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.