Posts filed under 'Berkeley'
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind—and your neighbour as yourself.”
Love! It is almost a love story itself, this little snippet—the scribe with all his hopes intent on Jesus. Jesus himself with that response burning from his opening heart. And then our scribe’s tumbling, wide-eyed, delighted words agreeing, echoing, piling on top of Jesus own. And we can even, perhaps, hear in Jesus’ final affirmation a certain un-looked for awe at what has come to pass between them. Two hearts, two souls, two minds caught up in a single love.
“Yes to love him with all our heart, with all our thoughts and with all our strength, and to love our neighbours as ourselves is worth more than any Lenten sacrifice!”
That’s all right for these star-crossed lovers but what of us—we whose desire hardly ever approaches the ardent intensity of the love these two find focused between them—and when our love does manage to flash and flame is it ever un-hedged, impartial, unencumbered, and unashamed? What of us? If Lent is a love story what of us?
And I do mean us. That question is not just about “me and Jesus,” not something private between you and your God. This is about theology. Are we not scribes and scribes in training? Is that scribe’s question not our own—“what is at the heart of all these words, words ,words about God?” This is about theology. This is about the very possibility of theology at all. For when those others, standing by, witnessed the words passing back and forth between Jesus and the scribe … “no one had the courage to ask him any more questions.”
If we don’t know how to love—love God, love Jesus, ourselves, our neighbour—how will we ever find the courage to ask God any more questions? Where will we find the courage to do theology?
April 1st, 2001
“The Lord is kind of merciful, the Lord is kind of merciful …” Kinda. Let’s not go overboard here! God is pretty good. Quite compassionate. Kinda kind. But …
There are disadvantages to preparing a homily in the early hours of a Sunday morning. I get migraine headaches from time to time. If you’ve ever had them you know they are nasty little beasts—headache, sickness, confusion—but the worst part for me is the aura—the series of sensory disturbances that mark a migraine’s coming. For some people it’s flashing lights, for others facial numbness, for me it’s as if the things I’m looking at aren’t quite there and not quite gone either.
Seated at my keyboard this morning, writing those words I began with, I saw my words not quite there. Just the on the edge. And I felt that rush of panic to my stomach. Migraine coming! And here is how my inner dialogue went …
“Dung! (well I used another word with four letters—you have to be careful what words you use in homilies) Dung! God why now? Don’t do this to me!”
And amid visions of calling Peter to say “You’ve got a surprise mass this morning” I went straight to the heart of my actual theology even as I was preparing to tell you the one I say is mine. “Why are you messing things up again God?!”
Well, I lay down, closed my eyes, apologised a bit, and waited, and waited … did I dare open my eyes? … is the ceiling all there? … maybe the screen is too? … whew ! false alarm!
So here I am with a different homily …
It might be a migraine at the wrong time, it might be real illness, it might be an electric bill, it might be a love being lost, it might be the smell of sick cattle being burned, it might be children hungry, cities dirty, earth quaking, age a-creeping-up, it might be any damned thing that has us silently shouting “Dung!” That part, at any rate, is good. All that is dung, is waste, is death and dying, and we are right to hate it, to object to it, to shout at it. But we have to have blame too! That’s what’s wrong. And we have to blame someone we don’t trust. And there are two obvious choices: Blame God—the bastard is always letting us down—or blame ourselves. We deserve it! It’s God’s will! Why doesn’t this marriage work? Why can’t I pay the bills? Why can’t I be as beautiful as the boys on TV? Why am I sick? Why must disappointment all I endeavour end? Is it my fault or is it yours Big Guy? You’re the one with all the Power. Don’t you care? What kind of God are you?
There was a guy with a fig tree, hell with a whole vineyard, but he wanted figs. And there’s the poor feller who does the digging. And the parable forces a choice on us—forces is the wrong word—slips a choice past us so we don’t even notice how naturally we make it. Where is God in the parable?
Is God the one demanding fruit, always looking over our shoulder, threatening to rip us our by the roots if we can’t produce? It’s sad how we have God typecast that way. But Jesus does it deliberately, sets us up. “Cut it down! Why should it be wasting soil?” I heartily praise those among you who didn’t even flinch a tiny bit in self-recognition—I did.
OK so you already leapt ahead of me … maybe God isn’t the owner, maybe God is the vinedresser—giving the people—giving us—a second chance, a third chance, a 607th chance, to bloom and blossom and ripen and bear fruit. Even committing himself to a season of shovelling … dung … to get the accursed tree to come to life. Holding off the hasty with all their saws and spades.
That’s not the only choice here … we never know if all that digging and dunging was a waste of time, whether that tree perked up and produced the goods, or whether it sat anxiously unable beyond the patience of men or the industry of God. The parable leaves a hole there for us to fill in. “if it makes fruit in the future … well … otherwise if not you can cut it down.” There’s a hole. You can almost hear the dot dot dot. Will it or won’t it? Of course we’re rooting for the tree. Sunk in … dung … we want it to respond to all the lavish attention and pull through. But what if it doesn’t? When will we run out of patience and pass the sentence of death? The vinedresser’s fighting for a reprieve but even he admits the “otherwise”—if this last ditch attempt fails … well then.
That vinedresser’s not much better than the owner. The owner gives us three chances, the dresser four—big deal! I need more than that! God has to be more than that! Otherwise earthquakes are acts of God. And violence is his judgement. And both God and I are to blame.
Jesus tells this story as he is making his way to Jerusalem for the last time. He has been readying his disciples for what he reckons is inevitable. They will get there, he will speak his piece, he will take his stand for a blameless and un-blaming God. And he will fail. He will be cut down, rooted up, and left to dry in the sun. He will die a fruitless death. It will all be a waste.
Or will it? That’s the hole in the story, the gap to fill in. Will Jesus’ death have been a waste or not? Yes, that’s up to God … but it’s also up to us. Will we change our minds—will we repent—about what life and death mean … or not? Will we follow him to Jerusalem?
March 30th, 2001
Lent never starts at the right time. It always comes as an interruption—an unwanted interruption. When did you last hear someone saying, “I can’t wait for Lent”? Or think to yourself, “I wish Ash Wednesday were here!” No, we are just getting used to ordinary time and a rhythm of life when the whistle blows and we are wrenched from our routine and dragged here to dirty our faces right in the middle of the busy business of our lives.
Lent always begins from outside: we never choose it, but it won’t be avoided. They are blowing that trumpet, they’re proclaiming a fast, gathering the people. They are urging us on to an urgency we don’t feel, to a repentance we hardly want, before a God we scarcely trust. And we don’t even get a day off!
But we come. Here we are! … We come for ashes. Churches fill to the brim for those ashes. We’ve sought larger premises on account of those ashes. And I’m not sure why. In another assembly we might suspect superstition. … Maybe we just like beginnings. Or maybe we brave the embarrassment of walking, black-browed, down the street simply out of habit. … But I like to think our bodies know better than our minds about these matters: that dust is calling to dust.
Why does God finally pay attention and take pity on the people in that last line of the Joel reading? … “The LORD was stirred to concern for the land … and took pity on the people.” For the land. I get the impression that God hardly notices all that trumpeting and fasting and assembling, until God notices the land. And I wonder … maybe it’s only our kinship with earth that gets us noticed. Is that why we come here year after year—to be soiled: with ash, with dust, with the dirt of the land? Not as camouflage but as beacon. “See Lord the land and have pity on your people!”
Today to celebrate our kinship with dirt. “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We are dust, we are dirt, we are ash, we are earth. We are earthlings, creatures formed from the dust and the spittle of God. We are children of Adam—earth creature—which was our communal description before ever it was a personal name.
We are made of earth; we are made for earth. Earth is what joins us and makes us one. It is what we share. It is soil that unites us to each other, to every other creature of earth, to this very planet, and even to the stars—since every atom of our bodies is dust and ash of long dead suns. Even here on earth, every atom of our bodies has been used before, countless times, in other bodies; other humans, other creatures. We breathe the breath of Shakespeare and Stalin. There is, literally, a little of Jesus in all of us—and something of the slime-mold.
The dust of DNA tells the same story. Of all the genes that makes us who we are, there are only a few hundred that aren’t shared with mice. Only a few tens to set us apart from apes. Down that deep our human differences disappear. Yet you would look at our divisions and think we were from different planets.
Haven’t we always been uppity creatures. Since our clay was first fashioned we’ve been struggling to climb out of the dirt and forget where we come from. We have two faults. We like to dress up … and we like to go it alone.
We like to dress up. We cover our clay with finery. To hide our origins in the soiled earth behind whatever mask we can find. To put on an alien face for the God who made us and project an image for all to see; one endless diversionary tactic lest we be revealed for who we are. I reckon the original sin is not so much Pride as Shame. We were thrown out of Eden and we’ve been in the closet ever since.
Maybe that’s why we like to go it alone? So as not to see, in the mirror of another’s eyes, our own nakedness or the tawdriness of our make up. But we are not alone. For the sake of the soil God took pity on the people. We do two things today when, together, we accept on our foreheads the mark of our making: we accept our humble origin and we accept that we are one people.
This is our beginning, this Lent. Our end is some weeks away, with Jesus and that awkward drama of Holy Week. But what we do in between is what matters. The temptation is to dress up to be ready. But whether it’s good deeds, or giving up, or getting clean, we need to be careful our Lenten trajectory matches Jesus’ own—with all its downward mobility. Or when we get to Holy Week we’ll be floating miles above the one we want to stand beside. Whatever comes later, Lent is the season of his failing flesh and his humble return to dust.
Let us fall back on humility this Lent: let us be humus, human. To be human is to be something made, very well made, and made of the same stuff as all other things. Made from dirt and made for a humble beauty God longs for us to accept. We are just soil—soil singing a song of reconciliation for all creatures.
March 29th, 2001
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
“What are you preaching about tomorrow?” someone asked me last night. “Doors and camels,” I said, off the top of my head, “doors and camels and something else.”
That door in St. Peter’s! That door has been bothering me for days. The Holy Door was opened last Christmas to inaugurate the Holy Year of Jubilee. The walls smashed down with a hammer and the doors swung open to receive the pilgrim people of God walking through to a new age. 25 million did just that. At least the door thing. Because the door is a strange symbol. Open doors are great. But even then they promise the possibility of being closed. We know being open is temporary. When is a door not a door? When it has been ceremoniously shut and bricked up. The Holy Door is buried deep in bricks and mortar. And, like Robert Frost, I worry what it is we keeping in or keeping out.
The idea of Jubilee rests on the extraordinary significance of times, of this time or that time. Time when it is fitting to open the heart and open the hand and open the floodgates of justice. Those bricks tell me we are back in ordinary times. But is there ever a fitting time to close the heart, close the hand, and reduce justice to a trickle? Ordinary can’t mean that.
Epiphany is about the ordinary. The light of God shining in ordinary times. The Magi are extraordinary because they are ordinary, secular, worldly. They find their way by science and not by faith. Their journey is a tough one and the endpoint is, at best, unexpected, maybe disappointing. “We came all this way for this—this ordinary tale of poverty and hope—an ordinary baby surviving the cold in a cattle-cave.”
But in my imagination that cave has no door.
There is a story of a Moslem king who was incredibly wealthy in the things of this world but wanted to be wealthy in heaven too. One night the king was roused from his sleep by an awful stomping about on the roof above his bed. Alarmed, he shouted: ‘Who’s there?’ ‘A friend,’ came the answer from the roof, ‘I’ve lost my camel.’ Well, the king didn’t think much of such stupidity and screamed out: ‘You fool! Are you looking for a camel on the roof?’ ‘You fool!’ the voice from above came back. ‘Are you looking for God in your silk pyjamas, lying on a golden bed?’
Epiphany means manifestation, means showing. God’s showing up in all the ordinary places. But recognising God when she shows—that’s another matter.
The Jewish people have always expected a lot of themselves. In Jesus’ time though there was one social group known instead for its low standards. In fact, it was said, this group worshipped the body so much they could not control their desires and were subject to all sorts of sexual immorality. They had no shame. It was a sin for a pious Jew to leave one of these people alone with an animal because wickedness would ensue, so contrary to nature were they. Who were these people so constitutionally incapable of keeping the commandments, so hopelessly ordered to immoral ends? I’m afraid to say, sisters and brothers, it is you and I—Gentiles.
We don’t belong among the chosen people of God. We are the hopeless case. Our very natures against nature. But God has done something just as much against nature. Paul tells of this new and shocking thing: the Gentiles have been made coheirs, members of the same body, and co-partners in the promise.
It’s so hard to capture any of the surprise of that news because we have taken over. We, gentiles, have become the standard. We see ourselves as the natural heirs of the promise—as if we deserved it, as if it wasn’t grace, as if it wasn’t scandal. We have become ordinary. And we have passed on the mantle of intrinsic evil for other groups to wear.
But while we are ordinary, so too we are not. We are as ordinary as a camel on a roof or a saint in silk. When the Magi saw that baby and didn’t move on in disappointment the whole meaning of ordinary was changed. Ordinary opened up its treasures and laid them down. Ordinary did away with doors—and with fences, borders, boundaries, with in and out. Ordinary now shines with starlight—if we have the eyes.
January 8th, 2001
“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