Monday, March 12, 2018

Poisonous Snakes and a Pretty Bad Hymn

Something strange happened to me last Sunday at the end of the 10:30 service.  We were singing the Recessional hymn and as I walked out I realized I really, really, really didn’t like the lyrics.  Now there are plenty of unsingable hymn tunes, but this hymn is different – its words are unsingable.  Have I pricked your curiosity?  If so, take out a hymnal and turn to #574, Before thy throne, O God, we kneel.

Before thy throne, O God, we kneel:
give us a conscience quick to feel,
a ready mind to understand
the meaning of thy chastening hand;
whate’er the pain and shame may be,
bring us, O Father, nearer thee.

Let’s stop for a moment.  The meaning of God’s chastening hand?  Really?  Bring us close to thee no matter how painful or shameful the experience will be?  It gets worse.

Search out our hearts and make us true;
help us to give to all their due. 

Give to all their due?  I was under the impression we share with all from the riches of God’s grace and love, even and especially if the person has not earned it.

From love of pleasure, lust of gold,
from sins which make the heart grow cold,
wean us and train us with thy rod;
teach us to know our faults, O God.

Train us with thy rod?  Teach us to know our faults?  William Boyd Carpenter, the English bishop who wrote this text, had eleven children and I am positive I am happy not to have been one of them!

For sins of heedless word and deed,
for pride ambitions to succeed, 
for crafty trade and subtle snare
to catch the simple unaware,
for lives bereft of purpose high,
forgive, forgive, O Lord, we cry.

Can there be a less cheery way to conclude a celebration of the Great Thanksgiving than wallowing in our wretchedness?

Let the fierce fires which burn and try,
our inmost spirits purify:
consume the ill; purge out the shame;
O God, be with us in the flame;
a newborn people may we rise,
more pure, more true, more nobly wise. 

Hit me, beat me, burn me?  I think not.  The next time Before thy throne, O God, we kneel is played, I am going to slam shut my hymnal and act like a petulant child.  I am very close to pulling a Robin Williams move from the Dead Poets Society and ordering you to tear this page out of the book, but then we would lose hymn #575 on the opposite side.  Oh wait, #575 is the same hymn set to a different tune.  Well, I leave it to your discretion.

For whatever reason, the notion that God needs to punish us to make us better people runs very deep.  The bible certainly adds fuel to the fire.  Today’s reading from the Old Testament is just one example.  The children of God have been in the wilderness for a long time, too long.  They follow Moses out of Egypt believing in God’s promise to lead them to a land of “milk and honey.”  The wilderness is anything but.  The text tells us the people become impatient and speak out against Moses and against God.  Then the text states God sends poisonous serpents that bite and kill many people.  God’s children conclude the snakes are punishment for their complaining, but nowhere in the text does God or the narrator explicitly state this. 

The post hoc fallacy is an argument stating “after this, therefore because of this.”  Here is an example: After I put on my lucky jersey the Cleveland Browns won a game, therefore my lucky jersey caused the victory.  The post hoc fallacy in today’s reading is this: After we complained to God we were bitten by poisonous snakes, therefore we are being punished for complaining.  Often times we assume there is a connection between event A and event B, when in fact there is no connection at all.  Perhaps the snakes are connected to the complaining.  It is an easy assumption to draw.  God must be trying to teach God’s children a lesson.  But the text offers no concrete proof a connection exists.

God’s chastening hand, God’s rod, God’s fire are expressions that try to make difficult times, random experiences, or problems of our own making some kind of divine action with the purpose and intent of them being to punish or purify us.  Let’s say you are driving home from church and get into a minor fender bender.  As a result of the inconvenience, you might say “God is trying to teach me patience”, as if God brought about the accident because you are not patient enough.  Or let’s say you max out several credit cards and collectors are coming at you from all directions.  You might say, “God is testing my strength”, but in reality you are the one who brought this situation on yourself.  It is testing you, to be sure, but it is not an act of God.

We are a people who crave meaning.  We want to understand the how and why of everything we experience.  We have a tendency to inflate the meaning of an event, mostly either to increase our own sense of importance or to deflect our own responsibility for what has happened to us.  In either scenario God is a likely target.  God is trying to teach us or to punish us or to purify us.  Now, life has a way of teaching us lessons, punishing us both when we do deserve it and when we don’t, and molding us into better people through difficult times and adversity.  But is God like an Olympic coach pushing us to and past our limits to make us gold medalists in life?  Is God a parent wielding a switch to teach us, to wean us, and to and train us?

Here are two things I know about what happened in the wilderness.  First, when Moses goes to God, God instructs him to fashion the image of a serpent and attach it to a pole.  Whoever looks at it will be healed.  This snake of a pole comes to be known as the Nehushtan and for centuries afterward, along with the ark containing the Ten Commandments, it resides in the Holy of Holies in the Temple, the place where God is said to reside.

The Nehushtan has the effect of changing the wilderness conversation.  Before it appears the people are trying to figure out what they did to deserve this punishment.  But once Moses lifts up the Nehushtan the people begin to ask a new question: Where is God in all of this?  How is God present with us to see us through?  It is a dramatic conversion of thinking.  God’s children begin to think like adults.  They are no longer kids sitting in time out.  Now they are gathering spiritual resources to help them deal with the difficulties they face.

The second thing I know about what happened in the wilderness is Jesus sees in it a symbol of what his own life means.  No matter what you are facing, no matter what you are going through, no matter what is weighing you down, if you look for Jesus and seek to discern how he is present with you, you will find a source of healing and strength and courage and hope. 

Most people know John 3:16: “For God so loved the world he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”  If you had to boil down the entire message of the Gospel into just one verse, this would be a good candidate.  It is so luminous it eclipses what follows – John 3:17:  “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.”  Look to Jesus, no matter where you are, no matter what you are enduring, no matter how much you are suffering, and you will find God’s loving, gracious presence. 

Old Bishop Carpenter may have crafted the single worst hymn ever written, but I do like how he ends it:

O God, be with us in the flame;
a newborn people may we rise,
more pure, more true, more nobly wise

Jesus came into this world to assure us God is with us in the flame and is with us to see us through.  My experience is God is not the source of the flame, but God’s presence with me insures I will come through the ordeal a better person than before I went in.