One year ago, in October 2016, my wife Channa and I turned off a busy thoroughfare in Roanoke, VA, and, with a real estate broker, drove up a curvy road onto the lower slope of Sugarloaf Mountain. It was a hot day.
It was always a hot day, we had discovered, during our first summer in Roanoke.
Summer? Blazing sun? In October?
This was terrible!
We were house shopping. We had identified three possibilities out of the many houses we had visited during the past weeks. Each of the three had demerits, but we were considering making an offer on one of them anyhow.
Earlier that day our broker had said, “I’ve got one other listing we should look at, okay?”
We turned off the thoroughfare. Driving up, I saw something ahead in the road. It was something I hadn’t seen much in Roanoke.
The road curved, and the entire area where the road curved was…in the shade!
Next to the shaded curve was a For-Sale sign. Could this be the house our broker had in mind? It was!
I walked into the house by about four strides, saw my first view of the split interior, and knew this was the house I wanted. Channa liked it, too, especially because I was so enthusiastic.
But it wasn’t just the interior design I liked.
I loved the huge oak on the house’s eastern side. I loved the two big maples on the house’s northern side. I loved the vast oak in the neighbor’s back yard to the south because that oak shaded half of what was to become our home. On our home’s western side, surrounding our back yard and patio, a half dozen other trees block the fire of the sun.
Our house swims in shade.
I loved the shade!
We bought the house, and here’s what the woman next door said when I went to introduce myself. “You poor guy, you have no idea what trouble you’re in.”
Shade is a blessing in Roanoke.
We are grateful for our trees, which keep our house cooler and reduce our cooling cost all summer long. The trees do that because they are covered with leaves. Come fall—which begins in November—the leaves turn yellow, and…they fall.
Billions of them.
Billions upon billions upon billions of them.
They inundate our yard, roof, gutters, porch, driveway, patio, parking area in back.
Our neighbor was right. The raking job is an enormous task. It is an enormous, on-going task, and it lasts through most of two months.
Fortunately, our son Sam loves raking and bagging. Our grandson Miles loves helping his grandfather and his uncle with the raking and the bagging. Our good-spirited granddaughter Ivria is willing to rake and bag, but what she loves most is throwing big handsful of leaves at her brother and uncle and grandfather when the leaves have been raked into their piles.
In Maine, where we had sixteen acres of forest and meadow, and the house was surrounded by deciduous trees as well as by pines, we had plenty of leaves, too, but, in Maine, I waited until the end of leaf-fall and raked everything onto a big tarp and hand-dragged several loads into the woods and dumped them.
That was rural life. In Roanoke, we are suburban, and we continually bag leaves up, day after day, and we stack the bags on the edge of the road, and the county hauls them away.
There is a God point to this blather about leaves. The God point is metaphorically about the last leaf to fall.
Here in Roanoke we get wind storms. We got a big one four days ago. It was a strong, cool wind (thank the Lord!) roistering through the trees from the northwest, sending that day’s billion leaves before it—like snow. We got a blizzard of leaves.
Have you noticed something about leaves?
They like moving in a gang. They all make up their minds at the same time, and then they do what the others do. When the wind comes along, they all let go and tumble, as though they were the crazy idea of some slap-dash painter, flinging yellow flakes of tinsel down the air.
But—no—not all of them.
Our blizzard died away. I went outside. The day was cooler than before, and the air was still now, with the sun bright and coming slantways from low down in the west. Everywhere that I could see, I saw inches—even a foot—of depth of leaves.
I had intended to start by sweeping the porch, but I stopped.
High in one tree, way up, there was one single yellow leaf all by itself out on the end of a twig. It hung there, very still. It caught my eye because it was brightly lit against the blue of the sky by a shaft of the sun.
I watched it for a time, standing as I was in the quiet yellow of the aftermath of the blizzard. That leaf seemed almost to be making up its own mind. It had hung on tight while the wind had buffeted it, and while all its friends had let go and had flown. It had hung on, waiting, maybe thinking it through.
What was it which that leaf was thinking through?
Perhaps its own allegiance to the Lord.
Everyone else had known what was right—what was manifest—to do. Everyone else had said, “We are a sweeping tide of Christian consciousness joyfully covering the landscape of the Lord.” And they had.
Why, I thought to myself, that last leaf is like I was ten years ago.
Of course, that leaf has no soul—it’s a leaf—I thought.
But, I thought, I am a writer and a chaser after metaphor. I have a soul. I have a soul, and I had hung on tight to my anchoring point during the nine months of my soul’s stormy struggle beyond Judaism toward its rebirth in Christ.
I had hung on, battling that stormy struggle through.
Yes or no? To deny or to accept? To let go and to go? Or not to let go and to go?
And—just as I reached this point in the framing of my thought—up there above me, after the end of the wind storm, that last yellow leaf let go.
As I had, too.
I watched that last yellow leaf flutter peacefully all the way down until it nestled comfortably with its yellow fellows. All of us at one with the Lord.
Of which biblical character are you burning to ask a question? Is there a mystery you’d like that character to clear up for you?
Who’s the character and what’s the question?
One time, my former Maine pastor, Dan, and I were enjoying debate about this matter. I said I would like to find Abraham and ask him, “Why did you say yes to the call of you (the Call of Abraham, as we speak of it nowadays) having never heard one word from Yahweh before and not even knowing who He is?”
Dan and I had a good time debating what Abraham might say—I was hoping for something like “I was powerless to resist”—and then I asked Dan, “What about Jesus?”
“Oh, well,” he answered, “there are about two hundred things I want to ask Jesus right away. But really, the first might be this. ‘What did you write in the sand?’”
I laughed. “Me too!”
I mean, it’s the only time Jesus ever wrote anything.
“I’d give worlds to know,” Dan said. “Whatever he wrote probably got all scuffed before an apostle could read it and then write it down for the record.”
“I kinda like the idea that Jesus was a writer.”
“Didn’t do it much.”
I smiled. “Didn’t need to. Not like us ink-scribblers.”
You remember the scene.
Jesus was in the temple courtyard, and there were people all around Him asking questions, and He was answering the people. It was early morning.
I was there. You were there. Remember?
All of a sudden, a group of scribes and Pharisees pushed their way through the crowd. They were pulling after them a woman. She was struggling to get away from them, but they held her tight. Her expression was horrified. She shrieked and jerked back and forth, but she could not escape.
“Teacher,” the captors cried out, “this woman was just caught in the very act of committing adultery. The Law says—Moses says—she must be stoned to death. Right now. We have our stones right here.” Some of the scribes and Pharisees brandished their stones in their hands. The stones were heavy and sharp.
“What say you?”
Jesus looked at the woman. He looked her in the eye. She still jerked but her movement and her expression softened a little. She was a woman, after all, and He was looking her right in the eye—she a mere woman, who had just been doing what she had just been doing, and even so He was looking her right in the eye.
I remember that I was waiting to hear what Jesus would say. We all were waiting. Some of us could tell this was a scribe and Pharisee trick, what they were always doing, trying to trap Jesus.
What would Jesus say?
Instead of saying anything, Jesus bent down and, with his finger, he began to write words in the sand. Right there, right before the scribes and the Pharisees, and before the woman, too.
The scribes and the Pharisees were staring down and reading what He wrote.
I pressed closer and tried to see what he was writing, but I couldn’t get close enough. After a while, when the whole crowd had become silent, Jesus stood up. He looked at the scribes and the Pharisees, one at a time, in their eyes.
After He had looked at each one of them in the eye, He said, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Again, he looked each one of them in the eye.
There was silence. Even the woman now was standing still, mesmerized with the moment, staring at Jesus.
Again, Jesus bent down and He added more words to his former words written in the sand.
In a moment, the oldest of the Pharisees dropped his stone. I was startled. Another of the Pharisees dropped his stone, and turned away. That second one let go of the woman’s sleeve. A third Pharisee dropped his stone and let go of the woman’s hair.
As Jesus wrote more words, more stones dropped, until all the stones had been dropped, and all the scribes and the Pharisees had turned away and melted back into the silence of the crowd.
The woman stood alone.
“Woman,” He said, “where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, my Lord.”
“Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”
She hesitated. She took a step back. He was silent. We were all silent.
The woman took another step back. She seemed to straighten from the bent posture that horror and fear had imposed on her, in anticipation of her immediate death by stones.
He was looking at her, still looking directly into her eyes.
She reached out one hand, hesitantly, as though to say something or to touch Him, but she dropped her hand.
She half turned away, now looking at Him over her shoulder.
He was looking at her, still looking directly into her eyes.
She pushed back into the silence of the crowd. The crowd opened a way for her. Her steps became lighter, airier. Now she was away from Him. She turned toward Him once more, and He was looking at her, still looking directly into her eyes.
One last time, from further away, she turned and looked at Him, and He was looking at her, still looking directly into her eyes.
She skipped, she went, and she sinned no more.
What had Jesus written in the sand?
I don’t know. I’d like to ask Him. When I get my chance,
I hope I will.
Do you want to know what I think His answer might be?
Here’s what I think Jesus’ answer might be.
“I was writing their names.”
Full disclosure: the revelation of the final line of this story was told to me by a friend who is very astute. He understands relations between the timeless, eternal, sovereign truth of the Lord and the cramped, scraping, sin-ridden jiggle of mankind.
Reader, of which biblical character are you burning to ask a question?
Is there a mystery you’d like that character to clear up for you?
Who’s the character and what’s the question?
Please let me know; I'd love to hear from you about it!
In My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers says the following (it’s part of his meditation for June 15).
“There are times when there is no illumination and no thrill, but just the daily round, the common task. Routine is God’s way of saving us between our times of inspiration. Do not expect God always to give you His thrilling minutes, but learn to live in the domain of drudgery by the power of God.”
Yet I do not, by nature, champion this sort of wisdom. I have always preferred the high moments that God provides, the miracles.
What about you?
I ought not to prefer the miracles. I’ve experienced miracles enough, but I need to remember that the Lord doles them out for His purposes, not for mine.
The illustration for this post is Soul in Bondage by American symbolist painter Elihu Vedder, from 1891-2.
Vedder (1836-1923) was influenced by the Pre-Rafaelites and lived mostly in Italy and on the Island of Capri, especially after the financial success of his fifty-five illustrations of Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khyyam (1859).
When there’s nothing left but the drudgery, this painting is an image of the way my soul seems bound. It’s a romantic image, filled with emotion, pleasing to me in my ill-considered effort at self-protection and aloneness.
Self-protection and aloneness violates the law of love, which emanates from the Almighty Himself. Self-protection is a sin. Aloneness is the consequence of that sin.
During the ordinary carrying out of our days, we use some self-protective behavior properly—we look both ways before crossing the street, we lock our doors at night, etc.
What is sinful is spiritual self-protection.
In his book Inside Out, Dr. Larry Crabb discusses our desire to be loved, which is intense. Sinfully, there are those of us who take a defensive posture despite our desire to be loved. Out of fear of being hurt or of re-encountering past hurts, sometimes we sin by disengaging ourselves from the very thing we want, and we stand aloof.
Nothing can touch us.
The greater our level of spiritual self-protection, the less we lovingly involve ourselves with other people and with the author of love Himself. When I suffer from this sin, I congratulate myself because I imagine my life as lived romantically within this Vedder painting.
“Ah, life,” I remonstrate.
“How canst thou?” I complain.
“Don’t you pity how captive I am?”
What about you, reader? Does this describe you?
But there is another Vedder painting (see below).
Lazarus Rising from the Tomb, 1899, is a painting of Vedder’s which he considered a favorite.
The moment of Lazarus’ resurrection is a dramatic event much depicted in Renaissance art and afterwards. Many of the depictions show action and gestures and multiple characters and heavenly symbolism.
Vedder’s representation is different. It’s a close-up.
We see Lazarus just at the moment when life and awareness are restored to him.
Though Lazarus is four days dead, and his sisters feared he would be stinking of decomposition at this moment, in this painting his flawless, handsome face bears no mark of death.
His body is still physically contained and shadowed within the cave which was his tomb. But he has been called forth by the Messiah, so the light of the sky (and of Heaven) illuminates a portion of his burial clothes and just touches his nose, lip, and chin.
Though renewedly alive, Lazarus has no expression, no visible thought. He is still.
If anything shows on his face, it is sadness.
He has been restored to life but not yet into the welcoming arms of his sisters, nor into the loving intimacy he had with his friend Jesus.
In actuality, he has been restored to life by Jesus so that those Jews observing the moment can witness the life-giving power of the Messiah, as brought into the Jewish world from God.
In this moment depicted by Vedder, Lazarus’ own story has not yet begun again. He is alive, but he is alive as an example only. He does not act.
His gaze is inward. He ponders. Here is what he may ponder.
Later, we assume, Lazarus will love again his sisters and his friend. He will eat and drink with them. He will walk on the road with them. He will experience day and night with them.
But for now, rising up from what was probably a painful death back into a life, might he be fearful of the re-experience of his pain? Might he, at first, be tempted toward self-protection against life itself?
How would it be for you, if you were he?
You were dead. Now you are alive. How are you to proceed?
Observing Vedder’s Lazarus, that’s what I think anyway.
Resurrection is a miracle, a time of inspiration of God.
It is other than the drudgery of ordinary life.
Here’s the challenge God has given you: you must incline yourself away from self-protection and toward the law of love.
But will you?
Remember throwing pebbles in the water when you were a child?
We have four grandchildren living with us now. The three of them who are six, five, and two are excited to throw pebbles now, and the five-month-old will almost certainly join in with his brother and sisters as soon as he learns how to walk.
I remember being fascinated by the concentric ripples. I loved to watch as the ripples spread out across the water’s surface and diminished in size while still continuing with their energy, gradually slackening until they were gone. But if the ripples reached the shore, they kicked up tiny breakers there, which wetted the sand where it was dry.
Of course, I was a strong boy, and I loved big rocks, and I wanted to make the biggest splash. A big splash and big ripples made me feel good. But here’s a secret. I would not have revealed my secret answer to you if you had asked me, at ten, which I liked better, a big splash or the smaller ripples.
Honestly, I liked the smaller ripples better. They had subtlety. You could see how their effect impacted the water for a long, long time.
I’m thinking about ripples right now because of a Facebook post I read a few days ago.
A woman friend of mine received a message from someone out of the blue. With her permission, I reproduce it here verbatim (names have been removed).
I'm not sure you remember me. I met you 20 years ago outside of Women Services on Main St in Buffalo I was only 15yrs old. You saved my sons life ❤ I was alone, there to start a two day procedure. Day one of the would be termination they instructed me to wait at home come back the next day and have it completed. However, that night I felt my son move. The next day on my way into the building I met you. If I'm not mistaken I believe you read me some scriptures and made me aware of other options. So I decided to have the laminaria removed and continue with the pregnancy. That day you took me home and you never left my side, took me to your church, linked me to several agencies. You were truly a blessing to me. Today my son (name removed) is almost 20yrs old away at (name removed) College beginning his sophomore year. I miss him so much he's the best thing that ever happened to me. When I think of him I often think of you. I often wonder how many other women you have been a blessing to. You have always held a place in my heart. Peace, love and blessings always ❤
What a delight this was to read!
How mightily the Lord has blessed the woman who wrote to my friend, and her son.
My friend was the Lord’s pebble.
The Lord splashed my friend down in Buffalo. Ripples began. My friend spoke to a fifteen-year-old. The fifteen-year-old was preparing to abort her son on the morrow. That night, a ripple passed through her womb, and she felt her son move. The next day, another ripple brought my friend to the Women’s Services building, again, with a Scripture. And so the ripples continued to widen.
My friend had made a friend for life…for LIFE.
She had made a friend for her own life, of course (which fact remained unknown to her), but most importantly for the life of that fifteen-year-old mother and her son.
And yet the ripples from that single splash continued to widen. Twenty years passed. Twenty years! Perhaps during those twenty years the writer of this message has told other people how that ripple of the Lord broke against her dry sand and wet her parched soul. Wet her and refreshed her enough that the ripple reached her womb and floated her son inside her, so she felt and thereby knew him.
And more to this.
When I read this message, it had been public for two days. In that amount of time, 874 likes had occurred, and 143 comments had been written, not a single one of which deplored that the Lord had dropped a pebble.
May the Lord be praised for dropping that single pebble He dropped twenty years ago.
The Lord keeps right on dropping His pebbles. His will be done.
Faced as we are today by a secular culture that preaches the rightness of aborting babies, many of us Christians feel stymied and afraid.
But twenty years ago, a friend whom I did not yet know, spoke in a timely way to a fifteen-year-old girl, which caused the love of the Lord to flow into her and to stop her in the very act of killing her son, and for at least those three persons—and twenty years later, for 874 others--the world changed.
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.