Accept Your Wilderness

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“If, without our choice or contrivance, feelings arise within us which cause distress, then Christ is there in the distress itself, not to save us from the pain of rebirth but to assure us that we are indeed being born again.”1

In 1968 Joan Didion’s seminal collection of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, was published, capturing the tumultuous times in a form that set the standard for a cooly detached style which burned with wicked details. She took her title from Yeat’s The Second Coming, a poem whose shelf-life is eternal because it depicts the era that everyone imagines is their own.

I am no different: the lines “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,”2 seem written with 2020 up on the screen. Do we really want to glimpse the rough beast which slouches toward Bethlehem? To call upon another poet, it will be “a hard and bitter agony.”3 But birth is a sign of hope, however dubious, in a burning world. Would it be too much to imagine the innocence that waits to be born in these scarring times?

In 1968 I was sixteen, growing up in Northern California in the hills above the Napa Valley. It was a year in which the visible edge of the world seemed to fray and tear, like a flag whipped to a thinness that could not survive another gust.

In April of that year, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated and in June, Robert Kennedy—the last best hope of many—was slain by the bullets of Sirhan Sirhan. To a teenager becoming alert to the interplay of politics, power, and prejudice, poetry seemed more solid than the frantic calliope of the nightly news. Yeat’s poem could have been the caption for that year in a catalogue of the Sixties.

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.”4

In the Christian community in which I grew up there was sporadic passionate intensity about the Second Coming. Civil unrest, rioting in the streets, the Vietnam War, demonstrators marching for their civil rights—all pointed to the soon-coming of Jesus. So said some, but others advised caution. Our denomination was birthed by those who believed that Christ would return in 1844, only to be greatly disappointed. That lingering disappointment translated politically into a demure Republicanism, more concerned with the appearance of defiance than the actual injustices that lit the protests. Nevertheless, a society upended was fair game for the Apocalypse, and I could not help but wonder if the world would last long enough for me to finish college.

***

Jesus calls us, unequivocally I believe, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, take in the stranger, help the ill, and visit the prisoner. “I tell you this,” he says to the disciples, “anything you did for one of my brothers here, however humble, you did for me.”5 We will be judged, he continues, on these criteria.

If that is true, then Dr. Rieux in Camus’ The Plague, would enter heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father before many Christians, myself included. Rieux, who stoically attended to the victims of the plague despite the danger to himself and who, without appealing to divine intervention, simply got down to work, day after day, was my literary hero in college. Motivated neither by reward nor punishment, he went about his business without complaint, but also without hope. That is where I reluctantly fell back to let Camus go ahead with his doctor; hope in God’s redeeming power was central to Christian faith and I could not let it go.

Broadly stated, this was my dilemma: Camus had no ethical system and no religion too, but he did the right thing simply because it was right, and the dignity of humankind demanded it. And in contrast, there were many Christians responding to Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats solely from self-interest. Take away the lure of heaven or the threat of hell, carrot or stick, and how many of us would pass the test? If motive is essential, then, as Kierkegaard remarked, “purity of heart is to will one thing.”

Furthermore, Camus and his doctor found respite in the midst of duty in the simple pleasures of sky, sea, bread, wine, and companionship. They were grounded in this world, content to find their fulfillment in the years they had left and then to die. There was a noble simplicity in that which I found—and still find—attractive. And why were so many of us Christians so anxious to shuck off this world like a raggedy old coat? Had we not learned anything about endurance, the brother of faith?

Right now, I am asking myself if a belief and a hope in change for the better in this world is just naive. A reductionist view of life says that this is all there is, so . . . what? Just keep on dancing, a la Peggy Lee’s song? That is resignation and passivity. Create meaning for our lives out of the constant struggle for survival? That is easier described than lived—it is the raw experience for millions of people—but it is more likely to wear people down, corrode their trust, and leave them cynical and defeated.

We are finite beings. Our limitations bind us within time and space. “The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong . . . They are soon gone, and we fly away.”6

We are finite beings and we have our limits. And at this moment here in this country, a limit has been reached. What African-Americans have been choking on all their lives, we white people are awakening to. Their wilderness of isolation, in which they were not heard, has been breached by a gasp, “I can’t breathe!” Our wilderness of temptation lies ahead.

***

When Jesus rises from the muddy waters of the Jordan at the hand of John, his cousin and his baptizer, it is his first public step toward his destiny. The Spirit descends on him as one chosen and lifted to do great things. It is a moment of birth into a life opening up to light and wonder. But light and shadow are never apart and up ahead there is darkness.

Mark’s Gospel says the same Spirit that blessed him and graced him with favor “drove” him into the wilderness. Actually, the word is “thrown out.” Jesus is flung from ecstasy into temptation, after the passing brush of his Father’s reassuring touch on his shoulder. Before Jesus will utter a syllable as God’s Word in the world, he is tested in every way possible. His wilderness is to walk through this world all alone with only the memory of God’s favor like a fading flavor on his tongue.

And now we are being tempted by Satan. Tempted to give in and give up. Tempted to cynicism because we’ve been here before and nothing came of it. Tempted to despair because we fear that change will not come in our lifetime nor in the time of those who come after us. Most of all, we are tempted to abandon love because we don’t want to look like fools, putting our trust in something so right. How fragile we are! Behind all this “is the temptation to disbelieve in what we are, the temptation to distrust ourselves, to deny that it is the Spirit Himself which beareth witness with our spirit. God in us,” says Harry Williams in The True Wilderness.7

We must extend our peripheral vision without judgment or paranoia. At the edges of our seeing is where the truth has been all along, but we’ve only wanted the things we cannot see. White Christians will make a choice: either to continue supporting an order that assumes inequality and upholds racism or make the difficult path through the wilderness to where Jesus is. It is the work of lifetimes, repeated, constant.

“But I say courage is not the abnormal . . .

Not strangeness, but a leap forward of the same quality . . .

Steady and clear.

It is the normal excellence, of long accomplishment.”8

This is not a path that the institutional Church can navigate, but maybe it will encourage the smaller groups and communities of people in its midst who have found each other—the portable churches. There must be thousands such groups across all churches, made up of diverse peoples practicing the steady work of discipleship.

This calls for a particular kind of faith and courage, the kind that takes a deep breath and plunges into the life Paul describes as “Christ in you.” “The Spirit is ourselves in the depths of what we are,” says Williams. “It is me at the profoundest level of my being, the level at which I can no longer distinguish between what is myself and what is greater than me.”9

The gap between who we are, really, and what we think of ourselves narrows the wider our acceptance of who Christ thinks we are. If we enter our wilderness in humility, and with joy, we will see our light come shining.

  1. Williams, H. A. The True Wilderness. London: Penguin Books, 1965, p. 40.
  2. Yeats, W. B. The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats. New York: Macmillan, 1989, p. 187.
  3. Eliot, T. S. “The Journey of the Magi,” in Collected Poems. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, p. 100.
  4. Yeats, p. 187.
  5. Matt. 25:40 NEB.
  6. Ps. 90:10 NRSV>
  7. Williams, p. 33.
  8. Gilbert, Jack. “The Abnormal is not Courage.” Quoted in Hirshfield, Jane, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. New York: HarperCollins, 1997, pp. 162,163.
  9. Williams, p. 33.

How to Lose Your Soul

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What will a man gain by winning the whole world, at the cost of his true self? — Luke 9:25

We have a true self—and we can lose it. This is encouraging. Anything we are warned not to lose is worth keeping. The text is directed first, at those who are awakening to the worth of their soul and the danger of losing it. But it’s also meant for those who don’t yet know they have a true self or who don’t care if they do. And it’s especially directed toward those who are so certain they have a fully formed soul that they think they are beyond temptation. If we find ourselves in one of these groups, our salvation will be found with those who wrestle like Jacob to find their true self and who will not let the angel go until they receive a blessing.

For many people, the events of the past weeks are ghastly. The murder of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis cop, while three other policemen watched, is the fuse that lit the current explosion of grief and rage. His death, another in the long list of black men and women killed by law enforcement officers, drums home the charge that racism festers at the heart of this country.

The other event, the surreal spectacle of President Trump awkwardly waggling a Bible in front of St. John’s Church across the street from the White House—after military police tear-gassed and shot peaceful protesters with rubber bullets to clear a path for him—reflects back to us the coopting of religious symbols for crudely political means.

These two events bookend a shelf of volumes bound together in a library of hatred and hubris disguised under the statements which prioritize the loss of property over the loss of black lives and which make “dominance” the watchword.

How do we lose or forfeit our own soul? We lose it by refusing to find our place alongside other human beings, by regarding ourselves, if we are Christians, as a higher order of the species, removed from the pains and foibles of the rest of the human race. Before our race and gender and ethnicity we are human, made in God’s image, the culmination of God’s hopes in creation.

We lose our soul by bowing the knee to the insidious forces of materialism and consumerism, the willingness to become the lab rats for every trending fad and ephemeral product. Those of us in the West who have the means to consume a disproportionate share of the world’s resources, bear more responsibility because we also have the freedom to make the moral choices that will help to conserve this Earth. We can live more simply, more reverently, less arrogantly—more consciously determined to walk lightly upon the Earth.

We lose our soul when we refuse to recognize our incipient racism that sometimes manifests itself in ugly personal confrontations, but much more often is found in silent compliance with unspoken discrimination. None of us are free from this. Racism is part of the air we breathe from birth. It works itself into the national bloodstream. It emerges in feverish outbreaks when our immune system is weakened by fear spread by those whose own hatred and fear is contagious. It is a universal human disease, but many of us are convinced we are free of it, when really, we are just asymptomatic.

“Some are guilty, but all are responsible,” writes Abraham Joshua Heschel about racial oppression. “Seen from the perspective of prophetic faith, the predicament of justice is the predicament of God.”1

If the prophet is angry and speaks with the words of anger, it is because he or she is one of those who occupy the liminal space between heaven and earth. The prophet feels the anger of God at the indifference of the rest of us toward the oppressed.

We lose our soul when we allow ourselves to be callously manipulated into following figures, religious and political, who want our unconditional support. It is so easy to think of ourselves as people who must be told what to do, especially if we are from Protestant traditions that enshrine the doctrine that we are born incapable of goodness. The appeal of those who claim our allegiance in return for membership—which has its privileges—is strong. “It is another form of that comprehensive appeal to lose or forfeit ourselves,” said Harry Williams in The True Wilderness, “to play the deserter, to escape from the effort and danger of being the man (or woman) I am.”2

It’s not that we enter into following Jesus with a false sense of our own strength. Our strength lies in knowing and owning our weaknesses in the assurance that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Nothing. “‘My grace is all you need; power comes to its full strength in weakness,’” quotes Paul, in a jujitsu move we can emulate. “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”3 Weakness acknowledged can become strength when we turn the power of our will toward trust and faith.

Somewhere, in a translation of the Bible I can no longer find, there is a text burned into my memory.4 It is from Luke 9:51, and in it, Jesus “sets his face like flint toward Jerusalem.” The Message Bible translates it as “he gathered his courage and steeled himself for the journey to Jerusalem.” Either way, Jesus bends his natural instinct for self-preservation around and back against himself. He anchors it there in order to follow what he sees as God’s direction in his life. He knows he is going to his death.

“And to all he said, ‘If anyone wishes to be a follower of mine, he must leave self behind; day after day he must take up his cross, and come with me.”5 Lest we think that the exorcism of racism can be accomplished solely through a change of presidents, this text reminds us that the only way we can follow Jesus is to take up our cross every single day. “And to talk about God as your creator,” notes Rowan Williams, “means to recognize at each moment that it is his desire for you to be, and to be the person you are. It means he is calling you by your name, at each and every moment, wanting you to be you.”6

Gaining our soul is our vocation in life.

Now is the time for Christians “to gather their courage,” even to “set their faces like flint” in order to follow Christ into the places he will go.

“It was told to you, man, what is good

and what the Lord demands of you—

Only doing justice and loving kindness

and walking humbly with your God.”7

  1. Quoted in Plough Weekly, June 4, 2020.
  2. Williams, H. A. The True Wilderness. London: Penguin Books, 1965, p. 27.
  3. 2 Cor 12:9,10 NEB.
  4. It echoes Isaiah 50:7 and may be quoted in the Vulgate version of the Bible.
  5. Luke 9:23 NEB, emphasis added.
  6. Williams, Rowan. A Ray of Darkness. London: Cowley, p. 149.
  7. The Hebrew Bible, Volume 2, The Prophets. Translated with commentary by Robert Alter. New York: Norton, 2019, Micah 6:8.

The Other Side of Asking

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“And so I say to you, ask, and you will receive; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened. For everyone who asks receives, he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” — Luke 11:9,10 NEB

What is the lesson here? That only those who move with intent will gain what they ask? That we are partners with God? That Fate or luck or sheer will should bring about what we hope will sustain us for another day?

It sounds too good to be true, too easy to be right, too right to be wrong.

These words are spoken by Jesus to his disciples, who have come upon him while he is at prayer. When he stops, they ask him to teach them to pray, “as John taught his disciples.”

It’s an odd request: don’t they know how to pray? And why now, after all they have been through together—all the blind made to see, the deaf made to hear, the lepers made clean, even the dead raised to life—why would they ask how to pray just now? Isn’t that one of the first things we learn in the Christian life? And if John was teaching his disciples how to pray, was he an outlier? Is this something Jesus just overlooked with his own disciples? Or was he waiting for them to ask? Are the disciples just now discovering that the source of Jesus’ strength is that he is never out of range of God? Jesus doesn’t need the priests or the synagogue in order to pray. The signal is strong, even when roaming.

Whatever it meant, John had discovered it and Jesus was practicing it.

By this time, Jesus and his disciples have been together for more than a year, closer to two. John the Baptist, his cousin, is long dead, his head offered up at the height of a feast, the result of a drunken pledge made by Herod to his stepdaughter as he watches her, entranced, his eyes glazed, following the curves of her young body as she dances before him and his lascivious courtiers.

Was there some lingering rivalry between John’s disciples and those of Jesus? They had all revered him as a prophet who pointed to Jesus and then stepped back. “Are you the one?” John had finally asked from prison, “or should we look for another?” Only Jesus could know how much that had cost John, to voice his deepest fear and to have to do so through others. Only John could know how deeply that cut Jesus, momentarily staggering him so that he did not at first answer John’s furtive messengers, and when he did he pointed to his acts of healing and the good news received by the poor.

Jesus has already sent out seventy-two other disciples to go ahead of him to the villages and towns where he will stop. They are to enter the villages by twos and stay with a family; if they are welcomed, fair enough. If they are not, they are to leave. There is no time to argue or quibble; their message is that the kingdom of God is on the very doorstep of their hosts.

The pressure is on Jesus, the pace of events accelerates in Luke’s narrative. It is as if Jesus knows his time is short and he must tell the story of the kingdom—rather, demonstrate the kingdom—to as many as he can before his life is cut short.

The seventy-two return, exultant and awe-struck, to report that even the demons flee when cast out of people in Jesus’ name. Momentarily, Jesus, caught up in the Spirit, sees Satan flung like lightning from the heavens, a shooting star visible even at noonday to the eye focused only on God. “All the same,” Jesus says, “the great triumph is not in your authority over evil, but in God’s authority over you and presence with you. Not what you do for God but what God does for you—that’s the agenda for rejoicing.”1

***

When I have balked at prayer, it’s because it seems so contractual: fulfill these requirements and you’ll get your answer. The problem is in figuring out what the requirements are. It’s like trying to hit a target dead center with a bow from one hundred yards. You sight, balance the arrow, draw back the string, hold your breath, and release.

But you didn’t take into account the breeze, the curvature of the earth, the drop of sweat that blinded your open eye, or the fact that you flinched ever so slightly as the fletch shot past your thumb. It doesn’t matter. You’re not going to hit the bulls-eye this time or next; there are too many variables. Maybe your motives are not pure, or you asked for something you shouldn’t have, or you harbored ill will against someone, or you didn’t forgive others their many sins against you. Or maybe you’re just a selfish jerk who doesn’t deserve the bounties of heaven.

It’s too complicated.

But I am slowly coming to understand, through many re-trys, that it is both simpler than it appears and more complex than we can possibly fathom. That’s the nature of our relationship with God, one of paradox and promise, both entwined, and neither fully distinguishable from the other. Imagine trying to pass eleven million volts through an outlet in your kitchen. That would be God’s problem.

Jesus points out to the seventy-two who are still in the glow of routing demons that the important thing to carry with them after the feeling wears off, is that their names are enrolled in heaven—not that their superpower is scorching junior devils. There is no balance of powers here: the weight lies entirely on God’s side, and God is looking to act upon the world through us.

“Teach us to pray,” prod the disciples and Jesus gives them a succinct template they can use. How many of us have prayed it simply because it’s “The Lord’s Prayer,” and like other religious objects it is shiny and smooth from use. But we can repeat it without listening to it, we can say it without knowing what we are saying, we can revere it for the sound and not the meaning.

Once, when I was between jobs and had exhausted all my prospects, I mentioned to a friend that I didn’t know what to pray for anymore. He shrugged. “Give us this day, our daily bread,” he said. And I thought, “Well, of course.” Daily bread is what I needed while I continued to search. Simple, really. Receive it with gratitude and stop worrying.

In a post-modern world, structured around causality, thinking of God in a cause-and-effect way can run one’s faith aground trying to figure out the mechanics of it. John V. Taylor suggests, in The Christlike God, that “It is in any case probably nearer the truth to think of God as the giver rather than the cause, since causes are essentially this-worldly factors, and God cannot be just another of those.”2 Our response of gratitude for God’s gifts, says Taylor, is better, since “a mature person should learn to feel grateful for whatever happens rather than merely acquiescing.”3 In the larger scheme of things—and God’s scheme is infinitely larger than ours—it is both a liberation and a comfort to say yes to God, rather than a disgusted, “Fine. Have it your way.”

It is significant—and ironic—that Luke’s telling of the story has Jesus following up his model prayer with an example of someone banging on their neighbor’s door late at night to shamelessly ask for a favor. That’s how most people operate, Jesus says. If you keep at it, they’ll finally give in, if only to make you leave them in peace. It’s a matter of contrast to God’s response. “And so I say to you, ask, and you will receive; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened.” And just to sharpen the contrast, Jesus brings up the improbable case of a father giving his son a snake to eat when he’s asked for a fish, or a scorpion when he asks for an egg. Even you people, bad as you are, says Jesus, with a twinkle in his eye, know better than that. So God will give the Spirit to those who ask.

But God’s time-scale does not approximate our own. We ask, and looking back, realize we had received before we asked. We knock, and the door is opened later—and it’s a different door than the one we pounded on. Sometimes our timelines and God’s intersect, and we see that as an answer to prayer. Most of the time we only see God’s providence by looking back. The other side of asking with persistence is that in time we might mature into our heart’s desire.

  1. Luke 10:20, Message New Testament.
  2. Taylor, John V. The Christlike God. London: SCM, 1992, p. 207.
  3. Taylor, p. 207.

Turning Limitations into Advantages: Writing as I Go

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

BarryCaseyBy Barry Casey

About 15 years ago, after a divorce, mid-way through a teaching career and suddenly alone with my books, I looked at them and thought, “Alright, time to earn your keep.” All these books, many of which I had not read yet, were calling me, so I began keeping a common book, a journal for writing down quotes and ideas from the books I was reading. History, politics, theology, ethics, philosophy, social issues—I was reading up and writing down what I learned, what intrigued me.

So I began blogging.

In the evenings, after I’d finished grading my communications and philosophy courses, I’d jot down interesting sentences I’d come across. Then on Friday nights I’d choose one as an epigram and look for two or three quotes from authors in wildly disparate fields—the farther apart the better. Eric Hoffer and William Blake, Thoreau and John Stuart Mill, Emerson and…

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Gifts to Beginners

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“Then what, if anything does he do? If God does not cause everything that happens, does God cause anything that happens? Is God completely out of the loop?”1 — Annie Dillard

We keep banging away, trying to find God’s whereabouts in a time of plague. Raising the question is a backhanded way of keeping faith with God. After all, to ask where God is—metaphorically speaking—is to assume that God is. Perhaps that is enough. Gravity would still obtain, the world would continue to turn, wind and rain to sweep across the planet and stars to shine. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. And yet . . .

We require our truth-tests to apply, yet we jump at the latest conspiracy theory or rumor of scandal and disaster. Jesus knew this: “If anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah,’ or, ‘There he is,’ do not believe it.”2 He built in safeguards against our gullibility, against for-profit televangelists and other scam artists. When I return, he says, you’ll know it. You won’t need CNN. You’ll see my light come shining from the west down to the east.

We Christians often feel compelled to explain God’s absence when times get hard. Like Job’s friends, we are tempted to think we speak for God in the midst of someone else’s suffering. Where is God? Well, God is out there . . . somewhere. You just have to have faith.

In my youth I sporadically played the part of one of Job’s friends. The equations seemed clear, the outcomes predetermined. Sins, both willful and ignorant, equaled one’s downfall. When in doubt, consult the Bible, for therein lay the answers to life’s problems.

So I was told and so I did, hoping perhaps that the doing would result in the believing, and the believing would equate to faith. None of this was insincere; it was standard-issue, paint-by-the-numbers instructions for a daily walk with God. But it was brittle, and it shattered under the weight of life’s burdens. The God “out there,” unchanging and untouchable, incurs indifference once the fear of reprisal fades away.

“And what is faith?” asks the Book of Hebrews. “Faith gives substance to our hopes, and makes us certain of realities we do not see.”3 How many invisible realities do we invoke every day? Trading on these realities, we assume they undergird the thin surface of our consciousness. We skate across it like water striders, trusting that the surface tension will not break. If we can move fast enough, maybe we won’t sink into the watery depths.

Hebrews seems to be written to people who suffered greatly for their faith. There are allusions to imprisonment, seizure of property, public humiliation, and abuse. Some of them were tortured; others were loyal to the tortured at risk to themselves. The author calls them to remember their past, when they first believed—and suffered for it. “You need endurance,” he writes, “if you are to do God’s will and win what he has promised.”

From Abel to Enoch to Noah to Abraham, Hebrews 11 serves up a tribute to the faithful. Sarah, Abraham’s wife (and half-sister) gets several verses commending her judgement that God would keep his promise to her. She would conceive even though she was—delicately put—“past the age,” and Abraham was—less delicately—“as good as dead.” From them would spring descendants “as numerous as the stars” and as countless “as the grains of sand on the sea-shore.”

The writer pauses to take a breath. “All these persons died in faith,” he writes. “They were not yet in possession of the things promised, but had seen them far ahead.” There follows another panegyric to Isaac, Jacob, Joseph—stalwarts of faith, despite Jacob’s craftiness and deception and Joseph’s nearly murderous revenge on his brothers. Moses gets the greatest coverage, from his birth when his parents hid him in defiance of the pharaoh’s edict, to his rise to power in the royal family.

The Book of Hebrews glosses his suddenly fugitive status when he fled the kingdom because of an intervention that became a murder. “By faith he left Egypt,” says the author, “and not because he feared the king’s anger; for he was resolute, as one who saw the invisible God.”

What did he see? A bush, bright with fire and a voice that called to him, “Take off your shoes. The ground upon which you stand is holy.” “Who are you?” asks Moses. “I am,” says the Voice, a name that encompasses time past, present, and future—and all space.

He saw a cloud that guided the ragged band of Hebrews through the Sinai desert and a pillar of fire that protected them by night. He saw a rock that gushed water, oases in the wilderness, and in one cataclysmic encounter atop a quaking volcano, he witnessed the hand of God scoring on stone rules for life.

“For indeed our God is a consuming fire.”

***

“Thinking about God begins at the mind’s rugged shore, where the murmur breaks off abruptly, where we do not know any more how to yearn, how to be in awe,” says Rabbi Abraham Heschel.4

Why have we lost this ache of yearning? We could venture that we are inundated with images, strings of unanswered questions, emails piling up, anxieties layering like coats tossed on a spare bed, the cacophony of political hounds setting up a howl, bravado laced with fear, weariness from caution. All of this would be true.

But there is more. We are embarrassed; we embarrass ourselves, pausing with the remote in hand before slumping back with another contrived reality show. Those four a.m. questions—“all the huge strange thoughts inside you going and coming and often staying all night”5— are the dangling threads which unravel our passive indifference. “Only those who know how to live spiritually on edge will be able to go beyond the shore without longing for the certainties established on the artificial rock of our speculation,” says Heschel.6

At the heart of Heschel’s philosophy of religion is the ultimate question, the sense of the ineffable, “the awareness of a reality that discredits our wisdom, that shatters our concepts.”7This is the “I AM” of Moses’ experience, the stillness at the center of the whirlwind within which Elijah fought with his own despair. This is the Being from whom Jonah was fleeing, but who met him at Ninevah. This is, for us, stranded in the twenty-first century, the stuff of legend.

How can we comprehend such a Being? Our common mysteries are problems we have not yet solved, with facts that are discoverable and verifiable, for ends that are practical. We have little time or patience for awe or wonder. We begin with the reasonable, that which appeals to our sense of order, which is, in fact, in alignment with what we expect. Expectation rules perception; we do not see what we are not looking for. We will not be surprised; we are in control.

When we ask, “Where is God?” it’s usually when our backs are against the wall and we’ve lost control. When the air is calm, the sun lies bright upon the sea, all the world lies before us—the question does not come up. We become deists in practice: somewhere God is about his business, calmly working through his list for the day, smiling as he remembers our first trembling steps.

In our pain, however, we do not separate our image of God from that of absolute power. We want that power at our disposal, like calling in the coordinates for an air strike of fire from the heavens. This is God-as-object, regarded from afar. The hallmarks of this God are distance and difference, applied not with awe and gratitude but with the underlying resentment of inferiority.

“Those to whom awareness of the ineffable is a constant state of mind,” says Heschel, “know that the mystery [of God] is not an exception but an air that lies about all being, a spiritual setting of reality; not something apart but a dimension of all existence.”8 We know this as Immanuel, God-with-us.

“The answer to Job’s long battle of words,” says John Taylor in The Christlike God, “is not a theodicy or justification of God, but a theophany, a revelation of God. To most people who receive such a revelation it comes not as a vision but as the quiet, unlooked-for gift of absolute certainty that God loves them.”9

In the last months of his life, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from Tegel Prison in Berlin to Eberhard Bethge, sketching out what he called a “this-worldliness Christianity.” He wrote, hoping to be released to his family and the woman he loved, but knowing that death, a violent one, was ever present. What he meant, he explained, was “living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, success and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world—watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith . . .”10

This is the God of now, not of crushing power, but of solidarity in suffering. Not in the heavens, but with us here on Earth, closer to us than the “vein in our neck,” as the Qu’ran puts it.

“Sometimes God moves loudly,” writes Annie Dillard in For the Time Being, “as if spinning to another place like ball lightning . . . Sometimes en route, dazzlingly or dimly, he shows an edge of himself to souls who seek him . . . Such experiences are gifts to beginners.”11

As a beginner, I have sent this out as a message in a bottle. “To the One who knows me better than I know myself: I am here. And if I am here, then You must be too, for I am believing that all things and all of us are in You in some way that is mysteriously real, so real that nothing in death or life, this world or the one to come—nothing can separate us from the love of God.”

  1. Dillard, Annie. For the Time Being. New York: Vintage Books, 2000, p. 167.
  2. Matt. 24:23, NEB.
  3. All subsequent Hebrews quotes from Hebrews 11, NEB.
  4. Heschel, Abraham Joshua. Man is Not Alone. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951, p. 58.
  5. Rilke, Rainer Marie. “Duino Elegies” in The Selected Poetry of Rainer Marie Rilke, edited and translated by Stephen Mitchell. New York: Vintage Books, 1989, p. 151.
  6. Heschel, p. 58.
  7. Heschel, p. 59.
  8. Heschel, p. 64.
  9. Taylor, John V. The Christlike God. London, SCM Press, 1992, p. 232.
  10. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Letters and Papers from Prison, the Enlarged Edition. Edited by Eberhard Bethge. New York: Touchstone, 1997, p. 370.
  11. Dillard, pp. 167,168.

Courage and Presumption

Photo: Edwin Hooper on Unsplash

And the Lord said, Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat. — Luke 22:31, KJV

If that doesn’t chill your spine, perhaps you don’t have one.

It isn’t often that someone is called out by name in the Gospels as the recipient of the devil’s attention, but if anyone would be at risk for that it would be Simon, or Peter, as we usually know him.

It was always Peter whose head rose above the parapet during the attacks of doubt that the disciples periodically suffered. It was Peter who stoutly asserted that he would always be faithful to Christ, only to be told that he would betray him at his darkest hour. And it was Peter who proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah, although his image of the Messiah decidedly did not include crucifixion. In the realm of faith, he was a warrior who shot first and aimed later. In short, Peter was always the point man on patrol: the first to defend his band, the last to sense his own weakness.

What Peter had was a temperament honed for action, the need to blast through the barriers of overthinking to reach an open space. The realization he was alone there might have been a warning to someone more self-aware. Even as the ground beneath his feet was giving way, Peter would have been congratulating himself. He was presumptuous: he took the force of his action as the measure of the strength of his trust. Hesitation or questioning would have shown a lack of the very thing at stake—his faith in God.

***

I’ve been thinking about faith in these days, wondering if it’s like a hand-sanitizer we use to cut down the odds of contagion from despair or cynicism. Or perhaps it’s more like Personal Protection Equipment, a kind of armor against attacks from the Devil, our “invisible enemy.” In the midst of this pandemic, what is at risk for many—their faith in a provident and rescuing God—is precisely what has hardened into a smooth and glassy surface which nothing, not even good sense, can penetrate.

To allegorize this coronavirus is to pit a holy desire to be obedient to God against the secular requirement to avoid congregating. I’ve been trying to understand why, for some Christians, gathering at church in the midst of a global pandemic is paramount, despite the danger it poses to others. The way they see it, there’s no contest: God’s word is to be honored above the teachings of men. It’s a taunt disguised as piety; to advise them to be cautious would be taken as infringing on their religious liberty. In like manner, how can Orthodox Jews convene for a funeral in their packed crowds or Muslims press into mosques by the hundreds during Ramadan?

Is this how we honor God, by proudly claiming a god who will only save the presumptuous?

This is a triumphalist faith, exultant to claim itself on the winning side. And it is a contractual faith, with duties and obligations that must be performed. In the perfecting of one’s character under the stress of social disasters, should I expect God’s protection as a reward for the ruthless defiance of scientific advice?

There is something extravagantly passionate about casting everything aside—all social constraints, all ethics—in the single-minded belief that forcing God’s hand is the highest form of faith. What could be simpler or more faithful to God’s word? But there is lacking the assurance that God already knows what we need and there is little, if any, desire to respond to God out of love, not fear.

Perhaps this attitude stems from the belief that “elites” like scientists are corrupt. Or perhaps from a fear that science tries to displace God and the answer is to fight science. If that is true, then presumption dies disputing the best advice of science. Or it could simply reflect a deep-seated suspicion of life and the world, that we are vulnerable in ways of which we aren’t even aware and that somehow, somewhere, fate is going to get us.

Point of view makes a difference to the way one lives. We crouch beneath the glare of an angry God or we walk forth in gratitude under the loving regard of our Father. We “Imagine there’s no heaven . . . Above us only sky,”1 or, with Jacob, dream of angels ascending and descending on a stairway to heaven and awake to cry out, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!”2 We see the Earth as disposable as grass for the fire or mourn its defilement and struggle to preserve it. And we may rejoice that “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,”3 despite its depredations.

Anxiety, too, is part of the human condition. It is not usually fatal, but it skews our outlook—and our faith. We are unsure of our place in the universe, uneasy about what we don’t have and don’t know, uncomfortable—some of us—in our own skin. It throws us off stride, stutters the rhythm of our glances and responses to one another. It discourages us from trying the new and excuses us from dealing with the past.

“Faith is certain in so far as it is an experience of the holy,” said Paul Tillich in his Dynamics of Faith. ”But faith is uncertain in so far as the infinite to which it is related is received by a finite being.”4 We can’t help being finite and human; our uncertainty is more about fumbling what God gives us. “This element of uncertainty in faith cannot be removed,” continues Tillich, “it must be accepted. And the element in faith which accepts this is courage.”5

There is no lack of courage on display in this current crisis: The steady care of nurses, the daily integrity of public workers, even the courage of politicians who must make decisions for the good of the many at the risk of their own polling numbers. This courage becomes so much a part of the internal life of such people that they would be startled if it was pointed out.

There is another kind of courage—an element of faith—that stands up despite the inherent weaknesses of everything finite. It does not presume to challenge the powers of ‘non-being’, as Tillich puts it, nor does it try to get out ahead of God. It knows that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked,”6 as Jeremiah says, but it bows in reverence with Ezekiel over God’s promise that “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit . . . I will give you a heart of flesh.”7 Courage has feet to carry the body of faith, the heart of which is hope.

At the heart of our lives is the question of meaning, what we give ourselves to, what we make our “ultimate concern,” as Tillich called it. Settling for the finite as our ultimate concern is to raise the penultimate to the status of a god—a false one. “The risk to faith in one’s ultimate concern is indeed the greatest risk man can run. For if it proves to be a failure, the meaning of one’s life breaks down; one surrenders oneself, including truth and justice, to something which is not worth it.”8

In our solitary moments, catching ourselves gazing blindly out the window, we might ask, “How do I know it’s God I’m talking about?”, a question which cannot be answered for anyone else. Rowan Williams assures us that, “There are practices and styles of life that at least make some sense of the question, for in the very act of asking that question . . . We show something of what the word ‘God’ means that cannot be shown by conceptual refinement or pious enthusiasm.”9

***

And what of Peter? Hours after he pledged unwavering loyalty to Jesus he cursed him three times, as Jesus said he would. As vehement in his denials as he was in his avowals, Peter went out into the night and wept bitterly. For all he knew, his act of betrayal had cut him off from Jesus forever. No one came back from a Roman crucifixion.

That weekend must have been hell for Peter, in ways we can only imagine. We can imagine Satan gloating, as his fingers itched to sift Peter like wheat. The image is powerful: sifting the wheat removed the chaff, which blew away. Peter would have been chaff. Judas hanged himself; what was it that kept Peter from suicide?

After Jesus warned him that Satan was on the prowl, he said, “But I have prayed that your faith may not fail; and when you have come to yourself, you must lend strength to your brothers.”10

That would be a nice ending to the story, except that we know Peter’s faith did fail—spectacularly so. It fragmented, blew apart, drifted away like smoke after an explosion.

But Peter was honest. Once he saw his mistake, he owned it and reversed course so fast you could see the tire tracks and smell the rubber. He came to himself, just like the prodigal son, by finding his true self in Jesus. No longer presumptuous, in his humility he also found his courage, enough to strengthen his brothers and to earn the nickname Jesus had given him so long ago when they first met: The Rock.

  1. Lennon, John. “Imagine.” 1971.
  2. Genesis 28:16 NRSV.
  3. Herbert, George. “God’s Grandeur” in A Hopkins Reader. Edited with an Introduction by John Pick. New York: Image Books, 1966, p. 47.
  4. Tillich, Paul. Dynamics of Faith. New York: Harper & Row, 1957, p. 16.
  5. Tillich, p. 16.
  6. Jeremiah 17:9 KJV.
  7. Ezekiel 36:26 KJV.
  8. Tillich, p. 17.
  9. Williams, Rowan. A Ray of Darkness. Boston: Cowley Publications, 1995, p. 244.
  10. Luke 22:32,33, NEB.

In This Moment

Photo: Jonathan Farber on Unsplash

“I know this happiness is provisional: . . . but ineluctable this shimmering / of wind in the blue leaves.”1 — Denise Levertov

“Jesus wept.”

The shortest verse in the Bible and the favorite of middle-school children who are required to memorize a Bible verse. Why he wept can easily be conjectured: his friend Lazarus had died. An urgent summons had come, but Jesus dawdled, deliberately, it seems. He and the disciples were across the Jordan River, not far from where John had baptized Jesus. It was a prudent move: he had barely escaped a stoning outside the Temple for blasphemy. The crowds found him, hailed him as being everything John had said he was and more. “Many came to believe in him there.”2

When the messenger arrives, Jesus assures the disciples that “this sickness will not end in death; it has come for the glory of God.”3 So, although he loves Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, he holds on, he stays in place for two days. This is either a consummate folly or a breathtaking high-wire act of faith.

When the devil took Jesus, famished and weakened, to the pinnacle of the Temple, and invited him to fling himself out over the city because the angels would bear him to earth as lightly as a feather, Jesus retorted that God is not to be tested. This life is not a circus act. But now, knowing that Lazarus will surely die, Jesus waits. His time is coming. If he would not tempt Death for himself, he is willing to defy it for a friend. After two days, Jesus says to the disciples, Let’s go. Time to waken Lazarus from sleep. Ah, they say, he’ll be alright then. No, says Jesus, he’s dead. This will be good for your faith. Let’s go.

But the disciples remember how close death came to Jesus the last time he provoked the powers that be. If he goes back this soon, those who want him dead will definitely finish the job. “Are you going there again?” they ask incredulously. Anyone can walk in the daylight, argues Jesus. The real test is whether you can walk in the dark without stumbling.

There was darkness ahead, without question. And Thomas, patron saint of doubters everywhere, breaks the open-mouthed silence. “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Bethany is two miles from Jerusalem. They are there in less than an hour. “If you had been here,” says Martha sorrowfully, “my brother would not have died.”4 And some standing nearby wondered aloud why he could open the eyes of the blind but had done nothing to keep Lazarus from dying.

***

It is after Easter, but I am thinking about death. Not so much death as dying, the myriad of individual droplets of experience we call “life” spinning down into the whirlpool we call death. I am thinking of the violent, hallucinogenic dreams survivors of the coronavirus have endured. They were swept out in that riptide, far from shore; somehow, they find themselves once again emerging from the surf. I am wondering how they re-enter the life that has stuttered along in their absence. On their return from that hellish dreamscape, what will be most precious to them? How will they live with the gaps and absences in their timelines? These dislocations will change them—our friends, our neighbors, our families.

I stand pensively in the April afternoon sun, trying to memorize the tint around the back petals of the tulips in Brookside Gardens. I want to recall this moment years from now, when a scent or a certain cast of light brings it back. I want there to be a moment to bring back.

How strange it is to walk within a glorious spring day in Maryland, soft with yellow light and bright with flowers, while thousands of people fight for their lives—and thousands more risk their own lives for them. We have not seen such an indiscriminate killer in this country for years. It is “As if a man should flee from the face of a lion, and a bear should meet him: or enter into the house, and lean with his hand upon the wall, and a serpent should bite him.”5

We are in one of those social earthquakes that lay bare our fault lines, when the tectonic plates shift under our feet and upthrust the strata of neglect and callousness that future societies will judge us by. But we see, in addition to the sturdy bravery of our best—the nurses, respiratory therapists, doctors, and scientists—the quiet endurance of the grocery clerks and delivery people, postal and sanitation workers. The social divides and the rampant inequities are exposed; we see with new appreciation the people whose daily efforts define the normal we belatedly cherish.

Later, at home, I pick up a memoir by Joyce Carol Oates, A Widow’s Story.6 I am wary, for she writes prodigiously—not just in the number of her books, but through the style and mood and the enveloping weight of her words. Her eye omits nothing, even as she writes of her confusion in grief.

She writes of how her husband died in hospital a week after being admitted with pneumonia. He seemed to improve, so she left his bedside to catch a couple of hours of restless sleep at home. They called from the hospital deep in the night; they were urgent but cryptic.

She races to his room. A doctor tells her there was nothing they could do. She is in freefall. She is in a parallel universe. She sees herself across the room, a sobbing figure, crooked with grief. Who is this person? When she crosses the threshold of his room, she crosses an equator to a hemisphere she will never leave.

I wanted to experience through her how she brought these two halves of her life, marriage and widowhood, together. How did she see them; first with one eye closed and then with the other? Like every person suffering the death of a loved one, she learns while grieving.

It seems to me that Jesus learns this too, that his confidence on Wednesday ebbs into grief on Sunday. No matter how we prepare, the death of one we love is a gut-punch.

Jesus stands before the tomb and weeps for his friend, already four days dead. He weeps for all humans who die and are dying. And he weeps for himself, for his own dying, which he knows is up ahead. He has meditated on his coming death since Lucifer promised him he wouldn’t die. He knows it will be public, violent, and humiliating. Raising Lazarus will be the last straw. The machinery to kill Jesus will whir into action.

***

If Jesus raised Lazarus, why can’t he prevent the COVID-19 victims from dying? Wrong question.

Raising Lazarus is a sign of wonders to come. Jesus does it as a warning and a blessing. In John’s Gospel, Jesus heals, forgives sins, feeds thousands—all signs that we might believe that God sent him. The raising of Lazarus is a sign too, a sign that death will one day be vanquished. It is a test case, a finger pointing to the moon, a “first-fruits” as the Bible says.

Do you wonder what Lazarus was thinking when consciousness returned? As a dream fragments on waking, slipping through our fingers as light and sound envelop us, so he must have struggled at first in panic when he found himself bound in a winding-sheet. Then he is surrounded by faces—his sisters, Jesus, his neighbors and friends. He is confused, somewhat embarrassed, but he cannot prevent the upsurge of surprise and relief and then joy unabated. When our loved ones die, when we are dying, Lazarus is a living pledge of wonders still to come.

“This is the heart of this story: the essence of all things became part of existence—subject to change, decay, and death, just like us.”7 As much as the die is cast and his fate is sealed, Jesus sees beyond his own death. He bows his head and weeps again for relief, gratitude, love abounding.

“Here we discover the answer to perhaps the biggest question of all: why is there something rather than nothing? The answer is, because essence—or God, as we usually say—always intended to be our companion, to be with us . . . Jesus is the whole meaning and purpose for existence in the first place. Jesus is the reason we exist.”8

Agnostic as to the how, of the resurrection, I am all in for the why: it is God’s way of making sure we’ll be with him forever. And although my imagination bleeds out when I think about the afterlife, I’m going on record to say it will be a feast for the senses and a jolt to the mind. To say nothing of love and friendship. And when dying inevitably comes between us and this Narnia, God will see us through it with equanimity.

  1. Levertov, Denise. “Of Being,” in The Stream and the Sapphire: Selected Poems on Religious Themes, New York: New Directions, 1997, p. 5.
  2. Jn. 10:42, NEB.
  3. Jn. 11:4, NEB.
  4. Jn. 11:21, NEB.
  5. Amos 5:19, Douay-Rheims Bible.
  6. Oates, Joyce Carol. A Widow’s Story: A Memoir. New York: The Ontario Review, 2011.
  7. Wells, Samuel. Walk Humbly: Encouragements for Living, Working, and Being. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmanns Publishing, 2019, p. 49.
  8. Wells, p. 49.

There Will Be No Saying

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“The Pharisees asked him, ‘When will the kingdom of God come?’ He said, ‘You cannot tell by observation when the kingdom of God comes. There will be no saying, ‘Look, here it is!’ Or ‘there it is!’; for in fact the kingdom of God is among you.’” — Luke 17: 20,21

On a bright September day, with the air so clean the shadows cast by buildings and people across lawns and streets looked to be laser-cut, the world shuddered to a halt. Among the images I retain from that September 11 is one both mundane and jarringly incongruous. In the near background one of the towers is enveloped in smoke, while in the foreground is a patch of green so vibrant and vivid as to seem dropped there from an Edenic past. On it are several figures, frozen in place, their shadows hard behind them as they face into the horror unfolding a few blocks away.

The air would grow gray and thick and poisonous as the day ground on, and the towers came down, and the streets and bridges filled with the silent, plodding, staring thousands. But in that luminous instant we witnessed the dissolving of a shared reality.

We don’t control what becomes iconic for us from past events. There were hundreds of photos and videos from 9/11 that scrolled past me in those days and weeks, many of them much more graphic and arresting. Why did I fix on that one? I’ve come to think it was a visual puzzle which did not correlate with anything in my visual repertoire. I kept trying to adjust it, square it within a circle, align the bubble on the horizontal precisely between the hash marks.

In trying to trace this impulse back to some source, I’ve realized it comes down to light and dark, a dual of opposites that does not allow for gradations. In my early impressions, something was set in place that acted to filter and then form some of my visual expectations.

When I was four or five, I was allowed to sit quietly at the back of my grandfather’s classes in European history, especially when he showed newsreels of the First and Second World Wars. The jerky, black and white images of soldiers erupting out of trenches to charge across muddy fields strewn with barbed wire in the face of artillery bombardment, burned their way into my psyche.

These battles were always fought in the summer under leaden skies and threatening clouds. There was never sunshine, only the fog of war, both literal and metaphorical. For a child soaking up unfiltered images, grey skies and clouds came to mean violence and tragedy; sunshine meant glory. With that template in place, 9/11 on a day of abundant sunshine ripped up my primal perspective.

The correspondence theory of truth—that what is true is what generally aligns with the reality I observe—works most of the time, with the added bonus that people around me think I am within the circle of sanity that they enjoy. So my childish notion that bad things should not happen on beautiful days is tempered by the responsibility to adjust to the universe, without the expectation that it conform to my wishes. But if the “real” is that which I experience, then my dreams and memories are real, and the products of my imagination have their reality too.

***

Spring quietly establishes itself in the Washington, D.C., suburb where I live. The tulips in our garden thrust through the soil, flex, rise, and blossom. We delight in them, chronicling their growth, photographing their opening to the sun, their closing for the night. The light in the park at the center of our court wavers and dissolves. It still has traces of the bleakness of winter. It is difficult to remember, right now, what 100 degrees with 90 percent humidity feels like in the nadir of a July in D.C. Our court is quiet, almost every parking space filled, the occasional dog pulling its person passes by. We are under orders to stay at home.

We are weeks into the coronavirus pandemic. The cresting wave of infections and deaths, traveling from east to west around the globe, has still to break in force over us here in Maryland. The fact that I have not yet personally experienced it does not change its reality. It is already here.

I read daily reports of the heroic efforts of those fighting this disease. It is on my mind, a feeling of electricity in the air, a thrumming presence of dark clouds scudding across the horizon of memory. I imagine the silence in the streets of the European cities that I passed through years ago. I put myself there, feeling the waves of grief that rush through an Italian village and lap against the villas set amongst the vineyards on the hillsides. All of this is real.

We are just days away from Easter, still on a pilgrimage through Lent. Depending on how you regard Easter, Lent is either a gradual descent from the Mount of Transfiguration on a long glide path to a crash landing or a spirited hike that abruptly ends at the lip of an abyss. On the other side, shrouded in early morning mist, is a figure difficult to see but impossible to ignore. And all that lies between ourselves and this being whose presence provokes in us the flame of longing, are these cliffs of fall. The Resurrection continues to be our light of hope and our surest lure to faith, our fervent reason to daily cross the abyss.

In the weeks before Passover and his crucifixion, Jesus spars with those who measure his vision over against what they know to be true. This kingdom you talk about, they ask, how will we know it has arrived? They assume, quite understandably, that it will be an event established in space and time. There will be subversions, a period of necessary and extended violence, followed by a proclamation that will fix a before-and-after point in time. But first there will be signs and portents; we who are trained will pick up the clues. We will see the kingdom coming. We are ready for it.

And Jesus says, you will not, and you aren’t: it is already here. The kingdom of God belongs to children, he says, and “whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.”1

The usual ways that we verify something of importance, through testing, through fact-checking, through observation, through cross-referencing — none of those work to test for the presence of the kingdom of God. It does not take up space, it does not occupy dimensions; it cannot be plotted nor surveyed. It is invisible in its being; its effects are seen through the lives it is in the process of transforming. It is a micro-evolution of the soul, magnified and accelerated, transmitting to the farthest reaches of the multi-verse within each of us.

Were there visible signs? What Jesus said to the disciples of John applied: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are clean, the dead are raised to life, the deaf hear — and blessed is the one who does not stumble over me.

But face it—we all stumble. An invisible kingdom? It’s so difficult to grasp in an era that is pervasively results-oriented and expects an astringent and quantifiable accountability. Do we have enough faith? How do you measure that?

Jesus threw out a hyperbolic example, wildly exaggerated, to make the point that our trust and God’s love can shift the world. “If you have faith no bigger even than a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there!’, and it will move; nothing will prove impossible for you.”2 Taken literally, it’s nonsense; taken seriously and metaphorically, it puts our hands in God’s. “Our lives depend,” said George Steiner, “on our capacity to speak hope, to entrust to if-clauses and futures our active dreams of change, of progress, of deliverance.”3

In the physical absence of Jesus, whose primary care changed the lives of so many within his touch, the healing of our souls comes through the Word as we enter rehab for a new life, one that springs up in defiance of death and takes on new form on the other side of it.

For us right now, the kingdom is perhaps less conceivable as a top-down hierarchy than a shifting, outwardly-expanding web of the forthright and trusting. With the generosity that offended the righteous, Jesus stamped the tickets of the forgotten and displaced. Bruce Springsteen describes it well.

Well, this train carries saints and sinners

This train carries losers and winners

This train carries whores and gamblers

This train carries lost souls . . .

I said, this train carries broken-hearted

This train, thieves and sweet souls departed

This train carries fools and kings thrown

This train, all aboard . . .4

Overcoming our embedded fears and our illusions of control, God’s healing and salvation can awaken the smallest mustard seed of goodness in any of us. Every time a doctor risks her life to examine a COVID-19 patient, God’s kingdom shimmers into view. Every time a public servant honestly serves the people, God’s kingdom is manifest. Every time someone raises a song, writes a poem, prays for another person, or helps the fearful and the tired, God’s kingdom sends down roots. Every time we forgive one another and ask for forgiveness, every time we carry on in spite of our doubts, every time we realize, with a catch in our throat, how wide and deep and wholly surrounding is God’s love—the kingdom is made real.

The kingdom is already here.

  1. Mk 10:15.
  2. Mt. 17:20.
  3. Steiner George. Real Presences. London: Faber and Faber, 1989, p. 56.
  4. Springsteen, Bruce. Excerpt from “Land of Hope and Dreams,” Wrecking Ball, 2012.

This Costly Caring

Photo: Osman Rana on Unsplash

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice . . . To let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? — Isaiah 58: 6

At nineteen I am traveling Europe with friends during the winter break from college in England, in December of ‘71. Each of us has a Eurail pass, which guarantees a place to sleep every night on the train if you don’t mind waking up in a different country.

We have split up for a few days, so I am on my own, traveling from Switzerland to Austria. Funds from home had not arrived by the time we left for the Continent, and I am in Austria when I run out of money. All I have are a few coins from some of the countries I have passed through. There is no possibility of getting money from home, so I will wait it out. Perhaps, when I meet my friend again, he can float me a small loan to get me through until I can get back to college.

I step into a bakery shop in Vienna, sort through the coins in my pocket, but I realize I don’t have enough even for a bun. So, back out into the grey and freezing day, one of the coldest winters in Europe for years. I walk and walk to keep warm, stopping in shops along the way and jamming my hands in my jean pockets. I am to meet my friend that day at the train station, so I walk there and back and there again, throughout the day, but something has happened, and he does not arrive.

One day without food becomes two, and then three. At night, I take the train to another city, someplace like Munich, arriving at three a.m. I wait an hour or two and then take a five a.m. train to still another city. The first twenty-four hours I fantasize about food, the second day I have cramping hunger pangs, but by the third day, although I am getting lightheaded and walking slower, my senses have sharpened. I almost feel euphoric. It seems to me—in this state—that going without food isn’t so bad, and that if I had to, I could keep this up indefinitely.

I begin to notice people I might not have seen otherwise. People slumped in the shadows around the train stations I am frequenting. People in doorways, on park benches, huddled under bridges. They remind me of how privileged I am and that my discomfort, such as it is, will be temporary. Unlike them, I have a ticket out of here. That is my ultimate insurance policy; if things get really bad, I know someone in Davos I can stay with. And eventually, Lord willing, my friend and I will meet up again.

So, I drop deeper into this experience, discovering the boundaries and limitations of fasting, plumbing the depths of spirit and temperament, absorbing and examining physical exhaustion and cold. In some way not completely clear to me, I am trying on the cloak of poverty and homelessness, all the while knowing that my situation is still salvageable, not hopeless.

On the evening of the fourth day, during the week leading up to Christmas, I am waiting on the train platform of a town in Switzerland. It is about ten p.m. A raucous party is in session just inside the station doors. Through the windows I can see steins being raised, songs sung, tables and tables of food and wine, flushed faces, red cheeks, and Christmas cheer. I am alone on the platform.

Suddenly, the door bursts open, and a young man strides out with a tray full of pastries, fruit, and a beer. He is smiling broadly, and through the open door behind him I can see people clustered together, peering at me and throwing kisses. He sets the tray down on the bench beside me and shouts, “Ist gut?” He gestures back to the people behind him. “Merry Christmas!” he says, and bows. There is a beery chorus of “Merry Christmas!” from the crowd and much lifting of steins. I am almost speechless, but I manage a “Ja, das ist gut!” My train is huffing in, so I stuff as much as I can of everything into my pack, bow to the young man and the crowd, and with new energy hop aboard as they wave me into the night.

Years later, riding the Metro in Washington, D.C., day after day, to job interviews that invariably went well but produced nothing, I felt again the pangs of desperation that hit me during the first day of my enforced fast. I could overhear young lawyers in the seats around me complaining about their seventy-hour weeks and the costs of maintaining their BMWs, and I inwardly rolled my eyes. I would have been happy to be overburdened with work of any kind.

Yet, those experiences gave me a taste of how people think and feel when their lifelines fail. There is a sense of helplessness. The usual means we have of making things happen are gone. Without money we are first impotent and later invisible. Money is power, however temporary and ultimately illusory. With it, we extend ourselves into the world around us and affect changes that benefit us and others. Without it, we eventually become invisible. But before we become invisible, we first undergo a blurring, a smearing, of our lines of identity. Our desperation leaks out, however feverishly we repress it. It makes people nervous; they cover their mouth as if we had coughed in their face. They look away and mumble. You can see the panic in their eyes.

The invisibility comes later. Some become invisible because their skin color blends with the shadows, some because they are shockingly decrepit and ragged. Others become invisible because of age. Some years ago, in a local Panera, I was moving toward the coffee machines when an elderly woman crossed my path. I stopped to let her by, and she looked up at me and said, “Thank you for noticing me.”

I have talked to people in homeless shelters who were stunned at how quickly they found themselves on the street. For some, two missed paychecks meant eviction. There were no savings to fall back on, no credit lines to be extended, no relatives in a position to offer help. One day they were working, the next they were laid off. The safety net extended only so far and there were gaps in the webbing that most people fell through. These are truths worn thin on the treadmill of regrets.

Many of us live insulated from the rigors of being poor in the United States. We have a steady income, adequate healthcare, a decent school system. We are safe—for now. But now we are in the midst of a pandemic, the limits of which cannot be determined yet. Our way of life, our routines, so much of what we take for granted, has been and will be, upended to an extent we are only just beginning to discern. There are no guarantees, either for the continuity of our lives or for life itself. Some of us will die from this; many of us will lose family and friends. All of us will be changed by this.

Some have said that we should never let a crisis go to waste. Perhaps the divisive politics of the last several years can be shouldered aside as we face a common enemy. In the words of Jean-Luc Picard from my favorite Star Trek episode: “Danger shared can sometimes bring two people together.”

If we were not convinced before, the spread of the coronavirus should wipe away any denial of how connected we all are. No respecter of boundaries—political, geographical, religious, or ethnic—the virus has revealed how mobile we are, how interdependent we are, how reliant we are on the social contracts of decency, respect, and fairness. In a literal sense, when just one person is afflicted, everyone is at risk. It becomes a powerful metaphor for the ways injustice and inequity destroy a society from within.

Now we have an opportunity to see how deep the bonds of our communities run. How we can respond with resilience to this clear and present danger. How our imaginations can help us find ways to connect despite our distance from each other.

There are more questions than answers in this time. Aside from the medical emergency questions, there are questions that go to our humanity and our humaneness. Going forward after this crisis, how do we bring justice to our healthcare institutions, our network of social services, our educational system, our political priorities, and our sense of who we are as people within countries? These are the perennial challenges within any society; they are not solvable, only made more adaptable and more just. But a crisis of this scale exposes the fissures in our foundations and gives us the opportunity and incentive to rebuild with diligence for a more humane future.

This is the season of Lent for Christians. We are called to reflect upon our past with hope toward our future, to remember that despite our blindness, our mistrust, our flailing about, God-in-Christ loves us still. It is not the healthy who need the doctor, Jesus reminds us, but the ill. That is us; coronavirus or not, we all suffer from pre-existing conditions that threaten our trust and faith. Now is the time to sidestep those “sins which so easily beset us,” and to live into the answers.

I discovered some small-scale truths when I returned to the States after my year in England. Much that I had taken for granted was ephemeral, and that which seemed insubstantial turned out to be rock-solid and everlasting. My fast was not of my choosing, but it did set me free and it broke the yoke that I so blithely carried.

Living into Truths

“Christianity . . . is, in other words, a form of life that requires—in order to be truly grasped—the engagement of the imagination, the sense and the intellect.”1

Photo by Ray Fragapane, Unsplash

In one of his most famous letters, Rainer Maria Rilke advises a young poet to “live the questions now,” to not be too quick to assume the answers. Let yourself experience life, Rilke says, and “Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, one distant day live right into the answer.”2 It is a matter of living everything, including the questions. He asks the young man to experience the mysteriousness of the questions, as if they were closed rooms or language in a strange tongue.

As an example of how we stumble onto truth, or rather peer into truths that wait quietly in the corners of our evenings, Rilke’s words illuminate. How often does a way through a thicket of questions appear after a night of dreams or the most obvious of meanings emerge in the gaps between our conscientious struggles with familiar problems? And how surprising and humbling to recognize, belatedly, how much was there in front of us that we did not see? We are built to want answers or at least to keep turning the questions over in our hands like smooth stones.

Rilke could avow this because he had learned, through solitude and transience, to live his own way into the questions. If you’re young, like his poet friend Kappus, questions are tools to help you pry open the chest where the secrets are kept. Kappus wanted to learn how to write poems that would make people gasp, that would open their eyes to what was around them. Rilke wanted precisely that for Kappus: to see his own life as a question directed to the answers that were within him, that no one but he could know.

***

All learning—so I learned after the fact—begins with questions. From a standing start, how high you could jump would be limited only by the spring of your questions. That’s not to say you would try to find the most obscure, complex questions, but rather that you asked the questions of the heart, the ones stated simply, the ones you had to ask.

My history with questions began with an early fascination with how things worked and why people did what they did. Because I loved to write, I found my way into a journalism major, the nearest I could come to learning how to write about what triggered my curiosity. Later, I extended my questions God-ward—where does our freedom and God’s will intersect? Why does God allow evil to exist? How and what can we know of God? Eventually, I took degrees in philosophy of religion.

When I began teaching, I discovered that the questions I asked often determined the answers given. At the time, fresh out of graduate school and trying to learn how to teach to learn, it was a revelation that lead me to epistemology—how we learn and what we can know.

To ask a question is to admit a deficit. It takes a certain humility, a learned virtue that we are not born with. We can practice epistemological humility; in time, it will be the bass line to the melody of the answers we perceive. In time, it may become a blind virtue, one that we don’t need to see with in order to move with confidence.

In the constantly re-forming seascape that is our consciousness, we pay attention, as William James said, to what matters to us. Yet, if we’re not aware of what we don’t know, how can we see the new if it does not break into our consciousness in some way, long enough for our attention to focus on it?

“Our perceptions shape our decisions, for good or ill,” David Harned reminds us, “and how we see is ‘a function of our character, of the history and habits of the self, and ultimately of the stories that we have heard and with which we identify ourselves.’”3

Farther back and higher up, above our questions, lies our imagination, fed on stories and images that shape us as we take them in to live with us. Questioning is an act of the imagination. When we ask, we are springing over the abyss, taking a leap to land on all fours, praying we can rise to walk. That’s one reason for teachers to encourage students to question; it’s also a reason not to scoff at the questions they ask. When we question—in our innocence—we are vulnerable, imagining a different world, a parallel universe perhaps, in which hazy ideas take root and a new way of being can emerge. Imagination previews transformation.

***

When it comes to religion, there are questions that should not be asked—or so we were told as teenagers. Hearing that some things ought not to be questioned turns curious students into moles digging tunnels. A constricted view assumes that all we need to know is what we have to do to get to heaven. It demands that we give up reason and imagination for blinkered obedience: “Here’s the algorithm—just run it.” But there is so much more to a life with God-in-Christ.

David Brown, in God and Mystery in Words, says, “two competing streams have characterized the history of western monotheism: the search for definition and explanation on the one hand and on the other the acceptance of mystery.”4 The tendency from medieval times to the present, favored explanation over mystery and experience. There is no reason why mystery and doctrine have to fight it out; in fact, epistemological humility would suggest they complement each other rather than compete. But we feel safer explaining than exploring.

Mystery calls for imagination while doctrine relies on reason. We can debate and argue and cajole one another over points of doctrine, but the only test that matters in matters of faith is whether faith can stand when the sand on which we stand slips out with the tide.

“There is no clean intellectual coherence, no abstract ultimate meaning to be found,” says Christian Wiman, “and if this is not recognized, the compulsion to find such certainty becomes its own punishment. This realization is not the end of theology, but the beginning of it: trust no theory . . . in which the author’s personal faith is not actively at risk.”5

Abraham Joshua Heschel, the rabbi-philosopher who has made awe and wonder the starting-point for authentic religion, declares two types of thinking: conceptual and situational. Conceptual thinking uses reason to extend our knowledge of the world. Science and philosophy are the methods. Situational thinking tries to understand issues “on which we stake our very existence.”6 Religion is often where these questions spring up.

Philosophy’s answers are really new questions in disguise, each answer opening new inquiries. “In religion, on the other hand, the mystery of the answer hovers over all questions.”7 Philosophy requires the detachment of observers, not participants. Problems are held at arms-length and the important ones are rendered as universals. For religion, though, every such problem is personal. “Unless we are involved,” insists Heschel, “the problem is not present.”8

If I have questioned my life’s direction, its meaning wells up in unguarded moments, as present as tears. It’s the oblique angles, the accidental discoveries, which startle us to attention. We see ourselves at a distance and strain to hear what we say, imagining how we might have done better to square the difference between our intentions and our inventions of ourselves. “Creative thinking,” offers Heschel, “is not stimulated by vicarious issues but by personal problems.”9

None of this should cancel out our reasoning, our listening to trusted friends, the solitude of our prayers. These are ways God breaks through our encrusted and stale shells. Even so, the imagination flourishes in asking if there is more than the dull repetitions of our spiritual treadmill. “What imagination offers is . . . to think laterally, to allow combinations that are not themselves necessarily present either in the mind or in nature.”10

I think the imagination is where the Spirit is most free to enliven us. It’s where our attention is captured, where our perceptions sharpen, where the patience to live into the questions is nurtured. It’s where we begin to trust that “Divine folly is wiser than the wisdom of man, and divine weakness stronger than man’s strength.”11

If we can imagine how God has chosen “mere nothings, to overthrow the existing order,” as improbable as that seems, then with a sense of profound relief we can give up trying to strong-arm our way through life and can look around us with renewed hope to see where God is at work in the world. “You are in Christ Jesus by God’s act . . . In him we are consecrated and set free.”12

  1. C. S. Lewis and Friends: Faith and the Power of Imagination. Edited by David Hein and Edward Henderson. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011, p. 2.
  2. Rilke, Rainer Maria. Letters to a Young Poet. Translated with an Introduction and Commentary by Reginald Snell. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2002, p. 21.
  3. Hein and Henderson, p. 4.
  4. Brown, David. God and Mystery in Words: Experience Through Metaphor and Drama. Oxford University, 2008, p. 4.
  5. Wiman, Christian. My Bright Abyss. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, p. 75.
  6. Heschel, Abraham Joshua. God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1955, p. 5.
  7. Heschel, p. 4.
  8. Heschel, p. 5.
  9. Heschel, p. 5.
  10. Hein and Henderson, p. 4.
  11. I Corinthians 1:25 NEB.
  12. I Corinthians 1:30 NEB.