Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Peacock Theology from Pope Francis

It seems that Pope Francis’ question, “Who am I to judge?” attracted answers from everyone with access to the internet. Now, I’m as smitten with this humble pontiff as a Southern Baptist girl can be, and I could not be more charmed with the world’s response to his embodiment of Christianity. I’m pretty sure he was responding to a specific question about gay priests, but somehow the idea has taken hold that maybe being judgmental isn’t a hallmark of the followers of Jesus after all. Glory, hallelujah!

The Hebrew Bible tells us that God’s people were originally ruled by judges, but being envious of the nations with kings, they wanted one of their own. The prophets tried to tell them that this was not a good idea, but if we learn anything from the Bible it’s that people never listen to the prophets. If you think they were foolish to envy being under the thumb of a monarch, then you must be of the 11 people in the United States who did not get up in the pre-dawn hours to watch Will & Kate’s vows --- a phenomena made even more amusing by the fact that the USA exists because people were sick of their king. Reading I & II Kings reveals some Israelites who got pretty fed up with theirs too.

Judging others is not necessarily a bad thing. I remember being in an adult Sunday School class when the “Who am I to judge?” topic came up. Considering that one member of the class was a federal judge, it was obvious that some people are qualified and even required to judge others. Sometimes we appreciate this, and sometimes it knocks the luster off our affection. I was a fan of both Steven Tyler and Martha Stewart until they entered the reality show realm-- he as a judge and she as a subject to a ridiculous judge with a hideous comb over.  It just hasn’t been the same with us since.

I’m a study in dissonance when it comes to judging and being judged.  No skill is more easily mastered than the ability to judge the flaws of others. Not only is this skill a delight to practice, it has the added bonus of confirming my own vanity. But I seldom welcome criticism directed at me, not even the constructive kind ---especially not the constructive kind. It’s a tricky subject to address because warning people about being judgmental can come off sounding very judgmental. Take it from the Pope, “the reality of vanity is this: Look at the peacock; it’s beautiful if you look at it from the front, 

but if you look at it from behind you discover the truth. 

Whoever gives in to such self-absorbed vanity has huge misery hiding inside them.” 

Lost Things

Why does finding something that was lost feel so much better than not losing it?

Everyone knows the instant blast of happiness when lost keys show up. My sister in law sent a massive group text with a photo of her lost eyeglasses that she found in her dishwasher. She proclaimed them not just found, but clean! Luke’s gospel devotes chapter 15 to the joy of finding lost things. If there are any universal human traits, this might be one of them.

My most recent lost thing was a snap-on accessory for my shoes. I looked down and saw that one foot looked pretty snazzy, while the other had a sad empty snap where a rosette should have been. It was the end of a day in which I had walked all over my three story building at work. I was retracing my steps sure that any other finder of my shoe-completing treasure would toss it in the trash as an unidentifiable bauble. I had no luck, but I did explain the situation to a member of our housekeeping staff who noticed my search and rescue behavior and asked if she could be of help. A couple of weeks later, I received a call that someone had left something for me in the office. See the photo, and imagine my delight.

If my lost accessory is a present day comparison to Luke’s lost coin, then his lost sheep would be the modern lost pet. Anyone who has ever had a dog or cat go AWOL knows the meaning of anguish. This feeling is so prevalent in our culture that AT&T used it in a 30 second commercial that has only three spoken words, none of which refer to the product being advertised.  It’s a shameless marketing play on emotion, but it chokes me up every time. Grab a tissue and watch it now.

Now, wouldn’t it have been better if Sarah hadn’t gotten lost in the first place? Of course it would, but even the joy of having a sweet dog at home is dwarfed by the joy of finding that sweet dog when she is lost.

Luke completes the trilogy that begins with lost things and lost animals with Jesus’ parable of the lost son known by everyone as the prodigal.  I love sassy shoes and sweet dogs, but the love-o-meter jumps several orders of magnitude when my children are added to the mix.  If there is one story that summarizes the entire Bible, it is this story of the joy of redemption when a precious lost son is found. It’s almost like we’re born knowing this truth. Among the first games children enjoy are peek-a-boo and hide and seek.  The fun of Easter egg hunts and scavenger hunts is what makes us vulnerable for snipe hunts during those awkward adolescent years. People love to find lost things. It may be a coincidence, or it may be God’s message that there is grace for us always, like Sarah, lost or found.

Vandalizing Vandalism

I've always had a particular aversion to vandalism. Unlike thievery or speeding or even killing someone who "needs killing", vandalism has no obvious tangible benefit. I suppose the release of rage is a possible motive, or maybe it's the thought of hurting people by defacing their possessions. It just seems to me like there are more efficient ways of doing either of those things that don't involve the destruction of innocent stuff. So that's where I am on that. But then one day I was on the Ladiga Trail and noticed a small metal plaque attached to a bench. Thinking it was some kind of memorial I stopped to read it. But lo! Someone had taken the time to engrave a paragraph of rant about the liberal leanings of American media and attach it to a wooden bench placed along a wooded trail for purposes of rest and reflection. Yes, I said engrave. How far into the woods does one have to travel to escape the perceived persecution of right wingers? (I know, I know. Halfway. Then one is traveling out of the woods.) After an exasperated sigh and a dramatic eye roll, I decided to pry off the plaque and deposit it in the nearest trash can. Since I don't stroll the trail with a wide selection of tools and because that plaque was glued on with some seriously strong adhesive, I had to resort to plan B --- find a sharp rock and scratch out the engraved words. So I did. All except for the words "Christmas Eve" which I deemed inoffensive to pretty much everyone. Also, if the perp ever returned it would be obvious that the scratches were intentional. Afterwards I realized that I had vandalized the plaque and wondered if vandalizing vandalism is like a double negative that becomes positive or if it's just piling on. Also, who is crazier, the primary vandal or the secondary?

Monday, September 15, 2014

Who I Am and Why I'm Here

The Daily Post

The following paragraph is my original introduction to my blog...

"One of my favorite quotes from my grandfather is, "I'm going to have to study on that." He was a man who fixed things. Cars, toys, household items --- anything that had the ability to break. Occasionally he would be temporarily stumped by a situation, but giving up was a last resort. He would "study on" the problem and figure something out. He was also inclined to favor the rapid solution over the elegant one. He was not a detail person. Lack of time and materials led to some memorable creative solutions. Like the time he made a rack for our firewood. When the drilled holes didn't quite match up, he bent the bolts to fit. It seemed odd that the bolts and holes were labeled as pairs until it was time to assemble the rack. And when we paid our final respects, laughter joined our tears when we noticed that he had fixed the loose button on his good navy suit with kelly green thread. Hey, it worked. I've been fortunate to be able to make "study" the central part of the first half century of my life. From my days on the Sunday School Cradle Roll of Wylam Baptist Church to my career as a math professor, I get the opportunity to read, study, teach and learn something almost every day. What a gift! This blog is my attempt to add writing to the list. It begins with the 2011 season of Lent, and then afterwards, well, I'm going to have to study on that."

My name is Case and I like to study, so Case Studies seemed like an appropriate name for my blog. It's public instead of private because I like to hear different viewpoints and listen to other people's stories. I don't expect to draw a large audience, but I do hope to find some kindred spirits who know how to spin a yarn. 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Digging Up Your Digs

Today's daily prompt is called Digging Up Your Digs and it asks;

500 years from now, an archaeologist accidentally stumbles on the ruins of your home, long buried underground. What will she learn about early-21st-century humans by going through (what remains of) your stuff?
I haunt estate sales like an archaeologist on the down low. Why do people keep the things they do? I find the question endlessly fascinating. At one sale, there were thousands of margarine and Cool Whip containers. I imagined the now deceased lady as one who hated to waste things and who often cooked for friends and sent them home with plastic containers full of leftovers for the next day's lunch. Even though that's an image that pretty much describes me too, I still went home and tossed all my saved margarine and Cool Whip containers into the recycle bin. For some reason it seemed sad. Maybe it hinted to me that one day I either wouldn't be able to cook for friends or wouldn't have friends for which to cook and would die with thousands of would-be leftover containers. So, whatever is found in my stuff 500 years from now, it won't be margarine or Cool Whip containers!

So what will it be? Pots and pans and fragments of dishes...turquoise jewelry....mah jongg for straightening hair.....bicycles...and images of birds and nests. The obvious solution is that I am a curly haired math teacher who is married to a baseball coach, likes to play games and ride a bicycle, and gets inspiration from the life that springs forth from a bird's nest. But it might be just as logical to the future archaeologist that she has found a birdwatching gypsy fortune teller accountant circus performer chef who juggles while riding a bicycle.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Truth & Facts

The following is a Q&A from my weekly contemplative theology group. The Q is from Aaron Garrett to the entire group, and this is my A.

How factually accurate do you believe the Bible is? How much does factual accuracy matter to you? Are there any parts that, if they weren't factually accurate, would be debilitating for your faith? Is it possible to be a Christian without believing in the inerrancy of the Bible? What about just the inerrancy of the gospels? What about just the inerrancy of the crucifixion/resurrection? How much can be subtracted while still remaining a Christian in your estimation of what that means?

Confusing truth and fact is a common misconception of some who hold the Bible in high regard. Subjecting mystery to rationalism has led to a bizarre understanding of the gospel not unlike that of the Queen in Wonderland who at times could believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast.  The scripture inerrancy yardstick for faith has been one of the most divisive concepts of the past decades. In fact, when the word “inerrancy” pops up in discussion, it generally means that an “us” or “them” designation is on its way.

So, to begin by addressing the last question first, we might ask… Subtracted from what? There are different Christian Bibles for Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Ethiopic, Syriac, and Samaritan Churches. There is no universally agreed upon canon. But hair-splitting aside, I think nothing should be subtracted. The whole confusing conglomeration of God’s interaction with humanity has value for revealing God’s nature to us. I personally believe that Biblical information in presented through a mix of literary devices used in some unknown proportion and I’m not particularly bothered by which truths are literally factual. Was the prodigal son a real guy? Was Jonah swallowed by a real fish?  The truths remain the same either way.  The Orthodox consider scripture as “divinely inspired and humanly expressed” and do not take literally any reference to God as angry, jealous, or repentant. St. Issac the Syrian wrote,

“Just because the terms wrath, anger, hatred and the rest are used of the Creator in the Bible, we should not imagine that He actually does anything in anger, hatred, or zeal. Many figurative terms are used of God in the Scriptures, terms which are far removed from His true nature.”

Some stories just can’t be told with facts. As Will Bloom describes his father in Big Fish, In telling the story of my father's life, it's impossible to separate fact from fiction, the man from the myth. The best I can do is to tell it the way he told me. It doesn't always make sense and most of it never happened... but that's what kind of story this is.

I believe that there is a spiritual reality that supercedes the reality that we know.  Just like Einstein’s physical theory includes and adds to Newton’s, there is spiritual truth that includes and expands upon what we can see and know.  Unfortunately, we generally only think in the context of what we can see and know.  But by his very nature, God is He-who-can’t-be-known and so the Bible is an attempt to express the Inexpressible.  For the sake of argument, say God did take the initiative to reveal himself to us. What if we experienced the impossible? How could that be communicated? Could we write it down in a book or a poem or sing it or tell it through a symphony or a painting? If not, why have people been trying to do that for as long as we have records of people trying to do anything?  I believe that God reveals spiritual truth to us --- sometimes when we’re seeking it and sometimes when we least expect it --- and it’s not necessarily a simple matter of relaying the information. 

The New Testament accounts of the Resurrection seem to indicate an event, not a parable, but the details are far from consistent. Jesus is alive and Rome’s military representatives are “like dead men.” There were anomalies in the natural world --- darkness from noon to 3 pm and earthquakes.  Graves opened up and dead people walked out and visited people in town. The temple curtain ripped itself in two.  From Roman soldiers to some peasant who got to talk to a dead relative, there was a new, updated version of reality.  God revealed himself to people in a way that they could understand but had trouble explaining. Matthew 28:17 says of the 11 remaining disciples, “When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted.” Doubted? Even as they were looking at him?  The Biblical record of God’s earthly interventions culminates in the Resurrection, and in my opinion, there is no version of Christianity that makes sense without it. I think the gospels also clearly indicate that it wasn’t just the people who had believed all the correct facts who were impacted by an encounter with God. Indeed, there appears to have been no effort at all put into making the facts line up.

The Orthodox Church perspective is that the spiritual truth of the Bible is to be found in its non-literal meaning. The crucifixion and resurrection are central to the church with 7 weeks of Lent and 40 days of Pascha (Easter), but I’ve never heard the question, “How much of this literally happened in a way that can fit into human reason?”  But that’s not to say that they don’t have a lot to say about the resurrection. There are comparisons with Genesis (tree of life/cross with paradise lost/gained,  the garden setting, rib/pierced side, etc.) and other Old Testament passages to explain redemption and a multitude of other observances surrounding the gospel accounts, but setting down a literal timeline or fact list is not emphasized.  The same reasoning applies to exactly how Christ’s death saved us.  

“The question isn’t whether Christ’s death was a ransom to the devil or a sacrifice to the Father. Christ did not die on the Cross to “pay off” the evil one, or to quiet the Father’s rage. The sacrifice was for our sake and as an offering for our sins. We must not go any further than this. We cannot know how Christ’s death grants us communion with God. We do not need to know. But one thing is certain. God’s love, not legal negotiations, has saved us.” (Anthony Coniaris)

The words we read in the Bible are not lifeless rules and interesting stories, but insights into a world beyond expression. We are to value both the divine aspect and the human element in Scripture. So, in response to the original questions, inerrancy or factual accuracy matters little to me if “factual” is defined as being verifiable by human reasoning. In a larger sense, inerrancy defined this way would represent not a condition for, but a detriment to spiritual truth.  There is no fact that we have to believe to be a Christian, and there is unlimited truth that we can receive through God’s grace. 

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Forgiveness and Holy Icons

This is the third year that I've participated in Lent with St. Luke's Orthodox Church, but the first year that I've attended the Sunday services. The services during the week are beautiful, but Sundays are the deal. The Sunday before Lent begins on Monday is Forgiveness Day, and each person present asks everyone else for forgiveness even if the people are speaking to each other for the very first time. I've enjoyed all the aspects of worship in the Orthodox church that are new to me -- incense, candles, icons, chants --- but for some reason I froze to the spot instead of taking my place in the circle of forgiveness. Everyone else asked me for forgiveness, but I stood there mute. Why did I do that? The last person who asked my forgiveness whispered, "I'm new to this too" so I guess it was blatantly obvious that I was a fish out of water. I love the idea of starting Lent with a spirit of humility and realizing that we often do wrong people that we don't even know. Maybe next year I'll get over my paralysis. The first Sunday of Lent commemorates the Triumph of Orthodoxy and celebrates a church council decision from 843 A.D. that settled a century long dispute over whether it was ok to have icons in church. Oddly enough, the icons were more offensive to the local Muslims than the other Christians so modern day churches that forbid icons are following an Islamic tradition. Anyway, the service ends with an actual parade around the church with members carrying icons to honor the ancient Christians who joyfully carried the icons back into their church. St. Luke's members had extras so that no one had to walk around empty handed, but had I known, I could have brought my own. A longtime Baptist friend gave me one titled "the handmaidens of the Lord" years before I became interested in Orthodoxy. How strange.