Psalm 22 – COVID and the Coming School Year

11 Do not be far from me,
    for trouble is near
    and there is no one to help.

12 Many bulls surround me;
    strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
13 Roaring lions that tear their prey
    open their mouths wide against me.
14 I am poured out like water,
    and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
    it has melted within me.
15 My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
    and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
    you lay me in the dust of death. (Read the rest of the chapter, here)

The coming school year

Indulge me, if you will, in a moment of self pity. I got word from our school-board the other day that we as parents have two choices: Half-time instruction in-school, with children alternating weeks they are in-classroom and receiving at-home instruction, or opting for full-time at-home instruction. I am extremely concerned about the recent COVID spikes in states that attempted re-openings, and am scared to death of what schools across the nation opening in a few weeks is going to do to these numbers, so I opted for the latter.

Let me be clear, I think the school board made the best decision they could: no one is going to be happy with any decision they make, but this is probably the closest they’ll get to “getting it right” in an impossible situation. I also am deeply grateful to the teachers who are essentially going to have to come up with two lesson plans – one for in-school and one for remote teaching. But essentially, I just signed on to a full year of being little M’s teacher and therapist, in addition to her mother and advocate. I have never been someone who wanted to homeschool. It has never been remotely tempting. Yet here I am, doing it. I’ll be working with her teachers, but she’s a special-needs kindergartner, so let’s be honest here: self-directed study is not going to happen. I’m staring a new full-time job in the face come August 10.

Yes, I’m grateful I have the option to do this with and for my child. Yes, I will relish the time we get to spend together. Yes, I love being a part of her progress as she learns and grows. I am grateful. I really am. But I’m also so very tired. I’m tired of limiting her opportunities for social development because of a global pandemic. I’m tired of being afraid to go to the river with the girls too late in the day because there will be too many people there. I’m saddened that my youngest is now afraid of people walking by us when we walk the dogs, because I’ve tried to explain we need to be friends from afar for now. I hate having to explain to my girls for the millionth time that we can’t do a car-ride to their grandmas and grandpas, who they haven’t seen, outside of Facetime, in months. But more than anything I’m so, so worried about how many families might lose children come fall, reopening schools, and COVID spikes. So even though I’m tired, we will stay home: for our health and theirs.

The Psalm

Psalm 22 is the most quoted Psalm in the New Testament. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” are the words Jesus cries out on the cross. Other parts allude to Jesus as well: “a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet” (v. 16), “they divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing” (v. 18). It is a lament, an anguished cry of a psalm, which is why I chose it for this week’s reading. “Why, Lord?” it asks. Also, “where are you, Lord?” Those two questions have been my heart’s cries for weeks now. I am sad, I am tired, my efforts feel futile.

Yet here I am, “declaring your name to my brothers,” as v. 22 puts it. Even as tired as I am, I cannot resist the gravity of God’s pull. I saw something on Instagram today that said “God is the God of your valleys as well as your mountains.” It’s comforting, in a small way, to know that God loves us even when we aren’t feeling our best selves, perhaps even when we are feeling a little sorry for ourselves, or shaky in our beliefs. And for that, I will continue to sing Xyr praises even while asking “why?” and “where?”

I find it comforting, too, that this psalm has already been fulfilled, not only through Jesus, but through the declaration at the very end: “Posterity will serve Xyr, future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim Xyr righteousness, to a people yet unborn — for Xe has done it.” It is estimated that the final compilation of the psalms was in the third century B.C., which means many of these psalms had been sung for a long time before. Millennia of generations have sung these psalms, and the goodness of God has carried us here, in that tide. It may not always seem good, but something about that longevity gives me hope, and gives me perspective. My tired is real, but it is temporary. Even if it lasts the rest of my life (and I hope it doesn’t, and I don’t believe God wants that for any of Xyr children), it is still temporary. I may wallow around in my valley of self pity for a bit, but God is there with me. And when I’m ready to climb back to the mountaintop, God will walk with me then, too.

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Ecclesiastes 07 – Divinity Beyond the Gender Binary

26 I find more bitter than death
    the woman who is a snare,
whose heart is a trap
    and whose hands are chains.
The man who pleases God will escape her,
    but the sinner she will ensnare.

27 “Look,” says the Teacher, “this is what I have discovered:

“Adding one thing to another to discover the scheme of things—
28     while I was still searching
    but not finding—
I found one upright man among a thousand,
    but not one upright woman among them all.
29 This only have I found:
    God created mankind upright,
    but they have gone in search of many schemes.”
(Read the rest of the chapter, here)

Woman as Divine Agent in Ecclesiastes

Sounds pretty condemning. One good man in a thousand is bad enough, but not a single good woman? Come on. It reeks of sexism, right? But…maybe not.

This post is basically a thought-train brought on by a very interesting article I came across in my background research entitled “Woman as Divine Agent in Ecclesiastes” (by Dominic Rudman, published in 1997 by The Journal Of Biblical Literature, available on JSTOR). Rudman argues that the “woman” discussed in vv. 7:26-29 is morally neutral, and actually an agent of God who is there to punish the wicked. Citing language patterns in and out of Ecclesiastes, Rudman describes this feminine-divine-agent “More a huntress of the masses than a temptress of the individual.” Rudman also points out that no horrible fate is awaiting the woman of 7:26 as is the whores and adultresses in other passages outside Ecclesiastes, which helps to emphasize her moral neutrality – or possibly even her moral superiority. This quote sums up the whole idea of woman as divine agent, as Rudman chooses to present her, quite nicely: “In a sense, Qoheleth’s [the author of Ecclesiastes, see Chapter One] world view is one in which Eve has ganged up with God against Adam. In short, there is no way for man to fully know a woman without falling into her divine trap, so therefore Qoheleth can never find the full ‘sum’ of knowledge.”

I’m not going to lie: As a woman, I enjoy this idea of being a divine agent of God, of maybe even being something a little “better than” man. That last quote in particular begs the question: If God is unknowable to man because of man’s inherent maleness, and inability to know woman, does that mean that woman has a fuller knowledge of God? One could argue that those with wombs would have a more intimate knowledge of creating life, which might be an argument for women being closer to God. While pro-feminist on the surface, that argument has a big problem to it, because it ties one’s inherent womanhood to her ability to reproduce – something that many women cannot do. Thus it ends up more like a patriarchal understanding of a “woman’s role in society” than a pro-female-divinity argument.

Alternatively, perhaps the unknowingness works both ways: woman cannot know the full “sum” of God just as man can’t, because she can’t fully “know” man. But this brings up another problem.

The problem of the Gender Binary

To muddy the waters even further, the above meditation presupposes a gender binary: that there is “man” and there is “woman” and each is unknowable to the other. More and more we are finding that the gender binary is simply a social construct. Of course there are people are are biologically intersex, but there are others who identify as asexual, trans, demi-girl, femme, butch, and a whole bunch of other perfectly valid qualifiers that don’t fit into a gender binary.

So, would a non-gender-binary person, somebody who identifies with both “man” and “woman” be the only ones who can fully know the “sum” of God’s wisdom that Qohelet seeks? I haven’t found any Biblical evidence to back that up, but I also haven’t come across any Biblical evidence that specifically denies that idea. In a broader historical sense a special non-binary divinity seems possible. I must admit I haven’t researched it much myself, but I’ve heard anecdotally that “two-spirit” people were often looked to as spiritual leaders in Native culture, and I’ve also come across some mention of Wiccan views on nonbinary people as closer to the divine. Certainly there are a slew of hermaphroditic gods throughout history. So who knows, perhaps collectively we’ve been tapping into this truth for some times now.

Staying true to the message of Ecclesiastes

Ecclesiastes 7:23-29 remains a confusing passage, to be sure. Generally, Qohelet is gentle with his readers. Widespread condemnation of a whole group seems unusual for him – he even has sympathy for fools and foolish behavior throughout the book, a book which is entirely devoted to wisdom, the opposite of foolishness. In truth, Qohelet has very little to say about (and nothing to say to) women. But what he does say about them is largely positive: in 9:9 he urges his listener to “enjoy life with your wife, whom you love,” and in chapter two he counts female slaves, female singers, and possibly a harem (the word is vague and the “harem” translation is by no means agreed upon) among the things that bring him pleasure. Whether or not you subscribe to Rudman’s idea of woman as divine agent, I don’t read vv. 7:23-29 as a knock to women, and it all lies in the last verse.

“This only I have found: God made mankind upright, but men have gone in search of many schemes.” Gender discussions aside, I actually find this last line of the chapter to be the most fascinating. Basically it’s another admonishment to pay attention to God, do your work well, and let the rest be, because if you don’t, it might interfere with your God-given right (and responsibility) to be happy. So yes, Qohelet only found one good man (and no good woman) out of a thousand. Statistically speaking this makes sense: he probably knew a lot more men. But he also gives us the reason why so few “good people are found, regardless of gender: humankind chases after too many “schemes.”

We chase the things that bring temporary pleasure, but not deep and lasting joy. I don’t want to harp on how anyone spends their money or free time, but a lot of the screens, booze, food, drugs, and material posessions – aka the schemes – that we chase are simply bandaids over our deeper longings. I think that’s why so many people have such a yearning to get back to the land in the form of farming or hiking or homesteading: because it is a connection to something deeper and true. I think it’s why so many people like dogs: they have a joy that is simple and true and not reliant upon social standing or a new car. We want that deep, abiding, and elusive joy and connection.

If we are to do what is best for our short days under the sun, we all need to focus on what is important. That may differ a bit from person to person, but if we follow Qohelet’s lead, it centers on fulfilling work, fellowship, and seizing happiness when we can find it. Who knows what, exactly, Qohelet was talking about when he was talking about that woman, but the message of Ecclesiastes doesn’t change: whether we are man or woman or somewhere in between or not at all, we all need to be agents of joy in the lives of others while finding joy in our own.

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Ecclesiates 06 – Juneteenth and Christian Humanism

12 For who knows what is good for a person in life, during the few and meaningless days they pass through like a shadow? Who can tell them what will happen under the sun after they are gone? (Read the rest of the chapter, here.)

Getting reacquainted with Ecclesiastes

Time to circle back to Ecclesiastes, the book I promised I’d finish back in May (ha, ha). I want to return to it though, because I find it to be both comforting and grounding, and we all could use more of that right now. There’s an urgency and a gentleness to Ecclesiastes, and there seems no better time to tie that, Christian Humanism, and Juneteenth all together.

Let’s start by reacquainting ourselves with the book: It is a wisdom text attributed to Solomon. A wisdom text shares wisdom with us (surprise!), and differs from earlier narrative books (like Genesis) and later prophetic books (like Isaiah) in that being its focus. Throughout Ecclesiastes the author is referred to as Qohelet, which generally means teacher (more about author in my post on Chapter One.) It’s a short book, and we’re smack in the middle with chapter six, which is all about setting up a question that is answered by the wisdom poems in the following chapters. Basically the question asked is this: what is the best way for humans to spend their short time on earth?

The short-answer to this question is in chapter eight: “Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do…Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.” (vv. 8:7,10) Herein lies the gentleness and urgency: Qohelet wishes us joy and happiness, but also needs us to make the most of our work, whatever it may be.

One of the most disturbing things to Qohelet is the man who cannot enjoy himself, even though God has given him everything he needs for a good life, as discussed in vv. 3-6 of this chapter. Such a person’s lack of happiness could be argued as an affront to God and all Xyr generosity: they have the means, but cannot be satisfied.  (A quick aside: I don’t think this is a condemnation of depression or mental health concerns.  These readings refer to people who have everything at their fingertips, but still have an insatiability and discontentment of their own making.)  Happiness may be our God-given right, and, as Eunny Lee points out in her book The Vitality of Enjoyment in Qohelet’s Theological Rhetoric, it may be our God-given responsibility as well. Indeed, we are ordered in the passage from chapter eight (and elsewhere) to “go and be glad” or some words to that effect.

Christian Humanism: Hope and Immediacy Combined

Which brings me to Christian Humanism, something I’ve discussed before. The more I’m at this Bible reading project, the more I feel “Christian Humanist” is probably the best summation of my beliefs.  I hate falling back on Wikipedia as a source, but I can’t deny their summation is an excellent one: “Christian humanism regards humanist principles like universal human dignity, individual freedom and the importance of happiness as essential and principal components of the teachings of Jesus.” If we are to follow Qohelet’s lead, personal happiness is of the utmost importance to a full Christian life: we are to go and eat our food with gladness, drink our wine with a joyful heart. But personal happiness does not just mean our own personal happiness, it means everyone’s personal happiness. And that is where the working with all our might comes in: we are called to end things that may get in the way of other people’s happiness: racism, sexism, environmental exploitation, economic exploitation-anything that infringes upon the rights and human dignity of another person has got to go.

The Humanist Society of New York states “we owe it to ourselves and others to make it the best life possible for ourselves and all with whom we share this fragile planet.”  While different from Christian charity in its origin (and also hopefully free of some of the worst lingering effects of colonialism and racism), both Humanist and Christian charities are trying to make a better world for the people who live in it, here and now.  Humanists do not believe in an afterlife, so this is our one shot, and I kind of like that urgency. I think Qohelet would appreciate it, as well.

Don’t get me wrong, I still have great hope in the coming resurrection and find much comfort in contemplating Jesus returning to make it all right. But shouldn’t we be doing as much as we can, now?  Maybe my hokey cleaning house analogy will help:  We might not be able to do everything a professional cleaning company can do, like steam the rugs and squeegee the the second-floor windows, but we can do a lot to make things nice before the professionals get there.  Just because we can’t steam the rugs and squeegee the windows doesn’t mean we just throw up our hands and say we can’t do anything.  No, we tackle the messes that we can, and it does makes a difference. The return of Jesus may wipe away the tears from every eye, but we need begin ending sorrow, now.

Juneteenth

So what’s all this have to do with Juneteenth? Let’s back up; what the heck is Juneteenth? Juneteenth commemorates the day Major General Gordon Granger of the Union Army arrived in Galveston, TX – a final strong-hold of white slave-owners (and their slaves) – to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. This happened a full year and a half after the Emancipation Proclamation took effect, but that’s the soonest Union Forces had enough power to back up the law. I, personally, think that Juneteenth should take on all the celebratory nature that July 4 currently has; And July 4 should become a day of service and remembrance, when we work to make the ideals espoused by the Founding Fathers come true, while acknowledging the fact that these ideals have never been lived up to by or available to everyone in this country. But that’s just my opinion.

So back to why I want to close out my post talking about happiness and Christian Humanism with a nod to Juneteenth is this: it is a holiday that has a duality to it. Just as Ecclesiastes is both gentle and urgent, just as Christian Humanism is both hopeful and immediate, Juneteenth is both celebratory and bittersweet: we have come so far, yet we still have so far to go. We have work to do, as Qohelet reminds us, as Black Lives Matter reminds us. Oh, yes, do we have some work to do! But we can celebrate at the same time. Let’s celebrate our victories, like marveling at just how many people took to the streets in protest and solidarity in the past weeks, and in last week’s Supreme Court ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County that expands protection for LGBTQ workers, and, on a much smaller scale but of personal importance to me: how many of you have expressed interest in helping end police discrimination through my nascent lobbying campaign (details on my Instagram). Please don’t get me wrong: there is a time for anger, a time for sadness (as Qohelet so elegantly reminds us in Chapter Three), and I’m not trying to tone-police anyone here. But even this hard work is work we can do joyfully.

I hope your Juneteenth was a celebratory day. And if you missed it, may it be a celebratory day for you next year. We cannot know what will happen under the sun after we are gone. We cannot know what next year or even tomorrow holds for us, but I feel a joy, a conviction, that we are moving in the right direction. Let us all do our work, and be glad.