Tell Me the Truth

I’m slow on edicts these days, but here’s one I’m willing to venture: a church should not teach people to lie.

But we do.

Whenever we sift through Scripture in search of ideals, all the while missing the humanity, the struggle and the long plod toward love, we abuse the story but we also abuse the soul. No matter the clarity of our moral perceptions, we are no friend of grace whenever our pronouncements weigh people down, whenever the burden of our expectations delivers the subtle message that we must ignore or squash the realities simmering just beneath the surface. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it: “Christ did not, like an ethicist, love a theory about the good; he loved real people.” And real people come with real desires, real foibles, real fears, real longings.

When Jesus passed blind Bartimaeus on the road to Jericho, Bartimaeus cried out, “Jesus, have mercy.” I love this prayer. There are plenty of days when it’s all the prayer I can muster. Jesus stopped, looked Bartimaeus’ way and asked the plainest question: “What do you want?” Jesus did not ask Bartimaeus to identify what he should want. Jesus did not ask Bartimaeus what desire Torah would suggest. Jesus did not ask Bartimaeus to conjure an obedient word on virtue, responsibility or human sinfulness. Jesus asked what the poor fellow longed for, and then Jesus waited for the answer.

Bartimaeus’ desire was obvious; he wanted to be able to see. For most of us, however, our want lies buried under so much neglect and rubble that it’s nearly impossible to locate. Few of us know what it is we actually want, what we crave, what would make us truly giddy if it happened our way.

If we ask someone Jesus’ question: what do you want?, many of us religious folk will offer a squeaky-clean reply, something straight out of a tame Sunday School lesson. The answers are fine, but they possess all the verve of a dead fish. I want the real stuff, what makes the heart race and the energy peak and the sorrow sit heavy as lead.

Often, it would be more truthful if we said: I really want my wife to enjoy sex with me again or I want to stop puking in the toilet or I want money so I can fly the family to Italy for the summer or I want the voices to stop. If it’s true that what we really want is to land on the Times bestseller list or to be kissed like mad, why don’t we say so?

Whenever we are able to locate that first layer of our wants and desires (no matter how healthy, noble or immature they might be), we’re scratching at the truth – and then we’ve got something to work with. If we follow that longing deeper and deeper, eventually we’ll find something more potent, something more profoundly true. I’m convinced we’ll find something very near to God.

Good, Good Human

Given that Christian faith rests on the fact that God thought so much of humanity that he insisted on it for himself, I cannot for the life of me understand why we Christians are often the ones most afraid of our humanity, most skittish about our bodies or our passions, quickest to think we must add some “spiritual” component to make an earth-bound good truly good. It was, after all, the Creator who introduced good to our vocabulary, and the Creator spoke this fine word not first over religious texts, theological ideals or evangelistic proclamations. Rather, God the gardener-artist took a gander at purple finches, expansive blue skies, lush honeydew and Adam and Eve’s naked bodies — and God said, Well, look what I did…Now that’s good. Good. Good. Good.

Jesus, as we know, was a Palestinian carpenter who spent his days honing his craft — the lay of the wood’s grain, how the steel blade would sing as it sliced from the proper angle, the smooth lines that told the tale of a master who knows his work. As Jesus took on his more “serious” ministry, we discover that he loved the wild air and took great joy in cooking breakfast at daybreak. Jesus always wanted friends near and entered a fury for those suffering indignity. Jesus wept when death stole a life, and Jesus cared for his mother with his own dying breath.

A beautiful novel, an exquisite meal, a night of good love, a ballgame or a movie with the kids, a traipse across the country, a day’s work at the shop or the office, the studio or the classroom – these are gloriously human acts, filled with possibility and beauty, overrun with God.

If our religion makes us less human, something’s wrong with our religion.

Holy Fools

I believe in purgatory, as should anyone who passed through junior high. Seventh grade, I believe, and I was on the basketball squad. I didn’t play much, only at the end of games when we were behind so far that there was nothing for the scrubs to screw up. I was tubby and uncoordinated, not the best year of my life. We were playing Reicher, the Catholic school where all the guys were at least a foot taller, had hair in all the right places and seemed oh, so incredibly cool.

Thirty minutes or so before game time, I walked in front of a small cadre of Reicher toughs. Nerve-wracking, let me say. Intimidation. I wore my green and white uniform, too tight, too short, too polyester. I was directly in front of them when I heard: “There goes Santa Claus.” Followed by lots of snickering and chuckles.

I kept walking, exposed, like a fish flopping on the beach while everyone gathers round and points. It was the gym shower-scene every boy fears, only it was out in the open, with total strangers.

We all have a story like this. The fear of being foolish, of being mocked or scoffed or dismissed, taunts most of us. For my boys, it shows up strong the first few weeks of school. They are desperate to go chameleon and blend, just blend. One of our boys has become obsessed, when in public, about whether or not his hair sticks up. This, the boy that would go weeks without showering if we’d let him. Somewhere in his elementary-school world, he’s been told that hair sticking up is totally not cool, foolish.

Later, our tactics to keep from ever appearing foolish grow more sophisticated. We become snarky or sarcastic, knowing that if we make others seem foolish, the light never turns on us. Or perhaps we grow distant and aloof because, if we never show desire or passion (nothing that would get us noticed), then there is nothing for others to ridicule. Some of us choose our words with impeccable care. Some of us spend many of our waking hours gulping down shame. Some of us are crass, mean and cold. Our words slice others up. Everyone supposes we are the rocks, the ones who even though we’re SOBs are exceptionally self-assured. But if anyone could see, they’d know we’re shivering inside, a flopping fish stuck in junior high.

This must be why I like so many characters in the Bible who come across as brazen, unashamed holy fools. Peter, David, Mary Magdalene, just to name a few. They cried and ranted and slept with the wrong women and stormed off and were generous to a fault and unleashed fits of rage and joy that were in every way unseemly. If you’re looking for models for careful, calculated un-foolishness, look elsewhere.

But, they loved. Oh, how they loved. And they lived. And God called them friends. Proverbs rejects “the fool.” However, for the wisdom writer, the fool is the one who arrogantly stands apart from God, detached and wooden (but entirely “together”). The ones who stumble toward God, awkward and a screw-up and forever on the verge of making a scene – that person is beautifully foolish and God’s friend.

Buechner put it well, “If the world has never lacked for damned fools, it has never lacked for holy fools either.” I should hope not.

Let it loose, I say. Live wide-open. Live. Foolishness is underrated.