The preacher enters the pulpit. The waiting watchful befriend her like a cloak. In the round silence of those before her she breathes — in, out, in. But this moment! Perfect communion lies within her, just as the infinite bowl of the sky and the sea — arms open — enjoy their widest horizon. A poet lays down a line, scrubs it out, tugs a thread of memory up to the light, tests its tensile strength, rappelling down the sheer face of terror — almost delight. On the sea cliff a diver waits, counting the waves, marking his breaths, holding this moment — all heart and bones — as near to prayer as the cry of a newborn. Each one enters Creation innocent of the abyss, the leap itself containing all.
“All prayer is social. We discover this when we pray for others.”1
I have a friend who has endured many operations. He bears the scars of the expeditions surgeons have made deep within his body. A liver transplanted, heart valves repaired, cleaned, and adjusted, ducts cleansed, fevers abated, numbness cancelled and, on top of everything else, a conflagration of COVID. He has survived it all with a degree of cheerfulness that is astounding.
I pray for him every day, despite my puzzlement over the geometric triangulations between my friend, the Lord, and myself. God knows my friend’s needs infinitely better than I. God does not need my reminders. God does not need my prayers. I believe God would care for my friend even if he were friendless and isolated, say, a prisoner on death row.
I could imagine—putting myself in his place—that believing others were praying for me would be a comfort, a point of light in the darkness, a step toward healing. But what if it weren’t strictly true? Supposing no one bothered to pray: would my belief that they were function as a prayer placebo?
Perhaps “prayer for others” is not entirely about those prayed for.
I try to determine the process of causality (break glass in case of emergency). Can it produce the desired result: the full healing and restoration of my friend? Immediately, I am hit with a flood of variables to consider. Left alone, I can helplessly argue myself out of any hope in the effectiveness of prayer on behalf of other people.
I realize I am overthinking this, but it’s a path I’ve trodden so many times I no longer look where my feet are walking.
Again, suffering comes in a variety of colors. I might not see yours within the spectrum of light available to me. What I see now is learned: what I am educated into, persuaded out of, brought up within, and have imitated.
This is second-order reflection, that which I benefit from when given an opening to someone else’s experience.
For example, what I know of racism I have learned from James Baldwin, Eldridge Cleaver, Toni Morrison, and many other writers. From my friends: Randy, Colleen, Camille, Judy, Roz, Mo, Inez, and Yi. From the relentless cascade of images and names. The profiled, the detained, the handcuffed, slammed, and throttled. It’s the color of suffering in a spectrum I have learned to see through special lenses. But always at a distance.
When it comes to praying for others, I can easily talk myself out of it. Perhaps my own answers to prayer were retro-fitted rationalizations. Perhaps I created connections where none existed. The ghost of Hume beckons; there is no way to prove that one thing causes another, especially not in the realm of prayer to an invisible and apparently absent God. Or the old sword-thrust of the religiously smug: “You don’t have enough faith. If you did, you could move mountains.” As if prayer was an up-brand form of telekinesis.
First-order reflection is what I do when I experience something myself and think about it after. Thoreau says in his journals we first scale the mountain, then we climb it again at home as we remember each step on the route to the summit.
What I know without a doubt is that I owe more than I can repay to others. And the fact they do not regard it as a debt opens before me a path of wonder and gratitude. I have experienced this freely given form of prayer all my life. It is the unspoken prayer of generosity, felt but not heard, a swelling force-field that surrounds me.
The whole question of causality (did my prayer accomplish anything?) fades and drops away as we see ourselves joining with others—and with God—in our prayers of care. We gradually come to see others and ourselves from the vantage point of God. We see our interconnectedness with all others and with the world under and through God. Because of friendship, because of love, we must hold them up to God in prayer. That is the need we have.
We are encouraged to “pray without ceasing” because prayer is unceasingly needed. Needs that both the pray-ers and the prayed-for have. It’s about constant needs through time, not about unending prayers.
We cannot protect those we love from random violence, evil, disease or death. We may not even be able to shield them from decisions gone awry. These are the contradictions within which we live. We should not imagine these contradictions will easily dissolve. God is not in the magic racket.
We are here in a world as beautiful as it is broken. Our fractures break up the smooth planes and surfaces of our lives. Their edges are jagged angles. Our prayers drop like healing balm and settle, filling the spaces between them, smoothing them with time, blending the breaks into a body that bears its scars with patience and nobility.
- Ulanov, Ann and Barry. Primary Speech: A Psychology of Prayer. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982, p. 85. ↩
“And so I say to you, ask, and you will receive; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened. For everyone who asks receives, he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” — Luke 11:9,10 NEB
What is the lesson here? That only those who move with intent will gain what they ask? That we are partners with God? That Fate or luck or sheer will should bring about what we hope will sustain us for another day?
It sounds too good to be true, too easy to be right, too right to be wrong.
These words are spoken by Jesus to his disciples, who have come upon him while he is at prayer. When he stops, they ask him to teach them to pray, “as John taught his disciples.”
It’s an odd request: don’t they know how to pray? And why now, after all they have been through together—all the blind made to see, the deaf made to hear, the lepers made clean, even the dead raised to life—why would they ask how to pray just now? Isn’t that one of the first things we learn in the Christian life? And if John was teaching his disciples how to pray, was he an outlier? Is this something Jesus just overlooked with his own disciples? Or was he waiting for them to ask? Are the disciples just now discovering that the source of Jesus’ strength is that he is never out of range of God? Jesus doesn’t need the priests or the synagogue in order to pray. The signal is strong, even when roaming.
Whatever it meant, John had discovered it and Jesus was practicing it.
By this time, Jesus and his disciples have been together for more than a year, closer to two. John the Baptist, his cousin, is long dead, his head offered up at the height of a feast, the result of a drunken pledge made by Herod to his stepdaughter as he watches her, entranced, his eyes glazed, following the curves of her young body as she dances before him and his lascivious courtiers.
Was there some lingering rivalry between John’s disciples and those of Jesus? They had all revered him as a prophet who pointed to Jesus and then stepped back. “Are you the one?” John had finally asked from prison, “or should we look for another?” Only Jesus could know how much that had cost John, to voice his deepest fear and to have to do so through others. Only John could know how deeply that cut Jesus, momentarily staggering him so that he did not at first answer John’s furtive messengers, and when he did he pointed to his acts of healing and the good news received by the poor.
Jesus has already sent out seventy-two other disciples to go ahead of him to the villages and towns where he will stop. They are to enter the villages by twos and stay with a family; if they are welcomed, fair enough. If they are not, they are to leave. There is no time to argue or quibble; their message is that the kingdom of God is on the very doorstep of their hosts.
The pressure is on Jesus, the pace of events accelerates in Luke’s narrative. It is as if Jesus knows his time is short and he must tell the story of the kingdom—rather, demonstrate the kingdom—to as many as he can before his life is cut short.
The seventy-two return, exultant and awe-struck, to report that even the demons flee when cast out of people in Jesus’ name. Momentarily, Jesus, caught up in the Spirit, sees Satan flung like lightning from the heavens, a shooting star visible even at noonday to the eye focused only on God. “All the same,” Jesus says, “the great triumph is not in your authority over evil, but in God’s authority over you and presence with you. Not what you do for God but what God does for you—that’s the agenda for rejoicing.”1
When I have balked at prayer, it’s because it seems so contractual: fulfill these requirements and you’ll get your answer. The problem is in figuring out what the requirements are. It’s like trying to hit a target dead center with a bow from one hundred yards. You sight, balance the arrow, draw back the string, hold your breath, and release.
But you didn’t take into account the breeze, the curvature of the earth, the drop of sweat that blinded your open eye, or the fact that you flinched ever so slightly as the fletch shot past your thumb. It doesn’t matter. You’re not going to hit the bulls-eye this time or next; there are too many variables. Maybe your motives are not pure, or you asked for something you shouldn’t have, or you harbored ill will against someone, or you didn’t forgive others their many sins against you. Or maybe you’re just a selfish jerk who doesn’t deserve the bounties of heaven.
It’s too complicated.
But I am slowly coming to understand, through many re-trys, that it is both simpler than it appears and more complex than we can possibly fathom. That’s the nature of our relationship with God, one of paradox and promise, both entwined, and neither fully distinguishable from the other. Imagine trying to pass eleven million volts through an outlet in your kitchen. That would be God’s problem.
Jesus points out to the seventy-two who are still in the glow of routing demons that the important thing to carry with them after the feeling wears off, is that their names are enrolled in heaven—not that their superpower is scorching junior devils. There is no balance of powers here: the weight lies entirely on God’s side, and God is looking to act upon the world through us.
“Teach us to pray,” prod the disciples and Jesus gives them a succinct template they can use. How many of us have prayed it simply because it’s “The Lord’s Prayer,” and like other religious objects it is shiny and smooth from use. But we can repeat it without listening to it, we can say it without knowing what we are saying, we can revere it for the sound and not the meaning.
Once, when I was between jobs and had exhausted all my prospects, I mentioned to a friend that I didn’t know what to pray for anymore. He shrugged. “Give us this day, our daily bread,” he said. And I thought, “Well, of course.” Daily bread is what I needed while I continued to search. Simple, really. Receive it with gratitude and stop worrying.
In a post-modern world, structured around causality, thinking of God in a cause-and-effect way can run one’s faith aground trying to figure out the mechanics of it. John V. Taylor suggests, in The Christlike God, that “It is in any case probably nearer the truth to think of God as the giver rather than the cause, since causes are essentially this-worldly factors, and God cannot be just another of those.”2 Our response of gratitude for God’s gifts, says Taylor, is better, since “a mature person should learn to feel grateful for whatever happens rather than merely acquiescing.”3 In the larger scheme of things—and God’s scheme is infinitely larger than ours—it is both a liberation and a comfort to say yes to God, rather than a disgusted, “Fine. Have it your way.”
It is significant—and ironic—that Luke’s telling of the story has Jesus following up his model prayer with an example of someone banging on their neighbor’s door late at night to shamelessly ask for a favor. That’s how most people operate, Jesus says. If you keep at it, they’ll finally give in, if only to make you leave them in peace. It’s a matter of contrast to God’s response. “And so I say to you, ask, and you will receive; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened.” And just to sharpen the contrast, Jesus brings up the improbable case of a father giving his son a snake to eat when he’s asked for a fish, or a scorpion when he asks for an egg. Even you people, bad as you are, says Jesus, with a twinkle in his eye, know better than that. So God will give the Spirit to those who ask.
But God’s time-scale does not approximate our own. We ask, and looking back, realize we had received before we asked. We knock, and the door is opened later—and it’s a different door than the one we pounded on. Sometimes our timelines and God’s intersect, and we see that as an answer to prayer. Most of the time we only see God’s providence by looking back. The other side of asking with persistence is that in time we might mature into our heart’s desire.
“Religious writing, poetry that is authentic religious writing, writing that is religious work, is very precisely an attempt to be where the action is, God’s action, where this reality, me, my words, my perception, meet what is fundamental, God. . .”1
What do we say when we talk and write about God? It’s a question that goes deeper and deeper, like those little Russian dolls, one inside the other, until you lift out the last one, the one so small it cannot be opened but only may be held. Much of what we talk about when we talk about God is precisely that—talk about our talking of God, metatalk,talk that sets us at several removes from God and turns God into an object to be scrutinized alongside other objects in the world. Such talk clarifies the boundaries of definitions and aligns the methods of discourse, but it does not translate well out of the seminar and the conference setting.
We must ask ourselves, then, especially those of us who call ourselves Christians, why people—or rather, why we—talk and write about God? One reason, surely, is that we hope others will experience something of God, something that will help them dive deeper, become more supple, find more meaning, discover a saving attunement to Spirit. And this motivation arises on the assumption that we have witnessed in our own lives the outlines of what that something is, through tradition and revelation and personal experience. We can only express with credibility that which we ourselves have seen.
So the “why” of this form of talk inevitably leads to the “what,” a movement from motive to content. But that seems backwards, as if our enthusiasm (from en theos, to be in God) suddenly went searching for the message about God that we could give to others.
The way we were taught about witnessing for our faith always began with the content of doctrine, a system of beliefs that logically cohered and was meant to be persuasive. Only then did you overcome your shyness or your instinctual respect for the privacy of others, and launch the frontal assault for their conversion in the paramilitary style of witnessing that some Protestant traditions employ.
We looked to doctrine to guide us into a relationship with Christ. We thought that to begin with beliefs would eventually lead us to love and to a sense that we were accepted by God. Content would trigger inspiration and lead to motivation to talk and write of God with others.
There are many people whose temperament and outlook on life make this the most natural way to God. “Count the cost,” Jesus said, “before you build.” Are you ready for the changes that come with being in Christ? Do you know what you’re getting into? Acolytes in the early centuries of Christianity spent up to a year studying the beliefs, and observing and learning the practices of the communities of Jesus, before they were formally accepted into the body of Christ through baptism. Given that joining such a community was often a prelude to martyrdom, it was essential that they had counted the cost—and that they would not betray their companions.
“Christian doctrine,” says Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, “exists so that certain obstacles may be taken away to our openness to the action of God.”2 There is a subtle nuance here: doctrines are gates that open to let the flow of responsive spirituality through. They should not be dams to stop the flow until it silts up behind the barrier. Religion does not have to be the death of spirituality.
But for other people the best course is to allow God the lead in this dance. If God is the center of our universe, then God’s gravitational field will draw those willing to him, as we were drawn to him.
“Thou hast made us for thyself,” prayed Augustine, “and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.” I memorized that when I was trying to understand prayer and was reading a lot of books about prayer. Notably, I was not praying. My prayers, I believed, fell too easily into the category of “vain repetitions.” They embarrassed me and I was sure they embarrassed God.
As much as possible, I wriggled out of praying in public, convinced that I could only offer up the palest petitions and the most tepid thanksgivings. On the few occasions when I could not refuse, I did not prepare. Instead, I offered up a silent, desperate cry before moving to the lectern. “Say what you want through me,” I prayed. “I’ve got nothing.” Those were the prayers which fell upon receptive ears, and some of the owners of those ears remarked that I had seen into their hearts. “Not me,” I said, “I was just the breath and mouth of it.”
I was a restless heart for whom the study of the philosophy of religion was finally not enough. I will not cut off as dead weight the years I spent in preparation and the years I enjoyed opening students to it. It satisfied a part of me that wanted to witness the grand sweep of thought about God. And I taught ethics so my students and I might be awake and contributing for justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. But it was not enough.
“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth,” said Jesus, “will draw all people to myself.” And the Gospel of John continues: “He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.”3 That death has drawn the suffering of this broken world into itself. This man, the very image of God, was and is the Word that spoke creation into being. And where the creative impulse flourishes in humans, through art, music, poetry, fiction, essays, there God-in-Christ makes visible his transformation of suffering into beauty.
For many of us, there is a path to God under the open sun, that winds through standing forests, breathes in poetry and song, and blinks in wonder at works of art. We carry a hunger or a sense of lostness or catch a glimpse of beauty or the sharp edge of justice, and then live our way into a structure that builds on that. In a gallery in a city we find a torso draped in cloth—but it is carved of wood—the flowing miracle of solidity. In another gallery we marvel at the dress that’s spun of glass, the rainbow woven of ten thousand anchored threads. The wonder of forms that reveal grace, these are intimations of God in the presence of a distilled silence heard with reverence.
Rowan Williams reminds us that “We need Christian doctrine because we need some notion of what it is we are trying to be attuned to . . . But if doctrine doesn’t make possible poetry and contemplation, then doctrine is a waste of time; it becomes purely and simply old, safe, and useful.”4
The doctrine of Creation, that there is in all of us a creative impulse reflective of the very image of God, bursts forth in wider and wider circles from the still point of the Spirit at the center. I hear it in the poetry of R. S. Thomas, Mary Oliver, and Rilke. It rings through in the secular psalms of U2, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, and Sting. It is there in the delicate balance of forces in the kinetic art of Andy Goldsworthy’s natural sculptures, in the brooding portraits by Georges Rouault, and the sensual delight in Marc Chagall’s angels, cows, and villagers.
“Man is all Imagination,” wrote William Blake, that God-intoxicated poet. “God is Man & exists in us & we in him. The Eternal Body of Man is The Imagination, that is, God himself . . . It manifests itself in his Works of Art.”5
God is in the world in many forms and voices; grace gives us the lens to see his glory in the world. In those artists whose works take us through the painful descent into the hells of human suffering, we see the steps of the Christ who harrowed those hells and destroyed the power of death.
Williams says, “. . . God is spoken of, and spoken for, or indeed just spoken, precisely in writing that has no explicitly religious content, because of the character of the writing as a labor of the instant.”6
The Spirit moves as does the wind, springing up in an instant and coursing through us. “And we are put on earth a little space,” says Blake, “That we may learn to bear the beams of love.”7 To that, our most eloquent response, our deepest talk of God, may be our grateful silence.
- Williams, Rowan. A Silent Action: Engagements with Thomas Merton. Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 2011, p. 47. ↩
- Williams, p. 50. ↩
- Jn. 12:32,33 NRSV. ↩
- Williams, p. 50. ↩
- Quoted in Frye, Northrop. Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake. Princeton University, 1947, p. 30. ↩
- Williams, p. 49. ↩
- Blake, William. Songs of Innocence and Experience. New York: Avon Books, 1971, p. 37. ↩
What do we imagine is the nature of God’s point of contact with any part of creation? Can God, does God, intervene? . . . Those who allow themselves to think about God and God’s relation to the universe find sooner or later that their feet are no longer on solid rock but walking on water with five fathoms of uncertainty beneath them.1 — John V. Taylor
I can still remember when I discovered that prayer might be good for finding things. A few friends and I were playing ball late in the afternoon in a glade near the acres of an abandoned vineyard. In front of the tree line behind us, there was a bank of grass, thick-bladed and tall, growing lushly. I was playing outfield, stomping around, waiting for a fly-ball. When it came, up and up against the orange light spurting through the trees, I lost it for a moment as I stumbled backward. When I thrashed through the tall grass, trying to keep my footing and still track the ball, I tumbled, legs in the air, arms thrown wide, my glove landing a few feet away. The runner was circling the bases and the ball, a gleaming white softball, had disappeared.
It couldn’t have gone far, but no one in the infield had seen where it landed. I crashed around for a minute or two, expecting to pick it up and hurl it to home plate. But it was gone, like it had been swallowed in mid-air by a pterodactyl. My friends shouted at me to hurry up; we were trying to even the score with one last inning before we all had to run for home and chores and supper.
I ran up and down that stretch of grass, tracing an expanding grid. I tried to calculate the arc of the trajectory. I stamped the grass methodically. I got down on my knees and combed the grass the way you would a horse’s mane. Nothing. A couple of friends ran up to join me as I felt around in the gathering twilight.
I had the memory of a Bible verse, something about, “He has counted the hairs of your head,” tedious and pointless work, in my opinion. But there was another one—“he cares for the sparrows”—that seemed the right level of detail for a loving God in charge of the universe, though I had to admit that by comparison, the loss of a baseball was in the negative end of the scale. But I was getting desperate and my friends had gone, leaving me and another friend to find it or go home. So I prayed, bent over as I searched, and when I straightened up there it was, nestled in a clump of grass I must have gone over several times. With a shout, I grabbed it up and we ran for home in the twilight, the ball glowing like a stranded moon in my hand.
With the eyes of a lifetime, I look back to that boy running joyfully for home, his prayer answered. Should I stop him to say that prayer is about more than finding lost toys? Should I ask him what he’ll do the next time he prays, say, for the life of a friend’s mother, and she dies? What is God’s providence? Does he have his eye upon the sparrow and the softball? Can we say with certainty that our lives and those of our loved ones are always within God’s reach?
I was grateful that God (as I saw it) helped me find the softball. I’ve had many other moments since, when looking back I saw that the pieces of my life at certain intersections fell into a coherent pattern. I don’t know how providence “works.” I certainly can’t predict the outcome looking forward nor should I demand the outcome that I want without putting my effort and my faith into it. “It is not meaningless to thank God for a particular event or for the course of a lifetime, despite being unable to explain the way in which God gave it that form,” muses John V. Taylor in his The Christlike God.2
Think of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel painting, ‘The Creation of Adam,’ with God extending a finger toward Adam, who lounges back against the verdure. He looks lazy and I want to say, ‘On your feet, man! This is God reaching out to you!’ But perhaps I am too hasty to judgement. God is the first being Adam has seen. He hasn’t even seen himself yet. If he doesn’t stretch to meet God’s outthrust arm, it’s probably because he’s only gradually becoming aware of where he ends, and God begins.
With an immaculate naiveté, Adam will trust the flying, whirling, wind-blown muscular God, who has launched himself across the heavens, surrounded by cherubim. Only later will he know distance and regret and shame. For now, he is awakening to the face of glory. This is the first day of the rest of his life—and all life, as it happens.
Let us say that God has called us in as consultants to Adam. Arriving from the future and with the hindsight of thousands of years, we’ve seen more good and evil than he ever will. What have we learned?
Evil is what sears itself into memory we might tell him, although once you’ve catalogued the primary sins, what follows is a tedious but deadly repetition, with the only remarkable deviations being those of scale. Yet, for all that we did not seem to learn from our history.
We first blamed the deities for the elemental forces of floods, avalanches, fires, earthquakes. Later, when we better understood the chain of events, we described them as the laws of nature, and we when we broke them there were consequences. It took time, a lot of time, but it became clear that there would be an accounting for our greed and lawlessness against the Garden. Some wanted to call it the judgement of God; it was rather that Nature would always redress our imbalances with a blind, impersonal power that was awesome and horrifying.
If we could offer moral advice to the First Man, what would it be? Do we want to say, ‘Don’t eat that fruit!’, and then have to explain what fruit is and how you eat it and what eating is, and then why he shouldn’t do the very thing we’ve spent precious minutes instructing him to do? Or maybe you want to say in a whisper, ‘God is going to give you a creature who is lovely and mysterious and has a mind of her own. Don’t presume for a minute that she is any less than your equal.’ Maybe we can head off the sin of sexism before it begins.
And then there were two. Eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, both of good and evil, is their primal step out over the abyss. Lovely to look at, intensely desired, this knowledge with which they take their futures into their own hands is irresistible. The serpent lies: they do not die. They are as beautiful and as vital as ever. Precariously, they take their first timid steps out across this narrow finger of stone. On the other side is the unknown. They are in this together, for better or for worse, until death they do part.
Adam and Eve stand on the other side of the abyss, trembling but exultant. “We made it!” Then as they turn to look back at the Garden they freeze, bewildered. The bridge is gone, they are alone. There is no going back; they face a featureless plain on which they must carve, in labor, their own future.
We might explain the expulsion from the Garden as recorded historical truth or simply a curiously nostalgic folktale. Or, better, we see the story laying bare the God-shaped hole inside ourselves as we toil in the city, far across the plains from the gate to the Garden. Then perhaps we will say to the two of them, ‘Live in your God-given freedom, let your mistakes be your own. Learn to trust going forward, for God can bring good out of this.”
‘Live with trust,’ we might say to them, ‘and love, for love casts out fear and violence is fear without a conscience. Temper your justice with mercy and apply both with compassion. Take on the suffering of others. Put yourself in the place of another, even someone you hate; there are many ways to seek justice.’
In the absence of the knowledge of good and evil, trust is unnecessary. Immaculate naïveté will suffice at first, but true freedom cannot develop. Within the constraints of the freedom God has given us to care for this earth and for each other, God works with us as agents who are responsive and responsible. In the strength of the Spirit, as we follow Jesus step by step, we learn to see the hand of God in the circumstances around us. We can accept the courage it takes to become God’s agents of providence for others. For those whose suffering is not answered and for whom God cannot intervene, “We who would like to say, and rightly, that God suffers with and in the victims must validate the claim by being, if possible, the agent, the body, in whom God does that sharing.”3
For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need. Hebrews 4:15,16, AV
One of the memories that ties Protestants of a certain vintage and social class together is the revival meeting. In my religious neighborhood this was visited upon us longsuffering teenagers during our annual Week of Prayer. At our parochial elementary school or high school, a speaker, usually known as a ‘youth pastor’ for his position in guiding the youth, would take up residence in our midst for a week to bring us to the Lord. This meant that we had chapel every day of the week, instead of our usual assembly once a week. Invariably, the last day of the week would be given over — we were tensed for it — a Call, in which the speaker would appeal to us to give our hearts to Jesus.
The organ or piano would play, the speaker would stand astride the platform, an immovable object through whom we would have to pass in order to see the sky, the light, the earth again. Our ticket, our passport to freedom, was to admit our sins and to publicly stand for Jesus, proclaiming by our verticality that we had cast aside our old life and had given ourselves over to a new attempt at sanctification. I was usually tolerant of this, sometimes moved by it, but on one occasion I hardened my heart toward the speaker and his wiles.
For wiles they were, and he wielded them with the skill of a trained propagandist. There were the glittering generalities, the card stacking (only certain facts allowed), the plain folks approach (I’m just like you; I sin too), the testimonials (I turned my life over to Jesus and you can too), and — as the numbers of those standing inched upward — the bandwagon effect (won’t you join us?). But the twin screws of fear and guilt were usually enough to break the most recalcitrant. It was our sins that had nailed Jesus to the cross and that kept Him there — never mind the resurrection and the promise of eternal life. The sight of squirming 14-year-olds trying to come up with sins toxic enough to kill Christ was disheartening.
There was a point in this emotional fire-hosing when we realized that we’d left a real encounter with Christ behind and that now the speaker was running up the score, carving notches on his belt, and counting scalps. That’s when I hardened my heart and prayed for release. Not wanting to offend or cause another to stumble, I was struggling to stay in my seat, and yet I knew I should not be false to my own relation to Christ. I had a tentative, but sincere, connection with God; if there remained anything standing between me and a commitment to Jesus, it would not be bulldozed aside just to give The Speaker the satisfaction. So I remained sitting, to the consternation of my teachers and some of my friends, since I occasionally assisted as a student leader in religious activities.
Fear and guilt, endemic as they are to humans, are not the best roads to Paradise. I think guilt has a place in waking us up to our situation — the move is called repentance, metanoia in the Greek, and it means ‘to turn around’ — but no one ever built a lasting and healthy communion with another based on fear and guilt alone.
Moreover, such tactics in the hands of a skilled and unscrupulous religious leader too easily result in counting for numbers, herding impressionable people toward a decision they barely comprehend and cannot articulate. It is enough that we see how futile our efforts to walk on water really are and that we reach out to God in Christ.
Wendell Berry has said that “It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.” It is in that context that we can ask what it means to say that Jesus was tempted as we are.
However, we derail ourselves if we insist on a detailed catalogue of the temptations that a first-century Jesus couldn’t have been subjected to. How would Jesus have handled the easy access to online pornography, the money to be made in drugs, plagiarism by students of term papers, or vaping?
If we broaden the scope beyond personal temptation to include ethical dilemmas made unavoidable through advanced technology, it illustrates the fact that as a society our achievements are double-edged: they are gifts that change our environment and our values even as they benefit us. What about genetic screening for inherited diseases, surrogate pregnancies, assisted suicide and DNRs, biological and neurological enhancement, and the use of placebos in clinical testing? Science and technology in our era often outrun ethics; this is the world that we have made. So, presenting God with a list of exemptions based on our technology isn’t going to help us nor does claiming that He couldn’t possibly understand what we are going through. As the Buddha said about discussions on the afterlife: “This does not lead to edification.”
We are opened to a new perspective with Richmond Lattimore’s translation of Hebrews 4:15,16 as he writes: “For the high priest we have is not one who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, since he has suffered all the trials we have, except that he did not sin.” The solidarity Jesus extends to us comes not from specific temptations faced, but from suffering the weaknesses of being human.
To be human is to live in paradox. We are made of earth but aspire to the heavens. We wish to be infinite but are bounded on all sides. We want to please those whom we love, placate those whom we fear, be admired by those we admire. We want to be the masters of our destiny, but on some days we fall and we can’t get up.
“We work our jobs
Collect our pay
Believe we’re gliding down the highway
When in fact we’re slip slidin’ away”1
We can stand apart from the path we are on in the present and ask ourselves what the trajectory of our lives points toward and where we might arrive at if we continue. No other creature can do that, and it is both the blessing and the curse of our condition that we can perceive — if only in hindsight — our misdirections, wrong turns, willful diversions from the way, and lost opportunities.
We are flesh and spirit; we are blind, but we can see that we are blind. We give in to the power of sin and yet we resist. “The fact that we accuse ourselves,” said Paul Tillich, “proves that we still have an awareness of what we truly are, and therefore ought to be. And the fact that we excuse ourselves shows that we cannot acknowledge our estrangement from our true nature. The fact that we are ashamed shows that we still know what we ought to be.”2
God may not snatch us out of temptation or even necessarily lessen our suffering. We may ask, then, how God is present to us in our time of trial. Christ’s credentials here are not a smug “been there, done that” throwaway line. Nor does he peddle cheap grace like some ham-fisted TV evangelist. Christ lives with us in our temptations, suffers with us in our temptations, and does not abandon us when we are tempted.
Christian Wiman says in My Bright Abyss, that “Herein lies the great difference between divine weakness and human weakness, the wounds of Christ and the wounds of man. Two human weaknesses only intensify each other. But human weakness plus Christ’s weakness equals a supernatural strength.” And, we might add, “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.”
“Let us sing alleluia,” says Augustine in a sermon from 418 CE. God doesn’t say he will keep us from temptation, but “with the temptation he will also make a way out, so that you may be able to endure it (1 Cor. 10:13).”
I wish I’d understood that when I chose to remain seated during that call to stand. The way it was presented to me, I was either in or out: sunk in sin and at war with Jesus or cleansed and on the right side. Somehow, instinctively, I knew that it wasn’t that cut and dried. My heart’s cry and my intention were to live in Christ; the reality was that this would take some time.
What I later came to realize is that Christ takes the intention of our hearts as what we really are. Living up to that intention is living within the new being, the new reality, one day at a time. “So now, my dear brothers and sisters,” concludes Augustine in his sermon, “let us sing, not to delight our leisure, but to ease our toil . . . Sing, and keep on walking. Don’t stray off the road, don’t go back, don’t stay where you are.”
Sing, and keep on walking.
- Paul Simon, “Slip Slidin’ Away”, 1975. Universal Music Publishing Group ↩
- Paul Tillich, “The Good That I Will, I Do Not,” The Eternal Now. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons,1963, p. 54. ↩
Photo: Nathan McBride, Unsplash
I believe in all that has never yet been spoken.
I want to free what waits within me.
so that what no one has dared to wish for
may for once spring clear
without my contriving. — Rainer Maria Rilke
During my year of college in England in the early 1970s, I hitchhiked as often as I could. The roads were less crowded then, I dare say it was safer too, and students wearing their college colors could almost always get a ride with lorry drivers or other travelers. On a fine autumn afternoon, I set out from my college near Windsor for Stratford (as in Shakespeare), a short hop of less than 50 miles. I was used to getting a ride within half an hour, but I grew impatient as the afternoon waned. So I crossed the road to the opposite direction and got a lift within five minutes. The driver was headed south and west, whereas I had been heading north. But that was alright, so I went along.
The protocol for conversations ran along fairly predictable lines. I would jump in, he or she would state where their destination was, the driver would ask where I was going, and off we would go. Often, the next set of questions would be, “Where are you studying?” or “What are you studying?” or more generally, “What brings you to this country?”
After my response that I was studying religion, the driver glanced over at me and gave a short laugh. He looked to be in his fifties, wearing jeans and a jean jacket, short, graying hair, a ruggedly handsome face.
“I wonder if you can help me,” he said. “My marriage is breaking up—my third marriage—and I don’t know what to do. I have a cottage out in Cornwall—“ he paused, “and I guess I’ll stay there until I figure something out. You’re religious; what should I do?”
I was a sophomore in college, 19 years old, unschooled in the ways of the world, and near the bottom of the list for reliable marriage counseling. But I did have malpractice insurance and it was this: I had made a pact with God that if I got a lift I would speak of my faith in Christ as the opportunity presented itself. I added a rider to the agreement that only if the driver initiated the subject would I “witness” of my faith. I’d had enough of running into roaming packs of overenthusiastic Christian youths in Berkeley and San Francisco to know that imposing or tricking people into listening to a witnessing spiel was not for me.
So here it was: my cue to speak. I should also mention that the final clause in the agreement was that I be given the words to say. Not asking too much, I reasoned, given the stakes. So we talked, or rather I talked and he listened as we puttered along in his little Citroen. He listened intently, with a question or two now and then, or he smiled and nodded. Finally, up ahead was Stonehenge, where I had decided to get out, and with the stones silhouetted against a blazing sunset, we coasted to a stop by the road. We sat for a moment, gazing in wonder at the sight. Then he turned to me with tears in his eyes and said, “Will you pray for me?” “Of course,” I said, and opened the door to get out. “No, I mean now,” he said, and put a hand on my arm. “Here, right now.” I gulped, and then I prayed with him. We shook hands, I got out, he drove off. And I stood there with a full heart and a mind full of questions.
Here’s the thing: when I got out—and even in the days that followed—I couldn’t remember anything of what I’d said, except that at one point I recited I Corinthians 13 in its entirety—a passage I had never memorized to my knowledge. Now, some 46 years later, with a memory I no longer trust out of my sight, that recitation is still all I can remember saying. I don’t know what happened to that man; I hope his life turned around. I know mine did. Theory turned into practice, hoped-for faith into action. It was enough.
We often describe our youth as lost, when they just may be seeking a point from which to launch. If you don’t have a destination you can’t be lost. It’s only when we establish a goal or a time limit or a linear point that we become concerned about losing our way. But on many of our life journeys, we don’t know the final point and we may not even know the way. Our lives are moving illustrations of faith as a rolling wave, traveling in a general direction without a specific landing point.
Somewhere in his many writings Kurt Vonnegut sardonically tosses out the fact that the universe is expanding in every direction, whistling past our ears outward at thousands of miles per second. Everything else, he intimates, pales beside that. By contrast, Northrop Frye says in his classic, The Great Code, that our default demand for unity and integration, for drawing reality in around us, can only rise as high as our finite imagination.
We choose our metaphors, but before that they somehow choose us. Our descriptions of our paths through life (there’s one!) are the images of what draws us onward (another one!) at certain points in our trajectory (you see?). They may change as we change; the important thing to remember is that we adapt to live up to them.
For many people today, their life metaphor is exile and homelessness. Even if they live in the Hamptons, Aspen, or Palm Beach, they feel themselves to be adrift. Another group, often evangelical Christians, revel in the faintly militaristic strains of “We’re marching to Zion,” and while the route ahead runs off the edge of the map they plunge ahead with confidence. Still others, as advanced in years as they are free to be both curious and experienced, will see their lives as a guided wandering, neither aimless nor pre-determined.
We need to wander until being “lost” doesn’t matter.
We need to wander until our reference points are behind us.
We need to wander without fear or assumptions.
But how long can you travel before it’s too far to return?
Frye says that if we really want to see past the event horizon we need to follow a way or direction until we reach the state of guided innocence symbolized by the sheep in the twenty-third Psalm.
Even though I walk through the
I fear no evil;
for you are with me. — Ps. 23:4
Frye goes on to note that Jesus was a wanderer and that the diffusion of early Christianity “is symbolically connected with the progress of man back to the garden of Eden (159),” the “wandering but guided pastoral world of the twenty-third Psalm.”
The “wandering” motif runs against our linear, goal-driven, deadline-clutching lifestyle, and while there’s a necessity for all of that, there can also be a place for unfettered curiosity and the luxury of wandering without necessity or obligation.
Try it sometime: take a stroll through the gospels or the prophets or the Psalms, finding a text that lights up the imagination and following its references and associations until you reach a place you’ve not been to before. What do you find? Who is there? What do they smile or frown about? What makes them laugh and what are they completely serious about?
Try on a new idea or flip an old one around and see what difference it makes. Imagine that God is in search of us; that your co-worker poses no threat, but is struggling to get through her life; that a good word in due season is on the tip of your tongue; and that truth still really matters.
I look back on those hitchhiking days and I marvel sometimes. I would set out with no money and a light heart, sleeping in fields, trudging through the rain, alone on some country road with no traffic for miles—but it was all good. Countless times there were strangers who protected me, friends who gave me shelter, warmth, and a cuppa, country churches and city cathedrals which opened their arms to me, fields and meadows that welcomed me—there was even delight in adversity. What I didn’t know freed me, what I was learning strengthened me, what there was to learn lured me onward. Be it ever so.
Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (1996). Translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy. New York: Berkeley Publishing Group.
Photo: Murray Mahon, The Village of Hambledon, Hampshire, UK