Regarding the Distance Between Us

”The decisive thought in the message of the prophets is not the presence of God to man but rather the presence of man to God.”1

Photo: Filipe Resmini, Unsplash.com

I had a recurring dream as a child, one that continued well into my adulthood, showing up every few years, as if to say, “I’m still here. I’ll be here as long as you are.”

In my dream I see my father floating in the deepness of space, like an astronaut untethered, helmetless, a fragment of light. He is drifting away from me, his arm outstretched, like God straining to touch Adam’s fingertip. But we will never touch, and I know it and I know he knows it too. In my mind I call out to him, although I know he can’t hear it, because sound does not travel where there is no air. We remain like that, suspended, until he is a point of light among the thousands of diamond-hard points of light out there.

I can recall this image with perfect clarity even now, although it has been years since it came to me unbidden. Its meaning seems quite clear to me. No doubt there are depths still unplumbed, but I don’t need to plumb them. There is wonder enough that such a remarkable image could arise from my unconscious, almost as some kind of mythic totem.

My parents divorced when I was nine months old. Three years later, having lived with friends and family, I was taken in by my father’s parents and given a childhood that was unusual for my time and place, but wonderfully secure and loving. Like any child of divorce, there were moments of bewilderment and uncertainty, and tears were shed. If I were to write a memoir it would not be about a childhood of violence and trauma, like so many have suffered. But it might move in the regions of how our image of God is influenced in our earliest years.

When I read the Psalms, I read the cries of a child to a father, one who is all-powerful, yet who inexplicably does not appear when the flood waters rise, and death is near. The Psalmist rages at his enemies, cursing them and threatening a showdown between his father and theirs. Then there are the many texts in which the writer is comforted, exalted, swept up in love for God. He even rejoices in the Law, as sweet as honey to him, something to be meditated upon day and night. Reading those passages, I marvel at that surety and love. The Psalmist tells his Father—and us—everything, even that which for us might be too much information.

The Psalms are memoirs of corrosive violence, abandonment, family loyalty, and the ache of love. They make my staid and quiet upbringing seem like the placid hours of a cow.

***

In the last decade of my teaching career, I taught ethics and philosophy at Trinity Washington University. Most of my students were young women, many of them Hispanic. In their papers, essays, and presentations they would often mention their families, both here and in other countries. There were strong bonds there, so much so that if any family member was in a situation which put them in the emergency room, my students would leave class immediately, texting me with apologies later. There was simply no question: family came first.

Some of the young women found their fathers to be overbearing at times and felt themselves to be caught between cultures. They wished to honor their parents, but they also wanted to forge their own identities as confident young women. In our discussions in class, particularly those about the nature of God, I could sense that their views of God were colored by their relationships with their fathers and with their priests.

Is it inevitable that we transfer our feelings about our caretakers, particularly our male caretakers, onto our impressions of God? Are we like ducklings, imprinting our familial muscle-memory from whoever cares for us in our earliest years, our perception of who they are and how we are to be with them?

If that is true, then my grandfather was my first God-model. Kindly, patient, reticent in his Englishness, my grandfather held integrity without revealing his feelings. He had emigrated from Yorkshire as a young man, purchasing a ticket in steerage on the Titanic, but then selling it and sailing instead on another ship, one that picked up the survivors. He had landed in Nova Scotia, hitchhiked across Canada and ended up in a mining camp in Alberta, where his honesty and forthrightness meant that he held the men’s wages in trust when they went into town after paydays for drinking and women. Eventually, he found his way to a small Christian junior college on the Alberta prairie, where in time he met my grandmother, a farm girl from Vancouver Island. They became teachers, working for a total of one hundred years in Seventh-day Adventist colleges in Canada and America. My father, their only child, was raised as a campus kid in Alberta at Canadian Union College and left home early, heading out to Toronto and eventually, the US.

I used to play a game as a child in which I imagined having been born to other people, perhaps in another time and place. Would I still be me? These were intriguing questions to ponder—questions of identity, personality, even epistemology. What could we really know about others and about ourselves? What was our lineage? Whom did we “take after?”

I could not see any resemblance between my grandparents and me. The only photograph I had of my mother showed a girl of nineteen, blonde, pretty, a Canadian teenager in the late Forties and early Fifties. I couldn’t see the boy I was in my mother either. Photos of my father holding me in his arms on one of the visits he made to me and my grandparents, showed a tall, lean man with deep-set eyes, high cheekbones, and hair combed like Elvis.

We would pick him up from Toronto International Airport, his long coat smelling of travel and cigarettes, and he would scoop me up in his arms, where I could survey my surroundings from a new vantage point. There are photos of my father smiling, looking up at me. I look bewildered. Then he would be gone again and after his departure my grandmother would tell me the story of his quick-wittedness in saving a child whose scarf was caught by an escalator, nearly choking her to death. God-like qualities of heroism to a four-year-old.

***

In time, my father remarried and settled in Chicago. Later, he worked for IBM when it was centered in New York and then took a transfer to San Jose, where he and his wife raised five wonderful children. I was living with my grandparents in Northern California, so he and the family would come up for visits.

I finished graduate school in Southern California and moved east to teach near Washington, DC. It was not his way to write or to call, so years went by with no words between us except for family Christmas cards. One day he left a message on my answering machine. He was consulting for Lockheed and would be in Philadelphia. He wanted to take the train down and spend some time together. I erased the message with a swiftness and coldness that was involuntary, almost instinctual. I was shocked at myself, but nevertheless, I didn’t respond. That’s when I knew there was much more under the surface that I was not facing.

Just before my fortieth birthday my father wrote me a letter, one of two I received from him in my life. He wanted to fly out from San Jose and tell me what had happened all those years ago, why he had made the decisions he did that had resulted in our separation. I picked him up from the airport and we talked until late. The next day he sat in my classes and watched me teach.

And I know a father

Who had a son

He longed to tell him all the reasons

For the things he’d done

He came a long way

Just to explain2

***

I have a memory of my father teaching me how to ride a bike. I am quivering with excitement. His hands are on my shoulders; he leans down next to me. I feel the warmth of his face next to mine. “Are you ready?” he asks. I nod. His hand is on my back then, and I am pedaling, slowly at first as my front tire wobbles. I hear his footsteps behind me as we gain speed. My legs are pumping now and the bike is cruising straight and true. I am exhilarated and I shout over my shoulder, “Okay, Dad, you can let go now!” I don’t hear an answer, so I throw a quick glance backwards and I see him half a block behind me, smiling, his hands on his hips and I am flying.

“My soul thirsts for God,

for the living God.” (Ps 42:2)

Are we to desire God? I’m not sure what that means, to desire God. Would it be God, there behind us, kindly seeing us to the door to the world, “Go on now, you’ll be fine. Trust me.” —and in that moment to know, with a pang, that we have never loved God more?

  1. Heschel, Abraham Joshua. God in Search of Man. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1955, p. 412.
  2. Paul Simon, from Slip Slidin’ Away, 1975.

Our House

Photo: Pierre le Vaillant, Unsplash

”The kingdom of truth is consequently not the kingdom of some other world. It is the picture of what this world ought to be . . . It is not some realm of eternal perfection which has nothing to do with historical existence. It constantly impinges upon man’s every decision and is involved in every action.”1

For a good stretch of my younger reading life I was immersed in science fiction. It offered worlds that could only be imagined, thankfully, since most of them were ramped-up versions of this one, but several orders of magnitude more hideous. They were warning messages and the message was, if you think this is bad you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

They featured intergalactic battles, plagues scourging entire civilizations, aliens traveling thousands of light years to obliterate our planet out of sheer, arbitrary cussedness (“Of all the planets in all the solar systems in all the universe, TZoth, you had to pick this one”), and the occasional beneficent link between worlds.

The best of the hard science fiction built plausibility on a platform of physics; it was exhilarating to see where science could go when imagination pushed the status quo. For a layperson in science, these revelations came as a surprise and a preview of what might come to fruition.

There was heroism too, when the future of civilization and of the world itself belonged to the one whose grip forced the hand holding the death-ray down, down, and then, snap. Order restored; don’t screw it up again. Please.

I liked the stories best that played with questions about ultimate meaning, like whether humans really had anything to offer the universe or what it was that distinguished us from androids. After all, androids were faster, smarter, more efficient, impervious to physical maladies, and couldn’t lie. Humans, well, we are a mixed bag, to put it generously.

Often, the bright line of value between humans and androids was in the freedom we possessed that allowed us to color outside the lines. From that freedom arises beauty, creativity, and truth. But where there is freedom there is the potential for giddy mischief, sullen imperfection, and tragedy. The alternative, however, a sterile perfection of monochrome conformity, kills everything in its path. The grim truth that almost every utopian community has had to face is that coercion in the name of preserving freedom turns a eutopia (a ‘good place’) into a dystopia (a ‘place too awful to work’).

But what we lose in the process, we gain in the effects. Remember how Data on Star Trek achieved technical perfection on the violin, but lacked the feelings to wash the notes with pathos and hope? He knew what he was missing, but that wasn’t enough to grant him the emotional muscles that would move his fingers to draw out the beauty in a Hayden violin concerto.

The humans in some of these tales were clearly louts on the lam, who found their mettle in the midst of battle and survived to rise above their “fleshly nature,” as Paul might have put it. While most of them were wedded to a form of individualism more reflective of Gordon Gekko than Ralph Waldo Emerson, occasionally there would be a spiritual breakthrough, and one of them would admit to feeling in the presence of a vast and lonely Force, while gazing moodily out a porthole en route to another military assignment. Their virtues were often exercised in the face of a tragic decision to die fighting for the lives of the innocent victims of the corrupt corporations that had hired them to preserve their power.

In one of the book series, intrepid human explorers journeyed light years away to an uninhabited world to establish an outpost, a way-station for further exploration. They had hijacked a small fleet of interstellar transport vehicles and had escaped Earth because of mounting anarchy around the globe, climate change run amok, and an America ruled by right-wing authoritarians. The chance to start from scratch, to build a world that had learned from history and would not repeat its mistakes, was the lure that drew this diverse band of artists, engineers, mathematicians, policy wonks, historians, and community organizers.

This was Sim-World on a grand scale, with all the complexity and diversity that one could imagine, now put to good use with attention and intention. This is Creation, Day One, with a chance to reverse-engineer all our present social conundrums back to their original lines of code and rewrite them. It is tempting to think that we could do better this time around because we’re starting out with knowledge of past mistakes and the technology and will to invent the future.

In such a society, historians would be venerated for their interpretive abilities, while scientists would be honored for their adherence to the facts. The poets and artists would portray the acts of the imagination that would cast light on the darkness of unknown futures. Prophets and priests need not apply, since we were intimately acquainted with the neural transmitters that boosted our endorphins or inhibited our guilt.

Yet, one theme that was often present, even at a faint decibel level, was the love for this Earth, this ‘dear, old, warm Earth, as comforting as a grandmother.’ I remember one novel, the title and author of which is lost to me now, that was the story of the literal breakup of the Earth as the result of electro-magnetic forces deep within the core that had gone haywire.

The central figure was a young scientist who had first stumbled upon the clues to this disaster and worked together with an international team to alert the world. The last third of the book follows those who are preparing for the end. Our young man drives from San Francisco to Yosemite and climbs Half Dome to witness the dawn of the last day on Earth. He knows the hour the cataclysm will arrive; he wants to be in a place where he can face the wave that is coming with stoic courage. But as he waits in the semi-darkness, feeling the first tremors around him, he hears the wafting of wings overhead as a flock of birds rushes up from the valley. He takes in the fragrance of the pines, feels the coolness of the stone beneath him, and he begins to weep, not from fear—he’s beyond that—but for the love of the body of the Earth which will be no more.

***

Ask anyone to describe Heaven and they might facetiously give you the clouds, the harps, and the pearly gates. But if they reflect for a moment—and set aside their skepticism—they’ll probably imagine something infinitely better than the most beautiful place they already know. Our heavens are linear extensions of this Earth. Once you trim off the silliness of caricature you realize that there are as many versions of Heaven as there are people to imagine them. And that alone should preclude any obstinate certainty about its dimensions.

We do get a glimpse at the most famous scenario of them all in the Book of Revelation. There John describes a city with streets of gold, gates of pearl, and walls of jasper and other precious stones—a vision, if taken literally, that would nicely fit the garish tastes of a Las Vegas casino magnate. My own desires run to a kind of Hobbiton, each of us with our own cosy burrow built into the side of a hill, overlooking a verdant valley, with a backdrop of mountains from the Canadian Rockies.

No matter. What John gave us was what he saw through the lens of his experience, married to his greatest hopes. For him, it was the most beautiful city he could imagine, clean, sparkling, bathed in light, with no dark, dank corners and no terrors. There would be no night there for God is there and the darkness will never overcome the light that has come into the world.

The story, which we are free to believe, is that God will come to live among the people. However it appears to those whose eyes are opened, what everyone will see is “Immanuel,” God with us. Where Jesus is, there is God, and where God is there is love. And the measure of that love is that God moves into our house with us, this sweet old Earth made new. And how fitting, somehow, that ecology, the study of the relationships between all organisms, is derived from the Greek word oikos, which simply means “house.”

  1. Niebuhr, Beyond Tragedy, 277.

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.

Burn for the Infinite

Infinite:karen-hammega-548922

“But a thinker who has no desire to think cannot think . . . And one who desires but cannot imagine what it is he wants is not getting very far with his desire, which, if it were real, would attempt to achieve an intelligible form.” — Northrop Frye. Fearful Symmetry, 27

How might we know an infinite God . . . as finite as we are? If we shall someday perfectly “know as we are known,” and if perfection is completeness, and if we’ve never experienced perfection, would we know the Infinite if we believed?

Reinhold Niebuhr, writing in Beyond Tragedy, says we have lost the tragic view of life. We think history is the record of “the progressive triumph of good over evil.” We do not recognize the “simple but profound truth that man’s life remains self-contradictory in its sin, no matter how high human culture rises; that the wisest expression of human spirituality, therefore, contains also the subtlest form of human sin.”

Three Conjectures

Our human tragedy is that we burn for the Infinite, yet we lack the imagination to reach for it.

What if we were honest with ourselves and admitted that what we know about the patriarchs and prophets in the Bible isn’t much after all? That in the stories we grew up with we got flashes of insight like lightning in thunderclouds or we heard something faint, like French horns in a fog, that made us curious, longing to climb through the story and drop down to the person beyond? That maybe, with respect, we need to bracket for the time being the things we’ve been indoctrinated with and widen our scope. That most of what we know about God that wasn’t thrust upon us we picked up at a yard sale secondhand, and maybe it’s time we thought for ourselves as we read these stories. Maybe it’s time we see David, Rahab, Jereboam, Isaiah, and Jonah as real people instead of characters in a sermon illustration that inevitably ends up somehow washed of all life’s reversals, misunderstandings, beauty and tragedy, and reflects—however improbably—the necessary successes of a middle-class American life.

We have two sources to think and imagine our way into the lives of these ancients: the tradition of memory and our personal insights. We hear our tradition as we read these stories together; we understand ourselves as we stand within the shadows of these people.

When we read, says Northrop Frye, we feel the centripetal force within the story, drawing us into its time and place; we also feel the centrifugal force spinning us out through memory to the external world and the meanings we associate with the words we read as we align ourselves with our reality.

As Christopher Fry says in his play, The Dark is Light Enough, “in our plain defects we already know the brotherhood of man.” Can we know then, these people whose experiences are so distant from ours in time and yet who are so tangibly, breathtakingly, solidly drawn?

Thought and desire, reason and imagination . . . these are the avenues of the soul Godwards, even as we sit trapped in traffic at the end of the day.

Our human tragedy is that we do not burn for the Infinite, yet we envy those who do.

What is tragic about exceeding our limitations, about “reaching for the stars,” about striving to become more than what we are? Isn’t this the very core of American exceptionalism and individualism, that we are limited only by our ambition and work ethic? That if we work hard enough we can achieve anything we put our minds and our hearts to? That we can fly if only we believe we can?

The poet, Stephen Spender, says in The Public Son of a Public Man,

“How shall we know that we really exist

Unless we hear, over and over,

Our egos through the world insist

With all the guns of the self-lover?”

We desire to be gods in our impatience with the “merely” human. When we substitute the penultimate for the Ultimate, says Paul Tillich, our false gods dry us up at the root.

Our human tragedy is that we burn for the Infinite, yet we cannot fully perceive it.

We cannot tell the whole truth about God because we do not know it and we couldn’t express it fully even if we did. That’s our tragedy, such as it is, when we live and move in the Spirit in this mortal dimension. When we speak or write in the name of Christ, then, we know that we are deceivers, yet true. Going in we know that whatever our metaphors of God in our best moments of self-reflection, our highest reach for truth, they will still result in gaps, miscues, diversions, and muddiness when we express them. To take the pulpit swelled with pride is to guarantee our own deflation. Yet in imagination, through will and hope, in some mysterious way through God’s Spirit, we may be lifted higher.

“Our minds are constantly trying to bring God down to our level,” says Christian Wiman, in his My Bright Abyss, “rather than letting him lift us into levels of which we were not previously capable.”

What we do know is that our best in potentia falls short in actuality. Between imagination and action, between desire and fulfillment, between thought and speech, between the mountain spring and the sea, lie numberless deflections, any one of which can turn the flow in another direction or stop it up completely. But we try. That’s what matters.

Niebuhr says, “Human existence denies its own deepest and most essential nature. That is tragic . . . But out of this despair hope is born. The hope is simply this: that the contradictions of human existence, which man cannot surmount, are swallowed up in the life of God Himself. The God of Christian faith is not only creator but redeemer. He does not allow human existence to end tragically. He snatches victory from defeat (19).”

There is a moment of finite perfection. It lingers before the singer takes a breath or the preacher speaks the first word before her people or the diver on the cliff’s edge flexes up on his toes before flight. In that moment is the potency of imagination, that which none greater can be experienced under our bright star.

Photo: Karen Hammega, Unsplash.com