expect them, when they are least convenient, when I am sometimes least prepared. And so, I have learned to be prepared.

The oddest of these happened about a week-and-a-half ago, on a cold Monday evening. My friend, Sean Foley, was on an extended layover in town on his way to academic conference in Beirut (yes, THAT Beirut). We met to have coffee downtown, in the loop, and I put him back on the Blue Line to O’Hare. I had a Metra Electric train 10-trip ticket with one trip left on it, so rather than take the Green Line “L” back to Hyde Park, I decided to take the Metra. Which meant walking up Michigan Ave. to the underground station at Randolph and Michigan.

So, as I was walking, a homeless African-American man came up to met just as I crossed Washington St. and asked me:

“Will you pray for me and give me a blessing?”

Now, he may have been asking passersby that question all afternoon. And who knows, maybe more than a few people prayed for him. But in all the years I have wandered streets and been accosted by the homeless, I’m usually asked for “spare change” or a hot meal. And not a prayer and a blessing.

(Once, in Minneapolis, a drunken Indian thought I was John Candy…)

Jennifer and I have been worshiping the last several years at an African-American Lutheran church on the West Side, Bethel Evangelical. And slowly, thanks largely to Pastor Albert Starr, Jr., I have been learning how to pray publicly. And so, I asked the man’s name — Philip — and I took his hands, and I prayed. For a warm place to sleep. For a hot meal. For all those on the streets of Chicago, and everywhere else, who need those things. I prayed for bread from heaven, for the saving power of God, and I prayed for these “in the mighty name of Jesus.”

All the while, Philip would echo “amen!” and “yes, Jesus!”

And then I blessed him. I made the sign of the cross on his forehead, blessing him in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Telling him he was forever God’s beloved child. And then I did so for his friend, and African-American woman in wheelchair whose name I wish I could remember but don’t.

He then asked me for $20. (Well, yeah, so what?) He smelled of cheap wine and swore whatever money I gave him was only for a place to stay. I gave him what I had, $5. And blessed him again. I long ago gave up worrying what people in need or who beg do with the money I give them. That’s between them and God.

Again, it could be that he’d asked everyone who passed by for a prayer and a blessing. Perhaps it was how he tried to get $20 out of people. But I don’t think so. It’s strikes me as a really bad ploy. Not many people walking about downtown Chicago have the time or energy for eye contact, much less an active prayer and blessing.

So, maybe there is something about me. This kind of thing happens enough that I need to consider the possibility. As strange as it may be.

But I have to admit, every time something like this happens to me, I am overwhelmed. It is overwhelming, this giving of God’s grace in the world, this bearing the blessing of God to the world. I never quite know what to make of it all. Who am I that some people seem to see this in me? To ask — no, demand — a prayer and a blessing? Who am I that someone would ask this? And what is this gift I have that some people see this in me?

Who am I?

Isaac, Jesus and the Place of God in Human Violence

I’m an unrepentant reader of the ugliness and messiness in scripture. I am attracted to it, I gravitate toward it, and I don’t have ethical or logical problems with it. “Why would a good God do that? Why would a good God let that happen?” Not my questions.

In fact, I believe the ugliness and messiness speak specifically to human existence. And God’s presence in our lives.

I don’t think I’ve blogged much about here about the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22. I think we all know the story. It begins with God “testing” Abraham. In Hebrew, נִסָּה test, with the implication that knowledge is being sought, or that the heart is being measured, and in the case of this passage, The Theological Diction of the Old Testament (vol. 9, p. 450) says, the author of the Genesis 22 passage “seeks to show how someone who fears and obeys God should relate to God.” Which is all well and good. That Abraham is the subject of this story, and his trust in the promise of God is the subject of this story, is generally accepted and general taught. Abraham’s faithfulness in regards to his son (whether that son is Ishmael or Isaac) is the model of faith in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Doing what God says is what it means to follow and trust God.

Well, maybe. The problem I have with this interpretation is that it reduces Isaac to an object in Abraham’s faith drama. He’s no longer really a person. And by making this a “test,” we’ve also made it clear that God  didn’t really mean for Abraham to slit his son’s throat there on the mount of the Lord. That makes this a game. That makes faith a game, God’s promise a game, it makes Abraham’s faith less than real because it’s clear, if this a “test” in the sense that many of us understand that word, that none of what is going on is real. I remember, for some reason, one afternoon in Army basic training, the afternoon we spent then putting on and “clearing” our gas masks. (As well as taking them apart, learning how they worked, and seeing a nasty little film about what chemical weapons did to rodents.) After hours of this, we were graded on how quickly we could get into chemical protective gear. I think we had to have the masks out of their pouches, on, cleared and the hoods over our heads in under 18 seconds. There were no chemicals, no clouds of poisonous gas, just men with stop watches yelling at us. It was a “test” as we understand it — timed, graded, you could pass or fail but there were no real consequences for either (since everyone was tested until they passed).

But if we stick with the implications of the Hebrew, then what we have here is a quest for knowledge, and not a graded examination. God may have been testing Abraham, but God was not administering a test. And God isn’t the only one learning something.

(Personally, I think the best version of this story is Bob Dylan’s…)

So, I think it would be better to examine what Abraham’s faith looks like from Isaac’s standpoint. Because that’s the standpoint I think that matters. It’s our standpoint. Neither Abraham nor Isaac could truly know that God did not mean it what God said: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I shall tell you.” (Gen. 22:2, ESV) Isaac has to assume that when Abraham binds him, and raises the knife, his father absolutely has to mean it and, following the command of God, God absolutely has to mean it.

And that tells me that we, as human beings viewing this from Isaac’s perspective have learned a couple of things:

  1. God is capable of commanding some human beings to do horrific things.
  2. And those human beings are capable of following through with that command.
We now know this. We cannot help but know this. And we know this about the God who called and promised things to us through this man Abraham. We know this about the very same God. Nothing is the same anymore. From this moment forward, the God who gathers and names a people, the God who promises that we shall be a blessing, that we shall father a nation, that we shall inherit a land — this is the same God who is willing to have our throats slit, to command that they be slit. We are inheritors not just of Abraham’s promise, but also of Isaac’s experience. Because of what we now know about God, learned about God that day.
And so now God becomes much more involved in human violence. But only selectively, and throughout the Exodus and Deuteronomistic narratives, God makes it clear that God alone saves God’s people in miraculous acts that drown an entire Egyptian army and its Pharaoh. Gideon gathers an army of over 30,000 to battle the Midianites, and God makes sure only 300 do the actually fighting, to make sure that Israel knows God alone delivers, and not human effort. Still, God is present in some of the worst stories in scripture (Judges 19-21 come to mind). I don’t know of an instance in which God intervenes to stop an act of violence. There are many violent acts in scripture which go unjudged and uncommented upon, which go unpunished and unanswered. Not even God comes off well much of the time, but God is always somehow present in with human violence, which is often times viewed as a judgment upon those being violated. (And make of that what you will.)
And what has this to do with Jesus? I’ve written before I’ve never been happy with Anselmian atonement narratives, mostly because they become a game God is playing with God’s-self, a game to which we are mere spectators. And we are not mere spectators. We are actively involved. Because we are doing the killing. 
I think the crucifixion story of Jesus Christ is a bookend for the Isaac story. Not in a sacrificial way (“I asked you to sacrifice your son, now I shall sacrifice mine,” God says, which is ridiculous when dealing with the Triune God), but rather how God has decided to deal with and be present in the reality of human violence. 
It is as if God, understanding by this point the awfulness and depravity that human beings are truly capable of, has become incarnate in order to be subject to it. Perhaps even to experience it. In the crucifixion, God is no longer commanding the awful things to happen, but incarnate as Christ is prophesying the awful things that will happen as the logical conclusion of a ministry that pronounces unearned forgiveness. (I owe the late Gerhard Forde this understanding.) God has learned enough about us to know how we are likely to react when God, present among us as a lone human being, seems to make promises, or is heard to make promises, that aren’t kept. God on the mountaintop in fire and thunder terrifies us. God drowning Pharaoh’s soldiers is terrifying. God as a sweaty, stinking, sometimes crabby human being with no army and not much in the way of followers is another matter entirely. That God is something a frightened, angry mob can deal with.
And so God issues no commands. Instead, God surrenders utterly to us, to the worst we are. God lifts no hand to stop the lash, to halt the procession to Golgotha, God does not come down off the cross. This is a test in the Hebrew sense — what are we learning in this moment? It is the lesson of Abraham — we are capable of the most horrific things, in this case the mob-sanctioned execution as a rebel of a man whose only crime was to offend sensibilities and forgive us our sins. 
But we learn more than that. God is still God, even dead and buried. And here, at the empty tomb, we learn God’s ultimate answer to human violence — it has no meaning. It answers nothing. From the experience of Isaac, we now know that God has shared our place on the mountain, wondered where the sacrifice would come from, watched the knife rise into the air, and then — unlike us — did not save God’s-self. We were saved. God stayed Abraham’s hand. But God did not stay ours. We slit the throat. We walked away. We said “we do not know him.” We demanded God’s death because God didn’t save us in the way we wanted. We betrayed God to the authorities and then hung ourselves in despair.
God’s answer to the violence God became a part of In Genesis 22 is to give in to that violence, to surrender to it, to show us that violence is powerless in the face of God’s promise. Christ is the answer to Isaac. 

On Gifts, Sacrifice and Relationship

Sometime ago — April 2009, to be exact — I wrote a post on Cain, Abel, sacrifice and exile:

Some might say that Cain’s offering was inferior — not firstfruits. Maybe. But it may also be that God was partial to Abel’s “choicest of the firstlings” as opposed to whatever grain and fruit Cain offered. … [Farming is] hard work, and perhaps he felt that God did not reward his work well enough. But maybe the sense of rejection he felt when God favored the firstling of Abel’s flock was intolerable. Tilling the land wasn’t just what he did, it was who he was, and clearly he saw that who he was simply was not good enough for God.

Not good enough. Our capricious God liked Abel’s sacrifice and not Cain’s through no stated fault of Cain’s. I’ve had time of late to consider this lately (some of you know why, and the rest of you will just have to ponder) , and something else about this passage early in Genesis struck me.

The entire story of Cain and Abel prefigures the history of Israel from Sinai onward — sacrifice and offer, follow the law and be blessed, or fail to offer proper sacrifices, to follow the law and Israel shall be cursed. It is almost the entire Hebrew Bible writ small.

It occurred to me today that Cain has something Abel does not — a real relationship with God. Abel just gave, and God received. (That’s fine, you may say, but we cannot know much about Abel’s relationship with God because he is dead. True enough. But work with me in regards to what we actually have in Genesis 4.) Abel’s relationship with God is a very passive relationship, perhaps even a very pagan or idolatrous relationship. Abel gives, God takes. God may be pleased, but God is not giving anything to Abel.

But Cain’s failure — which I state above is God’s doing, and not Cain’s — to deliver a sacrifice that God will accept begins a different kind of relationship, in which God gives to Cain. And receives nothing from Cain. First God gives advice (“If you do well, will you not be accepted?”, implying Cain was at fault for the failure of his offering to please God), then accusation and curse (“When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive, and a wanderer on the earth.”) and finally a promise of some kind of protection or vengeance (“If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.”). It may stink as a relationship — who wouldn’t want to be happy and content giving to God and knowing that God had accepted all they’d given? Because I’d really like to be there right now… — but it is far more than what Abel had. In sinning, and in fear, Cain lived in a relationship with God that the sinless, approved and accepted Abel did not.

It prefigures Israel’s tempestuous relationship with God, in Egypt, in the wilderness, in the take-over of Canaan, in conquest, exile and regathering. It says that in sin, and the consequences of sin (wandering in the land of exile), we have a relationship with God that cannot be matched by those who are “sinless” and whose offerings are accepted. (The story itself may imply that such people don’t really exist, since Abel is killed and therefore nothing can be said of his relationship to God.) That in sinning, space for relationship with God is opened that cannot otherwise be opened — God is transformed from a mere receiver of sacrifices, a kind of fat and happy God who smiles on the one making the offering (suddenly, a bronze Buddha statue surrounded by clouds of incense and rotting oranges comes to mind), to an actual being interacting with the creation. To a God who has something meaningful to say to the creation.

Interacting with the created, who need God’s gift because our gift to God is unacceptable. Sometimes, it’s not much of gift — a mere mark to state whoever kills me gets it back seven times! — but it’s more than first fruits. Perhaps a true relationship with God can only begin in our sinfulness, because only then are we open to receiving what God has to give us, rather than lining up and dumping our offerings into the mouth of Vaal.

* * *

NOTE: The Cain and Abel story is, however, something of a sideshow. Abel dies before having progeny (an assumption based on the fact that none are listed), and all of the featured characters of Israelite history trace their lineage to Seth, Adam and Eve’s third son.

How Not to Hear to God

Over the course of my very short (so far) pastoral career, several people have thrust into my hands copies of Craig Rennebohm’s (with David Paul) Souls in the Hands of a Tender God: Stories of the Search for Home and Healing on the Streets, mostly because I have worked with the homeless and the mentally ill on Chicago’s north side (at Uptown Lutheran Church) and have loved every minute of it. Rennebohm is a UCC pastor who has worked with the homeless and the mentally ill in Seattle, and he appears to have done it with compassion with faithfulness.

I am about a third the way through the book, and so I make this comment knowing he may deal with this matter later in the book. But I’m also somewhat bothered by an attitude that Rennebohm and Paul take in the book. In the fourth chapter, “Approaching Mary,” Rennebohm and Paul tell several stories of people who struggled with mental illness, and how often the grandiose — religion, government, extraterrestrials — are present in the hallucinations and visions of the schizophrenic. They write:

Each type of illness expresses itself according to its own patterns. Hallucinations and delusions, for example, are generally symptoms of schizophrenia–as when a woman I’ll call Veronica believed she saw a store-window mannequin come alive and start talking to her, or when Al heard God’s voice in the shower telling him to stop washing because he was hopelessly dirty and there was no way he could ever be clean. Both were in fact experiencing schizophrenic episodes. (pp. 60-61)

After a brief discussion of the role guilt plays in depression, the authors then emphatically state the following:

God was not speaking to Al in the shower; his neurotransmitters were creating hallucinations and playing havoc with his sense of reality. (p. 61)

I find this statement troubling. Very, very troubling.

Some years ago, my friend John Hartwell (God rest his troubled spirit) told of a a time he had spent in a mental hospital, and of a young lady who claimed God was speaking to her. “What was God saying to her?” I asked him. “Oh, that we should love and care for each other,” John responded. “Was God really talking to her?” I asked. “I don’t know,” he said. “She wouldn’t stand still long enough for me to ask. She liked to jump up and down.”

I find myself wondering about Rennebohm’s God. How exactly is that God present with people? How does that God speak to humanity? And, if every voice we ever hear God say to us is merely malfunctioning neurotransmitters, are we really capable of listening to God? Or are we now missing something?

Rennebohm could have said that Al wasn’t hearing God’s voice because of what God said — a kind and compassionate God would never have said such a thing. But he didn’t said that. Instead, Rennebohm made a categorical statement: the voice of God, as such, doesn’t exist — it is merely our brains going haywire.

Which makes me wonder — what then of all the times God speaks in scripture? To Abraham? To Moses? What of all the speaking God does to and through the prophets, many of whom see, and speak, and act in ways that would today be clearly indicative of some kind of illness. What would Rennebohm have made of Hosea marrying a prostitute on the “command” of God? Or Ezekiel’s visions of cherubim and wheels and the scroll he ate that gave him the power to prophesy judgement to unfaithful Israel? What of the word of the Lord that came to Jeremiah, which included a command not to pray for God’s people because God won’t hear that prayer? Or Isaiah’s unclean lips, made clean with a burning coal? Or Mary’s “meeting” with the Holy Spirit? Or Paul’s being struck blind on the road to Damascus?

For Rennebohm (at least so far in the book), God’s presence seems merely to be a non-anxious, compassionate, professional and caring presence. And this is fine. But it is limited entirely by being incarnate. In this construct, God can only be present to us as and in another human being. There can be no supernatural presence, no communication from outside our ordinary experience. Nothing save the sweet and pleasant presence of the rightly guided and properly trained.

I bring this up for several reasons. First, because twice in my life, God has spoken directly to me. Been in my head. (At prayer, alone, in mosques in San Francisco, 1991, and Columbus, Ohio, 1994.) It is an absolutely terrifying experience, one I do not hope to ever repeat. I have also had other-than-ordinary encounters (I do not know any other way to explain them) with something divine, at the Greyhound bus depot in San Francisco in 1991 and again at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Someday I will explain these things in greater detail. But not today.

The point is, God is still speaking to human beings in ways that don’t involve being incarnated in some non-anxious professional listener. God has at least spoken to me, and I know that God has spoken to others as well. As the UCC is happy to say, God is still speaking.

Which leads me to my second point. Are we still capable of listening? Are we so concerned with health and wellbeing on the one hand, and conformity to social norms and having people become well-adjusted contributing members of society that we are no longer capable of hearing God when God speaks to us through prophetic voices? Many compassionate, caring people wish to see others conform and be well-adjusted, but the desire to have people conform and be “properly socialized” and well-adjusted can also be an incredibly brutal, uncaring and violent act, one that damages people.

Would Isaiah (or any of the three Isaiahs) been able to give us any of those visions had they been medicated and hospitalized? What of Jeremiah on prozac, to make him better-adjusted, and thus more supportive of the government? Or Ezekiel on haldol and risperdol? What of his visions? It may be that God no longer speaks to God’s people prophetically, but it may also be that we, in our “scientific” understanding and acculturation, and our desire to create and impose a very narrowly constrained normative human existence, with the ability to medicate people toward that norm, it may be we are simply no longer capable of listening. Or even hearing.

And this brings me to my final point. I do not have a major, or even minor, mental illness, so I do not have that struggle. I do not wish to seem uncaring, but I have come to believe that what we call mental illness tells us something fascinating about God. I have come to believe that all human beings are whole and complete, and each whole and complete human being says something wonderful and interesting about the God whose image we are made in. My wife is severely dyslexic. This is not a disorder, and she is not incomplete because of her dyslexia, as difficult and painful as it is for her to function in a non-dyslexic world. But her dyslexia tells me something about the God whose image she is made in.

I see the same with the “mentally ill” that I have met. To treat someone who has schizophrenia as someone who is somehow not whole or right is to miss what such a thing tells of us God. The God whose image they were made in, the God whose wholeness and perfection they reflect. Mostly, I find this something to meditate, to help me as I encounter the “mentally ill.” And no doubt the Rennebohm does too, at least to an extent.

I have no easy answers. And I know how some of this might sound to those who struggle with mental illness. And I fear, perhaps too much, the desire of some to make others conform to a norm, whatever that norm may be. Tolerance, for me, is how much room is open for non-conformity, for the weird, the odd, the aberrant, and tolerant bourgeois social democratic liberalism is rarely as tolerant as it claims because its desire for conformity — however expanded and inclusive that conformity might be — is so powerful and unyielding.

But it may be that the God that bourgeois sensibility has reduced to a sentimental, non-anxious professional presence is too small a God. Far too small a God. The Israelites, and the followers of Jesus throughout history, often times found the experience of God to be as terrifying as it was comforting (and often times terrifying and comforting at the same time). To be met by God was to be overwhelmed (as Mary was), to be engulfed, to risk annihilation at the very hands of the infinite. This terrifying God who calls, gathers, redeems and loves God’s people may sometimes only be truly be apprehended by human beings on the ragged edges of reason and sanity, a God whose infinity fills our finiteness and utterly overwhelms us. I’m not sure Rennebohm gets that God.

And I’m not sure how much the church really gets that God either.

The Yearning of the Spirit

This amazing quote comes from a piece by Jamie Manson at the Religion Dispatches web site, and the italicized bit echoes my experience and understanding utterly:

Like Wallis and Claiborne, my partner and I have a deep passion for working with the poor, the hungry, and the homeless. Our commitment to this work does not come simply from a desire for the common good, but from the yearnings of our spirits [italics mine – CF]. I’m a Catholic with a Master of Divinity degree and my partner grew up evangelical and attended a Midwestern Bible college. For us, the margins are a sacred place where we have some of our deepest experiences of “church,” the way Jesus envisions and incarnates it in the gospels. It is in the face of the broken and desolate that we most clearly see the face of Christ. [Again, italics mine – CF]

I’ve said before, though not articulated it fully, that I don’t really believe in the common good. And I don’t. I follow this call because I have to, in order to be true to myself. To live with myself. To be at peace with myself. If that sounds selfish, in a way it is. No one acts without a lack of self-regard or self-concern, even if that self-concern is the righting of the soul by doing for and with others.

And the margins are sacred. They are amazing places where God shows up all the time. That’s why I love doing ministry in cities. It’s the randomness of unplanned and unprogrammed encounters. I never know exactly when I will meet God. When God will meet me.