Road construction season

by the Night Writer

If there were a road-map of my brain you’d likely see a lot of philosophical or meditative roads and perhaps not a few dead ends. Some parallel each other, others are all over the map, and some intersect (it’s an arrangement only a St. Paul city engineer could appreciate). Anyway, the other day I was idling at the intersection of Albert Jay Nock Drive and Bonhoeffer Way (see my April 9th and April 15th posts) and started wondering how similar those paths might or might not be, and could they merge?

Both men lived at the same time, and both were committed pacifists. Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis and Nock’s career essentially ended in large part due to his opposition to the U.S.’s participation in World War II. Because of their unshakable principles Nock saw the State as the natural enemy of man, while Bonhoeffer certainly saw the Nazi State, at least, in the same way. The difference between them, however, is that Nock dismissed the masses and their inevitable destructiveness in favor of preserving a “remnant” who could be taught and encouraged so they might rebuild society. Bonhoeffer was nearly the opposite, pondering and preaching on how we might live in order to serve and elevate “the Other.” Nock’s philosophy was perhaps demonstrated in the extreme by Ayn Rand’s (another contemporary) ultimate worship of the individual, while the epitome of what Bonhoeffer worshiped could be described as sainthood. It’s an interesting comparison, to me anyway, but not the point of this post.

For me, Nock may be a fascinating side-trip, but Bonhoeffer is the main drag. As a Christian, I believe that we achieve true happiness not in glorifying ourselves but in demonstrating the glory of God through our interaction with others. From God first saying “It is not fit for Adam to be alone”, to the Sermon on the Mount, to the letters of Paul, to Bonhoeffer writing “Life Together” we see it is all about relationship; it’s certainly the case for the deepest satisfactions and greatest joys in my life. I see my mission not to get people into church, but to get the Church out to the people. As I pondered these things I “coincidentally” came across a very insightful poem earlier today on Through the Illusion. It’s one that apparently has been getting emailed quite a bit and is entitled A Spiritual Conspiracy and talks about those who quietly interact with others as they “be the change they want to see.”

I think the message of the poem was intended to be ecumenical, or even humanist, but I can’t help but see it through a Christian perspective. As C.S. Lewis (another contemporary of Nock, Bonhoeffer and Rand — talk about your greatest generation!) put it, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” After reading the poem I applauded it in the Comment section of TTI, but also felt compelled to write a challenge to the sense of complacency and hubris that would undo its spirit:

There are those who want to cheer-lead for change, who belong to the right groups, show up religiously at church or the progressive book-clubs and cafes and feel deeply about things — and “do” nothing. They embrace the concept but can’t grasp the reality; they love “the people” but don’t know a person. They have little or no involvement, and therefore little affect, in individual lives of others outside their family (and sometimes even inside of it). Yet that is where the “change you want to see” happens. You change a little, you help someone else change, and you change even more. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I wrote it as a challenge to myself and not to elevate myself, though sometimes I experience elevation as I described back in February.

Yes, I’ve felt and enjoyed “elevation” in watching certain movies or reading certain books or hearing certain speakers, but I’ve also felt it most profoundly when infused by a Trinity that’s anything but pop. How ironic, it appears to me, that the learned experts can walk right up to the edge of revelation and stop themselves just short, as if it were a cliff they dare not let themselves go over.

Amazon’s editorial synopsis of Keltner’s book includes the following description (emphasis mine): “A new examination of the surprising origins of human goodness. In Born to Be Good, Dacher Keltner demonstrates that humans are not hardwired to lead lives that are ‘nasty, brutish, and short’— we are in fact born to be good. He investigates an old mystery of human evolution: why have we evolved positive emotions like gratitude, amusement, awe, and compassion that promote ethical action and are the fabric of cooperative societies?”

Evolved? Could, perhaps, those emotions have been implanted in us by God? Could they even be the essence of what “being created in the likeness and image of” means? That is, not so much a physical likeness but a spiritual harmonic that resonates in the presence of goodness? I have been suddenly “elevated” while singing praises to God, or in the midst of praying for someone, or when a revelation crystallizes suddenly in my half-alert mind. It doesn’t happen every time I do these things; in fact it usually happens when I’m not expecting it to. In the middle of a song that we’ve sung dozens of times, for example, or in half-way through praying for someone when — whoosh elevation! (Actually, in our circles, we call it “anointing”) It seems to wait for that split-second when I stop thinking about myself to manifest itself and I know that I’ve made a different kind of connection, or been a conduit for one.

As I read the poem I was also reminded of a song by Bruce Cockburn entitled “Lovers in a Dangerous Time”:

Don’t the hours grow shorter as the days go by
You never get to stop and open your eyes
One day you’re waiting for the sky to fall
And next you’re dazzled by the beauty of it all
When you’re lovers in a dangerous time
Lovers in a dangerous time

These fragile bodies of touch and taste
This vibrant skin this hair like lace
Spirits open to the thrust of grace
Never a breath you can afford to waste

{Refrain}
When you’re lovers in a dangerous time
Lovers in a dangerous time
When you’re lovers in a dangerous time
Lovers in a dangerous time

When you’re lovers in a dangerous time
Sometimes you’re made to feel as if your love’s a crime
Nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight
Got to kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight

{Refrain}

We are lovers in a dangerous time, but the darkness can and does bleed daylight.

5 thoughts on “Road construction season

  1. I did receive an email from someone who said much the same thing you did. He went on to say that personal sacrifice for the benefit of others was more important.

    But I disagree.

    The poem is the Yin to Yang of direct personal involvement and sacrifice. They are…incomplete without each other. I feel they are equally important.

    While many Christians choose to focus (to the point of exclusion) on the final sacrifice of Jesus Christ, it is incomplete and lopsided.

    Jesus (like many modern day movies) told stories that taught, opened minds and hearts, and gently spoke the truth so that listeners could come to a full understanding in their own time and way.

    He helped change the dynamic of the way people think. God does not exist for a specific tribe anymore because we are all his children, humanity as one. Turn the other cheek, love thy neighbor and thine enemy, these people are your brothers.

    It’s that kind of message and spirit that I see with many bloggers (at least the ones I read).

    While I don’t disagree that sacrifice is important, I think that having sacrifice without heart or heart without action leaves the equation unbalanced.

    Anyway, I’ll stop here since I am equally as awful at dealing with issues of religion online as I am with politics.

  2. Hayden, putting our deepest thoughts down in writing does help us clarify our thinking and examine the reasons why we believe something, be it faith or politics. I hope this blog is a place where you (and all others) will feel safe to reason and ask questions and will receive a fair hearing and thoughtful answers.

    Your reaction to the e-mailer is spot on. While Christ’s sacrifice is what opened the door for everything else, focusing on one aspect at the expense of all others is a danger long recognized. “For God so loved…” and “Greater love hath no man but he lay down his life for his brothers…” point out that love is the key (and the religion of the first as well as the 21st century). As Paul warned those who would focus on performing duties as the path to salvation:

    1 Corinthians 13:1-3

    Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.

  3. I am the “emailer” to Hayden’s Blog post. Her response to my original email gave me pause for thought. As I told her in a follow-up email I better understand that sacrificial action without any prelude that allows the recepiant to fully comprehend what is happening could leave the receipient a bit short-changed.

    I have just grown a bit… bewildered by most who are just “sayers” and not “doers.”

    My wife and I are both in our early to mid 50s and are scheduled to sign adoption papers for our “new kids”; a five and seven year old brother and sister that we have had physical custody for thirty-five months.

    Over the years since we have had our little ones I have been acutely atuned to those who SAY nice things but NEVER follow up with actions. I guess what I am really saying is that, it has become too easy for me to recognise the selfishness in others.

  4. mssc54: I know I’ve let people down in my life – sometimes carelessly, sometimes deliberately, sometimes unknowingly when I didn’t realize I had an obligation. Now that I’m your age I view those missed opportunities with regret, and I’m grateful for the grace others have extended to me. I feel this especially when someone lets me down and, perhaps, I start to feel some bitterness. That’s when I remember that we like to judge others by their actions – but want others to judge us by our intentions.

    I once attended a visitation for a relatively young man who had died in an accident. The funeral home was filled with those who came to pay their respects and the line of people extended around the outside of the building and into the parking lot. He was no athlete or celebrity but merely someone who always did whatever he could to help those he came across, including people like me who he barely knew. As I saw all those people it occurred to me that you don’t get those kind of numbers when people are saying, “You know, he really meant well.”

    You can have quite a long argument in religious circles over the nature of, and relationship between, faith, works and grace. Faith w/o works is dead (as dead as works w/o faith), but we can’t work ourselves into grace because grace is a gift, so faith becomes our guide and revelation.It is through relationships – messy as they can be at times – that we come to see how much we have received and learn how much we have to give. Bless you and your wife for opening your home and being willing to open your lives to bring hope and stability into the lives of others!

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