Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Responding to Catastrophe

The prophetic book of Joel is all about disasters.
It is kicked off dramatically by a huge locust invasion:
(1:4) What the cutting locust left,
the swarming locust has eaten.
What the swarming locust left,
the hopping locust has eaten,
and what the hopping locust left,
the destroying locust has eaten.

The first response is mourning for the loss of agricultural produce.
(1:5) Wake up, you drunkards, and weep;
and wail, all you wine-drinkers,
over the sweet wine,
for it is cut off from your mouth.

And even mourning on the part of the land:
(1:10) The fields are devastated,
the ground mourns;
for the grain is destroyed,
the wine dries up,
the oil fails.

Just as the plants themselves wither, so does the joy of the people, shrunk to a bare ghost of itself. They cry, they wail, they mourn loudly as if to get God’s attention. Then they appeal to God’s kindness. The people do this first, calling for a solemn assembly (1:14), and then so do the animals:
(1:20) Even the wild animals cry to you
because the watercourses are dried up,
and fire has devoured
the pastures of the wilderness.

The locusts appear to attack again (or maybe Joel’s just being poetically repetitive) and then finally Joel reports God’s response to the frantic pleas for help, with words of consolation.
(2:21-23) Do not fear, O soil;
be glad and rejoice,
for YWHW has done great things!
Do not fear, you animals of the field,
for the pastures of the wilderness are green;
the tree bears its fruit,
the fig tree and vine give their full yield.
O children of Zion, be glad
and rejoice in YHWH your God;
for God has given the early rain for your vindication,
and poured down for you abundant rain,
the early and the later rain, as before.

God’s blessing and consolation is seen in the return of things to their “natural order,” the seasonal rains as expected. God’s word is in the disruption, and God’s word is in the reconciliation.
The reconciliation part is easy to “get.” God loves us and wants to heal our world.
But it’s hard to get your mind around the idea that God may have deliberately SENT the army of locusts…(Joel doesn’t say why)… especially in a world recently rocked by natural disasters, where people say earthquakes are God’s punishment on our sins. I believe it is offensive and wrong to claim God punishes us like this, but nonetheless the idea is represented in scripture: Joel calls the locusts “God’s army.”

I think it is important to listen for God’s word in the world around us. We all know how to learn from experience, and that may be the best way to listen for God’s word. I mourn the tragic events in Japan without calling them divine punishment, but I still hope that perhaps we can hear God’s wake-up call that asks us to question the safety of nuclear power.
One lesson I think we can always learn from the major disasters of the earth is humility – knowing that the world doesn’t revolve around humanity. I kayak in Tomales Bay, which lies right on top of the San Andreas fault. If that fault were to open, the bay water (creatures & kayaks and all) would go cascading down right into it. This is a risk I take on my kayaking days. Although it is scary to think about, I know that my life is, cosmically speaking, smaller than the importance of the continental plates maintaining balance against one another. The continental plates are important, too. The ocean is important, and Good, even when it hurls vast quantities of water up our shorelines. Even Joel’s villain, the locust, is God’s own creature, and treasured in God’s sight. We live in fragile co-existence with many natural powers greater than ourselves – from locusts to tectonic plates. May we learn to live within our limits, to keep ourselves (and others) from perching on those risky edges, and to honor the goodness in all created things.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Our ancestor, the land

This is a small point but an important one.
Leviticus, again – sorry to you who are Leviticus-haters – here we have a concluding chapter, where the blessings and are laid out – the blessings as reward for good behavior, curses as recompense for unfaithfulness. Blessings are abundance, fruit, grain, and peace. Curses are enemy armies, pestilence and wild animals, and the wasting and withering of your crops and fruit trees. But even after many curses, the land is given a “sabbatical” to rest, and if the people repent, God’s favor will return:
Lev 26:40-42 But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their ancestors, in that they committed treachery against me and, moreover, that they continued hostile to me—so that I, in turn, continued hostile to them and brought them into the land of their enemies; if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity, then will I remember my covenant with Jacob; I will remember also my covenant with Isaac and also my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land.

These fine fellows usually appear in age order: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Num 32:11, Dt 1:8 and throughout Deuteronomy, Kings, Chronicles, Psalm 105:9, I could go on and on). Some people look at this verse in Leviticus and say, ha, isn’t that funny, they reversed the order! Here it’s Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham.
Don’t laugh it off. There must actually be a reason for this. In the context of such a land-loving book, it is not enough to command gentle and holy treatment of the land. One must be reminded that God has a long-lasting and important relationship with the land. Here, in reverse order, they begin with the most recent covenant (jacob), move back to his father’s covenant (isaac), and HIS father’s covenant (abraham) – but the relationship older and more important than any of the above is God’s relationship to the land. There is no covenant between the land and God, but the land itself is a kind of covenant, a living, adapting, changing token of the relationship between God and humanity. For a people defined by their ancestors, to put God in the place in a lineage where Abraham’s father should be is a high honor indeed. It’s as if the land itself were their original ancestor, and God’s original partner in the relationship to humanity.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Toward a Theology of Happy Vaginas

Once upon a time, feminists burned their bras, eschewed lipstick, attacked patriarchy, and got really loud and angry. This was apparently very necessary, though I wasn’t there to see it. I know for sure that we could not be doing what we do now, if they had not done what they did first. But some things are different now.

I always assumed that feminists don’t wear makeup. But sometimes, these days, feminists put on a lot of lipstick, and expensive bras, and our best (black and pink and red) fancy clothes, and we get on stage and we talk about our vaginas. And about womanhood, and about rape and violence and pleasure. We act out orgasmic moans on stage and this is as important as any march or protest sign.

In some ways this is even harder. For me it is easy to be ugly and outraged. It is much harder to be beautiful and happy. It is easier to complain about what’s bad than to celebrate what is good. When we (group of directors) did casting for the Vagina Monologues, we asked the cast members which monologues they were comfortable with, and people were overwhelmingly MORE comfortable with talking about death, rape, pain, Haiti, and New Orleans, than with pleasure, clitoris, affection, love, and orgasm.

I do not mean to break the world into a gender dichotomy, but I offer a tentative thesis that this is more of a female problem. Theology often reinforces it, because theology is still so steeped in the voices of the only people who were allowed to talk for millenia, men – who often don’t have this problem the way we do.
The problem is that we (women) are too willing to martyr ourselves, and even when we fight for our own rights and power, we end up martyring ourselves in the cause to liberate that very self we’ve just martyred. Oops.

Someone wanted to sing “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” in praise band last week, but I resisted that one. The chorus sings in jubilant tones that the “wonderful” cross “bids me come and die, and find that I may truly live.” This may be someone’s favorite verse, but for us, it is the very opposite of our message. Coming to die is the easy part, for too many women. We are raped every 90 seconds, we die every day, we deny ourselves at each meal, and we internalize this suffering as if it could somehow be our salvation. We swallow it every morning with our nasty medicinal protein shakes, and it goes down easy.
The hard part is to realize we are invited “to come and live.” To live, to breathe, to not apologize for the space we take up, to hunger, to demand justice, to want, to create. Christ came that we might have life, and have it abundantly (Jn 10:10). And so we spit out that medicine of suffering and death, and claim our vocation: to flourish in spite of it all.

Sometimes we do this with arguments, books, debates, seven-point sermons. But sometimes we do it in narrative form. Instead of a counterargument, we tell a counterstory. A story about love and violence and no more violence, a story about how we have stopped hating ourselves and started loving, enjoying, taking pleasure in life. It is a radical statement to be beautiful and happy in the face of such suffering. In our makeup and dresses and artistry and song, we embody our faith – that God loves us, heals us, sets us free, and wants us to have that life abundant. We claim it now and step into it now.
We are giving up silence for Lent.
We will dare to be alive, instead.

More pics on picasa

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Hosea and Gomer - Don't try this at home.

At SFTS we are “giving up silence for Lent” – at least in the particular context of silence about violence. This is important. I remember once having a conversation with a very conservative Christian, and domestic violence was mentioned, and he felt the need to clarify that we were talking about “problematic” or “unhelpful” violence. I assumed this was as opposed to the kind that “builds up” or “teaches” or “strengthens” the woman.
I kick myself when I remember this conversation. How did I not explode with the loud truth that all violence is harmful, and that there is never a good place for violence between adults in a loving relationship?
So today I say it, and I write it. There is simply no legitimation for violence against a spouse or loved one.
And I have to pick up some pieces of the Bible and deconstruct them. Because there you will find what is apparently a legitimation for domestic violence – at least in metaphorical terms.

The prophet Hosea and his “wife” Gomer.
Hosea 1:2-8.
When the LORD first spoke through Hosea, the LORD said to Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the LORD.” So he went and took Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son.

The two of them go on to have children and to name them all kinds of prophetic names (“not pitied,” and “not my people” among them). In case this doesn’t tip you off that it’s a STORY and not a reality, I have good word from real Biblical scholars that “Gomer” is in no ways a woman’s name. It’s a man’s name, and “she” stands here for the nation of Israel (in the same way that her children do).

Plead with your mother, plead--
for she is not my wife,
and I am not her husband--
that she put away her whoring from her face,
and her adultery from between her breasts,
or I will strip her naked
and expose her as in the day she was born,
and make her like a wilderness,
and turn her into a parched land,
and kill her with thirst.
For she said, “I will go after my lovers;
they give me my bread and my water,
my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink.”
Therefore I will hedge up her way with thorns;
and I will build a wall against her,
so that she cannot find her paths.

The plot thickens. “She” is unfaithful. She loves the “lovers” (or foreign trading partners) who provide her with food. God proposes some wilderness solutions, to the point of starving her in the desert. These are interesting. They have real connotations of real economic situations – are the people of Israel remembering the God who fed them manna in the wilderness, or are they relying on the deceptive abundance of other kings?

No matter how we take the metaphor, it all looks like a nice case for the therapeutic values of violence. The [prophet’s wife / God’s people] is unfaithful to [the prophet/God], and so [the prophet / God] remedies the solution by making her suffer until she repents. Someone could try to preach it straight up: we are bad, so God will make us suffer until we repent. I’ll take that back. People DO preach that. Preachers legitimate suffering and violence all over the place. They call this a story of unconditional love, and say that the line “kill her with thirst” is spoken in love. They say that the sinful person must be loved back into obedience, through violent “tough love” and plenty of suffering.
You cannot preach this story without legitimating violence. So we must preach against it. We must tell people that this is horrific. That’s one of the problem with the detached, ungrounded way we read Scripture. We don’t even realize when it’s terrible, and we accidentally swallow a legitimation of violence. We read it all in “stained glass language” and couldn’t possibly hear it as sarcastic, or biting, or ironic. We’re blind to the harsher aspects of the text – and so we unwittingly accept the unacceptable.
Prophets speak from a place of desperation and urgency. The stakes are so high that they try to scare people into doing what is right. Sometimes this works. But even if it does, when it has costs as high as this we must not read such prophecy as sacred. It is indeed the story of God’s people struggling together with God and God’s prophets – but God is not the abuser, and violence is never okay.


Art is work. It’s good work and fun work but work nonetheless. You can’t just expect it to burst on you from out of nowhere, as if creativity were something that happens to you. Put yourself in the right frame of mind, a little emotional, maybe a little drunk, and art is supposed to magically explode within you… or that’s how the story goes. You know what, I’ve been waiting a long time for that to happen to me, and so far nada.

Exercise #1 in debunking that myth:
A Master Class in Pre-Renaissance Sacred Art.
This was my “fun” class for winter term. We broke marble (the stone, not the little round toys) into pieces and made mosaics. I started with grand ambitions along the line of my friend Charles’ great work, thinking I’d do some kind of Biblical scene. I learned how to cut marble, and immediately realized I’d have to scale back by about 97%. I made three circles and it almost killed me. Hello, discipline.

Exercise #2. The Vagina Monologues.
I am in charge of stage, costumes, props, and music. The simple idea “we should process in carrying candles” turned into a huge shebang with 15 glass jars and melting a lot of wax and carefully cooling it at just the right pace. And I’ll have to re-melt and replace them all with a new set of candles before the performance. I’d rather just trust they will, but apparently other people want to be sure. Okay. Accountability.

Also, my monologue didn’t come to me in a flash of brilliance. I tried voices and attitudes that didn’t fit at all, and my friends told me “try again.” and again.

Exercise #3. The Artist’s Way (ongoing).
This is a book given to me by my boyfriend for Christmas, but it’s more than a book, it’s a course and a challenge. Julia Cameron asks you to do affirmations on themes such as “there is a divine plan of goodness for my work" and to express yourself regularly and mandatorily – regardless of whether or not your internal censor tells you “it’s crap, throw it out.” Just write. Keep writing. You don’t need to show it to anyone, but you DO need to practice, and you DO need to express instead of squelching the stuff you’re “not supposed to say.”

Exercise #4
Work can be art?
Telling stories to children, designing curriculum for youth group.
If that isn’t art I don’t know what is.
How about treating it as such?