Definite Beliefs, Radical Mysteries

Photo: Clay Banks, Unsplash

”And always in one

another we seek the proof

of experiences it would be worth dying for.”1

The older I get the more I seek a comprehensively simple understanding of life, a statement that may well be an oxymoron, but which I choose to think of as an achievable aspiration.

It’s not that I’ve given up on sorting out more complex issues—I still enjoy ploughing a deep furrow through a philosophical or theological text. But I need something portable, something that can easily be carried in a metaphysical backpack. It’s time to begin loosening the material bonds too, thinning out the possessions—except for books; they remain essential provisions—and generally traveling lighter and sailing higher in the water.

The idea that we can reduce a good deal of human experience to a simple statement, even one that we could live by with integrity and élan, is called reductionism and it is greatly to be resisted, according to scientific principles of research and testing. Science rides into the fray, knowing there is much more under the surface, and recognizing from the start that everything cannot be known about anything. This is a cause of much frustration for laypeople and politicians, both of whom suspect that scientists are hiding something when they hedge their conclusions and refuse to be as definitive as demanded for a press release or a Senate hearing.

Philosophers, of course, are hopeless when it comes to definitive statements. They refuse to be pinned down, preferring abstract principles to practical application. Most of them will get no hearing in the court of public opinion because hardly anyone wants to sit still long enough to hear an argument run through with sidebars and addendums, footnotes and preambles.

Cultural historians, child development specialists, gender and sexual equality researchers, all know to avoid that handy tool of human communication, the stereotype, because it cannot adequately express the infinite variety of personalities, motivations, and values that the human race exhibits. The underlying assumption behind stereotypes—that there are enough similarities between individuals in certain categories of human experience that general statements can be made with confidence—“these are like that”—is regarded with suspicion and sometimes outright hostility. Differences, not similarities, mark us as humans, they say. ”Everyone is unique,”—to which the skeptic might mutter, “By whose authoritative standard of uniqueness?”

And theologians, ‘God-explainers,’ what of them? Are they not firstly, keepers of the stories of what has been conjectured about God? They recount and interpret the history of what has transpired between humans and God: do they know with certainty what is going on now? Can they observe present religious experiences of humans and give us some clarity about the nature of God? Will they always be looking back or forward, leaving the present to the priests and the prophets?

We have it on good authority that we cannot comprehend the fullness of God (“My thoughts are not your thoughts”) nor can we expect our language to clearly represent our understanding of God. But we keep at it, with books, articles, poems, songs, paintings, drama, film, sculpture—the lot. All of that nets us possibilities for action and contemplation.

I had a professor in graduate school who had survived the fundamentalist purge at Princeton when he was a student and went on to write a definitive text on world religions, among other scholarly books. Although a staunch Presbyterian and an elder in his local church, he drew deeply from the wells of the living religious traditions of the world. He saw religion first as a universal project of humankind, a yearning to understand the rhythms of nature in the light of a great creative power. He saw it also as a long drama of the interplay between humans and their divine figures. And it was the occasion of worship and mystery, the language of silence and reconciliation. None of this could easily be translated into a catch-phrase; he had nothing but disdain for bumper-sticker religion. But he was fond of saying, “Religion was danced out before it was thought out,” by which he alluded to the holy erupting through muscles, lungs, breath, and feet.

And I, coming from a tradition that frowned upon dancing, and not being at ease in my own skin, realized that circumstance and upbringing had inclined me to the cerebral, rather than the physical. I could no more see myself dancing before the Lord than I could imagine speaking in tongues. And though I had no doubt that the breadth of God’s attention to humans spanned all manner of expressions, I knew that my offerings would not stray far from language.

At the same time, religion for me was an intellectual discipline, subject to testing and systemization. There was a professional detachment to the study of it; one shouldn’t allow participation to supplant one’s objectivity. I had not found a way to scrutinize and examine my theology without jeopardizing my worship.

We are sometimes guided in life as much by repulsion as by attraction, by that which we do not wish to be as that which we earnestly seek to emulate. One of my religion professors in college served as an example of poor teaching, not because he was lacking in the knowledge of his discipline, but because of his caustic nature. Whatever benefits we could gain by attentive listening to him were offset by his withering criticism in the few moments given to discussion and questions. Where possible, we avoided his classes and where it was inevitable, we learned to flatter him. “He, to whom truth affords no gratifications, is generally inclined to seek them in falsehood,” said Samuel Johnson. Because we asked few questions after his lectures, he fancied himself to have covered the breadth of the topic to an overwhelming depth. But he was wrong.

He was a white South African, a man who had done missionary service in some of the poorest countries of Africa before he became a lecturer. One summer he returned home and when classes resumed in the fall, he seemed to be a man transformed. In class he was cordial, open, supportive, even humorous. We were staggered. We tested him: we asked questions that suggested doubt about his conclusions or that took a contrary position. One of the bravest among us even asked a transparently stupid question, one designed to elicit derision. He responded with kindness, without a hint of condescension.

It turned out that when he had traveled that summer throughout South Africa, he had had a conversion experience, both spiritually and socially. Something in him had broken and light had gotten through the cracks; he felt himself to be turned inside out. He had been weighed in the balances and been found wanting. In short, his heart had been moved and his character was now catching up to it.

His spiritual regeneration infused his teaching methods with a new openness to faith; he was less certain of the finer points of the Law and more sure of God’s grace and love. Where he had been hard and brittle, fending off intimations of spiritual doubt, his experience was giving him a resiliency that seemed almost playful. He seemed to be relieved of a huge burden.

This was a man who knew his doctrines from the ground up. He could argue the forensic theory of atonement, explain Paul’s Romans, explicate the symbols of Revelation, and outline the influence of the prophets on the message that Jesus carried and the Gospels reflected. Yet, none of this had penetrated below the surface of scholarship for him.

He was not a person who would claim a distinction between “religious” and “spiritual.” Any gauzy notions of personal transcendence apart from the spiritual communion of God’s people gathered in worship would have drawn a firm ‘No.’ He would have agreed with Christian Wiman who says, “We do not need definite beliefs because their objects are necessarily true. We need them because they enable us to stand on steady spots from which the truth may be glimpsed.”2

It is entirely possible to grasp the truth, or more likely, the truths, about God and Jesus and the purpose of our lives, and still somehow not be touched by it. Life breaks us in a thousand different ways; we are swept away by the torrents of envy, hatred, ignorance, prejudice. In those times, the tentative threads of trust we have rigged up may be stretched to the breaking point. “Definite beliefs,” continues Wiman, “enable us to withstand the storms of suffering that come into every life, and that tend to destroy any spiritual disposition that does not have deep roots.”3

We study the Scriptures, we pray, we worship; we become alive to the presence of God in unexpected places and from unknown sources. We look to each other on these paths, “to seek the proof of experiences it would be worth dying for.” There are only a few definite beliefs, but there are radical mysteries enough for a lifetime and more. Jesus summarized the essentials without reducing them:

“‘You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”4

Micah spelled it out eight centuries before Jesus:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?5

These are universals, cutting through all partisan walls, overturning the idols of political ideologies, capitalism, materialism, scientism, and nationalism. They are at the core of the great religious traditions of the world, and within them—in practice and in contemplation—is the radical mystery that God is love.

  1. Thomas, R.S. “Somewhere,” in Collected Poems 1945-1990. London: Orion House, Phoenix edition, 2000, p. 293.
  2. Wiman, Christian. My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, p. 123.
  3. Wiman, p. 123.
  4. Matthew 22: 37-40, NRSV.
  5. Micah 6:8, NRSV

Call No One Master

Photo: Marivi Pazos, Unsplash

”The greatest among you must be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”1

If you knock around the Gospels for awhile, you begin to notice a pattern in the sayings of Jesus. He reverses ideas, turns them upside down, bends and breaks them, then shapes them into something new. These are sometimes hard to hear. They run outside the grooves we’re used to; their rhythms and inflections don’t follow common patterns, so that if you’re just tracking the rise and fall of a familiar verse—not really paying attention to the words—he tangles that all up and then you have to pay attention and really listen, not just hear.

So it is with his idea of exaltation and humbling.

By now, we may have read this text so many times that it is worn smooth, nothing there to snag a finger on a jagged edge. If you come to this looking for leadership principles, like those in Jesus, CEO (“How Jesus built a disorganized staff of twelve into a thriving enterprise! Principles of success that can translate into any corporate business!), you will be disappointed.

Humility is like one of those Chinese finger traps: forcing it tightens it down. If you exalt yourself, you will be humbled. If you humble yourself in order to be exalted, you’ve defeated the purpose and you will most likely end up humiliated. Humility or humbleness is almost impossible if you have to schedule it. If you try it on, it won’t fit. It will be too tight, too short, too big, dead false. In other words, humility raised to the level of consciousness becomes pride.

I’ve wondered if genuine humility instead comes from character built over time. How to still the insistent voice that pipes up, “Me! What about me?”

Thomas Merton links pride with despair, the end result of an unwillingness to accept anything from the hand of God because of one’s mountain of pride. “But a man who is truly humble cannot despair,” says Merton, “because in the humble man there is no longer any such thing as self-pity.”2

The greater the attention to oneself and the greater the position one holds, the more self-pity becomes the drug of choice when others will not bow to one’s will.

Whether one be the president of the country or the president of the church, the principle applies: the higher the office, the greater the responsibility to serve. When the office is greater than the man (or woman), when the officeholder is not equal to the responsibilities—when, in fact, the character and conduct of the officeholder demeans and corrupts the office, the honor of the office may only be restored by a servant who leads, one who is wise and humble.

I doubt this practice of humility would have been intuitive for many rulers in Jesus’ time. Most would not have seen any advantage in it for themselves, and as for principle—well, that’s just some people talking. Machiavelli said there are only two ways to become a ruler: either you inherit it or you take it. The Roman experiments with forms of democracy certainly didn’t extend to their outlying provinces, especially not for the Jews, who had a long history of volatility. Force applied liberally and strategically, would have been their best practices for leadership.

But force applied compresses the mass and conforms it to the shape of the instrument of force. Those in authority beneath the Romans had no other models of governing except the ones they were subjected to. The idea of servanthood in a leadership role would have seemed both insufficient and ludicrous. Where there were clear lines of class, wealth, and privilege, no one in a position of authority would deign to humble himself.

Jesus locates humility as a practice that begins in the family and continues through one’s education. He calls on religious leaders and teachers to be humble, since they are in a position to exploit their authority and their power.

But you must not be called “rabbi”; for you have one Rabbi, and you are all brothers. Do not call any man on earth “father;’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor must you be called “teacher;’ you have one Teacher, the Messiah.3

This is one of those sayings of Jesus which we adhere to by the spirit, rather than by the law. If we read this literally, limiting it to titles alone, we miss entirely the deeper meaning that all of us—leaders and teachers also—are as dependent on God as children are on their parents.

You must not be called Rabbi, says Jesus. You have one Rabbi and besides, you are all brothers. And you must not be called teacher, he adds, for you have one Teacher, the Messiah. These sayings are in the passive voice, thus the responsibility is on us not to encourage the fawning and favoritism that often comes with degrees and titles.

When we talk about titles and honorifics, though, we are treading on ground that is sacred for a lot of people. Titles represent the hard work that was put in, the long nights of study and the exams taken and passed. They speak to the discipline and ambition that it takes to rise to the top of one’s profession, and they serve as a bright dividing line between the entitled and the poseurs.

When I taught at Stevenson University and at Trinity Washington University, the students called me Professor. I rather liked that because it meant that I professed something. What I professed was something that I sincerely believed, although I was not able to articulate it or even demonstrate it to my own satisfaction. But every time I entered a classroom or spoke with a student or graded her papers, it was uppermost in my mind. It was a dual question for the students: ‘What are you doing here?’ and ‘What does your life mean?’

Posed as much to myself as to my students, the questions were a constant reminder that my motives were not always aligned with my outcomes, and I am still, in part, an enigma to myself. The truest desire of my will, only sometimes realized, was that my students should see me as a window through which they could see a path forward to a country they could call their own.

The other warning Jesus gives us is in the active voice: “Do not call any man on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.”

Are we to take Jesus literally on this point? In a male-dominated culture, in which the father was the undisputed head of the family, this must have surprised his disciples, if not grated on them. And while not everyone will be a religious leader or a teacher, everyone has a biological father, absent though he may be. The particular points to the universal: our fathers bow to Our Father.

Perhaps Jesus felt this more keenly than most of us. After the incident in which Jesus ditches his parents to discuss with the rabbis in the temple, we hear no more of Joseph. It’s no stretch of the imagination to think of Jesus, the eldest of several siblings, with a growing consciousness of God, his Abba, after Joseph passes away. Jesus was the eldest, the one set apart, special somehow, although he couldn’t say why, and Mary wouldn’t—not yet. All those years so alone; he must have stretched himself upward, opening to the sun and the cold moon and the distant, gentle presence he wished to call “Father.”

Thomas Merton, who struggled with humility all his life, saw it as the way to joy. “It is almost impossible to overestimate the value of true humility and its power in the spiritual life,” he wrote in New Seeds of Contemplation. “Humility contains in itself the answer to all the great problems of the life of the soul. It is the only key to faith, with which the spiritual life begins: for faith and humility are inseparable.”4

To call no one ‘Master’ is a liberating experience. It removes compulsion from our relationships and replaces it, where possible, with a freely given loyalty. Loyalty, when not the blind variety, is a much stronger bond than those cemented through fear and humiliation. When we are free in this way, with a quiet confidence that we are sons and daughters of God, we can be free from fear of anyone.

  1. Matthew 23: 11,12, New English Bible.
  2. Merton, Thomas. New Seeds of Contemplation. Boston, MA: Shambala, 2003, p. 183.
  3. Matthew 23:8-10, New English Bible.
  4. Merton, 184.

Jesus Was a Sailor

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“Jesus was a sailor/when he walked upon the water/ . . . but he himself was broken/long before the sky would open . . .”1

If you are of a certain vintage and you read the epigram, you are probably humming Judy Collins’ “Suzanne,” one of her many hits, with a lyric right out of Leonard Cohen’s poem of the same name. It is enigmatic, evocative, haunting. It calls on Jesus as a sailor, a metaphor that is startling, but no more so than the ones we find in the Gospels.

The metaphors in the Gospels are numerous and diverse. “I am the Vine,” he says. “You are the branches.” He claims to be the door, the bridegroom, the lamb, the ransom, the good shepherd, and “The Way, the truth, and the life.” He is nothing if not confident about his mission and his being. Through them we visualize much of what Jesus meant. They are how we learn of Jesus in ways that reason, logic, and theory cannot reach. They are compact links to a kaleidoscope of images.

Some of these are foundational in most cultures: almost anyone could find them appealing. But some may bring only the slightest stirring of recognition to us. The fact that there are so many of them in the Gospels and the New Testament suggests a willingness to reach us through as many images as possible. And I think we must ask why. Why is it so important to Jesus—and by inference, to the Gospel writers—that we see him in so many different ways? Wouldn’t it be prudent to save a lot of time and effort by fastening on one or two powerful metaphors and pour all the wooing of the Holy Spirit through them?

In fact, if we wield Occam’s razor—the simplest explanation is usually the one closest to the truth—we’d want to reduce the options down to those most likely to win the trust of most people. I confess I do not know which those would be. Nor does it really matter, since my own choices have shifted over the years in response to the tides of circumstance, need, and interest.

When I first began to read the Bible in large chunks, instead of key memory verses, I began to think of it as a rather disjointed narrative that banged down hard on certain themes, sometimes to the point of redundancy, and that veered wildly in many different directions. Later, in college, I studied New Testament Greek, and while I could barely keep up with the verb forms and the conjugations, I did come away with a bushel of words I could use and a reverence for the idea that multiple meanings could derive from single words. I also understood that The Bible was a translation of the Greek, Ta Biblia, The Books, and that what I held in my hand was a library, not a single, unified, narrative. Many voices, many stories, millennia in the making, multiple cultures and languages—all of it somehow joining a chorus that hit all the highs and lows of the human experience as it wrestled with the divine.

The Gospel of John reports Jesus saying, “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.”2 No doubt hearing the Torah read in the Temple, expounded in the synagogue, and recited in one’s prayers, a practice formed over thousands of years, was regarded as the surest means to salvation. “Yet,” said Jesus, “you refuse to come to me to have life.”

This was a God revealed through his powerful acts, who flexed an “arm mighty to save.” While abhorring all idols, the Hebrews put their trust in words as the lens through which to see God, the bridge over which they would escape the torrents of evil, and the fire which their prophets would take into themselves.

“The point of the Old Testament analogies,” writes John V. Taylor, “especially the metaphors drawn from human experience, is that they are the most appropriate form of speech for talking of a God who . . . is committed to a reciprocal relatedness with the world and has an affinity with it.”3

***

In the year King Uzziah died, Isaiah underwent a vision within the temple, in which he saw the Lord high on a throne, surrounded by thunder, fire, and earthquake —and angels, terrifying in their majesty. Isaiah, naked in his guilt and shriveling in fear and awe, is touched on the lips with a live coal taken from the altar with a pair of tongs.

That detail blurs the line between a waking vision and material reality. It is a trip wire for our complacent reading. The coal comes glowing from the altar fire. An angel, wielding tongs, carries it to Isaiah and touches his lips with it. If this was a purely internal all-in-his-head manifestation for Isaiah, you’d think the angel would carry it in his hand, oblivious to the heat and sizzle, but aware, nevertheless, that he is going to char Isaiah’s lips with it. Aren’t angels fire-proof?

But we read this symbolically, as a metaphor that expresses the holiness of the word of God that both cleanses and inflames those to whom it is entrusted. In so doing there is something missed and something gained. We do not have the immediacy of such a literal experience, either observed in others or bestowed upon oneself, an experience that appeals to our senses and thus to our sense of “reality.” But we gain the power of metaphor. This is our default mode for learning anything; we range ourselves along a pathway of imagination, an abyss on either side, until we can reach the solid ground of memory and/or experience. In imagination we reach and leap for a foothold. Or to extend the metaphor: we plant one foot in memory and stretch the other toward imagination until the one can join the other.

There has always been a fear of “anthropomorphism” in religions, that to describe God acting in ways that suggest human attributes is to lower God to our level. There is no danger to God in this, only to ourselves. To speak is to call something into existence, to make present what was hidden. We have the power to breathe the breath of life into a curse or a quip or a joke—and once released into the wild it is out of our control. Having spoken about God, we have a responsibility literally to “accept the obligation of response,” to answer for what we have said.4

But the truth is that we are always remaking God in a form we can understand. In every age, as Christian Wiman says, “Christ dies anew and is resurrected within the imagination of man.”5 We can see this as a lowering of God or we can recognize the deeper truth that God-in-Christ has become the Word among us to heal and restore us. When we struggle to understand what God is saying to us in the Scriptures, our response should not be “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” nor should it be “Couldn’t God have said it more politically correct!” But, as Rowan Williams suggests, “Our task is rather to say that the revelation of God comes to us in the middle of weakness and fallibility.”6

When we misapprehend or distort the word of God, we are tediously aware of the endless and stinging arguments that can separate us from one another. And yet, through it all—the centuries and millennia of the Word manifested among us—God continues to reach out to us in “many and divers ways.” Just as the fire lit up Isaiah when “the word of the Lord came to him,” so the Word becomes incarnate, overcoming barriers of prejudice and pride, and searching us out where we are. In our experience, the Bible offers so many digressive pathways, that we must be continuously reading and studying in order to hold in mind the profusion of metaphors and storylines within it.

***

Somewhere in his writings, Kierkegaard conjures up a metaphor that captures for me the terror of faith and despair. In it we are looking up, from fathoms deep, at a tiny figure thrashing alone through the waves. Although I was once a strong swimmer who enjoyed the lift and thrust of catching the waves, I still have a flickering sense of dread when I think of the vast depths of the sea. To imagine Jesus as a wave-walker stepping lightly through the storm and wind, is to see myself as Peter, haunted by the sight of Jesus and yet jolted to be with him, come hell or high water.

We carry these metaphors within us; they have the power to baptize us once again in the waters that could drown us were it not for the Wave-walker beside us.

  1. Cohen, Leonard. “Suzanne Takes You Down,” Selected Poems 1956-1968. New York: Viking Press, 1964, p. 209.
  2. John 5.39,40
  3. Taylor, John. The Christlike God. London, SCM Press, 1992, p. 149.
  4. Steiner, George. Real Presences. London: Faber and Faber, 1992, p. 90.
  5. Wiman, Christian. My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, p. 11.
  6. Williams, Rowan. Open to Judgement: Sermons and Addresses.” London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1994, p. 159.

Look No Further

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”Be content, be content. We are the Body of Christ! We have found Him because He has sought us . . . There is nothing further to look for except to turn to Him completely, where He is already present. Be quiet and see that He is God.” —Thomas Merton1

It is sometimes said that there are two kinds of Christians: the ones who live for the Crucifixion and the ones who live from the Resurrection. The main difference between them is their terminus point, what Aristotle might have called their telos, the meaning and goal of their lives.

The Crucifixion people are concerned with judgment and their salvation. The Resurrection people are ready to permeate the world like salt in soup. There have been millions of crucifixions without a resurrection; there has only been one Resurrection with a crucifixion. Resurrection people stake their faith on defying those odds.

Most of us are brought up to be Crucifixion people. We are told we are born in sin, that sin corrodes even our best intentions, and that this enormous burden of sin has estranged us from God. Our sin results from breaking God’s law and it’s in our very nature to break it. Since the irreversible penalty for breaking the law is death, and since not even God can make an exception, we are doomed. We broke it, we must pay for it. But God has provided a way out for us by sending his Son, Jesus—a perfect sacrifice—to die in our place. The Law’s demands are met, and we are saved—until we sin again.

It’s all contractual, with obligations and penalties, demands and responsibilities. There is a coldness here that runs to the bone. There is an unspoken, but deeply felt understanding between the parties involved that because we can never adequately repay God for the sacrifice made, that we are forever in debt—and God will never let us forget it. In moments of our greatest vulnerability, when we have no resources left and nothing in us that can rise to meet the danger that is coming, the dread that we will have to yet again beg for forgiveness so that we might be saved from our own clumsiness, scours all gratitude from our hearts and replaces it with fear. And perfect fear casts out love.

My experience with this perspective goes back to a preacher whose message week after week never varied: We are dead in our tracks and there is nothing good in us. We must throw ourselves on the mercy of God and cling to the foot of the cross. And it may be that God will look down on us and forgive us for nailing Jesus to the cross. But we dare not move beyond the circle of the cross; there we must remain, drenched in our sins and desperate for the blood of the Lamb, hoping to placate the God we have deeply offended.

Some variation of this no doubt rings out from pulpits from week to week. It is a reaction to the “cheap grace” dispensed by an indulgent god, who regards our sins as faux pas, and who can be counted on to turn the other cheek indefinitely. It is the predictable opposite of the Crucifixion position. In place of the cold calculation of sins, there is the sunny smile of the affable god. Where our sin creates an enormous gulf, there is instead a wave of the hand and a cheerful, ‘No problem!’ This is a god of respectability, whose only request is that we maintain a reasonable semblance of ethicality.

We turn away, instinctively, from both these gods, for they are false—and they reflect back to us a false view of our humanity. In the one we become abject, paralyzed, and terrified. In the other, we are self-centered, smug, and blind to the wreckage we leave behind us.

This provokes in us different reactions. We might redouble our efforts to do life perfectly, keeping lists and analyzing the data. But this is about as effective as Paris Hilton’s T-shirt, which read, “Stop Being Poor.” Or we might kill the messenger, rejecting those who would stop to help us out of the ditches we have crashed into. Another reaction is to throw the whole thing over, confess that we were duped by God and religion from the start, and try to begin again, free from the superstitions we once fervently followed as truths. All of these are ways we cope with cognitive dissonance, in which our actions and our values no longer correspond and, instead, cause us deep distress.

Or we could try repentance, what the New Testament calls metanoia, a turning around to take a new and different path. This is our turning to God, and we are at our most vulnerable in doing so. Because we judge God by our own standards, we find it almost impossible to believe that God has been with us all along, especially when we felt most isolated in our sin. We may resolve to live right, do our very best, and make it up to God. Merton cautions us, however: “The best is not the ideal. Where what is theoretically best is imposed on everything as the norm, then there is no longer any room even to be good. The best, imposed as a norm, becomes evil.”2

Even if we are reflective about our state of being with God, there is in us a nagging suspicion that it couldn’t be as simple as “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free,” and “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” What will we be free from? In these verses Jesus also says—and could we refute him?—“Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” We are all slaves, then, and the result is that we cannot believe we have been set free. Mental slavery—the acquiescence to the power of a distorting reality—destroys our trust.3

Crucifixion people collapse right here and have not the trust nor the will to stand up. Because they must be the best—and they cannot—they are bound in an endless loop of self-recrimination and guilt. They might experience a momentary high as they imagine Jesus’ death on the cross wiping the slate clean and averting God’s wrath. But in the next moment they are brought down as they sin. They cannot move forward because they regard sin as discrete unlawful actions, which they cannot stop performing.

But sin is like living with a crippling disease, an ongoing state of being. One learns to cope, to find ways to walk anyway, in the faith and hope that one day we shall “run and not be weary.” Until then, we remember both how fragile we are and yet how we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.

Resurrection people know their personal history; they know where the cracks are. They know what crippled them and how they got that way. They were listening when Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me,” and they hoped, with all their heart, that when Jesus cried out to them from his own cross that “Today you will be with me in paradise,” that it was true. For they knew that they were crucified with Christ, but that they would live because it was Christ who would live in them.

They would continue to bear the scars of their battles and to walk with a limp—a reminder of their struggle to give their ego over to God. But most of all, they were emboldened to become salt in the world and to become light where they were, because they had a clear-eyed experience of being loved.

“Be content, be content. We are the Body of Christ! We have found Him because He has sought us. God has come to take up his abode in us, in sinners. There is nothing further to look for except to turn to Him completely, where He is already present. Be quiet and see that He is God.”4

  1. Merton, Thomas. Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. Garden City, NY: Image Books imprint of Doubleday & Co., 1968, p. 23.
  2. Merton, p. 9.
  3. Acknowledgement to Bob Marley.
  4. Merton, p. 23.

Stranger Mysteries

Photo: Ricardo Frantz, Unsplash

Jesus crucified is our central image of the strangeness of God, consuming what comes close to it . . . He is that which interrupts and disturbs and remakes the world. That’s the first thing: the story we tell.1

He stands motionless in a wilderness of heat, the bones of the earth whitening between the razored shadows in the desert. Black birds wheel overhead with the faintest whisper of pinions. There is a silence about him that stops the words behind the teeth. My blood beats in my ears.

Whatever he is searching out, my eyes cannot follow.

Whatever he is seeing is not visible.

There is a gulf between us; I believe he is in combat.

***

The Gospel of John assures us that “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” There are layers of mystery here that must not be painted over with the wash of complacency. Two thousand years of theological and political cross-referencing have smoothed out the jaggedness of the divine touching the human. We are no longer alarmed by Jesus’ confrontation with evil or how his life sets in stark relief our great need for honesty and spiritual courage. When he fits the order of things—when we confine him to the church where he can preside over committees and validate decisions—he is . . . harmless.

The story of Jesus sets us at an oblique angle to the plane of the world. It is an Escher print in motion, a Matisse cut-out, with the spare lines of a haiku and the tragic realism of a Rouault painting. I describe the story in this way because I see it in these ways: angles, lines, planes, curves, edges, silhouettes of a lean starkness against the light.

We don’t much like mysteries when it comes to spiritual matters. We call them “paradoxical,” another term that seems to be a dodge, a giving up of the intellect just when it is most consequential. Rowan Williams, one-time Archbishop of Canterbury, sees that our language cannot keep up with the quick-changes of life. We’re using terms that no longer fit the situation, but we haven’t yet come up with something that expresses clearly what we are experiencing. We call it a “paradox,” he says, not because we are trying to muddle things or avoid the truth, but in order to remind ourselves that things are not always what they seem. “We speak in paradoxes because we have to speak in a way that keeps a question alive.” 2

The death of questions for a person involved in religion is another paradox. It is a relief to those being questioned, but it is in answering those questions that a religious authority believes himself to be an authority. Likewise, for the questioner, the constant twitch of questions can become exhausting and distracting, but it is only by asking and seeking that we find.

My paradox, the one that keeps me spiritually alive and a question to myself, is how Jesus has been for me both a threat and a promise. Like Thomas Merton, who knew himself to be living under ‘the sign of Jonas’ (Jonah), “I find myself traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox.” Jesus took to himself the metaphor of Jonah’s engorgement in the fish to allude to his death and entombment. Merton meant that we are to understand Jesus in the only way possible—through his resurrection.

But my paradox begins with the Incarnation and winds forward to the crucifixion. I have an idea where this comes from and what it might reveal about me. To begin at the beginning has always been my Sisyphean rock to roll. Nothing less than a comprehensive grasp of what may be known on a subject is my default desire. The utter impossibility of this has not lessened my instinctual turn toward it. Thus, my loathing of true/false and multiple-choice questions on exams (Nothing is that certain. Nothing is that cut and dried.), and a febrile sense that I could filibuster my way out of most philosophical cul-de-sacs, meant that as a student I was constantly retracing my steps, like a man on a treadmill—plenty of exercise, little forward progress.

If there is one movement in life of which I am certain, certain because I experience it and see it recapitulated in Nature and in Being, it is the fall from Innocence to Experience and then the rise—hoped for but not inevitable—to Experienced Innocence. Our innocence is birthed with the capacity for experience; experience often arrives in a disruption of innocence, a tearing away from our transient blissful slumber to awaken in harsh light.

Experience jars us in individual but similar ways. It may be the loss of a parent in childhood, or the awareness that others resent us for being an Other or any number of slips, falls, or crashes. There are surely other ways of coming to knowledge, but the reality east of Eden is that we ate of the fruit and that has made all the difference.

Experience arises within a tragic context—we cannot choose the particulars, but it is necessary that we choose—yet, it is usually through experiencing a fall that we recognize our need. Broken and stunned, we are fortunate if someone cares enough to say that it matters how we respond to our brokenness. The passive receptiveness of our innocence gives over to our active seeking for a way to rise to our Experienced Innocence, what Christians call ‘new life.’

Our experience continues: any learning is a kind of fall from innocence and a rising. To find a new innocence in this way “is to retain that space in your heart that once heard a still, small voice saying not your name so much as your nature . . . You must protect this space so that it can protect you.”3

What strikes us as strange is that which comes from beyond our experience—our physical, emotional, imaginative limits. The word derives from estrangier, Old French, and before that from Latin extraneus, that which is external to us, which comes to us from the outside. Literally speaking then, everything we experience for the first time is strange and we will be a stranger wherever we are that is not part of our interior geography. Everyone is a stranger in more places than they can call “home.” We are all “the stranger” within someone else’s gates.

The Incarnation cradles the paradox of the divine becoming human and the human glorified in the divine. The mystery and the strangeness of Jesus is that he speaks and acts for God through his humanity, not in spite of it. The apokalypsis is the revelation that God is in our midst in the heat, sweat, hunger, joy, weariness, delight, and humor of Jesus. The Incarnation puts flesh on the shimmering hologram of the Word; the abstract infinity of the Word is rendered visible as an itinerant rabbi who speaks with authority because he knows God as God knows him—so much so that he can truthfully say, “I and the Father are one.”

“He came to his own,” says John, “and his own received him not.” He came home and was a stranger to those who dwelt within. He came and was not recognized as God because he is through and through one of us. But adding to the mystery is the manner of his coming. We humans project our images of mastery and power up into the heavens and call them ‘God.’ We see God as a superhero, flashing his omnipotence in a slashing, blinding intrusion into this chaotic world. But God cannot be anything but what his nature is, and his nature is nothing if not that of self-giving love. “What he does is identical with what he is.”4

To appear in the world quietly, in humility, in the form of a servant, is the most God-like form we could imagine—and it does take imagination. Infant, child, teenager, man—these are the iterations of God-in-Christ, beginning from the moment he is enfleshed, incarnated among us.

The arc of his life, from incarnation to crucifixion, appears in all its strangeness as a series of reversals: a servant, not a superhero; humility rather than arrogance; the Word instead of the sword; death on a cross instead of victory over the vanquished.

For two thousand years the church has more often than not chosen the warrior over the servant. More than that, it has refused to accept the implications of the words, “He who has seen me has seen the Father,” a claim not about Jesus, but “a declaration made about God.”5 The strangeness of a God whose character persuades rather than coerces, whose glory is revealed in mercy and forgiveness rather than cruelty and arbitrariness, confronts our fears. The way to God is narrow because we travel it in and through Jesus who, in God’s name, throws open the gates of the kingdom to those we fear and despise—the strangers and aliens who gladly exchange their pride for love and mercy. We must choose to enlarge our lives.

Like Rilke, I have questions, the answers to which I must live into. Shall I—shall any of us—one day arrive like Jonah, strangers tossed up on the shores of a great city to wreak judgement on other strangers, only to find that God-in-Christ, ever constant in his love, has showered grace instead of fire on those whose hearts of stone are broken?

  1. Williams, Rowan. “A Ray of Darkness” in Open to Judgement: Sermons and Addresses. London: Darton Longman and Todd, 1994, p. 122.
  2. Williams, 119.
  3. Wiman, Christian. My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, p. 64.
  4. Taylor, John V. The Christlike God. London: SCM Press Ltd, 1992, 138.
  5. Taylor, p. 140.

The Suffering that Becomes Us

Photo: Kat J, Unsplash

Nothing that we despise in the other man is entirely absent from ourselves . . . We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.1 — Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The balance of power in human relationships often turns on the contempt we feel for those who suffer. There is something in us that finds the crack in the shell, the split in the veneer, the tear in the fabric, irresistible to the touch. More dangerously, some find the weaknesses in the armor we construct around ourselves. These cracks can be wedged open and widened by those skilled in the art of humiliation—of making a person regard himself with shame and even derision. Then the humiliated stands apart from himself, seeing himself as the abuser does—as an object, not a subject—that is deserving of punishment for pretending to be that which “It” is not—a “Thou.”

In accepting humiliation a person enters into an implicit contract with those who cause the suffering. In that moment of exquisite isolation, the humiliated one desperately seeks to belong again at all costs. A line is flung out to the drowning person, who believes that grasping it might save his life—but the price will be his soul. Jacob’s cunning tricks robbed Esau of his birthright because Esau was famished—near death’s door by his own account. The resentment and hatred unleashed by that humiliation reverberated through their family for decades.

***

The story of the woman caught in adultery usually appears in the Gospel of John in the eighth chapter, although in some versions it is dropped in at the end of the book. There is dispute about its authorship, but the consensus of the centuries places it within John’s message.

It is early morning in the temple. Jesus, as is his custom, has spent the night under the olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane. He makes his way down through the quiet streets to the courts of the temple. A crowd gathers to hear him, and he sits down to teach them. Then, in a commotion of jeers and shoving, a woman is flung down on the stones in front of him. A knot of temple authorities and Pharisees stands triumphantly over her. She is on her knees, her hair disheveled, her hands trembling. It is clear that she is naked under the blanket she clutches to her.

“Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery,” crows one of the men triumphantly. Some in the crowd laugh and a few of the women shake their heads scornfully. Their husbands angle for a better look, but when the woman pulls her hair back from her face, several of them quickly turn away.

“Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women.” There is no irony evident in his tone, despite the clear omission of any condemnation of the man with whom her adultery was committed. This woman, murmur some in the crowd, is what’s wrong with society today. Women like her trap our boys. “And if I ever caught my husband with her . . .”

The crowd begins to stir restlessly; the promise of a stoning heats the air. The priest in charge looks around at the crowd and then at Jesus. He pauses dramatically, swelling with the knowledge that all eyes are upon him.

”Now what do you say?” He smiles and arches an eyebrow.

There it is: the Law of God up against the Son of Man. To the priests, the woman is merely useful. They’re not concerned with the man she slept with; he has been paid to slip away and keep his mouth shut. They are after a bigger prize.

What shall we say then? If we are the priests, we cannot find it in ourselves to forgive this woman. After all, it’s the Law. Obedience to the law is what keeps a society together and functioning well. Flouting the law, so clearly in evidence here, is simply courting chaos and disaster.

And it is God’s law. As religious leaders, it is our responsibility to ensure that those entrusted to our care are compliant with the commandments of God. The burden is on us to carry out the penalty if God demands it. Wouldn’t it be the height of hypocrisy to wink at so grievous a sin? And wouldn’t we be punishable if we didn’t honor God’s law? Really, we have no choice; our hands are tied. There can be no waffling, no equivocating in matters like this. To excuse such wrongdoing is to open the floodgates of sin. No, the commandment is clear: death is the penalty, and this woman was caught in the very act.

That would be the end of the story in any other time and place. But not today. Jesus bends down and writes with his finger in the dust of the temple floor. The priests are badgering him for an answer, the crowd is restive, the woman has slumped to the ground, leaning on one arm, and still Jesus writes in silence. “What do you say, Master?” demands the priest. Jesus straightens. “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And he bends down again and continues to write.

The priests slip away, beginning with the eldest. They are silent, red-faced, confused. They find themselves in a moral vortex. While they have no love for Jesus, they grudgingly admire his fluency in debate, his charisma with the people, and—truth be told—his intimate relation with God. They are people tasked with the responsibility to know the Scriptures. They know the Law and the Prophets, and they meditate on them day and night. Keeping the commandments is what God calls them to do. Keeping the peace is what the Romans demand of them. Jesus disrupts and distorts both of these; he seems to see the world through a different lens. They fear him, for encounters with him leave them with vertigo. He insists that they know God first and that love toward each other is a way of knowing God—an epistemology of love. Then what about the Law? they ask, as they slink away.

“God’s relation to the world is personal and particular,” says John Taylor in his book, The Christlike God. “He knows each thing only as a ‘thou’, and his knowing is not by cognition but by communion. Only by becoming this one man has God brought humanity in general into such communion with himself.”2

In the incarnation, God’s infinite openness to the human experience is echoed in our finite possibility for transcendence. Taylor offers Karl Rahner’s insight that “Human beings are creatures with an infinite horizon and, though they have become so flawed as to settle for the self-centered here and now, they still possess the instinct to reach out toward the limitlessness of God.”3

The woman’s accusers stole away because, having denied that infinite horizon to people such as her, they could no longer see it for themselves nor did they want to. Guilt narrows our vision, lowers our heads, confines us to our immediate steps. And they could not let it go, the priests. Having lived their lives within the circuitry of sin = punishment, they resisted the rewiring that would give her—and them—a new life.

At last, Jesus straightens up. The elders are gone, the crowd is silent. They watch Jesus and the woman without moving. “Woman,” says Jesus gently, “where are they? Has no one condemned you?” And she looks up, “No one, sir.” Jesus smiles then. “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

***

This is a story about God, for having seen Jesus in action, so we see God. There is a wondrous truth that we awaken to the closer we get to that infinite horizon of new chances for life, and it is that God cannot be other than true to his nature—and his nature is only and ever that of life-giving love.

And this is a story about us, for we are that woman and we are those priests, and like them we will fall again and again, and in our falling we will condemn and lash out at those we hold some power over. Suffering will beget suffering.

But in Jesus we have a priest who was tempted as we are and more so. What he suffered in temptation we could not bear. “And what his struggles seem to have produced,” writes Rowan Williams, “was a sense of the precariousness of goodness, love and fidelity so profound and strong that no failure or error could provoke his condemnation, except the error of those legalists who could not understand that very precariousness.”4

He understands us, he knows us, he sees our paths, errant and erratic as they may be, and he loves us still. Through his sufferings we are healed, and in our sufferings we find common ground with those we are tempted to condemn. We may take him at his word, knowing that he will not break the bruised reed nor crush the smoldering flax.

There will come a day, an ordinary day, when we realize with a shock of gratitude that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself,” and as a result we have not judged, but have loved because we first were loved.

  1. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Letters and Papers from Prison. The Enlarged Edition. Edited by Eberhard Bethge. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997, p. 10.
  2. Taylor, John V. The Christlike God. London: SCM Press, 1992, p. 129.
  3. Taylor, p. 133.
  4. Williams, Rowan. Open to Judgement: Sermons and Addresses. London: Dartman, Longman and Todd, 1994, p. 17.

The Getting of Wisdom

Photo: Prottoy Hassan, Unsplash

”These are but the fringes of his power and how faint the whisper that we hear of him! — Job 26.14 (Revised English Bible)

I had just delivered a lecture to my class in Twentieth-Century Theology and conducted a discussion on Jesus’ cry from the cross of his forsakenness by God. It was my view that Jesus felt his abandonment at the very core of his being, and that far from being an example of faithlessness on his part it reflected, to a depth we can hardly comprehend, the trust he had placed in God. I had quoted several major twentieth-century theologians and noted the origins of their thought as well as the conclusions they had come to. As the class ended, an enraged senior theology major approached me. “You are thinking man’s thoughts!” he hissed. “I stand on the Word of God alone, not on man’s thoughts.”

I was taken aback. Rather curtly, I replied, “But I am a man; how else am I supposed to think?” It was my first year teaching theology and I had made the fundamental error of new teachers in assuming that my students held the associations, assumptions, and inferences that I did. My conclusions were not theirs. In fact, as I thought about it later, their assumptions, grafted into their young trunks without their awareness, were those I had given up for other starting points.

But it was not my place to jerk them out of their seats, grab them by the neck, and force them to their knees in order to submit to my truth.

My truth, as I was coming to understand, was not even the Truth, but a version of a truth I was growing into and, actually, it was not a singular truth but plural truths that branched and leafed and grew in all directions away from each other, yet were tied to a stem that flourished from a root that was planted with a desire to know Jesus, and through him, to know God. How simple it all seemed to me!

***

“Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding.” —Proverbs 4:7

Reading through the book of Proverbs feels like threading beads of many sizes on a string. Clearly, it’s a compilation of sayings built up over centuries, practical wisdom tested every day and handed on through the generations. You can almost hear the “Uh-huh” after each one.

Some patterns begin to emerge. The character of the wise person is one who is thrifty, hardworking, honest and fair, does not despise the poor, but also does not fall into the indolence that leads to poverty. Such persons respect their parents, obey the king, worship God, and know their place in the social and divine order. That order can be shaken up when people get above themselves:

Under three things the earth trembles;

under four it cannot bear up;

a slave when he becomes king,

and a fool when glutted with food;

an unloved woman when she gets

a husband,

and a maid when she succeeds her mistress. (Proverbs 30: 21-23)

Wisdom is correlated with insight or understanding in a way that suggests mutual dependency. Both can be admired independently, but neither achieves its end without the other. Ground coffee smells wonderful and a French press is a handy gadget, but either one alone isn’t worth much.

Wisdom is often ascribed to the old—all that experience counting for something beyond mere knowledge. It isn’t chronologically assured though, since an old fool is no better than a young one—in fact, worse—because a young fool can change, but an old fool . . . not so much. The young are inevitably foolish, lacking both the ability to see around corners and the experience to anticipate what they can’t yet see. Hence the need for Proverbs. But we older fools must look elsewhere.

Perhaps wisdom in this form is overrated. Proverbs is most often cast as a father’s advice to his young and ambitious sons. Wisdom is following the commandments; the opposite of wisdom is following a loose woman home. Wisdom is avoiding drink, getting up early, and taking care of business. Check your anger, submit to discipline, don’t be insolent. Wisdom brings long life and satisfaction in its train, for the righteous will be prosperous while the sinners will die in poverty and ignorance. The quick takeaway on wisdom, according to the adults I knew as a child, could be reduced to the notion that it was smart to obey your elders.

There’s much to be said in favor of this; wisdom like this keeps the streets clean and peaceful, employment up, crime down, and business humming, families intact and social roles clear. But this is prudence, not wisdom of the sort that would cause one to sacrifice everything for the ‘pearl of great price.’ It is not the love of wisdom, personified throughout the ages as Sophia and revered as the Spirit of God.

***

Harvey Cox’s The Secular City (1965) intrigued me in high school. My curiosity was triggered by Time Magazine’s infamous April 8, 1966 “Is God Dead?” cover story. Cox predicted the waning of religion in America, something which has not happened. But of more interest to me was his discussion of the roots of secularity and its history as a social phenomenon and a counterfoil to religion. I found the distinction between the sacred and the secular puzzling—were they opposed? were they complementary? did we have to choose between them? could we keep them together? I was struggling to work out a way to be a Christian and to “be in the world.” The thing to avoid, as I saw it then, was being “of the world,” which, in my naïveté, meant my address should be Heaven—and not this world.

I wanted to be someone who could appreciate the beauties of the natural world, as well as the best of art, literature, music, science, and philosophy. Over against that was the imperative of fulfilling the mission to make all people Christ’s disciples—which, in practical terms, usually meant bringing other Christians into our fold. In my case, as a teacher of religion in a denominational college, there was an explicit expectation to keep the ones we had untainted by the world.

I hoped I could find a way to live through a humanized Christianity that unashamedly sought transcendence from within and through this deeply flawed but wonderful world. There was no simple solution to this, of course, “but the waking mind,” as Seamus Heaney says, “desires constantly some clarified allegiance, without complication or ambivalence.”1

My search is that of anyone who seeks a meaningful life. I don’t want a theocracy nor could I live within a joyless ideology, political or otherwise, that seeps bitterness. Neither would I want a self-indulgent form of religious hedonism that placed my comfort at the center of the universe. To speak in the language of the parables, I wish to be salt and light to the world.

Even that has its traps if we delude ourselves into thinking we’re indispensable or that we’re somehow owed special favors because of our membership in the church or our self-designation as followers of Christ.

***

For many years I taught courses in ethics: bioethics, communication ethics, public relations ethics, journalism ethics, business ethics, theoretical ethics, Christian ethics. Ethics as a discipline has been sliced and diced into a thousand pieces, every field claiming a particular slant of the light all its own. This proliferation has been driven by a belated recognition that moral values are both good business and should be at the heart of human endeavor. Curriculae are developed that offer a feast of courses, each of them claiming their own vocabulary and featuring specialized case studies. These courses become islands of power for their departments and their instructors. Textbook publishers readily oblige, offering expensively updated books every year or so.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed teaching, especially when discussions with students got beyond their reflexive relativism (“Who’s to say what’s right or wrong? Who are you to judge?”) to an informed and thoughtful reflection on their own moral and spiritual discoveries. At those times, the burden of being expected to provide the answers to moral dilemmas eased and I could feel that the students and I were fellow travelers. I could give them historical ethical models of how humans have wrestled with these common dilemmas and then they could try them out for themselves. These were not formulas with a right answer; they were ways to think practically about complex human actions, using fairly simple methods.

***

At the heart of learning is the answering of a call, vocare in Latin, a vocation that lures us onward no matter what the discipline. The calling is from God, God as Subject, calling to us as subjects in a world of objects. There is freedom in the realization that in God’s eyes we are subjects worthy to be loved and to be listened to. “How things are between man and his idea of the Divinity determines everything in his life, the quality and connectedness of every feeling and thought, and the meaning of every action,” remarked the poet Ted Hughes.2

What we know of God is what he has chosen to make known to us. In spite of our limitations, we have spoken in myriad languages, during thousands of years, of the One who calls us to rejoice in our search for transcendence.

In the fullness of time (a felicitous phrase), God enfleshed his Word, that Word which had first been spoken and then reverberated down through the millennia. It appeared among us as Immanuel, God-become-human.

I am more and more convinced that Jesus in Word and Spirit is everything we can know of God. This learning is the deep quest of our lives. Out of the secular, the mundane, the earthly, we form the sacral and lift it to God. Music, art, literature, science, history—even religion—all of this, if we allow it, points beyond itself to a transcendence that calls to the deepest part of us. There is in each of us a homing device for the Garden, for a place and time that is open-ended, fully satisfying, never finished nor complete, ever new.

“How faint the whisper that we hear of him!” marvels Job of God. And yet the consciousness of God fills Job’s spirit and thoughts, first, in the argument he would take up with God and then in the knowledge that everything is, finally, within God’s embrace—the universe, the world, and us.

If I were to encounter that irate student today, with his claim to speak the mind of God, I would say, “Thank you for the vote of confidence! As one of my friends says, ‘I know more and more about less and less.’ But I know that someday I shall know as I am known. Perhaps that is the beginning of wisdom.”

  1. Heaney, Seamus. The Government of the Tongue. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989, p. xii.
  2. Quoted in Michael Mayne, The Sunrise of Wonder. American edition. Cleveland, TN: Parson’s Porch Books, 2012, p. 212.

Aloneness and Chosenness

”Amazement is the thing. / Not love, but the astonishment of loving.” — Alastair Reid1

Photo: Arif Wahid, Unsplash.com

With the possible exception of Judas Iscariot, there are few figures close to Jesus more tragic than his cousin, John. Before his birth his destiny was promised, during his life his focus on the Judgment was singular, and before his death his aloneness was excruciating.

Early on, he had been the very picture of a prophet of old, a mouthful of fire and an ax in hand to cut down these desiccated trees of Israel. But he’d been jolted with joy when baptizing Jesus. The man came up from the dirty stream aglow, his face lifted to the heavens, hearing something beyond the audible spectrum of the people around him.

John hadn’t seen him since that day at the Jordan River, but it was hard to miss his influence. The news of Jesus had spread through the region as his healings became known. Even after some of John’s disciples had gone with Jesus, John was not discouraged. He was a forerunner, an Elijah to the Messiah, the one who would prepare the way for the Way, the Truth, and the Life. While Jesus was out sowing the seeds of the kingdom up and down the country, from Galilee to Jerusalem, John was at the river baptizing. Judgment from one, forgiveness from the other. But that was then.

“Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another (Matt. 11:2,3)?’”

It is impossible to hide the disappointment in that question. It is the cry of those who have thrown in their lot with every messianic figure throughout history. Are you the one? Are you really? The wheels of history turn slowly and where they stop can’t be known beforehand, only hoped for. It is a question that had buzzed in John’s head for weeks, but he’d never breathed it out loud until now.

He did have occasional visitors in Herod’s dank prison, disciples from the days when they were all encamped in the wilderness together. They brought him reports of Jesus, his signs and wonders, each one a down payment on the kingdom John insisted was coming.

In those long days he was like a man adrift at sea who hears the breakers on a hidden shore at night: what lay ahead was either death or deliverance.

We cannot know what was in his mind toward the end, but we might imagine. He was at once Everyman and yet unique, as we all are. What might we think and feel in that place? How would we face our death or our deliverance? Both are certain—either one will happen or the other—and the numinous anticipation of each arrives with every building wave. It’s the breaking wave that is uncertain: we are tossed without control. Beyond the breakers, on the shore, lies our fate, and we are released into it only after a churning downside-up dragging across the reefs of our doubts and fears.

***

In his aloneness, John considers: had he been wrong about Jesus? From his childhood (miraculous in itself as his mother never tired of reminding him) he had been taught that his kinsman would bring Yahweh to the world. All nations would stream to Jerusalem on highways leveled, widened, and straightened. All creation would sing the praises of the Creator. Righteousness would rule, peace would prevail, the lion and the lamb would lie down together.

But before all that would come Judgement, the cleansing by fire of a people to be presented as pure before the Lord. John would be Isaiah’s echo, “Prepare a way for the Lord; clear a straight path for him.” He kept it simple when he emerged from the hills and erupted into the wilderness. He had a message that cut like a sword across the generations, dividing one from another: “Repent; for the kingdom of Heaven is upon you!” And the people came, at first in ones and twos, and then by the hundreds, panting in the heat and clambering over the rocks down to the stream that gushed in the spring season and slowed and pooled in the summer. “What should we do?” they cried as they pressed together along the banks of the stream. “Repent of your sins!” he had roared.

When the Pharisees and Sadducees had shown up, gathering their robes about them, demanding baptism, he had called them on it. Their hypocrisy was like a blackness in front of his eyes; he could hardly bear the sight of them. “You vipers brood!” he had hissed. “Who warned you to escape from the coming retribution?” They were all words and theories, no action. They were trees without fruit, they were bastard children claiming a heritage they did not deserve. God could raise up children out of the stones in the river that would be more faithful to their Creator than these snakes and frogs. “I baptize with water, but there is one coming after me who will baptize with the Spirit and with fire.”

And then Jesus arrived at the Jordan from Galilee, asking to be baptized. John demurred, drawing back, but Jesus gently insisted. And so he had plunged him under and seen him rise, water cascading down his back, his hair wet and clinging to his shoulders. After the voice, he had turned toward the wilderness, not toward Jerusalem, and John had shuddered for knowing what lay ahead of him in that vast and cave-pocked landscape. He knew the whispers and voices that the wind carried, the weight of heat under the bronzed sky, and the cold solitude of the nights.

They were both chosen, both alone, even in the midst of crowds. After years alone and then years with others who, like him, agreed to a community of few words, the incessant chatter of the people was like the swarming of bees for John. Jesus seemed to welcome the crowds around him. They pressed up against him on every side, dancing in front of him like children skipping backwards. He smiled, touched them, looked in their eyes, tousled their hair. John, hearing of this from his disciples, could only shake his head in admiration.

***

So when John’s disciples come to Jesus with the question, “Are you the one?” Jesus does not answer at first. He bows his head; those closest to him see that his eyes are closed, and his mouth is set in a hard, straight line. He begins to speak, his voice a quaver at first but steadying as he raises his head.

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind recover their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are clean, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, the poor are hearing the good news . . .” He looks around at the circle of faces before him and his eyes blur with tears. All of the power he feels when he touches someone to heal them, all the assurance he receives that he is on the right path, all the pain he absorbs from those who are frightened, alone, hanging by a thread—all of that thickens his sight. There is a ringing in his ears, and he drops his head. He gasps and takes a step back; it is as if he feels a sword thrust in his side. He jerks upright, then, and cries, “And happy is the man who does not find me a stumbling-block.”

Silently, the messengers nod and turn to leave. Jesus looks after them for a long moment. He takes a step forward, as if he would call them back. Suddenly, he is angry. “When you came out to the wilderness looking for John, what did you expect to see?” he exclaims vehemently. “Silks and satins? Only people in palaces wear that!” He almost spits the words. “What then? A prophet? Yes, a prophet, but so much more.” Now he is pacing, his fists clenched. “I tell you this: never has a mother’s son been born who is greater than John, and yet even the least in the kingdom of Heaven is greater than he!”

***

There is more. Jesus rages at the indecisiveness of the people, at their shallow attitudes. What do you want? he cries. You’re like children who can’t make up their minds. We pipe, but you don’t dance. We mourn, but you won’t cry. John doesn’t eat or drink and you think he’s crazy. I come along eating and drinking, and you call me a glutton who hangs around with sinners and tax-collectors!

And most enigmatically, “Ever since the coming of John the Baptist the kingdom of Heaven has been subjected to violence and violent men are seizing it.”

Jesus is nothing if not a realist. He’s not seduced by our flattery nor discouraged by our ignorance. Neither will he explain everything he says, and if we are perplexed or discomfited by that, he does not expect it should prevent us from following him.

And what are we waiting for? Jesus proclaimed the kingdom to be within us and surrounding us. Evidence for this comes through acting on it in our own time and place. Is he the One or should we look for another? “God’s wisdom is proved right by its results (Matt. 11:19).” Each of us, alone and chosen, creates the kingdom together.

John, lying awake in the night, hears the hurrying footsteps toward his cell and stands to his feet. Though the violent are seizing the kingdom, he knows who is the One.

  1. Reid, Alastair. “Growing, Flying, Happening. Quoted in Michael Mayne. This Sunrise of Wonder. Cleveland, TN: Parson’s Porch Books, 2012.

Small Acts of Courage

”. . . and the dream outlasts/Death, and the dreamer will never die.”1

Photo: Jehyun Sung, Unsplash.com

What is fearful is usually evil, says Aristotle. We fear poverty, disrepute, disease, being friendless, death. But a courageous person, Aristotle continues, is not concerned with all of these. Some things are worse than others, and some things are more to be feared than others. “A man who fears disrepute is decent and has a sense of shame, a man who does not fear it is shameless.”2 A person’s character was reflected in his or her deeds and one’s deeds were the legacy that survived one’s death. Courage in battle was most often praised, for it stood against the natural fear of danger and of death. As a veteran himself, Aristotle knew what it took to stand one’s ground when instincts of self-preservation fought with virtue.

Even more to be admired was the person who displayed courage when caught up in unexpected danger. “It is a mark of even greater courage to be fearless and unruffled when suddenly faced with a terrifying situation than when the danger is clear beforehand.” When we have time to prepare, we may resolve to be courageous—think of the men in transport ships approaching the coast of Normandy on D-Day. But what of those suddenly caught in an ambush when out on patrol? “When we see what is coming, we can make a choice,” notes Aristotle, “based on calculation and guided by reason, but when a situation arises suddenly our actions are determined by our characteristics.”

Since courage displayed is the result of virtue practiced, those who display it when startled have courage at the core of their being. But whether anticipated or arising in the moment, courage is noble and elevates the soul.

***

It is winter and Jesus is sowing discord in the temple precincts. Walking in Solomon’s Cloister with the disciples, he is surrounded by a group of surly priests who demand to know who he thinks he is. “If you are the Messiah say so plainly.” And Jesus says something like, I already have but you don’t believe. My actions are my credentials. You don’t believe because you are not one of mine. If you were, you would know that nobody can snatch my own from me because my Father and I are one.

If they’d had guns the safeties would have clicked off. As it is, they pick up rocks. You have to work with what you’ve got. Jesus shrugs and asks for which of the good deeds God has done through him are they going to stone him? Not for any of that, they say, but for you claiming to be a god. Well, says Jesus, doesn’t your scripture say you are gods? Gods are people who have received the word of God—and you can’t set aside Scripture. So why charge me with blasphemy, a person sent into the world by God, because I say I am God’s son?

The disciples are watching this verbal ping-pong with increasing dread. And Jesus throws a parting shot: If you don’t believe what I say at least believe what I do, that God is in me and I am in God. Time to go, fellas. “This provoked them to one more attempt to seize him. But he escaped from their clutches (John 10:39).”

***

Jesus and the disciples are across the Jordan, back where John first baptized Jesus. The crowds that come out to see him there recall that while John hadn’t done anything miraculous, everything he’d said about Jesus had come true. Among other things, John had been certain that Jesus was “God’s Chosen One,” and it sure looked like it, given all the people he had healed and the demons driven out and sight restored to the blind.

People were still talking about Jesus healing the man who was born blind. It was the general belief that something that unlucky had to be assigned blame. “Who sinned,” the disciples asked, “this man or his parents?” Neither one, said Jesus. This is an opportunity to show God’s power in healing him. So he spit on the ground and made a paste of the mud and put it on the fellow’s eyes and told him to go wash it off in the pool at Siloam. The man went and washed and when he came back he could see. But he didn’t see Jesus because Jesus had gone, leaving one grateful man awash in controversy. It can’t be him, said his neighbors. Must be someone who looks like him. Who healed you, they ask? Jesus did it, said the man. Where is he? I don’t know, he answered.

Later, the Pharisees hauled him up for questioning because Jesus healed him on the Sabbath. Who did this to you, they demanded. So he ran through the story again, just the facts: I was blind, Jesus put mud on my eyes and told me to wash. I did and now I can see. That set them off again. The nub of the argument was that the Sabbath commandment had been shattered, thus the healing was not of God. Others felt that the very rarity of the event pointed to a divine intervention. There was also a strong feeling in certain quarters that the man was lying about being born blind. Get his parents in here, they snarled. Is this your son? Was he really born blind? Don’t ask us, they snapped. He can answer for himself. Yes, he was born blind and no, we don’t know how he was healed. They were afraid of being expelled from the synagogue.

So they summoned the man again, swore him to tell the truth before God, and denounced Jesus as a sinner. I don’t know about that, retorted the fellow. All I know is that I was blind and now I see. Can’t have been that easy, they cried. There was some gnashing of teeth. What did he do to you? You really want me to go through it all again, asked the man? You want to be his disciples too?

It got ugly. You’re his disciple, they said. We follow Moses and we know God spoke to Moses. But we don’t know where this one came from. Astonishing, said the man, because since time began no one born blind has gained their sight. If he wasn’t from God, how could this have happened? Don’t be giving us lessons, they yelled. Flecks of foam appeared at the corners of their mouths. You—born and bred in sin! And they threw him out of the synagogue.

Later, Jesus found him and said, “Do you have faith in the Son of Man?” Tell me who he is, said the man. You’re looking at him, said Jesus. “Lord, I believe, he said, and bowed before him.”

All of this was prologue. The fear the authorities held of Jesus was that his power and charisma would inflame the people; it meant they watched his every move.

***

Lazarus has died. In fact, he’s been dead for four days, and in the meantime Jesus has dawdled. The word had come that Lazarus was deathly ill; it was his sister Martha who sent it from the village of Bethany, two miles from Jerusalem. Blithely, it seemed, Jesus brushed it aside. “This sickness will not end in death,” he said, but it did. Was he naive or just in denial? This has come about, said Jesus, so that God can be glorified. The disciples were appalled. They knew he loved Lazarus and his sisters, but he deliberately stayed in place for two more days, ensuring that Lazarus would be good and dead.

Let’s go down there, said Jesus, back to Judea. Are you serious? asked the disciples incredulously. Last time we were there you were almost killed. Twice, in fact. We doubt they’ve forgotten, and they sure haven’t forgiven. We must work while there’s light, he said. And then he added, almost as an afterthought: “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I shall go and wake him.” Ah well, perhaps we were wrong, said the disciples, and Lazarus is sleeping it off. He’ll recover, then?

But Jesus said plainly, “Lazarus is dead.” He went on to say that he was glad it turned out this way because it would be good for their faith, Lazarus being dead and all. Then they understood what a high-wire act this was. It was a trap. He—and they—would be tracked, arrested, and killed. Jesus would no more avoid this than the priests and their spies could refrain from catching him out. After the healing of the blind man—and the stir that caused—“waking” Lazarus would be the last straw. “But let us go to him,” said Jesus.

All the signs pointed to an early and violent death for Jesus—and probably for those most closely gathered around him. His actions posed a threat to the whole nation, as the priests tried to keep the fragile peace with the Romans. He had the power to incite the people. What if he acted on it? Even if he didn’t seize power the people might rise up in his name. It was a risk that could not be tolerated. Better the death of one than the end of the nation and the temple.

It was the raising of Lazarus that set the final plot in motion to bring Jesus down. While many who came to console Mary and Martha found their faith in Jesus after seeing Lazarus raised, others went directly to the priests and Pharisees to report the clear and present danger of Jesus. “So from that day on they plotted his death (John 11:53).”

***

Thomas, the Twin (early Christian legend has it that he had a twin sister, Lydia), we usually characterize as the doubter, the one who holds out for tangible evidence of the bodily reality of Jesus, post-resurrection. Thomas is in direct contrast to Peter. Where Peter is impetuous, Thomas is deliberate. Where Peter blurts out whatever surfaces in his mind, Thomas is reticent. Peter is all in for what is in front of him, Thomas hangs back. Not easily fooled, he is fully committed once he is moved by love.

Does doubt corrode trust? It might, in certain circumstances. It might also be a clearing out of the underbrush of weak notions in preparation for the planting of the stronger oaks of faith.

Thomas speaks three times in the New Testament. Twice, he has questions about Jesus. The third time, he rallies the disciples to follow Jesus to Bethany. ‘Let us also go,” he says, “that we may die with him (John 11: 16).’”

Sometimes courage mounts the ramparts in defiance of incoming fire. Sometimes it forges alliances to stand up to tyrants. Sometimes it refuses to betray the principles of a nation in exchange for the passing praise of the corrupt and the powerful. And sometimes we see it in the set of a man’s shoulders and the lifting of the head: knowing the danger, counting the cost, he strides out anyway.

  1. Thomas, R. S. “Circles.” In Collected Poems 1945-1990. London: Orion House, 1993, 245.
  2. Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by Martin Ostwald. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1999, 69.

Disappearing Act or Where We Go When We’re Gone

Photo: Vladimir Kudinov, Unsplash

”Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.” Luke 24:31

I sometimes catch myself falling into a reverie or rather, I find myself in a reverie, and I come to and I quickly look around to see if anyone noticed. These moments render me motionless in place, sitting or standing, my eyes fixed inwardly, a fingertip tapping my upper lip. Disregarding what is actually in front of me, I often see a dusty road winding through low hills that are golden in the evening light. To place it on a map is to find it just off American Canyon Road in Napa County in Northern California, a shortcut from Highway #29 that runs from the city of Napa to Highway #80, which arcs above Fairfield and Suisun City and the estuaries that meander down to where the waters drop through the Carquinez Straits on their way to San Francisco Bay.

Our geography of the mind forms around images that emerge like islands from our seas of memory. I don’t know why these hills stand out for me and why I recall them, except the evening light on their golden curves and slopes rising above the cool shadows of the canyon is a glimpse of the California of my youth and a harbinger of home. This image, transposed to Palestine and overlaid with the story of the two disciples on their way to Emmaus, has become a touchstone of my spiritual journey.

***

Luke’s road story tersely describes the disciples the Sunday after the crucifixion. Two of them are on their way to Emmaus, a village seven miles from Jerusalem. It is the waning of the day, one filled with grief and strange occurrences and things that cannot be believed. They are confused and distraught. The energy at the core of their community that drew them in and held them together, has been ripped out. They feel a centrifugal force flinging them into the darkness. Nothing looks familiar anymore, but everything remains the same.

They are heading for home, about a two-hour walk, as the hills begin to cool. They are joined by a stranger who picks up on their distress immediately. “What are you talking about?” he asks innocently. They stop in their tracks, astonished. “Are you the only one in Jerusalem who doesn’t know what happened in the last few days?” gasps one of them, Cleopas. The stranger shakes his head. “I guess so. What do you mean?” “I mean—,” he pauses and seems to gulp for air, “I mean all this about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet in what he said and did before God and the people.” The other one picks up the thread. “Our chief priests and rulers handed him over to be crucified. And he was. And we had hoped that he was the one, the one who would liberate Israel. And now it’s the third day and this morning some of our women have astounded us. They went to the tomb early, but they didn’t find his body. They claimed they had a vision of angels and these angels said that Jesus is alive. So some of our people went down there,” she paused, “and it was just like the women said. But they didn’t see him.”

The Stranger listens silently. Then he says gently, “How thick-headed you are and how slow to recognize what’s been going on for all these ages.” And he explains, beginning with Moses and the prophets, how the history unfurled and the part that the Messiah was to play. They listen, entranced. They’d never grasped the full story and now they saw themselves as part of the drama.

This our stop, they said, when they reached Emmaus. The Stranger nodded and turned to go. “But stay with us!” they begged. “We’ve got some bread, some fruit. Talk to us some more.”

It was a small place, but adequate. Cleopas gestured, “Please, sit down. I’ll get some wine.” His wife bustled in the background with the hummus and the bread. Cleopas peered at The Stranger in the fading light. “You remind me of someone,” he said hesitantly. He shook his head. “I know I’ve seen you somewhere.”

His wife laid out the simple food before them. “Please,” said Cleopas, “bless it for us.” The Stranger took up the bread in both hands. He tore it in half, he raised his eyes, he extended his arms, and breathed a prayer. That moment—one that Cleopas and Mary replayed endlessly to each other in years to come—in that moment they knew. And then he vanished.

This is the rest of the story. The two look at each other, open-mouthed. Mary shivers. “I knew it!” shouts Cleopas. “Didn’t we feel our hearts burning as he spoke?”

They set out at once, seven miles back through the night—no thought of danger—running and walking, entering Jerusalem, winding through back streets, up the stairs to burst in on the Eleven and gasp out the story. Everyone is talking at once and then “there he was, standing among them. Startled and terrified, they thought they were seeing a ghost. But he said . . . It is I myself. Touch me and see (Luke 24: 35-39).”

***

This is my spiritual life story; it might be yours as well. I find myself on the Emmaus road, confused into muteness, despairing that Jesus has been killed and me not seeing the cosmic order in it. Like the disciples, the resurrection makes no sense to me. The dead are really dead and, Lazarus notwithstanding, Jesus is not coming back from this deadness. This being a mystery which I cannot penetrate, I am setting off for home, disconsolate but with some part of me ready to suspend my disbelief in a flash, given the chance.

This is the moment when the Stranger should enter unheralded, although given my two-thousand-year advantage, I am primed and looking for him on the road. But he doesn’t appear and it is getting late and I must be on my way. It is the road to home, although I somehow know I can’t stay there. The journey then becomes an occasion of reflection, some of it recalling my studies, some of it musing on the examples of others, less of it a comparison from experience. Although I can’t say that the whole of Scripture is open to me, I do see the patterns coalescing between the Law and the Prophets. For me, they seem like the inner turmoil of a fractious family, the falling out and the making up, the exodus and the exiles. It’s a story of heartbreak and deep love on both sides, God and humans, century after century, until at last, when the times are the worst, God comes in by stealth, poured into an infant. It’s not my family, not my fight, but could their love be extended beyond these tribes? Is this a family I’d want to be adopted into?

I have my doubts, but then who doesn’t? It’s who that baby grows up to be and what he does that draws me. That he died and who killed him, is apparent to me. Sages and prophets, outlaws and heroes, the ones who carried on in the face of evil, he was one of them too. Another in a long line of good men and women who tried to save us from ourselves. But the question is, would I have killed him too?

On the road, that is the question which haunts me. But I am analyzing the danger he presented to the established order, the eternal disruption that was coiled within him. It’s history, it’s a theoretical construct, it’s a theological and moral question that demands footnoting and further research. It could be a breakthrough article for me, edgy enough to attract attention, but a rather simple mental exercise of speculation that cannot be disproven, only disregarded.

A Stranger joins me on the road. I am lost in thought, preoccupied, and suddenly, there he is. I did not see where he came from. There is a disconcerting moment in which he searches my face as we greet each other, but it passes. I lapse back into my thoughts and the story the Stranger is telling fades; it is a pleasant murmur that can be tolerated. I ask him to stop for a meal, of course, as a matter of courtesy. One must not neglect to entertain strangers for thus one might entertain angels.

It’s when he blesses bread and breaks it, a simple and universal gesture, that I recognize him. And then he’s gone, leaving an untouched meal, because I am gone too, retracing my steps in haste through the night with a joyous hunger for the company of others. Of the names he has been known by, there is one which describes him best, Immanuel, God with us. It’s only when he’s gone that we see him.