Archive for October, 2000
God would not win the upcoming election—and not just for the fuzzy math. If my one-person focus group is anything to go by God comes over altogether too tough, too hard, in the first words out of his mouth today: “Adonai was pleased to crush him in infirmity.” Yikes! Pleased to crush? God needs better advisers! Showing an aggressive mastery of world events is one thing but cruelty is another. We want the kinder, gentler deity we saw in the earlier debates.
I thought maybe the press were taking God out of context but no amount of burrowing in other translations helped. “Was pleased.” Desired. Willed. Wanted. “God desired to crush him.” Ouch! Who is this God? If I didn’t know her better I vote for another party.
Then, in the shower, the thought came to me, “Why am I trying to protect God from his own PR machine? Isn’t God big enough to look after herself?”
And there’s the heart of it. Can God take care of God?
Two little articles deep in the paper yesterday have been worrying at me. Right page: Nebraska is about to vote on another, so-called, “defence of marriage” act. Not only does it rule out recognition of possible future, out-of-state, same-sex marriages but also “the uniting of two persons of the same sex in civil unions, domestic partnerships, or any other similar same-sex relationships.” Whatever you think of same-sex relationships will such an act really protect marriage? Will it bring down the divorce rate? Reduce domestic violence? Care for un-cared-for kids? Who exactly does marriage need protecting from? Those who are married and making a mess of it or those who haven’t yet had their chance? But that’s a quibble—my real question is this: Does marriage need protecting? Isn’t marriage big enough to look after itself?
Left page. The murder of Ita Ford, Maura Clark, Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan is, 20 years on, thank God, in the news again. Two of the Salvadoran Generals at the top of the chain of command that murdered those four women are on trial right now in an American court. The generals, who long ago received amnesty in their own country, had retired to their reward in Florida where the relatives of the dead missionaries have brought civil suit against them. A Maryknoll sister is quoted: “You live with the question and hope the answers will come out. I guess the hope is that the truth will be revealed and there will be an end to impunity.” An end to impunity.
Some people do seem big enough to take care of themselves. The men who pull the trigger. The guys who give the orders. The US advisers who stand by. The American voter who pays for it all in defence of an invulnerable way of life. These are the structures of impunity. Will they come to an end?
The four women had no impunity. They were unable to take care of themselves. And that makes them very like God. Standing in full view. Vulnerable and awkward and unprotected.
“We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but one, Jesus, who has similarly been tempted in every way yet without sin.” The Letter to the Hebrews makes that the mark of the one we follow. Jesus who is tempted in every way we are but doesn’t give in. And, I’m afraid, that’s a problem for me. It is so hard for me to imagine not giving in to temptation! I speak for myself only—but once a desire gets to be strong enough to be called temptation I find it irresistible. They say the only way to deal with temptation is to give in. That—or to not be tempted in the first place. I am a very holy person in all the areas of life I don’t experience temptation. If I try to imagine myself getting holier I find I am imaging myself invulnerable to temptation. I dimly glimpse someone unmoved by disordered desires. Not tempted by tempting toys. Immune to fascination. Spontaneously stoic. I imagine myself getting duller and duller.
Thank God, God has a better imagination than I do! Jesus heads in the opposite direction. Not tempted less but tempted more. Tempted more—because he does not build the structures of impunity you and I build to keep desire at bay. He plunges downward into life and desire and temptation. Vulnerable and awkward and unprotected.
Poor James and John, in their desperate upward climb to glory, pass Jesus going the other way. They want to climb out of the mud to a safe place where they can dry their feet. But Jesus plunges unprotected into the fast-flowing river. “Can you be baptized, drenched, soaked, with the baptism I am baptized?” “We can!” they shout because they think they can take care of themselves. But they can’t. They are better than they think they are—baptism does that to you. It makes you more vulnerable, awkward and unprotected.
And isn’t there something attractive about that? Not safe but attractive. To be like the God who can’t take care of himself. To be like her.
October 31st, 2000
Once upon a time Jesus was praying and the guys who followed him around were watching him. They saw the look upon his face. They saw the something in his aching body. And they looked at each other and they wanted what he had.
Peter spoke up, “I’ve read the best books but I still don’t know how to pray.” John said, “Never mind books, I’ve listened to the best guru’s but I still don’t know how to pray.” “Well,” Matthew added, “books and guru’s are OK but I’ve been to the best workshops and I still don’t know how to pray.”
Jesus was distracted by their wrangling and got up from his prayer to face them. “What’s up now?” he asked. Peter spoke up immediately, “Teach us to pray!” The other all echoed his words. “Teach us how to pray!”
“Is that all? Just say this … ‘Look God … these are the things we need … food, forgiveness, and a father.’”
Silence. Waiting. The sound of breathing. Finally Peter spoke up, “Well I’ve read about prayer of petition … but what about real prayer?” “Yes,” John said, “what comes after the kiddy stuff? Teach us that!” And Matthew, trying to be helpful, prompted Jesus, “You know … meditation, contemplation, centering, focussing … How do we really pray?”
“Oh,” said Jesus, “you want the advanced prayer methods. Well that’s quite a lot harder to explain.” Their eyes lit up. Lips were licked. “Are you sure you are ready? OK! Well in 30-odd years of careful prayer and study I’ve developed the perfect technique. It can be learned with enough discipline and effort—though, I have to warn you, not everyone has the requisite mental clarity and emotional purity to completely master the methodology. Ready? Close your eyes. Breathe deeply. And say, ‘Look God … these are the things we need … food, forgiveness, and a father.’”
October 30th, 2000
Gehenna! … Gehenna! Like ourselves the citizens of Jerusalem were careful to dump their rubbish out of sight and out of mind. Do you know where your daily refuse goes? All those embarrassing reminders of consumption and packaging and waste? Rotting and un-rot-able alike. As far away as possible we hope. Out of nose range.
Jerusalem’s trash went to Gehenna. At least it did once upon a time. To Gehenna, just down the hill from the Holy City’s heights. Gehenna where the fires smoldered constantly. No wonder God-forsaken, un-kosher, Gehenna became the image for hell.
So here’s Jesus getting all riled up over justice again. “Better to live missing an eye than go open-eyed into Gehenna. Better be crippled in the kingdom than go leaping and dancing into hell.” And the sin he’s giving out over: giving scandal to the little ones. And by that he doesn’t mean making children blush. He means all we do that makes it harder for the little ones—the poor, the hungry, the hidden, the hurting—harder for them to believe that God is good, that God cares.
It is so hard to listen to James condemn the rich because by his standards we all are condemned. Just living here in California condemns us. We might be poor here and still out-eat the world’s starving. We might be scorned here but still outrank the world’s despised. Without trying we make it harder for the little ones to believe God cares. Do they even get a mention in the race for president? War does, security and prosperity do. But the ones we waste?
And all the time there’s Gehenna, the world’s dump, the world’s hell. The waste we have to discard to keep on growing. The expendable poor our great nation is built upon. The bargains we have made for our livelihood.
But we don’t remember making those bargains. We didn’t mean to harm anyone. And—God help us!—we don’t know how to undo the damage. That’s the scandal. “Scandal” used to mean the thing you fell over that sprung the trap, the trigger, the trip-wire. We are trapped by our own desire for life. And we are snared because we do not know how to be free. The price of freedom seems too steep: “better to cut your foot off and than be trapped in Gehenna.”
Enough of the melodrama, already! The Jews may be obsessed with cleanliness and kosher laws but isn’t it going a bit far to make the town dump into hell?! I mean why get guilty over a natural process, over ordinary waste, over the inevitable cost of human living?
There is a reason. Gehenna haunts the imagination for more than being a garbage pile. Gehenna holds a guilty secret. Before it was a dump for a city’s refuse it was a place of sacrifice. Once upon a time it was where the children were taken and offered to the flames to satisfy a hungry god. Not that long ago. Among the ashes of rot and refuse the bones of little ones. Not that long ago.
And there’s the echo for us, the accusation. Are our dreams are built on a graveyard? All the sacrificial victims of our security and prosperity. All the little ones.
At the centre of Rosh Hashanah is Abraham’s scandalous sacrifice of Isaac. Who is more trapped in that story? Isaac bound to the altar with rope… or Abraham bound to murder by his fear of a hungry god?
All Abraham wanted was the prosperity promised him—the descendants as many as the stars, the lands, the flocks, the renown. All we want is what think we need.
Once upon a time the citizens of Jerusalem sacrificed their little ones because they thought it would win prosperity from a hungry God. We still don’t know a way out of that trap, that scandal.
Or maybe we do. In Jewish tradition you can only seek forgiveness from the person you have wronged. But how can the little ones forgive us when they are out of sight and out of mind, when they are buried? We believe there is one little one who will not refuse us. Jesus himself. Somehow Jesus frees us from the economy of wasted lives. But only by becoming the ultimate child-sacrifice. The little one to end all little ones. We wasted him. His bones are in Gehenna. And because he is there we never need to be there ourselves. On behalf of all the wasted little ones he sets us free once and for all.
But it does take some action on our parts. A Jewish custom for these days of Rosh Hashanah is to go and find a pool of water, a river, an ocean. Somewhere the fish swim freely. And there to empty your pockets into the water. It’s a double symbol. You throw away all the year’s sin, all its wasted hopes, all its unnecessary sacrifices. The fish carry them away. But you also leave with empty pockets. Poor with the poor. Little with the little ones. And you say thank you to God for all you have been given in giving it all away.
October 29th, 2000