Leviticus 03 – Gratitude and Generosity with Fellowship Offerings

“‘If your offering is a fellowship offering, and you offer an animal from the herd, whether male or female, you are to present before the Lord an animal without defect. You are to lay your hand on the head of your offering and slaughter it at the entrance to the tent of meeting. Then Aaron’s sons the priests shall splash the blood against the sides of the altar. From the fellowship offering you are to bring a food offering to the Lord: the internal organs and all the fat that is connected to them, both kidneys with the fat on them near the loins, and the long lobe of the liver, which you will remove with the kidneys. Then Aaron’s sons are to burn it on the altar on top of the burnt offering that is lying on the burning wood; it is a food offering, an aroma pleasing to the Lord. (Read the rest of the chapter, here.)

Today’s chapter talks about Fellowship Offerings. Fellowship Offerings are a voluntary act of worship made in gratitude to God, and are also the only burnt offerings that include a communal meal. These offerings, sometimes translated as Peace Offerings, symbolize peace and wholeness between the offerer, the congregation, and God. As it is a recognition of peace and gratitude, as well as communal, I think this might be my favorite offering.

If you didn’t read the chapter, basically it talks about pulling the fat off the animal and dedicating it to God’s altar. There seem to be two schools of thought on why this fat was so important:

Fat as a choice cut

First, that in offering God the fat of the animal, we are offering something of value – a choice cut, if you will. The fat, nowadays all too often ignored, has historically been viewed as one of the best parts of the animal. Loaded with energy, helpful in cognitive function, and easily rendered into shelf-stable products like tallow and lard, fat is also what makes meat flavorful. A fun little side note about why this chapter makes special stipulations for lambs’ tails: there is a breed of sheep common in the Middle East (and thought to be raised by ancient Israelites) that has a particularly large and fatty tail. It is, according to my reading, delectable. I, for one, am a huge fan of oxtail (the fatty, meaty tail of a cow) so have no doubt that’s true. Taken as such, this offering is a symbolic gesture of giving God our best. In gratitude and thanksgiving, worshipers were giving God the choicest cuts, which, at the time, included lambs’ tail.

Fat as a symbolic covering

A second hypothesis to why the fat is so important as to be dedicated to God is that it is a protective covering. To oversimplify a concept about which many, many volumes have been written: Much of Levitical law has to do with making sure that holiness and uncleanliness don’t cross-contaminate. Often, things were ritually cleansed. But just as often, they were ritually covered, thereby protecting the mundane from the divine and vice versa. The fat that covers an animal’s inner organs is a protective covering, and therefore highly symbolic of the many layers of covering and separation that Levitical priests were responsible for maintaining. (I have to thank the guys over at Almost Heretical for introducing me to this idea – if you want to explore it further you can listen to episodes 84-88. Also, Mary Douglas may have been the first to explore this idea from an anthropological standpoint, and I read her 1993 paper “Atonement in Leviticus” with great interest – available on JSTOR.).

Jesus as fulfillment of Levitical Law

In perhaps the most important blog entry I’ve written so far, I discuss how the faith of Jesus Christ (as opposed to faith in Jesus Christ) allowed his blood to become the ritual covering and purification that we needed to be in fellowship with God all the time. Thus, Jesus didn’t render Levitical law obsolete. Rather, he fulfilled it by fully and completely atoning for our sins and fully and completely cleansing and anointing the world. Jesus is the choicest cut of humanity, if you will, and his blood – like the fat of fellowship offerings before him – ritualistically covers our mundanity so we may commune with the divine.

Generosity and Gratitude

Luke 12:48 reads “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded.” And through Jesus, we have been given everything. To be in fellowship with God is a joyous thing, but it is also a responsibility. Nowadays that doesn’t mean ritually burning intestinal fat from a sheep’s stomach, but we can still learn from this chapter, recognizing it as a metaphor for doing good work in God’s name. When we give – whether to the church, or an organization, or a friend – we need to do it freely and in good faith. When we receive, let us be truly thankful. And let us continue to look for ways to keep giving and keep being thankful.

Being generous and thankful is harder said than done, especially right now with a global pandemic, contentious political season, and ongoing denial of human rights for everyone from Syrian refugees to Black Americans. Just yesterday I told my husband that I am really afraid – I truly believe that the democratic USA might not survive the next four years. Fear is normal, and necessary. But it does not negate our need to be generous and thankful. In fact, being generous and thankful right now is probably of the utmost importance. Joy can be an act of defiance in and of itself. It is our responsibility, as Christians, to spread that joy. We must exercise the virtues of generosity and gratitude because it is exactly what the world needs more of, in the face of fear.

Once more I want to reiterate the fact that God made this special fellowship offering so all worshipers could have communion with God. The meat is shared between the altar, the priests, and the worshipers. It is an invitation from God to be with Xyr in celebration and gratitude. It is up to us to accept that invitation. Now that we are fully covered in Jesus’ blood, we are able to do so all the time. We won’t always live up to the standards set for us, but that’s the great thing about Jesus: we get to keep trying. So try with me, won’t you? Let us be generous and grateful in the world, counteracting fear with joy. Let us continue to bring God our best, in good faith and in loving fellowship.

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Job 21 – God Loves You Even When You’re Angry

“Is my complaint directed to a human being?
    Why should I not be impatient?
Look at me and be appalled;
    clap your hand over your mouth.
When I think about this, I am terrified;
    trembling seizes my body.
(Read the rest of the chapter, here.)

I saw a post in the Progressive Christians group I’m a part of on Facebook a few days ago that just broke my heart.  The writer said they had left Christianity in their youth, and spent a lot of time very angry at God, openly mocking the religion, Jesus, and God Xyrself.  The writer was worried that, even though they had returned to Christianity, they may have said things that were irredeemable, and that God would not welcome them back into the fold.

This is the damage that overbearing, fire-and-brimstone, purity-culture churches do to people.  These churches manage to obscure and pervert the most consistent messages of the Bible: God’s unending forgiveness, God’s bottomless love.  God so wanted us to be with Xyr that Xe sent Xyr only son to earth to make that happen.  (Perhaps the two most important blog posts I’ve ever written, you can read why this happened, and why I now believe in universal reconciliation, here and here.)  This love does not come with a bunch of conditions, or is offered to only a few, it is freely offered to anyone, even those who have committed the most heinous of sins.  So yes, God will still love the writer mentioned above even after their words of anger, because God loves us when we’re angry.

I mention this story because Job is clearly angry in today’s reading.  And not just vaguely angry – angry at God.  Everybody makes such a big deal about Job never cursing God through all his trials, but he comes pretty damn close in this passage when he says: “It is said, ‘God stores up a man’s punishment for his sons.’ Let him repay the man himself, so that he will know it!”  In other words, “What the fuck, God?”  Basically all of verses 17-21 are a rhetorical challenge to God on his dealings with wicked men (and their innocent children).  Job is clearly wrestling with the idea that God is a just judge when so many wicked men prosper at the same time an innocent man, such as himself, is so heavily burdened.

Job speaks truth when he says “Can anyone teach knowledge to God, since he judges even the highest?”  It is dissatisfying to say the least, but we don’t know the whole picture, as God does.  Perhaps sometime in the afterlife it will “all make sense,” but I must admit that’s pretty weak comfort right now.  I did, however, come across an analogy that may help it be a little easier to bear (I’m sorry I can’t remember where! Contact me and I’ll happily credit it!):  Imagine two men are sentenced to breaking rocks (a là prison yard work) for a year. It’s hard, hot, dusty, monotonous work.  Yet one man knows he’s getting a million dollars at the end of his year, the other man just thinks the drudgery will finally be over.  The work isn’t any different for the two men, but their attitudes are going to be markedly different.  Having faith in God doesn’t make the bad things go away, or mean we don’t have to do the hard things, but it helps us put them in perspective, and hopefully make them a little easier to bear.

That being said, we’re still going to get angry, it’s in our nature.  We may even get angry at God.  But if we view God as our parent, as we are taught to do over and over by Jesus and other passages in the Bible, then we know that God will continue to love us even when we are angry.  My youngest is almost three, and she gets angry at me all the time.  Sometimes I get angry back (especially if she’s trying to hit me or bite me), but most of the time I’m understanding because I know she’s just tired, or frustrated, or has more feels than her little toddler self can handle.  And in those times that I do get angry back at her, I don’t stop loving her, and I’m always ready to forgive her and give her a snuggle when she cools down.  Imagine all of that, but raised to the magnitude of God.

I hope you’re not angry with God, but  I certainly understand if you are.  And I apologize, on behalf of the broadest definition of Christianity, if the faith traditions you were raised in have anything to do with you being angry with God.  At the risk of annoying you further, please know that God loves you, as you are.  God wants you to heal and turn back to Xyr (however you may now comprehend the idea of “God”), but do it at your own pace.  If there’s a third truth we can learn from the Bible today, God is never one to rush things, even if we wish Xe did.  God will not rush you, but will always be there, waiting for you, because God loves you, exactly as you are right now.

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Book Review: Acts of Forgiveness

I was excited to be tapped to review Ted Karpf’s new book, Acts of Forgiveness, as the offer came right as I was searching for non-majority voices in Christianity.  An Episcopalian priest and a gay man, Karpf was on the front lines of the HIV/AIDS epidemic both in the States and South Africa, providing compassionate pastoral care at a time when people were gripped by fear.  This memoir documents that time and more: following the author’s journey to acceptance and forgiveness.

What I find so compelling about this book is that Karpf does not shy away from showing us his uphill climb – truly, his ongoing struggle – with acceptance and forgiveness.  Karpf has lost what he thought would be his retirement home, was unceremoniously removed from a fulfilling and influential position in the church, and been left by his long-time partner, among other losses. Some of these are more recent and some not so, but it is evident that Karpf still acutely feels the hurt that each loss brought.  Yet through prayer, therapy, and wise mentorship, Karpf has found ways to accept and forgive.  It makes for some honest, if sometimes uncomfortable, reading.

If forgiveness is something you struggle with (don’t we all?), then I particularly recommend chapter two, appropriately titled “Forgiveness and Loving.” When asking Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s advice on how to pray for his ex, the archbishop’s response was “until you love him.”  Karpf tells us:

I was again flummoxed and frustrated. I had no inclination to pray for him; I wanted him to disappear.  So that prayer took nearly a decade to pray as well, during which I often had to ask myself, “Is there anyone or anything unforgivable?”  I must respond, if I am to remain faithful to scripture, my faith, and experience, “Probably not. No, nothing and no one is beyond forgiveness, but learning to accept that fact, and gain the stamina and will it takes to do it, may take a lifetime.”

Later in the chapter, Karpf reveals the cyclical and spiraling nature of forgiveness, a message received with his natal chart reading.  “You must learn to forgive your mother,” Dr. Chakrapani Ullal told him, “She needs your forgiveness in order to complete her karmic journey. This is not for your sake, but for hers. You must be the father she never knew.”  In so doing, it seems that Karpf found healing some modicum of healing himself, as well.

Being a father of two, parenting is interwoven throughout Karpf’s story.  Being a priest and advocate during the early days of the AIDS epidemic, death is as well.  But the two exist poignantly, sometimes heartbreakingly so, together in the later chapters.  His daughter’s suicide attempt, and the generously re-printed correspondence between Karpf and a young couple experiencing the loss of their daughter, cemented him in my mind as someone I would want to counsel me both through parenting and through dying.  “As I sit here contemplating my own death, which is really never far away,” Karpf tells us, “I can only report that the stripping away of controls or supposed controls leaves me emotionally and spiritually incapacitated at the front end, though it can become revitalizing and renewing at the far end.”  Perhaps he has already come out the far end of those contemplations, because I found comfort in his ability to delight in his children (even if they didn’t turn out the way he thought they would), and his gentle questioning surrounding death.

“Life comes at me at times with frightening speed and minimal understanding,” writes Karpf in the closing pages of his memoir.  Isn’t that true for all of us?  And yet here is Karpf, admitting his failures while gaining perspective. Allowing for forgiveness of himself and working on forgiving others.  Reminding us that forgiveness and love are a journey, and that, however hard those roads may be, we are not alone when we choose to follow them.

You can find Acts of Forgiveness for purchase at the link, but there are also several upcoming opportunities to win a copy: 

Also, the author will be “stopping by” the blog later today, so if you have any comments or questions for him, be sure to leave them in the comments section yourself!