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.