Aloneness and Chosenness

”Amazement is the thing. / Not love, but the astonishment of loving.” — Alastair Reid1

Photo: Arif Wahid, Unsplash.com

With the possible exception of Judas Iscariot, there are few figures close to Jesus more tragic than his cousin, John. Before his birth his destiny was promised, during his life his focus on the Judgment was singular, and before his death his aloneness was excruciating.

Early on, he had been the very picture of a prophet of old, a mouthful of fire and an ax in hand to cut down these desiccated trees of Israel. But he’d been jolted with joy when baptizing Jesus. The man came up from the dirty stream aglow, his face lifted to the heavens, hearing something beyond the audible spectrum of the people around him.

John hadn’t seen him since that day at the Jordan River, but it was hard to miss his influence. The news of Jesus had spread through the region as his healings became known. Even after some of John’s disciples had gone with Jesus, John was not discouraged. He was a forerunner, an Elijah to the Messiah, the one who would prepare the way for the Way, the Truth, and the Life. While Jesus was out sowing the seeds of the kingdom up and down the country, from Galilee to Jerusalem, John was at the river baptizing. Judgment from one, forgiveness from the other. But that was then.

“Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another (Matt. 11:2,3)?’”

It is impossible to hide the disappointment in that question. It is the cry of those who have thrown in their lot with every messianic figure throughout history. Are you the one? Are you really? The wheels of history turn slowly and where they stop can’t be known beforehand, only hoped for. It is a question that had buzzed in John’s head for weeks, but he’d never breathed it out loud until now.

He did have occasional visitors in Herod’s dank prison, disciples from the days when they were all encamped in the wilderness together. They brought him reports of Jesus, his signs and wonders, each one a down payment on the kingdom John insisted was coming.

In those long days he was like a man adrift at sea who hears the breakers on a hidden shore at night: what lay ahead was either death or deliverance.

We cannot know what was in his mind toward the end, but we might imagine. He was at once Everyman and yet unique, as we all are. What might we think and feel in that place? How would we face our death or our deliverance? Both are certain—either one will happen or the other—and the numinous anticipation of each arrives with every building wave. It’s the breaking wave that is uncertain: we are tossed without control. Beyond the breakers, on the shore, lies our fate, and we are released into it only after a churning downside-up dragging across the reefs of our doubts and fears.

***

In his aloneness, John considers: had he been wrong about Jesus? From his childhood (miraculous in itself as his mother never tired of reminding him) he had been taught that his kinsman would bring Yahweh to the world. All nations would stream to Jerusalem on highways leveled, widened, and straightened. All creation would sing the praises of the Creator. Righteousness would rule, peace would prevail, the lion and the lamb would lie down together.

But before all that would come Judgement, the cleansing by fire of a people to be presented as pure before the Lord. John would be Isaiah’s echo, “Prepare a way for the Lord; clear a straight path for him.” He kept it simple when he emerged from the hills and erupted into the wilderness. He had a message that cut like a sword across the generations, dividing one from another: “Repent; for the kingdom of Heaven is upon you!” And the people came, at first in ones and twos, and then by the hundreds, panting in the heat and clambering over the rocks down to the stream that gushed in the spring season and slowed and pooled in the summer. “What should we do?” they cried as they pressed together along the banks of the stream. “Repent of your sins!” he had roared.

When the Pharisees and Sadducees had shown up, gathering their robes about them, demanding baptism, he had called them on it. Their hypocrisy was like a blackness in front of his eyes; he could hardly bear the sight of them. “You vipers brood!” he had hissed. “Who warned you to escape from the coming retribution?” They were all words and theories, no action. They were trees without fruit, they were bastard children claiming a heritage they did not deserve. God could raise up children out of the stones in the river that would be more faithful to their Creator than these snakes and frogs. “I baptize with water, but there is one coming after me who will baptize with the Spirit and with fire.”

And then Jesus arrived at the Jordan from Galilee, asking to be baptized. John demurred, drawing back, but Jesus gently insisted. And so he had plunged him under and seen him rise, water cascading down his back, his hair wet and clinging to his shoulders. After the voice, he had turned toward the wilderness, not toward Jerusalem, and John had shuddered for knowing what lay ahead of him in that vast and cave-pocked landscape. He knew the whispers and voices that the wind carried, the weight of heat under the bronzed sky, and the cold solitude of the nights.

They were both chosen, both alone, even in the midst of crowds. After years alone and then years with others who, like him, agreed to a community of few words, the incessant chatter of the people was like the swarming of bees for John. Jesus seemed to welcome the crowds around him. They pressed up against him on every side, dancing in front of him like children skipping backwards. He smiled, touched them, looked in their eyes, tousled their hair. John, hearing of this from his disciples, could only shake his head in admiration.

***

So when John’s disciples come to Jesus with the question, “Are you the one?” Jesus does not answer at first. He bows his head; those closest to him see that his eyes are closed, and his mouth is set in a hard, straight line. He begins to speak, his voice a quaver at first but steadying as he raises his head.

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind recover their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are clean, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, the poor are hearing the good news . . .” He looks around at the circle of faces before him and his eyes blur with tears. All of the power he feels when he touches someone to heal them, all the assurance he receives that he is on the right path, all the pain he absorbs from those who are frightened, alone, hanging by a thread—all of that thickens his sight. There is a ringing in his ears, and he drops his head. He gasps and takes a step back; it is as if he feels a sword thrust in his side. He jerks upright, then, and cries, “And happy is the man who does not find me a stumbling-block.”

Silently, the messengers nod and turn to leave. Jesus looks after them for a long moment. He takes a step forward, as if he would call them back. Suddenly, he is angry. “When you came out to the wilderness looking for John, what did you expect to see?” he exclaims vehemently. “Silks and satins? Only people in palaces wear that!” He almost spits the words. “What then? A prophet? Yes, a prophet, but so much more.” Now he is pacing, his fists clenched. “I tell you this: never has a mother’s son been born who is greater than John, and yet even the least in the kingdom of Heaven is greater than he!”

***

There is more. Jesus rages at the indecisiveness of the people, at their shallow attitudes. What do you want? he cries. You’re like children who can’t make up their minds. We pipe, but you don’t dance. We mourn, but you won’t cry. John doesn’t eat or drink and you think he’s crazy. I come along eating and drinking, and you call me a glutton who hangs around with sinners and tax-collectors!

And most enigmatically, “Ever since the coming of John the Baptist the kingdom of Heaven has been subjected to violence and violent men are seizing it.”

Jesus is nothing if not a realist. He’s not seduced by our flattery nor discouraged by our ignorance. Neither will he explain everything he says, and if we are perplexed or discomfited by that, he does not expect it should prevent us from following him.

And what are we waiting for? Jesus proclaimed the kingdom to be within us and surrounding us. Evidence for this comes through acting on it in our own time and place. Is he the One or should we look for another? “God’s wisdom is proved right by its results (Matt. 11:19).” Each of us, alone and chosen, creates the kingdom together.

John, lying awake in the night, hears the hurrying footsteps toward his cell and stands to his feet. Though the violent are seizing the kingdom, he knows who is the One.

  1. Reid, Alastair. “Growing, Flying, Happening. Quoted in Michael Mayne. This Sunrise of Wonder. Cleveland, TN: Parson’s Porch Books, 2012.

Small Acts of Courage

”. . . and the dream outlasts/Death, and the dreamer will never die.”1

Photo: Jehyun Sung, Unsplash.com

What is fearful is usually evil, says Aristotle. We fear poverty, disrepute, disease, being friendless, death. But a courageous person, Aristotle continues, is not concerned with all of these. Some things are worse than others, and some things are more to be feared than others. “A man who fears disrepute is decent and has a sense of shame, a man who does not fear it is shameless.”2 A person’s character was reflected in his or her deeds and one’s deeds were the legacy that survived one’s death. Courage in battle was most often praised, for it stood against the natural fear of danger and of death. As a veteran himself, Aristotle knew what it took to stand one’s ground when instincts of self-preservation fought with virtue.

Even more to be admired was the person who displayed courage when caught up in unexpected danger. “It is a mark of even greater courage to be fearless and unruffled when suddenly faced with a terrifying situation than when the danger is clear beforehand.” When we have time to prepare, we may resolve to be courageous—think of the men in transport ships approaching the coast of Normandy on D-Day. But what of those suddenly caught in an ambush when out on patrol? “When we see what is coming, we can make a choice,” notes Aristotle, “based on calculation and guided by reason, but when a situation arises suddenly our actions are determined by our characteristics.”

Since courage displayed is the result of virtue practiced, those who display it when startled have courage at the core of their being. But whether anticipated or arising in the moment, courage is noble and elevates the soul.

***

It is winter and Jesus is sowing discord in the temple precincts. Walking in Solomon’s Cloister with the disciples, he is surrounded by a group of surly priests who demand to know who he thinks he is. “If you are the Messiah say so plainly.” And Jesus says something like, I already have but you don’t believe. My actions are my credentials. You don’t believe because you are not one of mine. If you were, you would know that nobody can snatch my own from me because my Father and I are one.

If they’d had guns the safeties would have clicked off. As it is, they pick up rocks. You have to work with what you’ve got. Jesus shrugs and asks for which of the good deeds God has done through him are they going to stone him? Not for any of that, they say, but for you claiming to be a god. Well, says Jesus, doesn’t your scripture say you are gods? Gods are people who have received the word of God—and you can’t set aside Scripture. So why charge me with blasphemy, a person sent into the world by God, because I say I am God’s son?

The disciples are watching this verbal ping-pong with increasing dread. And Jesus throws a parting shot: If you don’t believe what I say at least believe what I do, that God is in me and I am in God. Time to go, fellas. “This provoked them to one more attempt to seize him. But he escaped from their clutches (John 10:39).”

***

Jesus and the disciples are across the Jordan, back where John first baptized Jesus. The crowds that come out to see him there recall that while John hadn’t done anything miraculous, everything he’d said about Jesus had come true. Among other things, John had been certain that Jesus was “God’s Chosen One,” and it sure looked like it, given all the people he had healed and the demons driven out and sight restored to the blind.

People were still talking about Jesus healing the man who was born blind. It was the general belief that something that unlucky had to be assigned blame. “Who sinned,” the disciples asked, “this man or his parents?” Neither one, said Jesus. This is an opportunity to show God’s power in healing him. So he spit on the ground and made a paste of the mud and put it on the fellow’s eyes and told him to go wash it off in the pool at Siloam. The man went and washed and when he came back he could see. But he didn’t see Jesus because Jesus had gone, leaving one grateful man awash in controversy. It can’t be him, said his neighbors. Must be someone who looks like him. Who healed you, they ask? Jesus did it, said the man. Where is he? I don’t know, he answered.

Later, the Pharisees hauled him up for questioning because Jesus healed him on the Sabbath. Who did this to you, they demanded. So he ran through the story again, just the facts: I was blind, Jesus put mud on my eyes and told me to wash. I did and now I can see. That set them off again. The nub of the argument was that the Sabbath commandment had been shattered, thus the healing was not of God. Others felt that the very rarity of the event pointed to a divine intervention. There was also a strong feeling in certain quarters that the man was lying about being born blind. Get his parents in here, they snarled. Is this your son? Was he really born blind? Don’t ask us, they snapped. He can answer for himself. Yes, he was born blind and no, we don’t know how he was healed. They were afraid of being expelled from the synagogue.

So they summoned the man again, swore him to tell the truth before God, and denounced Jesus as a sinner. I don’t know about that, retorted the fellow. All I know is that I was blind and now I see. Can’t have been that easy, they cried. There was some gnashing of teeth. What did he do to you? You really want me to go through it all again, asked the man? You want to be his disciples too?

It got ugly. You’re his disciple, they said. We follow Moses and we know God spoke to Moses. But we don’t know where this one came from. Astonishing, said the man, because since time began no one born blind has gained their sight. If he wasn’t from God, how could this have happened? Don’t be giving us lessons, they yelled. Flecks of foam appeared at the corners of their mouths. You—born and bred in sin! And they threw him out of the synagogue.

Later, Jesus found him and said, “Do you have faith in the Son of Man?” Tell me who he is, said the man. You’re looking at him, said Jesus. “Lord, I believe, he said, and bowed before him.”

All of this was prologue. The fear the authorities held of Jesus was that his power and charisma would inflame the people; it meant they watched his every move.

***

Lazarus has died. In fact, he’s been dead for four days, and in the meantime Jesus has dawdled. The word had come that Lazarus was deathly ill; it was his sister Martha who sent it from the village of Bethany, two miles from Jerusalem. Blithely, it seemed, Jesus brushed it aside. “This sickness will not end in death,” he said, but it did. Was he naive or just in denial? This has come about, said Jesus, so that God can be glorified. The disciples were appalled. They knew he loved Lazarus and his sisters, but he deliberately stayed in place for two more days, ensuring that Lazarus would be good and dead.

Let’s go down there, said Jesus, back to Judea. Are you serious? asked the disciples incredulously. Last time we were there you were almost killed. Twice, in fact. We doubt they’ve forgotten, and they sure haven’t forgiven. We must work while there’s light, he said. And then he added, almost as an afterthought: “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I shall go and wake him.” Ah well, perhaps we were wrong, said the disciples, and Lazarus is sleeping it off. He’ll recover, then?

But Jesus said plainly, “Lazarus is dead.” He went on to say that he was glad it turned out this way because it would be good for their faith, Lazarus being dead and all. Then they understood what a high-wire act this was. It was a trap. He—and they—would be tracked, arrested, and killed. Jesus would no more avoid this than the priests and their spies could refrain from catching him out. After the healing of the blind man—and the stir that caused—“waking” Lazarus would be the last straw. “But let us go to him,” said Jesus.

All the signs pointed to an early and violent death for Jesus—and probably for those most closely gathered around him. His actions posed a threat to the whole nation, as the priests tried to keep the fragile peace with the Romans. He had the power to incite the people. What if he acted on it? Even if he didn’t seize power the people might rise up in his name. It was a risk that could not be tolerated. Better the death of one than the end of the nation and the temple.

It was the raising of Lazarus that set the final plot in motion to bring Jesus down. While many who came to console Mary and Martha found their faith in Jesus after seeing Lazarus raised, others went directly to the priests and Pharisees to report the clear and present danger of Jesus. “So from that day on they plotted his death (John 11:53).”

***

Thomas, the Twin (early Christian legend has it that he had a twin sister, Lydia), we usually characterize as the doubter, the one who holds out for tangible evidence of the bodily reality of Jesus, post-resurrection. Thomas is in direct contrast to Peter. Where Peter is impetuous, Thomas is deliberate. Where Peter blurts out whatever surfaces in his mind, Thomas is reticent. Peter is all in for what is in front of him, Thomas hangs back. Not easily fooled, he is fully committed once he is moved by love.

Does doubt corrode trust? It might, in certain circumstances. It might also be a clearing out of the underbrush of weak notions in preparation for the planting of the stronger oaks of faith.

Thomas speaks three times in the New Testament. Twice, he has questions about Jesus. The third time, he rallies the disciples to follow Jesus to Bethany. ‘Let us also go,” he says, “that we may die with him (John 11: 16).’”

Sometimes courage mounts the ramparts in defiance of incoming fire. Sometimes it forges alliances to stand up to tyrants. Sometimes it refuses to betray the principles of a nation in exchange for the passing praise of the corrupt and the powerful. And sometimes we see it in the set of a man’s shoulders and the lifting of the head: knowing the danger, counting the cost, he strides out anyway.

  1. Thomas, R. S. “Circles.” In Collected Poems 1945-1990. London: Orion House, 1993, 245.
  2. Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by Martin Ostwald. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1999, 69.

Faith at the ‘Between’ Places

“We are beginning to see

now it is matter is the scaffolding

of spirit; that the poem emerges

from morphemes and phonemes; that

as form in sculpture is the prisoner

of the hard rock, so in everyday life

it is the plain facts and natural happenings

that conceal God and reveal him to us

little by little under the mind’s tooling.” — R. S. Thomas, from “Emerging

NeonWoods:beschte-photography-1058069-unsplash

“Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray/from the straight road and woke to find myself/alone in a dark wood.” So said Dante, and so echoed I, if not in word, then in experience. But Dante woke to find himself there; I stumbled into it with my eyes wide open. Dante had his Virgil—and his Beatrice—to guide him through what lay ahead. I had Rainer Rilke, Jurgen Moltmann, the Gospels, and U2.

With my life at a standstill, trying to write a dissertation for a degree I wasn’t at all sure I would have the chance to use, I woke to who I was — and wished I could sleep again. There is much about our selves that we sense is just behind us, but we’re too afraid to look. There is still more that we don’t know until a fissure opens and we fall into the depths. Once there, every shadow is menacing, every sound unnerving, every thought doubling back on itself in an endless loop. We wonder if we were ever who we thought we were, and we are sure that everyone sees us more starkly and completely than we see ourselves.

Trying to write a dissertation about hope and suffering and the mystery of evil when one has little hope becomes an ordinance of humility. The suffering we cause, when named and owned, is first a fire that sucks up all the air, and then a cleansing flame that scours away our pretense.

Down in the depths, there is nothing to be gained by plugging in the formulae that others assure us we will need for peace of heart. What is needed is clarity, a fierce honesty that stops down the aperture of our soul to a brilliant point of light.

***

I visited my father once when he was working in research for a major defense contractor. He asked if I’d like to experience a sensory deprivation chamber. He promised to let me out after a few minutes since I would have no sense of the passage of time. That was a darkness that seemed to atomize my body. Although I could touch my hand, I could not see it no matter how close I held it to my eyes. And although I shouted as loudly as I could there was absolutely no sound. None. It was like a mini-death, but I felt no panic, only a pang of loss as if I could no longer remember my name or my face.

***

When we long for the presence of God, of a word we can hold in front of us like a candle, we feel the limits of our faith. How is it, as Christian Wiman ruefully admits in My Bright Abyss, that he can wake up as a Christian and go to bed an atheist? Why should we expect, as people of faith, that the path before us will be cleared of all obstacles before we touch a foot upon it? Why do we imagine that our faith in that which is eternal will be satisfied once for all? Why do we expect that the flame that is lit between ourselves and the Spirit will burn steadily from that moment onward?

Rilke was there with his angels, those terrifying angels, and the grandeur he uncovered in the spaces between prayers. He gave syllables to the breath within me that could just utter the name of God without choking up. I finished the dissertation in due course, defended it, and reinvented myself. I began to see hope in the crucified God and to turn my face toward the garden of the resurrection.

“It is not that he can’t speak:

who created languages

but God? Nor that he won’t;

to say that is to imply

malice. It is just that

he doesn’t, or does so at times

when we are not listening, in

ways we have yet to recognize

as speech.”

There are days when we put on the brave face and speak of faith to others and pray that they don’t see the desperation in our eyes. Doubt and faith journey together; when one falls behind the other pauses to wait patiently. Thomas became my patron saint, I his twin brother. When he exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” he had seen through the familiar figure of Jesus to the God within. I wondered if I could see that God in the pale and fastidious Jesus of religious media.

“Christian faith teaches that the One whom we are to love most is the one whom we can never fully possess,” writes Mark Oakley in The Splash of Words. “It means that our faith’s language will be inevitably infused with desire, ache, and search. The One we long for most finally eludes us.”

I learned that faith grows in the ‘between’ places and that if I could not bear the potted version that provided contentment for many, that God would generously, with patience and good humor, meet me where I stood, defiant but uncertain.

Oakley says, “we are not seeking relevance but resonance — not the transient ideas of today that can convince for a time but the truths that address the deepest longings of a human life and a fragile world.” Our faith weakens, “when we think we somehow have captured God or contain God. This is when certainty more than doubt becomes the opposite of faith.”

“But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. . .”

Someone said—perhaps Rumi—that every morning we may say, “Now I begin!” If we can believe it, God starts anew with us every moment; each breath may be our untainted first. Because we carry our memories and our guilt with us, and because we are creatures of time, we think in linear fashion: first this must happen, then that, and finally, this will be the result. God, unbounded and beyond all constraints of time, sees us as we were, and are, and shall be evermore in every moment.

“As a Christian,” Oakley says, “I believe that God has given us all a gift. It is our being. God asks for a gift in return—our becoming, who we become with our being. Because our gift back to God is lifelong and continually shifting and changing, it means that any language that is to be true to this spiritual adventure of being alive needs equally to resist closure, to protest at black and white conclusions and fixed meanings.”

We are unfinished beings, mercifully limited by space and time, and blessed with curiosity and imagination. If we believe that the One who started this good work in us will continue in our renewing, perhaps we will have the courage to see beyond the dark wood.

Poem selections are, respectively, “Emerging” and “Nuclear,” by R. S. Thomas, in Collected Poems: 1945-1990.

Photo: Beschte Photography, Unsplash.com