Shape and Substance

meditations on faith and church

Month: February, 2017

Finger on the Switch

Midnight moonlight silvers grass
mowed and trimmed for one last time
before the cold sets in.

Perfect square of wooden fence
standing sentinel at the border
between suburban kingdoms

Light through plastic blinds next door,
bedroom sounds between the bars
recall what might have been

but never was—the mistress never had,
the mountain never climbed, the piano
played but never well,

the poem taunting from the desk,
conceived but never quite complete,
the finger on the switch

connected to the wires that run
to the bomb behind the eyes that
will blow it all to bits—

until the dog finishes urinating
in the corner, begs to be let in,
and settles back to sleep.

Judas’ Soliloquy

Matthew 26:47-50; 27:3-9

The betrayer is betrayed; that’s the sum of it.
Serving higher callings only puts you
higher on the hanging tree, to fall
a little farther, stop a little harder,
snap the neck more cleanly, but no less dead.
Thirty silver pieces buys a field where
we plant the shreds of hope that yet remain
and water them with blood, once hot,
once ready to be shed for righteous causes,
now cold and slow within the veins.

Just a word, a whispered name.

Master. It was the truth, and yet a lie.
No godly gift that pure can long survive
the gore and grime and grimace of this world.
It started well but soon enough became
a parody of itself, a mummer’s dance.
Justice, revolution, restoration—
all polluted by the rhetoric of love.
We crucify messiahs who deliver
the message we elect them to convey.
See? What’s easier than this?

Just a kiss, just one kiss.

Tie a good knot, cinch up the noose;
find one branch on this barren tree
stout enough to bear the pendant strain.
Grief is the heaviest sin of all.
Try not to botch this last impassioned speech.
The drama acted on that other stage
played to a packed house, had a more
star-studded cast. But the playwright
quit the show. Its final scene concluded
where our soliloquy began.

Sinners all, we do the best we can.

Silence

Hooker/ 29 January 2017
1 Cor 1: 18-29

I

Paul says—or perhaps it would be better to say that Paul insists—that he will preach only Christ, and him crucified. He is clear that few—maybe no one—will hear that proclamation well or gladly. It is, he says, a scandal to Jews (most versions read “folly” but “scandal” is a better translation)—if for no other reason than the first century Judaism in which Paul live could not contemplate a messiah whose kingdom triumphs in defeat. It is foolishness to Gentiles (“moronic” might be a better reading)—if for no other reason that only a moron would believe in a god who deigns to die at human hands. In the cultures to which Paul spoke, the word of the cross was a foreign language, one that suggested that the assumptions by which the culture worked would all have to be re-examined, that the agreements about what was said and what was left unsaid would all have to be renegotiated. No wonder he met with such resistance in places like Athens, Jerusalem, and even here in Corinth. All three were places of culture and settled assumptions about the character of God and God’s intent.

But Paul came preaching a different vision of God, one that fit the expectations and comfort zones of no one who heard it. At the center of that vision is Christ on the cross—Paul can never get past the cross. And he is prepared to sacrifice everything, abandon everything, be accused of anything, in order to proclaim it.

II

Not long ago I saw the movie Silence, Martin Scorcese’s recent masterpiece based on a 1966 novel by Shusaku Endo, a Japanese Roman Catholic. It is the story of Fathers Rodrigues and Garupe, two Portuguese Jesuits who come to early sixteenth century Japan to disprove the rumor that their teacher, Father Ferreira, has succumbed to the pressure of the authorities in Japan and apostatized—denied the faith.

The Japan they come to is a hostile place, where the authorities actively and aggressively persecute Christian. Rodrigues and Garupe enter the country secretly, because if they are discovered, they will be captured and tortured, and all those who supported and hid them, as well.

They discover what one character later in the novel calls “the swamp of Japan”: a country of such contrasts that they are hard to believe—great wealth and gentility, living on the backs of grinding poverty and filth—and the Christians are all in the latter category. Christians live like animals, hunted, abused, tortured, and regularly forced to deny the Christ they claim to believe in. The act of denying Christ is remarkably simple and graphic: one place a foot on the fumie, a ceramic or metal plaque with a crude image of Jesus struck on it. By placing one’s foot on the fumie, one declares that one is no Christian but a good Buddhist.

Rodrigues and Garupe minister to these ground-down, bedraggled people, offering them sacraments they do not understand in a Latin they cannot comprehend. They believe that the sacraments are a sort of magic that will keep them alive as they go through the inevitable suffering and horror of their lives. Of course, it doesn’t: they are captured and killed, tortured so that other, more important figures may be forced to recant.

And in time, one of those figures is Rodrigues. Captured by the authorities, Rodrigues is imprisoned—but not tortured or mistreated. Instead, he is forced to watch while others are tortured and killed (including his companion, Garupe). And he is told that the torture of the poor Christian peasants will continue as long as he refuses to recant, to trample on the fumie.

At first, Rodrigues stoutly refuses to recant his beloved faith, praying that the Jesus he has loved since his childhood will give him strength in his weakness. But here is the crux of the problem. The Jesus who has given Rodrigues strength throughout his life—a beautiful image of a Christ who, though he has once suffered, is now raised and beyond the reach of such pain—is now silent. Despite all Rodrigues’s fervent prayers, the Jesus of his faith never speaks, never offers encouragement or hope or help.

In the end, of course, Rodrigues is forced to do what others before him—including, as it turns out, Father Ferreira—have done. He agrees to deny his faith, so that the Christians being tortured and killed may be released. The fumie is placed before him, and he gazes down at the twisted, grotesque image of an almost unrecognizable Christ…and at long, long last, this is the Christ that speaks. “Trample!” says this Christ of dirt and blood, this Christ who is everything Rodrigues hates and fears:

Trample! I more than anyone know the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I came into the world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.

Rodrigues places his foot on the face of Christ, and leaves behind the faith that has given his life hope and direction and meaning.

Later, after Rodrigues is released from prison to a kind of supervised custody, one of his captors informs him that, now that he has apostatized and abandoned the priesthood, the authorities are no longer persecuting the Christians among whom Rodrigues had ministered. His captor tells him that, without the influence of the priest, the Christian faith is no longer a threat and can be safely ignored. Its followers may live in safety. “The Christianity you brought to Japan has changed its form and has become a strange thing. Japan is that kind of country. It can’t be helped.”

As I walked out to the car, I found myself confronting a question I have been trying my best to avoid. It is, I think, the very question Endo (and perhaps also Scorcese) forces us to ask: What does it mean that, in order to love the people God calls us to love, we must deny the Christ who taught us to love them? What if the final obstacle to love is faith?

III

 I find myself thinking about Paul again, and his insistence on the cross at the center of his proclamation—such a strange and unsettling thing to the world in which it is proclaimed. I wonder if Paul understood something of the same thing that Rodrigues’s captor understood: that if you can find a way to blunt the force of the cross, to dull the edge with which it cuts through human pretense and power madness, Christianity ceases to be so threatening. It will have “changed its form and …become a strange thing.” I wonder if every place the cross is proclaimed is just as much a swamp as Japan, sucking the power out of the proclamation, drowning the cross in the mire of the mundane. I wonder if that is why he is so adamant that the sole voice of his proclamation would be the voice of the crucified, no matter who it offended or what it cost.

 And I wonder what silent Christs we shall have to deny if we are at last to hear the one Christ speaking from the blood and dirt.

These days are filled with the faces of competing Christs, each with its own missional imperatives:

• that if you but pray hard and well, God will bless you with material wealth;

• that if you are truly faithful, you will be out in the streets marching in protest over threats to the rights of immigrants, LGBTQ people, and women;

• that black lives matter, and not to say so loudly and frequently is bigotry and racism;

• that blue lives matter, and not to say so is unpatriotic and encourages lawlessness;

• that returning to the straight paths of traditional morality will make America great again.

Each Christ has its passionate priests, prepared to give their all in service to their vision. But I am increasingly convinced that they are all false Christs—they and every other vision of Jesus we can manufacture in our fevered brains. They are all false Christs because they all miss the one truth that Paul understood, that Rodrigues heard at last in the silence of the swamp of Japan: That it was to be trampled on by us that Christ came into the world. That it was to share our pain that he carried his cross. Any Christ whom we protect from the trampling feet of the suffering, any Christ who does not endure the agonies of the world, is a false Christ.

I think it may be true in the end that the last obstacle to love is the faith we are so sure is right. I think it may be true that the only way of Jesus is the way of the cross, and the way of the cross is death and loss and blood and dirt and nothing else ever and always. And I think it is likely true that we hear that Christ calling us only when we quiet the competing calls of our own desires and stand before that cross in silence.

Trample! It was to be trampled on by you that I came into the world. It was to share your pain that I carried the cross.

Pilate’s Afterthought

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What Is Truth?

Nikolai Ge, 1890

“Three or four generations of tact simply make one a full-blown liar.”

Theodore J. Wardlaw
February 2017

Strong walls make for safe rooms, sanctuary
from the shifting winds that change one’s plans.
Doors are entries or escapes, depending on
who’s in the room. Light sets boundaries,
sharp-edged limits on the creeping shadow.
Dark is the realm of dust and roaches.
We cultured cynics look best in sunlight where
the justice of our cause is clear to all.

But Truth–was he that beggar in the darkness,
rumpled failure cloaked in rags and ashes,
a pair of hooded torches instead of eyes?
Would you have me walk his mendicant way,
hands cupped for the morsel he breaks and proffers,
lips pursed to sip the wine he would dispense?
I think not. Does not Truth shine with bright assurance
when bloody hands and conscience are washed clean?

But tell me, if you can, why the sun seems shrouded
and why the earth now trembles beneath my feet.