Friday, January 13, 2012

S*it Lutherans Say

A quick update on what's going on in my life right now: Our Annus Horribilis (look it up -- it's not naughty) continued through the holidays, with Fellow Traveler having problems maintaining a healthy potassium level and me getting food poisoning from -- and I'm ashamed to say this -- mall food-court sushi that, in a random moment of insanity, looked like something I wanted to have for lunch while we got in some last-minute Christmas gift shopping.

Despite this, were able to celebrate a scaled-back Christmas, battered but unbroken...and then at the cusp of the new year we received devastating news from both sets of kids: Our son-in-law is in ICU as I write, after worrisome month or so of feeling increasingly weak and unwell, and eventually winding up on an ambulance ride to the ER and then in an induced coma while staff worked to keep him alive while trying to understand what was happening to him. Thanks to his wonderful team of healthcare professionals he's making some small but very encouraging increments of progress in overcoming this medical crisis, but he's still in critical condition, and Son #1 and our in-laws are pretty much living at the hospital for the time being while Son-in-Law grows stronger.

Meanwhile, across the continent Son #2, up in the California mountains on an extended-family vacation, was in a sledding accident -- the plastic sled he and his small nephew were on hit a rut and began careening out of control, and while trying to shield the boy and stop the sled #2's leg got caught underneath somehow -- and he wound up getting airlifted off the slope with three compound fractures needing complicated and expensive surgery to fix. For a young family with a small child, trying to establish themselves in a new place, this is a very hard burden to bear.

Both sets of children had, in the past couple of years, been enjoying the kind of thirtysomething personal and professional milestones that we all hope for in the next generation, and as elders we'd been kind of relaxing into the idea that The Kids Are Alright...and then all this happened; one frightening phone call after the other.

At first it felt as if the Universe were engaging in a kind of cosmic mob hit directed at our family...but then I kept getting Facebook updates from friends all experiencing grief and loss and anxiety and frustration, all seemingly concentrated in this past month. I thought back to that famous first line of Scott Peck's The Road Less Traveled: "Life is difficult." Tell me about it.

All of which is really less of a kvetch  (although not entirely kvetch-free) than a necessary prelude to what is really bugging me at this moment:

I was reading a Lutheran website the other day. Now, as someone who's been active online for a pretty long time I understand that the Internet has created, for all intents and purposes, a kind of transcontinental, 24/7 bar where anyone with an online connection can swagger in, grab a barstool and, inhibitions loosened by anonymity, proceed to share multitudinous Deep Thoughts with the rest of humanity. I also know from experience that most of these Deep Thoughts, including my own, are crap. And yet I am regularly lured into pulling on my mental Sorels and wading into this crap...especially into the Religion corner of the virtual bar, where the crap tends to be particularly deep and odiferous. I don't know why I do this to myself; probably for the same reasons that I spend precious hours of my life on earth toggling the TV remote between "Celebrity Rehab" and "Swamp People."

But anyway, I'm browsing through the various conversations on this website, and I start reading a conversation about the wrath of God. Hmmm, I think; there's a topic that doesn't have a lot of traction in mainline Christianity these days. So I start digging deeper into the verbal back-and-forth between the participants.

Now, most of what is being said is pretty reasonable: That we human beings do a lot of stuff to one another that makes God angry; that these days it's unfashionable to think about how angry we make God; that we need to start taking God's anger more seriously as a faith community so that people can in turn take God's grace more seriously. See, I grew up in an LCMS congregation where the Law was drilled into the congregation like a jackhammer hitting concrete every single week -- where one pastor, in fact, once noted in a sermon that he disliked seeing worshippers smiling in church because it was an indication to him that they weren't sufficiently sorry for their sins. So I have been inured to a fair amount of Wrath O' God rhetoric. And, frankly, I agree with it to a point; not to the point of "Don't smile in church, you miserable sinners"; but when I read the daily news' nonstop litany of human violence and inanity and apathy and injustice...and when I get real about my own lamentable failures in loving God and the people around me...I have no doubt at all that God is angered by all of it. I also realize that actions have consequences; I get the concept behind "temporal punishment," even if I wouldn't normally use that phrase.  And I understand that, in the Lutheran way of thinking about the saving grace and mercy of God, there needs to be a Law/Gospel dialectic; first you have to understand you have a problem, as the 12-Step folks say.

So I'm reading along, thinking, "Yeah...yeah...I get this." But all of a sudden this one Lutheran guy starts talking about God killing sinners; I think the actual words were, "God kills sinners every day." He also notes that we should all be on our knees every day that we escape being killed by God.

That is when my brain explodes. This is when I start thinking of Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List, portraying the infamous SS officer Amon Goeth, casually picking off concentration camp prisoners as morning target practice. Seriously, dude? That's God to you? "Hmmm...which pathetic bastards do I take out today?"

I wonder what Lutheran Barstool Guy would think of my family situation, and that of our friends dealing with their own suffering and sorrow. My God...maybe this guy is a pastor, Maybe this is what he says to people who come to him for help. Maybe this is the speech he'd give me, sitting there in his study with my guts in a grocery bag, blubbering out my tales of woe.

I hestitate. Maybe I'm not giving Lutheran Barstool Guy the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he has a much more nuanced theology, one that would actually be be much like my own, that he simply has trouble articulating without resorting to a kind of obsolete religious shorthand. Maybe he just needs to learn to talk like a person -- talk like a bright 21st century person to other bright 21st century people.

Then I conclude: Yeah, right. What a lousy jerk. Go jump in a lake. [I've decided to substitute random 40's-era movie euphemisms for my actual thoughts.Use your 21st century imaginations.]

Especially when I am in the midst of real-life drama, I have a tendency to take virtual drama like this and just gnaw on it like a bone. And then it's 2 am and I can't turn off the problem-solving switch in my brain, and in between trying to mentally fix all the various hurts of my loved ones I'm also trying to take some swings at Lutheran Barstool Guy.

First of all: It's about grace, stupid. Yes, you need the Law; but Law without Gospel is like an ER doctor looking down at some mangled human being on a gurney, smugly noting, "Yeah, you're pretty messed up -- what'd you do to yourself?" and then walking away. Even in my dour Pietist childhood church, the pastors (including the Rev. Smiley, cited above) always eventually got around to grace.

Secondly -- I know I'm preaching to the choir for the most part here, but I also know I may get some frowny-faced combox responses to this from more conservative readers, and I don't care -- I'm calling bullshit on the idea that physical death is "punishment for sin," just because it's illogical. Life on earth is predicated upon cycles of life and death. The idea that, once upon a time everything alive in this finite world remained alive forever -- while being commanded to "Be fruitful and multiply," no less -- is just not possible. (Buy a fishtank and a bag of guppies, if you need some empircal evidence for what I'm saying.) And that's the sort of thinking that leads to making stuff up in order to make the Bible, or one's pet theological theories, come out right -- arguing that, pre-Fall, carnivores were grass-chomping vegetarians is just one ludicrous idea I've heard floated in an effort to defend the honor of a literal curse of God upon creation, and Paul's "The wages of sin is death." And once you decide to go down this path, you'll find yourself being backed into a variety of theological culs-de-sac: For instance, if the wages of sin is death, are people who die in especially painful or prolonged ways worse sinners than someone who passes away quietly in her sleep? How does that theory square with Jesus' own refusal to make moral pronouncements upon the victims of misfortune? What did the rest of sentient creation ever do to God to bring this "curse of death" down on them as well, or are they just collateral damage? There are certainly ways to understand truth in Paul's statement without understanding it in the alarmingly wooden way of Lutheran Barstool Guy. Augustine once cautioned his colleagues about making ignorant, illogical statements about Christianity that would lead the pagan intelligentsia to assume Christians were all, roughly paraphrasing, yahoos who just fell off the turnip truck. Depending on your attitude toward Augustine, you may be thinking, "Physician, heal thyself" -- but the guy had a point.

Theodicy -- trying to figure out why God does or doesn't do what God does or doesn't do -- is always dangerous territory. Personally, my preferred approach to such stuff is a three-word sentence that I first heard from a clergyperson as a college student in a campus parish one Sunday morning: I don't know, said the pastor, as he described his struggle to understand some enigmatic comment of Jesus' in the Gospel lesson. I don't know what he meant. I had never heard this statement uttered from a pulpit before; I was so stunned, and impressed, that I think I even noted it in my journal that evening. What a liberating idea; that one didn't have to know what every utterance in the Bible was intended by its authors to convey; that one didn't have to know the why of why God seems to be "large and in charge" in some situations and AWOL in others. I am fine with I don't know as a way to process my family's recent concentration of misfortune and other calamity in the world. To me it beats turning God into a pathologically capricious judge and executioner whose message to the world, in the words of a friend of mine describing the cognitive dissonance in fundamentalist thinking, is I just love you so much that I have to kill you for being so bad.

And -- one more thing, Lutheran Barstool Guy. One thing I do know is that God has a strange way of showing up -- as a healer, not a hater -- in the very circumstances that you seem to interpret as God's righteous wrath directed toward the sinful. This past week, for instance, I have experienced God showing up in a rather remarkable way in the midst of our son's and son-in-law's friends and colleagues, and FT and my friends, and people none of us even know who've heard about our son-in-law and want to help. Every night at 9 pm they stop and pray for our son-in-law and family. They've set up an online store to help raise funds for medical expenses. They've kept Son #1 and our in-laws fed and cheered through this thing. Every evening I read their messages on a special Facebook page they've created for our son-in-law, and I am moved to tears by the grace and generosity I find. (Anyone out there interested in joining this team of supporters, let me know and we'll talk elsewhere.)

Maybe, Lutheran Barstool Guy, if you actually got off your online barstool and out of your theology books long enough to engage with the real world in a compassionate way you'd start to realize that God looks less like a cosmic Amon Goeth working on his divine Final Solution and more like...well...Jesus. What a concept.