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.

On “Silence”, by Shusaku Endo

Spoiler alerts ahead! To avoid them, skip to the last five paragraphs

Where to begin on such an honest and terrible depiction of what it meant to be a Christian in Japan in the 1600’s? I once heard my pastor say of Silence that it reminded him of how easy it is for Western Christians to follow Jesus at a distance. That is, how easy it is to be a Christian in the West and never face any opposition.

The struggle for relevance, the desire to be accepted and cool are nothing Christianity claims to offer. In fact, the desire to be cool says more about one’s faith in culture than it does about Jesus. But if the point of being a Christian isn’t about doing what’s trending, what is it?

Shusaku Endo presents a ghastly portrayal that is far too close to torture for comfort. In Silence we have father Rodrigues, a Portuguese priest who’s come to Japan in search of the alleged apostate priest, Father Christovao Ferreira who after 20 years as a missionary was said to have trodden upon the face of God (which, to the Japanese, was proof of one’s apostasy). To Rodrigues, and many others, this simply could not be true. His belief in the power of God to prevail his people was too strong for any real opposition able to turn a priest. Or so he thought. So he and another priest come to Japan, but upon arrival they are immediately swept into the forest to a place where only the Christian villagers would know, and who’d come, two-by-two, to visit them in the night. After some time the priests wore tired and felt ready to be on with their mission of finding Ferreira. It was then that they separated and would never again be reunited.

Rodrigues travels to another small village, but it is not long before he and other Christians are discovered and rewards are placed upon their heads. The coward, Kichijiro, (to me the most interesting character) basically a drunk who can’t make up his mind about whether or not he’s a Christian, is finally the one to turn Rodrigues over in exchange for the small reward, drawing parallels to how Judas turned over Jesus.

Rodrigues is repeatedly told that he will deny his faith and trod upon the “Fumie” (an image of Christ painted upon a piece of wood), and while he constantly denies it, he is also internally troubled, wondering about why God is allowing the Magistrate to torture Christians so freely. The benevolence of God, then, becomes of greatest question for the priest, especially as he is often forced to either witness by sight or by sound the torture of peasant Christians.

The priest is faced with a very important ethical dilemma then. He is told that if he would only deny the faith then his fellow Christian prisoners would be set free; that if he’d trod the Fumie, their torture would end (which he knows is probably a lie). Some of his accusers even question his real love for the Christians if he is willing to let them suffer. For his persistence he’s called selfish and is even pleaded with by his opposers to just deny Christ and put an end to everything. His faith is strong, even with his doubt, at least until he finally does find Ferreira. Clothed now as a Japanese person and even called by a deceased Japanese man’s name, Ferreira doesn’t plead with Rodrigues to apostasize as much as he coldly claims that Christianity just can’t take root in Japan. He calls Japan a swamp, and says that no matter how many seeds are cast upon the swamp, a tree will never sprout. Rodrigues is angered of course, and meanwhile still being subjected to the tortures. Soon he comes to believe, by way of Ferreira, that Christ himself might actually trod the Fumie, for that must be the most loving thing to do in such a perilous quandary. Hampered by guilt imposed by the Magistrate and by the shame he he feels for even considering denying his God, he remains with the faith until finally the torture is too much. He trods the Fumie and from there on is placed under house arrest, sentenced to write books about the inaccuracy of Christianity until he dies of sickness at age 65.  

As I read I could not say that I’d be strong enough to resist any longer than Rodrigues had (far shorter, I’m sure). Not because my faith in God is necessarily weak, but because my love for God’s humanity might be stronger. That is, I often wonder if my real god is the love, justice, and enjoyment of people.

Truly, it does take belief in an afterlife, a hope for a restored order of the world, to resist torture, even unto death. But I think that somehow being exposed to another’s torture is far worse than being tortured oneself. Maybe this isn’t true for everybody. But what about being told your loved ones will suffer until you give up your faith? Is it selfish to hold to your faith? Or is it courageous? Again, it takes a true belief that God is real and that pain on this earth pales in comparison to the life we’ll get to live after death.

I’ve been greatly challenged by Silence. Sure, there are the philosophical dilemmas, but even more, I have been enlightened to my own lack of courage to believe in God when the moment to show my belief presents itself.

But there’s another side to this question, and surely one that Rodrigues considered: if somebody was torturing my family, then there is clearly something psychotic about the torturer. Or is this just my Western mind? If one was to ask me to deny God to their face in exchange for my family, then am I not just needing to justify myself before a psychopath? Of what consequence is it to him to hear me deny the faith? To whom, in the end, am I truly accountable? God or man? I get the other side of the coin, though. The principle of the matter is: who is most important?

What if it became illegal in the US to be a Christian and officers were required to arrest Christians, and what if torture became the norm to purge our country of Christianity? It would seem to me, based on Jesus’ allegiance to God in the face of his own governing state, that God must win, no matter how idiotic or inhumane the torture is. Thoughts?

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.

Love Your Neighbor, Love Yourself [Theology Thursday]

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What we allow to inform us becomes what we believe. 

A man named Jesus once said, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 

The culture around me seems to say, “you shall do what is right for you and love yourself.”

Here are depictions of both statements drawn out:

Jesus: 

A man driving home after a long week of conducting business at a trade show notices a car on fire and a man beaten up on the side of the road outside of it. He considers the time it may take from his travel if he is to stop. He slows and peers down the road, flicking the face of his watch with his finger. He stops and studies the beaten man. He is unconscious, though he is familiar too. He was at the trade show too, except he was smiling, laughing, and writing up several more business contracts. Yesterday’s competition, he thinks. Today’s near-death story. At the end of every day, every businessman is still just a man, just as able to be beaten by something. Had he left the night before, as this man had, it might have been his car on fire. He steps out of his car, pulls the man across his shoulders, and sprawls him across his backseat. He drives a few miles to the nearest motel. He calls for a doctor, spending the last of his travel money as a down payment for his attention. He tells the motel manager to keep the beaten man as long as he needs to be kept, and to mail him the bill.

Two days later, the beaten man is conscious again. When he asks who brought him to the motel, and who hired the doctor, the motel manager hands him a wrinkled piece of paper with an address. 

What is this? The man asks.

Your advocate, sir. 

Sorry?

The man who saved you.

He turns the paper over twice and studies it. It is someone’s business card. I’ve heard of this man, he tells the motel manager. Why would he have stopped for me?

The motel manager shrugs. Maybe he believes in helping people, sir.

Helping people? No, that’s not how it works. Not people like me. In the business world I’m his enemy.

Maybe you’re not, sir. Maybe in some other world you’re his friend. His action might start a wildfire. You never can know. Care for neighbors like us can make caring for our neighbors make more sense.

Culture: 

A man coming home from a business venture stops along the side of the road to watch a fire. He opens his notepad and removes a pen from his jacket pocket. He scribbles down notes. The flames are like red and orange cornstalks reaching for the sky. Blackened at their tips, there is smoke billowing like confused clouds that meander before lurching toward the blue sky. I can turn this into a story tonight, he thinks. Tomorrow’s headlines will be mine. Cars are driving by and people slow to watch. Some lay on their horns and look annoyed. They are not interested in the fire. There does not appear to be any help coming. This might burn for hours, he thinks. And I have the best spot. The best eyewitnesses are the worst interveners. The world tells stories everyday, and I would be a fool to stand in its way. 

An ambulance screams around the city. When it gets to St. Mark’s hospital it screeches to a stop. Two men are yelling at each other as they open the rear door. A body like a carcass made of charred bones is on the gurney. Several seconds pass.

I told you to go left and you went right, the first ambulance operator says.

It doesn’t matter. This poor bastard is gonna die. I drove as fast as I could but what’s the sense in getting us killed too?

It doesn’t matter. I’m the lead and you listen to me, even if I’m wrong. 

Inside there are white coats, green scrubs, tennis shoes. The emergency room is a whirlwind of evaporating time. 

What do we got? The doctor says as he pushes through the door. He turns to the sink to wash his hands. 

Car wreck. The fire leapt from his car to the field where he was thrown. Under the char he looks beaten pretty badly too. Looks premeditated.

That’s not our job to decide. He looks over the body. We decide if he lives and that’s it, and judging by the look of him you better call for the priest. 

Doctor?

He ain’t worth our time. Get his I.D., his insurance policy, and then pump his heart a few times. Get him on an IV, but don’t hold your breath. We ain’t here to plead for miracles. We have more work to do.

A priest opens his Bible it at a sewn-in burgundy book marker. The man’s mother and brother have come, but his father and ex-wife have not. The priest reads systematically from Isaiah the prophet, David the Psalmist, and Paul, the self-appointed apostle. He speaks from a script in his book and condoles the family. They cross themselves when he is finished. He closes his Bible, reports a blessing, and departs from their room. He scratches down the family name and the service he conducted in a small black book issued to him by the hospital.

To a very true and certain extent, what we allow to inform us becomes what we believe. 

The man, Jesus, once said, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 

The culture around him, me, and us ever seems to say, “you shall do what is right for you and love yourself.”