Wednesday, June 28, 2017

When God Seems Cruel

He said, Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you. Genesis 22:1-14
After a lifetime of explaining God’s existence and love to the dubious Oxford community, C.S. Lewis realized he had discovered the true nature of God. “God,” he said scathingly, “is a vivisectionist.”

Lewis had been a controversial figure at Oxford because he was a devout Christian. 

His faith set him apart from the cynical dons who hoisted bitters with him at the Eagle and Child pub and listened to him drone on about God, Jesus, and holy writ. The skeptical intelligentsia, who believed the existence of God had been pretty much dismissed by modern science and Darwin, snored and scoffed ale out of their jaded snouts when Lewis spoke.

But Clive Staples Lewis – Jack to his friends – held fast to his theological moorings. As a specialist in myths and legends, he was not disturbed by coincidental repetitions in other cultures, including common myths that a god assumed the form of a bird and impregnated a virgin with his divine progeny. Zeus took the form of a swan to inseminate Leda, and he was one of a long line of fertile fowl in search of virgins. In the Middle East, in fact, God appeared as a dove to a young Galilean girl and left her with a sacred swelling in her belly.

Lewis might have dismissed all these stories as fanciful fantasies generated by humanity’s common biological gene pool. But the devout Church of England layman thought he discerned a greater truth. What if one of these legends was the true myth that validated all the others? And what if the multi-cultural repetition of like myths was God’s way pointing humankind to the ultimate reality?

Lewis gradually emerged as one of the great interpreters of the Christian faith. His many books – including The Screwtape Letters, Surprised by Joy, and Mere Christianity – are still best sellers. As his reputation grew, even Lewis’ most cynical critics came to respect him.

But toward the end of his life, even Jack Lewis’ faith began to crumble. He married an American divorcee, Joy Davidman, initially to enable her to settle in England as permanent resident. But as often happens, his platonic relationship morphed to passionate love and the already married couple moved in with each other. It was a too, too British romance.

And Lewis told himself it was God’s doing. Through his love of Joy Davidman, Lewis felt, God was rewarding him with a metaphor of God’s unconditional love for all.

Then Joy was diagnosed with bone cancer. 

Lewis was devastated. But the couple prayed intensely for God’s healing. And, as is often the case in these tragedies, Joy experienced an inexplicable remission. The couple rejoiced at what they felt was a miraculous cure, and interpreted it as a sign of God’s healing power.

But the remission did not last long. After a series of setbacks, Joy died on July 13, 1960.

“You must rely on your faith,” Lewis’ rector told the grieving widower.

But Lewis shook his head. “No,” he said. “This is simply a mess.” 

Lewis felt utterly betrayed by a God who seemed to have condemned him to a rollercoaster of conflicting emotions: joy at the love he had for his wife, grief when she was diagnosed with cancer, joy when she appeared to be cured, grief when the cancer returned, hope that a loving God would still intervene and restore her to health, and desolation when she died.

How could God be so cruel?

The story of Lewis’ return to faith is recorded in A Grief Observed, one of his greatest works. The book is often read by bereaved persons who struggle with the loss of a loved one. 

Lewis concluded that when he thought God was promising his wife would recover, he was imposing his own hopes, fears, and delusions on God’s voice.

In fact, as fervently as we may pray for those things God already knows we want, God does not promise to do our will.

“We were promised sufferings,” Lewis wrote.  “They were part of the program. We were even told, 'Blessed are they that mourn,' and I accept it. I've got nothing that I hadn't bargained for. Of curse it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.”

Lewis said his grief was “like an amputation” in which an essential part of his being was painfully removed. And – far from being a vivisectionist – God’s aim is to use our grief to build us up, not tear us down.

“God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality,” Lewis wrote. “He knew it already. It was I who didnt. In this trial He makes us occupy the dock, the witness box, and the bench all at once. He always knew that my temple was a house of cards. His only way of making me realize the fact was to knock it down.”

Clive Staples Lewis died on November 22, 1963. His death went largely unnoticed because it was on the same day President Kennedy’s death plunged the world into griefs observed on a massive scale.

But the legacy he left with us is important. His message is this: be very careful, when you think you are hearing God’s voice, that you are not actually responding to your own hopes, desires, or prejudices.

Usually it’s difficult to tell.

Was it really God’s voice that spoke to Abraham?  Was it really God who, in an act of cruelty so unlike the God of love, ordered Abraham to kill and burn his beloved son?

Was God really testing Abraham? Or was Abraham testing God, pushing himself in God’s face, forcing God to see Abraham’s importance and willingness to do anything to benefit from God’s power?

If that is the case, it’s fortunate God was able to bring Abraham back to reality at the last minute.

But what if Abraham never got the message? What if he was never able to tell the difference between God’s voice and his own inner illusions?

This is a vital question, for we live in a world torn apart by persons who can’t tell the difference.

Congregations are torn apart because quarreling members are deluded that God is telling them to shun and reject those who disagree with them.

Denominations are divided by debates on theological and ecclesial issues including styles of baptism, restrictions imposed on ordination, attitudes toward sexual orientation, and other issues on which each side claims to be the exclusive auditors of God’s voice.

Deluded churches claim special messages from God about when Jesus is returning again, or about God’s hatred for immigrants, persons of other races, or LBGT persons.

So called pro-life Christians hear God’s voice calling them to intimidate and murder healthcare professionals who perform abortions.

Taken to extreme levels – as happens every day – many persons of faith hear God’s voice calling them to 

attack Muslim worshippers, 

beat same-sex couples on the street, 

bully their classmates, 

beat and stone their daughters who have dated persons of other religions, 

kidnap hundreds of children to make a point about making their society theologically pure, 

use rape as a weapon of war, 

strap explosives to their waists to kill dozens of innocent persons,

 or hijack airplanes and crash them into buildings.

It hardly takes a dash of discernment to discover God’s real voice is not present in any of these actions.

All that present is the antithesis of the God of love: our illusions, our prejudices, our hostilities, our megalomaniacal drive to force inferior people to believe what we presume God is telling us.

But God’s real voice is not calling us to attack those with whom we disagree, but to place ourselves in a loving – and occasionally risky – dialogue with them.

“To love at all is to be vulnerable,” C.S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves.

“Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

As always, God’s truth voice speaks to us in counter-intuitive irony. 

We hear God in weakness, not in belligerence.

And we hear God in love, not in hate.

Thousands of years ago, the Psalmist reminded us how to hear God’s voice:
I will sing of your steadfast love, O LORD, forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations. I declare that your steadfast love is established forever; your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens. (Psalm 89:1-2)

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Handmaid's Travail


Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian maid whose name was Hagar, and Sarai said to Abraham, “Behold, the LORD has prevented me from having children; go in to my maid; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai … And he went into Hagar and she conceived, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress.” Genesis 16:1-2, 4 
But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” Genesis 21:9-10.
Our Bible story today begins in the tent of Abraham. It should have been a happy scene with Abraham surrounded by the rustic opulence of the rich desert ruler he is. He should be sitting in fleecy comfort, his every whim satisfied by hard-working and loyal servants. Long gone are the poor shepherd’s itchy burlap garments that absorb the desert’s heat and radiate the odor of human sweat at night. Gone are the sand-encrusted sandals that abused his bunions. God has blessed Abraham, and he is very comfortable and very rich.

So how come his life sucks? Sister wives Sarah and Hagar have been at each other’s throats for years and their discord has wearied the old man. Sarah hates Hagar. Hagar despises Sarah. Sarah beats Hagar and bans her from the tent whenever she can. This is not the domestic paradise envisioned by Joseph Smith when he posited that polygamy was Heavenly Father’s will.

As our bible story opens, the years of discord have come to an explosive climax and Sarah uses her authority as senior wife to demand the  expulsion of Hagar and her child from Abraham’s luxurious tent. What follows is one of those heart-wrenching scenes that dominate the saga of Genesis: 
So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. Genesis 21:14-16.
How could Abraham and Sarah be so cruel?

The back story offers some clues. 

Abraham was 75 when God ordered him to move to Canaan where, God assured him, he would be the primogenitor of a vast nation. God said “jump” and Abraham jumped, pruriently winking his pretty wife, Sarah, to tell her they’d better get started. 

But years went by and the nation-starting business was going nowhere. There’s reason to suspect Sarah was tiring of her husband’s sweaty efforts to make God happy. Looking around, she saw her beautiful Egyptian servant, Hagar, and presented her to him as a gift. “She’s all yours, dear.” Abraham dutifully accepted and continued his feverish endeavors to please God. 

Looking back, Sarah must have wondered what on earth she had been thinking. Naturally, Abraham continued his feverish endeavors to please God by sowing his patriarchal seed. And because it was (and continues to be) the practice of men, he cared little which woman was the holy receptacle. 

Hagar is one of the biblical models for Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which details both the dangers of a literal interpretation of scripture as well as the natural enmity between the barren and the nubile.

Sarah, initially relieved that her vigorous husband was occupied elsewhere, soon became exasperated by Abraham’s sacred enthusiasm and threw Hagar out of the tent. Hagar, heavy with child, was filled with contempt for her mistress. 

Years passed and God – still working on an early draft of a commandment forbidding adultery – decided Abraham’s nation-building tasks needed to continue with Sarah only. Sarah thought she had retired from that job because she was far past the normal age of child bearing. But after years of watching her husband embrace her hated rival and her rival’s son, Sarah gave birth to Isaac. 

Finally with a son of her own, Sarah knew her position as senior wife had been re-established. When she saw Hagar’s son playing innocently with her baby, she snapped. “Cast out this slave woman with her son,” she ordered her husband. “For the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” Genesis 21:9-10.

What a mess. What a great soap opera. But did it really happen?

Genesis is a library of allegories, metaphors, and myths. The stories are fun, and they are a lot more fun when you believe the events are literally true.

That’s about as close to advocating a literal bible as my conscience will allow me to go. I’ve known a lot of brilliant and accomplished people who believe God enables people to survive fiery ovens or live in fish bellies. I once met Colonel Jim Irwin, the aeronautic engineer and astronaut, in a Southern Baptist pressroom in the seventies. He had exchanged his Air Force blues for a dazzling red and yellow double-knit plaid jacket and baggy white pants, and his GI haircut was now a fashionable shag. You don’t often run into people who walked on the moon so we journalists pressed near him to hear what it had been like. Instead, he announced he was going to Turkey to search for the original ark. Retirement can send a guy off in odd directions (I now know), but if an astronaut believed the ark was real, who was I to argue? 

Millions of thoughtful people believe Abraham was a historical figure, and they could be right. But if he was a myth who evolved to explain the origins of the twelve tribes of Israel, he was a captivating myth. His story is a soap opera of betrayal, greed, lust, jealousy, and mass murder. And unlike other protagonists of most sagas, he had 175 years of life to get it done.

Typical of soap operas, it was Abraham’s sex drive that kept getting him into trouble. The teller of his story seeks to make the point that God has decided to build a great nation through Abraham’s seed and Abraham was faithful to God no matter how many obstacles God put in his way. The main obstacle was Abraham’s little Abraham, which was not getting any younger. And, as the bronze-age macho storyteller tells it, God and Abraham pursued their goals by compelling women to graciously submit to their male will.  

This part of the myth is true. Bronze-age men used women as means to their own ends and they never doubted that was God’s eternal plan. We know that is true because it’s still true. Gender equality is a relatively nascent phenomenon and men still hold most of the power in business, the church, and certainly in U.S. Senate.

That is changing because only the most insulated and closed-minded persons still believe the genders are intellectually, spiritually, and physically unequal. Unfortunately, insulated and closed-minded people, though dwindling, have been gerrymandered into our social structure. Hopefully our daughters – and sons – will live to see the time when they have passed from the scene.

In the meantime, our bible story should also be a cautionary tale about the complications of assuming allegorical myths are historically true. 

Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar are convincing characters because they all believed a male God had ordained male patriarchs to use females as unwilling vessels of nation building. Such people did exist in 1800 B.C. and such people exist today. 

But we don’t need prophets like Margaret Atwood to see how such beliefs can be harmful. Such beliefs were an underlying cause of misery for Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar.

This much we know to be true: great nations arose in the fertile crescent of the Middle East, and they bore common witness to the One God, sometimes called Yahweh, sometimes called Allah. These great nations have a common origin and proclaim themselves children of Abraham.

The Abraham of Genesis is a patriarch who believed God wanted him to sow the seeds of nationhood using his wife and her handmaid as inferior vessels for the task.

That part of the myth is true because that is what men have believed for thousands of years.

But the pain that accompanied that belief, meticulously detailed in the Genesis story, remind us that inequality breeds misery for all concerned.

The story also impels us to remember that God is not a God of misery. Our God is a God of love whose metaphorical arms embrace all persons, all races, all ages, all creeds, both genders, and all sexual orientations. 

And that is no myth.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Wonder of Super-Suspended Disbelief




NOTE: As the blockbuster movie season continues with Wonder Woman drawing millions to IMAX 3D screenings, I’m revisiting “Deus ex Superman,” an essay I wrote in June 2013.


In 1817, Samuel Taylor Coleridge told us how to really enjoy summer blockbusters about robots, transformers, aliens, and super heroes.

As every fastidious English major knows, Coleridge suggested a “willing suspension of disbelief.” He meant the act of will that enables us to believe the unbelievable in fiction, film, Fox News, and professional wrestling. 

It’s that willingness that makes the ridiculous sublime. Sure, we know Mary Martin and the Flying Nun didn’t really take wing, and there are no vampires sustained by True Blood extract. But it’s fun to pretend, and it’s good exercise for the left side of our brains to briefly embrace what cannot be. When Alice tells the Mad Hatter she sometimes believes six impossible things before breakfast, she is at the height of her mental health.

Vivid imaginations and active fantasies can be good for you, and millions of moviegoers will emerge from 3D IMAX viewings of super heroes as happier, healthier persons because of their 144-minute break from reality.

Superman, for example, is an unambiguously messianic character (see my 1979 commentary about that here), and Wonder Woman is herself an actual goddess. 

Most of us nerds know Superman was created in 1938 by Jerry Siegal and Joe Schuster, nice Jewish boys from Cleveland. The creation of Wonder Woman is less straight-forward, according to historian Jill LePore, whose Secret History of Wonder Woman is summarized in this tantalizing paragraph in the New York Times:
On the other hand, “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” is fundamentally a biography of Wonder Woman’s larger-than-life and vaguely creepy male creator, William Moulton Marston (1893-1947). He was a Harvard graduate, a feminist and a psychologist who invented the lie detector test. He was also a huckster, a polyamorist (one and sometimes two other women lived with him and his wife), a serial liar and a bondage super-enthusiast.
The current cinematic incarnation of Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot, is as leggy and sexy as her comic book counterpart, although unlike the cartoon WW she does not submit to frequent bouts of bondage that tantalized young comic book readers and appalled critics. 

It’s fun to willfully suspend our belief and enjoy the Wonder Woman ride. (It helps to suspend what we know of Gal Gadot herself, an Israeli whose views on Palestinian rights border on apartheid.) But stark reality awaits movie-goers outside the theater doors and the reality we suspended crashes down on us. When the show is over, we’re thrust abruptly back to real life. What do we do with the fantasies that were so exhilarating?

When we are children, we are far less concerned about separating fantasy from reality. 

My experience with Superman dates back to early childhood when I believed everything I saw. I never doubted that television showed real stuff. 

One day in 1952 I happened to be sitting alone in front of my family’s 12-inch black and white Admiral TV. I tuned-in mid-way through a show that seemed to be a cops and robbers drama because there were people sitting behind long steel bars in a jail. Suddenly a man dressed in skin-tight pajamas with a long dark towel trailing behind his neck jumped into the scene and pulled the bars apart so the people could escape.

That I remember this scene so vividly after 65 years shows what an impact it had on me. I was stunned and ran to tell my father about it: “And there was this really strong guy, and he bended open the jail bars, and he ran away …” If I had stayed in front of the TV long enough to see him jump out a window and fly away, I would have probably wet my pants.

What I was watching, of course, was The Adventures of Superman, starring George Reeves. 

Looking back, I realize how lucky I was to view this scene at a time when I couldn’t tell the difference between fact and fiction, when the most mundane things were mystic and magical. I didn’t have to willingly suspend my disbelief because it was perpetually suspended. The long years that followed have been, as they are for us all, harsh reality baths that convert us from starry-eyed children to jaded adults. But how wonderful it is to be able to remember how we viewed the world when it was enchanting and new.

My most vivid childhood memories, in fact, are of those times when I struggled to tell the difference between what was real and what was pretend.

The Sunday school of the small-town Protestant church I attended was a perfect laboratory for this struggle. In post-World War II America, my teachers spoke admiringly of Jesus and General Douglas MacArthur, often using the same words in the same sentence. At 4 or 5 years of age, I had difficulty deciding if Jesus and MacArthur were different people and at one point theorized that Jesus sometimes wore dark glasses and smoked a pipe.

My working image of Jesus, of course, was Salman’s Head of Christ. When Pastor Bergner said in a sermon that Jesus was coming back, I envisioned Salman’s long-haired Jesus dressed in a tailored black suit, sitting expressionless behind the pastor waiting to be introduced to the congregation. 

When I asked Mrs. Dutton how Jesus died, she put her hand on my shoulder and said, “He died on a cross of nails.” I don’t know why she put it quite that way, but I immediately imagined Salman’s Jesus in his white robe, laying on hundreds of nails hammered into a large white X that looked like a Yogi’s bed. 

Eventually I developed a more traditional Christology, but all of these images remain in my head.

I did not, I should make clear, think of Superman as a Jesus-like figure sent by his loving father into the world to champion good people and fight evil. 

Even so, there was something thrilling and enchanted about the Man of Steel as George Reeves portrayed him in the 1950s.

And the Action Comics that brought Superman’s and Wonder Woman’s adventures to newsstands provided a tangible religious experience for me as a would-be cartoonist. In my lonely teen years, I spent hours in my room, drawing and re-drawing Superman. I conscientiously copied the work of artists Wayne Boring and Kurt Swan who set the standard for Superman iconography. To me, these guys were no mere cartoonists but artists whose depiction of the human form in action provided free lessons as I traced them with my nubby pencils and broken crayons.

Of course it is also true that Superman taught moral lessons. He set high standards of conduct, brought evildoers to justice, and never abused his super powers for selfish reasons.

Too, he was always available to persons in need, cruising cityscapes and villages to save people not only from criminals but also from fires, floods, earthquakes, and airplane malfunctions. He was a deus ex machina – a God in the Machine – who swooped into dramas at the last minute to rescue people from certain injury or death.

This is what makes Superman and Wonder Woman messianic figures. a messianic figure.  In our dark and confusing reality, we yearn for messiahs in blue tights or bangled bustiers to burst through our gloom to save the day.

That will require a willing suspension of our disbelief that the whole idea of Superman is absurd and was made up by a couple of cartoonists from Cleveland in 1933. And Wonder Woman is the scion of a bondage-loving polygamist who advocated womens rights. 

But that willing suspension can provide both a healthy respite from the realities of life and an opportunity to open our minds to hidden realities that are not dreamt of fun our philosophies.

For 80 years, Superman has been a morality tale that points us in the direction of greater truths. 

Beneath all the legends, special effects and imaginary scenarios, there is an actual loving father who sent his beloved son to earth to rescue us from evil and death. 

That son, Jesus, is the original Superman.

And one way to comprehend the real messiah is through a day at the movies that renews our childlike imagination and  childlike faith.

That imagination and faith are the most powerful gifts we have because they exceed the capacity of any cartoonist or film maker to open our hearts and minds to the ultimate reality: the loving God. 

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Daddy, Who Art in Heaven. Or Somewhere.

Every Fathers Day, the Hallmark Canon of Cards wreaks havoc with the Revised Common Lectionary.

As was the case last month with Mothers Day, this Sunday is Fathers Day and preachers throughout the United States and its territories (and anyplace Hallmark holds dominion) will be expected to honor fathers.

Not that there is anything canonical about Fathers Day or Mothers Day. Both are merely confections of a greeting card company’s profiteering. The bible tells us to honor our father and our mother but says nothing about sending them three-dimensional talking cards or taking them out to expensive restaurants or making one of those annual, guilt-assuaging phone calls. 

Sometimes the Revised Common offers vaguely connected scripture that can be twisted to honor old Dad. This week (Matthew 9:35-10:8,9-23) the Gospel describes Jesus’ quest for male apostles, who he commands to cast out demons, cure the sick, and endure to the end. This has Father’s Day possibilities. Other lectionary years offer more benign passages, such as Jesus’ parable about the scattering of seed in Mark 4:26-34. Seed scattering, of course is the very definition of fathering. We progeny can bask in the notion that we and our mighty works sprang from the microscopic but frisky seed of Dad’s dutiful disseminating. Hail to thee, Old Man. Way to go. End of sermon.

This would probably be a good place to stop, but fatherhood is too complicated a subject to dismiss so abruptly.  

This Sunday, millions of us will be remembering our fathers with fondness and respect. But many of us will also remember our adolescent rebellions against our father’s arbitrary rules, the constant father-son combat that Garrison Keillor compared to two elks locking antlers on perpetual fields of conflict. 

Most of us will eventually admit that our youthful insurgency hurt us more than it hurt Pop. My Dad was a typing teacher and I rebelled against his authority by refusing to learn to type. As a journalist I pounded out reams of copy with only two fingers, so the joke was on me.  Even jokier, as I grew older, I found I was evolving into my father’s personality type and adopting some of his less healthy habits. Toward the end of his life, Dad and I sat at a table in his nursing home, packing Captain Black into our briar pipes and contentedly fading into a haze of blue smoke. I never felt closer to him.

Sadly, however, not everyone achieves a happy relationship with their Dad. If you believe Freud, that would include most of us. In Freud’s controversial but not universally discounted view, we are born with a subconscious desire to murder our fathers.

Freud called it the Oedipal Complex, based on the protagonist of classic Greek drama. In tales spun by Aeschylus, Euripides, Pindar and Sophocles, Oedipus was a king who was adopted but never told that the king and queen of Corinth were not his real parents. To make a long story short – and it is a story spread over several plays and epic poems – Oedipus traveled to Thebes where he was confronted by King Laius. The two fought over a right of way and Oedipus killed Laius. As Oedipus approached Thebes, he freed the city from the influence of an evil Sphinx and the grateful citizens proclaimed him king and gave him the hand of the recently widowed Queen Jocasta in marriage. It was years before Oedipus realized Laius and Jocasta were his birth-parents. He had killed his father and married his mother. But that’s the beginning of another very, very long story.

Freud believed the reason we resonate to the Oedipus story is that we share it on many subconscious levels. Boys, Freud insisted, are born with an inner desire to be intimate with their mothers and kill their fathers. Other shrinks cast doubt on the theory and some suggest it merely describes Freud’s own emotional baggage. But the story is a reminder that father-son relationships are complicated. 

So, too, are mother-daughter relationships; and so are father-daughter relationships. Some of the worst stories I covered as a newspaper reporter were about the physical and sexual abuse of children, girls and boys, by their father or stepfather. To these children, Father was a terrifying creature who caused physical and emotional pain and threatened to harm or kill them if they told anyone “Daddy’s secret”. 

Obviously, the relationship you have with your father determines how you feel about the whole idea of our Father who art in heaven. This Fathers Day, many will struggle with that image, and many may have difficulty understanding Jesus’ relationship with God.

On a Monday-after-Fathers-Day about 30 years ago, I was brewing coffee in a kitchen in the Holy Doughnut when my friend Ray Jennings wandered in with an empty cup. The Holy Doughnut, as many know, is the circular mission center of American Baptist Churches USA in Valley Forge. In a bygone era, Ray and I were colleagues in the denomination’s communication offices, and we often began our Mondays watching the Mr. Coffee machine drip streams of bitter caffeine into a stained carafe. 

Ray, who died in 2006, was one of the most peripatetic Baptists I have known.   Born in St. Louis and tutored by the legendary pastor C. Oscar Johnson at Third Baptist Church, Ray earned a masters and a doctorate in theology and began his ministry as a missionary in post-war Japan. At the crest of the sixties he was pastor of the First Baptist Church in Berkeley and he poured soothing oils on student unrest by modeling to undergraduates how Jesus would have handled violence and injustice. He wrote a book and hundreds of articles and was so enamored by wordsmithing that his email handle was “WriterRay.” When I offered him a position as a reporter in the American Baptist communication office, he jumped at it. I think Ray was happy writing Baptist news stories and magazine articles, though he often said a bureaucrat’s 40-hour week was a vacation compared to the 24-7 duties of busy pastors.

Ray was a strong advocate of women in ministry, though it didn’t come easy. Having come of age in the Midwest in the forties, his vocabulary suffered a slight cultural lag and he occasionally raised hackles by referring to women colleagues as “gals.” But he was committed to equal treatment and equal pay for women pastors – two goals that have yet to be fully realized in most American Baptist congregations.  

On that Fathers Day Monday 30 years ago, I asked Ray about his Sunday. He had joined a staunchly liberal congregation that matched his open-minded theology and progressive social views, and he generally approved of everything they did.

But not this Sunday. He shook his head in rueful dismay.

“They re-wrote the Lord’s Prayer,” he said.

“What?”

“They re-wrote the Lord’s Prayer.”

I wondered why Ray thought that was a big deal. He and I had often discussed the Jesus Seminar, a group of Protestant and Roman Catholic scholars who use critical standards to measure the authenticity of various statements attributed to Jesus. Ray, a church historian, was intrigued by the scholars’ assertions that certain lines of the prayer, namely, “hallowed be thy name,” “thy kingdom come,” “give us this day our daily bread,” and “forgive us our debts,” were likely to have been paraphrases of earlier statements and that it was unlikely Jesus ever strung these lines together in a single prayer. Ray didn’t necessarily agree with that, but he enjoyed the intellectual energy behind the discussion. He did agree with the seminar that the one phrase in the prayer most likely to be authentic was, “Our Father,” and Jesus probably used the word “Abba.”

“How did your congregation re-write it?” I asked.

“They took out the ‘Our Father,’” he said. “They thought it was sexist and patriarchal. They changed it to ‘Our Mother.’”

He paused to let the irony sink in.

“The one word in the prayer everyone agrees Jesus used!” he said. “They took it out!”

I think about that conversation almost every Fathers Day.

As the Jesus Seminar rightly concluded, Jesus’ relationship with God his Father was remarkably close. He called him, “Abba,” and the closest English translation we have is, “Daddy.”

Henri Nouwen writes:

Calling God “Abba, Father” is different from giving God a familiar name.  Calling God “Abba” is entering into the same intimate, fearless, trusting, and empowering relationship with God that Jesus had.  That relationship is called Spirit, and that Spirit is given to us by Jesus and enables us to cry out with him, “Abba, Father.”Calling God “Abba, Father” … is a cry of the heart, a prayer welling up from our innermost beings [Nouwen writes].  It has nothing do with naming God but everything to do with claiming God as the source of who we are.  This claim does not come from any sudden insight or acquired conviction; it is the claim that the Spirit of Jesus makes in communion with our spirits.  It is the claim of love.
When the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible was published in 1989, it retained the gender language that scholars believe was originally used. If it is clear the text intended to refer women as well as men or to daughters as well as sons, the translation is gender inclusive. If it is clear the text intended a reference only to males, the original intent is preserved.  In the NRSV, Jesus prays to God the Father, and the God-Father image is retained throughout. Of course no one is claiming God has a male body, but “Abba, Father” is one way we can relate to God with the same “intimate, fearless, trusting, and empowering relationship” we had with our earthly fathers.

But what if we weren’t lucky enough to have that kind of relationship with our Dads?

This Fathers Day, we are reminded that not everyone’s heart is strangely warmed by the thought that God relates to us as Father. For some, sadly, the metaphor has been damaged.

But all of us can embrace the idea of the Father God as Jesus understood it: a strong, protective, enveloping entity who loves us unconditionally.

The parable of the sower helps us understand how rich and powerful that love is.
Jesus also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” (Mark 4:30-32)
The love of God the Father may languor in our hearts as a remote and, to some, even toxic allegory, a metaphor made bearable only by its smallness.

But God’s infinite love transcends and perfects all notions of paternity until it grows and we experience it as the greatest love of all.

Abba. Who Art in Heaven. Holy is your name.

Amen.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Sarah's Surprise

Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7)

“How come we got the extra years? Was it luck, good genes, modern medicine? Or are we doing something right?” Carl Reiner, 95

At age 70, I pay a little more attention to the events of Abraham and Sarah’s old age.

Clearly this vigorous couple shattered gerontology’s glass ceiling. But did they set achievable goals for the rest of us sexy senior citizens?

The truth is, one’s attitudes change with encroaching geezerhood. And the change is comprehensive.

At 70, I’m in good health, despite a heart attack in my late sixties. My cardiologist says my heart function is “normal” and I walk a couple miles several times a week to keep my blood flowing. But when my three-score-and-ten milestone was reached on the heels of a health scare, I began to see life through a different lens.

My body tells me I should no longer lift window air conditioners, 40-pound bags of dog food, or heavy wet snow. But I do all of that when no one is looking because I feel useless sitting around watching others do it.

I still receive the emailed employment notices I subscribed to when the church-organizations I worked for declared me redundant, and some of the job openings seem interesting. But I delete them as soon as they appear in my inbox because I think 70 is a bad time to begin a new career.  And when I begin to doubt that, President Trump proves me right every day.

I still buy green bananas, but I try not to postpone plans for vacations, cruises, or family gatherings as if there’s plenty of time to work them in.  The warning of Proverbs 27:1 that “tomorrow is promised to no one” applies to us all, of course, but at 70 you really believe it.

At 70, even my fantasy life is circumspect. Sitting with my spouse to watch Wonder Woman on an IMAX screen last weekend, it crossed my mind that Gal Gadot is exceptionally hot. But then I remembered that I have four children older than Gal, and my thoughts turn to, “Her father must be so proud.”

Despite all that, I don’t find 70 to be particularly inconvenient. Retirement is good and – except for the three unpredictable dogs that share my space when I’m alone – I have a fair amount of freedom. I walk when I want, eat lunch when I want, watch Perry Mason reruns when I want, and nap when I want. I enjoy my predictable comfort. 

I’m sure that’s how Abraham and Sarah felt in their old age: comfortable and content. I can understand that. So what if they were approaching their 11th decade? So long as they had their health, why mess with the routine?

But God is not a God of contentment.
The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground.
He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on--since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.”
And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.”Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.”
Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him.
Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?”
The LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.”
But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.” (Exodus 18:1-15)
In our gentrified versions of Genesis, in the King James or Revised Standard Version, Sarah’s comment to herself is dignified and grandmotherly: “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” Earlier translations, including the Book of J, are more to the point. Sarah said plainly that her husband’s instrument of nation building had dangled uselessly for years. 

At 70, I have a clearer idea how Abraham and Sarah felt than I did at 40. For decades they had been experiencing the creeping dysfunctions of age. Abraham dangled uselessly, Sarah had not menstruated in sixty years, and sensual pleasure was confined to the availability of sweet cakes and curds. Now God wants them to drop the tent flaps and do the nasty on a camel rug? If Sarah laughed, I’m sure it was a nervous giggle.

Fortunately, the scene fades to black (something scripture does not always do) so we don’t have to watch Abraham and Sarah in action. But a year later Sarah delivers Isaac and the nation building begins. In the pre-Viagran, pre-K-Y age, it was a palpable miracle.

From my vantage point, the miracle is God’s reminder that we are never too old to be useful. Not all of us will become so chronologically gifted that we will experience that miracle. But for those who make it, God has plans.

This week’s New York Times has an article on Carl Reiner, 95. The older he gets, the more I love him. His HBO documentary is titled, “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast,” is based on a famous one-liner he may have originated.

Reiner’s documentary, and his latest book, Too Busy to Die, (Clear Productions, Inc.), are tributes to longevity and to several of his nonagenarian friends, including Mel Brooks, Betty White, and Norman Lear. I’d add other immortals-over-90, including Cicely Tyson, Doris Day, Harry Belafonte, Hugh Hefner, Larry Storch, Hugh Downs, Rose Marie, Angela Lansbury, and Dick Van Dyke. My mother-in-law, Julia Montes Cruz, turned 90 in January.

The Times article, by Dan Hyman, highlights the views on aging of several of Reiner’s contemporaries, including Mel Brooks, 90, and Norman Lear, 94. 

“There is living and dying; there’s no retirement,” Brooks said. “If we die, then we can’t do much. But as long as we’re alive, we can still tap dance, we can still crack a joke, we can still sing a song, we can still tell a story.”

Lear decried the stereotype of aged people as “decrepit and weak and foolish. The culture has an impression of aging that is not realistic. To get the laughs, it paints a picture of older people as infirm, as whiny, and as incapacitated and foolish. I don’t think that’s who we are.”

None of the nonagenarians in the Times article are as old as Abraham and Sarah when they embarked on the most important task of their lives. But each of them would have understood why Sarah laughed when she was told what God had planned for her. 

As Mel Brooks said, there is living and there is dying. But when God has a plan for us, no matter how old we may get, there is no retirement. 

And if a little miracle is required to energize us, we should be prepared to expect it.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Explain The Trinity? Right.


“There are three things that are real,” President Kennedy said. “God, human folly, and laughter; the first two things are beyond our comprehension, so we must do what we can with the third.”

Not a bad inscription for a souvenir coffee cup from the JFK library. Not a bad approach to Trinity Sunday, either.

God the incomprehensible.
Folly the impenetrable. 
Laughter the consoler.

Trinity Sunday, this year observed on June 11, was devised by the church fathers (I use the term advisedly) as a counterpoint to Pentecost Sunday, when the Holy Spirit gets top billing.

Trinity Sunday is our liturgical opportunity to think of God in Three Persons:

God the Creator.
Jesus the Redeemer.
Holy Spirit the Advocate.

The doctrine of the Trinity is a basic component of Christianity. A church has to be “Trinitarian” to qualify for membership in the National and World Councils of Churches, and the notion goes back to the fourth century.

The Nicene Creed, which sprung up in the east around 325 A.D., put it like this:
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth, of things visible and invisible.And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the begotten of God the Father, the Only-begotten, that is of the essence of the Father.God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten and not made; of the very same nature of the Father, by Whom all things came into being, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible.Who for us humanity and for our salvation came down from heaven, was incarnate, was made human, was born perfectly of the holy virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit …. We believe in the Holy Spirit, in the uncreated and the perfect; Who spoke through the Law, prophets, and Gospels; Who came down upon the Jordan, preached through the apostles, and lived in the saints.
The notion recurs in the Apostle’s Creed around 390 A.D.:
I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit … I believe in the Holy Spirit.
The creedal language is metrical and beautiful. It makes you feel good to repeat it.

But understand it? Please. When was the last time you had to explain the Trinity to someone?

We’ve heard the sermons. The Trinity is the way we describe the three basic components of our relationship to God: creator, redeemer, advocate.

For 17 centuries, preachers have been devising ways to explain the Trinity to simple-minded heathens. St. Patrick, with no snakes to drive out of Ireland in the fifth century, is said to have used the three-leafed shamrock to explain the Trinity to locals. If so, he didn’t write about it, nor did anyone else until about 1726, so the legend appears to be as false as the analogy is weak.

If shamrocks don’t work, there is the classic cliché
about the various roles we play in life. For example, I am a father, I am a son, I am a spouse – three different roles that call for three distinct presentations. Yet these roles do not require a trifurcation into three distinct Persons. The analogy doesn’t really help us understand the nature of the Holy Trinity.  God in three persons? Why not one God with three personalities? That might work if all three personalities were spirit, but one is flesh. That factor tempts one to a haiku-analysis:

Can corporeal
blend incorporeally 
as one in the same?

That’s where the concept becomes a conundrum, and because there are no instruments with which to take God’s true measure, the enigma deepens.

I was blessed, growing up, with three excellent pastors who succeeded one another in the United Church of Morrisville, N.Y. None of them held me accountable for comprehending the Trinity.

That was fortunate because I’ve never been able to fully figure out God or even ask an intelligent question that might bring me closer to an understanding.

I must have been 11 or 12 when I first wrestled with the concept of infinity. I put the question to my mother: “When did God begin?”

I’m sure Mom narrowed her eyes and squinted at me. She always squinted, in part because she loved questions like that and because by 1957 she was legally blind.

“Why don‘t we ask Mr. Irwin?” she suggested, referring to our pastor, Jack Irwin, whose intellect Mom respected.

Jack was an extraordinary pastor in what I once regarded as an ordinary hamlet in Central New York. During his pastorate in Morrisville he was preparing for his doctorate in philosophy at Syracuse University, so he probably thought of God in Kantian or Kierkegaardian terms, seasoned with occasional Nietzschean aphorisms. But all he said to me, when I was 11, was, “God always is. There has never been a time when God wasn’t, and there never will be.”

That is one of two full sentences I can remember from 1957 (the other being a headline from My Weekly Reader that was almost as un-packable as the concept of the Trinity: “Welcome to the International Geophysical Year!”) so it clearly had an impact on my youthful brain.

As I said, Mother thought Jack was an intellectual marvel, which he was, but Dad often said Jack’s sermons went over his head. From my point of view in junior high and early high school, Jack was a matchless communicator. The Youth Fellowship highlight of every year was Halloween when we’d prop desiccated corn shocks in the corners of the Grange Hall, turn out the lights, and sit on the floor in the dark to listen to Jack’s scary tales. In a quiet Philadelphia-accented voice, Jack would combine menacing elements of urban legends with his own chilling adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe themes and scare the bejeezus out of us. His stories, which I am sure he made up as he went along, were amplified with spine-tingling details that placed horrific images in our heads for the rest of our lives.  The three-dimensional zombies of modern cinema do not compare with Jack’s terrifying stories – which, incidentally, were an effective though atypical evangelical tool. Youth Fellowship became an essential place to be for the cooler Morrisville teens.

Back then it didn’t occur to me to wonder where Jack got all those frightening Halloween images. Then in 2002, he published a memoir about his World War II experiences (Another River, Another Town, a Teen Age Tank Gunner Comes of Age in Combat – 1945) that included sobering tales of combat and his eyewitness accounts of the liberation of the Nordhausen Concentration Camp. No doubt his accounts of horror in the old Grange hall paled in comparison to the horror in his head.

One of Jack Irwin’s hobbies was astronomy and Morrisville, with its northern exposure and dark winter nights, was ideal for telescopic stargazing.


One Sunday night, Jack showed the Youth Fellowship slides of planets, galaxies and nebulae he watched through his lenses. We watched transfixed as he showed us Saturn, 794 million miles from earth … the sun, 93 million miles from earth … Alpha Centauri, the closest star, 4.365 light years from earth … and galaxies so far away it would take a beam of earth light millions of years to reach it.

When the show was over and the lights were turned on, Jack leaned back in his chair and looked into our blinking eyes, one by one.

“How many of you,” he asked without drama, “have a concept of God that is as big as outer space?”

We answered with silence. Thanks to Jack, God the Creator suddenly seemed bigger to us than the white-bearded patriarch in the Michelangelo painting. In fact, God the Creator was suddenly beyond our intellectual grasp.

And that’s only one Person of the Trinity! What about the Second Person?
He was in the beginning with God,” writes John. “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. (John 1:2-3).
Here we are talking about Jesus. And the fact that Jesus was human just like us makes John’s observation as inexplicable as the God of unfathomable light years.

A lot of us find it hard to focus on the humdrum humanity of Jesus because it seems disrespectful. It’s like when Pope Paul VI had prostate surgery in 1967. The surgeons were loath to discuss the details, which might have included references to pontifical testicles and anuses, and – God and Onan forbid – might have led to hints that male masturbation could be a useful prophylactic against prostrate problems. That is far too human for comfort.

And if it’s hard to think of the pope as human, how much more forbidding is the humanity of Jesus? Imagine one sweltering Palestinian day you walk from Jericho to Jerusalem with Jesus. The sweat trickles down your cheeks. You and Jesus drink deeply at each waterhole on the journey, belching loudly as the cooling liquid soothes your gullets. And soon you and Jesus are stepping behind cedar trees to hoist your skirts and relieve yourselves. When you sit in the shade of an olive tree to rest, your robe sticks wetly to your back. Pungent underarm odor is rife, and it’s not only you; it’s radiating from Jesus, too.

If this seems a little sacrilegious, keep in mind that these are inescapable essentials of the human condition – and human is the modus operandi of the Incarnation.

Even so it’s not easy to sit next to stinky Jesus and think of him as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.

John F. Kennedy was correct when he said God – like human folly – is beyond our comprehension. When you try to figure it all out, perhaps the best analgesic is to simply laugh. It is simply beyond the capacity of our human brains to grasp the nature of the creator of universes, or to comprehend the infinite love with which God assumed mere human flesh as a device for human atonement. Thinking God’s thoughts is simply beyond us.

Thank God, then (so to speak), for the Third Person of the Trinity – the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit that relieves us of the burden of trying to figure it all out.

“The Spirit of God is like our breath,” said Henri Nouwen. “God’s spirit is more intimate to us than we are to ourselves. We might not often be aware of it, but without it we cannot live a ‘spiritual life.’”

The Holy Spirit does not vest us with answers or give us special insights into the mind of God. Yet it is the Person of the Trinity that dwells within us so intimately that it connects us intimately with God the Creator and God the Redeemer.

“It is the Holy Spirit of God who prays in us,” Nouwen writes, “who offers us the gifts of love, forgiveness, kindness, goodness, gentleness, peace and joy. It is the Holy Spirit who offers us the life that death cannot destroy.”

Just how the Creator God did it is not for us to know. And just how our brother Jesus, who shares all our glands and bunions, was present at Creation is not for us to understand.

But the Holy Spirit who dwells within each of us is the perfect connector that binds our hearts and souls (and occasionally our minds) with the Triune God.

And perceiving that, as Brother Thomas Merton said, does not require intensive brain power.

It simply requires us to be silent until, in the intimacy of our solitude, the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit will write its wonders on our hearts.