Friday, January 28, 2005

Stand up, stand up for...God

God gets a bum rap sometimes. God tends to get blamed for everything that goes bad. Sometimes the blame is expressed in pious terms, such as "I must have done something bad for God to be punishing me like this," or even "God never gives us more than we can handle." But in the end, it's still God getting the blame. And, well, I have a problem with that.

One of my personal sayings is "It's a good thing you can't sue God," often accompanied by a sad shake of the head. So often people look for someone else to blame, someone else to "pay" for what happened to them.

Not that God needs me to defend him, or her (God deliver me from writing words like Godself in this blog in an effort to avoid gender-based pronouns). God is big enough to deal with any slings and arrows we puny humans may toss in the Almighty's direction.

This week in our Wednesday Bible study my least-favorite verse came up. (I know people always ask the minister, "What's your favorite verse in the Bible?" but you seldom hear anyone ask "What's your least favorite?") It's 1 Samuel 16:14: "Now the Spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him." [NRSV] The first time I came up eyeball to page with that verse, I stopped and said, "Wait a minute! When did the the Lord start sending evil spirits on people?" (BTW, whenever you see the word LORD in caps and lower case in a Bible, it means the underlying Hebrew word is the divine name which is not supposed to be uttered, but which we Gentile yahoos blithely call Yahweh, or YHWH.)

I have had this verse explained to me in a number of ways, including the suggestion that the evil spirit was some sort of mental illness, possibly bipolar disorder. (Think of the descriptions in the Gospels of Jesus casting out demons from people; some of those demonic episodes sound a lot like epilepsy.)

But the notion that God sends out evil spirits really troubled me. One teacher suggested that in the worldview of the writer(s) of that time, everything came from God, both good and evil, so God was perfectly free to send an evil spirit on Saul if he wanted to.

One of my seminary professors brought to my attention a terrific book on this subject called Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Ominpotence, by Jon D. Levenson [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988, 182 pp.]. On the subject of this verse about Saul, Levenson says, "To be sure, Saul, like Pharaoh, is not an innocent man, and the 'evil spirit' that YHWH inflicts on him is at least partially punishment for disobedience...Here we confront the insidiousness of the Evil Impulse...the element in humanness that frustrates obedience to God and casts a shadow of doubt upon the purity of God's benevolence in the act of creation." [pp. 45-46]

Now, I am talking here about a theological issue that the theologians have been wrestling over since, well, since theologians were invented: if God created everything, and if God's creation was good, then where did evil come from? Like, y'know, that serpent in the garden of Eden, like, where did it come from? Where did this "evil spirit from the LORD" come from?

Well, far be it from me to say, being just a humble M.Div. and all, not even a PhD, and certainly without a string of academic publishing credentials to my name. But when God created human beings, s/he didn't create us perfect. And somewhere in that imperfection the Evil Impulse turns up. And God didn't create us with perfect bodies, either, no matter how hard we work out at the gym. Sooner or later, all our bodies give out on us, either by natural (old age) or unnatural (accidents, murder, etc.) means.

And God didn't create us with perfect knowledge. We don't make perfect decisions, and we don't know what the future is (thank you, God, for that one, in spite of how handy it would be in picking winning lottery numbers). So we build our houses in a spot where the earthquake or the hurricane or the tsunami will strike 15 years from now. If we knew it was coming, we wouldn't have done so. But we didn't know. And so when it does come to pass, we say, "How could God let this happen?"

Levenson also says, "The world is not inherently safe; it is inherently unsafe." [p. 17] Yeah. What he said. God's creation is good, but that doesn't make it safe. Somehow we have confused the two.

So, today you came here looking for a blog, perhaps some ramble about a tv show or a book, and this time you got a sermon. Well, that's why they call me Pastor Kathy. Warning to my congregation: you may end up hearing more on this subject some Sunday from the pulpit. Maybe even this Sunday. Stay tuned.

Pastor Kathy

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Left Behind?

No, not the series of books that purports to be about the Revelation to John. I'm talking about people of a certain age. Like the man said, I'm talkin' 'bout MY generation. You know, us over the hills.

I recently read an article in the AARP newsletter (yep, I joined when I turned 50...been wanting to get those nice discounts on hotels and stuff for quite awhile now...I know my friend who writes Darwin's Cat hates AARP but if we have any chance of saving Social Security, they're the ones with the clout to do it...but I digress) about writers in Hollywood filing a class action lawsuit against the major studios, charging them with age discrimination. I had been reading for a number of years in Writer's Digest magazine that if you wanted to write for Hollywood, if you were over 30, you could just forget it. Not that I ever wanted to write for Hollywood, mind you, and if I had, I guess I would have moved out there long before I was 30.

One of the people quoted in the article (sorry, I don't have it in front of me), a baby boomer like myself, said that back in the days when movies like The Big Chill and shows like thirtysomething were popular, the writers assumed that, being baby boomers and the biggest group in the population and all, that there would always be a market in Hollywood for their writing. That the people who were writing about the angst of boomers in their thirties (getting married, having babies, the struggles of the career jungle) would later write about the angst of being in their forties, fifties, sixties, etc. No one, said this writer, ever expected that one day the studio executives would all be in their 20s and looking across the table at these writers and thinking, "These guys are old enough to be my parents."

But that's how it worked out. The writer interviewed in the article complained that these studio execs think that older writers can't write for younger audiences. We can, we can! he insists. But they won't hire us, so how would they know!


Baby boomer and child of the 1960s, I well remember my favorite TV shows from back then (many are on cable these days, and others are on DVD, and some that are not, well, there are bootleg copies out there). And I remember some of the fortysomething writers on some of my favorite shows trying to write scripts to appeal to us up-and-coming teens, circa 1964-1967. If you are old enough to remember those years, you will remember that EVERYTHING changed in America during that very short period of time. And friends, on my favorite shows, the scripts, the dialogue, the direction, the production, the costumes, all of it was just plain embarrassing. Those folks didn't have a clue what we kids were thinking, or saying, or doing, or even wearing. So...I of all people hate to say this but...the twentysomething studio executives may have a case here.

For a long time I couldn't figure out why the television/movie market was so saturated with shows for the very young when we aging boomers make up so much of the population. Then one of my marketing savvy friends pointed out that it's all about advertising. We aging boomers have been around the block long enough to figure out what products we like to use, and we use them. We like X soap and Y car and so on, and we buy the products we know and trust. Younger folks are still trying to figure out what they like, so they are more open to advertisements for different products. And then too, hate to say it, younger folks go out more than we do. They go to the movies every week (I remember when I used to do that...and I don't anymore). So movies are geared to the young crowd that likes to go.

There are so many shows on TV and so many movies that I have absolutely no interest in seeing. "Reality" shows in particular: I can't figure out why anyone would want to see people get humiliated...or humiliate themselves. But there is a younger crowd that apparently is eating this stuff up.

I don't know how the class action lawsuit is going to turn out -- the age discrimination seems to be pretty blatant, but who knows. It is discouraging to realize that hey, maybe you really are over the hill.

BUT: if all this is so, why is it that I can sit and read Harry Potter books all day long? These are children's books, and they deal with children's themes: going to school, dealing with the angst of growing up (what do you say to that girl that you'd like to know better? how do you deal with that gang of bullies? what do you do when your teacher is unfair?). So why do they resonate with me -- and with a lot of other adults, from what I hear?

For one thing, they are well written. Hooray for J. K. Rowling (and her editor)! For another, they deal with universal themes: Harry isn't dealing with anything at school that we boomers didn't deal with (okay, leaving out the magical parts! I mean the childhood/teenage angst issues). We adults can even relate some of Harry's challenges to our own as adults if we consider them metaphorically (facing a dragon is a wonderful metaphor).

Maybe Hollywood could use some better writers. Writers who can write for all of us. Let the advertisers shake it all out. Don't assume that because I'm over 50, the only thing you can sell me is a Craft-Matic bed and burial insurance. Remember, advertisers, I'm now in the age group that has the most disposable income. You can sell me cars and computers and high-ticket items. Well, you can try, anyway.

Pastor Kathy

Monday, January 17, 2005

Life, Interrupted (Again)

No, I haven't abandoned this blog. My life got interrupted again just after New Year's, when I ended up back in the hospital with complications from my surgery last month. Do you have a half gallon of milk, juice, whatever in your refrigerator right now? Go in there and take it out. Give it a good heft (if it's full). Weighs a few pounds, doesn't it? That is how much fluid I had removed from around my right lung over a two-day period. No wonder I was in pain and having trouble taking a breath.

I have been getting better day by day, now that the "stuff" is out of me. I was able to go back to work last week and preached on Sunday, which was something I really needed to do. Check out Psalm 40. I had planned to make that my sermon text anyway, but it took on new meaning after those long days at home and in the hospital, going through test after test, wondering when I would ever feel better again.

"I waited patiently for God.
He inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure."

How many people, down through the ages, have read that psalm in times of trouble and taken strength from it? That desolate pit is a nasty place to be. You feel alone, everything looks dark, and you don't know how you're going to get out of there. So you wait patiently for God. Sometimes God comes in the form of a doctor with a six-inch needle (fortunately I never saw the needle) who draws all that fluid out so you can breathe again (but at first you feel even worse...and you have to trust that it will get better after the inflammation clears up).

During my week of tests and hospitalizations, I read another book. Readers of this blog will recall that after my surgery I read The Sparrow, a science fiction novel about (I kid you not) Jesuits in outer space. As I was headed out the door on my way to tests and hospital, I grabbed the biggest unread novel I could find in the house. It was Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, number 4 in the series, weighing in at 700 plus pages. I read the entire thing in that week. Now, I know there are two different opinions among Christians about Harry Potter. Some Christians think these books are the devil's spawn because they deal with witches and wizards and witchcraft. Other Christians look at the books and point out that they deal with issues of good and evil and how to discern one from the other, and they say Harry Potter comes down solidly on the side of good and Christians won't be led astray here. (By the way, I have seen ads for a book called The Gospel According to Harry Potter, but I haven't read it, so I can't comment on it.)

Well, I have now read four of the five published books (number six comes out this year) and I don't think I've lost my faith over them. The only objection I had to anything in the whole series was in book two, I think it was, when a spell went wrong and Harry's friend Ron started erping frogs. Still makes me queasy to think about it.

I kinda saw a lot of parallels in the first book between Harry's getting ready to go to Hogwarts and my getting ready to go to seminary. Harry had to go to a special place -- Diagon Alley (diagonally!) -- to get his books, cauldron, robe, and wand. Well, when you go to seminary, you can't exactly get the stuff you need at Wal-Mart. You too have to go to special stores to get your stuff. There's the seminary bookstore, and there's Cokesbury (yea, Cokesbury! I well remember getting fitted for a robe there) and there are specialized catalogs for some of the books you have to read (you won't find that Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew lexicon in your neighborhood Barnes & Noble). I confess I didn't take the Hogwarts Express from platform nine-and-three-quarters to get to the seminary, but I spent many a morning sitting in traffic making the 30-mile commute.

A couple of years ago I was back at the seminary for some continuing education, and I as I walked past one of the dormitories, I saw that someone had printed out an elaborate coat of arms and taped it to a window. It said, "Gryffindor" -- which is Harry Potter's house at Hogwarts. I laughed myself silly: somebody else had seen the same parallels too! Sadly, not one of my good buddies from seminary got the joke. None of them had read Harry Potter. my week of illness, I actually found some inspiration from Harry Potter #4. I hope this isn't too big a spoiler in case you haven't read the book yet, but there is a part where Harry is preparing to face a dragon. He knows when it will happen and he thinks he knows what he will do when he faces it, but it is nerve-wracking to wait for the dragon. And so he paces up and down and frets because the time passes much, much too quickly when you are waiting for something you are not looking forward to.

And there I was, knowing that the pulmonologist was coming sometime after lunch to put that six-inch needle in my back. I really, really was tired of hurting and really wanted to get this over with...but I sure wasn't looking forward to the procedure. The lunch tray came. I picked up the cover and looked at what was on the plate: macaroni and cheese and a piece of fried chicken. (My diatribe on the high-fat, high-cholesterol diet that constituted a "regular" tray in this hospital I will save for another blog.) Even the smell of it was more than I could stand. I moved the tray to a chair across the room and saved the iced tea and the chocolate chip cookie for "after." I could just see myself throwing up my lunch all over the nurse, so I decided to pass. At that point, food was pretty highly overrated as far as I was concerned.

I survived the needle in my back, which surprisingly hurt a lot less than I expected; pressure mostly. And like Harry, I was very, very glad when my encounter with the dragon was over. And the chocolate chip cookie and the iced tea with the ice long melted were very, very good.

And so now I am trying to regroup, trying to remember where I was when life was interrupted, and trying to get back into a life that does not revolve around trips to radiology for another CT scan or x-ray. It is good to be back.

Pastor Kathy