Friday, September 23, 2005

When something bad happens, there are those who take delight at looking at the horror and pronouncing that it is a judgment against the people who suffered. Of course, in the current hurricane season, this is performed in a schizophrenic way. Somehow the hurricanes must be a judgment against the current administration, or against US policy here or there, or because we tolerate homosexuals, or pornography, or some such thing. Odd, really, given that Washington DC wasn’t washed away at all. And I don’t think that one can demonstrate that the majority of our nation’s gay population suffered from what happened along the Gulf Coast, nor, after a quick googling, have I been able to tell that there is any less pornography available.

So if God is judging those particular sins which we might object to, are we going to also argue that God’s aim was off and instead of hitting the guilty people, instead of making the wicked homeless or drowned, it was, instead, a bunch of generally poor, sick and disadvantaged people who suffered in New Orleans, people who were already mostly living on the sucky side of life? God was just drunk or something, huh? And meanwhile, the wonderful people who brought us 911, suicide bombers blowing up old women and children, and sawing heads off slowly with dull knives while video tapes roll, dance with glee and point their fingers, informing us that God is indeed damning the infidel for his horrible toleration of Jews, gays, and uppity women.

You know what? If God is as powerful as we theologians like to point out, and as all-knowing as we also argue, then don’t you suppose if he were judging whatever thing you imagine is most vile in American society, that he could do it without causing collateral damage? I mean, our own military has smart bombs that they can shoot down a stove pipe. Don’t you think God’s tech might be up to that sort of challenge?

Job’s friends watched bad things happen to Job and then blamed him for his own suffering: “if you weren’t such a wicked sinner, none of this would be happening to you. Fess up. What have you done?” And the more poor Job argued for his innocence, the harsher his friend’s condemnations of his imagined sins became.

Of course, if we really read the story, we will discover that Job’s friends had a bit of a problem. Their theological understanding of God and how he works was identical to that of the Devil. Which should serve as a clue that there’s something wrong with what Job’s friends are arguing.

And what exactly is their argument? They believe that if you’re good, then God will bless you and if you’re bad, God will smack you. That’s what the Devil believed, too.

But you see, the reality is, God doesn’t work the way the Devil or Job’s friends thought. He doesn’t work the way that the jihadists or other fundamentalists want us to believe. Or for that matter, he doesn’t work the way most everyone else already believes, either. Because just about everyone believes that God has a list, and they believe that if only they can find it, memorize it, and follow it to the letter, then all will be well.

But such a belief is mere superstition.

So why, then, do we do find lists in the Bible that are very specific about what things are good and what things are bad? Why does the Bible encourage us to behave?

But here’s a radical question: why do we think this listing of ethical and unethical behavior has anything to do with our relationship with God? Why do we imagine a cause and effect relationship between our behavior and whether God loves us?

How many of us have someone in our life whom we are constantly doing stuff for? It seems like they are always in crisis, always having a flat tire, always needing a sink repaired, a computer hard drive defragged. We’re always watching their children, or lending them “twenty bucks till payday”. We’re always there for them.

But the first time we ask them to do something for us, they can’t help. “I’m sorry, but I’m all out of cash just now.” They’ve made plans. They are too busy, not interested, or something came up. They are never there for us and they always have very reasonable excuses for why they didn’t get back to us. We find ourselves forever giving and never getting anything back. We wonder why they have no problem asking us for help, while it is unreasonable to even hope for an acknowledgment, let alone a thanks.

Kind of like how it is when we take care of a baby, eh?

We get up at three in the morning, but when we ask them to mow the grass, they just cry and insist that we feed them or change their diapers instead.
Or how about this: our friends that keep a running tally on who’s done something nice for them? If we invite them over, they feel obligated to invite us over. In fact, they have a list of all the things we’ve ever done for them, and they keep a list of everything they’ve ever done for us, and they work hard at keeping the lists the same length. If we do something for them, they do something for us. They are always keeping track, keeping count, keeping a balance, as if they are a borrower and we’re a creditor. They don’t want to fall behind or feel indebted.

Is that a good way to live? Is that a fine way to relate to our friends? Do we relate to our parents that way? Is that what we expect of our kids? “Okay kid, I diapered your bottom for the last two years, now it’s your turn” or “you know, I’ve seen to it that you had food three times a day for the last eighteen years. I’m expecting payback real soon now.”

That sounds ludicrous, but how many people act that way with God? How often do we think of our relationship with God that way?

“You know God, I went to church today, I put money in the offering, heck, I went twice today and that money…it was a TWENTY! Did you see that? Huh? And how about when that guy cut me off. I didn’t cuss once! And you know Jill down at work? I haven’t had an affair with her yet, now have I? And it’s not like she doesn’t want me.”

We’re always asking God for help, to make us well, give us money, protect us, keep us safe on our travels, bless our activities, strengthen our weaknesses, give us the words to say.

And yet, most of the billions of people on the planet don’t respond to God much at all; in fact, we hardly think about him except when we hurt and then we’re crying out for help right away. And whenever something goes wrong, we’re quick to blame him or at least to ask, “So what were you thinking?” and “why?” We talk to God when we need stuff. Otherwise, we’re too busy living our lives and doing our thing.

God is the lover sending flowers and candy to the beautiful neighbor, who listens to her tales of woe, and then watches her go out with Joe Loser instead. What do you suppose God thinks about that?

Not a thing. He doesn’t even notice.

Why? Because he LOVES us.

He gave everything he had when we were his enemies. We have trouble sometimes doing things for our dear friends and family. Would we even consider lifting a finger, let alone giving all we have, to someone who just punched us in the face and sued us for a million dollars because our face broke his hand? And yet that’s precisely how God operates.

Therefore, when we start doing things as if to “even the score,” God doesn’t understand what in the world we’re going on about. He’s already giving us stuff, he already loves us. His question for us is, “How can you be nice to me, only thinking of what you’ll get out of it? You think that’s love?”

“I gave you roses, and I made the bed, and I picked up my socks and put them in the hamper. Did you see that? And how ‘bout this, I put the toilet seat down! So tonight, don’t you feel I deserve to get lucky?”
Does that work?

Ever? Are our spouses going to be happy with us? Are we going to get anywhere with an attitude like that? Do we know what we sound like when we talk that way?
So how is it that we’ve decided that if we live good lives and do good things, that for that reason, God must protect us from the horrors of life? Ethics has nothing to do with whether God loves us. He simply loves us, just as we simply love our babies.

It is superstitious to imagine that the reason we lost the basketball game today is because we didn’t wear our lucky underwear. But, if only we’d prayed more. If only we weren’t such sinners. If only we read our Bibles more. If only we had tithed better. Then God would have made us win that game. No. That’s all superstitious too. We lost because the other team played the game better.

It’s really as simple as that.

If you build your house on the edge of the ocean, below sea level, it might get wet. If you build your house on an earthquake fault, it might fall down. That’s all there is to it. If you spend your entire paycheck at the bar Friday night, don’t be surprised when you get evicted because you forgot to pay the rent. We make an enormous mistake in imagining that there is a connection between our ethics and whether God loves us or whether we get the blessings of God. God’s love is not dependent on how we behave or act.

If we’re good because we think God will then be obligated to bless us—then we’re not being good at all and, even worse, we’re accusing God of not being good. We’re telling him that the ONLY reason he is nice to us is because he’s getting something out of it. We’re buying him off, earning his favor. Too often, the only reason we put the toilet seat down and picked up our socks is because we think we’ll get lucky. That is not loving our spouces. That is manipulating them to get something from them that we imagine they don’t want to give us. And so the same sort of behavior, no matter how we might try to pretty it up with spiritual verbiage, is certainly not loving God. Instead, it is turning God into a whore.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

I've been distracted of late. Neurofibromatosis, type I. Often shortened to just NF-1. This is a medical term, relating to a neurological disease, that I now need to learn about. My oldest daughter, Vanessa, had a doctor’s appointment recently. For somewhile now, Vanessa has had some freckling and maybe half a dozen dime sized faded brown spots on her left side. We were thinking that maybe she could see a dermitologist to get them taken care of, since she seems embarrassed by them: she will rarely wear a bikini as a consequence. At twelve years of age, she’s starting to think more about how she looks.

So, to the doctor my wife took her. Vanessa’s bloodwork all came back normal; in fact, the doctor said he wished his own blood work were so good. But as soon as he saw the spots, he got very quiet, felt my daughters abdomon, and then, when he was done, took my wife out of the room while Vanessa got out of her paper gown and back into her normal clothes.

“Did you feel something?” my wife asked.

“No. She’s fine. But I’m concerned about those spots; we call them café-au-lait spots.”

“She has Starbucks disease?”

The doctor smiled at the joke. “No, but I want her to get an MRI. Right away.”
Rather than leaving it up to my wife to make the call, he called the local MRI facility and set up an apointment for Vanessa. And he told my wife that he strongly suspects that Vanessa has NF-1, explaining that it was a genetically based neurological ailment.

My wife phoned me with the news. When she got home, she went straight to her computer and looked up more details online. I also did some searching and discovered some details.

The National Institute of Health (NIH) has created specific criteria for the diagnosis of NF-1. Two of these seven “Cardinal Clinical Features” are required for positive diagnosis:

• 6 or more café-au-lait macules over 5 millimeters in greatest diameter in prepubertal individuals and over 15 millimeters in greatest diameter in postpubertal individuals
• 2 or more neurofibromas of any type or 1 plexiform neurofibroma
• Freckling around the armpit or groin
• Optic glioma
• 2 or more Lisch nodules (iris harmartomas)
• A distinctive osseous lesion such as sphenoid dysplasia or thinning of the long bone cortex with or without pseudarthrosis
• A first degree relative (parent, sibling, or offspring) with NF-1 by the above criteria (adapted from: Huson SM, Hughes RAC. The Neurofibromatoses. London, UK: Chapman and Hall; 1994;1.3.2:9)

It used to be thought that this was the illness that the Elephant Man had; it is now known that, although he may have suffered from this disease as well, his primary problem was Proteus Syndrome, a problem that affects tissue, not just the nerves. From what I have read, the prognosis for those with NF-1 is good. In most cases, symptoms of NF-1 are mild, and patients live normal and productive lives.
However, and this is the scary part: tumors are a possibility and can be very serious. Most are benign, but malignancy can occur. My wife made the mistake of looking on some bulletin boards devoted to the disease and read horror stories. I encouraged her to stop reading such things.

About five days after the preliminary diagnosis, Vanessa had an MRI of her brain, to check for brain tumors. It took about two hours, with an hour and a half of that time spent on the table. She didn’t mind it too much, outside of the one injection that they had to give her to increase the contrast: they put something into her bloodstream. Vanessa hates needles and shots, and so was quite unhappy about that.

Then, for the next two days my wife and I had to wait for the results, which turned out to be negative. We joked with her that they did an MRI of her head and found nothing. Her response was, “That’s messed up.”

So, for the moment, she is clear, without any tumors, aneurisms or any other problems. Nevertheless, her pediatrician has told us to get her to a neurologist that specializes in such things, so my wife is researching some of the specialists in our local area who work on such things.

At the moment, there is no cure for NF-1, nor is there any treatment, aside from surgery, chemotherapy or radiation treatments should any tumors develop. But for now, Vanessa is perfectly healthy and tumor free. This week she tried out for cross country in her middle school.