Loyalty to Loyalty: 2 Chronicles 19 – 27

Nevertheless, because of the covenant the Lord had made with David, the Lord was not willing to destroy the house of David. He had promised to maintain a lamp for him and his descendants forever.

2 Chronicles 21:7 (NIV)

Leslie announced to my humanities class that she was a Wiccan, and I immediately grew suspicious. We would never be friends, because it would not work. I needed to make friends – I had just enrolled in public high school and had a scant few – but desperation could not be the guiding motivation in my quest. She stood on bold feet, never swaying in her stance both politically and physically. Her hair started black but transitioned into purple near the tips, and then there were the thumbholes chiseled into all her sweatshirt sleeves. Her look put me off as much as her personality. I was a strong Christian, with loyalty to God and my church friends, and she was a witch for Chrissake – No. No friendship was possible.

It turned out that we had most every class together – honors kids tended to travel in packs around from class to class – so, I had to be friendly. Soon, my church friends learned of my proximity to a true pagan and questioned me about it. Suddenly, my loyalty to God required me to make a connection with her, to be a good example, to minister to her. Sure, I said. Leslie participated in the theater club, and I had recently joined as well. That, plus the parallel schedules, and some of my new acquaintances crossed over with hers… Sure, I could strike up a friendship – as long as I maintained my loyalty.

It started at a mutual hang out, Apples to Apples and charades served up with soda and chips. Common ground was the best strategy – discuss theater… then talk about classes… move on to God. I mentioned my home life, my Mom, my Dad, my brother, my sister, and she chuckled. No siblings for her, divorced parents, and her father was now a woman. My tongue fell out of my mouth in awe. I had never known anyone like her. I invited her to church, and she said fuck no. She said God was probably a woman anyhow, and she could not be a Christian. You’re all homophobes who are probably gay and racists who lust after black people. I grew shy. She backed off. I backed off. And suddenly, we had lots to talk about.

I played my first game of strip poker with her, though no one in the group had the guts to go completely bare. We all ended at boxers and the equivalent and then redressed with our backs to the circle while others snuck glances. We could not get naked, because then, nothing would be left to do. And there was no alcohol, we did not drink together, so that was not a factor. I had to leave the party early to go to church the next day, so I did not stay for round two.

Months later, she invited me to her house – just the two of us. Hot tub and a movie. We ditched the plan early and made a better one. Let’s drive to the Jersey Shore for the night. So many reasons to say no – it was already midnight – driving curfews – low cash – over two hour drive. But we said yes.

The vacant boardwalk quaked from the lapping waves. We sat on the railing overlooking the ocean, deciding how to proceed. The stars poked brightly through relaxed clouds, and we had two different explanations for their existence. The same with the waves, the rhythm, the tides and the moon, contentment and torment. We argued about science and philosophy, and after minutes or hours, we decided it was both – and no, that was not impossible.

Let’s go fucking crazy. She threw her fist into my spine. Let’s sleep on the sand until the first signs of dawn. We wrestled on the beach. Then we’ll drive home like hungover college students. We shed clothes and swam but had forgotten towels. We’ll be totally blameless. We lasted 45 minutes before the gnats ate us alive and drove back home with the windows down to keep from falling asleep. I was fifteen minutes late for church and forewent coffee. I did not need it. My mind buzzed with the most immediate nostalgia. I longed for a time only two hours passed and feared I would never feel that way again.

I stopped inviting Leslie to church, and she did not mock my faith. The details no longer mattered, because we were so similar. Common ground stopped being a mission and grew from a loyalty between us.

Pastor Hank looked me in the eyes after the second praise break and gripped my hand too hard. Did you drink last night? I hadn’t drank and told him so, but he didn’t believe me but had no proof. He told me he would not tell my parents, and I needed to be careful from now on. I thanked him for his loyalty.

Whispers: 1 Kings 17 – 2 Kings 2

Elijah the Great Prophet. Drought Settles. God v. god. A Glorious Revealing. An Appropriate Assistant. Blood for Dogs. Taken to Heaven.

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.

1 Kings 19:11a-12 (NIV)

The lure of the Summer Service Project, or “Missions Trip,” grabbed a hold of me in eighth grade. In February, Pastor Hank started challenging us to pray about the summer trip – a week in an un-gentrified part of town, sleeping in sleeping bags and weeding lawns full of dandelions and Coors bottles. Could make some friends, could get lice, could build a tan from all that sun-work. So I followed his command and prayed about it, but my mind had been made up long ago about it. My brother did it the year before, and he brought back stories of all night games of sardines and cheesy gross dares and wrestling matches on the foam pads in the pre-school room. No thought to be had or prayers to be prayed – I was going.

What compelled me to go? Was it the serving, the playing, the constant games of dodgeball? It wasn’t God.

And then the internship at my church, the idea being that I would be a “peer mentor” to the middle schoolers going into high school, and since I was a Freshman in college and all, they would look up to me. Duties included fellowship with the kids and leading small group Bible studies, and then there was the expense account to take the guys out on day trips to Six Flags and the movies. A perk involved taking a diverse group of students to Creation, a Christian version of Woodstock, but that seemed much more like a downside to me. It would be a fun summer job, something to keep me busy, long hours, and what else would I be doing? I took the job and didn’t regret it; it was a great, memorable summer.

But why did I say yes? Was it the fellowship, the leadership, the free trips to theme parks? God was involved certainly – I took this one more seriously. But it wasn’t all God.

Then there was Oliver, who came to my theater party and danced like a dancer and drank too much and hugged me for three seconds too long. It took pestering a half dozen friends before someone felt comfortable giving his number to me. The excuses I made – he told me he wanted to read a play of mine and he left his sunglasses at my house… yes I know the party was at night. But I got it. No one encouraged me to text him; this was all my doing. And I did. I invited him to hang out that evening, on a lazy Sunday night. And he said yes. And I told my roommates to scram, because I had a lady coming over. And they grinned and grimaced and took their books and left.

No one told me to do it, nothing overtly compelling came forward. No… it was a whisper that said, go ahead… you want this, can’t you feel it? The hushed voice continued and sometimes fluctuated and said, stop, do you know what you’re doing, the horror, the horror, and just as quickly it’d whip around back to, but it feels good… so it is good.

It was a whisper.


Elijah is a spiritual superstar complete with unshakable Godly loyalty and a command over miraculous events. He parts the Jordan River by dipping his robe in the waters; fire pummels the Earth with a flick of his index finger. The authors of 1 and 2 Kings record no sinful behavior on his part, which is remarkable considering his company – not only the fallen leaders who have parted ways with their Creator but also a horde of angry denizens crying out for his head. God shuttles him off to the heavens before death befalls him – the only human to be awarded such a fate with the exception of Jesus Christ himself. But before accomplishing all of these exceptional feats… before crossing the Jordan and raining plagues and blessings from God, before thrusting into the hammocks of Paradise… God called upon Elijah to climb a mountain to meet Him.

As he climbed, the wind roared against him, but we are told that God was not in the wind.
Then the Earth shook from its core, but God did not cause the earthquake.
Then a fire burst forth and swallowed the area around it, but the fire was not from God.
And when all of the muck settled, a whisper sauntered in and hit Elijah’s ear – a faint voice that commanded him.

It was God.

You Will Be Tested on the Following: Genesis 20 – 24

Sacrifice of Isaac, by Adi Holzer (1997).  Image via Wikimedia Commons

Sacrifice of Isaac, by Adi Holzer (1997). Image via Wikimedia Commons

Abimelach and the Second Lie. Sarah Bears Isaac. Laughter. A Great Schism. Treaty. The Play Sacrifice. Sarah Dies. A Funeral. The Acquisition of Rebekah. Isaac Marries.

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

Genesis 22:1-2 (NIV)

LET’S BEGIN WITH AN UNEQUAL ANALOGY

Theme Park Trip, My Church, 2009. Pastor Hank drove the van, and we had something like 15 excited pre-teen guys in the back. The highway, the exit, the tollbooth, and then finally, the first glimpse of lift hills and twisted tracks. The volume in the van grew once the mountains lowered from view and the roller coasters peeked up, and it seemed like a perfect time for a buzz kill. I leaned into Hank as we pulled into the parking lot. You know those kids-on-a-rope, when a kindergarten takes the class, and they all hold onto the rope so no one wanders away? He smiled and nodded – he had a rope in the trunk of the van. It was meant to be.

So we let the kids out of the van and went over the rules. Standard rigmarole: partner up, don’t wander off, but then. We showed them the rope and told them the plan with straight faces. A second leader held a camera to tape their reactions, hoping to capture some priceless one-liners worthy of our new YouTube page. And while a few grimaces appeared, most of their faces simply fell into neutral. And instead of any sort of protest, they dutifully grabbed a slot on the rope and walked to the front gate. They even began to walk in unison, because the rope wasn’t really long enough, so they were squished together, not quite like a lock step, but you get the point, they looked ridiculous. And to my continued surprise, no one questioned this or even voiced their embarrassment. There was far too much at stake by refusing: time out from rides, a call back home, or even worse, an early pick up from parents looking forward to their day off. The sacrifice of dignity was worth the spoils of an uninterrupted day of fun, and this non-reaction from the obedient group completely destroyed the joke. We abandoned the stunt before security, completely unmemorable. I coiled the rope up from the participants. Now I had a rope to carry around all day. Damn it. Not my finest hour as a leader.

BACK TO THE BIBLE

God tells Abraham to take his only son and sacrifice him. This is Isaac: the one promised to Abraham, the one born in Sarah’s old age, the one who would be the continuation of his holy bloodline, the one, the only one. God puts this command up without any warning, and it is pre-empted by nothing of significance. So. Abraham gathers the wood. He binds Isaac with rope. He places him on the altar, brandishes the knife, holds it up, but then. Stop, God calls out, Don’t lay a hand on him. It was a test, and Abraham passed. God now knows that Abraham is a fearful man, worthy of the bloodline that God has planned for him.

This is a popular story in Sunday Schools – for its obvious parallels to the eventual Christ sacrifice, but also for its clear message. All Christians must be prepared to give up what they hold most dear in order to follow God, a task that seems impossible in certain situations. In the example of Abraham, God not only asks for him to give up his son and his heir, but he also requires him to do the deed himself. God sets a standard, and it is up to Abraham to alter his identity and life direction in order to comply. God doesn’t change, after all.

This taps into the modern dilemma of Christianity, one that has been rippling out for its entire history: what lengths must we go to remain holy in God’s eyes? It is the battle of religious conformation versus individual transformation – or simply – do we expect our religion to conform to our state of being or are we expected to go without parts of ourselves in order to show our dedication? My gut says that in order to adhere to any religion, you must alter your worldview and behavior in some major way. Otherwise, why convert at all? There seems to be a line in the sand though. Turning a kind face to your neighbor seems easy to accomplish when compared to abstaining for romantic intimacy for an entire life. Modern apologists would say that level of identity loss is simply too far. Some sacrifices are not worth it, and more so, are not even required.

I recall (spoiler alert for those reading the Bible for the first time) that Jesus’ crucifixion was meant to fulfill the Jewish tradition of sacrifice, and as such, we are no longer required to present a burnt offering in exchange for atonement. But did that change also demolish the entirety of the holiness code – the sexual regulations, the moral strictures, the slave-master dynamic, the secondary role of women? I have to keep reading to find out. Regardless, Abraham’s obedience sets a dangerous precedent. This God demands what He demands, and our choice to adhere comes with consequences. He tests us in ways that seem wholly unfair. He asks what feels to be too much. He asks for everything. He wants what you love, who you love, how you love, for all of that symbolizes a gap in your love for Him. Follow. Or fall.

When I announced my plan for pre-teens-on-a-rope, some grimaces appeared, but most of the faces fell into neutral. True, no protests, but also, no excitement. I had sapped their energy with my ridiculous demand, and they took it with solemn obedience.

They followed. And thus, they did not fall.

 

How much of ourselves must we give up in order to follow God? Sound off in the comments or send an e-mail to GodDoesntChangeBlog@gmail.com.

Threat: Genesis 10 – 11

Begat. Begat. Tower of Babel. Begat.

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.”

Genesis 11:5-6 (NIV)

The Confusion of Tongues by Gustave Doré (1865)

The Confusion of Tongues by Gustave Doré (1865)

Kyle was a mess. Mom dead; Dad strung out on whatever and fading. He had just turned 19 and had begun to feel the pressure of adulthood. No job, no education, no drive to get educated. He had just struck up a relationship with this guy, a friend of a friend. First boyfriend. They had never met – yeah, they only talked via text message – and so I thought, well maybe that’s not a real boyfriend, but I wasn’t about to discourage him. He had had enough of that. I barely remembered him until he linked me an old picture of us, and then it clicked. Kyle. I was his Bible study leader when I was 19, and he was 12. He was assigned to my group when I interned at my church for a bit. For one semester. Four months. His family moved to the Pacific Northwest; I never saw him again.

But despite our limited relationship, he remembered me, and now he needed help –immediately. He felt life slipping away from him, and he remembered me as one of the few people that actually cared about him. He had questions of faith, of his homosexual lifestyle, of his doubts and hang-ups and, as he said, the piece of shit cards that life had dealt him recently. He recalled that I had made him feel close to God, and that comforted him when he was younger. Now he sought the same. Say something to make me feel close to God again.

I balked. I listened to Kyle’s woes but offered no advice. I wanted to tell him that I had lost my faith, that I was queer and also felt out of place, but my more esteemed side led me to remain silent. After hours of hearing his stories, I ended the conversation with an ellipsis.

In a moment of confusion, I contacted my old boss from that internship long ago – Pastor Hank. He sounded genuinely thrilled to hear from me; I was always one of his favorite interns, he recalled. For a few minutes, we played the catch up game, remembering the craziness of that summer seven years ago: the sweaty camping trip to the mountains, the sermons about peer pressure and budding desire, the varied personalities of the students. Pastor Hank was a middle schooler trapped in an adult’s body; his voice even hovered in a mid-pubescence cadence– grainy yet high-pitched. My heart swelled. I loved this guy; I loved being his guy. He endowed so much responsibility to me that summer – with dominion over small groups and sermons. I wasn’t his intern. I was his partner – his guy.

It had been some time since we had last spoke, so he was unaware of my newly emboldened sexuality. And I did not share it with him. No, no, I couldn’t. To destroy that image in a moment, I couldn’t. In a moment of painful doubt, I realized that I still had something to lose by disappointing him. His waning opinion of me was a threat to my self-esteem, to my ability to keep one foot planted on both sides of the religious fence. I was a traitor to both my queer brothers and my Christian brethren. I belonged nowhere in that moment.

But Pastor Hank was charismatic, and he surmised quickly that I was no longer a faithful follower. Why the phone call? I mustered the energy to tell him about Kyle. His cheerful pitch dropped slightly. I wouldn’t tell him anything, Pastor Hank suggested. Refer him back to our church. Tell him we’d love to hear from him again. The conversation ended quickly with a hard stop.

In Genesis, the flood epic is immediately followed by a list of the descendants linking Noah to Abram. In the middle of all this begatting, we jump into an aside about the Tower of Babel. It’s an incredibly short story comprised of a mere nine verses that outline the origin of languages on Earth. Unspecified “people” moved eastward and began building a large tower to the heavens. God saw this ambition and worried about the capability of man working as a unit, so he confused their language and spread them about the Earth. If left to our unified vices, God surmised “nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.”

This just isn’t the same all-powerful God I remember learning about in Sunday School. Am I to understand that humanity, if united, actually poses a threat to the Creator of the universe? It is a core tenant of Christianity that God is an omnipotent and omnipresent deity, capable of literally anything, yet in these first eleven chapters of the Bible, a very different picture is presented. We have a God who searches, regrets, and worries – a very human and vulnerable God. When we encounter enigmatic passages in the Bible, we are told to count it as one of the unknowable mysteries of God. Perhaps God is so powerful that He even withholds certain abilities from Himself. Perhaps He allows Himself to feel the emotions that have a grapple hold on the behavior of His creatures, and this apparent weakness in His personality is just one way that He relates to us.

Or perhaps I am participating in a massive game of mental gymnastics in an attempt to justify the illogical passages of the Bible. I know that I am not a threat to God, because that notion is completely ridiculous – an example of where my intellect diverges from the unshakable Word. It reminds me of Greek mythology, when mortals somehow managed to manipulate and trick powerful beings in hilariously obtuse ways. What pathetic gods and goddesses.

I may not be a threat to God, but as a queer man, I am a threat to the modern Christian dynamic – several Christian law-makers have made this clear. I represent a viewpoint that is inherently dangerous to Christianity as I intellectualize what should be left alone, and I highlight the merits of a sexual orientation that is reprehensible. If I were to tell Kyle that his homosexuality is, at its worst, benign, then a Christian might say that my influence constitutes abuse with eternal ramifications. My teachings in self-reliance could be responsible for leading him straight to Hell. I refuse to believe that I hold such power.

To the Christian majority, I am a threat – to culture, to morality, to questioning young LGBT people, to heterosexuality, to marriage, to masculinity, to women, to men, to their children – but more than anything, I am a threat to myself. My soul is at stake. To them, I will one day have to take responsibility for that; I will answer for it. To them, when I stand before God, I will have no one to blame but myself. To them, I am threat.