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Looking Back

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Reading about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah recently, it struck me how odd it is that Lot’s wife looked back and became a pillar of salt. Commentators tend to see this incident as a direct result of disobedience to the divine directive, “don’t look back (v. 17).” They see it as a cautionary tale with the theme of immediate, painstaking obedience to God’s word. If you disobey, disaster will overtake you, and you will die. One backward glance and bam! instant punishment.

None of this sounds anything like the patient, compassionate Father Jesus revealed God to be. In fact, it sounds like the sort of interpretation the Pharisees would have come up with, turning as it does on a strict, literal understanding of the angels’ words while ignoring the sins of Lot himself, who offered his virgin daughters to a mob of horny men and left Sodom with such reluctance that he and his wife and daughters had to be dragged out of the city by the angels.

How then should we understand this story? If the fate of Lot’s wife was not punishment for her disobedience, what was it?

This is one of those stories that sounds like a myth: a capricious god, an equivocal warning, a minor infraction, an incredible metamorphosis, and a disastrous outcome. It’s not even the focus of the narrative. It’s an aside, a way to account for why Lot’s wife is suddenly out of the picture, why just a few verses later, he would get drunk and have sex with his two daughters—and why the daughters thought this was a good idea.

Let’s start with the assumption that God in this story is the same God Jesus talked about—loving, compassionate, merciful, and kind. Why would such a God destroy an entire city? There are clues in the preceding chapter.

Then the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous  that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”

Genesis 18:20-21

The two men—angels—sent to destroy the city were not the first to be waylaid by a mob for their own gratification. Other victims had cried out to God—even perhaps to other gods—and their cries for redress had reached the ears of the Lord. Ezekiel, writing many years later, tells us that the people of Sodom were “arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49). It was not merely for sexual sins that God destroyed the city but because they made no provision for the poor and neglected the needy. It was God’s compassion for the poor and needy, for the victims of Sodom’s self-absorption, that moved God to judge the city and send agents of destruction to destroy it.

He told Abraham his plan, and Abraham, concerned for his nephew Lot, extracted a promise from the Lord to spare the city if he can find just ten righteous men within it. Unable to find even ten, the Lord nevertheless went beyond his promise by sparing Lot and his family. That is why the two angels urged Lot to flee and even grabbed him and his family by the arms and forced them out of city telling them not to linger “for the Lord was merciful to them” (Genesis 19:16).

We know very little of Lot’s wife. There is no mention of her in connection with Lot prior to his escape from Sodom. It’s likely, therefore, that he met and married her after he settled in Sodom and that she was a native of the region. She would have had friends and family in Sodom, and there is little wonder then that in her concern for them, she should turn back to see what disaster would befall the place where she grew up and where all her memories were. Did God punish this natural concern? I don’t think so.

When the angels led Lot and his family out of the city, they told him to flee to the mountains, but Lot protested. “It’s too far,” he said. “We’ll never make it. The destruction will overtake us. Look, there’s a very small town nearby. We could make it there.” The angels agree to spare the town of Zoar (which means “small”) so Lot and his family can escape. This whole conversation, however, indicates either that Lot had knowledge of what was about to happen and how swift the judgment would be, or that the destruction was already beginning and threatening to overtake them where they stood. That’s why the angel was so vehement in urging them to run for their lives and not look back.

Jesus urged the same alacrity on his disciples when he told them about the coming of the Son of Man in Luke 17:

[N]o one who is on the housetop, with possessions inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything. Remember Lot’s wife!

Luke 17:31-32

So it was not a mere backward glance that doomed Lot’s wife. It was lingering; it was delaying; it was a failure to appreciate the dire emergency of the moment. She stopped. She turned. She looked back. Perhaps the horror of what she saw petrified her. Perhaps the fire was already beginning to fall around her. Perhaps God, in one last desperate act of mercy, turned her to salt like the nearby hills before she could suffer the torment of being burned alive.

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Walcutt Road Memories

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When I was in second grade, our family moved to a huge house on Walcutt Road in Hilliard, Ohio. The house was actually a dilapidated mansion. There was a long carriage drive made of cinders that made a loop from the road to the house and back to the road. Steps led from the front door down a paved walk to granite columns where there had once been a gate. You could still see the rusted hinges attached to the granite, and one granite block, faced and polished like a tombstone, had a date carved in it.

Behind the house was a crumbling swimming pool, half filled with broken concrete, masonry blocks, and twisted metal—detritus from someone else’s life. Rainwater collected in the bottom of the pool and made an excellent breeding ground for mosquitoes. There was a covered walkway between house and garage and a mud room where you could take off dirty footwear. We kept a bag of dog food there, and each of us kids sampled it from time to time. It was crunchy, and the dogs seemed to like it.

A concrete veranda ran all along one side of the house with French windows opening on to it. We used to ride our tricycles (and sometimes even bicycles) on that veranda. It also made an excellent surface for drawing chalk hop-scotch squares.

Inside the house was grand. The French windows opened into a great room that ran the length of the entire house. Dividing the French windows on either side was a huge fireplace, and on the floor above it was a smaller fireplace in the master bedroom, a room we children were forbidden to enter without special permission. One end of this room had floor to ceiling bookshelves with a window nook between them and a window seat. A spent many a lazy afternoon on the seat reading. The other end was at the front of the house and opened off the entryway. We used to put up our Christmas tree at that end, huge trees that nearly brushed the ceiling covered with colored incandescent bulbs and metal icicles. Some of the lights were designed to blink, and we kids would lie on our backs under the tree and watch the changing colored patterns of light they would cast on the ceiling.

The house had a huge basement with a concrete floor. We kids used to roller skate down there. The laundry room was also down there with a door that opened out at the back of the house where the defunct swimming pool was. Mom had a wringer washer. It had a wash tub with an agitator, but after the clothes were washed, they had to be taken out and run through the wringer to squeeze the excess water out. Then she would put them in a basket and take them out and hang them on a clothes line to dry.

We lived there only three or four years, but the house and the time we spent there assumed mythic proportions in our collective memories. Mom loved that house. Though we were renters she felt it was hers in a way no other house ever did. My parents liked it so much that when the owner decided to sell, they tried to buy it. Dad went to the bank and applied for a mortgage. He was a laborer, working maintenance in a factory, with a wife and eight kids. The bank told him that he could not afford a mortgage. He pointed out that the payments would be less than he was already paying in rent. The bank was immovable. A short time later someone else bought the place, and we had to move. We packed up all our goods and moved to a small house on Alum Creek near Groveport.

On the day we moved we took almost all our furniture, kitchen goods, and bedding, but we left behind our clothes, books, and the piano for the next day. We were moving in January. The house had a fuel oil furnace, and the new owner wanted to make sure it was ready for them to move in, so he had the fuel oil tank topped off. My dad had had the tank filled several times before and knew that the fill gauge was broken. Unless you were careful, you could overfill the tank, and the overflow would spill onto the basement floor. That is what happened that night. When the furnace turned on, the spark lit the spilled fuel oil and started a fire. The house was destroyed. We were able to salvage a few possessions from the rear of the house, but most of clothes and books were lost. We kids lost all our Christmas presents. We also found, before we went back to get things that might have been spared, looters had stolen everything of value that hadn’t been damaged by smoke or fire.

My mom took the loss especially hard. It wasn’t just the loss of the house and our things; it was also the way people we didn’t know behaved toward us. The Hilliard community, hearing of our loss, collected clothing for us. We got bags and bags of used clothing, most of it unusable. My mom went through much of it, snipping off buttons and ripping out zippers because she hated to waste anything useful, but she finally gave it up and threw away whole bags of other people’s cast-off clothing because it was unfit for any use but rags. I think this experience left her soured on the charity of other people for a long, long time. She saw that many people, perhaps most, were capable of giving possessions they would otherwise discard as useless while congratulating themselves on their own generosity. How tempting it is to give without feeling the price! How rare the person who insists on sacrifice!

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Brother Shadwick

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When I was about 14, my family started going to a new church. It was still an Assembly of God church, but it was not the one in Columbus, Ohio we had been attending. This one was in Delaware, about the same distance but in the opposite direction. We were living near Sunbury, Ohio at the time. I don’t remember why we switched churches, but I think it had something to do with our former pastor leaving. The church in Delaware was small, maybe 35 or 40 members, so when the 10 of us started going, of course we were going to have an outsize impact. The pastor, Brother Moore was a young, sincere man, and the congregation was made up mostly of middle aged and older folks. I’m sure our family alone doubled the number of kids attending.

Fifty years ago, churches had Sunday School followed by Worship Service every Sunday morning. Sunday School was a time of instruction, mostly for teaching kids, but most churches of my acquaintance also had adult Sunday School classes, but the folks who attended were mostly people with kids who were bringing them to be taught. The format was usually less formal than public school. Classes were small. There were often kids from 3 or 4 grades mixed together. Still, you were expected to listen to the teacher teach, not interrupt or talk in class, and generally behave yourself. At 14 I was really good at that, having attended church since before I could remember.

My Sunday School teacher at Delaware Assembly of God was a man in his 40s named Brother Shadwick. (In the Assemblies of God of my youth, every adult was either Brother or Sister from the pastor on down.) Brother Shadwick was short but wiry; he looked like a fighter with close-cropped hair, big ears and a bulbous nose, thick lips, and one of those sallow complexions that would go beet red when he got angry. He proved also to be proud and ignorant, always a dangerous combination.

Our class was in a small room off the fellowship hall. There couldn’t have been more than four or five of us. I don’t know if Brother Shadwick took an instant dislike to me, or if it was our first skirmish that made me his enemy. The lesson that day was about Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee. Brother Shadwick was trying to set the scene. He told us that fishing boat Jesus and the disciples were in was very small, about the size of a row boat.

I raised my hand.

“It must have been bigger than a row boat,” I said. “It held Jesus and twelve disciples and their fishing gear. Jesus fell asleep in the prow. How could he sleep in the prow of a row boat?”

Brother Shadwick looked daggers at me. He stopped the class and had us all bow our heads. He prayed that God would forgive my sins and overcome my rebellious spirit. I was embarrassed, of course, but I also knew that I was right and the Brother Shadwick was wrong. Rather than admit to being wrong, he had treated me as if I had done something shameful. I knew I was not rebellious. In fact I was a compliant child, and I resolved to keep my mouth shut unless I was called upon.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression. I was a 14-year-old boy. There is no other age when boys are more obnoxious. I was certainly not immune. I was no doubt tactless and cocky. But I was not interested in how he felt having his word questioned by a mere boy. I was interested in truth, and it mattered to me that he was changing the story to suit his own preconceptions. But after that incident I was wary.

Some months later another incident occurred. Our class had been combined with another, and we now met in the fellowship hall where there was more room. My younger sister, Lani was in the class. There may have been as many as a dozen students. This time the lesson was from Jonah. The story of Jonah is bizarre even compared to other Old Testament stories. The feature most people remember is that Jonah was swallowed by a whale and survived inside it for three days, but that is not what makes it truly bizarre. Taken as a whole, it is a story about the compassion of the God of Israel for people who were not Israelites, who were in fact enemies of Israel. The last sentence, which God addresses to Jonah as a question, makes the point explicit:

And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals? (Jonah 4:11)

Brother Shadwick claimed that this meant that the people of Nineveh were savages, unable even to tell their left hand from their right. He compared them to people living in mud huts, eking out a living at subsistence farming. Sitting there listening, I kept thinking, “I’m not going to say anything. I’m not going to say anything.”

Then Brother Shadwick looked straight at me and asked, “Isn’t that right?”

What could I do? I pointed out that Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian empire, that they represented the dominant political power in the region at the time, and that the verse probably referred to children rather than to the entire population of the city. Brother Shadwick turned red. My sister rushed from the room to find our mom or dad. I found out later that she thought he was going to hit me. He did come toward me and stand over me. But he did not lay a hand on me. Instead he resorted once more to prayer for my rebellious spirit because I had dared to know more than he knew.

I do not know what resources Brother Shadwick turned to when he was preparing his Sunday School lessons. Perhaps he thought, as many people still think today, that he needed no resources but his own understanding to make sense of stories that were hundreds of years old. I was not so self-assured. My family had encyclopedias, bible dictionaries, study bibles, and alternate translations. When I read the bible, I referred to those resources to help me understand. I still use such helps when I read the bible.

Two more incidents help illuminate Brother Shadwick’s character. Both occurred shortly before my family left the church. The first was that Brother Shadwick got into a fight with a co-worker and was badly beaten. His nose was broken, and he came to church with his face heavily bandaged. He sued his attacker and lost. The judge decreed that Brother Shadwick had provoked his attacker, so no compensation was due. The second was a confrontation between Brother Shadwick and a new pastor who had come to set make things right at the church. I don’t remember what it was about. I just remember Brother Shadwick standing nose to nose with the pastor, flushed with anger, his hand balled into a fist and spitting his words between clenched teeth. He still had bandages on his nose. The pastor regarded him with absolute calm but refused to back down. We left that church, and it closed for good not long after.

Some people would have been soured on church forever by these incidents, but I was fortunate in several respects. My parents knew me well. They knew I was not trying to cause trouble or show up Brother Shadwick in front of the class. They didn’t berate or discipline me for standing up to Brother Shadwick when he said things that revealed his own prejudices, especially when he asked for my opinion. I also knew that Brother Shadwick was not best representing the character of Christ in these episodes, so they did not make me question God’s goodness. Besides, I had my own relationship with Christ, and he sustained me even when others who also claimed to follow him misunderstood me. So I bear Brother Shadwick no ill will. I hope he has found peace and been delivered from his anger.

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