Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Slaying Goliath

A slender theology book called Slaying Your Goliaths by John Ohmer came in the mail from the Forward Day by Day movement as a thank-you for my donations.  First on Ohmer's list of "modern-day Goliaths" is "caregiver burden," and I felt this was probably a book for me.  Ohmer explores the story of David as we do in the Education for Ministry program (EfM), using it for a conversation between the story and contemporary experiences.  Below, I'll list a few highlights from what emerges.

But First: A Comprehensive Theology, Wholeness with God?
But first, I'll highlight some ideas from an essay about "comprehensive theology" provided by the folks who design curriculum for EfM at University of the South, Sewanee.  Titled "Living into Wholeness," it's a piece of a curriculum focused all year on the "journey" into "theosis" (participation in God), no author listed.  While I'd picture a "comprehensive theology" as an enclosure made by laying "bricks" of doctrine that must stay in place for the wall to hold, this author says, no, it's just a provisional construct, made with an open mind (120).

The essay's premise, drawing on recent developments in biology and physics, is that there's a "wholeness" to things that pre-exists the things. This is at once an appealing idea, and I think undemonstrable.  Instead, I'd restate it in the terms used by dramatist Dr. John Clum when he taught me at Duke about characters in drama and life: "Our characters don't change; our characters are revealed."
The essay seems to imagine a moment when union with God achieves wholeness.  Poet Christian Wiman in My Bright Abyss seems to me closer to the truth when he writes that there is never going to be a point of arrival.  Ours is not a faith in achievement of some static, whole, perfect sameness, he writes; it's a faith in change itself.
Where the essay does apply to my life today is in description of "conversation."  "Argument," the essay says, is a tool of analysis, but "does not necessarily lead to wisdom."  In contrast, "conversation" involves the "willingness to restrain oneself" and acceptance that conversation "moves in directions we cannot fully anticipate."  Those convinced of their rightness and brilliance "pronounce rather than converse" (EfM Reading and Reflection Guide, Year, D, 119)
Heresy always has its grain of truth, it's "just not true enough."  Rather than condemning positions that are alien to us, the author recommends asking, "What question does this heresy answer for those who believe it?"  I can imagine using this when I deal with those of political affections different from mine. 
A good example of looking for the questions behind a position is the author's list of questions that arose from the Episcopal Church's ordination of women.  The statement "only males can be priests" raises questions about "the nature of priesthood; the meanings of gender and sexuality; how the past is remembered; what the authority of scripture is; what makes a sacrament valid; and how truth is discerned" (121).
The author observes that "consistency" in our positions is not just an intellectual quality; as any EfM alumnus knows, any life story of coming to one faith from another involves the heart as much as the mind, and we must acknowledge this to move forward.

 Our mission, according to the catechism in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, is "to restore all people to unity with God and with each other in Christ"

Now, the Goliath book draws many lessons from analogies between David's story and our lives. The author was rector of a prosperous parish before he was called to a once-huge congregation that split over the gay bishop, fought in court to retain its property, and now has a growing congregation that struggles to pay for maintain it.  Each chapter forward in the story of David also gives us, in text set apart by a shaded background, an illustrative chapter in the story of the author's experience in that church.

Ohmer's analysis of the story breaks down into lessons that need only be listed to suggest applications to life.   Goliath was more than a threat; his taunts demoralized the Jews.  Young David put aside the armor borrowed from King Saul (58).  Enemy-based leadership is a quick fix, but vision-based leadership lasts (60-61).  David chose his own "five smooth stones."  David had confidence in the true God (78).

Ohmer digresses on the subject of false gods Work, Money, and Religion, telling a fun parable about how we idolize work.  It's an American who encounters a humble fisherman.  The business maven proposes that the fisherman go beyond his daily routine of fishing a bit in the morning, napping with his wife at mid-day, and playing music at night with friends.  He lays out a plan to build a fishing empire that would take years of 60 hour work-weeks and net the fisherman a tidy sum.  "Then what?" asks the fisherman.  Then, the American concludes, the fisherman could relax, fishing a bit in the morning, napping with his wife at mid-day, and playing music at night with friends (80).

About idolatry of religion, Ohmer cites Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah.  He tells of a buddy who lit a candle to help himself get centered during his private morning prayer, then grew choosy about what kind of candle, and whether to use a lighter or match -- until he saw that he had begun to worship the candle (86).  

Jesus, according to Ohmer, was hardly the peaceful teacher we imagine.  Read any gospel straight through, he says, and a different Jesus emerges:

Time after time, Jesus deliberately provokes the scribes and pharisees, and when he has a chance to back down, instead of retreating, he deliberately increases the stakes (85).

I had to pause reading this, because it sounded so much like our current President.  I suppose the wise and the foolish alike may benefit from the same tactics.

Read in one sitting, the hallmark of the gospels is not ... about healing the sick, feeding the crowds, or teaching the disciples.  It is rather the proclamation that the kingdom of God is at hand, a topsy-turvy, radical reorienting of the world and the world's priorities [around Love, the] central priority of God.

The Episcopal Church faces the "Goliath" in a public perception that we do not honor the authority of Scripture.  Ohmer lays out some "smooth" stones to counter that perception, such as the observation that the Bible is a potpourri of literature, not to be read as a book, and the conclusion that "our faith is not in the Bible but in God ... to whom the Bible points (69)."

So, facing my current Goliath of "caregiver burden," I can think of ways to apply the metaphor.  Don't let the words get under my skin; remember, every time I face the anger, that she has been brought back to peace and affection many times before; and keep eyes not on the enemy dementia, but on a vision of gratitude for what Mom has meant my whole life, and of moving gradually towards the point that Iris Murdoch's husband described her as having "arrived" at the "place she was going."

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