Rainbows

The only picture my mom could find of the car – the station wagon in the background.

The year was 1981, and my seat in the blue-with-wooden-panel station wagon was on brown plastic booster seat that would get sweaty in the sultry summer heat. There was no AC in “The Bluebird”. My parents, sister and I were just back from four years spent in the heart of Africa – Zaire – where they’d helped build a hydroelectric dam and run a regional hospital. I had never lived in the US before, and found Atlanta astonishing through the eyes of a two or three year old. The music playing on the tape deck was a “Maranatha Praise” album. And on the window where I could see it from my back seat, my parents had put a translucent sticker of a rainbow.

I loved that rainbow, and the way the light shined through it. I loved rainbows. I have always loved colors and the shifting iridescence of light. And that rainbow had a story for the tiny girl in the back seat. It was the story of Noah and the Ark. The impression Noah and the Ark has left on our culture is as a nursery decoration theme, with the boat and the animals and the rainbow. The full story is so much darker – it’s hard to believe that a cheerful nursery decoration is possible. The story is of Noah is one of the oldest recorded in human history. It lurks back in oral traditions in the millennia before humans learned to write our stories for each other.

Just a few chapters in Genesis after God created the world in seven days, he regretted it. “The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The LORD regretted that he had made human beings on the earth and his heart was deeply troubled. So the LORD said, ‘I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created – and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground – for I regret that I have made them.’ But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” (Genesis 6:5-8)

The righteousness of Noah and the mercy of God spared the human species and all life on Earth. God told Noah to build an ark and bring the animals with him. The waters covered the earth for 150 days killing every thing and every one that lived upon it. But Noah’s family and his livestock survived. And when Noah and his flock of people and animals emerged from the Ark, they righteously worshiped God and God made a promise in return. “I have set my rainbow in the clouds and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life.” (Genesis 9:13-15)

The story of the rainbow is of God hating the violence of humans and looking to destroy it – but of seeing something in us worth saving. Christians see it as a story of repentence, trust and a new start. And it’s a story of God’s promise to us (although I was always slightly freaked out as a kid at just how only one specific method of wiping out human life was removed – all the others are apparently still on the table). Historians think it might have its roots in a flood that we find in the archaeological record.

A picture of Boston Pride parade
Boston Pride parade

Today I still love rainbows. But on this June Saturday, they carry a second meaning to me. On the first truly glorious weekend of the summer, we worked our way into Boston to celebrate with many rainbow-adorned people. Once again the symbol of hope has risen in colors. I’ve never gone to a Pride parade before, mostly because I’m straight. I have been unsure what is supporting vs. where you are co-opting. But this year I have a reason to be there.

I found the absolute perfect shirt for this Pride celebration. It’s a picture of a momma bear hugging tight a rainbow baby bear. Grey walked through the common with a bracelet his friend made in pink, blue and purple – the bisexual colors.

Sporting Pride gear
Proud mom

We had an awesome time on one of the most glorious days I’ve seen in a long time. Boston Common was beautiful, and full of joyful happy people sporting signs and shirts and flag with words of love, welcome and joy. On the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots Boston Common was full of people openly and cheerfully celebrating. The parade was awesome, and included retirement homes, churches, school groups, banks, black & hispanic groups, costumed participants (Cos Players), political officials and aspirants and lots of short men and tall women. There was only cheering and whistling and joyful sounds to be heard. As we walked away from the tumult of the Common, my sons both told me that they were really happy we’d come. Thane asked if we could come again next year!

I’m really glad where we live in a world that remembers how to be joyful. I’m glad that the rainbow is still a sign of hope. It’s a sign that we are repenting from the violence of our past, and the harm we have done to our sisters and brothers. I looked out on that rainbow-clad crowd and had to think that on a beautiful day like this one, God must be glad that he made us, and glad he let us hang around.

My beloved bi son

NOTE: Grey read and approved this post!

I believe

The Boston Globe published an article this week about how climate change is already being felt in New England. ”

“I tell my students that they’re going to be able to tell their children, ‘I remember when it used to snow in Boston,’ ” said Ray Bradley, an author of the study and director of the Climate System Research Center at the University of Massachusetts. “We’ll have occasional snow, but we won’t have weeks and weeks of snow on the ground.”

I’ve wrestled a lot lately with how – and why – people can vehemently believe something is true when the facts and evidence point to the opposite conclusion. The science has been saying for 30 years that our planet is warming. Walking around in a fifty degree January – the second year that’s been possible. Last year we had 11 straight months of “the hottest year on record”. This graph shows just how fast the change has been occurring, compared to geological normal shifts in temperature. It’s hard to look at these facts and understand how you can reasonably deny that the world is warming. Even if you find it in your heart to say this is totally a coincidence and has nothing to do with human causes (also a real stretch), we can *see* how the climate is changing. It’s literally cracking apart the Antarctic ice shelf. But even people in a position to know otherwise, such as our president-elect, claim that this shift isn’t taking place.

Why? If you don’t realize what’s coming, you can’t plan for it. If you pretend this isn’t happening, and oh, build huge buildings whose foundations are likely to be under water in 20 years, you may lose a lot of money. I get that it may be very expensive to cut CO2 levels, and that some current economic powerhouses will suffer. But it’s another thing altogether to decide not to plan for the inevitable outcome of that decision.

The vehemence with which people *don’t believe this* confuses me. I was thinking about it, and I realized I was missing a critical element. People think that what you believe changes the truth. I wonder if there’s some unspoken conviction that if we all BELIEVE the world isn’t warming, then in fact the world will not be warming. From that perspective, the persistent voices of climate scientists saying otherwise is a threat. They’re disrupting the concerted belief required to make global warming untrue. By disrupting the belief, they’re actually making global warming happen. If we just all believed together it wasn’t happening, it wouldn’t happen.

This explains both the solution they have (prevent global warming by believing it isn’t happening with the assumption that what is believed is true) and why they’re so vitriolic to opposing voices.

As a Christian, I think I understand where this mind set might come from. Christianity is rife with the power of belief. In the Gospel of Mark chapter 9, the very mindset I lay out above is preached:

23 Jesus said to him, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.”
24 Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”

Mark is at it again in Chapter 11:

22“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. 23 “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”

Let’s not forget walking on water. Peter does the impossible because of the strength of his belief.

But there are some things are, or are not, regardless of your belief in them. God does not require our belief in order to exist (and therefore unbelievers aren’t a threat to God – would you really want to believe in a God who needed us to exist?). This universe does not need to be believed in to keep spinning in its glorious order and chaos. Gravity operated unobserved for millions of years before we believed in it. Believing really hard will not make false things true. And failing to believe – even the most willful denial – will not make unwanted things go away. We need to be more careful in our thinking about where belief matters, and where the world is uncaring about what we believe to be true.

I was about ready to stop my thinking there, when Martin Luther King Day happened. My son came home with a copy of Dr. King’s famous “I have a dream” speech. Was this iconic, inspiring speech the exact same thing, only on the other side of the belief divide? I read it carefully for the word “belief”. And I discovered something remarkable – the difference I would invite you to embrace. What Dr. King believed was that it was possible for this post-racial environment to exist. He dreamed of a day when his four little children would live in a nation where they would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. He did not believe we lived in that world already, or that such a world was an inevitable one. He only dreamed that it was possible.

And that difference – between believing that what you want is possible, and believing that wanting it will make it true.

So, let’s believe that it’s possible for us to decide whether to make the sacrifices necessary to not warm our planet any further … or to plan for living in a much warmer planet. But whenever you get angry at someone for not believing the way you do, ask where your anger comes from. If it comes from a conviction that belief will change the outcome, ask yourself if that is really true.


Thoughts? Where are some of the other places in our society where the belief itself is important? What are some things that really do change based on whether you believe? What am I misunderstanding here?

Hospitality

When you, dear reader, think of Christian values, which ones do you think are at the top for importance? I’d forgive you if you said sexual purity — some days it seems like all you ever hear from Christians in the media is talk about sex and how it’s bad. But no. Jesus says hardly anything about sex.

Some of the values I see most when I read the New Testament are:
– Being loving to all, including yourself
– Not being a hypocrite (especially not a religious hypocrite – for an example, Matthew 23:13 “‘But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.”)
– Sharing what you have
– And today’s topic… hospitality.

As I understand it (and it should now be noted that I != Biblical scholar), hospitality was a critical virtue in the ancient world in which the Bible was written. There were few inns, and pretty much no restaurants, quickie-marts, C-stores, or even cars to take shelter in. The earlier you went, the rarer the inns were. So if you had to go anywhere, you relied on hospitality and that hospitality was a sacred rite and obligation.

For example, in Genesis 19:6-8, Lot welcomes two angels into his home: “Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, and said, ‘I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.’” Lot’s obligation as a host here trumps his obligation as a father and caretaker to his daughters (harsh, huh?).

Throughout the New Testament there are stories of hospitality. Jesus’ very first miracle (by tradition — this miracle is only recorded in John) was helping a groom out of a predicament when the wine ran short at his wedding – a failing of the expectations of hospitality. Jesus then goes on the ACCEPT the hospitality of the unacceptable. He sits down with and eats meals with sinners, prostitutes, soldiers, tax collectors (who were probably as popular as drug dealers are for us), turncoats and traitors. When the disciples go out to spread the good news, they are told to shake the dust off their feet from any town which does not offer them appropriate hospitality.

Hospitality is harder than it was, because we’ve lost the habit of it. We don’t invite the homeless to come eat dinner with us because they might be sociopathic kleptomaniacs who will sleep in our front lawns for the rest of our lives if they know where we live. Strangers to our land, the aliens who also populate the Bible, do not expect a welcome to our homes. Instead they book rooms in Motel 8 and buy food from the “Excellent Mart” we’ve never been to; and we glance away across the gulf of culture at each other on the rare instances our paths cross.

I think about this imperative to welcome and nurture when I set the table for company. We do sometimes feed others, although it is usually friends. I wish that I had more courage to be more outrageously hospitable, and welcome the too-talkative, the kind of weird, the left out, the unknown to share a meal with my husband and I, and our two screeching sons. I meet people in those few margins of intersection, and I wish it was ok for me to say, “You look cold. Would you like to come in and have some dinner? There’s plenty.” I’m afraid to. I’m afraid that they will be offended. What if they’re perfectly well off and see my offer as pity? I’m afraid of the disruption in my tightly slotted life. I’m highly cognizant that culture is constantly telling me to be more afraid than I am. I’m supposed to teach my four year old “stranger danger” and it’ll be all my fault if he’s abducted by a dangerous pedophile because I never taught him that people he doesn’t know are enemies until proven otherwise.

Still, I’m haunted by the hospitality I don’t offer. There was the man and his two children, trudging up the hill our house sits on too late at night. Where was he going? Did he have a place? He seemed so quiet, and they so subdued. Would he have welcomed some warmth in the darkness, or was he just going on an evening constitutional?

There was the other man with the Santa beard — his name is Hal — at the grocery store. He was there the entire time I was. I bought $175 worth of nutritious produce, milk, meat, cereals — a veritable bounty. He, after looking in the scratch-and-dent section and walking all through the store… he bought a jar of sauce. Was he lonely? Bored? Hungry? Broke? Did he have a place to go? I wish I had the courage to ask him to come home with me, and I would fix him up a nice dinner and we would talk and he could be filled with company and food.

Did you know that is simply not done? And as a woman and a mother, it is particular verboten for me to do it. Risking my self (and my sexual purity and property) is bad enough. Exposing my sons to such risk, and my husband to such inconvenience? Keep it to a smile and small-talk. Even that, I’m told, is risky and only marginally appropriate.

I’m afraid to even pray for the courage to offer hospitality, because what if that courage arrives? Never ask the Holy Spirit for gifts you will not accept.

I don’t know how to end this rather rambly essay on a snappy note. I will say this, however. If you tire of the tropes of Christianity, why not pay attention to a different virtue this holiday season? Instead of being sparkly pure and blameless, like I know you are, why don’t you try to be courageously hospitable? Risk a little in the cause of kindness. Whether that’s eye contact where you would usually look away, or asking the homeless person you see what their name is, or even inviting someone to share your meal with you, tell the tsking voices to be silent for a moment.

And Old Testament/New Testament difference

I have my youth group kids for two seperate types of meetings — I have them for Sunday School and for youth group. In Youth Group, we’re currently going over a passage in Matthew that talks about God recognizing us for what we do for others, not necessarily for what we believe or say. In Sunday School, we’re doing an Old Testament summary — mostly Moses lately.

It’s really a pretty striking difference. In the Old Testament, you have a God who hardens the heart of Pharoah, blasts the people of Egypt with 10 plagues, kills the firstborn sons, threatens to eliminate the people of Israel when they create idols, changes his mind when argued with and generally lacks in warm fuzzies. In the New Testament, we have a God who humbled himself, served those around him with kindness and compassion, only got angry like twice and then usually against the establishment, and finally sacrificed himself on a cross for our sakes.

But Christians believe that the OT God of fury and temper and violence, and the NT God of compassion and sacrifice… they are one and the same. There are some mitigating factors. For example, I pointed out to my kids that even in the Old Testament, God was far more merciful than would be expected, while still practicing justice. For example, he killed the first born sons of Egypt. Well, the Pharoah had previously killed ALL the sons of Israel. So he exacted justice, but justice tempered by mercy. God also kept his word to the people of Israel, even when they broke theirs to him as quickly as humanly possible.

One of the greatest differences I see between OT and NT, however, is the scale on which God deals with people. In the OT he is really dealing with nations on a national basis. While he deals with Moses, he is really judging and interacting with Israel on a national basis. Salvation or damnation doesn’t come according to what one person does, but how the nation as a whole acts in covenant with God. Likewise, in Egypt, God deals with the nation of Egypt harshly, not just with the Pharoah in particular. When Jonah goes to Ninevah, the communal acceptance of God’s message is what saves the entire city-state from destruction. God was not going to spare the ones who followed his word and punish those who didn’t — it was all or nothing. So you have a history of sort of spokesperson individuals (like Moses and Pharoah and Jonah), and nations (like Israel and Egypt and Ninevah). If you personally were too sinful, you would be thrown out of the nation, and not be a part of its covenant with God.

In the New Testament, Jesus seems to redefine God’s relationship to humanity on an individual basis. Jesus no longer says that salvation and favor will be given on a national basis — to the nation of Israel, for instance. He emphasises the need for personal action and also personal judgement. He doesn’t stand and exhort the nation of Israel to follow God’s will. He stands in a crowd of thousands and exhorts each of them to do what is right. He answers individuals questions about what they must do, themselves, to live in a way that is pleasing to God.

It doesn’t seem like a huge difference, but it is. Can you imagine what would happen if God judged America on a corporate basis? (I think, by the way, that IS the way the real conservatives look at it, and why they are so eager to impose their morality on others.) I much prefer to be held accountable for my own actions, because then at least I have control. This difference between corporate relationship and individual relationship is a key, I think to understanding the change that happened when Jesus came. It’s also a key for understanding WHY it is that for some religious groups that see us as part of their nation — they are so very eager to make us comply with their morality.

But like Paul, I want to preach Christ crucified. I believe in a God who sacrificed himself in order to still practice justice, but not have to punish us. I believe in a God who judges us on how kindly we treat others — who holds us to the standard of doing unto other people as we want to be done to ourselves. I believe in a God who has an individual relationship with every person on the earth — a relationship that make take different shapes or forms depending on our individual relationship and background.

Faith in God

I had an “ah ha” moment recently. For anyone who is actively involved in the life of a church, there is tons to worry about. We worry about the budget for the fiscal year. (Like all not-for-profits, churches have been enormously hit by the collision of rising needs, and dropping contributions from families who have lost jobs. Unlike many not-for-profits, an alarming number of our members have fled the incredibly expensive metropolis to live in less expensive places, or to chase jobs elsewhere.) And then there are the larger problems of a conscientious Christian. The “bright” movement (a movement of atheists) claims by contrast that Christians are either dull or not so smart — or maybe both. And the extremist hateful Christians that seem to get all the press do nothing to dissuade anyone from this view. Our world is secularizing. Across oceans, rabid and destructive types of religions are rising like bread left too near the oven — getting sour and overflowing the bowl, while losing the qualities that make bread sustaining.

We look at our youth group. We lose them at about 16. They fade away… can’t be coerced or coaxed into something as uncool as church.

And as a Christian, I get this sort of desperate energy. I have to do something. I have to be a youth leader. I have to be an apologist (in the very oldest sense of the word) to help my faith make sense to a world that thinks it understands it, and doesn’t. I have to frenetically work to preserve the church.

And here comes my “ah ha”.

Secretly, in a part of my mind, I had the thought that I need to frenetically work to preserve God. What a 20th century, faithless American thought that is. If I really believe what I think I believe, that at least I can stop worrying about. If my faith is in a God who exists seperate of me and my beliefs — of a God so powerful that he created the universe and so loving that he sustains it — then there is no way the current waning of compassionate religiousity is a threat to God. Now, it may be a threat to many other things — the institutions of the church, the country (I do NOT want a theocracy to take root in America, because I sincerely doubt it will have room for me!), civil discourse, the needy… these are all things that I should work for. But if my faith is sincere, I do not need to fret about the possibility of God disappearing from my life, and from this world. And if I really believe what I think I believe, I can also have confidence that God will be present in the world as well — calling people to compassion and kindness, as well as to confidence in him. We humans are not in this alone.

And you know, that’s a tremendous relief to me. It is not a call not to work, but it is a call to work for what I believe in context of working in cooperation with my God, instead of somehow working to preserve him.