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Like White Cake with White Icing: Dull Things Christians Say

A tiny, white leather-bound New Testament was among my children’s books growing up. The size of a sliver of grocery store cake, it had a white silk ribbon for marking fragile pages smaller than my Old Maid cards. Moving the ribbon about among the pages felt precise and like something an adult might do. I practiced my letters in red marker in inside cover. It was the only Bible in my house growing up—we were not Christians and we did not read it.

99ec0771c372afc551f992a6693f6b15After I became a Christian in my 20s, a Catholic, I’d like to tell you I wore out my Bible, reading, studying and absorbing it. But I didn’t. When as a Catholic I heard the theological concept of Sola Scriptura “Scripture Alone,” it sounded sparse and cold. It sounded like an untouched Bible on the back of the shelf. Something with a pretty ribbon but not of much use.

Martin Luther gave the Christian world the phrase, nay, injuction, Sola Scriptura. Luther was a Catholic priest preparing a series of sermons on the Psalms in Wittenberg in 1513 when he was struck by Psalm 22. It begins, My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me? Catholics and other Christians have heard these words on countless Good Fridays. What did Luther hear? He hear Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man, the Incarnate Word, God Himself, express desolation at the hour of his death. God despaired. What Luther heard in Psalm 22 was Mercy.

Meanwhile in 16th century Europe, the Catholic Church was selling indulgences, tickets out of purgatory, a bit of a boost to heaven, so to speak. A possibly apocryphal little ditty is said to have been recited as the monks strode about, “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs.” Salvation was for sale.

Reading Psalm 22, Martin Luther realized Jesus died for his disciples at the foot of the cross and for the good thief and the bad thief, for those who crucified him and for all of us thousands of years later. When Christ rose three days later, he purchased the salvation of humankind, once, for all. Our salvation has been won. There is no need to purchase release from purgatory. Luther’s epiphany was a stark contrast to the Catholic Church’s selling of indulgences, and for Luther, brought into question its authority in all realms.

To be fair, it is a misconception that Christians had no access to scripture before the Reformation. While the printing press was invented in 1440, the literacy rate in Europe was very low. The average person did not own a Bible, and could not have read it anyway. In England the 16th century, it is estimated 90% of men and 99% of women were illiterate. However, the common person had access to Scripture through the Mass, through churches decorated with stories from the Bible and a strong tradition in Catholicism of preaching in the vernacular.

The issue for Luther was authority, and the Catholic Church placing itself as the arbiter of salvation between God and man. Regarding this arrangement, Luther wrote, “Through this perversion of things it has happened that the knowledge of Christian grace, of faith, of liberty, and altogether of Christ, has utterly perished, and has been succeeded by an intolerable bondage to human works and laws.”

As an aside, The Anglicans did not get involved in the matter until much later. In 1545, the Catholic Church convened the Council of Trent as reaction to the Reformation. The Catholic Church declared, “. . . that regarding authority, Roman Catholicism gives equal veneration to the Scriptures and the traditions of the Church, written and unwritten.” Here is where the central difference between Catholicism and Anglicanism emerged (beyond Catholics eventually descending to of the use styrofoam coffee cups after services while Anglicans would persevere with porcelain). The central position held by the Anglican Church throughout the centuries is that the ultimate authority is Sola Scriptura—Scripture alone.

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Three years after his encounter with Psalm 22, Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg. In 1520, seven years after Luther’s experience with Psalm 22, he wrote “On the Freedom of a Christian.” Luther had been engaged in a public debate with the Catholic Church for some time. As a result, had been asked to write a conciliatory letter to Rome acknowledging the Church’s authority.

Instead, Luther wrote, “One thing, and one alone, is necessary for life, justification, and Christian liberty; and that is the most holy word of God, the Gospel of Christ, as He says in John 11:25: ‘I am the resurrection and the life; he that believeth in me shall not die eternally.’” Luther would be excommunicated the same year.

Luther continued, For if the touch of Christ was healing, how much more does that most tender spiritual touch, nay, absorption of the word, communicate to the soul . . . ?” Luther compares the word—absorption of the word—to an encounter with the living Christ. How much more healing, he asks, does absorption of the word communicate to the soul than that the woman with an issue of blood touching the hem of Christ’s garment (Matthew 9:19-21), or Jesus restoring sight to the blind man (Mark 8:22-26). That’s how close Christ’s healing presence is to us. How close Christ himself is to us. As close as our Bible. That’s warmth, not chill.

I’m not suggesting the Bible is a sort of magical amulet and that if we sleep with it under our pillows all will be well, friendships restored, depressions cured and the lame rising up to walk. I am saying a vast, profound encounter with Christ is immediately accessible to us. I am suggesting we dust off our Bibles.

Luther wrote, “If we cleave to the words of faith — to God’s promises, we become penetrated and saturated by their virtue.” If we absorb the Word of God, if we allow it to change us, God will fill us with every good thing. We will say with St. Paul, “It is not I but Christ who lives in me.”

d34e5dc5b9c4ffb83dab277945dc2a1eEvangelical Christians have spent centuries honing to perfection one question to annoy others with the utmost effect: “Do you know Jesus?” I have been on the receiving end of that question as a godless heathen and as a Roman Catholic. I never quite knew what it meant, except that there was some fun I was having I shouldn’t be, or, like this potentially insufferable essay, the question was a recommendation that I should read my Bible more.

We Episcopalians tend to evangelize by leaving people alone or handing them a cup of coffee, but at the risk of inciting the wrath of every atheist, agnostic and Catholic who has ever endured it, allow me to ask the same question in a somewhat more nuanced way.

Do you know the God who became flesh so that he might demonstrate the depths of his mercy, a God who allowed himself to experience the mortal fear of death in the Garden of Gethsemane, the pain of crucifixion and the hollow depths of abandonment? Do you know that Jesus loves you unto madness? As you are? Sinning or not, reading scripture or not?

When a Christian says Merry Christmas, she means, The Word became flesh and dwelled among us —the same Word present in the pages of our dusty Bibles, a Word on the precipice of changing everything we understand about this world and the next.

Another dull thing Christians say? God loves you. He became flesh to prove it. Merry Christmas.

 

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Cleanse Him with Water, Snow and Ice: an Islamic Prayer for the Dead

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In my childhood line of sight, his brown legs ended in thick leather sandals, the kind with big brass rings and tire-tread soles. He wore them tending the garden, by the pool.

I called him by his surname, Ishaq. The Ishaqs were the only family we knew when I was growing up, the weekend-in-the-cabin family, the camping family, the chicken curry family (Ishaq was Pakistani), the family with whom we shared Thanksgiving dinner.

If Ishaq wasn’t in the yard when my mother’s car pulled up, he might be reading the paper in his fake plycraft recliner, goldish tan, tire treads on the ottoman, the first thing I’d see when we stepped in the side door.

When his children, Serina and Rashid, and I were too much, he’d expel us from the room imploring us to “Go play in the traffic.” 

Circa 1971, ’72, ’73, ’74,  ad infinitum, I sat in a swiveling barstool across from the stove, flanked by Rashid on one side, Serina on the other. The three of us hitched and twisted in our chairs like roughly spinning tops. Ishaq and his wife Ann cooked chicken curry as we three watched, pan simmering, heady, foreign spices, splatter of oil. I can hear Ishaq saying, “Wonderful.” One night, my drunk mother started screaming he had put a chicken anus on my plate. I shrank in horror, feeling sorry for Ishaq. I knew little of chicken anuses, only gratitude that someone had cooked for me.  And I knew Ishaq was kind. I always knew this.

When he was pleased or amused by some turn in conversation, he’d say, “Beauty, beauty!” 

Circa 1975, I was mad at Rashid and threw his towel in the play pool. Ishaq chased me to swat my butt.

Circa 1979, swerving down a steep hill on my bike, a tennis racquet balanced on the handlebars, I took a terrible, high-velocity fall. That evening at the Ishaq’s, I noticed blood seeping from the flesh above my pubic bone. Nine or ten years old, I stood in the bathroom humiliated and unable to hide, dead silent as Dr. Ishaq cleaned up my privates. He weighed the need for stitches. He decided on a butterfly bandage.

In past years, I regularly ran into him at the grocery store. “Ishaq!” I’d call, “Dr. Ishaq!” a little louder. He face beamed, his arms spread wide. “OH-my-GOD!” he’d say—Pakistani accent—as if surprised every time, as if seeing me were the most wonderful thing in the world. He’d hug me. So much love.

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‘O Allaah, forgive and have mercy upon Ishaq, excuse him and pardon him, and make honorable his reception. Expand his entry, and cleanse him with water, snow, and ice, and purify him of sin as a white robe is purified of filth. Exchange his home for a better home, and his family for a better family, and his spouse for a better spouse. Admit him into the Garden, protect him from the punishment of the grave and the torment of the Fire.’

-Islamic funeral prayer

Choudhry Mohammed Ishaq, rest in peace. Thanks for the beauty.

Love and Slaughter, Beauty and Sin: This is You.

blogI’d like to tell you a story.

In a certain town there were two men, one rich, the other poor.  The rich man had flocks and herds in great numbers.  But the poor man had nothing at all except one little ewe lamb that he had bought. He nourished her, and she grew up with him and his children. Of what little he had she ate; from his own cup she drank; in his bosom she slept; she was like a daughter to him. (II Samuel 12)

Cuteness overload, right? A man carrying a little bundle of a lamb. The fact he nourished her got me thinking. I grew up around horses, and one of the artifacts from my childhood was a giant plastic baby bottle, about 16” high, floating around the house for feeding foals who couldn’t nurse or who needed supplements.

I share this memory because before the lamb could drink from a cup, how did the

man lambpoor man feed her? I did some research. Archeologists have found terracotta pots dating from the ancient world, round pots with a handle on one side and a small spout on the other, called ‘nursing pots’. The man would have held the baby lamb in the crook of his arm, while tilting the milk into her mouth, about every four hours, like a human baby. I go into detail here to emphasize the love the man had for this lamb, how intimately he cared for his pet. He quite literally loved her as a daughter, even nursing her as a mother would.

She toddled behind him as he did chores. She played with the poor man’s children. She brought him joy. At night, she curled into his side and slept beside him.

One day, a visitor arrived at the rich man’s estate. The rich man had flocks and herds in great number, but he seized the poor man’s lamb, slaughtered her, and fed her to his guest.

This is the parable the prophet Nathan told to King David, well, this is an accusation veiled as a parable, intended “. . . to get David to pronounce judgement on himself.”[1]

Do you remember David’s reaction? “. . . David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die!”[2] David is outraged.

Outrage has the peculiar ability to protect us from ourselves. David expresses his dismay at the rich man’s actions and Nathan says, “David, the man is you.”

What has David done? Mesmerized by Bathsheba, David took her for himself (he was the King, and in modern parlance, Bathsheba did not have the power in this relationship). David was powerful. Bathsheba was beautiful. David exploited her sexually.

Nathan uses this parable of the lamb to illustrate the intense pain caused by sin. Sin is never just between us and God. Our sin hurts others deeply, like the rich man hurt the poor man.

I remember my reaction when I first read Nathan’s parable of the lamb in my Old Testament class. Like David, I was outraged. “Pffft!” I thought. “Rich people!” Outrage blinds us to ourselves.

“No, Misty,” the text reads, “this is you.”

There is a perverse satisfaction in outrage. It feels so good because it diverts our attention from our own culpability. Outrage is fertile ground for self-righteousness.

The poor man loved the lamb like a daughter. The rich man needed to feed his guest.

 It sounds cruel. But no one meant to be cruel. At least not at the beginning.

Sin usually involves the unceremonious satisfying of our own needs and desires. The rich man wasn’t thinking, “I’m going to break this poor man’s heart and kill his pet lamb.” He was simply fulfilling the requirements of hospitality, caring for his guest while limiting his expenses. “Business is business,” as they say.

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When David saw Bathsheba bathing in the water and desired her, he did not mentally carry his actions to their logical conclusion. He did not anticipate Bathsheba would get pregnant, nor did he imagine the level of deceit that would be required to hide the pregnancy from her husband, Uriah.

As David gazed at Bathsheba as she bathed, he was not plotting murder. He just NEEDED to possess beauty. Don’t we all?

How many of our sins against one another do we classify as needs? It’s not gossip; I just NEED to work out my feelings about this woman. My anger is justified! I NEED to own my feelings. My neighbor may be hungry or homeless, but I NEED a lot of matching outfits with coordinated shoes. And earrings.

David’s initial sin, accosting Bathsheba, led to her pregnancy and his need to hide his role in it. He attempted to manipulate Uriah and when that failed, David killed him. I would like to say I have never manipulated situations to get what I want, or to obfuscate something I have done. But I have.

Beyond the pain our sin inflicts on one another, our sin is an offense against God, a denial or dismissal of the good God has done for us. Nathan says as much to David,

“Thus says the Lord . . . I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. . .”[3] It’s as if God is saying, “What else could I have done for you?”

God had blessed and anointed David, and still David sins grievously, abusing the power and authority God has given him. How do we love the Lord despite our desires for what is not ours, despite self-righteousness that blinds us to our own failings, despite the constant temptation to make an idol of beauty? How do we keep from hurting one another?

As children of a good and merciful God, we turn back to Him. Let us return to the image of the terracotta nursing pot full of milk, and reflect on these words from 1 Peter 2:1 – 3:

“Rid yourselves . . .  of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander.  Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk so that by it you may grow into salvation . . . .”

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This spiritual milk is the Word Incarnate, Jesus Christ. Let us long for the Lord as a newborn longs for its mother, and nestle into the crook of God’s arm. If we cry out, He hears us. If we are hungry, He feeds us. We have been given new birth through the resurrection of Jesus Christ[4], who nourishes and sustains. Taste and see that the Lord is good.[5]

 

 

 

 

[1] The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Augmented Third Edition, NRSV. (2007) Notes, p. 462

[2] 2 Samuel 12:5

[3] 2 Samuel 12:7

[4] 1 Peter 1:3

[5] Psalm 34:8