Category Archives: Christianity

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The Return of Republican Jesus

Numerous polls report that as of today, Donald Trump is the preferred candidate of conservative Evangelical Christians for the Republican nomination for President. I don’t get it. As Frank Bruni wrote last week in a NY Times op-ed,trump-hair

Trump-ward Christian Soldiers?

I must not be watching the same campaign that his evangelical fans are, because I don’t see someone interested in serving God. I see someone interested in being God.

Last summer I wrote about the “Republican Jesus” phenomenon and wondered how a serious Christian squares her or his faith commitments with the conservative Republican world view. I’m still wondering.

I’m not sure how I became a liberal. I was raised in a conservative, fundamentalist religious world that frowned on liberal activities such as dancing and going to movies; left-leaning political positions were never mentioned. barry_button1Northeastern Vermont is not known as a hotbed of liberal attitudes. My father was as politically aware as watching Walter Cronkite every night on television allowed him to be, and he was a classic reactionary voter. Starting with the first Presidential election I remember, mondalemy father voted for JFK, Goldwater, Humphrey, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Mondale, Bush the First, Clinton, Dole, and Gore before passing away in 2002. He was always voting against someone or somethingdole-button-1. The only time I recall hearing my mother saying anything about politics was probably the only time she voted differently than my father. As she returned home from voting in the ’72 Presidential election, I asked her who she voted for. “McGovern,” she said. “I just don’t like the sound of that Watergate thing.”

I was too young to vote in the ’72 election (I was 16), but that didn’t stop me from wearing a McGovern button on my jacket as I loaded groceries into customer cars at the supermarket where I worked after school. Several customers who were not in favor of someone they perceived as a virtual Communist running for President complained to ComeHomeAmericaTed, the store manager, but Ted was a liberal and was wearing a McGovern button on his store apron, so the complaints didn’t get very far. To be honest, I’m not sure how anyone who came of age in the ‘60s and early ‘70s as I did could have avoided becoming a liberal, although my cousins, who are my age and grew up in the next town managed to avoid it. The impact of growing up in the sixties and early seventies is all over me, from my ponytail to my natural attraction to pushing the envelope rather than embracing the status quo to my internal delight in ignoring rules and regulations, even if ever so slightly.

But lots of people grew up in the sixties and did not turn out to be the liberal that I have been my whole adult life. I’ve become more and more convinced over the past few years that if I am to take my faith commitments seriously, which I always have even in times when deeply submerged beneath layers of rationality, fear, hubris, complacency or even brief attempts at atheism, then if I am going to be consistent the political and social beliefs and positions I511vOzalgjL__SL500_AA280_ inhabit are going to well left of center. In other words, although there is definitely a 60s counter-cultural youngster still inside me, the real reason I am a liberal is because I am a Christian. Don’t get me wrong—I am fully aware that there are millions of people professing to be committed Christians in this country who are hard core conservatives both in their political and social beliefs and are proud of it. I just don’t know how they pull it off without crossing their fingers behind their backs.

A brief email conversation with an acquaintance several years ago illuminated this for me very clearly. My acquaintance is a Christian speaker, retreat giver and counsellor with a certain following; I was a regular recipient of her e-newsletterr-SARAH-PALIN-JOHN-MCCAIN-OBAMA-large570. During the 2008 Presidential campaign summer, she wrote passionately about her great respect for Sarah Palin, the former Governor’s ability to “stick it to the liberals,” and her plans to streamline governmental support programs. In a private email I asked my friend (ingenuously) “How do you square your political positions with your faith?” In her reply, among other interesting things, she wrote “I think that, first and foremost, Jesus wants us to stand on our own two feet and take care of ourselves.” Now that’s a Jesus that I am unfamiliar with from the Gospels, but a Jesus that has become rather popular for a lot of people in these politically polarized times: Republican Jesus.

For instance, in last Sunday’s gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus feeds five thousand people with five loaves and two fishes, not because he’s a show-off in need of a signature miracle on his resume, but because “he was moved with compassion for them.” Regardless of whether you believe this story to be factual or allegorical, it undoubtedly illustrates the compassionate heart of the gospels. In the same situation, however, Republican Jesus would have acted otherwise:lazy jesusfeeding 5000

 

 

 

 

The Jesus of the gospels came from poverty, was poor his whole life, had little if anything positive to say about the pursuit of money and wealth, and had tough news for the rich young man who wanted to be his disciple—“Sell all you have and give it to the poor, then come follow me.” I suspect that Republican Jesus would have encouraged the rich young ruler to continue amassing wealth and enabling others to do so, in keeping with an often forgotten part of the Beatitudes: Blessed are the one percent, for their wealth shall trickle down to those who do not work as hard , and who are not as smart and creative (maybe). Republican Jesus would have endorsed the message of the “Gospel of Prosperity” ministers who preach that financial success is a sign of God’s favor.NVP

Toward the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus summarizes what the life of following his example requires succinctly: I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me . . . Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. Republican Jesus? A different attitude entirely.   Jesus with rifle

It’s all parody and sarcasm, of course, and the Republican Jesus meme has gone viral all over social media. Unfortunately, the positions and attitudes expressed by Republican Jesus are carried out on a daily basis by well-meaning persons who simply assume that their hardcore conservative values somehow or another mesh seamlessly with the teachings of the Jesus whom they claim to love and follow. And I don’t get it. There are good reasons to take various political/social positions, and there are good reasons to choose to be a Christian. The trick is remembering that what you believe in one area of your life has a direct impact on things that you believe in other areas of your life. Conservative Christians—good luck with that. It’s challenging enough as a liberal (impossible, actually), but at least I’ve got the book on my side.09ab37a6ab5e3feada1e948c21889d0c

Hail Frieda, Full of Grace

Exactly three years ago today, I started “Freelance Christianity.” I intended to write on the blog until it became just another damn thing I had to do–three years, visits from 150+ countries, and 60,000+ visits later, I’m still loving it. Thanks to all who regularly read my musings, as well as to those who drop in once in a while. As I have done each of the past two years, to celebrate the three-year anniversary, here is my very first blog post in which I sing the praises of the second most important woman in my life. Enjoy, and thanks again!

I have unexpectedly fallen in love with a real bitch. She’s cute, with dark brown eyes and medium brown hair. Although I generally prefer long hair on a female, she wears her hair extremely short and it works. She tends to bite me when she gets overexcited while we’re playing, but I still find her pearly white teeth very attractive. Although she’s willing to allow a ménage à trois when my wife is home, she prefers it being just the two of us in bed. Her name is Frieda.

This is a new experience for me. No one has ever looked at me with a gaze that says “you were put on earth just for me.” No female has ever marked me as a love interest and dared me not to love her back. This is the first time I’ve been chosen before I knew I was even being considered. And it’s not as if Frieda doesn’t have lots of options for love interests. Everybody loves Frieda—she’s extroverted and assertive, yet can be warm, demure, and submissive. She can take over a room just by walking into it, yet is happy to spend hours being quiet doing whatever you’re doing. She is fluent in both English and German. Her profile would be a killer on eharmony.com.

I never thought I’d fall in love with a dog. I’ve always been a cat person; there’s been at least one cat in my life consistently ever since I was ten years old. A cat is a perfect pet for an introvert; they clearly would prefer to be left alone most of the time and will only socialize when it is their idea. There’s something edgy about even the most domesticated of cats, as if it just crossed the line from its wild ancestors and might cross back at a moment’s notice. It takes time and effort to get to know a cat—time and effort on the human’s part, that is. The cat couldn’t care less. Self-reliance, independence, confidence, a sense of mystery and aloofness—I find much to admire in a cat.

Dogs are a different story; not so much to admire. Dogs are so obsequious, as if canine completeness requires human approval.. But Frieda didn’t and doesn’t need me—she chose me, out of the blue. Frieda is part of the four animal menagerie who arrived when my son and daughter-in-law moved in, joining the two geriatric animals already in the house; she decided early on that I was going to be hers. I’ve seen animals attach themselves to a single human before (usually my wife, a dog person). Not to me, though. So the “click click click” of toenails behind me everywhere I go, an enthusiasm when I come home so over the top that I worry about her health, having a canine jammed in next to me everywhere I sit, a 10 ½ pound dachshund trying to spoon with me in bed—these are new and sometimes disconcerting experiences.

I once saw a bumper sticker that said “I want to be the person that my dog thinks I am.” Not me—that’s too much pressure. No human being could possibly deserve the rapturous upside-down look Frieda occasionally gives me when she’s laying next to me or on my lap, just making sure that I’m still there. Of course such reverence is easy for Frieda—she doesn’t know about all the ways in which I am unworthy of unconditional love. That’s one of my great fears—what if they (my wife, my sons, my friends, my students—anybody) knew the truth about me? Frieda doesn’t know the truth about me, and that’s why she’s attached to me at the hip. She doesn’t know any better.

I learned as a kid in Sunday School that grace is “unmerited favor.” Divine grace is something I don’t deserve, a gift I cannot earn, bestowed simply “because.” Over the years, grace has evolved for me into “God knows that you’re a shit and a loser, but chooses to forgive you and to love you anyway.” Today I’m thinking that grace is more like Frieda. The miracle of grace is not that “you are unworthy but I choose to treat you as if you are worthy,” but “you are worthy.” Not “I love you in spite of,” or “I love you because of,” but “I love you.” If there is, somewhere in the universe, a transcendent grace and love like that, I am in awe.  That’s something worth believing and having faith in. That’s a thread of possibility that should be followed in order to see where it leads. Of course, Frieda’s just a simple dog and doesn’t realize that her standards are ridiculously low. But as Leonard Bernstein wrote in Mass, “Sing like you like to sing/God loves all simple things/For God is the simplest of all.”

A Hard Saying

In today’s gospel reading from John, a number of Jesus’ followers complain after one of his teachings that “this is a hard saying; who can understand it?” When Jesus responds with a few more of his patented cryptic remarks, the writer tells us that “from that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more.” These are not just hangers-on or fringe bystanders, looking to be entertained by another miracle. They are disciples, people who have been following Jesus for some time and have been witnesses to and recipients of the vast range of what the man has to offer. And they’ve had enough.

These frustrated former disciples have a point. I have to honestly admit that I might have gone with them. The sermon that causes them to finally fold up shop and go home is indeed a difficult one, wrapping up with the claim that only those who drink Jesus’ blood and eat his flesh will have eternal life. But this is by no means the only “hard saying” that they’ve heard from Jesus. From selling all you have being a prerequisite for following him, and letting your enemy smack both sides of your face while giving him your sweater to go with the coat he stole, to letting the dead bury the dead and hating your father and mother if you want to be his disciple, Jesus is full of “hard sayings.” Small wonder that Christians generally, lacking the guts to simply walk away, tend to water down and systematize the radical elements of the gospel into manageable directives. These reduced commands require behaviors and commitments that, although burdensome at times, can be carried out by any reasonably dedicated and sincere adult. For many of us, “this is a hard saying—who can understand it?” is not really a question of understanding at all. For we understand the hard sayings all too well, and conclude that they are just too much.

In October of 2006, the news of a shooting in an Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, PA burst onto the nightly news. A neighborhood milkman carrying a small arsenal of weapons walked into the school and started shooting, killing five and wounding many more before turning his gun on himself and committing suicide. In the midst of deep grief, the interconnectedness of the Amish community was demonstrated through comprehensive mutual support and, most shockingly, immediate forgiveness. At a prayer service the night after the shootings, the Rev. Dwight Lefever of Living Faith Church of God said that earlier in the day he was in the kitchen of the shooter’s family home when an Amish neighbor came by. “He wrapped his arms around Charlie’s dad for an hour,” Lefever reported. “He said, ‘We will forgive you.’” The pastor’s conclusion: “God met us in that kitchen.”

For the past few years, I have included this tragic event and its aftermath as the central part of the midterm exam in my General Ethics class. I provide my students with a newspaper account of the Amish community’s reaction to the shootings, and then ask them to try to make sense of what happened, particularly of the immediate forgiveness offered to the shooter’s family, within the structures of the moral frameworks we have studied during the first half of the semester. They can’t do it. Furthermore, many of my mostly parochial-school educated students find something twisted, even offensive, in the willingness of the Amish community to forgive the murderer of their children. Comments range from “this is completely abnormal” to “these people are sick.” After several semesters of this assignment, no student has yet commented favorably on a quote from a member of the Amish community included in the article: “Our faith tells us to act like Christ did on his way to the cross.”

Once shortly after reading the midterms, I was drinking a beer with a colleague at the local watering hole on Friday afternoon, unwinding from the week. I described the reactions of my students to the behavior of the Amish, reactions that were still fresh in my mind. In response, he said “I also am shocked by what the Amish did, but I don’t know why. As a Christian, I should be shocked that I’m shocked. They are just trying to do what Jesus said to do.”

Perhaps I can excuse my 19-20 year old students for being unable to find a place for radical forgiveness in their moral worldviews, which have been heavily influenced not only by strong family connections but also by a culture of the self and Christianity on the cheap. But what about me, someone significantly older and more experienced than my students? As someone who has grappled with issues of Christian faith from my youth, my own temptation is to think of the Amish as über-Christians, somehow capable of moral heroics that normal persons such as I can only admire from a distance and not even aspire to. That rationale is particularly tempting because I, as many mainstream Christians, have been encouraged to think that it is the priests, pastors, monks, nuns, and missionaries who are the elite corps of Christians, freeing me to reduce expectations considerably.

But there is nothing in the Gospels to justify that easy out. Jesus’ call to take up my cross and follow him does not contain a loophole or room for an amendment. Which brings me back to the beginning—“this is a hard saying.” Christ apparently demands everything of me, which is far more than I can give. I can’t love my neighbor as myself. I can’t love God more than I love Jeanne. I can’t sell all that I have, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow Jesus. It’s too hard, and I’ve grown tired of pretending that a lukewarm, watered-down version is sufficient. Maybe I’m one of those who should “walk with Him no more.”

But that’s not an option for me. I identify with the remaining disciples who asked, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” So, where does that leave me? I want to follow. I can’t follow.

A still small voice offers a bit of hope. “Of course it’s too hard. Of course you can’t do any of these things. That’s the point. I can, and I am in you.” If divine love has indeed overcome the world, then perhaps it can even overcome me.

The Poorest Deserve the Best

Defend the poor and fatherless;
Do justice to the afflicted and needy.
Deliver the poor and needy;
Free them from the hand of the wicked. (Psalm 82)

article_d62546f9c91b7ef2_1356881538_9j-4aaqsk[1]In his 2006 Christmas sermon at Canterbury Cathedral, then-Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams tells the story of a visit he made the previous week to Holy Family Hospital in the Palestinian West Bank as part of an ecumenical pilgrimage with the heads of several other Christian denominations in Great Britain. Holy Family Hospital has the best-resourced maternity unit in the whole of the West Bank, equal to the best in Israel. But because of the current storms of political conflict within Palestine, as well as the local Israeli and international economic sanctions against the Palestinian government, no one on the hospital staff is sure from day-to-day where funding for next month’s salary is coming from. neo1[1]Foreign donations pay for the state-of-the-art equipment, but making ends meet requires a daily seeming miracle.

As Rowan Williams held a new-born baby in his arms, an infant who had been abandoned by the side of the road by his mother and brought by a stranger to the hospital, he asked Dr. Robert Tabash, the medical director of the neo-natal unit, what keeps him and his staff going in the face of challenges that often must seem insurmountable. “What we are doing here is important,” Dr. Tabash replied, “because the poorest deserve the best.” Period. Simple as that. Continuing with his sermon after telling this story, the Archbishop asks those congregated in Canterbury Cathedral “When you hear that, I wonder if you can take in just how revolutionary it is . . . this is probably the most radically unique thing Christmas and Christians bring into the world.”

a-comic[1]As we begin yet another of the seemingly endless elecion cycles, as our elected officials threaten to allow the government to close down yet again–this time over the funding of Planned Parenthood, hamstringing or eliminating important social programs, it is more pressing than ever to ask what is to be done about our fellow citizens who are poor and disenfranchised, the ones upon whom the worst falls once again as we posture in favor of our preferred political and social agendas. As Rowan Williams points out, for those of us who claim to be guided by Christian principles, the Gospel message is clear. From the Beatitudes to the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus never wavers from the message that in the divine economy and social structure, the poor, the widows, and the orphans—the disenfranchised and those who continually fall through the cracks, in other words—are to be considered first. If there is one thing that guarantees divine judgment, imagesCAMKE8VSit is the failure to show paramount concern for “the least of these.”

And yet even Jesus, who himself was born into abject poverty and remained there his whole life, was fully aware of just how intractable these problems are. In the Gospel of Mark, we find Jesus dining at the house of Simon the Leper, the very definition in that culture of an outcast. A woman arrives with an alabaster jar containing nard, a rare and expensive ointment. She breaks the jar and anoints Jesus’s head with the ointment, inviting well-aimed criticism from the disciples and others. “Why this waste of perfume?  It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And these critics were absolutely right—in their understanding of Jesus’s teaching, this was a violation of what has come be known as the “preferential option for the poor.”

Which makes Jesus’s response all the more shocking and confusing. “Leave her alone. Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.thepoor-1024x576[1]The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me.” Not exactly what the group at dinner expected, I imagine. What is he talking about? How to explain this apparent moment of self-centeredness? I have heard many theological explanations for Jesus’s dismissive comment about the poor; I have even heard this very scene twisted into a justification for not funding social programs intended to help those in need. And I don’t have a good explanation for why Jesus is throwing the very persons he raises to blessedness in the Beatitudes under the bus.

But there is a strange and powerful connection between Jesus’s “the poor you will always have with you” and the Palestinian physician’s “the poorest deserve the best.” Why do the poor deserve the best? welfare_two[1]In our world we so often connect help for those in need with a prior explanation of why they are in need. If you are in trouble through no fault of your own, then perhaps I’ll help. But if you are in need because of your own bad choices or laziness, then you’re on your own. Still, the call to raise the disenfranchised to primary attention does not ask why—it simply says “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” What makes the poor so special? Why do they deserve the best?

The very existence of the poor, and the stubborn resistance of poverty even in the face of our best efforts to make their situation better, is a continuing reminder that every time we attempt to address the intractable problems of the human condition with yet another economic/social program or redistribution, we run straight into our own poverty. ist2_1126926_building_walls_01[1]Every line we draw is partially drawn out of fear. Every wall we build to defend ourselves and keep out what we are afraid may destroy us is also a wall that keeps us in, a wall that will change us in ways we did not choose or want. Every human solution to fears and threats generates a new set of fears and threats. As soon as we try to sort out who we will empower and give the advantage to, we also identify who we are against; and that will undoubtedly create another round of poverty and anger and bitterness. Perhaps it is time to realize that the message of the gospel cannot be legislated or brought into existence through political action. What is required is far more personal.

Why do “the poorest deserve the best”? Not because they are in some strange way better than those who are not poor. The poorest deserve the best because, bottom line, all of us are incurably impoverished. Humanity itself suffers from poverty, the moral and imaginative poverty that time and again reproduces the same patterns of fear and violence. Despite our delusions of independence and self-made success, not one of us, not even the most financially secure and successful or confident law keeping and godly person, can in truth look after ourselves. The genius of the Christian narrative is that this is not only okay, it actually is the reason that God became human. In Deuteronomy, God tells the children of Israel that they have been chosen precisely because they are slaves and exiles, the most helpless community on the face of the earth. And this is why the poor are to be preferred—they are a constant reminder of the basic condition we all share.

This is also why we will always have the poor with us, why they will always stubbornly resist our best efforts to solve their problems. The poor will always be with us because we cannot escape our collective human impoverishment with exclusively human tools and strategies. Our giant goes with us wherever we go. The divine response? God does not let us have what’s left over from the grace given to holy and honorable people. God doesn’t look around for some small bonus that might come from the end-of-year surplus in the budget.118915129__368529c[1] God instead becomes one of us, an energizing force for change and reform that we cannot even imagine. As Archbishop Williams reminds us in his Christmas sermon,

The truth doesn’t change, “the truth sent from above,” about our own universal ruin and restoration and about what that lays upon us when we look at the various specific poverties we confront in our human family. We revert so readily to the idea that love must go where merit lies, that help must follow merit and achievement. But God apparently thinks otherwise.

Love That Will Not Let Me Go

One of the required performances for a professor returning from sabbatical is a public talk on campus related to her or his research and writing during the months away from the classroom and campus.most interesting man During the first weeks of my current sabbatical, I’ve been looking at some of the results of my Spring 2009 sabbatical, including the talk that I gave in Fall 2009 once I returned. Here is the beginning and end of it—a reminder of where I was then and where I have been going since then.

Introduction: The student of Western philosophy confronts a series of either/or dualisms which apparently demands that a side be taken on a number of matters, ranging from metaphysical through epistemological to ethical. Although contemporary philosophers have frequently and successfully attacked dualism in all areas of philosophy, surface level dualistic descriptions of the playing field are sometimes helpful in getting oriented to the strange and wonderful world of philosophy. After more than twenty-five years as a student and teacher of philosophy, I find that my own orientation on the dualistic playing field reveals some important patterns.

In no particular order of importance, I lean toward Heraclitus rather than Parmenides, Aristotle rather than Plato, Locke rather than Leibniz, school of athensAquinas rather than Augustine but Ockham rather than Aquinas, Hume rather than Kant but Kant rather than Hegel, empiricism rather than rationalism, realism rather than idealism, virtue ethics rather than rule oriented ethics, plurality rather than unity, Darwin rather than any of his multifarious opponents, Nietzsche rather than the majority of his opponents, the late Wittgenstein rather than the early Wittgenstein, and, in most cases, the particular rather than the universal. I can make intellectual arguments in favor of all of these inclinations, but I can also make arguments in support of the other side of the dualism in each instance—that’s what philosophers do. I simply know that I am philosophically most “at home” in a framework within which knowledge is constructed piecemeal from the bottom up through sense activity and experience rather than top down through the intuition or imposition of universal principles and truths. under construictionIf there is such a thing as human nature apart from particular human beings, I believe it is, to use Flannery O’Connor’s wonderful phrase, “something under construction” rather than a fixed form. These preferences incline me toward doubt and open-endedness in epistemology, toward suspicion in metaphysics, and cause me to both embrace pluralism and venture close to the kingdom of relativism in ethics.

These preferences are also, at least at first look, in direct conflict with the religious worldview within which I was raised. In my conservative and fundamentalist Protestant upbringing, I was taught to believe in the literal inerrancy of the Bible, to accept dozens of statements and claims concerning God and His relationship to human beings as factually true and immune to challenge or question. To ask questions or to doubt, or at least to do these things publicly, was to reveal the weakness of my faith. born againThe primary reason for being a Christian, for being “born again,” was to be saved from hell and to go to heaven. The faith I was taught was largely a faith motivated by fear, resulting in a great deal of exclusivity toward and judgment of those who did not believe as we did.

I’m quite sure that one of the primary reasons I ended up in academia and the vocation of teaching was the working out of a very poor fit between the religion I was taught and the person that I naturally am. My natural resonance with questioning and doubt, as well as with what is particular, open-ended, provisional, “this-worldly,” and contingent prepared me well for the academic life and the vocation of teaching philosophy. It is, at the same time, at odds with the faith of my youth at almost every significant point. Yet my Christian faith is part of my heritage, my history, my tradition. It is not an item of clothing given to me as a child that I was free to take off once I “put away childish things.” It is part of my fabric, my DNA. And I have carried it uncomfortably for many years.

the nice and the goodA friend’s question from long ago—“How can you be both a philosopher and a Christian?”—has lurked below the surface waiting to be addressed. One of the characters in Iris Murdoch’s novel The Nice and the Good speaks of “the faculty of colouring and structuring [one’s] surroundings into a moral habitation, the faculty which is sometimes called moral sense.” Many of the tools used to build a moral habitation come from one’s tradition and history, including one’s religion. A few years ago, I began the exhilarating but uncomfortable process of bringing the details of my faith up from below the surface where they had lain dormant for years, in the hope of finding for the first time ways to use the tools of my faith along with the tools of my vocation in constructing my moral habitation. How is that project going?penguin sabbatical Conclusion Outside the windows of my sabbatical apartment, windows which stretch from floor to ceiling along the entire width of the south side of the apartment, is a beautiful lake. 1836660_604566519623279_291098012_oOver the months I lived there, I watched hundreds of birds of dozens of sorts alight on this lake, stay for a while, and then move on. Sometimes they just floated for a while before flying away. Sometimes they plunged beneath the surface for an uncomfortably long time, then popped up way on the other side of the lake. A few I saw only once; maybe they found a better, more private lake where people aren’t staring at them all the time. But the people who are permanent Minnesota residents rather than a visitor as I was say that there are some pairs of birds—all sorts of ducks, loons, grebes, Canadian geese, eagles—who come back every year. For at least a part of every year, Stumpf Lake in Collegeville, Minnesota is their home.

These days I think of faith as being like this lake. I spent time on this lake as a young child, and had no idea it was this big. The portion I thought was the whole world turns out to be the shallow part of one corner of the lake. Upon return, I’m discovering depths that no one’s ever found the bottom of. I’ve never been a big fan of the water, and I’m not a very good swimmer. water wingsBut I’m getting better at it, and I don’t need blow-up water wings to stay afloat any more. I’m not sure what I want to call this place where I’ve landed. It’s disturbingly new, yet absolutely familiar. I believe I’m entitled to call it Christianity; as my wife told me a few months ago, I can put whatever label I want on myself. The following from Annie Dillard describes this place pretty well.

I know only enough of God to want to worship him, by any means ready to hand. There is an anomalous specificity to all our experience in space, a scandal of particularity, by which God burgeons up or showers down into the shabbiest of occasions, and leaves his creation’s dealings with him in the hands of purblind and clumsy amateurs.

If the stories in the Bible have any truth to them, apparently God has an inexplicable love for “purblind and clumsy amateurs”—amateursjust look at the disciples and others who followed Jesus. Just look at me and everyone else I know who is trying the Christian incarnational narrative on for size. The only people who regularly annoyed Jesus were the people who professed to be something other than clumsy amateurs in matters of faith. But the root of “amateur” is “amator,” the Latin word for “lover.” And that’s what I find here—a love that will not let me go. I find that to be amazing.

And I still do. Thanks to those of you who have been sharing this journey with me on this blog!

Saints and Warthogs

MLPPT_UncGratitude_1[1]Part of my incurable biblioholism is that invariably my favorite book is the one that I am currently reading. My favorite book one week not long ago was Uncommon Gratitude: Alleluia for All That Is, a collection of essays from two of my favorite theologians, Sister-Joan-Chittister-pf2[1]Sr. Joan Chittister and Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. Truth be told, they might not technically be theologians at all (I don’t know if their union cards are up to date), but I find each of them to be provocative and brilliant in their own unique ways. I purchased this book a couple of years ago, simply because of who wrote it, but am only now taking the plunge.

Irowan-williams[1]n one of Rowan William’s essays, “Saints,” he defines the term “saint” as “someone who starts a chain reaction of new perception in the world, who reinforces, even among those who don’t or can’t yet believe, the confidence that there’s more to us all than we have suspected.” I like that definition a lot, because it places the emphasis where it belongs—on creativity and iconoclasm—rather than where we tend to go when thinking of saints—ethereal religiosity and unapproachable moral rectitude. imagesCAIG1NYII must say, though, that I have a more difficult time thinking of persons who embody William’s definition than those who satisfy the more traditional saintly mold. What comes to mind more readily from my own history is experiences that have started the sort of internal chain reactions that reveal something new and unexpected. Usually these events have been incremental and small, only revealing their saintly characteristics after the fact. But every once in a while, I have been blown favorably off course by an event, a book, or an idea that changed things for good. Sainthood is in the air, if I only know where to look.

oates_1-040909_jpg_400x500_crop_q85[1]Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation” is all about someone unexpectedly getting sucked into a vortex of holiness. In this story Ruby Turpin, one of O’Connor’s most memorable characters, has a very bad day. Ruby and her husband Claud own a small farm in 1940s Georgia—their livelihood is made from the yield of their acres worked by hired black workers and the raising and sale of a few cows,DirtRoad[1] pigs and chickens. The bulk of the story is set in the waiting room of a crowded doctor’s office where Ruby and Claud wait for the doctor to look at an infected area on Claud’s leg where he was kicked by a cow a few days ago. Ruby is a chatty, pleasant, overweight, confident Christian woman in her forties with, as she frequently says, a “good disposition,” and tends to immediately strike up a conversation with whoever is willing.waiting-room1[1] Other patients in the room include a well-dressed woman with a sullen, ugly teen-aged daughter, a grandmother, mother and son who are obviously “white trash,” and others who flit around the edge of the conversation.

It becomes immediately clear that Ruby has a strong sense of how things are supposed to work and of the proper hierarchy of persons in her world. She is thankful that God didn’t make her a nigger, or white-trash, or an imbecile—she is extraordinarily grateful that she was born with a good disposition, is blessed with enough food and money (although not too much), and is generally just thrilled to be herself. As she drops these tidbits into her conversation, as well as comments about why Negroes should perhaps go back to Africa, Ruby notices that the sullen young lady keeps shooting increasingly hostile glances in her direction. The girl’s well-dressed mother eventually reveals that her daughter,images[9] a student at an exclusive college “up north,” has been given everything by her parents but is an “ungrateful person” with a bad attitude who never does anything but criticize and complain. Mrs. Turpin remarks that “it never hurts to smile,” concluding that “When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I’ve got, a little of everything and a good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting ‘Thank you Jesus, for making everything the way that it is!’” In response, the sullen college student throws the college textbook she has been reading across the room at Ruby, hitting her above the left eye, then leaps on top of Ruby and starts choking her.

Once Ruby is rescued by others and the young lady, “obviously insane,” is sedated, Ruby asks “Don’t you have something to say to me?” The girl responds in a vicious whisper 6030468896_4a5cb062b2_z[1]“go back to hell where you came from, you old warthog!” As the day winds on Ruby, despite her good disposition, can’t shake this comment from her consciousness. Back on the farm toward sunset, as she hoses mud off the pigs, Ruby’s mounting anger ignites in a direct and explosive tirade aimed at the very God she had been thanking earlier.

What do you send me a message like that for? How am I a hog and me both? Why me? It’s not trash around here, black or white, that I haven’t given to. And break my back to the bone every day working. And do for the church. Three little pigsHow am I a hog? Exactly how am I like them? There was plenty of trash there. It didn’t have to be me. If you like trash so much, go get yourself some trash then. You could have made me trash. Or a nigger. Go on! Call me a hog! Call me a hog again! CALL ME A WART HOG FROM HELL. Put that bottom rail on top. There’ll still be a top and bottom! WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE??

When Ruby comes up for air, she raises her eyes to where the sun has just slipped below the horizon. And she suddenly sees for the first time that day, perhaps for the first time in her life.

A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw . . . a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right . . . They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and respectable behavior . . . Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away. . . . In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.purgatory_r1_c1[1]

And the story ends. Something has broken through Ruby’s safe and smug assumption that God’s behavior and expectations fit her comfortable world seamlessly. Did the vision change her life? Did she forget it in the next minute? O’Connor wisely leaves it to us to wonder.

God’s program is not ours—God’s priorities are upside down. But that’s the point. A transformed world requires transformed people. Only an entire rearranging of what is “natural” will suffice. Be on the lookout for saintly moments of holiness, the small but persistent ways in which the faith we profess turns everything upside down.

wicked

The Wicked

debateThe morning after the recent Fox News-hosted debate amongst candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, the appointed morning psalm in the Anglican monthly cycle of “read through the Psalms in a month” was Psalm 37. Usually there are three or four psalms each morning and each evening, but this is a long one. Subtitled “Reflections on Good and Evil” in the Grail translation that I use, the psalmist is focusing on the good guys and the bad guys, the “upright” and the “wicked.” The wicked are mentioned fourteen times in forty verses—clearly the psalmist is living in a world in which the wicked are prospering and upright folks (like the psalmist) are waiting for the day when the scales of justice will realign and the wicked will get what they deserve. There is little of the impatience with the divine’s apparent lack of action in this psalm that one finds in others with similar themes; here, patience, commitment, amalekitesand trust are the prescriptions for the upright as they wait for the wicked’s fifteen minutes of fame and power to end.

As she occasionally does, Jeanne joined me for my morning psalm, so I read it aloud. When finished, I asked “who do you think the ‘wicked’ are in this psalm?” “Probably the Amalekites, the Amorites, the Jebusites—one of those ‘-ites’ that the children of Israel were always worried about.” The people living in Palestine when the wandering Israelites showed up, claimed that Yahweh had given them the land that the “-ites” had lived in for generations, then proceeded upon divine authority to try to wipe the “-ites” out, in other words. I’m sure she’s probably right, but strangely the psalm got me to thinking about the debates I had seen the previous evening (I watched both the happy hour and main event debates). Just replace “upright” and “just” with “Republican” or “conservative,” then replace “wicked” with “Democrat” or “liberal,” and it all sounds very familiar.

It was clear that everyone on stage, for instance, was convinced of the truth of the following verses toward the end of Psalm 37:

I have seen the [liberals] triumphant, towering like the cedars of Lebanon. I passed by again; they were gone. I searched; they could not be found.vanish like smoke

In just a bit over a year, candidates promised in various ways, the accomplishments of the liberals will be no more. The Affordable Care Act, Planned Parenthood, the proposed treaty with Iran—“they shall vanish, they shall vanish like smoke.” There was no doubt that many on stage suspected the bad guys of not only poor judgment but also of deliberate treachery.

The [liberals] make plots against the [conservatives] and gnash their teeth against them; but the Lord laughs at the [liberals], knowing that their day is at hand. . . . The [liberals] are watching for the [conservatives] and seeking occasion to destroy them. wicked and justThe Lord will not leave the [conservatives] undefended, nor let them be condemned when they are judged.

Although there was significant disagreement amongst the candidates about exactly how it will happen, all on stage agreed that before long, our long national nightmare will be over and conservative values will be restored.

See the [conservatives], and mark the [Republicans], a future lies in store for the righteous, but [liberals] shall all be destroyed. No future lies in store for the [Democrats].

Lest you think I am picking on Republicans and conservatives (and I am), Psalm 37 can work for liberals too.

The few things owned by the [liberals] are better than the wealth of the [conservatives]; borrowingfor the power of the [Republicans] shall be broken and the Lord will support the [Democrats].

Liberals don’t tend to describe the perceived truth of their beliefs as sanctioned by the divine, or at least not as often as conservatives do, but they could. Look around a little bit in your favorite sacred text and you can find something God says or does that will support your favorite thing. In addition, liberals suspect that in the reality many conservatives desire in their heart of hearts, there is no room for those who disagree.

wicked violenceThe sword of the [Republicans] is drawn, the bow bent to slaughter the [Democrats]. Their sword shall pierce their own hearts and their bows shall be broken to pieces.

My point is psychological rather than political. The discourse of Psalm 37 is of the same sort as the discourse in our current political climate, even our culture at large. It is one thing to disagree strongly with someone—that’s what discourse and debate are all about. But when the disagreement takes on a moral tone so that the person you disagree with is not only mistaken in your estimation, but also wrong in a moral sense (wicked or evil in biblical terms), then discussion and (God forbid) compromise become impossible. Simple listening becomes impossible. Positions become entrenched, opponents become vilified, and soon the stakes have become cosmic. The triumph of truth, justice, and the American way becomes dependent on my being right and those who disagree with me being dismissed as wicked and ungodly.

rubioThe problem, of course, is that it is very difficult to engage and discuss for very long in conversation with people whose beliefs and opinions are radically different from your own. As I listened to yesterday’s debates kasichI frequently managed for several minutes at a time to listen objectively and make some informed judgments about the various players. Rubio and Kasich seemed better prepared than Walker or Cruz, Paul chose to be combative while Bush did not, carsonCarson had a bit of a deer-in-the-headlights look to him, and so on. But then someone would state their position on some issue that matters to me and I would immediately fall into “You fucking moron! How the hell can any human being with a half-dozen working neurons actually believe that?” mode, from where it is but a short journey to the just vs. the wicked all over again. The offending person has morphed from someone I strongly disagree with into someone who the world would be better off without. It’s going to be a very long fifteen months.

My Imaginary Friend

From as early as I can remember, I had an invisible butler. My mother enjoyed laying my clothes out for the next day when I went to bed, but every laying out clothesonce in a while it was clear that someone else was stepping in to take care of my sartorial needs. I would wake up with unmatched socks laid out, or two shirts but nothing for the waist down, or no underwear, or shoes but no socks. Not wanting to insult my mother, I asked my father what was going on. “Oh, that’s your invisible butler,” he said. “Fancher Offenhowser Bullsmith.” “Since when have I had an invisible butler?” “Since he just showed up one day.” “How come I’ve never seen him?” “Because he’s invisible.”

It’s kind of cool but very unusual to have an invisible butler. My brother and mother—along with my father, of course—knew about it, but I didn’t tell anyone else. No one in first grade mentioned having an invisible butler, and I had already learned that I was different enough from my colleagues in school to negate the necessity of telling them about Fancher. He didn’t seem to work regular hours; I became suspicious when I put two and two together and realized that evidence of Fancher’s handiwork only showed up when Dad was home. WIN_20150716_185711But then at Christmas when I was five or six, amidst the usual paraphernalia under the Christmas tree was something entirely unexpected. Fancher had become visible. Not only did I now have a visible butler, but my butler was a troll.

Trolls have little cache these days—they are so stupid in the movies that they get turned into stone in “The Hobbit” by the rising sun, they fight on the wrong side of every fantasy epic battle, and they lurk on the Internet in order to mess up as many serious conversations as possible. But it wasn’t always that way. In the early 60s trolls were the thing. Thomas DamThe story of Thomas Dam, the Danish fisherman’s son who started carving trolls out of wood in the 1930s to support his impoverished family can be found on-line:

http://www.damworld.dk/9986264

By the time the early 60s came around, Thomas Dam’s “Good Luck Trolls” were being machine produced to satisfy increasing demand and burst onto the international scene. Everyone wanted one. Soon there were cheap knock-off imitations everywhere, something that the Thomas Dam website warns against.

According to old fairytales trolls have magic powers. They love to make you smile and be happy. Some people say that Trolls also bring good luck. But be careful: only the ORIGINAL Dam Troll has magic powers. Therefore…look for the Dam logo and thereby be certain that you have the ORIGINAL GOOD LUCK TROLL.WIN_20150801_145305

Not to worry—Fancher has “Thomas Dam” stamped between his shoulder blades and “Made in Denmark” imprinted on the back of his neck. He’s an original. I apparently could get $200-$700 for Fancher on Ebay, depending on how close to mint condition he is, but that ain’t happening. He is my now retired butler, and he isn’t close to mint condition.

The arrival of Fancher kicked my father’s imagination into high gear as my cousins and brother now wanted trolls. They each received a small, cheap knock-off troll, each with unusual names. Dutch schultzJ. Arthur Flegenheimer for my brother (Dutch Schulz’s real name), Kempster Bloomville for one cousin (name taken off an exit sign on a Wisconsin interstate), and a temporarily nameless one for another cousin. My aunt kept pressing for a name, not wanting one son to feel inferior with a nameless companion. Speculation concerning the troll’s name was of the sort going on in the Gospel of Luke when friends and family wanted to know what Zechariah and Elizabeth’s baby’s name was going to be and Zechariah wasn’t saying anything. Zechariah and ElizabethSitting next to Aunt Gloria in the second row of church on a rare Sunday morning when he wasn’t preaching, Dad passed her a note in Zechariah-like fashion: “His name is Luman Lunchmonkee.” Gloria had a giggling and snorting fit entirely inappropriate for the director of the church choir—she had to absent herself from the sanctuary until she regained her composure.

In case you are becoming more and more worried about my sanity and that of my extended family, let me assure you that I can recall no moment at which I believed that Fancher was alive or could do anything other than stand pleasantly smiling with his arms outstretched wherever I placed him. Invisible friends who suddenly become visible are fun, just as long as you don’t cross to the other side and start thinking that they are real. This is a point that those proclaiming atheism love to make on a regular basis.

atheist imaginaryImaginary dovenapoleonYet there are billions of human beings who shape their whole reality and might even stake their lives on the premise that a certain invisible friend not only exists but plays an exceptionally important role in our understanding of ourselves and the reality we find ourselves in. I happen to be one of those billions of human beings. So have I simply transferred my childhood connection to my invisible butler to a far more interesting and complex imaginary friend who is no more real than Fancher? childish thingsDidn’t a text supposedly inspired by this cosmic imaginary friend suggest that when one becomes an adult, one is supposed to put away childish things?

So how do we gather evidence for the existence of something? When is it appropriate to believe in something whose existence you have not verified in the usual, direct sensory ways? This issue often arises in philosophy classrooms. When it does, I ask my students How many of you believe in the existence of Mongolia? All hands go up. How many of you have ever been to Mongolia? No hands go up. Then how do you know that Mongolia exists? My students generally provide a number of sensible reasons:

  • Because I have read about Mongolia in a book or on-line in stories written by people who have been there (although the authors of these sources might be lying).map of mongolia
  • Because I have seen pictures of Mongolia (even though we know that pictures can easily be misidentified or photo-shopped).
  • Because someone I know has been to Mongolia and told me about it (although this trusted source might be bullshitting me just for the fun of it).

The purpose of the exercise is to demonstrate that we believe in the existence of thousands of things that we have not experienced directly. The testimony of others, although not perfect or entirely reliable, serves as a reasonably solid foundation for much of what we believe. Life is too short and human capabilities are too finite to limit our existential belief commitments to only those items that we have experienced directly ourselves.

For many, belief in the existence of what is greater than us—what some dismiss as an “imaginary friend”—begins in exactly the same way. The sacred texts of the great monotheistic religions are accounts of what people over the centuries have believed concerning the divine. This does not prove that something greater than us exists, any more than Wikipedia entries about Mongolia prove the existence of Mongolia,Notre Dame but they are a good place to start and there is no reason to dismiss them just because they are referring to something that we might lack direct experience of. For instance, I had believed in the existence of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris for decades before I actually saw and experienced it for the first time a few years ago. But I doubt I would have eventually doubted its existence if I had never seen it myself. The indirect and second-hand evidence for its existence is too overwhelming. So it goes with God—it’s difficult to dismiss theism as a pervasive “imaginary friend” phenomenon when the reports are so ubiquitous.

But there’s nothing better than direct encounter. In my favorite book from the Jewish Scriptures, Job expresses it well. After decades of believing in God because of secondary evidence passed down over the generations, in the midst of intense pain and suffering he encounters the real deal.job “My ears had heard of you,” Job says, “but now my eyes have seen you.” First person contact trumps any number of secondary sources, but does not negate those sources—it gives them new meaning and energy. How do I know that God is not a figment of my imagination? As I have often written on this blog, the best evidence of divine reality is a changed life. I can organize the story of my life around the “before and after” of that encounter spread over several months a number of years ago. I’m not interested in proselytizing or evangelization—you should believe what your own experience can support. But as the formerly afflicted man in the gospels says, “I was blind, but now I see.” That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

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Smith’s Pasture

Therefore with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. Isaiah 12

Several years ago, during an infrequent return to northern Vermont where I grew up, Jeanne and I took a quick detour from Route 5 South to drive past the old homestead, the house in which I lived until age eleven. It was in poor repair, and seemed far smaller than when I was a kid. Most surprising was that Smith’s pasture, the cow pasture across the road that was the site of many childhood adventures, was gone. A tangle of trees and underbrush now grows where the gate to the pasture was. I’m hoping that if I had pushed through the brush I would have found Smith’s pasture on the other side, sort of like finding Narnia on the other side of the wardrobe. Because it was magic.

Growing up in the sticks has some definite plusses—how many city kids have a cow pasture at their disposal? Smith’s pasture was one of several unofficial playgrounds for my brother and me. Many were the summer mornings when my mother would pack us a lunch and we would climb over the fence into the pasture, limited only by the general directive to be back before dark. The generous Mr. Smith, whom I never met, gave my family free access to his pasture, while the evil Mr. Cole, who owned the adjacent pasture just down the road (and whom I also never met), refused such free access. Hiking, war games, superhero exploits—Smith’s pasture was the natural stage for just about anything two kids reaching double digits in age could come up with.

Vermont cow pastures bear little resemblance to the idyllic, flat pastures that bovines in other parts of the country enjoy. Smith’s pasture was a hill—a mountain in my childhood imagination—that  rose sharply from the road to a high plateau whose back boundary my brother and I never found. Large boulders and innumerable trees of all sorts were thickly spread across the hundreds of pasture acres. The slopes in portions of the pasture were steep enough that I often wondered what the dairy cows, not generally known for their mountain climbing abilities, thought of having to eke out their bovine existence in a less than congenial landscape.

Smith’s pasture was more than the regular locale for boyhood adventures. It was also the source of our annual Christmas tree. Each year in early December my brother and I would trudge up the hill in snow that was often waist deep, searching for the perfect tree. One year we returned at dusk with a tree so wide that it took us close to an hour to stuff it through the front door and so tall that our living room ceiling bent the top foot and a half over when we stood it upright. Only a special early infusion of Christmas spirit kept my mother from having a fit as we sawed off the bottom two feet in the middle of the living room rug.

It was only many years later that I put two and two together and figured out why Mr. Smith was so generous with access to his pasture. He may or may not have had a soft spot in his heart for children needing a place to explore—the real reason we had access to his pasture was the artesian well, located several hundred yards past the fence, which provided water for our house. A well-understood task accompanied our frequent treks into Smith’s pasture—don’t forget to check the well. It was my brother’s job to lift the hinged lid as high as he could—I was too small to do it—while I peered into the dim recesses below. “It looks fine!” “It’s a bit low!” or, one fateful afternoon—“It’s empty!!” This was distressing news, producing visions of no baths, no clothes or dish washing, and general aridness. The spring had widened a minor crack in the well wall into an exit route—it was many dollars and dry days later before the water was coaxed back into its proper location. When wells misbehave, life changes significantly.

One does not get very far reading in the Bible without encountering a well. In a largely desert landscape, of course, wells were both the source of life and the center of community activity. Isaac and Rebekah met at a well, as did Jacob and Rachel as well as Moses and Zipporah. Joseph’s older brothers threw him into a dried up well after he offended them one too many times. Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4  is one of the most fascinating texts in the New Testament. Battles were fought over wells. They are so prevalent and necessary in stories from a nomadic, arid land that it’s easy to imagine that they are natural parts of the landscape. But they aren’t. A well is a human attempt to harness the power of something very necessary but also very powerful—a spring of water.

As I learned at an early age in Smith’s pasture, springs do not always cooperate with our attempts to control and tame them. In ancient texts, springs and sources of water are sacred. This is not surprising, because water is necessary for life. A spring—an oasis—stands for life, for rest and refreshment. But it is the random power of a spring that most directly brings the divine to mind. Springs are as resistant to our attempts to control them as they are to our expectations.  Just when we think that we have the water under control, it decides to go somewhere else. This is the deepest secret to its living water: it transforms every obstruction into a new expression of itself: It turns every apparent barrier into a new channel..

This would be a good thing to remember every time I think I have God figured out, whenever my path to a frequently visited well becomes a bit too frequently traveled. But the divine spring has a mind and will of its own, apparently, and if I don’t pay attention, I will find my well, so carefully built to contain the spring, empty one day. And this is not a good thing—as Peter wrote, “these are wells without water . . . to whom the gloom of darkness is reserved forever.” It is easy to forget that the divine spring was never intended to be contained permanently in any external well, whether a building, a book, or any specific location. The good news, as Jesus told the woman at the well, is that the divine spring is “a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” And that well is me. And you. It’s a great idea—portable wells containing the most life-giving water ever imagined. I need go no further than where I happen to be to find out what the divine spring is doing.

The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Isa. 58:11

Slightly Improved

I have no idea why or how Miss Katrina Munn, a graduate of Julliard School of Music2139064083_fa0e5dd401[1] with a degree in organ performance, came to spend most of her adult life teaching piano to kids in central, rural Vermont. She was my first piano teacher, from age five (or was it four?) until age eleven. I spent forty-five minutes per week with her in the piano studio attached to her small apartment. While many of her students found her intimidating, she reminded me a bit of my imperious but loving paternal grandmother. But she could have been the Wicked Witch of the West and I would have put up with it, because piano was my life.

Music is in my genes from both sides of the family. I don’t remember when my older brother started piano lessons, but some of my earliest memories involved my mother forcing him to practice his lessons as well as my jealousy that he was getting to do something I wasn’t old enough for yet. He was an indifferent musician—he could play the notes but had no love of it. I was a different matter. I recognized the piano as a soul mate as soon as I started lessons. As I got old enough for school, I would rush to our old uprightimagesCAQOJENP as soon as I got home and play until my mother forced me to leave the bench for supper. The piano was my best friend.

Miss Munn recognized immediately that she had a “true believer” on her hands and allowed me to progress through the standard lesson books at a much faster pace than most. She was a member of a national organization of certified piano instructors, meaning that once per year representatives of this group would visit, listen to her students play assigned pieces and sight-read new ones, grading the students (and presumably Miss Munn) in any number of categories. I remember the two judges as Kafkaesque,Kafkaesque[1] austere, unsmiling, unmoving, seated primly next to each other about five feet away on the left side of the piano, silently making checks occasionally on a sheet in front of them. Come to think of it, they looked and acted pretty much as I figured God looked and acted all of the time.

Miss Munn shared the judges’ scores with her students once she received them from the central authorities in the mail. I recall as if it were yesterday when she reported to me the results of my first judging: Twelve positive checks and zero negative checks. I was thrilled—I had set a goal of being perfect, and I had been. Miss Munn’s comments on my perfect score, however, were unexpected. She said, I’m very pleased with the number of positives, but I’m concerned that you had no negatives. What? What could be better than perfection? She continued by pointing out that my zero negative score was reflective, not of perfection, but of a strong sense of perfectionismPerfectionism[1] that is not desirable in an aspiring pianist (or anywhere else, I suspect). By being so concerned with not making any mistakes, I had closed off the possibility of additional positive checks only available if one is willing to take risks. I don’t remember exactly how I processed Miss Munn’s unexpected reaction to my perfect score, but I must have taken it to heart. My score on next year’s judging was twenty-seven positive checks, three negative checks. At least at the piano, I’d begun to learn that growth and excellence begin with embracing imperfection.

As Jeanne said when I told her this story, that’s a pretty difficult lesson for a five-year-old to learn. Indeed—it’s a lesson that I still struggle with. Miss Munn may have convinced me that perfection is not to be sought at the piano, but Jesus said “Be Ye PERFECT![1]Be ye therefore perfect, as your heavenly Father in heaven is perfect” (when he was speaking in King James English). That’s an even tougher lesson for a five-year-old, but it stuck. Not as something to strive for, but as an eternal impossible guilt-producing standard whose roots went deeper every year. As I grew older, I knew that this was an impossible standard. I even have said in class, to the nervous discomfort of my students, “What the hell kind of a moral standard is that”?

imagesCA6KS6YVIn  The Sovereignty of Good, Iris Murdoch asks “What of the command ‘Be ye therefore perfect?’ Would it not be more sensible to say ‘Be ye therefore slightly improved?’” Three decades earlier, she built this tension into one of her novels. The central structural pillars of The Belln43712[1] are the dueling Sunday sermons of James and Michael, rivals for the leadership of a lay religious community. James, on the one hand, is convinced that moral perfection is well within any human being’s reach—we know what is required of us and just need to stop thinking and do it. Perfection is measured by the external standard given to us by God through Scripture and tradition. We fail to be perfect through weakness of will. Throughout the novel James is also revealed as judgmental and self-righteous, rigidly insensitive to the nuances and realities of other people.

Michael, on the other hand, preaches that moral behavior begins with an honest assessment of one’s limitations and imperfections—“one must perform the lower act which one can manage and sustain: not the higher act which one bungles.” Although Michael’s position is far more humane and embraceable than James’, his life is a series of continual missteps for which he seeks and expects immediate forgiveness from himself and others. When, due to his moral blundering, a member of the community commits suicide, Michael himself becomes suicidal as he realizes that his lazy acceptance of his own limitations has poisoned his relationships and caused him to blindly miss the importance of continually striving for perfection. Contentment with “slight improvement” has become identical with self-absorption and stagnation.

So there’s the problem. How am I to embrace imperfection while at the same time avoiding complacency? My best clue, which I borrow from Jeanne who is far wiser than I on these matters, has to do with “the law of love.”imagesCAH78QB6 Perfection is a deadly burden as long as it is a standard of judgment. But through the lens of love, it becomes something different. As long as my image of perfection is avoiding judgment by making no mistakes, I live in fear and am doomed to failure. Miss Munn, however, wanted to show me that the growth inspired by taking risks and making mistakes without fear is directed toward a perfection of a very different sort. The wise Abbess in The Bell tells Michael toward the end of the book that “The idea of perfection moves, and possibly changes, us because it inspires love in the part of us that is most worthy.” As First John tells us (once again in King James English), “perfect love casteth out fear.”mural perfect love with cars[1]