Shelter from the Storm

Ancient Testimony ~ Numbers 21:4-9

March 22, 2009

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

My friend and mentor Jim Crawford was the pastor at Old South in Boston for 34 years. He got cancer, and I went to visit him with fear and trembling. He was one of those larger than life ministers, like Howard Moody: much too attractive and masculine to be a man of the cloth but there anyway, so you just have to deal with them. I knew I would be judged for my bedside manner because Jim was the kind of guy whose acerbic wit judged everybody and everything all the time. Fools he did not tolerate. Standing there, tall and healthy, while he lay there, crumpled and sick, I said something lame like, I guess you wonder why this happened to you of all people, right at the height of your career and all that. He looked at me like I was an idiot and said, “That thought never occurred to me at all. Most people get cancer or arthritis or have heart trouble by a certain age. Why wouldn’t I?”

With Jim’s words I want to introduce you to this post-Calvinist sermon. It advertised shelter from the storm but that was a loss leader. Maybe you get what you pay for when it comes to sermon titles? I want to help you look more deeply at storms, even come to enjoy them. I want you to learn about suffering. I want you to understand what my Calvinist mother would say, which is that into every life a little rain must and will fall.

You know Calvinism, right? Or at least its sound bite? The British jargon patrol would have a great time with this sermon, because it is a lot of jargon. Unfortunately, that is how most of us think these days: in snake-bit sound bites, with old ideas commingling with new ideas and notions of development debunked. Early, middle, and late Calvinism—and all their opponents—coexist in our theology and in our souls.

Garrison Keillor had a great riff on a Calvinist therapist last night. The troubled couple goes to the grumpy therapist and say that they are unhappy, that neither of them is meeting the other’s needs. The therapist says, “Tough.” (They demand their money back.) Calvinists have an answer to human suffering, and the answer is “Tough.” Tough it out. Plus, it’s your own fault. Calvinists think that suffering is inevitable and that we should not complain about it. We should tough it out, and if we can’t tough it out, we should internalize it. I gave myself the back spasm; I gave myself the bad marriage. I am ultra-responsible for things, and if they are not going well, it is my own fault.

This caricature of Calvinism as tough and guilt-making is not completely true… but the culture’s spin on it is. We have developed a way of understanding suffering and Calvinism is one part of that way. Tough, not tender, is its sound bite. Guilty, not innocent, is its second act. We are moving into the third act of Calvinism, and if you will forgive me the quick route, I am going to outline what I think the theological passage is. I do so, by the way, in the name of our text. It is a text that can only be described as magical realism. The people are in the wilderness. They are lost. They are mad. They think they are poisoned or snake-bit. Their salvation comes from staring the poison down. Their leaders even hoist the poison on a stick and demand that they stare straight at it in order to be healed. When we caricature Calvinism, as I am doing today, we are indulging a 21st century post-modernism. There is much more to say about suffering than “Tough it out, plus it’s your fault.” But as Rupert Murdoch will tell you, the prize these days goes not to the wise but to the quick. Back to the magical realist, sound bite caricature of Calvinism, which many of us finds the second we get cancer or get poisoned.

Until after the Second World War, my mother’s generation was able to teach us with the folk wisdom of “Tough it out.” “Into every life, Donna,” she would say, “a little rain must fall.” As in, stop complaining. The latest vernacular here is even less pretty than the earlier version. No doubt you have heard it said, “Suck it up.” What a great piece of advice. Just think about it. Think of yourself as a great vacuum cleaner, wandering the planet sucking up poison, trouble, and debris. You will see that the tough-minded approach is less popular than it might be, which is why it is not surprising that after the Second World War, with rising real estate and less rain of a spiritual kind falling on most people, we changed. We went from the little rain, which is your fault anyway, to a secondary stance. That stance carries the sound bite of “Stop trying to make me feel guilty.” Saturday Night Live led the battle against Calvinism with the Church Lady, who made great fun of the guilty in a way that almost liberated us from guilt. Almost.

Today I want to tell you that there is trouble with Liberal Protestantism, right here in River City, and that the trouble is we have outlived our responses to suffering. Toughing it out is a ridiculous approach to human suffering. Feeling guilty about it is equally absurd. And our fall back mode, the reactivity of post-war Protestantism, the let’s feel good direction, is underdeveloped—not to mention unhinged from human experience.

Let me clarify. Jim Crawford’s Calvinism has a real beauty to its theology. How dare a person resent that suffering comes to him or her when suffering comes to just about everyone? He wasn’t enjoying his suffering; instead, he was accepting it. My mother’s rain adage is also beautiful. Into every life a little rain must fall. She would say it with a twinkle in her eye. I found myself repeating the adage to myself just yesterday. Note that this theology is perfectly capable of carrying small-scale human disappointment.

We went to Costa Rica this week, for Warren’s spring break—and mine, too. We had the good fortune (no doubt because we are divinely elected) of bidding on a trip at a charity auction, right here, in this meeting room. The trip was a fancy one, to an eco-green resort on the Pacific side of Costa Rica. We bid a ridiculously small sum, no one else bid, and we were divinely elected. We had a lovely time until a monkey stole one of Warren’s apples. No big deal, right, into every life a little rain must fall. We enjoyed the bird song of the morning, the warm Pacific water, the rum, even the sunburns. We did not go to full-tilt Calvinist boogie by declaring ourselves deserving of the trip, but we were close, from time to time. Yes, I am going to argue that the biggest problem with Liberal Protestantism’s foundational Calvinism is right here. When we think we are to blame for our suffering, we also think we get to boast for our privileges. Watch out. Especially if you are poor: watch out.

Back to the trip. My luggage got lost on the way home, which wouldn’t have been so bad if the lemon-flavored aioli, a kind of mayonnaise that I happen to love, hadn’t exploded in my suitcase. American Airlines delivered the fragrant, oily bag to me late yesterday after two days of a simultaneous joy and sorrow about the lost luggage. Joy because it was an old, messed up bag and I sometimes wish I could be guilt-free enough to replace it with a new one. Sorrow because in it was the lemon-flavored mayonnaise, lots of Fair Trade coffee, which also exploded, and my favorite silver earrings, the ones I wear every day. When I opened the bag, I found myself laughing and saying my mother’s adage, “Ah, Donna, into every life a little rain must fall.” I am theologically mature enough not to blame myself for the mayonnaise and coffee explosion, although I’m wondering if I will ever figure out the physics of 36,000 feet…

While my mother’s partnership with Rev. Crawford is decent theological scaffolding for normal life, when we get to genuine wilderness, the scaffolding fails. From the Calvinism of the stiff upper lip, through its love affair with blame, we go to the guilt-free theological positioning of recent American life. “Don’t make me feel guilty,” we say, as though there was some theological warrant to that. We refuse guilt as though we had a divine right so to do. Plus we know that some of our mothers and fathers overdid it. They made us carry guilt for things we can’t possibly be responsible for—and the distinctions between guilt and responsibility collapsed. Surround that with a growing economy and lots of pleasure and a definite imperialism that goes with the chosen nation, and next thing you know good old sturdy Calvinism has turned into an umbrella. Into my life no rain should fall. I am to be sheltered from the storm. Why? Because I am an American. Because I can be. Because I have lost my ways of dealing with suffering. When Calvinism collapsed—because it didn’t make sense to our experience, and then we replaced it with the reactivity of feel-good, guilt-free so-called theology—we found ourselves bereft of strategies for suffering. We couldn’t tough it out, we couldn’t say it was our fault, and we didn’t feel good.

In the wilderness, something quite different happened. It was something that happened way before Calvinists thought they controlled everything, even their own reactivity to their own Calvinism. By reactivity, I mean that way that we flip flop, with no middle terms. By God, I am not guilty and I am not going to feel guilty. I am going to be very tough in my refusal to feel guilty. Responsibility, a middle way, disappeared, and people did a highly Calvinist hand wringing about hand wringing.

Can we get a clue about post-Calvinism from a pre-Calvinist theology? I think so. Although I find the glaring Freudianism of the text somewhat problematic—in the same way that Calvinism is problematic all by itself, on its own terms—at least it gives you a theory of suffering that is beyond praise and blame, tough and tender. The theory for suffering here is that we stare the poison down. We recognize that we are poisoned, all but ruined, that the rain is drenching and the mayonnaise has ruined our luggage, and we stare the poison down. We let the old baggage go.

The text is worth a line-by-line walk through. The people are on their way to liberation. But the way becomes too long. The people become impatient. They have been on their way too long and they want to know when are we going to get there, a childish lament but one that many adults know as well. They speak against God and their leaders. They don’t take over or have a revolution or unseat anybody. They just grumble. Ah, if we just had the right leaders, or the right God, then we would have liberation. Not really, but that fantasy has great legs. Why, the people ask Moses, did you take us out of slavery into this long arduous process toward liberation? And, by the way, we don’t like the food here. Implication: we’d rather be back in slavery with food we like than on our way to liberation with risks we can’t bear. So, remember this is magical realism—God, that great Calvinist, with the white beard, sends snakes, poisonous snakes, to punish them and the snakes bite them. They go from a little fussing kind of suffering into being near death by the hand of the very God who led them out and against whom they are now complaining. It does not say that Moses sent the snakes but that God sent the snakes. My mother’s adage is similar; God sends the rain, she might have said, into every life. Suck it up. Because God punishes the people, they have a change of heart. Again, Calvin would approve. Sin is very real to Calvin. Sin apparently is very real to God. The “don’t make me feel guilty” approach of the now dead Fifties feel-good theology has less scriptural warrant than most think. The people go to Moses and ask for forgiveness but mostly they ask for relief from the snakes. As usual, scripture confuses spiritual trouble and physical trouble and acts like they are both one. The people have no doubt that their rebellion against God brought on the poison. We can futz around with whether the poison is a punishment or a warning, a psychosomatic version of spiritual sin, or whatever. What the people want is to be rid of the snakes. They have made no deal to get back on the road to liberation. Moses, it says, prayed for the people. And God answers Moses’ prayer. “Put a snake on a pole and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” Stare the poison down. Get to know your sin, your responsibility, and your liberation. Then you will be free.

In the name of this text, I promise you storm, not shelter. Then shelter after storm. A few definitions matter. What is sin? It is refusing the process of liberation. It is getting tired of freedom and wanting God to manage your life. It is treasuring security more than salvation. Sin is real. It is not phony. Sin is not original. Indeed, blessing is original. Sin is the refusal of blessing. What is salvation? It is seeing the poison, recognizing it, naming it, and being willing to accept the continued blessing of a forgiving God. God recycles the blessings. God offers the blessings again and again.

How did we reduce this grand theology to the “tough it out” darkness of early Calvinism, or the guilty, I-am-a-worm of middle Calvinism? How did we reduce this grand theology to the reactivity of late Calvinism, as in, I am not guilty, by God, I am just not guilty? And how much of this theological debris is still floating around the culture for us to “suck up”?

I think there is quite a bit. I return to my claim that we have quite a bit of debris needing a vacuum. It exists in the walls and hearts of our institutions, even and especially Judson, which traveled to Burma before it was born, to change the dispositions of the Burmese to something more to our liking. Instead of my mother and her rainy blessing, many parents today overdo the protection of their children. Think umbrella theology. Many people get spiritually confused by cancer as well. Absent a theology of blessing and liberation, a theology that is realistic about death and illness, we often lie in our hospital beds thinking we must have done something wrong to deserve this. We are as death-phobic a culture as ever was—and we live in the magic realism of that a lot.

Even in the current conversation about the economy, many people have returned to Calvinism and are deep in righteous judgment about greed and how it is all our fault that we have just overconsumed, overspent, overdone it. Bad, bad, bad, is the mantra of the Left about some things; bad, bad, bad is the mantra of the Right about other things. This is tiresome. I don’t think things are all our fault. I do think we have responsibility. We face the poison and how it has bit us. Then we put our feet back on the road to the future. We stop hoping that the right leader or the right God will save us and begin to understand that God has some respect for our feet and wants us to use them.

Finally, I want to talk about how this theological debris hurts the poor. We continue to blame the poor for their poverty. We can’t seem to shake that particular poison. The least we could do is remove the blame. If people don’t deserve health care, and might “misuse” our charity to buy something that makes them happy, at least we could not take credit for being worthy while blaming the unworthy for being unworthy.

We are trapped in theological scaffolding, not of our making, but still our responsibility. How do we get beyond the theology of blame and the theology of toughness—and its flip flops in taking undue credit while not feeling guilty at all?

Here's how. When someone says the apple doesn’t fall from the tree, say, yes, it does. God can save children who don’t have great parents. And lots of people have been great parents and had children that didn’t quite “work out.” Such a phrase. Watch everything you say about praise and blame. Find a sturdier language of liberation that places our feet on the path to liberation, as though that is where God wants us to be.

Imagine that the Burmese disposition has its own blessing and its own difficulty—and that they are not people in need of us or our guilt or our ideas.

We can also stare straight at the snake of salvation. Some say we are poisoned. We are not. We have had a shower of rain and a shower of blessing. Neither is our fault nor what we deserve because we are so good, I mean bad. There is a world beyond our poisoning self-consciousness and weak theology. Go there.

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