Sunday, March 18, 2012

Second Story

During the summer between first and second grades, I went to the Horry County Memorial Library in my hometown. Little church mouse that I was, I perused the room with the Dewey Decimal .220 collection in it, full of Bibles and storybooks, located next to the children’s section. I checked out a great big fat brown illustrated book of Bible stories for children, probably printed in the 1920’s. I brought it home and began reading. I could hardly put it down. That is where I first learned much of what is in the Bible.

I don’t recall, of course, exactly what I thought when I came upon a story such as the one in Numbers today, where Moses fashions a serpent of bronze and sets it up on a pole so that all the snakebite victims among the Children of Israel could look upon it and be healed. But I am sure of one thing. I did not approach the story critically. I did not wonder how the serpent worked healing powers, nor why Moses did not get blasted for such a thing when a few chapters away his brother Aaron gets roundly trounced for fashioning a calf out of gold. I don’t think I took the Bible stories as if they were just some other interesting stories, such as Uncle Wiggly and Nurse Jane. I think you could say without stretching a point that I read the stories naïvely. They conveyed to me a sense of the Presence of the Holy One of Israel, with whom I had a complete fascination. To my boyish mind, nothing seemed beyond God. And yet I don’t recall ever being afraid of God—don’t ask me why.

Not until I hit adolescence did I begin to sense some dissonance between some of the Bible stories and the world around me. But even then the dissonance did not pose a crisis for me. In high school I had the good fortune of having a teacher who taught the Bible as literature. She taught me how to ask critical questions in a way that led me more deeply into the meaning of the texts. The process continued in college. I learned to plumb the scriptures and the layers behind the scriptures to understand things like the culture that produced them, the language that expressed them, the meaning they probably conveyed to the first generation of readers or hearers. At such a place in my development, I would have appropriated the story from Numbers about the bronze serpent as perhaps a piece of pious folklore, or perhaps the signature story of sympathetic magic, a spin-off of some Egyptian serpent-magic captured in the famous headgear of the Pharaohs with its protecting cobra. I might have made the connection between the bronze serpent Moses fashioned and the story about how that very artifact was destroyed by the reforming King Hezekiah, centuries later, who smashed it in the Temple of Jerusalem where people had developed the custom of making offerings to it.

Then one morning, a few years after I had become a priest, from the Old Testament (which is the name we Christians give to the Hebrew Scriptures for theological reasons, not because “old” means inferior), —I was reading a story about how the prophet Elijah was fed by ravens, and I realized some minutes after finishing it that I had made it through the entire story without having once questioned its veracity. Instead, I had pondered the many unlikely ways in which God providentially fed me. Elijah’s ravens had become signifiers to me of experiences—maybe physical, maybe spiritual—in my own life. That was an incredibly important day in my life, because on that day I was aware for the first time that I entered what I later learned the philosopher Paul Ricoeur called “the second naïveté.” My “first naïveté” belonged to my boyhood in which I took bronze serpents and food-bearing ravens at face value and the stories about them quite literally. The second naïveté, however, was made possible because by then I had learned to question, to probe, to think analytically, in fact to doubt. Although I never had gone through an atheistic phase, I can readily appreciate those who do, for it clears away tons of baggage, liberating people from taboos and superstitions that have nothing to do with God but everything to do with social control. Freed from literalism, I could engage the symbols and the stories on another level. In that way, the serpent became to me a life-bearing symbol, which I could experience as (let me put it this way) a messenger of something divine. I say “divine” because I have come to believe, and take responsibility for believing, that God is in fact True, and reaches out to me—to us—using the very data of our everyday lives (including what we see, read, and meditate upon) as ways of opening us to layers of Reality that sustain and nourish our souls, help us to grow, enable us to evolve into the persons we have the potential of becoming.

Now this is where the bronze serpent story gets really interesting. In this “second naïveté” I could, as I did with those ravens feeding Elijah decades ago, simply imagine the poisonous reptiles to represent the darts and arrows and venomous stings that arrest me in the middle of my self-absorbed ranting and griping, just as apparently snakes did to those Israelites in the desert. That would be a fairly good discipline for me, I’ll warrant. But the story is more than that. On what, please tell me, may I look and find healing? Ah! Before you jump the gun and point me to Jesus on his cross, an obvious reference in the gospel story wherein he talks to Nicodemus using this very image of the bronze serpent, hold on. Stick with the old story about Moses and the pole for a moment.

The story says that Yahweh God said to Moses to “make a poisonous serpent” and “set it on a pole,” so that “everyone who is bitten” might “look at the serpent of bronze and live.” Remember that this is the same Yahweh who, the story says, sent the poisonous serpents among the people in the first place, snakes whose bites killed numbers of the people. It happens that the word for “poisonous or fiery” [serpent] comes from the same root as the word seraph, and the seraphim, of course, are first-class angels in Hebrew vocabulary. They burn. So these fiery serpents stinging the fire out of Israel mean something more than ordinary desert reptiles. They are divine messengers (that is what angels are) that ironically wound and heal.

Deep in the consciousness—really the unconscious—of humanity is this ironic marriage between wound and healing. All over the world there are stories about how the hero who delivers and saves must first taste the bitter pain of being wounded. If this is beginning to sound familiar, that is because it is. You know that truth on two levels. One is your own personal life. You know the irony that the wounds you bear, from the gashes carved into your soul by rejections, to the stigma and shame you carry in your body or your mind about your body or your mind, is exactly where you meet the ultimate questions of self-worth. Your wounds are the battleground itself where you either have found or will find grace and strength, a widening of your compassion, and a deepening of your capacity to love. The struggle for your destiny is won or lost there. The other level on which you know this truth, or will know it, is that the life-giving story of Jesus is precisely the thing that opens us up with decisive intensity, deflating our puffed up egos, bidding us take us off our defensive armor piece by piece. At the same time, Jesus is the one whose wounds and indeed whose death is the balm that heals us, the salve that soothes us, the medicine that ultimately makes us whole and sane.

Having been bitten by a copperhead at age ten, I have a short list of things I don’t particularly like to think about and looking on a replica of that fiery serpent is on the list. I don’t particularly relish the idea that Jesus is in any sense a snake. But there is a deep connection between what we most fear and what gives us life. This strange story from the desert wanderings of the Israelites tells us that the divine is somehow at work in even the most hideous of circumstances, working to bring about a realignment of our purposes and God’s own. I can see, not just in a snakebite but in the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, a God whose saving purposes are running through my life, my words, my fears, my self-doubts, ultimately bringing me together with all humanity into a land flowing with milk and honey at the other side of whatever desert it is that we happen to be passing through.

So it is not with a simple naïveté, but rather with a second naïveté that, encountering Truth on a whole new level, we can look upon the Son of Man, lifted up on the cross, and have eternal life. We can see in his story the outlines of the old incident told in the tales of our forebears’ wandering. He rattles our cages, overturning the tables we depend upon in our economies and in our temples; he is toxic to our systems of denial; he strikes out relentlessly against our penchant for oppressing others; he recoils at our hypocrisies; he calls into question our own retreat into self-loathing and exaggerated notions of worthlessness. Human beings, as a rule, even the self-proclaimed religious among us, cannot stand him, and join with the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov telling him to go the hell back where he came from and leave us alone. Over and over again the Christ in flesh and spirit is tacked up on a pole, crucified, a horrifying sight to any with the guts to look at him. But look at him we do, our eyes unable to avert a sight so compelling. Look at him we do, and see our paltry efforts at being like him nearly laughable. Look at him we must, and see in his wounds, his hands, his feet, our own wounds. How does it happen, we wonder. How can it be that this broken body seems to strengthen us, seems to say to us, “You are forgiven, though you know not what you do”? How can it be that we feel ourselves taking courage from him precisely at the moment we are ready to call it quits? How can it be that we can look on him and know ourselves to be healed in the only way that matters?

Nevermind how. The answer to how is yes.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were an offering far too small.
Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2012

Monday, March 05, 2012

Just a Moment

A couple of days ago a Facebook friend of mine wrote and asked me where to find in the Bible a passage that says the dead have no consciousness. I had no earthly idea what he was talking about. I pulled down my exhaustive concordance to find that there are about 358 appearances of words translated “dead.” I could not find one on the list that remotely resembled anything he might be referring to. When I wrote back, he explained that he and his boyfriend were mentoring two castaway brothers who knew nothing about how to live and behave. They wanted to teach them something about the Bible. Wasn’t it true that only a hundred thousand or so people would make it into heaven? Didn’t the Bible say that we are at peace when we die until God comes back and takes us to heaven?

It is almost impossible to give people a handle on something so massive as the biblical tradition when they understand virtually nothing about it. And if you feel anywhere between ignorant and less-than-secure about the Bible, be aware that you are not alone, nor in this place will you be put down because of what you do not know. On the other hand, we don’t want to encourage illiteracy. So, I pointed my friend to the online Book of Common Prayer and the Outline of the Faith that it contains, which is a totally accessible summary of Christian teaching at least having the virtue of being dependably accurate without being simplistic.

If you happen to pick up a copy of the King James Version of the Bible, you don’t have to read beyond the title page to hit upon the main idea in the whole book. Because on the title page you will see “Holy Bible, containing the Old and New Testaments.” The word “Testament” is the same as the word “Covenant.” And there you have the point of the Bible. It is a book about covenant.

Today, as always on the Second Sunday in Lent, we focus on the seminal story of Covenant in the entire tradition. It is, of course, the story of Abraham. There are several stories of the Covenant involving Abraham. The one we hear today comes from a priestly writer who lived several hundred years before the time of Christ. It is based on much older stories, and probably reflects even stories that are older than anything in the Bible itself. Because the quintessential story of humanity is the story of a journey, and that is essentially what the story of Abraham is. A few chapters before our reading today, God calls Abram to leave the land of his upbringing and to move to a totally new place. Abram obeys. He strikes out on a journey of faith. There is no covenant at this point, only a call, a promise, and a response. A little later on we discover what the journey is all about. It is about the unfolding intention of God to create a human community that will respond in faithful obedience in a way that the first humans did not.

There are all kinds of covenants, both in the Bible and outside it: covenants between friends, between equals, between kings and vassals, between superior and inferior parties, between husbands and wives. God is clearly the initiator of the covenant with Abram, and its everlasting nature is rooted in the sovereign will of God, not in human behavior. What is interesting is that Abram does not ask for anything in this story. He does not have to. He is offered “the world,” so to say. “You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.” Get that. This is not a covenant that encompasses just one people, but a whole array of peoples. Moreover, the covenant involves not only a whole new relationship, but a profoundly new identity. Abram and Sarai are no longer known by their old names but as Abraham and Sarah respectively, "Ancestor" and "Princess." A part of the covenant is that Abraham and his descendants will have a land to call their own, and another part of the covenant is the way it is sealed: with the rite of circumcision. And most important, God says, “I will be their God.”

This has everything to do with you and me. This is our story, our holy story, because the story has claimed us. And I am not talking about “us” as an in-group. I am speaking of anybody in the entire human race who cares about finding a place in this world, the meaning of his or her life, a way of living that accords deep joy, a ground of hope for the future, and a profound sense of identity. It is open to you and me, and while the expectations and demands of living in a covenant relationship are serious and rigorous, it is the most freeing—and free—thing you can imagine.

You can claim your part in the heritage of Abraham, if indeed you have not already done so. And if you have, you can renew your place in that great caravan of people that are more numerous than the sands on the seashore and who have it in them to outshine the stars of heaven. But be aware. This story, and its facets like covenant and blessing and promise, is not the only one out there, nor the only one competing for your attention and allegiance. And the stories that have the most appeal tend to be the stories that claim to be valid expressions of the Will of God. I am not talking, of course, about other religious traditions, but certain versions of the very biblical story itself. There is a quite popular gospel of prosperity that hooks up religious affiliation and behavior with material success. There is also a version of so-called biblical religion that presents the relationship with God as fundamentally making no demands whatsoever beyond what we consider to be our convenience. And there are versions of our own story that twist it beyond recognition into a program for self-aggrandizement and tribal promotion. You know what I mean.

But the covenant story that we inherit from Abraham and Sarah is quite different. It is, if nothing else, counter-cultural. And it is so precisely because it cuts across cultures of all sorts. It started out as a simple story of God calling a man to move and start a new life. Before too many centuries had passed, it became a story that his descendants used to ground their identity. “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” became a way of referring to God that distinguished them from other tribes and peoples. But the story did not stop there. The covenant came to be seen as embracing all people everywhere, and the covenant people came to be called a light to the nations, so that all could be drawn into this community that acknowledged the God of Abraham as the universal God, indeed the only God.

But the Covenant did not stop there either. Centuries rolled by, and, as usually happens among humans, people took the very instruments of covenant and made them not a way to include the human family but a way to exclude those who somehow did not measure up to the terms of the covenant. God’s initiative in inaugurating the covenant was replaced by increasing emphasis on human behavior. And when humans messed up and transgressed not necessarily the covenant itself but various human interpretations of it, group upon group found themselves outside the covenant, which more and more became regulated by a power group. Sound familiar? It is, because it is that ordinary human cussedness that continues to assert itself and play itself out in human history.

Then, out of the blue one day, so the holy story goes, there appeared a messenger from God to a girl in a very improper town in a remote section of the Land promised to Abraham, which had been overrun time and again by armies and occupiers. Its people were worn down with waiting, and the dream of God’s community, when it had not become a nightmare to the disenfranchised, had dimmed beyond recognition. Like her ancestor Abraham, the girl said yes. “Be it unto me according to your Word,” said she to the messenger. The covenant was on its way to being renewed in a way that no one—no one in the world—could have predicted.

The girl, whose name was Mary, gave birth to Jesus. From the beginning he was the instrument by which God initiated once again the construction of a new humanity. His life manifested a breadth of acceptance that set the teeth of those controlling the covenant community on edge. Full of Spirit, everywhere he went he made things come alive. The sick recovered. The hungry ate. The blind saw and the lame leapt. Good News finally got preached to the poor, and the old idea of Jubilee took on new meaning as joy ran through the wadis and wastelands of Israel. Suddenly the Promised Land was abloom, and looked as if God might actually be walking around in it; for how else could one explain the dead being raised to life? The Covenant God, El Shaddai, the Mighty One, who had appeared to Abram at age 99, and who had delighted old barren Sarah with the promise of a child in her old age, was known to bring life out of bodies as good as dead. Now in the person of Jesus people saw the old power return with indescribable results.

In the middle of it all arose a thing called baptism—which initially was a simple ritual bath outwardly signifying an inner change of heart and mind. Jesus’ disciples took it over from a prophet known as John the Baptizer, and made it the way of making disciples that would follow the Way that Jesus walked, an entrance into a radically reshaped covenant community. But one does not reshape communities radically or otherwise without running into resistance. Conflict brewed. Fear proved to be just the heuristic needed to manipulate the right people into doing what Power always needs, which is to secure itself. Again, you know what I mean, because it is a dynamic you see every day. Power had its way. Jesus was executed. Not only did Jesus die, so did the dream of God. But if there is one thing God knows how to deal with it is death. In bodies as good as dead, like those of the Ancestor and the Princess, God had stirred new life and brought forth the first birth in the covenant community. So God did it again. In a tomb, in a lifeless body, God stepped in and became the midwife of a new birth.

It took awhile for people to realize what had happened. But clearly what had happened was not just the raising of a corpse, as wonderful as that might been. It was the raising to new life of the ancient dream of a covenant community. It dawned on them what Jesus meant on that night before he was handed over to suffering and death when he had given them bread and wine saying, “This is the New Covenant in my blood.” The covenant had not died, but had rather awakened in a new body. And that body was this group of people that Jesus had managed to collect around him. They took this thing that they had been using to make disciples—baptism—and realized they could no longer pour water all over people without staging something that looked quite like burial and resurrection. Within a few years what had once been a simple bath became the community’s way of broadening the covenant community to include all comers. No longer did one become a member of the covenant people by circumcision—by definition and nature something reserved to males only—but by birth-bestowing water, a gift from God to women and girls as well as men and boys. The covenant community was at that moment blasted open so that every man, woman, and child in the entire human race had an invitation to join the caravan—as equals.

And join they did. The covenant community grew. Persecutions could not stop it. Martyrs’ blood merely nourished it. They surprised themselves, and maybe even surprised God. For something like four or five hundred years they took seriously for the most part that they were not just ordinary people on a pilgrimage to self-actualization or something of the sort, but indeed the body of Christ, doing what he had done, healing and feeding and teaching and guiding.

Through the years and centuries the covenant has been sidetracked, hijacked, warped, twisted, manipulated, bought and sold. And every now and again, such as in the thirteenth century, there appears a Francis of Assisi who, like Abraham, says yes again. Or in the sixteenth century, a Luther who, like Mary, says something memorable like, “Here I stand. God helping me, I can do no other.” And the covenant struggles with the birth-pangs of renewal, as the community, sometimes stalled, sets out anew on its pilgrimage.

And that is where we are, you and I, today. This is a moment in some ways like any other. But so was the moment just before El Shaddai appeared to Abram saying, “I am God Almighty. Walk before me and be blameless. I will make my covenant with you and make you exceedingly numerous.” So was the moment before Gabriel appeared to Mary saying, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with thee.” So was the early morning before the sun had risen and some dejected women padded their way through the darkness to a tomb. The world is waiting for the covenant once again to take on new life, hesitant to believe that it really could be true that God will once again open up the future, call together a liberating people, and announce through them to all the world, “I shall be their God and they shall be my people and I myself will be with them.”

Where is Abraham? Where is Sarah? Where is Mary? Could one of them be hearing this?

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2012