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”Buy truth, and do not sell it;

buy wisdom, instruction, and understanding.”— Proverbs 23:23

Photo: Cesar Viteri, Unsplash

When I buy books, real books, the kind that fill the palm and give off the faint scent of forests and ferns, I most often buy used books. To put a noble purpose to it, I see it as a matter of providing a second or third life to a being whose greatest delight is to be itself in service to others. Used books, like used houses, contain quiet discoveries: a penciled note in the margin or a passage scored in red, with an exclamation point next to it. What emotions did it stir? What memories did it bring up?

I have a volume of philosophy, picked up in a second-hand bookshop in North Hollywood, which has a blue-inked stamp on the flyleaf: “If found, please return to —-,” with a name and an address in Los Angeles. Was its presence in that shop evidence of abduction or betrayal? Was it offered up in the dissolution of a love affair by a woman who wouldn’t stoop to throwing out a book with the potato peelings and coffee grounds? Or the New English Bible I found, inscribed, “To the most wonderful mother in the world. We love you—Rhonda, Carol and Ron,” given on Mother’s Day, 1970, and so lightly used that the pages had to be parted with two hands and a puff of breath.

I am reading now, No Other Book: Selected Essays of Randall Jarrell, which includes a bookmark made out of a horoscope from Sunday, March 7, 1993 (birthdate of Piet Mondrian and Daniel J. Travanti!), that advises me to “Shower family members with affection. Playing the hermit role keeps you trapped in an isolation tank. Spread the gospel of goodwill and exuberance.” It also suggests that I take up sports “like cycling, tennis or golf.” But since I am not a Taurus, perhaps that would be unwise.

For such books, received by others and then forgotten, I give a safe and warm home, an active life, the assurance of a deep and appreciative relationship, and the promise of continued service when I have passed on.

I buy used books, not simply because I love books, but because their histories trace connections back to the authors who wrote them, whose imagination and diligence while writing were often frustrated and thwarted, but who somehow followed a lantern of discovery deep into an unknown country. And there are sometimes geological layers of comments and annotations to decipher, connections to those who cherished them.

So when I find one that gives no evidence of having been pored over, hefted, carried along, returned to, and in a word, loved, there’s a residue of sadness for the writer who labored over this work, perhaps for years, before releasing it into the wild. Once out of her hands her book faced the world alone. Maybe it was sought for with open hands, or merely opened, flicked through, and replaced with a sigh. Maybe it flourished later with meanings that its author could not see, a gift extended.

Some of my books have been with me for most of my life. One of my treasured collections of poetry, The Major English Romantic Poets: Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Keats, I bought new in 1967 for ninety cents, 715 pages of poetry so impassioned as to blow open my imagination and enlarge the regions of my heart. Another one, Modern Poets, introduced me to Eliot, Yeats, Pound, Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and many others. I was searching for wisdom, although I did not think of it in that way.

In the tales of Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov, the heights and depths of kings and battles in Winston Churchill’s History of the English-Speaking People, and in the terrors and stoic courage of Camus’ The Plague, there was a revelation of what Randall Jarrell calls “the Wisdom of the World which demonstrates to us that the Wisdom of the World isn’t enough.”1 Jarrell wrote that about one of Robert Frost’s poems, “Provide, Provide,” which, he said, gives us the minimum case for morality, but with a beauty and conviction that is far from minimal.

It was the conviction that beauty—seen, heard, and above all, rendered in language—is an indispensable element of wisdom, that drew me on in the search.

I was, most probably, not so much in rebellion against my strict but loving upbringing, as I was uneasy in my place, shifting and stretching, unable to locate my magnetic north, but unwilling to stop looking. When the body needs salt, it finds it; when the spirit craves awe it pauses at the roadside shrines. Our restlessness rings about us like an unresolved chord.

At sixteen, the world appeared absurd to me. Beautifully so, but absurd, nonetheless. As I write, it is fifty-one years to the day that Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, the last in a trinity of public figures whose lives, at that time, gave me reason to hope for a new order in the world.

Over against this was my dutiful play in the fields of the Lord and my willingness to be haunted by the Jesus of the gospels.

The world was absurd, intuitively understood, because the allocation of resources and wealth were both capricious and cruel. Not only that, the burdens that so many bore simply by accident of birth and race, could not be justified or accounted righteous in any universe I wanted to be a part of. As I passed the brown backs of laborers bent over the vines in the Napa Valley, I wondered how it was that I was blessed to flourish in the California sun, while thousands of miles away a little Vietnamese girl and her brother ran naked and screaming down a road, their flesh consumed by napalm, as the sky behind them boiled with clouds hellishly dark? “There but for the grace of God,” said some with a shudder. But that was blasphemy, an homage to a god even smaller and more ignorant than the systems that perpetuated it.

Therefore, entirely arbitrarily, due to no merit on my part, I had the luxury to be surrounded by choices, to have time and safety and the means to look ahead to college. Again, at sixteen it seemed absurd (and still seems so today), but the purest response could only be to use those choices wisely and well.

Albert Camus was an early and lasting influence. I shared his love for the sun, the sea, the night. “But these are gods of enjoyment,” he says, in Lyrical and Critical Essays, “they fill one, then they leave one empty.”2 Borrowing the faith of others, I agreed, but not for the same reasons as Camus. Such emptiness, the default position of the church made clear, could only be filled by a personal relationship with Christ. I wasn’t so sure. Couldn’t one love this Earth for itself, this sea, these stars? Wasn’t glorying in the creation also worshipping the Creator? Camus’ heaven basked solely beneath the sun—he held himself to an austere code of honesty—but he retained a wistful awareness, it seemed to me, of a transcendence he could feel, but would not be reconciled to. I believed it but could feel it only faintly.

Camus was seventeen when he knew he would be a writer. Describing the gradual awareness of this possibility, he writes:

“Something, someone was stirring dimly within me, longing to speak. Reading one book, hearing one conversation, can provoke this rebirth in a young person. One sentence stands out from the open book, one word still vibrates in the room, and suddenly, around the right word, the exact note, contradictions resolve themselves and disorder ceases.”3

For Camus, the book that gave him the courage to write what he lived was Jean Grenier’s Les Iles. For me? Well, I suppose some of my contradictions began to resolve themselves through the poets of Isaiah—all three of them—although at the time I only knew of one—and the Gospel of John, that mystical and earthy portrait of the Jesus of signs and wonders. In almost any translation or version, they held for me language that transcended my experience while keeping me rooted in this world. The Bible itself was a library, or better, a bookshop of well-used books, holding the histories of millions, and containing layers of connections and annotations and memories there for all to ponder.

Surprisingly, Camus (referring to Grenier) says, “For it is indeed lucky to be able to experience, at least once in one’s lifetime, this enthusiastic submission to another person.” He draws up the image of the master and the disciple, a confrontation which becomes a dialogue for life. “In the end, the master rejoices when the disciple leaves him and achieves his difference, while the latter will always remain nostalgic for the time when he received everything and knew he could never repay it.”4

Camus did repay it, however, in the ways he inspired and mentored people like me. Although I took a different, but in some ways parallel path to his, we were both searching for wisdom.

I am still stumbling along, trying to commit discipleship. In the books which the Spirit and serendipity lead me to, I find traces of wisdom well worth the price of experience.

  1. Jarrell, Randall. No Other Book: Selected Essays of Randall Jarrell. New York: HarperCollins, 1999, 24.
  2. Camus, Albert. Lyrical and Critical Essays. New York, Vintage, 1970, 328.
  3. Camus, Lyrical and Critical Essays, 329.
  4. Camus, Lyrical and Critical Essays, 329.

If You Were Here Today

”My brothers, think what sort of people you are, whom God has called. Few of you are men of wisdom, by any human standard; few are powerful or highly born. Yet, to shame the wise, God has chosen what the world counts weakness. . . Mere nothings, to overthrow the existing order.” — I Cor 1: 26–28

Photo: Danka Peter, Unsplash

I have come lately to the writings of Joseph Mitchell, a name many of a previous generation would instantly recognize with warmth, but for most of us today, is a poignant discovery. I found him through Michael Dirda’s wonderful book, Bound to Please (2005), a compendium of 109 essays on books that Dirda, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book reviewer for The Washington Post, loves and recommends, from Herodotus to Kingsley Amis, with lists of books in specific genres following.

Whenever I feel that my literary education is lacking, and I want a conversational voice to lead me willingly into the company of the great, I pick up one of Dirda’s several paens to books and reading and I settle down. That’s how I found Joseph Mitchell, who started in the journalism business in 1929, coming out of North Carolina at the age of twenty-one, just as the Great Depression smacked everybody down. He quickly became a lead reporter in New York City for such long-gone papers as the Morning World, The Herald Tribune, and The World-Telegram. He wrote about the Lindbergh kidnapping and interviewed Albert Einstein, Fats Waller, and Clara Bow. He covered all of New York, but felt most at home writing about the people of the Bowery, Times Square, Harlem, the Village, and the docks. He was famous enough that his portrait was on the side of newspaper delivery trucks.

In 1938 he went to work for The New Yorker and Harold Ross, who would become legendary as its long-time editor. Mitchell was stunningly prolific, writing as many as thirteen bylines in 1939. He kept up such a pace for several years, and in all wrote for the magazine for fifty-one years. His first book, Up in the Old Hotel, is a collection of narratives about some of the people whose lives he chronicled.

As David Remnick, the current editor of The New Yorker, says in his introduction, “there was no kitsch in his portraits. His subjects were not ‘characters’; his settings were not tourist destinations.”1 They were people whom Mitchell knew and respected, whose lives he detailed with an eye that did not miss a thing and a voice that was gentle, humorous, and almost courtly. Most of them were people cast aside, bobbing in the eddies left by the main stream, anonymous to all but their families and friends. If it were not for Mitchell’s observations, they would never have been heard from and their stories would have died with their lives.

The effect of Mitchell’s essays is to widen one’s interior vision and to enlarge one’s imaginative conversations with the unfamiliar, and sometimes disquieting people, at the edges. One of my favorite novelists, John Gardner, once told me to look past the lights to those in the shadows, the people who clear the tables after us, who work late and rise early, who toil quietly with a stubborn endurance that somehow gets them through. “That’s where the stories are,” Gardner said, “at the periphery, among the invisible people.”

The Gospels are full of such people. They haunt Jesus at every turn, thrusting children toward him for healing and for blessing. When they hear he is at the lakeside, they rush out, whole families of them, to hang on his words until the day grows dark. They see him as their last hope. The woman with internal hemorrhages desperately throws herself forward, and on her hands and knees stretches for the hem of his caftan as he is elbowed and buffeted by the crowd. It is enough. Jesus turns, feeling energy flow from him, and blesses her. A Canaanite woman from Lebanon, a stranger who is not welcome in Galilee, spars wittily with Jesus, who rebuffs her at first. She throws herself at his feet, begging his help for her daughter who is possessed by a devil. He tries to put her off. My mission, he snaps, is to my own people, not yours. It isn’t right to take food out of our children’s mouths and throw it to the dogs—an insult in any language. She will not be deterred: “True, sir,” she comes back, “yet the dogs eat the scraps that fall from their masters’ table.” And Jesus, jarred into a larger vision of his mission, turns to her in amazement: “Woman, what faith you have! Be it as you wish.”

Jesus sees his people, lost and bumbling, sheep without a shepherd, and he loves them. He had friends among the Pharisees, the educated and the respected, but he gives his time and his life to the ones who can never pay him back. Given a hard choice between following the social norms or healing someone thought to be undeserving, Jesus breaks the rules—a life over convention—every time.

It is that way with Paul too. Sometimes he flows between social classes like liquid, but other times he plants his feet and batters away at walls and locked doors. No divisions, no polarizations, he says firmly. Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, everybody is equal, and everybody has a place in the new order. God’s grace is there for everybody; you have to opt out not to receive it.

To the community at Corinth Paul writes a startling message: Not many of you are wise by the world’s standards. You’re not powerful or to the manor born. You don’t have connections in high places. He finishes with a rhetorical flourish, “Mere nothings, to overthrow the existing order.” And what was the existing order? The cult of emperor worship in the largest empire the world has known. In some circles, those words could get you dead.

Is this self-justification? Making the best of an unfortunate situation? Or is it an acknowledgement that we don’t have to have achieved anything to be called of God? That in our weakness there is strength, and that our very need releases God’s sustaining power?

People of faith have reached a nexus point these days. We can admit our falterings and our weaknesses. We don’t have to bluster and boast and preen about who we know, what we’ve done, and how much we’ve got. There’s less pretense and more realism about what we lack and what we owe. This is all to the good. Humility, like love, covers a multitude of sins, and it invites us to learn freely.

When it comes to spiritual things, few of us are brilliant or even ahead of the curve. We’re lucky if we can navigate the curve without being shot off into the underbrush. Those of us who are lifers in Christianity are particularly susceptible to spiritual smugness. Self-righteousness abounds and a casual cruelty toward those in the shadows is accepted and even encouraged. Truth be told, a lot of us who call ourselves Christians don’t much like the world or the beings in it. We are the reverse of Lucy in Peanuts, who shouts, “I like humanity, it’s people I can’t stand!” Bent as we are to find the black hole at the heart of humanity, we fulfill our own prophecies by provoking the very response we fear in ourselves.

When I read the Bible stories these days, I try to imagine my way into their times and lives. It also helps to keep the holiness of these Scriptures in the room, but in the far corner. Too much reverence blinds us to our human bonds to these people, despite the intervening centuries and the friction of cultures. And we need imagination, lots of it, to create some air between us and our obsessive need for facts. We forget these are stories which holy men of God were inspired to write, but not transcribe.

Sometimes the indirect way comes closest to truth. I read Joseph Mitchell on the bums and whores and dock workers of old New York and I hear a voice of humor and compassion. I read Kurt Vonnegut and Saul Bellow, and in their wry and sometimes despairing narratives I sense a deep and abiding undercurrent of love and admiration for the human race. Seamus Heaney, W. H. Auden, R. S. Thomas, and George Herbert—in varying degrees, but with consistency, these poets fly the flag of hope for humanity.

These authors and others help us see beyond the ramparts of our self-righteousness. They invite us down from our battlements to walk with them, to join the human race and work alongside them. In their songs of human weakness and hope, they shame the wise and humble the arrogant. I hear the music of Jesus and Paul and John and Peter in their hymns.

Mere nothings, to overthrow the existing order.

  1. Mitchell, Joseph. Up in the Old Hotel. New York: Vintage Books, 2008, xi.

One Love

”By his grace and help therefore let us in spirit stand and gaze, eternally marveling at the supreme, surpassing, singleminded, incalculable love that God, who is goodness, has for us.” — Julian of Norwich

On the eighth of May, in the year of our Lord 1373—the third Sunday after Easter—a thirty year-old woman, known to us as Julian of Norwich, received sixteen “shewings” or revelations, which she later acknowledged were visions from God. Near the beginning of that month she had fallen to an illness, the nature of which was not known. After a week in which her condition worsened and she was thought to be dying, a parish priest was called to administer the last rites. At the conclusion, as he was leaving, he placed a crucifix before her and bid her look upon the face of her Savior for comfort. In the next hours, as she prepared herself for death, the showings were revealed to her in rapid succession.

The first fifteen came to her the morning after the visit of the priest, starting at four a.m. and finishing at nine. The last one, the sixteenth, occurred later that night, concluding and affirming the previous ones. Much to her surprise, and that of her family and friends, she recovered. The meaning of the visions occupied her for the remainder of her long life.

There resulted two written versions of the revelations, the first and shorter version inscribed soon after she recovered, and the longer version some twenty years later, the result of much meditation in the intervening years. Although the later, longer version may naturally contain some embellishment on the original visions, both are considered authentic by the Church. She called herself “an unlettered person,” a deprecatory statement that testifies to her humility, but is refuted by “the sheer integrity of Julian’s reasoning, the precision of her theology, the depth of her insight, and the simplicity with which she expounds profound truths.”1

So little is known of her life that what we learn of her character and background must be gleaned from the writings themselves. Based on allusions and hints in the text, biographers have tried to put together a plausible story that takes into account the context of her times.

In 1332, ten years before her birth, the bubonic plague—the Black Death—originated in India, making its way westward by 1347 to devastate Europe. Geoffrey Chaucer was born in 1340, two years before Julian, the same year that Queen’s College was founded at Oxford. In 1349 the Black Death arrived to kill off a third of the population of England. By 1350 Salisbury Cathedral was completed, and in 1352 Corpus Christi College, Oxford, was founded.

In 1361 the Black Death reappeared in England for the second time, devastating Julian’s home city of Norwich, this time striking down infants and small children. Julian would have been nineteen at the time. Her memories of the first plague during her childhood may have been diffuse but unforgettable. In the second wave she was nineteen, married and probably the mother of at least one child, a child who quite possibly was also one of the victims.

Although she does not mention specific personal losses in her writings, she does reflect on the travail and sadness she experienced. There was a time, she writes, “when I had a great longing and desire of God’s gift to be delivered of this world and of this life. For oft times I beheld the woe that is here and the wellness and blessed being that is there . . . This made me to mourn and earnestly to long—and also my own wretchedness and sloth and weariness—that I did not want to live and to travail as it fell to me to do.”2

Plagues and wars were regarded as God’s punishment in Julian’s time, although human sin was the weakness that brought on the devastation. A single sinner could bring down the wrath of heaven on a community. It is the state of our sufferings here that weighs upon her in her solitude. Like anyone else, the presence of evil and suffering seems to her disproportionate to our culpability.

Her biographers and translators (she wrote an early form of English that can be difficult to read) are quick to affirm that in matters theological she followed the Church’s teachings without question—with two important exceptions. She did not accept that God could be wrathful and she did not believe that humans were wholly evil. Augustine’s doctrine of original sin neither convinced her nor intimidated her. As for the wrath of God, she saw only love in all that God did.

Just as the whole of life is rooted and grounded in love, and just as we cannot even exist were it not for God’s love poured out on us, so Julian infers that it is impossible that God should be angry. “I could see no sort of anger in God, however long I looked,” she recounts. “Indeed, if God were to be angry but for a moment we could not live, endure, or be (Julian 138)!” The dread we feel when we sin is not from fear of God, but from our deep need for God’s forgiveness and grace to overcome our sense of separation. It is the fear of the runaway child who suddenly sees herself alone and longs for home and for her parents.

Various theories and conjectures have been put forward to explain her divergence on these matters. Insubordination does not factor here: she voluntarily submitted to the Church’s authority and teachings. Lack of knowledge? Hardly, since the doctrine of hellfire, purgatory, and eternal torment would have been part of every child’s upbringing in her time. One commentator suggests that despite the trauma of surviving two waves of the Black Death before she was twenty, she was the product of a loving, stable, and happy home. While Norwich was a consequential city, the fourth largest city in England at the time, she had been shielded from its ranker aspects and probably never traveled beyond its immediate countryside. Simply put, she had little continued exposure to the cruelties and vileness of human depravity. In her innocence she saw the beauty and worth of every person.

“There is a godly will in our higher part, which by its basic goodness never wills what is evil, but only what is good. This is the reason why he loves us, and why we can always do what pleases him,” she wrote (Julian 118).

In her work as an anchoress, a person who voluntarily withdraws from the larger world to pray for the world and to counsel others, she no doubt heard their woes, their pains, their grievances against others, and their spitefulness. But she steadfastly held the belief that there was a seed in every person—without exception—that was pure and undefiled and was the germination point for the Holy Spirit in that person’s life.

Yet, the very presence of evil and suffering troubled her. She returned to the subject time and again throughout the revelations. “Good Lord,” she writes, “how can everything be all right when such great hurt has come to your creatures through sin?” In an aside to her readers she confides, “I desired, as far as I dared, to have more information for my own peace of mind (Julian 106).”

The answer came to her in two parts. Of the first, concerning our salvation, there is no mystery. Everything we need to know, everything we are hungering to hear from God about forgiveness, grace, and love, is there for the taking. “In this our Lord intends us to be occupied: delighting in himself, as he delights in us (Julian 106).”

The other part may not satisfy us today, accustomed as we are to perceive mysteries as information we have not yet analyzed, collated, and distributed. “The other part is completely hidden from us,” she writes. “It is our Lord’s own private matter, and it is the royal prerogative of God to be undisturbed in that which is his own business (Julian 107).” If we really wanted to please God, she says, we would want only what is God’s will, and in this case it is God’s will that we should not know this just yet. In later passages she hints that the last great secret that God will reveal to his children will be how he has determined the final judgment.

Sin, Julian says, “has no substance or real existence. It can only be known by the pain it causes (Julian 104).” The pain passes quickly and works on us to purge us and make us self-aware; in that pain we turn to God for mercy. “Because of his tender love for all those who are to be saved our good Lord comforts us at once and sweetly, as if to say, ‘It is true that sin is the cause of all this pain; but it is all going to be all right; it is all going to be all right; everything is going to be all right (Julian 104).’ ”

The refrain that sings throughout the Revelations, from beginning to end, is that all will be well. We might think this to be a passing surge of emotion, but it remains at the core of her being after a lifetime of reflection on her extraordinary personal vision. She lived, as near as can be determined, well into her seventies, loved and admired by those drawn through need and circumstance into her circle, as acquainted with the sorrows and agonies of life as with the abiding assurance of God’s love.

***

Every once in awhile, perhaps when it is most needed, some person is lifted and held in the arms of God long enough that they return with God’s heartbeat pulsing through their veins. This has happened in diverse eras to reassure us that God has not left us orphaned. What catches our breath and quickens our spirits is that some of them return with gifts from that far country (as miraculously close as the light behind their eyes)—gifts of words and images that draw us up to God.

“With regard to the physical sight,” Julian states, “I have related what I have seen as truthfully as I can. For the words I have repeated them exactly as our Lord showed them me. About the spiritual sight I have already said a fair amount, but I can never describe it fully (Julian 191–2).”

What we can say runs behind what we can imagine. What we can imagine we can’t always say. Does our imagination outrun our language? Does our language constrict the limits of our imagination? Julian’s vision of God and of Jesus—she called him ‘Mother Jesus’—and of the Holy Spirit, transcended both her time and her Church.

The being of God is, in our present state, unknowable, but in the Word made flesh—in Jesus—we see all we need to know of God that we can bear. We sometimes turn away from this because we do not trust our experience. Julian herself at first could not believe her spiritual eyes: “On the very day that it happened, when the vision had passed, I—wretch that I am!—denied it, and said quite openly that I had raved (Julian 187).” But the Lord showed it all over again to her, in greater detail this time, and quietly said, “You know that was no raving that you saw today.” Take it, he said to her. Believe it, comfort yourself with it, live in it. “For his will is that we should continue to believe it to the end of our life, and remain in the fullness of this joy thereafter (Julian 188).”

All will be well.

  1. Julian of Norwich. Revelations of Divine Love. Translated into Modern English by Clifton Wolters. New York: Penguin Books, 1966, 29–30.
  2. Frykholm, Amy. Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2010, 24.

Our House

Photo: Pierre le Vaillant, Unsplash

”The kingdom of truth is consequently not the kingdom of some other world. It is the picture of what this world ought to be . . . It is not some realm of eternal perfection which has nothing to do with historical existence. It constantly impinges upon man’s every decision and is involved in every action.”1

For a good stretch of my younger reading life I was immersed in science fiction. It offered worlds that could only be imagined, thankfully, since most of them were ramped-up versions of this one, but several orders of magnitude more hideous. They were warning messages and the message was, if you think this is bad you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

They featured intergalactic battles, plagues scourging entire civilizations, aliens traveling thousands of light years to obliterate our planet out of sheer, arbitrary cussedness (“Of all the planets in all the solar systems in all the universe, TZoth, you had to pick this one”), and the occasional beneficent link between worlds.

The best of the hard science fiction built plausibility on a platform of physics; it was exhilarating to see where science could go when imagination pushed the status quo. For a layperson in science, these revelations came as a surprise and a preview of what might come to fruition.

There was heroism too, when the future of civilization and of the world itself belonged to the one whose grip forced the hand holding the death-ray down, down, and then, snap. Order restored; don’t screw it up again. Please.

I liked the stories best that played with questions about ultimate meaning, like whether humans really had anything to offer the universe or what it was that distinguished us from androids. After all, androids were faster, smarter, more efficient, impervious to physical maladies, and couldn’t lie. Humans, well, we are a mixed bag, to put it generously.

Often, the bright line of value between humans and androids was in the freedom we possessed that allowed us to color outside the lines. From that freedom arises beauty, creativity, and truth. But where there is freedom there is the potential for giddy mischief, sullen imperfection, and tragedy. The alternative, however, a sterile perfection of monochrome conformity, kills everything in its path. The grim truth that almost every utopian community has had to face is that coercion in the name of preserving freedom turns a eutopia (a ‘good place’) into a dystopia (a ‘place too awful to work’).

But what we lose in the process, we gain in the effects. Remember how Data on Star Trek achieved technical perfection on the violin, but lacked the feelings to wash the notes with pathos and hope? He knew what he was missing, but that wasn’t enough to grant him the emotional muscles that would move his fingers to draw out the beauty in a Hayden violin concerto.

The humans in some of these tales were clearly louts on the lam, who found their mettle in the midst of battle and survived to rise above their “fleshly nature,” as Paul might have put it. While most of them were wedded to a form of individualism more reflective of Gordon Gekko than Ralph Waldo Emerson, occasionally there would be a spiritual breakthrough, and one of them would admit to feeling in the presence of a vast and lonely Force, while gazing moodily out a porthole en route to another military assignment. Their virtues were often exercised in the face of a tragic decision to die fighting for the lives of the innocent victims of the corrupt corporations that had hired them to preserve their power.

In one of the book series, intrepid human explorers journeyed light years away to an uninhabited world to establish an outpost, a way-station for further exploration. They had hijacked a small fleet of interstellar transport vehicles and had escaped Earth because of mounting anarchy around the globe, climate change run amok, and an America ruled by right-wing authoritarians. The chance to start from scratch, to build a world that had learned from history and would not repeat its mistakes, was the lure that drew this diverse band of artists, engineers, mathematicians, policy wonks, historians, and community organizers.

This was Sim-World on a grand scale, with all the complexity and diversity that one could imagine, now put to good use with attention and intention. This is Creation, Day One, with a chance to reverse-engineer all our present social conundrums back to their original lines of code and rewrite them. It is tempting to think that we could do better this time around because we’re starting out with knowledge of past mistakes and the technology and will to invent the future.

In such a society, historians would be venerated for their interpretive abilities, while scientists would be honored for their adherence to the facts. The poets and artists would portray the acts of the imagination that would cast light on the darkness of unknown futures. Prophets and priests need not apply, since we were intimately acquainted with the neural transmitters that boosted our endorphins or inhibited our guilt.

Yet, one theme that was often present, even at a faint decibel level, was the love for this Earth, this ‘dear, old, warm Earth, as comforting as a grandmother.’ I remember one novel, the title and author of which is lost to me now, that was the story of the literal breakup of the Earth as the result of electro-magnetic forces deep within the core that had gone haywire.

The central figure was a young scientist who had first stumbled upon the clues to this disaster and worked together with an international team to alert the world. The last third of the book follows those who are preparing for the end. Our young man drives from San Francisco to Yosemite and climbs Half Dome to witness the dawn of the last day on Earth. He knows the hour the cataclysm will arrive; he wants to be in a place where he can face the wave that is coming with stoic courage. But as he waits in the semi-darkness, feeling the first tremors around him, he hears the wafting of wings overhead as a flock of birds rushes up from the valley. He takes in the fragrance of the pines, feels the coolness of the stone beneath him, and he begins to weep, not from fear—he’s beyond that—but for the love of the body of the Earth which will be no more.

***

Ask anyone to describe Heaven and they might facetiously give you the clouds, the harps, and the pearly gates. But if they reflect for a moment—and set aside their skepticism—they’ll probably imagine something infinitely better than the most beautiful place they already know. Our heavens are linear extensions of this Earth. Once you trim off the silliness of caricature you realize that there are as many versions of Heaven as there are people to imagine them. And that alone should preclude any obstinate certainty about its dimensions.

We do get a glimpse at the most famous scenario of them all in the Book of Revelation. There John describes a city with streets of gold, gates of pearl, and walls of jasper and other precious stones—a vision, if taken literally, that would nicely fit the garish tastes of a Las Vegas casino magnate. My own desires run to a kind of Hobbiton, each of us with our own cosy burrow built into the side of a hill, overlooking a verdant valley, with a backdrop of mountains from the Canadian Rockies.

No matter. What John gave us was what he saw through the lens of his experience, married to his greatest hopes. For him, it was the most beautiful city he could imagine, clean, sparkling, bathed in light, with no dark, dank corners and no terrors. There would be no night there for God is there and the darkness will never overcome the light that has come into the world.

The story, which we are free to believe, is that God will come to live among the people. However it appears to those whose eyes are opened, what everyone will see is “Immanuel,” God with us. Where Jesus is, there is God, and where God is there is love. And the measure of that love is that God moves into our house with us, this sweet old Earth made new. And how fitting, somehow, that ecology, the study of the relationships between all organisms, is derived from the Greek word oikos, which simply means “house.”

  1. Niebuhr, Beyond Tragedy, 277.

Glory Days

Paul is perhaps the greatest poet of personal religion . . . The first romantic poet in history.”1

Photo: Marius Christiansen, Unsplash

Those who set out to write The Great American Novel after Huckleberry Finn are doomed to failure, although the attempt has produced works worthy of admiration, and inevitably, emulation. Did Twain know he was writing literature that would not only have a shelf-life beyond his own mortality, but would stand as a story that continues to delight and enrage people to the present day? Did the artist known as Homer grasp that his Iliad and Odyssey would become the templates for war novels, road trip movies, and epics of war heroes returning home in disguise? Probably not, although in Dante’s case he was pretty matter of fact that his Divine Commedia was destined for greatness, and within his lifetime it was proven so.

We make our judgments about what is good-better-best when we have more than one thing to compare. We rely on our experience and, probably more than we should, on what experts tell us. We know what we like to read, what moves us and fills our heads with strange and huge ideas.

But when it comes to the Bible, particularly the New Testament, we rarely think of the beauty of the writing. We’re concerned for the authenticity of the voice and the orthodoxy of the theology. The irony is that none of the writers of the New Testament thought of themselves as theologians. They wrote what they saw and imagined and recalled within their communities as they were moved by the Spirit of God. That any of their narratives came together in the first place, particularly the Gospels, seems like something of a miracle in itself.

When we realize that post-resurrection believers of the Way, who lived and worked and worshipped together weekly, exchanging stories of ‘the Christ,” did so without any of the written texts that we know as the Gospels—did so for some forty years, an entire generation—it should give us pause as we dust off that paperback version of the New Testament which can be had for the price of a latte.

Editions of the Bible, niche-marketed more heavily than any other book in the world, may strike us as opportunistic (a “Souldiers Bible,” a Protestant version, was carried by Oliver Cromwell’s troops), the goal of Bible publishers being to spread the Word by any means necessary. Annual sales of the Bible top $425 million, with over 80,000 versions loose in the world today (Brandon Gaille.com). Zondervan alone has over 350 versions of the Bible in print, and in any given year over 20 million Bibles are sold in the United States. The average Christian owns at least nine versions of the Bible, nevertheless twelve percent of American Christians think that Noah was married to Joan of Arc.2

Thus, we idealize the Biblical authors in such ways that we don’t see them having a life apart from their writings. Amos is “among the shepherds of Tekoa” when he is gripped by God to prophesy. We don’t know how he felt about this disruption to his life. Given that the message he carried was of woe and darkness, it couldn’t have given him much comfort or ease among those with ears to hear. Was he a shepherd himself? We assume so, but we don’t know. Did he go back to sheepherding after his prophecies thundered out?

Maybe they came in spurts as he meditated on the hills with his flocks. Maybe he carried them in his head until such time as he could write them down—and how remarkable that he was literate. Did he exult at the excoriations of Israel’s neighbors and tremble at the judgements on Judah and Israel for their triple transgressions? When he was bashing the rich and indolent women of Bashan for their vanity and cruelty, did he imagine that thousands of years later we would read of them dragged out through their breached city walls by fishhooks through their noses and cheeks?

Isaiah—and then Second Isaiah and probably a Third Isaiah—are years apart as authors, their writings spliced by anonymous editors into some of the most beautiful, heartbreaking, jaw-dropping poems of grief, exultation, and glory in the Western canon. As Robert Alter notes in his magnum opus, the translation of The Hebrew Bible, “It is above all the vehicle of poetry in all these prophets that demands close attention . . . and it is perfectly fitting that God should address Israel not in prose, which is closer to the language of everyday human intercourse, but in the elevated and impressive diction of poetry.”3 Were they writing for the ages or for their own time?

We want to know their motivation for writing, the methods they used, whether the writing itself was a burden or a joy or something they saw as a holy duty. In contrast to the best-selling authors of our time, they functioned as conduits instead of celebrities in their own right. We infer their temperament and purpose from the broad strokes of their writings.

The author of Mark writes a hasty, breathless, and down-home form of Greek. It is a compressed narrative that Matthew and Luke expand, revise, and extend. Matthew’s constant citing of Hebrew prophecies and laws reveals Jesus as the fulfillment of centuries-old hopes. Luke begins his gospel with a personal salutation, but then drops into the background and stays there, even through his sequel in Acts, appearing obliquely as the companion of Paul. John offers some tantalizing hints about himself as “the disciple Jesus loved” and “this is the disciple who is testifying,” and then finally, in the last verse, emerges onto the stage himself to say, “I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” about his best friend.

But it is in Paul’s letters—all of them written in a fairly short span between the middle fifties and sixties before his execution, probably in CE 64—that we get a sense of a Biblical author in some detail. He can be, and probably was, an infuriating person. He certainly provoked enough animosity to be beaten, threatened by mobs, chased out of towns, and forced to flee for his life more than once.

That he was an extraordinary person is beyond question. Fluent in several languages, he was fueled from a passionate core that took him from being one zealous for God to the point of having a license to hunt down the people of the Way, to one equally zealous in the service of the risen Christ. The man who could roundly curse his opponents in Galatia by calling them “dogs” could also write a panegyric on love in First Corinthians 13 that has never been equalled.

There is no disputing that what we know as Christianity owes its existence in large measure to this indefatigable little man, small enough to be lowered in a basket over a city wall, who traveled thousands of miles, usually on foot, for some thirty years, establishing small communities of believers in cities throughout Asia Minor.

He remained a faithful Jew all his life, but one who had his spiritual and intellectual axis violently recalibrated by a vision of the risen Christ. For him, this crucified Jesus had breached the defenses of the principalities and powers of this dark world, and had brought heaven and earth together. God, through Jesus, had bridged the abyss between divine and human, reconciling the world to himself, and it was Paul’s honor to carry that message and to suffer with Christ.

There are few people like Paul. He was relentless in his purpose, unwearying in his efforts to build communities of people who would cease to live for themselves and instead be the hands of God in the world. Confident to a fault, he could yet call himself “chief among sinners,” and in his lowest moments wonder if he had wasted his life for no purpose.

In his second letter to the Corinthians he confides that “we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself (2 Cor. 1:8).” While God had rescued him from that peril, in the letter to the Philippians written from prison in Ephesus, he writes a poem about Jesus that could only have come from a man who had had time to explore doubt, fear, and the sure prospect of a violent death. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” he pleads, tracing the self-emptying of Christ who “became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5,8).”

Paul encourages his friends—and we may count ourselves in that select group—to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12,13).”

He never loses hope, not that he will escape suffering and eventual death, but that he will soon see Christ Jesus face to face and he will “know as he is known.”

This complex, irascible, brilliant man, who can thread the needle of the closest arguments, and yet pour out his heart unreservedly to whoever is drawn into his orbit, probably had personal contact with fewer than a thousand people in his lifetime who would, in time, be referred to as “Christians.” In the letters he wrote, letters that both dealt with the common frictions of diverse people living together and yet revealed the most glorious secrets of the living God, we find the preparation for the Gospels themselves, and the most compelling example of other people’s mail changing the world.

  1. A. N. Wilson, Paul: The Mind of the Apostle, 220, 221.
  2. Brandongaille.com
  3. Alter, Robert. The Hebrew Bible: Prophets, 618.

The Patience of Hope

“Hope and patience belong together. Only a church that is learning patience can proclaim hope effectively.” — Rowan Williams, Being Disciples, 1

Photo: Valou C, Unsplash.com

When the King James Version writes of Jesus as saying to the disciples and those gathered around, “Suffer the little children to come unto me,” he means they should have patience with them, they should bring them into the circle and make allowances for them.

Patience, from the Latin verb pati, means “to allow, to suffer,” in the sense of endurance. To be patient with someone is to allow for their slowness, their fumbling, perhaps also their irritating arrogance.

I came across this pairing of hope and patience in a beautiful little book called Being Disciples, by Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. Williams describes faith as confidence in a “dependable relationship” with God, and that, in turn, frees us from anxiety about who we are. As Christians, “Who I am is in the hands of God,” and “It tells me that I am more than I realize, in the eyes of God, for good or ill.”2 We may hope in the unseen God because God knows us intimately, even the depths of the human heart. Hope, then, is not simply confidence about the future, but it also ties together past, present, and future in the memory that just as God has had our backs in the past, so God can be depended on to hold us in the future.

The Church should model this too, as Williams says, “This suggests that the Church needs to be marked by profound patience: patience with actual human beings in their confusions and uncertainties.”3 There are some hard truths for anyone who chooses to belong to a spiritual community:

It takes time to grow up into Christ.

We grow at different rates.

Sometimes we reverse our growth.

“And if it takes time for us,” Williams says, “then it takes time for the Body, the community, to grow overall. Hope and patience belong together. Only a Church that is learning patience can proclaim hope effectively.”4

I witnessed this first hand in a little church in Canada, the last place my stereotypes of such a church would have allowed me to imagine it. Soon after we were married, my wife and I joined another couple in volunteering for a year to teach in a K-12 school and help out at the local church in a town in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia.

Not long after we arrived in the fall, a young couple was baptized into the church. Nothing unusual about that except that the two candidates were unmarried—and the young woman was vastly pregnant. The pastor, a kindly and humorous man in his fifties of Ukrainian descent—one of many Ukrainian families in that area of Canada—had a mannerism of fixing his eye on a spot up in the corner of the church while he preached and speaking with a broad smile on his face.

I can’t recall much of his sermon after the baptism, except his comment that this young couple had decided they wanted to join with the body of Christ and they wanted to bring their child up in the church from the start. It was now our privilege and responsibility to see that they had the love and support they needed from all of us. And he said, with a smile on his face and in his voice, that we could expect to see them up front again soon and we were all invited to witness their marriage.

My stereotypes—conservative church, conservative pastor—hadn’t prepared me for this. The community I had grown up in made such people invisible. While they would never have been publicly called out for censure, they also wouldn’t have been baptized. Conventional religious wisdom said these kids had gotten the prescribed order wrong: first you date, then you marry, then you have children, and, of course, you bring them up in the church because you’ve already been baptized, probably about the age of twelve. But here they were, a bit bashful but joyous, clothed in their robes and immersed not only in the waters of baptism, but also in the assurance of love and acceptance by their community.

This raises a fundamental question about the kind of community we think the church should be. Is it a place for perfected people who are safe to admit to the kingdom? Or is it a home for the spiritually halt, the blind, and the lame? People like you and me, in other words. Do we accept people into the fellowship in order to let them grow or grow them first and then bring them into the fellowship?

Critics of the Church (and Christians themselves) often point out that Christians talk a good line, but don’t live up to it. Shouldn’t it make a difference how you treat people, they say, if you’re going to claim that you’re better than the rest of us?

They’re right—it should make a difference, a difference that others can see and feel. It should make a difference in the places we work, the lives we touch, the decisions we make. When we’re honest with ourselves—the kind of honesty that opens up from assurance, not from fear—we know that we are broken, and we know that we are ill. There’s no self-pity in that; we simply own up that our situation is serious.

That shouldn’t be the end of it, of course, as if we woke up one morning paralyzed from the neck down and then idly wondered what we might make for breakfast. Awareness of our condition comes through humility, but it also requires a revelation, an insight from outside.

There are things about us that we know and others know; there are things that we know that others don’t know; there are things about us that others know, but that we can’t see. And there are things that others don’t know, and we don’t know either. The secret things of the heart, the Bible calls them, that which the Spirit searches out.

Some of these erupt when we least expect it and we find ourselves doing things that can’t be explained but horrify us, nonetheless. There’s hope in that; if we can still find our actions abhorrent, we know there remains a flicker of conscience, like a candle in the wind.

There’s also hope to be found in the strengths we didn’t know we possessed. These surprises of the heart that spring up from what Paul calls “the spiritual level” are the result of “Christ dwelling within you.”5 They may come out as the courage it takes to not go along with implicit racism or the self-control to bite back a quick retort or the willingness to risk something new that draws us into God’s sphere of compassion.

What we need is a watchfulness, an alertness to our surroundings and to the fluctuations in the atmosphere in which our expectations of change live and breathe. There are times when all we can do is rest in the space between the notes. It’s not for nothing that even in dire straits the Psalmist says, “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord . . . Be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!”6

All of this takes time. And as faith in action complements the awakening of our conscience we begin to grasp that it’s not God who is slow to act on our behalf, but rather it’s our limited bandwidth in understanding.

God “suffers” us as he draws us to him through the Spirit. If Jesus was often impatient with the disciples for tripping over the basics, it was because he sensed his time on earth was almost up. After all, he was human too. But he also showed through his own faithfulness in reflecting God that “God’s way is not to coerce us by force or by some undeniable evidence of his power . . . But to allow us to do with him what we will . . . And to wait and to endure with the authority of an unchanging love.”7

God is patient with us as we tumble and stutter. And if the Church’s task in every age and every place is to witness to the divine story in history and “to make connections between his story and ours, between our little lives and the great life of God within us,”8 then our task as individuals in the Church is to bear with one another and to learn patience as we proclaim our hope for the world.

  1. Williams, Being Disciples, 31.
  2. Williams, Being Disciples, 30.
  3. Williams, Being Disciples, 30–31.
  4. Williams, Being Disciples, 31.
  5. Roms. 8:10
  6. Psalm 27:13,14.
  7. Michael Mayne, Pray, Love, Remember, 114.
  8. Mayne, Pray, Love, Remember, 76.

When Death Us Do Part

Photo: Claudia, Unsplash

So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord—for we walk by faith, not by sight. (2 Cor. 5:6,7 NRSV)

No matter how many times one reads John Donne’s sonnet, “Death Be Not Proud,” it still seems that Death is winning this round. In the aftermath of the Easter bombing of churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, the mind reels (“The numbers are staggering,” said one official), especially as we hear it was in retaliation for the massacre of Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand. In miniature, this is the endless regression of religious and ethnic hatred. (I am aware, in an awful irony, that in singling out this specific atrocity I am simply underscoring my selectivity. There are many others to choose from. While writing this essay there has been another shooting, this time at a synagogue at the close of Passover. No matter when you read this, the number of mass killings will have increased. This is our world.)

One photo of a funeral in Columbo transfixed me. In the foreground, so close one could almost touch it, was the coffin. Just behind it was the priest, eyes closed in prayer, hands folded, robe crisply white and unstained. Behind him was the crowd standing stretched across the photo from side to side, some under the tent, others farther back under the overcast sky.

Studying each face, I saw on the front row the family in mourning. At the far left a young and stocky man stood rigidly, his face a masque of tension controlled with difficulty. An older man stood next to him, his shoulders and head bowed slightly, a hand up to his mouth, listening to the priest. At the center of the scene, seated next to the older man, was a young boy, probably thirteen or fourteen, whose face was contorted with grief, the head back, the neck taut with strain, the eyes hammered shut. His right arm stretched across his body to clutch the younger boy next to him.

That boy was the focal point of the scene for me. Although he was smaller, his arm was around his brother, bracing his head from behind. He reached for the older boy, but without looking, trying to puzzle out the scene before him. He stood awkwardly, unsure of his position, as if his brother had never needed him until this moment. His eyes were wide, his mouth caught slightly open. He wore the look of a child rooted to the spot as a tsunami hurtles toward him. For the first time in his young life, Death had become real.

Growing up means understanding that the world does not conform to our wishes. Becoming mature means we don’t hold that against the world. 

***

British philosopher Simon Critchley writes about Augustine’s paralyzing fear of death in his Book of Dead Philosophers. Augustine, whose book The Confessions, is the first and longest open prayer to God, pours out his heart about the death of his best friend, unnamed to us.

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

Augustine fears his own death, not so much for himself, as for the final extinction of his friend from human memory. The death of his friend cut away part of himself, a violent slash of Fate’s knife that he almost could not bear. Half a life is better than none at all. But that was when Augustine was a pagan. 

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

He writes, somewhat defensively: “whoever wishes can read me and, as he wishes, decide whether I mourned my mother excessively, by this or that part of an hour, but not deride me for it.”(Wills 205) He is asking us not to judge him too harshly for weeping over his mother’s death, even though his weeping was for less than an hour. His grief is doubled, he says, by the fact that he is grieving. Apparently, for a Christian, such grief is unbecoming. In his own eyes Augustine is condemned for not having enough reliance on God to tough it out without giving way to his emotions. 

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

For Christians, Augustine assures us, the fear of death diminishes the nearer they draw to God.

***

We draw on the resources we’ve got as we grieve the parting that death brings. Some think of death as simply part of the life cycle or a momentary interruption of our journey through time. Epictetus and the Stoics saw it as part of our natural cycle, something no more to be feared than going to sleep or changing one’s habitat. Don’t fear death or pain; fear the dread of both. “We cannot choose our external circumstances,” said Epictetus, in The Art of Living, “but we can always choose how we respond to them.”

But I was surprised—and touched—when my friend from college passed away and his brother announced that he had “finally won his six-year battle with disease . . . He slipped out of his enemy’s grasp and into peace and rest just seventeen days short of his 68th birthday.” It was a victory of sorts, and it brought a new height to the vantage point over the battlefield.

Dylan Thomas famously urged his dying father to fight to the end:

“Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

We are trained to resist death in our culture. We regard it as the enemy, a Gorgon to be overcome through our tests, drugs, therapies—all the barricades modern Western medicine can throw up to slow the inexorable Terminator.

We resist death because we mourn the loss to the community of that person’s presence in our world, their experience and wisdom, the potential never to be realized.

“Any man’s death diminishes me,” declared John Donne, “because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

The earliest Christians, harassed and martyred, also saw death as the enemy—the last enemy to be destroyed before the whole creation was put right. Physical death was inevitable; it was not to be feared, no matter how it finally arrived. What was at stake was the war, not the battles in which they lost their lives. In the realms where spiritual powers fought for justice in the universe, Christians had a part to play. They were to resist evil by standing for love in the face of hatred and brutality.

In this, love must play the long game, a muscular love that stands in the breach for others. We walk by faith, after all, not by sight. The arc of justice is long; we may not live to see it touch down, but in the moment there is only the way of Christ who humbled himself to be among us as one who serves.

To find the universal that encompasses all the particulars is to transcend the truism that all of us will die. It is even to go beyond the catalogue of differences about what happens to us after death. It is to recognize that in the deaths of those we mourn we are granted the choice to love and be trustworthy for those who remain.

“So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord—for we walk by faith, not by sight.”

Into the Night

Photo: Vincent Chin, Unsplash

”Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. 1 Peter 4:8, NRSV

”You can take, if you will, your solace in heaven, but you must work out your ethics on earth.” Susan Neiman, Moral Clarity

In the events leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus, we have one of the greatest dramas in human history. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was hailed by hundreds, maybe thousands, as the decisive moment of triumph for their nationalistic hopes. There was Jesus’ show of righteous anger, as he drove out the money merchants from the temple to return it to the people as a house of prayer. The events of the last supper, the washing of the disciples feet, and the sorrowful walk to Gethsemane; Jesus’ hours-long prayer for comfort, relief, courage, and faithfulness, interrupted by the mob intent on capture—these are indelible impressions for our imaginations.

But the political and religious authorities who jockey for power during the hours before the crucifixion do so through the selling out of Jesus by Judas. It is a scene of almost unbearable pathos, as Judas steps brightly forward with a forced smile of bonhomie and kisses Jesus. The mob is tensed, as if facing an imminent threat. Jesus is calm, almost bemused by the scene. I was in the temple every day, he says, and you could have taken me then. So now you come, with weapons and torches at night?

Peter and Judas both betrayed Jesus. Both stories are there for us, because we’ve all been Peter betraying Jesus, and given other circumstances, we might have been Judas if it comes to that. What is the difference between Peter and Judas? Both of them betrayed Jesus. Both of them repented with tears and anguish. Only one of them survived. The gospels spend more time on Peter’s betrayal than on Judas’. Their mention of Judas is tight-lipped, with breath indrawn.

How might we think about Judas if we put aside our feelings? We would see him with Jesus for three years, working alongside the others, going out with them on their first missionary journey, returning to hear Jesus, exultant, say that he had witnessed Lucifer fall like a meteor from heaven. He had seen Jesus feed five thousand people, had been there for countless exorcisms and healings, he had heard all the parables and stories, taken in Jesus’ urgings and warnings, shared his weariness and his hunger on the road, and enjoyed the company of Jesus’ friends and patrons. Like the others, he had given up a lot to follow Jesus. In short, he had lived a parallel life with Jesus that converged at many points.

In a person for whom one’s capacity for evil has not been faced and acknowledged—the shadow side of the personality—a rejection by one’s parent as a child erupts in the adult as shame, guilt, and fear whenever that person comes into communion with another who accepts and loves him. Robert Stein, a Jungian psychologist, suggests that infantile aspects we usually grow out of because they could harm others, things like greed, brutality, and aggression, continue to contaminate the soul of such an individual as an adult. Such people provoke rejection by others while insisting on fully expressing their shadows. They want to be loved in spite of the inevitable punishment they experience. Only then will they feel they’ve experienced acceptance and love. Jesus’ refusal to retaliate must have shaken Judas to the core.

It’s worth considering the betrayal of Jesus by Judas. For one thing, it is so much a part of the tableau leading to the crucifixion that we think of it as a necessary step to our salvation. Nobody wants to be cursed for all history, but Judas makes his decision to accelerate the fate of Jesus, and then is swept backward by the rush of events. In a matter of hours, he becomes the eternal asterisk to the trial of Jesus. Once he has served the ends of the authorities, he is of no further use to them. His dramatic throwing down of the blood money he’d received is regarded with sneers. Judas becomes the poster man of snitches and traitors, despised by those to whom he offered his services, hated by those he turned on, cursed by all—except Jesus.

Perhaps the most tragic aspect is that Judas’ actions might have been unnecessary in the course of events. The temple police knew who Jesus was, and they had to know he spent most nights he was in Jerusalem at the Gethsemane Garden. They would have found him, even without Judas. Their designs to capture Jesus at night were merely tactical: they wished to avoid a popular uprising if they apprehended him in the temple. Judas’ offer was convenient, and thirty pieces of silver was a small price to pay if they could claim that his own disciple delivered him up, turned him over as a threat and a public menace.

Some biblical commentators have conjectured that Jesus’ band included at least one member of the Zealot party—Simon—and that Judas himself might have held zealot sympathies. Judas’ own agenda may have included forcing Jesus’ hand to declare the revolution and get on with his messianic mission. In that case, Judas could have rationalized that he was only providing the opportunity for Jesus to assert himself. When the police closed in and led Jesus away, Judas must have been both bewildered and stricken.

***

Judas turned Jesus in, Peter turned him away. What Judas did could only happen once. What Peter did happens every day. Judas repented in horror and bitter tears, but he could not bring himself to believe that forgiveness could ever be his. The only relief from the suffocating blackness of guilt was suicide. Peter repented, too, in horror and bitter tears. Like Judas, he rushed out into the night to weep his heart out under the stars.

What saved Peter, but could not save Judas, was Peter’s utter guilelessness. He was not capable of subterfuge or even strategizing for gain, either his own or for the ultimate vindication of Jesus as Messiah. He wore his heart upon his sleeve for all the world to see, including Jesus. When he repented, he went all in. Just hours before his betrayal Peter had balked at Jesus kneeling to wash his feet. This is not what the Messiah should be doing. If I don’t, said Jesus, we are not in fellowship. “Then, Lord,” cried Peter, “not my feet only; wash my hands and head as well!”

Jesus had built his church upon a rock whose best qualification for the position was finally his unreserved humility.

Yet, Peter was also the walking definition of enthusiasm, the Greek derivation of which means to be caught up ‘in God.’ Only the truly humble are capable of such enthusiasm because on some level they have willed the removal of any obstacle to the Spirit. For the rest of us, this will be our deepest aspiration, the intention of which is just the beginning of our resurrected life.

***

I have a friend who worked his way through seminary by working for and living in a mortuary. He helped officiate at the funerals and his wife did the hair and makeup of the deceased. Their little boy, four years old, often accompanied his father out to the cemetery. One day, looking at the mounded earth of a grave, Jake wondered aloud, “Dad, when Satan dies, will God put flowers on his grave?”

At the end of all wars, even the one that has defined the history of this Earth and its solar system, we can imagine just such a moment when the Lord of all mourns the tragic trajectory of Lucifer, the bright morning star, for whom humility, forgiveness, and love was a bitterness that pride could not bear.

Not For This Life Only

Photo: Eberhard Grossgasteiger, Unsplash

If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. — I Corinthians 15:19, NRSV

Pity is only as good as our capacity to rise above it. It’s a natural response for most of us to the suffering of others, and it can open the door to something longer lasting, say empathy or understanding. But by itself, pity doesn’t lift or restore us. It usually drops us in our own estimation.

We want hope now, in this life. We need it. The paradox here is that our hopes for the future churn up our present and make us restless for a present that opens up the future. Most of us do not live in the present, despite the wisdom of the ages and the sages among us. We live with one foot in the past and we lean into the future, while the present is what happens to us as we stretch between the two. Somehow, we make it work.

We’re not even sure what the dimensions of the present are. It depends on the context. If we’re talking about the present in the historical flow of things, it could be this year and maybe part of last year, although so much seems to happen now in weeks and days that last year seems like an eternity gone.

Our own present flexes and stretches like an accordion. My present is that which is of interest and concern to me right now. The length and depth of the love I have within my family and friends, the books I’m reading, the words I am writing, the events I am reacting to. How I respond to Christ in this moment, how honest I am with myself or how I dodge the things that unnerve me.

We hear enough about living in the present from wise people in all ages and from all faiths in the world that we should pay more attention. Jesus asks us not to worry about the future because it has enough worries of its own. Paul suggests that we hold the past in memory and press on to the present. Both of them believe that God meets us in the present and promises us a future. God can’t change our past, but he can help us to live with it.

But Paul is writing to the Corinthians, people whose community together is shot full of incest, drunkenness, and fighting. They are learning as they go, trying to rely on each other and on this mysterious Spirit, not at all sure they can leave behind what defined them in their past. Maybe that makes it harder to live right in the present, seeing as how some lines of habit are burned into their relations with each other.

But there’s something else. The Christ that Paul has introduced the Corinthians to had been murdered by the Romans in a manner specifically designed to humiliate and terrify him and anyone who might have claimed to be his friend. State criminals like that were crucified and their bodies were thrown out on the ash heap, to be torn by dogs and left to the birds. This is not a person you want to claim as your god.

If the Corinthians only have hope in this life, Paul claims, they are most to be pitied, for the implication is that their god has played them for fools. Even pagan gods were immortal. And anyway, they wouldn’t be caught dead on a cross at the hands of inferior beings like us. More likely, they would rain down fire and plague until we cried out speechlessly.

The theme that Paul riffed on, the extended guitar solo, if you like, soaring on the music of the oral traditions of Jesus in his time, was the battle that Christ had waged with the angels and principalities and powers of the universe. That battle had been won when Jesus died; the worst they could do to him turned out to be the burning fuse that eventually blew their powers to kingdom come. Along the way, these powers found common cause with those who were so anxious to perfect the path to God that they crushed the spirit of those who sought to find their way.

“When the ‘religion of fear’ finds its way into the Christian church,” said Jurgen Moltmann in The Crucified God, “those who regard themselves as the most vigilant guardians of the faith do violence to faith and smother it.”

The violent bear it away, a la Flannery O’Connor.

“This pusillanimous faith,” continues Moltmann, “usually occurs in the form of an orthodoxy which feels threatened and is therefore more rigid than ever. It occurs wherever, in the face of the immorality of the present age, the gospel of creative love for the abandoned is replaced by the law of what is supposed to be Christian morality, and by penal law.”

The Corinthian Christians, along with all their bumbling relationships, were having a loss of confidence. Their neighbors and former confidants were trying to understand how anyone could fall for such a loser god. Because that man, Jesus, was crucified and he died, just as every Jew the Romans crucified died. The Romans scored 100 percent on the efficiency scale for all that. So if these Christians had put their trust in that man, they deserved to be pitied (when they weren’t being mocked) because a dead god was even less useful than a dead goat. Nobody could beat the Romans for mopping up all resistance and wiping out the political opposition.

They were efficient, but not effective: One man got through to the other side.

Oh, he died alright. But in some way that can’t fully be explained, after crucifixion and a hasty burial in a sealed tomb, he showed up in Galilee on the beach, he entered a locked room in Jerusalem filled with terrified disciples, and he hiked the seven miles to Emmaus with two of his friends and then vanished over dinner. Peter saw him, the twelve saw him, as did five hundred of his friends in Jerusalem, along with James, his brother, and his closest circle in Jerusalem. Lastly, in a weird kind of premature birth, he appeared to Paul who made that singular experience the balance point of his spiritual gyroscope for the rest of his life.

Paul’s message, the engine that kept him going over mountains, across seas, through the fires, in spite of whippings and chains, is that Christ, the one into whom all the fullness of God had been poured, the one who suffered a most humiliating death—that one had been raised from death to start human history up again with a new beginning.

As Clarence Jordan once said: “The crowning evidence that Jesus was alive was not a vacant grave but a spirit-filled fellowship. Not a rolled-away stone, but a carried-away church.”

Buddhism says if you are shot with an arrow, don’t get in a debate about the type of arrow, the composition of the arrow-head, and the trajectory that embedded it in you. Pull out the arrow.

We could argue for eternity how the resurrection could have happened, but without resolution. Because it isn’t verifiable by our usual standards of empirical measurement. It isn’t even comprehensible in a way that can be said without stuttering. What matters is the result of the message of the resurrection—a faith-filled community that infiltrated the world and stayed true, even unto death. That is power. The glory is still to come.

Cross Purposes

Photo: Josh Applegate, Unsplash

Salvation is a child and when it grows up it is crucified. Only he who can see power under weakness, the whole under the fragment, victory under defeat, glory under suffering, innocence under guilt, sanctity under sin, life under death can say: Mine eyes have seen thy salvation.—Paul Tillich, The New Being

When I was a child, I discovered that when I crossed my eyes I could see the world in very different ways. Instantly, my left eye invaded the territory of the right eye and the result was a disorienting Escher-like amalgam of images, as if Spock and Kirk had gotten their body parts reversed going through the transporter device. It was an ersatz Picasso-lens for budding cubists. Ignoring the taunts of older children that one day my eyes would stay crossed, I enjoyed these brief forays into alternate reality.

Standing on my head was another way to re-imagine the world. Although I couldn’t sustain the full, upright position for long, I could live for a few moments in a world with a limitless blue airiness underfoot beneath a ceiling of trees, streets, and buildings.

It’s good for us to see the world from odd angles from time to time. It reminds us that ours is just one of many viewpoints. And it gives us insight into primitive Christianity, which abounds with paradoxes and upside-down values.

Christianity often seems to be at cross purposes with standard operating procedures. In the Genesis story, creation is the high point, but after sin, everything is downhill from there, whereas with evolution everything begins with the humble one-celled organism and climbs to the top of the food chain, which is us. In the darkest, coldest month of the year, Christianity says the light came into the world. In the spring, when everything in nature is waking up and blooming, Christians celebrate a death.

“I am come that they might have life, and that more abundantly,” claims Jesus, but then he also proclaims the poor to be blessed. The Beatitudes are all about opposites. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are those of a gentle spirit; the world shall be theirs. Everywhere you look in the Gospels there are these cross-eyed, head-stand ways.

Don’t kill each other, says Jesus, but in the next breath he pushes it way back behind actions to intentions. Don’t nurse anger toward others, because anger nursed can then be weaned to murder. Without denying the front-facing commandment, Jesus goes back to the root of the outward action.

It’s easy for us to love those who love us—or at least to avoid conflict with most people. But what about those who get in our face? Jesus tells us to love our enemies and to pray for those who hate us. This is how God sees us as children of his family. After all, Jesus reminds us, God makes the sun to shine upon the good and the bad alike and sends rain for both the liars and the honest. You’re all in the family, he says. Do you think I’ll treat you unequally?

It takes a while to get used to this radical way of thinking. Actually, we don’t get used to it. It doesn’t become habitual and it certainly isn’t instinctual; it is something that must be re-learned and practiced daily. It’s as if our brains were developed to float in our skulls just so, vertically aligned in such a way that stimuli reaching us from the external world hit their receptors precisely, with no tolerance for wavering or misalignment. The world shot in portrait mode only, the landscape view constrained to fit only through distortion and elongation. Only when we stand on our heads does any of it begin to make sense.

Why does so much of what Jesus says sound so alien? Lest we think that 2,000 years and a clash of cultures has created this great divide, we can take some rueful comfort in that his mother and his brothers thought him a stark lunatic and his own disciples could not grasp his simplest commands. “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven,” they ask. He calls over a child, sets him down in the midst of them and responds, “Unless you turn round and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 18:3).” The meaning is unequivocal: what part of “never” don’t we understand?

Yet, when one door slams, another opens. “Let a man humble himself till he is like this child, and he will be the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven.” In this new economy of virtues only the humble survive. In one stroke, Jesus flattens the social hierarchy based on status and power and spreads it horizontally. If we want to see this kingdom as it is, we shall have to look in landscape mode, turning and turning in the widening gyre 360 degrees, until we return to this little child.

Paradoxes and reversals abound. Paul is shipwrecked, beaten, imprisoned, and starved. He has to light out of town more than once under cover of darkness, and who could calculate the miles he put in walking, sailing, riding for the gospel of the kingdom. Yet all these things he counts as nothing, save for the cross of Christ and the glory to come. “Our eyes are fixed,” says Paul, “not on the things that are seen, but on the things that are unseen.” We can imagine him, stripped for thirty-nine lashes, with a gaze that penetrates to heaven.

What do we see? What are we looking at? Even after the hundreds of miles he walks and the beatings he endures, there is a certain bounce in Paul’s stride. “Therefore, we never cease to be confident,” he writes. “Faith is our guide, we do not see him.” He looks at the world with eyes wide open, seeing himself as he is, but more importantly, how God sees him. Living as an exile in this world, Paul knows that those who play by the rules of the world may succeed in the ways of the world—although they will lose their lives—but those who take up their cross and follow Jesus will gain their lives. In the midst of death there is life.

“Sin is our refusal to become who we truly are,” writes Michael Mayne in Pray, Love, Remember. When we confess our sins we may think of all the moments we tripped up in our daily walk, all the unthinking ways we brushed others aside, the petty grievances we took into foster care, the blindness to our effect on others that caused them pain. But Mayne is looking deeper than just sins. “Chiefly I am aware of a much more subtle temptation,” he writes, “to settle for less than I might be. To choose the lesser good. To lack curiosity and wonder. To miss the mark because my sights are fixed too low. Not to perceive that I am ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ in God’s image.”

At all times, but especially at Lent, if we ask it of God, we are blessed to see ourselves as we are and what we may become. Seeing thus is to see the world turned upside down, and yet to walk confidently.

It may all seem to be at cross purposes with how the world works. Yet, in the end, all our purposes begin with the cross, the cross that brings life, the death of Death, and most wonderfully, resurrection.