Tuesday, May 15, 2012

A Gourd, A Worm and A God Who is Bigger than We Want Him to Be

I went to South Africa a vegetarian. I came back a post-veg.

I didn't really mean to. I went holding to my guns. I went with all the research in my head--how the modern meat industry increases hunger in the developing world, adds to pollution, introduces chemicals and antibiotics into our systems and treats animals inhumanely.

When I got there, I would try not to make a big deal out of my vegetarianism.

But when I skipped over the meat in the buffet line at weddings, funerals, baptisms and other village events, it would invariably be noticed:

"Why no meat?"

"I don't eat meat."

"What?! You don't eat meat?!"

It didn't matter what I did to hide my plate or to make it look full, to everyone around me it looked as though I had a big, gaping hole in the middle where the meat belonged. As soon as someone started in with "Why no meat?" every eye within the immediate vicinity was on me and my plate.

And for them it was a big, gaping hole because meat is expensive. Because quality meat is a luxury. And because giving meat to a guest is an act of generosity and hospitality.

So I started eating meat again because I already stuck out like a sore thumb at these gatherings and my principles weren't as needed in this setting anyway. In the rural areas, that drumstick was Chicken Bob who squawked early in the morning under my window and that bit of beef was Mildred the cow who tried to run me off the road. They lived humanely and died well.

I still eat meat even though it isn't Chicken Bob and Mildred the cow anymore. I eat meat when it is prepared for me and keep to a veg lifestyle when I'm in control of my own eating choices. I still eat meat because early on in the veg years, I spent a lot of time on my soap box, preaching the ills of meat eating. Because although I said it was an ethical choice for me and I didn't expect the same choice for everyone else, I secretly thought all meat-eaters were selfish human beings and should be punished for their decision to eat meat. I still eat meat because I need that occasional piece of meat to keep me humble.

Self-righteousness is a funny thing. It almost always starts out with well-meaning intentions but ends up isolating us and separating us from those we mean to encourage.

I became a veg for all the right reasons. I became a veg to make a difference. I became a veg because I couldn't stand the thought of someone going hungry to feed my cow. I became a veg because ethically, morally and spiritually, I could no longer eat meat.

But it became the sword I would die on and the sword I expected everyone else to die on as well.

My freshman year of college, my best friend from high school came out to me. I was horrified and didn't have the first clue of how to respond to him in a loving way.

To be sure, I knew people in my general acquaintance who were part of the LGBT community, but they were people who were "out." This was my first "in the closet" friend to disclose his sexual preference to me.

I so badly wanted to respond well to him. But I didn't know how. And it certainly didn't help that I had had an on-again, off-again crush on this boy for years.

I prayed and I fasted and I had long chats with him over instant messenger--this was back when AOL and IM were still a thing--and I was inwardly terrified of what he said and what he did.

I just couldn't accept him and love him for who he was and where he was in his journey. This boy who I had known for years, who I had high-school-kind-of deep theological and philosophical conversations with, who was and still is probably one of the smartest people I know, who I fell in and out of love with so frequently--he could not be gay. Someone this close to me, this important to me, could not be gay.

And the story slowly became less his story and more about me and my own self-righteousness.

There's a part of the Jonah story we don't often hear about. It's what happens to Jonah after the whale and after he finally goes to Nineveh. It's what happens to Jonah after the city of Nineveh repents and turns to God.

Jonah walks out of the city and sits down by a gourd to pout, "I knew, [God], that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity" (Jonah 4:2). I knew, God, if I told these people the truth, you'd forgive them and save them. I knew God you were bigger than I want you to be. 

In response, God makes the gourd grow a tall vine to provide Jonah a bit of respite from the son. Then a worm comes, eats his fill, the gourd withers and Jonah is in the scorching sun again.

Jonah gets angry with the gourd, but God responds, "You have been concerned about this gourd, though you did not tend it or make it grow...should I not [then] have concern for the great city of Nineveh?" (4:10,11). You know how big I am, and yet you don't want me to be as big as I am. Is that really for you to decide?

This is what our self-righteousness so often comes down to:

God, I can't handle you being as big as you are. So I'm going to put on these rules and these limitations. I'm going to force them on everyone around me, and I'm going to make you be the size I want you to be.

I really wish I could handle God being as big as He is. I really wish when my friend came out to me, I could have acted with a little more humility and believed in a bigger more infinite loving God than the God I believed in then. I wish as I decided to become vegetarian, I had responded to others who did not make the same decision with a bit more grace and a bit more understanding.

I wish I would not prod and push so hard to magnify my own rightness and diminish the rightness of God.

Getting over your own self-righteousness is no easy task, but I hope to more and more get up close with a God who is infinitely bigger than I want Him to be. And maybe in the process my own heart, my own spirit, will become infinitely bigger than it currently is.

I'm thankful for the second chances I've had to love a bit better. I am thankful for every moment in which God has shown himself to be bigger than I've allowed Him to be. I am thankful for every opportunity I've had to die to myself so others might see in me a God much bigger than their wildest imaginations--a God who is infinitely huge and loves them right where they are at, just as they are, meat-eating and all.

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