Accept Your Wilderness

Photo by J. Yotirmoy-Gupta, Unsplash

“If, without our choice or contrivance, feelings arise within us which cause distress, then Christ is there in the distress itself, not to save us from the pain of rebirth but to assure us that we are indeed being born again.”1

In 1968 Joan Didion’s seminal collection of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, was published, capturing the tumultuous times in a form that set the standard for a cooly detached style which burned with wicked details. She took her title from Yeat’s The Second Coming, a poem whose shelf-life is eternal because it depicts the era that everyone imagines is their own.

I am no different: the lines “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,”2 seem written with 2020 up on the screen. Do we really want to glimpse the rough beast which slouches toward Bethlehem? To call upon another poet, it will be “a hard and bitter agony.”3 But birth is a sign of hope, however dubious, in a burning world. Would it be too much to imagine the innocence that waits to be born in these scarring times?

In 1968 I was sixteen, growing up in Northern California in the hills above the Napa Valley. It was a year in which the visible edge of the world seemed to fray and tear, like a flag whipped to a thinness that could not survive another gust.

In April of that year, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated and in June, Robert Kennedy—the last best hope of many—was slain by the bullets of Sirhan Sirhan. To a teenager becoming alert to the interplay of politics, power, and prejudice, poetry seemed more solid than the frantic calliope of the nightly news. Yeat’s poem could have been the caption for that year in a catalogue of the Sixties.

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.”4

In the Christian community in which I grew up there was sporadic passionate intensity about the Second Coming. Civil unrest, rioting in the streets, the Vietnam War, demonstrators marching for their civil rights—all pointed to the soon-coming of Jesus. So said some, but others advised caution. Our denomination was birthed by those who believed that Christ would return in 1844, only to be greatly disappointed. That lingering disappointment translated politically into a demure Republicanism, more concerned with the appearance of defiance than the actual injustices that lit the protests. Nevertheless, a society upended was fair game for the Apocalypse, and I could not help but wonder if the world would last long enough for me to finish college.

***

Jesus calls us, unequivocally I believe, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, take in the stranger, help the ill, and visit the prisoner. “I tell you this,” he says to the disciples, “anything you did for one of my brothers here, however humble, you did for me.”5 We will be judged, he continues, on these criteria.

If that is true, then Dr. Rieux in Camus’ The Plague, would enter heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father before many Christians, myself included. Rieux, who stoically attended to the victims of the plague despite the danger to himself and who, without appealing to divine intervention, simply got down to work, day after day, was my literary hero in college. Motivated neither by reward nor punishment, he went about his business without complaint, but also without hope. That is where I reluctantly fell back to let Camus go ahead with his doctor; hope in God’s redeeming power was central to Christian faith and I could not let it go.

Broadly stated, this was my dilemma: Camus had no ethical system and no religion too, but he did the right thing simply because it was right, and the dignity of humankind demanded it. And in contrast, there were many Christians responding to Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats solely from self-interest. Take away the lure of heaven or the threat of hell, carrot or stick, and how many of us would pass the test? If motive is essential, then, as Kierkegaard remarked, “purity of heart is to will one thing.”

Furthermore, Camus and his doctor found respite in the midst of duty in the simple pleasures of sky, sea, bread, wine, and companionship. They were grounded in this world, content to find their fulfillment in the years they had left and then to die. There was a noble simplicity in that which I found—and still find—attractive. And why were so many of us Christians so anxious to shuck off this world like a raggedy old coat? Had we not learned anything about endurance, the brother of faith?

Right now, I am asking myself if a belief and a hope in change for the better in this world is just naive. A reductionist view of life says that this is all there is, so . . . what? Just keep on dancing, a la Peggy Lee’s song? That is resignation and passivity. Create meaning for our lives out of the constant struggle for survival? That is easier described than lived—it is the raw experience for millions of people—but it is more likely to wear people down, corrode their trust, and leave them cynical and defeated.

We are finite beings. Our limitations bind us within time and space. “The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong . . . They are soon gone, and we fly away.”6

We are finite beings and we have our limits. And at this moment here in this country, a limit has been reached. What African-Americans have been choking on all their lives, we white people are awakening to. Their wilderness of isolation, in which they were not heard, has been breached by a gasp, “I can’t breathe!” Our wilderness of temptation lies ahead.

***

When Jesus rises from the muddy waters of the Jordan at the hand of John, his cousin and his baptizer, it is his first public step toward his destiny. The Spirit descends on him as one chosen and lifted to do great things. It is a moment of birth into a life opening up to light and wonder. But light and shadow are never apart and up ahead there is darkness.

Mark’s Gospel says the same Spirit that blessed him and graced him with favor “drove” him into the wilderness. Actually, the word is “thrown out.” Jesus is flung from ecstasy into temptation, after the passing brush of his Father’s reassuring touch on his shoulder. Before Jesus will utter a syllable as God’s Word in the world, he is tested in every way possible. His wilderness is to walk through this world all alone with only the memory of God’s favor like a fading flavor on his tongue.

And now we are being tempted by Satan. Tempted to give in and give up. Tempted to cynicism because we’ve been here before and nothing came of it. Tempted to despair because we fear that change will not come in our lifetime nor in the time of those who come after us. Most of all, we are tempted to abandon love because we don’t want to look like fools, putting our trust in something so right. How fragile we are! Behind all this “is the temptation to disbelieve in what we are, the temptation to distrust ourselves, to deny that it is the Spirit Himself which beareth witness with our spirit. God in us,” says Harry Williams in The True Wilderness.7

We must extend our peripheral vision without judgment or paranoia. At the edges of our seeing is where the truth has been all along, but we’ve only wanted the things we cannot see. White Christians will make a choice: either to continue supporting an order that assumes inequality and upholds racism or make the difficult path through the wilderness to where Jesus is. It is the work of lifetimes, repeated, constant.

“But I say courage is not the abnormal . . .

Not strangeness, but a leap forward of the same quality . . .

Steady and clear.

It is the normal excellence, of long accomplishment.”8

This is not a path that the institutional Church can navigate, but maybe it will encourage the smaller groups and communities of people in its midst who have found each other—the portable churches. There must be thousands such groups across all churches, made up of diverse peoples practicing the steady work of discipleship.

This calls for a particular kind of faith and courage, the kind that takes a deep breath and plunges into the life Paul describes as “Christ in you.” “The Spirit is ourselves in the depths of what we are,” says Williams. “It is me at the profoundest level of my being, the level at which I can no longer distinguish between what is myself and what is greater than me.”9

The gap between who we are, really, and what we think of ourselves narrows the wider our acceptance of who Christ thinks we are. If we enter our wilderness in humility, and with joy, we will see our light come shining.

  1. Williams, H. A. The True Wilderness. London: Penguin Books, 1965, p. 40.
  2. Yeats, W. B. The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats. New York: Macmillan, 1989, p. 187.
  3. Eliot, T. S. “The Journey of the Magi,” in Collected Poems. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, p. 100.
  4. Yeats, p. 187.
  5. Matt. 25:40 NEB.
  6. Ps. 90:10 NRSV>
  7. Williams, p. 33.
  8. Gilbert, Jack. “The Abnormal is not Courage.” Quoted in Hirshfield, Jane, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. New York: HarperCollins, 1997, pp. 162,163.
  9. Williams, p. 33.

Apocalypse When?

Photo: Jason Wong, Unsplash

“If hope means a number of things, it certainly means the ability to wait . . . Pure religion and pure Christianity, therefore, call both for the power to wish and act and the equal power of ascetic waiting.” 1— William Lynch

I belong to a religious tradition which believes it must be watchful and active as it waits for the end times to begin. Many believe that we are living now in those end times, that the generally decaying sense of order—civil, social, political, and environmental—are sureties that the world is ending, and Christ will soon return. My grandparents felt that way under different, but no less alarming, circumstances. And in 1844, the founders of my church left everything to wait for the imminent return of the Lord. He didn’t come, the date passed, and now we somewhat ruefully remember every October 22 as “The Great Disappointment.”

Like every community which has looked for the return of the Christ, we have had to answer— if only to ourselves — why the Second Advent hasn’t happened yet. It isn’t as if we are daily confronted by the jeers of the cynics or the accusations of those who feel betrayed in their belief. People have their own problems, making their way through the world from day to day; they don’t add to their own burdens by worrying about a cosmic event for which they have only the word of the professionally nervous.

The imminence of Christ’s return was always part of my own consciousness as a child. It was the far boundary of my imagination, the limit of what was possible in my lifetime, yet my mind refused to linger on the details of the chaos and horror that would precede it. We knew the natural order would be thrown over, earthquakes and violent storms would prevail, the moon would turn to blood and the sun be darkened, the stars would fall, and the seas would rise, and plagues would slay millions.

The unspoken assumption, as I remember it, was that we—those who had been faithful—would survive this peril and would live to witness Christ’s return. We would be spared, although our neighbors might not be. Like a tornado that rips through a town, taking out a swath of houses, but leaving one miraculously intact, we would have a force field around us that kept us safe. We would be preserved. The lesson for us children was to be ready and righteous.

***

Woody Allen said, “I’m not afraid of dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” That’s how I felt about the Second Coming when I was a teenager. This was more than a simple desire to dodge a raging conflagration, although there was, naturally, a low-grade fever of fear at what those times could bring. There was a whole welter of tangled emotions churning through me, along with confusion and bewilderment. Couldn’t we go from things being unpleasant, but not deadly, to the resolution of justice in the world and peace forevermore? Scripture said, “He shall wipe away every tear and sin shall be no more.” That sounded good—let’s just do that and skip all the stuff in between.

What I came to realize in time is that none of this is under our control. There were those who claimed that God was preparing a people who would perfectly reflect his character. Once that was achieved, God would feel free to return and claim us all as his own. But surely in all these thousands of years there were times and peoples who could be trusted to be more faithful than us? And doesn’t that mean that we who claim to follow Christ are holding up the Earth made new for everybody just because we can’t stop lying or coveting our neighbor’s ox?

There were others who claimed that God would step in when the world reached a crisis point, to save us from ourselves. But haven’t there been innumerable times when it seemed we had finally pulled the pin from the grenade in our mutually assured destruction? Two world wars, constant regional conflicts, genocide, oppression on a vast scale, human trafficking, corruption in high places and policies that destroy the social fabric and corrode trust among people—add them up. And, of course, if the Holocaust wasn’t enough for a divine intervention, who could predict a worse event? How much suffering is enough? This is about moral evil, what we do to each other from within our God-given freedom.

Then there is the natural world and the diverse ways in which we harrow, poison, tear, smash, pollute, and foul our oikos, our home. The ice caps are gushing like rivers, the seas are rising, and we’ve just had the hottest decade on record. If God intervened to save the Earth from our recklessness, wouldn’t now be a good time?

For some, the optimistic ones, the cure is to live on this side of that threshold of pain, to deny the reality of it and turn away, rather than allow themselves to be overwhelmed and distracted. Focusing on the good in life raises the spirits and keeps the heart uplifted. Don’t worry, be happy.

Others of us, myself included, struggle continuously to rejoice in the good that we see. We live precisely on the pain threshold, neither in nor out. On one side lies the optimistic life, an attitude of heartiness and good cheer. There are no problems that cannot be solved, God smooths the path before us—we have only to wake up and sally forth into the world. Some versions of this believe that sadness shows distrust of God, and more extreme forms find melancholy intolerable. God wants us to be happy—and rich. Pull yourself together, they say, God wants to make you a winner.

On the other side is the pessimistic life, those whose first thought is of failure and despair. They cannot believe that goodness and joy could ever be theirs for they do not and cannot deserve it. God looms over them as a terrifying presence and their every mistake further condemns them in their own eyes. There is no comfort to be found in God, only judgment and anger.

For those of us living on the threshold, the pain of this world is continually before us. Like the pessimist, we see how dark the human experience is. Our eyes glaze over. These horrors appear embedded for eternity as our folly. There is always another place and another people worse off than we are. Every day is a breaking point for millions in this world. For millions of people, this life is apocalypse now, and they die without justice or remembrance. Why should tomorrow be any different?

“Do you want to change the world?” asks the Tao Te Ching, “I don’t think it can be done.” I resisted that idea because it seemed so passive, even defeatist. Protestantism believes we are malleable, that we can change, we must change. Not too long ago, American optimism believed that enough of us changing together for the better could create a better world. Surely, as the saying goes, we should be the change we want to see. I also resisted the virus that seems to afflict the old—expecting the worst of people and finding some perverse pleasure in fulfilling that prophecy by goading others into being their worst selves.

The question for those of us who default naturally to the tragic, and who smile wistfully at the heroic, is whether the stoic is enough. The light version of the stoic is to endure without complaint, doing one’s best under the circumstances. We could all do with more of that. The deeper, more philosophical version, what is called Stoicism, has a nobility about it that is attractive. But there is also a coldness toward the world and one’s life that sidesteps the joy that is possible for the Christian.

The tragic view of life takes account of the world’s pain, remembers it, and honors it. To live as much as possible without adding to the pain of others is the ethical minimum; to share in the suffering as God may lead us is part of discipleship. To have a tragic sense about life is to live in revolt against the sin that besets us, to know the price that sin exacts, and to live with gratitude for the hope that is within us.

For those of us who find ourselves on the threshold, the prosperity gospel in all its mutations horrifies us, the church triumphant raises suspicion, a blinkered certainty confounds and distances us. But for that very reason hope means a great deal to us. We “hope against hope” and live constantly with the refrain, “I have faith! Help my unfaith!”

“In some, then, what is present is to be nourished,” said Augustine in a famous sermon. “In some, what may be lacking is to be kindled; so that we may all rejoice together in one single charity. Where there is charity, there is peace: where there is humility, there is charity.”2

Augustine is speaking of a community of hope, for charity, peace, and humility emerge into the light between people and are insubstantial when trapped in theory. And that’s the rub for people like me: feeling at home in a community. Naturally reticent, introverted by nature, belonging comes easier than joining. Yet, the Old Testament testifies, above all, to a people who are in a relationship with God together, as fractious and ragged as it may be. The New Testament amplifies that theme, now expanding the community to include anyone—in fact, every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. That’s the invitation, open and waiting.

I don’t know if we are in the last days. Sometimes, reading the news, it feels that way. It certainly felt that way to people suffering during the Mongol invasions, or the Black Plague, or the Soviet gulag, or genocide in Rwanda. For all those who were burned out of their homes, beaten and harassed, and finally lynched, those were the last days.

The world goes on, and as long as it does the invitation to make a community that loves in spite of itself, that resists all attempts to monetize itself, that actively waits in hope and creates beauty—that invitation stands.

  1. Lynch, William F. Images of Hope: Imagination as Healer of the Hopeless. University of Notre Dame, IN: 1974, pp. 177,178.
  2. Augustine. Augustine: Later Works. Selected and translated with Introduction by John Burnaby. The Library of Christian Classics, Ichthus edition. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, p. 259

In the Foothills of Mount Purgatory

Photo: Louis Hansel, Unsplash

“Horrible was the nature of my sins,

but boundless mercy stretches out its arms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“Horrible was the nature of my sins,

but boundless mercy stretches out its arms

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

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

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

for Everlasting Love may still return,

if hope reveals the slightest hint of green.”3

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lear to Luton

Photo: Andres Fernandez, Unsplash

”So we’ll live,

And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh . . .

And take upon’s the mystery of things,

As if we were God’s spies . . .” — Shakespeare, King Lear1

I am trying to take account of my life, of how I have spent my time, what I have given and received, what I have seen and not understood, what I have understood that has changed my steps. I have often had the prescience—felt more than reasoned—of a vast world surrounding us under a dome of patient silence. That world waits for us with the dignity of ancient headlands fronting the sea, less in confrontation than in invitation. At the “thin places” between our worlds one can step through, even if only for a moment, into a bracing freshness and light much to be desired.

***

I was driving out to church through a pack of police cars, emergency vehicles, cordoned-off areas, and press vans near the entrance to our neighborhood. When I got back, the story was all over our local news. A young man, a recent high school graduate, had been murdered. Details were sketchy, but he had been shot in the early morning hours outside his home. He was a week away from beginning university, the eldest of four boys.

The next morning, when I was returning from a walk in the woods, I met the woman—every neighborhood has one—who knows everyone and everything that happens around our streets. Every day she walks the sidewalks and lanes of our court, constantly on the phone, puffing her cigarettes. She had spent most of the previous day with the family, doing what she could to help ease their pain as relatives arrived from North Carolina and other parts.

“You heard what happened?” she asked hoarsely. I nodded. She told me of the impromptu vigil that had been held the night before, of the media asking everyone for their comments. “Don’t go visit them,” she warned. “They’re in a lot of pain.”

Somewhere, Ellen White urges us to “heed the promptings of the Holy Spirit,” or less didactically, to join the impulse to do something good. In spite of my neighbor’s well-intentioned argument, I was being prompted. The incessant shootings—not only the frequent massacres in public spaces in America, but the steady ratcheting-up of violence toward young African American men—ticked away in my head. I could picture the scene: three shots in the night, the mother recovering from back surgery, but oblivious to her pain as she flings herself down the stairs to where her son lies bleeding out. However belated, however ineffectual, perhaps I could share in that family’s suffering and in some way push back against this madness.

But then my impulse tripped over all the socio-cultural-political furniture strewn about in the living room of my generation. What presumption to suppose that an older white man could understand the accumulated grief of an African American family. What hubris to intrude upon someone’s home. What foolishness to imagine that anything I could say would bring them solace. The paralysis of second-guessing one’s motives. “I assume,” observes Erving Goffman in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, “that when an individual appears before others he will have many motives for trying to control the impression they receive of the situation.”2 I could only wonder what mine were. Was it inevitable that I had any motive other than “bearing another’s burdens?”

Then I stepped through the thin place and saw things more clearly. When the particulars complicate unnecessarily, go with the universals. The universals, as I saw them, were father to father, man to man, human to human. At some level of working faith, we have to trust that the Spirit will guide our steps in humility and give us the words.

As I approached the townhouse, a boy and a young man were on the front steps. I was led inside, and the father was called to come down. We shook hands. “I am so sorry,” I said. He looked up then and his eyes moistened. He waved his hand and shook his head. “He’d come all this way, no trouble with the police, no drugs, a good boy. Going to university next week. His whole life before him.” He choked up then, as I did, and he turned toward me, tears glistening on his cheeks, and we wept on each other’s shoulders. I asked him if he had a photo of his boy. I saw a young man, bright with promise, forever held in the amber of his high school senior portrait. He thanked me for coming; I walked out into the heat and humidity of the day and exhaled.

That afternoon my wife and I went to see Blinded by the Light, a gem of an indie movie about a young British-Pakistani teenager growing up in Luton, an industrial city just north of London. Amidst the strains of being a child born in England to immigrant parents, Javed faces racial harassment from local skinheads, and misunderstanding and contempt for being a Muslim. In Margaret Thatcher’s era, with millions being laid off, coal mines closing, and the National Front on the rise, it is an anxious and discomfiting time. When his father loses his job at a factory, the burden of paying the bills falls on Javed’s mother, a seamstress. With his older sister preparing for her marriage and his father making the rounds of hiring centers with no luck, the young man is desperate to get out of Luton (and as someone who once trudged across that city in the dead of night after crossing the Channel, I can sympathize) to pursue his dreams of being a writer.

At his sixth-form college he is befriended by Roop, also the son of immigrants—and a passionate fan of Bruce Springsteen. He lends Javed two cassettes of Springsteen’s music. “Listen to them, guard them with your life,” he commands. “They’re by the Boss.” “What boss?” Javed asks, confused. “The Boss of us all,” says Roop.

And he does listen, at first with curiosity and then avidly, as Springsteen’s songs of factory workers, broken dreams, and a will to rise above it all through grit and hope surge through him. “It’s like he was speaking right to me,” Javed enthuses to Roop, who nods knowingly. They are secular psalms that reach him in the pit of his despair and raise him up. His English literature teacher asks to read his poems and journals, and through her encouragement and prodding he begins to blossom as a writer. His dream is to enter the creative writing program at Manchester University.

In one of the best scenes in the film his father asks, “Do you know why I want you to study hard?” “Umm,” responds Javed, “so I can broaden my mind, learn about the world, and be inspired to make a difference?” “No,” his father snaps. “It is to get a good job and make money.”

Springsteen’s father could not understand his son’s driving ambition to make music; Javed’s father cannot understand why his son wants to write. When Javed gets an unpaid internship at a local newspaper his father is both furious and bewildered. “Why would you work and not get paid?” he shouts. “It’s experience, Dad. It’s what I want to do.” Father and son face each other across their own desperation, the father in shame because he cannot provide for his family, the son because he wants so much to know who he is and what he can do.

“Mister I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man/And I believe in the promised land,” is the mantra that impels him onward.

“For the ones who had a notion

A notion deep inside

That it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive . . .”3

He wins a scholarship in a writing contest that brings him to Monmouth College for a conference, just a few miles from Asbury Park, New Jersey, where Springsteen grew up. When he and Roop return home, after a delirious tour of The Boss’s hometown sites, Javed stands up at an awards ceremony at his college to read from his winning essay. But a few paragraphs in he falters, seeing his parents and his sister coming in to stand in the back of the hall. Extemporaneously, he speaks from the heart about what he’d learned from The Boss, what he was growing to be, and how much he wanted to make a bridge between the world of his father and his own rising world.

“I believe in the love that you gave me

I believe in the hope that can save me

I believe in the faith

And I pray that some day it may raise me

Above these badlands”4

***

At the end of that day I thought about fathers and sons, about dreams deferred and hopes placed in others. I thought about our stumbling attempts to walk a straight and true path, and the burdens we place on each other from fear. I thought about Life and Art, and how they can be distinguished, but not separated. Like Javed, Springsteen’s music has brought me light and hope in dark times. It is one of the many trails to the Spirit that I have found.

And I thought of the grief of my neighbors and prayed that it could be borne until such time as they could take a breath without pain in remembering the joys of a young man who lived as if to say, “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.”

  1. Shakespeare, King Lear, Act V, Sc III.
  2. Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday, 1959, p. 15.
  3. Bruce Springsteen. “Badlands.” Downtown Music Publishing.
  4. Bruce Springsteen. “Badlands.” Downtown Music Publishing.

Glory Days

Paul is perhaps the greatest poet of personal religion . . . The first romantic poet in history.”1

Photo: Marius Christiansen, Unsplash

Those who set out to write The Great American Novel after Huckleberry Finn are doomed to failure, although the attempt has produced works worthy of admiration, and inevitably, emulation. Did Twain know he was writing literature that would not only have a shelf-life beyond his own mortality, but would stand as a story that continues to delight and enrage people to the present day? Did the artist known as Homer grasp that his Iliad and Odyssey would become the templates for war novels, road trip movies, and epics of war heroes returning home in disguise? Probably not, although in Dante’s case he was pretty matter of fact that his Divine Commedia was destined for greatness, and within his lifetime it was proven so.

We make our judgments about what is good-better-best when we have more than one thing to compare. We rely on our experience and, probably more than we should, on what experts tell us. We know what we like to read, what moves us and fills our heads with strange and huge ideas.

But when it comes to the Bible, particularly the New Testament, we rarely think of the beauty of the writing. We’re concerned for the authenticity of the voice and the orthodoxy of the theology. The irony is that none of the writers of the New Testament thought of themselves as theologians. They wrote what they saw and imagined and recalled within their communities as they were moved by the Spirit of God. That any of their narratives came together in the first place, particularly the Gospels, seems like something of a miracle in itself.

When we realize that post-resurrection believers of the Way, who lived and worked and worshipped together weekly, exchanging stories of ‘the Christ,” did so without any of the written texts that we know as the Gospels—did so for some forty years, an entire generation—it should give us pause as we dust off that paperback version of the New Testament which can be had for the price of a latte.

Editions of the Bible, niche-marketed more heavily than any other book in the world, may strike us as opportunistic (a “Souldiers Bible,” a Protestant version, was carried by Oliver Cromwell’s troops), the goal of Bible publishers being to spread the Word by any means necessary. Annual sales of the Bible top $425 million, with over 80,000 versions loose in the world today (Brandon Gaille.com). Zondervan alone has over 350 versions of the Bible in print, and in any given year over 20 million Bibles are sold in the United States. The average Christian owns at least nine versions of the Bible, nevertheless twelve percent of American Christians think that Noah was married to Joan of Arc.2

Thus, we idealize the Biblical authors in such ways that we don’t see them having a life apart from their writings. Amos is “among the shepherds of Tekoa” when he is gripped by God to prophesy. We don’t know how he felt about this disruption to his life. Given that the message he carried was of woe and darkness, it couldn’t have given him much comfort or ease among those with ears to hear. Was he a shepherd himself? We assume so, but we don’t know. Did he go back to sheepherding after his prophecies thundered out?

Maybe they came in spurts as he meditated on the hills with his flocks. Maybe he carried them in his head until such time as he could write them down—and how remarkable that he was literate. Did he exult at the excoriations of Israel’s neighbors and tremble at the judgements on Judah and Israel for their triple transgressions? When he was bashing the rich and indolent women of Bashan for their vanity and cruelty, did he imagine that thousands of years later we would read of them dragged out through their breached city walls by fishhooks through their noses and cheeks?

Isaiah—and then Second Isaiah and probably a Third Isaiah—are years apart as authors, their writings spliced by anonymous editors into some of the most beautiful, heartbreaking, jaw-dropping poems of grief, exultation, and glory in the Western canon. As Robert Alter notes in his magnum opus, the translation of The Hebrew Bible, “It is above all the vehicle of poetry in all these prophets that demands close attention . . . and it is perfectly fitting that God should address Israel not in prose, which is closer to the language of everyday human intercourse, but in the elevated and impressive diction of poetry.”3 Were they writing for the ages or for their own time?

We want to know their motivation for writing, the methods they used, whether the writing itself was a burden or a joy or something they saw as a holy duty. In contrast to the best-selling authors of our time, they functioned as conduits instead of celebrities in their own right. We infer their temperament and purpose from the broad strokes of their writings.

The author of Mark writes a hasty, breathless, and down-home form of Greek. It is a compressed narrative that Matthew and Luke expand, revise, and extend. Matthew’s constant citing of Hebrew prophecies and laws reveals Jesus as the fulfillment of centuries-old hopes. Luke begins his gospel with a personal salutation, but then drops into the background and stays there, even through his sequel in Acts, appearing obliquely as the companion of Paul. John offers some tantalizing hints about himself as “the disciple Jesus loved” and “this is the disciple who is testifying,” and then finally, in the last verse, emerges onto the stage himself to say, “I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” about his best friend.

But it is in Paul’s letters—all of them written in a fairly short span between the middle fifties and sixties before his execution, probably in CE 64—that we get a sense of a Biblical author in some detail. He can be, and probably was, an infuriating person. He certainly provoked enough animosity to be beaten, threatened by mobs, chased out of towns, and forced to flee for his life more than once.

That he was an extraordinary person is beyond question. Fluent in several languages, he was fueled from a passionate core that took him from being one zealous for God to the point of having a license to hunt down the people of the Way, to one equally zealous in the service of the risen Christ. The man who could roundly curse his opponents in Galatia by calling them “dogs” could also write a panegyric on love in First Corinthians 13 that has never been equalled.

There is no disputing that what we know as Christianity owes its existence in large measure to this indefatigable little man, small enough to be lowered in a basket over a city wall, who traveled thousands of miles, usually on foot, for some thirty years, establishing small communities of believers in cities throughout Asia Minor.

He remained a faithful Jew all his life, but one who had his spiritual and intellectual axis violently recalibrated by a vision of the risen Christ. For him, this crucified Jesus had breached the defenses of the principalities and powers of this dark world, and had brought heaven and earth together. God, through Jesus, had bridged the abyss between divine and human, reconciling the world to himself, and it was Paul’s honor to carry that message and to suffer with Christ.

There are few people like Paul. He was relentless in his purpose, unwearying in his efforts to build communities of people who would cease to live for themselves and instead be the hands of God in the world. Confident to a fault, he could yet call himself “chief among sinners,” and in his lowest moments wonder if he had wasted his life for no purpose.

In his second letter to the Corinthians he confides that “we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself (2 Cor. 1:8).” While God had rescued him from that peril, in the letter to the Philippians written from prison in Ephesus, he writes a poem about Jesus that could only have come from a man who had had time to explore doubt, fear, and the sure prospect of a violent death. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” he pleads, tracing the self-emptying of Christ who “became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5,8).”

Paul encourages his friends—and we may count ourselves in that select group—to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12,13).”

He never loses hope, not that he will escape suffering and eventual death, but that he will soon see Christ Jesus face to face and he will “know as he is known.”

This complex, irascible, brilliant man, who can thread the needle of the closest arguments, and yet pour out his heart unreservedly to whoever is drawn into his orbit, probably had personal contact with fewer than a thousand people in his lifetime who would, in time, be referred to as “Christians.” In the letters he wrote, letters that both dealt with the common frictions of diverse people living together and yet revealed the most glorious secrets of the living God, we find the preparation for the Gospels themselves, and the most compelling example of other people’s mail changing the world.

  1. A. N. Wilson, Paul: The Mind of the Apostle, 220, 221.
  2. Brandongaille.com
  3. Alter, Robert. The Hebrew Bible: Prophets, 618.

The Patience of Hope

“Hope and patience belong together. Only a church that is learning patience can proclaim hope effectively.” — Rowan Williams, Being Disciples, 1

Photo: Valou C, Unsplash.com

When the King James Version writes of Jesus as saying to the disciples and those gathered around, “Suffer the little children to come unto me,” he means they should have patience with them, they should bring them into the circle and make allowances for them.

Patience, from the Latin verb pati, means “to allow, to suffer,” in the sense of endurance. To be patient with someone is to allow for their slowness, their fumbling, perhaps also their irritating arrogance.

I came across this pairing of hope and patience in a beautiful little book called Being Disciples, by Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. Williams describes faith as confidence in a “dependable relationship” with God, and that, in turn, frees us from anxiety about who we are. As Christians, “Who I am is in the hands of God,” and “It tells me that I am more than I realize, in the eyes of God, for good or ill.”2 We may hope in the unseen God because God knows us intimately, even the depths of the human heart. Hope, then, is not simply confidence about the future, but it also ties together past, present, and future in the memory that just as God has had our backs in the past, so God can be depended on to hold us in the future.

The Church should model this too, as Williams says, “This suggests that the Church needs to be marked by profound patience: patience with actual human beings in their confusions and uncertainties.”3 There are some hard truths for anyone who chooses to belong to a spiritual community:

It takes time to grow up into Christ.

We grow at different rates.

Sometimes we reverse our growth.

“And if it takes time for us,” Williams says, “then it takes time for the Body, the community, to grow overall. Hope and patience belong together. Only a Church that is learning patience can proclaim hope effectively.”4

I witnessed this first hand in a little church in Canada, the last place my stereotypes of such a church would have allowed me to imagine it. Soon after we were married, my wife and I joined another couple in volunteering for a year to teach in a K-12 school and help out at the local church in a town in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia.

Not long after we arrived in the fall, a young couple was baptized into the church. Nothing unusual about that except that the two candidates were unmarried—and the young woman was vastly pregnant. The pastor, a kindly and humorous man in his fifties of Ukrainian descent—one of many Ukrainian families in that area of Canada—had a mannerism of fixing his eye on a spot up in the corner of the church while he preached and speaking with a broad smile on his face.

I can’t recall much of his sermon after the baptism, except his comment that this young couple had decided they wanted to join with the body of Christ and they wanted to bring their child up in the church from the start. It was now our privilege and responsibility to see that they had the love and support they needed from all of us. And he said, with a smile on his face and in his voice, that we could expect to see them up front again soon and we were all invited to witness their marriage.

My stereotypes—conservative church, conservative pastor—hadn’t prepared me for this. The community I had grown up in made such people invisible. While they would never have been publicly called out for censure, they also wouldn’t have been baptized. Conventional religious wisdom said these kids had gotten the prescribed order wrong: first you date, then you marry, then you have children, and, of course, you bring them up in the church because you’ve already been baptized, probably about the age of twelve. But here they were, a bit bashful but joyous, clothed in their robes and immersed not only in the waters of baptism, but also in the assurance of love and acceptance by their community.

This raises a fundamental question about the kind of community we think the church should be. Is it a place for perfected people who are safe to admit to the kingdom? Or is it a home for the spiritually halt, the blind, and the lame? People like you and me, in other words. Do we accept people into the fellowship in order to let them grow or grow them first and then bring them into the fellowship?

Critics of the Church (and Christians themselves) often point out that Christians talk a good line, but don’t live up to it. Shouldn’t it make a difference how you treat people, they say, if you’re going to claim that you’re better than the rest of us?

They’re right—it should make a difference, a difference that others can see and feel. It should make a difference in the places we work, the lives we touch, the decisions we make. When we’re honest with ourselves—the kind of honesty that opens up from assurance, not from fear—we know that we are broken, and we know that we are ill. There’s no self-pity in that; we simply own up that our situation is serious.

That shouldn’t be the end of it, of course, as if we woke up one morning paralyzed from the neck down and then idly wondered what we might make for breakfast. Awareness of our condition comes through humility, but it also requires a revelation, an insight from outside.

There are things about us that we know and others know; there are things that we know that others don’t know; there are things about us that others know, but that we can’t see. And there are things that others don’t know, and we don’t know either. The secret things of the heart, the Bible calls them, that which the Spirit searches out.

Some of these erupt when we least expect it and we find ourselves doing things that can’t be explained but horrify us, nonetheless. There’s hope in that; if we can still find our actions abhorrent, we know there remains a flicker of conscience, like a candle in the wind.

There’s also hope to be found in the strengths we didn’t know we possessed. These surprises of the heart that spring up from what Paul calls “the spiritual level” are the result of “Christ dwelling within you.”5 They may come out as the courage it takes to not go along with implicit racism or the self-control to bite back a quick retort or the willingness to risk something new that draws us into God’s sphere of compassion.

What we need is a watchfulness, an alertness to our surroundings and to the fluctuations in the atmosphere in which our expectations of change live and breathe. There are times when all we can do is rest in the space between the notes. It’s not for nothing that even in dire straits the Psalmist says, “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord . . . Be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!”6

All of this takes time. And as faith in action complements the awakening of our conscience we begin to grasp that it’s not God who is slow to act on our behalf, but rather it’s our limited bandwidth in understanding.

God “suffers” us as he draws us to him through the Spirit. If Jesus was often impatient with the disciples for tripping over the basics, it was because he sensed his time on earth was almost up. After all, he was human too. But he also showed through his own faithfulness in reflecting God that “God’s way is not to coerce us by force or by some undeniable evidence of his power . . . But to allow us to do with him what we will . . . And to wait and to endure with the authority of an unchanging love.”7

God is patient with us as we tumble and stutter. And if the Church’s task in every age and every place is to witness to the divine story in history and “to make connections between his story and ours, between our little lives and the great life of God within us,”8 then our task as individuals in the Church is to bear with one another and to learn patience as we proclaim our hope for the world.

  1. Williams, Being Disciples, 31.
  2. Williams, Being Disciples, 30.
  3. Williams, Being Disciples, 30–31.
  4. Williams, Being Disciples, 31.
  5. Roms. 8:10
  6. Psalm 27:13,14.
  7. Michael Mayne, Pray, Love, Remember, 114.
  8. Mayne, Pray, Love, Remember, 76.

A Lesser Disappointment

LesserDis:gavin-hang-1077453-unsplash

Similarly, it would be redundant to say that certain leaders are good; of course they are good; their influence as leaders depends on their goodness. We should not say that a leader is bad; we should say, instead, that this person has failed to be a leader. — Paul Woodruff, The Ajax Dilemma

In the range of emotions that we experience, disappointment falls somewhere between sorrow and resentment. It does not cut as deeply as sorrow nor does it fester like resentment. It comes from a 15th-century French word, disappointen, which meant, unsurprisingly, ‘to remove from office.’ It brings to mind failed expectations, a setback, something that we wish had not happened. But we’ll recover, given time. It could have been worse.

The Great Disappointment of October 22, 1844, is a formative part of Adventist history. We pay more attention to it, liturgically speaking, than we do to the resurrection. It forms the crucible out of which we were poured, as a religious community, with a new purpose and justification for mission. In the strictest sense, it is our primary mythos, our origin story. We’ve been carrying our disappointment in our pockets ever since.

The Adventist pioneers who had set their sights on heaven suffered deeply, agonizingly, when their end-time prophecies misfired. Many had committed their money to the cause, left their crops to wither in the fields, and sold their possessions, even their homes. They were invested in this in a way that is something of a wonder. It wasn’t so much the loss of material things; those could be replaced. It was the complete dashing of hope, the blackness of night that lasted after the sun rose, the bitter realization that this shadowy and twisted world would hold them in its grip until death after all.

This is more than disappointment; it is abject defeat, humiliation, and loss. Perhaps it was the taciturn nature of those New England Millerites that kept the grief taut and held it to ‘disappointment,’ albeit a Great Disappointment.

Social psychologist Leon Festinger’s landmark study, When Prophecy Fails, on the Millerites and a UFO cult, introduced us to cognitive dissonance, the state of mind that arises when our deeply-held beliefs and behaviors are at war with one another. We seek cognitive consistency and a reduction in the dissonance. Typical responses to it include rejection, resentment, retrenchment, and reinterpretation. Adventists, for the most part, chose reinterpretation. They admitted they were wrong about the particulars, but right that there was a cosmic event.

Once bitten, twice shy. The early Adventists were not about to set a date again for the Second Coming. Everybody can see when you’re wrong on that one. Instead, they reinterpreted the event horizon to something theologically unique, but spiritually moribund—the investigative judgement. While it refocused the energy that had flagged in the wake of October 22, it has been a puzzlement to many members and to theologians from outside the tradition.

There is something about failing so spectacularly at the outset that sets a people apart for generations to come. Adventists have a mark of Cain upon them, a collective sense of social inferiority that causes them to trot after celebrity. Sometimes it provokes pity within their non-Adventist or secular friends, but more often it results in confusion. Those who are better acquainted with our eschatology—perhaps through a Revelation Seminar—may hold faint admiration for how we picked ourselves up, reinterpreted our mistakes, and turned defeat into a global educational, health, and religious enterprise of 20 million people.

Now, 174 years after we put our foot wrong the first time, we are about to break a leg. In 1844 we looked up when we should have looked within; in 2018 we are looking within, when we should be looking out. In 1844, we tried to get out of this world, when we should have examined the house of prophecy we had built. In 2018 we are condemning our own when we should be helping our world. A house divided against itself cannot stand.

But, in a knife fight put your money on the one who wields Occam’s razor.

There are probably many theories as to why the Adventist church is at this juncture right now. The simplest one is that leadership’s hostility toward women’s ordination became an issue of divine right to rule. At stake is the question of justice, just that, of what is right and fair for those involved. It’s a minimum standard, what most democratic societies strive for in one way or another, because without it the other civic virtues—freedom, respect, equality, opportunity, honor—are in jeopardy.

And if the leadership of the General Conference continues to align with injustice and authoritarianism it will find it has become irrelevant. Regretfully, but decidedly, many of us will turn away to try to live out what the Lord requires of us: To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. The imperatives are simple; the carrying out of them, as always, is a matter of faith and grace.

We need a new language, one that can expand our meanings as needed and that just says no to the brittle formulas of authoritarianism, sexism, and literalism. We will live, as disciples, within parable, metaphor, analogy, allusion, indirectness. Anything but a bald, braying literalness whose faint light only illumines disappointment. “A faith-language will be always open enough for a God who has more truth to teach us,” writes Mark Oakley in The Splash of Words, “who ‘speaks’, not ’spake’. It will be a language that finally reads us more than we read it, helping us to listen to our life.”

We need to rediscover the beauty of the Sabbath, not as a commandment or a ticket to a heavenly excursion to the New Jerusalem, but as a potent symbol of creativity, exodus out of oppression, solidarity in suffering, care for this earth, and blessed rest.

We need a vocabulary that can account for “the evil that men do” as well as the weight of glory that humans bear. We need to take seriously the human comedy and to understand tragedy in all its severe beauty and dignity. We need to regard prophecy as a compass that points us to our true north of faithfulness to Jesus’ words and life. We need to see the extraordinary nature of the Bible as revelatory literature and poetry.

We need a consciousness that regards women and men as full citizens of creation, engaged joyfully in a circle of work and worship and play, not a ladder of competitiveness and condescension. We need the humility to grasp that the only uniqueness to which we need aspire in this world is that for which all Christians are called—to take up our cross and follow Jesus. We need the empathy which recognizes that our crosses are our own. And we need the steadfastness that keeps us on our journey of faith, even when some would compel us to return to a time that no longer exists. Instead of anger against leaders who divide us, we can regard them with mild disappointment — and continue on.

We need to reinvent Adventism for our time. Something leaner and more supple, more informed by faith and imagery and poetry and less throttled by policy; Earth-centered, with a hope that begins here of something eternal beyond.

Since no one knows the day nor the hour of the Kingdom still to come, we need to rejoin the work of being Christ’s hands in the world and leave the finishing of it up to God. Like a farmer who works the fields, reading the weather and the land, we can be aware of the change of seasons without the delusion that we are causing them. We can work with diligence, looking ahead of us and around us. And someday, as only God knows, we will be surprised by joy from above in the midst of our sowing.

Photo: Gavin Hang, Unsplash.com

Faith at the ‘Between’ Places

“We are beginning to see

now it is matter is the scaffolding

of spirit; that the poem emerges

from morphemes and phonemes; that

as form in sculpture is the prisoner

of the hard rock, so in everyday life

it is the plain facts and natural happenings

that conceal God and reveal him to us

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

NeonWoods:beschte-photography-1058069-unsplash

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

“It is not that he can’t speak:

who created languages

but God? Nor that he won’t;

to say that is to imply

malice. It is just that

he doesn’t, or does so at times

when we are not listening, in

ways we have yet to recognize

as speech.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Beschte Photography, Unsplash.com

Burn for the Infinite

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“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