Three Degrees of Success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Jonathan Bowers, Unsplash.com

Rooted Sideways

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“Strictly speaking it is incorrect to say that the single individual thinks. Rather it is more correct to insist that he participates in thinking further what other men have thought before him.” Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia

One can look at this in both positive and negative lights. Negatively, we’ll never have an original thought. Everything we think and wrestle with is contingent and formed from time immemorial before us. We may rearrange the words, and thus arrive at some new shadings or nuances, but essentially everything has been thought of before. More ominously, these patterns that we inherit may be racist and sexist, prejudiced to the core, modes of thinking and acting that appear normal unless they are countered by different patterns.

Positively, we are connected with our past and with everything that has been expressed before. And that means, in like manner, we may continue to have an influence on those who come after us, who read what we write and think about what we have said. This is an argument for choosing our formative societies wisely or, more realistically, for experiencing, with eyes wide open, a variety of societies.

Karl Mannheim (1893-1947) was a Hungarian-born sociologist, who was one of the co-founders of the sociology of knowledge. His best-known book, Ideology and Utopia, argued that our ideas and ideologies are products of our times and of the social status of those who hold them. Knowing that this could lead to a harmful relativism, Mannheim proposed instead “relationism,” in which we understand that our ideas are limited and that we must trace them back to their roots in our history to see how they have influenced how we relate to society. He broadened the concept of ideology beyond its political roots to include how we arrive at ideas and how those ideas mirror our life and times.

This idea can be fruitful for religious groups who take the time to recognize that their conceptions about God, religion, social and religious behavior, and culture are rooted in history. In my view, as an Adventist Christian, it calls me to recognize that my beliefs are born in history and can be traced back to their sources. It both gives me a link to the past and helps me to recognize that my group and I don’t hold the key to all the secrets of life. It builds in epistemological humility without sacrificing awareness of what we owe to our forebears.

Mannheim says we think in patterns that are established by our societies. Which patterns become the dominant patterns? How do they change? He says that groups of people, scattered along the social strata, will not change unless there is tremendous upheaval to their way of life. Only when there is a conflict of ideas can change be possible—and even then, the ideas must somehow impinge on us or push us into radically new ways of thinking and seeing.

Mannheim again: “As long as the same meanings of words, the same ways of deducing ideas, are inculcated from childhood on into every member of the group, divergent thought-processes cannot exist in that society.”

I think it’s questionable if we each are imprinted with the template to this extent or if every person in our group falls as easily into these patterns. Most of us can remember some who stood out—often the quiet ones—in our school or college years because they would not follow the stream. I found them interesting, even admirable, and later came to think of them as remarkable for their independence of spirit against the pressures to conform.

Nevertheless, Mannheim is right, I believe, that for the most part we fall into a comfortable sharing of rituals, symbols, references, and habits that mark us as belonging to the same tribe. The question is, how do we think and act in new ways? Perhaps more to the point: what would prompt us to question that which we are?

Recently, I went to a reunion at the college I had attended in England back in the 70s. Aside from the delight of seeing people I had known almost 50 years ago, there was also the more sobering effect of hearing the stories of their journeys of faith in all that time. Illnesses, deaths of loved ones, divorce, reversal of fortunes — we had not escaped these molders and shapers of experience. Tentatively, at first, and then more confidently, we began to open up to each other about our faith and our doubts. Many of us had worked for our church denomination’s educational, medical and religious organizations for decades, and now we were verging on retirement or had already ventured into it.

The stories emerged, blinking in the sunlight, over the weekend. Consistently, as I listened I found myself thinking of the (somewhat) innocent youths that we were all those years ago, compared to the (somewhat) more experienced persons we are today. The people that we were and are presently serve as bookends to the volumes of years in between; over the weekend we found we could distinguish between the bookends and the books.

Some of these friends had worked in many different cultures and countries around the world, moving in and out of places as disparate as Rwanda, London, Iceland, and Michigan. All of this while raising children, finding homes to live in, establishing gardens, and getting the car fixed. Others had remained teaching or pastoring—or both—in one country, while seeing their societies evolving, changing, growing ever more diverse and sometimes more polarized.

Over the weekend you could see clusters of people together, laughing, leaning in to listen, pausing to remember something and then going on with a chuckle, knowing that what they were trying to retrieve would return to memory after the conversation was over. In any given group of four or five people there could be a combined total of over 200 years of work and service. And now these people were sensing gaps between what they had done and experienced and what they had hoped their church might become. They had diverged from the theological and social boundary markers they had been raised to guard because those positions were stationary, and life moves on. It was not that those beliefs were now invalid, but more that from day to day, in living and working with people, the larger concerns of compassion, patience, and humility had edged those beliefs to the periphery. Now they were wondering if they were alone in this or if there were others who also felt these gaps. They were like people who set down their burdens to travel lightly with the essential provisions.

“I believe in absolute truth and absolute contingency, at the same time,” says Christian Wiman in My Bright Abyss. On this side of the bookends, and at this stage in our life journeys, we are down to the essentials. They are essentials because they have been proven through experience to be useful for making one’s way through life faithfully and with care for others. “And I believe that Christ is the seam soldering together these wholes,” continues Wiman, “that our half vision—and our entire clock-bound, logic-locked way of life—shapes as polarities.”

At times we change our minds and our lives, decisively and consciously, at the same time we are being changed passively and incrementally over time. When we pause to look back, it is then that we realize how different our outlook presently is from the other end of the bookshelf where we began.

Mannheim says we only break out of the conventional ways we were raised to think in through horizontal or vertical mobility. Horizontal mobility is where we change locations or even countries without changing our social status and, in this way, we come to realize how differently people think and live. Vertical mobility is where our social status ascends or descends rapidly, and this, says Mannheim, “is the decisive factor in making persons uncertain and skeptical of their traditional view of the world.”

In conversation about this with a friend she remarked that those of us who find ourselves in these gaps have not radically stepped away from our Adventist roots and from our social context as she has. Viewed from the outside, our unease is trifling and our “gap-mindedness” comes from being too close to the trees to see the forest. Yet, there are many in this position who have paid dearly for their honest doubts and who are viewed with deep suspicion and distrust by those who hold power inside the Adventist religious organization. Depending on one’s vantage point, we have moved an inch or a thousand miles. In practical terms, this means that some in power in our church may already regard us as “outside the camp” with no possibility of being accepted back in. By contrast, some of those I spoke with at the reunion thought of themselves as at the boundary—but still within the circle. Most striking was the feeling that no one in authority should define us out of the church by drawing the circle tighter and thus excluding us. Being woke means being responsible for one’s actions.

Mannheim asks, “how it is possible that identical human thought-processes concerned with the same world produce divergent conceptions of that world. . . May it not be found, when one has examined all the possibilities of human thought, that there are numerous alternative paths which can be followed?”

One of the central metaphors of the New Testament is the idea of a spiritual communion with enough room for many different kinds and ways of serving and living. It is an expansive view rather than a constricted and exclusive position.

“There are varieties of gifts,” says Paul, “but the same Spirit. There are varieties of service, but the same Lord. There are many forms of work, but all of them, in all [people], are the work of the same God. In each of us the Spirit is manifested in one particular way, for some useful purpose (1 Corinthians 12: 4-7).”

There were some I spoke with who had found spiritual succor in other faith communities. They talked of being accepted, of simple caring and friendship, of the delight in finding shared spiritual communion. While they were not about to abandon their Adventist roots, it was invigorating to realize that spiritual sustenance could be found outside the camp.

Gary Gunderson writes in his Deeply Woven Roots, “Although we’ve been told for all our lives that we should put our roots down deep, actually, the healthy trees send them sideways . . . At the microbial level, the roots live together so intimately they literally function as one organism so that the light from one, the food from another is shared—even among different species. At least in healthy forests, a healthy community it is. Where are your roots tangled with others? How are you reaching sideways?”

Photo: Stephen Leonardi, Unsplash.com

The Worlds We Make

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We can have words without a world but no world without words or other symbols. — Nelson Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking

The first line of the Dhammapada, a collection of the Buddha’s sayings, is, “All that we are is the result of what we have thought.” With that, the Buddha signals that thought precedes action and mind shapes character. This is in common with the words of another sage: “As a man thinketh, so is he (Proverbs 23:7),” a maxim which suggests in its context to beware of the stingy who insincerely invite one to share a meal. They are not to be trusted, for the hidden thought will be exposed in the interplay between the two.

So, I am here quoting those who once lived upon this earth, people we know only through their words. The gulf that lies between the utterance of those words in time and where we stand today is not just about the millennia that have passed between us, but about the worlds those words brought into being and the worlds that arise when we read them today. Are they the same worlds?

We create worlds through our words, says Nelson Goodman, in Ways of Worldmaking. In a few pages of closely reasoned arguments, Goodman shows that the frames of reference we construct to describe what we experience are systems of description; they are not that which is being described. We never truly apprehend the object of our experience, only the description we construct to talk about it.

An example: If we say, “The sun always moves,” and “The sun never moves,” both statements are equally true and equally at odds with one another. Goodman asks if these statements describe different worlds— whether there are “as many different worlds as there are such mutually exclusive truths?” No, rather we make accommodation by saying that under this frame of reference this statement is true and with another frame of reference the other statement is true. “Our universe, so to speak,” says Goodman, “consists of these ways rather than of a world or of worlds.”

I find this both invigorating and disconcerting. In a way, Goodman is playing games—language games—to make a point: there is no irrefutable foundation for all truth, only descriptions that are more or less right for their context. The fact that we construct these descriptions out of what we find in anthropology, physics, psychology, literature, philosophy, theology, and other disciplines, means that we are constantly remaking our worlds of thought. “Worldmaking as we know it,” says Goodman, “always starts from worlds already on hand; the making is a remaking.”

***

Here are some materials at hand that we can make a story out of, a description of something and someone that matters a great deal to us.

Jesus is crucified about 33 CE and the first gospel, generally thought to be Mark’s gospel, is written about 70 CE. That is a gap of about 40 years—a whole generation—without any written source of Jesus’ life. The people who gathered each week in small groups to remember the Lord were those who had had first-hand knowledge of Jesus. The boy who gave over the loaves and fishes that Jesus fed five thousand people with would have been a man with children and grandchildren of his own. Lazarus, raised from the tomb and given a second life, would have passed on by this time. The disciples, men with families when Jesus chose them, would have grown old and scattered, some to Rome, others staying in Jerusalem, Thomas (as legend has it) making his way to India to establish a Christian community, and Philip probably down in Ethiopia. All of these people lived and died on the stories that were told and retold about Jesus, as they met together in upper rooms, sometimes in a wealthy person’s home, sometimes on the run, often over a meal with song and celebration. They were people, quite literally, of the word, the Word that came and lived amongst them.

Think of the stories they told, the anecdotes tenderly passed down through the family chain like pearls of great value. From the sayings of Jesus to the signs he performed to the parables he told, these narratives sustained these groups through their days and eventually formed the web of Mark’s gospel.

In his breathless and rustic style, the author of Mark’s gospel creates a narrative—a world!—that Matthew and Luke break down to use in the remaking of their individual worlds. Later, around 90-100 CE, comes John’s gospel, a parallel universe to the previous gospels, converging at points, but drawing its own course through its orbit. It closes with these tantalizing words:

“But there are also many other things that 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.”

These gospels are the Gospel, the good news about Jesus who came into the world and “the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him (John 1: 10).”

***

We read these words today, millennia away from their creation, in the awareness that the bone and sinew, words and meaning of their author and the person of which he wrote come down to language and symbols, marks on paper or pixels on a screen. Despite the billions of words devoted to this Jesus, the stories that could be told have no end because these words, having been written, continue to produce new stories in the strength that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it (John 1:5).”

Instead, we may become accustomed to these stories to the extent that we no longer take in their meaning. Our eyes pass over the letters, we register the shape of the words as we would the silhouette of objects whose outlines against the light are familiar only because of the form of their darkness.

“This world, indeed,” notes Goodman, “is the one most often taken as real; for reality in a world, like realism in a picture, is largely a matter of habit.”

“Language can create faith but can’t sustain it,” says Christian Wiman in Ambition and Survival. I’m not so sure. When I read of the Buddha holding up a flower before his gathered disciples and one of them—only one—smiles, and Buddha says the equivalent of “He gets it!,” something in me thrills to that imagined scene. When Jesus begins with “The kingdom of heaven is like . . .,” it’s “Once upon a time” all over again. We’re hardwired for stories: good, bad, mediocre, we pick them up, and turn them over and over in our hands until we find the seam that opens them. From these we fashion a world that we can live in.

“To have faith in a religion, any religion,” continues Wiman, “is to accept at some primary level that its particular language of words and symbols says something true about reality.” That I can agree with.

He goes on: “This doesn’t mean that the words and symbols are reality (that’s fundamentalism), nor that you will ever master those words and symbols well enough to regard reality as some fixed thing. What it does mean, though, . . . is that the only way to deepen your knowledge and experience of ultimate divinity is to deepen your knowledge of the all-too-temporal symbols and language of a particular religion.”

Separated as we are by thousands of years and the innumerable worlds of language and imagination between us and Jesus, these slender figures on our pages are the portals between our worlds. The path to the divine remains, astonishingly, through the darkness and light that is our world.

Photo: Lydia Shi, Unsplash.com

Consider the Lilies

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“Consider the lilies,” says Jesus.

Is it a demand, like “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice?’” Or is it an invitation like that extended to Matthew who, as a taxman, was sitting in his booth collecting the blood-money from his people to be handed over to the occupying Roman force?

Jesus is walking along, says the Scripture, and he sees Matthew in his little booth, like those photo booths you’d see in parking lots of grocery stores, not even as big as a restroom at a Phillips 66 service station, and he just says, “Follow me,” and “he got up and followed him,” says the Gospel according to Matthew (no relation).

This invitation comes to Matthew as something of a command, for how else to explain leaving a job in which the money is made so easily (the size of the booth notwithstanding), just a matter of slipping an extra 10 percent on the standard tax so the Empire gets its money, you get your slice (in addition to your paltry salary), and everyone is happy—well, everyone with the exception of your people who await with dread and resentment the next shakedown at your command. If you didn’t mind being a pariah and knowing that every face turned toward you was either coldly indifferent or seething, then the job had its advantages. A pariah you might be, but a rich pariah you were, and that almost made up for being alone.

The lilies, then.

“They toil not, neither do they spin.”

***

Our work, what we do for most of the life we have, how do we see it? Is it a command or an invitation? Were we sitting in the little booths of our adolescence, bored and avaricious, waiting for a summons that only we would know when we heard it? Did we think the summons would be dispersed in general to everyone like us around us or would it single us out—we alone—lifted up out of the ordinary on the strength of a talent long buried like a bone in the garden, a talent perhaps, that we had ourselves buried for shame for even imagining it was our talent?

Or did we back into the spot, the one available at the time, that would become our place for so long that the weeds would grow up around the tires and the seasons wear down the frame as it settled?

Our self-image, like a Polaroid snapshot, emerges gradually from black to gray to color as we phase through our work life.

We imagine ourselves to be vaulting over all obstacles, achieving that which others have despaired of reaching, or bending down kindly to raise up those behind us who are slipping on the rungs of achievement. Suddenly there is no one ahead of us, the field is clear, we have been called to lead! We turn with an encouraging shout, only to find that the others, leaders and followers, have calmly dropped back. They regard us from a distance with pitying looks. We are alone.

We do not recognize the person we are until we see ourselves at work in the vocation we believe ourselves to be called to. Then we wonder if the gap between perception and vision can be bridged. We give ourselves to the work, glancing to the side at colleagues and up ahead at those who beckon—they make it look so effortless. We feel like imposters. It is in those moments that a fundamental truth is revealed to us: we have entered a conversation that precedes us by thousands of years and will continue after we cease to speak. It is possible that by listening we may learn and by speaking we may remember what we have learned. In speaking our own minds we may find that we have also spoken what others have thought but could not say. With Emerson we may be like the one who is “happy enough if he can satisfy himself alone that this day he has seen something truly.”

***

Matthew followed Jesus, seemingly without hesitation. Was it a relief to shuck off the taxman’s cloak? He gave up routine, the comforting groove of repetition, for day-to-day dislocation and the tingle of the unknown. In a moment he jackknifed himself from solitude into a band of brothers, discarding ambition like a fraying belt and making no plans beyond the setting of the sun. What his former life had been was the mention of some nudges and terse comments at first, but then that arc of his life evaporated and was gone. Filled with a strange elation, he fell into the rhythm of the days, feeling his stride lengthen and his horizons widen. What was he now? The first time someone asked, “Where is your master?,” he almost laughed before he realized that he had become a disciple, a follower.

“It is precisely the most solitary people who have the greatest share of commonality,” said Rilke. “The one who could perceive the whole melody would be most solitary and most in the community at once.”

Strangely, what Jesus offered was a hallowedness that made every action seem both familiar and sacral. There was an inwardness about him that lingered even when he smiled. Matthew found it compelling, a sense that even as Jesus was among them, sharing meals and stories and the hard ground under the stars, he was yet just beyond their reach.

His intensity was infectious, if exhausting. “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” he cried out. He acted like a man whose life was converging with a future that was accelerating toward him at the speed of light.

The next day they were moving through a springtime field awash with flowers, heading north following the line of hills to the west. “Consider the lilies,” he said, trailing a hand through the blossoms as they walked. “They neither toil nor spin.” They didn’t need to toil to justify their short time on this earth. They simply were: they were their own reason for existing. As brief as their lives were, he said, God took care of them. Wouldn’t He do the same and more for you? God knows what you need.

That night he said to them, “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness. Don’t worry about tomorrow.” He looked round at them, quizzical faces turned up in the firelight. “Tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

And now Matthew is considering the lilies, even as he turns over all that Jesus has said. He thinks about those for whom life is one hard-scrabble decision after another, those who could never imagine that the story provides an excuse for blithe idleness. For them, subsistence is necessity and tomorrow is never guaranteed. For them, faith is all the guarantee they will get—and all they will need.

He decides it is an invitation: “Consider the lilies!”

Photo: Josephine Amalie Paysen, Unsplash.com