Category Archives: humility

How to Be Good–A Message to the Graduates

Every commencement season I am reminded that there is one teaching related thing that I have never had the opportunity to do, something that I badly want to be able to do before I retire or die (whichever comes first—probably death). I have never been invited to give an address of any sort to the graduating seniors. academicawards[1]This is particularly annoying because on my campus, the major faculty address to the seniors, part of the academic awards ceremony on Saturday morning of graduation weekend, is delivered by the current Accinno Teaching Award winner—our “Teacher of the Year” award. This tradition began six or seven years ago, two or three years after I won the teaching award. I suspect there is some sinister plot behind this. So every year at the awards ceremony I write an impromptu address to the seniors in my head as some less deserving colleague is delivering the real faculty address. Here is this year’s version.

Provost: . . . . Please welcome Dr. Vance Morgan.

Thunderous applause

Father President, distinguished guests, faculty and staff, honored graduates and your families—thank you for this opportunity to speak with you for a few minutes. You’ll be getting a lot of advice from a lot of people this weekend–most of them significantly older than you. This morning I want to spend a few minutes offering some advice from a group of people younger than you–a bunch of sophomores–on an important moral question that will be with you for the rest of your lives: the question of how to be good.

A Polish Franciscan priest. A Lutheran pastor and theologian. A French, Jewish social activist attracted to Marxism. A French novelist and philosopher. A group of young German college students. The citizens of an isolated rural town in France. Fr.Maximilian_Kolbe_1939What do the above persons have in common? In unique and profound ways, Maximilian Kolbe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Simone Weil, Albert Camus, the members of the White Rose, and the people of Le Chambon were witnesses to the power of the human spirit and the dignity of the human person in the face of unimaginable horror and atrocity. And these were the figures that we studied in my colloquium—“‘Love Never Fails’: Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era’”–during the second half of the semester just ended.

During the first half of the colloquium, my colleague with whom I co-taught the colloquium and I delved with our students deeply into the dark side of the Nazis. Perhaps even more disturbing than the horrors they perpetuated were the various techniques people, with partial or even full knowledge of the atrocities, used to collaborate with, to deliberately turn away from, or to ignore evil. As we considered in the second half of the course examples of persons who did otherwise, who responded directly through words and actions to what was happening all around them, we found that the motivations for and manners of response were as varied as those responding.  BonhoefferSome had religious motivations, while the response of others was political in nature. Some lost their lives, while the activities of others were protected by distance and obscurity.

During the last seminar of the semester, I gave my eighteen students the following task: Suppose, based on what we have learned this semester, that we wanted to write a handbook or guide for future generations on how to preserve and perpetuate goodness in the midst of evil. Are there common techniques or skills that the people we studied this semester invariably relied on as they responded to evil? If so, what are they? The students worked on this in small groups for twenty minutes or so, then reported back to the larger group with their results. Here, in no particular order, are some of my students’ suggestions concerning how to preserve one’s character and integrity in the face of severe challenges.

Know who you are: It is very easy to become overwhelmed by the apparently monumental task of facing up to systematic evil and wrongdoing. In such situations, the only reasonable response appears to be “what can I do? I am only one person—I can’t make a difference.” But my students and I learned this semester that moral character begins with understanding who I am and what I am capable of. Good SamaritanI cannot change the world, but I can do something about what is right in front of me. Moral character does not require moral heroism. Consider the story of the Good Samaritan, a story frequently referenced by various people we studied. The Good Samaritan was just a guy on a trip who stumbled across an injustice that he could do something about. His response to the man dying in the ditch was not motivated by philosophy, religion, politics, or personal gain—it was simply a human response to human need. That not only is enough, it can be miraculous. As the Jewish saying goes, “he who saves one life saves the entire world.”

Simplicity: One of my typical roles as a philosophy professor is to convince my students to dig deeper, because things are always more complicated than they seem. Le ChambonBut one of the continuing themes of this semester was that those who respond effectively to evil and wrongdoing have often reduced moral complexities to manageable proportions. The villagers of Le Chambon believed that human need must be addressed. Period. They also believed that all human life is precious, from Jewish refugees to Nazi officers. Period. The students of the White Rose believed that their country had been stolen from them and they had to help take it back. Period. Maximilian Kolbe lived his life believing that God, Jesus and the Blessed Mother love everyone. Period. In response to complaints that “things aren’t that simple,” the consistent word this semester was “sometimes they are.”

Some things are more important than life. I have often asked students over the years “what things are worth dying for?” more or less as a thought experiment. But for the people we studied this semester, this was not an academic exercise. During the first half of the semester we often saw people choosing not to act or turning the other way because they were afraid for their own lives. More often than not, my students were willing to give such people at least a partial pass, arguing that self-preservation is the strongest instinct that human beings possess. Then we encountered a series of people who proved that not to be true. Just as Socrates sharply drew a contrast between “living” and “living well” more than two millennia ago, my students and I encountered a series of counterexamples to the notion that self-preservation trumps everything else. In a variety of ways, those who responded to evil demonstrated that some things are more important than guaranteeing ones continuing survival. indexAs Socrates argued, some lives are not worth living. A life preserved by refusing to do whatever one can to resist evil is one of those lives.

Spirituality: Any number of the persons we studied placed their understanding of themselves and the world around them within a framework that included something greater than ourselves. My students chose to call this “spirituality” rather than “faith,” because many of the persons we studied were not religious in any traditional sense. But all were convinced that we human beings are answerable to something greater than ourselves, ranging from the divine to a responsibility to create a better future. Which points toward another technique for the perpetuation of goodness . . .

Look toward the other: One of the most important keys to preserving goodness in the presence of evil is that ability to focus my attention on something other than myself. Iris Murdoch defined love asYoung Simone “the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real,” and from the villagers of Le Chambon through Maximilian Kolbe to the students of the White Rose, my students and I regularly observed persons who had incorporated this ability into their daily life. One of the greatest hindrances to goodness is what Simone Weil called “the avaricious tentacles of the self.” There is no greater technique for escaping these tentacles than cultivating a sharp awareness of the reality of what is not me.

Don’t be afraid: In The Plague, Albert Camus suggests that most human evil is the result of ignorance. CamusAlthough my students resonated with this notion, they concluded on the basis of their studies that in situations of moral emergency and stress, fear is a greater problem than ignorance. There is a reason why the first thing that an angel usually says in Scripture when unexpectedly dropping into some human’s reality is “Fear not,” since we often respond to the unknown, the strange and the overwhelming with fear. The message of the human angels we studied together was “Don’t be afraid to expose your small spark of goodness in a world of darkness. It might just change a life—maybe yours.”

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of these common techniques is their shared accessibility. Self-knowledge, simplicity, the ability to recognize what is truly important, spiritual awareness, courage—these are not magical moral weapons available only to saints and heroes. I can do this. You can do this. But only if we start now. Good habits can only be developed through repetition; we only become skillful wielding the weapons of the spirit through practice. Let’s get started.

How Do I Get There?

I was at a conference last Friday and Saturday to present a paper for the first time in five years, an opportunity to connect with old friends and colleagues while being reminded of why I really don’t like academic conferences (a blog post about that coming soon). The conference was held in a room that clearly had once been a chapel, containing a huge, round stained glass window on the front wall.VANCEPC - WIN_20150424_083221

From a distance I could not figure out the theme of the window–its central figure was a young man in full medieval armor, so I figured it was probably St. George without the dragon. Upon closer inspection, I read the text on the banner underneath the soldier: “Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.” “Oh my God!” I thought as I returned in memory to my childhood–“that’s Christian from Pilgrim’s Progress!”

As I followed the various scenes around Christian clockwise around the window starting at the bottom, I observed Christian’s struggle against various tempters and opponents on his journey from despair to heaven. PilgrimThis book, with beautiful illustrations, was a staple of my childhood home, ranking in my mind equally with the omnipresent picture Bible. My mother read it with me frequently–I’m pretty sure I hadn’t thought of it in forty years. But it came flooding back to me as the conference began–Pilgrim’s Progress introduced my at a very early age, more effectively than anything in scripture, to the most basic human questions that have obsessed me my whole life. Where do I come from? Where am I going? And, most pressingly, how do I get there?

220px-Dead_poets_society[1]In my all-time favorite movie, Dead Poet’s Society, Mr. Keating teaches an important lesson about non-conformity to his students with a brief experiment. Bringing his young charges out of the classroom into a nearby courtyard, Keating directs three of the students to start walking around the perimeter. Although they start off at a different pace, soon all three are marching in lock step, with Keating singing an impromptu Marine-style tune and the other students clapping in accompaniment. Keating’s point is about conformity. Given the opportunity to walk uniquely and independently, the boys choose instead to fall into step with each other. Keating then evokes Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken ” to introduce the alternative of individual risk and choice.

IMV5BMTc2MzgwNjAzNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTUyNjQzMQ@@._V1_SY317_CR7,0,214,317_[1]n another of my favorite movies, Young Frankenstein, director Mel Brooks inserts a hilarious version of a visual joke that’s older than the hills. After entering the Transylvanian castle where he is employed, Igor, played by Marty Feldman, says “walk this way” to Gene Wilder’s Dr. Frankenstein, then sets off with a cane-assisted gait, dragging his lame leg and hunchbacked self down the stairs. Frankenstein follows him down the stairs with precisely the same limping and awkward gait, until after a few steps Igor turns around and says, “No, I mean follow me!”

The right way to walk, the best road to take, is on my mind a regularly as a teacher and just a normal human being. I frequently have the opportunity to introduce freshman students to Rene DescartesFrans_Hals_-_Portret_van_René_Descartes[1], one of the most—arguably the most—influential philosophers in the Western tradition. I wrote my dissertation on Descartes twenty-five years ago and was told by my director that, at that time at least, more secondary literature had been written on Descartes than any other Western philosopher, including Plato and Aristotle. After his education was finished, Descartes in his early twenties decided to see the world. As many young men of his time, he chose to do this by signing up as a mercenary soldier for a local political power-broker, in Descartes’ case the Duke of Bavaria. One night while on campaign in the winter of 1619, Rene sought refuge and warmth in a small, stove-heated room.220px-Fouday-Poêle[1] That night he had three dreams or visions that changed his life. In the third dream, he opened a book of poetry and read the following line from the Roman poet Ausonias: Quod vitae sectabor iter? What path in life should I follow? Descartes’ self-interpretation of this dream produced his lifelong project—the unification of science and, ultimately, all knowledge on a foundation of unshakeable certainty. What path in life should I follow?

It is a great question, perhaps the best question, to get nineteen-year-old freshmen to consider. Strangely enough, I have found over the past few years that it is an equally important question for a now fifty-nine year old guy to ask.Marquette University Old Postcard[1] In many ways my professional path has been clear from the moment I chose in my early thirties to major in philosophy in graduate school and do my PhD at a Catholic university (to the dismay of my professors and mentors in my Master’s program at a secular state university). Twenty-five years later I have achieved some success as an academic scholar, great satisfaction in the classroom on a daily basis, and have never regretted walking down this particular academic professor path. But I’ve learned more and more over the past few years that there are many paths more important than the professional one. By defining myself for years by what I do, I found it very easy to forget about figuring out who I am.micah_prophet[1] As Christian found out in Pilgrim’s Progress, the path to wholeness and integrity as a human being is fraught with far more pitfalls and dangers than any path to professional success. The prophet Micah tells us that all God wants is for us to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. But what is the nature of this walk? What paths am I to take? These questions have become more and more pressing.

Yesterday was “Good Shepherd Sunday” with sheep/shepherd readings from both the Gospels and the Psalms. Psalm 23 is all about paths. We are told that the Lord our shepherd leads us in paths of righteousness and even is with us in our darkest hours, as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Such a familiar text, however, can breed, if not contempt, at least complacency. Shepherds and sheep evoke a pastoral and peaceful image,sheep1[1] but very few of us have any knowledge of what the daily lives of shepherds and sheep are like. I got a peek into this life once over twenty years ago while we were living in Milwaukee.  Milwaukee is a city of festivals, with every ethnic group imaginable getting its own weekend and festival. During a celebration of all things Scottish, Jeanne and I were with the boys at one of the many large parks that Milwaukee has to offer for Scottish Fest. The weather was appropriate, drizzly and foggy with bone-chilling dampness.

One of the events that day was a demonstration of sheep herding. Upon being let out of the penned enclosure in which they were being held, a flock of forty or fifty sheep immediately scattered to the four winds, running into the surrounding residential neighborhood faster than I ever imagined sheep could move their fat, wool-laden selves. The shepherd remained standing in the now-sheepless park, with two small border collies at his side, as residents of the surrounding streets wondered where the hell the sheep in their back yards came from. Then at a signal from the shepherd, the border collies leaped into action. After they disappeared into the neighborhood like lightning bolts, we could hear the dogs occasionally barking in the distance. Border Collie, 9 months old, rounding sheepWithin a few minutes, sheep started appearing from various directions, with the border collies running manically back and forth behind them, nipping at their heels and talking trash as only a dog can. Before long, all of the sheep were back in the pen and the border collies returned to the shepherd’s side. He bowed in acknowledgement of our applause, even though his four-legged buddies had done all of the work.

As a youngster I always bristled at the frequent Biblical comparison of human beings to sheep, because I knew (or had read at least) that sheep were both smelly and stupid. I appreciated our rector pointing out yesterday that in ancient times, sheep were highly regarded sources of milk, wool and companionship, only becoming mutton once they became too old to provide any of the other stuff. I still resist the analogy, though, and believe that there are many more fruitful paths available to me than to a sheep. 5800660559_37c6d20f29_z[1]But it is comforting to know that there is divine companionship and guidance on whatever path I find myself on, as well as to know that if I listen, all of those paths lead home to God.

Two years ago, a couple of weeks after the end of the semester, I headed for the Benedictine New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California for a week of silence, meditation, centering, writing, and sampling of monk-made fruit cake (their specialty, apparently). I heard about the place from an Episcopanapa_valley[1]l priest I met the year before at a “Wisdom school workshop.” His parish is in the California wine country; someday I hope to have a chance to connect with him. Strange where unexpected paths might show up—“Yea though I walk through the valley of Napa . . .” My week at the hermitage was perhaps the most fruitful week of writing I have ever experienced. I may not be a sheep, but I’m happy to take whatever guidance that happens to come my way.

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Pleasure and Joy in the Work

As the end of the semester draws near and my upcoming sabbatical looms, I’m wondering what it will be like to be out of the classroom for fifteen months. This post from a year ago makes me think that it’s not going to be easy.

Last Saturday, virtuoso violinist Itzhak Perlman was the featured guest on ‘Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” my favorite NPR show. PerlmanHe was a fascinating interview, full of stories about the world of being a recognized genius in the midst of mere mortals and the world of classical music. Guest host Michael Pesca asked Perlman “which would be better—the second-best violinist playing the best violin in the world, or the second-best violin being played by the best violinist in the world?” “The second one,” Perlman answered immediately, illustrating with a story from the life of another violin virtuoso: A woman once approached MenuhinYehudi Menuhin after one of his concerts and said “your violin was beautiful tonight.” Menuhin held his Stradivarius to his ear and said “That’s funny . . . I don’t hear anything!”

I remember something one of my teaching models and mentors in my early years as an assistant professor once revealed that he told his advisees when they sought his input about which courses to take the next semester. “Go for the jockey, not the horse.imagesCAXUPZEMA mediocre horse ridden by a great jockey will do better in a race than Secretariat ridden by a mediocre jockey. Something taught by the best professor on campus will always be better than the greatest syllabus in the universe taught by a less stellar professor. Arrogant? Probably. But absolutely true. Over the years I have often said that students will choose “challenging but interesting” over “boring but easy” every time. I have seen enough counterexamples over the years to know that this is not a self-evident truth, but it is better than that—a time-tested hypothesis.

I have cultivated my teaching craft for twenty-five years now, all the time making it known to anyone who would listen that I have the greatest job in the world, that I actually consider teaching to be a vocation rather than a job, and that I consider myself to be inordinately privileged to be able to make a decent living doing what I was born to do, something that, happy-april-fool39s-day-image1if I were independently wealthy, I would do for free. I pulled off my most effective April Fool’s Day stunt ever last year when I posted on Facebook that “Despite my frequent claims to the contrary, I have decided that my job really sucks.” People who don’t know me very well immediately commiserated with “I know, it’s that kind of day, isn’t it?” and “I know it’s a thankless job, but if it helps you’re doing great!” A colleague from my department came up to me at lunch the next day and said, with appropriate EeyoreEeyore-like visage, “Vance, I’m really sorry.” I think he was disappointed when he found out that it was a joke. Those in my closer circle of friends and colleagues knew, however, after a few seconds of confusion, that it was a prank. “You had me going for a second—Happy April Fool’s Day!” was their typical response. Because they knew that if I ever came to the point that I said “my job really sucks!” and meant it, I would no longer be me. Simple as that.

This sort of narrative breeds and exudes confidence, so much so that I’ve learned over the years that I often need to tone my enthusiasm for teaching down, lest I be misinterpreted as someone who has a superiority complex and never experiences the insecurities, mistakes, and failures that are necessary parts of a teacher’s life. Trust me, I’ve had more of these than I could possibly remember—the “it isn’t working” moment of alarm happens as frequently now as it ever has. But now it exhilarates rather than frightens me—I have fun with the moments that, in earlier years, might have paralyzed me in front of a class.

A couple of days ago, I introduced a bunch of freshmen to the Scientific Revolution in the interdisciplinary humanities program I direct and teach in. The class immediately brought to mind a class with the same material roughly a year ago with a different pair of colleagues, a class which almost became the sort of nightmare that all teachers fear. I came to class expecting to rely on what I modestly considered to be a fabulous PowerPoint show. And the computer wouldn’t work. What in earlier years would have caused the sweating of bullets instead spawned a few jokes, then a living illustration of the heavenly bodies moving in circles, epicycles, and eccentrics created by my assigning different students the roles of the various planets circling and interweaving with each other, all with the purpose of showing how a beautiful theory can become so complicated over time under the pressure of new and continuing data as to collapse under its own weight. EpicyclesMy guess is that the students will remember what we did far longer than if they had seen it on a screen. One of my colleagues asked “How did you come up with that idea?” My answer, as always, was “I don’t know—it just seemed that it might work.”

The process of transformation from scared-to-death graduate student to comfortable-in-my-skin professor has been a long one with many landmarks along the way. One of the first was my favorite movie, “Dead Poets Society,” which was released in 1989, the very year that I was thrown, as a completely inexperienced and totally frightened graduate student into my own classroom for the first time. It has become trendy recently to trash this movie in various ways,

Dead Poets Society is a Terrible Defense of the Humanities,

but I don’t read such critiques. This movie was seminal for me, showed up at the right place at the right time in my life and continues to inspire my teaching energies. imagesDozens of scenes could illustrate; one will suffice. As the dynamic young teacher Mr. Keating, played by Robin Williams, gradually inspires his students to think for themselves, his young charges start taking their new-found freedom and running with it in unpredictable ways, as teenage young men are apt to do. One of these young men suggests at a school assembly that God wants girls to attend their all-boys school; the sheer outrageousness of the idea as well as the impromptu and disrespectful manner of his expressing it almost gets the student expelled.

The young man expects that Mr. Keating will admire his daring and creativity, but he soon finds out otherwise. “You being expelled from school is not daring, it’s stupid. You’ll miss some golden opportunities,” says Mr. Keating. “Like what?” “Like, if nothing else, the opportunity to attend my classes.” I want my classes to be like that, I thought. I want to teach classes that will make students glad they came to my school. It’s one thing to see it in a movie, though; WFGit’s another thing to find the path that might lead, over a career, in that direction.

Three years later, at a silent retreat, I stumbled across the work of Simone Weil, who in Waiting for God expressed the energy and passion at the heart of the learning process so well, it became and remains my “teaching philosophy.”

Contrary to the usual belief, [will power] has practically no place in study. The intelligence can only be led by desire. For there to be desire, there must be pleasure and joy in the work. The intelligence only grows and bears fruit in joy. The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running. Where it is lacking there are no real students, but only poor caricatures of apprentices who, at the end of their apprenticeship, will not even have a trade.

Early in my life I had been infected by the love of books and of ideas; at this early point in my career it was becoming clear that all my teaching really amounts to is the desire to pass this infection on to others. All I want to do is to help others find the joy in learning that has sustained me through times in my life when there seemed to be nothing else worthwhile except a book. IsaiahSimone gave me the words to express what I’d intuited all along, that for me, teaching is a vocation, a sacrament, a holy thing.

Last year I was assigned to be lector on Palm Sunday at our church, something I had forgotten until I walked into the service. Completely unprepared, I read from Isaiah that “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher . . . Morning by morning he wakens—wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.” My best days are the ones when I don’t forget this.

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.

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

To Die For

BonhoefferWhat 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 that means the time of religion in general. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters from Prison

I went to the minimalist Palm Sunday service at 8:00 this morning at my Episcopal church–a dozen people, no music, circled around the altar for communion. It was very different from the usual dramatic Palm Sunday liturgy–I liked the understated entry into Holy Week. I also remembered what I was thinking last year on Palm Sunday.

The end of last week was a bear, beginning with nine hundred freshmen registering for their fall sections and seminars in the interdisciplinary program I direct on Friday; I swear that at least several hundred of them sent me an email begging for overenrollment in a full section. That was followed on Saturday by Family Day duties that kept me on campus from mid-morning until late afternoon. I was strongly tempted to skip church on Sunday morning for the first time in months, but I thought “its Palm Sunday so I should go, Jeanne’s going because she’s doing the chalice on the altar,” my Protestant guilt kicked in and off to church I went. At least it was going to be the first Sunday service in weeks in which I had nothing to do but sit in the pew—no seminar to lead, no scripture to read, and no organ to play. h19_18559141I would try to enjoy the dramatic reading of the Passion narrative that is always part of the Palm Sunday service before returning home to finish our taxes. What fun.

As I walked in the back, our rector and my good friend Marsue was looking dramatic in her chasuble, appropriately red for Palm Sunday, as she waited to process with the servers, readers, and choir. Motioning me over, she whispered “do you want to read?” “Not really,” I thought as I looked to see what roles for the upcoming Passion reading were still available. Just about all of them, as it turned out, including the role of Jesus. “I’ll be Jesus,” I sighed. “I’ve never gotten to read his part.”

“I’ll be Jesus.” That’s really what it boils down to for those of us who have signed on to the project of trying to live out a serious Christian faith commitment. Holy Week is a time that many try to virtually “walk in the steps of Jesus” liturgically in the various special services during the week. But to actually be God in the world, to be the vehicle through which the divine makes contact with our human reality—that’s nuts. No wonder we are so creative in finding ways to make the demands of the life of faith more manageable. But my own attempts to avoid the challenges of what I claim to take seriously have been most recently exposed by the prison letters of twentieth-century Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

imagesCAK5RWXSIn the months between his imprisonment and his execution by the Nazis, Bonhoeffer wrote dozens of letters to his best friend Eberhard Bethge, letters in which he explored and pressed the boundaries of his Christian faith, a faith for which he would eventually die, in ways that have challenged and shocked readers ever since. Facing imminent death has a tendency to focus one’s attention and to clearly reveal what is important and what isn’t. As Bonhoeffer asks, “What do we really believe? I mean, believe in such a way that we stake our lives on it?” These letters are causing me to think about and look at the Holy Week narrative very differently.

Underlying the liturgies and activities between Palm Sunday and Easter is a shocking story in which “God lets the divine self be pushed out of the world onto the cross.” God is apparently either unwilling or unable to engage with the suffering and pain of the world other than to become part of it. If the dramatic events of Jesus’ final days are models for our lives in a suffering and distressed world, it is clear that “Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.” I remember a rather dramatic solo that my aunt used to sing in the church of my youth almost every year at some point leading up to Good Friday that includes the line “he could have called ten thousand angels, but he died alone for you and me.” If we take all of the accretions of dogma and doctrine out of the picture, the story of Jesus’ last days is a disaster—as I read last Sunday morning during the Passion narrative as Matthew presents it, the final words Jesus gasps from the cross are “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Precisely the question Bonhoeffer must have been asking from his prison cell.

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“Jesus the Homeless” statue, Davidson N.C.

I’ll be wrestling with some of this here this week; at the moment, I’m focused on the following from one of Bonhoeffer’s last letters:

To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself . . . but to be a person—not a type of person, but the person that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.

How to do that? That is the question.

Just Do It

In the middle of a second run through my team-taught colloquium “‘Love Never Fails': Grace, Freedom, and Truth in the Nazi Era,” I find myself thinking–just as I did last year at this time–about all the excuses and avoidance techniques that help us do nothing when something needs to be done.

I9780547725147_custom-7ea8f0969dfd404059558eab13a60fdfc6cf6a67-s6-c30n the early hours of a recent Sunday morning, I read the final pages of Daša Drndić’s Trieste, the most powerful, unrelenting and unforgiving book related to the Holocaust I have ever read. As a reviewer for Amazon wrote, “Trieste is not a book for the faint-hearted, either in style or subject. . . . Enter if you are brave enough, and if you stay the course you will be changed.” No one—those in authority, the church, those who turned their heads, those who simply did whatever they could to stay alive—are spared in this brutally honest and unflinching account of what human beings are capable of.

As I read I was reminded of something a post-Holocaust Jewish theologian wrote: “No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of the burning children.” 5210537_f248With regard to those men who were at the same time both murderous killers and yet tender fathers and husbands, Drndić writes that a father is not “a sacrosanct being. . . . There are no sacrosanct beings. Even God is not sacrosanct, perhaps He least of all.” To those who wish to excuse the culpable silence and frequent collaboration of religious institutions, she writes that “this caricatured parade and more than revolting fabrication, this costumed theatre of transparent lies and empty promises should be done away with right now, once and for all.”

And then Jeanne and I went to church. I was lector, she was chalice bearer—we couldn’t skip, but I was hardly in the mood. I was responsible for the Old Testament reading from Isaiah, a text I had briefly glanced at during the week, describing it to Jeanne as “kind of weird.” At the lectern, I found myself channeling something unexpectedly disturbing.

Isaiah 58 begins with the prophet mimicking the complaints of the “house of Jacob”: We have been fasting and humbling ourselves, just as you require. Why aren’t you answering our prayers? Why aren’t you taking notice? In response the prophet laughs with the voice of God. pisaiah“Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight. Is such the fast that I choose? . . . Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?” In other words, your “fast-day” is all about you. It’s all about your pitiful and self-centered attempts to twist divine favor in your direction. It’s all about having convinced yourself that skipping a few meals, attending a few extra meetings at your preferred house of worship, that arguing with each other about which forms of ritual are best, are all that it takes to draw God’s favorable attention. “You call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?”

You want to know what a real fast-day would be like? What it would really be like if you humbled yourselves? Here’s a clue:

script_poster_5_isaiah_585B15DTo loose the bonds of injustice

To undo the thongs of the yoke

To let the oppressed go free

To share your bread with the hungry

To bring the homeless and poor into your house

To cover the naked when you see them

Try doing that for a while and see what happens.

As I observed in a recent post, Blessed, Jesus says this sort of thing frequently in the Gospels. But in Isaiah’s prophetic tones, the call to attend to the hungry, poor, widows and orphans is not a suggestion or an invitation to try out something new, as we might mistakenly read the New Testament texts. imagesThe text from Isaiah is a flat out command. Just fucking do it. And until you do, stop pretending that you are anything other than a self-centered piece of shit. And stop expecting anything other than a perpetuation of the continuing, sad human story of injustice and violence. Period.

As I haphazardly told Jeanne about some of the difficult aspects of Trieste on the drive to church, she said “I hope I die before this all happens again. Because it will—eventually no one will remember.” As we proceed through the early weeks of our colloquium with very bright nineteen- and twenty-year-olds, the most frequent sort of question raised isReichsgründungsfeier, Schulklasse “How could they have done this?” or “How could people have gone along with those who were doing this?” Trieste has convinced me that before proceeding with these students, for whom the Holocaust is history as ancient as Julius Caesar and Pericles, to love, grace, truth and freedom in the midst of horror, perhaps more time should be spent in the horror part. No one in Trieste dropped in from an evil planet other than Earth—each person is a human being with darkness ready to erupt when inattentiveness and self-interest push common human decency into the background.

tumblr_l5rqy6R4A01qbmt20When one of the characters in Albert Camus’ The Plague is described as a “saint,” he responds “I have no interest in being a saint. I’m more interested in being a man.” This strikes me as a good place to start. A central problem illuminated by texts such as Isaiah and Trieste is the powerful human tendency to set the moral bar so low that even the most basic moral behavior looks like heroism or sainthood—a standard perhaps to be admired but not one that I hold myself to. We are told in sacred texts over and over again that God demands that we be fundamentally aware of each other. But the belief that basic morality and common decency require a conscious awareness of needs other than our own, particularly those of other human beings, need not be rooted in religious faith or practice. Whatever it takes to convince even a few of us that not only our thriving, but our very existence and survival depends on expanding the membership of our moral community to more than one is worth hanging on to.

On the final page of The Plague, at the end of a harrowing tale of individuals fighting against an out-of-control evil that could not be stopped, the main character Dr. Rieux takes stock of what he has learned now that the plague has left as inexplicably as it came. “He knew that the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory. It could be only the record of what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saint but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers.” 220px-William_James_b1842cThis is both a thankless and glorious assignment, one that William James in “The Will to Believe” recommends that we embrace with enthusiasm:

For my own part, I do not know what the sweat and blood and tragedy of this life mean, if they mean anything short of this. If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight,—as if there were something really wild in the universe which we, with all our idealities and faithfulnesses, are needed to redeem; and first of all to redeem our own hearts from atheisms and fears.

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The Designer God Project

Jean-Antoine Houdon ~ Voltaire[1]Voltaire once said that if God did not exist, we would have to invent him. In truth, we invent God all the time, often with seeming disregard as to whether the God we have invented actually exists or not. Anne Lamott suggests that we can be pretty sure that we have created God in our own image if it turns out that God likes all the people and things that we like and dislikes all the people and things that we dislike. So how am I, or how is any God-believer, supposed to tell whether the God I believe in exists in reality, or exists simply as a figment of my self-obsessed imagination? I’m having the opportunity to explore these issues with my students early this semester, and the process has been both dynamic and illuminating.

The texts for an early seminar last semester in the interdisciplinary program I both teach in and direct was the first twenty-five chapters of Genesis and the first twenty-four of Exodus.gen-ex[1] It is often a challenge to get freshmen to discuss anything in seminar in the early weeks of their first semester; getting a bunch of eighteen-year-olds, most of whom are products of twelve years of parochial education, to talk about the Bible is even more difficult. But I’ve been doing this for a while and have a lot of tricks. After assuring them that no one has ever been struck dead in any of my classes for speaking honestly about their reactions to what they’ve read in a “sacred text,” a few brave souls began to admit that the God of these Old Testament stories is quite different from the God they had been taught to believe in. This God frequently seems insecure, petty, unfair, and arbitrary—what’s up with that??

After a few minutes, it occurred to me that a thought experiment was in order. I said “Okay, if you don’t like the God of Genesis and Exodus, let’s work for a while on what we do want God to be and to act like. Let’s create a ‘Designer God’—you get to create God from scratch. Write in your notebooks for ten minutes on the following topic: Any God worth believing in will have the following characteristics. Come up with three characteristics and explain why any God worth believing in would have to have them. Go.”

After the writing portion of the thought experiment, the students compared notes and found that the God they had just designed individually was pretty similar from person to person. As they offered their favored divine characteristics, I wrote the list on the board:

Any God worth believing in will have the following characteristics:

Forgiving

Trustworthy

Understanding

Fair/Just

Loving (at least to those who deserve to be loved)

Powerful

Dependable

All-Knowing

Not a micromanager

As we discussed selected characteristics on the list, a number of issues were revealed.

Fairness and justice: The biggest problem the students had with the Old Testament God is that this is a God who plays favorites. 172663381_640[1]Any God worth believing in should treat everyone the same. “Why?” I asked. Do all of you treat everyone the same? Do you like the seven billion plus people in the world the same? Do you even like the few dozen people who you know really well the same? They had to admit that they didn’t. “Then why do you expect God to do something that you make no attempt to do?” I wondered. The students struggled for an answer other than that God is God and we’re not—the divine should be held to a higher standard than we are, although where that standard would come from other than God they weren’t sure.

images[6]Love and forgiveness: At first, the idea was that any God worth believing in should be loving. Period. “Even mass murderers, drug dealers and child abusers?” I asked. Well, several thought, we need to qualify this love thing a bit. God should love those who deserve it, or those who believe in God, but not everyone indiscriminately. Love that is equally spread everywhere without qualification is cheapened somehow. God’s love is transactional, in other words. I do this, God responds with love.

Power: Omnipotence turned out to be a big one—no God worth believing in is wimpy or weak. “But God in Genesis and Exodus is powerful and has no problem exhibiting that power on a regular basis. And you didn’t like thatomnipotent[1],” I reminded them. As it turned out, Designer God should be powerful but should not be all about using that power all the time. “When is it appropriate for God to use that divine power?” “Whenever I or my group is in trouble or needs something” was the most common response. So you want God to be like a 9-1-1 operator or a lifeline on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” That didn’t sound right, but maybe so. That led to another Designer God must-have trait.

Dependability: God needs to “be there” was the way that many students put it. “Dependable” and “trustworthy” were synonyms in this discussion. “Being there” means on call, though—the students clearly were not interested in a proactive God that demanded much of them. When things are going badly, listen up and answer my prayers. When things are going well, leave me the hell alone. No-Micromanage-150x150[1]The students were largely in agreement when I reframed this trait as a requirement that God not be a micro-manager. An overall plan for my life is fine, but I want to have a great deal of choice in terms of how I choose to find out about and pursue that plan (even freedom not to follow that plan if I so choose).

As we entered the last half hour of seminar, I asked everyone to take a mental step back and look at the list of Designer God characteristics that we had been discussing. 1834269-a-macro-of-santa-claus-face[1]Truth be told, they looked like the characteristics of a combination of a non-interfering Santa Claus and my students’ parents on a good day. Or the personality traits of the pleasant, vanilla God they had been taught to believe in. The question to ask, I suggested “What evidence is there that the God you have just designed actually exists?” Is there any evidence that these are the character traits of the divine, or are these simply a projection of what we want to believe in? A careful and clear consideration of the world we actually live in reveals that for every piece of evidence supporting the existence of the Designer God, an equally obvious piece of evidence suggests either the Designer God’s non-existence, or—perhaps more challenging—that whatever God is, God is something quite mysterious, exhibiting characteristics not on our list, and well outside our comfort zones. puppet[1]The Designer God Project was a two-hour exercise in creating God in our own image. And maybe that’s where most of us would like to stay. We’re like the Israelites in Exodus who get the shit scared out of them when God actually talks to them directly. They are very uncomfortable with the noise, the lightening, the fire, and the obvious power. Their response? “Moses, you go talk to God and tell us what God wants. We can deal with you, but don’t want to deal with that.”

The writer of Hebrews suggests that it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of a living God. Something created in my own image is far more comfortable, predictable, and manageable. Forrest-Gump1[1]The uncomfortable thing about adventuring with a real God rather than hanging out with a projection of myself is that it opens the door to continual growth and surprise and blows the doors off my comfort zone. Walking with God is like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.

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Beauty for Ashes, or Why Lent is a Bad Idea

Last Sunday as New England was enjoying the latest entry in the blizzard of the week trend that started in late January, I noticed a couple of Catholic colleagues on Facebook angsting over what to do about Mass in the middle of a snowstorm. Their Bishop had apparently sent out a cryptic “mass is important but be safe” message–what to do? “You could be an Episcopalian and not worry about it,” I commented, then wondered (to myself) “What would they do if there was a blizzard on Ash Wednesday? How deep would the drifts have to get to deter a faithful Catholic from receiving their yearly imposition of ashes? images[1]Which made me think about a post from about a year ago–the ruminations of a non-Catholic on Ash Wednesday.

One sunny morning in September 1983, when I was struggling in my late twenties with serious financial problems, a failing marriage, and a general malaise both spiritual and physical, I wandered into a Sunday morning service at Saint Matthew’s Episcopal Cathedral in Laramie, Wyoming. In a rush of emotional response to the beautiful organ, the stately procession of choir, crucifer, deacon and priest from back to front, and the overwhelming expressions of welcome from dozens of strangers, I felt that I had stumbled into a home whose existence I had not been aware of but for which I had been longing my whole life.

Over the succeeding weeks and months Saint Matthew’s became a life-preserver in more ways than oneseason1_scale[1]—no wonder I jumped into the strange and wonderful world of all things Episcopalian and the liturgical calendar with the enthusiasm and abandon of a true convert. My enthusiasm and commitment deepened as I experienced Advent for the first time, as Christmas liturgies framed the holidays, and as Epiphany revealed Jesus’ coming out party and early ministry in new ways. ash-wednesday11[1]Then Ash Wednesday happened. I remember it well. I regularly attended the 7:00 AM morning prayer run by lay people, but this morning the Dean was there. We went to a place in the prayer-book I had never seen before and proceeded through the most depressing liturgy ever. I found myself in the aisle queuing up to receive ashes. As Dean Mobley traced a cross with his ash-covered finger on my forehead and said “Vance, remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” I thought “This time you’ve gone too far, Morgan. This is just too weird.” I washed the ashes off my forehead as soon as I got home, convinced that I was never going to do that again.

Marsue-hed-shot[1]I related this thirty-plus-year-old story two years ago just before the evening Ash Wednesday service to Marsue, rector of the Episcopal church Jeanne and I are involved with, one of my best friends, and the closest thing I have to a spiritual adviser. I had not planned to go—just observing dozens of people walking around with ashes on their foreheads on my Catholic college campus was sufficient Ash Wednesday experience for me. But as I was settling in after yet another eleven-hour workday to eat dinner while watching first Chris Matthews, then a Netflix video before going to bed, Jeanne reminded me that she had been scheduled as chalice bearer at the 7:00 PM Ash Wednesday service. “You don’t have to go,” she said, but it was clear that she wanted me to. So I agreed to go, after making it very clear that I did not intend to get any ashes. In response to my story, Marsue laughed and asked “weren’t you jealous of the Catholic kids in the neighborhood when you were growing up who got ashes on Ash Wednesday? I was!” My response was that there were no Catholic kids in my neighborhood growing up. And there certainly weren’t any within range of our Baptist church. Marsue headed to the back of the church to process to the front with the choir and with Jeanne, looking angelic in her white robe. After the procession, it was clear that the folks up front significantly outnumbered us regular folks in the pews.

collegeville-inst[1]My most memorable Lent occurred in 2009 during the first half of my four-month sabbatical stay at an ecumenical institute in Collegeville, Minnesota. I had arrived in the middle of January; by the time Lent began I was joining the monks at St. John’s Abbey every day for noon prayer; by the time it ended I was reading and praying with them three times a day.003 (2) The internal adjustments, changes and growth that began during those weeks were unexpected and appear to be permanent. And they had nothing to do with it being Lent—that just was the part of the calendar in which we happened to be. I don’t remember the monks doing anything particularly different during Lent or the Abbey being decorated (or not) with Lent in mind. I’m sure there were weekly or daily Stations of the Cross events, but I did not participate, having decided many years earlier that this was another practice that was “too weird” and “going too far.” The internal work and change was so slow as to be almost imperceptible, only noticeable when other people told me that I was different than when I had arrived a few weeks earlier. It literally only occurs to me now that this began during a Lenten season.primary-merton[1]

The idea of Lent—a time in which persons of faith are challenged to give something up or take something on as a sign of renewed or deeper commitment to God—bothers me. I agree with Thomas Merton, who wrote that “The only trouble is that in the spiritual life there are no tricks and there are no shortcuts. Those who imagine that they can discover spiritual gimmicks and put them to work for themselves usually ignore God’s will and his grace.” And Lent—a time set aside to “get serious” about faith in practice—can easily turn into such a gimmick. lent_card[1]I can give up anything for forty days, but whatever I choose to sacrifice, unless it is simply frivolous (I know someone once who claimed he was going to give up celibacy for Lent), is something that I should probably consider giving up for good. Whatever I choose to take on for forty days with the intent of becoming a temporarily better person is, if I choose to be serious about my choice, something that I should undoubtedly seek to establish as a permanent part of my life.

Of all the things that have remained with me from that Collegeville Lent, the most important is that the life of faith, the life of seeking God, is incremental and daily. The liturgical calendar provides a different color and atmosphere for this daily process: hope and expectation for Advent, self-reflection for Lent, joy for Easter and so on. But hope, reflection and joy (and a whole bunch of other things) need to be part of my daily travels with the divine. Dropping bad habits and attitudes cannot wait until Lent, and neither can the addition of new habits and attitudes that my commitment to the life of faith calls for.

And oh yeah, I did get in line and receive ashes from Marsue two years ago, partly becausebeautyforashes[1] I did not want to be the only person in the building who didn’t. But more than thirty years after my first Ash Wednesday experience, with birthday number fifty-nine coming in a couple of weeks, a reminder that I am dust and will return to dust before long is not a bad thing. The brevity and fragility of it all makes God’s presence in the world and in us all the more remarkable. There is beauty in these ashes, a beauty to be embraced anew every morning.

Holy Family Values

The first Sunday after Christmas in the liturgical year is always “Holy Family” Sunday. In anticipation, here’s what I was thinking last year about what life in that particular family must have been like.

Lake-Wobegon[1]Each week, Garrison Keillor tells “Prairie Home Companion” listeners the news from Lake Wobegon, where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” I’ll bet the Holy Family was like that.

Lots of people think their children are well “above average”—hence, the bumper stickers in which parents boast that they are the “Proud Parents of an Honor Student at _________.”115711-20[1] Everyone thinks their child is precocious and the smartest/best looking/most creative human being ever. Every parent expects their infant to earn either a full academic or full athletic scholarship (probably both) to the college of their choice when the time comes. I doubt there is a place for a bumper sticker on a donkey, but if there is, what would Mary and Joseph’s donkey sticker have said?b24ede2f59b807e062898eb6a63bb5de[2] “Proud Parents of the Savior of the World”? “Our Kid is God in the Flesh”? Because there’s precocity, and then there’s precocity.

In “The Nativity Story,” a significant amount of time is spent on Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth south to Bethlehem. The filmmaker creatively lets us spend some time with these two young people, almost strangers to each other, who have been named as players in a divine plan that they have been told very little about. At one point, Mary asks Joseph what the angel had said to him.

Joseph: He said to not be afraid. (pause) Are you afraid?

Mary: Yes. Are you?imagesCAOLDHLP

Joseph: Yes.

Mary: Do you ever wonder when we’ll know? That he is not just a child? Something he says, a look in his eyes?

Joseph: Sometimes I wonder will I be able to even teach him anything.

No kidding. When it is predicted by the angels that the soon-to-be-born baby will “save his people from their sins,” one’s possible parental and step-parental contributions certainly seem to pale in comparison.

Although you wouldn’t know it from the mass quantities of commentary and artwork that have been produced over the last two thousand years, the canonical Gospels tell us remarkably little about holy family life. The non-canonical gospels, however, contain some stories that entirely corroborate Mary and Joseph’s pre-birth concerns. 4069-6820Jesus makes clay birds, which then come to life and fly away. Jesus strikes an annoying playmate dead. Jesus brings a less annoying playmate back to life after a fatal accident. School is a disaster, since every time a teacher tries to teach Jesus something, Jesus starts doing the teaching instead. Joseph and Mary’s worst fears come true.

The canonical gospels essentially leave us in the dark about Jesus between birth and thirty years old. We get the circumcision, the three kings, the trip to Egypt, Jesus growing in wisdom and stature, and a central text from Luke 2, twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple. The various artist’s renditions I’ve seen of this story are pretty much the same—The-Jesus-2[1]Jesus, looking particularly Aryan in the center of a holy glow, pontificates and astounds while his learned elders in the shadows lean away in disbelief and awe and some scribe takes notes. It’s kind of how I remember myself as a fifth or sixth grader, astounding (annoying?) my teacher and fellow students with yet another piece of fascinating (to me), but useless (to anyone else) information. Lovely scene, except that it has a lot more to do with what we think Jesus at twelve would have been like than anything from the story in Luke.

The actual story gives us a glimpse into a real family, holy or not. After going to the feast in Jerusalem with friends and family, as is their annual custom, Mary and Joseph are returning north to Nazareth. Although they’re not sure where Jesus is, they assume that he’s running around with his friends somewhere in the traveling group, so they don’t worry about it. Good for them—he’s almost a teenager, and they’ve loosened the parental leash a little bit. Let the boy have some freedom. But when he doesn’t show up at the end of the day, they’re worried. After failing to find him in the caravan, they return in panic to Jerusalem, where after three days they find him in the temple “sitting in the midst of the teachers.” In response to his mother’s exasperated and relieved “What the hell is your problem?? We’ve been looking all over for you!!! We thought you’d 262jesus12[1]been kidnapped!!!!”, Jesus gives a predictable, smart-alecky twelve-year-old response: “Why is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” Oh really?? “Guess what? You’re grounded! Once we get back to Nazareth you can ‘be about your Father’s business’ in your room!!” Luke chooses not to tell us if Jesus then received a well-deserved slap upside the head and lived under house arrest for the next year.

This is a real family, struggling with the challenges of love, faith, boundaries, and growing up. Despite the usual interpretations of this story, I think that Jesus had not gone to the Temple to school the experts—something he presumably could have done, given his pedigree and all. He was “sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions.”Jerus-n4i[1]

I don’t know whether twelve-year-old Jesus thought he was the Son of God—my bet is that he didn’t. But he did know where he wanted to be—he wanted to be where he could learn. Certainly the mystery and splendor of the Temple would have been an attraction for any young Jewish boy. But the real attraction was that this is where learning happened. This is where the most intelligent and educated people of Jesus’ society gathered to debate, to investigate, to discuss, and to discover. And that’s where Jesus wanted to be—listening and asking questions. Even the Son of God had a lot to learn and knew how to get started. Put yourself in the right place and open yourself up.

Reflecting on this will be a wonderful preparation for the upcoming semester. The life of learning is so much more about quietness, attentive listening, and perceptive questions than conveying facts and information.ListenLearn-lg[1] This is where the divine in each of our human vessels gets awakened and fanned into flame. It’s a privilege to participate. When, as always happens, I find myself buried under and frustrated by piles of grading and endless department and committee meetings in a few weeks, I’ll try to remember twelve-year-old Jesus, who knew where he belonged. He was about his Father’s business. Go and do likewise.