The Constant Revelation of Human Nature

Reading a disturbing book on the flight to JFK about the genocide in Bosnia 20 years ago (we all have our hobbies), then some lighthearted short stories, folk tales really, by Gogol . . .

Bosnia

Seeing the incredible art in New York’s amazing museums, carefully maintained, then stepping outside to see God’s homeless artwork on the streets, casually defiled . . .

NY Museum of Art

 

 

 

 

 

 

Standing on the train watching people’s eyes dull or bright, engaged or disengaged, seeking relationship or solitude. Watching two young men on two different trains, seemingly self-absorbed and hard-edged, sweetly help two elderly women with their heavy bags as if they were their own grandmothers . .

Subway

Texting and talking to my friend and colleague Nicole in Isla Vista after the murders . . . This one is personal for me, gut-wrenching. I worked there. It’s one of my sacred places. The victims are my son’s age – it could be him – and he has friends there – it could be them. My son is safe. His friends are safe. Others’ loved ones are dead. Nicole texts: “enjoy” my week in New York. And I do: seeing loved ones, younger friends who are also old friends, seeing their children. It’s life-giving, heart-warming . . .-

When I think of epiphanies, I most often think of revelations of God. But theology also explores the intricacies of human nature always on display every moment of every day. Which best represents human nature – Bosnia, Isla Vista, the museums, my loved ones? Which reaction becomes an expectation, almost a posture: a heart warmed or a gut wrenched?

Everything that people are doing every moment every day on every inch of the planet is the sum total of human nature and all of it is a daily revelation. The cumulative total of it will always be gut-wrenching and heart-warming. It depends only on where we are looking, what we are reading, or what we are doing in any given place at any given moment.

A Song of Innocence

Like many a good, or bad, Boomer, I occasionally listen to music from the old days. One song reminds me that I argued with friends about which song was “the best.” Another makes me tear up with memories of laughter with a beloved friend long dead. Still another conjures a long drive on a magically sweet spring day.

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Recently as I listened to songs I knew in my late twenties, I felt a surprising stabbing heartache for the young man I was: passionate, playful, hopeful, cynical, competitive, funny, and – this was the surprise – innocent in so many ways. I felt a parental desire to shield my younger self from coming wounds and grief from what I hadn’t yet learned about my workaholism, my family of origin, my marriage, myself.

At the same time, I know that my greatest blessings came later, but those blessings are told in other songs.

Still feeling an ache for the sorrows I hadn’t yet imagined three decades ago, I pondered the nature of innocence and its cousin: faith. Faith, of course, is not limited to playpens, sunsets, and spring days. And certainly we must distinguish between emotional and spiritual innocence, but the memory made me wonder: is it possible to have faith or hope without innocence? Is it possible to have faith – even tried, tested, and true – without the risk and pain that seem to be its irritating and inevitable companions? Jesus said something about not being able to enter the kingdom of God unless we have the faith of the innocent.

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As I listened to song after song, I wished I had been younger and wiser. And I wondered: if I am alive in twenty years, what will I see when I look back at myself today? In what ways might I still be naïve? And how much of that is a lack of wisdom, and how much an ingredient of faith?

How am I still innocent? How are we always innocent? How often do life’s tragedies and absurdities knock us off balance? And, even so, how much of our innocence is necessary to faith, hope, and love?

A Near Death! A New Life?

It was quick, then over. It was his near-death experience, not mine.

 Moving car

 

The pedestrian saw the bus stopped across the street and ran against the red light. The driver of an SUV saw his light turn yellow and sped up. Just in time the pedestrian saw the SUV. He couldn’t stop but when he planted his foot, he pushed up in a bunny hop instead of ahead. The SUV missed him by a foot, and he skipped ahead to catch his bus.

Did the driver know what had almost happened at 40 MPH? What would the pedestrian remember – that at age 40 he almost died or that he caught his bus?

The near-miss was a near-meeting of two classes. In L.A., only the poor and purest-in-spirit use public transportation. In this parable of inequality, missing a bus costs 20 minutes; a red light costs one. If they had collided, the pedestrian would lose his life, the driver his license, maybe more.

Observing this near-death made me reflect on my own hurriedness. People of my culture and class are on time. We get to the airport early. We are embarrassed to be late. I want to be considerate of other people, but I have to keep this concern from becoming ultimate.

Cesar Chavez said that nonviolence only makes sense if we have a more patient and persevering sense of time. Faith has the same altered calculus not only in history, but in every moment’s mindfulness. If we see every campaign for justice as another seed near a path, win or lose we can exhale. If we can keep daily traffic from becoming an ultimate concern, we can turn our idolatry of time into a prayer.

I was shaken by that near-death. Ever since I’ve been more aware of how I drive, more aware of my need for immediate results. For me, the challenge is to maintain this awareness of time in the life and death issues of social change because sometimes it’s in the off moments that something, anything, surprisingly becomes a matter of life and death.

The Missing Purity

The Missing Picture

“It starts with purity and ends with hatred.”

Without a context, I would have assumed this statement described the ways people use biblical purity codes to assault the LGBTQ community. But this quote comes from “The Missing Picture,” the recent film memoir from Cambodia where the Khmer Rouge’s ideological “purity” provoked ruthless mass murder.

Mix any dogmatic purity with ethnicity, sexuality, or even a faithful person’s “inquiring and discerning heart” and you get potential genocide. But the seeds of genocide are more normal than we like to admit. Our mainstream media constantly bombards us with cleansing violence against “bad guys.” Such violence is quick – 60 minutes with commercial interruptions. It’s easy. Turn off the TV and sleep well. The earth is purified!

On Good Friday we again see that the “religious” fret more about ritual niceties than unjust executions (John 18:28-31). It’s enough to make us want to vomit at and vomit away “purity.” But just as self-righteousness can give a bad name to righteousness (right relationships), we can’t let this ranting, raging, scapegoating, sharpshooting purity poison us to transforming possibilities.

Isn’t there a missing purity: the “pure” religion of compassion (James 1:17), the “pure in heart” who see God (Matt 5:8), the realization that “to the pure all things are pure” (Titus 1:15)? Such purity is an antithesis and antidote to “it starts with purity and ends in hatred.” What starts in in this purityleads only to awe, affection, and adoration.

Yes, puerile purity justifies theologies and ideologies of discrimination and cleansing violence. When few – the true believers, the master sexual orientation – are “pure,” that is toxic non-purity. But when we see that ordinary people and “all things” are pure, this transforms us. So rather than trash all ideas of purity because of its horrific distortions, I will seek the purity of wonder and compassion, the pure heart that finds a mirroring purity in all people and all things – even in those who hate.

Equal Opportunity Gentleness

As I watched them approach, I felt gentleness welling up within me. I don’t think I had seen them before. I don’t imagine I will see them again. The mother held her baby in one arm and her four-year-old daughter’s hand in the other. They were the last ones coming to the altar on Ash Wednesday. It has been the last impression wiped away from that day.

AshWednesday

I saw the apology in the mother’s eyes – she had had to step outside right before the imposition of ashes, and I had to wait. I saw her daughter’s open-faced, wide-eyed awe. They knelt at the altar rail, and I knelt reflexively on the other side to be face-to-face with the four-year-old girl. We said “hi.” Then as she looked into my eyes, I put my thumb in the ashes and smudged a pudgy cross on her forehead, gently pronouncing her mortality.

It is a harsh thing to put ashes on a child’s forehead and speak of ashes and dust. It always makes me flinch. I wanted to do something, anything to ameliorate that harsh non-news. Maybe that’s why I knelt down. Maybe that’s why we said “hi,” to make me more than a mortician’s messenger.

I’ve been thinking about that cross on her forehead, and the tenderness that overflowed in me, from me. It doesn’t well up as easily when I smear an ashen cross on an adult even though we, too, are God’s children who do and don’t graduate from childhood, equally frail, equally mortal, equally in need of reassuring tender care.

I had other plans for Lent, other disciplines, other goals. This one surprised me: to find that hide ‘n seek tenderness within me and turn that occasional eruption into a pattern of equal opportunity gentleness.

My Favorite Truth

Looking lost, sincere, and sincerely lost a young man asked me: “what is your favorite scripture?”  I confessed that I don’t have one.  I’ve never had one.  I recoil at the very idea.  One verse might be more apt today, another tomorrow.  1 Sam 4:18 – he fell over and died because he was old and very fat – says: keep the weight off!  As my hair falls out, I get a longer laugh out of the bears backing up old baldhead Elisha against taunting Cub Scouts (2 Kings 2:23-24).  But no, no favorite.

Others have favorites.  I was once told of a priest who always preached on the Good Samaritan. A lesson on the Exodus?  “Reminds me of the Good Samaritan.”  Creation?  “Reminds me of the Good Samaritan.”  An exhilarating prophecy, Paul’s most maddening prose, or a head scratcher from Obadiah?  “The Good Samaritan.”  That’s a “favorite scripture!”  But as great as the story is, that’s a one-note faith.

My “favorite theology” is equally elusive.  My theological center shifts and spirals this way and that and back again.  One key word?  One key thought?  One crux?  The Cross?  The resurrection?  The incarnation?  I don’t think that way.  I don’t live that way.  I don’t think life’s meanings cluster around the gravitational pull a single truth.

The centuries have blessed us with multiple theological grids to try to make sense of the amorphous mysteries of faith.  To make sense of the senselessness of life, there are historiographies and philosophies, psychological, political and economic theories, each useful in its own way.  I use theories and grids, but I don’t fully believe in them.  As a pastor, I don’t believe that one truth can cover two tragedies.  As a preacher, I can’t return to the same biblical one-liner as if it encapsulates all knowledge.

What I believe is that the wonders and horrors and glories and tragedies of life touch and are touched by the collective wisdom of our faith.  In any and every circumstance, something in our faith speaks to something in our life.  There are touch points.  The trick, of course, is to try to find one that unearths the height, depth, breadth, and length dormant in each event.

I look for those touch points.