Fully human

The following post appeared in the Advent issue of Episcorific (a ‘zine for and by the 20s and 30s of the Episcopal Church). You can download the full magazine in .PDF form here.

* * *

The trouble with being human is that most of us aren’t very good at it. We are way better at being couch potatoes or social butterflies or unique snowflakes or chickens. We explain the very act of making more humans by referring to the birds and the bees. A frightened human is a scaredy cat; an insufferable one is a less polite term for donkey. We may exist as humans, but we spend a lot of time filling the roles of other species.

And these other species are darn good at being themselves. Bees fly around collecting nectar and pollinating flowers. Trees keep soil from eroding. Grass scrubs the air of carbon dioxide. Cockroaches allow husbands to feel manly. If evolution teaches us one thing it’s that species thrive when they don’t try to fill the role of some other species.

While we are busy being butterflies and potatoes, we forget that in reality we are human. And who really wants to be human? Our skin isn’t very well adapted to our climates. Our young can’t fend for themselves for at least twenty-two years. Our bodies break down with alarming frequency. And to top it off, I can’t think of another species on this planet that kills its own kind with as much regularity and aplomb as we humans.

But somehow we have survived down through the ages amidst the dangers of saber-toothed tigers, drought, pestilence, war, and deficit spending. We have survived, but, as Tennyson writes, “We are not now that strength which in old days / Moved earth and heaven.” I’m not even convinced that we’ve ever been that old strength. I don’t think that we’ve ever lived into our humanity to the greatest extent possible.

And here’s where Jesus comes in. Jesus didn’t come to show us a new way to be human. Jesus came to show us how to be fully human. The Gospel makes a big deal about Jesus’ own humanity. Matthew and Luke talk about Jesus’ birth. John shows Jesus tired, angry, and sad. In all four accounts of the Gospel, he is brutally murdered. And why present God the Son as such a frail collection of bones and tissue and synapses? Well, he couldn’t be the “Word made flesh” without flesh. And he couldn’t be our hope and our salvation without fully identifying with our lives, however “nasty, brutish, and short” they may be (thanks to Thomas Hobbes for those appropriate adjectives).

So Jesus is fully human – not some ghost or apparition or hologram. And he’s fully divine. 100% of both. This 100% of humanity is the real miracle here. It’s impossible for God not to be 100% divine (God wouldn’t be God without the perfect batting average). But it’s very possible (indeed, likely) to be less than fully human. Jesus succeeded in realizing this unlikely full humanity, and that’s one of the reasons he’s so special. His life and his example teach us to be fully human.

If we aren’t fully human now, what takes up the rest of the space? In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis explains this question well. Lewis calls us “toy soldiers.” We begin as automatons – clockwork beings in need of winding and direction. But God doesn’t want toy soldiers. God wants sons and daughters to love and adopt as God’s children. Jesus’ example and his grace enable us to move through the messy, painful, joyous process of outgrowing our clockwork. Only by becoming fully human, can we fully embrace God’s love for humanity. If we can recognize God’s love for humanity, perhaps we can love other humans, as well.

Unless I had been calling to you

Eustace and Jill Pole are trying to escape a mob of bullies at the Experiment House, their ghastly boarding school. Jill has been crying, and the bullies can smell tears from hundreds of yards away. From their hiding spot, the two targets hear the angry shouts of the searchers. Eustace looks at Jill and wonders aloud if they might be able to escape to That Place. He begins calling out, “Aslan, Aslan, Aslan!” Jill follows his example: “Aslan, Aslan, Aslan!” The bullies draw near, and Eustace and Jill scramble through the laurels and up a steep slope. The weathered old door in the wall is always locked, but this time – miraculously – the knob turns. And the two children step into Aslan’s country.

Immediately after they arrive, Eustace falls off a cliff, but a lion arrives just in time and blows him to safety in Narnia. The lion – naturally – frightens Jill Pole. She tries to slip away, but the lion begins questioning her. Her showing off caused Eustace’s fall, she confesses. For that display of pride, the lion gives her a task to perform. “Please, what task, Sir?” asks Jill. “The task for which I called you and him here out of your own world,” says the lion. This response puzzles Jill. Nobody called them. They called out to – Somebody – a name she wouldn’t know. Wasn’t it she and Eustace who asked to come?

aslan “You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you,” says the lion.

The lion is Aslan, and the task on which he sends Jill and Eustace makes up the story of The Silver Chair, one of The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. This exchange between Aslan and Jill Pole from the beginning of the tale illustrates most vibrantly the foundational principle of a life of prayer. You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you.

The Catechism* in the back of the Book of Common Prayer states: “Prayer is responding to God, by thoughts and by deeds, with or without words.” When I first read this definition, I was flabbergasted. I had never thought of prayer as anything more than asking God for stuff. God, please give me a kitty that doesn’t scratch me. God, please help us win our soccer game. God, please make Grammy not sick anymore. Now, please don’t misunderstand, I am not condemning this form of prayer. There are many kinds of prayer, and they all have fancy names like adoration, oblation, intercession, petition – you get the idea. Rather, the popular definition that prayer is “asking God for stuff,” is several bricks up from the foundation.

That foundation is, of course, God. More precisely, the foundation of prayer is God’s presence in our lives and call upon our hearts. “Prayer,” says the Catechism, “is responding to God.”** Think of prayer as a phone call. We never dial the number: we only have the option to answer the phone when it rings. When we choose to answer, we enter into the relationship that God yearns for us. Prayer is another word for our part in our relationships with God.

Of course, the phone call is not a perfect metaphor because God is always present in our lives and always calling upon us to serve God in the world. In this context, Paul’s directive to “pray without ceasing” seems less unrealistic. Our striving to respond to God’s perpetual call in our lives is prayer. The collection of our words and deeds that emanate from our relationships with God is prayer. Anything we do in response to God’s movement in our lives is prayer. While prayer comprehends the kneeling-beside-the-bed-at-bedtime image that many associate with prayer, the act of praying is so much more expansive.

Monastics down through the ages have understood this. Even the lowliest jobs at the monastery – peeling potatoes or weeding fields – were prayer. Monks prayed many times a day in their chapels, but the labor they performed in the meantime was prayer, too. While we don’t have strict priors delegating our labors, we can still import the monastic example into our lives.

Look at your day, your week, your year. How do your engagements and actions display your response to God’s movement in your life?  As a student, God calls you to learn about yourself and the rest of God’s creation. As a member of a family, God calls you to love and enjoy and forgive your parents and siblings. As a servant of God, God calls you to discover and enact that one way in which you can better the lives of those around you. When we respond to God in all these areas of our lives, we pray. We affirm our relationships with God. We live the abundant lives that Christ gives to us.

“You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you,” says Aslan to Jill Pole. “We love because he first loved us,” says the writer of the First Letter of John. Likewise, we pray because God first called us – called us into the expansive, abundant relationship with God. What will our response be?

Footnotes

* Also called “An Outline of the Faith,” an Episcopal F.A.Q. Most people know it as the thing you read when the sermon is really boring.

** Italics mine.

Activating praise

Every weekday morning, I walk into the fellowship hall at church to find four delightful ladies chatting over coffee. I shake their hands and pat their shoulders. They welcome me with smiles and critiques of my thinness (along with doughnuts, their remedy for such a physique). If I yawn even once, they launch into mock interrogations of the previous night’s activities. I have known these ladies for two months only, but already I love them, for their warmth could instill no other feeling.

At the appointed time, we move from coffee and doughnuts in the hall to silence and prayer in the chapel. My four delightful friends form the core of worshipers for daily Morning Prayer, a tradition as old as any other in the Anglican Church. This morning, I was checking my email in my office when they shooed me into the chapel, where my rector asked me to lead our morning’s devotion.

“Lord, open our lips,” I prayed.

“And our mouth shall proclaim your praise,” came the response.

These words, so familiar from years of praying the Daily Office,* tasted fresh and alive with new meaning this morning. Notice the progression these two lines demonstrate. We cannot proclaim God’s praise until God opens us up. God is the cause. Our proclamation is the effect. Indeed, God activates our praise. We do not call God to us when we come together in prayer; God calls us to prayer. God is not standing on the doorstep with hands in pockets waiting to be buzzed in. God is already inside prompting within us the desire to gather. Lord, open our lips. Only when God has done this will we be ready or able to proclaim God’s praise.

These words at the beginning of Morning Prayer remind us that we do not have a boxed-up God or a God carved in a piece of wood. Our God does not exist for our convenience. Our God is not a mute receptacle for our cares and concerns. Our God lives a life of radiance and moves with graceful unpredictability through a world which tries its best to forget who deserves credit for creation. God’s radiant life is complete within that life, but, in a wonderful incongruity, God also moves in and through our own little lives. This movement activates our prayer. This movement gives us the desire to praise God. Our mouth shall proclaim your praise because you, Lord, have deigned to open our lips.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis comes to a similar conclusion when discussing our connection with the life of the Trinity: “An ordinary Christian kneels down to say his prayers. He is trying to get into touch with God. But if he is a Christian he knows that what is prompting him to pray is also God: God, so to speak, inside him. But he also knows that all his real knowledge of God comes through Christ, the Man who was God — that Christ is standing beside him, helping him pray, praying for him. You see what is happening. God is the thing to which he is praying — the goal he is trying to reach. God is also the thing inside him which is pushing him on — the motive power.”

God both motivates our pray and receives it. When we pray, “Lord, open our lips,” we acknowledge that we would not even be entertaining the notion to praise God if God were not prompting us toward such a notion. Thus, our prayer is our ultimate expression of God’s sovereignty, which (from an anthropocentric perspective) is our inability to control God. When we view prayer as our response to God’s movement, we are less likely to see God as the proverbial divine genie-in-a-bottle or ATM. We are more likely to come to God humbly, overwhelmed by the proposition that the Creator of all that is would desire our mouths to proclaim any sort of praise.

The four delightful ladies with whom I share Morning Prayer understand this gift of God’s presence better than most. They are there every day, expressing their joy that our radiant God moves in their midst, activating their praise.

Footnotes

* “The Daily Office” is a technical term for the various daily times of prayer, which grew out of the monastic tradition of praying the hours. In the Episcopal Church, Morning and Evening Prayer are the predominant pieces of the Office, with Noonday prayers and Compline (nighttime prayers) a close second.

Not FEMA trucks

I’ve been rereading C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters in preparation for a class I will be teaching at my church. The book is a series of letters from one of Hell’s executive level devils sent to a junior tempter who is tasked with corrupting the soul of a new convert to Christianity. In Letter #14, Screwtape is alarmed that Wormwood’s “patient” is showing signs of becoming humble.

This is not as dire as it may seem, says Screwtape, because the true meaning of humility is easy to conceal. He counsels Wormwood: “Let [your patient] think of it not as self-forgetfulness but as a certain kind of opinion (namely, a low opinion) of his own talents and character…. By this method thousands of humans have been brought to think that humility means pretty women trying to believe they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools.”

You can see just how handy this kind of self-deception could be for those who work against God (who Screwtape calls “the Enemy”). If people are deluding themselves in such a way as to take less than full advantage of their gifts, then Screwtape and his boss are winning. And here’s the main point: thinking yourself less talented than you are does not lead to humility, but to dereliction of duty.

God pours out on each one of us a collection of gifts and talents. If we don’t use them due to a case of misplaced modesty, then we are not fully living the lives that God’s abundance makes possible. We’d be like those FEMA trucks held back from the hurricane zone, full of uneaten food and unused supplies. Humility has nothing to do with a low opinion of your talents. Humility has everything to do with the proper attribution of and thanksgiving for those talents to God, the provider of all good gifts. And the best way to give thanks to God for your talents is to use them in the service of others—giving of yourself out of the things God has given you. Indeed, the only way to thank God properly for your gifts is to use them and use them fully, with no hindrance from a false understanding of humility.

So, come to the Lord in prayer and ask God what are those gifts and talents God has poured out on you. Be humble by acknowledging that those gifts and talents have a source, and you aren’t it. But do not sell yourself short. God gives gifts so they can be used to glorify God. Any cropping of your talents for the sake of that false understanding of humility lessens your ability to reflect the glory of God out into the world. Give thanks to God for all the opportunities God has given you to reflect that glory and serve God with that life of yours, so full of gift, talent, and promise.

For the sake of ten (part 3 of 3)

This relationship which God has extravagantly blessed us with challenges the understanding of God’s immutability. Indeed, in the story, it seems (at first glance at least) that Abraham is swaying God’s mind. Many, if not most, ancient and medieval Christian thinkers assert that a facet of the divine is changelessness. This makes sense because the perfect cannot be changed; if it could, it would not be perfect. However, I think that assigning platonic categories of perfection to God is a silly exercise because God is beyond our concept of perfection.* God is more than perfect because God subsumes the category of perfection into God’s being. That is why God can send a son to earth against all the rules of fashionable Greek philosophical discourse of the time. God is other, but God is present at the same time. What we call Providence, as theologian Paul Tillich says, is the intermingling of our actions and inactions with God’s directing creativity. Part of this directing creativity is responsiveness to prayer. Tillich says that “every serious prayer contains power, not because of the intensity of desire expressed in it, but because of the faith the person has in God’s directing activity—a faith which transforms the existential situation”  When Abraham says “Far be it from you to do such a thing” (which might more expressively be translated: “How dare you!”), he is engaging in this kind of prayer. The relationship he has with God, more than the words, is the important factor in the exchange.

While it might seem that Abraham is using his close connection with God to sway God’s mind, God seems to let the exercise go on to expand Abraham’s mind concerning justice, righteousness, and sin. Abraham’s thought experiment is flawed to begin with because there is no way to separate the righteous and sinful.  Even in generations to come when it was possible to be “righteous under the law,” people kept the temple in business by sacrificing to restore their righteousness. Later, Paul reflects this reality when he says, “There is no one who is righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10). But Abraham’s seems to say, “For argument’s sake, let’s say there’s a clear distinction between the righteous and the sinful.” God humors him thus far.

Next, Abraham makes an outrageous claim that would make any level-headed person cry foul. He says, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” Abraham is outraged that the righteous would be swept away with the wicked. However, he is perfectly content with the wicked remaining unpunished if even ten righteous people are found in the city. Surely, this is not justice—the wicked go unpunished for the sake of the righteous, the wicked don’t get what they deserve! Now, we all know the end of the story—Sodom gets utterly destroyed. But leaving that aside for a moment, let us pause and reflect on God’s mercy as this story elucidates it. Mercy is not getting what you deserve. It seems that as Abraham lessens the number of righteous needed to save the city, the mercy (rather than the justice) of God expands to greater and greater levels. If only ten are found, you won’t destroy the city? Heck, what about one? We never get that far, but it is not unimaginable. By the end of the story, it seems that the ten righteous are on vacation, and the city is destroyed anyway. But the extravagant claim about God’s mercy still stands, though Abraham can’t see it because of his preoccupation with justice.

This story is finally about two things that relate to each other. The first is the human inability to comprehend God and God’s action in the world. The second is the realization that humans are always in the presence of God, participating in that same action. C.S. Lewis says: “The freedom of God consists of the fact that no cause other than Himself produces His acts and no external obstacle impedes them—that His own goodness is the root from which they all grow and His own omnipotence the air in which they all flower”  Our incomprehension stems from the actions of God having God’s freedom as their basis and warrant. We are in God’s presence because of God’s goodness. We participate in God’s freedom even when (or especially when) we question God as Abraham does. We participate in God’s goodness when our actions bring about the justice, mercy, and grace of God. And we participate in God’s omnipotence when we are blessed with those briefest of glimpses of God’s directing creativity, which spur us to greater action and greater love.

Footnotes

* A fair number of 20th century theologians say something similar, though I doubt they use the word “silly.”

For the sake of ten (part 2 of 3)

Thinking we understand the ways of the world, and of God, for that matter, is a major cause of all kinds of unrest. I have been a student for nineteen years and one piece of learning that has quietly crept up on me as the years rolled by is this: there sure is a heck of a lot I don’t know. Most of my personal failings come from me thinking I know things that I don’t know. Recognizing that I do not know something is, I believe, one of God’s repetitious lessons in humility. I know so little about the world that I can see and feel and touch. If I know so little about what is actually knowable, how could I ever presume to know anything about God? About why God does what God does? And for that matter, whether or not why is even an appropriate question when God is involved?

These musings stray into the territory of an apophatic* understanding of God, but I assure you, I will not quite get there. One needs only to look at the story this reflection concerns to know that God, while supremely unknowable from our end, makes God known to us in both ordinary and mysterious ways. Indeed, Abraham talks to God!  The simple fact that there are two characters in the scene—Abraham and God—illustrates the immanence of God in our midst. It is when we turn this around and realize that it is really we who are in God’s midst that the transcendence of God smacks us square in the forehead. God is beyond our knowledge, but because of God’s grace we are not beyond glimpses of the recognition that we think, move, act, love, live in the presence of God. This is revelation, of which Jesus Christ is the most perfect example.

We live in the presence of God whether we recognize it or not. However, as our eyes adjust to the holiness around us, the injustice of the world becomes more apparent and more intolerable. Questions such as why do we suffer? and why are the good punished and the evil rewarded? and why does the world seem to be in inexorable decline socially and environmentally? abound when we link our experience of our Creator with our moral compasses. C.S. Lewis, in The Problem of Pain, begins with a discussion of religion in general. He says that the roots of religion are two-fold: the universal, uncanny, dreadful, unexplainable something that he calls experiencing the “numinous”; and the emergence of morality. The Jewish people, he continues, were the first to combine these two things when they discerned that their God both prompted them to live a life of good morals and helped them along the way. As the understanding of God as a necessarily “good” being grew, the aforementioned questions became more prevalent. Indeed, if we were without our understanding of God as a beneficent Creator, then there would be no problem associated with injustice or pain. They would simply be neutral facts, as indistinguishable from their natural counterparts as colors in the dark. However, we are blessed with the revelation that our God is good. This is both a comforting and a vexing thought. Abraham takes the vexation head on. In doing so, he accuses God of premeditated capriciousness and also shows just how poorly he, Abraham, understands the concept of justice.

“Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” says Abraham. Here Abraham wrestles with what might be termed “Divine inscrutability.”** What looks like capriciousness to humans, goes one interpretation, is God fulfilling God’s inscrutable plan. This quickly becomes the “It’s God’s will” argument. However, this progression is inherently flawed. There is obviously a paradox happening somewhere when inscrutability and knowledge of God’s will are mentioned in the same breath. These two approaches seek to answer the “why” question (why did God let this happen? etc). Inscrutability says, “I don’t know why.” The God’s will argument says just that—“It’s God’s will,” no matter what happens. The latter is a very limited understanding of our relationship with God. While the “will” of God certainly exists, it is not the organizing principle by which we live. That is, instead, reserved for the “Word” of God, which is both the foundation of existence and the incarnate being of Jesus Christ. Affirming this premise does not answer the “why” question, but supersedes it with the person of Christ, who is present with us in our pain and suffering. The inscrutability of God is maintained because we can never fully know God, but our questions are answered by a relationship with Jesus Christ (rather than an explanation).

to be concluded.

Footnotes

* This is a five dollar seminary word that means something like: “You can never know anything about God, so quit asking.”

** Inscrutability is a funny word. You can be inscrutable, but can you just be scrutable? In think you can in Europe.

For the sake of ten (part 1 of 3)

Abraham stares after them as they make their dusty way down into the valley. They are men to his eyes, and yet, in the shadow-stretched twilight they appear indistinct, almost shadows themselves. But not shadows; for these beings shine. They shine with the borrowed light of the one who remains with Abraham on the hilltop overlooking the candlelit city of Sodom. Abraham watches them until their shadows mingle with those of the scrub and gorse bushes. He stands there, mystified—for they have just predicted that Sarah (his Sarah!) would get pregnant. Ha. She’s far too old, her joints too arthritic, her bones too brittle to stand the strains of pregnancy. And yet. And yet they had seemed so certain. She had laughed, but it was no joke. I thought I understood the ways of the world, ponders Abraham, as the shining beings melt into the candlelight of the city.

I thought I understood the ways of the world. Perhaps not, if it is true that Sarah can still bear children. Confusion. Abraham shakes his head, as if this act would jostle loose such a silly, irrational thought as Sarah becoming pregnant. He looks down at Sodom again. And here’s another example of irrationality, he thinks. Anger kindles in his chest as he remembers the abuses that have reached his ears, the abuses committed by the people of that city. But yet—how could God destroy that place if there were righteous people there. Surely God could not be that unjust.

Abraham shakes his head again, this time with suppressed incredulity, and lifts his eyes from the twinkling lights below. He turns and approaches the third being, the one who has remained with him on the hill when the others ventured down to the city. Seen peripherally, the being is generally man-shaped. But as Abraham moves near, he perceives how inadequate a container the man-shaped body is for such an abundance of light, harmony, and awe. Abraham suppresses a shudder. He opens his mouth, but closes it again, unsure whether he wants to question or accuse. The being knows the confusion in Abraham’s mind, knows that such cognitive dissonance is the birthplace of revelation.

All at once, Abraham finds his words: question and accusation combine into indictment tinged with desperate plea for understanding. “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” He presses on, not waiting for the LORD (for, of course, this is who the luminous being on the hilltop is) to respond. “Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked!” Abraham points a quivering, accusatory finger, and his pitch rises as the cause of his mental distress tumbles from him: “Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is right?” Tears form at the corners of his eyes; he slumps over, chest heaving with the exertion of voicing the thoughts that have been building ever since the three men approached his tent.

The LORD waits for Abraham to recover and then responds quietly, certainly: “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” Abraham hears these words and is mollified—almost. What about 45? 40? 30? 20? What about—and here Abraham raises both hands, fingers splayed—ten? “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it,” says the LORD. And then the LORD leaves Abraham with his thoughts. Abraham returns to his place to find Sarah, her deep eyes reflecting dancing firelight, lost in the same thought: I thought I understood the ways of the world.*

to be continued.

Footnotes

* This and the upcoming two posts are pieces of a reflection on Genesis 18.