Thursday, January 25, 2007

... with a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering ...

I've been reading the Bible lately. And by "reading the Bible," I don't mean just on Sunday morning when the preacher directs everyone to Jeremiah, chapter 40, verses 2 through 4, and I try my best to look like I know whether Jeremiah is before or after Psalms, and for that matter is Psalms before or after Ecclesiastes, because that's where my Bible opened.

By this time everyone's already read about Jeremiah, and moved on to Isaiah -- who is not to be confused with Hosea. And excuse me. I just found Jeremiah! Why are we in such an all-fired hurry here?

No. That's not what I'm talking about. (And, by the way, that never happens to me.)

What I'm talking about is reading the whole glory-hallelujiah-let-there-be-light-but-the-serpent-gave-it-four-stars-they-worshiped-a-calf?-a-child-is-born-They-know-not-what-they-do-he'll-be-back Bible from Genesis to Revelations.

I'd made a short-lived attempt at "The Bible in 90 Days" regimen some months ago. So when PEZmama announced she'd be leading an on-line group through the same program, I jumped on board. I figured being a Christian and all, it behooves me to read my history; it'll teach me to love God more deeply; and I can regale friends with banter such as, "Did you know Abraham was married to his half-sister and pimped her out twice?" (Hey, he did.)

How hard could it be to read 12 pages (of small-script on razor-thin paper) a day? Turns out it's something of a challenge. It takes me about an hour and a half. Apparently, it takes most people about 45 minutes. I'd like to think I require more time because I'm absorbing God's word. Because I'm analyzing it for subtleties lesser minds might miss. In actuality, it's because I frequently have no idea what I just read and have to move back three paragraphs. Think Candyland meets Canaan.

Actually, I really enjoyed Genesis. I'd read pretty much all of it before, but not straight through. And it's quite a tale. There's poetry; there's drama; there's very old people. We see Abraham having dinner with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There's a pretty humorous scene with Abraham bargaining with God over Sodom's pending destruction:

But what if there are fifty righteous people there?
If I find fifty righteous people, I'll spare the whole place for their sake.
Uh, now that I've been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I'm nothing but dust and ashes, what if there are, oh, five less than fifty?
If I find forty-five there, I won't destroy it.
Okaaay. How about 40?
Mmm-hmm. Now, don't get mad, but, if you don't mind me asking, what if you can only find thirty?
Great. Uh, how 'bout twenty?
Sorry, uh -- just once more here -- how about ten?
Yes. Ten. We're done here.

God clearly understand the frustrations of parenting.

So even though the reading is a significant commitment (although not really considering how much time I spend on pointless frivolities), I really enjoyed Genesis. And Exodus started out pretty exciting (and weird): snakes, rivers of blood, hordes of frogs, gnats, flies, locusts. Good times.

Then the instructions begin. Instructions on how to build the tabernacle and everything inside it. I previously had no clue the Ark of the Covenant was made of acacia wood -- two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. That it was overlaid inside and out with pure gold to which four gold rings were fastened on its four feet. Or that the gold-overlaid poles inserted into the rings were never to be removed. Or ... .

But I kept reading and finally was rewarded by ... Leviticus. Leviticus is God's way of making the reader feel as if she too is wandering in the desert for 40 years. Tell me the sin, and I'll tell you the animal to be slaughtered. And where to smear its blood. And what to do with its fat. I cried out to the Lord in my suffering.

What struck me is the incredible specificity of the guidelines for sacrifices, cleansing, observing feasts, etc. juxtaposed with how often the Bible is incredibly, even frustratingly brief. There are 45 verses on how to handle persons with infectious skin diseases. There are six verses on Lot's daughters getting intentionally impregnated by their drunken father. Yes, it's gross. But that's it? Six verses? Did Lot get suspicious when the kids were born with his hairline? Did he care?

Here's the important thing, though: even when I was wading through Leviticus -- and it gets much more interesting after that -- I felt comforted by being in the word every day. I still do.

One night my leg was hurting enough to warrant some pain medicine and a heat pack. As I laid in bed, I started to do that thing. You know. Where you imagine every ache is a tumor? Normally, I mentally walk that road until I fall asleep and then wake up feeling foolish. But that night, no sooner had I taken a few steps down that path than my spirit heard: "Whatever happens, I'm with you. Rest." And I did. Immediately. It was awesome.

The more I read, the more I view God as an incredibly mysterious, forgiving, judgmental, frustrating, loving personality. I'm also seeing a much broader picture of The Story than I've seen before, which is helpful, to say the least.

And as for the questions raised by what I've read, for the most part I accept that "the secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever ...." (Deut. 29:29)

I thank God for what he reveals. Even in Leviticus.


Thursday, January 18, 2007

On a winter's day

I bundled Madeline and Connor up yesterday to go break off icicles (several of which are now in the freezer) and expend some pent-up energy. These two photos speak volumes about their personalities.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Please, join our heresy

I received an email yesterday that engaged me more than anything I've read in a while. It was from Janet, my heart's sister. She asked me some no-frills questions about spiritual doubt. I love those sorts of "hard" questions. No wishy-washiness. No Sunday school language. Just: Here's what I've been thinking about. What's your take?

Sometimes the discussion is resolved with an "answer," oftentimes not. But always I feel invigorated by the discourse. Aren't we instructed to love the Lord with all our hearts, minds and souls? He's not afraid of our questions. What are yours?

I'm posting a very slightly edited version -- I had to dumb myself down just a little, you know, so as not to intimidate anyone -- of our "conversation" yesterday. I invite you to join in.

----- Original Message -----

From: Janet
To: Toni
Sent: Wednesday, January 10, 2007 12:21 AM
Subject: rambling...


I don't know if this has ever happened to you, but I was being asked a gazillion questions by Austin about Lucifer and his descent into Hell, when it dawned on me – I'd rather be asked about Santa Claus, because THAT I can explain. Have you ever felt this way? I mean, I know what I know; I feel what I feel; but sometimes I can't help but feel I'm perpetuating some myth Frank told us all was fake long ago.

I'm not having a crisis of faith. I repeat: I AM NOT HAVING A CRISIS OF FAITH.

But still...

Austin had asked me about Lucifer's fall from Heaven, because he’s been explaining it all to a friend, and I found myself longing to explain Santa Claus's rise from Chris Cringle and the whole Rudolph saga. It's much easier.

So I talked to Wade, and he read me an excerpt from "The Brothers Karamazov" that was so compelling, so riveting that it was comforting. This has seriously been a question for thousands of years. And, as I had suspected: agnostics, atheists and believers alike all require faith. Faith. What a hard-to-nail-down word. What is faith?

And, how can God really value it when I have NOTHING else to offer? Everything takes faith. Not believing. Believing.

You know I love Jesus Christ with all that I am. He is my Savior; He has my heart, soul, marriage, my two boys and my girl. What I am extending to you is an opportunity to share any insight or struggle of your own. Wade and I sat up, with him reading to me from his marked-up copy of "The Brothers Karamazov," which was romantic and intellectually and emotionally stimulating in and of itself. But I thought I'd extend the question to you, my dear friend: Have you doubted God? Satan? What does that doubt look like?

I'm not expecting an answer back quickly...take your time. I love you.


----- Reply -----

From: Toni
To: Janet
Subject: question
Date: Wed, January 10, 2007 11:18 AM


I love that you would think to ask me these questions, that you would share your thoughts on this subject. What a gift. Thank you.

Have I doubted God? Well, yes. Honestly, I think anyone who says they haven't is either a) lying or b) not given to thinking deeply about things. Part of faith is, for me, choosing to believe even when I doubt. Now, if I was plagued by doubts, that would speak to a deeper issue, one that would need resolving. But my doubts about God or the best manifestation of himself, Jesus, have usually come fleetingly amidst times of prolonged spiritual laziness.

In fact, I think what doubts I’ve had in the past were rooted more in a ... desire that there NOT be a God. What I mean is, wouldn't it just be easier if this life was it? Granted, I'm living a life that is, by the standards of at least 90 percent of the world, luxurious. So it's easy for me to say that. I'm not hungry or in pain or lacking for ANYTHING. So wouldn't it be easier, I have mused, if I could do what I wanted without consequences beyond this life? Existentialism – the view that we must create meaning for ourselves in an unknowable, godless universe – is seductive. To my mind it can be boiled down to two things: seize the day and, if you're nice, do unto others as you'd have them do unto you. The end.

But, the thing is, I couldn't believe that if I wanted to. God is too real. I'd have to literally pretend not to see him and hear him. I would have to ignore all the amazing works he's performed. It would take more faith for me to ignore him than to concede him.

And his way, the Jesus way, is hard. It's about service. It's about dying to yourself. It's about becoming less so that we can become more. Jesus was unbelievably radical. He turned the universe on its head and then said: Follow me. Do what I do. Was he serious?! Do what he did? Me?

So, yes. Sometimes I feel too lazy to follow and I think, Wouldn't it be easy if I could just carpe diem and, while I'm at it, be nice to people whenever possible? But what did David say? He said this life is but a breath. We were created to live eternally, and earth is not our home. So what seems as though it would be easier – not believing – would be incredible folly in light of what's ahead, like happily splashing in a puddle when the vastness of the ocean is over the rise.

Then, of course, when I embrace the Lord, there are not only hardships, but incredible blessings. Unexpected and bountiful blessings. And life without him would be so hollow, a sounding gong.

As for Satan, well, JT, it may just be easier to believe in him than God. This is his turf we're on, and surely he is horrendous beyond my ability to conceive. I read stories of torture and murder throughout the world, things happening right now -- as I write this. A few days ago, I struck up a conversation in the post office with a Jewish man who survived a concentration camp in Poland. His father and brother were shot in front of him. He was 13. He escaped to the woods. No one took him in. I've never doubted Evil. Satan is Evil. I choose not to think too much about him; there are dark places we're not supposed to go. And, as you know, I've seen a glimpse once or twice, and it's terrifying.

I love you, my very dear friend. And I'd love to hear more of your thoughts.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Just leave a message, you say?

You know the character Hugh Grant used to play variations on? The guy in "Four Weddings and a Funeral" or "Notting Hill" who, while somewhat amusing as he does it, tends to ramble on and on without being able to stop himself?

I channel that behavior an alarming percentage of the time when leaving a voice message. It's as if the beep of the answering machine queues my inner Manchurian Candidate, and what should be a relatively simple activity -- "Hi, JT. Just checking in. I'll call later." -- more closely resembles an oral roller coaster.

It starts out innocently. Then, somehow, I find myself steadily pulling further and further from the simplicity of the act, until everything tips and I'm hurtling toward a tangential freak show of verbosity. Part of my brain is demanding "Just shut. Up." Sadly, that part has little control over my mouth.

So what comes out is something like: "Hi, JT. Just calling to see how you're doing. It's been two weeks since the latest round of strep throat turned your house into a den o' pestilence, so I figured someone's due to get sick soon. NOT that I'm trying to jinx you. But Lord knows the weirdest things happen to you. Who else runs into J-Lo in the mall, for Pete's sake? I mean seriously. And then has her son ask why they keep calling that woman Jello? Or leaves her phone in a hotel where it's picked up by a member of the president's security detail? [Inner Sane Toni is yelling "Abort! Abort!"] But ANYWAY just calling to say --" BEEP!

Having been cut off by the end of the tape or the five-minute max on the voice mail service, I am left with nothing to do but stare at the phone and wonder why, why do I do that? I sat in a room and negotiated a piece of pipeline safety legislation with oil company representatives. I've won awards for extemporaneous speaking. Gift of gab have I, my friend. Oh, yes.

But, apparently, as all girls learn from fairy tales, there is a catch with the gift. A caveat. A stipulation. A sine qua non, y'all.

The listener must be alive.