Spiritual Audacity: Abraham Heschel’s Prophetic Role

In Martin Doblmeir’s new documentary, Spiritual Audacity: The Abraham Joshua Heschel Story, Heschel emerges not only as the foremost interpreter of the Hebrew prophets in the twentieth century, but also as a prophet himself. With his cloud of white hair, his expressive eyes, and his rabbinic beard, he looks every inch a latter-day Micah bearing witness to walking humbly with justice in one hand and mercy in the other.

“Remember, in a free society some are guilty but all are responsible.” Heschel’s ringing words plunge us into the tumult of the civil rights struggle of the 60s, the protests against the Vietnam War, and the turnabout toward the Jews by the Catholic Church during Vatican II. Heschel plays a leading role in all three of these history-making social movements.

Doblmeir’s documentary approach surfaces the formation, the passion, and the legacy of his subjects. We learn about Heschel’s birth in Warsaw, Poland in 1907, his family’s long lineage of distinguished rabbis, his move to the University of Berlin at twenty to study philosophy in 1927, and his deportation in 1938 at the hands of the Nazis. Although the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati brings him to America to teach in 1940, he is forced to leave his mother and his three sisters behind. They are exterminated in the Holocaust.

In 1945 Heschel leaves Hebrew Union College to join the faculty of the conservative Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. He remains there for the rest of his career, even as his influence begins to extend far beyond the campus and the scholarly world.

In March of 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr., invites Heschel to march with him in Selma, Alabama. Many of the Black pastors in the movement had read The Prophets — King’s copy was underlined and annotated throughout — and as Andrew Young says, “He was the authority on the prophets. But on this occasion, he was the prophet.”

Footage of the march shows Heschel on the front line with King, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, and John Lewis, his white hair and beard flowing. Despite the misgivings of local rabbis, Heschel marches in solidarity with hundreds of others, ready to face the brutality of the police.

His passion is to explore the nature of God’s deep compassion for humans and the extent to which God is willing to partner with us for the cause of justice. For the prophets, says Heschel, injustice toward one person is injustice to everyone, a message that resonates deeply in the Black community.

Heschel’s growing influence thrusts him into another controversy — the attempts within Vatican II to create a rapprochement with the Jews after centuries of hostility. When a conservative faction within the Vatican calls for the conversion of the Jews, Heschel is incensed. “They must understand,” he argues, “that I am willing to die for my faith.”

In an arc that entwines with that of Martin Luther King, Heschel grows increasingly critical of the war in Vietnam. “My father was not a pacifist,” says Susannah Heschel. “And he was not a communist sympathizer, by any means. But killing civilians — that was unacceptable.” Heschel asks, “How can I pray, knowing that I am co-responsible for the death of innocent people in Vietnam?”

In April 1967, at the Riverside Church in New York City, Martin Luther King, at Heschel’s urging, makes a major statement against the war — and is roundly denounced by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other influential news sources. In an address following King’s speech that Sunday, Heschel adds his own voice to the growing critique of the war by major religious figures. Susannah Heschel comments that “My father wouldn’t be quiet. No one could silence him.”

His final cause is to speak out for the Jews in Soviet Russia. Despite suffering a heart attack in 1969 that keeps him in the hospital for three months, Heschel is tireless in advocating for Soviet Jewry. It is exhausting. On a Friday night in December 1972, at the age of sixty-five, Heschel dies at home. “To die in your sleep,” says Susannah Heschel, “especially on the Sabbath, is a kiss from God.”

As an introduction to Abraham Joshua Heschel, Spiritual Audacity is an inspiring and enjoyable guide. In just fifty-seven minutes, Martin Doblmeir’s sensitive eye vividly portrays Heschel’s Hasidic roots, his remarkable career, and most of all, his moral witness. Paintings by Marc Chagall woven into the narrative add to the visual beauty of the film.

Those familiar with Heschel’s written works — The Prophets, God in Search of Man, The Sabbath, Man is Not Alone, and Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, will appreciate seeing and hearing this passionate twentieth-century prophet, a witness for the awe and wonder that is faith in the living God.

Martin Doblmeir’s documentary work includes films on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Reinhold Niebuhr, Howard Thurman, Dorothy Day and — familiar to readers of Spectrum — The Adventists, an award-winning film that portrays Adventists as some of the healthiest people on the planet.

Three Prose Poems in Winter

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Don’t Look

God accepts Jacob and rejects Esau. Before that, God accepts Abel and rejects Cain. Later, God hardens the heart of Pharaoh. Clay in the hands of God. If this seems unfair, even arbitrary, consider the scale. God is in heaven and thou art upon the earth. The pot fighting the potter. Creature talking back to Creator. If unchecked, the pot will be calling the kettle black. Pharaoh drowsing in the afternoon. The royal fan-waver, swatting away flies, leaves at the end of his shift. Pharaoh stirs but does not open his eyes. The flies buzz. He jerks awake, sits up, then roars. “Where is my fly swatter?” “Shift-change, your Highness,” says the stenographer. He grips his stylus nervously. “Find him,” shouts the Pharaoh to his aides. “And you! Take this down.” “Your Highness,” says the stenographer, bowing. “Cancel the executive order releasing the Hebrews! Get me Moses! Cut their rations. Increase the work. And where’s my fly-swatter?” Roaring. Fuming. Furious, his heart hardening. Sometimes it’s the little things that tip you over the edge. Still, the God of Jacob and Esau is One. “This heart is hard,” God muses. “I like a challenge.”

Causing a Ruckus

Acts 5:17-42

The disciples are preaching, causing a ruckus in Jerusalem. They are arrested and jailed. The night before their trial they are mysteriously sprung from jail and in the morning, before breakfast, they are already down in the temple. Gamaliel counsels restraint. He tells of people who rose up in revolt. They were all killed; their movements came to nothing. If these people are anything like the others, he says, they won’t succeed. But if they are of God you won’t be able to stop them. Fair enough, says the Sanhedrin. We’ll let them off with a flogging. Stop preaching and teaching, they say to the disciples. But after they are flogged they go right out and carry on teaching. How do you stop people like that? What do you count as success? And when do you decide that enough is enough? The jail break should have been a tip-off. Mischief-makers. Good-news-mongers. Occasionally quiet, mostly when alone.

Eight Statements About the Heart

  1. The heart is a little larger than a fist and pumps about 2,000 gallons of blood and beats about 100,000 times a day. These are facts.
  2. “Be still my heart,” is an expression often used in a lighthearted, often ironic way, to convey an emotion that surprises a person. It is not to be taken literally.
  3. “The heart is a lonely hunter.” The title of a novel by author Carson McCullers. A phrase sometimes used in songs and poems to evoke sympathy for those persons whose search for love is doomed.
  4. “Bleeding-heart liberals.” An epithet thrown at people whose compassion, it is alleged, has blinded them to the reality of competition for scarce resources.
  5. “The heart is deceitful above all things. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) Most of one’s life is spent recovering from this.
  6. “Don’t go breaking my heart.” From a song by pop star Elton John. A plea (see #5).
  7. “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” (Prov. 4:23) Advice from a sage establishing first principles for living.
  8. “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (Jn 14:27) May be used as a mantra and a prayer. Originated with a person exceptionally experienced in facing fear. Can be combined with his parting gift of peace.

For Love’s Sake Set Us Free

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The Lord’s true love is surely not spent, nor has his compassion failed; they are new every morning . . .”1

I had not spent much time in the Book of Lamentations. Until now, I had not needed it. I went looking there, however, because I was lamenting. I was lamenting the sacking of the Capitol of the United States by a mob, set aflame by an embittered and delusional man.

Astonishment, horror, and anger were the appropriate reactions to the images of violence we saw as the crowd dragged Capitol police down the steps, hacked their way into the building, and triumphantly paraded Confederate flags through the Rotunda.

The next day, still absorbed in the images burned into my memory, I found myself with another reaction. This day—January 6, 2021—I will always remember, like the day John F. Kennedy was shot, the day Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot, the day Bobby Kennedy was shot, and the day the Twin Towers fell.

It was a day that scrambled cheap declarations and shredded the buffer between the world and me. It called for more than anger and sorrow. It called for lamentation for the nation.

American civic religion reaches back for the traditions and history, the rituals and symbolism, that are the blood of religions everywhere. A man lays down a line of words, strikes one out and replaces it, broods over it, sighs, dips a quill in ink. And words are cast in bronze, a plaque is bolted to the wall and ten thousand fingertips burnish it to a high gloss: “We hold these truths to be self-evident . . .” Such confidence! Such faith that words can undo centuries of cruelty to inspire a gut-level dedication to a beautiful abstraction.

“We the people,” a prayer that is breathed to heal the masses, cast out demons, and calm the restless heart. It’s a phrase that topples thrones and elevates the common person. It is meant to be taken seriously. But not literally.

The mob took it literally. The ones surging into the building could be heard shouting, “This is our house!” as they flooded the hallways hunting down legislators. But they did not recognize that the temple is holy ground and those who would enter it must do so reverently. The fabric separating the sacred from the profane is easily torn. Its tensile strength is only as strong as the trust invested in those who serve in its precincts. For the mob, what trust there was had long since corroded to a permanent fury.

If losing an election is a political death, then it was a death that Trump’s followers could not accept. Elias Canetti writes in Crowds and Power of the leader whose “death is not recognized by the mourners. They want him alive again.”2 The hunting pack sees the death of its leader as profoundly unjust: it simply should not have happened. In lamenting his death, they see themselves as the persecuted. “It is always the enemy who started it,” writes Canetti. “The wish to see death is everywhere and one does not have to go deep into men to bring it to light.”3

As Christians, we look first to the Scriptures to speak to us in our circumstances. Most of us are closer to the Psalms than to Lamentations. Because they have been woven into the liturgies of the Church from the beginning, we turn to them instinctively when we are in mourning. They act for us as telescopes to see back into the past and forward to where we could go in faith.

The life of the Psalms is uncovered in a plunge from a settled orientation to a chaotic disorientation, says Walter Brueggemann. It may be from changed circumstances, but it is more likely to arise from a personal awareness that our grasp on the world is slipping. Everything solid seems like ropes of sand. The dismantling of the world around us convulses us in rage, resentment, fear, guilt, shame, and hostility. The situation may be solitary in introspection or massively public. This is the context of so many of the Psalms of complaint and lament.

We’re good at denial, of course. “It is a curious fact,” Bruggemann notes, “that the church has, by and large, continued to sing songs of orientation in a world increasingly experienced as disoriented.”4

Maybe we feel we are letting God down if we don’t put on a happy face. Or maybe our pride will not admit to confusion and anger. “The reason for such relentless affirmations of orientation,” continues Brueggemann, “seems to come, not from faith, but from the wishful optimism of our culture.”5

The writers of the Psalms don’t have any such qualms. “Thou hast exposed us to the taunts of our neighbors,” says Psalms 44. “Thou hast given us up to be butchered like sheep . . . my disgrace confronts me all day long, and I am covered in shame.”

As a nation, we don’t always live up to the high standards we expect and demand from other countries. The storming of the Capitol before the eyes of the world calls for lamentation. The lies that have been perpetuated about a stolen election call for lamentation. The lies about the dangerous reality of Covid-19 call for lamentation. Lamentation—and the clarity of truth.

The Psalms give us the right to lament, to take our complaints or our shame directly to God. For Christians who have aligned themselves with the Trumpian juggernaut all these years, the Psalms of lament and repentance can be their way back to reality and true faith. For those who refused allegiance, the Psalms provide a path of humility. Self-righteousness is almost as dangerous as delusion.

We are close to Jesus in the Psalms, the song book through which he prayed and sang his way along his Way. Brueggemann nudges us from disorientation to a new orientation which promises a new life from the chaos, to set our feet upon solid ground after being pulled from the pit. It is not inevitable, but it is assured to those who cry out for it, who determine with heart and mind to be on the Way with Jesus.

Even Lamentations — five chapters of grisly images of rape, slaughter, and slavery — contains a middle passage that gleams like a jewel. It speaks of patience in the midst of distress because “the Lord’s true love is surely not spent, nor has his compassion failed.” The writer turns to us and, with a shrug of charming self-effacement, concludes: “The Lord, I say, is all that I have; therefore, I will wait for him patiently. The Lord is good to those who look for him . . .”6

  1. Lamentations 3:22, New English Bible
  2. Canetti, Elias. Crowds and Power. Translated from the German by Carol Stewart. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1960, p. 144.
  3. Canetti, p. 73.
  4. Brueggemann, Walter. The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984, p. 51.
  5. Brueggemann, p. 51
  6. Lamentations 3:22,24, NEB.

Memory and Fear and Great Joy

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“But the angel said, ‘Do not be afraid; I have good news for you: there is great joy coming to the whole people.”1

Who knows what angels look like? In my imagination they are twenty feet tall, as solid as brass, beautiful enough to cause awe. The wings are an afterthought, purely symbolic, a nice touch to disguise the fact that an angel can materialize next to you without a sound, every feather in place. They don’t travel — they appear.

In the gospels, angels create fear in people, but they don’t mean to. We know this because the first thing the angel says in the Gospel of Luke is,“Be not afraid.” The angel says this to everyone it visits: to Joseph, to Zechariah, to the shepherds, and of course to Mary.

Unintentional fear. It would charge the space between angel and human like an electric grid. It would block the angel’s greeting before it could be uttered. The angel would begin, a half-smile on its face. Then raise a hand in sympathy. Do not be afraid, it would say. Please. I have good news. There is great joy coming for the whole people.

Can we command someone not to be afraid? Fear always has an object, fixed at a point in time, a location that can be, must be, triangulated urgently. A person is afraid of snakes or bombs or the ocean. Only rarely are we afraid of fear and then only because we’re afraid to name its shape. Or we whistle in the dark, saying, “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself.”

We remember what we fear, but more to the point, we fear what we remember. Simple then: just forget.

Yet, what rings in my head on my predawn walks in this winter of our discontent are verses from Psalm 137:

“How could we sing the Lord’s song

in a foreign land?

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,

let my right hand wither away;

let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth

if I do not remember you,

if I do not set Jerusalem

above my highest joy.” (Ps 137:4-6 NEB)

There is much about the year 2020 that I would like to forget, but the things I would like to forget have been the fears of many this past year. They will be remembered as a way to honor those who suffered them. I will remember them as wildfires in our sojourn through this alien land.

Children in cages. An administration contemptuous of science. A constant assault on democratic ideals and constitutional requirements. The destruction of truth. Lying as a form of discourse. The continued grinding down of the human dignity of people of color, of women. Needless deaths in the thousands; individual deaths without justice. A fascination with the bizarre. The cult of a false messiah. A form of Christianity that embraces ruthless power and nationalism.

The stone in our shoe is how much remembrance of the past will shape our future. How much should we remember? Do we carry these filthy rags with us? Do we forget our losses and press ahead or should there be an accounting before we move on?

The past is nailed to memory, the future is susceptible to fear — but no less open to hope. If that is so, should the last four years be stripped off and tossed to one side like a dirty garment? If remembering is a form of knowing, what have we learned?

While we cannot change the past, the future is open but costly, agonizingly bought at the price of lives. Yet, knowledge is not all that is needed to create a future. Surely there must be wisdom entwined with passion. How shall we remember Zion? How shall we sing the Lord’s song?

Because of Advent, because of the Incarnation, at the brink of a new year we are invited to “be not afraid.” Afraid of Covid and its insidious reach. Afraid of sudden unemployment, eviction, illness without adequate medical coverage. Or any coverage at all.

Fear of crowds, fear of other people, fear of isolation and loneliness. Fear of desertion.

Fear for the millions who are sick, dying, or working to keep others from dying. Fear for the children whose meals are as uncertain as where they will sleep tonight. Fear for the asylum seeker, locked in her detention cell, waiting for Covid without medical help.

Fear of those who are callous, indifferent, and powerful enough to spin your life into an abyss you’ll never get out of. Fear for this country: caught in traps of its own making, gnawing its own flesh, struggling to tear itself free.

“Be not afraid,” says the angel. “I bring good news, and great joy for all the people.” We are those people, some of the many. What the angel announces is a new source of joy. It is no longer tied to a place, as holy as Jerusalem and the temple was, but to a person, an experience, and a community. It becomes portable, carried within us and shared with each other.

It is a joy as quiet as it is enduring. It is an undercurrent, rather than a ripple across the surface. It survives drought and flood, rising as blessing in the midst of adversity. Though it pierced the heart of Mary it topped up the heart of Simeon, an old man who could die joyfully, having lived to see the promised One. At times, through tears, it causes us to cry, ‘How long, O Lord?’ At other times we walk in silence.

“It is the ineffable from which we draw the taste of the sacred, the joy of the imperishable,” said Abraham Heschel.2 It draws us to the beating heart of the Spirit through whom we are brought near, no longer strangers clutching our alien gods.

  1. Luke 2:10 NEB.
  2. Heschel, Abraham Joshua. Man is Not Alone. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951, p. 9.

2020 in the Rearview Mirror

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Well, we made it. Most of us. God be with those of us who were left by others before their time. Today was a gray, indeterminate, indecisive day for the end of year, especially for the end of this year. I suppose I was needing a bright, cold, wind-swept day with clearly defined corners and color. A day that would sit down early and recall with humor and insight the past year.

Instead, I was thrown back to reflect on my own time. This year I admitted to myself that I am a glass-half-empty sort of person. I don’t know if that’s a permanent condition or a consequence of squinting at the world for most of the year. I found my default attitude to be one of melancholy, sometimes anger, and it was with effort that I took my stance toward life, the universe, and everything. I suspect I am not alone in this.

I was deeply affected by the violent deaths this year of so many: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others. Thanks to the patient but insistent guidance of dear friends Colleen Pierre-Louis, Rosalind Morgan Upshaw, Camille Lofters, and Laci McDermott, I found my voice. Much more to the point came the imperative to listen well and long to the Black experience in our time.

The evangelicals who supported President Trump stopped me in my tracks. It felt like a betrayal. While I admit to being dumbfounded by them, they forced me to reexamine my own views on the relation of personal faith to issues in the public square. This has pushed me to find a way between blinkered certainty and shapeless avoidance of controversy. All I can do is to speak from my limited perspective and act on what I am learning. My faith is an ongoing experiment.

Thankfully, Joy and I are well so far and have even managed to increase our walking time. Some months ago my Fitbit informed me that since January I had walked the length of Italy. By now I may have crossed the Alps into France.

This year has been a fire-hose of outrage and injustice. It’ll go down as the year our children tell their grandchildren about. So much heartache, yet so much courage, quiet heroism, solid friendship, and beauty.

There’s a new year ahead—fresh, young, with all its bits in place and all of them working. Hope abounds, if we are willing. Love casts out fear.

Thank you, friends, for your companionship. Onward and upward!

Love’s Body, Love’s Spirit

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“Among men, who knows what a man is but the man’s own spirit within him? In the same way, only the Spirit of God knows what God is.” — 1 Cor 2:11 NEB

For several weeks in the long, dark, waiting room of this election year, I immersed myself in the British television drama, “Call the Midwife.” Obsessed as I was with the campaign season, impatient to reach the due date of November 4, apprehensive of the rough beasts slouching toward Bethlehem, I found some solace in the wonder and awe of childbirth as practiced in the East End of London in the 1950s.

The sisters and the nurses of Nonnatus House carry out their mission with good humor and courage. Always on call, they swoop down the narrow streets on their bicycles at all hours, clutching their birthing kits to them and dashing up narrow stairs to bedrooms reeking of sweat and pain.

The fathers pace outside. If they are young and it’s their first child, they run their hands through their hair and chain-smoke. If they already have five or six, they leave it to the midwives and await the news down at the pub.

Every episode ushers several babies into the world. The mothers are vulnerable and young, brimming with hope and terrified. The older women, the ones who have been through this too many times, bear down grimly. For them, the awe and mystery are long gone. They’re pacing themselves to go through the wall ahead while they’ve still got breath to scream. But all of them, mothers and midwives, rejoice when the babies are born, bloody, squalling, and beautiful.

It’s entirely natural to gape in astonishment at these creatures. When my son was born, he emerged gray and slick; in that moment I knew he was dead. But then in seconds—hours, it seemed—his robust cry transfixed me. He blossomed pink, then red. Then Love crashed in, a tsunami of feeling that narrowed my vision to a single point. Reason, control, diffidence — all was dwarfed by this mighty rock of love, solid and sudden, in my soul’s desert.

I had not known what to feel or how. Through circumstances and geography I had been raised as an only child by my grandparents. While I certainly did not want for love and all my needs were cared for, the absence of my father left me with an inner coldness that I feared. I had marked this day with dread and hope. Dread, because I did not feel capable of loving a child in the way he or she deserved. And hope, foolish or not, that I might somehow be saved through this experience.

It wasn’t that I was socially withdrawn or reclusive. I had friends, good friends, the kind that were as close as brothers or sisters, but without the competition for affection or the resentment that sometimes results from one’s birth order. It was rather that I had a stillness within, an impassivity as of a house intact but abandoned. It felt as if I had walled something up inside myself, as much to protect something within as to keep some unnamed terror without.

Years later, through a counselor, I was given a clue to a possible cause. He recommended John Bowlby’s book, Separation, which reported the effects on children who were sent to homes in the countryside from London and other cities to escape the nightly bombings during the Second World War. When finally, they were returned to their mothers after a long absence, they often refused any contact and turned away, silent and despairing. Bowlby believed that problems in the adulthood of these children could be traced back to this early separation.

My mother left when I was nine months old. My father, now alone, desperately needed to give me a stable home, so a succession of friends cared for me until his parents took me in when I was three. I don’t know if this explains my reticence entirely. We are woven of many strands, not all of them identifiable and no one of them strong enough to account for who we are. We make it up as we go and later, if we’re fortunate, we may see there was a pattern to our steps.

I grew up, blessed in ways I only later acknowledged. It was always the case that I would go to college; that was never in doubt. It was expected that I would work for the church in some capacity, either as a pastor, a writer, or as a teacher. It was assumed I would have a personal relationship with Christ, the inevitable outcome of the sermons I’d heard, the Bible classes I’d attended, the religious instruction I’d received for baptism.

It was taken for granted that I would fall in love. Which I did, several times, hardly knowing more than how desperately I wanted to give love, yet feeling how little I had to offer.

***

In the Advent season we live in expectation of change. We live in hope. We are pregnant with it. However else we may imagine God throughout the year, this is the time we think of God as an infant. God, born “on a Christmas morning.” God, whose coming as a baby transforms the world, one possibility at a time.

We call it the Incarnation, when Spirit becomes flesh, and we build a creche to house the Baby Jesus. We spot the birth of the Lord in a stable out behind an inn, nestled among the patient donkey, the lowing cattle, a rooster or two and a dog.

As an historical event, we know very little about his birth really. It was probably in 4 C.E., most likely at Nazareth, a backwater town in a province of the Empire notable mostly for its volatile populace and its strange apocalyptic urges. His birth was foretold, as later writers believed. It was somehow written in the stars, as some Persian astrologers divined. It was a threat to the local ruler’s corrupt regime, and it was the trigger to the massacre of male babies under the age of two within a precinct.

The birth itself was unremarkable, similar to the millions before it and the billions that would follow. There was pain and blood and relief and joy. But what makes God so perfectly real, so thoroughly human, so ultimately thisworldly, such that we are drawn near year after year, is that in some mysterious way this infant is the embodiment of the Divine.

In the epigram, Paul says we know ourselves as God is self-known. If that seems a stretch, the possibility of Christmas is that the Incarnation brings us in love to the Christ-child, mirrored now in every vulnerable birth of every baby born, and in so doing, as Paul says, we come to “possess the mind of Christ” and thus to know ourselves as we are known by God (1 Cor 2: 16 NEB).

Barbara Brown Taylor is Far From Home

What do we look for in a sermon? Wit? Inspiration? A profound dive into Scripture? A drawing in and drawing together of the people of faith? As her readers know, these are some of the marks of Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermons.

Always a Guest: Speaking of Faith Far From Home, is her latest collection, sermons preached after leaving parish ministry “twenty years earlier than expected.”1 As a guest preacher far from home, she packs lightly, only “a sacred text, a trust in the Spirit, an experience of being human, and the desire to bear good news.”2

The earliest sermon in this collection is from 2006, the latest is January, 2020. Most of them were preached up and down the East Coast from Chautauqua, New York, to Florida, with several in her home state of Georgia. Others were farther afield: Winchester Cathedral in England, along with pulpits in Ontario, Minneapolis, and Portland. Although she is booked two years in advance, many of her sermons appear on YouTube.

Always joins a list of fifteen books that reaches back to 1986 with Mixed Blessings, her first, and includes such New York Timesbestsellers as Leaving Church, An Altar in the World, and Holy Envy. BBT (as her readers call her) is an ordained Episcopal priest, professor, theologian, and author, who Time Magazine named to its annual list of Most Influential People (2014), and who was named by Baylor University in 2018 as one of the world’s twelve most effective preachers.

British priest and author, Mark Oakley, writes that, “The preacher begins by declaring war on cliche and then conscripts words and images that resist the quick clarity of relevance in order to find resonance, words from which we cannot retreat.”3 Oakley, a fine preacher himself, seems to imply that relevance must be sacrificed for resonance. But shouldn’t every preacher try for that delicate balance between present relevance and future resonance? Topical or timeless, Taylor’s sermons speak to the historical moment she and her audience are experiencing without losing a step for the times her readers find themselves facing.

Sermons read do not have quite the same effect as sermons seen and heard. There’s something about the cadence in the delivery, the gestures of the speaker, the liturgy that embraces the sermon, that creates a different ambiance. But reading the sermons in Always a Guest consistently drew me in through the warmth of Taylor’s storytelling and her earned wisdom.

There are thirty-one sermons, “a month of Sundays,” as one reviewer called it. Each is based on the lectionary texts for the day, texts which Taylor mines in her unique fashion through a combination of storytelling, personal anecdotes, and vivid exegesis. Time and time again, I enjoyed a jolt of surprise as Taylor unwrapped a text in a way that was fresh, yet with a gravitas that made her interpretation feel both satisfyingly inevitable and narratively definitive.

In “How to Live with High Anxiety,” Taylor provides relevance for her audience and resonance for the reader. “How did Jesus speak to their anxiety?” she asks. “Most importantly, I think, he did not tell them to cut it out. ‘People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world,’ he said. Who could have known that better than him(emphasis the author’s)”?4

Taylor grew up with the civil rights struggle in Georgia and has ministered in the South her whole career. Yet, in a sermon entitled “Errors About Beauty,” she slips in a gentle critique of activism without confounding the thrust of her message.

“The arts thrive on self-interest, leading them to think of their own pleasure instead of pleasing God. Some of the most activist Christians I know might say it differently, but they too harbor a fear that beauty has the power to distract people from the work of justice. They may even be right. At the moment, I can think of a lot of people who say they feel closest to God in nature, and none at all who say they feel closest to God in a picket line at a refugee detention center. If justice has to be beautiful to get our attention, justice will suffer.”5

One of the best aspects of her sermons is her ability to relate Scripture to our daily problems. In “Paralyzed by Polarization,” a sermon preached in 2018, she speaks about conflict. “What matters is that like a lot of Christians, I have a hard time with conflict,” she says. “I have learned to view it as un-Christlike, which means that I know how to avoid it, deny it, sublimate it, and internalize it, but not how to enter into it with other people without feeling like a sinner.”6

Her trademark humor comes through when quoting Jesus in Matthew 5:23-24 about first reconciling with someone before worshipping. She says, “Sometimes I think Jesus said things like that because he never pastored a church. Paul pastored churches, which is why I like his iteration better. ‘Bless those who persecute you,’ he told the Romans, ‘bless and do not curse them (12:14). See? He knew about the cursing.”7

With a common sense approach to our fallible natures, Taylor says, “It’s not just that conflict is inevitable and some fights are worth having; it’s that conflict is one of the ways God gets most deeply to us . . .” She continues, “But the dream is not to stay out of conflict. The dream is to remember who we are and what matters most to us in the midst of conflict . . . to love each other in ways that mystify our neighbors, on the off chance that it will do a little good.”8

Most of the sermons in Always are based in the New Testament, with several from the Old Testament (the one on “Sabbath Rest” from Isaiah is especially good). Taylor’s themes constantly circle around and through Jesus, his life with the disciples, his parables, his forgiveness, his humanity, and above all, his transparency as the face of God in this world.

“God has entrusted us with the teaching of the gospel,” she said to an audience at the Chautauqua Institution in 2016. “More than that—with its embodiment, which includes protecting the vulnerable bodies all around us each day. The good news is that we have everything we need to do that: the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. May they be with us all forevermore.”9

In these anxious times BBT travels light, but her humor is reassuring, her scriptural insights challenging, and her breadth of vision inspiring. Always a Guest is the guest who becomes family, even in a pandemic.

  1. Always a Guest: Speaking of Faith Far From Home. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2020, p. ix.
  2. Taylor, p. xi.
  3. Mark Oakley in Mayne, Michael. Responding to the Light: Reflections on Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press, 2017, p. vii.
  4. Taylor, p. 5.
  5. Taylor, p. 12.
  6. Taylor, p. 37.
  7. Taylor, p. 37.
  8. Taylor, p. 40.
  9. Taylor, p. 116.

Fig Tree Blues

Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash

The vocation of creatures is to exist as themselves, to be bearers of their names, answering to the Word that gives each its distinctive identity.1

The parables Jesus told were as common as dirt. Nothing fancy. They were drawn from real life or at least from a life that could be imagined.

So here is a story, a parable told by Jesus. You can read it for yourself in Luke 13.

There was a man, says Jesus, who had a fig tree. I’ve had this tree for three years, he says. Every year I’ve looked for figs on it, but I’ve got no figs. What’s the matter with it? Chop it down, he says to the hired man. Why should it go on using up the soil and I get no figs?

Well, says the hired man, give us another year. I’ll dig round it, pile a lot of manure around it, and we’ll see what happens. If it bears fruit, then well and good. If not, I’ll cut it down. Fair enough?

What the hired man knew and the fig-tree owner did not know is that it takes about three to five years for a fig tree to bear fruit. After that, given water, good soil, and a generous amount of manure, figs will appear. The year after that there will be more figs and the year after that, even more. Within five years there should be enough for a bountiful bowlful. But it takes time.

This is one of those parables from Jesus that stops me in my tracks. It’s in a section of Luke where Jesus rails against the blindness of his audience. You know how to read the weather, he cries, but you can’t read the danger of this present hour. There is a judgment coming.

“I have come to set fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!2

And if there was any doubt, it’s Jesus who will cause these ruptures. “Do you suppose I came to establish peace on earth? No indeed, I have come to bring division.”3 Perhaps this came as no surprise to his disciples and those who sought to kill him. It’s a surprise to us, though. Who is this man?

He gets numerical about it. In a family of five, three will be against two and two against three. Son against father, mother against daughter, mother against son’s wife, son’s wife against her mother-in-law.

As if there weren’t enough tension built into families already. As if all that Oedipal rage of sons against fathers weren’t already lurking, and the sniping and resentment between a mother and her son’s wife wasn’t the cause of silence between husband and wife on the cold drive back to their apartment.

In the news of the day, a tower had crashed down in Siloam, and eighteen people were killed. Conventional wisdom claimed that they had (literally) brought this down on themselves. Only such flaunting sinners died so swiftly and so gruesomely.

Not so, said Jesus. Do you think they were more guilty than everyone else living in Jerusalem? The world is not divided between the sinners and the sinless. Everybody sins. You should take this as a warning, not that you should fear that towers will fall on you, but rather to live right and do well before you die. Only the living can repent.

***

I was eleven years old and I was looking to find the first figs on our tree. We lived on a mountainside overlooking the Napa Valley and I was standing, barefooted, in the garden my grandfather and I had made by wrestling aside the mounds of red volcanic rock scattered like cannonballs across the slope of our back yard.

Planting the fig tree was a promise of discovery. Where we had come from, just outside Toronto, there were no fig trees. But in California everything grows, so we planted one when we moved into our new home.

Wherever my grandparents moved, they created a garden. Not just rows of vegetables, but springs of flowers, curves of hedges, conversations of saplings. They took the landscape as it was and sculpted it. They had the patience to work within the arc of the seasons. They sifted the rough earth and planted the colors they loved.

But on this September day in 1963 the sunset filtered greenly through the lobed and glowing leaves and the bowl in my hand seemed absurdly large, for there was only one fig. The leaves were rough to the touch as I slid my arm through them to where it was lodged. I felt it carefully. It was green at the stem, plump and compact. I had come too soon.

I withdrew my arm and backed out from under the low branches. The air was still, cooling from the heat of the day. My shirt, so new the collar was still scratchy, shifted as I straightened and stood listening. A car was passing on the road below me and through its open windows a song blared. That would be the teenaged boy who lived across the street, who knew all the latest songs, who, in the days to come would tell me of Bob Dylan and his song, “Blowin’ In the Wind,” the song that was playing on his car radio, although I did not know it at the time, the song of this voice, plaintive but insistent, whose questions were the first fruits of a harvest long in the making that would not wait.

When we are young, the future takes the shape of our formless hopes. When we are older our hopes take the shape of our expectations. In November of that year, not long after I filled my bowl at last with ripe figs, shots were fired into the head of the President. With that, my childhood was over, and though it took awhile to realize it, it came to seem as inevitable as the trajectory of the bullets on that day.

***

The parable of the fig tree lends itself to shifting thoughts. The default reading might assume that the owner is God, that God is quick to judge on performance, that appearance is all, that return-on-investment is the sole measure of worth.

Another reading might find that the owner is the dominant world, brusque, ruthless, as hard as flint. We are the fig trees. Jesus is the hired man whose knowledge of the trees is as deep as his care for them. He knows how we are formed, how long it takes for the leaf, the bud, and the fruit. Young trees must be given time; their potential is real, visible to the trained eye, hoped for by the expectant.

We are all under judgment all the time. Mostly, we judge ourselves and each other, usually quite harshly and often unfairly.

Our judgments upon ourselves come from disappointment and fear; we are less than we wish to be. What we are for the good we scarcely know.

Our judgments on others come from what we can see—and we see in a mirror darkly. There are times when we do what we should not do, and we cannot answer why. There are times when the good we could do stands bright before us, but we glance away.

And there are times — praise God — when who we are and what we do are one, when being and deed emerge quietly, miraculously, greenly from the bud, as beautiful as September light.

  1. Williams, Rowan. A Ray of Darkness. Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1995, p. 149.
  2. Lk 12:49, NEB.
  3. Lk 12:51, NEB.

In Praise of Useless Beauty

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”. . . Once you have been touched deeply by beauty, in a lily or a human face, it is difficult to resist engaging the kind of justice that clears the way for more beauty in the world.”1

There is a tension in our lives between two poles: Mission and Beauty, imperative and invitation. Sometimes we take to the streets, sometimes we gaze in wonder.

We carry the water of mission in buckets, one on either side, the beam balanced across our shoulders. We follow the track laid down in the Gospels, “Go ye into all the world.” Without a map, we walk. The water sloshes. We cannot afford to glance at our feet.

Fervent in spirit and trusting, we learn to read faces. In another’s voice we sense the longing for an end to dryness. In the cold hallways of someone else’s life, we hear the echoes of our own restlessness, “Calling, O sinner, come home.” We pray to be open to the Spirit. We are impatient.

There are commonplace miracles happening. We breathe in, we breathe out. The world brims with the Light; it ceaselessly streams into the world. We are blinded by the Light, swaddled, and warmed. Even so, there is darkness.

Mission gets us up and out. We leave home to sail away from comforts familiar into other lands and isles. We bump into new words, stumble through markets and bazaars, hear the music of surprise and delight, strain to see beyond the horizon.

It helps to be young, to not know what you cannot do. Innocence displays a wisdom that experience might discount. Effort and sacrifice, expended outward, builds resilience; there is satisfaction in obstacles encountered and transformed. Your muscles flex and burn as your shoulder lowers and your cheek presses against the rock.

(The definition of work: To transfer energy from one object to another in order to move the second object in a certain direction. Work equals force multiplied by the distance over which it is applied.)

In college, as a religion and journalism double-major, I was blessed to have close friends in both fields. One weekend, two friends and I found ourselves in a quiet chapel between scheduled events of a Bible conference. We spent an hour spontaneously preaching. One of us would open the Bible, drop a finger on a text without looking, and pass it along to another. That person had a minute to think about it and two minutes to preach a sermonette on that text.

We were amazing. Our imaginations were lit, our energy was boundless, our humor and wit were buoyant. Someone looking on might have been critical of our sermonic structure, but not our enthusiasm. We placed ourselves within the Acts of the Apostles, fiery with the Spirit and with joy. For those moments, Beauty and Mission were one.

Then we went off to the next meeting on soul-winning strategies and the flame flickered and went out.

There is a militancy in American Protestantism, rooted perhaps in 19th-century abolitionist and temperance movements, that continues today with triumphalist notes.

Growing up in the church, we youngsters were trained in “sword drills,” in which a Bible text was read and we were to shout out the chapter and verse. Now “prayer warriors” organize on Facebook to mobilize around family members facing surgery or a job interview.

There is a low hum of alertness you get around a lot of evangelists, as if they are constantly on guard against imminent attack from demons who walk among us. And while it’s true that we wrestle with “the cosmic powers of this present darkness,” as Paul says, the temptation is strong for them to find that darkness first within their own fellowship (Eph. 6:12).

They speak of churches as “beachheads” and television ministries as “the front line.” “Onward, Christian Soldiers” is the adult version of the children’s song, “I’m in the Lord’s Army.” The metaphors of combat pervade the language of evangelism. The uncomfortable truth, to paraphrase Clausewitz, is that for many in the church, mission is war by other means.

To be tested in mission is to realize what we can reach and how much we still fall short. We do not stop to ask where we are—not yet—but time and turns and detours on the road will gently bring us to a reckoning. There is more to come, much more ahead, but lately and at last we will pause to ask ”Why?”

***

Is Mission everything? Is everything a means to an end? Are there no things whose beauty alone grants them space to flourish? What about the days we long for a fragment of poetry, a familiar riff, the cast of light in a Vermeer, lights along the promenade after sunset? Seamus Heaney said poetry never stopped a tank. But he wrote it, nevertheless. Oh, how he wrote.

Even Paul must have turned aside while on his ceaseless journeys, to gaze in wonder at the sea or to pause in a mountain pass for the flowers. Some things bless us surely by their unselfconscious beauty. They do not fit in our box of tools. They do not demand our attention. In their reticence, they draw us to them. The natural world is too generous to need us, but even its extravagance can be overwhelmed by our appetites.

Such beauty cannot be comprehended (from Latin, comprehensus, to seize), but rather received (from Latin, recipere, to take back again). Beauty is that which we have lost, have wandered into again, and have thus awakened to. It is a distant echo of a time in which we were given everything without asking, everything we did not need to know. Without need, everything is gift. It was a life innocent of utility, of seizing ends through means.

That was Paradise.

Now we must till the gardens east of Eden, work them by the sweat of our brow to find and fill our needs. But useless beauty is still there to be received as gift, to remind us of what we have lost, and to fill us with a holy longing for belonging.

The beauty of the natural world cannot be produced, but it can be desecrated. When we turn aside to exult in it and to protect it, it humbles us by its majesty and aloofness.

The Genesis creation stories endow us with a reverence for the beauty of being, of living to bear the image of God. They ground us with the call to care for the Earth, more imperative now than ever before. This too is Mission.

But they also bear witness of the Fall, the abyss that dropped between ourselves and God, the rupture between you and I that renders our communication labored and broken. Now Beauty is at a remove from us; perceived, instead of enveloping us. Now we are objects to ourselves.

Unless . . . unless our missions are transfused with beauty received through the Light coming into the world. “Then shall your light break forth as the morning, and your health shall spring forth speedily: and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.”2

Mission, rightly done, awakens others to that joy. The seeing of Beauty is our re-cognition, our thinking-again, of our work in the world. Beauty recognized widens the field of our vision as we plunge ahead with Mission. It softens the hard lines of justice through mercy without fogging up our ambition.

“We can afford to dance,” writes Rowan Williams, “dance the useless dance of love for its own sake, beauty for its own sake: the dance of Mother Teresa . . . Of all who work with the hopeless, the incurable, the dying, the wretched . . . Our life now is not for usefulness but for beauty: we can have no other.”3

Here is another scene. I am sitting with a student, a person I am beginning to know. I sense that he and I could be good friends. We are talking about literature, art, and film. The more we talk, the deeper we go. Now we are plowing the ground of the parables and how they could be written about, illustrated, or filmed. Nothing seems impossible; we are electric.

I feel my eyes brim with tears. My companion notices immediately. “What’s wrong?” he asks anxiously. “Nothing,” I say, but I can barely speak. I feel myself to be overflowing. It must be gratitude. This is how true communication can be, I think to myself. This—unselfconsciously, unreservedly, mysteriously—is how Mission melts into Beauty.

  1. Taylor, Barbara Brown. Always a Guest: Speaking of Faith Far from Home. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2020, p. 13.
  2. Isa. 58:8, KJV.
  3. Williams, Rowan. A Ray of Darkness: Sermons and Reflections. Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1995, p. 63.

To my Trump-supporting Friends

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I know you are disappointed. I would be too. But now we have a chance to begin again. Before we do, I’d like to say some things straight up.

For four years I’ve listened to your “alternate facts,” your declarations of war on truth, and your delight in the actions of President Trump, however cruel and incompetent they were. I’ve seen you deny science, reason, and ethics, to say nothing of compassion and community-spirit, in order to wave the flag of self-centeredness in the name of freedom.

I’ve watched as you condoned, through silence or rationalization, the constant killing of Black men by police. When the President banned Muslims from entering this country, no matter their situation, no matter their family connections, no matter that it swept up millions of people indiscriminately, you found a way to see it as legitimate. When children were separated from their parents at the border, you framed it as a just punishment for breaking the law.

You asserted with a straight face that doctors got paid more to certify that everyone who died in their hospitals was a COVID victim. You assured me that masks don’t work, that the CDC was part of the deep state, that Dr. Fauci and others advising on the pandemic got up every morning determined to disparage the President and prevent him from being reelected. That this was their sole purpose in disputing his claims that the virus would disappear.

Some of you nonchalantly dismissed 200,000+ deaths as a mere blip. Since you were in your thirties and got lots of exercise, you thought herd immunity was a pretty good idea, despite the fact that to achieve that we would have to make sure millions of people died.

When QAnon reared its ugly head, you fell for it. You even sent me videos intended to rip the scales from my eyes, the better to see the real truth. You pitied me when I reacted with disbelief. “Do your research,” you said. The truth is out there . . .

And throughout these four years you excused the President’s racist remarks, his misogyny, his callous indifference to the grinding poverty in this country. You cheered when he passed the largest tax cut in years to benefit the smallest percentage of wealthy people and smiled when he held the government and its workers hostage for a month to wring out money for his wall—the wall he insisted Mexico would pay for.

I watched all this in disbelief and, yes, anger. I wondered if we were looking at the same events or if there was something desperately wrong with my perceptive abilities. I would read and re-read something the President said to see if I had missed the key to its interpretation. Maybe it’s plain for all to see, I thought, and I’m the only one who is blind to it. Surely my friends would not have fallen for this. Then I came across the term ‘gaslighting’ and I saw the light.

All of this—well, most of it—could be chalked up to political passion, I thought. After all, I was pretty passionate about it too. The answer was not to be indifferent to the political game, but to somehow see it as one element of life among many. That’s what I told myself in my more heated moments and it’s something I still believe.

I also recognized that I’d done my share of punching back. I usually stopped and considered before I replied, but even then I said some things I regretted—and I didn’t apologize. I’m apologizing now.

But here’s the thing: the last four years under this President have been a revelation to me, one that I am grateful for in the way we are grateful for bitter medicine. I believe I have learned some things and reaffirmed some old truths.

I have learned the clear distinction between humiliation and humility. Humiliation is something we slap on another person, but it only sticks if they accept it. Humility, on the other hand, comes from inside ourselves. It’s both a shield against humiliation and the key to learning, especially in conflict.

I don’t know everything. I don’t know how another person truly thinks and feels. I don’t even really know completely what I think until I have something to contrast it with and compare it to. This acts—or is meant to act—as a wedge to keep my mind open long enough so I can consider another viewpoint without firing first. I have gotten some practice at it these four years, but I’m not ready to be certified just yet. I’m sure I’ll have more opportunity in the next four years to work on it.

The other big thing I have learned or rather reaffirmed, is why I try to imagine Jesus. I say “imagine” because I realize that knowledge about Jesus, however important, is not enough. In order for Jesus to be real to me, real enough to be present every day, I need to use my imagination to see him where he was in the Gospels and then try to see him where I am today.

This takes work, but it’s good work. It becomes most real when I feel disoriented by this culture I’m in. When I doubt my faith or when I rationalize a verbal blow to another, I imagine Jesus striding next to me. He’s not judging or cajoling me. He doesn’t have to. His strong and gentle presence is enough to call my actions into question.

The next four years will be a workout as we work together. I think we all have a better chance of walking in truth now, but it won’t be easy. We’ve all got to relearn some things, like trusting one another and what we really mean by those bright words like ‘democracy,’ ‘justice,’ and ‘truth.’

I think we all need to take a deep breath and step back to a place of humility. And let’s have done with humiliation. That stuff starts wars and creates famines.

Let’s use our imaginations too. Let’s imagine what others might be going through to cause them fear and anger. Let’s imagine where we fail to see one another as creations of God and what they might look like if we could see them as God sees them. And let’s imagine how Jesus sees us, clad in all our self-righteous fury, and know that he knows we are so much better than all that.