Job 01 – A Different Way to Think About Satan

A quick word on pronouns, and my usage of them from here out:  I believe God transcends/is all inclusive of gender.  I was raised, as many Christians were, referring to God using male pronouns.  I’ll admit it is what is most comfortable for me, but I’m committed to recognizing not only the divine female within God but also the overall inclusivity of God, and am making it a practice to now refer to God (and any angels, spirits, etc discussed in the Bible) with the gender neutral pronouns xe, xem, xyr, xemself.  I realize this may be awkward for some readers, but the more we practice the better we get!  I will continue to refer to Jesus using masculine pronouns as he came to Earth as male.

In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil. He had seven sons and three daughters, and he owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys, and had a large number of servants. He was the greatest manamong all the people of the East.

His sons used to hold feasts in their homes on their birthdays, and they would invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. When a period of feasting had run its course, Job would make arrangements for them to be purified. Early in the morning he would sacrifice a burnt offering for each of them, thinking, “Perhaps my children have sinnedand cursed God in their hearts.” This was Job’s regular custom.

One day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them. The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?”

Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.”

Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job?There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”

“Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied. 10 “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. 11 But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”

12 The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.”

Then Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.

13 One day when Job’s sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house, 14 a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys were grazing nearby, 15 and the Sabeans attacked and made off with them. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”

16 While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, “The fire of God fell from the heavens and burned up the sheep and the servants, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”

17 While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three raiding parties and swept down on your camels and made off with them. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”

18 While he was still speaking, yet another messenger came and said, “Your sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house, 19 when suddenly a mighty wind swept in from the desert and struck the four corners of the house. It collapsed on them and they are dead, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”

20 At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship 21 and said:

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
    and naked I will depart.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;
    may the name of the Lord be praised.”

22 In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.

Today I’m going to discuss a new understanding of Satan that I reached after reading this chapter.  But first, I feel it’s necessary to explain where I come from, theologically, when discussing Heaven and Hell and the Devil.  I don’t have a fully formed notion of “heaven” and “hell,” if they exist at all, and who is going to end up in which place.  I came of age during the release of the “Left Behind” series, and for most of my teen years was terrified of the Rapture and what came afterwards and if I would be one of those left behind or not, and firmly believed there were those who were “saved” and those who were not.

Then, after sophomore year of college, a friend committed suicide.  He was open about his struggles with mental health, and I never knew him as anything but bright, kind, generous and loving.  Seriously, everyone loved him.  And I just couldn’t imagine that God would condemn him to eternal hell for his brain being sick.  If you think about the brain being an organ (which it is), condemning someone to hell for acting out of a mental illness is like condemning someone to hell for Chrons disease, or endometriosis.  I simply could not accept this hard and fast saved-not saved, heaven-hell duality.

Also, after having kids, and knowing how much I love them even when they are driving me insane-I mean literally have to put them in their beds and walk out of the house to cool down before I go back in-I can’t imagine a loving God rejecting any of us for forever. Yes, that includes people as terrible as Stalin and Hitler.  Sure, God might be angry at us, and might punish us, but condemn us to hell forever? I just don’t see how a parent could do that.  I pray I never get tested in this, but I can’t think of one thing that my daughters could do that would make me stop loving them.  I might be deeply wounded, horribly shamed, or incredibly angry, but those feelings would still be rooted in a place of love.  And if God is much more perfect than I, wouldn’t Xe love all Xyr children, too?

Finally, the idea that hell and the devil even exist seems counter-intuitive to the idea that there even is a omnipotent, loving, good and just God.  No one can deny there is suffering in this world, and I don’t believe all suffering is part of “God’s plan,” so does that mean I have to believe that God isn’t omnipotent, loving, good and just?  Does that mean I have to believe in hell and the devil?  It’s something I’ve wrestled with, and this chapter gave me another option, which I’m excited to share with you now.

Briefly, let’s take a look at a few ways the Bible designates Satan, starting with…well, Satan.  “Satan” is not a name, or at least, it didn’t start out that way.  “Satan” is a title, it means “accuser.”  The story of Job is an old one, possibly as old as 2000 BC, and in it, the Hebrew word for Satan is always preceded by the definite article. In other words, it reads “The Accuser,” so xe is kind of like a prosecuting attorney, presenting all the facts against us.  By 600 or 500 BC the article is dropped, and “Satan” becomes an actual name, but it started as a title. Second, we’ve already seen “serpent,” in the story of Adam and Eve.  Related to this description is “dragon,” which is used in Revelations. Both are often symbols and bringers of knowledge and wisdom, if not in Western cultures certainly so in other cultures.  Additionally, Lucifer literally means “morning star.”  So, it is a harbinger of the light of day, which, to me, sounds pretty positive.  Could it be another allusion to Satan being the bringer of knowledge, or of bringing things to light?

So, with this in mind, what if we’ve been viewing Satan the wrong way?  Not as an adversary to be overthrown, but more of a combined undercover cop-moral auditor?  Still not exactly someone you want to come up against, but also not an eternal tormentor.  My new thought, after reading this chapter, is that God created Satan as an impartial witness, one who can bring the truth to light, like the morning star, one who seeks knowledge over everything else.  When viewed this way, we can see why the serpent would encourage Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge – lacking more nuanced views of God’s design (including empathy and patience) the serpent saw a direct line to knowledge and wanted to go for it, and didn’t understand why it could possibly be off limits to anyone.  Seeing Satan as an impartial truth seeker also helps to reconcile how a God who is beneficent and loving and the source of all creation can exist side by side, indeed, create-a being like Satan who is not beneficent and loving.  I’m not saying that Satan is an extension or part of God like Jesus or the Holy Spirit is, but perhaps xe is, still, an agent of God: something God created to be apart from Xyr love of mankind and creation through which Xe could judge them fairly.

Would God have tested Job without Satan’s recommendation?  I don’t know.  Xe tested Abraham’s faith asking him to kill Isaac, so maybe it’s not outside the realm of possibility.  But seeing Satan as an agent of God, instead of an adversary of God, makes the stories more similar. In both, the faith of man is being tested through great hardship.  Why does our faith need to be tested in the first place?  I honestly don’t know, but perhaps it has something to do with growth.  All good parents want to see their kids grow, and God is nothing if not a good parent. These aren’t perfect correlations, but I think the following examples still fit: I make my kids do hard things on a regular basis.  Climbing up the ladder to the big girl slide all by themselves, sitting on the toilet, and, as babies, letting them cry it out to get back to sleep were all controlled situations where I stepped back and essentially asked more of them.  Sure, I could have helped them, but they wouldn’t have grown. Job’s test is far harder than most of us will be asked to pass, but God was watching over him the whole time.  Perhaps, when being tested by the devil, or Satan, or whatever you want to call xem, we are not being tormented by a demon but instead being encouraged to grow, to achieve new knowledge, and new spiritual insight, just as Job did.

This new view of Satan also makes failure a little easier to accept.  It took Marienne months to build up her confidence to go all the way up the ladder at the playground all by herself.  Potty-training is still a work in progress.  Do I condemn my daughters because they haven’t learned certain skills yet? Of course not.  Do I continue to get them to try? Of course I do, that’s the only way they’ll learn.  So perhaps we need to cut ourselves, and everyone around us, a little slack.  We’re all trying, let’s keep encouraging each other.  Satan may be setting up sting operations for us and pointing out our failures, and possibly we’re even punished for those failures (like when I put one of the girls in time out for scratching her sister-a favorite form of combat in our house). But even then, God is there rooting us on, watching us with pride as we learn and grow.

Psalm 38 – Did King David have Gonorrhea?

My wounds fester and are loathsome
    because of my sinful folly.
I am bowed down and brought very low;
    all day long I go about mourning.
My back is filled with searing pain;
    there is no health in my body.
I am feeble and utterly crushed;
    I groan in anguish of heart.

(Read the rest of the chapter here!)

This psalm is a perfect example of why translations get contentious.  So, in my NIV translation, v. 7 reads “my back is filled with searing pain, there is no health in my body.”  But, in other translations, including the King James, RSV (basically the Catholic Bible), and American Standard Version (and maybe some others, those are just the three I checked), it reads along the lines of: “For my loins are filled with a loathsome disease; there is no soundness in my flesh.”  Based on which translation you read, we just went from a thrown back to gonorrhea.

Which one is “right?” I don’t know.  Going through some different translations, I’ve also seen v. 7 complain of not the back or loins but sides, insides, or no specific part of the body at all, just that the writer is “burning with fever.”  Is it possible David (the attributed author of the Psalm) had an STD?  Sure, he had at least eight wives, for a start.  Also, some venereal diseases can be spread through non-sexual contact-if you come in contact with someone else’s blood, for example, so it’s possible he picked something up during warfare.  I’ve also seen hypothesis that David had arthritis, which would certainly cause his back to be filled with searing pain, and can even attack your eyes-v. 10 says “even the light has gone from my eyes.” Another suggests David had diabetes, which can cause cascading health problems if not managed properly, including pain and vision problems. Maybe poor King David had all three.

Whatever his ailment, there are two lessons we can learn from this Psalm: first, prayer isn’t always pretty.  This is one long lament.  This one is a little more organized, but some of these lament psalms are pretty all over the place, which just makes them more genuine, in my opinion. When in distress, especially physical distress, who among is at their most coherent? Certainly not me!  But we don’t need to be.  God understands even our unspoken prayers, the ones we don’t even realize we’re praying. “I groan in anguish of heart / All my longings lie open before you, Lord, my sighing is not hidden from you,” vv. 8-9 say.  In other words, we have no secrets from God, he even understands our wordless sighs.  Taking time out for dedicated prayer is a wonderful practice, but don’t feel like that’s the only way to speak to God.  We can pray to him anywhere, anytime, in any way.  I whisper quick little prayers of exasperation pleading for help and patience (sometimes interlaced with more than a few f-bombs, I’ll admit) trying to get two uncooperative children out the door or any time the dogs get loose.  So like I said, prayer isn’t always pretty – but doesn’t that make it more approachable, and, in turn, God more approachable?

The second lesson is, no one is beyond God’s love.  David is a murderer, adulterer, and afflicted with serious physical problems-whatever they may be.  But he is also beloved by God.  God gave David a kingdom and extended David’s line even unto Jesus Christ himself.  In fact, Son of David is one of Jesus’ special designations.  Remembering no one is beyond God’s love is a hard lesson to keep in mind, because I find the beliefs and actions of so many people – people who call themselves Christians – to be absolutely repugnant and counter to what I believe true Christian teachings are.

But there is the double-edged sword, if you will, of that exact belief: If I believe God is above all about love, even if I think someone is not loving, I am required to be loving to them.  As I’ve said before, “loving” is not the same as giving everyone a free pass.  Even here, David recognizes this, as he believes he is being physically punished for sins of the spirit.  I get uncomfortable blaming physical ailment upon people’s “sins,” because many good people are sick through no fault of their own. As an aside, all this talk of “guilt” and “sinful folly” backs up the possibility that this affliction, is, indeed, an STD, if David is mourning his sin of coveting another’s wife (or wives).  But the point is God’s own beloved David had his fair share (or more) of rebuke and misery.  If someone is acting in a way that is harmful to others (say, promoting hate-speech against Muslims or other non-Christian groups), I will speak and act against them.  I will not, however, condemn them.  If possible, I will try to show them the error of their ways, lead by example in my own life, and, should they have a change of heart, I will rejoice with them.

I haven’t even touched upon the fact that it is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.  So I will quickly, in closing.  Lent is a season when we remember Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, resisting temptation.  I just recently learned that “Lent” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word lencten, meaning spring.  Spring is certainly a time of hope and renewal, and some may think it seems weird that such a somber period in the liturgical calendar comes at such a time in the year.  But, we also have the saying “April is the cruelest month,” and as a farmer, I now know why that is so, and why Lent occurs now. Early spring is one of the leanest times of year, something we forget in the age of supermarkets and year-round peaches.  Historically, early spring is when winter stores of food are lowest.  And while the earth is greening, there is still little in the way to harvest.  We wait in anticipation for the renewal of the Earth and the return of our Savior, watching the ground come back to life but unable to yet partake of it’s bounty.  Now is the perfect time to consume a little less, spend a little more time in prayer, and work on building a world worthy of Jesus’ resurrection on just a few short weeks.  Whether or not you practice giving something up during Lent (some years I do, some years I don’t), I do hope you’ll spend a little more time with God, even if it is just starting with praying for your lost car keys.  Remember that you are worthy of God’s love and can always talk to God, even if it isn’t pretty.

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Genesis 22 – A Response to the UMC General Conference

 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.”

Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”

“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.

“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.

When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the Lordcalled out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

12 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

13 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”

15 The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time16 and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

19 Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba.

20 Some time later Abraham was told, “Milkah is also a mother; she has borne sons to your brother Nahor: 21 Uz the firstborn, Buz his brother, Kemuel (the father of Aram), 22 Kesed, Hazo, Pildash, Jidlaph and Bethuel.” 23 Bethuel became the father of Rebekah. Milkah bore these eight sons to Abraham’s brother Nahor. 24 His concubine, whose name was Reumah, also had sons: Tebah, Gaham, Tahash and Maakah.

I love the concentric story telling of the Bible, like a water drop rippling outwards in a pond, providing us a visual focus for meditation. I love how stories foreshadow other stories and narrative and theological themes emerge and merge.  This is a great – maybe even the best – example of this.  Obedience and willing surrender to God have already been established as tenets of good Faith, and that is what this story is all about.  It also foreshadows Christ: Isaac, Abraham’s only son (by Sarah at least), carries the wood for his own funeral pyre up the mountain to be sacrificed, much like Jesus, God’s only son, carries his own cross up the hill to be sacrificed. And once again we see if we trust in God, His mercy and goodness prevail.

I do want to point out the timing of this test Abraham underwent.  He is well over 100 years old now.  In my post on chapter 17 I discussed how perhaps there was a reason God waited until Abraham was 99 to establish the covenant of circumcision: basically, he was mellowed out enough to accept it.  Since then, God has literally appeared to Abraham and basically had a dinner party with him, Abraham has watched the wrath of God wipe two cities from the face of the Earth, seen his 90 year old wife miraculously give birth to Isaac, and God spoke to him once more regarding Hagar and Ishmael.  I’m not trying to make light of God’s request of Abraham, I’m sure he had at least some trepidation, but I also want to point out that Abraham, by this point, must have been as secure in his faith as humanly possible.  I say this to encourage everyone who may feel weak right now, and like they could never be as faithful as Abraham is.  Don’t worry, God isn’t asking you to be. Of course He wants you to be faithful and good and dedicated to Him, but He also isn’t asking us all to go around sacrificing our kids, right?  Working on trust is a good enough place to start.  When we’re ready, he’ll lead us to higher callings.

Which brings me to the UMC General Conference vote last week.  First, let me summarize: the United Methodist Church (like many denominations) is actively wrestling with issues pertaining to sexuality.  The General Conference that happened last week was convened to vote upon plans addressing these concerns.  Delegates representing UMC congregations from all over the world, in a surprise move, voted to stick with the Traditional Plan, which reinforced it’s commitment AGAINST ordaining LGBTQ clergy and NOT performing same-sex marriages.  (Most, including me, thought they would go with the One Church Plan, which allowed for individual congregations to make up their mind over whether they would accept a gay minister or perform same-sex marriage.) Most of the news reports made it sound like half the congregations that make up the UMC will no longer be in the UMC by the time this is published.  In truth, there’s still a lot of road ahead: First, the judicial body of the UMC has to review the decision to make sure none of it violates the church’s constitution, and then, for those churches that may still want to leave, decisions have to be made about assets, as the UMC as a whole, instead of individual congregations, own the physical churches/grounds/etc.  So long story short, nothing is settled yet, but it was still a blow to progressives and the LGBTQ community.

Dear friends, it is tempted to be discouraged by this. But it simply means we have more work to do.  Please, do not lose faith.  I understand if you want to leave the United Methodist Church, but I hope you don’t turn your back on Jesus.  There are lots of moderate and progressive UMC congregations that disagree with this decision.  There are also lots of open and affirming churches of other denominations, too.  If you are searching for one, I suggest trying out an Episcopal, Lutheran or United Church of Christ to see if those feel more like home.  Personally, I will still be attending my UMC church.  I think work needs to be done from within, and, I’ll be honest, even with this issue still in limbo it is the best fit for me and my family in our community.

But again, please do not lose faith.  What Christianity, and the world, needs now is more examples of faithful allies, not less.  If we can provide a loving and united voice in favor of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters (and non-binary siblings!), I believe we will win.  We will make the world a better place, where people’s humanity isn’t question, where people’s love for one another isn’t questioned, and where more people feel welcomed in the church.  And isn’t sharing the good news of Jesus one of Christianity’s major goals?  That everyone can come to know Christ and also God’s infinite love for us?  Like Abraham, God will work through us when we are fully ready, we just need to keep practicing our faith.

***

Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, and the start of Lent.  I’ll be opening Lent by contemplating Psalm 38, and then spend the rest of Lent upon the first 18 chapters of Job, if I counted correctly.