Archive for 2000
“What should we be doing?” I’ll say one thing for George W. Bush … he’s not afflicted by overwork. … A friend of mine, a teacher, was telling me how busy school kids are, going non-stop from dawn to dusk—from class to class, 2 or 3 meetings in the lunch break, then after school stuff, excessive homework… “What kind of message is that to be giving them?” he asked me, “What kind of training?” Well, certainly not training for the Bush style of government. Dubya is famed for knocking off at 5pm yet still managing to fit in an hour or two for napping, playing video games, or getting that all-important massage. And, best of all, he does it all with a smile (well a smirk anyway) and not a trace of guilt. Can you imagine Earnest Al playing solitaire and doing it without shame?
What about ourselves? Isn’t Advent a great time for shame? All those things on the to-do list to shame you? And those are only the sins of omission. Wait till we get to the stuff we’ve done!
Shame came late to our family tree but once it arrived it coloured everything. According to some scientists there are just nine basic affects, the physical responses that underlie our feelings. There’s interest and enjoyment. There’s surprise. There’s fear and distress and anger. There’s disgust and there’s dis-smell. And there’s shame. Shame came late. Every human infant knows it. The primates do. Dogs too. But not cats, not snakes, or any of our older ancestors. Because you have to be pretty clever to feel shame. You have to be bright enough to think something good is coming to be able to feel the shame of having it denied you.
Here’s the classic description of shame. You are walking down the street and you make out the shape of someone you know up ahead. You are excited and find yourself rushing up behind them and, just as you get their attention, you realise they are not who you think they are. But even before you consciously have that thought your body does something: your eyes drop; you avert your head; and you blush.
When was the last time you felt shame or embarrassment? … Shame happens whenever desire outruns fulfilment. I feel shame whenever anyone asks how my dissertation is going, or notices I’ve put on weight. I have shame dreams: Here I am on a Sunday morning, standing right here … only I can’t find my homily … or can’t read the words … or turn out to be vested in the altogether.
We all know shame. Babies show it. But it is a complex experience. And as grown ups we have made it even more complex than the basic physical response. We knit shame into fantastic shapes of embarrassment, mortification, humiliation. We know what it’s like to be looked at with pity. To be laughed at. To be caught in the act.
Shame gets tangled up in all that is most important to us. How we look. What we are worth. Money. Sex. Power. And, of course, religion. Shame was born in the garden of Eden. Suddenly Adam and Eve know that they are naked. Watch them blush, eye’s averted, as they hide themselves. Eden ends where shame begins. Morality begins there too … and religion. Before shame we walked arm-in-arm with God in the garden and thought nothing of it. Our desire never outran its fulfilment. But since then we have been hiding from God, averting our eyes. And one of the ways we avert our eyes is … religion. We pray our prayers at least in part to keep God at arms length. We do our good deeds lest God should draw near and we be shamed. Our whole liturgy is a conflicted attempt to bring God close while keeping God at a symbolic distance. What if God were not just here today in symbol—not just in bread and wine and word and worship—but here naked and near and irresistible? Wouldn’t we feel such a desire?! And such shame.
All our readings today speak of the nearness of God. But watch God get more distant with each of them. Zephaniah’s God is right in our midst. Paul’s is “near” but the Baptist’s God only manages to be “coming.”
And look at who it is coming in John’s mind: a monstrous messiah with winnowing fan in hand, eager to clear the threshing floor, to harvest the wheat, to burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. Yikes! No wonder John finds himself shameful, not even worthy to tie his shoelaces. And no wonder John is busy shaming everyone else onto their best behaviour. Don’t get me wrong: he is shaming them into something good—sharing food and shelter; giving up unjust profits; setting aside violence and exploitation. If only we had a society that was half that good! But even if we did it wouldn’t be the kingdom. Because the kingdom is the place where shame ends and justice begins again purely for love’s sake. And religion … religion is no longer needed because we have God, and we have our neighbour, and we have our own selves. The God who comes in Advent is not John’s avenging God of sharp sickle and burning brand but the sickly son of refugees. Jesus has lived with us. We’ve watched him grow, inch by inch, into someone who shamelessly gathers the shameful chaff. The only unquenchable fire the one in his eyes. The only winnowing the one we do ourselves.
Jesus is Zephaniah’s God. He has lifted the judgement against us. He is here among us. And he is happy. He is so glad to be here with us. It moves him to tears to be sitting next to you. To tears and to laughter. And when we sing in joy he sings too. Can you hear God sing joyfully because of you? The way someone sings at a celebration?
How could shame survive that?! With Jesus among us desire can never outrun fulfilment.
December 17th, 2000
As a kid something always happened to me once the autumn clocks changed. Something to do with my own personal checklist of fall: the smell of burning leaves; frost on the corpses of tall grass; headlights yellow in the early dark on the way home from school; the ache in the air as my nose turned blue going from door to door collecting for Guy Fawkes Night; and the promise in the bare woods and sharp sky of coming things. I hardly knew what things … Christmas, certainly, but more than that, something un-nameable, needed and unknown. Being outside to catch the fall of night was intoxicating. So essential to be alone, chilled and braced for who-knows-what wonders and dangers; frozen to the bone and loving it, indulging shivers and putting off, and putting off, the moment when “inside” was unavoidable with its face-tingling warmth and disappointing domesticity. Never quite what I was waiting for, never quite the promise, but maybe if I stayed out just a minute more and strayed just a little longer under the moons intent gaze—maybe it would be. Maybe my hearts silent call might find its echo. Maybe then I’d be able to know what it was I waited for. Or even know I was waiting at all.
There were other times of course when I did know I was waiting. Sick and sleepless and waiting for the light of day to make it all right again. Waiting luxuriously for the first strawberries of the summer. Waiting each day for school to let out and let me out to run wild. Oh and Fridays! Oh and summer coming and weeks of … freedom!
Or Christmas morning—middle of the night really—the agony of waiting, waiting, waiting … for the first barely acceptable moment to rush in and wake my Mum and Dad.
Or the time, trying to get my proud new fountain pen to work, I splashed ink all over, ALL OVER, the fresh new wallpaper … and waited for them to come home from town and all my life to end.
All my childhood seems to have been about waiting. The standard response in our family to the can-I-have questions—Can I have a bike? Can I have a chemistry set?—was always “sure, when you’re twenty one.” And I believed it! I even kept a secret list for a while, a list of all the spoils coming my eventual way. I wonder when I cottoned-on and put aside the list? I wonder when I stopped waiting for those Christmas dawns? I wonder when I grew up and out of waiting?
Maybe the things I waited for I wanted less or less wholeheartedly than I had. Maybe I learned to defer gratification, as they say. But I remember even back then waiting was bittersweet. Some things just are worth the wait. And some things are dreaded beyond the waiting. Even as you can’t wait for waiting to be over you can’t bear to bring on it’s end. Waiting for someone to die—a father, a friend. Waiting for someone to be born—a brother, a fellow child.
Maybe the power of waiting lies in being powerless. These days I know I wait less because I can do more. The gap between desire and doing has shrunk. I do what I want and while I wait for things to work out I work on other wants. I don’t spend very much time under childhood’s waiting stars any more, none in that bare wood. There isn’t the time! But that’s a lie! It’s not time that’s lacking but that kid’s courage. I’ve lost the art of waiting. And learned instead to fear.
This year as the autumn clocks changed something happened to me. In the middle of another little roadblock on the way to writing my dissertation I was talking about my prayer with a friend. I could describe to a tee the nature of my frustration and my ambivalence towards both God and myself. But she asked me, instead, what Jesus was doing in the middle of all my angst. And right away I knew the answer. He is waiting. Sitting there. Waiting. How is he waiting? Calmly. Waiting calmly. What’s he waiting for? He’s waiting for me? He’s waiting for me to wait. Waiting for me to wait with him. What for? Well he hasn’t let on yet… I suspect he doesn’t know either. But, for sure, it involves me letting the gap grow again between desire and hope, wide and wider like it used to be as a kid. And not filling the gap with getting done and plans of getting done and fears of not getting done. Not appeasing the household dissertation gods but waiting, with him, for words.
He tells me he’s never quite lost the art of waiting, the art of wonder, the art of awe. Under a cold sharp sky. Waiting in winter for promises to be kept. Waiting to know what he’s waiting for.
He says he gets it from his Dad: Waiting and promising both. Waiting for a chosen people to choose. Waiting for love to be returned. Waiting for promises to be kept. Waiting for gifts to be received. Waiting and hoping to be believed. God never really grew up.
December 3rd, 2000
Can’t you just see that widow? She’s been haunting me half the week so I’ve given her a name. Mrs. Cohen. A little, old, Jewish lady, wrinkled by the years, and hardly able to make it where she’s going. Bent over, thin-wristed, shabbily dressed, among the well-to-do who seem to make an outing of this, moving free and easy where she shuffles. I watch her finding her way, determined. Remembering her husband. Remembering better times. Remembering her home which seems so far away now. Remembering her dead friends, her uncaring children. Remembering what it used to be like when she didn’t care much either.
But she’s here. To care and to give—to give the one last thing she has. Not expecting it to make much difference but giving nonetheless. “A matter of duty,” her husband Joe would have said, “of responsibility.”
So she lines up with the rest who hardly notice her except to wrinkle their noses at how she smells in the heat—They all doing lightly what she does in earnest. Last Tuesday. Somewhere in Florida, where she once retired, she casts her vote. Knowing it is probably her last.
Jesus is watching her, surrounded by cameras and mikes, standing across from the voting booth. He’s stirred up by something, agitated—by her I think. And the media are baiting him.
“You want to know what God has to do with this election? Well look at her and learn! She has done more than all these others proudly wearing their ‘I Voted’ stickers.”
“But surely, Sir, a vote is a vote?”
“Oh no! For them it is easy to vote. Just one thing they do among all the ways they spend their time. Just another freedom. Another easy choice. They might not like the choices they have here but they go ahead and choose anyway. But she has dragged herself here to make her choice because it’s the only choice she has these days. Her only freedom. She’s poor. She’s old. But by God she’s going to vote.”
“But what’s that got to do with anything?”
“I knew her sixteen years ago. Back then she was just like these others. Just retired. Enjoying her first winter in paradise. Arm-in-arm with a husband. Laughing easily. Voting easily. But he got ill, did Joe Cohen. And he lay in hospital long enough to eat up their earnings, to devour their house and leave her struggling. Then leave her alone. She’s been almost surviving for 15 years.”
“But what’s that got to do with God and this election?”
“You think God doesn’t care? About her? About you? Isn’t this nation God’s great experiment in freedom, in justice? From sea to shining sea? That’s why she matters. And here she is making one last choice. Casting a vote. And look … These people are the ones who made her poor. He cheated her, quite legally, of her insurance. That guy over there administers the hospital that bled her dry. That woman runs the bank that foreclosed on her house. Now they’d all say it wasn’t their fault. They don’t have the leeway to go against the rules. They have to serve their shareholders. They can’t choose to be generous just because they want to. It’s not their fault if that’s the way the world works. They are just doing their job. … But why are things the way they are? Why does the hospital work that way? Why the bank? And where’s the safety net to catch her now she’s fallen? Who makes the rules and who lays down the law and who chooses how the money gets spent? If the Kingdom of Heaven is among us what the hell is going on here?”
“Are you some kind of communist Sir?!”
“Ask her! She wants to change the way things are. She wants to change the way the money is spent. She wants to lay down the law. And she’s not stupid. She knows she hasn’t much to choose from anyway. She knows that anyone she votes for is so tangled up in the same screwed up system that has battered her that he won’t have much to choose from either. But if she doesn’t choose she might as well be dead right now. That’s why she’s here! Because the kingdom of God belongs to such as her. And because she can’t stay silent in the face of all the quiet violence done to her.”
Well that’s what I thought I heard Jesus saying anyway … if you’d been there you might have heard it differently. But I don’t think so. I think he took Mrs. Cohen with him in his heart and learned from her. I think he learned about crushing violence and about sacrifice. A few years later he had his own choices to make. In the face of violence do you back down, do you deny all you’ve said and done, and retire to obscurity? Or do you cast your vote for the kingdom and get crucified into obscurity anyway? Do you agree to never open your mouth again to the words burning in your bones? Do you let the fire go out? Or do you go on and make a last fatal choice against violence?
What’s the point of getting killed for an ideal? Wouldn’t it be better to lie low and maybe come back later? Why the hell ride into Jerusalem? Why cause trouble? … I think that’s when he remembered Mrs. Cohen. And the importance of a choice. Even a futile choice. Even a wasted choice. What difference does a single vote make? What difference a life? Only time can tell.
November 11th, 2000
Larry King was interviewing Jesus … “So, Jesus, you say this nation should be governed by God. Who are you going to vote for today?” In reply Jesus told him a story …
Once upon a time in a land far, far away, there was a man who was running for election. And when election day came around that man sent out reminders to all those who had promised him their vote.
To one voter a messenger said, “Our bold leader thanks you for your generous campaign contributions and reminds you of his promise of big tax cuts, come now and cast your vote for him.” “O dear! I’m sorry,” said the first voter, “My dot com goes public today and I need to be on hand all day. Please make my excuses.”
To another voter a messenger said, “Our lovable leader thanks you for your significant monetary gifts and reminds you of his promise to keep gas prices down, come now and cast your vote for him.” “O dear! I’m sorry,” said the second voter, “I’ve just got this shiny new SUV and I need to put it through its paces. Please make my excuses.”
To a third voter a messenger said, “Our caring leader thanks you for your one-time donation and reminds you of his promise to protect traditional families, come now and cast your vote for him.” “O dear! I’m sorry,” said the third voter, “I’m just leaving for the Church to marry my new husband. Please make my excuses.”
Well, the messengers returned from all over that country to report their failure and the man running for election grew very angry and even more afraid. “I’ll show them,” he said. “Go, my messengers, to the other voters. Go to the sick, go to the unemployed, go to the poor. Tell them I’ve changed my policy. We’ll have universal health coverage. We’ll fix social security. We’ll boost the minimum wage.”
So they went, those messengers, and scoured the inner cities and toured the towns but when they returned they said to their boss, “Sir, we don’t think it will be enough.”
“Well go and find the fringe groups. Promise them all they want. Make them vote for me. Give them environmental protection. Give them same-sex marriages. Abolish that death penalty. Ban abortion!”
All this he did, and more, but still he lost the election.
“Is that it?” said Larry King.
November 7th, 2000
God would not win the upcoming election—and not just for the fuzzy math. If my one-person focus group is anything to go by God comes over altogether too tough, too hard, in the first words out of his mouth today: “Adonai was pleased to crush him in infirmity.” Yikes! Pleased to crush? God needs better advisers! Showing an aggressive mastery of world events is one thing but cruelty is another. We want the kinder, gentler deity we saw in the earlier debates.
I thought maybe the press were taking God out of context but no amount of burrowing in other translations helped. “Was pleased.” Desired. Willed. Wanted. “God desired to crush him.” Ouch! Who is this God? If I didn’t know her better I vote for another party.
Then, in the shower, the thought came to me, “Why am I trying to protect God from his own PR machine? Isn’t God big enough to look after herself?”
And there’s the heart of it. Can God take care of God?
Two little articles deep in the paper yesterday have been worrying at me. Right page: Nebraska is about to vote on another, so-called, “defence of marriage” act. Not only does it rule out recognition of possible future, out-of-state, same-sex marriages but also “the uniting of two persons of the same sex in civil unions, domestic partnerships, or any other similar same-sex relationships.” Whatever you think of same-sex relationships will such an act really protect marriage? Will it bring down the divorce rate? Reduce domestic violence? Care for un-cared-for kids? Who exactly does marriage need protecting from? Those who are married and making a mess of it or those who haven’t yet had their chance? But that’s a quibble—my real question is this: Does marriage need protecting? Isn’t marriage big enough to look after itself?
Left page. The murder of Ita Ford, Maura Clark, Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan is, 20 years on, thank God, in the news again. Two of the Salvadoran Generals at the top of the chain of command that murdered those four women are on trial right now in an American court. The generals, who long ago received amnesty in their own country, had retired to their reward in Florida where the relatives of the dead missionaries have brought civil suit against them. A Maryknoll sister is quoted: “You live with the question and hope the answers will come out. I guess the hope is that the truth will be revealed and there will be an end to impunity.” An end to impunity.
Some people do seem big enough to take care of themselves. The men who pull the trigger. The guys who give the orders. The US advisers who stand by. The American voter who pays for it all in defence of an invulnerable way of life. These are the structures of impunity. Will they come to an end?
The four women had no impunity. They were unable to take care of themselves. And that makes them very like God. Standing in full view. Vulnerable and awkward and unprotected.
“We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but one, Jesus, who has similarly been tempted in every way yet without sin.” The Letter to the Hebrews makes that the mark of the one we follow. Jesus who is tempted in every way we are but doesn’t give in. And, I’m afraid, that’s a problem for me. It is so hard for me to imagine not giving in to temptation! I speak for myself only—but once a desire gets to be strong enough to be called temptation I find it irresistible. They say the only way to deal with temptation is to give in. That—or to not be tempted in the first place. I am a very holy person in all the areas of life I don’t experience temptation. If I try to imagine myself getting holier I find I am imaging myself invulnerable to temptation. I dimly glimpse someone unmoved by disordered desires. Not tempted by tempting toys. Immune to fascination. Spontaneously stoic. I imagine myself getting duller and duller.
Thank God, God has a better imagination than I do! Jesus heads in the opposite direction. Not tempted less but tempted more. Tempted more—because he does not build the structures of impunity you and I build to keep desire at bay. He plunges downward into life and desire and temptation. Vulnerable and awkward and unprotected.
Poor James and John, in their desperate upward climb to glory, pass Jesus going the other way. They want to climb out of the mud to a safe place where they can dry their feet. But Jesus plunges unprotected into the fast-flowing river. “Can you be baptized, drenched, soaked, with the baptism I am baptized?” “We can!” they shout because they think they can take care of themselves. But they can’t. They are better than they think they are—baptism does that to you. It makes you more vulnerable, awkward and unprotected.
And isn’t there something attractive about that? Not safe but attractive. To be like the God who can’t take care of himself. To be like her.
October 31st, 2000
Once upon a time Jesus was praying and the guys who followed him around were watching him. They saw the look upon his face. They saw the something in his aching body. And they looked at each other and they wanted what he had.
Peter spoke up, “I’ve read the best books but I still don’t know how to pray.” John said, “Never mind books, I’ve listened to the best guru’s but I still don’t know how to pray.” “Well,” Matthew added, “books and guru’s are OK but I’ve been to the best workshops and I still don’t know how to pray.”
Jesus was distracted by their wrangling and got up from his prayer to face them. “What’s up now?” he asked. Peter spoke up immediately, “Teach us to pray!” The other all echoed his words. “Teach us how to pray!”
“Is that all? Just say this … ‘Look God … these are the things we need … food, forgiveness, and a father.’”
Silence. Waiting. The sound of breathing. Finally Peter spoke up, “Well I’ve read about prayer of petition … but what about real prayer?” “Yes,” John said, “what comes after the kiddy stuff? Teach us that!” And Matthew, trying to be helpful, prompted Jesus, “You know … meditation, contemplation, centering, focussing … How do we really pray?”
“Oh,” said Jesus, “you want the advanced prayer methods. Well that’s quite a lot harder to explain.” Their eyes lit up. Lips were licked. “Are you sure you are ready? OK! Well in 30-odd years of careful prayer and study I’ve developed the perfect technique. It can be learned with enough discipline and effort—though, I have to warn you, not everyone has the requisite mental clarity and emotional purity to completely master the methodology. Ready? Close your eyes. Breathe deeply. And say, ‘Look God … these are the things we need … food, forgiveness, and a father.’”
October 30th, 2000
Gehenna! … Gehenna! Like ourselves the citizens of Jerusalem were careful to dump their rubbish out of sight and out of mind. Do you know where your daily refuse goes? All those embarrassing reminders of consumption and packaging and waste? Rotting and un-rot-able alike. As far away as possible we hope. Out of nose range.
Jerusalem’s trash went to Gehenna. At least it did once upon a time. To Gehenna, just down the hill from the Holy City’s heights. Gehenna where the fires smoldered constantly. No wonder God-forsaken, un-kosher, Gehenna became the image for hell.
So here’s Jesus getting all riled up over justice again. “Better to live missing an eye than go open-eyed into Gehenna. Better be crippled in the kingdom than go leaping and dancing into hell.” And the sin he’s giving out over: giving scandal to the little ones. And by that he doesn’t mean making children blush. He means all we do that makes it harder for the little ones—the poor, the hungry, the hidden, the hurting—harder for them to believe that God is good, that God cares.
It is so hard to listen to James condemn the rich because by his standards we all are condemned. Just living here in California condemns us. We might be poor here and still out-eat the world’s starving. We might be scorned here but still outrank the world’s despised. Without trying we make it harder for the little ones to believe God cares. Do they even get a mention in the race for president? War does, security and prosperity do. But the ones we waste?
And all the time there’s Gehenna, the world’s dump, the world’s hell. The waste we have to discard to keep on growing. The expendable poor our great nation is built upon. The bargains we have made for our livelihood.
But we don’t remember making those bargains. We didn’t mean to harm anyone. And—God help us!—we don’t know how to undo the damage. That’s the scandal. “Scandal” used to mean the thing you fell over that sprung the trap, the trigger, the trip-wire. We are trapped by our own desire for life. And we are snared because we do not know how to be free. The price of freedom seems too steep: “better to cut your foot off and than be trapped in Gehenna.”
Enough of the melodrama, already! The Jews may be obsessed with cleanliness and kosher laws but isn’t it going a bit far to make the town dump into hell?! I mean why get guilty over a natural process, over ordinary waste, over the inevitable cost of human living?
There is a reason. Gehenna haunts the imagination for more than being a garbage pile. Gehenna holds a guilty secret. Before it was a dump for a city’s refuse it was a place of sacrifice. Once upon a time it was where the children were taken and offered to the flames to satisfy a hungry god. Not that long ago. Among the ashes of rot and refuse the bones of little ones. Not that long ago.
And there’s the echo for us, the accusation. Are our dreams are built on a graveyard? All the sacrificial victims of our security and prosperity. All the little ones.
At the centre of Rosh Hashanah is Abraham’s scandalous sacrifice of Isaac. Who is more trapped in that story? Isaac bound to the altar with rope… or Abraham bound to murder by his fear of a hungry god?
All Abraham wanted was the prosperity promised him—the descendants as many as the stars, the lands, the flocks, the renown. All we want is what think we need.
Once upon a time the citizens of Jerusalem sacrificed their little ones because they thought it would win prosperity from a hungry God. We still don’t know a way out of that trap, that scandal.
Or maybe we do. In Jewish tradition you can only seek forgiveness from the person you have wronged. But how can the little ones forgive us when they are out of sight and out of mind, when they are buried? We believe there is one little one who will not refuse us. Jesus himself. Somehow Jesus frees us from the economy of wasted lives. But only by becoming the ultimate child-sacrifice. The little one to end all little ones. We wasted him. His bones are in Gehenna. And because he is there we never need to be there ourselves. On behalf of all the wasted little ones he sets us free once and for all.
But it does take some action on our parts. A Jewish custom for these days of Rosh Hashanah is to go and find a pool of water, a river, an ocean. Somewhere the fish swim freely. And there to empty your pockets into the water. It’s a double symbol. You throw away all the year’s sin, all its wasted hopes, all its unnecessary sacrifices. The fish carry them away. But you also leave with empty pockets. Poor with the poor. Little with the little ones. And you say thank you to God for all you have been given in giving it all away.
October 29th, 2000
I saw a film the other night. The main character, a photographer, is out of work, out of cash, and out of love and everyone keeps telling him to cheer up because obviously this puts him at his creative peak.
And I guess it’s true—the creative peak is often a trough and the way to creativity goes down, down, down … and then down again. Like they say about Switzerland—all those years of peace, security, and wealth—and all it produced was the cuckoo clock.
Not even God gets away without downward mobility. Where does God have to go to get creative? Right down into nothing. If all this glorious world was created ex nihilo you’ve got to feel sorry for the God who risked becoming nothing to make nothing into something. And it must have been a risk. In the beginning was the word … but what if there’d been a cosmic case of writer’s block?
As it is, God’s choice of medium has been questionable and from the beginning the work has been wayward. Eating from the wrong tree. Inventing death. Exploring hate. Contriving ugliness.
But God seems not to learn. How does the Divine Potter control the wobble in clay? I’d opt for scraping it off the wheel and starting again. But God does the unimaginable and becomes part of the pot. God enters the weave. Joins the pigment on the brush.
Down, down, down. How far do you have to go? Only too far seems to be enough. God in Jesus, goes down, down, down, … and then down. Carries creation back down into nihil, into nothing, into death. Strung out on a dead tree a dead man. How do you get out of that one? You don’t. You just pray that God doesn’t have writer’s block. That God can still bring something out of nothing. That God will still take the risk. Of annihilation. Of failure.
In the film I saw, our hero tries to head uphill not down but only makes a fool of himself by chasing after the wrong guy, and has to lose him and let him go before he can do the impossible and make something beautiful out of nothing.
So, even our failures can be used for our salvation. Even our wounds can be used to heal us. But who wants to go there. Down, down, down. Even if God seems to be waiting for us there, in the failure, and in the wounds and on the cross. Ready to make the ugly beautiful, the empty rich, and the dead alive.
But how far do we have to go? Only too far seems to be enough.
September 14th, 2000
That reading from Jeremiah is so stirring: “I have made you a fortified city, an iron pillar, a bronze wall, against the whole land—kings, princes, priests, people—they will fight against you but they shall not prevail, for I am with you, says God, I will deliver you.”
Stirring… but a lie. Jeremiah gets to prophecy disaster and to experience it. To denounce and be denounced. He speaks the coming doom and has it fall upon his head. The presence of God doesn’t spare him agony and humiliation and defeat. He is no more delivered by Adonai than John is delivered by Jesus. No wonder Jeremiah rants against the God who has seduced him and made his every word a sentence of death. No wonder John languishes in his cell wondering whether his awaited Messiah has come or not.
Who would be a prophet?! Who would want to speak hard words to implacable powers? Not Jeremiah and not me!
“Whew!,” we can say at the start of another Semester, “Thank God we are called to be theologians and not prophets, students and not prophets, administrators and not prophets. Thank God our words are our own!” But they are not! They burn our tongues as they leave our lips. What else is theology but words spoken about God, words written for God, words heard from God? And what can this place be but a place of prophecy? Haven’t we been called to here to hear God speak, to interpret the ache of our hearts and the world’s longing, to hear so that we may speak? So we might give God back the voice God has given us?
But God we do not know how to speak, we are like children, our words halting, unsure and the powers are vast and uncaring. Maybe theology was a mistake after all…
“Do not be afraid. Do not break down before them, or I will break you before them. No, gird up your loins; stand up and tell them everything that I command you. For I am with you to deliver you.”
August 29th, 2000
There’s something about calamity that brings out the best in us. When disaster falls from the heavens we all rally round, pitch in, and do what we can with a focus and an energy that we look back on with amazement. Amazed at our own resources we didn’t know we had, or amazed at the hidden strength we muster from nowhere in one last ditch effort to move the immovable object. Yep: we are great in an emergency. Where we are lousy is in the long haul. When the crisis loses it’s glamour and becomes another circumstance and the once-in-a-lifetime Herculean effort becomes a daily grind.
Have you been watching “Survivor”? Have you seen how the exciting challenge of surviving the first nights has shifted into the struggle to endure another day of rice and rat and each other?
This is Elijah’s problem and it is ours. Standing up to Ahab and Jezebel, and the prophets of Ba’al, in an acute confrontation brought out all his nerve and all his showmanship and all his fervour but when the price is on his head and all he can do is run for his life then his feet in the desert sand slow from run to walk to lie down and die. Just one day’s trudging to nowhere and the thought of forty more are enough to ruin him.
Don’t we all have out moments when with Elijah our only prayer is “This is enough, God! This is enough! Just let it be over. Let it end. Let me die.” Whether it’s a thankless job, a chronic sickness, an abusive relationship, the desert of depression, or just one damned thing after another—we’ve known it, we know it. “Enough God! Let it be over!”
I don’t think God gets the response right. Remember Elijah’s God can pour down flame on a soaking pile of wood when it suits him, can humiliate the prophets of Ba’al, has been known to part the water of the sea into a wall on left and right. What about a bit of that now?
Nothing doing. All Elijah gets is a kick in the ribs from an angel. That and a loaf of bread. A loaf of bread, a jug of water, and an unwelcome word—”get up and eat and get on with it.” Not even a night’s fine dining on a cruise ship—bread and water.
Fast forward! There’s an heroic quality to the last supper as the other three gospels tell it. It’s Passover, the crisis is upon Jesus and his followers. There are enemies all around, a price on each head and choices to be made. In the middle of that Jesus takes bread and breaks it and shares it, makes the bread his body, makes himself the Passover offering and in one terrifying effort faces the hours of agony to come. It’s all done in a hurry. But it’s only done once.
When John tells the last supper story, though, he doesn’t mention bread broken at all. But here today and for Sundays to come he can’t shut up about bread; bread of life, living bread, bread from heaven. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” Jesus says, “and the bread that I give is my flesh for the life of the world.” But is it a good deal? Who wants bread except those Survivors? Who wouldn’t rather have miracles? Why can’t Elijah have be magically protected from his evil enemies? Why does he just get bread to keep him trudging through desert? Why don’t we find the end we pray for? Why is it all we get is eucharist?
“Enough God!” we pray, we plead, “End it!” but what we get is bread enough to go on. And that’s an awful test of faith. There’s a question posed every time we walk up to the table for bread and wine. And it’s not an easy one to answer. It’s this: in all your need and hope, in all your suffering and joy, in all of your hunger and thirst, is this enough? Enough. Is it? Is he?
And if that isn’t question and challenge enough for us there’s another one. The bread comes into our hands with words. “The body of Christ.” And those words name the bread but they also name us. Not as individuals but as the community who says Amen and eats. “This is my flesh for the life of the world.” We are his flesh for the life of the world. Are we enough? Enough for each other. Enough for the hungry, the hurt, the empty. Enough for another day. We don’t have to work miracles we just have to keep the world fed for another day. We just have to be enough.
August 10th, 2000