Category Archives: power

Christians in the Public Square

At what point does political advocacy on the part of Christians distort or compromise the Christian message? This was the question I was asked to respond to in a 500-1000 word essay for an online publication three or four weeks ago. To get my thought process going, I sent the question to a couple of Facebook groups I am part of to get their input–I wrote last week about their responses as well as my preliminary thoughts about the question.

It’s the Message, Stupid!cross and flag

I found the final draft challenging to finish–such a topic in 500-1000 words is similar to teaching the history of the French Revolution in fifty minutes (which I have done a few times). Yesterday was my deadline–here’s what I submitted (minus the pictures).

I recently reconnected on Facebook with a guy who was my best friend during a year of Bible school in my late teens—we had not been in touch for four decades. During an online conversation about some political/social issue, I mentioned that I am a liberal because I am a Christian. “That’s interesting,” he replied, “I’m a conservative because I’m a Christian.” Neither of us, wisely I think, pursued the matter further.

Answering the question “At what point does political advocacy on the part of Christians distort or compromise the Christian message?” requires first thinking about “the Christian message” itself. capitalismAs my exchange with my friend on Facebook shows, well-meaning people of Christian faith can disagree sharply about the implications of their faith as it is lived in the real world on a daily basis. For instance, Susan might be thoroughly confused about how a professing Christian like Jim can whole-heartedly and full-throatedly worship at the altar of American capitalism despite the devastation it leaves in its wake for millions of our fellow citizens, while Jim is just as confused about how a professing Christian like Susan can be pro-choice and completely supportive of same-sex unions. As progressive Christians and conservative Christians go to war in the public square over whose beliefs and principles are more faithful to the true “Christian message,” progressive vs conservativewe are an offense and stumbling block to those who do not claim to be Christian. And Jesus weeps.

The parables and stories of Jesus consistently stress a central feature of faith that contemporary Christians tend to forget or ignore—the heart of Christianity is subtle, secret, and hidden. Followers of Jesus are likened to yeast and salt, the publican’s private petition for mercy is raised above the Pharisee’s public pronouncements of righteousness, we are told to pray alone behind closed doors to our Father who is in secret, and Jesus regularly tells his disciples and followers not to spread the word of his miracles or reveal his identity. The secret of lived Christian faith is that it is a way of life, not a set of principles or doctrines. Nor is it a social or political agenda. Given that Christianity is a way of life energized by love, it is to be expected that individual Christians will be as unique and various as human beings themselves are.

micahOne way of describing Christianity as a way of life begins with the prophet Micah’s directive to “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God,” joined with Jesus’ call to “love your neighbor as yourself.” But justice, mercy, humility and love incorporated in a human life are likely to look quite different depending on who the person is. We are not provided with ways to judge which manner of lived Christian faith is more faithful than another to the “Christian message,” because faith is always interior. I am the product of a conservative, fundamentalist and evangelical Baptist upbringing, so I often wonder how I came to be as politically and socially liberal on most issues as I am, particularly since people like my friend from Bible school and many of my relatives are products of conservative Christianity and remain closely aligned with its accompanying leanings on political and social issues. My faith journey has been informed by many factors over several decades, including many that I did not choose. I have no reason to believe that I have now arrived at a place where my ever-evolving understanding of what the Lord requires of me is more faithful to the “Christian message” than the often very different understanding my brothers and sisters in faith share whose histories and journeys are very different from mine.flag and bible

The ever-present danger of Christian political advocacy is that, due to the necessarily public nature of such advocacy, it is very possible for the advocate to mistake a set of political positions or the elements of a social agenda as necessary and universal hallmarks of being truly Christian. It is very easy for the advocate to confuse her or his own purposes and agendas for the message of Christ. The “true message” of Christianity then quickly becomes something to be argued about in the public arena by persons equally convinced that their own agenda best matches up to the demands of Christian faith, entirely undermining the description of early Christians in the Book of Acts as remarkable because of how much they loved each other. The best firewall against this is to always keep in mind that the “message of Christianity” is the lives lived by those persons who profess the Christian faith in their daily private and public lives. christian communityChristianity is a way of life that is not reducible without distortion to a political or social agenda. We are the Christian message.

By all means Christians should be politically active—this is both a right and privilege of citizenship. But do not give the impression or be under the delusion that the right sort of political positions or social policies are what Christianity amounts to. I recommend that Christians distinguish carefully between Christian political advocacy and Political advocacy by persons of Christian faith. The former is to be avoided at all costs, as no person should understand herself or himself as the spokesperson for all Christians or for God. I highly recommend the latter; if my Christian faith is serious, it will have a daily and direct impact on how I engage with others and my society. Do not advocate in the name of Christianity, but advocate as the person that you have become because of your Christian faith.

Confessions of an Ocean-Hater

As I’m reviewing various posts for a current large writing project, I came across a reflection on beauty from a couple of years ago that I had forgotten about. It all starts with cognitive dissonance–I live in the Ocean State and I don’t like the ocean.

The sea pronounces something, over and over, in a hoarse whisper. I cannot quite make it out.  Annie Dillard

Windows Live Photo Gallery WallpaperI live in the Ocean State. I really don’t like the ocean. Yet another opportunity for cognitive dissonance—what else is new? The strange thing is that this has turned out to be an ocean summer for me. First, a week early in June at a Benedictine hermitage on a steep mountain overlooking Big Sur and the vast Pacific Ocean (and I mean vast). Day after day of not being able to clearly distinguish the horizon between the brilliant blue sky and the equally brilliant blue ocean (when the hermitage was not in the clouds, that is). 041Then during Jeanne’s and my twenty-fifth anniversary week in July, we checked one thing off our bucket list and went on a whale watching expedition out of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Fortunately one whale decided that the ninety-five plus degree weather was not a reason to stay submerged and showed off for our boat for forty-five minutes. Finally, Jeanne and I spent some time visiting my son and daughter-in-law in Florida in August. 100_1931They love the beach, so I found myself doing ocean-related things and meeting ocean-related creatures once again.

I am well aware that many people, including perhaps a number of you reading this blog post are ocean worshippers and can’t think of anything more attractive, peaceful and fulfilling than a day either at an ocean beach or on a boat on the ocean. I’m not a member of your club. Some look at or experience the ocean and are struck by feelings of peace and beauty. The ocean is indeed beautiful, but for me its beauty speaks of power, vastness, and a certain amount of fear. During the week in June that I woke up every morning with the Pacific at my feet, I always felt a bit tense and edgy, as if I was in danger of being swallowed up. The beauty of the ocean puts some people in a peaceful place, but it makes me nervous. As she often does, Simone Weil nails this:

images[1]What is more beautiful than the effect of gravity on sea waves as they flow in ever-changing folds, or the almost eternal folds of the mountains? The sea is not less beautiful in our eyes because we know that ships are sometimes wrecked. On the contrary this adds to its beauty.

Immanuel Kant had this tension in mind when he distinguished in his philosophy between the “Beautiful” and the “Sublime.” The Beautiful refers to things that are, well, beautiful—Wanderer[1]in the sense that they produce aesthetic pleasure and feelings of happiness. Things that are Sublime can also be beautiful, but tend to overwhelm us, disturb us, or even frighten us. The Sublime is “awesome” and “terrible” in the original senses of these words—it inspires awe and terror. Are you attracted and repelled by the same thing or experience? Do you consider something to be both beautiful and terrifying in its awesome, often destructive power? That’s the Sublime—and that’s how the ocean impacts me. It is both beautiful and disturbing, attractive and frightening. The ocean is sublime.

Just so that you ocean-lovers out there don’t think I’m nuts, the authors of the Old Testament Psalms agree with me. Over and over again, the Psalmist reminds us of the awesome power and terror of the sea; even more provocatively, these reflections are frequently used as a bridge to talking about God, the ultimate example of sublimity. Sometimes the Psalmist describes the power of the sea, assuring us that God’s power is even greater. Psalm 33 tells us, for instance, that “God collects the waves of the ocean; and collects the waves of the sea,” in control of even the most terrifying force imaginable. This can be source of comfort–rough-seas[1]

Psalm 46—God is for us a refuge and strength, a helper close at hand in time of distress, so we shall not fear though the earth should rock, though the mountains fall into the depths of the sea, even though its waters rage and foam, even though the mountains be shaken by its waves.

or of a petition for rescue from the often ocean-like overwhelming power of human reality–

Psalm 69—Save me from the waters of the deep lest the waves overwhelm me. Do not let the deep engulf me, nor death close its mouth on me.

Of most interest is when the Psalmist begins to attribute the very sublime, fearsome aspects of the ocean directly to God.

tsunami[1]Psalm 42—Deep is calling upon deep, in the roar of waters; your torrents and all your waves swept over me.

It is one thing to seek divine protection from the terrible and awful contingencies of human experience; it is another to attribute that very terrible and awful beauty to the divine itself. If what is greater than me is the epitome of the sublime, meaning that it not only is inexpressibly beautiful but also is unpredictable and terrifying, how do I respond? Is it possible for a mere, non-sublime human being to be in relationship with something like that?

If I am disturbed and made nervous by the ocean, there is a simple solution—stay away from the ocean. Good advice, but for me at least similar advice does not work concerning God. I’ve described myself at times as “God-obsessed” (as the poet Novalis once described Spinoza), meaning that no matter how unpredictable and disturbing the divine might be, I can’t turn away. That being the case, I find the following simple observation from Rowan Williams helpful: “If you want to swim, you must begin to understand the sea.” The Jewish mystics go so far as to suggest that if God is like the ocean, we are the waves on that ocean. That’s a bit esoteric for my taste, but the point is clear—055God invites an intimacy so close that at times the horizon between the divine and human becomes as blurry as the horizon between the ocean and sky at Big Sur. And isn’t that the promise of incarnation—the fusion of divinity and humanity?

The older I get, the more time I spend trying to stay afloat in the divine sea, the more I am convinced that this is not a problem to be solved or an issue to be sorted out. It is rather something to be lived. I agree with the author of Psalm 84—“My soul longs and thirsts for the living God.” And according to Antonie_saint[1]Antoine Saint-Exupery, that is a good start.

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.

Spiritual Plagiarism

One of the most important things that any administrator or leader needs to learn is how to delegate authority. This advice has become a standard part of the package of wisdom passed from experienced administrators to those who follow them—you can’t do this alone.dwc It was a central part of the advice I gave both the colleague who followed me as chair of the twenty-two member philosophy department when my four-year stint ended several years ago, as well as what I told the new director of the much larger interdisciplinary program with eighty faculty and 1,800 students I directed for four years until just a few months ago. It is indeed essential information to pass on to the next administrator, and I talked a good game. But delegating has always been a challenge for me, and I trust that the new program director is much better at sharing and distributing authority effectively than I was.

I remember the day one October a few years ago when in the midst of trying to juggle several meetings that week, the scheduling of forty teams of three faculty each for the next academic year, upwards of two hundred emails every morning, and the demands of my own classes I pushed back from my office computer and said I. CAN’T. DO. THIS” (I might have thrown in an F-bomb between “Can’t” and “Do”). And a little voice inside my head said “No shit, moron!” (my inner voice is surprisingly disrespectful). “You’re trying to do it all yourself, which is not only dumb, it’s impossible.” delegateI had an assistant director and a program administrative assistant I was not utilizing fully and was not making sufficient use of any number of committees whose sole purpose for existence was to perform some of the important duties I was doing myself. Why was I making things so hard on myself? Perfectionism. Control. Introversion. The belief that the only way to guarantee things get done right is to do them myself. I knew all of these things about myself and still was driving myself unnecessarily nuts.

The first reading a couple of Sundays ago immerses us in what might be called “the invention of delegation” from the Book of Numbers in the Jewish Scriptures. I was lector that morning and almost started laughing as I read the text because the scene was so familiar. We find the liberated Israelites in the desert, and they are complaining—again. God has miraculously provided them with a daily supply of manna—miracle food from heaven—to keep them from starving, but everyone is pining for the wonderful variety of food they remember eating in Egypt. manna“We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” Of course they have conveniently forgotten that when they were in Egypt they were freaking slaves. God is understandably pissed (this is not the first time these complaints have arisen), and Moses is also annoyed. But Moses’ annoyance isn’t just with this rabble of complainers he is in charge of; he’s had it up to here with the Big Guy as well.

“Have I done something to annoy you that I’m not aware of?” Moses wants to know. “Because otherwise I can’t explain why you have dumped all of this crap on me. Did I create these people? Am I the one who promised them freedom, a new land, and all the rest? News flash—that was YOU! But are you the one who has to solve everyone’s problems and wipe everyone’s butt for them? No—that would be ME!” And in a classic drama queen moment, Moses collapses on the spot. “I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. delegating chartIf this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once–if I have found favor in your sight–and do not let me see my misery.”

In response to Moses’ tantrum, God does what God often does in such situations in the Jewish Scriptures—He makes it up as he goes along. “What if I take some of the power and authority I’ve given you and distribute it to some carefully selected folks so they can share the burden of leadership and responsibility with you?” God suggests—and delegation is invented. Moses selects seventy guys he trusts, brings them to the tent of meeting (the place where God and humans officially interact), the Lord empowers the seventy men in response to which they start “prophesying,” and a solid chain of command and power sharing structure is established.

A few things to note:

  • Authority and power appear to be zero sum, meaning that empowering others automatically means that the leader is disempowered to that same exent. Only secure people should be in leadership roles, in other words.
  • Power needs to be distributed carefully, publicly, and according to recognizable procedures. A ceremony to mark the empowerment is a good idea.
  • Others need to be clearly made aware of the new power structure. The “prophesying” part of the story means, at the very least, that the newly empowered have been publicly marked as such. Secretly adding layers of bureaucracy without transparency is a recipe for suspicion and resentment.

This all sounds eminently sensible—until problems arise in the very next verses.

It turns out that two of the guys selected by Moses for empowerment didn’t make it to the tent of meldad and medadeeting, but they start prophesying in the camp as if they had participated in the official empowerment ceremony. In other words, they are acting with authority without having been officially empowered. Moses’ number one assistant, Joshua, squeals on the two guys to Moses and asks for permission to stop the unauthorized activity of these posers and frauds. Amazingly, Moses tells Joshua to leave them alone. “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them.” In the short span of one story authority has shifted from one person to the vision of a projected future in which anyone who has the vision and ability to be effective can act on it. What about the hierarchy? What about keeping control on how power is distributed? Is this any way to run an organization?

Apparently it is. In that same Sunday’s gospel, similar issues arise in the world of Jesus and his disciples. Jesus has empowered his disciples to preach the gospel, cast out demons, and heal the sick—so far, so good. Then John reports some disturbing news to Jesus: “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” John, presumably speaking for the rest of the disciples as well, assumes that only those specifically authorized and empowered by Jesus to do special stuff should be doing it. This stranger using Jesus’ name to cast out demons is guilty of spiritual plagiarism, in other words. he hasn’t even learned the secret disciples’ handshake. And just as Moses told Joshua, Jesus tells John and the rest to leave this guy alone. “Whoever is not against us is for us.”wind

As we often learn when reading stories about the intersection of the human and the divine, things divine operate according to entirely different rules than those to which we are accustomed. Or perhaps according to no recognizable rules at all. The divine spirit is frequently likened to the wind, which blows where it wants when it wants to, without regard to our expectations, desires, or weather predictions. The takeaway? Divine power and authority is not a zero sum game. It can and will show up in all sorts of unlikely places, even those we have not authorized. Especially in those places.

Tired of Hating People–Thoughts on the anniversary of 9/11

Everyone beyond a certain age can remember clearly what they were doing fourteen years ago today when they heard the news. I was in my college’s main cafeteria getting coffee and noticed something weird happening on the Today Show broadcast on a television hanging from the ceiling in the corner. first towerAt that point all they knew was that one of the Twin Towers was on fire, apparently because an airplane had crashed into it. I had scheduled office hours that morning, so I listened to live radio reports on NPR of the second tower being hit and the collapse of both towers. There was a surreal air to the broadcast—I wanted to believe that it wasn’t true, some sort of elaborate hoax along the lines of Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” broadcast many decades earlier. But it was true.

Classes were encouraged to meet and decide individually how best to deal with the day’s events. Several students in my first class of the day at 12:30 had family and friends who lived and/or worked in Manhattan—it was clear that the best thing for these students to do was to continue their frantic attempts to contact their loved ones. About half the class stayed and shared their thoughts—what they said and the nature of our conversation is difficult to recall. I know that many students (as well as many of my colleagues) were understandably angry and wanted retribution; tower collapseas we gathered our things to leave about half way through the class period I said “the one thing I’m feeling right now is that my best response to what has happened is to become a better person. A better teacher, husband, father, friend. That’s all I’ve got right now.”

I’m sure that there will be any number of retrospective reports this evening on the various 24/7 news channels, although I suspect that the fifteenth anniversary a year from today will have many more of them. Neither Jeanne nor I lost any immediate family or close friends in that day’s terrible events, although in a few cases it was only “luck” that spared someone we know well. Almost a decade and a half removed, when I think about 9/11 and its aftermath as I have been over the past few days, I think of patriotism, wars that seem never to end, and the realization that with the swift passage of time soon I will be teaching students who, first, will not remember 9/11 and then, three years or so later, will not have been born when 9/11 occurred. But most of all, the lasting effect in this country of the terrorist attacks on that day has been a persistent atmosphere of fear and suspicion—as well as of the hatred that fear and suspicion  produce.

Just about a year ago the theme of the weekly “TED Radio Hour” on NPR was “Transformation—stories and ideas about becoming a completely different person.” The first story up that day was titled “How Did the Son of a Terrorist Choose Peace?”untitled

How did the Son of a Terrorist Choose Peace?

The story teller, Zak Ebrahim, is a peace activist and the author of The Terrorist’s Son: A Story of Choice. Ebrahim’s father, El-Sayyid Nosair, for a number of years plotted with other radicals to attack a number of New York City landmarks, including tunnels, synagogues and the United Nations headquarters. These planned attacks were thwarted by an FBI informant, but one of the attacks—the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center–was not. Nosair and his fellow terrorists were convicted of placing a van filled with 1,500 pounds of explosives into the sublevel parking lot of the North Tower; the subsequent explosion killed six people and injured over a thousand others. Ebrahim was seven years old at the time of his father’s conviction and incarceration—Nosair was sentenced to life imprisonment plus fifteen years.nosair and son

Ebrahim’s father had become radicalized in the early years of his son’s life; in his TED talk Ebrahim describes how shortly before his father was arrested he took Ebrahim, along with several of the men who turned out to be co-conspirators, to a shooting range for Ebrahim’s first lessons in using a rifle. Even after Nosair’s arrest, the impact of his worldview on his young son continued to be strong.

Growing up in a bigoted household, I wasn’t prepared for the real world. I had been raised to judge people based on arbitrary measurements, like a person’s race or religion. He would just talk about Jews being evil. And I would hear similar things from the men that were with him. You know, gay people being evil and them wanting to turn you gay so that you would go to hell too. And just gay people being all-around terrible people and a bad influence. And he used to say things like, a bad Muslim is better than a good non-Muslim. That’s pretty much what indoctrination is. You have authority figures around you telling you that the world is one way and you don’t get to see another perspective.

This radical indoctrination began to crumble when Ebrahim, as a teenager, began through school to be exposed to some of the people he had been taught to hate. PhiladelphiaOne of his fellow group members at the National Youth Conference in Philadelphia leading up to the 2000 Presidential election was Jewish. Ebrahim did not learn that his new friend was Jewish until several days after their friendship had started developing; he says that “I felt a sense of pride in having been able to overcome a barrier that, for most of my life, I had been led to believe was insurmountable.” That summer he found a job at a Busch Gardens amusement park and for the first time had the opportunity to meet some gay people performing in one of the park’s shows. “I soon found that many were the kindest, least judgmental people I had ever met.”

One day I had a conversation with my mother about how my worldview was starting to change. And she said something to me that I will hold dear to my heart for as long as I live. She looked at me with the weary eyes of someone who’d experienced enough dogmatism to last a lifetime, and said tired of hating“I’m tired of hating people.” In that instant, I realized how much negative energy it takes to hold that hatred inside of you.

On one level it’s easy to hate because a world made of “Us” vs. “Them” is simple to define and make judgments from within. On a deeper level, though, Ebrahim is right—the negative energy of fear and hate is psychologically exhausting, an exhaustion that is symptomatic of our culture. It’s almost as if it isn’t natural for humans to hate.

A few moments of attention to the level of discourse in the early months of the 2016 Presidential campaign are sufficient to hear the tones of fear and anger that pervade our national conversation about almost everything. stormer and trumpIt is a summer of intolerant and fear-mongering language—for the first time in decades various white supremacist groups have found a candidate who speaks their language of hatred and have publically endorsed him.

How White Nationalist Groups Found Their Candidate in Donald Trump

That such attitudes exist is nothing new; what is new is that we have reached the point where hatred and intolerance have found a new foothold in the public square and conversation. And even for those who seek a moderate position that avoids anger and fear, the current atmosphere is infectious. big enough lieA character in Eric Bennett’s new novel A Big Enough Lie explains the dynamic well:

There are people in the world whose opinions differ from yours so much that the difference implies violence, urges it, supplies a will for it. And if you stand on the side of moderation, this implication, this will to violence, upsets you even more than the mere difference of opinion itself. Because you are complicit in it—you become complicit in extremism by loathing extremism. You are reduced by your enemy to what you despise in your enemy. The world excuses only saints and lunatics from its economy of hatred, is what you realize. Pick a side.

On this fourteenth anniversary of one of the darkest days in American history, my hope is that we as a nation, as a culture will decide, as Zak Ibrahim’s mother did, that we are tired of hating people. us-vs-themTired of dividing our tiny little universes up into “Us” and “Them” as we vilify those who do not look like, act like, or believe the same as those in our self-defined groups of specialness do, often in the name of rigidly dogmatic beliefs that cannot accommodate the complex and shades-of-grey world in which we live. As Zak Ebrahim discovered, the best cure for fear and hatred is simple experience. But such experience can only happen if each of us has the courage to step outside our ossified comfort zones and dare to meet the most frightening thing in the universe—someone who is not the same as me.


The Wicked

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smith’s Pasture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welfare in my Back Yard

Although I am a very liberal guy, I occasionally worry about the welfare state. I understand the need for any healthy society to have various mechanisms in place to assist those who, through no fault of their own, safety netfind themselves incapable of taking care of their own basic needs; furthermore, my Christian faith calls for me to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and protect the widow and orphan. But what of those who have found ways to work the system effectively, who regularly grab a handout at the taxpayers’ expense when they are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves? Many of the students in my “Markets and Morals” colloquium this past semester were so concerned about welfare abuse that they were willing to live in a world with no social safety net at all—at least we would know that those who survived had earned it.

This summer Jeanne and I have been providing food for the hungry in a real time manner—setting it out on a first-come, first-served basis as quickly as it could be consumed. And it has been getting consumed so quickly that I have started wondering whether we are unwittingly contributing to a bunch of slackers who could take care of themselves if they would just improve their work ethic and stop looking for handouts. birds feedingAs I often do when confronted with perplexing challenges, I went to the experts—my Facebook acquaintances. The response was very interesting.

Bird lovers! We have bird feeders in our side yard–so many birds visit that we go through six cakes of suet every 36 hours or so. Mostly wrens, sparrows, chickadees, with the occasional woodpecker and even less occasional goldfinch. A couple of people have told me that one should definitely feed birds during the winter but not during the summer, since they can find their own food in the summer. I don’t want to be contributing to a dependent class of birds looking for an avian handout, and we are spending an increasing amount of money on bird food! What do you think?

The responses fell into several distinct categories. Some people just embraced the joy of helping make the lives of God’s creatures, no matter who they are, a little bit easier. But is the help primarily for those in need or for the self-satisfaction of the helper?

  • Those beautiful birds are such a glorious part of God’s creation! We enjoy watching them, and so does our little indoor cat, so I feed and water the birds pretty much year-round. I will shamelessly admit that it is for my own enjoyment as much as anything else, regardless of the expense. Our yard is a welcome center for our fine feathered friends! Their symphonies fill the air, so it is a pleasure to sit out on the deck to observe them and listen to their concerts.fat bird
  • They probably can find enough food in the summer, but…if you enjoy watching them…I’d say it’s worth the money (are they getting fat??)

Others suggested that some needs should be taken care of, but not others. Thread the needle between welfare dependence and self-sufficiency, in other words.

  • I don’t feed birds, but I do have two bird baths. Clean water is even more necessary for their survival than food. Birds are always using the larger birdbath about 15-20 feet away from a large window, which makes it easy to watch them.bird in birdbath
  • Be sure they have water in the summer. They may be able to find food, but water is not as easy as it once was.
  • I’m pretty sure I have contributed to the dependence of several generations of cardinals and chickadees. Concur about water. I try to keep my two bird baths filled and refreshed every couple of days.

One of the most frequent tropes was to express a preference for helping some, but not others, suggesting that it is better to feed no one than to risk the possibility that someone I don’t like might get some food despite my best efforts to keep them from it.

  • We gave up on bird feeders – couldn’t keep the squirrels out of them. When we attached a cone to block their access from the ground, they just started jumping from the trees. They put on some great acrobatics shows, but, really, feed the tree rats? I don’t think so.squirrel
  • I had such a hard time keeping squirrels from eating everything that I gave up on feeding them. I have heard that feeding them makes them less able to get food on their own.
  • We gave up feeding the birds because the pidgeons [sic] chase away the song birds.

And some suggested that only very special types should get help.

  • We only feed the birds in the winter with one exception being the humming bird.
  • There are many places for them to find food & they manage well – No worries; they will be back . . . I just found out I have a hummingbird nest in a tree in my yard – I’m excited!! hummingbirds

The most nuanced response—the one that I found most attentive to all parties concerned—encouraged me to continue feeding everyone but to take closer rationing control.

  • I feed them in the summer, but I am the boss of the bird feeder, and if they go through the seeds too fast, they just have to wait a couple of days. I try not to refill the feeder more than once a week.

My own responses to these various comments and suggestions reflect my own uncertainty about how to deal with these avian freeloaders.

  • Just as I thought–I am contributing to the creation of a dependent class of birds.
  • Well, I must admit that I am tired of the free-loading birds who always want their beaks filled when they should be out looking for jobs.

I finally ended up with this tentative decision:

  • Thanks, everyone! I will continue feeding them but do better at managing their consumption–and I’ll address the water issue!

Truth be told, I suspect I will continue to feed them indiscriminately as they chirp innocently in the tree and our roof as soon as the feeders are empty. I am easily manipulated.welfare I found it interesting and a slight bit disconcerting to find that my friends’ and my attitudes about bird welfare fell immediately into categories recognizable from the never-ending debates about social safety nets and welfare for human beings in this country. The important questions remain the same. What duties do we have to those who do not have enough? Why are people in need in the first place? Should those who have enough expect those who do not have enough to prove their worthiness to be helped? What is the difference between charity and duty? Are there limits to how much those in need should be helped? And if we can’t agree about birds, what are the chances achieving consensus about our fellow human beings? I headed out to fill up the feeders right now—I wonder how many of the dozens of birds in line deserve it.

Books that Changed My Life: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence. . . . “Seem like we’re just set down here,” a woman said to me recently, “and don’t nobody know why.” Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Not long ago I posted the following on Facebook: What books have changed your life? I don’t mean which books do you think are “greatest” or at the top of the “Great Books” canon, but which books came along at just the right time in your life and changed something significant? The response was fascinating, with dozens of my Facebook acquaintances (and theirs) listing interesting and eclectic offerings from Dr. Seuss to Dostoevsky. Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing a few of my own life-changing titles—please share yours and let’s keep the conversation going!patc

At a writer’s workshop several summers ago one of the writing coaches gave us writer wannabes a terrific question to ask every time we write. “With Middlemarch and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in the world, why would anyone be interested in this?” Over the twenty years or so since I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek for the first time, I have occasionally mentioned to friends whose opinions I highly respect how the book has influenced me. More often than not, my friend has replied that she read it years ago and didn’t finish it, or he confesses that “I just don’t get it.” One said “I didn’t like it much when I read it, but I’ve never been able to forget it.” I understand these reactions—Dillard’s 1974 Pulitzer Prize winner is odd, quirky, eclectic, and one-of-a-kind. And it has helped me to see the world around me and myself differently.

leaf minerOur life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle, curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here.

Annie Dillard is an intense observer of details, capable of seeing things that escape the notice of just about everyone. She finds worlds of complexity and interest in the tiniest matters—I often think of Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who when I read Dillard. But I have encountered skilled natural observers before—Hortonwhat makes Dillard different is that she invites the reader into a new kind of seeing altogether. Given, as she writes, that most of us “waste most of our energy just by spending every waking minute saying hello to ourselves,” how do we learn to get out of the way and see what is actually there instead of what we expect to see?

There is another kind of seeing, which involves a letting go. When I see this way I sway transfixed and emptied. The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between walking with and without a camera. When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter. When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens, and the moment’s light prints on my own silver gut. When I see this second way I am above all an unscrupulous observer.

And what Dillard sees is that “Terror and a beauty insoluble are a ribbon of blue woven into the fringes of garments of things both great and small.” Dillard Frog and Bug 3From the slow-train-wreck horror of watching a giant water bug paralyze a small frog then suck the frog’s insides out through a puncture hole to the gratuitous beauty of a mockingbird free-falling from a five-story roof only to swerve and land light as a feather just a couple of feet before crashing into the earth—just because it can—Dillard finds that we are surrounded by endless details that belie our constant attempts to categorize and “figure out.”

Dillard is not the least bit hesitant to ask the big questions that arise from her intense attention to detail. As she describes it in another of her books, she continually participates in “unlicensed metaphysics in a teacup.” tea cupOur attempts to understand the big picture, however, must always begin with what is the case rather than what we would like to be the case. This requires learning how to see unfiltered.

What we know, at least for starters, is here we—so incontrovertibly—are. This is our life, these are our lighted seasons, and then we die. In the meantime, in between time, we can see. The scales are fallen from our eyes, the cataracts are cut away, and we can work at making sense of the color patches we see in an effort to discover where we so incontrovertibly are. It’s common sense: when you move in, you try to learn the neighborhood.

Practicing this sort of seeing was an “eye opener” for me (pun intended), opening previously undiscovered pathways I had always longed to follow. They led to ways of thinking about God that blew me away.

We have not yet encountered any god who is as merciful as a man who flicks a beetle over on its feet. praying mantisThere is not a people in the world who behaves as badly as praying mantises. But wait, you say, there is no right and wrong in nature; right and wrong is a human concept. Precisely: we are moral creatures, then, in an amoral world. The universe that suckled us is a monster that does not care if we live or die—does not care if it itself grinds to a halt.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is packed with page after page of excruciatingly detailed observations of violence and ugliness in the natural world, to the extent that my students sometimes wonder why Dillard finds it necessary to pound her readers over their heads with a basic fact: Nature is both violent and beautiful, deadly and life-giving. “Enough already!” they complain. Dillard’s point is not to fill up pages but rather to force us to face the implications of what we are seeing, including what these truths tell us about what is greater than us. What sort of being or process is responsible for this?

How many people have prayed for their daily bread and famished? They die their daily death as utterly as did the frog, people, played with, dabbled upon, when God knows they loved their life. AlgonquinsIn a winter famine, desperate Algonquin Indians “ate broth made of smoke, snow, and buckskin, and the rash of pellagra appeared like tattooed flowers on their emaciated bodies—the rose of starvation, in a French physician’s description; and those who starved died covered with roses.” Is this beauty, these gratuitous roses, or a mere display of force? Or is beauty itself an intricately fashioned lure, the cruelest hoax of all?

Dillard knows full well that such Job-like challenges to the Divine are “out of bounds” in many circles, but she isn’t having it. “We are people,” she writes, “we are permitted to have dealings with the creator and we must speak up for the creation. God look at what you’ve done to this creature, look at the sorrow, the cruelty, the long damned waste!” As she asks elsewhere, “What the Sam Hill is going on here?” The fact is that what we are seeing is not what we would expect to see in a natural world created and overseen by a benevolent deity. dome of heavenSetting aside traditional constructs and concepts, Dillard freely explores other possibilities.

Could it be that if I climbed the dome of heaven and scrabbled and clutched at the beautiful cloth till I loaded my fists with a wrinkle to pull, the mask would rip away to reveal a toothless old ugly, eyes glazed with delight?

I had wondered about this since my early years as a young Baptist boy, but this was the first time I found it in print. And it inspired me to fearlessly track what I see to what might be behind the scene—regardless of where it might take me.

But as Dillard regularly reminds her readers, terror and beauty are intertwined in our world, so intimately that our attempts to separate them will invariably fall short.

No, I’ve gone through this a million times, beauty is not a hoax—how many days have I learned not to stare at the back of my hand when I could look out at the creek? . . . Beauty is real. I would never deny it; the appalling thing is that I forget it.

When I remember to get out of my own way, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek serves as a standard for me, a standard of how to see differently. pearlThis theme of learning how to truly see weaves through many of the texts that have influenced me over the past several years—Annie Dillard was the first to introduce me to it.

The secret of seeing is, then, the pearl of great price. . . . But although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought. The literature of illumination reveals this above all: although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and a total surprise.


Face to Face with the Universe

lightman[1]A recent edition of Harper’s Magazine includes a fascinating essay by physicist and novelist Alan Lightman entitled “Our Place in the Universe.” The point of the essay is to put us in our place, so to speak. Lightman tells us, for instance, of an astronomer whose specialty is exploring the greatest distances in space. The most distant galaxy this scientist has yet seen is about 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles away from earth—“give or take. Contemporary scientists, Lightman writes, “have revealed a world as far removed from us as colors are from the blind.”

earth[1]It might make sense, then, to focus our attention on “this island home” where we seem to have a certain amount of central importance. Not so fast, says Lightman, who informs us that “the totality of living matter on Earth—humans and animals, plants, bacteria, and pond scum—makes up 0.00000001 percent of the mass of the planet.” Combine that figure with the current estimate that only three percent of all the stars in the universe are accompanied by a potentially life-sustaining planet, then in the unlikely event that all of those planets actually do have life, then “we can estimate that the fraction of stuff in the visible universe that exists in living form is something like 0.000000000000001 percent, or one millionth of one billionth of 1 percent.” Lightman concludes the article by observing that

If some cosmic intelligence created the universe, life would seem to have been only an afterthought. And if life emerges by random processes, vast amounts of lifeless material are needed for each particle of life. Such numbers cannot help but bear upon the question of our significance in the universe.

Such sobering numbers and observations, of course, are nothing new. The great seventeenth-century French mathematician, scientist, and religious philosopher pascal[1]Blaise Pascal has a memorable meditation on apparent human insignificance in his Pensees.

Let man then contemplate the whole of nature in its lofty and full majesty . . . This whole visible world is only an imperceptible trace in the amplitude of nature. . . . Let man consider what he is . . . as lost in this remote corner of nature, and from the little cell in which he finds himself lodged, I mean the universe, let him learn to estimate the just value of the earth, kingdoms, cities, and himself.

After several paragraphs of his own version of putting us in our place, Pascal concludes with this haunting one-liner: The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.imagesCASSRX85

Reminders that we are not special, more importantly that I am not special, are always needed regardless of whether they are welcomed. Yet what most struck me in the “Our Place in the Universe” piece occurs right at the beginning when Lightman introduces us to the astronomer who is investigating the galaxy that is 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles away from earth.

The prize for exploring the greatest distance in space goes to a man named Garth Illingworth,garth-illingworth-3501[1] who works in a ten-by-fifteen-foot office at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Illingworth studies galaxies so distant that their light has traveled through space for more than 13 billion years to get here. His office is packed with tables and chairs, bookshelves, computers, scattered papers, issues of Nature, and a small refrigerator and a microwave to fuel research that can extend into the wee hours of the morning.

Within the confines of an office not much larger than a medieval monk’s cell, a human being is analyzing an image created by light that has been travelling for three times as long as the best estimated age of the Earth. Pascal reminds us to “consider our condition: we are something, and we are not everything.”

39798_1519136010640_548040_n[1]Man is only a reed, the weakest thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed. The whole universe does not need to take up arms to crush him; a vapor, a drop of water, is enough to kill him. But if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than what kills him, because he knows he is dying and the advantage the universe has over him. The universe knows nothing of this. All our dignity consists, then, in thought . . . Let us labor to think well.

The subtitle of Lightman’s essay is “Face to face with the infinite.” While this specifically refers to the infinite physical spaces that Pascal is frightened of, for those of us who are God-obsessed this leads directly to the divine. For we do not seek to establish a toe-hold on infinity just when we turn our attention away from ourselves toward the vast physical universe. We are also participating in the same sort of activity as Garth Illingworth when we seek to “think clearly” about what is greater than us—the divine, God, the infinite, the One, whatever you choose to call it.

220px-Kierkegaard[1]Often this is best done by analogy and by telling stories. In Philosophical Fragments, Soren Kierkegaard tells a lovely story about a powerful king who falls in love with a lowly maiden. The maiden is unaware of the king’s love, and the king is worried. Knowing that love is built on equality, how is the gap between his royal greatness and her humble maidenhood to be crossed? 11043_182106464599_4873655_a[1]He does not want to coerce her into loving him by revealing his love in all his splendor, nor would elevating her to royal status work, since then she would simply be the same lowly maiden with a better wardrobe and job description.

The only possible solution to the king’s problem is remarkably simple. “Since union could not be brought about by an elevation it must be attempted by a descent.” The king must step down from his royal throne and enter the maiden’s hut as an equal. Not as a king in a peasant’s costume, but as a peasant. Only then can he be sure that she might return his love because of the person he is rather than the because of the role he inhabits. The king’s advisors and courtiers are astounded—how to explain the choice to leave royalty behind for a simple girl? And this, Kierkegaard reminds us, is precisely the mystery and madness of love, not only of the king for the maiden, but also of God for human beings. “This is the unfathomable nature of love, that it desires equality with the beloved, not in jest merely, but in earnest and truth.”

Across the infinite gap separating the human and the divine, God comes to us by becoming one of us. What a remarkable response to our fear of “the eternal silence of the infinite spaces.” God is not silent—God’s love turns infinity into intimacy. If I embrace this story, if it forms the foundation of my belief, what must my response be? As Kierkegaard reminds us, this requires nothing less than my willingness for everything to change.

When the seed of the oak is planted in earthen vessels, they break asunder; when new wine is poured in old leathern bottles, they burst; what must happen when God implants himself in human weakness unless man becomes a new vessel and a new creature!wineskins-old-new[1]

Justifying My Existence

It is unsettling, even scary, to relinquish who we think we are, and scary to stop clinging to what we have and what we do. Henri Nouwen

As I picked up my bag to walk to the gym, then to the office for a few hours of work, I said “I’m off to justify my existence for the day!” The idea of such daily justification comes from my father who, when he was at home rather than on the road travelling, used to ask my brother and me as we stepped into the house after school justify“What did you do today to justify your existence on this planet?” He always had a smile on his face when he said it, but there were serious undertones to the question. The challenge to not just be a piece of furniture in the room, not just to occupy space, but to prove my worth on a daily basis has stuck with me ever since. Jeanne’s response to my announcement was to laugh and say “You don’t have to do anything to justify your existence!” I appreciate the sentiment, but I’m not so sure.

I can talk a good talk about why, despite the Protestant work ethic and stereotypical American focus on action and productivity that pervades our culture, who one is does not amount to the same thing as what one does. chittisterAs Joan Chittister writes, humility is “the strength to separate our sense of the meaning of life from what we do.” One should work to live, after all, not live to work. I am not, however, nearly as good at walking the walk. This has become more and more obvious as I move into sabbatical mode. Within a month I will no longer be a program director, something that has consumed me as a second full-time job for the past four years. I will not be a full-time teacher for the next sixteen months, uncharted territory for someone who believes he was born to be a professor. I’ve been telling everyone who would listen for several years that the biggest thing that being an administrator, first four years as department chair, then four more as a program director, has taken away from me is writing. But this is not entirely true. I actually have been writing a lot over the past almost-three-years on this blog—close to 300,000 words worth of writing (enough for three 250-or-so page books). What I have not done for close to a decade is academic writing of the sort that an academic must do in order to get promoted and tenured. Why? Because I don’t have to. Nor do I want to. button_tenurepromotionTenure and the last promotion came a long time ago, well before the last decade of administration piled on top of teaching. I no longer need to write and publish the sort of thing that one needs to write and publish in order to earn tenure and promotion, and this is a good thing since I don’t want to write that sort of thing and haven’t wanted to for some time.

What this means, going into sabbatical, is that for the first time in my professional life—actually for the first time in my adult life—the pressure is off. I’m being paid to be on sabbatical—undoubtedly a rare gift pretty much exclusive to the world of academia. And I’m not sure how to handle that. Over the past few years I have taken baby steps in the direction of trusting the world around me to show me what’s next rather than imposing my own expectations and structures on what’s next. sabbaticalBut they are only baby steps, insufficient to guide my plans for sabbatical. Beginning around this time last year I started planning for sabbatical by doing the usual things—setting up a series of appointments with our very helpful director of sponsored research, sending out proposals both for residential and non-residential sabbatical projects, and so on. For several months in late 2014 I waited to see what I would be doing and where I would be going on sabbatical. The response to all of my proposals? “Thanks, but no thanks.” Other than the lovely form rejection letters in various forms, I received no feedback other than “we don’t want to fund you doing that.” By the time the rejections arrived the spring semester had started, so other than a few “what the fuck??” moments, I didn’t have the time to think much about the implications until the past couple of weeks. I have plenty to work on and write about—three book projects, no less—but the usual routes to where that will happen and when have been dead ends. Now what?

Isaiah 6I was lector yesterday morning at church for the first time in months, and in one of those unexpected moments of synchronicity that I’ve noticed more and more frequently over the past several years my assigned Old Testament reading was one of my favorites from the Jewish scriptures, the call of Isaiah. As I read it from the lectern the story had immediate resonance. Isaiah has a vision of the divine throne room, where six-winged seraphim fly about and cry “Holy, holy, holy!” 24/7. After Isaiah expresses his utter unworthiness at being present for such a glorious spectacle, an angel takes a live coal with tongs from the altar and, laying it on Isaiah’s lips, says “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Now you are ready, in other words. God itself asks “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah answers, “Here am I; send me.” A risky thing to do, opening oneself up to whatever might come. Isaiah’s mission starts by saying “I’m ready for whatever.” Scary business, but I’ll give it a shot.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, a survivor of Auschwitz, tells the brief story of a woman’s last hours before death. franklLying on her filthy cot in the barracks, the woman spoke briefly with Frankl.

“I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard. In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.” Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, “This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.” Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. “I often talk to this tree,” she said to me. I was startled and didn’t quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. “Yes.” What did it say to her? She answered, “It said to me, ‘I am here—I am here—I am life, eternal life.’”

I am here—I am life. Maybe that’s enough. At least it’s a start.