No Guarantees

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“Communication as a bridge always means an abyss is somewhere near.” — John Durham Peters, Speaking Into the Air

According to the Gospel of Matthew, Herod slaughtered every child of the age of two and under in Bethlehem and its surroundings, because he was trying to kill the king of the Jews whom the magi from the East had come to worship.

To put the Bethlehem massacre by Herod in its full horrific context, the writer of the gospel reaches back to the prophet Jeremiah’s lament for the slaughter of children in Ramah, an Ephraimite village eight miles north of Jerusalem, before those who remained were deported to Babylon. He needs a historical parallel of sufficient magnitude.

“Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,

wailing and loud lamentation,

Rachel weeping for her children;

she refused to be consoled, because

they are no more.”

Thus, the good news (for that is what euanggelion, the ‘gospel’, means) of the coming of the Christ child, the promised one, the Son of God and the Saviour of the world, unfolds in haste and secrecy in the midst of a bloodbath. But it has ever been so, as powerful and corrupt rulers are threatened by women and children.

The family escapes to Egypt, being warned in a dream, and they remain there—we don’t know how long—until news comes that Herod is dead. They make plans to return to Bethlehem, but Joseph is again warned off in a dream. Instead, they find their way north to Nazareth, a village in Galilee so insignificant that there is no mention of it in historical records outside of the New Testament. Their caution is well-founded, for Herod’s son, King Archelaus, rules for only two years before the Roman emperor, Augustus, removes and banishes him for brutality. If Herod could kill a generation of Judean children with impunity, what must Archelaus have done to incur the wrath of the emperor? Or perhaps it was a pragmatic decision on the emperor’s part, knowing that even the poorest, weakest, and most oppressed will eventually rise up.

Advent is a season when Christians celebrate the coming of the Christ-child, the earthly beginning to Emmanuel, God-with-us, and the short, intense journey that brings that child, now a man, to an abrupt end on the cross. But then there is Easter and resurrection; the unexpected turn of a tragedy become comedy, the ultimate trick on the Trickster, and a silent nod off-stage to where Job stands alone in the wings, with an amused shake of his head and a smile. There are innumerable crucifixions without a resurrection, but in this story, there is no resurrection without a crucifixion.

When lies become the norm we cherish the truth even more, and for us in this century, truth is found in facts. We want the gospels to be history, a medium we think we understand as a story that corresponds to the facts. But behind the facts lie assumptions, and assumptions are most often invisible to those who hold them and inaccessible to those who don’t. What is not mentioned in the gospels about Jesus may not have been known by the gospel writers, or was known, but thought so obvious that their concise narratives did not include it, or was known, but considered insignificant to the core of the story. Their assumptions are not our assumptions; the stories that result are strange to us and sometimes even inexplicable.

Albert Schweitzer devoted years to a search for the historical Jesus and finally concluded that “Each successive epoch found its own thoughts in Jesus,” because one typically “created him in accordance with one’s own character.” “There is,” Schweitzer said, “no historical task which so reveals someone’s true self as the writing of a Life of Jesus.”

Thus, there are multiple versions of Jesus in all ages, as Jaroslav Pelikan so lucidly illustrates in his Jesus Through the Centuries, a cultural history. “For each age,” he comments, “the life and teachings of Jesus represented an answer (or, more often, the answer) to the most fundamental questions of human existence and of human destiny, and it was to the figure of Jesus as set forth in the Gospels that those questions were addressed.” And we could add that people of faith, as well as those who profess no faith, nevertheless carry refracted images of Jesus in their minds that are often at odds with each other. We see Jesus as through a kaleidoscope rather than through a microscope. The gospels give us a collage, not a portrait.

The fragmentary glimpses we get of Jesus are not the result of inattention on the part of the eyewitnesses nor are they lapses in the discipline of the story. Rather, they are the best that people could do to reveal a figure so mysteriously complex and yet so transparently good, that no one close to him could ever say they knew him through and through.

Jesus was not an open book to those who knew him. The disciples were often confused and distraught by his words, drawing him aside to ask for the meaning of a parable or to clarify for them his differences with the religious authorities. Jesus rejoices that God has hidden His truths from the sophisticated and has opened them to those who learn best from actions and images.

We simplify the story of the nativity down to what we can carry without dropping all the other things that fill up our lives. In a creche, the animals form the background, their benign expressions of placid acceptance mirroring our own. Joseph stands to one side, proud but peripheral. The wise men, kneeling or standing, present their gifts with reverence. Mary and Jesus are front and center, the focal point of everything and the period to the exclamation mark of the star that stands above the stable. There is something so achingly touching about this, a child’s toys arranged just so to mimic the world she imagines. Add to this the innumerable Christmas plays in schools and churches acted out in front of proud but anxious parents, each play another means to build a bridge from an ancient culture to our own.

The question for Christians and other people of faith is how to tell this story, this coming-to-Earth story of divine kenosis, of an emptying out and pouring in of God become human. As the epigram suggests, a bridge implies an abyss, otherwise what is its purpose? In communication with one another, in telling the story yet again, we recognize the abyss to be the fact that we cannot clearly and completely express the truths we comprehend, nor can we be assured that our comprehension is correct. We are the ‘speaking animals’ whose verbal options are almost limitless, but by that very fact, we must often grope for the words to match the images we have in our heads.

From within our comfort zone, the Advent story is theologically safe, hermetically sealed, predictable in its results. It’s a ritual we cannot do without, yet it often bypasses the heart.

We need to recapture the ‘otherness,’ the very alien nature of this story of God become a human, a story that rings through history with tones both dark and bright. There are other gods who have appeared in human form, but none of them as a baby and none who stayed around to be murdered—and then rose again.

The thing that we must never forget, that if understood will disrupt our lives and break our complacency, is that nothing in the events of this story can be taken for granted. Joseph could have laughed off his dreams, Mary could have said no, the baby could have died before the age of five from diseases that take the lives of 15,000 per day of newborns in this world. The family seeking asylum in Egypt could have been turned away at the border, held for questioning, or simply murdered on the way.

People made choices without much to go on, save what they held in faith. As strange as those times and that culture may be to us, the common factor we may share if we wish is that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself and that from the foundation of the earth this has been a work of love.

Photo: Vincent Fleming, Unsplash.com

Leap and Stutter

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Piety makes for awkwardness, and where

Balance is not urgent, what one utters

May be puzzled and perfect, and we respect

Some scholars’ stutters. — Richard Wilbur, “Grace”

If there is one credo that I carry with me every day, it is that all that matters most is a matter of communication. Love, faith, hope, despair, being with someone and being apart from that one, speaking in all honesty and listening to others with a fierceness that defies obstacles—all of this is communication. And communication is, in its deepest and most profound sense, more than simply a transmission of information. It is communion.

One of the maxims of a psychology of communication is that we cannot not communicate. We’re always on, so to speak; we’re always sending out signals and we’re always receiving them, too, with varying degrees of awareness. Communication 101 says that we are not solely senders or receivers, but simultaneously senders and receivers. The warden in Cool Hand Luke was wrong when he sneeringly drawled at his prisoner (played by Paul Newman) that “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” No, there was communication between prisoner and warden; it’s just that one side of the dialectic refused to recognize as communication anything but abject subservience.

Communication and communion are based on trust—we don’t get anywhere without it. And the companions of trust are hunger, wonder, and yearning. Trust is first a verb; later, it can be a noun. The motion of someone who trusts is forward, out of oneself, a thrust outward from inside oneself. It can be a response in kind, it’s true, but the sort of trust that moves mountains and melts cold hearts is that which leaps. Trust is faith’s body.

In matters of the heart and in faith, we’re all amateurs, those who do it for the love of it. When we try to communicate with others across our self-imposed boundaries we are asking, in trust, for a certain latitude as we step into this new country. Like any traveler to a new place, we are all strangers, self-conscious and prone to mistakes, many of which we do not know we’ve committed until after they land in our midst, showering sparks and making the dogs bark. For communication to become communion, to go beyond information to intimacy, we need to recognize in the other the yearning to be understood. It sometimes gets disguised as bravado, an insouciance that covers insecurity.

With a desire to do right, to live right, to be right, we may cling to the old norms and practices, less out of understanding than to cover some weakness we might have overlooked. Trusting and leaping may seem almost ludicrous; we prefer to hedge our bets with the accustomed answers about the location of God (up and out there), our nature (inherently and seismically corrupt), and the authority of the church (incontestably the voice of God).

“Piety makes for awkwardness,” says the poet, Richard Wilbur,

“and where

Balance is not urgent, what one utters

May be puzzled and perfect, and we respect

Some scholars’ stutters.”

In grace, as in communion, we puzzle out words to each other that have the ring of authenticity, whatever they may lack in polish and certitude. Just as we might write to see what we think, so we may speak to learn what to say. “Where balance is not urgent” nobody will laugh if we fall, and though our piety may be awkward it becomes graceful as we practice it. “We write from aspiration and antagonism, as well as from experience,” Emerson mused. “We paint those qualities which we do not possess.”

As originators of messages our continued communication is only as clear as our ability to interpret and adapt to those signals which we receive in response from others. What we have given to others with sincerity may be returned in like manner, but there are no guarantees. Communion is a dance of memory trusting chance, and we dare not look at our feet.

“Now we aid and influence other people simply by being who we are,” says Richard Rohr, in Falling Upward. “Human integrity probably influences and moves people from potency to action more than anything else.” It may be that our most effective communication is simply when we are with each other, body and soul. There is a silence that is fertile, on the cusp of a feeling so deep that a word of comfort spoken will open the wellsprings of weeping.

How does this desire arise for communion? Gerard Manley Hopkins calls it the “dearest freshness deep down things,” as good a description of the Holy Spirit as I have found. “How can human beings speak of God?” wonders Barbara Brown Taylor in The Seeds of Heaven. “We do not do it well, that is for sure, but because we must somehow try, we tend to talk about what we cannot say in terms of what we can—that is, we tend to describe holy things by talking about ordinary things.” Metaphors become windows, a way to see through our walls to what lies beyond.

“So much talk of God has been punitive in focus over the centuries,” writes Mark Oakley in The Splash of Words, “a God out to take revenge on human depravity. It is surely time to start talking again, as the scriptures do, of a restorative God who takes it upon himself to uphold human dignity and asks us to join him. Although we have often begun with idolatry and ended in violence, for the Christian all must start in wonder and end in humility.”

Humility is essential because everything we can say about God is incomplete, bounded, simplistic. Ludwig Wittgenstein understood the limits of language better than most preachers: ‘That whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent’, he said. We don’t know how to pray, said St. Paul, but the Spirit prays for us in language that is beyond the spectrum of our understanding.

The intimate secret about God that has been known from all eternity is that Christ is the very Word of God, the ultimate metaphor for that whereof we cannot speak. For us, Christ is constantly being remade in the images we need in our time. Unlike us, he is capable of adapting for us so that he may meet us where we are. If we find ourselves on the road to Emmaus, brokenhearted and blinded by tears, he may appear alongside us, the eternal promise of the Word made flesh in space and time. Only in his disappearance do we finally see.

Thomas Merton says, “I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.”

Richard Wilbur, with a cheerful wink, assures us that:

“To be unchecked

Is needful then: choose, challenge,

jump, poise, run…

Nevertheless, the praiseful, graceful soldier

Shouldn’t be fired by his gun.”

So, let us “come boldly before the throne of God,” and in that spirit hold our communion with each other through trust. A certain exuberance is called for in the presence of corrosive cynicism. In a time of lies we hunger for the truths that set us free.

Photo: Nick Fewings, Unsplash.com

Practicing the Grace We Have Received

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Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? —Matthew 25:37 (NRSV)

When I took a group of students down to a homeless shelter in Washington, D.C. some years ago, I fell into a conversation with a young man who was living and working there. His father was a professor at Yale and this fellow had grown up in ease, if not luxury, and had gotten an Ivy League education for free. I wondered what kept him there, working day in and day out, never getting a word of thanks from those he helped. I wondered because I had just witnessed a homeless man, clutching his coat around him in the January chill, roundly curse out my acquaintance as he served him soup in the gathering shadows outside the row house on Euclid Street.

“Do they ever thank you?” I asked. Kevin stopped for a moment and thought, and then shrugged. “Not really,” he said. “Why do you ask?” He leaned forward to ladle soup into an outstretched bowl.

“Because I wonder what’s in it for you,” I said. “Why do you stay, considering the kind of upbringing you had? You could be anywhere else, doing whatever you want.”

“I am doing what I want,” he said. He frowned, puzzled. “It doesn’t matter whether they thank me or not.”

I persisted. “But you see the same people day after day. Nothing changes for them. Why do you keep at it?”

His answer was indistinct as he reached for a bowl to hand to the old woman in front of him. “Because they could be gods,” I thought I heard him say. Or perhaps he said, “Because they could be God’s.”

The story Jesus tells in Matthew 24 is about Judgment Day. All the nations are gathered in front of the Son of Man who sits upon his throne. He divides them up, some on his right side, some on his left. The writer calls those on the right side “sheep” and those on the left he calls “goats.” Those hearing the story must have understood the analogy because there is no explanation why sheep are preferred over goats as moral exemplars. Since we probably derive most of what we know about sheep and goats from this and other stories in the Gospels, we have to find the meaning for ourselves. And there are two things that are intriguing in this story.

The first is that the list of good actions taken by the sheep is repeated—once with approval by the king and again in puzzlement by the sheep-people. In fact, when we get to the goat part the list is again repeated, this time as actions not taken by the goats (to the disapproval of the king) and their anxious query: Tell us again when we didn’t do these things for you? The actions are important to the writer and to Jesus. Feeding the hungry and thirsty, taking in the stranger and clothing the refugee and the displaced persons, being with the sick and those forgotten in prison—these are the actions which separate the sheep from the goats.

This is what we are to do, all of us, from all the nations. Not just those from churches, mosques, and temples, but just people. They are designated not by religions but by nation-states and cultures. And what separates the nations is not creeds of beliefs or political ideologies or even economic prowess, but how well they take care of those pushed into the shadows and left behind.

The second thing that intrigues is the apparent blindness of both the sheep and the goats to their actions. Both are genuinely surprised at the judgments of the king. The sheep can’t remember doing anything of the sort and the goats are anxiously raking through their memories, trying to think how they could have overlooked something so obviously to their advantage. Both were unconscious of their actions and therein lies the meaning of this tale.

In intercultural communication studies there is a grid that shows the stages a person might go through as they grow aware of the complexity of communication. It is divided into four quadrants of communication competence.

The first is unconscious incompetence, the stage in which we are blithely unaware of our rampaging incompetence. We don’t even notice the trail of missed cues, trampled symbols, and outright weirdness on our part. Somehow, through the grace of God and the graciousness of others, we are spared the humiliation of being called out in public for our sins of commission and omission, and we live to err another day.

But then someone might kindly take us aside and clue us in to what we’ve missed and now, embarrassed but determined, we follow the actions of others like a cat on a laser-pointer. We are focused and aware, but we still make mistakes that can only be lived through and learned from. We are consciously incompetent.

The third phase comes through practice, patience, and imagination as we become consciously competent in our communication with others. While our actions still demand our attention, we have the experience and the confidence to handle most situations that come our way.

In the final phase, rare but not impossible to attain, we are unconsciously competent. We have watched, listened, followed, and learned to the point where we no longer have to decide every action. The situation gives rise to our response. We act in the right way at the right time for the right reason and with the right result. It is so much a part of us that others may describe it as our ‘second nature.’

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This is what Aristotle called virtue, the habit of choosing the right action between the extremes of excess and deficiency. Finding the sweet spot between them is neither formulaic nor precise, he said. Ethics is not like mathematics and we should recognize this for ourselves and others. Cut some slack, he said, this kind of thing takes a lot of practice. It’s not enough to self-consciously act appropriately one time and feel we’ve done our duty, for “one swallow does not a summer make.”

This is what Confucianism and Taoism call wu wei, “action-less action,” that which requires no effort on our part because we have practiced. The body and muscles retain memory, just as does our conscience. It is what Jesus calls “walking in the Way.” Aristotle thought it would be best if we started early in life on this and Hebrew sages encouraged parents to train up their children in the way they should go and when they were old (adults) they would not depart from it.

We do depart from it, of course, and quite frequently. Just as the sheep can learn the unconscious competence of virtue through practice, the goats can learn the unconscious competence of vice in the same way. This is what flares up into deadly force between people and roars up into wars. It’s what turns economic policy into weapons against the poor and cuts off those who struggle to speak.

The habits of a lifetime become our character. None of us succeed at this without effort; all of us are capable of behavior that is grace-filled.

Photo: Pixabay, Graphic: Barry Casey

We Are Our Communication

“Every part of a system is so related to its fellow parts that a change in one part will cause a change in all of them and in the total system. That is, a system behaves not as a simple composite of independent elements, but coherently and as an inseparable whole.”

These dispassionate words may not come to mind when we see the shelling in Gaza or watch in horror the videos of what the Islamic State is doing to Christians in Mosul. But they give us a way to deal with these extremes and to understand them.

The quote is from Pragmatics of Human Communication (1967) by Paul Watzlawick, Janet Beavin, and Don Jackson, who were three of the principal researchers at the Mental Research Institute of Palo Alto in the late 60s and early 70s. The pioneering work that they did, trying to understand the connections between communication and human behavior, was an interdisciplinary venture that spanned psychopathology, mathematics, literature, systems theory, and communication studies. They wanted to know how communication as an interactional process affected our behavior.

Starting from the axiom that “all behavior is communication and one cannot not communicate,” they arrived at the conclusion that everything we do when we communicate with each other affects all our communication processes and cannot be separated out. Put simply, to say that the actions of person A causes the behavior of person B ignores the relation of B to A and the effect B may have on A’s subsequent reactions.

Like it or not, they seem to be saying, we’re all in this together. Every time Hamas fires a rocket at an Israeli settlement it is communicating; with the inevitable reciprocation on Gazan villages there is a deadly communication process in place that becomes a feedback loop. Every action results in a reaction which provokes a new action ad infinitum.

Furthermore, if we isolate an action in order to find its cause—and thus to blame—we miss the wider context in which that action takes place. We discover that actions happen in a context and that that context occurs within a relationship between people and groups. Focusing on the particular actions and not on the relationship between the parts of this system results in us missing the meaning of the actions that take place.

An example given by the authors is the difference between my foot kicking a stone and me kicking a dog. When my foot hits the stone it will move and eventually come to rest again. But if I kick the dog it may jump up and bite me. The kick has become not simply energy but information; my behavior has communicated something which the dog, rightfully so, interprets as an attack and responds accordingly. A kick is not just a kick within a relationship: it sends a message that grew out of the relationship prior to the kick and will affect responses to the kick.

As I read news reports of the actions of ISIS/Islamic State, watched videos, and read the comments of readers and viewers I could feel a tension building in me. I could imagine the desperation of the thousands trapped on Sinjar Mountain, the children dying from thirst and exhaustion. And I wanted to obliterate the militants surrounding them on the plains below. It wasn’t enough that American pilots drop supplies to the victims: I wanted to see the bodies of those fighters after the bombs tore through them. I wanted video of them calling out for help as they bled to death.

And then a curious but inevitable thing happened. As the tension in me built the world divided up neatly into right and wrong, black and white, us and them. Crush them all! Barbarians! Stomp their lives out! So they’re killing Christians and ethnic minorities? Damn Muslims!

In a flash I had gone from righteous indignation to murderous wrath, from a generalized tolerance for other religions to a Crusade mentality against all Muslims. From the particular to the general. Kill ’em all and let God sort it out later.

It got even worse when I stumbled across a website that is apparently run by Christians who believe Islam is Satanic. Their comments were raw hatred, all the visceral fear and fury of those who are absolutely certain that their enemy is the Devil and they are on the side of the angels. And these were self-confessed Christians. In the words of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, I looked from pigs to men and from men to pigs, and already I could not tell the difference. And that’s when I remembered Paul Watzlawick and his pragmatics of human communication.

I realized I was confronted with a moral dilemma that I couldn’t face—the slaughter of the innocents. I was helpless to do anything except inwardly rail against the perpetrators. The situation was too complex for me to handle, so I simplified it. I had divided my perceptual world in two: Christians and Muslims. But of course it’s much more nuanced than that. It’s Sunni against Shiite, Kurdish against Iraqis, caliphate against sovereign states, America against rebel forces, economic interests against religious and political ideologies, men against women and children, hate-filled Christian extremists against fanatical Islamic jihadists.

But even that was still too simple, a binary response to something multi-faceted and entangled. I recalled something I’d read years ago by William Irwin Thompson, a cultural historian and philosopher: “We become the thing we hate,” he said. And I remembered, too, how easily we are manipulated by media images, and how adept political and military groups have become at the propaganda arts. Our instant and ubiquitous media draws us all across the lines in the sand. By watching we become changed—and not for the better. All those Christian groups glued to their YouTube videos, who thought Hamas and Islamic State would be in our streets next week unless we nuked them, would be more likely to turn on their neighborhood mosque or to beat up someone wearing a hijab on the Metro.

I am not at all settled on this. I could visualize myself, with the best intentions, running out into no mans land with my hands out, imploring both sides to cease fire, and getting shot before I could make my eloquent statement. Where am I on the non-violence idea? Generally for it, from the safety of my Maryland suburb. Children in Mosul were being beheaded, said a Chaldean-American activist on CNN. Is that true? I shudder to think so, and yet my children have their heads on their shoulders in the sweet summer evening air. Am I to feel guilt because we are safe, our home has not been bombed, my wife and daughter have not been raped? Guilt of that sort doesn’t seem productive and yet my heart can feel the terror and the blind rage and the sheer relief of having survived an attack, all in my imagination.

Hobbes thought the world was a place of constant terror, a life that was, as he famously put it, ‘nasty, brutish, and short.’ Kant was steadfast against lying and murder, for any reason, and Aristotle counseled moderation in all things. Courage and prudence were cardinal virtues that didn’t need to be moderated; how could you be too courageous or too prudent? Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that Christian exemplar of integrity and ethics, said, ‘When a horse is running wild in the street, you stop the horse.’ There is a time for words and a time for action, he seemed to be saying. Pacifist that I am would I hesitate to shoot someone about to murder women and children? The Tao cautions that violence should be the absolute last resort, and be discharged with sorrow and not with triumph.

What is becoming clearer to me is that we are, all of us in this tortured, dark, yet beautiful world, bound to one another. The death of one—any one—impoverishes all of us. This, I am convinced, is not New Age ignorance disguised as bliss. It is, rather, part of the virtues of humility and courage that Jesus and others exemplified. We cannot not communicate. All that we are, says the Dhammapada, is a result of what we have thought. Our revolution begins from the inside—and affects the world.

Every Breath We Take

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John 1:1 (NRSV)

According to the Gospel of John the world begins with the Word. Communication requires two, not just one. The Tao Te Ching, the book of wisdom in Taoism, notes that:

The Tao gives birth to One
One gives birth to Two
Two gives birth to Three
Three gives birth to all things

In the astonishing clarity of the prologue to the gospel the writer gives us three phrases that build in intensity, each one leaping farther into the unknown.

“In the beginning was the Word.”

Not simply a word, but the Word. It’s a Word that is mysterious, yet so encompassing that the singular article exists to create the One that is all and communes with all.

But lest we think that this Word is alone, there is from the beginning a simple preposition, “with,” that evokes the image of relationship.

“And the Word was with God.”

This is not just proximity, an accident of spatial congruence that creates a false sense of belonging. To be with someone implies a confluence, a commingling, a relationship that continues even when the two are separated. “Are you with someone?” we ask the stranger at a party or a gathering. ‘Yes,’ comes the reply, ‘I’m just waiting for my friend.’ “And the Word was with God.”

Then comes the third phrase that jolts us with its audacity.

“And the Word was God.”

Not only is the Word with God, the Word is God. And it implies that the eternal One creates out of desire: it takes two to tango, it takes two to communicate. Bruce Springsteen and the Book of Proverbs say, ‘Two hearts are better than one.’

Everything begins with communication, with the Word. Communication gives rise to communion with the other, the one to whom we turn, without whom we are but silence beating the air, the sound of one hand clapping, a tree falling forever in a forest born before sound and light.

Everything and everyone begins with the Word; not just a word but the Word, and the Word is life and light and love. It brings us into being for each other, for without each other we are simply syllables looking for completion. Our lives against the vastness of the light of the stars are so fragile that we are drawn to each other in order to reflect God’s glory to each other.

The Word was and is God and thus is there from the beginning. The beginning is not just the beginning of us or of our glorious, fragile world, but a beginning of which we cannot conceive because we have no way of grasping how time can expand in all directions at once. We think in linear fashion: front to back, up and down, left to right, start to finish, but this beginning takes us back and back until, gasping, we are drawn in through the first word to some place infinitely beyond the beginning point.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” That is a description of communication in action, of communion in process. That Word creates community within itself, and every time we open our mouths to speak we take on the risk to become one with that community, a community that exists within us and without which we are not complete. But as Thomas Merton reminds us, “The deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, beyond speech, beyond concept.” The Word draws us into communion.

Communion is that possibility that exists between people—the eternal possibility—that we may actually come to understand one another, the first step toward loving another. In all our faltering attempts at communication, with every word that rises up from within us, that possibility is there. It is not yet embodied, not yet made flesh until breathed out in our words, but it is there. So in every breath we take—no matter what the word is—in that breath not yet become a word lies the hope for true understanding between you and I. Between Sunni and Shiite, Protestant and Catholic, homophobic and gay, progressive and conservative, man and woman, Israeli and Palestinian, Tutsi and Hutu, sex worker and client, border guard and immigrant.

Once upon a time God came to this earth; the Word became flesh and lived here with us. Now the Word continues in our communion with one another. The infinite possibility for peace is literally within us at every moment if we will imagine our words to be the Word that came into the world to bring us light.

“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.”

Exemplary

“Throughout history the exemplary teacher has never been just an instructor in a subject; he is nearly always its living advertisement.”  Michael Dirda, Book by Book


I leapt at this phrase when I first read it in Dirda’s spry little ‘commonplace’ notebook.  It fit my Puritan work ethic and it assuaged the residual guilt that plagues most teachers. This could be the answer to that recurrent nightmare, the one where we are exposed by our students as imposters, pipelines simply carrying the information, subject to any crank that wants to interrupt the flow with a question.
  
Of course, the analogy to the teacher as advertisement is not without its problems. Advertisements are there solely to sell us stuff that we don’t want and certainly don’t need. Advertisements lie—that is their modus operandi—and they are almost always flogging trivial stuff like mouthwash, Doritos, and Lincoln Navigators. Advertisements clog the airwaves, occupy every visible surface, and reduce the wisdom of the world to slogans. Teachers are not advertisements. 

But there’s another way to regard this. Years ago cultural critic and media theorist James W. Carey wrote a seminal essay in which he distinguished two historical views on communication. One was the transmission model in which communication functions to loft messages long distances and exercise power over others from afar. It works well when we text message our friends or fire a missile or take out an ad in the Washington Post. It is at work when we channel the textbook in our classes or lecture without regard for where the shells we lob are landing. 

The other form of communication is ancient; it predates literacy and springs from the impulse to commune with others. It gathers in rather than disseminates, pulls us into a circle of stories around the fire instead of blasting the masses, and works from the inside to the outside. Symbolic, ritualized, it is the way a society defines, maintains, and sustains itself. It is thought embedded in action, the Word made flesh. The message is not simply carried in the shell of the advertisement: it is rather—to ruffle McLuhan’s hair—the message as the medium.

Thus, when we imagine ourselves professing before our classes, do we see ourselves as these exemplary sages who at the very least convey an enthusiasm for the subject that can enthrall even the back rows? Probably not, and rightly so.

The best teachers among us wear the mantle lightly. They seem innocent of it, as unconscious as breathing. When complimented they may be startled or slightly embarrassed or just a bit uncomfortable. This hints at the idea that teaching well is not a technique (from tekhne, ‘art or craft’) applied from the outside but the result over time of allowing our natural curiosity to partner with our desire for communion with others.  When we tell the stories around our particular fires with enthusiasm (from en theos, ‘in god’), we transcend our egos if only for a moment. We lose the weight of being ‘the teacher’ and we truly ‘profess’ what we know and love. 

This “innocence” is not something we can strive for, however. It arrives unannounced, a blessed byproduct of knowledge, love for the subject, familiarity with the process, and experience in handling groups of students.  In those moments we become the embodiment of what we say, a living word. On a cold Monday morning we can be so lucky.