This Costly Caring

Photo: Osman Rana on Unsplash

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice . . . To let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? — Isaiah 58: 6

At nineteen I am traveling Europe with friends during the winter break from college in England, in December of ‘71. Each of us has a Eurail pass, which guarantees a place to sleep every night on the train if you don’t mind waking up in a different country.

We have split up for a few days, so I am on my own, traveling from Switzerland to Austria. Funds from home had not arrived by the time we left for the Continent, and I am in Austria when I run out of money. All I have are a few coins from some of the countries I have passed through. There is no possibility of getting money from home, so I will wait it out. Perhaps, when I meet my friend again, he can float me a small loan to get me through until I can get back to college.

I step into a bakery shop in Vienna, sort through the coins in my pocket, but I realize I don’t have enough even for a bun. So, back out into the grey and freezing day, one of the coldest winters in Europe for years. I walk and walk to keep warm, stopping in shops along the way and jamming my hands in my jean pockets. I am to meet my friend that day at the train station, so I walk there and back and there again, throughout the day, but something has happened, and he does not arrive.

One day without food becomes two, and then three. At night, I take the train to another city, someplace like Munich, arriving at three a.m. I wait an hour or two and then take a five a.m. train to still another city. The first twenty-four hours I fantasize about food, the second day I have cramping hunger pangs, but by the third day, although I am getting lightheaded and walking slower, my senses have sharpened. I almost feel euphoric. It seems to me—in this state—that going without food isn’t so bad, and that if I had to, I could keep this up indefinitely.

I begin to notice people I might not have seen otherwise. People slumped in the shadows around the train stations I am frequenting. People in doorways, on park benches, huddled under bridges. They remind me of how privileged I am and that my discomfort, such as it is, will be temporary. Unlike them, I have a ticket out of here. That is my ultimate insurance policy; if things get really bad, I know someone in Davos I can stay with. And eventually, Lord willing, my friend and I will meet up again.

So, I drop deeper into this experience, discovering the boundaries and limitations of fasting, plumbing the depths of spirit and temperament, absorbing and examining physical exhaustion and cold. In some way not completely clear to me, I am trying on the cloak of poverty and homelessness, all the while knowing that my situation is still salvageable, not hopeless.

On the evening of the fourth day, during the week leading up to Christmas, I am waiting on the train platform of a town in Switzerland. It is about ten p.m. A raucous party is in session just inside the station doors. Through the windows I can see steins being raised, songs sung, tables and tables of food and wine, flushed faces, red cheeks, and Christmas cheer. I am alone on the platform.

Suddenly, the door bursts open, and a young man strides out with a tray full of pastries, fruit, and a beer. He is smiling broadly, and through the open door behind him I can see people clustered together, peering at me and throwing kisses. He sets the tray down on the bench beside me and shouts, “Ist gut?” He gestures back to the people behind him. “Merry Christmas!” he says, and bows. There is a beery chorus of “Merry Christmas!” from the crowd and much lifting of steins. I am almost speechless, but I manage a “Ja, das ist gut!” My train is huffing in, so I stuff as much as I can of everything into my pack, bow to the young man and the crowd, and with new energy hop aboard as they wave me into the night.

Years later, riding the Metro in Washington, D.C., day after day, to job interviews that invariably went well but produced nothing, I felt again the pangs of desperation that hit me during the first day of my enforced fast. I could overhear young lawyers in the seats around me complaining about their seventy-hour weeks and the costs of maintaining their BMWs, and I inwardly rolled my eyes. I would have been happy to be overburdened with work of any kind.

Yet, those experiences gave me a taste of how people think and feel when their lifelines fail. There is a sense of helplessness. The usual means we have of making things happen are gone. Without money we are first impotent and later invisible. Money is power, however temporary and ultimately illusory. With it, we extend ourselves into the world around us and affect changes that benefit us and others. Without it, we eventually become invisible. But before we become invisible, we first undergo a blurring, a smearing, of our lines of identity. Our desperation leaks out, however feverishly we repress it. It makes people nervous; they cover their mouth as if we had coughed in their face. They look away and mumble. You can see the panic in their eyes.

The invisibility comes later. Some become invisible because their skin color blends with the shadows, some because they are shockingly decrepit and ragged. Others become invisible because of age. Some years ago, in a local Panera, I was moving toward the coffee machines when an elderly woman crossed my path. I stopped to let her by, and she looked up at me and said, “Thank you for noticing me.”

I have talked to people in homeless shelters who were stunned at how quickly they found themselves on the street. For some, two missed paychecks meant eviction. There were no savings to fall back on, no credit lines to be extended, no relatives in a position to offer help. One day they were working, the next they were laid off. The safety net extended only so far and there were gaps in the webbing that most people fell through. These are truths worn thin on the treadmill of regrets.

Many of us live insulated from the rigors of being poor in the United States. We have a steady income, adequate healthcare, a decent school system. We are safe—for now. But now we are in the midst of a pandemic, the limits of which cannot be determined yet. Our way of life, our routines, so much of what we take for granted, has been and will be, upended to an extent we are only just beginning to discern. There are no guarantees, either for the continuity of our lives or for life itself. Some of us will die from this; many of us will lose family and friends. All of us will be changed by this.

Some have said that we should never let a crisis go to waste. Perhaps the divisive politics of the last several years can be shouldered aside as we face a common enemy. In the words of Jean-Luc Picard from my favorite Star Trek episode: “Danger shared can sometimes bring two people together.”

If we were not convinced before, the spread of the coronavirus should wipe away any denial of how connected we all are. No respecter of boundaries—political, geographical, religious, or ethnic—the virus has revealed how mobile we are, how interdependent we are, how reliant we are on the social contracts of decency, respect, and fairness. In a literal sense, when just one person is afflicted, everyone is at risk. It becomes a powerful metaphor for the ways injustice and inequity destroy a society from within.

Now we have an opportunity to see how deep the bonds of our communities run. How we can respond with resilience to this clear and present danger. How our imaginations can help us find ways to connect despite our distance from each other.

There are more questions than answers in this time. Aside from the medical emergency questions, there are questions that go to our humanity and our humaneness. Going forward after this crisis, how do we bring justice to our healthcare institutions, our network of social services, our educational system, our political priorities, and our sense of who we are as people within countries? These are the perennial challenges within any society; they are not solvable, only made more adaptable and more just. But a crisis of this scale exposes the fissures in our foundations and gives us the opportunity and incentive to rebuild with diligence for a more humane future.

This is the season of Lent for Christians. We are called to reflect upon our past with hope toward our future, to remember that despite our blindness, our mistrust, our flailing about, God-in-Christ loves us still. It is not the healthy who need the doctor, Jesus reminds us, but the ill. That is us; coronavirus or not, we all suffer from pre-existing conditions that threaten our trust and faith. Now is the time to sidestep those “sins which so easily beset us,” and to live into the answers.

I discovered some small-scale truths when I returned to the States after my year in England. Much that I had taken for granted was ephemeral, and that which seemed insubstantial turned out to be rock-solid and everlasting. My fast was not of my choosing, but it did set me free and it broke the yoke that I so blithely carried.

The Acts of the Disciples

DiscipleFlame:aziz-acharki-224107-unsplash

The spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to bring good news to the poor

He has sent me to proclaim release to

the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s

favor. (Luke 4:18,19)

And Luke’s gospel says that Jesus “rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were upon him.”

Let us sit with them for a moment, in that holy silence. Jesus carefully, reverently, rolls up the scroll. He does not hurry. He holds the knurled ends of the scroll in his hands, feels the polished wood turning against his palms, as the papyrus curls back to its resting position. The attendant reaches to take the scroll as Jesus sits down. No one stirs. It is the silence of expectancy, not of inattention and boredom.

What were they expecting, and why would they be transfixed, holding their breath for the next moment? Perhaps it was the way Jesus read the passage, ascending the hills of the text to each crest, hitting the “me” of each one with emphasis, descending to the plains in between, and then scaling the highest one to summit in triumph on “the year of the Lord’s favor.”

If you have always been told that a day was coming when everything that breaks you every day would vanish, and you would be able to take a full breath, and you could lift your head and you could stand up and you could smile and even laugh—then you will know what each person knew when Jesus said, “You’ve just heard Scripture make history. It came true just now in this place.”

The people in that meeting place that Shabbat turned to one another excitedly and remarked at how well Jesus spoke. They were not talking about his elocutionary style, but about the thrill of hope that jolted through them in that moment. The words from Isaiah 61, so familiar and so tantalizing, rang in their ears.

But then there were doubts. Wouldn’t the Day of the Lord come with trumpets, thunder, signs in the heavens? And wouldn’t it be announced by the Messiah, the awesome figure of power and glory of whom the prophets spoke? Instead, we get a local boy, smart but shiftless, who left his mother and travels the countryside. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked. “We’ve known him since he was a little kid. Is he saying that he’s the One? He’s getting way above himself.”

And then Jesus went off-script. You’ll probably tell me to heal myself, he said. You want me to do tricks, like what you think I did up in Capernaum. If I don’t do the same thing here, you won’t believe me. Well, let me tell you something. No prophet is ever welcomed in his own country. There were a lot of widows in Israel during the famine, but our own prophet, Elijah, was sent to a widow in Sidon instead of them. And there were a lot of lepers in our country, but Elisha was sent to heal Naaman, the Syrian. Not one of ours was healed.

As they say, ‘the optics weren’t good.’ Excitement and admiration turned to doubt, and doubt to hostility and rage. More than just grilling the preacher’s sermon over Sabbath lunch, they were infuriated. Leaping to their feet, the whole congregation—families, men, women, and children—dragged him to the cliff on which the town was built to fling him bodily out and down.

Imagine the scene: people so angry, so completely consumed by rage that they seem demon-possessed. Neighbors he has known all his life, shoving and kicking him, his arms stretched out in their grasp, and him falling and stumbling back up, his eyes riveted ahead to where the ground drops away for hundreds of feet.

This is a video that will go viral, but before it does, let us freeze the frame with Jesus at the lip of the cliff—and since this is imagination we can do this—and ask ourselves what they are thinking.

If you saw them on the street you would have no idea they were capable of killing. They look like ordinary people. But seeing them now, ranged behind the figure twisting in their grasp, we see the leers, the harsh laughter, the sweat. A woman’s face is framed behind his shoulder. She is jeering, the veins in her forehead distended and throbbing. She feels forgotten, neglected, the hopes that were stirred by the promises of the prophets have vanished, and all that fills her mind is the thought of foreigners receiving the healing that is rightfully hers. Next thing they’ll be pouring across the border, Syrians, Caananites, Samaritans, lepers! It is a betrayal of everything she stands for, made worse by one of her own, a traitor in their midst like a devil among them.

Luke places this story near the beginning of Jesus’ mission, while Mark and Matthew record it as further down the timeline. Commentators suggest that Luke’s purpose is to show us that this is how Jesus’ mission is going to play out. The rejection he endures by his own people is triggered by his hints that God’s Spirit will be poured out on all who need it, those in other nations as well as in Israel. The nationalist fervor that roils this crowd into a murderous rage fulfills the prophecy that Jesus speaks.

We know how the incident ends, although we don’t know how it is done. Jesus teeters on the cliff’s edge, and then suddenly he is striding back through the crowd, parting them before him as if a force-field surrounds him. Luke gives it one line, ending with “he went on his way.” What matters most is that the kingdom has been announced, the Spirit is present, and Jesus is on his way into the world. Evil is no longer safe.

Jesus announced the kingdom in that dusty town on that Sabbath. He also denounced the fear that gripped the congregation in a snake’s coils. Annunciation and denunciation, two sides of a coin that has been carried by prophets and preachers and ages of sages. Wherever there is denunciation by the prophets, annunciation can be found in the neighborhood. And where the announcement falls upon deaf ears, denunciation of their callous disregard soon follows. The denunciation clears away the thickets, allowing the annunciation to spring forth.

But we must add something else to this prophetic witness between these two movements: the renunciation of our sins. Denunciation of the power structures in church and society, the uncovering of that which is intentionally hidden, is a necessary step toward the freedom of justice. But for the Christian, and any person of good faith, there follows in response another step equally important— that of renunciation.

Jesus began with the annunciation because he is the one who brings in the kingdom. In our time it is up to us as people of faith to begin with the denunciation of systems and structures that oppress and break the spirit of people. It would then be the most natural thing in the world to leap to the annunciation. Problem and solution; it’s how the world works.

But we are called to walk humbly as we act for justice. It is with the gospel in trust that we are invited to renounce our sins. The public renouncing of the sins of our discrimination opens the way to announce the good news of the gospel. And the gospel lived out is what reconciles us to God and to each other.

These are the acts of disciples who follow Jesus: they denounce, renounce, and announce. A movement begun by one is carried on through the Spirit by those who are willing to follow.

***

Twenty centuries after Jesus announced the kingdom we tell ourselves that, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Fifty years after Martin Luther King, Jr., famously uttered that phrase we look up to see that arc crossing overhead, but with no discernible point on the horizon where it could touch down. That is, unless we prepare the way by renouncing our sins of injustice, as a nation, as a church, and as individuals.

Unity without equality for everyone is conformity to injustice for all.

Mark Oakley, in The Splash of Words, invokes a Franciscan blessing: “May God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships. May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation. May God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world, doing in his name what others claim cannot be done.”

Photo: Aziz Acharki, Unsplash.com

Outrage and Longing

Courage

“The desire to surpass our limits is as essential to the structure of the human as the recognition that we cannot.” — Susan Neiman, Evil in Modern Thought

To live with integrity these days is to live inside the conflict between outrage and longing. But, if we become practiced in the art of paradoxical living we will see that dancing on the high wire between these two towers may be our best chance for grace-filled living.

“If we were God,” says philosopher Susan Neiman, “we could change moral principles into sovereign law. Were God Himself to enact such a law, moral principles would lose all connection with freedom.”

And there’s the rub. Being made ‘a little lower than the angels,’ in
the quaint phrasing of the King James Bible, means we are beings who desire wholeness; the state of ‘being made’ means that we will never experience that. We live within the limitations—and the grandeur—of moral freedom in which the desire for the reign of goodness sometimes overrides the understanding that goodness flourishes only where it is wanted, gifted, and received. As Neiman points out, magically changing moral principles into law, even if done by God, would jinx the whole thing because freedom means there is a genuine choice to be made. Making those choices every day is the burden of freedom and the brightness of being human in the image of God. Moral freedom is a form of creativity, available to all of us.

Rollo May, one of the pioneers of existential psychotherapy, quotes Rainier Rilke on withdrawing from psychotherapy: “If my devils are to leave me, I am afraid my angels will take flight as well.”

Rilke knew that creativity for the artist surges up from the depths, a necessary fire in the mind and heart. Rollo May put creativity and evil in the same room. Creativity, he mused, comes from the rage within us against death and destruction.

If we are made in the image of God and that image in us is the power to create, then how could evil threaten creativity? God, as creator, never creates for destruction because all God’s work is created for life. When we create—and we do—our sense of direction is not inerrant. We create in all directions, some of them winding off to evil and all of them subject to losing their way.

But creative power, moral or artistic, is no guarantee against a certain perversity. Put up a sign for “Wet Paint” and see how long it takes for fingerprints to appear. What would happen, we think, if we did this, this thing we’ve been warned never to do? Let’s try it—just to see what would happen. If it’s awful we’ll know and we’ll never do it again. And off we go. And we find that this evil, now loosed in the world, arrives without a warning label, with no expiration date, and without operating instructions. The terrible truth about creative work is that it can be turned to destruction and that there are always some who will do that just for the hell of it.

One of the ways our outrage can lead our moral creativity astray is to imagine that God resents our natural powers and is suspicious of our freedom. Thomas Merton calls this Promethean theology and comments in The New Man that “This means that man must either save his soul by a Promethean tour de force, without God’s help, or else that man must turn his freedom inside out, stew up all his natural gifts into a beautiful guilt-complex, and crawl towards God on his stomach to offer Him the results in propitiation.” But this is to deeply misjudge God’s love and the grace that is ours.

We are not worms. Our moral and spiritual freedom before God raises us to our feet, lifts our sights, and erases the false image of God we conjure up. “Grace,” says Merton, “is given us for the precise purpose of enabling us to discover and actualize our deepest and truest self.”

“The fantasy of replacing God is the test by which morality itself is decided,” says Neiman. To imagine, with longing, a better world is the flip side of outrage at the present one. It’s the outrage that compels us to imagine a newer world; it’s the longing that endures when we admit that our best efforts will probably not outlast us. But the visioning of such a world, even with all our limitations out at the edges of our sightlines, gives us the energy of hope.

Neiman opens the windows and runs up the shades: “Integrity requires affirming the dissonance and conflict at the heart of experience,” she writes. “It means recognizing that we are never, metaphysically, at home in the world. This affirmation requires us to live with the mixture of longing and outrage that few will want to bear.”

Reaching beyond our expectations is part of our human destiny; falling short is our fate. We are threading our way between hubris and humiliation. There is another way, but it’s much more difficult. This is where faith rides the rails to keep us safe. We need the reach to go beyond, but patience, humility, and good humor helps in knowing that we can do so without trying to usurp God or having to crawl before Him.

Another take on this is from Reinhold Niebuhr’s Beyond Tragedy when he writes, “The church is that place in human society where men are disturbed by the word of the eternal God, which stands as a judgment upon human aspirations. But it is also the place where the word of mercy, reconciliation and consolation is heard: ‘Thou dost well that it was in thine heart.’ Here human incompleteness is transcended though not abolished. Here human sin is overcome by the divine mercy, though man remains a sinner.”

Outrage and longing is not about winners and losers, it’s about “Those who endure to the end . . .” We’re not required to win; we’re invited to travel with “that great cloud” of large-souled ones who have borne their witness before us in all times and all places. If hope means anything and if love lives up to its reputation a time will come when justice and mercy will be the way in the great day of the Lord.

It makes no sense to set a date and expect the arc of justice to touch down in that precise moment. We don’t set the clocks or even wind them up. They were running before we got here and will continue after we’re dead. But it does matter to regard our time and how we spend the little of it that we have.

Our outrage alone will not save this sorry, stubborn, strange, and beautiful world; according to our primal myth that has been done in hope already. So there’s no need for us to presume that we are the hinge of history the universe didn’t know it was looking for. Nor will longing alone be enough. We need them both: the push of outrage to change our world, the pull of longing to heal our restless souls.

Yet, we each have a part to play—perhaps several parts. That much is clear. How we play it is the question, and for that we need patience for ourselves and each other.

If we have a conscience and compassion our outrage can propel us beyond our reticence. If we also live with longing our limits will be no barrier to God’s healing and sustaining grace.

Photo: Unsplash.com