patty kirk

patty kirk lying down, getting up, sitting at home, walking down the road doing deuteronomy 6:7

Monday, December 26, 2011

I didn't know he was like that

Siloam Springs, Arkansas—located just across the stateline from our Oklahoma farm—is where we do most of our business. We refer to it mostly as “Siloam.” Or, for short, “town,” as in “I’m going to town.” I work and buy groceries there—at a small store called Harps, which everyone still refers to by the name of its supplier a decade ago, IGA. I take my mother-in-law to Siloam to get her toenails trimmed. I had our babies at the hospital there, and our family practitioner, who cut both of them out of me when they refused to come out on their own, has his practice there. We set up the family cell phones there and thus all have Arkansas area codes and Siloam Springs prefixes, even though not one of us has ever lived there. Every other month, I lead a book discussion group at the tiny Siloam Springs public library, where we shift beat up armchairs and couches into a circle back in the video section.

Although Siloam Springs has a small university and its public schools, unlike those my daughters attended, are housed into separate elementary, middle, and high school facilities, it has no mall and only the most minimal of restaurant options outside of fast food: a couple of caf├ęs popular with college students, a place that serves Venetian-style wood-fired pizzas, and a Mediterranean restaurant with a bar—the first downtown drinking facility in this dry county, its liquor license likely acquired by political shenanigans I don’t want to know about since I cherish being able to grade papers there while sipping a glass of overpriced but wonderful Earthquake zinfandel.

Siloam is, in brief, a one university, one hospital, three nail salon town with a pretty downtown park and with a major U.S. highway and an algae-filled creek running through it.

“What is the name of that town? Silent Springs? Salem Springs?” my sister Dorothy asked me on the phone the other day. "I never understand when you say it." Dorothy has lived her whole life in California.

“No. Siloam. S-I-L-O-A-M. You know, like the Pool of Siloam in the Bible, where angels supposedly stirred the waters and people went to get healed. I think people used to come to Siloam Springs to be healed, too.”

“I don’t know that story.”

“Oh, you know. There’s that whiney guy who’s paralyzed or something—lying on a mat—who complains that he can’t get down to the water while it’s being stirred because other people get in his way and no one will help him. And Jesus is like, ‘Do you want to walk, or what?’ And he says, 'I guess so.' So Jesus tells him, ‘Well then, pick up your mat and walk.'”

“Jesus doesn’t sound very nice.”

“No. People always talk about him as being all meek and mild, but there are a lot of places in the gospels where he’s definitely not. Like there's this woman who keeps following after him and yelling that she wants him to heal her daughter. But she’s not a Jew—Phoenician or something—and the disciples want to send her away, and Jesus tells her, ‘I only came to the Jews. It’s not right to give the Jews’ bread to the dogs.’”

“He said that?”

“Something like that.”

“And that’s the end of the story?”

“No. She argues him down. Says, ‘But even dogs get to lick up the crumbs under the table.’ So Jesus gives in to what he calls her ‘great faith’ and heals the daughter.”

“Wow. I didn’t know he was like that.”

“Yeah, it’s kind of weird. He’s not at all what people think he is.”

Monday, December 19, 2011

the worst possible sin

Last night I called my sister Joanie to update her on recent developments with our dad’s health. I have not conversed much with her in many years—we inhabit different worlds—but it is my hope to change that.

Joanie and I moved quickly from the subject of our dad to her new passion for the Bible. In particular, for this list of sins in Proverbs 6:16-19, which she found particularly true and important:
There are six things the Lord hates,
seven that are detestable to him:
haughty eyes,
a lying tongue,
hands that shed innocent blood,
a heart that devises wicked schemes,
feet that are quick to rush into evil,
a false witness who pours out lies
and a person who stirs up dissension in the community.
I wasn’t familiar with the verse when she first referred to it; so, since I was sitting at the computer as we talked, I googled around till I found the passage she seemed to be talking about and then read it back to her in the default translation I had open in one of my browser tabs, the TNIV. Joanie translated each item in the list into the wording of her version (she never said what it was and I was never sure: whatever it was, it sounded old-fashioned and included the apocryphal books) as I read, confirming that each one meant the same thing.  

The only sticking point for her was that my translation—and all but two of the twenty or so other versions we visited in the course of our conversation—listed the seven sins as more or less equally abominable, whereas her translation said something more like “and the seventh is an abomination to him” and seemed to highlight the last item in the list as the worst possible sin, singled out by God for special loathing.

Joanie claimed this last sin, the worst sin, as her own. She saw herself as a person who stirs up dissension in the community—or, as her version had it, “discord among brethren.” The NRSV translates it as “one who sows discord in a family.”

In reality, Joanie is as much a victim as a causer of discord in our family—as, indeed, all the rest of us are or have been at various points in our family’s history. It surprised and shamed me that she blamed herself for her suffering at our hands. At mine.

I recognize in myself the first sin—haughty eyes as blind to others’ goodness as to their needs—along with the last. I hope to improve in both areas: to be less dismissive of others and to sow love, not discord, in our fractured family. And, as I have learned from my recovery from PTSD, the first step in correcting a problem, perhaps the only step needed, is becoming aware that it exists.

Such, in any case, was God’s first answer to my dad’s prayer of gratitude for his cancer because it allows him to make peace with his neighbor.

Friday, December 16, 2011

"since there is no other metaphor—also the soul"...mourning Christopher Hitchens

My husband is on a business trip, so I spent breakfast reading though some of the BBC’s offerings this morning of “pithy aphorisms, wise reflections and wounding one-liners” of Christopher Hitchens, who died last night, aged 62, of esophageal cancer.

The first listed in the article referenced the Bible and encapsulated in a phrase what I always liked about Hitchens—namely, his consequentiality and unflinching determination to bash and shatter anything he perceived as a false idol: He called the New Testament "a work of crude carpentry, hammered together long after its purported events, and full of improvised attempts to make things come out right."

That said, though, I have to say I have always found the man, like many an idol-smasher, mean-spirited and unlovable. A man smitten with one faultless hero (George Orwell) and countless irredeemable villains (everyone else). Always on the attack.

I mentioned Hitchens in one of my own books, A Field Guide to God, in which I explore the difficulties inherent in sensing the presence of an invisible, inaudible, and intangible God. In a chapter on Mother Teresa’s heartbreaking struggle to sense God’s presence, I wrote,
Could she have actually lost her faith? I wondered as I read her confessions. Or never had faith to begin with? Perhaps she was simply the manipulative hypocrite that her main detractor—her atheist counterpart in fame, Christopher Hitchens—presents her as in the book-length attack on Mother Teresa he wrote during her lifetime. In a review of Come Be My Light entitled “Teresa, Bright and Dark,” Hitchens diagnosed Mother Teresa’s spiritual dilemma as “the inevitable result of a dogma that asks people to believe impossible things and then makes them feel abject and guilty when their innate reason rebels.” He summed up her work as “a strenuous and almost hysterical effort to drown out the awful fear of ‘absence.’” He mocked even the anguish of her letters and found in her loss of a sense of God’s presence gleeful support for his own view that “the absence of evidence is evidence of absence.” In another review, he dismissed her as a “fraud.”
The BBC’s list contains many similarly dismissive sounding one-liners. We should dismiss scripture: "Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and—since there is no other metaphor—also the soul." We should dismiss Christianity’s or anyone else’s claims on the individual: “Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you." We should dismiss even our selves: “Suspect your own motives, and all excuses.”

But, especially as he neared death, Hitchens’ voice sounded less secure about such dismissals. “It could be that all existence is a pointless joke, but it is not in fact possible to live one's everyday life as if this were so,” he once seemed to lament. Later, though, undergoing chemotherapy, "My main fear is of being incapacitated or imbecilic at the end. It's not something to be afraid of, it's something to be terrified of." Oh, let it be a joke!

Hitchens didn’t dismiss Mother Teresa, finally. He went on and on and on and on about her in books and articles. He talked about her so much that the Catholic church chose him as the best possible naysayer required—who knew?—in its canonization process as Teresa made her first post-death steps toward sainthood.

And that is the hope I take on his behalf. That, finally, he couldn’t just let the hope for something better lie.

As the writer of Hebrews points out of the Canaanite prostitute Rahab and Sarah—who laughed derisively when told that her lifetime of prayers for a son had been answered—and many others who predated Jesus:
They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. . . . [T]hey were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. (Hebrews 11:13, 16).

Sunday, December 11, 2011

my first complete prayer

My dad told me the other day, in his first week of chemotherapy, that, although he was “not good at praying,” he had just prayed “the best prayer I ever prayed in my life,” and it was this:
Thank you for giving me cancer, because it gives me time to make peace with my neighbor.
It’s such a thrilling prayer, I think, simultaneously expressing acceptance of, even gratitude for, the horrible reality he’s been given and a plea for the promise of the season: peace on Earth, goodwill towards men. He called it “a complete prayer.” Although I don't know what he meant by that, exactly, it seemed right.

I’m not much good at praying, either—particularly, strangely, about such big scary things as my dad’s cancer and my mother-in-law’s Alzheimer’s—so I decided to just pray his prayer with him. I have tried it various ways.
Thank you for giving him cancer because it gives him time to make peace with his neighbor.
Thank you for giving him cancer because it gives me time to make peace with my neighbor.
Thank you, Father, for time. For my neighbor. For your promise of peace between us.
Whatever way I tried to pray it, though, the only thing that would come out of me—my first complete prayer, perhaps—is Come, Lord Jesus!

I have never really prayed this prayer before, and, though it is a common phrase, the wording strikes me as odd. Odd coming from me, that is. To pray Come, Lord Jesus! is to pray for the end times, it seems to me. It is to pray the book of Revelation, not my favorite part of the Bible. It is a plea for God’s authority in all things, his will, which seems in my messed up brain to be at odds with his love. To pray, Come, Lord Jesus! is to pray to the Lordness of Jesus—his power, his differentness from me—not his humanness.

I was talking to my colleague Jake about my weird new prayer the other day.

“I’ve never called Jesus 'Lord' before,” I told him.

He looked shocked. Then he caught himself and made some joke. Surely she must be joking, I heard him thinking. Then he got serious again (Jake is Presbyterian, a preacher’s son, etc.) and said, “Well, it’s that you can’t deal with authority.”

Which is true.

“I mean,” he went on, “you’ve told me you don’t like the whole set up of church: some man standing up above everyone else, literally, and telling them how it is and everyone else just having to accept what he says without any chance to say anything back.”

Which is also true.

But my surprise at praying Come, Lord Jesus!—my surprise at praying anything at all to this Lord Jesus—was not about welcoming the sort of authority I object to in churches. Nor was it about authority, really. Rather, it was that Jesus was Lord: not merely God's son but God himself, the creator and provider and ruler. In praying Come, Lord Jesus!, I was welcoming the Jesus Paul was talking about when he wrote that by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him” (Colossians 1:16 NIV). Somehow, in spite of myself, I was suddenly seeing God’s power and God’s love as synonymous in a word.

Lord. A word we no longer use much, except for things religious, and then only in reference to power. Etymologically, though, it comes to us from the Middle English “ruler of the household.” And, before that, “guardian of the loaves.” I like that homey conflation of God’s power and love.

Praying Come, Lord Jesus! is about praying to the Maker and Giver and Guardian of the Loaves, all in one.

Come, Lord Jesus!

Friday, December 2, 2011

God’s purpose for us, if he has one

Last night on the phone with my sister Sharon, she told me, “God’s purpose isn’t for people to be happy. Everybody thinks it is, but it’s not. God’s purpose for us is that we do the right thing.”

It seemed a grim way to go about doing God’s work—that is, believing in the One God Sent—but I left it at that. I didn’t want to get in a fight. I’ve been thinking about that sad conclusion ever since, though.

It was my first thought this morning, as I dithered around the house, reluctant to go down to my mother-in-law’s house to wash and dress and feed and spend time with her. (Mamaw’s caretaker’s sister-in-law died yesterday, so we’re without our morning help for the next few days.)

Perhaps Sharon are right, I thought. Perhaps it is God’s purpose for me, this doing the right thing. This reluctance.

When I think about Mamaw, though, I know it’s not. She is someone who has always done the right thing, as far as I can tell. Sure, she has her faults. Back when she used to leave her house, she never failed to point out to me that any person she met or saw anywhere was “large,” as she put it. She herself has always been tiny. And there were other things.

But, in the main, she has been always selfless and kindhearted all the years I have known her. Motivated, it has always seemed to me, by a keen desire to be helpful. And always cheery about it. Nonetheless, her prayer at meals—the prayer she will pray at breakfast when I go down there in a minute or two—is for forgiveness:
Dear Lord, please forgive my sins and help me to do the right thing.
And even now, her brain frayed by Alzheimer’s, she seems, above all, happy.

God’s purpose for us, if he has one—Do I have a purpose for my daughters?—is to be like Mamaw, I think. Helpful. Sweethearted. Aware of our own failings. Doing the right thing, but happy.

That’s God’s desire for us, anyway, in everything we do. Certainly it’s my desire for my own children: that they do the right things and that they be happy.

And to resist believing this, I’m thinking this Advent morning—to supplant God's desire for us with some heavy imagined duty or undesirable purpose—is to resist the coming of the One God Sent to teach us otherwise.

My yoke is easy, my burden light, he tells us. If we strive for anything, I think, it should be for the fulfillment of that promise.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

it's all about blood

I’ve been telling everyone who appears in my office doorway about my family’s health crises over this Thanksgiving break. The worst: my dad was officially diagnosed with really bad lung cancer (for which I entreat your prayers: he starts chemo on Monday). 

Then, my husband Kris came down with this dramatic version of vertigo—dizziness, falls that bloodied his poor face, and the inability to get out of bed, walk, bend over, or even move his head without throwing up. It’s called labyrinthitis—not because it makes him lurch around like a drunken old man lost in a labyrinth, although it does, but because it involves an infection or blockage in his labyrinth, a part of the inner ear that is like a little level in which calcium stones roll around on top of the hairlike receptors that tell the brain which way is up. So he’s laid up.

And we took my mother-in-law for her yearly check-up to be officially told what has been clear for some time now—she can no longer be left on her own for eighteen hours a day—so that we could start making plans for what to do next.

Kris resists his mom’s diagnosis—not because it isn’t true but because telling her he’s taking her to a nursing home is unimaginable. But we can’t afford 24-hour in-home care, and, even if we could, we could never get the quality of care she’d get in a nursing home. Caretakers for the elderly—at least out in the country where we live—are largely untrained young people working for hardly more than minimum wage. Desperate, in other words, with no other options. Having gone through a number of caregivers, we feel very fortunate to have now an uncommonly capable and kindhearted woman about my age who’s in it, she says, because she loves old people. Saint Betsy, I call her. But she can only work 33 hours a week. We need 168.

So it was that, when my colleague Jennifer appeared in my doorway, we got to talking about how, dying on the cross, Jesus consigned his probably widowed and possibly ailing mother Mary to the care of his best friend John: 
When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home. (John 19:16-27).
“I love that he did that!” Jennifer told me. To her, it contrasts favorably with another scriptural story where Mary and her other sons show up and Jesus asks,
“Who are my mother and my brothers?”
Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:33-35)
According to Jennifer, Jesus’ audience—and even modern day audiences—would find that passage shocking. To them, as she put it, “It’s all about blood.” But to Jesus, it’s about something else. Nevertheless, he looked after his blood.
I have nothing but questions about Jesus’ giving away his mom to John, though. Was Jesus taking care of his mom before that moment? Why don’t we see any of the details of that? And where are Jesus’ brothers? Why aren’t they at the cross? And why aren’t they taking care of their mom? Where, especially, is James, the brother of Jesus who biblical scholars say authored that scary eponymous book in which he argues that “people are justified by what they do and not by faith alone” (James 2:24)?
And what, for Pete’s sake, is the right thing, the loving thing, to do with an elderly mother with dementia who wants to keep living on her own in her own house long after she has become a danger to herself? Jesus is silent about that.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

a simple sentence

I just sent my student Sam a paper back all marked up in tracked changes. It was a powerful little essay on the subject of Sam’s regret over never having shared the good news about the One God Sent to a friend who died an atheist. “[P]erhaps a simple sentence could have changed his fate,” Sam concludes.

A simple sentence. It is so interesting to me, as a teacher of writing, how resolutely we resist simple sentences. Most writers will do anything to avoid them, complicating them with clauses and qualifiers and all manner of rhetorical hesitations and joining them to other sentences in every way possible, habits that land them in the myriad punctuation errors that are the pests of college writing instruction.

Case in point: Sam. Though only in his first year of college, he already has a strong voice as a writer. He’s insightful, funny, genuine, interesting. Occasionally even concrete. He has an overwhelming aversion to periods, though—an aversion to which many of my brightest students are prone. In lieu of periods, Sam loves the old-fashioned semicolon. (An idea: Figure out some way to force him to read Sartor Resartus or some other Victorian monstrosity over Christmas break. That will surely cure him.) He also joins sentences together with commas—a punctuation error called a comma splice that plagues many beginning writers. In a nineteen-sentence essay, Sam joined four sentences unnecessarily together by semicolons and four incorrectly by commas. Goodness me.

In any case, I spent thirty minutes or so of my breakfast hour trying to convince Sam to embrace the simple sentence.

“[L]earn to love periods,” I summarized at the end of his paper, after commenting on semicolons and commas all down the right margin in track changes before emailing the paper back to him:
Consider the powerful sentence in John 11, “Jesus wept.” Would it have been better if John had said, “Jesus hung his head and cried long and loud, making the Jews think he loved them”? Or if John had written it this way: “Jesus wept; then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” No. Instead, John separates these sentences, not merely with periods but with paragraph indentations. You need to separate your sentences more, not join them.
I love that simple sentence, “Jesus wept.” In two words—an unadorned subject and verb, the most essential sentence there could be—John encapsulates the whole story of the One God Sent: God sent himself as a human like us. Knowing the whole truth of existence and capable of raising others and himself from the dead, Jesus nevertheless cried, as we do, to lose a friend. Wow.

Friday, November 25, 2011

what's up with that?

In the assignment I just handed back from a course in writing from faith, several students lamented that they often failed, as one of them put it, “to love others more than myself.” Why do so many of us think that loving others more than ourselves is what God has called us to do in the commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39 TNIV)?

I have written a whole book on this sort of misreading of so many believers—even of those who, as I am, are thoroughly convinced that salvation is in no way dependent upon behavior. Still, every time I reencounter such thinking—in others, in myself—it unsettles me anew. Why do we have this urge to outdo what God expects of us by burdening ourselves with holy acts we can’t possibly achieve? Why can we not accept Jesus’ assurance that his burden is easy and his yoke light? Why don’t we concentrate on the one work God does expect of us: to believe in the One God Sent—that is, not merely to believe in Jesus (or to believe on him, whatever that’s supposed to mean) but to believe simply believe him when he says such things?

I am reminded of the disciples asking Jesus to teach them how to pray “just as John taught his disciples” (Luke 11:1 TNIV). The disciples they’re wanting to emulate, mind you, are the followers of John the Baptist, an Extreme Holiness devotee if there ever was one. John’s disciples likely lived in the wilderness just as John did, dining on grasshoppers when they weren’t fasting and praying night and day.

“Shouldn’t this be harder?” Jesus’ disciples seem to be asking. And John’s disciples themselves wonder the same thing in Matthew 9:14, where they comment that, while they themselves “fast often,” Jesus’ disciples never do.

“What’s up with that?” they ask Jesus.

He answers that his disciples will fast when he’s no longer with them, but then he says something else:
“No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse.”
He emphasizes this aphorism with another:

“Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”
There’s going to be a new way of going about the business of faith, in other words. Sacrificing and fasting and burdening ourselves and others with impossible rules was the old way. The new way is a wholly different experience. Easy. Light. Delightful.

Monday, November 21, 2011

even in our least loving moments

Today at breakfast I recounted a story a colleague told me the other day when I ran into her at Panera, where we both go to grade papers. We had gotten to talking about the ways our teaching experiences have grown us spiritually, and my colleague told me about how a former student of hers had failed her class twice as a result of absences and lack of motivation. Against her judgment or inclination, my colleague had been pressured into allowing the student to retake her class a third time. At graduation, the student thanked all the professors who had made similar concessions and singled out specifically my colleague for, as the student said, “believing in me.”

“I have never felt so humiliated,” my colleague told me. I could remember many such instances in my own career, when I had struggled to like and even totally written off a student who later returned to thank me for my teaching. My colleague resolved from that moment never to give up on a student again.

“That’s just like what Ron said that time about the goats and the sheep,” my husband Kris commented.

Apparently, some fifteen years ago, our friend Ron had filled in for our regular pastor and preached about the passage where Jesus recounts how, at the last judgment, he will damn the goats who saw him hungry, thirsty, lonely, and imprisoned and did nothing about it and commend and welcome home the sheep who did. (Kris has an astonishingly explicit memory for things people talked about long in the past. It’s like being married to a tape recorder.)

In any case, Ron had been impressed with the sameness of the goats’ and the sheep’s response: “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison…?” both groups wonder (Matthew 25:44 TNIV). And neither group has any memory of helping or not helping those in need—evidence, according to Ron, that the loving acts believers do may not be the ones they expressly set out to do so much as the ones God does through them unawares. My colleague, according to my husband, had believed in that student without even knowing it.

It’s a comforting thought: that God recoups what we mess up. That, even in our least loving moments, God might be using us to carry out some worthy task of love.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

enjoy your current miseries while they last

The first year students in my Writing from Faith course—freshpeople, as I like to call them—have just turned in short essays about biblical truths life has taught them and are reading them aloud.

In one, Kara first took us to the Teacher’s counsel against reminiscing:
Do not say, "Why were the old days better than these?" For it is not wise to ask such questions. (Ecclesiastes 7:10 NLT).
Then she compared her current life as a college student—long nights with her books, receiving text messages from her dad saying “Missing you!”—with remembrances of her family’s Friday night tradition of renting a bunch of movies and buying tons of candy from the Dollar General and then watching movies and eating candy until late in the night, she and her siblings often falling asleep “on the couches.”

“What I wouldn’t give to burn the books and settle in for a long night of movies and candy with my wonderful family,” Kara laments, before taking us to her dad’s response, “I remember those days. Enjoy it while it lasts!” and to her own memory of having said the same in response to her younger sister’s complaints about high school.

So much fond memory in this piece. So much envying of others’ current misery as one’s own golden day. As Kara read, I found myself envying not only those family nights and her wonderful family, those images of children asleep on the couches, but that dad—texting his daughter to reminisce about his own college days—and Kara herself, as an older sister, counseling a younger sibling straight out of the weary nostalgia of a college student.

It takes some effort, in these days of caring for age-and-sickness-crippled parents while my girls embark on mysterious lives off at college in a faraway city, to remember past my current emergencies to halcyon moments like the ones my student describes. To looking out the window after a rain and discovering Charlotte and Lulu, naked, lolling in a puddle with the dogs. To that day, one long ago November, when Charlotte gorged on so many sugary persimmons from the trees in our woods that she got diarrhea and couldn’t eat them again for a long time. To Lulu at two or three, solemnly gluing Red Hots, one by one, to the roof of a gingerbread house with tiny fingers sticky with icing.

I can’t quite get to Ecclesiastes’ dictum against thinking those days better than these—better, indeed, than most days I can think of. Without those days to look back on, I don’t know if I could do these days at all.

Yet, when younger friends tell me of their family woes, I find myself coaching, in the spirit of Kara’s dad and Kara herself, “Enjoy your current miseries while they last! Things only get worse: your kids more demanding, less able to take care of themselves not more, your worries more complex.”

What is it that blinds us to the bright beauty of the current moment, rendering it unreachable except in hindsight? Surely it would be wiser, sweeter, to seize time, moment by moment, and devour it, as the poet Marvell invites, and so proceed in ecstasy through this life. That is, I think, the crux of Ecclesiastes’ counsel.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

please go ahead and kill me

Kris commented at the breakfast table this morning, apropos of nothing, that it was surprising that the Bible didn’t contain that story, common in myths, in which someone prays for—and gets—something that turns out to be a curse, not a blessing.

“You know, like Midas’ touch turning everything, and eventually Midas himself, to gold. That sort of thing happens a lot in myths.”

I thought immediately of how I hated being told to “be careful what I pray for” by fellow believers and wondered where in scripture, if anywhere, this enthusiasm-dampening sentiment might have come from.

“What about the Israelites in the desert telling Moses, ‘We’re sick of this manna! We want meat!’”? I asked Kris. “So God made quail rain from the sky, so many quail that they couldn’t eat it all and were buried in rotten, stinking meat.”

And we talked about how that story functioned in about the same way.

Later, I looked up the story of the quail—found in Exodus 16 and Numbers 11—and found it better than most myths I’ve read. Listen to Moses’ spectacular complaint about the job God has given him:
“Why have you brought this trouble on your servant? What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me? Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse carries an infant, to the land you promised on oath to their ancestors? Where can I get meat for all these people? They keep wailing to me, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me. If this is how you are going to treat me, please go ahead and kill me—if I have found favor in your eyes—and do not let me face my own ruin.” (Numbers 11: 11-15 TNIV)
Wow! And God’s response is even better. As Moses it to the Israelites,
“The Lord heard you when you wailed, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We were better off in Egypt!’ Now the Lord will give you meat, and you will eat it. You will not eat it for just one day, or two days, or five, ten or twenty days, but for a whole month—until it comes out of your nostrils and you loathe it—because you have rejected the Lord, who is among you, and have wailed before him, saying, “Why did we ever leave Egypt?” (Numbers 11:18-20)
The story is also interesting in its instruction. The Israelites’ error is not so much praying for the wrong thing or praying injudiciously as it is rejecting the Lord, who, Moses reminds them, is among them.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

an amusing sermon

I reread Malachi in Wycliffe’s medieval translation—something about reading early vernacular Bibles like Wycliffe’s and Luther’s excites me and makes me feel connected to what must have been the excitement of their first readers—and got moored in the very first, previously innocuous seeming phrase: “The burden of the word of the Lord to Israel, in the hand of Malachi, the prophet.” (In Luther’s 1545 translation, if you’re interested, it’s a Last, which means burden or load.) In the TNIV and most other contemporary translations, it is not a burden but a prophecy or a message.

“What do you make of this?” I asked Kris after I investigated my Exhaustive NIV Concordance and googled around and discovered that there are, supposedly, two different words in Hebrew that are spelled exactly, exactly, the same: one meaning prophecy and the other meaning burden. According to biblical scholars, the only evidence that shows which one is meant is context. And, in a couple of passages, both meanings obtain.

“Well,” Kris said, “a prophecy can be a heavy burden.”

“Yes, but what I mean is, if the only way you can tell which one is meant is by context, why do they think there are two words in the first place?"

I showed him a passage in Jeremiah where one scholar said that either meaning could work and that Jeremiah, who liked to play around with words, probably intended both. A gnarled read even in the NIV, it basically says that you should reject anyone who tells you, “I have a message from God.” In Wycliffe’s translation, the crux of it reads “Therefore if this people, either prophet, either priest, asketh thee, and saith, What is the burden of the Lord? thou shalt say to them, Ye be the burden, for I shall cast you away, saith the Lord” (Jeremiah 23:33).

This business of burdens from prophets and priests—and the fact that the whole segment of Jeremiah begins “Woe to the shepherds, that scatter and draw the flock of my pasture, saith the Lord” (Jeremiah 23:1 Wycliffe)—landed us, of course, in the mouth of Jesus, who probably spoke Aramaic (a patois of Hebrew and other Semitic languages), likely read scripture in Hebrew (although there were Aramaic texts), but whose words were recorded in Greek, in which language burden and message are two entirely unrelated words.

Jesus began his famous “Seven Woes” sermon with these words: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them” (Matthew 23:2-4 TNIV).

Which to me means Jesus was referencing both the opening of Malachi—a common opening of prophetic books of the Bible—and this burdensome passage from Jeremiah, in which he burdens his readers with the burden that they shouldn’t say God has burdened me to say x or trust someone else who burdens us with such burdens.

Just saying.

The take-home? Kris: “It would make an amusing sermon.”

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

I’ve lost my capacity to believe in coincidences

This morning I read a bit further in Malachi, one of the last books of the Bible written before the New Testament, with the goal of launching myself into the mindset of those longing for the coming of the Messiah. I hadn’t gotten very far when my husband, who’s on a business trip in Oklahoma City, called to remind me to go by his mom’s on my way to work to drop off her Alzheimer’s medicine. 
Mamaw—as my daughters and I call her—is in the stage of the disease where, with our help and that of paid caregivers, she’s just barely able to live on her own. Kris and I share various duties relating to her care. He doses out her medicine, lunches with her daily, and checks on her in the evening; while I shop for her, keep her in fresh cornbread or biscuits (about the only thing she eats), and deal with anything of an intimate nature, such as bathing and dressing her whenever we can’t get a caregiver. And, of late, dealing with dramatically “inappropriate bathroom habits”—as the Alzheimer’s literature discreetly refers to them—that I’ll leave to your imagination.
Thus it was that what I was reading when Kris called—a passage in Malachi in which priests sniff contemptuously at God’s altar and God responds in kind by smearing the excrement of their sacrifices on their faces (1:12, 2:3)—had double resonance for me. All this talk of smearing and sniffing and excrement in the context of my grudging duty to my mother-in-law, probably the kindest and most self-sacrificing woman I’ve ever known, who now needs me to be kind to her.
I read Kris the passage and asked what he thought it meant.
“Sounds like those priests lost their trust in God,” he interpreted.
“But all this excrement smearing and sniffing. Is there some connection, do you think, between this story and your mom?”
 “No,” he said. Decisively. “It’s just a coincidence.”
Since becoming a believer, though, I’ve lost my capacity to believe in coincidences. And, indeed, there is no coincidence here.
“And you say, ‘What a burden!’” the Lord had roared earlier in the morning from the pages of Malachi into my reluctance, my finickiness. “I am not pleased with you,” the God who created me told me, “and I will accept no offering from your hands” (Malachi 1:13, 10 TNIV).
To get to longing, I see now, I, like the Israelites before me, will have to get past my contemptpast my fussy objection to bodies and odors and my self-centered notions of how things ought to beto obedience. And pity. To the sheer, desperate trust from which longing is born.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

where I am on the longing scale

With Advent coming up here soon, I've been hoping to get a sense of the longing that must have preceded Jesus’ birth on the part of believers, so I decided to read the last little books written before the gospels by the so called postexilic prophets Joel, Zechariah, and Malachi.

I started with Malachi, a bad choice, as it turned out, because the book begins by rehashing a story from Genesis I have always found particularly difficult: God openly proclaiming, “I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated” (Malachi 1:3 TNIV).

Kris shared my discomfort at the breakfast table, calling the account of God’s love in light of Jacob’s smarmy deceitfulness a “burr under his saddle” ever since he first started reading the Bible as a little kid.

Jacob’s creepiness has never bothered me much—privy as I am to my own deceits and smarminess—but what I can’t get is God’s utter rejection of the other brother. I mean, Esau admittedly made an ill-advised choice in the matter of the lentil soup, but he was the victim of way worse meannesses from Jacob later on—such as Jacob’s pretending to be Esau so as to steal their father’s blessing. It doesn’t get much crasser than that. Years afterwards, though, when Jacob is terrified of meeting back up with his brother, Esau turns out to be uncommonly kind and forgiving.

I mean, I get God's loving the sinner Jacob; what I can’t get is God’s hating the niceguy Esau—along with, presumably, other nonbelieving niceguys I have known in my life.

So we talked about that, Kris and I. Did God’s love really, truly, come down to faith alone—which Esau evidently didn’t have, however brotherly and forgiving he seemed, but which Jacob had in abundance?

We tried to get at what it was that God may have liked about Jacob. We considered the wrestling story and that Jacob chose wives from his people, whereas Esau married Canaanites.

For me, though, it comes down to that story of when Jacob goes to sleep on a stone pillow and wakes up from a dream thinking, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it . . . How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven” (Genesis 28:16-17).

That’s what it is that makes Jacob lovable to God, I think: his ability to keep on expecting God—even in discomfort, even in despair, even in sleep!—just as a baby never stops expecting its parents to come running in from the other room.

So, by contrast, Esau must have just given up on God. He let his hunger supplant his longing, his desire for peace and contentment supplant acknowledgement of the source of these earthly pleasures.

So that’s where I am on the longing scale so far, as Advent approaches. Longing to expect God like that.

Friday, November 4, 2011

God has made it plain

On Tuesday, my first year students came into class all riled up because of the chapel presentation of my colleague Dave, an archaeologist and Arabic speaking professor from the biblical studies department, to the semester’s series on unlikely biblical heroes. He spoke on Balaam, the guy with the donkey.

“He said that Muslims and Christians worship the same God,” April told me. I love April. She has this ability, rare in first year students, to get right to the crux.

I hadn’t been in chapel and Dave’s message was probably more nuanced than that, but, it being a Gateway to Christian Higher Education course, a goal of which is to explore the faith-relevance of their studies, I decided to let them duke it out a while before we returned to the theme of our section of the course, writing from faith. In the course of the duking, the same-God question spread from Muslims to Jews to Mormons. Several students got Bibles out of their backpacks and read to us. The gist of what they read was the centrality of Jesus’ divinity to Christians’ notion of who God is.

I mostly refereed—and babbled a little, as I typically do when surrounded by believers defending their views—but I did offer one scriptural passage I’ve always found exciting and comforting in the writings of Paul, where he argues that truth is available to everyone because “because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” (Romans 1:19-20 TNIV).

“Looks like you don’t have to know about Jesus to know God,” I told them.

No one seemed much impressed with this promise, maybe because Paul phrases it as a threat: those who reject this readily available truth are thus “without excuse” (Romans 1:20). In any case, they kept arguing and pontificating and leafing through their Bibles a while, then we returned to the topic of creative writing.

Yesterday, after a tamer chapel, we got immediately to their current assignment. Quite by accident, I used the word epiphany. I meant it in the literary sense and was pleased when one of my English majors, Nate, was able to explain it.

“Anyone know the religious meaning of that term that James Joyce was referencing when he used it that way?”

Another student, Jewel, surprised me: “Isn’t it the feast day in January, when the Magi visit Jesus?”
So we talked about how the magi were from the East—and not the typical sort of people to seek a Jewish Messiah. Scholars think they were Zoroastrians, a major world religion that predated Islam in Iran. Somehow the magi knew, though, that they would find God’s son where that a star took them.

“The word magi,” I told them, “is the root of our word magic. It’s the same word used in the New Testament account of Simon the Sorcerer that some of you wrote about. Simon was a magus, the plural of which is magi.”

I love how God claims everything, even the crazy tohuwabohu of my courses, and makes things plain to us.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

you can't be cheerful when you're mad

Kris read to me this morning from a Wall Street Journal article by Kathleen A. Hughes entitled “When Your Vacation Home Becomes Everybody’s Vacation Home.” In it, rich person after rich person—people with six-bedroom vacation homes in Tuscany—complain about acquaintances taking advantage of their hospitality.

Having recently endured an unannounced visit that seemed it would never end to our barely three-bedroom, all-year house that is also my office, I’ve been thinking a lot about hospitality lately. Or, actually, stewing about it.

And venting to my sister Sharon. She attempted to soothe my anger by legitimizing it. “In Proverbs it says, if you stay too long at someone’s house,” she told me, “they’ll grow to hate you.” (Afterwards, I looked it up. It’s Proverbs 25:17.)

But I was already obsessing about Jesus’ complaint to the inhospitable, in the account of the sheep and the goats: “I was a stranger and you did not invite me in,” he tells the unwelcoming goats. “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me,” and he relegates them to hell (Matthew 25:43, 45 TNIV). In an email to my colleague Jake, who teaches an intro to higher ed course with a theme of hospitality, I complained that the passage was distressing. He agreed.

In the Wall Street Journal article, a guy in  Ocean City, Maryland, finally comes up with the idea of charging friends and family $2000 a year plus incidentals for staying at his “two-level condo with ocean views.” A rather inhospitable solution to the problem, it seemed to me at first, until I read his concluding words: Now I'm getting $30,000 a year of income from the families,” he said, “and I'm not as angry about it as when we were subsidizing everyone.”

“You know,” I told Kris at the breakfast table, “It’s like Sharon says. That’s just what happens when you feel you’re being taken advantage of. You get mad and feel put upon. And your anger and put-upon-ness undermine whatever love you may have had to begin with. This guy’s coming up with a way to avoid feeling that way while still giving people a better deal than they could get at a hotel could be a practical realization of how to be the kind of ‘cheerful giver’ that Paul says God loves (2 Corinthians 9:7). You can’t be cheerful when you’re mad.”

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

is it about me?

Lulu, the younger of my two daughters, started college this year and called the other day to brag about getting an A on her first lit paper. After we used up that topic, she asked what was up with me.
“I started a new blog today,” I told her. “You should sign up as a follower, so then I’ll have one.”
“Really? Is it going to be about me? I’m only going to read it if it’s about me.”
“No. You probably won’t be interested in it. It’s about the Jewish shema—you know that passage in Deuteronomy that’s sort of the crux of everything for the Jews? Where Moses tells the Israelites,  ‘Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength’”?
“Well, after that God tells them to talk about that command—and, by extension, all of God’s words—all the time: to their kids, when they get up and lie down and sit at home and walk down the street. Whenever. With whomever. I’m going to try to do that: talk about scripture all the time to people and then write about what gets said.”
“Well, so, then you can write about me. Cuz you’re doing that right now.”
“Talking about scripture to your kid.”
“Oh, yeah!”
I checked today, though, and she still isn’t a follower. Go figure.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

have a blessed night

I stopped at the supermarket on my way home from work the other evening. The checker completed my transaction by saying, “Have a blessed night.”

I babbled something nonsensical in response while I sorted through the lovely surprise of a stranger’s talking Christian to me.

The other day, at a book discussion among women from my university, my colleague Jennifer commented that she always went out of her way to avoid talking about Christian topics when she was with nonbelievers—or strangers who might be nonbelievers—and I recognized in that moment that I tend to do the same thing.

Jennifer’s comment was in reference to a scene in the novel we were discussing: Mischa Berlinki’s Fieldwork, about a journalist in Thailand—also named Mischa Berlinski—researching an American anthropologist’s murder of an American missionary, all three of them engaged in “fieldwork” of a sort. When the journalist starts hanging out with the Christian missionary family of the murdered man, he is surprised that, although family members talk about Jesus all the time—almost as though Jesus were a family member—they never try to evangelize their nonbelieving guest. Later, in a heartbreaking scene recounting the lead up to the murder, the mother of the family flat out refuses to tell the anthropologist, also a nonbeliever, the good news.

Despite these two scenes, and despite the fact that the real Mischa Berlinski is also a nonbeliever, the novel is surprisingly refreshingly congenial toward this missionary family and toward Christianity in general.

It struck me, as I was reading the novel and then later as my colleagues and I were discussing it, that maybe evangelism—that is, literally, telling the good news—isn’t just about telling people how to be saved. It’s about telling the good news that God made us and pays attention to us and loves us. That when we don’t love God back, God suffers pain. That God is determined to win back our love. Evangelism is telling the gospel—another word that means good news—present in all of scripture, not just the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The Bible is full of gospels. Which is probably why we’re encouraged, in Deuteronomy 6, to talk about scripture all the time—when we get up and when we lie down, when we walk along the road and when we sit around at home—and not just with our own families and fellow believers but with anyone we encounter along the way.