Godly Sorrow Over Racism | “Two Sorrows”

In his second letter to the dysfunctional church in Corinth, Paul makes mention of their commendable response to a previous letter. He describes the letter as being “severe” and “painful”—the cause of “hurt.” (7:8-9) Paul admits that he second guessed himself in sending it, saying, “I was sorry at first, for I know it was painful to you.”

Scholars suspect that there is actually a missing Corinthian letter—maybe the most severe one. But we know something of the dysfunction and shame of this church from Paul’s first letter. Of course, Paul famously critiques their petty infighting and posturing over giftedness and devoutness, pronouncing that, devoid of love, these seemingly spiritual acts are empty and hollow. (1 Cor. 13:13) He calls them to a solidarity which resembles that of a body, in which every part has indispensable value, concluding his analogy, “If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it, and if one part is honored, all the parts are glad.” (12:26).

Amidst the salacious, factious, and pretentious smorgasbord of sin afflicting this ailing church, Paul approaches a serious specific issue asking, “Do you want to disgrace God’s church and shame the poor?” (11:22) He is speaking to the way this church handled its Communion gatherings; the sacramental breaking of bread and drinking of wine ordained by Jesus to denote the common union of his earthly people. But they had segregated it by class; stolen this meal away into their own homes; made of it a social club. “When you meet together, it is not the Lord’s Supper that you eat.” (11:20) Think about that. This was not a faulty way of doing Communion, it was not Communion at all. Why? They had excluded the marginalized; “some go hungry while others get drunk.”

Paul puts this matter of inequality and exclusion around the Lord’s table quite severely,

“Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy way will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A person ought to practice self-examination before eating of the bread and drinking of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgement on themselves.” (11:27-29)

When we eat the bread and drink the wine, we declare that the body is one; it is an expression of solidarity and unity that is meant to reflect something actual. As David Swanson writes,

“None of this is theoretical. Our decision to reject defective discipleship that fosters segregation for reimagined practices that lead us toward solidarity with the body of Christ has real-world impact on countless fellow members of the body.”

The Corinthian church had actually rejected their radical commitment to body solidarity! How do we know this? When one part suffered, other parts felt nothing—they were numb to it. In actuality, it was worse. They were not oblivious to or obscured from the suffering part; they were effectual agents—beneficiaries. This is what Paul was denouncing. And insofar as this segregating, depriving principle was in place, their gathered worship had nothing to do with true Communion in Christ. They were not only denying to suffering of the body, they were causing and exacerbating it. They were making God’s church a disgrace.

Imagine, then, if the Corinthian church had filed away Paul’s letter, dismantled its force through fancy systematic theology, or overlaid a free market economic ideology on top of it? What if they had sent Paul a return letter saying, “Paul, these people are only suffering because of their own lack of personal responsibility.” Imagine a church in which Paul’s severe letter was thus blunted; its pain and sorrow rejected; the harms and blasphemies it denounced left in place. If you are an American Christian, you needn’t use your imagination—this is our story.

I cannot here outline the enormity of insidious and cruel ways the White church has participated in racism and White supremacy to disgraceful, blasphemous ends. There are resources such as Jemar Tisby’s recent book The Color of Compromise (also a Prime Video lesson series), Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah’s Unsettling Truths, and many, many others—written by Christian and non-Christian scholars alike.

But, as Tisby sets forth his study, he weightily observes,

“Historically speaking, when faced with the choice between racism and equality, the American church has tended to practice complicit Christianity rather than a courageous Christianity. They chose comfort over constructive conflict and in so doing created and maintained a status quo of injustice.”

Tisby quotes historian Caroyln DuPont, “Not only did white Christians fail to fight for black equality, they often labored mightily against it.” Tisby also make clear that the White American Church’s egregious historical compromise toward and tolerance of White supremacy and racism has had pivotal periods of contingency, during which it might have acted in obedience to Jesus but failed to do so: “white supremacy in the nation and church was not inevitable. Things could have been different.”

For this reason he writes in a holy hope to elicit what Paul called “godly sorrow” or “godly grief”—to prompt the American church to seize upon her diminishing moments with greater urgency and righteousness than ever before. “This kind of grief is a natural response to the suffering of others. It indicates empathy with the pain that racism has caused black people. The ability to weep with those who weep is necessary for true healing.” The sorrow to which Tisby is referring is the sorrow Paul rejoiced to see in the response of the Corinthian church to his severe and hurtful letter.

Ever since I began seeing the streets flood with people after the death of George Floyd, I have had an unshakable and, I believe, divine burden that this is one such contingent moment for America and for the American church—a moment when godly sorrow must be awakened through severity and pain. The church’s tolerance of and complicity with racism and White supremacy are, to quote Martin Luther King, “Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up.”

And so we return to Paul’s subsequent letter to the Corinthians; the one that followed the painful one he was nearly unwilling to send. “I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while—yet now I am glad, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you were sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way.” (2 Cor. 7:8-9)

Here we must start where Paul starts, with an evaluation of sorrows. Whenever a harmed party learns that the perpetrator of their harm is sorry, it becomes a fragile juncture indeed. Paul makes it clear that there are two types of sorrow: one exceedingly good and productive, the other deceptive and lethal. They can be known by their fruits.

So if you care passionately about how the church will respond to its historical and present companionship with White supremacy and racism, then you might actually be averse to the notion that this moment merely calls for “sorrow.” But let me briefly note the quality of the “godly sorrow” which Paul here celebrates, “See what this godly sorrow produced,” Paul declares: earnestness, concern, indignation, alarm, longing, zeal, and a “readiness to see justice done.” (7:11) I would like to spend another piece reflecting on the nature of this sorrow but I will simply note that it is both potent and prolific. It is from God and it indefatigably pursues those things that please him because it has adequately grieved over those things that do not—from a place painfully vivid understanding.

If you are more skeptical of my thrust here—maybe even resentful—let me note, after a subsequent section focused on generosity, Paul writes, “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality.” (8:13) In this statement Paul anticipates the contemporary sentiment, “When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” So let us set aside the our mere distaste for discomfort and threats to our accustomed way of life. Paul’s own letter evinced the hard truth that the Gospel would, more often than not, overhaul earthly lifestyles.

May we keep in mind, as I wrote earlier, that history bends toward an eternity of total ethnic inclusion and honor; a life without sorrow that can only come about when “the old order has passed away.” Part of the blindness of the White American church is an aversion to discomfort and mortification along with an intractable delusion regarding our own claims to innocence. Godly sorrow cannot penetrate nor take root in this hard-baked soil, and our Enemy will gladly swoop in and carry away these painful truths as a bird.

There is much reason for much sorrow, and if this moment calls for for godly sorrow, then we must be very clear about our sorrows. There are, after all, many expressions of sorrow and contrition being voiced at present: from pulpits and podiums, blogs and vlogs, and within the sprawling social media landscape. Many “I’m sorry”s, many laments, much posting, much soul searching, and endless vows to listen, learn and do better. There have been many, many tears, which, in White Evangelicalism, is the gold standard of sincerity. And there has been much rightful skepticism toward all this—call it the “when Black people are in pain, White people join book clubs” phenomenon. Which is to say, none of this outright exhibit the hallmarks of godly sorrow.

But does it exhibit the hallmarks of worldly sorrow? Paul isn’t precisely clear about what worldly sorrow is, yet he contrasts it starkly with the godly type saying, “godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” By way of deduction, we can know it is patently not of the same nature as the godly type. Explicitly, we know worldly sorrow produces death.

This must mean it is ephemeral and, to take Paul’s cues, not entirely sincere. It may be the sorrow of being caught in acts or, otherwise, in the unfashionable state of being socially out of step. Any sorrow over the complicity of racism and White supremacy that is predicated on fashion or the superficialities of wanting to be seen a certain way can only be worldly and transient—it may have the materials of penance but not repentance. It can be preempted by boredom or a short attention span. Such sorrow leads to death.

So too the sorrow of mere sentimentality must not escape our scrutiny. While sorrow is evinced by sentiment, not all sentiment is substantive. It may be that you just don’t like when people are angry at each other, don’t like feeling embarrassed by your ignorance, don’t like seeing ugliness exposed. You may even be genuinely sad over the horrible images of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery’s killings (as is fitting), yet without a sense that you yourself have been accomplice to this very Black-life-devaluing enterprise! The tears of this sorrow are the tears of crocodiles, who seem to weep while devouring their prey. Such sorrow leads to death.

Without doubt, there is a performative sorrow as well. It resembles the disingenuous and functionally atheistic “acts of righteousness” Jesus bid us beware of in the Sermon on the Mount—“righteous deeds done publicly in order to be admired by others.” (Mat. 6:1) These have no value before God whatsoever, for they have nothing to do with God. They are entirely horizontal. Any likes, retweets, shares, or follows that come of this sorrow hold its only value. Such sorrow leads to death.

Jesus made mention of pretentious giving, praying, and fasting—all manner of “seeking God”—and emphasized the non-hypocritical feature of true “acts of righteousness.”

Still let us recall the word from Isaiah 58 about fasting:

 Is such the fast that I choose,
    a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
    and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
    and a day acceptable to the Lord?

 “Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of wickedness,
    to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?”

Friends, this must go even beyond personal piety to social concern, solidarity, and a “readiness to see justice done,” or even our seemingly intimate times with God prove themselves largely farcical. How one emerges from times of fasting, prayer, and, yes, even lament is the measure of sincerity—and of the value God places in them. Apart from living justly, such sorrow leads to death.

Because I have spent so much time in Reformed circles, I know the rejoinder to this by heart. “Oh, but I am totally depraved!” we groan. “My ‘righteous deeds’ are only as filthy rags apart from the blood of Jesus!” Stop that! You know you are missing the point—more like evading the point. This Puritanical chicanery has never been consistent with a Gospel morality nor even a cohesive theology. True though the salvific proposition may be, it was never, ever meant to undermine the Gospel project of “our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ,  who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” (Tit. 2:13-14) Such sorrow leads to death.

Look back over the history, and one of the most alarming, grievous features of the White American church is the inexhaustible ingenuity toward such ploys; a playbook of evasive maneuvers toward confronting these the twin travesties of Black and Indigenous dehumanization. These ploys themselves deserve unfathomable grief.

Friends, as I write these words my own heart has been under bombardment; for I have cried many tears, made many posts, felt many sentiments, shared many resources, marched many marches, joined many webinars, read many books and articles, watched many documentaries, attended many prayer meetings, made many friendships, even moved my family to the south side of Chicago. None of this amounts to the proof of godly sorrow. As a middle class White man, I can only say that godly sorrow over White supremacy and racism is something for which I must constantly make time and space—even then, I am more likely than not to underestimate their wickedness in ways that manifest themselves in complacency. As a middle class White man, I can always deny this solidarity, even if I inwardly mourn my complicity. Such sorrow leads to death.

But I am asking in the repeated, importunate way the Savior tells us to ask for justice! (“And will not God give justice to his chosen, who cry to him day and night?”, Luke 18:7) I am asking for justice to be conceived in hearts, gestated in churches, and born into the world. I am asking God to perform a merciful miracle of godly sorrow in our day; that we may rip away our old garments of White supremacy and racism, and “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator.” (Col. 3:10) Though it happen through much pain, yet it shall lead to something unspeakably beautiful.

Coming of Age

Watch this brief TED talk first.

 

 

Cultures have coming of age traditions and ceremonies; common, ritualized practices that denote a passage into adulthood and accountability. Typically these are imbued with honorific signals to ancestral heritage, community legacy, mores and customs, and the privileges and responsibilities of maturity within society.

Listening to the poet Clint Smith share his own story, I was grieved by what I know without any doubt is the Black American ceremony of alerting adolescent children to the hazards of their Blackness. This is the coming of age tradition our nation has foisted upon this community.

So, of all the affirming and empowering messages any Black adolescent receives from loved ones, those who are their loved ones and who love their lives, the safety of their bodies, the sacredness of their destinies must love them by cautioning them that their humanness is, at best, tenuous in our society.

If, as Christians or even conscientious Americans, we cannot extend grief, anger, and a will to affect something better toward this precious community–our neighbors–than we must wonder of defectiveness of our own humanity.

Dr King wrote,

“It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important also. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless.”

I believe the Civil Rights Movement of the middle of the 20th century was largely an urgent effort toward “legislation to control the external effects of those bad internal attitudes.” We need to remember that there were 4000 lynchings between 1877 and 1950 in the US. One each week. There were also law enactments and enforcements that led to de-facto re-enslavement of Black Americans through share cropping, convict leasing, and widespread intimidation.

The Great Migration was, in actuality, a great refugee movement, because in the South humanness (especially male humanness) was a capital offense. In the North and West, Blacks were introduced to James Crow via segregation, red lining, violence, and dehumanizing discrimination.

When King lived and campaigned in Chicago, he was pelted with stones, spit upon, and met with an open hostility he’d not even experienced in Mississippi. In a speech at Soldier Field in 1966, he famously lamented,

“We are tired of being lynched physically in Mississippi, and we are tired of being lynched spiritually and economically in the north.”

King saw education and spiritual transformation as the only gateway to change in attitude–to “make a man love me.” But these things can only take place voluntarily. Any therapist will say, “You have to want to change.” Do we? Do we want a society in which Clint Smith’s kids can receive a totally different coming of age talk; one that reflects the simple premise that Black lives matter?

If our Civil Right forerunners gave their lives to create a legal framework in which the slaughter and degradation of Black life might be mitigated, how must we give our lives to continue their moral legacy? And should it cost us nothing?

Clint Smith is 31. That means his dad gave him this fierce and fearsome talk in 2001. My Black friends are still giving their kids this talk in 2020.

Tamir Rice was 12.

White friends: what talks are we giving ourselves and our kids? If we have no answer, then we are leaving this sad legacy in place; leaving the weight of these dehumanizing talks to the Black moms and dads and loved ones in our nation. We are not calling the Black community our loved ones for we are not loving them as we must.

A friend visited me last year in Chicago. He was taking his son on a 13 year-old father-son right of passage trip. One night while he was here, I asked, “How are you approaching this time?” He said there were a lot of things they were talking about, but that night he had told his son, “You were born a white male in America. That means you won the lottery. You have got to be very clear about how to use your privilege rightly.” It brought me to tears.

This must be a literal “come to Jesus” for us. Silence is betrayal in our public spaces and silence is betrayal in our private spaces. Being human means naming and defining. For the Black community, this means naming and defining racism, White supremacy, and the lethal threat these represent to Black bodies and souls. For Whites, this must be naming and defining racism and White supremacy in our bodies, souls, communities, institutions, and society–including its lethality.

In his book The Hidden Wound, Wendell Berry wrote,

“If the white man has inflicted the wound of racism upon black men, the cost has been that he would receive the mirror image of that wound into himself.”

What he is saying is something we all know innately: as White people, our humanity is wrapped up in this also. No person can dehumanize or benefit from dehumanization without compromising their own humanity.

This is inherently Christian.

I would argue it is inherently patriotic.

This is inherently human.

Smith said, “I refuse to accept that we can’t build this world into something new.”

White friends, this is something we must refuse to accept also.

White Christian friends, this is part and parcel of our yes to Jesus.

 

The work of the Gospel

May has been brutal, and I’m tired. I know so many of us are. There are many varieties of tiredness, but the tiredness in my life is that of heaviness and grief.

The psalmist David expressed it thus,

I am worn out from my groaning.
All night long I flood my bed with weeping
and drench my couch with tears.
My eyes grow weak with sorrow;
they fail because of all my foes.

We use the word brutal in a spectrum of ways, and May has encompassed them all. At the beginning of this month we witnessed the devastating footage of Ahmaud Arbery’s February 23 murder, in which this black jogger was hunted down and shot in cold blood by a father and son. More than that, we were dismayed by the realization that months had gone by since the killing with no meaningful response by law enforcement. The gaping chasm of this knowledge bespoke something sinister and unsettling.

And we groaned. We groaned, as for a world unlike this one: we cried out, we ran, we sent letters, and made phone calls. Days later we became aware of the terrible shooting of Breonna Taylor by police in her own home in Louisville, and of the miscarriage of justice surrounding it. Our eyes grew weak with sorrow.

Then, in the span of one day, we observed a confrontation in Central Park, in which an embarrassed white woman appeared to summon a dark force against a conscientious black man who had simply asked her to abide by park guidelines. Later that same day came the appalling footage of George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, whose fellow officers warded off a crowd of bystanders attempting to intervene. The juxtaposition of these two events seemed undeniable points within a connect-the-dot. I was on a Zoom call that night and, as I began sharing about this, I found myself crying.

We are prone to call these deaths senseless, but what is most troubling is that they seem governed by a sense—the sense of what is commonly called evil. They are not senseless—they make all too much sense. Our strength fails because of foes. We’re reminded of the powers and principalities at work in this dark world, against which we contend. (Eph. 6:12) We were being allowed to see the gears of a system of mechanisms operating with chilling efficacy as from cruel design. And we were shaken. The earth opened up to unleash a flood of heat. The streets began to burn.

So much could (should) be said and done in response to this. And I agree with so many who are reminding us that this not a sprint but a marathon. But I want to speak as a Christian to Christians—especially white Christians—by saying, The Gospel of the Kingdom pertains to each and every part of this. Do not be convinced otherwise.

As John wrote, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.” (1 Jn 3:8) Family, there are few works of the devil with the enormity of carnage than race, racism and white supremacy. There is a pervasive and intransigent mindset in white evangelical communities that working for justice and equality is somehow “a distraction from the work of the Gospel.” But let us reject that. Any so-called ‘Gospel ministry’ that does not speak and act forcefully against the social evils of racism and white supremacy is unrecognizable from the Gospel and the Kingdom of God we encounter in Scripture.

I would argue this internal reluctance experienced within the white Christian community is itself an essential part of the machinery of darkness, because it derives its energy from fear and not love for God or one’s neighbor.

Until justice is permitted to shape our moral imagination, until this can become robustly integrated into our discipleship and disciple-making, we only remain perplexed and passive—and silent. Meanwhile our world is wondering why the Church so often goes hoarse in these moments—if not tacitly siding with injustice. (As silence always does.) Jesus, who came declaring, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” (Mt 4:17) and exclaiming, “the Kingdom of God is already among you!” (Lk 17:21) has given us a prophetic place in this world—a prophetic identity!

“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus said. “You are the light of the world!” In losing our saltiness, we void our very identity. In refusing our luminosity, our purpose is forfeited. “Let your light shine before others,” the Savior continued, “that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Mt 5:14-16) Do they see the goodness of our deeds; the moral clarity of our voice?

Dallas Willard wrote,

“The greatest issue facing the world today, with all its heartbreaking needs, is whether those who, by profession or culture, are identified as ‘Christians’ will become disciples – students, apprentices, practitioners – of Jesus Christ, steadily learning from him how to live the life of the Kingdom of the Heavens into every corner of human existence.”

Do we accept this description of discipleship or something less?

What, then, is “the Kingdom of the Heavens”? We are given a tantalizing picture of its culmination in the book of Revelation.

Firstly, it is a populated by “a multitude too large to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language.” (7:9) We are told that this “Great Community” was exactly what Jesus gave his life see realized.

Secondly, “the glory and honor of the nations will be brought into” its capital city. (21:26) That is, all humankind will be represented there, and all will have honor.

Finally, it will be a place where there are no tears, no pain, no mourning, no death. Why? Because “the old order of things has passed away.” (21:4) The old order of things will pass away. This is significant. Say it to yourself: “The old order of things must pass away.”

As Christians, we often pine for this day … as we must, for this is our hope. Yet it is also our love, and Jesus taught us to pray, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” (Mt 6:10) The governing concern of our life, Jesus insisted, is to “seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness.” (Mt 6:33) That word righteousness can just as easily be translated “justice.”

If and when we are about following Jesus and teaching others to do the same;  learning together as would-be followers “how to obey everything he has commanded,” (Mt 28:20) we cannot exclude our obligation to be justice-bringers in this world—if for no other reason than our common “hunger and thirst” for it!

In his book Bring Forth Justice, Waldron Scott noted, “We are accustomed to discipleship, in part, as ‘separation from all known sin.’ In practice we limit ‘all known sin’ to personal misconduct… We do not take seriously our involvement in structural evil.”

The “old order” is the order of this age, and we must help it pass away as members of the Kingdom. This must become an ongoing and significant aspect of the good fight that is ours to join. It is a fight. A fierce one. The fight is decidedly against an entire order of things—with dark powers and principalities behind it. It is a brutal system to which the brutalities of May attest. Our confession and fidelity to Scripture makes this clear.

Much speculation of late has taken place around how a bystander should handle an occasion of police brutality or racial violence. What would I have done if I was on that Minneapolis street or in that Georgia sub-division? It is a fair, if abstract, thought, and I believe it comes from a deep sense of obligation. Most of us, however, will not be present for something so horrific, yet all of us are present and participatory in a society that has yet to act with anything close to the appropriate urgency deserving its evil animations. In this regard, our opportunity is quite concrete.

Having received the moral imperative to, in Messianic words of Isaiah, “faithfully bring forth justice,” (42:3) we might apply our faith to this assignment from our Lord. We might employ our whole arsenal therewith; speaking and acting, praying and promise-claiming,  all the while keeping in mind, “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.” (2 Cor. 10:5) So we might come against these evils by prayer and fasting and worship … and intentional efforts!

In our fatigue, we can call to mind, “let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” (Gal. 6:9) In our discouragement, “my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” (1 Cor 15:58)

But first we must settle the matter once and for all that this is part of our discipleship. It is not a distraction from the work of the Gospel, it is the work of the Gospel. This need not be to the exclusion of other works of the Gospel; in fact, this can only serve to legitimize our witness and to fortify our spiritual lives.

Let us neither forget nor spiritualize the fact that Jesus himself announced his ministry by taking up the scroll of Isaiah:

“He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’” (Lk 6:17-21)

The eyes of many remain fastened upon those who are called by Jesus’ name. In our day will we see this scripture being fulfilled?  Let us hasten the dismantling of old, sad orders through our toil in partnership with the One who says, even now, “Behold, I am making all things new.” (Rev. 21:5)

Lord help us!

dimension zero

Fog has a fascinating way of demarcating; revealing distance through gradated silhouettes; converting the world into an enormous pop-up book. Have you ever noticed that? Generally speaking, novel conditions have a way of enforcing themselves on perspective—insisting we take notice of things previously undetected.

We’re in such a novel condition. Our whole world mostly is. The effects of this pandemic are expressing themselves in countless ways, and no one can definitely speak to the duration or true meaning of this time. Yet, as the condition’s name suggests, it is pandemic—of all people. Thus it is common.

For me, as with fog, this has brought into stark relief what we call dimensions: our relationship to space and time themselves. I’m going to try to write four posts, each tied to the dimensions of reality. These are mere reflections; a humble prompt for inspection. May they offer you something helpful, should you read them.

Dimension 0 | A Point

Technically speaking, a point is actually no place at all; a null set. It derives its value, its meaning, its space only insofar as it connects to other points. It is the dimension of zero. The dot in the i of Jeremy Bearimy.  There are two symbols for the null set: the slashed zero (Ø) and the empty “curly brackets” ({}). (Yes, I just put curly brackets into parenthetical brackets.) Within the zero dimension we are bracketed thus with curls.

I’ve already written a piece about the present elusiveness of meaning, but, as this moment protracts, this seems even more the case. Yes there is value or, one could say, “values” available. Kindness and patience retain value, reaching out to others within the digital landscape while remaining present to those within our newly-shrunk society, prayer and mindfulness, physical activity and meditation on Scripture, care for self; all these are values within the nebula. And no, this time has not dissolved ultimate meaning; not tossed God from His throne nor totaled the vehicle of Truth. It’s more like we simply cannot find the place on the map reading, “You Are Here.” This type of meaning evades what bible students call “the interpretation” and scientists term “conclusion.” It has the distinct feel of chasing after the wind; literally, “an attempt to herd wind.” “The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind…” (Ecc. 1:6)

This point in space is both a dimension and no dimension at all, which is to say it is a paradox—a mystery. I find that people range from tepid to cold when it comes to mystery. Mystery: a “mouth-shutting-ness.” Forrest Gump has up and stopped running, and we’re left shouting, “Now what are we supposed to do?!” The emphasis is certainly upon the word “now,” a strange track set on repeat.

Days all feel vaguely the same. If you live in Chicago, you have spring, winter, summer, and fall all in one week. We’ve lost track of all of the yearly rituals that have vaporized into the ether: Opening Day and March Madness, Spring Break trips and Proms, weddings and funerals, Holy Week. It is a point whose point escapes us. Tomorrow promises to be much the same. And it is disorienting, no two ways about it, as we discover ourselves scraping and searching for bearings, groping desperately in darkness. Don’t we perceive this pent up energy? Have you been wondering what it’s about?

In the null set we are getting far too much time with ourselves, aren’t we? You are the one self with whom social distancing is regrettably futile, and you’ve become too close for comfort! It was the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre who portrayed hell as an eternity in which people are their own tormentors—left alone with the abrasion of their own relentless self-critiques—in his aptly titled play, No ExitThe alarming question appears early, “how shall I endure my own company?”

Doesn’t that question speak to a torment we are all presently enduring? One of the characters in Sartre’s play finds herself wondering when the tormentors will arrive, and the valet asks her how she would recognize one. Her answer? “They look frightened.” This amuses hell’s valet, “Of whom would they be afraid? Their victims?”

“Laugh away,” she replies, “but I know what I’m talking about. I’ve often watched my face in the glass.” This character, Inez, knows inherently that fear is at the center of all torment, and it is alluded that the victim and tormentor shall be one and the same. But why?

Journalist Judith Shulevitz addressed this in her 2003 New York Times Magazine essay, “Bring Back the Sabbath,” bemoaning our “machinery of self-censorship” and the arduousness of “stilling the eternal inner murmur of self-reproach.” Our activity, it would seem, performs an unacknowledged function; it is a noise machine to muffle this irritating murmur, whose droning has largely been eliminated without our consent. (In CS Lewis’s  The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape informs his demonic protégé Wormwood of hell’s intent, “We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides in this direction as regards the Earth.” Yes they have.)

This condition is what theologians call “ontological lightness”—the perceived weightlessness of our self. As the late Brent Curtis put it, “the reality that when I stop ‘doing’ and simply listen to my heart, I am not anchored to anything substantive. I become aware that my very identity is synonymous with activity.” The discomfort, it turns out, is an existential crisis over which we skate precariously. The calls are coming from inside the house!

So we are all versions of Michael J. Fox’s character Marty McFly striving desperately against the disappearance of his world and very self. It is both terrifying and amusing. It is our corporate plot line. “As soon as they stop performing,” Curtis observes of our culture, “their identities—and ours—disappear.”

Are we the null set? God forbid! Constructed entirely of our doing? Or is there a self beneath it all; one with which we may be at rest, even apart from its productivity, even in naked stillness or newfound ineptitude in performing and producing? Maybe. Maybe not. We’ve never stuck around long enough to find out. 

Faced with her own crisis of self, my friend Kendra penned a poem that is both deeply honest and deeply wise,

Would your dove ever descend on me and say you are well pleased?
I’m not even a son but a daughter, so the quote doesn’t even fit
You speak a foreign language when you say I’m loved apart from what I do
What clothes, skin, and bones do I have apart from my endeavors?

She continues later,

If you unraveled my performance you’d keep going going going
Is there a core it wraps around or simply the end of the string
If it’s just the string God don’t unravel it
I’ll exist no more

The poem ends with a gut-level plea that says so much,

Do you like these words? Will you put them in a book?
Good, then it was worth it. I don’t have to do the real work.
My heart can remain unchanged; just tell me, “wow your heart’s so real!”
Tell me, tell me, tell me so I do not have to feel.

Can the love and pleasure of God actually rest upon those whose ledger of merit reads zilch? Can there be a being with value beneath the yarn once it is all unspooled? Can we avoid having this conversation a little longer? Please? We discover in times like this just how much our lives are a mad scramble to cobble together our sense of self.

The one thing I know is that the “You” in “You Are Here” is precisely where the now has brought us; inescapably so. Are you coming to see how ontologically light you really are? Have you any answer your auto-torment—your own frightened face in the glass? If not, can you re-enter the world with anything but fear and renewed desperation? Or will the you who you are re-enter with greater rest and an enlarged capacity for generosity?

“You have made us for Yourself,” observed the great bishop of Hippo, “and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” The you who are here,  are made in the very image and likeness of the Creator, and, before a work hour was complete, were beheld to be “very good.” The Dove descended upon Jesus, and, before a single sermon or miracle, the Father’s voice pronounced love and great pleasure; the type of love that defines the object as beloved. And he became “a life-giving spirit.”

You are here.

And, to quote my friend’s poem, “the real work” is before you; to name your noise and restlessness; to claim your silent rest—or at least a taste of it!

Wendell Berry spoke so simply and so poignantly about this “real work” in his poem “Our Real Work”:

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.

In his Noise-lauding letter, Screwtape quotes George MacDonald’s “sickening” description of heaven, “the regions where there is only life and therefore all that is not music is silence.”

“You Are Here,” and here you may remain until the you who is here comes to rest with your self, as defined apart from all of its noise and accolades; to rest in the goodness of your being and belovedness. The “Where” of “You Are Here” may only disclose itself by way of this real work, and although it may remain murky, you will be allowed to orient yourself by the unfamiliar sounds of music and singing—issuing from within, of all places!

As this happens, you will actually have something new to offer; something to give. And you will say along with another poet, Walt Whitman, “When I give I give myself.”

 

silence

Our world has been flung into a peculiar quiet, and we know not what to make of it.  Life within ‘The Great Pause’ finds us confronted by our craving for noise. More truthfully, we are coming to see how all the noise of our hustling and bustling serves to drown out the clamor within. As we’ve learned from the movies, “it’s quiet—too quiet!”

Streets without traffic, gridlocked minds; public venues stilled, private venues cacophonous; bodies idle yet pent up. There is no telling when this infernal quietness might end. Whoever said silence was golden? It isn’t! Silence is foreboding, if anything. Even monks don’t like the stuff. They spend their whole lives “acquiring the taste.”

During my undergrad I memorized a lot of Scripture. I was part of a group that heavily emphasized it and have never regretted the storehouse it has been for me. During one study group, we agreed to memorize John 14:6 and Luke 6:46. Of course someone got it wrong and committed Luke 14:6 to memory: “And they had nothing to say.” We laughed about this and, naturally, all agreed to memorize this verse as well.

We do have nothing to say. Our politicians and pundits and so-called ‘talking heads’ have seldom been so flummoxed. Even the wise in markets and theology and psychology and science are at a veritable loss. I know I am, middling though my wisdom be. O but we want to say or hear something—anything!

In actuality, it isn’t as though we have nothing to say. There is some good stuff being said; and a lot of rubbish also. But there is saying and there is saying. It’s the second one that is in scarce supply at present—like toilet paper and rubbing alcohol.

I’m fond of a vignette that is found toward the conclusion of Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus has invited his three close companions John, James and Peter on a hike to the summit of an arid mountain in northern Galilee. Atop the peak, Jesus suddenly begins radiating light like a sun. Even his clothes became white as light—as Mark put it, “whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.” He was transfigured; the Greek word is metamorphoō; altered from one state to another; something humanly familiar became something altogether apart. Some might say holy. Certainly dazzling.

Moses and Elijah showed up too! The three of them had a conversation about his impending “departure.” And Jesus’ three fellow hikers were gobsmacked. Speechless. Or nearly.

True to form, Peter opines, “Lord, it is good that we are here.” And he has a recommendation, “If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Luke offers us readers a parenthetical: “(He did not know what he was saying.)” Peter was saying something but he was not saying anything.

Without warning, and while Peter was in mid-saying, “a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.'” Isn’t that just perfect? Something marvelous and ineffable was happening, but Peter’s incurable instinct was to speak—surely something must be said or done or? Peter, you don’t need to say anything or do anything—save listen.

I was on a walk with my dog the other morning, and I found myself asking God to teach me to pray. I just haven’t felt like I’ve had the right words for a while now; nor the right heart; nor mind. I walked and walked. My dog looked for squirrels and smelled the bases of trees and lamp posts and poked her nose into shrubbery. Soon I was nearing my home, and the walk was nearly complete. I had blown it! Thirty minutes of disjointed thinking and still none of the right words at all.

Nearing an intersection, I realized that I had not even been consciously in the presence of God. And I found myself saying, “God, help me learn to enter your presence.”

Maybe I hadn’t blown it. Maybe he was teaching me to pray.

The writer of Ecclesiastes offers counsel for entering the presence of God: “let your words be few.” But he says more: “draw near to listen.” God doesn’t begrudge our talking so much as our lack of listening. He has something to say. I think I mostly keep talking because I don’t totally believe this, and the roaring on the inside and out leave me so afraid.

Silence is that terrible and titular prowling monster of Shūsaku Endõ’s novel, “the stillness of the night” which forces us, as it forced Rodrigues, to rightly name both the agony of groaning beyond our doors as well as the abyss of questions gaping within us. A moment of truth. A stark one.

None of us asked for this. Who knew silence could be so disquieting? But the world around us is speaking volumes presently, and the world within us is speaking volumes as well. In the former case, I believe it was Rousseau who remarked that the thoughts of modern man had become so preoccupied as to make him incapable of discerning the cries of the needy on the streets outside his own home. With regard to the latter, Parker Palmer laments our aversion to self-listening. “We listen for guidance everywhere except from within,” he says. And he continues, “if I am  to let my life speak things I want to hear, things I would gladly tell others, I must also let it speak things I do not want to hear and would never tell anyone else.”

Only then, Palmer says, we can hear the “words that arise when the inner teacher feels safe enough to tell its truth.” God is offering ears to hear—as king David wrote, “you have dug for me an ear.” God is digging us ears right now, like it or not.

Our world has been thrust into a bright cloud of sorts—what one medieval mystic called “The Cloud of Unknowing”—and it is ours mostly to listen. What are the honest and uncomfortable questions yearning to be asked? How is our world making its deepest needs known? Is it possible that if we remain with such enigmas—patiently, curiously as those “drawing near to listen”—we may end up hearing something unexpected from the mouth of God? Only one way to find out. Shhhh. None of us like being shushed, but don’t we all need it from time to time?

Perhaps silence is golden, or, rather, a smelting by which something golden might be extracted from so much dross. Those damn monks are probably onto something!

The Table Leaf Rule

When I was a young boy, my mom would produce this wonderful little object. It was a piece of varnished wood perched upon rails, which she would hook like cleats to the bottom 3 steps on our carpeted stairway. I could climb to the third stair, sit on its slick surface, and shoot to the bottom. It was my little indoor slide, and my mom would employ it thus when she knew I needed to burn off some excess little-boy-energy.

What I didn’t know was that she was repurposing said object. Its intended purpose was actually equally wonderful—a section of wood which could be inserted into the middle of a table to magically produce more spots! The table itself had secret machinations of gears and locks and nubs that allowed it to be expanded outward to receive and integrate this extension. The object in question was of course a table leaf.

These leaves create table space where there is not enough. My in-laws have a table with improbable abilities of augmentation—interlocking slats that slide out to welcome a seemingly endless amount of dining real estate. Whenever I am called upon to extend this table, I find it almost comical. Nevertheless, when the table has reached its lengthiest proportions, it is quite a marvel to have so many important guests gather around it.

The table leaf is a marvelous device; one which might even instruct us in ways of equity and justice. Can it even be repurposed thus? I believe it can and must. Continue reading “The Table Leaf Rule”

doubt

In Jude’s epistle, we find a rather simple yet important injunction, “Have mercy on those who doubt.” (v. 22) This would remind us that doubt is an ongoing reality among the people of God, and that the people of God have but one best treatment: mercy.

Mercy is that otherworldly quality of God that moves kindly toward others in any and every form of difficulty without condemnation. It does not come asking for explanations, only an entry point for help—be that encouragement, prayer, mourning, or even one’s quiet presence. Mercy is curious and patient and humble and attentive. A rabbinic tradition names thirteen attributes of God’s mercy; among them are a mercy that averts human distress, and another a mercy for when the distress has already begun.

This is how doubt is handled. Continue reading “doubt”

stinging

When I was a young boy I was stung by a centipede—stung, or bit or whatever it is that centipedes do. It was like a little shockwave; made my finger swell up and throb.

I didn’t know a centipede could administer something so painful; they can be nasty little creatures, that’s for sure. I’ve never looked at centipedes quite the same way since.

He (or she, how does one know?) was trying to escape off of an ant hill upon which I had put him (or her). Many human boys do such things. Why? Just to see what happens. A little gladiatorial circus.

What happened was that the ants began swarming the centipede: attacking it like a hoard of minions in a Kung Fu movie. They were probably just trying to defend their home. The centipede was fighting for its life; writhing and stinging and contorting itself in a desperate attempt to escape the onslaught. And he (or she) succeeded and began scrambling away across the sidewalk.

That’s when little boy me reached down and swept the centipede back onto the ant pile. And that’s when the centipede stung me—or bit me, like I said I’m not sure which is the right term. It hurt so much! But still I sat and watched as the ants, this time, successfully overwhelmed and killed the fierce little bug.

I’ve never looked at a centipede in quite the same way since.

Advent IV | Wonder

 If there is one word which most of us would like to significantly reduce from our usage, it must be “like.” I used it twice in that opening sentence.

This word would relegate our lives to simile; serving as a membrane between our sensory and spiritual participation in a textured existence. It may reduce chaffing, but it also blunts our humanness. Our lives were never intended to be similes. It’s like we feel this each time we say like. (The word simile actually means similar, or like.)

Yet Advent presents us with the ineffable—that which cannot be worded. Its the prophets who got most dumbfounded: thrones like jasper, skin like blazing amber, lakes like crystal. Theologians call these beatific  or “blessed” visions—visio beatifica—and they inarticulate (v.) us all. Maybe we use like so much because we’ve forgotten how to be speechless?

Continue reading “Advent IV | Wonder”

Advent III | Joy

Did you know that honeybees dance? They do, and their dance has a name: the waggle dance. But its the reason for their dance which makes this fact truly sublime.

When a worker returns to the hive from a successful pollen reconnaissance, she gathers an audience of other bees around her and does a conspicuous and choreographed series of spins and shakes. “Why?” you ask. The dance is a map. That’s right, this dance—the waggle dance—is the way bees tell one another where to find a bounty. This waggle dance is how bees preserve their colony. They dance for survival.

You might want to watch for yourself. Its so marvelous it may bring you to tears. (Having it narrated by the late Richard Attenborough never hurts.) This is the way joy works. It is a map disguised as a dance meant to direct others to bounty.

And the joy of Advent supremely so.

Continue reading “Advent III | Joy”