Category Archives: stories

When the Well Runs Dry

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

Come In, and Come In

Once many years ago, a couple I was close friends with was having marital problems. For the first (and only) time in my life, I found myself frequently playing the role of telephone confessor and therapist for each of them—I’m quite sure that neither was aware that I was doing this with the other. imagesThe phone calls became so frequent that one evening as I talked to the male in the relationship, the woman beeped in on call waiting. Toward the end of their relationship, she complained to me one evening that “There is no problem so great that he can’t ignore it!” These informal therapy sessions were unsuccessful; the couple soon divorced, one of them remarried, and both seem to have spent the past twenty years far happier than they were when together. Maybe that means my input was successful after all.

My friend’s complaint about her husband was, unfortunately, all too recognizable as a typical human reaction to information or truths that we don’t want to hear. il_570xn_240184042In the Gospel of John, Jesus is reported as having said “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” I don’t think so. I think the real situation is more like what one of my students wrote in a recent intellectual notebook entry: “The truth doesn’t set a person free, but it does complicate their life.” So what is one to do when the truth about something is so obvious that it cannot be ignored—and you don’t want to deal with it?

  Along with a colleague from the history department, this semester I am in the middle of a colloquium entitled mein kampf“‘Love Never Fails’: Grace, Freedom, and Truth during the Nazi Era.” After several weeks of immersion in the world of the Nazis, including Mein Kampf and Albert Speer’s Inside the Third Reich, I could tell that everyone was feeling the same way I was—worn out by exposure to human pain, suffering, and evil and how these are facilitated by deliberate ignorance and evasion created through the choices we make. LIBBSWe returned from Spring Break to a different sort of story altogether: Philip Hallie’s Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed. The subtitle of Hallie’s remarkable book is “The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There.” It is, in many ways, more challenging and disturbing than being immersed in the depths of human depravity.

Hallie’s book is the little-known story of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a small and insignificant Protestant village in south-central France that, during the later years of World War II, “became the safest place for Jews in Europe.” Le ChambonBetween 1940 and 1943, the villagers of Le Chambon, with full knowledge of the Vichy police and the Gestapo, and at great risk to their own safety and lives, organized a complex network of protection through which they hid and saved the lives of at least five thousand Jewish refugees—most of them women and children. As a woman whose three children’s lives were saved by these villagers told Philip Hallie decades later, “The Holocaust was storm, lightning, thunder, wind, rain—and Le Chambon was the rainbow.” Hallie comments that Rainbow“The rainbow reminds God and man that life is precious to God, that God offers not only sentimental hope, but a promise that living will have the last word, not killing. The rainbow means realistic hope,” a hope that was incarnated in Le Chambon.

It is a beautiful story, one that is virtually unknown in comparison to more familiar and dramatic narratives. Everyone who cares about the human spirit should read it—I dare you to make it through with dry eyes. My first question to the thirty-some students in the colloquium at our first class on this text yesterday was simply “How did this happen?” There is nothing special about Le Chambon—there are hundreds of similar rural villages throughout Europe. There were dozens of them within a short train ride of Le Chambon. Yet none of them did anything like what the Chambonnais did; indeed, many of them collaborated with the Vichy police and turned their Jewish neighbors and Jewish refugees in to the authorities as the occupying Nazis demanded. What made Le Chambon different? Andre and MagdaHow did goodness happen here?

According to the Chambonnais in virtually every interview Hallie conducted, there was nothing special about what they did at all. After being described as a “hero” or simply as “good,” Magda Trocmé, wife of the village’s dynamic pastor André Trocmé, asked in annoyance

How can you call us ‘good’? We were doing what had to be done. Who else could help them? And what has all this to do with goodness? Things had to be done, that’s all, and we happened to be there to do them. You must understand that it was the most natural thing in the world to help these people. Who else would have taken care of them if we didn’t? They needed our help and they needed it then. Anyone else would have done the same thing.

“Is she right?” I asked my students? “How many think anyone else would have done the same?” Not a hand was raised—certainly not mine. So the question remains. How did this happen? How did goodness happen here?

As with a giant jigsaw puzzle, a possible answer can be assembled from various facts throughout Hallie’s book. 130528-004-C0524E59The Chambonnais, for instance, are Huguenots, descendants of French Protestants who were a persecuted minority from the sixteenth century forward in predominantly Catholic France. What it means to be in danger and what it means to resist, to stubbornly stand for something in the face of persecution and death, is embedded in the DNA of these villagers. Le Chambon was also blessed during the war years and the decade before with the daring and lived leadership of men and women who by example showed them what it means to be a true community. But the most important reason that goodness happened in Le Chambon is so simple and basic that it cannot be overlooked. The Chambonnais believed one fundamental thing concerning human beings—that all human life, whether French, Jewish, or Nazi, is fundamentally precious and must not be harmed. Period. Many people, then and now, profess to believe this; the Chambonnais not only believed it—they acted on it. Consistently and regularly. Without questioning or equivocation. For such people, Hallie describes, “The good of others becomes a thing naturally and necessarily attended to, like any of the physical conditions of our existence. For certain people, helping the distressed is as natural and necessary as feeding themselves.” TrocmeThe villagers of Le Chambon were such people.

The source of this simple but powerful lived commitment depended on the person. For Pastor André Trocmé, on the one hand, his commitment to nonviolence and active goodness was rooted in his commitment to emulate Jesus and to take seriously, in a remarkably straightforward way, the message of the gospel. During his theological training, for instance, he was taught by his professors that the 6a00d8341bffb053ef0134818071ae970c-500wiSermon on the Mount is intended to be read as an allegory or as a standard set impossibly high so we can understand our sins and failures more clearly. André had no patience for such evasions. In a book written shortly after the end of the war, he asks

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

André’s wife Magda, on the other hand, had no patience for doctrine, religion, or any esoteric debate that might take her attention away from what was right in front of her. MagdaShe did not believe that something was evil because it violated God’s commands. She believed that something is evil simply because it hurts people. A person’s need was the basis of her moral vision, not any sentimental love she might or might not feel for the person in need, and certainly not any calling to moral or religious excellence. There is a need and I will address it was her motivating energy. Simple as that.

I have taught this book a number of times in ethics classes, but not for a few years. As I worked through the story with my students yesterday, I realized with a new depth just how disturbing and shocking the story of Le Chambon is. “I think I know why I haven’t taught this book in a while,” I told them. “These people make me uncomfortable. They let me know just how wide a gap there is between what I say I believe and what I actually do.” When the truth of what I profess is laid out in front of me in a way that I cannot ignore, I want to look away. I shift into philosopher mode—“This is idealistic, this won’t work in real life, real human beings won’t treat each other this way,” and so on. And my students would have been very happy to be told all of this, because they were just as uncomfortable with the Chambonnais as I was and am. 14992918595385727520But goodness did happen there in the midst of some of the worst evil humans have ever manufactured. Real people created goodness in the midst of evil by actually taking what they believed seriously enough to do it. I have another two-hour class with my students tomorrow afternoon that will continue our exploration of this book. The best I can do, which is perhaps a lot better than I could have done not long ago, is to make Hallie’s closing words in Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed my own and invite my students to come along.

I, who share Trocme’s and the Chambonnais’ beliefs in the  preciousness of human life, may never have the moral strength to be much like the Chambonnais or like Trocmé; but I know I want to have the power to be. I know that I want to have a door in the depths of my being, a door that is not locked against the faces of all other human beings. I know that I want to be able to say, from the depths, “Naturally, come in, and come in.”

The Problem of Goodness

During the early years of my career I developed the habit of teaching at least one overload course per semester in my college’s evening program. The immediate reason for taking on the extra course was entirely mercenary—new professors don’t make a lot and we needed the money. sceTeaching in the evening school—it’s called the School of Continuing Education (SCE) at the college where I have taught for the past twenty-one years—provides unique challenges. The typical evening course has an eclectic group of students, ranging from day students who either are trying to earn an “easy” three credits or are making up for an “F” the previous semester to adult students who are earning an associates or bachelor’s degree one course at a time, a process often stretched over many years. I particularly love teaching adult students, grown-ups with life experience who often are either making great personal sacrifices returning to college after many years or who are in their fifties or sixties (or older) taking their first college course. Such students seize ownership of their education in ways that eighteen to twenty year olds seldom do. They challenge, question, participate, keep the teacher on her or his toes, and inject life into even the most boring topics. I stopped teaching regularly at night a number of years ago for several reasons, but still miss my SCE students.wordperfect

I remember with particular fondness an introductory philosophy course that I taught many years ago in the SCE, so long ago that I no longer have the syllabus and lesson plans in my digital archives (the documents were probably written in WordPerfect). The twenty-five students were the usual grab bag, including five or six youngsters from the day school, a couple of ROTC officers, some secretaries and administrative assistants from various departments and offices across campus, and a guy who had just been hired by the college as a night shift security guard. Before I even met my students I decided that they would be guinea pigs as I chose to scrap earlier versions of the syllabus and do something new. A standard topic in introductory philosophy courses is “the problem of evil”—why do bad things happen to good people, problem of goodnessif there is a good God why is there so much evil in the world, and so on. My intuition then (and now) was that a different angle on this stale set of questions was needed. What if we flipped the question on its head and asked where goodness comes from? After all, we are thoroughly familiar with the multitude of bad things that humans do and that happen to them. Instead of spinning our collective wheels there, why not investigate the phenomenon of goodness? How does goodness happen in a world where bad things grab most of the headlines and air space? I called the course “The Problem of Goodness,” and we were off.

I remember the discussions far more clearly than the texts and materials we used. I do remember spending class time with several films—“Schindler’s List, ” “Playing for Time,” and the wonderful “Life is Beautiful.”life is beautiful We read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, an account of how the seeds of a powerful therapeutic technique for psychological healing were planted and nurtured in the midst of Auschwitz. But my main “take away” from this course came to light during one of our final class meetings. “What conclusions can we draw from our semester together?” I asked. “What have we learned about the possibility of goodness in the face of a world filled with evil?”

Various suggestions were offered, but I have never forgotten an idea contributed by one of the ROTC officers sitting in the back. “It seems to me,” he said, “that Goodness is perpetuated by individuals while evil, more often than not, is perpetrated by groups.” Such sweeping generalizations are always open to counter-examples, but at the time the students agreed that our studies that semester supported the conclusion. I have frequently returned to this thesis over the fifteen or more years since our “The Problem of Goodness” class, most recently in a colloquium I am currently teaching for the third time with a colleague from the history department called “Love Never Fails: Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era.” In this focused investigation of goodness in the context of evil, the conclusions drawn by my students have been remarkably similar to those drawn by my students almost two decades ago—goodness is sparked by individual commitment—what is committed to is less important than the requirement that individuals must be willing, often contrary to powerful collective forces, to risk a great deal–even one’s own life—in the pursuit of goodness.Edmund-Burke

Edmund Burke famously said that “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” In order, however, for this to be more than just another platitude we need to ask exactly what is required for good people to do something. It is one thing to rail against the failure of individuals to resist the collective power of evil, but it is another to specify what is needed for people to act. Two years ago, in the final seminar of my “Love Never Fails” colloquium, I gave my students the following assignment: Based on what we have learned, suppose that we wanted to write a handbook or guide for future generations on how to preserve and perpetuate goodness in the midst of evil. Are there common techniques or skills that the people we studied this semester invariably relied on as they responded to evil? Here, in no particular order, are some of my students’ suggestions concerning how to preserve one’s character and integrity in the face of severe challenges.

know who you areKnow who you are: It is very easy to become overwhelmed by the apparently monumental task of facing up to systematic evil and wrongdoing. In such situations, the only reasonable response appears to be “what can I do? I am only one person—I can’t make a difference.” But my students and I learned that moral character begins with understanding who I am and what I am capable of. I cannot change the world, but I can do something about what is right in front of me. That not only is enough, it can be miraculous. As the Jewish saying goes, “he who saves one life saves the entire world.”

Simplicity: One of my typical roles as a philosophy professor is to convince my students to dig deeper, because things are always more complicated than they seem. But one of the continuing themes of the semester was that those who respond effectively to evil and wrongdoing have often reduced moral complexities to manageable proportions. In response to complaints that “things aren’t that simple,” the consistent word was “sometimes they are.”

Some things are more important than life. I have often asked students over the years “what things are worth dying for?” more or less as a thought experiment. But for the people we studied, this was not an academic exercise. socratesJust as Socrates sharply drew a contrast between “living” and “living well” more than two millennia ago, my students and I encountered a series of counterexamples to the notion that self-preservation trumps everything else. In a variety of ways, those who responded to evil demonstrated that some things are more important than guaranteeing ones continuing survival. As Socrates argued, some lives are not worth living. A life preserved by refusing to do whatever one can to resist evil is one of those lives.

Look toward the other: One of the most important keys to preserving goodness in the presence of evil is the ability to focus my attention on something other than myself. Iris Murdoch defined love as “the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.” There is no greater technique for escaping the iron grasp of ego and self-centeredness than cultivating a sharp awareness of the reality of what is not me.

fear notDon’t be afraid: There is a reason why the first thing that an angel usually says in Scripture when unexpectedly dropping into some human’s reality is “Fear not,” since we often respond to the unknown, the strange and the overwhelming with fear. The message of the human angels we studied together was “Don’t be afraid to expose your small spark of goodness in a world of darkness. It might just change a life—maybe yours.”

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

What Are You Looking At?

Almost every Sunday during the months I spent on sabbatical a few years ago in Minnesota, I saw a canine in church—I didn’t know the dog’s  name, but it looked like a Ralph220px-Suzisnow[1]. I learned several months later that the dog is a female named Caritas, but in my imagination she still is Ralph. Ralph was in church because she was a service dog—now enjoying retirement—for a regular parishioner who is profoundly deaf. The woman sat at the end of the front row so she could read the lips of the celebrant, while Ralph laid next to her, usually with her back half hanging out into the aisle. Ralph is a mutt, with a good deal of some sort of terrier, weighing probably no more than twenty-five or thirty pounds. I’m not surprised that Ralph is now retired, given how she sighed and creaked a bit when she got up or laid down; the white hair around her eyes and mouth looked more like signs of age than normal markings.

A lifelong cat lover, I’ve gained a much greater appreciation for dogs over the past many years after marrying a dog fanatic and, more recently, being unexpectedly adopted by a dachshund as her pet human. $(KGrHqN,!i8E4r(HqlcsBORy0nku+w~~0_35[1]Ralph looked as if she would love to have a pat on the head or a belly rub, but I know better—don’t mess with a service dog while she’s on the clock. But just in case I, or anyone else within range, happened to have a hard time resisting the dog-lover’s urge to touch every dog, Ralph was more in-your-face than most service dogs. She wore a vest that, on its back, said “Service dog on duty. Do not pet.”

“Look—don’t touch.”Look_But_Don__t_Touch_PSD_by_archnophobia-1[1] This used to be my mother’s automatic command every time we walked into a store of any sort, from grocery to hardware to department. Every parent worth the job description has this directive in her or his repertoire, knowing that pre-civilized human beings are inveterate grabbers. hannaarendtsudomenica16ye8[1]Hannah Arendt once wrote: “Every year the world is invaded by millions of tiny barbarians—they’re called children.” Absolutely true, and “Look, don’t touch” is one of the earliest and best tools to use for domestication purposes. In truth, though, the temptation to look and grab, rather than simply to look, is one that none of us ever truly overcomes. As soon as we see something, we want to possess it, to make it ours, to wrap it up in what Iris Murdoch calls “the avaricious tentacles of the self.”

Exhibit A is yesterday morning’s Sunday gospel, a strange story recorded in all three synoptic gospels . Yesterday was Matthew’s version. Jesus is worn out by the crowds and takes his best buddies, Peter, James, and John, with him to the top of a mountain for a break. While there, he is transfigured with Elijah and MosesRaphael Transfiguration[1], looking like a great laundry detergent ad. According to Mark’s version of this story, “His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.” Peter blurts out, “Let us put up three dwellings—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Why does he make such a random suggestion? Luke tells us—“He did not know what he was saying.” Far be it from Peter to say nothing when he doesn’t know what to say, to look and attend to what’s going on in silence and awe, or simply to say “Whoa!” or “Holy shit!” or “Who does your laundry?” No, he has to nail it down, organize it, put walls around it, and either sell tickets or write up a doctrinal statement and confession of faith. The voice from heaven makes it clear what Peter should be doing. “This is my Son, my Chosen; Listen to him.

Scripture makes it clear that there is a time to look and a time to touch—and don’t confuse the two. In II Samuel, tuzzah-01[1]he newly crowned King David leads the army of Israel against the Philistines and recaptures the Ark of the Covenant. They place the Ark on an oxen-drawn cart and head back to Jerusalem in a parade complete with singing and musical instruments, led by David dancing in his underwear. The oxen step in a pothole and stumble, the Ark starts tipping off of the cart, and some poor guy namedfbade8d75c[1] Uzzah makes the horrible mistake of assuming that he should put his hand on the Ark to steady it, because maybe God would just as soon not see the Ark lying on its side in the mud. God strikes Uzzah dead on the spot for his efforts. “Look, don’t touch.” As a kid I thought God’s treatment of Uzzah to be a disproportionate response and grossly unfair, and I still do, but as Jeanne would say, “it is what it is.” And in John 20, the resurrected Jesus says to Mary Magdalene “Touch me not,” exactly what Ralph’s vest would have said if she spoke in King James English.

nh_old_man01[1]As a native New Englander, one of my all-time favorite stories is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Great Stone Face.” It’s the story of a boy named Ernest who lives in a New Hampshire valley; on the perpendicular side of a nearby mountain hang some immense rocks which, when viewed from the proper angle and distance, “precisely resembled the features of a human countenance.Old_Man_of_the_Mountain_overlay_2[1]” The valley is Franconia Notch in the middle of the White Mountains, only forty miles or so from where I grew up, and was a regular point of destination for my family. I was crushed when I heard ten years ago that despite the best human preserving efforts, it finally fell off the mountain.

800890-M[1]According to Hawthorne’s story, there is a legend in the valley that someday “a child should be born hereabouts, who is destined to become the greatest and noblest personage of his time, and whose countenance, in manhood, should bear an exact resemblance to the Great Stone Face.” Ernest, who gazes daily with love and awe at the Great Stone Face, spends his whole life as a simple laborer in the valley. Occasionally a rumor would arise that the man resembling the Great Stone Face had appeared in town, but each candidate—a wealthy miser, a vain general, a pompous politician—turned out to be a fraud. As the years pass and Ernest becomes an old man, he is loved by his neighbors and family but sadly concludes that the legend will not come true in his lifetime.Stone-Face-by-visulogik-3001[1] Then one day as he talks simply and clearly on his front porch with a number of his friends about matters important to all of them, the setting sun strikes Ernest’s face and someone sitting next to him exclaims “Behold! Behold! Ernest is himself the likeness of the Great Stone Face!” He had become what he had spent his life lovingly looking at.

Iris Murdoch tells us that “man is a creature who makes pictures of himself and then comes to resemble the picture.” And the pictures we make will be fashioned from what we are looking at and what we see most clearly. imagesCASOE7U6In the book of Numbers, in response to yet another round of blatant disobedience, God sends snakes into the midst of the children of Israel; many of those bitten by the venomous serpents die. In response to the people’s recognition of their rebellion and penitence, God instructs Moses to make a serpent of bronze and lift it up on a pole for everyone to see. weil[1]“And so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.” Simone Weil comments: “To look and to eat are two different things. The only people who have any hope of salvation are those who occasionally stop and look for a time, instead of eating. Looking is what saves us.” What are you looking at?

Saying What Cannot Be Said

I recently led a discussion group focused, among other things, on the inadequacy of traditional religious structures to address real spiritual hunger. Job1A one of our weekly meetings, we were talking about Job’s reaction to what God has to say about the unfairness of Job’s suffering after many chapters of silence from the Divine end of things. I have heard of you with my ears, but now my eyes have seen you. Job, described by God to Satan in chapter one as the most righteous man on earth, has heard all about God. He knows the stories, the texts, the rules, how to worship, how to sacrifice—in short, Job has heard everything there is to hear about how to make God happy and stay on a good relationship with what is greater than us. None of that seems to matter as load after load of shit is dumped on Job, everything falls apart, and his complaints and demands for explanation meet with stony silence from on high.

When God finally does respond, the divine answer to Job’s questions boils down to “who the hell are you to ask for explanations from me?” god in whirlwindI’m God and you’re not, in other words. But the content of God’s response to Job’s complaints is not what has a lasting impact on Job. What changes his life is that for the first time, God is not something Job has just heard about second-hand. He now has had a first-hand, face to face encounter with God—and everything he has heard throughout his life pales in comparison. As members of the group engaged with Job’s description of this encounter, one person noted both that such experiences are indeed life-changing and that they are extraordinarily difficult to put into words. How is it possible to describe or explain such a powerfully personal experience, especially to those whose knowledge of the divine is entirely in the “I have heard of you” category? the unicornOne likely answer—it isn’t possible.

The discussion reminded me of a character in one of Iris Murdoch’s novels who unexpectedly has a Job-like encounter that shatters his world. In The Unicorn, we are introduced to Effingham Cooper, a stuffy, well-intentioned but ultimately annoyingly foolish busybody. He sees himself as a man of action, striving for everyone to be happy, but actually through his actions is simply attempting to manipulate others and create the world around him in his own image. By literally immobilizing him in a quicksand-like bog, into which he has stumbled while on a twilight walk, Murdoch sets the scene for Cooper to have a revelation that is one of the most central passages in all of her twenty-four novels.

He could still feel himself slowly sinking. . . . He began to feel dazed and light-headed. . . . Max [a dying philosopher whose pupil Cooper once had been] had always known about death, had always sat there like a judge in his chair facing toward death, like a judge or like a victim. Why had Effingham never realized that this was the only fact that mattered, perhaps the only fact there was? If one realized this one could have lived all one’s life in the light. . . . Irish bogSomething had been withdrawn, had slipped away from him in the moment of his attention and that something was himself.

Effingham has lived his life to this point as most human beings do, under the impression that he is the center of the universe. Preparing for what appears to be his imminent demise, he’s faced with the possibility that perhaps his existence is not as important as he thought.

Perhaps he was dead already, the darkening image of the self forever removed. Yet what was left, for something was surely left, something existed still? It came to him with the simplicity of a simple sum. What was left was everything else, all that was not himself, that object which he had never before seen and upon which he now gazed with the passion of a lover. And indeed he could always have known this for the fact of death stretches the length of life. Since he was mortal he was nothing and since he was nothing all that was not himself was filled to the brim with being and it was from this that the light streamed. This then was love, to look and look until one exists no more, this was the love which was the same as death. Hman and donkeye looked, and knew with a clarity which was one with the increasing light, that with the death of the self the world becomes quite automatically the object of a perfect love.

Cooper is unexpectedly rescued (by a stranger leading a donkey, no less!), but his experience of near physical death provides a framework for spiritual insight. His physical entrapment has been the catalyst for recognizing that he has been psychologically and spiritually unfree. Sinking physically in the bog causes him to experience a sublime release from the burden of his own self-consciousness and self-centeredness. His moral rescue precedes his physical rescue. In an epiphany, the beauty of the universe is revealed to him through the momentary extinction of his own self-presence.

Cooper’s experience is a secular companion to the sort of encounter that Job has with a God who cannot be engaged second-hand. job and godBoth men have been brought by unexpected and unexplained circumstances to an experience and realization that shows what they previously thought they knew to be, at best, woefully inadequate. As the person in my discussion group suggested, the most important issue now is “What do I do with this?” How does one capture lightning in a bottle and channel this new energy going forward? We are not told much about Job’s life after his divine encounter other than that he gets everything back that he had lost.

In the case of Effingham Cooper, we find out a bit more—and it isn’t encouraging news. After his rescue, in the afterglow of the experience, he tries to explain his vision to three others, all of whom fail to understand. Sadly, but believably, the impact of his experience wholly fades. As much as we would like to believe that a transformative encounter with what is greater than us will be the catalyst for permanent and positive change, we still have to live out the rest of our mundane and normal days, weeks, months and years. There is no “once and for all” salvation from the self and ego—it is a piecemeal, imperfect and continuing process.

So how does one communicate the content of intensely personal and private transformative encounters? How does one say what cannot be said? One doesn’t. mustard seedInstead, a face to face encounter with the divine, with the infinite, must work itself out in the far less spectacular and far less dynamic grind of daily life. And this is as it should be. Even though most of us would prefer living from one energizing mountain top experience to the next, that’s not the way it works. There is a reason why the Kingdom of God is likened in Jesus’ parables to leaven, to a mustard seed, to salt, to things that work powerfully over time in unnoticeable ways. There is a reason why Jesus regularly tells his disciples and followers not to spread the word of his miracles or reveal his identity publically. Despite occasional evidence to the contrary, the divine works slowly and secretly in the world, embedded in human lives.

Playing with Fire

Somewhere I heard or read that one of the top television programs in Finland (or Sweden or Norway) is a few hours of watching a fire burn in a fireplace. I don’t know whether or not this is true—I would hope that my Scandinavian cousins might go for a real fire in a fireplace rather than one on a screen. But Google “fireplace youtube video” and you will find several dozen to choose from.

During the two-hour final exam in one of my classes a couple of years ago, I put a fireplace video on the big screen up front while the students worked on their exams. Nobody commented on what I thought was a stroke of genius. I didn’t notice a significant increase in the quality of the exams, but I’d like to believe that it might have reduced the stress a bit. There is something mesmerizing and comforting about such videos; the one I chose is complete with the crackling of the logs (and no elevator music in the background). It’s low maintenance, too. No heat, but no kindling, no mess to clean up, no chance of the fire jumping out of the fireplace and causing damage, and no burns. There’s a lot to be said for domesticated fire—except that it isn’t fire. That’s what usually happens when we try to domesticate something wild and dangerous. It becomes something else entirely.

Domesticating the wild and dangerous is a favorite and necessary human activity, beginning with the domestication of the small human barbarians we call “children.” As a child, my favorite character in the pantheon of classic Bugs Bunny characters was the Tasmanian Devil.Taz I lived vicariously through his uncontrolled and destructive energy. Who doesn’t occasionally wish for the opportunity to make a god-awful mess with impunity and without repercussions, just because you can? Mom doesn’t like the way I picked up my room? I’ll show you “picked up”! I whirl into a tornado of destructive frenzy, clothes and bedding flying everywhere, leaving a child-sized hole in the wall as I exit the scene. Dad doesn’t like my attitude?  I’ll show you an attitude, as I leave flying paper and debris in the wake of my Tasmanian exit through your floor-to-ceiling bookcases. Just as the Tasmanian Devil was an infrequent visitor to the Bugs Bunny Show (maybe once every third Saturday), tasmanian_devil_and_bugs_bunny_by_erickenji1so I wasn’t looking to be destructive on a regular basis. Infrequent and arbitrary scenes of total chaos would have been enough to keep everyone on edge and suitably respectful.

I thought of the Tasmanian devil not long ago when Psalm 29 was one of my morning psalms:

The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters.

The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.

The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon.

The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire.

The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.

The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare . . .

dillardBroken cedars, whirling oaks, naked forests—sounds like the Tasmanian devil has been here. But for the most part, this is not the God we encounter in church (or anywhere else for that matter). As Annie Dillard writes, we tend to “come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though [we] knew what [we] were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God.” We want contact with the divine, but not with the Tasmanian Devil deity or with the consuming fireGod that Deuteronomy and Hebrews describe as “a consuming fire.” We want a domesticated God that we can predict and perhaps control. Why is that?

In When God is Silent, Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that we opt for a domesticated God because we suspect that the alternative is too disturbing to consider. Religious history is littered with stories of those who asked to meet God face to face and barely survived to tell about it. “Many pray for an encounter with the living God. Those whose prayers are answered rarely ask for the same thing twice.” Persons of faith complain (frequently, endlessly) that God is silent, that no direct communication from the divine is ever forthcoming, at least not in a language anyone can understand. Just ask Job. But it just might be that God is silent because this is what, in our heart of hearts, we have asked for. As the children of Israel quaking in their boots at Mount Sinai after God’s direct communication, we would rather dabble around the edges, and we would much rather hire someone to represent God to us (and us to God) than take the face to face risk.

god is silentWe are not up to direct encounter with God. We want it but we don’t want it. We want to be warmed, not burned, except where God is concerned there is no such thing as a safe fire. Safe fire is our own invention. It is what we preach to people who, like us, would rather be bored than scared.

The next time I am in church I’ll have a hard time forgetting the YouTube video of a fireplace burning. A pleasant enough experience, I suppose, but offering nothing of the warmth and danger of the original. As we proceed through the various portions of the liturgy—Gloria, Sanctus, sermon, creed, confession, collection, Sanctus, Agnus Dei and so on—Annie Dillard will be poking me in the side.

I often think of set pieces of liturgy as certain words that people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed . . . If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked.

Indeed we would be—and attendance the following Sunday would be affected. Much better to pretend that we know what we are doing and that God somehow is entertained. Because the alternative—that God might actually show up and do something, including making us responsible for what we so blithely parrot every week—makes us uncomfortable. And above all else, human beings want to be comfortable.

holy the firmWhy do we people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? . . . On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. Annie Dillard

Playing the Nazi Card

We ought not to hide from ourselves that Nazi Germany is a mirror for all of us. What looks to us so hideous is our own features, but magnified. Simone Weil in 1937

            One of my favorite weekly activities is to gather every Friday afternoon at MacPhail’s, our on-campus watering hole, with any number of faculty colleagues to down a beer or two (or three) as we mark the end of the week and the beginning of the weekend. Last Friday was no exception. It was inauguration day, which—as I described that day on this blog—I was not watching.

Why I will not be watching: Inauguration Day Reflections

As is often the case, I was the first person to arrive. I sat in our usual area with my back to the three television screens over the bar, on which the new President’s poorly attended inaugural events were being covered. Having established the habit many years ago of never being without something to read if there was any chance I might have to wait for anything for more than thirty seconds, I reached into my book bag, pulled out the central text that I would be working with in one of my classes the following week, and settled in to knock off a few pages. When a colleague and friend from the chemistry department showed up a few minutes later, it occurred to me that there was a strange synchronicity between what was on the television screens behind me and what I was reading. “Look at what I’m reading, Seann!” I said, passing the book to him. He broke into laughter as he saw Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. You can’t make this stuff up.

I am in the early stages of teaching an interdisciplinary colloquium with a colleague from the history department: “‘Love Never Fails’: Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era.” This is the third time in the past four years we have offered this colloquium; it is the most wildly popular course I have ever taught, filling up immediately on registration day with a list of dozens of students on a waiting list hoping to get in. I would love to think that the colloquium’s popularity is due to my colleague’s and my teaching excellence, but the real reason everyone wants to take this course is simple: Nazis sell. Put the adjective “Nazi” together with any course content—Nazi Accounting, Nazi Calculus, Nazi Basket Weaving—and the class will fill up immediately. Like the worst train wreck ever, people can’t look away from the Nazis. Just about everyone agrees that they represent the worst that human beings can be, but still—or perhaps because of this—no one can look away.

This is not just the case in the educational world. Mention the Nazis in any public conversation and people’s ears prick up. Describing someone’s activities or attitudes as Nazi-like is the third rail of public discourse, a bridge too far even in the most vigorous debate. And yet it happens on a remarkably regular basis. The Nazi card was played frequently during the just completed Presidential campaign season, most recently a bit over two weeks ago when the then President-elect criticized the intelligence community for not prohibiting an unsubstantiated document containing damaging allegations from being published. “Are we living in Nazi Germany?” the President-elect tweeted, a question that immediately met with outrage from many quarters, while at the same time attracting prurient interest because the Nazis had been invoked. Playing the Nazi card has been a popular activity on all sides of political arguments for the past fifty years. I recently finished reading Stephen Prothero’s Why Liberals Win (Even When They Lose Elections); in his final chapter on culture wars in this country from the 1970s to the present, he mentions at least a half-dozen different times when one side of a given squabble has accused the other side of Nazi-like behavior or beliefs.

Why do we do this? I’m sure that many articles, books, and dissertations have been written on the psychology and politics of Nazi-shaming, but on one level the attraction is obvious. If X accuses Y of Nazi-like behavior, X is intending to either derail the conversation entirely or deflect it in an entirely new direction. Except for skinheads, no one takes Nazi attributions lying down. To accuse someone of being or acting like a Nazi is to accuse her or him of being on the very outer fringes of humanity, perhaps having even crossed the line into non-humanity. But my impression is that no one really means it when they play the Nazi card—it’s just the worst thing the person can think of to say in the moment. Accusing someone of Nazi-like behavior is like accusing them of being an evil alien—and that’s a problem. Because the Nazis were people, no different at their core than the rest of us. We forget this at our peril.

One of the most important tasks my teaching colleague and I seek to accomplish early in the semester when we teach our Nazi era colloquium is to convince the students that the Nazis were not aliens, monsters, or mutants. To consider them as such is to remove the possibility, at least theoretically, that we share anything in common with them. My colleague and I assign significant portions of Mein Kampf, study the NSDAP’s “Twenty-Five Point Program” (the Nazis’ socio-political “platform”), and consider the lengthy chapter on Hitler’s tortured childhood from Alice Miller’s For Your Own Good, all with a view to realizing that understanding the Nazis requires first understanding that they were human beings just as we are. Human beings with histories, experiences, commitments, worries, fears, desires, hopes and dreams. Human beings who hoped for a better world than the one they believed had been unjustly imposed on them by outside forces. The policies and actions of the Nazis flowed logically from clearly stated premises and assumptions; the fact that these premises and assumptions differ sharply from those that most of us profess to be committed to does not prove them to be wrong. We urge our students to realize that dismissing the Nazis simply because they believed so differently than we do spares us from doing the difficult and important work of identifying exactly why we are committed to our beliefs and assumptions. Only if we recognize that the Nazis were human beings with whom we share a vast amount of things in common can we truly begin to consider carefully what went so monstrously wrong. As Alice Miller writes, “all that it took was a committed Fuhrer and several million well-raised Germans to extinguish the lives of countless innocent human beings in a few short years.”

For those who believe that their religious faith provides them with a firewall against the elements of human nature regularly on display during the Nazi era, the story of the Christian churches, both Protestant and Catholic, in Germany during the time of the Nazis is both sobering and disturbing. People like Lutheran minister Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Franciscan priest Maximillian Kolbe are examples in our colloquium of persons who exhibited grace and truth during the Nazi era, but they were voices and persons of resistance. Large numbers of Christian pastors and priests, ministers and bishops, as well as their German Christian congregations, not only supported the policies of Hitler and the Nazis but also truly believed that this support was sanctioned and supported by their commitment to their Christian faith. It did not turn out to be that difficult for millions of good Germans to find a way to be both believers in Christianity and supporters of Nazism.

I spent a great deal of time on this blog over the past many months wondering how evangelical Christians, millions of Catholics, and many others with whom I share my Christian faith could square their faith with their political commitments and how they voted in the recent Presidential election. I’m still wondering, but returning to the Nazis has reminded me that human beings can convince themselves that absolutely anything is true, as well as believing that incompatible beliefs are actually compatible, if they are sufficiently motivated by their experiences, circumstances, fears, and anger to do so. That includes me. The next time the Nazi card get played publicly, we would do well to not treat it as twisted entertainment or the tweetings of uninformed people with too much time on their hands. As offensive as it may sound, each of us has a Nazi inside of us—only regular vigilance and a constant refusal to be duped or complacent can silence it. As Pogo told us many years ago, we have met the enemy—and he is us.

We Are Not Alone

Jesuit priest and author James Martin recently said in an interview that we as a culture have sanitized the Christmas story. This is worth paying close attention to during this current Christmas season which seems more dissonant than most, with violence across the globe,, dealing with a controversial Presidential election, and the usual jostling for air space with department store muzak and familiar stories from the pulpit. During a conversation with a number of friends the other day I was reminded that the juxtaposition of promise and death, of expectation and suffering, is nothing new. The Coventry CarolThis dissonance is built into the fabric of the stories that we tend to tell selectively and sanitize for public consumption at this time of year. The text of one of my favorite carols, the Coventry Carol, is a case in point. Its text is focused on yesterday’s gospel from Matthew, a story that you will definitely not see represented in anyone’s creche or on anyone’s front lawn.

The Coventry Carol is written in a minor key, appropriate for the shocking event that is its central concern. In Matthew’s gospel the early focus is not on the birth of Jesus (Luke’s more familiar story takes care of that), but on events occurring soon after. “Wise men from the East” have arrived in Jerusalem following a star that they believe portends the birth of a new king. After they refuse to take the current king Herod’s bait and choose to return home after visiting the Holy Family’s house (they’ve apparently moved out of the stable some time earlier) without revealing to massacre of the innocentsHerod where the infant threat to his throne is living in Bethlehem, Herod orders the murder of all the male children under two years of age in Bethlehem. This is the theme of the Coventry Carol, so named because it is part of a cycle of 16th century songs that were performed in that city as a pageant dramatization of the birth narrative in Matthew.

Herod the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day.
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.

Mary, Joseph, and Jesus escape the massacre because Joseph is tipped off by an angel of the danger. They escape to Egypt where the family stays until Herod dies. The Coventry Carol reminds us that even the Incarnation, the divine taking on human form, does not guarantee a respite from darkness, evil, and death. Indeed, this particularly horrible event—the massacre of innocent children—would not have even happened had it not been for the miraculous event of Jesus’ birth. coventryAgain and again we learn that goodness and evil abide together in a complex tangle that belies our hopes and dreams of a world in which all is goodness and light. Whatever is promised by the narrative of the Incarnation, it is not that.

The city of Coventry after which the carol is named was the location of yet another extraordinary mixture of hope and darkness during World War II. An industrial city in the West Midlands of England, Coventry was the target of numerous Luftwaffe bombing raids. The worst of these occurred on November 14, 1940; the devastation included the almost total destruction of Coventry’s gothic Saint Michael’s Cathedral that was built during the late 14th and early 15th centuries. ruinsVarious researchers revealed some decades later the likelihood that because the German secret “Enigma” code had just been broken by cryptographers at Bletchley Circle, British war authorities knew that Coventry had been targeted for a Luftwaffe fire-bombing raid some days before the raid occurred. These authorities chose not to alert the citizens of Coventry ahead of time because doing so would have revealed to the Germans that their supposedly unbreakable code had been cracked. Sir William Stephenson, the chief of all Allied intelligence during WWII, wrote that both Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill were aware that Coventry was going to be bombed; cathedral old and newChurchill reportedly told Stephenson after the war that letting Coventry burn aged him twenty years.

Others have challenged Stephenson’s story, but situations of overall good requiring destruction and death are disturbingly commonplace. A new Coventry Cathedral was built next to the ruins of the one destroyed in 1940, incorporating into its modern architecture the remains of the previous edifice as a testament to both hope and despair, triumph and sacrifice. The theme of the dedication, and the continuing ministry of St. Michael’s Cathedral to this day, is reconciliation. Its art work, commissioned from all over the world, makes use of remnants of the old cathedral as well as materials not usually incorporated in religious art—the wreckage of automobiles, refuse from landfills—thehigh altar cross last places we normally look for intimations of the sacred.

Paying attention to the Christmas narrative reveals that the planners and parishioners of the cathedral in Coventry are on to something. When the divine enters the world, we may often look in vain for immediate evidence. Violence and suffering still occur, human beings continue to perpetuate atrocities on each other and on the world in which we live. The difference before God enters human reality and after is so subtle as to often be unnoticeable. But as a wise person once told me, this is not a God who intervenes. AudenThis is a God who indwells. In his lengthy Christmas poem “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio,” W. H. Auden expresses this sentiment through Simeon, the old man who gets to see the infant Jesus just before he dies.

And because of His visitation, we may no longer desire God as if He were lacking: our redemption is no longer a question of pursuit but of surrender to Him who is always and everywhere present. Therefore, at every moment we pray that, following Him, we may depart from our anxiety into His peace.

Anxiety and fear are natural human responses to evil and suffering. But we do well to remember one of the promised names of the infant to come—Immanuel—means “God is with us.” massacre 2We will look far and wide for reminders of Herod’s massacre of the Innocents in nativity sets in houses and front yards this Christmas season, but maybe such reminders should be there. They are just as much a part of the story as angels singing to shepherds. In the darkest depths of despair, the promise is that God is with us, choosing to become part of the mess and transform it from within rather than impose solutions from the outside. As I heard someone say this morning, “we need to stop listening to fear and calling it wisdom.” At the heart of the beautiful and transformative story is, as Winston Churchill might have described it, “a mystery wrapped in an enigma.” The baby in a manger, as well as the dead babies in the streets of Bethlehem, call us to embrace hope when things are darkest. We are not alone.

What’s Next?

As a Christmas present to each other, Jeanne and I purchased our first HD television a few weeks ago–one equipped with access to Amazon, Netflix, and multiple other sites I have not had time to explore. As I wandered through Amazon offerings (I’ve been a “Prime” member for years), I encountered all seven seasons of “The West Wing,” probably my favorite television show of all time. We already own all seven seasons of the show in DVD, so this is a bit of overkill, but who could have enough of the best President ever, especially given our current executive office prospects?

I love all of the ten or so main characters from “The West Wing,” none more than President Josiah Bartlet himself. “The West Wing” premiered in September of 1999, bumper stickerjust a few weeks before the presidential election that eventually brought George W. Bush to the White House. During the two terms of the Bush presidency Jeanne and I had a Don’t blame me—I voted for Bartlet bumper sticker on our car. I think I’ll order a new one for the next four years. President Bartlet had Bill Clinton’s charisma and political savvy joined with the moral fiber of Jimmy Carter—what was not to like (especially for liberals and idealists)?

A typical episode portrayed the controlled chaos of a day or a few days in the White House, with several scenes each week taking place in the Oval Office itself. As Bartlet and his ever-present entourage move swiftly from issue to issue and one impending disaster to another, they multi-task with endless energy and Olympian ability. As one brush fire appears to have been temporarily stamped out and another awaits attention, there is no time to take a few extra breaths or reflect before pressing forward. bartlet entourage“What’s next?” the president typically would ask Leo, Toby, Sam, Josh, C.J., Charlie, General Fitzwallace, Mrs. Landingham, or whoever happened to be standing next to him. No time for savoring victories or regretting failures—there’s always more shit to get done.

I completely understand the energy of “What’s Next?” and was plugged into it for just about all of the eight years out of the last ten that I was an administrator on campus, first as chair of my department, then as director of a large interdisciplinary program required of all freshmen and sophomores. Teaching four classes per semester, usually with three separate preparations, is more than a full-time job in itself; adding the administrative tasks on top frequently pushed me close to the point of “I can’t do this.” Whats nextBut I did, in large part because I learned to be ultra-organized, looking at my calendar each morning to prioritize each of the dozen Whack-a-Moles that promised to pop up over the following hours, and seldom diverging from that prioritization. In service to my overall “What’s Next?” attitude I had a three page, single-spaced “Important Dates” document for the semester taped on the wall next to my computer just to remind me that things keep coming and disaster awaits those who don’t keep up. Rigorous organization, energy always directed forward, never looking back—these are necessary features of the “get it done” attitude of American success. And it’s no way to live a life.

As I described in my blog post a week ago, I learned during my Spring 2009 sabbatical semester that focus, centeredness and peace are available in the midst of the most manic schedule because I carry a space in which those welcome things live everywhere I go.

Clouds of Glory

I identified this space as the place where the divine in me hangs out, agreeing with C of genoaCatherine of Genoa that “my deepest me is God.” I also began to learn how to access that space deliberately by directing my attention properly. This new awareness and skill served me well during my four years as program director that began a year later—when I remembered to pay attention and make use of it. My mantra coming out of sabbatical was from Psalm 131—“Truly I have set my soul in silence and peace”—something I intended to use as the screen saver on my computer and to frame on my office wall when I returned to campus. But I did neither one; I was on my computer so much that it wouldn’t have mattered what I had on my screen saver. I established the practice of reading the Psalms from the daily lectionary every morning, a habit that served me well in terms of starting the day off in the right place. Get it doneBut the vortex of “What’s Next?” and “Get It Done” frequently sucked me in by the middle of the morning, swamping my space of intentionality and attention before I was aware of what had happened.

Away from work, I have done a better job over the past few years of avoiding the “What’s Next?” syndrome, but I still have to be very conscious and attentive to escape the guilt that often is paired with “doing nothing.” The key is to reject the nagging idea that one’s value and space on this planet has to be earned on a daily basis by what one does. We were talking about this not long ago in a monthly discussion group that I lead at church; one of the participants observed that there is not just a point about human psychology to be made here. It is not only good for a person’s mental and emotional well-being to find internal spaces of peace and quietness as resources for addressing a world that is anything but peaceful and quiet, but these also appear to be the very spaces where direct connections to what is greater than us are made. Tmustard seedhere are all sorts of theological reasons to conclude that what I do, my “works,” are not the key to a healthy relationship with the divine, but the authors of scripture have something deeper than right belief in mind when they continually emphasize the importance of stillness and quietness when seeking God. The divine is born in us as a tiny seed that is nurtured not by manic activity, but by patience, daily attention, and perpetual care. It is very challenging to be still when everything around us screams that time is of the essence and must not be wasted. God is said not to be a respecter of persons; God is most definitely not a respecter of our schedules.

My New Year’s resolution is committing myself to the retooling and honing of my practices of attentiveness, silence and peace. I find that in spite of my regular failure to access my core of centeredness over the past few years since I first became aware of its existence, my inner attunement to it has become stronger without my even being aware. thin placesIt takes less time to get there than it used to—like water seeping through a rock, the wall between outer demands and inner strength has become one of those “thin places” that various writers love to ruminate about. Or at least thinner—it’s always a work in progress. My hope for the New Year is that each of you find your own thin places. The places where the divine is always waiting to say “hello.”

Who Comes This Night?

Aleppo, Russians tampering with our election, a sharply polarized country, general mistrust in all sort of institutions, a truck driving into holiday celebrators in Berlin—the clashing of our world with the Christmas season has never been more dissonant. In his lovely holiday song “Who Comes This Night?’, James Taylor asks some very pressing questions:

Who sends this song upon the air
To ease the soul that’s aching?
To still the cry of deep despair
And heal the heart that’s breaking?

If there was ever a time when accumulated layers of consumerism and tradition needed to be peeled back from the Christmas narrative to reveal what lies beneath, it is now.

Christmas movies are a big deal at my house. Jeanne goes for the classics, such as “Miracle on 34th  Street,” “The Bishop’s Wife,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and (her favorite) “White Christmas.” Those are all fine (except “White Christmas,” which I can take or leave), but I tend to favor more recent ones, like “The Holiday,” “Love, Actually,” and (my favorite) “The Nativity Story.” “The Nativity Story” presents a remarkably straightforward, hence beautiful, rendition of the birth of Jesus narratives. All of the standard elements are there—Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph, shepherds and wise men at the manger, angels in appropriate places saying appropriate things, along with a particularly creepy father and son team of Herod the Great and Herod Antipas.

These standard elements, though, arise from a conflation of gospel texts. The authors of Mark and John apparently didn’t think the circumstances of Jesus’ birth important enough to even report on, while the authors of Matthew and Luke construct their stories from “cherry-picked” details. Luke does not mention the wise men or the star, but has angels singing to shepherds, who then visit Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem. Matthew has no worshipping shepherds or even a manger, but wise men following a star visit the holy family in a house, probably in Nazareth, sometime after Jesus’ birth. Throw in Santa and some reindeer, and you’d get the usual front lawn decorations for the holiday season.

So where lies the truth? A friend, who recently passed away, tended to be rather definitive in his pronouncements. Once at lunch he said that “The heart of Christianity is what you believe about the stories. Do you believe the stories are true or don’t you? Yes or No? And if you say ‘let me think about it,’ that’s the same as saying No!” This was not directed at me specifically—he was just drawing a line in the sand, as those of us who knew and loved him expected him to do. But I think I’m in trouble. Because not only am I not sure about whether my answer to his question is “yes,” “no,” “let me think about it,” or even “which stories are you referring to?”—I’m inclined to say that “it doesn’t matter.” Our lives are built from stories that we embrace and own as ours—this story is one of the best. As I reported in this blog recently, a student of mine once said that even if it could be proven that Jesus never existed, she would “still be a Christian, because being a Christian makes me a better person than I would be if I wasn’t.” That’s a good start—the measure of one’s faith is what impact it has in real time on the life being lived.

Meister Eckhart once said that the Incarnation is something that happens within us, that the nativity story is the story of the continuing union of the Spirit of God with individual, fleshly human beings. But then Meister Eckhart was accused of heresy, was fortunate to escape being burned at the stake, and died in obscurity. No wonder I resonate with his insight. At the climatic manger scene in “The Nativity Story,” the gold-bearing wise man Melchior, who looks amazingly like a colleague and friend of mine in the history department, gazes at the baby and says “God made into flesh.” The message of Christmas cuts across every one of the boundaries that we spend so much time drawing and protecting, for it tells us that the human and the divine belong together and that the only way that God gets into the world is in human form. That’s you. That’s me. That’s us.

The heart and soul of Christianity is remarkable both in its simplicity and its iconoclasm. God made into flesh. Remarkably small. Disturbingly fragile. Completely mysterious. And utterly true.

Merry Christmas