Birth: A Reflection for Independence Day

Seventeen years ago on this very day, my wife was due to give birth.  We were in Jackson, Tennessee; it was blazing hot; and Jill was ready to burst.  We walked our neighborhood incessantly, hoping to entice and coax our firstborn child to make his entrance into the world.  He was having nothing of it.  Day after day, Jill and I walked.  Day after day, the baby obstinately stayed put.

Of course, our attention to this child had been attuned for a very long time, even longer than the nine months he had been forming in the womb.  For the previous five years of our marriage, Jill and I had talked about the child we hoped, one day, to have.  We had debated the values we would seek to instill in him.  We had negotiated how we would plan for his future.  We had dreamed of what impact he might make upon the world.

A full week after the due date, on July 7, the baby still offered no sign of his appearing, and our obstetrician decided to induce labor.  We entered the hospital early that morning, Jill was given a healthy dose of Pitocin, and we expected that soon we’d have a cooing, gurgling baby.  July 7 passed in discomfort but with no child.  Twenty-four hours turned into thirty-six before Jill’s body and the baby showed any inclination to give birth.  When things finally did start to happen, the baby became lodged in the birth canal, and there he stayed for what seemed like forever.  Finally, his heartrate fell precipitously, and with such speed that I didn’t realize what was happening, the doctor used forceps to retrieve our son and pull him, seemingly against his will, into the world.

The baby didn’t cry.  He was limp and lethargic.  Looks of concern spread across the faces in the room.  A special care nurse was summoned.  An oxygen bag was applied.  And I, a new and first time father, stood to the side paralyzed, wondering whether this event would end badly, whether the plans we’d made for nine months, whether the hopes we’d carried for five years, would leave us bereft.

Griffin first Halloween

My son on his first Halloween

It is impossible for me to celebrate my son’s birthday without dwelling upon, and sometimes losing myself within, the memory of his birth.  I daresay my gratitude to God is deepened because, for a moment, I teetered on the very edge of loss.  I also carry a potent sense of the precariousness of the project that is my son.  Each of his birthdays, like the day of his actual birth, is a moment filled with hope, and anticipation, and apprehension for what the coming year may bring.  All that preparation and planning that began five years before he entered the world is still operative.

My son’s birthday is the same week as Independence Day.  Sometimes the two events get muddied in my thinking.  I love them both, my son and the United States.  The coincidence of these auspicious dates also reminds me that Independence Day is a birthday, the anniversary observance of the entrance into the world of something uniquely new.

For years before our nation’s birth, there were those who debated the values this new thing would embody.  They planned for its arrival.  They imagined the impact it would have on the world.  What was born was not only, or even primarily, the legal entity of a nation, but rather an idea.  And though the Founders’ understanding of God was not, on the whole, orthodox, the idea gestated by them was commensurate with the Gospel.   The idea was that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, [and] that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is an idea about shared human dignity and worth, about the commonweal of which we are all a part, about being a city on a hill rather than a society in which any must crawl in the gutter.

Declaration of Independence

The birth was announced on July 4, 1776, but the announcement came at the beginning rather than the end of the birthing process, and labor turned out to be painful, lengthy, and precarious.  It began at Lexington and Concord, and it endured through Appomattox, two world wars, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, September 11, 2001.  In truth, it continues today.  There were times when the idea being birthed seemed stuck, when its heartbeat seemed to fade, when Americans felt paralyzed as events swirled around them, and in their fear didn’t know how to act or, worse yet, acted badly.

At such times, they might’ve given up on the idea.  We still might.  The laboring process faces us anew in every generation.  We might decide that the idea isn’t what’s valuable, that it doesn’t matter, that we can abandon labor leaving the idea half-birthed, and live as Americans anyway.

But we cannot, any more than I could have walked out of the labor and delivery room seventeen years ago.  My son was being born.  There was nothing in this world more valuable or precious.  All the planning, all the passion, all the love that brought us to that day hinged on the birth of that child.  Whatever happened next, life would never be the same.

And the same is true of the United States.  We are only American to the extent that our lives are dedicated wholly to the birth, health, and growth of a land marked by liberty for all.  It is the land we bequeath to our flesh and blood children.  It is the land that continues to be the iconic hope of the rest of the world.  If we ever walk away from birthing the idea of the United States, then it will be stillborn, and in spirit, at least, this great nation will cease to be.

When my son was in peril in the moments after his birth, our saving grace was the doctor, who all the while tended to Jill and offered us both confident words of encouragement and resolve.  In moments of our nation’s peril, sages and prophets have emerged who do the same.  In December 1862, a year and a half after the outbreak of the Civil War and three months after the Battle of Antietam, which is still the bloodiest day in American history, Abraham Lincoln addressed Congress.  He spoke to encourage the emancipation of Southern slaves, but his words are timeless, and they apply equally to any moment in our nation’s history when the laboring process is distressed, when we Americans allow our divisions to paralyze us.

At the end of his speech, Lincoln considered his generation’s legacy with both warning and hope.  Hear his words, but allow them to speak to us. “We cannot escape history,” Lincoln said, “We…will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the [United States]. The world will not forget that we say this. We…hold the power, and bear the responsibility…We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth…The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just—a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.”[i]

lincoln_life_b

As I post this, my almost seventeen-year-old son is on his way home from Costa Rica with fifteen of his fellow parishioners, where they have served as the hands and feet of Christ for people in grave need.  All that planning, all that apprehension, all that hope…I am, this day, a proud father.  I love my son.

I also love the idea of the United States, for which so many before us have given their hearts, their hopes, and their lives.  With one another, and for those who look to us in hope across this globe, I pray that we will follow the way that is peaceful, generous, and just.  If we do, then God will, indeed, forever bless.

Happy birthday.

__________________________________

[i] http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/congress.htm.

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What is your ‘why’?

“What is your ‘why?’ Why did you get out of bed this morning?  Why did you eat what you ate?  Why did you wear what you wore?  Why did you come here?  What is your ‘why?’

Life is about people…[and] we’re here to connect.  How do we do that?  Love, time, death.  These three abstractions connect every single human being on earth.  Everything that we covet, everything that we fear not having, everything that we ultimately end up buying is because at the end of the day we long for love, we wish we had more time, we fear death.  Love, time, death.”

That is the opening speech of the movie Collateral Beauty, in which Will Smith plays Howard Inlet, a brilliant, hotshot Madison Avenue creative director.  In the film’s opening scene, Howard is leading a staff pep rally, and he’s talking about advertising and the ways in which successful admen harness these three abstractions—the longing for love, the wish for time, and the fear of death—to market and sell products.  Immediately following the speech, the film’s storyline fast forwards three years, and Howard’s words become ironic.  His six-year-old daughter dies, and in his anger and grief Howard loses his ability to connect with the world around him.  For him, love leaves; time loses meaning; and death mocks.  Howard is lost in his suffering.

Collateral Beauty 1

Will Smith as Howard Inlet

 

In his Letter to the Romans today, St. Paul has something to say about suffering.  Paul says, “We boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.”

For anyone in real life who knows Howard’s pain, or any trauma or distress, St. Paul’s words may seem laughable and naïve.   Of St. Paul’s words, renowned biblical scholar N.T. Wright says, with his characteristic blunt honesty, “On the surface, there is no obvious logic for this.”[i]  There is also no school of thought from which Paul derives his claim.  In Paul’s world, Stoic philosophy surely counseled steadfastness in the face of suffering—by which the Stoics meant a kind of hardbitten toughness—but for the Stoics this was an end-in-itself.  For them suffering was something to endure, but it was also without meaning, what in our own era Viktor Frankl would call despair.  For the Stoics, the highest virtue in the face of despair was simply carrying on.

We get that, and often we affirm it.  In literature, film, and even current events we extol a Stoic perseverance, and, indeed, it is better than giving up on life.  But Stoicism is not what St. Paul is talking about.  Paul says that our suffering can produce hope, and Stoicism knows nothing about hope.

Paul’s first word that merits explanation is “boasting.”  Paul says we “boast in our suffering,” which to our minds suggests that Paul is encouraging us to brag about our wounds and maladies, to celebrate them, to try and one-up our friends with them.  There’s a masochism of the soul, a sickness, in that, we know.  It is not good for us, and it must not be what Paul means.

It isn’t.  The Greek word in Paul’s letter translated “boast” does not mean “to brag,” but rather, “to have confidence,”[ii] and again, for Paul, that confidence takes the form of hope.

How can it be?  How can we, in the depths of our darkest moments, in our weakest states, when we are lost and don’t know the way, have hope?  Let’s set that question aside for a moment.

Collateral Beauty 2

In the movie Collateral Beauty, Howard is eventually visited by three Dickens-esque characters, the personifications of Death, and Time, and Love.  They are not Pollyannas, though Death and Time do offer some melodramatic Hollywood platitudes.  But Love is different, and when she enters a scene it is as if the screenwriter was inspired.  The first time Howard meets Love, she weeps.  The second time they meet, he asks her, derisively, “Are you going to cry again?”

She asks him back, “You don’t like it when I’m sad?”

He responds, “Aren’t you always sad?”

And she says, “No, I can be other things.  I can be happy.  I can be unexpected and unpredictable, and…warm, and mysterious, and home…I know you don’t believe me, but you have to trust me.”

It’s then that Howard’s suffering erupts in anger.  “Trust you?  Trust you?  I did trust you…And you betrayed me.  You broke my heart.”

Does love break our hearts?  St. Paul says today, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”  Paul says that God’s love in Christ gave us access to God’s grace from our very beginning; God’s love holds us in this very moment; and God’s love will carry us into the fulfillment of God’s own hopes for the world, which will be glory.  It is not love that breaks our hearts.  A broken world does that.  It is love that abides with us when our hearts are broken.

In the movie, Love says to Howard, “I’m in all of it.  I’m the darkness and the light.  I’m the sunshine and the storm.  Yes, you’re right, I was there in [your daughter’s] laugh.  But I’m also here now in your pain.  I’m the reason for everything.  Don’t try and live without me, Howard.  I am the only ‘why.’”

This is the answer to the question of suffering and hope.  We are not lost in our suffering, and we are not hardbitten and alone, because God’s love is poured into our hearts.  That is the basis for our hope.  That is what makes us Christians rather than Stoics.  In joy and in sorrow, in sublime pleasures and in harrowing pain, God’s love is all around us, and underneath us, and in us.  It is the real thing, the source of our joy, that which bears us through our present pain, and that will redeem our hope that all things will ultimately be well.  Love is the only “why.”

____________

“What is your ‘why?’ Why did you get out of bed this morning?  Why did you eat what you ate?  Why did you wear what you wore?  Why did you come here?  What is your ‘why?’

Time is precious, and we need not fear death, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.  That is our hope, in suffering and in joy.  That is the only true thing.  That is our why.

[i] New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. X, 516.

[ii] Ibid.

I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

Exactly thirty years ago, in 1987, I was entering the ninth grade, a time in life when every experience is oversized and formative.  That year, an Irish rock band of whom I’d previously never heard released its fifth studio album.  The band was U2, and the album was The Joshua Tree, with tracks including “With or Without You” and “Where the Streets Have No Name.”  The Joshua Tree’s reach made it all the way to Paragould, Arkansas and far beyond.  It had such cultural impact that in 2017, during this thirtieth anniversary year, U2 is reprising The Joshua Tree tour and playing the entire album live in cities across the globe.  It just so happens that U2 will be in Houston this very Wednesday at NRG Stadium.  If you have a thousand dollars to spend, you might still be able to snag a ticket!

u2 joshua tree

What I didn’t know in 1987, but what I came to know later, is that three of the four U2 bandmates are Christian.  Their faith began as evangelical when they were teenagers.  Over the decades, that faith has morphed somewhat, and the bandmates sometimes speak of it hesitantly or cryptically.  U2 has never been known as a “Christian band,” but some of their music is overtly so.  The 1981 song “Gloria” includes the lines, “Gloria in te domine/ Gloria exultate/ Oh Lord, if I had anything, anything at all/ I’d give it to you.”  How about that.  Later songs are titled “Yahweh” and “40,” hearkening to Psalm 40.

Knowing this about U2 offers a code key to much of the rest of their music.  Songs that on the surface may not seem overtly spiritual are revealed to be subversively so.  “She moves in mysterious ways,” from the album Achtung, Baby for instance, becomes not about some profane seductress but about the Holy Spirit of God.  The track on Joshua Tree that most captivated me thirty years ago also opens up into new vistas of meaning:

I have climbed the highest mountains
I have run through the fields
Only to be with you
Only to be with you.

I have run, I have crawled
I have scaled these city walls
These city walls
Only to be with you.

But I still haven’t found
What I’m looking for.
But I still haven’t found
What I’m looking for.

What is this song about?  Is Bono looking for love, for his heart’s desire?  Yes, but not the worldly kind.  He speaks of a restlessness that will travel to the ends of the earth looking for his center and source of being, and cannot find it.  This is a song not about romance but about the soul, and about our fear and frustration when we cannot find that which we need the very most.  It is about being existentially alone in a crowded place but sensing that that which can sustain us is out there, somewhere.  That’s a feeling teenagers know, and U2’s song connected with my ninth grade self.  It’s a feeling that forty-four-year-olds, and sixty-four-year-olds, and ninety-four-year-olds also know, in all times and in all places.  It is a universal mythic theme, told in stories and dreams, where some most precious thing is lost, and the search for it is equal parts frantic and futile.  We’re looking for something that we sense will make us whole, and it seems always just beyond our vision, just out of reach.

Bono

In Acts, this is what St. Paul encounters today in Athens.  The Athenians are not an irreligious people.  They, too, have a deep desire to connect to their source, to know God.  Perhaps to the surprise of some Christians reading this story for the first time, Paul does not dismiss, condemn, castigate, or deny the pagan Athenians’ spiritual lives.  As Paul wanders through the Areopagus, that ancient pantheon overlooking the city, he looks sympathetically upon the various statues of the gods, and especially so upon the altar inscribed “to an unknown god.”  With eloquence, Paul says to the Athenians gathered around him, “[The Creator] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth…that they would search for God and perhaps…find God.”

All people are made to yearn for God, in other words, and that desire is placed in us by God.  But Paul doesn’t stop there.  “Indeed,” Paul goes on to say, “God is not far from each one of us. For ‘In God we live and move and have our being.’” Already, and not only after a conversion to Christianity, Paul claims,  all people including pagans live and move and have their being in God.  It is a remarkable affirmation coming from the preeminent Christian apostle and evangelist.

But it begs the question, then, why are they—why, often, are we—still restless?  Why don’t we find what we’re looking for?  Paul explains that our error is that we place our hope in that which is not God.  We run around frantically and seek God in things, whether material or relational.  We make idols of them—not unlike those statues in the Areopagus—exalting them, but knowing deep down that all such things will ultimately disappoint, and many will be destructive.  As Bono sings:

I have spoke with the tongue of angels
I have held the hand of a devil
It was warm in the night
I was cold as a stone.

And I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

We move from one possession to another pursuit, feeling momentarily warm but ultimately cold as a stone and restless all over again.

What, then, to do?  How do we find what we’re looking for?  Paradoxically, by ending the search.  Like a child alone in the woods, our impulse is to keep moving from one thing to the next.  But as with that child, we know that we’re likely simply to move in circles and become lost.  The thing to do is stop moving.

In John’s Gospel last week, Philip asked Jesus, “How can we find you?  How will we know the way?” And today, Jesus responds by saying, in essence, “You don’t have to find me.  Stop moving, and I will come to you.”  And Jesus adds perhaps the most moving words in scripture, words that affect us on levels deeper that we understand. “I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus says, “I am coming to you, and my Spirit will abide with you.  You will be in me, and I in you.”

paul in the areopagus

Paul in the Areopagus

The truth shared by St. Paul—that we live and move and have our very being in God—means that we are never alone, we are never orphaned.  The source of us seems so often just out of reach because we make the mistake of reaching beyond us, when in fact God’s great gift in Christ is that God’s very Spirit inheres as near to us as the air we breathe, and, yes, even within.  It is our center and our ground.

The quelling of our restlessness will not come with the arrival at some place or something.  That hope is futile.  It will come with the recognition that God’s Spirit, through Christ, is incarnate.  In Psalm 46, the same psalm from which comes our Cathedral theme that “God is in the midst of the city,” God promises that God is in the very midst of us.  At Psalm 46:10, God says, “Be still, and know that I am God.”  We need not find God, because we are found.  And we will never be orphaned or alone.

Witness Marks

Before the Industrial Revolution, do you know what the two most complex machines were?[i]  Our present location should be a giveaway for one of them: the pipe organ, with its tens of thousands of moving parts.  The other was the clock.  For anyone who wears a non-digital wristwatch, especially one with an exposed face that show the clock’s inner workings, this should come as no surprise.  Clocks are intricate and elegant things.  After eons during which the most accurate way to track daily time was a sundial, the invention of the clock in the fourteenth century must have seemed miraculous.  Indeed, it is little wonder that the clock quickly became a symbol for God’s creation, and God became known as the clock maker.

Clock inner workings

In his popular podcast[ii], Brian Reed talks about some of the mystery and wonder that surrounds those early clocks.  He offers this:

“When an antique clock breaks, a clock that’s been telling time for two hundred or three hundred years, fixing it can be a real puzzle. An old clock like that is handmade by someone.  It might tick away the time with a pendulum, with a spring, or with a pulley system.  It might have bells that are supposed to strike the hour, or a bird that is meant to pop out and cuckoo at you.  There can be hundreds of tiny, individual pieces, each of which needs to interact with the others precisely.  To make the job even trickier, you often can’t tell what’s been done to a clock over hundreds of years.  Maybe there’s damage that was never fixed, or fixed badly.  Sometimes entire portions of the original clockwork are missing.  But you can’t know for sure, because there are rarely diagrams of what the clock is supposed to look like.  A clock that old doesn’t come with a manual.  So instead, the few people left in the world who know how to do this kind of thing rely on what are often called ‘witness marks’ to guide their way.  A witness mark could be a small dent, a hole that once held a screw.  These are actual impressions and outlines and discolorations left inside the clock of pieces that might’ve once been there.  They are clues to what was in the clockmaker’s mind when he first created the thing.  I’m told fixing an old clock can be maddening.  You’re constantly wondering if you’ve just spent hours going down a path that may take you nowhere, and all you’ve got are these vague witness marks that might not even mean what you think they mean.  So, at every moment along the way you have to decide whether you’re wasting your time, or not.”

Antique clock

Last May I went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  It was a life-changing experience for me.  Since the moment I arrived back in the United States, I have yearned to return to Israel.  And yet, the Holy Land is not without its frustrations, one of the most ubiquitous of which is that almost nowhere can anyone be sure that the things chronicled in Holy Scripture actually happened.  We visit what may have been the site of the feeding of the five thousand.  We trek up what traditions claims was the Mount of Transfiguration.  There are a few exceptions.  We know to a virtual certainty, for instance, that a specific house in Capernaum was, actually, the home of St. Peter.  But such places are conspicuous precisely because they are so rare.  As a twenty-first century modern person, and despite the admitted contradiction in terms, I desire concrete, factual evidence of the things of my faith.  Jesus was resurrected on Easter Day, you say?  How do you know that?  Where is the archaeology (or some such) that proves it?

Our frustration is not new, not by a long shot.  It traces all the way back to the Easter event itself.  Last week we saw it in “Doubting” Thomas, and today we read it expressed in the conversation of two disciples traveling the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus on Easter evening.  These two, Cleopas and his unnamed friend, are concerned and confused.  They have been followers of Jesus, but in the past few days, the one on whom they pinned their hopes has been manhandled, imprisoned, and killed.  Now, on Sunday, they’ve received strange reports that Jesus is not dead after all.  Some of their friends have gone to the tomb and found it empty, but Cleopas and his companion aren’t sure that proves anything.  As they travel the road to Emmaus, they’re left to wonder if the road they’ve traveled so long with Jesus is, after all, one that leads nowhere.  Like us, they want something concrete, something reliable, something unassailable that demonstrates the truth.

What they receive instead is a fellow traveler who appears and tells them the story of a Savior; who, when invited, enters their home; who takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and offers it to them.  And then he vanishes.

Does this encounter provide proof?  Luke tells us that after the traveler gave the bread to Cleopas and his friend, “They recognized him,” and later they tell the eleven that the risen Lord “had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”  But the literary constructions are odd.  The story tells us that, in this encounter, Cleopas and his friend come to believe in the Resurrection, but the details of what has happened to them are gauzy and imprecise.  It is a curious, dreamy story.  The Emmaus story gives not proof, but “witness marks” like those on ancient clocks, hints and indentations in the lives of these men, different colorings to otherwise very ordinary occurrences.

Road to Emmaus

What are their witness marks?  As the two men reflect upon what has happened, they recognize that the encounter has instilled in them passion and meaning that was unknown before.  Confusion has given way not to factual knowledge, but to hope that speaks truth.  They realize that the shades and hints from their time with the traveler point toward something essential without which nothing else in life makes sense.

It is the modern fallacy to think that truth is always determined by the empirical and concrete.  It is a fallacy that has diminished our understanding of poetry, of beauty, and most definitely of faith.  In these arenas, truth is discerned by witness marks: by the ways our eyes are opened to wonder, by the ways our souls soar to the heights of joy or plunge to the depths of our source of being, by the ways our hearts are moved to acts of grace.

Brian Reed’s description of the antique clock repairer just as readily describes our walk through life: We’re constantly wondering if we’re spending our lives going down paths that lead us nowhere.  We have to decide if we’re wasting our time or not.  And what we have to guide our way are witness marks.

What are the witness marks in your life?  I will admit that I, like Cleopas, most often walk through life with clouded eyes that fail to recognize them.  But not always.  There are those blessed times when I really pause to notice a fellow traveler on the way; when I stop arguing about life’s details just long enough to hear someone else speak a word of grace; when my heart is set afire by beauty or love; when I approach the altar and my eyes are opened to Christ in the breaking of the bread.

In such moments, the Resurrection is as real to me as if I’d been standing with Mary Magdalene at the tomb.  If you ask me how I know it is true, I respond not with archaeology or experiment, but with the surprise and wonder that when I encounter the witness marks of the Resurrection and invite them into my life, I am made new, with passion and meaning and grace.

“The Lord is risen indeed,” they said.  And they themselves became witness marks, showing others the path that leads to life.

[i] https://westfield.org/programs/curious-facts/

[ii] https://stownpodcast.org/, prologue to episode 1.

“I stubbed my toe going to the gallows.”

Have you ever heard of Twitter?  Of course you have.  In today’s context, one would have to live under a rock…in a hole…at the bottom of the ocean not to know about the ubiquitous social media site that encourages users to express their most profound and meaningful—or inane—thoughts in 140 characters.  Twitter is so pervasive today that it’s difficult to believe that Twitter has only been in existence for eleven years.  That said, in Twitter’s pre-history there was an old-fashioned way to accomplish the same thing.  It was called the Big Book of Quotes, and it compiled and presented, often in 140 characters or less, the musings of poets, sages, comedians, warriors, and virtually everyone else of note throughout human history.  I received a Big Book of Quotes as an adolescent, and I would lose myself for hours in its pages, reading proverbs, aphorisms, jabs, and jokes across space and time.  Some of the quotations were funny, others inspirational, and yet others desperately sad.

Mark Twain said, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” (That’s 80 characters.)

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Great minds discuss ideas.  Average minds discuss events.  Small minds discuss people.” (83 characters.)

Twain and ER

Some speakers were well-known and had numerous quotes included in the Big Book: William Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill.  Ben Franklin could have filled an entire book himself (which in a way he did, through all those issues of Poor Richard’s Almanac). Others, though, had but a single, solitary quotation, one line in the middle of a single page among thousands, and it was one of those that stayed with me the most over the course of years, a brief utterance by a man I’d never heard of, and I’ll bet most of you haven’t heard of, either.  The man was Charles Guiteau, and his quote was this: “I stubbed my toe going to the gallows.”

The nature of the Big Book of Quotes—like Twitter—was that the quotations were always out of context.  They stood alone, exposed on the page, and none more so than the quote of Charles Giuteau.  His quote struck me because it seemed to embody the absolute lowest depth to which a man could fall.  “Going to the gallows” meant, obviously, that Guiteau was on his way to be hanged, publicly executed before his fellow citizens and neighbors.  And to stub one’s toe on the way?  He couldn’t even be hanged well.  He messed even that up.  He had not dignity even in dying.  At the very end, Guiteau’s life, whoever he was, was a miserable, tripping mess.

Years later I learned that Charles Guiteau was the man who assassinated U.S. President James Garfield in 1881.  Right up until he fired the shot that killed the President, Guiteau’s life was one of grandiose unfulfilled dreams, religious enthusiasm, and crushing disappointments. From the first moment my eyes scanned the mere 37 characters of his quote, I felt for him, whatever his crime, and I felt for myself, because in some dim way I could imagine what it must be like to be so desperate and hopeless, to stub one’s toe going to the gallows.

gallosw

“I stubbed my toe going to the gallows.”

Each year as we move through Holy Week, Charles Guiteau’s quote floods my mind.  On Palm Sunday, Jesus processes into Jerusalem with grandiose dreams and religious enthusiasm, to waving palms and cries of “Hosanna!”  But as the week wears on, the disappointment of Jesus and his followers is crushing.  Jesus, on whom so many had pinned their hopes, is betrayed by one of his closest friends, dragged away by a mob, ridiculed and beaten, stripped naked, and crucified—falling in the dust three times as he carries his cross to Golgotha.  What a miserable, tripping mess.  I stubbed my toe going to the gallows.

There no hope at the end of such a story, at the end of such a life.  At best, the only thing that might endure is a brief quotation, something that sums up in a few words the whole pitiable thing, such as the 41 characters of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Otherwise, the sorry end is the end, and the fool on the cross is as forgotten as Charles Guiteau.

Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb this morning to mark that end.  Let’s not pretend she’s doing anything else.  Jesus is dead.  Everyone knows it.  Peter, James, John, and all the others are already huddled together making plans to slip quietly out of town and back north to Galilee.  It’s all over.

Even God knows it, and God grants ample signs of the end as soon as Mary arrives at the tomb: There is an earthquake, and an angel appears like lightning.  These weirdly specific details are intentional.  They hearken back to something Jesus himself said four chapters earlier in Matthew’s Gospel.  Then, the disciples had asked Jesus to tell them what the end would look like, not just his end but “the end of the age.”  And Jesus replied, cryptically, that there will be earthquakes, and from the east there will be lightning.[i]  At the tomb on Easter morning, God makes good on Jesus’ prediction, because something has ended, something cosmic.

Rolling stone tomb, Nazareth

But when the angel speaks, Mary realizes that this ending does not mean it’s all over.  “I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified,” the angel says, acknowledging the reality of the miserable, thing that has happened.  But the angel’s words do not cease with that acknowledgement.  He stubs no angelic toe.  His voice doesn’t stumble or falter.  “Jesus is not here,” the angel goes on to proclaim, “He has been raised!”

An end that is not the end?  A trip to the gallows that doesn’t end in darkness? A death on a cross that results in an empty tomb?  For the guards who are present, it makes no sense at all.  They can’t begin to comprehend it.  They are paralyzed in their prior knowledge, and Matthew tells us they “became like dead men.”

But Mary receives the words and portent of the angel differently.  She believes, with dawning understanding in that dawning light, that something utterly new begins with this ending that is like no other.  She runs back to the city to tell the others.

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Have you stubbed your toe going to the gallows?  Have you ever made such a mess of your life that you even failed at making the mess?  Have you skirted the depths, from which you feared—and perhaps from which you were told—there is no recovery, but only a miserable end?  So had Jesus the Christ those centuries ago, when he was anguished in Gethsemane, shunted from Sanhedrin to Pilate, forsaken even by God, and hung on that cross.  And yet, in Jesus God determined for him and for all of us that the end need never be the end.  We need not be paralyzed in our old lives.  The dawn can always break; resurrection is always possible.  When Mary Magdalene embraced this truth, we are told, she was both fearful and joyous.  Endings and beginnings always entail both fear and joy.  It is frightening to walk beyond our lives as they have been and into the resurrection God makes possible.  But when we meet the God of love in the risen Jesus, God receives our fear and makes our joy complete.  He bids us move forward in the dawn light of our new lives, and he promises that he walks into that life with us.

“He is not here; he has been raised,” the angel says in an efficient 34 characters.  The gallows are torn down.  We walk without stumbling.  The end is not the end.  It is Easter Day.  Resurrection joy to you.

[i] Matthew 24:7 & 27.

“If you really are the Son of God…”

Way back on Sunday, March 5, we read the story of Jesus being led into the wilderness after his baptism by John in the River Jordan.  In that story, Jesus is young in adulthood, in experience, and in untested spiritual power.  Jesus fasts for forty days, as some of us have done, each in our own way, throughout Lent.  He abides in the parched Judean desert, a topography I never fully appreciated until I visited it a year ago.  There is no water, no shade, no shelter from the scorching heat.  And thus weakened, the devil appears to test Jesus’ mettle.

Jesus must be near-delirious when the devil glides up to his ear and questions, “If you really are the Son of God…” and Satan follows his snide and mocking phrase with sweet suggestions about how God’s Favored One might ease his own suffering and rally the good things of God to his aid.  Three times the devil speaks, and each time Satan begins, “If you really are the Son of God…”  If we read the story rightly, we pause nervously each time, praying that this untested Jesus has the strength to endure temptation.

satan_tempting_jesus_2

Fast forward three years in Jesus’ life and a liturgical season in our own, and today we’ve celebrated Jesus as the One who comes in the name of the Lord with an elaborate palm procession, only to have our adulation turn to venom as we read the Passion Gospel.  I must ask: Did you experience déjà vu?  See, the words with which we mocked Jesus on the cross just a moment ago are identical in the biblical text, word for word, to the words of the devil in the wilderness on March 5.  We said, as the devil said, “If you really are the Son of God…come down.”

Just as the devil tempted Jesus three times in the desert, three times today Jesus is mocked, as he hangs in weakness on that cross: by the bandits on either side of him (Even the others being crucified see themselves in a position to mock Jesus), by the temple leaders, and by the same crowd of people who earlier laid palms at his feet.  In other words, by us.  “If you really are the Son of God,” all three groups sneer, quoting the devil, “come down from that cross.”

Palm Sunday icon

Frederick Bruner says, “It is an insatiable rage indeed which will not be satisfied with death, but will mock even the dying.”  One thing I’ve learned in my encounters as a priest is that insatiable rage is usually a smokescreen for fear.  You see, fear belies weakness.  No one wants to appear weak, so rage is kindled to make the fearful appear strong.  The crowd rages at Jesus.  It mocks a dying man.  And this leads me to wonder, what are the people so afraid of?  What are we so afraid of?

I think our fear is the same as the devil’s, and it is revealed in the snide words of our mockery.  “If you really are the Son of God…”  What if he isThat’s what we’re afraid of.  What if Jesus is who the Gospels claim him to be?  What if it’s not merely a wonder worker, or a healer, or a wise rabbi that we nail to that cross, but the Son of God?  What if he refuses to come down from that cross not because he can’t, but because he chooses not to call upon the legions of angels waiting in the wings for his command?

It’s a terrifying prospect, because it means God isn’t who we would prefer God to be.  At this point in the story, for those who’ve followed Jesus around Judea only to feel boondoggled by today’s turn of events, the God the people prefer would leap off the cross borne aloft on the wings of angels, harness our rage and serve as the symbol of our strength, and lash out against any who would dare stand against him.

But Jesus doesn’t, and he won’t.  And that frightens us.  We fear—rightly—that if Jesus really is the Son of God, hanging limply on that crossbeam of wood, then it means we have to rethink who God is and who we’re called to be.

It turns out that the lessons Jesus learned way back in the desert took deeper root in him than we realized.  By resisting the devil’s three-fold temptation, Jesus gathered wisdom, strength, and understanding of who he is and what he must do.  In the wilderness, it took greater power to resist the devil than to perform the miracles the devil requested.

Crucifixion

Just so now: Though it would require great power for Jesus to come down from the cross and wail on his enemies, it takes far greater power not to do so.  Bruner says of the cross, “The greatest miracle Jesus ever did was the one he did not do.”  It is the miracle that demonstrates that God will not raise God’s hand in violence, even against violence.  God will not let the venom of the mob infect him.  The Son of God will demonstrate to the extreme what it means to love.  He will meet ignorance with love.  He will meet rage with love.  He will meet hatred with love.  “But how far must such love go?” we tremble.  And the cross is our answer.

Jesus spent his entire ministry teaching those who would follow him that we, too, must take up the cross.  The disciples always hoped the cross they’d bear could be turned upside down into the shape of a sword and become an instrument of worldly power.  (One doesn’t have to go far in today’s world to find Christians who still harbor that hope.)  But the cross won’t be inverted.  We cannot wield it to coerce and force our way.  We can only bear it as Jesus did and pray that we can bear it as far as Jesus did.

We now enter the week of the Passion, when we’ll be tested along the way, when we’ll be asked on Maundy Thursday to love one another as Jesus loves us, when we’ll be asked on Good Friday to love in Jesus’ stead while he lies in the tomb.   And on Easter, we’ll see the full power of love, when it dispels fear and breaks the bonds of death.  On Easter there will be no question; there will be no “if.”  The Son of God will return to us restored.  Outside the empty tomb we will know him for who he is, and we will be redeemed.

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.