Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Christophany of the Least of These

When I first saw her, Nakosa was a quiet child, easily overlooked and eager to avoid notice.

Nako was hardly friendless -- Mawoole in particular was her partner in silliness and little-girl escapades -- but there was no denying that she found our presence intimidating. We were loud, expansive intruders into her home. We threw her off her routine, spoke a language she didn't know, and possessed items and did things she couldn't entirely grasp.

New to the House of Blessings in Callebasse, Haiti, since our visit the previous August, Nako was literally from next door. She had been living with her aunt, her mother and other relatives, in a house that we had stuccoed on our previous trip last. At some point during the past year, she made the move into the orphanage while her mother, who is blind, remained with Nako's aunt.

Friday night was bingo night, and the other children played bingo with us with enthusiasm. Nako, for her part, clearly wanted to, but she had no idea what she was doing. She sat next to me, a bingo card before her, and watched, silent and unsmiling, as everyone around her laughed and joked and placed tokens on their cards as I called out the numbers.

I noted that she was having difficulty, but it was Joshua who stepped up and helped her. While everyone around us laughed and teased one another and played, Joshua sat next to her and made her his whole focus. As the game continued, he did everything he could to bridge the language and experience barriers, so Nakosa could play along. As I called the letters and numbers, he'd repeat them to her and help her find them on her bingo card. When it became evident she didn't know her numbers or letters well, he'd repeat them again, and slowly try to teach her.

That night, after bingo was put away and our team had all gathered around for evening devotions, I shared with the team what Joshua had done, how he had passed over the older, friendlier girls whom he already shared a rapport with, and let others play with Christina, our little snuggler. Instead, he had focused his time, his effort, and -- most of all -- his attention on the girl who had nothing to naturally draw us to her and, in the process, had shown her the heart of God, directly and powerfully.

I'd like to say that Nako was utterly transformed by her experience with Joshua that night, but she wasn't. Id like to say that the dogged and haunted expression left her completely over the next few days, and that every time we saw her, her faced glowed with the beauty within that wanted only to be awakened. But that didn't happen either.

I'd love to say that Nako became as ubiquitous in our experiences as Christina and Sarah, but that also never happened.

What she did do, though, was to become less reserved around us, particularly around Joshua. In her own, halting way, she engaged. She let Joshua show her pictures of her that he had taken the previous year, and she smiled and waved a lot more when she caught us looking at her.

It's not the end of the journey, but it is a good step.

Copyright © 2011 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

We are his hands

Once in Haiti, I asked God, "Don't you see this?" I've shared his response many time with other visitors. "Of course I do, that's why I showed it to you. And now that you see it, the question is, 'What are you going to do about it?"

By its very nature, omnipotence is limited only by the character of the Deity. We can assume that God will put his omnipotence on display at some point in history and forcibly eradicate those who exploit the poor and oppress the powerless, but that narrative ultimately invalidates the life and teachings of Jesus. Such an attitude suggests that even God is going to come to the conclusion that this "turn the other cheek" and "Do not resist an evil person" and "Whatever you did to the least of these, you did to me " stuff just isn't practical, and doesn't work.

On the other hand, if we accept that God has chosen to limit himself to what we will do in partnership with him, suddenly Christ's invitation to join him in the redemption of the world takes on a new sense of urgency.

Prayers like "Your will be done on earth as in heaven" aren't empty phrases about a distant time, and statements like "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God" take on new meaning when our nation is involved in three separate wars.

So it comes back to the question that I am answered with when I ask God how he can allow injustice to stand. In the example of Jesus, we see a God who identifies with prostitutes, with the needy, with the hungry and with those who are being crushed by those in power.

And the question is this: Where am I going to stand?

Copyright © 2011 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, May 30, 2011

First light

My earliest memory of God has less to do with church than with a bicycle accident.

I have never understood bikes the way I do words. Words are intangible, but there is something reassuring about them. A word, whether spoken or written, carries the weight of meaning. Properly wielded, they heal, they inspire, and they leave the world a more beautiful place than they found it. Not so bicycles. Bicycles are a bewilderment of gears and wheels that interlock and move in mysterious ways; they are tires that lose air for no reason, and harsh chains that bite pants and scrape skin. As a child, I rode my bike daily on my paper route, but ours was an uneasy relationship.

Somehow, in the summer of 1980, my older brother convinced me that I should go with him and his friends as they rode to get lunch four miles away, in Murraysville. I'd like to say that he enticed me with sweet promises of the fun we would have together, and how we would strengthen the deep fraternal bond between us. The truth is probably that our mother, who was working that day, told him he couldn't go anywhere without me, and he made it clear that I had better come.

The journey from Saunders Station to Murraysville is about three-and-a-half miles. It begins on roads with comforting names like Old Gate Road and Home Drive, but takes a turn for the worse about a half-mile into the journey, once you reach Murraysville Road.

As its name implies, Murraysville Road exists primarily to get people from Saunders Station to Murraysville, and back again. It's a road made for cars, not bikes, and because it is the principal route to retail shopping and professional services in downtown Murraysville, it is a busy road, one where cars drive 35 or 40 mph once they are past the residential area in Saunders Station. Sometimes even sooner.

Murraysville Road crests about a quarter mile after you leave Home Drive. From there, for the next mile, it's all downhill on a narrow, winding and often poorly paved road made scenic on the left by a gorge, and on the right by the sheer rock that workers cut through years ago when they built the road. If you weigh just 60 pounds, lack the natural confidence to coast without braking, and you ride a clunker of a bike, it's a terror.

While my brother and his friends were relaxed and in their element, I braked the whole way down the hill, biting my lip, tensing up any time a car came near me, and unable to bear going faster than 10 mph. At every bend, I heard them from up ahead, urging me to ease off on the brakes and allow my speed to pick up.

When the bottom of the hill was almost in sight, I finally gave in to their prodding — just in time for the pot hole. The bike went in and wrenched to the side, and threw me off. I slammed into the handlebars, twisting them so far forward that they practically touched the front tire, and landed headfirst on the pavement.

At that point, I mostly remember screaming. My brother got help at a nearby house, where an EMT from the local ambulance base happened to be visiting his parents. Bill and his friends eventually  went on their way, while an ambulance took me to the hospital, where doctors removed gravel and dirt from my forehead before stitching me up.

And it was there that I first became aware that God could be more than a character in my children's Bible. My mother, who had come at once when the call came in about my accident, remarked that God had been looking out for me that day, since there had been no cars on the road when I took my spill.

Nowadays I probably would ask why he couldn't have looked out for me a little closer and keep me from having the accident in the first place, but I was a little less cynical at 10 than I am today. My mother said what she did, and it triggered a new line of thought for me.

Suddenly God wasn't just something we talked about in church. He was real, and he mattered. It was nothing meaningful or life-changing, but the first ray of light from a deeper reality than I knew had broken through, and my spirit for the first time in my life began to stir.

It would be another eight years before the light would be bright enough that I would awake.

Copyright © 2007, 2011 by David Learn.  Used with permission.

Friday, April 22, 2011

An Open Letter to the Easter Bunny

Dear Easter Bunny,

I have one special request for Easter this year, and if you would honor it, I will be ever so grateful. Please note that aside from the incident with the garden hose and twenty gallons of tapioca pudding, my behavior has been excellent. I've helped other people whenever they've needed me, even if it meant changing my plans; and I've gone out of my way to live in peace with everyone, even the people I don't like.

I know things are busy at the Nest right now, and you've got all the little bunnies working overtime laying eggs and painting them up all shiny, what with Easter being only a couple days away, but I'm really hoping you can help me out. After all, it's about Easter.

Now you know me. I've never been one to be worked up over your backstory as the spring goddess Ēostre. You've been a tremendously good sport about taking a back seat to the new narrative for your holiday, to the point that virtually no one today knows what your story was, or that you even had a different job before you were bumped down to the children's department. When Christianity came along, you just went along with the flow of the thing, and let people reinterpret your customs about renewal, and got a minor but entertaining role in a much larger and more enduring story.

And you know, it's that larger and more enduring story that I want your help with. See, it's at times of year like this one that I feel like I get mugged by fellow Christians. In more extreme cases they hand out tracts with titles like "The Five People You Meet in Hell" or "Homosexuals, Liberals and Other People God Hates," and in better cases, they still like to explain how a lie is just as horrible to a holy God as making cookies out of Girl Scouts.

I know their intentions are good, and I know that people driven to exercises like this often are driven by a very real desire to see people reconciled to God. I just wish the message weren't so often "God loves you, you worthless son of a bitch."

Even the mildest forms of this sort of evangelism still feel like a drive-by shooting. "God is ready to forgive your sins," one may declare with the joyous rat-tat-tat of a Tommy gun. "It really is that simple! All you have to do is ask."

I mean, good grief, Easter Bunny, that kind of delivery is just nuts! A person who is suffering from depression may feel like she deserves to go to hell, but if that's the case, it's hardly the right thing to encourage her self-destructive attitude. For most of the rest of us, it seems genuinely unbelievable that we would belong in hell with the likes of Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden. After an hour of listening to an increasingly frustrated true believer argue that our sins really are that bad, the message becomes what musician Larry Norman widely quipped was, "So have you heard the good news? You're going to hell!"

Where did we ever get the idea that Christianity was all about escaping hell? Jesus healed people who were still alive, he fed the hungry while they were still alive, he treated people with compassion and uncommon dignity while they were still alive, and when he did speak to people about hell, invariably it was to warn people who were already following him against things like pride, hard-heartedness and indifference.

We're way off message. The whole thing comes across as an advertising campaign that is so nearly brilliant that it's appallingly stupid. Just picture a strikingly beautiful woman in a shimmering black dress, snuggling up to Jesus, while in the opposite panel a mousy brunette is screaming in the torments of the damned. Underneath is the caption, "Choosing the wrong deodorant to wear doesn't make a difference ... until it does." That's about the size of it.

And as religious as I am, if this annoys the stuffing out of me, I can only imagine how it makes other people feel, who aren't half as religious as me, if at all.

And so, Easter Bunny, while you're usually concerned with things like hiding psychedelically colored eggs in strange places to make little kids feel all trippy when they find them, I'm hoping you can beat some sense into us this year with those big ears of yours.

Remember back when Easter was all about you? I don't want to go back there, but it did have some nice stuff going for it. It was a celebration of renewal, fresh starts and new beginnings. Horses had their foals, ewes had their lambs, and cattle their calves. The days grew longer, the sun got warmer, the grass was greener, and everywhere there were signs of new life: flowers blooming, trees budding, ice melting and the weary drab running from sight.

When the earliest Christian missionaries arrived on those shores where the pagan Easter was practiced, before you grew those ridiculous floppy ears and joined the Playboy set, your worshipers saw a connection between their Easter celebrations and the story the missionaries were telling about Jesus. They saw a temporary, yearly renewal as the shadow of a permanent renewal. They understood the idea of personal rebirth, and they understood, despite the absurdity of the story, that a belief in the Resurrection had altered the priorities and the focus of the Christians in their midst, so that they cared about the people with the least status.

Our focus on how sinful everyone is has affected us, too, but not in a way that inspires people to seek redemption, as much as to escape the unpleasant troglodytes who give out unsolicited moral lectures.

So that's my big request this year, Easter Bunny. I don't need any chocolate, even if it's fairly traded; and I've never had any use for jelly beans. And let's not get started on those marshmallow peeps. But I'd really like it if you could help us all rediscover what Easter is about, to appreciate what Jesus' life, teachings, and death mean for this world and for the people with whom we live in it, right now.

You'd better hurry, too. It's Good Friday, and the muggings have already started.

Copyright © 2011 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

God's ex-wife

So, have you heard about God's divorce?

A recent article in Time magazine skims the surface of the rather complex issue of how monotheism developed in ancient Israel, by discussing with a few religion historians the nature of God's relationship to Asherah. The implication of the article is that Asherah was worshiped as the consort of God at one point in Judaism, and then eventually was edited out of the Bible by patriarchal apologists appalled by the notion that their male deity would ever have a dalliance with a female deity.

And you know, I think they're half-right.

Stuff like this is why I'd love to get a full scholarship to attend seminary, and study progressive revelation. I'd love to get the broader picture of how Judeo-Christian thinking has developed over the past few millennia, beginning from the straightforward relationship of a group of nomads to their tribal god, down to this really complex theology we've got now, with all that it entails about redemption, social justice, labor unions and the Trinity.

Because there's no doubt that our understanding of God has changed considerably since Moses came down from Mount Sinai carrying the Ten Commandments, and I wouldn't be surprised to discover that there were many Yahwists who worshiped Asherah and understood her to be the wife of their male god.

Let me explain.

The books of 1 and 2 Kings in the Bible relate the history of Israel, beginning with the end of David's reign and continuing down to the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. Along the way, the writer rates each of the kings in terms of how faithfully they served the God of Israel. Kings like Hezekiah and Josiah, who made religious reforms that favored Yahwism and desecrated the altars of other gods, were rated highly; other kings like Manasseh, who erected altars to other gods, sometimes in the Holy of Holies, were viewed as wicked.

Religious life in ancient Israel went back and forth a lot during this time. One king would come in and destroy all the altars dedicated to foreign gods, then the next king would come in and build new ones. And, undoubtedly, each king thought he was doing the right thing. In essence, it was an multigenerational battle over the soul of Yahwism.

Asherah gets a lot of press in these pages. A fertility goddess, Asherah was the consort of the Phoenician deity Baal. Baal was the head god in his pantheon, making him in a sense the equivalent of Zeus. One of Asherah's titles was "Queen of Heaven." People all around Israel -- and even among the Israelites -- worshiped Asherah, Baal, and other gods.

In contemporary religious experience, monotheism is normative. Ask someone if she believes in God, and you're more likely to be told yes or no than you are to be asked, "Which one?" In the time of ancient Israel, monotheism was anything but normative. Yahwism was utterly unique in its disavowal of other gods. A Canaanite might be relocated to Assyria, to Greece or to Egypt, and although he might find they had unusual names and statues, he'd still recognize some form of his familiar gods in his new land. That's one of the reasons the Romans were able to adapt all the Greek myths so easily. In terms of religion, the Yahwist would find nothing in common with his new neighbors, which is one of the reasons the Jewish people didn't assimilate when they were taken to Babylon or fled to Egypt after the Temple was destroyed.

The difficulty of maintaining your religious uniqueness in these situations, is that you can't help but pick up some of their practices and attitudes over time. This process, called syncretism, is why Hanukkah has become such a major holiday to Jewish Americans, despite its relative unimportance in Judaism. It's why a lot of churches today have worship led by rock bands, and why people who have no idea that Easter used to be the name of a divine rabbit, go to church and hide colored eggs for their kids to hunt.

And in ancient Israel, where most people couldn't read and were guided in their religious practices by oral traditions of how their parents had done things, syncretism led people to equate their all-powerful deity with somebody else's almighty deity, and then pick up some of the trimmings. Like his wife. (Or even his identity. There was a place in ancient Israel named Jobaal, or "Yahweh-is-Baal.")

It scarcely seems imaginable today that changes so fundamental to the nature of a religion would fly, but for much of Israel's history, there wasn't much of a Bible against which to measure such practices. Even the Torah -- the first five books of the Bible, traditionally ascribed to Moses -- didn't reach its final form until around 450 B.C.E., more than 500 years after Israel's Golden Age under David and Solomon, and about a thousand years after the Exodus. All you had to go by was "how things had always been done," and what the priests told you. And if you had one set of priests saying that God was married, and another set saying he wasn't, it became a matter of which set of priests you listened to, and more to the point, which set of priests the king listened to.

2 Kings notes that during the reign of Josiah, one of the last kings of Judah before the kingdom fell to Babylon, the priests "found" the book of the Law, which no one had seen in their lifetimes. And not surprisingly, the discovery led to a number of reforms that favored the sort of primitive Yahwism that they espoused, one without all the syncretic additions like his marriage to Asherah.

Prophetic writers like Isaiah, a contemporary of King Hezekiah, who had made significant religious reforms that favored Yahwism, took the notion of God's marriage in a direction radically different from where the pro-Asherah faction had taken it. One of the central tenets of Yahwism had been the special relationship between God and the Israelites. He had been their king and their military leader; now he became their suitor, and Israel, not Asherah, was his intended bride. Any attempt to claim that God had another consort would be to diminish the relationship between him and Israel.

It was after the time of the Babylonian captivity that the Hebrew Scriptures as we have them today took their final form. The canon wouldn't be settled for hundreds more years, but the redactors had the final word. Asherah was out of the picture, and the only wife God wanted was his people.

Copyright © 2011 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, February 28, 2011

In search of

The room I'm in has two doorways. One led me in, and the other leads out.

I've been in this room for a while now, but I've been going through rooms like it almost for as long as I can remember. I'm looking for something, and all I know is that it is in one of these rooms. If I keep searching, sooner or later I'm going to find it. When I do, I'll be able to stop, but until then my feet burn and there is no rest.

The rooms come one after another in a regular procession, each a little more spacious, each a little better lit, each a little more unsettling than the one before it. And though I enter the room nervously, the result has been the same each time. After a few weeks, I relax and feel at home until, eventually, I notice a pungent smell and I'm forced to move on, further up and further in.

Sometimes I don't know where my journey is leading me, whether to a frozen sea with men submerged in the ice up to their necks, or even deeper a few miles further; or to the warm brilliance that outshone Beatrice. But wherever it leads, this is the journey I am walking, and will follow it to the end. Once you pass through the wicker-gate there is no way to leave the road, not even when the light fails, as it often will.

I feel like I'm getting closer, that the end of my search may lie just beyond the next door, but I've felt that way before.

And now I am at the door, and my hand is upon the handle. In all probability, one of two things lies in the room beyond: a body, badly decomposed, or Nothing. And if there is another door on the far side of the room, my search will continue.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Seeing the stitches

I wonder what it was that first made Victor Frankenstein view his creation with such horror.

He was in a state of euphoria as he worked on the monster. It was the culmination of his work in natural philosophy, the act by which he was surpassing every scholar who had gone before him. It was going to lay the foundation for his remaining life's work. He worked, he gave the creature structure and form, and he gave it life.

And then, Shelley notes, he started to hate it.

Was it the size of his creation that drove him mad? Now that it had come to life, was it too big for him to properly understand? Now that it was living, had it suddenly grown into something too large and too complex for him to wrap even his great mind around? Did he foresee that this simple idea of creating, now that he had invested himself in it, would take him places he never would want to go? Did he realize even then the grief it would bring him?

Or maybe it was, now that the blind zeal of his initial faith had worn off, that he noticed imperfections he hadn't allowed him to see in those months leading up to its creation. Its skin was too thin, the toes weren't on straight, the arms weren't the same length, and overall it lacked the grace and polish he had convinced himself that it had.

When he looked at it objectively, perhaps Frankenstein realized that what he had achieved, what he had believed in, and what he had dedicated his life to, made no sense.

The monster lived, and moved, and breathed, but it had no business doing any of those things. It was assembled piecemeal from different sources that had too little in common with one another to give the creature true coherence. Here was an eye from Albrecht the doctor, there a forearm from Kleber, and there was a heart from Herr Blücher. Still other pieces came cobbled from one grave or another, from places and persons he never knew, but that surely weren't as radiant as those he did.

By the evidence of his eyes and his reason, Frankenstein knew the parts didn't belong together, no matter how he had tried to edit them together. He could see the thousands of sutures it took to hold them together. The sheer folly of attempting to cobble together a living creature from all these different sources, imposing harmony where none existed, drove him to despair.

One wonders how each of us will respond when we have such moments of clarity about our life's work. God grant that we are spared Frankenstein's fate.

Copyright © 2011 by David Learn. Used with permission.