Call No One Master

Photo: Marivi Pazos, Unsplash

”The greatest among you must be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”1

If you knock around the Gospels for awhile, you begin to notice a pattern in the sayings of Jesus. He reverses ideas, turns them upside down, bends and breaks them, then shapes them into something new. These are sometimes hard to hear. They run outside the grooves we’re used to; their rhythms and inflections don’t follow common patterns, so that if you’re just tracking the rise and fall of a familiar verse—not really paying attention to the words—he tangles that all up and then you have to pay attention and really listen, not just hear.

So it is with his idea of exaltation and humbling.

By now, we may have read this text so many times that it is worn smooth, nothing there to snag a finger on a jagged edge. If you come to this looking for leadership principles, like those in Jesus, CEO (“How Jesus built a disorganized staff of twelve into a thriving enterprise! Principles of success that can translate into any corporate business!), you will be disappointed.

Humility is like one of those Chinese finger traps: forcing it tightens it down. If you exalt yourself, you will be humbled. If you humble yourself in order to be exalted, you’ve defeated the purpose and you will most likely end up humiliated. Humility or humbleness is almost impossible if you have to schedule it. If you try it on, it won’t fit. It will be too tight, too short, too big, dead false. In other words, humility raised to the level of consciousness becomes pride.

I’ve wondered if genuine humility instead comes from character built over time. How to still the insistent voice that pipes up, “Me! What about me?”

Thomas Merton links pride with despair, the end result of an unwillingness to accept anything from the hand of God because of one’s mountain of pride. “But a man who is truly humble cannot despair,” says Merton, “because in the humble man there is no longer any such thing as self-pity.”2

The greater the attention to oneself and the greater the position one holds, the more self-pity becomes the drug of choice when others will not bow to one’s will.

Whether one be the president of the country or the president of the church, the principle applies: the higher the office, the greater the responsibility to serve. When the office is greater than the man (or woman), when the officeholder is not equal to the responsibilities—when, in fact, the character and conduct of the officeholder demeans and corrupts the office, the honor of the office may only be restored by a servant who leads, one who is wise and humble.

I doubt this practice of humility would have been intuitive for many rulers in Jesus’ time. Most would not have seen any advantage in it for themselves, and as for principle—well, that’s just some people talking. Machiavelli said there are only two ways to become a ruler: either you inherit it or you take it. The Roman experiments with forms of democracy certainly didn’t extend to their outlying provinces, especially not for the Jews, who had a long history of volatility. Force applied liberally and strategically, would have been their best practices for leadership.

But force applied compresses the mass and conforms it to the shape of the instrument of force. Those in authority beneath the Romans had no other models of governing except the ones they were subjected to. The idea of servanthood in a leadership role would have seemed both insufficient and ludicrous. Where there were clear lines of class, wealth, and privilege, no one in a position of authority would deign to humble himself.

Jesus locates humility as a practice that begins in the family and continues through one’s education. He calls on religious leaders and teachers to be humble, since they are in a position to exploit their authority and their power.

But you must not be called “rabbi”; for you have one Rabbi, and you are all brothers. Do not call any man on earth “father;’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor must you be called “teacher;’ you have one Teacher, the Messiah.3

This is one of those sayings of Jesus which we adhere to by the spirit, rather than by the law. If we read this literally, limiting it to titles alone, we miss entirely the deeper meaning that all of us—leaders and teachers also—are as dependent on God as children are on their parents.

You must not be called Rabbi, says Jesus. You have one Rabbi and besides, you are all brothers. And you must not be called teacher, he adds, for you have one Teacher, the Messiah. These sayings are in the passive voice, thus the responsibility is on us not to encourage the fawning and favoritism that often comes with degrees and titles.

When we talk about titles and honorifics, though, we are treading on ground that is sacred for a lot of people. Titles represent the hard work that was put in, the long nights of study and the exams taken and passed. They speak to the discipline and ambition that it takes to rise to the top of one’s profession, and they serve as a bright dividing line between the entitled and the poseurs.

When I taught at Stevenson University and at Trinity Washington University, the students called me Professor. I rather liked that because it meant that I professed something. What I professed was something that I sincerely believed, although I was not able to articulate it or even demonstrate it to my own satisfaction. But every time I entered a classroom or spoke with a student or graded her papers, it was uppermost in my mind. It was a dual question for the students: ‘What are you doing here?’ and ‘What does your life mean?’

Posed as much to myself as to my students, the questions were a constant reminder that my motives were not always aligned with my outcomes, and I am still, in part, an enigma to myself. The truest desire of my will, only sometimes realized, was that my students should see me as a window through which they could see a path forward to a country they could call their own.

The other warning Jesus gives us is in the active voice: “Do not call any man on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.”

Are we to take Jesus literally on this point? In a male-dominated culture, in which the father was the undisputed head of the family, this must have surprised his disciples, if not grated on them. And while not everyone will be a religious leader or a teacher, everyone has a biological father, absent though he may be. The particular points to the universal: our fathers bow to Our Father.

Perhaps Jesus felt this more keenly than most of us. After the incident in which Jesus ditches his parents to discuss with the rabbis in the temple, we hear no more of Joseph. It’s no stretch of the imagination to think of Jesus, the eldest of several siblings, with a growing consciousness of God, his Abba, after Joseph passes away. Jesus was the eldest, the one set apart, special somehow, although he couldn’t say why, and Mary wouldn’t—not yet. All those years so alone; he must have stretched himself upward, opening to the sun and the cold moon and the distant, gentle presence he wished to call “Father.”

Thomas Merton, who struggled with humility all his life, saw it as the way to joy. “It is almost impossible to overestimate the value of true humility and its power in the spiritual life,” he wrote in New Seeds of Contemplation. “Humility contains in itself the answer to all the great problems of the life of the soul. It is the only key to faith, with which the spiritual life begins: for faith and humility are inseparable.”4

To call no one ‘Master’ is a liberating experience. It removes compulsion from our relationships and replaces it, where possible, with a freely given loyalty. Loyalty, when not the blind variety, is a much stronger bond than those cemented through fear and humiliation. When we are free in this way, with a quiet confidence that we are sons and daughters of God, we can be free from fear of anyone.

  1. Matthew 23: 11,12, New English Bible.
  2. Merton, Thomas. New Seeds of Contemplation. Boston, MA: Shambala, 2003, p. 183.
  3. Matthew 23:8-10, New English Bible.
  4. Merton, 184.

Jesus Was a Sailor

Photo: Joshua Earle, Unsplash

“Jesus was a sailor/when he walked upon the water/ . . . but he himself was broken/long before the sky would open . . .”1

If you are of a certain vintage and you read the epigram, you are probably humming Judy Collins’ “Suzanne,” one of her many hits, with a lyric right out of Leonard Cohen’s poem of the same name. It is enigmatic, evocative, haunting. It calls on Jesus as a sailor, a metaphor that is startling, but no more so than the ones we find in the Gospels.

The metaphors in the Gospels are numerous and diverse. “I am the Vine,” he says. “You are the branches.” He claims to be the door, the bridegroom, the lamb, the ransom, the good shepherd, and “The Way, the truth, and the life.” He is nothing if not confident about his mission and his being. Through them we visualize much of what Jesus meant. They are how we learn of Jesus in ways that reason, logic, and theory cannot reach. They are compact links to a kaleidoscope of images.

Some of these are foundational in most cultures: almost anyone could find them appealing. But some may bring only the slightest stirring of recognition to us. The fact that there are so many of them in the Gospels and the New Testament suggests a willingness to reach us through as many images as possible. And I think we must ask why. Why is it so important to Jesus—and by inference, to the Gospel writers—that we see him in so many different ways? Wouldn’t it be prudent to save a lot of time and effort by fastening on one or two powerful metaphors and pour all the wooing of the Holy Spirit through them?

In fact, if we wield Occam’s razor—the simplest explanation is usually the one closest to the truth—we’d want to reduce the options down to those most likely to win the trust of most people. I confess I do not know which those would be. Nor does it really matter, since my own choices have shifted over the years in response to the tides of circumstance, need, and interest.

When I first began to read the Bible in large chunks, instead of key memory verses, I began to think of it as a rather disjointed narrative that banged down hard on certain themes, sometimes to the point of redundancy, and that veered wildly in many different directions. Later, in college, I studied New Testament Greek, and while I could barely keep up with the verb forms and the conjugations, I did come away with a bushel of words I could use and a reverence for the idea that multiple meanings could derive from single words. I also understood that The Bible was a translation of the Greek, Ta Biblia, The Books, and that what I held in my hand was a library, not a single, unified, narrative. Many voices, many stories, millennia in the making, multiple cultures and languages—all of it somehow joining a chorus that hit all the highs and lows of the human experience as it wrestled with the divine.

The Gospel of John reports Jesus saying, “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.”2 No doubt hearing the Torah read in the Temple, expounded in the synagogue, and recited in one’s prayers, a practice formed over thousands of years, was regarded as the surest means to salvation. “Yet,” said Jesus, “you refuse to come to me to have life.”

This was a God revealed through his powerful acts, who flexed an “arm mighty to save.” While abhorring all idols, the Hebrews put their trust in words as the lens through which to see God, the bridge over which they would escape the torrents of evil, and the fire which their prophets would take into themselves.

“The point of the Old Testament analogies,” writes John V. Taylor, “especially the metaphors drawn from human experience, is that they are the most appropriate form of speech for talking of a God who . . . is committed to a reciprocal relatedness with the world and has an affinity with it.”3

***

In the year King Uzziah died, Isaiah underwent a vision within the temple, in which he saw the Lord high on a throne, surrounded by thunder, fire, and earthquake —and angels, terrifying in their majesty. Isaiah, naked in his guilt and shriveling in fear and awe, is touched on the lips with a live coal taken from the altar with a pair of tongs.

That detail blurs the line between a waking vision and material reality. It is a trip wire for our complacent reading. The coal comes glowing from the altar fire. An angel, wielding tongs, carries it to Isaiah and touches his lips with it. If this was a purely internal all-in-his-head manifestation for Isaiah, you’d think the angel would carry it in his hand, oblivious to the heat and sizzle, but aware, nevertheless, that he is going to char Isaiah’s lips with it. Aren’t angels fire-proof?

But we read this symbolically, as a metaphor that expresses the holiness of the word of God that both cleanses and inflames those to whom it is entrusted. In so doing there is something missed and something gained. We do not have the immediacy of such a literal experience, either observed in others or bestowed upon oneself, an experience that appeals to our senses and thus to our sense of “reality.” But we gain the power of metaphor. This is our default mode for learning anything; we range ourselves along a pathway of imagination, an abyss on either side, until we can reach the solid ground of memory and/or experience. In imagination we reach and leap for a foothold. Or to extend the metaphor: we plant one foot in memory and stretch the other toward imagination until the one can join the other.

There has always been a fear of “anthropomorphism” in religions, that to describe God acting in ways that suggest human attributes is to lower God to our level. There is no danger to God in this, only to ourselves. To speak is to call something into existence, to make present what was hidden. We have the power to breathe the breath of life into a curse or a quip or a joke—and once released into the wild it is out of our control. Having spoken about God, we have a responsibility literally to “accept the obligation of response,” to answer for what we have said.4

But the truth is that we are always remaking God in a form we can understand. In every age, as Christian Wiman says, “Christ dies anew and is resurrected within the imagination of man.”5 We can see this as a lowering of God or we can recognize the deeper truth that God-in-Christ has become the Word among us to heal and restore us. When we struggle to understand what God is saying to us in the Scriptures, our response should not be “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” nor should it be “Couldn’t God have said it more politically correct!” But, as Rowan Williams suggests, “Our task is rather to say that the revelation of God comes to us in the middle of weakness and fallibility.”6

When we misapprehend or distort the word of God, we are tediously aware of the endless and stinging arguments that can separate us from one another. And yet, through it all—the centuries and millennia of the Word manifested among us—God continues to reach out to us in “many and divers ways.” Just as the fire lit up Isaiah when “the word of the Lord came to him,” so the Word becomes incarnate, overcoming barriers of prejudice and pride, and searching us out where we are. In our experience, the Bible offers so many digressive pathways, that we must be continuously reading and studying in order to hold in mind the profusion of metaphors and storylines within it.

***

Somewhere in his writings, Kierkegaard conjures up a metaphor that captures for me the terror of faith and despair. In it we are looking up, from fathoms deep, at a tiny figure thrashing alone through the waves. Although I was once a strong swimmer who enjoyed the lift and thrust of catching the waves, I still have a flickering sense of dread when I think of the vast depths of the sea. To imagine Jesus as a wave-walker stepping lightly through the storm and wind, is to see myself as Peter, haunted by the sight of Jesus and yet jolted to be with him, come hell or high water.

We carry these metaphors within us; they have the power to baptize us once again in the waters that could drown us were it not for the Wave-walker beside us.

  1. Cohen, Leonard. “Suzanne Takes You Down,” Selected Poems 1956-1968. New York: Viking Press, 1964, p. 209.
  2. John 5.39,40
  3. Taylor, John. The Christlike God. London, SCM Press, 1992, p. 149.
  4. Steiner, George. Real Presences. London: Faber and Faber, 1992, p. 90.
  5. Wiman, Christian. My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, p. 11.
  6. Williams, Rowan. Open to Judgement: Sermons and Addresses.” London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1994, p. 159.

Look No Further

Photo: Alex Wigan, Unsplash

”Be content, be content. We are the Body of Christ! We have found Him because He has sought us . . . There is nothing further to look for except to turn to Him completely, where He is already present. Be quiet and see that He is God.” —Thomas Merton1

It is sometimes said that there are two kinds of Christians: the ones who live for the Crucifixion and the ones who live from the Resurrection. The main difference between them is their terminus point, what Aristotle might have called their telos, the meaning and goal of their lives.

The Crucifixion people are concerned with judgment and their salvation. The Resurrection people are ready to permeate the world like salt in soup. There have been millions of crucifixions without a resurrection; there has only been one Resurrection with a crucifixion. Resurrection people stake their faith on defying those odds.

Most of us are brought up to be Crucifixion people. We are told we are born in sin, that sin corrodes even our best intentions, and that this enormous burden of sin has estranged us from God. Our sin results from breaking God’s law and it’s in our very nature to break it. Since the irreversible penalty for breaking the law is death, and since not even God can make an exception, we are doomed. We broke it, we must pay for it. But God has provided a way out for us by sending his Son, Jesus—a perfect sacrifice—to die in our place. The Law’s demands are met, and we are saved—until we sin again.

It’s all contractual, with obligations and penalties, demands and responsibilities. There is a coldness here that runs to the bone. There is an unspoken, but deeply felt understanding between the parties involved that because we can never adequately repay God for the sacrifice made, that we are forever in debt—and God will never let us forget it. In moments of our greatest vulnerability, when we have no resources left and nothing in us that can rise to meet the danger that is coming, the dread that we will have to yet again beg for forgiveness so that we might be saved from our own clumsiness, scours all gratitude from our hearts and replaces it with fear. And perfect fear casts out love.

My experience with this perspective goes back to a preacher whose message week after week never varied: We are dead in our tracks and there is nothing good in us. We must throw ourselves on the mercy of God and cling to the foot of the cross. And it may be that God will look down on us and forgive us for nailing Jesus to the cross. But we dare not move beyond the circle of the cross; there we must remain, drenched in our sins and desperate for the blood of the Lamb, hoping to placate the God we have deeply offended.

Some variation of this no doubt rings out from pulpits from week to week. It is a reaction to the “cheap grace” dispensed by an indulgent god, who regards our sins as faux pas, and who can be counted on to turn the other cheek indefinitely. It is the predictable opposite of the Crucifixion position. In place of the cold calculation of sins, there is the sunny smile of the affable god. Where our sin creates an enormous gulf, there is instead a wave of the hand and a cheerful, ‘No problem!’ This is a god of respectability, whose only request is that we maintain a reasonable semblance of ethicality.

We turn away, instinctively, from both these gods, for they are false—and they reflect back to us a false view of our humanity. In the one we become abject, paralyzed, and terrified. In the other, we are self-centered, smug, and blind to the wreckage we leave behind us.

This provokes in us different reactions. We might redouble our efforts to do life perfectly, keeping lists and analyzing the data. But this is about as effective as Paris Hilton’s T-shirt, which read, “Stop Being Poor.” Or we might kill the messenger, rejecting those who would stop to help us out of the ditches we have crashed into. Another reaction is to throw the whole thing over, confess that we were duped by God and religion from the start, and try to begin again, free from the superstitions we once fervently followed as truths. All of these are ways we cope with cognitive dissonance, in which our actions and our values no longer correspond and, instead, cause us deep distress.

Or we could try repentance, what the New Testament calls metanoia, a turning around to take a new and different path. This is our turning to God, and we are at our most vulnerable in doing so. Because we judge God by our own standards, we find it almost impossible to believe that God has been with us all along, especially when we felt most isolated in our sin. We may resolve to live right, do our very best, and make it up to God. Merton cautions us, however: “The best is not the ideal. Where what is theoretically best is imposed on everything as the norm, then there is no longer any room even to be good. The best, imposed as a norm, becomes evil.”2

Even if we are reflective about our state of being with God, there is in us a nagging suspicion that it couldn’t be as simple as “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free,” and “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” What will we be free from? In these verses Jesus also says—and could we refute him?—“Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” We are all slaves, then, and the result is that we cannot believe we have been set free. Mental slavery—the acquiescence to the power of a distorting reality—destroys our trust.3

Crucifixion people collapse right here and have not the trust nor the will to stand up. Because they must be the best—and they cannot—they are bound in an endless loop of self-recrimination and guilt. They might experience a momentary high as they imagine Jesus’ death on the cross wiping the slate clean and averting God’s wrath. But in the next moment they are brought down as they sin. They cannot move forward because they regard sin as discrete unlawful actions, which they cannot stop performing.

But sin is like living with a crippling disease, an ongoing state of being. One learns to cope, to find ways to walk anyway, in the faith and hope that one day we shall “run and not be weary.” Until then, we remember both how fragile we are and yet how we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.

Resurrection people know their personal history; they know where the cracks are. They know what crippled them and how they got that way. They were listening when Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me,” and they hoped, with all their heart, that when Jesus cried out to them from his own cross that “Today you will be with me in paradise,” that it was true. For they knew that they were crucified with Christ, but that they would live because it was Christ who would live in them.

They would continue to bear the scars of their battles and to walk with a limp—a reminder of their struggle to give their ego over to God. But most of all, they were emboldened to become salt in the world and to become light where they were, because they had a clear-eyed experience of being loved.

“Be content, be content. We are the Body of Christ! We have found Him because He has sought us. God has come to take up his abode in us, in sinners. There is nothing further to look for except to turn to Him completely, where He is already present. Be quiet and see that He is God.”4

  1. Merton, Thomas. Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. Garden City, NY: Image Books imprint of Doubleday & Co., 1968, p. 23.
  2. Merton, p. 9.
  3. Acknowledgement to Bob Marley.
  4. Merton, p. 23.

Stranger Mysteries

Photo: Ricardo Frantz, Unsplash

Jesus crucified is our central image of the strangeness of God, consuming what comes close to it . . . He is that which interrupts and disturbs and remakes the world. That’s the first thing: the story we tell.1

He stands motionless in a wilderness of heat, the bones of the earth whitening between the razored shadows in the desert. Black birds wheel overhead with the faintest whisper of pinions. There is a silence about him that stops the words behind the teeth. My blood beats in my ears.

Whatever he is searching out, my eyes cannot follow.

Whatever he is seeing is not visible.

There is a gulf between us; I believe he is in combat.

***

The Gospel of John assures us that “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” There are layers of mystery here that must not be painted over with the wash of complacency. Two thousand years of theological and political cross-referencing have smoothed out the jaggedness of the divine touching the human. We are no longer alarmed by Jesus’ confrontation with evil or how his life sets in stark relief our great need for honesty and spiritual courage. When he fits the order of things—when we confine him to the church where he can preside over committees and validate decisions—he is . . . harmless.

The story of Jesus sets us at an oblique angle to the plane of the world. It is an Escher print in motion, a Matisse cut-out, with the spare lines of a haiku and the tragic realism of a Rouault painting. I describe the story in this way because I see it in these ways: angles, lines, planes, curves, edges, silhouettes of a lean starkness against the light.

We don’t much like mysteries when it comes to spiritual matters. We call them “paradoxical,” another term that seems to be a dodge, a giving up of the intellect just when it is most consequential. Rowan Williams, one-time Archbishop of Canterbury, sees that our language cannot keep up with the quick-changes of life. We’re using terms that no longer fit the situation, but we haven’t yet come up with something that expresses clearly what we are experiencing. We call it a “paradox,” he says, not because we are trying to muddle things or avoid the truth, but in order to remind ourselves that things are not always what they seem. “We speak in paradoxes because we have to speak in a way that keeps a question alive.” 2

The death of questions for a person involved in religion is another paradox. It is a relief to those being questioned, but it is in answering those questions that a religious authority believes himself to be an authority. Likewise, for the questioner, the constant twitch of questions can become exhausting and distracting, but it is only by asking and seeking that we find.

My paradox, the one that keeps me spiritually alive and a question to myself, is how Jesus has been for me both a threat and a promise. Like Thomas Merton, who knew himself to be living under ‘the sign of Jonas’ (Jonah), “I find myself traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox.” Jesus took to himself the metaphor of Jonah’s engorgement in the fish to allude to his death and entombment. Merton meant that we are to understand Jesus in the only way possible—through his resurrection.

But my paradox begins with the Incarnation and winds forward to the crucifixion. I have an idea where this comes from and what it might reveal about me. To begin at the beginning has always been my Sisyphean rock to roll. Nothing less than a comprehensive grasp of what may be known on a subject is my default desire. The utter impossibility of this has not lessened my instinctual turn toward it. Thus, my loathing of true/false and multiple-choice questions on exams (Nothing is that certain. Nothing is that cut and dried.), and a febrile sense that I could filibuster my way out of most philosophical cul-de-sacs, meant that as a student I was constantly retracing my steps, like a man on a treadmill—plenty of exercise, little forward progress.

If there is one movement in life of which I am certain, certain because I experience it and see it recapitulated in Nature and in Being, it is the fall from Innocence to Experience and then the rise—hoped for but not inevitable—to Experienced Innocence. Our innocence is birthed with the capacity for experience; experience often arrives in a disruption of innocence, a tearing away from our transient blissful slumber to awaken in harsh light.

Experience jars us in individual but similar ways. It may be the loss of a parent in childhood, or the awareness that others resent us for being an Other or any number of slips, falls, or crashes. There are surely other ways of coming to knowledge, but the reality east of Eden is that we ate of the fruit and that has made all the difference.

Experience arises within a tragic context—we cannot choose the particulars, but it is necessary that we choose—yet, it is usually through experiencing a fall that we recognize our need. Broken and stunned, we are fortunate if someone cares enough to say that it matters how we respond to our brokenness. The passive receptiveness of our innocence gives over to our active seeking for a way to rise to our Experienced Innocence, what Christians call ‘new life.’

Our experience continues: any learning is a kind of fall from innocence and a rising. To find a new innocence in this way “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.”3

What strikes us as strange is that which comes from beyond our experience—our physical, emotional, imaginative limits. The word derives from estrangier, Old French, and before that from Latin extraneus, that which is external to us, which comes to us from the outside. Literally speaking then, everything we experience for the first time is strange and we will be a stranger wherever we are that is not part of our interior geography. Everyone is a stranger in more places than they can call “home.” We are all “the stranger” within someone else’s gates.

The Incarnation cradles the paradox of the divine becoming human and the human glorified in the divine. The mystery and the strangeness of Jesus is that he speaks and acts for God through his humanity, not in spite of it. The apokalypsis is the revelation that God is in our midst in the heat, sweat, hunger, joy, weariness, delight, and humor of Jesus. The Incarnation puts flesh on the shimmering hologram of the Word; the abstract infinity of the Word is rendered visible as an itinerant rabbi who speaks with authority because he knows God as God knows him—so much so that he can truthfully say, “I and the Father are one.”

“He came to his own,” says John, “and his own received him not.” He came home and was a stranger to those who dwelt within. He came and was not recognized as God because he is through and through one of us. But adding to the mystery is the manner of his coming. We humans project our images of mastery and power up into the heavens and call them ‘God.’ We see God as a superhero, flashing his omnipotence in a slashing, blinding intrusion into this chaotic world. But God cannot be anything but what his nature is, and his nature is nothing if not that of self-giving love. “What he does is identical with what he is.”4

To appear in the world quietly, in humility, in the form of a servant, is the most God-like form we could imagine—and it does take imagination. Infant, child, teenager, man—these are the iterations of God-in-Christ, beginning from the moment he is enfleshed, incarnated among us.

The arc of his life, from incarnation to crucifixion, appears in all its strangeness as a series of reversals: a servant, not a superhero; humility rather than arrogance; the Word instead of the sword; death on a cross instead of victory over the vanquished.

For two thousand years the church has more often than not chosen the warrior over the servant. More than that, it has refused to accept the implications of the words, “He who has seen me has seen the Father,” a claim not about Jesus, but “a declaration made about God.”5 The strangeness of a God whose character persuades rather than coerces, whose glory is revealed in mercy and forgiveness rather than cruelty and arbitrariness, confronts our fears. The way to God is narrow because we travel it in and through Jesus who, in God’s name, throws open the gates of the kingdom to those we fear and despise—the strangers and aliens who gladly exchange their pride for love and mercy. We must choose to enlarge our lives.

Like Rilke, I have questions, the answers to which I must live into. Shall I—shall any of us—one day arrive like Jonah, strangers tossed up on the shores of a great city to wreak judgement on other strangers, only to find that God-in-Christ, ever constant in his love, has showered grace instead of fire on those whose hearts of stone are broken?

  1. Williams, Rowan. “A Ray of Darkness” in Open to Judgement: Sermons and Addresses. London: Darton Longman and Todd, 1994, p. 122.
  2. Williams, 119.
  3. Wiman, Christian. My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, p. 64.
  4. Taylor, John V. The Christlike God. London: SCM Press Ltd, 1992, 138.
  5. Taylor, p. 140.

A Wedding Homily

Photo: Drahomir Posteby, Unsplash

Author’s Note: I gave the following homily at the wedding of two young friends on September 21, 2019. It is shared in the hopes that its themes will strike a common chord for its readers.

A wedding ceremony is a kind of time machine, allowing us to move back in time through memory and forward in hope. For those who are married, it reminds us of those months and moments leading up to the day, when we were ricocheting between hope, desire, and anxiety. For those who are engaged, it’s a time to learn by observation. For all of us, it’s a time to rejoice for our soon-to-be-married friends.

And for you two, it’s a time to do both — look back in memory and forward in hope. You’ve been together for five years, some of that time separated by a continent. You know something about long-distance relationships. You’ve weathered some things that most couples don’t go through for many years yet to come. The phrase “in sickness and in health” means a lot more to you now than it might have five years ago. “For richer or for poorer” — that’s still a work in progress.

This marriage thing is one of the most wondrous aspects of being human. Consider: people born thousands of miles apart and even years apart — complete strangers — make their paths in their own ways that eventually lead them to each other. Along the way, there are side trails, loops, reversals, ascensions, and descents. It’s never a straight line to an inevitable finish. For most of us, the one we marry is our discovery, our wonderful, amazing, unexpected surprise that somehow seems like it was meant to be all along.

In Genesis, God says, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” Plato told a story of human origins and said, “we used to be complete in our original nature, and now ‘love’ is the name for our pursuit of wholeness, for our desire to be complete.” And Aristotle called us social animals, incomplete without one another.

Communication theories are built on the premise that most of our written, spoken, and nonverbal messages are directed to others. We wouldn’t know who we are if it were not for the responses we get back from other people. At the very least, there’s an acknowledgement of our presence as a being in the world. But when communication is a living, electrifying connection between two people, it is a miracle of the commonplace. Communicating with another person is the most complex thing we do. And we do it pretty well, all things considered. But it’s an open-ended standard, with practically no limits as to how we can communicate better and more honestly.

For at the heart of communication is a constant need for truth. Rowan Williams, once the Archbishop of Canterbury, said “Need is the beginning of truthfulness.” It points back, somehow, to this idea of incompleteness, that our longing for the other can be traced back to the Garden and God musing to himself that it is not good for a person to be by himself.

We are creatures created to learn — as a teacher this was my morning mantra — although on some days it seemed an impossible dream. But we do learn and most of the time we have a hunger for it. It draws us in, it creates in us a longing to be filled, to draw closer to some unnamed but inexhaustible truth about life.

Matthew Arnold recovers this in his poem, The Buried Life, when he writes:

“But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,

But often, in the din of strife,

There rises an unspeakable desire

After the knowledge of our buried life;

A thirst to spend our fire and restless force

In tracking out our true, original course;

A longing to inquire

Into the mystery of this heart which beats

So wild, so deep in us — to know

Whence our lives come and where they go.”

Our yearning to know another person comes at a price. It calls for us to be intimate, vulnerable, open with the other. These things cannot be rushed — we’re uncomfortable when people reveal too much too soon about themselves. It leaves us holding treasure that we have somehow come by unequally.

I say “unequally” because communication at this level is a reciprocal action — or it should be. As we trust, we open up. When someone opens up to us it’s as if they are handing us a knife and baring their breast. It’s a risk, to be honest. It’s a risky business to be honest, because if we open up to another person with all that we are, we are open for pain. But if we avoid the possibility and we don’t open up, we cannot know them in any real way that goes beyond the bare necessities.

Remember Paul Simon’s song, “Something So Right”?

“Some people never say the words

I love you

It’s not their style

To be so bold

Some people never say those words

I love you

But like a child they’re longing

To be told”

We’re all longing to be told. It’s not selfish either. It’s an assurance that we’re not just taking up space in the world, but we are known and loved and if we were not here we would be missed and mourned. It means we matter to someone. And that touches on the other side of communication — that of giving, of being the sender of the message.

One of the most powerful passages I read in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale years ago was one that was leading me to believe that the narrator — in the midst of all that brutality and coldness — was longing to be loved. Instead, through the skill and wisdom of Atwood, it became clear that more than anything, she wanted to love. She wanted to give her love unstintingly, willingly, gloriously to another being. In loving another she would release springs of living water, as Jesus said, that had long been buried, sealed over, and forgotten. She would become her true self again.

The thing about learning and loving that brings them together is that neither one is brought to completion by ourselves. We learn in the company of others. We love, quite obviously, with others. Our incompleteness, that sense that there is always more, that just beyond what we can see there is so much more, is constitutive of learning and loving too. We get ourselves into a spot if we convince ourselves there is no more to be learned or that we have loved enough. The first reveals us to be lacking in curiosity; the second to be lacking in truth.

For in truth, when we are honest, we know that we can never love enough. We might find ourselves keeping score, maybe even throwing it back in someone’s face — “you’ve never loved me the way I’ve loved you!” But the kind of love that gets you through your day, dealing with slings and arrows and outrageous slander, that brings you home, tired from work, only to find a surly mate who’s had an equally bad day, that kind of love is not measured out in spoonfuls like medicine.

That might be the time, in all honesty, to admit to ourselves and our loved ones, that we do fall short in the giving part of love, and that we still have so much to learn. There’s no shame in admitting to those we love that our cup doth not run over. When we are true and honest, we — and they — know that it’s a temporary condition. This is where our strength lies in humility and forgiveness, outriggers that keep the ship of love steady as it goes.

The greatest poem in the Bible about love is familiar to most of us. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way… It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.”

There it is again: the bond between love and the truth. It’s the truth within our love that gives us strength to “bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things.” And here is the scary part, that burns us with its fullness: “Love never ends.”

That’s not a test we are bound to fail, it’s not a criticism, it is, in fact, our blessed assurance. It means that in spite of everything, against all odds, no matter what, God, the one who created love, loves us. That is the truth and the truth can set us free.

Today you are going to vow your love to each other in front of these witnesses and God. Today you know that you love each other, but there may come times — there will come times — when you’re not so self-assured, when it feels that your life has changed in oh, so many ways. In those times, remember how the poem ends:

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

We love because God first loved us.

Prayer

Lord of the light that is our life, we ask your blessing on us today. We give you this couple and ask that you bless their home and their love, this day and always. In your grace and through your love, may they be steadfast and true to one another and to you. And may we, their family and friends, be likewise true to our bonds of love. In the wisdom of the Spirit, may we together be a community that does justice, loves mercy, and walks humbly in the land. Amen.

The Suffering that Becomes Us

Photo: Kat J, Unsplash

Nothing that we despise in the other man is entirely absent from ourselves . . . We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.1 — Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The balance of power in human relationships often turns on the contempt we feel for those who suffer. There is something in us that finds the crack in the shell, the split in the veneer, the tear in the fabric, irresistible to the touch. More dangerously, some find the weaknesses in the armor we construct around ourselves. These cracks can be wedged open and widened by those skilled in the art of humiliation—of making a person regard himself with shame and even derision. Then the humiliated stands apart from himself, seeing himself as the abuser does—as an object, not a subject—that is deserving of punishment for pretending to be that which “It” is not—a “Thou.”

In accepting humiliation a person enters into an implicit contract with those who cause the suffering. In that moment of exquisite isolation, the humiliated one desperately seeks to belong again at all costs. A line is flung out to the drowning person, who believes that grasping it might save his life—but the price will be his soul. Jacob’s cunning tricks robbed Esau of his birthright because Esau was famished—near death’s door by his own account. The resentment and hatred unleashed by that humiliation reverberated through their family for decades.

***

The story of the woman caught in adultery usually appears in the Gospel of John in the eighth chapter, although in some versions it is dropped in at the end of the book. There is dispute about its authorship, but the consensus of the centuries places it within John’s message.

It is early morning in the temple. Jesus, as is his custom, has spent the night under the olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane. He makes his way down through the quiet streets to the courts of the temple. A crowd gathers to hear him, and he sits down to teach them. Then, in a commotion of jeers and shoving, a woman is flung down on the stones in front of him. A knot of temple authorities and Pharisees stands triumphantly over her. She is on her knees, her hair disheveled, her hands trembling. It is clear that she is naked under the blanket she clutches to her.

“Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery,” crows one of the men triumphantly. Some in the crowd laugh and a few of the women shake their heads scornfully. Their husbands angle for a better look, but when the woman pulls her hair back from her face, several of them quickly turn away.

“Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women.” There is no irony evident in his tone, despite the clear omission of any condemnation of the man with whom her adultery was committed. This woman, murmur some in the crowd, is what’s wrong with society today. Women like her trap our boys. “And if I ever caught my husband with her . . .”

The crowd begins to stir restlessly; the promise of a stoning heats the air. The priest in charge looks around at the crowd and then at Jesus. He pauses dramatically, swelling with the knowledge that all eyes are upon him.

”Now what do you say?” He smiles and arches an eyebrow.

There it is: the Law of God up against the Son of Man. To the priests, the woman is merely useful. They’re not concerned with the man she slept with; he has been paid to slip away and keep his mouth shut. They are after a bigger prize.

What shall we say then? If we are the priests, we cannot find it in ourselves to forgive this woman. After all, it’s the Law. Obedience to the law is what keeps a society together and functioning well. Flouting the law, so clearly in evidence here, is simply courting chaos and disaster.

And it is God’s law. As religious leaders, it is our responsibility to ensure that those entrusted to our care are compliant with the commandments of God. The burden is on us to carry out the penalty if God demands it. Wouldn’t it be the height of hypocrisy to wink at so grievous a sin? And wouldn’t we be punishable if we didn’t honor God’s law? Really, we have no choice; our hands are tied. There can be no waffling, no equivocating in matters like this. To excuse such wrongdoing is to open the floodgates of sin. No, the commandment is clear: death is the penalty, and this woman was caught in the very act.

That would be the end of the story in any other time and place. But not today. Jesus bends down and writes with his finger in the dust of the temple floor. The priests are badgering him for an answer, the crowd is restive, the woman has slumped to the ground, leaning on one arm, and still Jesus writes in silence. “What do you say, Master?” demands the priest. Jesus straightens. “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And he bends down again and continues to write.

The priests slip away, beginning with the eldest. They are silent, red-faced, confused. They find themselves in a moral vortex. While they have no love for Jesus, they grudgingly admire his fluency in debate, his charisma with the people, and—truth be told—his intimate relation with God. They are people tasked with the responsibility to know the Scriptures. They know the Law and the Prophets, and they meditate on them day and night. Keeping the commandments is what God calls them to do. Keeping the peace is what the Romans demand of them. Jesus disrupts and distorts both of these; he seems to see the world through a different lens. They fear him, for encounters with him leave them with vertigo. He insists that they know God first and that love toward each other is a way of knowing God—an epistemology of love. Then what about the Law? they ask, as they slink away.

“God’s relation to the world is personal and particular,” says John Taylor in his book, The Christlike God. “He knows each thing only as a ‘thou’, and his knowing is not by cognition but by communion. Only by becoming this one man has God brought humanity in general into such communion with himself.”2

In the incarnation, God’s infinite openness to the human experience is echoed in our finite possibility for transcendence. Taylor offers Karl Rahner’s insight that “Human beings are creatures with an infinite horizon and, though they have become so flawed as to settle for the self-centered here and now, they still possess the instinct to reach out toward the limitlessness of God.”3

The woman’s accusers stole away because, having denied that infinite horizon to people such as her, they could no longer see it for themselves nor did they want to. Guilt narrows our vision, lowers our heads, confines us to our immediate steps. And they could not let it go, the priests. Having lived their lives within the circuitry of sin = punishment, they resisted the rewiring that would give her—and them—a new life.

At last, Jesus straightens up. The elders are gone, the crowd is silent. They watch Jesus and the woman without moving. “Woman,” says Jesus gently, “where are they? Has no one condemned you?” And she looks up, “No one, sir.” Jesus smiles then. “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

***

This is a story about God, for having seen Jesus in action, so we see God. There is a wondrous truth that we awaken to the closer we get to that infinite horizon of new chances for life, and it is that God cannot be other than true to his nature—and his nature is only and ever that of life-giving love.

And this is a story about us, for we are that woman and we are those priests, and like them we will fall again and again, and in our falling we will condemn and lash out at those we hold some power over. Suffering will beget suffering.

But in Jesus we have a priest who was tempted as we are and more so. What he suffered in temptation we could not bear. “And what his struggles seem to have produced,” writes Rowan Williams, “was a sense of the precariousness of goodness, love and fidelity so profound and strong that no failure or error could provoke his condemnation, except the error of those legalists who could not understand that very precariousness.”4

He understands us, he knows us, he sees our paths, errant and erratic as they may be, and he loves us still. Through his sufferings we are healed, and in our sufferings we find common ground with those we are tempted to condemn. We may take him at his word, knowing that he will not break the bruised reed nor crush the smoldering flax.

There will come a day, an ordinary day, when we realize with a shock of gratitude that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself,” and as a result we have not judged, but have loved because we first were loved.

  1. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Letters and Papers from Prison. The Enlarged Edition. Edited by Eberhard Bethge. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997, p. 10.
  2. Taylor, John V. The Christlike God. London: SCM Press, 1992, p. 129.
  3. Taylor, p. 133.
  4. Williams, Rowan. Open to Judgement: Sermons and Addresses. London: Dartman, Longman and Todd, 1994, p. 17.

Good People Made Evil

Photo: ATC Commphoto, Unsplash

“We have seen

Good men made evil wrangling with the evil,

Straight minds grown crooked fighting crooked minds.”1

Edwin Muir was a Scottish poet, raised on farms on the Orkney Islands, whose family fell apart when they moved to the slums of Glasgow in 1901. They were forced off their farm by high rents, but the move to Glasgow proved even more devastating. Within five years, Muir’s mother, father, and two brothers were dead. Muir himself—who went on to become one of the most respected translators, poets, and critics of the mid-twentieth century—likened the transition to being born and raised in the eighteenth century and suddenly finding himself in the twentieth. “When I arrived I found that it was not 1751, but 1901, and that a hundred and fifty years had been burned up in my two days’ journey. But I myself was still in 1751, and remained there for a long time.”2

That fascination with time and our movements through it, forward in hope and turning back in memory, characterized his poetry, which he came to rather late in life. In “The Good Town,” a poem that describes a town where no one had to lock their doors, Muir reveals how drastically it changed after two wars.

The soldiers came back from the First World War, maimed and ragged, to find the countryside divided up, the roads crooked, the light falling strangely. But after the second war the houses that sprang up from the rubble looked like prisons, families and friends were scattered, and all that was good and kind was thrown away. “How could our town grow wicked in a moment?” he laments.

His answer is that in the past the townspeople were swayed to follow good leaders; now “the bad are up . . . And we, poor ordinary neutral stuff/Not good nor bad, must ape them as we can/In sullen rage or vile obsequiousness.” He closes with the epigram quoted above, and adds, “Our peace betrayed us; we betrayed our peace/Look at it well. This was the good town once.”3

The disappointment and regret evident in his tone might be dismissed as simple nostalgia for a past that can only stand in the way of progress, except that it stands as a warning just as relevant today as he thought it to be in the early Fifties: how to fight evil without becoming evil?

In the good town, people went about their lives without much thought given to how their town might devolve into fear and suspicion. In the absence of threat, families took up their responsibilities and cared for others when needed. Vigilance for such freedoms was not pressing because everyone followed, more or less, the example of conscientious people.

But therein lay the weakness, Muir seems to say. Most of us simply follow those who lead, happy in the confidence that they will solve—or at least deflect—problems which we would have to face without them. But when the bonds of community evaporate and the corrupt and cunning thrust themselves into power, we must suddenly “ape them as we can,” either in “sullen rage or vile obsequiousness.”

Muir’s warning takes us to task for our naiveté, while mourning the loss of good will that made life peaceful and harmonious.

***

Recently, an incident was reported in national news in which a couple who wanted to rent a facility for their marriage ceremony and reception were denied on the grounds that the prospective groom was black, and his fiancée was white. The owner explained that the Bible did not condone mixed-race marriages and thus she would not rent the facility to the couple. The groom’s sister asked for clarification, but the woman refused to elaborate. It was simply part of her Christian belief.

The video of the exchange between them, while civil and restrained, went viral. In the aftermath of a wave of outrage, the woman and her husband issued an apology. Having been raised in Mississippi, it was her belief, she maintained, that such marriages were condemned by the Bible. However, her pastor had helped her to understand, she said, that the Bible does not condemn or prohibit bi-racial marriages. She and her husband were sincerely sorry.4

When I read this account, my immediate reaction was to condemn outright such obvious racism being justified by the Bible in the name of Christianity. It was yet another example of an agenda fueled by inbred prejudice, an assumption of white superiority, and a grievance reflex in which evangelicals believe their religious freedoms are in jeopardy. Added to that was the unthinking assumption that one’s dominant culture—in this case white Southern culture—was somehow ordained by God in the natural order of things, and that Christians who questioned or refused to honor that order were disobedient to God’s law as outlined in the Bible.

Then I began to reflect on my reaction. It was not that I regretted it or questioned my beliefs. They sprang into light spontaneously and I knew they were genuine. What I began to wonder about was if my reaction was a mere accident of geography.

If I had been raised in that woman’s culture in the South, growing up with legalized and socially acceptable discrimination and racism, would I have questioned those embedded assumptions? She looked like somebody’s grandmother, the kind who bakes cookies and keeps an immaculate house—hardly the face of evil. Nevertheless, I felt a surge of anger and impatience. In order to suffer from cognitive dissonance, you need to be engaged in cognition. Would I have felt that dissonance, now so evident, had I grown up in the Sixties in Mississippi?

Where I did grow up—in the foothills above the Napa Valley in Northern California—my private Christian college was only fully integrated in the early Seventies, when a group of African American graduates from a Christian academy in Oakland came to campus. It wasn’t that there was an official policy barring them, it was rather that they did not feel welcomed or respected.

With numbers comes strength; one of those young men ran for Student Association president in his sophomore year and won. Gradually, attitudes began to change, and friendships developed. But if those African American teenagers hadn’t questioned the status quo, those embedded assumptions, how long might it have taken for understanding and acceptance to flourish?

We Christians are too easily satisfied with our cultural assumptions. We are living in a country founded upon some of the highest ideals in human history. But the tragic fact is that those ideals, in order to be fully realized, were made possible by our original sin of systemic racism. Freedom, prosperity, and the pursuit of happiness—all of them were premised on the foundation stones of slavery, prejudice, and discrimination. We are enmeshed in this historical legacy.

“The unbelief of believers,” wrote Thomas Merton in 1968, “is amply sufficient to make God [appear] repugnant and incredible.”5 In words startlingly current, he writes, “A ‘Christian nationalist’ is one whose Christianity takes second place, and serves to justify a patriotism in whose eyes the nation can do no wrong . . . The pastors themselves tend to look to the state as a font of divine decisions in the practical order. All dissent in the civil sphere thereby automatically becomes a religious betrayal and a spiritual apostasy.”6

“Rust never sleeps,” sang Neil Young, and we may be sure prejudice and racism never do either. Christians are no strangers to it—it was there from the beginning and it nearly tore the nascent Jewish Christian community apart. It took a strange and disturbing vision for Peter to put behind him centuries of ceremonial religious exclusivism toward all those outside his heritage. Peter, the disciple most likely to get things right about Jesus, was also the one who could show spectacular obtuseness when stretched beyond his norms. Yet, it is Peter, together with John, who responds later to authorities with the words, “Is it right in God’s eyes for us to obey you rather than God? Judge for yourselves. We cannot possibly give up speaking of things we have seen and heard (Acts 4:19,20).”

And what had he seen? Jesus constantly challenging the cultural norms against women, against the poor, against the weak and dispossessed, against the established means for grasping and preserving power. What had he heard? Jesus, setting his face toward Jerusalem and his death, turning to the disciples on the road to say, “What does a man gain by winning the whole world at the cost of his true self? What can he give to buy that self back? (Mk 8:36,37).”

“What matters,” suggests Merton, “is not simply to set conformity over against dissent, to call the one evil and the other good, and be satisfied with that.” In a way that requires patience and humility, it is not enough for the dissenter to accuse and condemn, but “after showing the need for spiritual awakening and constructive analysis, to break open the way to dialogue and keep it open.”7

Edwin Muir was right to be dismayed that good people can become crooked while fighting against crookedness. But he was off the mark to assume that neither the “good” nor the “evil” can change.

All of us fall short of the glory God sees in us, but none of us is beyond redemption.

  1. Muir, Edwin. “The Good Town” in Collected Poems 1921-1951. London: Faber and Faber, 1952, p. 161.
  2. Quoted in “Edwin Muir,” The Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/edwin-muir
  3. Muir, “The Good Town,” 161.
  4. https://www.vox.com/identities/2019/9/3/20847943/mississippi-event-hall-interracial-couple-wedding-religious-exemption
  5. Merton, Thomas. “Violence and the Death of God,” in Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, p. 197.
  6. Merton, Thomas. “The Unbelief of Believers,” in Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, p. 203.
  7. Merton, Thomas. “The Unbelief of Believers,” in Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, p. 204.

The Magnificent ‘If’

Photo: Sebastien Hietsch, Unsplash

”I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.” — Thomas Merton

Among the benefits that today’s smartphones have brought to us is the GPS. It’s true that it is a mixed blessing: my location can be known as I can know the location of others. The idea that I can pinpoint my own stance under the heavens, relative to the world around me, is both intriguing and slightly spooky. Do I know where I am? Other people do.

But for someone with SSD—Suspected Spatial Dyslexia (my diagnosis)—GPS has been a godsend. It means that despite my ability to get myself completely turned around on a simple foray into unknown territory, I now can be reasonably assured of arriving at my destination. Best of all, if I make a wrong turn, the eye in the sky will find an alternate route, smoothly adapting to my errant ways.

I love maps. I have spent hours poring over world atlases, fold-out maps of the United Kingdom, maps of Europe, the South Pacific, Asia—tracing out mountain ranges, sounding out city names, and learning the shapes and boundaries of countries. But for me, driving while mapping my route is like watching a butterfly in a field of flowers—there’s a lot of motion, but little in the way of consistent direction. Having a plummy British female voice guiding my every turn is so much better.

When it comes to plotting out my life course I haven’t shown much navigational skill either. I’ve never had the ability to plan, much less to predict, where I’ll be in five years, something apparently not covered by the Americans with Disability Act. The question, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” assumes a linear progression farther along and higher up. Asked during a job interview, it hints at ambition, not necessarily spiritual growth and a deeper understanding of life’s vicissitudes.

I had friends who were pre-med—for them, the future was laid out with admirable clarity. They knew where they would be and what they would be doing for the next ten years. After that, their lives would unfold with the assurance of upward mobility and the rewards of discipline. Me? Not so much.

In college, I had a vague notion that my future would be the product of what I carried in two bags—ability and affinity. If I was lucky, these two would combine at a point where I could do something I liked and was fairly good at. I did not want to be in the position of friends whose parents demanded they take on a certain profession because it was lucrative. They may have been good at a number of things, but none of them were what they wanted to do or be the rest of their lives. And if their hearts weren’t in what they had to do every day, it was a job, not a vocation.

Having choices is a precious gift, one that we probably don’t appreciate enough when we’re young. To know that one has options about the most important aspects of life is something we should never take for granted, especially when it’s most likely the case that a majority of people in the world have little say over their careers, where they live (or wish to leave), who they marry and how they live their lives.

On the other hand, in more trivial matters, we have too many choices: do we really need six flavors of Ritz crackers or eight kinds of Doritos? Walgreens sells three hundred and fifty-six cold remedies in their stores and another one hundred and eighteen online. By the time I’ve figured out the exact remedy for my bespoke cold, I’ll be over it.

When I was advising college students on a major course of study, there were always those few who were stymied by having to choose among the disciplines. Choosing one felt to them like closing the door to all others, especially those for which a student felt a burning curiosity. We insist that young people have a full life-plan worked out by the time they graduate from high-school, when most of them haven’t yet distinguished their affinities from their aptitudes.

Early in my teaching career I fancied that I could read a student’s abilities well enough to steer them toward a specific profession. This was more a mark of my pride than it was a real service to a student. In one particular case, I advised a young woman not to choose a career in public relations because I thought her too impulsive, too distracted, to work well in a field that demands constant attention, not only to details, but to the global picture. She took it as a challenge, graduated in the major, and recently celebrated more than a decade of successful work in project management, a field where a grasp of detail, process, and goal is essential.

Where does God fit into all this? Michael Mayne, once the Dean of Westminster Abbey, wrote in his last book, The Enduring Melody, — a journal he kept of his harrowing journey through the ‘country of cancer’—“Do I believe that God was guiding me in this direction rather than that at the most important forks in my path? Yes and no.” He goes on to say no to that which would compromise his freedom, as if there was always only one plausible outcome for his life. But ‘Yes’ to his prayers for guidance which resulted in “a deepened understanding of myself and my motives, and of where I might best fit and have something useful to share.”1

In high school I cherished the notion of becoming a marine biologist, not because I had the slightest aptitude for it, but because I loved the beaches and tide pools of Northern California and I thought the character and life of Doc in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row was worth emulating. I lasted two days in Chemistry I before opting out, shuddering at the long slog through sciences I could admire from afar, but could barely comprehend. Because writing came easily to me and because I loved it, I thought I might be a newspaper journalist. So, I took a double major in Journalism and Religion. Then I discovered I had no appetite to be shouting questions at public figures and I wrote too slowly to meet daily deadlines. Well, okay then. How about religion? I had already tried being a youth pastor, and while I was passable at it, I knew I would inevitably hit the wall over evangelism methods and bowing to authority.

What then? How many ‘what-if’ scenarios could I imagine? I remember climbing an apple tree and writing up a list of pros and cons about going to graduate school in philosophy of religion and becoming a college teacher. I wrote in two columns everything I could think of that would recommend for and against this. And while I wasn’t comfortable with prayer, I laid it all out to God as best I could, what I thought I could do and what I was sure I couldn’t do. Then I showed the list to friends and listened to what they had to say. After that, I went back to the apple tree, and from its branches I put the proposal to God that I was going ahead with plans for graduate school. I felt that I wanted to be a teacher and that I had the qualities for it. I asked God to slam the doors if I wasn’t meant to do this, on the theory that it would take something obvious to pull me up short.

I applied to five universities, got rejected by three, and chose one. My teaching career was a long and winding road, with numerous detours, reversals, chasms and heights. I can’t imagine having done anything else quite so satisfying and challenging.

What if I had decided to take that editorial position right out of college? What if I had followed through on my interest to study Church History at Aberdeen University in Scotland? What if I had turned down the offer to teach at Trinity? Perhaps most important, what if I had skipped the committee meeting at which I met my wife, Joy?

“We all decline so many alternative lives,” comments Mayne, “yet if we’re lucky we end up feeling that the life that has been ours had to be the way it was, and we wouldn’t wish it otherwise.”2

I still love maps and I am blessed to drive with a GPS. In my life, as I look back on it, I imagine God nudging me patiently, adapting on the fly as I swerve or enter a blind alley, graciously offering me another way home, always and ever leading me on to that which lies at the end of this journey.

  1. Mayne, Michael. The Enduring Melody. London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 2006, p. 137.
  2. Mayne, 137.

Lear to Luton

Photo: Andres Fernandez, Unsplash

”So we’ll live,

And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh . . .

And take upon’s the mystery of things,

As if we were God’s spies . . .” — Shakespeare, King Lear1

I am trying to take account of my life, of how I have spent my time, what I have given and received, what I have seen and not understood, what I have understood that has changed my steps. I have often had the prescience—felt more than reasoned—of a vast world surrounding us under a dome of patient silence. That world waits for us with the dignity of ancient headlands fronting the sea, less in confrontation than in invitation. At the “thin places” between our worlds one can step through, even if only for a moment, into a bracing freshness and light much to be desired.

***

I was driving out to church through a pack of police cars, emergency vehicles, cordoned-off areas, and press vans near the entrance to our neighborhood. When I got back, the story was all over our local news. A young man, a recent high school graduate, had been murdered. Details were sketchy, but he had been shot in the early morning hours outside his home. He was a week away from beginning university, the eldest of four boys.

The next morning, when I was returning from a walk in the woods, I met the woman—every neighborhood has one—who knows everyone and everything that happens around our streets. Every day she walks the sidewalks and lanes of our court, constantly on the phone, puffing her cigarettes. She had spent most of the previous day with the family, doing what she could to help ease their pain as relatives arrived from North Carolina and other parts.

“You heard what happened?” she asked hoarsely. I nodded. She told me of the impromptu vigil that had been held the night before, of the media asking everyone for their comments. “Don’t go visit them,” she warned. “They’re in a lot of pain.”

Somewhere, Ellen White urges us to “heed the promptings of the Holy Spirit,” or less didactically, to join the impulse to do something good. In spite of my neighbor’s well-intentioned argument, I was being prompted. The incessant shootings—not only the frequent massacres in public spaces in America, but the steady ratcheting-up of violence toward young African American men—ticked away in my head. I could picture the scene: three shots in the night, the mother recovering from back surgery, but oblivious to her pain as she flings herself down the stairs to where her son lies bleeding out. However belated, however ineffectual, perhaps I could share in that family’s suffering and in some way push back against this madness.

But then my impulse tripped over all the socio-cultural-political furniture strewn about in the living room of my generation. What presumption to suppose that an older white man could understand the accumulated grief of an African American family. What hubris to intrude upon someone’s home. What foolishness to imagine that anything I could say would bring them solace. The paralysis of second-guessing one’s motives. “I assume,” observes Erving Goffman in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, “that when an individual appears before others he will have many motives for trying to control the impression they receive of the situation.”2 I could only wonder what mine were. Was it inevitable that I had any motive other than “bearing another’s burdens?”

Then I stepped through the thin place and saw things more clearly. When the particulars complicate unnecessarily, go with the universals. The universals, as I saw them, were father to father, man to man, human to human. At some level of working faith, we have to trust that the Spirit will guide our steps in humility and give us the words.

As I approached the townhouse, a boy and a young man were on the front steps. I was led inside, and the father was called to come down. We shook hands. “I am so sorry,” I said. He looked up then and his eyes moistened. He waved his hand and shook his head. “He’d come all this way, no trouble with the police, no drugs, a good boy. Going to university next week. His whole life before him.” He choked up then, as I did, and he turned toward me, tears glistening on his cheeks, and we wept on each other’s shoulders. I asked him if he had a photo of his boy. I saw a young man, bright with promise, forever held in the amber of his high school senior portrait. He thanked me for coming; I walked out into the heat and humidity of the day and exhaled.

That afternoon my wife and I went to see Blinded by the Light, a gem of an indie movie about a young British-Pakistani teenager growing up in Luton, an industrial city just north of London. Amidst the strains of being a child born in England to immigrant parents, Javed faces racial harassment from local skinheads, and misunderstanding and contempt for being a Muslim. In Margaret Thatcher’s era, with millions being laid off, coal mines closing, and the National Front on the rise, it is an anxious and discomfiting time. When his father loses his job at a factory, the burden of paying the bills falls on Javed’s mother, a seamstress. With his older sister preparing for her marriage and his father making the rounds of hiring centers with no luck, the young man is desperate to get out of Luton (and as someone who once trudged across that city in the dead of night after crossing the Channel, I can sympathize) to pursue his dreams of being a writer.

At his sixth-form college he is befriended by Roop, also the son of immigrants—and a passionate fan of Bruce Springsteen. He lends Javed two cassettes of Springsteen’s music. “Listen to them, guard them with your life,” he commands. “They’re by the Boss.” “What boss?” Javed asks, confused. “The Boss of us all,” says Roop.

And he does listen, at first with curiosity and then avidly, as Springsteen’s songs of factory workers, broken dreams, and a will to rise above it all through grit and hope surge through him. “It’s like he was speaking right to me,” Javed enthuses to Roop, who nods knowingly. They are secular psalms that reach him in the pit of his despair and raise him up. His English literature teacher asks to read his poems and journals, and through her encouragement and prodding he begins to blossom as a writer. His dream is to enter the creative writing program at Manchester University.

In one of the best scenes in the film his father asks, “Do you know why I want you to study hard?” “Umm,” responds Javed, “so I can broaden my mind, learn about the world, and be inspired to make a difference?” “No,” his father snaps. “It is to get a good job and make money.”

Springsteen’s father could not understand his son’s driving ambition to make music; Javed’s father cannot understand why his son wants to write. When Javed gets an unpaid internship at a local newspaper his father is both furious and bewildered. “Why would you work and not get paid?” he shouts. “It’s experience, Dad. It’s what I want to do.” Father and son face each other across their own desperation, the father in shame because he cannot provide for his family, the son because he wants so much to know who he is and what he can do.

“Mister I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man/And I believe in the promised land,” is the mantra that impels him onward.

“For the ones who had a notion

A notion deep inside

That it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive . . .”3

He wins a scholarship in a writing contest that brings him to Monmouth College for a conference, just a few miles from Asbury Park, New Jersey, where Springsteen grew up. When he and Roop return home, after a delirious tour of The Boss’s hometown sites, Javed stands up at an awards ceremony at his college to read from his winning essay. But a few paragraphs in he falters, seeing his parents and his sister coming in to stand in the back of the hall. Extemporaneously, he speaks from the heart about what he’d learned from The Boss, what he was growing to be, and how much he wanted to make a bridge between the world of his father and his own rising world.

“I believe in the love that you gave me

I believe in the hope that can save me

I believe in the faith

And I pray that some day it may raise me

Above these badlands”4

***

At the end of that day I thought about fathers and sons, about dreams deferred and hopes placed in others. I thought about our stumbling attempts to walk a straight and true path, and the burdens we place on each other from fear. I thought about Life and Art, and how they can be distinguished, but not separated. Like Javed, Springsteen’s music has brought me light and hope in dark times. It is one of the many trails to the Spirit that I have found.

And I thought of the grief of my neighbors and prayed that it could be borne until such time as they could take a breath without pain in remembering the joys of a young man who lived as if to say, “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.”

  1. Shakespeare, King Lear, Act V, Sc III.
  2. Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday, 1959, p. 15.
  3. Bruce Springsteen. “Badlands.” Downtown Music Publishing.
  4. Bruce Springsteen. “Badlands.” Downtown Music Publishing.

The Ignored Familiar

Photo: Erico Marcellino, Unsplash.com

“This or that particular, in nature or in a person, which will probably be the ignored familiar, is not to be forgotten or overlooked; it is to be noticed, and maybe (in the world of a great artist) made to glow with light.” — Michael Mayne1

In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard opens up the agony and (occasional) ecstasy of writing. “This writing that you do,” she says pitilessly, “that so thrills you, that so rocks and exhilarates you, as if you were dancing next to the band, is barely audible to anyone else.”2 The reader comes in from the noise of the street of life, and picks up your book, she says. He or she can’t hear a thing. “It will take half an hour to pick up the writing’s modulations, its ups and downs and louds and softs.” Learn a trade, she cautions the young writer. Something to support your consuming addiction of laying down a line of words and seeing where it leads.

Perhaps less tongue-in-cheek, but no less heartfelt is George Orwell’s famous admission that “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”3

We who love books can only be grateful that these tortured souls persevered. From their travail is birthed for us flights of imagination, ladders to the sky, that line of words laid down which carves a path through the wilderness. Seamus Heaney, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature (1995), found that “The achievement of a poem, after all, is an experience of release . . . A plane is —fleetingly—established where the poet is intensified in his being and freed from his predicaments.”4

At the end of a long journey of false starts, glimmers of light that dance away and fade, rockslides that block the path and countless other metaphors, there is a moment in the bracing sharpness of clean, mountain air. From the summit, one takes in the view with joy and gratitude. However momentary, that is reward enough. Down below, in the shadows of one’s achievement, is the valley which one must traverse on the way to the next peak.

The popular stereotype about writers, that they wait for inspiration, is only half right, but it’s the half that students often claim in the backwash of a late paper. Writers do wait on inspiration, but it’s a waiting that is active. “Arse in the chair,” says Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin, and other bestselling novels. That’s the only way the words will show up, and if no one is home or that writer is mesmerized by YouTube, the moment may pass with nothing to show for it. “You lay out a line of words,” says Annie Dillard, the most basic and necessary move that can be made.

“An intellectual must always be ready to think, that is, to take in a part of the truth conveyed to him by the universe,” wrote the Dominican priest, A. G. Sertillanges, in 1921. “The Spirit passes and returns not. Happy the man who holds himself ready not to miss, nay rather to bring about and to utilize, the miraculous encounter! Every intellectual work begins by a moment of ecstasy . . .”5

Sertillanges wrote his book, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods, for anybody who wanted to think—and capture those thoughts—in a more disciplined and systematic way. His book, while compact and serious, is not an “elitist” work; that is to say, it does not recognize the great divide artificially constructed by those in American culture who regard “book learning” with suspicion. For him, thinking and studying, writing and art, are avenues of the Spirit. “Listening to oneself is a formula that amounts to the same thing as listening to god. It is in the creative Thought that our true being lies, our self in its authentic shape.”6 This takes time. The most mediocre mind, he says, can come up with a brilliant idea: the difficulty is cutting that into a jewel and placing it in a setting that illuminates its brilliance.

Colum McCann’s Letters to a Young Writer, strikes me not only as practical and wise words for writers, but as a witty, philosophical, and tender parallel to the work of faith. Yes—I put those two words, “work” and “faith,” together. More on that later. “Do not allow your heart to harden,” McCann encourages us. “Enjoy difficulty. Embrace mystery. Find the universal in the local . . . Transcend the personal. Have trust in the staying power of what is good.”7

***

Annie Dillard’s first non-fiction book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), garnered her the Pulitzer Prize at the young age of twenty-nine. It chronicled a year that she spent in the company of Tinker Creek, a tributary of the Roanoke River in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. It is a work of seeing—of regarding, with attention and patience—the life beneath the leaves and the waters. Dillard thinks of it as a “work of theology.”

She notices that a flock of migrating red-winged blackbirds are noisily feeding in an Osage orange tree down by the creek. She approaches carefully—and a hundred birds fly away. She walks closer and another hundred lift off and vanish into the sky. “Finally I walked directly to the trunk of the tree and a final hundred, the real die-hards, appeared, spread, and vanished. How could so many hide in the tree without my seeing them? . . . I wandered downstream to force them to play their hand, but they’d crossed the creek and scattered. One show to a customer . . . It’s all a matter of keeping my eyes open.”8

How much is there, just beyond our present gaze, close enough to fingertips, welling into consciousness, if only we are aware! I am beginning to understand how a God who is near to us but not visible, transcendent but accessible through the world and the Word, can be apprehended. Michael Mayne, one of the handful of great poet-priests in the Anglican tradition, writes of the cantus firmus, the deep bass line that anchored medieval plainsong, as being akin to that which we discover is authentically ours and authentically us. He sees it as comprised of three strands: human love and friendship, experience of beauty and order found in art, literature, music, and nature, and “the third strand, undergirding the whole, has to do with those ultimate existential questions that come under the general heading of ‘faith.’”9

It is the business of writers, artists, musicians, to notice and to pay attention. That which counts as inspiration—the drawing in of breath—comes as the shock of the new emerges from the “ignored familiar,” to use Mayne’s phrase. The familiar story in the Gospels, read a thousand times until its edge is dulled, comes up fresh and new through the eyes and thoughts of the writer, the preacher, the artist, each of them alive to story as the touchstone for unexpected treasure.

To be sure, this experience is not always a common one. Sometimes we go through the motions, looking but not seeing, reading but not comprehending. This is where the Spirit enlivens us as we are receptive—and that, I think, is key—when we look for the unseen and expect the unexpected. Like a writer, this waiting is not passive, but an active receptive spirit tuned to the faintest vibrations that may come to us. Our faith is our constant experience of seeking and finding, rousing ourselves to “lay out a line of words” in the hope and trust that it will lead us to our story.

Amidst the din of our culture and times, this seeking takes effort. It may seem that the signs around us point in any direction but toward the Spirit. We must be alert; there will be no thunder and lightning, no shaking of the mountaintop. The Welsh poet-priest, R. S. Thomas, muses about the Spirit’s movements, so essential in our understanding as people of faith and as thinkers and writers:

“As I had always known

he would come, unannounced,

remarkable merely for the absence

of clamour. So truth must appear

to the thinker; so, at a stage

of the experiment, the answer

must quietly emerge.”10

All our seeings—the remembered, the present, the yet-to-be-seen—are blazing portals to the holy. Leaping through, we may glimpse a burning bush, hear “a still, small voice,” squint against the light cast into the desert by a stairway to heaven, and—catapulted forward by centuries—peer through an open door to a room where a man asks for a piece of fish from his dumbstruck friends. All these stories transcribe the notes of the cantus firmus by which we live and sing.

  1. Mayne, Michael. This Sunrise of Wonder. American edition. Cleveland, TN: Parson’s Porch Books, 2012. pp. 175-176.
  2. Dillard, Annie. The Writing Life. New York: Harper and Row, 1989, p. 17
  3. Orwell, George. Why I Write. Great Ideas ed. New York: Penguin, 1984, p. 10
  4. Heaney, Seamus. The Government of the Tongue. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989. p. xxii.
  5. Sertillanges, A. G. The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods. Translated from the French by Mary Ryan. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1987, p. xix.
  6. Sertillanges, p. xx.
  7. McCann, Colum. Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice. New York: Random House, 2017, p. 4.
  8. Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Bantam Books, 1974, pp. 17, 18.
  9. Mayne, Michael. The Enduring Melody. London: Dartman, Longman, and Todd, 2006, pp. 6, 7.
  10. Thomas, R. S. “Suddenly,” in Collected Poems 1945-1990. London: Orion House, 1993, p. 283.