Night is coming

Games of Thrones logo

I am a Game of Thrones fan.  I’ll admit I’ve not read the George R. R. Martin books, and, thus, purists might question the credentials of my fandom.  But I have watched every episode of the HBO series, and I wait with bated breath for the next season.  Game of Thrones satisfies me in numerous ways.  Much of the first season was filmed on Malta, that tiny island nation with which I am obsessed.  The map of Westeros intentionally mirrors the map of Great Britain, and its rival families hearken to Britain’s colorful history, with which I am also obsessed.  Game of Thrones includes intrigue, dragons, wisps of magic, and medieval set piece battles.  What’s not to like?

The best part of Game of Thrones, however, is only hinted at through most of the series.  It is the motto of House Stark of Winterfell, the great noble family of the north.  It is also the title of the series’ very first episode, first spoken from the mouth of the doomed Lord Eddard Stark, played brilliantly by Sean Bean.  The motto, which hangs over the series like a shroud, is “Winter is coming.”

“Winter is coming.”  The tone is ominous.  It brings to mind the shortening of sunlight and the clouding of days.  It refers to a dread, the timing of which cannot be chosen and the coming of which cannot be avoided, to that which is crouching but unseen, ready to strike at any moment.  The Stark family motto is often uttered in response to someone who is oblivious to what’s really going on, one who misinterprets what he’s seeing, who tells himself a false narrative in the attempt to explain reality.  The motto is mentioned as a caution to rethink things and prepare, so that when the wind whips and the clouds gather, one can react.  One way to characterize the entire Game of Thrones series is as a dawning recognition by all those in Westeros that the words spoken by Eddard Stark in the first episode are, after all, true: Winter is coming.

George R. R. Martin himself has acknowledged that winter in Game of Thrones is more than meteorological.  Yes, it refers to a literal coming blizzard, but it refers equally to those stark and difficult periods that befall each character in turn.[i]  In their lives, winter can come in any season.

Winter is coming

In today’s Gospel, Jesus and the disciples come across a blind man.  According to the disciples’ understanding of God and the world, someone must be at fault for the man’s disability. But they’re wrong (as I’ll discuss in a moment), and in response to their misperception of reality, Jesus says—sounding something like Eddard Stark—“Night is coming.”

Jesus is surely foreshadowing the actual event of his Passion.  But Jesus is also referring to the shadows that at times befall each of us, when sunlight shortens and days cloud, when something crouching in the darkness strikes at us unaware.  It can be anything.  Just this past week, a minivan carrying some of Jill’s cousins was hit head on while traveling for spring break, causing massive injury and casting the lives of an entire family in shadow.  And, there is disability; there is depression; there is addiction; there is malice; there is abuse.  Any of these can occur in our personal lives; when we consider our communities, our nation, and our world, the shadows lengthen even further.  Night is coming.  It affects all of us, sooner or later.

As have people in every age, the disciples want to make sense of it, to explain why.  So, using the man born blind as a foil, they ask Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?”  The disciples are searching for a reason for the man’s condition, for its meaning, and in the absence of an obvious explanation they impute to the man’s blindness God’s punishment for sin.

We seek meaning in the inexplicable, too, and when purpose eludes us, we are just as likely as the disciples to presume God as the source of our darkness.  The most tragic version I come across is when a child dies, and in the midst of such sorrow and pain someone well-intentioned who desperately seeks meaning in the event offers explanations to the family like, “God needed another angel in heaven.”

What kind of God is God

What kind of god is that?  You see, this Gospel story is about much more than a miraculous healing.  It asks, “What kind of god is God, and is God the source of the darkness in our lives?”  And it answers these questions.

It is a misunderstanding of the character of God, Jesus says, to make God complicit in the darkness of our lives.  God doesn’t punish sin with blindness any more than God wills the death of children.  But where, then, is the meaning in the darkness to be found?

Consider again what Jesus does.  He approaches the blind man, lays hands upon him, and grants him sight.  Rather than cast blame on the man or his parents, or otherwise participate in the disciples’ attempt to make tidy and clear what is, in fact, opaque and random, Jesus acts to redeem something lost, to bring light where there was darkness.

And, Jesus is more than a faith healer.  He is the incarnation of God, and Jesus expresses God’s hopes and passions for the world.  Both the disciples and the people in the latter half of today’s story have defined God as a God of punishment and the source of the darkness that sometimes plagues us.  But the reality of God is startlingly different from people’s expectations and prejudices.  In his response to the blind man, Jesus reveals that it is not God’s wish, not ever, for us to be in darkness.  God always desires for us to live in light, and God will act to push back the night and usher in the dawn.

candle in darkness

Today’s Gospel reveals two additional things of note.  First, notice that Jesus initiates today’s healing by grafting us into his act.  Jesus says, before healing the blind man, “We [that means all those who follow Jesus] must do the work of the one who sent me.”  Today no less than then, we must all be bearers of the light.  For once, John Calvin got it right when he said, “Christ still irradiates the world; but he works now just as hard now through the ministry of his people as he did through his ministry of the flesh.”[ii]

And second, in a dramatic grammatical twist diluted in our English biblical translations, when the formerly blind man is asked his identity by the skeptical onlookers, he responds by saying, “I am,” which is the same provocative way in which Jesus identifies himself as the bearer of God’s grace throughout John’s Gospel.  In other words, having received light from Jesus, the man becomes part of Jesus, and through him Jesus’ own light is then further extended in a darkened world.

Do you see what this means for us?  We don’t merely come here as supplicants seeking forgiveness or the damaged seeking healing.  We receive both, but we also receive the light that shines in the darkness.  That’s how we prepare for the night that is coming.  The light lives in us, and we go back into this world carrying its flame.

We live in Houston, and the metaphor of winter is easily lost on us.  Some years—this one included—we don’t experience much winter at all.  But we know darkness as well as anyone.  Night is coming.  Sooner or later, it always does.  Recall that ancient proverb, attributed variously from China to Celtic Ireland: “I choose to light a candle rather than curse the darkness.”  Gospel wisdom.  God does not cause the darkness, but God does send the Christ light that makes darkness flee.  And we are part of Christ, healed and grafted to him, made to shine.

[i] http://gameofthrones.wikia.com/wiki/Winter_is_Coming_(motto)

[ii] Bruner, Frederick Dale.  The Gospel of John: A Commentary, 573.

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The Devil

A Houstonian dies and goes to hell. While down there the devil notices that the Houstonian doesn’t seem to be suffering like the rest of the inhabitants. The devil checks the gauges and sees that it is 95 degrees with 80% humidity in hell. So, the devil asks the Houstonian why he is so content. The Houstonian replies, “I like it here. The temperature is just like Houston in June.”

Well, the Devil isn’t happy with that response, so he turns the temperature to 100 degrees and the humidity to 90%.  And yet, the only change in the Houstonian’s manner is that he unbuttons his shirt collar.  Otherwise, he’s as happy as before. The Devil quizzes the Houstonian again, and the man responds, “This is even better. It’s like Houston in July.”

The devil, now visibly upset, decides to make the Houstonian really suffer. He jacks the thermostat up to 105 degrees and the humidity to 100%. But he finds the Houstonian sitting in a lounge chair with his shirt off, no less content than before.  “I feel right at home,” the man says, “Like Houston in August”.

Finally, the devil realizes he’s been going about his work all wrong.  He returns to the thermostat and turns the temperature down to a sub-freezing 25 degrees.  The devil, himself shivering, can see his own breath.  Snow begins to fall, and icicles appear all around.  Hell freezes over. “Let’s see what the Houstonian has to say about this!” the devil thinks to himself.  But just then the Houstonian comes running up to the devil, jumping up and down for joy, yelling, “The Texans have finally won the Super Bowl!”

Seattle Seahawks v Houston Texans

What does the devil look like to you? Do you think of the devil at all, either literally or metaphorically?  If not, give yourself permission to do so this morning.  What does the devil look like to you?

In medieval religious art, the devil is a personified demon, complete with horns, a pointed tale, and flaming weaponry with which to poke and prod sinners into the bowels of hell.  He is the Halloween devil of our childhood nightmares, with red eyes and pointed teeth.

For St. Antony of the Desert, who lived in the third and fourth century A.D., the devil appears as a sensual woman dressed in gauzy, flowing red robes.  She is almost unbelievably beautiful.  She is the epitome of desire, and she distracts Antony, shall we say, from his prayers.

In the 1987 American gothic film “Angel Heart,” the devil is Robert DeNiro, in a three-piece suit with a well-manicured beard.  He is a businessman who manipulates people’s actions behind the scenes until they perform the most atrocious acts, all so that he can, in the end, take possession of their souls.

In Genesis this morning, according to Christian tradition, the devil is depicted as the slithering serpent who silently approaches Eve, the serpent who has inspired literary characters from Kaa in Disney’s Jungle Book to the forked-tongue members of Slytherin House in the Harry Potter series.

devil-images

The demon, the seductress, the manipulator, the snake.  All common images of the devil.  But what does the devil look like to you?

I will say, to me the devil looks like no one.  Oh, I believe in the devil, have no doubt.  It’s difficult to do the work of a priest for very long and not sense that there is some active presence in this world attempting to thwart the good purposes of God.  But I have no visual sense of what the devil might look like.  I am left disappointed by devilish depictions in art, literature, or film, because they always seem to me a bit cartoonish.  Putting a face on the devil seems, somehow, dangerously to underestimate that power whose very mission is to draw us away from God.

Notice today that Matthew’s Gospel does not describe the devil’s appearance at all.  Matthew cares not, apparently, for how the devil looks.  He focuses only and entirely on what the devil does.  And I know of no better description of how the devil operates than the one offered by New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia over seventy-five years ago.  La Guardia said, “The Devil is easy to identify. He appears when you’re terribly tired and makes a very reasonable request which you know you shouldn’t grant.”

Now, pause again and think about the devil.  Forget the demon, the seductress, the manipulator, the snake.  Set aside our sophisticated, modern perspective that says our understanding of the universe leaves no room for devils.  Instead, ask yourself this question: When has it been that you moved away from the good that you feel, deep in your soul, God desires for you?  When have you foolishly stepped off the precipice into existential danger?  When have you justified to yourself a decision that you know you shouldn’t make, or an action you know you shouldn’t take?  When have you convinced yourself that you were entitled to something that, in a moment of greater and more honest clarity, you knew was not for you?  When have I?

If you can stand to bear that pit in your stomach for a moment more, consider those instances alongside La Guardia’s description of the devil: “The Devil is easy to identify. He appears when you’re terribly tired and makes a very reasonable request which you know you shouldn’t grant.”

The snake slithers up to Eve and suggests to her that God’s counsel is unreliable.  God only restricts Adam and Eve from eating the fruit, the serpent claims, to prevent them from becoming Gods.  The fruit is good for them, the serpent says.

eve-and-the-serpent

And Eve, who has never had reason to doubt God’s good for her, who knows she shouldn’t listen to the serpent’s forked tongue, entertains the serpent’s request and eats the fruit.  Oh, the eyes of the proverbial first humans are opened to the reality of evil.  But to their horror, they realize that now they also can choose evil over good, and they find that the voice of the serpent returns whenever they are tired and vulnerable, encouraging them to do just that.  It is the universal human story.  We are Adam and Eve, everyday.

Jesus own encounter with the devil in Matthew today follows La Guardia’s pattern exactly, and Jesus’ response is the only healthful model for our own.  Jesus is 1.) hungry, 2.) physically vulnerable, and 3.) achingly alone, and the devil makes reasonable suggestions to alleviate all three maladies.  In his fatigue, Jesus could, as we often do, lean on the devil’s reasonable requests.  But Jesus leans the other way, on the hope that God has for him.  He believes that God’s love for him runs deeper than his fatigue, and he trusts that God’s love sustains him even when that sustenance isn’t obvious.  Jesus leans toward God in his moment of greatest vulnerability, away from the devil’s whispers, and when the devil subsides, the angels charge in to minister to him.

We have entered the season of Lent, and it is a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, Lent is a time in which observant Christians seek to engage in self-reflection and examination, to renew our spiritual lives and cleave more closely to God.  On the other hand, our Lenten observance often by design includes denying ourselves those very things that, in other seasons of the year, buoy our sense of well-being and comfort.  Consequently, in Lent we can find ourselves more vulnerable than usual, more tired.  And “the devil appears when you’re terribly tired and makes a very reasonable request which you know you shouldn’t grant.” In those moments, our sustenance and salvation is to draw our model and our strength from Jesus, and to lean toward God, who desires only the good for us, and whose watchful angels hover nearby.

Kindness

In Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian, a young man called only “the Kid” falls in with the notorious Glanton Gang as it marauds across the West under the pretension of protecting settlers from the Comanche.  In truth, the Glanton Gang rob, rape, and murder whomever they please, including the very settlers they are paid by the Mexican government to protect.  For the most part, the Kid refrains from participating in the Glantons’ worst atrocities, as they slaughter with abandon.  Like St. Paul before his conversion, the Kid holds the proverbial coats of the others, but he throws few stones himself.

Cormac McCarthy’s style of storytelling offers no pause for reflection.  We don’t know the Kid’s thoughts.  We’re not aware of whatever, if any, internal moral struggle he experiences in the midst of so much blood.  Although, using our own lives as analogy we can imagine that the Kid rationalizes and justifies as he goes along acquiescently with the gang.

blood-meridian

Towards the very end of the novel, years after the Glanton Gang have broken up (and mostly been killed), the Kid (now fully grown to manhood) still lives in the hardscrabble West.  One day as he rides alone, a sect of Christians passes by him carrying a wooden cross into the wilderness.  The following day he comes upon their corpses, slaughtered in the desert sand by someone unknown.  Their cross lies on the ground, broken.

As the Kid investigates the grisly scene, he notices an old Mexican woman sitting tucked into a niche in the surrounding cliff face.  Her eyes are downcast.  And the Kid, strangely and unexpectedly moved, speaks to her.  Here is what Cormac McCarthy tells us:

[The Kid] spoke to her in a low voice.  He told her that he was an American and that he was a long way from the country of his birth and that he had no family and that he had traveled much and seen many things and had been at war and endured hardships.  He told her that he would convey her to a safe place, some party of her countrypeople who would welcome her and that she should join him for he could not leave her in this place or she would surely die.

He knelt on one knee, resting the rifle before him like a staff.  Abuelita, he said.  [Can you not hear me?][1]

After such a relentlessly brutal story, this tender interaction serves as an unexpected confession of sorts, a desperate redemption-seeking action by the Kid.  But McCarthy goes on:

[The Kid] reached into the little cove and touched her arm.  She moved slightly, her whole body, light and rigid.  She weighed nothing.  She was just a dried shell and she had been dead in that place for years.[2]

In Cormac McCarthy’s bleak narrative, the woman symbolizes the Kid’s life.  For the Kid, it is too late.  The book of his life has been written.  The Kid has been formed unwittingly into a certain kind of person, and here, near the end, his late and feeble attempt at kindness meets only a hollow shell, like a cicada’s carapace clung to tree bark, ready to crumble into dust.

blood-meridian-2

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.  It is on this day that begins the season of Lent that God grants us what Cormac McCarthy does not: a time to pause, reflect upon, and ponder the book of life we are writing.  On Ash Wednesday, when we are reminded that we are dust, the question is begged whether even now there is nothing but dust left of us, whether we are already a hollow shell merely waiting to crumble.  Have we already written the ending to the book of our lives?

No question could be more crucial.  How can we answer it?  Perhaps by asking: When was the last time you—or I—extended kindness?  I don’t mean here superficial nicety.  We define our days by that, and we know deep down the difference between nicety and kindness.  Nicety smiles at another and then immediately turns and mumbles a curse under our breath.  Nicety extends a tentative helping hand and then begrudges when it is grasped.  Nicety preserves decorum even when it witnesses pain or horror.  Nicety is the mask that denies our own sorrow.

Kindness, by contrast, walks into the desert of another’s life, where the cross that is borne may have become so heavy as to have fallen and broken, and offers to take up that cross.  Kindness kneels before the one who is tucked in fear between the rocks and offers to walk side-by-side to the safe place. Kindness refuses to hold the coats of the bullies and the thieves, both those as obvious as the Glanton Gang and as subtle as those who hide behind their social nicety.

All this is to say, kindness includes the solidarity that comes through empathy, which means that kindness experiences—rather than denies—loss and sorrow.

The poet Naomi Nye says,

 

Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,

what you counted and carefully saved,

all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness.[3]

 

It was too late for the Kid, because he never experienced sorrow.  Early on, he inured himself to violence and pain.  He allowed himself to believe that the horrors perpetrated around him were part and parcel of a lawless world.  He grew accustomed to holding the coats of those who abuse.  Ironically, the literally desolate landscape never looked so to him.  He could not extend kindness, because he did not recognize loss.

ash-wednesday-2016

But blessedly, our landscape is not so bleak, and the finality of fiction is not so in real life.  Scripture promises that it is never too late for us!  Until our dying breath, when we truly return to dust and ashes, the book of our life is not fully written.  What remainder of us may appear as a hollow shell, God can fill with life.  C.S. Lewis says that so long as there is a mere spark under all those ashes, God can give it breath until the flame shines brightly again.[4]  If we will notice and experience loss; if we will grieve when the world around us and the lives around us crumble to dust; if we will live through kindness, God will, the Prophet Isaiah says, “satisfy your parched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail.”[5]

It is so much easier not to feel.  It is so much easier to smile nicely and hold the coats.  Kindness is hard work.  It can be the discipline of Lent, and it can begin on this day when we are reminded that we, too, are dust.

[1] McCarthy, Cormac.  Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West, 315.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Nye, Naomi Shihab. “Kindness.”

[4] Lewis, C.S.  The Great Divorce, 74.

[5] Isaiah 58:11.