Tag Archives: faith

Repent…the end is not at hand

My favorite pop psych carpe diem mental masturbation exercise is imagining what I would do with the time I have left if I only had a year to live.  Being “of the cloth,” I fantasize about devoting my few remaining days to delivering desperately needed inoculations to people dying of highly contagious bleed-out diseases in godforsaken banana republics laced with landmines and crawling with the minions of local wackadoo dictators.

But let’s get real.  Like most people, I’d probably spend my last days watching Glee reruns and eating Girl Scout cookies by the sleeve.*  Given an expiration date, very few of us make an about-face, amend our errant ways, and get any more firmly on the straight and narrow that we’ve ever been.  Where genuine repentance is concerned, the last minute isn’t much of a motivator.

In the wake of the latest school-shooting-de la semaine and the inevitable ensuing firestorm about firearms, I’ve read several variations of the following on Facebook:  “Guns aren’t the problem.  People are the problem.”  These gemlike bumper sticker policy statements unleash predictable surges of political and moral controversy and streams of uninformative/uninformed, unkind, and unoriginal responses as people on all sides of the issue weigh in, yet again, on how and why our children are dying in hails of gunfire in their classrooms.  Then, just as predictably, those same outraged authors immediately scroll on to click “Like” on the latest videos of a cat in a shark suit riding on a Roomba.**

I try not to engage in exchanges of verbal gunfire on social media, preferring, as I do, to hide behind a Norton security screen and fire random shots into crowds via this blog.  But I’ll tell you what I would have posted to Facebook if I hadn’t gotten sidetracked by dogs on skateboards.  People are the problem.  People have been the problem since Adam and Eve got dressed and escaped Eden.  All of us bear the weight of sins we’ve inherited from our ancestors – social sins, sins of inequality, systemic “isms,” and systematic injustice; and we bear within us the sins we ourselves have committed and keep committing.  Being human gives human beings a deservedly bad name.

Gun control, mental health treatment, arming teachers, encasing our children in Kevlar; the solutions fly in a frenzy of hand-wringing for about a week after every mass shooting, then we go back to business as usual, acting as if none of this has anything really to do with us until the next barrage of media images showing sobbing teenagers in front of makeshift memorials with stuffed animals and crosses and balloons and handmade signs that say, “We will never forget you.”

Except we do.  These days, mass murder seems to be the cost of participating in our free and democratic society.  It’s positively routine anymore.  And it’s precisely our business-as-usual approach to routine civilian slaughter that makes these catastrophes possible again and again and again.

By itself, all the gun control – or gun stockpiling – in the world will not end events like Columbine, Pulse, Aurora, Las Vegas, Sutherland, Sandy Hook, and Parkland.  Because guns – or the lack of them – aren’t the root of this kind of evil.  Our society, pathologically permissive of violence, is.

Which brings me to repentance.

Popularly associated with hair shirts, self-flagellation, sackcloth, ashes, and consuming entire sleeves of Girl Scout cookies in a single sitting, repentance is one of the most misused theological concepts in the Christian playbook.  The Greek word metanoia, which we translate as “repentance,” literally means “turning around.”  Repentance is a course-correction made possible by the understanding that we are not moving in the right direction.  Unfortunately, the people most interested in repentance – Christians, supposedly – are among those most guilty of failing to do it.

I remember watching professional football games on TV as a kid and seeing a season ticket holder seated behind the goal posts raise a sign during every field goal and extra point that read: “Repent!  The end is at hand!”

Despite the personal satisfaction obtained via such broad-spectrum guilt-baiting (not dissimilar, I suspect, from the satisfaction gleaned from posting things on Facebook such as, “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people”), to my knowledge, no one in the Bible ever said, “Repent, for the end of the world is at hand.”  They did say repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

One of the other most misused theological concepts in the Christian playbook is the concept of the kingdom of heaven.  Contrary to opinion popular among the “Jesus Loves You and Burns Sinners in Hell” crowd, when Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven in the Bible, he’s not talking about some heavenly reward for the deceased faithful.  He’s talking about a state of grace in this life, on this space-time continuum.  He’s talking about something we do in this life, not something we earn our way into in the next.

People who truly repent — who take a fearless moral inventory of their world and then make substantive behavioral changes — actually do God’s will on earth as it is done in heaven.  Starting today.  Right now.  Not after breakfast.  Not after death.  Repentance, that active course correction, brings the kingdom of heaven to the present moment.  That’s what Jesus meant when he prayed, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is done in heaven.”  Understood this way, repentance is less a sentiment and more a decision; less a feeling than a course of action.

We are called to repent because the end is NOT at hand.  But for those of us who do repent, the kingdom of heaven on earth may be.  In any case, keeping on keeping on for American society should not be an option, especially for people of faith.  Keeping on keeping on will not usher in the earthly rule of the Prince of Peace.  It is, however, successfully managing to make life hell on earth for far, far too many.

 

* I’d also book a trip to Hawaii so I could scratch “spit off the rim of a live volcano” off my bucket list.

* In the interest of full disclosure, I fucking love this one.

© Marian the Seminarian, 2018

 

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Message in a Bottle, Part Deux

The most inquisitive creature in Africa is the baboon.

[A baboon swipes the Coke bottle from Xi, is subsequently chased, and climbs a tree.]

Xi said, “That is a very evil thing you’ve got.  You better give it back so I can take it and throw it off the earth.  It brought unhappiness to my family. If you don’t give it to me it’ll bring grief to you and your family too.”  He spoke long and earnestly until the baboon began to pay attention.  He must have convinced it, and it dropped the thing.  And Xi said, “You have done a very wise thing.”   – The Gods Must Be Crazy

Gods must be crazy

In my June 22 post, I suggested that our tendency to read miracle stories as events, rather than messages, gets us into some sticky theological territory.  Using the Elijah story as a springboard, I suggest that we look for the messages within miracles.

One of the great temptations in reading miracle stories is triggered by lines like this one:  “Elijah prayed and God listened to the voice of Elijah.”  And then God proceeds to bring the child back from the dead.  Right on cue.  Because we’re reading a story of faith here, not a live broadcast on CNN.

We, as readers, should be cautious about assuming that Elijah said some magic words and God responded.  The message of this story is not “presto, change-o, and God raises the dead.  How DOES he do it?”  The messaage is that God is near.

Here’s another message.  Nobody falls outside God’s attention.  Case in point:  Widows had it bad at the time and place in which these stories were written.  Women’s livelihoods depended upon the men in their families.  If their husbands died, their only hope for survival was their sons.  Women back then couldn’t even inherit the property owned by their husbands and sons.  That went to the closest male relative and if he didn’t see fit to support the widow, too bad.  These women were as vulnerable as anyone could possibly be back then.

And yet, we have this account[i] of the greatest of all Hebrew prophets interceding on behalf of people who the rest of society couldn’t care less about.  Through Elijah, God’s grace is freely and fully extended to the most vulnerable people in that world.

Then there is God’s presence, revealed in the compassion the Elijah clearly feels for this family.  Elijah’s is very recognizable human compassion.  The phrase “he stretched himself over the child three times” seems rather creepy at first reading.  But when I was working as a hospital chaplain, I saw more than one person sitting beside a hospital bed, their arms overlying their sick loved one, burying their face in the bedspread and praying just like Elijah prayed.

I have no doubt there are other ways to read Biblical miracle stories like this one; there are many notes inside these bottles.  But I suspect the take-home messages will reveal some consistent themes:

  • Nobody falls outside God’s attention – not widows, not orphans, not immigrants, not non-Christians, not homeless people, not criminals, not people with mental illnesses or with disabilities, not poor people, not old people, not young people, not addicts, not red, yellow, black or white people.  Nobody, nobody lives beyond God’s view.
  • Nobody lives beyond God’s compassion – God is near enough to hear our most fervent prayers, even those too deep for words, even the valley of the shadow of death.

These messages are true heart of these stories.  When our own miracles don’t materialize, these truths still apply.  They are the touchstones of our faith, they are what’s real about our relationship with God.  The miracles are just a container.  The truth is in the message.

Readers, I suspect many if not most of us are praying for miracles right now.  Let’s not get hung up on the bottle – let us not get too hung up on the results we’re hoping for.  Let us contemplate the messages, in our sacred texts and in the events of our lives.   As we pray the desires of our hearts, let us remember that God loves us more than we can believe or even imagine.  That, my friends, is truly a miracle.


[i] See also this story’s New Testament counterpart where Jesus raises a widow’s son in very similar circumstances.  The author of the book of Luke was profoundly concerned with issues of social justice.  It’s likely that he drew upon the Elijah story for inspiration in his retelling of Jesus’ life.

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© Marian the Seminarian, 2013


Message in a Bottle, Part 1

After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. She then said to Elijah, “You asshole!  Why not just wear a big sign that says, ‘Hey God!  Here’s a sinner!  Kill her son!’” 

After saying to himself, “Oh crap, what do I do now?” he said to her “Give me your son!”  He took the kid to his room and laid him on his own bed and stared at him for a few minutes, biting his fingernails and wondering why he hadn’t just gone to medical school like his mom wanted him to.

Finally, he cried out to God, “You asshole!   Seriously???   You’re killing this widow’s kid after saving him from starving to death in verses 8-16?” 

Then he stretched himself upon the child three times[i], and cried out, “O God, let this child’s life come into him again.”  God listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived.   

Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, “See, your son is alive.”  And then he poured himself a stiff drink, took some Tylenol, and put his feet up on the coffee table with a cold washcloth over his eyes.  And the woman said to Elijah, “Okay, so you’re not an asshole.”  I Kings 17:17-24 (21st Century Gen X Paraphrase edition)

In the interest of full disclosure, I confess that I have trouble with miracle stories.  Part of the problem is probably my age.  I’m a card-carrying Gen Xer[ii] who, like my people, inclines more toward skepticism than credulity.  And part of the problem is probably our culture, where the claims of just about everything else[iii] are more socially acceptable than the claims of faith.

But my biggest problem with miracle stories is that they can trip us up, rather than lift us up.

I grew up in a Christian tradition that read every story in the Bible as literal, historical fact.  At this stage in my life and faith journey, I’m not prepared to tell anyone that the miracle stories in the Bible did or did not happen as described.  But I can tell you that I’ve witnessed the spiritual fallout that happens when the miraculous events described in the Bible do not happen when we find ourselves in similar situations.

Our faith is a pretty fragile treasure that doesn’t hold up well when we beg God for something and then we don’t get it.

When that happens, we try to explain why our prayers didn’t work.  Too often this is what we come up with – it must have been because I didn’t have enough faith.  Jesus said if I had faith the size of a mustard seed, I could throw a mountain into the sea.  Jesus said if I asked for anything in his name, it would be granted.  But I didn’t get what I asked God for -so I must not have had enough faith.

The flip side of this mental reasoning is that God isn’t wise and gracious; he’s just a rotten bastard.  God answered Elijah, but not me – God’s not listening.  Jesus raised a widow’s son without even being asked – I asked and asked and asked, but God didn’t answer me – God obviously doesn’t care.

These lines of reasoning undermine our relationship with God.  They either strip God of decision-making authority and power by making our faith, not God’s grace, the thing that motivates events, or they abandon God altogether.

Message In BottleThe problem isn’t the stories; it’s the way we sometimes read the stories.  In order for miracle stories to enrich our faith, we need to pay attention, not to miracle stories as events, but as messages.  The Bible isn’t just peppered with miracles to keep the plot moving. [iv] Just like prayers, prophecies, proverbs, parables, speeches, and epistles, miracle stories are intended to teach us something important about God.

Reading a miracle story simply as a wonderful and self-contained event between God and somebody in crisis is like finding a bottle on the seashore with a note inside and being so impressed by the bottle that we never bother to fish out the note.

We need to look at miracle stories as messages in a bottle.

To be continued…


[i] I used to have trouble with this particular scene, since it struck me as creepy, inappropriate touching.  That was before I interned for a summer at a hospital and saw, on several occasions, family members seated beside sick loved ones, stretching their arms over them and burying their heads in the blankets, crying out to God just like Elijah does here.  Pays to have life experience when you read some of this stuff.

[ii] Someday, I’m going to make my fortune with a t-shirt that reads “I’m Gen X…and I’m very disappointed.”  If you steal my idea and make a million dollars, I’ll be very disappointed.

[iii] If you don’t believe me, watch Home Shopping Network for a few minutes in the middle of the night.  Dollars to doughnuts, they’ll be peddling an ointment that will remove hair where you don’t want it, grow hair where you do, improve muscle tone, raise your IQ, get you promoted at work, bring Ben Affleck to his knees before you, and deliver the winning lottery numbers to you while you sleep.

[iv] Quite frankly, all the miracle stories in the world couldn’t make a book like Numbers interesting.  I’m not kidding.  Don’t read it.  Or if you do decide to try , let me know and I’ll point you to the good parts.  Be sure to budget about three minutes to get through them.

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© Marian the Seminarian, 2013


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