“Grasping at Straws?” Learning Time for May 16, 2021
The CBC tv series “Pure” was a fictional drama centred on a religious community with a darker side, a criminal element involved in drug smuggling and other dangerous activities. It was loosely based on things that actually happened, but I don’t know how close they stuck to the truth. I didn’t watch the whole series, but I was fascinated by the opening scene of the first episode, which we just watched. It showed a congregation using a form of drawing lots to choose their new pastor. An elder placed a special slip of paper in one of the hymnals, shuffled all the books, and each candidate chose one at random.
The congregation seemed to operate from the premise that God guides the process, and that the one who opens the book that holds the slip of paper, is the person God has already chosen to serve. It was pretty clear they could only imagine a man being picked to be their pastor. Clearly the congregation’s biases and traditions have already been applied in the pre-sort of eligible candidates.
I wonder how many congregations would be open to choosing their pastor this way.
The hymn book method was likely inspired by the story we heard read from Acts, with the drawing of straws.
Jesus’ inner circle decided they needed to choose someone to take the place of Judas Iscariot, their former treasurer. We remember Judas as the one who accepted a bribe of thirty pieces of silver to betray Jesus to the chief priests. After Jesus was arrested and killed, Judas is said to have attempted to return the bribe, and then to have died, possibly by suicide.
That would be quite a legacy for anyone to follow. I can understand why the disciples might have preferred to leave it to God to choose the person who would take Judas’ place at the table.
The drawing of straws, or lots, to choose the successor raises some interesting questions about free will. So does the story of Judas.
There are some people who say that nothing happens by accident, that God is always active, pulling the strings on all of us puppets, and directing the course of history, and our individual lives. Some say that everything happens for a reason, as part of God’s plan.
I am frankly not sure that even the people who say this actually believe it. Some preachers would also say that Jesus had to die on the cross, that his crucifixion was part of the plan.
I am playing a bit of a devil’s advocate here- if the crucifixion was part of God’s pre-arranged plan, then Judas, who is called the Betrayer, is getting a bad rap. In this way of thinking, he had no choice, and was actually doing what God wanted. How could that be a bad thing? Why would he need to feel remorse, if he was simply following orders, reading his lines as the script laid them out?
I don’t actually believe God wanted Jesus to die that horrible, humiliating, painful death. But it happened anyway. All kinds of painful, terrible things happen, all the time. We are keenly aware of that these days.
Would we say that Covid-19 is part of God’s plan? I find that an even more horrible suggestion than the idea that it’s all a hoax. But it seems to be part of human nature, to gain some sense of control, or at least the illusion of control, and safety that comes, when we think we can say why the bad things happens, or we can find a conspiracy theory that fits the moment.
The early followers of Jesus wrestled with the sad and terrible fact that Jesus had been taken from them. For some, it seems, the only way they could reconcile that sad reality with their belief in the loving God Jesus had taught them about, was to say that what happened to Jesus, and to Judas, was fate, a fulfillment of God’s plan.
Do you know the term “magical thinking”? It’s often used to describe what happens in the mind of a child when something terrible happens, like a parent dying, or their parents separating and divorcing. Sometimes the child becomes convinced the terrible thing was their fault, that somehow something they did, or said, or thought had the power to cause terrible things to happen, because they, the child, did or said, or thought the wrong thing. Magical thinking is the idea that the outcome of specific events is determined by an unrelated action.
Maybe, maybe, once back somewhere in history, a child came home to find their mother had mysteriously broken their back, on the same day the child stepped on a crack. That doesn’t mean that one thing caused the other.
I think those kind of theories are our simplistic human attempts to grasp at straws, to make some strange sense of things that ultimately make no sense. There was no good reason for Jesus, or anybody to die the way they did, on a Roman cross. It served no purpose except to warn others of the cruelty of those who do such things, and to frighten them into submission.
Out of fear, or to protect our families from repercussions, we might bow to a human emperor who ran things that way, but can we actually imagine God as being that sadistic. Could we pray to, and place our trust in that kind of God?
I don’t think God makes bad things happen, for any reason. I don’t think God flooded the world in Noah’s time to wash away all the sinners, and I don’t think it was God’s plan that Judas betray Jesus, so he could be arrested, and killed.
When I say this, that I don’t believe that God causes bad things to happen, to fix things, or as payment for debts owed, or to teach us a lesson- I mean that as good news. I think it’s important to to say a loving God would not mess with us that way.
But that still leaves the question: If God doesn’t cause these things to happen, why doesn’t God stop them? When we pray for a cure for someone we love who is sick, or for a whole world that is struggling with Covid-19, why doesn’t God snap her or his divine fingers, and make it all better?
The closest thing I have to an answer, after thinking about it for decades, is to observe that the universe, for the most part, does not seem to work that way.
It’s possible God can’t interfere, or intervene, or do the snapping fingers thing to undo human problems, because it would undermine human free will. I think that either we are puppets, and God pulls the strings, and everything is predetermined, or we aren’t puppets, and God has to let us sort a lot of things out ourselves.
I don’t think that means God doesn’t care what happens to us. It’s more like God sees all that happens, and wishes it was better- and often, wishes we would do better. God is there to cheer us on, give us strength, and courage, and inspiration, as we make choices, to make better what we can make better.
For me, the basic problem with saying that everything that happens is controlled by God, and part of the big plan, is that it would also mean I don’t really have choices, and that ultimately, I am not responsible for anything I do. That’s the Judas problem, as I see it.
I think a life without actual choices would be less meaningful. It would let us off the hook, in those moments when we need to rise to the occasion, and be smarter, braver, more honest, more faithful than we realized we could be.
I am thinking back to that opening scene in Pure. The congregation had pre-selected the candidates they already believed could serve as their pastor. These were people they knew, had watched grow up, and who had been nurtured in their community of faith. Each would bring their own set of strengths as well as their own compliment of weaknesses to the role. None would be perfect, but if they were faithful to their calling, would at least do the best they could, with God’s help.
Just like us. Amen