Monday, March 19, 2012

Everywhere, Everywhere Pillars of Salt

Salt, I suppose I'll have to admit, is a little bit in my blood.  But that is to get ahead of myself. 

The Bible seems diabolically confused about this whole notion of memory.  On the one hand, much is made of the importance of not forgetting.  A whole liturgy, for example, is prescribed in the Exodus preparations to insure that subsequent generations remember not only what their ancestors had been through, but what the God of their ancestors had accomplished in setting them free from slavery.  Whole mantras are composed through which legacy is sustained -- "A wandering Aramean was my ancestor..."  One of the most heart-rending Psalms ultimately takes the shape of a paean to memory -- "How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!  Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you... (137). The Lord's Supper -- the Eucharist -- the Great Thanksgiving -- is, at its very core, observed in obedience to Jesus' instruction that we remember.  "When you do this, remember..."

Remember, remember, remember. 

But then just as often there is this opposing voice.  "Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old" instructs the prophet Isaiah (43:18).  And the Apostle Paul -- "...this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal..." (Philippians 3:13).  Even Jesus -- "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:62).  That last one perhaps reminiscent of what might just be the most damning image of them all -- the tragic example of Lot's wife who, departing with her family for a future of unknown shape and character, looked over her shoulder to catch one last glimpse of the past and was, for her nostalgia, summarily turned into a pillar of salt.

As I hinted at the outset of this reflection, I have more than a little sympathy of Lot's wife; prone as I am, every now and then, to moisten with a little sentimental nostalgia of my own.  Hence the suspicion of salt content in my blood.

There are, after all, important things back there in the past -- precious things; instructive things.  Why all this insistence on the future?  And what ever happened to that old "those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it" piece of cautionary wisdom?

I don't finally know.  What I do know, however -- despite my tenderness toward its favorite parts -- is that "back to..." efforts inevitably create more problems than they intend to solve. Teaching church history classes the past several months, I have stumbled over too many stump speeches by one Emperor, Pope, King, reforming crusader, or another bent on re-burnishing and recreating the glories of the past, whose ultimate legacy was persecution, repression, war-mongering and small-mindedness.  Efforts to bring the past forward have always served only to set the present -- and certainly the future -- back.  Even a proud progeny, like myself, of a denominational tradition established by founders who wanted to "restore New Testament Christianity" has to admit that the admirability of their efforts was ultimately impossible to achieve. 

So when I hear preachers or politicians announce their intent to "restore America" or "bring this church back into its glory" or any other phrasing of such over-the-shoulder preoccupation/pandering, I get nervous.  Our future is not back there, no matter how good those old days were; and I don't care what any "majority" might think, there were plenty of "minorities" who didn't experience them to be all that great in the first place. 

It has often been said that the measure of a person -- or a country or an institution -- can be taken by whether it is viewed that his/her/its/their best days are behind or ahead.  People of faith might chew on that a bit.  It has always struck me as odd that we have always busied ourselves trying to replicate what God has already done instead of seeking to partner with what God is still in the process of doing.  Ultimately, though it certainly urges us to learn all we can from all that has gone before about patterns and consequences and the "mighty acts of God," biblical faith ultimately drives us forward -- to those "best days" that are still ahead; toward which God is even now "creating all things new." 

Thursday, March 8, 2012

A Helmeted Brave New World

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” (Matthew 20:20-23)

I have lately been reading stories about parents, concerned about possible head traumas in their toddler children, buying these cutesy little protective foam helmets.  The kids apparently wear them most of the time -- around the house where a rabid coffee table might spring out of hiding, out for walks in the yard where a mole hole could hungrily and craterously open to engulf the unsuspecting sprout; in the grocery store cart where God only knows when a box or a can could plummet dangerously from a shelf.  They even come decorated with colors and little animal ears; all, I assume, in a subliminal effort to obscure how ridiculous they really do look. 

"Yes," such a parent might chastise me, "but the world is dangerous..."
"True," I would respond.
"...and the child is precious."
"True again."
"We simply can't take any risks."
Well, that might be further than I can go.

It's natural, I know, for parents to be concerned for their kids.  I have kids of my own.  We want them safe; we want them to be successful.  We want the best for them of whatever life might have in store.  The only problem is that we don't know what that is. 

There is mounting evidence that our almost neurotic war against germs -- witness the ubiquitous dispensers of antiseptic gel -- is preventing our bodies from developing their own (superior) defenses, leaving us more vulnerable than before.  Our herculean efforts to intercept every struggle, every insult, every challenge in the name of care and self-esteem are rendering us flaccid and incapable of standing against even the gentlest breeze; unable or at least afraid to feel what is real.  Perhaps Aldous Huxley’s hero John the Savage was on to something when he recoiled from society's efforts to encapsulate everything within a cheery, protective bubble in Brave New World: “I don’t want comfort. I want God. I want poetry. I want real danger. I want freedom. I want goodness.”

 "You don't know what you asking," Jesus told the mother and her sons in the passage .  Given the ever-reliable law of unintended consequences from which we are not likely to escape, I suspect we rarely do. 

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Hope, From the God of Second Chances

 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.’
 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.(Jonah 3)

In the story of Jonah it is usually the whale who gets all the attention -- the "whale" or whatever aquatic varietal it was that gave the prophet respite from his travails; the text is altogether disinterested in precision.  Indeed, the story seems imminently more fascinated with the Ninevites' change of heart and Jonah's reluctance to invite it.  Nineveh, after all, was an evil place -- "wicked" to quote God's own assessment.  At an earlier point in my life, I colored in that rather ambiguous description in much the same way I imagined the prodigal son's "dissolute living."  Drunken orgies, sex, drugs and rock and roll; a kind of New Orleans Mardi Gras experience 24/7.  A Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, Whitney Houston and Charlie Sheen sort of paradise. 

Older now, and having read beyond the anti-lusting, non-fornicational passages of scripture, I have discovered that what God seems to really find offensive -- evil and wicked, in point of fact -- has less to with personal indulgence and more to do with communal disinterest and disregard.  Despite tradition's rather salacious suppositions as to the nature of their "wickedness," the prophet Ezekiel clarified the particularities of Sodom and Gomorrah's offense: "This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy" (16:49). 

The prophet Isaiah described true moral piety as letting the oppressed go free, breaking every yoke, sharing one's bread with the hungry, bringing the homeless poor into our own house, clothing the naked and making ourselves present to our own kin (Isaiah 58:5-7).  Jesus said much of the same.  Despite our cultural fixation on what goes on in our bedrooms, Jesus identified disregard for the homeless, the hungry, the lonely, the thirsty, the naked and the imprisoned as the sure and certain pathway to Hell.  

The most likely diagnosis, then, of the sins of Nineveh is that the people there didn't care about each other.  Violence, in fact, is the only villainy named -- the ultimate act of putting one's needs ahead of a neighbor.  To borrow Isaiah's words, they didn't recognize their kinship.  Interesting, then, that community was the instrument of their repentance.  When they comprehended their iniquity, the King called his people together and organized a collective act.  It was to be a circle of remorse in which everyone -- native, livestock and immigrant -- would be treated as one.  Sack cloth, ashes, fasting from food and drink.  And witnessing their transformation -- from an "I" to a collectively responsible "we" -- God, too, repented. 

It made Jonah mad, of course.  Despite the fact that we depend upon second chances for ourselves, we routinely begrudge their extension to others.  "They" never seem to deserve them.  But given the level of partisan polarization so epidemic in our culture; given the moral, physical, international and economic violence we perpetrate against each other, the Ninevites' capacity to work together sounds almost Herculean. And if they can do it, maybe there is even hope for us.