Mind the Gap

Photo by Suad Kamardeen on Unsplash

In the London Underground there are signs cautioning us to “mind the gap,” calling us to attention when getting on and off the Tube. It’s a sign that should be posted in a lot of other places in our lives.

There is the gap between our public aspirations to equality and the stark realities of systemic racism, the deconstruction of voting access for millions of people, and the constant inequity between the top one percent in this country and almost everyone else.

There’s the gap between what corporations claim are their highest values of equality, service, and diversity, and the reality of discrimination, indifferent service, and a whiter shade of pale in corporate boardrooms.

There’s the gap between our personal best intentions and what we actually display to the world. And there’s the gap between what we the church claim as the kingdom and what we substitute in its place.

Show us the Father, the disciples challenged Jesus. And he replied, If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father. The disciples, like us, saw only that which fit the scope of their vision. The Father was too sovereign, too remote, too terrifying to be anything less than thunder in the mountains or a mighty wind rolling back the waves of the Red Sea.

Jesus brought the Father across that gap between the human and divine, slipping the invisible footprints of the eternal God into his own along the roads of Galilee. He called his Father by an endearing name. But old habits are hard to break: we can be sure not many prayed to God as ‘Abba,’ or ‘Daddy.’ There was an unbridgeable gap there, fixed and immovable in their eyes—and ours.

How often do we think of Jesus as divine? Most of the time. How often do we see him as fully human? Far less. There is a gap. Yet, as human, he suffered all the temptations we do and more. To whom much is given, much is required.

If we really saw Jesus as human, we would not be surprised when his anger flares up, when he weeps over Jerusalem or when he pounces on the hypocrisy of the religious leaders. These are not weaknesses; they are evidence of an impassioned soul completely immersed in this world, yet constantly breathing the air of transcendence.

Within the spectrum of the visible, Jesus’ divinity ripples, fades, reappears and vanishes. I and the Father are one, Jesus claimed, infuriating the keepers of the sanctuary and bewildering the disciples. “Divinity flashed through humanity,” said Ellen White, in a metaphor as visceral as it is inadequate.

We keep trying to summarize Jesus in a thirty-second elevator pitch. It can’t be done. We want something we can carry with us, an amulet for the fingers when we are tempted or grieving. We have the images we’ve gathered from the Gospels: Jesus making his way across the waves to the terrified disciples, rubbing his thumbs across a blind man’s eyes, and enveloped in a brilliant cloud as the voice of God reverberates across the dry hills. These are part of our inner art galleries, companions to the work of artists who have stretched his likeness across their canvasses.

The senses need touch, though. Body yearns for body. We would take the Emmaus road in the late afternoon, our hearts broken, if we thought there was the slightest chance we could relive that moment with the mysterious stranger who innocently asked what happened in Jerusalem that weekend.

We are not within the same chronological trajectory as Jesus. There is a gap. He burns across the skies at light speed. When we read his story in the Gospel of Mark, the prose itself is breathless. The narrative runs to keep up with him. He emerges from the wilderness, the habitation of demons, and immediately turns his hometown synagogue upside down. Full of the Spirit, he announces the breaking in of the kingdom. “The time is ripe,” he says, “and God’s kingdom has come close. Change your purpose and trust in the good news.”1

A man tortured by possession is in the synagogue screaming in pain. Jesus reaches deep and drags the demon out, leaving the man shaken but grateful, the onlookers stunned by the authority of Jesus’ word. Across the gap between the stiff sanctity of the sacred service and the raw clawing out of the demon from its midst, the word of Jesus sizzles through the air: “Put on a muzzle and come out of him!”2

We come up against a mystery: Jesus and his mission are one and the same. To have some inkling of Jesus as a living, breathing person is to take tentative steps across the gap between this world and the kingdom. He shows us the way to God, not through a formula for successful salvation, but by being the person in whom God was most fully seen. At the risk of cliché, the way God acts in the world is through Jesus as the Way.

We get this not through a painstakingly logical progression of thought, but by a leap of trust across the gap. In Jesus we see God as God wants to be seen and known.

Even so, there is still a gap between Jesus and ourselves — a gap that cradles history and human nature. Over the course of a lifetime we are drawn to Jesus in a multitude of ways. We may see him in art, sense him in music and poetry, revel in the Gospel stories, interpret his words for our situation.

There is always the situation and the story. A gap stretches between the two.

The situation is this moment in history, the events and structures we find ourselves within. Language, myth, and symbol are how our story creates us in this situation. Our situation and Jesus’ situation differ, not in nature but in degree.

The whole of human life consumed and transformed him in ways that we will likely not experience this side of death. We get glimpses of it, we hear the music occasionally, but the heavens will not part for us as they did for him. The gap remains. Therein lies our glory and our salvation. He has done what we cannot do that we might live through his life.

There will be a time beyond time when we shall be with him. The final gap — Death — shall be no more. We shall know as we are known. No more need to mind the gap.

  1. Mark 1:15, The Gospels. Translated by Sarah Ruden. New York: Modern Library, 2021.
  2. Mark 1:25, The Gospels. Translated by Sarah Ruden. New York: Modern Library, 2021.

Immaculate Naïveté

Photo: Kalen Emsley, Unsplash

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

  1. Taylor, John V. The Christlike God. London: SCM Press, Ltd., 1992, p. 206.
  2. Taylor, p. 207.
  3. Taylor, p. 233.

Leap and Stutter

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Piety makes for awkwardness, and where

Balance is not urgent, what one utters

May be puzzled and perfect, and we respect

Some scholars’ stutters. — Richard Wilbur, “Grace”

If there is one credo that I carry with me every day, it is that all that matters most is a matter of communication. Love, faith, hope, despair, being with someone and being apart from that one, speaking in all honesty and listening to others with a fierceness that defies obstacles—all of this is communication. And communication is, in its deepest and most profound sense, more than simply a transmission of information. It is communion.

One of the maxims of a psychology of communication is that we cannot not communicate. We’re always on, so to speak; we’re always sending out signals and we’re always receiving them, too, with varying degrees of awareness. Communication 101 says that we are not solely senders or receivers, but simultaneously senders and receivers. The warden in Cool Hand Luke was wrong when he sneeringly drawled at his prisoner (played by Paul Newman) that “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” No, there was communication between prisoner and warden; it’s just that one side of the dialectic refused to recognize as communication anything but abject subservience.

Communication and communion are based on trust—we don’t get anywhere without it. And the companions of trust are hunger, wonder, and yearning. Trust is first a verb; later, it can be a noun. The motion of someone who trusts is forward, out of oneself, a thrust outward from inside oneself. It can be a response in kind, it’s true, but the sort of trust that moves mountains and melts cold hearts is that which leaps. Trust is faith’s body.

In matters of the heart and in faith, we’re all amateurs, those who do it for the love of it. When we try to communicate with others across our self-imposed boundaries we are asking, in trust, for a certain latitude as we step into this new country. Like any traveler to a new place, we are all strangers, self-conscious and prone to mistakes, many of which we do not know we’ve committed until after they land in our midst, showering sparks and making the dogs bark. For communication to become communion, to go beyond information to intimacy, we need to recognize in the other the yearning to be understood. It sometimes gets disguised as bravado, an insouciance that covers insecurity.

With a desire to do right, to live right, to be right, we may cling to the old norms and practices, less out of understanding than to cover some weakness we might have overlooked. Trusting and leaping may seem almost ludicrous; we prefer to hedge our bets with the accustomed answers about the location of God (up and out there), our nature (inherently and seismically corrupt), and the authority of the church (incontestably the voice of God).

“Piety makes for awkwardness,” says the poet, Richard Wilbur,

“and where

Balance is not urgent, what one utters

May be puzzled and perfect, and we respect

Some scholars’ stutters.”

In grace, as in communion, we puzzle out words to each other that have the ring of authenticity, whatever they may lack in polish and certitude. Just as we might write to see what we think, so we may speak to learn what to say. “Where balance is not urgent” nobody will laugh if we fall, and though our piety may be awkward it becomes graceful as we practice it. “We write from aspiration and antagonism, as well as from experience,” Emerson mused. “We paint those qualities which we do not possess.”

As originators of messages our continued communication is only as clear as our ability to interpret and adapt to those signals which we receive in response from others. What we have given to others with sincerity may be returned in like manner, but there are no guarantees. Communion is a dance of memory trusting chance, and we dare not look at our feet.

“Now we aid and influence other people simply by being who we are,” says Richard Rohr, in Falling Upward. “Human integrity probably influences and moves people from potency to action more than anything else.” It may be that our most effective communication is simply when we are with each other, body and soul. There is a silence that is fertile, on the cusp of a feeling so deep that a word of comfort spoken will open the wellsprings of weeping.

How does this desire arise for communion? Gerard Manley Hopkins calls it the “dearest freshness deep down things,” as good a description of the Holy Spirit as I have found. “How can human beings speak of God?” wonders Barbara Brown Taylor in The Seeds of Heaven. “We do not do it well, that is for sure, but because we must somehow try, we tend to talk about what we cannot say in terms of what we can—that is, we tend to describe holy things by talking about ordinary things.” Metaphors become windows, a way to see through our walls to what lies beyond.

“So much talk of God has been punitive in focus over the centuries,” writes Mark Oakley in The Splash of Words, “a God out to take revenge on human depravity. It is surely time to start talking again, as the scriptures do, of a restorative God who takes it upon himself to uphold human dignity and asks us to join him. Although we have often begun with idolatry and ended in violence, for the Christian all must start in wonder and end in humility.”

Humility is essential because everything we can say about God is incomplete, bounded, simplistic. Ludwig Wittgenstein understood the limits of language better than most preachers: ‘That whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent’, he said. We don’t know how to pray, said St. Paul, but the Spirit prays for us in language that is beyond the spectrum of our understanding.

The intimate secret about God that has been known from all eternity is that Christ is the very Word of God, the ultimate metaphor for that whereof we cannot speak. For us, Christ is constantly being remade in the images we need in our time. Unlike us, he is capable of adapting for us so that he may meet us where we are. If we find ourselves on the road to Emmaus, brokenhearted and blinded by tears, he may appear alongside us, the eternal promise of the Word made flesh in space and time. Only in his disappearance do we finally see.

Thomas Merton says, “I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.”

Richard Wilbur, with a cheerful wink, assures us that:

“To be unchecked

Is needful then: choose, challenge,

jump, poise, run…

Nevertheless, the praiseful, graceful soldier

Shouldn’t be fired by his gun.”

So, let us “come boldly before the throne of God,” and in that spirit hold our communion with each other through trust. A certain exuberance is called for in the presence of corrosive cynicism. In a time of lies we hunger for the truths that set us free.

Photo: Nick Fewings, Unsplash.com