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In Goya’s greatest scenes we seem to see

The people of the world

Exactly at the moment when

They first attained the title of

‘suffering humanity’[1]

At the age of 72, the Spanish painter Francisco Goya moved into a house outside Madrid. Nearly deaf and increasingly isolated, he painted fourteen murals referred to as the Back Paintings. Never intended for public viewing, these murals provide a window into the soul of a man consumed with anxiety over his fear of recurring mental and physical illness and his despair at the ongoing turmoil in his beloved Spain. The paintings were eventually stripped from the walls and transferred to canvas for display in Madrid’s Prado Museum. As a body of work, they are disturbing, but the most famous, “Saturn Devouring His Son”, is grotesque. A large painting, 2.5 feet wide and 5 feet tall, it immediately commands attention. Many interpretations have been advanced to explain the profound disillusion evident in the painting, but the two most compelling are perhaps both correct, Goya’s own experience of inhumanity at the hands of his fellow human beings: daily in the home, daily in the marketplace, and daily on the national stage – humanity eating its children. Though not as dramatic, this profound sense of loss is evident in all the Black Paintings, especially “The Pilgrimage to San Isidro”, the great crowd, open mouthed as though wailing, lacking all joy, pushes relentlessly forward. A masterpiece, but a profoundly sad one.  Standing before these paintings in the Prado, one word comes repeatedly to mind: hopelessness.

“In Goya’s greatest dreams we seem to see,” Lawrence Ferlinghetti forcefully translates these images into American life, asking the question: When did we attain to this moment; when did we become suffering humanity? It is, for Ferlinghetti, a question of individual and national importance.  We have lost our way, sleepwalking through life: “on a concrete continent/ spaced with bland billboards / illustrating imbecile illusions of happiness.”[2] No one is immune from suffering, real suffering that comes from loss and grief in all their forms, but we are never forced to succumb to the despair of the Black Paintings; nor must we take refuge in imbecile illusions of happiness; nor must we wait, like Keats’ Geek lovers, frozen an arms-length away for eternity.[3]

and I am perpetually waiting

for the fleeing lovers on the Grecian Urn

to catch each other up at last

and embrace

and I am waiting

perpetually and forever

a renaissance of wonder.[4]

The answer lies in surrender – not to despair, but surrender to life. The prophet Jeremiah wrote to the ancient Israelites: “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” (Jer. 2:13, NIV) Before each of us lies a choice – a stark choice. Jeremiah likens life without God to life in a parched land. Dependent on water for survival, we return again and again to the cracked cistern, hoping that this time it will be full of clear water, only to find the same shallow, stagnant pool, its water seeping away as we watch helplessly. Feet away, flows a clear stream. This is the stark contrast, drawn by Jeremiah, between life as suffering humanity and life in God. As a pastor, I’m repeatedly asked by people if such a life of hope and joy is possible, and if so, why hasn’t God given them that life. My answer is Jeremiah’s: He has, you just keep going back to the broken cistern expecting a different outcome. God remains rooted beside each of us pointing to the clear stream, quietly inviting us to drink.  That drink will change everything. God offers, but he never forces. It does not matter at exactly what moment or what incident translated us into suffering humanity, but it does matter if we stay there, alone, growing deafer, increasingly isolated, painting murals of our darkest fears. The alternative is to step out in faith and put our lives in the hands of a gracious God. “ For thus said the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel: In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” Isaiah 30:15 (NRSV)

This is the message of the Gospel, and this is the meaning of Easter. God at the moment when he first attained the title “suffering humanity.”  God, in Jesus, is offering, but he never forces.

 

 

 

 

[1] Lawrence Ferlinghetti, [In Goya’s greatest scenes we seem to see]

[2] Ibid.

[3] John Keats, Ode to a Grecian Urn

[4] Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “I am Waiting”

 

Heaven and earth are not benign;

 

Take ten thousand things as straw dogs.

 

This cryptic couplet begins the fifth chapter of the Dào Dé Jīng, Lăozĭ’s classic exposition of Taoist philosophy. Like other Chinese classics, the Dào Dé Jīng is ambiguous. Classic texts are often open to multiple interpretations, but despite attempts to soften this couplet, it appears to be straightforward, if uncomfortable. “Heaven and earth” refer to the created universe as we see and live in it. The final phrase – “are not benign” –  can be translated not kind or not benevolent. Here, it seems to carry the meaning of not having a kindly disposition, not being gracious, gentle, favorable, or fair, and more than a little threatening. This idea is further developed in the second half of the couplet where “heaven and earth” treat all things as “straw dogs.” Straw dogs were just that: miniature dogs carefully crafted from straw. They were finely dressed and decorated for placement on the altar for religious rites, then promptly and unceremoniously left in the street. Disposable. The universe is not benign and shows no favoritism.

 

 How often have we looked at the world around us and thought the same thing? Longing for a rational world, balanced and fair, we confront a world that continues to disappoint us.  Lăozĭ’s response is for the Sage to be detached; we might say, “go with the flow.” Does that satisfy? I think not. Jesus pointedly reminded his followers that God sends the rain on the just and the unjust. In short, we all live in the same world, and to that end, it is neutral. Rain and sunshine come and go, independent of our actions, but Jesus repeatedly admonishes us to be very careful how we live under those constraints. People are not straw dogs.

 

 How we treat others determines to a large extent how we will be treated in return. The old adage: do unto others as you would have them do unto you, is a universal truth, repeated by the wisest of every culture in every age. Paul sums it nicely when he writes to the Galatians: “Love your neighbor as yourself. If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” It would be simpler if we always knew we were devouring each other before it was too late, but how often has a remark, a misunderstanding, a disagreement matured into a near shouting match with neither side exactly sure how they got there. People as straw dogs.

 

 Universal laws may be neutral, but we needn’t be. Lent is a particularly appropriate time to move beyond self-reflection to self-monitoring. The oriental idea of “mindfulness” is a good place to start. It is nothing less than intentional living, paying attention to desires, feelings, thoughts, and attitudes throughout the day. It is a commitment not to get there without knowing how and why I got there. Living every moment in the presence of a benevolent God who created “the ten thousand things.” Self-monitoring may just lead to a whole other way of life where even straw dogs are treated with reverence.

 

Perilous Birds of the Soul

A late night brought me home to a cold and starkly-bright, star-filled night. The fog came during the early hours, and morning coffee found me gazing through dining-room bay-windows at the gravestones, shrouded in mist. The thin tree line that defines the border of our yard and the cemetery appeared and receded, fading in and out. From the mist a doe in winter gray materialized and slowly grazed our wet grass. Her quick glances at the window told me she knew I was there, but her unhurried movements told me she knew she was safe. Generations of her ancestors have lived on the seminary campus– wary but safe.

I shifted to the living room to follow her movement into the front yard. More ghostly still, she stood silhouetted against the lamps that light the road circling the chapel, itself faintly lit in the fog like an unfinished Monet. In that moment, two worlds converged. Hundred-year-old graves in a wooded grove merged with the massive walls and towers of a modern architectural wonder – both slightly out of focus and off hue.

I thought of a line from Ecclesiastes: “He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end.” There are moments when the fabric of the world seems to stretch thin and we are acutely aware of the mystery that is creation. Cherished times when even the familiar and ordinary are newly beautiful. Such moments pass too quickly with the rising sun. The deer depart and the traffic returns. The sights and sounds of the day overwhelm the vision of the mist.

That too is the subject of the Preacher of Ecclesiastes. It is not only in our hearts to understand the world into which are born, but too make sense of it, to find meaning in the ordinary. To do so we must pay attention to the moments, lived one at a time. The mist of the morning does not obscure the familiar, it merely takes it out of focus the way squinting at a rose takes away the harsh lines, revealing red to be not one color but a profusion of tints and hues blended by a master painter.

Finding meaning is more than an intellectual exercise. It begins with learning to see with the inner eye of the soul: learning to see beauty in the familiar and finding space for the unbidden revelations of an invisible world. The invisible world is all too real, peopled by those we do not notice, crowded with structures we pass daily but have never seen, filled with sounds that go unheard.

Of angels, Reiner Maria Rilke wrote in the Duino Elegies:

I invoke you, almost deadly birds of the soul,

Knowing about you.

But if the archangel now, perilous, from behind the stars

Took even one step down toward us: our own heart, beating

higher and higher, would beat us to death. Who are you?

Who are you? For Rilke, the world is not a tame place. There are passions to be felt. There are levels of encounter, love, and laughter that seem beyond us, belonging to the region of the angels. But these angels are not the childlike cherubs of Raphael, they are fierce creatures of light – indeed, deadly birds of the soul – yet curious, envious birds, lacking the capacity to feel the heart of a human being encountering a world he was made to dwell in. I am not a creature of heavenly realms; I am a creature of the earth. I belong to the dust from which I came. I embrace that dust in all its guises: the doe in the yard, the cemetery down the hill, the tower across the street, and the everchanging cleaning ladies that weekly empty my trash. If I listen, I can hear the song of life in them all. They are not invisible.

Encounter, love, and laughter belong to this realm. It is not only archangels that are perilous. If we take one step into the world, fully alive to that world, our heart might beat us to death, but it would be the sodden gray-man who dies, leaving behind the perilous, deadly bird of our own soul, yearning to fly in realms of light. That is the life we were created for, for God looked upon the world he had created, and said: “It is good.”

Orion’s Belt is high in the winter sky, and the crescent moon is too bright and perfect to be real. Somewhere nearby a doe in winter gray has bedded for the night. If I squint I might see an angel.

I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.

 

 

Jesus of the Stable

We seem tired. As we eagerly follow the President Elect’s cabinet announcements and simultaneously prepare for challenges to the electoral vote in key states, we cannot help but wonder what the future holds for such a divided country – a country struggling to find its way both at home and abroad. Walt Whitman’s unrestrained nineteenth-century-optimism, his faith in the American Spirit fueling the world’s most powerful industrial engine, has given way to palpable unease. Leaves of Grass seems to describe a fantastical country: “And there is no trade or employment but the young man following it may become a hero.” How quaint that sounds; how untrue.

Whitman’s America was not so different from ours. Following the horror of the Civil War, the tragedy of the Lincoln assassination, and the divisive battles over reconstruction of the South, the nation experienced the Long Depression, beginning in 1873 and continuing in some form through 1896. It was a worldwide period of economic malaise, punctuated by financial panics and cycles of retraction and high unemployment. Political scandals and corruption fed the emerging print media almost as much as the economic news. When people of today say, “We’ve never been here before,” or “We are in uncharted territory,” they simply don’t know our history.

No one chooses to live in hard times, and in such times, unease (and even fear) are normal reactions to the uncertainty and growing sense of danger felt by so many. This season of Christmas, however, offers us a moment to pause, to take a deep breath. We’ve been here before, and we have more than survived: we have triumphed.

Feeding nineteenth century Americans were both faith in the ability of humankind to innovate and to overcome all obstacles and a faith that there was a purpose lending dignity to life – both individual life and national life. It is this latter faith that, all evidence to the contrary, can sing with Whitman “there is no trade or employment but the young man following it may become a hero.” Such a faith must depend on more than commitment to an economic system or a democratic ideal. Fine in themselves, they do not provide ultimate meaning, and it is only in ultimate meaning that faith finds power.

Ultimate meaning must be found inside. Jesus invites all of us to “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” There is no suggestion of abandoning the world in this invitation. Rather, it is a call to re-engage the world from a new center, one grounded in the presence of a God who declares himself for us. That is the message of every Christmas, the message of the child in the manger: “We are not alone.” The God who made himself present in the Jesus of the Stable is present still, and he has promised to make himself known to all who ask. That is the meaning to be found inside and the ultimate meaning in which faith finds its power.

Rather than once again bemoan the commercialization of Christmas, why not adopt another attitude? Go to your local shopping mall and marvel at the world’s largest economy. Be impressed by the number of people shopping for others. Ask yourself, “Where is the Jesus of the Stable in this scene?” I think you will find him everywhere. The next questions are what difference does that make for me? and what difference can I make? Faith finding power.

We seem tired, but we needn’t remain so. Difficult times don’t last forever. Each day I get to choose anew how I will live. That is free will. That is the gift of God.

“Each day the first day: each day a life.” (Dag Hammarskjold, Markings, 126).

 

 

Fear of Falling

I was looking at some old photographs and came across a picture of the Capilano Suspension Bridge, near Vancouver, British Columbia. The 460-foot suspension bridge, hanging 230 feet above the Capilano River, provides a breathtaking view of the river gorge, and for some, an adrenaline pumping walk. I remember approaching the middle of the bridge as a group of young boys attempted to rock the bridge and start it swinging. They were only moderately successful, but successful enough to terrify a group of tourists approaching from the other end. Even after the boys’ chaperones had stopped them and gottten them moving again, one elderly woman remained rooted where she had stopped, unable to release her grip on the cable. As I passed, others in her group were attempting unsuccessfully to coax her forward. They must have succeeded, because when I returned, she was gone, perhaps sitting on a tour bus, wishing she had never seen the Capilano Bridge.

There is nothing dangerous about the bridge.  Two high-profile deaths attributed to the bridge, one a teenaged hiker and the other a 30-year old man, were falls from hiking trails adjacent to the bridge. In both cases, the hikers had climbed over safety railings into restricted areas. The bridge itself provides as safe and as pleasant a path for a summer walk as any of the Japanese-style bridges in the Fort Worth Botanical Gardens – but they are not 230 feet above a rushing river.

Suspended high above the river, the Capilano Bridge’s airiness and movement are always perceptible. They combine to create a sense of vulnerability. Some visitors never make the crossing.  For others, the imagined fall, remembered from childhood nightmares, closes in until the experience of the bridge becomes the nightmare. Something to be endured until the blessed awakening and the return to the bus.  In a 1953 journal entry, Dag Hammarskjöld wrote: “Really, nothing was easier than to step from one rope ladder to the other – over the chasm. But, in your dream, you failed, because the thought occurred to you that you might possibly fall.” Failure to cross a suspension bridge in a tourist park is of no real consequence. The failure of your dreams is the loss of a treasure.

A bravado that compels you to step beyond the safety railings and stroll along the crumbling rim of a 230-foot rock-face, despite the posted warnings, needs to be examined. A fear so compelling that it prevents you from traversing a suspension bridge crossed by over 800 thousand visitors per year needs to be examined. Before the rest us, whose lives are lived somewhere in between, lies the realm of discernment and faith. Reckless actions in all areas of life are like throwing yourself from a cliff and expecting an angel to catch you. People who do such things do dash their feet against a stone – or worse.  But those who refuse to approach the cliff often fare no better. The fear of falling is the converse of the Second Temptation of Christ. On one side lies hubris. On the other, paralysis. On one side lies danger. On the other, failure.

Choosing the middle path requires reason as well as trust, and in these two lie the keys to faith. Life has taught me this. Sometimes painfully.

 

“Perhaps it is this specter that most haunts working men and women: the planned obsolescence of people that is of a piece with the planned obsolescence of the things they make. Or sell” Studs Terkel, Working (1972).

There were factories where I grew up. Not large ones, but big enough. Just up the highway, four lanes but slow trucking through all the small towns, lay Philadelphia, with its navy yard, factories, and breweries. Need a job? For life? It all lay before us the day we graduated from high school. Oh, there was a war on, there always is, but we had plenty of options. Marry your high-school sweetheart and go to work making plastic bottles or pick a college, any one of the expanding education factories, grab a deferment and settle in to the rest of your life. America was great – Donna Reed and Mary Tyler Moore greeting their husbands at the door after a hard day of cooking and cleaning in white gloves and pearls. The American dream.

But there was trouble, deep, systemic trouble, lurking below the surface like a snake in the garden. In 1957 Vance Packard published The Hidden Persuaders warning us of the subtle and not-so-subtle ways we were being manipulated into buying things we neither needed nor really wanted. Three years later, Packard published The Waste Makers, a popular expose of planned obsolescence, the practice of engineering short life-expectancies into consumer goods. Everything from toasters to tanks had a shelf-life, one guaranteed to keep the production and distribution lines flowing. What’s to complain about? Workers happily making things to be bought by happy consumers who themselves had just come from a factory happily making things for others. A merry-go-round where everyone gets a brass ring.

Nobody got the brass ring. The rust belt extends westward from Manhattan to Minneapolis, southward from Bangor to Birmingham. We became victims of the price point – that point above which people won’t buy and below which profits fall. That is the consequence of cheaper goods allowing for multiple options, all of which break, wear out, or become unfashionable in increasingly shorter life-spans. No one is going to pay $40 for a toaster when there are five options starting at $9.99. Choose your designer color. Equally as important, the engine requires at least a constant level of consumer demand, driven by that subtle and not-so-subtle persuasion Vance Packard warned us about.

Goodbye American manufacturing jobs. Keep feeding the consumer market with cheaper and cheaper goods – cheaper in both price and quality. We ate of the apple; we grew wise; we moved manufacturing to China, India, and Mexico where the daily labor rate was less than the American hourly-rate. We automated everything we could. Studs Terkel was prophetic: we made people obsolete.

Over the past thirty years we have heard of the information economy, the service economy, the leisure society, and lord knows what else. Where are they? They are where they always were, in the imaginations of those who coined the terms. In the end, a healthy economy makes things people want to buy, and it does so in ways that pay people a living wage. That means factories. No society can remain stable with millions of people out of work and other millions fearing they soon will be. No society can remain stable when it creates a permanent underclass.

This is not just a socio-political problem. It is the most pressing moral question of our generation. People are not goods and services to be traded at the lowest prices. Neither do they possess built-in-obsolescence. The consequences of inaction are already becoming evident in ruined cities and ruined lives, where rising welfare costs and rising crime compete for our attention with deepening levels of poverty and deepening despair and hopelessness. The historic Christian response to labor oppression and inequality has not been one of silence. From John Calvin’s theology of work as Christian vocation to the 20th Century Catholic Worker’s Movement, and from Baptist Pastor Walter Rauschenbusch’s Social Gospel to the present, the Christian church has stood with working people over and against the forces that seek to oppress them, and oppress them is the right word. One that goes back to the early years of the Hebrew Bible. As the Preacher of Ecclesiastes writes: “Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun: I saw the tears of the oppressed— and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors— and they have no comforter … And I saw that all labor and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” Perhaps that is the best way to describe a culture based on subliminal advertising and planned obsolescence, a chasing after wind.

There is a better way. It begins with the words: “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink ….” For us, the phrase might then lead to: “For I was unemployed and you gave me a job, I was under-employed and you gave me meaningful work ….”

We are reaching the price point of a whole society, a whole way of life. What next?

 

 

The door did not open smoothly into Mrs. Liu’s “Homestyle Chinese Cooking and Original Fish and Chips.” Hanging about halfway open, it took an extra pull to fully open the door, but in that momentary pause, that subtle catching where the warped screened door met the upraised floor, the smell of fried wontons, General Tso’s Chicken, and English fish and chips assailed you.  Surrounded by low-rise office buildings and paid parking lots, Mrs. Liu’s single-story, nineteen-fifties’ corner building hardly merited a casual look. Indeed, if you had not been told about it, you would not be there. Four card tables with folding chairs on cracked asphalt tile with its black rubber cement showing, the friable, nine-inch tiles that only seem to have come in brown and pale yellow.

But the center piece of Mrs. Liu’s was the buffet. An ancient sheet-metal steam table, hooded with dimly lit fluorescent lights. A grand display of Chinese favorites bookended with Southern-fried chicken and English Fish ‘n Chips. Mrs. Liu’s had indeed been a fish and chips place, with Southern fried chicken and greens served up for good measure. When she bought it, Mrs. Liu converted the small restaurant to a Chinese takeout, one indistinguishable from every other takeout in every strip mall in Virginia. It was not an immediate success.  For weeks, long time customers would come for lunch, survey the menu and leave. They came for fish and chips, dripping grease and malt vinegar. She put them back on the menu.

Gradually, as former customers moved on, Mrs. Liu removed the old items. Mrs. Liu’s became a Chinese takeout, but one with the incongruous name of “Mrs. Liu’s Homestyle Chinese Cooking and Original Fish and Chips” still painted on the glass front. For years it was one of my favorite lunch stops, but I moved on. Thirty years later, Mrs. Liu has moved on too. I went by that corner yesterday and found it unrecognizable. Glass office buildings tower above the last remnant of the old neighborhood. Mrs. Liu’s building, surrounded by a chain-link construction fence, is being demolished, along with the barbershop and variety store that made up that small corner of Arlington.

We all move on. A chance encounter, an old song on the radio, or a short cut through an old neighborhood – suddenly we are thirty years in the past. Sometimes that past is a place to fondly dwell for a few minutes.  Sometimes not. Baudelaire’s poem, “Spleen,” famously opens with the line, “I have more memories than if I’d lived a thousand years.” The young Baudelaire compares his mind to a chest stuffed with mementos of life: balance sheets, writs, golden curls, and love letters. Common things, but things given a particular color, a particular flavor by each of us. We are a collection of life events, stacked one upon another, each one creating a memory.

The preacher of Ecclesiastes gives wise advice when he writes: “I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in their toil.” That requires intentional living. More than home style Chinese cooking and original fish and chips, I remember the friends and colleagues who shared lunches with me around those card tables. I remember an era, and I am aware that I am creating an era even as I write. Intentional.

I’ve moved on from “Mrs. Liu’s Homestyle Chinese Cooking and Original Fish and Chips.” I’m still moving on. How will this day, this moment be remembered? That is a question worth asking.

“—Night is drawing nigh –“

For all that has been – Thanks!

To all that shall be – Yes!

(Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings)