God, The Outlaw

2013 June 9
by First U Bklyn

Joanne had been sober for exactly six months the day she almost fell off the wagon. She told me the story years later but still remembered it with crystal clarity, down to the exact date when it happened. She was a member of one of my former congregations and she was telling me about her experiences in AA (“Joanne” is a pseudonym). She came from an alcoholic family and she was an alcoholic herself. She was married at the time with three children and AA had been a godsend. She believed this was her last real shot at getting her life back.


She knew her drinking had taken a toll on her family but she didn’t realize how much of a toll until that day when she was served with divorce papers. Her life flashed before her eyes –herself as a single mother, the fear, the pain of losing her husband, the betrayal, the rage. Above all, the rage. She went outside, walking, walking, walking. She tried to reach her sponsor. She couldn’t. She tried calling her friends. She couldn’t reach them either. Her anguished pacing landed her in front of a bar. There it was – the glowing neon sign with the happy hour special. She could get hammered for pocket change. She pressed her head to the window, her heart was pounding, then her hand was on the door handle. For Joanne, the whole universe hinged on that moment.


The Hebrew Bible begins with a description of the universe as it was imagined before God created the world. In this story there wasn’t just nothingness. There was a substance—tehom— usually translated as “the deep.” We’re not told much about this substance, but that it was dark and liquid—a primordial soup of all the raw materials of the universe. Tehom was lawless and chaotic, ever-changing. “Formless and void” are the Biblical words. It was the place where anything is possible. Pure potential.


Then God began the project of making the world. And it was basically a project of applying structure to the tehom—organizing the deep. Making up the laws by which the world would evolve. God divided “the deep” into categories (light and dark, sky and water, water and land). God shaped “the deep” into objects like the sun, the moon, animals, plants, and people. Presumably God also made laws like the law of gravity and the law that all living creatures die.


Now, you may not believe what it says in the Bible and you may not believe that there is a God, an actual being, who did all this stuff. But whether or not there was a “being” involved, somehow laws were applied to matter in such a way as to evolve into the world as we know it; the supposedly immutable way things are.


There are laws of human psychology like Freud’s “repetition compulsion –” our tendency to inflict on others the same pain that was inflicted on us. There’s the law of statistics that says that a Latina girl growing up in a Bronx housing project with a single mother will probably end up poor and struggling herself. There’s the law of the heart that says that if you keep getting hurt in your life, you’ll grow a thicker and thicker shell and alienate people who care about you and wind up alone. There’s the law of the marketplace that says that consumerism will lead to massive quantities of fossil fuels being pumped from the ground and burned which will lead to the earth getting hot which will lead to disasters of the natural world. There’s the law of addiction that says that an alcoholic who comes from an alcoholic family and just recently quit drinking and gets served divorce papers and can’t reach her sponsor and finds a bar with a happy hour special will open the door and go in and drink.


We’re basically talking about a giant domino chain where dominos—an infinite number of them—were set upright, one after another, spanning across the cosmos in infinite directions. God (or something) set them all up and then God (or something) gave the first one a push. It’s just cause-and-effect. It’s just what is. But if that’s all God is – the thing that made the laws, set the dominos going and then sat back and watched – that’s not a God we care about. The God that we care about, those of us who do care, the God we pray to, those of us who pray, is the God who breaks the laws. God, the Outlaw.


Religious teachings are full of stories about this God as well. Take the story of Abraham: Depending on who you ask, Abraham is either the most awesome or the most despicable character in the Hebrew Bible because of what he did to his son Isaac. Without argument, he accepted God’s command to sacrifice Isaac. He brought Isaac to the mountain. He made him carry the firewood for his own demise. He lied to him about what’s going on. He raised the knife to kill him and only when God seemingly had a change of heart and said, “Do not harm the boy,” did he pack up and go back home, leaving Isaac with PTSD for life.


The traditional explanation for why people consider Abraham a hero is that his devotion to God was so profound that he would sacrifice what was most dear to him on demand. That explanation leaves me cold and I’m guessing it does you as well. But there is another explanation of the binding of Isaac articulated by Rabbi Michael Lerner that I like a lot better. Michael Lerner is an author and activist and the founder of Tikkun magazine.


Michael Lerner interprets the binding of Isaac story by telling another story about Abraham when he was a boy. This story from Abraham’s childhood is part of Jewish oral tradition called Midrash. To make a very long story short, in a fit of teenage rebellious rage Abraham destroys some of his father’s things, his father is livid, Abraham unrepentant, and for his recalcitrance he is sent to the king of the land who throws Abraham into a fiery furnace. God intervenes on Abraham’s behalf and Abraham emerges unscathed.


But Michael Lerner points out that of course Abraham wouldn’t really emerge unscathed from all this. He’s been rejected by his father, kicked out of his home, and sent to a cruel king who tries to burn him to death. Talk about PTSD. The Abraham that emerges from this childhood is a wounded man. So if you connect the dots, Abraham was thrown into a fiery furnace as a teenager and so when his own son Isaac is a teenager, Abraham hears a voice telling him to supply Isaac as a “burnt offering.” Right on schedule according to the laws of the universe, Abraham’s inner demons are driving him to do to his son what had been done to him. This voice is not the voice of God. The voice of God is the voice that stops him.


In fact, the Hebrew word for God is different in these two parts of the story. The voice that tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac is referred to as “Elohim.” This is the name for God used in the creation story – the God that made the law that if you were abused as a child, you will abuse your children. Whereas the voice that tells Abraham to spare his son is referred to by a different name — the name you’re never supposed to pronounce, spelled YHWH. That’s the name of the God of the Exodus story who leads the Israelites to freedom from slavery. That’s God, the Outlaw.


The voice of the God of liberation frees Abraham from his internal slavery. In that critical moment, when the knife is raised above his head, Abraham looks into his son’s eyes and miraculously, despite all the pain he had suffered in his life, Abraham is able to love. What makes Abraham a hero is not that he proved capable of killing his son, but that, incredibly – impossibly – he didn’t.


This story is a myth, but so powerful because the struggle that Abraham faced is all of our struggles and his heroism is all our heroism. We may not have been thrown into a fiery furnace, but we have all been hurt. We have all felt misunderstood and unrecognized. We may or may not have been cast out of our homes, but we have all felt rejected. So many of us are hurt, isolated, lonely. We become cynical. And while we may not come to the brink of killing our children, we certainly find ourselves saying and doing to them the very things we swore we would never do. While we may not treat our spouses as cruelly as Abraham did, we certainly feel the urge to lash out at them sometimes. Or we find ourselves alone because we can’t stop repeating the same destructive patterns in our relationships.


Sometimes we can’t explain why we do the things we do – why we hurt ourselves or the people we love. We sometimes find ourselves slaves to our own past, without even realizing it, reproducing the cruelty that has been handed down to us. As it was for the mythical Abraham, the voice of our own pain can be so loud in our ears, it can have so much resonance, it can feel so right that it sounds like God to us.


But then, amazingly, like Abraham, we also sometimes find ourselves overcoming our own pain and learning to love. We can find ourselves showing patience with our children when patience was never shown to us. We can find ourselves being faithful to our partners, though our parents were not faithful to each other. We find ourselves wanting to take that drink and not taking it; wanting to hit someone and not doing it; wanting to quit our dreams but keeping going. We find ourselves able to forgive one more time and believe in each other and heal our relationships even when we’ve never seen it done.


To me, God is the substance of this miracle. God is the force in the universe that makes transformation possible. It is the force that empowers us to win impossible victories over the repetition compulsions of our lives and our societies; to be the domino in the chain that refuses to fall. This is the story of every revolution, personal and political. And so to our new members this morning – Laurel, Karen, Jim, Donna, Joe, Hillary, and Marquetta – this is what I believe we’re about here: Telling and retelling the story of human beings manifesting God, the Outlaw. Connecting to the power to transform ourselves and our world. I’m so grateful that you are here to be part of these stories.


Here’s the end of the story about Joanne: Her head was pressed against the door of the bar; her heart was pounding; her hand on the door handle; full of rage, full of longing. But she never opened the door. I asked her, “What stopped you?” She said, “Something. I don’t know. I peeled my hand away, like breaking an electric current. I decided that I wouldn’t go into this bar.” She was finally able to reach her sponsor, her friends. Her support network was back and she moved passed the moment in what she now looks back on as one of the great turning points of her life. Despite a textbook set of circumstances that should have driven her to drink, incredibly – impossibly – she didn’t. Joanne was able to act out of self-love and love for her family. Joanne manifested God, the Outlaw.


When you are a Latina woman raised by a single mother in a Bronx housing project and now you’re a Supreme Court Justice, you are manifesting God, the Outlaw. When you keep getting hurt in your life, and you’ve grown a thick shell and alienated people, but somehow you open your heart one last time and find love, you are manifesting God, the Outlaw. When we, collectively, are finally able to stand up to corporate power, change our ways, and return our planet to health, we will be manifesting God, the Outlaw.


There is a force in the universe that makes transformation possible. That force is flowing around us and through us right now. It’s like a bottomless river racing, ever changing. That river doesn’t know cause-and-effect. It is tehom – the deep. It’s the place of infinite possibilities where we lived before the laws came to bear upon us. Every once in a while we humans are able to dip back into that primordial current. We scoop our hands into it and drink. Every once in a while we manifest the divine power of transformation and we break the laws of this world.

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