Had a little work done

I’m an admirer of my nearly-only-digitally-engaged friend Stephen Keating, who has (re)started blogging, and asks a very important question about how we deal with the zanier members of our faith family. No matter what great debt I owe these mothers and fathers, what if they were disastrously wrong about some things?

When taking Church History, I had to come to terms with the choices some hermits made about self-discipline, Martin Luther made about police force, Amy Semple McPherson made about family, or Madame Guyon made about dental hygiene. These folks left us a legacy that has enlivened devotion and good works for many believers, but they also leave us a cultural heritage that includes unhealthy – unGodly – views of the body, some dangerous ideas about discernment, some damaging perspectives on the nature of God.

Very near our campus is a wonderful Franciscan Retreat named for Junipero Serra, a figure whose well-meaning work resulted in some tragic results for Native peoples. This week I was there as one of the staff was touching up a statue of Serra, like a make-up artist on a movie set. Just covering some of the damage of weather, birds, and visitors, he said. In Malibu, even Father Serra has had a little work done.

Even in Malibu, As Radiohead wistfully reminds us, gravity always wins.

This time of year, there is a lot of anticipation and preparation going on around campus. Landscaping is in full swing. Curbs are being painted. I’ve got some new bookshelves. We’re primping for new students and their families. We’re going to make a great first impression; just check out the view. But there are stories we’re not going to tell in New Student Orientation. Yet we can’t avoid them. They’re in our institutional and personal DNA. The truth will out, and ain’t it a bummer.

I’ve been reading about Jacob, later called Israel (if that’s a clue about his biblical importance), in Genesis. He’s kind of a creep, albeit an endearing one. It’s a very emotional story, bookended by Jacob’s devastating betrayal of his brother and their unlikely reconciliation. In-between, he gets revenge on a sneaky uncle, enters a publicly begrudged marriage to a wife he treats as second-rate, and attempts a hands-on manipulation of God’s blessing, which, he gets.

I’m amazed that scripture tells these stories without qualification. I think it’s a mistake when we try to justify the behavior we find there, because part of the point is that this is God’s story. The heroes of faith rarely live up to our standards, and could hardly anticipate the words and actions of the man Jesus. But the Gospel writers make sure to include quite a few shady folks in Jesus’ genealogy. Nobody gets swept under the rug for appearances’ sake.

The renewal of things at the beginning of each semester is a great opportunity in the academic life, but I am mindful of what not even the Registrar can change for me. As we prepare to receive these new students, they are preparing their first-impressions, as well, wondering what can and should be reinvented. We are thinking about who we are and who we want to be. What stories will we tell?

But this, too, is God’s story.

Whatever baggage we bring – or follows us anyway – will continue to require our attention and energy. But this is God’s story.

Whatever fears we bring must be faced. But this is God’s story.

Whatever failures we regret must continue to be redeemed. But this is God’s story.

Whatever comes, good or bad, expected, dreaded, celebrated; this is God’s story.

We can come to it with every expectation that all we contribute, at our best and at our worst, will be told. And we can come to it knowing that, when God tells the story, the worst of it is only an episode in the ancestry of how good news came to pass.


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