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

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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

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“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.

No Offense

Photo by Bekoz on Unsplash

“But observe what a poor service one renders Christianity by doing away with the possibility of offense and making it an amiable, sentimental paganism.”1 — Soren Kierkegaard

More than any other relationship that asked of us honesty, endurance, and humility, our relationship with Christ turned us inside out, caused us to question our version of reality, brought us up short when we examined our motives.

And so it should, for there was no one to whom we, the original Twelve, could compare Christ. Having given himself into the hands of God, he remained solidly here among us, visible but not definable, offering words that slid past us like melting ice, vanishing even as we clutched at them. Yet somehow, they burned themselves into our memories, to be recalled and spent in the moment, with effects on others that we recognized, but only later understood.

***

Soren Kierkegaard, that contentious, brilliant, and caustic Romantic of 19th-century Copenhagen, wrote his most accessible book, Training in Christianity, not long before he died in 1855 at the age of forty-two. In it, he contrasted Christianity with Christendom, with the latter receiving his everlasting scorn.

Christendom, said Kierkegaard, was the smoothly-accommodating cultural partner of the world, consonant with citizenship, demanding nothing of its members, offering no critique against the shallow perversity of society. Christianity, on the other hand, as defined by Kierkegaard, was a narrow path for the one who was not afraid of martyrdom. The one who rose to the standard he called ‘the knight of faith.‘ Kierkegaard was alert—some might say, obsessively so—to those who misunderstood and mischaracterized him. He addressed himself to ‘my reader.’ The singular noun was intentional.

In Training in Christianity, Kierkegaard insists that unless Christ gives offense he is not really the God-Man. It’s the method and direction of his communication that makes the difference. Christ asks his disciples directly, “Do you believe?”, a question they cannot avoid to his face and will answer positively. But for today’s disciples, asserts Kierkegaard, Christ asks indirectly, putting them to the test. He hides himself, speaks through his absence, so the individual disciple really must choose, must make a decision to trust or not. This inward, indirect communication of Christ to the believer is the real test of faith. Kierkegaard’s attack on Christendom was over making Jesus, as the God-Man, too tame, a being without offense, for whom we do not have to sacrifice, over whom we are not tested, and therefore do not have to exercise authentic faith.

This astringent Christianity is, for Kierkegaard, the only true type because it requires a leap of faith that is not supported by any rationalization. That is the only kind of faith which is genuine, he says, because it is not reliant on the crowd nor on our preferences nor on a dilatory choice among a buffet of options nor on a syllogism of logic within a tidy system of thought. On the contrary, this faith requires everything of us: “Let us go and die with him.”

***

I have been scratching the itch that is Kierkegaard for many years, ever since I first read him in college. For a young person just beginning to own his Christianity, SK (as he is known in the philosophy trade) is thrilling. He doesn’t have the coruscating cynicism toward religion that Nietzsche has, but neither does he have the startling clarity and immediacy of Nietzsche’s aphorisms. What he does have in everything he writes, is a singular focus on faith as the passionate commitment to Christ above all else.

The tension is between the individual following Christ and the church that bows the knee to the ruling culture. The Danish Lutheran church in SK’s time was a branch of the state; it would not bite the hand that fed it. As he saw it, the official church was lost, irredeemable—and even worse—placid in the face of its idolatry.

For it was clear to SK that genuine faith in the God-Man was so contrary to our worldly desires that if we weren’t offended then it wasn’t real faith. “But whether one does away with faith or with the possibility of offense, one does away at the same time with something else—the God-Man. And if one does away with the God-Man, one does away with Christianity.”2

In SK’s time, to be Danish was to be a Christian—and that was deeply offensive to him. Christianity was not our birthright nor was it included as a signing bonus in our citizenship papers. It was always and ever to be a decision made regardless of the cost, in which one threw oneself across the void to be caught in trust by God’s grace in Christ. A stark and clear commitment.

For the Christian, this is a perennial question. How are we to relate to the world? We are in it; as humans we belong here, yet we are called to live on the border between the immanent and the transcendent. We are to love the world in all its broken, weary beauty—but to remind it that its ways are broken, that justice must lift up the powerless, and that its power plays are tragically and irreversibly flawed.

Christendom assumed Christ was in the past, safely subsumed under the weight of history, culture, military might, ritual, and shrewd thinking. We could look back on him, almost nostalgically, at Christmas and at Easter, and admire his stalwart dedication—without considering that his whole life, and especially his death, was an electrifying call to us to change our lives.

For Kierkegaard, we are to be “contemporaneous with Christ,” nothing less will do. Christ is the present tense of God and about him a decision must be made—today.

But in contrast to the mind-set of our time, Kierkegaard refuses to be seduced into the autonomy of the self-made person. He has seen his own weaknesses; he knows there can only be solace and strength in casting his lot with the Christ who, through love, bore everything the powers could throw at him. In his Works of Love, published in 1847, he brings us to the inmost heart of the Christian experience in a series of reflections or “Christian discourses” on God’s gift of love to us. As with all his other writings, these reflections are meant to provoke action and change in our lives.

“The most mediocre defense against hypocrisy,” he says, “is prudence . . . The best defense against hypocrisy is love . . . This also is a fruit whereby love is known—it secures the lover against falling into the snare of the hypocrite.”3 But Kierkegaard knows that the fruit of love in a person develops slowly; there will be setbacks and discouragement. We will be tempted to give up and to turn bitter when loving our neighbor as ourselves does not come easily.

“But now we return again to the first point and say, repeating: believe in love! This is the first and last thing to be said about love if one is to know what love is.”4 He continues: “If mistrust can see something as less than it actually is, love also can see something as greater than it is . . .”5 If we are happy to see the fruits of love in ourselves or in another person, he says, it is still more blessed to “believe in love.” To go back to the beginning, to ground ourselves in the belief that God loves us, no matter how meager the fruits of our love, is to enjoy the upwelling of the Spirit in our lives.

“Therefore the last, the most blessed, the absolutely convincing evidence of love remains: love itself, which is known and recognized by the love in another. Like is known only by like. Only he who abides in love can recognize love, and in the same way his love is to be known.”6

***

Kierkegaard’s prophetic message against Christendom and for the rise of true Christianity is a message for our time. The Church should always, whether it acknowledges it or not, be in a prophetic tension with the world. At times, it may assure itself that it has power enough to contend in the arenas with the other players. But this is an illusion. On the other hand, it may attempt to keep its head down, to pride itself on a demeanor that allows it to move unscathed through the world. But this, too, is illusion, since it is more likely that the powers—political, military, technological, entertainment—regard it within a spectrum from condescension to indifference. The Church must steadfastly renounce the temptation to claim power that would coerce, for it has been called to announce the liberation of the captives—everyone of us—through God’s grace.

For individual Christians, this Christianity may be daunting. “Our uncertainty,” says Rowan Williams, “about the degree of our responsibility need not be cowardly or self-deceiving; it can be an honest acknowledgement of the way in which reality, even human and personal reality, resists the mind’s desperate attempt to organize it reasonably.”7

When we look at the world going up in flames, we may despair of ever seeing a day when new growth will spring up from the bomb craters. “All that can be done is, again and again, to refuse the temptation to rationalize, and turn to the compassionate Word of God,”8 says Williams.

For our courage—as humans and as Christians—will rely upon the nobility of our humility in finally turning to God’s grace. It is abundant and all-encompassing, but it is not cheap.

  1. Kierkegaard, Soren. Training in Christianity. Translated and with an introduction by Walter Lowrie. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 1972, p. 143.
  2. Kierkegaard. Training, p. 143.
  3. Kierkegaard, Soren. Works of Love. Translated by Howard and Edna Hong. New York: Harper and Row, 1962, p. 32.
  4. Kierkegaard, Works, p. 32.
  5. Kierkegaard, Works, p. 33.
  6. Kierkegaard, Works, p. 33.
  7. Williams, Rowan. A Ray of Darkness: Sermons and Reflections. Boston, MA: Cowley Publications, 1995, p. 76.
  8. Williams, A Ray of Darkness, p. 79.

A Labor of the Instant

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“Religious writing, poetry that is authentic religious writing, writing that is religious work, is very precisely an attempt to be where the action is, God’s action, where this reality, me, my words, my perception, meet what is fundamental, God. . .”1

What do we say when we talk and write about God? It’s a question that goes deeper and deeper, like those little Russian dolls, one inside the other, until you lift out the last one, the one so small it cannot be opened but only may be held. Much of what we talk about when we talk about God is precisely that—talk about our talking of God, metatalk,talk that sets us at several removes from God and turns God into an object to be scrutinized alongside other objects in the world. Such talk clarifies the boundaries of definitions and aligns the methods of discourse, but it does not translate well out of the seminar and the conference setting.

We must ask ourselves, then, especially those of us who call ourselves Christians, why people—or rather, why we—talk and write about God? One reason, surely, is that we hope others will experience something of God, something that will help them dive deeper, become more supple, find more meaning, discover a saving attunement to Spirit. And this motivation arises on the assumption that we have witnessed in our own lives the outlines of what that something is, through tradition and revelation and personal experience. We can only express with credibility that which we ourselves have seen.

So the “why” of this form of talk inevitably leads to the “what,” a movement from motive to content. But that seems backwards, as if our enthusiasm (from en theos, to be in God) suddenly went searching for the message about God that we could give to others.

The way we were taught about witnessing for our faith always began with the content of doctrine, a system of beliefs that logically cohered and was meant to be persuasive. Only then did you overcome your shyness or your instinctual respect for the privacy of others, and launch the frontal assault for their conversion in the paramilitary style of witnessing that some Protestant traditions employ.

We looked to doctrine to guide us into a relationship with Christ. We thought that to begin with beliefs would eventually lead us to love and to a sense that we were accepted by God. Content would trigger inspiration and lead to motivation to talk and write of God with others.

There are many people whose temperament and outlook on life make this the most natural way to God. “Count the cost,” Jesus said, “before you build.” Are you ready for the changes that come with being in Christ? Do you know what you’re getting into? Acolytes in the early centuries of Christianity spent up to a year studying the beliefs, and observing and learning the practices of the communities of Jesus, before they were formally accepted into the body of Christ through baptism. Given that joining such a community was often a prelude to martyrdom, it was essential that they had counted the cost—and that they would not betray their companions.

“Christian doctrine,” says Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, “exists so that certain obstacles may be taken away to our openness to the action of God.”2 There is a subtle nuance here: doctrines are gates that open to let the flow of responsive spirituality through. They should not be dams to stop the flow until it silts up behind the barrier. Religion does not have to be the death of spirituality.

But for other people the best course is to allow God the lead in this dance. If God is the center of our universe, then God’s gravitational field will draw those willing to him, as we were drawn to him.

“Thou hast made us for thyself,” prayed Augustine, “and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.” I memorized that when I was trying to understand prayer and was reading a lot of books about prayer. Notably, I was not praying. My prayers, I believed, fell too easily into the category of “vain repetitions.” They embarrassed me and I was sure they embarrassed God.

As much as possible, I wriggled out of praying in public, convinced that I could only offer up the palest petitions and the most tepid thanksgivings. On the few occasions when I could not refuse, I did not prepare. Instead, I offered up a silent, desperate cry before moving to the lectern. “Say what you want through me,” I prayed. “I’ve got nothing.” Those were the prayers which fell upon receptive ears, and some of the owners of those ears remarked that I had seen into their hearts. “Not me,” I said, “I was just the breath and mouth of it.”

I was a restless heart for whom the study of the philosophy of religion was finally not enough. I will not cut off as dead weight the years I spent in preparation and the years I enjoyed opening students to it. It satisfied a part of me that wanted to witness the grand sweep of thought about God. And I taught ethics so my students and I might be awake and contributing for justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. But it was not enough.

“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth,” said Jesus, “will draw all people to myself.” And the Gospel of John continues: “He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.”3 That death has drawn the suffering of this broken world into itself. This man, the very image of God, was and is the Word that spoke creation into being. And where the creative impulse flourishes in humans, through art, music, poetry, fiction, essays, there God-in-Christ makes visible his transformation of suffering into beauty.

For many of us, there is a path to God under the open sun, that winds through standing forests, breathes in poetry and song, and blinks in wonder at works of art. We carry a hunger or a sense of lostness or catch a glimpse of beauty or the sharp edge of justice, and then live our way into a structure that builds on that. In a gallery in a city we find a torso draped in cloth—but it is carved of wood—the flowing miracle of solidity. In another gallery we marvel at the dress that’s spun of glass, the rainbow woven of ten thousand anchored threads. The wonder of forms that reveal grace, these are intimations of God in the presence of a distilled silence heard with reverence.

Rowan Williams reminds us that “We need Christian doctrine because we need some notion of what it is we are trying to be attuned to . . . But if doctrine doesn’t make possible poetry and contemplation, then doctrine is a waste of time; it becomes purely and simply old, safe, and useful.”4

The doctrine of Creation, that there is in all of us a creative impulse reflective of the very image of God, bursts forth in wider and wider circles from the still point of the Spirit at the center. I hear it in the poetry of R. S. Thomas, Mary Oliver, and Rilke. It rings through in the secular psalms of U2, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, and Sting. It is there in the delicate balance of forces in the kinetic art of Andy Goldsworthy’s natural sculptures, in the brooding portraits by Georges Rouault, and the sensual delight in Marc Chagall’s angels, cows, and villagers.

“Man is all Imagination,” wrote William Blake, that God-intoxicated poet. “God is Man & exists in us & we in him. The Eternal Body of Man is The Imagination, that is, God himself . . . It manifests itself in his Works of Art.”5

God is in the world in many forms and voices; grace gives us the lens to see his glory in the world. In those artists whose works take us through the painful descent into the hells of human suffering, we see the steps of the Christ who harrowed those hells and destroyed the power of death.

Williams says, “. . . God is spoken of, and spoken for, or indeed just spoken, precisely in writing that has no explicitly religious content, because of the character of the writing as a labor of the instant.”6

The Spirit moves as does the wind, springing up in an instant and coursing through us. “And we are put on earth a little space,” says Blake, “That we may learn to bear the beams of love.”7 To that, our most eloquent response, our deepest talk of God, may be our grateful silence.

  1. Williams, Rowan. A Silent Action: Engagements with Thomas Merton. Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 2011, p. 47.
  2. Williams, p. 50.
  3. Jn. 12:32,33 NRSV.
  4. Williams, p. 50.
  5. Quoted in Frye, Northrop. Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake. Princeton University, 1947, p. 30.
  6. Williams, p. 49.
  7. Blake, William. Songs of Innocence and Experience. New York: Avon Books, 1971, p. 37.

Fear Not

Photo: Johannes Plenio Nfreue, Unsplash

Better to await the long night’s ending,

Till the light comes, far truths transcending.1

One of the surprises of growing older is to realize, on days that are bright, cold, and clean, that we feel younger than we really are. I don’t mean how we measure the occasional absence of aches and pains, but rather the mental image of ourselves that we carry, as if our present self looked with affectionate amusement upon our younger self, dressed in raiment three decades back and striding purposefully into the day.

We might want to say to that younger self, “Be mindful; listen to the sound of your footfalls; be dazzled by the choreography of birds overhead; allow yourself a smile directed nowhere in particular. Consider generosity with your time.” This private image we regard subjectively, as if we are watching a group that includes our younger self.

When we are young we think we’ll live forever, but that’s a characterization that only the old make of the young. The young might think in the abstract about death now and then, but for the most part they are just getting on with life—as they should. Perhaps we older folk confuse their attention to the present and the near-future with indifference to the terminus point for all of us. There’s time enough to think about death, much more time than one so young would think.

But time runs on and we run to keep up and much of what we grasp about life is learned breathlessly as we run. In the midst of going to college, first real jobs, raising children, seeing our parents age and become infirm, divorces, loss of jobs, switching careers, and retirement—we may have our moments of reflection waiting out the light at the intersection. Or we may wake at four in the morning, trying to puzzle out the riddle of our lives.

For many, religion is what they turn to when suffering overwhelms. “Life is suffering,” said the Buddha, a simple statement of fact in his lexicon, and he went on to offer examples. Pain, obviously, was suffering, but so also could happiness be suffering, if by that we indulge in desire before arriving at it, and bitterness when it’s gone. It was not so much the particulars within the general condition, as it was the general condition itself.

When I would introduce the Buddha’s statement to my Religions of the World classes, there would be puzzled looks and a shifting in their chairs. Almost invariably, someone would take exception by stating how good life was—or could be—if we would just quit moping around and be happy. It was almost an affront—almost unAmerican—to admit to anything less than the best of all possible worlds. But others, those who would speak up hesitantly after others had had their say, would ask if the loss of innocence was suffering or if the pang of never arriving at a place one could call home counted as suffering.

Epicurus, working his garden and discussing philosophy with his students in Athens in the fourth century BCE, took the long view. “Death,” he said, “the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that when we are, death is not yet, and when death comes, we are not.”2 Serenity in the face of the inevitable contrasted vividly with Dylan Thomas’ anguished cry to his dying father, to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”3

Augustine, whose book Confessions, is the first and longest open prayer to God, pours out his heart about the death of his best friend, unnamed to us.

“Well it was said of a friend that he is the soul’s other half. My soul and his I considered one soul in two bodies—so my life was unbearable, to live with only half of our soul, but my death was terrifying, perhaps to see his remaining half of soul die in me whom I so much loved.”4

Augustine fears death, not so much for himself, as for the extinction, finally, of his friend. Half a life is better than none at all. But that was when Augustine was a pagan.

Some years later Augustine has a different reaction to the death of his mother, Monica. She had been praying and weeping and beseeching for his conversion for years. When it occurs, as Augustine dramatically describes in the Confessions, her life’s work seems complete. Some days later she falls under a high fever and within nine days is dead. Augustine, in private, loosens the tears he had held in, “resting softly on my sobs at ease.”

He writes, somewhat defensively, “whoever wishes can read me and, as he wishes, decide whether I mourned my mother excessively, by this or that part of an hour, but not deride me for it.”5 He is asking us not to judge him too harshly for weeping over his mother’s death, even though his weeping was for less than an hour. His grief is doubled, he says, by the fact that he is grieving. Apparently, he believed that for a Christian, such grief is unbecoming. In his own eyes Augustine is condemned for not having enough reliance on God to tough it out without giving way to his emotions. But we grieve because we love and a love that is not grieved is less than love.

And yet later, when his own precocious Adeodatus, a fine young man of seventeen, his son by a long-time mistress, is suddenly struck down, Augustine is at peace, for both of them—father and son—had been baptized on the same day. He does not weep nor break stride as he goes about his duties. His son is with God. And as he looks toward the Resurrection, missing Monica, Augustine foresees his own Mother and Child Reunion—an event greatly to be anticipated.

For Christians, Augustine tells us, our fear of death diminishes the nearer we are to God.

But not everyone has seen it quite that way. Consider Michel Montaigne (1533-1592), Renaissance statesman, philosopher, part of the nobility in France at that time, and the father of the modern essay. When Montaigne was thirty-six, he had a near-death experience. He was riding in the forest with three or four companions, servants in his household, musing over something intriguing to him, when suddenly he took a tremendous blow to his back, was flung from his horse, and landed ten yards away, unconscious. It seems that one of his men, a burly fellow, had spurred his horse to full gallop to impress his friends, and had misjudged the distance between himself and his master, inadvertently knocking Montaigne and his little horse off the path.

Sara Bakewell tells the story in her book, How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne.6 At the time, Montaigne felt himself to be drifting peacefully toward eternal sleep, although he was actually retching up blood and tearing at his belly as though to claw it open for release. For days he lay in bed recovering, full of aches and grievous pains, marveling at the experience he’d had and trying to recall every moment of it. It changed his life, which, until then, had been dedicated to learning how to die with equanimity and grace.

In an essay on death, written some years after the incident, Montaigne rather offhandedly sums up the lesson: “If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry. Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.”7

Bakewell notes that this became Montaigne’s answer to the question of how to live. In fact, not worrying about death made it possible to really live. In an era in which a man of thirty-six could, by the limits of those times, see himself on the verge of getting old, the contemplation of death had been refined to a high art. Montaigne picked this up from his voluminous study of the Greek and Roman classics, his admiration for the Stoics, like Seneca, and the Roman orator, statesman and philosopher, Cicero, who famously wrote, “To philosophize is to learn how to die.”

Death was an obsession for Montaigne when he was in his twenties and early thirties. In succession, his best friend died of the plague in 1563, his father died in 1568, and in 1569 his younger brother died in a freak sporting accident. In that same year Montaigne got married; his first child, born that same year lived only two months. Montaigne lost four more children, only one of six living to adulthood. Yet, in spite of all that early sorrowful practice, he had grown no easier with death.

It wasn’t until his near-fatal accident that he began to understand how little his own death need affect his life. His memory of it was one of peaceful release; he had almost kissed Death on the lips. From that experience he gradually migrated from the fear of dying to the love of life.

Sometimes, we may be so concerned with dying that we forget the point is to live.

Lewis Lapham, the editor of Lapham’s Quarterly, parses the difference between how he was raised to think about death as a young man in the 50s, and today. He says that several thousand years of art, literature, and religion raise the question, “Why must I die?” And the natural follow-up question is, “How do I live my life?” Our question today is, “Why can’t I live forever?” And that, says Lapham, consigns the custody of one’s death to powers that promote the fear of it, among them the church, the state, the biochemical engineers, and those who will profit from our endless war against terrorism.8

If religion functions as a device (and I use the word deliberately) to ingratiate us to an absent god or to palliate the pain of our swollen egos, then it belongs in the medicine cabinet alongside the opiate of the people. But if it is so engrained in our being that it is first about being and only then about doing, then we have something that can see us through the valleys of suffering on the way to death.

“Religion is not the answer to the unknowable or the unfaceable or the unendurable,” says Peter Gomes in The Good Book; ”religion is what we do and what we are in the face of the unknowable, the unfaceable, and the unendurable. It is a constant exercise in the making of sense first, and then of meaning.”9

As a person of faith, I am grateful for the insight of Eamon Duffy who says of the Christian’s way, “Our dignity and our burden is to be that part of creation which is conscious not only of itself but of its finitude,” and, “We sing to the light in the midst of a darkness which we know will one day devour us.”10

We may sing, not because we are indifferent to death, not because we resent the encroachment of death upon our absolute right to endless life right now, but because “This is eternal life: to know thee who alone art truly God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.”11

  1. Thomas, R. S. Selected Poems 1946-1968. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1986, p. 13.
  2. In Lapham, Lewis. Lapham’s Quarterly. “Memento Mori, ”Vol. VI, No. 4, Fall 2013, p. 15.
  3. Thomas, Dylan. Miscellany One. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1963, p. 31.
  4. Saint Augustine, Confessions. Translated and with an introduction by Garry Wills. New York: Penguin Books, p. 68.
  5. Augustine, p. 205.
  6. Bakewell, Sarah. How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. New York: Other Press, 2010.
  7. In Bakewell, Loc. 362.
  8. Lapham, Lewis. Lapham’s Quarterly. “Memento Mori,” Vol. VI, No. 4, Fall 2013.
  9. Gomes, Peter J. The Good Book. New York: Avon Books, 1996, p. 213.
  10. Duffy, Eamon. Walking to Emmaus. London: Burns and Oates, 2006, p. 150.
  11. Jn. 17:3, NEB.

Communion at Calais

Photo: Wesual Click, Unsplash

“‘Then what must we do,’ they asked him, ‘if we are to work as God would have us work?’ Jesus replied, ‘This is the work that God requires: believe in the one whom he has sent.’” — John 6:28,29

One summer I worked with a clutch of ministers-in-training to build a house on spec. The idea was that we would build this house with a loan, and then sell it for profit. It was a hot, sweltering Michigan summer, and the humidity was like nothing I had ever experienced in California. We did everything except dig the foundations. I learned a lot that summer about what goes into a structure to make it a living, humming, warm and inviting home.

I was definitely the odd man out. The others were seminary students; I was a graduate student. They had built houses before; I messed up trying to make a bird house. They were all friends of long standing; I knew only one of them slightly. They were out to make money; I was just trying to learn something practical and pay some bills.

I can’t say I brought much talent to the team. My foreman friend took a chance on me, and in the end he was disappointed. I was definitely not the brains, and not much brawn either. I think I was meant to be the one who jumped into every situation that needed an extra hand. My problem was that I couldn’t anticipate the next step in the work, hour by hour. I was like one of those guys in a pickup football game who runs downfield, waving to the quarterback. They weren’t going to risk me dropping the ball. So, I stood around a lot, trying to figure out how I could be helpful, jumping in where I could, and trying not to cut across the big plays.

We don’t always know what we should do in life and often others can’t tell us. If we have to ask, the thinking goes, we probably don’t belong there. Life is a series of tests, most of which we cannot prepare for.

***

The sixth chapter of the Gospel of John is all about bread. The words “bread” or “loaves” are mentioned twenty times in the narrative. Coming off chapter five—which is about Jesus healing people in places and times that break the rules—the sixth chapter continues the running conflicts that Jesus has with the religious authorities. John’s Gospel is remarkable for the many signs that Jesus does—“signs” being John’s code for wonders, maybe even miracles, that point beyond themselves to a larger reality for whom Jesus is himself a sign, pointing inevitably and definitively to God.

In Jesus’ lexicon, “bread” and “work” go together. As chapter six opens, Jesus and his friends have landed on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. John hints that Jesus was seeking a break from the crowds who pressed their sick and hungry upon him. It was almost Passover time, so there were thousands of people swirling around the city, excitedly tracking the latest news and gossip, and chasing after any holy man who could heal and deal. Jesus and the disciples make their way up the hillside and settle down, tired after rowing across the lake. But they won’t get any quiet time. “Raising his eyes (we can almost hear him sigh), and seeing a large crowd coming toward him,” he turns to Philip and says, “Where are we to buy bread to feed these people?” It’s a test, says John to us in an aside. Jesus knew what he was going to do.

Are the disciples tested? With Jesus constantly pushing his own boundaries of faith, the disciples, his support team, can’t help being caught up in it. Like a man stepping out against the current in a surging river, Jesus extends himself further and further in trust, until he must go on in order to get back to the shore.

Philip walks right into the test. Twenty pounds, he says, wouldn’t be enough to buy everyone a little morsel. Andrew tries to be helpful: “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fishes,” he says, and adds lamely, “but what is that among so many?” Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, rarely gets the ball in these scrimmages. For him to speak up is itself a test, but he rises to the occasion. Jesus graciously notes it. “Have the people sit down,” he says.

Then follows one of his greatest signs, the feeding of the five thousand. That’s five thousand men — apparently the women and children didn’t figure in the official crowd count. All are fed, and there is enough left over for twelve baskets of take-home (“shall I bring you a box for that, sir?). Licking their fingers and brushing the crumbs from their mouths, the crowd seizes on a rumor that Jesus is the final prophet to come into the world. They want a king, one who can supply them bread and fish. Jesus vanishes into the hills and the disciples push off from shore. There will be no popular uprising today.

The next day, Jesus and the disciples are together on the other side of the lake, the trip across in the night being another wonder—but that is a story for another time. Suffice it to say, that when the crowd meets him on the beach, they want a repeat of the meal.

You should be asking me for food that can last, he says. “I am the bread of life,” he says. “Whoever comes to me shall never be hungry, and whoever believes in me shall never be thirsty.” These are puzzling words, and the people shift from foot to foot and ask each other what he could mean. You don’t believe me, he says, but what you don’t know is that everybody who puts his faith in me and believes me, will have eternal life. I am the real bread, he says, the bread that comes from heaven.

Wait a minute, they say, we know this man. We know Joseph and Mary, his parents. We knew him when he was a kid; what’s all this about coming from heaven? Stop it! Jesus says. Stop your murmuring. I tell you the truth: the believer has already got eternal life. He looks around at all of them, gesturing with his hands. I am the bread of life, he says, as the voices begin to rise. Your ancestors ate bread in the desert and they’re all dead. I am the living bread. If you eat this bread you will live forever. What I give I give for the life of the world.

He pauses, and tries again. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood possesses eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” In the sudden silence, he looks around at them. In one of those jarring, dream-like shifts of scene, we learn these words are spoken at the synagogue in Capernaum. Many of his disciples are bewildered now, and backing away, they exclaim without irony, “This is more than we can stomach! Why listen to such words?” Off they go, some in anger, some in disappointment, others with the cutting sarcasm that betrays a passion upended.

Jesus turns to the Twelve: “Do you also want to leave me?” He searches their faces. A door creaks, somewhere there is a fading footstep. Simon Peter, his mouth suddenly dry, swallows hard. They expect me to answer for them, he thinks. “Lord, to whom shall we go?” He looks around at them and then at Jesus. “Your words are words of eternal life.” He pauses. The late afternoon sun slants across the threshold through the open door. And then more softly, “We have faith, and we know that you are the Holy One of God.”

***

I am remembering a Eucharist, a communion celebrated with friends. We three have crossed the English Channel from Dover to Calais from our college near Windsor. It is December, with an early darkness, and we are freezing. It is Friday night and we know that an island and a continent away, friends are sharing in the Body and Blood of Christ. We move through the streets away from the docks until we find a shop still open, and we crowd in, our glasses fogging from the sudden warmth. Because we don’t drink wine and because all they have is Fanta, we leave moments later with a baguette and bottles in hand to look for a place to share our communion. At last we find it, the narrow vestibule of an apartment building, and sitting on the steps together we pass around chunks of warm bread as we sip from our Fanta. We read the words of the Last Supper together, “Do this in remembrance of me,” and we remember that all that is asked in this moment, all the work we need to do, is to believe the wildly improbable, beautifully paradoxical, wholly unfathomable truth that Jesus is here and now with us.