Aloneness and Chosenness

”Amazement is the thing. / Not love, but the astonishment of loving.” — Alastair Reid1

Photo: Arif Wahid, Unsplash.com

With the possible exception of Judas Iscariot, there are few figures close to Jesus more tragic than his cousin, John. Before his birth his destiny was promised, during his life his focus on the Judgment was singular, and before his death his aloneness was excruciating.

Early on, he had been the very picture of a prophet of old, a mouthful of fire and an ax in hand to cut down these desiccated trees of Israel. But he’d been jolted with joy when baptizing Jesus. The man came up from the dirty stream aglow, his face lifted to the heavens, hearing something beyond the audible spectrum of the people around him.

John hadn’t seen him since that day at the Jordan River, but it was hard to miss his influence. The news of Jesus had spread through the region as his healings became known. Even after some of John’s disciples had gone with Jesus, John was not discouraged. He was a forerunner, an Elijah to the Messiah, the one who would prepare the way for the Way, the Truth, and the Life. While Jesus was out sowing the seeds of the kingdom up and down the country, from Galilee to Jerusalem, John was at the river baptizing. Judgment from one, forgiveness from the other. But that was then.

“Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another (Matt. 11:2,3)?’”

It is impossible to hide the disappointment in that question. It is the cry of those who have thrown in their lot with every messianic figure throughout history. Are you the one? Are you really? The wheels of history turn slowly and where they stop can’t be known beforehand, only hoped for. It is a question that had buzzed in John’s head for weeks, but he’d never breathed it out loud until now.

He did have occasional visitors in Herod’s dank prison, disciples from the days when they were all encamped in the wilderness together. They brought him reports of Jesus, his signs and wonders, each one a down payment on the kingdom John insisted was coming.

In those long days he was like a man adrift at sea who hears the breakers on a hidden shore at night: what lay ahead was either death or deliverance.

We cannot know what was in his mind toward the end, but we might imagine. He was at once Everyman and yet unique, as we all are. What might we think and feel in that place? How would we face our death or our deliverance? Both are certain—either one will happen or the other—and the numinous anticipation of each arrives with every building wave. It’s the breaking wave that is uncertain: we are tossed without control. Beyond the breakers, on the shore, lies our fate, and we are released into it only after a churning downside-up dragging across the reefs of our doubts and fears.

***

In his aloneness, John considers: had he been wrong about Jesus? From his childhood (miraculous in itself as his mother never tired of reminding him) he had been taught that his kinsman would bring Yahweh to the world. All nations would stream to Jerusalem on highways leveled, widened, and straightened. All creation would sing the praises of the Creator. Righteousness would rule, peace would prevail, the lion and the lamb would lie down together.

But before all that would come Judgement, the cleansing by fire of a people to be presented as pure before the Lord. John would be Isaiah’s echo, “Prepare a way for the Lord; clear a straight path for him.” He kept it simple when he emerged from the hills and erupted into the wilderness. He had a message that cut like a sword across the generations, dividing one from another: “Repent; for the kingdom of Heaven is upon you!” And the people came, at first in ones and twos, and then by the hundreds, panting in the heat and clambering over the rocks down to the stream that gushed in the spring season and slowed and pooled in the summer. “What should we do?” they cried as they pressed together along the banks of the stream. “Repent of your sins!” he had roared.

When the Pharisees and Sadducees had shown up, gathering their robes about them, demanding baptism, he had called them on it. Their hypocrisy was like a blackness in front of his eyes; he could hardly bear the sight of them. “You vipers brood!” he had hissed. “Who warned you to escape from the coming retribution?” They were all words and theories, no action. They were trees without fruit, they were bastard children claiming a heritage they did not deserve. God could raise up children out of the stones in the river that would be more faithful to their Creator than these snakes and frogs. “I baptize with water, but there is one coming after me who will baptize with the Spirit and with fire.”

And then Jesus arrived at the Jordan from Galilee, asking to be baptized. John demurred, drawing back, but Jesus gently insisted. And so he had plunged him under and seen him rise, water cascading down his back, his hair wet and clinging to his shoulders. After the voice, he had turned toward the wilderness, not toward Jerusalem, and John had shuddered for knowing what lay ahead of him in that vast and cave-pocked landscape. He knew the whispers and voices that the wind carried, the weight of heat under the bronzed sky, and the cold solitude of the nights.

They were both chosen, both alone, even in the midst of crowds. After years alone and then years with others who, like him, agreed to a community of few words, the incessant chatter of the people was like the swarming of bees for John. Jesus seemed to welcome the crowds around him. They pressed up against him on every side, dancing in front of him like children skipping backwards. He smiled, touched them, looked in their eyes, tousled their hair. John, hearing of this from his disciples, could only shake his head in admiration.

***

So when John’s disciples come to Jesus with the question, “Are you the one?” Jesus does not answer at first. He bows his head; those closest to him see that his eyes are closed, and his mouth is set in a hard, straight line. He begins to speak, his voice a quaver at first but steadying as he raises his head.

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind recover their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are clean, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, the poor are hearing the good news . . .” He looks around at the circle of faces before him and his eyes blur with tears. All of the power he feels when he touches someone to heal them, all the assurance he receives that he is on the right path, all the pain he absorbs from those who are frightened, alone, hanging by a thread—all of that thickens his sight. There is a ringing in his ears, and he drops his head. He gasps and takes a step back; it is as if he feels a sword thrust in his side. He jerks upright, then, and cries, “And happy is the man who does not find me a stumbling-block.”

Silently, the messengers nod and turn to leave. Jesus looks after them for a long moment. He takes a step forward, as if he would call them back. Suddenly, he is angry. “When you came out to the wilderness looking for John, what did you expect to see?” he exclaims vehemently. “Silks and satins? Only people in palaces wear that!” He almost spits the words. “What then? A prophet? Yes, a prophet, but so much more.” Now he is pacing, his fists clenched. “I tell you this: never has a mother’s son been born who is greater than John, and yet even the least in the kingdom of Heaven is greater than he!”

***

There is more. Jesus rages at the indecisiveness of the people, at their shallow attitudes. What do you want? he cries. You’re like children who can’t make up their minds. We pipe, but you don’t dance. We mourn, but you won’t cry. John doesn’t eat or drink and you think he’s crazy. I come along eating and drinking, and you call me a glutton who hangs around with sinners and tax-collectors!

And most enigmatically, “Ever since the coming of John the Baptist the kingdom of Heaven has been subjected to violence and violent men are seizing it.”

Jesus is nothing if not a realist. He’s not seduced by our flattery nor discouraged by our ignorance. Neither will he explain everything he says, and if we are perplexed or discomfited by that, he does not expect it should prevent us from following him.

And what are we waiting for? Jesus proclaimed the kingdom to be within us and surrounding us. Evidence for this comes through acting on it in our own time and place. Is he the One or should we look for another? “God’s wisdom is proved right by its results (Matt. 11:19).” Each of us, alone and chosen, creates the kingdom together.

John, lying awake in the night, hears the hurrying footsteps toward his cell and stands to his feet. Though the violent are seizing the kingdom, he knows who is the One.

  1. Reid, Alastair. “Growing, Flying, Happening. Quoted in Michael Mayne. This Sunrise of Wonder. Cleveland, TN: Parson’s Porch Books, 2012.

Small Acts of Courage

”. . . and the dream outlasts/Death, and the dreamer will never die.”1

Photo: Jehyun Sung, Unsplash.com

What is fearful is usually evil, says Aristotle. We fear poverty, disrepute, disease, being friendless, death. But a courageous person, Aristotle continues, is not concerned with all of these. Some things are worse than others, and some things are more to be feared than others. “A man who fears disrepute is decent and has a sense of shame, a man who does not fear it is shameless.”2 A person’s character was reflected in his or her deeds and one’s deeds were the legacy that survived one’s death. Courage in battle was most often praised, for it stood against the natural fear of danger and of death. As a veteran himself, Aristotle knew what it took to stand one’s ground when instincts of self-preservation fought with virtue.

Even more to be admired was the person who displayed courage when caught up in unexpected danger. “It is a mark of even greater courage to be fearless and unruffled when suddenly faced with a terrifying situation than when the danger is clear beforehand.” When we have time to prepare, we may resolve to be courageous—think of the men in transport ships approaching the coast of Normandy on D-Day. But what of those suddenly caught in an ambush when out on patrol? “When we see what is coming, we can make a choice,” notes Aristotle, “based on calculation and guided by reason, but when a situation arises suddenly our actions are determined by our characteristics.”

Since courage displayed is the result of virtue practiced, those who display it when startled have courage at the core of their being. But whether anticipated or arising in the moment, courage is noble and elevates the soul.

***

It is winter and Jesus is sowing discord in the temple precincts. Walking in Solomon’s Cloister with the disciples, he is surrounded by a group of surly priests who demand to know who he thinks he is. “If you are the Messiah say so plainly.” And Jesus says something like, I already have but you don’t believe. My actions are my credentials. You don’t believe because you are not one of mine. If you were, you would know that nobody can snatch my own from me because my Father and I are one.

If they’d had guns the safeties would have clicked off. As it is, they pick up rocks. You have to work with what you’ve got. Jesus shrugs and asks for which of the good deeds God has done through him are they going to stone him? Not for any of that, they say, but for you claiming to be a god. Well, says Jesus, doesn’t your scripture say you are gods? Gods are people who have received the word of God—and you can’t set aside Scripture. So why charge me with blasphemy, a person sent into the world by God, because I say I am God’s son?

The disciples are watching this verbal ping-pong with increasing dread. And Jesus throws a parting shot: If you don’t believe what I say at least believe what I do, that God is in me and I am in God. Time to go, fellas. “This provoked them to one more attempt to seize him. But he escaped from their clutches (John 10:39).”

***

Jesus and the disciples are across the Jordan, back where John first baptized Jesus. The crowds that come out to see him there recall that while John hadn’t done anything miraculous, everything he’d said about Jesus had come true. Among other things, John had been certain that Jesus was “God’s Chosen One,” and it sure looked like it, given all the people he had healed and the demons driven out and sight restored to the blind.

People were still talking about Jesus healing the man who was born blind. It was the general belief that something that unlucky had to be assigned blame. “Who sinned,” the disciples asked, “this man or his parents?” Neither one, said Jesus. This is an opportunity to show God’s power in healing him. So he spit on the ground and made a paste of the mud and put it on the fellow’s eyes and told him to go wash it off in the pool at Siloam. The man went and washed and when he came back he could see. But he didn’t see Jesus because Jesus had gone, leaving one grateful man awash in controversy. It can’t be him, said his neighbors. Must be someone who looks like him. Who healed you, they ask? Jesus did it, said the man. Where is he? I don’t know, he answered.

Later, the Pharisees hauled him up for questioning because Jesus healed him on the Sabbath. Who did this to you, they demanded. So he ran through the story again, just the facts: I was blind, Jesus put mud on my eyes and told me to wash. I did and now I can see. That set them off again. The nub of the argument was that the Sabbath commandment had been shattered, thus the healing was not of God. Others felt that the very rarity of the event pointed to a divine intervention. There was also a strong feeling in certain quarters that the man was lying about being born blind. Get his parents in here, they snarled. Is this your son? Was he really born blind? Don’t ask us, they snapped. He can answer for himself. Yes, he was born blind and no, we don’t know how he was healed. They were afraid of being expelled from the synagogue.

So they summoned the man again, swore him to tell the truth before God, and denounced Jesus as a sinner. I don’t know about that, retorted the fellow. All I know is that I was blind and now I see. Can’t have been that easy, they cried. There was some gnashing of teeth. What did he do to you? You really want me to go through it all again, asked the man? You want to be his disciples too?

It got ugly. You’re his disciple, they said. We follow Moses and we know God spoke to Moses. But we don’t know where this one came from. Astonishing, said the man, because since time began no one born blind has gained their sight. If he wasn’t from God, how could this have happened? Don’t be giving us lessons, they yelled. Flecks of foam appeared at the corners of their mouths. You—born and bred in sin! And they threw him out of the synagogue.

Later, Jesus found him and said, “Do you have faith in the Son of Man?” Tell me who he is, said the man. You’re looking at him, said Jesus. “Lord, I believe, he said, and bowed before him.”

All of this was prologue. The fear the authorities held of Jesus was that his power and charisma would inflame the people; it meant they watched his every move.

***

Lazarus has died. In fact, he’s been dead for four days, and in the meantime Jesus has dawdled. The word had come that Lazarus was deathly ill; it was his sister Martha who sent it from the village of Bethany, two miles from Jerusalem. Blithely, it seemed, Jesus brushed it aside. “This sickness will not end in death,” he said, but it did. Was he naive or just in denial? This has come about, said Jesus, so that God can be glorified. The disciples were appalled. They knew he loved Lazarus and his sisters, but he deliberately stayed in place for two more days, ensuring that Lazarus would be good and dead.

Let’s go down there, said Jesus, back to Judea. Are you serious? asked the disciples incredulously. Last time we were there you were almost killed. Twice, in fact. We doubt they’ve forgotten, and they sure haven’t forgiven. We must work while there’s light, he said. And then he added, almost as an afterthought: “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I shall go and wake him.” Ah well, perhaps we were wrong, said the disciples, and Lazarus is sleeping it off. He’ll recover, then?

But Jesus said plainly, “Lazarus is dead.” He went on to say that he was glad it turned out this way because it would be good for their faith, Lazarus being dead and all. Then they understood what a high-wire act this was. It was a trap. He—and they—would be tracked, arrested, and killed. Jesus would no more avoid this than the priests and their spies could refrain from catching him out. After the healing of the blind man—and the stir that caused—“waking” Lazarus would be the last straw. “But let us go to him,” said Jesus.

All the signs pointed to an early and violent death for Jesus—and probably for those most closely gathered around him. His actions posed a threat to the whole nation, as the priests tried to keep the fragile peace with the Romans. He had the power to incite the people. What if he acted on it? Even if he didn’t seize power the people might rise up in his name. It was a risk that could not be tolerated. Better the death of one than the end of the nation and the temple.

It was the raising of Lazarus that set the final plot in motion to bring Jesus down. While many who came to console Mary and Martha found their faith in Jesus after seeing Lazarus raised, others went directly to the priests and Pharisees to report the clear and present danger of Jesus. “So from that day on they plotted his death (John 11:53).”

***

Thomas, the Twin (early Christian legend has it that he had a twin sister, Lydia), we usually characterize as the doubter, the one who holds out for tangible evidence of the bodily reality of Jesus, post-resurrection. Thomas is in direct contrast to Peter. Where Peter is impetuous, Thomas is deliberate. Where Peter blurts out whatever surfaces in his mind, Thomas is reticent. Peter is all in for what is in front of him, Thomas hangs back. Not easily fooled, he is fully committed once he is moved by love.

Does doubt corrode trust? It might, in certain circumstances. It might also be a clearing out of the underbrush of weak notions in preparation for the planting of the stronger oaks of faith.

Thomas speaks three times in the New Testament. Twice, he has questions about Jesus. The third time, he rallies the disciples to follow Jesus to Bethany. ‘Let us also go,” he says, “that we may die with him (John 11: 16).’”

Sometimes courage mounts the ramparts in defiance of incoming fire. Sometimes it forges alliances to stand up to tyrants. Sometimes it refuses to betray the principles of a nation in exchange for the passing praise of the corrupt and the powerful. And sometimes we see it in the set of a man’s shoulders and the lifting of the head: knowing the danger, counting the cost, he strides out anyway.

  1. Thomas, R. S. “Circles.” In Collected Poems 1945-1990. London: Orion House, 1993, 245.
  2. Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by Martin Ostwald. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1999, 69.

Disappearing Act or Where We Go When We’re Gone

Photo: Vladimir Kudinov, Unsplash

”Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.” Luke 24:31

I sometimes catch myself falling into a reverie or rather, I find myself in a reverie, and I come to and I quickly look around to see if anyone noticed. These moments render me motionless in place, sitting or standing, my eyes fixed inwardly, a fingertip tapping my upper lip. Disregarding what is actually in front of me, I often see a dusty road winding through low hills that are golden in the evening light. To place it on a map is to find it just off American Canyon Road in Napa County in Northern California, a shortcut from Highway #29 that runs from the city of Napa to Highway #80, which arcs above Fairfield and Suisun City and the estuaries that meander down to where the waters drop through the Carquinez Straits on their way to San Francisco Bay.

Our geography of the mind forms around images that emerge like islands from our seas of memory. I don’t know why these hills stand out for me and why I recall them, except the evening light on their golden curves and slopes rising above the cool shadows of the canyon is a glimpse of the California of my youth and a harbinger of home. This image, transposed to Palestine and overlaid with the story of the two disciples on their way to Emmaus, has become a touchstone of my spiritual journey.

***

Luke’s road story tersely describes the disciples the Sunday after the crucifixion. Two of them are on their way to Emmaus, a village seven miles from Jerusalem. It is the waning of the day, one filled with grief and strange occurrences and things that cannot be believed. They are confused and distraught. The energy at the core of their community that drew them in and held them together, has been ripped out. They feel a centrifugal force flinging them into the darkness. Nothing looks familiar anymore, but everything remains the same.

They are heading for home, about a two-hour walk, as the hills begin to cool. They are joined by a stranger who picks up on their distress immediately. “What are you talking about?” he asks innocently. They stop in their tracks, astonished. “Are you the only one in Jerusalem who doesn’t know what happened in the last few days?” gasps one of them, Cleopas. The stranger shakes his head. “I guess so. What do you mean?” “I mean—,” he pauses and seems to gulp for air, “I mean all this about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet in what he said and did before God and the people.” The other one picks up the thread. “Our chief priests and rulers handed him over to be crucified. And he was. And we had hoped that he was the one, the one who would liberate Israel. And now it’s the third day and this morning some of our women have astounded us. They went to the tomb early, but they didn’t find his body. They claimed they had a vision of angels and these angels said that Jesus is alive. So some of our people went down there,” she paused, “and it was just like the women said. But they didn’t see him.”

The Stranger listens silently. Then he says gently, “How thick-headed you are and how slow to recognize what’s been going on for all these ages.” And he explains, beginning with Moses and the prophets, how the history unfurled and the part that the Messiah was to play. They listen, entranced. They’d never grasped the full story and now they saw themselves as part of the drama.

This our stop, they said, when they reached Emmaus. The Stranger nodded and turned to go. “But stay with us!” they begged. “We’ve got some bread, some fruit. Talk to us some more.”

It was a small place, but adequate. Cleopas gestured, “Please, sit down. I’ll get some wine.” His wife bustled in the background with the hummus and the bread. Cleopas peered at The Stranger in the fading light. “You remind me of someone,” he said hesitantly. He shook his head. “I know I’ve seen you somewhere.”

His wife laid out the simple food before them. “Please,” said Cleopas, “bless it for us.” The Stranger took up the bread in both hands. He tore it in half, he raised his eyes, he extended his arms, and breathed a prayer. That moment—one that Cleopas and Mary replayed endlessly to each other in years to come—in that moment they knew. And then he vanished.

This is the rest of the story. The two look at each other, open-mouthed. Mary shivers. “I knew it!” shouts Cleopas. “Didn’t we feel our hearts burning as he spoke?”

They set out at once, seven miles back through the night—no thought of danger—running and walking, entering Jerusalem, winding through back streets, up the stairs to burst in on the Eleven and gasp out the story. Everyone is talking at once and then “there he was, standing among them. Startled and terrified, they thought they were seeing a ghost. But he said . . . It is I myself. Touch me and see (Luke 24: 35-39).”

***

This is my spiritual life story; it might be yours as well. I find myself on the Emmaus road, confused into muteness, despairing that Jesus has been killed and me not seeing the cosmic order in it. Like the disciples, the resurrection makes no sense to me. The dead are really dead and, Lazarus notwithstanding, Jesus is not coming back from this deadness. This being a mystery which I cannot penetrate, I am setting off for home, disconsolate but with some part of me ready to suspend my disbelief in a flash, given the chance.

This is the moment when the Stranger should enter unheralded, although given my two-thousand-year advantage, I am primed and looking for him on the road. But he doesn’t appear and it is getting late and I must be on my way. It is the road to home, although I somehow know I can’t stay there. The journey then becomes an occasion of reflection, some of it recalling my studies, some of it musing on the examples of others, less of it a comparison from experience. Although I can’t say that the whole of Scripture is open to me, I do see the patterns coalescing between the Law and the Prophets. For me, they seem like the inner turmoil of a fractious family, the falling out and the making up, the exodus and the exiles. It’s a story of heartbreak and deep love on both sides, God and humans, century after century, until at last, when the times are the worst, God comes in by stealth, poured into an infant. It’s not my family, not my fight, but could their love be extended beyond these tribes? Is this a family I’d want to be adopted into?

I have my doubts, but then who doesn’t? It’s who that baby grows up to be and what he does that draws me. That he died and who killed him, is apparent to me. Sages and prophets, outlaws and heroes, the ones who carried on in the face of evil, he was one of them too. Another in a long line of good men and women who tried to save us from ourselves. But the question is, would I have killed him too?

On the road, that is the question which haunts me. But I am analyzing the danger he presented to the established order, the eternal disruption that was coiled within him. It’s history, it’s a theoretical construct, it’s a theological and moral question that demands footnoting and further research. It could be a breakthrough article for me, edgy enough to attract attention, but a rather simple mental exercise of speculation that cannot be disproven, only disregarded.

A Stranger joins me on the road. I am lost in thought, preoccupied, and suddenly, there he is. I did not see where he came from. There is a disconcerting moment in which he searches my face as we greet each other, but it passes. I lapse back into my thoughts and the story the Stranger is telling fades; it is a pleasant murmur that can be tolerated. I ask him to stop for a meal, of course, as a matter of courtesy. One must not neglect to entertain strangers for thus one might entertain angels.

It’s when he blesses bread and breaks it, a simple and universal gesture, that I recognize him. And then he’s gone, leaving an untouched meal, because I am gone too, retracing my steps in haste through the night with a joyous hunger for the company of others. Of the names he has been known by, there is one which describes him best, Immanuel, God with us. It’s only when he’s gone that we see him.

A Heart for Yearning

Photo: Kristine Weilert, Unsplash.com

“But how very beautiful are those instants in which desire is on the verge of being satisfied.” — Jean Grenier1

How does one describe air: a colorless, odorless (usually) gas without which there is no life? Adequate, perhaps, but notable only in its subtractions and absences. How odd that something with weight, velocity, temperature, penetration, and mobility should be so ubiquitous and so indispensable—and yet so invisible.

Our language reveals these absences and ambiguities. “I can’t breathe!” Even reading these words, we feel our throats tighten. “Put your hands in the air!” We instinctively know where to put them—but where were they before? “He has an air about him . . .” We should hope so. In fact, let’s be generous and wish him the presence of many airs, not just one.

It is the marvelous capacity of our social imagination that these phrases usually bring about the desired effect and yet when we take them literally their meaning expires with a little gasp.

***

I struggle to describe God with any sense that I’m making sense, even to myself. I know that the letters G-O-D hold realms of meaning for many of us, but I suspect that these are inherited meanings which form an oral tradition that keeps us talking about God. If we come up dry on names for God, we need only hum a few bars of Handel’s Messiah for a full list. Those names come from Isaiah and it makes one wonder if we’ve added anything of value to the list for names and descriptions of God since the 5th century BCE. Alfred North Whitehead said in passing that everything in Western philosophy was but a footnote to Plato—an exaggeration perhaps, but one that reveals how indebted we are to our ancient masters.

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” said Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. This advice, if followed, would save us from a multitude of fevers carried like a bacillus in the veins of our social media. Wittgenstein also said, “The limits of my language means the limits of my world.” This too, seems like a good word. Language expands the world we perceive, and our horizons shrivel for lack of vocabulary. “Only describe, don’t explain,” cautioned Wittengenstein. But how to describe a being whose hiddenness preserves us from extinction in that presence?

But we learn, however haltingly, by trying this and that, by speaking and hearing ourselves speaking, and by listening and speaking and going away to think. When it comes to speaking about God, I’ve done enough of it as a youth pastor, a one-time evangelist, and a teacher, to know that I wish I’d spoken less, listened more, and not been so . . . certain that God could be described within the limits of our language alone.

***

Since the Enlightenment we’ve taken “belief” to mean assent to demonstrable truth. Still, the word “faith” in the New Testament, pistis, or pisteuo, meant trust, loyalty, engagement, commitment.2 One committed to a person, took a vow of loyalty, promised to engage. Early Christian converts went through an intensive preparation leading up to the baptismal rites performed on Easter Sunday. They fasted, prayed, attended vigils, received instruction on the basics of the gospel message. But they weren’t required to believe anything before baptism. The transformative power of the ritual was first necessary; understanding the dogma came later. Experience of commitment led to belief.3

In the Jerusalem community after Jesus left those who loved him were still reciting the Jewish declaration of faith, “Hear, O Israel.” Listen, don’t speak, especially not the name of God. Only the high priest was allowed to say the name of God, and that was only on one day of the year, Yom Kippur, when he pleaded for the life of the people, knowing that he was touching fire.

It’s hard for some Christians to listen for God; it’s easier to speak. I cringe when I hear the name “Father God” or “Jesus” repeated mindlessly in public prayers, as if running up the number could force God’s hand. Jesus invited his disciples to pray to God, and indeed to call God, Abba, the familiar name, equivalent to “Daddy.” He also cautioned them to keep their prayers short and to pray in private. He intimated that long prayers in public were all for show and like any hypocrisy the users had their reward already.

***

In graduate school, studying philosophy of religion, my classmates and I took up the proofs for the existence of God. Thomas Aquinas played a starring role. Here was a man who fused the philosophical categories and reasoning methods of Aristotle with the scriptural and dogmatic propositions of Augustine, adding to it his own extraordinary powers of reasoning and expression, and forming the basis of medieval Catholic theology. Aquinas could keep six scribes busy at once, dictating to each the contents of separate books he was writing, the equivalent of a Grand Master at chess playing six opponents simultaneously.

In his Summa Theologica, Aquinas defines “God” as “that than which nothing greater can be signified, and that which exists in reality is greater than that which exists only in the intellect.”4 It was self-evident to him that God exists. He proceeds to five proofs for the existence of God, the first being the argument from motion. God is the First Mover who is himself not moved by anything and, Aquinas says, “all men understand that this is God.”

Aquinas lived in a time when the existence of God could be vigorously disputed and stringently proven. I was impressed by his logical brilliance, somewhat envious of his unshakable certainty, but ultimately unmoved by his First Mover. My professor was fond of saying, “No one ever gave his life for the ontological argument,” a statement that could not be verified, but rang true, nonetheless.

Now we live in an era in which the arguments for the existence of God are mostly of historical interest for the philosophy of religion. They may also function as exercises in logic. But the ground has shifted under our feet and we are no longer as confident in our syllogisms and proofs. For many people, these are irrelevant arguments about a mythical being in whose name enormous atrocities have been perpetrated, and whose adherents, be they Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, are responsible for much of the injustice and suffering in the world. They are willing to hand in the ticket for their share of God’s grace and go it alone.

I believe them when they make that claim, but in turn I will not claim that I know how they feel. The mystery of evil has been, and remains, the rock that I roll up the mountain as Sisyphus. Meanwhile, I continue to pray and to sense—in ways that probably would not stand up to philosophical scrutiny—a presence in my life that I am convinced is God.

***

The Hebrew Bible is the record of the gradual withdrawal of God from direct human interaction. Angels, fire from heaven, visitations from God in person cease after Elijah. God appears in prophetic visions and dreams, and after Hezekiah even that avenue gradually dwindles to nothing. God is remembered through words and those words rise in strength and meaning. But God is not seen in the land.

“Our faith,” said Julian of Norwich, “is nothing else but a right understanding, and true belief, and sure trust, that with regard to our essential being we are in God, and God in us, though we do not see him.”5

Then comes Jesus, the Word, who reveals God with signs and wonders, who heals through the power of God and becomes the lens through which his disciples and others can see God again. But this revelation is not self-evident and most miss it entirely. God speaks only twice to Jesus in the presence of others and most who were there probably thought it was summer thunder. As Barbara Brown Taylor says in When God is Silent, “the voice of God in Jesus was not a shout. In him, the revelation of God comes to us as a whisper. In order to catch it, we must hush, lean forward, and trust that what we hear is the voice of God.”6

In this world and this time and this place, we trace the presence of God in hindsight through the paths we make between our memories and God’s movements. Our future in God, however wildly our faith may flicker, we can imagine as Jesus, the anticipation of hope fulfilled.

In our wordless desire for God we are already in God’s presence.

  1. Grenier, Jean. “The Attraction of the Void” in Islands: Lyrical Essays. Translated by Steve Light. Copenhagen: Green Integer, 2005, 22.
  2. Armstrong, Karen. The Case for God. New York: Alfred Knopf, 2009, 87.
  3. Armstrong, The Case for God, 97.
  4. Aquinas, Aquinas on Nature and Grace. Edited by A. M. Fairweather. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1954, 50.
  5. Julian. Revelations of Divine Love. Translated by Clifton Wolters. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1966, 158.
  6. Taylor, Barbara Brown. When God is Silent. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998, Loc 475.

You Must Be Joking

Photo: Loren Joseph, Unsplash.com

”Once we realize that Christ was not always engaged in pious talk, we have made an enormous step on the road to understanding.” — Elton Trueblood

Jesus is teaching in a synagogue one Sabbath and sees a woman bent over with a crippling disease. Naturally, he calls her up to the front to heal her and, inevitably, the president of the synagogue snorts in disgust: “There are six working-days: come and be cured on one of them, and not on the Sabbath.” Make an appointment, lady. But Jesus rounds on the leader and the congregation. You hypocrites! he says, heatedly. You’ll feed and water your donkeys and oxen on the Sabbath, but you’re upset when I heal a daughter of Abraham, bound this way for eighteen years? Really? “At these words all his opponents were covered with confusion, while the mass of the people were delighted at all the wonderful things he was doing (Luke 13:10-17, NEB).”

Allowing for humor in Jesus’ words does not undercut the seriousness with which he addresses our fears and doubts. In fact, in his use of exaggeration, irony and paradox, he underscores his unfailing purpose to reach us, despite our tunnel vision and our sometimes humorless rigidity.

The presumption that one’s salvation is deadly serious, with no need or possibility for humor, is so engrained in the Christian psyche that the suggestion of an alternative is almost blasphemous. Yet, in an age in which churches compete for brand recognition, and Christ is a buddy, and worshippers in the pew recruit their prayer-warrior friends, humor about our condition as homo religiosus is essential.

Somehow, we’ve concluded that everything attributed to Jesus must be taken at face value, with no nuances, shades of meaning or inflections. Any recorded dialogue loses a lot in translation; all the nonverbal cues such as gestures and facial expressions fall away, and we have only the culturally conditioned meaning of the words as translated. We don’t see the raised eyebrow, the faint grin at the corners of the mouth, the glint in the eye, or the expressiveness of the hands. We miss the inflections in the voice, the emphasis on certain words—“But I tell you”—even the pauses for effect in the timing of a skilled speaker.

Elton Trueblood’s little book, The Humour of Christ, notes that this characteristic of Christ is little remarked upon by theologians and Biblical interpreters. “Full recognition of Christ’s humor has been surprisingly rare,” he says.1 Most of the nineteenth-century writers of the lives of Christ paid no attention to his humor, portraying him as serious from dawn to dusk, his every word portentous and grave. What little we know of the personality of Jesus comes through his interactions with his disciples, with those he healed, and in his confrontations with religious authorities. His parables, his dialogues, his arguments, all give us some idea of what it would have been like to be his friend, but again we’re overawed by the two thousand centuries of Jesusology that sacrifices imaginative intimacy for sovereign power.

Basic communication theory tells us that it takes two to dialogue, that most of what we remember from an encounter with another person is nonverbal and visual, and that much can be understood of that person by attention to how his message is delivered. We do not see the wit and humor of Jesus because we aren’t attuned to it and we find another explanation for it when we can’t avoid it.

Some of the sayings of Jesus and the parables he tells are, in the best of lights, more than startling. I have begun to look more closely at them as statements of exaggeration and paradox, irony and wit. Once you allow for the possibility that Jesus had a sense of humor, and that he was a master rhetorician, using all the tools available to him in persuasion and argument, some of these statements begin to make more sense.

Trueblood asserts that, “Of all the mistakes which we make in regard to the humor of Christ, perhaps the worst mistake is our failure, or our unwillingness, to recognize that Christ used deliberately preposterous statements to get His point across (Trueblood 44-45).” Jesus stuns his disciples and those standing around by proclaiming, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:25).” Because they take him literally and because being rich was equated with being blessed by God, the disciples are astonished. “Then who can be saved?” they ask, looking in bewilderment at one another. Mark adds this telling detail: “Jesus looked them in the face,”— “and said, ‘For men it is impossible, but not for God; to God everything is possible (Mark 10:27, NEB).”

Jesus states this categorically, with no qualifiers, right after the story of a rich man who turns away in regret because he cannot divest himself of all his wealth. With a straight face he gives us this exaggerated image to emphasize the difficulty involved. The humor is in the size of this image, the outrageousness of trying to jam a camel (one hump or two?) through such a tiny opening. All these centuries later it still resounds in eye and ear and imagination, whereas a long discourse on wealth distribution would glaze the eyes of the most ardent disciple. Yet, some commentators have made the torturous claim that Jesus was referring to a gate in the Jerusalem wall so narrow and low that a camel without its load could squeeze through only if the poor creature got down on its knees and scrabbled its way forward. Like that would ever happen. Like any camel owner would be so foolish as to try.

“What we require, for Christ’s kind of humor,” says Trueblood, “are two ingredients, surprise and inevitability. There is a connection which we do not expect, but which, nevertheless, seems absolutely valid when once it is presented (Trueblood 48).”

Don’t throw pearls to swine, Jesus advises his disciples. Some people are impervious to the truth. The delightful absurdity of this action—who would do such a thing?—makes the point with a smile and a laugh that softens the imperative not to waste one’s time with the stubbornly obtuse.

Paradox is at the heart of humor. Kierkegaard understood that where there is life there is paradox, but he also knew that where there is paradox, there is humor. A paradox is a contradiction with a secret affinity for connection. When we see the connection, despite the contradiction, there is the laughter of surprise and delight. Who knew?

Don’t imagine that I’m trying to get rid of the Law and the prophets, says Jesus. “I tell you, unless you show yourselves far better men than the Pharisees and doctors of the law, you can never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5: 18, 20, NEB).” Maybe that’s a low bar to clear from the distance of two thousand years, but for his audience it must have seemed a feat of Olympic proportions.

Hypocrisy is the besetting sin of human beings, especially of those who claim to be pure, and Jesus takes aim at the hypocrisy of the priests and Pharisees. The rigidity of the Pharisees was cause for laughter among the common people, who could puncture pomposity from thirty yards with a singular barb of humor. Yet, even at his most scathing, Jesus’ wit is meant to be cleansing, a catharsis that can lead to redemption if we can see ourselves as we are and laugh about it.

Most often Jesus employs irony, “a holding up to public view of either vice or folly, but without a note of bitterness or the attempt to harm (Trueblood 53).” Irony, thanks to Socrates, is deeply embedded in our Western way of thinking. When Jesus uses it to get at the truth in an indirect way, its effect is immediate. “Can grapes be picked from briars,” he asks, “or figs from thistles (Matt. 7:16, NEB)?” The question answers itself in our response.

Listen, says Jesus, when you do something good for someone, be quiet about it, and “do not announce it with a flourish of trumpets.” Don’t be tooting your own horn “as the hypocrites do in synagogue and in the streets.” And then the sly touch of irony: “I tell you this: they have their reward already (Matt. 6:2,3 NEB).” Status isn’t hard to come by; there are always people around who are impressed by braggarts. But that’s all the reward they’re going to get—and it’s fleeting and ephemeral.

But for sheer chutzpah, it’s hard to beat the story of the Unjust Steward in Luke 16. Luke is the only Synoptic writer who uses the story, probably derived from a source Matthew did not have access to. Or maybe Matthew skipped it just to be on the safe side.

The story concerns a foreman or steward who is in charge of running his master’s business concerns. When he cooks the books to hide his own unethical practices and the master calls him on it, he fears he’ll soon be spending more time with his family, so he does a two-for-one ingratiating act to get himself off the hook with his boss and to cultivate the goodwill of the debtors. When they come to pay up, he offers them a discount and a quick payment, no questions asked. Some is better than none, he reasons.

“And the master applauded the dishonest bailiff for acting so astutely. For the worldly are more astute than the other-worldly in dealing with their own kind (Luke 16:8, NEB).”

Who do we identify with here? The master is no shining city on a hill, the steward is, well, we know what he’s like, and the debtors lurch toward compromise. Is the master supposed to be God? Is Jesus the steward? Are we supposed to be the steward?

It’s true that all the players in this story are “men of the world.” They’re not evil, twisted characters, they just have ethical Alzheimer’s disease, an inability to recognize moral precepts and responsibilities and to act on them with will. If you called them on it, they’d be shocked that you’d raised a fuss. The advantage was theirs for the taking. “That makes me smart,” they’d say. “And that makes you a loser.”

Christ seems to be saying that if you’re going all in on this, don’t be half-hearted. “Sin boldly,” to echo Luther. The way to get respect from the grifter set is to steal the whole bank, not just rob from the bank, to use Trueblood’s metaphor. Not only that, such behavior will be rewarded! “I say to you, use your worldly wealth to win friends for yourselves, so that . . . you may be received into an eternal home (Luke 16:9).”

All of this would be unconscionable except Jesus segues directly into verses diametrically opposed to this narrative banter. If you’ve been untrustworthy with other people’s money, you can’t be trusted to handle your own, he says. “You cannot serve God and Money (Luke 16:13, NEB).”

What are we to make of this? This is unequivocal, whereas the story is all about compromise. A story this extreme with a punchline that definitive can only be seen as a vivid lesson in moral integrity. Interpreters pretzel themselves trying to assign roles for each character in the narrative. But the only hypothesis that makes sense is that Jesus used the shock value of unscrupulous behavior to make an unforgettable point: Our moral (or immoral) behavior shapes our character and our character determines our behavior. Therefore, be faithful in the small matters so you can be trusted in the large ones.

Jesus’ humor is not only seen in his public dialogues; it comes through in his private conversations with his disciples. Up in the region of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asks his disciples who people think he is. And Simon, suddenly grasping the truth, blurts out, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Got it in one! says Jesus. That was revealed to you by my heavenly Father (Matt 16:13-16, NEB).

And then Jesus weaves a most delicious—and tender—irony: “You are Peter, the Rock,” he says triumphantly. The most mercurial, the most impetuous of the disciples is now Rocky, the one stable enough to anchor the community of the future, the one most to be trusted. Five minutes later, Jesus turns on him and calls him Satan. You’re a stumbling-block, he argues, for thinking like a man rather than like God. The camaraderie between them survives this whiplash. But Simon did become a rock, and in years to come, although he was bound and led where he did not want to go, as Jesus had prophesied, he went with courage, faithful to the end.

Ironically, the man rose to meet the nickname. The truth, rightly divined, gave the freedom to evolve.

  1. Trueblood, Elton. The Humour of Christ. London: Dartman, 1963, 23.

Our Back Pages

”Buy truth, and do not sell it;

buy wisdom, instruction, and understanding.”— Proverbs 23:23

Photo: Cesar Viteri, Unsplash

When I buy books, real books, the kind that fill the palm and give off the faint scent of forests and ferns, I most often buy used books. To put a noble purpose to it, I see it as a matter of providing a second or third life to a being whose greatest delight is to be itself in service to others. Used books, like used houses, contain quiet discoveries: a penciled note in the margin or a passage scored in red, with an exclamation point next to it. What emotions did it stir? What memories did it bring up?

I have a volume of philosophy, picked up in a second-hand bookshop in North Hollywood, which has a blue-inked stamp on the flyleaf: “If found, please return to —-,” with a name and an address in Los Angeles. Was its presence in that shop evidence of abduction or betrayal? Was it offered up in the dissolution of a love affair by a woman who wouldn’t stoop to throwing out a book with the potato peelings and coffee grounds? Or the New English Bible I found, inscribed, “To the most wonderful mother in the world. We love you—Rhonda, Carol and Ron,” given on Mother’s Day, 1970, and so lightly used that the pages had to be parted with two hands and a puff of breath.

I am reading now, No Other Book: Selected Essays of Randall Jarrell, which includes a bookmark made out of a horoscope from Sunday, March 7, 1993 (birthdate of Piet Mondrian and Daniel J. Travanti!), that advises me to “Shower family members with affection. Playing the hermit role keeps you trapped in an isolation tank. Spread the gospel of goodwill and exuberance.” It also suggests that I take up sports “like cycling, tennis or golf.” But since I am not a Taurus, perhaps that would be unwise.

For such books, received by others and then forgotten, I give a safe and warm home, an active life, the assurance of a deep and appreciative relationship, and the promise of continued service when I have passed on.

I buy used books, not simply because I love books, but because their histories trace connections back to the authors who wrote them, whose imagination and diligence while writing were often frustrated and thwarted, but who somehow followed a lantern of discovery deep into an unknown country. And there are sometimes geological layers of comments and annotations to decipher, connections to those who cherished them.

So when I find one that gives no evidence of having been pored over, hefted, carried along, returned to, and in a word, loved, there’s a residue of sadness for the writer who labored over this work, perhaps for years, before releasing it into the wild. Once out of her hands her book faced the world alone. Maybe it was sought for with open hands, or merely opened, flicked through, and replaced with a sigh. Maybe it flourished later with meanings that its author could not see, a gift extended.

Some of my books have been with me for most of my life. One of my treasured collections of poetry, The Major English Romantic Poets: Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Keats, I bought new in 1967 for ninety cents, 715 pages of poetry so impassioned as to blow open my imagination and enlarge the regions of my heart. Another one, Modern Poets, introduced me to Eliot, Yeats, Pound, Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and many others. I was searching for wisdom, although I did not think of it in that way.

In the tales of Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov, the heights and depths of kings and battles in Winston Churchill’s History of the English-Speaking People, and in the terrors and stoic courage of Camus’ The Plague, there was a revelation of what Randall Jarrell calls “the Wisdom of the World which demonstrates to us that the Wisdom of the World isn’t enough.”1 Jarrell wrote that about one of Robert Frost’s poems, “Provide, Provide,” which, he said, gives us the minimum case for morality, but with a beauty and conviction that is far from minimal.

It was the conviction that beauty—seen, heard, and above all, rendered in language—is an indispensable element of wisdom, that drew me on in the search.

I was, most probably, not so much in rebellion against my strict but loving upbringing, as I was uneasy in my place, shifting and stretching, unable to locate my magnetic north, but unwilling to stop looking. When the body needs salt, it finds it; when the spirit craves awe it pauses at the roadside shrines. Our restlessness rings about us like an unresolved chord.

At sixteen, the world appeared absurd to me. Beautifully so, but absurd, nonetheless. As I write, it is fifty-one years to the day that Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, the last in a trinity of public figures whose lives, at that time, gave me reason to hope for a new order in the world.

Over against this was my dutiful play in the fields of the Lord and my willingness to be haunted by the Jesus of the gospels.

The world was absurd, intuitively understood, because the allocation of resources and wealth were both capricious and cruel. Not only that, the burdens that so many bore simply by accident of birth and race, could not be justified or accounted righteous in any universe I wanted to be a part of. As I passed the brown backs of laborers bent over the vines in the Napa Valley, I wondered how it was that I was blessed to flourish in the California sun, while thousands of miles away a little Vietnamese girl and her brother ran naked and screaming down a road, their flesh consumed by napalm, as the sky behind them boiled with clouds hellishly dark? “There but for the grace of God,” said some with a shudder. But that was blasphemy, an homage to a god even smaller and more ignorant than the systems that perpetuated it.

Therefore, entirely arbitrarily, due to no merit on my part, I had the luxury to be surrounded by choices, to have time and safety and the means to look ahead to college. Again, at sixteen it seemed absurd (and still seems so today), but the purest response could only be to use those choices wisely and well.

Albert Camus was an early and lasting influence. I shared his love for the sun, the sea, the night. “But these are gods of enjoyment,” he says, in Lyrical and Critical Essays, “they fill one, then they leave one empty.”2 Borrowing the faith of others, I agreed, but not for the same reasons as Camus. Such emptiness, the default position of the church made clear, could only be filled by a personal relationship with Christ. I wasn’t so sure. Couldn’t one love this Earth for itself, this sea, these stars? Wasn’t glorying in the creation also worshipping the Creator? Camus’ heaven basked solely beneath the sun—he held himself to an austere code of honesty—but he retained a wistful awareness, it seemed to me, of a transcendence he could feel, but would not be reconciled to. I believed it but could feel it only faintly.

Camus was seventeen when he knew he would be a writer. Describing the gradual awareness of this possibility, he writes:

“Something, someone was stirring dimly within me, longing to speak. Reading one book, hearing one conversation, can provoke this rebirth in a young person. One sentence stands out from the open book, one word still vibrates in the room, and suddenly, around the right word, the exact note, contradictions resolve themselves and disorder ceases.”3

For Camus, the book that gave him the courage to write what he lived was Jean Grenier’s Les Iles. For me? Well, I suppose some of my contradictions began to resolve themselves through the poets of Isaiah—all three of them—although at the time I only knew of one—and the Gospel of John, that mystical and earthy portrait of the Jesus of signs and wonders. In almost any translation or version, they held for me language that transcended my experience while keeping me rooted in this world. The Bible itself was a library, or better, a bookshop of well-used books, holding the histories of millions, and containing layers of connections and annotations and memories there for all to ponder.

Surprisingly, Camus (referring to Grenier) says, “For it is indeed lucky to be able to experience, at least once in one’s lifetime, this enthusiastic submission to another person.” He draws up the image of the master and the disciple, a confrontation which becomes a dialogue for life. “In the end, the master rejoices when the disciple leaves him and achieves his difference, while the latter will always remain nostalgic for the time when he received everything and knew he could never repay it.”4

Camus did repay it, however, in the ways he inspired and mentored people like me. Although I took a different, but in some ways parallel path to his, we were both searching for wisdom.

I am still stumbling along, trying to commit discipleship. In the books which the Spirit and serendipity lead me to, I find traces of wisdom well worth the price of experience.

  1. Jarrell, Randall. No Other Book: Selected Essays of Randall Jarrell. New York: HarperCollins, 1999, 24.
  2. Camus, Albert. Lyrical and Critical Essays. New York, Vintage, 1970, 328.
  3. Camus, Lyrical and Critical Essays, 329.
  4. Camus, Lyrical and Critical Essays, 329.

If You Were Here Today

”My brothers, think what sort of people you are, whom God has called. Few of you are men of wisdom, by any human standard; few are powerful or highly born. Yet, to shame the wise, God has chosen what the world counts weakness. . . Mere nothings, to overthrow the existing order.” — I Cor 1: 26–28

Photo: Danka Peter, Unsplash

I have come lately to the writings of Joseph Mitchell, a name many of a previous generation would instantly recognize with warmth, but for most of us today, is a poignant discovery. I found him through Michael Dirda’s wonderful book, Bound to Please (2005), a compendium of 109 essays on books that Dirda, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book reviewer for The Washington Post, loves and recommends, from Herodotus to Kingsley Amis, with lists of books in specific genres following.

Whenever I feel that my literary education is lacking, and I want a conversational voice to lead me willingly into the company of the great, I pick up one of Dirda’s several paens to books and reading and I settle down. That’s how I found Joseph Mitchell, who started in the journalism business in 1929, coming out of North Carolina at the age of twenty-one, just as the Great Depression smacked everybody down. He quickly became a lead reporter in New York City for such long-gone papers as the Morning World, The Herald Tribune, and The World-Telegram. He wrote about the Lindbergh kidnapping and interviewed Albert Einstein, Fats Waller, and Clara Bow. He covered all of New York, but felt most at home writing about the people of the Bowery, Times Square, Harlem, the Village, and the docks. He was famous enough that his portrait was on the side of newspaper delivery trucks.

In 1938 he went to work for The New Yorker and Harold Ross, who would become legendary as its long-time editor. Mitchell was stunningly prolific, writing as many as thirteen bylines in 1939. He kept up such a pace for several years, and in all wrote for the magazine for fifty-one years. His first book, Up in the Old Hotel, is a collection of narratives about some of the people whose lives he chronicled.

As David Remnick, the current editor of The New Yorker, says in his introduction, “there was no kitsch in his portraits. His subjects were not ‘characters’; his settings were not tourist destinations.”1 They were people whom Mitchell knew and respected, whose lives he detailed with an eye that did not miss a thing and a voice that was gentle, humorous, and almost courtly. Most of them were people cast aside, bobbing in the eddies left by the main stream, anonymous to all but their families and friends. If it were not for Mitchell’s observations, they would never have been heard from and their stories would have died with their lives.

The effect of Mitchell’s essays is to widen one’s interior vision and to enlarge one’s imaginative conversations with the unfamiliar, and sometimes disquieting people, at the edges. One of my favorite novelists, John Gardner, once told me to look past the lights to those in the shadows, the people who clear the tables after us, who work late and rise early, who toil quietly with a stubborn endurance that somehow gets them through. “That’s where the stories are,” Gardner said, “at the periphery, among the invisible people.”

The Gospels are full of such people. They haunt Jesus at every turn, thrusting children toward him for healing and for blessing. When they hear he is at the lakeside, they rush out, whole families of them, to hang on his words until the day grows dark. They see him as their last hope. The woman with internal hemorrhages desperately throws herself forward, and on her hands and knees stretches for the hem of his caftan as he is elbowed and buffeted by the crowd. It is enough. Jesus turns, feeling energy flow from him, and blesses her. A Canaanite woman from Lebanon, a stranger who is not welcome in Galilee, spars wittily with Jesus, who rebuffs her at first. She throws herself at his feet, begging his help for her daughter who is possessed by a devil. He tries to put her off. My mission, he snaps, is to my own people, not yours. It isn’t right to take food out of our children’s mouths and throw it to the dogs—an insult in any language. She will not be deterred: “True, sir,” she comes back, “yet the dogs eat the scraps that fall from their masters’ table.” And Jesus, jarred into a larger vision of his mission, turns to her in amazement: “Woman, what faith you have! Be it as you wish.”

Jesus sees his people, lost and bumbling, sheep without a shepherd, and he loves them. He had friends among the Pharisees, the educated and the respected, but he gives his time and his life to the ones who can never pay him back. Given a hard choice between following the social norms or healing someone thought to be undeserving, Jesus breaks the rules—a life over convention—every time.

It is that way with Paul too. Sometimes he flows between social classes like liquid, but other times he plants his feet and batters away at walls and locked doors. No divisions, no polarizations, he says firmly. Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, everybody is equal, and everybody has a place in the new order. God’s grace is there for everybody; you have to opt out not to receive it.

To the community at Corinth Paul writes a startling message: Not many of you are wise by the world’s standards. You’re not powerful or to the manor born. You don’t have connections in high places. He finishes with a rhetorical flourish, “Mere nothings, to overthrow the existing order.” And what was the existing order? The cult of emperor worship in the largest empire the world has known. In some circles, those words could get you dead.

Is this self-justification? Making the best of an unfortunate situation? Or is it an acknowledgement that we don’t have to have achieved anything to be called of God? That in our weakness there is strength, and that our very need releases God’s sustaining power?

People of faith have reached a nexus point these days. We can admit our falterings and our weaknesses. We don’t have to bluster and boast and preen about who we know, what we’ve done, and how much we’ve got. There’s less pretense and more realism about what we lack and what we owe. This is all to the good. Humility, like love, covers a multitude of sins, and it invites us to learn freely.

When it comes to spiritual things, few of us are brilliant or even ahead of the curve. We’re lucky if we can navigate the curve without being shot off into the underbrush. Those of us who are lifers in Christianity are particularly susceptible to spiritual smugness. Self-righteousness abounds and a casual cruelty toward those in the shadows is accepted and even encouraged. Truth be told, a lot of us who call ourselves Christians don’t much like the world or the beings in it. We are the reverse of Lucy in Peanuts, who shouts, “I like humanity, it’s people I can’t stand!” Bent as we are to find the black hole at the heart of humanity, we fulfill our own prophecies by provoking the very response we fear in ourselves.

When I read the Bible stories these days, I try to imagine my way into their times and lives. It also helps to keep the holiness of these Scriptures in the room, but in the far corner. Too much reverence blinds us to our human bonds to these people, despite the intervening centuries and the friction of cultures. And we need imagination, lots of it, to create some air between us and our obsessive need for facts. We forget these are stories which holy men of God were inspired to write, but not transcribe.

Sometimes the indirect way comes closest to truth. I read Joseph Mitchell on the bums and whores and dock workers of old New York and I hear a voice of humor and compassion. I read Kurt Vonnegut and Saul Bellow, and in their wry and sometimes despairing narratives I sense a deep and abiding undercurrent of love and admiration for the human race. Seamus Heaney, W. H. Auden, R. S. Thomas, and George Herbert—in varying degrees, but with consistency, these poets fly the flag of hope for humanity.

These authors and others help us see beyond the ramparts of our self-righteousness. They invite us down from our battlements to walk with them, to join the human race and work alongside them. In their songs of human weakness and hope, they shame the wise and humble the arrogant. I hear the music of Jesus and Paul and John and Peter in their hymns.

Mere nothings, to overthrow the existing order.

  1. Mitchell, Joseph. Up in the Old Hotel. New York: Vintage Books, 2008, xi.

One Love

”By his grace and help therefore let us in spirit stand and gaze, eternally marveling at the supreme, surpassing, singleminded, incalculable love that God, who is goodness, has for us.” — Julian of Norwich

On the eighth of May, in the year of our Lord 1373—the third Sunday after Easter—a thirty year-old woman, known to us as Julian of Norwich, received sixteen “shewings” or revelations, which she later acknowledged were visions from God. Near the beginning of that month she had fallen to an illness, the nature of which was not known. After a week in which her condition worsened and she was thought to be dying, a parish priest was called to administer the last rites. At the conclusion, as he was leaving, he placed a crucifix before her and bid her look upon the face of her Savior for comfort. In the next hours, as she prepared herself for death, the showings were revealed to her in rapid succession.

The first fifteen came to her the morning after the visit of the priest, starting at four a.m. and finishing at nine. The last one, the sixteenth, occurred later that night, concluding and affirming the previous ones. Much to her surprise, and that of her family and friends, she recovered. The meaning of the visions occupied her for the remainder of her long life.

There resulted two written versions of the revelations, the first and shorter version inscribed soon after she recovered, and the longer version some twenty years later, the result of much meditation in the intervening years. Although the later, longer version may naturally contain some embellishment on the original visions, both are considered authentic by the Church. She called herself “an unlettered person,” a deprecatory statement that testifies to her humility, but is refuted by “the sheer integrity of Julian’s reasoning, the precision of her theology, the depth of her insight, and the simplicity with which she expounds profound truths.”1

So little is known of her life that what we learn of her character and background must be gleaned from the writings themselves. Based on allusions and hints in the text, biographers have tried to put together a plausible story that takes into account the context of her times.

In 1332, ten years before her birth, the bubonic plague—the Black Death—originated in India, making its way westward by 1347 to devastate Europe. Geoffrey Chaucer was born in 1340, two years before Julian, the same year that Queen’s College was founded at Oxford. In 1349 the Black Death arrived to kill off a third of the population of England. By 1350 Salisbury Cathedral was completed, and in 1352 Corpus Christi College, Oxford, was founded.

In 1361 the Black Death reappeared in England for the second time, devastating Julian’s home city of Norwich, this time striking down infants and small children. Julian would have been nineteen at the time. Her memories of the first plague during her childhood may have been diffuse but unforgettable. In the second wave she was nineteen, married and probably the mother of at least one child, a child who quite possibly was also one of the victims.

Although she does not mention specific personal losses in her writings, she does reflect on the travail and sadness she experienced. There was a time, she writes, “when I had a great longing and desire of God’s gift to be delivered of this world and of this life. For oft times I beheld the woe that is here and the wellness and blessed being that is there . . . This made me to mourn and earnestly to long—and also my own wretchedness and sloth and weariness—that I did not want to live and to travail as it fell to me to do.”2

Plagues and wars were regarded as God’s punishment in Julian’s time, although human sin was the weakness that brought on the devastation. A single sinner could bring down the wrath of heaven on a community. It is the state of our sufferings here that weighs upon her in her solitude. Like anyone else, the presence of evil and suffering seems to her disproportionate to our culpability.

Her biographers and translators (she wrote an early form of English that can be difficult to read) are quick to affirm that in matters theological she followed the Church’s teachings without question—with two important exceptions. She did not accept that God could be wrathful and she did not believe that humans were wholly evil. Augustine’s doctrine of original sin neither convinced her nor intimidated her. As for the wrath of God, she saw only love in all that God did.

Just as the whole of life is rooted and grounded in love, and just as we cannot even exist were it not for God’s love poured out on us, so Julian infers that it is impossible that God should be angry. “I could see no sort of anger in God, however long I looked,” she recounts. “Indeed, if God were to be angry but for a moment we could not live, endure, or be (Julian 138)!” The dread we feel when we sin is not from fear of God, but from our deep need for God’s forgiveness and grace to overcome our sense of separation. It is the fear of the runaway child who suddenly sees herself alone and longs for home and for her parents.

Various theories and conjectures have been put forward to explain her divergence on these matters. Insubordination does not factor here: she voluntarily submitted to the Church’s authority and teachings. Lack of knowledge? Hardly, since the doctrine of hellfire, purgatory, and eternal torment would have been part of every child’s upbringing in her time. One commentator suggests that despite the trauma of surviving two waves of the Black Death before she was twenty, she was the product of a loving, stable, and happy home. While Norwich was a consequential city, the fourth largest city in England at the time, she had been shielded from its ranker aspects and probably never traveled beyond its immediate countryside. Simply put, she had little continued exposure to the cruelties and vileness of human depravity. In her innocence she saw the beauty and worth of every person.

“There is a godly will in our higher part, which by its basic goodness never wills what is evil, but only what is good. This is the reason why he loves us, and why we can always do what pleases him,” she wrote (Julian 118).

In her work as an anchoress, a person who voluntarily withdraws from the larger world to pray for the world and to counsel others, she no doubt heard their woes, their pains, their grievances against others, and their spitefulness. But she steadfastly held the belief that there was a seed in every person—without exception—that was pure and undefiled and was the germination point for the Holy Spirit in that person’s life.

Yet, the very presence of evil and suffering troubled her. She returned to the subject time and again throughout the revelations. “Good Lord,” she writes, “how can everything be all right when such great hurt has come to your creatures through sin?” In an aside to her readers she confides, “I desired, as far as I dared, to have more information for my own peace of mind (Julian 106).”

The answer came to her in two parts. Of the first, concerning our salvation, there is no mystery. Everything we need to know, everything we are hungering to hear from God about forgiveness, grace, and love, is there for the taking. “In this our Lord intends us to be occupied: delighting in himself, as he delights in us (Julian 106).”

The other part may not satisfy us today, accustomed as we are to perceive mysteries as information we have not yet analyzed, collated, and distributed. “The other part is completely hidden from us,” she writes. “It is our Lord’s own private matter, and it is the royal prerogative of God to be undisturbed in that which is his own business (Julian 107).” If we really wanted to please God, she says, we would want only what is God’s will, and in this case it is God’s will that we should not know this just yet. In later passages she hints that the last great secret that God will reveal to his children will be how he has determined the final judgment.

Sin, Julian says, “has no substance or real existence. It can only be known by the pain it causes (Julian 104).” The pain passes quickly and works on us to purge us and make us self-aware; in that pain we turn to God for mercy. “Because of his tender love for all those who are to be saved our good Lord comforts us at once and sweetly, as if to say, ‘It is true that sin is the cause of all this pain; but it is all going to be all right; it is all going to be all right; everything is going to be all right (Julian 104).’ ”

The refrain that sings throughout the Revelations, from beginning to end, is that all will be well. We might think this to be a passing surge of emotion, but it remains at the core of her being after a lifetime of reflection on her extraordinary personal vision. She lived, as near as can be determined, well into her seventies, loved and admired by those drawn through need and circumstance into her circle, as acquainted with the sorrows and agonies of life as with the abiding assurance of God’s love.

***

Every once in awhile, perhaps when it is most needed, some person is lifted and held in the arms of God long enough that they return with God’s heartbeat pulsing through their veins. This has happened in diverse eras to reassure us that God has not left us orphaned. What catches our breath and quickens our spirits is that some of them return with gifts from that far country (as miraculously close as the light behind their eyes)—gifts of words and images that draw us up to God.

“With regard to the physical sight,” Julian states, “I have related what I have seen as truthfully as I can. For the words I have repeated them exactly as our Lord showed them me. About the spiritual sight I have already said a fair amount, but I can never describe it fully (Julian 191–2).”

What we can say runs behind what we can imagine. What we can imagine we can’t always say. Does our imagination outrun our language? Does our language constrict the limits of our imagination? Julian’s vision of God and of Jesus—she called him ‘Mother Jesus’—and of the Holy Spirit, transcended both her time and her Church.

The being of God is, in our present state, unknowable, but in the Word made flesh—in Jesus—we see all we need to know of God that we can bear. We sometimes turn away from this because we do not trust our experience. Julian herself at first could not believe her spiritual eyes: “On the very day that it happened, when the vision had passed, I—wretch that I am!—denied it, and said quite openly that I had raved (Julian 187).” But the Lord showed it all over again to her, in greater detail this time, and quietly said, “You know that was no raving that you saw today.” Take it, he said to her. Believe it, comfort yourself with it, live in it. “For his will is that we should continue to believe it to the end of our life, and remain in the fullness of this joy thereafter (Julian 188).”

All will be well.

  1. Julian of Norwich. Revelations of Divine Love. Translated into Modern English by Clifton Wolters. New York: Penguin Books, 1966, 29–30.
  2. Frykholm, Amy. Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2010, 24.

Our House

Photo: Pierre le Vaillant, Unsplash

”The kingdom of truth is consequently not the kingdom of some other world. It is the picture of what this world ought to be . . . It is not some realm of eternal perfection which has nothing to do with historical existence. It constantly impinges upon man’s every decision and is involved in every action.”1

For a good stretch of my younger reading life I was immersed in science fiction. It offered worlds that could only be imagined, thankfully, since most of them were ramped-up versions of this one, but several orders of magnitude more hideous. They were warning messages and the message was, if you think this is bad you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

They featured intergalactic battles, plagues scourging entire civilizations, aliens traveling thousands of light years to obliterate our planet out of sheer, arbitrary cussedness (“Of all the planets in all the solar systems in all the universe, TZoth, you had to pick this one”), and the occasional beneficent link between worlds.

The best of the hard science fiction built plausibility on a platform of physics; it was exhilarating to see where science could go when imagination pushed the status quo. For a layperson in science, these revelations came as a surprise and a preview of what might come to fruition.

There was heroism too, when the future of civilization and of the world itself belonged to the one whose grip forced the hand holding the death-ray down, down, and then, snap. Order restored; don’t screw it up again. Please.

I liked the stories best that played with questions about ultimate meaning, like whether humans really had anything to offer the universe or what it was that distinguished us from androids. After all, androids were faster, smarter, more efficient, impervious to physical maladies, and couldn’t lie. Humans, well, we are a mixed bag, to put it generously.

Often, the bright line of value between humans and androids was in the freedom we possessed that allowed us to color outside the lines. From that freedom arises beauty, creativity, and truth. But where there is freedom there is the potential for giddy mischief, sullen imperfection, and tragedy. The alternative, however, a sterile perfection of monochrome conformity, kills everything in its path. The grim truth that almost every utopian community has had to face is that coercion in the name of preserving freedom turns a eutopia (a ‘good place’) into a dystopia (a ‘place too awful to work’).

But what we lose in the process, we gain in the effects. Remember how Data on Star Trek achieved technical perfection on the violin, but lacked the feelings to wash the notes with pathos and hope? He knew what he was missing, but that wasn’t enough to grant him the emotional muscles that would move his fingers to draw out the beauty in a Hayden violin concerto.

The humans in some of these tales were clearly louts on the lam, who found their mettle in the midst of battle and survived to rise above their “fleshly nature,” as Paul might have put it. While most of them were wedded to a form of individualism more reflective of Gordon Gekko than Ralph Waldo Emerson, occasionally there would be a spiritual breakthrough, and one of them would admit to feeling in the presence of a vast and lonely Force, while gazing moodily out a porthole en route to another military assignment. Their virtues were often exercised in the face of a tragic decision to die fighting for the lives of the innocent victims of the corrupt corporations that had hired them to preserve their power.

In one of the book series, intrepid human explorers journeyed light years away to an uninhabited world to establish an outpost, a way-station for further exploration. They had hijacked a small fleet of interstellar transport vehicles and had escaped Earth because of mounting anarchy around the globe, climate change run amok, and an America ruled by right-wing authoritarians. The chance to start from scratch, to build a world that had learned from history and would not repeat its mistakes, was the lure that drew this diverse band of artists, engineers, mathematicians, policy wonks, historians, and community organizers.

This was Sim-World on a grand scale, with all the complexity and diversity that one could imagine, now put to good use with attention and intention. This is Creation, Day One, with a chance to reverse-engineer all our present social conundrums back to their original lines of code and rewrite them. It is tempting to think that we could do better this time around because we’re starting out with knowledge of past mistakes and the technology and will to invent the future.

In such a society, historians would be venerated for their interpretive abilities, while scientists would be honored for their adherence to the facts. The poets and artists would portray the acts of the imagination that would cast light on the darkness of unknown futures. Prophets and priests need not apply, since we were intimately acquainted with the neural transmitters that boosted our endorphins or inhibited our guilt.

Yet, one theme that was often present, even at a faint decibel level, was the love for this Earth, this ‘dear, old, warm Earth, as comforting as a grandmother.’ I remember one novel, the title and author of which is lost to me now, that was the story of the literal breakup of the Earth as the result of electro-magnetic forces deep within the core that had gone haywire.

The central figure was a young scientist who had first stumbled upon the clues to this disaster and worked together with an international team to alert the world. The last third of the book follows those who are preparing for the end. Our young man drives from San Francisco to Yosemite and climbs Half Dome to witness the dawn of the last day on Earth. He knows the hour the cataclysm will arrive; he wants to be in a place where he can face the wave that is coming with stoic courage. But as he waits in the semi-darkness, feeling the first tremors around him, he hears the wafting of wings overhead as a flock of birds rushes up from the valley. He takes in the fragrance of the pines, feels the coolness of the stone beneath him, and he begins to weep, not from fear—he’s beyond that—but for the love of the body of the Earth which will be no more.

***

Ask anyone to describe Heaven and they might facetiously give you the clouds, the harps, and the pearly gates. But if they reflect for a moment—and set aside their skepticism—they’ll probably imagine something infinitely better than the most beautiful place they already know. Our heavens are linear extensions of this Earth. Once you trim off the silliness of caricature you realize that there are as many versions of Heaven as there are people to imagine them. And that alone should preclude any obstinate certainty about its dimensions.

We do get a glimpse at the most famous scenario of them all in the Book of Revelation. There John describes a city with streets of gold, gates of pearl, and walls of jasper and other precious stones—a vision, if taken literally, that would nicely fit the garish tastes of a Las Vegas casino magnate. My own desires run to a kind of Hobbiton, each of us with our own cosy burrow built into the side of a hill, overlooking a verdant valley, with a backdrop of mountains from the Canadian Rockies.

No matter. What John gave us was what he saw through the lens of his experience, married to his greatest hopes. For him, it was the most beautiful city he could imagine, clean, sparkling, bathed in light, with no dark, dank corners and no terrors. There would be no night there for God is there and the darkness will never overcome the light that has come into the world.

The story, which we are free to believe, is that God will come to live among the people. However it appears to those whose eyes are opened, what everyone will see is “Immanuel,” God with us. Where Jesus is, there is God, and where God is there is love. And the measure of that love is that God moves into our house with us, this sweet old Earth made new. And how fitting, somehow, that ecology, the study of the relationships between all organisms, is derived from the Greek word oikos, which simply means “house.”

  1. Niebuhr, Beyond Tragedy, 277.

Glory Days

Paul is perhaps the greatest poet of personal religion . . . The first romantic poet in history.”1

Photo: Marius Christiansen, Unsplash

Those who set out to write The Great American Novel after Huckleberry Finn are doomed to failure, although the attempt has produced works worthy of admiration, and inevitably, emulation. Did Twain know he was writing literature that would not only have a shelf-life beyond his own mortality, but would stand as a story that continues to delight and enrage people to the present day? Did the artist known as Homer grasp that his Iliad and Odyssey would become the templates for war novels, road trip movies, and epics of war heroes returning home in disguise? Probably not, although in Dante’s case he was pretty matter of fact that his Divine Commedia was destined for greatness, and within his lifetime it was proven so.

We make our judgments about what is good-better-best when we have more than one thing to compare. We rely on our experience and, probably more than we should, on what experts tell us. We know what we like to read, what moves us and fills our heads with strange and huge ideas.

But when it comes to the Bible, particularly the New Testament, we rarely think of the beauty of the writing. We’re concerned for the authenticity of the voice and the orthodoxy of the theology. The irony is that none of the writers of the New Testament thought of themselves as theologians. They wrote what they saw and imagined and recalled within their communities as they were moved by the Spirit of God. That any of their narratives came together in the first place, particularly the Gospels, seems like something of a miracle in itself.

When we realize that post-resurrection believers of the Way, who lived and worked and worshipped together weekly, exchanging stories of ‘the Christ,” did so without any of the written texts that we know as the Gospels—did so for some forty years, an entire generation—it should give us pause as we dust off that paperback version of the New Testament which can be had for the price of a latte.

Editions of the Bible, niche-marketed more heavily than any other book in the world, may strike us as opportunistic (a “Souldiers Bible,” a Protestant version, was carried by Oliver Cromwell’s troops), the goal of Bible publishers being to spread the Word by any means necessary. Annual sales of the Bible top $425 million, with over 80,000 versions loose in the world today (Brandon Gaille.com). Zondervan alone has over 350 versions of the Bible in print, and in any given year over 20 million Bibles are sold in the United States. The average Christian owns at least nine versions of the Bible, nevertheless twelve percent of American Christians think that Noah was married to Joan of Arc.2

Thus, we idealize the Biblical authors in such ways that we don’t see them having a life apart from their writings. Amos is “among the shepherds of Tekoa” when he is gripped by God to prophesy. We don’t know how he felt about this disruption to his life. Given that the message he carried was of woe and darkness, it couldn’t have given him much comfort or ease among those with ears to hear. Was he a shepherd himself? We assume so, but we don’t know. Did he go back to sheepherding after his prophecies thundered out?

Maybe they came in spurts as he meditated on the hills with his flocks. Maybe he carried them in his head until such time as he could write them down—and how remarkable that he was literate. Did he exult at the excoriations of Israel’s neighbors and tremble at the judgements on Judah and Israel for their triple transgressions? When he was bashing the rich and indolent women of Bashan for their vanity and cruelty, did he imagine that thousands of years later we would read of them dragged out through their breached city walls by fishhooks through their noses and cheeks?

Isaiah—and then Second Isaiah and probably a Third Isaiah—are years apart as authors, their writings spliced by anonymous editors into some of the most beautiful, heartbreaking, jaw-dropping poems of grief, exultation, and glory in the Western canon. As Robert Alter notes in his magnum opus, the translation of The Hebrew Bible, “It is above all the vehicle of poetry in all these prophets that demands close attention . . . and it is perfectly fitting that God should address Israel not in prose, which is closer to the language of everyday human intercourse, but in the elevated and impressive diction of poetry.”3 Were they writing for the ages or for their own time?

We want to know their motivation for writing, the methods they used, whether the writing itself was a burden or a joy or something they saw as a holy duty. In contrast to the best-selling authors of our time, they functioned as conduits instead of celebrities in their own right. We infer their temperament and purpose from the broad strokes of their writings.

The author of Mark writes a hasty, breathless, and down-home form of Greek. It is a compressed narrative that Matthew and Luke expand, revise, and extend. Matthew’s constant citing of Hebrew prophecies and laws reveals Jesus as the fulfillment of centuries-old hopes. Luke begins his gospel with a personal salutation, but then drops into the background and stays there, even through his sequel in Acts, appearing obliquely as the companion of Paul. John offers some tantalizing hints about himself as “the disciple Jesus loved” and “this is the disciple who is testifying,” and then finally, in the last verse, emerges onto the stage himself to say, “I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” about his best friend.

But it is in Paul’s letters—all of them written in a fairly short span between the middle fifties and sixties before his execution, probably in CE 64—that we get a sense of a Biblical author in some detail. He can be, and probably was, an infuriating person. He certainly provoked enough animosity to be beaten, threatened by mobs, chased out of towns, and forced to flee for his life more than once.

That he was an extraordinary person is beyond question. Fluent in several languages, he was fueled from a passionate core that took him from being one zealous for God to the point of having a license to hunt down the people of the Way, to one equally zealous in the service of the risen Christ. The man who could roundly curse his opponents in Galatia by calling them “dogs” could also write a panegyric on love in First Corinthians 13 that has never been equalled.

There is no disputing that what we know as Christianity owes its existence in large measure to this indefatigable little man, small enough to be lowered in a basket over a city wall, who traveled thousands of miles, usually on foot, for some thirty years, establishing small communities of believers in cities throughout Asia Minor.

He remained a faithful Jew all his life, but one who had his spiritual and intellectual axis violently recalibrated by a vision of the risen Christ. For him, this crucified Jesus had breached the defenses of the principalities and powers of this dark world, and had brought heaven and earth together. God, through Jesus, had bridged the abyss between divine and human, reconciling the world to himself, and it was Paul’s honor to carry that message and to suffer with Christ.

There are few people like Paul. He was relentless in his purpose, unwearying in his efforts to build communities of people who would cease to live for themselves and instead be the hands of God in the world. Confident to a fault, he could yet call himself “chief among sinners,” and in his lowest moments wonder if he had wasted his life for no purpose.

In his second letter to the Corinthians he confides that “we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself (2 Cor. 1:8).” While God had rescued him from that peril, in the letter to the Philippians written from prison in Ephesus, he writes a poem about Jesus that could only have come from a man who had had time to explore doubt, fear, and the sure prospect of a violent death. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” he pleads, tracing the self-emptying of Christ who “became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5,8).”

Paul encourages his friends—and we may count ourselves in that select group—to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12,13).”

He never loses hope, not that he will escape suffering and eventual death, but that he will soon see Christ Jesus face to face and he will “know as he is known.”

This complex, irascible, brilliant man, who can thread the needle of the closest arguments, and yet pour out his heart unreservedly to whoever is drawn into his orbit, probably had personal contact with fewer than a thousand people in his lifetime who would, in time, be referred to as “Christians.” In the letters he wrote, letters that both dealt with the common frictions of diverse people living together and yet revealed the most glorious secrets of the living God, we find the preparation for the Gospels themselves, and the most compelling example of other people’s mail changing the world.

  1. A. N. Wilson, Paul: The Mind of the Apostle, 220, 221.
  2. Brandongaille.com
  3. Alter, Robert. The Hebrew Bible: Prophets, 618.