In the London Underground there are signs cautioning us to “mind the gap,” calling us to attention when getting on and off the Tube. It’s a sign that should be posted in a lot of other places in our lives.
There is the gap between our public aspirations to equality and the stark realities of systemic racism, the deconstruction of voting access for millions of people, and the constant inequity between the top one percent in this country and almost everyone else.
There’s the gap between what corporations claim are their highest values of equality, service, and diversity, and the reality of discrimination, indifferent service, and a whiter shade of pale in corporate boardrooms.
There’s the gap between our personal best intentions and what we actually display to the world. And there’s the gap between what we the church claim as the kingdom and what we substitute in its place.
Show us the Father, the disciples challenged Jesus. And he replied, If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father. The disciples, like us, saw only that which fit the scope of their vision. The Father was too sovereign, too remote, too terrifying to be anything less than thunder in the mountains or a mighty wind rolling back the waves of the Red Sea.
Jesus brought the Father across that gap between the human and divine, slipping the invisible footprints of the eternal God into his own along the roads of Galilee. He called his Father by an endearing name. But old habits are hard to break: we can be sure not many prayed to God as ‘Abba,’ or ‘Daddy.’ There was an unbridgeable gap there, fixed and immovable in their eyes—and ours.
How often do we think of Jesus as divine? Most of the time. How often do we see him as fully human? Far less. There is a gap. Yet, as human, he suffered all the temptations we do and more. To whom much is given, much is required.
If we really saw Jesus as human, we would not be surprised when his anger flares up, when he weeps over Jerusalem or when he pounces on the hypocrisy of the religious leaders. These are not weaknesses; they are evidence of an impassioned soul completely immersed in this world, yet constantly breathing the air of transcendence.
Within the spectrum of the visible, Jesus’ divinity ripples, fades, reappears and vanishes. I and the Father are one, Jesus claimed, infuriating the keepers of the sanctuary and bewildering the disciples. “Divinity flashed through humanity,” said Ellen White, in a metaphor as visceral as it is inadequate.
We keep trying to summarize Jesus in a thirty-second elevator pitch. It can’t be done. We want something we can carry with us, an amulet for the fingers when we are tempted or grieving. We have the images we’ve gathered from the Gospels: Jesus making his way across the waves to the terrified disciples, rubbing his thumbs across a blind man’s eyes, and enveloped in a brilliant cloud as the voice of God reverberates across the dry hills. These are part of our inner art galleries, companions to the work of artists who have stretched his likeness across their canvasses.
The senses need touch, though. Body yearns for body. We would take the Emmaus road in the late afternoon, our hearts broken, if we thought there was the slightest chance we could relive that moment with the mysterious stranger who innocently asked what happened in Jerusalem that weekend.
We are not within the same chronological trajectory as Jesus. There is a gap. He burns across the skies at light speed. When we read his story in the Gospel of Mark, the prose itself is breathless. The narrative runs to keep up with him. He emerges from the wilderness, the habitation of demons, and immediately turns his hometown synagogue upside down. Full of the Spirit, he announces the breaking in of the kingdom. “The time is ripe,” he says, “and God’s kingdom has come close. Change your purpose and trust in the good news.”1
A man tortured by possession is in the synagogue screaming in pain. Jesus reaches deep and drags the demon out, leaving the man shaken but grateful, the onlookers stunned by the authority of Jesus’ word. Across the gap between the stiff sanctity of the sacred service and the raw clawing out of the demon from its midst, the word of Jesus sizzles through the air: “Put on a muzzle and come out of him!”2
We come up against a mystery: Jesus and his mission are one and the same. To have some inkling of Jesus as a living, breathing person is to take tentative steps across the gap between this world and the kingdom. He shows us the way to God, not through a formula for successful salvation, but by being the person in whom God was most fully seen. At the risk of cliché, the way God acts in the world is through Jesus as the Way.
We get this not through a painstakingly logical progression of thought, but by a leap of trust across the gap. In Jesus we see God as God wants to be seen and known.
Even so, there is still a gap between Jesus and ourselves — a gap that cradles history and human nature. Over the course of a lifetime we are drawn to Jesus in a multitude of ways. We may see him in art, sense him in music and poetry, revel in the Gospel stories, interpret his words for our situation.
There is always the situation and the story. A gap stretches between the two.
The situation is this moment in history, the events and structures we find ourselves within. Language, myth, and symbol are how our story creates us in this situation. Our situation and Jesus’ situation differ, not in nature but in degree.
The whole of human life consumed and transformed him in ways that we will likely not experience this side of death. We get glimpses of it, we hear the music occasionally, but the heavens will not part for us as they did for him. The gap remains. Therein lies our glory and our salvation. He has done what we cannot do that we might live through his life.
There will be a time beyond time when we shall be with him. The final gap — Death — shall be no more. We shall know as we are known. No more need to mind the gap.
Mark 1:15, The Gospels. Translated by Sarah Ruden. New York: Modern Library, 2021. ↩
Mark 1:25, The Gospels. Translated by Sarah Ruden. New York: Modern Library, 2021. ↩
”A person exists to be the agent of creative goodness. When we thus create goodness we are both ourselves raised from the dead and also the agents to others of resurrection.”1
My memory of the resurrection of the dead cannot be separated from paintings I saw as a child. Whole families were climbing out of their graves together. They were dressed like they were going to church and all of them had smiles on their faces. Some of the little ones were still standing in their graves, transfixed by the apocalyptic maelstrom swirling around them. Many other people were already drifting skyward, arms upraised, legs trailing, drawn like iron filings to a magnet.
The sky above them was all towering clouds of blackness shot through with bolts of lightning. In the far background were the hapless wicked, lashed by meteors of fire and stampeding from gaping fissures opening in the ground beneath them. Skyscrapers were toppling and bridges snapping, but in the center of the sky, encircled by clouds of angels, was Jesus — crowned, sceptered, and majestic.
Let us say here that no artist can come close to what Resurrection Day will look like, although you can’t fault one for trying. The illustrations I saw were from the fifties and early sixties, and they faithfully preserved glimpses of that era. There’s a poignancy in such depictions: the artist paints his own longings for an ascension in his lifetime, with his friends and neighbors all aboard, most every one White, genteel, and self-assured.
Now I am comfortably agnostic about the details of Resurrection Day. Even St. Paul is vague about it. He spends more time warning about the suddenness of its coming than he does on what will then transpire. Those of us who are alive, he says, will be caught up in the air to meet the Lord. First the righteous dead, then us. And we’ll be with God forever from then on. It’s a message of encouragement. That was over two thousand years ago.
But I’m more interested in how people live after Easter. Emotionally speaking, for the disciples Easter weekend had all the charm of terminal cancer followed by a massive heart attack. And then, just when numbness turned to mourning and they could not finish any sentence that began, “Let’s ask the Lord . . .”, just then they were thrown into a new world where the air was so crisp and clean they were left gasping and their views of reality clearly had to be reverse-engineered.
The death and bodily resurrection of the one you love most in the world pretty much runs you through the gamut from fear to tears to awe and then tears again.
The reason this matters is that we see the disciples having time to get to know the post-resurrection Jesus. There was the report, duly discounted, by the women who met him at the tomb. There was the encounter by two disciples with the stranger on the road to Emmaus. Then his appearance in the locked upper room. Then later, meeting him on the beach in the early morning, after a long night of futile fishing. There was time, in other words, to remind yourself that everything about your life had changed because the Lord had risen from death. And he was right here, in the flesh.
For us, it’s different. Come Monday morning, we’re staring at the computer screen between meetings and wondering when our parents will get their COVID shots. The joy of Easter morning has faded and we’re feeling like the whole thing might have been a sacred ritual that has lost its meaning. Or even a beautiful, dark, tragic illusion. How do we live forward in the reality of a future two thousand years in the past?
The resurrection of our lives here and now does not lift us out of the daily grind or magically thwart all pain and disease. We won’t live in a bubble henceforth that reroutes hurricanes or turns floods aside. Those things may still happen to us; what matters is what we perceive and how we respond to the grit and the blows.
Let’s set aside the practical mechanics of bodily resurrection after death. God knows, whatever such resurrection is, molecular biology and neurophysiology won’t penetrate the mystery. If that is what’s ultimately preventing our trust in God it would be better to pluck out that eye than to continue blind to all that transcends the empirical.
What, then, is resurrection? Given our skepticism and our fear of being scammed, how do we recognize resurrection after Easter? Because there is no resurrection without a crucifixion, those who are daily resurrected are well acquainted with crucifixion. And if, like St. Paul, we find ourselves dying daily we are yet assured of a daily resurrection.
It may come to us quietly and without warning. Like much of our experience with God, we’ll be a step behind in recognizing the green shoots of new growth in our lives.
When we have burned our bridges before we get to them, and yet find in the destruction the soft breeze of forgiveness, that is resurrection. When we have focused all our efforts to achieve a goal and still have fallen short, but a wider range of possibilities opens to us, that is resurrection. When an artist tries to create a thing of beauty and cannot translate the image in her head to the canvas before her, she feels a failure. But then a new courage arises in her from somewhere and the old inhibitions fall away. She wields her brush with confidence and the image emerges. That’s resurrection. When a person has agonized about the forced options he is faced with and then inexplicably finds peace no matter the outcome, that is resurrection.
Resurrection in this life raises us above our fears and creates in us channels of goodness to others. When Jesus cries out that “streams of living water” will flow out from those who trust him, that is resurrection in action. When he promises us life and that more abundantly, that is resurrection in defiance of crucifixion.
Lent leads us prayerfully through a thoughtful self-examination up to Easter. And Easter gathers up the shards of brokenness that result and points us toward a new wholeness. It’s not dependent on whether we summit the emotional peaks, but on how we traverse the valleys below. “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.”
On Easter morning the women make their way through the streets before dawn. They are going to the tomb to do for Christ’s body what could not be done in the haste to get him down from the cross. Even though they have no way to roll the stone away, they trust that something will work out, that someone will help them. They know that doing so will put them in danger. But they go ahead. Respect, courage, love—all those combine to compel them forward. Resurrection has already begun in their hearts, although they have no name for it yet.
Williams, H. A. The True Wilderness. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1965, p. 12 ↩
”Thereupon the Spirit sent him away into the wilderness, and there he remained for forty days tempted by Satan.”— Mark 1:12
He is driven into the wilderness. He is thrown into the vast distances of the desert. What was Jesus’ head telling him while the eyes of his soul cast about for any sign of his Father’s presence? Could he still hear God’s voice cascading down on him like summer rain, like the water John poured over him before he went under?
He is the beloved son of the Father. If by this time Joseph was dead, Jesus’ claim on God as his father — an extraordinary, mystical embrace that had begun when he was a child — is now complete.
The muddy Jordan is a warm stream; he rises from its waters as if from birth. He’s feeling his way along, unsure of what is next, but restless to be doing, to bring forth in some language he has yet to learn the conviction that is growing within him — that the kingdom of God is here and he will bring it to vivid reality.
Mark’s comment has the bleak clarity of a tree in winter: “He was among the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” The elements of this scene are few. Jesus is in the wilderness with the Spirit, with Satan, with wild beasts, and with the angels — all of them at the same time.
He is in the wilderness for forty days, but this is New Testament shorthand for a very long time. Truth is, we don’t know how long this wilderness experience lasted. It doesn’t seem to be Mark’s point anyway. He offers up the whole scenario with just enough detail to fire the imagination.
But why now? Why, after the glory of heaven’s affirmation, is Jesus thrown to the wild beasts and the towering silence of the desert? Couldn’t he be allowed to bask, if only for a little while, in the warmth of that love? Will it be enough to get him through this ordeal?
We can view the timing of this experience in different ways. Some Christians will see the desert after the river as a necessary come-down, a way of keeping Jesus from getting above himself. In this scenario, the loving affirmation of God is followed by trials that keep Jesus from pride, keep him tethered to God and passive. He will need to crawl before he walks.
We often hear something like this in the wake of a personal tragedy. This is the ‘Olympic Marathon’ approach to the trials that scourge us. The heavier the burden, the deeper the pit, the more God’s confidence in us will be seen they say. Try to see it as a backhanded compliment on how much suffering we can bear. Or so well-meaning people say.
The reality is that we are dropped in the wilderness, far removed from God. Far enough away that shock turns to guilt and then despair as we scrabble through our conscience to find the grievous sin that brought this on. But that is not how God acts.
There is another angle. Matthew and Luke fill out the story they borrow from Mark by picturing the three classic confrontations between Satan and Jesus: the hunger of great bodily need; the lure of suicide disguised as a false form of faith; and a naked play for enormous power. The trials and temptations that Jesus faces are those which harrow each of us to one degree or another. It is typical of us to see our limitations in stark outline and to desperately grasp at power offered, no matter the price. What Jesus goes through is a primer for meditation on the perversion of our bodily needs, our need to be recognized, and our need for agency.
Jesus is us in his full humanity.
Why now? Because to announce good news to the poor, to proclaim release for prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, Jesus needs to learn how to pray.
This is more than the saying of prayers in the synagogue along with everyone else. It is more than the prayers that open and close each day. It is more than the gratitude expressed for food and home and the necessities of life.
It is the discovery of his true self.
Call it prayer, call it meditation — this is how Jesus guts it out in the face of evil. To truly know himself and to understand who God is for him, he opens the door to all his fears and temptations. Meeting them — not denying them — is part of his combat training.
He comes to terms with the taunts he has faced all his life and the faces that go with them. He admits into his consciousness the dreams and fantasies he has buried. He shatters the idols of God that have distorted God’s justice into capricious judgment. He unlearns the harmful perceptions of God he has unconsciously collected all his life. All this takes time and effort.
This is how God loves him and the Spirit guides him. This is how he will meet his true self. And when he is cursed by the religious authorities, mocked by his family, harangued by the demons, and deserted by his best friends, he will reach back into himself for that assurance.
This journey into himself through prayer is the source of his exceptional imagination. We see it in his penetrating and sometimes enigmatic parables. He makes connections between phrases of scripture, the chance remarks he’s puzzled over, the stories he’s grown up with, for now he sees them in a new light.
When he later says, ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock,’ he speaks from experience. Through prayer, he has knocked at the door of his deepest self and entered in. Like the woman in the parable scouring her house for the lost coin, there is no part of himself he has overlooked or ignored.
So, when the devil comes to the end of all his temptations and departs, “biding his time,” as Luke puts it, Jesus is ready. Armed with the Spirit, he sets out for Galilee to begin the revolution of liberation and healing.
And what has this to do with us? We find ourselves in a desert place, famished and weary and surrounded by wild beasts. We don’t know how to pray, we can be knocked over by a feather when tempted, and we don’t see any angels around us.
When our spirit responds to the Spirit, when we open up to all that God promises, we feel ourselves to be children of God. If, after that, we feel let down, angry, disappointed, it is not unusual and it doesn’t mean we’re no longer within God’s embrace. It simply means that parts of ourselves are still living in fear of God. We may have a smile on our lips while our fists are still clenched. We are in judgement of ourselves, resisting the forgiveness of the Spirit that enlivens our hearts of stone.
To us Jesus says, “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”
The Spirit lifts us, sets us on our feet, and lightens the path before us. It’s a path through time, our forty days or forty years.
“Among men, who knows what a man is but the man’s own spirit within him? In the same way, only the Spirit of God knows what God is.” — 1 Cor 2:11 NEB
For several weeks in the long, dark, waiting room of this election year, I immersed myself in the British television drama, “Call the Midwife.” Obsessed as I was with the campaign season, impatient to reach the due date of November 4, apprehensive of the rough beasts slouching toward Bethlehem, I found some solace in the wonder and awe of childbirth as practiced in the East End of London in the 1950s.
The sisters and the nurses of Nonnatus House carry out their mission with good humor and courage. Always on call, they swoop down the narrow streets on their bicycles at all hours, clutching their birthing kits to them and dashing up narrow stairs to bedrooms reeking of sweat and pain.
The fathers pace outside. If they are young and it’s their first child, they run their hands through their hair and chain-smoke. If they already have five or six, they leave it to the midwives and await the news down at the pub.
Every episode ushers several babies into the world. The mothers are vulnerable and young, brimming with hope and terrified. The older women, the ones who have been through this too many times, bear down grimly. For them, the awe and mystery are long gone. They’re pacing themselves to go through the wall ahead while they’ve still got breath to scream. But all of them, mothers and midwives, rejoice when the babies are born, bloody, squalling, and beautiful.
It’s entirely natural to gape in astonishment at these creatures. When my son was born, he emerged gray and slick; in that moment I knew he was dead. But then in seconds—hours, it seemed—his robust cry transfixed me. He blossomed pink, then red. Then Love crashed in, a tsunami of feeling that narrowed my vision to a single point. Reason, control, diffidence — all was dwarfed by this mighty rock of love, solid and sudden, in my soul’s desert.
I had not known what to feel or how. Through circumstances and geography I had been raised as an only child by my grandparents. While I certainly did not want for love and all my needs were cared for, the absence of my father left me with an inner coldness that I feared. I had marked this day with dread and hope. Dread, because I did not feel capable of loving a child in the way he or she deserved. And hope, foolish or not, that I might somehow be saved through this experience.
It wasn’t that I was socially withdrawn or reclusive. I had friends, good friends, the kind that were as close as brothers or sisters, but without the competition for affection or the resentment that sometimes results from one’s birth order. It was rather that I had a stillness within, an impassivity as of a house intact but abandoned. It felt as if I had walled something up inside myself, as much to protect something within as to keep some unnamed terror without.
Years later, through a counselor, I was given a clue to a possible cause. He recommended John Bowlby’s book, Separation, which reported the effects on children who were sent to homes in the countryside from London and other cities to escape the nightly bombings during the Second World War. When finally, they were returned to their mothers after a long absence, they often refused any contact and turned away, silent and despairing. Bowlby believed that problems in the adulthood of these children could be traced back to this early separation.
My mother left when I was nine months old. My father, now alone, desperately needed to give me a stable home, so a succession of friends cared for me until his parents took me in when I was three. I don’t know if this explains my reticence entirely. We are woven of many strands, not all of them identifiable and no one of them strong enough to account for who we are. We make it up as we go and later, if we’re fortunate, we may see there was a pattern to our steps.
I grew up, blessed in ways I only later acknowledged. It was always the case that I would go to college; that was never in doubt. It was expected that I would work for the church in some capacity, either as a pastor, a writer, or as a teacher. It was assumed I would have a personal relationship with Christ, the inevitable outcome of the sermons I’d heard, the Bible classes I’d attended, the religious instruction I’d received for baptism.
It was taken for granted that I would fall in love. Which I did, several times, hardly knowing more than how desperately I wanted to give love, yet feeling how little I had to offer.
In the Advent season we live in expectation of change. We live in hope. We are pregnant with it. However else we may imagine God throughout the year, this is the time we think of God as an infant. God, born “on a Christmas morning.” God, whose coming as a baby transforms the world, one possibility at a time.
We call it the Incarnation, when Spirit becomes flesh, and we build a creche to house the Baby Jesus. We spot the birth of the Lord in a stable out behind an inn, nestled among the patient donkey, the lowing cattle, a rooster or two and a dog.
As an historical event, we know very little about his birth really. It was probably in 4 C.E., most likely at Nazareth, a backwater town in a province of the Empire notable mostly for its volatile populace and its strange apocalyptic urges. His birth was foretold, as later writers believed. It was somehow written in the stars, as some Persian astrologers divined. It was a threat to the local ruler’s corrupt regime, and it was the trigger to the massacre of male babies under the age of two within a precinct.
The birth itself was unremarkable, similar to the millions before it and the billions that would follow. There was pain and blood and relief and joy. But what makes God so perfectly real, so thoroughly human, so ultimately thisworldly, such that we are drawn near year after year, is that in some mysterious way this infant is the embodiment of the Divine.
In the epigram, Paul says we know ourselves as God is self-known. If that seems a stretch, the possibility of Christmas is that the Incarnation brings us in love to the Christ-child, mirrored now in every vulnerable birth of every baby born, and in so doing, as Paul says, we come to “possess the mind of Christ” and thus to know ourselves as we are known by God (1 Cor 2: 16 NEB).
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.
Williams, Rowan. A Ray of Darkness. Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1995, p. 149. ↩
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.
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
Wiesel, Elie. Quoted in Brueggemann, Walter. Spirituality of the Psalms. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2002, p. xiv. ↩
Vendler, Helen. The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2015, p. 16. ↩
Lewis, C. S. Reflections on the Psalms. San Francisco: HarperCollins EPub edition 2017, p. 32. ↩
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. ↩
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.
“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.
Kundera, Milan. The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts. Translated from the French by Linda Asher. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005, p. 113. ↩
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. ↩