I want to share a story about a close friend. Call it a parable if you will. If you don't like my more religious posts, you're going to hate this one. If you're interested in finding out what exactly I think is wrong with American religion at the moment, though, read on.
My friend had a brother she had long since given up on. They had been close once, but he had drifted. He started using drugs and was often distant and occasionally abusive. She used to visit him often, but her visits were becoming less and less frequent.
What was perhaps most hurtful to her was the way this experience challenged her religious faith. She and her brother had been brought up in a church where she learned that God was in control of everything. She tried to continue believing this, but it was evident that her brother had long since lost any connection with what they had learned in Sunday School. His faith was dead.
She, however, suffered the long, slow decline of a faith challenged by the daily confrontation with pain beyond endurance. The more debased her brother became, the more angry she became at God and the church for letting him go. Try as she might to will herself beyond such doubts, they instead began to fester and wear away at her own soul.
The last time she had seen her brother, he was living in a box somewhere in a bad part of town. What she couldn't help but notice above all was how bad he and everything around him smelled. She might be able to put up with the debasement and poverty if her nose weren't also offended by the vile odor of decay and death. It was too much to bear.
Imagine yourself in her shoes. What you need isn't just a new brother. You need a new God. One who, instead of "being in control," is willing to go in there with you amid the bad smell and everything that has led to it. One who, in fact, is there already. This is not omnipotence as we normally understand it. It is something far more powerful, since it doesn't shrink from the odor, decay, doubt and despair of death itself.
All right; I confess I made this all up, with a slight prod from a Facebook comment on somebody else's post. The subject was a sermon on Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. This is a story that a lot of people probably assume that only hard core Bible fanatics take seriously. However, all of us who go to lectionary churches - those that follow a prescribed series of readings linked to the liturgical year - heard a sermon on this difficult text this morning. Many probably heard it pointed out that the text is oddly appropriate to current events. Everything is going haywire at once, it seems, and, like Lazarus in the tomb, the mess stinks to high heaven. What kind of God can you possibly appeal to when things get this way?
Part of the answer can be found in another lectionary text from this morning: one that lots of people also have trouble taking seriously. In it, a valleyful of dry bones comes skittering back to life and dances merrily off to Jerusalem, where God will welcome them back and become, once again, all in all to them. This vision came to Ezekiel some time after the one that apparently got him started on his gig as a prophet, and that deserves to be equally well known. It's right there in the first chapter. Amid elaborate metaphorical language that clearly isn't intended to be taken literally, Ezekiel describes seeing a God in human form who addresses him as "ben Adam:" Son of Man.
What happened to Ezekiel was weird not only because God, upon whom nobody had previously been allowed to look directly, now appeared seated on a throne in human form. It was also weird because Ezekiel saw this vision on the banks of the river Chebar, in the middle of Babylon, and that was not where God was supposed to be. God was about as likely to appear to somebody there as to walk into a stinking tomb with a four-day-old corpse in it.
Thus, it's fair to say that - as the lectionary makes clear - the idea of a God who will get down and dirty with Creation has broad inter-testamental support. This is a God whose vast transcendence is matched only by intimate immanence. It is not, however, the omnipotent God of popular fable. As I'm suggesting, it is something much more.
It's clear that, much like Lazarus's purported corpse, the omnipotent God has gotten a bad smell for a lot of people. As a result, we're hearing appeals to all kinds of other deities that seem to promise something more appealing: deities like "capitalism," "fiscal discipline," "spending cuts," and the ever-popular "American exceptionalism." One of the main reasons I started this blog is that I'm tired of seeing all these gods mixed up together. The messy one is the one I'm interested in: the one who, as I've been suggesting lately, exposes the others I just mentioned for the false idols they are. I understand why those false idols appeal to so many people right now. I just don't believe in them, because not one of them is willing to go into that foul-smelling dump where what's left of my made-up friend's brother has been left for dead.
I hope my metaphors are not so broad that their relevance to current events isn't clear. As Lent marches to its culmination, things are starting to stink badly, and some serious metanoia (It means "renew your mind," remember?) is called for. Who's joining me?