Sunday, November 30, 2008

The River of the Water of This Life

Early in our marriage, before children, Pat and I took a road trip through Maine. One of our stops was in The Forks, where the Dead River joins the Kennebec.

The idea was to raft the Kennebec, putting in north of The Forks, just below the dam near Indian Pond. It was early morning. Sun just up. The dam and the put-in were in a gorge a few hundred feet high, the rock walls intensifying the water’s roar. The water was hilly, as we stood there on the bank, the hills standing considerably above our heads, and the declivities below them a bit dark and obscure.

In other words, we were terrified. It was our first time in serious white water. We entered the raft a bit shaky in the knees and voices and sinews. We felt absolutely swallowed already by the end-of-time noise the water made. Death was here. The great huge potentiality of death. Death was everywhere in the blackness of the water. In the shaded darkness of the frothy white.

But there was also a liveliness. An intensity and immediacy and presence and energy that one associates with life itself. An elemental quickness and the possibility of comedy, of a tour de force ending, in which all things turn out well, some distance down river, where the walls diminish and the fields open up and the sun pours in.

We paddled with the rest of the people in our raft. I think there were seven of us altogether. As we began to nose over into our first major rapid—Magic Falls—I thought surely I would die, it was so deep and dark and shiny and glistening. While the rest of the people sensibly held on, both Pat and I flipped up and out at the base of the fall, suddenly swimming in a souse hole large enough to miniaturize a Greyhound bus.

After a time. What seemed like a day or two. We bobbed to the surface and floated, submerged by standing wave after standing wave, for. Oh. I don’t know. What seemed like a very long way. Thinking. Thinking what? Of course that we would surely die. Thinking all the while how difficult breathing ends up being when one is submerged. How difficult life is when lived underwater.

Isn’t that what living’s like? Normal living? Sometimes? School and work and marriage and children and family and friends type of living? Being alone type of living? Being asked to do more than one can possibly do type of living? All of it’s hard sometimes. The whole blessed trip. One feels like one cannot get one’s breath, one is so submerged in the days that come over one like so many standing waves.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Reasoning By Metaphor

“Rather than discussing and debating Trinitarian doctrine and what it means for Jesus to be both human and divine, why don’t we just all agree to call Jesus ‘The Word of God?’ And end the discussion.”

Oh, I don’t know. I maybe have a couple of the words only approximately right. But I’ve captured it about 80% accurately, I think.

This is what a new friend said the other day as we were digesting a delicious lunch that he and his bride had generously made and shared with Pat and me. And as we were chatting. Incurably chatting.

And then I said something like, “Yes. Why don’t we try reasoning by metaphor rather than by….”

“Dialectic,” my new friend said.

“Yes. Dialectic. The method by which words are turned into mathematical analogs.”

And that got me to thinking, and as I thought, I remembered something that Phyllis Tickle taught me some years ago:

God be in my head
And in my understanding.
God be in my mouth
And my speaking.
God be in my heart
And my thinking.
God be at mine end
And my departing.

This is a Celtic prayer of which I’ve found several variants and which I occasionally say in the course of saying prayers from Phyllis’s Divine Hours. And in fact, I keep it in my wallet these days and pull it out and pray it occasionally.

It seems to reinforce this idea, doesn’t it? I mean, that one does one’s thinking with one’s heart, if one is thinking properly. If one is thinking clearly and precisely and effectively.

I think philosophical method misunderstands its medium.

I remember a seminar one day many years ago in which we were discussing Gertrude Stein and her experiments with words. Her attempts to use words in such a way that she strips the words of all meaning. Experiments in which syntax is completely reinvented with respect to the words, so that the words become merely sounds, with no sense.

Someone in the seminar that day said something like, “Yes. What she seems to be doing is stripping words of an essential quality, as if a painter were working only with transparent paint. Various tubes of transparent paint.” As I recall, the comment stopped the discussion.

What I guess I’m insinuating is that dialectic and the sort of discourse that supports dialectical method may not be the best way to proceed in the field of theology. Or the best principal way. It may attempt to strip something essential out of the way words themselves are designed to be used.

Perhaps words and their meanings have more to do with our hearts than our heads. Perhaps mathematical symbols are closest to what our heads use, and words are closest to what our hearts use to understand the world. To apprehend experience. To comprehend what the senses bring to us.

And maybe that’s why poetry and story are so much what the Bible is and what Jesus said and did. Poetry and story seem. Oh, I don’t know. What words seem to be made for.

And yes. We do go to philosophy and philosophic method for help. Just as in everyday life we do go to mathematics for help. But dialectical use of language and mathematical use of arbitrary symbols are both servants to. Well. Story. The story, in the first instance, of our lives.

Our lives in which we experience God.

And the story, in the second instance, of the Bible. God’s Word.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

November Leaves

Walking away from work, workful still and grateful to have meaningful work to do in this desolate time. This time of stripped wealth and wintery expectations. I cross a parking lot to my car where the wind moves the brown, dry oak leaves back and forth. Lifts them. Turns them. Then drops them again and sends them scuttling across the concrete. This way and that. Dead and scratchy leaves animated by wind.

The tree where more than a year ago I saw a red-tailed hawk brilliantly light and perch in the rich green-and-red-and-yellow-turning color of the leaves is now bare as bones stood up in the dark. Leafless. A place for the cold wind now to make its grieving home.

Day’s end. Walking away from work, I’m thinking of money. Money. Money. Money. How it appears and disappears as if by spirit-work. As if spirits swelled it and diminished it, outside of our knowledge or control. As if it were more idea than substance, or if substance, then a spirit substance, different from all others we know of.

We work for money but if only so, it’s poor compensation for what we do. Or try to do.

Really, it’s never enough, is it? Money. We never have enough. It’s never enough to enliven this November place. This place of chill wind, bare trees, and dry leaves skittering across concrete, a walk alone across the pale concrete. The material world stripped to this staccato hissing of the leaves manipulated by wind.

It never quite gets at what we’re looking for from work, either. It never measures up to the sense we have of infinite expenditure. For what? A few dollars? Many dollars?

The expenditure of self. Of possibility. Of one’s only now. And now. And now. The infinite now that we expend in work.

For what? For money. Yes. A sufficiency. Yes. But there is more to this than that. Our hearts tell us that. Our hearts tell us that the sufficiency we work for once reached leaves us. Well. Skittering around in wind like this. Shed. Killed. In a season that maybe we choose more than we know.

Because we fail to know the other purposes well enough. The other possibilities of our work.

My view’s this. God’s given us something here that’s manifold. That’s non-finite and immaterial. Something that bears his signature and his name.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

But You Say

But you say, Bill! Bill! I thought you understood language better than that. I thought you were sensitive to the actual meanings of words, unlike so many others writing about God and man today. Writing about the nature of God and the nature of man and the nature of their relation today.

Or if it isn’t you, it’s someone.

So let’s say someone, who will remain nameless, says, Bill! Bill! I am disappointed in your careless use of language. Your sloppy slovenly slatternly slothful slinging around of ideas. Your callous disregard for our linguistic contract, one with another. Your fraudulent synonymous use of contradiction and paradox. It is immoral. It is reprehensible. It is indefensible. It breaks our linguistic contract, which is really our social contract, one with another.

But let me explain. I must admit to having a little fun. I must admit to playing a little fast and loose with the words. A little bit of a slight-of-hand with the words in my head. My head-hand. A little logical loop-de-loop. A little bit of a semantic shell game. But it’s all in a good cause. Really. Trust me. Really.

What I’m trying to get at here is that real contradictions are all around us. True contradictions. Everywhere we look. It’s not like one or the other pole of all these contradictions is true and the other false. What I’m saying is that both are often in some sense true and in some sense not true. Both are planted firmly in the ground, and both are planted merely in space—in a gas that is somewhat clouded by particulates.

And what I am saying adamantly and ambiguously is that these true contradictions merely appear to contradict one another. The poles of this truth/not truth continuum merely appear to be at odds with one another. Seem to want dominate one over the other or eradicate one another or falsify one another.

What I’m saying is that the contradiction is apparent. Merely apparent. And real.

I am bringing the logic of quantum mechanics to bear upon the logic of larger life. The logic of the quantum world to bear upon the spiritual world. The life of spiritual ideas about the world. The life of ideas about God and man and the relation between them.

I’m importing the experience of the mystic. The experience of the marvelous. The experience of the sacred. Of the holy One. The experience of the possible Impossible, the spiritual but material. Into quotidian Christian discourse.

Oh that sounds presumptuous, doesn’t it? Absurd. Ridiculous. Silly. Unlikely. Doomed.

Maybe. Likely, perhaps. But one really has no choice in the matter. One is given nothing else that seems. Oh. So possibly useful as this. To do with one’s time.

Friday, November 14, 2008


Or maybe what I’m thinking is not what I’m saying. Or maybe what I’m saying is not what I’m thinking. Or maybe what I’m thinking is not what I’m thinking. Or maybe what I’m saying is not what I’m saying.

I’m reminded of the line from the TV show, Step By Step many years ago. A character by the name of Cody is an idiot. He’s a fortunate idiot because he is irremediably jovial, good-spirited, and optimistic. Everyone likes him because of his effervescent personality. But as I say, he appears to have the IQ of a bag of rocks. This also is endearing.

However, Cody takes the SATs. He’s a high school student, and he’s thinking of going to college, and he is told that people in his circumstance need to take the SATs. So he does, along with a young woman. I forget her name. Also a high school student and also a regular on the show. A person who also wants to go to college and who also takes the SATs. But she comes across as quite bright. She makes sure that she does. She tries to be smart and tries to convince others that she’s brainy. That’s her character.

But it turns out that Cody achieves a higher score on the SATs than she does. I forget the scores. I think both of them were in the high 600s or low 700s on the math and verbal. But I don’t remember.

The young woman can’t understand this. It doesn’t make any sense at all. She gets quite upset at Cody or the universe or God or all three. And Cody tries to say something that will explain what appears to be a black hole in the logic of the universe. Tries to say something to excuse himself for appearing so bright when he also appears so lacking in intelligence. He tries to apologize to the outraged young woman. So he says, “My brain must have a mind of its own.”

Whenever I am down. Whenever I’m feeling depressed or out of sorts, I think of this line. And it cracks me up. Every time. “My brain must have a mind of its own.”

The classic dialetheia—a true contradiction—is exemplified by the following statements applied to Cody, let’s call him, who is straddling a doorway, with one foot in a room and one foot in the hallway outside the room: (1) Cody is in the room; (2) Cody is not in the room.

I think this is the situation that God is in. What I mean is that God is fundamentally contradictory. A paradox. A paradox. A most ingenious paradox.

He’s in the room, and he’s not in the room.

Hey, he’s God, remember. He can be anything and anywhere he likes.

If you hypothesize parallel universes (and we have a good deal of company here) you can have Cody fully in the room and fully outside the room, simultaneously. So using this paradigm, you have no need of the straddling business.

And of course, you have light, which behaves simultaneously like a particle and like a wave.

And so. What I’m suggesting is that maybe God and maybe elements or aspects of his creation. Are dialetheias. Maybe true contradictions are all around. Maybe there is something fundamental here that is paradoxical and that is recalcitrantly and irremediably so.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Paradoxically Speaking

So what am I saying, you are wondering? How can God be both-and rather than either-or. Or why would he, is maybe the better question, since God can be anything he likes. He’s God, after all.

Why would God be this way, though? Why would he choose to be a tiger-lamb? Why would he be the God of the parable of the talents and the God of the prodigal son? Why would he be heaving a person into outer darkness for burying God’s money to protect it, on the one hand, and welcoming home and forgiving a person who had squandered half of God’s wealth, on the other?

Does this make sense to you? Doesn’t it sound more like standup comedy than theological truth? Doesn’t it sound like the joke about the eggs? The one in the movie Annie Hall: “This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, ‘Doc, uh, my brother's crazy; he thinks he's a chicken.’ And, uh, the doctor says, ‘Well, why don't you turn him in?’ The guy says, ‘I would, but I need the eggs.’”

Or doesn’t it sound more like Zen Buddhism than your father’s Christianity? For example, here’s a koan: “Chokan had a very beautiful daughter named Seijo. He also had a handsome young cousin named Ochu. Joking, he would often comment that they would make a fine married couple. Actually, he planned to give his daughter in marriage to another man. But young Seijo and Ochu took him seriously; they fell in love and thought themselves engaged. One day Chokan announced Seijo's betrothal to the other man. In rage and despair, Ochu left by boat. After several days journey, much to his astonishment and joy he discovered that Seijo was on the boat with him!

“They went to a nearby city where they lived for several years and had two children. But Seijo could not forget her father; so Ochu decided to go back with her and ask the father's forgiveness and blessing. When they arrived, he left Seijo on the boat and went to the father's house. He humbly apologized to the father for taking his daughter away and asked forgiveness for them both.

"’What is the meaning of all this madness?’ the father exclaimed. Then he related that after Ochu had left, many years ago, his daughter Seijo had fallen ill and had lain comatose in bed since. Ochu assured him that he was mistaken, and, in proof, he brought Seijo from the boat. When she entered, the Seijo lying ill in bed rose to meet her, and the two became one.

“Zen Master Goso, referrring to the legend, observed, ‘Seijo had two souls, one always sick at home and the other in the city, a married woman with two children. Which was the true soul?’"

Why, for example, does Jesus tell his disciples that God withholds himself from some people and reveals himself to others? Isn’t God just? Isn’t he supposed to be just? Isn’t he supposed to be available to everybody, no matter his race, color, creed, national origin, or eye color? Isn’t God an equal opportunity God?

Why does God have particular affection for King David, a man who commits adultery and commits murder and has a houseful of sex slaves, or more euphemistically, concubines?

Why does God say to Adam that he will surely die if he eats the apple, and when Adam eats the apple, he doesn’t die?

How is it possible for a good God to send an evil spirit into Saul? Isn’t God good? Isn’t the spirit he sends the Holy Spirit? Versus the spirit that the devil sends, which is an evil spirit? Are God and the devil two faces of the same being?

What kind of God do we have here, after all? Is he a fair God or an unfair God? Is he a judgmental God or a forgiving God? Is he a kind-hearted God or a hard-hearted God? Is he here to support and encourage us, or is he here to pull our feet out from under us? Is he capricious, or is he steady and dependable? Is he destructive or creative?

Will the true God please stand up? Will the real God please raise his hand?

But I think he has, don’t you? I think he has raised his hand. I think he has stood up. And he is Jesus. And Jesus has sacrificed himself rather than harm anyone. He has raised the dead and healed the sick and spoken encouragement to the oppressed, spoken good news to the oppressed.

But still there is paradox, right? Still there is the parable of the talents. Still there is the threat or promise of judgment. Still Jesus hid himself from the priestly class and God the Father and God the Holy Spirit helped to hide him from the priestly class. To them and to the privileged, he was blasphemous, while to the people, he was holy. He was God.

Why was he not God to everyone? Why didn’t he want to allow everyone to experience him as God? Why didn’t he want to bring hope and love and forgiveness to everyone? Maybe the oppressors don’t deserve it. Maybe their souls are so foul that Jesus will have nothing to do with them.

Then there is the camel and the needle’s eye. And so for even the privileged there may be possibility. But one guesses they would need to change to get access to that possibility. They would need to actually accept the invitation to the wedding feast.

They’d actually have to give up their independence. Their stand-offishness. Their haughtiness. Their self-sufficiency. Their self-righteousness. Their privacy. Their solitude. Their hard-heartedness. They’d actually have to want to see Jesus. To experience him. As God. As present. They’d actually have to want to depend upon him somehow. To sit at his feet like Mary. To run to find themselves a place in a tree along his path so that they might see him over the heads of the crowd.

I say they. I mean they. But I also mean we.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Cat is Back

I’ve written elsewhere and a pastor friend has also written elsewhere about my experience. Oh. Since the age of 15 maybe. Something like that. Through periods of atheism and agnosticism and belief. Of God during worship. God wandering the sanctuary, as the congregation sings, growling around, rubbing up against my person, like a great jungle cat. Tall as my sternum. Making me tingly. Making me feel.

How should I say this. Frightened and hopeful and a little bit leaky around the window-shades and excited and loved and loving and naked and. Well. Like I could just as easily be God’s lunch as his pet.

It is literally a hair-raising experience. And when I have this experience, I feel also. Of all things. Reassured.

What? You are thinking. Reassured? By a God that is so fundamentally other. So dangerous. So clearly capable of rending one limb from limb. So ready and willing to rend one limb from limb.

And I know. I’m thinking the same thing. Open-mouthed. Gawking at my own paradoxical reaction. My own odd feelings.

I don’t know. This is what love is, is what I’m feeling. This is what at heart I long for. I ache for this. I look forward to this. To the terrible jungle cat showing up and rubbing up against me.

It happened today during worship. Today, he showed up again during worship. And it’s. Oh. I want to weep with happiness that he has chosen to come back.

Maybe this is what I mean. Maybe this suggests something of what I mean. When I talk about mystic believer priests. About the priesthood of mystic believers.

Maybe what I mean is that for us, being the slaves of Christ is not about us. It is not about us at all. We are just his slaves, after all. Our ontological status is just above the pigs and not far from the dirt clods. And being made of the dirt, this seems fitting.

In other words, our being is not about us. Our being is about him and looking for him and finding him and doing what he asks. It’s about loving him. It’s about trembling with love for him. It is about trembling to do what he asks because he is our beloved.

It’s about wanting to live in his presence always. No matter how frightening. And it is frightening. Don’t let anybody fool you with talk of how God is a lamb. Of how God is a lamb only.

God is a tiger in a lambs’ body. A lamb in a tiger’s body. Both. God will tear your insides out as soon as look at you. And he does. He demands the most difficult things. And when one is shy. When one hesitates. He tears out one’s insides. Strews them all about the place.

God is love. But he is tiger love and lamb love both, at once. He is pussy cat love and jungle cat love at once. With God, anything may happen.

After he eviscerates you, for example, you find yourself whole again. Mended. Healed. That does happen. It happens all the time. The eviscerating and the healing, both. Sometimes both at once.

You find him showing up at worship again, for example. Rubbing up against you. Growling. Purring. Inviting you again into something that you think, maybe, he actually means. Means for you. Something that is certainly improbable but may be. If looked at in the right light. Possible.

But you don’t know. You are a mystic believer priest. And you don’t know. All you do know is who you love. And you do that fiercely. Frighteningly. Out of all proportion. Completely. And with abandon.

You look for him until you find him. Then you stay there and do what he says. Or go, if he says so. Stay or go, as he wishes. Doing whatever asked. No matter what that is.

Why? Why? you ask. For the pleasure of his company. For the infinite delight one finds near him. And nowhere else.

Sunday, November 2, 2008


Odd how oppression may not feel like oppression to oppressors. I’m thinking of a homily a week ago. The person speaking brought up the AIDs epidemic in Africa and our response to it. The response of the drug companies, the way they price their drugs, and America’s response. Our financial response. Our humanitarian response. Our Christian response.

He wondered if that wouldn’t look like oppression to us if we were poor people in Africa rather than relatively well-off people in the U.S.

That got me thinking about the priestly class in first century Israel. About Jesus getting in the faces of the priests. Getting in the faces of the priestly class of Israel in the first century. Accusing them of oppression. Of oppressing the people. With their many rules, laws really. Their standard of perfection.

I’m wondering about our current priestly class and about whether they are also oppressive. I don’t know. I know some pretty gentle and gracious and smart and kindly pastors and ministers and priests. So it’s hard to think of them as oppressive, really. They don’t exhibit the style of the first century Israel priests.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I’ve run across a number who do quite obviously resemble the first century Israel priests, but I don’t associate with that group very much. I hang around people who are more generous, more encouraging, more affirming, and more loving than I perceive their first century counterparts to have been. By about a mile. Maybe a million miles.

But just as oppression may not be obvious for oppressor nations, one over the other, or oppressor continents, one over the other, maybe it makes sense to ask the question as to whether our priestly class today uses their privilege oppressively. I bring up the question. I don’t have the answer.

Well I do have an attempt at an answer, but I don’t feel confident in it. I think there are ideas that get hold of all of us, ideas that have something apparently right in them but that are wrong. Ideas about God and our relation to him.

I have written extensively in this blog about the idea of Christlikeness—the idea that we should all be like Christ. I find this idea and this task oppressive. I don’t know about you, but I don’t measure up very well. I stand Christ up so that I can see him, and then I look in the mirror.

And what I find there is a great disparity. A great contrast. A contrast that is so great that it is depressing. Because it is impossible. There is no way to come out of that experience—for me—without feeling like I should just walk away.

Like I should give up. Go do something else. Because this task is something I cannot do.