And Who Would’ve Thought…It Figures

In October I decided, rather on a whim, to order a genetics test from 23andMe.  It’s a company that compares your DNA to populations all over the world and lets you know where your ancestors likely hailed from.  I didn’t do this because I doubted my parentage at all (did you hear that, Mom?  I believe you.  Maybe other people who see us together assume I’m adopted, but I do not.  Anymore), but I wanted to see my father’s side of the family tree more clearly.

 

My dad passed away when I was very young.  His mother passed when he was very young, and his father died almost exactly two years after Dad did.  So while I had a vague idea of the Benson family heritage as communicated to me by my mother and aunt, I still felt a bit rootless.  I knew we were Russian and Polish Jews, but that’s it (and to be honest, I wasn’t even sure how Polish we were.  I came across a family tree partly filled out in my baby book, and it traces my paternal grandfather’s heritage to Russia and my paternal grandmother’s heritage to Turkey, but it went no farther back than that.)

 

When I decided to take the test, I realized the results may not tell me anything I didn’t already know.  After all, they wouldn’t tell me who my ancestors were or what they were like or when or why they immigrated.  But I still thought it would be worthwhile.  I mean, if I had a nickel for every time someone asked, “What are you?” I’d have…a lot of nickels.  Enough for an ice cream cone at least.  Or a pizza bagel (I am so HUNGRY.  I don’t know if you can tell.)  And while I answered people’s inquiries with varying levels of truthfulness (more on that later), it always bothered me that I didn’t know the specifics of my dad’s ethnicity.  Lately, I’ve summed it up by saying that half of me is Asian and half of me is some mix of Eastern European Jew.  The genetics test, I hoped, would bring my paternal half into sharper focus.

 

Fast forward to December: The results came in, and they were…surprising.  I was on the phone with my mom at the time, and I think the first words out of my mouth were, “I’m Irish?!”  I would have thought it was a fluke if the rest of the report hadn’t corresponded to what I already knew.  Japanese?  Check.  Southeast Asian?  Check.  Native American?  Check.  Ashkenazi?  Only 2%.  Eastern European?  0.6%.  And then there was the big number at the top–British & Irish 17.2%  Something was very wrong.  I wasn’t supposed to be Irish (or British).  Or Western European at all.  I was supposed to be a Russian, Polish Jew.  I was flummoxed.  My mom was flummoxed.  My aunt was flummoxed.  I really like the word “flummoxed.”  So descriptive.

 

Altogether, the test pegged me as being about a quarter Northern European (17% British/Irish and then about 5% broadly Northern European, which I guess means they can’t pin the DNA down to any specific group within Northern Europe.)  This all pointed to my having a British/Irish grandparent.  Only that couldn’t be.  My mother’s parents were both accounted for, and neither were white, let alone British/Irish.  My father’s mother was named Esther Abolafia, which doesn’t scream Irish to me.  And my father’s dad, Philip Benson was supposed to have descended from Russian and Polish Jews.  Years ago, my aunt had even flown to New York to speak with my grandfather’s family, and they had confirmed that this was true.  We were Jewish.  Jewish to the core.  Only now it seems, maybe not so much.

 

Frustratingly, my search for answers had only turned up another mystery.  Even more infuriating, I couldn’t see a way of solving it.  The pertinent players were all long dead.  I could only figure that someone had fooled around on somebody in my family’s recent history and gotten away with a doozy of a lie.  Perhaps a milkman by the name of Cormac O’Shaughnessy had, um, serviced my great grandmother and she had passed the child off as her husband’s. (Looking at my fantasy scenario now I can see that the math doesn’t really add up, since the adulteress would have had to be Irish as well to make it work, but I think it’s pretty well documented that arithmetic and I are not on speaking terms.)  Anyway, that’s about as far as my speculation went.  The only logical explanation, to my mind, was that one of my grandparents was begotten of a randy, Irish milkman and never knew it, and no one was ever going to know it because the truth was lost to history.  Or so I thought.

 

One of the features of 23andMe is that they match you up with possible DNA relatives.  I have a whole list of 3rd to 4th and beyond possible cousins who share small segments of my DNA.  But my closest relative in the system was a predicted second cousin, who I only knew as P.  I didn’t contact P because I have nearly crippling social anxiety, and it’s a bit of an awkward conversation to initiate (Hi, I think we might be related.  Do you have any idea how?)  I hate awkward conversations like I hate the Patriots.  The antipathy runs true.

 

This is all kind of important because a few days ago (has it really only been a few days?  What a short, strange trip it’s been) I received an email, not from P himself but from his cousin, Alice.  I’m so grateful that Alice was brave enough to ask those awkward first questions.  She asked if I had any known connections to the C family, and I answered that I didn’t.  I had never heard of the Cees.  And then, interestingly, she asked me if I had expected my genetics results to report a sizable Ashkenazi component.  I had expected it, I told her, but it turns out, I’m not very much Ashkenazi.  Instead, I am unexpectedly Irish.   It’s all very mysterious, I confided.  And that’s when everything started to get a little weird.

 

Alice wrote that a few years back she had ordered a genetics test.  She had expected the results to report that she was Irish, but instead they uncovered that she was half Ashkenazi Jew.  She figured there must have been some mistake, but all of her brothers and sisters received the same results.  P, her cousin,  however, did not.  Alice’s cousin, P, was not Jewish and was in fact not genetically related to Alice at all.  This was a stunning discovery.  Alice, being apparently more intrepid and persevering than I am, went searching for an explanation to her strange test results.  After consulting a renowned geneticist, she came to the realization that her father and P’s mother were not biological siblings as they had always believed.  The evidence was incontrovertible.  Alice’s father, James, was Jewish.  James’ parents, John and Katie C, were not.  What could explain it?  A baby switch, Alice told me.  She believes that James was born to a Jewish family and somehow switched so that he ended up with John and Katie.  The Cees left the hospital with James and James’ biological parents left with the C’s baby, and everyone was none the wiser.

 

It was an incredible story, I thought, but I didn’t fully understand what it had to do with me until Alice asked if it was possible that my grandfather, Philip, had been born at Fordham Hospital on September 23rd, 1913–the same day her father, James, was born.  Unfortunately for Alice, I had very little knowledge of my grandfather’s life.  A quick Google search of Fordham Hospital revealed that it was in the Bronx, and I knew that my father had grown up in the Bronx, so the location checked out as a possibility, but I didn’t know when my grandfather was born.  Again harnessing the power of Google, I looked through the Social Security Death Index, and it had Phil’s birthday recorded as September 24th, 1913.

 

Huh.  Could it be just a coincidence?  I was well and thoroughly shocked.  Could my grandfather have really been switched at birth with Alice’s dad?  As farfetched as it seemed, the theory held such explanatory power I had to take it seriously.  With this puzzle piece in place, suddenly Alice’s strange genetics results and my own made sense.  Not only that, but the baby switch theory also made sense of what I guess we had all taken to be little family quirks.  For instance, Alice’s father was quite short at 5’4, while the Cees tended to be on the taller side.  My aunt reported that when she met my grandfather’s family in New York she was taken aback because they were all very small people and our branch of the Benson family is fairly tall (Seriously.  I’m 5’6”, and I’m the shortie of the bunch).  Obviously, none of these facts necessitate a baby switch to explain them, but it did cause me to wonder.

 

Alice very quickly sent me pictures of her grandfather, and I perused his face looking for a resemblance to my grandfather, Phil.  Was John C Phil’s biological father?  I couldn’t be sure.  I thought I saw some resemblance around the eyes, but it wasn’t like Phil was his spitting image or anything.  And don’t all white people look the same at any rate?  (I kid.)  Alice also sent me a picture of her father, and then we all waited with bated breath for my aunt to locate a picture of my great grandparents, Sam and Ida Benson.  Clearly, Alice’s father, James, did not really resemble John C; would he look like Phil’s parents?  And the answer to that is…I’ll let you decide for yourself.

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My grandfather Phil (with my dad)

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Phil with his father, Sam

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John C

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James C (Alice’s father)

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Sam and Ida Benson, top

 

This story is, of course, still unfolding.  Nothing is absolutely certain, but Alice is pretty confident that she’s found the answer she’s long been searching for, and I’m inclined to agree.  It’s a very strange, nearly incredible premise, but who knows how rare such a thing really is?  After all, if Alice and I (and P) hadn’t all happened to take the same genetics test, I would have never known any of this.  It’s like a solution has landed in my lap to a mystery that I never even knew existed.  If this is all true, then my grandfather Philip was an Irish lad raised among Jews who married a nice Jewish girl and pretty much lived a life that was meant for someone else entirely.  That moment when my grandfather was placed in the wrong hospital bassinet completely changed the destinies of two men.  Not just changed, but displaced and transposed them.  And because of that, my father and his siblings were born and all of their children, and their children’s children.  In a way we’re all descendants of a strange quirk of fate or whim of providence.  It’s a little humbling to consider it.

 

So rest in peace Mr. Cormac O’Shaughnessy.  I feel like I hardly knew you, but so it goes.  Before I leave off, I want to make good on my earlier promise to explain my tendency toward mendacity when people asked about my ethnicity.  Rather than rattle off the dauntingly long list of ethnicities I (thought I) was–after all, as a friend once told me, if you’re so many things, you’re really nothing at all–I decided to just choose an ethnicity that I liked, one tied to a country and a culture that I felt a kinship with for no discernible reason, and see if people believed me.  They always did without fail, and it became a bit of a private joke.  If you caught me in a sort of puckish mood and had the temerity to ask, “What are you?” I might well have answered, “I’m Irish, of course,” while inwardly chuckling at my terrible lie, which, it turns out, may have been an improbable truth after all.  I guess the joke was really on me the whole time.  Isn’t it ironic?

Libertarianism and the Nature of Faith

B: Having faith in someone means giving him the benefit of the doubt.  You have to believe in him no matter what.

Me: So if I walk into a room and there are dead bodies strewn all around–blood everywhere–and I see you standing in the middle of it all holding a knife dripping with viscera, my faith in you means I have to believe you couldn’t ever do such a thing?  Despite what my eyes and common sense are telling me?

B:  It means you should believe that I’d never do such a thing…sober.

–Fun date night conversation #3,482, which has nothing to do with anything I’m going to talk about, but I wanted to share because I’m a giver.

 

Is it wrong to steal a loaf of bread from a miserly wealthy person in order to save the life of someone who is starving?  As a rights-based libertarian, this question haunts me.  It haunts me because it is scary.  On it hinges the weight of my moral philosophy, of my political ideology.  This one question goes nearly to the root of my religious conviction, which for an aspiring armchair theologian is more than a bit troubling.  It hits me where my Christianity and libertarianism converge, and for me it doesn’t get more vital than that.

Contrary to popular opinion, libertarianism isn’t primarily about reading Ayn Rand (whose books I’ve never been able to get through for I have no patience with boring things) or about ending the Fed, all affection for Ron Paul aside.  Libertarianism is primarily about answering one single query: When is it morally permissible to use violence against another human being?  Great libertarian minds have considered this and decided that it is never moral to initiate violence against another person, no matter how annoying she is or how ill-considered his choices.  Violence (or threats thereof) should never be wielded against a peaceful human being, whether druggie or prostitute or Fox News viewer.  People are free to do as they like so long as they refrain from either violent action toward others or fraud (fraud=theft=slavery, and you may feel like that’s a stretch, but it makes a sort of sense, really).  You may morally defend yourself against someone else’s use of force, but even then the defense you use must be proportionate.  If someone shoves you, you musn’t stick a fork in his eyeball and cut out his tongue.  Maybe one of those actions would be fine, but not both.  This is the essence of libertarianism, and it is often referred to as the non-aggression principle or NAP.  

I really like NAP’s answer to the question of morally permissible violence.  It’s neat and tidy, and more than that, it strikes me as very Jesus-esque.  I am spiritually attracted to this philosophy of non-violence.  However, it all falls to pieces if stealing bread to feed the hungry is a righteous action.  After all, the rich miser I want to steal from isn’t committing violence against anyone.  His hoarding is wrong, but people do all kinds of wrong things everyday, and I don’t think that gives me the right to correct them (Can’t you just imagine me saving the gluttons from their super-sized colas and slapping chastity belts on horny young people…on second thought, don’t ever imagine that.  That’s gross.)  NAP states that if Mr. Scrooge acquired his wealth by licit means, and let’s say for the sake of argument that he did, then it is his by right to do with as he pleases–even if what he pleases to do is fiddle and eat cake while Rome burns.  (Note: unlike Nero, he didn’t set the fire; he just likes the warmth it provides.)

My intuition tells me to take the stinkin’ bread, and Scrooge can deal.  What’s the harm in depriving a rich man of some food if it means I can save a life?  The great theologian, Thomas Aquinas, pronounced that stealing in such a case would be just dandy because it is more wrong to withhold charity than it is to steal.  I’ll admit, that is interesting and attractive math.  Does a wrong thing become right if you do it to a person who has sinned worse than you have?  Is it okay to commit a small-ish wrong to achieve a great good?  Can we not then make an argument that taking a healthy person’s kidney against her will is a righteous act if it can save the life of a patient who needs it?  A world ruled by a consistent philosophy that legitimizes violence to the few as long as it serves the greater good would be absolutely terrifying.

One might quibble that stealing food is not nearly so extreme as stealing an internal organ, but the point is that the logic used to justify the theft is the same.  A person is withholding what ought to be given freely (in the eyes of the thief) and he needs to be relieved of his treasure so that something awesome can come of it.  As a Christian, this is troubling, not the least because there is no biblical justification for forcibly taking from the rich to give to the poor.  Over and over again, the scriptures urge people to give of their own free will, but they never advocate for theft as a godly option–and let’s not forget, the Bible was written, edited, and compiled at a time when it was very commonplace for people to starve to death, so it wasn’t that the biblical writers just didn’t “get” poverty.  Why should a displaced and dispossessed people so respect the property rights of others?

The answer to that, I think, lies in their view of God’s sovereignty.  As a somewhat educated, twenty-first-century American, I’m used to believing I have the answers, that my ability to reason is unimpeachable.  So when I conduct a thought experiment wherein the world’s wealth is held only by wicked people who would leave everyone else to starve, I tell myself the logical conclusion is that we must take from the “haves” or else all us “have-nots” will perish.  In fact, we’d probably be so feeble and poor that perishing would be too great an aspiration; we’d just plain die.  This is the natural outcome.  It makes perfect sense.  And yet…for all my critical thinking skills, this mode of reasoning overlooks one of the bedrock principles of my faith: God is forever and always the great wild card.

He works according to a different economy.  With Him the foolish are wise, the weak are strong, the proud are made humble.  That’s what I was taught, anyway.  Try this scenario on for size: a small, oppressed fringe group of a minority religion gets targeted by the greatest military power the world has ever seen.  They have to fight back, right?  They have to either rebel or recant because otherwise the empire will make them into an extinct species.  That’s what reason would tell us.  Of course, it didn’t turn out that way at all, and the adherents of that new religion, Christianity, with its prohibition on violence, even in the cause of self-defense, wound up lighting a spark that set the whole Western hemisphere ablaze.  It was not the reasonable outcome.  It was miraculous and nearly inconceivable, and two thousand years later many Christians now live as though we’ve consigned our history to the realm of fairy tale.

All that’s to say, if we’re tempted to do something wrong in order to do something good, maybe we have left the path of wisdom.  Maybe we’re not following in the footsteps of Christ.  I’ve said before that I believe the basic hallmark of sin is treating people as means instead of ends.  It’s using them for whatever reason–for their money, their bread, their kidneys, their labor–instead of respecting them as worthwhile subjects (as opposed to objects) in and of themselves.  My enthusiasm for NAP is an outgrowth of this belief.  It is an ongoing process for me to learn to respect all people and their choices without ever resorting to coercion or threats because this is the way I suppose God to love me.  If dedicating myself to nonviolence in this way, just as my Christian forbears did even in the face of death, is what it means to live the good life, then I must live it and somehow find the courage to leave the rest to God. 

Libertarianism is oft accused of being a naive philosophy, but if so it is one that jives well with a faith that would have me believe seven impossible things before breakfast.  I must learn to resist the temptation to give in to my nightmarish visions of what the world might become were I, and the church in general, willing to truly devote ourselves to peace in the name of Christ–to treat the miser with the same shalom we would show to a hungry child.  I know it’s easier said than done, but whatever wrongs others commit, we must be committed to doing right, and however imperfect society is we must live as though the kingdom of God has come because in us it has.  This is what it means to be Christians.  We walk by faith and not by sight, even when it makes us look really stupid.   (That’s a great selling point, right?  It belongs on a billboard somewhere.  Someone should get on that.)

Christians Are Not Patriots

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”

Luke 14:26

No king but king Jesus!

Revolutionary War motto

Every 4th of July the church I grew up in would hold a worship service.  During every sermon an American flag would stand sentinel at the corner of the stage.  It really wasn’t until recently that I reflected on these things and realized that they are more than weird–they’re terribly, terribly wrong.

It isn’t that I’m not a fan of America.  While I could do without the drone strikes and NSA spying and gratuitous killing of brown people, my affection for the principles on which this country was founded is deep and true.  I don’t always (or ever) like the government, but I am rather fond of bald eagles and fireworks and, of course, football.  However, loving this country is not the same thing as loving Christ.  It really isn’t.  Just thought I’d put that out there because I have a sneaking suspicion that in certain sectors of Christendom patriotism and Christianity have been smushed together to form some sort of freak-hybrid-religious-monstrosity.

Here’s the thing: America is not God’s country.  The church is.  America is not to be the city on the hill or a light to the nations.  The church is.  You see, when Jesus was preaching for people to hate their fathers and mothers and little tiny babies, He wasn’t contradicting His other many commands to love.  He was making a point that when we enter the community of God other loyalties take a back seat.  When I became a Christian, the church became my family.  When I became a Christian, the worldwide catholic church became my country.  Jesus is my king, and all His people became my people.  There’s simply no room in that paradigm for any competing patriotism.

I’m not sure when or how this understanding became obscured in evangelical circles.  My love for Christ is not only to be separate from my love for my country, it is to trump it.  As a reformed neocon, I’ve done a lot of reflecting on the intersection of faith and politics, and it seems to me now that all those years dutifully reciting the Pledge of Allegiance (okay, try and leave aside your childhood indoctrination–pledging allegiance to a flag in borg-like fashion is super weird) and treating voting like a moral imperative were acts of disloyalty to my true king. 

In a way it’s natural and makes complete sense to revel in patriotism.  To be Team America vs. everyone else.  But one of the beautiful aspects of Christianity is that it tears down the artificial barriers that separate us.  In Christ there is no slave nor free, no male nor female, no Jew nor Gentile, and certainly no American nor Iraqui/Syrian/Egyptian/French, etc.  There can be no Team America for me.  Team Jesus is all-consuming.  My loyalties are otherwise engaged.

I’m grateful I live in the country I do.  I appreciate its diversity, its beauty, and its ostensible commitment to liberty, but my faith teaches me that I’m an alien in a foreign land.  I have no issues with celebrating ‘Murica’s birthday (any excuse for a barbecue, really), but I am not first and foremost an American, and Independence Day is not a religious celebration.  In fact, a case could be made that to be Christian is to be conscientiously un-patriotic.  We are to be in the world but decidedly not of it.  Our fidelity is not to any plot of land or system of government or to any national interests but to a person, and, all blue-eyed portraits of white, European Jesus aside, He is not American.

But, then again, what do I know?

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So, um, happy Independence Day!  I hope it’s been awesome, and I hope that even as we reflect on the history of an undoubtedly great nation, we, as the church, can gain a renewed sense of wonder at the even greater victory and more profound liberation which was won at the cross.

An Exercise in Morbidity

“The world is made up of four elements: Earth, Air, Fire and Water. This is a fact well known…it’s also wrong. There’s a fifth element, and generally it’s called Surprise.

–Terry Pratchett

This is a story about the strangest dream I’ve ever had.  And it’s not one of those dreams where I’m Windy from the song “Windy” and being chased by bad guys as I fly among tenement buildings in a New York borough.  Those dreams are merely weird, and I’ve had plenty of them.  This dream was eerie and haunting and frightening in a completely different way altogether.

After my sister died I prayed to dream about her.  A few people had told me they’d had visions of her dancing in heaven with painted toenails and the like, and I was envious.  I wanted to see her again so badly, but I am apparently not awesome at receiving visions from the beyond.  For months I closed my eyes every night hoping that I would get the chance to be with Laura and to say all the things I wanted to say to her and to reassure myself that she was okay.  Even if none of it was real, I was ready and willing to be deluded.

Then–finally–it happened.  My memory of the dream is pretty disjointed, as memories of dreams tend to be, but here is what I remember of it:  I was at a school or a church when I saw her.  I don’t know what I was doing there, but in the dream I knew that she had died, and I was very excited to see her.  I ran up and hugged her, bouncing about like a hyperactive chihuahua, which isn’t much like me.  Laura, in contrast, was very wooden and unemotional, which wasn’t much like her.  I didn’t pay any attention to that in the dream, though, and instead began asking her a barrage of questions.  “How are you? What happened to you?  Is it wonderful?”

Laura just looked at me and then suddenly I was transported to a grassy hillside.  On it were dozens of people lying down like they were sleeping, and walking among them were beings with heads that reminded me of the knights in chess.  Every once in a while, as they walked, the beings would bend down to touch one of the sleeping humans.  At once the person would wake up, and he/she would be directed to stand in one of two giant lines.  At the apex of the lines was a glowing something, and I understood that the glowing something was Jesus, and the people in the lines were waiting to meet Him. 

“Did you meet Him?” I whispered to Laura in awe.  “Did you meet the lamb?”  (I don’t know why I called Him that.  Dream me is an odd duck.)  “I did,” Laura admitted slowly.  “And?”  Laura paused as though she were having trouble putting the experience into words.  “And being touched by Him was like the pain of dying again.”

And that’s all I remember.

Needless to say, I was pretty freaked out.  No matter how many people assured me that I had just imagined it or, more frighteningly, that the devil had sent me the dream to scare me, I couldn’t shake the sense that the whole encounter was in some way real.  I felt like I had learned something, and what I had learned was horrifying.

In my faith tradition I had been taught that I would go to heaven when I died.  Instantaneously.  I had learned a bit about reincarnation and purgatory, but as a good Protestant I rejected those ideas out of hand.  Death was the end.  When death came for you, you were either perfected and sent on to glory or damned and sent straight to hell.  There was no need for a middle earth to bridge the space between.

After having that dream, however, I began to re-think my idea of the afterlife.  Whatever that dream meant–whether or not it meant anything at all–it sparked in me an intuition that death is not indeed the end of anything.  There were too many questions that my old beliefs just couldn’t answer.  How was Laura at 17 ready to spend eternity with God?  Even if I were to live 80 more years, I don’t imagine that I will be ready for such a thing.  I won’t be holy enough for heaven or depraved enough to be consigned as a hell-bound lost cause.

One of the things I’ve long believed about our eternal existence is that heaven is such a place that, in order for it to truly be heaven, one must be completely in love with God, who will be all in all.  An Orthodox believer once explained that she believed heaven and hell are really the same place, but for those who have made Christ their king basking in God’s love will feel like paradise.  For those who have rejected Him, God’s love will burn like fire.  This resonates with me.  The work of religion, I think, is to prepare us and temper us to be embraced and encompassed by the all-consuming presence of God.  Only now I wonder how a few measly decades on earth could achieve such a great task as that.

“But we’ll be made perfect!” some might declare.  As I mulled over this problem in my head, that explanation satisfied me less and less.  Even before Laura’s death I wrestled a lot with the problem of suffering, and I came to believe, as C. S. Lewis did, that suffering teaches us things we can learn in no other way.  Suffering is thus valuable and indispensable.  Yet…if I can be made perfect with the snap of God’s heavenly fingers, what in the world is all this pain for?  If God is able and willing to superimpose perfection upon us, doesn’t suffering lose its meaning?  Doesn’t it become pointless and cruel?

That is beyond my ability to accept.  All the grief and the tears and the loneliness that so many of us endure–it has to be worth something.  It has to be worth everything, or how else can it be redeemed?  It must be necessary, but if it is necessary–and this is the freaky part–then there is no reason to think all suffering ends in death.  Perhaps when we’ve died we don’t experience either perfect bliss or perfect terror.  Maybe new challenges await to further refine us into whoever we are going to turn out to be.  Maybe earth is just step 1 in a long process of learning and growing and changing.

This isn’t really a biblical idea, I know.  It’s intuitive and sort of vaguely philosophical, but still I think there’s more to the story than what we’ve been told.  The ancient Hebrews, I’ve read, had no definite concept of the afterlife.  Some of the books of the Hebrew Bible intimate that we all become worm food, and that’s the end of it.  Others refer to a shadowy place called Sheol, but the Christian concept of heaven, hell, and judgment didn’t exist.  The New Testament’s afterlife theology is slightly more clear, but not really by much.  If the Bible is truly God’s Word to us, it seems that communicating what exactly will happen to us when we die is not a terribly high priority for Him.  I shouldn’t be at all surprised to find out that things will turn out differently than we think. 

Are we talking purgatory?  Karma cycles?  Some new and inconceivable horror?  I have no clue, so this isn’t exactly comforting, is it?  I just happen to believe that God won’t be done with us any time soon.  Thus far, it seems to me that God has gone to great lengths to protect our free will and to ensure that our exercise of it is uncoerced.  I’m not certain what makes us think death will make Him dispense with it altogether.  If retaining our freedom is important to Him, then our journey toward theosis might be much longer and harder than we think. 

That might be a depressing thought, but epic stories are a bit depressing.  Until they turn awesome, that is.  Just think of it.  We are all Frodo Baggins.  (Except that I am actually Gandalf the Grey.  I am beardly on the inside, where it counts.)  We’ve fashioned a small story for ourselves, but it may be that God has a grander narrative prepared for us.  We don’t get to know what’s in store, but if all of this life is preparation for the next phase to come, then it’s sure to be…weird.  I don’t know what else it is, but it’s certain to be really, really weird.

Jujupalooza

It seems I’ve gotten a bit behind in archiving my Juliet pictures and videos, and we can’t have that, can we?  I intend for her life to be creepily well documented.  I’m sure she’ll thank me someday.  So here’s a grab bag of Juju doing various things for various reasons, most of which are opaque even to me…

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She loves to feed her dad, but like many of Juliet’s favorite activities, it seems to be quite painful for the object of her attention.  (Btw, are violent outbursts normal at this age?  Because in the span of a few days, Juju managed to scratch my collarbone and my face until they bled and whack me across the nose with remote control so that I am sporting a most attractive bruise.  I’ve tried to be gentle and to show sadness when she hits and bites so that she can learn compassion, but it only seems to make her stronger.  Is this a phase?  And if so, will it end very, very soon?  Please?)

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Juliet hates the park swings.  Hates them.  I recorded a video hoping to get some footage of her laughing and having fun, like a normal child at the park, but instead she only screamed.  When she saw the video later, Juliet’s face crumpled and she started to cry as she watched herself emote on film.  B says this is evidence that she is not, indeed, a sociopath, but I told him I wasn’t sure Juliet empathizing with herself counts as pro-social behavior.

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More zoo time.  Please ignore the mullet thing going on.  That situation has since been rectified.

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It’s funny–when you become a parent, outings are less about the things you see and more about your kid seeing the things you see.  Thus, I have many pictures of Juliet and relatively few pictures of zoo creatures.  But hey, here’s an elephant for the animal lovers out there.

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…and here’s another one.  Bonus points for spotting the urine stream.

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Back to our scheduled programming.

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This door is seemingly made for tiny people, but it takes the strength of Samson to open it.  I’m wondering if it’s some perverse challenge to my I mean, my child’s self-esteem.

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The e’er-present drool.  Looks good on her.

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Bear.

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We went to Garden of the Gods on Mother’s Day, and it was glorious.  We would have stayed longer, only Juju managed to soak through all her clothes and, being geniuses, B and I had not seen fit to bring another outfit for her.  Live and learn, I guess.

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Not only is B pretty cute…

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…but he’s pretty much the world’s best dad.  Juju and I are super lucky.

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Job’s Glaring Omission

If God is God  he is not good
If God is good he is not God
Take the even, take the odd

J.B.

Job is one of the most difficult books of the Bible for me to grapple with philosophically.  I remember during my senior year in high school reading J.B. by Archibald MacLeish, which is a dramatic, existentialist interpretation of Job, and it really threw me for a loop.  Even now, many, many years later, the arguments I read in that play come to mind again and again whenever I ponder the terrible gravity of suffering.

In church Job is held up as a hero–a righteous man who refused to turn his back on God.  In J.B. the character of Job, and in fact his entire situation, is cast in a very different light.  There Job is still the protagonist, but he isn’t truly heroic.  He has no good choices with which to pursue the possibility of heroism.  Zuss, who represents God, has betrayed Job and utilized him as a pawn in a cosmic game.  The devil, or Nickles, as he is called in the play, is a Morpheus-type character, working to shock J.B. out of the Matrix, out of the delusion that God is good and that there is sense to be found in the world.

Our assignment in class was to write a defense of either Zuss or Nickles, and being a good evangelical, I endeavored to write a theodicy and defend God’s treatment of Job.  Only…I couldn’t.  No matter how many times I read the text and despite all my churchy training, I couldn’t defend His role in the story.  So, in the end, I wound up defending Satan.  Like you do.  And ever since then, Job has been a terrible burden for my faith to carry.

Not only is the problem of pain intellectually difficult to resolve but the experience of suffering is so profoundly crippling.  Who among us hasn’t been Job?  I know I’ve found myself on the ash heap a time or two, screaming down the stars and demanding answers of a God who doesn’t seem inclined to show His face.  I can’t defend God to Job, and I can’t defend Him to myself.  For someone who struggles to believe in the goodness of God, this can create a bit of an obstacle.

willywonka

While philosophically I affirm that if God exists He must be good–must, in fact, be the definition of goodness (what else can be, after all?)–when it comes to His providential hand on my own life, I have less confidence.  Does God watch over me?  Does my pain matter to Him?  Most days I see God as a God far off.  He is in His heaven, and I am here on earth, and there remains an infinite gulf in between.

B sees things differently.  He is the faithful positive to my skeptical negative.  He believes and actually lives as if God really cares what happens to him and about the choices he makes.  We discussed this on our last date night, and B tried to explain to me his philosophy of suffering–that no pain is ever wasted, and God redeems it all.  “What if I stub my toe?” I asked.  “Does God care about that or is it a wasted pain?”  B looked at me like I’m crazy, which, admittedly, I am and shook his head.  “I don’t think God is overly concerned with a stubbed toe, Jess.  That’s a very temporary pain.”  “Isn’t it all temporary pain?  From an eternal God’s perspective, I mean?  How can I trust a God who sees such a big picture when I’m stuck in this small one?  What if, to Him, it’s all stubbed toes?”

I guess that’s the big question.  How can a God so transcendent–the God of leviathans and horses and all the non sequiturs He threw out at Job to put the long-suffering man back in his place–really understand, not intellectually but personally, the crisis of pain?  Pain is, of course, an effective teaching tool, but it’s terrible in its power.  How can I believe that God, to whom my life is a but the blink of an eye, will utilize pain only as a last resort; that He won’t sacrifice my happiness for some greater good?

Yes, Job is an odd book.  And I’ve come to think it’s a wrong book in some important respects.  I don’t believe Job relates history or accurately explains the inner workings of heaven, but its theology is troubling, nonetheless.  The God it describes is distant and detached.  In the heavenly courtroom scene we see an accuser, the Satan, and God as judge, but the tableau is missing a crucial actor, one that my Pentateuch professor assures me would have been expected in the cultures of the Ancient Near East.  Where is Job’s defense?  Though God and Satan discuss him at length, he has no one to speak for him.

This is what makes reading Job theologically rather like looking into a fun house mirror.  Job has everything to say about God’s transcendence and nothing at all to say about His immanence.  It only tells part of the story.  It is Jesus, at last, who provides the gloss for this oldest of biblical tales: “Who is to condemn?  Christ Jesus is the one who died–more than that, who was raised–who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Rom 8:34).  Our defense attorney is Jesus, who is God Himself.  And this has got to be tremendously good news!  It means that God isn’t an impartial observer.  The one who judges us is also on our side.  He has some skin in the game.  God isn’t only the omnipotent creator we find in Job, but someone who has stacked the deck in our favor, who is arguing for us, who has thrown in His lot with us.  Now, I sure wouldn’t bet on me, but if God really has, then that has to mean something, right?  Cosmic implications abound.

andy

Obviously, this isn’t the last word on the problem of pain.  I hope someday to have more to say about it, but it’s a starting point for now.  Our God is a biased God, and He’s biased in our favor.  What does this mean for how we read Job?  I’m not sure.  It’s a deeply empathetic text and one that resonates with many of us, which has some value in itself.  Personally, I don’t find it all that encouraging (“Yeah, you’ve got some dead kids, but not to worry.  I’m going to give you some replacements!”), but I think it serves as a powerful reminder of our need for Christ.  Without the incarnation, how could we be sure of God’s love or the depth of His compassion?  Absent Jesus’ living, dying, and resurrection, God would remain the God of Job to us, and Job, in the final summation, was alone.  Happy ending or not, he stood before God and he stood against Satan alone.  And we don’t.  I call that the gospel.

Oh I Know All I Owe I Owe Iowa (I only wish I had more ‘State Fair’ references with which to delight and amaze you. It feels like such a missed opportunity.)

So finally, after two and a half long months of waiting and planning and hoping, B, Juju and I at last made our way to the great state of Iowa to hang out with my two righteous siblings-in-law.  Oh, and we got to squish meet their two-month-old baby boy, Emmett.  He’s my very first nephew, and he does not disappoint.  It was a great time of much sorely needed fellowship, plus I got to take in that newborn baby smell, which makes my ovaries hurt.  There was much conversating (“conversing” is such a dull word, don’t you think?), sugar-consuming, and all around laying about in Adam and Nic’s awesome old Victorian (I’m convinced she’s the Iowan Martha Stewart).  We loved every moment and wished very much to pack them all up and take them home with us.  Alas, Adam, the big lug, wouldn’t fit in our carry-ons, and out of Christian compassion we decided we’d allow Nic and Emmett to remain in Iowa and keep him company.  Pretty nice of us, eh?

ImageThe cousins meet for  the first time.  You’d think that on such a momentous occasion they could have summoned up a little more excitement.

On a side note: I wish I’d had my camera out when B and Adam first saw each other in the parking lot.  Aside from the fact that we found Adam accosting an obese lady shopper, thinking she was his brother (“I just figured, ‘Brian has really let himself go…'” were his words), Juliet was terribly confused by her father’s apparent duplication.  She looked between the twin boys for almost a minute with a look of intense confusion on her face and seemed ready to cry until we distracted her with our hunt for Nic and Emmett, whom Adam had left behind, apparently in order to terrorize any short-haired blond who happened to cross his path.  I’m not sure if Juju ever did figure out that Adam wasn’t some strange extension of her dad.  At any rate, she proved quite fond of him during our visit.

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Juju in cupcake heaven.

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So.  Good.  You don’t even know.

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Playing peek-a-boo with Nic’s sister, Beth.  I don’t know if you can tell this about her, but Juliet loves attention.

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High five!

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Us with Nic’s lovely Von Trapp family brood of sisters.

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Our Cousins, or rather, (assuming B and Adam are in fact identical twins), Genetic Half-Siblings Photo Shoot.

ImageJuju does not yet distinguish between human beings and climbing apparatuses.  It is my dearest wish that she will indeed learn the difference someday.

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Concerning the patience of Emmett and the drama of Juliet: This pic about sums it up.

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Why, God?  Why?!  (Btw, can we talk about how blue Emmett’s eyes are?  Dang!)

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I figure in a couple months he’ll have surpassed Juliet in size.

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