I first heard about the Ten Commandments when I visited a Sunday School class at our grandparents’ church in the Third Grade. They seemed pretty ominous and foreboding. And while they mostly made sense — don’t kill or steal or lie seemed pretty straightforward — the one about not putting other gods before God, the God, was a little confusing to me. “There was more than one God?” I wondered. It seemed to open all sorts of possible applications and mis-interpretations.
Not long after that SS visit, my Uncle Mac took me to a wrestling match. It was one of those Saturday night American Wrestling Association televised shows — “live” at Will Rogers Coliseum in Fort Worth. The Main Event was Spoiler I and Spoiler II taking on Fritz von Erich, AWA champion and master of the Iron Claw. For a young elementary-aged kid, that final match of the night was a terrifying show of bravado and superhuman strength, a near-death battle of the gods, complete with pyrotechnics as the Spoilers finally double-teamed Fritz to lift him in the air and slam him lifeless to the mat as sparks shot up from the corners of the “stage.”
People screamed for Von Erich to rise, chanting “Claw! Claw! Claw!” The referee counting, slow motion, as they had Von Erich pinned down. And just as it seemed our hero was lost, he lifted a shoulder off the mat, the chants of his fans — his comrades in the fight against evil (which always seemed to wear a mask) — bolstering, lifting him from the mat, as he struggled to defiantly extend his hand in the air, in the shape of the Claw.
“Claw, Claw, Claw!” The Spoilers clamored for an exit. But, of course, no one can escape the Claw! And within moments, the famous grip found its way to each of the Spoilers’ foreheads as they lay stunned on the mat — out cold!
After all the victory music, with all the pomp and circumstance, the crowd exited the Coliseum. It took a while to get out of the parking lot. Uncle Mac asked me, “What’d ya think, Tommy? Pretty exciting!”
“Uncle Mac, could you beat up the Spoilers?” Uncle Mac laughed and held up his right hand in the shape of the Claw, “I don’t think so! But Von Erich must be the most powerful man in the world to defeat those two.”
“What about God?” I blurted out, my recent exposure to the Ten Commandments still fresh on my mind.
“What do you mean?” That one threw him.
I said, “God could beat up Fritz von Erich, right? Nothing’s more powerful than God, right?”
Uncle Mac, a little confused, answered, “Well, sure. But . . .”
“Could God beat up the other gods?” I interrupted.
“What other gods?”
I said, “God could beat up Allah and Odin. Right?”
Uncle Mac said, “Well, sure. I guess. But Tommy . . .”
“What about Santa Claus?” I pressed on. “Could God beat up Santa?”
Uncle Mac laughed and said, “Well, now Santa is not a god. He’s magical, and special, with lots of tricks in his bag, but he’s a good guy and works for God.”
“Oh, OK.” Seemed reasonable. My mistake. “What about Buddha?”
“Well, now, that’d be an interesting match. But, my point, Tommy, is that I don’t think God would beat up on anyone. You know, Jesus said to pray for your enemies and love your neighbors.”
That one threw me. “So wait, Jesus and Buddha are enemies?”
“No, no!” Uncle Mac laughed, “I didn’t say that. They’re more like neighbors.”
“Like me and Jimmy Patterson next door?”
“Sure. Just like that. And you don’t want to beat him up, do you?”
And just like that, I was confused about God all over again.
God, wrestling matches, neighbors, uncles — the moments that make up our lives are often like scenes from a confusing, first draft novel. All mashed together. The plot line not quite worked out and the characters still pretty unclear. But this is often how our images of God come to us, too — years of childhood questions, confusing ideas and opinions, Sunday School classes, and television. Characters. And then real life problems, power struggles, injustice and abuse and suffering thrown in just to keep us off balance.
Where is God in the midst of all of this? What final image comes to mind as a result? And where did that image and idea ultimately come from? How did we get it? How do we make sense of it? God still somehow “out there,” more powerful than Von Erich, my Uncle, and Allah? Omnipotent or impotent as the world continues to spin and suffer? Who are our neighbors and our enemies? And which came first — our enemies and neighbors or our image of God?
When it comes down to a fight (and more often than not it seems like it’s always about ego and a power struggle), it seems to always come down to my god versus your god, my idea of God versus your idea of God, doesn’t it? I mean, for a lot of folks it’s pretty convenient. God seems to disapprove of, dislike, and disdain the very same folks and ideas and beliefs that they also happen to disapprove of, dislike, and disdain. Clearly, my own patriarchal reality as a child, and throughout my adulthood, has had much to say about my understanding of God. How do I begin to address God beyond gender in a way that speaks healing and hope to the gender politics of our current UMC crisis and the social tensions in which we live?
I hope you can join us this Sunday as I continue this mini-series on the Ten Commandments and we look at the first three commandments in light of 8th century BCE cosmology and 21st century drama. Seems to me we’ve got a lot more gods, and a lot more problems, to choose from today . . . but they still all boil down to the same one. Know who it is? What it is?
This Sunday, October 22, in eleven:eleven celebration,
“no gods, no-thing, notice everything”
I hope to see you Sunday!