Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Emmanuel - God With Us

For Christians, the book of Job doesn’t fall under the “good news” contained in the New Testament Gospels, and therefore it rarely receives much attention from the pulpit. Christians, however, need not find specifically Christian concepts in the book of Job for it to speak to their suffering.

Job’s friends are quick to provide resources to end his suffering, employing traditional reasoning: If you are good, God rewards you. If not, God takes away. Thus, Job must have done something to incur the wrath of God, and all he need do is repent. Job fires back, saying that if God would only hear him out, he would be vindicated. His friends, then, fall back on another hallmark of divine theology – the unknowable God. God’s ways are not human ways; thus, who are mere mortals to question the ways of the divine? Both responses are easily seen in the Christian community and in its theology.

Job’s approach, however, is overwhelmingly one of complete defiance against his circumstances. Job’s willingness to argue so passionately with his maker – for chapter after chapter – illustrates another resource for dealing with suffering: getting angry.

For Christians, this approach is less common – God is often seen as both untouchable and unapproachable. To argue with such a God is, therefore, seen as extremely inappropriate and sacrilegious. Yet, for Job, a deep sense of respect can be seen in his venting. If he truly did not care for God, why would he spend so much energy crying out? Why not give up and walk away? No, he is determined to hold God accountable. In a sense, he doesn’t give up on God.

Finally, the lack of any satisfactory answer in the book of Job itself – when God finally does show up, God’s “answer” to Job addresses none of the issues raised in the preceding chapters – gives hope to those who have no answer themselves. Here again the Christian can find solace in the fact that no answer is given, mirroring real life with all its grey areas, its trials and seeming randomness.

What I do not find in these texts – one important omission that is crucial to my own theology – is the idea of God suffering with us. In Job, God eventually responds to Job (and even restores him), but there is absolutely no sense that God is present amid Job’s suffering. And when God does finally show up, God comes across as a taunting bully, telling Job to “gird up your loins like a man” (38:3).

In a world where suffering is systemic and without mercy, the two traditional approaches discussed above are, I believe, completely inappropriate. The latter two, especially the permission to hold God accountable, can be extremely powerful to empower those who intimately know the suffering that Job experiences. The idea that God suffers with God’s creation, however, can be a comfort beyond all words.

The idea that God is with my mother, whose dementia at age 59 has taken away her beautiful mind while cruelly leaving her withered body, is beyond all intelligent rationale – yet I must believe it to be true. For the 24,000 people who die per day simply because they have no food, does an immanent God who starves with the wretched of this world provide more comfort than a God whose ways we can never hope to discern? I strongly think so. This God is the One I have come to know in my life.

This God is present in the world – a world that, like Job, passionately yearns for justice. God may not have addressed this lack of justice in the book of Job, but perhaps this shows the intent for us, as humans, to share some of the responsibility for our own broken world. When we are confronted with ferocious and sickening examples of a world already beautiful but not yet whole, we are challenged to dispense with our normal response of “Where was God in this?” – I would propose that God is there, in the thick of it, holding back the water yet admittedly unable to stop the carnage – and ask, instead, “Where were we?”


Sunday, November 26, 2006

A Thousand Oaths of Silence

I will let Hafiz speak for me tonight:

Real love
I always keep a secret.

All my words
Are sung outside Her window,

For when She lets me in
I take a thousand oaths of silence.

Then She says,

O, then God says,

“What the hell, Hafiz,
Why not give the whole world


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Thanksgiving Tomorrow

"If the only prayer you ever say in your whole life is 'thank you', that would suffice."

      |Meister Eckhart|

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Praying Nicely with Others

We were practicing for our worship class, running through the communion liturgy in the upstairs prayer chapel, when Izzet politely knocked. One of the few Muslim students present at our overwhelmingly Lutheran seminary, Izzet is a soft-spoken and extremely polite and genteel man. I often wish I could do him the honor of speaking his native tongue when I engage him in conversation, as the frustration of the language barrier is one of my ultimate shortcomings.

It was then that I realized my classmate and I were in the prayer chapel during a scheduled prayer time for our Muslim students. We quickly apologized and started to gather our things. Izzet, however, was the one who apologized. He asked if we would mind if he prayed while we stayed and worshipped. I asked, again, if we should go, but he wouldn’t have it.

So he pulled out his prayer carpet, pointed towards Mecca, and began to pray. We went back to reciting our communion prayer. There we were, engaged in something so interesting that it could have easily descended into kitsch, especially with a picture being taken with the caption saying, “Only at LSTC.”

But it wasn’t. It was a powerful Christian liturgy, taking place in an interfaith and intercultural context, sharing space with a prayer to the One God. How similar were our prayers, our words, our reverence?

Was it a metaphor? Either way, it was beautiful.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Novel Ideas

If there is one thing that threatens to tear the (Lutheran) church apart in today’s time, it is centered on questions of human sexuality. Both sides can argue until their face turns blue – and they often do. While most conversation quickly morphs into heated debates, with each side trying desperately to convince the other without regard for personal feelings, or – to put it bluntly – common decency, it is crucial to enter into this discussion practicing the Christian values of openness, respect, and love for one another. A novel idea, for sure.

Yet such an opportunity recently presented itself at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, a seminary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the school at which I currently attend. The Board of Directors met this past weekend, and one of the issues on the docket was a discussion of becoming a publicly welcoming institution to people of all sexual orientations and gender identities (or lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people [LGBT]). In order to facilitate such a conversation, the entire seminary community was invited to dinner with the board members.

Opinions aside (which is admittedly not the author’s strong point), the overwhelming feeling of the community discussion was one of relief. Finally, a conversation had taken place over a controversial issue, and – surprisingly enough – the church had not exploded. Imagine that. It is actually hard to do so, and that – I believe – is rooted in the use of Scripture for extraordinarily inappropriate purposes.

The popular belief that, for instance, only one person (i.e. Moses) wrote the entire first five books of the Bible has long since given way to the notion that the Bible was written by many different voices – from many different eras – and eventually edited into the format we have today. Thus, we have two completely different stories of how the Creation came to be in the first chapters of Genesis, four similar – but also widely variant – accounts of the ministry of Jesus, etc…This is continued throughout the Biblical narrative.

How, then, does this relate to the study of sexuality? If the editors of the Bible wanted a nice, clean narrative – one that didn’t contradict other parts of the Bible – they could have easily done so. Yet the Bible as we know it today contains more contradictions than days in the year. It follows, therefore, that it was more important to the editors to keep wholly different traditions (and the stories that came from them) side-by-side, no matter how much they may have disagreed with each other.

Therefore, It is relatively easy, in this wealth of information called Holy Scripture, to find a passage that fits your particular cup of tea. This diversity frequently leads to a sad irony that rears its ugly head repeatedly in the controversies of today: the Bible, a rich array of differing sources compiled into one extraordinarily diverse book, is often used as an uncomplicatedly blunt theological weapon – an instrument that is life-destroying, rather than life-giving. A symbol of hate rather than love.

And it produces sad results. Christians demonizing Christians. People all-too-certain that their perspective is the correct one – the “Biblical” one. The debate over sexuality, regardless of your specific stand, is one that challenges the very foundation of what it means to be a Christian in today’s society.

As for the people caught in the middle of this debate, I am certain that taking the time to put down one’s Bible and engaging in truthful and compassionate conversation with them – as opposed to about them – might be the most Christian act one could perform. For, as the Biblical writers have shown us, disagreement is not the problem. It is how one acts amidst such disagreement that is the real test of faith.