Category Archives: Bible

second hand books

Cracked Spines

FacebookAlthough I suppose the whole point of being on Facebook is to be noticed, I always have a brief twinge of angst when someone tags me in a Facebook post. The other day one of my colleagues and friends did just that, providing a web link and commenting “Many will like this list, especially Vance Morgan.”

99 Book Nerd Problems

I’d like to say that I can’t imagine why someone would think that I would be the least bit interested in Barnes & Noble’s list of “99 Book Nerd Problems,” but my colleague was right. At least half of the items on the list were very familiar, some uncomfortably so. cracked spineIn no particular order . . .

Cracked spines. I was recently told in the results of the “What type of book are you?” Buzzfeed quiz that

What Kind of Book Are You?

You are a second-hand book! Sure, you’re a little tattered around the edges, and you might not smell the freshest. But that doesn’t matter: People are so blown away by your wit and wisdom that they want to share your words with everybody they know. Whether you’re handed from one friend to another or discovered on a travel lodge bookshelf, you bring the magic everywhere you go.

This is not true. Oh, I’m down with the wisdom and wit stuff, and I only need to look in the mirror in the morning to be reminded that I’m getting “a little tattered around the edges.” But I am not a second-hand book. Why? Because I do not like second hand booksused books—at least books that look like they are used.

“Cracked spines” sounds like a problem shared by book geeks and chiropractors. One of the early signs, twenty-five years ago, that my attraction to the beautiful redhead whom I eventually would move in with and marry was not going to be all puppies and roses was when I observed her reading a paperback for the first time. She picked it up, opened it in the middle, and bent the pages back so far with both hands that she creased the spine. I know this is hard to believe, but some people actually read books this way. I have spent a lifetime doing everything I can to make sure that my books look just as new on the exterior when I’m done with them as when I started—but not Jeanne. This is why over the past two and a half decades I have, more often than not, spent the extra money on hardback editions of books. A sturdier spine, along with dust jackets that cover a multitude of sins, has largely solved a problem that could have been a deal breaker. And they look impressive on our bookshelves.

PC-magazine-Spring-2014-coverLast summer a colleague in Publications on campus contacted me wanting to borrow some books. The summer edition of the quarterly alumni magazine was to contain various articles about the rejuvenated version of the Development of Western Civilization program that I direct; we are just concluding our first full academic year in the new DWC. Vicki-Ann mentioned several typical texts from the program—The Aeneid, The Bible, Canterbury Tales, The Divine Comedy and others—wondering “do you have a copy of any of these that we could borrow for a few days? We’d like to take a picture for the magazine of some of the texts used in the program.” “I have at least five versions of each of them,” I replied. “Knock yourself out.” In short order a student assistant materialized at my office to pick the books up. Later in the day Vicki-Ann sent me an email: “Do you have copies of any of these books that look like they have been used?” “No.” I can’t help it if my frequently read texts are indistinguishable on the outside from books sold back at the end of the year by students who never opened them. That’s just the way that I am.

Hand-wringing articles that claim nobody reads anymore. Just the other day a headline shouted from my computer screen that TWENTY-NINE PERCENT OF AMERICANS DID NOT READ A SINGLE BOOK LAST YEAR! Really? I find that about as hard to believe as I would find a headline screaming TWENTY-NINE PERCENT OF AMERICANS DID NOT GO TO THE BATHROOM LAST YEAR! hard to believe. achillesBut then I read comments on various articles and posts on-line, find out about the guy who failed to win thousands of dollars on Wheel of Fortune because he could not correctly pronounce the word “Achilles” when it was fully spelled out in front of him on the ‘big board,” and my disbelief begins to dissipate. Who are these people? Everybody I know not only reads, but most of them are book geeks. Of course that is not surprising, given what I do for a living and who I spend my days with. Nobody I know doesn’t read. But wait . . .nobooks

“I’m really not much of a reader”­—Caleb Morgan, oldest son of book geek Vance Morgan.

This is a shocking development. My youngest son, Justin, has his face in a book almost as often as I do. Jeanne, who was not a book geek when we met twenty-five years ago, became an honorary book geek many years ago just from breathing the same air as I breathe for long enough. But Caleb is not a reader. How did this happen? Lest you think I was a complete and total failure as a parent, Caleb is successful, happily married, has an extraordinarily full life, jets back and forth with his wife Alisha to Germany three or four times per year, sends out dozens of texts and emails per day, runs his own tattoo school, and falls asleep sprawled in front of the TV in the evening on the rare occasions when he’s actually home in the evening. How on earth does he find the time to do all of this? I know, I know—he’s “really not much of a reader” and spends the millions of hours I spend buried in a book doing something else. Books shelfShut up.

I have a number of other book geek problems that will be the focus of future posts. But at least one of the problems identified in the B & N article is not one that I struggle with.

Family members who don’t respect my shelving protocol. There aren’t any. They know better.

The Sun and the Other Stars

RuaneWith the end of the current semester, we have finished the second academic year in our beautiful and impressive still-new Ruane Center for the Humanities. On the west side of the stone entryway is carved a memorable saying from the Gospel of John: You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. On the top of the opposite east side of the entryway is the equally memorable closing line from Paridiso, the final book of Dante’s The Divine Comedy: Ruane DanteThe Love which moves the sun and the other stars. In my estimation the choice of this passage for such an exalted position on the building is controversial—when the building was still in the planning stage, I made the tongue-in-cheek argument that nothing more appropriate could be inscribed on the front of a classroom building than what is written over the gates of Hell in Canto III of Inferno, the first book in Dante’s masterwork: Abandon hope, all ye who enter here. But I lost the argument and had to settle for printing that line off and taping it on my office door. It must have worked, because very few students come to visit me in my office.

Dante’s vision at the end of Paridiso is the climax of an agonizing journey through Hell, then Purgatory, and finally Heaven—his capstone experience, strangely enough for a guy who is never at a loss for words, is one that he struggles mightily to convey. Beatific visionOne gets the impression that words fail him and his linear thought process is dissolved as he is subsumed into his long-awaited encounter with the Divine. But I’ve never found Dante’s vision compelling, simply because it’s just that. A vision. And it’s so Catholic, with multitudes of saints, angels, and Mary swirling around in a choreographed dance. I actually resonate more fully with Dante and his guide Virgil as they pick their way through the horrors of Hell and the trials of Purgatory—these portions of the journey I can resonate with because they remind me of the world I actually live in with all of its contradictory beauty and ugliness. That’s the world in which I have been embedded all semester with my students as we explored grace, truth and freedom in the Nazi era, finding glimmers of hope and nuggets of wisdom in the middle of the worst that humanity can devise.bonhoeffer

We spent our last week of the semester with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Protestant pastor and theologian who, imprisoned in Berlin’s Tegel Prison for more than a year because of his involvement in a failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler, found himself in his isolation fending off despair and realizing that whatever God is, God is none of the things he had always thought and taught. In letters to his best friend Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer put his fears, his concerns, his hopes, and his life itself on display in language that is shocking and disturbing in its directness. I asked my seminar students to consider, then discuss, letters from prisontwo passages in a letter from Bonhoeffer to Bethge in their intellectual notebooks and an on-line discussion forum.

What is bothering me incessantly is the question of what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today. The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over, and so is the time of inwardness and conscience—and that means the time of religion in general.

“The time of Christianity is over.” These words confused my students to say the least—“I am shocked that a minister of God could say such a thing,” one of them wrote. But Bonhoeffer’s point is that none of the old formulas or descriptions work anymore, not in a world in which millions of human beings are disappearing as smoke from death camp chimneys. As unsettling as this passage was for my students, the second passage from Bonhoeffer shook them to their core.

So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as people who manage our lives without God. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us. The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually.

God wants us to live in the world as if God does not exist, Bonhoeffer writes. What can this possibly mean? A number of students observed in their notebooks how sad they were that Bonhoeffer had lost his faith. To which I commented, “This is not a man who has lost his faith. flossenburgThis is a man for whom faith has come to mean something entirely different than you are accustomed to.”

A few short months after he wrote this letter, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed in Flossenburg Prison, just a handful of weeks before Germany surrendered to the Allies. Far from losing his faith, Bonhoeffer exemplifies a willingness to let faith evolve rather than crumble in the face of the greatest and most intense challenges. Shortly before his death he wrote a poem entitled “Who Am I?” in his notebook which ends in a place that provides hope for all persons of faith.

Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,

Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all. . . .

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.

Whoever I am, you know, O God, I am yours!

A couple of weeks ago as I was driving to the 8:00 early show at church I caught a few minutes of Krista Tippett’s show “On Being” on NPR. Her guest was Margaret Wertheim, a physicist described in the promo as “a passionate translator of the beauty and relevance of scientific questions.”

http://onbeing.org/program/margaretwertheim-the-grandeur-and-limits-of-science/7472

Toward the end of the conversation Tippett notes that Wertheim, who was raised Catholic, has been described in the media as an atheist. “Are you an atheist?” Tippett asked. WertheimWertheim’s response brings us full circle back to Dante.

I’d like to put it this way: I don’t know that I believe in the existence of God in the Catholic sense. But my favorite book is the Divine Comedy. And at the end of the Divine Comedy, Dante pierces the skin of the universe and comes face to face with the love that moves the sun and the other stars. I believe that there is a love that moves the sun and the other stars. I believe in Dante’s vision. And so, in some sense, perhaps I could be said to believe in God. And I think part of the problem with the concept of, “Are you an atheist or not?” is that our conception of what divinity means has become so trivialized and banal that I think it’s almost impossible to answer the question without dogma.

I love Wertheim’s answer because it is infused with Bonhoeffer’s energy. Dogmas and religious formulas will always fail because God is bigger than that. Seeking the love that moves the sun and the other stars will always take us to places we do not expect, places of beauty and darkness, a search energized by a faith that cannot be lost.

Mulch in the Morning

snowmageddon-300x300It is the next-to-last day of April, and I think it is finally safe to say that we have survived a very tough winter. I often make fun of Rhode Islanders and what they consider a “tough winter” to be. But the winter just ended really was a bad one–one of the snowiest on record, all coming in a one-month stretch from the end of January to the end of February. We had plenty of opportunities to talk about “Snowmageddon,” the “Snowpocalypse,” the Polar Vortex, and to wonder what ridiculous name the Weather Channel would come up with for the latest storm as well as how many more days of classes would be cancelled.

A few days ago I walked out the front door of the Ruane Center for the Humanities and was struck by a distinctive scent wafting on the breeze. Somewhere on the olfactory spectrum between a pristine pine forest and an overpowering air freshener hanging on the rear-view mirror of a car,mulch this scent had rotting organic material tones, with the tangy hint of chemicals. “I love the smell of mulch in the morning! Spring has actually arrived!” There are a number of interesting sights as well as smells that accompany the arrival of spring. That same day as I approached the house returning home briefly for lunch to check up on our four-legged daughters, I saw a squirrel hanging upside down by his back feet from the top of the metal shepherd’s-crook pole that holds several bird-suet cages on our side lawn, using his front paws to open the latch on one of the cages for a free lunch. Our blue spruce that the feeder is next to has apparently grown large enough that squirrel at feederan enterprising squirrel can leap to the feeder from the closest branch at risk of falling several feet to the ground. Amazing what some people will do for a taste of bird seed encased in blocks of greasy suet.

This means that it is time to start getting the yard in shape—one of my favorite projects of the year that I intend to attack with fervor this coming weekend. I use the word “yard” loosely, since we live in the city and our available land is postage-stamp size, comparatively speaking. That’s fine with me—we have lived here for nineteen years and I am regularly grateful that it takes no longer than twenty minutes to mow the lawn, back, front, and side. I have little interest in a luxurious, weed-free lawn. 005 (2)Indeed I suspect that in the height of summer at least one-half of our lawn is covered with what those in the know would call weeds. But the lawn is green, and that’s all I care about.

What I do care about is flowers. I had no idea how much pleasure there is to be found in the annual cycle of cleaning flower beds in late March and April, watching lilies, tulips, columbines, and peonies poke their heads through the dirt despite having as much as six-foot snow banks on top of them during the winter. I keep a sharp eye out for the first leaf and flower buds on the flowering cherry tree, roses, and hydrangea bush in front,100_0918 as well as the butterfly, blackberry, and lilac bushes in the back. I inspect each potential bud-producer every day and take it very personally when no progress is evident. The process has been entirely trial-and-error over the years; assorted azaleas and hydrangea bushes have failed to make an appearance in given springs, tulips and daffodils have tended to be a disaster, leading to digging up last year’s remains and replacing them with something that might possibly do better. The perennials and flowering bushes we presently have are survivors of Morgan’s version of natural selection—if you don’t show up when I think you should, you’re out. The plants that have survived both my impatience and incompetence over the years are hardy enough to survive nuclear winter, let alone Winter Storm Juno. 757854410188[1]I’ve learned a few things over the years, of course—loosening the flower beds and working in bags of shit from Lowe’s (really—they contain manure), then covering with a layer of mulch is a stimulant for growth and a deterrent for weeds. The primary purpose of the mulch for me, of course, is to get high on the aroma. I never seem to buy enough bags, though, and always have to make another trip to purchase three or four more.

19cuaresmaC3[1]Luke’s gospel tells the story of a land owner who had as little patience with his plants as I have with ours.

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'”

Jesus must have had a bad experience with fig trees as a child; Holy Week Monday a few weeks ago is the day that Jesus killed a fig tree for failing to bear fruit, even though it was not even the season for fig-bearing. Jesus and the Fig Tree[1]He probably was in a bad mood because he knew what was coming in a few days. I completely understand the impatience of the fig tree owner. There is no room for fruitless and flowerless plants in my yard—no slackers allowed. But the fascinating part of the parable is the remedy suggested by the gardener, the resident expert, for the figless tree. He says “Let me disturb it at its roots, throw some crap in there, and I’ll bet it will start producing!” That’s generally the suggested solution for any recalcitrant plant. Cut it back to the ground, lop its branches indiscriminately—in short, do things to the plant that any sensible person fears will kill it, then wait and see what happens.

It seems to be a truism in almost all everything I’ve ever read about spiritual growth that such growth is impossible without conflict, pain, suffering, and violence. 250px-Hegel_portrait_by_Schlesinger_1831[1]Even the great and extraordinarily difficult philosopher Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel wrote that “periods of peace are blank pages in the book of history.” I want to know why. Of course, the classic expression of this problem is “Why do bad things happen to good people?” and, more problematically, “Why do good things happen to bad people?” But I’m not that concerned about why human beings have to suffer and struggle—this is such an obvious feature of the human landscape that it hardly seems worth asking about. I’m more interested in what to make of a creating being who presumably had infinite options when choosing the guiding principles and template for the world to be created, and chose to do it in the most open-ended and messy fashion imaginable. This is not a world created with efficiency in mind.

1594489270[1]In her fascinating and eclectic memoir Wild Harmonies, classical pianist and dedicated environmentalist Hélène Grimaud writes that “we can be essential only when we are suffering. It encourages us to remain honest.” I think most of us would appreciate being given a shot at living essentially and honestly without suffering, but we don’t get that chance. Instead we get to do it as plants do it, through productive seasons and dormant, through times when even we are astounded by our beauty as well as those times when even the most generous observer would swear that we are dead. In a charismatic church I attended many years ago in a previous lifetime, Olive treewe often would start the morning service with an annoying song based on Psalm 52:8.

Like a tree, like a tree, I’m like a green olive tree
In the house, in the house of the Lord.
I will trust in the mercies of God forever,
I will trust in the mercies of God.

I’ve never heard such a song about being a fig tree.

Clean Hands

Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully. Psalm 24

magdaAs she waited for the ceremony to begin in Jerusalem, Magda Trocmé might have remembered the above lines from Psalm 24. This is a psalm of “ascent,” sung by ancient pilgrims as they climbed to Solomon’s great temple at the top of Mount Zion. Magda was there in 1972 to participate in the ceremony awarding her husband André—posthumously—the Medal of Righteousness. Those recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” are non-Jews who risked their lives or liberty to save Jews during the Holocaust. There is a tree in Israel for each of the “Righteous Among the Nations”; part of this ceremony was the planting of a tree in André’s memory. During the ceremony, one of the speakers said something that Magda would never forget: “The righteous are not exempt from evil. The righteous must often pay a price for their righteousness: their own ethical purity.” Magda knew all about this.

Andre and MagdaMagda and André Trocmé were the heart and soul of Le Chambon, a tiny, unremarkable town in south-central France that, during the later years of World War II, “became the safest place for Jews in Europe.” Between 1940 and 1943, the villagers of Le Chambon, with full knowledge of the Vichy police and the Gestapo, organized a complex network of protection through which they hid and saved the lives of at least five thousand Jewish refugees—most of them women and children. I wrote in this blog a couple of weeks ago about this seemingly insignificant town that shone like a beacon in the midst of some of the darkest days in human history.

Come In, and Come In

When I shared this story with a church group that I lead on a monthly basis, several members of the group were astounded by the moral excellence of these simple French peasants, wanting to know where they could get their hands on the full story. The Trocmés, indeed all of the Chambonnais interviewed in the subsequent decades concerning their remarkable story, insisted that their actions were nothing special, clean handsthat they were not moral giants or saints, and that anyone would have done the same. Humility aside, Magda learned something during those years when she helped save the lives of strangers in the face of imminent danger—in this world, no one has clean hands or a pure heart. Even apparent moral heroes find themselves sinning no matter what their intentions are. The best we can do is acknowledge the price that has to be paid in order to be good and lessen the collateral internal damage as much as possible.

One of the most important features of the network of protection in Le Chambon was the constant need to make false identity and ration cards for the Jewish strangers who showed up in the village at all times of the day and night. Identity cards were needed to protect against roundups, when identity cards were usually checked; ration cards protected against hunger, since the basic foods were rationed and the Chambonnais were so poor that they could not share their own food with refugees and hope to ration cardssurvive themselves. Magda remembers that “Jews were running all over the place after a while, and we had to help them quickly. We had no time to engage in deep debates. We had to help them—or let them die, perhaps—and in order to help them, unfortunately we had to lie.”

During the first winter of the Nazi occupation, Magda recalls Edouard TheisEduard_Theis, André Trocmé’s assistant pastor, coming into the presbytery and telling her about the making of the first counterfeit card. “I have just made a false card for Monsieur Lévy. It is the only way to save his life.” Magda remembers her horror at that moment: duplicity, for any reason, was simply wrong. Neither she nor any of the other leaders in Le Chambon doubted for a moment the need for counterfeit identity and ration cards, but none of them ever became reconciled to making the cards, though they made hundreds of them during the occupation. Until her death many decades later, she found her integrity diminished when she thought about those cards. She remained sad over what she called “our lost candor.” André was even more troubled by the necessity to lie, fearing that he was “sliding toward those compromises that God has not called upon me to make.”

It is very easy, looking back, to minimize this conflict since everyone “knows” that when the directive “do not lie” and the directive “help those in need” are in conflict, “do not lie” gives way. But this immediate and often facile ranking of moral directives is often an exercise in justifying or excusing moral failings, an exercise André and Magda refused to participate in. They did not excuse themselves from the moral principle of truth-telling by saying that “in circumstances such as these that principle does not apply.” Rather, they did what they could to save lives all the time carrying the heavy heart that always accompanies deliberate and conscious wrongdoing. They learned that they could not dissolve the contradiction by neat, clear logic. In such situations, one must simply bet upon a certain course of action—one must, in an act of faith, throw oneself into action in a certain direction. And in doing so, one’s hands often are made dirty and one’s heart sacrifices its purity.ethics

In Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s major work Ethics, compiled by his best friend from scattered notes found in Bonhoeffer’s study and in his prison cell after Bonhoeffer’s execution by the Nazis, Bonhoeffer writes that

Ethical discourse cannot be conducted in a vacuum, in the abstract, but only in a concrete context. Ethical discourse, therefore, is not a system of propositions which are correct in themselves, a system which is available for anyone to apply at any time and in any place, but it is inseparably linked with particular persons, times and places.

And while systems of propositions can be arranged in a relational hierarchy with close to mathematical precision, human existence cannot. Hence the struggle of the Chambonnais with life-saving tainted with lying. Hence Bonhoeffer, a dedicated pacifist and advocate of nonviolence, becoming involved with various plots to assassinate Adolf Hitler, involvement that led to his arrest and, two years later, his death.Doblmeier

In his powerful documentary Bonhoeffer, director Martin Doblmeier includes a brief vignette from an interview with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whose life and thought have been shaped by the life and work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. tutuIn response to the question “how does one know what the will of God is?” Tutu replies that

There is no shaft of light that comes from heaven and says to you “Okay, my son or my daughter, you are right.” You have to hold on to it by the skin of your teeth and hope that there’s going to be vindication on the other side.

Perhaps on that “other side” clean hands and pure hearts will be available. But not before.

One Heart and Soul

end of semesterIt’s getting close to the end of the semester (about five weeks to go), which means that final papers will be coming in over the next month. As the due date gets closer, I will have any number of conversations of this sort:

Student: The assignment says that I should “take a position” on the issue I am writing about. Does that mean, like, you want me to give you my opinion?

Me: No, that means, like, I want to take a position on the issue supported by argumentation and relevant information. Remember what I have told the class a number of times: a liberally educated person has to earn the right to have an opinion.

In my “Markets and Morals” colloquium recently, our text was a co-authored volume in which two economists, who happened to also be persons of Christian faith, alternated essays and responses on a number of important issues. markets and moralsAs their weekly writing assignment in preparation for seminar, I asked students to select a point of disagreement between the authors (the disagreements were legion), describe briefly the position of each author on the selected issue, then take a side supported by argumentation. Two-thirds of the way through the semester, my sophomores should be able to do this—identify issues, fairly and accurately describe various arguments, and take a position that is both fair to other relevant positions and supported by evidence and argument. So I was disappointed when more than one student ended their essay with something like “I prefer X’s position because Y sounds a lot like socialism.”

Sigh. In my comments on such papers, I always include something like “That’s a description, not an argument. It’s related to another sort of description masquerading as an argument: ‘I disagree with Z, therefore Z is wrong.’” Divided linePart of my job as a professor is to convince my students that a liberally educated human being earns the right to have her opinions. Unearned opinions are like body parts—everybody has them. Plato lists “opinion” low on his ladder representing the climb from ignorance to wisdom. Moving up this ladder one or two rungs from “opinion” to something closer to knowledge involves learning that just believing something does not make it true, realizing that disagreement is the beginning of justifying one’s beliefs, not the end. It’s always discouraging to realize that someone can make it to almost half way through their undergraduate college career and not have learned this.

But I digress. What got me to thinking about this most recently was the reading from The Acts of the Apostles that the lector read to the congregation yesterday:Acts 4

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

It’s one of my favorite passages from the New Testament—as I heard it, I thought of my student. “Dude!” I thought, “It’s a good thing you didn’t hear this—because this really sounds like socialism!” In the past I have used this text in class to poke at the unquestioned assumptions carried by students who, often coming from a faith-based upbringing in an upper middle class or wealthy household, believe communismthat somehow their capitalist free-market attachments and their background framework of religious values will fit seamlessly together as if by magic. “They sound like a bunch of communists!” more than student has remarked in shock, and indeed they (anachronistically) do. Welcome to the lifelong task of trying to live a life of coherent belief and commitment!

This passage from Acts was linked in yesterday’s readings to the familiar story of “doubting Thomas” from John’s gospel. In spite of the bad rap Thomas has gotten over the centuries for being the one disciple loser who refused to believe that Jesus had risen until he had seen him and touched him first person (of course, none of the other disciples believed until they had first-hand contact either, but let’s not go there), he is one of my all-time heroes. By both personality and profession I am naturally skeptical–Imontaigne think that doubt is closer to godliness than cleanliness. Just as I take the great skeptic Michel de Montaigne as a model for how to do philosophy, I consider Thomas as one of my models for how to approach the spiritual life, something I share with many of my spiritual guides ranging from Kathleen Norris, Christopher Wiman and Joan Chittister to Anne Lamott, roawn williamsRowan Williams and Barbara Brown Taylor. Most homilies about this gospel draw the moral of the story from Jesus’ gentle criticism of Thomas’ attitude: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” But there is seeing and then there is seeing. Except for a select few, those who have committed themselves to Jesus in any way have never seen him physically. But without a direct encounter—without truly seeing something worth committing to—faith commitment can easily become sterile religion.

Why, I have often wondered (and have often asked my students), did the early Christian communities choose to organize themselves economically in the manner described in Acts? They are close enough in time to Jesus’ physical presence that undoubtedly some of their members actually knew him in the flesh, or at least knew some people who did. But if the vision is not going to fade, such communities cannot rely on first-hand remembrance of the source. Practices and attitudes reflective of the values the community is committed to must be embedded in the very fiber and structure of the common life of the group. the wayAt some point, given that a new community of followers of the Way was seeking both stability and faithfulness to the message, someone must have asked “How would Jesus have organized this community if he were here?” Somebody remembers the parables, another person recalls the Beatitudes, and pretty soon they become a small, primitive laboratory for the Gospel.  How to truly become Jesus in community form? By putting into action what the man supposedly said and lived. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Shelter the homeless. Love each other as God loves us. This wasn’t church for them—this was life. Most likely their very survival depended on it.

Two thousand years later, persons who profess a Christian faith share a lot in common with these early followers of Jesus. We have not seen Jesus in the flesh, just as most—and pretty soon all—of the members of these early communities had not. micahWe are bound together by having seen Jesus in ways far deeper and more profound than physical vision. And our challenge is the same as theirs, to figure out what it means to actually live it rather than just say it. As I often do, I fall back here on the prophetic words of Micah who asked, just as these early communities did, just as we do today, “What does the Lord require of us?” Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with your God. And, I might add, doubt is an appropriate seasoning for each of these.

The Easter Mouse

palinA couple of years ago, just in time for the Christmas holiday season, a new book by Sarah Palin was published. Entitled Good Tidings and Great Joy, with the subtitle A Happy Holiday IS a Merry Christmas, the book was promoted, among other things, as “a fun, festive, thought-provoking book, which will encourage all to see what is possible when we unite in defense of our faith and ignore the politically correct Scrooges who would rather take Christ out of Christmas.” Every fall in recent years various conservative voices have called for like-minded persons to “take Christmas back” from various elements and constituencies seeking to secularize and remove Christ from it. This strikes me as a relatively recent phenomenon. My upbringing was as conservative Christian as it comes, yet my family had no problem mixing the baby Jesus in a manger with other not-so-Jesus-like features of the holidays, such as the year I got both a BB gun and a G.I. Joe doll (but don’t call it a doll) under the tree. The violent presents must not have had much of an effect. I do not own a gun nor have I shot one in at least thirty years. I’m glad the Christmas police never came to my house—we would have been in trouble.

But that’s nothing compared to the trouble we would have been in had the Easter police ever showed up at the wrong time. Easter is a confusing holiday for a kid, much more confusing than Christmas. Christmas is dependable—it comes on the same day in December every year. But Easter is confusedly flexible—it can show up on any given Sunday between the middle of March and late April.6a00d8341bf7f753ef00e55034926a8833-800wi I learned as an adult that there is actually a method to when Easter occurs. Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring either on or after the vernal (spring) equinox. Although this formula sounds very new-agey and smacks of Druids and such, it apparently was established at the Council of Nicea in 325. No telling what a bunch of theologians and bishops will do with too much time on their hands. All I knew as a kid was that Easter didn’t seem to know when to show up, except that it was always on a Sunday—with either snow banks or flowers outside, depending on the year.

I also knew what Easter was supposed to be about. Jesus was dead and now he isn’t any more. But my real interest was in various not-so-Jesus-like accoutrements that went with Easter—bunnies, Easter baskets, chocolate eggs (crème-filled or hollow) and, my ultimate obsession and downfall, jelly beans. My mother, very much like a Cadbury egg, was hard (or at least Swedish and stoic) on the outside and soft on the inside. 400px_JesusBunny_xlargeShe talked a good game about Easter being about Jesus and not about bunnies, eggs, and candy—but my brother and I knew that every Easter morning before we headed off to church would be an early spring version of Christmas morning. Each of us would find an Easter basket filled with our favorite sweets, as well as a toy or two. Mine was usually a small stuffed animal, facilitating my inexplicable and very strong stuffed animal obsession. One Easter, my mother said that in addition to the Easter basket, she had hidden two solid chocolate rabbits, one for each of us, somewhere in the house—it was up to each of us to find ours.

My brother found his within five minutes or so slid out of sight but within reach behind the piano. But I could not find mine. I’m usually pretty good at this—Jeanne will attest that I am almost always the “finder of lost or misplaced things” in our house. chocolate bunnyBut I could not find my freaking chocolate rabbit. It came time to head off for church and my mother would have caved and revealed where she had hidden it, except that—typically—she could not remember. I knew better than to suggest that I stay home and find my chocolate rabbit while the rest of the family went to church, but I was not thinking “He is Risen!” thoughts while at the service. I was wondering “where the fuck is my chocolate bunny??” (or something like that—the “f” word had not made it into even my inner vocabulary yet).

The chocolate rabbit was never found. To his great consternation, my mother made my brother share his rabbit with me. Several weeks later, though, we found out what had happened to my bunny. As I helped my mother move the massive console record player in the corner of the living room so she could clean underneath, we discovered the box that had contained my chocolate rabbit, empty with a large hole chewed in the bottom left corner. imagesCALFEA3OMy bunny had been confiscated and eaten by one of the several mice who lived in our old barn of a house. We could hear them running behind the walls on occasion. My father set mousetraps in various closets and the furnace room on a regular basis; one of my older brother’s jobs was to check the traps occasionally and discard any unlucky mouse with a broken back that he discovered. I hoped at the time that the freaking mouse who stole my bunny was one of the ones caught by a trap, or at least that the mouse died of a sugar and chocolate overdose. But the Easter Mouse has become iconic in my personal mythology over the years, representing the continuing pull of sacred and secular that has evolved from a confusing tension as a child into an endless source of fascination, ideas, and challenges for growth (as well as blog posts!) as an adult. news_closeup_santamangr_lgSanta Claus or the baby Jesus? Santa’s elves or the angel Gabriel? Rabbits or an empty tomb? Jelly beans or unleavened bread?

As I sat toward the back of a full Trinity Episcopal Church for Easter Sunday service last Sunday, I was reminded of something provocative that a good friend of mine once said: “The heart of Christianity is what you believe about the stories. Do you believe the stories are true or don’t you? Yes or No?” In a slightly more formal way, New Testament scholar NTWright 250wN. T. Wright has the following to say about the stories:

The practical, theological, spiritual, ethical, pastoral, political, missionary, and hermeneutical implications of the mission and message of Jesus differ radically depending upon what one believes happened at Easter.N. T. Wright

Indeed they do—but beyond confirming that I believe the Easter story is true in the sense that “these stories are true—and some of them actually happened,” I not very interested in debates concerning the historical veracity of the foundational stories of Christianity. Personally, I’ll take the Incarnation over the Resurrection as the seminal truth of my Christian faith. But here’s what I do know to be true about Easter:

  • I know that resurrection is real because I’ve experienced it.
  • Easter is a reminder that death does not have the last word, that life always springs from what has been left for dead.
  • New life is often unexpected, inexplicable and unpredictable. I don’t know what the dozens of little green things that have sprouted up throughout my back yard and flower beds are (I’ve never seen them in previous springs), but they are alive. downy woodpeckerI don’t know what the little downy woodpecker hammering away on the vinyl siding of our neighbor’s house this morning was thinking, but it was life in action.

As the newly sighted man said when interrogated about the person who healed his blindness, “I don’t know about Jesus but one thing I do know—I was blind and now I see.” My life narrative will always include the language of incarnation and resurrection—that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. But this I know for certain: New life is for real.

Flesh and Blood

What is bothering me incessantly is the question of what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today. The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over, and so is the time of inwardness and conscience—and that means the time of religion in general. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters from Prison

ECSUI spent last Tuesday as an outside reviewer for the Liberal Arts Program at a Connecticut state university an hour or so west of Providence. I shared these duties with an assessment-guru administrator from a state university in Massachusetts; we are tasked with jointly producing a report of five or so pages within three weeks. I offered to get the report started by writing a rough draft over the weekend, since I have a long weekend away from classes from Thursday through Monday. “Why do you have a long weekend?” my envious colleague wanted to know. Easter breakAhh, the joys of working on a Catholic college campus—I often forget that not everyone gets Easter Break.

Although I grew up in a world in which Easter was the biggest event of the year, I have never settled into a tradition concerning how to celebrate it. Church, of course, but a familiar space filled with people who only show up once a year is a bit odd. Everything seems forced and unnatural, as if everyone is thinking “we’re supposed to be doing something special for Jesus’ resurrection, but we aren’t sure what it is. So we’ll just do what we usually do, only bit longer and louder.” After going to the 8:00 service, Jeanne and I celebrated by eating at Not your average joes“Not Your Average Joe’s” (their lettuce wraps and draft beers are outstanding) and went to see “Cinderella” (with Rose from “Downton Abbey” in the title role). Jeanne’s and my spiritual odysseys started at different poles and have evolved in different, perhaps opposite directions over time. Jeanne was raised Catholic and resonates with many aspects of evangelical and charismatic Christianity, while I was raised evangelical, fundamentalist Baptist and find the vibrations of liturgical worship very attractive. It’s a good thing that our paths have a wide point of intersection, expressed very clearly by the passage at the beginning of this post written by Bonhoeffer in prison mere weeks before his execution by the Nazis. Who is Christ for us today? In less religious terms, what direct impact should our faith commitment have on how we live our lives together and individually?

During the past two weeks the two colloquia I am teaching this semester have raised such questions in stark ways. trocmeIn “Grace, Truth and Freedom in the Nazi Era,” we have been studying the story of Le Chambon, an insignificant Protestant village in southeastern France that protected and saved thousands of Jewish refugees during the Nazi occupation in World War II. The spiritual leader and soul of the village, Andre Trocme, taught and exemplified an eminently practical and effective reading of the Gospels—they mean what they say. When asked about his motivations after the war, Trocme said

If Jesus really walked upon this earth, why do we keep treating him as if he were a disembodied, impossibly idealistic ethical theory? If he was a real man, then the Sermon on the Mount was made for people on this earth; and if he existed, God has shown us in flesh and blood what goodness is for flesh-and-blood people.

invisible handAs if by Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” my “Markets and Morals” colloquium unexpectedly raised the question “How does a person of faith bring her or his values into a market that frequently runs contrary to such values?” just in time for Holy Week. Our text was Is the Market Moral?—a series of essays and responses by Rebecca Blank and William McGurn, two highly respected economists who happen to be very serious about their Christian faith but disagree sharply about how it should intersect with a secular market economy. McGurnAt one point McGurn distinguishes between Christian faith as a guide for an individual life and as a model for social reform, a separation that contemporary Christians frequently make.

A frequent mistake in the social arena is to apply personal virtues to social contexts. To put it another way, our social virtues may complement our personal virtues, but they are not the same. Not least of the weaknesses in so-called “Christian” prescriptions for economic life is the idea that the gospels are somehow a policy platform, as though the Golden Rule can be simply legislated.

I brought these two very different spins on how one’s religious values might apply to one’s practical daily life to my two seminars for small group discussion. One seminar thought that McGurn’s dividing “personal” from “social” virtues is essentially a cop-out, a roadmap for excusing oneself from seeking to bring needed change into the market and other social arenas. The other seminar focused their negative energies on Trocme’s Sermon on the Mount commentary, labelling it as “naïve” and “unrealistic.” Jesus and easter bunnyAnd, I suspect, that the range of true possibilities lies somewhere between Trocme and McGurn.

So what’s a person of faith to do? In the immediate wake of yet another Easter, of yet another emergence of Jesus from the tomb, fighting for attention space with jelly beans and bunnies, with tentative agreements with Iran and the upcoming Final Four, it seems appropriate to ask once again, along with Bonhoeffer, who Christ is, really, for us today. The latest news cycle provides glaring examples of what happens when presumably well-intentioned legislators are unable to tell the difference between protecting religious freedom against perceived threats from the government and opening the door to discrimination in the name of religious values. And about those values—it’s not as if professed Christians have much agreement about what they even are. indiana pizzaThe Christian faith that the owners of an Indiana pizzeria cite as the basis of their refusing to cater a same-sex wedding is the very Christian faith that many have relied on as they call attention to the resulting discrimination and less-than-Christ-like virtues being exhibited by the pizzeria owners and the advocates of the bill. Never has the separation of church and state looked so attractive from the perspective of both state and church.

Still, blankRebecca Blank points out in Is the Market Moral? that a sharp separation between private and public is not an option for “Christians who believe that human beings cannot be whole without their most important institutions tethered in some acknowledgement to transcendent truth.” If my Christian faith is to be something more than a very interesting and complicated private hobby, a sharp separation of secular and sacred cannot be the order of the day. At the very least, Jesus’ annual emergence from the tomb back into the real world should remind the Christian that the Kingdom of Heaven is not a promise of a pleasant and problem-free afterlife, but is Jesus’ frequent phrase to describe what the world, infused with the power of the Spirit and the energy of Christ-infused human beings, should be struggling toward now.tegel prison Dietrich Bonhoeffer, waiting for his certain execution, captures it well.

Christians, unlike the devotees of the redemption myths, have no last line of escape available from earthly tasks and difficulties into the eternal . . . they must drink the earthly cup to the dregs, and only in their doing so is the crucified and risen Lord with them, and are they crucified and risen with Christ.

Watching for an Hour

Some people can sleep anywhere. One of those people was a student in one of my seminars last year. Bob (his name has been changed to protect the innocent) is a bright but apparently less-than-motivated student whose verbal work, such as participation in seminar, vastly exceeds his written or objective work, such as reading quizzes and the midterm exam. imagesCA4P0ANMHe’s one of those students who always has something to say that is relevant and insightful, carefully crafted to disguise the fact that he has probably only skimmed the reading, if he looked at it at all. After twenty-five years I recognize this sort of student more easily than he or she might wish. More important, I recognize this sort of student because on rare occasions I was “that guy” as an undergraduate myself (although not as frequently or as successfully as Bob). And he dozes off in class—frequently. The seminar rooms in our wonderful new Ruane Center for the Humanities are equipped with circular tables, so it’s not as if anyone can sleep in the back row. There is no back row. But that doesn’t deter Bob—if he needs a catnap he takes one. More power to him, I say; I often would like to do the same.

themerchantofveniceebookdownloadOne week our seminar text was Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Following a setup lecture the previous day by my colleague from the English department, I decided to have students volunteer for the nine speaking roles in the dramatic Act Four trial scene and spend the majority of our two hours reading Shakespeare aloud, with pauses for commentary and general discussion as the spirit moved. Bob volunteered to read the part of Portia, the most important role in Act Four other than Shylock. In this act Portia and her sidekick Nerissa are pretending to be young men, a lawyer and his assistant. Since in Shakespeare’s world all female roles were played by guys, Portia and Nerissa in Act Four would have been played by guys playing a chick who is pretending to be a guy. maxresdefaultRight up Bob’s alley, as it turned out—he was excellent in the role.

Until it came time for Portia’s famous “The quality of mercy is not strained/ It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven” speech, that is. Instead of the opening lines of Portia’s eloquent appeal to Shylock’s mercy, there was an uncomfortable silence. Bob had fallen asleep. The girl playing Antonio sitting next to Bob elbowed him in the ribs, Bob’s head jerked up—“Oh! Sorry!”—and he proceeded to read Portia’s twenty-five line speech beautifully and with feeling. Pretty impressive—and he managed to stay awake for the rest of the act. Bob might suffer from narcolepsy, but my suspicion is that he simply doesn’t get enough sleep—a malady shared by most freshmen in college. So he grabs forty winks in class when he needs to. At least he shows up.

Today is Maundy Thursday, a part of Holy Week so full of drama and intrigue that it is very easy to miss some of the most interesting details in the narrative. After dinner, Jesus heads to the Garden of Gethsemane for some one-on-one conversation with his dad, while the disciples tag along. botticelli_sleeping_apostles_2_smallHe wants to be alone and asks them to stay and wait for him as he walks on a bit further. Jesus’ distress and agony as well as his fear of what is to come are palpable and are understandably the focus of most discussions of this part of the Holy Week drama. A less discussed, but equally important, detail is that the disciples fall asleep. They literally cannot keep their eyes open. On three different occasions, Jesus returns to them and finds them catching some Zs. The gospel account is very “high church” sounding, but Jesus is clearly pissed when he finds them asleep. DUDES! Really?? I’m over here literally sweating drops of blood, I’ve never been so scared and worried, and you’re ASLEEP?? WTF?? Wake the hell up! Can’t you at least do that much?

I’m sure their collective reaction was something like Bob’s when he was caught sleeping as he should have been channeling Portia. “Whaa? Oh! Sorry, man! James! Andrew! I can’t believe you guys fell asleep! It won’t happen again, dude!” But it does—three times.

On the few occasions I have heard this scene discussed, the focus is always on the disciples, so human, so weak, or so disinterested that they fall asleep at the switch. I’m more interested in Jesus’ reaction. He hasn’t asked the disciples to do anything for him; he doesn’t even want them around him. So why is he so upset to find them sleeping? What’s the difference between sitting on one’s ass doing nothing and being asleep? In one of his letters to Eberhard Bethge from Tegel prison, BonhoefferDietrich Bonhoeffer uses this little scene to illustrate a profound insight.

Jesus asked in Gethsemane, “Could you not watch with me one hour?” That is a reversal of what the religious person expects from God. We are summoned to share in God’s sufferings at the hands of a godless world.

We expect God to do stuff, to solve problems, to kick ass and take names, but this God is not any of that. The only way this God can be in the world is to experience everything it has to offer, to suffer the worst it can do. The least that the disciples can do is be there, to pay attention, to be in solidarity with this man whom they love, whom they have followed, and whom they absolutely do not understand. Jesus feels alone and abandoned by everyone and everything; finding the disciples asleep simply confirms that what he is feeling is the truth.

What would it mean to watch and not fall asleep, to share in God’s sufferings? Where exactly is God suffering in our world? Everywhere that a human being has a need of any sort, God is in the middle of it. There is so much suffering that it can be overwhelming. No one of us, not even any one group of us, no matter how well-meaning, can make a significant dent. But Jesus isn’t asking the disciples to do anything other than to be aware, to be attentive, and not to tune out. If the answer to “what can I do to help” is “nothing,” at least the question was asked. Asking someone to bear the weight of the world alone is asking a lot—even of God.photo-1-e524059dbea1cebfe788ab374f45a37680085cdc-s40-c85

Strange and Beautiful

Forgive me for name dropping, but I went to dinner with a New York Times best-selling author earlier this month. Twice. Kathleen Norris, author of Dakota, The Cloister Walk, Amazing Grace, and a number of other wonderful books is a visiting scholar at Providence College this academic year and occupies an office that is literally across the hall from mine.kathleen I have known Kathleen for a number of years, but she was responsible for changing my life before we ever met.

I am currently in my final semester of teaching before a year-long sabbatical—it is still unclear exactly how it will all shape up and shake down, but I’m pumped. It seems like only a few months ago, but eight years ago I was in exactly the same situation—a sabbatical semester (the second of my career) on the horizon. During my first sabbatical, all the way back in 2002, I didn’t go anywhere; instead, I holed up in my office and wrote the first draft of a book that was published two years later. As I began to think about my second sabbatical on the horizon, I wanted to go somewhere for at least part of the semester (that’s what normal academics on sabbatical do), but my career has been shaped to fit the campus where I have now taught for twenty-one years. I didn’t even know where to begin.

the cloister walkA few months earlier I had picked up a book called The Cloister Walk while wandering around Borders. I liked the picture on the cover, a cover that also announced that the book was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and contained the following review excerpt from The Boston Globe:

This is a strange and beautiful book . . . If read with humility and attention, Kathleen Norris’s book becomes lectio divina, or holy reading.

The Cloister Walk became my bedtime reading—a book that defies description or summary. Following Norris’s quirky faith through the liturgical year was both strange and beautiful just as the NYT reviewer promised; as another reviewer wrote, “she writes about religion with the imagination of a poet.” I had no idea before I picked the book up that this was exactly what some unknown part of me had been looking for, nor did I know that on a practical level it would point me toward where I would spend my sabbatical semester a year later.Institute

Kathleen’s experiences that frame The Cloister Walk occurred during two separate residencies at the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research on the campus of St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. While there, she immersed herself in the daily Liturgy of the Hours with the Benedictine monks at St. John’s Abbey about a ten minute walk away; she writes that the Benedictines refer to their daily office as “the sanctification of time.” The Cloister Walk is the fruit of that liturgical immersion—a “strange and beautiful book” written by a woman who I would come to know as equally strange and beautiful. As I read, I unexpectedly resonated with the eclectic spiritual vision of a fellow traveler steeped in Protestant tradition as I am—rule of benedictexcept that she was strangely attracted to the Benedictines and their ancient Rule.

An important aspect of monastic life has been described as “attentive waiting.” A spark is struck; an event inscribed with a message—this is important, pay attention—and a poet scatters a few words like seeds in a notebook.

I was familiar with the notion of “attentive waiting” from Simone Weil, another strange and beautiful person whose work had been the focus of my own spiritual journey as well as academic research and writing for at least fifteen years (Simone would have loved the Benedictines), but embedding such activity in the pressures of the “real world” had pretty much escaped me.

Kathleen describes in The Cloister Walk the frustration that her fellow resident scholars at the Institute felt with the poetic and decidedly non-academic energies she brought to their collective work, a frustration that I must confess I as an academic also occasionally felt when wandering through the intuitively organized labyrinth of her book. buberBut then, those who seek God must learn that there are as many paths to the divine as there are persons following a path.

When it comes to faith . . . there is no one right way to do it. Flannery O’Connor once wisely remarked that “most of us come to the church by a means the church does not allow,” and Martin Buber implies that discovering that means might constitute our life’s work. He states that “All [of us] have access to God, but each has a different access. [Our] great chance lies precisely in [our] unlikeness. God’s all-inclusiveness manifests itself in the infinite multiplicity of the ways that lead to him, each of which is open to one [person].”

I had no idea at the time just how badly I needed to hear that. On a deep level I had ceased hoping to find my unique spiritual path over the years, weary of running head on into what a monk described to Kathleen as “the well-worn idol named ‘but we’ve never don’t it that way before!’ And people wonder how dogmas get started!”

At the time I did not trust my ability to hear a possible word from God—I entirely relied on my intuitively attuned wife to do that for me. 209 inaugurationBut as I worked my way through The Cloister Walk I realized that something more than my usual resonance with a fine writer’s craft was going on—I wanted what she was writing about. Literally. I contacted the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, applied to be a resident scholar for my sabbatical semester during the first five months of 2009, and on the day that Barack Obama was inaugurated as our 44th President, a crystal clear Minnesota day with a high of zero degrees, I found myself in a tiny apartment situated in the very same complex and on the shores of the very same lake I had read about eighteen months earlier. my apartmentWhat on earth was I doing here away from Jeanne and my dachshund Frieda, all alone surrounded by a bunch of people I didn’t know? The only good answer was that I wanted what I had read about. And the rest is (my recent) history.

Professionally what I carried from that sabbatical was a new way of writing (that a few years later turned into this blog) and a bunch of academic essays that as of yet have not been published (because I haven’t sent them out). But I was changed from the inside out. I immediately tested the waters of daily noon prayer with the monks up the hill at the Abbey, a commitment that within a few weeks became a three-times-a-day habit. The prayers were important, but inhabiting the Psalms as a collective body opened a “deepest me” space that I have come to recognize as the place where the divine in me hangs out. Every possible human emotion and every possible encounter with the divine is in those ancient poems.

God behaves in the psalms in ways he is not allowed to behave in systematic theology.

The value of this great songbook of the Bible lies not in the fact that singing praise can alleviate pain but that the painful images we find there are essential for praise, that without them, praise is meaningless.

[The Psalms’] true theme is a desire for the holy that, whatever form it takes, seems to be a part of the human condition, a desire easily forgotten in the pull and tug of daily life, where groans of despair can predominate.

One day at noon prayer one of my friends from the Institute nudged my attention toward the row behind us. “That’s Kathleen Norris!” my friend whispered in a slightly too-loud-for-noon-prayer voice.beatles I don’t know what I was expecting a famous author to look like, but it wasn’t this. That evening Kathleen—on campus for a university board meeting—visited the Institute for dinner. For many of us it was like a visit from the Beatles. Like any groupie I made sure Kathleen signed my copies of her books (I had them all in my apartment) and we spent three or four minutes in one-on-one conversation (which I was sure she would not remember). But just meeting the person whose book had brought me to this wonderful place in the middle of nowhere was enough. A year and a half later, while I was back in Collegeville for a writer’s workshop at the Institute, Kathleen and I were both staying at the Abbey Guesthouse (I forget why she was on campus). We had several breakfasts and lunches together, enjoyed some conversation on the guesthouse patio overlooking the lake, and a friendship was formed. I particularly enjoyed the envious looks on my workshop colleagues’ faces when they observed me lunching with a world-famous author in the cafeteria one day. randall lectureAnd now, several years later, she’s our current endowed scholar on campus and inhabits the office across the hall.

When my birthday came a couple of weeks ago, Jeanne and I took Kathleen out to dinner—she’s a great conversationalist and we had a wonderful time. Our plan had been to include our good friends Marsue and Robin (Marsue is also a Norris groupie), but our umpteenth snow storm of the season made that impossible. So the next week we did it again, and this time Marsue got to meet one of her literary heroes in person. It’s strange how things work out. Last August, just a few days before the beginning of the new academic year, I was sitting in the atrium of our student center minding my own business and I heard a voice from the stairs behind me—“I know you!” It was Kathleen. “And I know you too,” I thought. “You’re the person who changed my life.”

oil change

In a Nutshell

John 3 16

 

Sports fans old enough to remember the 70s and 80s will recall that a regular occurrence at baseball or football games either in person or on television was, when the camera panned the stands, to see a person—often wearing a colorful fright wig—holding up a large homemade poster board sign with a cryptic reference that made sense only for initiates: John 3:16. John 316I often imagined the confusion that many might have felt at this ubiquitous, almost subliminal communication, especially in a pre-Google world. John 3:16? What does that mean? But for those in the know, it was no mystery, for John 3:16 is the address of perhaps the most familiar of all Bible verses, the first one (followed by hundreds more) that I learned as a young Baptist boy.

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.

In our fundamentalist, evangelical world, the whole gospel was summed up in this verse, often followed by its less quoted companion John 3:17:

For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.

It really does have it all—a God of salvation rather than condemnation, of love rather than judgment, the incarnation, and—most important in the religious world of my youth—the promise of eternal life, which we interpreted as going to heaven and avoiding hell. It really is the gospel in a nutshell. Really. gospel in a nutshellI remember a crafts event during summer Bible camp when we inserted the text of John 3:16 in tiny print rolled up like a paper towel inside the two halves of a walnut shell which we then glued together with the end of the John 3:16 roll sticking out of a convenient slot. When completed, the text could be rolled out and admired, then snapped back in like a window shade.

Typically, but unfortunately, the textual context of this gospel in a nutshell was usually ignored. John’s gospel is strange and (for me, least) somewhat off-putting. It was written last of the four gospels, at least twenty years later than Matthew and Luke, perhaps thirty years later than Mark. The Jesus of John often sounds more like a theology professor than the no-nonsense man of few words and mighty deeds in Mark’s gospel. In John chapter 3, Jesus is visited secretly at night by Nicodemus, setting up one of the strangest conversations you’ll ever hear.

laurenceNicodemus, described by John as “a ruler of the Jews,” was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin—a significant player in the religious and political structure that Jesus was clearly challenging. For me Nicodemus will always be the bearded and aging Sir Laurence Olivier as he played the role in Franco Zeffirelli’s  Jesus of Nazareth. Nicodemus undoubtedly comes by night because he does not want his colleagues to know of his fascination with Jesus. It’s sort of like John Boehner checking in with President Obama in the middle of the night for budget-making advice—Boehner wouldn’t be able to live it down if word got out. Nicodemus gives Jesus an opening which Jesus takes by saying cryptically “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” We Baptists took this to mean that “unless you accept Jesus into your heart as your personal savior, you don’t get to go to heaven” (although Jesus doesn’t say this), but the “eternal life” business isn’t what catches Nicodemus’ attention. Taking the “born again” line literally, he wants to know “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb and be born”? Debates were raging in Jesus’ world between the Pharisees and the Sadducees about whether resurrection of the dead is possible—Jesus and NicodemusNicodemus, familiar with those debates, thinks Jesus is taking a position. But he’s not. He’s talking about something else entirely.

As the conversation continues, Jesus reminds Nicodemus of the strange story from the history of the children of Israel wandering in the desert that was the focus of our first reading this morning from Numbers. In response to yet another round of blatant disobedience, God sends snakes into the midst of the children of Israel; many of those bitten by the venomous serpents die. In response to the people’s recognition of their rebellion and their penitence, God instructs Moses to make a serpent of bronze and lift it up on a pole for everyone to see. “And so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.”   bronze serpentApplying the story to himself thousands of years later, Jesus tells Nicodemus that “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” Which sheds a whole new light on the gospel in a nutshell passage just two verses later. Jesus is not talking about crawling back into your mother’s womb, nor is he talking about going to heaven when you die. He’s talking about importance of what we choose to look at.

Iris Murdoch tells us that human beings are creatures who make pictures, then over time come to resemble the pictures they have made. And the pictures we make will be fashioned from what we are looking at and what we see most clearly. Two years ago when standing in this pulpit I talked about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “The Great Stone Face,” a tale about a secluded New Hampshire valley; on the perpendicular side of a nearby mountain hung some immense rocks which, when viewed from the proper angle and distance, “precisely resembled the features of a human countenance.” Old_Man_of_the_Mountain_4-26-03In the valley there is a legend that someday “a child should be born hereabouts, who is destined to become the greatest and noblest personage of his time, and whose countenance, in manhood, should bear an exact resemblance to the Great Stone Face.”

Ernest, a young man born and raised in the valley, was obsessed with the story of the promised great man his whole life, spending hours per day staring at the Great Stone Face and sharing the villagers’ disappointment as numerous visitors failed to live up to expectations. As the years pass and Ernest becomes an old man, he is loved by his neighbors and family but sadly concludes that the legend will not come true in his lifetime. Then one day as he talks simply and clearly on his front porch with a number of his friends about matters important to them all, the setting sun strikes Ernest’s face and someone sitting next to him exclaims “Behold! Behold! Ernest is himself the likeness of the Great Stone Face!” He had become what he had spent his life lovingly looking at. Jesus is telling Nicodemus, and is telling us, that the possibility of transformation and renewal is right in front of us—but our attention is focused elsewhere.

It’s interesting to note that John 3:16 does not require us to do anything but believe. No deeds need to be performed, no special words need to be said, no special prayers need to be offered, no sins need to be confessed. Just believe. I spent many years trying to figure out what I needed to do to gain God’s favor—I suspect I’m not the only one in the room who has tried to figure this out. As it turns out, belief is about focusing my attention on the right thing. Not on my shortcomings and failings, nor on my strengths and what I think I have to offer that God might be able to use. lookJesus’ message to Nicodemus is “don’t act—LOOK.” In our consumer society we want solutions that we can make our own, that we can add to our list of useful things we have consumed. But Simone Weil writes that “To look and to eat are two different things. The only people who have any hope of salvation are those who occasionally stop and look for a time, instead of eating. Looking is what saves us.” The gospel in a nutshell.

Nicodemus’Michelangelo_Pieta_Firenze conversation with Jesus clearly had an impact; we see him two more times in John’s narrative, once when he reminds his brethren in the Sanhedrin that the law requires that a person be heard before being judged, the second time when he assists Joseph of Arimathea in preparing Jesus’ body for burial after the crucifixion. He did not drop everything he was doing and start following Jesus, but he did begin to see things differently. As we travel the Lenten path we would do well to wonder the same things that Nicodemus must have wondered about. Where do I usually focus my attention? What would it mean to shift my gaze toward something different? What would it mean to stop looking at the shortcomings, failures and sins in my own life and the lives of those around me? What would it be like to stop staring a few inches in front of me as I sleepwalk through my days and weeks and look up? What difference would it make if I looked at the promise of life rather than the inevitability of death? The bronze serpent lifted in the wilderness. The Son of Man hanging on a cross. Both are iconic images of God’s love and forgiveness, promising that new life can be ours now, that the kingdom of God is available now, and eternal life begins now. All we need to do is look.