Simple Truths

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“Jesus said great things so simply that he seems not to have thought about them, and yet so clearly that it is obvious what he thought about them. Such clarity together with such simplicity is wonderful.”1 — Pascal

Is there a spiritual innocence that comes with age and experience or does our trusting nature diminish as our gathering knowledge increases?

I attended the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature’s annual meeting recently, in San Diego. There were ten thousand people, maybe more, crowding the hallways, gathered in clumps, striding along the sidewalks, and holed up in restaurants and bars. The catalog of sessions for the five-day event was an inch thick, the venues included most of the hotels along East Harbor Drive, as well as the massive Convention Center.

It is daunting to remember that all of this—the sessions, the monographs, the books, the societies, interest groups, units, bylaws and constitutions, debates, discussions, arguments and extended soliloquies—all of it can be traced back to a Jewish peasant whom we wouldn’t have recognized were he to stray into the Gaslamp District of the city or wander down by the Marina. Would we see him in the faces of the homeless outside the Hilton or tip him for bussing tables at the trendiest fusion restaurants?

I stopped into a session on Liberation Theology, recalling my courses in it years ago in graduate school. It was for me back then both liberating and troubling, and I entered every class session with anticipation and adrenaline.

The liberation theologians we were studying—Gustavo Gutierrez, Rubem Alves, Leonardo Boff, Jon Sobrino, James Cone, and many others—read the Bible in ways that scorched the fair pastures of my white, middle-class, upbringing. They read the prophets as if their words were fire, the Psalms were their battle cries, the Gospels arose from the streets of the favelas and Jesus was black, and he was red and brown and yellow, and most of all, he was poor. For the first time in my life, I was seated at the back of the bus.

Now I was listening as a Jesuit priest from Dublin read a paper about his friendship with a well-known priest who had been murdered in El Salvador along with four fellow Jesuits. They were killed in the bungalow they shared near the campus they served, the priest in question having been marched out to the darkness behind the house, made to lie face down, and shot at point blank range. The soldiers who killed him and his friends had been trained, armed, and inspired by American officers, backed by the full authority of the United States government. The Dublin priest was assessing the legacy his friend had left behind, the practical methods of teaching scripture that he pioneered and the effects of the lay Bible study groups that he set up.

I allowed my imagination to be there with him, trying to feel my way into his heart and breath as the soldiers burst through the door. A young PhD student was reading from his paper now, commenting that the men had been warned the week before that they were targets. One of their group had left for another town just a day before; he had escaped for the moment. But our priest had not believed the parishioner who came to tell him he and the others would be killed. The priest did not think that soldiers would kill priests, nor did he think it was honorable to abandon his station over a threat. But the soldiers came and shot them all anyway and left their bodies to be found by others as the sun inevitably rose and people went about their business.

I slipped out as the questions began for the presenters. I was in a jumble, trying to square the polite and distanced discussion with these imaginal fragments of violence I was now carrying. Did Jesus feel fear like an icy knife between his shoulders when the temple police surrounded him in the garden? In the torchlight did he see his death in their eyes, these men who would go off shift near dawn and return to their homes? Peter had reacted instinctively, drawing blood with a glancing blow that sheared the ear off the High Priest’s servant, no doubt the only unarmed person in the mob. Jesus wryly comments that they had had plenty of opportunity to take him when he was speaking in the temple; did they really need the weapons that were bristling in their hands?

Outside our conference room, the late afternoon light sparkled on the waters of the bay and the palm trees swayed in the breeze. A festival of rap and hip-hop throbbed near the hotel entrance and the light-rail cars glided past the clanging alarms that held the crowds at the sidewalk’s edge.

Did the priest and his friends die believing that their lives had not been lived in vain? They had been boys in Ireland, wedded to the Church from an early age, marked even then by sectarian fury. When they took their vows, did they have the slightest premonition that decades hence they would seal that covenant with their own blood?

***

Professional conferences like this one are cornucopias of knowledge and scholarly diligence. The daily schedule runs from early morning to late in the evening. They are opportunities for graduate students to begin the process of publishing and presenting, building their resumés, and making contacts. They advance knowledge in hundreds of areas of scholarship and sustain debate and discussion across a multitude of areas of interest. At a micro level, wherever individual presenters and participants are, their subjects are for them of consuming interest. At a macro level, seen against the backdrop of global problems, they are examples of how wide the breadth of human knowledge, how curious the particulars, and how incremental the effects of their presentation.

Yet, there is pleasure in mastering a subject and joy in learning about it. Not everything need be pressed into service for immediate problems; there is room in the human experience for extension of one’s imagination and understanding. We are inspired to join our thoughts to those of the giants in our fields and to create something beautiful out of the strength of our curiosity.

Beyond the joy of discovery and the pleasure of a willed collegiality, there is the satisfaction of vocation, the recognition of answering to one’s calling. The characteristic of our times, for many people of faith, is the sense of the absence of God, but for many it is an absence that calls to us. Our vocation, our calling, is to respond with all of our being from within the places that we find ourselves. “The Christian layperson is homo liturgicus, comments Rowan Williams, “the man whose whole life is directed to God, and who thus is able to direct all that is in his world to God, ‘to be in love with all of God’s creation in order to decipher the meaning of God in everything.’”2

The student toiling away at a paper may agree that “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh,”3but that which is offered in honesty from the heart of one’s experience and understanding “becomes the vehicle of theophany in the world, we become transparent to God, and the light of the divine energy shining through us transfigures all things.”4

At conferences like these there are displayed a wide range of writing and speaking styles. Some are like windows: we see through to the speaker’s purpose with quickness because of the lightness and transparency of her words. Others are like walls: we must scale them to see the point far in the distance and pray we don’t fall first. “Explanations must be as simple as possible—and no simpler,” Einstein said.

To the extent that the writer’s skills of beauty, clarity, and simplicity point to the purpose—to that extent they are truthful and honest. In our time we use symbol, metaphor, “figures of speech,” as Jesus said, in order to carry our meaning through the cacophony of competing claims. The world’s greatest sages spoke their truth simply and profoundly. “Life is suffering,” said the Buddha. “I am the Way, the truth, and the life,” said Jesus.

***

It is greatly to be desired that the farther we travel on the Way, the more we trust the path to take us where we should be. This would mean a radical innocence, knowing the danger, yet remembering the joy that transported us as we set out on some new adventure. It will mean shedding some of our baggage on the way, learning that sense of precariousness that comes from stepping forward into empathy with others, silencing our sounding brass and our tinkling cymbals.

  1. Pascal. Pensées. Translated with an Introduction by A. J. Krailsheimer. London: Penguin Books, 1966, p.125.
  2. Williams, Rowan. A Silent Action. Louisville, KT: Fons Vitae, 2011, p. 33.
  3. Ecclesiastes 12:12, NRSV.
  4. Williams, 33.

Foolish in the World

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“We are not purveyors of ready-made meaning. This commitment to truth, as pilgrims rather than arrivals, is what allows us to confess that as Christians . . . we are first and foremost explorers rather than illustrators.”1

One of Christianity’s hidden strengths is that it flourished when it was weakest. That is to say, when it was in the minority, culturally and religiously speaking. From the beginning the apostles, reflecting what Jesus directed, cared for the poor among them and those who had no standing in the culture—women and children. They opened their arms to those from outside their group, they pooled their resources and provided for themselves and for others. They were mocked or ignored: they persevered. They were persecuted, harassed and slain: they went underground and thrived. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” wrote the Christian apologist, Tertullian, in the year 197 CE.

The strength-in-weakness theme takes an even more prominent place with the Apostle Paul. He spends years and travels thousands of miles to proclaim “Christ crucified”, a message that is anathema to the Jews and ridiculous to the Greeks and Romans. Paul sees the crucifixion as part of a story that begins with God humbling himself to be poured into human form and ends with Jesus dying on the cross. He is acutely aware that claiming God incarnate was a prisoner executed by Rome as a seditious threat defies logic. It is, in fact, horrifyingly offensive.

The Crucifixion is central to Christianity. The heart of redemption theories, it is emphasized in creeds and liturgies—it is Christianity for most people. Yet, we probably cannot grasp just how humiliating a death it was, to say nothing of how deliberately cruel the physical torture.

The fact that Jesus was crucified outside the walls of the city where people dumped their garbage, where slow-burning fires were constant, and where he was visible to any who wanted to watch him die in torment, testifies of the brute indifference of the religious and political establishments.

I do not fully understand the connection between the crucifixion then and my salvation now. Faith seeks understanding, but is not reliant upon it. Among the many atonement theories put forward through the centuries, the Christus Victor one appeals to me the most. Jesus, fully human and one with God, overcomes the powers that be, both human and supernatural, to ransom us by his own death. In a world of terrorism, hostage-taking, and capricious violence, Jesus’ willingness to die in my place rings true to life for me, astonishing though it is. There is more going on in the seen and unseen realms, than we can fully account for through reason and observation. Faith claims a place next to the risen Christ.

Paul makes a claim that reverses and turns upside down the usual relations between power and people. He says:

“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”2

How would we interpret this today? Christianity has traveled far since those days. It’s still the most populous religion in the world, despite declining allegiance in the Western world. It has formed the cultural bedrock of most of the industrial nations. Many of its institutions still wield power in the secular realm. In America, Christians of the evangelical variety even have an in-house advocate with a direct influence on the President and his political agenda. But there’s little inclination among many of them to identify with “what is low and despised in the world” nor are the strong shamed by those who are weak.

Does this mean that God’s ways are ineffectual? Are Paul’s words bound to a particular context in time and space? Are these words meant to stand for all time or is their time over and done—an artifact from an era of more “primitive godliness”?

I cannot know for certain, and far be it for me to speak for God. But what Paul claimed in all sincerity, and with first-hand knowledge, is that “God chose.” Those words are not constrained by time or place or political affiliation or poll results or even interest. God chooses people through all ages and places, regardless of their standing or talent or power, to accomplish God’s purposes. In the long view, God’s plans and purposes have a way of coming to fruition as they touch down here in one place, there in another. Amidst all the variables within an open system of free choices, we may refuse God or remain indifferent or find our true self in God. We may live to be part of what “God chose.” God makes the opportunity available and leaves the choice to us.

A friend asked me what I made of this sentence from Mark Oakley’s book, The Collage of God, in a chapter on Truthfulness: “All speech about the Holy One is costly for it demands penitence of us at each and every turn.”3 My friend wondered what that cost might be.

We try to make sense of our world and world-making is part of what we do to make sense. We build our worlds—the plural is important—through our imagination, and language is the tool we use. The words we use are open to multiple interpretations, they change over time, and must be constantly reviewed. Language is fluid, dynamic, more a river than a lake. Our language about God is a snapshot of where we are in that stream.

Could it be the cost is our willingness to speak truthfully of our own experience with God, to speak honestly and with humility, of joy and despair in our days of light and our dark nights of the soul?

“It is by words and the defeat of words,

Down sudden vistas of the vain attempt,

That for a flying moment one may see

By what cross-purposes the world is dreamt.”4

***

I’ve long since stepped away from being a professional apologist for Christianity. While my active relation to God is intensely personal to me, I respond as fully as I am able when given opportunity. I have had peak experiences—not many—that opened me to wonder and awe. I have attributed that wonder and awe, as R & B artist Keb Mo sings, to “God trying to get my attention.”

Like many others, I see the hiddenness of God as the way we apprehend God in this time in this world. God always seems to be just out of our grasp—and that’s all to the good, for when we have God in our grasp we turn gold into lead.

One thing becomes clearer to me in these days: faith is not a school of thought nor a logical exercise. It runs in tandem with our reason, but faith transcends “our little systems” as Tennyson said. Oakley says, “Faith is not a proud self-consistent philosophy. It involves maintaining oneself between contradictions that can’t be solved by analysis. It is therefore a living response to the grace of God as revealed in fragile lives. It resembles a collage.”5

There was once a bush burning in the desert, a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day, a whispered voice in the midst of a desert sandstorm, a dark wrestler in the night, a voice from heaven, and a cloud that enveloped Jesus and three men on a mountain top. Those who wrote these stories perceived the divine in the finite, the Subject in the object. Fools for God, they wrote what they saw while attuned to the Eternal Present within the temporal stream.

We are people of the Word. Language is my Mount of Transfiguration, where I meet my burning bush and the quiet voice in the midst of my storms.

  1. Oakley, Mark. The Collage of God. London: Dartman, Longman and Todd, 2001, p. 62.
  2. 1 Cor 1:27-29, NRSV.
  3. Oakley, Mark. p. 57.
  4. Wilbur, Richard. “An Event” in The Poems of Richard Wilbur. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publ., Loc 890
  5. Oakley, Mark, p. xvii.

In the Foothills of Mount Purgatory

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“Horrible was the nature of my sins,

but boundless mercy stretches out its arms

to any man who comes in search of it.” 1

We sometimes meet people, usually on the downward slope of life, who can be quoted as saying, “When I look back, I have no regrets. Really. I wouldn’t change a thing!” This remark usually comes toward the end of an interview in which they have recounted not only the triumphs of their life, but also the harrowing moments in which they were shamed, humiliated, defeated, or otherwise thrown into the deep end, sometimes as a result of their own fecklessness.

And the tinny buzz of doubt lingers as we listen; do they say that because where they ended up gave them the luxury of distance from those troubles and a measure of success that softened the hard remembrance of those times? Could they have said that while gasping for breath after fighting ashore from the shipwreck of their lives or is the loss of regret only possible because they survived—and flourished?

I will own the fact that I have used those words myself, knowing at the time that they were said to satisfy conventionality, not to sustain authenticity. It’s a way to transition out of a sticky situation and to avoid the awkwardness of saying more than people want to hear about your life. Seeing that we play many roles in life with complete sincerity, one of those is the brave survivor who has weathered the storms without complaint.

But if we can grant each other these social passes without follow-up questions, we can also realize that reflecting on them privately can lead to revelation and discovery. After such reflection we might then truly say in all honesty that we would not change a thing, for now we see how grace enlightens and transforms our outlook. Even an incomplete awareness of the blend of what we call luck, accident, and choice, might open our eyes to the ways that God preserves us, along with our freedom.

I do have regrets, and if I could go back for a do-over there are certainly things I would change. I would not have jumped off a five-foot wall in college to catch a Frisbee in mid-air, only to land stiff-legged on the sidewalk instead of on the soft soil of the flower bed at my feet. Some days the reverberations of that foolishness can still be felt in my back and knees.

I would not have done a wheelie on my motorcycle in traffic, to the consternation of the drivers around me. The fact that I somehow did not flip on my head is no excuse. I probably should have grounded myself and taken away my keys for awhile.

But these are trivial examples; much more significant are the times I impulsively made a choice which I had instinctual doubts about. Call it intuition, call it conscience, call it the promptings of the Spirit or all three—in that tense present my life would have been better had I listened, as would the lives of the people I affected. And afterward, if I had reflected on why I found that way attractive, I might have at least seen the symptoms in time to look for healing. With time and distance, regrets can be for us a moral stop sign. As we remember them and reflect on them, they can help us change our future.

If we have a conscience and a rudimentary form of sympathy, we will experience regret for past actions or omissions. We need to let it do its work without stifling it. In our time, we have throttled regret in order to live without guilt, when both are as natural as jerking one’s hand back from a hot stove. But somewhere along the way, we stopped caring about our effect on other people and decided our actions were justified because they were ours. It’s as if the only way we can have a sense of self-worth is to deny that we have responsibilities to others. And it’s not as if we have to go all in and become steely-eyed Terminators: in order to weaken the ties to one another we need only to indulge ourselves at the expense of others.

***

In Dante’s Purgatorio, the Pilgrim and his guide, Virgil, have survived the desolation and horrors of the Inferno to emerge on the shore of an island. Mount Purgatory soars up behind them, and even higher up lies Paradise, but first they must traverse the foothills leading to the mountain. Here, those who delayed their repentance until the moment of death, learn humility. The Pilgrim, too, though over-confident at times in his journey through Hell, now wraps a reed, a symbol of humility, around his waist as he begins the trek upward.

A handsome young prince named Manfred, who put off the repentance of his sins until the moment of his death, approaches Virgil and the Pilgrim. He must now wait a long period of time before he can go through the remediation of his sins in Purgatory. His regret is palpable, as he confesses to the two of them:

“Horrible was the nature of my sins,

but boundless mercy stretches out its arms

to any man who comes in search of it.”2

As he talks, he bursts into tears. He had been excommunicated by the Church for posing a political threat to the Pope, but he exclaims:

“The church’s curse is not the final word,

for Everlasting Love may still return,

if hope reveals the slightest hint of green.”3

Rod Dreher, the author of How Dante Can Save Your Life, recalls that when he read Manfred’s confession, he too, wept for the fathomless love of God that draws us onward, even when we cannot understand such love.

“Given our finitude and brokenness, and God’s infinitude and perfection, we cannot hope to know God and his reality without divine assistance,” he writes. “Similarly, thinking that the solution to our problems can be found through using reason and logic alone—the default position of bookish people like me—may prevent us from seeing the true nature of our struggles. Do not expect reason and logic to comprehend matters of faith and will.”4

***

Should we remember our sins, especially when God is said to cast them into the sea and to remember them no more? Guilt can be crippling, remorse without hope corrodes like acid. It’s no wonder that the experience of God for many does not rise above the childhood belief that “He’s making a list and checking it twice/He’s gonna find out who’s naughty and nice.” A god who doubles as Santa Claus pays the price of bitterly disappointing a believer: both will get thrown out when the child wakes up.

It’s possible—perhaps inevitable, for a certain type of person—to overthink these things. Tolstoy was almost driven to suicide by struggling to reason out the physics of the sacraments, the logic behind forgiveness, and the ultimate purpose of life. For months, while in despair, he was vulnerable to taking his own life while out hunting on his estate. When he worked in his barn and came across a rope, it was all he could do to turn away from what he believed would be death by hanging at his own hand. “Contrary to us,” he wrote in A Confession, “who the more intelligent we are the less we understand the meaning of life,” the peasants who worked his farm “live, suffer and approach death peacefully and, more often than not, joyfully.”5

He came to believe that wealth was pernicious, that he and the people of his class were effete and useless, living lives that were meaningless and an affront to the millions of peasants whose simple, uncluttered, and unencumbered beliefs allowed them to live with joy and die at peace. “It was the activities of the laboring people, those who produce life, that presented itself to me as the only true way. I realized that the meaning provided by this life was truth and I accepted it.”6

He understood that simple working people act on the orders given to them without question, whereas people like himself sit in circles, debating whether it is beneath them or not to do as the master asks. The life of faith, he came to believe, begins with an action only dimly understood. But we will not get far without performing that action. Faith is acting on a promise to be fulfilled.

In a similar way, St. Paul came to regard all his advantages and achievements as the most zealous of Pharisees as so much garbage. All that mattered to him was the “surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” And in language that can almost seem like hyperbole, yet with depths we still have not fathomed, he says, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”

From those mysterious depths he rebounds with vigor: “Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own, but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”7

  1. Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy, Vol. 11. “Purgatory,” III:121-123. Translated with an introduction by Mark Musa. New York: Penguin Books, 1981, p. 33.
  2. Alighieri, p. 33.
  3. Alighieri, 33.
  4. Dreher, Rod. How Dante Can Save Your Life. New York: Regan Arts, 2015, p. 196.
  5. Tolstoy, Leo. A Confession and Other Religious Writings. Translated with an Introduction by Jane Kentish. London: Penguin Books, 1987, p. 59.
  6. Tolstoy, p. 59.
  7. Philippians 3:10,11; 13,14 NRSV

Advance Toward Maturity

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Let us then stop discussing the rudiments of Christianity . . . Instead, let us advance toward maturity; and so we shall, if God permits.1

I was sitting on the front row of the church, fuming. Apparently, I was making little fuming noises, too, because my friends and my wife were looking concerned. We two couples had arrived a few minutes late and there was no place to sit but at the front. We were guests, but this was to be our home church for the next nine months. We had come—the four of us—new college graduates and newly married, to spend a kind of gap year before graduate school and real jobs. We would live on volunteer stipends from the church while we started and ran a vegetarian restaurant, promoted healthier living, and created a place in this Canadian city where we could share God’s love.

Now I was in church in the front row, and definitely not feeling the love of Jesus in my heart. In those days I had a pretty clear picture of what Christian community and church should be like, and it was nothing like what I was seeing. Usually, I could be fairly sanguine about sitting through leaden religious services. I would zone out, read my Bible or another book I had wisely brought with me, and practice the patience of the saints. So I was as surprised as my friends were at my reaction to what was happening.

It was, sadly, nothing out of the ordinary. A middle-aged man, stolid and heavy-lidded, was reading from a Bible study guide in a droning voice. There were a series of questions directed to the individual reader, together with Bible verses that purported to answer them. Standard fare, completely harmless, and entirely forgettable. These printed guides were meant to be the starting point of discussion; presumably, the audience, having studied during the week, would now leap into spirited dialogue with each other and with the leader. It would be an occasion for bringing the Scriptures alive, the Word lighting us up, and the leader posing stimulating questions. None of that was happening. The leader droned, the people in the pews stared morosely back at him with a bovine intensity that reminded me of several Far Side cartoons. It was unbearable.

Listening to this with my head down, elbows on knees and hands clenching, I was emitting strangled cries. I felt like the demoniac banished to the tombstones, and I wished bitterly for a Legion of pigs to come thundering down the aisle or, failing that, to at least be unchained and in my right mind. My wife laid a restraining arm on mine; one of my friends leaned around and whispered, “Bear, take it easy. It’ll be over soon.” And soon enough it was and we went out, and in the course of things we did not return to that church nor did the vegetarian restaurant come to be. I was repossessed of my equanimity, the devils of my impatience and frustration driven out, and replaced in time with a more sympathetic spirit.

Certainly at the time I had little notion of spiritual maturity. For a number of reasons, becoming a Christian was presented as a binary choice: you were in or out. Having chosen to give your life over to Christ, the main event had taken place and life in Christ would settle into a kind of stasis, bounded on the one hand by avoiding the more obvious sins and on the other hand by being agreeable enough in the company of the unchurched that they would finally ask, unprompted, what kept you on such an even keel.

One’s growth in Christ is often measured on a negative scale: the giving up of this or the conquering of that, through a process of subtraction that would one day reveal us stripped to the core, too old to sin, but ready for translation. On that scale the people in the pews that day may have felt themselves to be dipped in acid, burning the corrosion of the week off through a ritual cleansing that brought no joy, but gave assurance of a (temporary) reset. Then back out into the world, carrying the umbrella of righteousness, the raincoat of faithfulness, and the galoshes of purity.

What obscures our understanding of spiritual “maturity” is that we associate it with chronological age, as if the older we get the more mature we get. If we can live long enough, we’ll eventually be senior citizens of the Kingdom of God. In that case, the church I visited should have been a hub of wisdom and spiritual vitality. But, I have met teenagers and children who were well on in this kind of maturity, and I’ve met older people who could never get past arguing about faith vs works.

The writer of Hebrews expects that his readers are beyond the rudiments. He rues the time wasted in discussing over and over “the foundations of faith in God”, and the process of “repentance from the deadness of our former ways.” He exposes the linear nature of our spiritual lives: the Genesis of our faith in God, the Leviticus of our ceremonial rites, and the Apocalypse of death, judgement, and resurrection. Time to get beyond that, he says. Those are the bones of the body of Christ—essential but incomplete.

One of the interesting things about the Apostle Paul is how much he makes of being a servant. He talks of bowing his knees before the Father and bearing all things with humility and gentleness. He says he is the very least of all the saints and the chief of sinners. He goes on in this vein in his letters enough that we begin to sense that his position of authority is a real concern of his. In his second letter to the Corinthians, he admits that he boasts “a little too much” of his authority, but he’s not ashamed of it because it was given him by the Lord to build up others. And while he dare not compare himself with those who boast about themselves, he thinks that when they compare themselves with others, they are not showing good sense. “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord,” he says. “For it is not those who commend themselves that are approved, but those whom the Lord commends.”2

By contrast, the ones whom Paul calls “children” are those who are tossed this way and that by the fads that blow through spiritual communities, who find themselves deceived by tricks played on them by those in authority, and who fall for lies told over and over. We are children—that is, inexperienced and immature— if we compare ourselves spiritually with others. That way only leads to frustration, and eventually, loss of faith. The marvelous thing about moving into the kingdom of God is that we all arrive from different places, from seeing God in different ways, but with the common experience of being caught up and held by God. What we share is forgiveness from God; where we differ is in what we are forgiven for.

Getting beyond the rudimentary elements of our faith is not to abandon them, but to gather them up and take them with us. If we can see them as portable, as adaptable to our changing circumstances because the expression of them in our lives is not fixed, but grows and deepens as we learn on the way, then we are maturing on the road. “Only when doctrine itself is understood to be provisional does doctrine begin to take on a more than provisional significance,” says Christian Wiman. “Truth inheres not in doctrine itself, but in the spirit with which it is engaged, for the spirit of God is always seeking and creating new forms.”3

Growing into spiritual maturity comes through exercise—stretching the sinews of faith as we experience the patience and the encompassing love of Christ. The more we stretch, the more we risk, the greater the sense that we are surrounded and enveloped by God. We may even—dare we say it—feel joy in the midst of all that “going beyond.”

In my frustration, I was in no condition to commandeer that becalmed ship of a church all those years ago. Those whom the Lord commends are those who are “speaking the truth in love.”4 I had yet to learn that God knows us intimately—better than we know ourselves—and God knows our bearing and position relative to each other and to the kingdom toward which we voyage. We are on a voyage of discovery in which, “if God permits,” we may advance toward maturity.

  1. Hebrews 6: 1,3 (NEB)
  2. 2 Cor. 10: 17,18.
  3. Wiman, Christian. My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, p. 111.
  4. Eph. 4:15.

Definite Beliefs, Radical Mysteries

Photo: Clay Banks, Unsplash

”And always in one

another we seek the proof

of experiences it would be worth dying for.”1

The older I get the more I seek a comprehensively simple understanding of life, a statement that may well be an oxymoron, but which I choose to think of as an achievable aspiration.

It’s not that I’ve given up on sorting out more complex issues—I still enjoy ploughing a deep furrow through a philosophical or theological text. But I need something portable, something that can easily be carried in a metaphysical backpack. It’s time to begin loosening the material bonds too, thinning out the possessions—except for books; they remain essential provisions—and generally traveling lighter and sailing higher in the water.

The idea that we can reduce a good deal of human experience to a simple statement, even one that we could live by with integrity and élan, is called reductionism and it is greatly to be resisted, according to scientific principles of research and testing. Science rides into the fray, knowing there is much more under the surface, and recognizing from the start that everything cannot be known about anything. This is a cause of much frustration for laypeople and politicians, both of whom suspect that scientists are hiding something when they hedge their conclusions and refuse to be as definitive as demanded for a press release or a Senate hearing.

Philosophers, of course, are hopeless when it comes to definitive statements. They refuse to be pinned down, preferring abstract principles to practical application. Most of them will get no hearing in the court of public opinion because hardly anyone wants to sit still long enough to hear an argument run through with sidebars and addendums, footnotes and preambles.

Cultural historians, child development specialists, gender and sexual equality researchers, all know to avoid that handy tool of human communication, the stereotype, because it cannot adequately express the infinite variety of personalities, motivations, and values that the human race exhibits. The underlying assumption behind stereotypes—that there are enough similarities between individuals in certain categories of human experience that general statements can be made with confidence—“these are like that”—is regarded with suspicion and sometimes outright hostility. Differences, not similarities, mark us as humans, they say. ”Everyone is unique,”—to which the skeptic might mutter, “By whose authoritative standard of uniqueness?”

And theologians, ‘God-explainers,’ what of them? Are they not firstly, keepers of the stories of what has been conjectured about God? They recount and interpret the history of what has transpired between humans and God: do they know with certainty what is going on now? Can they observe present religious experiences of humans and give us some clarity about the nature of God? Will they always be looking back or forward, leaving the present to the priests and the prophets?

We have it on good authority that we cannot comprehend the fullness of God (“My thoughts are not your thoughts”) nor can we expect our language to clearly represent our understanding of God. But we keep at it, with books, articles, poems, songs, paintings, drama, film, sculpture—the lot. All of that nets us possibilities for action and contemplation.

I had a professor in graduate school who had survived the fundamentalist purge at Princeton when he was a student and went on to write a definitive text on world religions, among other scholarly books. Although a staunch Presbyterian and an elder in his local church, he drew deeply from the wells of the living religious traditions of the world. He saw religion first as a universal project of humankind, a yearning to understand the rhythms of nature in the light of a great creative power. He saw it also as a long drama of the interplay between humans and their divine figures. And it was the occasion of worship and mystery, the language of silence and reconciliation. None of this could easily be translated into a catch-phrase; he had nothing but disdain for bumper-sticker religion. But he was fond of saying, “Religion was danced out before it was thought out,” by which he alluded to the holy erupting through muscles, lungs, breath, and feet.

And I, coming from a tradition that frowned upon dancing, and not being at ease in my own skin, realized that circumstance and upbringing had inclined me to the cerebral, rather than the physical. I could no more see myself dancing before the Lord than I could imagine speaking in tongues. And though I had no doubt that the breadth of God’s attention to humans spanned all manner of expressions, I knew that my offerings would not stray far from language.

At the same time, religion for me was an intellectual discipline, subject to testing and systemization. There was a professional detachment to the study of it; one shouldn’t allow participation to supplant one’s objectivity. I had not found a way to scrutinize and examine my theology without jeopardizing my worship.

We are sometimes guided in life as much by repulsion as by attraction, by that which we do not wish to be as that which we earnestly seek to emulate. One of my religion professors in college served as an example of poor teaching, not because he was lacking in the knowledge of his discipline, but because of his caustic nature. Whatever benefits we could gain by attentive listening to him were offset by his withering criticism in the few moments given to discussion and questions. Where possible, we avoided his classes and where it was inevitable, we learned to flatter him. “He, to whom truth affords no gratifications, is generally inclined to seek them in falsehood,” said Samuel Johnson. Because we asked few questions after his lectures, he fancied himself to have covered the breadth of the topic to an overwhelming depth. But he was wrong.

He was a white South African, a man who had done missionary service in some of the poorest countries of Africa before he became a lecturer. One summer he returned home and when classes resumed in the fall, he seemed to be a man transformed. In class he was cordial, open, supportive, even humorous. We were staggered. We tested him: we asked questions that suggested doubt about his conclusions or that took a contrary position. One of the bravest among us even asked a transparently stupid question, one designed to elicit derision. He responded with kindness, without a hint of condescension.

It turned out that when he had traveled that summer throughout South Africa, he had had a conversion experience, both spiritually and socially. Something in him had broken and light had gotten through the cracks; he felt himself to be turned inside out. He had been weighed in the balances and been found wanting. In short, his heart had been moved and his character was now catching up to it.

His spiritual regeneration infused his teaching methods with a new openness to faith; he was less certain of the finer points of the Law and more sure of God’s grace and love. Where he had been hard and brittle, fending off intimations of spiritual doubt, his experience was giving him a resiliency that seemed almost playful. He seemed to be relieved of a huge burden.

This was a man who knew his doctrines from the ground up. He could argue the forensic theory of atonement, explain Paul’s Romans, explicate the symbols of Revelation, and outline the influence of the prophets on the message that Jesus carried and the Gospels reflected. Yet, none of this had penetrated below the surface of scholarship for him.

He was not a person who would claim a distinction between “religious” and “spiritual.” Any gauzy notions of personal transcendence apart from the spiritual communion of God’s people gathered in worship would have drawn a firm ‘No.’ He would have agreed with Christian Wiman who says, “We do not need definite beliefs because their objects are necessarily true. We need them because they enable us to stand on steady spots from which the truth may be glimpsed.”2

It is entirely possible to grasp the truth, or more likely, the truths, about God and Jesus and the purpose of our lives, and still somehow not be touched by it. Life breaks us in a thousand different ways; we are swept away by the torrents of envy, hatred, ignorance, prejudice. In those times, the tentative threads of trust we have rigged up may be stretched to the breaking point. “Definite beliefs,” continues Wiman, “enable us to withstand the storms of suffering that come into every life, and that tend to destroy any spiritual disposition that does not have deep roots.”3

We study the Scriptures, we pray, we worship; we become alive to the presence of God in unexpected places and from unknown sources. We look to each other on these paths, “to seek the proof of experiences it would be worth dying for.” There are only a few definite beliefs, but there are radical mysteries enough for a lifetime and more. Jesus summarized the essentials without reducing them:

“‘You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”4

Micah spelled it out eight centuries before Jesus:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?5

These are universals, cutting through all partisan walls, overturning the idols of political ideologies, capitalism, materialism, scientism, and nationalism. They are at the core of the great religious traditions of the world, and within them—in practice and in contemplation—is the radical mystery that God is love.

  1. Thomas, R.S. “Somewhere,” in Collected Poems 1945-1990. London: Orion House, Phoenix edition, 2000, p. 293.
  2. Wiman, Christian. My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, p. 123.
  3. Wiman, p. 123.
  4. Matthew 22: 37-40, NRSV.
  5. Micah 6:8, NRSV

Call No One Master

Photo: Marivi Pazos, Unsplash

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

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

So it is with his idea of exaltation and humbling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus Was a Sailor

Photo: Joshua Earle, Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Look No Further

Photo: Alex Wigan, Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stranger Mysteries

Photo: Ricardo Frantz, Unsplash

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

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

Whatever he is searching out, my eyes cannot follow.

Whatever he is seeing is not visible.

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our experience continues: any learning is a kind of fall from innocence and a rising. To find a new innocence in this way “is to retain that space in your heart that once heard a still, small voice saying not your name so much as your nature . . . You must protect this space so that it can protect you.”3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Wedding Homily

Photo: Drahomir Posteby, Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But often, in the din of strife,

There rises an unspeakable desire

After the knowledge of our buried life;

A thirst to spend our fire and restless force

In tracking out our true, original course;

A longing to inquire

Into the mystery of this heart which beats

So wild, so deep in us — to know

Whence our lives come and where they go.”

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

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

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

“Some people never say the words

I love you

It’s not their style

To be so bold

Some people never say those words

I love you

But like a child they’re longing

To be told”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We love because God first loved us.

Prayer

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