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Archive for April, 2009

As a compendium, the Bible is born in a resolutely communal manger.

Solitary, introspective philosophies of the kind common to, say, Europe in the second half of the twentieth century, must scrounge energetically to find biblical precedents for the lonely path they travel. In biblical perspective, the first man and woman have barely begun to wake to each other’s charms before they are commanded to make a horde of other creatures just like them. Similarly, biblical trajectories of human history tend to reach their pinnacle in sanctified mob scenes.

In short, the Bible is rarely about me. It very often is about us.

Against such a default plurality, the proverb’s realism about life’s deepest experience stands in stark relief. Those fellow travelers of a redeemed and redeeming people will nod with understanding as it reminds us that deep singularity haunts the journey, even when the din of other voices rings loudly:

The heart knows its own bitterness,
and no stranger shares its joy.

Some things, we are allowed to consider, must be carried alone. Some tears tolerate no articulate explanation, some joys explode with solitary passion.

One walks, even in a very large company, alone.

There is no escaping solitude, only a wizened embrace of its inescapable, enduring presence. This is not all we possess. Yet it is, necessarily, a portion of our inheritance. And of mine.

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Something there is in YHWH’s justice that sets propriety to one side and makes grown men shout as though mad.

When a person or a community has ached for justice to be done, become familiar with the sour bile of longing, wondered beyond counting whether it is vain to wait any longer when nobody seems to care, correct decorum hardly matters. When YHWH (finally!) bares his arm to humiliate the arrogant and lift up the humble, the turning of tables is not met with quietly mumbled liturgies and neatly pressed shirts.

To the contrary, clothing becomes drenched with sweat as praise erupts from the lungs and legs of women and men who never though they’d live to see the moment. (more…)

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maiden voyage

Having grown up and passed parts of five decades riding utilitarian bikes with the purpose of getting from point A to point B, today’s maiden voyage of my slightly used Specialized Allez Elite road bike was a new experience. Indianapolis’ railroad-line-to-paradise Monon Trail was glorious in the sunlight of a 75-degree, blue-skied springtime afternoon.

The Trail was covered by walkers, runners, bikers, and skaters, yet managed to be delightfully welcoming and uncongested. I have wanted to ride for several years, ever since cartilage damage to my right knee made celebrating 50 by running my second marathon seem unlikely. A decade ago, while living in England, I joined 33,000 other runners to complete the London Marathon. It was a memorable day on which—the words of a news presenter brought me to tears as I sipped tea to heal my traumatized body late that night had it thus—’33,000 ordinary people did an extraordinary thing’.

I may never run a remarkable distance again. Friends of the two-wheeling persuasion reassure me that this is not to be lamented, that there is life after burning soles at mile markers, that cycling is the right way to hone the body, discover a sporting clan, and see much of this country (and others) at a decent speed. (more…)

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The biblical proverbialist can get away with naming things. His task is deeply cognitive. As Solomon catalogued the Levant’s flora and fauna and so made a name for his encyclopedic soul, so does the wisdom tradition that he in some measure sponsored sort and label the eddies and flow of human conduct. Deep human pathos lies behind the proverbialist’s signature truths. Yet he does not appear to struggle in the pithy articulation of them. Not even when he speaks of that peculiar demon of the body politic that we call insolence:

By insolence the heedless make strife,
but wisdom is with those who take advice.

The proverb pivots on the matter of taking advice or refusing to do so. It is precisely the heedless—they do not ask, they do not seek—who initiate the ripples of dissension that flow disturbingly across the community. Wisdom does not do this. In their interrogative-rich probing, the wise consider and learn before delivering themselves of word or deed. The wise do not consider it their prerogative to speak or to do. They know they will impact lives as they do. They are careful in the best sense of the word.

Not so the insolent, who shoot from the hip. Theirs is no mere individual foible. They pick and tear at the community’s fabric. They are, in their plausibly deniable way, dangerous folk.

The psalmist knows this about them and says so, though without the proverbialist’s luxury of settled distance from the fray:

God, the insolent rise up against me;
a band of ruffians seeks my life,
and they do not set you before them.
But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.
Turn to me and be gracious to me;
give your strength to your servant;
save the child of your serving girl.
Show me a sign of your favor,
so that those who hate me may see it and be put to shame,
because you, LORD, have helped me and comforted me.

This desperate, endangered pray-er is not about the concept of insolence. He is too busy to worry about such moral theorizing, though in a calmer moment he will know its treasure. His life is in danger’s way. Falling back upon YHWH’s self-disclosure, he quotes the divine self-definition back at God.

Where his heavenward shout brushes the proverbialist’s truth is in the heedlessness of those who seek his life. Just as they do not seek the counsel of people wiser than they, so do they refuse to set the Lord before them.

They are drunk with self-referential, asphyxiating certainty because they have never learned or have long since forgotten how to ask.

Faced down by such a mob—too often they are a well-spoken, nicely perfumed coterie of thugs who could not believe such a word should be used of them—the psalmist can find only those words that desperate people ought always to speak: Lord have mercy!

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I am not like other people.

Six words, these mere eight syllables, constitute the first mile-marker on the long road to hell. Neatly engraved on a gilded road-side sign, they appear to embody all the authority of law and decency. Yet they are the precise opposite of their claim.

Jesus abhorred the pious contempt with which people who mouth these words distance themselves from those who know their need. His uncanny appreciation of evil’s finest textures allowed him to diagnose both the negative and positive aspects of hellish self-differentiation.

First, the Pharisee in his famous parable of two men praying rests comfortably upon the platform of what he does not do. Not for him the bumptious filthiness of petty thieves, extra-marital coupling, and employment at the margins of decency. Then, the Pharisee takes those good disciplines of Israel’s shared life and makes them his moral bulwark: I fast twice a week … and I tithe!

The scene is made the more vivid for the parable’s brevity:

Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Who has not had such piety thrown in his face, his groaning prayers interrupted by the emotional violence of the self-righteous? Who has not poured out his heart in anguish to his Maker while heavenly ears bend to hear, only to be dismissed by the mocking religiosity of someone near at hand who tithes and with her glorious tenth presumably satisfies heaven’s need for justice?

Jesus will not allow that conversation between heaven and earth works this way. In his view, the tax collector’s plea for mercy throws celestial windows and doors wide open. The careful and self-possessed purveyors of mechanical obedience, on the other hand, hear only their own echoing voices in response.

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Respectability is an expensive luxury that, in a moment, turns itself into a most damnable vice.

Jesus erstwhile adversaries—the mockable ‘Pharisees and scribes’—seemed incapable of recognizing that the perk of respectability out to have been parked far down on the list of graded priorities. So deep was their confusion that they mistook the stream of sinners to Jesus’ side as an affront to propriety. They should have welcomed it as the best of news:

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.

Angels, who bear their own glory lightly, see the movement of sinners into Jesus’ company more clearly. They weep and shout with joy over each one who repents. Here below, distracted and numb, we worry over the untied shoelace, the body odor, or the sexual history of such people. We require a respectability before, say, an audience with Jesus is to be granted.

Heaven knows no such quibbles. Angels do not fret at such a time. They dance.

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Jesus taught an ethic of continuity. What a person does with the little stuff is a leading indicator of his conduct when opportunity becomes large.

“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him.

Money is so often the elementary school preparation for responsibility over lives and livelihoods. A checkbook makes for a fine pop quiz. An expense account stands in for a final exam. Bigger things wait upon graduation.

Jesus’ ethics stand over against the performance-based, self-aggrandizing morality that is reported to have characterized the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. Having virtually cornered the market on religious respectability, the Pharisees appear to have made hay on their good name.

Jesus had no truck with their hypocrisy. His scathing denunciation of their code boiled down to a call for consistency. He’d have more patience with them, no doubt, if their piety could be taken indoors, their compassion turned towards those whom their religious affection humiliated, their joy motivated by seeing the poor and lonely healed and included.

In ethics, a bit of continuity does a body good.

Godliness in the small stuff, ditto in the big. Muck and slime in the details, hypocrisy and ruin when opportunity knocks loudly, trailing responsibility in its shadow.

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