On the Receiving End

Photo: Ben White, Unsplash

The Christmas story—the one according to Luke not Dickens—is not about how blessed it is to be givers but about how essential it is to see ourselves as receivers.1

At Christmas time we give gifts. Parents teach their little children how to do it by buying gifts the child can give to teachers and friends. We learn to give by giving.

Like many other social conventions, it’s something acquired by practice; there are rules. We try to match our gifts to the personalities of those receiving them. Often, this is done through stereotyping: tools for men, clothing for women. Then there are “gag gifts,” those useless gadgets we buy for others mostly for laughs, just to see their expression when they open the box. And there are those gifts that bear a subtle message of reform and uprightness: a dictionary for the teen who games every free minute, and a tie and matching handkerchief for the man who refuses to wear one.

Perhaps most importantly, we learn the art of proportionate giving, of responding to a gift in like manner. Don’t exceed the received value, lest you be thought ostentatious or overeager, and for heaven’s sake, do not under-give or you’ll be branded a cheapskate. All of this in order to maintain a delicate balance between the expectations of social norms and one’s self- image.

***

“It is better to give than to receive.” The words are those of the apostle Paul, spoken to the believers at Ephesus. He is “remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.”2It may have been a common saying among the disciples and those who followed Jesus or it may have been revealed to Paul himself, for nowhere in the gospels is this saying found. Paul wouldn’t have known that though, since Mark, the first gospel, would not be written for at least another twenty years and the other gospels much later. But as John says, “there are also many other things Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”3

We say this phrase jokingly when we are trying to persuade someone to donate to our cause, or we might repeat it when we feel ourselves to be reluctant givers. And while it truly may be more blessed to give than to receive, the fact is that we find it harder, much harder, to be on the receiving end.

To give is to affirm that we are in control. It suggests that we are capable and intentional, that we have worked hard for what we’ve got. Depending on our background and attitude, we may briefly enjoy the sweet emotion of smugness: “I’m always happy to lend a helping hand to the poor.” It reinforces our desire to do good and it reassures us that we can sympathize with the unfortunate. Somewhere, deep in our amygdala, is a primitive fear of judgment; to lay up treasure in heaven we peer out at our porches to be sure no indigents named Lazarus are dying there.

If, through life experience, wisdom, and humility, we are able to sidestep or derail these temptations, we may realize with a growing appreciation how indebted we are to so many for so much.

I can distinctly remember as a pre-teen, throwing myself in a chair in my room and looking around with a rising desperation as I saw that every object in the room had been provided for me. I had been taken in by my grandparents at the age of three—just when they were approaching retirement—and their unstinting generosity and care had provided for my every need. They had sacrificed so that I could have a home and an education. But what I felt in that moment was not gratitude but the weight of a debt that I could never repay. This was exacerbated by my grandmother’s tendency to remind me at times how much they had sacrificed to provide for me. Guilt, shame, indebtedness—how one’s perception can turn a gift into a gilded chain!

“It’s tough to be on the receiving end of love, God’s or anybody else’s. It requires that we see our lives not as our possessions, but as gifts.”4

In a consumer culture such as ours there aren’t many ways we learn to accept gifts graciously. Even more so, our bedrock convictions about private ownership, and the elevated sense that we have a God-given right to everything we’ve worked for, creates an inevitable conflict within ourselves when faced with the needs of others. In ways that we deeply feel, but may not be able to articulate, we are owned by our possessions.

***

Lewis Hyde’s book, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, is a treatise on what compels artists to give of themselves and their talents, even without recognition or recompense. Hyde draws out the implications that anthropologists have found of “gift economies” which are marked by “three related obligations: the obligation to give, the obligation to accept, and the obligation to reciprocate.”5

These are cultures in which the gift exchange colors every facet of life, a “total social phenomenon . . . At once economic, juridical, moral, aesthetic, religious, and mythological.”6 Historically, the slur “Indian giver” arose when the privatized and capitalistic system of the whites came up against the gift economy of the native tribes in America. “The Indian giver (or the original one, at any rate) understood a cardinal property of the gift: whatever we have been given is supposed to be given away again, not kept . . . The only essential is this: the gift must always move.7

The tribal cultures made a distinction between gifts and capital such that “One man’s gift must not be another man’s capital.”8Gifts are to be taken in and consumed, not hoarded for investment and private gain. Use them up, be nourished by them, and then pass along a similar gift.

Gifts are often at the heart of ancient stories and mythologies. There is a common motif of three brothers (or sisters) who receive gifts to aid them in their quests, only to be confronted by an ugly, misshapen creature asking to share in the gift. Invariably, the two older brothers rudely refuse to share and so are trapped or lost in their quests. It is left to the youngest of the trio to set out on his quest with the gift, to meet the creature, and to freely share—whereupon, the creature gives him another gift in the form of a key, a magic word, a weapon, or a song that will complete the quest against formidable obstacles. The humility of the youngest (and least promising) son in sharing, taking, and reciprocating the gift-giving results in wholeness. And often the youngest redeems and saves his narcissistic older brothers.

Hyde recalls that setting free one’s gifts and realizing one’s potential was a recognized labor in the ancient world. “The Romans called a person’s tutelar spirit his genius. In Greece it was called a daemon.”9 To develop one’s talents was an honorable quest for it would be the occasion of recognizing one’s indebtedness and accomplishing good with it. “An abiding sense of gratitude,” says Hyde, “moves a person to labor in the service of his daemon. The opposite is properly called narcissism. The narcissist feels his gifts come from himself. He works to display himself, not to suffer change.”10

Hyde at one time worked as a counselor for the AA program and he draws on that experience to illustrate the parallels to a spiritual life. “Spiritual conversions have the same structure as the AA experience: the Word is received, the soul suffers a change (or is released, or born again), and the convert feels moved to testify, to give the Word away again.” He speaks of the “labor of gratitude” as that which we undertake “to effect the transformation after a gift has been received.”11

***

When the gift works to change us, we must stay in the changing until we are filled—and then we may empty ourselves in giving to others what we have gained and learned. No worries; we’ll be given it back a hundred-fold.

In spiritual terms, in the language of the New Testament, this is kenosis, the pouring out of Christ that fills us with his gift of life. When we receive this with gratitude and humility, we are given the power to give life to others. When, in gratitude, we return to God what Jesus has given to us, we are united with God. “I and the Father are one,” said Jesus, because he was giving back to God what God had given to him—his life and love.

Give, receive, reciprocate; it’s an age-old story. Instead of taking, we learn to receive. Unless we receive, we’ll have nothing to give. The Advent is the dramatic comedy in which the weakest wins; the stone the builders rejected becomes the cornerstone. He who is among us as one who serves, becomes the Water of Life. We ask for a king and we are given . . . a baby.

  1. Willimon, William. Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas. Farmington, PA: The Plough Publishing House, 2001, December 14.
  2. Acts 20:35, NRSV.
  3. Jn. 20:25, NRSV.
  4. Willimon, December 14.
  5. Hyde, Lewis. The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World. Second Vintage Books Edition. New York: Random House, 2007, p. xxi
  6. Hyde, p. xxi.
  7. Hyde, p. 4.
  8. Hyde, p. 4.
  9. Hyde, p. 67.
  10. Hyde, p. 68.
  11. Hyde, pp. 59, 60.

The Nature of Waiting

Photo: Mohammed GH, Unsplash

”A waiting person is someone who is present to the moment, who believes that this moment is the moment.”1 — Henri Nouwen

The Annunciation is a liminal moment, a threshold moment. In many of the paintings of the 14th century, we see the angel of God approaching the girl Mary in a sunlit, airy space that looks like it could have been designed by a group of Swedish architects. The angel pauses on the threshold at a reserved distance from Mary, who waits with an air of shy expectation.

It is a pause between times, the last of “Before the Common Era” and what will become known in most of the world as the Old Testament, and the Common Era’s New Testament—all of that in the future—but for us, looking back, the defining hinge of history, after which millions of people will set their moral compass to the true north of Jesus Christ.

The announcement itself, as recorded in the Gospel of Luke, not only breaks the news that a certain thing will happen, but also why it will be so: “You shall conceive and bear a son,” because “He will be great . . . And he will be king over Israel for ever.”

This is a mixed message for Mary. She is to bear the Holy One of Israel, the Messiah who will fulfill the hopes of the nation. But she has no husband. Actually, she is betrothed to be married, but social norms and a conscience in good working order makes the how of conception beyond the possible. She is not thinking outside the physical means of intercourse; why should she? There were myths, stories of girls possessed by the gods, but these were pagan deities, capricious and rapacious, not at all the way of the God she had been taught to worship. She is “deeply troubled.”

The angel speaks of “overshadowing”. “The power of the Most High,” he says, by way of explanation. The girl has perhaps some inkling of what this might mean, but she hears the last part most clearly—the child will be the Son of God.

But there is more: her kinswoman, Elizabeth, cursed as barren for these many years, is pregnant, six months on. Nothing is impossible for God, says the angel. The girl looks through the air between them, seeing a child, a teenager, a man. The edges of her vision contract to a brightly-lit tunnel, rimmed with refracted light in colors that glow. She hears the sound of the angel’s voice far away. She blinks, but she is still inside the tunnel and inside the room, and her body is curved into the light and she is inside her body.

The angel’s words have weight and surface. She holds them in her hands and feels them burning cold. The motion of the world slows and stops; she can feel it inside her like a pendulum coming to rest. She senses that her words will trip the cog and restart the world. But first she must breathe. “I am,” she inhales silently—and holds it a moment—then exhales with “Here I am. I am the Lord’s servant . . .” The angel nods; the world shudders into motion once again.

Now she will learn the inner nature of what it means to wait.

***

Henri Nouwen, Dutch Catholic priest, counselor, and spiritual writer, describes a spirituality of waiting. Those who wait, he says, do so because of a promise. It is a waiting with a point, a telos, to it. The promise grows in them like a seed. “It is always a movement from something to something more,” says Nouwen.2

Their waiting is anything but passive. “The secret of waiting is the faith that the seed has been planted, that something has begun.”3 It is to be fully present in the moment, to be ready when the moment is ripe for fulfillment. It is to do in each moment that which we can, to prepare our lives to receive this blessing—repentance, forgiving others, prayer, opening ourselves to perceive the holy in the mundane.

But the waiting is also patient. A present-centered, actively waiting person is willing to stay in the moment, because that is where the deliverance will occur, no matter when it arrives. Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Mary—each of them attentive to the moment and willing to listen. Elizabeth and Mary nurture their present, says Nouwen, and that is why they can hear the angel.

And the waiting is open-ended. There is no constraint placed on it. This is the test of one’s patience, to wait in trust without trying to manipulate the future. This is never easy, but Nouwen says it is especially difficult to remain open-ended; we have many wishes pulling us this way and that. We wish, and when our wishes are not fulfilled, we are disappointed and try to move the pieces around to make them happen. Can we stay in that ever-present moment in time as it travels into an open-ended future?

Our wishes, tested over time and infused with patience, may grow into hopes that can outlive us. Hope that is larger than any of us is that which is surrendered to God. This is what we mean when we say we “live in hope.”

***

Part of what we must do when we read Scripture is to wield our imagination in service to our faith. Across thousands of years, melding through culture, religion, and story, we share our humanity at the points of grief, loss, despair, hope, joy.

We are trying to touch the hardness of the ground they walked on, the soft fold to the weave of her shawl as it drapes across her shoulders, the upward glance of the man tightening the saddle strap on the donkey, the ghosting of the donkey’s breath in the bite of cold in the night darkness.

Could we put ourselves in the place of Mary, Joseph, and their infant as they flee into the night before Herod’s murderous rampage? Can we feel the anxiety mixed with hope as they make their way across the desert to the relative safety of Egypt? What if they reached the border, only to be separated from each other and from their child? What if they had no idea where their child was or when he would be returned to them? Could we “be touched by the feeling of their infirmity,” or their “terror by night . . . Or the pestilence that stalks in darkness”?4

Here is the baby crying, red-faced and contorted. You know how the cry begins: the long, silent, intake of breath before the ear-splitting wail that goes on and on, the eyes clamped shut, the little fists balled up, the tension radiating from every pore. We can coo and sing and tiptoe around the manger, with the cattle lowing in the background, but sooner or later the Son of God will explode in anger without words.

There will be no point in bringing up the ordination of women or the inequity of wealth distribution or any of the myriad of injustices that flare up our moral energy. This is an infant and at this moment we can only try, with patience, to learn what he needs.

And in that wordless cry they begin to realize how much there is to learn and how they must wait for the child to develop in his time. There will be moments, flashes through the ordinary of something extraordinary; the quickness of understanding, the seeing through another’s fear to the innocence beneath. Mary will treasure these things in her heart as she waits.

In years to come, Mary will ask of him a favor to save face for her friends at the wedding of their daughter. “They are out of wine,” she will say, and he will respond, “What is that to me? My time is not yet come.”

He will not be hurried in his realization of who he is, but then he does awaken to it. What at first seems a request for magic he now sees as a simple desire for harmony and celebration. “Do as he tells you,” says his mother to the servants. “Fill the jars,” he says. And the best wine flourishes under his command. “This was the first of the signs,” says John in his gospel, “by which Jesus revealed his glory and led his disciples to believe in him.” In the timeless rituals of family and community, Jesus’ glory is revealed in time.

In the Advent season we learn to wait with patience for the coming of the Lord. In the darkest time of the year, in a time when many scoff at the light and flaunt their own darkness, we will find our light springing up from the humblest of births.

“Do not let me hear

Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,

Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,

Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.

The only wisdom we can hope to acquire

Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.”5

  1. Nouwen, Henri, in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas. Farmington, PA: The Plough Publishing House, 2001, November 28.
  2. Nouwen, November 28.
  3. Nouwen, November 28.
  4. Ps. 91:5 NEB.
  5. Eliot, T. S. “East Coker” in Collected Poems 1090-1962. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 1963, p. 185.

The Gymnasium for Underused Imaginations

Photo: Green Chameleon, Unsplash

”At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it.”1

I suppose I write about the need for imagination so often because I’m never confident that I have enough to see me through to the end of the sentence I have begun. All writing is a movement of discovery, never more so than when we are diving into the waters of memory and hope, the springs which feed my need to write.

When I was growing up with my grandparents, inveterate readers themselves, I was encouraged to read early and often. They weren’t keen on comic books, however, so I grew up without those, and we didn’t have a television until I was in high school—and then only for “60 Minutes” and National Geographic specials. They were also suspicious of most fiction, seeing “made up” stories as a distraction from soul-building and a waste of time. An exception was made for poetry, however, and I darted through that doorway to the Victorian and Romantic poets first, and then to Frost, Poe, and many others in The Pocket Book of Modern Verse and Immortal Poems.

But I read a lot of fiction anyway behind closed doors. I read indiscriminately; not deeply, but enough that I had the beginnings of a reservoir of the Western canon to draw from as I wrote through high school and college.

Reading Hemingway, Faulkner, Tolstoy, Gardner, Vonnegut, Bellow, and others, widened the limits of what was possible for me to imagine. It seemed the most wonderful thing to see a character in one’s mind and to follow that person through the moments of her life. The creation of such a character and the growing sense of one’s faith seemed like parallel paths, each asking for the next step to be taken without certainty, but rather with the allure of possibilities.

Annie Dillard’s fierce call to writers is to spend everything they’ve got every time they write. “Examine all things intensely and relentlessly,” she writes. “Do not leave it . . . Follow it down until you see it in the mystery of its own specificity and strength.”2

In the same way, I see the writing life as parallel to the life of faith. Both demand a concentrated intensity, both may be directed to the transcendent, both require the discipline to follow the truth where it may lead. And I can testify that to write is an exercise of one’s faith, especially when the next word seems far over the horizon.

I am recalling this now while realizing that retrieval of such memories brings them back to life from a state of suspended animation. Most of what we need from the past seems to seep into our consciousness unacknowledged. When we do summon a particular name or place or event, we are—okay, Iam—often left only with a dim outline of its shape, bereft of color and detail, waiting to be filled in later. Or to change the analogy: I am standing on the station platform waiting impatiently for the train to arrive—which it does—but only after I have driven out of the parking lot.

Given all this, it’s no wonder that much of my life seems fragmentary and elusive to the touch. Tracing one of many paths of personal experience from then until now is like trying to drive the Pacific Coast Highway after an earthquake. Still, I am learning to cherish these fragments. I can dump them out of the bag I carry, spread them out in front of me, and move them around.

It is in this retro-fitting that I begin to see the workings of grace in my life. Looking back, lines of fracture, moments of dislocation, the upthrust of forces beyond my control—all these begin to coalesce into something colorful and lively, as a crazy-quilt pattern begins to emerge. What I thought was tragedy now looks like comedy, and what seemed mundane is seen for the change agent it was. God took the chaos and gave it order. In retrospect, mere existence quickened at liminal points into genuine life.

August Strindberg, the Swedish playwright, thought of the characters in his plays as souls which are “agglomerations of past and present cultures, scraps from books and newspapers, fragments of humanity, torn shreds of once-fine clothing that has become rags, in just the way that a human soul is patched together.”3

This is certainly true for me; I have been on a life-long quest to understand how the selves that we are become the true self that Jesus so urgently warned us we could lose. Can we recognize what God is doing?

Honesty with oneself is paramount. Mary Karr, in her wonderful book, The Art of Memoir, remarks, “A memoirist forging false tales to support his more comfortable notions—never learns who he is. He’s missing the personal liberation that comes from the examined life.”4

Faith, like personal writing, asks us to plumb the depths of our character, diving deep to find the sources of our fear, our hope, the accumulated awareness of who we are so far. From these we give voice—our testimony, if you like—to what we have experienced. Mary Karr again: “Voice isn’t just a manner of talking. It’s an operative mindset and way of perceiving that naturally stems from feeling oneself alive inside the past. That’s why self-awareness is so key.”5

We are asked, in the community of faith, to give an account of the “hope that is within us,” an exercise that arises in the moment, but draws on our submerged self-identity. That we are willing to do so does not mean that we are immune from fooling ourselves in the telling. “The trick to fashioning a deeper, truer voice,” advises Karr, “involves understanding how you might misperceive as you go along; thus looking at things more than one way. The goal of a voice is to speak not with objective authority but with subjective curiosity.”6

Jill Kerr Conway, the author of two outstanding memoirs about leaving Australia and settling in America, writes that “What’s difficult and exhausting about writing as honest a memoir as you can, I think, is going back as a historian and, instead of just weltering in all those emotions, trying to think, ‘Why did it happen that way? What was really going on?’”7

“The unexamined life,” said Socrates, “is not worth living,” a measure of the importance he placed on self-reflection. To this I would add, “The unlived life is not worth examining,” and from there, gather the courage to say with the Psalmist, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”8

***

I have thought that some were born with imagination and others were not. Think of Tolkien, Dostoevsky, Ray Bradbury, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Toni Morrison. Or Dante, Homer, Isaiah, and the Apostle John. These are people who spun up whole worlds, languages, cultures, and characters as they were moved to do so through their imaginations stimulated by the Spirit.

Their native talent is undeniable; there are good reasons for admiring them as artists and cherishing their works. But now I think that imagination is a virtue, something that must be practiced until it becomes second nature, a la Aristotle. Thus, the difference between these artistic exemplars and the rest of us may be one of degree, rather than kind.

Now I think that faith and imagination have a lot in common. There is enough overlap between them that comparisons can be made, and territory explored. Faith is a gift from God, but the seed of imagination is in all of us. Faith is not certainty, or it would not be a risk; imagination, too, builds the path it is traveling. Both must be practiced in order to be real, and while “practice makes perfect” is not the point for either one, both must be exercised to have any effect.

Mark Oakley, Anglican priest, Dean of St. John’s College in Cambridge, England, and the author of books I return to often, believes that the Church can learn from theatre. He quotes Benedict Nightingale, who calls plays “the gymnasium for underused imaginations.” Oakley suggests this is a felicitous metaphor for the Church in the world. “Both are committed to heightened perception,” he says. Both the Church and the theatre are focused on the horizon of the world, but the Church wants to tilt that horizon toward the vertical. “It then transforms into a channel between the sacred and the human . . .”9

In this season of Advent, in these days leading up to the wonder of incarnation, with all its tragic beauty and humble beginnings, more than ever we need imagination and faith to speak and to write of the One who brings life out of death and beauty out of pain.

  1. Dillard, Annie. The Writing Life. New York: Harper & Row, 1989, p. 75.
  2. Dillard, p. 78.
  3. Quoted in Oakley, Mark. The Collage of God. London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2001, p. 100.
  4. Karr, Mary. The Art of Memoir. New York: HarperCollins, 2015, p. 12.
  5. Karr, p. 36.
  6. Karr, pp. 48-49.
  7. Conway, Jill Kerr. Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir. Edited by William Zinsser. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998, p. 51.
  8. Ps. 139:23.24, NRSV.
  9. Oakley, pp. 101-102.

Simple Truths

Photo: Andrej Chudy, Unsplash

“Jesus said great things so simply that he seems not to have thought about them, and yet so clearly that it is obvious what he thought about them. Such clarity together with such simplicity is wonderful.”1 — Pascal

Is there a spiritual innocence that comes with age and experience or does our trusting nature diminish as our gathering knowledge increases?

I attended the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature’s annual meeting recently, in San Diego. There were ten thousand people, maybe more, crowding the hallways, gathered in clumps, striding along the sidewalks, and holed up in restaurants and bars. The catalog of sessions for the five-day event was an inch thick, the venues included most of the hotels along East Harbor Drive, as well as the massive Convention Center.

It is daunting to remember that all of this—the sessions, the monographs, the books, the societies, interest groups, units, bylaws and constitutions, debates, discussions, arguments and extended soliloquies—all of it can be traced back to a Jewish peasant whom we wouldn’t have recognized were he to stray into the Gaslamp District of the city or wander down by the Marina. Would we see him in the faces of the homeless outside the Hilton or tip him for bussing tables at the trendiest fusion restaurants?

I stopped into a session on Liberation Theology, recalling my courses in it years ago in graduate school. It was for me back then both liberating and troubling, and I entered every class session with anticipation and adrenaline.

The liberation theologians we were studying—Gustavo Gutierrez, Rubem Alves, Leonardo Boff, Jon Sobrino, James Cone, and many others—read the Bible in ways that scorched the fair pastures of my white, middle-class, upbringing. They read the prophets as if their words were fire, the Psalms were their battle cries, the Gospels arose from the streets of the favelas and Jesus was black, and he was red and brown and yellow, and most of all, he was poor. For the first time in my life, I was seated at the back of the bus.

Now I was listening as a Jesuit priest from Dublin read a paper about his friendship with a well-known priest who had been murdered in El Salvador along with four fellow Jesuits. They were killed in the bungalow they shared near the campus they served, the priest in question having been marched out to the darkness behind the house, made to lie face down, and shot at point blank range. The soldiers who killed him and his friends had been trained, armed, and inspired by American officers, backed by the full authority of the United States government. The Dublin priest was assessing the legacy his friend had left behind, the practical methods of teaching scripture that he pioneered and the effects of the lay Bible study groups that he set up.

I allowed my imagination to be there with him, trying to feel my way into his heart and breath as the soldiers burst through the door. A young PhD student was reading from his paper now, commenting that the men had been warned the week before that they were targets. One of their group had left for another town just a day before; he had escaped for the moment. But our priest had not believed the parishioner who came to tell him he and the others would be killed. The priest did not think that soldiers would kill priests, nor did he think it was honorable to abandon his station over a threat. But the soldiers came and shot them all anyway and left their bodies to be found by others as the sun inevitably rose and people went about their business.

I slipped out as the questions began for the presenters. I was in a jumble, trying to square the polite and distanced discussion with these imaginal fragments of violence I was now carrying. Did Jesus feel fear like an icy knife between his shoulders when the temple police surrounded him in the garden? In the torchlight did he see his death in their eyes, these men who would go off shift near dawn and return to their homes? Peter had reacted instinctively, drawing blood with a glancing blow that sheared the ear off the High Priest’s servant, no doubt the only unarmed person in the mob. Jesus wryly comments that they had had plenty of opportunity to take him when he was speaking in the temple; did they really need the weapons that were bristling in their hands?

Outside our conference room, the late afternoon light sparkled on the waters of the bay and the palm trees swayed in the breeze. A festival of rap and hip-hop throbbed near the hotel entrance and the light-rail cars glided past the clanging alarms that held the crowds at the sidewalk’s edge.

Did the priest and his friends die believing that their lives had not been lived in vain? They had been boys in Ireland, wedded to the Church from an early age, marked even then by sectarian fury. When they took their vows, did they have the slightest premonition that decades hence they would seal that covenant with their own blood?

***

Professional conferences like this one are cornucopias of knowledge and scholarly diligence. The daily schedule runs from early morning to late in the evening. They are opportunities for graduate students to begin the process of publishing and presenting, building their resumés, and making contacts. They advance knowledge in hundreds of areas of scholarship and sustain debate and discussion across a multitude of areas of interest. At a micro level, wherever individual presenters and participants are, their subjects are for them of consuming interest. At a macro level, seen against the backdrop of global problems, they are examples of how wide the breadth of human knowledge, how curious the particulars, and how incremental the effects of their presentation.

Yet, there is pleasure in mastering a subject and joy in learning about it. Not everything need be pressed into service for immediate problems; there is room in the human experience for extension of one’s imagination and understanding. We are inspired to join our thoughts to those of the giants in our fields and to create something beautiful out of the strength of our curiosity.

Beyond the joy of discovery and the pleasure of a willed collegiality, there is the satisfaction of vocation, the recognition of answering to one’s calling. The characteristic of our times, for many people of faith, is the sense of the absence of God, but for many it is an absence that calls to us. Our vocation, our calling, is to respond with all of our being from within the places that we find ourselves. “The Christian layperson is homo liturgicus, comments Rowan Williams, “the man whose whole life is directed to God, and who thus is able to direct all that is in his world to God, ‘to be in love with all of God’s creation in order to decipher the meaning of God in everything.’”2

The student toiling away at a paper may agree that “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh,”3but that which is offered in honesty from the heart of one’s experience and understanding “becomes the vehicle of theophany in the world, we become transparent to God, and the light of the divine energy shining through us transfigures all things.”4

At conferences like these there are displayed a wide range of writing and speaking styles. Some are like windows: we see through to the speaker’s purpose with quickness because of the lightness and transparency of her words. Others are like walls: we must scale them to see the point far in the distance and pray we don’t fall first. “Explanations must be as simple as possible—and no simpler,” Einstein said.

To the extent that the writer’s skills of beauty, clarity, and simplicity point to the purpose—to that extent they are truthful and honest. In our time we use symbol, metaphor, “figures of speech,” as Jesus said, in order to carry our meaning through the cacophony of competing claims. The world’s greatest sages spoke their truth simply and profoundly. “Life is suffering,” said the Buddha. “I am the Way, the truth, and the life,” said Jesus.

***

It is greatly to be desired that the farther we travel on the Way, the more we trust the path to take us where we should be. This would mean a radical innocence, knowing the danger, yet remembering the joy that transported us as we set out on some new adventure. It will mean shedding some of our baggage on the way, learning that sense of precariousness that comes from stepping forward into empathy with others, silencing our sounding brass and our tinkling cymbals.

  1. Pascal. Pensées. Translated with an Introduction by A. J. Krailsheimer. London: Penguin Books, 1966, p.125.
  2. Williams, Rowan. A Silent Action. Louisville, KT: Fons Vitae, 2011, p. 33.
  3. Ecclesiastes 12:12, NRSV.
  4. Williams, 33.

Foolish in the World

Photo: Joachim Riegel, Unsplash

“We are not purveyors of ready-made meaning. This commitment to truth, as pilgrims rather than arrivals, is what allows us to confess that as Christians . . . we are first and foremost explorers rather than illustrators.”1

One of Christianity’s hidden strengths is that it flourished when it was weakest. That is to say, when it was in the minority, culturally and religiously speaking. From the beginning the apostles, reflecting what Jesus directed, cared for the poor among them and those who had no standing in the culture—women and children. They opened their arms to those from outside their group, they pooled their resources and provided for themselves and for others. They were mocked or ignored: they persevered. They were persecuted, harassed and slain: they went underground and thrived. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” wrote the Christian apologist, Tertullian, in the year 197 CE.

The strength-in-weakness theme takes an even more prominent place with the Apostle Paul. He spends years and travels thousands of miles to proclaim “Christ crucified”, a message that is anathema to the Jews and ridiculous to the Greeks and Romans. Paul sees the crucifixion as part of a story that begins with God humbling himself to be poured into human form and ends with Jesus dying on the cross. He is acutely aware that claiming God incarnate was a prisoner executed by Rome as a seditious threat defies logic. It is, in fact, horrifyingly offensive.

The Crucifixion is central to Christianity. The heart of redemption theories, it is emphasized in creeds and liturgies—it is Christianity for most people. Yet, we probably cannot grasp just how humiliating a death it was, to say nothing of how deliberately cruel the physical torture.

The fact that Jesus was crucified outside the walls of the city where people dumped their garbage, where slow-burning fires were constant, and where he was visible to any who wanted to watch him die in torment, testifies of the brute indifference of the religious and political establishments.

I do not fully understand the connection between the crucifixion then and my salvation now. Faith seeks understanding, but is not reliant upon it. Among the many atonement theories put forward through the centuries, the Christus Victor one appeals to me the most. Jesus, fully human and one with God, overcomes the powers that be, both human and supernatural, to ransom us by his own death. In a world of terrorism, hostage-taking, and capricious violence, Jesus’ willingness to die in my place rings true to life for me, astonishing though it is. There is more going on in the seen and unseen realms, than we can fully account for through reason and observation. Faith claims a place next to the risen Christ.

Paul makes a claim that reverses and turns upside down the usual relations between power and people. He says:

“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”2

How would we interpret this today? Christianity has traveled far since those days. It’s still the most populous religion in the world, despite declining allegiance in the Western world. It has formed the cultural bedrock of most of the industrial nations. Many of its institutions still wield power in the secular realm. In America, Christians of the evangelical variety even have an in-house advocate with a direct influence on the President and his political agenda. But there’s little inclination among many of them to identify with “what is low and despised in the world” nor are the strong shamed by those who are weak.

Does this mean that God’s ways are ineffectual? Are Paul’s words bound to a particular context in time and space? Are these words meant to stand for all time or is their time over and done—an artifact from an era of more “primitive godliness”?

I cannot know for certain, and far be it for me to speak for God. But what Paul claimed in all sincerity, and with first-hand knowledge, is that “God chose.” Those words are not constrained by time or place or political affiliation or poll results or even interest. God chooses people through all ages and places, regardless of their standing or talent or power, to accomplish God’s purposes. In the long view, God’s plans and purposes have a way of coming to fruition as they touch down here in one place, there in another. Amidst all the variables within an open system of free choices, we may refuse God or remain indifferent or find our true self in God. We may live to be part of what “God chose.” God makes the opportunity available and leaves the choice to us.

A friend asked me what I made of this sentence from Mark Oakley’s book, The Collage of God, in a chapter on Truthfulness: “All speech about the Holy One is costly for it demands penitence of us at each and every turn.”3 My friend wondered what that cost might be.

We try to make sense of our world and world-making is part of what we do to make sense. We build our worlds—the plural is important—through our imagination, and language is the tool we use. The words we use are open to multiple interpretations, they change over time, and must be constantly reviewed. Language is fluid, dynamic, more a river than a lake. Our language about God is a snapshot of where we are in that stream.

Could it be the cost is our willingness to speak truthfully of our own experience with God, to speak honestly and with humility, of joy and despair in our days of light and our dark nights of the soul?

“It is by words and the defeat of words,

Down sudden vistas of the vain attempt,

That for a flying moment one may see

By what cross-purposes the world is dreamt.”4

***

I’ve long since stepped away from being a professional apologist for Christianity. While my active relation to God is intensely personal to me, I respond as fully as I am able when given opportunity. I have had peak experiences—not many—that opened me to wonder and awe. I have attributed that wonder and awe, as R & B artist Keb Mo sings, to “God trying to get my attention.”

Like many others, I see the hiddenness of God as the way we apprehend God in this time in this world. God always seems to be just out of our grasp—and that’s all to the good, for when we have God in our grasp we turn gold into lead.

One thing becomes clearer to me in these days: faith is not a school of thought nor a logical exercise. It runs in tandem with our reason, but faith transcends “our little systems” as Tennyson said. Oakley says, “Faith is not a proud self-consistent philosophy. It involves maintaining oneself between contradictions that can’t be solved by analysis. It is therefore a living response to the grace of God as revealed in fragile lives. It resembles a collage.”5

There was once a bush burning in the desert, a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day, a whispered voice in the midst of a desert sandstorm, a dark wrestler in the night, a voice from heaven, and a cloud that enveloped Jesus and three men on a mountain top. Those who wrote these stories perceived the divine in the finite, the Subject in the object. Fools for God, they wrote what they saw while attuned to the Eternal Present within the temporal stream.

We are people of the Word. Language is my Mount of Transfiguration, where I meet my burning bush and the quiet voice in the midst of my storms.

  1. Oakley, Mark. The Collage of God. London: Dartman, Longman and Todd, 2001, p. 62.
  2. 1 Cor 1:27-29, NRSV.
  3. Oakley, Mark. p. 57.
  4. Wilbur, Richard. “An Event” in The Poems of Richard Wilbur. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publ., Loc 890
  5. Oakley, Mark, p. xvii.

In the Foothills of Mount Purgatory

Photo: Louis Hansel, Unsplash

“Horrible was the nature of my sins,

but boundless mercy stretches out its arms

to any man who comes in search of it.” 1

We sometimes meet people, usually on the downward slope of life, who can be quoted as saying, “When I look back, I have no regrets. Really. I wouldn’t change a thing!” This remark usually comes toward the end of an interview in which they have recounted not only the triumphs of their life, but also the harrowing moments in which they were shamed, humiliated, defeated, or otherwise thrown into the deep end, sometimes as a result of their own fecklessness.

And the tinny buzz of doubt lingers as we listen; do they say that because where they ended up gave them the luxury of distance from those troubles and a measure of success that softened the hard remembrance of those times? Could they have said that while gasping for breath after fighting ashore from the shipwreck of their lives or is the loss of regret only possible because they survived—and flourished?

I will own the fact that I have used those words myself, knowing at the time that they were said to satisfy conventionality, not to sustain authenticity. It’s a way to transition out of a sticky situation and to avoid the awkwardness of saying more than people want to hear about your life. Seeing that we play many roles in life with complete sincerity, one of those is the brave survivor who has weathered the storms without complaint.

But if we can grant each other these social passes without follow-up questions, we can also realize that reflecting on them privately can lead to revelation and discovery. After such reflection we might then truly say in all honesty that we would not change a thing, for now we see how grace enlightens and transforms our outlook. Even an incomplete awareness of the blend of what we call luck, accident, and choice, might open our eyes to the ways that God preserves us, along with our freedom.

I do have regrets, and if I could go back for a do-over there are certainly things I would change. I would not have jumped off a five-foot wall in college to catch a Frisbee in mid-air, only to land stiff-legged on the sidewalk instead of on the soft soil of the flower bed at my feet. Some days the reverberations of that foolishness can still be felt in my back and knees.

I would not have done a wheelie on my motorcycle in traffic, to the consternation of the drivers around me. The fact that I somehow did not flip on my head is no excuse. I probably should have grounded myself and taken away my keys for awhile.

But these are trivial examples; much more significant are the times I impulsively made a choice which I had instinctual doubts about. Call it intuition, call it conscience, call it the promptings of the Spirit or all three—in that tense present my life would have been better had I listened, as would the lives of the people I affected. And afterward, if I had reflected on why I found that way attractive, I might have at least seen the symptoms in time to look for healing. With time and distance, regrets can be for us a moral stop sign. As we remember them and reflect on them, they can help us change our future.

If we have a conscience and a rudimentary form of sympathy, we will experience regret for past actions or omissions. We need to let it do its work without stifling it. In our time, we have throttled regret in order to live without guilt, when both are as natural as jerking one’s hand back from a hot stove. But somewhere along the way, we stopped caring about our effect on other people and decided our actions were justified because they were ours. It’s as if the only way we can have a sense of self-worth is to deny that we have responsibilities to others. And it’s not as if we have to go all in and become steely-eyed Terminators: in order to weaken the ties to one another we need only to indulge ourselves at the expense of others.

***

In Dante’s Purgatorio, the Pilgrim and his guide, Virgil, have survived the desolation and horrors of the Inferno to emerge on the shore of an island. Mount Purgatory soars up behind them, and even higher up lies Paradise, but first they must traverse the foothills leading to the mountain. Here, those who delayed their repentance until the moment of death, learn humility. The Pilgrim, too, though over-confident at times in his journey through Hell, now wraps a reed, a symbol of humility, around his waist as he begins the trek upward.

A handsome young prince named Manfred, who put off the repentance of his sins until the moment of his death, approaches Virgil and the Pilgrim. He must now wait a long period of time before he can go through the remediation of his sins in Purgatory. His regret is palpable, as he confesses to the two of them:

“Horrible was the nature of my sins,

but boundless mercy stretches out its arms

to any man who comes in search of it.”2

As he talks, he bursts into tears. He had been excommunicated by the Church for posing a political threat to the Pope, but he exclaims:

“The church’s curse is not the final word,

for Everlasting Love may still return,

if hope reveals the slightest hint of green.”3

Rod Dreher, the author of How Dante Can Save Your Life, recalls that when he read Manfred’s confession, he too, wept for the fathomless love of God that draws us onward, even when we cannot understand such love.

“Given our finitude and brokenness, and God’s infinitude and perfection, we cannot hope to know God and his reality without divine assistance,” he writes. “Similarly, thinking that the solution to our problems can be found through using reason and logic alone—the default position of bookish people like me—may prevent us from seeing the true nature of our struggles. Do not expect reason and logic to comprehend matters of faith and will.”4

***

Should we remember our sins, especially when God is said to cast them into the sea and to remember them no more? Guilt can be crippling, remorse without hope corrodes like acid. It’s no wonder that the experience of God for many does not rise above the childhood belief that “He’s making a list and checking it twice/He’s gonna find out who’s naughty and nice.” A god who doubles as Santa Claus pays the price of bitterly disappointing a believer: both will get thrown out when the child wakes up.

It’s possible—perhaps inevitable, for a certain type of person—to overthink these things. Tolstoy was almost driven to suicide by struggling to reason out the physics of the sacraments, the logic behind forgiveness, and the ultimate purpose of life. For months, while in despair, he was vulnerable to taking his own life while out hunting on his estate. When he worked in his barn and came across a rope, it was all he could do to turn away from what he believed would be death by hanging at his own hand. “Contrary to us,” he wrote in A Confession, “who the more intelligent we are the less we understand the meaning of life,” the peasants who worked his farm “live, suffer and approach death peacefully and, more often than not, joyfully.”5

He came to believe that wealth was pernicious, that he and the people of his class were effete and useless, living lives that were meaningless and an affront to the millions of peasants whose simple, uncluttered, and unencumbered beliefs allowed them to live with joy and die at peace. “It was the activities of the laboring people, those who produce life, that presented itself to me as the only true way. I realized that the meaning provided by this life was truth and I accepted it.”6

He understood that simple working people act on the orders given to them without question, whereas people like himself sit in circles, debating whether it is beneath them or not to do as the master asks. The life of faith, he came to believe, begins with an action only dimly understood. But we will not get far without performing that action. Faith is acting on a promise to be fulfilled.

In a similar way, St. Paul came to regard all his advantages and achievements as the most zealous of Pharisees as so much garbage. All that mattered to him was the “surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” And in language that can almost seem like hyperbole, yet with depths we still have not fathomed, he says, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”

From those mysterious depths he rebounds with vigor: “Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own, but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”7

  1. Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy, Vol. 11. “Purgatory,” III:121-123. Translated with an introduction by Mark Musa. New York: Penguin Books, 1981, p. 33.
  2. Alighieri, p. 33.
  3. Alighieri, 33.
  4. Dreher, Rod. How Dante Can Save Your Life. New York: Regan Arts, 2015, p. 196.
  5. Tolstoy, Leo. A Confession and Other Religious Writings. Translated with an Introduction by Jane Kentish. London: Penguin Books, 1987, p. 59.
  6. Tolstoy, p. 59.
  7. Philippians 3:10,11; 13,14 NRSV

Advance Toward Maturity

Photo: Randy Jacob, Unsplash

Let us then stop discussing the rudiments of Christianity . . . Instead, let us advance toward maturity; and so we shall, if God permits.1

I was sitting on the front row of the church, fuming. Apparently, I was making little fuming noises, too, because my friends and my wife were looking concerned. We two couples had arrived a few minutes late and there was no place to sit but at the front. We were guests, but this was to be our home church for the next nine months. We had come—the four of us—new college graduates and newly married, to spend a kind of gap year before graduate school and real jobs. We would live on volunteer stipends from the church while we started and ran a vegetarian restaurant, promoted healthier living, and created a place in this Canadian city where we could share God’s love.

Now I was in church in the front row, and definitely not feeling the love of Jesus in my heart. In those days I had a pretty clear picture of what Christian community and church should be like, and it was nothing like what I was seeing. Usually, I could be fairly sanguine about sitting through leaden religious services. I would zone out, read my Bible or another book I had wisely brought with me, and practice the patience of the saints. So I was as surprised as my friends were at my reaction to what was happening.

It was, sadly, nothing out of the ordinary. A middle-aged man, stolid and heavy-lidded, was reading from a Bible study guide in a droning voice. There were a series of questions directed to the individual reader, together with Bible verses that purported to answer them. Standard fare, completely harmless, and entirely forgettable. These printed guides were meant to be the starting point of discussion; presumably, the audience, having studied during the week, would now leap into spirited dialogue with each other and with the leader. It would be an occasion for bringing the Scriptures alive, the Word lighting us up, and the leader posing stimulating questions. None of that was happening. The leader droned, the people in the pews stared morosely back at him with a bovine intensity that reminded me of several Far Side cartoons. It was unbearable.

Listening to this with my head down, elbows on knees and hands clenching, I was emitting strangled cries. I felt like the demoniac banished to the tombstones, and I wished bitterly for a Legion of pigs to come thundering down the aisle or, failing that, to at least be unchained and in my right mind. My wife laid a restraining arm on mine; one of my friends leaned around and whispered, “Bear, take it easy. It’ll be over soon.” And soon enough it was and we went out, and in the course of things we did not return to that church nor did the vegetarian restaurant come to be. I was repossessed of my equanimity, the devils of my impatience and frustration driven out, and replaced in time with a more sympathetic spirit.

Certainly at the time I had little notion of spiritual maturity. For a number of reasons, becoming a Christian was presented as a binary choice: you were in or out. Having chosen to give your life over to Christ, the main event had taken place and life in Christ would settle into a kind of stasis, bounded on the one hand by avoiding the more obvious sins and on the other hand by being agreeable enough in the company of the unchurched that they would finally ask, unprompted, what kept you on such an even keel.

One’s growth in Christ is often measured on a negative scale: the giving up of this or the conquering of that, through a process of subtraction that would one day reveal us stripped to the core, too old to sin, but ready for translation. On that scale the people in the pews that day may have felt themselves to be dipped in acid, burning the corrosion of the week off through a ritual cleansing that brought no joy, but gave assurance of a (temporary) reset. Then back out into the world, carrying the umbrella of righteousness, the raincoat of faithfulness, and the galoshes of purity.

What obscures our understanding of spiritual “maturity” is that we associate it with chronological age, as if the older we get the more mature we get. If we can live long enough, we’ll eventually be senior citizens of the Kingdom of God. In that case, the church I visited should have been a hub of wisdom and spiritual vitality. But, I have met teenagers and children who were well on in this kind of maturity, and I’ve met older people who could never get past arguing about faith vs works.

The writer of Hebrews expects that his readers are beyond the rudiments. He rues the time wasted in discussing over and over “the foundations of faith in God”, and the process of “repentance from the deadness of our former ways.” He exposes the linear nature of our spiritual lives: the Genesis of our faith in God, the Leviticus of our ceremonial rites, and the Apocalypse of death, judgement, and resurrection. Time to get beyond that, he says. Those are the bones of the body of Christ—essential but incomplete.

One of the interesting things about the Apostle Paul is how much he makes of being a servant. He talks of bowing his knees before the Father and bearing all things with humility and gentleness. He says he is the very least of all the saints and the chief of sinners. He goes on in this vein in his letters enough that we begin to sense that his position of authority is a real concern of his. In his second letter to the Corinthians, he admits that he boasts “a little too much” of his authority, but he’s not ashamed of it because it was given him by the Lord to build up others. And while he dare not compare himself with those who boast about themselves, he thinks that when they compare themselves with others, they are not showing good sense. “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord,” he says. “For it is not those who commend themselves that are approved, but those whom the Lord commends.”2

By contrast, the ones whom Paul calls “children” are those who are tossed this way and that by the fads that blow through spiritual communities, who find themselves deceived by tricks played on them by those in authority, and who fall for lies told over and over. We are children—that is, inexperienced and immature— if we compare ourselves spiritually with others. That way only leads to frustration, and eventually, loss of faith. The marvelous thing about moving into the kingdom of God is that we all arrive from different places, from seeing God in different ways, but with the common experience of being caught up and held by God. What we share is forgiveness from God; where we differ is in what we are forgiven for.

Getting beyond the rudimentary elements of our faith is not to abandon them, but to gather them up and take them with us. If we can see them as portable, as adaptable to our changing circumstances because the expression of them in our lives is not fixed, but grows and deepens as we learn on the way, then we are maturing on the road. “Only when doctrine itself is understood to be provisional does doctrine begin to take on a more than provisional significance,” says Christian Wiman. “Truth inheres not in doctrine itself, but in the spirit with which it is engaged, for the spirit of God is always seeking and creating new forms.”3

Growing into spiritual maturity comes through exercise—stretching the sinews of faith as we experience the patience and the encompassing love of Christ. The more we stretch, the more we risk, the greater the sense that we are surrounded and enveloped by God. We may even—dare we say it—feel joy in the midst of all that “going beyond.”

In my frustration, I was in no condition to commandeer that becalmed ship of a church all those years ago. Those whom the Lord commends are those who are “speaking the truth in love.”4 I had yet to learn that God knows us intimately—better than we know ourselves—and God knows our bearing and position relative to each other and to the kingdom toward which we voyage. We are on a voyage of discovery in which, “if God permits,” we may advance toward maturity.

  1. Hebrews 6: 1,3 (NEB)
  2. 2 Cor. 10: 17,18.
  3. Wiman, Christian. My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, p. 111.
  4. Eph. 4:15.

Definite Beliefs, Radical Mysteries

Photo: Clay Banks, Unsplash

”And always in one

another we seek the proof

of experiences it would be worth dying for.”1

The older I get the more I seek a comprehensively simple understanding of life, a statement that may well be an oxymoron, but which I choose to think of as an achievable aspiration.

It’s not that I’ve given up on sorting out more complex issues—I still enjoy ploughing a deep furrow through a philosophical or theological text. But I need something portable, something that can easily be carried in a metaphysical backpack. It’s time to begin loosening the material bonds too, thinning out the possessions—except for books; they remain essential provisions—and generally traveling lighter and sailing higher in the water.

The idea that we can reduce a good deal of human experience to a simple statement, even one that we could live by with integrity and élan, is called reductionism and it is greatly to be resisted, according to scientific principles of research and testing. Science rides into the fray, knowing there is much more under the surface, and recognizing from the start that everything cannot be known about anything. This is a cause of much frustration for laypeople and politicians, both of whom suspect that scientists are hiding something when they hedge their conclusions and refuse to be as definitive as demanded for a press release or a Senate hearing.

Philosophers, of course, are hopeless when it comes to definitive statements. They refuse to be pinned down, preferring abstract principles to practical application. Most of them will get no hearing in the court of public opinion because hardly anyone wants to sit still long enough to hear an argument run through with sidebars and addendums, footnotes and preambles.

Cultural historians, child development specialists, gender and sexual equality researchers, all know to avoid that handy tool of human communication, the stereotype, because it cannot adequately express the infinite variety of personalities, motivations, and values that the human race exhibits. The underlying assumption behind stereotypes—that there are enough similarities between individuals in certain categories of human experience that general statements can be made with confidence—“these are like that”—is regarded with suspicion and sometimes outright hostility. Differences, not similarities, mark us as humans, they say. ”Everyone is unique,”—to which the skeptic might mutter, “By whose authoritative standard of uniqueness?”

And theologians, ‘God-explainers,’ what of them? Are they not firstly, keepers of the stories of what has been conjectured about God? They recount and interpret the history of what has transpired between humans and God: do they know with certainty what is going on now? Can they observe present religious experiences of humans and give us some clarity about the nature of God? Will they always be looking back or forward, leaving the present to the priests and the prophets?

We have it on good authority that we cannot comprehend the fullness of God (“My thoughts are not your thoughts”) nor can we expect our language to clearly represent our understanding of God. But we keep at it, with books, articles, poems, songs, paintings, drama, film, sculpture—the lot. All of that nets us possibilities for action and contemplation.

I had a professor in graduate school who had survived the fundamentalist purge at Princeton when he was a student and went on to write a definitive text on world religions, among other scholarly books. Although a staunch Presbyterian and an elder in his local church, he drew deeply from the wells of the living religious traditions of the world. He saw religion first as a universal project of humankind, a yearning to understand the rhythms of nature in the light of a great creative power. He saw it also as a long drama of the interplay between humans and their divine figures. And it was the occasion of worship and mystery, the language of silence and reconciliation. None of this could easily be translated into a catch-phrase; he had nothing but disdain for bumper-sticker religion. But he was fond of saying, “Religion was danced out before it was thought out,” by which he alluded to the holy erupting through muscles, lungs, breath, and feet.

And I, coming from a tradition that frowned upon dancing, and not being at ease in my own skin, realized that circumstance and upbringing had inclined me to the cerebral, rather than the physical. I could no more see myself dancing before the Lord than I could imagine speaking in tongues. And though I had no doubt that the breadth of God’s attention to humans spanned all manner of expressions, I knew that my offerings would not stray far from language.

At the same time, religion for me was an intellectual discipline, subject to testing and systemization. There was a professional detachment to the study of it; one shouldn’t allow participation to supplant one’s objectivity. I had not found a way to scrutinize and examine my theology without jeopardizing my worship.

We are sometimes guided in life as much by repulsion as by attraction, by that which we do not wish to be as that which we earnestly seek to emulate. One of my religion professors in college served as an example of poor teaching, not because he was lacking in the knowledge of his discipline, but because of his caustic nature. Whatever benefits we could gain by attentive listening to him were offset by his withering criticism in the few moments given to discussion and questions. Where possible, we avoided his classes and where it was inevitable, we learned to flatter him. “He, to whom truth affords no gratifications, is generally inclined to seek them in falsehood,” said Samuel Johnson. Because we asked few questions after his lectures, he fancied himself to have covered the breadth of the topic to an overwhelming depth. But he was wrong.

He was a white South African, a man who had done missionary service in some of the poorest countries of Africa before he became a lecturer. One summer he returned home and when classes resumed in the fall, he seemed to be a man transformed. In class he was cordial, open, supportive, even humorous. We were staggered. We tested him: we asked questions that suggested doubt about his conclusions or that took a contrary position. One of the bravest among us even asked a transparently stupid question, one designed to elicit derision. He responded with kindness, without a hint of condescension.

It turned out that when he had traveled that summer throughout South Africa, he had had a conversion experience, both spiritually and socially. Something in him had broken and light had gotten through the cracks; he felt himself to be turned inside out. He had been weighed in the balances and been found wanting. In short, his heart had been moved and his character was now catching up to it.

His spiritual regeneration infused his teaching methods with a new openness to faith; he was less certain of the finer points of the Law and more sure of God’s grace and love. Where he had been hard and brittle, fending off intimations of spiritual doubt, his experience was giving him a resiliency that seemed almost playful. He seemed to be relieved of a huge burden.

This was a man who knew his doctrines from the ground up. He could argue the forensic theory of atonement, explain Paul’s Romans, explicate the symbols of Revelation, and outline the influence of the prophets on the message that Jesus carried and the Gospels reflected. Yet, none of this had penetrated below the surface of scholarship for him.

He was not a person who would claim a distinction between “religious” and “spiritual.” Any gauzy notions of personal transcendence apart from the spiritual communion of God’s people gathered in worship would have drawn a firm ‘No.’ He would have agreed with Christian Wiman who says, “We do not need definite beliefs because their objects are necessarily true. We need them because they enable us to stand on steady spots from which the truth may be glimpsed.”2

It is entirely possible to grasp the truth, or more likely, the truths, about God and Jesus and the purpose of our lives, and still somehow not be touched by it. Life breaks us in a thousand different ways; we are swept away by the torrents of envy, hatred, ignorance, prejudice. In those times, the tentative threads of trust we have rigged up may be stretched to the breaking point. “Definite beliefs,” continues Wiman, “enable us to withstand the storms of suffering that come into every life, and that tend to destroy any spiritual disposition that does not have deep roots.”3

We study the Scriptures, we pray, we worship; we become alive to the presence of God in unexpected places and from unknown sources. We look to each other on these paths, “to seek the proof of experiences it would be worth dying for.” There are only a few definite beliefs, but there are radical mysteries enough for a lifetime and more. Jesus summarized the essentials without reducing them:

“‘You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”4

Micah spelled it out eight centuries before Jesus:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?5

These are universals, cutting through all partisan walls, overturning the idols of political ideologies, capitalism, materialism, scientism, and nationalism. They are at the core of the great religious traditions of the world, and within them—in practice and in contemplation—is the radical mystery that God is love.

  1. Thomas, R.S. “Somewhere,” in Collected Poems 1945-1990. London: Orion House, Phoenix edition, 2000, p. 293.
  2. Wiman, Christian. My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, p. 123.
  3. Wiman, p. 123.
  4. Matthew 22: 37-40, NRSV.
  5. Micah 6:8, NRSV

Call No One Master

Photo: Marivi Pazos, Unsplash

”The greatest among you must be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”1

If you knock around the Gospels for awhile, you begin to notice a pattern in the sayings of Jesus. He reverses ideas, turns them upside down, bends and breaks them, then shapes them into something new. These are sometimes hard to hear. They run outside the grooves we’re used to; their rhythms and inflections don’t follow common patterns, so that if you’re just tracking the rise and fall of a familiar verse—not really paying attention to the words—he tangles that all up and then you have to pay attention and really listen, not just hear.

So it is with his idea of exaltation and humbling.

By now, we may have read this text so many times that it is worn smooth, nothing there to snag a finger on a jagged edge. If you come to this looking for leadership principles, like those in Jesus, CEO (“How Jesus built a disorganized staff of twelve into a thriving enterprise! Principles of success that can translate into any corporate business!), you will be disappointed.

Humility is like one of those Chinese finger traps: forcing it tightens it down. If you exalt yourself, you will be humbled. If you humble yourself in order to be exalted, you’ve defeated the purpose and you will most likely end up humiliated. Humility or humbleness is almost impossible if you have to schedule it. If you try it on, it won’t fit. It will be too tight, too short, too big, dead false. In other words, humility raised to the level of consciousness becomes pride.

I’ve wondered if genuine humility instead comes from character built over time. How to still the insistent voice that pipes up, “Me! What about me?”

Thomas Merton links pride with despair, the end result of an unwillingness to accept anything from the hand of God because of one’s mountain of pride. “But a man who is truly humble cannot despair,” says Merton, “because in the humble man there is no longer any such thing as self-pity.”2

The greater the attention to oneself and the greater the position one holds, the more self-pity becomes the drug of choice when others will not bow to one’s will.

Whether one be the president of the country or the president of the church, the principle applies: the higher the office, the greater the responsibility to serve. When the office is greater than the man (or woman), when the officeholder is not equal to the responsibilities—when, in fact, the character and conduct of the officeholder demeans and corrupts the office, the honor of the office may only be restored by a servant who leads, one who is wise and humble.

I doubt this practice of humility would have been intuitive for many rulers in Jesus’ time. Most would not have seen any advantage in it for themselves, and as for principle—well, that’s just some people talking. Machiavelli said there are only two ways to become a ruler: either you inherit it or you take it. The Roman experiments with forms of democracy certainly didn’t extend to their outlying provinces, especially not for the Jews, who had a long history of volatility. Force applied liberally and strategically, would have been their best practices for leadership.

But force applied compresses the mass and conforms it to the shape of the instrument of force. Those in authority beneath the Romans had no other models of governing except the ones they were subjected to. The idea of servanthood in a leadership role would have seemed both insufficient and ludicrous. Where there were clear lines of class, wealth, and privilege, no one in a position of authority would deign to humble himself.

Jesus locates humility as a practice that begins in the family and continues through one’s education. He calls on religious leaders and teachers to be humble, since they are in a position to exploit their authority and their power.

But you must not be called “rabbi”; for you have one Rabbi, and you are all brothers. Do not call any man on earth “father;’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor must you be called “teacher;’ you have one Teacher, the Messiah.3

This is one of those sayings of Jesus which we adhere to by the spirit, rather than by the law. If we read this literally, limiting it to titles alone, we miss entirely the deeper meaning that all of us—leaders and teachers also—are as dependent on God as children are on their parents.

You must not be called Rabbi, says Jesus. You have one Rabbi and besides, you are all brothers. And you must not be called teacher, he adds, for you have one Teacher, the Messiah. These sayings are in the passive voice, thus the responsibility is on us not to encourage the fawning and favoritism that often comes with degrees and titles.

When we talk about titles and honorifics, though, we are treading on ground that is sacred for a lot of people. Titles represent the hard work that was put in, the long nights of study and the exams taken and passed. They speak to the discipline and ambition that it takes to rise to the top of one’s profession, and they serve as a bright dividing line between the entitled and the poseurs.

When I taught at Stevenson University and at Trinity Washington University, the students called me Professor. I rather liked that because it meant that I professed something. What I professed was something that I sincerely believed, although I was not able to articulate it or even demonstrate it to my own satisfaction. But every time I entered a classroom or spoke with a student or graded her papers, it was uppermost in my mind. It was a dual question for the students: ‘What are you doing here?’ and ‘What does your life mean?’

Posed as much to myself as to my students, the questions were a constant reminder that my motives were not always aligned with my outcomes, and I am still, in part, an enigma to myself. The truest desire of my will, only sometimes realized, was that my students should see me as a window through which they could see a path forward to a country they could call their own.

The other warning Jesus gives us is in the active voice: “Do not call any man on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.”

Are we to take Jesus literally on this point? In a male-dominated culture, in which the father was the undisputed head of the family, this must have surprised his disciples, if not grated on them. And while not everyone will be a religious leader or a teacher, everyone has a biological father, absent though he may be. The particular points to the universal: our fathers bow to Our Father.

Perhaps Jesus felt this more keenly than most of us. After the incident in which Jesus ditches his parents to discuss with the rabbis in the temple, we hear no more of Joseph. It’s no stretch of the imagination to think of Jesus, the eldest of several siblings, with a growing consciousness of God, his Abba, after Joseph passes away. Jesus was the eldest, the one set apart, special somehow, although he couldn’t say why, and Mary wouldn’t—not yet. All those years so alone; he must have stretched himself upward, opening to the sun and the cold moon and the distant, gentle presence he wished to call “Father.”

Thomas Merton, who struggled with humility all his life, saw it as the way to joy. “It is almost impossible to overestimate the value of true humility and its power in the spiritual life,” he wrote in New Seeds of Contemplation. “Humility contains in itself the answer to all the great problems of the life of the soul. It is the only key to faith, with which the spiritual life begins: for faith and humility are inseparable.”4

To call no one ‘Master’ is a liberating experience. It removes compulsion from our relationships and replaces it, where possible, with a freely given loyalty. Loyalty, when not the blind variety, is a much stronger bond than those cemented through fear and humiliation. When we are free in this way, with a quiet confidence that we are sons and daughters of God, we can be free from fear of anyone.

  1. Matthew 23: 11,12, New English Bible.
  2. Merton, Thomas. New Seeds of Contemplation. Boston, MA: Shambala, 2003, p. 183.
  3. Matthew 23:8-10, New English Bible.
  4. Merton, 184.

Jesus Was a Sailor

Photo: Joshua Earle, Unsplash

“Jesus was a sailor/when he walked upon the water/ . . . but he himself was broken/long before the sky would open . . .”1

If you are of a certain vintage and you read the epigram, you are probably humming Judy Collins’ “Suzanne,” one of her many hits, with a lyric right out of Leonard Cohen’s poem of the same name. It is enigmatic, evocative, haunting. It calls on Jesus as a sailor, a metaphor that is startling, but no more so than the ones we find in the Gospels.

The metaphors in the Gospels are numerous and diverse. “I am the Vine,” he says. “You are the branches.” He claims to be the door, the bridegroom, the lamb, the ransom, the good shepherd, and “The Way, the truth, and the life.” He is nothing if not confident about his mission and his being. Through them we visualize much of what Jesus meant. They are how we learn of Jesus in ways that reason, logic, and theory cannot reach. They are compact links to a kaleidoscope of images.

Some of these are foundational in most cultures: almost anyone could find them appealing. But some may bring only the slightest stirring of recognition to us. The fact that there are so many of them in the Gospels and the New Testament suggests a willingness to reach us through as many images as possible. And I think we must ask why. Why is it so important to Jesus—and by inference, to the Gospel writers—that we see him in so many different ways? Wouldn’t it be prudent to save a lot of time and effort by fastening on one or two powerful metaphors and pour all the wooing of the Holy Spirit through them?

In fact, if we wield Occam’s razor—the simplest explanation is usually the one closest to the truth—we’d want to reduce the options down to those most likely to win the trust of most people. I confess I do not know which those would be. Nor does it really matter, since my own choices have shifted over the years in response to the tides of circumstance, need, and interest.

When I first began to read the Bible in large chunks, instead of key memory verses, I began to think of it as a rather disjointed narrative that banged down hard on certain themes, sometimes to the point of redundancy, and that veered wildly in many different directions. Later, in college, I studied New Testament Greek, and while I could barely keep up with the verb forms and the conjugations, I did come away with a bushel of words I could use and a reverence for the idea that multiple meanings could derive from single words. I also understood that The Bible was a translation of the Greek, Ta Biblia, The Books, and that what I held in my hand was a library, not a single, unified, narrative. Many voices, many stories, millennia in the making, multiple cultures and languages—all of it somehow joining a chorus that hit all the highs and lows of the human experience as it wrestled with the divine.

The Gospel of John reports Jesus saying, “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.”2 No doubt hearing the Torah read in the Temple, expounded in the synagogue, and recited in one’s prayers, a practice formed over thousands of years, was regarded as the surest means to salvation. “Yet,” said Jesus, “you refuse to come to me to have life.”

This was a God revealed through his powerful acts, who flexed an “arm mighty to save.” While abhorring all idols, the Hebrews put their trust in words as the lens through which to see God, the bridge over which they would escape the torrents of evil, and the fire which their prophets would take into themselves.

“The point of the Old Testament analogies,” writes John V. Taylor, “especially the metaphors drawn from human experience, is that they are the most appropriate form of speech for talking of a God who . . . is committed to a reciprocal relatedness with the world and has an affinity with it.”3

***

In the year King Uzziah died, Isaiah underwent a vision within the temple, in which he saw the Lord high on a throne, surrounded by thunder, fire, and earthquake —and angels, terrifying in their majesty. Isaiah, naked in his guilt and shriveling in fear and awe, is touched on the lips with a live coal taken from the altar with a pair of tongs.

That detail blurs the line between a waking vision and material reality. It is a trip wire for our complacent reading. The coal comes glowing from the altar fire. An angel, wielding tongs, carries it to Isaiah and touches his lips with it. If this was a purely internal all-in-his-head manifestation for Isaiah, you’d think the angel would carry it in his hand, oblivious to the heat and sizzle, but aware, nevertheless, that he is going to char Isaiah’s lips with it. Aren’t angels fire-proof?

But we read this symbolically, as a metaphor that expresses the holiness of the word of God that both cleanses and inflames those to whom it is entrusted. In so doing there is something missed and something gained. We do not have the immediacy of such a literal experience, either observed in others or bestowed upon oneself, an experience that appeals to our senses and thus to our sense of “reality.” But we gain the power of metaphor. This is our default mode for learning anything; we range ourselves along a pathway of imagination, an abyss on either side, until we can reach the solid ground of memory and/or experience. In imagination we reach and leap for a foothold. Or to extend the metaphor: we plant one foot in memory and stretch the other toward imagination until the one can join the other.

There has always been a fear of “anthropomorphism” in religions, that to describe God acting in ways that suggest human attributes is to lower God to our level. There is no danger to God in this, only to ourselves. To speak is to call something into existence, to make present what was hidden. We have the power to breathe the breath of life into a curse or a quip or a joke—and once released into the wild it is out of our control. Having spoken about God, we have a responsibility literally to “accept the obligation of response,” to answer for what we have said.4

But the truth is that we are always remaking God in a form we can understand. In every age, as Christian Wiman says, “Christ dies anew and is resurrected within the imagination of man.”5 We can see this as a lowering of God or we can recognize the deeper truth that God-in-Christ has become the Word among us to heal and restore us. When we struggle to understand what God is saying to us in the Scriptures, our response should not be “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” nor should it be “Couldn’t God have said it more politically correct!” But, as Rowan Williams suggests, “Our task is rather to say that the revelation of God comes to us in the middle of weakness and fallibility.”6

When we misapprehend or distort the word of God, we are tediously aware of the endless and stinging arguments that can separate us from one another. And yet, through it all—the centuries and millennia of the Word manifested among us—God continues to reach out to us in “many and divers ways.” Just as the fire lit up Isaiah when “the word of the Lord came to him,” so the Word becomes incarnate, overcoming barriers of prejudice and pride, and searching us out where we are. In our experience, the Bible offers so many digressive pathways, that we must be continuously reading and studying in order to hold in mind the profusion of metaphors and storylines within it.

***

Somewhere in his writings, Kierkegaard conjures up a metaphor that captures for me the terror of faith and despair. In it we are looking up, from fathoms deep, at a tiny figure thrashing alone through the waves. Although I was once a strong swimmer who enjoyed the lift and thrust of catching the waves, I still have a flickering sense of dread when I think of the vast depths of the sea. To imagine Jesus as a wave-walker stepping lightly through the storm and wind, is to see myself as Peter, haunted by the sight of Jesus and yet jolted to be with him, come hell or high water.

We carry these metaphors within us; they have the power to baptize us once again in the waters that could drown us were it not for the Wave-walker beside us.

  1. Cohen, Leonard. “Suzanne Takes You Down,” Selected Poems 1956-1968. New York: Viking Press, 1964, p. 209.
  2. John 5.39,40
  3. Taylor, John. The Christlike God. London, SCM Press, 1992, p. 149.
  4. Steiner, George. Real Presences. London: Faber and Faber, 1992, p. 90.
  5. Wiman, Christian. My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, p. 11.
  6. Williams, Rowan. Open to Judgement: Sermons and Addresses.” London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1994, p. 159.