Lose Your Life Or Never Truly Live It—Flannery O’Connor & Matthew 19

Hoffman-ChristAndTheRichYoungRuler
Christ and the Rich Young Ruler, by Heinrich Hofmann

Recently my pastor spoke about the Rich Young Man from Matthew 19. He was careful to point out how each of the young man’s finest merits are similar to what our culture likes to make into its gods: wealth, youth, power. The story goes that the young man (who has everything) asks Jesus how he can also come to have eternal life. And Jesus, knowing the young man’s reputation, tells him to give away everything he has, to essentially carry nothing to his name. No money for food or clothes, no youth to persuade his way into gain or sustenance, nothing to rule over, and thereby rendering himself reputation-less entirely—a ghost of a man, hollow by his own standards.

It’s hard not to sympathize with the young man. Maybe his life statuses came easy to him, but I’d bet not. I’d bet he’d done a lot to gain his wealth, power, and to keep himself looking young. Otherwise, why would Jesus go right for these things? Like with the surgeon’s knife, Jesus sticks him at his heart, the young man’s skin beginning to bleed beneath his tunic, and as he sticks he seems to be responding to the man’s question about what good deed he must do to gain eternal life: ”So,” Jesus is saying, “are you going to do this or should I?”

A friend once told me that Flannery O’Connor’s stories cut deep, like a knife. Later that day at a bookstore, at the section marked for “O” authors, I considered what the difference between a knife cutting deeply and a knife cutting shallowly meant. A shallower cut heals more quickly and likely does less damage. One gets the idea that with a shallow knife wound he can move on with his life after a couple days of healing. A flesh wound, as it were. But a deep cut? That there’s a life-changer. One risks rupture, or penetration into something vital. Indeed, one might even die.

Cover art for “Parker’s Back” by Flannery O’Connor

In the weeks that followed my bookstore visit, Flannery O’Connor ended up being quite the sinister companion with her unafraid perspectives. She made me think, upon reading her story Parker’s Back for example, Well shit, I’m Parker. I don’t want to stop doing what feels good, living without making commitments and only acting out of reacting. I am this man, this boy of a pathetic excuse for a man. Yes, and she left me bleeding too, for one of her finest literary tactics is not cleaning up the messes she makes (how’s that for riveting art?). And she made a fine mess of me. She shanked and stood above me with that dripping knife and watched me fetalize. She seemed to be saying, See? See that pettiness? Your life is precious. You might even die today. Consider that miserable pettiness a little bit more.

I imagine Jesus standing calmly in front of the young man, looking him cold in the eye and speaking plainly when he says, “Go, sell everything, and give all the money to the poor.” And, I imagine the frown that must have instantly appeared upon the young man’s face, followed by the annoyance and frustration at such a request. No, no. That doesn’t make any sense at all. What kind of a teacher are you? What does my money, my youth, and my power have to do with eternal life? If anything they’ve helped me get where I am. No Jesus, I’m not just going to hand over everything. The crowds and the people in the streets were wrong about you. You aren’t the Teacher, you’re just insane. I’m done here.

And, he leaves.

Yes, I have sympathy for the young man because the reason he’s so frustrated is the same reason I get frustrated when I consider the notion that Jesus wants me to give up everything I have. That is, everything that makes up the good reputation of Aaron Green. This bible story isn’t about giving to the poor, or rich people needing to become poor, or Jesus just being a controlling jerk. This story is about extraction: from where or what does this young man take his worth? It’s about starting with nothing so that we can have everything.

The young man did not inherit that eternal life. And he knew, deep down, that the ache he walked away with in his chest was proof that Jesus was right.

And what does it mean to be rich anyway? Money is only the most obvious. What about a wealth of friends? This is a difficult teaching. This is why it is difficult for any kind of rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven: because it may mean giving up even those closest to you. Everything that tells you who you are—anything you care so deeply about that you couldn’t possibly lose. Even your mission with the church. To give it up and consider it skubala, like Paul said. Or, dog shit compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ.

Yes, this is what your Lord requires of you.

Upon the Bread of Life, Just Believe: some thoughts on John 6:22-36

The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes (oil on canvas, by Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti, c. 1545-1550)

In the sixth chapter of the gospel according to John, Jesus makes a short trip across the Sea of Galilee to a city called Capernaum. Shortly after his arrival he finds that hundreds, if not thousands, of people from the town he was just in (Bethsaida) have travelled in their own boats in pursuit of him.

Many of these townspeople had been part of the 5,000 whom Jesus famously fed by miraculously multiplying loaves of bread and baskets of fish. When they find Jesus here in Capernaum they seem to exclaim: “Teacher, when did you come here?”

Mosaic Commemorating the Feeding of the 5,000 (photo by Robert L. Grupp)

Jesus is perceptive. I see him smiling a little, maybe shrugging. He says, “You’re not looking for me because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill in bread and are hungry again.”

You’re just hungry again. That’s why you’ve followed me here. His lesson then is: “Don’t strain for temporary food, but for eternal food…”

Eternal food. One might have heard a hollow sound were they to knock upon the collective skull of the crowd just then (admittedly, the same simple-mindedness would have been true of me as well). Trying to be perceptive themselves they may have assumed that by “eternal” Jesus was referring to a longer-lasting prize they’d yet to receive. So, moving away from the topic of their growling stomachs, they ask, “What must we do to be doing the work of God?”

Yep. I’ve asked this question often. It’s the old bartering-masked-in-piety trick I revert to when I’m feeling pretty good about life, above certain sins, and confident in my own standing. Alright God, I’m ready. Put me in. Let me show you what I can really do. Don’t just give me that eternally loving presence thing you’re always talking about. This time let me earn it.

It’s the opposite of bartering for God’s help and provision, in a way. You know what I mean. Rather than the prodigal son-esque: “I’m at the end of my rope, God, help me!” thing, it’s believing that God’s grace makes me into some kind of indentured servant. It’s saying, “Hey, see what great work I’ve been doing here? See the prayer, the charity, the abstinence? I’ve moved on; I’ve become healthy. So how about we just call things even?”

Christianity tells of many mysteries. For example, that the first will be last, and the last will be first, or, that Jesus did not come to bring peace but something that would split and divide up families. But I’ve found nothing more mysterious than how freely receiving what I need begets more belief that I need to make up that free gift to God.

Jesus is kind in his response to the crowd. “You are doing the work of God by believing,” he says.

He means, you are paying me back (if you must hear it this way) by your belief. That’s all.

A very close friend of mine—let’s call him Joey—confessed once that he found believing in God to be too difficult. Misunderstanding him, I replied, “Yeah, me too, man.” Joey kindly laughed at that. He explained that the burden of being a Christian was too heavy for him, and that he was tired of feeling guilty for not carrying it very well. He and I both grew up as evangelical Christians. Our church taught kids that devotion to God was paramount; that devotion was, if nothing else, proof of one’s salvation. From around 8th or 9th grade it was encouraged (and quietly expected, I presume) that kids were daily engaged in some form of what was coined, “quiet time with God.”

In short, a “quiet time” is spending a portion of one’s day (maybe 20 to 60 minutes) in solitude while reading the Bible or praying. It’s difficult to know exactly where or how the idea of our modern ”quiet time” came about (and frankly, we need a better phrase for it—not only does it carry a burdensome reputation, it also sounds a little too close to “sleepy time”), but I suspect it’s been something Christians have done for a long time to try to know God better. It may have been poorly dictated sermons by Joey and my pastors that were to blame, or that he misinterpreted some teachings on what devotion to God meant (God knows I did). But his interpretation of what being devoted to God meant was that it was a rule to follow, and that failure to keep the rule was not exactly a sin, but not exactly helping him be on God’s good side either. Joey believed the proof of his faith could be found in his ability to follow through with the rule. And so, from a young age he saw how, each day, he could not prove his faith.

Back to Jesus. He said: “Only believe.” So, what does this mean?

Hear me rightly now: is a man who calls himself a painter but never gets up to paint really a painter? In Christianity, there exists a fine line between legalism and some sort of free-formed Jesus-y association, and an argument could be made that neither extreme is really what Jesus taught. But, I often wonder how Joey’s faith would be different today if the emphasis he remembered while growing up at church was that he didn’t need to do anything to be on God’s good side. That his devotion to God would actually be a reaction to God’s enduring love for him.

Five years later, Joey still seeks a god in the world, and I can see how he thinks it could still be true. But the Christian God is too unattainable. For what it’s worth, though, it’s my belief that his seeking, his yearning for a god, is proof of a very strong devotion indeed. It’s proof that, if nothing else, he has tasted something enlivening and that he will cross many seas to find it.

Churchless in Downtown LA

This was literally what I searched and came up with one night.

I moved downtown almost three months ago. I could rattle off a list of reasons for why I left the tidy suburbs of Orange County to live in the heat and grit of Los Angeles, but all lead back to two simple things:

1. I love new adventures
2. I wanted to be closer to work

If I’m honest, reason 2 was more of an excuse I used to accomplish reason 1. Adventure.

Mmmm…smell that unique Los Angeles air. It ain’t roses, in fact it is probably trash and grime, but it is fresh all the same.

Most suburban people (that I know anyway) don’t think of moving to LA for the sake of adventure, much less downtown. People move to LA to get into the film industry, and when they say they “live in LA,” they mean they live in Hollywood (if they’re lucky), or Silver Lake (if they’re lucky, hip, and rich), or the Valley (more than likely).

But downtown? Basically since its heyday in the Fifties, this freeway sequestered hub for banking, textile and toy manufacturing, fashion design, and wholesale seafood distribution has been on the decline. Somewhere along the line, people with power and influence stopped talking about it and eventually moved away from it for the quieted streets and backyard-laden suburbs. We see this especially in the late eighties, at the rise of Skid Row, where today it is the only legal place in America to sleep on the streets between the hours of 10pm and 6am.

So really, why downtown?

If I was going to live in LA, I knew wanted something I could afford, somewhere I would be inspired, and some place I wouldn’t have to drive a car in order to get to work. It may sound fatalistic, and posh, and all kinds of other rich-kid suburban descriptors, but downtown was one of the only areas I could satisfy those parameters. Enter Lady Downtown. “Hello, ma’am. We’ll be getting to know a lot of each other now won’t we?”

Something you should know if you don’t already:

I value living amongst and being a part of a faith community. It’s in my blood, and I really mean that. I was raised to believe in Jesus, and sometime around the age of seventeen I started believing it. I’d listened to teachers tell me how to live like a good boy all my life, but it wasn’t until I saw how a team of selfish high schoolers like me could want to live for someone else’s well being that I started to read about Jesus. I took his teachings about living alternatively seriously. More on the rest of this another time. Simply note: Aaron lives in LA, and Aaron wants to be part of a church.

But a church I still have yet to find. It is not that downtown doesn’t have churches. It does, it is just that they are mostly spanish-speaking, Catholic, both, or a little more on the light show and “seeker-friendly” side than I am comfortable with. Call me picky, but I’ve seen at least four churches downtown now and haven’t been satisfied. And look, I know how that sounds. I know all of the reasons for why church-shopping should be avoided, and just hunkering down and getting dirty with people is what I should be doing. At the same time, though, I know God hasn’t asked me to just join up in any old place. In fact, I legitimately believe God wants me to be apart of a small community downtown. I ask God almost everyday where I should go and who I should join up with.

But today, I am still churchless.

And in some ways, it’s okay. I have great friends who love Jesus, a family who loves Jesus, a boss who loves Jesus. My community of other believers is basically inescapable. I know where to get sermons via podcast. I pray with my roommates.

Still, there’s something to having a community of Jesus people, who may be unlike you and possibly unlikeable to you, that is central to growing as a Christian.

Wouldn’t you agree?

Theology Thursday: The Ranch at Seventh Street Bridge

The family back at “the ranch” together.

We exit a pair of mid-nineties sedans in a parking lot behind a loading dock. We meander for a moment, our hands stuffed into our pockets, and our gazes bring us up and out toward the river. Home again, in a way.

Across our arms we have sweatshirts, blankets, a bowl of salad, two tins of lasagna, and two bags of garlic bread. The doors click locked and we walk together across a dirt lot.

From above, Mikey, David, Alima, and Red are waiting. Mikey pulls a cigarette away from his face and stamps it into the ground. He’ll have another, but later.

“Here they come, Alima. The kids have arrived,” David says.

Mikey is walking down the paved embankment to meet us. He takes a load of blankets out of Kylie’s arms.

She says, “thank you, Mikey. You’re so sweet.”

Frank, who is holding the lasagna tins, says, “Hey Mikey, always a helper.”

“Yeah. You know,” Mikey says from behind the hairs of his overgrown mustache. “Just doing what I can.”

Half of us set up a small table and place tonight’s food on top while the rest of us spread into the crowd.

By now, there are fifteen more. They’ve heard us arrive and greet each other, so they’ve come up from the other side of the embankment that leads to the LA River. There is a bridge above which offers partial protection for their makeshift cardboard and faded nylon tent-homes. This is where they live. They have bikes. Some have plants that they water.

We are standing in line together and chatting as wait for a plate of food when James calls everyone’s attention. He says that it is Mikey’s birthday tonight. David reveals and hands him a scepter made from a long stick wrapped with cloth, fishing line, costume beads and glitter. David loves glitter.

“Gather around everyone. We want to sing for Mikey and then afterward he would like to pray for our food,” James says.

We move in. The smell of rotting fish looms above. We take each other’s hands. Our circle is too big for the bike path, so we make an oval. We sing for Mikey.

Cars are passing above and behind on the Seventh street bridge. Thousands of people barrel across it daily. Phone calls. Meetings to get to. People with homes to see. Thousands who know not of the hundreds who live beneath the bridges running throughout Long Beach.

Mikey is ecstatic. He can’t stop smiling. He is hugging everyone he can.

“Alright everyone, let’s pray a blessing over this food.” James looks to Mikey. “Your turn, brother.”

“Oh, uhh. Well, thank you Jesus for these kids, the food they’ve brought, the people they are. Who you’ve made them to be, and who you want to make us to be. Thank you. May we love you more. Amen.”

“Amen!” We respond in unison.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

Adrian has his camera out and he is aiming it in the direction of Red. Red notices, stops, and makes a pose. He jokes about being back in the crib. He takes a swig from his water bottle, but we all know he hasn’t had any water all day.

Melissa is deep in conversation with Susan who sits in a motorized wheelchair. Susan believes in God, and she makes sure Melissa, her adopted daughter, knows that. She always wanted her kids to know God too.

I am leaning against the graffitied wall watching our family commune together. I have no words, nor thoughts really. Only prayers. I try to whisper them.

David walks up and we start talking about his public readings.

“Always a trick, mister Aaron. And never an easy one to convince those people to let me read!” He laughs deviously.

“Why is that, David? Your ideas are great. Who wouldn’t let a guy like you come and read at their coffee shop, store, or whatever?”

“Oh you know, religious folks, and parents of small children.”

Now we both laugh.

Our crowd has melded well. Many are seated together, some are joking and singing songs together. Most are smiling. Nobody is alone.

I have been thinking about my status a great deal lately. I am privileged, and I know it. I want to give that back, but I want to be tactful and kind about it. I don’t want to give people what they don’t need, or worse, what I think they need.

David takes notice of my silence. “A penny for your thoughts, sir? Well, actually I don’t have any penny’s left. Perhaps, a rain check?”

I smile. “David, I guess I’ve been thinking. We come down here twice a week and have been for nine months.”

“Oh my, has it really been that long?”

“It has. It has.”

“Mmm.”

“Well, I was thinking. What could us kids possibly give you, our Long Beach family and friends? What is the best thing we could possibly offer to you?”

David holds his chin. He stares up at the blackened sky.

Cars boom by above, chatter fills in the gaps.

“You know,” he says. “We don’t need your food. We could get food for free on any given night in at least three different places.”

“Right. Right.”

He thinks again, his mind rolling around the words he is about to say. Then:

“Your time, sir.”

“Our time?”

“Your time. It is the greatest gift any friend could give. It is the most pregnant–excuse my imagery–with possibility.”

“Time.”

“Mmm.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

James is talking to Mikey who is pushing bread into his mouth like it might go bad before their conversation is up. He laughs at him and Mikey smiles, crumbs and flecks drop from his mouth and into his long, white and beige beard.

——

Today’s piece is based on true events. Names have been swapped for fictitious ones to retain privacy. Photo courtesy of www.co-project.org