Tuesday, December 1, 2009

New Blog Site

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Monday, November 23, 2009


Sometimes I get worn away. Do you know the feeling? Every once in awhile I think, Oh please. Please. Oh no! Not again. Not that idea again.

I feel like dirt. Like a clod of dirt in the monsoon. Here comes the rain, all glad and everything. Happy to be bringing the possibility of life to the dry ground. To the dirt in this particular part of the world. And here I am, melting. Disintegrating. In the sudden torrent.

Have you ever felt like, Oh no. Not that funky idea again? Not my friends. No. They don’t give that funky idea the time of day, do they? Do they really? Have they really invited it into their homes and actually made it comfortable there? Allowed it to play with their children? Their defenseless children? Have they really given it a place in the family circle, where it sits like a toad, smiling like an idiot, belching, self-satisfied, wet-land smelling, balding, and rotund in the deep and brightly-upholstered chair by the fire, with a footstool and a warm glass of milk! And a platter of homemade chocolate chip cookies by its side! With a look on its face like, Ah! This is the life! This is more like it!

And it turns out they have. They do. They do think the idea that you think is funky is actually quite illuminating. Quite eye-opening. Quite insightful. Quite unfunky. And if it isn’t brilliant, at least it’s interesting.

And all you want to do is to run. All you want to do is to cover your head and find a place of shelter out of this rain that comes down hard as bits of metal from as far up as the moon.

I find all of us Christians have funky ideas.

Well, no. That isn’t exactly correct.

What I find is that all Christians outside the Bible except for me have funky ideas. I only have excellent and well-founded and well-thought-out and God-breathed ideas. Ideas that Jesus and the Apostle Paul and the Apostle Peter and the Apostle John and Moses and Elijah and Abraham would certainly agree with.

Because of course I consult with these seven on a routine basis and receive all of my ideas and inspirations from them. We have our own mountain hut, with a fire of our own. It’s really more of a lodge than a hut. Comfortable. Well stocked. Roomy. Arts & Crafts décor. Arts & Crafts style furniture, upholstered with leather. Wool throws everywhere with Native American designs. Plank floors. Tall ceilings. Monumental log walls. Wrought iron chandeliers. A boulder-fashioned fireplace you could drive a Ford F-150 pickup truck into, and the truck would seem small. Kind of like a toy.

Our lodge is somewhere between here and heaven. Up on a mountain side, at about seven thousand feet. Giant Sequoias tower over us. As the sun begins to set, we frequently gather here from our solitary walks among the huge, sweet-smelling, winter trees. As the cabin-size logs in the fireplace turn from red to lavender, and our faces brighten with the heat of the fire and the warmth of the conversation, they share their ideas. We discuss them back and forth. I play Socrates. I ask my questions. We discourse about their ideas like so many famous holy people enjoying one another’s company.

Finally, when they have proved the worth of any particular idea to my satisfaction, they then mystically transport me back to the actual world, and I convey the idea to you. My reader and my friend. That way you will get only the real gems. The real potentially sparkly items. Even though sometimes they’ll appear a little dull and dirty with what looks maybe like. Well, I don’t know what. Wet. Warty. Deceptively like a clod. That kind of thing.

Monday, November 2, 2009


Every once in a while one hears something. One reads something. Or one finds oneself saying something that strikes one. Well. Like a ninety-mile-per-hour baseball. Smack dab into the forehead. Wow, that hurts.

This happened the other day. It echoed others. It may have been original once but was no longer original. It has become in certain circles a commonplace. And so I heard it reverberate in the hollow place between my ears. I heard it join with other similar statements I have heard from others and read in books. I heard it resonate and magnify.

And it was said by someone who does not normally indulge in commonplaces. So it was odd.

It went something like this, or I thought it did: We are practicing for heaven. Practicing for what we will be doing perfectly in heaven. We Christians. In expecting the Holy Spirit. In concert with the Holy Spirit. In doing what we think the Holy Spirit wants us to do. In trying to do this, even though we know that sometimes we’ll look a little foolish. A little silly. The important thing here is to be faithful. To do our best to respond faithfully to the leading of the Holy Spirit.

And so. Well. This idea of practicing. Oh. I guess I’m not. Maybe others are, but I am not. No. I’m not practicing for anything. Maybe I should be, but I’m not. Maybe I’d get better if I practiced, but I’m not.

Maybe, you’re thinking. Maybe this person meant practicing as a doctor practices medicine. Maybe practicing Christianity is like practicing medicine. One isn’t rehearsing. One is doing what one is asked to do. Taught to do. Employed to do. One isn’t looking forward to the day when one will do the thing. Perform the thing. One is doing this now. Just a different meaning of the word, and I misunderstood.

Maybe. Maybe I did misunderstand. Maybe what I heard was what I’d heard before several times and read several times because that is what was said before. Written before. But this time the person in question might have said something different. Something very different.

Ah, well. Could be. I make mistakes. And so I could have heard it wrong.

Maybe I did not hear what the person really said. Maybe what the person really said is that we are practitioners of our belief. We are practitioners of our Christian art, our Christian learning, our Christian discernment. We are healers, really. Or we bring the Holy Spirit’s own healing to a mistaken world. To an ailing world. To a diseased world.

I like that hearing better. The Kingdom is a place where we are all healers. Where we can all hope to be healers as John Woolman was a healer. Bringing the Holy Spirit forward to mend all that is broken here and now. Coming forward in the Spirit to create the Kingdom. Not later. No. Something that we can get fairly good at now. Not something that we are rehearsing. No. Something that we are doing for real. For keeps. Both seeking God and doing what he asks. Now. And now. And now, again.

Something like that. Maybe that is what I could have heard. Or might have heard. Or should have heard. But I don’t know.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Pure Opening

One reads. One lives. One writes one’s life as well as one may. And periodically something happens. One is transported. Lifted. Transformed. Translated. Inspired. And one is no longer oneself. One feels. Oh. Infused, maybe. One senses that one’s quotidian self has been set aside. Has been left behind. As a chrysalis is left behind. As the chaff is left behind by the germinating wheat. As the egg-shell is discarded by the new hatched Great Northern Loon.

But no. These are misleading. More like the wind. It rises. It falls. There is periodic stillness. Periodic storm. Not so much like the spring, but something like the spring. Not regular, so much. Not predictable so much. Not time sensitive so much. Sometimes, The Pure Opening comes when one asks. Sometimes not. Sometimes when one is looking, looking. And the leaves do stir. The new-made leaves do dance. Sometimes not.

John Woolman writes about being purified. About purification. About the Holy Spirit changing him. Changing us. In some fundamental way. Oh, there is something both true and not true in this, don’t you think? To the extent he means a permanence, he seems less accurate. To the extent he means a momentary change that one remembers and builds one’s life on, he seems more accurate.

The Holy Spirit comes and goes. As difficult to predict as the wind. As impermanent out here on the prairie as the wind. Oh, in places here, wind may be found that is dependable enough to plant a wind farm in, many millions of dollars worth of windmills. But we are dealing with probabilities, aren’t we. And probabilities have a habit of shifting around. Chaotic processes have a habit of surprising people, even those with advanced degrees in probability theory.

You find a person comes along every once in a while like John Woolman. A lovely man, from all accounts. A Holy Spirit inspired man, if ever there was one. But he is, after all, still a man. Still only a man. And he must work at it, mustn’t he? At opening himself to the work of the Holy Spirit. Opening himself purely. Momently. Every moment a new opening. To its work.

And he must allow it to work its will. Otherwise, what’s the point? A momentary thrill. A momentary rush of joy and gratitude and humility and vitality. And then what? And then where does one set oneself down? In what geography? What topography? What spiritual place? Will it be the Beautiful Land? Will it be the City of God? Or will it be Cleveland? Detroit?

One seeks Heaven, does one not? One seeks a Heaven here and now. One meekly tries to do one’s part in the Making. In God’s Making. But so much intrudes. So much distracts. And there is so much dirt and banality and sorrow and betrayal and death and cruelty and despair and anger and spitefulness and pride and arrogance and rottenness. There is so much that is at odds with one’s model. One’s desire. One’s God.

So much in one’s actual life.

And so. The Pure Opening is periodic. It is like so many words that come streaming from beneath God’s throne—crystalline, refractory, pellucid, sun-lit, moon-lit, lovely words. Words that are like Living Water. Ephemeral water. Water that when it comes refreshes, buoying us up, quenching our thirst, but then it also goes. Disappears from one’s own particular plot in the topography.

Our great blessing, however, is Scripture. This is indeed the Beautiful Land. Here the Living Water is created in abundance. When one is thirsty. When one’s life has slowed to a trickle of words. Has become a dry sandy place where the Living Water once ran strongly. One may travel to this first and last resort for the poor in spirit. This vast watershed where at the center is an inland sea. A sweet-water sea. And around the periphery are enormous rivers dropping in from high places and sun-dazzle down. And one may douse one’s head again. One may dive and submerge one’s entire being again. One may cannon-ball into God again and float as long as one likes, drink one’s fill of this Living Water as one bathes. As one washes oneself clean. Inside and out. Once again.

Monday, October 26, 2009

So for Example, Take John Woolman

So for example, take John Woolman. Born 1720. Died 1772. His Journal of John Woolman included in the Harvard Classics. Longest-published book in the history of North America, except for the Bible.

So who is this guy, you may ask. So who is this narcissist who writes about himself. Who makes so much of his own life that he thinks others must read about him. Makes so much of the importance of a single pseudo-random human life that others must need read of it to satisfy themselves. To vicariously partake of it. Make sense of it. Make it sensible to themselves. And perhaps draw themselves through Brother John closer to God.

And so it begins, thus: “I have often felt a motion of love to leave some hints in writing of my experience of the goodness of God, and now, in the thirty-sixth of my age, I begin this work.”

And it continues, thus: “From an inward purifying, and steadfast abiding under it springs a lively operative desire for the good of others. All the faithful are not called to the public ministry; but whoever are, are called to minister of that which they have tasted and handled spiritually. The outward modes of worship are various; but whenever any are true ministers of Jesus Christ, it is from the operation of his Spirit upon their hearts, first purifying them, and thus giving them a just sense of the conditions of others. This truth was early fixed in my mind, and I was taught to watch the pure opening, and to take heed lest, while I was standing to speak, my own will should get uppermost, and cause me to utter words from worldly wisdom, and depart from the channel of the true gospel ministry.”

And thus: “My mind, through the power of truth, was in a good degree weaned from the desire of outward greatness, and I was learning to be content with real conveniences, that were not costly, so that a way of life free from much entanglement appeared best for me, though the income might be small. I had several offers of business that appeared profitable, but I did not see my way clear to accept of them, believing they would be attended with more outward care and cumber than was required of me to engage in. I saw that an humble man, with the blessing of the Lord, might live on a little, and that where the heart was set on greatness, success in business did not satisfy the craving; but that commonly with an increase of wealth the desire of wealth increased. There was a care on my mind so to pass my time that nothing might hinder me from the most steady attention to the voice of the true Shepherd.”

And thus: “The prospect of a way being open to the same degeneracy, in some parts of this newly settled land of America, in respect to our conduct towards the negroes, hath deeply bowed my mind in this journey, and though briefly to relate how these people are treated is no agreeable work yet, after often reading over the notes I made as I travelled, I find my mind engaged to preserve them. Many of the white people in those provinces take little or no care of negro marriages; and when negroes marry after their own way, some make so little account of those marriages that with views of outward interest they often part men from their wives by selling them, far asunder, which is common when estates are sold by executors at vendue. Many whose labor is heavy being followed at their business in the field by a man with a whip, hired for that purpose, have in common little else allowed but one peck of Indian corn and some salt, for one week, with a few potatoes; the potatoes they commonly raise by their labor on the first day of the week. The correction ensuing on their disobedience to overseers, or slothfulness in business, is often very severe, and sometimes desperate.”

And thus: “Men and women have many times scarcely clothes sufficient to hide their nakedness, and boys and girls ten and twelve years old are often quite naked amongst their master's children. Some of our Society, and some of the society called Newlights, use some endeavors to instruct those they have in reading; but in common this is not only neglected, but disapproved. These are the people by whose labor the other inhabitants are in a great measure supported, and many of them in the luxuries of life. These are the people who have made no agreement to serve us, and who have not forfeited their liberty that we know of. These are the souls for whom Christ died, and for our conduct towards them we must answer before Him who is no respecter of persons. They who know the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom he hath sent, and are thus acquainted with the merciful, benevolent, gospel spirit, will therein perceive that the indignation of God is kindled against oppression and cruelty, and in beholding the great distress of so numerous a people will find cause for mourning.”

And thus: “Many Friends appeared to be deeply bowed under the weight of the work, and manifested much firmness in their love to the cause of truth and universal righteousness on the earth. And though none did openly justify the practice of slave-keeping in general, yet some appeared concerned lest the meeting should go into such measures as might give uneasiness to many brethren, alleging that if Friends patiently continued under the exercise the Lord in his time might open a way for the deliverance of these people. Finding an engagement to speak, I said, ‘My mind is often led to consider the purity of the Divine Being, and the justice of his judgments; and herein my soul is covered with awfulness. I cannot omit to hint of some cases where people have not been treated with the purity of justice, and the event hath been lamentable. Many slaves on this continent are oppressed, and their cries have reached the ears of the Most High. Such are the purity and certainty of his judgments, that he cannot be partial in our favor. In infinite love and goodness he hath opened our understanding from one time to another concerning our duty towards this people, and it is not a time for delay. Should we now be sensible of what he requires of us, and through a respect to the private interest of some persons, or through a regard to some friendships which do not stand on an immutable foundation, neglect to do our duty in firmness and constancy, still waiting for some extraordinary means to bring about their deliverance, God may by terrible things in righteousness answer us in this matter.’”

And thus: “Many faithful brethren labored with great firmness, and the love of truth in a good degree prevailed. Several who had negroes expressed their desire that a rule might be made to deal with such Friends as offenders who bought slaves in future. To this it was answered that the root of this evil would never be effectually struck at until a thorough search was made in the circumstances of such Friends as kept negroes, with respect to the righteousness of their motives in keeping them, that impartial justice might be administered throughout. Several Friends expressed their desire that a visit might be made to such Friends as kept slaves, and many others said that they believed liberty was the negro's right; to which, at length, no opposition was publicly made. A minute was made more full on that subject than any heretofore; and the names of several Friends entered who were free to join in a visit to such as kept slaves.”

And thus: “The natural man loveth eloquence, and many love to hear eloquent orations, and if there be not a careful attention to the gift, men who have once labored in the pure gospel ministry, growing weary of suffering, and ashamed of appearing weak, may kindle a fire, compass themselves about with sparks, and walk in the light, not of Christ, who is under suffering, but of that fire which they in departing from the gift have kindled, in order that those hearers who have left the meek, suffering state for worldly wisdom may be warmed with this fire and speak highly of their labors. That which is of God gathers to God, and that which is of the world is owned by the world.”

And it finally ends, thus: “In this journey a labor hath attended my mind, that the ministers among us may be preserved in the meek, feeling life of truth, where we may have no desire but to follow Christ and to be with him, that when he is under suffering, we may suffer with him, and never desire to rise up in dominion, but as he, by the virtue of his own spirit, may raise us.”

Friday, October 16, 2009

I Boast of My Immaturity

So now I boast of my immaturity. I boast of how young I am in this. I boast of my lack of probity. My lack of deliberateness. My ineptitude in judging. My complete astonishment and bewilderment in the courthouse. In the courtroom. In the jury room. In the judge’s chambers. In the prosecuting attorney’s office. On the judge’s bench. In the judge’s skin.

Now I congratulate myself on my bewilderment. On my confusion. On my stupidity before the question of who is in and who is out. Who is culpable and who is not. Who is evil and who is good. Who is suspect and who is blameless. Who is guilty and who is innocent. Who belongs and who does not. Who has been called and who has not. Who will go to heaven and who will go to hell. Whom God loves and whom God hates. Who is the greater sinner and who is the lesser sinner.

I boast that I do not know how God will judge when he chooses to put on his robe. I boast that I do not know what God’s own justice will be. Or is. Or has been. I boast that I am weak in mind and moral judgment. I boast that I have no convictions in these matters. That I convict no one in these matters. I boast that I have no zeal in the application of the law. That I have no facility with courtroom procedures.

I boast that I am a fumbler. A bumbler. That I have no particular insight. That I cannot be relied upon. That I am no leader of men and women. I boast that my moral sense is underdeveloped. I boast that I am a sinner through and through. I boast that I am a sheep, baaaing bathetically in the wilderland. I boast that I do not know my way. I boast that I do not have a plan. I boast that I am in control of nothing. I boast that I am dust, a bit of nothing with no consequence.

I boast that I am young in my faith. That I have no idea what it means. I boast that my moral sense is flawed. That my moral sense is deceptive. I boast that my moral compass spins and spins. I boast that I am lost and without direction. I boast that I whine and moan. I boast that I am a sniveling child in everything. I boast that I am an abject incompetent. An abject loser. An abject dependent. Infantile, really. A toddler who has no idea which end is up and which end is down. Who must be instructed. Who must be comforted and led. Whose nose must be wiped. Whose drool must be wiped.

Who thinks of nothing but play, really. Nothing but gamboling about. Under the great, wide universe of light. And dark. Under the great wide sky.

Monday, October 12, 2009


And so I think that immaturity is a blessing. A kind of blessing. Emotional immaturity. Intellectual immaturity. Moral immaturity. Because. Well. What does maturity mean, exactly? Doesn’t it mean probity? Doesn’t it mean deliberateness? Doesn’t it mean a measured approach to things? An unemotional, plodding, precise approach to questions of various kinds? Doesn’t it mean old men sitting around in leather chairs drinking brandy and smoking cigars? Doesn’t it mean old women sitting around in quiet rooms drinking tea, for example, and maybe doing embroidery or needlepoint? Maybe munching on some cookies?

And isn’t this sitting around business…. Isn’t this listening to some ponderous windup clock somewhere down the hall tick off the seconds, minutes, and hours. Isn’t this careful consideration of all things…. The floor creaking occasionally. Well. Isn’t this a moral dead-end? Isn’t this an emotional dead-end? Isn’t this an intellectual dead-end?

Don’t we mean judgment when we talk about mature Christians, for example? Don’t we mean that they make good judgments of people’s moral character? Don’t we mean that mature Christians are in the habit of judging others? Are in the habit of grinding forward like so many huge earth-moving machines that demolish mountains one scoop at a time? That demolish someone’s goodness one judgment at a time? Someone’s possibly good name one word at a time?

Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I’m over-reacting. Maybe I’m hyperbolic. Maybe I have a hyperbolic personality disorder. But sometimes I think I’d rather be immature than mature. Sometimes I think I’d rather have no idea what is going on. Whether what someone is doing is good or evil. Whether what someone is thinking is good or evil. Whether what someone is feeling is for good or evil. Whether what someone is saying or writing will tilt the world in one direction or another.

Because in the white light of eternity, I have no idea. I don’t live there. In the white light of eternity. No. I live here. On this particular planet in a particular galaxy. In this particular corner of the universe. So I don’t know. I don’t have the mind of God. I barely have my own mind, and I must say, this particular mind is not much to write home about. No sir. No way. No m’am. Very limited, you see. Very odd. For example, my wife calls me a moron. A lunatic. An idiot. And she knows my mind much better than I do, because she stands outside it. She has a better. A more comprehensive. A less involved. A less parochial. View of it. Than I do.

No. If maturity means judgment. If maturity means you sit around all day in some creaky place weighing the goodness or meanness of others. If maturity means becoming better and better at weighing very small things on very sensitive scales. Measuring grains of sand differences. And deciding who’s in and who’s out. What’s up and what’s not. Who wins and who doesn’t.

When I was still a teenager, still in boarding school, I remember thinking, “We all judge. Every single one of us. Old or young, rich or poor, smart or dumb, well read or illiterate, admitted to the club or excluded from the club. We all judge. The trick is to judge well. The trick is to judge correctly. I’ll be putting all my effort into doing that from now on.”

Ah but I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Conundrum of the Coconuts

I think coconuts are very interesting. I like coconuts especially when they are immature. I once visited the island of Dominica and was fed a fresh, immature coconut off the back of a poor truck. Well, the truck wasn’t poor. The man who drove the truck was poor. At least, he appeared poor. The truck was ramshackle. Hurdy gurdy. Reminded me of a hurdy gurdy. Neither this nor that, altogether. Neither here nor there. Ontologically tenuous but carrying a goodly Godly freight. A whole large load of immature coconuts that the man had taken off their trees and driven down from the mountains early that morning, when it was still mostly dark.

The man hacked off the husk of the coconut and cracked the thing open. He spooned out the white and translucent jelly-like substance, and oh. Oh my. This was a revelation. This was an experience. It was, I believe now, an example of what people call general revelation. What philosophical theologians or theological philosophers or apologists call general revelation. Maybe it should be capitalized. I don’t know. To contain the presence of God. Or point to the presence of God. To mean God’s presence.

Because that was what happened when I tasted that coconut jelly. I experienced such a rushing beauty. Such an improbable impossible altogether immense sweetness and richness and depth and height and breadth of sensation that I didn’t know where I was. I didn’t know if the world hadn’t fundamentally changed. Didn’t know if the kingdom of heaven hadn’t suddenly supplanted the quotidian world. The world of improbably poor trucks and men. I didn’t know for a moment whether I hadn’t been swept up in the hands of God and blessed by him directly.

And these coconuts, see. They’re huge things. Even the immature ones. I mean the husk and then the shell on them is big. Really big. The husk is oh. I don’t know. Like maybe the size of a galaxy compared to the black hole at its center. Like maybe the size of the human body compared to the size of its soul.

In any event, that one experience is what I think about when I think about God and coconuts. I think about the coconut having the exquisite part. The general revelation part. The God infused or God inspired or God informed or God associated part. And then I think of the waste part. The part that will go into the coconut husk heap. The Dominican Ghenna, if you will.

And sometimes I think that we are like coconuts. Sometimes I think there is the huge not-so-pretty part that will get thrown away. The part in which sin and anger and the need for justice and hate and selfishness and cruelty reside. And then I think there is the sweet part. The immature part. The part that God is in. The part that will last forever.

God's Own Justice

I think we mistake God. I think we take our own ideas of justice for God’s. This is the way we think about justice, we think. Therefore this is the way God thinks about justice. We think the concept of justice is fixed for all of us, God included. So our concept of justice is the concept of justice. God can’t have another concept of justice because there is only the one, the one we work with.

For us, justice is punishment. Justice is what happens to criminals who are convicted. Justice is what happens to terrible people or to middle of the road people who have done something wrong and need to be taught a lesson. Need to experience a dollop of pain and suffering for what they did. After all, we think. The transgressor has caused someone else pain or humiliation or suffering; so the transgressor deserves pain or humiliation or suffering or all three in return.

This is David’s idea when he hears Nathan’s story about the rich man with all the sheep and the cattle and the poor man with the one ewe who he raises like a daughter. Who he treats like a member of the family. And then of course the man takes the ewe from the poor man, slaughters it, and feeds it to the traveler.

David says the rich man deserves to die. But he doesn’t see the parallel. It is easy for David and for most of the rest of us, I think, to see the error in someone else but not so easy to see it in oneself.

In any event, David’s idea of justice is that the rich man should die. Why? Oh because he is unfair, is greedy, is cruel, because he has no pity. Because he kills something precious to someone else. Because he inflicts suffering on a man who is already suffering enough because of his poverty.

So David’s idea of justice is that the rich man should die.

But now let us turn to Jesus. The story of Jesus. The Gospels. For our sins, what is our justice? What punishment does God inflict upon us for our sins? He inflicts suffering and death upon his son. Upon himself. Or he allows others, who have a retributive and punitive and torment-oriented sense of justice, to inflict suffering and death upon his son. A man who has not sinned. This is God’s justice. Allowing the Sanhedrin and the crowd to kill Jesus. Giving them freedom. The freedom to become angry and to kill.

Odd. His idea of justice is to take away the reason for justice. His idea of justice is freedom and forgiveness. His idea of justice is to love us in the face of our sin. His idea of justice is to suspend punishment. Withhold punishment. Eliminate the possibility of punishment. And to substitute love.

What about those who will as Jesus says be burnt up in the fire. Be thrown onto Ghenna. Or into Ghenna. What about them?

What is God’s attitude toward these people, who he will throw into the fire. Who will be burned up and disappear? Does he love them or hate them? Is God really capable of hate? Which of us will end up in the fire and for what offenses? We don’t know. This is a mystery.

How can God love us? All of us. And throw some of us into the fire. We don’t know. This is a mystery.

When God throws—or more accurately, if God were throw (subjunctive)—some of us into the fire, is this just? (And I point out the use of the subjunctive here because it is not at all a sure thing that God will do this.) Is this God’s justice? I don’t think this is God’s justice. The Gospels suggest otherwise. Jesus suggests otherwise. God’s justice is forgiveness. Is love. Is freedom. This looks like something else.

Maybe its like coconuts. You get a coconut. You crack it open. You enjoy the inside. Maybe you share it with your friends. You put the shell in the garbage. This isn’t punishment. This isn’t revenge. This doesn’t teach the shell a lesson. You put the shell in the garbage to get rid of it, since it isn’t what you are after. It has served its purpose and now its purpose has been fulfilled. It has carried the coconut meat into our home, and it now needs to be disposed of. Is incinerated, maybe. And its ash and gases rise into the heavens.

Or maybe it’s like carbon dioxide. Maybe those who might be thrown into the fire are like carbon dioxide. Maybe they are a by-product of something else. Maybe when God breathes, he breathes in oxygen and breathes out carbon dioxide, metaphorically speaking. Maybe he breathes some of us in—allowing us to enter his kingdom—and expels those of us who end up. Well. Being recycled in some sense. As carbon dioxide is recycled, say, by plants. As carbon dioxide is transformed into oxygen again. Let’s say. Through the mystical process of photosynthesis.

But let’s face it. This is a mystery. A conundrum. Only God knows.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

This Desire for Blood

Where does this desire for blood and death come from, I wonder. This rage for slaughter. Is it merely us? Merely who we are? Merely how we were designed and made?

This idea that when we kill. When we offer our violence up to God. In war, for example. That we are doing something right. That we are righteous when we do this. Where does this idea come from?

And when we harm someone. When we do an evil to someone else. And we say to ourselves that the person deserves it. Had it coming. Is better off for it. Where do we get this odd idea?

Had it coming? The person, we think, had it coming, as though, what? As though we were God? As though we were the very instrument of God’s justice? As though we were God’s own intimates on the ways of his justice?

I was reading Psalm 51 the other day. A Psalm that has fascinated me for years. The Miserere or the Miserere Mei. The Psalm in which David asks God for mercy for what he has done—committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband, Uriah the Hittite, killed in battle.

Nathan, the prophet, has come to David and told him a story about a rich man with many sheep and a poor man, who only has one little lamb. A traveler visits the rich man. The rich man entertains the man and takes the lamb from the poor man for the traveler’s dinner. In response, David says, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this deserves to die. He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”

Nathan is of course teaching David something about how to live by telling him a little story. At first, David doesn’t recognize the parallels between his own life and the story, but Nathan helps him to understand. David is the rich man. The rich man who in David’s own words “deserves to die.” But of course God does not kill David. God does not insist upon a justice that David would have insisted on.

And so, recognizing his guilt and the horror of what he has done, David asks God for mercy. He asks him to wash away his sin. But of course the source of his sin cannot be washed away. It remains with him. In him. It can only be forgiven.

David asks God to create a pure heart in him. Which is of course impossible. But he also asks God to not cast him from God’s presence and not to take his Holy Spirit from him. He asks for the joy of his salvation to be restored and a willing spirit.

He asks to be saved from his bloodguilt. From the evil that is in him and has been from birth.

And then comes the really interesting part. As if momentarily touched by divine inspiration, David says, “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;/you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.”

And then David says, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;/a broken and contrite heart,/O God, you will not despise.”

As if blood sacrifices of all kinds are not what God is after. As if human justice that involves killing is not what God is after at all. As if what God is after—and he is willing to suspend his own judgment and punishment and justice to get it—is humility and recognition of one’s own sinfulness and contrition and grief over what one has done. Over who one is without God. As if what God is after is our understanding of how lost we are without God’s forgiveness and his participation in our lives.

It’s almost as if the evil that is in us is there by design. It’s almost as if God wants us to understand him and to seek him and the means for our coming to this is the evil that is in us. An evil that we cannot deal with on our own. An evil that requires us to find God.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Rage & Righteousness

Odd, isn’t it, how rage and righteousness fit so neatly together. How alliterative, we think. How just. The aesthetics of it really weaken me behind the knees. The two together have a terrible, a fearful symmetry.

The rightness. The sense of perfect justification. The sense that one has in oneself both the aggrieved and the aggrieved’s hero. The person who was wronged and simultaneously the person who will right the wrong through justice. Through punishment. Through the speaking. The enacting of one’s rage. Through the delivery of justice. Justice itself!

The sense that one is suddenly raised out of one’s quotidian moral quagmire into the mountain heights of purity of suffering, purity of humiliation, purity of oppression, purity of purpose, purity of motive, clarity of moral vision. As the adrenaline rushes through one’s body, one has the sense that one has achieved a momentary and somewhat rare oneness with God. Oneness with the One who is purity himself. Justice himself. One speaks. One acts. In such a heightened state of being. And one wants to finish each statement and action completed in this frame of mind with the phrase, “Thus sayeth the Lord.”

A phrase that is like the sudden slowness of Errol Flynn’s rapier penetrating and then being withdrawn from a pirate’s torso, for example. Like God sending a plague or a thunderbolt. “There, now. Have that, you miserable sinner! Take that, you contemptible swine!”

Thus sayeth the Lord.

Many of us live for moments like these. We are truly alive when events conspire to make us pure victims of someone else’s evil or witnesses to the pure evil of someone else’s actions on someone else. Moments when we have it in our power to respond. When we at least have the opportunity to speak and perhaps to be heard by those perpetrating the evil.

I’m thinking for the moment about the news clips throughout the month of August. News clips capturing the contorted, blood-engorged faces of people at town meetings held by members of Congress. I’m thinking about what rage and righteousness those people possessed.

Oh, and I’m thinking about the many times. The nearly infinite instances in my life in which rage and righteousness came together. What delight! What transcendence! What holiness I felt then. What satisfaction! What justification. What redemption. I knew then.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Anger, Rage, & Wrath

Speaking of exile. Speaking of wandering. Traveling. Speaking of the themes of exile, wandering, and traveling, of plots that treat these subjects. Recently, a friend has been blogging about anger, and he has got me thinking. This is always dangerous for everyone around me, because. Well. Thinking itself is dangerous, and it is particularly so in the undisciplined. Someone such as me. A person generally unrestrained by the discipline of orthodoxy.

It’s odd, isn’t it, that Christians—American Christians—are among the most angry people one comes across? How is that so, I wonder? I mean, Jesus didn’t command us to be angry. In fact, you’d almost think he told us to be the opposite. So what gives? Why all the anger? Why is it okay and maybe even preferred for Christians to be angry?

I say preferred because I get the idea from some of them that to be angry is a sign that they are good Christians. And that the angrier they are, the better they are as Christians. Oh, I don’t want to push this idea very hard. It isn’t ubiquitous. It isn’t determinative. But there is that vein. That way of thinking. That way of feeling. That one detects now and again among Christians one encounters here and there.

American Christians. And you’d think that poor Christians. Poor Christians in poor nations would be angry. Would be the angriest Christians, to the extent Christians are an angry people. But no. Apparently not so. The angriest Christians appear to be American Christians. Americans. The richest, most privileged people in the world. Odd.

So, to repeat: Why is it okay and maybe even preferred for Christians—American Christians in particular—to be angry? I don’t know. Its one of the starry night sky of questions I don’t. One of the billions upon billions of questions I don’t have an answer to. A propositional truth to offer. But I do have a couple of stories that I’d like to discuss.

The first is the Iliad. Which begins with the Greek word for wrath or rage or anger. And it’s the particular wrath of Achilles. The Greek hero. Who has acted haughtily with his king, Agamemnon, who has in retribution taken one of his concubines—one of Achilles’s concubines—for his own use. Achilles withdraws from battle, in anger (he pouts), humiliated by his king, and asks the gods to make things go badly for the Greeks. To punish his king and his friends. And so things go badly for the Greeks. So they are punished. His friends die.

Achilles’s colleague, Patroclus, dresses in Achilles’s armor and leads Achilles’s warriors, the Myrmidons, into battle against the Trojans, led by Hector, who have breached the walled Greek camp by the sea. The wine-dark sea. Hector kills Patroclus, Achilles’s good friend, thinking that he is Achilles. Achilles becomes even more angry. Sad first. Angry second. He reconciles with Agamemnon.

Then he returns to battle, finds Hector, kills him, and drags his corpse around for awhile, spending his anger on Hector’s dead body. Spending his wrath on Hector’s dead body. What an odd concept. I wonder why anyone would ever do such a thing. Sounds kind of crazy, doesn’t it? What would be the point? Pointless, as far as I can tell. Except for the venting.

And as I say “venting,” I’m thinking of something like a tea kettle. Boiling water. The steam needs to be vented. Otherwise the device explodes.

So anger makes us crazy, to some extent. We become subject to unreason when we give ourselves over to anger. To prevent ourselves from exploding, we do things that are crazy, if Achilles is any indication.

The other story is about Cain and Abel. The first and second sons of Adam and Eve. Cain is a farmer. Abel is a shepherd. Both offer sacrifices to God. God favors Abel’s sacrifices above those of Cain. Or is this only Cain’s perception? Is this objectively true or subjectively true? The writer doesn’t say. Cain gets angry. But Cain can’t do anything against God. That would be futile. So Cain murders Abel. God sentences Cain to a life of wandering in the land of Nod. Or something like that. Somewhere like that. If recollection serves.

So in both stories, the protagonist is wandering already (Achilles) far from home or is sentenced to wander (Cain) far from home. In both stories, anger plays a significant role. Or rage. Or wrath. In both, anger is involved in determining a permanent wandering outcome.

In the Iliad, Achilles has a choice. He can either get great glory for himself in battle and die shortly, never to return home (forever a wanderer), or he can get less glory for himself in battle and return home, where he will die much later. These two outcomes are open to him. He chooses great glory and an early death. In the story of Cain and Abel, Cain can either endure God’s apparent preference for Abel’s sacrifice, setting his pride aside, and live in God’s general favor, or he can give full expression to his hurt feelings and kill his brother, since killing God isn’t possible.

Not that killing Abel will change God’s mind about the two brothers’ sacrifices. Not that God will like Cain better. He won’t. Killing Abel will do nothing good for Cain’s relationship with God. It’s crazy. Killing Abel is silly. But Cain does it anyway.

Isn’t it interesting that the logical consequence of wrath—of uncontrolled anger—is killing? At some point anger gets to be so great that someone has to die.

By the way, it has always struck me that Abel’s being a literal shepherd and Jesus’s reference to himself as a metaphorical shepherd is probably a meaningful symmetry or parallelism. The wrath of the Pharisees results in Jesus’s death, just as the wrath of Cain results in Abel’s death.

Are the Pharisees the descendents of Cain? The actual or metaphorical descendents of Cain? How about us? How about American Christians? Are we implicated anywhere here? I don’t know. But I do know one thing. Wrath is a form of insanity. When anger is allowed to grow, is encouraged to grow, it may become a monster. One does risk murder and mayhem. Literal and figurative.

Third story now. I’m thinking of a guy I knew. Married. Little children. Angry all the time. I don’t know why. He didn’t know why. Except his father was always angry. He learned early and long that to be a man means that you are angry. And so he was angry, particularly with his family. Venting. Yelling at the children. Yelling at the wife. Christian, mind you. Christian. Until one day, the marriage was dead. He had killed it. He had killed the love that she had for him. That he had for her. That they once had in one another. And so. She left him for someone else. And he was left with his anger. Or the ragged ends of it.

Literal or figurative. One way or another. Where wrath wants to go is death. That pure. That simple. Wrath wants something or someone to die.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Kingdom by the Sea

Here are a couple of paragraphs from Paul Theroux’s The Kingdom by the Sea that notice something fundamental about why we continue, why we keep leaving our houses or apartments and travel out, wander out, blast ourselves out of where and who we are and into the unknown:

“The woods were full of singing birds, warblers and thrushes; and then I heard the unmistakable sound of a cuckoo, which was as clear as a clock, striking fifteen. The sun was strong, the gradient was easy, the bees were buzzing, there was a soft breeze; and I thought: This is what I was looking for when I set out this morning—though I had no idea I would find it here

“All travelers are optimists, I thought. Travel itself was a sort of optimism in action. I always went along thinking: I’ll be all right, I’ll be interested, I’ll discover something, I won’t break a leg or get robbed, and at the end of the day I’ll find a nice old place to sleep. Everything is going to be fine, and even if it isn’t, it will be worthy of note—worth leaving home for.”

It isn’t every day that we get to discover a cuckoo singing in bright sun, in a soft breeze, among warblers and thrushes. But the days we do find beauty or gentleness or truth or grace or lyricism or something quite blessed suddenly in front of us or all around us or partially revealed are the days that make us. Days that define us.

“Worthy of note,” he says. “Worth leaving home for.”

Well, yes. Yes indeed.

I’m thinking of my nephew as I write this. A young man who just completed a 340 mile paddle-sport race on the Missouri river a couple of weeks ago. I say paddle-sport because there were canoes and kayaks and things that were neither. He finished fourth, by the way, in the one-person-per-boat category. Day after day. Night after night. My hero! I just heard from his mother that he plans to do it again next year. Can you imagine?

My son just came back from a mission trip to Mexico with the youth group at his church. Remarkable experiences. Remarkable and wonderful changes in the young people who he helped to supervise.

My daughter just came back from a holiday in Puerto Rico. Had a lovely time frolicking in the sun and waves.

And I. Well I just came back from pulling weeds from my yard. A few sweaty hours of that. The earthworms clinging to the weedy sod. Smelling of. Well. As I knocked the worms and the clods from the weed-roots, the earth smelled like something I’d badly missed and now, like some weird olfactory gourmet, was deeply glad to smell again.

We’re all travel writers, in a sense, I think. Taking note. Discovering what chooses to reveal itself to us, which turns out more often than not, quite miraculously, to be what we were looking for.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Hero with a Thousand Faces

Weeeel! Then of course we have Joseph Campbell and his famous book, a book first published in 1949 and revised by him in 1968. (Shortly after this is when I entered the movie. I mean, I was born in 1950, but I read the book for the first time shortly after the 1968 publication and became aware of a certain. Oh. Pattern to things. A set of common story elements. A sequence. A quality of expectation. A resonance to experience. A familiar plot line.) A third edition was printed in 2008.

So here is Campbell’s brief overview of a story line that is repeated over and over throughout world literature:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won; the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

In fact, you might with justification say this story outline underlies millions upon millions of stories, perhaps billions upon billions, with each of us (or many of us) living or attempting to live out variants of it. Variants in which the variations and the particulars obscure the paradigm as the outer mantle of the earth obscures the molten core.

The movement is comedic. The boons are restorative. They tend to be salvific. Redemptive.

The plot requires travel, usually. Travel in the usual sense—moving across the earth. But variants can include metaphorical travel.

Classic examples of the plot are the stories of Osiris, Prometheus, Buddha, Moses, Christ, Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, George Bailey, Neo, and perhaps Oskar Schindler.

Do we all want to be a hero? No, I don’t think so. But we maybe all would like know heroes have existed and do exist. Some of us—maybe most of us—would like to claim that our stories have a kind of participation in the hero’s story. Or the hero’s story has a kind of participation in ours.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Pilgrimage

Then there’s the pilgrimage, in particular. In general. The going out. The traveling out and away from the familiar. The known. Into the unknown. To do what? To find God, of course. To find his presence or his evidence or his very being. To know him. To know him better by finding him out. Finding him somewhere other than home. Other than in the familiar places that seem.

That seem. Oh. To no longer be capable of containing him, maybe? That seem so familiar that mystery and magnificence and knee-knocking beauty have been driven out of them by experience. By the quotidian. By the grimness of the day-after-day-after-dayness of our ordinary lives.

And so we launch ourselves out onto what? Onto the road or the trail or the path or the river or the ocean sea that will we hope take us beyond the known world. Beyond the world we do not see any longer because it is too often seen and heard and lived in and into the world of the possibly strange. The possibly Other. The possibly sacred with his presence. Full of the light and magnificence of his presence.

And so the pilgrimage becomes a mode of literature. Becomes a kind of story we tell one another. A story that organizes our experience or our possible experience. And of course the quest is a particularly interesting variant of this. The true adventure. Where we are expected to blunder off the beaten path. Off the normal and expected pilgrimage routes. To find what? Why to find the wild God. The unexpected God. The God who can be almost anything. Who is not confined to the expected relics. The pile of expected bones or cloth or stone.

Or it becomes a visit to the Holy Man or the Holy Woman. Becomes a search for the one human or one of the few humans who speak directly with God or to whom God regularly speaks directly and who may or may not teach us how to Be. How to Be like him or her. So that we may be able to find God with us always. Immanuel himself.

But in any event, the pilgrimage becomes a story we can walk out into ourselves. Becomes a story we can make also for ourselves or of ourselves. And so we do this. Many of us. By the millions. The tens and hundreds of millions. And even the atheists and agnostics pick this up. Pick this genre up. And walk out into their own morphed pilgrimage. They hike up into the mountains. They hike out into the desert. They take the tour bus to the Grand Canyon rim or the cruise ship to the Alaskan coast or the cruise ship to Antarctica or to the Galapagos Islands.

Or they become scientists. They become wildlife biologists or marine biologists or geologists or climatologists or whatever, and they make their field work their pilgrimages. Their research becomes their own personal search for the Beautiful or the Wild or the Other, which are all forms of course of God. God in the world. God out away from the quotidian. The every day. The humdrum.

And so this pilgrimage genre becomes mighty among us, does it not? It becomes a way we organize and live our lives, as though we are characters in a pilgrimage story. As though we may understand ourselves and others around us and the physical objects and ideas of the world we inhabit in the context of this. And so some of us set out on our pilgrimages and live much of our lives in this genre, even though we could not tell you that this is what we are doing.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Exile and Return

Of course one of the traveling stories. One of the traveling away from home motifs. Is the exile and return.

Or maybe just exile, in some stories. Just exile, and the story ends there.

Or just return. And the story ends there.

And so the Bible begins in this way. In Genesis. Adam and Eve exiled from Eden.

Or take the story of Cain, for example.

Abraham told by God to leave the country of his home and go elsewhere.

Or take the story of Ishmael in the Bible and in Moby Dick.

Moses leading Abraham’s descendants out of Egypt and into the desert, there remaining for many years.

The Babylonian conquest and the Diaspora. Then the return.

The return of the younger brother.

The return of Jesus to life. Then his departure for Heaven.

The return of Odysseus.

The self-exile of. Oh. Let’s pick one. Oedipus. Or some. Medea. Einstein. Lenin. Gertrude Stein. Charlie Chaplin. Huck Finn. Joseph Conrad. Nabokov. And so on.

The pilgrimage. Traveling out and away from one’s home to find. To find what? Meaning? God? Peace? Beauty? Freedom? Oneself? So the traveling out and away, in the case of a pilgrimage, is a kind of return, a kind of traveling home. The exile is the return, in a sense.

And so all traveling becomes either a going out and away from or a returning or both. Sometimes self-motivated. Sometimes coerced. Sometimes motivated by the hand of God. Sometimes by one’s own hand.

And so the younger brother imposes exile on himself but then changes his mind. Ambivalence itself. And returns home.

And the older brother becomes alienated in his own home. Becomes a stranger in his own home, alienated by feelings of jealousy, betrayal, anger, resentment, spitefulness. Alienated by his own selfishness. His own sinfulness. Alienated from his father and younger brother by something in himself. A thoroughly modern protagonist. An exile in his own home.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Oh, someone asked me the other day how my life is going. You know, just a kind of conversation opener. We hadn’t seen one another all summer. And so it was like, Who are you now? Who have you become? Are you the same person I knew before the summer, when we used to see one another regularly? Has anything important changed? Have you traveled? What have you learned? How does the universe look to you now?

But of course we don’t ask most of these questions out loud, usually. They are implied. They stand in back of the voiced question. The voiced concerns or comments. The voiced conversation openers.

So we have illustrated for ourselves here the apparent versus the real. The surface versus the depths. The seen and heard versus the unseen and the unheard.

When one is gone. When one leaves home and is either temporarily or permanently away, one does change. One does not like to admit to profound change, but it nevertheless happens. Happens all the time. To all of us.

We leave to go on vacation. We play by the lakeside. We take a hike through the woods. We kayak for an hour or drink a beer or dandle a grand-niece on one’s knee. Or we visit a relative. Or we make a telephone call. Or we look upon mountains we’ve never seen before. And we are changed.

Something shifts. It’s not always clear what. Usually not. But something has happened. We become different people. Upon our return, we experience our lives as if we were different people.

Being away is supposed to be good for one. I suppose it is. Or can be. Vacations are said to prolong lives. Reduce the stress. And so forth. And I suppose they must, with all the research that’s been done.

Time away from those one cares about also changes one. Changes the relation. Puts the relation in a different topography now. Puts it into a strange terrain.

And it’s like that with God, too. I think. One gets irritated with the other. One feels the stress of the relation from time to time. And so one takes a vacation. One leaves the other to his own devices. And takes some time away.

And when one returns to the other. Well. There seems to be so much that for a long time is left unsaid. Seems better left that way.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009


Just finished the novel Home, by Marilynne Robinson. A fine novel. But of course I think novels are our philosophy and theology and poetry and cosmology and meaning in large measure these days. Along maybe with movies, which one might think of as light-weight novels. Or novels for the light-footed or light-headed or light-hearted.

In any event, as I have said in an earlier post, narratives of whatever kind can be all these things—our philosophy, our poetry, our cosmology, our meaning—altogether, if well done. And often if they are poorly done also. They help us understand our place and time and being and living by giving us characters somewhat like ourselves. And placing these substitutes—these simulacra—in worlds that are kind of like our own. By doing this, they help us imagine what our own stories are really getting at. Where they may come from and where they are headed. What they are about. Maybe.

Home does all this and is, as I say, well done. Very well done. It plays quite directly with the idea that we live in stories that are much greater than our own, larger stories that may help explain our own particular stories. Stories from the Bible, especially.

The Biblical story that resonates throughout Home is the story of David and Bathsheba. Jack Boughton, son of a Christian minister in Gilhead, Iowa, (who has isolated himself from his birth family for 20 years as the novel begins) is from his earliest memories estranged from his family and community. He steals. He causes mischief of various kinds. He wonders off by himself. He rarely participates fully in the life of the Boughton family. He is almost always gone. Out of the house and who knows where.

Jack in his estrangement struggles to understand himself. His embarrassing and self-destructive and self-isolating behavior. Well into the novel, he brings this up with his father, Robert Boughton, who is dying. And with his father’s old friend, John Ames, also a Christian minister. He tries to get them to help him sort out the Old Testament understanding of God versus the New Testament understanding of God and how God acts in the world.

He suspects that he—Jack Boughton—in himself might be a curse on his father and his father’s religion. Just as Absalom—in his rebellion against his father—appeared to be a curse on King David for David’s sins of sexual immorality and murder. He appears to wonder whether his father and other leaders of American Christianity haven’t been apologists for slavery and racial discrimination. He seems to wonder whether this isn’t their sin and whether he isn’t his father’s punishment for this.

And he seems to wonder whether the child that he fathered as a teenager, out of wedlock, didn’t die (as a toddler of an infection) as his own punishment, for his sexual immorality, his thievery, his torment of his father and the rest of his family.

Jack is married to a black woman, but he does not tell his father or his father’s friend John Ames. But he does ask them questions about the story of David and Bathsheba and about predestination. He seems to regard himself as someone whom God has created to play a role in his father’s story. Perhaps he has been created simply to be destroyed, after his usefulness as a torment for his father is at an end.

Jack isn’t a Christian. He knows Scripture quite well, but he is not persuaded. He takes what appears to be an Old Testament view—that God punishes his people—and attempts to understand his world and his experience using this view of God. He attempts to get confirmation from his father and John Ames, but they are ambivalent. Equivocal. Neither marches in with the New Testament story, either—with the unmitigated joy of salvation and redemption. Which is of course odd. Given that these two are, as I say, Christian ministers, and Jack is their inexplicable favorite. They love him deeply but are also quite. Well. Hostile toward him as well. Aren’t human beings odd? Even in novels? Particularly good ones?

Full of contradictions. Full of ambivalence. Paradox.

And so this idea that the story of our lives may be understood in light of other stories—particularly the stories of the Bible—comes up again in this novel. Comes up faithfully again and again throughout the history of literature. Sometimes explicitly, as in Marilynne Robinson’s Home, and sometimes implicitly, as for example, in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (communion of the saints—1 Corinthians:12). One might almost think of all of the works of western literature as being so many footnotes to the Bible and footnotes to one another. And if one did, one might begin to see a bit—and only to a depth of about one eighth of an inch or so—into the world-wide sea of our stories and how they may well all intersect and work together somehow like so many elements of one ecosystem to make us who and place us where we are. Which can be—like the characters in the novel Home—at the bottom of the sea sometimes, struggling for air.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Or We Time Travel

Time travel. Always fascinating. Always interesting. Often because time itself is kind of loopy. Kind of mystical. Paradoxical. Mysterious. And openly so. Openly full of possibility. Full of the present, certainly. But also full of the past. Heavy with the history of everything. The story of everything that has happened. And bright. Infinitely bright. With the immediacy of now. The raw power of now. The immense and awful and incomprehensible now. And of course the beauty. The extraordinary beauty of what is about to unfold. About to flower. About to open out like so many indeterminate and surprising petals of a new flower. A flower no one has ever seen before.

So living. Just plain slim-milk living. Straight-ahead normal put-one-foot-in-front-of-the-other living. Is the gathering of the past into the present, is it not? And this on a continuum. On a moving diorama, rolling the past up into the present. The recollection of many pasts into the present. A past that is the accumulation of uncountable choices and random processes. A present that is the accumulation of uncountable choices and random processes. Or pseudo-random processes, if you really must put a fine point on it. Pseudo-random processes. Think about that! Apparent randomness. A randomness that is merely apparent, because there is directionality, is there not? Directionality, then? Built into the very stuff of existence?

And then the present. The present itself. Anything is possible here. Anything may happen. One has infinite freedom. God has infinite freedom and access. He may appear anywhere. In anything. In anyone. In any circumstance or event or process or. Well, you get the idea. And he does. The present is vibrant because of him. With him. Through him. The present is infinite with him. In him. Touch the world. Touch another. The Other. And anything may happen. It’s ridiculous, I know. It’s absurd. Like I say, it’s loopy. This Kingdom business. This Kingdom presence everywhere around us here. In us here. Among us here.

Because what are we doing here, anyway? Aren’t we making? Participants in the making? In the transformation of time? The remaking of time? The reformation of time from fixed and measurable intervals. Mechanical counting of intervals. Into the infinite expanse of God’s own participation? God’s own expansion and metamorphosis of time?

Oh, I don’t know. Sometimes I think we are not just time travelers. Sometimes I think we are time writers. That we have been asked to open time up. To expand time. To discover in what seems like ordinary time, extraordinary time. What is a practically boundless experience of time. A time that is not countable. That has no intervals. That is continuous. Or discontinuous. That is extensive into regions I personally have little idea of but that are characterized everywhere by the feeling that God. Well. Is everywhere there. Or here, I should say.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Or We Travel

Story after story. Stories we travel through that. Well. Take us places we haven’t been. Or perhaps we have. But now. This time. It is different. Or it may be different. Stories that begin with the beginning of the world, some of them. Or begin in the middle of things. In the middle of the action. Stories that are as much about place as character. Or about character as much as place. Or about one character’s view of place. Or one place’s view of character.

But they just keep coming, don’t they? Starting with. Well. I don’t know which of them begins it. In all likelihood there were many stories that preceded what we know of them. The written travel stories that we have passed down to us. Over the millennia. The many years. Unwritten stories that were born with language, maybe, and began as hunting stories. Stories about a hunt that might have lasted days and taken the hunting party far afield, so to say. To places the hunters had never been before.

And herding stories. Stories about herders taking their flocks to places they’d never been, in search of better pasture. Or stories about herds that led their shepherds to places they’d never gone, in search of better pasture.

And trading stories. Stories about men packing trade goods over the mountains or over the lip of the tundra to people they’d heard about and that may wish to barter. May wish to trade what they’ve made for something someone else has made. Wineskins for prayer wheels, for example. Or salt for cloth.

And war stories. Stories about men traveling great distances to kill one another and pillage one another’s tribe or settlement or village or city. Stories that involve heroic deeds. And terror. And death.

Our minds are full of these, aren’t they? Full of the events and the characters and the discoveries and the mishaps and the conflicts and the disappointments and the hope and the faith that drives the traveler to keep going in a strange place. Where there are strange people with strange speech and strange customs. Where even the earth itself seems strange. Hostile. Other.

And so we have the written stories that play themselves out like movies in our heads and hearts. That play against the backdrop of our lives. Or that are like drones. Drone notes. That underlie the melody of our lives.

And so we have the Iliad and the Odyssey, for example. The story of Adam and Eve. The story of Abraham. The story of Moses leading Israel out of Egypt and through the Sinai. The story of Jesus wandering about Israel and Galilee.

And so we have Herodotus’s The Histories. Virgil’s The Aneid. We have Beowulf. We have Boccaccio’s Decameron. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Melville’s Moby Dick. Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Joyce’s Ulysses. Kerouac’s On the Road. Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways.

Thousands of them. Tens of thousands. Hundreds of thousands. And how to think of them? They rattle around in the mind as the stories of the Tanakh must have rattled around in the minds of first century Jews. First century Christians. First century writers of the New Testament. The great traveling stories.

And knowing these stories. Writing about Jesus and having these stories. These travelogues. Rattling around in their heads and in the heads of their readers. Certainly made all the difference. Didn’t it? This shared sense of what has happened. What the possibilities are. What may happen next. How meaning works.

How things go. What life is. What it feels like. The sense that it goes somewhere. That character is bound up with meaning. And movement. And God. How God is bound up with us. As we travel resolutely. Hesitatingly. Haltingly. Quickly. Deliberately. Uncertainly. Incompetently. Certainly. Forward into time and place. Into the great mystery. The enormous unknown of who we are and what we will be. What God may do. What will unfold and what it all may mean.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Or We Dive

Or we dive into the sea of love. The billions of us. We play in the waves. We belly-ride the swells, which we catch at a great distance. At a distance so great that the shore is almost not visible. At a distance where there are maybe sharks, but we don’t care. Where the currents are perhaps swift, but we don’t care. Where the water is many times deeper than we can know. But we belly-ride the swells together until they become waves. Then we laugh and whoop, riding them. Losing them. Catching them. Alternately. It does not matter. This is something, this wave-riding. This sea-speed. This rushing in the wine-dark, sun-lighted, liquid road of love. And the most of us out here. Well, we’re all of us a little scared and a little happy, and no one knows what will happen.

Or at the edge of the sky of love, the billions of us run with our aluminum or carbon fiber structures and our nylon hanging limply. Limply over us and around us. Flapping as we run. Until the earth disappears suddenly from under our feet and we are floating. Until we are suspended on the mere air and wind and the blue and white and the clarity of the atmosphere. The buoyancy of nothing but moist clouds out here. Above a cliff of rock and earth that plunges just about straight down. Oh. Maybe a mile or two. Something like that. Down there, beneath our chests and feet, a river carries a silver sun. A dark and blinding river. And it is green all around. The green of Mountain Dogwood, Black Cottonwood, Sugar Pine, Black Oak, Incense Cedar, Ponderosa Pine, and Douglas Fir. And the smell here. It is. Oh. It is a living incense. Something like the smell one imagines exists only in paradise. And the quiet here is like no other sound on earth. A quiet that seems to go on and on. And there is freedom here! Oh, we are infinitely free! The sky is our element. We may go wherever we like.

Or at the edge of the poetry of love, the billions of us suddenly speak! And in our speaking, discover love. Discover words we never knew existed. Discover meanings—extraordinary meanings—that we didn’t know could exist on this particular ontological plane. We discover many ontological planes as we speak. As we discover the possible impossibilities of love. The ways of love. The infinite colors and shapes and curves and rushings and coastings and driftings and strivings and climbings of love. We speak and in our speaking find the holy resonating. We find ourselves saying words that have been said for centuries and have roots that go back millennia, reverberant in the mouths of tens of thousands, millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions of us extending back in time. Holy words. Reverberant words. Words, some of them, without any meaning but their own low, lost, fundamental sound. Saying our love to one another and to God in as wide and varied and low and high a voice as one may conceive. As one may say. A voice made of multitudes. A voice resonating with the voices of many only wishing love. Proclaiming love. Declaiming love. Projecting love. Creating love. We discover ourselves speaking in iambic pentameter. In alliterative verse. In rhymed couplets. In the form of sonnets and villanelles and sestinas. In the form of ballads. But while much of it is in forms, most of it is free verse. Most of it sounds like ordinary people speaking. But speaking poetry. Naturally. Natural poetry created of our souls and mouths and tongues and lungs and throats and blood and muscle and bone. Created of heaven itself. We are renewed and enlightened by the freshness of the words. The immediacy and honesty and originality of what we say. Or what is said through us. We are poets, we think! My God, we did not know this was possible!

Or at the edge of the wilderness of love, billions of us rush outward. Away from the cities. Our numbers mystically dwindle. Away from the concrete. Let the concrete rot! Let the glass and steel shatter and fall through the centuries of disuse and encroaching life. Life that swallows up the rigidities of man like an elephant swallows a peanut. Or like a gorilla swallows a grape. Or like a blue whale swallows krill. We live simply again. In small groups that care for one another. That fish and gather and make clothing and hold one another. Again. That make do with what they have. That warm one another in winter. That celebrate in summer. That fatten in summer and thin in winter. That inhabit a world of quiet and gentleness and orderliness that most of us and our ancestors hadn’t known for centuries. For millennia. We speak simply to one another, with care. But mostly we are quiet. We make room for the wind and the mountain and the valley and the finch and the sycamore and the river sounding the small pebbles and the pond reflecting the willow and the ocean crashing into the sand.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

I Say Love

At the edge of the sea of love, we walk about, gesticulating to the few in the water. To the few swimming and cavorting and bobbing in the waves. The shore is full of us. The sand is obscured by the billions of us on the beach. The many billions. Some stand, facing away from the sea, looking back toward the land. Ignoring the sea. Others face toward the sea, angrily speaking to it, yelling at it, or at one another, pointing toward the sea.

Or at the edge of the sky of love, here on earth, the many billions of us look up into the blue illusion. The blue medium. Where some small number dive, parachute, glide, and fly around for a time before they come back to earth. Come back to join us here in our less dangerous state. We are shocked. We are amazed. Why would anyone do such a dangerous thing, we wonder.

Or at the edge of the poetry of love, we pace, the many billions, in our prosaic fashion. Our clichéd speech. Our unthinking, unfeeling, monochrome idioms and formulas that keep us from ourselves and one another. Our linguistic narcotics. Our semantic alcohol. Our walls of inarticulate locution. While joyously a few speak truly to one another with the full depth and breadth of their meaning. The full color spectrum of their souls. With words and syntax that are strange. That seem opaque. That are merely so many strange sounds.

Or at the edge of conventionality and respectability we queue up on the prolific concrete in lines to do nothing. We stand in lines for hours. Days. Weeks. Months. Years. We mill about in crowds all our lives in the many cities. In the suburbs. We sit in traffic. While out in the woods and in the fields and in the mountains and valleys, a few live in the wilderness of love. Simply. With few possessions. Joyfully. Without worry. Without a thought of tomorrow.

And we. Well, we do not trust them, do we? These few lovers that we have seen from time to time. Heard from time to time. Heard about by word of mouth. Or read about in books. That we have met. We do not join them because. We hesitate to say it. It simply feels uncomfortable to contemplate. Doesn’t it? But then we examine this feeling. Wondering about it. We’re not sure about this. We do not know.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Jesus Anointed by a Sinful Woman

Yesterday, submerged in the ocean of church and then of home fellowship, swimming about in Scripture. Or actually drifting through the deep blue light of the Gospels. The warm wine-dark water of the Gospels. And looking specifically at Luke 7:36-50.

Developing a sense of what may be going on. Listening to others. Listening to one’s mind. One’s heart. Entering the story. Entering into the presence of Jesus. Entering into the first century again. The radiant warmth of his presence again.

Jesus at the dinner party. The sinful woman at his feet weeping, wiping his feet with her tear-wetted hair. Then pouring perfume over them. Rubbing that in. With her hair. Weeping all the while.

The Pharisee—the host—thinking Jesus is grossly imprudent, allowing himself to be touched by a woman like this. A vile woman like this. Jesus discerning his thoughts—divining his thoughts, really. Then telling the Pharisee—Simon—a story of a moneylender and two men to whom he had loaned money. One he loaned 50 dinarii. The other he loaned 500 denarii. But neither could pay him back; so the man forgave their loans.

Who would love the moneylender more? Jesus wants to know. The one who owed the 500 denarii, the one with the larger debt, Simon says. And he’s correct, Jesus says.

Then Jesus turns to the woman but still speaks to Simon, pointing out how Simon has treated him badly over and over since his arrival but how the woman has treated him with gratitude. With love. Extravagant love.

Then Jesus says something very interesting to Simon and to the others: “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.”

Right in Simon’s face. In the rude host’s face.

This is another example, I think, of Jesus turning the world upside down on us. Of sounding a little like he is conveying conventional wisdom when he’s actually dispensing quite abruptly and finally with conventional wisdom. And proclaiming a new way of thinking about God and love and sin.

At first, I thought. Oh. If you sin a lot—have a large debt like the guy who owed 500 denarii—like the sinful woman, you can be forgiven as long as you love extravagantly. And if you don’t sin very much—have a small debt like the guy who owed 50 denarii—like Simon, you can be forgiven as long as you love a little. Love Jesus a little. Love others a little.

But this analogous way of looking for the meaning here. Well, it just doesn’t work, does it? I mean, who throughout the Gospels does Jesus accuse of not knowing him at all and of oppressing the people, of spiritual arrogance, of cruelty, of callousness? The Pharisees don’t even love him a little, do they? And what about Simon? What about him specifically?

I don’t detect a bit of love there at all, do you? A coldness, certainly. A discomfort. An attitude of let’s get this over with and get this possible prophet and his sinful female hanger-on out of here.

So now that the expected parallelism doesn’t hold up—now that reasoning by analogy isn’t exactly working for us—where do we go? How do we understand what Jesus says?

Well, let me ask you, who is the greater sinner in Jesus’s eyes at this dinner party? Is it the woman, or is it Simon, the Pharisee? This question is left hanging there, isn’t it? Unasked and therefore unanswered.

I recall what Jesus makes plain elsewhere. All the Law and the Prophets can be reduced to two commandments: love God, and love one another. Has Simon given evidence of being at all faithful to either? How about the woman?

Isn’t Jesus suggesting that much the greatest sin of all is not to love?

What Jesus doesn’t say hangs there in the silence, doesn’t it? And one of the things he doesn’t say is that he who is not forgiven at all loves not at all.

And what is love in this story? Is it repayment in any sense? Does it balance the scales, so to speak? Oh, no. No, this isn’t the woman’s motivation, is it? Balancing the scales? Seeking forgiveness? Something has come welling up out of her in response to Jesus. To his person. A something Simon doesn’t seem to have. Or won’t allow. Or doesn’t recognize for what it is. Or worse yet, he doesn’t recognize Jesus as the One to love.

And this welling up. There’s nothing calculated about this is there? Isn’t it reflexive? Isn’t it straight from the heart? And so the woman is not thinking that she’ll love Jesus and therefore be forgiven. She seems to have only. Only what? Only love for Jesus in her. Working powerfully in her. Through her. Out of her. Nothing calculating. Nothing Machiavellian. The opposite.

And Simon? Well as I say. I think he’d rather Jesus put an end to his embarrassment and leave. The last thing Simon wants is to be associated with a man who consorts with sinners. Even though he might be a prophet.

And so this dinner party. What is this? I mean, why would this Pharisee invite Jesus? An insurance policy, perhaps? This man might be a prophet, and if he is, wouldn’t it be wise to be on his good side? Maybe a chance to take a good look at him. A good look at him with both eyes and the eyes of all his friends. And if he isn’t, well. It’s only one evening wasted.

So for Jesus. This love business. Isn’t this everything? For him, isn’t love of God and love of one another the full meaning of this enterprise? This adventure? Is there anything else? Well maybe. There’s spreading the Gospel. There’s paying attention to the Holy Spirit. But these are redundant, aren’t they? Or intensives? Well maybe not. Maybe the Holy Spirit is the means of making real meaning possible. Real love possible. Real possible love. Now that Jesus is. Well. Sort of gone.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The World Itself and Time

The sun shines on all equally. Indiscriminately. Promiscuously. Polymorphously. Perversely. Matter itself converted to energy and then in its streaming converting itself through life back into matter. Back into some solid seeming stuff that is more like a gas with particles suspended in it. Really. Than we’d like to think. The spaces between the denser bits much much greater than the bits themselves.

And the world! The actual substance that’s revealed! It’s all presentation and no discourse. It’s all object and event. Objects morphing into other objects, animate and inanimate. Bubbles of gas and suspended bits and color and texture and shape and movement and vigor in various degrees. Existing at various speeds. And then morphing into something else.

And I say objects, but what I mean is the semblance of objects, because as I say. There are no physical objects here. None to speak of, really. All only made of gas and energy and a few scattered bits that when you pare them down. When you get out your electron microscopes and other apparatuses. Other accoutrements. Appear to be more like. Oh. Bubbles. Or balls blown up. With nothing inside but. Well. Spin, for example. Or charge. Or wobble. Or even more metaphorically: tone. Or tonal sequence. Or tonal duration. Or tonal periodicity.

Presentation? You ask. Presentation? What can this possibly mean? And I think of the red wheelbarrow, for example. A bird in a palm tree, singing. A man wiping mud from his eyes, seeing for the first time. An empty tomb, with the grave clothes empty on the stone. The Buddha holding up a flower. Oh. For example a passion flower. A purple one. Twirling it gently. Endlessly. In the sun.

I say bubbles of gas. I mean bubbles of spirit. Bubbles of soul. Bubbles of being. Of animate being. The denser bits enlivened by something not strictly speaking of this world. Of the world of objects moving ceaselessly through fields of energy. Fields of light and gravity. Fields of gamma rays and x-rays and. Well. You get the idea.

I say idea. And what I mean is this imported stuff that makes discourse possible. And metametaphorical object making possible. Probable. Necessary. These abstracted objects. These objects that are even less objectifiable than the bits of bubbly matter that float about and that we call the world. That we call the material world. But isn’t.

And then of course there’s time. Time itself. A construct through which all this moves. All this drifts. All this sequences itself. All this arrives and does not arrive. All this is always arriving and is never arriving. All this is morphing always. Into something else. Driven to morph. Driven to be. And in its being changes. Changes ontologies. Changes states. Changes beings. Matter and spirit. Spirit and matter. Changing places and changing the nature of their beings. But not really.

Because what drives this. What inhabits this. What enlivens and lights and embodies and stands and moves and makes and in its making discovers itself is God. God at work in us. God at work in the world. Everywhere we look. God informing. God redeeming. God creating. Everything. All at once.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

I Say Mellifluous

I say mellifluous, but it is so only in the sense that the unsweet may attain to the mellifluous. Oh, I’m listening more. And more. Oh! This is dangerous. This singing. This singing that eschews sweetness. This singing that only modestly and carefully and in the most understated of ways will admit sweetness. Will admit melody into this medium of the profound.

Have you explored this? Have you submerged yourself? And, oh! I must say that my metaphor in the previous post was inept. Was mistaken. Oh, please understand that as you listen to the profound, you are. Well. You disintegrate. You don’t explode. No. You disburse. You discombobulate. You discompose. You discontinue. You discourse. You disencumber. You disabuse. You disjoin. You dislocate. You dismay. You dispense. You dissociate. You distort. You distribute yourself. Randomly. Everywhere.

Oh, these Gyuto Monks. How did God come up with these? How did he teach them their practice? What subtle nudges did he make and in their making make this? This subtle enormous unlikely improbable remarkable needle of light into the soul?

One is not floating on the surface any longer as one listens to this. No. One is matter and soul descending through a blue medium. A blue liquid. Filled. For now. With sun.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Listening to the Gyuto Monks

Throat singing. Overtone singing. Various names for it, but. Listen. I’ve been listening all afternoon. Exploring the profound. The lowest lost human notes. And simultaneously, chorally, two tones and then three tones. Chanting. Praying.

I get the idea, as I’m sitting here. The feeling. That I’ve never been born. That I exist in a kind of liquid made entirely of sound. I’m closing my eyes, and I’m finding I’m empty and I’m full of this sound. The sound the ocean would make if it were human and there were no one around to hear. The ocean before people, singing a song it has been singing since the beginning of the world.

They are praying, but I do not know what they are saying. The words are in another language. One I don’t understand. And even those who understand the language say they cannot understand what is being prayed because of the distortion. The stretching and shortening and intoning and the guttural idiom into which the words have been transposed. The oceanic dialect into which the words have been submerged.

Chanting like the swells out in the ocean. Out away from the continental shelves. Out where the ocean is deep blue and black and wine-colored at midday. The sun. The infinite suns glistening on its surface. The cyclic swells coming and coming, sometimes deep. Sometimes shallow. But always underneath them a depth that is miles of strange. Miles of dark. Miles of creatures that swim slowly in a dance-like rhythm. Creatures that one can hardly imagine. Thick down there—a holy unholy presence that occasionally surfaces.

Occasionally the whale, for example. Occasionally the creature as large as an office building. Blowing. Leaping. Occasionally a pod of them. A pod of blue whales rising to blow and dive and surface and dive randomly all about one’s raft. One’s craft of sticks and rope and cloth. That may easily be smashed and randomized across the surface of the sea. But isn’t.

Or perhaps I’ve always existed. Perhaps I’ve always been floating like this. Undulating on the surface of the deep. Since before time itself. Listening to the sea chant in this way. Announcing joy. Articulating danger. Pronouncing order. Exploring chaos. Expressing gratitude down to the mellifluous base of its being.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

But of Course Justice

But of course justice with a lower case j is what the Isaiah Agenda is all about. Isn’t it? Justice as love. Justice as forgiveness. Justice as kindness and generosity and intercession. Justice as intervention. As tenderness. As care-giving. As self-sacrifice. As charity. As doing unto others. As redemption. As salvation. As Kingdom presence.

Part and parcel. One of the many Kingdom strands woven together at the beginning of the world. By Jesus. Through whom all things were made.

Justice as what drives us to do impossible things for one another. Improbable things for one another. Ridiculous sappy outrageous things for one another.

So what can this mean? This sense. That yes, justice is worthy. Justice is Jesus. Justice is what we are about as followers. And this idea, embedded within the other. That for ourselves this is poison. Seeking this for ourselves is. Well. It’s outrageous. It’s greedy. There is evil everywhere in the room of this meaning.

How does this work, exactly? This idea that for me, justice is something I do not deserve. Something that if sought for oneself, there is. Oh. A feeling that. Well.

But that for others, it’s a requirement. It’s necessary. It’s required now. Immediately. If not sooner. It’s a noble cause.

Inwardness and outwardness. The idea that justice changes depending on which direction it’s pointed. Like love. Like forgiveness. Like. Well, you get the idea.

The one idea. But it’s multifarious. Multidirectional. Multilateral. Multilocular. Multiloquent.

But further, there is also the sense that justice insisted on strenuously for others may become revolution. May become hatred. May become untold evil committed out of outrage. Out of the sense of real damage and pain. Out of maybe a numbness created by months or years or decades or centuries of cruelty and torture and killing and exploitation and denigration and unspeakable acts repeated until.

Well, you get the idea. So even the idea of justice directed outward. Directed toward the protection and nurturance of others can carry in it also great evil if allowed to evolve. Allowed to mature into something monstrous. Something full of outrage calling for punishment and retribution. Eradication. A blotting out. An erasure.

I think of soldiers. Some of whom I took care of when I was in the Army. Psychiatric ward. Viet Nam veterans. Oh, 1972 or so. These men. Some of whom had gone berserk. Their friends killed. Their lives threatened. Everything around them that breathed or lived threatened them. Their friends killed in horrible fashion. Men who. Well. Wanted justice. Nothing more. Nothing less. And then of course. They went crazy because of what they did. Some of them, anyway.

Some thought they were Jesus. Some thought they were the devil. Some were catatonic. Some hallucinated terrible things. Some evolved fascinating theories that made no sense. Theories about DNA. About Japanese composers. About the meaning of everything.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Mrs. Dalloway, Again!

Speaking of Justice. With a capital J. I finished Mrs. Dalloway, and what you may find interesting is that there is more about faith in this novel than most Christian novels one might pick up in a bookstore today.

That may not be saying much. But still. Oh, there is evil. Clearly identified evil. There is the communion of saints, although they are not identified as such. There is strong spiritual connection throughout, one character with another. As though the unconscious parts of the characters and some of the conscious parts of the characters all swam in the same spiritual medium. In the same ocean of spiritual meaning, spiritual being, spiritual struggle, spiritual vulnerability.

There is the persistent metaphor of the waves and the oceanic bringing the highly various sensibilities and personalities and perspectives together into one disparate community of experience and understanding and spiritual immediacy. It is as though the various characters have been created to live separated from one another bodily but to live together also, commingling in one homogenous substance. One linguistic or elemental or moral or emotional or cultural or kingdom construct.

There is one Christian that is identified as such. One unattractive, large, desperate woman. A woman who attempts to alienate Elizabeth from her mother, Clarissa Dalloway. The woman resents Clarissa. Resents people with money. Envy’s them. Is full of spite and anger and self-loathing. A woman who cries out for justice. Who is bitter because she feels the world has ignored her, may even despise her. Feels as though the world and those around her have been thoroughly unjust to her. And she has no means of escape.

She attempts to alienate Elizabeth from her mother but is not successful. And the narrative leaves her desolate, miserable, feeling acutely the injustice of her life. She knows her powerful feelings are not Christian. Her pastor calls her emotions and attitudes “of the flesh.” She knows that her hatred of the privileged is wrong, but she feels herself to be powerless to do anything against it.

Another character—Septimus Smith—a shell-shocked veteran of World War I commits suicide to avoid his evil doctors. Doctors who are in denial of the horror that exists in the world and that Septimus has seen and participated in. In denial of his real mental and spiritual terror. Doctors who pretend that evil does not really exist and who want Septimus to participate in this same delusion with them. This lie with them. And in his anguished state of mind. His tortured spiritual state. Septimus can think of no other way to escape them than to throw himself to his death.

These and many others are arranged in a kind of chorus of spiritual unfolding, of spiritual disrobing, of spiritual improvising. The narration moves from the stream of consciousness of one character to another and to another and through almost 20 altogether throughout one day in June, 1923. A day that precedes Clarissa Dalloway’s party. A party given for no particular reason. In the evening. Party-giving is Clarissa’s particular joy. Bringing together others who should be brought together in the flesh as they have somehow already been in a less apparent way. This is her contribution, she thinks. This ability and willingness to bring people together who ought to be together.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Parable of the Perplexed Reader

I happened to be reading “The Parable of the Persistent Widow” (Luke 18:1-8) the other day, and it struck me that something so simple would have to have a plain meaning. Would not have any semantic recalcitrance about it. And so I read it with this predisposition in mind. Here it is, for your reference.

“Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: ‘In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’

“For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don't fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won't eventually wear me out with her coming!’

“And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?"

The writer tells us what to think about what Jesus says in this parable. So this should be a piece of cake, is what I’m thinking when I start it. He tells us that Jesus tells the parable “…to show them [his disciples] that they should always pray and not give up.” Fine, I’m thinking. Piece of cake, then.

Then I actually read the thing, and I’m thinking, Now let’s see. Where else in the Gospels does Jesus emphasize justice? Where else is justice in this life the important thing in Jesus’s teaching? Oh, sure. Justice on the last day. Justice when Jesus comes back. That’s clear. But does justice in this life figure importantly in his teaching?

I don’t seem to find that. No, what I find is an emphasis on love. Improbable love. Possibly impossible love. On loving one’s enemies, for example. On turning the other cheek, for example. On seeking the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of God. In the midst of suffering and oppression. I see him providing an example of what? An example of justice-seeking for himself? Does he demonstrate in his own life that God can be expected to provide justice to us here, in this life? Doesn’t he ask us, for example, to bear our own crosses?

Is bearing our cross the same as justice in this life? Should we expect “troubles” and to bear our cross in this life, or should we expect justice?

And what do you make of the sudden shift Jesus makes in the last sentence of the parable? Here, he’s talking about a widow and an unjust judge. He’s encouraging his disciples to expect justice of God, soon. After all, if an unjust judge will dispense justice, can’t God be expected to dispense justice when the time comes? But then he shifts the subject to something else entirely. Or does he? He talks about faith.

Here, he’s been talking about justice, justice, justice. And now he talks about faith. Why? Is he trying to suggest something about those who obsess about justice? Who seek justice above all things? Who grind their teeth concerning the injustices that are perpetrated on them every day? Who can think about little else?

What about faith? he asks. In the midst of all this justice-seeking, is there room for faith?
Or maybe what he does mean is that we should just keep praying for justice to be done. Maybe what he does mean is that seeking justice persistently is a sign of faith.

Is there a chance he could mean all of this? Is there a chance he does not present this story for simple decoding? Is there a chance he wants us to meditate on this story rather than decode it and move on quickly to the next one? Is there a chance that the function of the parable in Jesus’s curriculum is not proverbial? What is the chance that many of Jesus’s parables are actually more like koans than they are like proverbs?

So when I say that ambivalence, ambiguity, and paradox may be an inextricable part of things. Of language. Of the Bible. I’m thinking of some of these parables. Some of these Jesus stories. That seem to be more like koans than they are like explications.