You Must Be Joking

Photo: Loren Joseph, Unsplash.com

”Once we realize that Christ was not always engaged in pious talk, we have made an enormous step on the road to understanding.” — Elton Trueblood

Jesus is teaching in a synagogue one Sabbath and sees a woman bent over with a crippling disease. Naturally, he calls her up to the front to heal her and, inevitably, the president of the synagogue snorts in disgust: “There are six working-days: come and be cured on one of them, and not on the Sabbath.” Make an appointment, lady. But Jesus rounds on the leader and the congregation. You hypocrites! he says, heatedly. You’ll feed and water your donkeys and oxen on the Sabbath, but you’re upset when I heal a daughter of Abraham, bound this way for eighteen years? Really? “At these words all his opponents were covered with confusion, while the mass of the people were delighted at all the wonderful things he was doing (Luke 13:10-17, NEB).”

Allowing for humor in Jesus’ words does not undercut the seriousness with which he addresses our fears and doubts. In fact, in his use of exaggeration, irony and paradox, he underscores his unfailing purpose to reach us, despite our tunnel vision and our sometimes humorless rigidity.

The presumption that one’s salvation is deadly serious, with no need or possibility for humor, is so engrained in the Christian psyche that the suggestion of an alternative is almost blasphemous. Yet, in an age in which churches compete for brand recognition, and Christ is a buddy, and worshippers in the pew recruit their prayer-warrior friends, humor about our condition as homo religiosus is essential.

Somehow, we’ve concluded that everything attributed to Jesus must be taken at face value, with no nuances, shades of meaning or inflections. Any recorded dialogue loses a lot in translation; all the nonverbal cues such as gestures and facial expressions fall away, and we have only the culturally conditioned meaning of the words as translated. We don’t see the raised eyebrow, the faint grin at the corners of the mouth, the glint in the eye, or the expressiveness of the hands. We miss the inflections in the voice, the emphasis on certain words—“But I tell you”—even the pauses for effect in the timing of a skilled speaker.

Elton Trueblood’s little book, The Humour of Christ, notes that this characteristic of Christ is little remarked upon by theologians and Biblical interpreters. “Full recognition of Christ’s humor has been surprisingly rare,” he says.1 Most of the nineteenth-century writers of the lives of Christ paid no attention to his humor, portraying him as serious from dawn to dusk, his every word portentous and grave. What little we know of the personality of Jesus comes through his interactions with his disciples, with those he healed, and in his confrontations with religious authorities. His parables, his dialogues, his arguments, all give us some idea of what it would have been like to be his friend, but again we’re overawed by the two thousand centuries of Jesusology that sacrifices imaginative intimacy for sovereign power.

Basic communication theory tells us that it takes two to dialogue, that most of what we remember from an encounter with another person is nonverbal and visual, and that much can be understood of that person by attention to how his message is delivered. We do not see the wit and humor of Jesus because we aren’t attuned to it and we find another explanation for it when we can’t avoid it.

Some of the sayings of Jesus and the parables he tells are, in the best of lights, more than startling. I have begun to look more closely at them as statements of exaggeration and paradox, irony and wit. Once you allow for the possibility that Jesus had a sense of humor, and that he was a master rhetorician, using all the tools available to him in persuasion and argument, some of these statements begin to make more sense.

Trueblood asserts that, “Of all the mistakes which we make in regard to the humor of Christ, perhaps the worst mistake is our failure, or our unwillingness, to recognize that Christ used deliberately preposterous statements to get His point across (Trueblood 44-45).” Jesus stuns his disciples and those standing around by proclaiming, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:25).” Because they take him literally and because being rich was equated with being blessed by God, the disciples are astonished. “Then who can be saved?” they ask, looking in bewilderment at one another. Mark adds this telling detail: “Jesus looked them in the face,”— “and said, ‘For men it is impossible, but not for God; to God everything is possible (Mark 10:27, NEB).”

Jesus states this categorically, with no qualifiers, right after the story of a rich man who turns away in regret because he cannot divest himself of all his wealth. With a straight face he gives us this exaggerated image to emphasize the difficulty involved. The humor is in the size of this image, the outrageousness of trying to jam a camel (one hump or two?) through such a tiny opening. All these centuries later it still resounds in eye and ear and imagination, whereas a long discourse on wealth distribution would glaze the eyes of the most ardent disciple. Yet, some commentators have made the torturous claim that Jesus was referring to a gate in the Jerusalem wall so narrow and low that a camel without its load could squeeze through only if the poor creature got down on its knees and scrabbled its way forward. Like that would ever happen. Like any camel owner would be so foolish as to try.

“What we require, for Christ’s kind of humor,” says Trueblood, “are two ingredients, surprise and inevitability. There is a connection which we do not expect, but which, nevertheless, seems absolutely valid when once it is presented (Trueblood 48).”

Don’t throw pearls to swine, Jesus advises his disciples. Some people are impervious to the truth. The delightful absurdity of this action—who would do such a thing?—makes the point with a smile and a laugh that softens the imperative not to waste one’s time with the stubbornly obtuse.

Paradox is at the heart of humor. Kierkegaard understood that where there is life there is paradox, but he also knew that where there is paradox, there is humor. A paradox is a contradiction with a secret affinity for connection. When we see the connection, despite the contradiction, there is the laughter of surprise and delight. Who knew?

Don’t imagine that I’m trying to get rid of the Law and the prophets, says Jesus. “I tell you, unless you show yourselves far better men than the Pharisees and doctors of the law, you can never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5: 18, 20, NEB).” Maybe that’s a low bar to clear from the distance of two thousand years, but for his audience it must have seemed a feat of Olympic proportions.

Hypocrisy is the besetting sin of human beings, especially of those who claim to be pure, and Jesus takes aim at the hypocrisy of the priests and Pharisees. The rigidity of the Pharisees was cause for laughter among the common people, who could puncture pomposity from thirty yards with a singular barb of humor. Yet, even at his most scathing, Jesus’ wit is meant to be cleansing, a catharsis that can lead to redemption if we can see ourselves as we are and laugh about it.

Most often Jesus employs irony, “a holding up to public view of either vice or folly, but without a note of bitterness or the attempt to harm (Trueblood 53).” Irony, thanks to Socrates, is deeply embedded in our Western way of thinking. When Jesus uses it to get at the truth in an indirect way, its effect is immediate. “Can grapes be picked from briars,” he asks, “or figs from thistles (Matt. 7:16, NEB)?” The question answers itself in our response.

Listen, says Jesus, when you do something good for someone, be quiet about it, and “do not announce it with a flourish of trumpets.” Don’t be tooting your own horn “as the hypocrites do in synagogue and in the streets.” And then the sly touch of irony: “I tell you this: they have their reward already (Matt. 6:2,3 NEB).” Status isn’t hard to come by; there are always people around who are impressed by braggarts. But that’s all the reward they’re going to get—and it’s fleeting and ephemeral.

But for sheer chutzpah, it’s hard to beat the story of the Unjust Steward in Luke 16. Luke is the only Synoptic writer who uses the story, probably derived from a source Matthew did not have access to. Or maybe Matthew skipped it just to be on the safe side.

The story concerns a foreman or steward who is in charge of running his master’s business concerns. When he cooks the books to hide his own unethical practices and the master calls him on it, he fears he’ll soon be spending more time with his family, so he does a two-for-one ingratiating act to get himself off the hook with his boss and to cultivate the goodwill of the debtors. When they come to pay up, he offers them a discount and a quick payment, no questions asked. Some is better than none, he reasons.

“And the master applauded the dishonest bailiff for acting so astutely. For the worldly are more astute than the other-worldly in dealing with their own kind (Luke 16:8, NEB).”

Who do we identify with here? The master is no shining city on a hill, the steward is, well, we know what he’s like, and the debtors lurch toward compromise. Is the master supposed to be God? Is Jesus the steward? Are we supposed to be the steward?

It’s true that all the players in this story are “men of the world.” They’re not evil, twisted characters, they just have ethical Alzheimer’s disease, an inability to recognize moral precepts and responsibilities and to act on them with will. If you called them on it, they’d be shocked that you’d raised a fuss. The advantage was theirs for the taking. “That makes me smart,” they’d say. “And that makes you a loser.”

Christ seems to be saying that if you’re going all in on this, don’t be half-hearted. “Sin boldly,” to echo Luther. The way to get respect from the grifter set is to steal the whole bank, not just rob from the bank, to use Trueblood’s metaphor. Not only that, such behavior will be rewarded! “I say to you, use your worldly wealth to win friends for yourselves, so that . . . you may be received into an eternal home (Luke 16:9).”

All of this would be unconscionable except Jesus segues directly into verses diametrically opposed to this narrative banter. If you’ve been untrustworthy with other people’s money, you can’t be trusted to handle your own, he says. “You cannot serve God and Money (Luke 16:13, NEB).”

What are we to make of this? This is unequivocal, whereas the story is all about compromise. A story this extreme with a punchline that definitive can only be seen as a vivid lesson in moral integrity. Interpreters pretzel themselves trying to assign roles for each character in the narrative. But the only hypothesis that makes sense is that Jesus used the shock value of unscrupulous behavior to make an unforgettable point: Our moral (or immoral) behavior shapes our character and our character determines our behavior. Therefore, be faithful in the small matters so you can be trusted in the large ones.

Jesus’ humor is not only seen in his public dialogues; it comes through in his private conversations with his disciples. Up in the region of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asks his disciples who people think he is. And Simon, suddenly grasping the truth, blurts out, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Got it in one! says Jesus. That was revealed to you by my heavenly Father (Matt 16:13-16, NEB).

And then Jesus weaves a most delicious—and tender—irony: “You are Peter, the Rock,” he says triumphantly. The most mercurial, the most impetuous of the disciples is now Rocky, the one stable enough to anchor the community of the future, the one most to be trusted. Five minutes later, Jesus turns on him and calls him Satan. You’re a stumbling-block, he argues, for thinking like a man rather than like God. The camaraderie between them survives this whiplash. But Simon did become a rock, and in years to come, although he was bound and led where he did not want to go, as Jesus had prophesied, he went with courage, faithful to the end.

Ironically, the man rose to meet the nickname. The truth, rightly divined, gave the freedom to evolve.

  1. Trueblood, Elton. The Humour of Christ. London: Dartman, 1963, 23.

If You Were Here Today

”My brothers, think what sort of people you are, whom God has called. Few of you are men of wisdom, by any human standard; few are powerful or highly born. Yet, to shame the wise, God has chosen what the world counts weakness. . . Mere nothings, to overthrow the existing order.” — I Cor 1: 26–28

Photo: Danka Peter, Unsplash

I have come lately to the writings of Joseph Mitchell, a name many of a previous generation would instantly recognize with warmth, but for most of us today, is a poignant discovery. I found him through Michael Dirda’s wonderful book, Bound to Please (2005), a compendium of 109 essays on books that Dirda, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book reviewer for The Washington Post, loves and recommends, from Herodotus to Kingsley Amis, with lists of books in specific genres following.

Whenever I feel that my literary education is lacking, and I want a conversational voice to lead me willingly into the company of the great, I pick up one of Dirda’s several paens to books and reading and I settle down. That’s how I found Joseph Mitchell, who started in the journalism business in 1929, coming out of North Carolina at the age of twenty-one, just as the Great Depression smacked everybody down. He quickly became a lead reporter in New York City for such long-gone papers as the Morning World, The Herald Tribune, and The World-Telegram. He wrote about the Lindbergh kidnapping and interviewed Albert Einstein, Fats Waller, and Clara Bow. He covered all of New York, but felt most at home writing about the people of the Bowery, Times Square, Harlem, the Village, and the docks. He was famous enough that his portrait was on the side of newspaper delivery trucks.

In 1938 he went to work for The New Yorker and Harold Ross, who would become legendary as its long-time editor. Mitchell was stunningly prolific, writing as many as thirteen bylines in 1939. He kept up such a pace for several years, and in all wrote for the magazine for fifty-one years. His first book, Up in the Old Hotel, is a collection of narratives about some of the people whose lives he chronicled.

As David Remnick, the current editor of The New Yorker, says in his introduction, “there was no kitsch in his portraits. His subjects were not ‘characters’; his settings were not tourist destinations.”1 They were people whom Mitchell knew and respected, whose lives he detailed with an eye that did not miss a thing and a voice that was gentle, humorous, and almost courtly. Most of them were people cast aside, bobbing in the eddies left by the main stream, anonymous to all but their families and friends. If it were not for Mitchell’s observations, they would never have been heard from and their stories would have died with their lives.

The effect of Mitchell’s essays is to widen one’s interior vision and to enlarge one’s imaginative conversations with the unfamiliar, and sometimes disquieting people, at the edges. One of my favorite novelists, John Gardner, once told me to look past the lights to those in the shadows, the people who clear the tables after us, who work late and rise early, who toil quietly with a stubborn endurance that somehow gets them through. “That’s where the stories are,” Gardner said, “at the periphery, among the invisible people.”

The Gospels are full of such people. They haunt Jesus at every turn, thrusting children toward him for healing and for blessing. When they hear he is at the lakeside, they rush out, whole families of them, to hang on his words until the day grows dark. They see him as their last hope. The woman with internal hemorrhages desperately throws herself forward, and on her hands and knees stretches for the hem of his caftan as he is elbowed and buffeted by the crowd. It is enough. Jesus turns, feeling energy flow from him, and blesses her. A Canaanite woman from Lebanon, a stranger who is not welcome in Galilee, spars wittily with Jesus, who rebuffs her at first. She throws herself at his feet, begging his help for her daughter who is possessed by a devil. He tries to put her off. My mission, he snaps, is to my own people, not yours. It isn’t right to take food out of our children’s mouths and throw it to the dogs—an insult in any language. She will not be deterred: “True, sir,” she comes back, “yet the dogs eat the scraps that fall from their masters’ table.” And Jesus, jarred into a larger vision of his mission, turns to her in amazement: “Woman, what faith you have! Be it as you wish.”

Jesus sees his people, lost and bumbling, sheep without a shepherd, and he loves them. He had friends among the Pharisees, the educated and the respected, but he gives his time and his life to the ones who can never pay him back. Given a hard choice between following the social norms or healing someone thought to be undeserving, Jesus breaks the rules—a life over convention—every time.

It is that way with Paul too. Sometimes he flows between social classes like liquid, but other times he plants his feet and batters away at walls and locked doors. No divisions, no polarizations, he says firmly. Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, everybody is equal, and everybody has a place in the new order. God’s grace is there for everybody; you have to opt out not to receive it.

To the community at Corinth Paul writes a startling message: Not many of you are wise by the world’s standards. You’re not powerful or to the manor born. You don’t have connections in high places. He finishes with a rhetorical flourish, “Mere nothings, to overthrow the existing order.” And what was the existing order? The cult of emperor worship in the largest empire the world has known. In some circles, those words could get you dead.

Is this self-justification? Making the best of an unfortunate situation? Or is it an acknowledgement that we don’t have to have achieved anything to be called of God? That in our weakness there is strength, and that our very need releases God’s sustaining power?

People of faith have reached a nexus point these days. We can admit our falterings and our weaknesses. We don’t have to bluster and boast and preen about who we know, what we’ve done, and how much we’ve got. There’s less pretense and more realism about what we lack and what we owe. This is all to the good. Humility, like love, covers a multitude of sins, and it invites us to learn freely.

When it comes to spiritual things, few of us are brilliant or even ahead of the curve. We’re lucky if we can navigate the curve without being shot off into the underbrush. Those of us who are lifers in Christianity are particularly susceptible to spiritual smugness. Self-righteousness abounds and a casual cruelty toward those in the shadows is accepted and even encouraged. Truth be told, a lot of us who call ourselves Christians don’t much like the world or the beings in it. We are the reverse of Lucy in Peanuts, who shouts, “I like humanity, it’s people I can’t stand!” Bent as we are to find the black hole at the heart of humanity, we fulfill our own prophecies by provoking the very response we fear in ourselves.

When I read the Bible stories these days, I try to imagine my way into their times and lives. It also helps to keep the holiness of these Scriptures in the room, but in the far corner. Too much reverence blinds us to our human bonds to these people, despite the intervening centuries and the friction of cultures. And we need imagination, lots of it, to create some air between us and our obsessive need for facts. We forget these are stories which holy men of God were inspired to write, but not transcribe.

Sometimes the indirect way comes closest to truth. I read Joseph Mitchell on the bums and whores and dock workers of old New York and I hear a voice of humor and compassion. I read Kurt Vonnegut and Saul Bellow, and in their wry and sometimes despairing narratives I sense a deep and abiding undercurrent of love and admiration for the human race. Seamus Heaney, W. H. Auden, R. S. Thomas, and George Herbert—in varying degrees, but with consistency, these poets fly the flag of hope for humanity.

These authors and others help us see beyond the ramparts of our self-righteousness. They invite us down from our battlements to walk with them, to join the human race and work alongside them. In their songs of human weakness and hope, they shame the wise and humble the arrogant. I hear the music of Jesus and Paul and John and Peter in their hymns.

Mere nothings, to overthrow the existing order.

  1. Mitchell, Joseph. Up in the Old Hotel. New York: Vintage Books, 2008, xi.

One Love

”By his grace and help therefore let us in spirit stand and gaze, eternally marveling at the supreme, surpassing, singleminded, incalculable love that God, who is goodness, has for us.” — Julian of Norwich

On the eighth of May, in the year of our Lord 1373—the third Sunday after Easter—a thirty year-old woman, known to us as Julian of Norwich, received sixteen “shewings” or revelations, which she later acknowledged were visions from God. Near the beginning of that month she had fallen to an illness, the nature of which was not known. After a week in which her condition worsened and she was thought to be dying, a parish priest was called to administer the last rites. At the conclusion, as he was leaving, he placed a crucifix before her and bid her look upon the face of her Savior for comfort. In the next hours, as she prepared herself for death, the showings were revealed to her in rapid succession.

The first fifteen came to her the morning after the visit of the priest, starting at four a.m. and finishing at nine. The last one, the sixteenth, occurred later that night, concluding and affirming the previous ones. Much to her surprise, and that of her family and friends, she recovered. The meaning of the visions occupied her for the remainder of her long life.

There resulted two written versions of the revelations, the first and shorter version inscribed soon after she recovered, and the longer version some twenty years later, the result of much meditation in the intervening years. Although the later, longer version may naturally contain some embellishment on the original visions, both are considered authentic by the Church. She called herself “an unlettered person,” a deprecatory statement that testifies to her humility, but is refuted by “the sheer integrity of Julian’s reasoning, the precision of her theology, the depth of her insight, and the simplicity with which she expounds profound truths.”1

So little is known of her life that what we learn of her character and background must be gleaned from the writings themselves. Based on allusions and hints in the text, biographers have tried to put together a plausible story that takes into account the context of her times.

In 1332, ten years before her birth, the bubonic plague—the Black Death—originated in India, making its way westward by 1347 to devastate Europe. Geoffrey Chaucer was born in 1340, two years before Julian, the same year that Queen’s College was founded at Oxford. In 1349 the Black Death arrived to kill off a third of the population of England. By 1350 Salisbury Cathedral was completed, and in 1352 Corpus Christi College, Oxford, was founded.

In 1361 the Black Death reappeared in England for the second time, devastating Julian’s home city of Norwich, this time striking down infants and small children. Julian would have been nineteen at the time. Her memories of the first plague during her childhood may have been diffuse but unforgettable. In the second wave she was nineteen, married and probably the mother of at least one child, a child who quite possibly was also one of the victims.

Although she does not mention specific personal losses in her writings, she does reflect on the travail and sadness she experienced. There was a time, she writes, “when I had a great longing and desire of God’s gift to be delivered of this world and of this life. For oft times I beheld the woe that is here and the wellness and blessed being that is there . . . This made me to mourn and earnestly to long—and also my own wretchedness and sloth and weariness—that I did not want to live and to travail as it fell to me to do.”2

Plagues and wars were regarded as God’s punishment in Julian’s time, although human sin was the weakness that brought on the devastation. A single sinner could bring down the wrath of heaven on a community. It is the state of our sufferings here that weighs upon her in her solitude. Like anyone else, the presence of evil and suffering seems to her disproportionate to our culpability.

Her biographers and translators (she wrote an early form of English that can be difficult to read) are quick to affirm that in matters theological she followed the Church’s teachings without question—with two important exceptions. She did not accept that God could be wrathful and she did not believe that humans were wholly evil. Augustine’s doctrine of original sin neither convinced her nor intimidated her. As for the wrath of God, she saw only love in all that God did.

Just as the whole of life is rooted and grounded in love, and just as we cannot even exist were it not for God’s love poured out on us, so Julian infers that it is impossible that God should be angry. “I could see no sort of anger in God, however long I looked,” she recounts. “Indeed, if God were to be angry but for a moment we could not live, endure, or be (Julian 138)!” The dread we feel when we sin is not from fear of God, but from our deep need for God’s forgiveness and grace to overcome our sense of separation. It is the fear of the runaway child who suddenly sees herself alone and longs for home and for her parents.

Various theories and conjectures have been put forward to explain her divergence on these matters. Insubordination does not factor here: she voluntarily submitted to the Church’s authority and teachings. Lack of knowledge? Hardly, since the doctrine of hellfire, purgatory, and eternal torment would have been part of every child’s upbringing in her time. One commentator suggests that despite the trauma of surviving two waves of the Black Death before she was twenty, she was the product of a loving, stable, and happy home. While Norwich was a consequential city, the fourth largest city in England at the time, she had been shielded from its ranker aspects and probably never traveled beyond its immediate countryside. Simply put, she had little continued exposure to the cruelties and vileness of human depravity. In her innocence she saw the beauty and worth of every person.

“There is a godly will in our higher part, which by its basic goodness never wills what is evil, but only what is good. This is the reason why he loves us, and why we can always do what pleases him,” she wrote (Julian 118).

In her work as an anchoress, a person who voluntarily withdraws from the larger world to pray for the world and to counsel others, she no doubt heard their woes, their pains, their grievances against others, and their spitefulness. But she steadfastly held the belief that there was a seed in every person—without exception—that was pure and undefiled and was the germination point for the Holy Spirit in that person’s life.

Yet, the very presence of evil and suffering troubled her. She returned to the subject time and again throughout the revelations. “Good Lord,” she writes, “how can everything be all right when such great hurt has come to your creatures through sin?” In an aside to her readers she confides, “I desired, as far as I dared, to have more information for my own peace of mind (Julian 106).”

The answer came to her in two parts. Of the first, concerning our salvation, there is no mystery. Everything we need to know, everything we are hungering to hear from God about forgiveness, grace, and love, is there for the taking. “In this our Lord intends us to be occupied: delighting in himself, as he delights in us (Julian 106).”

The other part may not satisfy us today, accustomed as we are to perceive mysteries as information we have not yet analyzed, collated, and distributed. “The other part is completely hidden from us,” she writes. “It is our Lord’s own private matter, and it is the royal prerogative of God to be undisturbed in that which is his own business (Julian 107).” If we really wanted to please God, she says, we would want only what is God’s will, and in this case it is God’s will that we should not know this just yet. In later passages she hints that the last great secret that God will reveal to his children will be how he has determined the final judgment.

Sin, Julian says, “has no substance or real existence. It can only be known by the pain it causes (Julian 104).” The pain passes quickly and works on us to purge us and make us self-aware; in that pain we turn to God for mercy. “Because of his tender love for all those who are to be saved our good Lord comforts us at once and sweetly, as if to say, ‘It is true that sin is the cause of all this pain; but it is all going to be all right; it is all going to be all right; everything is going to be all right (Julian 104).’ ”

The refrain that sings throughout the Revelations, from beginning to end, is that all will be well. We might think this to be a passing surge of emotion, but it remains at the core of her being after a lifetime of reflection on her extraordinary personal vision. She lived, as near as can be determined, well into her seventies, loved and admired by those drawn through need and circumstance into her circle, as acquainted with the sorrows and agonies of life as with the abiding assurance of God’s love.

***

Every once in awhile, perhaps when it is most needed, some person is lifted and held in the arms of God long enough that they return with God’s heartbeat pulsing through their veins. This has happened in diverse eras to reassure us that God has not left us orphaned. What catches our breath and quickens our spirits is that some of them return with gifts from that far country (as miraculously close as the light behind their eyes)—gifts of words and images that draw us up to God.

“With regard to the physical sight,” Julian states, “I have related what I have seen as truthfully as I can. For the words I have repeated them exactly as our Lord showed them me. About the spiritual sight I have already said a fair amount, but I can never describe it fully (Julian 191–2).”

What we can say runs behind what we can imagine. What we can imagine we can’t always say. Does our imagination outrun our language? Does our language constrict the limits of our imagination? Julian’s vision of God and of Jesus—she called him ‘Mother Jesus’—and of the Holy Spirit, transcended both her time and her Church.

The being of God is, in our present state, unknowable, but in the Word made flesh—in Jesus—we see all we need to know of God that we can bear. We sometimes turn away from this because we do not trust our experience. Julian herself at first could not believe her spiritual eyes: “On the very day that it happened, when the vision had passed, I—wretch that I am!—denied it, and said quite openly that I had raved (Julian 187).” But the Lord showed it all over again to her, in greater detail this time, and quietly said, “You know that was no raving that you saw today.” Take it, he said to her. Believe it, comfort yourself with it, live in it. “For his will is that we should continue to believe it to the end of our life, and remain in the fullness of this joy thereafter (Julian 188).”

All will be well.

  1. Julian of Norwich. Revelations of Divine Love. Translated into Modern English by Clifton Wolters. New York: Penguin Books, 1966, 29–30.
  2. Frykholm, Amy. Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2010, 24.

Glory Days

Paul is perhaps the greatest poet of personal religion . . . The first romantic poet in history.”1

Photo: Marius Christiansen, Unsplash

Those who set out to write The Great American Novel after Huckleberry Finn are doomed to failure, although the attempt has produced works worthy of admiration, and inevitably, emulation. Did Twain know he was writing literature that would not only have a shelf-life beyond his own mortality, but would stand as a story that continues to delight and enrage people to the present day? Did the artist known as Homer grasp that his Iliad and Odyssey would become the templates for war novels, road trip movies, and epics of war heroes returning home in disguise? Probably not, although in Dante’s case he was pretty matter of fact that his Divine Commedia was destined for greatness, and within his lifetime it was proven so.

We make our judgments about what is good-better-best when we have more than one thing to compare. We rely on our experience and, probably more than we should, on what experts tell us. We know what we like to read, what moves us and fills our heads with strange and huge ideas.

But when it comes to the Bible, particularly the New Testament, we rarely think of the beauty of the writing. We’re concerned for the authenticity of the voice and the orthodoxy of the theology. The irony is that none of the writers of the New Testament thought of themselves as theologians. They wrote what they saw and imagined and recalled within their communities as they were moved by the Spirit of God. That any of their narratives came together in the first place, particularly the Gospels, seems like something of a miracle in itself.

When we realize that post-resurrection believers of the Way, who lived and worked and worshipped together weekly, exchanging stories of ‘the Christ,” did so without any of the written texts that we know as the Gospels—did so for some forty years, an entire generation—it should give us pause as we dust off that paperback version of the New Testament which can be had for the price of a latte.

Editions of the Bible, niche-marketed more heavily than any other book in the world, may strike us as opportunistic (a “Souldiers Bible,” a Protestant version, was carried by Oliver Cromwell’s troops), the goal of Bible publishers being to spread the Word by any means necessary. Annual sales of the Bible top $425 million, with over 80,000 versions loose in the world today (Brandon Gaille.com). Zondervan alone has over 350 versions of the Bible in print, and in any given year over 20 million Bibles are sold in the United States. The average Christian owns at least nine versions of the Bible, nevertheless twelve percent of American Christians think that Noah was married to Joan of Arc.2

Thus, we idealize the Biblical authors in such ways that we don’t see them having a life apart from their writings. Amos is “among the shepherds of Tekoa” when he is gripped by God to prophesy. We don’t know how he felt about this disruption to his life. Given that the message he carried was of woe and darkness, it couldn’t have given him much comfort or ease among those with ears to hear. Was he a shepherd himself? We assume so, but we don’t know. Did he go back to sheepherding after his prophecies thundered out?

Maybe they came in spurts as he meditated on the hills with his flocks. Maybe he carried them in his head until such time as he could write them down—and how remarkable that he was literate. Did he exult at the excoriations of Israel’s neighbors and tremble at the judgements on Judah and Israel for their triple transgressions? When he was bashing the rich and indolent women of Bashan for their vanity and cruelty, did he imagine that thousands of years later we would read of them dragged out through their breached city walls by fishhooks through their noses and cheeks?

Isaiah—and then Second Isaiah and probably a Third Isaiah—are years apart as authors, their writings spliced by anonymous editors into some of the most beautiful, heartbreaking, jaw-dropping poems of grief, exultation, and glory in the Western canon. As Robert Alter notes in his magnum opus, the translation of The Hebrew Bible, “It is above all the vehicle of poetry in all these prophets that demands close attention . . . and it is perfectly fitting that God should address Israel not in prose, which is closer to the language of everyday human intercourse, but in the elevated and impressive diction of poetry.”3 Were they writing for the ages or for their own time?

We want to know their motivation for writing, the methods they used, whether the writing itself was a burden or a joy or something they saw as a holy duty. In contrast to the best-selling authors of our time, they functioned as conduits instead of celebrities in their own right. We infer their temperament and purpose from the broad strokes of their writings.

The author of Mark writes a hasty, breathless, and down-home form of Greek. It is a compressed narrative that Matthew and Luke expand, revise, and extend. Matthew’s constant citing of Hebrew prophecies and laws reveals Jesus as the fulfillment of centuries-old hopes. Luke begins his gospel with a personal salutation, but then drops into the background and stays there, even through his sequel in Acts, appearing obliquely as the companion of Paul. John offers some tantalizing hints about himself as “the disciple Jesus loved” and “this is the disciple who is testifying,” and then finally, in the last verse, emerges onto the stage himself to say, “I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” about his best friend.

But it is in Paul’s letters—all of them written in a fairly short span between the middle fifties and sixties before his execution, probably in CE 64—that we get a sense of a Biblical author in some detail. He can be, and probably was, an infuriating person. He certainly provoked enough animosity to be beaten, threatened by mobs, chased out of towns, and forced to flee for his life more than once.

That he was an extraordinary person is beyond question. Fluent in several languages, he was fueled from a passionate core that took him from being one zealous for God to the point of having a license to hunt down the people of the Way, to one equally zealous in the service of the risen Christ. The man who could roundly curse his opponents in Galatia by calling them “dogs” could also write a panegyric on love in First Corinthians 13 that has never been equalled.

There is no disputing that what we know as Christianity owes its existence in large measure to this indefatigable little man, small enough to be lowered in a basket over a city wall, who traveled thousands of miles, usually on foot, for some thirty years, establishing small communities of believers in cities throughout Asia Minor.

He remained a faithful Jew all his life, but one who had his spiritual and intellectual axis violently recalibrated by a vision of the risen Christ. For him, this crucified Jesus had breached the defenses of the principalities and powers of this dark world, and had brought heaven and earth together. God, through Jesus, had bridged the abyss between divine and human, reconciling the world to himself, and it was Paul’s honor to carry that message and to suffer with Christ.

There are few people like Paul. He was relentless in his purpose, unwearying in his efforts to build communities of people who would cease to live for themselves and instead be the hands of God in the world. Confident to a fault, he could yet call himself “chief among sinners,” and in his lowest moments wonder if he had wasted his life for no purpose.

In his second letter to the Corinthians he confides that “we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself (2 Cor. 1:8).” While God had rescued him from that peril, in the letter to the Philippians written from prison in Ephesus, he writes a poem about Jesus that could only have come from a man who had had time to explore doubt, fear, and the sure prospect of a violent death. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” he pleads, tracing the self-emptying of Christ who “became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5,8).”

Paul encourages his friends—and we may count ourselves in that select group—to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12,13).”

He never loses hope, not that he will escape suffering and eventual death, but that he will soon see Christ Jesus face to face and he will “know as he is known.”

This complex, irascible, brilliant man, who can thread the needle of the closest arguments, and yet pour out his heart unreservedly to whoever is drawn into his orbit, probably had personal contact with fewer than a thousand people in his lifetime who would, in time, be referred to as “Christians.” In the letters he wrote, letters that both dealt with the common frictions of diverse people living together and yet revealed the most glorious secrets of the living God, we find the preparation for the Gospels themselves, and the most compelling example of other people’s mail changing the world.

  1. A. N. Wilson, Paul: The Mind of the Apostle, 220, 221.
  2. Brandongaille.com
  3. Alter, Robert. The Hebrew Bible: Prophets, 618.

Into the Night

Photo: Vincent Chin, Unsplash

”Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. 1 Peter 4:8, NRSV

”You can take, if you will, your solace in heaven, but you must work out your ethics on earth.” Susan Neiman, Moral Clarity

In the events leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus, we have one of the greatest dramas in human history. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was hailed by hundreds, maybe thousands, as the decisive moment of triumph for their nationalistic hopes. There was Jesus’ show of righteous anger, as he drove out the money merchants from the temple to return it to the people as a house of prayer. The events of the last supper, the washing of the disciples feet, and the sorrowful walk to Gethsemane; Jesus’ hours-long prayer for comfort, relief, courage, and faithfulness, interrupted by the mob intent on capture—these are indelible impressions for our imaginations.

But the political and religious authorities who jockey for power during the hours before the crucifixion do so through the selling out of Jesus by Judas. It is a scene of almost unbearable pathos, as Judas steps brightly forward with a forced smile of bonhomie and kisses Jesus. The mob is tensed, as if facing an imminent threat. Jesus is calm, almost bemused by the scene. I was in the temple every day, he says, and you could have taken me then. So now you come, with weapons and torches at night?

Peter and Judas both betrayed Jesus. Both stories are there for us, because we’ve all been Peter betraying Jesus, and given other circumstances, we might have been Judas if it comes to that. What is the difference between Peter and Judas? Both of them betrayed Jesus. Both of them repented with tears and anguish. Only one of them survived. The gospels spend more time on Peter’s betrayal than on Judas’. Their mention of Judas is tight-lipped, with breath indrawn.

How might we think about Judas if we put aside our feelings? We would see him with Jesus for three years, working alongside the others, going out with them on their first missionary journey, returning to hear Jesus, exultant, say that he had witnessed Lucifer fall like a meteor from heaven. He had seen Jesus feed five thousand people, had been there for countless exorcisms and healings, he had heard all the parables and stories, taken in Jesus’ urgings and warnings, shared his weariness and his hunger on the road, and enjoyed the company of Jesus’ friends and patrons. Like the others, he had given up a lot to follow Jesus. In short, he had lived a parallel life with Jesus that converged at many points.

In a person for whom one’s capacity for evil has not been faced and acknowledged—the shadow side of the personality—a rejection by one’s parent as a child erupts in the adult as shame, guilt, and fear whenever that person comes into communion with another who accepts and loves him. Robert Stein, a Jungian psychologist, suggests that infantile aspects we usually grow out of because they could harm others, things like greed, brutality, and aggression, continue to contaminate the soul of such an individual as an adult. Such people provoke rejection by others while insisting on fully expressing their shadows. They want to be loved in spite of the inevitable punishment they experience. Only then will they feel they’ve experienced acceptance and love. Jesus’ refusal to retaliate must have shaken Judas to the core.

It’s worth considering the betrayal of Jesus by Judas. For one thing, it is so much a part of the tableau leading to the crucifixion that we think of it as a necessary step to our salvation. Nobody wants to be cursed for all history, but Judas makes his decision to accelerate the fate of Jesus, and then is swept backward by the rush of events. In a matter of hours, he becomes the eternal asterisk to the trial of Jesus. Once he has served the ends of the authorities, he is of no further use to them. His dramatic throwing down of the blood money he’d received is regarded with sneers. Judas becomes the poster man of snitches and traitors, despised by those to whom he offered his services, hated by those he turned on, cursed by all—except Jesus.

Perhaps the most tragic aspect is that Judas’ actions might have been unnecessary in the course of events. The temple police knew who Jesus was, and they had to know he spent most nights he was in Jerusalem at the Gethsemane Garden. They would have found him, even without Judas. Their designs to capture Jesus at night were merely tactical: they wished to avoid a popular uprising if they apprehended him in the temple. Judas’ offer was convenient, and thirty pieces of silver was a small price to pay if they could claim that his own disciple delivered him up, turned him over as a threat and a public menace.

Some biblical commentators have conjectured that Jesus’ band included at least one member of the Zealot party—Simon—and that Judas himself might have held zealot sympathies. Judas’ own agenda may have included forcing Jesus’ hand to declare the revolution and get on with his messianic mission. In that case, Judas could have rationalized that he was only providing the opportunity for Jesus to assert himself. When the police closed in and led Jesus away, Judas must have been both bewildered and stricken.

***

Judas turned Jesus in, Peter turned him away. What Judas did could only happen once. What Peter did happens every day. Judas repented in horror and bitter tears, but he could not bring himself to believe that forgiveness could ever be his. The only relief from the suffocating blackness of guilt was suicide. Peter repented, too, in horror and bitter tears. Like Judas, he rushed out into the night to weep his heart out under the stars.

What saved Peter, but could not save Judas, was Peter’s utter guilelessness. He was not capable of subterfuge or even strategizing for gain, either his own or for the ultimate vindication of Jesus as Messiah. He wore his heart upon his sleeve for all the world to see, including Jesus. When he repented, he went all in. Just hours before his betrayal Peter had balked at Jesus kneeling to wash his feet. This is not what the Messiah should be doing. If I don’t, said Jesus, we are not in fellowship. “Then, Lord,” cried Peter, “not my feet only; wash my hands and head as well!”

Jesus had built his church upon a rock whose best qualification for the position was finally his unreserved humility.

Yet, Peter was also the walking definition of enthusiasm, the Greek derivation of which means to be caught up ‘in God.’ Only the truly humble are capable of such enthusiasm because on some level they have willed the removal of any obstacle to the Spirit. For the rest of us, this will be our deepest aspiration, the intention of which is just the beginning of our resurrected life.

***

I have a friend who worked his way through seminary by working for and living in a mortuary. He helped officiate at the funerals and his wife did the hair and makeup of the deceased. Their little boy, four years old, often accompanied his father out to the cemetery. One day, looking at the mounded earth of a grave, Jake wondered aloud, “Dad, when Satan dies, will God put flowers on his grave?”

At the end of all wars, even the one that has defined the history of this Earth and its solar system, we can imagine just such a moment when the Lord of all mourns the tragic trajectory of Lucifer, the bright morning star, for whom humility, forgiveness, and love was a bitterness that pride could not bear.

Not For This Life Only

Photo: Eberhard Grossgasteiger, Unsplash

If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. — I Corinthians 15:19, NRSV

Pity is only as good as our capacity to rise above it. It’s a natural response for most of us to the suffering of others, and it can open the door to something longer lasting, say empathy or understanding. But by itself, pity doesn’t lift or restore us. It usually drops us in our own estimation.

We want hope now, in this life. We need it. The paradox here is that our hopes for the future churn up our present and make us restless for a present that opens up the future. Most of us do not live in the present, despite the wisdom of the ages and the sages among us. We live with one foot in the past and we lean into the future, while the present is what happens to us as we stretch between the two. Somehow, we make it work.

We’re not even sure what the dimensions of the present are. It depends on the context. If we’re talking about the present in the historical flow of things, it could be this year and maybe part of last year, although so much seems to happen now in weeks and days that last year seems like an eternity gone.

Our own present flexes and stretches like an accordion. My present is that which is of interest and concern to me right now. The length and depth of the love I have within my family and friends, the books I’m reading, the words I am writing, the events I am reacting to. How I respond to Christ in this moment, how honest I am with myself or how I dodge the things that unnerve me.

We hear enough about living in the present from wise people in all ages and from all faiths in the world that we should pay more attention. Jesus asks us not to worry about the future because it has enough worries of its own. Paul suggests that we hold the past in memory and press on to the present. Both of them believe that God meets us in the present and promises us a future. God can’t change our past, but he can help us to live with it.

But Paul is writing to the Corinthians, people whose community together is shot full of incest, drunkenness, and fighting. They are learning as they go, trying to rely on each other and on this mysterious Spirit, not at all sure they can leave behind what defined them in their past. Maybe that makes it harder to live right in the present, seeing as how some lines of habit are burned into their relations with each other.

But there’s something else. The Christ that Paul has introduced the Corinthians to had been murdered by the Romans in a manner specifically designed to humiliate and terrify him and anyone who might have claimed to be his friend. State criminals like that were crucified and their bodies were thrown out on the ash heap, to be torn by dogs and left to the birds. This is not a person you want to claim as your god.

If the Corinthians only have hope in this life, Paul claims, they are most to be pitied, for the implication is that their god has played them for fools. Even pagan gods were immortal. And anyway, they wouldn’t be caught dead on a cross at the hands of inferior beings like us. More likely, they would rain down fire and plague until we cried out speechlessly.

The theme that Paul riffed on, the extended guitar solo, if you like, soaring on the music of the oral traditions of Jesus in his time, was the battle that Christ had waged with the angels and principalities and powers of the universe. That battle had been won when Jesus died; the worst they could do to him turned out to be the burning fuse that eventually blew their powers to kingdom come. Along the way, these powers found common cause with those who were so anxious to perfect the path to God that they crushed the spirit of those who sought to find their way.

“When the ‘religion of fear’ finds its way into the Christian church,” said Jurgen Moltmann in The Crucified God, “those who regard themselves as the most vigilant guardians of the faith do violence to faith and smother it.”

The violent bear it away, a la Flannery O’Connor.

“This pusillanimous faith,” continues Moltmann, “usually occurs in the form of an orthodoxy which feels threatened and is therefore more rigid than ever. It occurs wherever, in the face of the immorality of the present age, the gospel of creative love for the abandoned is replaced by the law of what is supposed to be Christian morality, and by penal law.”

The Corinthian Christians, along with all their bumbling relationships, were having a loss of confidence. Their neighbors and former confidants were trying to understand how anyone could fall for such a loser god. Because that man, Jesus, was crucified and he died, just as every Jew the Romans crucified died. The Romans scored 100 percent on the efficiency scale for all that. So if these Christians had put their trust in that man, they deserved to be pitied (when they weren’t being mocked) because a dead god was even less useful than a dead goat. Nobody could beat the Romans for mopping up all resistance and wiping out the political opposition.

They were efficient, but not effective: One man got through to the other side.

Oh, he died alright. But in some way that can’t fully be explained, after crucifixion and a hasty burial in a sealed tomb, he showed up in Galilee on the beach, he entered a locked room in Jerusalem filled with terrified disciples, and he hiked the seven miles to Emmaus with two of his friends and then vanished over dinner. Peter saw him, the twelve saw him, as did five hundred of his friends in Jerusalem, along with James, his brother, and his closest circle in Jerusalem. Lastly, in a weird kind of premature birth, he appeared to Paul who made that singular experience the balance point of his spiritual gyroscope for the rest of his life.

Paul’s message, the engine that kept him going over mountains, across seas, through the fires, in spite of whippings and chains, is that Christ, the one into whom all the fullness of God had been poured, the one who suffered a most humiliating death—that one had been raised from death to start human history up again with a new beginning.

As Clarence Jordan once said: “The crowning evidence that Jesus was alive was not a vacant grave but a spirit-filled fellowship. Not a rolled-away stone, but a carried-away church.”

Buddhism says if you are shot with an arrow, don’t get in a debate about the type of arrow, the composition of the arrow-head, and the trajectory that embedded it in you. Pull out the arrow.

We could argue for eternity how the resurrection could have happened, but without resolution. Because it isn’t verifiable by our usual standards of empirical measurement. It isn’t even comprehensible in a way that can be said without stuttering. What matters is the result of the message of the resurrection—a faith-filled community that infiltrated the world and stayed true, even unto death. That is power. The glory is still to come.

Cross Purposes

Photo: Josh Applegate, Unsplash

Salvation is a child and when it grows up it is crucified. Only he who can see power under weakness, the whole under the fragment, victory under defeat, glory under suffering, innocence under guilt, sanctity under sin, life under death can say: Mine eyes have seen thy salvation.—Paul Tillich, The New Being

When I was a child, I discovered that when I crossed my eyes I could see the world in very different ways. Instantly, my left eye invaded the territory of the right eye and the result was a disorienting Escher-like amalgam of images, as if Spock and Kirk had gotten their body parts reversed going through the transporter device. It was an ersatz Picasso-lens for budding cubists. Ignoring the taunts of older children that one day my eyes would stay crossed, I enjoyed these brief forays into alternate reality.

Standing on my head was another way to re-imagine the world. Although I couldn’t sustain the full, upright position for long, I could live for a few moments in a world with a limitless blue airiness underfoot beneath a ceiling of trees, streets, and buildings.

It’s good for us to see the world from odd angles from time to time. It reminds us that ours is just one of many viewpoints. And it gives us insight into primitive Christianity, which abounds with paradoxes and upside-down values.

Christianity often seems to be at cross purposes with standard operating procedures. In the Genesis story, creation is the high point, but after sin, everything is downhill from there, whereas with evolution everything begins with the humble one-celled organism and climbs to the top of the food chain, which is us. In the darkest, coldest month of the year, Christianity says the light came into the world. In the spring, when everything in nature is waking up and blooming, Christians celebrate a death.

“I am come that they might have life, and that more abundantly,” claims Jesus, but then he also proclaims the poor to be blessed. The Beatitudes are all about opposites. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are those of a gentle spirit; the world shall be theirs. Everywhere you look in the Gospels there are these cross-eyed, head-stand ways.

Don’t kill each other, says Jesus, but in the next breath he pushes it way back behind actions to intentions. Don’t nurse anger toward others, because anger nursed can then be weaned to murder. Without denying the front-facing commandment, Jesus goes back to the root of the outward action.

It’s easy for us to love those who love us—or at least to avoid conflict with most people. But what about those who get in our face? Jesus tells us to love our enemies and to pray for those who hate us. This is how God sees us as children of his family. After all, Jesus reminds us, God makes the sun to shine upon the good and the bad alike and sends rain for both the liars and the honest. You’re all in the family, he says. Do you think I’ll treat you unequally?

It takes a while to get used to this radical way of thinking. Actually, we don’t get used to it. It doesn’t become habitual and it certainly isn’t instinctual; it is something that must be re-learned and practiced daily. It’s as if our brains were developed to float in our skulls just so, vertically aligned in such a way that stimuli reaching us from the external world hit their receptors precisely, with no tolerance for wavering or misalignment. The world shot in portrait mode only, the landscape view constrained to fit only through distortion and elongation. Only when we stand on our heads does any of it begin to make sense.

Why does so much of what Jesus says sound so alien? Lest we think that 2,000 years and a clash of cultures has created this great divide, we can take some rueful comfort in that his mother and his brothers thought him a stark lunatic and his own disciples could not grasp his simplest commands. “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven,” they ask. He calls over a child, sets him down in the midst of them and responds, “Unless you turn round and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 18:3).” The meaning is unequivocal: what part of “never” don’t we understand?

Yet, when one door slams, another opens. “Let a man humble himself till he is like this child, and he will be the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven.” In this new economy of virtues only the humble survive. In one stroke, Jesus flattens the social hierarchy based on status and power and spreads it horizontally. If we want to see this kingdom as it is, we shall have to look in landscape mode, turning and turning in the widening gyre 360 degrees, until we return to this little child.

Paradoxes and reversals abound. Paul is shipwrecked, beaten, imprisoned, and starved. He has to light out of town more than once under cover of darkness, and who could calculate the miles he put in walking, sailing, riding for the gospel of the kingdom. Yet all these things he counts as nothing, save for the cross of Christ and the glory to come. “Our eyes are fixed,” says Paul, “not on the things that are seen, but on the things that are unseen.” We can imagine him, stripped for thirty-nine lashes, with a gaze that penetrates to heaven.

What do we see? What are we looking at? Even after the hundreds of miles he walks and the beatings he endures, there is a certain bounce in Paul’s stride. “Therefore, we never cease to be confident,” he writes. “Faith is our guide, we do not see him.” He looks at the world with eyes wide open, seeing himself as he is, but more importantly, how God sees him. Living as an exile in this world, Paul knows that those who play by the rules of the world may succeed in the ways of the world—although they will lose their lives—but those who take up their cross and follow Jesus will gain their lives. In the midst of death there is life.

“Sin is our refusal to become who we truly are,” writes Michael Mayne in Pray, Love, Remember. When we confess our sins we may think of all the moments we tripped up in our daily walk, all the unthinking ways we brushed others aside, the petty grievances we took into foster care, the blindness to our effect on others that caused them pain. But Mayne is looking deeper than just sins. “Chiefly I am aware of a much more subtle temptation,” he writes, “to settle for less than I might be. To choose the lesser good. To lack curiosity and wonder. To miss the mark because my sights are fixed too low. Not to perceive that I am ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ in God’s image.”

At all times, but especially at Lent, if we ask it of God, we are blessed to see ourselves as we are and what we may become. Seeing thus is to see the world turned upside down, and yet to walk confidently.

It may all seem to be at cross purposes with how the world works. Yet, in the end, all our purposes begin with the cross, the cross that brings life, the death of Death, and most wonderfully, resurrection.

The Eyes of Your Heart

2SunFace:shalom-mwenesi-784837-unsplash

“. . . so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.” — Ephesians 1:18,19

Once we understand there are many ways to enlighten our hearts, the horizon of possibilities before us widens. This is especially true when we seek beauty and truth — distinguishable and thus equally indispensable. When we find these sources, whether they be bathed in the center of God’s glory or reflecting God’s light from their centrifugal swings around the Son, they open to us new channels for perception.

Poetry penetrates deep to the heart, but indirectly. If you’re willing to look you can find the poets who somehow hear the music that beats in your bloodstream and when you read them, you understand yourself in ways you couldn’t have arrived at on your own. “When you encounter this splash of words,” writes priest and poet Mark Oakley, “you understand that ultimately poetry is not about factual information but human formation. Like water, language goes stagnant if it doesn’t move.”

When I first read Rainer Maria Rilke, this poet of the great silences, the man who was christened with a girl’s name for the sister who was lost, it was as if he had read my heart’s way and was speaking my longings in words that were almost holy. When I began with his Sonnets to Orpheus, I could only manage a page or two and then I’d have to put it aside and do something else for awhile, something that didn’t lay me open to the bone. If we can bear it, this is an opening to wonder and mystery.

Or maybe it’s music — Faure’s Requiem, or Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, or U2’s I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For or the tears that flow from Eric Clapton’s guitar through While My Guitar Gently Weeps during the “Concert for George.” That’s what Carlos Santana calls “Holy Ghost music,” something that happens between musicians and audience that goes beyond artistry and technique to a communion of fire and spirit.

These moments, these strands of bright beauty, are all around us, and if we choose, we can weave them together in our memories for a coat of many colors to wear on our dull and darker days. Their beauty, though ephemeral, is real in the moment: we can see them and feel them as they pass through us. But their greater power is that they remind us of something we’ve known and lost or once had but did not fully appreciate. They are signs of the ineffable, signals received from a source whose coordinates seem strangely familiar. As such, they give us practice in the exercise of faith.

***

“It is within man’s power to seek Him,” writes Rabbi Abraham Heschel in God in Search of Man, “it is not within his power to find Him. All Abraham had was wonder, and all he could achieve on his own was readiness to perceive. The answer was disclosed to him; it was not found by him.”

Heschel turns to Maimonides, who did not offer proof for the existence of God but said that the source of our knowledge of God is the ‘inner heart,’ the medieval name for intuition. We don’t apprehend God through a syllogism, but through an insight, a spiritual discernment.

It’s not that reason can’t play a role in spiritual things; reasoning often brings us into the neighborhood of faith and removes barriers to our willingness to listen. It provides a way to organize our categories: faith, evidence, rationality, miracles, finitude and infinity, eternity and time-boundedness, perfection and inexactitude, the sacred and the mundane. It helps us bracket our prejudices and recognize our standpoint. And it can reveal our inconsistencies and lapses in judgement. This is the stuff of the philosophy of religion, all of it intriguing, fascinating, compelling. But it can also keep God at a distance, an object to be argued about, not a Being who enthralls us. For that, we need the eyes of the heart. “Faith terminates not in a statement, not in a formula of words, but in God,” writes Thomas Merton in New Seeds of Contemplation.

Heschel continues: “But the initiative, we believe, is with man. The great insight is not given unless we are ready to receive.” Faith commences, God completes.

So here now is Paul, writing to his friends in Ephesus, rejoicing with them that their sins are forgiven, that God has chosen them to be filled with love, and that when the right time arrives the whole universe — heaven touching earth — will be brought into joyful harmony in Christ. That time is now, Paul insists. The “eyes of your heart” will perceive it through faith.

Here is the audaciousness which characterizes the apostolic community and which still — perhaps even more now — takes our breath away. In the midst of wearying journeys, dissensions and disputes, divisions which cut to the heart of who Paul and his friends thought they were because of Christ, he gathers up the threads of their faith in action and promises that this is indeed the first light of the new day of God’s kingdom.

Two millennia later this promise almost seems like mockery. Far from being a community without divisions, the Church seems to model the political world with all its coercion, bad faith, and posturing. We see the same underhandedness and false hope in the Church that plays out in a daily live-stream from any number of our politicians and corporate leaders. The Church as a body sometimes does not even reach the standard of respect and equality for people that our society continues to struggle toward. We Christians have a lot to answer for. Are we wandering in the wilderness?

Paul’s message to Jew and Gentile was that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. What had been promised for centuries, though covenants made were broken and straight places fell into crookedness, had now in the fullness of time come to pass. Quite beyond any power they might have exercised to move the cosmic forces into alignment, the promise was made good in spite of their weakness. Nothing they did could bring it into being nor could they prevent what God had planned from the foundation of the world. It was a gift open to all who could see it, a world reborn.

Paul has heard of the faith of these Ephesians and their “love toward all the saints,” and he prays that God may give them “a spirit of wisdom and revelation.” To his friends at Ephesus — and to us — he says, “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens . . . of the household of God (Ephesians 2:19).”

To Paul, every little community of believers that formed was the household of God, a wavering light that would bloom brighter as their faith was seen in action.

The question was whether they could see this potential for themselves if the bonds of friendship and community they had begun could strengthen and flourish. Could they perceive God in the whirl and flux of this world? The eyes of their hearts would see the hope to which God had called them, the richness of belonging to this great cloud of witnesses, and the greatness of God’s power to sustain them.

Faith commences, God completes. Believing is seeing.

Photo: Shalom Mwenesi, Unsplash.com

Planks and Sawdust

1GreenEyes:alexandru-zdrobau-84424-unsplash

“He answered me:

‘Like someone with faulty vision, we can behold

Remote things well, for so much light does He

Who rules supreme still grant us; but we are foiled

When things draw near us, and our intelligence

Is useless when they are present.’” Dante, Inferno, Canto X:100-105

In Dante’s Inferno the damned in the sixth circle of hell are allowed to see far into the future, but in a remarkable detail in God’s plan they know nothing of the present nor can they see what is happening right in front of them. In life, consumed by ambition and the grasp for power, they ignored those closest to them, while they schemed and strategized against their enemies. In the chess game that was 13th-century Florentine politics, these men planned out their deadly moves against their opponents, while they could not see clearly how their actions affected their own families. In Dante’s Hell, the sinners are cursed to suffer the symbolic effects of the sins they committed in life. Because they did not see on Earth they will not see in Hell.

***

Luke 6 is about the relationship between our intentions, our character, and our actions, and how those actions reverberate throughout the circles of our relationships. In contrast to Matthew’s sermon given from the mountain, Luke’s version has Jesus coming down from the hills at daybreak and choosing twelve out of the crowd of disciples, (in Greek mathetas, ‘those who follow’) and designating them apostles. Then he stands at the foot of the hill, “on level ground,” and addresses the hundreds who have come from Jerusalem, and from as far away as Tyre and Sidon, to hear him and to be healed.

It’s a message that exactly reverses what we might expect. We’ve skimmed it so many times that we no longer see how radical it is, how the good news it proclaims is bad news for some, how confounding it must have been for those who thought Jesus was launching his Messiahship.

He begins with the punchline, the message that was most pointed, that like an arrow pointed to the largest group listening to him that day: “How blest are you who are poor; the kingdom of God is yours.” The words that follow are paradoxical: those who weep now will laugh, those who are hated will dance for joy. Then, with a hinge that shows Luke’s literary skill, the reversals are stated. The rich have had their fun; now they face hardship. The well-fed will be hungry, those who laugh will be weeping.

The clincher is that those who mourn now stand in a long line of people who have suffered unjustly, including the true prophets of old, and those who garner all the praise now should know that people spoke well of the false prophets back in the day too.

Jesus then turns to such politically incorrect sayings as “Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you” and “turn the other cheek” and “treat others as you would like them to treat you.” His disciples must go beyond the reciprocal manners of doing good to those who do good to them; that is just standard social courtesy. What the kingdom expects has a much deeper meaning, one that transforms relationships and begins with self-awareness and humility.

Jesus’ social communication skills reveal a person who challenges us to exceed the minimum in social interaction. “Pass no judgement and you will not be judged,” he says, “do not condemn and you will not be condemned.” That’s the minimum. Just as “sinners” (those who flout the finer points of the law or whose professions place them outside the community) love those who love them most people know they’ll get back what they dish out to others. There is a common ethic that most people subscribe to, an enlightened self-interest that expects some give-and-take and is willing to give some leeway to others until pushed to defend oneself. In that way, we can claim to be as good as we are expected to be.

But to be disciples, those who follow Jesus, there is a higher standard that comes from love. Duty does the minimum, but love attempts the maximum. Duty follows the rules, but love seizes opportunities. Duty does what is required and no more, but love acts spontaneously. Duty wants a receipt; love says, “Don’t worry about it.” The “sons (and daughters) of the Most High” will be compassionate toward the ungrateful and the wicked, just as God is compassionate.

He offers them a parable about the blind leading the blind and both falling into a ditch, and then he follows up with a parable that speaks of the kind of self-awareness and humility that is foundational for discipleship.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye, with never a thought for the great plank in your own? How can you say to your brother, ‘My dear brother, let me take the speck out of your eye’ when you are blind to the plank in your own? You hypocrite! First, take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s.” (Luke 6: 41,42)

As metaphors go this is vintage Jesus—heavy on the hyperbole, richly vivid in imagery, delivered with a twinkle in his eye. But he is serious. The disciples learned that no matter where they stood in the social register, they were to be leaders in ethics. They are followers of Jesus now; they will be teachers of others, and a teacher cannot teach what he has not learned. Character makes influence a live possibility, and influence, in turn, helps shape character. We’re known by what we produce, by what people around us can see of us in our behavior. “By their fruits, you shall know them” is not just a Biblical saying, it’s how we navigate our relationships and place our trust in others. As such, it’s the foundation of a society. Out of the abundance of character the fruit of the heart is grown.

Are disciples to be silent about evil and injustice then? “The ban on speck-hunting,” notes G. B. Caird wryly in his commentary, Saint Luke, “does not, of course, mean that Christians must condone evil or refrain from forming moral judgements. This is a parable about personal relationships.”

***

Most college and university teachers I know have at times suffered from “imposter syndrome,” that dread feeling that students will see right through you to the vast, empty, and echoing interior of your knowledge warehouse. If you teach ethics, as I did for many years, you feel the pressure even more. I wondered, at times, how I had the nerve to stand up in front of students who demanded at the very least that I always knew what I was talking about, and who expected, in varying degrees of interest, that I flawlessly practiced what I preached. But there is some comfort in the very realization of how much we lack; if we can see our condition we can, at least, do something about it.

In order to follow Jesus, we need to see where we’re going. It also helps to be aware of how much we don’t yet know nor do. Planks in the eye get in the way of that. What I have noticed is that if you pray for help to remove your plank God may send you someone with clearer vision than your own, someone with a speck of sawdust in her eye. Plank removal may begin when you see that person’s speck and then realize your own condition. This ordinance of humility can have the effect of deepening our self-reflection as we learn through observation. For all of us have something in our eyes that clouds our vision.

“If we are humble,” writes Thomas Merton, “and if we believe in the Providence of God, we will see that our mistakes are not merely a necessary evil . . . they enter into the very structure of our existence. It is by making mistakes that we gain experience, not only for ourselves but for others.”

Jesus once restored the sight of a blind man by putting saliva on his eyes and then touching him. “Can you see anything?” he asked. “I see people,” said the fellow, “but they look like trees, walking.” Jesus touched his eyes again, and the man looked intently, and this time he saw everything clearly. Some commentators note that Matthew and Luke did not use this story from Mark, perhaps because they were embarrassed that it took Jesus two tries to heal the man. But I think the story is meant for all of us for whom seeing clearly does not happen all at once.

Photo: Alexandru Zdrobau

Three Degrees of Success

3LightningCrops:jonathan-bowers-531776-unsplash

If the audience easily recognizes the three degrees of failure (birds, rocks, thorns), how would it interpret those three degrees of success (thirty, sixty, hundredfold)—even in the literal microcosm of sowing? Jesus’s parable seems quite ready to expect and accept degrees of failure and of success. — John Dominic Crossan, The Power of Parable

“Listen!” Jesus is saying, “a sower went out to sow.” The people on the shore listening smile and nudge one another. The Master is on a roll, telling his stories. There are so many people gathered that he’s in a boat a few feet offshore, speaking to the crowds by the lake in the late afternoon sun.

He speaks in parables, short stories whose meaning lies outside the literal elements of the story and points toward a moral or theological purpose, what New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan defines as “a story that never happened but always does—or at least should.”

The Parable of the Sower in Mark’s gospel (Mark 4:1-20) assures us of God’s pleasure at any degree of return on crops planted. In Mark’s version of the parable, Jesus tells of the loss of seeds to the birds, to rocky soil, and to thorns that choke their growth. But for the seeds that land in good soil and survive there is an eventual harvest. Some patches have a return of thirty percent, some up to sixty percent, and others — perhaps optimistically — a full one hundred percent. The Sower tends them through their growth cycle right up to the harvest and is glad for whatever they produce. Reading this, we never get the feeling there’s anything less than delight and satisfaction for the sixties or even for the thirties. They’ve taken root, they’ve flourished, and they’re ready for the harvest. Next year maybe there will be more.

Mark tells us that Jesus “began to teach them many things in parables,” these pithy, sometimes enigmatic stories that puzzled and angered the religious authorities, and seemed to trip up the disciples as well. This parable, by Mark’s reckoning one of the most important in Jesus’ teachings, shows us that God is realistic about our growth rate and unfazed by what we are now.

We grow and develop spiritually at different rates and in different ways. For some, the obstacles to trusting God can be formidable. If our trust has consistently been sabotaged by parents, friends, and others — those we can actually see — why would we trust an invisible God? For others, trust comes easier. They’ve had the good fortune to grow up with people who could be counted on to keep their promises and who usually chose to do their best for their children. Or maybe they just have the “religious knack,” as religion scholar and author, Karen Armstrong, puts it.

After the crowds leave and Jesus is alone with his disciples, they press around him. Why does he speak in parables, they ask? Why doesn’t he just tell the people straight out what they should and shouldn’t do? It’s easier, quicker, and there’s less chance of being misunderstood. Don’t you get it? he asks, surprised. “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables?” And he tells the parable again, annotating and explaining as he goes, filling in with more details the story he had told in brief to the crowds. He seems to think of this one as a template, that in some way it holds the key to understanding how he uses any parable, which, in turn, is the way he most often communicates his good news about the kingdom of God. It may also keep him from being arrested.

John Dominic Crossan, a New Testament scholar, puts forward the view in The Power of Parable that Jesus was using this common story-telling device in a new way as a challenge to the status quo. Parables operate as metaphors, a Greek term which means “‘carrying something over” from one thing to another,’” writes Crossan, “and thereby ‘seeing something as another’ or ‘speaking of something as another.’” The challenge in these metaphors, he continues, is this: “If tradition is changed, it may be destroyed. If tradition is not changed, it will be destroyed. That is the challenge of this and of all other challenge parables.”

It challenges those who place burdens of guilt cemented in tradition on the ones who seek the kingdom by telling them they are not worthy to come as they are. And it challenges we who are called — not because there isn’t room for us in the kingdom, but because we do not stop to listen to the call. And if we do listen and respond, we may be fighting the idea that we have to be free from sin in order to apply and to qualify. But it’s the Sower who sows, not us.

We are tempted to wait until our potential for spiritual growth comes naturally, without effort. We are tempted to measure ourselves by those we admire or against a list of virtues or the gifts of the Spirit. We succumb to these temptations because we compare ourselves to others and we become impatient when we don’t see in our lives the virtues that take time to develop. As for gifts, we may be born with them or get them later in life, but in either case, we don’t generate them.

We are quick to judge others. If we keep our judgements of others to ourselves it’s all to the good. In time, we may even judge them less. When the ratio of judgement to empathy and understanding begins to change we’ll see them much differently. We will see ourselves differently too, perhaps as people who can forgive in spite of not yet forgetting. Patience, grasshopper.

We are quick to judge ourselves, a response that is hard-wired into most of us. Thankfully, we usually know when we’ve gone off the tracks. Thomas Merton has said that we don’t need to create a conscience. “We are born with one, and no matter how much we may ignore it, we cannot silence its insistent demand that we do good and avoid evil.” Still, a lot of us find ourselves rehashing the same arguments with others and with ourselves, over and over in our heads, attacking with our vorpal swords and blocking the parrying blows. And while passing judgment on ourselves is not quite the same as exercising our conscience, it often feels like it, enough that we may desire “the rotten luxury of self-pity,” as Merton says, and just leave it at that.

But like the seed which the Sower sowed, we grow as we go, for there is no practicing before we enter life, only a continual trial-by-error. Self-reflection — not the same as debilitating self-criticism — helps us see ourselves as we are. And as someone has said, God loves us the way we are, but he doesn’t want us to stay the way we are. So, we walk by faith, not by sight, as we are renewed from day to day.

Barbara Brown Taylor, in her collection of sermons, The Seeds of Heaven, gives us a way to read the Parable of the Sower that upends our expectations about the kind of ground we are supposed to be.

“The focus is not on us and our shortfalls but on the generosity of our maker, the prolific sower who does not obsess about the condition of the fields, who is not stingy with the seed but who casts it everywhere, on good soil and bad, who is not cautious or judgmental or even very practical, but who seems willing to keep reaching into his seed bag for all eternity, covering the whole creation with the fertile seed of his truth.”

As Jesus said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”

Photo: Jonathan Bowers, Unsplash.com