Manure happens

12_jesus-throneSeveral months ago, my husband and I had a theological conversation with an agnostic friend who said (I think) that if there is a God, then God is DNA.  The idea (I think) was that DNA constitutes the building blocks of life and if God is indeed the creator of all life, then God is obviously DNA.  I think.  Honestly, when my husband and I got home that night, we spent forty-five minutes trying to figure what the heck our friend had said.  I finally threw up my hands in frustration and said, “Sometimes it’s just easier to think of God as an old man with a white beard sitting on a throne.”

To which my husband said, “We’re paying way too much for your theological education for that to be your conclusion.”

Now, interestingly, this God and DNA thing has been picked up by some Christians, but in a different way.  Google “God and DNA” and you can sample any of several thousand earnest Christian websites claiming that some sort of “DNA code” proves that God exists.  One “researcher” said that he spent twelve years decoding human DNA before finding string of characters which read,[i] “God Eternal Within the Body.”

dna

I find this conclusion troubling.  Because like my agnostic friend’s idea that God is DNA, this Christian take on the matter has nothing to do with the central tenets of our faith:[ii] our justification and sanctification by God’s grace. Rather, it’s about our satisfaction with our own scientific “proofs.”

There’s a lot we just don’t know about God.  That’s what makes faith so handy.  But the temptation to which we so often succumb is the demystification of God.  We do this by simplifying our notions of God, because a simple God is easy for us to deal with.  Whether we’ve got God on a throne or in a string of molecules, the important thing is that we’ve got God right where we want him/her.

Luke 13:1-9 is this week’s odd little selection from the Revised Common Lectionary.  It poses one of the most difficult questions people of faith wrestle with:  “Why do bad things happen if God is good?”  Jesus’ answer is interesting because it’s not even remotely clear; in fact, he basically just poses more questions.  That suggests to me that there’s something very important about questions and that something about our faith depends on our not knowing.  A synopsis:

Bad things happened to some people and some other people were worried about why the bad things happened to the particular people they happened to.  Jesus said, “No, they did not have it coming.  But unless you repent, you’re going to perish the same way.  By the way, that reminds me of a pert little tale about a guy who owns a fig tree.[iii]  This dude owned a fig tree and got mad that it didn’t have any figs on it.  He told his servant to chop it down, saying, ‘Why should it be wasting the soil?’  The servant, who apparently had a spare bag of manure and some time on his hands, offered to fertilize the tree for a year.

The “perishing” Jesus mentions isn’t about physical death.  After all, death comes to sinner and saint alike.  I strongly suspect he’s actually referring to the death of the human spirit in this life.  By “perishing,” I think he means our despair about God not caring when our grief and fear and confusion are at their worst.  And by “repentance,” Jesus is talking about way more than feeling bad about how bad you suck.  The word in Greek, which I can’t spell or pronounce, so you’ll just have to take my word for it, implies something transformative and life-altering, along the lines of being “born again,” except not nearly that annoying.  I’d suggest that life’s difficulties somehow transform the gap between our grief and our experience of God’s grace

The parable of the barren fig tree sheds some light on this, but not if we read it the traditional way.  Traditionally, it’s read with us as the unfruitful tree, God as the owner of the tree, and Jesus Christ as the servant.  But that reading doesn’t answer the riddles in the first part of the text.  What if we move things around a bit and make ourselves the owner of the tree and our relationship with God, the tree itself?  After all, in times of suffering, that tree can seem pretty fruitless.  And what if we think of God as the servant and the soil as our own lives?  As for the manure…well, as we all know, in this life, shit happens. 

Does God work with manure like the gardener in the story?  Absolutely.  God works with the manure of life.  God works with the terminal cancer diagnosis, with the motorcycle accident, with the foreclosure, the divorce, the arrest, the addiction, the bankruptcy…and with the countless little disappointments in life that can eat away at our spirits and make us seriously question if God really cares at all.

Jesus’ question, “Why should this tree be wasting the soil?” is a question for all of us, especially when we’re going through tough times.  If God, like a tree, is rooted in the soil of our lives, God will not waste the soil.  God works the manure of life into the roots of our faith so that our relationship with God will bear good fruit.

Answers, especially easy answers often come up short, leaving us to deal with our questions.  Our questions frequently don’t give us a lot of satisfying answers.  Perhaps the answers are not the point.  Perhaps the task of faith is best described by poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who offered these words of advice to a struggling friend:

 “…have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”


[i] In English, conveniently enough.

[ii] The central tenets of Christianity, btw, have nothing to do with proving the existence of God.

[iii] Whenever Jesus gets near a fig tree, things get weird.  What was it with this guy and figs?  Did he just love figs so much that he stayed up nights worrying that they would run out…not unlike I do with vanilla Oreos?  Or did he hate figs, remembering the many nights when Mary made him sit at the dinner table until he ate all his figs?  Yet another inscrutable mystery of the Christian faith.

________________________________
© Marian the Seminarian, 2013

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11 responses to “Manure happens

  • Jody and Henry

    Love the great discussion. Thanks! And good for you for preaching it.

  • Norman E Blackburn

    good one! Need to process a bit, think on it, re-read, “get” it.

    • Marian

      I preached a variation this morning, figuring the congregation would either love it or hate it. Lots of folks said afterwards what you’re saying here – food for thought…now I need to think. 🙂

  • Val

    The DNA message is interesting when you consider that there are only four bases in DNA, and not enough to spell much of anything. Also, it makes no sense since there is little or no base variance between human genomes, the variance is on the genes, that just makes no sense. And as for the rest, most days I think the Enlightenment is the worst thing that ever happened to human thought because it has blinded us to the fact that objective truth can never be rooted in observation, and xtripped “mystery” from the lexicon.

    • Marian

      Mystery was definitely a casuality of the Reformation and Enlightenment, both. We went from a medieval worldview in which religion was the scaffolding upon which all of life was constructed to an Enlightenment worldview where human rationality provides the scaffolding. The problem with the medieval worldview wasn’t the worldview per se; it was the abuses of power in the Catholic Church (a criticism which I think can be levied today against the “Christian Right”). The problem with the Enlightenment worldview is that humans cannot be counted upon to be rational! (A related issue might be that “rationality” in the Enlightenment worldview is the unique province of white, educated, wealthy men.) The other problem is that much of life is contradictory and human rationality simply can’t account for every discrepancy.

      • Val

        And of course, the post-modern response to all of the above is…drumroll please…

        “In your opinion.”

        Incidentally I like to sit close to the front of the class and sass any well-humored pastor/teacher friend of mine if ever the topic is post-modern relativism by responding to everything at every chance I get with: “In your opinion.” I am the thirty-something former leader of the young adults college/career-age small group at a former church and am — essentislly — an urban missionary; about the second or third time they *get it* for what I’m doing. 😉

        I agree with the assessment of the “Christian Right,” who seem to be hell-bent (though they are deluded about destination sometimes) on creating the kind of theocracy the Founding Fathers they deify were against. I will never understand this. I agree on your assessment of the Enlightenment and rationsl thought too. Sad really, all of it. And I happen to belong to one of the most buttoned-down and rational denominations (haven for ITNJs) — Presbyterians ( though not the ones who believe in scrupling everything and throwing out the bits of tge Bible they don’t like).

        I reserve a place for mystery and allow God to be God.

      • Marian

        I’m Presbyterian, too. In my thirties, I found Calvinism a veritable balm for spiritual and emotional wounds incurred in a rigidly conservative church in my late teens and twenties. Now that I’ve spent several years “in recovery,” one of the priorities of my own ministry is to get the frozen chosen out of their heads and into their bodies where, as any good mystic will attest, “the magic happens.” Okay, they might not use the word “magic,” but whatever. Faith is as much an embodied experience as it is a spiritual one.

        – Marian (an INTP, BTW)

      • Val

        I’m historical theology girl with a love for pre-Reformation, Apostolic Church Fathers (I need an SD card to raid the Christian Classics Etherial Library for e-books), Medieval Christianity, and just exploring the lives of the saints (for Catholic though I am no longer, many of them led pretty amazing and exemplary lives). Love mystics and various notable religious. In theory I will eventually be finishing undergrad in theology at a fantastic Jesuit school (the car accident two months ago kinda made life — and my credit — really complicated, I was supposed to start last January). I’ve had an interesting ecumenical journey.

        The good news is that if you use the word “magic” in the presence of a Presbyterian they generally won’t do something like surround you and start casting out demons in various prayer languages…they are more likely to form a committee over the issue, but as session approval and a possible congregational meeting will be needed tobapprove the nominations for the committee to nominate the committee to study the issue, you may have time.

        Faith us an embodied experience, as is worship…it’s more than just following the Order of Worship.

        I take it you’re either PC(USA) or ECO, as PCA and EPC don’t generally have much use for women in ministry.

        (I ride the fence on I/E, N/S, T/F, but am polarized to J)

      • Marian

        Proud to be PCUSA. 🙂

      • Val

        Yeah, we’re a union PC(USA)/ECO presbytery gradually moving to ECO as we sort out legal issues, but one of my best friends is on a GA committee (she’s very smart, neat people). Not necessarily proud to be PC(USA) for various reasons.

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