To Build Up and To Destroy: Day 4

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The two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them, and bowed down with his face to the ground. He said, ‘Please, my lords, turn aside to your servant’s house and spend the night, and wash your feet; then you can rise early and go on your way.’ They said, ‘No; we will spend the night in the square.’ But he urged them strongly; so they turned aside to him and entered his house; and he made them a feast, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate. But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.’ 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.’ But they replied, ‘Stand back!’ And they said, ‘This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.’ Then they pressed hard against the man Lot, and came near the door to break it down. But the men inside reached out their hands and brought Lot into the house with them, and shut the door. And they struck with blindness the men who were at the door of the house, both small and great, so that they were unable to find the door.

 Then the men said to Lot, ‘Have you anyone else here? Sons-in-law, sons, daughters, or anyone you have in the city—bring them out of the place. For we are about to destroy this place, because the outcry against its people has become great before the Lord, and the Lord has sent us to destroy it.’ So Lot went out and said to his sons-in-law, who were to marry his daughters, ‘Up, get out of this place; for the Lord is about to destroy the city.’ But he seemed to his sons-in-law to be jesting.

 When morning dawned, the angels urged Lot, saying, ‘Get up, take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or else you will be consumed in the punishment of the city.’ But he lingered; so the men seized him and his wife and his two daughters by the hand, the Lord being merciful to him, and they brought him out and left him outside the city. When they had brought them outside, they said, ‘Flee for your life; do not look back or stop anywhere in the Plain; flee to the hills, or else you will be consumed.’ And Lot said to them, ‘Oh, no, my lords; your servant has found favor with you, and you have shown me great kindness in saving my life; but I cannot flee to the hills, for fear the disaster will overtake me and I die. Look, that city is near enough to flee to, and it is a little one. Let me escape there—is it not a little one?—and my life will be saved!’ He said to him, ‘Very well, I grant you this favor too, and will not overthrow the city of which you have spoken. Hurry, escape there, for I can do nothing until you arrive there.’ Therefore the city was called Zoar. The sun had risen on the earth when Lot came to Zoar.

 Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulphur and fire from the Lord out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground. But Lot’s wife, behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt. – Genesis 19:1-27

This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. – Ezekiel 16:49

I’ll be honest, I kinda hate everything about this story.

Lot has guests. The men of the city, say “hey, send out your guests so we can rape them!”

Lot’s response is “hey, guys! I have two virgin daughters! Rape them instead!”

It’s pretty disgusting.

Lot’s response is troublesome for our time and context and I need to believe that it would have been for his as well. However, the more problematic scenario, by his culture’s standards would be to let something bad happen to those that had been granted safety under his roof. To allow his guests to be harmed would have been so inhospitable, so shaming, that Lot was willing to offer up his daughters as an alternative.

Hospitality is a central value to Middle Eastern cultures even today. Once you offer someone a place under your roof, their needs and comfort become your utmost priority. It would also be a huge insult within the community to make threats toward a neighbor’s guests.

The writer of Genesis draws a direct correlation between this episode and God’s intention to destroy the city. This act of aggression towards a neighbor’s guests is despicable to God. To God’s credit, the destruction this time is limited to a city, not the entire of humanity.

Ezekiel describes Sodom’s sins as sins of greed, pride, and injustice. Greed really is the ultimate in inhospitable behavior. It is having more than enough to share and choosing to do otherwise. To live in comfort while others suffer goes against the value of hospitality, a value upon which the Bible seems to place a heavy emphasis. To be indifferent to someone’s suffering is just as bad as causing the suffering.

St. Ambrose is credited with saying the “if you have two shirts one belongs to you, the other belongs to the [person] with no shirt”. By the biblical standard, a people who hoard, a people who keep excess for themselves while others go without is an unworthy people. That should give those of us in the United States pause. I know how many shirts I have in my closet.

The world that must be built will ask us to go to great lengths to extend hospitality. It will ask us to go to incredible lengths to protect those to whom we have opened our doors. The world I imagine is one in which we take pride in how much we’ve shared, not in how much we’ve accumulated.

Sodom’s fate, I believe is the fate of all people who would prey on others or turn a blind eye to those being preyed upon. These are behaviors that must be purged.

 

 

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To Build Up and To Destroy: Day 3

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The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.’ – Genesis 6:5-7

The flood continued for forty days on the earth; and the waters increased, and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. The waters swelled and increased greatly on the earth; and the ark floated on the face of the waters. The waters swelled so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered; the waters swelled above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep. And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, domestic animals, wild animals, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all human beings; everything on dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, human beings and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark. And the waters swelled on the earth for one hundred and fifty days. – Genesis 7:17-24

Then Noah built an altar to the Lord, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt-offerings on the altar. And when the Lord smelt the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. 
As long as the earth endures,
   seedtime and harvest, cold and heat,
summer and winter, day and night,
   shall not cease.’ – Genesis 8:20-22

If I were reading this story for the first time as an adult, I wouldn’t think much of this “the Lord” person. First, He (ahem!) makes humanity, then he sees that they are hella evil, so instead of just wiping out the humans (virus much?), He wipes out everything, with the exception of his handpicked guy and handpicked guy’s family and enough animals to hopefully start the process over again. They were likely unaware at this time that certain wild animals do an awful job of breeding in captivity.

Then, after wiping out all land-based life on earth (good time to be a fish), handpicked guy has a barbecue and He’s like “damn, that smells so good, I’m never wiping out humanity again, pinky swear!”

In their attempts to understand the Divine, the writers of the Hebrew scripture often gave God some of humanity’s worst traits. God comes across as fickle, temperamental, subject to fits of rage. Again, I think this says more about the writers of the Hebrew scripture and the masters they served than it does about God.

What I find most intriguing about the depiction of God in this story is the sense of regret. Regret suggests that mistakes were made and in this story, God seems to show regret twice, once for having made humanity and once for the way God chose to deal with their evil.

It’s the second regret that most intrigues me. God’s decision to never destroy the earth again comes from the realization that people gonna people… in other words, humanity is just evil. If I destroy them every time they act evil, I’ll be destroying them every few centuries.

This, to me, seems to mark the beginning of God changes God’s methods of human persuasion. Or perhaps, this is when God starts thinking about persuading humans to suck less. Humanity can’t be redeemed by hitting the reset button every time God feels disgust with them. Moreover, evil can’t be vanquished with evil.

The flood was a hideous act. We need to be able to say that a God who would destroy His own creation in such a childish act is no god worth worshipping. In our building of a new world, the destruction that must ultimately take place can’t be on the level (or worse) than the evil that needs to be destroyed. As Audre Lorde says, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”.

Even God needed to learn this lesson. And a God that learns? That’s a God I can get behind.

 

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To Build Up and To Destroy: Day 2

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See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant. – Jeremiah 1:10

The prophet Jeremiah is given a call. It is a call to do public theology. His task is to interpret what is happening in the world through the lens of what God is doing in the world. It is no small task.

It is, I believe, the task that many of us are called to as well.

I came into ministry when “postmodernism” was the word of the day. How do we do church in the midst of postmodernism? What is a postmodern church? What is truth when people no longer accept absolutes?

The work of the postmodern church leader was seen to be deconstruction. So… we tore everything apart. We dissected, we analyzed, we decolonized.

In the midst of that, many of us had a good time, seeing ourselves as “prophetic”. We stuck out our tongues at the institution and and gave a finger to the old order.

But deconstruction is easy, relatively speaking. Reconstruction is hard.

Do you know much about the reconstruction period in the United States? I don’t. We glossed over it in high school history classes. It’s only in my adulthood that I’ve learned a thing or two about that era. It was a time of previously unprecedented black wealth and black representation in government. This, of course, lead to incredible backlash. The KKK was birthed in the reconstruction.

Reconstruction is about centering new voices and creating a new locus of power. This, for my money, is also what the Gospel is about; centering the kingdom of God above any of the earthly kingdoms that claim dominion. It’s putting love, justice, and peace, over fear, inequality, and violence.

This is a political reality, of course, and that so often is where we leave it. But this is also a personal reality. We internalize the powers of the kingdoms of this world. We internalize hate, violence, greed, oppression, division, and domination. They color our day to day interactions in insidious ways, often too subtle to notice.

They must be torn down.

Much as Advent is about making room for Christ to be born into the world, Lent is about making room for the new creation to be born both in the world and in us. In order for that to happen, we have to demolish some things. That destruction, though, should always be with an eye toward the new thing that is to come.

For the remainder of Lent, I will be looking at passages of Scripture that hit on this theme of things being torn down and new things being built. Sometimes those new things are structures, sometimes they are people.

I think the time for reconstruction is upon us. What we build will come from the ashes of what has fallen. It won’t be perfect. It will one day make way for another, better thing. That’s okay. Our job is to do what we can with the tools we have at our disposal right now.

Whether that be building or destroying…

 

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To Build Up and To Destroy: Ash Wednesday

 

 

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By the sweat of your face
    you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
    for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
    and to dust you shall return.  (Gen. 3:19) 

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”.

Depending on who you ask, there are many responses to this phrase which is ubiquitous on this first day of the Lenten season. For some, it is a sober reminder of their mortality. For others, it is a reminder of the wages of sin. Still for others, and I fall in this camp, it is a hopeful reminder of the circular nature of our lives.

In the dust we find our beginning. God, seeing all that She has made, moves through the garden examining the flora, fauna, and all manor of beast. It is good. One piece is missing. All of this is good, but She is in search of the very good. She reaches down and here I imagine Her like a child with play-doh, bending, stretching, molding the form of the dirt into its perfect shape. There it is, the human made from hummus, the adam made from adamah. The dirt man. It lies there, motionless. A lump of clay. The world’s largest dust bunny. Here lies humanity, with all the potential in the world. To nurture, to steward, to care, and to love. But also to tear down, to destroy, to fear, and to insult. This is our beginning, waiting for the breath of life to enter us and make us whatever fate might have us to be.

In the dust we find our end. After the years have passed… with any luck there have been a good many years, filled with love, laughter, community, music, sex, food, play, and meaningful work. Though for far too many, those years are filled with heartbreak, abuse, loss, hunger, tears, mourning, and loneliness. For the vast majority, the years have held a combination of the two categories interspersed with moments of boredom, drudgery, and mindlessness. For some the years are far too few. “Tragic” is the word we use in those cases. Some live well into old age, and yet we still hate to see them go. In all cases, the body breathes its last, returns the breath of God to its source, and begins its journey home. Oh, we don’t like to think about this part, the decay, the entropy, the dis-integration. But this part of the journey too. When done well, we give the earth back that which it can then use to be the foundation for new life. No, it won’t be us, per se, but it will be our gift to earth, a deposit into the bank from which we have made so many withdraws. We feed the worm and the microbe who nourish the soil and make space for the new thing that will be formed from the soil, waiting for the breath of life.

The symmetry is beautiful.

The pronouncement made in Genesis 3 is one of judgment. The first people have sinned and in response, God tells them of the one inescapable truth of life: life is hard. There is toil and labor of all sorts and in the end you return to the ground which may have given you some sustenance, but more frequently gave you a sore back and bleeding fingers. You’ll have to live your days with the knowledge that your end will come. That’s hard. Yet even in this first pronouncement of divine justice, God sneaks in this little piece of grace: The dust was your beginning, the dust will be your end. Your body is finite, subject to the whims of the seasons. And yet in that finitude, you will be part of the infinite cycle of life, death, and rebirth. From today’s dust may come tomorrow’s flower. Buried in it may be the seed which gives nourishment to the next generation of things that are called good. Or even very good.

So embrace it. You are dust, marvelous, living, breathing, dancing, working, playing  Spirit-filled dust. A transport for the breath of God until It goes home. It is a glorious thing, not to be wasted.

 

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Don’t Look Away

 

Dr. Ford

I’m struggling to concentrate today. For most of the last week, I was on vacation and limited my social media intake. This morning, I fully re-engaged…

…and it is hard.

This morning, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford is testifying before the Senate Judicial Committee about the sexual assault she experienced at the hands of Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh. This morning, many of my female friends are expressing how they are being re-traumatized by a system that either doesn’t believe women or, more likely, believes women but don’t care. This morning, the aftermath of “America’s Dad” being sentenced to 3-10 years for drugging and sexually assaulting numerous women is still reverberating. This morning is two days out from the President of the United States being laughed at by world leaders at the United Nations and half a day removed from The Mad King giving a press conference that was bizarre even by his standards.

I miss being on break from social media. I hate all of the hard.

I was tempted during my break to think about taking a longer hiatus from social media. That statement must floor people who know me well. I love social media and have always been an “enthusiast”. But lately, it’s been hard. It’s been hard since the election. It got harder with the inauguration and the almost daily fear of whose civil rights will be stripped away next or of which former allied nation we’ve now alienated. All of that has been exhausting.

But the hardest thing has been the stories. Stories like Dr. Ford’s. Stories like my wife’s. Stories like those of so many of my friends, family, and colleagues of men forcing themselves upon them. Those stories have flooded my social media, especially Twitter, and it’s hard. It’s hard because I feel complicit by my own bad behavior. It’s hard because I hate to imagine the fear and humiliation that so many who are so dear to me have faced. It’s hard because I am raising daughters. It’s hard because I am raising sons.

It’s hard and I want to look away.

And while there are many reasons for me to re-examine my relationship with social media, the echo chamber effect, the time wasted, the constant sense of being “on”, the tedium of everybody’s “hot takes”, etc…, I don’t want the reason I separate myself from it to be because I don’t what to look at what’s happening in the world.

One of the frustrations in my current work is that people don’t seem to want to talk about HIV anymore. I believe that is largely because, as a society, we can afford to look away. With a disease that affects largely the most marginalized of the marginalized and is fully manageable for those with resources, it is easy to avert your eyes. And yet to do so is another form of privilege. Privilege is the freedom to look away from another’s suffering. It is a privilege we exercise all too freely.

This morning, I decided to sit with my discomfort. I decided to read the harrowing stories. I forced myself to read things that made my stomach turn. I can’t look away. Not if I want to be a part of the solution. Not if I want to teach my sons right from wrong. Not if I want my daughters to know their own strength and dignity. Love says that I can’t look away. As a man, I could choose to look away from the pain of women, just as white people often choose to look away from the pain of people of color. It’s not what I believe God would have of me.

Don’t get me wrong, in the current environment, we can’t stay plugged in 24/7. I’m getting to a place where I need more breaks than I did before. I feel too deeply and I get overwhelmed. I need to make the space to do what I am doing now; processing and regrouping. But as much as I want to, I can’t numb myself to the pain of others. I’d be no good to anyone. Sometimes, I have to sit with all of the misery, if only to utter “Lord, have mercy!”. At the end of the day, it is compassion that I believe to be the highest of virtues. And we can’t suffer with someone unless we’re willing to look at them and see them until their pain becomes our own. I pray for Dr. Ford that she is seen today. I pray that everyone who has a story like her’s has someone in their life who will see them. And I pray that we as a nation will not look away and choose to be a better people.

Are You Ready For Some Football?

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Last year, my wife and I joined many others across the country in boycotting the NFL. There were a lot of competing hashtags out there, always a bad sign for a “movement”, but the one that we used was #NoKaepNoNFL. I did a whole series of blog posts last season under that title. You can look them up if you feel so inclined.

The conversation around whether or not we would resume watching the NFL in the 2018 season was fairly short.

“I don’t know if I can do another season without the NFL”

“Me neither”

“Cool”

Who said which line depended on the day. At the end of the day, what is bringing us back to watching is not some high-minded set of principles. No, we’re watching because we really, really, really want to.

That said, I have given this a lot of thought. Were I forced to rationalize, knowing that for some no rationalization would be enough, I would say the following:

*Last year’s boycott was largely ineffective. It was ineffective because it was co-opted by the president. It was ineffective because it was supported by people who had no skin in the game, namely liberals who didn’t watch the game to begin with. It was ineffective because the conversation was dominated by those who insisted the issue was about respect for the flag, country, military, and anthem. It was ineffective because it lost sight of its real goals.

Effective boycotts have organization behind them. Someone creates a cohesive message, disseminates that message through the proper channels and people are disciplined enough to stay on message. There was never any of that here. The fact of the matter is that Colin Kaepernick was trying to send a message, not start a movement. The message was missed willfully by many. And it seems that Mr. Kaepernick has largely moved on to other means of communicating his message.

* The ineffectiveness of the boycott may be my headiest reason, but it’s not my deepest felt. I am, to no insignificant degree, resuming my consumption of the NFL for my son. Thomas has become fanatical in his fandom. I sit back, like Dr. Frankenstein, during most of our conversations wondering what kind of monster I have created. His joy of the game reminds me that it is just that, a game. He’s so fun to watch games with. I love breaking down the games with him afterwards and predicting winners and losers of upcoming games. His childhood enthusiasm for the game brings me to a childlike state. Of course, we talk about why I didn’t watch last year.I remind him that players are real people, a thing he needs little reminder of because he has seen Ben Roethlisberger at church and went to a VBS with his son. We talk about sportsmanship, selfishness, being a good winner, being a good loser, discipline, and teamwork. As someone who doesn’t get to see their kids as often as they like, I’m not throwing away the easiest entry point for relationship with my son. That matters to me more than any protest.

* Moving to even shallower waters, there is another, more basic reason that I am watching the NFL this year: life sucks. To be fair, my life is actually pretty great right now, but every morning I wake and remember that Toupee Fiasco is still in the White House, and my existential dread returns. When I see influential “Christian leaders” get in bed with the politics of the right and set the tone for what is and what is not “Christian”, my heart breaks. The gulf between the rich and the rest of us gets larger. Our country is rolling back environmental protections and human rights in the name of profit. Half the country doesn’t care that this is happening and actually supports it. It’s sad and overwhelming and I want to escape. Last year, having my favorite sport so heavily politicized added to the general feeling of despair that current affairs produced. I got all the politics, none of the fun. It was draining. It became yet another thing to mourn.

A theme that is developing in our house is reclaiming joy (I’ll have more to say about that at a later date). This year, I am reclaiming the joy of watching the NFL. I’m going to a bar this afternoon where I’ll be able to watch the Steelers, Shannon will be able to watch the Ravens, and our friend will be able to watch his beloved 49ers. We’ll drink and eat, we’ll yell at the TV and cheer, we’ll be around like-minded folks who love the sport. I have a fantasy team going. We’re called the Space Force Chaplains. And Shannon, Thomas, and I have each chosen one team from each division that we’re going to root for besides our primary teams. I want to squeeze as much enjoyment out of this season as possible.

I’m sure some of my friends are disappointed in this decision. I know that some people, former fans, have decided not to watch again this season. I support them if that’s what their conscience dictates for them. I hope they won’t judge me too harshly. I guess that brings me to a final reason I’m watching this year: I’m pretty tired of the purity culture of the left. I’m tired of the “Woke Olympics”, where we all compete to be more socially aware than each other. I’m aware of the issues that Colin Kaepernick was trying to bring into the social conscience. I am a black man. I know the issues very well. The culture of the left cancels people who do not achieve a certain level of awareness. It is tiresome to watch. If my watching football disqualifies me from competing for wokeness, then Thank God! I didn’t want to participate in these games in the first place. There is no non-problematic way to participate in American culture. There is no pure way to be a part of a consumerist culture. Most everybody I know is doing their best to get by and who am I to judge what another person needs to add a small piece of joy into their lives. Our litmus testing each other is really destructive and counter-productive.

There’s a piece of me that feels like part of being okay with myself is admitting that I am a flawed, complex person with vices and moral gray areas all over the place. The NFL has always been one of those areas and I’m excited to welcome it back into my life.

Go Steelers!

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