Monday, December 26, 2011

O if we but knew what we do / When we delve and hew

Below is a dream and interpretation I had January 2011

I was at Gardner-Webb University where I recently graduated and, at the time of this dream, worked and lived, but the scenery was my elementary school in Friendship, Maine. I walked to the back of the small-town school and saw machines at work cutting down trees.

I was aghast. I went to the other side of the playground where I saw a lady preparing a chainsaw to cut down a tree whose width spoke of its age, but whose height invited a good climb or friendly shade on a hot summer's day. I screamed at the lady, "You have no heart!"

Two other ladies were standing near me, guarding the area. The elder was Lois Lash, my third-grade teacher and my church's choir director from when I was kid until the past year or so. The younger was her daughter, Carol Ehle, the church's pianist for as long as I can remember. She is also mother to a neighborhood boy my age with whom I went to school and participated in band and academic events. They looked at me with such surprise, wondering how such terrible words could come from the mouth of a man who was once a young angel of the church, a young man with whom they worked many hours for the church's music.

They were disgusted with me and so I explained to them how wonderful the trees are, for aesthetics, for shade, for the homes of animals, and for the very air we breathe. Despite my reasoning, they stood as still in their ways as the sentries of the Queen's Guard in England. Their foundation was firm and they faltered and wavered not.

So I watched the austere, heartless woman cut down the tree with her chainsaw. In the heaviness of the moment, a crowd gathered. I became anxious, claustrophobic. I was being pressed against a pole of a swing-set. I started to push myself from the pole when two men grabbed me and carried me away.

Scared out of my mind, the men dropped me off at the basketball court, one of the boundaries of our recesses when in elementary school. They wanted me to leave, to stop causing trouble. Before I could interact with them anymore, I woke up to my phone vibrating on the windowsill above my head.

Trees are sacred symbols. They aid us in worship. They provide us shelter and furniture. I look to them and I see us in their seasonal phases of life and death, their ubiquity, their diversity. It is hard for me to see them cut down, although I understand why we cut them. Still, the thought of cutting down a tree before its time gives me pause. In the words of G. M. Hopkins, "O if we but knew what we do / When we delve or hew -- / Hack and rack the growing green!" ("Binsey Poplars")

Considering my dream, I first thought of them as symbols of justice, diverse, strong, and good for life. I was watching a woman destroy something for which I stood, a long-standing tree of my faith. Not only was the tree wide with age, but also at a place marking bookends of my life. The scenery was my elementary school, a place I first began to learn about ecojustice, although I understood the area as my current home, a place where my love for the earth was re-inspired.

In one of my less tactful moments, I told her she had no heart for injustices hurt people. I could not believe she would cut down such an obviously wonderful truth. At least, the truth is so obvious to me. Two pillars of the faith community from which I grew stood as still as trees not seeing what I thought was obvious.

With the injustice committed, with the tree of my affection gone, I felt alone in the masses. People from my past, present, and future are all around me, yet I do not feel safe because I think differently, appreciate different things. I am growing and changing like the trees. Will I be cut down, too? Will my life be cut short, because the acorn has fallen a little too far from the tree?

Anxious, claustrophobic, I felt I would die if I did not push against the grain of the crowd coming in on me. In my dream, my life was cut off, in a sense. I was cut off, exiled from the people by two strong men. The anima and the animus have ousted me, one ignoring me and the other removing me. I am rejected and I awake, thrust away from the subconscious mingling of past, present, and future, and forced once again into the conscious present, left on the margins of recess.

The tree was not simply a justice for which I stand. The tree stood for still more than just the people I know who are hurt and oppressed by the injustices of felling such trees, left not to be themselves, but a haunting visage of who they could be in a just society. The tree was also me, falling when he cannot stand to see others fall, falling with them and going with them to the fire. The tree was me, dealing with the potential end of my formal education, watching others and wondering if I can join in. The tree was me dealing with the rejection of women and men as I apply for jobs.

The tree is me and the tree is you, co-inheritors of the sins of others. Whether we wield the chainsaw, yell slurs, stand guard, or watch, we reap what we sew and what others sew, be it a cut tree, the evil deeds of capitalism, or the hodgepodge donations of surplus. Like a forest, we are all in this life and on this earth together. We might fall when we sin and we might fall when others sin, but one day we will fall.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas According to Mark: A Deconstructing Advent & Christmas

I'm normally very bitter about Christmas. I don't like crowds, shopping, and gimmicks. However, being a Scrooge is no fun.

Instead, I have been rethinking the Advent and Christmas season a little bit, as reflected in my two previous posts. This morning I was thinking about Advent again. The Advent wreath contains four candles arranged in a circle and one candle in the center of that circle. Often times when I think of circles, I think of Jacques Derrida who noted how circles are defined by a center, but the center is not part of the line that is the circle. In effect, the center is something transcendent to the circle ("Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences").

The concept of center is, well, central to how we understand Advent, Christmas, and life in general. Around the Advent wreath are candles representing hope, peace, joy, and love, concepts connected like radii to the center of the circle, connected to Christ and Christmas through the stories of Jesus's birth.

And already the circle is starting to re-de-fine and un-define. There are multiple Christmas stories, stories of Christ being born in and to humanity in Jesus. There is the story in Matthew, the story in Luke, the baptism of Jesus in Mark, and the abstract story in John, not to mention a number of stories that never made it into the canon.

I'm particularly interested in the stories that aren't birth narratives, but tell of Jesus' coming to Earth. The book of Mark opens: "The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." According to Mark, the Good News of Christianity has nothing to do with Christmas, which is an understanding of Jesus, Christ, and the Gospel quite contrary to the portrayal in Matthew, Luke, the Nicene Creed, and the month of preparation Christians have observed for centuries, not to mention the long celebrations of the US "Christmas season."

If the author(s) of Mark were to celebrate Advent, they wouldn't be waiting to celebrate the birth of Jesus, but rather the coming of Christ's movement in the life of people. For Mark, this coming didn't happen when Jesus was born, but rather when Jesus was baptized, reborn not of man and woman, but of God solely. In this story, Jesus' virgin birth was of God, not Mary.

And thus, Advent and Christmas are de-centered. Hope, peace, joy, and love are no longer connected to Christ through the generally-accepted reconstruction and assimilation of the stories Christmas. They may still be connected to Christ, but Jesus as the Christ--"born of the Virgin Mary"--is no longer that which defines them for this or any season.

Since deconstruction is not destruction, a de-centering of Advent and Christmas is not an end to Advent and Christmas. Advent can still be a season of anticipation--of hope, peace, joy, love, and Christ. A deconstructed Advent sees the themes inevitably and forever interconnected and interdependent, instead of four dependent on the one. Furthermore, a deconstructed Advent will embrace the interplay of anticipating and receiving, the already and the not-yet, of God's absence and presence, and of absence in presence in relation to hope, peace, joy, and love.

Christmas deconstruction will re-remember Christ in the various aspects and stories of Christ's "beginning" on earth, a beginning lacking an originary event. That is, Christ never came, but has always been coming and has always been here (to use some more deconstruction terms: a "hauntology" of Christmas in the "aporia" between presence/absence).

A deconstructing Christmas is one where "God so loved the world," not "God so loved all the people I love." Christmas would then lose and gain significance. It would lose the significance of gift-giving to those we love and being with those you love, it would no longer be a holy day (holiday), a day set apart and other than the rest of the days, because it would give significance to the rest of the days of the year by recognizing the Other and Otherness by asking for generosity, for hope, for peace, for joy, for love, for Christ, for "the Christmas spirit," to be a year-round thing, so these things are born every minute, not once a year.

A deconstructing Christmas would be an active holiday where significance needs to be created, not inherited. For all of these abstract terms--generosity, hope, peace, joy, love, Christ, Advent, Christmas--are merely abstract terms with no center defining. If we are to use them at Christmas or ever, they need to be embodied. Words don't mean, they are given meaning.

And so it was in Mark with Jesus. Jesus wasn't born the Christ. Jesus became the Christ by giving that term meaning--that was the beginning of the good news. Christmas is a time not only to remember, but to actively remember by continuing to create meaning for Christ, by continuing to create Christ, to birth Christ.

Monday, December 5, 2011

This Advent, I'm Not Waiting for Peace: Isaiah 40:1

At this point in the Advent season, tradition emphasizes people waiting for the peace associated with the coming of Christ. As I at least hinted at last week, I believe the real impact of Advent is not waiting for Christ, but embodying the return of Emanuel. When I sing, "O Come, o come Emanuel," I am not singing for a human to come out of the clouds, as if I believed heaven were literally above the sky. Rather, I am singing for God to be born in me, that I might be pregnant with God's transformative love and power. The second coming of Christ is not a one time event to happen in the future. This parousia is a continual event. Like the first advent, this advent consists of Christ being born in humans. But this time, unlike the first, it can happen in all of us, not just in Mary.

In light of this understanding of Advent, I don't wait for peace.
"Comfort, O comfort my people," says your God.
"Speak kindly to Jerusalem;
And clal out to her, that her warfare has ended,
That her iniquity has been removed,
That she has received of the LORD's hand
Double for all her sins"
A voice is calling, "Clear the way for the LORD in the wilderness;
Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.
Let every valley be lifted up,
And every mountain and hill be made low;
And let the rough ground become a plain,
And the rugged terrain a broad valley;
Then the glory of the LORD will be revealed,
And all flesh will see it together;
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken." (Isaiah 40:1-5)
I am not waiting for peace, because I am making it.

In an attempt to mimic the Hebrew words, Isaiah 40:1 has become hard to understand in English. In the Hebrew, the verb is in a tense known for intensity (Piel). The intensity increases when the word is repeated, not something we do in English. In verse 1, God really wants comforting to happen, given the verb tense.

Apparently comforting is really needed. In v.2, we find out why: "[Jerusalem] has received [...] double for all her sins." Generally one dose of retribution is bad enough, let alone two. For this sort of comforting, generally you expect divine action. The Bible is full of God promising to make up for any sort of suffering of the Israelites, even when it is deserved.

But in this instance, God tells someone else to be the one doing the comforting. Actually, God is telling a group of someones to be comforting; the imperative "comfort" is plural in Hebrew, a construction we don't have in English.

To whom is God talking in the mind of Isaiah the author?

I don't care.

Let's remember that Isaiah or Deutero-Isaiah and Tertiary-Isaiah understood the world like people understood the world before the common era (BC/E). You know, back when it would have been acceptable to think evil existed below us, in the center of the earth.

I don't care who Isaiah thought God was talking to, because God can only be telling us, in reality. A few truths from Isaiah 40:15 are: (A) people need comforting and (B) God wants those people comforted. Who is going to do that comforting? Us, the people of God.

It is no wonder that Isaiah 40:1 echoes the common construction of "your God" and "my people" from "I will be your God and you will be my people." The two concepts are inseparable. If God's people are to be comforted, then God will do it through God's people. It isn't just the concepts that are inseparable. God and God's people are inseparable. God exists in God's people.

"I will be your God and you will be my people." Today's Christianity knows this concept better in the idea of "the body." The Church is the body of Christ. They are one and the same. Inseparable. Interdependent.

Don't wait for the advent of God's peace. Be God's peace. People, let it be born in you.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

My Advent Hope & Kazuo Ishiguro's "Never Let Me Go"

Today I finished Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. The book is a story of recollections from a girl who was raised for the sole purpose of donating her organs as an adult, donations resulting in her death. She and a number of other clones were raised at a unique boarding school that treated the clones similarly to normal children with a liberal arts education.

Their school, Hailsham, was unique because most other clones were treated as commodities, not people. Near the end, the characters weigh whether or not it was good for them to be taught to believe in their humanity or if they should be treated like the commodity they end up being.

One character asks, "Why Hailsham?" Why be taught to create art, to appreciate art, to be more than simply healthy, but also to enjoy life when, in the end, you are not seen or treated as fully human. Why Hailsham if you're going to be ignored and die in the end?

"Why Hailsham?" is a question from everyman and -woman when "Hailsham" is understood to be the home (-ham) from which one hails. Now the question is not only by and for the characters in the book, but also for us. Why life? Why are we raised to seek pleasure and think our lives are significant when we die at the end and donate our organs--and the rest of our bodies--to the cycle of existence?

Side by side with this question about the meaning and enjoyment of life, we are presented with the questions about another's quality life, about the Other's quality of life. What a natural progression: when pondering the meaning of one's own life, you are pondering life in general. If your life has meaning and deserves enjoyment, then the lives of others have meaning and deserve enjoyment.

"Never Let Me Go" left me with conviction. I act as if my life is meaningful, yet my life stands on the shoulders of suffering based on systemic issues about which I cannot change by myself or in a timely fashion.

Yet, today is the first Sunday of Advent, a time for hope, specifically hope for the coming of Christ. The church I attended this morning lit a candle for awareness instead of for hope. How appropriate for Never Let Me Go. In the novel, the main characters become more aware of their status in regards to the rest of the society and the more aware they become of themselves and the world. This awareness raises more questions than anything. The elevation of awareness gives rise to the need for hope--hope for meaning and hope for a better tomorrow.

By "a better tomorrow," I mean a tomorrow in which all life that is meaningful has the opportunity to enjoy life. Hope for fair trade practices, philanthropy, love of neighbor and equality regardless of your race, religion, gender expression, sexuality, nationality, or ethnicity. Hope that those who are hungry will receive bread and that those who have bread will be hungry for justice. Hope that the luxuries of life will not mean the suffering of those less fortunate. Hope that the poor will teach the rich lessons and, in turn, the rich will give the poor opportunities to turn their lives around.

And my hope is built on nothing less than Christ effecting that change. By "Christ" I mean God's transformative power--love. In this season of Advent, it is appropriate that my hope is for Christ's advent. However, my hope isn't a traditional Advent hope. I am not hoping for the second coming of Jesus. Rather, I am hoping for that same Christ we saw in Jesus to be in us. If humanity is to be the body of Christ, then the only hope for advent is that we embody Christ, that we embody the advent of Christ. Our hope is in a holy trinity: God, neighbor, and self.

I hope we will embody that Christ enough to turn the world upside down, like Jesus did before us.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Context: A False God

"Context" is one of the false gods of biblical studies, biblical studies referring not exclusively to what happens in the academy, but also in the church.

Context is especially praised at the level of translation. Just like in English, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and Aramaic have words with many meanings. How do we determine which meaning to use in a given situation? Omniscient Context tells us.

The Ever-Blessed Context also receives much praise in hermeneutics (of which "translation" could be a subcategory, depending on how you look at it). Preachers and academics alike will tell you certain words, passages, and pericopes are misinterpreted, because they are taken out of Context's loving hands.

Take the Hebrew word dowd. It is translated "beloved" many times in the Song of Songs. Dowd is the same word used in describing how Esther and Mordecai know each other: she is the daughter of Mordecai's dowd, generally understood to be his uncle. How do we know that "dowd" refers to a lover in the Song of Songs and to an uncle in Esther and other places?

Thanks be to Context.

But Context isn't exactly clear here. Love in ancient Israel included a lot of relationships understood as taboo in current, US-American culture. Would it really have been that unheard of for Mordecai to have catamite or some other sort of male lover? Pederasty and homosexuality was not unheard of in ancient times and although Mordecai seems very traditionally Hebrew in this story, we cannot be sure how much he may have acclimated to Persian culture at this point in the exile.

But now I've gone outside of Context's realm. Context in translation is immediate context, not levitical laws, cultural mores, and, of course, the heterosexual bias of the majority of biblical translators and readers. By immediate context alone, we cannot translate the dowd of Esther or the Song of Songs definitively as uncle or lover.

However, Context is wider than just a single book. Although the Christian or Hebrew Bible is not immediate context for Esther--the book was written independently of any canon--it is an Israelite book and therefore has Israelite stories in its background, including levitical laws.

But levitical laws do not change the scandals that go on many places in the Bible. Sometimes God's decrees are neither obeyed nor condemned in the Bible. Famously, Hewbrew midwives in Egypt refused to obey Pharaoh when told to kill all baby boys born to Hebrew women. The midwives simply don't do it, but they concoct a story for Pharaoh. That is, they lie, breaking one of the Ten Commandments God later gives the Hebrew people. What is God's response to these lies? "So God was kind to the midwives" (Exodus 1:20). Mordecai could be a Sodomite and God might not care. Apparently God doesn't always care when you're a liar.

Where will Context lead us next? Or more precisely, where does Context end?
"Il n'y a pas de hors-texte."
--Jacques Derrida
There is nothing outside the text (or: there is no outside to the text). To state it positively: everything is context.

No matter how much we use the name of Context, it is in vain. If I argued well, you now see how Context (at least immediate context) cannot show us if Mordecai's relationship to Ahihail was lover or nephew. Neither do we know if the relationship in the Song of Songs is purely sexual or if it is sexual and familial. But we can still have more to consider in the name of Context, because we, too, are part of the Context.

The Hebrew scriptures did not "close" with the writing of the last book. Neither did it "close" with canonization. Interpretations came afterwards and people still cite how early Rabbis (famously, the Mishnah) and commentators understood those texts. They became part of the text the moment they read it, the moment they entered into it, learning it intimately, becoming dowd, both family and lover--becoming one.

Or, if you don't appreciate my blend of text- and reader-oriented theory, imagine, then, how some get from Context being the Hebrew scriptures to Context including the New Testament. Then how Context begins to include language: Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and English. For that matter, translation context includes many different versions of the texts we know as the individual books of the Bible. Finally, translation necessarily includes the translator as part of the context, because translation is interpretation. Then the subsequent interpreters have their own contexts that begin to swirl around in the amorphous context that influences the interpretations of other interpreters.

You may trust that God has aided translation to be accurate. Even so, you have again entered the context, because your interpretation includes your beliefs, what many hermeneuticians would prefer to call your "pretext." But, "il n'y a pas de hors-texte." It is all context.

You are context. I am context. Our histories, backgrounds, and cultures are context. Context is not omniscient in the sense that it knows all. However, perhaps Context is omniscient in the sense that it knows everything known, since everything is Context. We--everything--are the body of Context. When we die, we enter more completely (in the sense of being finished) into the relationship of the trinity of Context (author, text, and reader).

Perhaps Context isn't that false of a god after all, just not in the traditional understanding of a god.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Things To Do After The Rapture: Top 5 List

Did you hear Jesus might return to earth on Saturday? If he does, then my lack of belief in the calculability of any such date will likely result in my staying on this wonderful blue sphere we call earth. It is most likely way too late for me to change enough to get raptured, so I've compiled a quick list of things I might do if the rapture does occur on Saturday.

5. I'm already planning to visit my parents. While there, I will re-read the Left Behind series to figure out what I'm in for.

4. Re-read Revelation in the KJV. I didn't figure the rapture was going to happen in the first place, which is why I'm reading Left Behind first. This read through, I'll have a different perspective.

3. Get my two overtly religious tattoos covered up, just in case some sort of anti-Christ comes into power.

2. Move to a commune in the wilderness that grows their own, sustainable, organic food, but sneak in my iPod so I can listen to some cool tunes while gathering fire wood.

1. Thank God that the New Jerusalem really did descend to earth. I guess the rapture was God's way of getting rid of the crazies who think they can calculate a God-ordained apocalypse with a little bit of math and a Bible.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Lesson(s) From Divinity School: Love, God, and Self

Despite the various classes I've taken during my four and a half years in divinity school, I've only learned about three things: love, God, and self.

Love may have been the hardest lesson I've had to learn. And, let's face it, I'm still learning it. Many people make a fuss over how English speakers use the word "love," condemning much usage as flippant. I love my dog. I love justice. I love pizza. I love my friends. I love my parents. I love my partner. I love my neighbor. I love God.

In each of these situations, love is a little different. Nobody loves pizza the same way they love their partner, at least, I hope not. And nobody loves their pet the same way they love God. If I were giving a sermon, this would be the part where I talk about the different kinds of love in biblical Greek and you all groan, because you've heard that sermon numerous times before.

Since this isn't a sermon, I want to let you in on a secret. Ancient Greek doesn't have a word for love, let alone three or four words for it. Greek has four different concepts that we translate as love, which is very different from saying Greek has four different loves. Instead, Greek saw agape, philia, eros, and storge as four different emotions. English, however, sees them as one.

Love is bigger than any of the four Greek loves, because it captures the similarities between my love for pizza and my love for God. And what beautiful similarities they are. How spectacular that we can express and mix our love through actions like the Eucharist, where we love God and food. Through times when we are good samaritans, loving God and neighbor.

Loves mix well together. In fact, I dare say it is an essentialist perspective that heuristically delineates types of love, when it is all one thing. One thing with various permutations. Variations on a theme. Love of God is love of neighbor and love of creation and love of self.

"Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and everyone that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. The one that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love."

And thus my lesson about love turned into a lesson about God.

"The one that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love." This lesson just keeps getting more and more difficult. As it turns out, knowing God has less to do with the ellusive, illusory line between orthodoxy and heresy and more to do with love, with relationship. And according to 1 John 4, it isn't about loving God, about singing hymns and praise songs about and to God, about going to Sunday school, about evangelism, about listening to Christian speakers and Christian music, about going into church buildings.

It--knowing God--is about loving that which and those whom God loves, which will include church and songs and school for some of us. But individuals tend to express love differently, which is why I make more trips to the recycling center than to church, why I don't read my Bible daily, and why I would rather listen about another person's faith than convince them to think like me.

Well, that last one wasn't completely true, which is why this lesson hasn't completely taken root in my life just yet. There are a few people, OK, a lot of people from whom I have no desire to hear. I want them to think like me and shut their mouths. Or, even if they weren't to think like me, I desire them to think a lot less like they do now.

As some of you may now, the PC-USA denomination recently paved the way for individual presbyteries to ordain homosexuals. I started reading Albert Mohler's thoughts, but I stopped, because I have no clue how to love that man. Loving someone you don't know is always a tricky matter, anyways. I could always pull the ol' "love-the-sinnner-hate-the-sin" trick out of the bag, but that isn't love, that is just something we say to make us feel better about our judgment.

But I don't always know how to love without judgment, no matter how much I praise love and deride judgment. In the face of my advocacy, in the center of my pursuit of God, love, equality, and social justice, I'm a judger. The person I want to be and the person I think I am is deconstructed by the person I am, my ego-ideal deconstructs my ideal-ego.

And thus my lesson about God has turned into a bit of navel-gazing, which isn't surprising to me anymore. When I search myself, I end up seeing and seeking God. When I look for God, my theology turns introspection. Maybe I'm a little ADD or maybe God carries the scars of humanity just as much as humanity carries the image of God.

1 Corinthians left us with faith, hope, and love. I leave you with Love, God, and Self. I'm not sure which is the greatest, because this trinity of lessons exist separately in my mind and in language, but they bleed into each other so much in reality that I cannot separate them systematically, not even enough to create a hierarchy. Perhaps they aren't all that different in the panentheistic interconnectivity that is our existence.

Things God Hates: Top 5 List

While thinking about the Westboro Baptist Church tonight, I thought it might be fun to think of things God hates. N.B.: This list will not include homosexuals.

1. God hates signs.
I'm thinking church signs that have cheesy messages, offensive messages, or messages with errors. I'm also thinking of political signs, especially ones promoting a candidate for office or ones with the phrase "God Bless America." They're ugly and they don't make a difference. Although, I wonder how God would feel about an ironic sign touting the phrase, "God hates signs."

2. God hates Esau.
If your name is Esau, you better hope you ain't that Esau. Malachi 1:3.

3. God hates tracts.
Well, this one isn't completely true. I doubt God hates anyone's digestive or urinary tract. However, I cannot imagine God loves people using natural resources to publish and pass out some of the worst evangelistic tools known to existence. Tracts are going to "lead people to Jesus" as much as saying things like "Love the sinner, hate the sin," the "do you know where you'll go if you die tonight?" question, and, of course, carrying signs with the words "God hates fags" on them.

4. God hates being referred to as a man.
I doubt God minds it when you refer to Jesus as a man, since he had (has?) a penis. However, most theologians will agree that God has neither penis nor testicle, neither functioning mammary glands nor vulva. God is not a man and I imagine God is pretty tired of people refusing to overthrow patriarchal language. "I think it sounds more personal when I use gendered language." Well, buck-o, why don't you cry God a river. And while you're at it, get a mop and clean up that river of tears, you baby, because it is the twenty-first century and women are still being oppressed, and badly. Language helps correct mistakes in our actions. That is, language can help prevent people from sinning. So watch your mouth, buddy. But don't worry, when it comes to using masculine pronouns, God loves the sinner, not the sin.

5. God doesn't hate people who don't reduce, reuse, and recycle, but she probably wishes those people would start thinking about the environment more.
For example, if you are going to post a sign on your front lawn stating all of your reasoning for why someone should be elected president, viz., their name, consider re-using materials to make this sign, viz., your sign from the last election when said candidate wasn't elected, most likely because you didn't put up enough signs. You can now make your sign in three easy steps: 1) Cross out the '08 and use a marker with eco-friendly, water-based ink to write '12; 2) Cross out "McCain" and circle "Palin" really big; 3) Write "God bless America" somewhere on your sign so Christian voters who happen to drive by your street will be swayed by your sign.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday Meets Earth Day: Tweets & Reflections on Dying and Living during Holy Week

My "tweets" for Good Friday and Earth Day:

Don't make the earth go dark again, be Christ on this earth by caring for all of God's earth and all in God's earth. #goodfirday #earthday

If Jesus suffered & died for your sins, don't let people suffer for your food. Drink fair trade coffee @ home & church #goodfriday#earthday

Put your faith into action at church. Don't use styrofoam for coffee at church. Use mugs. Have people bring their own. #goodfriday#earthday

Broaken & multiplied loaves foreshadow Good Friday & Easter. The earth is breaking & only we can replenish it. #goodfriday #earthday

The Earth groans for salvation. It mourns w/us this Good Friday.#goodfriday #earthday

When Jesus died, the earth is said to have shaken. God & the Earth have a close relationship. Honor one, honor both. #goodfriday#goodearthday

In "Due Date," Jamie Foxx's character uses a reusable coffee filter in his home. Will you? #earthday #godsearth

When today began, I was unsure how to celebrate Earth Day and observe Good Friday. Good Friday is a somber day, a time to remember Jesus' suffering. A time to mourn Jesus' death. No death is "good." Even if good comes from a death, it is unfortunate that someone had to die. Even Jesus.

Good Friday is also a time to mourn our sins and the havoc they--no--the havoc we wreak. The wages of sin are not just death, but also the immediate consequences of our sins. If we do not take care of our body, we get sick or we die sooner than we might have otherwise. If we are cruel to someone, we receive regret and their scorn, hurt and physical and/or mental bruise

Those last examples scar me the most. When I mourn my sin, I mostly mourn how other people pay for the wages of my sins. Many commemorate Jesus as paying the price for our sins, but there are a few expenses not even Jesus could pay. If I hit someone, they still bruise. If I berate my children, they develop the psychological complexes. If I buy cheap chocolate, coffee, and tea, the people doing the most menial tasks to produce those luxuries pay the price I don't pay as their quality of life goes down. [1] The same goes for when I buy clothing produced at sweat shops, especially cheap clothing, but even many more chic, more expensive brands and stores. If I buy a lot of individually wrapped granola bars, candy bars, or fast food, the earth pays. God's earth pays. And everything on the earth pays, too. Including us.

God did not send Jesus to pay for those wages of sin. Those wages are ours to pay. So on this Good Friday and Earth Day, I thank God for Christ on the cross and the Earth we all ravage. I remember the death of Jesus and the dying of the Earth. I remember that sins cause death and sins cause suffering, not just suffering on the cross, but also suffering on this earth. And I remember that caring for the Earth is caring for people, just like loving all people is loving God.

Dear reader, I hope you have a meaningful end of your Holy Week. As we come to celebrate Easter, let us celebrate the life of Christ by being Christ, by restoring God's creation to its glory--people, animal, and earth alike.

[1] Christians send missionaries and mission teams to the same people who suffer from our cheap coffee, tea, chocolate, and clothing. If we send mission teams without purchasing fairly traded luxuries, then we are sending quite the mixed message. We say, essentially, that we care for their afterlife, not their current life. We say it is OK for them to suffer in this life because of us and then live beside us in the next.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Plead Your Case Before the Mountains, Or Micah's Command to "Mishpat," "Hesed," and "Halak"

God my parent, say more than I can say with these words.
Jesus, hear more in these words than any of us can hear in them.
Holy Spirit, do with these words more than we can ever dream of doing.
Bless us through your words that we might bless others with your actions through them.
In your name I pray, amen.

Micah 6:1-8
as translated by Trevar

Listen (shema) to that which Yhwh is saying.
Arise! Plead your case before the mountains / and let the hills listen (shema) to your voice.
Listen (shema), O mountains, to the legal case of Yhwh, / O the permanent foundations of earth,
because Yhwh has a legal case concerning [God's] people / because with Israel [God] will argue. (1)
"My people, what have I done to you? / And what? have I wearied you all? Answer to me.
For I caused you all to go up from the land of Egypt / and from the house of servants I ransomed you
And I sent before you Moses, / Aaron, and Miriam.
My people, remember what Balak advised the king of Moab / and what Balaam son of Beor answered to him,
from Shittim to Gilgal / for the sake of knowledge of Yhwh's righteousness."

By what means will I approach Yhwh? / [By what means] will I be bowed before the high God?
Shall I approach him with burnt offerings (2)? / With year-old calves?
Will Yhwh be pleased with a thousand rams? / With a multitude (3) of rivers of oil?
Will I give my first born [for] my transgression? / [the] fruit of my body [for] the sin of my life? (4)

[God] will declare to you, O mortal, what is good: / And what does Yhwh seeks from you,
but to do justice (mishpat) / and to love kindness (chesed), / and to walk humbly with your God? (5)

(1) Or: "and [God] will adjudicate among Israel." The verb, normally in the hiphil, means decide, adjudge, or prove. Here, it is in the Hithpael, giving it a back-and-forth connotation.
(2) The Hebrew for "burnt offerings" is a homonym for "injustices."
(3) Literally, "tens of thousands."
(4) Without the added "for" in English, this verse could suggest the people wondering if their sins will go unforgiven and, as a result, their progeny will inherit their sins and the punishment for those sins.
(5) "Kindness" can be translated as "loving-kindness" or "mercy." "Walk" can be translated as "live."

In order to approach Micah 6, we need to understand a little about the first five chapters. The author speaks to a culture not too unlike ours, describing sins that fit into two categories. The first are religious sins, sins against God. The people are worshipping idols and focusing on religious places outside of the Jerusalem temple. And even when they are faithful to the religion God gave them, they become too proud in their interpretations of it, having more fidelity in the letters of their laws than in the God behind them.

The other type of sins are social sins, those committed against neighbors. People are seizing property, which is an especially heinous sin in Israel. Israelites don't just have land, they inherit it as a gift from God. When someone takes the field of an Israelite, they have taken away a God-given right. Micah also paints the people as hungry for money, power, and luxury. It seems the rich enjoy their fancy lives by exploiting the poor. Instead of religious and political leaders doing their work for their God and their neighbors, they do it for their own gain.

With these sins in mind, the author creates a courtroom metaphor in chapter 6. By doing so, all the previously named sins are in mind. The people know they have done wrong and God summons them to plead their case before the mountains, who play the roles of judge and jury.

God summons the earth, because the earth was created before humanity and has been witness to every human deed since before it held the blood of Abel that cried out to God.

With the earth listening, God dares the people present their case, but not a case to show them innocent. Rather, they are to accuse God of breaking the covenant. At least, their actions suggest that they believe God has broken the covenant. God is fed up, asking them to present a proper accusation instead of passive-aggressive sinning.

Hearing no response from the people or, perhaps, giving them no time to respond, God speaks for the people, recounting the interactions between God and Israel, searching for a time when the people were treated wrongly. God begins with the exodus, where the Hebrew people were delivered from slavery, lead by Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.

God continues to taunt the people, asking them if they can remember their own history, asking about the time when Balak asked Balaam to curse Israel, but Balaam could not. Asking if they remember the sins they committed when they resided in Shittim, east of the Jordan river, and how God nonetheless helped them proceed, miraculously, into the Promised Land. Asking if they remember how they lived in Gilgal while they became the conquerors and slave-holders in that same land, blessed by their God despite their disobeying divine ordinances and using Gilgal as a nest of idolatry.

When God's statements are over, the people know they have no case. Instead, they must find a way to approach God and find divine forgiveness. Remember, their position is not unlike ours. Their search for a way to please God is our own search.

They begin with the least thing of which their minds can think and progress to the greatest conceivable sacrifice. They focus each option on whether or not it will please God and the answer to each option is no, excepting the last option. The last option is so serious, they cannot help but think of themselves.

Should they bow before God? No, that's not enough.
Would God want a year-old calf or other burnt offerings? No. Although required by divine law, it isn't enough now that the law has been broken.
Perhaps God could be pleased by a thousand rams with rivers of oil numbering in the tens of thousands? This option is beyond the requirements of the law, but, still, no, not enough.

Their next idea draws from the past. After all, Yhwh seems to be emphasizing the past a lot, from the creation of the earth, to the exodus, the law, the crossing of the Jordan river, and even the conquest and dwelling in the Promised Land. They think back to Abraham and one of the first commands Yhwh gave according to Israelite tradition: the command to kill Isaac, Abraham's son. Knowing the weight of this sacrifice, the people state the possibility twice: "Will I give my first born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my life?"

That's a real option for the Israelites. We know as well as the people that Yhwh said no to Abraham, letting Isaac live. But another story of child sacrifice exists, one we don't remember as well as the Hebrews might have. In the book of Judges, we read a tale where Yhwh makes no effort to save the daughter of Jephthah given as a burnt offering to God (Judges 11:29-39). For the Hebrews, God is a God who sometimes accepts child sacrifice. Thousands of years later many Christians believe God required the life of his own son for the forgiveness of sin. Child sacrifice is not out of the question when it comes to Yhwh their God and Yhwh our God. The people do not know the final answer to that final question.

For us, child sacrifice is not a live option, despite our religious history. We simply don't think in those terms. At least, not exactly. Every decision a parent makes is a decision affecting their children. Those of us without children still make decisions that impact the world around us and the future of humanity's existence in this world. Most of us have heard stories in which a parent, often times a pastor, thinks they are giving something to God and that thing, be it money, love, or time, sacrifices the well-being of the children involved.

Someone responds to the people in verse 8. Perhaps the mountains themselves respond, as if the rocks and stones are crying out when no one else will. They speak in light of the history of Israel and God's righteous deeds. When the mountains make their address, they address "O mortal," using the Hebrew word "adam," a word meaning earth, people, and the Adam of Adam-and-Eve fame.

By using the word "Adam" instead of one of the other Hebrew words for "people," Micah says God's requirements are consistent. They are the same requirements for all people since before Adam and and after Jesus. They are not just Israel's requirements, they are our requirements.

As an answer to our sin, God requires us all "to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God."

The people asked how they should approach God and instead of answering their questions, they receive a vague response about what God requires of them. Micah doesn't even explicitly define what each of these requirements mean. However, our knowledge of chapters 1-5 combined with a few tidbits from chapter 7 will open up these three short requirements.

Before I proceed, be warned. I don't have the key to what Micah is talking about. Like everyone here, I have approached this book with baggage and I cannot help but place my baggage into how I read. So as we continue, remember what LeVar Burton used to say at the end of his television show, Reading Rainbow: "you don't have to take my word for it." With Burton, I encourage you to look into these words yourselves.

Justice (mishpat)

From what I can tell, Micah nuances justice two ways. The first nuance is best summarized by Deuteronomy 19:21: "Thus you shall not show pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot." This is the justice in our court rooms in the robed figure of blind Lady Justice with cloth over her eyes, a sword in her left hand and scales in her right hand. Her blindness keeps her from being swayed by who is involved in a situation. She is concerned with law, "fairness," and what somebody "deserves," as symbolized in the scales. This sort of justice is consistent with our idea of "judgment."

The judgment side of justice has a place in Micah. In chapter 7, Micah begins, "Woe is me! For I am like the fruit pickers, like the grape gatherers. There is not a cluster of grapes to eat, or a first-ripe fig which I crave." Micah is harvesting, literally reaping what he sews, but not enjoying the fruit of the harvest. Like modern-day cocoa and coffee farmers, he supports the rich with his labor while the rich enjoy cheap luxuries while paying meager wages to those who provide the luxuries.

Micah interprets this unfortunate experience as payment for his sins, as God's "judgment." In 7:9 he says, "I will bear the indignation of Yhwh because I have sinned against him." Micah mourns his situation, but sees it as just. After all, the law in Deuteronomy says God will curse sins and bless faithfulness, which is why the court metaphor is so appropriate. God has been faithful to the covenant, the people have not. Therefore, they will be punished. That's judgment. That's justice.

At least, one sense of justice. Listen again to Micah 7:9, this time in its entirety: "I will bear the indignation of Yhwh because I have sinned against him, until he pleads my case and executes justice for me. He will bring me out to the light and I will see his righteousness." According to this verse, it is just for God to deliver judgment on Micah. However, it is also just for God to deliver Micah out of judgment, out of justice into justice.

This justice is not blind. Instead of Lady Justice knowing the letter of the law, this nuance of justice looks at people, recognizes their beauty, and feels for them. Because God is just, God wants to deliver people simply because they are people and carry the image of God. We see this justice all over the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Every time God delivers or reaches out, it is because of God's righteousness and grace, not because of the person's merit. This, too, is justice.

Since Micah has already foretold God's judgment, I think Micah is asking for the second sort of justice from us. Judgment has its place in this world, the place where Yhwh put it in Israel: in the rules of the community. But in our personal lives, Micah calls for a different sort of justice, the kind where we aren't judging and condemning, where we aren't acting based on anyone's sins against us or God. Rather, doing justice is doing justice based on the righteousness of God: loving people, serving them, letting them serve us, and letting them serve with us. When it comes to justice, no person's sins matter. The love of God matters.

Kindness (hesed)

And so we will seek to do justice, and we will do it, because of the second command, because we "love kindness." The Hebrew word "kindness," like the Hebrew word "justice," is a word that often appears in the Israelite faith and religion. Whereas "justice" addresses our relationship to the world around us, "kindness" addresses our feelings and response to God. The word evokes consistent actions from consistent feelings. To better understand it, we can see it in context in Micah 7:18: "Who is a God like you, who pardons iniquity and passes over the rebellious act of the remnant of his possession? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in unchanging love." Here "unchanging love" is that same word elsewhere translated as "kindness." It is this "kindness" or "unchanging love" that we are supposed to love.

We are supposed to love it, because God delights in it. It is this sort of unchanging love through which we understand God's relation to creation. This "unchanging love" is the reason for Genesis 1:1: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." It is the reason for the incarnation: "for God so loved the world." It is the reason God interacts with all of creation and the reason that even the earth groans for salvation, as Paul says.

If we love kindness, love God's kindness, love God's unchanging love that inspires God to continually descend to creation and redeem it, then we will want to do justice to all, to every Adam and to every Eve, to everything created by God. When we love this "kindness" and do this "justice," they will become more than our actions and our affections, they will be who we are.

Live Humbly with Your God (halak)

It is difficult to inspire ourselves to love something. So, Micah offers us a little tip: "walk humbly with your God." Walking--or for those who cannot walk, traveling--is a metaphor for life and another word familiar to the Israelite religion. In Deuteronomy, Moses asks the people "to love the LORD your God, and to walk in [God's] ways always." Micah builds upon this metaphor, not just saying we should live and walk in God's ways, but to live and walk humbly with our God. Traveling and living with someone indicates intimacy. As we begin to know our God better, we will begin to recognize God's image where we see it. We will begin to recognize the image of God in others. And if we love our God, we will love others and delight in kindness towards them, in doing justice.

There it is, church. There is the crux of this passage and why Micah can stop at this command and move on to something else.

You see, humility in traveling means recognizing you're not the only one traveling. On an airplane, it could mean considering the person behind you before putting your seat back. On a bus or train, it might mean offering your seat to someone who might need it more. While traveling through life, humility begins by recognizing God travels with us. But it isn't just "me and God." It isn't just my family and God, my church and God, the Church and God, my country and God, or all people and God. Life is a journey all creation travels together. And God's image is everywhere on that journey and everywhere in creation. If we love God, then in humility we recognize that God's "unchanging love" is everywhere and we will want to do justice to all.

As it turns out, the only way to live and walk humbly with our God is to love kindness and to do justice. Centuries later, Jesus will say essentially the same thing when stating the two greatest commandments: we love God by loving our neighbor. We delight in God by delighting in what God delights: justice and kindness.

Loving your neighbor is the way you love God. Doing justice and loving mercy is the way to walk humbly with your God. And although I still encourage you to look at this passage for yourself, don't forget that doing justice and loving mercy isn't just reading, studying, and praying, which are ways to deal with religious sins.. Like Micah's audience, we need to examine our sins against God. But we also need to examine our sins against God's creation and all that is in it: our neighbors. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are God-given rights, and many of the luxuries we enjoy today stand in the way of other people's lives, liberties, pursuit of happiness, and pursuit of God.

Remember, our situation isn't too unlike Micah's. So as we leave the sanctity of this place and enter the sanctity of the world around us, let us seek justice to do, kindness to love, and our God, with whom we can walk humbly. Otherwise, we might soon be asked to plead our own case before the mountains.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

"You Can't Out-Give God"

Usually the gym I frequent has music playing on the radio. Today, however, the radio station broadcasted a preacher. At one point, he said, "You can't out-give God." I have no reason to disagree with him. In Mark 10, Jesus told his followers, "no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age."

I know no one else who could make such a promise, and with good reason. The promise is a bit insensitive. I don't know anyone who loses a brother or sister or mother or father who wants brothers, sisters, mothers, or fathers to replace them. If I lose my brother, I don't want one hundred different ones to replace him. I only want my brother.

Homes and fields, however, I could handle losing those and then receiving a hundred of each to compensate. Different preachers will parse this promise out different ways. The preacher on the radio said you can't expect to reap what you sew on the same day. Crops take a while to mature. Don't stop giving to God if you don't see any return after a few weeks.

I left before the sermon was over, because the man failed to say anything I hadn't heard before. Every time I've heard someone talk about "out giving God," they speak self-centeredly. If we give to God, then God gives to us. "Giving to God" usually means giving money to the church or a specific "ministry," but some preachers will emphasize giving your time to the church or certain ministries. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

Not only have I never heard a preacher emphasize the rest of Jesus' promise (viz., "persecutions"), but I have never heard anyone think giving to God could mean anything other than giving to the church.

The guy on the radio wanted people to memorize "100 important Bible verses" before transitioning into "giving to God." To him, giving to God was memorizing Bible verses out of context for the purpose of getting something in return. You memorize the Bible verses and your life will be better. Give to God so God will give to you. No matter how I see "giving to God" parsed, it is always done selfishly, done so God will give back.

Giving to God is more than tithing and more than memorizing the Bible. Nowhere in the Bible does God, Jesus, Paul, or anyone else say we should memorize anything from the Bible. Memorization is something we have extrapolated from the Bible. I'm not saying it is a bad idea. However, I don't assume it is good for everyone just because it is good for some. I also hate how it is imposed upon most Christians as a way to a better life. Knowing God's words does not necessitate memorization. Even if I am wrong on that account, memorization is certainly not giving anything to God.

Neither is tithing. Tithing is giving to the church. Yes, Christ is the head of the Church, but let us not confuse the head with the thing. And really, it is impossible to give money to God. God has no bank account and requires no money.

As for time, effort, love, praise? Those are things you might be able to give to God. You could possibly convince me that joining the choir is giving to God. Maybe I can agree that inviting people to church is giving to God. Perhaps I could agree that preparing the coffee and sugary, fatty foods at church is giving to God. Scratch that last one, actually, unless the coffee is fairly traded, no styrofoam is used, and the snacks are something that won't tempt people trying to change their unhealthy lifestyle or promote unhealthy living.

Even if those are considered giving to God, how will God give back to us? If I join the choir, will God give me one hundred choirs to join or one hundred hours of free time to make up for the football I miss singing with the choir? Will God give me one hundred times the comfort to replace the discomfort I have in inviting people to church? Will God give me one hundred cups of fairly traded coffee and one hundred ethical, healthy snacks?

According to Mark 10, you will receive what you give up. One lost home yields one hundred homes (and persecution) in this world, and eternal life in the world to come. What if giving to God is akin to Matthew 28 where what you do to the least of people in society's eyes is what you do to God? What if giving to other people is giving to God?

And what if you don't give to God in order to receive? The only true gift is the one given without the possibility to receive in return. All other gifts are not truly gifts, they are exchanges. I give a Christmas card and assume a Christmas card in return. We give birthday gifts and assume a birthday gift when our day of birth arrives. But if we give to those who cannot reciprocate, then we have truly given and our giving is aptly named "gift."

So here is my scenario: we give to the needy. To the hungry we give food, to the poor we give money, to the lonely we give time and companionship, and to the naked and cold we give clothes and shelter. Since we give without a want or expectation in return, then God will give us exactly what we want. The gift of food will be multiplied a hundredfold. The money will grow exponentially. The time and companionship will increase. The shelter and clothes will become many.

Eventually. You don't sew and reap in the same day. Sometimes it takes a while for God to multiply the loaves and fishes, for others to fulfill their calling to give of their loaves and fishes.

In this interpretation, I definitely believe we cannot "out-give God." The more we give, the more God will give through us and others. And we will truly be blessed, because our hearts will not be focused on ourselves and the return of our investments. We will receive exactly what we want: the alleviation of the suffering of others.

Now that's a gift.