Speaker for the Dead

Photo by Joshua Humpfer on Unsplash

”Poets exist so that the dead may vote.”1

I was reading the lead essay in Helen Vendler’s The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar, in which she makes an argument for the arts to replace philosophy and history at the heart of the humanities. “The arts are true to the way we are and were,” she writes, “to the way we actually live and have lived—as singular persons swept by drives and affections, not as collective entities or sociological paradigms.”2

Somehow, I jumped from that bountiful essay to reflecting on my own conflicted attitude toward the Psalms. I’ve never really liked the book as a whole. The headliners like the 23rd Psalm, the 46th (“There is a river whose streams gladden the city of God”), the 51st (“Create in me a pure heart”), and the 103rd (“Bless the Lord, my soul, and forget none of his benefits”), always touched me. But so many of them, even the crowd-pleasers, seemed so contradictory to a loving God.

Dashing out the brains of the enemy’s babies? Boasting about the thousands put to the sword? Hardly the stuff of repentance and lovingkindness. Most of them were altogether too vengeful, too consumed with complaint, too . . . cruelly honest. They were not Christian, they were vitriolic. Some of them were frankly embarrassing.

I had tried. In college, I had gone on a tear through C. S. Lewis’ best works, including his Reflection on the Psalms, but alas, not much of it had lodged with me to be called up in reflective moments.

I did remember this though: “Where we find a difficulty we may always expect that a discovery awaits us.”3 And he taught me to regard them as poetry. That was key.

I devoted a couple of months to Sir Philip Sidney’s translation of the Psalms in Elizabethan metered poetry. Sidney was already an accomplished poet when he translated the first forty-three psalms. After he died from battle injuries in 1586 at the age of thirty-two, his sister Mary, a patron of the arts and fluent in French, Italian, and Latin, completed the Sidney Psalter, translating the remaining 107 psalms and revising many of Philip’s. John Donne, a close friend, and George Herbert, Mary’s distant cousin, both treasured these poems, Donne remarking that they are “the highest matter in the noblest form.”4

I read the Psalms in various translations, from the KJV to the NEB to the NIV to The Message Bible, in hopes that I could see below the surface to the treasure so many have mined for thousands, thousands!, of years. What was wrong with me?

My grandfather read his Bible through every year for seventy years. I still have it, marked and annotated, the pages now brittle but the colored underlinings and remarks in the margins still legible. The Book of the Psalms was among his most favorite Old Testament readings; he had memorized long passages.

When something in us resists the natural leap of curiosity and honest interest, we need to back up and look more closely. Is it a rock in the stream, around which our lives may flow? Must it be blasted apart and the pieces scattered? Or is it our rock to roll, like Sisyphus, forever?

I wasn’t sure, but I knew I needed a break. After I put the Sidney Psalter back on the shelf, I didn’t study the Psalms for years. Aside from looking up the occasional text or coming across a verse in some other work, I left them alone.

But I kept encountering them everywhere I went. Evensong at Winchester Cathedral, as the choir’s clear tones drifted up to the vaulted ceiling. Verses embedded on almost every page of Augustine’s Confessions. A concert with U2 where thousands of us sang, “How long to sing this song,” from Psalm 40, as one by one the band members left the stage, until drummer Larry Mullen, Jr., finished the chorus and the concert with a definitive snap.

And when I created a visual presentation memorializing the nine people murdered in a Charleston church by a white supremacist, I instinctively turned to Psalm 44: “Why do you sleep, O Lord?” And, “You have made us a byword among the nations, a laughingstock among the peoples.”5 In times of grief and anger only the Psalms will do.

The Psalms, like the prophets, are a fever reading of the body of believers. They scorch, they curl up at the edges, they blister my doily-shaped Christian heart and sensibilities. “The gain in this for the study of the Psalms,” says Walter Brueggemann, “is that it shows how the psalms of negativity, the complaints of various kinds, the cries for vengeance and profound penitence are foundational to a life of faith in this particular God.” Then he adds, “Much Christian piety and spirituality is romantic and unreal in its positiveness.”6

I was reading the Psalms for comfort, filtering out the harsh cries and the din of conflict. When the Psalmist agonized over God’s abandonment of him, I cut him off. But I couldn’t deny that the absence of God was the presence of my own starless darkness. I had felt that too. Refusing the eclipse of God brought no light. And it flat-lined the life of the spirit, “losing all the highs and lows,” refusing to take the pain that comes to us all along with happiness. Most of all, it was a closing up to the full human experience, a filtering out of the contact points that unite people in empathy with one another, even across centuries. The writers of the Psalms, I had to concede, dressed in their full humanity.

Perhaps that was my problem, an introvert wandering dazed through a city of humankind riotously celebrating in the streets. For someone who would rather be led by the still waters than to run with the bulls, the Psalms swallowed whole can burn all the way down.

***

Left to myself with a Bible, my inclination is to take the door to the right that leads to the Gospels, rather than the door to the left which leads to the Law and the Prophets. Like a lot of Christians, I’ll take my chances with Jesus more readily than with Ezekiel or Nehemiah. But Jesus knew the prophets, and he lived and breathed the Law, cutting to the beating heart of it with a love that penetrated the tough skin of righteousness.

And he sang himself and the disciples through the fields, over the waves, under the moonlit sky and up to the dawn with the Psalms. They were his poetry, his praise, his lament, and his agony. In his mouth, with these songs, the noble dead could sing again. “Sing to him a new song; strike up with all your art and shout in triumph.7 That art, to which Helen Vendler unknowingly pointed me, is true to the way we actually live and have lived.

At the end Jesus cried out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” With his lungs crushed and his mouth caked, was he quoting the first verse of Psalm 22? Or was it a cry from the heart that any human being would make? And if he had had the breath would he have wrung out one last defiant shout: “But I shall live for his sake . . .”?8

  1. Wiesel, Elie. Quoted in Brueggemann, Walter. Spirituality of the Psalms. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2002, p. xiv.
  2. Vendler, Helen. The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2015, p. 16.
  3. Lewis, C. S. Reflections on the Psalms. San Francisco: HarperCollins EPub edition 2017, p. 32.
  4. The Sidney Psalter: The Psalms of Sir Philip and Mary Sidney. Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Hannibal Hamlin, Michael G. Brennan, Margaret P. Hannay, and Noel J. Kinnamon. Oxford: Oxford Press, 2009, p. xxxi.
  5. Ps. 44:23,14, NEB.
  6. Brueggemann, p. xii.
  7. Ps. 33:3, NEB.
  8. Ps. 22:29, NEB.

Neo-Revisionist Christian Pessimism

Photo by Fahad bin Kamal Anik on Unsplash

“If Christianity is pessimistic as to man, it is optimistic as to human destiny. Well, I can say that, pessimistic as to human destiny, I am optimistic as to man.”1

The epigraph is from Albert Camus, a writer I have long admired. Something like this provokes questions. Are Christians really pessimistic about humanity? Do we place all our eggs in an eschatological basket? If you’re kind of a glass-half-empty sort of person to begin with are you already at a moral deficit as a Christian?

My difference from Camus is with the word “optimistic.” It has become a catch-all term for positive feelings about the present, but even more so about the future. Optimisms are the training wheels for hope, a deeper, more substantial, virtue. Optimism may be a mood, a sparking fizz in the moment. Hope is the marrow in the bones; without it we cannot fight off the infection of despair.

But Camus did not hold hope of the kind seen in Christians and Christianity. His was a sensual consciousness, an eros of the sun, sky, sea, and mountains. He loved this Earth in part because it is all we have. He was fiercely protective of it. It makes you wonder what he would have said — and done — had he lived to see the evidence of climate change.

I’m not sure a lot of Christians feel the same way about the Earth. At least within my religious community, a robust theology of creation gives way to the dry orthodoxy of a literal six-day creation and a young earth.

But as I was saying: Hope is so much a part of the Christian ethos that it’s almost heresy to admit a certain pessimism in one’s temperament. Someone — maybe Nietzsche — said all philosophy is biography. If you understand the context and history of a person, you can see how their philosophy of life flows from their origin as surely as a river can be traced back to its spring.

Hope’s source is external: it comes to us from somewhere, someone, else, but it answers a deeply felt need. Optimism, I think, is generated from within. It’s not the same as hope. We foster it, like we induce the feelings of sadness and respect at the funeral of someone we barely know. We’re optimistic when we need a lift of the spirits. The sun will come out tomorrow, we say, when all is gray around us. But in traffic, amongst the distractions of our lives, optimism can dissolve when met with obstacles and delay. It’s like when a politician emerges from budget talks and says to the press, “I am optimistic that we’ll reach a deal soon.” She’s really saying, “We’ve got nothing, we’re at a complete stalemate, but I’m putting on my brave face.”

Delay, now there’s a trigger word for Christians. We’ve been struggling with delay since Jesus said, “If I go and prepare a place for you, I shall come again and receive you to myself . . .”2 It was enough of a question in the earliest Christian communities that Paul reminded the believers in Thessalonika that “the Day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night.”3 He asked them to go about their business with a sober mind, armed with faith and love. When the Lord returned, if they were alive to see it, they wouldn’t be caught out like everybody else, but they’d look up with joy and say, “Good! You’re here, we’ve waited for you.” Until then, said Paul, “hearten one another, fortify one another.”4

Paul’s observation that, “While they are talking of peace and security, all at once calamity is upon them,” gets warped in Christian circles in truly disastrous ways.5 Thus, peace-making becomes defiance of God’s will, as if Christians joining with others to bring about peace and justice is a betrayal and an obstruction of God’s world-ending plans. This is like saying that drawing a bath for the baby reveals an intention to drown the baby.

The fact that efforts at peace and justice are often thwarted is no reason for Christians or anyone else not to try. This gospel imperative to work toward resolving conflict in order to create conditions in which justice and mercy can flourish is bedrock to true Christianity. It is hard work. It does not come naturally. It is, in fact, a discipline that we take on ourselves as humans. For people of faith, whether that be faith in God’s justice or faith in upholding human dignity, this is crucial. And it is deeply engrained with hope.

Having faith is what sustains us to act in life. We have faith in each other, we have faith in God, we have faith in ourselves. Faith is good. What makes the difference, said Paul Tillich, is what we consider our ultimate concern. Faith as ultimate surrender is directed toward that which is ultimate. In Tillich’s theology that would be God. If we make anything else other than God our ultimate concern, whether it be the inevitable march of history, scientific progress, ideologies, church doctrines, or the economic power of capitalism, we will, says Tillich, be betrayed. “They’ll hurt you and desert you. They’ll take your soul if you let them. But don’t you let them,” sang James Taylor.

Christians live like Jonah in the belly of a paradox, said Thomas Merton. We are here in this world where we belong, but we’re asked to put our ultimate trust in a being “whose center is everywhere but whose circumference is nowhere.”6 “I am with you always,” Jesus assured the disciples, “even to the end of the age.”7 Forty years later, Paul had to remind his community this was still true. It’s still true today: their faith needed hope then, we need it today.

***

I was drawn to Camus as a teenager because of his sober lucidity and his courageous agnosticism. He spoke to my doubts and fears in language that was lyrical and without guile. When he looked up from his beloved Mediterranean Sea, he saw no heaven — “above us only sky.” That was a challenge to me. I believed in a new heaven and a new earth.

When his Dr. Rieux stoically cared for the sick and dying in The Plague, and Father Paneloux, the priest, thundered about God’s judgement on the people of Oran, my heart was with Rieux. He did what was right because it was right and because he could not sign on to a religion that condoned the death of children as part of God’s righteous judgement. I couldn’t see it either, but I had no recourse or understanding of anything else at the time.

Camus’ remarks in the epigraph were spoken to the monks of the Dominican Monastery of Latour-Maubourg in 1948. Read in context, they are a swift, but gloved, uppercut to the smug indulgence of Christians and Communists for their optimism. Whether it be based on God or history, argued Camus, their optimism passively awaited a future. In the meantime, the slaughter of the innocents went on while they watched cheerfully from the sidelines.

We are faced with evil, said Camus to the monks. We could spend our time arguing over its source. Or we could do something about it. “Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured,” he pled. “But we can reduce the numbers of tortured children. And if you don’t help us, who else in the world can help us do this?”8

***

In time, I wrote a dissertation on hope, partly for the same vague reason that so many first-year college students declare a psychology major —because they’re trying to figure themselves out. I was trying to find how hope resists the strangling power of evil, having discovered that a low-grade pessimism was my default position in life. We all, like Paul, bear thorns in our sides.

What I had to find for myself was a view of God-in-Christ that could answer Camus’ critique — and not just answer it but stand in solidarity with it. A perspective on hope that came back from the future to transform the present, that gained its authenticity from suffering and its power from a great love.

Hope and experience: that was the tension that Camus lived within. It’s our experience with reality that so often saps our reservoir of hope. Too many promises made, too many broken, until we determine to live only by what we can do, only what we can accomplish. That is not wrong, it’s better than giving up. But it’s not enough.

Jurgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope opened my eyes and my heart. Jesus’ faithfulness got him crucified. He embodied compassion to the end, despite his fear and dread. His life and death created a space for God to work in the world and what God did changed everything.

The resurrection was God’s contradiction of everything Jesus suffered — all the humiliation, all the wickedness of evil. “Those who hope in Christ,” wrote Moltmann, “can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present.”9

For God’s pilgrim people, whoever they are, who struggle with pessimism — hopelessness by another name — Camus’ sturdy and hopeful humanism is a refreshing counterpoint. As Moltmann says, “Temptation . . . consists not so much in the titanic desire to be as God, but in weakness, timidity, weariness, not wanting to be what God requires of us.”10 It’s not the evil we do, but the good we do not do that accuses us. It’s our lack of hope.

In the end, my pessimism still flickers fitfully in the background, but my hope arises, nevertheless. I am promised that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.11 Even better is the assurance that his grace is sufficient for me.12 That should be enough.

  1. Camus, Albert. Resistance, Rebellion, and Death. Translated with an introduction by Justin O’Brien. New York: Vintage Books, 1995, p. 73.
  2. Jn. 14:3, NEB.
  3. 1 Thess. 5:1, NEB.
  4. 1 Thess. 5:11 NEB.
  5. 1 Thess. 5:3 NEB.
  6. Robinson, Marilynne. In “Marilynne Robinson’s Essential American Stories.” Casey Cep,
    September 25, 2020, New Yorker.
  7. Matt. 28:20 NEB.
  8. Camus, p. 73.
  9. Moltmann, Jurgen. Theology of Hope. Translated by James W. Leitch. New York: Harper and Row, 1975, p. 21.
  10. Moltmann, p. 22.
  11. Phil. 4:13, NEB.
  12. 2 Cor. 12:9, NEB.

The Paleness of Winter Light

”Describing the indescribable/Image into idea/

the transmission of the spirit/ It cannot be done.1

Photo by Quino AI on Unsplash

I have often been required to name my race on forms. Sometimes I have paused to regard the labels for other races. What if I were to check another box, say, Hispanic, Asian, or African-American? What does it mean if I check the “Caucasian” box? What’s in these labels or categories that gives them such power to define my identity? What is a “Caucasian”?

In the early part of my life my racial identity did not figure into who I thought I was. It was only noticeable to me when it contrasted with others, and since there were very few people of color in my small Northern California college town, being white was as remarkable as having elbows. I did not think about who I might unconsciously threaten or intimidate by my whiteness, who I might offend, who might fall silent around me because of my race.

In the Sixties, with the social culture exploding around me, I began to realize the complexity of color as an identifier. I had thought of whiteness as the absence of color, almost a deficit of interest, a blankness. White was neutral. At least I thought it was.

On the other hand, Black Americans were pushing back on the sinister associations with the word “black.” “Black is beautiful,” they asserted. They shifted the subject for me from a position on the color wheel to a cry of pride in one’s own self, a challenge to deeply embedded fears about darkness: Blackness as sin, as treachery, as dangerous, as shaming, as the binary opposite of whiteness. Here was a way to flip an imposed weakness over to strength, all the more impressive for being claimed by those who had suffered under these slurs.

I began to see whiteness exercised in multiple ways. Some believed being white meant they were innately superior. Even though they might have left school after the eighth grade, they assumed the right to call a Black, Harvard-trained psychologist, “boy,” a man two decades their elder.

There were others who believed that the rights of white people were under attack. They thought of themselves as defenders of the status quo—the culture that white people had built—with an obligation to preserve it for the good of Civilization.

There were those blithely secure in the assumption that being White meant a certain status and privilege, words that would never occur to them because they had never questioned their right to that status. They liked Black Americans. They had no quarrel with them. They even knew some.

My identification, if any, was to nationality. I was Canadian, born to a man whose father was from Yorkshire. I was one generation away from being English. Despite the fact that by my teens I had lived in America longer than I had in Canada, my identity, such as it was, stood on the thin pedestal of my “green card,” something that made me different. A difference I chose from amongst the necessary facts.

When I went to college in England for a year in the early 70s, I felt like I had found my place at last. That was youthful enthusiasm pouring out of someone who had never really been away from home. But a good deal of it was a sense that I was connecting with a place where my relatives had begun their lives, in a country whose history held me in thrall. I was completing the circle. I felt like I belonged to a place for the first time.

During that year, I fell into conversation with a skinhead on a train platform in a town north of London. He was waiting to join his friends, coming on the next train, to support their football team on an away game. While we chatted, a Pakistani man walked past. This fellow shook his head disgustedly and muttered something about “the wogs.” When I asked what he meant, he was surprised. “It’s keeping England for the English, innit?” he said. Then he looked at me curiously. “Aren’t you proud of being white?” I glanced at him to see if he was joking. He was not. His train arrived just then with a rush of wind and a screech of brakes and he clambered aboard before I had a chance to answer. Just as well: my mouth was gaping like a fish and I was speechless.

“As a botanist can recognize the whole plant from one leaf,” said the philosopher Schopenhauer, “. . . so an accurate knowledge of a man’s character can be arrived at from a single characteristic action . . .”2

Schopenhauer believed this because he thought our actions are not at all directed by our reason, but by our character and our motivations. We don’t think our way to our actions: we simply do what arises “naturally,” out of the mold we were cast in.3 While our actions are not freely chosen, our character, shaped by our actions, is freely formed. We become the shape of our habits.

On the basis of that, I could confidently predict that my new acquaintance and his friends, upon arriving at their football game, would begin the aggravation they were known for as a group, leading to flying fists and possible arrests. Or I could admit that my stereotype of them, while efficiently saving time, could never be relied upon to truly characterize any one of them. The same could be said of his memory of me.

***

I remember a friend of mine in college, a Japanese American, born and raised in California, who spent a year in Japan, mostly to discover if he was Japanese or American. It wasn’t easy for him. People on the street in Tokyo spoke to him in Japanese, which he understood but couldn’t speak. When they discovered he couldn’t answer them, he said their confusion sometimes turned to contempt. No matter how much he wanted to inhabit his Japanese body authentically, it seemed he was an American. He was a California American to the Japanese; he was not quite American back home in California.

The undoing of these Gordian knots was brought home even more forcefully when I asked a Japanese American reporter for the Baltimore Sun to speak to my Intercultural Communication class. I had read his contribution to a collection of essays about being Asian in America, and since he lived not far from our college near Washington, DC, I invited him to speak to my students.

For many years he was the only Asian American journalist at a major newspaper in America. At a press conference, Spiro Agnew singled him out by calling him “a fat Jap.” At the time, Agnew was the Governor of Maryland. This man gritted his teeth and put up with years of racial jokes and slurs.

He told us he had spent most of his life wanting to be white so he could fit in and not have to respond to being Asian. It wasn’t until his daughter got her PhD in Asian and gender studies, that he finally confronted his own identity. She had grown up seeing her father’s silent humiliation for years and she urged him to go to Japan and find his place.

He went but returned even more confused. He told us—and he actually teared up in the telling of it—that he felt like a man without a country. He wasn’t fully Japanese and apparently, he couldn’t be a full American. Well into his sixties, he was still coming to terms with a lifetime of racism. He told us he had some choices to make about how to deal with it. While progress had been made in breaking down barriers for people of color, much of that had come after his retirement. So, it was up to him to make a place in America for himself.

***

Racism is never only about color. That is simply code, in the shallowness and impatience of white supremacist thinking, for dominance, color being the convenient plumb line by which everyone is measured.

If we are going to define downward the identity of people by their color, how cruelly ironic it is that in the absence of color whiteness is presumed to be dominant. On the other hand, if we whites claim that color does not matter, James Baldwin asks how many white people would choose to be Black.

As a straight white Christian male, I realize I tick all the boxes of a full-blown stereotype for some of the deepest pockets of prejudice in our time. If it is true, as Schopenhauer believed, that we characterize each other from one action, then my very existence will inevitably, if inadvertently, be seen as racist or sexist or exclusionary to someone, somewhere. And if that is true, how much more true is it that Black Americans today are subject to racist stereotypes that can get them killed.

The darkness that we face when we look within our own humanity, is met by the compassion of God-in-Christ, whose life and death call us to judgment. The darkness within us stands as judgment against us; we are capable of more than we think.

If there is truth in this moment in the Church, it must be that we see clearly the fear that distorts our vision as we regard each other. This is not a time for a glossy triumphalism that merrily denies our sin, but neither is it a time for sullen withdrawal. If we have the courage that Christ’s forgiveness can infuse us with, we can turn again and begin to make good on the promise that “they may all be one.”

Habits can be broken, and new actions can be nurtured. We can choose to stand apart from the twisted thinking that has mired many white Christians in sanctimonious prejudice through the centuries. We can, through friendship, hear and see how the world turns to look at persons of color. Or how it doesn’t.

We can, through the grace of God and our deepening and humbling education together, become dead to the legacy of white Christian racism, baked into the foundation of the American evangelical tradition. It may be a “hard and bitter birth,” but we can be born again. We may instead choose to live under an ancient idea, fresh for every follower of Jesus, that our “life lies hidden with Christ in God.”4

Schopenhauer’s life of stubborn pessimism shows that he was right about one thing: our circumstances can shape and mold us. But he was wrong about the most important thing: our circumstances do not determine our identity.

  1. Wright, Charles. “Littlefoot, 14” in The Best American Spiritual Writing 2008. Edited by Philip Zaleski. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008, p. 214.
  2. Schopenhauer, Arthur. Essays and Aphorisms. Translated by R. J. Hollingdale. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1970, p. 144.
  3. Schopenhauer, pp. 144-145.
  4. Col. 3:3, NEB.

Become All Things

Photo by Aliko Sunawang on Unsplash

Indeed, I have become everything in turn to men of every sort, so that in one way or another I may save some.”1

I am a collector of words. They are like gems to me, the kind you could buy at roadside shops when I was a child, three for a dollar, tumbled and polished until they were smoothed and rounded and bright. When I find a word I haven’t seen before or heard pronounced, I play with it like playing with gemstones in the hand, turning it over and over, bearing down on one syllable and then the other, elongating the vowels and listening to the sound of it against my teeth and tongue. I carry it with me for a few days, taking it out to marvel at its sound and color. I drop it into a sentence, building the sentence like a house. Place it on the back porch, move it around to the front step, inside to the kitchen at the heart of the house, and carry it to the window in the study at the top of the stairs.

Years ago, I found a word in The Ritual Process, a book by the anthropologist Victor Turner. The book was far beyond my comprehension or interest at the time, but in the riverbed of its narrative, gleaming under the surface of the stream, was this word ‘liminal.’ Turner described it as an experience in which we leave our old identity behind and enter through a ritual process into a new state of being. On this threshold we are between the old and the new, the tried and the untested. We are poised, not grounded, in a transition of ambiguity, openness, and indeterminacy.

I liked the sound of it, ‘LIM-i-nal’, and went around saying it to myself for several days. The idea of a threshold upon which we linger opens possibilities.

There is that moment before the diver parts the air, before the singer draws a breath, the artist lifts the brush, the dancer rises en pointe. The potential! Every moment of preparation for this has been gathered and held. There is nothing we can’t imagine; we have only to release it.

The liminal makes our past present to us and our future too. Broader than a knife-edge, the present as threshold gives us a platform before the plunge. With care, we can regard the past with forgiveness, while not forgetting where we put a foot wrong, where attention was not paid. There were seasons of light and goodness also, some remaining. These are provisions for the future.

***

Jane Hirshfield is an American poet, essayist, and translator. Her book of essays, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, lifts up the liminal in her final chapter on “Writing and the Threshold Life.” Threshold persons are “betwixt and between.” They lose their name, their identity, their standing in the community. They are being prepared for a wilderness experience, in which they undergo a transformation. “A person who steps outside her usual position falls away from any singular relationship to others and into oneness with the community as a whole.”2

Hirshfield regards the poet—and all writers who are willing—as this liminal figure who returns from the wilderness to speak and write from the margins of society. Such people become conduits for messages that could not be heard any other way; they are willing to leave “the trail of convention and norm, whether in the city or the wild.”3 There is a hunger for what lies beyond the visible and the mundane. “It is the task of the writer,” she suggests, “to become that permeable and transparent; to become, in the words of Henry James, a person on whom nothing is lost.”4

As I read and reflected on this it struck me that these experiences also parallel the descriptions of prophets, whether they be from seventh-century Israel or twenty-first century America. More particularly, this person of liminal transformation looks a lot like Saint Paul.

However we might explain the cataclysmic experience on the road to Damascus, it completely upended his life. His license was to capture new Christians and return them to Jerusalem for a quick trial and death. He was, you might say, a religious terrorist. The confrontation on the road with the being of Christ stripped him of his name, his power, and his status. Blind as a newborn kitten, he was at the mercy of those whom he had hunted.

He became Paul, shedding Saul in the process. Possessed of boundless confidence and a stern temper, he learned the way of humility. He spent fourteen years in the wilderness, known then as “Arabia,” years about which he is silent, before devoting his life to becoming Christ’s peripatetic messenger of grace. His wilderness time steadied him, deepened his compassion, and radicalized him.

When he returns, the risen Christ becomes his lodestar. Paul is tough, persuasive, independent, and resourceful. He holds his views strongly, sometimes defiantly, and he’s not ashamed to say he has the mind of Christ.

As a liminal person, he forms communities wherever he goes—and he sustains and nurtures them through his writing. Granted, his writing is sometimes dense (Peter diplomatically refers to it in one place as “obscure”). It is often contentious: Paul complains that the Corinthians forced him into speaking harshly to them because of their undisciplined actions. But when his game is on and he is inspired, his poetry cannot be matched. The thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians stands as a sublime work of art in any literature.

There are other striking parallels between Paul and Hirshfield’s liminal poets and writers. He, and they, see through the haze of murky distractions to the clear essentials of meaning. Paul most often speaks about them directly: being faithful, living the truth, showing courage, exercising self-control and humility. The poets gesture with these obliquely, tracing their patterns lightly, alluding to their beauty rather than asserting their authority.

Hirshfield writes, “In the work of such a person, what lies beyond the conventional, simplified, and ‘authorized’ versions of a culture’s narratives can find voice. A newly broadened conception of being is made available to us all.”5

The poet realizes, ‘makes real,’ the boundless complexity of human experience by offering us the profoundly simple in a line of words, the magnificence of the common. Paul, as earthy as he is visionary, comes to the Christians at Corinth “weak, nervous, and shaking with fear,” yet speaks “God’s hidden wisdom, his secret purpose framed from the very beginning to bring us to our full glory.”6

The liminal person — on the threshold — speaks to the individual and the community, in fact, becomes a conduit between the two. Through the poet/writer, those who read and listen find a community of fellow singulars. Language creates worlds that stand in opposition to the corrupted present.

In a society split vertically and horizontally by cultural prejudice and gender oppression, Paul boldly offers a prophetic alternative: “There is no such thing as Jew and Greek, slave and freeman, male and female,” he says, “for you are all one person in Christ Jesus.”7

“More is changed during this threshold period than simply the understanding of self,” says Hirshfield. “Free of all usual roles, a person experiences community differently as well. The liminal is not opposite to, but the necessary companion of, identity and particularity—a person who steps outside her usual position falls away from any singular relationship to others and into oneness with the community as a whole.”8

Paul — imprisoned, shipwrecked, harassed, and beaten — bears in his own body the scars of proclaiming a new message of freedom. When he claims, “I am a free man and own no master; but I have made myself every man’s servant, to win over as many as possible,” he is not exaggerating.

“We stand with” is a phrase that corporations hastily add to their websites to show their efforts at racial equality. But Paul bears the burdens of those whom he is with. With the Jews, he follows the religious laws that the Jews observe; with the Gentiles, he puts himself under their cultural restrictions as well. “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. Indeed, I have become everything in turn to men of every sort, so that in one way or another I may save some.”9

Has he lost himself in all this? Has he become a shape-shifter, a person who, like water, assumes the contours of whatever vessel he finds himself in? “Your life lies hidden with Christ in God,” he writes to the band of Christians in Colossae.10 So strong is his identification, that he is willing, like Christ, to suffer the consequences of speaking truth to power.

***

We find ourselves entangled on every side today by our own history, by our interpretation of other people’s history, by our need to find a balance between an upsetting truth-telling and the preserving of our social comity. Many of our prophets and our poets, like Paul, come down on the side of truth-telling, no matter the personal consequences of revealing the skewing of power and the pain it causes. Their identity forms like a pearl around the sand-grain of truth. Perhaps they live without illusions whatsoever. They speak, they act, they bear the blowback. But they also speak of newness of life, of an oasis in the desert, of the flowering of beauty in the midst of desolation. And they do not desert their own.

  1. 1 Cor. 9:22, NEB.
  2. Hirshfield, Jane. Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. New York: HarperCollins, 1997, p. 204.
  3. Hirshfield, 221.
  4. Hirshfield, 223.
  5. Hirshfield, 205.
  6. 1 Cor. 2:3,7, NEB.
  7. Gal. 3:28, NEB.
  8. Hirshfield, 204.
  9. 1 Cor. 9:19-22, NEB.
  10. Col. 3:3, NEB.

Chain of Events

Photo by Anton on Unsplash

“Where does a person’s responsibility end for an act that stretches off endlessly into some incalculable, monstrous transformation?” 1

Cataclysms erupt from a single bullet fired, a missing bolt, an ignored note, a gesture misunderstood. A jet of anger forces open a door that becomes a hinge of history. We debate whether the universe is one or many, whether an event is the inevitable result of a thousand antecedent actions. We act with intentionality. We hold ourselves and others accountable. We assign blame. And we assume that a choice can always be made.

Standing at the summit, we toss a snowball, a tiny pellet, into the vast cirque of snow below us. It drops and rolls to a stop. A crack appears, widens, and races away. In moments, it is a thundering avalanche. In the weighted silence that follows, “Sorry!” doesn’t seem enough.

We no longer believe in the Fates, those inexorable forces that toy with us, flip us over like box turtles or casually drown us. We are well beyond those beliefs now; most phenomena are accounted for through natural laws and chemical reactions. Yet, waiting for a light to change, hands gripping the wheel, the heat and oily fumes of rush-hour traffic around us, it may seem entirely plausible that something we did in the past bore consequences we could not have foreseen in our current version of reality.

***

Judas slips in and out of our vision in the Gospels. All four Gospels report his betrayal of Jesus: only Matthew reveals his suicide.2 The timeline begins two days before the Passover, when Jesus and the disciples attend a dinner party at the house of Simon the leper. A woman shows up uninvited to pour on Jesus’ head an expensive ointment worth almost a year’s wages. As the musk fills the room, the disciples are taken aback. Judas argues heatedly that the ointment should have been sold and the money given to the poor.

Leave her alone, says Jesus. She’s done a beautiful thing. She’s prepared my body for burial, and wherever the gospel is told her act will be remembered. He smiles at the woman. You will always have the poor among you, he adds, but you won’t always have me. Judas flushes with anger. There is an awkward silence and then the conversation resumes. No one glances up as he slips out the door.

The Gospel of Matthew reports that he goes directly to the priests to negotiate the betrayal of Jesus into their hands. They are delighted and settle on a price. “From that moment,” Matthew comments, “he began to look for a good opportunity to betray him.”3

Why did he do it? After the calling, after the healings, the miles walked up and down Palestine, water into wine, demons into swine, the raising of the dead —Lazarus, for God’s sake! — feeding five thousand, blind men and lepers, sleeping on the hard ground, always the startling words, taking no thought for tomorrow, breaking bread together. All of those signs . . . memories like warm bread called up when the way ahead was tangled by His mystifying words — sometimes harsh — but the depth of his understanding was astonishing, turning one inside out, revealing the inner heart to oneself.

Why does he do it? Can we trace back up his decision tree, from branch to trunk to root, through the neurons and filaments, into the shadowlands between consciousness and primal urges?

There is the rush of anger, the sting of humiliation, impelling him out of Simon’s house and down to the priests. But before that, long before that, a seed germinated in his imagination. In the moment, his eyes see through the present. He has been granted a vision of history unfolding and the role he will play in it.

Judas counts himself a man of action, decisive, bold, daring. He is Judas Iscariot, after the sicarii, the assassins skilled at stabbing a person in a crowd and melting away in the confusion. Along with the other disciple, Simon the Zealot, he looks for a violent uprising against the occupying forces of the Romans. The man of decisive action cuts away, separates, and divides to isolate and reveal the singular object of desire.

Judas has known the secret for months. He has wrestled with this, asking himself why Jesus dithers, why he seems so hesitant to grasp the power that lies within him. At the feeding of the five thousand a year ago, it almost came to pass. The crowd was ready to take him by force and make him king, but Jesus sent them all away and retreated to the hills.

Judas sees himself as the only disciple who truly understands Jesus’ mission. He knows the goal, he is less sure of the tactics. Perhaps Jesus is waiting for the right moment to declare the Kingdom and signal the uprising. Perhaps the threat of violence against him will finally crack the veneer of passivity and he will take his place at the head of the crowds. Judas is willing to risk it all on the intentions he believes Jesus holds but will not reveal to just anybody.

Judas is the Insider: in the Day of the Lord he will sit at the right hand of Jesus, brothers in arms, triumphant over the odds. At the moment of supposed betrayal, the kiss will light the fuse. Jesus will turn the mob in his favor and ignite the thousands waiting for their king. He will overthrow the Romans like he flung the tables in the temple and scattered the profaning merchants.

Jesus looks around the circle, studying each face in turn. These are his brothers, his family, his people. “I tell you the truth,” he says in a whisper. They lean in closer. His hands clench around the cup. “One of you is going to betray me.” There is stunned silence, bewilderment on their faces. Peter nudges the one next to Jesus. “Ask him,” he hisses. “Who is it, Lord?” The question hangs in the air between them.

Jesus reaches for the bread, his face a mask of pain, and says, “The one to whom I give this piece of bread.” He tears at the bread, his nails digging deep. He twists it between his fingers until it gives way with a crack. He wrenches off a piece, swirls it in the oil, and stretches across the table to Judas son of Simon Iscariot.

A bead of oil forms on the table between them. Judas looks into it. There is a roaring in his ears. He sees his own face, bent to follow the curve of this tiny, golden dome, and he feels himself to be falling. He remembers hearing that if you die in your dream you will die in your life and he tries to wake himself. But now he is flying, sweeping over vast armies in the last light of the day. The armies stretch to the horizon and they are looking up at him, waiting for the signal. He takes a breath. Everything is clear now. He reaches for the bread.

Jesus says quietly, “Do quickly what you have to do.” A look passes between them. Judas nods. The others are chatting among themselves. He slips out. He is relieved and excited; the Messiah will soon reveal himself.

It is night.

  1. Kundera, Milan. The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts. Translated from the French by Linda Asher. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005, p. 113.
  2. Matt 26:20-25, 27:3-5; Mark 14:10-11, 17-21, 43-46; Luke 22:3-6, 21-22, 47-48; John 13:21-30.
  3. Matt. 26:13, NEB.

John Lewis, Hope, and Anger

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“When anger fails to achieve any proportionate degree of redress, what it becomes is despair . . .”1

How does a man remain hopeful all the years of his life?

When John Lewis died on July 17, 2020, I knew him to be one of the last of a generation of civil rights heroes. He had marched, he had taken the blows, he had been jailed, he had carried on. News accounts and stories hailed his persistence. He died at eighty, after thirty-four years in Congress representing Georgia’s Fifth District.

Just days before he passed away from pancreatic cancer, he visited the Black Lives Matter street art in Washington, DC, expressing his hope that the movement would carry on the fight. In a town hall Zoom meeting with President Obama and others, he said the protesters will “redeem the soul of America and move closer to a community at peace with itself.”2

On YouTube I found the speech he gave during the March on Washington, in August 1963. On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, facing thousands of people, the young Lewis, one of the founders and leaders of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, urged his listeners to join the revolution for freedom and equality. “How long can we be patient?” he asked, his voice rising. “We want our freedom and we want it now!”3

Two years later, in March 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson having been galvanized into action by news coverage of Bloody Sunday, in which Lewis and many others were brutally attacked by the Selma police at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. But fifty-seven years later, at the end of the arc of his life, John Lewis was still hoping that voting, the most basic right of democracy, would be guaranteed and protected.

I admire his years of service in Congress and his unflinching record working for civil rights. He managed to inspire new generations to work for justice, without giving in to despair. No matter the violence he suffered, he always chose the way of peace. His lifelong hope uplifts us. But it’s the unspoken question of anger that intrigues me.

Does anger cancel hope or can hope and anger live together?

***

Stuart Walton, in his A Natural History of Human Emotions, says, “The Old Norse word angr is the root of both anger and anguish, in both of which a residue of its semantic origins in grief has precipitated. If we see fear as primarily a passive state, anger is very much a driving, compulsive force that encourages action of one sort or another.”4

In the 1840s, Cardinal Henry Manning, the Archbishop of Westminster, asserted that “Anger is the executive power of justice.”5 I don’t know the context of the remark, but it’s surely one that resonates with any who think themselves to be on the right side of history in a popular struggle for justice. Anger, we think, can be justified if it brings a righteous result.

We don’t have many public examples of people who manage their anger well. As Walton drily observes, “. . . Anger is an emotion without an obvious behavioural etiquette attached to it.”6 For most of us it’s a momentary emotion which flares up and dies away too quickly to be examined but long enough to regret.

As Christians, we’re taught to suppress anger, but as people living in a post-Freudian era, we’re told that the suppression of anger causes more damage to us than letting it blow. This “pressure cooker” model blends seamlessly with the emancipation of the individual from social restraints that years ago would have kept private anger from publicly spilling out. We are now a society that values the expression of our most private feelings under the guise of honesty.

There are many occasions in the Gospels when Jesus is angry. How could it be otherwise? He daily battled against prejudice and discrimination, against willful ignorance and smug hypocrisy. The Pharisees were stubbornly self-righteous, the people in the towns he passed through were small-minded, the crowds were fickle and obtuse—even the disciples were recalcitrant and selfish. Like us in every way, he expressed his anger as it rose and then turned it aside.

The story that stands out is when he trashed the Temple. All the Gospel writers feature it, with some interesting variations. Whenever this story would come up in our discussions at church, the adults would be quick to classify Jesus’ actions as “righteous indignation,” a distinction without a difference that didn’t fool us. He was clearly angry, and only if you held him to a shallow standard of spotless behavior could this be sinful.

This was more like performance anger, anger with a point, anger that evolved into a teachable moment. In Mark 11 Jesus and the disciples arrive in Jerusalem late in the day to a triumphal procession. Cheering crowds line the streets as Jesus makes his way to the Temple on a donkey. They spread their cloaks on the road, cut brush to strew the street, bless him for bringing in the kingdom, and shout ‘Hosanna!’ He arrives at the Temple, looks around “at the whole scene,” and then leaves with the disciples to spend the night in Bethany.

In the morning, as they leave for Jerusalem, Jesus is hungry, and seeing a fig tree in the distance he searches it for fruit—breakfast on the run, if you like. But there is none because, as Mark notes, “it was not the season for figs.” And Jesus backs up and says, “May no one ever again eat fruit from you!”7

It’s a response we might have made, irritation at an inanimate object that doesn’t perform as we think it should. We’re hungry, the toaster jams, the car won’t start, and we’re late for work; not a good beginning to the day.

We could brush Jesus’ hangry response aside except for two details in Mark’s narrative. The first is the obvious: it’s the wrong season for figs, something that Jesus should have known growing up in a Mediterranean country. The second is more telling: Mark adds, “And his disciples were listening,” an odd thing to say unless there was a reason to remember what Jesus had said and done.8

I find this endearing: Jesus momentarily flailing in irritation, the disciples glancing at one another and ducking their heads to hide a smile.

Then they are making their way to the court of the Temple, where Jesus immediately wades into the bustling market, throwing over the tables, scattering the money, and setting free the pigeons. He doesn’t allow anyone carrying merchandise to cut through the courtyard and he won’t let the merchants back in. Instead, he begins to teach, to the delight of the crowds and the consternation of the chief priests, who come running when someone breathlessly tattles on Jesus.

The flash of anger gives way to a teach-in; the people are spellbound, the authorities are outraged. They would kidnap him, but they’re afraid of the crowd’s reaction, so Jesus teaches all day, and when evening comes, he and the disciples leave the city.

That is Mark’s story. John’s version is even more pointed: “Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple . . . His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”9

***

The philosophers of Jesus’ time had a lot to say about anger. Seneca, whose lifetime overlapped with Jesus, and Plutarch, who was writing when Paul was executed, around 64-65 CE, regarded anger with horror and wrote some of their most forceful essays against it. Prevention was the best course, said Seneca, “. . . to reject at once the first incitement to anger, to resist even its small beginnings, and to take pains to avoid falling into anger.”10 Anger swamped reason, he said, and drowned our ability to see events clearly.

“I have noticed,” observes Plutarch, “that although different factors trigger its onset in different people, there is almost always present a belief that they are being slighted and ignored.”11 This is anger as the flash point of a bruised ego.

What do we see in Jesus? A man whose anger arises to protect others, but who will not protect himself. He disrupts the worship at his synagogue to heal a man, angry that the leaders value decorum over liberation. He is angry when the doctors of the law burden the people with unnecessary rules, instead of revealing the Law as evidence of God’s care. And he is angry that the house of prayer has become a den of thieves.

Here is a man who trusts God so deeply that in the midst of conflict he can say, “I and the Father are one,” without the slightest hint of defensiveness or pride. When he sees the way things are and the way things could be, he refuses silence. Hope breaks in, the future contradicts the present, anger throws off despair and steps into faith.

It is time, as John Lewis would say, that we got ourselves into ‘good trouble.’

  1. Walton, Stuart. A Natural History of the Emotions. New York: Grove Press, 2004, p. 81.
  2. Remnick, David. “John Lewis’s Legacy and America’s Redemption.” In The New Yorker, July 27, 2020.
  3. https://voicesofdemocracy.umd.edu/lewis-speech-at-the-march-on-washington-speech-text/
  4. Walton, Stuart. A Natural History of the Emotions. New York: Grove Press, 2004, p. 45.
  5. Walton, Stuart. A Natural History of the Emotions. New York: Grove Press, 2004, p. 48.
  6. Walton, Stuart. A Natural History of the Emotions. New York: Grove Press, 2004, p. 73.
  7. Mark 11: 13,14, NEB.
  8. Mark 11:14, NEB.
  9. John 2:15,17, NRSV.
  10. Seneca. “De Ira (On Anger).” In Seneca: Moral Essays, Vol. 1. Translated by John W. Basore. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1928, p. 125.
  11. Plutarch. “On the Avoidance of Anger.” In Essays. Translated by Robin Waterfield. Introduced and annotated by Ian Kidd. London: 1992, Penguin Books, p. 193.

The Intolerable Halfness of Being

Photo by Frank McKenna on Unsplash

”Why, then, are we frightened of wholeness? The answer is that the more whole we are, the more capable we are of suffering.”1

When I think about the judgment of God it’s usually because I see other people wreaking injustice. When I think about God’s judgment upon me, it comes down to forgetfulness or ignorance. I see a wide gulf between God and other people, a mere gap between myself and God.

Were my moral eyesight to be tested, I could read to the last line of the chart the sins of others, while only managing the larger letters of my own failings. The wrath of God lingers in the background of my judgments, justly served upon others, negotiable in the case of my own transgressions. There is exasperation in witnessing the sins of injustice; there is reluctance to cast the first stone.

As a teenager, trying to find a path to God through Jesus, I was told never to trust my feelings or my instincts. They were unreliable, fickle, volatile. Relativism and subjectivism were the dangers. Truth and certainty were the aims. On the other hand, we were told to yield to the pleading of the Holy Spirit right now. Don’t put off the decision. Don’t rationalize it away. Now is the time!

At the time, I sidestepped the advice to surrender all, more out of stubbornness than conviction. I recoiled at any hint of coercion in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I didn’t feel I was at war with any of them. When I came to them (not “if”), it wouldn’t be through fear. It would be because I couldn’t imagine a depth to life without them.

But now I’m reading back into my experience as a teen. When I strip away the overlay of years and experience, my memory is of a confused welter of emotions, a need to belong, and a thrumming measure of guilt. What I clearly understood was how easy it was to pass as “good.” Being good in my community meant staying out of trouble with the law, getting respectable grades, not doing drugs, and being baptized into the church. All these requirements I had kept since childhood. But when it came to selling all that I had and following Jesus, like the rich young ruler in the Gospel story, I turned away.

I don’t mean a literal selling off of my goods; most of what I owned, except for my books and guitar, fitted in a couple of suitcases. I mean the packing up and disposing of my image of God.

How do we know when the view of God we hold is no longer right? Do we listen to our intuition or to our trusted leaders? Do we hide in fear? Do we dare swerve from an image of God’s nature that is corrosive to our faith?

One such image was on the pamphlet that my friends and I handed out in a small town in Northern California after church. The day was blazing hot, dry, with a light wind, early fall, probably September, hot enough to melt candles indoors.

This was all part of “witnessing for our faith,” the well-intentioned effort by youth leaders to teach us how to share the Gospel with our neighbors. I went along with it; I felt uneasy, but I couldn’t say why.

My friend and I split up, each taking one side of the street. I was carrying a pamphlet with the title, “The Great Radar Sees You.” It showed a man with a face contorted in fear, sweat running down his forehead, eyes wild. Behind him loomed an enormous radio telescope, the kind SETI uses to track incoming signals from alien civilizations. That was supposed to be God.

I tried, I really did. I handed them out to people who answered their doors. It was an awkward exchange. Most people were polite enough to accept the pamphlet. No one actually crumpled it up in my face. But when I got to the end of the block, I was done. I dropped most of them in a trashcan in an alley, and my friend and I made our way back to the rendezvous point. That was the end of my pamphlet proselytizing. I knew this image simply couldn’t be — in fact, shouldn’t be — how we understood God or God’s wrath. I sensed, mutely, that this mattered.

***

If there has been one constant throughout my life, it has been the need to understand who God thinks I am. That sounds trite and cliched, but there it is. By the circumstances of my childhood and upbringing I missed out on some crucial experiences but was blessed immeasurably by the love and care of my grandparents. Still, like every other person on the planet, there is a hole at the center of my life which refuses to be filled.

Like Augustine, I have adopted the prayer, “Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.” But my paths to religion have not brought me rest. Like Bono, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” That has weighed upon me at times and brought me sorrow. But the ache for wholeness, the very need itself, points to its possibility.

This requires a certain spiritual innocence that is neither naive about our failings nor a denial of our shared reality. It means standing, exposed to the whirlwind. “To be innocent,” says Christian Wiman, “is to retain that space in your heart that once heard a still, small voice saying not your name so much as your nature . . . You must protect this space so that it can protect you.”2

The metaphor I have carried throughout the years is of pilgrims traveling light. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who link us to the past. We travel into the future singly, but together. We are trying to become our true selves. We are born again daily, in suffering that bears us toward the joy of wholeness.

I realized this when I immersed myself in the writings of Harry Williams, an Anglican priest and scholar who was Dean of Trinity College, Cambridge. A collection of his sermons, The True Wilderness, was recommended by a friend, whose assurance was that I would find in him a soul companion. “All I could speak of,” said Williams, “were those things which I had proved true in my own experience by living them and thus knowing them at first hand.”3

What is our experience of the judgment of God? Does it beat us down mercilessly, day after day, when our own voice is amplified by fear? Then it could also be the cold silence that we face when our days run out.

Or it could be the means of our salvation.

“Christ, our Creator, redeems us first by His wrath,” says Williams. “The wrath of God is His refusal to allow us to rest until we have become fully what we are.”4 We can believe this, says Williams, because Jesus walked this path himself.

“Who do people say that I am?” Jesus asks the disciples. It is not a rhetorical question nor is he trying to elicit the response which Peter blurts — “You are the Messiah.” This is one of those self-revelations in which the full humanness of Jesus is seen. In the Gospel of Mark, this story follows one in which Jesus is asked to heal a blind man. The first attempt at healing is partial: “I see men,” says the fellow, “they look like trees, but they are walking about.”5 Jesus touches him again and this time he can see clearly. “Don’t tell anyone,” says Jesus.

This is not a story about the failure of Jesus’ touch. It is a story about how difficult it is to see clearly, even when Jesus touches us. And when Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” we hear a man struggling against self-doubt, hoping that those who know him best could bolster his wavering confidence. After all, he is beginning to realize that he faces a violent and lonely death from which God will not protect him.

Could there be a more poignant example than this, that Jesus was a man like us in every way? Who am I? he asks. Am I wrong in following to the last degree where my heart and faith are leading me? And when at last, on the cross, he cries out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” he confirms what we experience in our extremity and suffering.

When we feel ourselves to be overwhelmed, bound by our circumstances, or spinning in the futility of our guilt, we are assured that “Christ comes to us by means of our ordinary, common experience of living. In the heartache, the fever, and the fret, there is Christ in His wrath refusing to allow us to stay as we are, reminding us of our intolerable halfness.”6

In our halfness we long for wholeness. “God’s love harmonizes us by convincing us that we are accepted as a whole . . . God accepts both sides of us, not just the man humbly praying on his knees, but also the man in a flaming temper.”7 According to the Gospel of Matthew, the last thing Jesus says to the disciples is, “Be assured, I am with you always, to the end of time.”8

All the rivers in God’s country flow into the sea of redemption, through which we are made whole. In my mind’s eye, I see a figure on the shore in morning light. Over the thunder of the surf he calls out to my companions and me. “It’s the Lord!” cries Peter, and I follow him over the gunwale of the boat to catch the wave that will bring us to his side.

  1. Williams, H. A. The True Wilderness. Harmondsworth, England: Pelican Books, 1968, pp. 130-131.
  2. Wiman, Christian. My Bright Abyss. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, 64.
  3. Williams, H. A. The True Wilderness. Harmondsworth, England: Pelican Books, 1968, p. 11.
  4. Williams, H. A. The True Wilderness. Harmondsworth, England: Pelican Books, 1968, p. 132.
  5. Mark 8:25, NEB.
  6. Williams, H. A. The True Wilderness. Harmondsworth, England: Pelican Books, 1968, p. 133.
  7. Williams, H. A. The True Wilderness. Harmondsworth, England: Pelican Books, 1968, p. 135.
  8. Matt. 28:20, NEB.

My Fallen House

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“When an unclean spirit comes out of a man it wanders over the deserts seeking a resting-place. . .” — Luke 11:23

This unclean spirit, this junior-rank devil, has been evicted from his soul-house, unwilling and anxious, not ready to be homeless, especially since he has nowhere to go but the desert, traditionally the “habitation of demons” who have worked hard and have been rewarded with hot, dry, and vast spaces of their own.

High ranking devils, we may suppose, are riven with suspicion and fury, territorial as hell, not given graciously to incursions by a random, unreliable, mouth-breathing grunt of a devil, incapable of sophisticated untruths or the power to menace, whose current rank is “occupant” — not even advanced enough to give him a voice in Council.

Our devil scrambles through the night, scanning the darkness around him for a cave where he can hole up until he can find another soul-cage to inhabit. He is predictably bitter. The eviction came without fair warning. One moment he was replacing the dust and grime that had gradually been lost, the next he was screaming out through the orifice, wailing about the blast that had ejected him like tobacco juice.

He had made himself at home there for some months. It hadn’t been so much a welcome from the host as it was indifference to his presence. He took the unused back room, carefully arranging the commemorative vials of grime and soot he had collected from the dark, Satanic mills on his tour after graduation from LowPoint Infernal Academy. Truth be told, he’d barely passed his final exams; his advisor had openly sneered at his defense of his major thesis.

But indifference is invitation to a starving first-year associate, and he’d moved in, vowing to wreak havoc, if not full-blown corruption. That would come later, with time and experience. Although he’d tried his best to apply the techniques he’d learned, the last few weeks had been hell. His host had awakened to the fact that his life was aimless chaos and he was chafing to find some purpose.

Our devil had listened with growing horror to conversations overheard that reeked of regret and sincerity. There was an ominous desire to change, and the fumbling attempts at honesty and self-awareness chilled him to the bone. While ejection is the cruelest abuse a host can perpetrate, our devil had to admit he’d naively assumed this holy restlessness was just a passing phase. And now here he was, homeless and vulnerable. The news would travel fast: if he couldn’t find a new host soon, he’d be buffing the claws on some director’s feet with his tongue. Damn, he thought despairingly, it sucks to be me.

***

There is, in each of us, an unclaimed actor who brings out the worst in us. We can sense it when a quick retort comes boiling to mind, but a more reasoned response must be thought out. The first century called them demons. If that strains your credulity, perhaps “unconscious urges” will do. In any case, there is no shame in recognizing that we frequently act against our better will and that “when I want to do the right, only the wrong is within my reach.”1

We are masters of the dramatic arts. Each of us play several roles in life. Not just in the usual roles of personal versus professional, family member versus colleague, but also internally. “The trouble, however, is that we often confuse what we really are with these roles which it is our duty to play. We identify the man with the actor, and in the service of this identification we disguise our feelings from ourselves.”2 Can we see ourselves creating these roles for ourselves? Are we willing to admit that all of us star in our own reality show, legends in our living rooms?

We are actors, all of us, and most of us cast ourselves in roles we are not prepared for. We are influenced by those we admire, people we love, figures we may hate and fear, idealized images of a projected self. The roles we play often come from some part of us we have not fully explored or understood.

But that’s the way life is; there is always someone offstage whispering, “You’re on! Get out there. Break a leg.” And so we go, tripping, stumbling, crashing into the set, sometimes knocking over the potted plants and setting our hair on fire.

What to do after the house is swept clean of our devils and we breathe, for a little while, the freshness of newly planted fields? What to do after we have made a new start?

It helps to remember that habits die hard. And they die hard another day. And the day after that. We’ve laid down these paths and trod them for so long that — to change the metaphor — we’ll still move through the house in the dark, avoiding furniture that is no longer there and slamming into it where it’s been moved.

Restoration will take time, a continuous work in progress.

Here is Augustine, in a famous plea from Confessions: “My soul’s house is too meager for you to visit; enlarge it. It is falling down; rebuild it.”3 He is asking his honored guest to restore the very house he has been invited to visit. Nothing will seem natural or easy. Restoration takes place while we are living in it. We will be stepping around equipment and over displaced things. The neighbors will know. It will be inconvenient and could be embarrassing.

“Inside it,” cries Augustine, “are things that would disgust you to see: I confess this, and I know it. But who’s going to clean it? Or rather, to whom else am I going to shout, ‘Clean away from me, Master, the hidden things that are my own, and spare your slave from the hidden things coming from others!’”4

He is fully aware that a lot has escaped his notice as the homeowner. Water has been seeping, termites have been gnawing, and rust has not slept. The house could fall apart at a touch. He knows there is so much he does not know about maintenance, much less preventative measures to avoid this dilapidation. Please, he says, do your work.

***

Will the house remain deserted after the devil is driven out? Luke’s verse points to a vacancy within our soul. The unclean spirit has been cast out and wanders through the desert. The house stands deserted. This devil tires of the desert and wishes to return to its home. When it arrives, the house is clean, tidy, and ready for occupancy again. “Off it goes,” says Luke, “and collects seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they all come in and settle down; and in the end the man’s plight is worse than before.”5

Jesus suggests that an empty soul-home will be filled; the question is, by what or by whom? It is not neutral territory. The devils only need a space clean enough to spoil and destroy. They wouldn’t know what to do with a home.

We must ask, who should be living there? Who is the rightful owner? Who holds the deed? It is us, we ourselves. What God-in-Christ offers is that in gratitude and humility we freely take ownership of this house—our soul, our character—which he has provided us. That we should consider it ours, care for it, make it a home.

Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus who invite the mysterious stranger to stay for a meal and carry on this life-giving conversation, we can invite the Christ into our soul-home. “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.”6 An image of recognizing a familiar voice, running to the door, and joyfully leading him in for bread and wine.

Should he make an appointment, a formal dinner date? Or is it enough for us to know that when he’s in the neighborhood he’ll stop by? An open invitation. We’ll set out another plate and make it an evening. He knows when he is wanted.

He will not first step in without a welcome; indifference and a ‘whatever’ shrug is not enough. When he disappears, we can leave the light on and the key under the doormat.

  1. Rom. 7:21 NEB.
  2. Williams, H. A. The True Wilderness. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965, p. 36.
  3. Augustine. Confessions. Translated by Sarah Ruden. New York: Modern Library, 2017, p. 7.
  4. Augustine, p. 7.
  5. Luke 11: 26 NEB.
  6. Rev. 3:20 NRSV.

Looking for a Better God

Photo: Liam Richards on Unsplash

Tell me, in the name of your mercies, you, Master, who are my God, what you are to me. Say to my soul, ‘I myself am your rescue.’ Say it in such a way that I hear it.” 1

Consider the God you have been brought up to believe. If you are honest with yourself, isn’t this God a larger version of yourself or of someone else you admire or a vague cloud of attributes and virtues that seem godlike? The education we undergo as children about God is sometimes hit-or-miss, sometimes rigorous, but never inconsequential.

We are taught about God through many devices. We learn stories from the Bible, we listen to sermons and devotional talks. We encounter God in our worship services through the readings and the liturgy. The sacraments are designed to “show us the Father” through our experience of Jesus. Our teachers lead us through classes that sometimes encourage our thinking, but quite often require nothing but our passive acceptance. And we learn a great deal about an American God from religious leaders and politicians.

As children we are taught to think of God as “our Father who art in heaven,” an image that may or may not be comforting for children. For some, it might simply remind them of their absent fathers and the pain of that absence. For others, it might bring an image of a grandfather, kindly, old, and far away. And to some it might suggest a powerful, yet loving, being who watches over this world and our lives with infinite care.

If we stay within a religious community into adulthood our ideas of God might change. I qualify this because I suspect that for many people the God of their childhood does quite well for them as adults. And why not? We’ve been told that God doesn’t change. God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. If there is any surety in life as a Christian, they claim, it’s that God is immutable. He doesn’t change because He doesn’t need to. If God is perfection, defined as all the omnis—all-knowing, all-powerful, present everywhere, all-loving—any change could only be toward imperfection. And who needs an imperfect God?

But many of us go through tremendous changes between childhood and adulthood. Most of these are not cataclysmic but cumulative. One day, in the midst of paying bills, adjusting to family life, raising children, and repeating our breakfast mantra—“I am a professional”—we just might have an overheating of our spiritual engine. “Our Father” suddenly seems long ago and far away. He can neither be summoned by prayer nor conjured through an artificial religious experience. He is not at our disposal.

Moses certainly knew this first-hand. Barbara Brown Taylor describes it vividly:

“Moses knew God as well as anyone ever had, yet God did not tone anything down for him. The mountain shook like it was about to blow apart. The cloud at the top of the mountain was so thick that even Moses could not see inside it. Anyone else who even tried would die, God said—and Moses went anyway. He took the full dose of divine darkness and lived to tell about it, though God would remain a tremendous mystery to him for the rest of his life.”2

This is not a God for children. This is not a God for most adults. This is a God whose very presence threatens human life, as it pours into all available spaces and consumes the oxygen. Moses lived to tell the tale, as did Abraham and Elijah and Isaiah—but not because they were superheroes. They lived because there is more to this fearsome God than fear. Here is the invisible God who is known through the visible—through humanity—and most fully through the humanity of Jesus.

We are living paradoxes: we expect our God to be infinitely more than we can imagine, yet we know that every one of our metaphors for God is severely limited by our imagination. We can bend and stretch our God-models to their limits, but we first must have models to bend. If we can’t find a metaphor for God that enlivens us are we spiritually dead?

“If so,” said Anglican priest Harry Williams, “you must spend your time here looking for a better God — you can look for a better God by reading, by thinking, by discussion, by the experience of common worship and private prayer, by living, knocking about and being knocked about.”3

It’s the ‘knocking about and being knocked about’ part that I find illuminating. It suggests that all our life experiences, not just the ones we label ‘religious’ or even ‘spiritual’, matter a great deal in how we look for God—and the kind of God we find.

Our ‘knocking about’ stretches over our whole lifespan. If, at any point, someone asks me to describe my understanding of God, they shouldn’t be surprised if they come back in a year or so and I have a different story. There will likely be a thread of consistency running from one end to the other of my years, but the details, the priorities, the images and metaphors I find in my search for God will vary considerably as I move through different experiences in life.

When I was a teenager, and even well into my twenties, I confess I thought of God mostly as an agent who was there for my benefit. Help me to pass this exam, get me into this grad school, help me to find this job.

These were important things to me, but the demands left little room for God’s character to be revealed. As a result, I trapped myself into prayer as a contract between two parties—a sure way to kill it off. And it was killed. For years I could hardly bring myself to pray. I couldn’t figure out how it worked for one thing, and for another, I had a picture of myself panhandling before God. According to my framing of God, I obviously didn’t have enough faith, or I’d gotten the formula wrong or—worse thought—God didn’t stop at that corner anymore.

But there was another problem, the problem of evil, that had everything to do with the standard-issue view of God as responsible for everything that happens on earth. I’d long ago ejected from my arsenal of ready-made answers the notion that God actively brings evil on us as a test of our loyalty. With a god like that, who needs the Devil?

I was gradually coming round to the idea that God’s grand experiment with humans was a learning experience for God too. Giving freedom to creatures like us—real freedom to choose—means signing up for the long haul, learning patience, and never giving up on us.

As far as I was concerned, Job won his case against God and God quietly conceded on the merits. But then God opened up a relation with Job that was deeper and wider than anything Job had experienced before. It transcended arguments and codes of conduct. It could not be contained in words.

Job got it. “I had heard of you,” he said, “but now my eye sees you.”4 Job had argued on the basis of a theoretical and legal relation to God, only to be thrust into a close encounter with God that left him speechless, humbled, and strangely satisfied.

Then there was silence: we do not hear from God again in Scripture until the Gospels.

The narrative of God in the Old Testament is of a character who is anything but immutable. He rages, he weeps, he loves, he suffers, he dazzles, terrifies, woos, and comforts. He moves and adapts to our changing circumstances. He meets us where we are. As Charles Taylor says in A Secular Age, “God’s Providence is his ability to respond to whatever the universe and human agency throw up. God is like a skilled tennis player, who can always return the serve.”5

What kind of a God do we need today, right now, in the midst of this national agony?

The Gospels give us Jesus, God-in-Christ—for me an extraordinary, mysterious, profound person, who literally loved us unto death, and lives now as God-in-us through the Spirit. There is nothing we go through that God-in-Christ has not experienced or suffered. There is nothing, as Paul says, that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. A love that can bring justice to the silenced and turn the hearts of the silencers inside out.

None of this can be proven in clinical tests. But when we look for a better god than the one who cannot be moved by our suffering, we stumble into a great disclosure: “there is at the heart of life a Heart.”6 If we cannot let go of our guard rails, God-in-Christ has time and patience.

This is where faith becomes the path. “How am I to get it? Only in the ancient school of experience, by trial and error, by pain and joy, and, most of all, by faith, a confidence that, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, life is on my side and not against me. This is the confidence that Jesus brought . . .”7

It’s then I realize, however fleetingly, that stepping on the path is itself the finding of a better God.

  1. Augustine. Confessions. Translated by Sarah Ruden. New York: Modern Library, 2017, p. 7.
  2. Taylor, Barbara Brown. Learning to Walk in the Dark. New York: HarperCollins, 2014, p. 57.
  3. Williams, H. A. The True Wilderness. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965, p. 51.
  4. Job 42:5, NRSV.
  5. Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge: Harvard University, 2007, p. 277.
  6. Thurman, Howard. Howard Thurman: Essential Writings. Selected with an Introduction by Luther E. Smith, Jr. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, p. 41.
  7. Williams, H. A. The True Wilderness. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965, p. 67.

I Can Breathe

Photo: James Eades on Unsplash

I see posts on Facebook from white friends and acquaintances, querulously complaining that everywhere they look they see signs proclaiming, ‘Black Lives Matter.’ They are tired of it. “Why don’t ‘All Lives Matter’ they ask. Jesus does not make distinctions between people and neither should we, they say. They are color blind; they have never understood why racism exists, they say. They insist they are not racist.

This is a fraught time, but it’s also an historic moment. I am glad I lived to see this time. I was twelve when the Civil Rights Act was passed. Even at that young age it was hard to understand why it had taken so long. But I could go about my pre-teen business, unconcerned about my safety around cops. Officer Angel in St. Helena was a genuine jerk, even on his good days, but it never crossed my mind that my life was in danger while he tailed me on my motorcycle down the Silverado Trail some years later.

I could breathe.

Should I and millions of other white people take to the streets carrying signs that say, “White Lives Matter”? It would be absurd, pointless. My whiteness is the standard against which every other human color is measured and found wanting. I don’t have to try twice as hard to be taken half as seriously as a person of color. I am not overlooked solely because of the color of my skin. I don’t have to justify my very existence.

I can breathe.

In order for a human life to “matter” to others, those others must regard that life as human. This is fundamental to the survival of communities and to the survival of humanity itself. It is so fundamental that when confronted with a sign that reads “Black Lives Matter,” you think, well of course, that’s obvious. And what we’re thinking is that all (human) lives matter; blacks are human; therefore, black lives matter. Simple logic. So why does it have to be said? Because, bluntly put, the unspoken assumption is that black lives still don’t matter as much as white lives matter.

So if the obvious has to be stated—“Black Lives Matter”—you know we are in a seriously schizophrenic state of being in this country. If the house is on fire, the alarm must be sounded. This house is on fire. Black people have been sounding the alarm for four hundred years. But we have been looking away and raising such a din that their voices have been ignored. And it’s hard to make your voice heard above the din when you can’t breathe.

So now we are all in this moment when the loudest voice that finally cut through the din was from a man gasping his life out under the knee of a smugly brutal cop who knew there would be no consequences to his actions because he operated on the assumption that black lives don’t matter. It’s a tragedy that the blindingly obvious must be stated over and over—“Black Lives Matter”—but until we truly believe that, and it becomes a fundamental assumption for us, we must be reminded over and over.

We are on a threshold, what we call a liminal moment. Are we going to slam the door and retreat back into the room we’ve lived in for centuries? Are we going to stand dithering on the threshold? Or will we go forward into the wide world?

There will be a time when a kid in the seventh grade does a report on the protests of 2020 for her social studies class and comes across photos of people carrying signs that say, “Black Lives Matter.” She will be puzzled: isn’t that obvious? she’ll ask. Well, it is now, will be the answer. But it took a lot of people of all kinds, carrying signs, raising a shout, and making a lot of changes, before a lot of other people finally said, “Well, of course.”

So, my fellow white people: Take a deep breath. You know you can. You’ve always been able to breathe.