Sunday, May 29, 2005

Approaching summer reading: theology lite

In these past several weeks, I have been reveling in the time to read the unassigned, after a seminary school year of fairly heavy assigned readings. Maybe it was because I had just finished systematic theology that I noticed the theological themes, or maybe it's because anyone who wrestles with the meaning of life as good authors often do, are often also theologians.
But here are some summer recommendations:

I started with Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate Camillo because my daughter had been reading it, and it was around the house. It's about a preacher's kid whose mother has left her and the preacher: her father, and the stray dog she discovers, and then the discoveries she makes about church and community, about caring for something and how that can expand your heart and your horizons. I recommend it and my daughter says that the movie, which I haven't seen, is pretty faithful to the book. Despite it being a short "children's" book, there are some hard to read moments, so be aware. Ministry for anyone is what this book talks about: going about in your day to day life, and being pushed to reach out, to pay attention to others, to find out 10 important things about people, to care.

Then, catching up with the best sellers, and on the recommendation of several friends, I read The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, which a friend had loaned me last summer. It too was a powerful story about a young woman, whose search for justice and her mother lead her into some amazing moments. Theologically it raises the questions about the importance and meaning of ritual, symbols, and a worshipping community. It also calls us to attend to justice and to the divine both in the everyday and in the odd people and places in our lives.

And that was more reading about Southern orphans than I normally do in a year.

Before I had a chance to get to the library, I went to my shelves and re-read the trilogy by Sharon Shinn: Archangel, Jovah's Angel, and The Alleluia Files. What is God, how does God hear our prayers, and how do technology and science intersect with God are the questions that this science fiction/future fantasy series raises and answers. If you are willing to indulge in any future fantasy, I recommend Sharon Shinn, and her setting on this world where angels are real and among us, and there are those who believe that someone needs to intercede to God for us, those who believe that Yovah hears us whenever we sing, and those who wonder if Jovah exists, and the impact of the power of those beliefs in a society.

The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon is a novel set in the near future about autism, a change of pace for this sci-fi author who has written much about military matters. I like her other books, because she explores the relationships between the military, power, women's roles in the military, and ethics--so necessary today or in any age. This is a powerful inside look at autism, from the narrator's perspective as an autistic person. One of the most moving passages for me in the book is when the narrator is offered a chance for a cure from autism, and in his struggle about it, clings to his routine and goes to church. That Sunday the minister happens to be preaching from the gospel of John about Jesus and the cripple by the pool, who is waiting for the angel to come and stir the waters, and who needs someone to lower him into the water. The autistic narrator doesn't believe he needs to be healed, not of autism--mostly because being autistic is so much who he is. That perhaps others need to be healed for not accepting him the way he is.
Here is an excerpted passage which, if you don't get a chance yourself to get to hear a sermon today, I hope it makes you think about healing and about acceptance and about change, as much as it did for me:
******* excerpts from pages 272-278
Our priest begins the sermon:
"Why does Jesus ask the man if he wants to be healed? Isn't that kind of silly? He's lying there waiting for his chance at healing .... Surely he wants to be healed."
Exactly, I think.
"If God isn't playing games with us, being silly, what then does this question mean, Do you want to be healed? Look at where we find this man: by the pool known for its healing powers, where 'an angel comes and stirs the water at intervals ...' and the sick have to get into the water while it's seething. Where, in other words, the sick are patient patients, waiting for the cure to appear. They know--they've been told--that the way to be cured is to get in the water while it seethes. They aren't looking for anything else. ... They are in that place, at that time, looking for not just healing, but healing by that particular method.
"In today's world, we might say they are like the person who believes that one particular doctor--one world-famous specialist--can cure him of his cancer. He goes to the hospital where that doctor is, he wants to see that doctor and no one else, because he is sure that only that method will restore him to health.
"So the paralyzed man focuses on the healing pool, sure that the help he needs is someone to carry him into the water at the right time.
"Jesus' question, then, challenges him to consider whether he wants to be well or he wants that particular experience, of being in the pool. If he can be healed without it, will he accept that healing?
"... I think the question Jesus asks has to do with a cognitive problem, not an emotional problem. Can the man see outside the box? Can he accept healing that is not what he's used to? That will go beyond fixing his legs and back and start working on him from the inside out, from the spirit to the mind to the body?"
I do not think I need to be healed, not of autism. Other people want me to be healed, not me myself. I wonder if the man had a family, a family tired of carrying him around on his litter. I wonder if he had parents who said, "The least you could do is try to be healed," or a wife who said, "Go on, try it; it can't hurt," or children teased by other children because their father couldn't work. I wonder if some of the people who came did not come because they wanted to be healed, themselves, but because other people wanted them to do it, to be less of a burden.
Since my parents died, I am not anyone's burden. ...
"... so the question for us today is, Do we want the power of the Holy Spirit in our own lives, or are we just pretending?" The priest has said a lot I have not heard. This I hear, and I shiver.
"Are we sitting here beside the pool, waiting for an angel to come trouble the water, waiting patiently but passively, while beside us the living God stands ready to give us life everlasting, abundant life, if only we will open our hands and hearts and take that gift?
"I believe many of us are. I believe all of us are like that at one time or another, but right now, still, many of us sit and wait and lament that there is no one to lower us into the water when the angel comes." He pauses and looks around the church; I see people flinch and others relax when his gaze touches them. "Look around you, every day, in every place, into the eyes of everyone you meet. Important as this church may be in your life, God should be greater--and God is everywhere, everywhen, in everyone and everything. Ask yourself, 'Do I want to be healed?' and--if you can't answer yes--start asking why not. For I am sure that God stands beside each of you, asking that question in the depths of your soul, ready to heal you of all things as soon as you are ready to be healed."
I stare at him and almost forget to stand up and say the words of the Nicene Creed, which is what comes next.
I believe in God the Father, the maker of heaven and earth and of all things seen and unseen. I believe God is important and does not make mistakes. My mother used to joke about God making mistakes, but I do not think if He is God He makes mistakes. So it is not a silly question.
Do I want to be healed? And of what?
The only self I know if this self, the person I am now, the autistic bioinformatics specialist fencer lover of Marjory.
And I believe in the only begotten son, Jesus Christ, who actually in the flesh asked that question of the man by the pool. The man who perhaps--the story does not say--had gone there because people were tired of him being sick and disabled, who perhaps had been content to lie down all day, but he got in the way.
What would Jesus have done if the man had said, "No, I don't want to be healed; I am quite content as I am."? If he had said, "There is nothing wrong with me, but my relatives and neighbors insisted I come"?
I say the words automatically, smoothly, while my mind wrestles with the reading, the sermon, the words. I remember another student, back in my hometown, who found out I went to church and asked, "Do you really believe that stuff or is it just a habit?"
If it is just a habit, like going to the healing pool when you are sick, does that mean there is no belief? If the man had told Jesus that he didn't really want to be healed, but his relatives insisted, Jesus might still think the man needed to be able to get up and walk.
Maybe God thinks I would be better if I weren't autistic. Maybe God wants me to take the treatment.
I am cold suddenly. Here I have felt accepted--accepted by God, accepted by the priest and the people, or most of them. God does not spurn the blind, the deaf, the paralyzed, the crazy. That is what I have been taught and what I believe. What if I was wrong? What if God wants me to be something other than I am?

... The story continues with the priest explaining to the narrator after the service that the reason he spoke on this scripture which wasn't on the schedule was because there had been fighting in another church and some of their members had come to this church and were still arguing, and the priest wanted them to think about being healed from their anger. The priest then says, "Lou, you look a little upset still. Are you sure that you can't tell me what it is?"
I do not want to talk to him about the treatment right now, but it is worse not to tell the truth here in church than anywhere else.
"Yes," I say. "You said God loved us, accepted us, as we are. But then you said people should change, should accept healing. Only, if we are accepted as we are, then maybe that is what we should be. And if we should change, then it would be wrong to be accepted as we are."
He nods. I do not know if that means he agrees that I said it correctly or that we should change. "I truly did not aim that arrow at you, Lou, and I'm sorry it hit you. I always thought of you as someone who had adapted very well--who was content within the limits God had put on his life."
"I don't think it was God," I say. "My parents said it was an accident, that some people are just born that way. But if it was God, it would be wrong to change, wouldn't it?"
He looks surprised.
"But everyone has always wanted me to change as much as I could, be as normal as I could, and if that is a correct demand, then they cannot believe that the limits--the autism--come from God. That is what I cannot figure out. I need to know which it is."
"Hm ... I never thought of it that way, Lou. Indeed, if people think of disabilities as literally God-given, then waiting by the pool is the only reasonable response. You don't throw away something God gives you. But actually--I agree with you. I can't really see God wanting people born with disabilities."
"So I should want to be cured of it, even if there is no cure?"
"I think what we are supposed to want is what God wants, and the tricky thing is that much of the time we don't know what that is," he said.
"You know," I say.
"I know part of it. God wants us to be honest, kind, helpful to one another. But whether God wants us to pursue every hint of a cure of conditions we have or acquire ... I don't know that. Only if it doesn't interfere with who we are as God's children, I suppose. And some things are beyond human power to cure, so must do the best we can to cope with them. Good heavens, Lou, you come up with difficult ideas!" He is smiling at me, and it looks like a real smile, eyes and mouth and whole face. "You'd have made a very interesting seminary student."

So even the summer light reading can challenge theologically.
Blessings on your own summer reading.
Your faithful and interested seminary student,