If we want to know what God is like, there are good places to look. In Genesis, we discover God is Creator, God is life. From Exodus, we discover God as deliverer, sustainer, the One Who Never Abandons. In Leviticus and Deuteronomy, God is absolute holiness, the bewildering gift assuring us that divine love is never capricious and divine justice unquenchable. In the prophets, we discover that God moves toward the oppressed. In the wisdom books, we discover God as intimately concerned about human flourishing. Page after page, there are endless revelations, none of which fatigue the cosmic reality of God.
If you want to know what God is like, we might also be wise to explore Creation. The earth is the Lord’s, the Psalmist tells us. We discover much about God by contemplating, by enjoying with wide-eyed wonder and reverence, God’s handiwork. How better to know an artist than to ponder her art? How better to get into the imagination of a novelist than to read his stories? The heavens, with the skies and the mountains and the creatures and the rivers, proclaim to us the wonder of God.
And we could talk about friendship and love and desire and beauty. There are a million ways to discover God in this God-drenched world.
However, if we truly want to know what God is like, we go first to God’s fullest revelation: Jesus. When God wanted to provide us God’s decisive self-expression, God gave us Jesus. And to know what Jesus is like (what God is like), we must reckon with Jesus’ cataclysmic moment. We must reckon with a bloody cross and an empty tomb.
God is none other than the God who gladly, though enduring great agony and grief, surrenders his own life to rescue another. God is the one who takes upon himself all the violence the powers of this world, both religious and political, can dish up. God is the one committed to healing the evil of the one driving the nails as well as the evil of the one enraged to vengeance. God is the one who refuses to answer his accusers, allowing the Cross – and then the Resurrection – to speak the final word. God is the one who refused to call the angel-warriors, surely poised with flaming sabers, to his defense. God is the one who spoke words of tenderness, even while gasping for breath, to the precious few huddled around his naked, heaving body. God is the one who cried out words of crushing sorrow and abandonment precisely because he refused to abandon his friends or his enemies. God is one who loves to the bitter end.
God is the one who died not only for his few beleaguered friends but for the very ones who hung him on this crucible of death. God is the one who in his broken body extinguished every pretense of human righteousness, human justice, every human dream for self-reclamation. When we encounter perfect love, we murder it; and God is the one who knows this acutely. God is the one who came to finally, irrevocably and at great cost, do something about the delusions we don’t even know we have. God is the one who came to do the final task of love, to die. God, in Jesus, is the one who, in some great mystery we cannot fathom (and God help us when we think we’ve got it) showed up, took our abuse and our ridicule, and in that one astounding reversal “died for our sins” – that haunting phrase.
This is the God we worship, and no other. The God who hangs on a cross of brutal death. The God who descends into the fullness of our agony and annihilation. The God who would rather die than let us die. The God who went into the bowels of hell and came out the Victor. The God who went into death, for us, and now proclaims life into every dead and ruined person and place. Whatever vision we have of God, it must begin here.
Yesterday, Palm Sunday, was Flannery O’Connor’s birthday. She would have been 93, and I would have taken great joy watching this iconoclast toss firecrackers into our modern sensibilities. Strange, isn’t it, to think O’Conner could have lived into the era of Twitter if lupus hadn’t cut her low at 39. Did you know that O’Conner’s first claim to fame was when she was six? A British newsreel company traveled to her family farm in Millsville, Georgia, to capture young Flannery’s (she went by Mary then) feat: she taught a chicken to walk backwards. “I was just there to assist the chicken,” she would explain later, “but it was the high point in my life. Everything since has been anticlimax.”
Hyperbole, of course, but O’Conner did, in so many ways, walk backwards into her world. She was a farm girl, spending much of her energies raising both barnyard poultry and exotic fowl (with particular interest in peacocks). She was Southern, which made her an oddity among the literary elite. She was Catholic, which made her an oddity among the Southern aristocracy. Yet she was a person of her place, a person of her people. She wrote the world in which she lived. When criticized for her stories’ dark underbelly, O’Connor was unmoved. “The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism… when I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.”
Isn’t it strange that Christian faith has so often been used as a means to deny our bleakest realities? Isn’t it strange that some of our weakest art, our most naive fiction, our blandest passions, arrive with the label ‘Christian’ plastered upon their fragile façade? How can God heal what we will not acknowledge? How can Christ’s passion strike into the crucible of our lives if we do not own the fact that there is a powerful darkness? If we do not tell the truth of how we flail and rage but appear entirely helpless to enact any remedy? With our Christian edicts and our glib announcements, perhaps we’ve got hold of the wrong horror.
We need art that carries us into our full experience, that won’t let us go until we do justice with the bare facts of our lives. We need stories that grapple with all of our humanness, narrating both the havoc and the luster. We need to be reminded that Easter announces our true hope: ruin is not the end. There is joy. There is life. But they come through, not around, the valley of the shadow of death.
We’ve taken our first steps into Holy Week, and is there any stranger, any more backwards way, to heal, to bring peace, to renew the world, than to willingly endure ridicule and torture, to embrace death? Is not Jesus’ march to the Cross a long walk backwards?
During Lent, our church has been slowly pondering and praying through Jesus’ strange blessings, these outrageous words Jesus offers as his first salvo in that preeminent Sermon on the Mount. Blessed are you who have bone-dry bank accounts. Blessed are you who are heavy with tears. Blessed are you who have no cards left to play. Blessed are you who ache for goodness and justice in a world torn asunder. And the insanity goes on and on.
The life Jesus announces really does turn everything topsy-turvy. Jesus passes blessings (well-being) on exactly the opposite of those we consider blessed. The Beatitudes pronounce the shocking reality that the precise people we assume at the bottom of the pile are actually at the center of God’s abundance. These blessings are what God does, what Jesus makes possible in ways that were impossible before.
And while these blessings do not unravel a litmus test for “what it takes to get God’s blessing” (for example, no one’s suggesting we should go out looking for persecution), it’s subversively true that we need not fear these places of deprivation or vulnerability because when we’re most at risk, we have confidence that God is with us in that risky place. So when calamity visits us (persecution) or when we courageously obey Jesus (by being merciful, for instance, to those who we think deserve no mercy at all), we don’t need to fear.
Can you imagine what our world would be like if we didn’t fear losing our money or speaking out against wrong or extending mercy to those we assume should be cast aside? What if we didn’t have to be tough and were free to be gentle and straightforward and yes, pure in heart. Isn’t it strange that to many of us pure in heart is a description we’d use only for the naive or soft or hopefully out of touch, never for people we truly admire, the people who actually know how to get stuff done in the world. It’s a quaint idea but dangerous to think and live this way, we say. Maybe being pure in heart is dangerous, but it’s also blessed.
With God, we can let the danger come. We are free. We are blessed.
It’s been a while since I’ve written. You’ve been to Italy and back. I haven’t gone globetrotting since my last letter, but we did get to Memphis during Christmas. That’s a lot like Italy, right? I appreciated the pictures you shared and the way the place moved you. My folks took my sister and me on a trip to Israel when I was in high school. They maneuvered the trip so that we had two or three days in Rome on the way back. I remember five things: the drivers were batshit crazy; my parents bought me what I know was a pricy rugby shirt from what seemed to a 15-year-old Texas boy to be a very chic Benetton shop; St. Peter’s Basilica is like entering an alternative world (which, I understand now, is kind of the point); their pizza had peas on it. The fifth thing was my dad at his finest. We happened to be in Rome on Thanksgiving Day, after a week and a half of foreign food, and dad dreamed up a wild adventure including a mad hatter taxi ride (see comment about the drivers) across the city to this three-story McDonalds where we ate Big Macs, chicken nuggets and fries as we remembered the Pilgrims and their meal with the Wampanoag tribe.
Anyway, I’d like to go back. I’d pass on the Big Macs, but I’d stand as long as they’d let me there in the center of St. Peter’s and bask in the brilliance, the mystery. Of course, I’d have Miska with me which means we’d get out of the big city as soon as possible and head to the countryside, walking the hills and the vineyards and the little villages where we’d enjoy breads and cheeses and olives and vino.
I just finished Shaffer and Barrow’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society; I loved it. I found myself saying, “This may be the best epistolary novel I’ve ever read,” which feels magnanimous of me since I wrote one. After I made this magnanimous remark to myself, however, I realized I’d never actually read an epistolary novel other than the one I’ve written. That feels like a mistake, perhaps something I should have mentioned to my editor.
Anyway, the English poet and essayist Charles Lamb has an intriguing prominence in the story, and there’s this point where we hear about a quarrel between Wordsworth and Lamb, who were friends. Wordsworth scolded Lamb for his failure to adore nature. Lamb, refusing to give an inch, answered with a defense of how enraptured he was with the common physical elements of his life. “The rooms where I was born,” Lamb wrote, “the furniture which has been before my eyes all of my life, a book case which has followed me about like a faithful dog wherever I have moved–old chairs, old streets, squares where I have sunned myself, my old school–have I not enough, without your Mountains?”
Now, you know me enough to know that I’m with Wordsworth on the necessity of mountains, but there’s something about Lamb and his fascination and delight with these physical pieces and places right in front of him, the most common and plain portions of our life, that moves me. There really is wonder everywhere.
So we’ll be marked with ashes on Wednesday, and we’ll enter Lent’s bright sadness. Miska wrote something beautiful today, and she included in it lines from St. Teresa of Avila that I’d never heard before:
God is always there, if you feel wounded. He kneels
over this earth like
a divine medic,
and His love thaws
the holy in
I think this is what I’m hopeful for in these Lenten days, for the divine medic to come and tend to my heart, for Divine love to thaw the holy in me.
I’m spiritual, but not religious. In popular vernacular, I’ve understood this to mean that to be spiritual is to have subjective, internal feelings and notions of the divine, but to be religious is to be committed to a particular concrete practice, a community, a tradition. It’s an immensely popular idea, almost a dogmatic tradition unto itself. And I get it. At its best, the descriptor acts as a principled resistance to cold dogmas, heartless practices, brittle words that wound rather than heal in a complicated, harsh world. Fair enough; we need some resistance here. We need dissenters to keep us honest because God knows religion gets just as destructive and deranged as anything we humans get involved with. It’s why the Scriptures have the prophets.
But in the end, the line just won’t do for me. Initially, it has a nice ring to it; but the notion ultimately leaves me hollow. Like those massive conifers we saw in the Scottish Highlands–magnificent, towering and gutted to the core. Devoured from the inside, there was nothing left to hold them strong, nothing to hold them in their beauty. They’d fall, with great heaves, and rot into the wet sod.
In the end, it’s not vague notions of faith that keep me steady and rouse my hope. It’s Jesus, the one who was murdered on a heavy Roman cross and who rose again out of one particular tomb. It’s Jesus’ very particular and very difficult (if not insane) words about loving enemies and laying down my life, alongside instructions to care for the poor and the stranger and widows (what the Good Book calls ‘true religion’), that arrest me. I’m to resist the allure of power. I’m to turn away from greed. I’m to pursue love of neighbor and submission to God’s people. This Jesus makes demands upon me. Jesus asks me whether or not I will follow. I can obey, or I can disobey–but either way, it’s something solid, something that stands in my way, something that offers to hold me fast, if I’ll have it. It’s very particular.
Abstract ideals don’t have the grit I know is required to save me. Rather, it is Jesus’ body broken in the bread, Jesus’ blood spilt in the wine. It is my actual neighbor actually sitting next to me (someone I may not like, if I just get to choose), as we eat and drink together. It is the songs we sing and the Scriptures we hear. It is our commitment to living in this actual world (not the idea of a world). To say I’m spiritual but not religious would be, for me, like saying I believe in community but don’t want a friend or I love the wild but would never actually set foot in a forest. I need the real stuff.
Jesus, the harshest critic of distorted religion in history, didn’t set up general spiritual concepts. Jesus got dunked in water, gave us bread and wine around a Table – and then said, “Keep doing all this. Together. In my name.”
In a creative roundabout that showed no disrespect to St. Paul’s original line, T.S. Eliot once wrote an essay resisting popular notions that dismissed Christian doctrine and practice as primitive and unenlightened. “The spirit killeth, but the letter giveth life,” Eliot wrote. Eliot insisted that our vague ideas about religion (the spirit of the day) inevitably degrade into false, if not self-serving, caricatures. But the particular, the actual details, the demands even – that’s where the fire burns.
Two weeks ago, I stood under room #306 at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King breathed his last. I heard the sound of his booming, prophetic voice, that poetic cadence that won’t let you loose. His voice holds me still. This past summer, as our city was engulfed in evil, it was Dr. King’s words, from his next to last book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? that challenged me, sustained me, emboldened me. He spoke into our time, into my uncertainties.
Such conviction – the man knew his core, and he would not move. Not when the economic and political arsenal of white America turned against him. Not when some of his own friends and supporters turned against him.
Of course, Dr. King stands in a long line of women and men, courageous souls, who serve as our conscience, who love boldly, who refuse the ways we degrade ourselves and one another with our greed and selfishness and violence. These prophets of creative love do not leave destruction in their path. They dismantle evil, but their hands recreate rather than destroy. They envision what we will be, even as they call out what must be undone. They believe that goodness is not for the few but the many. They believe that wherever we must go, we must all arrive there together. They know that all will one day rise and enter free.
Rise up, my soul and let us go
Up to the gospel feast;
Gird on the garment white as snow
To join and be a guest.
Dost thou not hear the trumpet call
For thee, my soul, for thee?
Not only thee, my soul, but all,
May rise and enter free.
This poem was penned by George Mason Horton, enslaved poet and author of the first published book by a black man in the South, The Hope of Liberty, in 1829.
+photography is by the iconic Gordon Parks
I had a meeting in New York City last week, and Miska joined me. When we were boarding the train in Penn Station for the trip home, several solo travelers in front of us asked the agent to direct them to the Quiet Car. It’s a nice idea, this “Quiet Car.” One imagines a cabin enveloped in hush calm, a meditative space, perhaps with the soothing scent of Spiced Orange and Huckleberry (it’s the holidays), maybe a few candles, the tranquility only interrupted by the rare announcements of upcoming stops offered from the hushed voice of James Earl Jones. Maybe in the far back compartment you’d find a silent yoga class.
However, I’ve been in the aforementioned “Quiet Car,” and it bears no resemblance to this nirvana solitude one hopes to discover. In my limited experience, half the people want to close their shades and pull their eye mask down and forget the world for a few hours; then half the people don’t give a flying fig about signage indicating quiet – they missed the day in preschool where they learned about the “inside voice” and demonstrate with their boisterous (and very long) cell calls, with their karaoke as the music blares from their headphones, their raucous games with friends to pass the time. Once I watched with growing unease as these two factions, over a heated and tense hour, nearly began WWIII right there in poor Amtrak’s “Quiet Car.”
So Miska and I never even considered that danger-laden zone and instead plopped ourselves right in amongst the rest of our fellow travelers, all of us willing to tamp down our expectations and just enjoy the ride.
And wouldn’t you know a fellow, a sixty-something New Yorker who I’m guessing worked in building maintenance, dialed up his daughter who was picking him up in Philly. He sat 4 feet from me and chatted the entire ride. He told his daughter how he shoveled snow the previous night and then skipped evening TV and went straight to a hot shower and bed, his muscles raging from a day on the job topped off by clearing the driveway and sidewalks at home. He asked how his grandkids were doing, worried as he was about their new school and whether they liked it and whether they had to buy new uniforms and if so if money was a problem. He asked where his daughter’s new school was and if she had to travel any extra distance to get there. He asked again about the grandkids, worried again that they might be unhappy or in need of anything. He asked about his daughter’s back pain and how her massage therapy was going and asked her if the massage therapist “put a towel over her butt” because the whole massage thing seemed like Martian-talk to him. Then (after asking about the grandkids one more time) the conductor announced the Philly stop, and he said, “Well, I guess I need to get off the phone. I’ll see you in probably ten minutes, and if I don’t hang up now, I won’t have anything to talk to you about when I get there.”
I’m certain that either way he’d have plenty of good questions to ask, plenty of love to give. See what we’d have missed if we packed into the Quiet Car? Grace comes to us in all kinds of places, unexpected places, boisterous and cluttered places. It’s a lot like Advent.
A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Isaiah
There’s a reason we must have Advent before Christmas. We must reckon with the dark if we are ever to be truly embraced by the Light. We have to know we’re in trouble before we have the good sense to cry out for help. We have to feel our aloneness in order to open up to the wide arms of grace. We have to know we’re lost in bad country before we gain the good sense to follow the God who leads us home.
Isaiah reminds us that God takes us through the wilderness, not around it. This is good news since life will, sooner or later, carry all of us into the rugged, isolated, despairing badlands. Eventually, all of us will have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
So here we are, waiting. Some of us are waiting alongside a grim diagnosis. Some of us are waiting while our family teeters on the brink. Some of us live in persistent anxiety, a low-grade fever of fear and tension. Some of us think where we are is all we’ll ever know. Some of us have surrendered hope. Some of us have forgotten the God who makes a way through the wilderness.
But God has come to us once in Jesus, and God will come to us in Jesus again. God has led the people through the wilderness once, and God will lead the people through the wilderness again. And again.
Photo by Hunter Bryant on Unsplash
In a cynic’s age where suspicion and aloofness and religious detachment suffocate us, it’s an electric shock to the system when, on the first week of Advent each year, we read those wild-eyed prophets bellowing words so fiery they’d wake a corpse. Yesterday, Isaiah prayed a dangerous prayer: God, rip apart the heavens and come down, so that even the mountains would tremble at your presence. The prophets believe that either God acts on our behalf, or we’re ruined. The prophets believe that we need God or we’ll die. The prophets, these Advent prophets, dismantle our cynical, sophisticated attempts to manage God.
It seems we need these wild voices to announce Advent to us. Otherwise, we’d only yawn and roll over and continue our delusions that we’ve got things mostly in control. But we don’t. Anyone with half an eyeball knows we’re in trouble. All of us are in trouble. This whole big thing we call the world is spinning off kilter.
And when we’re in trouble, when we’ve played our last card and we’ve got absolutely nothing left up our sleeve, then (maybe then) we come to our senses enough to turn to God and pray that beautiful, beautiful prayer: help. And in Jesus we find that God loves nothing more than to answer this honest ask.
But most of us keep working the angles, always imagining a new dream hand. The game’s done, and the dealer’s eyeing the door. But we’re crunching the numbers, refusing to see what’s plain as day to everyone else at the table. We haven’t really owned the fact that we’re finished; our best efforts have played out. We don’t see how desperate we are for mercy.
Advent, if we’ll have it, moves us back into reality. Advent tells us that without God we’re wrecked. But thankfully, Advent also tells us that God holds the cards. Advent assures us that God is always the God-who-is-Coming. Advent leads us into an abundance of mercy.
Photo by Stephanie Fox on Unsplash