Friday, May 28, 2010

It's Just the Beginning

Before I get too far into my sermon, I thought you might want to know who is talking with you, which is easier said than done. I am giving you a first impression of sorts. Sure, some of you have already met me and, now that I am standing up here, all of you have either seen my face or heard my voice--or both. Now I have the opportunity to say what I want you to think about me.

I could introduce myself like I did during the Eco-Stewards program with a "credo," a few short statements of belief:
I believe that humans are a diverse community that can end all forms of oppression by the art, grace, and love of God.
I believe everyone is beautiful and carries the image of God in them.
I believe love and life are fun, which are best expressed in puns.

Or I suppose I could give you my geographic history: I was born and raised on the coast of Maine in a little town called Friendship. From there I moved to West Palm Beach, Florida for college. After receiving my bachelor's degree, I matriculated at Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, NC, which is about one hour west of Charlotte. Given this geography, I think the mountains are beautiful and the ocean is sublime.

But what do you know about me from these introductions? You don't know I have a heart for the economically oppressed. You don't know if I am Presbyterian or not. You don't know why I am not wearing a tie or why my ears pierced. You don't know that I have spent over a year working on my thesis for my MA in English or that my thesis examines deconstruction in the orthodoxy/heresy binaries in the theological arguments surrounding the council of Nicaea and Willaim Paul Young's The Shack. You don't know if I've read the whole Bible and, if I have, how many times I've read it. In fact, you don't know me at all.

So how do I introduce myself? There is so much about myself I want you to know and, conversely, so much I don't want you to know. No matter what I say, you won't get an adequate picture of what I want you to know and whatever I want you to know is itself an inaccurate picture of me. If I introduce myself, you get only a persona, which is a word that literally refers to a mask or character played by an actor.

Sometimes the best way to get past the masks is to hear stories. Statements about someone cannot really sum up their being. I can tell you I believe love and life are fun, but until you see me enjoying life, that statement carries little to no meaning. And if I tell you a story about when my favorite seminary professor died suddenly at the age of 40 last year, then you might not believe I think love and life are all that fun.

No matter how well thought out a statement might be, it cannot accurately reflect the reality of who I am. The only way you can know me or anyone else is to get to know them through experience and story.

The gospels are a good example of this theory about story and identity. Whereas people like Paul makes statements about Jesus, the gospel writers want to tell about Jesus in carefully crafted and arranged stories. I can barely read Mark's gospel without thinking about the interactions between identity and story.

In Mark and the other Gospels, Jesus is often known by who is father is. But unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark does not start with a genealogy or a birth narrative, which would bring Jesus' identity into question in first-century Israelite culture, where your identity is closely to your ancestry. Instead of a genealogy or birth narrative, the gospel begins: "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God."

To begin with, Jesus is introduced in a statement, but one that needs more information. What does "the good news of Jesus" mean? Why is Jesus the Christ? What kind of Christ is he? What significance is there in Jesus being the son of God? Other parts of the Bible call lots of people the children of God, why would it be special for Jesus to be the son of God? Mark apparently places a lot of significance on this son-of-God title. Before the first chapter is over, he tells the story of Jesus' baptism where a voice from heaven says in what I can only imagine sounding like Charleton Heston, John Earl Jones, or Morgan Freeman: "You are my beloved son, in you I am well-pleased."

What really confuses me though, is that Jesus constantly refers to himself as something quite contrary; Jesus is always talking about the son of man. What is the big deal in being the son of man? Who isn't the child of a man and the child of a woman? And why does Jesus refer to himself as the son of man while Mark and some unclean spirits call Jesus the son of God?

And so we have stories about Jesus to give us a little more into the persona of Jesus presented in Mark. These stories mix Jesus' dual sonship to God and humanity. Amidst this confusion of sonship and all these stories, the disciples don't completely know what is going on either. Peter understands Jesus is the Christ, but he doesn't understand what Christ means. He misunderstands so much that Jesus calls him Satan. In response to Peter's misunderstanding, Jesus tells a crowd to deny themselves and lose their lives. Jesus asks them to give up their identities and personae.

Jesus embodies this command. It is a command to be like Jesus who "emptied himself" and allowed his identity as Christ to be crucified--not what anyone expected a messiah to be. It was only in offering his identity to God that Jesus created his own identity (cf. Philippians 2:5-11). The reality of Jesus Christ subverted the definition of messiah. And Jesus didn't simply go against the norm when he crucified his identity, he experienced the pain of giving up his selfhood. In the garden of Gethsemane he prayed for things to change. On the cross he cried out, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?" My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me? Jesus gave up his identity on the cross and felt alone, forsaken by God and humanity. He felt like the son of no one, let alone God.

By now the pain has seared into his innermost being. He can barely make coherent thoughts. All he wonders is where God is in the midst of his suffering. Although he cried aloud, he couldn't speak well from the pain and the dryness of his mouth. Some of the people near by thought he said "Elijah," not "Eloi." "How gravely humorous," these people must have thought. They thought Jesus was a nutcase, especially when he called out for a prophet who had been dead for centuries. Wanting to prolong this sick humor of theirs, they decided to satisfy Jesus' thirst. If they wet his throat a little, then he could cry out to Elijah and they might understand him better. So they soaked a sponge in sour wine, which is all the better for ridicule. He would want the liquid, but the sourness would just make things worse.

After, Jesus just yelled. "AH!" The cry might have been a knee-jerk reaction to the sour wine. It might have included a tinge of anger or annoyance at the people. A touch of desperation and tiredness was likely mixed in to that last note. I imagine Jesus was ready to just be done and die.

And Jesus' physical suffering ended. After that cry, his identity was completely a thing of the past, for he was dead. He was no longer the son of anyone except the grave. So much for a long awaited messiah. That hope could be put to rest with Jesus' body.

According to Mark's telling of the story, a curtain in the temple was torn from top to bottom about this time. There were a number of curtains in the temple and Mark doesn't exactly specify which one is rent in two--torn like Jesus' flesh, torn even like the distinction between being a son of God and a son of humanity. After Jesus dies, a centurion makes a confession much like Peter's: "Truly this man was the son of God."

In this confession, it turns out to be a child of humanity is to be a child of God. The centurion says Jesus was the son of God, but he was also a man, which means he must be a son of humanity. And Jesus goes on to do something no human does who is not embracing his or her humanity and godliness: he is raised from the dead.

After he is raised, two women go to anoint the body, but instead of Jesus, they find a man who asks them to spread the word of resurrection. But the women are surprised and afraid. Mark says they don't tell anyone, because of their fright and astonishment (16:8).

And the gospel ends with their silence. Sure, your Bible probably has 10 or more verses after, but you will probably also notice a note saying everything after 16:8 is not in the oldest copies of Mark's gospel, which isn't to say the added endings aren't proper for teaching or inclusion in the Bible. But, it can be healthy to look at the book without the added parts.

Listen to the ending: "They went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had gripped them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid." It isn't much of an ending at all, and it is nothing like the other gospels' endings. It is quite likely the additions were added to tidy up this gospel a bit and give it a "proper" ending.

But I don't think it is supposed to have a neat ending. It isn't supposed to end at all. According to the first verse, the whole book is only the beginning of the good news about Jesus. Verse 1 isn't an introduction to the book, it is a summary of the book, which is why the book doesn't end. We read the last part of the book and we know eventually the women say something, contrary to the gospel's pseudo-ending. If they never said anything, that part of the story couldn't have been in the book, thus the women's continuing story is invited to be part of Jesus' continuing good news.

And so we are invited to become part of Jesus' continuing good news as we are to be Jesus' body here on earth.

We are to give up our identity, to crucify it with Jesus in all the pain and suffering he incurs. And we are to be resurrected without any identity other than our continual attempts to try and be Godly. We are to be children of God while we are children of men and women. The veil between us and Christ, between us and God is to be torn so that people can remember us and say, "Truly, those people are children of God."

I wish I could give you more specifics of what it looks like to crucify your identity and be a child of God and a child of humanity--to be Jesus on this earth, to continue in word and deed the good news he was spreading. If I tried, I would only be giving abstract statements like Micah 6:8: "do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God." Certainly we should do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God, but we need stories and experiences to know what that statement means. The gospel of Jesus is just beginning to explicate that statement in narrative. Church, what will we do to continue it, to give life to abstract statements like the one from Micah? What will we say and do in place of the silence of Mark's non-ending story?

Whether we like it or not, we are continuing the story Mark started. Sometimes we follow characterizations we learned from Mark's stories about Jesus. Sometimes our stories give a new glimpse of Jesus through the innovative movements of the Spirit and other times we miss the mark a little, basking instead in the forgiveness and mercy of God.

Since I cannot give you specifics, consider a story from my life, which will serve as a continuing the introduction I began:

This winter I worked at a homeless shelter for men in North Carolina. I worked Christmas Eve through much of Christmas day at the shelter. On Christmas morning I gave the normal 6-am wake-up call, because some of the men rely on that wake-up call like an alarm clock. I didn't ask them to get out of like I would on a normal day, though. I just let them know it was 6 am, in case anyone needed to be anywhere.

Around half of the guys got out of bed, two of whom came by the office where I was and asked to have a moment of my time. The men would come talk to me often, but they seldom prefaced it by asking for some of my time. I figured something was awry and I started to tense up, wondering if someone was hurt, if something had been stolen, or if these guys were going to rat someone out for having drugs or alcohol. And all this, on Christmas morning.

One of them asked me: "How did you get conned into working from 7 pm Christmas Eve through 2 pm Christmas day?" As the tension left my body, I couldn't help but smile, even though that question was enough to make me cry. These two men thought someone would have to be conned into spending that much time with them during the holidays. I don't remember exactly what I told them, probably something crass about how I didn't have anywhere else to be, since all of my family was in Maine. Or maybe I told them there was nowhere I would rather be, which was the truth.

The shelter provided Christmas gifts for everyone and I had the honor of passing out the gifts. A few weeks prior, each man filled out a piece of paper requesting two gifts of $15 or less. A few of the men complained, because they didn't get what they wanted, while others were very grateful, thanking me over and over, even though I had nothing to do with the purchasing or wrapping--I just handed things out. One of the guys told me he shed a few tears of joy, being overwhelmed by the gifts. He said he didn't expect to get so much. He got the same thing every other man got--a garbage bag with two or three large-ish gifts and then miscellaneous items like socks, gloves, and whatnot. I doubt the contents of the bag were worth more than $50, if that.

Around 8 o'clock that morning, a church group came by to serve a breakfast feast. They had biscuits and gravy, an egg casserole, coffee, and juice--all of it was hot, too, except the juice, of course. They brought in a radio to play music and they handed out small gift bags with lotion, chapstick, and a few other hygiene items. I told one of the ladies they did a great thing. Not only did they bring the breakfast, but they also visited with the men. Not only did the men get normal hygiene items like soap and deodorant, but also special items like lotion and chapstick, those not-so-necessary items so many of us take for granted.

None of the gifts or fellowship had strings attached. Usually we give gifts on Christmas to those who also give gifts to us, which is especially true with Christmas cards. If we don't receive a card from someone to whom we sent one, they come off of next year's Christmas card list. That church group that came into the shelter Christmas morning expected nothing in return from the men. A gift that expects a gift in return is not a gift, it is more like a payment or an exchange of goods. That church group gave to those who could not give back to them--they truly gave gifts, asking for nothing in return and with no ulterior motive. They just gave.

They didn't announce to the men they were from such-and-such a church. They didn't say they were giving because they felt guilty if they didn't. They didn't say they were serving because Jesus told them to. They forwent their identity in order to give themselves fully to the moment of service, justice, and love. The saddest thing about that Christmas morning was knowing how little attention the men would get when the holidays were over.

That story is just one of the many stories of the gospel today, one I am so glad I got to witness. If you listen hard enough, Xhurch, I'm sure you'll hear the gospel all over the place, perhaps in places you never thought you would. In Matthew and Luke, Jesus tells the story of the good Samaritan, emphasizing how the gospel will be found in unexpected places. Even Jesus was surprised where he found the gospel once when he found it in a centurion who asked for Jesus to heal his slave from afar.

Listen for it. Live it. Let us leave those around us with an impression of who we are and an impression of who God is, and let us give that impression in narratives, not propositions.

As for who I am, I hope this sermon was good introduction. There is still a lot you don't know about who I am and who I am becoming. If you're curious, I guess you'll have to ask questions and observe, looking and listening for stories.

It's just the beginning.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Deconstructing an Everest of Faith

On the BBC news website, I recently read an article about Mt. Everest. Apparently China and Nepal had been disputing the height of the mountain for a sometime now. China argued the height should be recorded by its “rock height,” while Nepal wanted to measure it by its “snow height,” which was 4 meters higher than the rock height. In early April of this year, China conceded to Nepal and Nepal officially recognized the rock height in addition to the snow height.

For the BBC News, the issue is not exactly resolved, even if China and Nepal agree. Eleven years ago, the US National Geographic Society records yet another height (8,850m), even though it does not have the claim to Mt. Everest that China and Nepal have. Apparently shifting continental plates is pushing India under Nepal and China, pushing Everest evermore towards the skies.

Paul describes Christ as a rock from which water flows. Wise people build their houses upon rocks. “The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ.” Upon a rock Jesus built his church. If you have faith, you can move mountains.

Rocks are not as sure as the writers of the Bible might have thought. Mountains are moved today and, arguably, faith has little to do with their movement. In West Virginia, the tops of mountains are removed for more cost efficient mining and energy. Continental plates move mountains, making them taller. Even when measuring rocks and mountains, do we measure them by the rock or the snow that somehow becomes part of the identity we give them?

Even if wise people build their houses on rocks, they better not build them like the houses built in Haiti. Rocks and mountains are simply not as sure as we once thought. When it comes to building, the rocky foundation is not the most important issue, for the building must be sturdy and well-built. What if, like the hymn, my hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness? The structure of my hope matters, too. Is my hope supported by faith? By education? By tradition? By experience?

Enter deconstruction. Perhaps hope is not something that should be built. In my life, the “built” metaphor, the mythic metaphor of structure has worn out its welcome. I offer no metaphor to take its place, no new myth awaiting immanent destruction or deconstruction.

Instead, I just hope, sometimes standing or reclining on slowly or swiftly moving rocks, sometimes on the sand, and other times completely at sea, be they calm, turbulent, or between Scylla and Charybdis. A hope against hope, or against some hopes (Romans 4:18, NASB). An impossible hope. A hope for the impossible. A hope that I can reach the unreachable star, love the unlovable, forgive the unforgivable, and in turn be forgiven, loved, and reached by the wholly, holy other who is my beloved, my God.

===

Cf. Jacques Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness (Trans. Mark Dooley and Michael Hughes; Thinking in Action; New York: Routledge, 2001), 32-33; John D. Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct?: The Good News of Postmodernism for the Church (The Church and Postmodernism;. Ed. James K. A. Smith; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 45-46; Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion, “The Impossible Dream (The Quest),” (Man of La Mancha; 1965 Original Broadway Cast Recording; Universal Classics Group, 2001).

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Forgiveness & Tattoos: Reflecting on the Past

I went to get a tattoo the other day and a friend of mine also expressed interest in getting one. She asked if she could come with me, but first asked me to make sure no one talked her into getting a tattoo while at the parlor. She knew what she wanted and where, but she wanted more time to think before jumping into such a permanent decision.

Although I agreed and helped fight off the peer pressure for her, I wondered what the big deal was. I understand tattoos are irreversible, more or less. There are removal processes, but I hear those are quite expensive and sometimes scar (though I have never actually researched tattoo removal). A tattoo might express who I am today, but not who I am 20 years from now. As I change, my tattoo will not change with me, unless it is on a part of my body that gets pretty flabby through the years.

Tattoos are permanent. They are decisions that will follow you for the rest of your life. What decisions are not permanent? This morning I put on a plaid button-up shirt, but quickly decided I wanted to wear my dark-blue t-shirt with the small bleach stain instead. I was able to easily change my decision of what to wear outside my apartment, but I cannot go back in time and prevent myself from buttoning up that plaid shirt. I will live the rest of my life as the man who put on that plaid shirt and then changed his mind.

Obviously my shirt and my tattoo are decisions of different weight, but they are still decisions I made and can never change, never annul. I can change my shirt, but I cannot exactly change my tattoo. Sure, I might be able to cover up or adapt the tattoo, but it will be there until the skin is gone or I opt for that expensive surgery. Even after removal, the past is not changed, although the lens with which I view it would be. Or, at least, the lens with which others view my past might be changed, since they would never see the tattoos.

I am not trying to lighten the heaviness of making a decision about a tattoo. After all, I did fend off peer pressure, helping my friend take the time she needs before getting a tattoo. Contrarily, I want to burden the lightness of so many other decisions. Nine times out of ten, I suspect the color of my t-shirt will not make a huge impact on my life. However, the decision to buy a t-shirt might. Will I buy it from the thrift store, Wal-mart, the Gap outlet, a company online that makes “organic” t-shirts out of bamboo, or a company I know nothing about, a company that might be using sweatshops? Or, perhaps I will decide I do not need any more t-shirts and instead of buying new shirts, I will give some away. I might sew any holes in my older shirts and give away my “nicer” shirts, choosing to look grungy to buck against the consumerist, capitalist system of always buying new to look fashionable.

So many “everyday” decisions are so simple and so easy to make, but they should not be. A lot of these decisions will not follow me around, but others will. Buying a new shirt can be tantamount to forcing a tattoo on another human being. Actually, buying a new shirt can be worse than picking the location and design of a tattoo on another human being. Pumping money into an unethical business can mean the suffering and death of another human being, often times a child. Driving alone instead of carpooling, walking, or not going anywhere could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for a certain plant, animal, sickly human being, or the US American or Middle Eastern person caught in the midst of a senseless war for oil.

I would rather get a tattoo on a whim, because I can always get the expensive surgery or put the tattoo on an inconspicuous part of my body. Those other decisions I make daily, those decisions that cause suffering and death, they can be forgiven by God and even sometimes by humans, but not even God can erase the past. Sometimes forgiveness does not seem like enough. It does not stop suffering. I can be redeemed, but my sins cannot.

Monday, May 3, 2010

It Was For Him That Her Red Light Shone

I'm going to read some pieces of Ezekiel 16. Don't follow along in your Bible, because I'm not going to announce when and where I'm skipping. I'll read enough for you to get the gist story, but be warned: it is a little vulgar and it doesn't value women. Listen to the story.
Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying, "Son of man, make known to Jerusalem her abominations. ...

You were naked and bare. ... I passed by you and saw you, and behold, [fn] you were at the time for love; so I spread My skirt over you and covered your nakedness. I also swore to you and entered into a covenant with you so that you became Mine," declares the Lord GOD. Then I bathed you with water, washed off your blood from you and anointed you with oil. I also clothed you with embroidered cloth and put sandals of porpoise skin on your feet; and I wrapped you with fine linen and covered you with silk. I adorned you with ornaments, put bracelets on your hands and a necklace around your neck. I also put a ring in your nostril, earrings in your ears and a beautiful crown on your head. Thus you were adorned with gold and silver, and your dress was of fine linen, silk and embroidered cloth. You ate fine flour, honey and oil; so you were exceedingly beautiful and advanced to royalty. Then your fame went forth among the nations on account of your beauty, for it was perfect because of My splendor which I bestowed on you," declares the Lord GOD. But you trusted in your beauty and played the harlot because of your fame, and you poured out your harlotries on every passer-by who might be willing. ...

Then it came about after all your wickedness ('Woe, woe to you!' declares the Lord GOD), that you built yourself a shrine and made yourself a high place in every square. You built yourself a high place at the top of every street and made your beauty abominable, and you spread your legs to every passer-by to multiply your harlotry. ...

How languishing is your heart," declares the Lord GOD, "while you do all these things, the actions of a bold-faced harlot. When you built your shrine at the beginning of every street and made your high place in every square, in disdaining money, you were not like a harlot. You adulteress wife, who takes strangers instead of her husband! Men give gifts to all harlots, but you give your gifts to all your lovers to bribe them to come to you from every direction for your harlotries. Thus you are different from those women in your harlotries, in that no one plays the harlot [fn] as you do, because you give money and no money is given you; thus you are different." Therefore, O harlot, hear the word of the LORD.
You just heard an extended metaphor that surprises its hearers with its vulgarity. Because of the shock, the hearers recognize how heinous their sins are.

I want to tell you another story, a story inspired by this one and in a similar vein. This story is also vulgar, mimicking Ezekiel's style to emphasize some of our heinous sins, at least, I know it reflects some of my heinous sins. I also play around with gender. Whereas the Bible might devalue women by portraying polygamy, I will portray polygamy and polyandry, which is the practice of having multiple male partners. In Ezekiel, the God character is seen sexually accosting a young, naked girl. In my story, the God character does some equally odd things, but only to portray God's radical character, not to portray God as a person of vice.

Listen for the metaphor. Listen for the surprises. Disagree or agree with any messages you might find. Accept the story not as perfect, but as the result of a young man wrestling with God and the church. After I tell the story, I'm going to ask you to wrestle with or against me. I hope we can debrief and talk as a group after the story. Be prepared to interact. Listen not just to fill out the evaluation, but to interact with the text and communally create meaning.

To recap, part of this sermon, is talking about the story.


===

A young man was backpacking in the mountains. He was enraptured by the beauty of the trees and the songs of the birds. He meandered along the path, his mind wandering as much as his feet.

Then he saw a most unexpected thing: a young, naked woman. She stood there, unashamed, as if she had been left in the woods naked for a long time. She stood still, off the beaten path, shivering with cold, and red from sunburn.

He took any extra clothes he had and put them over her. She jumped when she felt his hands through the coat he wrapped around her shoulders. It was awkward clothing her, trying not to touch her inappropriately. She offered little help, as if she longed for his touch.

He looked deep into her eyes, captured by them for what seemed like an eternity, for in her eyes, he saw eternity, although she looked no older than 21. Her eyes communicated fear, as if she had not seen or interacted with a human in a long time. And her eyes spoke trust and love, too, knowing, somehow, that she would be his, for she knew he loved her when he clothed her and laid out food for her.

With the food out, he took her hands inside his with intent to lead her to the food. He began to ask for her name when the jacket over her shoulders came undone, showing again her breasts. He paused and went to close the jacket once more, but as he gazed once again into her fearful, loving, eternal eyes, his hands instead went inside the jacket. He gracefully caressed her bosom as her arms wrapped around his body. They embraced. He warmed her body with his and they became one in the woods, proclaiming their love in the marriage act in front of creation. Like David and Jonathan, they swore their love unto to each other and entered into a covenant. And so the man became the woman's and the woman became the man's (Ez. 16:8), each of them the other's beloved.

When finished, she ate and he led her down the mountain. He bathed her and soothed her burns by rubbing them with ointment, by rubbing her with ointment. He put perfume on her and adorned her with the most beautiful jewelry: necklaces, bracelets, rings on her hands, rings in her ears, and a ring in her nose. He combed her hair and paid for a manicure, a pedicure--a full makeover.

She was beautiful from the start and he wonderfully complemented that beauty with things made by hand. He wrote stories about her, he wrote psalms about her, he wrote wise sayings and attributed the wisdom to her, for it was she who inspired everything he wrote, she who out of her very being breathed the words into his heart. He sang to her. He worshipped the very ground she walked on.

Because she lived some of her life as the least of peoples, the two never forgot to bless the unfortunate. Together, they blessed the world, preaching good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to those who desired it, freedom to the oppressed, and jubilee to all. In their blessing each other, they became a blessing to the world, serving all others in their public lives and servicing each other in private.

He bought her a car and he carried her wherever she thought they should go. When arriving at a destination, they relied heavily on the kindness of strangers and friends. They weren't quite homeless, but, unlike birds and foxes, they had no place to rest their heads, no place to call their own, except their love for each other and their love for the world.

One day he decided she should have a home, a sort of sanctuary erected in her honor. She was touched by his desire to set aside a sacred space for her, but she could not be bound by four walls. So he built her another home, this one a summer home by the beach. And then another for weekends in the mountains. A fall home in New England. A condo in the Bahamas. A homeless shelter in the Bronx. A hut in Africa. The list went on and on. Nothing was too good or too wild for his love.

After a while, many of the homes began to look similar: brick on the outside, painted windows, and white on the inside. Even when the two weren't present, he hired people to officiate ceremonies in honor of his love. The people would sing the songs he wrote about her, read the letters he wrote to her, and learn from the wisdom she inspired. They all desired a lover like her.

Somewhere in the building of these houses and the pomp and circumstance surrounding the house parties, the woman left the man. Her beauty was lost amidst the accoutrements and the pillars and spires that reached towards heaven. The man forgot her when he wasn't in her house and he was promiscuous in his own home, having frequent banquets and orgies of the most detestable sorts. When alone, he either brooded over his disdain for others or sang his own praises in a masturbatory fashion.

He used to love and serve her and others all day, every day, exploring all senses of those words. Then he would visit her daily, before slowing down to a few times a week with daily calls. He blessed himself more than he blessed others, sometimes blessing himself at the expense of others. He no longer wrote her love letters or Psalms. He presumed his earlier texts were enough and he re-read and studied them, as if they could take the place of his love and service.

When she left, he never noticed. He still visited her house, praising her name and studying their past love, but every trace of love left his heart long before the appearance of love became habit.

As much as he did or did not think about her, as much as he did or did not worship her, as much as he did or did not speak to her, she wasn't there. He grew accustom to her face and when it was gone, he imagined it was there. He remembered the ecstasy in his spirit and convinced his subconscious to duplicate the emotion in a way he could neither understand nor explain. It was indescribable to him. It was real to him, if only a fa├žade. He felt this fakeness more than he understood it. Amidst this rote pretense of orgasmic love, he traveled from lover to lover. Prideful and ignorant, he searched for what he could not name: the unspeakable name of his beloved.

He didn't even know she was gone.

She left lost and confused. She was a strong woman, having spent much of her life on her own. But she had been with him for so long and she loved him so much. She didn't know what to do without him. Hurt that he didn't even know she was gone, she bounced from relationship to relationship, never selling herself short and always remembering him.

She began to travel in less-than-reputable circles. She began to sell herself and then, worse, she began to pay people to take her. Her legs opened to anyone. If they would love her, then she would enter into relationship with them and bless them and make them a blessing to others. As she again became the least of people, she still lived to bless people and turn them into blessings. And she did so, over and over, with men and women. When one became faithful to only her, she still turned for others, never filling the void left by him, but always trying. The hurt she experienced with him happened over and over again as different people built different houses, many of them claiming to be her sole lover. But so many of them she left, because they ceased to loved her. Those who stayed became monogamous and accepting of her polyandry, of her freely giving blessings of love, of her many covenants with many people.

And she truly loved these other men and women, in every sense of the word. She learned she was full of love for everyone who would love her, never running out of love to give to them, love to give to everyone, as if her body were broken and her blood spilt for many, but miraculously multiplying to satisfy the appetites of anyone who would take their fill.

She became her own woman, a woman the first man only once knew, but had since forgotten.

One day their paths crossed again, serendipitously, providentially. He had turned to depression and making love, but never giving or receiving love. He stumbled towards her on the street one night in the same way he stumbled to any promiscuous man or woman. He became callous to loving, having no expectations to find what he was looking for in her.

He didn't recognize her, for she was beautiful in a way he could never have imagined, a beauty beyond what he and his preconceived notions could understand, a beauty found in prostitutes, drug dealers, the socially awkward, the differently abled, the sinners of every shape and kind--a beauty found in people he continually refused to love.

She refused to take the money he offered her. She smiled and, as she did so often, she tried to explain it was not he who found her, but she who found him, she who lost him, but had been looking for him in the love-making of every man and woman since he became lost. She who stood on the street corner calling for love, for his love (Prov. 8). It was for him that her red light shone.

He stood, dazed. He didn't know she was, who had left, or that he or she was ever lost. He thought he had come to her. How could she have been looking for him? He didn't know what was going on. At least, not until she began to love him once again.

When he felt her touch, he remembered. When he tasted her lips once again, he knew. When his hands caressed her breasts and her hands swept up his thigh, he once again was lost and found in his lust for this one woman.

He cried after they made love and she wiped away his tears with her hair, washing him with the aroma of love and forgiveness. She loved him though he had forgotten her. Without even knowing he lost her, he found her once again. Their old covenant was remembered and renewed alongside another, new covenant. He accepted her multiple lovers and he repented of his matrimonial sins, becoming monogamous, loving only her, entering into community with her lovers, people with whom he never thought she could make covenants, people he never thought he or she could enjoy. He received them as his brothers and sisters and was ashamed of his sins, ashamed that he could not receive them in community as equal lovers of his beloved.

She once again became his God and he once again became part of her people. They work together for their love and for their love of others. He worships the ground she walks on, recognizing her beauty wherever he sees it, be it in one of her houses, in the rain, in sorrow, in joy, or reflected in the eyes of one of her lovers, in the eyes of any and every other human being.

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I just shared a pretty extreme, extended metaphor. What do you think? What can you hear from a story of harlotry, if anything? What can you glean from God playing the harlot? From God having multiple sexual partners, both male and female? In Ezekiel's story, Israel trusts in the beauty God gave her, while in our story, the church trusts in the beauty he gives God;i n one situation, Israel leaves God, whereas in the other the God leaves the church--which scenario do you fear most in your life? in the life of your church?
Behold, everyone who quotes proverbs will quote this proverb concerning you, saying, 'Like mother, like daughter.' You are the daughter of your mother, who loathed her husband and children. You are also the sister of your sisters, who loathed their husbands and children. Your mother was a Hittite and your father an Amorite. Now your older sister is Samaria, who lives north of you with her daughters; and your younger sister, who lives south of you, is Sodom with her daughters. Yet you have not merely walked in their ways or done according to their abominations; but, as if that were too little, you acted more corruptly in all your conduct than they. ...

Nevertheless, I will restore their captivity, the captivity of Sodom and her daughters, the captivity of Samaria and her daughters, and along with them your own captivity, in order that you may bear your humiliation and feel ashamed for all that you have done when you become a consolation to them. Your sisters, Sodom with her daughters and Samaria with her daughters, will return to their former state, and you with your daughters will also return to your former state. ...

You have borne the penalty of your lewdness and abominations," the LORD declares. For thus says the Lord GOD, "I will also do with you as you have done, you who have despised the oath by breaking the covenant. Nevertheless, I will remember My covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you. Then you will remember your ways and be ashamed when you receive your sisters, both your older and your younger; and I will give them to you as daughters, but not because of your covenant. Thus I will establish My covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the LORD, so that you may remember and be ashamed and never open your mouth anymore because of your humiliation, when I have forgiven you for all that you have done," the Lord GOD declares.