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Waiting Tables

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Four years of college, a hundred thousand dollars in debt, graduated with honors, more than a hundred applications sent out, but no job. She’s waiting tables in a local restaurant, and waiting is the irony. It truly is what she’s doing, waiting. Trying. Hoping. Trying to hope.

People think they are being helpful. “You need to enlarge your geographical spread of applications.” I’ve sent them all over the country, even to places I don’t really want to live. “Maybe you should retrain.” I’ve just finished college, and I’ll be in debt for the rest of my life. Sure, I’ll retrain. Then I’ll be twice as deep in debt and unemployed in two fields.

She took the course on résumé writing. More money gone. She took the workshop on interviewing, on how to suck up to human resources people. She even tried some of the tactics – hated herself for the cloying things she said, wanted to stick her finger down her throat. But didn’t get a job.

“You need to network.” Right, network. Waste more time on social media, go to gatherings of people who can’t get jobs, make connections. Yes, networking worked for my friends who have gotten jobs: they networked with their own parents who had connections. Am I supposed to find new parents with connections?

She doesn’t go to church services any more, not so much because she doesn’t care about God (although her faith is strained just now) as because she’s sick of listening to advice from older people who can tell her offhandedly what she’s not doing right. She’s tired of explaining, of rehearsing her frustration and shame for near-strangers who begin their questioning with, “Are you still . . . ?” Yeah, I’m still looking for a job. Thanks for reminding me. That’s why I came to church you know – to be reminded of my failure by someone wise who knows even less about it than he cares.

Will she soon be among the passed over? The already picked over applicant pool? The rejects? The not chosen? Disqualified because she’s been looking so long?

“Miss, what’s taking so long for our drinks to come?”

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The Nursery

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The nursery is freshly painted, the crib empty. Her due date has become the birthday never to be. She’ll never know whether her baby was a boy or a girl. Baby? It wasn’t a baby, they’ve told her. It! She wanted to scream, “My baby is not an ‘it’!” My baby is not. My baby . . . not.

“It would have been worse if you’d lost a child you had birthed, gotten to know, and loved.” Worse. So, I could be hurt even more. If this is what it feels like to hurt less, I so glad it isn’t worse. Just so damn glad!

“You can try again. Maybe God just wasn’t ready for you to have a baby yet. Maybe you needed to learn something first. Maybe the child you do have will be even more precious to you, and you’ll be better parents.”

“Maybe.” Am I so deficient that I wouldn’t have been able to love the child I wanted so much? Am I not enough to be a mother?

“Maybe God . . . .” She believes in God. Not just in God’s existence. She trusts God, counts on God, even tries to love God. Did God do this to her? Why do people have babies they don’t want? Why do some go for abortions? Is she supposed to be learning something from this? Please, don’t let me turn bitter. Please don’t let.

She had a due date. Now that date will not be a birthday, but she knows she’ll never get it out of her mind, off her mental calendar. As long as she lives, it will be the would-have-been birthday. No candles, no cakes, no parties. Tears.

Isn’t the death of expectation and promise worthy of grief? Are her arms less empty for never having held her child?

She closes the nursery door, but it won’t close. Not really.

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Plant Closing

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The plant is closing. Just like that. Thirty years of dedication and hard work gone. Health care insurance gone. Pension? Who knows? Maybe that’s gone, too. They had to make the announcement right before Christmas, didn’t they? Merry Christmas! and go to . . . . Years ago, the company gave Christmas parties for all the men who worked on the line, the production line. Yes, men. They were all men then. The only women worked in the front office, as secretaries.

Didn’t he know that the work he was doing was damaging his body, ruining his health, and no doubt shortening his life? Yes, of course he knew it, but a man has to do. He’s a man, and he’ll do what it takes to provide for his family. But what can he do now? How can he be the man in his family, for his wife and kids? What will he leave for his grandkids? Hell, they still owe some on the mortgage. Will they lose their home, too?

The society has moved on, leaving him behind. Retrain, they say. He’ll soon be fifty. Who wants to train him, and for what? He didn’t go to college. He’s missing half a finger he lost to his job when something slipped, the safety guard that was supposed to protect his hand. He still doesn’t know how, but it surely did slip. His fault they said.

Competitive, that’s their word. The company has to stay competitive. That means shipping fabrication work out of the country, first to China and then, when that deal didn’t work, to Canada. Now, he guesses, it means shipping everything out, leaving behind a ghost town.

That and poison. Years ago, the company had so poisoned the creek that he couldn’t fish it in any more — no point. The tap water began to taste funny and only got worse. He’d almost gotten used to the smell in the air, but when he took the family on a vacation, it was there waiting for them when they returned. Well, at least he won’t have that problem any more; there won’t be any more vacations, except maybe one long one going nowhere.

But for all that – lost finger, stinky air, bad water, and body aches here and there, shortness of breath – he was a man. He did what he had to do and provided for his family. And there were good times. He could afford the food and beer for a big family reunion. He could put aside some savings and still buy his wife new clothes. He could hold up his head.

What now? Some on TV talk about the great economy. Yeah, right. Just great. Merry Christmas. And happy New Year to us.

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Vignettes

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For a while, my blog posts will be vignettes. None of the people in these vignettes will be one specific person I have known, but I hope the figures represent real people in real situations. My purpose is to invite empathy because lack of empathy opens the door and holds it open for all manner of evils.

At its base, evil means harm, and in the Bible, such is frequently its meaning – harm in contrast with benefit or blessing. Evil can also go deeper, festering into callousness and oozing out as malice. The lust for revenge arises from bitterness nurtured in a darkness of the soul.

Self-righteous judgment excuses, justifies (falsely), and even sanctifies evil. We tell ourselves it is right to hate “them” because “they” deserve our scorn. We label them disgusting or simply push them out of our empathic range as something other, something lesser, than we are. They are alien, strange, threatening, and unworthy, and we don’t want to understand them or feel any sympathy for them.

Empathy opens the door and holds it open for compassion. Then it is possible that someone who has been scorned can look into the eyes of an enemy and see there a friend. Then maybe we can find the humanity we have refused to share.

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Pretending to be Asleep

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Pretending to be asleep, a girl lies in her bed dreading the sound of her door opening. If only, he will not come for her tonight. One night at a time, she hopes her father will fall asleep before thinking of her small body. Should she pray? Does God care?

After years of dread, terror, shame, and self-disgust, she feels something new stirring inside her: rage. Just last night, she realized her father did not open her door because he had gone to her younger sister’s room instead. No! She cannot, will not, allow him to do to her sister what he has done to her. She must tell someone, but who? What adult can she tell who will believe her but not blame her? Will her mother help now, but why now and not until now? What would her minister say if she were to tell him one his Sunday school teachers was doing what he did to her? If she tells, will life in their home get better or worse? Will her father just deny everything and try to make her look crazy or evil? Will her mother hate her?

In the darkness, she hears sounds all too familiar. He has gone to her sister’s room again. Against her will, she wishes he had come to her room instead.

But if either girl gets pregnant, the family must blame the helpless girl, accuse her of being with some boy, and insist she must have the baby in isolated shame. Because the conception will be, of course, God’s will. If only God, she thinks, would die and go away. Then she hates herself for such a terrible thought.

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Hail Caesar!

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[8th and final post in a series on abuses of the Bible in the service of power]

[For the first post in the series, click here.]

In his letter to the Christians in Rome, the apostle Paul makes the following statements.

For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. (Romans 6:14 NRSV)

But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit. (Romans 7:6 NRSV)

For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes. (Romans 10:4 NRSV)

What might a Roman official think of such statements? Hopefully, the Christians reading Paul’s letter will understand that Paul is speaking of God’s Torah as he, a former Pharisee, understands it. He writes repeatedly in this letter that the law of God itself is good but he himself is not good and so cannot keep the law. Instead, for all his efforts to keep the commandments, he stands condemned under the law.

Paul’s arguments require understanding of his struggle to please God and his persistent failure (see Romans chapter 7). But, again I ask, what might a Roman official make of the declarations, “. . . since you are not under the law . . . ,” “But now we are discharged from the law . . . .” and, most dangerous of all, “Christ is the end of the law . . . .”? Do those statements apply to Roman law? Are these Christians, then, scofflaws, rebels, outlaws? After all, their leader, their avowed Lord and Savior, was executed by Rome as a supposed rebel against the empire.

There is danger in Paul’s distinction between law and grace, two-fold danger. Yes, Roman officials might grow suspicious of this new religious movement, but some Christians themselves might misunderstand Paul as declaring them free of obligation to Roman civil laws.

So, Paul writes the now infamously abused paragraph we find in Romans 13:1-7. The very first sentence declares the apostle’s message to believers and government officials alike:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. (Romans 13:1 NRSV)

There it is, the Bible quote people pull out when they want to support a particular “ruler” and raise that individual above criticism. Here we are, back to the notion of “king by the grace of God” (see my earlier post on that subject here). In the misuse of Romans 13:1-7, we find false biblical support for the latest “anointed one” of some political movement tending toward totalitarianism. Here is the attempted elevation of a Henry VIII above all other authority. Here is fraudulent support for the deified or nearly deified dictator, from “Hail Caesar!” to “Heil Hitler!” Supposedly to question the dictator is to question God, to oppose the dictator is to rebel against God, and to reject the dictator is to reject God and God’s will for the nation.

In both the Old Testament and New Testament, there is much that contradicts such an interpretation or Romans 13:1-7. Leaders that fail to make justice happen for the poor and vulnerable are condemned and rejected. Particularly in the book of Revelation, the Roman emperors themselves are declared evil servants, not of God, but of Satan. Paul’s hopeful statement, “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad” in verse 3 proves at many points in history to be mere wishful thinking, although it truly is more because its declaration of what authorities should do turns into judgment upon those authorities who do not measure up.

Paul is not freeing Christians from civil authority and secular law, but he does set a standard for that authority and its laws. Authority’s charge from God, whether the officials know it or not, is to uphold and shelter what is good and to oppose and punish what is bad. But what happens when the authority itself does what is evil? When good behavior is punished and bad rewarded? Does God support corruption, brutality against the vulnerable, and lawlessness on the part of the authorities themselves? The Bible as a whole overwhelmingly declares, “No!”

Now, let’s take a step back and survey our own situation in the United States of America. To form this nation, our ancestors rebelled against a “king by the grace of God” they came to regard as a tyrant. Since then, authority for this nation is lodged, not in any person or small group, but in us, the American people. “We the people” are together the authority Paul declares has been appointed by God to keep order and to reward what is good and to prevent or punish what is bad. No president has that authority in, by, and for himself. No president can rightly claim or have claimed for him such authorization from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. We the people through our elected representatives are responsible for the maintenance of justice. It is our duty to keep power out of the hands of swindlers and liars. We together stand accountable to God, whether we acknowledge God or not, for cruelties inflicted by our elected officials and their appointees. We are answerable for institutionalized bigotry, persecution, and self-serving greed.

The misuse of Romans 13:1-7 in support of evil, of the tyranny and lawlessness of a president, and of the abuse of power for self-enrichment, is a terrible corruption of scripture. Such an abuse of the Bible opposes God and brings shame and infamy upon the name of Jesus Christ.