Forgiveness Perpetual

Photo: Candice Picard, Unsplash

I grew weary of sinning

before God grew weary of forgiving my sin.

He is never weary of giving grace,

nor are his compassions to be exhausted. —Teresa of Avila

I’ve never been fond of the poem “The Hound of Heaven.” Somehow, the image of God on the trail with cold intent to pursue me until I find myself with my back to the wall, nowhere to go, and thus must yield to his designs—that image instills fear rather than love. I don’t deny that some people respond favorably to this and similar images. I’m just saying that in the vast repertoire of metaphors we have for God that one is way down the list for me.

But in a sense, it doesn’t matter all that much what I think about God, whether I think God resembles a hunting dog or a lover or a rock or a fountain of everlasting water. These are educational toys pointing, sometimes distractedly, toward a Being who breaks all categories and metaphors, simply because He/She/They cannot be contained in our refracted lenses.

What really matters is what God thinks of me. For starters, God hates the sins that I manifest so effortlessly. Absolutely, unequivocally, irrevocably, and any other “lys” we’d like to conjure up. This is the case for a couple of reasons.

First, our sin rends the beautiful creation God has provided us. There is a thread running through world faiths that sees a clear causality between human arrogance toward the created world and the fracturing of that world. Back behind the science of climate change are the fables, stories, parables, and straight-out testimony for thousands of years that says we are inextricably intertwined with our world. Because we have command of so many tools our impact on the environment is far out of proportion to our physical size.

We change our world simply by our very presence on this planet; like all other beings we take our place in time and space. But we can minimize our unintended harm and work to eliminate our deliberate havoc. That is sin, and it tears through the perfect circles of interdependence that God set up.

But the second reason God hates sin is what it does to us. How it distorts our perception, calcifies our empathy, teaches us cruelty and contempt, makes us mock the innocent and destroy the beautiful. How it places us beyond contrition and in contention with compassion, stretches our patience to the breaking point and snaps our attention, glorifies violence and belittles peace, derides those who listen and castigates those who are honest. The list goes on, but we get the point. All of this, in God’s way of thinking, is not who we are, and though we find it difficult to separate the gold in others and ourselves from the dross, God sees both and draws the distinction.

Despite our expertise in sinning, our development and refinement of its methods, the thousands of ways we have devised to ruin a beautiful world and to break each other, somehow God is able to see through the sin to the sinner. And the sinner in all of us—incredibly—is what God loves.

We are the pearl of great price that Jesus the Holy Diver plucks from the bottom of the ocean. We are the treasure in the field, buried in a rusty old tin box, that the fellow with the metal detector finds while skimming back and forth across the furrows. We are the lost and forgotten masterpiece picked up at a yard sale and restored to its former beauty, the coin wedged in a grate in the gutter.

But what of those who cower before God, those who keep to the back roads to avoid being seen, the ones who run for their lives if God appears because of the shame and fear of their sinning? Like a dog beaten and abandoned, who limps off when people approach, we see danger in the one who only wants to help.

Soren Kierkegaard tells a parable of the king who woos and weds a lovely peasant girl. The king loves her deeply and truly, but anxiety grows within him because she responds to him as the king, not as her companion, husband, and lover. Their difference in status calls up admiration in the girl, but not confidence. To appear in all his majesty before her would overwhelm and further distance her. for she thinks herself not his equal. Despite their love for each other, there is an unbridgeable gap between them. Neither really understands the other.

Kierkegaard suggests this is God’s dilemma. Since we could not be elevated to a level where we could fully understand God, God would take on himself the form of a servant so that God could understand us.

But perfect fear casts out love, and if we have been told that nothing short of perfection in this life will satisfy God, it’s no wonder that so many run in the opposite direction from the one who comes with healing. God’s persistence looks like deadly intention, his moves to reach and bandage us we see as seizing and shackling us. In desperation and in fear we plunge on through our wilderness.

He tracks us by the blood on the trail, the pain our acts cause for others and ourselves. That which separates us from God and condemns us—Sin—becomes the very means through which Christ finds the cancer and excises it. As Dante shows us, Christ follows our sins down to Hell in order to liberate us, not to condemn us. The very presence of our sins leads to confession and repentance, and finally to absolution and reconciliation.

Complications arise. According to our usual reading, God’s forgiveness of us is a contractual arrangement: if we forgive others, then God can forgive us. If we can’t forgive, then God won’t either. The rules are clear, there’s no ambiguity. We go first, then God reacts. We read it this way because we’re used to relationships that involve some type of transaction, that are functional, that include a payoff or a return on investment.

But this is not how God looks at forgiveness. He doesn’t wait for us to reach out, to make the first move. God’s ego is not tender. He is not easily offended.

Those who are forgiven can forgive. Forgiveness received can become forgiveness extended to others, but it does not work in reverse. We cannot forgive if we have not experienced forgiveness as an extension of God’s unfathomable love.

The woman who crashed a private party for Jesus at Simon the Pharisee’s house wept for joy because she had been forgiven. Perhaps she and Jesus had had an encounter before this that convinced her of God’s unconditional love and forgiveness. Perhaps she had grown weary of the trap of her sins. As Luke quotes Jesus, “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little (Luke 7:47).” Perhaps because of this she could even forgive the men who had enjoyed the use of her and then condemned and shamed her for it.

Paul Tillich, in a sermon in The New Being, points out that if we fear God and feel rejected by him, we cannot love him. But if we can see—and feel—that God’s love is without limit, then it truly is a new world. He says, “We cannot love unless we have accepted forgiveness, and the deeper our experience of forgiveness is, the greater is our love.”

As Jesus says, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do. I didn’t come to call righteous people but sinners to change their hearts and lives (Luke 5:31, CEB).” Whatever hellish darkness we find ourselves in, whatever pain we are carrying, we can be assured of this: Only those with a pre-existing condition will be accepted into this universal health care plan.

Going the Distance

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“We have to cross the infinite thickness of time and space — and God has to do it first, because he comes to us first. Of the links between God and man, love is the greatest. It is as great as the distance to be crossed.” Simone Weil, quoted in Bread and Wine

The distance between who we are when we are honest with ourselves, and who we think God requires us to be, is vast. Everyone has a measuring tape; it’s what we do when we face our failures, is to measure ourselves against other people. Sometimes it’s only to exhale with relief when we see the misfortunes of another person—that fleeting moment when we think, I escaped again!—before we open the door to empathy. To be Christlike in these and other moments is to be a disciple, a follower, and to follow someone, especially one like Jesus, is to put oneself under discipline.

It’s not a following like flotsam that swirls in the wake of an ocean liner nor is it a following such as one train car coupled to another. Those metaphors are void of will. I mean how we overcome the almost involuntary form of our history, traditions, and reflexive rituals, our habits and the mental laziness that we use to convince ourselves we are faithful—these dispirited elements that play a part in our stumbling attention to God.

In contrast, we long to follow Christ with a will that is active, imaginative and muscular. Once we let go of our fear it’s only longing that lures us onward. Given our flightiness, we could just as well veer off on a tangent or do an about-face and lark off in the opposite direction. The problem is that longing is diffuse, scattering like motes in the sunlight. But love—longing narrowed by the will to a burning beam of light focused singly on God—that is discipline.

Already there is an element of measurement in this description, usually to our own advantage. Disciples have discipline, discipline is noble and self-sacrificing, following Jesus is all about sacrifice. Sacrifice is what makes it authentic, us putting everything aside, especially our pride, and following on after Jesus. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, we’ve eclipsed the Lord, passed him up as it were, and are prancing at the head of our own parade. It’s a puzzle. Can love be a discipline?

“We can deny ourselves rigorously for the wrong reason,” says Thomas Merton, “and end up by pleasing ourselves mightily with our self-denial.”

Be perfect, we’re told, as your Father in heaven is perfect. That maxim alone has sent many a confused teenager careening into a ditch. It’s the kind of self-improvement slogan for moral and spiritual perfection that gets weaponized in the hands of leaders who sincerely believe that the Second Advent is delayed indefinitely by our fallibility. But in these latter times, we’ve learned that the phrase is best translated “be complete,” somehow more reassuring even as we attempt to square the circle.

In my teens, I began to grasp the geologic depths of God’s love for us in the person and being of Jesus. Through the fieldwork of certain spiritual geologists—teachers, musicians, poets and pastors—the strata of evidence pointing to God’s reach over the centuries came to light. Prophets and parables, ages of sages, scriptures and songs, odes and stories, stars and rivers, devils and dust—all of it was there for the taking.

But that was the thing: how were we to act on all this? On the one hand, there were the teachers of the law, sincere and thin-lipped, who confirmed there was nothing good in us, yet we must fulfill every jot and tittle of the law in order to qualify for God’s love. By contrast, there was another party, cheerful and expansive, who held there was nothing we could do to earn God’s love, that it was all God’s doing, and our part was only to believe. Faith against works, a classic standoff. It was Paul against James in the ring, with Luther scoring the punches. The net effect of all this was a paralyzed indecisiveness, a post-modernist Protestant constriction of the bowels of our hearts. We were no good and there was nothing we could do.

Somewhere in transmission the message was garbled. All our righteousness was as filthy rags. Fair enough, our best efforts weren’t going to save us. Christ died to save us from our sins. True enough, and we couldn’t begin to calculate how pervasive our sins were. But after repentance and conversion, what then? A friend turned his life over to Christ, only to await instructions on what to wear each day. One pastor I knew implored us week after week to cling to the foot of the cross. But even Jesus left the cross within hours, as the arc of God’s justice bridged the abyss of death and touched down in the kingdom.

I found myself with Thomas, doubtful and needing evidence. ‘Touch me and see,’ said Jesus, and then gently, ‘Happy are those who never saw me and yet have found faith.’ I am also on the road to Emmaus, heartbroken and confused, but listening with rising awe to the history of the geology of God’s love, and then in stunned joy catching a glimpse of the Christ before he disappears.

According to the Gospel of John, some time passed after the disciples saw Jesus in the upper room after his resurrection. We don’t know how long it was but it was long enough that they finally furtively emerged from hiding, resigned to the fact that they were, after everything they’d seen and done, just fishermen again.

So off they go, fishing all night for nothing. In the morning light, a mysterious figure on the beach calls out to them a crazy thing. “Shoot the net to starboard and you’ll make a catch.” Fishermen knew to crowd the fish toward the beach on the port side in the shallow water, not the starboard side where the fish could dart out for the deep. But when, against their own practice and knowledge, they followed what the lone figure on the beach suggested, their catch was so great they couldn’t haul it in. Then they knew, and John exclaimed, “It’s the Lord! At that Peter jumped into the water and thrashed his way ashore. No walking on the water this time, just an electric surge of joy that it was Jesus on the beach. He jumped because that’s what Peter always did. He did not jump out of fear of breaking the rules or of guilt for not following them. He jumped for the love of the Son of Man.

Anything that compels us to cross that great divide between ourselves and God, that does not come from gratitude, will end in failure. It is a discipline not of compulsion but of love and longing.

“So that the love may be as great as possible, the distance is as great as possible,” comments Simone Weil, a person whose spirit burned with an intensity that resisted evil without becoming it.

She sees God, with our consent, conquering the soul. “And then when it has become entirely his, he abandons it. He leaves it completely alone, and it has in its turn, but gropingly, to cross the infinite thickness of time and space in search of him whom it loves. It is thus that the soul, starting from the opposite end, makes the same journey that God made toward it. And that is the cross.”

“He is as near to thee as the vein in your neck,” says the Qu’ran. And so, like the prodigals we are, we are drawn home at last across the universe.

Photo: Joshua Earle, Unsplash.com

The Doubtful Pilgrim

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“Doubt wisely; in strange way

To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;

To sleep, or run wrong, is.” John Donne, Satire III

If there is one thing I should like to give up for Lent it would be impatience. I do not look like an impatient fellow to my friends, but that is because I have perfected an expression of benign composure that covers a roiling sea of clashing thoughts and enough second-guessing to keep me dithering in place. Rarely do I accelerate down the golden road of certainty without fishing in the glove compartment of my memory for maps of alternate routes.

Usually, people give up something they like for Lent, such as chocolate or the movies or donuts. The idea is that such a sacrifice, however provisional, will concentrate the mind long enough to focus on more serious things. Somehow that seems off-point to me, not really weighty enough to bend the needle on the spiritual Change-O-Meter. And one of the unintended consequences is the flagrant growth of spiritual pride. So, I would hope to give up something that will make a difference, something I don’t like.

Although I have come lately to an awareness of Lent, I understand it to be a season for introspection, for searching ourselves for our motives and attitudes. It is a way to examine our spiritual habits, those ingrained neural pathways that can free us up for deeper thought or can dull our sensitivities. We may also liken Lent to a pilgrimage of the spirit, a way to cast a look backward along our path and then forward to where we hope to go.

Impatience isn’t all wrong; it can spur us to cut through our hesitation over things that are trivial. Sometimes it really doesn’t matter which brand of chips you buy in an aisle with dozens of slight variations on a theme. But most of the time impatience makes us cut corners, disregard the context, and nullify the nuances.

Sometimes impatience is a form of intellectual laziness. We don’t want to think a thing through; it’s easier just to jump the gap to the closest conclusion and hope to find a handhold. People who are good at math and actually like it assure me that finding the solution to the problem is as much about the steps in the process as it is about cresting the mountain to find — surprise! — the summit. There’s an elegance there, they say, a beauty in the way the symbols lead one through the maze to the fountain at the center.

I just wonder what fiend thought it would be fun to make x stand for something unknown. What are they trying to hide, I wondered in math class. If I can see the solution, why do I have to go through all the steps to prove I got there?

There is a saying that I’ve begun to find irritating, partly because I’ve used it myself since it was cheap and available, but mostly because it doesn’t square with my experience. The saying is: “Getting there is half the fun.” We usually cite this phrase when it is manifestly untrue, when getting there was an unconscionable slog, only redeemed by the fact that ultimately, we prevailed and finally did get there.

I feel this way about flying these days. A journey of two hours of actual flying time inevitably becomes six or even eight hours of travel time (ah, there’s the unknown x in the equation!), once you factor in getting to the airport two hours early, trudging shoeless through TSA, suffering the delay while the airline waits for a missing part to be delivered through rush hour traffic, and then the final half-hour on the tarmac while we gaze at the airport terminal. No, getting there is not half the fun. It’s not even an eighth of the fun. It is not fun.

There is a related phrase that I do appreciate, however, despite my struggle with impatience. That is, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.” Granted, it might seem too similar to pass inspection, but there is a difference — context matters.

I am thankful to have come from a religious tradition that regards our passage through this life as a pilgrimage. It teaches us that pilgrims have their eyes set on a future home and thus, in this journey one must travel light, unencumbered by the excess of having that ties one down. It is part of our traditional hope in the Second Advent of Christ, that portal through which we imagine justice and peace just beyond the foreground of the breakup of all things on this earth.

An image that captured this for me as I studied the philosophy of Gabriel Marcel was his description of us as Homo Viator, humans as wanderers and wayfarers, whose provisions for our journey are indeed “pro-visions,” those acts of imagination and faith which stimulate us before we set out and which sustain us on the journey.

We are restless beings, says Marcel, forever longing for transcendence and fulfillment. That hunger lures us onward, what C. S. Lewis called Sehnsucht, the longing for a joy that will never be completely satisfied on this earth. We have choices to make, implies Marcel, between resigning ourselves to the absurdity of traveling without meaning until we die or rising to the risk of faith that we shall discover ourselves in God through hope and trust while on the road.

Here is where patience must play its part and where doubt becomes the handmaiden of faith. “Doubt wisely,” advises John Donne in the epigram. “To stand inquiring right is not to stray.” We have no need to rush on the way; our journey toward the kingdom yet to come does not hasten or prevent its coming. What matters is that we find our way forward in faith, remembering experience but not hampered by it, attentive to our reasonable doubts.

Donne continues with the famous metaphor:

On a huge hill,

Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will

Reach her, about must and about must go,

And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.

Some of the really important things in life must be approached indirectly. Doubt can foster patience, the willingness to traverse that huge hill around and around, climbing higher as we go, learning in the journey toward the truth as it is in Christ.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, mused Robert Frost. I looked down one as far as I could . . . and then took the one less traveled by. And that, of course, has made all the difference.

If we will it to be, our capacity to doubt will be matched by our desire for truth; ironically, we doubt because we want only authentic faith, the kind to sustain us through our doubt. And so, it seems that after all, now would be a good time for a pilgrimage of the heart.

Photo: Vincent Riszdorfer, Unsplash.com

Jonah’s Bad Trip: A Lenten Meditation

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”Lent is a time set aside to reorient ourselves, to clarify our minds, to slow down, recover from distraction, to focus on the values of God’s kingdom and on the value he has set on us and on our neighbors.” Malcolm Guite, The Word in the Wilderness

As prophets go, Jonah went—as far away as he could from this thunderous, all-seeing, lion of a god who could pick him up and shake him like a rag doll. It was no use; he’d taken a ship to Tarshish, roughly in the opposite direction from Nineveh, which was picturesquely situated far out on the burning plains of what would much later become Iraq.

Most prophets decidedly did not want the job; long hours, no benefits, one’s very presence tended to make the children cry and the dogs bark. And it could get you killed. The killing part is what Jonah objected to the most.

So, he rushed down to the docks, paid the captain and went aboard without so much as an overnight case. This raised suspicion. Most of the passengers on ships out of port were merchants. Jonah looked like a fugitive, but he paid up front, so the captain took him aboard. He told the first mate to keep an eye on him though. There was something fishy about him.

The first day out a tremendous storm came up. The wind roared and cracked through the rigging and the deck was slippery with foam. The crew flung the cargo over the rails to keep the ship afloat and it was all they could do to keep the bow headed into the waves. It being a multi-ethnic and polytheistic crew, they were desperately calling on their gods for relief when someone thought to search out their odd passenger.

He was found deep in the hold, asleep in a fetal position. Finding this both unnerving and insulting under the circumstances, the captain shook him awake and forced him topside. “What are you doing asleep! Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.”

Since all the usual gods had been accounted for and the storm still raged on, the sailors cast lots to see who was at fault. When the lot fell to Jonah, the men rounded on him. “What’s your business? Where do you come from? Who are your people?”

“I’m a Hebrew,” he replied. “I serve the God who made the sea and the dry land.” At this, the crew gasped and drew back. “What did you do?” they demanded, and as the storm increased in fury they screamed, “What should we do to you to quiet this storm?”

“Throw me overboard,” he cried out, “It’s my fault this storm is upon us.”

Let us pause here a moment to consider Jonah’s plight. He is a prophet on the run from the God who controls all of the world. Perhaps it was simply a reflex to run, to escape a frightful duty. But it was a duty imposed by a God whose reach extends over the globe and who controls heaven, the sea, and the earth. A prophet on the run from a God like that is the living embodiment of futility and Jonah knows it.

To their credit, the crew sees flinging a man overboard in a whip-lashing storm as the last resort. They row for shore, even though if they succeed, they will crash on the rocks. But they row anyway, without progress, in the teeth of this blinding gale until, at last, exhausted and fearful, they pray for mercy from Jonah’s god for throwing him overboard, and then over he goes. No doubt they see it as a sacrifice to a capricious god who can be appeased by a human sinking down into the cruel depths.

Does Jonah think the same way? In his state, confused, angry, bitter, and afraid he may have felt he had nothing left, that his flight from the all-seeing God was a sure sign of his guilt, but that somehow, some way, this was all God’s fault. But Jonah would get even. He’d die in the waves and then God would be sorry.

At this point, the story takes a wild turn. In fact, it becomes a fable, replete with a fantastic animal. Scholars are unsure of when this story was written, although it was most certainly long after Nineveh had vanished into history. As a historical event it doesn’t meet the bar, but as a story with a point, how could it be better?

A fugitive on the lam from God gets swallowed by a big fish, spends three days and three nights in the depths of both the ocean and the fish’s innards, and after a heartfelt prayer for salvation, is vomited (the Hebrew here is precise) up on the beach, dazed and slimy. It’s a perfect set-up for comedy and drama.

Onward, then! No time to lose! There’s a whole city of wicked people to be warned, after which Jonah (he imagines) will be ceremonially cut into pieces and fricasseed over an open fire, all for the glory of the all-seeing God. Let’s get this over with.

We can’t fault Jonah too much for a grim outlook. He stood in a long line of prophets who understood that their messages, however compelling, would usually fall on deaf ears, and at the very least they would be mocked and scorned. He had also grasped, with singular clarity, that while most of the top tier of Hebrew prophets risked derision only from their own people, he, Jonah, was compelled to thrust God’s warning under the noses of their ancestral enemies, a people wholly given over to unholy practices and unvarnished blasphemy. In the history of Israel, the Ninevites were the ultimate bogeymen, renowned for dragging their prisoners by hooks through the nose. And that was tender and thoughtful compared to what lay ahead for those who survived the long trek back to the city. No, there was nothing for it: he had been singled out by God for this exquisite punishment. Pardon me, he thought bleakly, if I go to my death stinking of fish and short on manners.

“And the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh the great city, and call out to it the call that I speak to you.’ And Jonah got up and went to Nineveh according to the word of the Lord. And Nineveh was a great city of God’s, a three days’ walk across (Jonah 3: 1-3).”

Robert Alter’s commentary on Jonah in his magnificent three-volume translation, The Hebrew Bible (2019), cheerfully informs us that doing the math for a three-day walk across a city would give us a metropolis larger than Los Angeles, a sprawl no city in the ancient Near East could achieve, but if we regard it symbolically we see that just as Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days, so he will have three days to proclaim the message throughout Nineveh.

And it also appears that Nineveh, that great city, belongs to God, just like the sea, the mountains, donkeys, figs, and Israel. Jonah should feel right at home. Off he goes, then, striding a day’s walk toward the center, shouting as he went, “Forty days more, and Nineveh is overthrown.” And the people, the story says, trusted God and donned sackcloth and ashes and repented, just like that, from the greatest of them to the least.

The news travels like an invisible tsunami from the periphery to the center of the city where the king resides, and when it reaches him, he stands up, throws off his mantle, covers himself in sackcloth and sits down upon ashes (an observer wonders, did they keep sackcloth in the linen closet for just such an occasion?). The king makes a proclamation, remarkable in its force and comprehensiveness. Immediately, everyone, even the cattle and sheep, are commanded not to eat nor to drink water. “And man and beast shall cover themselves with sackcloth, and they shall call out to God with all their might . . . Who knows? Perhaps God will turn back and relent and turn back from His blazing wrath, and we shall not perish (Jonah 3:8,9).” There is an echo here of the ship captain who tossed out a similar hope that God might tamp down His wrath in order that they might live.

Cattle and sheep wearing sackcloth, an entire city wearing sackcloth, no one eating or drinking, everyone (even the animals) repenting of the evil they had done? It’s safe to say that no evangelist since has scored so complete a victory as Jonah. It’s a record that will stand for all time.

But of course, it wasn’t him. In fact, he did not take it well. “And the thing was very evil for Jonah, and he was incensed.” He was incensed enough to pray to God in complaint, virtually fizzing in anger. Isn’t this what I said when I was back home, he yells. I knew you would pull a trick like this! “For I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in kindness and relenting from evil.” So put me out of my misery — just kill me — I’m better off dead than alive. “And the Lord said, ‘Are you good and angry (Jonah 4:4)?’”

Yes, yes, you could say that, muttered Jonah bitterly. He retraced his steps, trudging out of the city up to a hill to the east where he made himself a shelter and sat down to watch what would happen. He wanted fire from heaven, napalm, and howitzers, the mother of all bombs to flatten this great city. Maybe that would make him feel better, salve his bruised ego and lower his blood pressure.

And God, smiling quietly to Himself and compassionate to a fault, “set out a qiqayon plant, and it rose up over Jonah to be a shade over his head to save him from his evil plight. And Jonah rejoiced greatly over the qiqayon.” And despite the long arms of the sun as it sets on that day, Jonah finds comfort in the shade and passes the night thankfully and well.

And in the morning, as the sun rises, God sends a hot wind to wither Jonah’s precious plant. Immediately, the bile rises in his throat, his blood pressure shoots skyward, and again he prays to die. The city, that great city, lies peacefully spread out below him, its inhabitants hungry but redeemed, its cattle and sheep bewildered by their sackcloth outfits and vaguely aware of how quiet it is.

“Are you good and angry over the qiqayon?” chuckles God. Jonah sighs, “I am good and angry, to the point of death.” We can almost hear the shake of the divine head and a hint of exasperation because of this child. You cared more about the plant than the people, says God. “And I, shall I not have pity for Nineveh the great city, in which there are many more than one hundred twenty thousand human beings who do not know between their right hand and their left, and many beasts (Jonah 4:11)?” And there, the fable ends.

***

We don’t know how Jonah got home again or if he did. The story leaves us with questions, like all good stories do. Did the animals get to go naked again? Is Jonah like the prodigal son’s elder brother? Can we drop our resentment at God’s forgiveness? Does God really love our enemies? Are we good and angry over His compassion? Can we forgive ourselves as He has forgiven us?

Can we go home again?

Photo: Anton Rusetsky, Unsplash.com

The Eyes of Your Heart

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“. . . so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.” — Ephesians 1:18,19

Once we understand there are many ways to enlighten our hearts, the horizon of possibilities before us widens. This is especially true when we seek beauty and truth — distinguishable and thus equally indispensable. When we find these sources, whether they be bathed in the center of God’s glory or reflecting God’s light from their centrifugal swings around the Son, they open to us new channels for perception.

Poetry penetrates deep to the heart, but indirectly. If you’re willing to look you can find the poets who somehow hear the music that beats in your bloodstream and when you read them, you understand yourself in ways you couldn’t have arrived at on your own. “When you encounter this splash of words,” writes priest and poet Mark Oakley, “you understand that ultimately poetry is not about factual information but human formation. Like water, language goes stagnant if it doesn’t move.”

When I first read Rainer Maria Rilke, this poet of the great silences, the man who was christened with a girl’s name for the sister who was lost, it was as if he had read my heart’s way and was speaking my longings in words that were almost holy. When I began with his Sonnets to Orpheus, I could only manage a page or two and then I’d have to put it aside and do something else for awhile, something that didn’t lay me open to the bone. If we can bear it, this is an opening to wonder and mystery.

Or maybe it’s music — Faure’s Requiem, or Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, or U2’s I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For or the tears that flow from Eric Clapton’s guitar through While My Guitar Gently Weeps during the “Concert for George.” That’s what Carlos Santana calls “Holy Ghost music,” something that happens between musicians and audience that goes beyond artistry and technique to a communion of fire and spirit.

These moments, these strands of bright beauty, are all around us, and if we choose, we can weave them together in our memories for a coat of many colors to wear on our dull and darker days. Their beauty, though ephemeral, is real in the moment: we can see them and feel them as they pass through us. But their greater power is that they remind us of something we’ve known and lost or once had but did not fully appreciate. They are signs of the ineffable, signals received from a source whose coordinates seem strangely familiar. As such, they give us practice in the exercise of faith.

***

“It is within man’s power to seek Him,” writes Rabbi Abraham Heschel in God in Search of Man, “it is not within his power to find Him. All Abraham had was wonder, and all he could achieve on his own was readiness to perceive. The answer was disclosed to him; it was not found by him.”

Heschel turns to Maimonides, who did not offer proof for the existence of God but said that the source of our knowledge of God is the ‘inner heart,’ the medieval name for intuition. We don’t apprehend God through a syllogism, but through an insight, a spiritual discernment.

It’s not that reason can’t play a role in spiritual things; reasoning often brings us into the neighborhood of faith and removes barriers to our willingness to listen. It provides a way to organize our categories: faith, evidence, rationality, miracles, finitude and infinity, eternity and time-boundedness, perfection and inexactitude, the sacred and the mundane. It helps us bracket our prejudices and recognize our standpoint. And it can reveal our inconsistencies and lapses in judgement. This is the stuff of the philosophy of religion, all of it intriguing, fascinating, compelling. But it can also keep God at a distance, an object to be argued about, not a Being who enthralls us. For that, we need the eyes of the heart. “Faith terminates not in a statement, not in a formula of words, but in God,” writes Thomas Merton in New Seeds of Contemplation.

Heschel continues: “But the initiative, we believe, is with man. The great insight is not given unless we are ready to receive.” Faith commences, God completes.

So here now is Paul, writing to his friends in Ephesus, rejoicing with them that their sins are forgiven, that God has chosen them to be filled with love, and that when the right time arrives the whole universe — heaven touching earth — will be brought into joyful harmony in Christ. That time is now, Paul insists. The “eyes of your heart” will perceive it through faith.

Here is the audaciousness which characterizes the apostolic community and which still — perhaps even more now — takes our breath away. In the midst of wearying journeys, dissensions and disputes, divisions which cut to the heart of who Paul and his friends thought they were because of Christ, he gathers up the threads of their faith in action and promises that this is indeed the first light of the new day of God’s kingdom.

Two millennia later this promise almost seems like mockery. Far from being a community without divisions, the Church seems to model the political world with all its coercion, bad faith, and posturing. We see the same underhandedness and false hope in the Church that plays out in a daily live-stream from any number of our politicians and corporate leaders. The Church as a body sometimes does not even reach the standard of respect and equality for people that our society continues to struggle toward. We Christians have a lot to answer for. Are we wandering in the wilderness?

Paul’s message to Jew and Gentile was that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. What had been promised for centuries, though covenants made were broken and straight places fell into crookedness, had now in the fullness of time come to pass. Quite beyond any power they might have exercised to move the cosmic forces into alignment, the promise was made good in spite of their weakness. Nothing they did could bring it into being nor could they prevent what God had planned from the foundation of the world. It was a gift open to all who could see it, a world reborn.

Paul has heard of the faith of these Ephesians and their “love toward all the saints,” and he prays that God may give them “a spirit of wisdom and revelation.” To his friends at Ephesus — and to us — he says, “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens . . . of the household of God (Ephesians 2:19).”

To Paul, every little community of believers that formed was the household of God, a wavering light that would bloom brighter as their faith was seen in action.

The question was whether they could see this potential for themselves if the bonds of friendship and community they had begun could strengthen and flourish. Could they perceive God in the whirl and flux of this world? The eyes of their hearts would see the hope to which God had called them, the richness of belonging to this great cloud of witnesses, and the greatness of God’s power to sustain them.

Faith commences, God completes. Believing is seeing.

Photo: Shalom Mwenesi, Unsplash.com

Planks and Sawdust

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“He answered me:

‘Like someone with faulty vision, we can behold

Remote things well, for so much light does He

Who rules supreme still grant us; but we are foiled

When things draw near us, and our intelligence

Is useless when they are present.’” Dante, Inferno, Canto X:100-105

In Dante’s Inferno the damned in the sixth circle of hell are allowed to see far into the future, but in a remarkable detail in God’s plan they know nothing of the present nor can they see what is happening right in front of them. In life, consumed by ambition and the grasp for power, they ignored those closest to them, while they schemed and strategized against their enemies. In the chess game that was 13th-century Florentine politics, these men planned out their deadly moves against their opponents, while they could not see clearly how their actions affected their own families. In Dante’s Hell, the sinners are cursed to suffer the symbolic effects of the sins they committed in life. Because they did not see on Earth they will not see in Hell.

***

Luke 6 is about the relationship between our intentions, our character, and our actions, and how those actions reverberate throughout the circles of our relationships. In contrast to Matthew’s sermon given from the mountain, Luke’s version has Jesus coming down from the hills at daybreak and choosing twelve out of the crowd of disciples, (in Greek mathetas, ‘those who follow’) and designating them apostles. Then he stands at the foot of the hill, “on level ground,” and addresses the hundreds who have come from Jerusalem, and from as far away as Tyre and Sidon, to hear him and to be healed.

It’s a message that exactly reverses what we might expect. We’ve skimmed it so many times that we no longer see how radical it is, how the good news it proclaims is bad news for some, how confounding it must have been for those who thought Jesus was launching his Messiahship.

He begins with the punchline, the message that was most pointed, that like an arrow pointed to the largest group listening to him that day: “How blest are you who are poor; the kingdom of God is yours.” The words that follow are paradoxical: those who weep now will laugh, those who are hated will dance for joy. Then, with a hinge that shows Luke’s literary skill, the reversals are stated. The rich have had their fun; now they face hardship. The well-fed will be hungry, those who laugh will be weeping.

The clincher is that those who mourn now stand in a long line of people who have suffered unjustly, including the true prophets of old, and those who garner all the praise now should know that people spoke well of the false prophets back in the day too.

Jesus then turns to such politically incorrect sayings as “Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you” and “turn the other cheek” and “treat others as you would like them to treat you.” His disciples must go beyond the reciprocal manners of doing good to those who do good to them; that is just standard social courtesy. What the kingdom expects has a much deeper meaning, one that transforms relationships and begins with self-awareness and humility.

Jesus’ social communication skills reveal a person who challenges us to exceed the minimum in social interaction. “Pass no judgement and you will not be judged,” he says, “do not condemn and you will not be condemned.” That’s the minimum. Just as “sinners” (those who flout the finer points of the law or whose professions place them outside the community) love those who love them most people know they’ll get back what they dish out to others. There is a common ethic that most people subscribe to, an enlightened self-interest that expects some give-and-take and is willing to give some leeway to others until pushed to defend oneself. In that way, we can claim to be as good as we are expected to be.

But to be disciples, those who follow Jesus, there is a higher standard that comes from love. Duty does the minimum, but love attempts the maximum. Duty follows the rules, but love seizes opportunities. Duty does what is required and no more, but love acts spontaneously. Duty wants a receipt; love says, “Don’t worry about it.” The “sons (and daughters) of the Most High” will be compassionate toward the ungrateful and the wicked, just as God is compassionate.

He offers them a parable about the blind leading the blind and both falling into a ditch, and then he follows up with a parable that speaks of the kind of self-awareness and humility that is foundational for discipleship.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye, with never a thought for the great plank in your own? How can you say to your brother, ‘My dear brother, let me take the speck out of your eye’ when you are blind to the plank in your own? You hypocrite! First, take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s.” (Luke 6: 41,42)

As metaphors go this is vintage Jesus—heavy on the hyperbole, richly vivid in imagery, delivered with a twinkle in his eye. But he is serious. The disciples learned that no matter where they stood in the social register, they were to be leaders in ethics. They are followers of Jesus now; they will be teachers of others, and a teacher cannot teach what he has not learned. Character makes influence a live possibility, and influence, in turn, helps shape character. We’re known by what we produce, by what people around us can see of us in our behavior. “By their fruits, you shall know them” is not just a Biblical saying, it’s how we navigate our relationships and place our trust in others. As such, it’s the foundation of a society. Out of the abundance of character the fruit of the heart is grown.

Are disciples to be silent about evil and injustice then? “The ban on speck-hunting,” notes G. B. Caird wryly in his commentary, Saint Luke, “does not, of course, mean that Christians must condone evil or refrain from forming moral judgements. This is a parable about personal relationships.”

***

Most college and university teachers I know have at times suffered from “imposter syndrome,” that dread feeling that students will see right through you to the vast, empty, and echoing interior of your knowledge warehouse. If you teach ethics, as I did for many years, you feel the pressure even more. I wondered, at times, how I had the nerve to stand up in front of students who demanded at the very least that I always knew what I was talking about, and who expected, in varying degrees of interest, that I flawlessly practiced what I preached. But there is some comfort in the very realization of how much we lack; if we can see our condition we can, at least, do something about it.

In order to follow Jesus, we need to see where we’re going. It also helps to be aware of how much we don’t yet know nor do. Planks in the eye get in the way of that. What I have noticed is that if you pray for help to remove your plank God may send you someone with clearer vision than your own, someone with a speck of sawdust in her eye. Plank removal may begin when you see that person’s speck and then realize your own condition. This ordinance of humility can have the effect of deepening our self-reflection as we learn through observation. For all of us have something in our eyes that clouds our vision.

“If we are humble,” writes Thomas Merton, “and if we believe in the Providence of God, we will see that our mistakes are not merely a necessary evil . . . they enter into the very structure of our existence. It is by making mistakes that we gain experience, not only for ourselves but for others.”

Jesus once restored the sight of a blind man by putting saliva on his eyes and then touching him. “Can you see anything?” he asked. “I see people,” said the fellow, “but they look like trees, walking.” Jesus touched his eyes again, and the man looked intently, and this time he saw everything clearly. Some commentators note that Matthew and Luke did not use this story from Mark, perhaps because they were embarrassed that it took Jesus two tries to heal the man. But I think the story is meant for all of us for whom seeing clearly does not happen all at once.

Photo: Alexandru Zdrobau

Three Degrees of Success

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If the audience easily recognizes the three degrees of failure (birds, rocks, thorns), how would it interpret those three degrees of success (thirty, sixty, hundredfold)—even in the literal microcosm of sowing? Jesus’s parable seems quite ready to expect and accept degrees of failure and of success. — John Dominic Crossan, The Power of Parable

“Listen!” Jesus is saying, “a sower went out to sow.” The people on the shore listening smile and nudge one another. The Master is on a roll, telling his stories. There are so many people gathered that he’s in a boat a few feet offshore, speaking to the crowds by the lake in the late afternoon sun.

He speaks in parables, short stories whose meaning lies outside the literal elements of the story and points toward a moral or theological purpose, what New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan defines as “a story that never happened but always does—or at least should.”

The Parable of the Sower in Mark’s gospel (Mark 4:1-20) assures us of God’s pleasure at any degree of return on crops planted. In Mark’s version of the parable, Jesus tells of the loss of seeds to the birds, to rocky soil, and to thorns that choke their growth. But for the seeds that land in good soil and survive there is an eventual harvest. Some patches have a return of thirty percent, some up to sixty percent, and others — perhaps optimistically — a full one hundred percent. The Sower tends them through their growth cycle right up to the harvest and is glad for whatever they produce. Reading this, we never get the feeling there’s anything less than delight and satisfaction for the sixties or even for the thirties. They’ve taken root, they’ve flourished, and they’re ready for the harvest. Next year maybe there will be more.

Mark tells us that Jesus “began to teach them many things in parables,” these pithy, sometimes enigmatic stories that puzzled and angered the religious authorities, and seemed to trip up the disciples as well. This parable, by Mark’s reckoning one of the most important in Jesus’ teachings, shows us that God is realistic about our growth rate and unfazed by what we are now.

We grow and develop spiritually at different rates and in different ways. For some, the obstacles to trusting God can be formidable. If our trust has consistently been sabotaged by parents, friends, and others — those we can actually see — why would we trust an invisible God? For others, trust comes easier. They’ve had the good fortune to grow up with people who could be counted on to keep their promises and who usually chose to do their best for their children. Or maybe they just have the “religious knack,” as religion scholar and author, Karen Armstrong, puts it.

After the crowds leave and Jesus is alone with his disciples, they press around him. Why does he speak in parables, they ask? Why doesn’t he just tell the people straight out what they should and shouldn’t do? It’s easier, quicker, and there’s less chance of being misunderstood. Don’t you get it? he asks, surprised. “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables?” And he tells the parable again, annotating and explaining as he goes, filling in with more details the story he had told in brief to the crowds. He seems to think of this one as a template, that in some way it holds the key to understanding how he uses any parable, which, in turn, is the way he most often communicates his good news about the kingdom of God. It may also keep him from being arrested.

John Dominic Crossan, a New Testament scholar, puts forward the view in The Power of Parable that Jesus was using this common story-telling device in a new way as a challenge to the status quo. Parables operate as metaphors, a Greek term which means “‘carrying something over” from one thing to another,’” writes Crossan, “and thereby ‘seeing something as another’ or ‘speaking of something as another.’” The challenge in these metaphors, he continues, is this: “If tradition is changed, it may be destroyed. If tradition is not changed, it will be destroyed. That is the challenge of this and of all other challenge parables.”

It challenges those who place burdens of guilt cemented in tradition on the ones who seek the kingdom by telling them they are not worthy to come as they are. And it challenges we who are called — not because there isn’t room for us in the kingdom, but because we do not stop to listen to the call. And if we do listen and respond, we may be fighting the idea that we have to be free from sin in order to apply and to qualify. But it’s the Sower who sows, not us.

We are tempted to wait until our potential for spiritual growth comes naturally, without effort. We are tempted to measure ourselves by those we admire or against a list of virtues or the gifts of the Spirit. We succumb to these temptations because we compare ourselves to others and we become impatient when we don’t see in our lives the virtues that take time to develop. As for gifts, we may be born with them or get them later in life, but in either case, we don’t generate them.

We are quick to judge others. If we keep our judgements of others to ourselves it’s all to the good. In time, we may even judge them less. When the ratio of judgement to empathy and understanding begins to change we’ll see them much differently. We will see ourselves differently too, perhaps as people who can forgive in spite of not yet forgetting. Patience, grasshopper.

We are quick to judge ourselves, a response that is hard-wired into most of us. Thankfully, we usually know when we’ve gone off the tracks. Thomas Merton has said that we don’t need to create a conscience. “We are born with one, and no matter how much we may ignore it, we cannot silence its insistent demand that we do good and avoid evil.” Still, a lot of us find ourselves rehashing the same arguments with others and with ourselves, over and over in our heads, attacking with our vorpal swords and blocking the parrying blows. And while passing judgment on ourselves is not quite the same as exercising our conscience, it often feels like it, enough that we may desire “the rotten luxury of self-pity,” as Merton says, and just leave it at that.

But like the seed which the Sower sowed, we grow as we go, for there is no practicing before we enter life, only a continual trial-by-error. Self-reflection — not the same as debilitating self-criticism — helps us see ourselves as we are. And as someone has said, God loves us the way we are, but he doesn’t want us to stay the way we are. So, we walk by faith, not by sight, as we are renewed from day to day.

Barbara Brown Taylor, in her collection of sermons, The Seeds of Heaven, gives us a way to read the Parable of the Sower that upends our expectations about the kind of ground we are supposed to be.

“The focus is not on us and our shortfalls but on the generosity of our maker, the prolific sower who does not obsess about the condition of the fields, who is not stingy with the seed but who casts it everywhere, on good soil and bad, who is not cautious or judgmental or even very practical, but who seems willing to keep reaching into his seed bag for all eternity, covering the whole creation with the fertile seed of his truth.”

As Jesus said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”

Photo: Jonathan Bowers, Unsplash.com

Wisdom for the Contingent World

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“The truth is, that Jesus remains too disturbing a figure ever to be left to himself. Christianity in all its multifarious manifestations, Orthodox and heterodox, has been a repeated attempt to make sense of him, to cut him down to size . . . How oblique and how terrifying a figure he actually was in history. Terrifying, because he really does undermine everything.”— A. N. Wilson, Jesus: A Life

It is a remarkable fact, given Christianity’s 2,000 years of history, that Jesus was not a Christian nor is it at all certain that if he could walk among us in the flesh that he would know what to make of what we have made of him. Like a child’s bendable toy, Jesus can be made to assume almost any posture that we choose. And it has been pointed out innumerable times that what we make of Jesus says more about us than it does about him.

When we try to measure his effectiveness as a reformer in terms of how closely his followers adhere to his ideals, we have to admit that Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Paul, Mohammed, and Darwin, Marx, and Freud have had a far greater direct influence on the human race.1 Even so, for a figure in history whose story has nevertheless touched billions of people, it is sobering to realize how little we know of him as a man. Millions invoke his name as a prayer or an oath and of his image, there is no lack in art, music, drama, poetry, and scholarship. Bumper stickers proclaim him, from the testy, “Do you follow Jesus this close?” to the smug, “Jesus Christ is the answer” to the cloying, “Jesus is not a Republican or a Democrat. His party is the Kingdom of God.”

A. N. Wilson’s book, Jesus: A Life, quoted above, attempts to grapple with the powerful story of Jesus (Wilson calls it a ‘myth’), a story that cannot be fully contained by the factuality of history but spills over in narrative and imagination. Wilson, who read history at Oxford as an undergraduate, cannot shake off his fascination with Jesus and Christianity, despite his skepticism about the divinity of Christ. He sees Jesus as ultimately a tragic figure whose attraction for us is unparalleled, and who was a Jew who only longed for faithfulness in following God. Our encounter with his story, says Wilson, arises from a careful reading of the Gospels, while knowing that they are not biographies nor are they historical accounts as we understand them.

Jesus did not fit neatly into the various strands of Jewish life and thought of his time. He was raised in Galilee, traditionally a hotbed of revolutionary activity, and included among his friends Simon the Zealot (read terrorist), a tax collector, professional fishermen, several women, and various members of the priestly ruling class. Swirling around him during that time were Pharisees, Sadducees, Samaritans, followers of John the Baptist, zealots, and the thousands of simple, often desperate, common folk. He was accused of loving his food and wine too much and of flouting the rules about Sabbath. All of this made him suspect in the eyes of the religious authorities. Yet, in the last week of his life he has dinner at the home of a prominent Pharisee and another one, Nicodemus, comes to him at night to speak with him directly.

To be a Jew in his time was not to belong to a religion set apart from political life, but to be suspended in a web of religious, historical, and cultural threads that composed a whole life. Jesus cuts across all these threads in his own way, and yet somehow appeals to people of all classes.

Greg Riley, in One Jesus, Many Christs, says “People, apparently, did not follow Jesus for his words. For all the attention given in the modern era to the sayings of the historical Jesus, his precise words seem hardly to have mattered at all.” Yet for us, the Gospels are stories about Jesus with claims to be the teachings of Jesus. Each gospel writer has reshaped the oral traditions of Jesus’ sayings and each one views Jesus from a particular perspective. Their timelines of events in Jesus’ life differ—for different reasons—and they transpose his sayings into contexts that vary considerably.

But there are enough details here and there that could not be anything but authentic because they are too specific, too unusual, too unique to be a literary fiction. The gospel writers were not writing history, but neither were they writing fiction.

“A culture tells its members stories that embody its ideals and reinforce social norms and goals,” says Riley. “We in the modern world tell ourselves consciously or unconsciously a story of success, the Horatio Alger story, that no matter what our circumstances if we work hard and try our honest best, we will eventually climb the social ladder to wealth and status.”

There could hardly be a more definitive contrast to the lives people lived in the Greco-Roman world of the first Christians. Most people’s lives were short, subject to sudden reversals of fortune, disease-prone, and frozen in social structures that defied mobility or change. They looked to heroes, people whose physical attributes of beauty and strength and their exploits in war to win glory and honor, blurred the lines between the gods and humans. For us, Jesus was neither a conventional success nor was he close to being a hero, save in the bravery he exhibited in going to the cross. Nevertheless, for many in the first century after Christ, there were cultural templates in place to regard him as just such a hero type.

Flannery O’Connor’s novel, Wise Blood, gives us Hazel Motes, the God-haunted preacher who “saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark . . .” I find myself drawn to that figure too, the enigmatic Jesus who rejoices because God has hidden “these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants (Luke 10:21).”

So, who is Jesus for us? Who do we say Jesus is?

***

Jesus’ presence in my mind is like a low murmur rising at times to unspoken prayer, and then slipping back into images, questions, and memories. Every now and then I take out a book of art about Jesus, images of him in painting, sculpture, and drawing. There are black Christs, Korean Christs, Native American, Spanish, Russian, Samoan, and Filipino Christs — and many more besides. It is a visual conversation, a congress of voices that raise in praise of Christ as the embodiment of us all, God Incarnate.

I grew up with Harry Anderson’s paintings that adorned pamphlets, churches, and memory verse cards. Jesus is invariably depicted as a tall white man in robes, standing amongst a rainbow of little children, a kindly expression on his face. Later, in the sixties, as Jesus was seen as part of the counterculture, other artists depicted him as a healthy and vigorous young man, hair tousled and face sweaty, more a rock star than a man of sorrows.

Through graduate school, Jesus was an object to be studied from all angles, a being whose main effect was to stimulate several centuries of scholarship, but whose inner light and expression receded behind waves of theories and contending ideas. I didn’t lose sight of him in those days, but there was distance between us.

Jurgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God, Gustavo Gutierrez’s A Theology of Liberation, and Segundo Galilea’s Following Jesus swept away my unconscious assumptions of a middle-class and respectable Jesus. Their combined shockwave cleared my horizon about how and why he died and spun me around to face systemic evil and suffering.

Then, as I began teaching Jesus and the Gospels to first-year students, their questions forced a pause. How could Jesus help with school loans? Did he ever have an older brother who suffered through addictions? What if he had brought home a girlfriend his parents didn’t like? What if Pilate had set him free? Would he still have had to die? Gradually, we began to realize the obvious, that Jesus spoke in story rather than in precept and that the exercise of our imaginations is what would best open those stories to us.

Without question, there was much we could learn about his times from archeology and history, and there was a wealth of information about the formation of the gospels. We could reason our way through competing theories about the world-view of the gospel writers, but we could not see how radical Jesus was unless we let him lead us back to the root, the radix of God’s searing justice and love. “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father,” Jesus said. Together, we tried to imagine how that would change our lives.

If we are reading the Gospels to understand and to feel, we will sense how terrifying Jesus is, how disruptive to those who would attempt to contain him in a system. “Neither do I tell you by what authority I do these things.” As A. N. Wilson says with only slight exaggeration, “A patient and conscientious reading of the Gospels will always destroy any explanation we devise. If it makes sense it is wrong.”

Life is uncertain, a truth that may seem to some perplexing, if not heretical. What makes Christianity real for me right now is the humanity of God in Jesus, the total commitment to seeing the contingency of this world from the ground level. The pain, the weariness, the flashes of anger as well as the quick compassion, all of that is there in Jesus. His constant deflection (“Why do you call me good? Only God is good.”), his humor, irony, and hyperbole (“If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move!’), and his sense of proportion (“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”) — these things speak of God’s deep plunge into His creation.

In Jesus’ very helplessness we see our own pain and fear writ large: My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? In Jesus’ last words from the cross, Father, into your hands I commend my spirit, we need not hear desolation and resignation. Through imagination and faith, they may become our daily thanksgiving for God’s sustaining love. Such is the wisdom of the infants.

  1. A. N. Wilson, Jesus: A Life, 1992, p. 253.

Photo: Arunas Naujokas, Unsplash.com

This is Only a Test

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Man is always being challenged; a question is always being asked of him. Abraham Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity

When I walked out of my comprehensive exams at graduate school, it was a beautiful Southern California day and I thought, “That’s it, I’m done. No more exams!” Of course, I was wrong, which is concrete evidence of how much I still didn’t know. Life is a series of tests, none of which we can cram for and many of which we will not see the results of until long after we’ve forgotten what we were tested on.

It’s not that I hated exams; I rather enjoyed the opportunity to explain, describe, and analyze complex issues. It was the build-up to the exams that brought anxiety, the persistent feeling that no matter how thorough your preparation there would always be some question designed not to show what you knew but to punish you for what you didn’t know.

When I started teaching, I kept in mind how I felt about exams. I steered clear of minutiae and tried to design questions that gave students an opportunity to take a long view. I made it clear I expected accuracy in portraying the positions of others, honesty in expressing one’s own position, and clarity in writing. Nobody was getting paid by the word; brevity and conciseness were virtues. On questions of ethical practice as distinguished from analysis of ethical theory, I blessed responses that were exploratory and forward-looking. I encouraged students in philosophy and ethics to use their imaginations as well as their reasoning and analytical powers. Above all, I asked them to see themselves as both teachers and learners.

How would they describe and explain what they knew to someone who was deeply interested in what they had to say, but lacked their foundational knowledge on the subject? Could such a person pick up their written responses and understand them? Could those responses be the starting point for a deep and exciting conversation? Could they lead others to see what they had learned? And could connections be made in all directions from the subject they were studying? What had they learned in their American history class that their ethics might address? Could their ethical theories apply to their health practices, their economics courses, and their intercultural communication?

“There is only one subject matter for education,” said A. N. Whitehead in The Aims of Education, “and that is Life in all its manifestations.”

***

There are two kinds of exams in education. One tests what we have learned (summative assessment) and the other tests what we need in order to learn (formative assessment). Generally speaking, the life of a spiritual wanderer, someone seeking the Water of life, is a process of formative assessment. If life is for learning, then we can look to every day as experimental research into that which helps us learn of God, of ourselves, and of others.

“Speculation does not precede faith,” says Abraham Heschel in God in Search of Man. “The antecedents of faith are the premise of wonder and the premise of praise. Worship of God precedes affirmation of His realness. We praise before we prove. We respond before we question.”

For those who have been on this path all their lives, and who find themselves no nearer knowing God than when they began, this may almost sound like mockery. How can a person in their fifth or sixth decade of life on this planet regain this wonder? “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” asks Nicodemus (Jn. 3:4). We get worn down by life; our capacity for wonder ebbs and our willingness to suspend our disbelief diminishes in inverse proportion to our need to appear objective and aloof. All the evidence that the world is indifferent to our struggle swarms before our eyes and we shake our heads in exasperation. Experience cannot be reverse-engineered back to innocence.

Heschel invites us to look again: “It is not from experience but from our inability to experience what is given to our mind that certainty of the realness of God is derived.” Our very lack of what we seek takes on the outlines of a God-shaped vacuum in our lives, the via negativa of the medieval mystics and contemplatives.

But we are twenty-first century people who respond more readily to the merest factoid, rather than venturing beyond our skepticism. The trust that is the DNA of faith does not come easily, despite the brave face of certainty that we profess when pressed. Instinctively, we believe that a testimony given must be anchored, not understanding that a profession of belief without the trust of commitment can sometimes be a grappling-hook thrown heaven-ward to draw us up.

Doing can result in being, a genuine form of faith.

But there are some caveats to the formative assessment of our education in faith. “Knowledge is not the same as awareness,” notes Heschel, “and expression is not the same as experience. By proceeding from awareness to knowledge we gain in clarity and lose in immediacy. What we gain in distinctness by going from experience to expression we lose in genuineness.”

It’s a risk worth taking. Heschel assures us that “To the prophets, wonder is a form of thinking,” a way forward when faced with the numinous, with the burning bushes, and the whispers of God within the hurricane. “Our certainty,” says Heschel, “is the result of wonder and radical amazement, of awe before the mystery and meaning of the totality of life beyond our rational discerning. Faith is the response to the mystery, shot through with meaning; the response to a challenge which no one can for ever ignore.”

For Christian existentialists, of whom I am one, authentic faith is a leap beyond what can be wholly certified through reason. “Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable,” suggests poet Mary Oliver. That challenge comes in the form of questions put to us by God, corporately and personally. Some of them are formative: they shape us going forward. Others give us a needed pause on this journey, a timeout to catch our breath and look around us. They are summative of what we have learned through our experience.

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These are some of the questions I am seeking to be shaped by and to answer to.

“Where are you?” – Genesis 3:10

“What does the Lord require of you?” – Micah 6:8

“And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” – Matt. 6:27

“You of little faith, why did you doubt?” – Matt. 14:31

And the most important question of all . . .

“Who do you say that I am?” – Mk. 8: 29

We are questions to ourselves. Life itself throws us demands that we may field as questions. The ones that draw us in, turn us inside out, and lift us higher come to us from the Spirit “who searches everything, even the depths of God (1 Cor. 2:10).”

Photo: Barry Casey

A Necessary Candle

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What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. John 1: 3-5, NRSV

The gospels give us many metaphors for the Kingdom of God. They come at us like rapid-fire: the pearl of great price, the treasure in a field, the mustard seed, the sower and the soil, the wheat and the weeds. They are often at the center of parables, those enigmatic bundles of meaning that Barbara Brown Taylor says act more like dreams or poems than as a code to be broken.

They are vivid images, some that resonate with our twenty-first-century sensibilities, others that stretch our imagination. And we get plenty of metaphors for Jesus too. He gives us some of them: I am the Vine, I am the Water of Life, I am the Good Shepherd, I am the Way. Others are ascribed to him, most famously the Word and the Light of the world. They are contact points by which the veiled glory of his life and the courage of his death and the shocking eruption of his resurrection can jump-start our cold, dead hearts.

“To every age, Christ dies anew and is resurrected within the imagination of man,” muses Christian Wiman in My Bright Abyss. He continues, “One truth, then, is that Christ is always being remade in the image of man, which means that his reality is always being deformed to fit human needs . . . A deeper truth, though, one that scripture suggests when it speaks of the eternal Word being made specific flesh, is that there is no permutation of humanity in which Christ is not present.”

When we read the prologue to the Gospel of John, those first 18 verses, they are like ancient tales spoken by bards in firelight. Their language and rhythm and repetition are mesmerizing; they speak of this world and time, and that which is beyond time, and of the creature not recognizing its Creator, and of the one who returns home from across the universe but is turned away by his own family.

Where does the story of Jesus begin? For John, it does not begin with a virgin carrying the divine seed inside her, but farther back and higher up, with the Word that begins all creation, not with a bang but a whisper of supreme delight, “Let there be light!” That Word, that Logos, is now concentrated, distilled down, purified to its essence so that sound becomes light, both a particle in Mary’s womb and a wave that carries everyone who sees: the Light has come into the world and the darkness will not overcome it.

John writes later, after the letters of Paul and Peter, and after the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke are well established. John both synthesizes what is known of Jesus and transcends the day-to-day accounts by opening a portal for us to Jesus as the Logos, present at the creation and ever more as the present light that enlightens every person who comes into the world.

John may have known that in Matthew’s story Jesus announces to those gathered around him, “You are the light of the world.” These “lights” were a sorry lot by most standards. They were the lame, the blind, the ragged, the widowed and the orphaned, the restless and the rebellious, the defiant and the dumbfounded, the quarrelsome and the nearly invisible. And Jesus loved them all. Through the prism of eternal forgiveness, Jesus looked on these sheep without a shepherd and saw them refracted into beams of light that carried the eternal weight of glory.

Where do we fit in? We might not have seen Jesus as someone we wanted in our neighborhood. He kept bad company, he was homeless, he had a sharp tongue for the respectable and the wealthy, he made us damn uncomfortable. He drew comparisons to bone-boxes, made allegations of theft and cruelty toward the weak, and gave us slanderous names, like “slaves to sin” and “slayers of the prophets.” It was all too much. Something had to be done. And when it was done and dusted, and we could breathe again, there came word that he was inexplicably alive. The Light had not gone out after all.

Then along comes Saul, the living embodiment of the fanatic who is willing to kill for the glory of God and the sanctity of the Law. Breathing fire and threats, he terrorized those who had begun to carry the Light, taking names and rounding them up for a quick trial and summary executions.

And yet the Lord singled him out, considering him to be a pearl of great price, and broke through his armored heart to the pulsing flesh beneath, to the white-hot love of someone to whom he could give his all, even unto death.

This Paul, then, as sure now of the love of God in Christ as he had been of God’s hatred of traitors to the Law, becomes the apostle of the new, assuring all who would listen that “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” And the newness in our human experience is that God is eternally, irrevocably, joyously on our side, closing up the abyss between us and God that we had dug. He is the great reconciler through Christ. “Truth,” says Christian Wiman, “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.”

Simone Weil says that “Absence is the form God takes in this world,” a saying that would be devastating if we did not know that against all odds God has chosen to appear to the world through those who carry the Light. “So we are ambassadors for Christ,” says Paul, “since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:20).”

We are living in times so full of bile and darkness that we are more certain of bitterness than we are of acceptance. Yet, we have been called, all of us, any who wish to carry that Light, to be that necessary candle. “As people reconciled with God through Jesus,” says Henri Nouwen in Bread for the Journey, “we have been given the ministry of reconciliation . . . So whatever we do the main question is, “Does it lead to reconciliation among people?”

My friend, Mike Pearson, has given us a ladder of communication, each rung of which leads us to this reconciling work in the world.

  • “Sometimes you have to settle for outcomes which are less than perfect in the name of maintaining relationships and forging community.
  • You have to hope that your trust will inspire trust in others with the real risk that you may appear naïve and be open to exploitation.
  • You have to use your imagination to find some fresh solutions.
  • You have to listen truly and not simply wait deafly for your turn to speak.”

(You can read more of his writing here)

“We are not sent to the world to judge, to condemn, to evaluate, to classify, or to label,” says Nouwen. This sounds almost impossible, given that the way of the world is anything but nonjudgmental. “Only when we fully trust,” he says, “that we belong to God and can find in our relationship with God all that we need for our minds, hearts, and souls can we be truly free in this world and be ministers of reconciliation.”

Bearing the Light in this world begins with us “accepting that we are accepted,” in Paul Tillich’s phrase, an experience so simple that it is difficult to grasp. It is the foolishness that leaps over the logic that would keep us in the dark.

Photo: Joanna Kosinska, Unsplash.com