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.

Beauty and Truth in a Time of Plague

Photo: J R Korpa, Unsplash

”I recover my tenderness by long looking.” — Theodore Roethke1

Sometimes it feels like we are in our plague years. Not a plague such as millions suffered in the Black Death or the Spanish Flu, or the thousands with Ebola, but a plague of despair and hopelessness. Having said that, I know that for many people this is a time of ascendancy—not plague—when beliefs they fervently hold are coming true and people in power are making that happen. It is a time of vindication.

Still, if we see through the rising and falling of hopes to the generalized need for hope as such, there is a commonality of restlessness and anger that infects us all. We are creatures who have adapted to the uneven surfaces upon which we walk to such an extent that even when we come upon a level plain, we walk as though we were at sea.

We demand our place, we want our words to strike home—the metaphor, taken literally, is violent in its imagery—we confront, we stand with, we never retreat nor give an inch. In short, we are at war with others and the Other.

It should be evident that things we care deeply about are worth defending. In fact, one sign of a society whose members no longer regard it as defensible is the callous reply, “Whatever,” to matters of importance. But we are crippled by a lack of moral imagination for making a defense that itself does not complicate the problem. In Yeat’s phrase, “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

***

Poet Seamus Heaney tells a story from 1972 in Belfast: he and a musician friend were on their way to a recording studio when a series of bombs ripped through the city. Within minutes of them arriving at the studio the air was full of sirens as ambulances rushed to the wounded and the dead. Heaney recalls that they looked at one another in unspoken anguish, his friend packed up his guitar and they left. It seemed indulgent to be doing something so enjoyable. What he called Art and Life—or again—Song and Suffering, had seemingly clashed. And what he and his friend, David Hammond, were feeling at that moment was that “song constituted a betrayal of suffering.” 2

Poets and writers, said Kurt Vonnegut, are our early warning system, the canaries in the coal mine—they are the first to be affected by the deadly fumes of a culture in extremis, and their warnings must not be overlooked. Examples abound throughout the ages, but one that still echoes for me on the fiftieth anniversary of Woodstock, is Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a howl of feedback with a melody line that staggers, backtracks, and spirals, at once raging and raw and yet somehow wistful in the way the notes hang, looking for a safe place to land. In the midst of a tragic war, in a society tearing apart from the disparities between its promise and its peril, Hendrix’s interpretation was a cross-section of a felled tree, revealing the rot at the core.

From the opposite angle comes the sigh of the oppressed, the longing of the exile for familiar hills, and the mockery of captors who demand a tune from back home for their entertainment.

By the rivers of Babylon—

there we sat down and there

we wept when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there

we hung up our harps.

For there our captors

asked us for songs,

and our tormentors asked for mirth,

saying,

‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

How could we sing the Lord’s song

in a foreign land?3

Can suffering be healed by beauty? Does it dishonor the gravity of the situation to try?

***

Online discourse in these times falls along predictable lines. Someone posts a provocative article or viewpoint on, let’s say, an anguished response to the mass shooting(s) of the week. Common sense cries out for a ban on assault weapons: the various attack ships uncloak themselves and swarm into view overhead as their troops beam down. “It can’t be done,” “It’s video games,” “Guns don’t kill people . . .”, “Don’t take away my guns,” “It’s a mental health problem,” “Godless people are to blame,” “It’s the Democrats’/Republicans’ fault.”

Solutions are proposed and derided, facts are claimed and scuttled, sweeping generalizations jolt aside private duels over verb tenses. In time, with the battlefield littered with bodies, the survivors limp away to their rendezvous points. Truth, bound and bloodied, is led away captive. Almost no one notices.

After all that, to claim, as Keats does, that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” almost sounds quaint and anachronistic. And yet, there is something in us that wants, above all, to believe that Beauty and Truth are within reach and can be brought into our lives, even in such toxic and arid times.

***

I return to Seamus Heaney who, as a native of Northern Ireland, grew up within the centuries-old sorrows of its history, and who lived through the sectarian “Troubles” that claimed so many innocent lives. The questions he raises about truth and beauty, about being a poet in a time of war, open a way to understand our times—and may also cast a light upon the path of faith through this world.

“In one sense,” he says, “the efficacy of poetry is nil—no lyric has ever stopped a tank.” But recalling how he and Hammond clammed up around the sirens, he wonders again, “Why should the joyful affirmation of music and poetry ever constitute an affront to life?”4

I am reminded of the experience of Sting, who had scheduled a concert near his home in Tuscany for the evening of September 11, 2001. When the news of 9/11 stunned the world, he almost cancelled, feeling that such a celebration would border on sacrilege in the aftermath of a tragedy of those proportions. But friends persuaded him to go ahead, assuring him that light and beauty in a dark time would be a kind of prayer for hope. One of his songs, “Fragile,” is forever linked to that time.

If blood will flow when flesh and steel are one

Drying in the color of the evening sun

Tomorrow’s rain will wash the stains away

But something in our minds will always stay

Perhaps this final act was meant

To clinch a lifetime’s argument

That nothing comes from violence and nothing ever could

For all those born beneath an angry star

Lest we forget how fragile we are

On and on the rain will fall

Like tears from a star

Like tears from a star

On and on the rain will say

How fragile we are

How fragile we are5

Heaney’s essay brings forward the experience and the poetry of Wilfred Owen, an English poet and soldier who wrote from the trenches of World War I, and who was killed shortly before the end of the war. Owen was a leader and a soldier, but he was vehemently against the carnage of a war that took the flower of European civilization. His poems are bitter at times, usually melancholy, always directed at deflating the false glory of dying for one’s country. He sought to awaken conscience. “True poets must be truthful,” he wrote. “All a poet can do today is warn.” Art seeking to change Life.

Heaney also points to Mandelstam, a Russian poet of renown, who would not write propagandistic drivel for Stalin’s regime. Mandelstam saw poetry as rising up within the poet like a flood or growing from within like a crystal. He could no more stop writing than he could stop breathing and still live. He went to his death with the view that the creative impulse is its own reason for existing. “For him,” writes Heaney, “obedience to the poetic impulse was obedience to conscience; lyric action constituted radical witness.”6

So, Owen writes poetry which rebukes beauty in favor of truth; Mandelstam seems to hold Keats’ dictum that beauty is truth, and truth beauty. “He is a burning reminder,” says Heaney, “of the way in which not only the words ‘truth’ and ‘justice’ may be salvaged from the catastrophe of history, but the word ‘beauty’ also: a reminder that humanity is served by the purely poetic fidelity of the poet to all words in their pristine being, in ‘the steadfastness of their speech articulation.’”7 We need both: the hard edge of Truth and the softer light of Beauty. There are moments in our lives when we can only take in one or the other; in time, as it may be, we will be sustained by both.

Poetry gives the attentive reader a moment to take a breath and to give attention, fully and freely, to what is there on the page or in the ear. In a time of war and in a time of social tension, it reminds us that beauty and justice and truth are not at odds.

What is efficient may not always be what is effective. And if poetry, art, and music touch us it is in part because we have entrusted ourselves to their power to lift us and transform us, another kind of faith.

Like calls to like: when we respond to beauty seen and heard, it is a revelation that Beauty is still within us.

  1. Quoted in Mayne, Michael. The Sunrise of Wonder. Cleveland, TN: Parson’s Porch Books, American Edition, 2008, p. 214.
  2. Heaney, Seamus. The Government of the Tongue: Selected Prose 1978-1987. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, p. xii.
  3. Ps 137: 1-4
  4. Heaney, xii.
  5. Sumner, Gordon. Fragile. Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, BMG Rights Management.
  6. Heaney, p. xix.
  7. Heaney, xx.

The Getting of Wisdom

Photo: Prottoy Hassan, Unsplash

”These are but the fringes of his power and how faint the whisper that we hear of him! — Job 26.14 (Revised English Bible)

I had just delivered a lecture to my class in Twentieth-Century Theology and conducted a discussion on Jesus’ cry from the cross of his forsakenness by God. It was my view that Jesus felt his abandonment at the very core of his being, and that far from being an example of faithlessness on his part it reflected, to a depth we can hardly comprehend, the trust he had placed in God. I had quoted several major twentieth-century theologians and noted the origins of their thought as well as the conclusions they had come to. As the class ended, an enraged senior theology major approached me. “You are thinking man’s thoughts!” he hissed. “I stand on the Word of God alone, not on man’s thoughts.”

I was taken aback. Rather curtly, I replied, “But I am a man; how else am I supposed to think?” It was my first year teaching theology and I had made the fundamental error of new teachers in assuming that my students held the associations, assumptions, and inferences that I did. My conclusions were not theirs. In fact, as I thought about it later, their assumptions, grafted into their young trunks without their awareness, were those I had given up for other starting points.

But it was not my place to jerk them out of their seats, grab them by the neck, and force them to their knees in order to submit to my truth.

My truth, as I was coming to understand, was not even the Truth, but a version of a truth I was growing into and, actually, it was not a singular truth but plural truths that branched and leafed and grew in all directions away from each other, yet were tied to a stem that flourished from a root that was planted with a desire to know Jesus, and through him, to know God. How simple it all seemed to me!

***

“Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding.” —Proverbs 4:7

Reading through the book of Proverbs feels like threading beads of many sizes on a string. Clearly, it’s a compilation of sayings built up over centuries, practical wisdom tested every day and handed on through the generations. You can almost hear the “Uh-huh” after each one.

Some patterns begin to emerge. The character of the wise person is one who is thrifty, hardworking, honest and fair, does not despise the poor, but also does not fall into the indolence that leads to poverty. Such persons respect their parents, obey the king, worship God, and know their place in the social and divine order. That order can be shaken up when people get above themselves:

Under three things the earth trembles;

under four it cannot bear up;

a slave when he becomes king,

and a fool when glutted with food;

an unloved woman when she gets

a husband,

and a maid when she succeeds her mistress. (Proverbs 30: 21-23)

Wisdom is correlated with insight or understanding in a way that suggests mutual dependency. Both can be admired independently, but neither achieves its end without the other. Ground coffee smells wonderful and a French press is a handy gadget, but either one alone isn’t worth much.

Wisdom is often ascribed to the old—all that experience counting for something beyond mere knowledge. It isn’t chronologically assured though, since an old fool is no better than a young one—in fact, worse—because a young fool can change, but an old fool . . . not so much. The young are inevitably foolish, lacking both the ability to see around corners and the experience to anticipate what they can’t yet see. Hence the need for Proverbs. But we older fools must look elsewhere.

Perhaps wisdom in this form is overrated. Proverbs is most often cast as a father’s advice to his young and ambitious sons. Wisdom is following the commandments; the opposite of wisdom is following a loose woman home. Wisdom is avoiding drink, getting up early, and taking care of business. Check your anger, submit to discipline, don’t be insolent. Wisdom brings long life and satisfaction in its train, for the righteous will be prosperous while the sinners will die in poverty and ignorance. The quick takeaway on wisdom, according to the adults I knew as a child, could be reduced to the notion that it was smart to obey your elders.

There’s much to be said in favor of this; wisdom like this keeps the streets clean and peaceful, employment up, crime down, and business humming, families intact and social roles clear. But this is prudence, not wisdom of the sort that would cause one to sacrifice everything for the ‘pearl of great price.’ It is not the love of wisdom, personified throughout the ages as Sophia and revered as the Spirit of God.

***

Harvey Cox’s The Secular City (1965) intrigued me in high school. My curiosity was triggered by Time Magazine’s infamous April 8, 1966 “Is God Dead?” cover story. Cox predicted the waning of religion in America, something which has not happened. But of more interest to me was his discussion of the roots of secularity and its history as a social phenomenon and a counterfoil to religion. I found the distinction between the sacred and the secular puzzling—were they opposed? were they complementary? did we have to choose between them? could we keep them together? I was struggling to work out a way to be a Christian and to “be in the world.” The thing to avoid, as I saw it then, was being “of the world,” which, in my naïveté, meant my address should be Heaven—and not this world.

I wanted to be someone who could appreciate the beauties of the natural world, as well as the best of art, literature, music, science, and philosophy. Over against that was the imperative of fulfilling the mission to make all people Christ’s disciples—which, in practical terms, usually meant bringing other Christians into our fold. In my case, as a teacher of religion in a denominational college, there was an explicit expectation to keep the ones we had untainted by the world.

I hoped I could find a way to live through a humanized Christianity that unashamedly sought transcendence from within and through this deeply flawed but wonderful world. There was no simple solution to this, of course, “but the waking mind,” as Seamus Heaney says, “desires constantly some clarified allegiance, without complication or ambivalence.”1

My search is that of anyone who seeks a meaningful life. I don’t want a theocracy nor could I live within a joyless ideology, political or otherwise, that seeps bitterness. Neither would I want a self-indulgent form of religious hedonism that placed my comfort at the center of the universe. To speak in the language of the parables, I wish to be salt and light to the world.

Even that has its traps if we delude ourselves into thinking we’re indispensable or that we’re somehow owed special favors because of our membership in the church or our self-designation as followers of Christ.

***

For many years I taught courses in ethics: bioethics, communication ethics, public relations ethics, journalism ethics, business ethics, theoretical ethics, Christian ethics. Ethics as a discipline has been sliced and diced into a thousand pieces, every field claiming a particular slant of the light all its own. This proliferation has been driven by a belated recognition that moral values are both good business and should be at the heart of human endeavor. Curriculae are developed that offer a feast of courses, each of them claiming their own vocabulary and featuring specialized case studies. These courses become islands of power for their departments and their instructors. Textbook publishers readily oblige, offering expensively updated books every year or so.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed teaching, especially when discussions with students got beyond their reflexive relativism (“Who’s to say what’s right or wrong? Who are you to judge?”) to an informed and thoughtful reflection on their own moral and spiritual discoveries. At those times, the burden of being expected to provide the answers to moral dilemmas eased and I could feel that the students and I were fellow travelers. I could give them historical ethical models of how humans have wrestled with these common dilemmas and then they could try them out for themselves. These were not formulas with a right answer; they were ways to think practically about complex human actions, using fairly simple methods.

***

At the heart of learning is the answering of a call, vocare in Latin, a vocation that lures us onward no matter what the discipline. The calling is from God, God as Subject, calling to us as subjects in a world of objects. There is freedom in the realization that in God’s eyes we are subjects worthy to be loved and to be listened to. “How things are between man and his idea of the Divinity determines everything in his life, the quality and connectedness of every feeling and thought, and the meaning of every action,” remarked the poet Ted Hughes.2

What we know of God is what he has chosen to make known to us. In spite of our limitations, we have spoken in myriad languages, during thousands of years, of the One who calls us to rejoice in our search for transcendence.

In the fullness of time (a felicitous phrase), God enfleshed his Word, that Word which had first been spoken and then reverberated down through the millennia. It appeared among us as Immanuel, God-become-human.

I am more and more convinced that Jesus in Word and Spirit is everything we can know of God. This learning is the deep quest of our lives. Out of the secular, the mundane, the earthly, we form the sacral and lift it to God. Music, art, literature, science, history—even religion—all of this, if we allow it, points beyond itself to a transcendence that calls to the deepest part of us. There is in each of us a homing device for the Garden, for a place and time that is open-ended, fully satisfying, never finished nor complete, ever new.

“How faint the whisper that we hear of him!” marvels Job of God. And yet the consciousness of God fills Job’s spirit and thoughts, first, in the argument he would take up with God and then in the knowledge that everything is, finally, within God’s embrace—the universe, the world, and us.

If I were to encounter that irate student today, with his claim to speak the mind of God, I would say, “Thank you for the vote of confidence! As one of my friends says, ‘I know more and more about less and less.’ But I know that someday I shall know as I am known. Perhaps that is the beginning of wisdom.”

  1. Heaney, Seamus. The Government of the Tongue. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989, p. xii.
  2. Quoted in Michael Mayne, The Sunrise of Wonder. American edition. Cleveland, TN: Parson’s Porch Books, 2012, p. 212.

Regarding the Distance Between Us

”The decisive thought in the message of the prophets is not the presence of God to man but rather the presence of man to God.”1

Photo: Filipe Resmini, Unsplash.com

I had a recurring dream as a child, one that continued well into my adulthood, showing up every few years, as if to say, “I’m still here. I’ll be here as long as you are.”

In my dream I see my father floating in the deepness of space, like an astronaut untethered, helmetless, a fragment of light. He is drifting away from me, his arm outstretched, like God straining to touch Adam’s fingertip. But we will never touch, and I know it and I know he knows it too. In my mind I call out to him, although I know he can’t hear it, because sound does not travel where there is no air. We remain like that, suspended, until he is a point of light among the thousands of diamond-hard points of light out there.

I can recall this image with perfect clarity even now, although it has been years since it came to me unbidden. Its meaning seems quite clear to me. No doubt there are depths still unplumbed, but I don’t need to plumb them. There is wonder enough that such a remarkable image could arise from my unconscious, almost as some kind of mythic totem.

My parents divorced when I was nine months old. Three years later, having lived with friends and family, I was taken in by my father’s parents and given a childhood that was unusual for my time and place, but wonderfully secure and loving. Like any child of divorce, there were moments of bewilderment and uncertainty, and tears were shed. If I were to write a memoir it would not be about a childhood of violence and trauma, like so many have suffered. But it might move in the regions of how our image of God is influenced in our earliest years.

When I read the Psalms, I read the cries of a child to a father, one who is all-powerful, yet who inexplicably does not appear when the flood waters rise, and death is near. The Psalmist rages at his enemies, cursing them and threatening a showdown between his father and theirs. Then there are the many texts in which the writer is comforted, exalted, swept up in love for God. He even rejoices in the Law, as sweet as honey to him, something to be meditated upon day and night. Reading those passages, I marvel at that surety and love. The Psalmist tells his Father—and us—everything, even that which for us might be too much information.

The Psalms are memoirs of corrosive violence, abandonment, family loyalty, and the ache of love. They make my staid and quiet upbringing seem like the placid hours of a cow.

***

In the last decade of my teaching career, I taught ethics and philosophy at Trinity Washington University. Most of my students were young women, many of them Hispanic. In their papers, essays, and presentations they would often mention their families, both here and in other countries. There were strong bonds there, so much so that if any family member was in a situation which put them in the emergency room, my students would leave class immediately, texting me with apologies later. There was simply no question: family came first.

Some of the young women found their fathers to be overbearing at times and felt themselves to be caught between cultures. They wished to honor their parents, but they also wanted to forge their own identities as confident young women. In our discussions in class, particularly those about the nature of God, I could sense that their views of God were colored by their relationships with their fathers and with their priests.

Is it inevitable that we transfer our feelings about our caretakers, particularly our male caretakers, onto our impressions of God? Are we like ducklings, imprinting our familial muscle-memory from whoever cares for us in our earliest years, our perception of who they are and how we are to be with them?

If that is true, then my grandfather was my first God-model. Kindly, patient, reticent in his Englishness, my grandfather held integrity without revealing his feelings. He had emigrated from Yorkshire as a young man, purchasing a ticket in steerage on the Titanic, but then selling it and sailing instead on another ship, one that picked up the survivors. He had landed in Nova Scotia, hitchhiked across Canada and ended up in a mining camp in Alberta, where his honesty and forthrightness meant that he held the men’s wages in trust when they went into town after paydays for drinking and women. Eventually, he found his way to a small Christian junior college on the Alberta prairie, where in time he met my grandmother, a farm girl from Vancouver Island. They became teachers, working for a total of one hundred years in Seventh-day Adventist colleges in Canada and America. My father, their only child, was raised as a campus kid in Alberta at Canadian Union College and left home early, heading out to Toronto and eventually, the US.

I used to play a game as a child in which I imagined having been born to other people, perhaps in another time and place. Would I still be me? These were intriguing questions to ponder—questions of identity, personality, even epistemology. What could we really know about others and about ourselves? What was our lineage? Whom did we “take after?”

I could not see any resemblance between my grandparents and me. The only photograph I had of my mother showed a girl of nineteen, blonde, pretty, a Canadian teenager in the late Forties and early Fifties. I couldn’t see the boy I was in my mother either. Photos of my father holding me in his arms on one of the visits he made to me and my grandparents, showed a tall, lean man with deep-set eyes, high cheekbones, and hair combed like Elvis.

We would pick him up from Toronto International Airport, his long coat smelling of travel and cigarettes, and he would scoop me up in his arms, where I could survey my surroundings from a new vantage point. There are photos of my father smiling, looking up at me. I look bewildered. Then he would be gone again and after his departure my grandmother would tell me the story of his quick-wittedness in saving a child whose scarf was caught by an escalator, nearly choking her to death. God-like qualities of heroism to a four-year-old.

***

In time, my father remarried and settled in Chicago. Later, he worked for IBM when it was centered in New York and then took a transfer to San Jose, where he and his wife raised five wonderful children. I was living with my grandparents in Northern California, so he and the family would come up for visits.

I finished graduate school in Southern California and moved east to teach near Washington, DC. It was not his way to write or to call, so years went by with no words between us except for family Christmas cards. One day he left a message on my answering machine. He was consulting for Lockheed and would be in Philadelphia. He wanted to take the train down and spend some time together. I erased the message with a swiftness and coldness that was involuntary, almost instinctual. I was shocked at myself, but nevertheless, I didn’t respond. That’s when I knew there was much more under the surface that I was not facing.

Just before my fortieth birthday my father wrote me a letter, one of two I received from him in my life. He wanted to fly out from San Jose and tell me what had happened all those years ago, why he had made the decisions he did that had resulted in our separation. I picked him up from the airport and we talked until late. The next day he sat in my classes and watched me teach.

And I know a father

Who had a son

He longed to tell him all the reasons

For the things he’d done

He came a long way

Just to explain2

***

I have a memory of my father teaching me how to ride a bike. I am quivering with excitement. His hands are on my shoulders; he leans down next to me. I feel the warmth of his face next to mine. “Are you ready?” he asks. I nod. His hand is on my back then, and I am pedaling, slowly at first as my front tire wobbles. I hear his footsteps behind me as we gain speed. My legs are pumping now and the bike is cruising straight and true. I am exhilarated and I shout over my shoulder, “Okay, Dad, you can let go now!” I don’t hear an answer, so I throw a quick glance backwards and I see him half a block behind me, smiling, his hands on his hips and I am flying.

“My soul thirsts for God,

for the living God.” (Ps 42:2)

Are we to desire God? I’m not sure what that means, to desire God. Would it be God, there behind us, kindly seeing us to the door to the world, “Go on now, you’ll be fine. Trust me.” —and in that moment to know, with a pang, that we have never loved God more?

  1. Heschel, Abraham Joshua. God in Search of Man. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1955, p. 412.
  2. Paul Simon, from Slip Slidin’ Away, 1975.

A Fractured Gift to God

“The color of water is that of its container.” — Al-Junayd (14th c. Sufi)

Photo: Luca Baggio, Unsplash

Our ability to both experience and examine religion is the cause of both inspiration and disillusionment. Entering college in the early Seventies, I wavered between a major in English or a double major of Religion and Communication, with a minor in Sociology. I had a vague notion that communication studies and sociology would fit together well, and it wouldn’t hurt to know how people acted in groups. I have a wariness of crowds and crowd behavior, and I thought knowing more about it might give me some insights into religion and help me as a writer.

I knew I wasn’t made in the pastor mold, but I couldn’t shake religion. It fascinated, irritated, and inspired me—and still does—and I wanted to know why it was there and how it worked. My tradition regarded religion as something handed down to us and recommended by God—acting as our loving Father—rather in the way that implicit suggestions from your father are actually veiled commands. Even then, I had a half-formed view that religion ran the other way—from the downside up—that it was a human construct that appeared in all times and in all places. I wondered why.

The English Department chair, a personal friend, talked me out of majoring in English. “If you love books,” he said, “the process of dissecting them might not be for you.” In the event, I stayed with Religion and Communication, and kept my interest in sociology strictly amateur.

A complete neophyte, I started with Max Weber and Emile Durkheim, and then jumped to C. Wright Mills and Erving Goffman, with an ongoing trek through Gustave LeBon’s, The Crowd. But for the most part, my mentor in this has been Peter Berger, an Austrian-born American professor, one of the premier sociologists of our time, and a Protestant theologian. He spent a good share of his life (1929-2017) working over ideas in the sociology of religion that could be understood by laypeople in books such as A Far Glory, The Noise of Solemn Assemblies, A Rumor of Angels, The Heretical Imperative, and In Praise of Doubt.

His most famous work was The Social Construction of Reality, written with Thomas Luckmann, in which they examined how society builds up the layers of what it terms “reality.” “Society,” says Berger, “not only controls our movements, but shapes our identity, our thought and our emotions.”1

Berger’s book, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion, helped me understand how religion could be a human construct, while not excluding the possibility that this longing pointed to a transcendent being we call God. Or as Berger put it, “the projected meanings may have an ultimate status independent of man.”2

In graduate school I read Ludwig Feuerbach, who reduced theology to anthropology—God as a proportionate magnification of our own fathers. Berger casually offered up the idea that “man projects ultimate meanings into reality because that reality is, indeed, ultimately meaningful, and because his own being . . . Contains and intends these same ultimate meanings.”3 Anthropology, then, could be reconstructed as theology. Berger playfully called this “an intellectual man-bites-dog feat,” and begged off pursuing it further while wanting “to at least suggest the possibility to the theologian.”4

Every society, says Berger, is in the business of world-building. Religion is a part of that. We make our societies and, in turn, our societies mold us. This is not a contradiction, says Berger, it is rather how this dialectical process works. We find ourselves in an open world, one that must be fashioned by our own activity. It does not come to us as an Ikea kit, ready for assembly with one simple tool. We must establish a relationship to the world, and because we are finite and tend to slip on the one banana peel within range of our feet, that relationship has a built-in instability. We are always out of balance with ourselves and with our world, and so we constantly strive for the ultimate while living the penultimate. As Tillich warned, we often substitute the penultimate for the ultimate.

What we produce is culture, something that has to be continuously produced, repaired, maintained, and reproduced. Religion is a part of culture and that tremendously complicates life for any person of faith. As Berger notes rather drily, “suffice it to say that, while it is necessary that worlds be built, it is quite difficult to keep them going.”5

To put this spiritually, we yearn for ultimate meaning and that yearning picks up the faint signals of the memory of Jesus, God-become-human, transmitted to us by the Holy Spirit. As incomplete and as wobbly as we are, if we listen to our deeper self that self is straining to hear the music and the rhythm of God, despite the booms, tweets, whistles, pops, and thuds from the culture around us.

Somewhere, C. S. Lewis encourages us in the face of our frustrations with the forms and outcomes of our religions. Standing for the hymn during Evensong, he winces at the braying of an old woman next to him, but clings to the notion that God rejoices to hear such praise offered up.

Religion is the locus of some of the most heinous acts of human beings, but it also gives us humans at their most sublime. If we regard it not as something handed down to us by God and subsequently bent out of all recognition, but rather as our fractured, misshapen, but well-intentioned gift to a loving and bemused God, we’ll all be better off.

***

Berger led me, via his footnotes and bibliography, to Georg Simmel, who was born in Berlin in 1858 and spent most of his professional life there lecturing at the University of Berlin.

Although Simmel was a sociologist, his interests and influence spanned ethics, aesthetics, epistemology, metaphysics, and intellectual history—in addition to blazing new trails in sociology. He refused to stay rigidly within his discipline, however, and as a result was viciously excluded by his colleagues in philosophy and the social sciences at Berlin, although he counted as friends such luminaries as Max Weber, Rainer Maria Rilke, Auguste Rodin, Martin Buber, Albert Schweitzer, and Ernst Troeltsch.

An expressed anti-Semitism and a bias against sociology kept Simmel from getting a regular faculty appointment for most of his career. It probably didn’t help that he was extraordinarily original in his thinking and did not quote his predecessors or contemporaries.6 He was less interested in creating a full-blown system of thought as he was in following his interests where they led him for the intellectual and practical cultivation of individuals.

Although his publishing career was haphazard, he wrote over two dozen books and more than two hundred articles. He was considered one of the most brilliant lecturers of his generation, and he constantly led his students to think for themselves, rather than to push forward a narrow set of his own thoughts at the expense of discussion. He was a multi-disciplinary adjunct teacher, who cared more for his students than for scholarly advancement, God bless him.

I keep dropping in on him from time to time because he always stimulates thought. And since I’m not constrained either to master his sprawling fields of interest nor to fit them all into a system, I feel free to take what interests me at the moment and come back later for more.

He describes the difference between the young person and the old in an essay entitled “The Adventurer.” Comparing an adventure to the danger and attraction of love, Simmel says the decisive point is that an adventure is “a form of experiencing. The content of the experience does not make the adventure (author’s emphasis).”7 He goes on to say that the color, ardor, and zest for life which we bring to love decisively transform a mere experience into an adventure.

Attitude and perspective make all the difference. “Such a principle of accentuation,” says Simmel, “is alien to old age. In general, only youth knows this predominance of the processes of life over its substance; whereas in old age, when the process begins to slow up and coagulate . . . it then proceeds . . . in a certain timeless manner, indifferent to the tempo and passion of its being experienced.”8

Lord preserve us from such rigor mortis.

There is the world “out there” and there are the worlds we carry inside us. Each shapes the other, each one influences us in ways we may feel more than understand. There are days when, as Christian Wiman says, I can wake up a believer and go to bed an atheist. On those days a certain distance toward religion may be an act of self-preservation. A sociological perspective which regards religion as a human construct offered up to God restores our equilibrium and good humor on those grey days when our adventure of faith slows, coagulates, and loses its passion.

Here, we draw inspiration so we may exhale religion as adventure, one that both entices and extends us, even as we are both immersed in it and observe it from a distance, a kind of wave and particle theory of divine and human interaction.

  1. Berger, Peter. Invitation to Sociology. New York: Random House, 1963, p. 121.
  2. Berger, Peter. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. New York: Random House, 1967, p. 180.
  3. Berger, 180.
  4. Berger, 181.
  5. Berger, 6.
  6. Simmel, Georg. On Individuality and Social Forms. Edited and with an Introduction by Donald N. Levine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971, p. X.
  7. Simmel, Georg. “The Adventurer,” in On Individuality and Social Forms. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971, p. 197.
  8. Simmel, 198.

Aloneness and Chosenness

”Amazement is the thing. / Not love, but the astonishment of loving.” — Alastair Reid1

Photo: Arif Wahid, Unsplash.com

With the possible exception of Judas Iscariot, there are few figures close to Jesus more tragic than his cousin, John. Before his birth his destiny was promised, during his life his focus on the Judgment was singular, and before his death his aloneness was excruciating.

Early on, he had been the very picture of a prophet of old, a mouthful of fire and an ax in hand to cut down these desiccated trees of Israel. But he’d been jolted with joy when baptizing Jesus. The man came up from the dirty stream aglow, his face lifted to the heavens, hearing something beyond the audible spectrum of the people around him.

John hadn’t seen him since that day at the Jordan River, but it was hard to miss his influence. The news of Jesus had spread through the region as his healings became known. Even after some of John’s disciples had gone with Jesus, John was not discouraged. He was a forerunner, an Elijah to the Messiah, the one who would prepare the way for the Way, the Truth, and the Life. While Jesus was out sowing the seeds of the kingdom up and down the country, from Galilee to Jerusalem, John was at the river baptizing. Judgment from one, forgiveness from the other. But that was then.

“Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another (Matt. 11:2,3)?’”

It is impossible to hide the disappointment in that question. It is the cry of those who have thrown in their lot with every messianic figure throughout history. Are you the one? Are you really? The wheels of history turn slowly and where they stop can’t be known beforehand, only hoped for. It is a question that had buzzed in John’s head for weeks, but he’d never breathed it out loud until now.

He did have occasional visitors in Herod’s dank prison, disciples from the days when they were all encamped in the wilderness together. They brought him reports of Jesus, his signs and wonders, each one a down payment on the kingdom John insisted was coming.

In those long days he was like a man adrift at sea who hears the breakers on a hidden shore at night: what lay ahead was either death or deliverance.

We cannot know what was in his mind toward the end, but we might imagine. He was at once Everyman and yet unique, as we all are. What might we think and feel in that place? How would we face our death or our deliverance? Both are certain—either one will happen or the other—and the numinous anticipation of each arrives with every building wave. It’s the breaking wave that is uncertain: we are tossed without control. Beyond the breakers, on the shore, lies our fate, and we are released into it only after a churning downside-up dragging across the reefs of our doubts and fears.

***

In his aloneness, John considers: had he been wrong about Jesus? From his childhood (miraculous in itself as his mother never tired of reminding him) he had been taught that his kinsman would bring Yahweh to the world. All nations would stream to Jerusalem on highways leveled, widened, and straightened. All creation would sing the praises of the Creator. Righteousness would rule, peace would prevail, the lion and the lamb would lie down together.

But before all that would come Judgement, the cleansing by fire of a people to be presented as pure before the Lord. John would be Isaiah’s echo, “Prepare a way for the Lord; clear a straight path for him.” He kept it simple when he emerged from the hills and erupted into the wilderness. He had a message that cut like a sword across the generations, dividing one from another: “Repent; for the kingdom of Heaven is upon you!” And the people came, at first in ones and twos, and then by the hundreds, panting in the heat and clambering over the rocks down to the stream that gushed in the spring season and slowed and pooled in the summer. “What should we do?” they cried as they pressed together along the banks of the stream. “Repent of your sins!” he had roared.

When the Pharisees and Sadducees had shown up, gathering their robes about them, demanding baptism, he had called them on it. Their hypocrisy was like a blackness in front of his eyes; he could hardly bear the sight of them. “You vipers brood!” he had hissed. “Who warned you to escape from the coming retribution?” They were all words and theories, no action. They were trees without fruit, they were bastard children claiming a heritage they did not deserve. God could raise up children out of the stones in the river that would be more faithful to their Creator than these snakes and frogs. “I baptize with water, but there is one coming after me who will baptize with the Spirit and with fire.”

And then Jesus arrived at the Jordan from Galilee, asking to be baptized. John demurred, drawing back, but Jesus gently insisted. And so he had plunged him under and seen him rise, water cascading down his back, his hair wet and clinging to his shoulders. After the voice, he had turned toward the wilderness, not toward Jerusalem, and John had shuddered for knowing what lay ahead of him in that vast and cave-pocked landscape. He knew the whispers and voices that the wind carried, the weight of heat under the bronzed sky, and the cold solitude of the nights.

They were both chosen, both alone, even in the midst of crowds. After years alone and then years with others who, like him, agreed to a community of few words, the incessant chatter of the people was like the swarming of bees for John. Jesus seemed to welcome the crowds around him. They pressed up against him on every side, dancing in front of him like children skipping backwards. He smiled, touched them, looked in their eyes, tousled their hair. John, hearing of this from his disciples, could only shake his head in admiration.

***

So when John’s disciples come to Jesus with the question, “Are you the one?” Jesus does not answer at first. He bows his head; those closest to him see that his eyes are closed, and his mouth is set in a hard, straight line. He begins to speak, his voice a quaver at first but steadying as he raises his head.

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind recover their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are clean, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, the poor are hearing the good news . . .” He looks around at the circle of faces before him and his eyes blur with tears. All of the power he feels when he touches someone to heal them, all the assurance he receives that he is on the right path, all the pain he absorbs from those who are frightened, alone, hanging by a thread—all of that thickens his sight. There is a ringing in his ears, and he drops his head. He gasps and takes a step back; it is as if he feels a sword thrust in his side. He jerks upright, then, and cries, “And happy is the man who does not find me a stumbling-block.”

Silently, the messengers nod and turn to leave. Jesus looks after them for a long moment. He takes a step forward, as if he would call them back. Suddenly, he is angry. “When you came out to the wilderness looking for John, what did you expect to see?” he exclaims vehemently. “Silks and satins? Only people in palaces wear that!” He almost spits the words. “What then? A prophet? Yes, a prophet, but so much more.” Now he is pacing, his fists clenched. “I tell you this: never has a mother’s son been born who is greater than John, and yet even the least in the kingdom of Heaven is greater than he!”

***

There is more. Jesus rages at the indecisiveness of the people, at their shallow attitudes. What do you want? he cries. You’re like children who can’t make up their minds. We pipe, but you don’t dance. We mourn, but you won’t cry. John doesn’t eat or drink and you think he’s crazy. I come along eating and drinking, and you call me a glutton who hangs around with sinners and tax-collectors!

And most enigmatically, “Ever since the coming of John the Baptist the kingdom of Heaven has been subjected to violence and violent men are seizing it.”

Jesus is nothing if not a realist. He’s not seduced by our flattery nor discouraged by our ignorance. Neither will he explain everything he says, and if we are perplexed or discomfited by that, he does not expect it should prevent us from following him.

And what are we waiting for? Jesus proclaimed the kingdom to be within us and surrounding us. Evidence for this comes through acting on it in our own time and place. Is he the One or should we look for another? “God’s wisdom is proved right by its results (Matt. 11:19).” Each of us, alone and chosen, creates the kingdom together.

John, lying awake in the night, hears the hurrying footsteps toward his cell and stands to his feet. Though the violent are seizing the kingdom, he knows who is the One.

  1. Reid, Alastair. “Growing, Flying, Happening. Quoted in Michael Mayne. This Sunrise of Wonder. Cleveland, TN: Parson’s Porch Books, 2012.

Small Acts of Courage

”. . . and the dream outlasts/Death, and the dreamer will never die.”1

Photo: Jehyun Sung, Unsplash.com

What is fearful is usually evil, says Aristotle. We fear poverty, disrepute, disease, being friendless, death. But a courageous person, Aristotle continues, is not concerned with all of these. Some things are worse than others, and some things are more to be feared than others. “A man who fears disrepute is decent and has a sense of shame, a man who does not fear it is shameless.”2 A person’s character was reflected in his or her deeds and one’s deeds were the legacy that survived one’s death. Courage in battle was most often praised, for it stood against the natural fear of danger and of death. As a veteran himself, Aristotle knew what it took to stand one’s ground when instincts of self-preservation fought with virtue.

Even more to be admired was the person who displayed courage when caught up in unexpected danger. “It is a mark of even greater courage to be fearless and unruffled when suddenly faced with a terrifying situation than when the danger is clear beforehand.” When we have time to prepare, we may resolve to be courageous—think of the men in transport ships approaching the coast of Normandy on D-Day. But what of those suddenly caught in an ambush when out on patrol? “When we see what is coming, we can make a choice,” notes Aristotle, “based on calculation and guided by reason, but when a situation arises suddenly our actions are determined by our characteristics.”

Since courage displayed is the result of virtue practiced, those who display it when startled have courage at the core of their being. But whether anticipated or arising in the moment, courage is noble and elevates the soul.

***

It is winter and Jesus is sowing discord in the temple precincts. Walking in Solomon’s Cloister with the disciples, he is surrounded by a group of surly priests who demand to know who he thinks he is. “If you are the Messiah say so plainly.” And Jesus says something like, I already have but you don’t believe. My actions are my credentials. You don’t believe because you are not one of mine. If you were, you would know that nobody can snatch my own from me because my Father and I are one.

If they’d had guns the safeties would have clicked off. As it is, they pick up rocks. You have to work with what you’ve got. Jesus shrugs and asks for which of the good deeds God has done through him are they going to stone him? Not for any of that, they say, but for you claiming to be a god. Well, says Jesus, doesn’t your scripture say you are gods? Gods are people who have received the word of God—and you can’t set aside Scripture. So why charge me with blasphemy, a person sent into the world by God, because I say I am God’s son?

The disciples are watching this verbal ping-pong with increasing dread. And Jesus throws a parting shot: If you don’t believe what I say at least believe what I do, that God is in me and I am in God. Time to go, fellas. “This provoked them to one more attempt to seize him. But he escaped from their clutches (John 10:39).”

***

Jesus and the disciples are across the Jordan, back where John first baptized Jesus. The crowds that come out to see him there recall that while John hadn’t done anything miraculous, everything he’d said about Jesus had come true. Among other things, John had been certain that Jesus was “God’s Chosen One,” and it sure looked like it, given all the people he had healed and the demons driven out and sight restored to the blind.

People were still talking about Jesus healing the man who was born blind. It was the general belief that something that unlucky had to be assigned blame. “Who sinned,” the disciples asked, “this man or his parents?” Neither one, said Jesus. This is an opportunity to show God’s power in healing him. So he spit on the ground and made a paste of the mud and put it on the fellow’s eyes and told him to go wash it off in the pool at Siloam. The man went and washed and when he came back he could see. But he didn’t see Jesus because Jesus had gone, leaving one grateful man awash in controversy. It can’t be him, said his neighbors. Must be someone who looks like him. Who healed you, they ask? Jesus did it, said the man. Where is he? I don’t know, he answered.

Later, the Pharisees hauled him up for questioning because Jesus healed him on the Sabbath. Who did this to you, they demanded. So he ran through the story again, just the facts: I was blind, Jesus put mud on my eyes and told me to wash. I did and now I can see. That set them off again. The nub of the argument was that the Sabbath commandment had been shattered, thus the healing was not of God. Others felt that the very rarity of the event pointed to a divine intervention. There was also a strong feeling in certain quarters that the man was lying about being born blind. Get his parents in here, they snarled. Is this your son? Was he really born blind? Don’t ask us, they snapped. He can answer for himself. Yes, he was born blind and no, we don’t know how he was healed. They were afraid of being expelled from the synagogue.

So they summoned the man again, swore him to tell the truth before God, and denounced Jesus as a sinner. I don’t know about that, retorted the fellow. All I know is that I was blind and now I see. Can’t have been that easy, they cried. There was some gnashing of teeth. What did he do to you? You really want me to go through it all again, asked the man? You want to be his disciples too?

It got ugly. You’re his disciple, they said. We follow Moses and we know God spoke to Moses. But we don’t know where this one came from. Astonishing, said the man, because since time began no one born blind has gained their sight. If he wasn’t from God, how could this have happened? Don’t be giving us lessons, they yelled. Flecks of foam appeared at the corners of their mouths. You—born and bred in sin! And they threw him out of the synagogue.

Later, Jesus found him and said, “Do you have faith in the Son of Man?” Tell me who he is, said the man. You’re looking at him, said Jesus. “Lord, I believe, he said, and bowed before him.”

All of this was prologue. The fear the authorities held of Jesus was that his power and charisma would inflame the people; it meant they watched his every move.

***

Lazarus has died. In fact, he’s been dead for four days, and in the meantime Jesus has dawdled. The word had come that Lazarus was deathly ill; it was his sister Martha who sent it from the village of Bethany, two miles from Jerusalem. Blithely, it seemed, Jesus brushed it aside. “This sickness will not end in death,” he said, but it did. Was he naive or just in denial? This has come about, said Jesus, so that God can be glorified. The disciples were appalled. They knew he loved Lazarus and his sisters, but he deliberately stayed in place for two more days, ensuring that Lazarus would be good and dead.

Let’s go down there, said Jesus, back to Judea. Are you serious? asked the disciples incredulously. Last time we were there you were almost killed. Twice, in fact. We doubt they’ve forgotten, and they sure haven’t forgiven. We must work while there’s light, he said. And then he added, almost as an afterthought: “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I shall go and wake him.” Ah well, perhaps we were wrong, said the disciples, and Lazarus is sleeping it off. He’ll recover, then?

But Jesus said plainly, “Lazarus is dead.” He went on to say that he was glad it turned out this way because it would be good for their faith, Lazarus being dead and all. Then they understood what a high-wire act this was. It was a trap. He—and they—would be tracked, arrested, and killed. Jesus would no more avoid this than the priests and their spies could refrain from catching him out. After the healing of the blind man—and the stir that caused—“waking” Lazarus would be the last straw. “But let us go to him,” said Jesus.

All the signs pointed to an early and violent death for Jesus—and probably for those most closely gathered around him. His actions posed a threat to the whole nation, as the priests tried to keep the fragile peace with the Romans. He had the power to incite the people. What if he acted on it? Even if he didn’t seize power the people might rise up in his name. It was a risk that could not be tolerated. Better the death of one than the end of the nation and the temple.

It was the raising of Lazarus that set the final plot in motion to bring Jesus down. While many who came to console Mary and Martha found their faith in Jesus after seeing Lazarus raised, others went directly to the priests and Pharisees to report the clear and present danger of Jesus. “So from that day on they plotted his death (John 11:53).”

***

Thomas, the Twin (early Christian legend has it that he had a twin sister, Lydia), we usually characterize as the doubter, the one who holds out for tangible evidence of the bodily reality of Jesus, post-resurrection. Thomas is in direct contrast to Peter. Where Peter is impetuous, Thomas is deliberate. Where Peter blurts out whatever surfaces in his mind, Thomas is reticent. Peter is all in for what is in front of him, Thomas hangs back. Not easily fooled, he is fully committed once he is moved by love.

Does doubt corrode trust? It might, in certain circumstances. It might also be a clearing out of the underbrush of weak notions in preparation for the planting of the stronger oaks of faith.

Thomas speaks three times in the New Testament. Twice, he has questions about Jesus. The third time, he rallies the disciples to follow Jesus to Bethany. ‘Let us also go,” he says, “that we may die with him (John 11: 16).’”

Sometimes courage mounts the ramparts in defiance of incoming fire. Sometimes it forges alliances to stand up to tyrants. Sometimes it refuses to betray the principles of a nation in exchange for the passing praise of the corrupt and the powerful. And sometimes we see it in the set of a man’s shoulders and the lifting of the head: knowing the danger, counting the cost, he strides out anyway.

  1. Thomas, R. S. “Circles.” In Collected Poems 1945-1990. London: Orion House, 1993, 245.
  2. Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by Martin Ostwald. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1999, 69.

Disappearing Act or Where We Go When We’re Gone

Photo: Vladimir Kudinov, Unsplash

”Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.” Luke 24:31

I sometimes catch myself falling into a reverie or rather, I find myself in a reverie, and I come to and I quickly look around to see if anyone noticed. These moments render me motionless in place, sitting or standing, my eyes fixed inwardly, a fingertip tapping my upper lip. Disregarding what is actually in front of me, I often see a dusty road winding through low hills that are golden in the evening light. To place it on a map is to find it just off American Canyon Road in Napa County in Northern California, a shortcut from Highway #29 that runs from the city of Napa to Highway #80, which arcs above Fairfield and Suisun City and the estuaries that meander down to where the waters drop through the Carquinez Straits on their way to San Francisco Bay.

Our geography of the mind forms around images that emerge like islands from our seas of memory. I don’t know why these hills stand out for me and why I recall them, except the evening light on their golden curves and slopes rising above the cool shadows of the canyon is a glimpse of the California of my youth and a harbinger of home. This image, transposed to Palestine and overlaid with the story of the two disciples on their way to Emmaus, has become a touchstone of my spiritual journey.

***

Luke’s road story tersely describes the disciples the Sunday after the crucifixion. Two of them are on their way to Emmaus, a village seven miles from Jerusalem. It is the waning of the day, one filled with grief and strange occurrences and things that cannot be believed. They are confused and distraught. The energy at the core of their community that drew them in and held them together, has been ripped out. They feel a centrifugal force flinging them into the darkness. Nothing looks familiar anymore, but everything remains the same.

They are heading for home, about a two-hour walk, as the hills begin to cool. They are joined by a stranger who picks up on their distress immediately. “What are you talking about?” he asks innocently. They stop in their tracks, astonished. “Are you the only one in Jerusalem who doesn’t know what happened in the last few days?” gasps one of them, Cleopas. The stranger shakes his head. “I guess so. What do you mean?” “I mean—,” he pauses and seems to gulp for air, “I mean all this about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet in what he said and did before God and the people.” The other one picks up the thread. “Our chief priests and rulers handed him over to be crucified. And he was. And we had hoped that he was the one, the one who would liberate Israel. And now it’s the third day and this morning some of our women have astounded us. They went to the tomb early, but they didn’t find his body. They claimed they had a vision of angels and these angels said that Jesus is alive. So some of our people went down there,” she paused, “and it was just like the women said. But they didn’t see him.”

The Stranger listens silently. Then he says gently, “How thick-headed you are and how slow to recognize what’s been going on for all these ages.” And he explains, beginning with Moses and the prophets, how the history unfurled and the part that the Messiah was to play. They listen, entranced. They’d never grasped the full story and now they saw themselves as part of the drama.

This our stop, they said, when they reached Emmaus. The Stranger nodded and turned to go. “But stay with us!” they begged. “We’ve got some bread, some fruit. Talk to us some more.”

It was a small place, but adequate. Cleopas gestured, “Please, sit down. I’ll get some wine.” His wife bustled in the background with the hummus and the bread. Cleopas peered at The Stranger in the fading light. “You remind me of someone,” he said hesitantly. He shook his head. “I know I’ve seen you somewhere.”

His wife laid out the simple food before them. “Please,” said Cleopas, “bless it for us.” The Stranger took up the bread in both hands. He tore it in half, he raised his eyes, he extended his arms, and breathed a prayer. That moment—one that Cleopas and Mary replayed endlessly to each other in years to come—in that moment they knew. And then he vanished.

This is the rest of the story. The two look at each other, open-mouthed. Mary shivers. “I knew it!” shouts Cleopas. “Didn’t we feel our hearts burning as he spoke?”

They set out at once, seven miles back through the night—no thought of danger—running and walking, entering Jerusalem, winding through back streets, up the stairs to burst in on the Eleven and gasp out the story. Everyone is talking at once and then “there he was, standing among them. Startled and terrified, they thought they were seeing a ghost. But he said . . . It is I myself. Touch me and see (Luke 24: 35-39).”

***

This is my spiritual life story; it might be yours as well. I find myself on the Emmaus road, confused into muteness, despairing that Jesus has been killed and me not seeing the cosmic order in it. Like the disciples, the resurrection makes no sense to me. The dead are really dead and, Lazarus notwithstanding, Jesus is not coming back from this deadness. This being a mystery which I cannot penetrate, I am setting off for home, disconsolate but with some part of me ready to suspend my disbelief in a flash, given the chance.

This is the moment when the Stranger should enter unheralded, although given my two-thousand-year advantage, I am primed and looking for him on the road. But he doesn’t appear and it is getting late and I must be on my way. It is the road to home, although I somehow know I can’t stay there. The journey then becomes an occasion of reflection, some of it recalling my studies, some of it musing on the examples of others, less of it a comparison from experience. Although I can’t say that the whole of Scripture is open to me, I do see the patterns coalescing between the Law and the Prophets. For me, they seem like the inner turmoil of a fractious family, the falling out and the making up, the exodus and the exiles. It’s a story of heartbreak and deep love on both sides, God and humans, century after century, until at last, when the times are the worst, God comes in by stealth, poured into an infant. It’s not my family, not my fight, but could their love be extended beyond these tribes? Is this a family I’d want to be adopted into?

I have my doubts, but then who doesn’t? It’s who that baby grows up to be and what he does that draws me. That he died and who killed him, is apparent to me. Sages and prophets, outlaws and heroes, the ones who carried on in the face of evil, he was one of them too. Another in a long line of good men and women who tried to save us from ourselves. But the question is, would I have killed him too?

On the road, that is the question which haunts me. But I am analyzing the danger he presented to the established order, the eternal disruption that was coiled within him. It’s history, it’s a theoretical construct, it’s a theological and moral question that demands footnoting and further research. It could be a breakthrough article for me, edgy enough to attract attention, but a rather simple mental exercise of speculation that cannot be disproven, only disregarded.

A Stranger joins me on the road. I am lost in thought, preoccupied, and suddenly, there he is. I did not see where he came from. There is a disconcerting moment in which he searches my face as we greet each other, but it passes. I lapse back into my thoughts and the story the Stranger is telling fades; it is a pleasant murmur that can be tolerated. I ask him to stop for a meal, of course, as a matter of courtesy. One must not neglect to entertain strangers for thus one might entertain angels.

It’s when he blesses bread and breaks it, a simple and universal gesture, that I recognize him. And then he’s gone, leaving an untouched meal, because I am gone too, retracing my steps in haste through the night with a joyous hunger for the company of others. Of the names he has been known by, there is one which describes him best, Immanuel, God with us. It’s only when he’s gone that we see him.

A Heart for Yearning

Photo: Kristine Weilert, Unsplash.com

“But how very beautiful are those instants in which desire is on the verge of being satisfied.” — Jean Grenier1

How does one describe air: a colorless, odorless (usually) gas without which there is no life? Adequate, perhaps, but notable only in its subtractions and absences. How odd that something with weight, velocity, temperature, penetration, and mobility should be so ubiquitous and so indispensable—and yet so invisible.

Our language reveals these absences and ambiguities. “I can’t breathe!” Even reading these words, we feel our throats tighten. “Put your hands in the air!” We instinctively know where to put them—but where were they before? “He has an air about him . . .” We should hope so. In fact, let’s be generous and wish him the presence of many airs, not just one.

It is the marvelous capacity of our social imagination that these phrases usually bring about the desired effect and yet when we take them literally their meaning expires with a little gasp.

***

I struggle to describe God with any sense that I’m making sense, even to myself. I know that the letters G-O-D hold realms of meaning for many of us, but I suspect that these are inherited meanings which form an oral tradition that keeps us talking about God. If we come up dry on names for God, we need only hum a few bars of Handel’s Messiah for a full list. Those names come from Isaiah and it makes one wonder if we’ve added anything of value to the list for names and descriptions of God since the 5th century BCE. Alfred North Whitehead said in passing that everything in Western philosophy was but a footnote to Plato—an exaggeration perhaps, but one that reveals how indebted we are to our ancient masters.

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” said Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. This advice, if followed, would save us from a multitude of fevers carried like a bacillus in the veins of our social media. Wittgenstein also said, “The limits of my language means the limits of my world.” This too, seems like a good word. Language expands the world we perceive, and our horizons shrivel for lack of vocabulary. “Only describe, don’t explain,” cautioned Wittengenstein. But how to describe a being whose hiddenness preserves us from extinction in that presence?

But we learn, however haltingly, by trying this and that, by speaking and hearing ourselves speaking, and by listening and speaking and going away to think. When it comes to speaking about God, I’ve done enough of it as a youth pastor, a one-time evangelist, and a teacher, to know that I wish I’d spoken less, listened more, and not been so . . . certain that God could be described within the limits of our language alone.

***

Since the Enlightenment we’ve taken “belief” to mean assent to demonstrable truth. Still, the word “faith” in the New Testament, pistis, or pisteuo, meant trust, loyalty, engagement, commitment.2 One committed to a person, took a vow of loyalty, promised to engage. Early Christian converts went through an intensive preparation leading up to the baptismal rites performed on Easter Sunday. They fasted, prayed, attended vigils, received instruction on the basics of the gospel message. But they weren’t required to believe anything before baptism. The transformative power of the ritual was first necessary; understanding the dogma came later. Experience of commitment led to belief.3

In the Jerusalem community after Jesus left those who loved him were still reciting the Jewish declaration of faith, “Hear, O Israel.” Listen, don’t speak, especially not the name of God. Only the high priest was allowed to say the name of God, and that was only on one day of the year, Yom Kippur, when he pleaded for the life of the people, knowing that he was touching fire.

It’s hard for some Christians to listen for God; it’s easier to speak. I cringe when I hear the name “Father God” or “Jesus” repeated mindlessly in public prayers, as if running up the number could force God’s hand. Jesus invited his disciples to pray to God, and indeed to call God, Abba, the familiar name, equivalent to “Daddy.” He also cautioned them to keep their prayers short and to pray in private. He intimated that long prayers in public were all for show and like any hypocrisy the users had their reward already.

***

In graduate school, studying philosophy of religion, my classmates and I took up the proofs for the existence of God. Thomas Aquinas played a starring role. Here was a man who fused the philosophical categories and reasoning methods of Aristotle with the scriptural and dogmatic propositions of Augustine, adding to it his own extraordinary powers of reasoning and expression, and forming the basis of medieval Catholic theology. Aquinas could keep six scribes busy at once, dictating to each the contents of separate books he was writing, the equivalent of a Grand Master at chess playing six opponents simultaneously.

In his Summa Theologica, Aquinas defines “God” as “that than which nothing greater can be signified, and that which exists in reality is greater than that which exists only in the intellect.”4 It was self-evident to him that God exists. He proceeds to five proofs for the existence of God, the first being the argument from motion. God is the First Mover who is himself not moved by anything and, Aquinas says, “all men understand that this is God.”

Aquinas lived in a time when the existence of God could be vigorously disputed and stringently proven. I was impressed by his logical brilliance, somewhat envious of his unshakable certainty, but ultimately unmoved by his First Mover. My professor was fond of saying, “No one ever gave his life for the ontological argument,” a statement that could not be verified, but rang true, nonetheless.

Now we live in an era in which the arguments for the existence of God are mostly of historical interest for the philosophy of religion. They may also function as exercises in logic. But the ground has shifted under our feet and we are no longer as confident in our syllogisms and proofs. For many people, these are irrelevant arguments about a mythical being in whose name enormous atrocities have been perpetrated, and whose adherents, be they Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, are responsible for much of the injustice and suffering in the world. They are willing to hand in the ticket for their share of God’s grace and go it alone.

I believe them when they make that claim, but in turn I will not claim that I know how they feel. The mystery of evil has been, and remains, the rock that I roll up the mountain as Sisyphus. Meanwhile, I continue to pray and to sense—in ways that probably would not stand up to philosophical scrutiny—a presence in my life that I am convinced is God.

***

The Hebrew Bible is the record of the gradual withdrawal of God from direct human interaction. Angels, fire from heaven, visitations from God in person cease after Elijah. God appears in prophetic visions and dreams, and after Hezekiah even that avenue gradually dwindles to nothing. God is remembered through words and those words rise in strength and meaning. But God is not seen in the land.

“Our faith,” said Julian of Norwich, “is nothing else but a right understanding, and true belief, and sure trust, that with regard to our essential being we are in God, and God in us, though we do not see him.”5

Then comes Jesus, the Word, who reveals God with signs and wonders, who heals through the power of God and becomes the lens through which his disciples and others can see God again. But this revelation is not self-evident and most miss it entirely. God speaks only twice to Jesus in the presence of others and most who were there probably thought it was summer thunder. As Barbara Brown Taylor says in When God is Silent, “the voice of God in Jesus was not a shout. In him, the revelation of God comes to us as a whisper. In order to catch it, we must hush, lean forward, and trust that what we hear is the voice of God.”6

In this world and this time and this place, we trace the presence of God in hindsight through the paths we make between our memories and God’s movements. Our future in God, however wildly our faith may flicker, we can imagine as Jesus, the anticipation of hope fulfilled.

In our wordless desire for God we are already in God’s presence.

  1. Grenier, Jean. “The Attraction of the Void” in Islands: Lyrical Essays. Translated by Steve Light. Copenhagen: Green Integer, 2005, 22.
  2. Armstrong, Karen. The Case for God. New York: Alfred Knopf, 2009, 87.
  3. Armstrong, The Case for God, 97.
  4. Aquinas, Aquinas on Nature and Grace. Edited by A. M. Fairweather. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1954, 50.
  5. Julian. Revelations of Divine Love. Translated by Clifton Wolters. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1966, 158.
  6. Taylor, Barbara Brown. When God is Silent. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998, Loc 475.

You Must Be Joking

Photo: Loren Joseph, Unsplash.com

”Once we realize that Christ was not always engaged in pious talk, we have made an enormous step on the road to understanding.” — Elton Trueblood

Jesus is teaching in a synagogue one Sabbath and sees a woman bent over with a crippling disease. Naturally, he calls her up to the front to heal her and, inevitably, the president of the synagogue snorts in disgust: “There are six working-days: come and be cured on one of them, and not on the Sabbath.” Make an appointment, lady. But Jesus rounds on the leader and the congregation. You hypocrites! he says, heatedly. You’ll feed and water your donkeys and oxen on the Sabbath, but you’re upset when I heal a daughter of Abraham, bound this way for eighteen years? Really? “At these words all his opponents were covered with confusion, while the mass of the people were delighted at all the wonderful things he was doing (Luke 13:10-17, NEB).”

Allowing for humor in Jesus’ words does not undercut the seriousness with which he addresses our fears and doubts. In fact, in his use of exaggeration, irony and paradox, he underscores his unfailing purpose to reach us, despite our tunnel vision and our sometimes humorless rigidity.

The presumption that one’s salvation is deadly serious, with no need or possibility for humor, is so engrained in the Christian psyche that the suggestion of an alternative is almost blasphemous. Yet, in an age in which churches compete for brand recognition, and Christ is a buddy, and worshippers in the pew recruit their prayer-warrior friends, humor about our condition as homo religiosus is essential.

Somehow, we’ve concluded that everything attributed to Jesus must be taken at face value, with no nuances, shades of meaning or inflections. Any recorded dialogue loses a lot in translation; all the nonverbal cues such as gestures and facial expressions fall away, and we have only the culturally conditioned meaning of the words as translated. We don’t see the raised eyebrow, the faint grin at the corners of the mouth, the glint in the eye, or the expressiveness of the hands. We miss the inflections in the voice, the emphasis on certain words—“But I tell you”—even the pauses for effect in the timing of a skilled speaker.

Elton Trueblood’s little book, The Humour of Christ, notes that this characteristic of Christ is little remarked upon by theologians and Biblical interpreters. “Full recognition of Christ’s humor has been surprisingly rare,” he says.1 Most of the nineteenth-century writers of the lives of Christ paid no attention to his humor, portraying him as serious from dawn to dusk, his every word portentous and grave. What little we know of the personality of Jesus comes through his interactions with his disciples, with those he healed, and in his confrontations with religious authorities. His parables, his dialogues, his arguments, all give us some idea of what it would have been like to be his friend, but again we’re overawed by the two thousand centuries of Jesusology that sacrifices imaginative intimacy for sovereign power.

Basic communication theory tells us that it takes two to dialogue, that most of what we remember from an encounter with another person is nonverbal and visual, and that much can be understood of that person by attention to how his message is delivered. We do not see the wit and humor of Jesus because we aren’t attuned to it and we find another explanation for it when we can’t avoid it.

Some of the sayings of Jesus and the parables he tells are, in the best of lights, more than startling. I have begun to look more closely at them as statements of exaggeration and paradox, irony and wit. Once you allow for the possibility that Jesus had a sense of humor, and that he was a master rhetorician, using all the tools available to him in persuasion and argument, some of these statements begin to make more sense.

Trueblood asserts that, “Of all the mistakes which we make in regard to the humor of Christ, perhaps the worst mistake is our failure, or our unwillingness, to recognize that Christ used deliberately preposterous statements to get His point across (Trueblood 44-45).” Jesus stuns his disciples and those standing around by proclaiming, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:25).” Because they take him literally and because being rich was equated with being blessed by God, the disciples are astonished. “Then who can be saved?” they ask, looking in bewilderment at one another. Mark adds this telling detail: “Jesus looked them in the face,”— “and said, ‘For men it is impossible, but not for God; to God everything is possible (Mark 10:27, NEB).”

Jesus states this categorically, with no qualifiers, right after the story of a rich man who turns away in regret because he cannot divest himself of all his wealth. With a straight face he gives us this exaggerated image to emphasize the difficulty involved. The humor is in the size of this image, the outrageousness of trying to jam a camel (one hump or two?) through such a tiny opening. All these centuries later it still resounds in eye and ear and imagination, whereas a long discourse on wealth distribution would glaze the eyes of the most ardent disciple. Yet, some commentators have made the torturous claim that Jesus was referring to a gate in the Jerusalem wall so narrow and low that a camel without its load could squeeze through only if the poor creature got down on its knees and scrabbled its way forward. Like that would ever happen. Like any camel owner would be so foolish as to try.

“What we require, for Christ’s kind of humor,” says Trueblood, “are two ingredients, surprise and inevitability. There is a connection which we do not expect, but which, nevertheless, seems absolutely valid when once it is presented (Trueblood 48).”

Don’t throw pearls to swine, Jesus advises his disciples. Some people are impervious to the truth. The delightful absurdity of this action—who would do such a thing?—makes the point with a smile and a laugh that softens the imperative not to waste one’s time with the stubbornly obtuse.

Paradox is at the heart of humor. Kierkegaard understood that where there is life there is paradox, but he also knew that where there is paradox, there is humor. A paradox is a contradiction with a secret affinity for connection. When we see the connection, despite the contradiction, there is the laughter of surprise and delight. Who knew?

Don’t imagine that I’m trying to get rid of the Law and the prophets, says Jesus. “I tell you, unless you show yourselves far better men than the Pharisees and doctors of the law, you can never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5: 18, 20, NEB).” Maybe that’s a low bar to clear from the distance of two thousand years, but for his audience it must have seemed a feat of Olympic proportions.

Hypocrisy is the besetting sin of human beings, especially of those who claim to be pure, and Jesus takes aim at the hypocrisy of the priests and Pharisees. The rigidity of the Pharisees was cause for laughter among the common people, who could puncture pomposity from thirty yards with a singular barb of humor. Yet, even at his most scathing, Jesus’ wit is meant to be cleansing, a catharsis that can lead to redemption if we can see ourselves as we are and laugh about it.

Most often Jesus employs irony, “a holding up to public view of either vice or folly, but without a note of bitterness or the attempt to harm (Trueblood 53).” Irony, thanks to Socrates, is deeply embedded in our Western way of thinking. When Jesus uses it to get at the truth in an indirect way, its effect is immediate. “Can grapes be picked from briars,” he asks, “or figs from thistles (Matt. 7:16, NEB)?” The question answers itself in our response.

Listen, says Jesus, when you do something good for someone, be quiet about it, and “do not announce it with a flourish of trumpets.” Don’t be tooting your own horn “as the hypocrites do in synagogue and in the streets.” And then the sly touch of irony: “I tell you this: they have their reward already (Matt. 6:2,3 NEB).” Status isn’t hard to come by; there are always people around who are impressed by braggarts. But that’s all the reward they’re going to get—and it’s fleeting and ephemeral.

But for sheer chutzpah, it’s hard to beat the story of the Unjust Steward in Luke 16. Luke is the only Synoptic writer who uses the story, probably derived from a source Matthew did not have access to. Or maybe Matthew skipped it just to be on the safe side.

The story concerns a foreman or steward who is in charge of running his master’s business concerns. When he cooks the books to hide his own unethical practices and the master calls him on it, he fears he’ll soon be spending more time with his family, so he does a two-for-one ingratiating act to get himself off the hook with his boss and to cultivate the goodwill of the debtors. When they come to pay up, he offers them a discount and a quick payment, no questions asked. Some is better than none, he reasons.

“And the master applauded the dishonest bailiff for acting so astutely. For the worldly are more astute than the other-worldly in dealing with their own kind (Luke 16:8, NEB).”

Who do we identify with here? The master is no shining city on a hill, the steward is, well, we know what he’s like, and the debtors lurch toward compromise. Is the master supposed to be God? Is Jesus the steward? Are we supposed to be the steward?

It’s true that all the players in this story are “men of the world.” They’re not evil, twisted characters, they just have ethical Alzheimer’s disease, an inability to recognize moral precepts and responsibilities and to act on them with will. If you called them on it, they’d be shocked that you’d raised a fuss. The advantage was theirs for the taking. “That makes me smart,” they’d say. “And that makes you a loser.”

Christ seems to be saying that if you’re going all in on this, don’t be half-hearted. “Sin boldly,” to echo Luther. The way to get respect from the grifter set is to steal the whole bank, not just rob from the bank, to use Trueblood’s metaphor. Not only that, such behavior will be rewarded! “I say to you, use your worldly wealth to win friends for yourselves, so that . . . you may be received into an eternal home (Luke 16:9).”

All of this would be unconscionable except Jesus segues directly into verses diametrically opposed to this narrative banter. If you’ve been untrustworthy with other people’s money, you can’t be trusted to handle your own, he says. “You cannot serve God and Money (Luke 16:13, NEB).”

What are we to make of this? This is unequivocal, whereas the story is all about compromise. A story this extreme with a punchline that definitive can only be seen as a vivid lesson in moral integrity. Interpreters pretzel themselves trying to assign roles for each character in the narrative. But the only hypothesis that makes sense is that Jesus used the shock value of unscrupulous behavior to make an unforgettable point: Our moral (or immoral) behavior shapes our character and our character determines our behavior. Therefore, be faithful in the small matters so you can be trusted in the large ones.

Jesus’ humor is not only seen in his public dialogues; it comes through in his private conversations with his disciples. Up in the region of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asks his disciples who people think he is. And Simon, suddenly grasping the truth, blurts out, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Got it in one! says Jesus. That was revealed to you by my heavenly Father (Matt 16:13-16, NEB).

And then Jesus weaves a most delicious—and tender—irony: “You are Peter, the Rock,” he says triumphantly. The most mercurial, the most impetuous of the disciples is now Rocky, the one stable enough to anchor the community of the future, the one most to be trusted. Five minutes later, Jesus turns on him and calls him Satan. You’re a stumbling-block, he argues, for thinking like a man rather than like God. The camaraderie between them survives this whiplash. But Simon did become a rock, and in years to come, although he was bound and led where he did not want to go, as Jesus had prophesied, he went with courage, faithful to the end.

Ironically, the man rose to meet the nickname. The truth, rightly divined, gave the freedom to evolve.

  1. Trueblood, Elton. The Humour of Christ. London: Dartman, 1963, 23.