The Passion According to St. John

I worked on this with Rev. Jason Chesnut, Rev. Lenny Duncan, and Tracy Radosevic so, if they needed to, churches could use it at the center of their Good Friday virtual worship.

Or, for anyone actually.

Take a listen.

“The Passion of Christ as told by the writer of John’s Gospel stands at the center of the holiest three days of the Christian year, the Triduum.

It’s a drama, and is not read so much as told. It’s told because it’s a story worth passing on, worth hearing in all of its intrigue and inflection, in all the ways it challenges presuppositions, powers, and principalities just in its very recitation.

The Passion of Christ is not a Biblical reading so much as a word to a weary world about the Word.”

Jesus Died on a Friday, Right?

ET_ecQpXsAEESMcJesus died on a Friday, right?

I don’t think so.

In fact, I’d say, probably not.

Maybe, though…

In yet another file on “the scriptures aren’t internally cohesive and that’s OK because they weren’t written to be,” we take a quick look at the Last Supper-Crucifixion-Resurrection arc in the gospels.

Also: don’t @ me, bro.  I know you may not like what follows, but…well…pastors really should be more intellectually honest about this stuff.

This question is particularly timely for two reasons.  First, it’s Holy Week and these events are on the minds of Christians today.  And secondly, tonight begins the Jewish feast of Passover, so it is especially timely.

There is a third reason, though…but I’ll get to that in a minute.  Just wait.

I should note that Passover and Holy Week don’t always align, though…and Christians are surprised to hear this.  Passover in the Jewish calendar is on a fixed date. But on the Gregorian calendar the date of Passover changes because the lunisolar calendar, on which the Jewish calendar is based, doesn’t align with the Gregorian calendar precisely.

Easter is also based on the lunisolar calendar, but on a fixed sign: the Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox.

Confused?  Yeah, there’s a lot of qualification there…

Bottom line: they don’t always line up, and aren’t meant to.

And maybe it’s better that they don’t always line up because, and here’s the big kicker: Jesus was preparing for Passover in Jerusalem when he was arrested, tried, and crucified, but his “Last Supper” was actually not the Passover meal.

Probably.

I know. Your Sunday School teachers and parish pastors oversimplified things a bit, but it is more than likely, in my estimation, that Jesus was not celebrating the Passover at the Last Supper.

In fact, and here’s the other reason that I think this conversation is important today (Wednesday, April 8th 2020) of all days: I’m pretty sure that tonight is the memorial of the Last Supper for Jesus…even though Christians will celebrate Maundy Thursday tomorrow night.  Which means the Last Supper was on a Wednesday, and Jesus may have died on a Thursday.

Why do I think this?

Well, tonight starts Passover on the Jewish calendar.  But they won’t they eat the Passover meal until tomorrow night, right?  That’s the important thing to remember: though Passover starts tonight, they won’t eat the meal until the end of the day (sundown-sundown).

Today is all about preparation.  In the gospels Jesus sends his disciples to go and prepare a place for them to celebrate the Passover meal…which they do, in all the Gospel accounts.  And it says they finish preparations, and then have a meal.  But is it the Passover meal?  It never indicates it is.  It just says they make preparations and then share a meal.

This is a pretty important detail to leave out of the account.

And because it’s never clearly spelled out, and for the reasons below, it actually seems more likely that the meal that Jesus shares with his disciples is actually the meal before the Passover meal, not the Passover itself.

Another indicator that it’s not Passover, but actually just the meal before, is that Jesus is not celebrating with his mother and sisters.  As the head of the household, he wouldn’t miss celebrating Passover with his family.

It’s also worth noting that the word used in all of the Last Supper accounts for the bread, artos, points to a regular yeast-loaf.  Were it the unleavened bread of the Passover, matzos would have been used.

Now, despite all this, Matthew, Mark, and Luke do present the Last Supper in such a way that it would be easy to point to Jesus dying on a Friday and the Last Supper being a Thursday Passover.  In fact, it may be that those Gospel writers did think that, though they also could have had a copyist make revisions, placing it on Thursday-Friday-Saturday path (which is a long story…primarily about a copyist adding the word “again” into a certain line in Luke 22:14 to do all this, but we need not go there today).

John seems pretty convinced that Jesus died on a Thursday, though.  How do we know?

He writes that the Last Supper happened “before the festival of Passover.” (John 13:1)  The writer of John’s gospel also notes that, when they handed Jesus over to the authorities, the accusers wouldn’t enter Pilate’s courtyard because they would be unclean and therefore unable to eat the Passover “that evening.” (John 18:28)

It’s also worth noting that, after the crucifixion, they wanted to remove Jesus’ body from the cross because it was a Sabbath day of “great solemnity.”  Now, to the untrained ear, that would be an “ah-ha!” moment pointing to a Friday death.  Sundown on Friday is the start of the Sabbath, yes?

Except…

There are other marked Sabbaths in the Jewish calendar, including any Passover.  And in this particular year it appears that there are two Sabbaths back-to-back, which does happen (as it does this very year, 2020!): there is the Passover Sabbath break, followed by the weekly Sabbath break.

In addition to the above, the indicators outside of the gospels themselves point not to a Passover, but to a meal before the Passover.

In 1 Corinthians, which provides for us the language of the liturgy, the Apostle Paul, a Jewish leader, does not mention that Jesus was at Passover when he took the bread and blessed it, but rather notes instead, “on the night in which he was betrayed…” (11:23)

Why would he leave that important detail out?  And his writing was the first one we know about on the matter.

Another little tidbit comes from one of the only extra-Biblical sources of the time that mention Jesus at all (a blog for another day), the Talmud notes that, “They hung Joshua the Nazarene on the ‘eve of the Passover.'” (b. Sanhedrin 67a and 43a)

And finally, though not really finally because we could certainly go down the rabbit hole farther, it’s important to note that the tradition that Jesus was in the tomb “for three days and three nights,” which is internally consistent in the gospels, cannot be accurate by the Jewish calendar if Jesus died on a Friday.  If Jesus died on a Friday, assuming he was placed in the tomb just before sundown, he was actually only in there about two days and two nights.  I mean, while this little detail could be chocked up to hyperbole or whatnot, it’s worth noting that for this particular arc of the Jesus story, the days and nights are significant because it tied Jesus back to the salvation story of Jonah, which they wanted to do.

By this point you may be asking yourself: why does any of it matter?

Well, I think it’s significant for a couple of reasons.

The first?  It’s further evidence that any attempt to say that the scriptures are inerrant or infallible is a fool’s errand.  They are internally inconsistent in a number of ways, and the magical “innerancy/infallbile” cults are literally ruining the beauty and complexity of the religion not only for the rest of the faithful, but also for the unfaithful who can’t even begin to look at a faith they find so ridiculous on the face.

The second?  There’s no such thing as a “Christian Seder,” and we really shouldn’t be celebrating them.  It is absolutely fine to attend a Jewish Seder as a guest and enjoy the hospitality of our Jewish sisters and brothers, but to usurp a sacred festival for our own use is something Christians just shouldn’t do.  So many Christians think they can Christianize a Seder based off of the Last Supper account…but we can’t. And shouldn’t. It’s not ours.

A third reason?  The connection between Jesus and the Passover lamb is important for the faith, but only in analogy and not in actuality.  We even sing that Jesus is the “lamb who was slain,” but when we do so we sing it as a point of theological reference, not necessity.

What I mean is: Jesus was not sacrificed for humanity.  Jesus was certainly killed by humanity, but what that means is complex, not simple.  It’s not an exchange of blood for blood. God is not bloodthirsty. And when we make Jesus the Passover lamb, and only that, instead of just use it as an important tool of imagery that would have connected with the ancient people, we make God a bloodthirsty deity who demands sacrifice.

According to the prophet Micah that’s not what God desires, right? (Micah 6:8)  So why do we continue to make Jesus exactly what God does not desire?

A critique on all this comes from theological corners concerned with our sacramental theology.  “Didn’t Jesus change the Passover meal to be about him?” some sacramentalists would ask.

I mean, maybe.

But the sacrament of Holy Communion, while heavy on Passover imagery, remains just as heavy utilizing Sabbath meal imagery.  Jesus may be seen and spoken of as the Paschal lamb, but the bread of life is not sacrificed every Sunday in a Christian church.

Praise is sacrificed.  This is why it’s probably the best practice to not break the bread at the altar during the Words of Institution…it sends the wrong signal.

Note: this last critique is heavy on the insider imagery…I digress…

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it appears that Jesus may have been celebrating the Passover.  In John, where Jesus pretty clearly dies on a Thursday, it appears he was not.

So what day did Jesus die?

I don’t know.  No one knows.

Was Jesus’ Last Supper a Passover?  I don’t know…but I don’t think so.  No one knows.

The Gospels don’t agree on it all.  And those first scholars who put the Gospels together surely saw that it was not internally consistent, and it didn’t really bother them…so it probably shouldn’t bother us either, right?

But if Jesus did die before the Passover meal on a Thursday, then it lines up with this year’s Jewish calendar in such a way that’s it’s pretty poetic, pretty interesting, and, I think, pretty beautiful.

What Your Church Teaches Has Consequences

teaching_preaching_church_teachersCame across a quote from Isaac Asimov today on social media.  It’s from 1980, but I fear has a shelf-life well beyond thirty-nine years…and was certainly true even before it was spoken.

The quote is,

“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States…[It is] nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'”

Whelp. If that’s not a punch in the old stomach-of-truth I don’t know what is, and it’s being displayed in full force these days, especially in these White House briefings happening on the regular where the President gives his opinion about the effectiveness of this drug or that drug, contradicting the experts around him.  He follows it up with, “What do you have to lose?

I mean, anytime it comes to ingesting chemicals of any sort that aren’t naturally found in your body, I think there’s QUITE A BIT YOU COULD LOSE just by going off a hunch.

Or take the news reports out this morning about the in-fighting in the administration where one official wants to push a drug on the public that “could work” over and against the trained doctors in the room who caution it.  And the official’s defense?  They’re a “social scientist”…which, apparently, gives them the right to endanger human health, just because “scientist” is in their discipline’s title.

Opinion and expertise are not the same.

I digress, though.

I saw this quote on social media and I responded, “Looking at you, church…”

And I wrote that for two reasons.

The first? I had just been in a conversation with a friend who comes from a different theological point of view. They have no formal training, but take issue with my theological analyses quite openly, and even went so far as to suggest that their years of Sunday School and small group studies was equivalent to scholarly theological rigor.

The sum was, in effect, “It’s just a different point of view.”

The problem with this “point of view” is not that it’s different, though, it’s that it’s ill-informed at best, and uninformed at worst.

Now, I’m not suggesting that I’m always correct. By no means, just ask my partner. I’m wrong all the time, as much as I hate to admit it.  But I do know the difference between informed work and opinion, and so much that flies around as “theology” today is just mere opinion, brought on by years of the church, writ large, encouraging people to buy into the idea that their thoughts about the Bible, or their desires for what it means, trumps scholarly, rational, and even scientific study.

This is why I have so much trouble with churches who explicitly or implicitly teach that the Bible is inerrant and/or infallible.  It creates such a closed-loop system of truth inquiry that the oxygen is sucked out of the air and you end up with nonsense and the necessity of having to deny things that are plainly true. For example, the statement “there are two different, unique, and theologically divergent creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2” should be open for scholarly debate and discussion, using all the tools available to investigate that claim.

This is not a problem, unless you need there NOT to be two different, unique, and theologically divergent creation stories because inerrancy and/or infalliblity are the foundation of your argument.  And so you end up making all sorts of excuses and qualifications for how there are not two different accounts with unique, divergent theological claims…which is nonsense. There clearly are.

That’s a small thing.

But think on this: if, with such a small thing, you’re having to go around your ass to get to your elbow proving something can’t be what centuries (literally) of grammatical analysis, language study, theological inquiry, and historical, anthropological, and archeological research indicates it is, what about the big things?

The big things like not staying home during a pandemic because your religion teaches you, nay, encourages you to gather anyway because “God must be glorified and no one will tell me not to worship.”  Or, as someone legitimately offered just the other day, “Jesus died for me already, so I have nothing to fear by gathering at church.”

If the scriptures, or even your amorphous faith, is the center and locale of all truth because it is where inerrant and infallible authority rests, we create a system where your opinion becomes dangerous for our collective health.

And it starts with the small things.

If a collection of stories, full of contradictions, histories, myths, letters, apocrypha, and all sorts of kind of literature becomes the center for all your truth, then evidence will not convince you otherwise.

Normally the above is not a huge issue.  But in a pandemic, it can be.

And the second reason I wrote it?

Because I really want people to take a look at what their church teaches and consider the consequences.

I have friends who recently left their little church to go to the mega-church down the street. “It has better kid’s programming,” they said.

I get that to some degree, though if you want good children’s programming in a church, my suggestion will always be: create it, then.

But here’s the thing: their new church teaches a literalist understanding of the scriptures.  And although their “children’s church” is all sorts of flashy, the lasting intellectual incongruencies that their children may get as a result of an anti-intellectual approach to scripture will ultimately not be good for them.

Imagine being a doctor who can bring their brain to work, but not to worship.  This happens all the time, by the way, and I don’t know how people can look at evidence through a microscope or study the intricacies of a discipline Monday through Friday but endure a religious life that amounts to little more than a Sunday School lesson for infants throughout their life.

Or imagine a retributive God.  This pandemic could very well be seen as a response to human action, rather than the natural thing that happens when competing lifeforms compete.  Think of the mental anguish that is already stacked on top of the physical anguish that comes when we have to think that we are being punished by a God who supposedly “loves us.”

What your church teaches matters.

A friend of mine said once, “It’s nice to not have to think.”  Which, I guess it must be if you don’t think your religious life is consequential in this one.

But it is.

After posting my response, a good friend pushed back honestly suggesting that I not broad-brush the church.  I welcome that critique. And he’s right, of course.  I come from a tradition that encourages intellectual rigor in all parts of life, including spirituality. I don’t like being lumped in with those who don’t share my beliefs or practices.

And it is true that the church has done much, so much, to point humanity toward truth, encouraging intellectual inquiry and rigorous discipline.  I’m thinking specifically of our contributions in astronomy, sociology, art, architecture, philosophy (at times), and anthropology.

But, here’s the thing: I’m woven into the Christian fabric.  Which means the anti-intellectual parts of it are not “some other” part of it, but a close cousin to me.  And, like the “me too” movement forced me to wrestle with toxic masculinity even though I try not to fall into the trappings of it all, I need to be forced, even from my liberal corner, to wrestle honestly with the anti-intellectual history and contemporary factions of the church.

And one way I wrestle with it is by calling attention to it.

Because it may not, in most situations, seem like a big deal to attend a church that doesn’t take the life of the mind seriously, has a closed-loop view of scripture, and feels that pointing out truth in other faiths (or even in the secular world) threatens their own sense of truth.

But I really think it is a big deal.

Because if we disregard evidential truth, scholarly inquiry, and the like in one arena, chocking it up to “a difference of opinion,” we call into question, in an unhelpful and even dangerous way, truth in all arenas.

And, as we’re seeing, that has consequences.

Did Jesus Ride into Jerusalem on One Donkey or Two?

13slid1The answer to the title of this blog post is, “Depends on which Gospel you read.” It’s an appropriate question to ask as we cuddle up to Palm Sunday this year, because Matthew’s gospel, unlike the other gospels, has Jesus riding in on two, count ’em two, donkeys.

And it’s one of the bulwark examples of why the Scriptures cannot be inerrant nor infallible.

If your church teaches the infallibility or inerrancy of the Scriptures, send your pastor this blog and ask them to defend the position.  They will come up lacking; there is no defense.

Ready for the in-depth analysis?  Here we go…

Matthew’s “entry into Jerusalem” begins in Matthew 21 and goes through verse 11.  And Matthew, as he’s wont to do, likes to cite the Hebrew scriptures in his writing because he thinks it gives him both credence and authority.

And for his accounting of Jesus’ “triumphant entry” he borrows from a few places: Psalm 118 (this is where the Hosanna’s come from), Isaiah 62 (this is about the entry of salvation coming to Zion), and the prophet Zechariah, chapter 9.

It is Zechariah that Matthew struggles with here, and Zechariah is the one who mentions donkeys.

So, read Zechariah 9:9.  Zechariah has this long poem, and in it he recounts the Messiah’s entrance into the hearts of the people, and he does this thing in his poem that lots of Jewish poets did at the time, something that I think Matthew doesn’t understand…or if he does, he’s ignoring it.

See, in ancient poetry, especially Jewish poetry, you’d offer up one line of poetry, and then follow that first line up with a second line that reinforced that first line, further emphasizing it.  You see this in the Psalms all the time.

And Zechariah does this.  He notes that salvation will “ride in on a donkey, on a colt the foal of a donkey.”  Zechariah is talking about one donkey here, with the second line repeating with emphasis that first line.

But Matthew doesn’t get it.

And so, in Matthew’s gospel, the disciples go and untie two donkeys: an adult and a colt.  And they bring them both to Jesus and, the writer says, “Jesus rides them” into Jerusalem.

Now, think about it: this makes no sense.  Riding one donkey is hard enough. Can you imagine riding two?  And not just two donkeys, but two of differing heights and sizes?!

Impossible.

Why does Matthew do this?  Because he really wants to cite Zechariah, and this is what Zechariah writes.  And so he paints this picture of Jesus riding two donkeys.  He says Jesus rode two donkeys.

And listen folks, this isn’t a case of “well, different people have different perspectives of the same event…” which is what literalists usually argue has happened when the Gospels differ.

It’s clearly not that.  It’s clearly wrong!  Matthew doesn’t get what Zechariah is writing, and gets it wrong.

To say the scriptures are inerrant would mean to say that Matthew gets it right…but in doing so, you’d say that Mark, Luke, and John get it wrong, which cannot be.  To say that the scriptures are infallible would be to say that Matthew understands Zechariah, which clearly he does not.

So what can you say?

You can say that Matthew is really dedicated to the Hebrew scriptures, so much so that he really goes to great lengths to use them as proof texts in his accounting of Jesus’ life, and he sometimes misses the mark.

And that’s OK. It doesn’t have to be inerrant or infallible to hold the truth.  Inerrancy and infallibility are brittle things.  Poetry is flexible, and this is more akin to poetry than prose, Beloved.

So, did Jesus ride two donkeys or one when he entered Jerusalem?  Eh…depends who you ask.  The point?

He got there.

 

 

A “How-To” Guide to Becoming a “False Prophet” in the Eyes of Popular Christianity

false-prophets-101-700x380The message was predictable, and I should have seen it coming.  I’ve received a number of them before in my years of public writing.

“False prophet” was the first term that popped out as I scanned the message.  “Leading people astray” was another ominous one.

This last one came in response to my blogpost yesterday where I called out the My Pillow CEO for being ridiculous and dared to suggest that the idea of God wreaking a pandemic upon humanity was not only theologically abusive, but literally anti-Christ.

Friends, strangers, even sometimes classmates have peddled these phrases around and hurled them with intent to hurt, sometimes at me, other times at others.  Oh, they claim the intent is to “lovingly chastise,” another idea that conservative Christianity likes to pass off as true love.

True love only hurts the lover, not the beloved.  True love sacrifices, it doesn’t demand a sacrifice.  You’d think people who hear the Jesus story on the regular would know that, but somehow I have to keep explaining it.

These phrases are usually hurled from people under the sway of big-box church preachers who prattle off crypto-Calvinist theology that would make even Calvin blush with its concreteness.

Faith, by definition, isn’t concrete.

So, I thought I’d offer a short “how-to” for anyone interested in becoming a so-called false prophet in the eyes of what passes as popular Christianity today. It’s a short list, so have your pencils ready.  OK?

First, tell the truth.  And, like Pilate asks in John’s gospel, “what is truth?”  Well, to quote another (false) prophet of our times, St. Billy of the Joel’s, “shades of grey are the colors I see.”

The world is full of grey.  Theology is full of grey.  The illusion of black-and-white that is passed off in the sanctuaries and virtual live-streams of so many churches these days is not only harmful, it prevents humanity from actually grappling with, from actually dealing with the complex ambiguities of life.

Our minds like dualisms because they make sense.  But dualisms, in fact, are constructions that we’ve created to make sense, not because they make sense.  Do you see what I mean?

The concrete dualisms of right/wrong, God/Devil, saint/sinner offered by so much of Christianity is base religion, the starting point not the end-point.  Father Richard Rohr, himself labeled as “false” or “new-age” (another fun term grounded in opinion rather than actual taxonomy) points this out continually in his deep, complex, and soul-nourishing writing.

So much of Christianity has failed to advance past the soft-food of trite moralisms and neat dualisms that it actually holds its adherents back from learning from the beautiful and, yes, terrible reality that all things are fluid and complex.

The Buddhist idea that “life is suffering” sounds, at first, as if it is harsh and pessimistic.  But “suffering” here doesn’t mean “active pain,” it actually just means “active.”  Life is active. We know this from biology.  But humans don’t crave that!  We crave stability, not activity, at our core.

Base religion, of all stripes, offers a fake stability, an illusory hope that everything can stay the same.  That’s why some Christianity is called “conservative,” not because it is trying to preserve something sacred, but because it is trying to pretend conservation is actually possible when life-forms aren’t meant to stay stationary for too long!  If they do, they die…which is probably why so much of organized religion is struggling to live today.

So, step one, tell the truth: grey is the color of the world.

Step two: profess a love from God that can encompass the grey.  So much of the life and example of Jesus (who, by the way, was more Eastern than he was Western if you cringe at me quoting Buddhism above) is about widening the circles of God’s grace and love, not constricting them.

In short: if you think someone is out of God’s love, it’s probably you who is misplaced.

Step three: take the scriptures seriously. So seriously, in fact, that you take them for the different types of writing that they are: history, myth, legend, letter, poetry, and erotic novella (Song of Songs).

Not all scripture is the same, Beloved.  The base mind, the Christianity that likes to play in dualisms, will tell you it is.  But we know it’s not!  Jesus doesn’t even treat it all the same when he quotes the Hebrew scriptures.  He even changes it.  “You have heard it said,” he’s known to posit, “but I say to you…”

He changes it.

Now, some would (and have) rebutted that idea by saying, “No, Jesus corrects the misguided notions of the past…”  And when they do that, they betray their lack of understanding around how the Jewish faith held, holds, and argues with scripture.

Jesus was Jewish, and in that moment he was doing a very Jewish thing: arguing with scripture.  In fact, the Jewish notion of “white fire” and “black fire” might be helpful here, or as I prefer to call it “the character fire and the space fire” because black and white as dichotomies aren’t very helpful in our context.  The “black fire/character fire” was the writing on the sacred page of the Torah, the letters and characters themselves.  The “white fire/space fire” was the space between each character.  And the truth, this ancient line of thinking noted, was not in the characters or the word on the page, but in the space, the wiggle room, in-between them.

If that’s “new age”…well, literally there’s nothing more ancient than that idea of wiggle room, of grey, of fluidity and flux.

Step four: trust science and trust education as a way of progress that’s not ultimately threatening, but ultimately enlightening.

So, there you have it, a sure-fire way to get you called a false prophet today.

And to all you fellow false-prophets out there: thanks for your work.  The life-giving message stoked in the space between the logs of conservative religion continues to burn in the hearts of many, often those who no longer set foot in formally religious spaces.

And how do I know?

Because as often as I’m called a false prophet, I’m also sent messages saying things like, “I haven’t been to church in years…thanks for saying that.”

So keep saying it.

My Pillow, My Sanity…My God, Just Stop It

232636_jesus-facepalm“Oh my God my God, why have you forsaken me?”

The Psalmist’s cry above has been my own cry, as of late.  Not in response to this terrible pandemic, mind you, but in response to the many, many so-called “Christian” responses to the pandemic.

Watching the My Pillow CEO/Inventor/Mad Man go off on his rantprayer (I made that word up just for this blogpost) the other day during the White House Covid-19 update about put me over the edge, though.

It’s like, Christians: why can’t you just not be crazy for a little while?!  Please?!

Between Falwell inviting Liberty students to head back to school early, ensuring a plague-like outbreak in Virginia, to the number of pastors continuing to hold church services despite the shelter-in-place orders, infecting hundreds…it’s not like we needed the bad publicity, right?!

I mean, the most anti-science, “Jesus would be my boyfriend if that wasn’t gay” member of the Trump administration (just look at how he didn’t handle the HIV outbreak in Indiana) was put in charge of the most sciency-thing the country (and the world) has faced since 1918…this is all a disaster already, without Christians making it worse.

Downplaying the pandemic, ignoring the scientists, delaying a national response…it couldn’t get worse, right?

Then someone in power said, “Hold my beer,” because, for some reason, the My Pillow CEO gets a primetime spot behind the presidential podium to claim that America has turned its back on God, casting some theological shadows upon not only the presidency, but the pandemic.

Look, I’m glad that his company is making masks at a time when we really need private industry to step up and help the public good.  I’m glad he’s doing that, and I wish more would do that.

But him helping the war-on-Corona effort doesn’t give him license to help the war-on-facts effort that the Religious Right has been fighting since the early ’80’s.

I’m already getting emails and messages from people asking me, in all honesty, whether or not this pandemic is somehow God’s retribution on humanity.  They claim it’s God’s way of “bringing the family back together” as we’re all forced to shelter-in-place, a notion that totally forgets how many families will be devastated by loss of income, or bruised by abusive relationships that go under the radar in these quarantine days.

How tone-deaf can you get?

No, not tone-deaf, idiotic.

The idea that God wreaks pandemics across the world to teach humanity a lesson is plain stupid.  Not only is it theologically abusive, it’s just nonsensical.

If God unleashes pandemics on the world to teach it a lesson, God’s just super ineffective…which, if you claim God as sovereign and all-powerful, doesn’t really make any sense, right?

Apparently the Spanish Flu didn’t accomplish the Almighty’s goal back in 1918, huh?  I mean, the same sort of thing happened then…but I guess it didn’t work.

And the Black Plague didn’t take, either, I guess.  Apparently God has to have another go at it…hopefully this time it’ll stick so we won’t all have to die anymore for God to make God’s point, by this logic.

See, here’s the thing: if you read the scriptures, God’s point is exactly the opposite of this line of thinking. According to the Jesus story, God stands in such solidarity with humanity that God is willing to die for humanity, not the other way around.

And spare me the Biblical proof-texting from the Hebrew scriptures about plagues and wars and death. This blogpost does not have enough bandwidth to give an in-depth Biblical deep-dive into the hows and whys of particular stories and what they mean in context.

Suffice it to say: there is no, absolutely no, legitimate example to point to from scripture that would suggest that the God seen in Jesus would do anything remotely like this, and anyone who tries to say there is hasn’t done their homework and isn’t worth listening to.

Bottom line: this pandemic is not God’s retribution on humanity for anything.  That’s idiotic to suggest.  Let’s cut out all the memes and rants and posts that suggest it is, because they’re not helping the situation. They’re certainly not converting anyone to the faith, and, if I may be so bold, they’re making Christians look like anti-intellectual miscreants.

People are dying. To suggest that they’re dying because God wants to teach the world a lesson makes a terrible situation existentially more painful.

Just stop it.

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Rituals for Surviving Shelter-in-Place

many-candles1Religion, as a whole, knows something very human about us: we desire ritual.

This is true even if you don’t find yourself religious, and even if you find yourself a-religious.

We thrive off of ways to mark the days and the seasons of the Earth, as well as the particular seasons of our lives.

Rituals are a way of reminding humans not only what time it is, but also this deep truth: nothing lasts forever.  Not the good, and not the bad.

Nothing lasts forever.

Our ancestors used to, in the fallow months, take the wheels from their carts, haul them inside, and adorn them with candles.  Every day they’d light a candle, adding to growing, glowing wax, marking the time until work could begin again.  This pre-Christian practice was eventually seized by the church, and this eventually turned into our Advent wreaths that light the path toward Christmas.

Likewise, in Lent, humans have found ways to mark the time before the abundance of Spring.  These practices usually involved some sort of abstinence as a way of drawing attention to the longing deep within us for new life, for newness, for freshness and freedom.

For those of us now stuck at home during this pandemic, the likes of which we haven’t seen in over a Century, a way to survive it with our souls intact might involve this sort of patient practice…especially as we have a habit of losing our patience, and so must cultivate new habits.

One habit a family might adopt would be to find eight candles.  They can be votives to be replaced in individual holders, or eight candles of more substantial measure, able to last through the weeks without changing.

Name the candles, one for each week.  They can be named for a virtue that you hope to practice in a particular week as we wait for the first wave of this pandemic to pass.  Or they might be named for longing or hope that is embedded in your heart in these days.  A sarcastic practitioner may even name them after a cruse word…which, to be honest, is sometimes cathartic, too!  Perhaps each candle has a couple of names, depending on the mood, and depending on the need.

A possible cadence for a Christian family might be:

Perseverance (March 23-March 29)
Conviction (March 30-April 4)
Remembrance (April 5 [Holy Week]-April 11)
New Life Hope (April 12 [Easter]-April 18)
Love of Neighbor (April 19-April 25)
Love of Self (April 26-May 2)
Devotion (May 3-May 9)
Celebration (May 10-Pentecost)

And each week, light a candle in the morning before breakfast, and at night during dinner, or just after.  And as you light it, remind yourself that the growing fire indicates the approaching abatement of this liminal time.

You can accompany each week with a particular reading to hold in front of you.  A possible schedule of readings for the above candles might be:

Week 1: 1 Peter 5:8-10

Week 2: Psalm 69:13-15

Week 3: The Passion from the Gospel of John

Week 4: The Resurrection from the Gospel of John

Week 5: John 20:19-29

Week 6: John 21:1-14

Week 7: Isaiah 43:1-3

Week 8: Acts 2:1-11

For a less traditional grouping of readings, especially for those who may not find their home in the Christian community, or even a church at all, the candles could retain their same theme (as I think they’re universal human themes), but the readings might look something like this:

Week 1: “be easy: take your time. you are coming home. to yourself.” -Nayyirah Waheed, _Nejma_

Week 2: “‘Change and decay–in all around I see,’ we cheerfully sang in my days as a choirboy. Another stanza should have taught us this lesson: it is not only beauty and life that disappear in the cycle of time. Pain too passes, along with heartbreak, fear, and sickness. In a world doomed to fragility, death itself shall someday die.” -Robert Griffin, _In the Kingdom of the Lonely God_

Week 3: “My dear children, perhaps you will not understand what I’m going to say to you now, for I often speak very incomprehensibly, but, I’m sure, you will remember that there’s nothing higher, stronger, more wholesome, and more useful in life than some good memory, especially when it goes back to the days of your childhood, to the days of your life at home. You are told a lot about your education, but some beautiful, sacred memory, preserved since childhood, is perhaps the best education of all.  If a person carries many such memories into life with them, they are saved for the rest of their days. Even if only one good memory is left in our hearts, it may also be the instrument of our salvation one day.” -Fyodor Dostoyevsky, _The Brothers Karamazov_

Week 4: “Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
                                       Answer.
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” -Walt Whitman, _Leaves of Grass_

Week 5: “To love is good; love being difficult. For one human being to love another; that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.” -Rainer Maria Rilke, _Letters to a Young Poet_

Week 6: “Neal: You’re no saint. You got a free cab, you got a free room and someone who will listen to your boring stories. I mean, didn’t you notice on the plane when you started talking, eventually I started reading the vomit bag? Didn’t that give you some sort of clue, like hey, maybe this guy is not enjoying it? You know, everything is not an anecdote. You have to discriminate. You choose things that, that are funny or mildly amusing or interesting. You’re a miracle. Your stories have none of that! They’re not even amusing accidentally. Honey, I’d like you to meet Del Griffith. He’s got some amusing anecdotes for ya. Oh, and here’s a gun so you can blow your brains out. You’ll thank me for it. I-I could tolerate any, any insurance seminar, for days. I could sit there and listen to them go on and on with a big smile on my face. They’d say, “How can ya stand it?” And I’d say, “‘Cause I’ve been with Del Griffith. I can take anything.” You know what they’d say? They’d say, “I know what you mean. The shower curtain ring guy.” It’s like going on a date with a Chatty Cathy doll. I expect you have a little string on your chest. You know, that I pull out and have to snap back. Except that I wouldn’t pull it out and snap it back, you would. And by the way, you know, when, when you’re telling these little stories, here’s a good idea. Have a point. It makes it so much more interesting for the listener!

Del: You wanna hurt me? Go right ahead if it makes you feel any better. I’m an easy target. Yeah, you’re right. I talk too much. I also listen too much. I could be a cold-hearted cynic like you, but I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings. Well, you think what you want about me. I’m not changing. I like me. My wife likes me. My customers like me. ‘Cause I’m the real article. What you see is what you get.” -from “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles”

Week 7: “Listen to the MUSTN’TS, child,

Listen to the DON’TS

Listen to the SHOULDN’TS

The IMPOSSIBLES, the WON’TS

Listen to the NEVER HAVES

Then listen close to me—

Anything can happen, child,

ANYTHING can be.” -Shel Silverstein, “Listen to the Mustn’ts” from _Where the Sidewalk Ends_

Week 8: “We, this people, on a small and lonely planet
Traveling through casual space
Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns
To a destination where all signs tell us
It is possible and imperative that we learn
A brave and startling truth

And when we come to it
To the day of peacemaking
When we release our fingers
From fists of hostility
And allow the pure air to cool our palms

When we come to it
When the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate
And faces sooted with scorn are scrubbed clean
When battlefields and coliseum
No longer rake our unique and particular sons and daughters
Up with the bruised and bloody grass
To lie in identical plots in foreign soil

When the rapacious storming of the churches
The screaming racket in the temples have ceased
When the pennants are waving gaily
When the banners of the world tremble
Stoutly in the good, clean breeze

When we come to it
When we let the rifles fall from our shoulders
And children dress their dolls in flags of truce
When land mines of death have been removed
And the aged can walk into evenings of peace
When religious ritual is not perfumed
By the incense of burning flesh
And childhood dreams are not kicked awake
By nightmares of abuse

When we come to it
Then we will confess that not the Pyramids
With their stones set in mysterious perfection
Nor the Gardens of Babylon
Hanging as eternal beauty
In our collective memory
Not the Grand Canyon
Kindled into delicious color
By Western sunsets

Nor the Danube, flowing its blue soul into Europe
Not the sacred peak of Mount Fuji
Stretching to the Rising Sun
Neither Father Amazon nor Mother Mississippi who, without favor,
Nurture all creatures in the depths and on the shores
These are not the only wonders of the world

When we come to it
We, this people, on this minuscule and kithless globe
Who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger
Yet who petition in the dark for tokens of peace
We, this people on this mote of matter
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe

We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines

When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear

When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.” -Maya Angelou, “A Brave and Startling Truth”

Of course, the imaginative practitioner could incorporate all of these readings, and add to them as desired.

Mark the days, Beloved.  They may not fly, but at least they won’t crawl.