Fig Tree Blues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Praise of Useless Beauty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

That was Paradise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To my Trump-supporting Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disregarding the Rest

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“A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” — Paul Simon, “The Boxer”

I am implored by my friend to “do my own research,” usually a tip-off that that person rejects all mainstream media, including the major newspapers, magazines, and networks. Instead, I am to find the truth in the myriad of alt-right blogs, websites, and Twitter accounts.

I will not do that. He knows it, just as I know he will not accept any of my references to The Washington Post, the New York Times, The New Yorker, Atlantic, and Guardian. We are at loggerheads, yet we continue the discussion on Facebook, each of us reluctant to write the other off as a former friend.

He is unfailingly courteous, unlike so many others across this divide. In fact, our discourse is for him a battle of spiritual warfare in which I am in grave danger from principalities and powers. He hopes to save me, a fellow Christian and a friend, whose bonds of friendship stretch back over fifty years to high school days.

As I write, in a few days he will vote for Donald Trump, believing that God has appointed the President to save the country from the hell of socialism that the Democrats will bring. I believe the opposite, that the country cannot bear another four years under an administration seemingly bent on destroying the fragile framework of democracy.

In our exchanges he lets me know he is praying for me that the Holy Spirit will convince me of my error and help me to find my way back to truth. In a flash of pique I tell him I appreciate being prayed for, that I need all the prayers on my behalf that I can get, but no pleas for my conversion to his position will be effective.

I believe, just as he does, that this is bigger than either of us. Something fundamental is at stake here and it calls for clear thinking, moral conviction, and a willingness to search for truth. He asserts that we are living in the Last Days and that prophecy is being fulfilled before our eyes. I reply that people in every age think theirs is the last one and that prophecy is like Cling Wrap: it can be stretched to cover almost anything.

He wonders if I believe that God doesn’t care what happens here on earth. I counter that Jesus’ life and death and resurrection mean that God was willing to die to change the horrific state of affairs in our world. But, I add, I don’t believe that God is telling me to vote Republican — or Democrat, for that matter.

We retreat to our corners for the time being. I ask myself for the hundredth time why I do this. I wonder what it means for our friendship. And I question what has happened to my sense of humor. Incongruously, an image of a freckled Alfred E. Neumann comes to mind with his cheerful comeback to anything serious: “What, me worry?”

***

What I find so poignant about this situation is that it really matters to both of us. Neither of us can easily walk away because we care about the issues at stake in this election. And in some way not clearly defined, we care about each other’s spiritual welfare.

As the saying goes, the personal is the political, and never more so than today. The saying captures the urgency with which our individual concerns of race, gender, social class, educational opportunities, and health become policy issues. The unavoidable smashup of personal = spiritual = political is the conundrum behind my disagreements with my friend.

What are we to make of such deep divisions between Christians over social and cultural issues? Conventional wisdom says that culture beats religion in most societies with a Christian history. Given crises like war, famine, and plague, people retreat to their enclaves and their tribes. In the extremes, morality gives way to survival tactics, a narrowing of scope rather than an opening up of inclusion through compassion. Religion, that is, the worship of God in and through community, may survive such a test, but often enough it becomes another powerful means of exclusion.

“Purity,” says Annie Dillard, “is one of the two most attractive ideas the human race knows. The other is perfection. Purity is absence; perfection is fullness. Purity seeks to eliminate; its worshipers from the right or the left wage war with swords . . . Purity seeks to eliminate inessentials.”1

We imagine we can achieve purity with the right combination of astringency, incisiveness, and force. Force that presents first as derision, then as humiliation, and finally, as unveiled hatred.

At the micro level—the personal level between each other as adversaries—the world shrinks to our own blood sport, the ring in which we duke it out until only one is left standing. Purity is achieved by eliminating the other.

There is a practical consideration also, what we might call “The Rule of the Road.” You don’t flip someone off while in traffic lest you meet them later in the parking lot. Likewise, I shouldn’t post something I would be ashamed of later.

The disharmony of the present stifles our view of the larger context, but even more so, it distorts our understanding of the creations God has brought into being, which we call “I,” “you,” “them.” Under these conditions, we rarely get to “we” and “us.” Rather, we protect ourselves by asking if anything matters enough to bring about a permanent rift between people of faith, be they Christians, Jews, or Muslims.

One alternative available is the Casablanca response. Humphrey Bogart as Rick says to Ilse on the runway, “I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that. . . Here’s looking at you, kid.”

Back far enough away and the conflicts we carry shrink to nothing. The irony in that argument is that what Rick did was noble, precisely because he put the welfare of Ilse and Victor ahead of his own wishes, and in so doing probably signed his own death warrant. But we do not look at our world from the International Space Station; we are here, right now, in the midst of all our overlapping and sometimes discordant lives.

These things are important to us because they are in some sense matters of life and death. No conflict, no meaning. At least we’re alive enough to realize that the tearing of the fabric of the Christian community is serious. This brings up, as Rowan Williams says, “one painfully obvious thought . . . If we were really preoccupied with, really in love with our vision (of Christ), we’d have less time for fussing about someone else’s.”2 After all, when Peter asked in John 21 what was to happen to the beloved disciple, Jesus pretty much says, “Mind your own business and follow me.”

But that’s not really enough either. Nor will cutting the other away through a demonic cult of purity suffice. And acquiescing to another’s position over things we cannot in good conscience believe tears away at our sense of who we are and what we are to do.

The difficulty confronting me is the battle over particulars versus universals, tactics versus principles, means versus ends. My Christian brother and I would likely agree on the principle that we love because God first loved us. We would believe that in some ultimate sense God-in-Christ has overcome the world and that now we live in the freedom to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. Where we agree on principles there is hope that the particulars need not permanently divide us.

As long as we have the freedom in Christ that he unstintingly gives us, we’ll have differences between us that can tear us apart. But praise be for the God who takes us seriously enough to entrust us with such power. Praise be, also, that we can be constantly forgiven upward. I, for one, am quite often too tired, too distrustful, and too impatient to carry it well. There are times when I am deaf, dumb, and blind—and don’t even know it. I cannot see the world the way God sees it. I don’t see others the way God sees them.

Jesus once touched the eyes of a man born blind. “What do you see?” he asked. “I see men walking,” replied the fellow, “but they look like trees.” How about now, said Jesus, and he touched him again. That did it, said the man, and he began to praise God.

I am that man.

  1. Dillard, Annie. Living by Fiction. New York: Harper and Row, 1982, p. 171.
  2. Williams, Rowan. A Ray of Darkness. Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1995, p. 90.

Speaker for the Dead

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”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

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“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.