The Unfinished Life

We are in Lent.  Last Tuesday we ate, drank, and were merry.  (Were we ever!  The Cathedral’s Shrove Tuesday pancake supper was great fun, with a capacity crowd.)  On Wednesday we remembered our mortality and our dependence upon God for all things, including the very fact of our existence.  We imposed ashes and said, once again, that we are but dust.  And now we are in the midst of the forty days.  The duration of Lent mirrors the length of days that Jesus of Nazareth spent in the wilderness immediately following his baptism.  While there, as Mark’s Gospel tells us today, Jesus was “tempted by Satan.”

Some classical images depict the temptation of Jesus as though tantalizing things are put before him, which he stiff-arms dramatically and without pause, all the while gazing forward in an angelic expression.  Those depictions are, frankly, heretical.  Whatever else we mean by the humanity of Jesus, we must mean that his temptation was real, and temptation is only real if it’s something with which we struggle, if it’s a path we consider taking—really consider taking—before, hopefully, choosing a better way.

Ary Scheffer's "Temptation of Christ," 1854

Ary Scheffer’s “Temptation of Christ,” 1854

In other words, Jesus considered—he had to have considered—what the Devil had to offer.  Jesus struggled with that offer as we would struggle.  And, it’s safe to assume that the Devil presented Jesus with the very things hardest for Jesus to resist.  What were they?

Mark’s Gospel doesn’t tell us, which leaves the question open to our imaginations.  Part of me prefers that.  It allows me to think that Jesus may have been tempted by the very things against which you or I most often struggle in this life.  If, for instance, our fevered temptations—the things that almost, and sometimes do, overcome us—are addiction, or crass materialism, or carnal things, or narcissism, or apathy toward the world around us, then maybe these were Jesus’ temptations, too.  Maybe these were the things he was offered by the Devil and considered embracing during those forty days.  Maybe he almost gave in.  And if so, then Jesus’ perseverance and his solidarity with you and with me can make all the difference in our own struggles.  In Mark’s telling, Jesus can become our fellow traveler against the temptations in our lives.

That’s the way Mark presents this story.  The other two Gospels in which it appears, Matthew and Luke, fill in the gaps.  There, Satan’s temptings are specific.  He offers Jesus 1.) abundant bread, 2.) sovereignty, and 3.) preservation from pain and loss.  Most importantly, the Devil offers these things now.  Why is that crucial?

"Jesus considered—he had to have considered—what the Devil had to offer.  Jesus struggled with that offer as we would struggle.  And, it’s safe to assume that the Devil presented Jesus with the very things hardest for Jesus to resist."

“Jesus considered—he had to have considered—what the Devil had to offer. Jesus struggled with that offer as we would struggle. And, it’s safe to assume that the Devil presented Jesus with the very things hardest for Jesus to resist.”

It is because, as we know, each of these promises already belongs to Jesus.  Jesus will become abundant bread, the bread of life, in fact.  Jesus will become sovereign over not only peoples and nations but over the very cosmos.  And through resurrection, Jesus will be restored on the other side of all pain and loss.  But each of these promises will be realized for Jesus only through the coming years on the road, years in which Jesus will be manhandled by crowds, castigated by his own family, betrayed and abandoned by his friends, stripped of his dignity, and crucified by those in power.

The Devil only offers Jesus what already belongs to Jesus.  The difference is that the Devil offers it now, without Jesus first having to experience a life.

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Author Philip Simmons, whose book Learning to Fall the Friday morning Men’s Group is reading, talks about life in rural New Hampshire, where at the time of writing Simmons and his wife, along with all their neighbors, own old clapboard farmhouses and indulge in the lifelong process of restoring them.[i]  In every house, Simmons says, there’s always something—or many somethings—yet to be done.  His house and the houses of all his neighbors are forever unfinished.  There’s always some exposed wiring, or unpainted drywall, or plywood subfloor awaiting hardwood.  When he pauses to consider this, Simmons says, “On our bad days, in our dark moments, we see in our unfinished houses the surest sign of calamity.”

Philip Simmons

Philip Simmons

What troubles Simmons and his neighbors is that the unfinished nature of their houses, their haphazard incompleteness, seems to reflect something about the state of their lives.  Simmons says, “Fact is most of us make do, with our duct tape, and blue tarps, our patched and cobbled houses giving physical form to all that remains unfinished and imperfect in our own cramped and needful selves…Most of us most of the time, and all of us some of the time, live in houses that remind us of the many ways in which life has turned out to be not quite what we had in mind.”

Simmons is talking about four walls and a roof, but he’s also talking about psyches, about souls.  And he’s not only speaking to himself and his neighbors.  He’s speaking to us.

Simmons  finds alluring the temptation to move into a finished house, to sell his ramshackle work in progress and purchase something complete, something shiny and new with multi-zone heating and well-caulked windows.  And he really means that he is tempted by the notion of fast-forwarding somehow into a finished and tidy life, the promise of an instant wholeness.  He says, “In the journey to the elsewhere of our fond imagining we wish ourselves far from here, far from the suffering of our lives, far from our unfinished houses and our unfinished selves.”unfinished house

But Philip Simmons resists the temptation.  He concludes that forced completeness before its time is, ultimately, a pretending.  It is an empty promise.    He says, “To be too settled in this life is…to die while still living, to live a sort of death-in-life.  Only so far as we are unsettled is there any hope for us.”

In other words, there is no shortcut to finishing our house.  There is no shortcut to wholeness, to finishing a life, to defining who and what we are in our souls and in relation to one another and to God.

This is the Gospel truth in the story of Jesus’ own temptation.  Even for Jesus, the shortcut to wholeness was the Devil’s doing.  Truly to realize the promises before him, Jesus had to decide first to live his life, to undertake and fully experience the labor, the disappointment, the pain, the loss, and the joy in order to become abundant bread for us, and the lord of our lives, and the hope of our resurrection.  And only when he resolved these things, the Gospel tells us, angels attended him.

Philip Simmons was no armchair philosopher.  He did not take his ease as he wrote words about work and struggle.  He wrote as a forty year old man who was slowly but surely dying of Lou Gerhig’s Disease.  He knew, immediately and for real, that for us common folk, too, it is in the living—in the labor, the sweat, the pain, the loss, the joy—that we build our lives.  We live, this very day as we sit here, in unfinished houses.  And Simmons knew that with each hammered nail, each temptation, each word of indictment or grace, we determine what kind of house we’re building.  Simmons says, “Each day, I work to make my home among the people I find about me…[And] I do know that whatever communion with the Divine I may have when this life is done will surely be prepared for by my seeking always to dwell in the Divine as I find it here, in this life, in this very moment.”

We are in the forty days of Lent.  There are temptations, and none so great as the temptation to bypass the unfinished life for the one that is instantly complete and whole, well put together and without blemish.  There are plenty of tempters in our world, both secular and religious, who will peddle that false promise.   But we, like the Jesus we follow, will only find ourselves and our God—we will only discover the fulfillment of God’s promises—in the living.  And when we commit our hearts to this unfinished life, we may find that we are attended by angels.

[i] Simmons, Philip.  Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life, pp. 38-49.

Gold Dust

Right in the middle of the excruciating Book of Job, as long-suffering Job continually debates his friends and maintains his innocence before God, there is an interlude in which Job pauses, oddly, to describe the condition of those who make their livelihood under the earth, mining its resources.  Job says, “Iron is taken out of the earth, and copper is smelted from ore. Miners penetrate darkness, and search out to the farthest bound the ore in gloom and deep darkness.  They open shafts in a valley away from human habitation; they are forgotten by travelers.  They sway suspended, remote from all people.”coal miner

It is a terrifying soliloquy.  It speaks of futility, of the way in which human beings seek to shine light into impenetrable darkness, to plumb the depths of life, love, and knowledge, only to discover how feeble our light is, and how quickly it is extinguished, and we are forgotten.

Last week I watched the Indy film entitled Don’t Blink, about a group of friends who travel to a remote winter lodge and begin disappearing.  There are no monsters, no serial killers, no secret trap doors.  The characters simply vanish, one by one.  They are, in the words of one character, erased.  And the movie is the more unsettling by that fact.  It taps into a primal anxiety, that when we are no more, we truly are no more.  One character says to the others remaining, as the terror reaches a fevered pitch, “Don’t you get it?  We’re all going to disappear, and then everything we’ve ever done, it doesn’t matter.”  We become like Job’s miner, swaying alone in the abyss, forgotten in darkness.Don't Blink

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Writer Andrew Carroll tells of his visit to remote and uninhabited Hart Island in Long Island Sound.[i]  Hart Island is, in effect, a one hundred acre cemetery.  Carroll reveals that “there are approximately 850,000 bodies interred on Hart Island, each one of them unclaimed or unwanted…Suicide victims pulled from the Hudson River.  Homebound elderly found dead of starvation or heat stroke in their apartments.  Stillborn infants whose parents couldn’t afford to bury them.  Teenage runaways beaten to death.  Homeless addicts who overdosed in condemned buildings.  New York is where they all happened to die, but they came from across this country and around the world.  Hart Island…is the largest potter’s field in the United States.”

Hart IslandThese are, in real life, the nameless, the forgotten, the erased.  Carroll continues, “At Hart Island, bodies are buried for twenty-five years, and then the bones are dug up and bunched together to make room for the newcomers,” where they become but dust and ashes.

That is, after all, what Ash Wednesday is all about.  We are reminded of our fragility, our transience and finitude, the fact that we came from, and will return to, the depths of the earth.  That we are but dust and ashes.  But is that all?  Is Ash Wednesday ultimately a morose day, intended to accentuate our nothingness?

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The twenty-eighth chapter of Job doesn’t end with the miner swaying alone in the abyss.  Job continues, “As for the earth, out of it comes bread; underneath it is turned up as by fire.  Its stones are the place of sapphires, and its dust contains gold.”Gold Dust

How do we make sense of that juxtaposition?  How do we reconcile Job’s lament that we go down into the earth, decaying, forgotten, unto dust, with the conviction that this selfsame dust is also characterized by sapphires and gold?

The reconciliation comes when we recognize, in faith, that though we are dust, we are not merely so.  We are the dust into which has been breathed the Spirit of God.  That Spirit infuses us with the sapphires and gold of God’s very image, and God’s image, friends, can never be erased.

We will, indeed, go down into the earth.  The day will come—soon—when we no longer share in this life.  But even in death, we do not sway in the abyss, remote and alone. The abyss is not real, or, at least, it is not final.  When we go down into the earth, it is for a season, not for eternity.  And even then, we reside in God until such time that the earth is turned up, and the gold will shine through our resurrected being with a light that the darkness cannot overcome.

Ash Wednesday is, indeed, about our finitude, but its purpose is not to declare our futility or worthlessness.  Its purpose, like the Book of Job’s, is to remind us of our utter and absolute dependence on the God who creates us to shine like diamonds in God’s very image.  Our lives are not futile.  We are not worthless.  You and I are, like the gems and gold that reside in the dust of the earth, invaluable.

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In the very center of the stark loneliness on Hart Island, there stands a ten-foot stone cross, a sentry over those million men, women, and children who have been buried namelessly over the decades.  The base of the cross quotes Matthew’s Gospel, saying, “He calleth his own by name.”

Even on Hart Island, the dust contains gold.  Those whom the world may have forgotten are not forgotten in the heart of God.  They, like us, are cherished, and they shine, forever and forever.Hart Island Cross

[i] Carroll, Andrew.  Here is Where: Discovering America’s Great Forgotten History, pp. 395-405.

The 16th Street Baptist Church, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and the Ambiguity of Southernness

Two weeks ago Jill and I took our kids to see the film Selma.  The movie is fantastic in its human portrayal of Martin Luther King, Jr., so important in an era in which King, like other great American figures, is increasingly cast in marble and consequently risks losing his humanity among us.  There are two images from the film that have stayed with me.

David Oyelowo portraying Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the film "Selma."

David Oyelowo portraying Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the film Selma.

The first comes early on, when four little girls are descending the stairs in their Sunday best at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.  They are discussing girlish things with smiles on their faces, when the church is blown apart without warning, killing all four.  As a viewer, even knowing that it is coming, the horror of the scene is a jarring, graphic reminder of the violence people are sometimes willing to do to one another due to differences in race, ethnicity, religion, or lifestyle.

The four girls killed in the bombing at 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama, September 15, 1963.

The four girls killed in the bombing at 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama, September 15, 1963.

The other image is of the second march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, when Dr. King, John Lewis, and a beautiful diversity of races and religions walk hand-in-hand, in prayerful solidarity with one another.

I grew up in the segregated South.  You may do the math and realize that, at age forty-two, I was born well after Brown v. Board of Education, the Central High School crisis in Little Rock, the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act.  And yet, I did indeed grow up in a de facto segregated South.  In my hometown, there were no African-Americans.  I mean that literally.  My mother, who returned to school to earn her library certification when I was in junior high, researched a paper on why this was so.  Extending back generations, the reasons were ominous.  There were veiled threats of violence.  There was actual violence.  Decades before, it had been made clear that African-Americans were unwelcome.  My early exposure to non-white Southerners, therefore, was through high school sporting events against teams from other towns, and the football field and basketball gym are not the best places to engender cross-cultural appreciation and understanding.

(It is important to note that the hometown I knew in the 1970s and 1980s, while monochromatic, was a place I experienced as open-minded and loving.  I don’t know how we’d have responded had African-Americans moved to town during that time, because it did not happen.)


March toward Edmund Pettus Bridge

I love being Southern, with our culture, music, food, and more.  But I also live in the tension of what the alt-rock band Drive-By Truckers calls “the duality of the Southern thing.”  My adult life has included the attempt to reconcile a sometimes ambiguous heritage with a commitment to the Gospel in which there is “no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male or female,” no black or white.  “For we all are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

As we move into Black History Month, it is important to hold side-by-side the images of the 16th Street Baptist Church and the steady march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, so that we remember both the worst and the best of which we are capable.  As Christians, may we always embody the best and walk hand-in-hand as brothers and sisters in Christ.

“The Big Reveal” and Ultimate Concern

Today’s Gospel passage from Mark portrays Jesus’ very first act of ministry.  Until now, Jesus has retreated to the wilderness to pray and wrestle with the Devil, and he has called his core disciples.  Using a modern business analogy, we might say Jesus has gone on a visioning retreat to set his priorities and create his strategic plan, and he has assembled his team.  But until today Jesus hasn’t launched.  He hasn’t done anything.  Again, by analogy, if we consider Steve Jobs and the annual Apple shareholders meeting, we know that first actions intend to set tone, name priorities, and declare to the world what is central to mission.  They serve as the “big reveal.”  On center stage, when he has people’s attention, Steve Jobs (or, now, Tim Cook) announces the iPod, or iPhone, or iPad, setting the consumer world on fire.  What does Jesus do?

The "big reveal" sets the tone, names priorities, and declares to the world what is central to mission.

The “big reveal” sets the tone, names priorities, and declares to the world what is central to mission.

We’re told that Jesus enters the synagogue at Capernaum—locally, this is like the Toyota Center: the center of attention, exactly where you’d want to go in order to make a splash.  Jesus teaches, but in Mark’s Gospel we’re not told what he says.  Mark does, however, describe Jesus’ first public act.  A man filled with, we are told, an “unclean spirit” approaches Jesus and speaks in what can only be described as a possessed voice, a voice not truly the man’s own.  He confronts Jesus, and then Jesus performs his very first act of ministry.  It is his public debut.  Jesus casts out the unclean spirit.  Jesus frees the man from the voice that speaks for him, from the foreign thing—the idol—that has come to control his life.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in a lifetime of studying the Gospels, it’s that Jesus did nothing by happenstance.  If you see the very good movie Selma and watch the way that Martin Luther King, Jr. calculates every minute action, you’ll get a glimpse of the way Jesus also strategized and carried out his ministry, not to manipulate but so that the maximum good would be done with the greatest effect, the maximum grace would be shared.

So, in this first act of ministry, on center stage as it were, Jesus casts out an unclean spirit that had taken hold of the core of this man’s life.  This is the big act; this sets the tone for everything else that is to come; this is the “big reveal.”  But why this?

The Christians in Corinth fight and backbite.  They get drunk on Communion wine.

The Christians in Corinth fight and backbite. They get drunk on Communion wine.

Let’s switch gears for a moment to this strange little epistle passage from First Corinthians.  In Corinth, the Christians have a problem.  The vast majority of the meat for sale in the market stalls—or even on the menu of what were the equivalent of ancient restaurants—comes from animals that were slaughtered as sacrifices to idols, to pagan gods.  Some mature Christians who are full of knowledge and wisdom eat this meat without pause, realizing that the idols to which it was sacrificed aren’t real.  Others, though—Christians young in the faith and not so wise or mature—get confused by this practice.  The more they eat the meat, the more they become convinced that perhaps the idols to which it was dedicated are real, and they begin to feel as if they are being both unfaithful to God and affected by these idols in some way.  And so, Paul says it’s best to avoid the meat altogether, so as not to confuse the young in faith.

Paul is actually being tricky here, because as anyone knows who has read First Corinthians, in truth none of the Christians in Corinth are wise or mature!  They fight and backbite; they get drunk on Communion wine.  I think Paul is using sly rhetoric. (He’s great at that.)  See, Paul ingratiates some of the Corinthians by calling them wise in order to instruct all of them, and he’s talking about more than just the literal meat bought in the marketplace.  He’s using the meat as a symbol of all the idols in the Corinthians’ lives and he’s saying something like this:

“You all ingest the stuff of the false idols around you until those idols become real in your lives.  You may know intellectually that they are false, but what you eat—what you say, what you do—manifests itself in your bodies and in your relationships.  These idols assault your minds and your spirits, and they eventually take hold of your core.  They possess you, in a sense.  They become real, and they take control of your life.”

The Corinthians take the food dedicated to idols, to other gods, into their bodies—they ingest it into the core of themselves—and that act is symbolic of something ominous and bigger, which affects us in the twenty-first century as much as it did the Corinthians in the first.

Paul Tillich: Our faith is based in whatever claims our ultimate concern.

Paul Tillich: Our faith is based in whatever claims our ultimate concern.

Paul Tillich said that our faith is based in whatever claims our ultimate concern.  Said slightly differently—and this is important—our god is that in which we place our ultimate concern.  That’s god with a lowercase “g”.  We know, intellectually, that there is no god but God: The creator of heaven and earth, the giver of life and love.  But what we intellectually know and what we invite into the core of our being are two different things.  We, too, metaphorically speaking, ingest the food of idols.  Don’t misunderstand; these idols are not little statues or graven images.

There is the idol of anger, found everywhere in our world defined by people’s fear and disappointment that life has not turned out as we’d hoped.  Feeding on anger, we too often project our disappointment and the frustration of our days on those with whom we share our lives.  Think of the child who repeatedly hears harsh and degrading words, either directed at her or simply spoken in anger within her hearing.  A brief “I love you” spoken at bedtime cannot outweigh the long effects of the food of idols.  When the child is exposed so often to words from anger’s altar, she begins to think of herself as degraded and unworthy.  The same effect is true of the anger we bear against our spouses, our partners, our siblings, and our friends.

There is the idol of pride, the false notion that somehow we have more merit than those around us.  Pride’s food is the building up of oneself by tearing another down.  With gossip, with exclusivism, with words designed to sting under the guise of humor or even help, pride is a cruel idol.  When given reality within us, it can grow until one’s feelings of superiority over others are so engrained that everyone else becomes an object of derision and disdain.

Think of the child who repeatedly hears harsh and degrading words, either directed at her or simply spoken in anger within her hearing.

Think of the child who repeatedly hears harsh and degrading words, either directed at her or simply spoken in anger within her hearing.

Perhaps the most insidious idol is materialism, the untruth that worth and value are to be found in material things.  In our world, many consume and consume insatiably and unsustainably, sometimes putting accumulation before the basic needs of our brothers and sisters.

There are countless other idols.  You know yours, and I surely know mine.  They provide endless food.  They settle into the core of us.  They draw our attention.  They begin to consume us, rather than we them.  Sometimes, they become our ultimate concern.  And at that point they have possessed us like an unclean spirit.  They have become, in all the ways that tangibly matter in our world, our gods in place of God.  When that happens, selfishness triumphs over empathy.  Fear bests courage.  Anger smothers love.  Our attention, our energy, our finances, our passion are given to the idol, whatever it is.  And the things of God—family, the Body of Christ, the sharing of grace in the world—are neglected, crowded out, and forgotten.

This is rarely some momentous, seismic thing.  Rather, it happens gradually, insidiously so, so that we are scarcely aware it is happening.  That is, until we realize one day that we, like the man in Mark’s Gospel, no longer seem to speak with our own voice.  We can’t even recognize the sound of ourselves.  We’ve become someone we didn’t intend and never wanted to be, someone whose ultimate concern is some idol we know, intellectually, to be pretend and of no real value.

Jesus declares in action that he has come, more than for any other reason, to free us from our idols, to knock from the center of our attention, from the realm of our ultimate concern, those things that take control of us, that claim us, that steal our voices and turn us into someone we are not.

Jesus declares in action that he has come, more than for any other reason, to free us from our idols, to knock from the center of our attention, from the realm of our ultimate concern, those things that take control of us, that claim us, that steal our voices and turn us into someone we are not.

And that is why Jesus does what he does to launch his ministry.  That’s the purpose of his big reveal.  In Mark’s telling, Jesus declares in action that he has come, more than for any other reason, to free us from our idols, to knock from the center of our attention, from the realm of our ultimate concern, those things that take control of us, that claim us, that steal our voices and turn us into someone we are not.

Jesus the Christ, who has earlier said to the disciples, “Follow me,” now says to our clamoring idols, “Be silent, and be gone.”  Those idols won’t leave easily.  They’ll make excuses, and cry out as if they are the victims, and convulse us as they try to keep hold of our core.  But Jesus speaks with the authority of God, and before the voice of God all idols fall silent, like the White Queen before the roar of Aslan in Narnia.

And then, empathy triumphs over selfishness.  Courage bests fear.  Love envelopes anger.  That is grace.  That is the Gospel.  That is the power that can return us to ourselves, so that idols are starved of their food and depart from us, and our hearts are filled with love as our ultimate concern and our God.