No Guarantees

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“Communication as a bridge always means an abyss is somewhere near.” — John Durham Peters, Speaking Into the Air

According to the Gospel of Matthew, Herod slaughtered every child of the age of two and under in Bethlehem and its surroundings, because he was trying to kill the king of the Jews whom the magi from the East had come to worship.

To put the Bethlehem massacre by Herod in its full horrific context, the writer of the gospel reaches back to the prophet Jeremiah’s lament for the slaughter of children in Ramah, an Ephraimite village eight miles north of Jerusalem, before those who remained were deported to Babylon. He needs a historical parallel of sufficient magnitude.

“Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,

wailing and loud lamentation,

Rachel weeping for her children;

she refused to be consoled, because

they are no more.”

Thus, the good news (for that is what euanggelion, the ‘gospel’, means) of the coming of the Christ child, the promised one, the Son of God and the Saviour of the world, unfolds in haste and secrecy in the midst of a bloodbath. But it has ever been so, as powerful and corrupt rulers are threatened by women and children.

The family escapes to Egypt, being warned in a dream, and they remain there—we don’t know how long—until news comes that Herod is dead. They make plans to return to Bethlehem, but Joseph is again warned off in a dream. Instead, they find their way north to Nazareth, a village in Galilee so insignificant that there is no mention of it in historical records outside of the New Testament. Their caution is well-founded, for Herod’s son, King Archelaus, rules for only two years before the Roman emperor, Augustus, removes and banishes him for brutality. If Herod could kill a generation of Judean children with impunity, what must Archelaus have done to incur the wrath of the emperor? Or perhaps it was a pragmatic decision on the emperor’s part, knowing that even the poorest, weakest, and most oppressed will eventually rise up.

Advent is a season when Christians celebrate the coming of the Christ-child, the earthly beginning to Emmanuel, God-with-us, and the short, intense journey that brings that child, now a man, to an abrupt end on the cross. But then there is Easter and resurrection; the unexpected turn of a tragedy become comedy, the ultimate trick on the Trickster, and a silent nod off-stage to where Job stands alone in the wings, with an amused shake of his head and a smile. There are innumerable crucifixions without a resurrection, but in this story, there is no resurrection without a crucifixion.

When lies become the norm we cherish the truth even more, and for us in this century, truth is found in facts. We want the gospels to be history, a medium we think we understand as a story that corresponds to the facts. But behind the facts lie assumptions, and assumptions are most often invisible to those who hold them and inaccessible to those who don’t. What is not mentioned in the gospels about Jesus may not have been known by the gospel writers, or was known, but thought so obvious that their concise narratives did not include it, or was known, but considered insignificant to the core of the story. Their assumptions are not our assumptions; the stories that result are strange to us and sometimes even inexplicable.

Albert Schweitzer devoted years to a search for the historical Jesus and finally concluded that “Each successive epoch found its own thoughts in Jesus,” because one typically “created him in accordance with one’s own character.” “There is,” Schweitzer said, “no historical task which so reveals someone’s true self as the writing of a Life of Jesus.”

Thus, there are multiple versions of Jesus in all ages, as Jaroslav Pelikan so lucidly illustrates in his Jesus Through the Centuries, a cultural history. “For each age,” he comments, “the life and teachings of Jesus represented an answer (or, more often, the answer) to the most fundamental questions of human existence and of human destiny, and it was to the figure of Jesus as set forth in the Gospels that those questions were addressed.” And we could add that people of faith, as well as those who profess no faith, nevertheless carry refracted images of Jesus in their minds that are often at odds with each other. We see Jesus as through a kaleidoscope rather than through a microscope. The gospels give us a collage, not a portrait.

The fragmentary glimpses we get of Jesus are not the result of inattention on the part of the eyewitnesses nor are they lapses in the discipline of the story. Rather, they are the best that people could do to reveal a figure so mysteriously complex and yet so transparently good, that no one close to him could ever say they knew him through and through.

Jesus was not an open book to those who knew him. The disciples were often confused and distraught by his words, drawing him aside to ask for the meaning of a parable or to clarify for them his differences with the religious authorities. Jesus rejoices that God has hidden His truths from the sophisticated and has opened them to those who learn best from actions and images.

We simplify the story of the nativity down to what we can carry without dropping all the other things that fill up our lives. In a creche, the animals form the background, their benign expressions of placid acceptance mirroring our own. Joseph stands to one side, proud but peripheral. The wise men, kneeling or standing, present their gifts with reverence. Mary and Jesus are front and center, the focal point of everything and the period to the exclamation mark of the star that stands above the stable. There is something so achingly touching about this, a child’s toys arranged just so to mimic the world she imagines. Add to this the innumerable Christmas plays in schools and churches acted out in front of proud but anxious parents, each play another means to build a bridge from an ancient culture to our own.

The question for Christians and other people of faith is how to tell this story, this coming-to-Earth story of divine kenosis, of an emptying out and pouring in of God become human. As the epigram suggests, a bridge implies an abyss, otherwise what is its purpose? In communication with one another, in telling the story yet again, we recognize the abyss to be the fact that we cannot clearly and completely express the truths we comprehend, nor can we be assured that our comprehension is correct. We are the ‘speaking animals’ whose verbal options are almost limitless, but by that very fact, we must often grope for the words to match the images we have in our heads.

From within our comfort zone, the Advent story is theologically safe, hermetically sealed, predictable in its results. It’s a ritual we cannot do without, yet it often bypasses the heart.

We need to recapture the ‘otherness,’ the very alien nature of this story of God become a human, a story that rings through history with tones both dark and bright. There are other gods who have appeared in human form, but none of them as a baby and none who stayed around to be murdered—and then rose again.

The thing that we must never forget, that if understood will disrupt our lives and break our complacency, is that nothing in the events of this story can be taken for granted. Joseph could have laughed off his dreams, Mary could have said no, the baby could have died before the age of five from diseases that take the lives of 15,000 per day of newborns in this world. The family seeking asylum in Egypt could have been turned away at the border, held for questioning, or simply murdered on the way.

People made choices without much to go on, save what they held in faith. As strange as those times and that culture may be to us, the common factor we may share if we wish is that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself and that from the foundation of the earth this has been a work of love.

Photo: Vincent Fleming, Unsplash.com

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.

***

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

The Acts of the Disciples

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The spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to bring good news to the poor

He has sent me to proclaim release to

the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s

favor. (Luke 4:18,19)

And Luke’s gospel says that Jesus “rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were upon him.”

Let us sit with them for a moment, in that holy silence. Jesus carefully, reverently, rolls up the scroll. He does not hurry. He holds the knurled ends of the scroll in his hands, feels the polished wood turning against his palms, as the papyrus curls back to its resting position. The attendant reaches to take the scroll as Jesus sits down. No one stirs. It is the silence of expectancy, not of inattention and boredom.

What were they expecting, and why would they be transfixed, holding their breath for the next moment? Perhaps it was the way Jesus read the passage, ascending the hills of the text to each crest, hitting the “me” of each one with emphasis, descending to the plains in between, and then scaling the highest one to summit in triumph on “the year of the Lord’s favor.”

If you have always been told that a day was coming when everything that breaks you every day would vanish, and you would be able to take a full breath, and you could lift your head and you could stand up and you could smile and even laugh—then you will know what each person knew when Jesus said, “You’ve just heard Scripture make history. It came true just now in this place.”

The people in that meeting place that Shabbat turned to one another excitedly and remarked at how well Jesus spoke. They were not talking about his elocutionary style, but about the thrill of hope that jolted through them in that moment. The words from Isaiah 61, so familiar and so tantalizing, rang in their ears.

But then there were doubts. Wouldn’t the Day of the Lord come with trumpets, thunder, signs in the heavens? And wouldn’t it be announced by the Messiah, the awesome figure of power and glory of whom the prophets spoke? Instead, we get a local boy, smart but shiftless, who left his mother and travels the countryside. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked. “We’ve known him since he was a little kid. Is he saying that he’s the One? He’s getting way above himself.”

And then Jesus went off-script. You’ll probably tell me to heal myself, he said. You want me to do tricks, like what you think I did up in Capernaum. If I don’t do the same thing here, you won’t believe me. Well, let me tell you something. No prophet is ever welcomed in his own country. There were a lot of widows in Israel during the famine, but our own prophet, Elijah, was sent to a widow in Sidon instead of them. And there were a lot of lepers in our country, but Elisha was sent to heal Naaman, the Syrian. Not one of ours was healed.

As they say, ‘the optics weren’t good.’ Excitement and admiration turned to doubt, and doubt to hostility and rage. More than just grilling the preacher’s sermon over Sabbath lunch, they were infuriated. Leaping to their feet, the whole congregation—families, men, women, and children—dragged him to the cliff on which the town was built to fling him bodily out and down.

Imagine the scene: people so angry, so completely consumed by rage that they seem demon-possessed. Neighbors he has known all his life, shoving and kicking him, his arms stretched out in their grasp, and him falling and stumbling back up, his eyes riveted ahead to where the ground drops away for hundreds of feet.

This is a video that will go viral, but before it does, let us freeze the frame with Jesus at the lip of the cliff—and since this is imagination we can do this—and ask ourselves what they are thinking.

If you saw them on the street you would have no idea they were capable of killing. They look like ordinary people. But seeing them now, ranged behind the figure twisting in their grasp, we see the leers, the harsh laughter, the sweat. A woman’s face is framed behind his shoulder. She is jeering, the veins in her forehead distended and throbbing. She feels forgotten, neglected, the hopes that were stirred by the promises of the prophets have vanished, and all that fills her mind is the thought of foreigners receiving the healing that is rightfully hers. Next thing they’ll be pouring across the border, Syrians, Caananites, Samaritans, lepers! It is a betrayal of everything she stands for, made worse by one of her own, a traitor in their midst like a devil among them.

Luke places this story near the beginning of Jesus’ mission, while Mark and Matthew record it as further down the timeline. Commentators suggest that Luke’s purpose is to show us that this is how Jesus’ mission is going to play out. The rejection he endures by his own people is triggered by his hints that God’s Spirit will be poured out on all who need it, those in other nations as well as in Israel. The nationalist fervor that roils this crowd into a murderous rage fulfills the prophecy that Jesus speaks.

We know how the incident ends, although we don’t know how it is done. Jesus teeters on the cliff’s edge, and then suddenly he is striding back through the crowd, parting them before him as if a force-field surrounds him. Luke gives it one line, ending with “he went on his way.” What matters most is that the kingdom has been announced, the Spirit is present, and Jesus is on his way into the world. Evil is no longer safe.

Jesus announced the kingdom in that dusty town on that Sabbath. He also denounced the fear that gripped the congregation in a snake’s coils. Annunciation and denunciation, two sides of a coin that has been carried by prophets and preachers and ages of sages. Wherever there is denunciation by the prophets, annunciation can be found in the neighborhood. And where the announcement falls upon deaf ears, denunciation of their callous disregard soon follows. The denunciation clears away the thickets, allowing the annunciation to spring forth.

But we must add something else to this prophetic witness between these two movements: the renunciation of our sins. Denunciation of the power structures in church and society, the uncovering of that which is intentionally hidden, is a necessary step toward the freedom of justice. But for the Christian, and any person of good faith, there follows in response another step equally important— that of renunciation.

Jesus began with the annunciation because he is the one who brings in the kingdom. In our time it is up to us as people of faith to begin with the denunciation of systems and structures that oppress and break the spirit of people. It would then be the most natural thing in the world to leap to the annunciation. Problem and solution; it’s how the world works.

But we are called to walk humbly as we act for justice. It is with the gospel in trust that we are invited to renounce our sins. The public renouncing of the sins of our discrimination opens the way to announce the good news of the gospel. And the gospel lived out is what reconciles us to God and to each other.

These are the acts of disciples who follow Jesus: they denounce, renounce, and announce. A movement begun by one is carried on through the Spirit by those who are willing to follow.

***

Twenty centuries after Jesus announced the kingdom we tell ourselves that, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Fifty years after Martin Luther King, Jr., famously uttered that phrase we look up to see that arc crossing overhead, but with no discernible point on the horizon where it could touch down. That is, unless we prepare the way by renouncing our sins of injustice, as a nation, as a church, and as individuals.

Unity without equality for everyone is conformity to injustice for all.

Mark Oakley, in The Splash of Words, invokes a Franciscan blessing: “May God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships. May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation. May God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world, doing in his name what others claim cannot be done.”

Photo: Aziz Acharki, Unsplash.com

Life Becomes a Dark Saying

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I don’t know what it means to say that Christ “died for my sins”. . . but I do understand—or intuit, rather—the notion of God not above or beyond or immune to human suffering, but in the very midst of it, intimately with us in our sorrow, our sense of abandonment, our hellish astonishment at finding ourselves utterly alone, utterly helpless. — Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss

It is a curious thing to be a human being. There is in us a drive to be more than we are and also a drive to be that which we are not. These are not the same, and it’s worth our time to make the distinction. But what we find most difficult is to be what we are. If we could truly know what we are, both in the aggregate and as individuals, we might not be so anxious to be something else. Even more to the point, we might not be so anxious.

“Be all that you can be,” says the Army’s recruiting slogan, with the implication that whatever you are right now is not enough compared to what you could become with the proper training and motivation. It’s a clever slogan, and it works for a lot of people, because most of us do not really know what we are but we’re pretty sure we’d rather be other than what we are. Whatever that is.

So here is one way we’re given to understand what we are. The basic message is: you’re no good. The thing is that while a lot of advertising uses this technique, so do some iterations of Christianity.

The advertising arm of this approach is relatively benign. It says—sometimes loudly, sometimes softly—but always incessantly: you are deeply lacking in some crucial areas of life. But don’t worry, there are people here who can help you, who want the best for you, and who know what’s best for you. Toothpaste, cars, clothes, men’s shaving razors (Harry’s, I’m looking at you), lifestyles, attitudes, beliefs—anything can be commoditized and sold. It’s a service we’re proud to provide.

The Christian versions also begin with the claim that we are absolutely corrupted and there is nothing good in us. The more sadistic brands then justify beating the hell out of children and making sure the adults know what complete failures they are. The milder, but more acquisitive forms counsel surrender to Christ in order to reap the rewards of victory. Having put our hand to the plow we never look back; the furrow we cut through the world is straight and true because we have made it so. Victory is ours.

We are quick to say that all the glory goes to God. He is the one who has blessed us. As we warm to the subject, we rejoice in the fact that since everything belongs to God, and since He wants us to be happy, He can give us whatever our hearts desire. He does not want his children to be seen as poor. It brings shame upon the family name. God knows our needs and wants. Once we were blind, but now we see that God is our great investment banker: if we put ten dollars in the collection plate, He will multiply that and increase our goods ten-fold, a hundred-fold, beyond our wildest dreams. All things are ours if we are willing to believe that God will reward our faith.

It is a seductive message the prosperity gospel puts out. There is truth to it, but not in the ways the seduced would want to own. The first truth is that on our best days we’re running a low-grade fever of illusion that we can scrub out all our imperfections if we just put our minds to it. The second truth is that on our bad days we’re blaming everybody else for our failures. These things are so true that they whipsaw us back and forth until we demand a product that will put an end to the pain.

For some, the analgesic comes in the form of all that advertising sells. For others, the pain is dulled by a Jesus who promises a carefree life. The proviso is that our faith must keep that balloon aloft. The moment we stop huffing and puffing is the moment we plummet. Still others of us will attempt perfection because we think that is what Christ demands. We will fail. Christ’s lawyers will tell us that we fell short, that we were out of compliance. Our weakness is our fault.

But here is another kind of truth:

“And when he had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Mk 8: 34-37, Authorized Version)

This has long been for me one of the most significant texts in the New Testament. It is paradoxical, upside-down thinking, literally about matters of life and death. Without blinking or turning away, Jesus calls us to one of the most barbaric forms of death in human history. Our eyes bounce and swoop over the words now, because for many the cross has become mere jewelry. Jesus’ death on the cross is far, far back in history, the stuff of theological councils, a done deal. But this story, this ragged, gut-wrenching cry—this is a forewarning of what is to come.

Needless to say, this invitation will not draw the masses to the revolution. It isn’t even a message that Jesus reserves for those most familiar with his rhetorical themes—his disciples. He might have drawn them quietly aside, cleared his throat, and said: “By the way, you’ll want to be preparing for your eventual death on a cross. Do that and you’ll live forever.” Instead, He turns and speaks openly to the jostling people who are following him around, the ones just hoping to be healed or touched or listened to or in some real way seen for the first time in their lives. Did they hear him? Could they hear him? Is he trying to thin the crowd, to cut it down to the hard-core cell of those who would go to death for him and the cause?

He says all this, knowing somehow that all of them will abandon him to his wild dreams as he breathes his last on the cross to the laughter of the soldiers who nailed him there. But he is serious, and we must take him seriously. We owe him that much.

(In time from now we will realize how utterly clueless that was, to think our debt to him could so easily be paid up by deigning to listen, politely leaning forward, our brow wrinkled in concentration, a half-smile on our lips that we hope will be taken as agreement, but that barely hides the clanging of our hearts and the hot, racing pulse that suddenly is pounding so loudly in our ears that we cannot clearly hear what he is saying. And yet Jesus will not call us out on that. We will find it in our own time, consciousness dawning belatedly, gratitude welling up and dissolving our barriers to his gentle forgiveness.)

***

We have a soul and we can lose it, and we have a life, and we can lose that too. Actually, the way Jesus puts it here, we are ensouled; that’s what we are as humans. To have life is to be a soul; to be a soul is to have life. There are lots of ways we can lose our ensouled life, but apparently only one way we can save it, and that is by taking up our cross and following Jesus. Each of us has a cross and our cross is as individual and unique as we are. Our job is to recognize it and to take it up, not just once, but every day.

Denying ourselves, we give up our panicked glances for the exits, and our half-remembered survival tips, and we trust that when it comes to it, when our last means of escape has been closed off, that we will know as we are known, and that that will more than suffice.

For an immigrant mother, struggling in poverty to provide for her children, her cross might be the loneliness of fear and the grind of daily life, to bear it through the grace and strength of God. For another, his cross may be the wear and tear on his faith as he copes with the treatment of his cancer. A pastor, struggling with opioid addiction, who must dull his pain while caring for others.

We don’t choose our crosses, but we do find them in the course of our lives. For some of us it will be that which we cannot shake off, which haunts us at the edges of our peripheral vision. Some might call it the Shadow, the deep part of ourselves we do not want to recognize and which is capable of much mayhem within our souls.

I suspect that many of us will find a brother in the man who cried out to Jesus, “I believe! Help my unbelief.” His first response is what he thinks Jesus wants to hear. His second response is his heart-cry, the desperate honesty of one who has no more options, but cannot let go of his fleeting hope. In like manner, our faith will wax and wane, yet can be sustained by the One who says, “My grace is sufficient for you.”

“Life becomes a dark saying,” wrote Soren Kierkegaard. Yet, “it perhaps happened that your mind became more gentle and took to heart the words that had been planted in you and that were able to give a blessing to your soul—namely, the saying that every good and perfect gift comes down from above.”

We are curious creatures, we human beings. Early in life we think we know so much. Later in life, we find we know so little. Earlier in life we are making ourselves, but later in life we discover ourselves. Earlier in life, we are taught to forgive other people. Later in life, we learn to forgive ourselves.

Photo: Nout Gons, Unsplash.com

A Lesser Disappointment

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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

When a Bowl is Not a Bowl

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The most provocative of all realities is that reality of which we never lose sight but never see solely as it is.” Wallace Stevens, Collected Poetry and Prose.

There is a Zen saying:

“Before enlightenment, a bowl is just a bowl.

During enlightenment, a bowl is no longer a bowl.

After enlightenment, a bowl is a bowl again.”

More and more these days, this expresses much of how I perceive the paradoxes and puzzlements I face in life.

The saying refers to those moments when the host prepares the tea for his guest. Each step is carefully attended to, unhurried and calm. To hear the sound of the hot water being poured into the bowl and how the tone changes as the level rises; to hear the sound of the whisk briskly stirring; to see the steam rising from the surface and feel its heat through the bowl held in one’s hands—these are each moments to be lived into with all our senses and to be remembered. In other words, the point is not to slurp down a cup of tea and rush out the door, but to see in the most common of moments a glimpse into the sacred beauty of life. It is also to grasp, with a shock of heightened awareness, that something we took for granted may be pointing us to a truth.

Here is a mundane example of how our perceptions change in other realms of life: I buy a book that catches my eye. The subject is within the universe of interests that I carry, and I think I would like it. I read the front, the back, the introduction, scan the table of contents and the first paragraph. And I buy it. Fickle beast that I am sometimes, my interest wanes and I put it on the shelf. A decade later I take it down; memory has stirred curiosity and I am entranced. I wonder why I hadn’t seen the riches of this book years ago. I study it fervently, underline and annotate it, commit passages to memory. In short, it has become one of the most cherished books in my library. Nothing has changed except my perception of its relevance and meaning to me—and that has made all the difference.

How does our perception change relative to the universals and the particulars? Jesus, in his suspension of the Sabbath law (Mark 2, Luke 6), teaches us to aspire to the universal (the love and care of others) over the particular (keeping the Sabbath commandment pure). How do we reconcile this? How should we work this out in practical terms? Do we ignore all Sabbath restrictions? Abandon the Sabbath altogether? What is the universal here? Is there a principle by which we can live?

We judge our theologies by several criteria. We ask if they are grounded in Scripture, by which we understand that the doctrine is not founded on a single verse, but multiple sources throughout the Book. We ask if they are carried by Christian communities down through the centuries, an argument from continuity and tradition. Sometimes they are not, like the seventh-day Sabbath, so we revert to the Scriptural criterion.

But we also ask what any given doctrine reveals about God’s character and thus, how that knowledge affects our relation to God and to others. In short, we want to know if this belief will make a difference in our lives. What is the “cash value,” as William James says, of our beliefs to our conduct and meaning for life?

The most basic universal principle from our side, the human response to God, is that freedom to choose to follow God is part of our learned spiritual behavior. In fact, we can say that freedom to choose is our human birthright. It’s always been a principle part of our defining identity as humans, and people of faith are bold enough to say that it is God-given. It took the Enlightenment to bring this into the foreground, against the resistance of religious and political powers who had a fierce determination to bring about their ends through any means possible.

Now we are in a post-modern era in which the very idea of truth is vulnerable. Our economy of truth trades on facts—usually those of science—and the gathering, collating, dissemination and testing by facts is our major industry. Because determining what is factual is arduous and costly, we rely on experts who have the time, the skills, and the interest to uncover the truth in many areas of life. Although a good scientist’s professional modus operandi is that current truth is only as good as its last iteration, when it comes to religion some seem to think that beliefs stated by committees should stand for eternity.

Part of the difficulty here is that theology, our human reading of God’s ineffability, cannot be verified or proven false in the ways that scientific propositions are. As Richard Holloway puts it in his Doubts and Loves, ”The reason theological dispute is so endless is that there are no empirical experiments we can appeal to that can obviously settle them, the way we might settle a dispute over the exact temperature of the boiling point of water.” And that is where religions pick up the weapons of coercion, guilt, and intimidation.

We return to the example of Jesus and the disciples, famished in a field on the Sabbath day. Raising the bodily needs above the ritual requirements, Jesus says nothing as the disciples pluck and eat the grains on their way. It’s only when the Pharisees confront him (were they keeping the disciples and Jesus under surveillance?) that he responds, upsetting their carefully honed arguments. David, he said, allowed his soldiers to eat the consecrated bread, even though only the priest may do so. Then he adds the statement that relativizes our theological maxims: “The Sabbath was made for the sake of man and not man for the Sabbath: therefore the Son of Man is sovereign even over the Sabbath.”

What this seems to affirm is that when human needs come up against religious requirements, human needs must take precedence. If there’s one thing that Jesus and God insist upon it’s the practical care of others. See that you care for the widows, the orphans, the poor, the disabled, says Jesus. Care for the children. I’ve come for the sick, not the healthy, he says. Of course, if we think we’re healthy and wealthy and in need of nothing, then we’re probably suffering from spiritual and social blindness—and we might not even know it if we’re incapable of seeing beyond our feet.

We have our particulars and they have their place. In religion, they help us pay attention to the details. Do we pray with hands raised and eyes closed? Do we tithe? Do we observe holy days and live modestly? Sweep away the details and we wobble from one religious fad to the next. But to make absolutes out of the details is to place formidable barriers between us and God. In those cases God can still get through to us, but the question is: when we see the barriers falling will we realize we are being liberated or will we think we’re being attacked?

***

So, in the end, after enlightenment, the bowl is just a bowl again. Once it was simply a means of holding the tea. Then it was the vehicle for clarity and insight, perhaps thought of as something miraculous because of it. Now, once again, it is a means of holding tea, not to be venerated but certainly respected for the part it played in opening one’s eyes. Without the bowl there would be no drinking of the tea, but without the tea there would be no purpose for the bowl. The tea is the purpose of the bowl, the bowl is the means of the tea, and together they provide the moment in which to be fully present.

Let us say that the church, as distinct from our spiritual communities, is the bowl.

There is another aspect to this which is even more important: The means to the realization of any truths, as important as they may be, are not the truths. The map is not the territory, the symbol is not the reality to which it points, the law is not the gospel—in fact, even the Gospel points beyond itself to the person of Jesus and the being of God. We too easily settle for that which can be categorized, quantified, and assessed. In the language of Paul Tillich, we turn the penultimate into our ultimate concern—whether it be the Bible, our personal faith, or our church. We look at the finger pointing at the moon instead of the moon itself.

Zen has a cure for that: if you keep returning to the bowl instead of going forward to the truth it’s pointing to, then you need to drop the bowl.

Photo: Percy Pham, Unsplash.com

The Worlds We Make

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We can have words without a world but no world without words or other symbols. — Nelson Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking

The first line of the Dhammapada, a collection of the Buddha’s sayings, is, “All that we are is the result of what we have thought.” With that, the Buddha signals that thought precedes action and mind shapes character. This is in common with the words of another sage: “As a man thinketh, so is he (Proverbs 23:7),” a maxim which suggests in its context to beware of the stingy who insincerely invite one to share a meal. They are not to be trusted, for the hidden thought will be exposed in the interplay between the two.

So, I am here quoting those who once lived upon this earth, people we know only through their words. The gulf that lies between the utterance of those words in time and where we stand today is not just about the millennia that have passed between us, but about the worlds those words brought into being and the worlds that arise when we read them today. Are they the same worlds?

We create worlds through our words, says Nelson Goodman, in Ways of Worldmaking. In a few pages of closely reasoned arguments, Goodman shows that the frames of reference we construct to describe what we experience are systems of description; they are not that which is being described. We never truly apprehend the object of our experience, only the description we construct to talk about it.

An example: If we say, “The sun always moves,” and “The sun never moves,” both statements are equally true and equally at odds with one another. Goodman asks if these statements describe different worlds— whether there are “as many different worlds as there are such mutually exclusive truths?” No, rather we make accommodation by saying that under this frame of reference this statement is true and with another frame of reference the other statement is true. “Our universe, so to speak,” says Goodman, “consists of these ways rather than of a world or of worlds.”

I find this both invigorating and disconcerting. In a way, Goodman is playing games—language games—to make a point: there is no irrefutable foundation for all truth, only descriptions that are more or less right for their context. The fact that we construct these descriptions out of what we find in anthropology, physics, psychology, literature, philosophy, theology, and other disciplines, means that we are constantly remaking our worlds of thought. “Worldmaking as we know it,” says Goodman, “always starts from worlds already on hand; the making is a remaking.”

***

Here are some materials at hand that we can make a story out of, a description of something and someone that matters a great deal to us.

Jesus is crucified about 33 CE and the first gospel, generally thought to be Mark’s gospel, is written about 70 CE. That is a gap of about 40 years—a whole generation—without any written source of Jesus’ life. The people who gathered each week in small groups to remember the Lord were those who had had first-hand knowledge of Jesus. The boy who gave over the loaves and fishes that Jesus fed five thousand people with would have been a man with children and grandchildren of his own. Lazarus, raised from the tomb and given a second life, would have passed on by this time. The disciples, men with families when Jesus chose them, would have grown old and scattered, some to Rome, others staying in Jerusalem, Thomas (as legend has it) making his way to India to establish a Christian community, and Philip probably down in Ethiopia. All of these people lived and died on the stories that were told and retold about Jesus, as they met together in upper rooms, sometimes in a wealthy person’s home, sometimes on the run, often over a meal with song and celebration. They were people, quite literally, of the word, the Word that came and lived amongst them.

Think of the stories they told, the anecdotes tenderly passed down through the family chain like pearls of great value. From the sayings of Jesus to the signs he performed to the parables he told, these narratives sustained these groups through their days and eventually formed the web of Mark’s gospel.

In his breathless and rustic style, the author of Mark’s gospel creates a narrative—a world!—that Matthew and Luke break down to use in the remaking of their individual worlds. Later, around 90-100 CE, comes John’s gospel, a parallel universe to the previous gospels, converging at points, but drawing its own course through its orbit. It closes with these tantalizing words:

“But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

These gospels are the Gospel, the good news about Jesus who came into the world and “the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him (John 1: 10).”

***

We read these words today, millennia away from their creation, in the awareness that the bone and sinew, words and meaning of their author and the person of which he wrote come down to language and symbols, marks on paper or pixels on a screen. Despite the billions of words devoted to this Jesus, the stories that could be told have no end because these words, having been written, continue to produce new stories in the strength that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it (John 1:5).”

Instead, we may become accustomed to these stories to the extent that we no longer take in their meaning. Our eyes pass over the letters, we register the shape of the words as we would the silhouette of objects whose outlines against the light are familiar only because of the form of their darkness.

“This world, indeed,” notes Goodman, “is the one most often taken as real; for reality in a world, like realism in a picture, is largely a matter of habit.”

“Language can create faith but can’t sustain it,” says Christian Wiman in Ambition and Survival. I’m not so sure. When I read of the Buddha holding up a flower before his gathered disciples and one of them—only one—smiles, and Buddha says the equivalent of “He gets it!,” something in me thrills to that imagined scene. When Jesus begins with “The kingdom of heaven is like . . .,” it’s “Once upon a time” all over again. We’re hardwired for stories: good, bad, mediocre, we pick them up, and turn them over and over in our hands until we find the seam that opens them. From these we fashion a world that we can live in.

“To have faith in a religion, any religion,” continues Wiman, “is to accept at some primary level that its particular language of words and symbols says something true about reality.” That I can agree with.

He goes on: “This doesn’t mean that the words and symbols are reality (that’s fundamentalism), nor that you will ever master those words and symbols well enough to regard reality as some fixed thing. What it does mean, though, . . . is that the only way to deepen your knowledge and experience of ultimate divinity is to deepen your knowledge of the all-too-temporal symbols and language of a particular religion.”

Separated as we are by thousands of years and the innumerable worlds of language and imagination between us and Jesus, these slender figures on our pages are the portals between our worlds. The path to the divine remains, astonishingly, through the darkness and light that is our world.

Photo: Lydia Shi, 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.

***

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.

***

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

Suffer the Children

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In these years of our discontent there is no shortage of outrage. If you are a Trump supporter, these are your salad days in which the outrages of the Obama administration are finally receiving their comeuppance. If you are not a Trump supporter, but now find your moral sensibilities being dragged behind a pickup with three rifle racks across a landscape of cacti, rocks, and boiling sand, then there is a certain relief in shouting out loud. It is cathartic. I am in the latter group. You are free to leave at this point; no hard feelings.

I mention that it is catharsis only because so much has already been written and said and analyzed and disseminated about the Trump administration’s policy of tearing children away from their parents at the border. I am writing because thinking out loud helps me understand what is important to me, and more to the point, how I can express a spiritual faith in times like these.

There are a few moral precepts that one should be able to affirm without agonizing over. Slavery, the rape and abuse of women, and the abuse of children are among them. Stating them thus does not exclude other precepts nor should it be considered a knee-jerk reaction without thought and reflection. Rather, these are simply part of one’s moral landscape, familiar markers that commemorate a covenant between God, oneself, and others, markers that remind us of the (now) obvious conditions of being faithful to God, responsible to one’s society, and true to oneself. These are also three reasons for moral action, as I understand it.

The first one is that God asks us to refrain from certain actions and to do other actions. For people of faith, whatever form their god may take, this is often enough reason to act. It is a powerful reason, and for some does not require any further reflection.

Even some who are moved by it still find themselves intrigued by Plato’s question: are actions right because the gods approve of them or do the gods approve of them because they are right? According to some lines of the historical discussion, if we do them because the gods approve of them we may run the risk of blindly following some arbitrary divine commands. What if your gods are tricksters, irresponsible, forgetful, or otherwise not to be trusted? On the other hand, if the gods do them because they are right then while that is a powerful vote of confidence in the moral justification of the actions, it makes the gods look weak. In the first case, the gods have arbitrary and perhaps capricious power; in the second case, not enough power to make them worthy of worship.

Most historical religions have a moral structure and some even have commands for meeting moral and religious expectations. We could chose to think of these commands as arbitrary, but then we would have given up any semblance of trust or even of thoughtful reflection on our relationship with our god. Again, it’s a matter of trust: we do these things not only because our gods ask us to, but also because doing them is an exercise of our moral freedom.

The second reason is to be responsible to one’s community—and again, we may choose to act for a number of reasons. We may wish to avoid jail time if we break the rules; we may desire to be in favor with our neighbors, our friends, and our families (Adam Smith called it the ‘approbation of society’ in his Theory of Moral Sentiments); we may want the rewards that come with good behavior or we may genuinely want to contribute to the well-being of our society. These are all good reasons for doing the right thing, and as many have pointed out, one does not have to be religious to accomplish them. For many people today, ethics is the new religion.

The third reason is to be true to oneself, a piece of advice that can be traced back at least to Aristotle. It’s not hard to see that either or both of the previous reasons could give us a sense of ‘self,’ but some people will immediately get diverted into questions of whether we have a self or not, and if we do, how much of it is the result of genetics plus environment. Since most of us act as if we are selves and treat others as if they are selves too, we can leave the questions to others and try to think about whywe ought to be true to ourselves.

Classical ethical theory invokes Aristotle here (practicing virtue aligns us with our true end or telos , which is to flourish) and Kant (do the right thing because you respect yourself and others and you’d want the same respect for everyone else).

Being true to oneself not only involves respect for oneself and others, but going deeper in and farther back to find the highest regard we can have for the human being.

In an essay on goodness, Francis Bacon (1561-1626) examines the relation between habit and nature. “Goodness I call the habit,” he says, “and goodness of nature the inclination. This, of all virtues and dignities of the mind, is the greatest, being the character of the Deity; and without it man is a busy, mischievous, wretched thing, no better than a kind of vermin.” Bacon believes that we achieve a “habit of goodness” through “right reason,” but that just as there is in some people a natural inclination toward goodness and a willingness to help others, there is in others a “natural malignity” that drives them beyond mere irritation with others to envy, anger, and selfishness.

Such people revel in the calamities of others. They are like flies buzzing around a raw wound, says Bacon, and rather than bind up the wounds of those who are suffering these misanthropi enjoy the misfortunes of others. “Such dispositions are the very errors of human nature; and yet they are the fittest timbers to make great politics of.”

Having been the victim of some palace intrigues in the courts of Elizabeth I and King James I, Bacon knew from first-hand experience how crooked the timbers of politics could be.

The policy of the immigration hardliners in the Trump administration to separate children from their parents has been roundly condemned by congressional Democrats and some Republicans. Immigration-advocacy groups, lawyers, children’s rights organizations, psychologists, educators, and doctors, all have been scathing in their criticisms. The Catholic Church has flatly called out the practice as immoral. Melania Trump has expressed her horror at it and former First Lady Laura Bush, diffident to a fault, has written an op ed in which she called the policy “heartbreaking.” Even Franklin Graham, who refuses to call out Trump on anything, has characterized the practice as “disgraceful.”

And yet here is Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General of the United States, whose shrill pronouncements increasingly sound like the cries of a desperate man, fiercely clinging to his “zero-toleration” position. When Christian authoritarians run out of options for justifying their immoral policies and laws they reach for the fire extinguisher they think will put out the blaze—Romans 13—in which the Apostle Paul advises his readers to obey the laws because the authorities have been put in place by God. Read out of context these verses (Romans 13: 1-7) have been used to justify slavery, war, apartheid, and systemic evils of all kinds. Marilynne Robinson drily comments in her recent collection of essays, What Are We Doing Here?, that “Indeed, unread books may govern the world, not well, since they so often are taken to justify our worst impulses and prejudices. The Holy Bible is a case in point.”

Read in context, these verses are sandwiched between the marks of a true Christian—extending hospitality to strangers, living in harmony with others, and overcoming evil with good—and showing love for one another by loving our neighbors as ourselves. Paul is pretty clear earlier in his letter to the Romans that every person, Christian or not, knows in his or her heart the basics of what is right. The implication is that Christians try to do what is right in every situation out of love for the neighbor and respect for that which God has created. The assumption is that good rulers and good laws have the blessing of God; the knowledge that there are bad rulers and worse laws is so obvious that it does not need mentioning. God’s people are expected to know the difference and to live by their consciences accordingly.

People of faith who look to the Bible to understand the function of principles in shaping our ethics and actions see that caring for children is pretty high up on the hierarchy of values for Jesus. In the gospels of Matthew and Luke Jesus makes the point that people make mistakes in caring for children, but woe to the person who deliberately hurts a child. “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea (Matt, 18: 6).

With his characteristic irony and pointed hyperbole Jesus lays it down that crushing a child’s faith and hope is a deadly sin. These are things that everybody is expected to know and abide by. As Bono says, “Jesus said ‘Suffer the children to come unto me,’ not make the children suffer!” But the fact that Jesus speaks so urgently means that this fundamental precept of human existence, caring for the children, was alarmingly ignored in his time. So it has ever been. And now we’re doing it again with howling cynicism and hypocrisy by appealing to the sanctity of the rule of law and the authority of God and scripture. Except that it’s literally not a law but a prejudice, and Jesus condemns such actions in the strongest possible terms.

In the increasingly fractious and twisted arguments over immigration one thing should be clear: these children have the most to lose right now and in the years to come. And as for us adults, it’s time to throw off our millstones.

Photo: John Moore/Getty Images