Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Genesis 22:1-19 Kill Your Darlings

We -- for once, I am including myself in the culture I'm essentializing -- don't like this Abraham story. When Americans read about parents mattering, and children not mattering, most of us get outraged and sentimental. It is easy to target as intolerable the idea that a parent could move to obey anyone, even God, by hurting his child.

If we have children, we undoubtedly have hurt them over and over, out of ignorance or selfishness or indifference; but that isn't deliberate. And then, of course, in our efforts to care for our children, to present them with the best food and stimulating toys and cute overalls, we participate in a system that also produces the deaths of children (and adults): what I have and enjoy is related to things that someone else's child does not have and has suffered through. But that's because the world is not fair; it happens far enough away that we can forget that each action that maintains this world order is itself deliberate. Killing your child is an unimaginable sin; turning a blind eye to the preventable deaths of other people's children is an unavoidable reality.

We can ignore kids who die as long as the reason for their death remains large, vague, and unrelated to our standard of living, as long as the kids remain far away and speak different languages, or are nearby, but different enough from ourselves to be somehow at fault. Abraham doesn't get an out like ours. God says: kill him. And Abraham says nothing; he just gets the knife. And that, more than the child abuse we could address and the poverty and abandonment with which we could interfere, makes a neon focal point of our self-righteousness. It costs us nothing to feel, in 2010, that this whole dilemma should have cost Abraham more. To assume that, because he was willing to do it, it couldn't have really cost him that much at all.

Abraham's violence here is the kind that post-modern Americans are conditioned hate and fear most: the deliberate violence that believes it is acting out of mission. Judging from the fact that yesterday, kids died because they didn't have clean water, and I enjoyed a tasty latte, I, for one, am much more comfortable with the passive violence of living in a system in which children die and I can afford to buy more stuff. It's normal to be too busy earning money and buying stuff to think about how this might affect other people, to wonder where all this wealth is coming from. It's inhuman to look at your child and kill him, whatever god is telling you to do so. Who could do that?

Maybe more to the point: who would want to do that? I wanted to drink that latte; I want to feel good about myself but still be able to afford what I need and what I want. Basically, I don't want to sacrifice anything, so it's really a lot better for me if this man, who will sacrifice everything, is actually crazy or selfish.

But this isn't a story about a religious fanatic or an indifferent father. It's not that Abraham doesn't love his son. He does -- the text points it out so that that small, painful fact isn't lost in less sympathetic aspects of Abraham's sacrifice. Abraham's life, with respect to his own ego, but also with respect to his God, has always been about this child, and the entire nation that will come from it. This is not just what Abraham loves most, the only real family he has left, on the alter, it is who he is and who he is meant to be. However patriarchal the society, I don't believe that you slaughter your son like an animal and still want to live with yourself.

So: why? Why do we have to give up what we love most to be a blessing? Why test us at all, when you're God and you know the outcome?

I think it's because we don't know the outcome. We can't, or it would defeat the purpose: Abraham is willing to kill Isaac, not because he has faith that God will intervene, but because he can suspend his own understanding of the world in favor of a worldview in which Isaac can die and things can still be all right.

I think this is our project on Earth: to live until we get to the point at which we no longer believe that life is about getting what we want. You start out wanting basic things, move on to wanting selfish things, and then learn to want progressively more "noble" things. But what's meant to happen, I think, is that you learn that happiness does not consist of getting the things you want, however admirable and understandable those things are, however sympathetic you appear for wanting them.

If life is about having the things you want, then it is profoundly unfair to most of us and ultimately kind of pointless for all of us. If, through having and loving and valuing something, I can learn to give up what I love for something deeper, something I can't objectify and claim, then I can understand my life in terms of a purpose that doesn't become entirely arbitrary when I die and can't have anything anymore. We are given things, I think, so we can learn that giving them up won't kill us -- or, that if it does, it won't rip the meaning from our lives.

This, I think, is how God provides: He gives us a lifetime, however long or short, to learn to reach Him. To learn that we can only do so through that process by which we learn to stop trying to hold onto the things we have or go after the things we want.

It's hard to do: a lack of ambition doesn't make you seem peaceful or spiritual. It kind of makes you seem aimless and lazy. It's hard to believe that shutting up about your own mission and goals can be the right thing to do when everyone we learn to admire, we admire precisely for what they accomplished, and since the function of self esteem seems most often to be: see yourself as as good as other people.

But I do believe that my own life is most meaningful when I can stop trying so hard to determine my next step and can listen and obey. Even when it seems to put at risk the things I value; even when other people don't see or respect what I am doing; even when I'm left with less to say at my high school reunion. There is freedom, as well as pain, in recognizing that anything I can pursue on my own -- however deeply I may love it -- ultimately has no permanent place in my life. It hurts, and it is also a blessing. I think.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

In Everything You Do: Genesis 21: 22-32

I haven't been writing because I didn't even know where my Bible was for about two weeks (it was under a bunch of library books, not far from where I sat obsessing and reading said books).

I haven't cared where the Bible was because I've been agitated and depressed, simultaneously.

I've been agitated and depressed because I haven't bothered to do any of the things that make me feel like life is worth living, really. Or, because I have been trying so doggedly to do the right thing, the good thing, the thing that will make me feel that my particular life is justified. Is earned, maybe, rather than a gift over which I have no real control?

The crux of my current malaise comes down to: I've been offered an interesting job, a job at which I think I would learn and grow a lot, and job that would allow me to continue with my nursing program, get some more administrative experience, get to know more about urban education, get to make some more money and pay off some of our loans and maybe afford to foster a child, to have a child. Maybe explore social work school, maybe have more volunteer opportunities. But -- definitely -- have to come to terms with working a Real Grown Up, not world-saving job.

Granted, I'd be ensuring that a new crop of teachers gets trained to teach. I'd be managing a program I believe in.

But I wouldn't be anyone's personal Jesus Christ.

The thing is, you know, I'm not that anyway.

Not to sound like the chick from Jesus Camp, but I prayed about this. Broken from bingeing and purging for the past week, I'm just, like, Hagar-ing it up, here. Just saying: God. Please. Please, God. Show me the right thing to do. Help me to pull it together. Cause fuck if I can do it on my own, you know?

And here's this little Abraham anecdote, which, when I first read it, seems to be totally pointless. He's just chilling with the Philistines: giving them lambs, digging wells, and what? What does this have to do with God's Work (can I get a tm?) What does this have to do with my current obsessions of Helping People and Being a Good Person?

And it's like, not much. Because Abraham, by this point, is at least moderately over himself. A stance one might heartily recommend to me.

This guy Phicol -- presumably not a scholar or priest of the Jewish God -- sees Abraham, who is a businessman, who is not running a free after school program or starting community service projects, and he says: God is with you in everything you do. I don't really know much about your God, but I can see that.

God is not waiting until what you do counts as service or seems selfless or anything else. God is with you in what you are doing, right now. God loves you -- not because you are engaged in a Noble Profession, not because you are concretely saving the world. God. loves. you. God has you here, running a household, trading and traveling and doing this not-overtly-service-oriented thing, for a reason. God wants you here, doing this, because He's got a plan in mind. A plan that doesn't so much involve you sounding impressive at a reunion or going to sleep self-satisfied or looking back on all you have accomplished.

God wants you here, doing this: being honest, showing kindness, handling disagreements with grace. Calling in My Name.

Doing good things, things that need to be done, is important. But doing things because they make you sound like a better person, is dumb. What if I need to be at this job because I'm going to meet someone who needs something I can give them, or because it will let me volunteer, or become a nurse, or afford a child? What if I need to shut up and stop this calculus of What is the Most Noble Work I can do and think, honestly, about what seems like the next best move? And trust it is happening this way for a reason? And remember that my relationship with God is infinitely more my business than is proving that I'm a Good Person?

If I can just fucking listen, and obey, for like, fifteen minutes -- rather than obsessing -- I may actually find that God is with me in everything I do. I just have to get over myself a little bit in order to see Him.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Bawl: Genesis 21:13-21

It's a lot easier for me to relate to Sarah than to Hagar. Even now, when I am pulling myself together after a pretty big Not-Getting of something I wanted, badly, I have to -- feel committed to -- acknowledging my privilege. I'm bad at that. I forget that, of the worries I've had and the things that I have lost, I've never had the same kind of desperate Hagar is having, here. I'm starving and I can't feed my child; I'm in the desert, about to die of thirst, and I can't even ask for help. She doesn't even ask to be relieved, or for her son to be saved. She just cries.

So I get torn, here, and start thinking about the mothers and children who I could be helping. I could do God's work and help these hungry, thirsty, homeless, traumatized people. Isn't that what He wants? Instead of feeling sorry for myself, shouldn't I be grateful for the things I have and recognize how much better than everyone else I have it?

I don't think that's what God wants, no. Because how hard is it, really, for God to fix this seeming Deep Shit, right? He "opens her eyes" and there the water is. He seemed to handle it without me running an after school program or giving them a shelter or finding water for them.

That's not to say that we shouldn't do more to help those in need -- that I, in particular, shouldn't get over the disappointment of losing this baby and look for where I can love others, where I can be of use. But I think it is to say that actual service, the kind tat makes life better and brings you closer to God, to those you serve, shouldn't beging with a socioeconomic analysis of whose life is harder and whose privilege is more significant. It should begin with this: the recognition that I am broken, that me, in relation to other with more or fewer concrete benefits, matters less than me in relation to God. And that, with respect to God, I am infinitely broken. I can't even ask for what I need; I don't even know. It's larger than water or a job or peace. In the moment where the thing you need is keeping you from living, that thing becomes a universal signifier -- it's everything. And, unable to proprose a solution to God, you can only turn your head up and cry.

I don't need a new job or a new attitude or to serve more or to care for myself more. I need to recognize that I am lost and broken. That the act of restoring me is no less a miracle than that of restoring a homeless person, a refugee, a cancer patient. That I deserve to be healed as much, and need healing as badly. That my role isn't actually to fix the world's problems for God -- aren't You proud of me? Didn't I do good? -- but to recognize that every single thing I do, I do because of His grace. To experience that grace, and to allow that experience to diret my life, so that I'm not serving because I have and others don't have; I am serving because I have been given so much and the logical conclusion is to give as abundantly as I have been given to. Recognizing that everything I have and am now, also points to everything I had done, and was, before.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Entitlement: Genesis 21: 8-13

Before I even get into the intensity of my identification with Hagar in this passage, I hve to deal with Sarah, again. It's such an old story, cathartic whenever you see it, in PT Anderson movies and in bio-movies-of-the-week and in Disney and in chick lit. You start out from this place of insufficiency, and that lack makes you human, and likable; anyone could identify.

And then the good things everyone wants for you, happen. And you turn ugly, turn entitled. Look at your servant -- a single mom whose baby dady comes home to you and your kid every night, whose adolescent son is cut out in favor of an infant, and you don't see the ways in which your life is made better, and easier, at her expense, or that while you were the one who brought her into this, she never asked to be part of any of it. And you say: get her out. Fuck her.

And what you're not doing, is giving other people the hope you were intended to give -- or, at least, are capable of giving. I don't think the point of praise is to let God know how awesome He is, though I guess I do have a sense that when you praise God, things are as they should be, they way they are when a theorem is employed in reaching an elegant conclusion, or when justice is served, or when I am caring for a human being who needs what I can provide. Besides that rightness, though, I think praise is essential for us, so that we can see the world as it is -- a good place, a place with possibility, a place to respect and appreciate and revere. I think that praise, that bearing witness to what you have been and what you are, now, is essential because it allows people who have lost things to see that their loss is a loss -- not an indictment, not a failing. It lets them see that their pain is part of something universal and temporary.

Once, I was fifteen, and smart, and loved, and so unhappy that I thought swallowing all the pills my family had was the next right action for me. Once, I could not get through a day without sleeping with a stranger, cutting myself, or throwing up a hundred dollars' worth of food. Once, I hated myself enough that I could not find a single word to say to stop a random friend from ejaculating into my eyes while I passed out. Whether because of my own weakness or stupidity or failings, or because life is what it is, and not what I would have special-ordered, my life was painful and asinine and unproductive and lonely.

Now, it doesn't hurt like that. It doesn't always feel awesome, but I have been restored in a way that I should, by rights, be worshipping God over every day. Because it felt so shitty before that the only kind of comfort I could imagine was to be violent to myself -- and now I can see, even when I am hurt, that I don't need to starve or be hurt or die to correct what hurts me.

And the proper response to that, I believe, should be this conclusion: that life is essentially good, and that I know it is, because I have experienced it. God is good, all the time, because look: I wake up and I want to live. I can work, and love my husband and family, and be useful, and give to others, and I did not think I could do anything besides eat and throw up and hate myself. And to the extent that this is only my life that is this way -- could there be a greater opportunity, privilege or obligation than to find a way to help along this transformation in others?

But I forget that. I forget that moment where I realized that I didn't have to live that way, when I realized that I was comfortable in my skin, that my life was something I wanted. We forget that we would have done anything for a child, and then we have one and now we just want everyone to do things our way, because who are they, compared to us? What is what they have, compared to what we have? So what can they be worth, when we have everything and they have... nothing as good?

And God, here, is like, listen to Sarah. She's right about this; Isaac's the son I intended for you. But it doesn't change this: that Sarah, here, is small in the same way I, Amanda, am small. That she is missing the entire point of Isaac, which is: All nations will praise Me because of you. And so this chapter ends, not with Sarah -- the miracle God promised -- but with a miracle that basically eclipses hers, even though hers is the point.

I mean, who do you remember, here? Who makes you remember what God is? Not Sarah, who has already forgotten how she begged and planned and threatened to get her child, who already thinks this is just one more thing she deserves. The chapter moves on: she didn't get it, really, even after her son was born. Fail.

It's Hagar who's the mom, here, and it's Hagar who God delivers and with whom the story ends. She ends up with nothing except her son, alive, surprise watar, and this: that, Sarah having missed the boat entirely, God turns his grace on her, and she gets it.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Oh, Right: Genesis 21: 1- 7

Okay, so Sarai/Sarah's story can read a million different ways. There's reading it before you've ever been pregnant, or thought too much about being pregnant. There's reading it when you are, unexpectedly and joyfully, pregnant. There's reading it when you have just found out that your baby died inside you, that it never could have lived, anyway, and when you are going in later to have it suctioned out, and when you are waiting to be Ready to Try Again.

God gave me something, see, and I thought -- like people do -- that I deserved it. I want a child, badly. I thought it was My Thing, the thing I would have to justify my existance -- where I don't know, day to day, why I am here. It was a less destructive Thing to have -- maybe -- than an eating disorder. But you will see that, having lost it, I went right back into bulimia. Furiously. Resentfully. Meanly. If God couldn't get with the fucking program, well, I'll just make my own life, make my own fun. Find my own way to wake up and believe I should be awake.

And I feel like I'm going crazy, and I go to all this therapy, and it's because of one fundamental thing that I fail to get. Which is: you don't make your life. You don't have to make your life -- as liberating as that possibility can seem. You -- I -- have been given a life, with a million things that could be wonderful and painful and disappointing and incoherent and surprising and comforting and sublime and correct. And you take and do and experience the things that seem like the best idea at the time, and, for God's sake, try and be there for them rather than looking for the next thing.

Right now, I don't have a child. I may believe that God wants me to have children, or adopt them, or not have or adopt them and do something else, but I'm just reiterating my own ideas of what my life should be until or unless I actually shut up and stop moving and trying and actually listen. If God wanted me to have had this child, I would have had it.

Maybe He didn't because I am supposed to go to this foster orientation thing and find my child there. Maybe He didn't because I'm supposed to go to nursing school, first. Maybe He didn't because I still need to get over myself and accept that things don't happen because I want them to. Maybe God wants me at CAMBA for the rest of my life and that is something to praise Him for, not resent.

I don't know. I keep thinking I know, but I don't. And that is, for me, the lesson that keeps me creeping through Genesis, because it is so hard for me to get. I have wonderful things for you -- not things you choose and order out of a catalog, but things of a value you can't yet understand. What you would choose for yourself, and what I will choose for you, can't be compared. So hold still, stop coordinating your husband's paternity or your career or your family planning, and notice the things you've been given. Notice that I want to be close to you -- and remember that once, before you got what you thought you wanted, that was what you wanted.

If, through losing my baby, absolutely nothing changes except that I understand something about God, and life, and loving others, that I did not understand before, then that is still a gift. And my responsibility, as sorry as I feel for myself now, is not to try and interpret what happened in a way that I can accept. It is to accept that I am not in charge, that God doesn't need to seek my approval before my life changes, and that enjoying what is, is actually a more valuable skill than envisioning and then forcing what is not.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Things that Should Not Be Done: Genesis 20

Genesis 20 is a good chapter to read, like, immediately after reading an extensive treatment of how Christians screwed over "heathens" -- man, if only this wasn't one of probably hundreds of books, each with that very theme, each with a different event in focus, right?

I think the tendency here is to look at Abraham's repeated failings towards God as failures of belief, or of faith, only: see, even the Godly mess up! But Abraham is not just sinning against God, here, but against those he's implicating by allowing them to run off with his wife. The moment of truth here, I think, is the moment who Abimelech goes to Abraham and tells him what every student of European and US history -- what any reader of the freaking newspaper -- has (hopefully) thought more than once: You have done to me things that should not be done.

And we've heard, too, the same response, over and over: But there's no fear of God in you. Sorry, I thought it didn't matter. Oops, my bad; since you don't know Jesus, I assumed you were going to bomb this plane. Since you worship the Earth, I figured you weren't fit to raise your own children; since you're from the Dark Continent, I figured you wouldn't mind if I raped your wife and enslaved your kids. Since you don't believe in God, there's really no point in feeding you/setting you free/curing your malaria/treating your HIV, right? We can't do anything for Those People, besides protect yourself from them. Often the closest to Christ we get is to feel sorry for the things evil has created in their lives -- not realizing that we are engaged in the system that is creating these evils, that their starvation is tied to our Caribbean cruise, our out-of season grapes, our SUV and McDonald's and excess. We are doing things that should not be done.

The list of things we, as Christians, did, that should not be done, is not only lengthy and egregious. It is contemporary. Current things I should not have done to non-believers:

blown off the drug addict wanting money like she wasn't there,
judged my friends for wanting nice things,
paid my credit card bill down while kids are starving,
skimped on tithe because, when it comes to it, I can't fully trust God,
tacitly endorsed an economy that blatantly wastes things that people need,
snapped at parents who had had a long day.

most painful, I've ignored:
homeless, the hungry, the sick, the jailed, the enslaved, the exploited, the oppressed, the widowed, the orphaned, the disenfranchised... those who believe differently and those who I don't understand. Because, whatever I say about why I'm doing this, at heart, my relationship with God is not right.

And it's here that I see this other prelude to the gospel: I mean, here's Abraham being and instrument of Abraham, and here's God, speaking through Abimelech -- the not-God-loving king with whom Abraham was afraid to just be straight. While Abraham was justifying why he had to lie to and endanger the ungodly, Abimelech was taking his cues from God. While the Jews/Pharisees/Evangelicals are praying comfortably before heading off to a pleasant meal, God is talking to those who are on the outside, who weren't raised in church but who can recognize His voice when they hear it.

Too often, the assumption that God only speak to and through Christians, per se, turns into a belief that God is only on the Christian's side -- so why listen to anyone else? I think you can recognize the presence of God in the lives of non-Christians without taking your focus off Jesus. It invites me, at least, to re-examine the idea that belief in Christ and access to God has to look a specific way. It's evident here that Abimelech is the one down with God; I wonder how many times its been Ghandi, or Malcolm, or Black Elk, hearing from God, and Abraham, or Nixon, or John Paul, drowning Him out. If there's one message that Christians (everyone) hates to hear, and that Christians, especially, need to here, it's this: you have done to me (are doing to me) things that should not be done.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Law Like Love: Genesis 19:30-38

Okay, so, here's a thing about this story, and the wildly entertaining experience that is being inside my head: I start with these last 8 verses of Genesis 19 and end up wanting to convert to Judaism.

Obviously, I can't. I am so into Jesus it's kind of bizarre to people who know me; in fact, part of my desire to start the Bible with Genesis (apart from the obvious addiction to making things hard for myself and the chronology related OCD) is that I want to flesh out my experience of the Trinity a little. (The rest of the Bible is there for a reason, right?)

But man, do I love the concept of midrash. And I wish there were a way to go to synagogue and not feel like a voyeur, since I am not and can't be Jewish. I want to be, because I crave community. Because I am -- at heart -- a scholar. Because I love that someone besides me (Rabbis!) are obsessing about Lot and his daughters. What I want is Christians who act like Jews. What I want, basically, is to be Lauren Winner.

Anyway. Lot and the cave.

In OA, people talk about fear as a character defect; it is evident that Lot never got that far in the 12-step process (unfortunate, since I would say that "waking up and realizing I had knocked up both of my daughters" would make a pretty solid rock bottom.) But it seems like equivocation is a kind of elephant-in-the-cave kind of issue for this family. From the beginning of the chapter, where he is looking out of the city, but not leaving, to his begging to stay in Zoar, then being too afraid to do that, to his getting too drunk to hold off his virgin daughters, Lot seems more pitiful than evil. He's not exactly collaborating with what's going on around him, but he's not standing up to it, either. In a lot of ways, I guess, what we have here is a foil to his uncle, right? I mean, Abraham is here, approaching God himself to save this nephew who was last seen grabbing up all the good, easy land for himself. Lot's parallel seems to be a. the "operation-human-shield" he plays with his daughters and the Sodomoites, and b. negotiating the Zoar deal on the basis of "I can't handle fleeing to the mountains," only to reneg and end up groveling in a cave.

He's so human, is the thing. He's so much the result of a world with no code or order or spirit. He is broken, and debased, and shamed. Shamed by the compromises he has made, or attempted to made, then shamed again by the daughters who were hurt by those compromises and essentially objectify him. A lot of the commentary I found suggest that Lot's biggest parenting misstep was to take his girls to Sodom in the first place. I think the bigger error was to be conformed to Sodom, to be so unwilling to either take a stand or follow through that he can't father them as much as sire them. He is powerless.

And I think that may be a truer understanding of the human condition than is the understanding that says we tend towards evil. Here, the "protagonist" is less evil than he is helpless -- but, like Abraham, he doesn't see it. He keeps trying to come up with these solutions, but each one seems to fail more spectacularly than the last. And his daughters, girls after his own heart, and Abraham's, pick up the trend. According to Lot's daughters, God -- despite smiting the entire world they know, but miraculously sparing them -- is not sufficient to continue their family. It's clear to them that they need to take matters into their own hands and get moving on the incest thing. (How long had they even been in the cave before they came to that conclusion? What else did they try first? Not much, it seems from Genesis 19).

And yet. The narrative commentary on this little chapter -- basically, the last chapter in Lot's family until we pick up with Ruth the Moabite -- is that: out of this spinelessness and backwards family planning, we get two entire nations. An inauspicious start to a new people, I guess, but then, no more so than the Cain and Abel story, or Babel. It seems like almost every family and every nation in the Bible has some fundamental shame or another. We come from dirt, from murder, from incest, from rape. There is nothing in our human genealogy to recommend us, is the point.

This is maybe more significant than it seems, at first, since I think there is this basic trend towards humanism in the "sophisticated" classes of each era. The answer to a Divine source of human value, now and before, seems to be a human, material, or immediate source. There may not be a God, but there is a higher plane of existence that we attain independent of God. This story -- like about fifty other ones in Genesis, I think -- says, not so much. Scratch the surface and the very best the world has to offer is still weak, pitiful, and naked; conniving, not even out of evil, but out of desperation. This is what we are without God -- this kind of perversion is not even worthy of comment, here. It's just the way things are when we are left to our own devices.

Because I can say this for the Lot family: this is before all those books of Law that make it clear that rape and incest are abominable. They hadn't been told this yet. So the Law -- which seems like such a strange thing to love the way the Pslamist seems to love it -- is the corrective, not to our evil nature, not to us, but to our suffering, to the kind of degradation that lawlessness creates.

Put that way, the Law becomes a kind of salvation rather than the thief of joy you'd think. Before Christ, the law is what takes us out of our caves.

The tendency to see God as this big killjoy or impossible judge dissipates when you really look at what anarchy looks like here. It's less this Rousseau-ian garden and more this incestuous cave. Just like academic and physical discipline elevate couch potatoes into scholars and champions, spiritual and ethical discipline elevate us from cave-dwelling victims to children of God, to chosen people, to disciples.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

For the Lord was Merciful: Genesis 19:15-29

I feel self-conscious identifying as a perfectionist. Honestly, I never feel like I'm fulling living up to any claim I make about myself, and this one, of course, trends towards black-and-whiteness -- much like me.

In fact, one of the reason I've struggled so much with the Bible is that my experience of it is so wrapped up with the intense need to be good and exemplary and perfect all the time. Ideally, I could go to God with the things that hurt me, but I get paralyzed by my sense of my own inadequacy, until that sense of inadequacy diverts me entirely from my initial desire to serve Him through my work. So not only is the fact that staff saw me raising my voice at parents and kids yesterday incredibly demoralizing, but my shame over that takes over any efforts I have to focus on God: but before God can save me and I can experience His love, can I have a do-over on this shitty day? Because I can do better...

It keeps happening: I think of God, and then I think of the ways I haven't been what God wants, and I am so disappointed with myself, and my worship ends up shifting focus onto me. And I know that what I need is to see my failings as an opportunity for God's grace, an opportunity to see His goodness -- and for my staff to see it too.

I'm thinking of this now, reading the rest of the Sodom and Gomorrah story, because here's the thing: Lot and his family aren't that righteous. (Again with the offering his daughters to the rapists! Again with the raping dad when he's drunk!) Strictly speaking, this story isn't really about God's response to sin, though I always thought it was. But as a cautionary tale, really it fails wholly: the people who get saved are sinful, just like the ones who die. This isn't really about how only Lot and his family were good; they really weren't. This is a story about the mercy God shows, not because of Lot's goodness, but because of His. Even after Lot is shown this divine and astounding grace, he doesn't understand what he's been given: he turns and asks the angels if they can give him just one more thing.

That's what it's like with us and God. Any good thing I am given, I am given in addition to an infinite amount of goodness I don't deserve. A good day at work is icing on the gigantic freaking cake that is my life with God. That I am able to serve at all is a gift; for me to ask that I end each day feeling good about myself is the 21st century workaholics version of asking to be saved, but in a more convenient locale.

The world wants to annihilate all of us, really. My eating disorder, the things wrong with my brain, is probably the most visible aspect of this, for me -- but everyone is hanging on the edge of their own kind of destruction. Though some of us are more comfortable than others, those comforts are meaningless. I am at the mercy of a world in which what I deserve, in and of myself, is to be destroyed. I don't have a right to any of the things I have.

But God has given these things to me anyway, not because of the differences between my sin and other, more dramatic sins -- but because I am His. Even if I am conflicted, even if I am begging for just a little accommodation, even if I really can't commit. Even if leaving my life -- with its ego tripping and its self importance and its anxiety and shame -- is so hard I don't think I can do it, God has a whole rescue plan worked out. He won't save me because I am good; He saves me because I am His, and to the degree that I am His, I am good. I need to look at Him and where He is leading me -- not at what I think I am, or at what I am leaving behind when I go with Him.

And when I do that, what seems like the end of the world may actually start to look like a beginning. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah ends with Abraham, and he's looking down at what's gone. But when we Abraham, we're looking at him, not at the ashes. We're remembering that what the story is really about is this covenant, and that God's plan hasn't even really become manifest yet.

All this -- the things you thought were everything, the "it's all" you're thinking of when you say "it's all over" -- it was just a prelude. You thought the world was ending; it's not. You though you knew the beginning and end of who you were; but really, you had no idea. It's only when you're led out of the place you thought of as the world, that you start to see who you really are. It's only when I let go of my need to see myself, and to see myself in just this light, that I can look around me and see that I'm in the story, but I am not the story. That whether I'm a good site coordinator or not is not what's happening here. It's only when I let myself be guided to a place where the things around me cannot be made into a reflection of me, that I become part of something bigger than I am. That I become what, and where I am meant to be.

Friday, April 30, 2010

There's a war in the city tonight: Genesis 19: 1-14

Sometimes, I wish I had a mentor, someone to school me. I worry about my tendency to get committed to ideas I like, notwithstanding whether they are actually in the text I am reading.

That said, I'm getting really excited about how to oriented the God-love I read all over Genesis with the gospel story. I think the thing that is so interesting about this chapter, and, in particular, Lot and his family's experience in Sodom, is the contrast between that experience and the experience of Christians in the Gospel and in Acts.

Things are totally dangerous here: you can see that in how the story is set up. Lot is on the edge of the city, looking out. He could be thinking about any number of things: wishing he hadn't insisted on this land, maybe, or wondering how to avoid anal rape. But when he sees these foreign guys show up, he's not wasting any time wanting to usher them out of sight, into his house. It's like a zombie movie, but with rapists.

Reading this, I understand how destruction can be an act of compassion. After all, what is motivating God to destroy Sodom here? It's the outcry of the people. Since Cain and Abel, God has been showing Himself to be wholly attuned to the voices of His people -- even the voices of those who have been silenced. And while I believe He grieved for the people of Sodom -- after all, if any of them had been righteous, He would have spared the entire city -- I think He was outraged by the pain and disaster they were causing everyone else.

People compare the world, now, to Sodom and Gomorrah. But I don't know; I think that's an excuse. To me, I think Christ really reworked the terms of how we can engage the world, because you don't see the disciples or the early church or even the martyrs rushing each other inside to get away from the cities they live in. They are going to them, because ultimately Christ offers a way of dealing with the sin and evil in the world -- the things we cry out over -- that is so much bigger. We're not called to flee this world, but to bring God here. We're not in the business of hiding away or offering up peace offerings to try and hold off the world. We don't need to do that any more.

That, I think, is how the Gospels changed things, how Christ changed things. And it is so critical -- because the feelings in Genesis 19 are terrible. Lot is skulking outside, desperately offering up his children to hold off this mob out the door. Escaping the world he knows with the clothes on his back, gutted because he doesn't yet know what God knows: that this, Sodom, is not the world. Is not His kingdom. That the point of the world is the establishment of a kingdom that the inhabitants of Sodom, Lot included, probably couldn't understand -- a kingdom in which you can respond to threats with courage and love, and where things can be fixed without fire and brimstone. That world exists -- only no one in Sodom would believe it.

Lot and his family cannot even imagine a life that is not terrible, a life where they are not afraid. They know so little of the world that they would stay in Sodom if they could. So God, in the middle of fixing things for the people who are suffering in Sodom, has His angels lead Lot out of the city by hand.

The most awesome thing about God that I'm thinking about today is the way that the story, since Lot, has become more nuanced, more elaborate, and our role in it more significant than just fleeing. I really believe -- my Second Coming schooling aside -- that God's fixing the world in a more power and less destructive way, preparing us, and has a role for me in that. And the fact that He has planned a place for me in that world and that vision is more than good management: it's the best kind of love. It's love that sees the possibilities in the most flawed people. It's love that sees where we can be and will take our hands and pull us there if it needs to.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Not Even One: Genesis 18:16-33

So, a few things I am thinking about today as I drag my feet through Genesis 18:

1. The nature of blessing. Z and I were discussing this at length yesterday after reading an except from this awesome book The idea, I think, is that a blessing is something in which you participate. Awesomely, my new pastor said it best: from opportunity comes joy. I think blessings are those things that allow you to come closer to God -- which really expands the nature of blessing.

2. Marriage being a blessing. I have to say, I married Z. without thinking much about it. we didn't go to counseling; I didn't make a lists of pros and cons. I prayed, but I think I felt sure it was the right thing to do before I prayed, so that prayer may have been more one sided than one would hope. And my feeling sometimes is that it was a misstep, because Z and I have so little in common.

But it is probably the very best thing God could have done for me. I have grown so much (and still have so much room to grow. He pushes me -- without even realizing it, I think -- so that even though his experience of God and faith feels incoherent to me, sometimes, it also challenges mine. Most of all, he is an un-self-conscious advocate of the basic and fundamental reality that I have struggled with so much in my life: the world is good.

And this is so deeply entrenched in the Bible that I am appalled that I could have missed it so entirely, could still have to say it and, like, reflect on it, and come to it again, as a new conclusion, almost every day. Praising God is good, yes. Christian fellowship is good, yes. But so many other things are good, too! Sex is good. Eating a meal is good. Taking a walk and going grocery shopping and reading a novel -- not just the Bible -- and, heck, watching a movie -- those are good, too. Having a beer with friends: good! Gardening with mom: good! Listening to people, not as a service, but as a means of connection to them: good!

The world is worth working to save, to help, because it is good. Not because I am good -- which is my temptation, to simultaneously believe that working a fifty hour week for my kids is absolutely critical, but then to not enjoy or truly value a single child because I Am Too Busy.

And here, I think, is where Genesis 18 gets so splendid. Because you see here so clearly that God loves Sodom. He loves it so much that if there were a single good person there, He would spare it. He loves it so much that He would save everything to help a single group of people. He will tolerate so much ugliness to preserve such a small goodness. He wants the world. Even when it is detestable, He wants it. Even when it goes against what is fundamental to Him, He wants it.

The second, more comfortable truth in this story, of course, is the reality that the concessions He has made are still not enough. There aren't ten good people in Sodom; I suspect that, if this story played out to its logical conclusion, what is left unsaid is that there isn't one. The tendency, I think, is to see Lot and his family as the good people -- I remember counting them up as a project to show that they fell short of ten -- but I also remember that Lot, the best the city had to offer, was still offering up his daughters for gang-rape. His wife ends up turned to salt for her lack of commitment; his daughters rape him in his sleep. I would not say these people are righteous. He saves them -- though not the whole city -- because God has to do more than meet us halfway. God offers to meet us halfway, then a quarter, then a single step ahead of where we are -- and when we fail completely, He pulls out Plan B.

This is the nature of God, and it is enough that it should more than quell the anxiety I feel about myself and my life. What a small satisfaction, you know, in feeling like I've done a Good Enough job in my career. Of course that doesn't satisfy: in the best case scenario, I've succeeded in something so ephemeral, so limited, that I still go home needing to binge and purge, needing something I will never, never have or accomplish on my own. The best I have to offer: not enough.

More gloriously, it doesn't have to be. God loves me despite the reality that in myself I have nothing worth loving. Which, you know, would be a pretty shitty feeling, except: I am not in myself. I can isolate myself from God in an effort to be valuable apart from Him -- which won't work -- or I can stay connected to Him and be justified through Him. It comes down to: would I rather be lovable in and of myself, so I can feel proud? Or would I rather be humbled -- and recognize the love that God is willing to pour down on me.

That's a serious question. Some part of me would rather have the terrible things I "deserve" than the wonderful things I can't earn, the things that are all about God's goodness, not mine.

But I believe I can let go of this quixotic mission to Be Enough. And I believe, more solidly, that when I do, God will do everything else. That He wants to.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

These things matter: Genesis 18:1-15

Historically, I have been the kind of Christian who is ready to set aside or dispense with the Old Testament entirely. The faith in which I grew up was very focused on the literal resurrection and Second Coming, and on the Good News -- which, as I understood it, was always: you get to live forever. The relationship with God was basically a means to an end, I think -- and, moreover, the details of life didn't matter. All that matter was this one thing, this Kingdom of God, but it was a signifier. No one ever fleshed it out, like, what is God like, besides the part where He gives you stuff?

The thing I love about Genesis right now is the fact that God's not promising an alternative or an extension: He promises Himself. He will be Abraham's God. Abraham will have a role, here, on Earth, in His plan. As a promise, even though it's a long time coming in one sense, in another, it happens here, on Earth, using things we understand: land, babies, blessings. The world around Abraham 1. is full of God and 2. is significant because of that presence. God's not waiting around up in Heaven; He is here, and His work is happening here, with the people and things that already make up our lives.

The three visitors are a great example of this. The story is vivid and specific: the day is hot, Abraham is outside the tent, with God; there are three visitors. And Abraham understands that things matter, down to their details: not just meat, bu a fatted calf. Not just bread, but bread from the finest flour. Not just a place to rest, but the seat he was just in.

For me, who really struggles with this here/There kind of dichotomy -- who struggles to attend to the world around me, and to feel okay about it when I do -- this is so important. These things matter: if you give someone a quarter or a dirty look on the street, if you go to your husband's show or not, if you grab a beer with friends or go off alone on a Friday. When visitors show up, what do you do with them?

I ask God for meaning, for direction, and I feel like if I could listen, when I do listen, He's saying: open your eyes. There is meaning and direction all around you. You are living a life that has meaning; it's only a matter of if you can see it, of if you are willing to truly participate in it. Stop trying to figure out eternity and feed your guests, sit in your tent (stoop?) in the afternoon. Stop wondering what I'm going to give you next, when I am going to make the things I have promised come about, and what it will look like when they do. Pay attention to what I have given you already. It's when Abraham does this -- when he can sit with God and stop asking about That Thing and stop trying to take over -- that God says, it's time.

Friday, April 16, 2010

I don't GET THIS: Genesis 17:17-27

I've been struggling (in general, and with this last part of the chapter, specifically) all week. Not because conceiving a child at 90 is such a stretch - it is, of course, but probably no more or less so than speaking the universe into existence - but because of the whole Isaac v. Ishmael issue.

I get that the point is not one son versus another, so much as it is My Way versus God's way. To me, though, I struggle not to read the whole thing as: some people are chosen, some are not. And I guess I should struggle: I'm not seeing a lot of reason to read this passage differently, other than, "I don't like that."

Looking at 17:20-21, I get that Ishmael gets a blessing, too. I see that. But which is the point here -- the generations that follow them, or the covenant with God? In the first half of the chapter, I really feel like a key point is that what really matters is God's covenant, His establishing Himself as Abraham's God. Why doesn't Ishmael get that, too? Isn't that more important than being the father of these nations? Without it, isn't his blessing a consolation prize at best, and totally meaningless at worst?

Having said that, I can kind of see how my perspective here is 1. skewed by my feelings that a kind of racism has leaked into the Christian view of Arab versus Jew and 2. totally limited by the fact that I can only see parts of this story God is telling, here. I mean, if Christ came for the non-Jews, for those who were not chosen, then seeing the Arabs as singled out as not bound to God by a covenant is wrong. In reality, they are just as bound as my Gentile ass -- which is to say, not at all.

I guess that the purpose and meaning of Christ really hinges on this distinction: one group has a covenant and one doesn't. Someone needs to, so that we can see this aspect of God -- the God who commits Himself wholly to a specific chi;d. Ishmael WON'T work, not because he is less than Isaac, but because God has chosen just this thing for Isaac. That level of devotion is a part of God.

So Christ didn't come to ameliorate these people who were not as good as the Jews, then: He came to point at what God has given them, that significance, that attention, and to say: God is that. Not just for them, but for you. In a way, for you He is more than that, because He never made a covenant with you -- but here You are, loved and made perfect in Him. And that may be the source of all those stories about the last-minute vineyard workers, the first being last, and vice versa. Not that Ishmael is left out, but that God has something else -- not the covenant -- for him. For him, God has the Gospel.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Gen 17 Part 2: Covenant God

How do I screw up Genesis 17? For me, a faux-Jew steeped in somewhat unsubstantiated readings of the Old Testament (thanks, Creation Science!), I stumble in two general directions. One, I can write off the whole thing because God's covenant with the Jews does not technically apply to me. Two, I can appropriate the whole thing since, by virtue of Christ, I am now a one of Abraham's descendants.

Alternately, and in keeping with my goal for today (and probably tomorrow), I can look at Genesis 17 and the idea of a covenant God as critical to me, even though that covenant (this covenant, here) is not intended for me. Because really: am I reading the Bible to find out about me, or am I reading it to find out about God? Whether or not this passage applies to me, personally, it does tell me a lot, I think, about my God.

Such as: God is not a free-lunch God. The fact that we have nothing to offer Him does not dissuade Him from commanding a commitment, because participation in God is a blessing for us. So He says: you must keep My covenant. And, to clarify that this is not about God needing from us, from Abraham, He specifies a covenant that is all about us, that symbolizes our commitment (Abraham's commitment) to do things exactly as God asks, to give God exactly what God requires. Not because God hates foreskin, but because God loves discipline, and discipline, I think, is nothing if it is not the practice of treating what is minor as significant. It does matter if God asks for an animal or a plant as a sacrifice; it does matter if God asks you to circumcise yourself and you don't. Because when you do these things, you indicate that you get it, that you know to Whom you belong.

And here is the beautiful thing: God's not doing this because He's a control freak who wants to own and thwart and control you. He does it because we already belong to Him. That's not His preference; that's the natural order of things. And because we belong to Him, our greatest peace lies in holding onto that sense of belonging. We need to feel like we are participating in it or it is possession, it is control. By establishing a covenant, God says: we are each other's, freely. I wouldn't ask you to be my property; I am only telling you that you are Mine. That you belong to Me, and that that belonging is the only means through which the world can make sense, because to deny it is to deny yourself, as much as it is to deny me. You can't not be Mine; so here is how we can be one another's. And through belonging to me, your flesh, which is temporary, carries an everlasting covenant. By belonging to me, you become what you are meant to be. When you are part of my covenant, you are most fully and wonderfully yourself, because you become exactly what you are intended to be.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Genesis 17: I GOT you!

In another, more scholarly life, I got to sit in amphitheaters and lecture halls and reflect on the nature of God. One of those philosophers -- Aquinas? Kierkegaard? -- made the point that the question of why God does what He does, is moot, because any life, just or unjust, is more than we deserve.

I feel like that is correct, but unfair -- unnecessary. God could be justified in saying, I do what I WANT! But that's not God here, in Genesis.

It gets to be such a cliche, to Old Testament - New Testament Good Cop Bad Cop routine. But here, squarely in the Old Testament, is God, not only establishing a covenant, but making clear that that covenant is the whole point, is who He is with respect to us. His point is not the shame-filled one I've been treated to since childhood -- ie, who are you to think God would give you anything, anyway? It is, I am committed to You, and I'm not going to write off that commitment because I am God and you are in no position to ask questions. You don't have to skulk off, passive aggressive: Well I guess wanting my own kid was asking too much, I'll let You off the hook. You don't have to accept less than what you wanted because you should have known better than to trust Me, because it's not like I owed you in the first place. You just have to get out of the way, pay attention, and let Me do for you what you've been saying you wanted all along.

That's the thing in these first verses of Genesis 17 -- the thing through which Job, Christ, the Gospels, my own life, need to be read: before we learned to hate ourselves and call it humility, before Job suffered and got told off and we ran with it, here is God saying, clearly, I am your God. I am your God. I am yours. Before we get to the small, symbolic, marginal commitments I ask from you, let Me tell you about the hugeness I'm offering up: I am giving Myself to you, to be your God. Everything you wanted -- meaning, context, transcendence, belonging -- I am giving you that. If what you wanted was everything - I am giving you the Source of everything.

I can do that, because I'm God. I can tell you, and I am telling you, I'm yours. You can have whatever you like. And you don't have to do any kind of accounting, don't have to calculate: am I worthy, what must I do... because the everything that I ultimately will inspire you to give Me, is nothing compared to what you are asking of Me. Just align yourself with Me. Just walk before Me, and I will cover your steps, and you will be blameless. Stop trying so hard. I've got you.

That is a covenant God. One Who, regardless of the craziness you've pulled, and in the moment were you are arrogant enough to believe that even the most abbreviated, circumscribed life could every be you, making it on your own, looks at you and says: I got you. We are in covenant. We were in covenant all along. And all those things that looked like you, being let down, being alone, were just you, missing the boat. But it's okay. Because now I am here. I am yours. There literally is nothing else you could want.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Where did you come from, where are you going?

Besides totally putting me in mind of Flannery O'Conner (which, shame on me for passing up everything she has written for another Steeple House novel last night!), this part of genesis 16 is one of the first in Genesis that really resonates with me as The Way God Is. Reading it yesterday alongside John 4, I almost-kind-of-got the continuity between God, here, and Christ, in the gospel. For Hagar, and for the woman at the well, the Centurion's son, the man by the pool, the fundamental difference between Christ and everyone else is that Christ saw them. He knew who they were, and it mattered to Him. Not because they were anything significant themselves -- not according to those around them -- but because they were, are, of infinite worth to Christ. To God. He loved them.

My spate of theological back-and-forth with W., my ex boyfriend -turned-lawyer, basically got shut down when I took his idea -- that you are as valuable as you are valued, that for you to be valuable, someone must value you -- and said: does that mean that you, W., who had two parents and friends and whoever that love you, are simply more lovable than a kid in Congo who has no one? And... well... yes, basically. That is the idea.

Basically, yeah, Sarai is worth more than Hagar; she was Abram's wife first. here Hagar has done for Abram what Sarai could not do, and it's not enough; Sarai is still the real wife, and Hagar is still her property. That's painful, right? the belief -- after so long of feeling bad -- that you are seen, that you are enough. And the shock when dude turns around next day and tells his wife: whatever. She's yours. While you have his child inside you.

And in large ways or small ways, I think those moments of shame, of spite, are universal. And it's God, here, who interrupts it. Hagar, because you matter, because I am interested, here, solely in you, tell me where you're going. Tell me where you've come from, what's happened. Speak for yourself, instead of being spoken for. Let me hear and see who you are.

Which is all I need, though when I turn from that it starts to seem I need all these other things. Because at the same time that I want to be seen as all these things apart from who I actually am -- successful, commanding, vivacious, desirable -- I also have this deep need to be seen as I am, not in relation to others, to my work, to my Identity. Just to be seen, not even necessarily approved of, not vindicated. Possibly sent back to a situation that feels uncomfortable, that feels debasing. But first, seen. Accepted, or challenged, or called the task, for who I am, rather than for all the things I am not.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Genesis 16, part 2

Entitlement. I am ugly about this, no lie; in fact, I manage to be both sides of ugly when it comes to this. Like, the other night, unable to put down my book and watch the wire with my husband (because, you know, God forbid I waste an evening on TV), I overhear a character explaining that she can't live on $22,500, a year. Now, that's less than a third of our combined income as a childless couple. And yet, when Z. asks if people actually live on that, I take it upon myself to school him on the number of people who really do -- like my awareness of that makes me any less a beneficiary of the system that splatters wealth "randomly" (but mostly on white Americans).

At the same time, though, I totally feel Sarai on her why-can't-God-just-give-me-a-KID, already. Whyyyy? Because I want it and everyone wants me to have it and everyone would think I was awesome and noble if I was a mom; QED, this must be God's will; QED, I gotta get on that. And what I come back to, after thinking and googling and squinting hard at the notion of slavery-versus-servitude-versus-handmaidenry, is the fact that, regardless of what Hagar is to Sarai according to their society, by verse three, here, she is chattle. Even if they were BFFs, like in some Gone with the Wind depiction of slavery, the point is, Sarai gives Hagar to Abram, so really they are not.

Now, how much of that is about Hagar being a woman, apart from her economic status, is possibly TBD after more mad googling, but when it comes to Sarai and Abram, it's clear that Hagar is a means to an end. And my understanding -- fleshed out awesomely in the second half of the chapter -- is that God does not see Hagar this way.

Before I get the catharsis of thinking of all the ways I'm like Hagar in this chapter, though, I need to look a little harder at the less-sympathetic view of Amanda, the one in which I am so much like Sarai I want a bag for my head. The biggest Sarai-error I commit -- or, at least, the fundamental one that I commit most and that most often leads to the others -- is this idea that God's will is for everyone, myself included, to look at me and think I am awsome and noble. If people would just get with the program and do things the way I mean them to, then I would be the Best Manager Ever and everyone would see how great I was. If kids would stop trying my patience, everyone would see what a loving little beacon of light I am. If I could just have a baby, already, I could be the Best Mom ever.

But God's will usually does not have to do with the world seeing me and thinking I'm an awesome manifestation of God. Since, you know, God was already manifest in Christ, and my ego aside, I have to admit that people would do well to look to Him, not me. I have mixed feelings about the notion of being a witness because, in me, I want to say: well, if I were successful, what a witness I would be. I think it's kind of part of this gospel of prosperity, Prayer or Jabez culture, which I claim (speciously, I guess) not to buy into: if I do good, I am doing God's will, so God is obligated to give me what I want. Or how can I be a witness.

Can I be mediocre at my job, only marginally successful, and be a witness? Can I be childless, when I want to be a mom, and be a witness? Can I stay in New York and sometimes look stupid and sometimes be the boss people roll their eyes at an sometimes have to raise my voice at kids, and be a witness?

I think so. I have to trust that this is so, since God has not seen fit to make me perfect and successful and an ER surgeon/missionary/mother to 12/model site coordinator. I have to think that it is probably a blessing when we fail, as much as when we succeed, given our basic tendency -- my basic tendency -- to screw up, to construct best-laid plans that dissolve when you touch them, and then to blame you for touching them. The comfort in these first, Sarai-focused versus, I think, is how God's strength ends up being made perfect in sarai's weakness. Not because she meant to do that (my favorite claim when things fail and then get pulled together by a Deus-ex-machina at the last minute). But because (still!) it's not about Sarai; it's not about me.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Genesis 16 (part 1), or, the ladies of the house

So, obviously, when it comes to failing gloriously, and in the exact ways that I fail, Abram is, like, the appetizer. Sarai is my nomadic doppelganger*, all, "God has not allowed me to bear a child" this and "Let me fix God's divine plan" that. I mean, ouch. The flip side of being attached to one's own performance in the world is that beating yourself up for not Accomplishing Things can start to look a lot like sulking because God didn't "allow you" to accomplish them. The basic assumption -- that we are here to do things, to be things, to fulfill some personal destiny or purpose -- is flawed, I think. Since, as I so enthusiastically remind my mom on a near daily basis in 1992, I didn't ask to be born. God doesn't "allow" or "not allow" me to do anything, really; anything I do is the result of the God who created me.

Sarai, like me in my non-blogging life, is not getting it, not so much. Genesis 16 totally reads like she'd just be here, having babies, except God somehow missed the boat and now she's 90 and Abram just needs to let it go with this waiting on the Lord. Marak Halter's novelization of Sarah's story, Sarah, has Sarai growing up in a fantastic heathen city that puts me in mind of Josh Whedon's Firefly series, crossed with a high school trip to Pompeii. If Sarai is a "convert" who married into this single, invisible, non-child-granting God, her desire to stop waiting around into her tenth decade makes more sense, and begs the questions of me -- who has internalized more Adventist Hymns than most people have heard of -- what's my excuse?

* I don't think this word means what I think it means....

Monday, March 22, 2010

Genesis 15, or, It's not about you/Abram

Sometimes reading Abram is kind of suck. There are the parts in which he doubts God, sure -- parts where he is all headstrong and passing his wife off as his sister and thinking he knows best. But Abram has this faith, this closeness with God, and I don't know how to get that. I imagine it is a long process; at this point in Genesis, I think, he's probably over a hundred, since in the next chapter he forces the issue of kids with the Sarai and Hagar debacle.

But really. He's there, going into trances, ready to offer up his son, and I don't have the faith to let go of my pride and be a good wife and stop saying snotty things to my husband's Man Friends.

Still, it strikes me that, when God comes to Abram, he starts out with, "Do not be afraid," suggesting that Abram was not in the most faithful place at that moment. And what is it that Abram is he afraid of?

He could be freaked out by God showing up and talking to him -- but it seems like God is addressing a fear that was plaguing Abram before He, God, showed up, a fear that motivated Him to come talk to Abram in the first place, a fear a lot like my own: that he, Abram, doesn't matter, isn't doing what he was meant to do. That something is wrong. I mean, here God shows up promising a "very great reward," promising, in so many words, that Abram really does matter -- like, a lot -- and Abram goes flat-out emo on God: "What canst thou give me?" (15:3). What difference does it make? Everything dies with me; nothing means anything. I am useless, a joke, a failure. And the implication, fleshed out when he continues: You made me this way.

So God shows Abram something, takes him out and shows him the stars -- for the sake of His analogy, yes, but also, I think, as a reminder: I am in charge, and however low your expectations of yourself, however you think you've failed, I didn't come here to talk about you. This isn't about you; it's about what I am going to do for you. It's about what I will make you. You don't have the luxury of feeling sorry for yourself, or buying into the people who think you don't matter, because I am here, telling you that you do, and you will, because I will make it so.

And that's what triggers Abram's the act of "righteousness" -- and I love this wording, in 16:6, because Abram's faith is not righteousness, but God counts it as as righteousness. When God takes over our lives, He also takes responsibility for the results -- good or bad. If our faith is in Him, then we are not in a position to evaluate our lives -- whether we are MDs, housewives, social workers, janitors, homeless. What counts is our faith, the results of which reflect on God, not us (not me).

So there is no reason to be afraid of not measuring up -- only a reason to continually, daily, hour, place our faith in God so it can keep being about Him, and what He will do with us, and this perfect love, driving out that gnawing, unanswerable fear that we are not enough, that we are without standing.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

pursuit: Genesis 14

Genesis 14

I may hold up on posting more free-associative encounters with Genesis and blog for awhile about The Beginning of Wisdom, in an effort to get caught up and, maybe, have some kind of guidance – even if it is philosophical rather than spriritual – when it comes to Abraham.

As it stands, Bass and I are still at the second, revised creation story – and while that is enlightening, I have fought long and hard to get over my innate tendency towards reading 500 pages on the idea of the thing, for every page of the thing itself. Plus, I'm getting a kind of hero-worship thing going on with Abram right now, so I'm pushing forward.

MAybe because of my Abram Thing, Genesis 14 comes together better for me now than it has in the past. I still kind of glaze over when it comes to the account of all the battling kings, themselves, so anyone who Gets that, let me know. But then Abram comes in, and I am struck, again, by just how powerful a figure he is: "When Abram heard that his kinsmen had been taken prisoner, he mustered his retainers, men born in his household, three hundred and eighteen of them, and pursued as far as Dan…” (14:14)

I get caught up in a "Jesus and only Jesus" focus when it comes to the Bible; I seem to immediately move from “this is the primary thing” to “this is the ONLY THING, as in, nothing else can be instructive, period.” But that can’t be the case; I don’t think people were entirely without a sense of what God is, what love is, before Christ. I mean, God was love then, too, right? But we just didn’t see it.

But here it is, in Abram: the love that hears in one minute that your kinsmen are lost and in the next minute is taking action to save them. That love that pursues it object from Dan to Hobath to wherever and brings back not only that object but the women, the children, the possessions.

Abram’s love for Lot, here, is a picture of what we are to live like – not a picture that is perfect, and certainly not that Love itself. Abram, here, is what secular people would say Jesus is, I think. He is living the way we ought to live, the way one who is connected to God would live. The fact that we didn’t get that is the reason -- or, an appreciable element of the reason -- why Christ had to come. He says as much to the Jews: guys, you already saw Abram pursuing his kinsmen, and that is what My love does for you; that is what it makes you. Since it didn’t help you, since you claim to be Abraham’s children but don’t pursue each other that way, don’t even get that it is that love, that pursuit, that matters, here I am, Christ, to show you what this Love is.

I believe that this pursuit is what God wants from us. Not to say Abram was perfect; not to say that he the goal in the way Christ is the goal. But then, I think that, on some level, it’s a mistake to look as Christ as a "role model". Christ is God. I don’t think we can hope to emulate Him; we look to Him to experience Him, because we need Him, not because He is a template for us. He doesn’t guide us so much as He sustains us. As a role model, maybe Abram makes more sense and shows more humility. I don't think Christ really wants us thinking we can emulate Him. All we can do, at the end of the day, is go to Him. Christ is the Word; Abram is a man, living the Word -- trying to.

So here is the Law, I guess – as much as the commandments are the law. When you learn that your kinsman has been taken prisoner, pursue them. When your kinsman is lost and hopeless and being a dick to you, pursue him. When your kinsman is doing time for drugs, pursue him. When he is released from prison and doesn’t know where to go, pursue him.

When he is leaving you snotty messages on your desk at work, pursue him. When he is your employee and he calls out for no good reason, pursue him. When he is eight years old and is banging his head on the wall and yelling that he hates you, pursue him.

When he is rejecting you and you needed him and he has let you down again, pursue him. When you both hurt each other and he is not ready to admit where he was wrong, pursue him.

When he is sitting on the subway asking for money and you’ve had a long day, pursue him. When he is homeless and no one sees him, pursue him. When he is in Haiti and has just lost everything, pursue him. When he is in Asia and is being trafficked for sex, pursue him. When he is visiting Asia to exploit a trafficked child, pursue him. When he is dying of AIDS in South Africa, pursue him. When he is suffering from dementia, pursue him.

As far away as he is, as little kinship as he is showing, as uncomfortable or awkward or inconvenient or demanding as the pursuit is – pursue him. That, I think, is how God told Abram to live. Not just for his own life, but to be a blessing to us – because this pursuit is a blessing. To be what God calls us to be, to do what He calls us to do, is a blessing.

Friday, February 26, 2010

hiatus/ abram

How much do I love the story of Abram/Abraham? So much that it's my love for this story, as much as, or more than, my mild-to-moderate OCD, that brings me back to Genesis 12 after about 6 weeks.

The thing that I love most about 12:1-12:3 is the how specific -- and, simultaneously, how unspecified -- it is. It's not that the plan is not there; it's just that Abram is on a need-to-know basis. Only the first, less amazing, part of the promise is open to him: I will make of you a great nation, yes, but also: I will bless you. Here is the real heart of what God promises, I think, and Abram isn't yet able to understand that and gets sidelined by the much-smaller, more attainable Part A. Because what matters more is what God doesn't entirely go into here -- or what He says, understanding that we won't really get it just yet. I will make you larger than your own life, your own expectations. I will show you where to go.

I'm only beginning to get how the human-blessing of Being a Great Nation really serves as an appetizer for the main course of being part of God's work. You'll be a great nation, but you, Abram, will also be part of My team, of what I do. The amazing transformation of Abram and Sarai is this leap from having such a clear sense of what you think God wants, to allowing that God will transform you into what He wants -- that He will determine what it means to be blessed. It's the process of loving God and wanting to be great, to wanting to be what God wants you to be, because that is what being great has come to mean.

I think, all the time -- although still! less often than the all the time I thought this, before -- I think: This is what God wants for me. God wants ME to leave everyone and go be a missionary; He wants ME to be an MD/PhD, He wants me to [insert personal ambition here]... and I have to remember, each day, that what I believe God wants, is for me to grow close enough to Him that I will just do what He asks of me, today, and listen for what He wants next. That my desire is not to invite God into my life plan, but to offer up my life to God so that I can have the privilege of being part of His plan.

The seduction of the alter-call narrative of faith, of the self-help, Gospel-of-prosperity, Prayer-of-Jabez kind of story, is this: a lot of the time, I want to make this commitment that will absolve me of having to stay close to God, to keep listening. I want a transformation that will Take Care of It for me. But when I am brought closer to God, I kind of get that what that kind of transformation does, is keep me wanting to listen for God, always, every day, because I don't want to miss what He wants from me. And I have come to think that He asks us to do His work in the first place as a means to this particular end -- because through learning to really attend to Him so we don't miss anything, we become close to Him. I believe that God gives us work to do because through striving to determine and then carry out this work, we can learn each day how totally we depend on Him. That closeness -- not what we accomplish through Him -- is the purpose of our involvement in His plan.

It's hard, and I don't always get it. But the beautiful thing about Abram/Abraham is: neither did he. And the next several chapters really speak to how this call is just one moment in this 100-plus-year journey called Abram-thinks-he's-figured-it-out-oh-wait. Which is not unlike my own experience of God and His will; which is why this may yet become "A Brooklyn Lady Blogs... Genesis."

Friday, January 1, 2010

Genesis 11, Or, Babel, Tennessee, and more philosophy

So I closed out 2009 with a pissy little row with my husband, plans to stay in education if the NYCTF accepts me, and the tower of Babel. Which is another story that served me well as a budding young agnostic and serves me less well as a Christian.

Strauss is actually pretty instructive, here. Not because I have actually waded my way through The Beginning of Wisdom to its section on Genesis 11 - though that would be great, right? -- but because his read on the Fall, and his answer to its critics, is similar to mine on Babel. If my powers of interpretation were worth the tens of thousands of dollars of debt I incurred while honing them, Strauss is saying that it's a lousy critique of God that He "can't, or won't" find a way around the problem of sin for us. Students inevitably ask Strauss why God put Adam and Eve near the tree if He knew they would eat from it. To which Strauss its like, maybe this is just how humanity is. Maybe God was warning, not ordering; maybe -- and this might be my own extraction, so don't quote me as saying Strauss said it -- but, you know, maybe God doesn't make the rules so much as He is the rules.

At which point my conception of God shifts, and I think: maybe God is not essentially like us, at all, and the problem is that we all claim to worship Him but really are just trying to appropriate Him. Maybe Christ as the human Jesus was something more of a stretch than we want to acknowledge and God is something a lot less humanoid than we can handle. Maybe He can't just go in and override the system because He is the system, and it/He has to take the long way around for reasons I don't understand.

So it's not like, This is God's will (which, fuck you, people who say that about other people's loss!) It's more like, That super-sucks. But I know that it ultimately will be okay, although I, as yet, have no way to rationalize that. Because I don't know, I don't know, I don't know. I am coming to believe that those are the three words most essential to growth, and to progress. And in that light, the Fall and Babel can both be read as attempts to evade that claim -- attempts that don't piss God off, per se, but that He (unlike us) is in a position to recognize as essentially futile and ill-advised.