Raindrops keep falling on my head*

*It’s a song released in – gasp – 1969.  Not going to link to it as it’s not really the point.

Sanford SlendermanWhy do the raindrops fall on my head?  How I answer that reveals my ideas about God.  Is rain part of understandable natural phenomena that God designed, or phenomena that came into being by chance because no God exists, or a sign of God’s (or the gods’) pleasure or displeasure?

When we meet the Prophet Elijah, he announces that the God of Israel has let him in on a significant weather forecast: no rain for several years.  (I Kings 17:1).  Ahab is King of Israel, and has the people dabbling in the religion of his Sidonian wife Jezebel – the cult of the storm god Ba’al (I Kings 16:29 and following).  So Yahweh, the God of Israel, claims the power over nature that some ascribe to Ba’al, and also sets up validation of Elijah as a true prophet, with a message that will prove out.

God’s purposes are clear enough.  He’s upstaging the pagan weather god, showing his displeasure with the people’s apostasy, and establishing a prophet to speak for Him.  But Yahweh’s actions are broad.  There are no particular events tied to the start or end of the drought (I Kings 18:1) and there’s no moral outline in place.  God doesn’t say, “I am withholding the rain until Ahab repents.” The timing of the drought and the rain are not tied to human action, but they are essential to establishing Elijah as a human witness to God’s authority over and purpose for His people.

The Bible isn’t always tidy about moral cause and effect.  Things are much broader, especially from a Christian point of view.  Morally, we’re all deficient, yet, as Jesus tells us, the rain is one of many signs that God deals with us patiently and mercifully,

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5:44-45 ESV)

God’s justice lacks mechanical precision, and we don’t like that because we can’t control or manipulate it any more than we can control the weather.  So we tend to revert to aspects of paganism.

In 1993, Juergen Moltmann released his Theology of Hope.  I find his distinction between God as revealed in the Bible and the gods of preceding cultures helpful.  The God of the Bible – of Israel and of the Christ – is the God of “promise and fulfillment.”  This God announces promises to human messengers, and people are gathered in faith to proclaim the promise until it is fulfilled.  This goes on over long periods of time and through good and bad situations.

Moltmann calls preceding cults (he doesn’t fancy the word pagan but that’s what I’m using) “epiphany religions”  (Theology of Hope 2.1),

It is here important to see that these epiphanies have their point in themselves, in their coming about. For where they come about, there comes the hallowing of place, of time and of men in that act in which man’s ever-threatened culture is granted correspondence with, and participation in, the eternal divine cosmos. The threat to human existence from the forces of chaos and of annihilation is overcome through the epiphany of the eternal present. Man’s being comes into congruence with eternal being, understands itself in correspondence and participation as protected by the presence of the eternal.

That is to say, “If the rain comes at the right time for our crops, the gods are with us; if not, we better toss an extra virgin in the volcano.”  Sorry to be flippant, but theologians are dense writers (you can parse that as you like).

The Bible presents God fully and, to our limited minds, as somewhat maddening: yes, personally invested in each of us; yes, mysterious and inscrutable; yes, holding power over nature and history; yes, letting nature and history operate apart from His direct intervention.

This tempts us to explain raindrops in pagan terms.  Christians today grapple with the “Prosperity Gospel,” which turns the God of the Bible into an epiphany god who reacts to our efforts.  Church historian Kate Bowler has studied this branch of the church with some respect and sympathy, and says

Prosperity gospel makes God into a kind of monster. It creates the problem that it tries to solve. It says we can always know the will of God because God has given us a special kind of faith which we can use to act. What that means is every single thing in your life becomes your fault or your reward. That’s a terrifying place to be.

Here’s an example from prosperity preacher Joel Osteen.  Note the rain imagery.  You can also skip to Osteen’s message, intoned at 1:30 of the video.

More terrifying than that is the world’s dominant strain of Islam.  Robert R. Reilly’s The Closing of the Muslim Mind is, like Bowler’s look at Prosperity Christianity, respectful and sympathetic.  It is dedicated to

…the courageous men and women throughout the Islamic world, here nameless for reasons of their own security, who are struggling for a reopening of the Muslim mind.

Reilly uses primary sources, looks to Islamic scholars, and has familiarity with Arabic.  He details how dominant Sunni Islam went through an internal struggle between adherents who were able to engage surrounding cultures and philosophies and those who rejected them.  The latter won out, and are driving much of the conflict we experience today.

The dominant view, so foreign to Westerners,  includes assumptions that Allah is a humanly inscrutable will rather than a personality acting out of love; that every moment is in fact an epiphany in which God alone destroys and reconstructs reality rather than part of a meaningful continuum; and that there is no real cause and effect except the will of God in which we have no active part.

Now that’s plenty to chew on and the book does so with detail and clarity, so I’ll leave it to your reading.  What struck me is that the dominant strain of Islam rejects other cultures in favor of a perception of god created by the harsh desert environment in which the religion originated.  While displacing pagan polytheism, Islam’s one God is capricious like the desert, where the natural forces can turn in an instant and show no regard for human well being.  Here’s a telling quote, featuring, you guessed it, rain:

It is in (Allah’s) power to pour down torrents upon mankind and if he were to do it, his justice would not be arraigned.  There is nothing he can be tied to, to perform, nor can any injustice be supposed of him, nor can He be under obligation to any person whatever.  (Abu Al-Ghazali, Iran, d. 1111, from his work The Incoherence of the Philosophers)

Allah is posited in desert terms.  Long hot months with no rain, and/or freezing nights, and/or abrupt downpours that temporarily fill the wadis, and/or sandstorms, and/or scorching winds.  One big Whatev.  A god not unlike the capricious figures of the Graeco-Roman mythologies that Islam would claim to reject.  Humanity has no purpose but to submit.

Prosperity Christianity and dominant Sunni Islam become two sides of the same pagan coin.  The former posits a god whose epiphanies are contingent upon our “sacrifices,” like the pagan weather and fertility gods of the ancient Near East.  The latter pronounces an impersonal deity who does what he wants, shaped by the desert environment in which Muhammad preached but ironically similar to the pagan deities of classical mythology in other cultures.

All of us, on a day when the rain clouds seem to follow us around, can lapse into pagan thinking.  Faith doesn’t run between the raindrops, but walks between the extremes of assuming that the rain is all our fault on the one hand or that there’s no God who cares that we’re all wet on the other.

 

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Spoiler Alert

I recently reread Tolstoy’s story The Three Hermits.  It is a charming, whimsical yet deep tale about…

Well, see, there’s the problem.  If I tell you what’s in it you won’t have the pleasure of reading it.  I don’t want to blog a big spoiler.

So I’ll just share this note that I scribbled to myself after reading it: You become what you imitate.  ’nuff said right there.

It’s Ash Wednesday, and one way to look at Lenten disciplines is imitation of holiness, so that we might grow in holiness.  That’s not alien to  the New Testament:

Join with others in being imitators of me, brothers, and observe those who thus conduct themselves according to the model you have in us. (Philippians 3:17 NAB)

Sometimes the need to imitate holiness is stimulated by our frustration with lack of holiness.  Sincere reading and hearing of Scripture, followed by our inability to apply it in daily life, can irritate us and send us looking for holy examples to imitate.

This thought about frustration came not from great literature, but from a song that popped up on the car radio the other day.  The video has a bit o’ the sensual about it, so it that’s a problem you can skip down and I’ll give you the relevant lyrics…

Doctor, doctor won’t you please prescribe me somethin’
A day in the life of someone else?
‘Cause I’m a hazard to myself

Don’t let me get me, I’m my own worst enemy
It’s bad when you annoy yourself so irritating
Don’t wanna be my friend no more
I wanna be somebody else

For Christians, this frustration and longing to be somebody else comes with a big spoiler…

you’ve been warned…

don’t look if you don’t want to know…

My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20 NLT)

The holiness is already there within you. Trusting Him – by imitating him and by relying upon his self-offering when you don’t – is the right outcome of any discipline, Lenten or any time.

May your Lent be blessed with greater discovery of the life of Christ within you, already transforming you into His likeness.

But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Philippians 3:20-21 ESV)

Oh, dang it, that was another spoiler, wasn’t it?

 

The Monstrosity of Shame

Last night a monster came to call.  I had non-stop dreams that all centered on shaming me – episodes in which I came out worthless, useless, vile and beyond anything I could do to better anything.

I wish I could say that I ran to God for shelter.  I was shocked by the attack and I stumbled to my Prayer Book and Bible this morning.  God’s Word was waiting to provide cover in spite of my state of mind.

One of my offerings was Psalm 19, and here are various versions of verse 12, which stopped shame’s ringing in my ears and brought the comforting voice of Jesus:

Psalm 19_12 versions

And a couple more:

Who can detect trespasses?  Cleanse me from my inadvertent sins.  (NAB 19:13)

But who can detect their errors?  Clear me from hidden faults.  (NRSV)

I found two places of comfort in the verse.

First, none of us know all the bad stuff cooking away inside of us.  We’re a race of equals in that we can’t discern, know, understand or even detect all malign thoughts and emotions that warp our actions.

Sure, we can and do figure out and even correct some of them along the way.  And that’s what a healthy conscience allows.

Hydra
Herakles and the Hydra, Greek vase circa 525 BC 

But none of us are perfect.  The evil within us abides throughout our life in the flesh, like a hydra  that keeps growing heads no matter how many we lop off.

Shame is a monster that devours us from the inside out.  Shame defines us by the universal human problem of sin, then expects us to do what none of our brothers and sisters on earth can do – overcome the problem by willing and muscling our way to “perfection.”  Those who try this either deceive themselves into an arrogant assumption that they are better than others, or set themselves up for despair as each failure only enlarges their shame.

The second insight follows the question mark in the verse.  There is a subject, a someone assumed, and that someone can do something about our shame.   Nobody can figure out all the evil within, but, in a seeming contradiction, there is one who can and who can do something about it – forgive, cleanse, acquit, clear.

It’s the Bible, after all, so there’s no mystery about God being the One to whom the Psalm points.  But as I looked at the verb I was surprised to find that it is the imperative – a command – of the Hebrew verb naqah.  Having called out in despair in the first part of the verse, in the second part we order God to do something about our shame.  There’s no “please” in the way this shows up in Hebrew.  It’s just, “Hey, God, fix me.”

Fix me how?  naqah is from a root meaning to be empty or clean.   So God can empty us of shame and give us back a healthy conscience that identifies and corrects faults without defining our lives by them.

And God can cleanse us, even as the evil of which we’re blissfully ignorant churns away in our hearts.  “Clean” was a moral category in Hebrew thought – to be “clean” was to stand redeemed from sin and righteous in the sight of God.  To be “unclean” was to be stained and required separation from the righteous lest the unclean person stain them (talk about shame).  Only specific sacrifices and ritual cleansing could restore an unclean person.

Christianity calls upon Jesus Christ as the hero who kills the hydra.  Washed by baptism in his name, we are cleansed of shame; feasting by faith on the perfect sacrifice of his body and blood, we are filled with his righteous life and shame has no room to live in us.

Need I tell you that is an uncomfortable way to pray, especially if you are prone to shame?  Flinging an imperative at God feels like it can only add to my shame.  But this is exactly what the person in Christ has freedom to do:

Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.  (Hebrews 4:16, KJV)

And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. (Luke 11:5-9 ESV)

Resting, Revealing and Guiding

 

Presentation Holbein
The Presentation by Hans Holbein

February 2nd is the Feast of the Presentation.  Jesus’ earthly guardians, in strict observance of the Old Covenant, make sacrifices for him at the great Temple of Jerusalem.  The Lord, carried to and through the event as a passive baby, manifests the perfect obedience by which he is the New Covenant, the perfect offering by which we are presented to God in His eternal Temple.

A part of the Gospel appointed for proclamation on this day is

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’

(Luke 2:25-32 NRSV)

 

Repetition is emphasis in the Biblical languages. The three references to the Holy Spirit (resting, revealing to and guiding Simeon) are like exclamation points or TYPING IN CAPS.  “Hey, look at THIS,” the Word proclaims.

Simeon is a forerunner of all of us who’ve been baptized into Christ. The Holy Spirit rests upon us in baptism; more of Christ is revealed to us by the Spirit as we live as disciples; our lives are meaningful to Christ’s work and the Spirit will guide us to good works of Christ’s choosing.

May you experience peace, the fruit of the Spirit that Simeon celebrated in his song of praise, knowing that the Lord is preparing you, like Simeon, for glory your whole life long.