In the Foothills of Mount Purgatory

Photo: Louis Hansel, Unsplash

“Horrible was the nature of my sins,

but boundless mercy stretches out its arms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“Horrible was the nature of my sins,

but boundless mercy stretches out its arms

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

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

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

for Everlasting Love may still return,

if hope reveals the slightest hint of green.”3

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Wedding Homily

Photo: Drahomir Posteby, Unsplash

Author’s Note: I gave the following homily at the wedding of two young friends on September 21, 2019. It is shared in the hopes that its themes will strike a common chord for its readers.

A wedding ceremony is a kind of time machine, allowing us to move back in time through memory and forward in hope. For those who are married, it reminds us of those months and moments leading up to the day, when we were ricocheting between hope, desire, and anxiety. For those who are engaged, it’s a time to learn by observation. For all of us, it’s a time to rejoice for our soon-to-be-married friends.

And for you two, it’s a time to do both — look back in memory and forward in hope. You’ve been together for five years, some of that time separated by a continent. You know something about long-distance relationships. You’ve weathered some things that most couples don’t go through for many years yet to come. The phrase “in sickness and in health” means a lot more to you now than it might have five years ago. “For richer or for poorer” — that’s still a work in progress.

This marriage thing is one of the most wondrous aspects of being human. Consider: people born thousands of miles apart and even years apart — complete strangers — make their paths in their own ways that eventually lead them to each other. Along the way, there are side trails, loops, reversals, ascensions, and descents. It’s never a straight line to an inevitable finish. For most of us, the one we marry is our discovery, our wonderful, amazing, unexpected surprise that somehow seems like it was meant to be all along.

In Genesis, God says, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” Plato told a story of human origins and said, “we used to be complete in our original nature, and now ‘love’ is the name for our pursuit of wholeness, for our desire to be complete.” And Aristotle called us social animals, incomplete without one another.

Communication theories are built on the premise that most of our written, spoken, and nonverbal messages are directed to others. We wouldn’t know who we are if it were not for the responses we get back from other people. At the very least, there’s an acknowledgement of our presence as a being in the world. But when communication is a living, electrifying connection between two people, it is a miracle of the commonplace. Communicating with another person is the most complex thing we do. And we do it pretty well, all things considered. But it’s an open-ended standard, with practically no limits as to how we can communicate better and more honestly.

For at the heart of communication is a constant need for truth. Rowan Williams, once the Archbishop of Canterbury, said “Need is the beginning of truthfulness.” It points back, somehow, to this idea of incompleteness, that our longing for the other can be traced back to the Garden and God musing to himself that it is not good for a person to be by himself.

We are creatures created to learn — as a teacher this was my morning mantra — although on some days it seemed an impossible dream. But we do learn and most of the time we have a hunger for it. It draws us in, it creates in us a longing to be filled, to draw closer to some unnamed but inexhaustible truth about life.

Matthew Arnold recovers this in his poem, The Buried Life, when he writes:

“But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,

But often, in the din of strife,

There rises an unspeakable desire

After the knowledge of our buried life;

A thirst to spend our fire and restless force

In tracking out our true, original course;

A longing to inquire

Into the mystery of this heart which beats

So wild, so deep in us — to know

Whence our lives come and where they go.”

Our yearning to know another person comes at a price. It calls for us to be intimate, vulnerable, open with the other. These things cannot be rushed — we’re uncomfortable when people reveal too much too soon about themselves. It leaves us holding treasure that we have somehow come by unequally.

I say “unequally” because communication at this level is a reciprocal action — or it should be. As we trust, we open up. When someone opens up to us it’s as if they are handing us a knife and baring their breast. It’s a risk, to be honest. It’s a risky business to be honest, because if we open up to another person with all that we are, we are open for pain. But if we avoid the possibility and we don’t open up, we cannot know them in any real way that goes beyond the bare necessities.

Remember Paul Simon’s song, “Something So Right”?

“Some people never say the words

I love you

It’s not their style

To be so bold

Some people never say those words

I love you

But like a child they’re longing

To be told”

We’re all longing to be told. It’s not selfish either. It’s an assurance that we’re not just taking up space in the world, but we are known and loved and if we were not here we would be missed and mourned. It means we matter to someone. And that touches on the other side of communication — that of giving, of being the sender of the message.

One of the most powerful passages I read in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale years ago was one that was leading me to believe that the narrator — in the midst of all that brutality and coldness — was longing to be loved. Instead, through the skill and wisdom of Atwood, it became clear that more than anything, she wanted to love. She wanted to give her love unstintingly, willingly, gloriously to another being. In loving another she would release springs of living water, as Jesus said, that had long been buried, sealed over, and forgotten. She would become her true self again.

The thing about learning and loving that brings them together is that neither one is brought to completion by ourselves. We learn in the company of others. We love, quite obviously, with others. Our incompleteness, that sense that there is always more, that just beyond what we can see there is so much more, is constitutive of learning and loving too. We get ourselves into a spot if we convince ourselves there is no more to be learned or that we have loved enough. The first reveals us to be lacking in curiosity; the second to be lacking in truth.

For in truth, when we are honest, we know that we can never love enough. We might find ourselves keeping score, maybe even throwing it back in someone’s face — “you’ve never loved me the way I’ve loved you!” But the kind of love that gets you through your day, dealing with slings and arrows and outrageous slander, that brings you home, tired from work, only to find a surly mate who’s had an equally bad day, that kind of love is not measured out in spoonfuls like medicine.

That might be the time, in all honesty, to admit to ourselves and our loved ones, that we do fall short in the giving part of love, and that we still have so much to learn. There’s no shame in admitting to those we love that our cup doth not run over. When we are true and honest, we — and they — know that it’s a temporary condition. This is where our strength lies in humility and forgiveness, outriggers that keep the ship of love steady as it goes.

The greatest poem in the Bible about love is familiar to most of us. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way… It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.”

There it is again: the bond between love and the truth. It’s the truth within our love that gives us strength to “bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things.” And here is the scary part, that burns us with its fullness: “Love never ends.”

That’s not a test we are bound to fail, it’s not a criticism, it is, in fact, our blessed assurance. It means that in spite of everything, against all odds, no matter what, God, the one who created love, loves us. That is the truth and the truth can set us free.

Today you are going to vow your love to each other in front of these witnesses and God. Today you know that you love each other, but there may come times — there will come times — when you’re not so self-assured, when it feels that your life has changed in oh, so many ways. In those times, remember how the poem ends:

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

We love because God first loved us.

Prayer

Lord of the light that is our life, we ask your blessing on us today. We give you this couple and ask that you bless their home and their love, this day and always. In your grace and through your love, may they be steadfast and true to one another and to you. And may we, their family and friends, be likewise true to our bonds of love. In the wisdom of the Spirit, may we together be a community that does justice, loves mercy, and walks humbly in the land. Amen.

Good People Made Evil

Photo: ATC Commphoto, Unsplash

“We have seen

Good men made evil wrangling with the evil,

Straight minds grown crooked fighting crooked minds.”1

Edwin Muir was a Scottish poet, raised on farms on the Orkney Islands, whose family fell apart when they moved to the slums of Glasgow in 1901. They were forced off their farm by high rents, but the move to Glasgow proved even more devastating. Within five years, Muir’s mother, father, and two brothers were dead. Muir himself—who went on to become one of the most respected translators, poets, and critics of the mid-twentieth century—likened the transition to being born and raised in the eighteenth century and suddenly finding himself in the twentieth. “When I arrived I found that it was not 1751, but 1901, and that a hundred and fifty years had been burned up in my two days’ journey. But I myself was still in 1751, and remained there for a long time.”2

That fascination with time and our movements through it, forward in hope and turning back in memory, characterized his poetry, which he came to rather late in life. In “The Good Town,” a poem that describes a town where no one had to lock their doors, Muir reveals how drastically it changed after two wars.

The soldiers came back from the First World War, maimed and ragged, to find the countryside divided up, the roads crooked, the light falling strangely. But after the second war the houses that sprang up from the rubble looked like prisons, families and friends were scattered, and all that was good and kind was thrown away. “How could our town grow wicked in a moment?” he laments.

His answer is that in the past the townspeople were swayed to follow good leaders; now “the bad are up . . . And we, poor ordinary neutral stuff/Not good nor bad, must ape them as we can/In sullen rage or vile obsequiousness.” He closes with the epigram quoted above, and adds, “Our peace betrayed us; we betrayed our peace/Look at it well. This was the good town once.”3

The disappointment and regret evident in his tone might be dismissed as simple nostalgia for a past that can only stand in the way of progress, except that it stands as a warning just as relevant today as he thought it to be in the early Fifties: how to fight evil without becoming evil?

In the good town, people went about their lives without much thought given to how their town might devolve into fear and suspicion. In the absence of threat, families took up their responsibilities and cared for others when needed. Vigilance for such freedoms was not pressing because everyone followed, more or less, the example of conscientious people.

But therein lay the weakness, Muir seems to say. Most of us simply follow those who lead, happy in the confidence that they will solve—or at least deflect—problems which we would have to face without them. But when the bonds of community evaporate and the corrupt and cunning thrust themselves into power, we must suddenly “ape them as we can,” either in “sullen rage or vile obsequiousness.”

Muir’s warning takes us to task for our naiveté, while mourning the loss of good will that made life peaceful and harmonious.

***

Recently, an incident was reported in national news in which a couple who wanted to rent a facility for their marriage ceremony and reception were denied on the grounds that the prospective groom was black, and his fiancée was white. The owner explained that the Bible did not condone mixed-race marriages and thus she would not rent the facility to the couple. The groom’s sister asked for clarification, but the woman refused to elaborate. It was simply part of her Christian belief.

The video of the exchange between them, while civil and restrained, went viral. In the aftermath of a wave of outrage, the woman and her husband issued an apology. Having been raised in Mississippi, it was her belief, she maintained, that such marriages were condemned by the Bible. However, her pastor had helped her to understand, she said, that the Bible does not condemn or prohibit bi-racial marriages. She and her husband were sincerely sorry.4

When I read this account, my immediate reaction was to condemn outright such obvious racism being justified by the Bible in the name of Christianity. It was yet another example of an agenda fueled by inbred prejudice, an assumption of white superiority, and a grievance reflex in which evangelicals believe their religious freedoms are in jeopardy. Added to that was the unthinking assumption that one’s dominant culture—in this case white Southern culture—was somehow ordained by God in the natural order of things, and that Christians who questioned or refused to honor that order were disobedient to God’s law as outlined in the Bible.

Then I began to reflect on my reaction. It was not that I regretted it or questioned my beliefs. They sprang into light spontaneously and I knew they were genuine. What I began to wonder about was if my reaction was a mere accident of geography.

If I had been raised in that woman’s culture in the South, growing up with legalized and socially acceptable discrimination and racism, would I have questioned those embedded assumptions? She looked like somebody’s grandmother, the kind who bakes cookies and keeps an immaculate house—hardly the face of evil. Nevertheless, I felt a surge of anger and impatience. In order to suffer from cognitive dissonance, you need to be engaged in cognition. Would I have felt that dissonance, now so evident, had I grown up in the Sixties in Mississippi?

Where I did grow up—in the foothills above the Napa Valley in Northern California—my private Christian college was only fully integrated in the early Seventies, when a group of African American graduates from a Christian academy in Oakland came to campus. It wasn’t that there was an official policy barring them, it was rather that they did not feel welcomed or respected.

With numbers comes strength; one of those young men ran for Student Association president in his sophomore year and won. Gradually, attitudes began to change, and friendships developed. But if those African American teenagers hadn’t questioned the status quo, those embedded assumptions, how long might it have taken for understanding and acceptance to flourish?

We Christians are too easily satisfied with our cultural assumptions. We are living in a country founded upon some of the highest ideals in human history. But the tragic fact is that those ideals, in order to be fully realized, were made possible by our original sin of systemic racism. Freedom, prosperity, and the pursuit of happiness—all of them were premised on the foundation stones of slavery, prejudice, and discrimination. We are enmeshed in this historical legacy.

“The unbelief of believers,” wrote Thomas Merton in 1968, “is amply sufficient to make God [appear] repugnant and incredible.”5 In words startlingly current, he writes, “A ‘Christian nationalist’ is one whose Christianity takes second place, and serves to justify a patriotism in whose eyes the nation can do no wrong . . . The pastors themselves tend to look to the state as a font of divine decisions in the practical order. All dissent in the civil sphere thereby automatically becomes a religious betrayal and a spiritual apostasy.”6

“Rust never sleeps,” sang Neil Young, and we may be sure prejudice and racism never do either. Christians are no strangers to it—it was there from the beginning and it nearly tore the nascent Jewish Christian community apart. It took a strange and disturbing vision for Peter to put behind him centuries of ceremonial religious exclusivism toward all those outside his heritage. Peter, the disciple most likely to get things right about Jesus, was also the one who could show spectacular obtuseness when stretched beyond his norms. Yet, it is Peter, together with John, who responds later to authorities with the words, “Is it right in God’s eyes for us to obey you rather than God? Judge for yourselves. We cannot possibly give up speaking of things we have seen and heard (Acts 4:19,20).”

And what had he seen? Jesus constantly challenging the cultural norms against women, against the poor, against the weak and dispossessed, against the established means for grasping and preserving power. What had he heard? Jesus, setting his face toward Jerusalem and his death, turning to the disciples on the road to say, “What does a man gain by winning the whole world at the cost of his true self? What can he give to buy that self back? (Mk 8:36,37).”

“What matters,” suggests Merton, “is not simply to set conformity over against dissent, to call the one evil and the other good, and be satisfied with that.” In a way that requires patience and humility, it is not enough for the dissenter to accuse and condemn, but “after showing the need for spiritual awakening and constructive analysis, to break open the way to dialogue and keep it open.”7

Edwin Muir was right to be dismayed that good people can become crooked while fighting against crookedness. But he was off the mark to assume that neither the “good” nor the “evil” can change.

All of us fall short of the glory God sees in us, but none of us is beyond redemption.

  1. Muir, Edwin. “The Good Town” in Collected Poems 1921-1951. London: Faber and Faber, 1952, p. 161.
  2. Quoted in “Edwin Muir,” The Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/edwin-muir
  3. Muir, “The Good Town,” 161.
  4. https://www.vox.com/identities/2019/9/3/20847943/mississippi-event-hall-interracial-couple-wedding-religious-exemption
  5. Merton, Thomas. “Violence and the Death of God,” in Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, p. 197.
  6. Merton, Thomas. “The Unbelief of Believers,” in Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, p. 203.
  7. Merton, Thomas. “The Unbelief of Believers,” in Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, p. 204.

Cross Purposes

Photo: Josh Applegate, Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forgiveness Perpetual

Photo: Candice Picard, Unsplash

I grew weary of sinning

before God grew weary of forgiving my sin.

He is never weary of giving grace,

nor are his compassions to be exhausted. —Teresa of Avila

I’ve never been fond of the poem “The Hound of Heaven.” Somehow, the image of God on the trail with cold intent to pursue me until I find myself with my back to the wall, nowhere to go, and thus must yield to his designs—that image instills fear rather than love. I don’t deny that some people respond favorably to this and similar images. I’m just saying that in the vast repertoire of metaphors we have for God that one is way down the list for me.

But in a sense, it doesn’t matter all that much what I think about God, whether I think God resembles a hunting dog or a lover or a rock or a fountain of everlasting water. These are educational toys pointing, sometimes distractedly, toward a Being who breaks all categories and metaphors, simply because He/She/They cannot be contained in our refracted lenses.

What really matters is what God thinks of me. For starters, God hates the sins that I manifest so effortlessly. Absolutely, unequivocally, irrevocably, and any other “lys” we’d like to conjure up. This is the case for a couple of reasons.

First, our sin rends the beautiful creation God has provided us. There is a thread running through world faiths that sees a clear causality between human arrogance toward the created world and the fracturing of that world. Back behind the science of climate change are the fables, stories, parables, and straight-out testimony for thousands of years that says we are inextricably intertwined with our world. Because we have command of so many tools our impact on the environment is far out of proportion to our physical size.

We change our world simply by our very presence on this planet; like all other beings we take our place in time and space. But we can minimize our unintended harm and work to eliminate our deliberate havoc. That is sin, and it tears through the perfect circles of interdependence that God set up.

But the second reason God hates sin is what it does to us. How it distorts our perception, calcifies our empathy, teaches us cruelty and contempt, makes us mock the innocent and destroy the beautiful. How it places us beyond contrition and in contention with compassion, stretches our patience to the breaking point and snaps our attention, glorifies violence and belittles peace, derides those who listen and castigates those who are honest. The list goes on, but we get the point. All of this, in God’s way of thinking, is not who we are, and though we find it difficult to separate the gold in others and ourselves from the dross, God sees both and draws the distinction.

Despite our expertise in sinning, our development and refinement of its methods, the thousands of ways we have devised to ruin a beautiful world and to break each other, somehow God is able to see through the sin to the sinner. And the sinner in all of us—incredibly—is what God loves.

We are the pearl of great price that Jesus the Holy Diver plucks from the bottom of the ocean. We are the treasure in the field, buried in a rusty old tin box, that the fellow with the metal detector finds while skimming back and forth across the furrows. We are the lost and forgotten masterpiece picked up at a yard sale and restored to its former beauty, the coin wedged in a grate in the gutter.

But what of those who cower before God, those who keep to the back roads to avoid being seen, the ones who run for their lives if God appears because of the shame and fear of their sinning? Like a dog beaten and abandoned, who limps off when people approach, we see danger in the one who only wants to help.

Soren Kierkegaard tells a parable of the king who woos and weds a lovely peasant girl. The king loves her deeply and truly, but anxiety grows within him because she responds to him as the king, not as her companion, husband, and lover. Their difference in status calls up admiration in the girl, but not confidence. To appear in all his majesty before her would overwhelm and further distance her. for she thinks herself not his equal. Despite their love for each other, there is an unbridgeable gap between them. Neither really understands the other.

Kierkegaard suggests this is God’s dilemma. Since we could not be elevated to a level where we could fully understand God, God would take on himself the form of a servant so that God could understand us.

But perfect fear casts out love, and if we have been told that nothing short of perfection in this life will satisfy God, it’s no wonder that so many run in the opposite direction from the one who comes with healing. God’s persistence looks like deadly intention, his moves to reach and bandage us we see as seizing and shackling us. In desperation and in fear we plunge on through our wilderness.

He tracks us by the blood on the trail, the pain our acts cause for others and ourselves. That which separates us from God and condemns us—Sin—becomes the very means through which Christ finds the cancer and excises it. As Dante shows us, Christ follows our sins down to Hell in order to liberate us, not to condemn us. The very presence of our sins leads to confession and repentance, and finally to absolution and reconciliation.

Complications arise. According to our usual reading, God’s forgiveness of us is a contractual arrangement: if we forgive others, then God can forgive us. If we can’t forgive, then God won’t either. The rules are clear, there’s no ambiguity. We go first, then God reacts. We read it this way because we’re used to relationships that involve some type of transaction, that are functional, that include a payoff or a return on investment.

But this is not how God looks at forgiveness. He doesn’t wait for us to reach out, to make the first move. God’s ego is not tender. He is not easily offended.

Those who are forgiven can forgive. Forgiveness received can become forgiveness extended to others, but it does not work in reverse. We cannot forgive if we have not experienced forgiveness as an extension of God’s unfathomable love.

The woman who crashed a private party for Jesus at Simon the Pharisee’s house wept for joy because she had been forgiven. Perhaps she and Jesus had had an encounter before this that convinced her of God’s unconditional love and forgiveness. Perhaps she had grown weary of the trap of her sins. As Luke quotes Jesus, “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little (Luke 7:47).” Perhaps because of this she could even forgive the men who had enjoyed the use of her and then condemned and shamed her for it.

Paul Tillich, in a sermon in The New Being, points out that if we fear God and feel rejected by him, we cannot love him. But if we can see—and feel—that God’s love is without limit, then it truly is a new world. He says, “We cannot love unless we have accepted forgiveness, and the deeper our experience of forgiveness is, the greater is our love.”

As Jesus says, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do. I didn’t come to call righteous people but sinners to change their hearts and lives (Luke 5:31, CEB).” Whatever hellish darkness we find ourselves in, whatever pain we are carrying, we can be assured of this: Only those with a pre-existing condition will be accepted into this universal health care plan.

Can a Leper Change His Spots?

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“There is so much more meaning in reality than the soul can take in . . . This, then, is an insight we gain in acts of wonder: not to measure meaning in terms of our own mind, but to sense a meaning infinitely greater than ourselves” — Abraham Heschel, God in Search of Man

I’ve been thinking lately about the ten lepers that Jesus healed, and the one that returned to thank him. The story is in Luke 17:11-19, and at first glance it seems oddly out of place in the narrative of that chapter. It is one of those pericopes,the nuggets of stories that make up so much of the weight and heft of the Gospels. They are like pearls on a necklace: cut the string and they scatter in every direction, losing value as they bounce away. But scoop them up and place them next to one another and they gain a certain nobility of place.

Jesus and the disciples are heading south to Jerusalem, coming through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As they enter a village, ten lepers, keeping the prescribed distance, call out to him in desperation, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Jesus sees them and answers, “Go show yourselves to the priests.” And Luke adds laconically, “And as they went, they were made clean.”

Where do we find ourselves in this story? Who do we identify with and why? One of my professors in graduate school told us that in reading the parables, for example, we should stand in the audience which Jesus was addressing instead of standing next to him, basking in our self-righteousness and our proximity to the Master.

If we stood in the audience hearing Luke’s gospel read out loud in gatherings, we would instantly and instinctively react to the prejudice behind this story. Jews and Samaritans did not get along, hated each other with a religious passion that ran deep, generation after generation, like Irish Catholics and Protestants used to. Luke places the event at the border of Samaria and Galilee, a flashpoint of possible conflict or perhaps a neutral zone where peace could break out. The roving band of lepers, cast out with curses from their villages, find a bond of mutual misery together. Jesus is their last, best hope.

Perhaps his notoriety had proceeded him. Perhaps a sympathetic relative tipped them off that Jesus and his disciples were on the road. In any case, the exchange between Jesus and the lepers is brief, decisive, and effective. They ask, he responds, and they are healed when they move.

Nine of them are Jews: we know this because they immediately set out for Jerusalem to be certified as clean by the priests—a journey of several days. So . . . no time to lose.

The verse doesn’t mention how long it took for them to realize they were healed. But one of them saw the new flesh, pink with life. He spun around, praising God loudly (loudly enough for the other nine to hear?), ran back and threw himself down at Jesus’ feet, thanking him. The one who returned was a Samaritan. Luke points it out in a way that cannot be mistaken, and Jesus rather caustically asks, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

Jesus’ sense of irony rings through this. Here are his own, his people, off down the road without a backward glance, while a traditional enemy, one not deserving of respect by tribal measures, comes back to praise God and thank God’s servant. It’s enough to make a person erase the lines in the sand.

Luke raises the contrast between those getting on with their lives and those who, unexpectedly, in one glorious moment, see God like a fountain springing up from within the eyes of this man. The nine were no less healed in their haste, but having received much had perceived so little.

New Testament scholars tell us that Luke’s gospel was intended to show how Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God was open to everyone, strangers and foreigners, as well as Israel. That would include us, readers searching the stories for points of contact, people of an era that desperately claws at the slope down which it is plummeting headlong. If there is a “still, small voice” of God to be heard we will have to remove our earbuds first.

Here we are, over 2,000 years later, picking up a Gideon’s Bible in a Motel 6, flipping it open to a random place and finding this story. What could make us pause, finger tracing the words, long enough to turn from the window and sit on the edge of the bed? Northrop Frye says in Words with Power, that “Experience is of the particular and the unique, and takes place in time; knowledge is of the universal and the assimilated, and contains an element withdrawn from time.” Both are needed: the expected flow is from experience to knowledge. Could it be reversed? Could knowledge of an event long ago on a dusty road create an experience that blooms within us? Isn’t that implicit in every story written down and sent into the world?

Abraham Heschel writes in God in Search of Man, “The soul is endowed with a sense of indebtedness, and wonder, awe, and fear unlock that sense of indebtedness.” Look both ways and hold hands when you cross the street together, say please and thank you, clean up after yourself, be good to each other, and don’t tell lies. These are some of the universals, and as we mature we realize how much we owe to others, the indebtedness that has not only kept us on the way, but has made the way even possible. “Oh, the debt I owe,” sings James Taylor in ”Watchin’ Over Me.” “I said oh the damage done/How’m I gonna pay that debt I owe.”

Jesus looks at the man at his feet: “Get up and go on your way,” he says, “your faith has made you well.” What was freely given was freely received. All of the ten asked, all were healed. One came back to thank the Master. What does this act reveal?

An indebtedness acknowledged to an enemy of one’s people renders that enmity chained. And in turning back, the Samaritan not only offers thanks, but sees in the man before him the God of all people, lepers and Samaritans included. Like the others, this man’s body was restored and his social curse lifted; unlike the rest, his faith opened his eyes to the wonder of a meaning he now carried that was greater than himself.

And we may respond, also, to a story with a life beyond its telling. Abraham Heschel writes, “We cannot survive unless we know what is asked of us. But to whom does man in his priceless and unbridled freedom owe anything? Where does the asking come from? To whom is he accountable?”

Our leprosies may be the means for seeing how great is the height and depth and breadth of the love that sets us free.

“We journey through a narrative,” writes Northrop Frye, “and then we stop and confront what we have read as though it were objective. It is not objective, because it is already a part of ourselves. There is a further stage of response, however, where something like a journeying movement is resumed, a movement that may well take us far beyond the world’s end, and yet is still no journey.”

Photo: Alex Woods, Unsplash.com

For To Give

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“Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” This is Jesus, bent over, talking to a young man lying on a stretcher, the stretcher carried by his friends, sweating and shifting their grips from hand to hand as they come up alongside the Son of Man. And they haven’t even said anything yet, but He sees their faith and says to this guy, “Your sins are forgiven.”

This is a one-sided conversation that they’ve entered, but it seems to them like it’s one that’s been going on for some time—maybe all time—and while they don’t want to interrupt there is, nevertheless, the fact that this man is standing right in front of them, the man who can heal at a glance, a once-in-a-lifetime chance for them and their friend, who, by the way, hasn’t said a word, just looks, his hand curled like a claw, his arms like brown sticks, his fingers splayed like roots, chin covered in stubble, breath coming hard—no words—his eyes burning deep like topaz in the last light of the day.

And we, looking on, shift a bit and smile at nothing in particular. Sins! Not a word we’ve heard or used in quite awhile, and truth be told, not something we can actually relate to, come to think of it.

*****

“Have you ever sought God’s forgiveness?” asks the reporter. The candidate stops, puzzled. “I’m not sure I have ever asked God’s forgiveness,” he says. “I don’t bring God into that picture . . . When I go to church and I have my little wine and my little cracker. I guess that is a form of forgiveness.” He pauses, shrugs his shoulders. “Why do I have to repent or ask for forgiveness, if I am not making mistakes? I work hard, I’m an honorable person.”

*****

Actually, we’d be more comfortable if the conversation revolved around rights and obligations. We have respect for privacy; we believe everyone has the right to their own opinion and who are we to say who has committed a sin or not. That’s their business and not something which can really — or should really — be talked about, seeing as nobody has the right to tell me or anybody else, what I should or should not be doing. I pay my taxes, I work hard, I try to help others out where I can, but in the end it’s really my life and no one else’s and I really don’t — I mean, you know — you don’t have a right to tell me what to do, you know?

This moment: this paralyzed man, his friends, breathless, waiting, the crowd at our backs, the sun slanting into our eyes, a dry, coppery taste in our mouths. Jesus smiles and straightens. “I know what you’re thinking,” he says. “Why do you think such evil? What’s easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven’, or to say, ‘Stand up and walk?’

*****

We don’t know what to say, they’re just words, anyone could say them but that doesn’t prove a thing. I mean, I could say that—not that I would—but if I wanted to I could say that, but what good would that do anyway? Nobody talks like that! Who talks like that, anyway?

Jesus turns. “Stand up,” he says to the guy on the stretcher. “Go home.”

And I do. I swing my legs down, set my feet on the ground and stand up, a little shaky at first, but I’m up.

“Thank you,” I croak. I look down. My fingers ball up and I rub my arm. My friends stand paralyzed.

“Thank you,” I say, and the people near me fall back.

“Thank you,” — the words are stronger now — and I walk.

Elaborated Spontaneity #6 (Photo: Pawel Nolbert at Unsplash.com)