I love the rhythm of these two readings. I love the trial and error. Put the spit on this guy’s eyes … oops nearly … try again. Send out one bird … no luck … send out another. There’s a simple pragmatism there that might make you think both Noah and Jesus were Americans before their time. … Keep at it till you make it work. Learn from your mistakes. Very practical, very scientific, very productive, very American.
But America is two-faced. Alongside the hard-nose there’s the fluttering heart. This week every TV show has its Valentine special, the paper has its aphrodisiac recipes, and, online, e-valentines try gamely not to be disappointing. And all this is just the tip of a Titanic iceberg floating in an ocean of romance that all-year-round laps at our feet.
So there they are: the hard nose and the broken heart, clamoring for psychic space in our contested flesh. And clamoring in two very different, very familiar, languages.
Cyril and Methodius, our heroes today, were troublemakers. And precisely over language. They wanted to speak the word of God in a language people could understand—Slavonic rather than Latin. To let God speak, in a familiar tongue, new words to a new people. And God must have liked the idea because their words bore fruit despite all the power plays that pursued them… Inculturation works.
Now how’s this for inculturation? I read in the paper this morning a quotation from the sixties, from Moses Berg the founder of the Children of God, a cult. “We have a sexy God and a sexy religion and a very sexy leader… so if you don’t like sex, you better get out while you can.” Now there’s a challenge for Valentine’s day: can we speak that language and speak it better than Berg?
Half the songs on the radio are about finding love. Half are about its loss. Some are straightforwardly about sex. What word does God want to speak in this so familiar tongue? Is our God a sexy God? At least a romantic?
The language of the hard-nose isn’t any less challenging. We learned this week that, on the level of DNA, we are only half as complicated again as flatworms or fruit flies. We only have about 300 genes that aren’t also found in a mouse! Now there’s a familiar language begging to hear the word of God spoken in new ways. But what are we going to say?
What are we going to say? That’s a question worth keeping in mind as the Semester gets underway.
February 14th, 2001
Take a dog … this is a recipe … take a dog. Shrink it down in your imagination to … yeah big. Shorten the legs a little. Make the head a bit bigger, the ears bigger still—nice and floppy—and the eyes: grow them large and liquid. Let the coat be fluffy, and the tail short and wagging twenty to the dozen. Add some wriggling and yapping. And when you’re done, put ten of these adorable beasts outside a bookstore on a hot February day and watch the crowd gather and go gaga.
There’s something about puppies, and about all babies for that matter, that unhooks the rational adult brain and brings us to baby talk. I watched, yesterday, as victim after victim fell under their spell, a deep desire to cuddle and protect welling out of them. I saw two families in an hour so taken up and taken in by evolution’s trickery that in the middle of an afternoon’s shopping they walked off, doting surrogate parents with a new mouth to feed, in a new and real relationship they certainly hadn’t expected. And, what’s more, they were loving it.
I was watching, in fact, a religious experience. A tiny moment of conversion. Of call and of response.
God doesn’t have all the advantages that puppies do. But still God can beguile us. Can call to us—in the middle of life—and charm or stun or irritate a response from us. We can be in the church praying. We can be in the car on our way to make someone suffer. We can be exhausted after a fruitless day’s work. We can be anywhere at all and the call can come. Quietly or dramatically the call can come.
Paul was riding his horse to round up the first followers in Damascus only to be flattened by a flash, by thunder, by a voice and blindness. Blind, at last, he could see. “Last of all, as to one born abnormally, he appeared to me. For I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called one.” It took lightning and blindness and years in the desert but Paul heard the call and responded. “By the grace of God I am what I am and God’s grace has not been idle in me.”
Isaiah was praying, the year his kinsman and king died. A court prophet newly concerned for his career who was suddenly carried away by worship. And, seeing clearly what should not be seen, tasting life’s compromises on his seared lips, he somehow shapes painful words to change his life, “here I am, send me.”
Simon-Peter was in a mess. His years of skill and craft had still left hungry and hopeless and unable to provide for his family. Another night of fishing with no fish. Another dawn of mending empty nets. How he contains himself I do not know: “hey Simon, put out into deep water and do it all again…” But he does. He goes deep. And he brings back treasure—food, wealth, security—and then walks away from it all.
There is nowhere safe from God. Every moment contains a call. And every one of us yearns to respond. And everyone of us is also afraid.
And the little drama doesn’t go away. The response doesn’t silence the call. The prophet has to hear and answer every time she opens her mouth. The apostle wrestles with her God all the days of her life. And all of us are shoved out of the shallows by a voice promising more. There are always deeper waters and bigger fish.
Deeper isn’t always stranger though. Peter may bring his boat to shore and leave everything in answer to his call but Isaiah gets to stay where he is and do what he’s been doing but do it more for real.
Maybe there’s an invitation we are hearing at this moment. Maybe it is the big one: life-changing, zap you off your horse. Maybe it is the call to do again what we’ve done uselessly so many times but do it just once more for God. Maybe the offer is a last hand outstretched to the drowning, someone to cling to at the end of our tether. Or maybe the invitation is just to follow. With the path not spelled out, destination unknown, companions unspecified.
Maybe that’s how the puppies do it. I didn’t see any careful calculations going on yesterday. I’m sure there was some thought given to cost and consequences but the main thing seemed to be more immediate. A little falling-in-love. Worry about the rest later. Let’s just take this cutie home.
All the invitations, all the calls, lined up for us today have two sides to them. We hear them but they come from someone real. And that someone is looking for more than operatives, more than mouthpieces, more than followers. God is looking for companions, for soul-mates, for lovers. It might take need or desperation to get us to listen. It might bring a welling up of guilt when we begin to hear. And the whole experience might send us off in ways we had never imagined. But always the invitation is to be involved with God. To let God love you. And love in response. And find a deeper life.
God is waiting, like a puppy, to be taken home.
February 3rd, 2001