Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Exegetical Moment: Mark 7:24-31

And by special request...
After reading my last exegetical post, someone actually thought that I had something insightful to say. Enough so that my reader, Jenell, made a special exegetical request of me: the story of the Syro-phoenician woman. The topic came up in one of her classes, and she wanted to know if I had anything to say about it. "I'd love to know what you think of the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman. Why did he ignore her, then call her a dog, and then heal her? I explored this passage yesterday in my race and ethnic relations class. Why would Jesus use ethnic slurs toward a member of a despised minority group?" So, when a legend of the blogging world (have you seen the amount of comments she gets) asks you to write a post, you write it. (By the way, the Canaanite version is in Matthew, but I don't have the Greek skills to tackle Matthew effectively, so we'll have to settle for the Mark version.)

------- My Translation --------
24. And from there he arose and departed into the region of Tyre. And entering into a house so that no one would find out and recognize him, but he could not stay hidden.
25. But immediately, hearing about him, a woman little daughter was having an unclean spirit, coming, fell down before his feat.
26. And the woman was Greek [or gentile], Syro-phoenician by race, and she was requesting that he might cast out the daemon out of her daughter.
27. And he said to her, "You need to let the children [the one's being born] be satisfied [fed] first, for it is not right to take the children's bread and to throw it to the little dogs ." ["dog" can refer to reckless men or shameless women. This is the diminutive form. Maybe "puppies" or "lap dogs."]
28. But answering, she says to him, "Sir, even the little dogs under the table eat from the crumbs of bread of the little children. [or little servants -- she uses a different word for children than does Jesus]
29. And he said to her, "For saying that, go home! The daemon has left your daughter."
30. And departing to her house, she found the little child lying on the bed [the lying on thing] and the daemon had left.
31. And leaving again out of the region of Tyre, he went through Sidon into the lake of Galilee in the middle of the region of the Dekapolis.

-------- Some thoughts in paraphrase form --------
So Jesus is on vacation. He's trying to get away from all of the crowds and away from anyone who might know him. So he leaves the country to go to a nice beach resort. He's staying in a house there. And he tries to sneak in, and mostly stay inside so that no one will find him. He needs some serious R&R. His buddy John has just been killed and he hasn't even had time to collect his thoughts.

So he's chillin' in the beach house -- he's just gotten into town -- and all of suddenly this local woman comes barging into the house (yeah, he's still in house and she manages to find him). And she's falling on the ground at his feet and making quite a scene. And she's pleading with him to heal her little daughter. Can't she tell that he's off duty? I mean, he's not even licensed to do healings in this country -- he's only credentialed in Galilee and Judea. Whatever.

So he says, "Hey. I'm not here on a mission trip, lady. Uh, you know, I pretty much just take Jewish clients. Just be patient, someone will get to soon... after I'm gone."

And she's like, "Look, you're here now." But she says it all witty and stuff.

And Jesus is all impressed with her wittiness, cause she's totally turned his words around on him. So he's like, "Yeah, that's a good point. Nice one. Alright, you got me, she's healed."

And she goes home, and her daughter is already healed.

--------- More thoughts ---------
The truth is, I'm not really sure why Jesus uses the word dog. My first explanation is that it's just part of a metaphor. He's trying to make the point that his mission is to the Jews, not to the Gentiles. It's got to be the Jews first. A lot of Jesus' parables and metaphors are pretty jarring -- like comparing to an unjust judge or a nasty old absentee landlord -- the comparison makes a point, but it's not supposed to be an actually description. Just like God is not an unjust judge, the Syro-phoencian woman is not a dog. And it's a little dog, by the way. I don't really know enough about the cultural setting to understand that, but imagining a little housedog or a puppy.

What's really interesting about this story is that the woman is about to outsmart Jesus. I love it. He makes some smart-alecky remark and she totally turns it right around on him. It's just so fun. You'd never find something like this in John (where Jesus is portrayed as ultra-divine), but in Mark, Jesus is more of a regular guy. Sometimes he even gets outsmarted. Plus, super-kudos to the woman for being quick-witted.

Now is the story really about this healing and woman. I'm guessing not. You see, Mark has a problem. Jesus was only ministering to Jews. But now, in Mark's time, there are all these gentiles around and they're in the church but they haven't converted to Judaism. It's a problem. How can he justify it. Aha, but if Jesus even on one occasion did something for a non-Jew (and a woman at that) then we've got something to work with. That's the importance of this story. It's confronting the Jewish-Christian prejudice against the Gentile-Christians. The first group probably does think that gentiles are dogs. And even in spite of that prejudice, Jesus is persuaded to reach out to this foreigner.

That's probably not a very gratifying answer. We don't want Jesus to be using ethnic slurs at all, because it just doesn't seem very Jesus-like. In this case, I'd say that it's basically a narrative technique. Having an imperfect Jesus, though a problem for us, isn't really a problem for Mark. Mark's Jesus can learn a lesson, can be outfoxed. I think it's encouraging for the rest of us.

Adoption & God's Will

Well, it's on the calendar. On October 28th and 29th, all day both days, Melissa and I go in to have our adoption training. The official journey has really begun. I've almost got the scheduling details worked out. I only have to miss three classes, a Hebrew quiz (no make-up available), a whole day of work, and my weekly meeting with my field education supervisor. This training only happens once every four months or so, so there isn't really any way of finding a more convenient time. Though I suppose nothing about adoption is ever convenient.

Don't get me wrong, I am very excited about the possibility. It's just that the possibility is a long way off, and in the mean time, we have the process. I'm getting a little tired of processes, as you might have noticed from some of my previous posts. And when faced with this particular process, it's not to think about how much easier birth parents have it. They don't have to get permission in order to have a child. Even some of the worst parents out there can still have children simple due to an accident of nature.

I've heard stories from a few other couples who can't have biological children. I've heard many of them question whether or not God wants them to have children. Appearantly the dominant idea out there is that if you aren't able to have biological children for some reason or another, then it means that God is giving you a sign that you're not meant to be a parent -- that you're not good enough to be a parent.

It can feel that way. Fertility proceedures are very arduous and spendy and often don't work. Adoption is just as arduous and spendy. And the burden of proof is on us. We have to prove that we would be good parents. I hate that. I don't even know if I'm going to be a good parent. How could I? I've never been one. I have the same doubts and fears that so many first-time parents have, but I'm not allowed to feel them because I have to be proving to countless people and agencies that I can be trusted with a child. In the face of that, it's pretty easy to despair and to slip into the belief that God is against us.

Well, I think that's bunk. Since when is everything that God calls us to easy? Hardly ever, is the answer. Sure, sometimes things just fall into place and it all seems right and God-ordained. But most of the time those divine moments are both preceeded and followed by long periods and long, thankless, but faithful work and striving. I remember that's how it was with choosing a seminary for me. I was agonized and tortured about whether God was really calling me to seminary and if I should even go. I still had to go through the long and difficult process of wrestling with school bureocracies to apply, etc. And eventually, it did all just fall into place, just about all at once I knew I was supposed to come to Iliff, and all the right doors open. But it wasn't easy getting to that place. And it hasn't been easy since. But if I had given up and waited for the easy "God-given" answer, then nothing would have happened. I had to struggle in the wilderness before I could receive the assurance.

That's how I feel about this adoption process. Sure, sometimes God opens doors in amazing ways, and I'm pretty that will happen at some point in this process. But a lot of the time God is struggling with us in the journey. God is so often most powerfully present in the most difficult times and situations, and God calls us to press on in faith. to stay on track with our eyes on the goal. With God's help, we will.

Monday, September 27, 2004

More US Election Concerns

Now President Carter has come out to say that the situation in Florida does not meet basic international standards for an eletion. Here is the BBC story. Some beacon for democracy we are, eh? How can we expect to coordinate free elections in Iraq when we can't even seem to manage free elections here at home? Oy...

Sunday, September 26, 2004

It's about time

My wife, Melissa, long ago pointed out the to me the hypocricy of the US adminstering and overseeing elections around the world, and particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq when we can't seem to do a very good job of elections ourselves. Well, at long last, someone is watching our elections. Check out this NPR story.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Candidacy and Adoption

Some of you may already know that the system of candidacy for ordination in The United Methodist Church is insanely arduous. Let me tell you about it. I've been in the candidacy process for over three years now. I just became a Certified Candidate this summer (after Annual Conference, unfortunately), which means that I have another three years minimum before I could be commissioned as a Probationary Elder and another three years minimum after that before I could be ordained. Yes, that's right, at minimum it will take me nine years in the candidacy process before I could be ordained. And that's assuming that everyone approves me the first time (which has been the case so far).

It's a rather involved process. I started out by reading The Christian As Minister (the red book). That's a fairly short book and rather easy. Next, I worked with a guide through The Ministry Inquiry Process (the purple book). This book leads you through a series of nine sessions with my guide, each between 2 weeks and 6 weeks apart from each other. In those 10 months of study, I had to write up lengthy answers to all sorts of questions about my call. We covered just about every possible thing you might want to consider before deciding the pursue ordination. (In the mean time, I had started seminary at The Northwest House of Theological Studies.)

Following that, I had to write a letter to my District Superintendent, who assigned me a mentor (different than a guide, apparently) and we started the next book, The Candidacy Guidebook (the blue and white book). At this point, I became an exploring candidate. Yes, that's right, after over a year of being diligent in the process, I had graduated all the way from Inquiry Candidate to Exploring Candidate. Woo Hoo! So anyway, this blue book was another 15 sessions with my mentor, each about a month (or more) apart in which I had to go even more deeply into the same material that I had gone through in the purple book, but now writing longer essays about it. Even after two years in the process, I was still considered an Exploring Candidate, which meant that I still had to figure out whether I was called to ordained ministry or not. Two years of answering that question.

So... then came the trials. First I had to prepare to go before my Staff Parish Relations Committee. I had to write a huge paper on my whole call story and my answers to Wesley's Historic Questions. They didn't read it, by the way, but they did pass me. Then I had to go before the entire All-Church Conference of my local congregation. That was between 50 and 100 people. They passed me too. I became a Declared Candidate. Yes, after two and a half years of candidacy and seminary education, the church finally agreed that I had indeed made up my mind to pursue ordination.

Okay, then comes the District Committee. More essays to write. A huge old psychological test that required me to fly back to Oregon twice. Then I had the meeting with the District Committee on Ordained Ministry (about 10 people) who could ask me anything they wanted. I passed. I became a Certified Candidate.

Now, I continue to be reviewed annually by the Staff-Parish Relations Committee, the All-Church Conference, and the District Committee. Next I get to go up against the Board of Ordained Ministry (about 50 people, and this is where the most difficult part is). Then, if I meet all their standards (they can ask me absolutely anything), I go before Clergy Session (every ordained person in the Conference) who usually take the recommendation of the BOM, but can also ask me absolutely anything. Etc. Etc.

So, it all adds up to something like 300 people reviewing and analyzing me over a period of 9 years.

Plus, there's school. I won't go into as much detail, but there's faculty (lets say 30 of them). I have a two colloquium groups that analyze me (20 more people). Then there's the school psychologist. And I have field education supervisors (2). There's a lay committee at my field ed that evaluates me (that's about 5 people). I also report to the Staff Relations Committee at my field site, and the Church Council, etc. And there's some various other staff, etc. that evaluate me.

This is a bit of a demoralizing process. Just about everything about my life involves being analyzed and evaluated about my ultimate goals and calling, whether or not I'm experiencing those correctly, and whether or not actually have the gifts and graces to carry them out. Very little of this process is affirming. I'm passed all the tests, yes, and I've gotten mostly positive feedback. But in truth, I feel very disconnected from the whole thing. Basically, I have to do a ton of work that in the end, most people don't even look at anyway. It's very emotionally draining and straining.

Now, my wife and I are beginning an adoption process. I am excited about the possibilities, but I can't help but be a little burdened by the process. Once again, we get evaluated constantly and by huge numbers of people. First the agency decides after interviewing us whether they want to work with us or not. Then we go to class. We get evaluated at that too. Then we start a process of home studies in which they evaluate just about everything about our lives. It involves five visits, plus they interview our friends, do background checks on us, etc. After that, we get to write up everything about ourselves and try to sell ourselves as good potential parents. We get put into a notebook. Then birth families review us and decide whether or not they think that we'd be good parents for their child. If someone does, then we might have a child placed with us. Then there's more evaluation. They visit us unexpectedly, etc., to make sure that we're okay parents. Then, after six months of that, we might be able to actually adopt the child.

Ughh... Yes, I understand that these processes are important. Yes, I know that people's safety is at risk. But that doesn't mean that it's not painful. It doesn't mean that having something on the order of 500 people prying into every possible aspect of my life to determine whether or not I'm worthy to do what I hope to be doing for the rest of my life and hanging on their every decision is not invasive and hurtful. It is. It's very stressful and even painful at times. I can understand why so many people drop out of these processes, even if they really are qualified and willing. It's just very hard and dehumanizing.

That's enough rant for today. If you made it all the way to the end of this post, congratulations and thank you.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Exegetical Moment: Mark 1:23-26,31

I am continuing my slow march through the Gospel of Mark, and I've got a couple of notes today about gender and identity issues.

The first is the story usually called "The Man with an Unclean Spirit," at Mark 1:21-28. I question, however, whether this person who was healed by Jesus was actually a man. The Greek word for "man" is aner (or andros is the genitive form). However, this is not the word that is used here to describe the person. The word used is anthropos, as in the English word anthropology. This is a much more general term that means "person" or "human being." It does not specify whether the person is male or female. It refers simply to a generic human.

Now, there is a little complication here. Mark follows up with referring to the human by the pronoun autos. This is the masculine pronoun, which in English usually gets translated "he." So, even if we were to translate anthropos as human or person, we would probably follow up by saying he.

However, this may not be the best choice. Unlike in English, Greek, like many other languages, assigns gender to all of its nouns. And, like in many other languages, the gender of the noun (the grammatical gender) does not always match up with the actual gender of the object. (For example, in German, a table is masculine, a door in feminine, and a girl is neuter). This is also true of anthropos. It is grammatically masculine, but it has a neuter meaning.

So, when we go to follow up anthropos with a pronoun, naturally we would use the grammatically masculine pronoun, but it would have a neuter meaning, since it still refers back to anthropos, which has a neuter meaning. This does present a problem for translation, though, because we don't have a neuter pronoun that we can use for people. 'It" just doesn't work for a person.

However, the fact remains that the person referred to in this story is just that: a person. Not necessarily a man or woman, but a person, universal. Jesus is healing a person who is a representative of all people.

-------Mark 1:31-------
Now for the second point, and this one is a question. Jesus has just finished healing Simon's mother-in-law. The fever she had has left her. Then we get this text: kai diekonei autois, which means "and he/she/it was serving/ministering to them." There is no absolute evidence telling us who the subject of this phrase is. We don't know for sure who the he/she/it is. The last thing to be a subject of a sentence was "the fever" and before that it was Jesus. However, this phrase always seems get translated "and she began to serve them." So she gets healed and then immediately gets up and starts waiting on people.

Now, that would certainly be proof that she had been healed. However, it isn't the only or even necessarily the most likely meaning. Jesus could just as easily be the subject of this sentence. "And he began ministering to them." (the same verb is used for both ministering and serving). In fact, that was my first choice when I was translating this on my own.

What do you think? Do you agree that Jesus could just as easily be the subject of this sentence? Can you find any evidence to pin down who the subject is? How would this alternate translation affect the meaning of the passage?

Friday, September 03, 2004

A Politic of Anger

Most USAmericans out there have probably caught at least some of the Republican National Convention. If you haven't people like The Faithful Skeptic and Fr. Jake are blogging about it. Or, there's always my favorite source for fake news, The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.

Well, I'm not actually going to write about the RNC specifically, and I'm not going to just rail against Republicans. But I've been noticing as I've been watching the convention coverage, everything from Fox News to Democracy Now, that we don't seem to be having a political dialogue at all. Everything is incredibly polarized and so just angry. Did you notice at the RNC how people just loved to be angry. It was all of the angry, bashing comments that got the biggest ovations. Or, on the other side of the aisle, look at We love it when politicians bash each other and call each other evil. We love to get angry about it.

Now, I'm not saying that these forms of political expression aren't accurate. That may or may not be true. What I am critiquing is how the anger and polarization that has entered the campaign has effected our culture and our political dialogue. The parties don't seem to be speaking the same language. They are not talking to and with each other, but merely against each other. I'll betray my allegiance here and say that as I was listening the RNC speeches, there were a lot of statements that I just plain didn't understand, and I'm not politically unsavvy. It was a totally different language; the delegates seemed to love it, but I didn't get it.

I think we might be operating from completely different worldviews. If the world Bush describes is the world you understand, you'll probably vote for him, and if the world Kerry describes is the one you know, you'll vote for him. But they are totally different worlds, and we are doing a terrible job of trying to understand the differences. In the mean time, we can just continue to be angry, continue to not understand each other, and continue to talk past each other.

The Psalmist tells us, "How good and pleasant it is when people live together in unity!" (133) Jesus tells us not to return evil for evil and to love our enemies. It concerns me to see this sort of character assassination (even as I admit that I too am guilty of it), especially when it spills over into the religious realm -- God being used to beat people over the head. I pray that we can find a way to "find the quiet center," to at least dialogue about the issues facing our country in a way that is edifying and productive. I don't know what the answer is, but I hold out hope it.

---- Update ----
I guess someone else noticed too. Check out this Daily Show clip.