Into the Night

Photo: Vincent Chin, Unsplash

”Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. 1 Peter 4:8, NRSV

”You can take, if you will, your solace in heaven, but you must work out your ethics on earth.” Susan Neiman, Moral Clarity

In the events leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus, we have one of the greatest dramas in human history. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was hailed by hundreds, maybe thousands, as the decisive moment of triumph for their nationalistic hopes. There was Jesus’ show of righteous anger, as he drove out the money merchants from the temple to return it to the people as a house of prayer. The events of the last supper, the washing of the disciples feet, and the sorrowful walk to Gethsemane; Jesus’ hours-long prayer for comfort, relief, courage, and faithfulness, interrupted by the mob intent on capture—these are indelible impressions for our imaginations.

But the political and religious authorities who jockey for power during the hours before the crucifixion do so through the selling out of Jesus by Judas. It is a scene of almost unbearable pathos, as Judas steps brightly forward with a forced smile of bonhomie and kisses Jesus. The mob is tensed, as if facing an imminent threat. Jesus is calm, almost bemused by the scene. I was in the temple every day, he says, and you could have taken me then. So now you come, with weapons and torches at night?

Peter and Judas both betrayed Jesus. Both stories are there for us, because we’ve all been Peter betraying Jesus, and given other circumstances, we might have been Judas if it comes to that. What is the difference between Peter and Judas? Both of them betrayed Jesus. Both of them repented with tears and anguish. Only one of them survived. The gospels spend more time on Peter’s betrayal than on Judas’. Their mention of Judas is tight-lipped, with breath indrawn.

How might we think about Judas if we put aside our feelings? We would see him with Jesus for three years, working alongside the others, going out with them on their first missionary journey, returning to hear Jesus, exultant, say that he had witnessed Lucifer fall like a meteor from heaven. He had seen Jesus feed five thousand people, had been there for countless exorcisms and healings, he had heard all the parables and stories, taken in Jesus’ urgings and warnings, shared his weariness and his hunger on the road, and enjoyed the company of Jesus’ friends and patrons. Like the others, he had given up a lot to follow Jesus. In short, he had lived a parallel life with Jesus that converged at many points.

In a person for whom one’s capacity for evil has not been faced and acknowledged—the shadow side of the personality—a rejection by one’s parent as a child erupts in the adult as shame, guilt, and fear whenever that person comes into communion with another who accepts and loves him. Robert Stein, a Jungian psychologist, suggests that infantile aspects we usually grow out of because they could harm others, things like greed, brutality, and aggression, continue to contaminate the soul of such an individual as an adult. Such people provoke rejection by others while insisting on fully expressing their shadows. They want to be loved in spite of the inevitable punishment they experience. Only then will they feel they’ve experienced acceptance and love. Jesus’ refusal to retaliate must have shaken Judas to the core.

It’s worth considering the betrayal of Jesus by Judas. For one thing, it is so much a part of the tableau leading to the crucifixion that we think of it as a necessary step to our salvation. Nobody wants to be cursed for all history, but Judas makes his decision to accelerate the fate of Jesus, and then is swept backward by the rush of events. In a matter of hours, he becomes the eternal asterisk to the trial of Jesus. Once he has served the ends of the authorities, he is of no further use to them. His dramatic throwing down of the blood money he’d received is regarded with sneers. Judas becomes the poster man of snitches and traitors, despised by those to whom he offered his services, hated by those he turned on, cursed by all—except Jesus.

Perhaps the most tragic aspect is that Judas’ actions might have been unnecessary in the course of events. The temple police knew who Jesus was, and they had to know he spent most nights he was in Jerusalem at the Gethsemane Garden. They would have found him, even without Judas. Their designs to capture Jesus at night were merely tactical: they wished to avoid a popular uprising if they apprehended him in the temple. Judas’ offer was convenient, and thirty pieces of silver was a small price to pay if they could claim that his own disciple delivered him up, turned him over as a threat and a public menace.

Some biblical commentators have conjectured that Jesus’ band included at least one member of the Zealot party—Simon—and that Judas himself might have held zealot sympathies. Judas’ own agenda may have included forcing Jesus’ hand to declare the revolution and get on with his messianic mission. In that case, Judas could have rationalized that he was only providing the opportunity for Jesus to assert himself. When the police closed in and led Jesus away, Judas must have been both bewildered and stricken.

***

Judas turned Jesus in, Peter turned him away. What Judas did could only happen once. What Peter did happens every day. Judas repented in horror and bitter tears, but he could not bring himself to believe that forgiveness could ever be his. The only relief from the suffocating blackness of guilt was suicide. Peter repented, too, in horror and bitter tears. Like Judas, he rushed out into the night to weep his heart out under the stars.

What saved Peter, but could not save Judas, was Peter’s utter guilelessness. He was not capable of subterfuge or even strategizing for gain, either his own or for the ultimate vindication of Jesus as Messiah. He wore his heart upon his sleeve for all the world to see, including Jesus. When he repented, he went all in. Just hours before his betrayal Peter had balked at Jesus kneeling to wash his feet. This is not what the Messiah should be doing. If I don’t, said Jesus, we are not in fellowship. “Then, Lord,” cried Peter, “not my feet only; wash my hands and head as well!”

Jesus had built his church upon a rock whose best qualification for the position was finally his unreserved humility.

Yet, Peter was also the walking definition of enthusiasm, the Greek derivation of which means to be caught up ‘in God.’ Only the truly humble are capable of such enthusiasm because on some level they have willed the removal of any obstacle to the Spirit. For the rest of us, this will be our deepest aspiration, the intention of which is just the beginning of our resurrected life.

***

I have a friend who worked his way through seminary by working for and living in a mortuary. He helped officiate at the funerals and his wife did the hair and makeup of the deceased. Their little boy, four years old, often accompanied his father out to the cemetery. One day, looking at the mounded earth of a grave, Jake wondered aloud, “Dad, when Satan dies, will God put flowers on his grave?”

At the end of all wars, even the one that has defined the history of this Earth and its solar system, we can imagine just such a moment when the Lord of all mourns the tragic trajectory of Lucifer, the bright morning star, for whom humility, forgiveness, and love was a bitterness that pride could not bear.

Not For This Life Only

Photo: Eberhard Grossgasteiger, Unsplash

If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. — I Corinthians 15:19, NRSV

Pity is only as good as our capacity to rise above it. It’s a natural response for most of us to the suffering of others, and it can open the door to something longer lasting, say empathy or understanding. But by itself, pity doesn’t lift or restore us. It usually drops us in our own estimation.

We want hope now, in this life. We need it. The paradox here is that our hopes for the future churn up our present and make us restless for a present that opens up the future. Most of us do not live in the present, despite the wisdom of the ages and the sages among us. We live with one foot in the past and we lean into the future, while the present is what happens to us as we stretch between the two. Somehow, we make it work.

We’re not even sure what the dimensions of the present are. It depends on the context. If we’re talking about the present in the historical flow of things, it could be this year and maybe part of last year, although so much seems to happen now in weeks and days that last year seems like an eternity gone.

Our own present flexes and stretches like an accordion. My present is that which is of interest and concern to me right now. The length and depth of the love I have within my family and friends, the books I’m reading, the words I am writing, the events I am reacting to. How I respond to Christ in this moment, how honest I am with myself or how I dodge the things that unnerve me.

We hear enough about living in the present from wise people in all ages and from all faiths in the world that we should pay more attention. Jesus asks us not to worry about the future because it has enough worries of its own. Paul suggests that we hold the past in memory and press on to the present. Both of them believe that God meets us in the present and promises us a future. God can’t change our past, but he can help us to live with it.

But Paul is writing to the Corinthians, people whose community together is shot full of incest, drunkenness, and fighting. They are learning as they go, trying to rely on each other and on this mysterious Spirit, not at all sure they can leave behind what defined them in their past. Maybe that makes it harder to live right in the present, seeing as how some lines of habit are burned into their relations with each other.

But there’s something else. The Christ that Paul has introduced the Corinthians to had been murdered by the Romans in a manner specifically designed to humiliate and terrify him and anyone who might have claimed to be his friend. State criminals like that were crucified and their bodies were thrown out on the ash heap, to be torn by dogs and left to the birds. This is not a person you want to claim as your god.

If the Corinthians only have hope in this life, Paul claims, they are most to be pitied, for the implication is that their god has played them for fools. Even pagan gods were immortal. And anyway, they wouldn’t be caught dead on a cross at the hands of inferior beings like us. More likely, they would rain down fire and plague until we cried out speechlessly.

The theme that Paul riffed on, the extended guitar solo, if you like, soaring on the music of the oral traditions of Jesus in his time, was the battle that Christ had waged with the angels and principalities and powers of the universe. That battle had been won when Jesus died; the worst they could do to him turned out to be the burning fuse that eventually blew their powers to kingdom come. Along the way, these powers found common cause with those who were so anxious to perfect the path to God that they crushed the spirit of those who sought to find their way.

“When the ‘religion of fear’ finds its way into the Christian church,” said Jurgen Moltmann in The Crucified God, “those who regard themselves as the most vigilant guardians of the faith do violence to faith and smother it.”

The violent bear it away, a la Flannery O’Connor.

“This pusillanimous faith,” continues Moltmann, “usually occurs in the form of an orthodoxy which feels threatened and is therefore more rigid than ever. It occurs wherever, in the face of the immorality of the present age, the gospel of creative love for the abandoned is replaced by the law of what is supposed to be Christian morality, and by penal law.”

The Corinthian Christians, along with all their bumbling relationships, were having a loss of confidence. Their neighbors and former confidants were trying to understand how anyone could fall for such a loser god. Because that man, Jesus, was crucified and he died, just as every Jew the Romans crucified died. The Romans scored 100% on the efficiency scale for all that. So if these Christians had put their trust in that man, they deserved to be pitied (when they weren’t being mocked) because a dead god was even less useful than a dead goat. Nobody could beat the Romans for mopping up all resistance and wiping out the political opposition.

They were efficient, but not effective: One man got through to the other side.

Oh, he died alright. But in some way that can’t fully be explained, after crucifixion and a hasty burial in a sealed tomb, he showed up in Galilee on the beach, he entered a locked room in Jerusalem filled with terrified disciples, and he hiked the seven miles to Emmaus with two of his friends and then vanished over dinner. Peter saw him, the twelve saw him, as did five hundred of his friends in Jerusalem, along with James, his brother, and his closest circle in Jerusalem. Lastly, in a weird kind of premature birth, he appeared to Paul who made that singular experience the balance point of his spiritual gyroscope for the rest of his life.

Paul’s message, the engine that kept him going over mountains, across seas, through the fires, in spite of whippings and chains, is that Christ, the one into whom all the fullness of God had been poured, the one who suffered a most humiliating death—that one had been raised from death to start human history up again with a new beginning.

As Clarence Jordan once said: “The crowning evidence that Jesus was alive was not a vacant grave but a spirit-filled fellowship. Not a rolled-away stone, but a carried-away church.”

Buddhism says if you are shot with an arrow, don’t get in a debate about the type of arrow, the composition of the arrow-head, and the trajectory that embedded it in you. Pull out the arrow.

We could argue for eternity how the resurrection could have happened, but without resolution. Because it isn’t verifiable by our usual standards of empirical measurement. It isn’t even comprehensible in a way that can be said without stuttering. What matters is the result of the message of the resurrection—a faith-filled community that infiltrated the world and stayed true, even unto death. That is power. The glory is still to come.

Cross Purposes

Photo: Josh Applegate, Unsplash

Salvation is a child and when it grows up it is crucified. Only he who can see power under weakness, the whole under the fragment, victory under defeat, glory under suffering, innocence under guilt, sanctity under sin, life under death can say: Mine eyes have seen thy salvation.—Paul Tillich, The New Being

When I was a child, I discovered that when I crossed my eyes I could see the world in very different ways. Instantly, my left eye invaded the territory of the right eye and the result was a disorienting Escher-like amalgam of images, as if Spock and Kirk had gotten their body parts reversed going through the transporter device. It was an ersatz Picasso-lens for budding cubists. Ignoring the taunts of older children that one day my eyes would stay crossed, I enjoyed these brief forays into alternate reality.

Standing on my head was another way to re-imagine the world. Although I couldn’t sustain the full, upright position for long, I could live for a few moments in a world with a limitless blue airiness underfoot beneath a ceiling of trees, streets, and buildings.

It’s good for us to see the world from odd angles from time to time. It reminds us that ours is just one of many viewpoints. And it gives us insight into primitive Christianity, which abounds with paradoxes and upside-down values.

Christianity often seems to be at cross purposes with standard operating procedures. In the Genesis story, creation is the high point, but after sin, everything is downhill from there, whereas with evolution everything begins with the humble one-celled organism and climbs to the top of the food chain, which is us. In the darkest, coldest month of the year, Christianity says the light came into the world. In the spring, when everything in nature is waking up and blooming, Christians celebrate a death.

“I am come that they might have life, and that more abundantly,” claims Jesus, but then he also proclaims the poor to be blessed. The Beatitudes are all about opposites. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are those of a gentle spirit; the world shall be theirs. Everywhere you look in the Gospels there are these cross-eyed, head-stand ways.

Don’t kill each other, says Jesus, but in the next breath he pushes it way back behind actions to intentions. Don’t nurse anger toward others, because anger nursed can then be weaned to murder. Without denying the front-facing commandment, Jesus goes back to the root of the outward action.

It’s easy for us to love those who love us—or at least to avoid conflict with most people. But what about those who get in our face? Jesus tells us to love our enemies and to pray for those who hate us. This is how God sees us as children of his family. After all, Jesus reminds us, God makes the sun to shine upon the good and the bad alike and sends rain for both the liars and the honest. You’re all in the family, he says. Do you think I’ll treat you unequally?

It takes a while to get used to this radical way of thinking. Actually, we don’t get used to it. It doesn’t become habitual and it certainly isn’t instinctual; it is something that must be re-learned and practiced daily. It’s as if our brains were developed to float in our skulls just so, vertically aligned in such a way that stimuli reaching us from the external world hit their receptors precisely, with no tolerance for wavering or misalignment. The world shot in portrait mode only, the landscape view constrained to fit only through distortion and elongation. Only when we stand on our heads does any of it begin to make sense.

Why does so much of what Jesus says sound so alien? Lest we think that 2,000 years and a clash of cultures has created this great divide, we can take some rueful comfort in that his mother and his brothers thought him a stark lunatic and his own disciples could not grasp his simplest commands. “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven,” they ask. He calls over a child, sets him down in the midst of them and responds, “Unless you turn round and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 18:3).” The meaning is unequivocal: what part of “never” don’t we understand?

Yet, when one door slams, another opens. “Let a man humble himself till he is like this child, and he will be the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven.” In this new economy of virtues only the humble survive. In one stroke, Jesus flattens the social hierarchy based on status and power and spreads it horizontally. If we want to see this kingdom as it is, we shall have to look in landscape mode, turning and turning in the widening gyre 360 degrees, until we return to this little child.

Paradoxes and reversals abound. Paul is shipwrecked, beaten, imprisoned, and starved. He has to light out of town more than once under cover of darkness, and who could calculate the miles he put in walking, sailing, riding for the gospel of the kingdom. Yet all these things he counts as nothing, save for the cross of Christ and the glory to come. “Our eyes are fixed,” says Paul, “not on the things that are seen, but on the things that are unseen.” We can imagine him, stripped for thirty-nine lashes, with a gaze that penetrates to heaven.

What do we see? What are we looking at? Even after the hundreds of miles he walks and the beatings he endures, there is a certain bounce in Paul’s stride. “Therefore, we never cease to be confident,” he writes. “Faith is our guide, we do not see him.” He looks at the world with eyes wide open, seeing himself as he is, but more importantly, how God sees him. Living as an exile in this world, Paul knows that those who play by the rules of the world may succeed in the ways of the world—although they will lose their lives—but those who take up their cross and follow Jesus will gain their lives. In the midst of death there is life.

“Sin is our refusal to become who we truly are,” writes Michael Mayne in Pray, Love, Remember. When we confess our sins we may think of all the moments we tripped up in our daily walk, all the unthinking ways we brushed others aside, the petty grievances we took into foster care, the blindness to our effect on others that caused them pain. But Mayne is looking deeper than just sins. “Chiefly I am aware of a much more subtle temptation,” he writes, “to settle for less than I might be. To choose the lesser good. To lack curiosity and wonder. To miss the mark because my sights are fixed too low. Not to perceive that I am ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ in God’s image.”

At all times, but especially at Lent, if we ask it of God, we are blessed to see ourselves as we are and what we may become. Seeing thus is to see the world turned upside down, and yet to walk confidently.

It may all seem to be at cross purposes with how the world works. Yet, in the end, all our purposes begin with the cross, the cross that brings life, the death of Death, and most wonderfully, resurrection.

Forgiveness Perpetual

Photo: Candice Picard, Unsplash

I grew weary of sinning

before God grew weary of forgiving my sin.

He is never weary of giving grace,

nor are his compassions to be exhausted. —Teresa of Avila

I’ve never been fond of the poem “The Hound of Heaven.” Somehow, the image of God on the trail with cold intent to pursue me until I find myself with my back to the wall, nowhere to go, and thus must yield to his designs—that image instills fear rather than love. I don’t deny that some people respond favorably to this and similar images. I’m just saying that in the vast repertoire of metaphors we have for God that one is way down the list for me.

But in a sense, it doesn’t matter all that much what I think about God, whether I think God resembles a hunting dog or a lover or a rock or a fountain of everlasting water. These are educational toys pointing, sometimes distractedly, toward a Being who breaks all categories and metaphors, simply because He/She/They cannot be contained in our refracted lenses.

What really matters is what God thinks of me. For starters, God hates the sins that I manifest so effortlessly. Absolutely, unequivocally, irrevocably, and any other “lys” we’d like to conjure up. This is the case for a couple of reasons.

First, our sin rends the beautiful creation God has provided us. There is a thread running through world faiths that sees a clear causality between human arrogance toward the created world and the fracturing of that world. Back behind the science of climate change are the fables, stories, parables, and straight-out testimony for thousands of years that says we are inextricably intertwined with our world. Because we have command of so many tools our impact on the environment is far out of proportion to our physical size.

We change our world simply by our very presence on this planet; like all other beings we take our place in time and space. But we can minimize our unintended harm and work to eliminate our deliberate havoc. That is sin, and it tears through the perfect circles of interdependence that God set up.

But the second reason God hates sin is what it does to us. How it distorts our perception, calcifies our empathy, teaches us cruelty and contempt, makes us mock the innocent and destroy the beautiful. How it places us beyond contrition and in contention with compassion, stretches our patience to the breaking point and snaps our attention, glorifies violence and belittles peace, derides those who listen and castigates those who are honest. The list goes on, but we get the point. All of this, in God’s way of thinking, is not who we are, and though we find it difficult to separate the gold in others and ourselves from the dross, God sees both and draws the distinction.

Despite our expertise in sinning, our development and refinement of its methods, the thousands of ways we have devised to ruin a beautiful world and to break each other, somehow God is able to see through the sin to the sinner. And the sinner in all of us—incredibly—is what God loves.

We are the pearl of great price that Jesus the Holy Diver plucks from the bottom of the ocean. We are the treasure in the field, buried in a rusty old tin box, that the fellow with the metal detector finds while skimming back and forth across the furrows. We are the lost and forgotten masterpiece picked up at a yard sale and restored to its former beauty, the coin wedged in a grate in the gutter.

But what of those who cower before God, those who keep to the back roads to avoid being seen, the ones who run for their lives if God appears because of the shame and fear of their sinning? Like a dog beaten and abandoned, who limps off when people approach, we see danger in the one who only wants to help.

Soren Kierkegaard tells a parable of the king who woos and weds a lovely peasant girl. The king loves her deeply and truly, but anxiety grows within him because she responds to him as the king, not as her companion, husband, and lover. Their difference in status calls up admiration in the girl, but not confidence. To appear in all his majesty before her would overwhelm and further distance her. for she thinks herself not his equal. Despite their love for each other, there is an unbridgeable gap between them. Neither really understands the other.

Kierkegaard suggests this is God’s dilemma. Since we could not be elevated to a level where we could fully understand God, God would take on himself the form of a servant so that God could understand us.

But perfect fear casts out love, and if we have been told that nothing short of perfection in this life will satisfy God, it’s no wonder that so many run in the opposite direction from the one who comes with healing. God’s persistence looks like deadly intention, his moves to reach and bandage us we see as seizing and shackling us. In desperation and in fear we plunge on through our wilderness.

He tracks us by the blood on the trail, the pain our acts cause for others and ourselves. That which separates us from God and condemns us—Sin—becomes the very means through which Christ finds the cancer and excises it. As Dante shows us, Christ follows our sins down to Hell in order to liberate us, not to condemn us. The very presence of our sins leads to confession and repentance, and finally to absolution and reconciliation.

Complications arise. According to our usual reading, God’s forgiveness of us is a contractual arrangement: if we forgive others, then God can forgive us. If we can’t forgive, then God won’t either. The rules are clear, there’s no ambiguity. We go first, then God reacts. We read it this way because we’re used to relationships that involve some type of transaction, that are functional, that include a payoff or a return on investment.

But this is not how God looks at forgiveness. He doesn’t wait for us to reach out, to make the first move. God’s ego is not tender. He is not easily offended.

Those who are forgiven can forgive. Forgiveness received can become forgiveness extended to others, but it does not work in reverse. We cannot forgive if we have not experienced forgiveness as an extension of God’s unfathomable love.

The woman who crashed a private party for Jesus at Simon the Pharisee’s house wept for joy because she had been forgiven. Perhaps she and Jesus had had an encounter before this that convinced her of God’s unconditional love and forgiveness. Perhaps she had grown weary of the trap of her sins. As Luke quotes Jesus, “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little (Luke 7:47).” Perhaps because of this she could even forgive the men who had enjoyed the use of her and then condemned and shamed her for it.

Paul Tillich, in a sermon in The New Being, points out that if we fear God and feel rejected by him, we cannot love him. But if we can see—and feel—that God’s love is without limit, then it truly is a new world. He says, “We cannot love unless we have accepted forgiveness, and the deeper our experience of forgiveness is, the greater is our love.”

As Jesus says, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do. I didn’t come to call righteous people but sinners to change their hearts and lives (Luke 5:31, CEB).” Whatever hellish darkness we find ourselves in, whatever pain we are carrying, we can be assured of this: Only those with a pre-existing condition will be accepted into this universal health care plan.

Going the Distance

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“We have to cross the infinite thickness of time and space — and God has to do it first, because he comes to us first. Of the links between God and man, love is the greatest. It is as great as the distance to be crossed.” Simone Weil, quoted in Bread and Wine

The distance between who we are when we are honest with ourselves, and who we think God requires us to be, is vast. Everyone has a measuring tape; it’s what we do when we face our failures, is to measure ourselves against other people. Sometimes it’s only to exhale with relief when we see the misfortunes of another person—that fleeting moment when we think, I escaped again!—before we open the door to empathy. To be Christlike in these and other moments is to be a disciple, a follower, and to follow someone, especially one like Jesus, is to put oneself under discipline.

It’s not a following like flotsam that swirls in the wake of an ocean liner nor is it a following such as one train car coupled to another. Those metaphors are void of will. I mean how we overcome the almost involuntary form of our history, traditions, and reflexive rituals, our habits and the mental laziness that we use to convince ourselves we are faithful—these dispirited elements that play a part in our stumbling attention to God.

In contrast, we long to follow Christ with a will that is active, imaginative and muscular. Once we let go of our fear it’s only longing that lures us onward. Given our flightiness, we could just as well veer off on a tangent or do an about-face and lark off in the opposite direction. The problem is that longing is diffuse, scattering like motes in the sunlight. But love—longing narrowed by the will to a burning beam of light focused singly on God—that is discipline.

Already there is an element of measurement in this description, usually to our own advantage. Disciples have discipline, discipline is noble and self-sacrificing, following Jesus is all about sacrifice. Sacrifice is what makes it authentic, us putting everything aside, especially our pride, and following on after Jesus. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, we’ve eclipsed the Lord, passed him up as it were, and are prancing at the head of our own parade. It’s a puzzle. Can love be a discipline?

“We can deny ourselves rigorously for the wrong reason,” says Thomas Merton, “and end up by pleasing ourselves mightily with our self-denial.”

Be perfect, we’re told, as your Father in heaven is perfect. That maxim alone has sent many a confused teenager careening into a ditch. It’s the kind of self-improvement slogan for moral and spiritual perfection that gets weaponized in the hands of leaders who sincerely believe that the Second Advent is delayed indefinitely by our fallibility. But in these latter times, we’ve learned that the phrase is best translated “be complete,” somehow more reassuring even as we attempt to square the circle.

In my teens, I began to grasp the geologic depths of God’s love for us in the person and being of Jesus. Through the fieldwork of certain spiritual geologists—teachers, musicians, poets and pastors—the strata of evidence pointing to God’s reach over the centuries came to light. Prophets and parables, ages of sages, scriptures and songs, odes and stories, stars and rivers, devils and dust—all of it was there for the taking.

But that was the thing: how were we to act on all this? On the one hand, there were the teachers of the law, sincere and thin-lipped, who confirmed there was nothing good in us, yet we must fulfill every jot and tittle of the law in order to qualify for God’s love. By contrast, there was another party, cheerful and expansive, who held there was nothing we could do to earn God’s love, that it was all God’s doing, and our part was only to believe. Faith against works, a classic standoff. It was Paul against James in the ring, with Luther scoring the punches. The net effect of all this was a paralyzed indecisiveness, a post-modernist Protestant constriction of the bowels of our hearts. We were no good and there was nothing we could do.

Somewhere in transmission the message was garbled. All our righteousness was as filthy rags. Fair enough, our best efforts weren’t going to save us. Christ died to save us from our sins. True enough, and we couldn’t begin to calculate how pervasive our sins were. But after repentance and conversion, what then? A friend turned his life over to Christ, only to await instructions on what to wear each day. One pastor I knew implored us week after week to cling to the foot of the cross. But even Jesus left the cross within hours, as the arc of God’s justice bridged the abyss of death and touched down in the kingdom.

I found myself with Thomas, doubtful and needing evidence. ‘Touch me and see,’ said Jesus, and then gently, ‘Happy are those who never saw me and yet have found faith.’ I am also on the road to Emmaus, heartbroken and confused, but listening with rising awe to the history of the geology of God’s love, and then in stunned joy catching a glimpse of the Christ before he disappears.

According to the Gospel of John, some time passed after the disciples saw Jesus in the upper room after his resurrection. We don’t know how long it was but it was long enough that they finally furtively emerged from hiding, resigned to the fact that they were, after everything they’d seen and done, just fishermen again.

So off they go, fishing all night for nothing. In the morning light, a mysterious figure on the beach calls out to them a crazy thing. “Shoot the net to starboard and you’ll make a catch.” Fishermen knew to crowd the fish toward the beach on the port side in the shallow water, not the starboard side where the fish could dart out for the deep. But when, against their own practice and knowledge, they followed what the lone figure on the beach suggested, their catch was so great they couldn’t haul it in. Then they knew, and John exclaimed, “It’s the Lord! At that Peter jumped into the water and thrashed his way ashore. No walking on the water this time, just an electric surge of joy that it was Jesus on the beach. He jumped because that’s what Peter always did. He did not jump out of fear of breaking the rules or of guilt for not following them. He jumped for the love of the Son of Man.

Anything that compels us to cross that great divide between ourselves and God, that does not come from gratitude, will end in failure. It is a discipline not of compulsion but of love and longing.

“So that the love may be as great as possible, the distance is as great as possible,” comments Simone Weil, a person whose spirit burned with an intensity that resisted evil without becoming it.

She sees God, with our consent, conquering the soul. “And then when it has become entirely his, he abandons it. He leaves it completely alone, and it has in its turn, but gropingly, to cross the infinite thickness of time and space in search of him whom it loves. It is thus that the soul, starting from the opposite end, makes the same journey that God made toward it. And that is the cross.”

“He is as near to thee as the vein in your neck,” says the Qu’ran. And so, like the prodigals we are, we are drawn home at last across the universe.

Photo: Joshua Earle, Unsplash.com

The Doubtful Pilgrim

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“Doubt wisely; in strange way

To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;

To sleep, or run wrong, is.” John Donne, Satire III

If there is one thing I should like to give up for Lent it would be impatience. I do not look like an impatient fellow to my friends, but that is because I have perfected an expression of benign composure that covers a roiling sea of clashing thoughts and enough second-guessing to keep me dithering in place. Rarely do I accelerate down the golden road of certainty without fishing in the glove compartment of my memory for maps of alternate routes.

Usually, people give up something they like for Lent, such as chocolate or the movies or donuts. The idea is that such a sacrifice, however provisional, will concentrate the mind long enough to focus on more serious things. Somehow that seems off-point to me, not really weighty enough to bend the needle on the spiritual Change-O-Meter. And one of the unintended consequences is the flagrant growth of spiritual pride. So, I would hope to give up something that will make a difference, something I don’t like.

Although I have come lately to an awareness of Lent, I understand it to be a season for introspection, for searching ourselves for our motives and attitudes. It is a way to examine our spiritual habits, those ingrained neural pathways that can free us up for deeper thought or can dull our sensitivities. We may also liken Lent to a pilgrimage of the spirit, a way to cast a look backward along our path and then forward to where we hope to go.

Impatience isn’t all wrong; it can spur us to cut through our hesitation over things that are trivial. Sometimes it really doesn’t matter which brand of chips you buy in an aisle with dozens of slight variations on a theme. But most of the time impatience makes us cut corners, disregard the context, and nullify the nuances.

Sometimes impatience is a form of intellectual laziness. We don’t want to think a thing through; it’s easier just to jump the gap to the closest conclusion and hope to find a handhold. People who are good at math and actually like it assure me that finding the solution to the problem is as much about the steps in the process as it is about cresting the mountain to find — surprise! — the summit. There’s an elegance there, they say, a beauty in the way the symbols lead one through the maze to the fountain at the center.

I just wonder what fiend thought it would be fun to make x stand for something unknown. What are they trying to hide, I wondered in math class. If I can see the solution, why do I have to go through all the steps to prove I got there?

There is a saying that I’ve begun to find irritating, partly because I’ve used it myself since it was cheap and available, but mostly because it doesn’t square with my experience. The saying is: “Getting there is half the fun.” We usually cite this phrase when it is manifestly untrue, when getting there was an unconscionable slog, only redeemed by the fact that ultimately, we prevailed and finally did get there.

I feel this way about flying these days. A journey of two hours of actual flying time inevitably becomes six or even eight hours of travel time (ah, there’s the unknown x in the equation!), once you factor in getting to the airport two hours early, trudging shoeless through TSA, suffering the delay while the airline waits for a missing part to be delivered through rush hour traffic, and then the final half-hour on the tarmac while we gaze at the airport terminal. No, getting there is not half the fun. It’s not even an eighth of the fun. It is not fun.

There is a related phrase that I do appreciate, however, despite my struggle with impatience. That is, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.” Granted, it might seem too similar to pass inspection, but there is a difference — context matters.

I am thankful to have come from a religious tradition that regards our passage through this life as a pilgrimage. It teaches us that pilgrims have their eyes set on a future home and thus, in this journey one must travel light, unencumbered by the excess of having that ties one down. It is part of our traditional hope in the Second Advent of Christ, that portal through which we imagine justice and peace just beyond the foreground of the breakup of all things on this earth.

An image that captured this for me as I studied the philosophy of Gabriel Marcel was his description of us as Homo Viator, humans as wanderers and wayfarers, whose provisions for our journey are indeed “pro-visions,” those acts of imagination and faith which stimulate us before we set out and which sustain us on the journey.

We are restless beings, says Marcel, forever longing for transcendence and fulfillment. That hunger lures us onward, what C. S. Lewis called Sehnsucht, the longing for a joy that will never be completely satisfied on this earth. We have choices to make, implies Marcel, between resigning ourselves to the absurdity of traveling without meaning until we die or rising to the risk of faith that we shall discover ourselves in God through hope and trust while on the road.

Here is where patience must play its part and where doubt becomes the handmaiden of faith. “Doubt wisely,” advises John Donne in the epigram. “To stand inquiring right is not to stray.” We have no need to rush on the way; our journey toward the kingdom yet to come does not hasten or prevent its coming. What matters is that we find our way forward in faith, remembering experience but not hampered by it, attentive to our reasonable doubts.

Donne continues with the famous metaphor:

On a huge hill,

Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will

Reach her, about must and about must go,

And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.

Some of the really important things in life must be approached indirectly. Doubt can foster patience, the willingness to traverse that huge hill around and around, climbing higher as we go, learning in the journey toward the truth as it is in Christ.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, mused Robert Frost. I looked down one as far as I could . . . and then took the one less traveled by. And that, of course, has made all the difference.

If we will it to be, our capacity to doubt will be matched by our desire for truth; ironically, we doubt because we want only authentic faith, the kind to sustain us through our doubt. And so, it seems that after all, now would be a good time for a pilgrimage of the heart.

Photo: Vincent Riszdorfer, Unsplash.com

Jonah’s Bad Trip: A Lenten Meditation

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”Lent is a time set aside to reorient ourselves, to clarify our minds, to slow down, recover from distraction, to focus on the values of God’s kingdom and on the value he has set on us and on our neighbors.” Malcolm Guite, The Word in the Wilderness

As prophets go, Jonah went—as far away as he could from this thunderous, all-seeing, lion of a god who could pick him up and shake him like a rag doll. It was no use; he’d taken a ship to Tarshish, roughly in the opposite direction from Nineveh, which was picturesquely situated far out on the burning plains of what would much later become Iraq.

Most prophets decidedly did not want the job; long hours, no benefits, one’s very presence tended to make the children cry and the dogs bark. And it could get you killed. The killing part is what Jonah objected to the most.

So, he rushed down to the docks, paid the captain and went aboard without so much as an overnight case. This raised suspicion. Most of the passengers on ships out of port were merchants. Jonah looked like a fugitive, but he paid up front, so the captain took him aboard. He told the first mate to keep an eye on him though. There was something fishy about him.

The first day out a tremendous storm came up. The wind roared and cracked through the rigging and the deck was slippery with foam. The crew flung the cargo over the rails to keep the ship afloat and it was all they could do to keep the bow headed into the waves. It being a multi-ethnic and polytheistic crew, they were desperately calling on their gods for relief when someone thought to search out their odd passenger.

He was found deep in the hold, asleep in a fetal position. Finding this both unnerving and insulting under the circumstances, the captain shook him awake and forced him topside. “What are you doing asleep! Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.”

Since all the usual gods had been accounted for and the storm still raged on, the sailors cast lots to see who was at fault. When the lot fell to Jonah, the men rounded on him. “What’s your business? Where do you come from? Who are your people?”

“I’m a Hebrew,” he replied. “I serve the God who made the sea and the dry land.” At this, the crew gasped and drew back. “What did you do?” they demanded, and as the storm increased in fury they screamed, “What should we do to you to quiet this storm?”

“Throw me overboard,” he cried out, “It’s my fault this storm is upon us.”

Let us pause here a moment to consider Jonah’s plight. He is a prophet on the run from the God who controls all of the world. Perhaps it was simply a reflex to run, to escape a frightful duty. But it was a duty imposed by a God whose reach extends over the globe and who controls heaven, the sea, and the earth. A prophet on the run from a God like that is the living embodiment of futility and Jonah knows it.

To their credit, the crew sees flinging a man overboard in a whip-lashing storm as the last resort. They row for shore, even though if they succeed, they will crash on the rocks. But they row anyway, without progress, in the teeth of this blinding gale until, at last, exhausted and fearful, they pray for mercy from Jonah’s god for throwing him overboard, and then over he goes. No doubt they see it as a sacrifice to a capricious god who can be appeased by a human sinking down into the cruel depths.

Does Jonah think the same way? In his state, confused, angry, bitter, and afraid he may have felt he had nothing left, that his flight from the all-seeing God was a sure sign of his guilt, but that somehow, some way, this was all God’s fault. But Jonah would get even. He’d die in the waves and then God would be sorry.

At this point, the story takes a wild turn. In fact, it becomes a fable, replete with a fantastic animal. Scholars are unsure of when this story was written, although it was most certainly long after Nineveh had vanished into history. As a historical event it doesn’t meet the bar, but as a story with a point, how could it be better?

A fugitive on the lam from God gets swallowed by a big fish, spends three days and three nights in the depths of both the ocean and the fish’s innards, and after a heartfelt prayer for salvation, is vomited (the Hebrew here is precise) up on the beach, dazed and slimy. It’s a perfect set-up for comedy and drama.

Onward, then! No time to lose! There’s a whole city of wicked people to be warned, after which Jonah (he imagines) will be ceremonially cut into pieces and fricasseed over an open fire, all for the glory of the all-seeing God. Let’s get this over with.

We can’t fault Jonah too much for a grim outlook. He stood in a long line of prophets who understood that their messages, however compelling, would usually fall on deaf ears, and at the very least they would be mocked and scorned. He had also grasped, with singular clarity, that while most of the top tier of Hebrew prophets risked derision only from their own people, he, Jonah, was compelled to thrust God’s warning under the noses of their ancestral enemies, a people wholly given over to unholy practices and unvarnished blasphemy. In the history of Israel, the Ninevites were the ultimate bogeymen, renowned for dragging their prisoners by hooks through the nose. And that was tender and thoughtful compared to what lay ahead for those who survived the long trek back to the city. No, there was nothing for it: he had been singled out by God for this exquisite punishment. Pardon me, he thought bleakly, if I go to my death stinking of fish and short on manners.

“And the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh the great city, and call out to it the call that I speak to you.’ And Jonah got up and went to Nineveh according to the word of the Lord. And Nineveh was a great city of God’s, a three days’ walk across (Jonah 3: 1-3).”

Robert Alter’s commentary on Jonah in his magnificent three-volume translation, The Hebrew Bible (2019), cheerfully informs us that doing the math for a three-day walk across a city would give us a metropolis larger than Los Angeles, a sprawl no city in the ancient Near East could achieve, but if we regard it symbolically we see that just as Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days, so he will have three days to proclaim the message throughout Nineveh.

And it also appears that Nineveh, that great city, belongs to God, just like the sea, the mountains, donkeys, figs, and Israel. Jonah should feel right at home. Off he goes, then, striding a day’s walk toward the center, shouting as he went, “Forty days more, and Nineveh is overthrown.” And the people, the story says, trusted God and donned sackcloth and ashes and repented, just like that, from the greatest of them to the least.

The news travels like an invisible tsunami from the periphery to the center of the city where the king resides, and when it reaches him, he stands up, throws off his mantle, covers himself in sackcloth and sits down upon ashes (an observer wonders, did they keep sackcloth in the linen closet for just such an occasion?). The king makes a proclamation, remarkable in its force and comprehensiveness. Immediately, everyone, even the cattle and sheep, are commanded not to eat nor to drink water. “And man and beast shall cover themselves with sackcloth, and they shall call out to God with all their might . . . Who knows? Perhaps God will turn back and relent and turn back from His blazing wrath, and we shall not perish (Jonah 3:8,9).” There is an echo here of the ship captain who tossed out a similar hope that God might tamp down His wrath in order that they might live.

Cattle and sheep wearing sackcloth, an entire city wearing sackcloth, no one eating or drinking, everyone (even the animals) repenting of the evil they had done? It’s safe to say that no evangelist since has scored so complete a victory as Jonah. It’s a record that will stand for all time.

But of course, it wasn’t him. In fact, he did not take it well. “And the thing was very evil for Jonah, and he was incensed.” He was incensed enough to pray to God in complaint, virtually fizzing in anger. Isn’t this what I said when I was back home, he yells. I knew you would pull a trick like this! “For I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in kindness and relenting from evil.” So put me out of my misery — just kill me — I’m better off dead than alive. “And the Lord said, ‘Are you good and angry (Jonah 4:4)?’”

Yes, yes, you could say that, muttered Jonah bitterly. He retraced his steps, trudging out of the city up to a hill to the east where he made himself a shelter and sat down to watch what would happen. He wanted fire from heaven, napalm, and howitzers, the mother of all bombs to flatten this great city. Maybe that would make him feel better, salve his bruised ego and lower his blood pressure.

And God, smiling quietly to Himself and compassionate to a fault, “set out a qiqayon plant, and it rose up over Jonah to be a shade over his head to save him from his evil plight. And Jonah rejoiced greatly over the qiqayon.” And despite the long arms of the sun as it sets on that day, Jonah finds comfort in the shade and passes the night thankfully and well.

And in the morning, as the sun rises, God sends a hot wind to wither Jonah’s precious plant. Immediately, the bile rises in his throat, his blood pressure shoots skyward, and again he prays to die. The city, that great city, lies peacefully spread out below him, its inhabitants hungry but redeemed, its cattle and sheep bewildered by their sackcloth outfits and vaguely aware of how quiet it is.

“Are you good and angry over the qiqayon?” chuckles God. Jonah sighs, “I am good and angry, to the point of death.” We can almost hear the shake of the divine head and a hint of exasperation because of this child. You cared more about the plant than the people, says God. “And I, shall I not have pity for Nineveh the great city, in which there are many more than one hundred twenty thousand human beings who do not know between their right hand and their left, and many beasts (Jonah 4:11)?” And there, the fable ends.

***

We don’t know how Jonah got home again or if he did. The story leaves us with questions, like all good stories do. Did the animals get to go naked again? Is Jonah like the prodigal son’s elder brother? Can we drop our resentment at God’s forgiveness? Does God really love our enemies? Are we good and angry over His compassion? Can we forgive ourselves as He has forgiven us?

Can we go home again?

Photo: Anton Rusetsky, Unsplash.com

The Eyes of Your Heart

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“. . . so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.” — Ephesians 1:18,19

Once we understand there are many ways to enlighten our hearts, the horizon of possibilities before us widens. This is especially true when we seek beauty and truth — distinguishable and thus equally indispensable. When we find these sources, whether they be bathed in the center of God’s glory or reflecting God’s light from their centrifugal swings around the Son, they open to us new channels for perception.

Poetry penetrates deep to the heart, but indirectly. If you’re willing to look you can find the poets who somehow hear the music that beats in your bloodstream and when you read them, you understand yourself in ways you couldn’t have arrived at on your own. “When you encounter this splash of words,” writes priest and poet Mark Oakley, “you understand that ultimately poetry is not about factual information but human formation. Like water, language goes stagnant if it doesn’t move.”

When I first read Rainer Maria Rilke, this poet of the great silences, the man who was christened with a girl’s name for the sister who was lost, it was as if he had read my heart’s way and was speaking my longings in words that were almost holy. When I began with his Sonnets to Orpheus, I could only manage a page or two and then I’d have to put it aside and do something else for awhile, something that didn’t lay me open to the bone. If we can bear it, this is an opening to wonder and mystery.

Or maybe it’s music — Faure’s Requiem, or Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, or U2’s I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For or the tears that flow from Eric Clapton’s guitar through While My Guitar Gently Weeps during the “Concert for George.” That’s what Carlos Santana calls “Holy Ghost music,” something that happens between musicians and audience that goes beyond artistry and technique to a communion of fire and spirit.

These moments, these strands of bright beauty, are all around us, and if we choose, we can weave them together in our memories for a coat of many colors to wear on our dull and darker days. Their beauty, though ephemeral, is real in the moment: we can see them and feel them as they pass through us. But their greater power is that they remind us of something we’ve known and lost or once had but did not fully appreciate. They are signs of the ineffable, signals received from a source whose coordinates seem strangely familiar. As such, they give us practice in the exercise of faith.

***

“It is within man’s power to seek Him,” writes Rabbi Abraham Heschel in God in Search of Man, “it is not within his power to find Him. All Abraham had was wonder, and all he could achieve on his own was readiness to perceive. The answer was disclosed to him; it was not found by him.”

Heschel turns to Maimonides, who did not offer proof for the existence of God but said that the source of our knowledge of God is the ‘inner heart,’ the medieval name for intuition. We don’t apprehend God through a syllogism, but through an insight, a spiritual discernment.

It’s not that reason can’t play a role in spiritual things; reasoning often brings us into the neighborhood of faith and removes barriers to our willingness to listen. It provides a way to organize our categories: faith, evidence, rationality, miracles, finitude and infinity, eternity and time-boundedness, perfection and inexactitude, the sacred and the mundane. It helps us bracket our prejudices and recognize our standpoint. And it can reveal our inconsistencies and lapses in judgement. This is the stuff of the philosophy of religion, all of it intriguing, fascinating, compelling. But it can also keep God at a distance, an object to be argued about, not a Being who enthralls us. For that, we need the eyes of the heart. “Faith terminates not in a statement, not in a formula of words, but in God,” writes Thomas Merton in New Seeds of Contemplation.

Heschel continues: “But the initiative, we believe, is with man. The great insight is not given unless we are ready to receive.” Faith commences, God completes.

So here now is Paul, writing to his friends in Ephesus, rejoicing with them that their sins are forgiven, that God has chosen them to be filled with love, and that when the right time arrives the whole universe — heaven touching earth — will be brought into joyful harmony in Christ. That time is now, Paul insists. The “eyes of your heart” will perceive it through faith.

Here is the audaciousness which characterizes the apostolic community and which still — perhaps even more now — takes our breath away. In the midst of wearying journeys, dissensions and disputes, divisions which cut to the heart of who Paul and his friends thought they were because of Christ, he gathers up the threads of their faith in action and promises that this is indeed the first light of the new day of God’s kingdom.

Two millennia later this promise almost seems like mockery. Far from being a community without divisions, the Church seems to model the political world with all its coercion, bad faith, and posturing. We see the same underhandedness and false hope in the Church that plays out in a daily live-stream from any number of our politicians and corporate leaders. The Church as a body sometimes does not even reach the standard of respect and equality for people that our society continues to struggle toward. We Christians have a lot to answer for. Are we wandering in the wilderness?

Paul’s message to Jew and Gentile was that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. What had been promised for centuries, though covenants made were broken and straight places fell into crookedness, had now in the fullness of time come to pass. Quite beyond any power they might have exercised to move the cosmic forces into alignment, the promise was made good in spite of their weakness. Nothing they did could bring it into being nor could they prevent what God had planned from the foundation of the world. It was a gift open to all who could see it, a world reborn.

Paul has heard of the faith of these Ephesians and their “love toward all the saints,” and he prays that God may give them “a spirit of wisdom and revelation.” To his friends at Ephesus — and to us — he says, “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens . . . of the household of God (Ephesians 2:19).”

To Paul, every little community of believers that formed was the household of God, a wavering light that would bloom brighter as their faith was seen in action.

The question was whether they could see this potential for themselves if the bonds of friendship and community they had begun could strengthen and flourish. Could they perceive God in the whirl and flux of this world? The eyes of their hearts would see the hope to which God had called them, the richness of belonging to this great cloud of witnesses, and the greatness of God’s power to sustain them.

Faith commences, God completes. Believing is seeing.

Photo: Shalom Mwenesi, Unsplash.com

Planks and Sawdust

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“He answered me:

‘Like someone with faulty vision, we can behold

Remote things well, for so much light does He

Who rules supreme still grant us; but we are foiled

When things draw near us, and our intelligence

Is useless when they are present.’” Dante, Inferno, Canto X:100-105

In Dante’s Inferno the damned in the sixth circle of hell are allowed to see far into the future, but in a remarkable detail in God’s plan they know nothing of the present nor can they see what is happening right in front of them. In life, consumed by ambition and the grasp for power, they ignored those closest to them, while they schemed and strategized against their enemies. In the chess game that was 13th-century Florentine politics, these men planned out their deadly moves against their opponents, while they could not see clearly how their actions affected their own families. In Dante’s Hell, the sinners are cursed to suffer the symbolic effects of the sins they committed in life. Because they did not see on Earth they will not see in Hell.

***

Luke 6 is about the relationship between our intentions, our character, and our actions, and how those actions reverberate throughout the circles of our relationships. In contrast to Matthew’s sermon given from the mountain, Luke’s version has Jesus coming down from the hills at daybreak and choosing twelve out of the crowd of disciples, (in Greek mathetas, ‘those who follow’) and designating them apostles. Then he stands at the foot of the hill, “on level ground,” and addresses the hundreds who have come from Jerusalem, and from as far away as Tyre and Sidon, to hear him and to be healed.

It’s a message that exactly reverses what we might expect. We’ve skimmed it so many times that we no longer see how radical it is, how the good news it proclaims is bad news for some, how confounding it must have been for those who thought Jesus was launching his Messiahship.

He begins with the punchline, the message that was most pointed, that like an arrow pointed to the largest group listening to him that day: “How blest are you who are poor; the kingdom of God is yours.” The words that follow are paradoxical: those who weep now will laugh, those who are hated will dance for joy. Then, with a hinge that shows Luke’s literary skill, the reversals are stated. The rich have had their fun; now they face hardship. The well-fed will be hungry, those who laugh will be weeping.

The clincher is that those who mourn now stand in a long line of people who have suffered unjustly, including the true prophets of old, and those who garner all the praise now should know that people spoke well of the false prophets back in the day too.

Jesus then turns to such politically incorrect sayings as “Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you” and “turn the other cheek” and “treat others as you would like them to treat you.” His disciples must go beyond the reciprocal manners of doing good to those who do good to them; that is just standard social courtesy. What the kingdom expects has a much deeper meaning, one that transforms relationships and begins with self-awareness and humility.

Jesus’ social communication skills reveal a person who challenges us to exceed the minimum in social interaction. “Pass no judgement and you will not be judged,” he says, “do not condemn and you will not be condemned.” That’s the minimum. Just as “sinners” (those who flout the finer points of the law or whose professions place them outside the community) love those who love them most people know they’ll get back what they dish out to others. There is a common ethic that most people subscribe to, an enlightened self-interest that expects some give-and-take and is willing to give some leeway to others until pushed to defend oneself. In that way, we can claim to be as good as we are expected to be.

But to be disciples, those who follow Jesus, there is a higher standard that comes from love. Duty does the minimum, but love attempts the maximum. Duty follows the rules, but love seizes opportunities. Duty does what is required and no more, but love acts spontaneously. Duty wants a receipt; love says, “Don’t worry about it.” The “sons (and daughters) of the Most High” will be compassionate toward the ungrateful and the wicked, just as God is compassionate.

He offers them a parable about the blind leading the blind and both falling into a ditch, and then he follows up with a parable that speaks of the kind of self-awareness and humility that is foundational for discipleship.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye, with never a thought for the great plank in your own? How can you say to your brother, ‘My dear brother, let me take the speck out of your eye’ when you are blind to the plank in your own? You hypocrite! First, take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s.” (Luke 6: 41,42)

As metaphors go this is vintage Jesus—heavy on the hyperbole, richly vivid in imagery, delivered with a twinkle in his eye. But he is serious. The disciples learned that no matter where they stood in the social register, they were to be leaders in ethics. They are followers of Jesus now; they will be teachers of others, and a teacher cannot teach what he has not learned. Character makes influence a live possibility, and influence, in turn, helps shape character. We’re known by what we produce, by what people around us can see of us in our behavior. “By their fruits, you shall know them” is not just a Biblical saying, it’s how we navigate our relationships and place our trust in others. As such, it’s the foundation of a society. Out of the abundance of character the fruit of the heart is grown.

Are disciples to be silent about evil and injustice then? “The ban on speck-hunting,” notes G. B. Caird wryly in his commentary, Saint Luke, “does not, of course, mean that Christians must condone evil or refrain from forming moral judgements. This is a parable about personal relationships.”

***

Most college and university teachers I know have at times suffered from “imposter syndrome,” that dread feeling that students will see right through you to the vast, empty, and echoing interior of your knowledge warehouse. If you teach ethics, as I did for many years, you feel the pressure even more. I wondered, at times, how I had the nerve to stand up in front of students who demanded at the very least that I always knew what I was talking about, and who expected, in varying degrees of interest, that I flawlessly practiced what I preached. But there is some comfort in the very realization of how much we lack; if we can see our condition we can, at least, do something about it.

In order to follow Jesus, we need to see where we’re going. It also helps to be aware of how much we don’t yet know nor do. Planks in the eye get in the way of that. What I have noticed is that if you pray for help to remove your plank God may send you someone with clearer vision than your own, someone with a speck of sawdust in her eye. Plank removal may begin when you see that person’s speck and then realize your own condition. This ordinance of humility can have the effect of deepening our self-reflection as we learn through observation. For all of us have something in our eyes that clouds our vision.

“If we are humble,” writes Thomas Merton, “and if we believe in the Providence of God, we will see that our mistakes are not merely a necessary evil . . . they enter into the very structure of our existence. It is by making mistakes that we gain experience, not only for ourselves but for others.”

Jesus once restored the sight of a blind man by putting saliva on his eyes and then touching him. “Can you see anything?” he asked. “I see people,” said the fellow, “but they look like trees, walking.” Jesus touched his eyes again, and the man looked intently, and this time he saw everything clearly. Some commentators note that Matthew and Luke did not use this story from Mark, perhaps because they were embarrassed that it took Jesus two tries to heal the man. But I think the story is meant for all of us for whom seeing clearly does not happen all at once.

Photo: Alexandru Zdrobau

Three Degrees of Success

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If the audience easily recognizes the three degrees of failure (birds, rocks, thorns), how would it interpret those three degrees of success (thirty, sixty, hundredfold)—even in the literal microcosm of sowing? Jesus’s parable seems quite ready to expect and accept degrees of failure and of success. — John Dominic Crossan, The Power of Parable

“Listen!” Jesus is saying, “a sower went out to sow.” The people on the shore listening smile and nudge one another. The Master is on a roll, telling his stories. There are so many people gathered that he’s in a boat a few feet offshore, speaking to the crowds by the lake in the late afternoon sun.

He speaks in parables, short stories whose meaning lies outside the literal elements of the story and points toward a moral or theological purpose, what New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan defines as “a story that never happened but always does—or at least should.”

The Parable of the Sower in Mark’s gospel (Mark 4:1-20) assures us of God’s pleasure at any degree of return on crops planted. In Mark’s version of the parable, Jesus tells of the loss of seeds to the birds, to rocky soil, and to thorns that choke their growth. But for the seeds that land in good soil and survive there is an eventual harvest. Some patches have a return of thirty percent, some up to sixty percent, and others — perhaps optimistically — a full one hundred percent. The Sower tends them through their growth cycle right up to the harvest and is glad for whatever they produce. Reading this, we never get the feeling there’s anything less than delight and satisfaction for the sixties or even for the thirties. They’ve taken root, they’ve flourished, and they’re ready for the harvest. Next year maybe there will be more.

Mark tells us that Jesus “began to teach them many things in parables,” these pithy, sometimes enigmatic stories that puzzled and angered the religious authorities, and seemed to trip up the disciples as well. This parable, by Mark’s reckoning one of the most important in Jesus’ teachings, shows us that God is realistic about our growth rate and unfazed by what we are now.

We grow and develop spiritually at different rates and in different ways. For some, the obstacles to trusting God can be formidable. If our trust has consistently been sabotaged by parents, friends, and others — those we can actually see — why would we trust an invisible God? For others, trust comes easier. They’ve had the good fortune to grow up with people who could be counted on to keep their promises and who usually chose to do their best for their children. Or maybe they just have the “religious knack,” as religion scholar and author, Karen Armstrong, puts it.

After the crowds leave and Jesus is alone with his disciples, they press around him. Why does he speak in parables, they ask? Why doesn’t he just tell the people straight out what they should and shouldn’t do? It’s easier, quicker, and there’s less chance of being misunderstood. Don’t you get it? he asks, surprised. “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables?” And he tells the parable again, annotating and explaining as he goes, filling in with more details the story he had told in brief to the crowds. He seems to think of this one as a template, that in some way it holds the key to understanding how he uses any parable, which, in turn, is the way he most often communicates his good news about the kingdom of God. It may also keep him from being arrested.

John Dominic Crossan, a New Testament scholar, puts forward the view in The Power of Parable that Jesus was using this common story-telling device in a new way as a challenge to the status quo. Parables operate as metaphors, a Greek term which means “‘carrying something over” from one thing to another,’” writes Crossan, “and thereby ‘seeing something as another’ or ‘speaking of something as another.’” The challenge in these metaphors, he continues, is this: “If tradition is changed, it may be destroyed. If tradition is not changed, it will be destroyed. That is the challenge of this and of all other challenge parables.”

It challenges those who place burdens of guilt cemented in tradition on the ones who seek the kingdom by telling them they are not worthy to come as they are. And it challenges we who are called — not because there isn’t room for us in the kingdom, but because we do not stop to listen to the call. And if we do listen and respond, we may be fighting the idea that we have to be free from sin in order to apply and to qualify. But it’s the Sower who sows, not us.

We are tempted to wait until our potential for spiritual growth comes naturally, without effort. We are tempted to measure ourselves by those we admire or against a list of virtues or the gifts of the Spirit. We succumb to these temptations because we compare ourselves to others and we become impatient when we don’t see in our lives the virtues that take time to develop. As for gifts, we may be born with them or get them later in life, but in either case, we don’t generate them.

We are quick to judge others. If we keep our judgements of others to ourselves it’s all to the good. In time, we may even judge them less. When the ratio of judgement to empathy and understanding begins to change we’ll see them much differently. We will see ourselves differently too, perhaps as people who can forgive in spite of not yet forgetting. Patience, grasshopper.

We are quick to judge ourselves, a response that is hard-wired into most of us. Thankfully, we usually know when we’ve gone off the tracks. Thomas Merton has said that we don’t need to create a conscience. “We are born with one, and no matter how much we may ignore it, we cannot silence its insistent demand that we do good and avoid evil.” Still, a lot of us find ourselves rehashing the same arguments with others and with ourselves, over and over in our heads, attacking with our vorpal swords and blocking the parrying blows. And while passing judgment on ourselves is not quite the same as exercising our conscience, it often feels like it, enough that we may desire “the rotten luxury of self-pity,” as Merton says, and just leave it at that.

But like the seed which the Sower sowed, we grow as we go, for there is no practicing before we enter life, only a continual trial-by-error. Self-reflection — not the same as debilitating self-criticism — helps us see ourselves as we are. And as someone has said, God loves us the way we are, but he doesn’t want us to stay the way we are. So, we walk by faith, not by sight, as we are renewed from day to day.

Barbara Brown Taylor, in her collection of sermons, The Seeds of Heaven, gives us a way to read the Parable of the Sower that upends our expectations about the kind of ground we are supposed to be.

“The focus is not on us and our shortfalls but on the generosity of our maker, the prolific sower who does not obsess about the condition of the fields, who is not stingy with the seed but who casts it everywhere, on good soil and bad, who is not cautious or judgmental or even very practical, but who seems willing to keep reaching into his seed bag for all eternity, covering the whole creation with the fertile seed of his truth.”

As Jesus said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”

Photo: Jonathan Bowers, Unsplash.com