Hello from my office on a Friday afternoon,
Between meetings and a couple of other things (including grading), I am considering some things in light of my Bible as Literature course and wanted to write. This past week, my Bible as Literature student have asked interesting and thoughtful questions about life (and beyond), and while it is not a religion class, when you are using the Bible as one of the central texts of the class, it is not surprising they might ponder and ask things that demonstrate they are trying to figure out questions of context, authority, and authorship and how those concerns might push them to consider what they have heard (either within their church background or without a specific church background), be taught, or as part of their own maturing and growing process. I think I have been pondering a bunch of things in response to their inquiries.
Certainly, an element of that is understanding one’s mortality. If my adoptive mother were alive, she would be 98 years old tomorrow (she lived to the age of 68). In terms of my own life, it is 32 years tomorrow that I had my first major abdominal surgery, while I was an intern pastor in Big Lake, MN, at the hospital in Coon Rapids, MN. I still remember how terrible the prep was for all of that and how I learned quite positively that I was allergic to erythromycin. Most assuredly, other things have happened since then to remind me of my own mortality, and that is more a case of reality that I would have ever imagined. Today as I searched another situation, I found that another person for whom I have an unparalleled appreciation and to whom I owe so much for their care was my cousin, Joanne Wiggs. I found out that she has passed away and joined her husband Jim, who had passed only 9 months before. They were both so good to me. I am sad more than some know that so much had changed in a situation that I was not involved in either service. They were one of the last few people I visited before leaving the Midwest to come back to Pennsylvania. They had grace and charm (both of them) in ways few people ever have, and I imagine ever will. It gets back to some of what I addressed in my last blog about civility and decorum. I remember my father thinking that Joanne was the most consummate hostess ever, and he was correct. I am sorry they are both gone. The picture at the beginning of the post is my picture of them about 9 1/2 years ago.
That was a slight digression, but an important one. It is sad to lose people. This morning what I woke up thinking about was the idea of religion and dying. It was not a morbid idea for me, but rather one of systematics. I do have students in my BAL course who claim to not believe in God, are unsure there is a higher power, and imagine nothing occurring when one passes except we bury them and continue on with our life. Hence my rather stark title. What actually happens when we die? Do we end up in some sort of purgatorial, soul-keeping holding cell until a second coming? Do we die and immediately we are away that there is something beyond, be it heaven (or some kind of eternal bliss) or hell (for me, the condition where there is an absence of anything good)? Certainly the fact that a number of students take a Bible as Literature course can be traced to a number of reasons (and some of it is getting credits to graduate), but I think for many it is their first foray into making whatever faith they come to college with their own versus it being merely what their parents tell them to believe or model for them. I think what I realized this morning in my early morning puzzling was a sort of if there is no real God and there is nothing beyond our demise, then it really is a dirt name, and nothing else need be considered. One of the students working on their paper stopped by yesterday and asked me how teaching the Bible as Literature affected my own personal faith. This is another thing I have deliberated upon a number of times. However, I think for me that is one of the amazing things about faith. From where does it come (which I, of course, have some specific thoughts ~the power of baptism), but assuredly, there are those who argue that it comes from our own human frailty. It was interesting to listen to one of my students from another class address some of that very thing this past week. Because I no longer wear a clergy shirt, and formerly being a pastor is not something I generally address, when students find out that is part of my background, I get a wide variety of questions.
Yet as I have noted, teaching the Bible as Literature class might be the thing that most affects my own piety as well as the practice of that. Faith is best described for me in Hebrews 11:1. I said this when I was in seminary; I stated it as a pastor, and now as the professor, it has not changed. I think back to when I was a Sophomore in college and one of the freshmen students told me they could prove that God exists. They thought they would have an ally in this bit older pre-seminary student. They were not sure what to respond when I told them they were full of S____T and that I did not believe them, promptly followed by challenging them to do so. There is little one can say, calculate or demonstrate that proves God with any finality. It simply does not work. However, that sort of logic also works the other way, there is little that can be calculated or reasoned that proves there cannot or is not a God. In addition, I will go as far to say that much of the damage done to faithful people or their faithful attempts to be faithful are done by well-meaning (and sometimes less than well-meaning) Christians. I call them evangelical bulldozers. They think they can rollover or flatten any dissension about one questioning how God works. Their arrogance frustrates me (my rhetorically correct response to them). Posolutely, throughout Christian history, the role of the church by its arrogance, its abuse of power, and its dissemination of doctrine that instills fear more than most anything else, has created more questions than it has perhaps answered.
This semester I focused on the issue of contextuality in terms of the Bible being written by specific people at a particular point in history, noting that all writing is affected by the culture in which it is created. I tried to help my students see some of the things they merely accept without question because it is in the Bible and why that can be problematic for them. I think the response of a student this semester to the temptation story in Genesis 3 will be a life-long memory. Suffice it to say when I asked how it was Eve spoke “snake” or the snake spoke “human,” my student was a bit perplexed. She placed her head into her hands and shook her head overwhelmed by the indubitably unexpected consideration my question created for her. My comment to all my students is the same, but in this BAL course, the statement is a bit more profound. I tell them regularly that God gave them a brain to do more than hold their ears apart, and furthermore, they should use it. I wonder in my own piety which God would I like to meet? What I mean by such a statement is that I know the Bible demonstrates (or figuratively illustrates) both a powerful and complex God. What are those specific moments when we would hope to have our Moses-type encounter with God? Where is God at those moments? Who is the God we would hope to meet? I think for the most part, I would like to meet God and speak with him at those times when most of what I see does not make sense. I think I would like to meet (and yes, arrogantly ask) God when I am those times where things seem the most unfair. Those are the times when I question God’s power or ability to intervene. Those are the times that the consequence of our supposed sinfulness most vexes me. I wish our selfish arrogance did not have so many consequences.
There is much more to say about all of this, but as we head this Sunday into the liturgical season of Advent, the paraments (the colored cloth in the chancel area) will be blue. Blue is a color of both comfort and hope. It is a season where the haunting music that foretells the Christmas story reminds us of what is coming. While I am not a proponent of Christmas in the stores at Halloween or before, after Thanksgiving the Advent season is actually one of my favorite times. I think that was something that started earlier in my life, but it was something that really was instilled in me when I traveled around Germany during the advent season in 1985. There is something about organ music and chorale music that will always life my spirit in ways few things can. Awake, Awake for Night is Flying, O Come, O Come Emmanuel, Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming, Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, Comfort, Comfort Ye My People are some of the things that come to mind. I think there is something haunting, and yet the melancholy of the season also has an undertone of hope. That returns me to my cousin, Joanne and her husband, Jim. The two of them created an amazing marriage and the love they had for each other was something all of us can only hope to find. They were married for 62 years and only apart for 9 months after his passing. The unquestionable affection and love they had was never someone could not see or feel. The way in which they made you welcome in their home was encompassing. Their home on Summit Street was more of a home to me through the years than my own. They were also people of immense and prodigious faith. They attended mass every morning and I learned much about my own faith watching them practice theirs. . . . this little exercise had me searching cemeteries back in Iowa. I remember going to Graceland Park and Floyd cemeteries before every Memorial Day growing up to clean and do yard work on the graves of the family, my father’s in Graceland and my mothers in Floyd, which for those not from my hometown is named after the only person to die on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and he is buried above the Missouri River a bit south of my hometown. So indeed, they are all in the dirt, some in caskets and vaults and some cremated. Is there a purgatory type of thing happening there on the Morningside portion of Sioux City and what was called the South Bottoms where Floyd Cemetery is? Is there something more? Is it merely a dirt resting place and there is nothing more? There are times I struggle yet to understand how it all works and what it all means, but as I enter the season of Advent and I remember the birthday of a mother tomorrow and an older brother on Tuesday, I find that for my own piety, I believe there must be something more. It is more than ashes to ashes and dust to dust. Indeed, as I once intoned, “Almighty God, source of all mercy and giver of comfort: Deal graciously, we pray , with those who mourn, that, casting all their sorrow on you, they may know the consolation of your love . . . ” (Occasional Services Book). With that I offer the following in this season of Advent. I hope you might find peace and comfort in its music.
Thank you always for reading.