Category Archives: music

Mortals Die, and are Laid Low

tumblr_ma8azfhZEg1rgpruxo3_r3_1280[1]A couple years ago in a course that I was team-teaching with two other colleagues, the final seminar text of the semester was Shakespeare’s King Lear. One of my teaching colleagues, an accomplished Shakespeare scholar, described the play on the syllabus as simply “the greatest play ever.” I love Shakespeare and find his plays more insightful about human nature and the human condition than any other texts (certainly more insightful than any philosophical tomes I have read), but had not read this particular tragedy in its entirety since I was an undergraduate the age of our current eighteen and nineteen year old freshmen. The play blew me away, disturbed me, and made me wonder whether we perhaps should have sent our students off into the summer with something slightly less dark.

King Lear pushes to the limit a hypothesis that has a long and complicated pedigree: We live in a universe that is malign, at the very least indifferent, and human life within this universe is brutal, wretched, and meaningless. As various nasty and morally awful characters—including Lear’s two older daughters—apparently prosper from their rejection of their father, those characters with even a shred of dignity, honor, or love—including Lear’s youngest daughter—are rejected and ultimately destroyed. By the end of the play, the stage is littered with the bodies of both the good and the bad, while a handful of dazed survivors are left to pick up the pieces. Naked in a driving storm in the middle of a Scottish heath, Lear rages that human beings are nothing but “poor, bare forked animals,” living on a “great stage of fools.” Lear demands an answer to the question “Is man no more than this?” The blinded Gloucester despairingly directs his accusations heavenward:

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’gods; They kill us for their sport.imagesCAOCS0RP

And have a nice day.

King Lear took me back to a Holy Saturday liturgy a few years ago. At our Episcopal church, our rector Marsue decided for the first time in her many years as a priest to do the Holy Saturday liturgy. Holy-Saturday-e1364654989214[1]It’s a tough sell to get people to church on any Saturday except for a wedding or funeral, particularly during Holy Week when the most dedicated may have already been in church two or three times in the previous few days. I was one of only a few people present; if any of us had possessed the presence of mind to check the prayer book before coming, we probably wouldn’t have bothered. It’s a very dark liturgy. Jesus is dead in the tomb, the altar is stripped bare, and everything in the rubric is intended to get you notjob[1] to think about what is coming the next day. A central line in one of the prayers that day was “In the midst of life we are in death” Most striking that afternoon, however, was the following from the book of Job:

A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble comes up like a flower and withers, flees like a shadow and does not last . . . For there is hope for a tree, if it is cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease . . . But mortals die, and are laid low; humans expire, and where are they? As waters fail from a lake, and a river wastes away and dries up, so mortals lie down and do not rise again; until the heavens are no more, they will not awake or be roused out of their sleep.

These lines would have been appropriate in the mouths of any number of characters in King Lear, but they predate Shakespeare by thousands of years. The earliest text my interdisciplinary class studied this academic year, the gilandenki[1]Epic of Gilgamesh, is infused with similar energies—fear of death, as well as impotence in the face of forces we cannot control.

In the middle of Easter season, it is easy for Christians to immediately address these dark realities with the story of divine suffering and redemption that lies at the heart of Christian belief. And that is the message—God has overcome darkness and death, a victory that we are the beneficiaries of.  Yet it is so easy for this powerful story to become little more than a superficial panacea for all the darkness and loss that surrounds each of us, a truism that can blind us to an otherwise inescapable truth: mortals die, and are laid low. And during its short duration, human life is often filled with nothing but suffering, pain, and meaninglessness.

The great eighteenth-century essayist and philosopher Voltaire once provocatively wrote that “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”voltaire_if_god_did_not_exist_necessary_to_invent_postcard-r747d414000d64546b6a280ed3f476a5d_vgbaq_8byvr_210[1] This statement shook up a number of Voltaire’s contemporaries, leading many to imagine that any person who could write such a thing seriously must be an atheist. The statement remains provocative, and it is clear from his body of work that whatever Voltaire might have been, he was not a traditional religious believer in any sense of the word. But with the apparent meaninglessness of human existence and reality in view, Voltaire’s famous claim is absolutely true. There is something about the darkest and most sobering parts of human reality that cry out for, actually demand, a response. The human epitaph cannot be “Life’s a bitch, and then you die.”

All sorts of responses, ranging from religious through philosophical and literary to political, have been offered over the centuries, responses that often conflict with each other and even more frequently fail to take the fundamental problem on squarely. Which of these stories is true? More importantly, how can we know if any of them are true? How can we be sure that these stories are anything more than a collection of tunes human beings have written to whistle in the dark until the night overwhelms them? I submit that we cannot be sure. Yet billions of people have been willing to shape their lives, to stake their very existence at least virtually, sometimes literally, on the truth of one or more of these stories. Simone_Weil-11[1]Why? Because there is something in the human heart that has to believe them, something that has to hope. And it is that very longing and hope that is perhaps most convincing. As Simone Weil reminds us, “if we ask our Father for bread, he will not give us a stone.”

The third and final portion of Handel’s Messiah,handels-messiah[1] immediately following the “Hallelujah Chorus,” begins with “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth,” a soaring, spectacularly beautiful soprano solo setting of the following text from Job, with a concluding sentiment from First Corinthians:

I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth;

And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.

For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep.

From the depths of despair, literally from the middle of a pile of ashes, Job clings to a hopeful story, that there is a transcendent and triumphant divine response to human incapacity, despair, and hopelessness. It’s a wonderful story. How can I not believe it? I hope and pray that it is true. It had better be.

Flowering Trees

Several years ago, I spent spent the early months of the year on sabbatical on the campus of a Benedictine college in Minnesota. Lining the road on the fifteen minute uphill walk from my Ecumenical Institute apartment to St. John’s Abbey in the depths of winter were any number of small, leafless trees. Judging from their shapes and sizes, I guessed that many of them were the flowering sorts of trees that are always the harbingers of spring at home in Rhode Island. But as winter slowly faded and spring emerged with the pace of a turtle, I was disappointed to see that the buds on the trees were 78461814[1]clearly just plain old leaf buds. No flowering trees after all. I complained to Jeanne on the phone, as well as to my friend from Washington DC who commiserated—“back home, the cherry trees would have been in blossom a long time ago.”

On a walk to the Abbey several days later, as young leaves were emerging, I noticed some tiny flower buds hiding behind the new growth. This is bizarre—flowers after leaves? Sure enough, the trees I had been complaining about were flowering trees after all—they were just doing it ass-backwards. “Listen,” I said to a group of these trees, “you need to get your branches out of your roots and do this right. You’ve got this backwards—it’s flowers first, then leaves. What’s the matter with you??” cdurand[1]My annoyance level raised when I asked various Minnesota natives about what was wrong with their trees—there was no consensus. “The leaves always come before the flowers,” said one acquaintance, implying that the flowers-first trees I have known were mutants of some sort. Elisa[1]Another Minnesotan offered that flowers usually come first, but the winter this year was so unusual (too warm, too cold, too long, too short, too wet, too dry—take your pick) that everything got screwed up. Worst of all was the person who said “Oh really? I never really noticed which comes first.” What do you mean, you never really noticed?? This is important!

One morning early in what has come to be known as “Holy Week,” after spending the night with Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Bethany, Jesus and his posse are talking a morning walk to Jerusalem. Jesus is hungry, sees a fig tree, and plans to have a breakfast snack. But, Matthew tells us, “He came to it and found nothing on it but leaves.” So Jesus curses the tree, “and immediately the fig tree withered away.” My goodness. I can imagine the disciples as the events unfold—several are trying to point out that this isn’t fig season, Andrew offers Jesus a bite of his bagel, Judas is looking in the community purse to see if there’s enough to buy Jesus some breakfast at the restaurant down the road, and Peter is going into immediate damage control. “What happens at the fig tree stays at the fig tree, right? Right??”, but Matthew is already making mental notes to put into his memoirs later.

cable[1]Imagine the stir if this happened today with 24-7 media coverage. “Jewish Holy Man Kills Innocent Tree in a Display of Temper.” Environmentalists would be outraged, talking heads from anger management therapists to tree-friendly carpenters to Pharisees to a cult of fig-worshippers would debate the topic on FOX, CNN, and MSNBC. Everyone would be trying to get an interview with Jesus, but no one’s gotten an interview with him ever, not even Rachel Maddow or Lester Holt. Peter, the spokesman for the group, tells some convoluted story about Jesus doing it as an illustration of what any of us can do with just a tiny bit of faith, but that sounds like a lot of spin.

In such situations, there’s always someone who’s looking for fifteen minutes of fame, claiming to have seen exactly what happened. “We’re talking with Fred bar-William, a local Jerusalem tanner. Fred, you were an eyewitness to what happened at the fig tree, right?” “Yeah, man, I was just sort of hangin’ around to see what was goin’ on, him being famous and all. He stopped with a bunch of guys by the treeFig-Tree-cursing-Tissot-300x225[1]—I couldn’t hear everything, but he was obviously pissed and dropped an F-bomb or two on the tree, then went on and stopped at the restaurant a ways down the road. I thought that was kinda harsh, and now look at it—it’s all, like, withered up and disgusting. I mean, we knew the guy had a temper with what happened in the temple market and all, but this is ridiculous. Like, you’d think a guy from the sticks would know when it’s fig time and when it ain’t.”

220px-TheByrdsTurnTurnTurnAlternate[1]The writer of Ecclesiastes and The Byrds remind us that “To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven.” But seasons work differently in different places and times are unique to each person. Eventually, of course, the flowering trees along the walk to the Abbey flowered into glorious bloomflowering-tree-on-april-4-2011-bike-ride[1], and a less observant person than I would not even know that they became beautiful in an entirely unconventional and non-traditional fashion. To the casual observer, they’re just pretty trees, but I know their history. It’s a sort of organic, arboreal Goldilocks story, where each tree, and each one of us, survives through seasons of winter; we bloom in our own way only when things are “just right.” Those who are “happy indeed,” claims Psalm 1,

are like a tree that is planted

beside the flowing water

that yields its fruit in due season

and whose leaves shall never fade;

and all they do shall prosper.

Your Heart’s Desire

I received the welcome news this past week that my forthcoming book, which has been at the publisher for a few months patiently waiting in the editorial queue, has passed editorial muster and has been passed on to the typesetters. As my editor told me in the email, “things are rolling now,” rolling quickly enough that I might be holding a hard copy of the book by the end of May, early June at the latest. This will be my fourth book; when compared with other great events in a life–the birth of one’s children, great sex, eighteen-year-old Balvenie neat, the Boston Red Sox winning the World Series, the Patriots winning yet another Super Bowl, getting your first tattoo–nothing beats seeing your book in print for the first time.

The forthcoming book is what I have to show for my 2015-16 sabbatical, along with a still occasionally sore ankle that I broke while on a sabbatical bike ride. The email from my editor reminded me of a dinner that I had with Jeanne at P. F. Chang’s in March 2015, just a few months before the beginning of my sabbatical. “This thing better have good news in it,” I said as I unwrapped my P. Ffortune cookie. Chang’s fortune cookie at the end of dinner. And it did.

You will receive your heart’s desire

“Great,” I thought. “I wonder what the hell that is.

It had not been a good day. That morning I had received a rejection letter from the ##### Foundation to whom I had applied for sabbatical funding the previous fall. In typical rejection letter style, I was informed that “We received 76 applications and awarded 10 grants. The quality of the grant proposals made the work of the selection committee challenging indeed. I regret to inform you . . . blah, blah, blah and so on.” Tsabbatical proposalhis sucked big time because of the two funding proposals I had sent out, this was the one I thought I had the much better shot at. Two weeks later, the other funding place rejected me as well.

I do not handle rejection well—not that I’ve had a lot of it in my career. I have never been an adjunct professor. Both of my teaching positions have been tenure track. Both times that I actually got an on-campus interview, I got the job. My ascent of the tenure and promotion ladder had only one easily correctable glitch. I have spent the past twenty-two years teaching at the same college, loving every minute of those years (or at least 95% of the minutes). Three books, a number of articles, a teaching award, two significant administrative posts—I'm OkayI’m not writing this to impress anyone, but rather to illustrate my inner dialogue every time I do get rejected. I immediately start trying to convince myself that I’m really okay, despite the fact that the ##### Foundation did not deem my sabbatical project worth spending a dime on.

These are the times when I am grateful both for my training in classical music and for being forced to memorize lots of verses from the Bible in my growing up years. As soon as I read the cookie’s promise that I will receive my heart’s desire, my memory tapes started playing a song I don’t believe I had thought of in years, perhaps decades. It is a solo from Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah, with the seemingly appropriate (but very difficult to actually do) title “O Rest in the Lord.” I hate it when this happens, because the last thing I felt like doing that day was waiting or resting. My heart’s desire was to have funding for my sabbatical project, and what felixI considered to be my most likely source of that funding just said “thanks for playing, but no.” So “rest in the Lord, wait patiently for him, and he shall give thee thy heart’s desires”? Whatever—I don’t think so.

Mendelssohn’s Elijah is a dramatic musical treatment of various episodes from Elijah’s life as described in the Jewish scriptures, including his getting to ride in a flaming chariot to heaven once his prophesying work was over. In Part One of the oratorio Elijah has one of the greatest and most spectacular successes any prophet of God ever has or will experience. In a high stakes contest with the prophets of Baal on top of Mount Carmel, God has shown up in impressive fashion, as Elijah calls down fire that consumes the sacrifice, the wood on the altar, the stones that the altar is made out of, and the water surrounding it.elijah All this after five hundred prophets of Baal failed to arouse even a spark or a whiff of smoke out of their god after hours of praying, chanting, dancing, and self-mutilation. The people fall on their faces and cry “The Lord, He is God! The Lord, He is God!” In the exhilarating glow of spectacular success, Elijah has the five hundred prophets of Baal taken down the mountain to a brook and executed.

But then King Ahab reports to his wife, Queen Jezebel—a woman who in terms of evil and just plain nastiness puts Lady Macbeth to shame—what has happened to her prophets and everything changes. Jezebel sends a message to Elijah saying “So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time.” elijah and angelBy the beginning of Part Two, Elijah is fleeing for his life into the wilderness. Exhausted, he eventually collapses into a fetal position under a broom tree and has a classic drama queen moment: “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” And for once, God does something practical. While Elijah sleeps, an angel makes him breakfast; when Elijah stirs, the angel serves him the meal, then entertains him by singing a lovely setting of Psalm 37—which three thousand years or so later makes it into Mendelssohn’s Elijah as “O Rest in the Lord.”

Mendelssohn’s text rearranges a few of the verses from Psalm 37, but captures the point perfectly. For those who are fretting and stressed about what the future holds, the Psalmist provides a set of simple promises.

Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act.

Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him;

Do not fret over those who prosper in their way,

Over those who carry out evil devices.

Although this text is steeped in a religious perspective that I became familiar with before I learned to walk, the Psalmist’s advice sounds remarkably like what the ancient Stoics tell us—be clear about what is in your control and what is not. Don’t waste energy trying to control the latter and create your moral and spiritual home out of the former. What I can control is how I will respond to what the largely uncontrollable world hands me—disappointment, dashed hopes, unexpected opportunities, and a hell of a lot of the mundane, daily grind. The verbs in Psalm 37 are telling: trust, commit, be still, be patient, don’t worry, and take delight. These are the core of a life of centeredness and peace—something available even when things don’t go my way.Psalm 37

As I venture into the last third of my years on earth, I realize that I have often received my heart’s desire, and it almost never has been what I would have predicted. That day two years ago at P. F. Chang’s,  I did not even know what my heart’s desire was–I just knew that what I thought it was had just been shot down. As it turned out, I stayed home for my sabbatical year, spent more time with Jeanne (who happened to be unemployed and therefore home as well) than I have in years, cultivated my new bicycling obsession, got a tattoo, planned several new courses, recovered from a decade of intense administrative work, and wrote a book. You can’t make this stuff up, nor can you predict it–so “rest in the Lord” might be pretty good advice after all.

The Lazarus Cycle

In the liturgical year, the last Sunday of Lent focuses on Jesus’ signature miracle–the raising of Lazarus. Hearing it read yesterday made me nostalgic for various Hollywood treatments of Jesus’ life from my youth. During my childhood, we did not go to movies—that was something, along with a bunch of other things, that good Baptists didn’t do. But we did watch television—MV5BMTkyODYyNzE0NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTc1OTM2MQ@@._V1_SX214_[1]except on Sundays. So my brother and I occasionally saw movies on television, after careful censoring by my parents. We always looked forward to the weeks leading up to Easter with great anticipation—not because it was Lent followed by Holy Week (I never even heard of Lent until I was an adult), but because that was when the networks might be showing Hollywood epic treatments of stories either from or related to the Bible: “The Ten Commandments,” “Ben Hur,” “Quo Vadis,” “The Robe,” and others. Particularly favored was king-of-kings-movie-poster-1961-1020206924[1]“King of Kings,” a full-blown life-of-Jesus movie. These movies, despite their questionable accuracy by King James Version standards, were guaranteed to be approved by the parental censors. My mother, brother, and I popped popcorn and watched the Bible come to life in living black-and-white.

Then in 1966, when I was 10 years old, United Artists released imagesCAEO0LCK“The Greatest Story Ever Told,” one of the last of the great Hollywood biblical epics, directed by George Stevens. The cast was full of current as well as up-and-coming stars, included Max Von Sydow, in his first English-speaking role, as Jesus; Biblical epic superstar and future president of the NRA Charlton Heston as John the Baptist; Claude Rains, iTelly-Savalas-as-Pontius--003[1]n his final movie appearance, as Herod the Great; Martin Landau, the master of disguise in the “Mission: Impossible” of my youth, as Caiaphas; Telly Savalas of “Kojak” fame as Pontius Pilate,  imagesCA6OFXJKDavid McCallum (formerly one of the stars of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E,” currently starring as Ducky in “NCIS”) as Judas Iscariot; and my favorite: John Wayne as the Centurion at the foot of the cross, who delivers his one line—“Truly this man was the son of God!”—with all the sensitivity of a cowboy.

imagesCAVTYVXRStevens’ directorial choice is to hinge the whole three-hour-plus spectacle on the raising of Lazarus, which takes place just over half way through the movie. It is a remarkable piece of cinematography—instead of focusing on Jesus and Lazarus, the camera focuses on the reactions of those present. Shocked faces, stunned silence, a woman drops to her knees, a man bursts into tears. the_greatest_story_ever_told_movie_trailer[1]One witness runs down the road, grabbing random people and sharing the news—“Jesus of Nazareth . . . I saw it, I saw it with my own eyes! Lazarus was dead, and now he’s alive!” “The Messiah has come! A man was dead, and now he lives!” And indeed this is a blockbuster miracle, worthy of a predictable Hollywood musical effect, the rapturous singing of the final measures of the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s Messiah in the background. As the witness nears the walls of Jerusalem, he is joined by two men healed by Jesus earlier in the movie: “I was crippled, and now I walk!” “I was blind, and now I see!” “Who has done this?” shouts a Roman centurion from the walls of the city. “The Man Called Jesus!” Remarkable. Astounding.

But the gospel text is very puzzling, raising more questions than it answers. If this is, indeed, Jesus’ signature, career-defining miracle, why is it only reported in one of the four canonical gospels? Why do Matthew, Mark, and Luke not consider the story important enough to include in their accounts? Why does Jesus deliberately delay travelling to Bethany upon hearing that his friend is deathly ill, dawdling along the way in order to ensure that Lazarus is dead by the time Jesus arrives? imagesCANUX8Y0What exactly is the depth and nature of the Jesus and Lazarus friendship? We know a lot about Jesus with Lazarus’s sisters Mary and Martha, but this is the first time we’ve heard about Lazarus. Is he the domineering older brother of Mary and Martha, or the spoiled younger brother on whom they dote? Why does Jesus weep? And why is Lazarus still wrapped in his grave-clothes when he emerges from the tomb?

The gospel author mentions Lazarus only one other time, in the next chapter just before Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The crowds around Jesus have increased exponentially, as much to gawk at Lazarus as to see Jesus. The chief priests, plotting behind the scenes as always, plan to see both Jesus and Lazarus dead—this time there won’t be any resurrection. And Lazarus dissolves into our imaginations. What happened to him? How did he live out the rest of his life?

These are questions worthy of discussion, as are the questions raised by the account of the miracle itself. But Lazarus is not a museum piece to be dusted off and talked about once in a while. The story of Lazarus is our story, the story of everyone who seeks, in individual and unique ways, to be friends with Jesus.

ValleyofDryBones-620x3101[1]In the liturgical year, the story of Lazarus is accompanied by the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of valley of dry bones in the Hebrew Scriptures. We all, I suspect, have spiritually experienced a valley of dry bones season. Dry bones are the remaining evidence of something that was once alive, but hasn’t been for a long time. Lazarus in the tomb is well on his way to becoming a pile of bones—“Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Here’s how this sort of experience, a season of dry bones. goes for me.

I claim to be a follower of Jesus, but the internal flame has slowly decreased to an ember that is threatening to die out. I haven’t seen or talked with Jesus, really spent time with him, for a while. So I send out a call for help to the last place I saw Jesus, where rumor reports he is currently hanging out. And nothing happens. “Hey! I’m dying here!” I silently cry. Those closest to me might realize that something’s wrong, but are unable to help. Nothing but silence. 173185024_c1419b6266[1]And I know this is not just a dry period, a time in the desert. I say to myself “I’ll come out of this, he’ll show up, I’m just in a down time, sort of taking a long spiritual nap.” But I know deep in my soul that I’m lying to myself. The spiritual ember flickers out, leaving a cold, empty space full of ashes at my core. This is real death, from which there is no return. “Lazarus is dead.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote that “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” And death is not attractive. It isn’t pretty. No matter how beautiful the dress, how snazzy the suit, how professional the make-up job, a corpse is still a corpse. drybones[1]Spiritual corpses go through the motions, pretend that “there’s still some life left in these bones,” but deep down they know it’s a lie. I know, and after a while others know, that something smells. “Mortal, can these bones live?” I seriously doubt it. “My bones are dried up, and my hope is gone. I am cut off completely.”

But after what seems like a spiritual eternity: a rattling of bones, a puff of breath, and there are the stirrings of life. I’ve been dead for so long, I’m disoriented. I don’t recognize my surroundings, or the voice in the distance. jesus_20lazarus_20raised[1]“Come forth!” As a moth toward a flame, I’m drawn toward that sound, toward a pinpoint of light and I find that, against all odds, what was dead is alive again. I’m surrounded by those I thought I’d lost, those whom I thought I would never truly see again. “We thought you were dead!” “I was!” But I can’t move properly, can’t see clearly, I feel like a mummy who just became alive again. And I hear a commanding voice: “Loose him, and let him go.

I’ve been raised to new life—so why am I still bound by the vestiges of death, by the grave-clothes of a past that I thought was gone? Because spiritual renewal and growth are like the Darwinian evolutionary process—I drag the remnants of a past reality into my new life. Vestiges of what has died still remain. If inattentive, I will attempt to weave new garments of salvation out of old, stinking, rags that have long outlived their purpose. And I cannot remove them by myself—I need help. We need each other’s help. I need the help of those who love me and who know what it’s like to try to get one’s bearings as a newly resurrected corpse. And the Lazarus cycle goes on.

No one wants to die. But life with God is a cycle of death and resurrection, a daily, weekly, yearly Lazarus event. Dying, abandoned, buried, called back to life, emerging to new life with lots of work to do. Sometimes we’d rather not. But the message of the story of Lazarus is “Don’t be afraid to die”—especially to those things we cannot bear to even think about losing. Don’t be afraid to release even what seems most necessary—familiar thoughts, comfortable patterns of behavior, habits set in stone, OXYGEN COMMUNICATION COMPANIONwell-intentioned but self-centered expectations—the very things that for each of us seem to be the cornerstone of existence. To truly live, we have to die. Simone Weil put it beautifully:

They alone will see God who prefer to recognize the truth and die, instead of living a long and happy existence in a state of illusion. One must want to go towards reality; then, when one thinks one has found a corpse, one meets an angel who says: “He is risen.”

I Think It’s Going To Rain Today

Broken windows and empty hallways, a pale dead moon and a sky streaked with gray.

Human kindness is overflowing, and I think it’s going to rain today. Randy Newman

scandalJeanne and I are television binge-watchers. A couple of years ago, our obsession was ABC’s “Scandal,” an addictive series about a Washington “fixer” trying to break off an affair with the President she helped get elected while descending for 47 minutes on a weekly basis into the depths of depravity, violence and dysfunction that we all suspect is daily fare in the nation’s capital. It does not match my favorites—“Breaking Bad,” “Homeland,” “Downton Abbey,” “The Wire,” “The Newsroom” and more—in quality of acting, production value, or award-winning writing; it’s just addictive entertainment. “Scandal” was in its fourth season when we discovered it, so we had a lot of catching up to do via Netflix.

One late Friday afternoon when I returned home from work, the next three “Scandal” DVDs were in our mailbox. Jeanne was away in Canada on a work junket; without even pausing for a moment to consider the protocol and etiquette of whether one should by oneself watch new episodes of a show that one is watching with one’s significant other, I sat down with my dinner to pick up with Season Two, Episode Five, intending to watch it again with Jeanne when she returned without telling her that I’ve already seen it. A lot of craziness packed into 47 minutes once again, leaving the viewer hanging on a cliff and salivating for more—and playing behind the final montage was a song I probably hadn’t heard in four decades, one of my favorites from my 60s youth: “I Think it’s Going to Rain Today.” This poignant, sad Randy Newman song has been recorded by many artists over the years, from Newman himself to Judy Collins, Bette Midler, Peter Gabriel, Nina Simone, Barbra Streisand and Dusty Springfield. Here’s a recent, lovely rendition from Norah Jones:

“Scarecrows dressed in the latest styles, with frozen smiles to keep love away. Human kindness is overflowing, and I think it’s going to rain today.” Wow. I don’t consider myself to be a dark person. Frequently ironic, sometimes sarcastic, often introspective, always introverted (except when I am getting paid to be extroverted in the classroom)—yes. tin canBut not dark. Yet darkness has been coming across my radar screen for several weeks in books, on television, in movies, on the radio, in the classroom—my inner sensibilities have become tuned sufficiently over the past few years that I now take notice of such “coincidences,” wondering if someone is trying to tell me something. I have never been able to hear “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” dry-eyed. As a young teen I thought my emotions directly challenged my manhood-to-be; now I just think it’s because I’m a human being resonating with a beautiful, artistic expression of the sadness and loneliness that is just beneath everyone’s surface.

I have long believed that if the faith I profess is going to mean anything, it has to directly touch this sadness in the human heart. And the gospels are clear that it must. But I was raised in a very different version of Christianity, one that bbtBarbara Brown Taylor accurately describes as “full solar spirituality,” which

Focuses on staying in the light of God around the clock, both absorbing and reflecting the sunny side of faith. You can usually recognize a full solar church by its emphasis on the benefits of faith, which include a sure sense of God’s presence, certainty of belief, divine guidance in all things, and reliable answers to prayer.

The fact that our fervent prayers often went unanswered and the presence of the divine was often undetectable didn’t matter—we were urged to live out a religious version of “Fake it ‘til you make it” because, after all, how can you not be happy when you have everything right and God is on your side?

Unfortunately I was not gifted with a full solar personality—I guess my resonance with tunes like “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” is direct proof. I am more of a lunar than solar person, preferring the reflected light of Artemis and the moon to the solar splendor of her twin brother Apollo. galadrielTolkien’s lunar elven queen Galadriel is my favorite character in The Lord of the Rings. And I found in Barbara Brown Taylor’s description of her own spiritual orientation something very familiar.

I have been given the gift of lunar spirituality, in which the divine light available to me waxes and wanes with the season. . . . All in all, the moon is a truer mirror for my soul than the sun that looks the same way every day.

I heard on NPR not long ago that on the eve of the conclave that would elect him as the next Pope, then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio urged his fellow cardinals to remember that Christians should live by the light of the moon rather than of the sun. Followers of Christ should reflect the source of light rather than acting as if they are the source. With regard to the hierarchy of the religious structure he would soon be elected to lead, popehe said that the church exists to reflect Christ—as soon as it believes it itself is the light, disaster occurs and the church becomes an idol. Preach it, Francis. Five words I thought I’d never say: I really like this Pope.

While there might be many reasons to fear the dark, times of darkness are part of being human and spiritual darkness is central to a search for the divine. The way many persons of faith talk about darkness, you would think that it came from a whole different deity, human kindnessbut as Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us, “to be human is to live by sunlight and moonlight, with anxiety and delight, admitting limits and transcending them, falling down and rising up.” The final lines of Randy Newman’s lyrics shine a pale light into an often dark world: “Right before me, the signs implore me—Help the needy and show them the way. Human kindness is overflowing, and I think it’s going to rain today.” Here is Peter Gabriel’s version—I dare you to have dry eyes at the end.

What Silence Sounds Like

Hello darkness, my old friend, I’ve come to talk to you again. “The Sound of Silence”

One Sunday a couple of months ago as I was listening to our local NPR station in the car during an errand run, I heard a brief piece on “Disturbed,” a heavy metal band that had just received its second Grammy nomination. Their first was in 2009; now, eight years later, they had another one. My knowledge of contemporary heavy metal is non-existent, as is my interest in that musical genre—this would have usually been reason for me to switch to the Boston NPR station to see what they were up to. But Disturbed’s Grammy nomination was for their acoustic cover of a song that was a central tune in the sound track of my youth: Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence.” I had to listen.

For those familiar with Simon and Garfunkel’s original (link below), a remake or cover of their iconic masterpiece is close to sacrilegious. But the intensity and power of Disturbed’s version is not to be missed—I agree with one commenter on Youtube who called it “chilling and magnificent.” The NPR piece included a brief interview with David Draiman, Disturbed’s lead vocalist. Noting that the choice not to go “heavy metal” with “The Sound of Silence” was the drummer’s idea, Draiman said that the acoustic demands of the song took him to vocal spaces he had not visited in many years.

I was trained to be a cantor, which is someone that leads the Jewish congregation in prayer. So I learned classical vocal technique from a very young age . . . I hadn’t attempted to go to that spot of my vocal ability for very many years. I was so overwhelmed with emotion listening to the way my vocals sounded in that beautiful bed of music. And not having heard my voice in that way for so long, it was really just very, very overwhelming.

I’ve been reminded of this story a number of times over the past two months during the first half of the current semester. I find that questions that ask how human beings are to think about what is greater than us—is there anything greater than us? And if so, what are the implications?—make frequent appearances in my various classes, some planned and some not. This semester has been no exception. Many (a significant majority) of my students come from religious backgrounds (mostly Catholic), but have never analyzed critically or sufficiently exactly what going on when we mere mortals attempt to establish a line of communication with what is greater than us. The formalized version of these attempts is usually called prayer; various worship activities in each of the great monotheistic religion include prayer on a regular basis. As a cantor, David Draiman led such collective attempts to make contact with God, and in response we often get exactly what Paul Simon’s lyrics describe—the sound of silence. Crickets chirping. It’s enough to drive a person of faith nuts. As C. S. Lewis once wrote to his brother Warnie in a letter,

The trouble about God is that he is like a person who never acknowledges one’s letters and so, in time, one comes to the conclusion either that he does not exist or that you have got the address wrong.

I grew up in a prayer-obsessed world; Wednesday nights at church were marked as the time to obsess collectively. As a creative youngster, I usually was able to find something in every foray to church to pique my interest, however briefly. I liked some of the hymns we sang on Sunday morning and evening, for instance, and enjoyed the stories in Sunday school. But we didn’t sing on Wednesday nights—people gave testimonies, and then we prayed. For a very, very, VERY long time. I remember prayers that were more like speeches than anything else, insistent, complaining sorts of speeches whose intent was apparently to wear God down. Not that the things being asked for were unimportant—“please bring X to a saving knowledge of you,” “please heal Y of diabetes,” “please help Z find a job”—but the tone was often strange, petulantly childish, demanding, insinuating that this time, for once, God had damn well better get off His ass and do something. Of course anyone actually saying that at Wednesday prayer service would have been in danger of hellfire, but that’s the atmosphere I remember.

How to pray was a mystery to me—I recall my mother saying frequently that I should just talk to God the same way I talked to her. That never struck me as one of my mother’s better pieces of advice, since I clearly couldn’t talk to an invisible, far away, scary “something” in the same way I could talk to her. But I did learn, as all good Baptist kids learned, how to make up a convincing sounding prayer at the drop of a hat. It’s just that it never seemed to go past the ceiling. Many years later, in a text we are using in one of my courses this semester, Annie Dillard expressed the frustration as clearly as I’ve ever seen.

Are we only talking to ourselves in an empty universe? The silence is often so emphatic. And we have prayed so much already. . . Who is like you, O Lord, among the silent, remaining silent through the suffering of His children?

The best advice I ever received concerning prayer, not surprisingly, came from the person who knows me best. A number of years ago, in response to one of my frequent complaints about divine silence and inscrutability as a “response” to ineffective prayer, Jeanne said “Vance, for you thinking is praying.” It has taken me many years to recognize just how right she was. Although her comment was for me, the larger point is for everyone. Prayer understood on the transactional model, as an attempt at bargaining or pleading with a silent partner who might not even exist, is a guaranteed recipe for frustration and failure. But what if prayer is not something the person of faith is supposed to do? What if, instead, prayer is something that we are called to be? Being a prayer is a matter of learning to recognize and trust the places where the divine is most likely to be found—in myself and in others, in those thin places where the barrier between human and divine dissolves. And people of the book should know this—it’s right in there, both in the Jewish scriptures and the New Testament. Where is the divine to be found?

It is not too mysterious for you, nor is it far off. It is not in heaven . . . nor is it beyond the sea . . . But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.

If prayer is a call for the divine to enter the world, we need to be attentive to where that might be happening—in us and around us. It probably will not be where we expect. As Paul Simon wrote in the last verse of “The Sound of Silence,” the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls.

Sixty-One Years On

I’ve no wish to be living sixty years on   Elton John

Tomorrow is my birthday! Sixty-one is nothing special, except that it’s a prime number–so there’s that. I’m reminded of what I wrote for my milestone sixtieth last year; it all still seems appropriate! 

Several years ago Jeanne surprised me with the ultimate in birthday presents—a ticket to an Elton John concert. I have been a devoted Eltonophile for years, even before everyone found out about him with the release of his blockbuster yellow brick road“Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road” album in 1973, the album that made him famous. I graduated from high school in 1973, so I’ve been a fan for more than forty years. According to Wikipedia, Sir Elton currently is in fifth place all-time in record sales, just behind Madonna and just ahead of Led Zeppelin (The Beatles, Elvis, and Michael Jackson earned the first three spots). Elton had celebrated his 60th birthday the day before and started the concert with “Sixty Years On” from his second album “Elton John” released in 1970.

The new sexagenarian went without a break for more than two hours, the first hour filled with tunes from his pre-Yellow Brick Road years, tunes that the youngsters in the crowd had probably never heard. But the real Elton fans in attendance loved it—we knew Elton’s stuff before he became Elton John.

The lyrics of “Sixty Years On” are generally incomprehensible, as Bernie Taupin’s lyrics often are, but there is one line that is particularly haunting: I’ve no wish to be living sixty years on. The album including “Sixty Years On” was released when Elton was 23 years old, so he can be forgiven for not wanting to live for an ungodly six decades (We are both of the generation that used to say no one over thirty should be trusted). sixty happensBut I turn sixty in two days, so indulge me as I reflect a bit on why sixty years on ain’t so bad after all.

My age has never been a negative issue for me—I passed 50 without a hitch a decade ago and don’t see 60 as any more problematic. I’m very healthy (my doctor says I’m his most boring patient), was in the best shape of my life before I broke my leg in October (and intend to get back there in short order once spring arrives and I’m back on my bike), and have always thought of myself as at least a decade younger than the calendar says. Still . . . 60 is a lot of years. In many periods of history, and in many parts of the world now, I would have been dead for a long time by this age. Even in my most optimistic moments I have to admit that I have probably already lived more than two-thirds of my allotted years on earth. Although I have regularly said that I will never retire and will die in the classroom at age 100 or so, I have heard myself say more and more frequently over the past few months in various contexts that I’ll be teaching for at least another ten years (what will I do after 70—RETIRE??). I’m already older than my mother was when she died. The older I get, the more the ancient Stoics’ advice to never forget one’s mortality makes sense, since it is much easier to pretend that one is immortal when one is twenty or thirty than when one is facing sixty. senecaThe Stoics had a great deal of good advice concerning how to be with the comparatively short human shelf life.

For instance, Seneca writes that Life is long if you know how to use it and that We are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it. We all know that the passage of time is subjective—a fifty-minute class can feel like fifteen or one hundred fifty minutes depending on any number of factors. Seneca’s point is that even though the objective length of my life is not within my control, how my life passes is within my control. Within the parameters of my existence, my life will be as long or as short, as meaningful or as meaningless, as I choose it to be. Stoic-EpiticusAnother great Stoic, Epictetus, describes it this way:

Remember that you are an actor in a play of such a kind as the playwright chooses: short, if he wants it short, long if he wants it long. If he wants you to play the part of a beggar, play even this part well; and so also for the parts of a disabled person, an administrator, or a private individual. For this is your business, to play well the part you are given; but choosing it belongs to another.

On the cusp of sixty, I’ve learned a few things about how to play the part I’ve been given and about what makes my life meaningful. None of these are profound or groundbreaking, but it has taken me six decades to realize that sometimes the most obvious things are the best.

  • Enjoy the little things. I’ve always been a quirky person, no different in that regard than anyone else. But I spent a lot of my life hiding my quirks or at least pretending that they aren’t as important to me as they always have been and still are. I don’t hide them anymore. Reading with my dachshund stuffed into the chair next to me. go friarsFriars basketball. Friars hockey. Messing around with the plants in our postage-stamp-sized yard once spring comes. The newest local micro-brew porter or stout on tap at my favorite watering hole. A beer (or two or three) with the regulars on Friday afternoons. Binge-watching British police and detective television shows with Jeanne. The change of seasons in New England. Believing before every new season that the Red Sox can win the world championship—and actually have them do it once in a while.
  • Don’t sweat the stupid stuff. This is a tough one, but I’m trying to get better at not letting things outside of my control consume my day. Things like the latest idiocy from the presidential campaign trail, the most recent offensive email from a department colleague, an ignorant person on Twitter talking trash about my Friars basketball team—as the Stoics say, life is too short to insist on trying to control what other people say and do. Except for that jerk on Twitter.
  • Be grateful. I have a Facebook acquaintance who starts her day out by listing on Facebook five things that she is grateful for. t and fThat’s a wonderful habit to cultivate. I don’t do it on Facebook, but I have gotten better at remembering and occasionally writing about the things I am grateful for. Jeanne. Faith that is alive and kicking. My oldest son’s finding the life partner and profession that fit him perfectly. My youngest son finally landing the job that is worthy of his years of hard work and stubborn persistence; it is a joy to see him truly starting the life he has been seeking. My teaching vocation—as I tell my students frequently, I am inordinately blessed to be able to make a living doing what I was born to do. Living Stones—a collection of fellow spiritual travelers who never fail to surprise and delight me with their insights and stories.
  • Set appropriate goals. I have reached the point in my career where the most obvious professional goals—tenure and promotion to full professor—have been behind me for a decade and a half. What goals are appropriate going forward? I ended the chapter on “Courage” in my recently completed draft of a book that is currently under contract at a publisher–out in three months or so–with the following: I would love to write a bestseller. I would love to have my likeness be the first one carved on the Mount Rushmore for Teachers that someone should create sometime. I would love to have thousands of people all over the world waiting with rapt attention for my next wise and witty blog post. penguinsBut I would like most to faithfully live a life according to Montaigne’s “common measure,” bringing what I have to offer into each new day with intelligence, energy, and an occasional infusion of divine humor. Miracles and rapture are fine if you get them, but at the end of the road a “nicely done” would be even better.

As it turns out, I am perfectly happy to be living sixty years on and will be content to keep on going as long as my body and soul stay healthy and appropriately connected to each other. I have a very clear “do not resuscitate” agreement with Jeanne—as soon as I show the first signs of noticeable deterioration, pull the plug. If there is no plug, hit me over the head with a hammer. But only Jeanne knows what “signs of noticeable deterioration” means in my case, so don’t get any crazy ideas. Happy birthday to me!never underestimate

Lent is for Lovers

Each of the past three or four years on this blog, I have posted the same essay on Ash Wednesday: “Why Lent is a Bad Idea.”

Beauty for Ashes, or why Lent is a bad idea

This has occasionally subjected me to a certain amount of push back from my Catholic friends, but I’ve stood firm by my attitudes and arguments. But over the past couple of weeks, my lovely  Jeanne and I have had an ongoing conversation about Lent that has caused me to start rethinking my anti-Lenten attitudes.

It all started early one recent Saturday morning. It’s 5:30 in the morning (on Saturday, mind you), my eyelids are resisting the inevitable and Jeanne asks me, “What is Your Relationship with Lent?!”  She’s been up taking care of the dogs, getting her coffee and obviously thinking about her relationship with Lent. Oh, the joys of being married to an extrovert. Jeanne manages to get a few mumbles out of me concerning my bad Lenten attitudes; later in the morning, she writes at the computer for fifteen minutes or so, then sends me via email attachment her composition entitled “Thank God it’s Lent,” clearly intended for my blog consideration, in which she explains her own evolving relationship with Lent. With minimal changes and occasional commentary from me, here’s what she wrote:

“Jeanne was a cradle Roman Catholic.  She surpassed many of her fellow young Catholics by being a daily communicant as a child, pursuing nunship,

I find the idea of my extroverted wife as a nun very amusing, and can imagine the inhabitants of the convent singing, as in The Sound of Music, “How do you solve a problem like Jeanne?”

working as a Minister of Music, falling in love with two seminarians at different growth phases (and winding up with a philosopher) and finally leaving the Roman tradition for a simple relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (or as she likes to call the Holy Spirit, Big Bird).

I know both of these seminarians, and am thankful they both had the good sense to choose the church over the love of my life—it would have been awkward when I met her thirty years ago if she had been married to one of them.

She’s spent her entire life it seems wrestling with the Godhead.  In fact, she has often described her relationship with God using the image of a boxing ring.  She and Jesus in the center, Jesus’ hand on her head, Jeanne’s fists flailing at the air. Jesus waiting for Jeanne to tire out, Jeanne never taking the mat.”

Jeanne calls this “Brooklyn spirituality,” which is about as far from my own type of spirituality as one can get. Still, one of the reasons our three-decade union of opposites has worked is that we respect the importance and value of each other’s very different attempts to figure out what the divine is up to.

“Jeanne came to believe that ‘If God is love, then Lent isn’t about giving things up or deprivation. It is about loving.’  She continued, ‘If I give something up because it is a sin I’m not moving toward God and myself, because the action is a negation.  But if I accept that what I’m giving up is something that isn’t good for me in the first place, then giving it up is truly loving myself. I’m showing gratitude to God and love for myself as His temple, His creation.’”

With allowance for my obvious bias in favor of anything Jeanne says, this is a profound insight. My problem with Lent has always been that it provides an opportunity for “spirituality on the cheap.” Anyone can give something up for forty days, especially if it produces a false sense of spiritual satisfaction. Jeanne’s insight is that I have this all wrong (a point she makes frequently to me). Lent provides an opportunity to deliberately do something that all of us regularly neglect: Taking care of and loving ourselves as if we mattered. Because we do. To wrap up, Jeanne—as is her custom—got direct and honest.

“To flesh this out, Jeanne has battled with food since birth, or at least that’s how it seems.  Her latest struggle is with diet drinks, coffee—which is her favored delivery system for sugar substitute and cream—and alcohol!  She loves her vodka.

About as much as I love single malt scotch and dark beer. 

“She’s thinking of giving these up for Lent because

  1. They are not good for her body,
  2. They are not good for her mind, and
  3. They are not good for her soul.

Yet, she drinks them.  To honor her new way of thinking about Lent, she has decided to embrace Love by doing what is good for her body, mind and soul.  Now if she could only grasp that going to the gym is also about loving herself!”

These are good decisions–plus, this means that for the next forty days Jeanne won’t be drinking any of my dark beer.

On this Ash Wednesday, the Lenten question for each of us is not “What should I give up for Lent in order to feel deprived, and therefore more spiritual or holy?” The question rather is “Do I dare treat myself as if I matter?” or “Am I willing to risk seeing myself as valued and loved in the manner that God sees me?” If the answer to this is “yes,” then what are the ways in which I habitually treat myself as if I did not matter? Am I willing to deliberately suspend those activities, even for a limited time? Am I willing, with Big Bird’s help, to take on a new Lenten experiment—loving myself?

A Crooked Faith

Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made. Immanuel Kant

I love many kinds of music, but classical music is my first love. I was classically trained on the piano from age four through high school; my first piano teacher, a Julliard graduate who somehow ended up in northern Vermont teaching piano, was also the organist for the North Country Chorus, a volunteer choral group that was, in the estimation of Vermonters at the time, our version of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Every year the North Country Chorus performed Handel’s Messiah, which became—and still is—my favorite classical composition. Its music is inspired, of course, but in addition its settings of texts from the King James translation of both the Old and New Testaments were an artistic gift to a kid who was forced to study and memorize significant portions of the Bible from an early age. Even today, decades later, I hear Handel’s glorious music every time I encounter a passage from Scripture that is included in the libretto of Messiah.

After an instrumental introduction, Messiah begins with a tenor recitative and aria set to prophetic texts from the first verses of Isaiah 40:

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.  Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness; prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.

This is followed by the first chorus:

And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.

Handel’s music is so beautiful that it is possible to miss the power and promise of the text: When God arrives on the scene, messes get cleaned up, crooked things get straightened out, imperfections are made perfect, and problems get solved. A wonderful promise—but not one that squares with my experience.

I was reminded of these texts and this music as I read and responded to the Facebook comments on a recent blog post that a friend shared on a progressive Christian Facebook page that she administers. The back-and-forth started innocently enough:

  • Him: From the last couple of posts you have made it seems as if you are questioning your faith that’s my thought.
  • Me: I’m ALWAYS questioning my faith! In my understanding, that’s perhaps the key factor that keeps faith alive and prevents it from becoming rigid and inflexible. A favorite writer of mine says that the opposite of faith is certainty–doubt is an indispensable part of a vibrant faith.

In a quick succession of posts, the commenter then sought to set my crooked ideas straight:

  • Him: The word of God stands firm it is not flexible in no way form or fashion And to quote anything from a man’s corruptible heart against it is sin there’s no two ways about it . . . If you always question your faith you are lost and I feel for you you can’t ride the fence or change his word to suit your will . It is what it is period.

Well, now. Before I had the opportunity to say something snarky and self-righteous in response to this clearly misguided, conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist person, another commenter posted that she appreciates my posts because they help her “grow and learn,” suggesting to the first commenter that he should “find something more conservative.”

  • Him: I’m a progressive liberal in politics thank you but first and foremost I’m a true Christian to the best of my ability.
  • Me: I also am a progressive liberal in my politics and seek to be a true Christian to the best of my ability. The difference perhaps lies in our understanding of what “true Christian” means. I completely reject the idea that it requires inflexibility, rigidity, or being in service to a specific interpretation of texts that lend themselves to multiple interpretations.
  • Him (after some further pushback from others in the conversation thread): I’m not a conservative in no way but yes I am seeing this page for what it truly is I will see myself out. I will pray for you and those like you who can’t accept the truth of the Bible for what it is and maybe one day you will see your personal opinion on what you want the Bible to mean is in fact wrong. Good day.

I’ve been involved in this sort of conversation many times over the years, and they just about always end this way, with the conservative Christian promising to pray for the liberal “Christian” to see the truth and thereby escape hellfire and damnation, as the liberal immediately rehearses how he will judgmentally and condescendingly share this story with his fellow progressive friends at the first opportunity. But a half hour or so later, the commenter posted one more time, offering some well-intentioned and much appreciated scriptural advice.

  • Him: I leave you with one verse and I promise I will not persist here any further. Proverbs 3:5-6: Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.
  • Me: Thanks–this is a favorite of mine as well. Except that I prefer the more accurate translation of the final clause: “And he will direct your paths.” Faith is not a straight line–it’s an adventure that takes a person in many unexpected directions.

When Immanuel Kant wrote that “from the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made,” he was observing, at the beginning of a discussion of his moral theory, just how great the challenge of getting human beings to morally straighten themselves out actually is. Perhaps it is reflective of my natural perversity when I say that I sort of like the crooked timber of humanity. The best moral theories take human beings as we are rather than as the theorist idealistically wants us to be. The same can be said for faith. My own faith is rooted in my embrace of the central, incarnational idea of Christianity: God became human—and still does. The Christian story is not about God straightening human beings out, but rather is about God using our natural human bends, twists, and turns.

Reading the gospel accounts of what Jesus said and did using this lens reveals the crooked timber that we all know to be definitive of being human. Christians love to focus on the loving, generous, eloquent, patient, courageous Son of God that we find on every page and tend to overlook other things we discover about Jesus. He got tired, could be curt and dismissive (even to his mother), and was occasionally sarcastic, impatient, and judgmental. He was a real human being, in other words, with all the lack-of-straightness that involves. And that’s good news, since it means that I don’t have to “straighten up” or “sit up straight,” as various authorities used to demand from me, in order to be a bearer of the divine in the world. God is often just around the next corner of our crooked paths.

I Was a Stranger

A bit over a year ago, in the midst of the Presidential campaign that no one will ever forget, I found myself part of a Facebook discussion thread that I should have avoided participating in. On that thread, a person developed an extended analogy in which she likened the presence of undocumented immigrants in our country to an infestation of raccoons in one’s basement. To solve the problem one should hire the most effective exterminator one can find–the exterminator’s moral fiber, methods, or personal qualities are irrelevant. The person she was likening to the exterminator in her analogy is now the President; last Friday he issued an executive order temporarily suspending immigration to this country, prohibiting immigration indefinitely from certain countries, and setting off a flurry of lawsuits, protests, and other sorts of push back. In the midst of it, I was reminded of a story from ancient Greek mythology thousands of years ago that raises the very challenging issues and questions that we find ourselves grappling with.

Buried in the middle of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is the story of one of the strangest love triangles imaginable. Acis and GalateaTwo points of the triangle make sense—Galatea, a sea-nymph and Acis, the son of a sea-nymph—but the third point makes things interesting. The story of Polyphemus the Cyclops is well-known from Homer’s Odyssey, but Ovid’s story involves Polyphemus in earlier days—solitary, huge, hairy,  one-eyed, and hopelessly in love with Galatea. Galatea, who tells the story, isn’t having any of it: “I could not say whether love for Acis or hatred of the Cyclops was stronger in me.” But Polyphemus is not deterred. He combs his hair with a rake, trims his beard with a scythe, suspends his habit of destroying passing ships and eating the sailors, playing musicand settles down on top of a hill with a homemade instrument made of “a hundred bound reeds” to try his hand at musical composition and performance.

The Cyclops’ hilarious love song reveals his inexperience at wooing sea nymphs, as his descriptions of Galatea range from “more radiant than crystal, smoother than shells polished by the tide” to “meaner than a pregnant bear . . . more vicious than a snake that’s been stepped on and kicked.” Toward the middle of his ode, Polyphemus gets down to business: “If you really knew me, Galatea, you’d be sorry you ran.” Understanding that a hairy giant with one eye in the middle of his forehead is not your typical match for a sea nymph, the Cyclops emphasizes what he brings to the relationship table—polyphemussurprisingacisandgalatealots of sheep and goats, a nice cozy cave, all the fresh fruit one could want from his orchard, as well as excellent family connections through his father Neptune, the god of the sea. What’s not to like? “Tell me why, when you turn your back on Cyclops, you love Acis, and why do you prefer his embrace to mine?” Polyphemus’ frustration rises to the boiling point when he catches sight of Galatea and Acis making love in the forest; he tears the top off a mountain and drops it on top of Acis while Galatea dives into the ocean in terror. throwing a rockAcis’ blood seeping from under the pile of rocks turns into a river as Acis is turned into a river-god, yet another metamorphosis in Ovid’s strange collection of stories.

The tale of Galatea and Polyphemus was one of many I discussed in seminar with twelve Honors freshmen not long ago. When asked what the point of this particularly odd story might be, the students offered various suggestions, ranging from a comparison of civilized with barbarian people to a morality tale about the dangers of unrequited love. “But why doesn’t Galatea take Polyphemus’ advances seriously?” I asked tongue-in-cheek. “The Cyclops has a lot to offer—a nice place to live, a comfortable lifestyle, property, great family connections—he’s even captured a couple of bear cubs so Galatea can have unusual and interesting pets! What’s not to like (other than his being a hairy giant with one eye, that is)?” Why does Galatea prefer Acis, who is a nonentity with nothing to offer other than being good-looking? In the middle of a number of very amusing comments from my students, one young lady thoughtfully hit the nail on the head: “Polyphemus is just too different, too unusual, too scary for Galatea to take him seriously.” the otherUndoubtedly true, which raises an important larger problem: The Problem of the Other.

Human beings are hard-wired to form the strongest connections with those who are most like themselves, dividing naturally into groups of “Us” versus “Them” according to dividing lines both natural and imaginary. The Problem of the Other covers all manner of challenges and fears, from those who look different through those who think differently to those who do not share our values. The Other is often the person or persons who I choose to ignore or pretend does not exist, those who I choose to treat as invisible. But just as Polyphemus could not be ignored, neither can the Other. A portion of Matthew’s gospel makes it clear that for those who claim to be followers of Jesus, the people whom we would just as soon ignore are the very persons who are to be the primary focus of our concern. 6a00e54ecc070b88330177444f3010970d-320wiAnd our spiritual survival depends on it.

In Matthew 25 can be found the familiar apocalyptic vision of the Last Judgment, with those judged being separated into the sheep and the goats (sort of like Polyphemus’ charges) and sent to eternal bliss or darkness. More interesting than the possibility of reward or damnation are the criteria used to make the judgment. Explaining to the sheep on their way to the heavenly kingdom why this is their destination, Jesus says “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” And we don’t need to wait for Jesus to show up to act this way: “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” obamaThe greatest challenge of the life of faith is to recognize the divine in the most unlikely places—and in those people who are the most invisible.

Our former President once closed a prime time speech on immigration with a rewording of a passage from Exodus 22: “You must not mistreat or oppress the stranger in any way. Remember, you yourselves were once strangers . . .” I fully understand that public policy should not be shaped according to religious principles, but there is a psychological truth in such passages that transcends the various choices concerning religion that one might make. The moral health of an individual or a group is revealed by how they choose to treat those most unlike themselves. small victoriesThe outsider, the stranger, the disenfranchised, the poor—all of the various manifestations of the Other. For at heart we are all strangers seeking a home. As Anne Lamott writes, “All I ever wanted since I arrived here on earth were the same things I needed as a baby, to go from cold to warm, lonely to held, the vessel to the giver, empty to full.” To refuse a home to the stranger, to reject those who are unlike us, to imagine that different means less important, is to imagine fellow human beings as Polyphemus—too strange, too different, too scary to be included, appreciated or loved. But just as Polyphemus, all of us need the same things. And we are called to be those things for each other.sheep and goats