Fig Tree Blues

Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash

The vocation of creatures is to exist as themselves, to be bearers of their names, answering to the Word that gives each its distinctive identity.1

The parables Jesus told were as common as dirt. Nothing fancy. They were drawn from real life or at least from a life that could be imagined.

So here is a story, a parable told by Jesus. You can read it for yourself in Luke 13.

There was a man, says Jesus, who had a fig tree. I’ve had this tree for three years, he says. Every year I’ve looked for figs on it, but I’ve got no figs. What’s the matter with it? Chop it down, he says to the hired man. Why should it go on using up the soil and I get no figs?

Well, says the hired man, give us another year. I’ll dig round it, pile a lot of manure around it, and we’ll see what happens. If it bears fruit, then well and good. If not, I’ll cut it down. Fair enough?

What the hired man knew and the fig-tree owner did not know is that it takes about three to five years for a fig tree to bear fruit. After that, given water, good soil, and a generous amount of manure, figs will appear. The year after that there will be more figs and the year after that, even more. Within five years there should be enough for a bountiful bowlful. But it takes time.

This is one of those parables from Jesus that stops me in my tracks. It’s in a section of Luke where Jesus rails against the blindness of his audience. You know how to read the weather, he cries, but you can’t read the danger of this present hour. There is a judgment coming.

“I have come to set fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!2

And if there was any doubt, it’s Jesus who will cause these ruptures. “Do you suppose I came to establish peace on earth? No indeed, I have come to bring division.”3 Perhaps this came as no surprise to his disciples and those who sought to kill him. It’s a surprise to us, though. Who is this man?

He gets numerical about it. In a family of five, three will be against two and two against three. Son against father, mother against daughter, mother against son’s wife, son’s wife against her mother-in-law.

As if there weren’t enough tension built into families already. As if all that Oedipal rage of sons against fathers weren’t already lurking, and the sniping and resentment between a mother and her son’s wife wasn’t the cause of silence between husband and wife on the cold drive back to their apartment.

In the news of the day, a tower had crashed down in Siloam, and eighteen people were killed. Conventional wisdom claimed that they had (literally) brought this down on themselves. Only such flaunting sinners died so swiftly and so gruesomely.

Not so, said Jesus. Do you think they were more guilty than everyone else living in Jerusalem? The world is not divided between the sinners and the sinless. Everybody sins. You should take this as a warning, not that you should fear that towers will fall on you, but rather to live right and do well before you die. Only the living can repent.

***

I was eleven years old and I was looking to find the first figs on our tree. We lived on a mountainside overlooking the Napa Valley and I was standing, barefooted, in the garden my grandfather and I had made by wrestling aside the mounds of red volcanic rock scattered like cannonballs across the slope of our back yard.

Planting the fig tree was a promise of discovery. Where we had come from, just outside Toronto, there were no fig trees. But in California everything grows, so we planted one when we moved into our new home.

Wherever my grandparents moved, they created a garden. Not just rows of vegetables, but springs of flowers, curves of hedges, conversations of saplings. They took the landscape as it was and sculpted it. They had the patience to work within the arc of the seasons. They sifted the rough earth and planted the colors they loved.

But on this September day in 1963 the sunset filtered greenly through the lobed and glowing leaves and the bowl in my hand seemed absurdly large, for there was only one fig. The leaves were rough to the touch as I slid my arm through them to where it was lodged. I felt it carefully. It was green at the stem, plump and compact. I had come too soon.

I withdrew my arm and backed out from under the low branches. The air was still, cooling from the heat of the day. My shirt, so new the collar was still scratchy, shifted as I straightened and stood listening. A car was passing on the road below me and through its open windows a song blared. That would be the teenaged boy who lived across the street, who knew all the latest songs, who, in the days to come would tell me of Bob Dylan and his song, “Blowin’ In the Wind,” the song that was playing on his car radio, although I did not know it at the time, the song of this voice, plaintive but insistent, whose questions were the first fruits of a harvest long in the making that would not wait.

When we are young, the future takes the shape of our formless hopes. When we are older our hopes take the shape of our expectations. In November of that year, not long after I filled my bowl at last with ripe figs, shots were fired into the head of the President. With that, my childhood was over, and though it took awhile to realize it, it came to seem as inevitable as the trajectory of the bullets on that day.

***

The parable of the fig tree lends itself to shifting thoughts. The default reading might assume that the owner is God, that God is quick to judge on performance, that appearance is all, that return-on-investment is the sole measure of worth.

Another reading might find that the owner is the dominant world, brusque, ruthless, as hard as flint. We are the fig trees. Jesus is the hired man whose knowledge of the trees is as deep as his care for them. He knows how we are formed, how long it takes for the leaf, the bud, and the fruit. Young trees must be given time; their potential is real, visible to the trained eye, hoped for by the expectant.

We are all under judgment all the time. Mostly, we judge ourselves and each other, usually quite harshly and often unfairly.

Our judgments upon ourselves come from disappointment and fear; we are less than we wish to be. What we are for the good we scarcely know.

Our judgments on others come from what we can see—and we see in a mirror darkly. There are times when we do what we should not do, and we cannot answer why. There are times when the good we could do stands bright before us, but we glance away.

And there are times — praise God — when who we are and what we do are one, when being and deed emerge quietly, miraculously, greenly from the bud, as beautiful as September light.

  1. Williams, Rowan. A Ray of Darkness. Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1995, p. 149.
  2. Lk 12:49, NEB.
  3. Lk 12:51, NEB.

To my Trump-supporting Friends

Photo by Oriento on Unsplash

I know you are disappointed. I would be too. But now we have a chance to begin again. Before we do, I’d like to say some things straight up.

For four years I’ve listened to your “alternate facts,” your declarations of war on truth, and your delight in the actions of President Trump, however cruel and incompetent they were. I’ve seen you deny science, reason, and ethics, to say nothing of compassion and community-spirit, in order to wave the flag of self-centeredness in the name of freedom.

I’ve watched as you condoned, through silence or rationalization, the constant killing of Black men by police. When the President banned Muslims from entering this country, no matter their situation, no matter their family connections, no matter that it swept up millions of people indiscriminately, you found a way to see it as legitimate. When children were separated from their parents at the border, you framed it as a just punishment for breaking the law.

You asserted with a straight face that doctors got paid more to certify that everyone who died in their hospitals was a COVID victim. You assured me that masks don’t work, that the CDC was part of the deep state, that Dr. Fauci and others advising on the pandemic got up every morning determined to disparage the President and prevent him from being reelected. That this was their sole purpose in disputing his claims that the virus would disappear.

Some of you nonchalantly dismissed 200,000+ deaths as a mere blip. Since you were in your thirties and got lots of exercise, you thought herd immunity was a pretty good idea, despite the fact that to achieve that we would have to make sure millions of people died.

When QAnon reared its ugly head, you fell for it. You even sent me videos intended to rip the scales from my eyes, the better to see the real truth. You pitied me when I reacted with disbelief. “Do your research,” you said. The truth is out there . . .

And throughout these four years you excused the President’s racist remarks, his misogyny, his callous indifference to the grinding poverty in this country. You cheered when he passed the largest tax cut in years to benefit the smallest percentage of wealthy people and smiled when he held the government and its workers hostage for a month to wring out money for his wall—the wall he insisted Mexico would pay for.

I watched all this in disbelief and, yes, anger. I wondered if we were looking at the same events or if there was something desperately wrong with my perceptive abilities. I would read and re-read something the President said to see if I had missed the key to its interpretation. Maybe it’s plain for all to see, I thought, and I’m the only one who is blind to it. Surely my friends would not have fallen for this. Then I came across the term ‘gaslighting’ and I saw the light.

All of this—well, most of it—could be chalked up to political passion, I thought. After all, I was pretty passionate about it too. The answer was not to be indifferent to the political game, but to somehow see it as one element of life among many. That’s what I told myself in my more heated moments and it’s something I still believe.

I also recognized that I’d done my share of punching back. I usually stopped and considered before I replied, but even then I said some things I regretted—and I didn’t apologize. I’m apologizing now.

But here’s the thing: the last four years under this President have been a revelation to me, one that I am grateful for in the way we are grateful for bitter medicine. I believe I have learned some things and reaffirmed some old truths.

I have learned the clear distinction between humiliation and humility. Humiliation is something we slap on another person, but it only sticks if they accept it. Humility, on the other hand, comes from inside ourselves. It’s both a shield against humiliation and the key to learning, especially in conflict.

I don’t know everything. I don’t know how another person truly thinks and feels. I don’t even really know completely what I think until I have something to contrast it with and compare it to. This acts—or is meant to act—as a wedge to keep my mind open long enough so I can consider another viewpoint without firing first. I have gotten some practice at it these four years, but I’m not ready to be certified just yet. I’m sure I’ll have more opportunity in the next four years to work on it.

The other big thing I have learned or rather reaffirmed, is why I try to imagine Jesus. I say “imagine” because I realize that knowledge about Jesus, however important, is not enough. In order for Jesus to be real to me, real enough to be present every day, I need to use my imagination to see him where he was in the Gospels and then try to see him where I am today.

This takes work, but it’s good work. It becomes most real when I feel disoriented by this culture I’m in. When I doubt my faith or when I rationalize a verbal blow to another, I imagine Jesus striding next to me. He’s not judging or cajoling me. He doesn’t have to. His strong and gentle presence is enough to call my actions into question.

The next four years will be a workout as we work together. I think we all have a better chance of walking in truth now, but it won’t be easy. We’ve all got to relearn some things, like trusting one another and what we really mean by those bright words like ‘democracy,’ ‘justice,’ and ‘truth.’

I think we all need to take a deep breath and step back to a place of humility. And let’s have done with humiliation. That stuff starts wars and creates famines.

Let’s use our imaginations too. Let’s imagine what others might be going through to cause them fear and anger. Let’s imagine where we fail to see one another as creations of God and what they might look like if we could see them as God sees them. And let’s imagine how Jesus sees us, clad in all our self-righteous fury, and know that he knows we are so much better than all that.

Speaker for the Dead

Photo by Joshua Humpfer on Unsplash

”Poets exist so that the dead may vote.”1

I was reading the lead essay in Helen Vendler’s The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar, in which she makes an argument for the arts to replace philosophy and history at the heart of the humanities. “The arts are true to the way we are and were,” she writes, “to the way we actually live and have lived—as singular persons swept by drives and affections, not as collective entities or sociological paradigms.”2

Somehow, I jumped from that bountiful essay to reflecting on my own conflicted attitude toward the Psalms. I’ve never really liked the book as a whole. The headliners like the 23rd Psalm, the 46th (“There is a river whose streams gladden the city of God”), the 51st (“Create in me a pure heart”), and the 103rd (“Bless the Lord, my soul, and forget none of his benefits”), always touched me. But so many of them, even the crowd-pleasers, seemed so contradictory to a loving God.

Dashing out the brains of the enemy’s babies? Boasting about the thousands put to the sword? Hardly the stuff of repentance and lovingkindness. Most of them were altogether too vengeful, too consumed with complaint, too . . . cruelly honest. They were not Christian, they were vitriolic. Some of them were frankly embarrassing.

I had tried. In college, I had gone on a tear through C. S. Lewis’ best works, including his Reflection on the Psalms, but alas, not much of it had lodged with me to be called up in reflective moments.

I did remember this though: “Where we find a difficulty we may always expect that a discovery awaits us.”3 And he taught me to regard them as poetry. That was key.

I devoted a couple of months to Sir Philip Sidney’s translation of the Psalms in Elizabethan metered poetry. Sidney was already an accomplished poet when he translated the first forty-three psalms. After he died from battle injuries in 1586 at the age of thirty-two, his sister Mary, a patron of the arts and fluent in French, Italian, and Latin, completed the Sidney Psalter, translating the remaining 107 psalms and revising many of Philip’s. John Donne, a close friend, and George Herbert, Mary’s distant cousin, both treasured these poems, Donne remarking that they are “the highest matter in the noblest form.”4

I read the Psalms in various translations, from the KJV to the NEB to the NIV to The Message Bible, in hopes that I could see below the surface to the treasure so many have mined for thousands, thousands!, of years. What was wrong with me?

My grandfather read his Bible through every year for seventy years. I still have it, marked and annotated, the pages now brittle but the colored underlinings and remarks in the margins still legible. The Book of the Psalms was among his most favorite Old Testament readings; he had memorized long passages.

When something in us resists the natural leap of curiosity and honest interest, we need to back up and look more closely. Is it a rock in the stream, around which our lives may flow? Must it be blasted apart and the pieces scattered? Or is it our rock to roll, like Sisyphus, forever?

I wasn’t sure, but I knew I needed a break. After I put the Sidney Psalter back on the shelf, I didn’t study the Psalms for years. Aside from looking up the occasional text or coming across a verse in some other work, I left them alone.

But I kept encountering them everywhere I went. Evensong at Winchester Cathedral, as the choir’s clear tones drifted up to the vaulted ceiling. Verses embedded on almost every page of Augustine’s Confessions. A concert with U2 where thousands of us sang, “How long to sing this song,” from Psalm 40, as one by one the band members left the stage, until drummer Larry Mullen, Jr., finished the chorus and the concert with a definitive snap.

And when I created a visual presentation memorializing the nine people murdered in a Charleston church by a white supremacist, I instinctively turned to Psalm 44: “Why do you sleep, O Lord?” And, “You have made us a byword among the nations, a laughingstock among the peoples.”5 In times of grief and anger only the Psalms will do.

The Psalms, like the prophets, are a fever reading of the body of believers. They scorch, they curl up at the edges, they blister my doily-shaped Christian heart and sensibilities. “The gain in this for the study of the Psalms,” says Walter Brueggemann, “is that it shows how the psalms of negativity, the complaints of various kinds, the cries for vengeance and profound penitence are foundational to a life of faith in this particular God.” Then he adds, “Much Christian piety and spirituality is romantic and unreal in its positiveness.”6

I was reading the Psalms for comfort, filtering out the harsh cries and the din of conflict. When the Psalmist agonized over God’s abandonment of him, I cut him off. But I couldn’t deny that the absence of God was the presence of my own starless darkness. I had felt that too. Refusing the eclipse of God brought no light. And it flat-lined the life of the spirit, “losing all the highs and lows,” refusing to take the pain that comes to us all along with happiness. Most of all, it was a closing up to the full human experience, a filtering out of the contact points that unite people in empathy with one another, even across centuries. The writers of the Psalms, I had to concede, dressed in their full humanity.

Perhaps that was my problem, an introvert wandering dazed through a city of humankind riotously celebrating in the streets. For someone who would rather be led by the still waters than to run with the bulls, the Psalms swallowed whole can burn all the way down.

***

Left to myself with a Bible, my inclination is to take the door to the right that leads to the Gospels, rather than the door to the left which leads to the Law and the Prophets. Like a lot of Christians, I’ll take my chances with Jesus more readily than with Ezekiel or Nehemiah. But Jesus knew the prophets, and he lived and breathed the Law, cutting to the beating heart of it with a love that penetrated the tough skin of righteousness.

And he sang himself and the disciples through the fields, over the waves, under the moonlit sky and up to the dawn with the Psalms. They were his poetry, his praise, his lament, and his agony. In his mouth, with these songs, the noble dead could sing again. “Sing to him a new song; strike up with all your art and shout in triumph.7 That art, to which Helen Vendler unknowingly pointed me, is true to the way we actually live and have lived.

At the end Jesus cried out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” With his lungs crushed and his mouth caked, was he quoting the first verse of Psalm 22? Or was it a cry from the heart that any human being would make? And if he had had the breath would he have wrung out one last defiant shout: “But I shall live for his sake . . .”?8

  1. Wiesel, Elie. Quoted in Brueggemann, Walter. Spirituality of the Psalms. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2002, p. xiv.
  2. Vendler, Helen. The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2015, p. 16.
  3. Lewis, C. S. Reflections on the Psalms. San Francisco: HarperCollins EPub edition 2017, p. 32.
  4. The Sidney Psalter: The Psalms of Sir Philip and Mary Sidney. Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Hannibal Hamlin, Michael G. Brennan, Margaret P. Hannay, and Noel J. Kinnamon. Oxford: Oxford Press, 2009, p. xxxi.
  5. Ps. 44:23,14, NEB.
  6. Brueggemann, p. xii.
  7. Ps. 33:3, NEB.
  8. Ps. 22:29, NEB.

Become All Things

Photo by Aliko Sunawang on Unsplash

Indeed, I have become everything in turn to men of every sort, so that in one way or another I may save some.”1

I am a collector of words. They are like gems to me, the kind you could buy at roadside shops when I was a child, three for a dollar, tumbled and polished until they were smoothed and rounded and bright. When I find a word I haven’t seen before or heard pronounced, I play with it like playing with gemstones in the hand, turning it over and over, bearing down on one syllable and then the other, elongating the vowels and listening to the sound of it against my teeth and tongue. I carry it with me for a few days, taking it out to marvel at its sound and color. I drop it into a sentence, building the sentence like a house. Place it on the back porch, move it around to the front step, inside to the kitchen at the heart of the house, and carry it to the window in the study at the top of the stairs.

Years ago, I found a word in The Ritual Process, a book by the anthropologist Victor Turner. The book was far beyond my comprehension or interest at the time, but in the riverbed of its narrative, gleaming under the surface of the stream, was this word ‘liminal.’ Turner described it as an experience in which we leave our old identity behind and enter through a ritual process into a new state of being. On this threshold we are between the old and the new, the tried and the untested. We are poised, not grounded, in a transition of ambiguity, openness, and indeterminacy.

I liked the sound of it, ‘LIM-i-nal’, and went around saying it to myself for several days. The idea of a threshold upon which we linger opens possibilities.

There is that moment before the diver parts the air, before the singer draws a breath, the artist lifts the brush, the dancer rises en pointe. The potential! Every moment of preparation for this has been gathered and held. There is nothing we can’t imagine; we have only to release it.

The liminal makes our past present to us and our future too. Broader than a knife-edge, the present as threshold gives us a platform before the plunge. With care, we can regard the past with forgiveness, while not forgetting where we put a foot wrong, where attention was not paid. There were seasons of light and goodness also, some remaining. These are provisions for the future.

***

Jane Hirshfield is an American poet, essayist, and translator. Her book of essays, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, lifts up the liminal in her final chapter on “Writing and the Threshold Life.” Threshold persons are “betwixt and between.” They lose their name, their identity, their standing in the community. They are being prepared for a wilderness experience, in which they undergo a transformation. “A person who steps outside her usual position falls away from any singular relationship to others and into oneness with the community as a whole.”2

Hirshfield regards the poet—and all writers who are willing—as this liminal figure who returns from the wilderness to speak and write from the margins of society. Such people become conduits for messages that could not be heard any other way; they are willing to leave “the trail of convention and norm, whether in the city or the wild.”3 There is a hunger for what lies beyond the visible and the mundane. “It is the task of the writer,” she suggests, “to become that permeable and transparent; to become, in the words of Henry James, a person on whom nothing is lost.”4

As I read and reflected on this it struck me that these experiences also parallel the descriptions of prophets, whether they be from seventh-century Israel or twenty-first century America. More particularly, this person of liminal transformation looks a lot like Saint Paul.

However we might explain the cataclysmic experience on the road to Damascus, it completely upended his life. His license was to capture new Christians and return them to Jerusalem for a quick trial and death. He was, you might say, a religious terrorist. The confrontation on the road with the being of Christ stripped him of his name, his power, and his status. Blind as a newborn kitten, he was at the mercy of those whom he had hunted.

He became Paul, shedding Saul in the process. Possessed of boundless confidence and a stern temper, he learned the way of humility. He spent fourteen years in the wilderness, known then as “Arabia,” years about which he is silent, before devoting his life to becoming Christ’s peripatetic messenger of grace. His wilderness time steadied him, deepened his compassion, and radicalized him.

When he returns, the risen Christ becomes his lodestar. Paul is tough, persuasive, independent, and resourceful. He holds his views strongly, sometimes defiantly, and he’s not ashamed to say he has the mind of Christ.

As a liminal person, he forms communities wherever he goes—and he sustains and nurtures them through his writing. Granted, his writing is sometimes dense (Peter diplomatically refers to it in one place as “obscure”). It is often contentious: Paul complains that the Corinthians forced him into speaking harshly to them because of their undisciplined actions. But when his game is on and he is inspired, his poetry cannot be matched. The thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians stands as a sublime work of art in any literature.

There are other striking parallels between Paul and Hirshfield’s liminal poets and writers. He, and they, see through the haze of murky distractions to the clear essentials of meaning. Paul most often speaks about them directly: being faithful, living the truth, showing courage, exercising self-control and humility. The poets gesture with these obliquely, tracing their patterns lightly, alluding to their beauty rather than asserting their authority.

Hirshfield writes, “In the work of such a person, what lies beyond the conventional, simplified, and ‘authorized’ versions of a culture’s narratives can find voice. A newly broadened conception of being is made available to us all.”5

The poet realizes, ‘makes real,’ the boundless complexity of human experience by offering us the profoundly simple in a line of words, the magnificence of the common. Paul, as earthy as he is visionary, comes to the Christians at Corinth “weak, nervous, and shaking with fear,” yet speaks “God’s hidden wisdom, his secret purpose framed from the very beginning to bring us to our full glory.”6

The liminal person — on the threshold — speaks to the individual and the community, in fact, becomes a conduit between the two. Through the poet/writer, those who read and listen find a community of fellow singulars. Language creates worlds that stand in opposition to the corrupted present.

In a society split vertically and horizontally by cultural prejudice and gender oppression, Paul boldly offers a prophetic alternative: “There is no such thing as Jew and Greek, slave and freeman, male and female,” he says, “for you are all one person in Christ Jesus.”7

“More is changed during this threshold period than simply the understanding of self,” says Hirshfield. “Free of all usual roles, a person experiences community differently as well. The liminal is not opposite to, but the necessary companion of, identity and particularity—a person who steps outside her usual position falls away from any singular relationship to others and into oneness with the community as a whole.”8

Paul — imprisoned, shipwrecked, harassed, and beaten — bears in his own body the scars of proclaiming a new message of freedom. When he claims, “I am a free man and own no master; but I have made myself every man’s servant, to win over as many as possible,” he is not exaggerating.

“We stand with” is a phrase that corporations hastily add to their websites to show their efforts at racial equality. But Paul bears the burdens of those whom he is with. With the Jews, he follows the religious laws that the Jews observe; with the Gentiles, he puts himself under their cultural restrictions as well. “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. Indeed, I have become everything in turn to men of every sort, so that in one way or another I may save some.”9

Has he lost himself in all this? Has he become a shape-shifter, a person who, like water, assumes the contours of whatever vessel he finds himself in? “Your life lies hidden with Christ in God,” he writes to the band of Christians in Colossae.10 So strong is his identification, that he is willing, like Christ, to suffer the consequences of speaking truth to power.

***

We find ourselves entangled on every side today by our own history, by our interpretation of other people’s history, by our need to find a balance between an upsetting truth-telling and the preserving of our social comity. Many of our prophets and our poets, like Paul, come down on the side of truth-telling, no matter the personal consequences of revealing the skewing of power and the pain it causes. Their identity forms like a pearl around the sand-grain of truth. Perhaps they live without illusions whatsoever. They speak, they act, they bear the blowback. But they also speak of newness of life, of an oasis in the desert, of the flowering of beauty in the midst of desolation. And they do not desert their own.

  1. 1 Cor. 9:22, NEB.
  2. Hirshfield, Jane. Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. New York: HarperCollins, 1997, p. 204.
  3. Hirshfield, 221.
  4. Hirshfield, 223.
  5. Hirshfield, 205.
  6. 1 Cor. 2:3,7, NEB.
  7. Gal. 3:28, NEB.
  8. Hirshfield, 204.
  9. 1 Cor. 9:19-22, NEB.
  10. Col. 3:3, NEB.

Chain of Events

Photo by Anton on Unsplash

“Where does a person’s responsibility end for an act that stretches off endlessly into some incalculable, monstrous transformation?” 1

Cataclysms erupt from a single bullet fired, a missing bolt, an ignored note, a gesture misunderstood. A jet of anger forces open a door that becomes a hinge of history. We debate whether the universe is one or many, whether an event is the inevitable result of a thousand antecedent actions. We act with intentionality. We hold ourselves and others accountable. We assign blame. And we assume that a choice can always be made.

Standing at the summit, we toss a snowball, a tiny pellet, into the vast cirque of snow below us. It drops and rolls to a stop. A crack appears, widens, and races away. In moments, it is a thundering avalanche. In the weighted silence that follows, “Sorry!” doesn’t seem enough.

We no longer believe in the Fates, those inexorable forces that toy with us, flip us over like box turtles or casually drown us. We are well beyond those beliefs now; most phenomena are accounted for through natural laws and chemical reactions. Yet, waiting for a light to change, hands gripping the wheel, the heat and oily fumes of rush-hour traffic around us, it may seem entirely plausible that something we did in the past bore consequences we could not have foreseen in our current version of reality.

***

Judas slips in and out of our vision in the Gospels. All four Gospels report his betrayal of Jesus: only Matthew reveals his suicide.2 The timeline begins two days before the Passover, when Jesus and the disciples attend a dinner party at the house of Simon the leper. A woman shows up uninvited to pour on Jesus’ head an expensive ointment worth almost a year’s wages. As the musk fills the room, the disciples are taken aback. Judas argues heatedly that the ointment should have been sold and the money given to the poor.

Leave her alone, says Jesus. She’s done a beautiful thing. She’s prepared my body for burial, and wherever the gospel is told her act will be remembered. He smiles at the woman. You will always have the poor among you, he adds, but you won’t always have me. Judas flushes with anger. There is an awkward silence and then the conversation resumes. No one glances up as he slips out the door.

The Gospel of Matthew reports that he goes directly to the priests to negotiate the betrayal of Jesus into their hands. They are delighted and settle on a price. “From that moment,” Matthew comments, “he began to look for a good opportunity to betray him.”3

Why did he do it? After the calling, after the healings, the miles walked up and down Palestine, water into wine, demons into swine, the raising of the dead —Lazarus, for God’s sake! — feeding five thousand, blind men and lepers, sleeping on the hard ground, always the startling words, taking no thought for tomorrow, breaking bread together. All of those signs . . . memories like warm bread called up when the way ahead was tangled by His mystifying words — sometimes harsh — but the depth of his understanding was astonishing, turning one inside out, revealing the inner heart to oneself.

Why does he do it? Can we trace back up his decision tree, from branch to trunk to root, through the neurons and filaments, into the shadowlands between consciousness and primal urges?

There is the rush of anger, the sting of humiliation, impelling him out of Simon’s house and down to the priests. But before that, long before that, a seed germinated in his imagination. In the moment, his eyes see through the present. He has been granted a vision of history unfolding and the role he will play in it.

Judas counts himself a man of action, decisive, bold, daring. He is Judas Iscariot, after the sicarii, the assassins skilled at stabbing a person in a crowd and melting away in the confusion. Along with the other disciple, Simon the Zealot, he looks for a violent uprising against the occupying forces of the Romans. The man of decisive action cuts away, separates, and divides to isolate and reveal the singular object of desire.

Judas has known the secret for months. He has wrestled with this, asking himself why Jesus dithers, why he seems so hesitant to grasp the power that lies within him. At the feeding of the five thousand a year ago, it almost came to pass. The crowd was ready to take him by force and make him king, but Jesus sent them all away and retreated to the hills.

Judas sees himself as the only disciple who truly understands Jesus’ mission. He knows the goal, he is less sure of the tactics. Perhaps Jesus is waiting for the right moment to declare the Kingdom and signal the uprising. Perhaps the threat of violence against him will finally crack the veneer of passivity and he will take his place at the head of the crowds. Judas is willing to risk it all on the intentions he believes Jesus holds but will not reveal to just anybody.

Judas is the Insider: in the Day of the Lord he will sit at the right hand of Jesus, brothers in arms, triumphant over the odds. At the moment of supposed betrayal, the kiss will light the fuse. Jesus will turn the mob in his favor and ignite the thousands waiting for their king. He will overthrow the Romans like he flung the tables in the temple and scattered the profaning merchants.

Jesus looks around the circle, studying each face in turn. These are his brothers, his family, his people. “I tell you the truth,” he says in a whisper. They lean in closer. His hands clench around the cup. “One of you is going to betray me.” There is stunned silence, bewilderment on their faces. Peter nudges the one next to Jesus. “Ask him,” he hisses. “Who is it, Lord?” The question hangs in the air between them.

Jesus reaches for the bread, his face a mask of pain, and says, “The one to whom I give this piece of bread.” He tears at the bread, his nails digging deep. He twists it between his fingers until it gives way with a crack. He wrenches off a piece, swirls it in the oil, and stretches across the table to Judas son of Simon Iscariot.

A bead of oil forms on the table between them. Judas looks into it. There is a roaring in his ears. He sees his own face, bent to follow the curve of this tiny, golden dome, and he feels himself to be falling. He remembers hearing that if you die in your dream you will die in your life and he tries to wake himself. But now he is flying, sweeping over vast armies in the last light of the day. The armies stretch to the horizon and they are looking up at him, waiting for the signal. He takes a breath. Everything is clear now. He reaches for the bread.

Jesus says quietly, “Do quickly what you have to do.” A look passes between them. Judas nods. The others are chatting among themselves. He slips out. He is relieved and excited; the Messiah will soon reveal himself.

It is night.

  1. Kundera, Milan. The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts. Translated from the French by Linda Asher. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005, p. 113.
  2. Matt 26:20-25, 27:3-5; Mark 14:10-11, 17-21, 43-46; Luke 22:3-6, 21-22, 47-48; John 13:21-30.
  3. Matt. 26:13, NEB.

John Lewis, Hope, and Anger

Photo: Daniel Curran on Unsplash

“When anger fails to achieve any proportionate degree of redress, what it becomes is despair . . .”1

How does a man remain hopeful all the years of his life?

When John Lewis died on July 17, 2020, I knew him to be one of the last of a generation of civil rights heroes. He had marched, he had taken the blows, he had been jailed, he had carried on. News accounts and stories hailed his persistence. He died at eighty, after thirty-four years in Congress representing Georgia’s Fifth District.

Just days before he passed away from pancreatic cancer, he visited the Black Lives Matter street art in Washington, DC, expressing his hope that the movement would carry on the fight. In a town hall Zoom meeting with President Obama and others, he said the protesters will “redeem the soul of America and move closer to a community at peace with itself.”2

On YouTube I found the speech he gave during the March on Washington, in August 1963. On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, facing thousands of people, the young Lewis, one of the founders and leaders of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, urged his listeners to join the revolution for freedom and equality. “How long can we be patient?” he asked, his voice rising. “We want our freedom and we want it now!”3

Two years later, in March 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson having been galvanized into action by news coverage of Bloody Sunday, in which Lewis and many others were brutally attacked by the Selma police at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. But fifty-seven years later, at the end of the arc of his life, John Lewis was still hoping that voting, the most basic right of democracy, would be guaranteed and protected.

I admire his years of service in Congress and his unflinching record working for civil rights. He managed to inspire new generations to work for justice, without giving in to despair. No matter the violence he suffered, he always chose the way of peace. His lifelong hope uplifts us. But it’s the unspoken question of anger that intrigues me.

Does anger cancel hope or can hope and anger live together?

***

Stuart Walton, in his A Natural History of Human Emotions, says, “The Old Norse word angr is the root of both anger and anguish, in both of which a residue of its semantic origins in grief has precipitated. If we see fear as primarily a passive state, anger is very much a driving, compulsive force that encourages action of one sort or another.”4

In the 1840s, Cardinal Henry Manning, the Archbishop of Westminster, asserted that “Anger is the executive power of justice.”5 I don’t know the context of the remark, but it’s surely one that resonates with any who think themselves to be on the right side of history in a popular struggle for justice. Anger, we think, can be justified if it brings a righteous result.

We don’t have many public examples of people who manage their anger well. As Walton drily observes, “. . . Anger is an emotion without an obvious behavioural etiquette attached to it.”6 For most of us it’s a momentary emotion which flares up and dies away too quickly to be examined but long enough to regret.

As Christians, we’re taught to suppress anger, but as people living in a post-Freudian era, we’re told that the suppression of anger causes more damage to us than letting it blow. This “pressure cooker” model blends seamlessly with the emancipation of the individual from social restraints that years ago would have kept private anger from publicly spilling out. We are now a society that values the expression of our most private feelings under the guise of honesty.

There are many occasions in the Gospels when Jesus is angry. How could it be otherwise? He daily battled against prejudice and discrimination, against willful ignorance and smug hypocrisy. The Pharisees were stubbornly self-righteous, the people in the towns he passed through were small-minded, the crowds were fickle and obtuse—even the disciples were recalcitrant and selfish. Like us in every way, he expressed his anger as it rose and then turned it aside.

The story that stands out is when he trashed the Temple. All the Gospel writers feature it, with some interesting variations. Whenever this story would come up in our discussions at church, the adults would be quick to classify Jesus’ actions as “righteous indignation,” a distinction without a difference that didn’t fool us. He was clearly angry, and only if you held him to a shallow standard of spotless behavior could this be sinful.

This was more like performance anger, anger with a point, anger that evolved into a teachable moment. In Mark 11 Jesus and the disciples arrive in Jerusalem late in the day to a triumphal procession. Cheering crowds line the streets as Jesus makes his way to the Temple on a donkey. They spread their cloaks on the road, cut brush to strew the street, bless him for bringing in the kingdom, and shout ‘Hosanna!’ He arrives at the Temple, looks around “at the whole scene,” and then leaves with the disciples to spend the night in Bethany.

In the morning, as they leave for Jerusalem, Jesus is hungry, and seeing a fig tree in the distance he searches it for fruit—breakfast on the run, if you like. But there is none because, as Mark notes, “it was not the season for figs.” And Jesus backs up and says, “May no one ever again eat fruit from you!”7

It’s a response we might have made, irritation at an inanimate object that doesn’t perform as we think it should. We’re hungry, the toaster jams, the car won’t start, and we’re late for work; not a good beginning to the day.

We could brush Jesus’ hangry response aside except for two details in Mark’s narrative. The first is the obvious: it’s the wrong season for figs, something that Jesus should have known growing up in a Mediterranean country. The second is more telling: Mark adds, “And his disciples were listening,” an odd thing to say unless there was a reason to remember what Jesus had said and done.8

I find this endearing: Jesus momentarily flailing in irritation, the disciples glancing at one another and ducking their heads to hide a smile.

Then they are making their way to the court of the Temple, where Jesus immediately wades into the bustling market, throwing over the tables, scattering the money, and setting free the pigeons. He doesn’t allow anyone carrying merchandise to cut through the courtyard and he won’t let the merchants back in. Instead, he begins to teach, to the delight of the crowds and the consternation of the chief priests, who come running when someone breathlessly tattles on Jesus.

The flash of anger gives way to a teach-in; the people are spellbound, the authorities are outraged. They would kidnap him, but they’re afraid of the crowd’s reaction, so Jesus teaches all day, and when evening comes, he and the disciples leave the city.

That is Mark’s story. John’s version is even more pointed: “Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple . . . His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”9

***

The philosophers of Jesus’ time had a lot to say about anger. Seneca, whose lifetime overlapped with Jesus, and Plutarch, who was writing when Paul was executed, around 64-65 CE, regarded anger with horror and wrote some of their most forceful essays against it. Prevention was the best course, said Seneca, “. . . to reject at once the first incitement to anger, to resist even its small beginnings, and to take pains to avoid falling into anger.”10 Anger swamped reason, he said, and drowned our ability to see events clearly.

“I have noticed,” observes Plutarch, “that although different factors trigger its onset in different people, there is almost always present a belief that they are being slighted and ignored.”11 This is anger as the flash point of a bruised ego.

What do we see in Jesus? A man whose anger arises to protect others, but who will not protect himself. He disrupts the worship at his synagogue to heal a man, angry that the leaders value decorum over liberation. He is angry when the doctors of the law burden the people with unnecessary rules, instead of revealing the Law as evidence of God’s care. And he is angry that the house of prayer has become a den of thieves.

Here is a man who trusts God so deeply that in the midst of conflict he can say, “I and the Father are one,” without the slightest hint of defensiveness or pride. When he sees the way things are and the way things could be, he refuses silence. Hope breaks in, the future contradicts the present, anger throws off despair and steps into faith.

It is time, as John Lewis would say, that we got ourselves into ‘good trouble.’

  1. Walton, Stuart. A Natural History of the Emotions. New York: Grove Press, 2004, p. 81.
  2. Remnick, David. “John Lewis’s Legacy and America’s Redemption.” In The New Yorker, July 27, 2020.
  3. https://voicesofdemocracy.umd.edu/lewis-speech-at-the-march-on-washington-speech-text/
  4. Walton, Stuart. A Natural History of the Emotions. New York: Grove Press, 2004, p. 45.
  5. Walton, Stuart. A Natural History of the Emotions. New York: Grove Press, 2004, p. 48.
  6. Walton, Stuart. A Natural History of the Emotions. New York: Grove Press, 2004, p. 73.
  7. Mark 11: 13,14, NEB.
  8. Mark 11:14, NEB.
  9. John 2:15,17, NRSV.
  10. Seneca. “De Ira (On Anger).” In Seneca: Moral Essays, Vol. 1. Translated by John W. Basore. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1928, p. 125.
  11. Plutarch. “On the Avoidance of Anger.” In Essays. Translated by Robin Waterfield. Introduced and annotated by Ian Kidd. London: 1992, Penguin Books, p. 193.

My Fallen House

Photo by Dane Deaner on Unsplash

“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

Photo: Liam Richards on Unsplash

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

Photo by Koshu Kunii on Unsplash

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

Photo: Malcolm Lightbody on Unsplash

“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.