Tag Archives: faith

A Jesuit Frame of Mind

Francis JesuitThe recently concluded visit of Pope Francis to the United States has put me in a Jesuit frame of mind. The Jesuits are the first Catholics I ever spent extended time with, and they ruined me for the rest of them. I have spent the past twenty-seven years of my life, first as a student then as a professor, in Catholic higher education—and it all started with the Jesuits.

So how did an Episcopalian with deep roots in hard-core conservative Protestantism end up earning his PhD at Jesuit-run Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI? Because with my philosophy MA in hand, I wanted (against the strong advice of the professors in my analytic MA program) to do my terminal degree at a place known for its excellence in the history of philosophy. I applied to four, was accepted at three, and Marquette offered me the best financial deal. So Jeanne and I (we had met just eight months earlier) arrived with my two sons in tow for fun and games in Milwaukee in August of 1988. marquetteI swear that its being a Catholic, Jesuit university had exactly zero influence on our choice of Marquette.

During my years at Marquette there were significantly more lay professors than Jesuits on the philosophy faculty, but since at the time the philosophy department was the largest in the United States (I don’t think it is any more), there were plenty of Jesuits. Father Treloar, the head of the department’s graduate program, quickly became one of my two most influential mentors and over the months a strong friendship developed. Father Teske, an internationally renowned Augustine scholar, had a quiet intensity and power beneath his favorite uncle sort of exterior and persona. Father Naus, who among other things taught courses in the philosophy of humor, proved his bona fides by displaying a certificate from clown school on his wall.

Rev. John Naus, S.J., dressed as Tumbleweed the clown.

Rev. John Naus, S.J., dressed as Tumbleweed the clown.

Each of the half dozen or so priests I came to know impressed me as committed to their vocation, but equally (if not more) committed to the life of the mind and excellence in teaching and scholarship. I learned over time thatloyola Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order, envisioned a different kind of monastic order, monks who did not have cells in a monastery but whose cell is to be where they are—in the classroom, in a laboratory, at a nursing home helping people. A Jesuit’s cell is to be where he is working. The Jesuits in the philosophy department lived this charism to the fullest.

Because I was five years or so older than the other new PhD candidates, I was able to avoid being placed in the large room with cubicles for the multitude of graduate students. Instead, for the three years I was at Marquette I was placed in the unoccupied office of a professor on sabbatical, a different one each year. philosophy departmentOne year I was directly across the hall from Dr. McNulty, a professor I never had in class because his area—contemporary political philosophy—was significantly different than my developing focus on early modern philosophy and ethics. He was an introvert, so am I, so during the year I was his across the hall neighbor we did a lot of nodding to each other and “good mornings” as we entered and exited our offices, and not much more.

During my last semester at Marquette—I had successfully defended my dissertation and was simply waiting for May to receive my diploma at commencement—joan of arc chapelI wandered one late afternoon into my favorite place on campus, beautiful little stone St. Joan of Arc Chapel. This tiny chapel built in 15th century France was gifted to Marquette by way of Long Island in the 1960s (it’s a crazy story—you can look it up); a particular stone in the floor at the front of the chapel was supposedly stood upon by Joan of Arc as she prayed before going into battle. The stone reportedly is always cooler than the stones surrounding it, I guess because Joan was cooler than everyone else. I never could detect a temperature difference.

A daily mass attended by a few students was in progress as I poked my head in the door, and I had a classic WTF moment. “Holy shit, that’s McNulty celebrating the mass up front! McNulty’s a priest???” And he certainly appeared to be, wearing priestly stuff and acting in priestly ways—but this was news to me. I had seen this guy once or twice a day every weekday for an academic year, and he had been on my radar screen for my two and a half years at Marquette. He never wore a collar, he never acted like a priest (my Protestantism is showing), preferring the baggy sweaters and threadbare trousers that most male academics love to wear. Suffice it to say that Jesuits, at least many of those I spent three years with, do not wear their ordination on their sleeve in the way that the members of the other three Catholic orders 140401JesuitDomincanI have taught and hung out with in the years since do. I like that.

I’ve learned a number of additional things about the Jesuits over the years since leaving Marquette in 1991, including that there is an intense rivalry bordering on serious dislike between the Jesuits and the Dominican Order—it’s an in-house family issue that non-Catholic outsiders such as I don’t entirely get. The Dominican Fathers run the college at which I have taught happily and successfully for the past twenty-one years; I learned early on never to talk about my bromance with the Jesuits within earshot of a Dominican. Once my first or second year into my current position, I was having a conversation in the philosophy department hall with a handful of colleagues, including a young Dominican priest. I mentioned tongue-in-cheek that I had the impression that for the uber-Catholics, including the Dominicans, on campus my being Protestant was far less of a problem than my having been educated by the Jesuits (ha, ha, ha). Without missing a beat, my Dominican colleague said “You’re right.” He wasn’t kidding.George Coyne

I recently heard an interview with Father George Coyne, the recently retired head of the Vatican Observatory, in which he tells a story that for me perfectly captures why I love Jesuits.

I gave a paper at a scientific meeting on the uncertainties in our determination of the age of the universe. There’s several methods we use for determining the age of the universe and a degree of uncertainty is involved with each of them. Well, whenever I’m at a scientific conference, I’m not dressed as a priest because it just — why? You know, it just confuses things.

But I had just given a talk in a church or something, so I gave this talk and I was wearing my Roman collar. So a gentleman stood up — the discussion period, question period, and the first thing he said was “Father.” And I trembled at the thought that he had, first of all, called me Father, but then he proceeded to build upon that and he said, vatican observatory“Father, it must be wonderful that, you know, with all the uncertainties we have in our scientific pursuits that you have this faith, this rock of faith to stand upon.” So what I did is I took off my Roman collar and faced him down and said, “Who told you that my faith was kind of a rock?” I said, “Every morning I wake up I have my doubts. I have my uncertainties. I have to struggle to help my faith grow.” Because faith is love. Love in marriage, love with friends, love of brothers and sisters, is not something that’s there once and for all and always kind of a rock that gives us support.

On Being: Asteroids, Stars, and the Love of God

Amen, Father George. In a different world, a parallel universe, in which rather than meeting my first Catholic when I was in my twenties I was instead raised Catholic, I have no doubt the Jesuits would have gotten me. Big time.

gentle drizzle

Gentle Drizzle

IOresteian the interdisciplinary program I teach in and used to direct, the first semester faculty have to make many tough choices. Iliad or Odyssey? What texts from the Hebrew Scriptures? The New Testament? What to use from Plato and Aristotle–or, God forbid, Plato or Aristotle? And no less challenging—which of the triumvirate of great Greek tragedians? Usually it is a toss-up between the profundity of Sophocles and the brilliance of Euripides, but last fall my teammate and I opted for the first of the trio, Aeschylus. We spent a week with sixty-five freshmen in The Oresteia, a trilogy with enough violence and dysfunctional family intrigue to hopefully satisfy the most scandal-hungry eighteen year old. Perhaps some of the playwright’s profound insights into the human condition seeped in as well.

RFKAlmost twenty-five years ago, early lines from Agamemnon, the first play of Aeschylus’ trilogy, were quoted by Robert F. Kennedy in Indianapolis toward the end of a brief, impromptu eulogy of Martin Luther King, Jr. who had been assassinated in Memphis earlier in the day. Kennedy, who would himself be killed by an assassin’s bullet just two short months later, included these lines from the Chorus’ first speech in the play as a sobering piece of one of the great speeches in American history:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart until,
in our despair, against our will,
comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

I was reminded of both Bobby Kennedy and these lines from Aeschylus as I was listening to “The Moth Radio Hour” on NPR the other day.

Sala Udin on “The Moth”

Sala UdinOne of the story-tellers at the Moth event was Sala Udin who told of how as a Freedom Rider in Mississippi fifty years ago he came within an inch of losing his life after being stopped and then viciously beaten by the Mississippi State Police. In his jail cell, as he looked at his battered and disfigured face in the mirror, he thought “I don’t know why they didn’t kill me, but they should have. Now I’m committed. I’m clear. I will never stop fighting racism and injustice.Kasisi-Sala-Udin-copy I’m going to be a Freedom Rider for the rest of my life.” Udin and thousands like him were some of those drops upon the heart that Aeschylus wrote of over two millennia ago. Because of persons like Udin, change in the direction of wisdom incrementally but inexorably comes “against our will,” a change that although real is nowhere near complete.

I was born in 1956 and was too young to be directly involved in the early days of the Civil Rights movement, but have often wondered whether I would have wanted to be a Freedom Rider if I had been old enough and had been given the opportunity. I have no reason to believe that I would have, but take a small amount of comfort in the belief that once the habit is developed, courage tends to be available in the amounts needed by present circumstances. I have never been faced directly with the question of what I would be willing to stake my life on and possibly die for, amazing gracebut can at least hope that faced with the decision to act on what things are worth risking or even losing my life for, I would not immediately run away.

Jeanne and I recently watched one of our favorite movies—”Amazing Grace”—with a good friend who had not seen it before. The 2007 movie includes fine acting performances from various rising young actors who now are the hottest performers going—Ioan Gruffudd, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rufus Sewell, Romola Garai—the wonderful Ciaran Hinds (who knew that Julius Caesar was in the House of Commons?), and two of my favorite older actors, Michael Gambon and Albert Finney. images3FS0ITV3“Amazing Grace” is the story of William Wilberforce’s twenty year campaign to end the slave trade in England, finally accomplished in 1807 (the movie is a celebration of the bicentennial of that legislation). I have no idea how historically accurate the movie is, but as my good friend and colleague Rodney used to say, if it isn’t true it should be. It’s a great story.

Although there are certainly “good guys” and “bad guys” in the movie, no one is close to saintly or perfect. Wilberforce’s (played by Gruffudd) dogged attempts to end slavery meet with resistance for reasons that sound unfortunately familiar. Ending the slave trade will be devastating economically, there is “evidence” that the slaves in the colonies live better than the poor in Engwilberforce and newtonland, non-whites in the colonies are “the white man’s burden,” as Rudyard Kipling will write decades later, and so on. As he encounters multiple defeats and disappointments, Wilberforce is on the brink of despair when he has a conversation with his childhood minister, John Newton (played by Finney). Before becoming a member of the clergy years earlier, Newton had been a successful captain of a slave ship; through various powerful and transformative experiences, he recognized the evil underlying his profession, and famously wrote a poem that he set to a familiar and popular tune. The result was “Amazing Grace,” perhaps the most beloved song in the hymnal, in which the now-blind Newton wrote “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.”

In the middle of their conversation, Newton mentions he has heard that Wilberforce is returning to the faith of his youth; Wilberforce confirms the rumor, but says that while he badly needs divine inspiration and help, there have been no inspirational lightning bolts thus far. newton“Ah,” replies Newton, “but God sometimes does his work through gentle drizzle rather than storms.” It is many more years before Wilberforce and his supporting cohorts from all walks of life land on a strategy that finally works, confirming Newton’s insight. The frontal attacks of previous years, energized by righteous anger, eloquent statesmanship, and the best of moral intentions have failed again and again. It is not until an obscure lawyer in Wilberforce’s entourage of like-minded persons suggests a new strategy—essentially “we cheat”—that success is finally won. Through behind the scenes manipulation and the use of a long neglected, virtually unknown set of maritime regulations, Wilberforce does a brilliant end run on his political opponents and slavery in Great Britain soon crumbles under its own weight. It will take more than another half century and a brutal Civil War for the same to happen in the United States.

gentle drizzleGod sometimes does his work through gentle drizzle rather than storms. Ain’t it the truth? That certainly has been my experience, both in my own life and as I have observed the world around me for close to six decades. In its Latin roots, to “convert” means to “turn around,” but this turning is more often like a sunflowersunflower following the sun in its slow course across the sky than a dynamic and once-for-all event. I am an optimist at heart, something that is often difficult to sustain when I think about how much there is to be accomplished in my own life and in the world around me. But a steady rain, even a gentle drizzle, is better for my plants and grass than an inch-in-a-half-hour downpour. Beneath the layers of violence, hatred, ignorance and despair, something holy is lurking. Let the gentle drizzle and drops upon the heart release it.

It’s the Message, Stupid!

As he shepherded Bill Clinton’s successful run for the Presidency in the early 90s, James Carville famously used to keep the candidate and all campaign spokespersons on task bycarville reminding them frequently that “It’s the economy, stupid!” Don’t let yourselves get sidetracked by shiny objects along the way—keep focused and on message. If we keep reminding people about the state the economy is in and what a Clinton presidency will do about it, we’ll win. And they did. In politics, the message is everything, something that the dozen and a half or so persons seeking to win the 2016 Presidential election had better not forget. The person who best crafts a convincing message and sticks to it is likely to be our next President.

I was reminded of James Carville the other day when I received an email asking me to contribute a 500-1000 word essay to a national publication reflecting on the following question: At what point does political advocacy on the part of Christians distort or compromise the Christian message? A timely question, to be sure—my essay (which I have yet to finish) will be one of four commissioned essays the magazine will be publishing in consecutive weekly editions this fall. A sure sign that I am inexorably being drawn into the social media orbit is what I did shortly after I agreed to write the essay—practical christiansI sent the question out to a couple of Facebook groups I am a member of and simply asked for ideas and opinions. And I got some.

Mind you, these Facebook groups were carefully selected; both are loose collections of persons similar to me. Members are self-identified persons of faith, politically liberal, and willing to press the traditional boundaries of Christian religious orthodoxy regardless of where the orthodoxy comes from. At what point does political advocacy on the part of Christians distort or compromise the Christian message? Here are selected unedited comments and ideas:

  • When the advocacy stops helping others or putting others first. When the message is in conflict with the words of Jesus. church and stateWhen people feel excluded. When the message lacks love.
  • Honestly, to me, the message is compromised any time the focus is on the “letter” of the law – rather than the “spirit” of the law. And, (to me) one of Jesus’ main messages was to love God – it wasn’t to fear God – so, whenever fear (or control) is the foundation, it’s distorted. And, whenever a faith-path is used to deny people rights, suppress, etc. it’s a distortion. I had to really think about your question – because I don’t think Christianity or any other religion/faith path has a place in politics. People are free to believe & practice whatever works for them – but, I don’t like seeing or hearing it talked about – and, believe that laws should not be proposed or based on someone’s (or a particular groups) beliefs…
  • When the use of cherry picked scriptures are used to govern others and make them feel “less than” in any way.
  • Where it seeks to limit the liberty of others.

These suggestions seem eminently reasonable to me. We live in a society where church and state are deliberately and constitutionally kept separate, for the mutual protection of both. Religiously motivated advocacy runs afoul of theconstitution Constitution when it seeks to limit the freedoms of those who do not share the advocator’s religious principles. More specific to the question asked, most Christians would agree, I think, that at the heart of their faith is a spirit of love, of focusing on others rather than oneself, of concern for the least among us, and of inclusion. Policies advocated in the name of Christianity that violate this foundational spirit are a distortion of the Christian message.

Yet I have no doubt that I would have received radically different answers had I posed the question to a group of persons of faith who do not share myliberal progressive liberal/progressive convictions and commitments. Anyone with the slightest awareness of what is going on in the public sphere knows that political advocacy in the name of Christian principles happens on a daily basis that at least on the surface seeks to infringe on the freedoms of others, to draw lines of exclusion rather than blurring or erasing them, as well as ignoring or underemphasizing the needs of the poor and disenfranchised. In seeking for possible explanations for these apparent contradictions, I found the following observation from a Facebook friend to be particularly helpful.

  • People who disagree on “what is the Christian message” may also disagree whether it is compromised by political advocacy.

The philosopher in me resonates with this. The question as presented to me (and presented by me to my Facebook acquaintances) is misleading because it refers to “the Christian message” as if this message is something agreed upon by all person who profess the Christian faith. This obviously is not the case. christian messageSo before we start asking about how far political advocacy can go before it distorts the Christian message, we need first to figure out what that message is. Good luck.

I honestly despair of agreement between Christians concerning what the Christian message is. The message I was taught as a child is very different than the message with which I resonate now—yet I was just as much “Christian” then as I am now. What I was taught then is extraordinarily different from what I believe now. The bridge across this disconnect, and across the disconnect between Christians now, cannot be constructed from dogmas, principles, rules, or political action. My Christian faith prompts me to endorse policies and perspectives that directly conflict with the very policies and perspectives endorsed by fellow Christians whose understanding of the implications of their faith is entirely different from mine. So what is to be done?

On one level of understanding, I don’t know. But I am reminded of the story in the gospels of the Publican and the Pharisee. publican and phariseeThe Pharisee’s prayer was public, self-righteous, and confident in his conviction that he understood the mind of God. The Publican’s prayer was unobserved, private, and repentant. And guess whose prayer Jesus endorsed? Samuel Coleridge once wrote that Christianity is a life, not a doctrine. The Christian who advocates politically should not be promoting a rule of law but rather exemplifying a way of life. I wonder whether Christian political advocacy might not be an oxymoron. Who I am, what I advocate and fight for in the public square, should not be a matter of principles and doctrines. It should rather be a natural reflection of the person my faith has caused me to become. And since faith works in radically individual ways, the expressions of lived Christian faith will be as various and unique as the persons within whom that faith has made a difference.

giraffe mother

Her Children Rise Up

Last Sunday I was lector at church for the first time in many weeks. The first reading from the Jewish Scriptures was from Proverbs and included a passage that brought tears to my eyes: “She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue . . . Her children rise up and call her blessed.” These are the verses I used when dedicating my first book to my mother over twenty years ago, just a few years after she died far too young. I wrote about her about a year ago on this blog . . .

I learned something interesting about giraffes from one of my colleagues the other day. He was lecturing on Roman art and architecture; when discussing the Coliseum, he mentioned that Roman audiences loved to watch novelty battles—between a woman and a dwarf, or a dog and a porcupine for instance. The voracious Roman appetite for more and more exotic beasts and contests produced a variety of combatants from all corners of the empire, including elephants, apes, the great cats, and rhinoceroses. fighting giraffeAnd giraffes.

Imagine the scene: a fighting giraffe towers above its opponent, then with one swift motion lowers its large jaws and bites the head off its human or non-human combatant. And the crowd goes wild. Except that giraffes turned out to be rather disinterested gladiators, preferring to lope lazily around the arena, look for vegetation to munch, and take naps rather than fighting to the death. Pacifists in the arena aren’t very entertaining, so giraffes in the Coliseum gave way to slightly more aggressive creatures. None of this surprised me, because although I have no direct experience with giraffes other than admiring them at the zoo, I gained intimate knowledge over the years of giraffe-like gentleness and peace, channeled through beloved human form—my mother.

Although I would have denied it vociferously as a boy or adolescent, I was a classic momma’s boy. untitledMy older brother loved my mother but was all about Dad, while my attachments were the exact opposite. My brother and I were a twentieth-century version of Esau and Jacob. My mother was a 100% Swede, with the appropriate accompanying last name (“Thorsen”—son of Thor), stature, and stoic personality. She was the stable center of my universe, while my father, an itinerant preacher and fund-raiser for his small Bible school, was on the road as often as he was home. We lived out in the country and my brother and I rode the bus a half-hour each way every school day. rapture and tribulationMy mother’s loving presence when I entered the house after a long day at work was so predictable and expected that on the rare occasions when she was not where I expected her to be I assumed the worst. I imagined that the rapture I had heard about so often in church and was so afraid of had occurred and my mother had been snatched up into heaven, leaving my brother and me, sinners that we were, to fend for ourselves during the tribulation to come. Be careful how much Baptist theology gets packed into Sunday School for the youngsters—someone will probably take it seriously.

Flashing forward several decades, shortly after we met (introduced by my parents), Jeanne mentioned to me that she had always thought of my mother as a giraffe—Jeanne knew my parents well for ten years or so before the two of us ever met. I had never imagined my mother as a giraffe, but once Jeanne said it I realized that it was a perfect comparison. giraffes can't danceMy mother had the temperament, grace, and even the long neck of a giraffe. Jeanne pulled out a children’s book the other day entitled Giraffes Can’t Dance—with my mother in mind, there should also be books called Giraffes Can’t Go To Movies and Giraffes Can’t Drink Alcoholic Beverages. Baptist giraffes, at least, did not do such things and neither did my mother.

My mother was in many ways a typical 1950s homemaker, cooking, cleaning, knitting, sewing, and generally making the place run. My father was charismatic and volatile; my mother was neither. But she provided a foundation and safety net so secure and reliable that on the few occasions that she was sick, away, or for some other reason unable to play her usual roles my inner world would temporarily descend into chaos. My father had a great sense of humor; my mother couldn’t tell a joke without either forgetting a crucial part of the setup or screwing up the punchline. Bruce and Trudy's wedding picture (2)She had no enemies and disliked no one. That’s not entirely true—I know of a couple of people over the years about whom she actually said something negative. I’ve often noted that the definition of a total asshole is someone that my mother would not have liked.

The word that most immediately comes to mind when I think about my mother—which I do frequently—is peace. She was the embodiment of parental love, setting a standard that I seldom if ever lived up to when I became a parent. But her presence and demeanor surrounded those around her in an atmosphere of calmness. Last Sunday during the All Saints liturgy, as both my mother and father were present to me even more than usual, I noticed how many times the word “peace” has a central place in the Episcopal service: “In peace we pray to you, Lord God,” “The peace of the Lord be always with you,” “The peace that passes understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ.” The deep center of peace that I’ve discovered within over the past few years is where I believe God is—it is also where I am most deeply connected with my mother.

I am an interesting mixture of elements inherited from my parents. My sense of humor, what skills I have as a teacher, my love of books and the life of the mind, my intellectual restlessness and constant questioning of my faith, and my relatively low tolerance for being sick or for pain I get from my father. I remember many years ago a couple, B and N, who had known my parents for years before I met them were telling Jeanne and me stories about various times that my parents stayed at their house. These stories frequently featured my father being demanding, temperamental and self-centered as he often was. N said to me “in many ways, you remind me a lot of your father. But you’re a lot nicer.” Trudy and Bruce summer or fall of 1979If so, it is only because I inherited my mother’s natural concern for things and people other than herself, her Swedish even temperament, and her ability to empathize deeply (perhaps too deeply at times) with others. Of course I could also write about my negative characteristics that I also inherited equally from my parents, but I’m running out of space in this essay.

My mother was born on Halloween and would have been eighty-six years old last Friday. I shudder to think of what a handful my father at that age might have been, but I imagine my mother at eighty-six as just an older and smaller version of the loving, peaceful giraffe-like person that she was. She died far too young of cancer only three weeks short of her sixtieth birthday; I am just one year younger now than she was when she died. I recall receiving phone calls and cards from friends of my parents whom I never had met in the weeks after she died—the gist of most of them was that while my father the preacher and teacher was the ostensible draw and star of the meetings he held across the country, giraffe mother 2my mother was the real attraction. “We came to hear Bruce, but we really wanted to spend time with Trudy.” I dedicated my first book, published six years after she died, to my mother with the following verses from Proverbs: She opens her mouth with wisdom . . . Her children rise up and call her blessed.

Mom lived just long enough to play matchmaker and facilitate the meeting and budding romance between her little boy and the person whom she somehow knew had the potential to be the love of my life. Jeanne and I met at my parents’ condominium the day before Thanksgiving in 1987; I was accompanied by my seven- and five-year old sons, just five months after the end of a difficult eleven-year marriage. Things clicked, our relationship developed with nightly telephone conversations between Santa Fe and Laramie, and when Jeanne joined me in Laramie and we returned with the boys to spend the Christmas holidays with my parents, we stayed at the local Motel Six (no room at my parents’ small condo) where my mother had properly reserved separate rooms—with an adjoining door. Thanks, Mom.

Mom and her sisters

Mom and her sisters

Where is the Gardener?

2011-03-22-the-unseen-gardenerOnce upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle. In the clearing were growing many flowers and many weeds. One explorer says, “Some gardener must tend this plot.” The other disagrees, “There is no gardener.” So they pitch their tents and set a watch. No gardener is ever seen. “But perhaps he is an invisible gardener.” So they set up a barbed-wire fence. They electrify it. They patrol with bloodhounds. (For they remember how H. G. Wells’s The Invisible Man could be both smelt and touched though he could not be seen.) But no shrieks ever suggest that some intruder has received a shock. No movements of the wire ever betray an invisible climber. The bloodhounds never give cry.

Yet still the believer is not convinced. “But there is a gardener, invisible, intangible, insensitive to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves.” At last the Skeptic despairs, ‘but what remains of your original assertion? bb8c4889389c165a36d352b8fde1d068[1]Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?”

This story, or “parable,” was offered at the beginning of an academic symposium by British philosopher Anthony Flew over a half century ago as a way to get people to thinking about their beliefs and the evidence that supposedly counts for or against those beliefs. The Believer in the story seems bound and determined to believe that there is a gardener that takes care of the flowers in the clearing, even in the face of no supporting factual evidence. The Skeptic is only willing to believe in the gardener along with the Believer if shown relevant evidence. “I agree that there are flowers and that there are weeds here, but there are many possible explanations for this in addition to your gardener hypothesis,” the Skeptic might say. “Let’s test your hypothesis.” When it turns out that the Believer doesn’t need evidence to support his belief, the Skeptic knows that the conversation has come to an end. For what can be said to a person who insists on believing something even when there is no supporting evidence or, worse, even when there is strong evidence contrary to the belief?

The symposium at which Anthony Flew provided this parable was entitled “Theology and Falsification”—in short, what is the relationship between belief in God and evidence that might count for or against such belief? The plot with flowers and weeds is an image of the world we live in, a world that contains both beautiful and ugly things. How to account for the beautiful and the ugly, the good and the bad, existing side-by-side in every corner at every level of our reality? The Believer says “God (the gardener) is responsible for the beautiful things,” responsibility-1and the Skeptic challenges “but why would a God interested in creating beautiful and good things allow these ugly and evil things to continue existing?” In other words, “Who is responsible?”

The Psalms in the daily lectionary this week have focused on the “Who is responsible?’ theme. If you ever want to get bummed out, to wonder what on earth God is up to, drop in to any Psalm in the 50 to 60 range and experience the silence and absence of God along with the Psalmist. In virtually every one of these Psalms, something has gone wrong and the Psalmist is looking for answers.

57843571_640My best friend betrayed me—what are you going to do about it?

Wicked people are prospering—what are you going to do about it?

My life is not working out the way I want it to—what are you going to do about it?

People I know are sick and need healing—what are you going to do about it?

Someone I love has been treated unfairly—what are you going to do about it?

Most of these Psalms end with an “I will worship and praise you anyways” sort of final verse, but they don’t sound particularly sincere. Tflannery hathroughout these Psalms is an energy and anger that reminds me of Ruby Turpin in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation” who, when her expectations concerning God have been disappointed one too many times, shakes her fist at the sky and shouts “WHO THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU ARE??

It’s a place that everyone who believes in the goodness of God will eventually arrive. And it’s all a matter of disappointed expectations. If God is God, why is this happening? If I can’t depend on God to be there when expected, to set things right when I don’t approve of them, to punish the wicked and reward the just, what’s the point of believing? As the skeptic asks the believer in frustration, what’s the difference between a God who cannot be detected, understood, explained or relied upon and no God at all.

These questions are the gateway to what one of my students in a colloquium focused on these issues this past semester told me the course had challenged her to develop: a more nuanced and interesting faith. There is abundant evidence that runs counter to the relatively simplistic divine model that many of us were taught to believe in, the model of a problem solving, prayer answering God who can be manipulated into acting by the proper procedures and pious intentions. A more nuanced and interesting faith, a faith that gets the believer out of the nursery of faith and into the arena of encounter with something far more challenging and disturbing, is a faith that neither ignores contrary evidence nor gives up on belief at the first sign of trouble. indexThe question is, do I want to believe in a God I can’t predict or control, a God who refuses to behave in the manner I would prefer? As Thomas Cahill asks in The Gifts of the Jews,

Can we open ourselves to the God who cannot be understood, who is beyond all our amulets and scheming, the God who rains on picnics, the God who allows human beings to be inhuman, who has sentenced all of us to die?

Opening up to that sort of God requires both guts and a willingness to continually readjust and retool. But it is certainly interesting.

help someone

A Case of Mistaken Identity

costnerJeanne and I are great lovers of movies. As I have described in this blog on several occasions, my all-time favorite movie is “Dead Poet’s Society;” Jeanne’s is “Chariots of Fire.” But a different movie that appears on both of our “top ten” lists—a movie that I am thinking of frequently these days as politicians seek to attract the attention and support of the good citizens of the heartland—is “Field of Dreams.” The story is familiar to most everyone—pure magic with Kevin Costner, James Earl Jones, Burt Lancaster and Ray Liotta in an Iowa corn field. Toward the end of the movie, as Ray Kinsella begins throwing a baseball with his father who died years earlier and who Ray had rejected long before that, John Kinsella asks “Is this heaven?” “No,” Ray replies—“It’s Iowa.” its iowaEvery four years, Iowa is a place where the dreams of Presidential hopefuls come either to die or to live until the next primary, but the Iowa of “Field of Dreams” is a place where, at least for a time, the dividing line between this world and what lies beyond is blurred.

Joan Chittister tells the story of another case of mistaken identity. On a busy Manhattan street, hundreds of people per minute rush by a young woman’s fruit and vegetable stand; vegetable standher daily business depend on her produce being attractive enough as a quick lunch or snack to draw people away from their focused and determined travels to their next destination. Suddenly, everyone heard the crash. The produce stand teetered for a moment, then the baskets containing apples, oranges, pears, tomatoes and peppers fell off the stand onto the sidewalk. They rolled in every direction, under the feet of pedestrians and toward the sewer grates along the street. The girl behind the stand burst into tears, fell to her knees, and began to sweep her hands as far as she could reach in an attempt to gather in her produce. “What am I going to do?” she wailed. “It’s all ruined! I won’t be able to sell any of this!”

One man, rushing by with a few colleagues on his way to a meeting a few blocks down the avenue, upon seeing her distress stopped and came back. “Go on—I’ll catch up with you!” he shouted to his companions. He got down with the young woman on the sidewalk and started retrieving what produce he could. overturned fruitIt was only then, as he watched her sweep her hands across the sidewalk in every direction with her face pointed upward, that he realized the young woman was blind. “What am I going to do?” she kept crying.

After returning her cart to an upright position and putting the items he had been able to collect back in their baskets, the man took forty dollars out of his wallet and pressed it into her hand. “Here is forty dollars to pay for the damage we caused,” he said as he prepared to go. The girl stood up and reached in the direction of where she had heard his voice. “Mister,” she called out after him—“Mister, wait!” He turned around, returned to where she was standing, and looked into her blind eyes. “Mister,” she asked, “are you Jesus?”Where's jesus

Chittister doesn’t reveal the man’s answer to the question, but I know what mine would have been. Assuming, of course, that I had been good enough to stop and help the woman while hurrying from one place to another. I’d like to think that I would have helped, but the truth is that Jeanne is far more likely to have immediately gotten on her hands and knees to help and would have dragged me down to do so as well. My answer to the “are you Jesus?” question would have been first to laugh, then say something like “no, that’s well above my pay grade!” The blind woman’s question is understandable—this is the sort of thing that one can imagine Jesus doing, regardless of whether one is a Christian—above my pay gradebut we forget that all we have of what Jesus was like are vignettes, bits and pieces of the sorts of things the guy and his entourage were up to for three years as they wandered the countryside and towns.

It is very possible, though, that the gospels are a “greatest hits” sort of account; stories of the undoubtedly many times Jesus walked by someone in need or failed to recognize a person in distress aren’t likely to sell very well or generate many followers over the generations. But even in the gospels we catch glimpses of Jesus in a hurry, Jesus worn out by the crowds, and Jesus having a bad day. The young woman’s “Are you Jesus?” question is not inspired by a miracle performed or an eloquent sermon delivered—she asks because the man who helps is doing the sort of thing that human beings do when they are at their best rather than in a rush, self-absorbed, or unaware of what is right in front of them. In her mind “Jesus” is the name for the best that a human being can be. That is definitely not above my pay grade.

Within the context of my Christian faith, helping those in need is not only within my pay grade, it is according to the gospels a requirement of my faith. According to the texts, the one guaranteed way to piss God off is to fail to pay attention to the poor, widows, homeless, orphans, and all those who have fallen through the cracks. To be a follower of Jesus is, by definition, to be a person who is on the front lines of aid and protection for the less fortunate. Thelp someonehis is more than a moral directive—it is the direct outcome of the Christian story of Incarnation. God in human form, the divine clothed in mortal flesh—this is the heart and soul of the Christian faith and it how God continues to be present and work in the world. God made flesh is not just a moment in time that we celebrate two millennia later. As Chittister points out, the created world in which we live can only be completed when we take ownership of the divine within us and act accordingly.

Chittister Impersonating Catholic copyGod did not finish creation; God started it. Its ongoing development God leaves to us. What we do in life makes us the hands of God in living flesh and blood. Having made the world, having given it everything it needs to continue, having brought it to the point of abundance and possibility and dynamism, God left it for us to finish. God left it to us to be the mercy and the justice, the charity and the care, the righteousness and the commitment, all that it will take for people to bring the goodness of God to outweigh the rest.

Sister Joan closes the story of the blind young lady with the shocking, but empowering truth;

Are you Jesus? people ask us silently every day. And the answer formed in us if we live it with constancy, with regularity, with fidelity, is surely, yes.


Mister Perfect Has a Bad Day

A conversation heard behind the scenes:

Dude! Did you see what just happened??

How could I?? I’m in charge of the fucking luggage today and am stuck way back here. Why is the crowd always biggest when I have luggage duty?

The big guy just got dissed in front of everyone!

Are you shitting me? Tell me!

He was already in a pissy mood and this woman kept nagging him and bothering him until he finally put her in her place with one of his patented one-liners.

What else is new? That’s what he always does.

images0EW9Y1AOYeah, but she came right back at him with an even better put-down! And he admitted he was wrong!

HE ADMITTED HE WAS WRONG??? Oh My God!! You mean “MISTER PERFECT” made a mistake?? MISTER PERFECT admitted he was wrong?? Oh how the mighty have fallen! Priceless!!

Admit it. Every one of us has participated in a conversation like this at some point—probably more than once. Because deeply embedded in the heart of human nature is the desire to see the high and mighty take a pratfall. Henry VIII goutWe love hearing about the peccadilloes and foibles of those we put on a pedestal and enjoy finding out that they are flawed and limited just like the rest of us. It’s great to know that Henry the Eighth was afflicted with gout and that Napoleon suffered from hemorrhoids. WMIMI would love to find out that The World’s Most Interesting Man has an embarrassing case of athlete’s foot or dandruff or has bad teeth. Anything is welcome that lets us know that those who we, on the one hand, praise to the skies and worship in some fashion, on the other hand have feet (or other body parts) of clay.

The conversation above is what I imagine was going on behind the scenes of a classic story of someone’s imperfections showing in a very public way. The Sunday gospel readings during the summer in the common lectionary wander through Jesus’ activities and shenanigans as described by the gospel author of the year. tombsLast Sunday we encountered Jesus putting the finishing touches on yet another devastating dismantling of the religious authorities of the day. The disciples ask “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” No shit—people usually don’t like being called white-washed tombs and hypocrites. Jesus is still pontificating as he and his entourage hit the road for the next town, undoubtedly still heated by self-righteous energy. Cue up yesterday’s gospel from Mark.

As the group presses forward, a woman elbows her way to within shouting distance of Jesus. Her accent and clothing show that she is a Caananite, a non-Jew, but that doesn’t stop her from doing whatever she can to attract Jesus’ attention because she has a big problem. Her daughter is “tormented by a demon,” and she knows by reputation that this itinerant preacher is also a healer. He has cast out demons before. “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon!” she screams at the top of her lungs. CanaaniteAnd she keeps screaming—her daughter’s health and well-being matter more than the fact that as a woman and as a foreigner, she has no reason to think that anyone, let alone Jesus, will take notice of her.

And for a time Jesus simply ignores her. He’s too busy, too tired, too annoyed by the crowds, too something to be bothered with this woman. But she continues screaming for his help, so much so that now it’s getting embarrassing. “Send her away,” a disciple or two mutters to him. “She keeps shouting after us.” “Jesus Christ” (really) Jesus finally sighs. “Enough already.” Turning to the annoying foreigner, he says “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Ignoring this rather gentle dismissal, she simply gasps, with tears flowing down her cheeks, “Lord, help me.” That should work, right? This is Jesus, after all, the ultimate good guy who never turns down an opportunity to help the needy who come across his path.

But no. Jesus counters that “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Oh my. That’s not very nice. And we know from other stories that Jesus has often addressed the needs of non-Jews without hesitation. The hero of one of his best stories, the Good Samaritan, is a non-Jew. So what the hell’s his problem? Simple enough—he isn’t in the mood. Just as all human beings—and he was one, after all—he’s having a tough day and he’s not at his best. He doesn’t feel like helping this foreign bitch (he just called her a dog, after all) and has provided a perfectly good rationalization for why he doesn’t have to. dog and crumbsEnd of story—the demons can have your daughter.

Not quite. This woman is not only insistent, but she’s also as quick on her feet as Jesus is. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table!” Touché! In your face, holy man! This is impressive—her retort is the sort of thing that I always come up with hours after the conversation is over and I’m alone. “Man, I should have said . . .” But despite her panicked concern for her daughter, the unnamed woman is able to match Jesus one-liner for one-liner with her daughter’s health, perhaps her life, at stake. And even more impressively, it works. Something here, her persistence, her intelligence, her lack of regard for propriety, cuts through Jesus’ bullshit. “Woman, great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish.” “And her daughter was healed instantly.” The Jesus posse continues on its way and we never hear of this woman again.

So what’s the takeaway? Without the exchange between Jesus and the woman, this tale would be indistinguishable from dozens of other accounts of persons healed by Jesus. Why does the author choose to tell the story in this fashion? In the estimation of many, Jesus is the ultimate and cosmic “Mister Perfect”—their faith depends on it. nicene creedSo why make a point of showing that even Jesus had off days, could be rude and judgmental, and had clay body parts just as we all do? In addition to driving home the “Jesus was a human being” point, one the Nicene Creed tells Christians every Sunday but that we tend to ignore, there’s a more direct behavioral lesson to be learned here. Jesus listened. Even on a bad day crowded with distractions and annoyances, he was able to hear the truth, recognize he was being an ass, and wake up. We all have bad days, perhaps many more than Jesus did, and we tend to use “I was having a bad day” as a justification for all manner of bad behavior, even to those we love the most. The story of Mister Perfect having a bad day lets us know not only that the best of us occasionally fail to live up to expectations, but also that such failures need not be debilitating. Each of us can hear the truth and change a bad day into a not-so-bad one. Even Mister Perfect.

Back to the behind the scenes conversation:

Iwalk on water love it! Mister Perfect is having a bad day! Mister Perfect, who probably thinks he can walk on water, made a mistake!

Dude, he CAN walk on water.

Shut up.


It is the happy life that asks more of us than we realize we have and then surprises us by enabling it in us. Joan Chittister

As I organize various materials in preparation for my big sabbatical writing project, I find myself returning to various themes that I have considered frequently over the three years of this blog’s existence.cropped-penguins11 One quick way to do that is to see how many times I have tagged a post with certain key words, something that WordPress makes it very easy to do. The most used tags are not surprising:

Jeanne: 157; God: 184; Jesus: 102; Faith: 126; Philosophy: 163; Teaching: 131

I’m sure Jesus doesn’t mind losing out to my wife, and she won’t be surprised that philosophy beat her out. Other non-surprising categories include

Writing: 49; Silence: 28; Humility: 41; Introverts: 29; Grace: 43

Perhaps the stat that raised my eyebrows the most was

Happiness: 4

Really? Out of almost three hundred blog posts I have tagged Evil (39) ten times more often and Idolatry (9) twice as often as happiness? That can’t be right. Using another handy WordPress tool I found out that I have actually used the word “happiness” thirteen times in three years of blogging—apparently only four times did I deem my use of the word important enough to consider the post to be partially about happiness. aristotle3[1]Aristotle, my top candidate for the greatest philosopher in the Western tradition, famously wrote that every human being above all wants to be happy—they just disagree about the definition of the term. In my case, at least, Aristotle appears to be wrong.

On the whole, happiness as conceived in our present culture is a lousy goal for a human life. It’s a feeling, an emotion, a “feel good” state that certainly does feel good when one is experiencing it, but its ephemeral nature makes it more of a tease than a legitimate life project. But Aristotle’s word usually translated as “happiness” does not mean a feeling, smiling a lot, or anything of the sort. The word is eudaimonia, literally “good spiritedness,” which is best translated as “human flourishing” or “human fulfillment.” imagesCA88EEB4What people want, in other words, is not a life filled with nice feelings and lots of smiles and laughter. What they want is a life that means something. A lifelong process that over time turns one’s best potentials into actuality. A life, to borrow from Thoreau, which at the end will not leave one wishing that one had bothered to actually live rather than just mailing it in. That’s a program I can resonate with.

Of the many spiritual guides whose insights have influenced me over the past several years, none is more capable to reorienting me quickly and connecting me with what I know to be true in my deepest me than Joan Chittister. Chittister Impersonating Catholic copyShe tells the story of a Muslim elder known for his piety and virtue who, when asked how he become so holy, would always reply “I know what is in the Qur’an.” When he died, everyone raced to his hut to see what was in his copy of the holy book. The person who got there first reported to the rest that “What is in his Qur’an are notes on every page, two pressed flowers, and a letter from a friend.” Chittister comments that the sage had learned that “If the question is, what is really important in life?—the answer is only life itself, living it well, immersing it in beauty, love, and reflection.”

The three things found in the elder’s Qur’an are telling. The heavily annotated sacred text shows that he understood the importance of reflection, of hearing, reading, marking, and inwardly digesting what is read as well as what is experienced, as the Anglican Book of Common Prayer puts it. Reflection is part of a well-lived life, something that I have been happy to rediscover in the first few weeks of sabbatical after several years of feeling obligated to squeeze reflection into the momentary cracks of a manic daily schedule. Our contemporary world provides little support for such reflection; indeed, calls for such times of stepping back and considering who we are and why we are doing what we are doing are considered luxuries that only a privileged and pampered few have access to or can afford. imagesCAM825NOBut as Chittister notes, “we are meant to be about more than money and social craftiness. We are called to be more than simply passersby in life.”

The two pressed flowers in the elder’s Qur’an are reminders of beauty, beauty that calls us to remember that there is in life, deep down, an essential basic and beautiful goodness that redeems all the moments we ourselves overlay with greed or hatred or anger or self-centeredness. This morning in the midst of writing this essay on our back yard deck, I heard the distinctive call of a cardinal, my favorite bird (next to penguins). As I paused to listen, the cardinal flew in all of his scarlet glory to perch on the branch of a dead tree in our neighbor’s yard about fifteen feet from where I was sitting. I thought for a moment about quietly switching my tablet to camera mode and trying to get a picture, but chose instead to simply be with my feathered friend. “Hey, dude,” I said—“looking good!” He sang his distinctive tune for me a couple more times, then darted off on his cardinal way. Moments of beauty such as that, even if only a minute or so long, go far toward sustaining my deep belief in the goodness of things, despite what appears to be daily and overwhelming evidence to the contrary. no man is an islandSuch moments, Chittister writes, “are the heartbeat of the universe. They make us glad to be alive.”

The letter from a friend in the elder’s Qur’an is a reminder that we are all interconnected—in John Donne’s overworked phrase, none of us is an island. In my own natural solitude and introversion, this is a greater challenge to incorporate than reflection and beauty. Thank goodness for Jeanne who reminds me to stay in touch with a colleague and friend with whom I had a chance conversation, for my cousin who posted old family pictures on Facebook over the past couple of days, and even the service in Philadelphia remembering the wonderful life of a good friend—these remind me that connectedness to others, even those whom I do not know but are sharing the human journey with me, is the most important part of a well-lived life.

What does any of this have to do with happiness? Most of us are familiar with the saying that “Life is what happens while you are making other plans”—I suggest that happiness is what happens as one seeks to live a flourishing and meaningful life. Herodotus quoteHappiness is best understood not as a life’s goal, but as the by-product of defining a purpose in life and pursuing it with all of your heart and mind. The Greek historian Herodotus once wrote that no person should be considered as happy in the eudaimonia sense until that person is dead. That’s because true happiness, the life of eudaimonia, is a process, not a goal, a process that stretches from birth to death. This involves reflection, beauty, other people, and so much more.

Happiness is what outlasts all the suffering in the world. It is the by-product of learning to live well, to choose well, to become whole, and to be everything we are meant to be—for our sake and for the sake of the rest of the world, as well.

Hail Frieda, Full of Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Poorest Deserve the Best

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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