Thursday, June 26, 2014

I Don't Like Genesis 22

I've been dreading this coming Sunday for over a month.

You see, this coming Sunday, the lectionary my church uses has appointed Genesis 22:1-14 as the Old Testament reading. And Genesis 22 is one of my least favorite parts of the Bible: the (near) sacrifice of Isaac.

This is the type of text that I usually preach on because there are elements to it that I just can't let pass without some kind of commentary. But the elements that make this passage so difficult also make it hard for me to shape into a decent sermon*. So after much thought I decided to wrestle with it here instead.

For those who are not familiar with the story, God chooses to "test" Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his only remaining son, Isaac, who was a miracle child and meant to start a great "nation" of people. (Abraham's semi-legitimate son, Ishmael, was already sent off in another troubling episode.) Abraham obeys and gets so far as placing his bound child on the altar and raising the knife to slay him when God steps in and stops him.

I'm bothered by the text because of the connections it holds with two problems that are sadly still relevant today: child abuse and violence in the name of God.  When we continue to see children abused and exploited and when suicide bombings, apartheid, and KKK lynchings backed by religious beliefs are current or in recent memory, it's troubling to read a story of God promoting this type of behavior and a person of God who is willing to do both -- and is commended for it.

There are many explanations of this text that seek to ease some of the tension in it:
  • God had invested a lot in Abraham in making him the father of promise and needed to know that he would be faithful regardless of the task.
  • Abraham's Schwarzenegger-esque words to his servant--"We'll be back"--suggest he expected that God wouldn't actually make him sacrifice Isaac and both would return.
  • God was using this episode to condemn child sacrifice (which was practiced by many of Israel's neighboring religions) and show Abraham how his God was different from other gods.
  • Isaac was likely a teenager and Abraham was over 100 years old and couldn't have over-powered Isaac. Therefore, Isaac wasn't a victim, but a willing participant. (In fact many early church leaders used this story as a foretelling of Christ, who also willingly carried the wood to be used for his execution up a hill expecting to lose his life.)
But none of those explanations answer the biggest problem I have with the story: Why did God feel the need to test Abraham? Was God feeling cranky? Was it morbid curiosity? Shouldn't God have already known whether Abraham was faithful? (Abraham had already left his family and home and moved hundreds of miles at God's request.) 

I want to believe that Abraham got the message wrong. I want to believe that between the time the events happened and they were written down, the detail of God testing Abraham was added by the scribes. But I believe that the hard parts of the Bible can't just be brushed off because they're hard or we don't like them. We have to deal with them.

But we don't have to deal with them in a vacuum.

One of the parts of Lutheranism that I love is how we read scripture and one of the key parts of how we do that is the premise that "scripture interprets scripture." Martin Luther, who was often arguing the meaning of scripture with his opponents, knew there were parts of the Bible that didn't seem to agree with each other and so insisted that difficult or confusing texts be read in the context of the whole Bible and especially in the context of the words of Jesus.

In that light, Genesis 22 is easier to swallow. Elsewhere, God clearly condemns child sacrifice (Lev. 18:21; Deut. 18:10), God speaks through Hosea to say "I desire mercy, not sacrifice," and Jesus says "Blessed are the peacemakers" and "Let the little children come to me, for the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to them." Regardless of whether God tested Abraham or why, I look for solace in the fact that in the end, God's true nature won out. God stayed the execution and kept Abraham from killing his son. That is some good news in an otherwise difficult text.

I still feel very uncomfortable with this text, but faith, like life, is rarely simple and God, if the Bible is any indication, is quite complicated. I sincerely pray often to know and understand God better, but Abraham knew God well and that didn't seem to make his life any simpler either. Just one more troubling thing to wrestle with.

“I’m not sure if anybody understands.” -Fun., “Some Nights”

*To me, a sermon is the Living Word of God encountering human reality and creating new life. That sounds kind of vague and fluffy, I'm sure, but what I mean by it is that a sermon is not the same as a lecture. A lecture passes along information; a sermon creates an encounter with God's law and gospel. Every attempt I made with Genesis 22 felt like a lecture.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Healthy Fear

One of the intriguing aspects of the Bible (at least to me) is the repeated command to "fear the Lord." It's an idea that appears at least one hundred times in places like Psalm 2:11 ("Serve the Lord with fear") or Proverbs 9:10 ("Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom").

It's something I've been asked about many times over the years from kids and adults: "If God loves me, why should I be afraid?" And over the years, I've given pretty standard theological answers about being in awe of God's majesty and God's right to revoke mercy at anytime and blah blah blah...

Because while I don't think my answers were wrong, they left me unsatisfied and I've usually felt there has to be a better explanation to use. Then a couple months ago, I thought of one while listening to someone else preaching (on a completely unrelated topic).

I thought about the fact that we consider cold feet on a wedding day completely normal. Is it because we think the beloved will suddenly turn into a monster and eat us? No. It’s because we recognize the enormity of the moment. We recognize that this event/relationship/emotion will change us; we recognize that we can’t predict what this will mean for our lives.

Because I love/am loved, I may do things or live in ways I didn't think I would or could or should. Because I love/am loved, I must consider the needs and wishes of my beloved and not just my own. Because I love/am loved, I am entrusting a huge part of myself to someone I can't control, making myself vulnerable, and risking being hurt. And that's scary. Love is scary.

And we think it's normal to feel fear in that place.

God, God's love, and the relationship God offers to us are no different. They will change us. We cannot predict what God will mean for our lives or where faith may lead us. It is an enormous moment whenever we grasp the full breadth of God's intention for us. Of course we would be afraid. It would be foolish not to be afraid in that moment.

*     *     *

One of the best pieces of advice I received from someone in my preaching education was that the biochemical process in the brain for fear and excitement are almost identical. So when you feel anxious about public speaking, tell yourself, "I'm not scared; I'm excited to talk to these people." It repurposes the adrenaline to fuel you instead of feeding anxiety. (It has been helpful for me before many a sermon.) Sometimes I've even used this to help calm grooms and brides before a wedding.

At its best, I think that is what the "fear of God" is meant to do. It's fear that doesn't cripple or hinder us (that kind of fear is trouble), but instead it feeds anticipation and fuels us to go deeper in our relationship to God. It's the feeling of standing at the altar, overwhelmed at what is happening, but also giddy to see what's next. 

To fear God doesn't mean someone doesn't understand God's love for her, but just the opposite. God is big. God will change us. God will make us vulnerable and out of our own control. So be afraid... and be excited. 

“Faith makes everybody scared. It's the unknown, the don't know, that keeps me hanging on.” -Lifehouse, "Unknown"

Friday, June 6, 2014

Which Came First: The Reason or the Change?

One of the blogs I subscribe to is by Seth Godin. Godin writes daily on the emerging information and internet economy and I love to read his posts because he is concise and I can read most of them in under a minute (a skill I wish I had for my own writings). More importantly, he has a unique perspective on the modern world that often gets my own creative juices going for myself and my job. 

This morning's post was a prime example. The last line stopped my coffee mug half way to my mouth: It turns out, humans don't use explanations to make change happen. They change, and then try to explain it.

Though Godin certainly didn't intend it in the context of church, his quote immediately brought up all kinds of thoughts about Christian education, evangelism, and church culture. I think this quote captures part of what has been wrong with Christianity's approach to presenting itself for the past five hundred years or so. Starting with the Reformation and increasing through the Enlightenment, the Great Awakenings, and into the recent past, it seems that the Church (at least Western Protestantism), has come to believe that the key to evangelism is making a rational defense of faith. If I can make a logical proof of God/Jesus/faith, then people will come flocking to church. Many writings, sermons, and Sunday school lessons are built around that basic idea.

If Godin is correct, that kind of thinking is largely false. A logical argument may get the ball rolling in someone's mind or reinforce a change that was already underway, but it rarely is the whole of a person's life changing. 

I've attended church my whole life and when I think back, I realize that it wasn't the lessons I learned in Sunday school that "convinced" me about God as much as it was love my teachers had for me; it wasn't the logic in the sermons as much as the songs and rituals of worship echoing in my ears and heart. It was moments of supreme fellowship, beauty, truth/insight, and wonder that opened me up, turned me around, or overwhelmed my heart in ways that I didn't have language for in the moment. It was afterwards that I was able to use the vocabulary I had learned in Sunday school or Bible study to explain the change. I didn't get explained into a relationship with God, I found myself in relationship with God and then explained it.

A helpful contrast to the "Western" emphasis on explaining and logic can be found in the Orthodox church. An Orthodox worship service, with its elaborate rituals and traditions, is meant to give participants an experience of heaven, inviting people into the activities of God and being changed through the process. I'm a liturgy geek, so I know I'm biased, but I find a worship service that gives me an experience of God to be much meatier than one that just tells me about God. To be fair, Classic Catholic and Protestant worship was built around similar intentions to an Orthodox service, but the centrality of the sermon in most people's minds today demonstrates the shift that has happened culturally. (My tribe of Christians, Lutherans, also tends to be suspicious of anything that sounds too "emotional" because of some theological battles we had almost 400 years ago.)

Humans don't use explanations to make change happen. They change, and then try to explain it. If Godin is right, then the church doesn't need a perfect argument to "prove" God to the world. Instead, the church is a place where we promote and practice change (personal, social, mental, spiritual) and then help people find the language to explain it when it happens.

“Change this something normal into something beautiful.” -Jars of Clay, “Something Beautiful”