Vocabulary – How hard it is

What follows is a follow up to my previous post about the mean old God vs. the loving new God.  If you haven’t already, you might want to read that first before taking this on.
Vocabulary.  We can express ourselves only with the vocabulary we have.  To put it another way, we cannot say something using words we don’t know.  In like manner, we cannot ask others to express themselves in words they don’t know or with meanings they don’t have.  You would think it’s obvious, but, in theology as in life, one of the biggest mistakes we make is to put our vocabulary into the mouths of others who have never heard the words, nor have words of their own that approximate our meaning. 
Many years ago in seminary, a group of us spent hours debating what Paul’s letter to Philemon had to say about slavery.  We tried hard to make Paul say something that complemented our understanding of slavery, particularly as we knew about it in American history.   We even imagined that he did, but it was not so.  We could not force a 20th century American vocabulary into Paul’s mouth.  It’s a small example, but it’s related to the subject of my previous article about the mean Old Testament God vs. the loving New Testament God.  How is it that the loving God we know through Jesus Christ can be the same cruel vindictive God we read about in the Old Testament?
The question we have to ask ourselves is, What vocabulary did the ancient Israelites have to talk about and understand God?  How did that vocabulary change as the centuries unfolded?  It’s important because how can God reveal God’s self to a people except through the vocabulary they already possess?  What, in any given era, did they know about the characteristics of gods?  There were plenty of gods to provide examples.  What words and meanings were available to them to begin expressing knowledge about a new god, JHWH?  What we know for certain is that the nature of God as revealed in Jesus was not known to them, although the progressive unveiling of God’s self revelation throughout scripture always moves in that direction, introducing new meanings into old words and bringing new words into play one small step at a time.
We don’t say anything in the usual Sunday school curricula about the dynamic development of revelation of who God is, or about who we are as God’s people, and precious little about it in most adult Christian education programs.  Many of us still use Luther’s small catechism, or its cognate, to teach teens preparing for confirmation.  Five hundred year old German ideas about God may have enduring value, but how well do they communicate with contemporary American experience?   It leaves faithful, life long Christians trying to force 21st century meanings onto words our English bibles use to tell the stories of peoples who lived thousands of years ago in cultures far different from our own.  It’s unfair to those ancient ancestors.  It’s unfair to today’s faithful trying to understand who God is.  It creates an impossible roadblock to inquiring minds of non Christians who may want to know more about us.
It’s a problem.  Not only do we have to begin teaching adults about scripture using the vocabulary they already have, we also have to help them understand that those living two, three, or four thousand years ago had a different vocabulary with different meanings from our own.  Then begins the slow task of introducing them to a new vocabulary that can lead to a deeper understanding.  I’m surprised at how hard that is to do.  I used to teach a weekly class at the local rescue mission where few of the participants had graduated from high school.  They were eager to learn, but I had to start by using words they knew well, introducing new vocabulary with care, and struggling to find ways to express myself in words they were accustomed to using, all without being condescending.
I’ve often made the mistake of assuming that my well educated parishioners did not need the same care, forgetting that their religious education stopped in the sixth grade, or sometimes earlier.  College educated people using grade school words and meanings to talk about God!  Good Grief!  Moreover, more educated folks appear to be quicker to assume that the ancients had and used the same vocabulary we do to understand God.  Not so many years ago, it came as a surprise to those in my parish bible study group that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were not Jews practicing the Jewish religion as it was known to Jesus.  They were honestly unaware of the developments that took place over the course of the scriptural record, but believed that words used to understand God and humanity in the oldest stories were the same as words used in the most recent stories.  Even among clergy colleagues there is a tendency to impute early 21st century ethics and morality into the words used to describe how faith was understood in biblical times.  When it doesn’t fit, they are a little too quick to condemn those ancients for their failure to have the morals and ethics of a modern liberal Christian.  How impatient we are!  I wonder if our descendants will be as unfair to us as they wonder at our ignorance about what is so obvious to them.

The mean old God vs. the loving new God

Not for the first time, I had a conversation recently with a life long Christian, consistent in attending services, who was confused about the angry, vindictive God of the Old Testament and how that related to the kind, loving God revealed in the New Testament.  Where do you suppose that comes from?  Is it a faint echo of Gnosticism, of which few know much about?   Is it the byproduct of overly simplified Sunday school lessons taught to children who quit learning anything about our faith after the fifth or sixth grade?  For some it could be one of the popular workbook bible studies where you are required to fill in the right answer.  Maybe there are televangelists proclaiming half truths that reach beyond the ears of those who tune in.  Is it my own preaching?  Could be.
Those of us in liturgical churches practice reading the bible out loud so that faithful worshippers will hear most of it time and again as the years go by, but hearing words mumbled out loud in the midst of hymns, prayers, sermons, and the Eucharist doesn’t sink in very far or last very long.  I guess that’s why adult Christian education has been my passion, and my great frustration.  I’ve been at it a long time with little to show for it.  Nevertheless, it is critical to keep going.  Church literature and leadership are full of handwringing over the decline in church attendance, and even fuller of scatter-shot proposals for what to do about it.  We need, they say, more and better evangelism, but not of the conservative evangelical variety that has given such a bad name to Christianity to all the ‘nones’ out there.  But how can the church go forth to tell the story if the troops don’t know the story well enough to tell it, and are deeply conflicted about what they think they do know?
In retirement, a few times a month I serve a small rural congregation thirty some miles distant.  Most of what I can offer in the form of adult education takes place on Sunday, or in writing, I wrote the following to my friend in hopes that it might help reframe the question about how God is represented in the Old and New Testaments.  See what you think.  Would you have said something different, or in a better way?  By the way, I’m well aware of having skipped blithely over important nuances, but it has always seemed best to start with the basics in as uncomplicated a way as possible.  So here goes.
Dear ………,
What we were taught about the bible as children can be a stumbling block many of us encounter on our way to a deeper understanding of our faith.  You brought up the notion frequently taught in Sunday school that the Old Testament God was angry, judgmental, and vindictive, while in the New Testament he is gentle and loving.  We also stumble over wanting people who lived three or four thousand years ago to use and understand language the same way we do, preferably in English.  I want to suggest another view.
Whatever else it is, scripture is the story of God’s engagement with humanity, and humanity’s struggle to understand God.  It is a  process through which God revealed God’s self to us by engaging with us in our lives.  Inspired by  God, it was written by humans who were limited in what they could understand, and how they could express themselves, by the circumstances of the times in which they lived.  Their work is not without error, and the most egregious of them are corrected by God through successive waves of revelation.  Times change, and over the two thousand years of the Old Testament story, humanity’s ability to understand God, and their relationship with God, changed dramatically.  That’s true for us also.  The words of scripture may remain the same, but our ability to understand them is always changing.
It does not begin with Adam, Eve, and the Garden of Eden.  It begins with Abraham, whose story exists in historical time.  Everything in the book of Genesis up to the introduction of Abraham is pre history, what many theologians call myth, not myth as fairytales, but myth as stories told to help explain something about basic human nature, who God is, and what our relationship with God is called to be.  The truth that lies within them is very deep, and worth probing.  Abraham’s story is set in times known to human history.  In it, he was the only person on earth, it is said, who had a personal relationship with a new kind of god, an invisible god, a god who cared about him and with whom he could converse.  No one else did.  
Having said that, the bible then lurches forward in confusing ways.  The God of one person became the God of a  small family, then the God of a few tribes, then forgotten for hundreds of years.  Moses was reintroduced to God and, in God’s name, brought the tribes of the Israelites out of Egypt, but it took forty years for them to become a people willing to follow this strange God.  Jahweh was the name given to him, and one of the strangest things about Jahweh was that he invited conversation.  You cold negotiate with him (I’m using ‘him’ as a generic pronoun).  He was a God of the people and for the people, which was not at all like the other gods that existed all over the place. 
The books of the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) help us understand the process, often a painful one, of an entire people who knew only about the gods of Egypt learning about a new God, an invisible God, who was to be their God in a new land.  Moreover, they had to learn about each other.  The tribes were not known to get along very well: a lot of infighting and backstabbing.  The laws of Moses that make little sense to our ears turn out to have been a brilliant way to form a new society in which justice for the people was important, and violence against each other was discouraged.  An eye for an eye, for instance, put a lid on the escalation of violence.  It’s important to recognize that while the early Israelites accepted Jahweh as their God, they were well aware that other people had other gods, and they were happy to turn to those other gods when the need arose.  Baal, for instance, was an agricultural god, and if you were a farmer why not give Baal a chance to help out?  We humans drove God nuts with our constant disobedience and wandering ways, but God always gave us a way out and a way forward.  It’s also important to recall that in those days everything that happened was caused by one or another god.  Earthquakes, floods, invading armies, all were the fault of some god who was messing with humans.  Jahweh said to them, If you keep doing what you’re doing really bad things re going to happen to you.  The only way they could understand that was to hear God say, If you keep doing what you’re doing I am going to kill you.  That’s what gods did.
The historical books that follow the books of the Exodus move from a wandering bunch of marginally affiliated tribes into and through the development of a nation with its civil wars, wars with other nations, and defeats by the empires of the day.  The books don’t always agree with each other about the details, but they do agree on the general themes.  They read like adventure stories filled with danger, heroic deeds, intrigue, betrayals, murders, love, and all the rest.  Throughout, God inspired ordinary, often deeply flawed persons to guide the people forward.  It didn’t always work.  Some rejected God altogether, leading the people to disaster.  It was always a struggle for them to accept that God desired to move them in the direction of greater inclusion and love of others.  Nor was it easy for them to understand God as a God of love.  After all, none of the other gods were gods of love, except for some fertility goddesses, and the love they offered had more to do with sex.  As for all those bloody sacrifices, no one ever worshipped a god without bloody sacrifices.  There wasn’t any other way, and it never occurred to anyone that there might be another way.  So God used the tools at hand to work with them.  
The books of the prophets, included in our bibles from longest to shortest rather than chronologically, step away from myth and history to form another beginning.  They begin the process of enlightening the people about a deeper understanding of who God is, and what kind of lives we should lead in order to enjoy the fullness of life God would have for us.  Here is where we see huge pushes toward an understanding of God’s inclusiveness that goes beyond family, tribe, or even nation, to encompass the entire world.  It is also here where it is finally made clear that there is only one God: there is no other.  The prophets did the groundwork that prepared the way for Jesus.
Two thousand years of learning who we are, who God is, and what our relationship with God is about. That’s what the Old Testament gives us.  Think about it.  It’s been two thousand years since Jesus.  Consider how much we have changed in that time.  They changed in their time too, and it wasn’t always pretty.  The bible doesn’t whitewash any of it.  The good, the bad, and the ugly are right there for us to study.  I believe that knowing the Old Testament well is essential to fully understanding the New Testament.  By knowing it well, it becomes so much more clear how Jesus is not a repudiation of the God of the Old Testament, but the fulfillment of everything the Old Testament led up to. 
Hope this is of some help.

It Happened Last Night

The jazz combo was about half way through its second set when all my early warning radar went off.  There were maybe thirty of us in the small wine bar having a great time.  Most of us knew the members of the combo, so it was all friends and family.  Except for the inebriated old guy of uncertain age who wandered in off the street, ambling his none too straight way to the bar for a long schmooze with the bartender, gaining nothing out of it.  It didn’t matter.  He loved the music, so he  greeted each of the band members, in the middle of a song, before taking up his place just behind the piano player, where he kept time with a little impromptu dancing.
Dancing!  For the son of one of the band members, who was sitting with his mom not far from us, dancing is his most favorite thing to do.  He had spent most of the first set dancing with more energy than I thought possible, even for a six year old.  So when he saw the old sot dancing, he hopped off his stool, ran up to the front, and began dancing with him.  There they were, a six year old boy and an old drunk off the street, dancing away with unbounded joy, which they did until the set ended and it was time to leave, but it wasn’t quite over.  The old guy wandered through the small crowd shaking hands and introducing himself with a mumbled name no one ever quite got.  Who knows, it might have been Raphael?

Sometimes the innocent exuberance of a six year old is more profound than the suspicions of an adult.  “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it,” says the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews.  “When you give a [party],” says Jesus, “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”  Maybe he could have added, “and the old drunk off the street who likes to dance.”

Narcissistic Millennials

Several commentators on a local Internet news site slammed millennials for being entitled, narcissistic, and lazy.  Not all of them, just the majority.  Amazing!  I would love to take a look at their data source.  Millennials are an ill defined group of older teens and those in their twenties who are said to form a cohort of similar social attitudes and behaviors.  It’s part of a name game begun a few decades ago when we began naming Gen X, Gen Y, and so forth.  I guess it started with the naming of the Baby Boomers who were those born of Greatest Generation parents in the baby explosion following WWII.  The advertising industry loves to use this sort of pseudo scientific psychographic jargon to sell their wares to their clients.  If it makes any sense at all, it is as a shorthand way to describe shifts, imagined or real, in whatever it is we define as normative social values and behavior.  I used it myself in my consulting days.  It made our clients feel like they had a better handle on the confusing times that lay ahead of them.  Shoot, it made me feel like I really knew what I was talking about.  Smoke and mirrors, but we believed it. 
So what do we know about millennials?  Wikipedia has a lengthy article about them that cites several studies, notably from the U. of Michigan, which is known for its social research.  Apparently high school seniors and college students do not score as well as their predecessor generations on instruments intended to measure things such as altruism, desire for wealth, interest in politics, etc.  How much weight can one give to measurements of teenage social values as predictors of adult behavior?  What high schools or colleges were included in the studies, and how representative were they of the greater population of others the same age?  Apparently most of it was conducted among white, affluent, suburban raised youth in, or applying to, elite colleges.  The same age group from other ethnic, cultural, or economic circumstances displays the greater diversity of characteristics one might expect, at least according to the limited research I noted in a very quick and superficial look.  
There is no doubt that the nation is experiencing shifts in what are acceptable normative social values and behavior, as it always has.  Nothing new there.  As they age, generational cohorts, if there are such things, carry the shifts from cutting edge, to established mores, to declining values, but it’s a messy process that defies easy generalization.  Or as one wag put it, “Today’s radicals are tomorrow’s stuffed shirts.”
Has there ever been an older generation that has not derided the younger generation for being soft and lazy?  I am a member of the Quiet Generation tucked in-between the Greatest and the Boomers. We were not supposed to have amounted to much of anything as we lolled about in the shadows of our Greatest parents while being overwhelmed by the booming numbers of those younger than us.  Now we’re the old goats with all the money the younger generations hope we will leave to them when we die.  We have no plans to do either.  Commentators critical of the lazy, entitled millennials who will some day run the place seem to forget that they were members of the drug and sex crazed hippie generation.  Flower children, every one of them, and not a decent blossom in the bunch.  Sure not going to leave our hard earned cash to them.
I have limited exposure to those in their late teens through mid thirties.  What I have seen gives me confidence that my old(er) age will be in good hands – if the complainers get out of their way. 

The Circle is Broken. The Center will not Hold.

By now you have probably heard about the band of elite British detectives who never forget a face.  My wife is like that.  Once introduced to someone, she never forgets their face, and usually remembers their name and something about them.  It’s an amazing gift, one that can be a bit awkward from time to time.  Months or even years later she might see that person somewhere and greet them by name, only to be greeted back by a confused look of wonder about who this person might be and how she knows my name?  It doesn’t bother her.  She just reminds them of her name and where they met.  It helps that she is relatively well known in town, with a reputation as a community activist and well regarded  artist.  
I, on the other hand, have a hard time remembering faces, or names for that matter.  I usually have to meet someone several times before I get it down.  Sometimes it’s hard at first glance to differentiate one face from another.  When we first arrived here I started participating in a Wednesday morning men’s bible study, and it took me just a little too long to be clear about who was who.  At first it looked like a table surrounded by identical white fringed bald heads.  Not true, of course.  No two were alike.  Not all were bald.  In time they were as individual as possible, each a good friend.  Yet, if I see someone I know fairly well, but out of context, I may have trouble remembering the face, remembering the correct context, and making the connection.  On the other hand, once I’ve got it down, it sticks.
Most people, I suspect, are somewhere in between.  Where do you fit?
What if it’s not as much a matter of seeing and remembering as it is of not seeing at all?  What if others are simply invisible?  I don’t mean invisible as if hidden under Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility, or eerily transparent.  I mean invisible in the sense of being plainly there yet unnoticed and unremembered for ever having been present.  It was brought up last Sunday as we talked about the woman who had been bent over for eighteen years and was healed by Jesus’ touch.  She reminded me of the people who come and go, recognized only as objects of no special interest who, if at all, elicit only momentary curiosity.  Jesus saw her.  No one else did.  It’s not that they were unaware of her presence. They were.  She may have even been a familiar presence.  But they didn’t see her.  She was, in that sense, invisible. 
Jesus saw her.  He saw her as someone whose face and name he knew, whose story he knew, whose need, however unspoken, was known to him.  She was among the marginalized who populate the gospels.  To be at the margins is to be on the outer edge of whatever is at the center.  The presence of the marginalized may be known, even catalogued, but ignored, unless they get in the way of those working their way farther toward the center where they might find recognition as being somebody.  The marginalized are nobodies to those who desire to be somebodies.   
Nobody wants to be a nobody.  I remember a particular nobody moment when attending a crowded meeting in a posh place.  I heard a loud but indistinct question aimed in my general direction, so I said, “Did you ask me something?”  She looked me up and down and said, “Your’e a nobody.  I don’t talk to nobodies.”  Obviously I was among the marginalized at that gathering.  Never did learn who she was, but she was sure to have been a somebody.  It was an uncomfortable moment, but only a moment. It even makes a funny story when I add appropriate embellishments.
The unnamed woman, the nobody whose name was known to Jesus, had spent her life as a nobody.  For us, she is representative of all who are nobody, including entire populations of people that spend their lives on the margins.  Even the marginalized have margins populated by their own nobodies.  Consider the Samaritan woman at the well, the sick man who had laid for thirty-eight years by the Bethesda pool, Matthew and Zacchaeus the tax collectors.   And so it goes.  Our human ability to marginalize the other seems to know no limit.  
As recorded in the gospel narratives, Jesus consistently engaged those at the margin, offering them the respect of having being seen, recognized, known, and embraced.  Jesus restored them to dignity of life in which a new life was possible without regard to humanly imposed margins.  Jesus, who is the center of creation, keeps bringing nobodies into the center of attention of somebodies, dissolving margins even as they are reformed.  Social patterns of somebodies and nobodies are dissolved, reformed, dissolved, reformed, and dissolved again.  Jesus will not let the marginalized remain marginalized.
We have a hard time with that.  We want stability.  We want to know who is who, and where they fit in the scheme of things.  Even in our benevolence we are inclined to act as somebodies gallantly bringing the nobodies into our circle, but it’s still our circle, and we expect them to become as one of us.  Jesus will have none of it.  The circle is not unbroken, it is dissolved.  the marginalized are brought into the center, given new life with a new center, and sent out again, leaving the old center without standing.  It’s very unsettling.  It leaves one wanting to cry out, “Where is the center? Quit moving it!”  

Of course, being right thinking orthodox Christians, we are quick to say that Jesus is the fountain of living water, the well of life, the one through whom and in whom we have our being, he is the center.  Which is all true, but he keeps moving.  We say he is the same yesterday and today and forever, and that’s true too, but his peripatetic embracing of the marginalized, dissolving margins in the process, is the chief characteristic of what his sameness is all about.  Ours is a God who will not sit still.  To follow him is to be continually on the move in challenging ways, which brings me back to the nobodies, the invisible ones.  For me, and perhaps for you, the greatest challenge is to see them, really see them, as Jesus would see them, and to do what I can, not to bring them into one of my circles, but to dissolve the margins of my circles.  I’m not very good at doing that.  I like my circles.  I like being a somebody in them.  Those who are better at following Jesus in dissolving margins will someday be honored as saints.  In the meantime, they will likely be ostracized from our circles.  We treasure our margins.  They are the wrong things to treasure.  It’s something to work on.

Sounds of the World About Us

I have a favorite bike route.  It’s about ten miles round trip, with two thirds of it along Mill Creek to Rooks Park and back.  The rest is on city streets through neighborhoods and past schools.  Most of the walkers, skate boarders, runners, and bikers I’ve seen this summer have been wearing earphones, not hearing anything that doesn’t come through them.  Some walkers not only wear earphones, but are glued to their smart phones, no doubt in pursuit of you know what, and utterly oblivious to anything else.
Behold, says the nature guide, here is an example of an ambulatory life-form, unrelated to others in our area, and of unknown origin.  We’ve been observing it for some time now, and while it does move, it does not appear to be aware of its surroundings, or participate in the life of other flora and fauna.  We think it’s sensate, and we’ve tried to make contact.  With enough stimulation it appears to awaken to our presence for a brief moment, usually with an irritated look of alarm, but it’s a momentary thing. It quickly returns to a strange, almost catatonic state, except that it moves, albeit slowly.  Some researchers wonder if it might be related to the giant sloth, long thought to be extinct.  We’re looking into it.  If it is a form of homo sapiens, it is a very pokey man.
But I digress.  I don’t want to obsess about alien lifeforms of the extreme variety; I am more interested in ordinary folks who have chosen to shut out the sound of the world about them.  What are they listening to?  I imagine it’s to their favorite play list or Pandora station.  I like listening to music too.  We have season tickets to the Symphony and Chamber Music Festival.  The Walla Walla University Christmas concert is a must.  My car radio gravitates toward jazz, classical, a little country, and sometimes a pop station.  All my favorite music is piped into my ears at doctor and dentist visits, or on the treadmill at the Y.  Music is good for the soul.  
But shutting out the world of sounds while walking or biking doesn’t make sense to me.  There is so much to hear, as there is to be seen.  Along the creek there are the sounds of rushing water, honking geese and quacking ducks.  Children splash in the shallows.  Birds of every kind are in the trees.  Critters scurry out of the way.  Small planes land and take off from the local airport not far away.  The wind in the trees makes gentle music of its own kind.  Frogs sometimes sing in counterpoint.  Taking a break to sit on a bench, the subtle buzz of flying insects makes itself known. There is a lot to hear that adds depth and color to what can be seen.  
Leaving the creekside trail behind, taking to the city streets, listening for the the traffic has always seemed like a good idea.  More interesting are the sounds of children playing, squirrels clucking displeasure, dogs barking, people talking, machines digging, builders pounding, and the silent words of my own thinking about it all.  Shutting out the sounds of the world by drowning them through earphones seems to me like deliberately bleeding the color of life into a washed out shadow of vitality.  What a waste, and to do it on purpose?  I don’t get it.  Maybe you get it, and will explain it to me. 

And Now for a bit of Nonsense in a Squirrelly sort of Way

It’s time for a breather.  Leaving politics and religion behind, let’s talk about something really squirrelly.  
The trees guys were here yesterday to do some heavy trimming in our birches and a honey locust, and a little light trimming in our other trees.  The locust is healthy, but it’s been generating dead branches at an accelerating pace.  It turns out to be related to squirrels.  Urban squirrels have a life span of a year or so, being regularly thinned out by traffic, electrocution, and such.  A healthy squirrel living in a protected area with plenty of food and water can live a lot longer: five to eight years maybe.  
Squirrels can have several litters each year, and they become sexually active at a very young age.  I’m told that eating, sleeping, and sex are their primary activities.  You know all that friendly running around chasing each other up and down limbs?  It’s not play.  It’s squirrel courtship, and it’s hard to tell who is chasing who.  Anyway, the tree lined back yards running up and down our block are a wonderfully safe place for squirrels.  The neighborhood is quiet with little traffic.  All electricity is under ground.  The only squirrel dangers are hawks and a couple of ferocious neighborhood cats.  Of course the dogs would be dangerous if they could ever catch one, but they can’t.  
What about food and water?  We feed birds, so do a few of the neighbors.  Being a soft hearted sort of fellow, I’ve often bought squirrel mix along with bird food.  They eat both, but get special joy out of a mix of peanuts and oily sunflower seeds.  Bird baths, fountains, and lawn watering take care of the rest.  It’s a squirrel paradise.  So how does that affect the locust tree?
Squirrels make their nests of patched together leaves and twigs high in the trees.  Their favorite one is a neighbor’s enormous oak, but others will do.  The nests look fragile but can withstand wind, snow, hail, and ice.  If the trees holds up, so will the nest.  It turns out that the very best stuff for nest building are strips of locust bark, which is easy for them to peel away, and flexible enough to be woven, in a squirrelly way, into a nest.  It wouldn’t be a problem if this wasn’t a squirrel paradise where generations of them can live in comfort, but it is.  Which means that there are too many squirrels ripping up to much bark on too many branches, and that’s causing smaller ones to die.  

The old honey locust has been heavily trimmed.  Birds happily eat out of feeders the squirrels have given up on (so far).  I sat out on the patio at sunrise this morning to watch the world wake up.  Confused squirrels scurried along their arboreal highway only to discover dead ends and cul de sacs where main arteries used to be.  With any luck, most of them will find better pickings at the other end of the block.  We shall see. 

Where is God when it hurts?

A friend in deep emotional pain asked where is God when it hurts?  It’s a familiar question with no easy answer.   That doesn’t keep easy answers from being offered.   Another friend posted a bromide on Facebook: “God has a purpose for your pain, a reason for your struggles and a reward for your faithfulness.  Don’t give up.”  She was offended when I said it was sloppy theology, countering that encouragement was a good thing.  Last week a 17 year old girl was killed in a head on collision on a local highway caused by the other car.  I don’t believe telling her parents that God has a purpose for their pain would be encouraging.
Maybe answers can come only from personal experience.  Pain and misfortune come to all of us.  Each incident has a cause, but not always a reason.  Sometimes we know what the cause is.  Sometimes we don’t.  And sometimes it’s just chance.  I have two guesses about God’s role in all of that.  One is that the more we can open ourselves to God’s presence in our lives, the more God’s presence will be felt as something  leading us through the vicissitudes of life into new possibilities.  That’s not the same thing as asserting that God had a purpose, a reason, for either causing or letting it happen.  Moses, it seems to me, might be an example.  It took him a lifetime of maturing from prince to patriarch as he learned to allow himself to be guided by God through difficulties that were bound to happen whether or not God caused them.
The other is that God may call someone to become his agent, knowing full well that he or she will have to go through great trials and suffering, some of which might be due to God’s direct action.  Moses, it seems to me, might be an example.  He was called, reluctantly agreed to it only after vigorous argument against it, and finally went stubbornly through with it, but without a lot of enthusiasm.  The story of Moses has a certain legendary, almost mythical quality, and that’s one reason why it has so much value as a teaching tool.  For a story more akin to the daily life of ordinary people, we might turn to Paul.  My recent essay on Paul the Failure (May 30, 2016) observed that Paul had few successes and many failures to think about as he came to the end of his life.  I doubt that God had a purpose or reason for his beatings, jailings, ship wrecks, and problems with recalcitrant congregations, nor do I think God had a purpose or reason for his final imprisonment and beheading.  Nevertheless, I am convinced that Paul saw in each of them an opportunity to add something to the work God had given him to do.  
So what am I to say to my friend in deep emotional pain?  He is in pain.  Is he angry that God, who is supposed to fix these things, hasn’t done it?  Like Job, does he want a moral answer to a moral question?  Is he blaming God for the trouble he’s caused for himself through his own actions?  Is he blaming God for the trouble others have caused him through their own actions?  Is he uncomfortable with a universe in which chance plays a part in God’s greater plan about which we are not privy?  As Christians, where does Jesus fit into this?  The way I read it, Jesus laid down a path for us paved with love, reconciliation, and restoration to wholeness as the way to life in abundance, but it is not a way that will avoid trouble, tragedy and pain.  It is a path that enables those who walk it to share, however weakly, with others who need it a bit of the light of Christ and the hope of the kingdom of God.  It is not a dead end path.  It may lead into the valley of death, but it does not stop there, it passes through it into a greater life that begins now and becomes more and more real as we take each hesitant step onward.  Can we trust Jesus to have got that right?  If he is, as we believe, the very Word of God made flesh, then there is no one else to trust.

I don’t think you can be told that.  I think you have to experience it.  Maybe the best I can do is offer him the opportunity to try it for himself.  As for me, I’ll take the words of St. Patrick’s breastplate as the answer to where is God when it hurts.

Telling the Story to Who?

Like many small town papers, ours features a Sunday pastors’ column with authors rotated through a list of those who desire to write something.  A recent one was about salvation, more particularly about the free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ, and isn’t that a wonderful thing.  Here’s the problem.  It assumed that column readers have some idea of what salvation is, or might be; an idea of who Jesus is in relation to God, if there is a God; and an idea of how it is that Jesus can offer this gift for free.
Come to think of it, they might be accurate assumptions because the likely readers are the pastor’s friends, family, parishioners, and other pastors eager to critique his theology.  But to carry on from my previous article, an enormous portion of the population has no idea what any of that means.  They have had no religious education, and precious little exposure to Christianity, or any other religion, other than what little they pick up in casual conversation or through the media, which bears so little interest for them that they pay scant attention.  They do not possess knowledge of basic Christian vocabulary.
Salvation.  What is it?  Does it mean something like salvage, which is something like junk retrieved from the trash and piled up for for an unknown future use?  You know, like a auto junk yard?  If that’s it, it doesn’t hold much attraction.  The dictionary says it means to be saved from harm, ruin, or loss, but who reads dictionaries these days?  However, let’s suppose that the population we want to reach does know what the dictionary says.  They may reasonably wonder what they need to be saved from, or saved for.  Saved from sin?  What an old fashioned idea that is.  Saved for heaven?  Saved from hell?  What are they?  There are two popular ideas about an afterlife.  First, there isn’t one, so don’t worry about it.  Second, the soul moves on to something all by itself, and doesn’t require any help from religion to do it.  
What about Jesus?  Christians have this guy called Jesus they say can give salvation as a gift, a free gift.  With the question of what salvation means in doubt, adding Jesus as the giver of it as a free gift simply adds confusion to the issue.  What does it mean to call it a gift?  By what authority is Jesus able to give it?  And why, for God’s sake, do they keep saying he can give it because he died a bloody death?  That makes no sense at all.  Who is Jesus anyway?  In the short time between Christmas and New Year’s Eve it’s possible they will have been made aware that Jesus is the Bethlehem baby called the Prince of Peace, but there is no peace, so he’s not much of a prince is he.  Then comes New Year’s Eve, and the bowl games on New Year’s Day, and all is forgotten. 
Besides, Christians say this ill defined salvation is a free gift.  Free gifts are for gullible people who can be lulled into believing that a Nigerian really wants to share his fortune with them.  It sounds like a scam.  What’s the catch?  After all, there is no such thing as a free lunch!
That’s not far from the thought process of a large part of the culture in which we live.  It may leave life long Christians somewhat bewildered since they remember a time when almost everyone was Christian, at least nominally, at least enough to have internalized the basic vocabulary of Christianity.  We don’t live in that time anymore.  The pastor’s column that joyfully celebrated the gift of salvation through Jesus Christ was well intended, but as a way to tell the story of Jesus and his love to the pagans of our time, it had nothing to offer.  What would?
We need to begin with the recognition that we are not up against a population of hard core unbelieving atheists.  Most people believe in gods, lots of them.  They may not look like Athena or Zeus, but Paul’s proclamation in Athens sets a helpful example of the way in which the story can be introduced to an audience that does not know the vocabulary of our faith, and isn’t very interested in hearing about it.
Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.  For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.  The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.  From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.  For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent,  because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead. 
If you get a chance, take a look at Peterson’s version of Paul’s speech in Acts, chapter 17 of The Message.  He brings it closer to home by paraphrasing it into contemporary English.  Telling the story of Jesus and his love requires that we find ways to use the vocabulary our intended audience already has before we begin to introduce them to the vocabulary that has has special meaning for believing Christians.

Let’s Talk Story

Let’s talk story, and I’d like to start with Stephen’s story told in Acts 6 to the assembled temple leaders.  It seems terribly out of place.  Why rehearse the history of Israel from Abraham through Moses before a crowd of people who knew it by heart?  It doesn’t make any sense.  On the other hand, given Luke’s audience, whom we presume to be Greeks and Romans new to Christianity and strangers to Judaism, it’s the perfect story to explain the Judaic roots of the new faith.  “Let me tell you where we came from, and why that is important to who we are and where we are going.”  It’s a story of origins.
Stories of origin exist in every culture.  I don’t mean stories about universal creation.  I mean stories about where “our people” came from.  Ask any sixth grader to tell the story of America, and they will probably begin with Plymouth Rock, or maybe Jamestown.  It’s an origin story.  If they are American Indian they will have an even better story to tell.  Stories of origin exist for clans, towns, and families because they help explain who they are and why they’re here.  Sitting on a bench with a stranger in Istanbul a few years ago, his first question was “tell me about your people.”  I said I was American.  He said, “No,no, tell me about your people, where are they from?”  Among our friends we entertain each other with stories about our families in the places we grew up, and  the childhood adventures we had that help explain who we are as adults.  Most of it is true.  In counseling couples preparing for marriage, I always ask them to tell me the story of their family of origin, and their life through high school or college.  How can you truly get to know another if they haven’t shared their stories of origin.  How can you be known by others if you have not shared your story with them. 
Stephen’s speech tells a story about the origins of this new faith in a simple, concise way that ends at the very point where Luke’s audience (not Stephen’s) will be enticed to ask, “and then what; what happened next?”  When the story is finished, they will have adopted it for themselves as their story about what it means to be Christian.  Is it important to keep telling that story, but I fear we haven’t.  The old hymn says “Twill be my theme in glory to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.”  Telling the story in glory might be redundant don’t you think?  What about telling it now to people who have never heard it?
For a long time, generic American Christians did not feel the need to tell the story of who they were, where they came from, and where they were going.  Everyone was assumed to know it, and most did, at least superficially.  That’s no longer true.  The nation is filled with several generations who have no idea what our origins story might be.  The only thing they know about Christianity is what they hear or see reported in the media, and it’s not attractive.  Pastors and teachers are supposed to know the story, but how well do they tell it to anyone outside the church walls?  The loudest outside voices I hear are not ones I trust.  Their stories of who we are terribly distorted, distant from what it means to follow Jesus, or to be agents of his love.  Protest all you want, the data are clear: no religion is preferable to one that is suspicious of science, narrow minded, judgmental, and unforgiving.  And that is the image Christianity has among an enormous portion of the population.
It’s a problem, but it’s not the biggest one.  The biggest one is that regular, faithful worshipers don’t know the story well enough, or in a way simple enough, to tell it to others who may ask, “Tell me about your people.”  The complaint is familiar, “I just wouldn’t know what to say.”  They are right.  They don’t.  Whose fault is that?  At least among those for whom I have provided pastoral leadership, it’s mine.  Adult Christian education has been my passion.  I’ve always been a teaching preacher.  I’ve always led regular midweek and Sunday classes that have been well attended.  I have no doubt that those who participated have a deeper, more profound understanding of the bible and their faith than they otherwise would.  Good for me.  But I never just told the story of Jesus and his love in a way that could become their story, a story they could share with ease, without embarrassment.  Shame on me.  I wonder how many of my colleagues would have to confess the same if forced to do so. 
Well, what’s done is done.  It’s time to get on with things, and the thing to get on with is learning to tell the story of our people: who we are, where we came from, what we believe to be true about God, and what we believe to be true about the way God desires us to live with one another.  You know who told the story to me?  It wasn’t my Sunday school teachers or pastors.  It was Bp. Fulton J. Sheen and his blackboard whom I, a Protestant kid, watched on a small black and white t.v. in the 1950s.  His show, “Life is worth living,” told the story in a way that made it my story too.
It’s time to talk story again.