Monthly Archives: October 2013

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The seven gods who rule the world were born when God laughed. …After he had burst out laughing, light appeared. …He burst out laughing a second time: the waters were everywhere. At the third burst of laughter, Hermes appeared; at the fourth, [generation]; at the fifth, destiny; at the sixth, time. Then, before the seventh laugh, God had a tremendous inspiration, but he laughed so hard that he cried, and from his tears the human soul was born.

This is a translation of an Egyptian myth, which I found here, by Stephen Nichols in the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory. (I’ve changed ‘creation’ to ‘generation’ as the translation of the French “la génération” that he footnotes as his source, because I think ‘generativeness’ is at the heart here, not the static ‘stuff’ of creation.)

Hermes is the god of shepherds, land travel, merchants, weights and measures, oratory, literature, athletics and thieves, and known for his cunning and shrewdness. Most importantly, he is the messenger of the gods. (lifted from here). I like the way Wikipedia puts it: “Hermes is a god of transitions and boundaries.” He stands at the boundaries, not so much to enforce them as to transverse them. He’s the go-between. The boundaries are where play happens, where ‘is’ and ‘as if’ meet, where the sacred touches the ordinary.

I wonder what it felt like to live with this as one’s story of origins, as the story that tells its tellers who they are and what kind of world they find themselves in. If the world is born in laughter, then there is something playfully subversive about it. It doesn’t pay to be too solemn. When confronted with chaos, we laugh. Not the laugh of derision or cynicism, nor the laughter of madness, but a playful laugh. We play, and watch with delight as something new emerges. I love that human beings are an idea of God so ridiculously wonderful that God cries with laughter. We are the result of tears, but not of despair. It reminds me of the words of a song by Mary Chapin Carpenter: “I can cry until I laugh or laugh until I cry. So cut the deck right in half, I’ll play from either side.”

It is interesting to compare this to what we find in Genesis 1. There we also have the number 7, and God creating by expelling breath, but there is it a word, not a laugh. There’s also the creation of water, the setting of the boundaries, the marking of time (through the luminaries set in the firmament on the fourth day), the generativity bestowed on earth, plants and animals (let the earth bring forth …. With their seed in them …. Be fruitful and multiply ….) It is much more solemn, though. In Genesis 1 God knows what God is doing, and step by step executes the plan to make order out of chaos and to fill the void with life. In the Egyptian myth the creative process seems much more like we as human being might experience it. Out of delight, something new emerges. The Egyptian myth gives us another model of creativity, one that puts play and discovery and wonder at the heart of the process. It is like reading Genesis 1 through the lens of Proverbs 8, and identifying with Wisdom rather than God (which makes sense, since we are creatures before we are creators.) In Proverbs 8, Wisdom plays at God’s side and in the world, delighting in creation and in human beings. The bridge between the divine and the human realm is Wisdom at play.

The seven gods …

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I recently started working through “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron. It is subtitled “A Course in Discovering and Recovering Your Creative Self”  It’s been around a while (since 1993). A few years back someone who was an enormous help to me through a difficult period introduced me to another of her books – “Walking in this World”. Here are the spiritual principles which she describes as ‘the bedrock on which creative recovery and discovery can be built.”: (I’m quoting directly from The Artist’s Way, page 3)

1. Creativity is the natural order of life. Life is energy: pure creative energy.

2. There is an underlying, in-dwelling creative force infusing all of life – including ourselves.

3. When we open ourselves to our creativity, we open ourselves to the creator’s creativity within us and our lives.

4. We are, ourselves, creations. And we, in turn, are meant to continue creativity by becoming creative ourselves.

5. Creativity is God’s gift to us. Using our creativity is our gift back to God.

6. The refusal to be creative is self-will and is counter to our true nature.

7. When we open ourselves to exploring our creativity, we open ourselves to God: good orderly direction.

8. As we open our creative channels to the creator, many gentle but powerful changes are to be expected.

9. It is safe to open ourselves up to greater and greater creativity.

10. Our creative dreams and yearnings come from a divine source. As we move toward our dreams, we move toward our divinity.

I’d prefer to rephrase that last point to refer to the image of God within us instead of ‘divinity’, but that’s maybe just theological semantics. I think that these principles resonate with the story of creation in Genesis 1, where the living God not only creates life, but also imbues the creation with the ability to pro-create and co-create, and blesses, and pronounces ‘It is very good!”

The Artist’s Way

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For play is the laboratory of the possible. To play fully and imaginatively is to step sideways into another reality, between the cracks of ordinary life. Although the ordinary world, so full of cumbersome routines and responsibilities, is still visible to us, its images, strangely, are robbed of their powers. Selectively, players take the objects and ideas of routine life and hold them aloft. Like wilful children, they unscrew reality or rub it on their bodies or toss it across the room. Things are dismantled and built anew.

T.S, Henricks, Play Reconsidered. Sociological Perspectives on Human Expression (University of Illinois Press 2006) p1

For play is the…

Engaging the Old Testament Story

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We all love stories. They entertain us, move us, make us laugh and cry. And they shape us, they tell us who we are. Think of the stories that we want our children or grand-children, our nieces and nephews, to hear. Because they are our children we want them to know the stories of our family, and of our local community. We want them to know the stories of our cultural heritage, and we want them to know the stories of our faith.

I drive my children crazy. One of the ways I do that is the way I watch films with them. I almost never sit through a whole DVD. I pop in and out picking up threads of the story until right near the end when I get absorbed into the drama. Then I sit down and keep asking them – “is that the guy who owned the shop? Am I supposed to like that person? Why’s he saying that? Why’s she crying?” It doesn’t take long before someone tries to shut me up by saying “Watch it from the beginning!” I wonder if that isn’t how we interact with the Christian story? We join part way through. We’re captivated by the climax, where Jesus rises from the dead, and we know the stories of his birth, and his miracles. We also know bits of the earlier story – Moses and the ten commandments, David and his harp, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. But those are free-floating images, which we battle to fit into the overall plot, and we’re not quite sure of how we get from there to Jesus. And maybe that’s one reason why its sometimes hard to get from the story of Jesus to our story in the here and now.

The Old Testament is full of all kinds of things – there are weird laws, beautiful psalms (provided we skip through some of the more vindictive sentiments expressed in some of them), confusing prophecies, lots of heroes like Samson and Joshua who do different things. But underlying it all, the Old Testament is the story of the people of God. As an Old Testament scholar, what matters most to me is that story, and how that story is the backdrop and first part of the story of Jesus, and how that story, as it interacts with my story, shapes me as a member of the people of God.

The story is of a world that is given as gift by a Creator who blesses the creation with the ability to co-create, a world which is beautiful, but also fragile and fractured, a world in which we experience both connection and alienation, among ourselves, within our self, and with those who are different from us. God begins the story, and God won’t allow our stubbornness, sinfulness or stupidity to derail it. So God calls one family to journey with God. That one family and their children and children’s children will come to know God, and how to live in a way that promotes the full flourishing of humanity along with the whole of creation, so that they can become a channel through which the gracious, giving God can bless all the families of the earth. 

 And so the journey begins with Abraham. Not too far into the journey, the people of God experience oppression in Egypt, which provides the setting for their experience of the power of God to set them free. This story of the Exodus becomes their foundational story. They are set free from slavery, from the systems of power that dehumanize them in order to live freely as the people of God. The laws that they are given at Sinai are not there to enslave them all over again, but to guide them into a life lived in freedom that respects the freedom of others and that does not result again in the enslavement of the poor by the powerful.

The people of God find it too hard to live in that freedom under God, and so they ask for kings to lead them. There are a few good kings like David, but even good kings play politics and are tempted by power. The story of the people of God becomes the story of a state struggling with issues of social justice and covenant faithfulness, with prophets calling them back to the vision of the Exodus. The people of God live out their story against the backdrop of powerful empires that threaten to engulf them. They find it so hard to life faithfully and trustfully in freedom. Their elite choose to ignore the voice of God’s messengers, and instead play the games of power. They lose, and it looks like they might have lost everything. But in this dark time of loss, they begin to discover again something of the truths of the journey with God that their fathers and mothers knew. The God who led them out of Egypt leads them out of this exile back to their land where they begin to rebuild life out of the ashes of their old life. The story continues, on in to the New Testament, with the coming of Jesus, son of Abraham, son of David. And it continues today in the story of God’s people in their communities throughout the world, in the 21st century, struggling to live faithfully, tempted by power or frustrated by its lack, feeling overwhelmed by economic, political and cultural forces, and yet looking for and finding God’s fingerprints in the details of our lives, learning to trust, to build and rebuild. The journey with God continues.

Praying in Dark Times

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If you want to know how to pray, read the Psalms. They are the song- and prayer-book of the people of God. There are different types of psalms to give expression to different experiences. One of the most common types of psalm is the lament, which is a psalm to be prayed in the midst of a crisis. These psalms all follow a similar structure, and by paying attention to that structure we can learn something about how to pray authentically in dark times.

The lament psalm always begins with an INVOCATION, in other words with a plea addressed to God to get God’s attention. It is often phrased as a plea for God to listen, or to take note of the psalmist. It is often desperate, sometimes accusatory – why are you ignoring me? – but it is always addressed directly to God. And when the sufferer only experiences the absence of God, even then the cry to God is flung into the silence: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?” (Psalm 22:1)

The psalmist then does two related but distinct things: she or he complains, and she or he petitions God. The COMPLAINT uses statements and descriptive language to present the crisis. Here the psalmist does not ask God for anything but dwells on the situation and the pain and anger it evokes, describing it to God. PETITION refers to the requests that are made of God, often in the form of strong demands. God is asked, often told, to do something about the situation. Complaint and petition often alternate through the psalm.

There is an element in every lament psalm which, until you understand what it is doing there, looks out of place. This is the STATEMENT OF CONFIDENCE. In the middle of pouring out a complaint to God, the psalmist will declare trust in God and confidence in God’s goodness. This statement of confidence serves as a reminder of the God that has been experienced in the good times, and is the reason for the psalmist’s hope in the dark times.

Often a lament psalm will conclude with a VOW OF THANKSGIVING. “Lord, when you have delivered me from my troubles, I will declare your praises in the assembly.” This is not an attempt to bargain with God, or to twist God’s arm by promising to do something in return. It is another way of expressing confidence in God, as the psalmist looks forward to the time when God will have delivered them, and they will be able to stand up and give public testimony to that. These two aspects help to situate the psalmist’s plight within the wider narrative of their story with God. The world may be a chaotic place now, but there have been times, and there will be again, where life is lived in God’s light, joy and peace.

That structure gives us a model for our own prayers in dark times. First, the invocation: If we are feeling God-forsaken, then we would be lying if we began our prayer: “Oh Lord, I thank you that you always hear me.” We may believe intellectually that it is true, but if it is not our lived experience at that moment, then it is not a heartfelt cry. The invocations in the lament psalms model how to fling a bridge across the chasm that sometimes opens up between God and us in times of crisis – talk to God, and talk honestly. Beg and plead, accuse and cajole until you feel that God is listening. Find that connection.

Petition tends to come easily in a time of crisis, but we must not forget the importance of the complaint. We have to stay with the problem, acknowledging both what is happening and how it is affecting us. Complaint is more than just getting things off our chest or having a pity party; it is acknowledging our crisis and its effect in the presence of God. A word about petition: Some petitions in the psalms sound harsh, like asking God to destroy our enemies. Should Christians pray this sort of thing? Don’t think of the petitions primarily as suggestions to God about how to get us out of our crisis. They are cries rooted in our anguish and directed toward God. If we ask God too quickly to bless our enemies, we are probably fooling ourselves and connecting from the level of where we think we should be rather than where we actually are. And that is something the lament psalms don’t do. That howl of rage directed to God could be the only authentic reaction available to us. If we get it out we can, with God’s help, move beyond it.

When talking to God in dark times, remember to look back with gratitude and forward with hope. Reflect on the good times. And spend some time looking forward to when we will be able to look back in amazement at how God has brought us through.

Job’s Friends, or how not to do theology

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Job’s Friends, or how NOT to do theology

Suffering, loss of meaning and the felt absence of God aren’t just philosophical and theological problems; they are existential crises that we have to live through. How we can hold on to our faith and draw strength from it in dark times? There are ways of trying to make meaning out of darkness in the light of our faith which are empowering, but there are also ways of doing it that are damaging to us and to others.  In that enigmatically fascinating piece of Scripture, the book of Job, Job’s friends show us how NOT to talk for and about God when faced with suffering and the loss of meaning.

To be called a “Job’s comforter” is not a compliment! In the book of Job we read of a righteous man by that name who loses everything he has, including his children and his health. When his friends hear of it they come to comfort him. They aren’t there to gloat – their genuine concern is shown by the way in which they are willing to sit with him in silence for seven days. But then Job breaks the silence by cursing the day of his birth. His pain wells up into bitter and anguished speech. The friends begin to answer him and engage him in conversation. But the more they speak, the angrier he gets. They become angry in turn, until the whole conversation becomes a slinging match of mutual recriminations. They started off gently enough, but before long they are accusing Job of all kinds of terrible crimes which the reader knows are simply not true. Image

What is going on here? Job and his friends have both been working from similar theological assumptions – that God, being just and all-powerful, rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. They believe in God’s sovereignty and in God’s goodness. Now that Job is suffering so terribly, they assume that he must have done something wrong. Fortunately they also believe in God’s mercy, so they suggest to Job that he repent in order to be forgiven and restored by God. Job is convinced of his innocence and so refuses to repent. Instead he accuses God of cruelty and injustice, which shocks his religious friends. On the face of it, what the friends say about God seems like good enough theology, whereas Job makes some fairly hectic accusations against God. Yet at the end of the book, God says (twice) to the friends: “I am angry with you … for you have not spoken rightly concerning me, as has my servant Job.”

Why does their ‘good theology’ make God angry? Their theology is very neat and tidy, but it puts God in a box and blinds them from seeing the truth of Job’s situation. They know Job, and how righteous he is, yet by the end of their dialogue, they are counting up a whole litany of sins which they have convinced themselves he has committed. They think that they need to falsely accuse Job in order to justify God. Protecting God’s righteousness by lying and attacking a person in pain … there’s something very wrong here!

Theology at its best gives us ways of speaking that open us up to the awesome mystery of God and of life. At its worst, it is an attempt to remake reality in a way that suits us, whatever the cost to others. Often our theology is somewhere in between, an attempt to make God and our own lives safer and more predictable. That sounds like a harmless enough thing to be at, until we see the catastrophic effects that it can have on a person like Job.

Put yourself into the friends’ shoes for a while. When they are confronted with Job’s suffering, they are able to be sympathetic until he starts talking. When the conversation begins they feel like they need to offer some explanation and give him some advice. (I so know the feeling!) They are searching for a narrative to give some meaning to his suffering. But at the same time they want to resist Job’s chaos. They don’t want it to touch their own lives. They like believing that God blesses the righteous, because they live good lives, and they are blessed. Imagine for a moment that what Job is saying is true – that he has done nothing wrong, and yet his world has been shipwrecked. That would mean that they are vulnerable too – if it could happen to Job, then it could just as easily happen to them. That possibility is so terrifying that they will compound the suffering of terrified Job rather than admit to it. No wonder God is angry with them.

What should the friends have done? It is hard to know. What Job wished they had done was to be a sympathetic presence for him. If it were my friend suffering, I hope I could find the courage to walk alongside them into the murky darkness, to face down my own anxiety that makes me instinctively pull away into the safer territory of platitudes so that I’d be able to stay fully present to them.

There are a few things we can learn from Job’s friends about how NOT to talk for and about God. First, beware the neat and tidy theological explanation. Life is messy, and we cannot reduce God’s ways to simple formulae. Second, don’t feel the need to justify God; we can never fully comprehend what God is doing so we shouldn’t have the audacity to argue God’s case. Third, the importance of self-reflection; sometimes our theological explanations are more about keeping life meaningful for ourselves than about genuinely helping the other. Finally, never use theology to filter out the difficult aspects of life. If our talk about God divorces us from reality instead of immersing us more fully in it, then it is not true, however correct it may sound.