Monthly Archives: March 2012

An eye for an ear, a tooth for a toenail

Yesterday, Pat Robertson graced us with more thought-provoking theology from the lunatic fringe.  His statements characteristically pissed me off to the point where my husband had to stage an intervention involving a warm bath and a cold drink and a mild lecture about the blood pressure perils of going into orbit whenever Pat Robertson opens his mouth and sounds come out.  The issue this time is the dreadful judgment God may visit upon the Denver Broncos for trading Tim Tebow to the New York Jets.  The nature of God’s justice in this case?  Peyton Manning getting injured.

Let me try to clarify Pat’s position theologically.  Pat’s idea about divine justice here is the equivalent of saying:  “The sins of the father will be visited upon the next door neighbor.”  It’s like saying that because Cain killed Abel, God will smite Eve; or because Jacob cheated Esau, Isaac had better watch out; or because David boinked Bathsheba and murdered her husband, the child of that union would suffer for seven days and die…oh…wait a sec…

Pat’s apparent belief that God can and will pretty much nail anyone for anybody’s sins – and please believe me when I say that I don’t think that trading Tim Tebow necessarily constitutes a cardinal offense  – reflects one particular point of view on one of the Bible’s most disturbing stories – that of David and Bathsheba.

For those of you not familiar with the story, allow me to summarize:

David’s too lazy to go off to war with his army, so he sends them and sits around for awhile.  Gets bored, starts peering into neighbors’ windows, sees Bathsheba in the shower, sends for her, sleeps with her, then dismisses her like yesterday’s dirty laundry.  Finds out she’s pregnant, freaks, calls her husband Uriah back from the battlefield and encourages him to go have a little weekend romp with his wife.  Uriah refuses, saying his duty is to fight for the king.  Whereupon, David orders his general, Joab, to stick Uriah on the front lines in the hopes that Uriah will go down like cannon fodder.  Which Uriah does.

David’s now comfortably in the clear.  Except that the pesky prophet Nathan gets wind of all this and basically nails David’s lazy, lecherous, lying, homicidal hide to the wall, saying, “Because you’re a king-sized weenie, God’s going to kill your kid.”  Which God does.   After the child lies gravely ill for seven days.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but…WTF???

There is nothing simple about a story like this.  And this is sacred scripture of two world religions, so we can’t just throw the smote-by-God baby out with Bathsheba’s bathwater.  Cherry-picking difficult texts leaves us with a flat, watered down faith that accomplishes little more than justifying our personal status quo.  No, I think if we want faith with integrity, we have to deal with material like this.  And this is as nasty as it comes.  In this text, we’re met with profoundly disturbing images of not only one of the most important folk heroes in Judeo-Christianity, but of God as well.  We see David as a self-entitled, conniving deviant, a rapist, and a murderer.  Even more troubling, we see God as a vicious, vindictive arbiter of inexorable retribution, one who is perfectly satisfied with designating a child as a scapegoat.

For Christians, especially as we hurtle toward Holy Week, it’s difficult to miss the parallels between the death of Bathsheba’s child and the atonement theology of the crucifixion.

Which brings me back to Pat Robertson.  It seems to me all of this is very simple for Pat.  It boils down to human beings being utterly depraved (terminology favored by my own denomination) and God pretty much being justified in doing whatever he wants to remind us that he’s wise to how bad we suck all the time.

I hate this theology.  For one thing, it’s too easy.  God is good – therefore justified in destroying whoever God wants to destroy – because everything that isn’t God is baaaaad.  It presupposes a cut-and-dry, black-and-white worldview that doesn’t even begin to resemble the complicated world human beings actually inhabit.  I also hate it because it always seems to accompany a casually cruel mentality that figures, “if it’s good enough for God, it’s good enough for me!”  If God can torture and kill an innocent child…or God’s own son…people like Pat Robertson must be justified calling down judgment on a quarterback…or Haitian earthquake survivors…or American hurricane victims.  I would strongly argue, however, that the kind of behavior God displays in the David and Bathsheba story is not good enough for God.  And I think Christians do an appalling disservice to the gospel message by acting as if that kind of behavior could ever be worthy of God.

But if it’s not good enough for God, why are we told that God did it?  Moralists like Pat Robertson might say the story illustrates the righteous shadow that God’s justice inevitably casts over the stain of humanity’s sin.  To that I would say, thanks to the cross, God got out of the smiting business.  But that answer seems to imply that the God of the Old Testament isn’t the God of the New Testament and that’s the sort of theology that used to get people burned at the stake.*  So, there’s got to be another way to reconcile the diabolical God of the story with the unconditionally loving God many of us believe in.

My apologies, fearless readers, but I have no idea what that way is.  At this point in my theological career, I don’t have the education to speak to it academically.  And at this point in my life, I don’t have the perspective to make sense of it experientially.   But I’ll continue to chew on it, wrestle with it, and hold it up to the light.  The process of interacting with these tough texts and refusing to accept pat (pun intended) answers should be the daily practice of all people of faith.  We may not come up with a good answer.  But, at the very least, I take comfort in knowing that Pat Robertson’s reasoning isn’t it.

* For an example, check out Marcionism, one of early Christianity’s “also ran” sects.

© Marian the Seminarian, 2012


“Getting” Lent

For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings, especially if the offering that’s being burnt is your dumb speed freak ass in some fiery car crash.  (Hosea 6:6, Gen X Post-Modern Paraphrase Edition)

I didn’t grow up with Lent.  Thanks to a brief reference to it in a lame historical romance I read in the eighth grade, I had heard of Lent.  Decades later, when I went to Milwaukee in early spring, I learned about “fish Fridays.”  Until I started attending a Presbyterian church about seven years ago, though, that’s basically all I knew about Lent.

And until this year, I can honestly say that even though I “observed” Lent after becoming a Presbyterian, I never really “got” Lent.  Years of observation convinced me that Lent was just a support mechanism for people whose New Year’s resolutions were in perilous danger of disintegrating.  And Ash Wednesday just freaked me out.  The first person I ever saw “ashed” was a coworker.  I made the mistake of saying, “Hey!  What happened to you?  Your kid nail you with a magic marker while you were sleeping?  I told you there’d be hell to pay for getting rid of your television!”

I had to eat lunch with a Jewish friend that day.

Still, I’ve long suspected there is more to this forty-day un-festival than a contemporary American excuse to exercise and eat better or, as an old anthropology professor told me years ago, a social construct designed to help Europeans make it through the leanest weeks of the agricultural year.  So, for several years, I’ve tried to jump – and stay – on the Lenten bandwagon.  At first, I gave up the usual suspects – chocolate, caffeine, and sugary pop.  I figured, if nothing else, giving up my favorite foods would help me identify with the plight of the poor.  This didn’t really work, because after about two days I realized that the poor aren’t starving for a lack of Coke and Lindt truffles.  Then I tried giving up taking the Lord’s name in vain, figuring it would help me cultivate a more spiritual attitude.  That idea backfired because I wound up dropping more f-bombs to compensate.  And one year I decided that not eating out during Lent would help me appreciate my own God-given gifts for meal planning, cooking, and self-care.   It failed cataclysmically, because if it hadn’t been for Coke and Lindt truffles, I’d have starved to death.

Last year, I got so discouraged, I just gave up self-denial.

But a couple of weeks ago, as I was speeding hell bent down I-25, I had an epiphany about Lent.  Before I tell you about that, though, I have to tell you about my friend Justin.

Justin and I were friends in high school where he proved to be a gloriously bad influence on me.  So glorious, that twenty-odd years later, I still religiously exercise one piece of his sage adolescent advice.  With the immoderate earnestness only a fifteen-year-old boy can manage, Justin gravely explained to me one day that the police were required by law to take three miles an hour off their radar measurements and no municipal law enforcement agency was going to go after anyone speeding less than four miles an hour.* Consequently, to this day, I conscientiously and consistently drive seven miles an hour over the speed limit.

Driving seven miles an hour over the speed limit for twenty-five years – and never getting caught – requires careful attention to detail.  I spend a lot of time checking speed limit signs and my odometer.  And wondering why I’m in such a freakin’ hurry all the damn time.

A couple of weeks ago during my morning commute, I was reflecting on my apparently habitual need for speed and realized that speeding helps me claim an illusion of control over time.  My first thought was, “I should exercise better time management.”  But the more I thought about it, the more I saw my need for control as a routine rejection of the providence of God.  And for the first time in my life, I started to “get” Lent.

Lenten fasts have the power to heighten our awareness and stop us, momentarily, to make mindful living a routine.  It’s not just about breaking bad habits; it’s not even, I suspect, primarily about mortifying the flesh, although I haven’t had “Mortification of the Flesh” class in seminary yet, so I may have to amend that doctrinal opinion in future.

By giving up something habitual during Lent, we give our bad habits forty days to achieve something constructive for us.  It helps us utilize our shortcomings in order to find God.  Put another way, Lent is a way of directing our earthly obsessions toward a more habitual awareness of God’s presence…and God’s priorities.  This awareness is absolutely essential to cultivating our relationship with God, which is really all God wants from us in the first place.

So this year, I’m not observing a Lenten fast; I’m observing a Lenten slow.  Every time I glance at my speedometer or a speed limit sign, I’m going to remember the God who gave us the Sabbath.  I’m going to thank God for building us for love, not for speed or accomplishment or for packing as much as we can into lives that aren’t meant to be the human equivalent of that closet you’re afraid to open because of the very real possibility that you’ll be crushed in an avalanche of crap as soon as the latch is tripped.  I’m going to remember that I can’t give what I don’t have – time, love, energy – and I’m going to practice trusting God to be in the driver’s seat.

Pray for me.  And I’ll pray for you.

* Please note that I have never checked any municipal ordinance or state law to confirm the “3mph” rule.  If you decide to test Justin’s theory, I wash my hands of you.  The fact that the “3mph” rule has never failed me doesn’t mean Justin didn’t pull the rule out of his ass.  Rather, I might just have extraordinary karma for avoiding moving violations.  I hope it has worked out as well for Justin, because his advice has shaved years off the time I’ve spent commuting during my lifetime.

© Marian the Seminarian, 2012

It depends on Grey Poupon™

 And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Go get me some corn dogs – we’re gonna have a picnic!’ and it would obey you.”  (Luke 17:6, 21st Century Gen X Dead Sea Translation)

One of the really annoying things about patriarchs, prophets, and saints is their shaky faith.  I mean, honestly, how am I supposed to learn any spiritual lessons from a bunch of people whose gut reactions to God’s promises are no more robust than my own?

Take, for example, Abraham, when God tells him that he’s going to be the father of many nations, countless multitudes.

God’s covenant with Abraham (Genesis 17:1-8, 15-21)

God:  Abraham…er, Abram…whatever your name is.  I’m going to make you the father of many nations, of countless multitudes.

Abraham:  Bitchin’.

God:  This time next year, your wife Sarah will bear you a son.

Abraham:  Who?

God:  Isaac.

Abraham:  Who’s Isaac?

God:  Your son by Sarah.

Abraham:  Who’s Sarah?

God:  Your wife.  Remember?  I renamed her, too.

Abraham:  What did we call her before?

God:  Sarai.  Could we get back to the subject at hand, please?  As I was saying, I will make a covenant between you and me and will multiply you greatly.  Sarah, your wife, will bear you a son.

Abraham:  Er…wha???  (Thinking: my old lady’s ninety years old.  I must have heard him wrong.)  Uh…yeah, yeah…so, uh… yay for Ishmael, right?

God:  ARE YOU DEAF????

Abraham:  Yes!  I’m a hundred frickin’ years old!

Jesus’ disciples, who could always counted on to be dumb as rocks, provide another good example.

Jesus predicts his death and resurrection (Mark 8:31-33)

And Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.  And he said this plainly, so that even a thick git like Peter could understand.  Alas, all was vanity.  For Peter took him aside and rebuked him, saying, “You speak an infinite deal of nothing!”* But turning and seeing his disciples, Jesus rebuked Peter right back and said, “Get over thyself, thou blunt monster of uncounted heads!  You do unbend your noble strength, to think so brainsickly of things.”**

My point is that faith is difficult.  Paul tells us in a moment of rare clarity, that the promises of God depend on faith, not on the law; i.e. God’s grace, not our effort establishes the kingdom of heaven.  Which is brilliant, because if the Father of Monotheism and the Rock Upon Which Christ Built His Church couldn’t muster enough faith to actually believe what they were hearing without rationalizing or denying it outright, what hope do mere schleps like us have?

The problem, to our modern brains, may have more to do with semantics than actual practice.  Faith gets a bad rap in the English-speaking world because it’s synonymous with “belief.”  And “belief” is a word that’s reserved for encounters with the unlikely and outrageous.  We never say, “I believe in gravity,” or “I believe in Starbucks,” because these are accepted as ubiquitous realities of life, even if we can’t see them.***  Rather, the word “believe” is frequently invoked in conversations about God, the Tooth Fairy, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average.  For the purposes of living a life of faith, however, it would be more productive to embrace the meaning the of the word “believe” in another way, like when I say, “I believe I’ll have another cookie,” which, translated, means, “I’ll just take the box, thanks.”

The word “faith” implies less a suspension of disbelief in something static (“I have faith in the Easter Bunny”) and more the ability to trust in a future outcome.  Abraham didn’t have to believe in God – he and God were friends, for cripe’s sake.  That would be like saying, “I believe in my chiropractor” while he’s readjusting my thoracic vertebrae.  But James tells us, “’Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’—and he was called a friend of God. “  This is fundamentally different from believing in God.  Anybody can believe in God.  It takes someone in relationship with God to have faith in God.

Paul says that God “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”  I can only assume he’s lumping unshakeable faith in with “things that do not exist.”  But, if unshakeable faith doesn’t really exist, and we need faith to claim the inheritance of Abraham, aren’t we caught in a cosmic double bind?

I don’t think so, because the Gospels suggest that it’s enough to give it our best shot.  There’s that great scene from Mark where Jesus tells this guy that all things are possible if you believe and the guy comes back with, “I believe!  Help my unbelief!”  I love this scene, because it speaks to both our good intentions and God meeting us where our good intentions fizzle out.  “I believe!” is our mustard seed and I expect that’s enough for a God who, above all, desires relationship with us.  But we get hung up on things like, “Jesus said if I had faith, I’d be able to cast a mountain into the sea!”  And I don’t know about the people you hang out with, but I have been working on that one for years and can’t get it to work.

It may be infinitely more miraculous for us to acknowledge and honor the trust and faith we do have, no matter how piddling it seems, than it is to cast a mountain into the sea.  And that wee little offering, Jesus says, is enough to motivate mighty acts.  As people of faith, we need to learn, not only how to believe in the mighty acts themselves, but to believe that our modest faith and mighty God are up to the task.

If God gives us a mustard seed, at the very least, we need to entertain the idea that lunch it on its way.

* Do you ever find yourself in need of a real crushing insult?  Are you ever tongue-tied in the presence of a moron?  Do you wonder if you could get away with more smart-ass remarks if you couched them in Elizabethan code?  If this sounds like you, then you need the Shakespearean Insulter!   Thousands of jabs, gibes, and jeers at the press of a button all for the low, low price of whatever you pay Comcast each month.

** Peter’s diatribe is from The Merchant of Venice.  Jesus’ first slur, which I thought had an appropriately satanic quality to it, comes from Henry IV, Part II, and the second comes from the Scottish play.****

*** If you live in a place where you can’t see five Starbuck’s from the nearest street corner, let me know.  I want to move there.

**** Since this blog post contains an element of drama (see the bit about God and Abraham), I don’t want to jinx the enterprise by coming right out and saying “MacBeth.”  Oh, crap.

© Marian the Seminarian, 2012

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