Androgenic Alopecia, Internal Combustion, & Being Human.
Let's start out by naming something we've all probably thought: the Bible is full of really really crazy stories.
Anyone with me on that?
And we're not just talking about the potent stories of creation or resurrection; we're talking stories of world-ending floods, withering fig trees, people falling down dead, heads being nailed to floors, and other violent, scary, and troubling things.
It's important to talk about those stories because, well, they are in the Bible. And that's not to say they have special status by virtue of being in there, but it's to say that for some reason, people have kept telling these stories; people have, for thousands of years, found something in them that makes them worth telling - something that isn't merely 'this story is really messed up!' but something that helps them understand profound and reverent things like God, the universe, and what it means to be human and alive in this world. We need to talk about them because something is in there worth finding.
One of those crazy Bible stories is actually one of my favourites. It's the one about a guy named Elisha who makes a pack of bears eat a bunch of children (seriously). I love it because it's just so damn crazy, and because it helps us navigate a really common and tricky intersection we all find ourselves crossing throughout our lives.
So to talk about that story, we need to talk about three things:
Androgenic Alopecia, internal combustion, and being human.
So, that crazy story about bears eating kids!
You can find it deep within the Hebrew scriptures in the 2nd book of Kings and the story begins with this guy named Elisha.
Elisha was a prophet. Now to be a prophet, especially within our faith tradition, was a pretty big deal. They were big deals because their job was to be God’s spokes-person. Their role wasn't so much to predict the future, but to critique and challenge the world around them, propose an alternative kind of world that's more in line with God’s values and vision, and inspire people to change how they're behaving in order to live into that alternative world. In a faith that’s all about becoming particular kinds of people living in a particular kind of world, we can imagine how prophets were major players. It's no wonder that all kind of special heavenly powers were attributed to them.
As we begin our story, Elisha has just become a prophet. So having embraced the role and being excited to use his voice and power to challenge and inspire, he heads to a place called Bethel to do exactly that.
Now we should pull over here for a second because we need to know something about Elisha. He was an afflicted man. He suffered from something so heinous and awful, something that affects 2/3rds of the male population: Androgenic Alopecia.
Elisha had male patterned baldness.
Now for those of us who know this affliction, who know the burden of having to put sunscreen on the tops of our heads, or having to grow facial hair to compensate for the lack of hair on our heads, we know how sensitive an issue this can be.
And maybe on this particular day, Elisha is feeling extra sensitive. Maybe he's having one of those days when his androgenic alopecia is just out of hand. Maybe the day in question is hot and windy, and as he walks to Bethel he's lamenting his lack of sunscreen and he's feeling a little self conscious because he can feel his little tufts of hair blowing in the wind. As he's struggling with these insecurities, we're told he runs into a group of kids.
Kids, we all know, are cute, funny, and beautiful, but, we also know, kids can be horrible people.
These kids see Elisha walking down the road, they see his burnt head, they see his little tufts waving in the wind, and they run up to him, circle around him, and sing: “Baldy! Baldy! You have no hair. Baldy! Baldy! You have no hair." (Of course they’d sing the insult. Kids seem to intuitively know insults put to music cut that much deeper.)
Now Elisha, once so pumped and excited to use his powers for good, can feel something new brewing inside of him; he can feel something happening deep in his stomach, and before he can really understand what's happening he SNAPS. He loses it! Anger and bitterness erupt out of him and he uses his power to call forth a pack of wild bears out of the woods and makes them devour all 42 of the children.
And that’s it. That’s the entire story! No commentary, explanation, or justification; just a “and then he went on to Mt Caramel."
What a crazy story! Definitely not a story you’d hear in Sunday School. But for whatever reason, it's in the Bible. For some reason the people who journeyed before us saw a reason to keep telling it, and so the questions for us become ‘what's the reason? What do we do with this? Whats in here for us today?'
Now it's here we remember an important truth about scripture and why we read it and call it sacred: 'It's not just that these stories happened, it's that they happen.' We read these stories because these stories are our stories.
So why has this story kept being told? What's the universal experience within it?
Because it's a story about internal combustion. It's a story about what happens when we snap, lose control, and use our power in destructive and violent ways.
Anyone know what Im talking about?
Back in July, Dawn and I were traveling to NYC for a family reunion. I was pretty exhausted and in desperate need of a vacation. Next to where I was sitting as we waited for our plane to board was this plant that was taking up most of the aisle. I put my bag next to it and zoned out watching the planes take off. As I was sitting there a man and his wife walked by us, manoeuvring around the plant to get by, and as the man did that he muttered "that's a stupid place for a plant." But me, in my exhaustion and desperate space, I heard "that's a stupid place for a bag." And I felt something snap inside of me, I could feel myself internally combust, and I erupted with this loud and indignant "EXCUSE ME?!" It was the kind of snap where you almost can objectively watch it happening. To make it worse, as soon as it happened the woman I had just yelled at turned to me and said 'Hi, Pastor Nick!'
I internally combusted. I snapped. I let out anger, exhaustion, and frustration onto some poor guy who just happened to be there.
Anyone else have a story like that? Im sure we all do. These moments of internal combustion are so common we even have the cultural idioms to describe it:
Oh man, he blew his stack! She flipped her lid! There’s some road rage!
We experience all of this so often that it seems like internal combustion is just another reality of being human. It seems that these moments of outburst and anger are just how the world is and and how people are.
And maybe this is why the story kept being told.
Cause here's the thing: if it's just the way the world is, there's nothing wrong with it. We just accept this truth and move on. But I wonder if this is where the wisdom of this crazy story kicks in because it seems to be offering a different kind of truth about what it means to be human and what our world can be like.
When the people who first put our faith and spirituality into words began to talk about what it meant to be human and what our world is supposed to be like they told this story about how, in the very beginning when God made humanity, God made us in God’s image and likeness.
They were trying to get at this beautiful idea that to be human is to be special. We'd use the world holy. To be human, they were saying, is more than simply a evolutionary biology and physiology, but has to do with how the Divine lives and moves within us; that deep within us is this inclination, this barometer, this compass, some would call it our consciousness, that allows us and calls us to have a special place within the universe: these unique creatures who have the ability reflect God’s love, justice, compassion and mercy into the world around them.
The spiritual task then, the whole becoming human thing, is learning how to tap into that divine image and be people who, in all they do and say, reflect God and bring things like hope, joy, peace, and love into the world.
So whats this got to do with that story?
Internal combustion are the moments when that divine image within us breaks and we choose to reflect our own anger, woundedness, and hurt onto the world.
Maybe the reason this story kept being told is because people knew what happens when we snap and combust; they knew what kind of life and world that creates. So they kept telling this story as a cautionary tale of where internal combustion leads us and to remind us that when it comes to the power within you, when it comes to what we can unleash upon this world, we can go one of two ways:
we can use it for life,
to expand this world through mercy, justice and love.
we can use it for death,
to constrict this world through pain, hate, and violence.
The choice is ours.