Jonah’s Bad Trip: A Lenten Meditation

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”Lent is a time set aside to reorient ourselves, to clarify our minds, to slow down, recover from distraction, to focus on the values of God’s kingdom and on the value he has set on us and on our neighbors.” Malcolm Guite, The Word in the Wilderness

As prophets go, Jonah went—as far away as he could from this thunderous, all-seeing, lion of a god who could pick him up and shake him like a rag doll. It was no use; he’d taken a ship to Tarshish, roughly in the opposite direction from Nineveh, which was picturesquely situated far out on the burning plains of what would much later become Iraq.

Most prophets decidedly did not want the job; long hours, no benefits, one’s very presence tended to make the children cry and the dogs bark. And it could get you killed. The killing part is what Jonah objected to the most.

So, he rushed down to the docks, paid the captain and went aboard without so much as an overnight case. This raised suspicion. Most of the passengers on ships out of port were merchants. Jonah looked like a fugitive, but he paid up front, so the captain took him aboard. He told the first mate to keep an eye on him though. There was something fishy about him.

The first day out a tremendous storm came up. The wind roared and cracked through the rigging and the deck was slippery with foam. The crew flung the cargo over the rails to keep the ship afloat and it was all they could do to keep the bow headed into the waves. It being a multi-ethnic and polytheistic crew, they were desperately calling on their gods for relief when someone thought to search out their odd passenger.

He was found deep in the hold, asleep in a fetal position. Finding this both unnerving and insulting under the circumstances, the captain shook him awake and forced him topside. “What are you doing asleep! Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.”

Since all the usual gods had been accounted for and the storm still raged on, the sailors cast lots to see who was at fault. When the lot fell to Jonah, the men rounded on him. “What’s your business? Where do you come from? Who are your people?”

“I’m a Hebrew,” he replied. “I serve the God who made the sea and the dry land.” At this, the crew gasped and drew back. “What did you do?” they demanded, and as the storm increased in fury they screamed, “What should we do to you to quiet this storm?”

“Throw me overboard,” he cried out, “It’s my fault this storm is upon us.”

Let us pause here a moment to consider Jonah’s plight. He is a prophet on the run from the God who controls all of the world. Perhaps it was simply a reflex to run, to escape a frightful duty. But it was a duty imposed by a God whose reach extends over the globe and who controls heaven, the sea, and the earth. A prophet on the run from a God like that is the living embodiment of futility and Jonah knows it.

To their credit, the crew sees flinging a man overboard in a whip-lashing storm as the last resort. They row for shore, even though if they succeed, they will crash on the rocks. But they row anyway, without progress, in the teeth of this blinding gale until, at last, exhausted and fearful, they pray for mercy from Jonah’s god for throwing him overboard, and then over he goes. No doubt they see it as a sacrifice to a capricious god who can be appeased by a human sinking down into the cruel depths.

Does Jonah think the same way? In his state, confused, angry, bitter, and afraid he may have felt he had nothing left, that his flight from the all-seeing God was a sure sign of his guilt, but that somehow, some way, this was all God’s fault. But Jonah would get even. He’d die in the waves and then God would be sorry.

At this point, the story takes a wild turn. In fact, it becomes a fable, replete with a fantastic animal. Scholars are unsure of when this story was written, although it was most certainly long after Nineveh had vanished into history. As a historical event it doesn’t meet the bar, but as a story with a point, how could it be better?

A fugitive on the lam from God gets swallowed by a big fish, spends three days and three nights in the depths of both the ocean and the fish’s innards, and after a heartfelt prayer for salvation, is vomited (the Hebrew here is precise) up on the beach, dazed and slimy. It’s a perfect set-up for comedy and drama.

Onward, then! No time to lose! There’s a whole city of wicked people to be warned, after which Jonah (he imagines) will be ceremonially cut into pieces and fricasseed over an open fire, all for the glory of the all-seeing God. Let’s get this over with.

We can’t fault Jonah too much for a grim outlook. He stood in a long line of prophets who understood that their messages, however compelling, would usually fall on deaf ears, and at the very least they would be mocked and scorned. He had also grasped, with singular clarity, that while most of the top tier of Hebrew prophets risked derision only from their own people, he, Jonah, was compelled to thrust God’s warning under the noses of their ancestral enemies, a people wholly given over to unholy practices and unvarnished blasphemy. In the history of Israel, the Ninevites were the ultimate bogeymen, renowned for dragging their prisoners by hooks through the nose. And that was tender and thoughtful compared to what lay ahead for those who survived the long trek back to the city. No, there was nothing for it: he had been singled out by God for this exquisite punishment. Pardon me, he thought bleakly, if I go to my death stinking of fish and short on manners.

“And the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh the great city, and call out to it the call that I speak to you.’ And Jonah got up and went to Nineveh according to the word of the Lord. And Nineveh was a great city of God’s, a three days’ walk across (Jonah 3: 1-3).”

Robert Alter’s commentary on Jonah in his magnificent three-volume translation, The Hebrew Bible (2019), cheerfully informs us that doing the math for a three-day walk across a city would give us a metropolis larger than Los Angeles, a sprawl no city in the ancient Near East could achieve, but if we regard it symbolically we see that just as Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days, so he will have three days to proclaim the message throughout Nineveh.

And it also appears that Nineveh, that great city, belongs to God, just like the sea, the mountains, donkeys, figs, and Israel. Jonah should feel right at home. Off he goes, then, striding a day’s walk toward the center, shouting as he went, “Forty days more, and Nineveh is overthrown.” And the people, the story says, trusted God and donned sackcloth and ashes and repented, just like that, from the greatest of them to the least.

The news travels like an invisible tsunami from the periphery to the center of the city where the king resides, and when it reaches him, he stands up, throws off his mantle, covers himself in sackcloth and sits down upon ashes (an observer wonders, did they keep sackcloth in the linen closet for just such an occasion?). The king makes a proclamation, remarkable in its force and comprehensiveness. Immediately, everyone, even the cattle and sheep, are commanded not to eat nor to drink water. “And man and beast shall cover themselves with sackcloth, and they shall call out to God with all their might . . . Who knows? Perhaps God will turn back and relent and turn back from His blazing wrath, and we shall not perish (Jonah 3:8,9).” There is an echo here of the ship captain who tossed out a similar hope that God might tamp down His wrath in order that they might live.

Cattle and sheep wearing sackcloth, an entire city wearing sackcloth, no one eating or drinking, everyone (even the animals) repenting of the evil they had done? It’s safe to say that no evangelist since has scored so complete a victory as Jonah. It’s a record that will stand for all time.

But of course, it wasn’t him. In fact, he did not take it well. “And the thing was very evil for Jonah, and he was incensed.” He was incensed enough to pray to God in complaint, virtually fizzing in anger. Isn’t this what I said when I was back home, he yells. I knew you would pull a trick like this! “For I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in kindness and relenting from evil.” So put me out of my misery — just kill me — I’m better off dead than alive. “And the Lord said, ‘Are you good and angry (Jonah 4:4)?’”

Yes, yes, you could say that, muttered Jonah bitterly. He retraced his steps, trudging out of the city up to a hill to the east where he made himself a shelter and sat down to watch what would happen. He wanted fire from heaven, napalm, and howitzers, the mother of all bombs to flatten this great city. Maybe that would make him feel better, salve his bruised ego and lower his blood pressure.

And God, smiling quietly to Himself and compassionate to a fault, “set out a qiqayon plant, and it rose up over Jonah to be a shade over his head to save him from his evil plight. And Jonah rejoiced greatly over the qiqayon.” And despite the long arms of the sun as it sets on that day, Jonah finds comfort in the shade and passes the night thankfully and well.

And in the morning, as the sun rises, God sends a hot wind to wither Jonah’s precious plant. Immediately, the bile rises in his throat, his blood pressure shoots skyward, and again he prays to die. The city, that great city, lies peacefully spread out below him, its inhabitants hungry but redeemed, its cattle and sheep bewildered by their sackcloth outfits and vaguely aware of how quiet it is.

“Are you good and angry over the qiqayon?” chuckles God. Jonah sighs, “I am good and angry, to the point of death.” We can almost hear the shake of the divine head and a hint of exasperation because of this child. You cared more about the plant than the people, says God. “And I, shall I not have pity for Nineveh the great city, in which there are many more than one hundred twenty thousand human beings who do not know between their right hand and their left, and many beasts (Jonah 4:11)?” And there, the fable ends.

***

We don’t know how Jonah got home again or if he did. The story leaves us with questions, like all good stories do. Did the animals get to go naked again? Is Jonah like the prodigal son’s elder brother? Can we drop our resentment at God’s forgiveness? Does God really love our enemies? Are we good and angry over His compassion? Can we forgive ourselves as He has forgiven us?

Can we go home again?

Photo: Anton Rusetsky, Unsplash.com

The Eyes of Your Heart

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“. . . so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.” — Ephesians 1:18,19

Once we understand there are many ways to enlighten our hearts, the horizon of possibilities before us widens. This is especially true when we seek beauty and truth — distinguishable and thus equally indispensable. When we find these sources, whether they be bathed in the center of God’s glory or reflecting God’s light from their centrifugal swings around the Son, they open to us new channels for perception.

Poetry penetrates deep to the heart, but indirectly. If you’re willing to look you can find the poets who somehow hear the music that beats in your bloodstream and when you read them, you understand yourself in ways you couldn’t have arrived at on your own. “When you encounter this splash of words,” writes priest and poet Mark Oakley, “you understand that ultimately poetry is not about factual information but human formation. Like water, language goes stagnant if it doesn’t move.”

When I first read Rainer Maria Rilke, this poet of the great silences, the man who was christened with a girl’s name for the sister who was lost, it was as if he had read my heart’s way and was speaking my longings in words that were almost holy. When I began with his Sonnets to Orpheus, I could only manage a page or two and then I’d have to put it aside and do something else for awhile, something that didn’t lay me open to the bone. If we can bear it, this is an opening to wonder and mystery.

Or maybe it’s music — Faure’s Requiem, or Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, or U2’s I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For or the tears that flow from Eric Clapton’s guitar through While My Guitar Gently Weeps during the “Concert for George.” That’s what Carlos Santana calls “Holy Ghost music,” something that happens between musicians and audience that goes beyond artistry and technique to a communion of fire and spirit.

These moments, these strands of bright beauty, are all around us, and if we choose, we can weave them together in our memories for a coat of many colors to wear on our dull and darker days. Their beauty, though ephemeral, is real in the moment: we can see them and feel them as they pass through us. But their greater power is that they remind us of something we’ve known and lost or once had but did not fully appreciate. They are signs of the ineffable, signals received from a source whose coordinates seem strangely familiar. As such, they give us practice in the exercise of faith.

***

“It is within man’s power to seek Him,” writes Rabbi Abraham Heschel in God in Search of Man, “it is not within his power to find Him. All Abraham had was wonder, and all he could achieve on his own was readiness to perceive. The answer was disclosed to him; it was not found by him.”

Heschel turns to Maimonides, who did not offer proof for the existence of God but said that the source of our knowledge of God is the ‘inner heart,’ the medieval name for intuition. We don’t apprehend God through a syllogism, but through an insight, a spiritual discernment.

It’s not that reason can’t play a role in spiritual things; reasoning often brings us into the neighborhood of faith and removes barriers to our willingness to listen. It provides a way to organize our categories: faith, evidence, rationality, miracles, finitude and infinity, eternity and time-boundedness, perfection and inexactitude, the sacred and the mundane. It helps us bracket our prejudices and recognize our standpoint. And it can reveal our inconsistencies and lapses in judgement. This is the stuff of the philosophy of religion, all of it intriguing, fascinating, compelling. But it can also keep God at a distance, an object to be argued about, not a Being who enthralls us. For that, we need the eyes of the heart. “Faith terminates not in a statement, not in a formula of words, but in God,” writes Thomas Merton in New Seeds of Contemplation.

Heschel continues: “But the initiative, we believe, is with man. The great insight is not given unless we are ready to receive.” Faith commences, God completes.

So here now is Paul, writing to his friends in Ephesus, rejoicing with them that their sins are forgiven, that God has chosen them to be filled with love, and that when the right time arrives the whole universe — heaven touching earth — will be brought into joyful harmony in Christ. That time is now, Paul insists. The “eyes of your heart” will perceive it through faith.

Here is the audaciousness which characterizes the apostolic community and which still — perhaps even more now — takes our breath away. In the midst of wearying journeys, dissensions and disputes, divisions which cut to the heart of who Paul and his friends thought they were because of Christ, he gathers up the threads of their faith in action and promises that this is indeed the first light of the new day of God’s kingdom.

Two millennia later this promise almost seems like mockery. Far from being a community without divisions, the Church seems to model the political world with all its coercion, bad faith, and posturing. We see the same underhandedness and false hope in the Church that plays out in a daily live-stream from any number of our politicians and corporate leaders. The Church as a body sometimes does not even reach the standard of respect and equality for people that our society continues to struggle toward. We Christians have a lot to answer for. Are we wandering in the wilderness?

Paul’s message to Jew and Gentile was that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. What had been promised for centuries, though covenants made were broken and straight places fell into crookedness, had now in the fullness of time come to pass. Quite beyond any power they might have exercised to move the cosmic forces into alignment, the promise was made good in spite of their weakness. Nothing they did could bring it into being nor could they prevent what God had planned from the foundation of the world. It was a gift open to all who could see it, a world reborn.

Paul has heard of the faith of these Ephesians and their “love toward all the saints,” and he prays that God may give them “a spirit of wisdom and revelation.” To his friends at Ephesus — and to us — he says, “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens . . . of the household of God (Ephesians 2:19).”

To Paul, every little community of believers that formed was the household of God, a wavering light that would bloom brighter as their faith was seen in action.

The question was whether they could see this potential for themselves if the bonds of friendship and community they had begun could strengthen and flourish. Could they perceive God in the whirl and flux of this world? The eyes of their hearts would see the hope to which God had called them, the richness of belonging to this great cloud of witnesses, and the greatness of God’s power to sustain them.

Faith commences, God completes. Believing is seeing.

Photo: Shalom Mwenesi, Unsplash.com

Planks and Sawdust

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“He answered me:

‘Like someone with faulty vision, we can behold

Remote things well, for so much light does He

Who rules supreme still grant us; but we are foiled

When things draw near us, and our intelligence

Is useless when they are present.’” Dante, Inferno, Canto X:100-105

In Dante’s Inferno the damned in the sixth circle of hell are allowed to see far into the future, but in a remarkable detail in God’s plan they know nothing of the present nor can they see what is happening right in front of them. In life, consumed by ambition and the grasp for power, they ignored those closest to them, while they schemed and strategized against their enemies. In the chess game that was 13th-century Florentine politics, these men planned out their deadly moves against their opponents, while they could not see clearly how their actions affected their own families. In Dante’s Hell, the sinners are cursed to suffer the symbolic effects of the sins they committed in life. Because they did not see on Earth they will not see in Hell.

***

Luke 6 is about the relationship between our intentions, our character, and our actions, and how those actions reverberate throughout the circles of our relationships. In contrast to Matthew’s sermon given from the mountain, Luke’s version has Jesus coming down from the hills at daybreak and choosing twelve out of the crowd of disciples, (in Greek mathetas, ‘those who follow’) and designating them apostles. Then he stands at the foot of the hill, “on level ground,” and addresses the hundreds who have come from Jerusalem, and from as far away as Tyre and Sidon, to hear him and to be healed.

It’s a message that exactly reverses what we might expect. We’ve skimmed it so many times that we no longer see how radical it is, how the good news it proclaims is bad news for some, how confounding it must have been for those who thought Jesus was launching his Messiahship.

He begins with the punchline, the message that was most pointed, that like an arrow pointed to the largest group listening to him that day: “How blest are you who are poor; the kingdom of God is yours.” The words that follow are paradoxical: those who weep now will laugh, those who are hated will dance for joy. Then, with a hinge that shows Luke’s literary skill, the reversals are stated. The rich have had their fun; now they face hardship. The well-fed will be hungry, those who laugh will be weeping.

The clincher is that those who mourn now stand in a long line of people who have suffered unjustly, including the true prophets of old, and those who garner all the praise now should know that people spoke well of the false prophets back in the day too.

Jesus then turns to such politically incorrect sayings as “Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you” and “turn the other cheek” and “treat others as you would like them to treat you.” His disciples must go beyond the reciprocal manners of doing good to those who do good to them; that is just standard social courtesy. What the kingdom expects has a much deeper meaning, one that transforms relationships and begins with self-awareness and humility.

Jesus’ social communication skills reveal a person who challenges us to exceed the minimum in social interaction. “Pass no judgement and you will not be judged,” he says, “do not condemn and you will not be condemned.” That’s the minimum. Just as “sinners” (those who flout the finer points of the law or whose professions place them outside the community) love those who love them most people know they’ll get back what they dish out to others. There is a common ethic that most people subscribe to, an enlightened self-interest that expects some give-and-take and is willing to give some leeway to others until pushed to defend oneself. In that way, we can claim to be as good as we are expected to be.

But to be disciples, those who follow Jesus, there is a higher standard that comes from love. Duty does the minimum, but love attempts the maximum. Duty follows the rules, but love seizes opportunities. Duty does what is required and no more, but love acts spontaneously. Duty wants a receipt; love says, “Don’t worry about it.” The “sons (and daughters) of the Most High” will be compassionate toward the ungrateful and the wicked, just as God is compassionate.

He offers them a parable about the blind leading the blind and both falling into a ditch, and then he follows up with a parable that speaks of the kind of self-awareness and humility that is foundational for discipleship.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye, with never a thought for the great plank in your own? How can you say to your brother, ‘My dear brother, let me take the speck out of your eye’ when you are blind to the plank in your own? You hypocrite! First, take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s.” (Luke 6: 41,42)

As metaphors go this is vintage Jesus—heavy on the hyperbole, richly vivid in imagery, delivered with a twinkle in his eye. But he is serious. The disciples learned that no matter where they stood in the social register, they were to be leaders in ethics. They are followers of Jesus now; they will be teachers of others, and a teacher cannot teach what he has not learned. Character makes influence a live possibility, and influence, in turn, helps shape character. We’re known by what we produce, by what people around us can see of us in our behavior. “By their fruits, you shall know them” is not just a Biblical saying, it’s how we navigate our relationships and place our trust in others. As such, it’s the foundation of a society. Out of the abundance of character the fruit of the heart is grown.

Are disciples to be silent about evil and injustice then? “The ban on speck-hunting,” notes G. B. Caird wryly in his commentary, Saint Luke, “does not, of course, mean that Christians must condone evil or refrain from forming moral judgements. This is a parable about personal relationships.”

***

Most college and university teachers I know have at times suffered from “imposter syndrome,” that dread feeling that students will see right through you to the vast, empty, and echoing interior of your knowledge warehouse. If you teach ethics, as I did for many years, you feel the pressure even more. I wondered, at times, how I had the nerve to stand up in front of students who demanded at the very least that I always knew what I was talking about, and who expected, in varying degrees of interest, that I flawlessly practiced what I preached. But there is some comfort in the very realization of how much we lack; if we can see our condition we can, at least, do something about it.

In order to follow Jesus, we need to see where we’re going. It also helps to be aware of how much we don’t yet know nor do. Planks in the eye get in the way of that. What I have noticed is that if you pray for help to remove your plank God may send you someone with clearer vision than your own, someone with a speck of sawdust in her eye. Plank removal may begin when you see that person’s speck and then realize your own condition. This ordinance of humility can have the effect of deepening our self-reflection as we learn through observation. For all of us have something in our eyes that clouds our vision.

“If we are humble,” writes Thomas Merton, “and if we believe in the Providence of God, we will see that our mistakes are not merely a necessary evil . . . they enter into the very structure of our existence. It is by making mistakes that we gain experience, not only for ourselves but for others.”

Jesus once restored the sight of a blind man by putting saliva on his eyes and then touching him. “Can you see anything?” he asked. “I see people,” said the fellow, “but they look like trees, walking.” Jesus touched his eyes again, and the man looked intently, and this time he saw everything clearly. Some commentators note that Matthew and Luke did not use this story from Mark, perhaps because they were embarrassed that it took Jesus two tries to heal the man. But I think the story is meant for all of us for whom seeing clearly does not happen all at once.

Photo: Alexandru Zdrobau

Three Degrees of Success

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If the audience easily recognizes the three degrees of failure (birds, rocks, thorns), how would it interpret those three degrees of success (thirty, sixty, hundredfold)—even in the literal microcosm of sowing? Jesus’s parable seems quite ready to expect and accept degrees of failure and of success. — John Dominic Crossan, The Power of Parable

“Listen!” Jesus is saying, “a sower went out to sow.” The people on the shore listening smile and nudge one another. The Master is on a roll, telling his stories. There are so many people gathered that he’s in a boat a few feet offshore, speaking to the crowds by the lake in the late afternoon sun.

He speaks in parables, short stories whose meaning lies outside the literal elements of the story and points toward a moral or theological purpose, what New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan defines as “a story that never happened but always does—or at least should.”

The Parable of the Sower in Mark’s gospel (Mark 4:1-20) assures us of God’s pleasure at any degree of return on crops planted. In Mark’s version of the parable, Jesus tells of the loss of seeds to the birds, to rocky soil, and to thorns that choke their growth. But for the seeds that land in good soil and survive there is an eventual harvest. Some patches have a return of thirty percent, some up to sixty percent, and others — perhaps optimistically — a full one hundred percent. The Sower tends them through their growth cycle right up to the harvest and is glad for whatever they produce. Reading this, we never get the feeling there’s anything less than delight and satisfaction for the sixties or even for the thirties. They’ve taken root, they’ve flourished, and they’re ready for the harvest. Next year maybe there will be more.

Mark tells us that Jesus “began to teach them many things in parables,” these pithy, sometimes enigmatic stories that puzzled and angered the religious authorities, and seemed to trip up the disciples as well. This parable, by Mark’s reckoning one of the most important in Jesus’ teachings, shows us that God is realistic about our growth rate and unfazed by what we are now.

We grow and develop spiritually at different rates and in different ways. For some, the obstacles to trusting God can be formidable. If our trust has consistently been sabotaged by parents, friends, and others — those we can actually see — why would we trust an invisible God? For others, trust comes easier. They’ve had the good fortune to grow up with people who could be counted on to keep their promises and who usually chose to do their best for their children. Or maybe they just have the “religious knack,” as religion scholar and author, Karen Armstrong, puts it.

After the crowds leave and Jesus is alone with his disciples, they press around him. Why does he speak in parables, they ask? Why doesn’t he just tell the people straight out what they should and shouldn’t do? It’s easier, quicker, and there’s less chance of being misunderstood. Don’t you get it? he asks, surprised. “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables?” And he tells the parable again, annotating and explaining as he goes, filling in with more details the story he had told in brief to the crowds. He seems to think of this one as a template, that in some way it holds the key to understanding how he uses any parable, which, in turn, is the way he most often communicates his good news about the kingdom of God. It may also keep him from being arrested.

John Dominic Crossan, a New Testament scholar, puts forward the view in The Power of Parable that Jesus was using this common story-telling device in a new way as a challenge to the status quo. Parables operate as metaphors, a Greek term which means “‘carrying something over” from one thing to another,’” writes Crossan, “and thereby ‘seeing something as another’ or ‘speaking of something as another.’” The challenge in these metaphors, he continues, is this: “If tradition is changed, it may be destroyed. If tradition is not changed, it will be destroyed. That is the challenge of this and of all other challenge parables.”

It challenges those who place burdens of guilt cemented in tradition on the ones who seek the kingdom by telling them they are not worthy to come as they are. And it challenges we who are called — not because there isn’t room for us in the kingdom, but because we do not stop to listen to the call. And if we do listen and respond, we may be fighting the idea that we have to be free from sin in order to apply and to qualify. But it’s the Sower who sows, not us.

We are tempted to wait until our potential for spiritual growth comes naturally, without effort. We are tempted to measure ourselves by those we admire or against a list of virtues or the gifts of the Spirit. We succumb to these temptations because we compare ourselves to others and we become impatient when we don’t see in our lives the virtues that take time to develop. As for gifts, we may be born with them or get them later in life, but in either case, we don’t generate them.

We are quick to judge others. If we keep our judgements of others to ourselves it’s all to the good. In time, we may even judge them less. When the ratio of judgement to empathy and understanding begins to change we’ll see them much differently. We will see ourselves differently too, perhaps as people who can forgive in spite of not yet forgetting. Patience, grasshopper.

We are quick to judge ourselves, a response that is hard-wired into most of us. Thankfully, we usually know when we’ve gone off the tracks. Thomas Merton has said that we don’t need to create a conscience. “We are born with one, and no matter how much we may ignore it, we cannot silence its insistent demand that we do good and avoid evil.” Still, a lot of us find ourselves rehashing the same arguments with others and with ourselves, over and over in our heads, attacking with our vorpal swords and blocking the parrying blows. And while passing judgment on ourselves is not quite the same as exercising our conscience, it often feels like it, enough that we may desire “the rotten luxury of self-pity,” as Merton says, and just leave it at that.

But like the seed which the Sower sowed, we grow as we go, for there is no practicing before we enter life, only a continual trial-by-error. Self-reflection — not the same as debilitating self-criticism — helps us see ourselves as we are. And as someone has said, God loves us the way we are, but he doesn’t want us to stay the way we are. So, we walk by faith, not by sight, as we are renewed from day to day.

Barbara Brown Taylor, in her collection of sermons, The Seeds of Heaven, gives us a way to read the Parable of the Sower that upends our expectations about the kind of ground we are supposed to be.

“The focus is not on us and our shortfalls but on the generosity of our maker, the prolific sower who does not obsess about the condition of the fields, who is not stingy with the seed but who casts it everywhere, on good soil and bad, who is not cautious or judgmental or even very practical, but who seems willing to keep reaching into his seed bag for all eternity, covering the whole creation with the fertile seed of his truth.”

As Jesus said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”

Photo: Jonathan Bowers, Unsplash.com

Wisdom for the Contingent World

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“The truth is, that Jesus remains too disturbing a figure ever to be left to himself. Christianity in all its multifarious manifestations, Orthodox and heterodox, has been a repeated attempt to make sense of him, to cut him down to size . . . How oblique and how terrifying a figure he actually was in history. Terrifying, because he really does undermine everything.”— A. N. Wilson, Jesus: A Life

It is a remarkable fact, given Christianity’s 2,000 years of history, that Jesus was not a Christian nor is it at all certain that if he could walk among us in the flesh that he would know what to make of what we have made of him. Like a child’s bendable toy, Jesus can be made to assume almost any posture that we choose. And it has been pointed out innumerable times that what we make of Jesus says more about us than it does about him.

When we try to measure his effectiveness as a reformer in terms of how closely his followers adhere to his ideals, we have to admit that Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Paul, Mohammed, and Darwin, Marx, and Freud have had a far greater direct influence on the human race.1 Even so, for a figure in history whose story has nevertheless touched billions of people, it is sobering to realize how little we know of him as a man. Millions invoke his name as a prayer or an oath and of his image, there is no lack in art, music, drama, poetry, and scholarship. Bumper stickers proclaim him, from the testy, “Do you follow Jesus this close?” to the smug, “Jesus Christ is the answer” to the cloying, “Jesus is not a Republican or a Democrat. His party is the Kingdom of God.”

A. N. Wilson’s book, Jesus: A Life, quoted above, attempts to grapple with the powerful story of Jesus (Wilson calls it a ‘myth’), a story that cannot be fully contained by the factuality of history but spills over in narrative and imagination. Wilson, who read history at Oxford as an undergraduate, cannot shake off his fascination with Jesus and Christianity, despite his skepticism about the divinity of Christ. He sees Jesus as ultimately a tragic figure whose attraction for us is unparalleled, and who was a Jew who only longed for faithfulness in following God. Our encounter with his story, says Wilson, arises from a careful reading of the Gospels, while knowing that they are not biographies nor are they historical accounts as we understand them.

Jesus did not fit neatly into the various strands of Jewish life and thought of his time. He was raised in Galilee, traditionally a hotbed of revolutionary activity, and included among his friends Simon the Zealot (read terrorist), a tax collector, professional fishermen, several women, and various members of the priestly ruling class. Swirling around him during that time were Pharisees, Sadducees, Samaritans, followers of John the Baptist, zealots, and the thousands of simple, often desperate, common folk. He was accused of loving his food and wine too much and of flouting the rules about Sabbath. All of this made him suspect in the eyes of the religious authorities. Yet, in the last week of his life he has dinner at the home of a prominent Pharisee and another one, Nicodemus, comes to him at night to speak with him directly.

To be a Jew in his time was not to belong to a religion set apart from political life, but to be suspended in a web of religious, historical, and cultural threads that composed a whole life. Jesus cuts across all these threads in his own way, and yet somehow appeals to people of all classes.

Greg Riley, in One Jesus, Many Christs, says “People, apparently, did not follow Jesus for his words. For all the attention given in the modern era to the sayings of the historical Jesus, his precise words seem hardly to have mattered at all.” Yet for us, the Gospels are stories about Jesus with claims to be the teachings of Jesus. Each gospel writer has reshaped the oral traditions of Jesus’ sayings and each one views Jesus from a particular perspective. Their timelines of events in Jesus’ life differ—for different reasons—and they transpose his sayings into contexts that vary considerably.

But there are enough details here and there that could not be anything but authentic because they are too specific, too unusual, too unique to be a literary fiction. The gospel writers were not writing history, but neither were they writing fiction.

“A culture tells its members stories that embody its ideals and reinforce social norms and goals,” says Riley. “We in the modern world tell ourselves consciously or unconsciously a story of success, the Horatio Alger story, that no matter what our circumstances if we work hard and try our honest best, we will eventually climb the social ladder to wealth and status.”

There could hardly be a more definitive contrast to the lives people lived in the Greco-Roman world of the first Christians. Most people’s lives were short, subject to sudden reversals of fortune, disease-prone, and frozen in social structures that defied mobility or change. They looked to heroes, people whose physical attributes of beauty and strength and their exploits in war to win glory and honor, blurred the lines between the gods and humans. For us, Jesus was neither a conventional success nor was he close to being a hero, save in the bravery he exhibited in going to the cross. Nevertheless, for many in the first century after Christ, there were cultural templates in place to regard him as just such a hero type.

Flannery O’Connor’s novel, Wise Blood, gives us Hazel Motes, the God-haunted preacher who “saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark . . .” I find myself drawn to that figure too, the enigmatic Jesus who rejoices because God has hidden “these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants (Luke 10:21).”

So, who is Jesus for us? Who do we say Jesus is?

***

Jesus’ presence in my mind is like a low murmur rising at times to unspoken prayer, and then slipping back into images, questions, and memories. Every now and then I take out a book of art about Jesus, images of him in painting, sculpture, and drawing. There are black Christs, Korean Christs, Native American, Spanish, Russian, Samoan, and Filipino Christs — and many more besides. It is a visual conversation, a congress of voices that raise in praise of Christ as the embodiment of us all, God Incarnate.

I grew up with Harry Anderson’s paintings that adorned pamphlets, churches, and memory verse cards. Jesus is invariably depicted as a tall white man in robes, standing amongst a rainbow of little children, a kindly expression on his face. Later, in the sixties, as Jesus was seen as part of the counterculture, other artists depicted him as a healthy and vigorous young man, hair tousled and face sweaty, more a rock star than a man of sorrows.

Through graduate school, Jesus was an object to be studied from all angles, a being whose main effect was to stimulate several centuries of scholarship, but whose inner light and expression receded behind waves of theories and contending ideas. I didn’t lose sight of him in those days, but there was distance between us.

Jurgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God, Gustavo Gutierrez’s A Theology of Liberation, and Segundo Galilea’s Following Jesus swept away my unconscious assumptions of a middle-class and respectable Jesus. Their combined shockwave cleared my horizon about how and why he died and spun me around to face systemic evil and suffering.

Then, as I began teaching Jesus and the Gospels to first-year students, their questions forced a pause. How could Jesus help with school loans? Did he ever have an older brother who suffered through addictions? What if he had brought home a girlfriend his parents didn’t like? What if Pilate had set him free? Would he still have had to die? Gradually, we began to realize the obvious, that Jesus spoke in story rather than in precept and that the exercise of our imaginations is what would best open those stories to us.

Without question, there was much we could learn about his times from archeology and history, and there was a wealth of information about the formation of the gospels. We could reason our way through competing theories about the world-view of the gospel writers, but we could not see how radical Jesus was unless we let him lead us back to the root, the radix of God’s searing justice and love. “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father,” Jesus said. Together, we tried to imagine how that would change our lives.

If we are reading the Gospels to understand and to feel, we will sense how terrifying Jesus is, how disruptive to those who would attempt to contain him in a system. “Neither do I tell you by what authority I do these things.” As A. N. Wilson says with only slight exaggeration, “A patient and conscientious reading of the Gospels will always destroy any explanation we devise. If it makes sense it is wrong.”

Life is uncertain, a truth that may seem to some perplexing, if not heretical. What makes Christianity real for me right now is the humanity of God in Jesus, the total commitment to seeing the contingency of this world from the ground level. The pain, the weariness, the flashes of anger as well as the quick compassion, all of that is there in Jesus. His constant deflection (“Why do you call me good? Only God is good.”), his humor, irony, and hyperbole (“If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move!’), and his sense of proportion (“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”) — these things speak of God’s deep plunge into His creation.

In Jesus’ very helplessness we see our own pain and fear writ large: My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? In Jesus’ last words from the cross, Father, into your hands I commend my spirit, we need not hear desolation and resignation. Through imagination and faith, they may become our daily thanksgiving for God’s sustaining love. Such is the wisdom of the infants.

  1. A. N. Wilson, Jesus: A Life, 1992, p. 253.

Photo: Arunas Naujokas, Unsplash.com

This is Only a Test

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Man is always being challenged; a question is always being asked of him. Abraham Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity

When I walked out of my comprehensive exams at graduate school, it was a beautiful Southern California day and I thought, “That’s it, I’m done. No more exams!” Of course, I was wrong, which is concrete evidence of how much I still didn’t know. Life is a series of tests, none of which we can cram for and many of which we will not see the results of until long after we’ve forgotten what we were tested on.

It’s not that I hated exams; I rather enjoyed the opportunity to explain, describe, and analyze complex issues. It was the build-up to the exams that brought anxiety, the persistent feeling that no matter how thorough your preparation there would always be some question designed not to show what you knew but to punish you for what you didn’t know.

When I started teaching, I kept in mind how I felt about exams. I steered clear of minutiae and tried to design questions that gave students an opportunity to take a long view. I made it clear I expected accuracy in portraying the positions of others, honesty in expressing one’s own position, and clarity in writing. Nobody was getting paid by the word; brevity and conciseness were virtues. On questions of ethical practice as distinguished from analysis of ethical theory, I blessed responses that were exploratory and forward-looking. I encouraged students in philosophy and ethics to use their imaginations as well as their reasoning and analytical powers. Above all, I asked them to see themselves as both teachers and learners.

How would they describe and explain what they knew to someone who was deeply interested in what they had to say, but lacked their foundational knowledge on the subject? Could such a person pick up their written responses and understand them? Could those responses be the starting point for a deep and exciting conversation? Could they lead others to see what they had learned? And could connections be made in all directions from the subject they were studying? What had they learned in their American history class that their ethics might address? Could their ethical theories apply to their health practices, their economics courses, and their intercultural communication?

“There is only one subject matter for education,” said A. N. Whitehead in The Aims of Education, “and that is Life in all its manifestations.”

***

There are two kinds of exams in education. One tests what we have learned (summative assessment) and the other tests what we need in order to learn (formative assessment). Generally speaking, the life of a spiritual wanderer, someone seeking the Water of life, is a process of formative assessment. If life is for learning, then we can look to every day as experimental research into that which helps us learn of God, of ourselves, and of others.

“Speculation does not precede faith,” says Abraham Heschel in God in Search of Man. “The antecedents of faith are the premise of wonder and the premise of praise. Worship of God precedes affirmation of His realness. We praise before we prove. We respond before we question.”

For those who have been on this path all their lives, and who find themselves no nearer knowing God than when they began, this may almost sound like mockery. How can a person in their fifth or sixth decade of life on this planet regain this wonder? “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” asks Nicodemus (Jn. 3:4). We get worn down by life; our capacity for wonder ebbs and our willingness to suspend our disbelief diminishes in inverse proportion to our need to appear objective and aloof. All the evidence that the world is indifferent to our struggle swarms before our eyes and we shake our heads in exasperation. Experience cannot be reverse-engineered back to innocence.

Heschel invites us to look again: “It is not from experience but from our inability to experience what is given to our mind that certainty of the realness of God is derived.” Our very lack of what we seek takes on the outlines of a God-shaped vacuum in our lives, the via negativa of the medieval mystics and contemplatives.

But we are twenty-first century people who respond more readily to the merest factoid, rather than venturing beyond our skepticism. The trust that is the DNA of faith does not come easily, despite the brave face of certainty that we profess when pressed. Instinctively, we believe that a testimony given must be anchored, not understanding that a profession of belief without the trust of commitment can sometimes be a grappling-hook thrown heaven-ward to draw us up.

Doing can result in being, a genuine form of faith.

But there are some caveats to the formative assessment of our education in faith. “Knowledge is not the same as awareness,” notes Heschel, “and expression is not the same as experience. By proceeding from awareness to knowledge we gain in clarity and lose in immediacy. What we gain in distinctness by going from experience to expression we lose in genuineness.”

It’s a risk worth taking. Heschel assures us that “To the prophets, wonder is a form of thinking,” a way forward when faced with the numinous, with the burning bushes, and the whispers of God within the hurricane. “Our certainty,” says Heschel, “is the result of wonder and radical amazement, of awe before the mystery and meaning of the totality of life beyond our rational discerning. Faith is the response to the mystery, shot through with meaning; the response to a challenge which no one can for ever ignore.”

For Christian existentialists, of whom I am one, authentic faith is a leap beyond what can be wholly certified through reason. “Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable,” suggests poet Mary Oliver. That challenge comes in the form of questions put to us by God, corporately and personally. Some of them are formative: they shape us going forward. Others give us a needed pause on this journey, a timeout to catch our breath and look around us. They are summative of what we have learned through our experience.

***

These are some of the questions I am seeking to be shaped by and to answer to.

“Where are you?” – Genesis 3:10

“What does the Lord require of you?” – Micah 6:8

“And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” – Matt. 6:27

“You of little faith, why did you doubt?” – Matt. 14:31

And the most important question of all . . .

“Who do you say that I am?” – Mk. 8: 29

We are questions to ourselves. Life itself throws us demands that we may field as questions. The ones that draw us in, turn us inside out, and lift us higher come to us from the Spirit “who searches everything, even the depths of God (1 Cor. 2:10).”

Photo: Barry Casey

A Necessary Candle

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What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. John 1: 3-5, NRSV

The gospels give us many metaphors for the Kingdom of God. They come at us like rapid-fire: the pearl of great price, the treasure in a field, the mustard seed, the sower and the soil, the wheat and the weeds. They are often at the center of parables, those enigmatic bundles of meaning that Barbara Brown Taylor says act more like dreams or poems than as a code to be broken.

They are vivid images, some that resonate with our twenty-first-century sensibilities, others that stretch our imagination. And we get plenty of metaphors for Jesus too. He gives us some of them: I am the Vine, I am the Water of Life, I am the Good Shepherd, I am the Way. Others are ascribed to him, most famously the Word and the Light of the world. They are contact points by which the veiled glory of his life and the courage of his death and the shocking eruption of his resurrection can jump-start our cold, dead hearts.

“To every age, Christ dies anew and is resurrected within the imagination of man,” muses Christian Wiman in My Bright Abyss. He continues, “One truth, then, is that Christ is always being remade in the image of man, which means that his reality is always being deformed to fit human needs . . . A deeper truth, though, one that scripture suggests when it speaks of the eternal Word being made specific flesh, is that there is no permutation of humanity in which Christ is not present.”

When we read the prologue to the Gospel of John, those first 18 verses, they are like ancient tales spoken by bards in firelight. Their language and rhythm and repetition are mesmerizing; they speak of this world and time, and that which is beyond time, and of the creature not recognizing its Creator, and of the one who returns home from across the universe but is turned away by his own family.

Where does the story of Jesus begin? For John, it does not begin with a virgin carrying the divine seed inside her, but farther back and higher up, with the Word that begins all creation, not with a bang but a whisper of supreme delight, “Let there be light!” That Word, that Logos, is now concentrated, distilled down, purified to its essence so that sound becomes light, both a particle in Mary’s womb and a wave that carries everyone who sees: the Light has come into the world and the darkness will not overcome it.

John writes later, after the letters of Paul and Peter, and after the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke are well established. John both synthesizes what is known of Jesus and transcends the day-to-day accounts by opening a portal for us to Jesus as the Logos, present at the creation and ever more as the present light that enlightens every person who comes into the world.

John may have known that in Matthew’s story Jesus announces to those gathered around him, “You are the light of the world.” These “lights” were a sorry lot by most standards. They were the lame, the blind, the ragged, the widowed and the orphaned, the restless and the rebellious, the defiant and the dumbfounded, the quarrelsome and the nearly invisible. And Jesus loved them all. Through the prism of eternal forgiveness, Jesus looked on these sheep without a shepherd and saw them refracted into beams of light that carried the eternal weight of glory.

Where do we fit in? We might not have seen Jesus as someone we wanted in our neighborhood. He kept bad company, he was homeless, he had a sharp tongue for the respectable and the wealthy, he made us damn uncomfortable. He drew comparisons to bone-boxes, made allegations of theft and cruelty toward the weak, and gave us slanderous names, like “slaves to sin” and “slayers of the prophets.” It was all too much. Something had to be done. And when it was done and dusted, and we could breathe again, there came word that he was inexplicably alive. The Light had not gone out after all.

Then along comes Saul, the living embodiment of the fanatic who is willing to kill for the glory of God and the sanctity of the Law. Breathing fire and threats, he terrorized those who had begun to carry the Light, taking names and rounding them up for a quick trial and summary executions.

And yet the Lord singled him out, considering him to be a pearl of great price, and broke through his armored heart to the pulsing flesh beneath, to the white-hot love of someone to whom he could give his all, even unto death.

This Paul, then, as sure now of the love of God in Christ as he had been of God’s hatred of traitors to the Law, becomes the apostle of the new, assuring all who would listen that “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” And the newness in our human experience is that God is eternally, irrevocably, joyously on our side, closing up the abyss between us and God that we had dug. He is the great reconciler through Christ. “Truth,” says Christian Wiman, “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.”

Simone Weil says that “Absence is the form God takes in this world,” a saying that would be devastating if we did not know that against all odds God has chosen to appear to the world through those who carry the Light. “So we are ambassadors for Christ,” says Paul, “since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:20).”

We are living in times so full of bile and darkness that we are more certain of bitterness than we are of acceptance. Yet, we have been called, all of us, any who wish to carry that Light, to be that necessary candle. “As people reconciled with God through Jesus,” says Henri Nouwen in Bread for the Journey, “we have been given the ministry of reconciliation . . . So whatever we do the main question is, “Does it lead to reconciliation among people?”

My friend, Mike Pearson, has given us a ladder of communication, each rung of which leads us to this reconciling work in the world.

  • “Sometimes you have to settle for outcomes which are less than perfect in the name of maintaining relationships and forging community.
  • You have to hope that your trust will inspire trust in others with the real risk that you may appear naïve and be open to exploitation.
  • You have to use your imagination to find some fresh solutions.
  • You have to listen truly and not simply wait deafly for your turn to speak.”

(You can read more of his writing here)

“We are not sent to the world to judge, to condemn, to evaluate, to classify, or to label,” says Nouwen. This sounds almost impossible, given that the way of the world is anything but nonjudgmental. “Only when we fully trust,” he says, “that we belong to God and can find in our relationship with God all that we need for our minds, hearts, and souls can we be truly free in this world and be ministers of reconciliation.”

Bearing the Light in this world begins with us “accepting that we are accepted,” in Paul Tillich’s phrase, an experience so simple that it is difficult to grasp. It is the foolishness that leaps over the logic that would keep us in the dark.

Photo: Joanna Kosinska, Unsplash.com

Hear the Pennies Dropping

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“He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.’” — Luke 21: 1-4, NRSV

There are few things that get us Christians rearing up on our hind legs and clawing at the air as talking about Jesus and money. Talking about Jesus’ love is no problem, just as talking about money is easy. Money and its value is the lingua franca of our world, the language that all of us are taught to speak from an early age. But when we put Jesus and money together it’s a whole different story.

For one thing, he didn’t have any. The gospels record him as sleeping rough while on the road. Even animals, he noted wryly, lived better than he did. At least foxes had their dens to retreat to at the end of the day, and the birds had their nests. Having left his home, his mother, and his siblings, for a life as an itinerant teacher and healer, Jesus had nowhere to lay his head.

Not that he was complaining. We never get the sense that Jesus resented the path he was walking, although the burdens he carried just being himself were heavy enough. Nor did he chafe at thwarted ambition or linger wistfully at the edge of the crowd as the rich and powerful swept by. “I coulda been a contender,” never passed his lips.

On the other hand, their relative poverty was a sore spot with some of the disciples. “We here have left everything” was a common refrain among them. Mark shows us two of the disciples, James and John, asking Jesus to commit to giving them whatever they want. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asks. Without hesitation, they answer, “We want to sit on either side of you when you set up your kingdom.” Incredulous, Jesus responds, “You don’t know what you’re asking.” Later, in Matthew’s version of the story that he picked up from Mark, he has the mother of James and John ask the favor. Maybe it was just too embarrassing for the early church community to believe these two would try to muscle their way into positions of privilege, but a mother . . . well, that was to be expected.

Jesus talks about wealth and poverty more than almost anything else, including all the usual subjects one would expect, like heaven and hell, the law, sexual morality, and violence. Jim Wallis, co-founder of the Sojourners Community, says in The Call to Conversion, that “One out of every ten verses in the Synoptic Gospels is about the rich and the poor; in Luke, the ratio is one out of seven.” Some of Jesus’ most scathing remarks are directed against the wealthy for their callousness and their foolishness in putting all their attention and their trust in what they pile up. The disparity between the wealthy few and the many poor was evident — and evidently on Jesus’ mind a great deal.

“But woe to you who are rich,” he warns, “for you will go hungry.” It will be impossible for the rich to enter heaven, he says bluntly. You might as well try to jam a camel through a needle’s eye. The disciples are duly staggered. Then who can be saved? they want to know. Jesus looks hard at them and says, “With man this is impossible.” He pauses, and as they gasp, he finishes, “But with God all things are possible.” Only God can save the rich.

Jesus is teaching daily in the temple in these passages, and he is sitting with his disciples one day, watching as people drop their offerings into the temple box. The rich come up with their long robes and their bags of money and make a show of pouring the coins in for maximum effect.

Then, as Jesus and the others watch, a widow slips up quietly and drops in two coins so small and light they barely make a sound. She does not raise her head nor look around, but simply disappears into the crowd. Jesus watches thoughtfully, two fingers tapping his lips, then shakes his head.

“She out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on,’” he says.

The verses immediately preceding this in Luke’s gospel are warnings by Jesus about position and power.

“In the hearing of all the people Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Beware of the lawyers who love to walk up and down in long robes, and have a great liking for respectful greetings in the street, the chief seats in our synagogues, and places of honour at feasts. These are the men who eat up the property of widows, while they say long prayers for appearance’ sake; and they will receive the severest sentence (Luke 20:45-47).’ ”

This is a difficult story. Our sympathies are with the widow in her plight, and our admiration even more so for her unshakable faith. This woman and her pennies stand before us like a moral stop sign for her willingness to contribute everything she had to an institution she believed in because of the God she believed in. The rich believed in God too, but they believed more in the power of position and social influence.

She may well have been one of the victims of the lawyers who snatched up homes and displaced their owners. In any case, a widow, especially one without grown children to support her, had a hard road to walk, as it has ever been.

Jim Wallis gives us another insight into the significance of her act when he writes: “The gospel story of the widow’s mite (Mark 12:41-44) makes a related point . . . It had to do with her relationship to God, which had transformed the economics of her life. . . How much is given is less important than how much is left over after giving.”

Jesus says in another context, “Take no thought for tomorrow, for tomorrow has troubles of its own.” But we do take thought; we take thought so much that it can tie our brains and our stomachs in knots. As I write, close to a million federal workers are out of work and without pay, as the government shutdown grinds on. That doesn’t include the small businesses which are dependent on providing services to a functioning government. For millions of people, the norm is living two paychecks away from homelessness.

Perhaps the meaning here is best conveyed by another translation which says, “So do not be anxious about tomorrow; tomorrow will look after itself. Each day has troubles enough of its own.” We cannot help thinking hard about such things. But we can learn to live by faith without anxiety.

Jesus says without a trace of irony that everyone who lives in the kingdom that is here and still to come could live without anxiety, “For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.”

And so, our widow, bless her heart, lives from hour to hour, supported by the gossamer threads of her own unpretentious faith, and slips out of the temple, unaware that her silent act, remarkable in its unassuming nature, becomes a witness remembered for as long as Jesus’ words are treasured.

And Jesus? After teaching all day in the temple, “at night he would go out and spend the night on the Mount of Olives, as it was called. And all the people would get up early in the morning to listen to him in the temple (Luke 21:38).”

Photo: Aziz Acharki, Unsplash.com

Unveiling Reality

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What in Greek was called epiphaniea meant the appearance, the arrival of a divinity among mortals . . . Epiphany thus interrupts the everyday flow of time and enters as one privileged moment when we intuitively grasp a deeper, more essential reality hidden in things and persons. — Czeslaw Milosz, A Book of Luminous Things

In Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King, the blustering, bumbling, red-faced, and violently suffering protagonist, confides to us that, “when things got very bad I often looked into books to see whether I could find some helpful words, and one day I read, ‘The forgiveness of sins is perpetual and righteousness first is not required.’ This impressed me so deeply that I went around saying it to myself.”

This is an insight that arrives unexpectedly, cracking open his hard and aching heart, and setting him on a picaresque journey of self-discovery to Africa, where he learns humility and wisdom — and where he finally feels that his spirit is no longer slave to his body. It’s an epiphany, a moment when he understands his reality in a way that he never could have before.

It is reminiscent of another story, one that Jesus told, in which a young man, impatient and strident in his demands, took his inheritance and left for a far country, breaking his father’s heart and setting ablaze a fire of resentment in his older brother. Later, after his money has burned up in moments of profligacy that have begun to blur and fade, he takes whatever work he can to sustain himself. One day, while mucking out the pig pen of a farmer outside the city, he “comes to himself,” a telling phrase that both reveals the split within himself as well as the potential of reintegration. It’s an epiphany that wells up within him while he is up to his knees in pigs, proving that a life-transforming moment can break in on us, no matter where we find ourselves.

Czeslaw Milosz calls an epiphany “an unveiling of reality” in his international anthology of poetry, A Book of Luminous Things. He writes of ancient cultures in which streams were inhabited by the naiads and forests by the dryads, and the gods sometimes walked among humans. “Not rarely, they would visit households and were recognized by hosts.” Abraham entertains God in the guise of three travelers and later, “the epiphany as appearance, the arrival of Christ, occupies an important place in the New Testament.”

We are living, says Milosz, in a world that has been deprived of clear-cut outlines and has been drained of color. This deprivation is not much helped, he continues, by theology, science, and philosophy. While they try to provide cures for nihilism, they are not usually effective, and instead, give us descriptions that simply confirm our condition.

Poetry, however, looks at the singular rather than the general; it focuses on the leaf, not the forest, and thus it cannot help but see the variations, the diversity, the abundance of throbbing, colorful life. A poem, by describing a particular moment of present reality, illuminates the human experience and brings the divine into the mundane. A poem bears epiphanies.

***

Epiphany, from a Greek word for ‘manifestation’ or ‘appearance’, is for Christians the season after Advent and Christmas in which we celebrate the unveiling—just for a moment—of the divine nature of Christ, that moment in which a young Jewish carpenter arises from baptism in the waters of the River Jordan, as the heavens split open above him and the voice of God declares him to be his beloved son.

It is just a breath, a heart’s beat, a hummingbird’s jeweled flash of winged light, a disturbance in the space-time continuum, but it is gratefully grasped by Jesus. John the Baptist hears it too; they share a look between them, John all fire and sword and Jesus with a muscular tenderness.

We who watch from the riverbank twenty-one centuries later may only hear thunder in a cloudless sky and shrug:

“Endless invention, endless experiment,

Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;

Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;

Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.”1

John, with his fierce, hooded, hawk’s eyes, understands the moment: it reverberates in his chest like a bell. This is the moment he has prepared for all his life; it is here now, and he gives himself to it without hesitation. John had disciples, followers, people who revered him and did not shrink from his shouts into the desert wind. ‘He must increase, and I must decrease,’ he thinks. A gate, sensed but hidden, swings open behind his eyes and he steps through and knows somehow, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he will not live to see this King crowned.

“God Speaks:

It is innocence that is full and experience

that is empty.

It is innocence that wins and experience that loses.

It is innocence that is young and experience that

is old.

It is innocence that grows and experience that

wanes.”2

***

You wonder if these epiphanies can be prepared for. If they add to the quality of life, then shouldn’t we figure out a way to generate them? Yet, they come when we need them and not before. They are gifts and as gifts, we accept them or misuse them. But, faith, like poetry, cannot be duplicated: every experience is a new reading of meaning.

“If we could get the hang of it entirely

It would take too long;

All we know is the splash of words in passing

And falling twigs of song,

And when we try to eavesdrop on the great

Presences it is rarely

That by a stroke of luck we can appropriate

Even a phrase entirely.”3

Milosz shows us that epiphanies are the inbreaking of the divine in unexpected ways and places. They are ‘aha’ moments, flashes of intuition that reveal an eternity in a grain of sand. Poems may carry epiphanies for us, Nature may as well. We learn to see with our hearts as well as with our heads.

“Cease to dwell on days gone by

and to brood over past history.

Here and now I will do a new thing;

this moment it will break from the bud.

Can you not perceive it?” (Isa. 43: 18,19)

The season of Epiphany is also a time to reflect on the experience of the magi, the travelers from another land, who searched with mind and heart for the Christ child, leaving behind their familiar ways and traditions for something or someone they could not be sure would accept them.

Thus, it is a season to reflect on and seek out what unifies all Christians. Michael Mayne, the former dean of Westminster, wrote in Responding to the Light, “We Christians are as diverse and varied as the colors of the rainbow . . . Though at one level we are divided and have been divided by history into our separate traditions, yet there is a deeper truth, for those with eyes to see . . . All who believe that in Jesus we see God and put their faith in him are at the deepest level already one in Christ4

An epiphany is a manifestation, an appearance, perhaps of something that was always there but overlooked or excluded out of habit and tradition, brushed aside in our haste—only to become, when revealed, so compelling that we can’t take our eyes off it.

That which changes us from the inside may be the outside seen through new eyes.

  1. Eliot, T. S. Choruses from ‘The Rock’ 1, Collected Poems 1909-1962. Harcourt, 1963.
  2. Péguy, Charles. “Innocence and Experience,” God Speaks. Trans. by Julian Green. Pantheon, 1943.
  3. MacNeice, Louis. ‘Entirely’, Collected Poems. Faber, 2007, p. 171.
  4. Mayne, Michael. Responding to the Light. Canterbury Press, 2017, pp. 87-88.

Photo: Joel Valve, Unsplash.com

Sing, and Keep Walking

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For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need. Hebrews 4:15,16, AV

One of the memories that ties Protestants of a certain vintage and social class together is the revival meeting. In my religious neighborhood this was visited upon us longsuffering teenagers during our annual Week of Prayer. At our parochial elementary school or high school, a speaker, usually known as a ‘youth pastor’ for his position in guiding the youth, would take up residence in our midst for a week to bring us to the Lord. This meant that we had chapel every day of the week, instead of our usual assembly once a week. Invariably, the last day of the week would be given over — we were tensed for it — a Call, in which the speaker would appeal to us to give our hearts to Jesus.

The organ or piano would play, the speaker would stand astride the platform, an immovable object through whom we would have to pass in order to see the sky, the light, the earth again. Our ticket, our passport to freedom, was to admit our sins and to publicly stand for Jesus, proclaiming by our verticality that we had cast aside our old life and had given ourselves over to a new attempt at sanctification. I was usually tolerant of this, sometimes moved by it, but on one occasion I hardened my heart toward the speaker and his wiles.

For wiles they were, and he wielded them with the skill of a trained propagandist. There were the glittering generalities, the card stacking (only certain facts allowed), the plain folks approach (I’m just like you; I sin too), the testimonials (I turned my life over to Jesus and you can too), and — as the numbers of those standing inched upward — the bandwagon effect (won’t you join us?). But the twin screws of fear and guilt were usually enough to break the most recalcitrant. It was our sins that had nailed Jesus to the cross and that kept Him there — never mind the resurrection and the promise of eternal life. The sight of squirming 14-year-olds trying to come up with sins toxic enough to kill Christ was disheartening.

There was a point in this emotional fire-hosing when we realized that we’d left a real encounter with Christ behind and that now the speaker was running up the score, carving notches on his belt, and counting scalps. That’s when I hardened my heart and prayed for release. Not wanting to offend or cause another to stumble, I was struggling to stay in my seat, and yet I knew I should not be false to my own relation to Christ. I had a tentative, but sincere, connection with God; if there remained anything standing between me and a commitment to Jesus, it would not be bulldozed aside just to give The Speaker the satisfaction. So I remained sitting, to the consternation of my teachers and some of my friends, since I occasionally assisted as a student leader in religious activities.

Fear and guilt, endemic as they are to humans, are not the best roads to Paradise. I think guilt has a place in waking us up to our situation — the move is called repentance, metanoia in the Greek, and it means ‘to turn around’ — but no one ever built a lasting and healthy communion with another based on fear and guilt alone.

Moreover, such tactics in the hands of a skilled and unscrupulous religious leader too easily result in counting for numbers, herding impressionable people toward a decision they barely comprehend and cannot articulate. It is enough that we see how futile our efforts to walk on water really are and that we reach out to God in Christ.

Wendell Berry has said that “It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.” It is in that context that we can ask what it means to say that Jesus was tempted as we are.

However, we derail ourselves if we insist on a detailed catalogue of the temptations that a first-century Jesus couldn’t have been subjected to. How would Jesus have handled the easy access to online pornography, the money to be made in drugs, plagiarism by students of term papers, or vaping?

If we broaden the scope beyond personal temptation to include ethical dilemmas made unavoidable through advanced technology, it illustrates the fact that as a society our achievements are double-edged: they are gifts that change our environment and our values even as they benefit us. What about genetic screening for inherited diseases, surrogate pregnancies, assisted suicide and DNRs, biological and neurological enhancement, and the use of placebos in clinical testing? Science and technology in our era often outrun ethics; this is the world that we have made. So, presenting God with a list of exemptions based on our technology isn’t going to help us nor does claiming that He couldn’t possibly understand what we are going through. As the Buddha said about discussions on the afterlife: “This does not lead to edification.”

We are opened to a new perspective with Richmond Lattimore’s translation of Hebrews 4:15,16 as he writes: “For the high priest we have is not one who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, since he has suffered all the trials we have, except that he did not sin.” The solidarity Jesus extends to us comes not from specific temptations faced, but from suffering the weaknesses of being human.

To be human is to live in paradox. We are made of earth but aspire to the heavens. We wish to be infinite but are bounded on all sides. We want to please those whom we love, placate those whom we fear, be admired by those we admire. We want to be the masters of our destiny, but on some days we fall and we can’t get up.

“We work our jobs

Collect our pay

Believe we’re gliding down the highway

When in fact we’re slip slidin’ away”1

We can stand apart from the path we are on in the present and ask ourselves what the trajectory of our lives points toward and where we might arrive at if we continue. No other creature can do that, and it is both the blessing and the curse of our condition that we can perceive — if only in hindsight — our misdirections, wrong turns, willful diversions from the way, and lost opportunities.

We are flesh and spirit; we are blind, but we can see that we are blind. We give in to the power of sin and yet we resist. “The fact that we accuse ourselves,” said Paul Tillich, “proves that we still have an awareness of what we truly are, and therefore ought to be. And the fact that we excuse ourselves shows that we cannot acknowledge our estrangement from our true nature. The fact that we are ashamed shows that we still know what we ought to be.”2

God may not snatch us out of temptation or even necessarily lessen our suffering. We may ask, then, how God is present to us in our time of trial. Christ’s credentials here are not a smug “been there, done that” throwaway line. Nor does he peddle cheap grace like some ham-fisted TV evangelist. Christ lives with us in our temptations, suffers with us in our temptations, and does not abandon us when we are tempted.

Christian Wiman says in My Bright Abyss, that “Herein lies the great difference between divine weakness and human weakness, the wounds of Christ and the wounds of man. Two human weaknesses only intensify each other. But human weakness plus Christ’s weakness equals a supernatural strength.” And, we might add, “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.”

“Let us sing alleluia,” says Augustine in a sermon from 418 CE. God doesn’t say he will keep us from temptation, but “with the temptation he will also make a way out, so that you may be able to endure it (1 Cor. 10:13).”

I wish I’d understood that when I chose to remain seated during that call to stand. The way it was presented to me, I was either in or out: sunk in sin and at war with Jesus or cleansed and on the right side. Somehow, instinctively, I knew that it wasn’t that cut and dried. My heart’s cry and my intention were to live in Christ; the reality was that this would take some time.

What I later came to realize is that Christ takes the intention of our hearts as what we really are. Living up to that intention is living within the new being, the new reality, one day at a time. “So now, my dear brothers and sisters,” concludes Augustine in his sermon, “let us sing, not to delight our leisure, but to ease our toil . . . Sing, and keep on walking. Don’t stray off the road, don’t go back, don’t stay where you are.”

Sing, and keep on walking.

  1. Paul Simon, “Slip Slidin’ Away”, 1975. Universal Music Publishing Group
  2. Paul Tillich, “The Good That I Will, I Do Not,” The Eternal Now. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons,1963, p. 54.

Photo: Nathan McBride, Unsplash