Three Degrees of Success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Jonathan Bowers, Unsplash.com

Wisdom for the Contingent World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Arunas Naujokas, Unsplash.com

A Necessary Candle

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

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

They are vivid images, some that resonate with our 21st-century sensibilities, others that stretch our imagination. And we get plenty of metaphors for Jesus too. He gives us some of them: I am the Vine, I am the Water of Life, I am the Good Shepherd, I am the Way. Others are ascribed to him, most famously the Word and the Light of the world. They are contact points by which the veiled glory of his life and the courage of his death and the shocking eruption of his resurrection can jump-start our cold, dead hearts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Paul, then, as sure now of the love of God in Christ as he had been of God’s hatred of traitors to the Law, becomes the apostle of the new, assuring all who would listen that “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” And the newness in our human experience is that God is eternally, irrevocably, joyously on our side, closing up the abyss between us and God that we had dug. He is the great reconciler through Christ. “Truth,” says Christian Wiman, “inheres not in doctrine itself, but in the spirit with which it is engaged, for the spirit of God is always seeking and creating new forms.”

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

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

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

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

(You can read more of his writing here)

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

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

Photo: Joanna Kosinska, Unsplash.com

The Edge of Innocence

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To choose what is difficult all one’s days

As if it were easy, that is faith.— W. H. Auden, For the Time Being

I have been thinking about the story of the Mount of Transfiguration. It features in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and it is a story that somehow connects heaven and earth, faith and doubt, God visible and God hidden, the past, the future, and the present—and so it is a subject for a New Year’s Day.

On New Year’s Day we come the closest to innocence that we are capable of as adults during the cycle of seasons in the year. We are done with the old year and its failures. We’ve shed that year like a snake sheds its skin, and we look to the new year with a touching naiveté, believing that if we want to fly, we can make it so. We will make new beginnings, we’ll have a breakthrough, all our false starts will fade away. Never mind all the home gym equipment that was set up in the basement with such resoluteness the day after Christmas, only to appear on the curb in March with the rest of the trash.

And so, we keep at it, this starting again and making promises to ourselves, because we absolutely must have a way to break up the surge of time and divert it at intervals. If December 31 is the lowest trough of the year, then New Year’s Day is the wave crest. End and beginning curve back to touch each other like one of Einstein’s sinkholes in time.

At the bottom of the worn-out year, scraping the barrel as it were, all the social norms for many ancient civilizations could be reversed or at least suspended for one night. Kings could be dissed without fear, peasants could don kingly robes. For a few hours, in a bacchanal celebration, all the fears and anxieties of the year could be discarded like old rags. It was a time for the expulsion of sins, for starting afresh, for the regeneration of time itself.

Recently, I read a news article about a dairy farmer who was finally selling off his cows after four decades of running the family farm. “It is said that farmers get forty chances,” he wrote in conclusion. “I’ve had my forty and I’m getting out.” Forces beyond his control had made it impossible to carry on, despite the efforts of him and his family. The plight of small family farms only highlights how important it is to us that we have a chance to start over.

Our lives are played out in an arena of paradoxical claims, as we try to unite opposing elements. “Be ye therefore perfect” sniffs at “All our righteousness is as filthy rags.” “Why hast thou cast us off, O God? Is it for ever? Why art thou so stern, so angry with the sheep of thy flock?” gapes in disbelief at “The Lord’s love never fails those who fear him.” For those who search for God with all their hearts, the wry observation of R. S. Thomas, the Welsh poet-priest, rings true:

. . . He is such a fast

God, always before us and

leaving as we arrive. — R. S. Thomas, Pilgrimages

We may be breathless to keep the back of God within sight, but the time between Christmas and New Year’s offers a chance to catch one’s breath. It is a fertile field of both regret and promise, of challenge and joy, of surrender to the Incarnation and determination for the year ahead. The story of Jesus’ transfiguration reveals the poles-apart thinking of the disciples; we see his glory revealed even as his compassion drives him deep into the common suffering of the world, and he is shadowed by the ordeal to come.

He had taken three of his disciples, Peter, James and John, to the top of what might have been Mount Tabor or maybe Mount Herman, leaving the other disciples at the foot of the mountain where they soon attracted a crowd. The three accounts in the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are substantially the same, with Matthew and Luke drawing from Mark’s core story, but adding significant details of their own.

Maybe Jesus anticipated what was in store for him on the mountain, or maybe he just needed to get away for a bit with his three good friends. In any case, there is an eerie resemblance to his night of sorrow in Gethsemane. The same three disciples are close to him while Jesus has a divine encounter; in Luke’s gospel account the disciples grow heavy with weariness and fall asleep, and Peter—bless him—speaks and acts in ways that Jesus must reject or risk losing his focus.

The outlines of the story are simple enough. Jesus and the disciples are on the mountain, when Jesus is suddenly radiant with light, his robe so white that it is almost blinding. Two resplendent figures appear and the three of them speak together.

The symmetry is arresting: Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets, bookend Jesus with support just as he is growing into the conviction that he will die violently at the hands of authorities, religious and political, in Jerusalem. (An aside: how did the disciples know who they were? Were there introductions all round?) The disciples are both awed and terrified, so much so that Peter is babbling giddily about constructing three shelters when a voice thunders from heaven, “This is my beloved son. Listen to him.” The disciples fall to the ground, overcome, and the apparitions vanish, leaving Jesus to touch the disciples: “Stand up,” he says, “do not be afraid.” And when they raise their heads, they are alone with Jesus.

What were they talking about? Luke tells us they “spoke of his departure, the destiny he was to fulfill in Jerusalem.” On the way down the mountain, Jesus tells the three not to talk of what they have seen until he has been raised from the dead. Ah, they say, apparently unfazed by talk of Jesus’ impending death and resurrection. In Matthew’s account, the disciples raise a question on a technicality. Wasn’t Elijah’s appearance supposed to precede all this? Yes, responds Jesus, Elijah has already come, but nobody recognized him. “Then the disciples understood that he meant John the Baptist.” What remains unremarked upon by the disciples is that this future event, Elijah preceding the Messiah, is already in motion. John the Baptist is dead, the Messiah is Jesus, and he is going to die.

When they reach the bottom of the mountain, they see a commotion in the crowd gathered there. A man has brought his epileptic son to the disciples to be healed—and they can’t do it. The father implores Jesus to heal his son and Jesus explodes: “What an unbelieving and perverse generation! How long shall I be with you and endure you all? Bring your son here.” There is a final convulsion as the boy writhes on the ground, the demon departs, and Jesus hands the boy back to his father. Mark up another victory against the forces of darkness. All’s well that ends well, right?

If we were filming this episode, we would have used tight shots on the contorted face of the boy, closeups on Jesus as he casts out the demon, and then a slow zoom out to encompass the crowd, ecstatic at the miraculous healing, filled with admiration and awe for the power of Jesus. Luke says that after this Jesus went indoors and the disciples, those who had remained at the foot of the mountain, had a private word. Why couldn’t we cast out the demon? they ask. Well, says Jesus, this kind takes prayer.

***

Pull the cameras back into a high, wide shot stretching to the horizon, high and behind a group of tiny figures making their way south on the Jerusalem road. We know that Jesus has set his face like flint toward the holy city and that ahead of him lies the final conflict and his approaching death. Nothing is scripted here, no one’s hand is being forced; each actor in this drama sets his own lines and actions, according to his will. The events jerk and tilt toward their bureaucratic finality in a way that seems, in retrospect, foreordained, but for those caught up in it, the outcome is realized too late.

***

For us, poised on the cusp of the new year, the transfiguration offers us a way to into the times ahead. The Incarnation has been our transcendental experience on the mountaintop, our unexpected blessing coming out of the darkness; we would like to remain there — if only for a few more days. It’s a time when people seem to set aside their egos and think of others. If they — we — can do that consciously for several days, why can’t we continue? Perhaps we can keep that going for a week and then New Years’ can act like a slingshot to keep us in orbit above the Earth.

“At some moments we experience complete unity within us and around us,” says Henri Nouwen in Bread for the Journey. “But whenever and however it happens we say to ourselves, “This is it… everything fits… all I ever hoped for is here.” This is what Peter, James, and John experienced on the mountain with Jesus. “This is the experience of the fullness of time,” writes Nouwen. “These moments are given to us so that we can remember them when God seems far away, and everything appears empty and useless. These experiences are true moments of grace.”

But we can’t remain on the mountaintop, up there in the glorious light with revered figures from our past. Down below, back in the world, there are the constant reminders that suffering continues and that we are not complete. This kind takes prayer, says Jesus.

Up ahead are trials, but also moments of transcendent joy, communion, beauty. We are blessed by the Spirit, by the epiphanies granted to us that open us to a steadfast courage. There are crosses up ahead, no doubt, but Spring is coming and there is a resurrection.

Photo: Stephen Pedersen, Unsplash

Seeing Things

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In this Advent season we await the coming of the Christ-child. Our sources for this are Matthew and Luke. Mark begins his gospel breathlessly with Jesus as a man, coming up out of the waters of baptism, the skies splitting open above him. John’s gospel begins even farther back, among star-trails of light in the cosmos, the Word materializing out of the blackness of the space between the stars, to arrive uncloaked as the very being and presence of God across the universe. It’s Matthew who gives us the credentials first, the genealogy of the Saviour, beginning with Abraham and running neatly through three sets of fourteen generations each until we arrive at “Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.”

And it’s Matthew who calls up astrologers from Babylon who, in their glad and awe-struck homage, ply the family with precious gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and then, after being warned of Herod’s baleful intentions in a dream, take another road back home. No sooner had they gone and the family settled down for fitful sleep, when Joseph yields to a dream (a language he was learning still) to take his wife and newborn child and slip through Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. So, with the gold he buys his neighbor’s horse in whispered haste at three a.m., shuts up the house, and off they go, under the stars, across the rock-strewn miles of desert to seek asylum in Egypt.

With Luke we get the bells and whistles—no wise men this time—but more dreams and angels and shepherds and cousins and songs of humility and unalloyed triumph; an older woman with child who thought herself barren, and a mere girl-child, trembling before the sudden, glittering form of a being who stoops to enter her room, and toward whom she bows her head and shields her eyes because, against the evidence, she is certain she is seeing things.

We look at our own infants and imagine who they might become, what they might do, even (God forbid) the harm that might come to them and the resolve we feel to protect them from anything like that. We wonder how the world will change in the time that passes as they grow into adulthood.

In time, we realize that they are not clones of ourselves, but persons in their own right, with personalities and temperaments that may reflect our influence, yet with their own perspectives and motivations. They are not us; they have their own path to travel.

The being whom Luke names as Gabriel greets Mary in a way that is deeply troubling to her. “Greetings, most favored one! The Lord is with you.” The angel hastens to add, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for God has been gracious to you; you shall conceive and bear a son, and you shall give him the name Jesus.”

The singular event that transforms human history has begun. It begins, as Luke tells us, with a girl, one among thousands, who is filled with awe and confusion at being singled out, placed at the head of the line, in the spotlight, up on the stage.

Every woman and girl could wonder in quiet moments if she might be the one to bear the Messiah. More than one watched with secret joy at the sweetness of her child, only to have her hopes dashed when he turned out far less messianic than even the most generous grandparent could vouch for.

Luke’s Gabriel is hitting all the keys with full chords now. “He will be great,” the being sings out, “and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

There is silence. The being looks at Mary expectantly. “How can this be,” she says deadpan, “since I am a virgin?” She may have only been 14 or 15, but she knows how babies are made. The being sighs; this is going to be tougher than he thought.

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,” he says, and glances sidelong at her. “And the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God.” A simply deductive syllogism, he thinks. Two premises followed by a conclusion—a conclusion which must be true if the premises are true. And, of course, they are. There is silence. Mary’s head is down, but the being can see that her gaze is fixed and unmoving. She does not blink. He looks more closely; yes, she is still breathing.

He tries again: “And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.” He pauses. “For nothing is impossible with God,” he finishes up with a flourish. Mary’s shoulders shudder and she lifts her head. Her cheeks are wet with tears, but now she is smiling as she presses her palms into her eyes. She looks up, this girl who has been lifted and spun, whose heart is ablaze with ancient titles, prophetic proclamations, words spoken that were always like objects of wonder heard but not touched, words so overwhelming that they overshadowed the sky and made tense the present.

“Here am I,” she says in a whisper, “the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” And Luke recounts laconically, “Then the angel departed from her.”

Let us not diminish the utter awesomeness of this scene. The word ‘awesome’ has been debased in our time, liberally applied as easily to ice cream as to lending someone a stapler. I want to reserve it for the numinous, that which raises the hair on the back of your neck, that which is awe-full. “The Lord is in this place,” breathes Jacob, looking around in the velvet desert darkness as his eyes adjust to the explosion of light as ten thousand angels ascend and descend on a stairway to heaven. That’s awesome.

No matter how many times we may read of angels appearing to people in the scriptures, we mustn’t forget that it was at least as strange to them as it would be to us. The difference between them and their time and us is that we’ve built in defenses against this kind of thing, so that the numinous cannot be part of any algorithms we might use to calculate what we agree is reality.

She could have said no, Mary could. That is just one of a thousand decision-points that could have diverted or ended the stream of this story. Without that yes, that heart-stopping yes, none of our own yeses would have been possible.

The threshold at which we can linger and then stumble through into Mary’s room after the being is gone, is in the thought of the perilous journey ahead for this promised child. In a matter of moments, Mary has gone from a girl with a predictable life ahead of her to the promised portal through which the Son of God enters the world undetected. This is a joy so deep it can only be expressed with tears. There is a holy terror that rockets her up above the world, giddy at that height and breathless as she yields to the heat that courses through her body.

It is a glorious madness that she has opened herself to. If we are brave enough, we will not turn our eyes away as the arrow arcs into the sky to pierce her heart with the certainty that darkness impenetrable also lies ahead. Joy and terror; this is how her ‘Yes!’ thrills through her body.

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In his tripartite poem, Seeing Things, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney tells of crossing open water as a child from County Galway by boat to the island of Inishbofin in the Atlantic.

All the time

As we went sailing evenly across

The deep, still, seeable-down-into water,

It was as if I looked from another boat

Sailing through air, far up, and could see

How riskily we fared into the morning,

And loved in vain our bare, bowed, numbered heads.

From our distance, looking back, we are both the girl-child that says yes to the being and we are the guardians of the child still to come. Our hearts are full for that child in his early peril. In the Advent season we await his coming into a world both cruelly cold and wondrously beautiful.

Photo: Ilya Yakover, Unsplash.com

Capacious Inclusion

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I’ve got a question for the child in you before it leaves

Are you tough enough to be kind?

Do you know your heart has it’s own mind?

Darkness gathers around the light

Hold on, hold on — U2, 13 (There is a Light)

I glanced through the window of the classroom door and took a deep breath. I was just out of graduate school and this was my first day of teaching. Inside were 60 students tightly crammed into a room that comfortably held 40. The course was Jesus and the Gospels, standard religious education fare at Adventist colleges, but still my favorite of all the classes I have taught in the intervening 37 years.

I did not have a detailed lesson plan for the day beyond talking about the requirements of the course. I hoped that we could open up together about who Jesus was for us and what the Gospels meant to us. So I drew an inverted pyramid on the board with the widest side above and the narrowest point below.

“What is the most general category you could identify with as a person?,” I asked. “Where would you begin?”

If we teach as we were taught, then I was channeling teachers who had radically challenged my worldview since middle school. They assumed a wideness to the intellectual horizon before us that lifted my imagination and tilted my perspective. While I could not equal their breadth of knowledge I could at least match their enthusiasm for the subject.

And so I asked again, sensing how difficult it would be for someone to break that first-day silence. “Who are we, really?” I was realizing that posing good questions is harder than it seems. “This is not a trick question.”

At last one person raised his hand. “We are humans?” It was more a question than a statement, but it would do. It seemed a good place to start a religion class, with that which unites us in the most general and inclusive way possible. From there we stair-stepped our way down, from general to particular, from inclusive to exclusive, shifting categories up and down the column as we fine-tuned our choices.

We were playing out in practice the theory that S. I. Hayakawa, former semanticist and English professor at San Francisco State University—and later a U.S. senator from California—had proposed for understanding how words and labels affect our thinking and speaking. In public speaking, suggested Hayakawa, the specific is preferred to the general. His “ladder of abstraction” had, as its lowest rung, the general (Human) and its highest rung the particular (Annie). Abstractions can confuse and bore our audiences, he said, details focus their attention and imaginations.

True enough in a certain context, but turning the ladder upside down gave us a whole new perspective. As the students worked it out, we are humans first, male and female second, and from there the discussion flared out with many possibilities. Ethnicity next? Language? Citizenship?

At this point I suggested a swerve: what about religion? Where does that fit in? After some sifting and defining and a lot of back and forth, the class arrived at a line of descent that ran in Western history from the apostolic community to the Catholic Church through the Protestant Reformation, and then to the fracturing into denominational and sectarian fragments, of which Adventism, whose origin in 19th-century American millenarianism, was one. Adventism, then, was inserted at the bottom, the sharpest point, the narrowest passage to anything that might follow.

S. I. Hayakawa and his “ladder of abstraction” helps us understand the gradations of meaning between abstract and specific terms as part of clear communication. I was interested in how our moral and theological vision would change if we turned the ladder of abstraction upside down, began with the most inclusive category, and thought of ourselves first as members of the human race.

This may seem obvious to many, especially those who regard the human race to have evolved from simple life forms, a la Darwinism and evolutionary theory. But growing up in a religious community with a distinctive form of creationism, we were taught that humans were created in the image of God, fell into sin through a tragic error, and are now living with the consequences of that original willful misstep. It takes an act of God, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, to restore humanity to the crowning act of creation, and the shortest route to that goal is to belong to a religious tradition with clear and certain beliefs that are founded on Scriptural and theological truth. Believing the right ideas and behaving according to the rules is how one proceeds through life. Thus, it is a matter of supreme importance, one that has eternal consequences, to belong to the right religious body. If you grow up in this way you identify as an Adventist first and everything else after that.

Or an orthodox Jew or a deeply observant Muslim or, for that matter, a political ideologue committed to the Party above all. What all these religious and political bodies offer is a framework within which our personal identities can be developed—nurtured even—and ultimately compressed into similar forms. There is stability, consistency, a reliable level of expectation, and a sense of belonging to a movement that can put things right. But resentment and envy can grow where contractual obligations stand in the place of the risk of faith.

Our identity is built up over a lifetime, but begins with an irritant like a grain of sand: Who am I? What am I to do? Whether it becomes a pearl or a festering sore is largely the result of a myriad of decisions, some imposed upon us as children and others carved out of our own experience as we gauge the distance from where we are to the sunlit clearing up ahead where we think we want to be.

Of the many quotes from Ellen White, one of the founders of the Adventist church, that my generation took in as youth, the one that moved me the most and has remained a touchstone for me as a teacher is, “It is the work of true education to develop this power, to train the youth to be thinkers, and not mere reflectors of other men’s thoughts,” from the book, Education.

Adopted as a general principle of education this idea has a quietly revolutionary power to it. It suggests first, that thinking is not incidental, but is the goal of true education; that no matter what the content of the course, the primary outcome should be the training of the mind for independent thinking. Second, that thoughtful reflection within a religious context is not an adjunct to religious rules and practices but is the grammar and language of one’s spiritual expression. And finally, that for all the knowledge one might gain from others, there is no substitute for personal experience.

At no other time in history have we had the capacity to know so much about other religions, cultures, mindsets, and philosophies of life. Yet, on all sides we see not openness and capaciousness, but fearfulness and divisiveness and retreat. This is not the first time in history for such a reaction, and it most certainly will not be the last, but neither is it the worst expression of this debilitating exclusivity. But we must take responsibility for our own ignorance and fear. A good start is to think of ourselves as belonging to the human family.

I remember an afternoon spent in a open-air market in Bali, when two young Balinese men and I began a conversation near a memorial to the bombing in 2002 which took the lives of over 200 people from 22 nations and injured hundreds more. A granite slab with the names of the victims now stands where the pub that was the initial target was incinerated in the blast. The two had been teenagers when the bombing occurred and knew some of the Balinese victims. They taught me some Indonesian words and I taught them some English. We talked about Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. They talked about their families; I talked about mine. They spoke of their hopes for a university education and I shared my love of teaching with them. Nothing earthshaking, no headlines, but simply three people overcoming numerous barriers to communication for the joy of understanding another person, another culture.

Looking back over a lifetime of teaching and learning, my willingness to be open to different ideas and experiences has varied in proportion to my confidence that I am always on the road to Emmaus, and whoever my companion of the moment may be there is, as Eliot wrote, ”a third who walks always beside” us.

Having begun my teaching life in an Adventist college, with every intention of staying there, I smile to find myself through circumstance, temperament, and opportunity, one semester from completing that trajectory in a Catholic women’s college serving students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“What you must realize, what you must even come to praise, is the fact that there is no right way that is going to become apparent to you once and for all. . . Wisdom is accepting the truth of this. Courage is persisting with life in spite of it. And faith is finding yourself, in the deepest part of your soul, in the very heart of who you are, moved to praise it.” — Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss.

Photo: Ben White, Unsplash.com

A (Very) Brief History of Silence

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Emma González, one of the last of the student speakers at the March for Life in Washington, D.C., called out all 17 names of the students murdered in the Parkland shooting, and then fell silent. As she gazed out over the enormous throng on the Mall, the minutes ticked slowly by. At first, the crowd thought she had been overcome with emotion, but although tears trickled down her cheeks, she did not waver. Three minutes went by and some in the crowd raised a cheer to fill the silence. Four minutes, and by now we understood that she had a purpose in mind. Many in the crowd around me bowed their heads and wept. Finally, she spoke again: “Since the time that I came out here, it has been 6 minutes and 20 seconds, the shooter has ceased shooting and will soon abandon his rifle and blend in with the students so he can walk free for an hour before arrest.”

Silence can be a presence and a protest. Sometimes it’s a cold absence. But it is never nothing. It can make a difference to one’s spirit to know these silences.

In the Bible there is the silence of God’s darkness in the Psalms, the main exhibit being Psalm 88; there is the silence of fidelity in Jesus’ response to his captors; the silence of endurance of God toward Jesus’ agony on the cross; and the silence of awe and understanding in Revelation 8 when heaven itself falls silent for half an hour.

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The Silence of God’s Darkness

N. T. Wright, in his book, Evil and the Justice of God, has called Psalm 88 “the darkest and most hopeless of any prayer in Scripture.” The psalm is not a theological treatise, it’s not interested in speculation. It’s a brutal eyewitness account of what it’s like to be a partner to a God who does not answer when the situation is dire.

Walter Brueggemann calls Psalm 88 one of the “Psalms of disorientation” in The Message of the Psalms. These Psalms speak of terror, the sense of forsakenness, the inexplicable silence of God. Brueggemann says, “The truth of this psalm is that Israel lives in a world where there is no answer.”

In verses 6-9, the Psalmist calls out in sorrow and anger. Not only has he descended to the Pit, but it’s Yahweh who put him there. “You have made me a thing of horror.” God doesn’t come off well here. “Do you work wonders for the dead?” cries the Psalmist. “Are your wonders known in the darkness?” Of course not.

But the silence of God does not silence the speaker. There is no atheism here or rejection of God. The speaker redoubles his efforts to break through the silence and to force God to act. As Brueggeman says, “Yahweh must be addressed, even if Yahweh never answers.”

The Psalm closes in desperation: “Your wrath has swept over me, your dread assaults destroy me.” You’d think some of this would rouse Yahweh to respond or even just to acknowledge the situation. But no. The Psalm ends as it began—in darkness and silence, but this time a darkness that is brought on by Yahweh in contrast to the natural darkness of the night.

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The Silence of Fidelity

Jesus’ silence before those who mock him at his trial is the silence of fidelity, of staying true to his vision of God rather than escaping to fight another day. Even in captivity, Jesus regards his tormentors with assurance and humility. He will neither elaborate upon nor dumb down that which he has already revealed about the character of God and his Kingdom in a multitude of ways over many encounters.

“When violent resistance to evil is renounced,” says Jack Miles in his book, Christ, “there is no guarantee that dignity or decorum will be retained.” When the righteous are mocked in the Psalms they complain, expecting the Lord to smash the wicked in the mouth. But here God is laughed at in the person of Jesus. Miles continues: “If God has not spared himself ridicule, his people cannot expect that he will spare them. The psalmbook has to be read in a new way. The servant, as he has reminded them, is not greater than the master.”

In his brief but pointed exchanges with Annas and Caiaphas, the high priests at his trial, Jesus refuses to engage them, while pointing out that he has taught openly in their synagogues and the Temple. “Why ask me?” he says. “Ask my hearers about my teaching.” And then calmly: “They know what I said.”

“My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus says before Pilate. “So, then, you are a king.” Jesus replies, ‘It is you who say that I am a king.’ Miles comments that “His confrontation with Pilate marks the birth of the Western tradition of nonviolent resistance.”

In his silence toward his captors Jesus fights for the greater cause and God’s longer game. He may not have understood all the moves in this game, but he trusted that God had the upper hand in this cosmic battle. That is why Jesus could commend his spirit to God, even when he felt forsaken by God in his agony on the cross.

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The Silence of Endurance

God’s silence toward Jesus on the cross is a silence of endurance. ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ Jesus cries, the prayer that God does not answer.

Jesus’ agony on the cross is mirrored by God’s agony of silence. In the Christian mythos this is the culminating moment in cosmic history and God will not intervene. This is not about God requiring His pound of flesh in some legalistic payback scheme; it’s about revealing the lengths to which God—and God in Christ— is willing to go to show that love wins in the end over hatred.

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The Silence of Awe and Understanding

In the clangor and violence of the Book of Revelation there comes a breathtaking moment: “When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour,” Revelation 8:1 recounts. “On the whole,” writes Sigve Tonstad in God of Sense and Traditions of Non-Sense, “Revelation depicts heaven as a noisy place. But silence is itself a distinctive category of response, the most spontaneous and intuitive form of reacting to the unexpected and the most trustworthy measure of the magnitude of the surprise.”

The breaking of the seventh seal rips a sharp intake of breath in heaven. There are no words. It is the sigh of understanding that all religions and faiths and peoples have longed for throughout the ages.

“After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands (Rev. 7:9).” It is the culmination, at this stage, of what can be experienced of God by humans.

But this is also just the beginning of what the apostle Paul looked for, the revelation of which is to “know as we are known.” For those caught up in God, entheos,the glass, so dark before, grows brighter moment by moment.

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In the Tao Te Ching, the book of Taoism, emptiness has a place. “We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want. We hammer wood for a house, but it is the inner space that makes it livable. We work with being, but non-being is what we use.”

Emptiness, silence — these elements in Taoism are regarded not as negation or lack, but rather a presence to be apprehended through intuition.

The Hebrew metaphysic is quite different. Emptiness and silence are to be resisted; they are an affront to the soul, a setback to the vigorous movement of the body through the obstacles strewn in our way in this life. God, having once spoken, is not allowed to remain silent, not even to take a breather out of sight in an adjacent room from the clamorous clanging of His errant children. The great Hebrew visionaries, the Psalmist among them, take their cues for meaning from the Creator: words bring objects into being and words create reality. Silence is dismissal, not conversation in another musical scale. For this we should be grateful, since it is through words that many of us live and move and have our being. What you cannot construct with your hands you can imagine with your mind and bring into being with your words.

Perhaps if it were not for the righteous fury of the prophets and the Psalmist in the silent darkness of God, we could not bear to hear from those in the Christian tradition who have learned to live in that silence—people such as St. John of the Cross, St. Therese of Avila, Thomas a Kempis, Thomas Merton and C. S. Lewis. Like the Psalmist, they did not shrink from the plain reality that for us God is often silent too and clothed in darkness.

Until we see God face to face, we must take the dark with the light, and find in God’s silence our memory and our future in faith. “Silence is the language of faith,” says Christian Wiman. “Action—be it church or charity, politics or poetry—is the translation . . . It is also true that without these constant translations into action, that original, sustaining silence begins to be less powerful, and then less accessible, and then finally impossible.”

To see and understand in this way in this life is the working out of our faith within the world’s travails. But it is also the anticipation of a much deeper understanding of God through the eucatastrophe, the ‘good down stroke or breaking in,’ of God that will reveal the knower to the known.

Photo: Nicola Fioravanti, Unsplash.com

Practicing the Grace We Have Received

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Pixabay, Graphic: Barry Casey