No More Scapegoat Jesus!

Today's UPI column

So There I was...

Facing the righteous indignation of an eight year old.

She stormed into the house, dramatically dropped her school bag and then slammed the door. My normally well-behaved and ebullient second grade daughter turned on me with eyes full of rage, nothing less than rage.

“What’s the matter hon? You’re a few minutes late.”

“Who? Did what?”
“THE TEACHER. Ian and John were talking, but she punished us all! She made us stay after. SHE MADE US PUT OUR HEADS ON OUR DESKS!

I started as brief explanation of classroom management and why a teacher might try the admittedly lame tactic of using group pressure to control the few bad apples. Then I stopped. She was having none of it. She wasn’t mad at the bad boys. She was furious with the misadministration of justice. I asked her if she wanted me to talk to the teacher. She wanted me to talk to the principal. She wanted me to get the teacher fired. She knew to her marrow that punishing the innocent for the sins of the guilty was injustice of cosmic proportions. She couldn’t believe that they would let someone with such an obviously faulty moral compass teach children.

I knew right then that transmitting any semblance of Christianity to this child was going to be a challenge. Because sometime, someplace some Sunday School teacher was going to tell this kid that the core of the Christian message was that she, along with everyone else, was guilty, that God needed to punish somebody, because that was just how it was, somebody had to be punished, but that it didn’t really matter that you got the right person, so the good news was that somebody really good, could step up and get punished in your place and then you would get off Scott free. I knew this kid would be buying none of that.

Unfortunately I could not put the kid in stasis until I figured this one out. I started then to try and find different ways to talk about God, Jesus, and why death and resurrection are an important part of the story. It has taken me a couple of decades. The child is grown and gone. I am still working on it, but I have some handles.
The break for me started to come when I began to look seriously at the metaphors used for Christ. The most important one was this “Behold, the Lamb that takes away the sins of the world.” This phrase comes from the earliest explainers of the Christ story, the Apostles, those who knew Him, or those who sat at the feet of the first witnesses. They were all Jews. They were using a Jewish metaphor. The temple sacrifice, which was especially poignant for those who had witnessed the destruction of the temple in 70 AD and the end of the animal sacrifice system. Jesus, they explained, was God’s Lamb. Which brings us right back to he was punished for your sins. Unless you really go back and look at the instructions for that temple rituals.

So I spent some time in the Pentateuch, looking at the instructions. The sacrifices are all about community and restoring community. Bad behavior negatively affects community. Bad enough behavior breaks community. There is an element of justice, and even in the last resort, banishment from community. There is also a way to restore community. I discovered this when I found out the difference between the scapegoat and the lamb. Nobody talked much about the scapegoat in the church I grew up in. Once a year the priest was to do a ritual, in which all the sins of all the people are symbolically placed upon the back of a goat and the goat is pushed out the gates into the wilderness, presumably to meet a bad fate. What happens to the goat doesn’t really matter. The punishment is being sent away from the community. The sins get sent away, not the people.

The lamb is a whole different deal. The lamb is not punished, the lamb is consumed. The lamb is fit to be eaten, fit to be taken in. The lamb is giving your best stuff to the community to show that your intention is to be restored. The lamb is making amends, not escaping judgment. The lamb is taking responsibility. The lamb is investing in community.

Then the lightbulb went on. I had been taught a scapegoat Jesus theology mislabeled as lamb theology. Jesus was the best God had, invested in us, not punished for us. Jesus was fit to be consumed, taken in, this was the message He himself taught at the last chance dinner. The Romans thought death was a punishment. God is not just a bigger badder Caesar. God understands that death is the universal human experience, and that joining us in even death is a connection of cosmic order. The ultimate community building experience.

But just wait one heretical minute! Did not Paul talk about “propitiation for our sins”? Yes, he did. I think Paul was spending way too much time hanging around with the Romans, I think it was starting to wear off on him.

So I don’t believe in scapegoat Jesus anymore. I don’t believe He was punished for my sins. I believe He taught me what to do about my sins, recognize them, send them away (i.e. stop) and then re-invest in community with my best stuff. Make my own amends wherever possible, and trust in the eternal resources that He made possible by joining my community to cover what I cannot. Come back, it works. Come as often as necessary.

So what happened to the indignant little girl? She doesn’t sit much under the teachers of orthodox Christendom. I think she is a Quaker in her heart, I know she is a friend of Jesus, she is earning her bread as a church secretary for the Lutherans, probably printing up those Lenten materials as we speak. But most tellingly she is training to be a teacher.

I think she has the right temperament for it.


# 96 God in Us

So There I was...

Front row center for the first week of Seminary - Beginning Greek class to be specific. I was all jacked up for this class because though I do not have any great giftedness for languages I did have interest. I was one of those geeky little kids who tried to learn Elvish after my first reading of Tolkein. I had self-taught myself a little Latin. I went to a college where they made you read Sophocles in the orginal. Now, many years later with a much rustier brain I was going back into the Greek to read the New Testament. I knew that Jesus himself probably did not speak in Greek to the disciples - most likely Aramaic, or Hebrew in Temple - but I was about to get a lot closer than to his words than the King’s English would ever allow. I was excited.

I noticed that some of my fellow students seemed nearly as stirred up but their excitement looked more like agitation to me.

We were in the First Chapter of the Gospel Of John.“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God… and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” This is some of the most beautiful poetry ever written, and some of the simplest Greek in the New Testament. Which is why our brilliant teacher had taken us there on the first day. She knew that she could get us through it and that we would feel like translators right off the mark. She wisely also let us bump right into the frustrations of translation on that first day. The bigger words were easy. The verbs she just gave to us on that day, but she let us struggle a bit with the little words, the propositions, ‘in,’ ‘with,’ ‘among.’ She explained to us that many of the words had multiple meanings and that the translator had to use, wisdom, discernment and context to decide which word to supply to the text.

This is when some of my fellow students started to get nervous. They also were there to get closer to the words of Jesus, but they were hoping to ease their frustration with the multiple English translations and find out what the ‘correct’ answer was. They were searching for certainty, and the professor kept bogging them down in discenment. And they were discovering fast that the little words could change the meaning in a big way. "The Word became flesh and dwelt AMONG us." can also be translated "The Word became flesh and dwelt IN us.”
In fact, IN is the more common translation of the Greek EN than AMONG. The students saw the theological conundrum of the choice almost immediately. They asked the teacher for the right answer. She told them why most translators chose ‘among’ over ‘in’, but allowed as how ‘in’ was also a correct choice. Some of my fellow students started to breathe funny. They did not like the idea of two correct choices. They had not come to find a deeper level of mushy, they wanted solid. She gave them ‘context’ and ‘translator’s choice.’ Smoke started to come out of some of their ears. Some of them had spinners for eyes. Some of them started making plans right then and there to transfer to the Baptist seminary across town. I watched them for a minute with amusement, fundamentalists often amuse me. But them I got lost in the theological possibilities.

Prepositions of place count. Whether God is near you, or in you matters, a lot. Since babyhood I had been told that Jesus was near me, knocking on the door of my heart, wanting to come in. John the Evangelist seemed to be implying in a big way, in many places, that God, and Christ were already in me, in everybody, and had been since I came into the world and possibly before. That Jesus had planted the seed of Himself in me, in everyone, and was sitting there waiting for the right conditions to germinate.

This started a bout of thinking that continues in me to this day. You have to be in a kinda strong and grounded place to work on this puzzle. You have to be pretty comfy with paradox. The Apostle Paul talked about riddles wrapped in enigmas viewed in murky mirrors – yeah, that kind of clear.

Here is the problem. The kingdom of Heaven is in me. It was in me in some form before I recognized it, and with my intention, called it to quickness. But it is also all around me, I can see it and observe it in my garden and in the stars. And is it also among us – in community with all its frustrations and foibles. I couldn’t get more than a heartbeat away from the kingdom if I tried, it is that close.

And yet, Jesus said that He stands at the door and knocks, waiting, beyond some kind of barrier. The door is a metaphor for some kind of barrier. My fundamentalist childhood said that I was depraved. Fallen. That evil was inside me and that Goodness had to ask to come in.

In the theological metaphor that is “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” The Apostle Joss sets things up where Vampires/evil cannot walk into the home/heart uninvited. Humans carry their glory and sin and possibility of redemption with them wherever they go. God is already in the house, he came in with you, evil has to ask. Joss is fairly Gnostic. Joss could be burned at the stake in certain inquisitions.

Me too. I am a Quaker.

When I face theological conundrums, I try and hold them as precious and deny none of it. But when I have to make a functional decision, my experience of God trumps dogma and exegesis. And this I know to be true. When I first called out to Christ as a knowing adult, and sought His presence, He answered not from a place external to me, but from inside my soul. I work for the Kingdom, I fight the Lamb’s War with the presumption that Christ is ahead of me working IN everyone. All I have to do is find where He is working and assist.

I have met evil, but I have never experienced it as internal. It is always dissonant. Always wrong. Always against who I was meant to be. Evil talks to me from outside. Christ talks to me from inside. I do have troubles sometimes with my listening, but I don’t have a problem confusing the two.

This has made some startling differences in the way I do evangelism.

I cannot “Bring anyone to Christ.” He is already there. No one is “lost.” He knows precisely where they are and what they need. I don’t have to spend any prayer time, any worship time, inviting Him to come – we can just get on with it. I do not have to beg Him to hear my prayer, He cannot fail to hear it. Do you know how much time this saves?

So what can I do? I can preach the Good News. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. As close as your own palm print actually. I can fan the burning embers of desire for faith into crackling little flames. I can tell people the truth about who they really area and what they were put here to do. I can participate in the laboratory of sanctification that is spiritual community. I can walk the roads of my vicinity looking in the ditches for the wounded and dying. And sometime I can stand out on the porch with the vampires and back them off a bit so that the people in the house can enjoy their redemption and do their work in peace.

And I have found that the paradoxes and conundrums become precious mysteries to explore when I have time, not problems that cause my hard drive to smoke.

It’s a good deal.


Hillbilly Roots

today's UPI Column #95 of 100

So There I was...

In the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, pastor of a small country church that came complete with a bluegrass band. And this city-bred, rock and roll generation woman felt completely at home.

You see I have hillbilly roots, and I am telling you, that is a thing that Miss Clairol cannot touch! What strikes me as unlikely is the way that they managed to keep it from me for all those years.

Tyre and Kezia Crawley lived in the hills of Northern Kentucky. Kezia was Tyre’s fourth wife. Life in those hills was hard on the women. But a man needed a wife and Kezia needed a home. Tyre was in his late sixties when he took Kezia to wife. She bore him four children, the last when he was well into his eighties. That child had white haired half-siblings before he was born. She sang him to sleep with tunes carried by her people from the hills of Scotland, the echo of pipes in her lilting voice. Tyre was a preacher and a farmer and consequently a very poor man. His most dear possession was a fiddle. He preached a fiery Gospel, but played a heavenly tune. My grandmother Irene was his next to last child, born before the turn of the 20th century. She knew the feel of hard work, and the sound of all day singings, and the consequences of sin. Shoes, machines and electricity were largely unknown until she herself was nearly a woman.

The Hell-fire preaching prepared her well her for the terror of the day her mother died. The kerosene lantern exploded just after dark, burning her mother beyond healing or prayer. The nine-year-old girl took her little brother out under the grape arbor and hid. The last song she heard her mother sing was a God-begging scream as the women coated her with hopeless ointments. The screams stopped just before daybreak. As the sun rose the girl swore she would get off that mountain somehow, to a place where a woman could live. Then the girl carried the toddler back into the house and started her new life, cooking and cleaning for her aged father, who was finally beyond the ability to get a new wife. When he died three years later, Irene was sent across the river to relations up in Illinois. Stiff new shoes carried her to school and away from the hills. She sang in church, but stately hymns, not the hillbilly songs and calls of her mother’s kin. She held off marriage until she found a promising young man, home from France who took her into a fine Methodist parsonage. Her dresses and hats were simple and Christian, but she held herself with a certain kind of Sunday perfection every day of the week. Hardly anyone noticed that when they preached about the fires of Hell, her lips clenched and her eyes grew dark. She raised four children to be fine, educated, citizens of the town; three of the four, college-bound. All of them saved, none headed towards fire. She kept them away from the hills and hillbillies. She pointed their eyes north. She lived a good life, but she died of breast cancer because somebody told her that the only cure involved burning.

My mother was Irene’s third child, Bernice. A gifted musician, trained from infancy to be the wife of a minister. Piano lessons and womanly skills. She knew her father’s family, and some of her mother’s siblings, but they never talked about the old folks, or the hills. One of her uncles had an old fiddle, but her mother didn’t like to hear it played, and shushed the hill stories he delighted in feeding the little ones.

Bernice was sent to the Bible College up in Chicago, to pick out an educated preacher for a husband. But one summer the school sent her on a mission trip to a foreign land called Appalachia. My mother was shocked by her own mother’s opposition to the trip. Irene would have rather had her daughter cross the seas to China than to head into those hills. But my mother went in and up and came out again, appalled by the poverty and ignorance that she saw. Broken hearted at the sight of shoeless children and toothless women. Disturbed by the strange music that haunted her dreams.

Mother couldn’t find a preacher to suit her, and wouldn’t come home from the city. She worked, and lived independently. Eventually she gave her heart to a city man, a man who had spent more hours dancing at the roller rink than in a church. She tamed him, of course, and played the organ at the church while he led the singing - three hymns and a ‘special song’. She gave him three children and they educated us better than either of their parents had known. She made sure that her only daughter had piano lessons, and learned Beethoven and Bach, how to dress and how to cook, and how to run the women’s missionary society. She prayed for grandchildren raised in an even better parsonage than the one that had cradled her.

I was too rebellious to be sent to the Christian school in Indiana, and ran off and married a young man just out of the Navy. My mother did not approve, but forgave me when I went back to church and gave her grandbabies. But my house lacked music, and my dreams had songs I couldn’t sing. A woodworking friend offered to build me a dream, and I asked for a hammered dulcimer, and then I borrowed an Autoharp, and I hung out with fiddle players, and mandolin players. And I called my mom and said I had discovered Blue Grass. I asked for her old hymnals. She was mystified. I couldn’t stop - it fed something old in me, and I wrote to my mother’s eldest sister, the one who lived on the farm, the one who hadn’t gone to college. I asked for the oldest stories, and she told me about Kezia. I was the one who told my mother.

She died a few years back, from the cancer; she took her chemo, but turned down the radiation. About that time, my elder brother, the professor of computer sciences, walked into a shape note ‘sing’. “All day singing, supper on the grounds.” Now he and his wife will drive across four states to sing the tunes carried by the highlanders to different hills.

You see, we have hillbilly roots.

And Miss Clairol cannot touch them.


A League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

This week's UPI column for my friends at Anawim

So There I was...

Struggling with the hymns. You know what I mean; all I had to do was see the title after the worship leader called out the number, and a groan came up within me. “Not that old Clichéd rag! – oh spare me.” Haunted Hymns. Hymns I could only hear in voices that I no longer wanted to listen to. Voices that brought back so many fundamentalist memories that I had worked hard at putting outside the garden gate. Bloody hymns – Lambs bleeding and dying at every turn. I had long ago given up the slaughterhouse metaphors as not relevant to my life.

But I was the speaker at this Christian retreat, and walking out of the room, while it would have been tolerated, would have caused concern among the brethren. And they were brethren. I was the only woman within shouting distance.

“Blessed Assurance, Jesus is mine! …
This is my story – This is my song
Praising my Savior – all the day long.”

George Beverly Shea, Billy Graham’s worship leader always pronounced it
Stow-Ree, and drawled it out nice and slow – it rhymed with Glow-ree. I can’t hear that song without hearing George. I tried to drag myself back from the stadium of thousands to the small circle of men. I looked at the present leader. He didn’t look like George, he didn’t sound like George. He was younger and lankier, and he sported a motorcycle jacket, soulpatch and some hipster eyewear. Boy did he have a story. A story that involved pretty severe, unwanted alienation from the people who loved him and whom he loved. A story that involved a stint in the summer camp for the criminally inclined that some people call prison. A story about Jesus, whom he just couldn’t quit.

“Oh, How I Love Jesus … the sweetest name on Earth
It tells me what my father hath in store for me every day
And tho’ I tread a darksome path, Yields sunshine all the way.
Oh How I Love Jesus, because He first loved me.”

And then I am pulled from the present back to a hot summer camp meeting under the trees. Mosquitoes whining at the screens and nasal-voiced old women singing their love for their master. Those old women infected me with a virus of faith, and I caught their vision for preaching. But they didn’t prepare me for the fact that they were sending me out into a world where many people would simply deny the fact that a female could have a genuine call to preaching the Gospel. I have sat more times than I wish to count with people who looked me in the eyes and said that I did not exist - that there was no such thing as a God-ordained female minister. The choices were delusional or liar. A very weird and discouraging situation. But not one of those folks ever told me that I could not be a Christian - That there was no such thing as a female Christian. The men sitting around me had lived through that level of denial. They are all gay men. And they are all Christians, but they have been told for most of their lives that those two things are mutually exclusive. They have had their foundational reality rejected, again and again.

So I came and told them that each and every one of them was here on planet Earth on assignment from God, and that they needed all of themselves to stay on task. They needed to be integrated to do it. - that their gender, their orientation, their history, or the opinions of the world had no power to stop them. They choose to believe me, because their very own Spirits shouted that it was true. Music to their ears.

“Oh Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder,
consider all the worlds Thy hands have made …
Then sings my soul…
How Great Thou art!”

There are lots of kinds of worlds beyond and beside planets and galaxies. There are the infinite worlds that each human child co-creates with God by treading a path from the Eternal Heart, into a womb and a body and a time and a place and through and life and eventually back to God. We come into the world all but spiritually deaf and blind. With only echoes of glory stored in our souls. We walk through our childhoods, needing to be told who we are and what our purpose is. We need acceptance, encouragement and nurture. We need example and model. We need the company of saints. We need comrades. We need a band of brothers.

But some of us get abuse and torment. Some of us get fed a steady diet of lies about who we are and our place. Some of us learn to hide rather than to shine. But against all odds, some of us believe anyway. Some of us keep looking. Some of us refuse to quit and die. Some of us keep seeking until we are found.

This is a persistent human story that causes awe among the angelic cohort who have never lived a moment without a direct connection to God, who have never been denied, never marginalized, never oppressed, never abused, never living a moment without knowing who they are and what they are supposed to do.

I looked around me and I saw 20 men – old and young, rich and poor, educated and not, white and blue collars, with challenges, with disabilities, with histories.

I saw heroes; survivors of trials, defeaters of lies, defenders of truth. Men with the superpowers of forgiveness, resilience, persistence, repentance and recovery. Men who are taking up their tasks with courage and faith, determined to judge themselves only by the simple question of whether they were obedient to their assignment today. Applying grace to their failures. Determined to do as well or better tomorrow. Leaning to judge others – not at all.

And when, after the singing, after the scripture, after a lovely Quaker silence, after all the ancient, beautiful, bloody, broken words, they came around with the bread and the wine, then the brother spoke to each brother, called each by name and said “Child of God, this is the body and blood of Christ – NEVER forget how much you are loved!” Then they came and said, “Sister Peggy, Child of God, This is the body and blood of Christ, Never forget how much you are loved.”

Once again I took Christ and Christ took me, in the presence of heroes and saints.
I won’t forget.
And I heard the voices of Angels Singing “Holy, Holy, Holy,”
and saints singing -

“Brethren we have met to worship and adore the Lord our God.
Will you pray with all your power while I try and preach the Word
All is vain unless the Spirit, Of the Holy One comes down.
Brethren pray and Holy Manna will be scattered all around.”
Holy Manna Indeed,
Thank-you brothers.