During my doctoral work in religion and art in the late 1970s, at the Graduate Theological Union and the University of California, in Berkeley, CA, I met Stephen DeStabler. We discussed his work while we stomped around, or we stood and contemplated, what he called his “boneyard.”
His boneyard was the heaps of broken, rejected or half-finished hunks of clay sculpture which littered his backyard. DeStabler worked in huge scale, so the broken and rejected and half-finished hunks sometimes measured several feet on a side.
Nothing delicate was there in the boneyard except—startlingly—now and then there was a broken clay face, half buried among and rising from the shards.
My doctoral program sought two things from its aspirants.
Each of us was charged to produce one piece of art of sufficient excellence and integrity to pass a professional test—that is, to be professionally performed, exhibited, published, etc.
Each of us was charged to write a thesis which bridged the gap between religion and art—using the academic languages of each—focused on the particular art piece we had created.
DeStabler was thirteen years my senior. When he was at the stage in his own life to be a doctoral student, I believe no academic programs such as ours existed. Had there been one, DeStabler might have applied. He would have been a perfect candidate.
(I was the single student who sat on our program’s Admissions Committee; I would have voted yes to his candidature!)
I enjoyed DeStabler’s personality and intellect, and we met several times. Because of the needs of my thesis, I was keenly excited to know how artists who are Christians (not Christians who happened secondarily to be artists) develop an iconography which communicates Christian thought or aspiration to their audiences, and draws the same back out from them.
One day Stephen showed me pictures of his early paintings before he focused on sculpture. I noticed that he used cruciform patterns sometimes although the overall pictures were not religious in image. I asked about this.
(Although the following is from memory, many of its sentences are verbatim.)
‘Was this deliberate, when you were young?’
‘Deliberate, yes, in terms of the way the element works for the design.’ He laughed. ‘But it wasn’t theological.’
‘You really want to know why those cross elements appeared, at first?’
‘I was young when I began to draw, and our family had my grandmother’s farm we could go to for school vacations. There was a big barn. Its rafters were exposed—huge big old pieces of heavy timbers that had been up there under the roof for years. I used to go sketch in the barn. The rafter timbers repeated themselves, one crossed set after the other, down the whole length of the barn’s high loft. I was excited about the way they looked, and I drew them again and again.’
He looked at me and grinned.
I grinned back. ‘Only that?’
‘You’d be surprised how often this happens to us. Nothing religious. Just, I liked the way the rafters looked, crossed. First it was just the image—you know?—the image of the crossed timbers.’
‘Critics have commented on your cruciform imagery as being Christian.’
‘Yes. But that’s after I began to use it, not just to have it there.’
So that’s how it happens, I thought. Funny! One in the eye for over-serious critics! Just a bunch of old barn rafters! Marvelous!
So here’s what I learned from Stephen. Images come in all the time. They are reflected then in any artist’s creations—in their painted or sculpted work, in their music, in their writing, in their dance or theatrical performances.
Christian artists receive from anywhere, too, just as secular artists do. But Christian artists create out of their soul-deep awareness of their world as one suffused by the redemption and truth of the Christian supernatural.
Their receipt is unconscious. Their use of it—their crafting of it—is conscious.
Stephen’s Crucifix was completed in 1968. The corpus is life-sized. (In research for this piece, I have not learned its exact height, but I remember it vividly. It seemed taller than me, with its surrounding base making it even more imposing. And it’s hung quite high, its bottom perhaps ten feet above the floor.) It’s made of high fired clay.
It’s attached, deliberately off-center, to the concrete wall of the sanctuary of Newman Hall’s Holy Spirit Chapel on the University of California’s campus in Berkeley. While still wet, the cement was pressed with upright planks, later ripped away, which have left the impression of wood grain behind.
DeStabler also created other pieces for the sanctuary, an altar, tabernacle, lectern, and presider’s chair. The overall architectural design is by Mario Ciampi.
I love the Crucifix.
I hate the sanctuary.
I love the Crucifix. This is not the historical Jesus. In contemporary Christian art, Jesus is often pictured as though he were a Hollywood hipster, our culture’s effort to make him familiar, pretty, safe.
No. This Jesus with his expressionless face is not safe.
Instead, as Newman Hall’s brochure from the 1970s says, “This is a Christ at the point of breaking through the agony toward resurrection.”
This is God incarnate emerging in resurrection from death, transmuting, about to ascend.
But the impact of the sanctuary as a whole is off-putting. There is nothing about it that speaks sanctuary.
Yes, it has the necessary pieces of furniture—and they have interest because they were fashioned by DeStabler—but they, and the space around them, do not in any way mirror the power of the Crucifix.
It is as though they are a not-well-executed stage set, kind of random, on which, nevertheless, in the far upper distance, a miracle is occurring.
But--wait—maybe that’s the way it really was!
Wish I could go back and ask Stephen.
Among everything else, was he deliberate to craft the intensity of my love/hate reaction? And resolve it with his Crucifix?
If so, now that’s art!
We are instructed to stay awake because the moment when Jesus will come again in glory is unknown to all except God (see Mark 13:37 ESV).
As for me, how do I prepare myself? What tools do I have?
These are my tools.
I have Scripture. In the Bible we learn the story of how humankind has been condemned to the valley of death. Original Sin doomed us. But God prepares for our salvation, to arrive at a time unknown except by Him.
I have prayer. We may open our souls in conversation with Him. While we are still in the valley of death, we may open our souls for thanksgiving, for supplication, and for intercession.
I have discipline. We can practice the spiritual arts of the Christians who have gone before us, who used the disciplines of simplicity, of solitude, of submission, and of service to glorify God, who knows when the time-that-will-come, will come.
And I have art. We humans reflect on, mirror and sanctify our own experience of humanness with what we create. The energy by which we create is a gift from God, by which He encourages us to send glory back to Him.
Some of what artists make honors our Creator. Some of what artists make does not honor our Creator. When I was young, art that dishonored the Creator sometimes seemed excitingly revelatory to me.
“Look, this thing that has been created is about brilliant us, not about dreary Him. How splendid we are!”
Now, at my older age, not so.
Among the arts, the one that attracts the most of my attention is visual art—drawing and painting. That’s because I am a writer, and there are times when I can’t stand words any more.
Sometimes I need to see and not to say.
Revelation is a favorite theme of my study, when I’m seeing. What did it feel like—what did it look like—how was it for that person when the truth of God finally penetrated in?
For example, consider Caravaggio’s The Penitent Magdalen (1595).
Mary Magdalen is the woman of bad repute who came into the house of the Pharisee, where she knew Jesus was dining there. She stood behind Jesus, weeping. Her tears wet His feet. Then she knelt and dried His feet with her hair while kissing them, before anointing them with an ointment she had brought with her in an alabaster flask.
As described by Luke (see 8:36-40), this scene glows with humility, repentance, and submission.
Christ shocks his pharisaical host and others at the table by saying to Mary that her sins are forgiven, and explaining to them that “she [has] loved much.” To Mary, Jesus says, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
It is this moment, which Caravaggio captures in his painting, when Jesus speaks to the woman and forgives her sins. It is the moment of revelation.
Grace has come to Mary, and her life has changed. Darkness and sin hold her captive no longer. She will follow Jesus. In fact she is with Him at the Crucifixion, and she is the first woman to whom He revealed Himself in His resurrected state from the tomb.
These are not small fulfillments for a woman who has come down to us by tradition as a prostitute and, today among Catholics and some others, is accorded to be a saint.
Among Renaissance masters, Caravaggio recreates religious moments as sacred drama by staging them with ordinary figures in ordinary poses, vivid contrasts of light, rich textural colors, and a taste for simplicity over the idealized.
Who is this woman who has been told that she is forgiven, that she may—finally—go in peace? If tradition is correct about her profession, she has allowed herself to be open to anyone who would pay for her rich clothing and for her adornments, even for the alabaster flask from which she draws the ointment for Christ’s feet.
At this moment when she has been told her sins are forgiven, she has stripped off her gold and her jewels and has flung them to the ground.
Yet her pose in this painting is still, not active.
We see her from higher up, as though she has somehow become small. We conclude that she has subsided from that tight moment of tossing the hateful baubles away. She is now still.
What we stare at is the dramatic line of flesh from her ear down to her shoulder. It is colored ordinarily, like plain skin, not made up with alluring coloration and probably fragrant powders. Against the darkness behind her, that dramatic line is seen by us as though lit from above by a glow perhaps from heaven. It makes visceral sense to us that her face has dropped exhausted toward her breast.
Her hands seem to clasp her belly, as a woman does who claps her pregnancy, and as another biblical Mary, Jesus’ mother, is often pictured, clasping Him.
Two women—one used and abused and spangled with shining stones, just now relieved of sin. The other—virginal—who was the vessel by which the Savior of the world came into the world, in human form, and forgave not only the other woman but us all.
I would stay all day with Caravaggio for he keeps me awake.
I roared the highways of Maine and New Hampshire, calling on lawyers, selling, making a go at a life. I was a Jew. However, there was this also in my mind, as I hurtled along, not a Psalm but a plea: Dear Lord, I don’t know what to do. Be not so hard. I am lonely and weary and sad.
And this too: Guilt has worn me down these years; yes, guilt has kept me small.
There must be some point.
Isn’t it amazing—sometimes I’d think, pausing between product demos—isn’t it amazing that there is something instead of nothing?
I might be pulled over on some high place for a moment, and I’d notice how the peaks and the valleys fade into a distance farther away than I could see. Why is it all there? I’d wonder.
It should have been so much easier, shouldn’t it, for there to have been nothing, nothing …nothing at all?
During one such still time, at my age of fifty-nine, on one such mountaintop, after avoiding the question for years and years, and after I’d begun to realize that I can’t fix everything all by myself, here’s what entered my mind--
Who is this Jesus guy after all, and how did He get that way?
This Jesus, now…here’s what I wondered …This Jesus, now: might He be a last-resort be-friender?
I needed such a one.
My car has AC, and stereo, and a big trunk full of brochures. But it’s rough labor, day after day, propelling that contraption and lugging a bag, as you other salesmen will know. Why do we do it? Do we do it just because the road’s there, and the car’s there, and the customers are out there?
Is that all the explanation there is?
Torah teaches us no, there’s more…there’s God’s Covenant by which we chosen people shall live. There are the 613 requirements by which we honor God—His rules of the road, so to speak—His Mitzvoth.
There is Torah itself, at least figuratively by many Jews considered the actual words written, through Moses, by God Himself. But here’s what I thought as I jounced along: God impressed Moses, up there on Mount Sinai, but Moses knew us, and—I think—this is what Moses must have said to God. “Okay,” Moses must have said to God, “I’ll tell them, but they’re not going to like it.”
He was right.
We don’t like it, we Jews. Fractious, we rarely stick to our obligation. “Yes, but…” is what we say. Mostly, we give God a nod, a wink, and a nudge, and we drive on down the road. “I’ll get back to you about that tomorrow,” we call back over our shoulder.
Of course, God holds to His part of the bargain. He exalts us or punishes us according to His formula.
Still, when you consider the level of our insubordination and disdain, it’s amazing that God took the trouble to promise us something even greater than the Noah Covenant or the Mount Sinai Covenant for our future. Read around in Isaiah or Daniel; if you have eyes to see, you’ll see.
By my age of fifty-nine, I had tried every which way my pride and stubbornness could conceive to control everything about my life. None of it had worked.
I was professionally successful, but my relationships suffered for it, first my relationship with God, and second my relationships with everyone else I loved…including myself. So there I was, pulled aside in my mountain-top rest area. I stared ahead into the long, long view. I could imagine another forty years stumping along, as urgent as the last forty years had been.
What was the goal? What was the point?
My father lived to 101, bless his soul, and my grandmother to 102. Mine may be a long, long slog.
So... what about this guy Jesus?
Even a Jew must admit that He’s made quite a name for Himself. He’s made his mother proud. Turns out—I didn’t fully understand this until afterward—He’s made his Father proud, too.
But who is He? That’s the question even the Jews ask. Then they turn away from the issue and conclude that the Covenant of the forefathers is quite enough for them, thank you very much. We’ll trouble ourselves with Jesus, they say--if we are ever going to trouble ourselves with Jesus—later on.
It’s been this way since Jesus appeared in the first place.
People have been up on mountaintops wondering whether they are sufficiently compelled finally to consider something new.
Take a risk, people. That’s what I did.
And it worked.
I have a friend who is a Gideon. I admire his willingness to follow the Great Commission: to get out there and to tell people about Jesus’ saving message.
Now and then, he would come by our house and recount his adventure that day. His adventure was to stand in front of the local government-supported establishment of incomplete learning and to pass out testaments to high schoolers.
Now and then the police would be called to come by. The principal of the establishment of incomplete learning would come outside and stand beside the policeman.
“See where I’m standing?” my friend would say. “Sidewalk.”
“He’s on the sidewalk,” the policeman would say to the principal. “Public property, not the school’s.”
“But he can’t just hand these…things, these books, to students.”
“Why not?” the policeman would ask.
“Well—but he can’t.”
“Actually he can.”
“So how many did you hand out?” I might ask, back at our house.
“Eighteen. One guy took one and then threw it on the dirt and stamped on it and rubbed it into the ground with his foot. So—seventeen that might be read.”
“Takes courage. I admire you.”
“It’s not me. It’s He.”
So, finally, a day came when I was ready to give evangelism a try—but not the Gideon way; I was too shy for that!
Speaking up for the faith is a requirement of any follower of Christ. If you’ve never tried it, I can assure you that I was scared, too. On the other hand, if you put your heart into it, sometimes it works out better than you expect.
God provides the opportunities.
Already, I had been astonished by the number of times in my sales meetings with lawyers when—without the slightest encouragement from me—the conversation turned on Christian matters. I thought, even as a Jew there must be something about my manner that is making this happen. Then I realized that it is God’s manner on display, not mine.
There was the fast-talking criminal defense attorney who began our sales call by stating, in exasperation, “Dikkon, I’m going to give it all up and go to seminary.” After discovering that I had myself been graduated from seminary, he ended the call, asking plaintively, “But they still believe, don’t they, your classmates? Even if they’re not working in the church. They still believe, don’t they?”
There was the woman divorce attorney who was herself divorcing and asked me, out of the blue, if I happened to know of a good church for her. As it happened, I did….
There was the Christian attorney who would often buy little things from me, a book or two here and there, just to keep me turning up, but who began each legal sales meeting with her most urgently felt Christian question, “Dikkon, but what are you reading right now?”
There was the estate attorney who, for some reason, at the end of our call, after he had bought a large electronic legal library, hazarded a “God bless you.” I laughed and God-blessed-him right back. Our eyes met, evaluating.
“Maybe. Yes. We’re close,” I said. “Technically, we’re still Jews. But, yes, I think we’re almost there.”
“Sit back down,” he said. “Tell me all about it.”
And then there was the one Jewish friend I absolutely needed to speak with, most terribly urgently. He was my principal Jewish mentor. He had tutored our children. I was Godfather to his youngest son.
I’d not yet had a protracted time to speak, to explain…this Christian thing was happening to us way, way too fast.
So one day, flying to Phoenix, I arrived at the airport, and who should be flying out at that same time…my Jewish friend. Fun to run into him at the airport’s bookstore. But he was going to Seattle.
Turned out—to Seattle by way of Phoenix!
Now, my Phoenix flight is almost always over-sold, and we passengers are packed in like peas in a pod. No changing seats; no sprawling out. Yet, for some reason, that day--
our plane was nearly empty!
(Pure coincidence, of course: no other reason for it.)
So my most vitally important Jewish friend with whom I had not had a moment to discuss this astonishing Christian thing and I had four-and-a-half hours to sit together and to get Christianity all talked out.
Does He ever!
“I can’t go.”
“What do you mean, you can’t go?”
“I just can’t go, that’s all.” Channa, my wife, held my eye.
I was dressed up, and the children were, too. The children hovered near the door. It was Rosh Hashanah—as Jews, our New Year’s Day. We needed to drive to Portland, Maine, for services, one hour distant, and, as sometimes was the case, we were running late.
Channa hadn’t dressed; she was still in her robe.
“Are you feeling okay?”
“It’s not that. I just can’t….”
“Talk to me a minute.”
She turned and strode from the play room, where we were grouped, back into the living room. Watching her retreat, I knew the posture of that walk. Whatever the trouble was, it was big.
“Children, you get in the car. I’ll be with you in a minute.”
“What’s wrong with Mom?” Rosalind, our youngest, wanted to know.
“I don’t know. I’m sure everything will be all right.” I smiled at them. “Now you go.” James, our second oldest, took over and herded his siblings out the door.
When I reached the living room, Channa’s face was pinched. “I can’t do it. I really can’t bear to be there.”
“Well, all right.”
“I can’t go, Dikkon. I don’t know what’s come over me, but I can’t.”
“Channa, it’s Rosh Hashanah.”
“But I don’t want to leave you….”
“You go. I’ll be all right.”
“Are you sure?”
“You go. You want to go, don’t you?”
“Well, yes, but….”
“And the children want to go.”
“Not without their mother.”
Her stiffness disappeared, she slumped. “I’m so confused.”
I held her shoulders, looked into her eyes, which skittered back to mine and away. “Are you really all right? What is it? What’s going on?”
“I don’t know!” It came out as wail. “I don’t know what’s happening, Dikkon. All I know is that I can’t go. You go. You and the children go.”
“What will you do? If I go with the children, will you be all right?”
She took a deep breath and let it out. “I’ll take the Siddur down to our beach, and I’ll read the service. I’ll—I don’t know—I’ll pray.”
“That’s what you want to do?”
Now she looked in my eyes. “Yes.” She made a hesitant smile. “Yes. At least the beach will be the way God made it.”
“Then that’s what we’ll do.” I said this more as a question than as a statement.
“Yes. I’m sorry. Is it terrible for you?”
“I like being at services, and I’ll miss you. But, no, not terrible. You’re certain this is what you want?”
“I can’t explain it better. I just can’t bear to go.”
“I love you. I’m going.”
“Have a…I guess, a good time on the beach.”
We hesitated to part, kissed, and I left.
The children and I made our peace with Channa’s absence while we drove. We learned how to respond when commiserated by our Jewish friends about Channa’s absence during the service.
Our Reform congregation was trying that year to perfect an ideal introduced one year before, also at Rosh Hashanah service. Some in our congregation had grown sensitive about male pronouns for God, and our rabbi was hell-bent on addressing their concern.
So, whenever we came to God’s name during prayers, the rabbi had instructed that we should, each one of us, merely say out loud the name that meant the most to us personally, and then go on with the prayer.
Jewish prayers are beautiful. The Hebrew is fine-tuned almost to musical exactitude, and our tunefulness and cadence is precise. It is a lovely experience, particularly at High Holy Day services (of which Rosh Hashanah is one), to be swept along on the prayers. However, this year, as had been the case the previous year, our prayers were Babel.
The name of God is often invoked during prayers—they are, after all, addressed to Him—but each time His name came up, we heard a babble of –
Holy One…all at the same time.
…and then the prayer continued in Hebrew.
I was glad Channa wasn’t there.
When we humans built the Tower of Babel to challenge the Lord, empowered by our own self-importance, the Lord slapped us down by separating our unified speech into languages. We could no longer communicate. Our words became jabber.
Later, when we Jews saw Peter and the apostles emerge from the Upper Room at Pentecost, empowered by the Holy Spirit, the Lord gave us grace. Though we had different languages, to our amazement, suddenly we could understand one another. We could communicate.
Our godly words were shared.
During the 2,000 years since, those who have had ears to hear have gloried at the Lord’s gift to us. The Lord’s gift to us is truth, for us to hear.
If you missed Part One, please click on the image below before reading Part Two.
The salesman repeated his question to the lawyer, a question about receiving an answer to prayer. “But how do you know?”
“You don’t, by intellect. If you stick with intellect, there’s never any real knowing, really. Secularists do that. They’re all about statutes. Christians are case law. For us, it’s not what does the law say, it’s what does it mean? What is its impact in my life?”
“How do you figure it out?”
The lawyer thought for a minute. He sat back in his chair and looked at the portrait of the man who baptized Jesus. Then he told a story.
“Once, for my sins, I was elected as a delegate to a national Catholic brotherhood convention, and we had some very weighty matters to discuss and to resolve.” He watched the salesman. The salesman nodded.
“You’ve got to know that today there is much debate within the church concerning how to make the monastic life more relevant to the modern day. We’re not getting recruits like we used to. And not just monasticism, the church in general. The priestly life. I’m a layman, of course, but I had been outspoken about my opinion, and that’s why I was elected. We went to Texas. It was winter up here, but it was dry and warm in Texas. We were in Texas for a week.”
The lawyer shifted in his chair. He seemed to wonder how much detail to present. He continued, “My thought was—still is—that you don’t gain recruits by trying to make the church fit the world. It’s the other way round. You stand on the principles that have brought you here, and you attract recruits by your rectitude, not by your accommodation.”
Any sign of conservative thinking, religious or otherwise, suited the salesman, and he calmed. He smiled at the lawyer to show that they were brothers.
“That was my position,” the lawyer continued, “and there were others who supported me, but we were a minority. I hadn’t wanted to go to Texas for a week to be a minority. One of my failings is pride. I was angry about our status and the lack of any prospect that my idea would prevail. And what was worse, I saw that it had been that way from the beginning of the meeting. So I went one day near the end of our stay out into the Texas desert, which was all around us at that retreat center, and I remained out there all day. I missed meetings. I prayed.”
“There’s something about the desert and prayer….”
“Well, yes, but this was just me.” The lawyer held the salesman’s eye. “We were all tired by this time. We had worked very hard and for very long hours, and I particularly was tired and frustrated and angry. I prayed to God, ‘Why did you bring me here just to be defeated? What’s the use? They’re going to do it their way anyway.’ I prayed very hard in this way. I was in an area that was dry and scrubby with tall trees around its edges, and I was alone, and the sun was warm, and I was tired. I had found a place where I could sit comfortably, and I prayed as hard as I could to understand why I was there in Texas at that meeting. And then, you know, I fell asleep.”
The salesman remained silent.
“There was this very beautiful green bird at the top of one of the trees surrounding me. In my dream. The bird was absolutely the most beautiful bird I had ever seen, and I was fascinated by his being green, which is a color I had never seen on a bird. In my dream, I was riveted on that bird. And a voice came from the bird and explained to me that he had wanted me in Texas for our meeting for the very purpose of expressing a minority view.”
“The bird said that?”
“Yes, and I was so fascinated by the bird I realized I should wake up and see him with my waking eyes…you know how it is when you’re dreaming and you know it.”
“Well…so I did open my eyes, and I saw the bird as I was opening them, just for a second, and then he vanished.”
The salesman didn’t know what to say, so he concentrated on the external. “A green bird? I didn’t know birds can be green.”
“I don’t think they can.”
Between the lawyer and the salesman there descended a long silence. It was the lawyer who broke it.
“It was God. He responded to my prayer.”
The salesman bowed his head as one who beholds the Law and the Prophets. “I don’t know what to do.”
“Then you’ll know.” The lawyer spoke quietly. “Not that you’ll know. It’s that everything else—all the other choices—will be eliminated…that’s what will happen. And whatever’s left will be the right course. That’s how you’ll know.”
“No green bird for me?”
The lawyer smiled. “Only I get the green bird. I’ve never heard of him else. But the thing is this. God doesn’t lay it all out, step by step; He wants us to work at it. But what He does is—here is what He does—He eliminates the byways which are dead ends.”
“And then the green bird flies by.”
“I can see him still, you know. Quite beautiful.”
There was silence in the room.
The salesman said, “I suppose we are not given challenges beyond our capacity to endure.”
“Do you believe that?”
“I believe it because St. Paul said it. But do I believe it? I don’t know.”
“What are you going to do?”
“We’re going ahead with our plan, my wife and I. It’s the right thing to do.”
“So your prayer was answered?”
Suddenly, the salesman laughed and stood up to go. “Tweet, tweet.”
The lawyer followed the salesman outside to his car. The man enjoyed getting outside for a moment, seeing the sky, feeling the weather. The salesman opened the driver’s door and stood with his arms crossed on its top. He allowed his trouble to show on his face.
“God does provide, you know,” the lawyer offered, comfortingly. “He’s always watching. Up there somewhere.”
“Supposing you were wrong about this office, opening it?”
“Then I didn’t understand what He was telling me.”
“I’m afraid to know. If I ask Him for help, and I don’t like the answer, what then?”
“Is it better not to ask?”
“Well….” The salesman smiled. “But it’s better to get the answer I want.”
“Here’s what I’ve learned in my life. Life isn’t about us. That’s pretty simple. I’ve seen a whole lot of problems in my days, and quite a few of the problems would not have occurred in the first place if the people had just known that one little thing. Life isn’t about us.”
“Thanks for being here.” The salesman sat in the car and started his engine.
“I’ll pray for you,” the lawyer said through the driver’s window.
“Wait. I never told you what our trouble is about.”
“Doesn’t matter. I used to pray about the details. Now I don’t, so much. I pray to be visited by the Holy Spirit. That’s what I’ll pray for you and your wife.”
As the salesman drove away, he understood he was grateful for that extra prayer assist that would come his way. So he prayed too: “Thank you, Lord. I won’t interrogate. You tell me. You steered me here for this talk. Steer me otherwise too.”
The lawyer went back into his office to attempt solutions for men and women who were, frequently, unprayerful.
Overhead, the green bird turned in flight and set off on a different mission.
Law firms tend to follow certain decorative themes.
One is the Lincoln bust theme, usually with framed documents such as The Gettysburg Address. There’s the modernist look with tall flowers in vases and Sotheby’s catalogues on the coffee table. There are the book fanciers, with long shelves of law volumes prominently displayed. On the other hand, there’s the hardscrabble, no nonsense, store-front law firm with crayons and coloring books, and a people’s political poster on the wall.
On this day, the salesman sat in an unusually decorated law office…a crucifix and a portrait of John the Baptist were its only adornments. Very unusual for an office of the law.
The salesman had stopped at this law office to correct an administrative snafu. The snafu could have been corrected by telephone, but as he had driven along the highway toward a different office than this, he had seen the exit for this office and had—on impulse—taken it.
Recently, the salesman had begun to pray. It had seemed odd to him at first, driving down the road. “Dear Lord, I don’t know what to do. Please help me before I smash everything up.” The salesman was not yet a Christian, but he was warming to it as a contemplator of Christianity, and he knew that a powerful question was coming his way.
Once, some months before, the salesman and this lawyer had spoken briefly about prayer, in the way of two men who are trying to move beyond a relationship that is solely professional. Their meeting had been because this lawyer had expanded his firm into this second town, now that he had a young associate to leave behind in the first.
But business had been slow. Despite the slowness of business, the lawyer had bought a new set of statutes from the salesman, forty-one big red-bound books containing the law. The books were located in the conference room where they were visible to clients.
In his own office though, according to what he had chosen for his walls, the lawyer surrounded himself with statutes more ancient even than those of the sovereign State of Maine.
“So I’m praying,” the lawyer concluded. “I’m giving it another three months. I don’t know what will happen with this office. Real estate is down, but I’m getting some small incorporations, and I’m trying to leverage that into some wills.”
“If you get heavier into estate work, wills and such, we’ll need to talk. I’ve got tools for you.”
“Don’t sell me anything, Dikkon. I’ve built myself a problem here, and I need to keep the walls up without spending more money.”
The salesman was still. His mind was a Gordian Knot. He could not do anything to engage in further sales-like conversation. He sat. The lawyer watched him.
The danger right at that moment in the salesman’s life seemed to him to be acute. The ripple effect of a major decision he faced could be uncontrollable. He felt himself being swept along, faster than his caution dared him to go, desiring to adhere to and to further the principle of Life, as he had always done, but terrified he might not correctly identify which way Life was tending.
Should he say yes from his heart, or no from his head?
Recently, after much discussion with a Baptist pastor, hundreds and hundreds of pages of reading, hours of contemplation, endless conversations with his wife, and most particularly after two or three sudden revelations, the salesman had begun to get it about Jesus.
That’s when his fear escalated and he found that he was praying on the road.
The salesman blurted, “But how is a prayer answered?”
How often in that office had such a question been posed? Had the divorcing wife and mother asked it? Had the injured and unemployed mill worker asked it, when the letter from the insurance company was about to be slit open? What about the owner of the hardware store who faced bankruptcy? Or the landlord who needed to rid himself of a deadbeat tenant? Or the drunk driver on his third offense?
All the problems on earth flow through a law office. Perhaps some of the problems facing heaven flowed through this one too, with its crucifix and its portrait of the man who baptized Christ. And then the salesman realized: to ask that very question is why he had stopped here.
In stillness, the lawyer watched the salesman.
The salesman was not embarrassed by his outburst. However, he recognized his question might be asked only in the cloistral quiet of this particular office. “I mean,” he stammered, “how can I know what to do?” Then he tried to lighten the mood. “Here, shall I write it down? I’ll depose you.”
The lawyer smiled. “I’m not a hostile witness.”
“No. But you’re way ahead of me, along the prayerful road.”
“Well, I’m not someone who has ever heard a mighty voice call my name and say, ‘Here’s what I want you to do.’ It would’ve been good if it had. But it hasn’t for me.”
The lawyer was short, round-faced, balding, more hesitant in his speech when discussing the life of the spirit than when discussing the life of the law. What the salesman liked was that prayer lay so near the man’s surface. It brought into this plain monastic room in this small town along a highway to other cities in the northern reaches of Maine an unhurried gravity, a lack of fear, which was soothing.
The simplicity of the office, the kind solicitude of its inhabitant—for a moment, the world receded, and the salesman might have been attending a Carmelite, at a time when he was inclined to speak.
“But how do you know?”
[For an answer, read Part Two next week.]
Let’s talk sin and salvation.
Here’s what might have happened.
Things like this have happened.
Over the telephone, the two of us settled on the date, the time, and the place.
I put the date, the time, and the place into my calendar book, which I carry around with me (most of the time). The young man wanted to talk with me about a book he had started to write. He had written stories, but this was his first try at a book-length story—a novel.
He had read my recent memoir. He was over-complimentary about it, but I liked his earnestness and his initiative. He had tracked me down. Turned out I lived on a peninsula not too far from his own, each of us being Maine coast writers.
We decided to meet for lunch at a country store that I knew made good salmon BLTs because it was about four miles from my house. It was about thirty miles from his house, but he said he did not want to inconvenience me with travel.
I could tell our meeting would be a big event for him. Like many young writers, he had passion for his nascent craft and a keen desire to develop colleagues. I liked what I knew of him already.
The day of our lunch arrived. The lunch was marked on my calendar. I had noticed our appointment the evening before when I checked my calendar about tomorrow.
About mid-morning, unannounced, a friend of mine—a lobsterman who was a deacon at our church—pulled into our drive. I knew he had been toying for several months with getting back into raising bees. He and I stood around his pickup truck, leaning over the sides of its bed and talked bees. He’d tracked down a man in a village about forty miles inland who was tired of bees and had hives for sale.
“Let’s go get them,” my friend said. “Want to go?”
I didn’t have anything planned for the day, and I’d done enough writing already that morning. My wife Channa was off doing things of her own. It was always fun rambling around the back roads of Maine with my deacon friend. “Sure.”
Off we went.
You already know how this sin happened. You live in the same world I do. It’s a fallen world, and you and I are fallen creatures.
Maybe you are not a person who forgets. But it’s a fallen world even so…for you, too.
What the devil likes is to find a crack in us and to wedge himself inside that crack and to widen that crack just a little, so we cause pain to those around us.
Channa was home when my deacon friend and I came back from our trip, his pickup filled with hives and extra supers and hive tools and other bee stuff. She was smiling. “How’d your lunch go?”
Over the telephone, the young writer said he forgave me—what else could he say?—but he was never available when I tried twice to make a replacement date with him.
I have two brains in me. One is a trying-to-be-a-better-man brain. The other is a don’t-bother-to-be-a-better-man brain. The first has a sunnier attitude than the second. However—here’s the other side—the first brain is anxious much of the time while the second brain gets little flashes of illicit pleasure.
To be sure, those flashes of illicit pleasure are instantly stamped out. My consciousness is shamed that they exist.
But the devil has his wily way when he whispers to me (not that I am aware that I hear him)—“No, no. You’re free all day today. Don’t bother to look at your calendar. What fun it will be to ramble the back roads of Maine and pick up bees.”
To forget is an ordinary human occurrence. Most people who have a tendency to forget have developed tactics to avoid forgetting. Make a note on a calendar, for example. What is sin is to allow your don’t-bother-to-be-a-better-man brain to accept the whisper of the devil that, of course, you need not look at your calendar when you are flushed with the sudden pleasurable anticipation of a bee ramble in Maine.
Before I was a Christian believer, I had an unsubtle notion of sin. Forgetting a lunch appointment is not sin, I would have said. I am not a sinner. I forgot a lunch appointment, that’s all.
But I was miserable. The young writer was miserable that an older writer apparently rejecting him.
But that’s not sin. Sin is the big stuff. Sin is murdering someone.
When I, a Jew, grappled with the possibility that Jesus truly might be the answer to my persistent miserable behavior (and to behavior that was misery-making for those I loved), I said that same thing to the man with whom I consulted about Jesus.
He was a pastor.
Arguing with him, I separated sin (murder) from allowing myself to be tempted by the devil with a day hunting for bees (not sin).
I intoned, “I don’t murder people.”
“But you could.”
“Dikkon, in fact there is no ultimate difference between you, and me, and Charles Manson.”
“What are you talking about!”
“I’m talking about whether there is an ultimate difference.”
“I would not murder Sharon Tate!”
“I agree. I don’t think you would. But you could have.”
“Think about it. You’re a smart man. And you’re honest with yourself. Is there an ultimate difference between you and Charles Manson? Think about it.”
I thought about it. He waited a bit and then prodded me. “Aren’t the differences that you are hanging onto in your mind, between you and him, really just circumstantial?”
“They are important circumstantial, but circumstantial just the same.”
“Maybe doesn’t cut it, Dikkon. You’d better think some more.”
I thought some more.
And when I thought some more, I realized that I needed forgiveness for sin.
I possess a sin nature. Consistently, I allow the devil to tug at me whenever he wants. And I sin.
So—just to be clear—I never murdered anyone. But my behavior makes me and everyone I love miserable, part of the time.
What’s the solution?
Simon Peter, the Rock on Whom Jesus Built His Church, wrote us two letters. He wrote them to his own people in his own time, but they are for us, now, too.
In his second letter, Peter—who knew Jesus personally yet possessed a sin nature, just as I do and as you do—Peter laid it on the line. He gives us the solution.
Jesus, Peter writes, “has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them [we] may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.” (II Peter, 1:4 ESV)
Peter goes on to speak to those who have faith. Faith, he reminds us, is not enough in itself.
To me (and maybe to you), he prompts, “Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.” (II Peter, 1:5-6 ESV, emphasis mine)
I’ve been an orthodox Christian believer for eleven years. I’m still at Step Two yearning toward Step Three. And to reach up even within touching distance of steadfastness would make me weep with relief.
One reason I love Peter is that this impulsive man is so gentle with the readers of his letters.
He doesn’t exhort. He reminds.
In 1:12, he gives us grace by referring to the hierarchy of glory and excellence this way. “I intend always to remind you of these qualities, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have.”
Indeed, when I am miserable and devil-tugged, I go back to Peter, who was just a guy like me, and I am grateful that he took the time to remind me of the truth.
My new birth in Christ came, appropriately, after a gestation which lasted nine months.
To begin the process, the Holy Spirit prompted me to get out of bed one Sunday, in March, in Maine, and to cross our country road to the Baptist church just up the way.
I was a Jew. My wife Channa and our four children were Jews. Of all things, why was I crossing this road?
Next, at that first Baptist service, the Holy Spirit opened my ears. That Jesus guy was able to get in under my guard.
Since Jesus was able to get in under my guard, I began talking with the pastor about Jesus and about all else Christian. We talked and we talked and we talked. For months! For so many months that the months counted up to nine.
Channa talked with the pastor, too, and she and I talked with one another, testing our temperature, as we put it—were we hot, or were we not?
Almost always we were hot.
Last, after nine months, the Holy Spirit placed me in the pastor’s office, for keeps. It was December, and the pastor’s and my conversation occupied its usual long time until, finally, he asked me, “Ready for some questions?”
He asked me four questions.
I answered each question with yes, without hesitation, without any of the constant struggle I had encountered during the first five or six months of the previous nine.
I answered yes.
I was reborn!
By answering yes, I had forsworn!
What had I forsworn? I had forsworn the stubbornness of my intellect.
My intellect had not wanted to give up. It had demanded that it understand. It had demanded that I not distract it with poetry and metaphor, and that it be provided hard proof.
Yet what I had needed during the five or six months was to get out from under the boulder of my intellect—to push it aside so that I my heart could breathe.
After nine months of gestation, I was reborn. I had forsworn. I walked out of the church that day and across the snow with what might be the same wonder as a new born baby feels when it perceives--light!
Three months later, the same happened for Channa, and, during the following four months, for two of our children as well.
And we were baptized.
All hail, Holy Spirit!
Newbies think that everything changes, and, in fact, they are right. Everything does change. However—as in the famous cliché—while everything changes, everything remains the same.
Except for that one detail.
Ah! That detail!
That detail is the Jesus detail.
Newbies assume that everything will get easier. No.
At least for me as a newbie, dealing with the things of the world got harder, not easier.
It took me a long time to understand why dealing with the things of the world should get harder, not easier. It’s because of that one detail I mentioned above, the Jesus detail. It’s because, for the first time, the things of the world became known to me for what they really are.
As a newbie, suddenly I had perspective which I had not had before. By means of my new perspective, I knew that the things of the world—formerly everything—were in fact lesser. They were base, profane.
Now, it was God things that were—and remain--everything.
While I was a Jew, God things were not everything. I regret this, but it was true. They were important, yes indeed. Even vital. But some God things were products of my intellect, hand in glove with my sense of poetic and metaphorical delight.
Many God things while I was a Jew had neither the reality nor the puissance that they acquired upon my rebirth.
Upon rebirth, I was annoyed that my struggles with worldliness continued to abrade me. The world was too much with me, even then, when I had wanted its troubles to fade away.
I wasn’t alone in this. Other newbies discovered the same thing. Even a very early newbie.
One biblical book was written by Jesus’ older half-brother sometime during the period 44 to 49 A.D. James is the name of Jesus’ half-brother. James’ letter is the earliest written document to have been included in the biblical canon.
The letter is written to members of the contemporary church…which, in one way of understanding, is to us, now, who suffer under the burden of the things of the world, as was the case for newbies two thousand years ago.
The letter is an exhortation, coming from a man who, at first, was an unbeliever in his half-brother’s divinity and then came to Christ—dynamically in the same way I did, although obviously with a profound difference since he knew the Lord personally.
I am fond of reading James’ letter. That’s because it is addressed to me.
My re-birth has not removed the world and my sins away from me. My sins, which mirror the world’s fallen nature, must be fought all the time.
And what does James, formerly a newbie, have to say in exhortation to me?
Does James write a lofty theology? No. James’ time of writing was too early for that. Theology had not yet had time to develop loftiness. Instead of being lofty, he’s practical, James is. In his letter, he asserts the real, the daily struggle.
“Gird your loins,” James seems to say.
I suffer from all the attacks James enumerates. Particularly one of them is my oppressor at the moment I write this post.
James admonishes us to fight. He shows us our weapons.
Possibly you, reader—newbie or otherwise—possibly you suffer from one or more of the attacks, as I do.
A gift of my new birth is that now I can speak directly to the Lord, when I am wretched. Here goes.
It shames me that you, Lord, should see each lapse of mine.
That’s what I say. That’s the core of my confession. But sometimes I add this--
You know my weakness and yet you have drawn me to yourself. For this reason, I am grateful, and for this reason, I continue to ask for your protection. If it is your will, may I fight successfully and may my soul be returned to you, as promised by your infinite love.
Then there’s nothing else to say, so I conclude--
What about you, reader?
“Terrible. I scarcely knew what to do.”
My pastor watched me.
“Shock.” I was hunched in my chair. My hands were clasped between my knees. I could feel that he was watching me, but I wasn’t watching him.
“It’s sin,” he said.
We were in his office, exhausted, back now from our second day at the suicide house. “It’s sin,” he repeated.
I looked at him. “I’m so confused.”
“Let me ask you this. Do you know that it’s sin?”
“Does he know that it’s sin?”
“I don’t think so.”
We were speaking of one of the family members with whom I had sat for hours and sometimes prayed and sometimes just sat and sometimes listened to his plea to know why, why, why?
“You are still a baby in the deaconate. You will grow in discernment.”
“I hope that’s true. I hope he grows, too.”
“He’s not born yet. Not at all. Perhaps this is the Lord’s invitation, for him. I know he’s had several others.”
A flash went through my head. What kind of Lord is that? That’s the flash that went through my head.
What I said is, “You’re saying this…horror is one of several invitations?”
“The Lord continually invites those among the elect to come back to Him.”
“This way? This was an invitation?”
“Dikkon, that man surrounds his anxiety with words. He doesn’t want to be confronted by the Lord. He wears his words like armor. The Lord, who is straight with men like him—they don’t want to be confronted by the Lord.”
“I’m here in your office with this event hanging on my heart—where it will hang forever—because you proposed me as a deacon, and the body voted me in. And here I am.” I grimaced. “Thanks.”
He smiled, but thinly. “There is no logic about it. It’s not logical.”
“That’s what I told him.”
“Well, you were right to tell him that.”
“Suppose he comes back to me?”
“First, don’t borrow trouble from the future. Did he ask to come to you?”
“‘Sufficient to the day is the evil thereof.’”
“You can tell him that it’s sin.”
He rose from his desk and came around and sat next to me in the other chair. “Listen to me now, Dikkon. Listen to this, now. It’s not a sin; it’s sin.” He sat back and watched me. I tried to watch him back.
He pressed on. “Plain sin. Sin is like the air we breathe. We don’t breathe an air; we breathe air. Sin is everywhere, all around us. We are fallen creatures in a fallen world. You can tell him that it’s sin.”
“I was a salesman for twenty-eight years. You can’t sell something to someone who doesn’t want to buy it.”
“As a deacon, your job isn’t sales. Your job is to listen sincerely, to give love, and to tell truth. The Spirit is in charge of who will, or who will not, accept the love that is offered and be changed by the truth.”
With a grimace, I said, “That’s a relief.”
“We preach Christ crucified. You’re not selling anything. But if you had a product, your product would be the answer to sin.”
I left the office and went out to the beach. The good thing about being retired is that you can go out to the beach whenever. Other people work fifty weeks so they can go out to the beach for two.
Perhaps I couldn’t stand to be a deacon if I couldn’t go out to the beach whenever. Being a deacon takes a whole world-full of standing in the face of sin. And praying—and I’m not that good at praying.
It was cooler at the beach. The wind was off the ocean. The cool wind had driven some of the vacationers off the beach. The tide was low. I could walk out across the long sandbar all the way to the rocky islet at its other end.
My left knee was hurting that day, and I couldn’t seem to get my back quite straight, so it hurt, too.
“Maybe it’s the suicide,” my wife suggested when I complained that morning. “You should rest.”
“I can’t rest.”
“You’re all tense.”
“Thank you, I know. But I can’t rest. I need to go see Pastor.”
I climbed to the top of the rocky islet. There’s a place I’ve found on the seaward side of the islet where I can settle in among the boulders almost as though I were settling into an easy chair, so comfortably shaped the place is.
Fifty feet above the crash of the surf. Looking seaward. Nothing beyond me but open ocean with, that afternoon, three boats sailing far out, making their way southwestward toward the big commercial harbor miles and miles away.
I’m alone there. There’s no muddle.
But, yes, there’s sin.
There is one man-made device on that islet. It is a small monument cemented into the rock at the islet’s top, about eighteen inches high, commemorating the drowning of a freshman from a local college, at that spot, forty years before.
In deepest winter, I go regularly to my granite easy chair, at night, when the tide is low enough that I can walk out there, the colder the wind the better. During all of my nighttime winter visits to my islet, I have never seen another human being.
Once, during the previous winter, when I knew the tide was rising, and being aware that I had better rise, too, from my easy chair and climb over the islet’s top and descend down to the sandbar in order to cross it back to the beach—before I should need, dangerously, to wade—I discovered that the wind had shifted from onshore. Now, it blew stiffly offshore.
A sliver of moon was just then rising, casting the merest of light. When I reached the sandbar, a flicker of movement in the sky caught my eye and then it was gone.
I looked again, and there was that flicker once more. And then, again, it was gone.
My third flicker lasted an instant longer than the others had done—a circumflex jigging against the night sky, just merely illumined by the moon—then gone.
What was it? Something was kiting through the night sky fifty feet above the beach.
And then I saw him, flickering in and out of view like his parasail above him. It was a man all clothed in tight black, flying the sail, arms widened to guide it with his lines, skiing across the sand.
Now and then, the force of the wind in this sail lifted him bodily off the sand entirely, and he was flying in an upright position through the night, only to come down again, to land on his heels in the sand, to ski another ten yards, and then, again, to be dragged into the sky.
I had a doppelgänger!
There are more than one of us!
My man had not seen me—I was dark against the rocks of the islet. I watched my man ski sand, and then he packed up and was gone.
I was glad to know that there are more than one of us. My secret sharer was a sharer so much in love with the night and with the wind and with the sea that he and I were, for that moment, one.
Our oneness was like an invitation from the Lord. “Come to me in your fallen world, and I will set each of you free—to soar.”
I remembered my sharer that day after talking with my pastor.
If needed, could I help my devastated man to fly even a little bit above his why, why, why into the sequence of no, maybe, yes?
Could I, even as a baby deacon?