Real Facts

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The distinctive thing about real facts, however, is their individuality. Not to put too fine a point on it, one could say that the real picture consists of nothing but exceptions to the rule, and that, in consequence, absolute reality has predominantly the character of irregularity.— Carl Jung, The Undiscovered Self

Of all the strange things that happened to us that year, my walking on the water got the most laughs. Even today it’s a cliche for magical thinking, the punchline about someone who thinks he’s divine or just insufferably self-righteous.

I’ve always had impulse-control issues. I load, I fire, I aim. I leap—and I look—all the way down.

I am Peter, aka The Rock, not because I am the foundation for the church, but because I am hard-headed. He knew that, of course; it was an inside joke between us. You put the least-qualified in charge and see how it rolls. By beholding we become changed and all that. There is something to that, by the way, for I softened over the years. Not that I was weak, but rather I became deliberate. That was years away from the unfortunate water landing, and well after Jesus leaned into me one afternoon and said, “Someday they will bind you and take you where you do not want to go.” Just that, and he held my gaze for a moment, stopping my quick retort.

For once, I had nothing to say. I dropped my eyes then, for I was seeing myself on a stony path by torchlight, my hands bound in front of me, soldiers at my back and front.

I am the disciple, remember, who almost got it right about Jesus and then got it all wrong—all within an hour. He had asked one of his questions again; this time he wanted to know what people were saying about him. An odd question, until you realized that almost no one knew what he was. It wasn’t enough that he was a man from Nazareth or even that he was the one who made a few loaves and fishes into a meal for thousands. The crowds only had a few superheroes they could imagine: Abraham, Moses, Elijah . . . oh, and John, recently beheaded by Herod. So they thought he was another version of one of those.

He asked, “Who do people say I am?,” and we all muttered one thing and another about Elijah and John. “Who do you say I am?” he said, and we all looked at our shoes. He really seemed unsure. It was as if he needed confirmation of something he desperately hoped was true—or was afraid was true.

You have to get these things right for him, and frankly, we weren’t all that sure ourselves. But, as usual, I jumped in there with the answer we all wanted to hear. “You’re the Messiah!” I blurted. There wasn’t anyone else who it could be, even though he didn’t seem to care much about the position. But this time he didn’t deny it. Of course, he didn’t admit to it either. He just told us to keep it to ourselves.

“Well, good,” I thought, “things are looking up.” But then he started in about going up to Jerusalem, and how the elders, and the chief priests, and the scribes would reject him. That wasn’t a surprise: he’d been on the outs with them for a long time. The words were coming in a rush now, about how he would be killed and would live again three days later. He was very plain about it. That’s when I pulled him away from the others. I lowered my voice, “What are you saying? We here know you are the Messiah. Take it! The Messiah doesn’t die. Am I missing something here?”

At that he spun back to the others. “Get away from me, Satan!” he shouted. “You’re counting on human plans, not divine ones!” He was speaking to them, but he meant me. I saw the shock on their faces at his words and then they glanced at me, horror-stricken. Before I could reply, he was rounding on the crowd that was gathering.

“If you want to follow me, then take up your cross! If you want to save your life, you will lose it, and if you lose your life because of me and the gospel, you will save it.” Clearly, this was crazy talk, but he wasn’t through.

“What does it matter if you gain the whole world, but you lose your own soul?” He glanced around at them. “What could you give to get your soul back, eh?”

I am remembering all this because I have been trying to sort out how we who followed him understood him. When you’re in the midst of it you just try to keep up. The understanding comes later, I found. And if we take up our cross to follow him, then at some point the cross becomes more than a symbol: it is a killing machine upon which we really do die. After all, the point of “taking up one’s cross” is to realize that we carry our death with us daily. What I couldn’t understand at the time is how that could ever be anything but suicide or treason.

At the time I could not bear the thought that he would die in this way. I envisioned a deathless life for him. I saw him as the one who would change the architecture of our world so that the long shadow of this constant cruelty would vanish. I wanted him to open up the sky so we could stand in the sunlight as creatures of God, not as prisoners of Rome. If that meant pulling down the palaces and temples that blocked the sun, then let’s get on with it.

But that’s not what he was on about. He saw the world so differently than we did. I wanted to ask him, “When you look at the world what is it that you see?”* There were times when we were with him that something he said or did clicked into focus and we saw an expression that was so clear and so true that it changed the atmosphere when he walked into the room.

But I found that the clarity dissolved when he wasn’t around. When we tried together to remember and explain it to each other later in that upper room, it refracted like a kaleidoscope. My unprayed thought back then before his death was that I tried to be like him, I tried to feel the way he did, but without him it was no use.

I couldn’t see what he saw when I looked at the world.

****

All these years later I am writing from this prison cell. As he said so long ago, my hands were bound and I was led away.

His death changed everything, of course. That was all, but it was everything. I carried my cross every day after that.

I betrayed him and he forgave me.

This is how we see the world like he does — through the lens of betrayal and forgiveness.

These are the real facts.

*U2 (2000), “When I Look at the World,” All That You Can’t Leave Behind.
(Photo: Simon Wijers, Unsplash.com)

An Attitude of Gratitude

“Gratitude as a discipline involves a conscious choice. I can choose to be grateful even when my emotions and feelings are still steeped in hurt and resentment.” — Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son

GratitudeWoman:cristian-newman-277738.jpgGratitude doesn’t appear on Aristotle’s list of virtues nor does it show up in St. Paul’s fruits of the Spirit. You won’t hear it mentioned much, if at all, in politics, except during victory or concession speeches, and almost never in the entertainment industry except for Oscar night.

I’ve wondered why we find it difficult to utter the words, “I’m grateful for. . .” or “I have gratitude for . . .” Perhaps it’s just awkward to speak the words or we find ourselves slightly embarrassed to be uttering them because one never knows where emotions such as these will go.

But it’s more likely, I think, that gratitude is seen as weakness or even a craven kissing-up to those who wield power over us. Who wants to be seen as being in debt to another, especially if that person is someone for whom we also feel resentment? Having to call on someone else for help is embarrassing; it taps into our fears of becoming redundant and it might allow others to see our incompetence.

There are days when I walk out of the classroom absolutely convinced that every student there sees me for what I am—an imposter. What gives me the right, I rage to myself, to imagine that my pitiful scraps of shared knowledge will be of use to anyone? Where do I get off thinking that my explanations and descriptions are clear, that my logic convinces and my credibility isn’t fragmented by a well-lobbed question? The dark magic of pride, hypocrisy, and self-doubt combine to become a catalytic converter for resentment. What begins as an opportunity for reflection sours into excuses: If I had better students . . . . If I had more time . . . . If they’d pay more attention and actually study the readings. . . .

It’s all a dodge, a pitiful attempt to salvage some self-respect on the barest of pretenses. Other professors make it look so easy. Their discussions flow like cream, their questions are simple and yet profound, their students cannot help but be enlightened. In Kurt Vonnegut’s vivid phrase, “They glow like bass drums with lights inside.” Do I forget those who have helped me over the years? No! But in moments like these I remember them with shame and embarrassment and shame finds it difficult to be grateful.

Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) was a Catholic priest and author of some forty books. In his commentary, The Return of the Prodigal Son, both a meditation on the parable of Jesus and the painting of the same name by Rembrandt, Nouwen says, “Resentment and gratitude cannot coexist, since resentment blocks the perception and experience of life as a gift. My resentment tells me that I don’t receive what I deserve. It always manifests itself in envy.”

There is in ungratefulness a rough shouldering aside of others, a terseness of speech and a looming sense of denial. In his multi-layered biography, John Lennon: The Life, Philip Norman comments on Lennon’s frequent callousness toward those who had served him without complaint, in some cases for decades. Employees were dropped without warning, the prodigious artistry of the Beatles’ producer, George Martin, was dismissed by John as “production shit,” and lifelong friendships jeopardized by his impatience and insecurity. Yet those who knew him best and loved him most could cite many more instances of his kindness and thoughtfulness than of the cutting remarks and cruel comments.  As his self-confidence waxed and waned his gratitude did so also. At times his vulnerability was achingly apparent such as in the lyrics to Help!:

But every now and then I feel so insecure/I know that I just need you like I’ve never done before.

In the last years of his life, before he was murdered outside the Dakota on December 8, 1980, he reached out to people he had hurt over the years and thanked them for what they had done for him. Spending so much time with his infant son Sean taught him patience and brought out in him a paternal instinct that he was not at all sure he had. As he took less and gave more his need to impose his will on others diminished and his generous nature became more evident.

So perhaps that provides a clue to gratitude, that it is there to be drawn upon when we relax our grip and learn to open up to others. Nouwen says that gratitude is a spontaneous response to our awareness of gifts received, but also that gratitude can be lived as a discipline. “The discipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and have is given to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy.”

I’d like to think of gratitude as both a virtue to be practiced and a gift to be received. In receiving there is re-cognition, a rethinking of who we are and how much we have been given. In the practicing of gratitude there is constancy and commitment. How much we could transform our world through such simple acts!

(Photo: Cristian Newman on Unsplash.com)

In Blindness Then We See

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“Once when the king of Aram was at war with Israel, he took counsel with his officers. He said, ‘At such and such a place shall be my camp.’ But the man of God sent word to the king of Israel, ‘Take care not to pass this place, because the Arameans are going down there.’ The king of Israel sent word to the place of which the man of God spoke. More than once or twice he warned such a place so that it was on the alert.

The mind of the king of Aram was greatly perturbed because of this; he called his officers and said to them, ‘Now tell me who among us sides with the king of Israel?’ Then one of his officers said, ‘No one, my lord king. It is Elisha, the prophet in Israel, who tells the king of Israel the words that you speak in your bedchamber.’ He said, ‘Go and find where he is; I will send and seize him.’ He was told, ‘He is in Dothan.’ So he sent horses and chariots there and a great army; they came by night and surrounded the city.

When a servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. His servant said, ‘Alas, master! What shall we do?’ He replied, ‘Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them.’ Then Elisha prayed: ‘O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.’ So the Lord opened the eyes of the servant, and he saw; the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.” (2 Kings 6: 8-17)

And what stops us in our tracks is not the cloak-and-dagger tension of military secrets revealed, and not the perfectly understandable reaction of the servant to besiegement, but the laconic way the man of God answers his servant’s terrified cry. He may not have even looked up when the fellow burst in through the door as the first streaks of morning light shot across the threshold.

“They’ve come for you, you know!”

“Yes.”

“What are we going to do?”

It was a matter of what one sees and what one understands. Was it a trick of the light, maybe a distortion in the retina that early in the morning? The eye sees dark shapes, maybe boulders . . . but then they move, and suddenly a vast army is revealed and we cannot see it now as anything but rank upon rank of men and horses, standing silently, with a stamping of hooves occasionally, and a muttered command, and the awful dryness in the mouth as one’s eye begins to twitch.

William James says we pay attention to what matters to us and yet we grasp so little. “One of the most extraordinary facts of our life is that, although we are besieged at every moment by impressions from our whole sensory surface, we notice so very small a part of them.”

Let us imagine the young man as one of us, a person who relies on the facts, sees for himself what is real, and runs everything he encounters through his field-tested, rigorized, and fully guaranteed BS filter. We are surrounded by troops in white Toyota Land Cruisers with turret-mounted 50-caliber machine guns, grenade-launchers, and farther back, armored trucks.

“Don’t worry,” says the master behind us. “There’s more with us than are with them.” And he prays, short and simple: “Lord, open his eyes that he might see.”

We can see alright. We know what we see before us and what we see is a guarantee of a quick and excruciating death. If it were dark we could still see with night-scopes, night-vision googles, all manner of devices to cut through the darkness and the fear. We see what can be touched. Our hope for survival is built on nothing less.

Thomas Merton says, “So much depends on our idea of God! . . We must learn to realize that the love of God seeks us in every situation, and seeks our good. His inscrutable love seeks our awakening.”

So let us freeze this frame and ask ourselves what the old man sees, as a matter of course, that we are missing? What is out there that he is so sure exists that he doesn’t even come to the window, that he doesn’t even get up from the table nor close the book he is reading? What does he know that we don’t? How does he even do that?

Elaborated Spontaneity #7

(Photo: Joao Santos on Unsplash.com)

For To Give

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“Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” This is Jesus, bent over, talking to a young man lying on a stretcher, the stretcher carried by his friends, sweating and shifting their grips from hand to hand as they come up alongside the Son of Man. And they haven’t even said anything yet, but He sees their faith and says to this guy, “Your sins are forgiven.”

This is a one-sided conversation that they’ve entered, but it seems to them like it’s one that’s been going on for some time—maybe all time—and while they don’t want to interrupt there is, nevertheless, the fact that this man is standing right in front of them, the man who can heal at a glance, a once-in-a-lifetime chance for them and their friend, who, by the way, hasn’t said a word, just looks, his hand curled like a claw, his arms like brown sticks, his fingers splayed like roots, chin covered in stubble, breath coming hard—no words—his eyes burning deep like topaz in the last light of the day.

And we, looking on, shift a bit and smile at nothing in particular. Sins! Not a word we’ve heard or used in quite awhile, and truth be told, not something we can actually relate to, come to think of it.

*****

“Have you ever sought God’s forgiveness?” asks the reporter. The candidate stops, puzzled. “I’m not sure I have ever asked God’s forgiveness,” he says. “I don’t bring God into that picture . . . When I go to church and I have my little wine and my little cracker. I guess that is a form of forgiveness.” He pauses, shrugs his shoulders. “Why do I have to repent or ask for forgiveness, if I am not making mistakes? I work hard, I’m an honorable person.”

*****

Actually, we’d be more comfortable if the conversation revolved around rights and obligations. We have respect for privacy; we believe everyone has the right to their own opinion and who are we to say who has committed a sin or not. That’s their business and not something which can really — or should really — be talked about, seeing as nobody has the right to tell me or anybody else, what I should or should not be doing. I pay my taxes, I work hard, I try to help others out where I can, but in the end it’s really my life and no one else’s and I really don’t — I mean, you know — you don’t have a right to tell me what to do, you know?

This moment: this paralyzed man, his friends, breathless, waiting, the crowd at our backs, the sun slanting into our eyes, a dry, coppery taste in our mouths. Jesus smiles and straightens. “I know what you’re thinking,” he says. “Why do you think such evil? What’s easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven’, or to say, ‘Stand up and walk?’

*****

We don’t know what to say, they’re just words, anyone could say them but that doesn’t prove a thing. I mean, I could say that—not that I would—but if I wanted to I could say that, but what good would that do anyway? Nobody talks like that! Who talks like that, anyway?

Jesus turns. “Stand up,” he says to the guy on the stretcher. “Go home.”

And I do. I swing my legs down, set my feet on the ground and stand up, a little shaky at first, but I’m up.

“Thank you,” I croak. I look down. My fingers ball up and I rub my arm. My friends stand paralyzed.

“Thank you,” I say, and the people near me fall back.

“Thank you,” — the words are stronger now — and I walk.

Elaborated Spontaneity #6 (Photo: Pawel Nolbert at Unsplash.com)

Resist and Love

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“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” says Frost, and thus rouses the silent kid in her ninth grade English class who finds in the poet a resistance fighter. At the molecular level, within the genetic structure of the body politic, the germ of resistance can be isolated, understood as a trait that our American forebears had in abundance and we would do well to emulate.

We resist when we’re young because we don’t know what we’re capable of; we resist because without something to push against we lose all feeling in our senses. To be someone we have to bump up against something, push something around, if only to find the edges of the universe we find ourselves floating within.

“The simplest idea of power,” says James Hillman, “supposes that for work to be done, there must be something that resists.” If nothing else, resistance makes power possible, even something which can be measured.

But we measure ourselves by what we’re not going to put up with anymore, by what rights we are owed, by the amount of pushback we get when we bend the world to our will.

We resist, therefore we are.

But this is tenuous and we know it. We are living in times when identities are thrown like knives. “I am this!” “You are that!” “They are not this, not like us.” “We would never do that, not like them!” We peer through our family and tribal filters that polarize the light around us by cutting out the interferences. There is precedent.

A man named Saul, a bona fide terrorist, riding to Damascus with a license to apprehend and arrest Christians for their torture and death, is thrown from his horse, blinded, and pinned to the ground by a bolt of light and a voice from the heavens.  The King James Version puts it best:

“And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.”

Saul had been kicking against the pricks all his life and the pricks had returned the favor to the extent that Saul could easily have passed for one himself. Modern translations of the Bible have lost the latter phrase, but we can know that Saul was resisting with everything he had, kicking away all the faces of those he carried in his conscience day after day. “You have lost yourself,” they whispered. “You must change your life.”

And change he does. Resisting the dead weight of primitive prejudice, this Saul becomes a Paul, rebounds from his blindness to persuade his former victims that while he once was blind, now he sees. Now he’s fighting—not against flesh and blood—but against principalities and powers, unholy powers in high places who build their walls.

Years later this Paul is still resisting. He knows plenty about fighting the good fight, but he also knows a lot about love. Look, he says, now I only know part of the story, but someday I will know as fully as I am known. Faith, hope, and love, he says, these are the essentials, but the best part is love. You must change your life. We don’t even know how to pray for change, but the Spirit prays within us, and in all things there is something working out for good to those who believe that goodness still lives in the world.

We may call this Truth or God or Love; in the end they are quite the same.

Elaborated Spontaneity #5 (Photo: Allef Vinicius on Unsplash.com)

God Incognito


“I think, therefore I am,” says Descartes, and thereby overturns centuries of philosophy past. He imagines a dark spirit with infinite powers to deceive, who could turn lightness into dark and cause one to doubt the very ground upon which one stands.

Suppose, suggests Descartes, that I am mistaken about the ‘hereness’ of my body, about the realness of the world ‘out there’, about the existence of God? Suppose that every shard of reality I cling to is an illusion: how would I know? How do we claw through the fog? If it’s all wisps and shadows, how will we know when our little bark has run up on the beach?

He edges out on the high wire, squinting hard at the far post, determined to reject everything except that which he could not doubt. And what he could not doubt is that he is the one doing the doubting, and that those who doubt their existence must exist in order to do the doubting. ‘Cogito ergo, sum’ — I think, therefore I am.

It’s a grand and audacious mind game that Descartes is playing. It’s an axiom dressed as a revelation, a discovery of the self. He invites us to doubt, but he never really doubted anyway. What sets Descartes apart, though, is that he’s given personal experience and his own thought as much authority as conventional wisdom. Find the truth, he says. Think for yourself; argue it out in your own head. Be the master of your interior world. You think, therefore you are. And therefore, is God.

What do we mean when we say we “know” God? Do we “know” the wind? Do we “know” the darkness within the cloud? Do we “know” the cry of our own voice caught up and away in the wind and the cloud? This will not suffice; there must be more.

* * * *

The mild-mannered parishioner two pews over, his attention wandering during the homily, moistens a finger and doubles the pages of his Bible under his thumb. He has an idea to look for God in the Old Testament, but not in the bloody chronicles of genocide and terror. Ecclesiastes appears, but he remembers something about everything as vanity. He frowns: he needs a handhold, not a slippery slope. The Psalms are familiar — he’ll pitch his tent there for awhile in hopes of a well-known verse or two.

“Answer me when I call, O God of my right!,” shouts the ragged singer of the Psalms. He rages, he twists, he cries out; he will stitch up one star to another if he has to and create a zip line to Yahweh. Our parishioner stiffens in the pew; no one should talk to God like that. He reads it again, his finger tracing the words. He whispers it to himself, bending over the page, eyebrows lifted. He imagines ravens wheeling against the desert sun, a cave behind him, the whorl of a desert dust devil swirling closer. He raises an arm against the sun and the shriek of the wind, the ground rocks beneath him, and he hears it, a whisper: “I am.”

“Yes,” he says out loud. “Yes, you are.”

Elaborated Spontaneity #4 (Photo: Clarisse Meyers, Unsplash.com)

The Tree Lives On

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(Photo: Joy Daquila-Casey)

“I can’t believe the news today
I can’t close my eyes and make it go away.
How long, how long must we sing this song?
How long, how long?
‘Cos tonight
We can be as one, tonight.” (Sunday Bloody Sunday)

From the first stutter beats of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” from Larry Mullen, Jr., the crowd at FedEx Field rose as one with a roar. He was joined by Adam Clayton, The Edge, and Bono, who tore into the lyrics from a song about the IRA bombing of Armagh that has only deepened in meaning in the decades since.

The first four songs, done on a stage in the shape of a Joshua Tree that extended into the audience, are standards on their concert set list: “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “New Year’s Day,” “Bad,” and “Pride (In the Name of Love).” They were done with gusto, the crowd shouting out each lyric, but with no onstage pyrotechnics except the spotlights. But when the band pulled back to the enormous main stage they turned to “Where the Streets Have No Name” and The Joshua Tree.

Every tour that U2 performs is a spectacular staging of music, media, and art. Along the way, over all these years, their designers have even invented new technologies to create what Bono called “an epic experience” each night.

The set for Joshua Tree is deceptively simple, an enormous backboard of desert tan with the outline of the iconic Joshua Tree from the original photo shoot splayed out and rising above the backdrop. But as the band gets into full swing the whole thing lights up, serving as a photo montage, a video screen, and a live action feed of the band, usually all at once.

It’s breathtaking, especially as we see the band at first silhouetted as black figures against a luminous crimson background, and later as we are at the wheel of a car driving down the yellow stripe of a road through the desert. The backdrop dwarfs the band itself, but we see them in individual closeups throughout the concert.

 

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The Joshua Tree 2017 Tour is a return to the album that gave U2 their first international acclaim back in 1987, sold 20 million units world-wide, garnered them numerous awards, and gave them superstar standing.

Reagan was in the White House and Thatcher was at 10 Downing Street. The world they had made looked pretty grim and U2’s impassioned lyrics and music reflected the dichotomy between America as myth and America as an idea, something that Bono riffed on in this concert. This album was a direct result of U2’s fascination with America as a place of dreams and of bitter reality. All these years later the songs have taken on new meaning in this partisan minefield, this moment in American history that is more conflicted than when the album was born.

For me The Joshua Tree was a spiritual lifesaver. It came out in 1987, just months before my son was born. I was running a small graphics business out of the top floor of the Sligo SDA Church office, working 14 hours a day, and adjunct teaching World Religions at Columbia Union College. After working all day designing and laying out newsletters, magazines, brochures, and flyers, I’d transition to professor mode in the evening. When I’d finish teaching at 9 pm I’d go up to my office and work all night finishing up designs and meeting deadlines. I had a cassette of Unforgettable Fire, U2’s fourth album but the first one I’d bought. When Joshua Tree came out in March 1987 I played it over and over until the tracks were imbedded in my unconscious. The whole album reflected my spiritual restlessness and hope. If I felt like I was “Running to Stand Still” I also knew that “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”

On this night U2 served up the whole album, working through each song with alacrity and vigor, each one invested with the sweetness of nostalgia as well as the urgency of the present moment. Finishing with the haunting “Mothers of the Disappeared,” they waved goodbye to the crowd. But we knew they’d be back.

The encore set of six songs began with “Miss Sarajevo” with the video realigned to a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan and complete with the soaring verses by Luciano Pavarotti. That was followed by “Beautiful Day,” with Bono exclaiming, “When women of the world unite to rewrite history as her story, that is a beautiful day!”

One of the most poignant moments was during “Ultra Violet (Light My Way),” in which a photo montage of women leaders from Rosa Parks to Michelle Obama to Dorothy Haight, Gloria Steinem, Malala, Connie Mudenda, and many others filled the screens.

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(Photo: Sriram Gopal)

During the intro to “One” Bono called out politicians like Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Rep. Kay Grainger (R-TX), personal friends of his, and celebrated the fact that 18 million people around the world are surviving AIDS by taking one pill a day paid for by US taxpayers dollars.

The encore and the show finished with “Vertigo,” amidst a spectacular visual display that could have given the faint of heart cardiac arrest.

In 1991 U2 released Achtung Baby, an album that was a decided departure from their previous albums. The band felt they were stagnating and that they “had to go away and dream it all up again.” Bono described their new direction as “four men chopping down the Joshua Tree.”

All these years later the tree has miraculously survived and we are the better for it.

Elaborated Spontaneity

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This is the first post in an ongoing experiment in quick writing, usually 500 words or less, on a spiritual theme, in which I play with metaphors, images, and concepts from the Bible. The second one follows, called ‘The Light.’

Imagine an elaborated spontaneity in which we juggle up a new idea, toss it around, look at it in the light, and set it down for a minute. In that short minute we ask ourselves what other ideas could connect here, what memories, what experiences, what chips of light and dark could be struck off in the shaping of it. Then back to the tossing from hand to hand–another way to see how the idea plays in this context and that–does it play or does it work? Does it lead us into paths of imagination for its own sake or does it drag us through the valley of the shadow of the death of hopes?

This is “elaborated spontaneity,” the ability to elongate and stretch and pull and twist a modest idea, almost like we are roping up pasta from scratch into long, fine strands by looping it, flipping it, folding it, twirling it into something delicious, savory, and gifted to others and ourselves, in the moment of creation, more than we thought and less than we touched; a faith that begins as a mustard seed and by chance (maybe by God’s nudge) skitters into good ground, puts up a shoot, shoots up into a shrub, and gathers to it the birds of the air. All this from a simple act of not looking away when our attention is caught like wool on a rose bush.

Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.

(Photo: Sebastian Molina, Unsplash.com)

Elaborated Spontaneity #1

The Light

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In the beginning was the word, and boy, was it ever a good word!

That word came from the Wordmaker and the Wordmaker was God, and all the words that rose up from the Wordmaker’s mouth did what they were meant to do, and the world sprang into light and that light was the light of the world.

There were times when the light could be seen like lightning from the east to the west and—truth be told—there was one who saw something like light falling from heaven, but no one saw where it plunged into the sea, if it did. It may still be falling far below that line on the horizon where the sea and the sky blur up together.

There came a time when the light burned low, like the light in a cat’s eye, and you’d have to be looking in the right place to notice it. It held there, but then it was flickering and wavering and almost guttering out and I remember in that moment that the one up ahead of us suddenly cried out, “My God, why have you forsaken me!” just as it fizzled and went out with a pfft.

It seemed an eternity in a darkness so absolute you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face—and there was no sound—the words had simply been crushed with a heavy hand across the mouth. Then—glory!—the light curled up and Someone cupped it close in a hand and it rose like a plume, almost perfect, and we held our breath, but it steadied and jumped and suddenly we had our own lights, each of us, above our heads, like a breath of benediction.

And you may be wondering just now why the light of the world is not a torch thrown high showering sparks, or like a pillar of fire by night or—hell, let’s go for the brass ring—why the light of the world is not a towering inferno for all the world to see.

That is a good question.

This is what we’ve pieced together: the light has come into the world to shine in the darkness and it lights up everyone who wants to be lit. No towering inferno, just many little lights flickering through the darkness. They coalesce, move together at times, split into streams, and come back together. Sometimes you’ll see one light way off, bobbing and dipping, and then joined by other lights. And it may be a trick of the eye, but rarely does one light remain alone for long. Light calls to light. Two become one and then many spring up out of the one. These lights are like a good word in due season.

There’s even a song about it with a line that goes:
“I see my light come shining from the west unto the east.
Any day now, any day now,
I shall be released.”

So, let your light shine in the world.

(Photo: Aziz Acharki, Unsplash.com)

Elaborated Spontaneity #2

Being With Thomas

BuriedLife2I would have been with Thomas in that upper room. Never an early adopter nor a joiner, I would have held back to watch others, see their reactions, imagine myself in their place, until the resistance I felt toward the new had reduced its charge.

It’s a question of how we know what we know, and whether what we know can be verified. It’s a question of how much you trust your senses and whether your rational faculties can puzzle it through. Mostly, it’s about whether you’re willing to look foolish in pursuit of truth.

Thomas gets the rap as the doubting one, forever holding out until he can touch and feel and see with his own eyes. Like it had never occurred to the rest of them that maybe this kingdom of God business was just too good to be true. Like all the other promises made that had not so much been broken as had not materialized beyond the promising stage. But with Thomas it was never skepticism about the nature of Jesus’ intentions. Nor was it cynicism about the possibility of goodness in the world. There was plenty of goodness, and beauty also, and where goodness and beauty live truth must be in the neighborhood somewhere.

No, what Thomas knew about himself with the clarity that comes from aloneness is that he lacked the courage to commit himself to another.

It hadn’t always been this way. After all, he was Thomas—Didymus—aka ‘The Twin.’ There had been another, his brother, older by two minutes and stronger twice over. They had been inseparable, each the other half of the other, together as one, but not the same. He had led, Thomas had followed. Thomas was thoughtful, holding back, his brother plunging ahead with a shout. Thomas had read and questioned, his brother had acted. They had talked and argued late into the night about politics, religion, freedom. His brother joined a group; they were armed. He was adamant: “Better to die trying than not to try at all.” Later, after he was crucified with the others, the soldiers had come round for Thomas. By that time he had gone, into the night. Keeping to the back roads, he had traveled north to Galilee alone.

And now here he was amongst a band of brothers, younger than most, the first to ask, the last to step forward. When he had met Jesus it was as if he had seen his brother again: all the strength, but without the recklessness. And now He was gone, crucified like his twin; another one taken, promises dashed.

So he might be forgiven, Thomas reckoned, for standing back when the others told him, breathlessly, that they had seen the Lord. “The door was shut, we were afraid, and then there He was!”

“I see,” said Thomas, but he didn’t really. “He asked about you,” they said. “He said he’d be back.”

“I’d have to see that for myself,” said Thomas dryly. Peter smiled. “He figured you’d say that.”

Eight days later he was with the others, the door locked and bolted, voices lowered. And then He was there, smiling, in their midst, and looking Thomas in the eye. “I’m real,” He said. “Touch me. Act on it! Believe.”

All this was a long time ago, but set down this. Set down this: I came to faith, finally, by acting as if it were there. And then it was and is and will be if I but act.

For we are saved by hope:
but hope that is seen is not hope:
for what a man seeth,
why doth he yet hope for?
But if we hope for that we see not,
then do we with patience wait for it.