Jared Witt - July 5, 2018
I couldn’t be bothered with generosity of spirit the other day. I was busy rehearsing a sermon.
That’s how it goes sometimes. You have to talk about the love and grace of the Origin and Redeemer of the cosmos in a couple hours. So when my friend sends me a nice thought via text—“I just saw a bumper sticker that said ‘Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.’”—what was I going to do? Reflect on it with new eyes? Allow myself to be moved that my friend would think to share a little spiritual gem with me that morning? Enjoy the profound realization that we are not alone in this spiritual journey? That there are travel partners on the road with us?
Not this bona fide saint and sinner, specializing in sinner. No no no. The snotty, know-it-all words that spilled onto my iPhone keyboard were “St. Francis was an aphorism machine.”
You see the offense in what I did, right?
And no, this isn’t that old pastor’s trick, where I say some benign confession to make it seem like I’m practicing the humility that I preach while at the same time confirming for everyone that my own sins really aren’t that sinful. Trust, I’ve done way worse AND I genuinely think that this simple interaction points to a serious character flaw of mine, one which flies in the face of everything God has intended for humanity.
The structure of the conversation was essentially:
Him: “Hey I saw this thing that meant something to me. Hope it will mean something to you too.”
Me: “Oh yeah, it’s a St. Francis quote.”
Not sure if this friend knew of this quote before. Wouldn’t be surprised if he did. Either way, here is the spirit or the undercurrent of the exchange:
Him: “Hey, I saw these words which called me back to the center or the core of all truth. Not bad for a Sunday drive. I’d like to bless you with them as well this morning because you matter to me. I believe your soul recognizes my soul. It’s a vulnerable thing sharing that which moves one at the deepest level. But I entrust this pearl to you, believing you not to be a swine. I believe us to be kindred spirits on the same three steps forward, two steps back journey of becoming. And since the most beautiful and important thing any of us can experience in life is to be called back to the center together, I invite you to share this with me.”
Me: “Yeah. It’s a quote by St. Francis of Assisi, you dunderhead. It’s been said a million times before. Only nobodies don’t know that. It’s important to me that you know I know so you’ll recognize that I’m somebody. I’m one of the smart ones. Unfortunately, you can only see how exceptional I am in the light of comparison. That’s why, even if I'm savvy enough to do so in a seemingly neutral and disinterested manner, I must show you how unexceptional you are. Your thoughts are unoriginal. The words that moved you are well recycled. And you’ll probably die an anonymous death, your life and story lost to history forever with all the other forgettable things which have come and gone. I too am afraid of dying such a death. And apparently lacking any vital faith in an alternative, the best I can do, is create a sort of second-rate immortality by having the universe remember me as smart. Once again, smart by way of comparison, of course. Apologies that you must be sacrificed in this way.
Nice pastoral work Jared. Really bang-up job.
This particular friend happens to be perceptive enough with a nimble enough sense of humor, that he saw right through all of this, and we shared a good laugh at my expense. All’s well.
But here is why I believe an interaction, so benign at face value, has to do with everything. The sinfulness, the unbecoming, the regression of humanity. The forgiveness, the redemption, the salvation. Everything. This is why we Lutherans don’t believe things like weekly confession or the word “sin” to be too grave or outdated but instead, every week, “confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.”
Remember all those times in the first 11 chapters of scripture from Adam and Eve to the Tower of Babel (the preamble to God’s plan to heal and complete creation) where it says that people want to “become like gods.”
The old Adam wants to be exceptional. He wants to be noticed. That creation is an endless garden of exploration and new delights doesn’t amuse him. He wants to be the big one. He’d rather build a tower to the heavens than simply admire their grandeur from afar. He’d rather expand his ego infinitely than the universe keep expanding around him, even if that inevitably means becoming quite lonely and running out of room.
Jews have never read the beginning of Genesis the way St. Augustine and later Christians have.
One example: a 12th century group of Franco-Spanish Jewish mystics called the kabbalists believed that the creation described in Genesis and various Psalms of the Hebrew testament were not so much describing a spontaneous poof, where God somewhat arbitrarily snaps the divine fingers and suddenly a world appears in space. Rather, there was no space. God filled everything and everything was God. But love abhors narcissism. So being love itself, God started retracting God’s self, becoming smaller, binding up little divine pieces so that something that was not God could exist—a beloved.
For the kabbalists, creation was not an act of making more but of becoming less.
I’ve heard mothers describe having children as breaking off little pieces of their hearts and letting them run around on their own.
It’s the nature of love to constantly be shrinking that someone else might become more, kneeling down that someone else might get a boost up, breaking oneself into pieces that someone else might be whole.
These aren’t just the musings of some fringe group of Jewish mystics. They’re actually being far more consistent with the theology of the New Testament than old Augustine. From the beginning, John the Baptist says, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Rather than benefit from John’s self-limiting, Jesus continues in the same way. To his disciples, he says, “Whoever wants to be greatest among you, must become a servant.” Instead of vaunting his position over his disciples as master, he kneels down to wash their feet as servant. When Paul tells the Philippians about Jesus’ downward journey from equality with God to crucified slave, in a very kabbalistic sounding phrase, he describes Jesus as having ekenosen--emptied himself.
This isn’t some side concern. It’s at the core of creation, salvation, love, everything.
Who is it that wants to make themselves bigger throughout the Bible? More grand? More memorable? More noteworthy? Who is it who would prefer to send a smart text than a joyful one?
Cain, Joseph’s brothers, Pharaoh, the bad judges, the bad kings, Nebuchadnezzar, Herod, Judas. Essentially, the who’s who of villains.
So yeah. Not a great text message.
But also, what a nice reminder that my on again off again project of redeeming myself was always going to be a dead end. Fortunately, this insufferable know-it-all has been promised infinite grace in Christ. I’ll try to do a little better next time, anyway. But ultimately fixing me? It’s God’s problem now.
Cheers and peace,
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