Poetry and Joy at the End of Days

Photo: Park Street on Unsplash

“I walk, I lift up, I lift up heart, eye,

Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour.”1

This was the year I was surprised by joy.

It was also the year in which my perceptions of the world ranged from bewilderment to sorrow, and finally, to disgust. I have never been so dumbfounded by partisan fury, so aghast at the abyss between facts and folly, so disheartened by callousness and cruelty.

But I also had occasion for humility when my prejudice outran the reported experience of others with whom I was at odds. I was given opportunity, not so much to rethink my position, as to allow that others felt as passionately as I did across the ideological divide. Bracketing my own logic, I tried—within my considerable limitations—to enter into ‘fellow-feeling’ with those whose outlook and attitude were almost entirely alien to mine. I say ‘almost’, because I continue to believe that on the spectra of communication available to humans, there are colors which, though invisible to the eye, are nevertheless there. We must evolve to see them.

I’m a user and an observer of religion. If my faith is to have any practical value, it should help me in situations like that. It should—and it does—open my eyes to the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ that surround me through the wellsprings of history. I haven’t been able to shake off a life-long interest in world religions. I’ve peered at it through the eyes of sociologists of religion such as Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and Peter Berger. Others, like Huston Smith and Karen Armstrong, opened up their own journeys into (and out of) the religions with a candor that is exhilarating. Augustine and Thomas Merton have been guides and companions for many years as have more recently, Barbara Brown Taylor, Kathleen Norris, and Anne Lamott.

Helen and Mike Pearson, British friends and mentors, nudged me into reading Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, and Mark Oakley, Chaplain at Cambridge, who led me to Michael Mayne, former Dean of Westminster Abbey, and then to Malcolm Guite, Eamon Duffy, and John V. Taylor. These poet-priests and scholars have tilled the fields of the Lord with a beguiling celebration of the arts in worship and spiritual meditation.

Oakley and Mayne, especially, acknowledged and quoted so many poets whose works I had not read, that I began to read their books with a finger inserted in the notes and bibliography pages.

Earlier in the year, my good friend and mentor, Lyn Bartlett, gifted me a copy of Rod Dreher’s How Dante Can Save Your Life, a chronicle of Dreher’s family crises as diagnosed through an intensive reading of Dante’s Commedia. That book, poignant and inspiring in its own right, got me back into Dante.

Thanks to Penny and Murray Mahon, friends of almost fifty years, the Collected Poems of R. S. Thomas, Welsh priest, and one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century, became one of my constant wellsprings. Add to that the poems and writings of Mary Oliver, Ursula LeGuin, Osip Mandelstam, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and especially, Seamus Heaney, and I began to walk this year in the rhythms of the poets.

This was part of my joy, the pouring of poetry into my life and the discovery of how essential it has become for my spiritual well-being.

***

Christians of all stripes are fond of saying that God is love. We report it as a claim that millions have experienced as bone-marrow true over thousands of years. That humans can make such claims and present their dizzying, disparate, and sometimes desperate lives as evidence is reason enough for awe.

We repeat it because it is a standard-issue declaration about God from the religious organizations we belong to. But more truthfully, we revel in it because, while it is there for anyone to discover, on rising to it personally it is like the shock of seeing the Pacific Ocean panoramically from cliffside after living in Iowa all your life.

But I was surprised by joy—and to realize that makes me wonder how I missed it all these years. How could my gaze, directed toward Jesus and the transcendent in life, be off by a fraction of a degree—enough that God’s love could appear as contractual and mine to be dutiful? Such are the surprises in life, in themselves revelatory of the sublime in the mundane.

I’ve always felt closer to Jesus than to God—which is fortunate since God for us is known through Jesus. I see Jesus, as real as breath, in my imagination. I try to place myself within the parables or in the crowd listening to them. This year the pouring of Christ into our form, and the offering up of Christ to God became real to me, because it means that we, too, are lifted up to God. This is joy, which C. S. Lewis described as “the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it.

We know ourselves as we are in others, not just as we are in ourselves. Those who have influenced us have, in a sense, entered into us—we are indebted to them. The authors I mentioned have changed me in ways that are unique to our relationship, as one-sided as it is. With other authors there would be yet other differences. Austin Farrar’s question startles: “But have you reflected that Jesus is Jesus because of Mary and Joseph and the village rabbi . . . Above all because of the disciples to whom he gave himself and the poor people to whose need he ministered? But for these people he would have been another Jesus.”2

That ‘God loves us’ has been for me an hypothesis neither fully accepted nor tested. You can live a long time, apparently, without unwrapping that particular gift. Maybe I was afraid of how it would change me. Julian of Norwich, a fourteenth-century English mystic, the first woman to write in English, handed me that gift this year and stood there until I opened it. Her Revelations of Love, a book which she worked on for twenty years, is the recounting of a series of visions which she was given within twenty-four hours as she lay close to death.

Julian’s sturdy and direct prose drew me in immediately. There are several excellent translations of her work—she was a contemporary of Chaucer and both need translating for our benefit. It is a book of eighty-six short and compressed chapters which should be lived with over time to be fully appreciated. Nevertheless, an attentive reading yields riches to sustain us on our journeys. Here are two of them.

A major theme in the sixteen ‘shewings’ is the nature and consequences of sin. Julian understands that Adam’s original sin was an accident, not a deliberate act of wrongdoing. It arose from Adam’s desire to please God, misguided though it was. God’s response, according to Julian, was to regard Adam with tenderness and pity. There were consequences, of course, but they were not punishments from God: they were the natural result of actions that contort our nature as God designed it.

The poignancy of the Fall, and the confusion it casts upon us she captures well: “All of us who shall be saved have, during this lifetime, an amazing mixture of good and ill within us. We have within us Jesus, our risen Lord. We have within us the misery of the mischief of Adam’s fall and dying . . . And so we live in these mixed feelings all the days of our life” (Ch. 52).3

While we may be confused and bewildered by sin, even to the point that we lose sight of God, God never loses sight of us. Even when we are in the depths of sin of our own making, God’s love for us never flags.

She has no time for theology that asserts we are naturally rotten to the core. For her, it’s sin that’s unnatural. “We shall truly see that sin is, in truth, viler and more painful than hell . . . for it is against our fair nature. For as truly as sin is unclean, just as truly it is unnatural” (Ch. 63).

Julian believes that all of us are deeply implicated in sin, but to her surprise she reports that “I did not see sin. For I believe it has no substance or manner of being, but is only known by the pain it causes” (Ch. 27).

Though we are constantly confronted with sin, Julian sees the good within us. “I saw and understood that in every soul . . . there is a godly will that never assented to sin, nor ever shall. This will is so good that it can never will any evil. But always and forever it wills good, and does good, in the sight of God.” This is paralleled in Hebrews, channeling Jeremiah: “I will put my laws into their hearts and write them on their minds. I will never call their sins to mind, or their offences.”4

A second major theme is Julian’s vision of the cross, which occupied her all her life. It was the centerpiece of the ‘shewings’ and it begins with joy. Before she visualizes Christ’s physical sufferings on the cross, “suddenly the Trinity filled my heart full of joy. And I understood that this is how it will be in heaven without end for those who come there” (Ch. 4).

Her theology of the crucifixion and atonement was for me a crucial shift of kind—not just degree. Jesus on the cross is not shielding us from a furious God who demands his pound of flesh: he is God in the flesh and he is us. Like Paul, Julian wants to be at the cross with Mary and John (the only disciple courageous enough to stay, she says) to stand in love and solidarity with Jesus. The cross, as Jesus shows her in vision, is a flashpoint of joy because God-in-Christ willed to take it up for us.

This is what swept away my anger and discomfort at the whole forensic view of the cross and atonement. “And I, seeing all this through his grace, saw that the love he has for our soul is so strong that he sought our soul with great longing, and willingly suffered for it—and paid for it in full” (Ch. 20). We cannot compel Jesus to die for us; he goes there willingly, for through it he defeats the powers that be.

What we see through Julian’s eyes is that Christ became one of us so that God could know the evil we suffer from the inside—and change our lives. As Sheila Upjohn comments: “There is no place so dark and painful that God has not been there before us and stays there with us. And the fact of the resurrection means that there is no evil so bad that he cannot turn it into good.”5

There is a kind of joy that catches in the throat; it may well up in the eyes and quiver in the heart. There is glory to be gleaned where the Lord is passing by.

  1. Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “Hurrahing in Harvest” in A Hopkins Reader edited with an introduction by John Pick. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Image Books edition, 1966, p. 51.
  2. Quoted in Taylor, John V. The Christlike God. London: SCM Press, 1992, p. 237.
  3. All quoted translations are from Upjohn, Sheila. Why Julian Now? A Voyage of Discovery. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publ., 1997.
  4. Hebrews 10:17.
  5. Upjohn, p. 93.

On the Receiving End

Photo: Ben White, Unsplash

The Christmas story—the one according to Luke not Dickens—is not about how blessed it is to be givers but about how essential it is to see ourselves as receivers.1

At Christmas time we give gifts. Parents teach their little children how to do it by buying gifts the child can give to teachers and friends. We learn to give by giving.

Like many other social conventions, it’s something acquired by practice; there are rules. We try to match our gifts to the personalities of those receiving them. Often, this is done through stereotyping: tools for men, clothing for women. Then there are “gag gifts,” those useless gadgets we buy for others mostly for laughs, just to see their expression when they open the box. And there are those gifts that bear a subtle message of reform and uprightness: a dictionary for the teen who games every free minute, and a tie and matching handkerchief for the man who refuses to wear one.

Perhaps most importantly, we learn the art of proportionate giving, of responding to a gift in like manner. Don’t exceed the received value, lest you be thought ostentatious or overeager, and for heaven’s sake, do not under-give or you’ll be branded a cheapskate. All of this in order to maintain a delicate balance between the expectations of social norms and one’s self- image.

***

“It is better to give than to receive.” The words are those of the apostle Paul, spoken to the believers at Ephesus. He is “remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.”2It may have been a common saying among the disciples and those who followed Jesus or it may have been revealed to Paul himself, for nowhere in the gospels is this saying found. Paul wouldn’t have known that though, since Mark, the first gospel, would not be written for at least another twenty years and the other gospels much later. But as John says, “there are also many other things Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”3

We say this phrase jokingly when we are trying to persuade someone to donate to our cause, or we might repeat it when we feel ourselves to be reluctant givers. And while it truly may be more blessed to give than to receive, the fact is that we find it harder, much harder, to be on the receiving end.

To give is to affirm that we are in control. It suggests that we are capable and intentional, that we have worked hard for what we’ve got. Depending on our background and attitude, we may briefly enjoy the sweet emotion of smugness: “I’m always happy to lend a helping hand to the poor.” It reinforces our desire to do good and it reassures us that we can sympathize with the unfortunate. Somewhere, deep in our amygdala, is a primitive fear of judgment; to lay up treasure in heaven we peer out at our porches to be sure no indigents named Lazarus are dying there.

If, through life experience, wisdom, and humility, we are able to sidestep or derail these temptations, we may realize with a growing appreciation how indebted we are to so many for so much.

I can distinctly remember as a pre-teen, throwing myself in a chair in my room and looking around with a rising desperation as I saw that every object in the room had been provided for me. I had been taken in by my grandparents at the age of three—just when they were approaching retirement—and their unstinting generosity and care had provided for my every need. They had sacrificed so that I could have a home and an education. But what I felt in that moment was not gratitude but the weight of a debt that I could never repay. This was exacerbated by my grandmother’s tendency to remind me at times how much they had sacrificed to provide for me. Guilt, shame, indebtedness—how one’s perception can turn a gift into a gilded chain!

“It’s tough to be on the receiving end of love, God’s or anybody else’s. It requires that we see our lives not as our possessions, but as gifts.”4

In a consumer culture such as ours there aren’t many ways we learn to accept gifts graciously. Even more so, our bedrock convictions about private ownership, and the elevated sense that we have a God-given right to everything we’ve worked for, creates an inevitable conflict within ourselves when faced with the needs of others. In ways that we deeply feel, but may not be able to articulate, we are owned by our possessions.

***

Lewis Hyde’s book, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, is a treatise on what compels artists to give of themselves and their talents, even without recognition or recompense. Hyde draws out the implications that anthropologists have found of “gift economies” which are marked by “three related obligations: the obligation to give, the obligation to accept, and the obligation to reciprocate.”5

These are cultures in which the gift exchange colors every facet of life, a “total social phenomenon . . . At once economic, juridical, moral, aesthetic, religious, and mythological.”6 Historically, the slur “Indian giver” arose when the privatized and capitalistic system of the whites came up against the gift economy of the native tribes in America. “The Indian giver (or the original one, at any rate) understood a cardinal property of the gift: whatever we have been given is supposed to be given away again, not kept . . . The only essential is this: the gift must always move.7

The tribal cultures made a distinction between gifts and capital such that “One man’s gift must not be another man’s capital.”8Gifts are to be taken in and consumed, not hoarded for investment and private gain. Use them up, be nourished by them, and then pass along a similar gift.

Gifts are often at the heart of ancient stories and mythologies. There is a common motif of three brothers (or sisters) who receive gifts to aid them in their quests, only to be confronted by an ugly, misshapen creature asking to share in the gift. Invariably, the two older brothers rudely refuse to share and so are trapped or lost in their quests. It is left to the youngest of the trio to set out on his quest with the gift, to meet the creature, and to freely share—whereupon, the creature gives him another gift in the form of a key, a magic word, a weapon, or a song that will complete the quest against formidable obstacles. The humility of the youngest (and least promising) son in sharing, taking, and reciprocating the gift-giving results in wholeness. And often the youngest redeems and saves his narcissistic older brothers.

Hyde recalls that setting free one’s gifts and realizing one’s potential was a recognized labor in the ancient world. “The Romans called a person’s tutelar spirit his genius. In Greece it was called a daemon.”9 To develop one’s talents was an honorable quest for it would be the occasion of recognizing one’s indebtedness and accomplishing good with it. “An abiding sense of gratitude,” says Hyde, “moves a person to labor in the service of his daemon. The opposite is properly called narcissism. The narcissist feels his gifts come from himself. He works to display himself, not to suffer change.”10

Hyde at one time worked as a counselor for the AA program and he draws on that experience to illustrate the parallels to a spiritual life. “Spiritual conversions have the same structure as the AA experience: the Word is received, the soul suffers a change (or is released, or born again), and the convert feels moved to testify, to give the Word away again.” He speaks of the “labor of gratitude” as that which we undertake “to effect the transformation after a gift has been received.”11

***

When the gift works to change us, we must stay in the changing until we are filled—and then we may empty ourselves in giving to others what we have gained and learned. No worries; we’ll be given it back a hundred-fold.

In spiritual terms, in the language of the New Testament, this is kenosis, the pouring out of Christ that fills us with his gift of life. When we receive this with gratitude and humility, we are given the power to give life to others. When, in gratitude, we return to God what Jesus has given to us, we are united with God. “I and the Father are one,” said Jesus, because he was giving back to God what God had given to him—his life and love.

Give, receive, reciprocate; it’s an age-old story. Instead of taking, we learn to receive. Unless we receive, we’ll have nothing to give. The Advent is the dramatic comedy in which the weakest wins; the stone the builders rejected becomes the cornerstone. He who is among us as one who serves, becomes the Water of Life. We ask for a king and we are given . . . a baby.

  1. Willimon, William. Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas. Farmington, PA: The Plough Publishing House, 2001, December 14.
  2. Acts 20:35, NRSV.
  3. Jn. 20:25, NRSV.
  4. Willimon, December 14.
  5. Hyde, Lewis. The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World. Second Vintage Books Edition. New York: Random House, 2007, p. xxi
  6. Hyde, p. xxi.
  7. Hyde, p. 4.
  8. Hyde, p. 4.
  9. Hyde, p. 67.
  10. Hyde, p. 68.
  11. Hyde, pp. 59, 60.

The Nature of Waiting

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”A waiting person is someone who is present to the moment, who believes that this moment is the moment.”1 — Henri Nouwen

The Annunciation is a liminal moment, a threshold moment. In many of the paintings of the 14th century, we see the angel of God approaching the girl Mary in a sunlit, airy space that looks like it could have been designed by a group of Swedish architects. The angel pauses on the threshold at a reserved distance from Mary, who waits with an air of shy expectation.

It is a pause between times, the last of “Before the Common Era” and what will become known in most of the world as the Old Testament, and the Common Era’s New Testament—all of that in the future—but for us, looking back, the defining hinge of history, after which millions of people will set their moral compass to the true north of Jesus Christ.

The announcement itself, as recorded in the Gospel of Luke, not only breaks the news that a certain thing will happen, but also why it will be so: “You shall conceive and bear a son,” because “He will be great . . . And he will be king over Israel for ever.”

This is a mixed message for Mary. She is to bear the Holy One of Israel, the Messiah who will fulfill the hopes of the nation. But she has no husband. Actually, she is betrothed to be married, but social norms and a conscience in good working order makes the how of conception beyond the possible. She is not thinking outside the physical means of intercourse; why should she? There were myths, stories of girls possessed by the gods, but these were pagan deities, capricious and rapacious, not at all the way of the God she had been taught to worship. She is “deeply troubled.”

The angel speaks of “overshadowing”. “The power of the Most High,” he says, by way of explanation. The girl has perhaps some inkling of what this might mean, but she hears the last part most clearly—the child will be the Son of God.

But there is more: her kinswoman, Elizabeth, cursed as barren for these many years, is pregnant, six months on. Nothing is impossible for God, says the angel. The girl looks through the air between them, seeing a child, a teenager, a man. The edges of her vision contract to a brightly-lit tunnel, rimmed with refracted light in colors that glow. She hears the sound of the angel’s voice far away. She blinks, but she is still inside the tunnel and inside the room, and her body is curved into the light and she is inside her body.

The angel’s words have weight and surface. She holds them in her hands and feels them burning cold. The motion of the world slows and stops; she can feel it inside her like a pendulum coming to rest. She senses that her words will trip the cog and restart the world. But first she must breathe. “I am,” she inhales silently—and holds it a moment—then exhales with “Here I am. I am the Lord’s servant . . .” The angel nods; the world shudders into motion once again.

Now she will learn the inner nature of what it means to wait.

***

Henri Nouwen, Dutch Catholic priest, counselor, and spiritual writer, describes a spirituality of waiting. Those who wait, he says, do so because of a promise. It is a waiting with a point, a telos, to it. The promise grows in them like a seed. “It is always a movement from something to something more,” says Nouwen.2

Their waiting is anything but passive. “The secret of waiting is the faith that the seed has been planted, that something has begun.”3 It is to be fully present in the moment, to be ready when the moment is ripe for fulfillment. It is to do in each moment that which we can, to prepare our lives to receive this blessing—repentance, forgiving others, prayer, opening ourselves to perceive the holy in the mundane.

But the waiting is also patient. A present-centered, actively waiting person is willing to stay in the moment, because that is where the deliverance will occur, no matter when it arrives. Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Mary—each of them attentive to the moment and willing to listen. Elizabeth and Mary nurture their present, says Nouwen, and that is why they can hear the angel.

And the waiting is open-ended. There is no constraint placed on it. This is the test of one’s patience, to wait in trust without trying to manipulate the future. This is never easy, but Nouwen says it is especially difficult to remain open-ended; we have many wishes pulling us this way and that. We wish, and when our wishes are not fulfilled, we are disappointed and try to move the pieces around to make them happen. Can we stay in that ever-present moment in time as it travels into an open-ended future?

Our wishes, tested over time and infused with patience, may grow into hopes that can outlive us. Hope that is larger than any of us is that which is surrendered to God. This is what we mean when we say we “live in hope.”

***

Part of what we must do when we read Scripture is to wield our imagination in service to our faith. Across thousands of years, melding through culture, religion, and story, we share our humanity at the points of grief, loss, despair, hope, joy.

We are trying to touch the hardness of the ground they walked on, the soft fold to the weave of her shawl as it drapes across her shoulders, the upward glance of the man tightening the saddle strap on the donkey, the ghosting of the donkey’s breath in the bite of cold in the night darkness.

Could we put ourselves in the place of Mary, Joseph, and their infant as they flee into the night before Herod’s murderous rampage? Can we feel the anxiety mixed with hope as they make their way across the desert to the relative safety of Egypt? What if they reached the border, only to be separated from each other and from their child? What if they had no idea where their child was or when he would be returned to them? Could we “be touched by the feeling of their infirmity,” or their “terror by night . . . Or the pestilence that stalks in darkness”?4

Here is the baby crying, red-faced and contorted. You know how the cry begins: the long, silent, intake of breath before the ear-splitting wail that goes on and on, the eyes clamped shut, the little fists balled up, the tension radiating from every pore. We can coo and sing and tiptoe around the manger, with the cattle lowing in the background, but sooner or later the Son of God will explode in anger without words.

There will be no point in bringing up the ordination of women or the inequity of wealth distribution or any of the myriad of injustices that flare up our moral energy. This is an infant and at this moment we can only try, with patience, to learn what he needs.

And in that wordless cry they begin to realize how much there is to learn and how they must wait for the child to develop in his time. There will be moments, flashes through the ordinary of something extraordinary; the quickness of understanding, the seeing through another’s fear to the innocence beneath. Mary will treasure these things in her heart as she waits.

In years to come, Mary will ask of him a favor to save face for her friends at the wedding of their daughter. “They are out of wine,” she will say, and he will respond, “What is that to me? My time is not yet come.”

He will not be hurried in his realization of who he is, but then he does awaken to it. What at first seems a request for magic he now sees as a simple desire for harmony and celebration. “Do as he tells you,” says his mother to the servants. “Fill the jars,” he says. And the best wine flourishes under his command. “This was the first of the signs,” says John in his gospel, “by which Jesus revealed his glory and led his disciples to believe in him.” In the timeless rituals of family and community, Jesus’ glory is revealed in time.

In the Advent season we learn to wait with patience for the coming of the Lord. In the darkest time of the year, in a time when many scoff at the light and flaunt their own darkness, we will find our light springing up from the humblest of births.

“Do not let me hear

Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,

Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,

Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.

The only wisdom we can hope to acquire

Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.”5

  1. Nouwen, Henri, in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas. Farmington, PA: The Plough Publishing House, 2001, November 28.
  2. Nouwen, November 28.
  3. Nouwen, November 28.
  4. Ps. 91:5 NEB.
  5. Eliot, T. S. “East Coker” in Collected Poems 1090-1962. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 1963, p. 185.

Definite Beliefs, Radical Mysteries

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”And always in one

another we seek the proof

of experiences it would be worth dying for.”1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Micah spelled it out eight centuries before Jesus:

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

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

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

Call No One Master

Photo: Marivi Pazos, Unsplash

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

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

So it is with his idea of exaltation and humbling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus Was a Sailor

Photo: Joshua Earle, Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Look No Further

Photo: Alex Wigan, Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stranger Mysteries

Photo: Ricardo Frantz, Unsplash

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

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

Whatever he is searching out, my eyes cannot follow.

Whatever he is seeing is not visible.

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Suffering that Becomes Us

Photo: Kat J, Unsplash

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Getting of Wisdom

Photo: Prottoy Hassan, Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Under three things the earth trembles;

under four it cannot bear up;

a slave when he becomes king,

and a fool when glutted with food;

an unloved woman when she gets

a husband,

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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