I grew up in a post-war development neighborhood where every house was the same. In our cookie-cutter residence there was a short swath of flooring that joined four doorways which we cynically called a “hall.” In this poor excuse for a hall, sitting on a pedestal, was our family Bible. It was an Italian, Catholic, baroque behemoth, bound in red leather, awash with the most colorful artwork and photographs ever seen in a Bible and it had a smell. When you turned the pages clouds of stimuli triggered four out of five senses. It looked, felt, sounded and smelled like a holy relic. It still does.
I was convinced at the time that this effect was achieved by some legion of elves replicating the essence of “relic” in a workshop below the Vatican at the behest of Pope Paul. I figured he called them his “little paisanos.” I often conflated father figures like the Pope and Santa. It was this relic of a Bible however that piqued certain interests in me, an interest in art and an interest in the stories it told to name two.
I bring this up because the sources we have today for these stories are quite different. The splashing of stimuli across one’s senses has taken a quantum leap. When I was a kid there was one TV in the house and an antenna on the roof. This meant we all watched the same show, together, and at Easter time there was perennial selection which included the prototypical Hollywood epic. The usual lineup was The Robe with the incessantly overacting Victor Mature, The Shoes of the Fisherman which always put me to sleep, and The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner – two powerhouses.
In those grand productions there was no shortage of Aryan actors playing Middle Eastern parts, drunkenly exercising their power upon the ethnically-cast extras. This usually resulted in at least one gratuitous scene featuring a slave with a blood-curdling scream having some body part crushed under a turning stone wheel while the Roman Emperor barely flinched. Oh, the humanity. It was so predictable, it was almost lighthearted.
That is certainly not the case today.
A certain realism has flooded these Biblical stories today and not all of it is good. The good part is that there are more Middle Eastern or ethnic actors playing Middle Eastern parts and I like that for historical reasons. When we were young however we wanted our heroes to be of a certain ilk. We wanted them to not only be special but look the part as someone who was special. Whoever played Christ had to be impressive aesthetically. My brother and I both agreed at the time that the “best” Christ portrayal was in King of Kings by Jeffrey Hunter. Though we were two heterosexual boys, we recognized that was one good-looking Jew. And, that’s how you wanted your heroes – better than you.
So with the new realism, historical accuracy has become more important than aesthetics. Unfortunately, some of the dark sides have become far too real as well. I have been watching Nat Geo, the History Channel and CNN during the Easter season. This has resulted in some of the most gruesome and realistic crucifixion scenes one can imagine and I have found it very disturbing. In fact, some of the images and horrifying knowledge of Christ’s suffering on the cross, are unbearable concepts of pain. Some shows examined the actual science behind the suffering as if I need to be explained the excruciating pain behind having 10” nails driven through the thick part of my ankle bones as they become the only means by which to support my scourged, beaten body while I hung on a cross by nails through my wrists. I won’t go on. There is pain and suffering I can’t stand to further envision and I unfortunately can’t shut them off. I’m having a great deal of difficulty reconciling these thoughts with my belief that people are basically good. I won’t pass this on to you any further other than to say that we as a society are in a very bad place.
Is this what Christ really wanted us to focus on, His torture, the worse of humanity?
Are we meant to go through these thoughts over and over so that the guilt for our salvation becomes permanently embedded in our hearts? Is that what Christ would have wanted, a guilt-driven worship? I can tell you that the constant violent images has sent me into a dark place and it certainly doesn’t feel like a holiday should. Not being one who subscribes to a belief that we bear guilt for all of humanity that preceded us, are my feelings a subliminal reaction to understanding that Christ’s suffering paved the way for my salvation? I don’t know.
I can’t help but feel that society is engaging in a pornography of violence and that no one is outraged or even seems disheartened by it. Am I alone? I doubt it. I’ve tossed and turned at night and I can’t get the thoughts, images out of my head. My only solace is to focus on Christ’s teachings, his very words on the cross: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Was that just for the Romans who murdered him, or the Jewish hierarchy who betrayed him, or for all of humanity? Pilate washed his hands but I can’t get my head clear. Easter has become a much different experience than when I was a child. My only solace lies in those words on the cross, those words of forgiveness, His forgiveness.
I’m learning that this is the antidote for darkness and the remedy for guilt.
In that family Bible I mentioned earlier I recently found a card, a payment card, filled out in pencil by my mother. It starts off like this:
Jan 1960 $2.50
Feb 1960 $2.50
Mar 1960 $2.50
April 1960 $2.50
Then there is nothing for 3 months and it abruptly resumes:
Aug 1960 $12.00
The entry missing from that ledger – that was so glaringly apparent to me or anyone in my family was:
July 1960 Francis Batchelor dead at 37, Catherine widowed at 39
The payments conclude through December then there is one final entry:
Paid in full
Italian-Catholic guilt is a gluttonous dish, served heavily on a platter of sin with the life-long wearing of black, the endless clutching of rosaries, the never-ending acts of contrition. Somewhere in my mother’s mind and in her heart was the belief that her husband’s death was payment due for having the disrespect of not staying current on an account for the Holy Bible, or at least that it played some role. That is how her generation thought. That is how their minds worked. Is this a proper legacy for those who would follow Christ, an inheritance in passing of guilt from one generation to another?
What are we teaching this generation? What frailties are we passing on as we accept, without the slightest equivocation, the onslaught of violent images, the desensitization of torture and our obsession with the graphic. Where are the lessons that matter? What is the lifeline to grasp in a time of constant affronts to our spirit?
The message and solace I take from this year’s Easter and the one I wish to pass on is forgiveness, and that forgiveness is payment in full, forgiveness of not just what others have done, but also forgiveness for ourselves. Forgiveness Mom, forgiveness.
Back quite some time ago, when my son was at pre-school age, Kelly and I had sought out some day-care situations for the purpose of socializing Jack (we were not yet aware of how unnecessary that would be). Kelly had stopped by the home of a woman who ran a day-care for children his age. Upon seeing my son, a Korean boy, she exclaimed, “Oh good, we can use some diversity!” Well, her gift of ignorance was only surpassed by the grace of God bestowed upon her that day that it was Kelly and not I who made the inquiry. I was passively livid when I heard the story. The idea of reducing someone to a token, a perception, an appearance was crass to me.
I had a lot of thoughts about last week’s sermon by Marisa and I’ve come to the conclusion that I disagree with quite a bit of it – oh, not the extravagant welcoming, inclusion, non-judgmental part – that just seems like Christianity 101 to me (though maybe not to all Christians). What I’ve come to disagree with is the perspective.
First is the acceptance of others, – the extravagant welcoming – is that supposed to be a test for us, a measure of our tolerance? If that were true then we would be defining others in terms of ourselves. I can only speak for myself but those who might make us “uncomfortable” elicit sympathy more than any other emotion from Christians. Sure, we may not know what to say, how to act, be awkward around them, but I have no doubt that every member in our church would feel for them, not with pity, but with a deep desire to help ease their pain, though we may not know how. Is this a test for us to confront awkwardness? Should that be our concern? I think being awkward makes us uncomfortable emotionally but falls quite short of any measure of tolerance.
Would not a real test of tolerance be to welcome those who enrage you? Imagine bringing into the flock the bigot, the person seething with hate, the person who stands for everything you are against, the person who believes in nothing but himself and disdains those that differ from him. The meek belong to Christ; to whom does this person belong? This is the open part of “Open and Affirming.”
I’m not suggesting we turn our service into a theological version of Celebrity Death Match. What I am saying is that we take a look at our perspective and re-examine exactly what our challenges should be. It would be remarkable to bring a person of hate into an environment of love to show that even he is not forgotten and that the real Christian way of teaching is through acceptance and not condemnation. I understand this is not a realistic prospect in ministry but I also realize that some lesser degree of it may already be happening.
I believe the grace of God is not something simply attained by a socially-balanced congregation or the hanging of a rainbow flag. I believe the grace of God is a gift, the ability to see past our mortal shells – not define ourselves by them – and to see into the heart and soul of a person. When one looks from the pulpit and sees all the faces that “seem the same,” it would be a true gift if one could see among them those crippled with anxiety and the fear of death, those blind to the wonders of God, those deaf to the suffering of others and those broken from the inability to accept themselves as they really are.
Time creeps up on you like ice dams in New England; before you know it, your kids teeter on the precipice of high school, their problems no longer solved by simply flipping them upside down (though sometimes I’d like to try). Yet, I know that my inability today to do such is only a precursor, a glimpse into the future, of a multitude of inadequacies yet to be revealed.
It’s human nature to explain your inadequacy to reach the modern-day teenager as stubbornness on their part. Yet, then you remember. I remember how hell-bent I was on my ideas for my future at that age and how my parent was a mere obstacle to it, something to be hurdled or avoided, not advice to be heeded. Then the memories flood in and I realize the gist of the matter, the thing that really worries me – the day I dread most.
I’ve always looked at Genesis, the Adam and Eve, story as a parable, a literary delineation of the moment when the human species became self-aware: they ate from the Tree of Knowledge, saw they were naked and began to judge themselves and one another and once you do that you’re only a stone’s throw away (literally) from starting a war thereby banning yourself forever from Eden.
Actually, to be completely honest, I haven’t always looked at Genesis that way but I do remember exactly where and when it was that I started. It was on a cold yet sunny November day in my sophomore year of college, sitting behind the wheel of a putrid green 1974 Fiat (the boxy one – not the Spyder) where the residue of a higher education was worming its insidious way through the gaps in my mind, making me self-aware, casting me from an Eden of childhood. There I was, in that parking lot, at the ripe old age of 19 having it “all figured out.”
I was raised Roman Catholic and for those of us at middle-age that’s the spiritual equivalent of being “Straight Outa Compton.” I actually remember the Mass being said in Latin. God was still speaking, just in someone else’s language. So naturally, church obtained Most-Favored-Nation status as fodder for teenage vitriol. My personal favorite purveyor of such things was George Carlin. He had a bit, talking about his time in Catholic school when they would ask the priest, “If God is all-powerful, can He make a rock so big that He Himself can’t lift it?”
Now, this was not only funny (still is), but seemingly put a dagger into the restraints of religion. I mean, back in the ‘70’s everything was about breaking free from one restraint or another. Yet even with that, with all the crazy religious escapades of the time, I still believed. I refused to not believe in God. How? Why? I don’t know. I would understand later that Carlin’s statement was not a reflection on God’s inadequacy but man’s inability to conceive Him, that a world centered in logic is a distorted one.
So prior to college, I had this spiritual chip on my shoulder stuck in my back pocket. My first year was spent at the University of Georgia entertaining and delighting Baptists with my musings on Catholicism. I was a hit. I had them rolling in the aisles with stories about The Great Mysteries of Confessionals not to be outdone by the Boxing Nuns who yielded left jabs with a fluidity to rival that of Muhammad Ali. Oh, those were the days.
Then I left the warmth of Georgia and Georgians and cast myself back to the icy roads and cold shoulders of the north. That brings me back to the parking lot, the Fiat, and Philosophy 101. Ironically, my teacher was a religious man, not much older than me. Now, this was a Behaviorist school, where B.F. Skinner was a notch or two below or above Elvis Presley status. Skinner believed that freedom was an illusion, that all behavior was a consequence of conditioning, positive and negative reinforcement. Thus, when it came to morality, relativism was a popular stance.
But there was my professor, armed to the teeth. If you believe in relativism then you’re saying, “Everything is relative. What’s moral to you may be amoral to someone else.” But as he would point out, what you’re really saying is: “Everything is relative except the fact that everything is relative.” Ooh, this was better than George Carlin. Since “Everything is relative” is an absolute the whole concept of relativism falls apart, so easily. Therefore to conjure anything, to aver anything, there must be absolutes – rights and wrongs. This opened the floodgates in that 1974 Fiat.
That’s the turning point in my spiritual biography that would continue to write itself. That was understanding, with that came enlightenment and with parenthood came sacrifice. That’s a Christian path if I’ve ever heard of one – understanding, enlightenment, sacrifice. In that way morality takes you in the path of Jesus. Now, clearly embedded in sacrifice – the very definition of parenting, I await the day I dread most.
We cast our children out into a secular world, a few precious pearls floating in a sea of swine. They attend university or go out or their own and when the holidays come, they return (hopefully). On that day, what will I see in her eyes? Will it be cynicism? Will it be pain? That age is full of so much transition, so much learning, it’s hard to imagine there will be joy, understanding, in her eyes.
When I bring up church, or God, will she roll her eyes or look the other way? Oh, I’ll be armed. I’ll use my interpretation of the two-slit experiment in physics – relate that to the Law of Conservation of Information and then wrap the whole thing up in a way that will have any thinking atheist on their knees praying for forgiveness. But, a world of logic is a distorted world. Faith comes from feeling, not thinking.
I will not be able to make her believe if she doesn’t. I will not be able to reason her way to my way of thinking. This will have to be her journey, her spiritual biography. It will also be the final leg of mine: humility. I will be powerless, made humble. There is no spiritual equivalent to flipping her upside down. Hopefully, there will something inside of her, as there was with me, something that will make her refuse not to believe.
Let me be clear. The humility part of this whole thing is not what I dread. Trust me, (despite what those close to me might think) after 50 plus years of sorting out society’s incongruencies, I am plum out of mental filing cabinets. I long for the day I can say three little words: I – don’t – know.
The part I dread though is seeing my child struggle, possibly seeing her in pain and knowing I’m not meant to help her, that she must struggle like we all did, like Christ did. It is a pain unto itself. In this way we really do mirror Christ, don’t we? – understanding, enlightenment, sacrifice and humility before God.
Recently we attended a Communion preparation class held by Marisa and Nancy Yesu and what struck me most about the gathering was the time to reflect on the actual event that paved the way for this communal rite: the Last Supper. Christ and the Apostles met to celebrate the Passover feast. Yet, I wondered to what extent that celebration was a muted one. It was only the previous Sunday in which Christ had overturned tables at the temple ousting money-changers and merchants from his ‘Father’s house.” They couldn’t have been very popular. I’m sure the Last Supper was not idealized as depicted by Da Vinci. There must have been some foreboding of events to come; surely, Christ knew, most likely Judas as well.
My guess is they huddled at a table that was hard to find; they were out-of-towners, most likely shunned by the local Jews who didn’t want to make enemies and had to settle for any venue that would suffice – ironically similar to the beginning of Christ’s life. Most likely, they prayed for guidance and deliverance. Much as God had “passed over” the children of Israel, sparing them from the plagues hoisted upon Egyptians, some of the apostles must have contemplated a passing over of the wrath yet to come from Romans and fellow Jews alike.
Yet, there sat Christ, resolved to his fate, understanding its importance to all of mankind. The others must have fed off his demeanor and must have sensed the gravity of the moment. Christ knows he’ll be gone but wants to insure he wont be forgotten. He chooses the most mundane thing possible – the taking of bread and wine – something people of the time did all the time, when they were blessed with their “daily bread.” Though the breaking of bread and drinking of wine may be an event for us, not so for people of Christ’s time. This is when he chose to be remembered, not once or twice a month but every day, most particularly, the day after tomorrow.
This is the image that struck me. On that Saturday, the day after Christ’s crucifixion, Judas is dead, and the apostles are like hunted animals scattered around town fearing for their lives, fearing the sort of torturous death they just witnessed/heard. They are somewhere at this point. Somewhere someone let them in, had pity on them. Somewhere, someone brought them something to eat, brought them a piece of bread and some wine. Somewhere they sat, with exhausted bodies as they lifted their dirty, bruised and scraped hands, hands that spent the night crawling into bushes hiding from Roman soldiers, hands that knocked on countless doors seeking safety, hands that begged and pleaded for their lives, hands that prayed, hands that now break off a piece of bread and dip it thankfully into a glass of wine, hands that now remember.