After Easter

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”A person exists to be the agent of creative goodness. When we thus create goodness we are both ourselves raised from the dead and also the agents to others of resurrection.”1

My memory of the resurrection of the dead cannot be separated from paintings I saw as a child. Whole families were climbing out of their graves together. They were dressed like they were going to church and all of them had smiles on their faces. Some of the little ones were still standing in their graves, transfixed by the apocalyptic maelstrom swirling around them. Many other people were already drifting skyward, arms upraised, legs trailing, drawn like iron filings to a magnet.

The sky above them was all towering clouds of blackness shot through with bolts of lightning. In the far background were the hapless wicked, lashed by meteors of fire and stampeding from gaping fissures opening in the ground beneath them. Skyscrapers were toppling and bridges snapping, but in the center of the sky, encircled by clouds of angels, was Jesus — crowned, sceptered, and majestic.

Let us say here that no artist can come close to what Resurrection Day will look like, although you can’t fault one for trying. The illustrations I saw were from the fifties and early sixties, and they faithfully preserved glimpses of that era. There’s a poignancy in such depictions: the artist paints his own longings for an ascension in his lifetime, with his friends and neighbors all aboard, most every one White, genteel, and self-assured.

Now I am comfortably agnostic about the details of Resurrection Day. Even St. Paul is vague about it. He spends more time warning about the suddenness of its coming than he does on what will then transpire. Those of us who are alive, he says, will be caught up in the air to meet the Lord. First the righteous dead, then us. And we’ll be with God forever from then on. It’s a message of encouragement. That was over two thousand years ago.

But I’m more interested in how people live after Easter. Emotionally speaking, for the disciples Easter weekend had all the charm of terminal cancer followed by a massive heart attack. And then, just when numbness turned to mourning and they could not finish any sentence that began, “Let’s ask the Lord . . .”, just then they were thrown into a new world where the air was so crisp and clean they were left gasping and their views of reality clearly had to be reverse-engineered.

The death and bodily resurrection of the one you love most in the world pretty much runs you through the gamut from fear to tears to awe and then tears again.

The reason this matters is that we see the disciples having time to get to know the post-resurrection Jesus. There was the report, duly discounted, by the women who met him at the tomb. There was the encounter by two disciples with the stranger on the road to Emmaus. Then his appearance in the locked upper room. Then later, meeting him on the beach in the early morning, after a long night of futile fishing. There was time, in other words, to remind yourself that everything about your life had changed because the Lord had risen from death. And he was right here, in the flesh.

For us, it’s different. Come Monday morning, we’re staring at the computer screen between meetings and wondering when our parents will get their COVID shots. The joy of Easter morning has faded and we’re feeling like the whole thing might have been a sacred ritual that has lost its meaning. Or even a beautiful, dark, tragic illusion. How do we live forward in the reality of a future two thousand years in the past?

The resurrection of our lives here and now does not lift us out of the daily grind or magically thwart all pain and disease. We won’t live in a bubble henceforth that reroutes hurricanes or turns floods aside. Those things may still happen to us; what matters is what we perceive and how we respond to the grit and the blows.

Let’s set aside the practical mechanics of bodily resurrection after death. God knows, whatever such resurrection is, molecular biology and neurophysiology won’t penetrate the mystery. If that is what’s ultimately preventing our trust in God it would be better to pluck out that eye than to continue blind to all that transcends the empirical.

What, then, is resurrection? Given our skepticism and our fear of being scammed, how do we recognize resurrection after Easter? Because there is no resurrection without a crucifixion, those who are daily resurrected are well acquainted with crucifixion. And if, like St. Paul, we find ourselves dying daily we are yet assured of a daily resurrection.

It may come to us quietly and without warning. Like much of our experience with God, we’ll be a step behind in recognizing the green shoots of new growth in our lives.

When we have burned our bridges before we get to them, and yet find in the destruction the soft breeze of forgiveness, that is resurrection. When we have focused all our efforts to achieve a goal and still have fallen short, but a wider range of possibilities opens to us, that is resurrection. When an artist tries to create a thing of beauty and cannot translate the image in her head to the canvas before her, she feels a failure. But then a new courage arises in her from somewhere and the old inhibitions fall away. She wields her brush with confidence and the image emerges. That’s resurrection. When a person has agonized about the forced options he is faced with and then inexplicably finds peace no matter the outcome, that is resurrection.

Resurrection in this life raises us above our fears and creates in us channels of goodness to others. When Jesus cries out that “streams of living water” will flow out from those who trust him, that is resurrection in action. When he promises us life and that more abundantly, that is resurrection in defiance of crucifixion.

Lent leads us prayerfully through a thoughtful self-examination up to Easter. And Easter gathers up the shards of brokenness that result and points us toward a new wholeness. It’s not dependent on whether we summit the emotional peaks, but on how we traverse the valleys below. “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.”

***

On Easter morning the women make their way through the streets before dawn. They are going to the tomb to do for Christ’s body what could not be done in the haste to get him down from the cross. Even though they have no way to roll the stone away, they trust that something will work out, that someone will help them. They know that doing so will put them in danger. But they go ahead. Respect, courage, love—all those combine to compel them forward. Resurrection has already begun in their hearts, although they have no name for it yet.

  1. Williams, H. A. The True Wilderness. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1965, p. 12

Carry That Weight

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“Religious insights have to be carried over a long distance to reach expression, and they may easily shrivel or even perish on the way from the heart to the lips.”1

I wish I could remember a moment, some white-hot flash, when I first realized the sacred in the flood of the senses. I’d like to think my search for God began early in life, but that would be claiming too much. What I do remember is saying goodbye to a friend when I was five.

My grandparents and I were moving from Canada to California and I was leaving behind my first-grade friends, the hill behind our house where I sledded, and the stand of junipers in our back yard that grew so thick I could crawl beneath them to watch the world and dream.

I knew we were moving away because my grandfather had explained it to me. My impression was we would first be here and then we would be there. The logistics of it didn’t occur to me. There were no pictures in my head of us climbing into our Studebaker and driving from Ontario to California. Neither did I understand how long it would take nor what California was. There was a gap of experience that simply did not rise to imagination. So, I cheerfully went about my young life, immersed in the pursuit of bugs, building roads and tunnels in my backyard sandbox, and peering out through the branches of my juniper fortress.

Bustle and commotion, the moving van pulling up and the contents of our house boxed up and carried down stairs and up ramps into an enormous box on wheels. It wasn’t until we were finally in the car — me in the back seat with my books and the box lunch my grandmother had made for us — and my grandfather was praying for traveling mercies, his head bowed over the steering wheel and his murmured words gathering into me, that the truth hit my gut.

“I have to do something!” I yelled, and I wrenched open my door before my grandparents could stop me and dashed around the house to the sandbox in the back yard. Squatting down, I clawed a hole in the sand and sat back on my heels. And I saw not wet sand and twigs, but a green, lush, and fertile canopy of trees far below and at the lip of the hole, his legs dangling, my merry little elf, my invisible friend.

I told him I would miss him, but we were going away and I was pretty sure they didn’t allow elves in California. He would guard the fortress under the junipers until I should return. This was not goodbye. That was understood. And then he grinned and waved and leaped and I covered the hole. I stood up, brushed my knees, and ran to the car idling in front of our house and we drove away.

We arrived in California in due time. We built a home on the side of a mountain overlooking the Napa Valley, on a site tangled with manzanita bushes and strewn with volcanic rocks that were pitted and bubbled. I immersed myself in that nature, with acres of abandoned vineyards just up the road and streams and lakes to explore. There in Nature was the depth of the mysterious, clothed in the familiar forms of animals, trees, stone, and clouds.

There may not have been a law against elves in California, but I never saw another one nor did I apparently need to. The companionship of an invisible elf gave way to visible friends. It was my first experience with the numinous.

***

Our impressions of the divine coalesce early and later we subject them to reflection. The absence of my father from my life — alive, but far away — shaped how I regarded God for many years. Our separation was the result of fate, forced choices, and the slow accretions that time and habit build up from settled ways and random circumstances.

God-hauntedness has run like a dark thread through my life. Alongside a quietly intense religious upbringing there was the constant presence of the absence of God, an absence with a voice. We have no images of God nor definitions. We have only God’s name, “I Am,” a name that in its utterance brings us to silence and dissolves all time into a present pregnant with the future.

“Something is asked of us. But what?” wrote Abraham Joshua Heschel.2 It is a recurring theme in his books. It is the question, Who — or what — is God? The question is our silent companion, standing off to the side as we move through the world under the sky, give and take with others, and face our eventual death. This is what we can only begin to respond to when we have decided to listen, to feel, to receive, instead of first postulating, arguing, or explaining.

Faith, said Heschel, begins in wonder and awe. That doesn’t preclude rational thinking about God at all, but as one of my professors was fond of saying, “No one was converted by the ontological argument.”

We cannot live on mystery alone; desire to know gives rise to language and language both orders and liberates. We wield the structures of language in shaping the welter of sense impressions flooding in on us from the world. Though we are limited creatures, there is almost no limit to how we may express that ordering through imagination. In our creativity is the strongest evidence of our family resemblance to the Father of us all.

“Religious insights have to be carried over a long distance to reach expression,” said Heschel, “and they may easily shrivel or even perish on the way from the heart to the lips.”3

I have thought about this vivid experience now and then in the intervening sixty-four years. Even now, if I shut my eyes, I can see the backyard, the sandbox, the febrile green of the forest canopy (only visible if seen directly from above), and the wizened, mischievous face of my elf. At the time, I easily made a distinction between what I saw and what was “real.” Yet, I felt compelled to do it and there was a sense of completion in having done it. It wasn’t something I discussed with my grandparents at the time nor with anyone since. Writing about it now breaks up the ice on a long-frozen river.

Any moment in our history can be a window to our interior life. When I gaze through this one, I see a child putting away childish things — without which he could not have imagined later the unseen presence of the Son of Man.

  1. Heschel, Abraham Joshua. Man is Not Alone. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1952, p. 98.
  2. Heschel, p. 98.
  3. Heschel, p. 98.

The Pearl, the Cello, the Iceberg

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“There is nothing in this world or the next, absolutely nothing, which cannot, and will not, be turned into the valid currency we need to buy the one pearl of great price.1

I’ve always agreed with Joni Mitchell when she sings, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone?”

We’re getting plenty of practice at seeing what is gone. We’ve lost jobs, the ones we must have just to keep going. We’ve lost weekends with relatives and the afternoons that make a friendship. Many children have lost almost a year of school. Families have been disrupted, separated, decimated.

So many have died. Half a million of them and counting in this country alone. We are learning to know the shape of what we’ve lost.

The pandemic pares us down to the essentials. What can we live without, what can we do without and still have a life? What is of value, even that which we cannot put a price upon because we have no idea how to measure it?

If it’s gone and lost, does that mean we know how much it was worth? Is it worth more to us now that it’s lost than it was when we had it — because we didn’t really know what we had? Does this mean we have to lose a thing to appreciate its value?

At times in my life I’ve tried to pre-empt this lostness by imagining my life without the job that I hated but really needed or losing the people I sometimes took for granted or falling into such bad health that it would be hard to remember a time when my body didn’t ache.

This is an exercise I recommend. It should be done when you feel yourself drifting, losing focus—not when you’re secure and comfortable with your face to the afternoon sun, but when your moral compass has lost true north. It should be done when you think you know exactly why someone acts like a jerk, but you don’t know jack. You could do this also when you’ve had a run of good luck, hit all the green lights on your daily commute, and generally feel yourself to be in favor with God and your fellow humans.

At this point you may hear a little voice asking plaintively why you’re so paranoid. Or if you’re really a hypochondriac. Or why you care what other people think.

You don’t have to answer. Just don’t ignore it. This is the voice of conventional wisdom — just so you know what you’re up against.

It helps you appreciate what it takes to recognize something of real value. Like the kingdom of heaven.

***

Jesus told a parable: “Here is another picture of the kingdom of Heaven. A merchant looking out for fine pearls found one of very special value; so he went and sold everything he had, and bought it.”

There is a blithe extravagance about this parable. There’s no understatement here. Jesus paints the image of a man who is willing to risk all that he owns to buy the one thing he’s discovered that outshines everything else. He’s mortgaged his home, sold his cars and his inventory—maybe even his own business. Everything is willed down to one thing: the pearl.

A risk that great reveals the character of the man and the value of the object. He recognizes what he sees. He isn’t rummaging through a yard sale to discover a treasure worth thousands at the expense of the clueless owner. The story doesn’t elaborate, but we can infer that whoever he’s buying it from requires top dollar. Our man knows this and will sacrifice everything.

Equally important, he has the means to buy it. That kind of money is accumulated over time. Someone just starting out in the business would have neither the expertise nor the capital to invest. Both take time and energy and experience.

We see a decisiveness in his actions that may obscure the deliberation behind it. This is not a snap judgment he’s come to (although at times the Spirit may come upon us like a mighty wind). It began with attentiveness and openness. He took action; he searched for the best. He counted the cost, he gathered his assets, he took the risk. We can imagine him shaking with excitement — and some fear — when he finally takes the pearl in hand.

***

This is but one story about the kingdom of heaven and how one person grasped it. It may not be the story for everyone. It’s not a template. In fact, at one point Jesus recoils from the fractured current images of the kingdom: “And from the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.” The kingdom is a mindset of peace, not of violence.

The way this works for me is to imagine the moment in which you decide you will learn the cello, or you will be a sculptor, or you want to write. There is a life you want to live. There is that existential moment, a point in time, which can be remembered, perhaps even marked in some way. But what led you to that moment is fragmentary, sporadic, and distorted by memory. Much of it was unconscious. Only later, having passed through the portal of that particular decision, will you begin to see a pattern to your life. It is like an iceberg: most of it is under the surface, but you know it is there.

Crossing the decision threshold might be like leaping into a charged electrical field or it might be as quiet as a leaf falling. There was the before, then there was that moment, unique and solitary, and now you live in this changed reality. You are making music, you are sculpting, you are writing. This your life. That is what the kingdom of heaven is like for me.

It’s not about space, but about time, day after day. We grow into a longing for the kingdom as we read, pray, and love, and even as we lie, steal, and fight. Our fears, as much as our virtues, pry us open to a consuming need for the kingdom. Our losses and our failures count as much toward our hopes as do our moments of courage and compassion. We are not first transformed and then magically enter the kingdom. We enter, trailing our pains and ills. None of us are on the path marked “Present and Perfect.”

The kingdom is not a place, it’s a way of being. If that sounds too abstract we could say that we carry it within us. It’s portable, and where we are, so there the Spirit is that makes us one. Separated, socially distanced, removed from one another by pandemics, culture, language, politics, and religion, we nevertheless may form a fine web of symbols and trust among ourselves.

Everything that we are and everything we have experienced and will experience in this life we bring to this kingdom of the heart that we share. Everyone is invited, no one is excluded. There are no conditions except one: that we wish to know as we are known, our lives transparent without shame before God.

  1. Williams, H. A. The True Wilderness. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1994, p. 52.

The Spirit Catches Us and We Rise

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”Thereupon the Spirit sent him away into the wilderness, and there he remained for forty days tempted by Satan.”— Mark 1:12

He is driven into the wilderness. He is thrown into the vast distances of the desert. What was Jesus’ head telling him while the eyes of his soul cast about for any sign of his Father’s presence? Could he still hear God’s voice cascading down on him like summer rain, like the water John poured over him before he went under?

He is the beloved son of the Father. If by this time Joseph was dead, Jesus’ claim on God as his father — an extraordinary, mystical embrace that had begun when he was a child — is now complete.

The muddy Jordan is a warm stream; he rises from its waters as if from birth. He’s feeling his way along, unsure of what is next, but restless to be doing, to bring forth in some language he has yet to learn the conviction that is growing within him — that the kingdom of God is here and he will bring it to vivid reality.

Mark’s comment has the bleak clarity of a tree in winter: “He was among the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” The elements of this scene are few. Jesus is in the wilderness with the Spirit, with Satan, with wild beasts, and with the angels — all of them at the same time.

He is in the wilderness for forty days, but this is New Testament shorthand for a very long time. Truth is, we don’t know how long this wilderness experience lasted. It doesn’t seem to be Mark’s point anyway. He offers up the whole scenario with just enough detail to fire the imagination.

But why now? Why, after the glory of heaven’s affirmation, is Jesus thrown to the wild beasts and the towering silence of the desert? Couldn’t he be allowed to bask, if only for a little while, in the warmth of that love? Will it be enough to get him through this ordeal?

We can view the timing of this experience in different ways. Some Christians will see the desert after the river as a necessary come-down, a way of keeping Jesus from getting above himself. In this scenario, the loving affirmation of God is followed by trials that keep Jesus from pride, keep him tethered to God and passive. He will need to crawl before he walks.

We often hear something like this in the wake of a personal tragedy. This is the ‘Olympic Marathon’ approach to the trials that scourge us. The heavier the burden, the deeper the pit, the more God’s confidence in us will be seen they say. Try to see it as a backhanded compliment on how much suffering we can bear. Or so well-meaning people say.

The reality is that we are dropped in the wilderness, far removed from God. Far enough away that shock turns to guilt and then despair as we scrabble through our conscience to find the grievous sin that brought this on. But that is not how God acts.

There is another angle. Matthew and Luke fill out the story they borrow from Mark by picturing the three classic confrontations between Satan and Jesus: the hunger of great bodily need; the lure of suicide disguised as a false form of faith; and a naked play for enormous power. The trials and temptations that Jesus faces are those which harrow each of us to one degree or another. It is typical of us to see our limitations in stark outline and to desperately grasp at power offered, no matter the price. What Jesus goes through is a primer for meditation on the perversion of our bodily needs, our need to be recognized, and our need for agency.

Jesus is us in his full humanity.

Why now? Because to announce good news to the poor, to proclaim release for prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, Jesus needs to learn how to pray.

This is more than the saying of prayers in the synagogue along with everyone else. It is more than the prayers that open and close each day. It is more than the gratitude expressed for food and home and the necessities of life.

It is the discovery of his true self.

Call it prayer, call it meditation — this is how Jesus guts it out in the face of evil. To truly know himself and to understand who God is for him, he opens the door to all his fears and temptations. Meeting them — not denying them — is part of his combat training.

He comes to terms with the taunts he has faced all his life and the faces that go with them. He admits into his consciousness the dreams and fantasies he has buried. He shatters the idols of God that have distorted God’s justice into capricious judgment. He unlearns the harmful perceptions of God he has unconsciously collected all his life. All this takes time and effort.

This is how God loves him and the Spirit guides him. This is how he will meet his true self. And when he is cursed by the religious authorities, mocked by his family, harangued by the demons, and deserted by his best friends, he will reach back into himself for that assurance.

This journey into himself through prayer is the source of his exceptional imagination. We see it in his penetrating and sometimes enigmatic parables. He makes connections between phrases of scripture, the chance remarks he’s puzzled over, the stories he’s grown up with, for now he sees them in a new light.

When he later says, ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock,’ he speaks from experience. Through prayer, he has knocked at the door of his deepest self and entered in. Like the woman in the parable scouring her house for the lost coin, there is no part of himself he has overlooked or ignored.

So, when the devil comes to the end of all his temptations and departs, “biding his time,” as Luke puts it, Jesus is ready. Armed with the Spirit, he sets out for Galilee to begin the revolution of liberation and healing.

And what has this to do with us? We find ourselves in a desert place, famished and weary and surrounded by wild beasts. We don’t know how to pray, we can be knocked over by a feather when tempted, and we don’t see any angels around us.

When our spirit responds to the Spirit, when we open up to all that God promises, we feel ourselves to be children of God. If, after that, we feel let down, angry, disappointed, it is not unusual and it doesn’t mean we’re no longer within God’s embrace. It simply means that parts of ourselves are still living in fear of God. We may have a smile on our lips while our fists are still clenched. We are in judgement of ourselves, resisting the forgiveness of the Spirit that enlivens our hearts of stone.

To us Jesus says, “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”

The Spirit lifts us, sets us on our feet, and lightens the path before us. It’s a path through time, our forty days or forty years.

Spiritual Audacity: Abraham Heschel’s Prophetic Role

In Martin Doblmeir’s new documentary, Spiritual Audacity: The Abraham Joshua Heschel Story, Heschel emerges not only as the foremost interpreter of the Hebrew prophets in the twentieth century, but also as a prophet himself. With his cloud of white hair, his expressive eyes, and his rabbinic beard, he looks every inch a latter-day Micah bearing witness to walking humbly with justice in one hand and mercy in the other.

“Remember, in a free society some are guilty but all are responsible.” Heschel’s ringing words plunge us into the tumult of the civil rights struggle of the 60s, the protests against the Vietnam War, and the turnabout toward the Jews by the Catholic Church during Vatican II. Heschel plays a leading role in all three of these history-making social movements.

Doblmeir’s documentary approach surfaces the formation, the passion, and the legacy of his subjects. We learn about Heschel’s birth in Warsaw, Poland in 1907, his family’s long lineage of distinguished rabbis, his move to the University of Berlin at twenty to study philosophy in 1927, and his deportation in 1938 at the hands of the Nazis. Although the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati brings him to America to teach in 1940, he is forced to leave his mother and his three sisters behind. They are exterminated in the Holocaust.

In 1945 Heschel leaves Hebrew Union College to join the faculty of the conservative Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. He remains there for the rest of his career, even as his influence begins to extend far beyond the campus and the scholarly world.

In March of 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr., invites Heschel to march with him in Selma, Alabama. Many of the Black pastors in the movement had read The Prophets — King’s copy was underlined and annotated throughout — and as Andrew Young says, “He was the authority on the prophets. But on this occasion, he was the prophet.”

Footage of the march shows Heschel on the front line with King, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, and John Lewis, his white hair and beard flowing. Despite the misgivings of local rabbis, Heschel marches in solidarity with hundreds of others, ready to face the brutality of the police.

His passion is to explore the nature of God’s deep compassion for humans and the extent to which God is willing to partner with us for the cause of justice. For the prophets, says Heschel, injustice toward one person is injustice to everyone, a message that resonates deeply in the Black community.

Heschel’s growing influence thrusts him into another controversy — the attempts within Vatican II to create a rapprochement with the Jews after centuries of hostility. When a conservative faction within the Vatican calls for the conversion of the Jews, Heschel is incensed. “They must understand,” he argues, “that I am willing to die for my faith.”

In an arc that entwines with that of Martin Luther King, Heschel grows increasingly critical of the war in Vietnam. “My father was not a pacifist,” says Susannah Heschel. “And he was not a communist sympathizer, by any means. But killing civilians — that was unacceptable.” Heschel asks, “How can I pray, knowing that I am co-responsible for the death of innocent people in Vietnam?”

In April 1967, at the Riverside Church in New York City, Martin Luther King, at Heschel’s urging, makes a major statement against the war — and is roundly denounced by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other influential news sources. In an address following King’s speech that Sunday, Heschel adds his own voice to the growing critique of the war by major religious figures. Susannah Heschel comments that “My father wouldn’t be quiet. No one could silence him.”

His final cause is to speak out for the Jews in Soviet Russia. Despite suffering a heart attack in 1969 that keeps him in the hospital for three months, Heschel is tireless in advocating for Soviet Jewry. It is exhausting. On a Friday night in December 1972, at the age of sixty-five, Heschel dies at home. “To die in your sleep,” says Susannah Heschel, “especially on the Sabbath, is a kiss from God.”

As an introduction to Abraham Joshua Heschel, Spiritual Audacity is an inspiring and enjoyable guide. In just fifty-seven minutes, Martin Doblmeir’s sensitive eye vividly portrays Heschel’s Hasidic roots, his remarkable career, and most of all, his moral witness. Paintings by Marc Chagall woven into the narrative add to the visual beauty of the film.

Those familiar with Heschel’s written works — The Prophets, God in Search of Man, The Sabbath, Man is Not Alone, and Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, will appreciate seeing and hearing this passionate twentieth-century prophet, a witness for the awe and wonder that is faith in the living God.

Martin Doblmeir’s documentary work includes films on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Reinhold Niebuhr, Howard Thurman, Dorothy Day and — familiar to readers of Spectrum — The Adventists, an award-winning film that portrays Adventists as some of the healthiest people on the planet.

Three Prose Poems in Winter

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Don’t Look

God accepts Jacob and rejects Esau. Before that, God accepts Abel and rejects Cain. Later, God hardens the heart of Pharaoh. Clay in the hands of God. If this seems unfair, even arbitrary, consider the scale. God is in heaven and thou art upon the earth. The pot fighting the potter. Creature talking back to Creator. If unchecked, the pot will be calling the kettle black. Pharaoh drowsing in the afternoon. The royal fan-waver, swatting away flies, leaves at the end of his shift. Pharaoh stirs but does not open his eyes. The flies buzz. He jerks awake, sits up, then roars. “Where is my fly swatter?” “Shift-change, your Highness,” says the stenographer. He grips his stylus nervously. “Find him,” shouts the Pharaoh to his aides. “And you! Take this down.” “Your Highness,” says the stenographer, bowing. “Cancel the executive order releasing the Hebrews! Get me Moses! Cut their rations. Increase the work. And where’s my fly-swatter?” Roaring. Fuming. Furious, his heart hardening. Sometimes it’s the little things that tip you over the edge. Still, the God of Jacob and Esau is One. “This heart is hard,” God muses. “I like a challenge.”

Causing a Ruckus

Acts 5:17-42

The disciples are preaching, causing a ruckus in Jerusalem. They are arrested and jailed. The night before their trial they are mysteriously sprung from jail and in the morning, before breakfast, they are already down in the temple. Gamaliel counsels restraint. He tells of people who rose up in revolt. They were all killed; their movements came to nothing. If these people are anything like the others, he says, they won’t succeed. But if they are of God you won’t be able to stop them. Fair enough, says the Sanhedrin. We’ll let them off with a flogging. Stop preaching and teaching, they say to the disciples. But after they are flogged they go right out and carry on teaching. How do you stop people like that? What do you count as success? And when do you decide that enough is enough? The jail break should have been a tip-off. Mischief-makers. Good-news-mongers. Occasionally quiet, mostly when alone.

Eight Statements About the Heart

  1. The heart is a little larger than a fist and pumps about 2,000 gallons of blood and beats about 100,000 times a day. These are facts.
  2. “Be still my heart,” is an expression often used in a lighthearted, often ironic way, to convey an emotion that surprises a person. It is not to be taken literally.
  3. “The heart is a lonely hunter.” The title of a novel by author Carson McCullers. A phrase sometimes used in songs and poems to evoke sympathy for those persons whose search for love is doomed.
  4. “Bleeding-heart liberals.” An epithet thrown at people whose compassion, it is alleged, has blinded them to the reality of competition for scarce resources.
  5. “The heart is deceitful above all things. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) Most of one’s life is spent recovering from this.
  6. “Don’t go breaking my heart.” From a song by pop star Elton John. A plea (see #5).
  7. “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” (Prov. 4:23) Advice from a sage establishing first principles for living.
  8. “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (Jn 14:27) May be used as a mantra and a prayer. Originated with a person exceptionally experienced in facing fear. Can be combined with his parting gift of peace.

For Love’s Sake Set Us Free

Photo by Darius Bashar on Unsplash

The Lord’s true love is surely not spent, nor has his compassion failed; they are new every morning . . .”1

I had not spent much time in the Book of Lamentations. Until now, I had not needed it. I went looking there, however, because I was lamenting. I was lamenting the sacking of the Capitol of the United States by a mob, set aflame by an embittered and delusional man.

Astonishment, horror, and anger were the appropriate reactions to the images of violence we saw as the crowd dragged Capitol police down the steps, hacked their way into the building, and triumphantly paraded Confederate flags through the Rotunda.

The next day, still absorbed in the images burned into my memory, I found myself with another reaction. This day—January 6, 2021—I will always remember, like the day John F. Kennedy was shot, the day Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot, the day Bobby Kennedy was shot, and the day the Twin Towers fell.

It was a day that scrambled cheap declarations and shredded the buffer between the world and me. It called for more than anger and sorrow. It called for lamentation for the nation.

American civic religion reaches back for the traditions and history, the rituals and symbolism, that are the blood of religions everywhere. A man lays down a line of words, strikes one out and replaces it, broods over it, sighs, dips a quill in ink. And words are cast in bronze, a plaque is bolted to the wall and ten thousand fingertips burnish it to a high gloss: “We hold these truths to be self-evident . . .” Such confidence! Such faith that words can undo centuries of cruelty to inspire a gut-level dedication to a beautiful abstraction.

“We the people,” a prayer that is breathed to heal the masses, cast out demons, and calm the restless heart. It’s a phrase that topples thrones and elevates the common person. It is meant to be taken seriously. But not literally.

The mob took it literally. The ones surging into the building could be heard shouting, “This is our house!” as they flooded the hallways hunting down legislators. But they did not recognize that the temple is holy ground and those who would enter it must do so reverently. The fabric separating the sacred from the profane is easily torn. Its tensile strength is only as strong as the trust invested in those who serve in its precincts. For the mob, what trust there was had long since corroded to a permanent fury.

If losing an election is a political death, then it was a death that Trump’s followers could not accept. Elias Canetti writes in Crowds and Power of the leader whose “death is not recognized by the mourners. They want him alive again.”2 The hunting pack sees the death of its leader as profoundly unjust: it simply should not have happened. In lamenting his death, they see themselves as the persecuted. “It is always the enemy who started it,” writes Canetti. “The wish to see death is everywhere and one does not have to go deep into men to bring it to light.”3

As Christians, we look first to the Scriptures to speak to us in our circumstances. Most of us are closer to the Psalms than to Lamentations. Because they have been woven into the liturgies of the Church from the beginning, we turn to them instinctively when we are in mourning. They act for us as telescopes to see back into the past and forward to where we could go in faith.

The life of the Psalms is uncovered in a plunge from a settled orientation to a chaotic disorientation, says Walter Brueggemann. It may be from changed circumstances, but it is more likely to arise from a personal awareness that our grasp on the world is slipping. Everything solid seems like ropes of sand. The dismantling of the world around us convulses us in rage, resentment, fear, guilt, shame, and hostility. The situation may be solitary in introspection or massively public. This is the context of so many of the Psalms of complaint and lament.

We’re good at denial, of course. “It is a curious fact,” Bruggemann notes, “that the church has, by and large, continued to sing songs of orientation in a world increasingly experienced as disoriented.”4

Maybe we feel we are letting God down if we don’t put on a happy face. Or maybe our pride will not admit to confusion and anger. “The reason for such relentless affirmations of orientation,” continues Brueggemann, “seems to come, not from faith, but from the wishful optimism of our culture.”5

The writers of the Psalms don’t have any such qualms. “Thou hast exposed us to the taunts of our neighbors,” says Psalms 44. “Thou hast given us up to be butchered like sheep . . . my disgrace confronts me all day long, and I am covered in shame.”

As a nation, we don’t always live up to the high standards we expect and demand from other countries. The storming of the Capitol before the eyes of the world calls for lamentation. The lies that have been perpetuated about a stolen election call for lamentation. The lies about the dangerous reality of Covid-19 call for lamentation. Lamentation—and the clarity of truth.

The Psalms give us the right to lament, to take our complaints or our shame directly to God. For Christians who have aligned themselves with the Trumpian juggernaut all these years, the Psalms of lament and repentance can be their way back to reality and true faith. For those who refused allegiance, the Psalms provide a path of humility. Self-righteousness is almost as dangerous as delusion.

We are close to Jesus in the Psalms, the song book through which he prayed and sang his way along his Way. Brueggemann nudges us from disorientation to a new orientation which promises a new life from the chaos, to set our feet upon solid ground after being pulled from the pit. It is not inevitable, but it is assured to those who cry out for it, who determine with heart and mind to be on the Way with Jesus.

Even Lamentations — five chapters of grisly images of rape, slaughter, and slavery — contains a middle passage that gleams like a jewel. It speaks of patience in the midst of distress because “the Lord’s true love is surely not spent, nor has his compassion failed.” The writer turns to us and, with a shrug of charming self-effacement, concludes: “The Lord, I say, is all that I have; therefore, I will wait for him patiently. The Lord is good to those who look for him . . .”6

  1. Lamentations 3:22, New English Bible
  2. Canetti, Elias. Crowds and Power. Translated from the German by Carol Stewart. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1960, p. 144.
  3. Canetti, p. 73.
  4. Brueggemann, Walter. The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984, p. 51.
  5. Brueggemann, p. 51
  6. Lamentations 3:22,24, NEB.

Memory and Fear and Great Joy

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“But the angel said, ‘Do not be afraid; I have good news for you: there is great joy coming to the whole people.”1

Who knows what angels look like? In my imagination they are twenty feet tall, as solid as brass, beautiful enough to cause awe. The wings are an afterthought, purely symbolic, a nice touch to disguise the fact that an angel can materialize next to you without a sound, every feather in place. They don’t travel — they appear.

In the gospels, angels create fear in people, but they don’t mean to. We know this because the first thing the angel says in the Gospel of Luke is,“Be not afraid.” The angel says this to everyone it visits: to Joseph, to Zechariah, to the shepherds, and of course to Mary.

Unintentional fear. It would charge the space between angel and human like an electric grid. It would block the angel’s greeting before it could be uttered. The angel would begin, a half-smile on its face. Then raise a hand in sympathy. Do not be afraid, it would say. Please. I have good news. There is great joy coming for the whole people.

Can we command someone not to be afraid? Fear always has an object, fixed at a point in time, a location that can be, must be, triangulated urgently. A person is afraid of snakes or bombs or the ocean. Only rarely are we afraid of fear and then only because we’re afraid to name its shape. Or we whistle in the dark, saying, “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself.”

We remember what we fear, but more to the point, we fear what we remember. Simple then: just forget.

Yet, what rings in my head on my predawn walks in this winter of our discontent are verses from Psalm 137:

“How could we sing the Lord’s song

in a foreign land?

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,

let my right hand wither away;

let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth

if I do not remember you,

if I do not set Jerusalem

above my highest joy.” (Ps 137:4-6 NEB)

There is much about the year 2020 that I would like to forget, but the things I would like to forget have been the fears of many this past year. They will be remembered as a way to honor those who suffered them. I will remember them as wildfires in our sojourn through this alien land.

Children in cages. An administration contemptuous of science. A constant assault on democratic ideals and constitutional requirements. The destruction of truth. Lying as a form of discourse. The continued grinding down of the human dignity of people of color, of women. Needless deaths in the thousands; individual deaths without justice. A fascination with the bizarre. The cult of a false messiah. A form of Christianity that embraces ruthless power and nationalism.

The stone in our shoe is how much remembrance of the past will shape our future. How much should we remember? Do we carry these filthy rags with us? Do we forget our losses and press ahead or should there be an accounting before we move on?

The past is nailed to memory, the future is susceptible to fear — but no less open to hope. If that is so, should the last four years be stripped off and tossed to one side like a dirty garment? If remembering is a form of knowing, what have we learned?

While we cannot change the past, the future is open but costly, agonizingly bought at the price of lives. Yet, knowledge is not all that is needed to create a future. Surely there must be wisdom entwined with passion. How shall we remember Zion? How shall we sing the Lord’s song?

Because of Advent, because of the Incarnation, at the brink of a new year we are invited to “be not afraid.” Afraid of Covid and its insidious reach. Afraid of sudden unemployment, eviction, illness without adequate medical coverage. Or any coverage at all.

Fear of crowds, fear of other people, fear of isolation and loneliness. Fear of desertion.

Fear for the millions who are sick, dying, or working to keep others from dying. Fear for the children whose meals are as uncertain as where they will sleep tonight. Fear for the asylum seeker, locked in her detention cell, waiting for Covid without medical help.

Fear of those who are callous, indifferent, and powerful enough to spin your life into an abyss you’ll never get out of. Fear for this country: caught in traps of its own making, gnawing its own flesh, struggling to tear itself free.

“Be not afraid,” says the angel. “I bring good news, and great joy for all the people.” We are those people, some of the many. What the angel announces is a new source of joy. It is no longer tied to a place, as holy as Jerusalem and the temple was, but to a person, an experience, and a community. It becomes portable, carried within us and shared with each other.

It is a joy as quiet as it is enduring. It is an undercurrent, rather than a ripple across the surface. It survives drought and flood, rising as blessing in the midst of adversity. Though it pierced the heart of Mary it topped up the heart of Simeon, an old man who could die joyfully, having lived to see the promised One. At times, through tears, it causes us to cry, ‘How long, O Lord?’ At other times we walk in silence.

“It is the ineffable from which we draw the taste of the sacred, the joy of the imperishable,” said Abraham Heschel.2 It draws us to the beating heart of the Spirit through whom we are brought near, no longer strangers clutching our alien gods.

  1. Luke 2:10 NEB.
  2. Heschel, Abraham Joshua. Man is Not Alone. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951, p. 9.

2020 in the Rearview Mirror

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Well, we made it. Most of us. God be with those of us who were left by others before their time. Today was a gray, indeterminate, indecisive day for the end of year, especially for the end of this year. I suppose I was needing a bright, cold, wind-swept day with clearly defined corners and color. A day that would sit down early and recall with humor and insight the past year.

Instead, I was thrown back to reflect on my own time. This year I admitted to myself that I am a glass-half-empty sort of person. I don’t know if that’s a permanent condition or a consequence of squinting at the world for most of the year. I found my default attitude to be one of melancholy, sometimes anger, and it was with effort that I took my stance toward life, the universe, and everything. I suspect I am not alone in this.

I was deeply affected by the violent deaths this year of so many: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others. Thanks to the patient but insistent guidance of dear friends Colleen Pierre-Louis, Rosalind Morgan Upshaw, Camille Lofters, and Laci McDermott, I found my voice. Much more to the point came the imperative to listen well and long to the Black experience in our time.

The evangelicals who supported President Trump stopped me in my tracks. It felt like a betrayal. While I admit to being dumbfounded by them, they forced me to reexamine my own views on the relation of personal faith to issues in the public square. This has pushed me to find a way between blinkered certainty and shapeless avoidance of controversy. All I can do is to speak from my limited perspective and act on what I am learning. My faith is an ongoing experiment.

Thankfully, Joy and I are well so far and have even managed to increase our walking time. Some months ago my Fitbit informed me that since January I had walked the length of Italy. By now I may have crossed the Alps into France.

This year has been a fire-hose of outrage and injustice. It’ll go down as the year our children tell their grandchildren about. So much heartache, yet so much courage, quiet heroism, solid friendship, and beauty.

There’s a new year ahead—fresh, young, with all its bits in place and all of them working. Hope abounds, if we are willing. Love casts out fear.

Thank you, friends, for your companionship. Onward and upward!

Love’s Body, Love’s Spirit

Photo by Roland Hechanova on Unsplash

“Among men, who knows what a man is but the man’s own spirit within him? In the same way, only the Spirit of God knows what God is.” — 1 Cor 2:11 NEB

For several weeks in the long, dark, waiting room of this election year, I immersed myself in the British television drama, “Call the Midwife.” Obsessed as I was with the campaign season, impatient to reach the due date of November 4, apprehensive of the rough beasts slouching toward Bethlehem, I found some solace in the wonder and awe of childbirth as practiced in the East End of London in the 1950s.

The sisters and the nurses of Nonnatus House carry out their mission with good humor and courage. Always on call, they swoop down the narrow streets on their bicycles at all hours, clutching their birthing kits to them and dashing up narrow stairs to bedrooms reeking of sweat and pain.

The fathers pace outside. If they are young and it’s their first child, they run their hands through their hair and chain-smoke. If they already have five or six, they leave it to the midwives and await the news down at the pub.

Every episode ushers several babies into the world. The mothers are vulnerable and young, brimming with hope and terrified. The older women, the ones who have been through this too many times, bear down grimly. For them, the awe and mystery are long gone. They’re pacing themselves to go through the wall ahead while they’ve still got breath to scream. But all of them, mothers and midwives, rejoice when the babies are born, bloody, squalling, and beautiful.

It’s entirely natural to gape in astonishment at these creatures. When my son was born, he emerged gray and slick; in that moment I knew he was dead. But then in seconds—hours, it seemed—his robust cry transfixed me. He blossomed pink, then red. Then Love crashed in, a tsunami of feeling that narrowed my vision to a single point. Reason, control, diffidence — all was dwarfed by this mighty rock of love, solid and sudden, in my soul’s desert.

I had not known what to feel or how. Through circumstances and geography I had been raised as an only child by my grandparents. While I certainly did not want for love and all my needs were cared for, the absence of my father left me with an inner coldness that I feared. I had marked this day with dread and hope. Dread, because I did not feel capable of loving a child in the way he or she deserved. And hope, foolish or not, that I might somehow be saved through this experience.

It wasn’t that I was socially withdrawn or reclusive. I had friends, good friends, the kind that were as close as brothers or sisters, but without the competition for affection or the resentment that sometimes results from one’s birth order. It was rather that I had a stillness within, an impassivity as of a house intact but abandoned. It felt as if I had walled something up inside myself, as much to protect something within as to keep some unnamed terror without.

Years later, through a counselor, I was given a clue to a possible cause. He recommended John Bowlby’s book, Separation, which reported the effects on children who were sent to homes in the countryside from London and other cities to escape the nightly bombings during the Second World War. When finally, they were returned to their mothers after a long absence, they often refused any contact and turned away, silent and despairing. Bowlby believed that problems in the adulthood of these children could be traced back to this early separation.

My mother left when I was nine months old. My father, now alone, desperately needed to give me a stable home, so a succession of friends cared for me until his parents took me in when I was three. I don’t know if this explains my reticence entirely. We are woven of many strands, not all of them identifiable and no one of them strong enough to account for who we are. We make it up as we go and later, if we’re fortunate, we may see there was a pattern to our steps.

I grew up, blessed in ways I only later acknowledged. It was always the case that I would go to college; that was never in doubt. It was expected that I would work for the church in some capacity, either as a pastor, a writer, or as a teacher. It was assumed I would have a personal relationship with Christ, the inevitable outcome of the sermons I’d heard, the Bible classes I’d attended, the religious instruction I’d received for baptism.

It was taken for granted that I would fall in love. Which I did, several times, hardly knowing more than how desperately I wanted to give love, yet feeling how little I had to offer.

***

In the Advent season we live in expectation of change. We live in hope. We are pregnant with it. However else we may imagine God throughout the year, this is the time we think of God as an infant. God, born “on a Christmas morning.” God, whose coming as a baby transforms the world, one possibility at a time.

We call it the Incarnation, when Spirit becomes flesh, and we build a creche to house the Baby Jesus. We spot the birth of the Lord in a stable out behind an inn, nestled among the patient donkey, the lowing cattle, a rooster or two and a dog.

As an historical event, we know very little about his birth really. It was probably in 4 C.E., most likely at Nazareth, a backwater town in a province of the Empire notable mostly for its volatile populace and its strange apocalyptic urges. His birth was foretold, as later writers believed. It was somehow written in the stars, as some Persian astrologers divined. It was a threat to the local ruler’s corrupt regime, and it was the trigger to the massacre of male babies under the age of two within a precinct.

The birth itself was unremarkable, similar to the millions before it and the billions that would follow. There was pain and blood and relief and joy. But what makes God so perfectly real, so thoroughly human, so ultimately thisworldly, such that we are drawn near year after year, is that in some mysterious way this infant is the embodiment of the Divine.

In the epigram, Paul says we know ourselves as God is self-known. If that seems a stretch, the possibility of Christmas is that the Incarnation brings us in love to the Christ-child, mirrored now in every vulnerable birth of every baby born, and in so doing, as Paul says, we come to “possess the mind of Christ” and thus to know ourselves as we are known by God (1 Cor 2: 16 NEB).