Sunday, August 22, 2010

Plagues


One of the effects of being off meds, as I think I've mentioned here before, is that I'm finally grieving Mom instead of being numb about it. Yesterday I had a weeping fit when I realized that this is the first school year when I won't get a phone call from her asking how the first day of classes went.

Gary and I have been watching the final season of Saving Grace. Last night we saw the episode where Geepaw dies. The hospice details were accurate enough that they sent me flashing back to the deaths of both of my parents, which in turn reduced me to a sobbing mess in Gary's lap.

This morning, our parish visited another one (this had been arranged even before our parish was slated for closure). I was sitting next to the widow of the guy who died of brain cancer a few weeks ago. Behind me, I heard our parish deacon mention the name of a deacon at yet another church; this is a woman who's consistently been very kind and loving to me, and who was a reliable source of support during my own ill-fated (and abortive) ordination process.

Then I heard the word "funeral."

What? Was she doing a funeral? But deacons don't usually do that; that's a priest's job. So I turned around to ask our deacon, who said matter-of-factly, "Her funeral's tomorrow."

"What?"

She died two weeks ago, he told me. Apparently she'd had pancreatic cancer and hadn't told anyone but close family. I was badly thrown by the news, but didn't have time to process it, because the service was starting.

It was a children's service. If I'd known it was a children's service, I'd have gone to the later one for adults instead, even though we weren't formally invited to that (I'm sure I wouldn't have been kicked out!). I'm glad there are people who do children's services, but I like muscular engagement with the Gospel, which doesn't tend to happen during services for kids.

Turned out this one didn't deal with the Gospel at all. This parish uses their children's service as a way to do Sunday School, so instead of using the lectionary, they work their way through a series of Bible stories. Today's Bible story was a pint-sized version of the Exodus narrative. As the kids gathered around the altar, the family-ministry priest told them a cheery little tale about how God freed the Isrealites (happy happy joy joy!), complete with the tenth plague -- the death of the firstborn (happy happy joy joy!) -- and the destruction of the Egyptian cavalry and their horses (happy happy joy joy!).

I don't think I'd have been comfortable with this presentation even if I weren't immersed in grief. As it was, the story was almost intolerable.

During the peace, I snagged the family-ninistry priest and said, "Okay, what's up with telling kids that story?"

"What should we do? Censor it?"

"No," I said. "But give it some context, or reflect on it -- say something like, 'This is a really hard, scary story, and grown-ups have trouble with it too.'"

"We're moving towards Easter," the priest said briskly. "It will make sense to them then."

It will, will it? It doesn't make sense to me, and it's supposed to make sense to a bunch of kids ranging from two to ten? You expect them to remember it at Easter? You expect them to connect the dots?

I'm being deeply unfair here: I'm sure the parish works on connecting the dots, and there was a discussion of the curriculum after the service that we were all invited to, but that I didn't attend because I could no longer stand to be in the building. And this priest has been trained to work with kids. I'm not trained to work with kids. I'm pretty clueless around kids, largely because I didn't enjoy being a kid and didn't like other kids when I was a kid (they didn't like me, either; with a few very honorable exceptions, they either ignored me or beat me up). So maybe I have no right even to lodge a protest here.

But -- but, but. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that if I were a kid and heard that story told in that fashion, I'd have one of two reactions:

1) Oh, goody! God killed the bad guys and their babies, and if God kills the people I don't like, that means God's on my side! Cool! God kicks ass, just like in the movies!

2) The adults are telling me a scary story in syrupy voices, and the story doesn't make sense, but that's okay because I'm in church, where nothing makes sense and I'm not supposed to ask questions, so I'll just smile at the nice people with the syrupy voices who are telling me that God loves everybody even though God killed all those babies.

Complacent triumphalism or polite disengagement: aren't both of these responses way, way too common already? Are these the modes of thinking we want to encourage in our kids?

Q. And what would you do instead, Susan?

A. I honestly don't know. I agree with the priest that censoring the Bible doesn't help kids, who are going to hear the scary stories at some point anyway. I also think that telling kids, "this is a hard story for grownups too" -- my first response -- may be too big a burden for them. But more and more, my instinct with any story (Scriptural or otherwise) is to "go to the pain," as we're told during chaplaincy training.

When I go to the pain in this story, I see a young Egyptian woman weeping in an empty bed. Her first child, the sweet baby who was the light of her life and who never did anything worse than spit up on her best tunic, died along with all those other babies. She and her husband sobbed together, holding each other and howling. They didn't know how they'd survive the loss. And then her husband rode out with the army, doing his job, following his orders. He's washed ashore with all the others, all those men and horses: they're lying rotting and stinking and bloated in the sun. She hasn't had the strength to go look at it for herself. She'd know that her husband was there even if a neighbor hadn't reported seeing him among the corpses. All she can think about is how proud her husband was when she had their son, how he cradled the baby, rocked him, sang him to sleep. She doesn't understand politics, and she doesn't know why her family's being punished this way, and she doesn't know how she's going to wake up every morning and keep breathing.

No, I wouldn't say that to the kids, either. But I might say something like, "Who's happy in this story? Who isn't happy? Let's look at the unhappy people: how would you feel if you were one of them? What would you say to them? Do you think God wants us to be happy that they're so sad?"

9 comments:

  1. If I had kids, I don't know that I would ever send them to Sunday school because I'm not comfortable with how bible stories are often turned into easy stories of God's power over the heathens. I know these are complex ideas taught to kids who have developing cognition and understanding of the world, but I think we can teach without pretending bible stories are easy and simple.

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  2. Hence the Passover seder ritual of dipping out 10 drops of wine from our glass in commemoration of the plagues. Our joy at our redemption is diminished by the suffering of the Egyptians.

    Hell of a midrash you just put together there, too; the grieving Egyptian woman. I'll have to find a way to work that into a seder some day, preferably when there are plenty of kids there. :)

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  3. Anonymous5:00 AM

    We need a kiddie version of Marcus Borg's Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally. Then we could talk with them about why the Israelites told that story in that way, a more useful exercise.

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  4. As the eldest born, I was quite freaked out by the Passover story as a kid. Kids aren't equipped to really understand the concept of 'history' or just plain 'story'.

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  5. Anonymous10:25 PM

    Um, I believe the Egyptians are not the only people in the Exodus story who lost children and husbands. The only ones who suffered those losses through God's direct intervention, true, but since this is one of our common tradition's remarkable stories of divine intervention, there is the question of why God allowed so much suffering to happen before stepping in.

    Second, what age group was the service addressing? As a parent, I've usually been more concerned with not scaring my son to death with these stories. For example, in his preschool they told the kids that Pharoah ordered the Israelite babies to be "thrown in the river," which in my opinion is plenty scary enough for a three-year-old.

    The reason I think it might not help children to tell them that the story is difficult for grownups is that it's almost certainly NOT as difficult for them as it is for us. They are not capable of understanding the story in as nuanced a way as we are because they are not adults. A highly-developed sense of empathy is one of the (many) things that distinguishes adults from children. The challenge is to help kids develop it without going overboard and shaming them. If complacent triumphalism is their starting point (and I have to say I think it is), we have to meet them there in order to bring them on.

    Frankly, I am both fascinated and, as a parent, incredibly daunted by the whole issue of children's spiritual development. In some ways I think I have an easier time accepting God because I wasn't brought up to believe in either a frightening, vengeful deity or an all-benevolent and ultimately disappointing one. Figuring out how to guide my kid between these extremes? I can only take it as it comes.

    XO,

    Claire

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  6. Like ATIT said there is the Passover ritual of dipping out wine during the reading of the 10 plagues during the Seder. More importantly there is also a story from Talmud that is part of the seder that goes along the lines of when Pharoah's army was drowned in the Red Sea the angels in heaven started singing God's praises and God admonished them saying "How can you celebrate when My children are dying?"

    At any rate it is easy to see where Marcion got the idea that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New had to be different dieties.

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  7. I would like to note that, with the a priori assumption that God is a loving god, that the death of the first born is only a tragedy for the living -- as is the case for most death.

    There is no hint in the tale that the first born were judged harshly, or that they would be punished in hellfire. The plague happens prior to the life of Christ, and thus his sacrifice is for them as much for those who come later.

    While I am not one who believes in "universal" salvation, in that everyone goes to heaven -- even the most villainous. I am a believer in the universality of Christ's sacrifice. While I believe that the Church is the truest expression of God's love and message of love that is available to us, I also believe that the message is a message of God's love and an expression of his grace. His grace is given regardless of our worth as sinners. Christ sacrificed himself for sinners, and thus even for the firstborn.

    God was punishing Pharoah and the oppressors in Egypt. Their loss is great, and the plague serves as a demonstration of power over the non-existent (or false) gods of the Egyptians. Let us not forget that God hardens Pharoah's heart. Pharoah had little choice, but to partake in the proof of God's power.

    The death, destruction, and defeat -- materially -- of Pharoah is not a sign about the ultimate fate of the souls of the Egyptians, nor should it be read as such.

    A part of my grief cycle regarding my mom's death was the final understanding that her death was a release from the suffering that she experienced in life. My sincere hope is that she witnessed first hand the grace she could never accept in life. Her death for me was a great tragedy. She never saw me graduate from undergrad and never met her beautiful grand-daughters in life, but these are my despair. From an eternal perspective, it isn't tragic at all. My loss has translated into an even greater desire to ensure that my daughters know how much I love them, and tragic as my mom's life was she I can still remember her expressions of love.

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  8. Thanks for the comments, everybody! The Seder and midrash info was especially helpful.

    Note to Claire: I don't think compassion's a zero-sum game; we can feel grief for the Isrealites and the Egyptians. I agree with you on the "scary" comment, and for that reason alone, I believe kids do feel empathy. When I was eight we visited some relatives who had both a new baby and an elderly grandmother. The new baby was in the front room, being dandled and adored. The grandmother lay in bed in a back room, being ignored. I was sad for the grandmother because I thought she must be lonely, so I went and talked to her. If that's not empathy, what do you call it?

    Note to Christian: I don't believe I said -- and I certainly didn't mean to imply -- that the issue was the salvation or damnation of the characters in the story who die. My concern is with the now, not the eternal. (Or as a priest friend puts it, "I'm not in the Christianity business for the afterlife insurance.") We grieve those we love no matter what we believe about where they are now; loss hurts, regardless of theology. One of the things I love about Episcopal funeral services is the explicit aknowledgment that while the funeral is an Easter service, we still recognize the pain of mourners.

    If a belief in heaven comforts individual mourners, that's great, but it's something mourners need to come to on their own. My belief system won't comfort someone who doesn't believe what I do.

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  9. Speaking of comfort to mourners. When a close friend of Jody's and mine died a few years ago, we attended her funeral. As a part of the funeral observations, the mourners were each asked if they wished to shovel dirt onto the coffin. It was a wonderfully cathartic experience, as was participating in Kaddish.

    I also fully agree that we shouldn't attempt to enforce our belief system onto others -- maybe even particularly mourners. Our primary impulse should be compassion and aid.

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