My first installment in this new series I’ve blandly titled “7,” is on envy. I preached it as a sermon just a few weeks ago. What you’re about to read is, in fact, an amended version of that sermon.
In her chapters on Envy, pastor, author and good friend, Laurie Jackson, uses a different scripture to talk about this particular deadly – the familiar, well-loved story of “The Prodigal Son” as told in Luke’s gospel, specifically, the elder brother. A whiny codger if ever there was one.
It’s also a perfect story to discuss the sin of envy.
I’d originally thought to do the same. But, I chose the story of Cain and Abel to up the ante a bit. Laurie went PG. I went straight to R-rated. In the elder brother, we see envy being acted out in passive aggressive ways. With this story, there’s precious little passive and a whole lot more aggressive. In her book, Laurie says this about envy, and I quote, “It is possibly the subtlest of the sins and therefore, the most insidious.
I believe she may be right.
We’re surrounded in the sin of envy. Our commerce is built on it. Human relationships swim in it. Its effects are felt everywhere, daily, and those effects are deep and stealthy.
There certainly is no shortage of envy or jealousy in the Bible. And, the story of Cain and Able is the tip of the iceberg. Let’s name just a few of the more infamous instances of envy in the Bible, shall we?
How about Abraham’s barren wife, Sarah, and her handmaid, Hagar? That produced an envy which resulted in centuries of religious rage and carnage among the three Abrahamic religions.
Or, how about Rachel and Leah? There was an envy that left an exhausted Jacob, constantly pregnant women, and the 12 tribes of Israel. Productive, but convoluted.
Joseph and his brothers. Here’s a sibling rivalry on steroids, that resulted in attempted fratricide, Joseph’s imprisonment, and ultimately, the nation of Israel’s bondage in Egypt.
Saul and David. Saul virtually goes ape over someone else being anointed as king and, the resulting jealousy results in the almost cartoon-like chase after David, who is harassed for years by a crazy person. And the pièce de résistance?
Jesus and the religious establishment. The religious establishment rarely likes challenges to its authority. Their hatred and envy of Jesus resulted in some great parables, but also in a sham trial, and the crucifixion of Jesus. Good thing God gets the last laugh there, huh?
The word “envy” in the New Testament sounds like a Marvel comic villain: φθονος (phthonos). Such delightful fun to hear someone pronounce after a few drinks (or before, for that matter). It means “the feeling of displeasure produced by witnessing or hearing about the advantage or prosperity of others.” In the bible, it is ALWAYS associated with evil. Its partner word is the Greek, ζηλιάρης (Zeeliaris) that has rather broader meaning, not always negative, as it is also related to zeal.
The story of Cain and Abel is an odd one to be sure. I must confess this story has always troubled me. A shallow reading will leave one feeling as though there’s entrapment on the part of God toward Cain. A set up.
Perhaps, in a sense, it is. Like many good stories, there’s much left out that invites speculation on the part of reader. We’re forced to ask the question, how truncated is the timetable here? How much time has elapsed? Listen to how fast this moves:
“Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have produced a man with the help of the Lord. Next, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground.” To the reader, one minute, Adam and Eve are “knowing” each other, the next they have two grown sons with careers and well-tended sibling grudges. If this were a movie, we’d get a screen notification saying, “25 years later.”
That alone tells us something. The kind of sibling rivalry and attendant jealousy at work here doesn’t just crop up overnight. The same could be true of the two brothers in the Prodigal Son story. This is something stoked over many years. We haven’t been in living rooms or at kitchen tables where Adam and Eve seem to favour one lad over the other, or where the father doted on the younger son while leaving the elder son to run the business. We have to trust that God and the storyteller know what they’re doing as we fill in the blanks.
Envy and jealousy are complex. Like wine or tea, they require time to age appropriately. Trust me, with Cain and Abel, jealousies are ripe for the picking. This is a cauldron ready to boil over. And God knows this.
By the time they’d brought their offerings to the Lord – Abel, an entrée, and Cain, a house salad – (I dare say we’d all be a little disappointed) murder is already waiting in the wings. The fire of Cain’s jealousy is running hot, a volcano just waiting to erupt.
Hence, it’s more likely that God’s acceptance of Abel’s offering, and dismissal of Cain’s has less to do with content than with intent. Abel’s heart contained no anger, no guile, no envy. Just satisfaction. Worship. But one imagines that, from the get-go, Cain’s heart was already choked out by dark jealousy, a one-upmanship that breeds a lust for adulation rather than pure gift of praise.
God’s statement to him? “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” This sounds very cryptic until we remember that God sees everything inside of Cain. He sees everything inside of us. God’s been in the living room, at the kitchen table, in the field as he inwardly curses out his brother time and again.
This isn’t about the kind of offering. It’s about the kind of offerer.
This story illustrates for us how poisonous envy can be. And, let’s be honest, who among us hasn’t experienced this at some level? There are few things worse. Let’s pry open Cain’s head for a minute.
Let’s say, a long-awaited, well-deserved, promotion is handed to someone else. Accolades for a job well done, perhaps on a sports team, or in business, are lavished on someone utterly undeserving instead of you. Maybe that someone got there because of you.
And, at the top of the envy game? The High School hallway. Remember those wonderful, terrible days? A litany of unseen hurdles and expectations. Only the prettiest, strongest, most hip need apply. Everyone else just stay in the shadows.
This is a sin that has impacted me personally. I grew up the oldest of three adopted siblings. We lived in a tiny but happy home in the blue-collar part of Calgary. My father was a union brewery worker which meant he earned a decent living, but still a meagre one. In an effort to streamline family finances, most of our family vacations revolved around me and my music. My brother and sister toddled along for the ride. I guess it was assumed they’d get collateral enjoyment from my activities and accolades.
Guess what? Not so much. They did well, all things considered, but we were well into our forties and even fifties before we finally put all the jealousies on the table and talked through some of the resentments. Sadly, my brother and I haven’t spoken for some time now.
Envy is dangerous. It’s pervasive. It eats us alive. It gnaws away at our inner world like acid. It isn’t our friend. And where envy is, meddling, mischief, murder, and mayhem usually aren’t far behind.
But envy takes time to nurture. Just like the curmudgeonly elder brother or, worse, the murderous heart of Cain, envy roots itself deep and isn’t uprooted easily. But, we’re in the driver’s seat. We can actually determine outcomes. Sin lurks at our door and its desire is for us, but we must master it. Because God says we must, means that at some level we can, albeit with God’s help.
“So, Rob, how on earth do we master something you have yet to master?” Well, there’s a good question.
I. HAVE. NO. IDEA. But the scriptures give us help here.
Envy, just like all the other deadlies is a Goliath we must face. It is always bigger than we are. To envy is to make a statement about our own insecurity. In essence it says we’re unlovable. Unacceptable. Or less acceptable than someone else. Envy cries out for an acceptance we already have. If not in the eyes of others, most certainly in the eyes of God. God couldn’t care less about the type of offering Cain brought. God cared for the inner attitude and wholeness of the one who brought it.
Last week, we posited love as an antidote to lust. I’d like to suggest that gratitude is an antidote to envy.
Out of gratitude can grow a healthy self-love in which there is no longer any need to pursue the validation of others. It becomes much less necessary since we have all we need in ourselves already.
I have enough. I am enough. I am loved.
And, in this love comes a beautiful freedom to champion the well-being of another. When I am enough, the quest for something else to bolster my sense of self is circumvented, short-circuited, and I’m set free to help someone else find what I already have. The Bible says, “Wrath is cruel, anger is overwhelming, but who is able to stand before jealousy?”
How do we master such a beast? Envy is deadly. But, the antidote to envy is gratitude, shown in love. It is the David of gratitude to the Goliath of envy. Our need to envy is outstripped only for our need of God.
Lord, have mercy on us and grant us peace. Amen.
Seven deadly sins.
How’s that for a conversation starter? Equally robust topics for family night be Nazi surgical techniques or the best fecal matter for fertilizing roses. How perfect for those post-dinner gatherings on cold winter nights. “Hey kids, gather round. We’re gonna talk about the quickest way to eternal damnation. Oh, and bring me a beer.”
Good friend, colleague, and all-round good egg, Laurie Jackson, just published her first book, “Little White Lies and the Seven Deadly Sins.” It isn’t an ivory tower dive into the pool of hamartiology (look it up, I dare you.) It is something better.
By her own admission, she doesn’t cover any new territory here. Instead, it reads like a conversation with Erma Bombeck while eating overripe watermelon over the sink. It’s sweet, immediate, fun, and some good juice runs down your face while ingesting good stuff. It brings the rather heavy topic of sin into a more amicable place in ways both funny and insightful.
And, it’s got me rethinking the whole topic. Sin isn’t exactly my first choice of hospitable, or even accessible party chat. And, it sucks as a Scrabble word. But the Bible seems to have rather an obsession with the stuff. It pops up like the drunk uncle at a wedding, inserting itself into otherwise polite company with slurry, spitty banter and totally short circuits our drive to the buffet line. It is as ubiquitous as it is exasperating.
Frankly, these days, I’m stuck knowing how to deal with the ramifications of this word and what it represents. The conservative theological pundits have a hard-on for it and can’t stop bemoaning how genuinely rotten is everything and everyone. Sin rules the day they cry through horn-rimmed glasses, shame and potluck on their breath. We just need to “get back” to God’s word and repent, repent, repent, feeling like shit the whole time. The guiltier we feel the better. Their Gospel: I’m shit. God’s not. Jesus took a good beating from his Dad for me. If I’m okay with that, I’m not shit anymore.
The progressive idealogues are, by contrast, tacitly unconcerned with any notion whatsoever that shadows, scraped knees, or even bad smells could possibly exist in so sunny a universe. If we just skip together, prancing hand in hand, hearty choruses of “We Shall Overcome” on our lips, no boogey-man will assert itself. We do not sin. We are sinned against (although I could never figure out who was first to get the ball rolling). I need only speak positively, even about the most heinous cell-blocks, and all will magically heal, rendering us all Pollyanna-happy. Their Gospel: I’m good. God is in question. The conservatives created a mess. Together, we’ll get this shit cleaned up. God’ll get a passing nod by the religious among us.
And, for both camps, the currency of faithfulness is outrage. I’m either pissed off at the sinfulness of everything everywhere, or I’m pissed off at those who are pissed off at everything everywhere. I sin in my self-righteous indignation at sin, forcing others into my thinking on the subject, or I sin in my satisfaction of not believing I’m a sinner in the first place. How’s that for a rabbit-hole conundrum?
Both feel a little insipid frankly, and neither give a particularly satisfying understanding of either sin or, by extension, grace.
As Laurie and others have stated, sin translates as missing the mark. It’s an archery term. People who shoot arrows are intentionally aiming at something. They’re scrutinizing outcomes. Their desires are set upon something good. But, in our efforts at bull’s eyes, we miss every time.
Here’s why I love this word. It actually indicates something wonderful about God, and also about us. It tells us that God cares enough to help us in our aim. But it also reveals a universal longing in the heart of humanity, one that takes aim at what it most desires. Augustine once said “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God.” We naturally aim at what our hearts most desire: peace, fulfillment, happiness, union with the divine.
Unfortunately, something is askew. Something keeps tugging at our arms as we line up another shot into the great unknown. Sin is the annoying guy making all those rustling and taunting noises right before we take our swing down the fairway. We aim for something because we’re made for God and long to return to God. We miss that something because sin somehow gets in the way and we’re wide of the target every time. We could call sin “aiming for the right thing in all the wrong ways often enough that the wrong thing feels like the right thing.”
That is until God steps in. God intervenes and removes the shackles, weights, magnets, and distractions pulling our arrows asunder. In Christ, the arrow of our longing has finally reached its target.
The destination is Christ himself.
The 7 Deadly Sins are merely the church’s creative means of naming the primary stalls in that effort toward aiming at God’s heart. For those of you following along in Laurie’s book, here’s a quick review of those: Pride, Envy, Anger, Lust, Greed, Gluttony, Sloth.
So then, here goes an armchair theologian’s look at…7.
What follows is a brief faith journey given at my denominational licensing interview. If you’re an avid reader of my work here, you’ll likely recognize some bits here and there from other bits elsewhere. Thanks for reading all the same!
In her coming to faith memoir, Traveling Mercies, writer Anne Lamott describes her coming to faith as a series of lily pads. A moving from one place to another in an inexorable path toward the light of Christ. My own spiritual evolution has been similarly episodic, but gradual. Like the beating of a heart. A spike of new oxygen, then space for it to make a difference before the next one. In the brief time we have, I offer my faith journey in 4 chapters.
Chapter I – The Mystic
“‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…” (Matt. 5:3)
November, 1974. Calgary, Alberta. I was eleven years old….The deep, night sky boasted her cavalcade of winter stars in unabashed glory. I began my journey to St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church for my weekly Boys’ Brigade meeting. To fight my typical anxiety, I decided to sing. The words of some Sunday School song tasted like hot chocolate Jesus on my young palette.
I lost myself in the comforting words letting them buoy me up in the starlit dark. A short time later I stopped, the church directly in front of me. Then, something happened – something outside of me – that has forever shaped my embryonic understanding of an eternal God. I can only describe it as a…knowing.
Whomever God was to me at eleven years of age “spoke” silently reassuring words to me that intimated, “I am with you tonight even as I have been so since before you were born.” I couldn’t move. I could hardly breathe. I was at once horrified and blissfully happy. I was, as if for the first time, fully awake. The only thing holding me to the ground was a tractor beam of grace, a preternatural awareness of something far beyond my ken.
That night I was confirmed as a “believer.” As a mystic. I cannot explain it. I simply, know.
Chapter II – The Believer
“‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled…” (Matt. 5:6)
I’ve been hungry my whole life; curious about everything, but primarily the unseen world I knew existed, but which felt so ridiculously elusive. The warm familiarity I’d enjoyed with God gave way to the angst of youth and the attendant emotional conundrums that go with the territory. My spiritual hunger had found the fatty food aisle of music, alcohol, sexual promiscuity, isolationism, and about a thousand books: narrative, history, Celtic mythology, biography, theoretical physics, the occult…the list goes on.
My hunger only grew, unsatisfied.
However, as a touring musician I met Terry. A lapsed Christian himself, his life still seemed more satiated than mine. On a very hungover drive home from a two-week gig in Edmonton, Alberta, he led me to heaven’s Trader Joe’s, the holy food and drink who is Christ Jesus. I ate and drank and was satisfied.
I’ve been feasting ever since.
Chapter III – The Contemplative
“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” (2 Cor. 3:17-18)
Palettes change as we mature. We don’t typically feed a spicy curry to a toddler even as mushy peas is an unsatisfying meal to an adult, unless of course you’re British.
The propositional, paper-thin cultural expressions of Christian faith, began to taste of mold and dust and my hunger once again raged like a monster truck rally in my soul. The applicational, scientific, outside-in Christianity of which I’d grown accustomed just didn’t satisfy anymore. It still doesn’t.
I grew more curious about whether my faith could actually find transformational teeth. Can a person genuinely walk like Jesus as one walks with Jesus? Is personal change truly possible or just some cute theological abstraction? What if our justification and sanctification are not two separate things, but inextricably linked in a kaleidoscopic unity? What would life be like outside the confining walls of systematic theology where the uncontrollable Spirit lives unhindered? Life as poetry, not science? To become the Word, not just study it? Where’s the danger in certainty when the risk of mystery is so much bigger?
My journey toward a more unitive consciousness, a less dualistic view of the world, and a better meal overall was found at the table of silence, solitude, and saints. Having already discovered Jesus, I now discovered my soul in community with the fuller Christian community, and the very host of heaven by the agency of the Holy Spirit. I was rebaptized, metaphorically, as a contemplative.
Chapter IV – The Activist
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?” (Hosea 6:8)
One cannot sit long in the presence of the God who speaks without aching to share that with another living soul. Already a convinced mystic, baptized believer, deepening contemplative, now I seek to be an avenue of that same communion with others, inasmuch as I am able.
I am still very much a marketplace Christian, actively engaged in the vicissitudes of embodied truth. The field of dreams for me must be on the field, not in the dreams. It is hands and feet and kinetic energy I require to keep my inner kingdom alive and growing.
The agora is yet my home. My vocation is to pursue the heart of monasticism amid the mire and stress of busy, workaday folks. In the rat’s nest of holy chaos that is the avenue, the neighbourhood, the hospital bed, the early morning rush hour, all of it awash in the presence of the God who sees.
The larger call and vocation upon my life will emerge more clearly in the minutiae of the face to face reparté of those who need what I’ve discovered in the deep recesses of Silence. A purveyor of Jesus to other hungries like me, albeit as a mystic in the mess where mystery meets mammon.
Chapter V is God’s to pen. Amen.
What follows is excerpted and morphed from a sermon I delivered recently on Prayer as the foundation for Evangelism.
The time has never been greater for Christians to live as Christ Ones. Our world, our neighbourhoods, our families all need a freshly invigorated, Spirit-filled kiss from God through lives made whole and real in the Gospel.
As with everything else, Jesus is our example, our inspiration, and our guide. Because the topic of prayer is so vast, I’m paring it down to three episodes in the life of Jesus in order to see how he goes about this business of prayer.
Episode I – Jesus Prays for Enlightenment
12 Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. 13And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles:
Jesus prays for Enlightenment, for help in decision-making. At a key moment early in his ministry, Jesus prays all night to hone his spiritual spidey-senses to hear clearly from his Father. The time had come for him to choose his team. His apprentices. Those who would represent the Kingdom of God. We know them of course as the Apostles.
He didn’t consult his notes, or do background checks, or call references. He didn’t consult his Purpose Driven Life book or call up Joel Osteen. He didn’t check his horoscope.
He stopped everything he was doing, turned off his cell phone, and talked to God all night. And, upon his return, chooses twelve of the most influential people in human history.
As we live the Christian Way among our neighbours, we will need a spiritual sensitivity, honed and heightened by prayer. “Lord, where are those most hungry for a touch from you today? Lord, how do I know to whom you may be calling me to offer a word of hope? To help share a burden? To be a willing listener?”
The same way Jesus did. By prayer. In prayer we learn to trust the “holy hunch.”
Rae and I learned this lesson again a few weeks ago while on our way back from Seattle. We’d stopped to eat at Salty’s Restaurant on Alki Beach, a favourite haunt of ours. Our waitress was a young, intelligent, and gregarious young woman. She was quite chatty really. A Psychology student who is trying to make it in real estate.
Before long we found ourselves buried in conversation with her. Then, the conversation moved very naturally into discussing matters of soul. She is feeling distanced from the faith of her parents who worshipped in a fundamentalist fashion. Her relationship with her parents was a bit strained to say the least.
In fact, she asked if she could stay after her shift was over. She longed to speak with us longer about her distant faith and of her disillusionment with the present state of Christianity in this country. She stayed for two hours! We enjoyed a very intense and moving conversation that was wonderfully beneficial to all of us.
We’re now good friends with her and her fiancée, a young man from Yakima, actually. And last weekend we were in Seattle again and ended up with an extra ticket to see Ed Sheeran in concert. We took him with us.
Why do we Begin with Prayer? Because we cannot see the way forward to just the right conversations with just the right people at just the right time in any other way.
Episode II – Jesus Prays for Empowerment
Mark 1:35-39 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ 38He answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ 39And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
Prior to this Jesus had been engaging in a flurry of teaching engagements, healing and helping and listening and dealing with the religious leaders. Apparently, healing people, casting out demons, raising people from the dead, losing friends, gaining enemies, and engaging in constant conflict with the religious brass was exhausting. Who knew?
The life to which we are called is a demanding one. Not just because of our own survival. But, because there will always be those around us who need God’s love. There will always be one more child to adopt. One more disease to cure. One more demon to cast out. One more lonely person to befriend. One more lost soul who needs the companionship of Jesus.
Kingdom work tired Jesus. It will tire us, too. Prayer is to the soul what sleep is to the body; what sex is to a relationship. It nourishes and restores and sustains. Jesus needed prayer. So will we.
Why do we Begin with Prayer? Because relationships are beautiful but tiring.
Episode III – Jesus Prays for Encouragement
Matthew 26:36-44 Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I go over there and pray.’ 37He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee and began to be grieved and agitated. 38Then he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.’ 39And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.’ 40Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? 41Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ 42Again he went away for the second time and prayed, ‘My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.’ 43Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. 44So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words.
Life at times puts the squeeze on us. All of us at some point must carry the burden of the cross. We will confront fear, disappointment, pain, doubt, failure. We will face our own fox-hole faith moment when all our waning energies rally to a single point of bursting emotion: “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me…”
Life lived as Good News is challenging. It will ask of us everything. Our time, our trust, our energy, our finances, our faith, our doubts…all of it. We will often be taxed well beyond what we can manage on our own.
Prayer is the place we are given enlightenment – seeing what we most need to see. Prayer wakes us up to what’s happening all around us.
Prayer is where we are empowered to do the work set before us. It is the oatmeal of our faith journey – where we are enlivened and sustained in Kingdom work.
And, prayer is where we will find encouragement to persist when all around seems bleak and impossible.
Why do we begin with prayer? Because Jesus did. And he’s the reason we’re doing any of this anyway.
Thanks to www.holyart.com for sponsoring this post
It is an odd thing, this whole memoirishness.
To read a memoir is to sit in someone’s living room drinking beer and eating Cheetos as someone outlines plans to save the world, or at least make it a little less shitty.
Except for a few cases, their stories are rarely intended for their own self-aggrandizement. Instead, they act as a window, a prism of sorts that divide up a fully lived life into its constituent parts for our amusement and awe. Once we happen upon these parts, it is for us to find ourselves within them.
Although not entirely without a modicum of gravitas, I am embarrassingly unknown. A small-town guy writing for other little guys, but with a tale to tell. What I can offer is a fireside tale told by a friend you just haven’t met yet. A regular guy with a story for other non-luminaries out there.
For my part, there’s an unquenchable thirst to read the journals of other next-door Joe’s like me. Those who put in writing what had previously been stuck in memories, photo albums, iPhones, shoe boxes, or desk drawers. Ordinary people become extraordinary through telling their story. We become greater than the sum of our parts as we are willing to share something of the remarkable, the redemptive, the road made a little straighter, the discoveries we’ve made along the way. Memoir is the result of someone’s self-discovery in writing.
I have loved such stories my whole life. Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, C. S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy, Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies, Kathleen Norris’ The Cloister Walk, Deal Hudson’s An American Conversion, Augustine’s Confessions, Henri Nouwen’s The Road to Daybreak, Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss, Will Ferguson’s Beyond Belfast, Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island, Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club among scads of others.
These stories invite me to ask, how am I also the statesman? The conqueror? The activist? The poet? The World War II code breaker? The rock star? Can it be that my horizons grow in reading the exploits of those great ones of whom I can only dream? Do their larger-than-life stories strike a chord, even a strident one, with folks-next-door like me? Like you? What is it about their stories that make us buy the books, makes women sigh and men jealous?
When I first dove into The Seven Storey Mountain,
was surprised to discover Thomas Merton, an artsy intellectual, Trappist contemplative who, on his worst day, was hipper and smarter than I will ever be. I’ve read, jaws agape, of the jaw-dropping exploits of British navy explorer Ernest Shackleton. I soil myself at the notion of being anywhere near the same impossible scenario. I get lost in parking lots, let alone a frozen continent significantly larger than the country of my birth.
To read of Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., even Steve Jobs, requires a suspension of disbelief since I’m normally polishing off a chapter in between building retaining walls, preening what’s left of my hair or pealing potatoes for dinner. But then I discovered something, or rather, someone(s).
A good memoir is one in which a writer who, although more famous and established than myself, can bring themselves closer to my ilk. They are just regular folks, or see themselves that way (even if their bestseller status denies them the qualification). They are “small,” but with big stories. Anne Lamott for example, whose disarmingly genuine and authentically humorous depictions of her coming to faith give courage to those like me who would venture to do the same.
Kathleen Norris, whose writing and teaching career places her in a broader orbit, still writes for artsy-fartsies like me; those who consider themselves “thinking contemplatives” and a little rough around the edges. Another example might be naturalist philosopher, poet-academic and farmer, Wendell Berry. Now, there’s a guy I can relate to – a farmer who writes poetry – good poetry, and novels that bespeak our common life and run-of-the-mill experiences that hold within them the hearty smell of dung in the boots and the glint of heaven.
The idea that someone with whom I might share the frozen food aisle at Safeway has written a personal retrospective, complete with spiritual ups and downs, relationships won and lost and the polished and buffed exteriors that don’t always line up with their guts, is tacitly satisfying. Taken together, these individuals have emboldened me to see my own journey, a little pedestrian and squishy by most standards, as still mineable for universal truths, frequent tears and the occasional belly laugh. They encourage me to find out who I am becoming and write in the process.
And this is the end of my beginning. I may not be famous enough to dwell among whomever is the star du jour. I may not be old enough to be particularly interesting – unless you ask my boys for whom I am an animated skeleton with opinions. I may not be young enough to be on the cutting edge of anything. Most anything sharp about my edges has long ago been dulled to a coffee spoon. I’m smart, but not quite smart enough to produce those clever turns of phrase about the deep stuff destined for the thick books sold in packs of two, the other being a dictionary.
Courageous? Perhaps, but not quite brave or selfless enough to reach out quivering hands into a crying world like those grand souls whose hands have done so before, often at their peril. Their tales provide the templates from which I glean my own courage.
Smart and edgy like Merton? Working on it. Leader with bravery and character like Shackleton? Um, sure, let’s go with that. Articulate, and passionately dedicated like King or Ghandi? I do good, I guess.
They say the devil’s in the details (whomever they is). But, ultimately, God authors the story. I get to put together the puzzle. And who doesn’t love a good puzzle?
I love to write. Whether it loves me back is not for me to decide. The jury’s still out on that one. No matter. It doesn’t change the fact that I am compelled to tell people my story. Well, bits of my story. Bits of my unfolding story.
Why, you may ask? Because stories unite us. Jesus loved them. He had a particular attachment to stories. Parables to be exact. Parables are simultaneously beguiling and didactic. They amuse as they teach. They are immediate in their images and settings. It’s like we get to be in on the joke. And, their disarming specificity is surprisingly universal.
Once a story is rooted in the ground, where we all walk; once there is an address, a face, names, insider talk, maybe a joke or two, it becomes magnetic. They bring us together in ways few other things can. They are the campfire songs of our childhood, the foolish dares of youth, our first kiss, or broken heart, our first-child elations, the decimation of loss. All this and more is common to us all.
It is for these reasons I love memoir. It’s like someone letting you rummage through their sock drawer. There’s always a gem or two to be found in the oddest places.
And I think I’ve got one (or more) in me somewhere. It’s been floating around for years trying to find its way out. But, in order to do so with authenticity and putting my best foot forward, I need your help.
I’m so thankful to all of you, my readers, for your ongoing support of this blog. It’s gratifying to know that my emerging soul, rife as it is with the bullet holes of life, is of enough interest to draw in an onlooker or two!
My invitation remains open. Join me in the journey toward a story on paper? Share with me your impressions. What has moved you? Delighted you? Disgusted or enraged you? Your thoughts mean everything to me. As do you.
Always in the Way, R
As a church music director I occasionally get opportunities to preach sermons. That should cause some of you to rejoice that the artsies have a pulpit voice, too. The rest of you will shudder at the idea that we’re allowed anywhere near one.
Ah well, what follows is my sermon from this morning, Sunday, August 5th. It’s been amended a bit to this audience who would tend not to react as negatively to more “spicy” language and approach.
I hope it lodges somewhere good, or at least, hungry.
6He left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him. 2On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! 3Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him. 4Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ 5And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. 6And he was amazed at their unbelief.
Then he went about among the villages teaching. 7He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 8He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; 9but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 10He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 11If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.’ 12So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. 13They cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
Even a cursory jaunt through the Gospel of Mark gives us a picture of Jesus who doesn’t fit well into pre-existing categories. He is different than the conventional and, as such, is often viewed suspiciously, or as we shall see, even contemptuously.
This sermon takes place among a series entitled “Defiance – Challenging the Norm.” ‘Defiance’ here is intended as a general term meant to convey the prophetic, counter-cultural way in which Jesus lived, taught and related to others. He defied easy categorization.
He was then and shall ever be, a glorious enigma.
Jesus has begun a ministry of healing and teaching, confronting people with a new way of thinking, of being in the world. He’s been busy making waves, making sick people well, hopeless people hopeful, lost people found, demonized people free, the government nervous, and religious people pissed off.
So, with all that success and street cred in tow, Jesus comes now to his hometown. But he comes not on a social call. He arrives bringing with him the kingdom message and is prepared to fulfill the exact same purpose for which he has come. He returns to Nazareth to reveal this new way of looking at God.
And how does he go about doing such a thing? Exactly. He teaches in the synagogue to those who already “know God” (by the way, in the same way doctors make terrible patients, we religious folks can make the worst disciples!). He’s met quickly with disdain and rejection.
“Wait a minute. We know this guy. That’s a lotta book learnin’ coming from that weird kid who grew up down the street from Bob and Lydia’s place. Who the hell does he think he is?!”
In fact, this was what they said, “Where did this man get all this?” They can’t be bothered to use his name! “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary…?” They basically remind him of his status as an illegitimate bastard by referring to him as “the son of Mary.”
Jesus had likely dealt with whispers and sneers his whole life. The self-righteous do-goodery of small town gossips has ripened well. And old grudges die hard.
Their assumptions about Jesus and, by extension what a prophet is “supposed to be” have been challenged. “This is no prophet, this is that snot-nosed carpenter’s kid. And, certainly no Messiah, either.” They make themselves unreceptive to the saving power of grace.
How many of us, having gone out into the world and made something of ourselves have returned to our places of origin only to be met with suspicion, or even derision? This kind of thing happens all the time. There’s something about challenging the status quo that makes people uncomfortable.
Jesus, the small-town lad, returns home. But no longer is he Joseph’s boy who spent many an afternoon fashioning cedar china cabinets and coffee tables. He returns home to Nazareth, a Palestinian redneck town, flashing the equivalent of a Ph.D. and a big city car. And they don’t take kindly to him shoving all this in their faces.
There is an acceptable, well-established role for anyone calling themselves prophet. Do not move outside those lines. In their eyes, miracles of healing, however impressive, may well have been reduced to cheap parlour tricks from someone just showing off. And a salvation message, however profound, met with stony ears unprepared for it.
Love gets shackled by unbelief.
To call him a prophet would have called into question all the ways they already saw the world and their place in it. It would have been to question their own hearts. And come on, that’s hard for most of us, isn’t it?
Poet John Donne once penned these words:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
We all have a collective grid of preconceptions, shared expectations, and accepted protocols through which we see out to the world and through which the world comes to us. If you don’t believe me, just try changing the rules to a game played for decades at the local social club. I dare you.
Because we have constructs for everything, we will have difficulty seeing Jesus when he challenges our comfortable assumptions. Jesus looks too much like us. We’ve coopted him, repackaged him, made him comfortable, usable, for us. Then, we lose the ability to see him in our daily activities, hear him speaking to us.
Theologian John Dominic Crossan once said, “beware of finding a Jesus entirely congenial to you.” We don’t want a Saviour who is constantly poking around at our idolatries. Our bigotries. How annoying! And to reject the Jesus who welcomes others, is automatically to reject God.
Let’s be honest, sometimes we’re either afraid or ashamed to be challenged because it’s just easier to rest in a Gospel re-envisioned to suit us. No outsiders allowed. Gather with those who look and think like us because it’s safer and more controllable.
This is something hard to see because those we think of as “other” are unique to every time and place. And, whenever we corral some particular group into the “unwanted” or “sinful” category, that’s precisely the place we will find Jesus.
We see this writ large in the ridiculous debacle of contemporary American politics. With ample posing, bluster, and incompetence enough for everyone with leftovers, we’ve decided it a great idea to crystalize our fears by bowing down to a self-proclaimed White House king. We say we want Jesus but really, we want Barabbas. And he means to neanderthalize what once was a cultural mecca for progressive (small ‘p’) values and diversity. Rather than seek to understand one another and enjoy the delightful surprises of acceptance, we vilify and demonize and divide. Indeed, our wrath spilleth over.
Who here remembers Isaac Asimov? He was a professor of biochemistry at Boston University and a prolific author. He once said, “your assumptions are your window on the world. Scrub them off sometimes or the light won’t come in.”
Jesus is not in the business of satisfying what we already believe to be true. Jesus wants us to follow him who IS true.
You want to find Jesus? Don’t look for him on the courthouse lawn. Find him in the prisons.
Don’t look for him in the backyard suburbia. Find him in tent villages under bridges.
Don’t look for him in the Constitution. Find him in between the lines of graffiti or suicide notes.
Don’t look for him in the hallways of power and priviledge. Find him in the faces of caged children and in the mentally challenged.
See his face staring back through the black eyes and broken nose of the abused housewife.
Find him in the cyber-bullied student or pregnant teen.
See him looking back at you in the eyes of your Republican neighbour, your Democrat sister, your drug-addict brother, your senile grandma.
See him in your enemy.
It is as true now as it was then, Jesus is often the least welcome among those who claim to know him best. We can be slow to accept anything that challenges our deeply embedded assumptions. Over familiarity with what we’re convinced is true about Jesus can keep us on the outside of experiencing the love he offers.
And, at the very heart of the Gospel is love. It is God intruding into our lives, shattering our pre-existing ideas about everything. Not to be a bully. But to help us clean off our windows enough to let in some light.
Let us not be those whose cast iron opinions (of which, obviously, I’m equally guilty) disallow the in-breaking of God’s love into our lives. Let us instead be those who are always willing to be surprised by Jesus. Let us not allow our knowledge about Jesus stand in the way of our love for him.
Who knows, perhaps he’ll be welcome enough in our hearts to perform mighty deeds of power? Lord, in your mercy, may it be so. Amen.
In their better moments, I dare say many folks would likely extend a more welcoming hand to our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. But our mob mentality, especially prevalent in the institutional church, often disallows as much. The reasons for this are often touted as theological. However, I’d venture a guess that it is often much more likely to be a projection of misdirected self-loathing and fear at the easiest target du jour. Further, it is given credibility through bad, or at least popular, biblical hermeneutics (the paradigm and practices by which we understand something). Then, all is rubber-stamped by those who prescribe and hallow that same fear.
Many of the most vocal critics of alternate sexualities claim to know a gay person. I’d like to suggest that, given their predisposition toward raised-brow shock or squinty-eyed judgement of the same, this is highly unlikely. Sadly, the high degree of verbal and/or physical violence against these folks by such critics, renders them not particularly forthcoming with personal details that merely paint targets on their chests.
Therefore, the self-proclaimed prophets of righteousness toddle off into the fray, cherry-picked, ill-understood bible verses in hand, and “take a stand for Jesus.” All this while their gay “friends” are sidelined from the very same faith that calls them as does their accusers.
I’ll stop there because, when in doubt, ask someone who’s truly been there to better explain. Fellow Jesus-follower and blogger, Laura Jean Truman, recently posted this to her blog. The title alone gave me pause to consider.
Read, pray, love. Then, let’s talk…
Generally, a pretty good approach to life I should think!
Special thanks to Mícheál Eóin Mac Fhiodhbhuide for photo permission!