I’ve decided that it is time to go to work. For the last couple of years, I’ve been able to pull off wearing cargo shorts and flip-flops most of the time. I know it makes me look like a youth minister from 1998, but I feel comfortable. In some ways, too comfortable. When I am that comfortable in how I dress, I can get comfortable in how I think. One might even say complacent or lazy (not that seminary leaves much room for laziness.)
Today, I’m intensely aware that we have work to do. We have work of discernment. What is the truth when it comes to disaffected communities, people under threat, and the relationship of our past to our future? As we come to see the truth, we must tell the truth. We must talk about who we have ignored and about who we have been blind to. Maybe we can work on reconciliation, but we must first be honest about the degree of our separation. We have lots of work to do.
Now is not the time for me to be lazy. Now is the time for me to show up for work, wearing the proper clothes. That includes appropriate footwear. Closed-toed shoes. I put on my old Clark’s chukka boots this morning. They were old when I started seminary two years ago. They are really old now. And kind of frumpy. But then again, I’m planning on wearing a lot of black in the near future. Is this a time for buying new brown shoes?
As I sat in Noonday Prayer and pondered such things in my heart, I realized two ideas at the exact same time. First, I’m thinking about shoes and shoe shopping. Yes, our world still needs healing and no, buying stuff is not the way to heal it, but the sun did rise in the east this morning. Tonight it will set in the west. While we are working on some big challenges, the little joys of life persist. (I’m open to considering that formulation in reverse, but the challenges don’t seem little in this moment.) Second, I’m ready to get to work. I’m excited. Not so much because I think we can get it all done (or at least not easily and quickly) but because I get to do it with you.
It’s possible, I suppose, that the universe could conspire against one person. That seems unlikely though. The universe is a big place, and whoever or whatever is in charge must be hands full with management tasks. Getting innumerable suns to rise over innumerable horizons, for instance, must be a piece of work. And that’s just for starters, so it’s hard for me to sustain an argument that I’ve been targeted for special punishment.
Mounting said argument is, however, surprisingly easy. I’m particularly susceptible to such sophistry in the midst of an attack of cranial rectal syndrome, the symptoms of which leave me like Billy Crystal’s character in “Forget Paris,” kicking Kareem Abdul Jabaar off the basketball court in the midst of his farewell tour (along with all the other people on the court.) Far from being insane myself, I am simply trying to restore sanity to a world gone mad. Folly, for sure.
Whether this folly is entertaining or depressing is the balance in which my mental state hangs. To my chagrin, my innate qualities tend to tip the scales to the anxious side, and I don’t hold out much hope that this state of things will change. I do, however, draw hope that a supernatural thumb can and does come down on the other side. Sure, there is no reason why the universe should stack up for me any more than it is bound to stack up against me. But for lack of belief that it stacks up at all, I’ll hold out in the hope that it’s on our side.
Last weekend, when I was gallivanting around parts of Middle and East Tennessee, my ladies had a day at the salon. Like women with beautiful, wavy hair everywhere, they got it straightened. I understand the impulse. Early in high school, when I found I could not get my hair to go into my eyes like Robert Smith, one of the members of the Cannon County Speech and Debate team showed me how to blow my hair straight. I did not do it very often, mostly because it was more work that it was worth (this was prior to the invention of the straightening iron) but I also did not want to run the risk of being labeled a poseur. In the alternative / punk / whatever-we-were culture of late 1980’s suburbia, there was nothing worse than being a fake, inauthentic person.
So the first thing I think when I imagine being an atheist, if just for one day, is that I’m a total poseur. I can’t really imagine being an atheist any more that I can truly imagine being a woman or being black. It’s not how I am built, which doesn’t make the way I am built any better or worse (although it does give me tons of privilege in this society.) The best I can do is a polite bit of fiction, a suspension of belief.
Except it’s not. Lack of belief is agnosticism, which is the end of logic as well. We can’t rationally prove the existence of God, nor can we rationally prove a negative (such as “God does not exist.”) Atheism, then, is the belief that God is not here because there is no God. This day, the day between the remembrance of the crucifixion and the celebration of Easter, is as close as Christians come to atheism. God is not here today.
So where does that leave us? Without God, how do we build a life of meaning? Even on a day without God, my life has meaning. If nothing else, I’ve got a wife that I can partner with and a daughter I can care for. That doesn’t mean nothing. Then there are the other people. Do they have dignity and deserve respect because God told me they did? Not today. Maybe not ever. Maybe they have dignity and deserve respect because they are. And they are all we have. Today, we don’t know if we’ve got God, but we know we have each other. What do we do with that?
Normally speaking, I am a morning person. Actually, I’ve never quite gotten used to getting up in the middle of the night to go to work. It’s almost impossible to drag myself out of the house when everyone else is right in the middle of a solid night’s sleep, even though I’ve usually been conked out for at least a couple of hours by the time they go to bed. Down around the city, there seems to be something stirring at any pretty much any hour. Up here, it gets dark pretty early and by the middle of the third watch the blackness seems to dye even the grey ropes of the nets.
That is, however, the life of a fisherman. The crepuscular animals we harvest won’t wait for us to have a full night’s sleep, so I’m up well before first light to get out on the water and lower my nets. It’s lonely on the lake in the middle of the night. It’s lonely even when I’m out there with three or four other guys. Some of them don’t speak any of the languages I speak, and it’s only because we have been doing this for so long (we being the people who have lived on every side of this lake since Noah came out of the ark) that we can fall into a rhythm of labor that doesn’t need any words. So I’m not alone in my work, but I’m alone in my thoughts.
Mostly my thoughts are about how this is not really going to work out this time, even though it has worked out more or less every time before now. You don’t know what the catch is going to be like until it’s in the boat, and I’m enough of a worrier to worry about it. Each and every time. But when the catch has been dragged up over the gunwales and lays wriggling around in the hull, I can stop worrying for at least as long as it takes to get back to the shore. At about this point, the sun usually peaks over the ridge on the east and the light starts working its way down the bluffs on the west. By the time it is reflected in the lake water, the sun has become a ball of molten bronze up in the sky. Beautiful but also kind of dangerous looking in the still calm of the morning.
I get why roosters crow at that thing. It’s more than a little bit scary, even if you know well enough that the sun is not going to start dripping liquid metal down on you anytime soon. The sun works more slowly but more thoroughly than that, what with the droughts and all, except when you concentrate it a specific spot, the way the Greeks supposedly did to the Romans at Syracuse. Whether or not that story is true, I can imagine what those poor Latins felt like. I’ve had the full power of the sun focused on me, and it’s a wonder that I did not burst into flames. And it all started with at the cock’s crow.
As I said, I’m usually a morning person. But in this case, I had been up most of the night before because the Master had been up all of the night before. We had made a seder. It was not particularly elaborate, but we had not all been together for dinner in a while. It was nice just to have everyone in the same room for once. Then He started talking in that way He has — or had I guess I should say — and everyone got a little nervous. I’ve told Him before to cut out the apocalyptic crap, but He wouldn’t listen. It drove off Judas, like I figured it would. I think He sensed that I was disturbed and He told me that I would be the next one to jump ship, that every night. Once again, the Master knew me better than I knew myself.
I hoped a walk, maybe up to the top of the mountain, would bring Him out of His reverie, but we did not get any farther than the garden. Every now and then, when He’s in the midst of one of these funks, some time alone — a little breathing room — helps. Helped. I don’t know. Anyway, when He wanted to go off alone, I said, “Sure. We’ll be right here.” By the time He got back, we had all nodded off. He did not say too much about it. He never said too much about anything, but we could tell He was pissed. That’s when Judas showed up with the Romans. I keep thinking that I could have kept them out of the garden, if I had been awake. I could have talked to Judas alone, before he had to make a scene.
But I wasn’t, and I didn’t. When they led Jesus off, he looked oddly relieved, like whatever he had been wrestling with all night was resolved. They did not tell us where they were going, so we followed them as far as the palace courtyard. It would have been suicidal to go inside. Only Judas followed them in there. I realized I was the only one of our group left. Everyone else had scattered. I thought about leaving too, but I also had this notion that maybe I could do something. After a couple of hours, the screaming started. My heart was in my throat. I’ve never seen a man tortured, but you can pretty much tell what it sounds like. I couldn’t sit by myself anymore, so I went over to where someone had made a fire.
At this point, I think I had started to come unhinged. Going from the warmth of the meal we had shared to the cold darkness of the garden after He was gone in just a matter of hours was such a shock that I began to suspect I was having some sort of horrible dream. The faces around the fire were foreign faces, unlike any I had seen before. Their eyes were hidden beneath the hoods of their cloaks, but their voices came out sharp and accusatory. “You’re one of them,” they struck out at me. I swore I was not. In the early dawn, a rooster cried. Again, they hurled an accusation. Again, I denied it. The chanticleer heralded a new day. “I saw you with Him,” one testified. “That wasn’t me,” I replied. A cock crowed so loudly, it seemed to be right next to me. I stumbled away, realizing that He knew before I did just how low I would go.
Maybe I’m not the same person. Maybe that guy who followed the Master all over Galilee, up to Tyre and Sidon, and down to Jerusalem, maybe he’s as dead as Jesus. I just don’t know what to think about anything anymore. We’ve stayed together, the eleven of us who are left. It doesn’t seem safe to try to leave, and we don’t know where we would go if we did. All we can do is sit here and wait. For what, I don’t really know.