The Intolerable Halfness of Being

Photo by Frank McKenna on Unsplash

”Why, then, are we frightened of wholeness? The answer is that the more whole we are, the more capable we are of suffering.”1

When I think about the judgment of God it’s usually because I see other people wreaking injustice. When I think about God’s judgment upon me, it comes down to forgetfulness or ignorance. I see a wide gulf between God and other people, a mere gap between myself and God.

Were my moral eyesight to be tested, I could read to the last line of the chart the sins of others, while only managing the larger letters of my own failings. The wrath of God lingers in the background of my judgments, justly served upon others, negotiable in the case of my own transgressions. There is exasperation in witnessing the sins of injustice; there is reluctance to cast the first stone.

As a teenager, trying to find a path to God through Jesus, I was told never to trust my feelings or my instincts. They were unreliable, fickle, volatile. Relativism and subjectivism were the dangers. Truth and certainty were the aims. On the other hand, we were told to yield to the pleading of the Holy Spirit right now. Don’t put off the decision. Don’t rationalize it away. Now is the time!

At the time, I sidestepped the advice to surrender all, more out of stubbornness than conviction. I recoiled at any hint of coercion in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I didn’t feel I was at war with any of them. When I came to them (not “if”), it wouldn’t be through fear. It would be because I couldn’t imagine a depth to life without them.

But now I’m reading back into my experience as a teen. When I strip away the overlay of years and experience, my memory is of a confused welter of emotions, a need to belong, and a thrumming measure of guilt. What I clearly understood was how easy it was to pass as “good.” Being good in my community meant staying out of trouble with the law, getting respectable grades, not doing drugs, and being baptized into the church. All these requirements I had kept since childhood. But when it came to selling all that I had and following Jesus, like the rich young ruler in the Gospel story, I turned away.

I don’t mean a literal selling off of my goods; most of what I owned, except for my books and guitar, fitted in a couple of suitcases. I mean the packing up and disposing of my image of God.

How do we know when the view of God we hold is no longer right? Do we listen to our intuition or to our trusted leaders? Do we hide in fear? Do we dare swerve from an image of God’s nature that is corrosive to our faith?

One such image was on the pamphlet that my friends and I handed out in a small town in Northern California after church. The day was blazing hot, dry, with a light wind, early fall, probably September, hot enough to melt candles indoors.

This was all part of “witnessing for our faith,” the well-intentioned effort by youth leaders to teach us how to share the Gospel with our neighbors. I went along with it; I felt uneasy, but I couldn’t say why.

My friend and I split up, each taking one side of the street. I was carrying a pamphlet with the title, “The Great Radar Sees You.” It showed a man with a face contorted in fear, sweat running down his forehead, eyes wild. Behind him loomed an enormous radio telescope, the kind SETI uses to track incoming signals from alien civilizations. That was supposed to be God.

I tried, I really did. I handed them out to people who answered their doors. It was an awkward exchange. Most people were polite enough to accept the pamphlet. No one actually crumpled it up in my face. But when I got to the end of the block, I was done. I dropped most of them in a trashcan in an alley, and my friend and I made our way back to the rendezvous point. That was the end of my pamphlet proselytizing. I knew this image simply couldn’t be — in fact, shouldn’t be — how we understood God or God’s wrath. I sensed, mutely, that this mattered.

***

If there has been one constant throughout my life, it has been the need to understand who God thinks I am. That sounds trite and cliched, but there it is. By the circumstances of my childhood and upbringing I missed out on some crucial experiences but was blessed immeasurably by the love and care of my grandparents. Still, like every other person on the planet, there is a hole at the center of my life which refuses to be filled.

Like Augustine, I have adopted the prayer, “Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.” But my paths to religion have not brought me rest. Like Bono, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” That has weighed upon me at times and brought me sorrow. But the ache for wholeness, the very need itself, points to its possibility.

This requires a certain spiritual innocence that is neither naive about our failings nor a denial of our shared reality. It means standing, exposed to the whirlwind. “To be innocent,” says Christian Wiman, “is to retain that space in your heart that once heard a still, small voice saying not your name so much as your nature . . . You must protect this space so that it can protect you.”2

The metaphor I have carried throughout the years is of pilgrims traveling light. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who link us to the past. We travel into the future singly, but together. We are trying to become our true selves. We are born again daily, in suffering that bears us toward the joy of wholeness.

I realized this when I immersed myself in the writings of Harry Williams, an Anglican priest and scholar who was Dean of Trinity College, Cambridge. A collection of his sermons, The True Wilderness, was recommended by a friend, whose assurance was that I would find in him a soul companion. “All I could speak of,” said Williams, “were those things which I had proved true in my own experience by living them and thus knowing them at first hand.”3

What is our experience of the judgment of God? Does it beat us down mercilessly, day after day, when our own voice is amplified by fear? Then it could also be the cold silence that we face when our days run out.

Or it could be the means of our salvation.

“Christ, our Creator, redeems us first by His wrath,” says Williams. “The wrath of God is His refusal to allow us to rest until we have become fully what we are.”4 We can believe this, says Williams, because Jesus walked this path himself.

“Who do people say that I am?” Jesus asks the disciples. It is not a rhetorical question nor is he trying to elicit the response which Peter blurts — “You are the Messiah.” This is one of those self-revelations in which the full humanness of Jesus is seen. In the Gospel of Mark, this story follows one in which Jesus is asked to heal a blind man. The first attempt at healing is partial: “I see men,” says the fellow, “they look like trees, but they are walking about.”5 Jesus touches him again and this time he can see clearly. “Don’t tell anyone,” says Jesus.

This is not a story about the failure of Jesus’ touch. It is a story about how difficult it is to see clearly, even when Jesus touches us. And when Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” we hear a man struggling against self-doubt, hoping that those who know him best could bolster his wavering confidence. After all, he is beginning to realize that he faces a violent and lonely death from which God will not protect him.

Could there be a more poignant example than this, that Jesus was a man like us in every way? Who am I? he asks. Am I wrong in following to the last degree where my heart and faith are leading me? And when at last, on the cross, he cries out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” he confirms what we experience in our extremity and suffering.

When we feel ourselves to be overwhelmed, bound by our circumstances, or spinning in the futility of our guilt, we are assured that “Christ comes to us by means of our ordinary, common experience of living. In the heartache, the fever, and the fret, there is Christ in His wrath refusing to allow us to stay as we are, reminding us of our intolerable halfness.”6

In our halfness we long for wholeness. “God’s love harmonizes us by convincing us that we are accepted as a whole . . . God accepts both sides of us, not just the man humbly praying on his knees, but also the man in a flaming temper.”7 According to the Gospel of Matthew, the last thing Jesus says to the disciples is, “Be assured, I am with you always, to the end of time.”8

All the rivers in God’s country flow into the sea of redemption, through which we are made whole. In my mind’s eye, I see a figure on the shore in morning light. Over the thunder of the surf he calls out to my companions and me. “It’s the Lord!” cries Peter, and I follow him over the gunwale of the boat to catch the wave that will bring us to his side.

  1. Williams, H. A. The True Wilderness. Harmondsworth, England: Pelican Books, 1968, pp. 130-131.
  2. Wiman, Christian. My Bright Abyss. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, 64.
  3. Williams, H. A. The True Wilderness. Harmondsworth, England: Pelican Books, 1968, p. 11.
  4. Williams, H. A. The True Wilderness. Harmondsworth, England: Pelican Books, 1968, p. 132.
  5. Mark 8:25, NEB.
  6. Williams, H. A. The True Wilderness. Harmondsworth, England: Pelican Books, 1968, p. 133.
  7. Williams, H. A. The True Wilderness. Harmondsworth, England: Pelican Books, 1968, p. 135.
  8. Matt. 28:20, NEB.

My Fallen House

Photo by Dane Deaner on Unsplash

“When an unclean spirit comes out of a man it wanders over the deserts seeking a resting-place. . .” — Luke 11:23

This unclean spirit, this junior-rank devil, has been evicted from his soul-house, unwilling and anxious, not ready to be homeless, especially since he has nowhere to go but the desert, traditionally the “habitation of demons” who have worked hard and have been rewarded with hot, dry, and vast spaces of their own.

High ranking devils, we may suppose, are riven with suspicion and fury, territorial as hell, not given graciously to incursions by a random, unreliable, mouth-breathing grunt of a devil, incapable of sophisticated untruths or the power to menace, whose current rank is “occupant” — not even advanced enough to give him a voice in Council.

Our devil scrambles through the night, scanning the darkness around him for a cave where he can hole up until he can find another soul-cage to inhabit. He is predictably bitter. The eviction came without fair warning. One moment he was replacing the dust and grime that had gradually been lost, the next he was screaming out through the orifice, wailing about the blast that had ejected him like tobacco juice.

He had made himself at home there for some months. It hadn’t been so much a welcome from the host as it was indifference to his presence. He took the unused back room, carefully arranging the commemorative vials of grime and soot he had collected from the dark, Satanic mills on his tour after graduation from LowPoint Infernal Academy. Truth be told, he’d barely passed his final exams; his advisor had openly sneered at his defense of his major thesis.

But indifference is invitation to a starving first-year associate, and he’d moved in, vowing to wreak havoc, if not full-blown corruption. That would come later, with time and experience. Although he’d tried his best to apply the techniques he’d learned, the last few weeks had been hell. His host had awakened to the fact that his life was aimless chaos and he was chafing to find some purpose.

Our devil had listened with growing horror to conversations overheard that reeked of regret and sincerity. There was an ominous desire to change, and the fumbling attempts at honesty and self-awareness chilled him to the bone. While ejection is the cruelest abuse a host can perpetrate, our devil had to admit he’d naively assumed this holy restlessness was just a passing phase. And now here he was, homeless and vulnerable. The news would travel fast: if he couldn’t find a new host soon, he’d be buffing the claws on some director’s feet with his tongue. Damn, he thought despairingly, it sucks to be me.

***

There is, in each of us, an unclaimed actor who brings out the worst in us. We can sense it when a quick retort comes boiling to mind, but a more reasoned response must be thought out. The first century called them demons. If that strains your credulity, perhaps “unconscious urges” will do. In any case, there is no shame in recognizing that we frequently act against our better will and that “when I want to do the right, only the wrong is within my reach.”1

We are masters of the dramatic arts. Each of us play several roles in life. Not just in the usual roles of personal versus professional, family member versus colleague, but also internally. “The trouble, however, is that we often confuse what we really are with these roles which it is our duty to play. We identify the man with the actor, and in the service of this identification we disguise our feelings from ourselves.”2 Can we see ourselves creating these roles for ourselves? Are we willing to admit that all of us star in our own reality show, legends in our living rooms?

We are actors, all of us, and most of us cast ourselves in roles we are not prepared for. We are influenced by those we admire, people we love, figures we may hate and fear, idealized images of a projected self. The roles we play often come from some part of us we have not fully explored or understood.

But that’s the way life is; there is always someone offstage whispering, “You’re on! Get out there. Break a leg.” And so we go, tripping, stumbling, crashing into the set, sometimes knocking over the potted plants and setting our hair on fire.

What to do after the house is swept clean of our devils and we breathe, for a little while, the freshness of newly planted fields? What to do after we have made a new start?

It helps to remember that habits die hard. And they die hard another day. And the day after that. We’ve laid down these paths and trod them for so long that — to change the metaphor — we’ll still move through the house in the dark, avoiding furniture that is no longer there and slamming into it where it’s been moved.

Restoration will take time, a continuous work in progress.

Here is Augustine, in a famous plea from Confessions: “My soul’s house is too meager for you to visit; enlarge it. It is falling down; rebuild it.”3 He is asking his honored guest to restore the very house he has been invited to visit. Nothing will seem natural or easy. Restoration takes place while we are living in it. We will be stepping around equipment and over displaced things. The neighbors will know. It will be inconvenient and could be embarrassing.

“Inside it,” cries Augustine, “are things that would disgust you to see: I confess this, and I know it. But who’s going to clean it? Or rather, to whom else am I going to shout, ‘Clean away from me, Master, the hidden things that are my own, and spare your slave from the hidden things coming from others!’”4

He is fully aware that a lot has escaped his notice as the homeowner. Water has been seeping, termites have been gnawing, and rust has not slept. The house could fall apart at a touch. He knows there is so much he does not know about maintenance, much less preventative measures to avoid this dilapidation. Please, he says, do your work.

***

Will the house remain deserted after the devil is driven out? Luke’s verse points to a vacancy within our soul. The unclean spirit has been cast out and wanders through the desert. The house stands deserted. This devil tires of the desert and wishes to return to its home. When it arrives, the house is clean, tidy, and ready for occupancy again. “Off it goes,” says Luke, “and collects seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they all come in and settle down; and in the end the man’s plight is worse than before.”5

Jesus suggests that an empty soul-home will be filled; the question is, by what or by whom? It is not neutral territory. The devils only need a space clean enough to spoil and destroy. They wouldn’t know what to do with a home.

We must ask, who should be living there? Who is the rightful owner? Who holds the deed? It is us, we ourselves. What God-in-Christ offers is that in gratitude and humility we freely take ownership of this house—our soul, our character—which he has provided us. That we should consider it ours, care for it, make it a home.

Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus who invite the mysterious stranger to stay for a meal and carry on this life-giving conversation, we can invite the Christ into our soul-home. “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.”6 An image of recognizing a familiar voice, running to the door, and joyfully leading him in for bread and wine.

Should he make an appointment, a formal dinner date? Or is it enough for us to know that when he’s in the neighborhood he’ll stop by? An open invitation. We’ll set out another plate and make it an evening. He knows when he is wanted.

He will not first step in without a welcome; indifference and a ‘whatever’ shrug is not enough. When he disappears, we can leave the light on and the key under the doormat.

  1. Rom. 7:21 NEB.
  2. Williams, H. A. The True Wilderness. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965, p. 36.
  3. Augustine. Confessions. Translated by Sarah Ruden. New York: Modern Library, 2017, p. 7.
  4. Augustine, p. 7.
  5. Luke 11: 26 NEB.
  6. Rev. 3:20 NRSV.

Looking for a Better God

Photo: Liam Richards on Unsplash

Tell me, in the name of your mercies, you, Master, who are my God, what you are to me. Say to my soul, ‘I myself am your rescue.’ Say it in such a way that I hear it.” 1

Consider the God you have been brought up to believe. If you are honest with yourself, isn’t this God a larger version of yourself or of someone else you admire or a vague cloud of attributes and virtues that seem godlike? The education we undergo as children about God is sometimes hit-or-miss, sometimes rigorous, but never inconsequential.

We are taught about God through many devices. We learn stories from the Bible, we listen to sermons and devotional talks. We encounter God in our worship services through the readings and the liturgy. The sacraments are designed to “show us the Father” through our experience of Jesus. Our teachers lead us through classes that sometimes encourage our thinking, but quite often require nothing but our passive acceptance. And we learn a great deal about an American God from religious leaders and politicians.

As children we are taught to think of God as “our Father who art in heaven,” an image that may or may not be comforting for children. For some, it might simply remind them of their absent fathers and the pain of that absence. For others, it might bring an image of a grandfather, kindly, old, and far away. And to some it might suggest a powerful, yet loving, being who watches over this world and our lives with infinite care.

If we stay within a religious community into adulthood our ideas of God might change. I qualify this because I suspect that for many people the God of their childhood does quite well for them as adults. And why not? We’ve been told that God doesn’t change. God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. If there is any surety in life as a Christian, they claim, it’s that God is immutable. He doesn’t change because He doesn’t need to. If God is perfection, defined as all the omnis—all-knowing, all-powerful, present everywhere, all-loving—any change could only be toward imperfection. And who needs an imperfect God?

But many of us go through tremendous changes between childhood and adulthood. Most of these are not cataclysmic but cumulative. One day, in the midst of paying bills, adjusting to family life, raising children, and repeating our breakfast mantra—“I am a professional”—we just might have an overheating of our spiritual engine. “Our Father” suddenly seems long ago and far away. He can neither be summoned by prayer nor conjured through an artificial religious experience. He is not at our disposal.

Moses certainly knew this first-hand. Barbara Brown Taylor describes it vividly:

“Moses knew God as well as anyone ever had, yet God did not tone anything down for him. The mountain shook like it was about to blow apart. The cloud at the top of the mountain was so thick that even Moses could not see inside it. Anyone else who even tried would die, God said—and Moses went anyway. He took the full dose of divine darkness and lived to tell about it, though God would remain a tremendous mystery to him for the rest of his life.”2

This is not a God for children. This is not a God for most adults. This is a God whose very presence threatens human life, as it pours into all available spaces and consumes the oxygen. Moses lived to tell the tale, as did Abraham and Elijah and Isaiah—but not because they were superheroes. They lived because there is more to this fearsome God than fear. Here is the invisible God who is known through the visible—through humanity—and most fully through the humanity of Jesus.

We are living paradoxes: we expect our God to be infinitely more than we can imagine, yet we know that every one of our metaphors for God is severely limited by our imagination. We can bend and stretch our God-models to their limits, but we first must have models to bend. If we can’t find a metaphor for God that enlivens us are we spiritually dead?

“If so,” said Anglican priest Harry Williams, “you must spend your time here looking for a better God — you can look for a better God by reading, by thinking, by discussion, by the experience of common worship and private prayer, by living, knocking about and being knocked about.”3

It’s the ‘knocking about and being knocked about’ part that I find illuminating. It suggests that all our life experiences, not just the ones we label ‘religious’ or even ‘spiritual’, matter a great deal in how we look for God—and the kind of God we find.

Our ‘knocking about’ stretches over our whole lifespan. If, at any point, someone asks me to describe my understanding of God, they shouldn’t be surprised if they come back in a year or so and I have a different story. There will likely be a thread of consistency running from one end to the other of my years, but the details, the priorities, the images and metaphors I find in my search for God will vary considerably as I move through different experiences in life.

When I was a teenager, and even well into my twenties, I confess I thought of God mostly as an agent who was there for my benefit. Help me to pass this exam, get me into this grad school, help me to find this job.

These were important things to me, but the demands left little room for God’s character to be revealed. As a result, I trapped myself into prayer as a contract between two parties—a sure way to kill it off. And it was killed. For years I could hardly bring myself to pray. I couldn’t figure out how it worked for one thing, and for another, I had a picture of myself panhandling before God. According to my framing of God, I obviously didn’t have enough faith, or I’d gotten the formula wrong or—worse thought—God didn’t stop at that corner anymore.

But there was another problem, the problem of evil, that had everything to do with the standard-issue view of God as responsible for everything that happens on earth. I’d long ago ejected from my arsenal of ready-made answers the notion that God actively brings evil on us as a test of our loyalty. With a god like that, who needs the Devil?

I was gradually coming round to the idea that God’s grand experiment with humans was a learning experience for God too. Giving freedom to creatures like us—real freedom to choose—means signing up for the long haul, learning patience, and never giving up on us.

As far as I was concerned, Job won his case against God and God quietly conceded on the merits. But then God opened up a relation with Job that was deeper and wider than anything Job had experienced before. It transcended arguments and codes of conduct. It could not be contained in words.

Job got it. “I had heard of you,” he said, “but now my eye sees you.”4 Job had argued on the basis of a theoretical and legal relation to God, only to be thrust into a close encounter with God that left him speechless, humbled, and strangely satisfied.

Then there was silence: we do not hear from God again in Scripture until the Gospels.

The narrative of God in the Old Testament is of a character who is anything but immutable. He rages, he weeps, he loves, he suffers, he dazzles, terrifies, woos, and comforts. He moves and adapts to our changing circumstances. He meets us where we are. As Charles Taylor says in A Secular Age, “God’s Providence is his ability to respond to whatever the universe and human agency throw up. God is like a skilled tennis player, who can always return the serve.”5

What kind of a God do we need today, right now, in the midst of this national agony?

The Gospels give us Jesus, God-in-Christ—for me an extraordinary, mysterious, profound person, who literally loved us unto death, and lives now as God-in-us through the Spirit. There is nothing we go through that God-in-Christ has not experienced or suffered. There is nothing, as Paul says, that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. A love that can bring justice to the silenced and turn the hearts of the silencers inside out.

None of this can be proven in clinical tests. But when we look for a better god than the one who cannot be moved by our suffering, we stumble into a great disclosure: “there is at the heart of life a Heart.”6 If we cannot let go of our guard rails, God-in-Christ has time and patience.

This is where faith becomes the path. “How am I to get it? Only in the ancient school of experience, by trial and error, by pain and joy, and, most of all, by faith, a confidence that, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, life is on my side and not against me. This is the confidence that Jesus brought . . .”7

It’s then I realize, however fleetingly, that stepping on the path is itself the finding of a better God.

  1. Augustine. Confessions. Translated by Sarah Ruden. New York: Modern Library, 2017, p. 7.
  2. Taylor, Barbara Brown. Learning to Walk in the Dark. New York: HarperCollins, 2014, p. 57.
  3. Williams, H. A. The True Wilderness. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965, p. 51.
  4. Job 42:5, NRSV.
  5. Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge: Harvard University, 2007, p. 277.
  6. Thurman, Howard. Howard Thurman: Essential Writings. Selected with an Introduction by Luther E. Smith, Jr. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, p. 41.
  7. Williams, H. A. The True Wilderness. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965, p. 67.

I Can Breathe

Photo: James Eades on Unsplash

I see posts on Facebook from white friends and acquaintances, querulously complaining that everywhere they look they see signs proclaiming, ‘Black Lives Matter.’ They are tired of it. “Why don’t ‘All Lives Matter’ they ask. Jesus does not make distinctions between people and neither should we, they say. They are color blind; they have never understood why racism exists, they say. They insist they are not racist.

This is a fraught time, but it’s also an historic moment. I am glad I lived to see this time. I was twelve when the Civil Rights Act was passed. Even at that young age it was hard to understand why it had taken so long. But I could go about my pre-teen business, unconcerned about my safety around cops. Officer Angel in St. Helena was a genuine jerk, even on his good days, but it never crossed my mind that my life was in danger while he tailed me on my motorcycle down the Silverado Trail some years later.

I could breathe.

Should I and millions of other white people take to the streets carrying signs that say, “White Lives Matter”? It would be absurd, pointless. My whiteness is the standard against which every other human color is measured and found wanting. I don’t have to try twice as hard to be taken half as seriously as a person of color. I am not overlooked solely because of the color of my skin. I don’t have to justify my very existence.

I can breathe.

In order for a human life to “matter” to others, those others must regard that life as human. This is fundamental to the survival of communities and to the survival of humanity itself. It is so fundamental that when confronted with a sign that reads “Black Lives Matter,” you think, well of course, that’s obvious. And what we’re thinking is that all (human) lives matter; blacks are human; therefore, black lives matter. Simple logic. So why does it have to be said? Because, bluntly put, the unspoken assumption is that black lives still don’t matter as much as white lives matter.

So if the obvious has to be stated—“Black Lives Matter”—you know we are in a seriously schizophrenic state of being in this country. If the house is on fire, the alarm must be sounded. This house is on fire. Black people have been sounding the alarm for four hundred years. But we have been looking away and raising such a din that their voices have been ignored. And it’s hard to make your voice heard above the din when you can’t breathe.

So now we are all in this moment when the loudest voice that finally cut through the din was from a man gasping his life out under the knee of a smugly brutal cop who knew there would be no consequences to his actions because he operated on the assumption that black lives don’t matter. It’s a tragedy that the blindingly obvious must be stated over and over—“Black Lives Matter”—but until we truly believe that, and it becomes a fundamental assumption for us, we must be reminded over and over.

We are on a threshold, what we call a liminal moment. Are we going to slam the door and retreat back into the room we’ve lived in for centuries? Are we going to stand dithering on the threshold? Or will we go forward into the wide world?

There will be a time when a kid in the seventh grade does a report on the protests of 2020 for her social studies class and comes across photos of people carrying signs that say, “Black Lives Matter.” She will be puzzled: isn’t that obvious? she’ll ask. Well, it is now, will be the answer. But it took a lot of people of all kinds, carrying signs, raising a shout, and making a lot of changes, before a lot of other people finally said, “Well, of course.”

So, my fellow white people: Take a deep breath. You know you can. You’ve always been able to breathe.

Accept Your Wilderness

Photo by J. Yotirmoy-Gupta, Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.”4

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steady and clear.

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

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

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

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

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

How to Lose Your Soul

Photo by Koshu Kunii on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gaining our soul is our vocation in life.

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

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

and what the Lord demands of you—

Only doing justice and loving kindness

and walking humbly with your God.”7

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

The Other Side of Asking

Photo: Malcolm Lightbody on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

It’s too complicated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turning Limitations into Advantages: Writing as I Go

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

BarryCaseyBy Barry Casey

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

So I began blogging.

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

View original post 853 more words

Gifts to Beginners

Photo: Hudson Hintze on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“For indeed our God is a consuming fire.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courage and Presumption

Photo: Edwin Hooper on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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