Source: The Issue’s Not the Issue
Jim and I were reminiscing about our science teachers the other night.
The conversation pushed buttons on memories long crowded out by more important things. Most of 7th grade fits that description. What passed for “Science, Health, and Math Module” was team taught by two guys. First Aid was disguised in “How to Survive a Nuclear War.” We took a break from math to study Gun Safety with a curriculum provided by the NRA.
The lesson on that particular day was about obtaining food and water after The Bomb. Assuming that we survived by hiding in our basements with 18 inch granite walls, safe from radiation, Mr. B. suggested that urine could be made drinkable by rigging up an evaporator/condensation unit from the tarps we certainly had on hand in our basements. I was appalled. He made a pitch for credibility by rehearsing the science of the water cycle. Then he crossed the bridge too far. He suggested we could make raids on what was left in the refrigerator, or in our neighbor’s refrigerator by making brief forays out of our basement bomb shelter. If we found meat, even if it was green or slimy we could just cut off the green part and eat it anyway. On the heels of the Urine Evaporator Condensation Unit, this suggestion was too outrageous.
“You can’t eat slimy green meat!” I protested. “It will make you sick!”
He insisted that it would not, because it would be irradiated meat, and therefore the radiation would have rendered it sterile.
“I don’t believe you!” I challenged him. “How do you know this?”
“It’s right there in the book. ” He laughed and waved the book before us.
“Would you eat it?”
Still grinning, he replied, “If you’re hungry enough you won’t care.”
I was very upset. His cavalier grin and dismissal of my challenge upset me even more. Then he addressed the unacknowledged elephant in the room.
“If a bomb were dropped on us–and we would be a prime target where we live here –no one is going to survive it anyway.”
Of course, he was right. Nothing he could say could make it right, though. The Issue just wasn’t the issue. Our house didn’t have a basement, with or without 18″ granite walls. My seventh grade soul was afflicted by visions of the apocalypse, vividly described by the southern baptist extension of the family and their church. My seventh grade soul feared losing my parents. There was a draft, and my brother was old enough to get called into it. I was even afraid of losing him. The Issue was the profound fear of loss and helplessness in the face of loss that terrified me nightly. I’ve since learned that this is a very typical and common experience for 7th graders. The course was predicated by the wrong question, so all the supposed right answers were destined to be ridiculous.
There are times: an otherwise calm discussion escalates for no apparent reason, an issue that should be rather benign is weighted with much more emotion and importance than it deserves, solutions to easy problems become suddenly complicated, expensive, and convoluted. We even have an expression for it: “it went nuclear.” When an issue erupts like this, bystanders shake their heads in clueless wonder.
Money is a bell-weather. We think a $500 newspaper advertisement will build our church membership, or a younger pastor, or an older pastor, or a new sidewalk. We spend money on the small issues and are satisfied we have done something about it. Too much money is required to satisfy a simple problem. Too little money is afforded to resolve too great an issue. That money is proposed to solve the problem at all makes one scratch and wonder if we’re missing the point. There is a risk of believing that all problems can be solved with more money. There is a risk of believing that great problems can be solved without money. Altogether, something seems to be off kilter in the conversation, and people stopped listening to one another a long time ago.
The issue –whatever it is–just isn’t the issue. Jesus is accused of not observing proper handwashing in our reading from Mark 7 this weekend. Bear with me while I wander a bit. I’m not lost.
We think handwashing is a big deal because we know about germs. That’s a pretty recent understanding of only the past 165 years. Ingaz Semmelweis was a young doctor was assigned to the maternity clinic at General Hospital in Vienna in 1846. He wanted to figure out why women died of childbed fever. He discovered that the women who delivered babies in the midwife clinic died less frequently than women in the clinic attended by physicians just down the hall. He noticed all kinds of things. Women who delivered in the midwife clinic labored on their backs, doctors delivered babies as women lie on the sides. Maybe the position of the birth mattered. The priest would visit the physician clinic followed by an acolyte ringing a bell. Maybe the sound of the bell frightened the women of high breeding. Then the hospital pathologist, his close friend, died with symptoms very much like child bed fever. The light bulb went on. Physicians must be carrying some kind of invisible particle on their hands as they moved from morgue to bedside. He insisted that doctors wash hands in chlorine. For a while, the number of deaths from childbed fever declined sharply. You would think everyone would have jumped up and down and on board, but they didn’t. He wasn’t exactly diplomatic, and offended important people. His colleagues were offended that he was accusing them of killing their patients. No one believed him, and the handwashing stopped. He lost his job and died in an asylum at age 47. You might think that the most important issue to the doctors of General Hospital in Vienna was the loss of life, but it wasn’t. Other issues crowded to the fore: seniority, status and stature, manners, respect, insult, education and so much more. I wonder if class and wealth were also clouding the issue–women of the lesser classes delivered with midwives. The wealthy were attended by doctors and visited by priests. Even Ignaz had a hard time sorting through what was and was not relevant to the issue of women dying after childbirth. Ultimately, lives continued to be lost.
Handwashing is a big deal for the religious folks in Mark 7 because it was about religion, not germs. Religion is that complex web of rules and behaviors designed to win favor and fortune from the greater powers of the universe. Handwashing was part of the complex web of rules described in the laws of Moses in Leviticus, well embroidered and interpreted since Israel’s return from exile. Some religious authorities had a lot to gain from the interpretation of these laws and support of the temple. Jesus was not about religion. (Don’t leave me now.) The religious authorities were like the medical authorities I just described: do this, do that, avoid this, twirl and dance under the blue moon and you will live. The religious authorities were like that crazy curriculum on how to survive a nuclear blast. They avoided the elephant in the room wearing a broadside “We ALL die.” They were like us and our evangelism committees: putting stickers on bumpers and pages on the internet in order to broaden our base of support. They could justify a person as holy for attending church every week, tithing, and posting their faith on facebook, while ignoring how that person treated family and neighbor. They were, in fact, just like us. In attempting to do the good thing–live a life that is holy, as God is holy–they strayed from the The Issue.
Jesus was about relationship, not religion. Relationship with God is the source of all that is life giving. Jesus becomes quite crass when the disciples don’t get it again. Don’t you see? What goes in a person comes out as crap. Crap is what defiles. All these things driven by evil intentions–murder, adultery, avarice, slander–they come from within a person and come out as defilement. Sewage. The real issue here isn’t about some dainty handwashing. It’s about drowning and dying and gasping for air as we come up out of the water, air that rips our lungs and our hearts open and makes life new again. That dainty ritual handwashing isn’t going to do the trick. The issue is about living and doing more than just Not Dying. Is it possible to survive a nuclear blast? Hard to imagine. Would you want to? I’m not qualified to answer that. What if we spent all that precious space in our brains and our hearts becoming the kind of people who wouldn’t launch bombs in the first place? That’s the real issue. The answers aren’t as neat and well packaged. In fact, it gets quite messy when one can’t rely on the rules and traditions of the elders to protect us from what is truly dangerous in this world. You could find yourself sitting with Ignaz in the insane asylum. Or nailed to a cross.
Ultimately, it is time and love that reveals the real issues in our world. Ignaz didn’t live to see those signs in every public restroom and hospital room, or the hand sanitizer pumps at every school, hospital, and desk top. He would have been pleased. The sages of his day could not see through the obfuscating clouds of what they thought they knew. Love clears the clouds, even a little. Love anchors us to life and one another so that we stay in the conversation, even when it takes us to places we don’t want to go. Love is where patience comes from when time doesn’t hurry. Love is where courage comes from when there is no more time for patience. Love is the real issue, and all the ways we try to weaken or avoid love or to justify our hard heartedness distract us from Love.
Distraction and obfuscation are the devil’s workshop. We succumb when we take our eyes off God’s love for this world and the real matters of life and death. Listen longer. Wait for The Issue. Ignore pettiness. The cross is the real issue at the end of every Gospel. It’s the matter of life and death. Anything else makes us believe we can escape a nuclear blast because we have 18″ granite walls in our basement, eat green slimy meat, and know how to recycle pee.
15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace
I’ve always been out of step when it comes to shoes. When I was little, I had to wear these heavy orthopaedic shoes that only came in one style: black and white oxfords. Those buggers made my feet registered weapons. Kicking was a felony. I longed for the pretty patent leathers other girls wore on Sunday. When I was in second grade, my mother bought a pair of patent leathers–only for Sunday. I felt like a million bucks click click clicking around church in them, and didn’t care who noticed. Many years later, I understood that the “clicky” shoes served another purpose as my mother’s secret echolocation device.
I coveted my older cousin’s white Go-Go boots. All the hip people were wearing Go-Go boots, and I loved singing with Nancy Sinatra “These boots are made for walking” with my attitude turned way up. Wearing those black and white orthopaedic oxfords was monotonous. I don’t think I understood at the time that after my parents paid for those Humvees, they couldn’t afford Go-Go boots. On one of our pilgrimages to Memphis, my cousin allowed me to try on her white Go-Go boots. I remember the adults laughing and teasing me. I don’t remember the exact circumstances that placed those boots in the back of the car with me. Somewhere on the outskirts of Memphis, they caught my mother’s eye. My dad turned the car around.
Once I started high school, my relationship with shoes became….let’s say “Complicated.” I realize this is probably true of every female of a certain age. (Guys too, don’t misunderstand.) The number of shoes in the typical middle-class adolescent closet starts to multiply like rabbits. In the middle of the night, I am persuaded they interbreed to produce an endless variety of genetic permutations. Crocs, Flip-flops, heels, and innumerable variations of the shoes we used to call “Tennis Shoes.”
We wore uniforms in my high school. The code was particular. My daughter doesn’t understand how I could like wearing a uniform, much less wear it in an all-girl school. It all came down to sleep. With a uniform hanging in the closet (or buried in the laundry basket, at times) I knew exactly what to wear and could be out the door in fifteen minutes, with breakfast. Uniforms leveled the playing field and limited distractions to a certain degree. Some girls in the school were considerably wealthy. Some girls had parents who worked two and three jobs and sacrificed mightily for their kids to get a Catholic education. Every girl had to pass Sr. Charlene’s sharp eye to meet the same uniform standard. She was the one nun Uniform Fashion Police Department. (I adored her, by the way.)
Leave it to the wiles of adolescent girls. If clothing could not be the leading economic indicator, something else would have to be. Of course, it would be shoes. Oxblood red Bass Weejun Penny Loafers. My other-branded loafers failed muster. I yearned for the real thing. I knew that my parents were of the second kind, so no amount of pleading for such extravagance would be meet, right and salutary. I saved my baby-sitting money. Two dollars a week as long as the little guy’s parents went bowling. Then a windfall! Twenty dollars for spending the night and babysitting through New Year’s Eve! I started the new semester with a pair of authentic oxblood red Bass Weejun Penny Loafers. I saved every penny to buy them. They hurt my feet like crazy until they were half worn out. I wore them anyway. It wasn’t about the shoes.
My feet have never conformed to the cookie-cutter forms of shoe manufacturers. When I find a well-fitting and comfortable pair, I will buy them in two colors if I can afford it and wear them well past prime. My mother used to lament that it would be easier to lace on “boxes without topses” than fit my feet. My favorite brand of shoes is still None.
I was precocious learning what many women learn late in life: Life is too short to spend in miserable shoes. It’s hard to be pleasant to unpleasant people if your feet hurt. It’s hard to be pleasant to anyone. Value one thing well made that serves its purpose honorably over ten things that give fleeting joy and lasting misery. I can still sing “These boots are made for walking…” by heart (especially that awesome bass between verses). The difference is that now my shoes/boots/feet ARE made for walking, lots of it, and I send them walking if they make me miserable.
That is from a slave spiritual. You won’t get it if you don’t understand that the folks who sang it often DIDN’T have shoes. A captive people declaring that God will have shoes (comfortable ones too, I imagine!) waiting for them in heaven is another way to sing “These boots are made for walking” and bring it in church. It’s attitude. It’s certainty that the present shoeless state of being (and all that “means”) is not God’s idea. If we set ourselves to working out God’s purposes, we understand that all God’s children get shoes. We get a glimpse of what shoes are for. Shoes are made for walking gloriously, all over Heaven, to school, to freedom, to connect to neighbors and family, to bring the estranged home, to speed help to those in need.
As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. Ephesians 6:15
Having shoes on makes us ready. It’s the last thing I ask my barefoot loving children when it’s time to go somewhere. “Do you have your shoes on?” On less happy occasions, it is not a benign inquiry. “WHERE DID YOU PUT YOUR SHOES?!@#!” It makes me crazy to discover one shoe upstairs and the other downstairs. Paul stirs the troops, citing a checklist of equipment before lining us up to do battle against the principalities of evil. Helmets, shields, breastplates oh my! All of these things would be carefully designed and marked in order to make oneself distinguished from the enemy and according to one’s role on the battlefield. A foot soldier would create mass confusion by planting the field commander’s helmet on his head. Ready to wage war! I bet Paul never had to look for his kid’s shoes.
Then this sneaks in. So humble it’s ridiculous. It’s like being told to get your underwear straight before you charge into the ranks of the enemy. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. Wear your team colors, the right equipment for the sport, get your gear right. Then when it comes to shoes, this: “Whatever.”
Whatever. It makes my blood boil when someone gives me a dismissive shrug and says “Whatever” in answer to my carefully thought out and clearly articulated reasons for doing something. If accompanied by that certain roll of the eyes perfected in adolescents, the last thing I will be thinking of in my response is any gospel of peace. I also get a little dicey when people say “Whatever” you believe is good enough, that it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you believe in something. As though beliefs are so benign and wimpy that no real harm can be done by them. But I wander. (Though not necessarily lost!)
This is not that kind of “whatever.” This is about “whatever it takes.” It’s about having the good sense and wisdom to use whatever suits the purpose, to make use of whatever resources are available, to innovate and leverage in order to carry through with God’s purpose. The right brand and color of oxblood red Bass Weejun’s was important to this young teenager once upon a time because it helped her not feel so weirdly different. Feeling weirdly different can make a young teen far removed from any gospel of peace. Now I’m more concerned that my feet don’t hurt while greeting people after the second service. Miserable feet get in the way of the gospel. So does hunger, and poverty, and injustice and racism and sexism and classism and……and…… and……. Paul’s “Whatever” gives us permission–nay, a mandate–to do what it takes to be ready to do the things that make for peace and announce what God has done to accomplish peace both for those who are near to God’s heart and far away. Gasp. Is it possible? Can it be? Paul’s “Whatever” frees us to walk away our captivities, even our captivity to the Law. I know what Leviticus says. I know what Romans 1 says. I know what Ephesians 14 says. I know the scripture that restrains and constrains. Then there’s this. “Whatever.” Wear whatever suits The Purpose. This is far from any casual relativism. This “whatever” is a mandate that requires courage, strength, and grace to carry through with it. It requires us to live in such intimate relationship to Christ, and the scripture that reveals Christ, that we know in every generation how to bind and loose the requirements of the Law–When to hold ’em, when to fold’em. That we know in every generation the things that make for peace. Know which shoes make you up to the task, and wear them.
All God’s children got shoes. Got yours on?
Swatted away by an embarassed hand that caught me
Humming to myself
I draw a new thought
catch a glimpse of my handsome son dandling
a fleeting intimation of the man and father he will become
juices pouring down to elbows
Slurping noises absorb the silence
Lick hands and wrists
Heck, elbows if so inclined
Leave propriety to drop to the floor
With seeds spit in harmless reckless war.
I will have another.
The most trouble I ever remember getting into when I was very young was when I kicked my brother with my hard soled corrective shoes. It was the first and the last time I ever expressed my anger with my feet. I understand now how much it must have hurt him, but at the time I thought his fuss about it was entirely overblown.
But I was never a biter. Not as a child, not ever. Until today.
The dental assistant told me to bite down hard to set the crown the dentist had just placed in my mouth. She told me to open. I was obedient. She removed the gauze roll. She said “Ok, that looks good.” I thought she was done. Testing the bite, I closed my teeth together like a skeleton jaw clacking at a haunted house. Horrified and startled, I discovered her finger was still between my jaws. I instantly opened my mouth and apologized profusely. She was kind and understanding, and dismissed my horror saying, “It happens all the time. You’re fine.” I was relieved that I had not done harm. I was mortified at the discovery that I really am a biter after all.
Of course, I hear you trying to console me just as the gracious dental assistant did. You’re telling me that it was no big deal since no one was punctured. Not even her purple glove. She is going to get on with her day and not think another thing of it. I didn’t intend to bite her. It was a reflex that has been in the making after years of sitting in the dentist’s chair. Open. Close. Just like that. It was after all, half her fault for doing the unexpected thing of putting her finger back in my mouth after she told me it was ok. I am, however, moritified. I never imagined that at my age I would be The Biter.
What I have just written is a page straight out of Carys’ early grade school writing assignments. It’s called a “small moment.” I’ve taken two small moments and written about them in greater fullness. Not enough to write a novel, or even a short story. But you were with me in those small moments, weren’t you? The greatest part of life is made up of small moments. Even momentous occasions are made up of many small moments, like tiny beads on a string. When we put the beads on a string, we begin to have a narrative. We have a story that begins to tell our lives with cohesion and meaning. It may not be good meaning, or helpful cohesion, but in some way the small moments become a whole. Racism is a way that many small moments–and sometimes very momentous occasions–become a string of beads in which one story connects to another until they begin to tell Our Story. No matter what color I am, one of the strings of beads around my neck is racism.
Now… let’s talk about racism. I am white. White G.R.I.T.S. (Girl Raised In The South). There are many family stories I could tell about how a white person in the South (or anywhere, to be honest) could also suffer from the consequences of racism. Just because one suffers does not vaccinate a person. I have been through a great deal of sensitivity training and experiences of my own, enough to feel the Existential Guilt of Being White. I think one of the first and most difficult hurdles for white people to understand racism is to understand it isn’t going to be an “Us” and “Them” conversation. It’s all about us. All of us, and how we are a people together. The second and just as difficult hurdle for white people who want to understand racism (because people who don’t want to understand will never get this far) is to understand the saturation of our experiences in racism. We can’t name it any more than a fish can name the element in which it swims. It’s not a Southern Thing, even though my first understandings of it came from my experiences in the South. It’s not a Black Thing or a White Thing. It’s not even about accepting one another’s differences– that’s a Tolerance Thing. It’s about humanity as a race, and how we are people together in it.
Return to the dentist’s chair now. I like to think that I am a congenial kind of person. I encounter another person, perhaps African American, perhaps Asian, makes no difference except that I might conceive of them as different from myself. I don’t believe I am a racist, not in any intentional desire. I say something that doesn’t come out as I wished it would have. Horrified, I apologize profusely. The person I have injured reflexively responds to make me feel better by pronouncing an absolution. “I didn’t take it that way, no harm done.” Or even worse, “It happens all the time, I’m used to it.” Later, I might try to defend myself because I do, after all, feel the Existential Guilt of Being White. If she had not _________________, I would not have __________________. I might be entirely relieved of my existential guilt because she did say, after all, that no harm was done. Or relieve myself of thinking about the consequences of my actions because after all, she said it happens all the time so I should think no more of it. The truth is outted. I have to understand that I am the kind of person who participates in racism even with all my best intentions and enlightenment. There are vivid moments of understanding–like the time I kicked my brother–that lead me to avoid making that kind of mistake ever again. I no longer kick people when I am angry, and I bet you are glad of that.
The difficult understanding comes with the small moments that reveal that the greater truth of our life together still holds. I don’t bite people any more than I kick people. Now I can’t say that. Given the circumstance and opportunity, I bite with no motivation required.. It’s not about intention or will. It’s about the air we breathe, like the water in which the fish swim.
It is far easier to describe the elements in which we breathe or swim in moments of being deprived of them. Suddenly, the line between living and dying becomes very bright. Our bodies tell us in exquisite detail about that element around us. I might not be able or interested in analysis of what that element is or contains at that precise moment. I know with all my being that it exists and it is not optional. It’s not a philosophical opinion. Even if the air or water make me sick from their contamination, I know that I cannot live without it.
I understand at this age of my life how much my swift kick to my brother’s shins must have hurt. I think about it when I knock my own shins on the dishwasher door while I am loading dishes. My four year old person could not yet think about the experiences of another person as if they were my own. It’s easy to be dismissive of racism just the same, whether we are the one saying “We’re over reacting a bit here, aren’t we?” or the one who is hopping over an injured shin while telling the one who injured it “You didn’t mean to, it’s ok, I’ll be fine.” With maturity we can grow to the point of understanding another’s pain through the lens of our own pain. Caution sign: that’s a rest break, not the destination. When we go further down that path, we begin to listen to another’s pain whether we understand or feel it or not. It is enough that it is pain.
It’s very hard for me to think about racism in abstract terms, even though I am very much at ease in the world of abstraction (my degrees are in theology, after all.) What I understand, within the boundaries of what I can understand, are small moments and stories that I tell to make sense of it all. The dental assistant has probably already forgotten that I bit her two hours ago. Her life is probably full of small moments of patients’ biting. That doesn’t make it ok for me to bite her. My remorse doesn’t help her either. I can imagine that a career of being bitten would wear on a person. The small moments become like a string of beads. A person could even start believing they are the kind of person everyone bites, as though some people are not such a kind. Sometimes the thread breaks. You know someone is going to get hurt.
Small moments become stories. Beads scatter all over the floor. Seemingly insignificant and harmless before, they now lie in wait for an unsuspecting soul to walk in and discover that the floor is suddenly a roller derby rink and unprepared, go flying with limbs akimbo. When we tell one another our stories we begin to describe the elements between us. We need to listen to one another’s stories in such a way that Truth can be outted, and our realities get a check.
The string may still break. No, it will break. Those who have learned to listen will have hands outstretched and ready to catch the precious, scattering beads. We shouldn’t get too smug about catching a few of them. We will not get all of them. If we stay in the conversation long enough, we can learn to help one another string the beads with knots between, as are the most expensive, fine pearls. Those knots are how we are bound together, committed to staying with the pain of our stories until they are redeemed by Love. –
Chaos monsters have taken over our house. The house, like its owners, is “of a certain age.” Like its owners, it requires quite a bit of patching up and occasionally a major overhaul, removal, or replacement of parts. Like its owners’s parts, none bother to take a number or wait in turn. It started with the necessary and suddenly possible remodeling to create a safe and accessible home for my daughter. Like all accessibility, it soon proves to be good for everyone. The contractor is a dream with whom to work. He has very tidy habits and puts all tools and materials out of the way at the end of the day. Call me if you want his name. It’s not Chaos.
Chaos –Big “C” chaos–moved in when we removed everything from the bathrooms, temporarily to live forever in those plastic totes. For a while, every shower taken began with “Do you know where….” Seek and ye shall find has become one of my favorite scripture verses. Unable to stand a little chaos, and trying to create a small space of order, I reorganized the entryway closet, a project long overdue. More plastic storage crates. Even more “Do you know where….” plaintive laments. Creating organized space does not create an organized people to inhabit them
Still, these are modest demons. Still, I persisted in the notion that I was keeping them well controlled. I had no idea how hard it could be on one’s back to keep even a tiny chaos monster in check. Physical therapy. Steroid epidurals. Still, I could point and command the ship from the prow. So I thought. The household natives did not share my newfound religion of decency and good order.
The refrigerator has been serving us notice for several years now. After months of saving our petty cash we were ready to go refrigerator shopping. More decency and good order stirred in my veins. The refrigerator we first chose was 1/2 inch wider than the space its predecessor occupied. And the next one. And the next one. It seems refrigerator girth has expanded just as the American waistline has in the past 25 years. Ah! I exclaim with spiritual fervor. I gave birth to the solution 22 years ago! I called my son up from his basement retreat. Indeed, he was the solution. Soon the glassware cabinet, plastic ware cabinet, silverware drawer, and the useless cabinets over the refrigerator (so THAT’s where the cups for pots de chocolate went!} were emptied and temporarily put to rest on the dining table. Cabinets come down from the wall and from under the counter to be moved 2 inches starboard.
Vain creatures that we are, humans spend more and more effort to hide, conceal, and coverup the older we get. We let more things slide as we convince ourselves it doesn’t matter as it once did. Until one day….
Houses are not different. Removing that cabinet revealed black mildew crawling up its back. Why is the bottom of the cabinet wet? Is that”u” shaped thing dripping? Ummmm, it’s gushing now. Unknown injuries had been festering behind the dishwasher and under the sink, now to be revealed. Another cabinet emptied. A clothes hamper now pressed into service to receive its contents. At this point we are veritably living out of plasticdoohatchies temporarily holding the contents of our lives.
It seemed as though we were about to restore order and make the world a better place. The more I worked to organize the little chaos monsters–the ones that seemed innocent and small enough to be contained–the more firmly The Chaos Monster took hold. Now keys and phones were getting lost in plain sight because there is no such thing left as plain sight. That’s how The Chaos Monster works. We become unwitting accomplices of its tyranny. All the while we believe we are gaining strength and order, we are actually minions of The Chaos Monster.
You think I’m being playful here, don’t you? You think I’m just venting frustration in my typically wry and witty stlyle, right?
Maybe. A little. Not really . Not at all, really. The Chaos Monster taking up residence in our house at the moment is the deceptively sweet tempered pie eyed domestic breed. At another residence, not too far, the Chaos Monster banded with its minions and a family is being torn apart, a confused child is trying to make sense of it all, in another finances are in ruin, in another trust has been shattered by a young person’s drug use….the list goes on.
The list really does go on. All the way back to the beginning. Yup. Genesis 1:1. The BIG inning. It all begins with the null and void. You know what a void space invites in our homes don’t you? A clean desk, a clear countertop, an empty room….not for long. Soon one little “I’ll get to that after…” becomes another and another until the chaos monster has claimed that space.
God was alone with the Null and Void. The tohu rubohu. The Genesis 1 Creation Story begins with God’s cohabitation with The Chaos Monster. One day, God said “Enough of this!” The Chaos Monster isn’t good company, and no, it isn’t better than nothing. God rolled up sleeves and started to put things in Order. Firmament goes up here! Make way waters of the deeps for land to rise up! Sun here, moon there! Now take turns you two! And over here, in this corner? Let’s plan a garden. Then the Chaos Monster invented weeds. Not that the Chaos Monster has any power to create, not like God. The Chaos Monster can only invent from what is already there. God created riotous, wonderful, awe inspiring plants and bugs and animals and set them in order and balance in the garden. It took a Chaos Monster to take what God declared good and adulterate it into The Undesireable. One person’s rose is another person’s weed. That’s how The Chaos Monster got a toe in the door.
The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was the caveat. Adam and Eve wanted to understand as God understands, but without the infinite wisdom, love and mercy with which God understands. In their hands, what God declared good became adulterated, like the vile misplaced ingredient that ruins the whole dish that had been good –not just good enough, but gooooood.
The Chaos Monster runs a muck. Adam and Eve are displaced from the garden. God’s word to them sounds like the terms of their punishment. Adam will now work the land by the sweat of his brow. Thorns and thistles will bedevil him. They still bedevil me, no matter how many times I pull them and spray them with vile chemicals. Eve will suffer pain in child birth, yet still turn to the arms of her husband for comfort and love–no matter what names she called him or threats she made against him in the delivery room.
But wait. What if……. these aren’t exactly terms of punishment, but a description of promise? The Chaos Monster will not regain control of the universe, God remains God. Now God enlists Adam and Eve as partners in containing the power of Chaos. Promise or threat? We can, by our choices and labors, restore Chaos to its boundaries. That’s what the commandments promise. This labor is not without price: sweat, sting of thistle, sore muscles and heart break. We get to share even in God’s broken heart. Birth is not without pain. We get to share even in the risk God assumed when pushing creation through the birth canal. Yet for all that pain, we will still turn to one another for comfort, intimacy, yes, even the sex that started all of this.
Jesus’ death is the Chaos monster run absolutely a muck. We see these times: the slaughter of the Nazi concentration camps, violence in Sudan, Nigeria, Argentina, and down the street where a twelve year old shot and killed his baby sister. There will always be times when the Chaos monster escapes the boundaries of the sea. We have been given a heart that can be as broken as God’s own heart. We have been given the courage to labor among the thistles and with sweat pouring down our brows, so that even at cost to ourselves we share in God’s work to contain the Chaos monster so that good creation can rise up. We have been given the pain of birthing God’s vision for this good creation, along with the danger of losing our own lives and selves in order to bring it about. Talk to those who shared the pain of bringing civil rights to both women and African Americans and now, even LGBT people. *Now I know some will argue that being LGBT is NOT God’s vision for a good creation, but don’t forget, some also use the argument of “order of creation” in order to explain why a woman has to lie on the bottom, among other things. I think the Chaos Monster is at its sneaky best when maligning and adulterating God’s word for “Gooooood.”
There’s one more card to be played at the foot of the cross, and it is in God’s hand and not ours. Jesus emerges from the tomb, and God gives birth to creation again. Chaos is now firmly restored to its banks. We are full partners in this enterprise, and we will not die but live. Nothing in life or death will separate us from the love of God. That’s the promise threatened in Genesis 3. We will know the heart of God, share the labors of God, and live partnered to God in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, in joy and in sorrow, and not even death can part.
*=topic of a different conversation. Maybe.
This is something of an announcement. An invitation. Blow the trumpets. I’m going to try something a little different. That alone is danger enough, for those who know me well. “What would it be like if…..”
What would it be like if you found an interactive bible study in this space for the next say, 6-10 posts? It would have places for you to respond, and in the comments you could respond to me and to one another. Would you visit? Invite a friend to come with you? Would it fit into your busy life? The bottom line is that I miss teaching like crazy. I miss conversations and discoveries about scripture that happen in the two way.
So, here it is. The study is called “Dangerous Jesus: Things Jesus said that were dangerous enough to get a person killed”
Because Jesus was dangerous, dangerous enough to make people want to kill him. And Jesus is still dangerous. Dangerous enough that people are getting killed for wearing his name on their foreheads where baptismal water has flowed. Dangerous enough that we have to tame and soften him. As Annie Dillard said, we should be wearing crash helmets to church instead of hats with flowers on the brim. Dangerous enough that we divide not only his clothes but his body between us when we talk about what Jesus would do or say now. If we really listened to Jesus as he spoke to his friends and enemies in those days, would we be so ready to sing all those songs you can just as easily sing to your boyfriend as to Jesus in our day?
We are entering the unholiest season of our political life together here in the states: presidential election season. Public discourse will be hateful and unreasonable for the next 18 months. It hasn’t really stopped being hateful and unreasonable since the last presidential election, so it’s hard to imagine it getting even more so. Jesus’ name will be thrown around as though such a thing were safe to do. Politicians will claim their version of “Christian nation” as a rally to the voting booths. While this study isn’t going to be about politics, it also isn’t going to avoid them. Be nice. It’s my blog. I can block you if your comments become uncivilized. It’s one of the few places in my world where I have so much power!! (Every parent of an adolescent craves such a button…)
The golden rule for dangerous conversation involving Jesus is this:
Always be able to state the other person’s (people’s) position in such a way that they can recognize and claim it as theirs. (Truemper’s First Law of Theological Warfare)
No caricatures, naming and blaming are able to do that. It’s a tough spiritual discipline. Very tough. But if we and a whole lot of politicians and church leaders could master such
discipline, the world would be a very different place.
So hold on tight. Keep calm. We are about to enter The Danger Zone!
P.S. Here’s a cuddly animal to comfort you after all this talk of danger….’cuz everyone likes cuddly animals, right?
As I emerged from grocery shopping tonight, a small crowd gathered at the window between the doors. At first I thought they were waiting out the deluge of rain. Maybe some of them were. Then I noticed red and blue flashing lights reflected on the wet pavement and windows. Two sheriff cars were parked fore and aft a small red clunker of a car. Soon another sheriff car arrived. And another. Finally there were five, all with lights blazing. I stood next to an elderly black gentleman. He was clearly agitated. Speaking to himself as much as anyone, he announced that he was going to leave by the other set of doors. He stopped short of leaving, and returned to the area next to me. Beads of sweat broke out around his collar and his brow. An officer stepped into the store and asked everyone to remain where we were for a few more minutes. The thunderstorm was ramping up, so it didn’t require much encouragement for us to stay put. The effect on my companion was palpable. I tried to divert his attention with small talk about the storm, and he tried to be diverted. Anxiety was winning when the officer came to one set of doors and told us that we could leave through them. My companion fell back. I wasn’t sure he was going to leave at all. I asked if we could walk together to our cars. Maybe he thought he was doing me as much a favor as I thought I was doing for him. He waved over the top of his head as he ducked into his car, and we both went our ways.
There are no end to the stories and explanations that could describe what happened there. Maybe I’m the one who should have been afraid. Maybe he had cause to be afraid. Maybe it’s just seeing the news videos of a police officer shooting a man in South Carolina that instilled such fear in him. Maybe there’s a story in the past. Maybe he was actually a criminal. Maybe he was connected somehow to the person in that junker of a car surrounded by five sheriff cars. I tipped my hand when I described him as “elderly” and “black.” You can’t be an innocent bystander now. (Remember the story about the hit and run driver?) However you read those paragraphs, it’s going to say as much about you as it says about me, or about my companion in that store entryway. It also says a lot about what we believe is true living in this country of ours.
The disciples were gathered in that upper room for fear, the Gospel of John tells us in this weekend’s reading. For fear of the Jews. Fear can make people jump to some strange conclusions. The disciples were Jews. Why should they be afraid? The Gospel writer has fed us a lot of suggestions about what might have made them afraid. Fear makes us make quick assessments of who is with us and who is against us, who is friend and who is foe. Our brains are hardwired to it. Our adrenal glands pump it.
Maybe the Jews had as much to fear as the disciples did. And maybe the Gospel writer had even more to fear than all of them, and it oozes out between the spaces between the letters and the words. Jesus died in an occupied nation, in a police state. There were the religious police and authorities, upon whom the burden of securing people’s compliance fell–and for which they were often very well rewarded. They had a lot to lose. There were the Roman militia and authorities, for whose benefit the charade of the Pax Romana was carried out in Palestine. Everyone gets a little crazy with so much adrenaline pumping fear into a system. Someone is like to get killed.
Yet. And yet. When we read these words on Sunday morning, we read them as placidly as though we were reading a grocery list. Maybe you get a really good reader who uses a little dramatic inflection. Will the inflection of fear fall on the side of the Jews or the disciples? Will the disciples come off as weaklings afraid of their own shadows, or will the Jews come off as “Christ killing” embodiments of evil? That’s what fear does to us. We choose sides and use them to explain the conclusions we’ve already reached.
The violence continues. Is there a way to tell the story that acknowledges the fear in all of us? My Aunt Tilly would have scolded me for walking with a man, a black man, an old black man I did not know. She always saw the worst in people and the world. My optimism about people and the world is in good part a vestigial remain of adolescent rebelliousness. Is there a way to tell the story that creates the love that casts out all that fear? Now I hear my mother’s voice, waving a hand in resignation, “Everyone’s going to believe what they want to believe.” My heart always sank in frustrated despair when she said that. I still have hope people will believe what is just beyond their own wants, and just beyond what they they are resigned to believe is the ugly truth of the world.
I grieve that a person old enough to have seen plenty would feel such terror at the sight of so many flashing lights on police cars. I might be reading a lot into it. Then again, maybe I’m not reading enough into it. It has never occurred to me to fear such things.