Friday, April 29, 2016

College memory: the birthday shower

Like many other decent people at my college, I was a proud member of Kirby House.

Kirby House was a men's living group that served as an alternative to the Greek system, occupying a residence hall that had been endowed in the name of Allan Price Kirby. There were no demeaning pledge activities, no silly rituals or prentensions about our importance and secrets, and not nearly as much philistine behavior.

We did, however, have the shower.

The shower was many things in Kirby House. It was a place to get clean, obviously; less obviously, it offered more privacy in our bathrooms than the toilet stalls did. Legend has it that when the Kirby family endowed the building, they insisted that "real men" didn't need doors on the stalls. That stipulation remained in effect at least as late as 1992, when I graduated, more than two decades after the college admitted its first women.

I don't think I've ever had the chance to express to the Kirby family how much I appreciated the experience of doing my business only to have the door open while people of each sex walked past in the hallway. So thank you. Thank you all.

Anyway, the shower.

In addition to keeping us clean and offering us privacy, the shower did allow us some college-age shenanigans. We often used it for celebrations. Whenever it was someone's birthday, we would celebrate by dragging that person, fully clothed, to the shower and throwing them in once we had turned it on. We also used it to welcome new members once they had accepted our invitation to join. For at least one semester, we also threw the rush chairman in every time we got a new member. (For some reason, this did not deter Gabe's enthusiasm for recruiting new members, though I recall seeing him grab a chair to hold people back at dinner one evening after the third new member had joined that day.)

We also used the shower as a form of house discipline. When someone acted in a way enough of the rest of us found annoying, we would suddenly declare it that person's birthday, and off they would go.

This happened to a number of people, but I chiefly remember it happening one night after dinner to Ted Morris. Ted, in the way that he would do, had decided to to treat "The Rose" as though it were a dramatic monologue. He was halfway through declaiming the second verse, when David McCandless said, "Isn't it your birthday?"

It was a spontaneous signal. Ted had been sitting at the table by himself. Now, without warning, there were a half-dozen Kirbs standing all around him. In less time that it takes to tell, Ted was borne out the dining room doors, down the hall, and into the bathroom, where the shower was waiting. Fortunately for everyone, the toilet stalls were unoccupied at the time.

Ted later complained that the shower treatment had been unfair and unappreciated, but I don't think anyone felt the least remorseful over it. I know I still don't, and it's been 26 years.

Addendum: As I recall, I was thrown into the shower exactly twice during college. Once was a spur-of-the-moment action by my roommate and a mutual friend, who snatched me off my feet during happy hour before dinner and threw me in. I recall the other time with great fondness, though I doubt anyone else involved felt so.

You see, Bill Dowling and a few others had noticed that while I often wished other people an impromptu happy birthday, I was never on the receiving end of such wishes. Bill was correct, and I knew it. So when he and his cohorts came to pick me up, I didn't fight. I went limp. They dragged me to the shower, complaining the whole way that I was taking the fun out of it. (Duh.) When they reached the bathroom and put me down for a moment, I stood up, walked into stall and turned the water on myself.

The posse groaned and walked away, disappointed at how un-fun the experience had been, and they never tried again.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Leaving Egypt: Justice and only Justice (Part Three)

Well, it appears I have written myself into a corner.

When I started writing about the Exodus about a week ago, it was the result of a brief discussion a friend of mine and I had had together about the Exodus as a type of redemption. Tim's a preacher. That Sunday he went off and did his thing, while I continued to kick my thoughts around and puzzle over the way the story has two endings. By Wednesday last week, I realized that my thoughts had stretched beyond one blog post, and had become a short series.

If you've read the first two parts already, you can see the progression I had in mind. God miraculously intervenes and delivers Israel through the ten plagues, and brings the nation to birth in the Sinai desert. In the desert he gradually weans Israel from a childlike dependency on him for its every need, and moves them toward a more mature relationship where they're ready to enter the family business of redeeming the nations.

The idea I had in mind for this third post was that the Torah – the Law of Moses, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures – expressed God's desire for how Israel should do this.

This is nothing new, of course. The book of Genesis repeatedly states God's desire to bless Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and make them into a great nation, so that all nations on the earth would be blessed. Located along the major trade routes of the ancient Middle East, Israel was in a perfect position to spread the news of a god who had a personal involvement in history and who was nowhere near as capricious as the other gods of the region.

In itself, the notion that Law can exist independently of the whims of a king is a pretty big contribution to world thought. A lot of the ideas expressed in the Torah are heavyweights in their own right, such as the proclamation of the Jubilee year, when every debt in Israel was to be forgiven, every slave emancipated, and the entire nation celebrating for a year. That idea was so memorable that the Founding Fathers of America had a Bible verse engraved in the Liberty Bell: "Proclaim liberty throughout the land."

The Law was also big on keeping punishments commensurate with the severity of the crime. Under the Torah, breaking someone's arm or blinding them in one eye wasn't grounds for capital punishment, as it once had been in some ancient cultures. Instead the worst you could expect was a punishment equal to the crime.

But this is also true: The Levitical code is easy to bash for its harshness, because it's pretty damn harsh.

Among other things, the Bible calls for the death penalty for several things that just don't warrant it. Adultery, for instance. Disrespecting your parents for another. Gay sex. Even being a rape victim.

I mean, what the hell is up with that? Next time someone defends a business owner's right to refuse to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding, citing “freedom of religion,” ask them if they think a rape victim should be executed if she doesn't scream for help when she's attacked. It's right there in Deuteronomy 22:24.

Still, it's important to read any piece of literature in its socio-historical context, to get its meaning. Adjust for the patriarchal culture it was written in, and maybe you can excuse the sexism in the book of Proverbs, which uses the imagery of a sexually aware young woman as a predator of young men — but fails to present the young man as a sexual predator of women. The Bible after all does hold women repeatedly in high regard – Deborah and Esther save the nation, and Jael is a war hero, for instance; and the book of Proverbs also uses a feminine image of wisdom as the standard that men should seek. Even Paul, who gets accused of sexism because of what some misogynists have twisted his teachings to justify over the centuries, blames the Fall on Adam rather than Eve, and hails the woman Junia as chief among the apostles.

But stoning a woman if she's raped and no one hears her screaming for help?  The nicest spin I can put on this commandment, is that it's a good idea to avoid false accusations of rape. #NotAllMen and all that. Sometimes I can't help but think that the people who wrote the Bible just got it wrong. This is one of those times.

I can already hear someone arguing that we have to take the Bible the way it is, and that if we start cherry-picking the parts of the Bible we don't like, we're setting ourselves up over God. I'm going to call bullocks on that one. For starters, there is not a person alive who views the Bible as sacred and does not already cherry-pick. For another, it's the easy way out to say "take it as it is" and not try to figure out what's going on beneath and behind the words.

As a whole the Christian Bible is a library of smaller books written across an ocean and written from as far back as perhaps 3,000 years ago to as recently as only 2000 years ago. It is written in three different languages that most of us don't speak today, and comes from a culture that many of us would find incomprehensible and intolerably oppressive.

Simply reading Leviticus 20:13 and concluding that God hates gay sex is as irresponsible as reading Job 38:22 and concluding that God keeps snow in warehouses, or reading Revelation 7:1 and determining that the earth is a quadrilateral. Or as reading Deuteronomy 22:24 and concluding that if a woman claims rape but no one heard her scream then she's lying, and couldn't have been terrified, intimidated, drugged, coerced or manipulated – and therefore was a willing accomplice and should be executed.

Even someone in a patriarchal society should have been able to realize that that one is just wrong.

Now I know at least one person who is going to be appalled by what he will consider my wholesale rejection of biblical authority, and I'm sure there are other people who are going to be disappointed that I'm willing to come this far and not renounce my faith in zombie Jesus or my imaginary friend in the sky.

But amid the arcane rules over Temple worship, the dietary restrictions that even Jewish people argue over, and the sometimes confounding legal code and bizarre restrictions it imposed, there is one principle that emerges throughout the Torah: Seek justice.

Rabbi Hillel famously said, “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your neighbor.” The Torah itself puts it like this: “Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you” (Deuteronomy 16:20).

Unique among laws, the Torah makes the pursuit of justice not just a civic obligation but a religious one as well, and a deeper religious obligation than matters like ritual cleanliness, using the right bathroom, or even who has sex with whom. Hebrew prophets like Moses and Jeremiah stressed compassion for others and justice to be the sine qua none of religious behavior. Prophets like Amos and Hosea had little to say about violations of the kosher rules or priestly rituals, but plenty to say about oppression and social injustice.

Even Sodom, famously (and inaccurately) linked with homosexuality, was destroyed for offenses like arrogance, cruelty to strangers, and the oppression of the poor, according to the Bible (Ezekiel 16:49).

This principle carries over into Christianity, or it least it was meant to. Some of Jesus' most powerful teachings, like the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, place a premium on providing social justice; and James the Elder in his letter says that a faith that produces no works is a faith that isn't worth talking about. Justice, and a desire to see it done, is one of the defining characteristics of the God we worship as Christians, a justice animated by love for the afflicted, the powerless, and the disenfranchised.

Before the founding of the Republic, William Bradford saw the Massachusetts colony as having received a divine mandate to be a city on a hill, which light would show the people of the world what the Christian faith is meant to be. This was a motif President Reagan cited regularly throughout his presidency, albeit in terms of a civic rather than specifically Christian religion.

That's a bold ambition. The Torah called for a sabbath year, where debts would be canceled and slaves released; and it called for a Jubilee, which returned all land to its ancestral holders. The Torah also forbade collecting interest on loans, and required the people of Israel to treat foreigners among them with dignity and respect. For his part, Christ crossed social, ethnic and language lines and talked with people who were considered untouchable, took care of people's physical needs indiscriminately, and told the wealthy to give all their money to the poor if they wanted to follow him.

That's the sort of religion we should celebrate the freedom to exercise. Instead, lately, we've seen states such as Mississippi and North Carolina making the news because of “Freedom of Religion” laws they have passed guaranteeing the right of (usually Christian) business owners not to provide cakes, floral arrangements or other wedding services for same-sex couples.

That's a shocking contrast. We've subverted the religion based on the teachings of Jesus so that we can keep other people at arm's length in the name of morality. This is neither justice, nor is it a passion set alight by divine love. It is cold and doctrinaire, valuing people less than a moral code.

Demographically this is also the same group opposed to providing health care under the Affordable Care Act and that often opposes raising the minimum wage. It's a strange perversion of religion that won't support the happiness of same-sex couples as they begin a life together, but will insist that people who need health insurance shouldn't receive it, and that employers should be free of obligation to pay a living wage to their workers.

The pattern goes on. During the past year, two of the remaining presidential candidates of the Republican Party have called for turning away refugees of the Muslim faith, or for an outright moratorium on immigration of Muslims. And we all know what Donald Trump has said about Mexicans.

Meanwhile, our criminal justice system punishes white people far more leniently than it does convicts of color. A European American convicted of a violent crime can expect a sentence comparable to the sentence an African American receives for a nonviolent one. The Voting Rights Act, which once safeguarded the rights of African Americans in the South for decades, has been gutted; and in its wake, a series of laws has arisen that disproportionately affect their right to vote, to prevent voter fraud that objectively does not exist.

These are all things that should anger Americans as a betrayal of our country's values. For those of us who profess to be a people of faith, they should be a call to action, to transform our society and to establish justice.

Some 3500 years ago, God brought Israel out of Egypt, and set the people on course to transform the world around them with a law where the pursuit of justice was a religious observance. Under the kings David and Solomon, they did a decent job, so that the joint kingdom experienced a golden age and had an influence that reportedly went far beyond its borders.

“Justice, and only justice, you shall follow.” That is the mark of true religion.

In fact, it's the kind that God cares most about — and the only kind our neighbors ever notice.

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Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Leaving Egypt: Time to Get Growing (Part Two)

There is a story I heard once about a boy who was afraid to climb the stairs at his family's new house after they moved.

Where on earth do kids get these fears from? It's a silly fear, all things considered, but what are you going to do? People enjoy what they enjoy, and they're afraid of what they're afraid of. Still, it's a problem. So the boy's father makes him an offer: “Climb up to the first step, and jump off. I'll catch you.”

Now the boy is young, maybe only 3 years old. He's in awe of his father. Compared to the boy himself, the father is a large and powerful presence, someone who fills the room just by being there. He can be overwhelming and stern, but at the same time there is a tireless joy that undergirds the father's entire personality. It's more than a little perplexing; but the boy loves him, and so he agrees.

The first jump is more of a step than a leap, but the father is true to his word. He catches the boy before his foot touches the floor, almost before he even has had time to realize that his feet have left the first step. The boy smiles, and his father lifts him up onto the second step.

“Now,” says his father, “jump off the second step. I'll catch you.”

The boy is nervous. This step is ten inches off the floor, but his father is standing there, eyes full of encouragement, his arms stretched out. The boy takes a breath, closes his eyes and does it.

This time there's a moment of fear, but it's mixed with the exhilaration that comes from free fall. The boy feels his father's strong hands close on him, and maybe he even hears his dad make a whooshing nose like an airplane as his father swings him back up and puts him on the third step.

“Do it again!” the father says, and the boy laughs. “I'll catch you.”

Each time the boy jumps, his fear recedes amid a rush of excitement. It's a wonderful game they're playing, and by the time they have finished the fifth step, the boy's fears are forgotten. The stairs are no longer monstrous. They're exciting, wonderful, fun! Laughing with abandon, he needs no encouragement to climb to the sixth step all by himself.

“Now,” says his father, arms crossed in front of him. “Jump.”

The boy doesn't even hesitate. He is a bird in flight as he leaps off the stairs and into empty space, arms upraised. And then, the unthinkable happens. His father doesn't catch him. He doesn't even move. Instead, his father watches as the son lands on the wooden floor at the foot of the stairs with a loud thump. As the boy begins to cry, he sees on his father's face an emotion we can only describe as ironic satisfaction.

“There,” says the father. “That'll teach you.”

I'll admit that the first time I heard this story it left me bewildered. What kind of man plays a practical joke like that on his kids? It's just cruel. But of course, like all good stories, this one has layers that you have to think about before you can understand it.

The key here is the last line: “That'll teach you.” What's the lesson being imparted here, that you shouldn't trust anyone, not even your parents? That's a pretty sick and cynical lesson. It's not much better if we say that the lesson is that we should listen to our fears and avoid stairs. It's obvious that the father loves the boy, given that he spends so much time playing with the boy and teaching him not to be afraid. With that in mind, it stands to reason that the intended lesson is more nuanced than our immediate reaction would allow.

At the very minimum, one obvious lesson is that it's still stupid (and risky) to play on the stairs. Another is that sometimes the people you depend on will fail you, and that even though your father has been watching out for you, you won't always be able to count on him like you would like to.

And of course there is the obvious interpretation that this isn't a story about the mean things fathers do to their kids at all. It's a story about God, and the journey of faith that the Israelite people have had over history, beginning with the period right after God freed them from slavery.

In Christianity we often think of redemption as a fixed point in our lives. In some denominations this comes at the moment of baptism, when a priest prays over an infant and that child is cleansed of original sin. In other churches it comes later, with a personal prayer of repentance and commitment to following Jesus.

Regardless of how this act of redemption occurs, it's an accepted truth within Christianity that we are born out of harmony with God and need to be restored to that perfect peace. You can view it as something like passing through a wicket gate. One minute you're standing before the gate, groaning beneath the heavy weight tied to your back like sin. Then you step through the gate, kneel at the Cross, and the burden falls from your back. There will be dangers along the road and you'll have to pass through Vanity Fair, but in times to come, you can point back to that moment and know something real happened, and that you're now walking on the king's highway as a loyal subject.

Here's the thing, though. Redemption isn't a single event. It's a journey. Setting people free is only the first part of God's plan. It's not enough to be free if the first thing you want to do with your freedom is to want to return to Egypt. God's goal all along was to get Israel, a people who had lived as slaves in Egypt for 400 years, to cross the desert and enter the Promised Land.

In order to do this, God has to show the Israelites that there is nothing to fear. So when Pharaoh pursues the people and threatens to trap them by the Red Sea, God gets them to take a leap of faith and then destroys the Egyptian army. When the people grow hungry and fearful of starving, he sends them manna and quail. Then it's water. He even has them set aside a sabbath day for rest and relaxation. His goal throughout this process is the same as the goal of the storied father: He wants his son to overcome his fear and to learn to trust.

But just as the father in the story needs his son to rely on himself on the stairs, God has bigger plans for Israel than simply bailing them out with a miracle every time there is trouble. God wants his people to maintain a relationship with him, as adults

Redemption isn't just a single point in our lives. It's about growing up, becoming self-sustaining, and reaching the point that we can enter the family business.

The people are going to need the Torah.

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Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Leaving Egypt: Redeemed (Part One)

There's something I need to get off my chest. I'm not particularly a fan of the way the exodus is written.

It's a beautiful and moving story, full of pageantry. You want high-stakes drama? Nothing less than the freedom and even survival of the Hebrew people is at stake. Irony? God appoints an adopted son of Egypt as his agent, to confront Egypt at the height of its power. This is an epic story, one for the ages, as God of the slaves fights their oppressors and takes them down. But as storytelling goes, it's got some flaws.

Let's break it down.

In literature classes, professors will teach you that every story has four distinct stages: the introduction, the conflict, the climax and the denouement, which leads to the establishment of a new normal when the conflict is fully resolved. This is true throughout Western literature, whether you're watching a full-adrenaline movie like “The Avengers” or reading a story like “Goodman Brown,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The first stage is the introduction, in which the narrator establishes what counts as normal. In the story of the exodus, “normal” is pretty brutal. The Israelites have grown so numerous that the Egyptians have pressed them into slave labor. In fact, it's even worse than that. Fearing that the Israelites may rebel or side with the enemies of Egypt, Pharaoh has decreed that newborn Israelite boys are to be thrown into the Nile.

Next comes the conflict, which upsets the status quo. The best conflicts begin small and gradually grow in scope. This is the case in the book of Exodus, where conflict comes as a Hebrew woman named Yochavad hides her newborn son among the bullrushes, rather than let him be killed. Pharaoh's daughter finds the baby and recognizes him as a Hebrew; but rather than having him killed, she decides to adopt the boy and raise him as her own.

The boy, Moses, grows up and discovers his true heritage, and the conflict within the story grows as he does. Eventually Moses kills an Egyptian. When word gets out, he runs for his life into the desert. Out there he meets Jethro, high priest of Midian, and marries his daughter. Away from the palace life, Moses begins to tend sheep.

The climax is the pivotal part of the story. This is when the conflict comes into focus, and the protagonist must decide how to resolve it. The protagonist can do this by fighting to restore the original status quo, or by fighting to overthrow it. If the protagonist succeeds, then our story has a happy ending. If the protagonist fails, it is a tragic ending.

In Exodus, the climax is actually where the protagonist first openly appears. At the burning bush, God appears to Moses and explains that he has heard the cries of the Israelites and intends to set them free. God appoints Moses and his brother, Aaron, to be his representatives and to carry a simple message to pharaoh: Let my people go.

Up to this point, Israel has been the underdog. The only power they have on their side is a single god who skeptics would claim wasn't even strong enough to keep them from being enslaved in the first place. On the other side stand all the many gods of Egypt, the most powerful empire in the world at the time. Here at the climax, God declares that he will fight for his people and take them to a land of their own.

Following this declaration comes the denouement, as God begins to unleash a series of devastating plagues. In our contemporary way of looking at stories, the struggle here is between Moses and Pharaoh, or between God and Pharaoh. In truth, every plague that God sets loose is a blow against a different deity in ancient Egypt. This isn't a fight between Israel and Egypt; it is a proxy war among their gods. Each plague targeted a different Egyptian god, and showed how that god ultimately was powerless against the God of Israel.

The first plague saw the Nile turn to blood. Hapi, the god of the Nile, was unable to stop it. In fact, the Bible notes that the Israelites continued to have safe drinking water, a distinction made throughout the plagues to the very end. The Egyptians would suffer from every plague that hit the land, while the Israelites would be unharmed. Even if an Egyptian wanted to claim that the plagues were being sent by their own gods, they would still have to account for the Israelites not being affected.

Heqet, the Egyptian goddess of fertility, resembled a frog. In the second plague, frogs swarmed out of the Nile and covered Egypt after the plague.

Seth, god of the earth, was next to fall, during the third plague on Egypt. According to the biblical account, Moses lifted a handful of earth and threw it into the air. The dust became a plague of gnats that bit and stung the Egyptians wherever they were. Once again the Israelites were left unharmed and untouched.

And on it goes. The book of Exodus recounts cattle dying in the fields, followed by painful boils that erupted on the skin of the Egyptian people. Hail and fire fell from the skies and destroyed the crops in the fields. After that, a swarm of locusts covered the land and devoured what crops remain. By this time, according to the Bible, many of the Egyptians had stopped trusting their own gods to protect them and had begun listening to what Moses said because it was clear that the God of Israel could be depended on to do what he said.

Finally the sun god Ra was defeated by an unnatural darkness that blanketed the land for three days; and when the firstborn in Egypt all died in a single night, it was finished. Even Anubis was powerless. All that was left was for the people of Israel to walk out of Egypt, as free as they were intended to be. As finales go, this is a big one.

Except if you're familiar with the story, you know that this isn't the end. After that dramatic conclusion, Pharaoh changed his mind and pursued the Israelites, and overtook them at the shore of the Red Sea. Caught between a hostile army and the impassable waters of the Red Sea, the Israelites understandably panicked. They forgot everything that had happened in the past month and complained that God had brought them out of Egypt only to let them die on the seashore.

What came next is one of the most iconic moments in the Bible and in American cinema. We all know the scene by heart: Moses stretches out his staff, and as he strikes it against the water, the Red Sea parts. Israel passes through, unharmed, but when the Egyptian army tries to follow, the waters of the sea rush in and the entire army drowns.

Psalmists and prophets invoked the language of this scene for the next thousand years. The story itself evokes the older story of the Genesis flood that destroyed the wicked while the righteous survived in an ark. To Christians, the parting of the Red Sea foreshadows baptism and the new birth that comes from a life of faith in Christ. No matter your religious beliefs, it's impossible to imagine the Haggadah without the parting of the Red Sea.

But iconic and inspiring as it is, the scene is also anticlimactic. Think about it for a minute. For the past 13 chapters, the book of Exodus has recounted a titanic conflict over whether the Israelites would go free or remain as slaves in Egypt. That issue was settled midway through Chapter 12. It is done. It is finished. Why on earth are we going through it again?

If the story of the exodus were being written for the first time today, what author wouldn't end it with the Israelites leaving the city of Rameses as free people? It's the perfect ending to a perfect tale. God has struck the Egyptians so powerful a blow that they were handing over fine clothing, gold and silver, just to get the Israelites to leave before God did something else. It's a perfect time for the camera to pan out to a wide shot and fade to black before the credits roll.

Instead, we have the miracle of crossing the Red Sea too. It's almost as if the author had two endings he loved, and decided to keep them both instead of getting rid of one.

Either the story is screwed up, or we're missing the point of it.

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Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

what my dreams reveal about me

Dreams are a fascinating business because of what they reveal about us.

​I don't mean dreams in the sense of our ambitions, although that also is true. No, what I mean is that I love to hear people share the dreams they have at night when they're off in slumberland. The flying dreams. The dreams that make no sense. The dreams that were terrifying at the time but seem ridiculous in the light of day.

(We still laugh about the nightmare I had when I was 6 years old. I realized a few years ago that it was based on a "Schoolhouse Rock" video, but at the time, I was so frightened that I threw up on my younger brother in his sleep. We all laugh about that detail, except for Steve. For some reason, Steve doesn't find it funny at all.)

Some years ago, I had a dream that Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne were working at the Daily Bugle together. Not only did they know each each other's secret identity, each of them kept dropping hints about it in front of everyone else. "Don't act so batty, Bruce," Pete would say.

Another time, I dreamed about the Justice League. As the dream went on, my subsconscious mind started noticing continuity errors and would correct them. "No, Wonder Woman didn't fight in World War II," my mind would realize. "That was pre-Crisis continuity." And bam! The dream would change, and reflect that it was Wonder Woman's mother, Hippolyta, who had fought the Axis.

Last night I did it again. I've observed several times that we only have the word of the Rebel Alliance that the Galactic Empire was evil, and that the first Star Wars movie comes across more as propaganda than as a reliable account of the Battle of Yavin IV. So it's possible that Darth Vader is actually one of the good guys.

In my dream, the Galactic Empire was known by another name: the United Federation of Planets. It appears one of the responsibilities the Enterprise has had to deal with lately, is dealing with insurrectionists. So we had Commander Riker arguing with Han Solo, and Chewbacca fighting Lieutenant Worf. Plus the 11th Doctor had an appearance.

I told my children.

"She-Hulk showed up in one of my dreams once. The dream somewhat drew on 'Lucifer's Hammer,'" Oldest Daughter shared. "Your dream sounds weirder, though."

What do my dreams say about me? Middle Daughter was to the point: "It's official, dad. You're a geek."

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, March 28, 2016

an empty 'maranatha'

It's Sunday evening. My family is gathered around the dinner table as we have every Easter for the past fourteen years. There, in the center of the table, a wine glass stands on a saucer next to a bottle of wine.

“How much joy have we had this year?” I ask, and fill the wine a quarter of the way. “This much?”

My girls know the drill. “More than that!” they answer, and I fill it halfway to the top. “This much?” I ask.

“More than that!” I pour again. Three-quarters. “This much?”

“More than that!” Wine flows, and a moment later wine fills the cup past the rim and splashes joyously to the saucer below. We have friends. We have a home. We have one another. Middle Daughter has found a passion for the stage that will carry her well into adulthood. Oldest Daughter is in the home stretch of her junior year and thinking about college. For Youngest Daughter, every day is a new adventure, every moment a treasure to unpack. Life overflows with joy, and with love.

After we have measured our joy but before we eat the meal, comes what I am finding is the hardest part of Easter. My own wine glass in hand, I turn to Youngest.

“Before Jesus ascended into heaven, he told us he would return one day,” I tell her. “Open the door and invite him in.” I quickly add: “Don't let the dog out.”

Youngest knows the routine by now. She opens to the kitchen door and peers out into the back yard. “Maranatha,” she calls. “Come, Lord Jesus.”

There is a pause. Jesus doesn't come. “Maybe next year,” I say. Mr. Godot told me to tell you he won't come this evening, but surely tomorrow. 

It's been about two thousand years. How long are these Last Days supposed to last, anyway?

I had my religious awakening in 1988, about six weeks after high school graduation. While I was away at college I soon found myself drawn to an Assemblies of God church off campus. Services there were lively and boisterous, a marked departure from the staid Presbyterianism I had grown up in. There was an immediacy about worship there that I had never felt before, a sense that we were in the very presence of God and not just admiring him from a distance.

With that immediacy also came an urgency. Christ could return any day. The modern nation of Israel had formed in 1948, an event that to many evangelicals fulfilled key biblical prophecy in heralding the Second Coming. Adding to that urgency were the dramatic shifts in the popular zeitgeist and in geopolitical power over the course of that one decade.

For much of the 1980s the entire nation had lived under the cloud of nuclear war. Made-for-TV movies like “The Day After” in 1983 and “Countdown to Looking Glass” in 1984 carried the fear right into our living rooms. Conflicts like the military downing of a Korean Air Lines flight in September 1983 set the nation's teeth on edge. Even the pop culture reflected this fear, with songs like "99 Red Balloons" and "It's a Mistake" imagining nuclear war breaking out over a simple misunderstanding. (As it nearly did.)

Then in the late 1980s, reforms like glasnost and perestroika led to the breakup the Soviet Union. One by one the Baltic republics declared their independence and established democratic governments. The Berlin wall came down, and suddenly there were talks of reunifying the two Germanys for the first time since World War II.

With that much change afoot, it couldn't help but feel that Judgment Day was coming. And when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, armchair interest in biblical prophecy shot up in a way it hadn't since Hal Lindsey had published “The Late Great Planet Earth” in 1970 and Christian moviemakers started producing B-movies like “A Thief in the Night.” Jesus was coming! No one knows the day or the hour, but still it had to be soon. It had to be.

Except Jesus didn't return. In fact it's been 68 years since the founding of Israel, so significant that Edgar Whisenant once wrote a popular book, “88 Reasons Why the Rapture will be in 1988,” prompted by that event. (Spoiler: It didn't happen.) Whisenant later predicted the return of Christ in 1989, 1993 and 1994 as well. Jesus didn't return then either.

'And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations; and then the end will come.'

— Matthew 24:14

This has been going on for a while. The church fathers were so convinced that the Parousia was coming within their lifetimes that the Bible contains apostolic letters reassuring people not to panic that they were dying of old age before Christ's return. He's coming, Peter says. Just be patient. It's been about 1,980 years. How patient do we have to be?

I don't have a good answer for that. I'd love it if I could find a neat and tidy conclusion that makes the interminable wait seem worthwhile. The gospels tell us that Jesus is going to return, and it's the creeds that we recite; but year after year keeps going by. We keep waiting, and he keeps not returning.

Why do we do this? Is it because the Second Coming is supposed to be such a major event? At the Parousia, that wondrous appearing of Jesus, we're told that all will be made right. Fish will team in rivers and streams whose waters will be restored, and herds of buffalo will stampede across the plains again. The wicked will no longer feed off the anger in the land and turn us against one another, and the arrogant will no longer sit in places of power.

When Christ comes, we'll recognize the dignity of one another without pause or exception. We'll recognize the wrongs we've done one another over the centuries, and we'll ask forgiveness for not setting it right sooner. We'll apologize for separate drinking fountains and for glass ceilings, for stolen land and for stolen labor. We'll dismantle empire and repair the damage it has caused, and as we get to know our neighbors, we'll wonder why we ever avoided them before.

Is that why we wait, to remind ourselves what the Kingdom of God is supposed to look like? Do we have the promise of a Second Coming so that we can take seriously what he said the first time he came, and start working on that in the meantime?

Maranatha,” my daughter dutifully says. There is a pause. Jesus doesn't appear, just like he didn't appear last year, or the year before that.

“Maybe next year,” I say, and I think: “I doubt it.”

The doubt is all I have, Lord. I give it to you, and pray that it's enough.

Copyright 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Saturday and the Dead Christ

It is a horrible thing to have the life and hope sucked out of you.

On Thursday Peter and the other disciples were overflowing with hope. How couldn't they be? They had marched into Jerusalem the previous Sunday with Jesus on a donkey as the crowds waved palm fronds and threw their coats on the ground amid cries of “Hosanna!” Their moment had arrived. Change was afoot, and there they were, riding the wave that was going to sweep through Jerusalem, to all Judea and across the rest of the world. The day of redemption was at hand, and not only were they to witness it, they were part of it.

When did that hope begin to fray? Was it outside Jerusalem, when Jesus looked down on the city and foresaw his own death, and began to cry? Maybe it was inside the city, where the religious leaders were on edge than ever before. They used to debate, argue and judge. Now their questions carried daggers, and they used their words to conceal dangerous traps.

The menace that hung in the air that week took its toll on the disciples every time they breathed. The land was parched for want of justice, and people in the crowd itched for Jesus to light the fire of revolution. The leaders of the people knew this, and they looked at him with fear and worry and undisguised hatred.

Even Jesus himself seemed to be losing control. In the Temple he hurtled one stream of invective after another at his opponents, and he talked about his death more and more as each day passed. The disciples closed ranks and talked, and when Thursday night came they told him they had two swords. Hope, still strong, had begun to stumble a little.

That night the soldiers came without warning and arrested Jesus, and for a moment panic set in. But then hope rebounded. And why shouldn't it? Peter and the other disciples had seen Jesus in tough spots before, and he always managed to get out of them.

Just in the past week, they had seen the Pharisees and the Sadducees and even the Herodians lob one tough question after another after Jesus. Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? If a woman gets married to seven husbands and each one dies without her ever having a child, whose wife will she be at the Resurrection? Who gave you the authority to make such a scene in the Temple?

Every question masked a sword pointed at Jesus' throat. All week long the questioners had swung them at him in an effort to show that this messiah bled, and all week long Jesus avoided taking a single hit. The Sanhedrin had it in for him, everyone knew that. They had tried to take Jesus down before and it never worked. Pilate was a brutal dictator, but if the best minds of the Sanhedrin couldn't trap Jesus, how could a Roman? And if it did go wrong, there was still the Passover Amnesty.

Somehow it did go wrong. Pilate and the Sanhedrin didn't let Jesus go. He didn't pull off a last-minute miracle, and somebody else was released for the amnesty who didn't deserve it. Jesus was convicted and sentenced, and he died gurgling blood like a common thief. Not knowing what else to do, the disciples went and hid, hoping it was all some horrible nightmare.

Except it wasn't a nightmare. The sun came up Saturday morning, and Jesus was dead. They had thought Jesus was the messiah, sent by God, and now he was dead, and people don't get better from being dead. Everyone knew that, and if they doubted, all they had to do was to look inside some of the tombs outside the city. Jesus was dead.

How long do you think it took until Peter felt like an idiot? Three years ago he'd had a wife, a home and a job. Now he had no way to support a wife or family, and the authorities were watching him to see if he would follow the example of Jesus and try to start a movement of his own.

What about John and James? They were the sons of a prominent rabbi, a member of the Sanhedrin. Their father, Zebedee, had owned a fishing business, one that they had stood to inherit. They had given that up and now faced a lifetime of poverty.

Matthew probably had lost the most, financially. Before he became a disciple of Jesus, Matthew had been a tax collector working with the Romans. With the authority and power of Rome behind him, he not only could compel people to pay taxes, he could extort as much money as he wanted them for his own livelihood. People had pretended to be his friends because of his wealth and influence, but that had all changed three years ago. Anyone who remembered him now would remember him as a collaborator with the Roman occupiers, guaranteeing his life would be unpleasant and short.

And on it went for each of the other disciples. They had wasted three years of their lives on a dream, for nothing, for a man who had been good with words. He seemed to have come right out of the old days, when prophets knew how to perform miracles. but in the end he was just a man like every other man. Just as human. Just as mortal.

Jesus had promised them all something worth believing in. “The Kingdom of God has arrived,” he had told them. “Mountains will be laid low, and the valley will be raised up. The rich and powerful will use their wealth and influence to serve the poor instead of themselves. The outcast will be an honored guest at the feast. Women will enjoy the same respect afforded men. Everyone will have the chance to come in and sit at the table together. There will be justice.”

Now Jesus was dead, and all those promises had died with him. That whole Kingdom of God thing? Not going to happen.

I know someone out there is reading this who wants to interrupt and say that Sunday is coming. But here's the thing about Sunday: When it's Saturday, you can't see Sunday. It's too far off. On Friday you can hope for a miracle, but if you put your head inside the tomb on Saturday, there's a body there.

The body is wrapped in linen that's been stained with thickening blood and ooze, and it smells awful. The stench of death is so strong that you want to gag. They took Jesus on Friday and they flayed the skin from his back, and after they had tortured him to death, they shoved a spear in his side. All those smells that the body keeps inside have been brought out into the open. You can touch the body, but it's not going to move for you, no matter what you do. The muscles are stiff with rigor mortis. No one will answer when you call, and there's no one to give you hope. He's dead.

Saturday is an agonizing place to be. You believed with all your heart all that you had been told about this man, but suddenly that belief just isn't enough. You staked your hopes, your faith, your future and your very identity on Jesus, and suddenly it turns out that he's not who you thought he was.

How on earth could I ever have believed Jesus was the Son of God? That's a question you'll ask yourself a lot on Saturday, if you're willing to be honest. Did you honestly think that people rise from the dead? You know better than that, and so did the disciples. The tombstones of Judea were as full as the graveyards of the 21st century are with the remains of dead people. Check out your family tree sometime. You won't have to go back very many generations before you find withered branches. Dead is permanent. You know that in your very bones.

It's surprisingly easy to kill Jesus. I've seen parents do it by rejecting their children over their sexual orientation or gender identity. I've seen churches do it by telling women that they have no place in ministry, or no right to teach; and turning liberation into a prison. When Christ is dead, his promises of love and value have no meaning.

I've seen educators kill Jesus by suppressing science and concealing history. One day, their students get older and discover what they weren't taught in school. They realize that evolutionary biology actually makes a lot of sense, and so does the rest of science. Or they discover the side of history Christians are ashamed of: jim crow injustice, chauvanism, terrorism and war; and they wonder what else we're not owning up to. When Christ is dead, his claim to be the truth rings hollow.

Sometimes life itself is enough to kill Jesus with deep pains and bottomless griefs that have neither reason nor explanation. When Christ is dead, there is no end to suffering or to tears. All that there is an endless Saturday, a body in the grave, with no way out.

Holy Saturday is a place of reckoning. Some of us may come here only once, for a day, and then we leave. Others of us return again and again. Sometimes Saturday lasts only a day; sometimes it lasts for years.

Come in to the tomb, Christian. Make your peace with the end of Holy Week, and listen to the worms moving. It's Holy Saturday, and Christ's body isn't going anywhere.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.