patty kirk

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

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.