SHIPMATES, FRIENDS, AND FAMILY affectionately called him “Captain.” Throughout his long years in the merchant marine, and until his dying day at the age of seventy-five, Thomas Cromwell spun many a captivating yarn, enthralling the hearts of young and old alike.
Sweltering in the summer heat of 1920, this proud seaman, in the prime of his youth, gambled his modest home and a small sum of cash as collateral against the purchase of a dream. He bargained for a seaworthy wooden schooner and commissioned himself as its captain.
Banking on the odds that goodness and justice eventually prevail against adversity and tribulation, he spent not so much as a dime on insurance. His only surety was the policy he had inherited from his parents, that sticking to his dream would see him through life’s ups and downs.
With cargo, crew, and a few passengers aboard his newly acquired vessel, he set out upon the maiden journey of his lifelong odyssey at sea, with rights to trade in a certain commodity.
The captain’s eyes scanned the glistening Caribbean waters that encircled the Cayman Islands from whence hailed his hearty clan of Gaelic descent. With his broad hands and gangly fingers protracting from his towering physique, he took hold of the ship’s helm.
Possessing a natural disposition for a seafaring life, his ruddy complexion, sturdy countenance, and gentle spirit radiated a contagious smile that reassured all who looked to him to master the winds and waves of a sometimes wild and tumultuous sea.
It was toward evening at the sunset of Cromwell’s inaugural day as pilot of his ship that he descended below deck to retire until daybreak for some well-deserved rest.
Freed from focusing upon the ship’s compass or a distant object on the horizon, his thoughts returned to that morning’s departure from his wife and young children gathered at the end of the pier.
Outside, the rose firmament, which only minutes earlier had set fire to the shimmering Caribbean, now enshrouded his ship beneath a canopy of darkness. Inside, Cromwell lay on his bed, ready to encounter Morpheus as the captain of sleep.
As with all who in their youth are inclined to think that the scores of years that lie ahead are endless, Cromwell happily hummed to himself and prayed to the God of his Scots forbearers—the God who “creates, sustains, rules, and guides all things.”
In quarters fit, not for the repose of a king, but for a yeoman attentive to noble ideals rather than to royal fetishes like shiny brass fixtures, vintage wines in crystal goblets, and china plates garnished with quail eggs and caviar, Cromwell drifted into the realm where dreams composed of fantasy soon awaken to the harsh realities of stark fact.
Suddenly, an abrupt knock at the door bolted the captain out of his slumber as a crew member shouted, “Captain! Captain! We’re in trouble!”
“What is it?” the bleary-eyed skipper asked.
“It’s a passenger liner. It’s bearing down upon us, sir. Come quickly!”
By two leaps and a bound Cromwell scaled the ladder and peered out into the night.
Sure enough, deck lights reflecting from a shadowy, menacing hulk of steel could be seen approaching all too close to offer wide berth to the smaller wooden craft. There was little time to avoid an impending catastrophe.
As the surging passenger liner drew clearer into view, its colossal bow induced panic.
“My God, it’s going to hit us!” Cromwell shouted.
The captain ordered every woman, man, and child to take to the lifeboats. Within little more than the twinkling of an eye, all were huddled, shivering in the dinghies.
The seizure of chill took hold, less from the cold night air than from the paralysis of fear. Each lifeboat was packed to the gunnels with the flesh-and-bones drama of a living nightmare. A dread encounter-of-the-last-kind had struck with a vengeance. All watched in horror as their demolished ship sank beneath the surface.
Meanwhile, the lights of the passenger liner flickered into the distance until they faded into oblivion.
“Why? How could this have happened?”
“Who could be so cruel?”
“Where is sympathy for the little guy?”
“Why did that bully of a beast strike and then flee?”
“To whom do we now turn?”
“Where is the Almighty? Does he so little care? Are we to perish in the vast ocean of death?”
The captain was such a skillful raconteur that we, the eavesdroppers, upon hearing his recounting of the calamity, huddled on his living room floor as though we too were cowered with the crestfallen in the basins of the lifeboats. Cromwell said that he was the only person among his crew and passengers who did not make it into one of them. He lay instead with his body parallel to the ocean’s surface, with his arms outstretched above his head and his broad hands and gangly fingers grasping at the gunnel’s edge.
“All at once,” motioning with a sweep of his arm, he said, “I realized that I had lost everything—my ship, my house, my savings, my precious cargo, my dream. It all went to the bottom. And as I reached to feel the weight of my trousers pulling me down, I knew they had to go, too. I was naked before God.
“As the minutes and hours passed, there was no way to know whether we’d bake, or starve, or drown to death. Or whether by some fluke of fate perchance we would float off to some island paradise.
“So we prayed. We prayed desperately for our salvation.”
The captain leaned forward in his chair, drawing closer to us as he pointed to something across the room, toward which we turned our heads.
“Now, you won’t believe this,” he said. “But over there in the distance, after half the night is spent, we see a flickering light appearing from the same direction where the ocean liner had disappeared.
“Fact of the matter is, unless you’d been in those dark waters with us, you couldn’t imagine how even the faintest ray of light way over yonder could give you the brightest glimmer of hope. We shouted for joy, even though we didn’t know for sure that we could believe our eyes.”
Yet it was true that the same shadowy, menacing hulk of steel, which had taken aim at the captain’s wooden schooner and capsized it, returned to the scene of the crime, pulled alongside the lifeboats, raised their cheering occupants to safety, wrapped them in warm blankets, fed them, and delivered them to the port of Havana.
To everyone’s astonishment, however, the captain of the passenger ship refused to meet and greet the rescued refugees.
“But a very strange thing happened to me,” said Cromwell.
“Several years later, after I had gotten myself back together and become the chief of a banana boat not of my possession, I docked at New Orleans where I ran into an acquaintance named Jones whom I had not seen for a while. He too was a captain in the merchant marine.
“He said that he had heard about my near disaster and wondered if I had ever received an explanation as to why the passenger liner turned back and rescued us. I said I had no idea, but it puzzled me greatly that any captain would hit and run.
“Then Jones asked me if I remembered a young woman standing on the bow of my freighter as the lifeboats were unleashed.
“‘Indeed, I did,’ I said. I can see her now, stationed in the shadows with her baby in arms. The child’s cries still haunt me.
“So Jones gave me his version of what happened. I don’t know where he got it, but he said, ‘Well, Cromwell, you know it really was a very strange thing, but another woman was standing on the bow of the passenger liner. She too held a baby in her arms. When she saw what was about to happen to the young mother on the bow of your freighter, clinging to her child for dear life, she pictured herself and her own little one being in the same predicament.’
“’So she ran immediately to speak with her captain and begged him to turn around and save your people. But her captain resolutely refused. And that made her so angry that she persisted in pestering him for several hours until at last she threatened him, saying, “If you don’t turn around now, then when we get to Havana, I personally will see to it that you never sail your ship again!” And with that her captain got the message.’”
Shortly after telling those of us seated in his living room this story about his first day at sea as a captain, the beloved Thomas Cromwell suffered a heart attack and sailed his “earthen vessel” into the eternal deep.
His story was told at his funeral service to which crews of various races and tongues, from the ports where he had docked and the ships he had sailed, came to honor him.
Captain Cromwell loved to tell this story because it answered mystery with mystery and left his listeners wondering just who his acquaintance in New Orleans, named Jones, really was.
Was Jones possibly the captain of the obscure, menacing passenger liner that had capsized Cromwell’s schooner that fateful night at sea?
Which leads to another question . . .
Is God the irascible old he-captain of what Kipling called “that packet of assorted miseries which we call a Ship,”* who judges the Earth’s inhabitants with unexplained tempests of capricious and demonic fury, as though Satan himself could not have fallen as one of the angels if God had not permitted it?
Or, is this same God a she-captain who is quite determined that justice shall be done where justice is due, and that grace full of compassion will be vindicated on the face of the Deep as never before—the final victory of her continual coming and pleading and threatening and demanding that “love never ends”?
*Rudyard Kipling, A Book of Words, XV, “The First Sailor”
IONA IS A SPIRITUAL CENTER IN A WHIRLING VORTEX. Geographically removed, it is planted at the heart of a groaning creation, a “thin place” in the eye of the tempest. Steady offshore gusts are reminders. The worship that week was among the most compelling I have ever encountered. The liturgies were a blend of a timeless living tradition and a deep sensitivity to the contemporary human condition.
FIFTY-FIVE YEARS AGO I spent a memorable week on the tiny island of Iona off of the west coast of Scotland, the site to which St. Columba came from Ireland in A.D. 563, to inaugurate the Christian mission to northern Britain.
In 1938, amid the Great Depression, George MacLeod, a Scottish minister from an industrial section of Glasgow, brought together on the island a half dozen craftsmen and six or so young ministers. They labored with their hands during that summer and subsequent ones to reconstruct the ancient medieval cathedral buildings which had fallen into ruin. Their objective was to establish a common life and discipline of worship and work, of stewardship of time and money, renewing their covenant in Christ in order to return to the cities and factories of the mainland with an expanded vision of their Christian witness, where they continued the discipline.
From that rather inconspicuous beginning there emerged a global fellowship of laity and clergy who have come to be known as the Iona Community. Their pilgrimages to the island today are for the same purposes as their predecessors, and groups of them meet in other lands.
My memory of Iona has stuck with me through the years, even though I am not an official member of the community. I recall my own pilgrimage for its daily morning and evening trek over heath and fence to the beautiful greystone Abbey of St. Columba. The churchyard is graced with the thousand-year-old Cross of St. Martin and tombstones commemorating pilgrimages of saints and sinners from earlier times, including the renowned Duncan and Macbeth. One of our group referred to Iona as the paradise where God takes sabbaticals.
The worship that week was among the most compelling I have ever encountered. The liturgies were a blend of a timeless living tradition and a deep sensitivity to the contemporary human condition. Memory preserves even now the simple echoes of sacred sound reverberating from the balcony piano . . . hushed silences beneath the vaulted ceiling between vesper biddings . . . the liturgist’s reading of inspired words from an “ambassador in chains” to the Ephesians, with the prayer that the gospel be boldly proclaimed . . . the flux of worshippers presenting bodies and souls for consecration at the midweek service of healing . . . and the solemn thanksgiving processional of bread and wine to the holy table on the Lord’s Day.
These were not all. The koinonia of several hundred sojourners had congregated from faraway lands and diverse Christian traditions. Faces were not the same nor accents familiar. It was incumbent upon all to build bridges.
My final recollection consists of the serious nature of theological conversation, in itself a form of prayer, as George MacLeod sat in our midst to speak with us for an hour each morning. Never did the chatter of voices drift from the complex individual, social, economic, and political realities that comprise the framework of every person’s spiritual existence. There lay before us the real issues of life and death, of discipleship and spiritual formation. Iona was not for escape. That was the summer of rioting in Watts, war in Vietnam, strife in Northern Ireland, and starvation in the Orient. All of those realities were mixed in.
Iona is a spiritual center in a whirling vortex. Geographically removed, it is planted at the heart of a groaning creation, a “thin place” in the eye of the tempest. Steady offshore gusts are reminders.
So, what was gained? Very simply, one thing. An image of the church at the crossroads: worship the centripetal event, mission the centrifugal event. Both are one service, “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested.”
When visitors to Iona take holy communion, they proceed directly afterward to the cloister for tea and conversation. The concluding rubric of the liturgy states that each worshiper will be given “small bannocks of bread to flake and share” while mingling with strangers. “Thus is communion brought into the ordinary ways of life.”
It is powerful imagery. Saints, as forgiven sinners, are “bannocks of bread,” the loaves of the Christ at the crossroads of a hungry world.
DICK, STEPHEN, CHARITY, AND LUCY were their given names—these beloved “Negroes.” They were the propertied slaves owned by my fourth great grandfather at the time of his death in the year 1810. At the top of the inventory of all of Philemon Davidson’s worldly possessions, the court appraised Dick at 120 pounds sterling, Stephen at 100, Charity at 20, and Lucy at 90. Together they comprised more than half the pecuniary sum of the entire estate lumped together, down to and including five axes, a grindstone, two handsaws, a pair of spectacles, and one “woman saddle.” It does not take a microscope to discern whose fingerprints fell upon the axe, the grindstone, and the handsaw.
Given the irrecoverable distance of the ancestral past from which these sons and daughters of Africa had come into an unforeseen and splintered destiny in America, they and their fellow slaves passed through a myriad of predictable and unpredictable daily dangers to life and limb, including torture and lynching, as they trudged their beleaguered path toward the Promised Land. From the vantage point of the auction block as slavery’s narrow vista and constricted view of the future—“I’m here today and gone tomorrow”—these children of God were promised nothing remotely akin to a realized eschatology. Short of stumbling through the gates of heaven, theirs was a stumbling block into repeated disaster.
Shamefully and disgracefully, by legal decree if not divine dictate, due to the theological falsehoods of many preachers and the economic egotism of numerous slaveholders, the likes of Dick, Stephen, Charity, and Lucy were deemed, if not ultimately doomed, to the lot of mere mortal chattel. In an ethos of white supremacy wedded to the wealth of landed aristocracy and entitled gentry, this human “capital” was numbered among any “moveable…article of tangible property other than land, buildings, and other things annexed to the land.”
In truth, every slave in the Old Dominion was affixed to an entire system of which the appurtenances included blistering hot rows of tobacco leaf baking beneath the scorching sun, outbuildings consisting of one-room shanties that housed and slept an entire family, and the bricks and mortar mixed with the sweat of the brow that built and sustained the Big House. Therein the white master and missus partook of daily morsels of dough kneaded by black mammies whose bruised feet stood atop packed earth while their gnarled fingers baked the loaves of the white man’s freedom upon the iron griddles of oppression.
In that respect and with regard to the fate of the black man, I lament the awful truth about one of my not so greatly esteemed ancestors. Opposite the branch of the family tree bearing my surname there is a line that gave me my middle name, Nuckols. Philemon Davidson’s great-great-grandson, my grandfather Clarence, married a dear and sweet woman, my grandmother Susie Nuckols. Her paternal grandfather, Joseph Nuckols, being large of stature but small of heart, bore his strength in such a way that with his one hand high in the air he lifted his slave-man upside down by the feet, and with the knuckles of his other hand beat his slave-man’s rump into stinging raw meat.
Thus, when the hopes and dreams of slaves sprang up like lilies in a scorched field, theirs were the songs and dances of a faith-vision that fashioned a cry: “O, come, sweet Jesus, deliver us!” Nothing else, not anyone else, sufficed to assuage the morning dread and to curb the evening hunger. The underground rail to freedom for those who made it through thickets of woods to safe harbors hidden behind plaster walls and beneath knotty pine floors was as tumultuous and turbulent as the waters of the Red Sea. Only Jesus as Living Water could quench the thirst of souls whose bodies lay wilted in the heat of the noonday pestilence and whose spirits grew weary and faint from the hunt of the midnight rider.
Dreams and visions, not of an actualized fulfillment but of imaginings with the scope of an unflinching mind’s eye and pining heart’s desire peering over the horizon, propelled these wayfarers to see beyond the brutal and bitter plague of their captivity. In a land flowing with milk and honey, the only true, wise, just, righteous and loving Master of All would someday, on the far side of the Jordan, blessedly grant a better way of life than the crack of the whip and the curse of the hoe.
Think of it this way. Since none can see far down the line of vision, we can only trust past the point at which we do see. Dick, Stephen, Charity, and Lucy, plus countless others who endured the horrors of slavery in this unfair and unjust land, bequeathed us a gift of faith that defies the sight of everyday comprehension and ignites the power of astonishing hope. To dream dreams and see visions, in life and death, is to dare to believe the impossible beyond the familiar. It is to picture that what has happened thus far along the way, some of it lovely and too much of it dreadful, simply cannot add up to the culmination of what life is about. To our world-fatigued eyes there is yet more to enter our line of vision than what has narrowed our vista and constricted our view. There is even far more of goodness itself still to come than, caged in the darkness, we can possibly imagine being true.
Today, beloved children of Africa, you ache with the torment of fire in your bones, miserably attached to your shackles, hopelessly bound to your chains. Tomorrow—surprise!—in defiance of all that appears inexorable, you spring loose into the cool, fresh air of freedom. Your bruised feet and jagged toes leap from the soil with elation. Your scarred hands and crippled fingers touch the tips of the clouds in ecstasy. Your dry lungs and parched lips burst forth upon the firmament with praise. Halleluiah!
Dick, Stephen, Charity, and Lucy—this outlandish event called Resurrection is yours not by chance but by Providence. Hooray for you as the last become first while the first become last! Seen through the eyes of your long-suffering faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” this marvelous turnabout through God’s everlasting mercy is the one thing, the only saving thing, for a saint to believe in. To trust courageously against entire odds the line of vision your hearts most desire, like the craving of sight by a blind person whose glass eyes eclipse the sun, in the end is not so preposterous after all in the new Jerusalem.
“O, come, sweet Jesus, deliver us!”
The featured photo (top) is of “Slaves Waiting for Sale” by Eyre Crowe, Richmond, Virginia, 1853
STORIES HAVE BEEN PASSED DOWN about my grandfather Clarence, who died several years before I was born, to the effect that he could take quickly to the stern edge of his character and at times be brusque, impatient and demanding. While he was an industrious and productive Virginia farmer who certainly knew the meaning of hard work, with prosperous farmlands and fruit orchards to show for it, he now and again failed to notice that others worked equally as hard as he, and for far lower wages. One such person was a long-time faithful farmhand by the name of Elijah, who by this time had become an old man, as had my grandfather.
As always, the toil fell to Elijah to till the ground. With his hand faithfully to the plow one sultry summer afternoon, he struggled to keep his usual pace behind the mule as from a distance my grandfather assumed the inherited posture of one whose job it was to oversee. It was not uncommon that Papa, as his children affectionately called him, might unconsciously overlook the fact that the sweltering humidity had drawn beads of perspiration down Elijah’s dark brown cheeks. For a split instant as the mule turned in its path, the two old men stood side by side at the corner of the field.
“Mr. Davisson, would y’ mine takin’ holt of the plow whilst I go relieve myself?”
It not only had been ages since Clarence had taken hold of anyone’s plow including his own, but for many years Elijah had accumulated a debt of more than just a few greenbacks that he still owed my grandfather. Circumstances being what they were during the Depression, coupled to the customary social, economic and political arrangement, such debt hung overhead like an iron cleaver. It precluded the chance that a poor and aged black man would ever have hours enough in a lifetime, much less in a matter of months, to earn what it took to erase a debt that was part of a system of duties and obligations that kept one particular class of people subservient to another. Elijah, a descendant of slaves, had spoken nothing of such obligations on this particular day; nor had my grandfather, a descendant of slave owners.
Having obliged himself to do Elijah a small favor as the afternoon sun bore down upon the sweaty back of Elijah’s trusty old mule, Grandfather took hold of the reins and plow handles as beneath the pummeling heat he jostled with the soil up one row and down the other. When Elijah eventually returned from his errand, Grandfather spoke the first word.
“You know, Elijah, it’s been a long time since I’ve walked behind a plow. Mighty hard work, I’d forgotten just how!”
Not many months thereafter, early on a cold, blustery Sunday morn in January 1941, for causes I have never fully known nor fully understood, concerning the extent of all that burdened him and made him a prisoner within himself, my grandfather Clarence went to the basement of his house and put a shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger.
The irony of what otherwise appeared to be a largely successful life, despite the share of human foible and failure to which all are entitled, was that Grandfather Clarence at age sixty-five, having forgiven the $5,000 owed him by Elijah, could not for whatever personal reason forgive the “debt” he owed himself. Perhaps that, too, was debt in the form of a deficit long ago transmitted. My guess is that it had already begun to accumulate when at an early age he lost his mother to death’s dark door. Being told that he was somewhat unmanageable, he was soon shuffled off by his father to live with a relative. The rage that more than once manifested itself outwardly eventually turned its way inwardly upon the self.
Sometimes it is necessary to invert Jesus’ maxim, “As you wish that people would do to you, do so to them,” in order to say, “As people wish that you would do to them, do so to yourself.”
Of all the besetting sins of an increasingly narcissistic age of emptiness and brokenness, the failure to love oneself may be a root sin that is perpetuated down the cycles of the generations. In keeping with the Christ-like virtue of losing oneself in order to love another, not to love oneself at all makes it virtually impossible to love someone else. Yes, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” For, only as grace is received can grace be given.
Grandfather in a brief moment of grace walked in Elijah’s shoes. I do not know, nor can I know, precisely what that meant. Perhaps there dawned upon Grandfather the extent of sacrifice Elijah for so many years had made for him, which in turn made it possible in a system that had wounded them both for the one man to extend grace and the other to receive it.
Whatever may have been the case then, or soon thereafter upon that cold, blustery January morn, I believe by the eternal mercies of Christ that Papa Clarence has come at last, with Elijah, as shall we all, to receive the full measure of grace that shows itself upon the ever loving face of God.
“Father, forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
BEING MOTHER OR FATHER TO YOUR OWN LIFE’S WORK is like the stone-deaf Beethoven birthing the Ninth Symphony’s Ode to Joy. The craft of creativity is far more formidable than comprehensible. We become infinitely more dependent upon what we do not know than upon what we know.
Who knows for sure whether this score will ever make sense or sound?—as Beethoven most certainly must have plagued himself in fruitful self-doubt while laboring over a multitude of musical phrases.
We, deeply stirred by the sound and sense of Beethoven’s muse, must ask a question. Are we the sole proprietors of our works? Unlike clocks ticking in a hushed universe, are we swept along by something far more compelling than the ill-fated motions of hands and faces gradually winding down? How do we, being at times so mortally hard of hearing, like Beethoven, become at other times acutely attuned to the sounds of silence that strangely disrupt our imperviousness to grace?
What comedy amid tragedy! Here is Beethoven arranging the musical harmony of one of the most sublime moments of his life—an entire symphony. Yet he’s composing the riches of a majestic melody to the dread, awful contradiction of absolute, mute silence.
Henry van Dyke sought words for the Ode: “Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee, God of glory, Lord of love.” And Beethoven, it is ascribed, also composed seven measures of a chant for an offertory response. “All things come of Thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given Thee.”
Enter upon the scene. You, music lover, take a deliberate glance at the deeply entranced Beethoven. By fits and starts he is sitting with his muse. His “time” has caught up with him. The years immediately preceding have been overwhelmed with anxiety and grief, his output brief. But now comes one of those “given” instants, some would say, of brilliance. The master musician is composing his Joy in eerily deafened silence, yet the moon and the tides are waxing eloquently. Is unbridled faith able to muffle the world’s screaming dissonance long enough for anyone to listen and know that it is none other than God who speaks? Ludwig, alone but not alone, “hears” the music of the spheres as the presence of None Other. Are we surprised?
Mundane explanations aside, is it not forever true that “of thine own have we given Thee”? Did Beethoven love God all the more for not being able to hear the chanting cardinals and warbling snowbirds awaken him in the morning? Did their sound waves inaudibly split the air of his silent universe, mysteriously entering the marrow of his bones that he might declare in song, “O God!”?
The rest of us, being uninspired mimics of the world’s misfortunes, are less than attentive. We possess all our faculties, save one. We in the digital age, perhaps permanently, have lost the quiet composure of staying still long enough first to dream and imagine, then to sing the joyous melody close in for one solitary split second. The world of immediate bellow and clamor has dulled our inner senses. Our spirits have sprung loose like frayed violin strings. If only our lost souls were to commit the art of our living to the deaf side of our being, we might be surprised at what we hear when silenced like stone.
One day, early on, before his ears were hardened to the vibrations of audible melody, the young Ludwig was handed the task of learning to play the piano. What if there had been no piano? Would an “enthused” Ludwig have had the presence of heart, like an oyster, to take up pearl making? Mark Twain once quipped, “It is a world of surprises. They fall, too, where one is least expecting them.”
Consider the child Mozart. Full of gift, full of surprise, his “lyrics” were like pure “liquid sunshine,” as Karl Barth exclaimed. Yet Mozart’s ordinary life remained tumultuous. What, then, explained his music? In the midst of Wolfgang’s gathering storm, how on Earth was he able to compose such implausible reverberations of grace? Was it by lunacy that he achieved ethereal heights? To what end? Only so that he could be cast into an unmarked pauper’s grave, his lot thrown in with the rest of us? O “liquid sunshine,” like that yellow ball of fire in the sky, how quickly you fade to the west, wearing out your heart in the fever of darkness!
Mozart exhausted his song. His song exhausted Mozart. In his thirty-fifth year the virtuoso perished, not having completed his life’s last measure of mirth. Had he lived yet a few more, then what? Maybe not nearly so much. For what is life when measured by years? Among the last words that Amadeus, “lover of God,” penned to his unfinished Requiem were these: “Make them pass from death to life.”
Truth is, each day is a divine-human “passage.” In “a world of surprises” belonging first to God before being found of us in ways we least expect, each day is passage “from death to life.”
Come, close your eyes and see. Come, close your ears and hear. Like chanting cardinal and warbling snowbird, come open your heart and sing — with whatever song you are given grace to say thanks. Ω
IT WAS THE SUNNY SUNDAY MORNINGof June 23rd, not unlike other days when the sky is painted blue and gentle breezes waft through the cruciform-flowered dogwoods and stalwart-standing oaks of western North Carolina. Nothing was ostensibly different—not the flow of traffic into the parking lot or the flight of songbirds flitting from tree to tree—that is, except for one thing.
There was deep trouble in the land.
STOP ONE – The Sanctuary
During her sermon on the second Lord’s Day after Pentecost at New Hope Presbyterian Church, Pastor Kim Wells strode past the milepost marking the home stretch on the long Easter road to just where, nobody could say. Where might a sermon series entitled “Peter, Paul, and Mary: Resurrection Tour 2019” eventually take us?
As she noted with a twist of humor, “Our Peter, Paul, and Mary song for the day is ‘Leavin’ on a Jet Plane.’”
Had she prompted us to sing it aloud just before the benediction, the lyrics alone would have induced sure-fire attacks of apoplexy.
All my bags are packed I’m ready to go
I’m standin’ here outside your door
I hate to wake you up to say goodbye
But the dawn is breakin’ it’s early morn
The taxi’s waitin’ he’s blowin’ his horn.
Whose bags? Packed to go where? Who’s this standin’ outside the door, hatin’ to wake us? Sayin’ goodbye? Are we leavin’ on the journey or stayin’ behind? If his taxi’s waitin’ and he’s blowin’ his horn—oh, please, for just a minute—we need to sit back down to check our pulses. Did we hear him say correctly, “the dawn is breakin’”?
The pre-announced sermon topic had already tipped us off to a dubitable aim for the next long leg of the journey: “Paul: Into the Interior Regions.” Moreover, the focal text as printed in the bulletin set forth an improbable destination:“While Apollo was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus . . .”
We are not a congregation of race horses. With a gathering of worshipers composed largely of 60s- and 70s-somethings, with a Methuselah or two—sentries—waving their flags from the bushes, how might a preacher stir an army of aging turtles to move off the log and start trekking?
Paul had once written to the Ephesians: “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you . . . and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, not only in this age but also in the age to come” (Eph. 1:15-21).
What if Christ were to put his power to work in us?—we who “were dead through the trespasses and sins in which” we “once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient” (2:1-2)?
Would it take a brass bell striking like flint to throw enough “spark” in all directions to get things rolling?
STOP TWO – The Pastor’s Study
Among the myriad of solitary hours the preacher spends within the silent sanctum of her pastoral study, pondering the sacred texts of Scripture, she listens, she asks, she wonders, she waits . . . and sometimes broods . . . to hear the voice of God.
Possessing a meditative heart channeling the Spirit, she practices the contemplative life for spiritual direction. Reflective retreat is not only for refuge in the reigning darkness; it is for being broken open to the approaching light of day.
So, to what possible end might the heavenly hosts be summoning God’s people to the Lord-of-Light’s present calling this day?
To be sure, the opening sentence of the nineteenth chapter of the Lucan book of Acts is unlikely to set off a shower of fireworks for the preacher or anyone else. Yet, for a mysterious reason its words stopped Kim Wells alive in her tracks. Perhaps because Luke, their author, had something specific in mind to say. And not only Luke, but the Spirit of the Living One who can lift a text straight off the page and placard it squarely in front of your eyes.
“While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples.”
If we, the listeners, had wished to obtain the sights and sounds of that screeching, screaming city of Ephesus with its ghettoes, ghouls, goblins, and gibberish, how might we have prepared for the journey through the “interior regions” of Asia Minor?
Completing the reading of the first seven verses, Pastor Kim closed the book of Acts, paused, and spoke.
“So, my question for you this morning is—What if we just stopped after preparing? What if we just stopped after preparing without actually doing whatever it was that we were preparing for?”
Clear the throat.
“Twelve years ago,” she explained, “I took a two-week backpacking course in Alaska. On the first day of the course, we prepared for our backpacking trip by learning how to pack our packs. We went to a park in Fairbanks and spread out all our stuff underneath a large pavilion. Then we learned how to distribute the weight of all that stuff in our packs not only vertically within the pack, but also from the small of your back outwards. We learned how to stuff our packs tightly and make sure that every last air pocket was used. And we learned how to pack in the order in which we would need things—our tents and sleeping bags at the very bottom, since we wouldn’t need those until the end of the day, and things like snacks and handkerchiefs and rain jackets easily accessible so that we could pull them out quickly.”
“So, once we had packed our packs and then exploded our packs and repacked them again until we had gotten comfortable with the process, we were finally ready to actually go back-packing. We got into a van and drove farther north, farther and farther north, way up into the Arctic Circle, until we got to Alaska’s northernmost mountain range, called the Brooks Range.
“Eventually the van pulled over by the side of the road, and our sense of anticipation heightened. We got out of the van and put those packs on, and then we left the side of the road behind, and without any trail to guide us forward, we simply turned in—into the interior, into the Alaskan wilderness. Over the next two weeks, we backpacked through all the contours of that wilderness, through tundra that was teeming with ripe blueberries. We hiked up huge mountains and along their ridge tops, we looked down on sweeping river valleys, we slept on dry river beds in the light of the Alaskan midnight sunshine, we clambered over boulder fields, we crossed rivers in I-formation knee deep in the rushing water, we fished for Alaskan trout that we cooked over the fire and ate fresh right then and there, we saw caribou and moose and even a few bears from a distance, and we watched the flora and fauna turn from the shades of summer to the shades of fall.”
“But what if we had just stopped after preparing? What if we had just stopped after learning how to pack our packs? What if we had spent all that time in the pavilion at the park in Fairbanks and then just said, ‘Wow, that was great. See ya! Got to get back to the airport!’”
Peter, Paul, and Mary—“leavin’ on a jet plane”—are they?
“What if we spent all that time preparing but then never went on the journey we’d been preparing for? Well, I can tell you that one of the consequences would have been that I never would have had two of the most amazing weeks of my entire life.”
STOP THREE – Ephesus
Paul had arrived in the city of Ephesus, the seat of the Great Temple of Artemis, the moon goddess and protector of women.
Finding there “a number of converts,” he asked, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” “They replied, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’”
“Into what then were you baptized?”
“Into John’s baptism,” they said.
Must Paul explain that John’s baptism was with the water of repentance in preparation for Jesus, the one who came after him, whose sandals John deemed himself unworthy to untie? . . . and that John’s converts would now be baptized in Jesus’s name and receive the Holy Spirit in order to speak in tongues and prophesy? For Luke, to speak in tongues is to make prophetic utterances in more than one language.
There was in Israel—like a rat trap tucked behind a dog bone—a Deuteronomic “sandal strap” law that said, should a man be unwilling to fulfill the obligation to marry the widow of his deceased brother, then the man should be summoned before “the elders of the town” who were to put the question to him: Will you marry her, or will you not?
If he says, “I have no desire to marry her,” then the widow — who otherwise would remain penniless since the money followed the patriarchal line of descent—yes, the widow “shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, pull his sandal off his foot, spit in his face, and declare, ‘This is what is done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house’” (Deut. 25:8-9).
For John the Baptist—whose head was soon to be gruesomely served up on a platter to King Herod—what would it have meant to unloose the thongs of Jesus’s sandals? To disparage him? Repudiate him? Abandon him? Mock him? Spit in his face?
Instead, John baptized Jesus in the River Jordan—that same body of holy water into which Joshua and the twelve tribes of Israel had stepped in order to cross over into the Promised Land after all those tortuous years of baking and bemoaning in bondage, first as slaves kowtowing to the Pharaoh with his sleazy fleshpots in the “interior regions” of Egypt, and for forty more years of suffering cold nights and the blazing hot sun in the wilderness sands of the Sinai desert.
STOP FOUR – Baptismal Waters
Sunday Baptism in many a reputable churchly tradition has evolved like slow-growing moss on a stone in the forest. It has become the routine ritual-blessing of newborns as well as teenage adults and, sometimes, adult teenagers—by pouring the water, repeating the words, signing the cross, offering the blessing, saying the prayer, lifting the infant mid-air, smiling while the baby “coos,” releasing some ripples of laughter, snapping a photo of the adoring parents and frowning older siblings, and returning to our seats.
Come Monday, we go back to doing what we were doing, exactly the way we were doing it last Friday.
The apostle Paul wrote in his letter “to the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Colossae,” saying of their baptism in the Way of the Crucified One, “when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses . . . God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it” (Col. 2:12-15).
Jesus had bluntly asked his apostles James and John (another John), the sons of Zebedee, the hard question: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized” (Mark 10:30)?
By repeating in the Gospel of Luke the words of John the Baptist, Luke reiterated what the Baptist had said to his own disciples: “I baptize you with water; but the one who is more powerful than I is coming . . . He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (3:16).
“It seems,” said Pastor Kim, speaking of John’s converts, “that their journey had been stopped as soon as they had prepared for it.”
Prepared for what? Prepared for fire?
John had baptized with the waters of repentance. Defining “repentance”—metanoia—by its Greek New Testament meaning has the potential to become a revolutionary act. As Pastor Kim noted, it translates “to turn around.”
She added, “Turning away from the things in our lives that cause us and others harm and turning toward the God who longs to heal us from that harm and to restore us” is what the word “repentance” is all about.
Not, she concluded, “not that initial repentance, that initial turning back to God as a conversion experience, and that once that conversion has happened, that’s all there is to it. Home free! My pack is packed! Time to kick back in the pavilion!”
It is only when Christ’s people receive their “fire-power” from the Holy Spirit that the mere thought of being “fired-upon” by the principalities and powers of this world is no longer a disincentive to discipleship. Lacking fire from the Spirit, we are already dead in our tracks. For when there is no burning fire-in-the-belly there is no incentive to leave the safety and comfort of the pavilion.
STOP FIVE – The Landing Strip
“Pavilion” Christianity’s footprint in the world is comparable to being parked in the yellow “instrumental landing strip critical area” of an airport’s runway when we’re set to lift off in a jet plane.
How so? Because we’re sitting in the danger zone facing the approaching aircraft.
If we’re stalled there, it’s only because we’ve started down the wrong runway for having imbibed too many pre-resurrection, pre-baptismal martinis consumed on the rocks of theological constipation. So, if consequently we’re about to be hit straight-on in the fog of night by a careening Boeing 737 Max 8, then the cost to human life will be astronomical. We will have gained nothing for having lost everything from a misguided, underpowered, and thereby failed post-Easter take-off. And, worse still, we will have left the passengers at the other end of our flight-path stranded in the “interior regions” without benefit of up-lift.
Risk has its reward, and risk-aversion its unrequited recompense. Sitting stalled in one of the world’s “critical areas” is not exactly what Paul had in mind when he left Jerusalem and headed out for Ephesus.
So, for those “critical areas” of life surrounding us near and far, nothing short of gospel-power will usher us more swiftly into the “interior regions” of the mission field. If the mission field happens to be in a place like the capital city of Ephesus, or even a tiny hamlet along the way, we can bet our last denarius that God is calling us to something far more important than a month’s luxury vacation stay at a thousand-year-old marble villa overlooking the banks of the River Cayster.
If as a Roman citizen in ancient Ephesus you had coveted empire, or, as a diaspora Jew miles and miles away from Mother Jerusalem you had sought refuge from ethnophobia and flagrant anti-Semitic disdain, then for now at least you might have to make-do in this seaport city on the rim of the Aegean Sea.
If after a while the wheels in Ephesus were to get rusty, and for commercial reasons you needed to travel west, you could board a ship and sail to Rome, then sail back again to Ephesus. Or if you coveted travel for more pernicious purposes, you could catch the ox cart or ass that led eastward to the whore of Babylon. Athenian brothels, too, might have tempted you.
Yet, prostitution being the world-wide industry it was, and concubinage an alternative to divorce, with slave labor in the unenviable position of keeping one knee down with the other propped up and ready to run, only to be caught again, odds are you might just as well have chosen to stay put. For if you looked for where none of these terribly fretful things could ever again surround you, then you’d probably be lying face-up and palms down in terra-cotta earthenware, or as they say, six feet beneath the ground.
Be aware, too, that in both Ephesus and Jerusalem Caesar’s armies were an ever-moving, ever-imposing colossus. They marched in lock-step and galloped through the city in formidable formation, mounted on horseback.
STOP SIX – Aegean Spaces
About two generations before Paul arrived on the Ephesian scene, the Romans, having permeated all of Asia Minor, sought to do as all imperialists do: adjudicate local disputes between rival kings and rascally kingdoms.
When Mithridates, the great king of the local kingdom of Pontus, finally got sick and tired of Caesar’s messing in his porridge, he set about to accomplish the killing of all Romans within catchment distance. Some 80,000 Roman citizens simultaneously perished within six cities stretching across the entire region, including Ephesus.
The blood bath set off another hundred years of warring madness across the Aegean world. That’s when the Latin tongue began its infertile decline as a dead language, for if you were caught speaking it, no doubt, you knew exactly what would happen to you next. Historians later labeled these pogroms the “Asiatic Vespers.” When evil men do reprehensible things, they cover their dastardly deeds with the camouflage of impious euphemisms.
It’s like calling a concentration camp a child protection center where children are forced to care for other children while huddling together in wire cages on concrete floors under glaring lights for weeks on end with no water for baths and only uncooked frozen foods for snacks — because there are no “adults” in the palaces of power.
So, on any given day, including the 23rd of June, life affords plenty of reason to cry when you enter the sanctuary of New Hope Presbyterian Church in Asheville, North Carolina. You want to hear a saving word spoken by the living God.
That’s why, when the preacher lifts up the prayers of the people and opens Bible passages that proclaim the Good News of the Lord Jesus Christ as the “dwelling place of God in the Spirit,” you gather up for yourself every good thing you can set your heart upon, like angels’ wings, to provide you with what you will need for your journey till the end of your days.
STOP SEVEN – Rome’s Playground
The same is true for those Ephesian disciples who welcomed Paul into their midst. And, if the truth be known, the pagans roaming about the crime-ridden, poverty-stricken, and power-oppressed streets of the city of Ephesus were no less desirous of the same fruits of life that Paul had declared to the newly baptized: “Each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift: Therefore it is said, ‘When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive'” (Eph. 4:7-8).
“Captivity” is a killing word. “Resurrection” and “ascension”—saving words.
Incendiary kings and flammable emperors, preoccupied with “insurrections” and “dissensions” that threaten their vested interests and cause them loss of face, don’t particularly countenance “resurrection” and “ascension” when those winds of good fortune are not directed toward their prideful pretensions.
When the Roman tetrarch Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, received reports of Jesus’s whereabouts in Galilee, Herod immediately suspected that John the Baptist, whom he had recently arrested and beheaded, had “been raised from the dead.”
Political paranoia is a form of demon possession that perennially fears its own demise. No provincial Roman ruler was spared its tentacles. In Herod Antipas’s case it was not so much the Jews or Christians he needed to fear, but rather his own reigning emperor Caligula who eventually did him in by sending him packing off to permanent exile in Gaul.
On the contrary, when some of the Pharisees came to Jesus, warning him that Herod Antipas was out to kill him, Jesus spoke with his characteristic fearlessness: “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course’” (Luke 13:32).
It’s the Small-fries acting like Big-fries that never seem to get the message that provoking fear by exploiting the vulnerable cannot save kingdoms any more than fear as a tool of oppression can save itself from its own self-poisoning perversions.
The First Epistle of John, the Beloved Disciple, professed the only antidote to fear. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” (4:18).
STOP EIGHT – The Amphitheater, Ephesus
On an excursion into the “interior regions”of ancient Ephesus we moderns do well to pass by the ruins of the great Ephesian Amphitheater just off the edge of what in Paul’s time was called Harbor Street. We might be gratified to think that we were not among the company of those citizens who in the year A.D. 52 sat inside the arena chomping on their crisp red apples. That is to say, glad not to be among the pavilion people. Though, if we had been, we might have been afforded the surprise of being “singled out” when Paul sauntered over toward us as he made his way through the crowd.
Is it not fair to say that we who are no longer pavilion people need not go around lamenting the passage of troubling events with little more than uneasy smiles on our faces? Since pessimism builds no future wherever optimism breeds naiveté, what redemptive stance must we take when entering the “interior regions” of a world increasingly reminiscent of the age of the Caesars?
What when our “liturgy,” from the Greek leitourgia denoting public service relief-work at one’s own expense, consists of rugged treks through wilderness terrain? What when our work calls us “over boulder fields” . . . sleeping in “dry river beds” . . . stepping into our boots like “blocks of ice . . . frozen solid in the night,” during a sojourn wherein “there’s nothing like doing a face-plant in the mud when your pack is forty-five percent of your body weight and comes right down . . . on top of you”?
Thank you, Kim Wells, for the realism since we’re going to have some days like that.
Just because we stumble over roots and rocks, including some of our own stumbling blocks, not to mention the high walls that principalities and powers erect as border fencing to fend off their deepest fears of being the biggest of losers, this doesn’t mean we remain “fenced in” by their dictates or cease hiking to the sunlit heights that promise relief from their beclouded deeds of darkness.
Remember, we are “resurrection” people. We are not pavilion people.
Oh, yes, as things otherwise normally go, we might occasionally slip into the good company of those who ritually inhabit the exclusive regions of cities like Asheville, aflush with their plush green carpet-lawns such as dues-paying golf courses, with putter in hand, and thereby stay sufficiently well acquainted with the trappings of affluence so as to become trapped by them ourselves.
Many of us have done so.
We might carefreely traipse up and down the same teeming downtown “beer city” sidewalks as do the in-town hordes of fun-loving tourists. Then go blithely driving our crossover SUVs as passers-by of the cross-town trailer parks cut out of aluminum sheet metal stacked on top of cinder blocks that define the transient state of “migrant people.”
Most of us have done so.
These are among the familiar highways and byways that pavilion people grow accustomed to.
Yet there are things, happenings, that sometimes disturb—and perturb—pavilion people, let alone resurrection people—not only within geographic regions but also within the “interior regions” of heart, mind, and soul.
And when this happens, often within the off-moments of our inattention, as Pastor Kim says, “The Holy Spirit takes us beyond preparing and nudges us out of the van and helps us get our packs on and then takes us in—deep into the interior regions of both our inner landscape and God’s.”
STOP NINE – The Ice Wagon
Unlike those guests at the local country club ordering Johnnie-on-the-rocks (iced) Scotch, when a Latina mother in the trailer park hears the word “ice,” she’s not dreaming of leaving for a sight-seeing expedition on a cruise ship lapping about the melting ice-caps north of Baffin Bay in the Arctic Circle. She’s having nightmares about the circular handcuffs locked around her husband’s wrists the early morning that ICE knocked on the door to freeze her heart to stone at the sight of deportation papers, as she watched her beloved whisked off in front of the children, not to be seen again.
One of Caesar’s favorite ploys is to freeze-people-out when he can’t find warmth in his heart to welcome them in. His politics crystalize as ice in his veins.
Contemptuously labeling them “illegals” is Caesar’s first measure for deep-freezing their identity.
Detaining them lengthily with or without due process is Caesar’s second measure for deep-freezing their dignity.
Casting them overboard from the ship of state is Caesar’s final measure for deep-freezing their humanity by ridding himself of them for good, but not for their own good.
Yet—to resurrection people, to Christ’s people, the persons whom Caesar’s hardened heart discards as the offscouring of the earth are to be re-claimed as brothers and sisters also bearing the loving name of Christ.
Resurrection people offer them food when they’re hungry, water when they’re thirsty, clothing when they’re naked, and visit them when they’re sick and in prison.
Resurrection people bear witness to what Jesus declared of the dispossessed: “Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Mt. 25:40).
Paul wrote to his beloved in Ephesus:
“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two . . .” (Eph. 2:13-15).
STOP TEN – The Temple of Artemis
The past and present threads of history are closely woven. If city-dwellers in Ephesus could have answered the longings of the fainthearted and disinherited among them, to which temple might they have pointed them?
Artemis reigned not only as moon goddess and protector of women, but also as deity of the wilderness, the hunt, and wild animals. Her veneration extended far beyond the peripheral bounds of the metropolis. Pilgrims carried to home and hearth the smelted tokens signifying her ostensible powers. Her temple stood as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It contained great works of art and throngs of travelers from every corner of civilized earth.
The book of Acts states that pandemonium fell upon Ephesus when “God did extraordinary miracles by the hand of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were carried away from his body to the sick, and diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.” And, as “this became known to all residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks; and fear fell upon them all; and the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled,” then suddenly pandemonium turned to ridicule which lent itself to persecutions of the followers of Jesus because great sums of money were involved.
“About that time there arose no little stir concerning the Way. For a man named Demetrius, a silver-smith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the craftsmen. These he gathered together, with the workmen of like occupation, and said, ‘Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. And you see and hear that not only at Ephesus but almost throughout all Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a considerable company of people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods.” So, “When they heard this they were enraged, and cried out, ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’” (Eph. 19:23ff).
What about the gods of wealth that fashion their profits from keeping concentration camps filled with children separated miles and miles from the unknown whereabouts of parents and loved ones? What shall become of those whose temples profiteer from the captivity of “innocents”?
Romans and Greeks across the empire eventually did not overlook the fact that two-hundred and thirty-some years after the life of Christ, due to the ruthless raids and attacks of eastern Germanic peoples called the Goths, the Temple of Queen Artemis was leveled to the ground, never to rise again.
Adolf Hitler was not the least or last among descendants of the Germanic Goths, and their likes, to employ storm troops to demolish sacred temples. Many of the “sanctified ones” through the centuries—whether as Romans or non-Romans, Greeks or non-Greeks, whether as the crippled or lame or blind laying wreathes and supplicant prayers at the feet of Artemis, or the hosts upon hosts of faithful Jews, Christians, and Muslims weeping while worshiping the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus—were not spared any dispensation when it came to Caesar’s brandishing his credo, “Caesar is Lord.”
That credo “Caesar is Lord” is etched upon the currency and enshrined within the dirty deeds of every tin-pot dictator. It is plastered upon the legacy of every mendacious king or president who has perpetrated bald-faced lies about his fellow human beings in order to justify killing them as enemies.
But, not so for Christians for whom their earliest profession was “Christ is Lord.” And thereby also for Paul hobbling steadfastly toward Ephesus, for whom there was no such thing as ungodly godlikeness. There was only the foolish joy of walking in The Way of incarnate love that comes, as he said, “with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death.”
“Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches” (II Cor. 11:25-28).
“. . . If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (11:30).
We shall never hear such words of humble admission fall from the lips of many a Caesar. Yet they held true for Paul until his dying day when Caesar’s axe fell squarely upon his head.
“When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure. When slandered we speak kindly,” he said. “We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day” (I Cor. 4:12a-13).
“I appeal to you, then, be imitators of me” (4:16).
STOP ELEVEN – Clint, Texas
Unlike Paul, we are “established” Presbyterians. We are aged like softened, cleanly sliced cuts of ripened Dunsyre blue cheese ready for crumbling in Caesar’s salad.
We are gathered this morning on the 23rd of June in Asheville, as the faithful sheep we seek to be, grazing for holy sustenance beneath the motherly embrace of these Blue Ridge Mountains, visible in all their majestic splendor through the clear glass window that frames the open vista beyond the cross and communion table. We can see as far as the Spirit ferries our imaginations.
Pastor Kim’s reading of the Scripture and her sermon from Acts have led us, with Paul, into the “interior regions.” We are still some miles from the clamor and travail of the city of Ephesus. We are soon to receive the benediction after singing the morning’s closing hymn, “Spirit, spirit of gentleness. / Blow through the wilderness, calling and free.”
For us Presbyterians of the Protestant Reformed tradition it is a rare thing to have what Pastor Kim calls a “Quaker moment.” But on this particular occasion the “Spirit within” is calling. Could there ever be a more propitious time for one of the retired shepherds from within the flock to be moved to speak before the congregation simply because not to speak would be to leave the Spirit churning and breathless among us?
“Friends, dear ones, fellow members of the body of Christ, beloved—
“I have not slept well all this past week. I was awakened by the nightmare of seeing myself barricaded along with these children within the walls and wired cages of that concentration camp in the desert sands of Clint, Texas. You know the story. You’ve heard and seen the news.
“I simply cannot sit silently any longer. I will not stand idly by.
“I can’t tell you when I’ve been so thoroughly outraged as when seeing what is happening to these dear children in the camp. Not enough water. Not enough food. Unsanitary conditions. Barred from medical care. Crowded next to one another in standing room only for weeks on end. Ceiling lights glaring down upon their faces twenty-four hours around the clock. Sleeping on concrete. No windows through which to see beyond their perilous plight to plead for help. No one to comfort their cries in the dead of night or dispel their fears in the fever of day.
“For heaven’s sake and for theirs, what are you and I going to do for them?
“Yesterday I contacted the offices of Governor Gregg Abbott of Texas, and Senators Cruz and Cornyn, as well as Governor Cooper of North Carolina. Tomorrow I will be calling others.
“I want to ask you. I want to ask you to do whatever you can. Write. Email. Pick up your phone. Make calls to politicians in Texas and other parts of the land. Make calls to your friends. Make calls to anyone you know who can bring influence to bear upon the situation. Aim as high as you possibly can. For until these children receive immediate relief, they remain at grave risk of dying within this concentration camp.
“Let’s get going. Let’s get going together into the ‘interior regions.’
“But before Kim offers the benediction, let’s bow our heads in silence and prayer for these children—God’s children—our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters in Christ.”
In her benediction Kim charged the congregation to go forth and act boldly. Ω
New Hope Presbyterian Church of Asheville, North Carolina, has a justice and reconciliation team of congregational members including a public defender working locally with other congregations and public entities to address the crises and needs of documented and undocumented immigrant persons and families in the community.
VINCENT VAN GOGH ONCE WROTE OF HIS FATHER with whom he had more than one verbal altercation while living under the same roof, “I seem to detect in Father proofs . . . of his really being unable to follow me when I try to explain something to him. He clings to a part of what I say, which becomes incorrect when one tears it from its context. This may have more than one cause, but assuredly it is largely the fault of old age” (CL 347).
Old age aside, rather than decrying his father’s inability to follow what Vincent attempted to explain to him, suppose Vincent instead had inquired of his father: “What is it like for you when I’m conversing with you, and you with me?”
Had Vincent posed such a question without accusation or rejoinder, his father might have taken pause, even pleasure, in reflecting with Vincent about his son’s wish to be better understood. By entering his father’s frame of reference, Vincent may have learned something important about his father as well as about himself.
Vincent’s retorts were often if not always rigid, forceful, and argumentative, thus hard to bear, especially when his precipitous outbursts of rage interrupted the flow of communication, as happened in relation to his father, his brother Theo, and others who kept his company.
The devilish truth was that neither father nor son knew how best to attune emotionally to the other’s presence and thereby offer sufficient mutual affirmation and validation to avoid struggling so intensely with each other’s spirit. It was less demanding yet far less productive for them to remain outwardly defensive by shadowboxing rather than moving inwardly with empathy and sensitivity toward each other’s experienced reality. But, then, how to begin?
Seeking meaningful engagement with a wounded soul who is in pain and suffering warrants close observation of the sufferer’s face, eyes, and voice. For in the visage one can “follow” the contours of distress or, conversely, the expressions of relief that emerge from within.
Affect is key. By analogy, affect is to speech as music is to the lyrics of a song, either concordant or discordant with the content of the words. In human relationships “empathic attunement”* is essential for discerning in the moment of encounter the other person’s state of mind, heart, and soul.
When a ray of light suddenly breaks forth from a person’s prison of gloom, darkness, or distress, thanks to feeling profoundly understood, that ray appears in the face, the eyes and the tone of voice. What frequently occasions it is the very thing that Vincent craved most of all for himself yet found inordinately difficult to grant to his father. In Vincent’s own words: “to follow me when I try to explain something.” That is, to offer powers of undivided attention, of careful observation and deep listening.
The face, the eyes, and the tone of voice comprise the canvas upon which the soul paints its pictures of what is essential for a personal acknowledgment to result in the feeling of being genuinely understood.
Especially is this true, as it was between Vincent and his father, when things heated up to the point where Vincent summarily declared to his father: “Pa, here I am faced by your self-righteousness, which was and is fatal, for you as well as for me.” Whereupon his father instantly retorted: “Do you expect me to kneel before you?”
That was clearly a point at which the train of empathy—”follow me when I try to explain something”—had fallen off the track.
—Which serves to underscore the fact that one of the profoundest gifts a person can give another is to attend with undivided attention, careful observation, and deep listening for the sake of reaching the moment of real understanding.
*A concept employed by the late psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut
VINCENT VAN GOGH LEARNED VOLUMES from his fellow artists by the study of countless numbers of their drawings and paintings, some old, some new. Not only did he visit many museums and exhibitions. He also lined the walls of his room with copies of others’ works, including the great masters who preceded him.
Vincent once wrote to his brother Theo: “I must ask you something: Are there any cheap Daumier prints to be had, and, if so, which ones? I always found him very clever, but it is only recently that I have begun to have the impression that he is more important than I thought. If you know any particulars about him or if you have seen any of his important drawings, please tell me about it . . . I remember we spoke about it last year on the road to Prinsenhage, and you said then that you like Daumier better than Gavarni, and I took Gavarni’s part, and told you about the book I had read about Gavarni which you have now. But I must say that since then, though I have not come to like Gavarni less, I begin to suspect that I know but a very small portion of Daumier’s work and that the very things which would interest me most are in the portion of his work which I do not know” (CL 239).
Are there any parallels to us?
All learning takes place at the intersection of what we already know and what we do not yet know. An artist can interpret only what the artist presently sees. The same is true for the therapist conducting therapy, the surgeon performing surgery, or the politician crafting legislation. To that end, personal and professional consultation offers fresh eyes with which to see and novel ears with which to hear.
A patient and a therapist, just the two of them, working collaboratively may generate what is called an “analytic third”*—an additional and potentially transformative reality emerging from the juxtaposition of their two separate realities. Or again, the patient has one perspective, the therapist a second, and the consultant or supervisor a third, which coming together potentially produces yet a fourth perspective with elements of all three, and more.
Imagine what growth might not have taken place for Vincent as an artist if, among other endeavors, he had not studied Japanese art and French Impressionist paintings. What if he had never made his way to Paris and subsequently the south of France where the sun shone brighter than it did back home in the Netherlands?
One of the most dramatic transformations of Vincent’s artistic style and subject matter came about with his turn to the use of vivid colors as a consequence of his modified geographic perspective. Likewise, when he studied the art of those with whom he was unfamiliar, he further opened himself to the possibility for substantive change. It is just so with persons who become absorbed in Vincent’s art. They stand to encounter an “artistic third” bearing an altered perception—not only of Vincent’s reality but more so of their own.
Consider again what Vincent said about the French painter Honoré Daumier while Vincent was still living and painting in the Netherlands in 1882.
“If you [Theo] know any particulars about him or if you have seen any of his important drawings, please tell me about it . . . I know but a very small portion of Daumier’s work and that the very things which would interest me most are in the portion of his work which I do not know.”
Whether we are therapists or surgeons or politicians, or anything else by virtue of our craft or trade—whether we are the ones seeking “counsel” or the ones rendering it—what if we were to receive each new encounter as the creative and promising juxtaposition of what we already know with what we do not yet know? What might happen?
Vincent mentioned Daumier in sixty-two of his letters. Three years after having asked Theo to tell him more about Daumier, Vincent wrote his friend Emile Bernard to say of yet another artist, in the words of the French writer, Théophile Silvestre: “’Thus died—almost smiling—Eugène Delacroix, a painter of high breeding—who had a sun in his head and a thunderstorm in his heart—who went from warriors to saints—from saints to lovers—from lovers to tigers—and from tigers to flowers.’” Then Vincent added: “Daumier is also a great genius” (CL B13).
What if Vincent had failed to ask Theo to tell him more about Daumier? On the other hand, what if we, like Vincent, were to ask those around us to help us gain a new perspective upon our present reality so that we might move beyond it to something more significant?
What if we were to attain that “artistic” or “analytic third” offering us the potential to paint life differently?
What if the person with whom we are currently engaged in conversation says to us: “Have you considered this? Have you considered that?
What if, thereby, we are no longer limited to “the world according to Gavarni” or the world according to “Gutenough,” as good as those worlds may be?
What if we were to see the world and paint it as did, say, Jesus of Nazareth? or the Buddha? or Mahatma Gandhi? or Mohammed? or Julian of Norwich? or Mother Teresa? or Martin Luther King, Jr.? or Rosa Parks? or Vincent van Gogh?
One can confidently conclude in the case of Van Gogh that his psychotic “breakdown,” which took place within the presence of Paul Gauguin just before Christmas 1888, bore elements of an “artistic third.” Such an experience, painful and debilitating though it was, eventually precipitated a “breakthrough” of such stellar proportion that in the final year of his life, with searing new eyes, he was able to depict on canvas his vision of the new Heaven and new Earth he had contemplated as a young man during frequent and studious encounters with the Jesus of the Gospels.
Whom, then, did Vincent have reason to thank for the epiphany? Theo? Gavarni? Daumier? Delacroix? Gauguin? All of the above and many others besides? Yet, what if he had never so much as once encountered Jesus—or worse—in doing so failed to take the Nazarene seriously?
What if, from the perspective of the persons seated next to us, with whom we have momentarily cast our lot, we unexpectedly discover brand new takes on reality? Might we then no longer be exactly the same persons today we were yesterday?
Can you imagine an artist painting canvas after canvas without ever changing visual perspective? What kind of art would such constraint produce? Yet, when we look around, and all too often when we look within, we realize just how stuck we are in the same old hardened perspectives and patterns, time and again. It’s true of therapists, patients, surgeons, and politicians.
On the contrary—can you imagine shifting “from warrior to saint, from saint to lover, from lover to tiger, from tiger to flower,” with each transmutation bearing the novel perspective of “a sun in the head, and a thunderstorm in the heart”?
And to what end? That our darkened and crazed souls might be awakened to a radically new way of perceiving, being, and acting in the world.
Yes, even to the extent that at the hour of our death, with the curtain pulled back from the face of death itself and with our mortal remains reposing in astonishment like those of Delacroix, we might jolly well appear “almost smiling”!
Therefore—when imprisoned within those calcified perspectives that impede warriors from becoming saints, saints lovers, lovers tigers, and tigers flowers—for Heaven’s sake why would we not welcome unfamiliar vistas that we do not yet know?