My Fallen House

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“When an unclean spirit comes out of a man it wanders over the deserts seeking a resting-place. . .” — Luke 11:23

This unclean spirit, this junior-rank devil, has been evicted from his soul-house, unwilling and anxious, not ready to be homeless, especially since he has nowhere to go but the desert, traditionally the “habitation of demons” who have worked hard and have been rewarded with hot, dry, and vast spaces of their own.

High ranking devils, we may suppose, are riven with suspicion and fury, territorial as hell, not given graciously to incursions by a random, unreliable, mouth-breathing grunt of a devil, incapable of sophisticated untruths or the power to menace, whose current rank is “occupant” — not even advanced enough to give him a voice in Council.

Our devil scrambles through the night, scanning the darkness around him for a cave where he can hole up until he can find another soul-cage to inhabit. He is predictably bitter. The eviction came without fair warning. One moment he was replacing the dust and grime that had gradually been lost, the next he was screaming out through the orifice, wailing about the blast that had ejected him like tobacco juice.

He had made himself at home there for some months. It hadn’t been so much a welcome from the host as it was indifference to his presence. He took the unused back room, carefully arranging the commemorative vials of grime and soot he had collected from the dark, Satanic mills on his tour after graduation from LowPoint Infernal Academy. Truth be told, he’d barely passed his final exams; his advisor had openly sneered at his defense of his major thesis.

But indifference is invitation to a starving first-year associate, and he’d moved in, vowing to wreak havoc, if not full-blown corruption. That would come later, with time and experience. Although he’d tried his best to apply the techniques he’d learned, the last few weeks had been hell. His host had awakened to the fact that his life was aimless chaos and he was chafing to find some purpose.

Our devil had listened with growing horror to conversations overheard that reeked of regret and sincerity. There was an ominous desire to change, and the fumbling attempts at honesty and self-awareness chilled him to the bone. While ejection is the cruelest abuse a host can perpetrate, our devil had to admit he’d naively assumed this holy restlessness was just a passing phase. And now here he was, homeless and vulnerable. The news would travel fast: if he couldn’t find a new host soon, he’d be buffing the claws on some director’s feet with his tongue. Damn, he thought despairingly, it sucks to be me.

***

There is, in each of us, an unclaimed actor who brings out the worst in us. We can sense it when a quick retort comes boiling to mind, but a more reasoned response must be thought out. The first century called them demons. If that strains your credulity, perhaps “unconscious urges” will do. In any case, there is no shame in recognizing that we frequently act against our better will and that “when I want to do the right, only the wrong is within my reach.”1

We are masters of the dramatic arts. Each of us play several roles in life. Not just in the usual roles of personal versus professional, family member versus colleague, but also internally. “The trouble, however, is that we often confuse what we really are with these roles which it is our duty to play. We identify the man with the actor, and in the service of this identification we disguise our feelings from ourselves.”2 Can we see ourselves creating these roles for ourselves? Are we willing to admit that all of us star in our own reality show, legends in our living rooms?

We are actors, all of us, and most of us cast ourselves in roles we are not prepared for. We are influenced by those we admire, people we love, figures we may hate and fear, idealized images of a projected self. The roles we play often come from some part of us we have not fully explored or understood.

But that’s the way life is; there is always someone offstage whispering, “You’re on! Get out there. Break a leg.” And so we go, tripping, stumbling, crashing into the set, sometimes knocking over the potted plants and setting our hair on fire.

What to do after the house is swept clean of our devils and we breathe, for a little while, the freshness of newly planted fields? What to do after we have made a new start?

It helps to remember that habits die hard. And they die hard another day. And the day after that. We’ve laid down these paths and trod them for so long that — to change the metaphor — we’ll still move through the house in the dark, avoiding furniture that is no longer there and slamming into it where it’s been moved.

Restoration will take time, a continuous work in progress.

Here is Augustine, in a famous plea from Confessions: “My soul’s house is too meager for you to visit; enlarge it. It is falling down; rebuild it.”3 He is asking his honored guest to restore the very house he has been invited to visit. Nothing will seem natural or easy. Restoration takes place while we are living in it. We will be stepping around equipment and over displaced things. The neighbors will know. It will be inconvenient and could be embarrassing.

“Inside it,” cries Augustine, “are things that would disgust you to see: I confess this, and I know it. But who’s going to clean it? Or rather, to whom else am I going to shout, ‘Clean away from me, Master, the hidden things that are my own, and spare your slave from the hidden things coming from others!’”4

He is fully aware that a lot has escaped his notice as the homeowner. Water has been seeping, termites have been gnawing, and rust has not slept. The house could fall apart at a touch. He knows there is so much he does not know about maintenance, much less preventative measures to avoid this dilapidation. Please, he says, do your work.

***

Will the house remain deserted after the devil is driven out? Luke’s verse points to a vacancy within our soul. The unclean spirit has been cast out and wanders through the desert. The house stands deserted. This devil tires of the desert and wishes to return to its home. When it arrives, the house is clean, tidy, and ready for occupancy again. “Off it goes,” says Luke, “and collects seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they all come in and settle down; and in the end the man’s plight is worse than before.”5

Jesus suggests that an empty soul-home will be filled; the question is, by what or by whom? It is not neutral territory. The devils only need a space clean enough to spoil and destroy. They wouldn’t know what to do with a home.

We must ask, who should be living there? Who is the rightful owner? Who holds the deed? It is us, we ourselves. What God-in-Christ offers is that in gratitude and humility we freely take ownership of this house—our soul, our character—which he has provided us. That we should consider it ours, care for it, make it a home.

Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus who invite the mysterious stranger to stay for a meal and carry on this life-giving conversation, we can invite the Christ into our soul-home. “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.”6 An image of recognizing a familiar voice, running to the door, and joyfully leading him in for bread and wine.

Should he make an appointment, a formal dinner date? Or is it enough for us to know that when he’s in the neighborhood he’ll stop by? An open invitation. We’ll set out another plate and make it an evening. He knows when he is wanted.

He will not first step in without a welcome; indifference and a ‘whatever’ shrug is not enough. When he disappears, we can leave the light on and the key under the doormat.

  1. Rom. 7:21 NEB.
  2. Williams, H. A. The True Wilderness. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965, p. 36.
  3. Augustine. Confessions. Translated by Sarah Ruden. New York: Modern Library, 2017, p. 7.
  4. Augustine, p. 7.
  5. Luke 11: 26 NEB.
  6. Rev. 3:20 NRSV.

Looking for a Better God

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Tell me, in the name of your mercies, you, Master, who are my God, what you are to me. Say to my soul, ‘I myself am your rescue.’ Say it in such a way that I hear it.” 1

Consider the God you have been brought up to believe. If you are honest with yourself, isn’t this God a larger version of yourself or of someone else you admire or a vague cloud of attributes and virtues that seem godlike? The education we undergo as children about God is sometimes hit-or-miss, sometimes rigorous, but never inconsequential.

We are taught about God through many devices. We learn stories from the Bible, we listen to sermons and devotional talks. We encounter God in our worship services through the readings and the liturgy. The sacraments are designed to “show us the Father” through our experience of Jesus. Our teachers lead us through classes that sometimes encourage our thinking, but quite often require nothing but our passive acceptance. And we learn a great deal about an American God from religious leaders and politicians.

As children we are taught to think of God as “our Father who art in heaven,” an image that may or may not be comforting for children. For some, it might simply remind them of their absent fathers and the pain of that absence. For others, it might bring an image of a grandfather, kindly, old, and far away. And to some it might suggest a powerful, yet loving, being who watches over this world and our lives with infinite care.

If we stay within a religious community into adulthood our ideas of God might change. I qualify this because I suspect that for many people the God of their childhood does quite well for them as adults. And why not? We’ve been told that God doesn’t change. God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. If there is any surety in life as a Christian, they claim, it’s that God is immutable. He doesn’t change because He doesn’t need to. If God is perfection, defined as all the omnis—all-knowing, all-powerful, present everywhere, all-loving—any change could only be toward imperfection. And who needs an imperfect God?

But many of us go through tremendous changes between childhood and adulthood. Most of these are not cataclysmic but cumulative. One day, in the midst of paying bills, adjusting to family life, raising children, and repeating our breakfast mantra—“I am a professional”—we just might have an overheating of our spiritual engine. “Our Father” suddenly seems long ago and far away. He can neither be summoned by prayer nor conjured through an artificial religious experience. He is not at our disposal.

Moses certainly knew this first-hand. Barbara Brown Taylor describes it vividly:

“Moses knew God as well as anyone ever had, yet God did not tone anything down for him. The mountain shook like it was about to blow apart. The cloud at the top of the mountain was so thick that even Moses could not see inside it. Anyone else who even tried would die, God said—and Moses went anyway. He took the full dose of divine darkness and lived to tell about it, though God would remain a tremendous mystery to him for the rest of his life.”2

This is not a God for children. This is not a God for most adults. This is a God whose very presence threatens human life, as it pours into all available spaces and consumes the oxygen. Moses lived to tell the tale, as did Abraham and Elijah and Isaiah—but not because they were superheroes. They lived because there is more to this fearsome God than fear. Here is the invisible God who is known through the visible—through humanity—and most fully through the humanity of Jesus.

We are living paradoxes: we expect our God to be infinitely more than we can imagine, yet we know that every one of our metaphors for God is severely limited by our imagination. We can bend and stretch our God-models to their limits, but we first must have models to bend. If we can’t find a metaphor for God that enlivens us are we spiritually dead?

“If so,” said Anglican priest Harry Williams, “you must spend your time here looking for a better God — you can look for a better God by reading, by thinking, by discussion, by the experience of common worship and private prayer, by living, knocking about and being knocked about.”3

It’s the ‘knocking about and being knocked about’ part that I find illuminating. It suggests that all our life experiences, not just the ones we label ‘religious’ or even ‘spiritual’, matter a great deal in how we look for God—and the kind of God we find.

Our ‘knocking about’ stretches over our whole lifespan. If, at any point, someone asks me to describe my understanding of God, they shouldn’t be surprised if they come back in a year or so and I have a different story. There will likely be a thread of consistency running from one end to the other of my years, but the details, the priorities, the images and metaphors I find in my search for God will vary considerably as I move through different experiences in life.

When I was a teenager, and even well into my twenties, I confess I thought of God mostly as an agent who was there for my benefit. Help me to pass this exam, get me into this grad school, help me to find this job.

These were important things to me, but the demands left little room for God’s character to be revealed. As a result, I trapped myself into prayer as a contract between two parties—a sure way to kill it off. And it was killed. For years I could hardly bring myself to pray. I couldn’t figure out how it worked for one thing, and for another, I had a picture of myself panhandling before God. According to my framing of God, I obviously didn’t have enough faith, or I’d gotten the formula wrong or—worse thought—God didn’t stop at that corner anymore.

But there was another problem, the problem of evil, that had everything to do with the standard-issue view of God as responsible for everything that happens on earth. I’d long ago ejected from my arsenal of ready-made answers the notion that God actively brings evil on us as a test of our loyalty. With a god like that, who needs the Devil?

I was gradually coming round to the idea that God’s grand experiment with humans was a learning experience for God too. Giving freedom to creatures like us—real freedom to choose—means signing up for the long haul, learning patience, and never giving up on us.

As far as I was concerned, Job won his case against God and God quietly conceded on the merits. But then God opened up a relation with Job that was deeper and wider than anything Job had experienced before. It transcended arguments and codes of conduct. It could not be contained in words.

Job got it. “I had heard of you,” he said, “but now my eye sees you.”4 Job had argued on the basis of a theoretical and legal relation to God, only to be thrust into a close encounter with God that left him speechless, humbled, and strangely satisfied.

Then there was silence: we do not hear from God again in Scripture until the Gospels.

The narrative of God in the Old Testament is of a character who is anything but immutable. He rages, he weeps, he loves, he suffers, he dazzles, terrifies, woos, and comforts. He moves and adapts to our changing circumstances. He meets us where we are. As Charles Taylor says in A Secular Age, “God’s Providence is his ability to respond to whatever the universe and human agency throw up. God is like a skilled tennis player, who can always return the serve.”5

What kind of a God do we need today, right now, in the midst of this national agony?

The Gospels give us Jesus, God-in-Christ—for me an extraordinary, mysterious, profound person, who literally loved us unto death, and lives now as God-in-us through the Spirit. There is nothing we go through that God-in-Christ has not experienced or suffered. There is nothing, as Paul says, that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. A love that can bring justice to the silenced and turn the hearts of the silencers inside out.

None of this can be proven in clinical tests. But when we look for a better god than the one who cannot be moved by our suffering, we stumble into a great disclosure: “there is at the heart of life a Heart.”6 If we cannot let go of our guard rails, God-in-Christ has time and patience.

This is where faith becomes the path. “How am I to get it? Only in the ancient school of experience, by trial and error, by pain and joy, and, most of all, by faith, a confidence that, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, life is on my side and not against me. This is the confidence that Jesus brought . . .”7

It’s then I realize, however fleetingly, that stepping on the path is itself the finding of a better God.

  1. Augustine. Confessions. Translated by Sarah Ruden. New York: Modern Library, 2017, p. 7.
  2. Taylor, Barbara Brown. Learning to Walk in the Dark. New York: HarperCollins, 2014, p. 57.
  3. Williams, H. A. The True Wilderness. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965, p. 51.
  4. Job 42:5, NRSV.
  5. Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge: Harvard University, 2007, p. 277.
  6. Thurman, Howard. Howard Thurman: Essential Writings. Selected with an Introduction by Luther E. Smith, Jr. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, p. 41.
  7. Williams, H. A. The True Wilderness. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965, p. 67.

How to Lose Your Soul

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What will a man gain by winning the whole world, at the cost of his true self? — Luke 9:25

We have a true self—and we can lose it. This is encouraging. Anything we are warned not to lose is worth keeping. The text is directed first, at those who are awakening to the worth of their soul and the danger of losing it. But it’s also meant for those who don’t yet know they have a true self or who don’t care if they do. And it’s especially directed toward those who are so certain they have a fully formed soul that they think they are beyond temptation. If we find ourselves in one of these groups, our salvation will be found with those who wrestle like Jacob to find their true self and who will not let the angel go until they receive a blessing.

For many people, the events of the past weeks are ghastly. The murder of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis cop, while three other policemen watched, is the fuse that lit the current explosion of grief and rage. His death, another in the long list of black men and women killed by law enforcement officers, drums home the charge that racism festers at the heart of this country.

The other event, the surreal spectacle of President Trump awkwardly waggling a Bible in front of St. John’s Church across the street from the White House—after military police tear-gassed and shot peaceful protesters with rubber bullets to clear a path for him—reflects back to us the coopting of religious symbols for crudely political means.

These two events bookend a shelf of volumes bound together in a library of hatred and hubris disguised under the statements which prioritize the loss of property over the loss of black lives and which make “dominance” the watchword.

How do we lose or forfeit our own soul? We lose it by refusing to find our place alongside other human beings, by regarding ourselves, if we are Christians, as a higher order of the species, removed from the pains and foibles of the rest of the human race. Before our race and gender and ethnicity we are human, made in God’s image, the culmination of God’s hopes in creation.

We lose our soul by bowing the knee to the insidious forces of materialism and consumerism, the willingness to become the lab rats for every trending fad and ephemeral product. Those of us in the West who have the means to consume a disproportionate share of the world’s resources, bear more responsibility because we also have the freedom to make the moral choices that will help to conserve this Earth. We can live more simply, more reverently, less arrogantly—more consciously determined to walk lightly upon the Earth.

We lose our soul when we refuse to recognize our incipient racism that sometimes manifests itself in ugly personal confrontations, but much more often is found in silent compliance with unspoken discrimination. None of us are free from this. Racism is part of the air we breathe from birth. It works itself into the national bloodstream. It emerges in feverish outbreaks when our immune system is weakened by fear spread by those whose own hatred and fear is contagious. It is a universal human disease, but many of us are convinced we are free of it, when really, we are just asymptomatic.

“Some are guilty, but all are responsible,” writes Abraham Joshua Heschel about racial oppression. “Seen from the perspective of prophetic faith, the predicament of justice is the predicament of God.”1

If the prophet is angry and speaks with the words of anger, it is because he or she is one of those who occupy the liminal space between heaven and earth. The prophet feels the anger of God at the indifference of the rest of us toward the oppressed.

We lose our soul when we allow ourselves to be callously manipulated into following figures, religious and political, who want our unconditional support. It is so easy to think of ourselves as people who must be told what to do, especially if we are from Protestant traditions that enshrine the doctrine that we are born incapable of goodness. The appeal of those who claim our allegiance in return for membership—which has its privileges—is strong. “It is another form of that comprehensive appeal to lose or forfeit ourselves,” said Harry Williams in The True Wilderness, “to play the deserter, to escape from the effort and danger of being the man (or woman) I am.”2

It’s not that we enter into following Jesus with a false sense of our own strength. Our strength lies in knowing and owning our weaknesses in the assurance that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Nothing. “‘My grace is all you need; power comes to its full strength in weakness,’” quotes Paul, in a jujitsu move we can emulate. “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”3 Weakness acknowledged can become strength when we turn the power of our will toward trust and faith.

Somewhere, in a translation of the Bible I can no longer find, there is a text burned into my memory.4 It is from Luke 9:51, and in it, Jesus “sets his face like flint toward Jerusalem.” The Message Bible translates it as “he gathered his courage and steeled himself for the journey to Jerusalem.” Either way, Jesus bends his natural instinct for self-preservation around and back against himself. He anchors it there in order to follow what he sees as God’s direction in his life. He knows he is going to his death.

“And to all he said, ‘If anyone wishes to be a follower of mine, he must leave self behind; day after day he must take up his cross, and come with me.”5 Lest we think that the exorcism of racism can be accomplished solely through a change of presidents, this text reminds us that the only way we can follow Jesus is to take up our cross every single day. “And to talk about God as your creator,” notes Rowan Williams, “means to recognize at each moment that it is his desire for you to be, and to be the person you are. It means he is calling you by your name, at each and every moment, wanting you to be you.”6

Gaining our soul is our vocation in life.

Now is the time for Christians “to gather their courage,” even to “set their faces like flint” in order to follow Christ into the places he will go.

“It was told to you, man, what is good

and what the Lord demands of you—

Only doing justice and loving kindness

and walking humbly with your God.”7

  1. Quoted in Plough Weekly, June 4, 2020.
  2. Williams, H. A. The True Wilderness. London: Penguin Books, 1965, p. 27.
  3. 2 Cor 12:9,10 NEB.
  4. It echoes Isaiah 50:7 and may be quoted in the Vulgate version of the Bible.
  5. Luke 9:23 NEB, emphasis added.
  6. Williams, Rowan. A Ray of Darkness. London: Cowley, p. 149.
  7. The Hebrew Bible, Volume 2, The Prophets. Translated with commentary by Robert Alter. New York: Norton, 2019, Micah 6:8.

The Other Side of Asking

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“And so I say to you, ask, and you will receive; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened. For everyone who asks receives, he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” — Luke 11:9,10 NEB

What is the lesson here? That only those who move with intent will gain what they ask? That we are partners with God? That Fate or luck or sheer will should bring about what we hope will sustain us for another day?

It sounds too good to be true, too easy to be right, too right to be wrong.

These words are spoken by Jesus to his disciples, who have come upon him while he is at prayer. When he stops, they ask him to teach them to pray, “as John taught his disciples.”

It’s an odd request: don’t they know how to pray? And why now, after all they have been through together—all the blind made to see, the deaf made to hear, the lepers made clean, even the dead raised to life—why would they ask how to pray just now? Isn’t that one of the first things we learn in the Christian life? And if John was teaching his disciples how to pray, was he an outlier? Is this something Jesus just overlooked with his own disciples? Or was he waiting for them to ask? Are the disciples just now discovering that the source of Jesus’ strength is that he is never out of range of God? Jesus doesn’t need the priests or the synagogue in order to pray. The signal is strong, even when roaming.

Whatever it meant, John had discovered it and Jesus was practicing it.

By this time, Jesus and his disciples have been together for more than a year, closer to two. John the Baptist, his cousin, is long dead, his head offered up at the height of a feast, the result of a drunken pledge made by Herod to his stepdaughter as he watches her, entranced, his eyes glazed, following the curves of her young body as she dances before him and his lascivious courtiers.

Was there some lingering rivalry between John’s disciples and those of Jesus? They had all revered him as a prophet who pointed to Jesus and then stepped back. “Are you the one?” John had finally asked from prison, “or should we look for another?” Only Jesus could know how much that had cost John, to voice his deepest fear and to have to do so through others. Only John could know how deeply that cut Jesus, momentarily staggering him so that he did not at first answer John’s furtive messengers, and when he did he pointed to his acts of healing and the good news received by the poor.

Jesus has already sent out seventy-two other disciples to go ahead of him to the villages and towns where he will stop. They are to enter the villages by twos and stay with a family; if they are welcomed, fair enough. If they are not, they are to leave. There is no time to argue or quibble; their message is that the kingdom of God is on the very doorstep of their hosts.

The pressure is on Jesus, the pace of events accelerates in Luke’s narrative. It is as if Jesus knows his time is short and he must tell the story of the kingdom—rather, demonstrate the kingdom—to as many as he can before his life is cut short.

The seventy-two return, exultant and awe-struck, to report that even the demons flee when cast out of people in Jesus’ name. Momentarily, Jesus, caught up in the Spirit, sees Satan flung like lightning from the heavens, a shooting star visible even at noonday to the eye focused only on God. “All the same,” Jesus says, “the great triumph is not in your authority over evil, but in God’s authority over you and presence with you. Not what you do for God but what God does for you—that’s the agenda for rejoicing.”1

***

When I have balked at prayer, it’s because it seems so contractual: fulfill these requirements and you’ll get your answer. The problem is in figuring out what the requirements are. It’s like trying to hit a target dead center with a bow from one hundred yards. You sight, balance the arrow, draw back the string, hold your breath, and release.

But you didn’t take into account the breeze, the curvature of the earth, the drop of sweat that blinded your open eye, or the fact that you flinched ever so slightly as the fletch shot past your thumb. It doesn’t matter. You’re not going to hit the bulls-eye this time or next; there are too many variables. Maybe your motives are not pure, or you asked for something you shouldn’t have, or you harbored ill will against someone, or you didn’t forgive others their many sins against you. Or maybe you’re just a selfish jerk who doesn’t deserve the bounties of heaven.

It’s too complicated.

But I am slowly coming to understand, through many re-trys, that it is both simpler than it appears and more complex than we can possibly fathom. That’s the nature of our relationship with God, one of paradox and promise, both entwined, and neither fully distinguishable from the other. Imagine trying to pass eleven million volts through an outlet in your kitchen. That would be God’s problem.

Jesus points out to the seventy-two who are still in the glow of routing demons that the important thing to carry with them after the feeling wears off, is that their names are enrolled in heaven—not that their superpower is scorching junior devils. There is no balance of powers here: the weight lies entirely on God’s side, and God is looking to act upon the world through us.

“Teach us to pray,” prod the disciples and Jesus gives them a succinct template they can use. How many of us have prayed it simply because it’s “The Lord’s Prayer,” and like other religious objects it is shiny and smooth from use. But we can repeat it without listening to it, we can say it without knowing what we are saying, we can revere it for the sound and not the meaning.

Once, when I was between jobs and had exhausted all my prospects, I mentioned to a friend that I didn’t know what to pray for anymore. He shrugged. “Give us this day, our daily bread,” he said. And I thought, “Well, of course.” Daily bread is what I needed while I continued to search. Simple, really. Receive it with gratitude and stop worrying.

In a post-modern world, structured around causality, thinking of God in a cause-and-effect way can run one’s faith aground trying to figure out the mechanics of it. John V. Taylor suggests, in The Christlike God, that “It is in any case probably nearer the truth to think of God as the giver rather than the cause, since causes are essentially this-worldly factors, and God cannot be just another of those.”2 Our response of gratitude for God’s gifts, says Taylor, is better, since “a mature person should learn to feel grateful for whatever happens rather than merely acquiescing.”3 In the larger scheme of things—and God’s scheme is infinitely larger than ours—it is both a liberation and a comfort to say yes to God, rather than a disgusted, “Fine. Have it your way.”

It is significant—and ironic—that Luke’s telling of the story has Jesus following up his model prayer with an example of someone banging on their neighbor’s door late at night to shamelessly ask for a favor. That’s how most people operate, Jesus says. If you keep at it, they’ll finally give in, if only to make you leave them in peace. It’s a matter of contrast to God’s response. “And so I say to you, ask, and you will receive; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened.” And just to sharpen the contrast, Jesus brings up the improbable case of a father giving his son a snake to eat when he’s asked for a fish, or a scorpion when he asks for an egg. Even you people, bad as you are, says Jesus, with a twinkle in his eye, know better than that. So God will give the Spirit to those who ask.

But God’s time-scale does not approximate our own. We ask, and looking back, realize we had received before we asked. We knock, and the door is opened later—and it’s a different door than the one we pounded on. Sometimes our timelines and God’s intersect, and we see that as an answer to prayer. Most of the time we only see God’s providence by looking back. The other side of asking with persistence is that in time we might mature into our heart’s desire.

  1. Luke 10:20, Message New Testament.
  2. Taylor, John V. The Christlike God. London: SCM, 1992, p. 207.
  3. Taylor, p. 207.

Gifts to Beginners

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“Then what, if anything does he do? If God does not cause everything that happens, does God cause anything that happens? Is God completely out of the loop?”1 — Annie Dillard

We keep banging away, trying to find God’s whereabouts in a time of plague. Raising the question is a backhanded way of keeping faith with God. After all, to ask where God is—metaphorically speaking—is to assume that God is. Perhaps that is enough. Gravity would still obtain, the world would continue to turn, wind and rain to sweep across the planet and stars to shine. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. And yet . . .

We require our truth-tests to apply, yet we jump at the latest conspiracy theory or rumor of scandal and disaster. Jesus knew this: “If anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah,’ or, ‘There he is,’ do not believe it.”2 He built in safeguards against our gullibility, against for-profit televangelists and other scam artists. When I return, he says, you’ll know it. You won’t need CNN. You’ll see my light come shining from the west down to the east.

We Christians often feel compelled to explain God’s absence when times get hard. Like Job’s friends, we are tempted to think we speak for God in the midst of someone else’s suffering. Where is God? Well, God is out there . . . somewhere. You just have to have faith.

In my youth I sporadically played the part of one of Job’s friends. The equations seemed clear, the outcomes predetermined. Sins, both willful and ignorant, equaled one’s downfall. When in doubt, consult the Bible, for therein lay the answers to life’s problems.

So I was told and so I did, hoping perhaps that the doing would result in the believing, and the believing would equate to faith. None of this was insincere; it was standard-issue, paint-by-the-numbers instructions for a daily walk with God. But it was brittle, and it shattered under the weight of life’s burdens. The God “out there,” unchanging and untouchable, incurs indifference once the fear of reprisal fades away.

“And what is faith?” asks the Book of Hebrews. “Faith gives substance to our hopes, and makes us certain of realities we do not see.”3 How many invisible realities do we invoke every day? Trading on these realities, we assume they undergird the thin surface of our consciousness. We skate across it like water striders, trusting that the surface tension will not break. If we can move fast enough, maybe we won’t sink into the watery depths.

Hebrews seems to be written to people who suffered greatly for their faith. There are allusions to imprisonment, seizure of property, public humiliation, and abuse. Some of them were tortured; others were loyal to the tortured at risk to themselves. The author calls them to remember their past, when they first believed—and suffered for it. “You need endurance,” he writes, “if you are to do God’s will and win what he has promised.”

From Abel to Enoch to Noah to Abraham, Hebrews 11 serves up a tribute to the faithful. Sarah, Abraham’s wife (and half-sister) gets several verses commending her judgement that God would keep his promise to her. She would conceive even though she was—delicately put—“past the age,” and Abraham was—less delicately—“as good as dead.” From them would spring descendants “as numerous as the stars” and as countless “as the grains of sand on the sea-shore.”

The writer pauses to take a breath. “All these persons died in faith,” he writes. “They were not yet in possession of the things promised, but had seen them far ahead.” There follows another panegyric to Isaac, Jacob, Joseph—stalwarts of faith, despite Jacob’s craftiness and deception and Joseph’s nearly murderous revenge on his brothers. Moses gets the greatest coverage, from his birth when his parents hid him in defiance of the pharaoh’s edict, to his rise to power in the royal family.

The Book of Hebrews glosses his suddenly fugitive status when he fled the kingdom because of an intervention that became a murder. “By faith he left Egypt,” says the author, “and not because he feared the king’s anger; for he was resolute, as one who saw the invisible God.”

What did he see? A bush, bright with fire and a voice that called to him, “Take off your shoes. The ground upon which you stand is holy.” “Who are you?” asks Moses. “I am,” says the Voice, a name that encompasses time past, present, and future—and all space.

He saw a cloud that guided the ragged band of Hebrews through the Sinai desert and a pillar of fire that protected them by night. He saw a rock that gushed water, oases in the wilderness, and in one cataclysmic encounter atop a quaking volcano, he witnessed the hand of God scoring on stone rules for life.

“For indeed our God is a consuming fire.”

***

“Thinking about God begins at the mind’s rugged shore, where the murmur breaks off abruptly, where we do not know any more how to yearn, how to be in awe,” says Rabbi Abraham Heschel.4

Why have we lost this ache of yearning? We could venture that we are inundated with images, strings of unanswered questions, emails piling up, anxieties layering like coats tossed on a spare bed, the cacophony of political hounds setting up a howl, bravado laced with fear, weariness from caution. All of this would be true.

But there is more. We are embarrassed; we embarrass ourselves, pausing with the remote in hand before slumping back with another contrived reality show. Those four a.m. questions—“all the huge strange thoughts inside you going and coming and often staying all night”5— are the dangling threads which unravel our passive indifference. “Only those who know how to live spiritually on edge will be able to go beyond the shore without longing for the certainties established on the artificial rock of our speculation,” says Heschel.6

At the heart of Heschel’s philosophy of religion is the ultimate question, the sense of the ineffable, “the awareness of a reality that discredits our wisdom, that shatters our concepts.”7This is the “I AM” of Moses’ experience, the stillness at the center of the whirlwind within which Elijah fought with his own despair. This is the Being from whom Jonah was fleeing, but who met him at Ninevah. This is, for us, stranded in the twenty-first century, the stuff of legend.

How can we comprehend such a Being? Our common mysteries are problems we have not yet solved, with facts that are discoverable and verifiable, for ends that are practical. We have little time or patience for awe or wonder. We begin with the reasonable, that which appeals to our sense of order, which is, in fact, in alignment with what we expect. Expectation rules perception; we do not see what we are not looking for. We will not be surprised; we are in control.

When we ask, “Where is God?” it’s usually when our backs are against the wall and we’ve lost control. When the air is calm, the sun lies bright upon the sea, all the world lies before us—the question does not come up. We become deists in practice: somewhere God is about his business, calmly working through his list for the day, smiling as he remembers our first trembling steps.

In our pain, however, we do not separate our image of God from that of absolute power. We want that power at our disposal, like calling in the coordinates for an air strike of fire from the heavens. This is God-as-object, regarded from afar. The hallmarks of this God are distance and difference, applied not with awe and gratitude but with the underlying resentment of inferiority.

“Those to whom awareness of the ineffable is a constant state of mind,” says Heschel, “know that the mystery [of God] is not an exception but an air that lies about all being, a spiritual setting of reality; not something apart but a dimension of all existence.”8 We know this as Immanuel, God-with-us.

“The answer to Job’s long battle of words,” says John Taylor in The Christlike God, “is not a theodicy or justification of God, but a theophany, a revelation of God. To most people who receive such a revelation it comes not as a vision but as the quiet, unlooked-for gift of absolute certainty that God loves them.”9

In the last months of his life, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from Tegel Prison in Berlin to Eberhard Bethge, sketching out what he called a “this-worldliness Christianity.” He wrote, hoping to be released to his family and the woman he loved, but knowing that death, a violent one, was ever present. What he meant, he explained, was “living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, success and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world—watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith . . .”10

This is the God of now, not of crushing power, but of solidarity in suffering. Not in the heavens, but with us here on Earth, closer to us than the “vein in our neck,” as the Qu’ran puts it.

“Sometimes God moves loudly,” writes Annie Dillard in For the Time Being, “as if spinning to another place like ball lightning . . . Sometimes en route, dazzlingly or dimly, he shows an edge of himself to souls who seek him . . . Such experiences are gifts to beginners.”11

As a beginner, I have sent this out as a message in a bottle. “To the One who knows me better than I know myself: I am here. And if I am here, then You must be too, for I am believing that all things and all of us are in You in some way that is mysteriously real, so real that nothing in death or life, this world or the one to come—nothing can separate us from the love of God.”

  1. Dillard, Annie. For the Time Being. New York: Vintage Books, 2000, p. 167.
  2. Matt. 24:23, NEB.
  3. All subsequent Hebrews quotes from Hebrews 11, NEB.
  4. Heschel, Abraham Joshua. Man is Not Alone. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951, p. 58.
  5. Rilke, Rainer Marie. “Duino Elegies” in The Selected Poetry of Rainer Marie Rilke, edited and translated by Stephen Mitchell. New York: Vintage Books, 1989, p. 151.
  6. Heschel, p. 58.
  7. Heschel, p. 59.
  8. Heschel, p. 64.
  9. Taylor, John V. The Christlike God. London, SCM Press, 1992, p. 232.
  10. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Letters and Papers from Prison, the Enlarged Edition. Edited by Eberhard Bethge. New York: Touchstone, 1997, p. 370.
  11. Dillard, pp. 167,168.

Courage and Presumption

Photo: Edwin Hooper on Unsplash

And the Lord said, Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat. — Luke 22:31, KJV

If that doesn’t chill your spine, perhaps you don’t have one.

It isn’t often that someone is called out by name in the Gospels as the recipient of the devil’s attention, but if anyone would be at risk for that it would be Simon, or Peter, as we usually know him.

It was always Peter whose head rose above the parapet during the attacks of doubt that the disciples periodically suffered. It was Peter who stoutly asserted that he would always be faithful to Christ, only to be told that he would betray him at his darkest hour. And it was Peter who proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah, although his image of the Messiah decidedly did not include crucifixion. In the realm of faith, he was a warrior who shot first and aimed later. In short, Peter was always the point man on patrol: the first to defend his band, the last to sense his own weakness.

What Peter had was a temperament honed for action, the need to blast through the barriers of overthinking to reach an open space. The realization he was alone there might have been a warning to someone more self-aware. Even as the ground beneath his feet was giving way, Peter would have been congratulating himself. He was presumptuous: he took the force of his action as the measure of the strength of his trust. Hesitation or questioning would have shown a lack of the very thing at stake—his faith in God.

***

I’ve been thinking about faith in these days, wondering if it’s like a hand-sanitizer we use to cut down the odds of contagion from despair or cynicism. Or perhaps it’s more like Personal Protection Equipment, a kind of armor against attacks from the Devil, our “invisible enemy.” In the midst of this pandemic, what is at risk for many—their faith in a provident and rescuing God—is precisely what has hardened into a smooth and glassy surface which nothing, not even good sense, can penetrate.

To allegorize this coronavirus is to pit a holy desire to be obedient to God against the secular requirement to avoid congregating. I’ve been trying to understand why, for some Christians, gathering at church in the midst of a global pandemic is paramount, despite the danger it poses to others. The way they see it, there’s no contest: God’s word is to be honored above the teachings of men. It’s a taunt disguised as piety; to advise them to be cautious would be taken as infringing on their religious liberty. In like manner, how can Orthodox Jews convene for a funeral in their packed crowds or Muslims press into mosques by the hundreds during Ramadan?

Is this how we honor God, by proudly claiming a god who will only save the presumptuous?

This is a triumphalist faith, exultant to claim itself on the winning side. And it is a contractual faith, with duties and obligations that must be performed. In the perfecting of one’s character under the stress of social disasters, should I expect God’s protection as a reward for the ruthless defiance of scientific advice?

There is something extravagantly passionate about casting everything aside—all social constraints, all ethics—in the single-minded belief that forcing God’s hand is the highest form of faith. What could be simpler or more faithful to God’s word? But there is lacking the assurance that God already knows what we need and there is little, if any, desire to respond to God out of love, not fear.

Perhaps this attitude stems from the belief that “elites” like scientists are corrupt. Or perhaps from a fear that science tries to displace God and the answer is to fight science. If that is true, then presumption dies disputing the best advice of science. Or it could simply reflect a deep-seated suspicion of life and the world, that we are vulnerable in ways of which we aren’t even aware and that somehow, somewhere, fate is going to get us.

Point of view makes a difference to the way one lives. We crouch beneath the glare of an angry God or we walk forth in gratitude under the loving regard of our Father. We “Imagine there’s no heaven . . . Above us only sky,”1 or, with Jacob, dream of angels ascending and descending on a stairway to heaven and awake to cry out, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!”2 We see the Earth as disposable as grass for the fire or mourn its defilement and struggle to preserve it. And we may rejoice that “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,”3 despite its depredations.

Anxiety, too, is part of the human condition. It is not usually fatal, but it skews our outlook—and our faith. We are unsure of our place in the universe, uneasy about what we don’t have and don’t know, uncomfortable—some of us—in our own skin. It throws us off stride, stutters the rhythm of our glances and responses to one another. It discourages us from trying the new and excuses us from dealing with the past.

“Faith is certain in so far as it is an experience of the holy,” said Paul Tillich in his Dynamics of Faith. ”But faith is uncertain in so far as the infinite to which it is related is received by a finite being.”4 We can’t help being finite and human; our uncertainty is more about fumbling what God gives us. “This element of uncertainty in faith cannot be removed,” continues Tillich, “it must be accepted. And the element in faith which accepts this is courage.”5

There is no lack of courage on display in this current crisis: The steady care of nurses, the daily integrity of public workers, even the courage of politicians who must make decisions for the good of the many at the risk of their own polling numbers. This courage becomes so much a part of the internal life of such people that they would be startled if it was pointed out.

There is another kind of courage—an element of faith—that stands up despite the inherent weaknesses of everything finite. It does not presume to challenge the powers of ‘non-being’, as Tillich puts it, nor does it try to get out ahead of God. It knows that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked,”6 as Jeremiah says, but it bows in reverence with Ezekiel over God’s promise that “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit . . . I will give you a heart of flesh.”7 Courage has feet to carry the body of faith, the heart of which is hope.

At the heart of our lives is the question of meaning, what we give ourselves to, what we make our “ultimate concern,” as Tillich called it. Settling for the finite as our ultimate concern is to raise the penultimate to the status of a god—a false one. “The risk to faith in one’s ultimate concern is indeed the greatest risk man can run. For if it proves to be a failure, the meaning of one’s life breaks down; one surrenders oneself, including truth and justice, to something which is not worth it.”8

In our solitary moments, catching ourselves gazing blindly out the window, we might ask, “How do I know it’s God I’m talking about?”, a question which cannot be answered for anyone else. Rowan Williams assures us that, “There are practices and styles of life that at least make some sense of the question, for in the very act of asking that question . . . We show something of what the word ‘God’ means that cannot be shown by conceptual refinement or pious enthusiasm.”9

***

And what of Peter? Hours after he pledged unwavering loyalty to Jesus he cursed him three times, as Jesus said he would. As vehement in his denials as he was in his avowals, Peter went out into the night and wept bitterly. For all he knew, his act of betrayal had cut him off from Jesus forever. No one came back from a Roman crucifixion.

That weekend must have been hell for Peter, in ways we can only imagine. We can imagine Satan gloating, as his fingers itched to sift Peter like wheat. The image is powerful: sifting the wheat removed the chaff, which blew away. Peter would have been chaff. Judas hanged himself; what was it that kept Peter from suicide?

After Jesus warned him that Satan was on the prowl, he said, “But I have prayed that your faith may not fail; and when you have come to yourself, you must lend strength to your brothers.”10

That would be a nice ending to the story, except that we know Peter’s faith did fail—spectacularly so. It fragmented, blew apart, drifted away like smoke after an explosion.

But Peter was honest. Once he saw his mistake, he owned it and reversed course so fast you could see the tire tracks and smell the rubber. He came to himself, just like the prodigal son, by finding his true self in Jesus. No longer presumptuous, in his humility he also found his courage, enough to strengthen his brothers and to earn the nickname Jesus had given him so long ago when they first met: The Rock.

  1. Lennon, John. “Imagine.” 1971.
  2. Genesis 28:16 NRSV.
  3. Herbert, George. “God’s Grandeur” in A Hopkins Reader. Edited with an Introduction by John Pick. New York: Image Books, 1966, p. 47.
  4. Tillich, Paul. Dynamics of Faith. New York: Harper & Row, 1957, p. 16.
  5. Tillich, p. 16.
  6. Jeremiah 17:9 KJV.
  7. Ezekiel 36:26 KJV.
  8. Tillich, p. 17.
  9. Williams, Rowan. A Ray of Darkness. Boston: Cowley Publications, 1995, p. 244.
  10. Luke 22:32,33, NEB.

In This Moment

Photo: Jonathan Farber on Unsplash

“I know this happiness is provisional: . . . but ineluctable this shimmering / of wind in the blue leaves.”1 — Denise Levertov

“Jesus wept.”

The shortest verse in the Bible and the favorite of middle-school children who are required to memorize a Bible verse. Why he wept can easily be conjectured: his friend Lazarus had died. An urgent summons had come, but Jesus dawdled, deliberately, it seems. He and the disciples were across the Jordan River, not far from where John had baptized Jesus. It was a prudent move: he had barely escaped a stoning outside the Temple for blasphemy. The crowds found him, hailed him as being everything John had said he was and more. “Many came to believe in him there.”2

When the messenger arrives, Jesus assures the disciples that “this sickness will not end in death; it has come for the glory of God.”3 So, although he loves Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, he holds on, he stays in place for two days. This is either a consummate folly or a breathtaking high-wire act of faith.

When the devil took Jesus, famished and weakened, to the pinnacle of the Temple, and invited him to fling himself out over the city because the angels would bear him to earth as lightly as a feather, Jesus retorted that God is not to be tested. This life is not a circus act. But now, knowing that Lazarus will surely die, Jesus waits. His time is coming. If he would not tempt Death for himself, he is willing to defy it for a friend. After two days, Jesus says to the disciples, Let’s go. Time to waken Lazarus from sleep. Ah, they say, he’ll be alright then. No, says Jesus, he’s dead. This will be good for your faith. Let’s go.

But the disciples remember how close death came to Jesus the last time he provoked the powers that be. If he goes back this soon, those who want him dead will definitely finish the job. “Are you going there again?” they ask incredulously. Anyone can walk in the daylight, argues Jesus. The real test is whether you can walk in the dark without stumbling.

There was darkness ahead, without question. And Thomas, patron saint of doubters everywhere, breaks the open-mouthed silence. “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Bethany is two miles from Jerusalem. They are there in less than an hour. “If you had been here,” says Martha sorrowfully, “my brother would not have died.”4 And some standing nearby wondered aloud why he could open the eyes of the blind but had done nothing to keep Lazarus from dying.

***

It is after Easter, but I am thinking about death. Not so much death as dying, the myriad of individual droplets of experience we call “life” spinning down into the whirlpool we call death. I am thinking of the violent, hallucinogenic dreams survivors of the coronavirus have endured. They were swept out in that riptide, far from shore; somehow, they find themselves once again emerging from the surf. I am wondering how they re-enter the life that has stuttered along in their absence. On their return from that hellish dreamscape, what will be most precious to them? How will they live with the gaps and absences in their timelines? These dislocations will change them—our friends, our neighbors, our families.

I stand pensively in the April afternoon sun, trying to memorize the tint around the back petals of the tulips in Brookside Gardens. I want to recall this moment years from now, when a scent or a certain cast of light brings it back. I want there to be a moment to bring back.

How strange it is to walk within a glorious spring day in Maryland, soft with yellow light and bright with flowers, while thousands of people fight for their lives—and thousands more risk their own lives for them. We have not seen such an indiscriminate killer in this country for years. It is “As if a man should flee from the face of a lion, and a bear should meet him: or enter into the house, and lean with his hand upon the wall, and a serpent should bite him.”5

We are in one of those social earthquakes that lay bare our fault lines, when the tectonic plates shift under our feet and upthrust the strata of neglect and callousness that future societies will judge us by. But we see, in addition to the sturdy bravery of our best—the nurses, respiratory therapists, doctors, and scientists—the quiet endurance of the grocery clerks and delivery people, postal and sanitation workers. The social divides and the rampant inequities are exposed; we see with new appreciation the people whose daily efforts define the normal we belatedly cherish.

Later, at home, I pick up a memoir by Joyce Carol Oates, A Widow’s Story.6 I am wary, for she writes prodigiously—not just in the number of her books, but through the style and mood and the enveloping weight of her words. Her eye omits nothing, even as she writes of her confusion in grief.

She writes of how her husband died in hospital a week after being admitted with pneumonia. He seemed to improve, so she left his bedside to catch a couple of hours of restless sleep at home. They called from the hospital deep in the night; they were urgent but cryptic.

She races to his room. A doctor tells her there was nothing they could do. She is in freefall. She is in a parallel universe. She sees herself across the room, a sobbing figure, crooked with grief. Who is this person? When she crosses the threshold of his room, she crosses an equator to a hemisphere she will never leave.

I wanted to experience through her how she brought these two halves of her life, marriage and widowhood, together. How did she see them; first with one eye closed and then with the other? Like every person suffering the death of a loved one, she learns while grieving.

It seems to me that Jesus learns this too, that his confidence on Wednesday ebbs into grief on Sunday. No matter how we prepare, the death of one we love is a gut-punch.

Jesus stands before the tomb and weeps for his friend, already four days dead. He weeps for all humans who die and are dying. And he weeps for himself, for his own dying, which he knows is up ahead. He has meditated on his coming death since Lucifer promised him he wouldn’t die. He knows it will be public, violent, and humiliating. Raising Lazarus will be the last straw. The machinery to kill Jesus will whir into action.

***

If Jesus raised Lazarus, why can’t he prevent the COVID-19 victims from dying? Wrong question.

Raising Lazarus is a sign of wonders to come. Jesus does it as a warning and a blessing. In John’s Gospel, Jesus heals, forgives sins, feeds thousands—all signs that we might believe that God sent him. The raising of Lazarus is a sign too, a sign that death will one day be vanquished. It is a test case, a finger pointing to the moon, a “first-fruits” as the Bible says.

Do you wonder what Lazarus was thinking when consciousness returned? As a dream fragments on waking, slipping through our fingers as light and sound envelop us, so he must have struggled at first in panic when he found himself bound in a winding-sheet. Then he is surrounded by faces—his sisters, Jesus, his neighbors and friends. He is confused, somewhat embarrassed, but he cannot prevent the upsurge of surprise and relief and then joy unabated. When our loved ones die, when we are dying, Lazarus is a living pledge of wonders still to come.

“This is the heart of this story: the essence of all things became part of existence—subject to change, decay, and death, just like us.”7 As much as the die is cast and his fate is sealed, Jesus sees beyond his own death. He bows his head and weeps again for relief, gratitude, love abounding.

“Here we discover the answer to perhaps the biggest question of all: why is there something rather than nothing? The answer is, because essence—or God, as we usually say—always intended to be our companion, to be with us . . . Jesus is the whole meaning and purpose for existence in the first place. Jesus is the reason we exist.”8

Agnostic as to the how, of the resurrection, I am all in for the why: it is God’s way of making sure we’ll be with him forever. And although my imagination bleeds out when I think about the afterlife, I’m going on record to say it will be a feast for the senses and a jolt to the mind. To say nothing of love and friendship. And when dying inevitably comes between us and this Narnia, God will see us through it with equanimity.

  1. Levertov, Denise. “Of Being,” in The Stream and the Sapphire: Selected Poems on Religious Themes, New York: New Directions, 1997, p. 5.
  2. Jn. 10:42, NEB.
  3. Jn. 11:4, NEB.
  4. Jn. 11:21, NEB.
  5. Amos 5:19, Douay-Rheims Bible.
  6. Oates, Joyce Carol. A Widow’s Story: A Memoir. New York: The Ontario Review, 2011.
  7. Wells, Samuel. Walk Humbly: Encouragements for Living, Working, and Being. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmanns Publishing, 2019, p. 49.
  8. Wells, p. 49.

There Will Be No Saying

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“The Pharisees asked him, ‘When will the kingdom of God come?’ He said, ‘You cannot tell by observation when the kingdom of God comes. There will be no saying, ‘Look, here it is!’ Or ‘there it is!’; for in fact the kingdom of God is among you.’” — Luke 17: 20,21

On a bright September day, with the air so clean the shadows cast by buildings and people across lawns and streets looked to be laser-cut, the world shuddered to a halt. Among the images I retain from that September 11 is one both mundane and jarringly incongruous. In the near background one of the towers is enveloped in smoke, while in the foreground is a patch of green so vibrant and vivid as to seem dropped there from an Edenic past. On it are several figures, frozen in place, their shadows hard behind them as they face into the horror unfolding a few blocks away.

The air would grow gray and thick and poisonous as the day ground on, and the towers came down, and the streets and bridges filled with the silent, plodding, staring thousands. But in that luminous instant we witnessed the dissolving of a shared reality.

We don’t control what becomes iconic for us from past events. There were hundreds of photos and videos from 9/11 that scrolled past me in those days and weeks, many of them much more graphic and arresting. Why did I fix on that one? I’ve come to think it was a visual puzzle which did not correlate with anything in my visual repertoire. I kept trying to adjust it, square it within a circle, align the bubble on the horizontal precisely between the hash marks.

In trying to trace this impulse back to some source, I’ve realized it comes down to light and dark, a dual of opposites that does not allow for gradations. In my early impressions, something was set in place that acted to filter and then form some of my visual expectations.

When I was four or five, I was allowed to sit quietly at the back of my grandfather’s classes in European history, especially when he showed newsreels of the First and Second World Wars. The jerky, black and white images of soldiers erupting out of trenches to charge across muddy fields strewn with barbed wire in the face of artillery bombardment, burned their way into my psyche.

These battles were always fought in the summer under leaden skies and threatening clouds. There was never sunshine, only the fog of war, both literal and metaphorical. For a child soaking up unfiltered images, grey skies and clouds came to mean violence and tragedy; sunshine meant glory. With that template in place, 9/11 on a day of abundant sunshine ripped up my primal perspective.

The correspondence theory of truth—that what is true is what generally aligns with the reality I observe—works most of the time, with the added bonus that people around me think I am within the circle of sanity that they enjoy. So my childish notion that bad things should not happen on beautiful days is tempered by the responsibility to adjust to the universe, without the expectation that it conform to my wishes. But if the “real” is that which I experience, then my dreams and memories are real, and the products of my imagination have their reality too.

***

Spring quietly establishes itself in the Washington, D.C., suburb where I live. The tulips in our garden thrust through the soil, flex, rise, and blossom. We delight in them, chronicling their growth, photographing their opening to the sun, their closing for the night. The light in the park at the center of our court wavers and dissolves. It still has traces of the bleakness of winter. It is difficult to remember, right now, what 100 degrees with 90 percent humidity feels like in the nadir of a July in D.C. Our court is quiet, almost every parking space filled, the occasional dog pulling its person passes by. We are under orders to stay at home.

We are weeks into the coronavirus pandemic. The cresting wave of infections and deaths, traveling from east to west around the globe, has still to break in force over us here in Maryland. The fact that I have not yet personally experienced it does not change its reality. It is already here.

I read daily reports of the heroic efforts of those fighting this disease. It is on my mind, a feeling of electricity in the air, a thrumming presence of dark clouds scudding across the horizon of memory. I imagine the silence in the streets of the European cities that I passed through years ago. I put myself there, feeling the waves of grief that rush through an Italian village and lap against the villas set amongst the vineyards on the hillsides. All of this is real.

We are just days away from Easter, still on a pilgrimage through Lent. Depending on how you regard Easter, Lent is either a gradual descent from the Mount of Transfiguration on a long glide path to a crash landing or a spirited hike that abruptly ends at the lip of an abyss. On the other side, shrouded in early morning mist, is a figure difficult to see but impossible to ignore. And all that lies between ourselves and this being whose presence provokes in us the flame of longing, are these cliffs of fall. The Resurrection continues to be our light of hope and our surest lure to faith, our fervent reason to daily cross the abyss.

In the weeks before Passover and his crucifixion, Jesus spars with those who measure his vision over against what they know to be true. This kingdom you talk about, they ask, how will we know it has arrived? They assume, quite understandably, that it will be an event established in space and time. There will be subversions, a period of necessary and extended violence, followed by a proclamation that will fix a before-and-after point in time. But first there will be signs and portents; we who are trained will pick up the clues. We will see the kingdom coming. We are ready for it.

And Jesus says, you will not, and you aren’t: it is already here. The kingdom of God belongs to children, he says, and “whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.”1

The usual ways that we verify something of importance, through testing, through fact-checking, through observation, through cross-referencing — none of those work to test for the presence of the kingdom of God. It does not take up space, it does not occupy dimensions; it cannot be plotted nor surveyed. It is invisible in its being; its effects are seen through the lives it is in the process of transforming. It is a micro-evolution of the soul, magnified and accelerated, transmitting to the farthest reaches of the multi-verse within each of us.

Were there visible signs? What Jesus said to the disciples of John applied: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are clean, the dead are raised to life, the deaf hear — and blessed is the one who does not stumble over me.

But face it—we all stumble. An invisible kingdom? It’s so difficult to grasp in an era that is pervasively results-oriented and expects an astringent and quantifiable accountability. Do we have enough faith? How do you measure that?

Jesus threw out a hyperbolic example, wildly exaggerated, to make the point that our trust and God’s love can shift the world. “If you have faith no bigger even than a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there!’, and it will move; nothing will prove impossible for you.”2 Taken literally, it’s nonsense; taken seriously and metaphorically, it puts our hands in God’s. “Our lives depend,” said George Steiner, “on our capacity to speak hope, to entrust to if-clauses and futures our active dreams of change, of progress, of deliverance.”3

In the physical absence of Jesus, whose primary care changed the lives of so many within his touch, the healing of our souls comes through the Word as we enter rehab for a new life, one that springs up in defiance of death and takes on new form on the other side of it.

For us right now, the kingdom is perhaps less conceivable as a top-down hierarchy than a shifting, outwardly-expanding web of the forthright and trusting. With the generosity that offended the righteous, Jesus stamped the tickets of the forgotten and displaced. Bruce Springsteen describes it well.

Well, this train carries saints and sinners

This train carries losers and winners

This train carries whores and gamblers

This train carries lost souls . . .

I said, this train carries broken-hearted

This train, thieves and sweet souls departed

This train carries fools and kings thrown

This train, all aboard . . .4

Overcoming our embedded fears and our illusions of control, God’s healing and salvation can awaken the smallest mustard seed of goodness in any of us. Every time a doctor risks her life to examine a COVID-19 patient, God’s kingdom shimmers into view. Every time a public servant honestly serves the people, God’s kingdom is manifest. Every time someone raises a song, writes a poem, prays for another person, or helps the fearful and the tired, God’s kingdom sends down roots. Every time we forgive one another and ask for forgiveness, every time we carry on in spite of our doubts, every time we realize, with a catch in our throat, how wide and deep and wholly surrounding is God’s love—the kingdom is made real.

The kingdom is already here.

  1. Mk 10:15.
  2. Mt. 17:20.
  3. Steiner George. Real Presences. London: Faber and Faber, 1989, p. 56.
  4. Springsteen, Bruce. Excerpt from “Land of Hope and Dreams,” Wrecking Ball, 2012.

Living into Truths

“Christianity . . . is, in other words, a form of life that requires—in order to be truly grasped—the engagement of the imagination, the sense and the intellect.”1

Photo by Ray Fragapane, Unsplash

In one of his most famous letters, Rainer Maria Rilke advises a young poet to “live the questions now,” to not be too quick to assume the answers. Let yourself experience life, Rilke says, and “Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, one distant day live right into the answer.”2 It is a matter of living everything, including the questions. He asks the young man to experience the mysteriousness of the questions, as if they were closed rooms or language in a strange tongue.

As an example of how we stumble onto truth, or rather peer into truths that wait quietly in the corners of our evenings, Rilke’s words illuminate. How often does a way through a thicket of questions appear after a night of dreams or the most obvious of meanings emerge in the gaps between our conscientious struggles with familiar problems? And how surprising and humbling to recognize, belatedly, how much was there in front of us that we did not see? We are built to want answers or at least to keep turning the questions over in our hands like smooth stones.

Rilke could avow this because he had learned, through solitude and transience, to live his own way into the questions. If you’re young, like his poet friend Kappus, questions are tools to help you pry open the chest where the secrets are kept. Kappus wanted to learn how to write poems that would make people gasp, that would open their eyes to what was around them. Rilke wanted precisely that for Kappus: to see his own life as a question directed to the answers that were within him, that no one but he could know.

***

All learning—so I learned after the fact—begins with questions. From a standing start, how high you could jump would be limited only by the spring of your questions. That’s not to say you would try to find the most obscure, complex questions, but rather that you asked the questions of the heart, the ones stated simply, the ones you had to ask.

My history with questions began with an early fascination with how things worked and why people did what they did. Because I loved to write, I found my way into a journalism major, the nearest I could come to learning how to write about what triggered my curiosity. Later, I extended my questions God-ward—where does our freedom and God’s will intersect? Why does God allow evil to exist? How and what can we know of God? Eventually, I took degrees in philosophy of religion.

When I began teaching, I discovered that the questions I asked often determined the answers given. At the time, fresh out of graduate school and trying to learn how to teach to learn, it was a revelation that lead me to epistemology—how we learn and what we can know.

To ask a question is to admit a deficit. It takes a certain humility, a learned virtue that we are not born with. We can practice epistemological humility; in time, it will be the bass line to the melody of the answers we perceive. In time, it may become a blind virtue, one that we don’t need to see with in order to move with confidence.

In the constantly re-forming seascape that is our consciousness, we pay attention, as William James said, to what matters to us. Yet, if we’re not aware of what we don’t know, how can we see the new if it does not break into our consciousness in some way, long enough for our attention to focus on it?

“Our perceptions shape our decisions, for good or ill,” David Harned reminds us, “and how we see is ‘a function of our character, of the history and habits of the self, and ultimately of the stories that we have heard and with which we identify ourselves.’”3

Farther back and higher up, above our questions, lies our imagination, fed on stories and images that shape us as we take them in to live with us. Questioning is an act of the imagination. When we ask, we are springing over the abyss, taking a leap to land on all fours, praying we can rise to walk. That’s one reason for teachers to encourage students to question; it’s also a reason not to scoff at the questions they ask. When we question—in our innocence—we are vulnerable, imagining a different world, a parallel universe perhaps, in which hazy ideas take root and a new way of being can emerge. Imagination previews transformation.

***

When it comes to religion, there are questions that should not be asked—or so we were told as teenagers. Hearing that some things ought not to be questioned turns curious students into moles digging tunnels. A constricted view assumes that all we need to know is what we have to do to get to heaven. It demands that we give up reason and imagination for blinkered obedience: “Here’s the algorithm—just run it.” But there is so much more to a life with God-in-Christ.

David Brown, in God and Mystery in Words, says, “two competing streams have characterized the history of western monotheism: the search for definition and explanation on the one hand and on the other the acceptance of mystery.”4 The tendency from medieval times to the present, favored explanation over mystery and experience. There is no reason why mystery and doctrine have to fight it out; in fact, epistemological humility would suggest they complement each other rather than compete. But we feel safer explaining than exploring.

Mystery calls for imagination while doctrine relies on reason. We can debate and argue and cajole one another over points of doctrine, but the only test that matters in matters of faith is whether faith can stand when the sand on which we stand slips out with the tide.

“There is no clean intellectual coherence, no abstract ultimate meaning to be found,” says Christian Wiman, “and if this is not recognized, the compulsion to find such certainty becomes its own punishment. This realization is not the end of theology, but the beginning of it: trust no theory . . . in which the author’s personal faith is not actively at risk.”5

Abraham Joshua Heschel, the rabbi-philosopher who has made awe and wonder the starting-point for authentic religion, declares two types of thinking: conceptual and situational. Conceptual thinking uses reason to extend our knowledge of the world. Science and philosophy are the methods. Situational thinking tries to understand issues “on which we stake our very existence.”6 Religion is often where these questions spring up.

Philosophy’s answers are really new questions in disguise, each answer opening new inquiries. “In religion, on the other hand, the mystery of the answer hovers over all questions.”7 Philosophy requires the detachment of observers, not participants. Problems are held at arms-length and the important ones are rendered as universals. For religion, though, every such problem is personal. “Unless we are involved,” insists Heschel, “the problem is not present.”8

If I have questioned my life’s direction, its meaning wells up in unguarded moments, as present as tears. It’s the oblique angles, the accidental discoveries, which startle us to attention. We see ourselves at a distance and strain to hear what we say, imagining how we might have done better to square the difference between our intentions and our inventions of ourselves. “Creative thinking,” offers Heschel, “is not stimulated by vicarious issues but by personal problems.”9

None of this should cancel out our reasoning, our listening to trusted friends, the solitude of our prayers. These are ways God breaks through our encrusted and stale shells. Even so, the imagination flourishes in asking if there is more than the dull repetitions of our spiritual treadmill. “What imagination offers is . . . to think laterally, to allow combinations that are not themselves necessarily present either in the mind or in nature.”10

I think the imagination is where the Spirit is most free to enliven us. It’s where our attention is captured, where our perceptions sharpen, where the patience to live into the questions is nurtured. It’s where we begin to trust that “Divine folly is wiser than the wisdom of man, and divine weakness stronger than man’s strength.”11

If we can imagine how God has chosen “mere nothings, to overthrow the existing order,” as improbable as that seems, then with a sense of profound relief we can give up trying to strong-arm our way through life and can look around us with renewed hope to see where God is at work in the world. “You are in Christ Jesus by God’s act . . . In him we are consecrated and set free.”12

  1. C. S. Lewis and Friends: Faith and the Power of Imagination. Edited by David Hein and Edward Henderson. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011, p. 2.
  2. Rilke, Rainer Maria. Letters to a Young Poet. Translated with an Introduction and Commentary by Reginald Snell. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2002, p. 21.
  3. Hein and Henderson, p. 4.
  4. Brown, David. God and Mystery in Words: Experience Through Metaphor and Drama. Oxford University, 2008, p. 4.
  5. Wiman, Christian. My Bright Abyss. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, p. 75.
  6. Heschel, Abraham Joshua. God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1955, p. 5.
  7. Heschel, p. 4.
  8. Heschel, p. 5.
  9. Heschel, p. 5.
  10. Hein and Henderson, p. 4.
  11. I Corinthians 1:25 NEB.
  12. I Corinthians 1:30 NEB.

No Offense

Photo by Bekoz on Unsplash

“But observe what a poor service one renders Christianity by doing away with the possibility of offense and making it an amiable, sentimental paganism.”1 — Soren Kierkegaard

More than any other relationship that asked of us honesty, endurance, and humility, our relationship with Christ turned us inside out, caused us to question our version of reality, brought us up short when we examined our motives.

And so it should, for there was no one to whom we, the original Twelve, could compare Christ. Having given himself into the hands of God, he remained solidly here among us, visible but not definable, offering words that slid past us like melting ice, vanishing even as we clutched at them. Yet somehow, they burned themselves into our memories, to be recalled and spent in the moment, with effects on others that we recognized, but only later understood.

***

Soren Kierkegaard, that contentious, brilliant, and caustic Romantic of 19th-century Copenhagen, wrote his most accessible book, Training in Christianity, not long before he died in 1855 at the age of forty-two. In it, he contrasted Christianity with Christendom, with the latter receiving his everlasting scorn.

Christendom, said Kierkegaard, was the smoothly-accommodating cultural partner of the world, consonant with citizenship, demanding nothing of its members, offering no critique against the shallow perversity of society. Christianity, on the other hand, as defined by Kierkegaard, was a narrow path for the one who was not afraid of martyrdom. The one who rose to the standard he called ‘the knight of faith.‘ Kierkegaard was alert—some might say, obsessively so—to those who misunderstood and mischaracterized him. He addressed himself to ‘my reader.’ The singular noun was intentional.

In Training in Christianity, Kierkegaard insists that unless Christ gives offense he is not really the God-Man. It’s the method and direction of his communication that makes the difference. Christ asks his disciples directly, “Do you believe?”, a question they cannot avoid to his face and will answer positively. But for today’s disciples, asserts Kierkegaard, Christ asks indirectly, putting them to the test. He hides himself, speaks through his absence, so the individual disciple really must choose, must make a decision to trust or not. This inward, indirect communication of Christ to the believer is the real test of faith. Kierkegaard’s attack on Christendom was over making Jesus, as the God-Man, too tame, a being without offense, for whom we do not have to sacrifice, over whom we are not tested, and therefore do not have to exercise authentic faith.

This astringent Christianity is, for Kierkegaard, the only true type because it requires a leap of faith that is not supported by any rationalization. That is the only kind of faith which is genuine, he says, because it is not reliant on the crowd nor on our preferences nor on a dilatory choice among a buffet of options nor on a syllogism of logic within a tidy system of thought. On the contrary, this faith requires everything of us: “Let us go and die with him.”

***

I have been scratching the itch that is Kierkegaard for many years, ever since I first read him in college. For a young person just beginning to own his Christianity, SK (as he is known in the philosophy trade) is thrilling. He doesn’t have the coruscating cynicism toward religion that Nietzsche has, but neither does he have the startling clarity and immediacy of Nietzsche’s aphorisms. What he does have in everything he writes, is a singular focus on faith as the passionate commitment to Christ above all else.

The tension is between the individual following Christ and the church that bows the knee to the ruling culture. The Danish Lutheran church in SK’s time was a branch of the state; it would not bite the hand that fed it. As he saw it, the official church was lost, irredeemable—and even worse—placid in the face of its idolatry.

For it was clear to SK that genuine faith in the God-Man was so contrary to our worldly desires that if we weren’t offended then it wasn’t real faith. “But whether one does away with faith or with the possibility of offense, one does away at the same time with something else—the God-Man. And if one does away with the God-Man, one does away with Christianity.”2

In SK’s time, to be Danish was to be a Christian—and that was deeply offensive to him. Christianity was not our birthright nor was it included as a signing bonus in our citizenship papers. It was always and ever to be a decision made regardless of the cost, in which one threw oneself across the void to be caught in trust by God’s grace in Christ. A stark and clear commitment.

For the Christian, this is a perennial question. How are we to relate to the world? We are in it; as humans we belong here, yet we are called to live on the border between the immanent and the transcendent. We are to love the world in all its broken, weary beauty—but to remind it that its ways are broken, that justice must lift up the powerless, and that its power plays are tragically and irreversibly flawed.

Christendom assumed Christ was in the past, safely subsumed under the weight of history, culture, military might, ritual, and shrewd thinking. We could look back on him, almost nostalgically, at Christmas and at Easter, and admire his stalwart dedication—without considering that his whole life, and especially his death, was an electrifying call to us to change our lives.

For Kierkegaard, we are to be “contemporaneous with Christ,” nothing less will do. Christ is the present tense of God and about him a decision must be made—today.

But in contrast to the mind-set of our time, Kierkegaard refuses to be seduced into the autonomy of the self-made person. He has seen his own weaknesses; he knows there can only be solace and strength in casting his lot with the Christ who, through love, bore everything the powers could throw at him. In his Works of Love, published in 1847, he brings us to the inmost heart of the Christian experience in a series of reflections or “Christian discourses” on God’s gift of love to us. As with all his other writings, these reflections are meant to provoke action and change in our lives.

“The most mediocre defense against hypocrisy,” he says, “is prudence . . . The best defense against hypocrisy is love . . . This also is a fruit whereby love is known—it secures the lover against falling into the snare of the hypocrite.”3 But Kierkegaard knows that the fruit of love in a person develops slowly; there will be setbacks and discouragement. We will be tempted to give up and to turn bitter when loving our neighbor as ourselves does not come easily.

“But now we return again to the first point and say, repeating: believe in love! This is the first and last thing to be said about love if one is to know what love is.”4 He continues: “If mistrust can see something as less than it actually is, love also can see something as greater than it is . . .”5 If we are happy to see the fruits of love in ourselves or in another person, he says, it is still more blessed to “believe in love.” To go back to the beginning, to ground ourselves in the belief that God loves us, no matter how meager the fruits of our love, is to enjoy the upwelling of the Spirit in our lives.

“Therefore the last, the most blessed, the absolutely convincing evidence of love remains: love itself, which is known and recognized by the love in another. Like is known only by like. Only he who abides in love can recognize love, and in the same way his love is to be known.”6

***

Kierkegaard’s prophetic message against Christendom and for the rise of true Christianity is a message for our time. The Church should always, whether it acknowledges it or not, be in a prophetic tension with the world. At times, it may assure itself that it has power enough to contend in the arenas with the other players. But this is an illusion. On the other hand, it may attempt to keep its head down, to pride itself on a demeanor that allows it to move unscathed through the world. But this, too, is illusion, since it is more likely that the powers—political, military, technological, entertainment—regard it within a spectrum from condescension to indifference. The Church must steadfastly renounce the temptation to claim power that would coerce, for it has been called to announce the liberation of the captives—everyone of us—through God’s grace.

For individual Christians, this Christianity may be daunting. “Our uncertainty,” says Rowan Williams, “about the degree of our responsibility need not be cowardly or self-deceiving; it can be an honest acknowledgement of the way in which reality, even human and personal reality, resists the mind’s desperate attempt to organize it reasonably.”7

When we look at the world going up in flames, we may despair of ever seeing a day when new growth will spring up from the bomb craters. “All that can be done is, again and again, to refuse the temptation to rationalize, and turn to the compassionate Word of God,”8 says Williams.

For our courage—as humans and as Christians—will rely upon the nobility of our humility in finally turning to God’s grace. It is abundant and all-encompassing, but it is not cheap.

  1. Kierkegaard, Soren. Training in Christianity. Translated and with an introduction by Walter Lowrie. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 1972, p. 143.
  2. Kierkegaard. Training, p. 143.
  3. Kierkegaard, Soren. Works of Love. Translated by Howard and Edna Hong. New York: Harper and Row, 1962, p. 32.
  4. Kierkegaard, Works, p. 32.
  5. Kierkegaard, Works, p. 33.
  6. Kierkegaard, Works, p. 33.
  7. Williams, Rowan. A Ray of Darkness: Sermons and Reflections. Boston, MA: Cowley Publications, 1995, p. 76.
  8. Williams, A Ray of Darkness, p. 79.