Friday, April 29, 2016

Keeping Our Word

When our oldest son Andrew was about three, he loved climbing things. Ladders, trellises, trees. They all beckoned him to clamber up toward the roof or the sky. In the house, we found Andrew mounting our coffee table and leaping off.
Not wanting him to mar the furniture or bump his head, we told him not to do that. Since this made no sense to him, he kept scaling the coffee table and leaping off, only to have us put him in time out for a count of ten. Eventually, he got the point. At least, he got a point.
Gustav Klimt's "Apple Tree"
When he thought I wasn’t looking, Andrew got on the table and jumped off. 
Before I could say anything, and without having seen me, he said, “Time out!” He walked to the accustomed corner, counted to ten, returned to the table, and repeated the process a few more times.
That wasn’t quite what we had had in mind.
Sometimes I suspect that Jesus looks at his Church and, with patience and love, shakes his head and thinks, “That wasn’t quite what I had in mind.”
Jesus had said, “Those who love me will keep my word.” (John 14:23)
With all the best intentions, people have taken his words to heart. And gotten them completely wrong. 
They assume that Jesus means, “If you love me you will follow the rules I’ve given you.” Sincerely trying to follow Jesus, some people believe that Jesus’ word—his logos—is a moral code. A set of do’s and don’ts.
But let’s do a quick review of Jesus’ teaching in John’s Gospel. 

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Even This

My mother Trudy used to tell me about a dachshund she once had. When she was feeling low, she would sit on our front stoop. The dog would join her on the top step and lay his head in her lap. From time to time he would look up at her in brown-eyed sympathy.
She would say, “He always knew when I was sad. And he would sit with me to make me feel better.”
Trudy never sulked or moped about. She loved to laugh and to eat, to cook and to buy gifts for the ones she loved. And yet, a continuous stream of tender sadness ran through her heart.
Mary Cassatt's "Mother and Child Smiling at Each Other"
During the Second World War, she had endured the allied bombing of her hometown Linz, Austria. Toward the end of that war, the Nazis confined her to the concentration camp Mauthausen. 
She had married unwisely, eventually escaping my father’s control and abuse. Her older son Joseph died. And Marie—her only daughter and my little sister—died as well.
Sometimes mom would drift back in her memory to earlier days and talk about “my little girl.” She was never maudlin or weepy. She seemed to be taken up into a tender nostalgia for what might have been.
This same woman who had suffered so much loss never gave in to despair. 

Even when we were broke and homeless, she always believed that things were going to look up soon. Her response to my own meltdowns and hissy fits was always the same. “Remember, tomorrow is another day.”
Paradoxically, my mother knew about hope precisely because she knew about loss and sorrow and pain. Her theology was not sophisticated. Her faith was simple but deep. It could be summed up in this phrase that I borrow from Rob Bell: even this.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Cynicism, Courage, and Belief

Hulga Hopewell was an atheist. At thirty she held a PhD in philosophy, lived with her relentlessly shallow mother, and sported a wooden leg. A hunting accident had claimed her real leg from the knee down two decades earlier.
Her mother had named her Joy. As an adult Joy had legally changed her name to Hulga. As it turns out, “Hulga” fit her much better than “Joy.”
Edward Hopper's "Automat"
Bitter and condescending, Hulga wielded her intellect like a weapon and wore it like a suit of armor. She wasn’t about to fall for the phony hopes of religion or the moral conventions of society. 

As she put it, “I’m one of those people who see through things to nothing.”
Everything and everybody will eventually let you down. Only fools and dimwits put their trust in anything beyond themselves. She believed in nothing. 

Hulga Hopewell was true to her family name. She hoped well, according to her own nihilistic creed, by refusing to fall for hope.
Like many of Flannery O’Connor’s characters, Hulga is in for an existential lesson at the conclusion of “Good Country People.” And we’ll get to that lesson in due time. But for now I want to keep Hulga’s spiritual posture in mind as we think about the religious leaders who confronted Jesus in the Temple at Solomon’s Portico.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Forgiving Yourself

“Some things can’t be forgiven.”
Jim said these words as if he were reporting a fact so obvious as to be trivial. Judging from his tone, he might as well have said, “The sun rises in the east” or “Chickens lay eggs.” It’s the way things are. No point in discussing it any further.
It may sound paradoxical, but his resolutely flat delivery and emotionless tone conveyed a churning, barely contained menace and a gnawing despair.
Paul Gauguin's "Human Misery"
We were eating burgers at a pub near the church I was serving at the time. Jim had only just entered his twenties. He had the wiry, muscular frame of a wrestler in the lower weight classes. His black hair was a riot of uncombed locks shooting in all directions and tumbling over his forehead into his eyes. 
Those dark eyes were smoldering with unspoken judgment: “You’re clueless.”
Jim’s parents were at wit’s end. His drug and alcohol use worried them, but it was his frequent violence that moved them to ask me to speak with him. 
Night after night he would get wasted, capping most evenings with a brawl. If he didn’t remember the fight, the fresh scrapes on his knuckles and the new bruises on his body told the tale plainly enough.
He never struck his parents or his siblings. But he was perpetually irritable, verbally abusive, and predictably unpleasant to be around.
As you might imagine, I made all the referrals to the professionals that could work with Jim. And I was honest with his parents. Fixing Jim was way beyond my skill set. But I agreed to have lunch with him. To offer him my friendship as a formerly angry young man.
“So, what do you mean?” I asked.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Lies and Secrets and Funerals

My father died in high summer. The sun had already baked the red Georgia clay into stretches of hard crust across much of the landscape. Tiny black gnats floated drunkenly around eyes and lips and ears. Slow. Persistent. Annoyingly elusive.
The Baptist graveside service was scheduled for ten in the morning. Even under the canopy’s shade, the sun’s heat and the thick, humid air sent beads of sweat rolling down my torso. A black suit in the July heat of south Georgia was a bad idea.
Edvard Munch's "Meeting"
Having flown from St. Louis into Augusta the night before, I drove a rental into Louisville in time to arrive at the burial site about twenty minutes early. Three men in short-sleeved shirts and jeans and caps stood near the grave. 
I recognized them as men that my father would hail at Waffle House on my infrequent visits to Louisville. My father would banter with them about fishing while we waited for our take-out order. He never introduced me. I wondered if he actually remembered their names. They looked to me as if they were wondering why this guy was talking to them.
When I walked up to them that morning, they studied their shoes as I shook their hands and introduced myself and thanked them for coming. They never told me their names.
We stood there together awkwardly sharing an uncomfortable silence. After what seemed like about a month, the rest of the family pulled up in a couple of limos trailing the hearse. They had gathered beforehand at the funeral home. I must have missed that memo.