Thirty some years ago I ran across a novel written by a Roman Catholic. I cannot remember the title. All I clearly remember is that the novel speaks of a Roman Catholic Religious order made up of members whom the author called “The Used, the Abused, and the Utterly Confused”.
I have often thought that the words “used, abused, and utterly confused” is an apt description for many persons sitting in our pews who do not accept themselves as they are; who imagine or who experience others not accepting them as they are.
Persons participating in diaconal ministry formation know that God comes into our lives and deals with each one of us exactly where we are. They know and believe God enters into the real brokenness of each and every individual.
My topic today is the biblical foundations of our belief that god deals with each one of us exactly as we are; exactly where we are.
It is good to review those biblical passages which reveal that God deals with us where we are. As we remind ourselves of these biblical events, over and over, we build up our memory storehouse of these biblical stories. Then, when we minister to the used, abused, and utterly confused, we will be able to provide them evidence, in the forms of biblical analogies, that God accepts them and deals with them exactly where they are.
Philosophy is the use of reason and dialogue to discover and display the way things are. A recent development within philosophy is the discipline called phenomenology. Beginning in the late 1800s/early 1900s A.D., phenomenology seeks to refine and clarify the intellectual tools we use to discern the essence of the things of which we are aware. Using these intellectual tools, one attempts to distinguish between the essential and the trivial aspects of the things of which we are aware. In order to identify those essential aspects, one of the thinking-tools used by phenomenology is the awareness of absences. Awareness of absence helps one discern the essential nature of a given thing, person, situation, event.
Central to Christian faith is the event called The Incarnation. The Incarnation refers to God becoming fully human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Mary. In addition to being a core belief of the Christian faith, a full appreciation of the meaning of The Incarnation is central to Roman Catholic morality and pastoral ministry. Phenomenology, and its emphasis on the awareness of absences, helps us become aware of the essential importance of The Incarnation.
There is a glaring absence related to the Incarnation event. Though there were many prophetic statements ahead of time indicating the arrival of a Messiah, a Christ; there was never a statement of preconditions. There was never sent to us, prior to the Incarnation, a divine decree, a statement by God, saying changes had to occur in human behavior in order for the Incarnation to occur. Prior to the Incarnation, we were not told we had to change our ways.
The conclusion to draw from this pre-Incarnational absence is that God decided to enter the human condition exactly as it is. God did not demand a fundamental change in humanity, in human attitude and behaviors and thoughts and words, prior to entering the human condition as one of the members of humanity.
God accepted us exactly as we were/are. Into that exactly-as-we-are state, the Incarnation occurred.
A significant corollary of this Incarnational fact is that God then chose to use only those means which human beings use to communicate. God chose to use human words the way humans use words to communicate the messages of repentance and the Kingdom of God. God chose to use human behaviors and physical presence to communicate the messages of repentance and the Kingdom of God.
God could have communicated everything God wanted us to know about repentance and the Kingdom of God, directly by a neural chemical electrical bolt into our cerebral cortices. But God did not do it that way. Rather, God adopted the nature of the human condition and used only the means of the human condition to communicate with and to us everything He wanted us to know.
In summary, the Incarnation is proof that God enters our lives and deals with us exactly where we are at. Further, the incarnation reveals to us that God, through Jesus, uses the immediacy of human speech, touch, and physical presence to let us know God accepts us and deals with us exactly where we are.
The Old Testament contains many stories which imply that God places no pre-conditions on His choice to enter into our lives, as messy as our lives might be, and to deal with us and assist us, exactly where-we-are. One of the biblical events which attests to this assertion involves the biblical story of the destruction of the city of Jericho and of other similar events found in the books of Joshua and Judges.
The Chosen People escaped the slavery of Egypt. This was followed by forty years in the desert. This forty years was a retreat experience in which the Chosen People began to learn how to identify and reject slavish thinking and slavish acting.
After forty years, they leave the Sinai desert and travel toward the promised land of Canaan. Upon entering Canaan, the Chosen People encounter many peoples and groups who resist them. Time and again the Chosen People are instructed by God to engage in activities which are called, in the Hebrew language, Herem or Herec, and which are translated in our English language Bibles as the Doom or the Ban.
Upon encountering peoples or groups which resist them, with God’s permission and at God’s direction, the Chosen People destroy nearly everything. Those things of value which are not destroyed, are not taken into the possession of any individual but, are dedicated to worship and to God’s use; that is, these things are considered holy. At the same time, all of the enemy group, including women and children, the old and ill; all are killed.
From the perspective of the Chosen People, the Herem or Herec are Bans; a command of God that they are banned from benefitting from any spoils of war. From the perspective of the peoples or groups conquered and utterly annihilated, the Herem or Herec is a Doom.
The high school juniors to whom I taught the Old Testament had a great deal of difficulty with the biblical commands of the Ban, the Doom.
For those juniors who tended to see the bible as literally true, the reality of God ordering bans and dooms often led them to question the Bible and their faith in a loving and just God.
For those juniors who accepted a contextual understanding of the sacred scriptures, they were troubled by the fact that some human author understood and portrayed God, as a God who ordered such things. To these contextualist thinking juniors, it did not help that God did not order the bans and dooms. It did not help them because the bans and dooms still appeared in the biblical texts as inspired forms of moral and spiritual instruction.
Even when I pointed out that archaeology had proven that the first ban, which was the doom of the city of Jericho and of the people of that city; that this ban/doom could not have actually happened; this provided my juniors no consolation because, once again, the bans and dooms appeared in the inspired biblical texts as forms of moral and spiritual instruction.
To help the juniors deal with the presence of the doom/ban in the biblical texts, I addressed them in the following manner,
“Years ago, when I was a pastoral associate at a parish, I was called to the emergency waiting room of a local hospital to see and talk with a woman whose child was in emergency surgery. The child, only a few years old, had been raped a few hours earlier by a boyfriend of the mother of the child. The surgery was to repair the internal organ damage caused by having been raped.
““The mother was in an emotional mess. She was feeling tremendous guilt for the harm done to her child. She was feeling tremendous shame for having failed to identify the harmful tendencies of the boyfriend. And she had feelings of overwhelming hate for the child rapist.
“Hopefully, I made comments about how God was very present at this exact moment in the operating room with her child and how God was present at this exact moment in the waiting room with her, the mother. I hoped I said things about how God was guiding the hands of the surgeons to heal her child, and hopefully I said things about how God was present to her at this moment to offer her consolation and strength so that she could get past her strong feelings about herself so she could best serve the needs of her child in recovery.
“Now, imagine what might have happened in that waiting room, what the mother might have said and done if at this exact moment I also shared that God was present in the mind and heart of the rapist, lovingly guiding him to repentance. Imagine if I would have said that God loves and cares for him just as much as God loves and cares for her and her child. How might she have reacted to such words?
“Obviously, her reaction might well have been very negative and very strong. In all likelihood, at this particular moment in time, one thing she was totally unable to hear was that God also cared for and loved the rapist.
“Well, the Chosen People have, in the storyline, just endured generations of brutal treatment as slaves. Further, the writer of these storylines is also undergoing foreign abuse by Assyrians or Babylonians. Like the mother in the emergency waiting room, at this moment in their histories, the Chosen People are in no frame of mind to understand, much less accept, the idea that God also cares for and loves the Canaanites or Egyptians or Babylonians or Assyrians.
“Because the Chosen People, at this moment in time, are unable to hear the message that God loves and cares for all people, God limits Himself to a message they can understand; the human author limits himself to a message the used and abused and utterly confused Chosen People can understand; God loves the Chosen People and will protectively care for them.
“Over many subsequent generations, as the experience of freedom and national self identify impact the Chosen People, and as they maturate beyond the slavish ways of thinking and acting they learned in Egypt; over time, other biblical writers will appear, namely the prophets, who will communicate to them that God also loves and cares for other peoples and groups as well. At that later date, the Chosen People will be able to accept this idea of God’s care for all; their own imaginations having been properly prepared by their experience of God’s care and love for them.
“God’s appropriately limited activity, among the Chosen People portrayed as engaged in the Ban/Doom; God’s appropriately limited instruction can be seen operating in another way. Consider the ramifications of being told they may not take possession of any of the spoils of war against oppressing peoples and groups. Being told not to benefit from doing war is a dis-incentive for undertaking war. In a very subtle and gentle way, by commanding the Ban, God is teaching the Chosen People to avoid engaging in war.
“In conclusion, at the moment in time when the bans/dooms may have happened, at the point in the history of the Chosen People when authors felt it useful to describe God as ordering the bans and the Chosen People as performing the dooms, at these moments in time, clearly understanding what the Chosen People were able and were not able to understand and accept, God dealt with the Chosen People exactly where they were at mentally, emotionally, and relationally. God limited His guidance to what they, the Chosen People, could understand and accept within their current perspectives, limited as they were by the abuse they had undergone and the confusion this abuse instilled in them. God gave them only what they could handle.”
[THE CHOSEN PEOPLE]
When we read with a pastoral eye and comprehend with a pastoral heart, the stories about the Chosen People, we see that they constitute a highly dysfunctional family system. And yet, this is exactly the group of people God wants to associate with, with no pre-conditions.
God initiates an idyllic relationship with Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve reject God. Their human existence begins to go awry. God promises to assist them over time to return to a condition of righteousness, holiness, redemption.
God establishes a covenant with Abraham and Sarah. These two are deeply impacted, emotionally and intellectually by this invitation. They never forget this invitation. They always attempt to live as best they can in accord with this covenant. And yet, they screw up. Abraham worries about childlessness. Sarah provides him a sexual partner to have a child. Sarah becomes threatened by the influence of the mother of this child and requires Abraham to abandon this child and its mother to their fate. To forestall a violent attacker, Sarah and Abraham agree to offer her as a sexual object to the attacker. Later Abraham attempts to murder his son Isaac. In each case he and they are attempting to do what is correct but we know objectively the acts are wrong. And yet God continues to be faithful to Abraham and Sarah and Isaac.
Isaac, perhaps due to the trauma of his father attempting to kill him, grows up to be a cold man. It is difficult for Rekekah to live with him. Rebekah emotionally bonds with her youngest son. Isaac dolts upon his first born son and ignores his youngest son Jacob. Perhaps he is afraid he will become to Jacob the type of father Abraham was to him. There is familial deceit. There are hatreds. There are abandonments. And yet God chooses to remain faithful to this family.
Jacob finally leaves. He goes to his mother’s brother, an uncle who cruelly misuses him. When he comes of age, he chooses to marry one of the uncle’s daughters. On his wedding night he sleeps with his wife’s sister. He marries both of them. Over time, the two wives provide him two other sexual partners. From these four women are born at least thirteen children. And again, carrying out a traditional aspect of this dysfunctional family, Jacob showers his affection on his youngest son Joseph, creating deep resentments among his siblings. The siblings attempt to kill their younger brother. To cover up the attempted murder, they lie to their parents. Despite all this dysfunction, God continues to be present in the lives of the members of this family; guiding them through important events in Egypt, the Sinai, and in Canaan.
No person in the Bible is depicted more after-God’s-own-heart than David the King. And yet David is blind to his own faults. He has a sexual addiction. He sexually assaults and commits adultery with a married woman. He has the husband of that woman murdered. David, shirking his duty according to Jewish Law to be celibate during war, has this non-Jewish husband murdered who is acting according to Jewish law by being celibate during war. David’s arrogant pride causes him to forget the evil he did, until his political advisor Nathan reminds him of his sins. David repents. God continues to be intimately involved in guiding David on his spiritual journey and the spiritual journey of his people.
[THE NEW TESTAMENT]
The New Testament is full of stories where Jesus interacts with individuals who are experiencing significant pain, discouragement, sadness in their fractured and broken and chaotic lives. Such events are recorded in the narratives of the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, the man born blind, et alia.
[THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH]
At a parish meeting, an accomplished and highly intelligent business person asked why there were so many more alcoholics among Roman Catholics than were found in other religious denominations.
I do not know if this assertion is statistically correct or not. However, I do know that the Roman Catholic Church, in addition to being the Church instituted by Jesus Christ and in addition to being Holy; I do know that the Roman Catholic Church is messy, having members whose lives are chaotic, and led by leaders who are sometimes dysfunctional. The Roman Catholic Church has skeletons in its closet.
I am willing to say that it is possible that of all Christian denominations, the Roman Catholic Church may be the most dysfunctional, the messiest, with the most members who are used and abused and utterly confused.
And if this assertion is true, it makes perfect sense that this is the way things are. After all, God chose to enter the human condition exactly as it is, exactly where people are. It then follows that when Jesus instituted a Church, he would choose to institute the Church from and among and of those persons who will prove to be fully human, messy, chaotic, dysfunctional, used, abused, and confused.
This makes sense because if the salvation and redemption of the Christ can be accomplished in this type of community, then we have proof that the entirety of humanity, in and outside the Roman Catholic Church, can gain righteousness and redemption; joy and peace.