Friday, October 22, 2010

Too Much--Just Not Enough

The LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.” (Genesis 2.16-17)

Trees Talk

Trees talk in the Bible—not audibly, but they routinely tell us about ourselves. They reveal how easily we’re tempted by forbidden fruit. They describe our character. They catch us riding too high for our own good. They invite us into their branches when our only hope of seeing Jesus depends on being lifted above the crowd. They attest to our faith. They predict what happens when we bear bitter fruit and explain how we’re knitted together as one organism. They appear in visions to promise healing. Trees have a lot to say in Scripture and we’ll spend the next few posts listening to them. In this post, we attend to the first talking tree—indubitably the Bible’s best-known tree, the one at the center of our drama, the reason why other lessons from trees are necessary.

The Tree of Knowledge

It stands as the centerpiece of Eden: the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. “Here’s how this works,” God tells Adam and Eve. “Do what you want and you’ll do just fine. You’ll be happy. I’ll be happy. The garden will thrive. We can go on like this forever.” But there’s a catch. (See? It’s gone like that from the beginning. There’s always a catch.) “Just keep away from the Knowledge Tree. I know it’s one-of-a-kind. I know I’ve put it in the middle of everything. I know its fruit looks delicious. But you have to ignore it. Take a bite of its fruit and you will surely die.”

For those who don’t like God too much—the ones who can’t reconcile Who He says He is with His up-front cause-and-effect conditions and judgment—this seems like the first of many examples where He stacks the odds against us. Why put the tree there at all? If we couldn’t have it, why tempt us with it? Why tell us to stay away, subtly planting the idea we should try it to see what happens? And what does He use to leverage His edict? Death—a concept as alien to Adam and Eve as Hell (a.k.a. “The Second Death”) is to most of their offspring. Why, why, why? You don’t have to be disenchanted with God’s methodology to ask these questions. If Eden is supposed to be perfect, it’s fair to question why He introduces a way to potentially ruin it. The answer isn’t buried in our nature, the Tree’s nature, or even nature itself. It’s hidden in plain sight, in the context surrounding all those natures. And it’s pretty basic.

A New Faculty

Outside of God Himself (Who is absolutely perfect), perfection is a conditional quality that can only exist opposite imperfection. In fact, all of creation is conditional. We know, for instance, what light is by what it is not and vice-versa for darkness. We distinguish the elements—land, water, and air—more concretely as not like each other than what they actually are. Organizing the world by opposites is instinctive. It’s inherited from our Creator Who, from His first appearance in Genesis, reveals Himself as a categorical Thinker. Without potential imperfection, sorrow, and death, there is no potential for perfection, joy, and eternal life. So the Knowledge Tree’s potential destruction of perfection isn’t made for that eventuality. Actually, it’s designed to establish perfection, a world of beauty and emotion sustained by instinctive innocence. As Adam and Eve soon learn, however, the slightest taste of knowledge trumps the full flavor of instinct every time. Before they disobey and bite into the Knowledge Tree’s fruit, they sense things rather than know them. They experience the world objectively, without any fear or caution. Once they know, however, they have a new faculty. They can discern good from evil, right from wrong. The author of Genesis says, “The eyes of them both were opened and they knew.” (Genesis 3.7; KJV) The serpent promises they won’t just be surrogates for God, they’ll be like Him in every way and he doesn’t mislead them. God reserves knowledge for Himself but—true to form—His obsession with polarity compels Him to make it solely His by putting it at risk.

A Ruinous Legacy

We were never meant to discern good from evil. It was never God’s intention to burden us with judgment of any kind. His only purpose for creating us in His image and breathing His life into us was to bring Him pleasure by reflecting His goodness in His world. Had Adam and Eve resisted the Knowledge Tree’s temptation, all we see and know about this place and one another would be good. I couldn’t question your making. You couldn’t doubt mine. Each of us would be uniquely shaped, yet we’d intuitively realize God’s reflection equalizes us. Would we still make mistakes? Yes. Innocence doesn’t ensure infallibility. Would we be susceptible to temptation? Yes. Evil’s presence would remain for goodness’s sake. But inability to discern good from evil would relieve our need to apply what we took from the Knowledge Tree to what we experience in the world. Though we would be no less human, weaknesses and vanities that thwart our flesh wouldn’t be perceptible to us. Instead of being victims of sin, we would be vessels of grace—which is what we truly are.

Last week’s observance of John Lennon’s 70th birthday flooded us with replays of “Imagine”—a song I find lamentable for its agnostic premise. Pretending we’re not accountable for good and evil, right and wrong won’t lift the burden of Adam and Eve’s recklessness. If only it were as easy as imagining the tree incident never occurred! But it did and, seen literally or metaphorically, its truth holds. Biting into forbidden fruit taught us too much—just not enough by yielding not one grain of God’s wisdom. The Knowledge Tree reminds us the faculty we use to condemn others was stolen and consumed under Evil’s influence. It’s a fallacy to think sinfully gained knowledge can assess sin. It’s even more foolish to presume knowing what God knows with none of His wisdom qualifies us to judge in His name. That’s why confessing we can’t possibly understand what we know reconciles us to God. It’s not our knowledge that pleases Him, but our desire to be what He created us to be, mirrors of His goodness and vessels of His grace.

(Portions of this post first appeared in Straight-Friendly: The Gay Believer’s Life in Christ in a slightly modified form.)

We stole and consumed the knowledge of good and evil under Evil’s influence. It’s a burden we were never meant to carry, a faculty we’re not sufficiently equipped to use.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

What's in Your Hand?

Moses answered, “What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, ‘The LORD did not appear to you’?” Then the LORD said to him, “What is that in your hand?” (Exodus 4.1-2)

The Catalyst

Last week at A Feather Adrift, Sherry posted a provocative piece about hero-worship run amok called “And Another One Bites the Dust”. The dust-biter in question was NY Jets Quarterback Brett Favre, the latest married sports hero to—in his case, literally—expose his reckless libido. Around the time I read the post, I traded emails with the astonishingly courageous, caring mother of a transgender high school freshman. Our exchanges centered on protecting her son from bullying and potential violence. Understandably, his instincts urge him to be as invisible as possible. Yet as a gay man who survived high school, as well as a former teacher, I encouraged the opposite. “What is he good at?” I asked. “He should make his gifts known and excel at them. That will win him friends, gain his teachers’ respect, and increase his self-confidence.” Bullies prey on loners. But they think twice about attacking kids who have friends and faculty on their side. No doubt he’ll be teased and threatened. Still, it’s far safer and healthier to be visible and known than hiding in anonymity.

In terms of heroism, these two unsung giants dwarf Favre. Though his talents are abundant and he’s parlayed his fame into many noteworthy endeavors, it’s ludicrous to suggest weekly confrontations on a football field remotely compare to the challenges our new friend and her son face daily. As the son matures into an adult who honors his making as an authentic female, they will undergo many tests. They will make huge sacrifices. They know this, because they’ve already done it. But they will succeed because their love for one another and God’s grace will endure. Praying for and thinking about this dynamic duo convinces me makings of legitimate heroism reside in all of us. Finding and nurturing our heroic potential starts with one question: “What are you good at?” Or, to quote the question God uses as the catalyst for Moses’s transformation from homeless outlaw to heroic leader, “What’s that in your hand?”

An Oddball His Whole Life

One might describe the Moses story as a fairy tale that explodes into myth. The front end grips us with primal emotions affixed to the helpless infant miraculously rescued from death by a princess. The back end overwhelms us with the grown man’s amazing bravado as he defies Pharaoh, leads his people out of captivity, and shepherds their 40-year wilderness crossing. The improbabilities on both sides create one of the most riveting tales ever told—which is why the reeds and roaming garner the most attention. Without the mid-section, though, the story falls apart. That’s where Destiny calls and the decisive moment occurs. It’s unfortunate we skate by this part of the saga, because Moses is never more real to us than here. He’s neither helpless nor heroic. He’s ineffably human.

He’s extremely confused about his identity and the bizarre twists of fate that led him to the middle of nowhere. While being groomed as a prince of the world’s most powerful nation, a Hebrew governess (his birth mother) also steeped him in the faith and values of his race. He’s felt like an oddball his whole life. Deep inside, the tug-of-war that began the day Pharaoh’s daughter found him slowly mounts into a full-blown identity crisis. It peaks when Moses sees an Egyptian beat a Hebrew slave. He identifies with the underdog and murders the Egyptian in retaliation. Instead of resolving his conflict, the act confirms he’s too Egyptian for the Hebrews, too Hebrew for the Egyptians. Slaves who witnessed his valor suspect him of ulterior motives; Pharaoh issues a death warrant against him.

After fleeing to Midian, Moses marries the daughter of a pagan priest and names his first son “Gershom,” a Hebrew homonym meaning, “alien in a foreign land.” He supports his family as a shepherd—a vocation his upbringing didn’t prepare him to undertake. The job entails long sojourns to find pasture for flocks he doesn’t own (they’re his father-in-law’s). During one trip, God appears to Moses in a blazing bush, ordering him to return to Egypt and organize a Hebrew revolt. Since the slaves view him suspiciously, he asks, “What if they don’t believe or listen to me and say, ‘The LORD didn’t appear to you’?” God answers with a question: “What’s that in your hand?” It's a staff. God tells him to let it go. It turns into a snake. Naturally, Moses jumps away from it. “Grab its tail,” God says. When Moses picks it up, it returns to a staff. “That ought to cancel any doubts,” He says. (Just in case, however, He gives Moses two more feats to back him up.) And now, having cleared up worries about everyone else, Moses comes clean with his doubts. “I don’t know,” he says. “I’m not much of a talker. You want a charismatic, well-spoken person. I’m not Your guy.” God’s ready with a solution for this, too. He tells Moses to take his brother, Aaron—an articulate priest accustomed to public speaking—as his spokesperson. The rest you know.

Defined by Deficits

Lingering with Moses at this point in his story, we see a man defined by deficits. He has no self-confidence, political backing, cultural security, social standing, financial stability, remarkable talents or skills, and, from all indications, no driving ambition. His appearance isolates him from his people; his turmoil sends him from his adopted home. Dual upbringing, which should equip him with every advantage, proves useless. He ends up a stranger in a strange land, married outside his faith, with children who, by matriarchal lineage, aren’t Jews. Little wonder he’s timid and tongue-tied. But he’s got something. It’s right there in his hand. There God recognizes his heroic potential. Moses uses his staff to corral his flock, steady himself on rugged terrain, fight off predators, clear thickets, and anchor his climb up steep hills. Moses is a shepherd and a shepherd—not a prince or slave—is what God needs.

God asks us, “What’s that in your hand?” All heroes start by answering that question. At first, what we’ve got seems mundane and inconsequential. What we do with it doesn’t become heroic until we recognize deficits that define us give way to powers that transform us. Unconditional love and acceptance is a staff. Faith is a staff. Experience, hospitality, humility, determination, self-honesty, wit, wisdom, empathy, etc.—they’re staffs. We hold makings of heroism in our hands. We just have to see them for what they are and allow God to show us all they can be. What’s in your hand?

Each of us holds makings of heroism in our hands.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Breaking Cycles

In those days people will no longer say, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Instead, everyone will die for his own sin; whoever eats sour grapes—his own teeth will be set on edge. (Jeremiah 31.29-30)

A Toxic Notion

The rendering of Mosaic Law during Israel’s wilderness experience gave birth to a toxic notion we’ve yet to eliminate. It lives today as a proverb: “The parents' sins are visited on the children,” which we take to mean every generation must pay for its ancestors’ mistakes. There’s no getting past the fact God warns of this fate numerous times. It’s literally writ in stone, attached to the Second Commandment forbidding idols: “You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” (Exodus 20.5; emphasis added.) The italicized phrase, word-for-word, appears four more times in the Talmud, with several variants amounting the same thing.

Accepting it as-is startles us, because there’s also no getting past the fact it’s patently unjust and cruel. Why would God punish one’s children (let alone, their children and their children’s children) for parental disobedience? It’s a curse that defies reason and contradicts everything we know God to be. It also discourages us from overcoming our parents’ weaknesses. If we’re going to suffer for their sins, why resist the same impulses that led them astray? This is pretty much how Israel responds to God’s warning. In resigning themselves to bear the brunt of their forebears’ wrongdoing, they grant themselves license to perpetuate their errors. We live with this poisonous mentality even today: “I come from a long line of alcoholics.” “My dad was abusive, which is why I’m a mess.” “My mom has a bad temper, so naturally I fly off the handle.” “Because my family are hypocrites, I want nothing to do with religion.” The sins-of-the-parent script practically writes itself. Since it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, its reliability is guaranteed.

The Parent Card

But there’s a problem with the formula—a big one that highlights how crazy and mixed-up such thinking is. It’s based on reading God’s warning backwards, from the kids’ angle, not the parents’, which blatantly distorts its purpose and meaning. When God says, “Don’t do this, or else the damage will live on for generations,” He’s issuing preventative policy, not punitive threat. What’s more, He isn’t speaking to children at all. He’s talking to parents. He’s stressing their duty to break cycles instead of repeating them. It’s backwards to read these warnings as ground rules for a blame-game, where dropping the Parent Card entitles us to a free pass for our misbehavior. And here’s why: our contribution to cyclical defeatism and disrespect casts us in parental roles. Whether or not we have biological offspring, embracing toxic ideas and behaviors conceives and nurtures a new generation of destructive tendencies. It’s no longer about what we’ve been saddled with. It’s the burden we’re saddling on future lives.

Israel never figures this out. Every time their story takes a terrible turn, they throw up their hands and say, “We knew this would happen, because our parents were so rebellious. It’s not our fault we’re just like them.” It never occurs to them they can break the cycle. It never crosses their minds they suffer because they prefer the blame-game to changing the game. This goes on for centuries, until God finally changes all of the rules. He raises a prophet, Jeremiah, to tell Israel: “We had covenant. We set down terms and conditions. Ever since, you’ve either ignored them or looked for loopholes to flout them. So I’m voiding the old covenant to issue a new one.” No surprise, one of the first loopholes God closes is the sins-of-the-parent excuse. Under the new paradigm, according Jeremiah 31.29-30, “people will no longer say, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ Instead, everyone will die for his own sin; whoever eats sour grapes—his own teeth will be set on edge.” God takes the Parent Card off the table. No more blame-game. But—and this is extremely important—He does not relax His expectation that each generation breaks its predecessors’ deadly cycles. Indeed, he ups the ante to ensure it doesn’t. “Everyone will die for his own sin.”

Sour Grapes

The English idiom “sour grapes” has no connection to this text. It comes from Aesop’s fable about a fox that sees a cluster of grapes. After repeated attempts to get them fail, he gives up, telling himself, “They’re probably not ripe anyway. What do I want with sour grapes?” Jeremiah’s usage of “sour grapes” infers much more than resentful equivocation—though that’s part of it. The person who plucks and eats unripe grapes exhibits a bounty of unhealthy traits: impatience, recklessness, lack of wisdom, distrust of others (who may steal his ripe harvest), poor foresight, and selfishness, along with its twin, self-loathing. The discomfort and embarrassment that come of his foolishness don’t faze him. He makes his own misery knowingly. That Jeremiah sets the statement about fathers eating sour grapes in quotes indicates it’s a popular proverb of his day—his readers’ version of “Like father, like son.” And when he smashes it with “whoever eats sour grapes—his own teeth will be set on edge,” he invokes another popular modern proverb: “Monkey see, monkey do.”

We are not obliged to embrace the fears, prejudices, presumptions, and myths of earlier generations. The onus rests on each of us to evaluate everything we’ve heard, learned, and seen in terms of how truly they reflect God’s expectations and Christ’s teaching. Our parents’ sins are theirs to account for. When we credence them by repeating them or exploit them to excuse our weaknesses, cycles that deeply hurt us will persist. We deserve better than sour grapes. So do those following us. We break cycles of bitterness and failure by claiming Christ’s promise in John 10.10: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” Sweet life, rich life, abundant, healthy life—that’s what the new covenant offers. That’s what breaking destructive, defeatist cycles brings.

Embracing or blaming previous generations’ mistakes perpetuates destructive cycles. God calls us to break them. We do this by accepting Christ’s promise of abundant, healthy life.