Translating the Word

February 27, 2010

Translating the Word

It has been said that many years ago there lived a young and gifted woman called Sophia who received a vision in which God spoke to her as a dear friend. In this conversation God asked that Sophia dedicated her life to the task of translating and distributing the Word of God throughout her country. Now, at the time the printing press had only recently been invented, and the only Bibles to be found were written in Latin and kept under lock and key within churches. Sophia was from a poor farming village on the outskirts of the city, so the task seemed impossible. She would have to raise a vast sum of money to purchase the necessary printing equipment, rent a building to house it, and hire scholars with the ability to translate the Latin verses into the country’s common tongue.

However, the impossibility of her task did not sway her in the least. Having received her vision, Sophia sold the few items she possessed and left the village to live on the streets of the city, begging for the money that was required and dedicating herself to any work that was available in order to help with the funds.

Raising the money proved to be a long and difficult task, for while there were a few who gave generously, most gave little, if anything at all. In addition to this, living on the streets involved great personal suffering. But gradually, over the next fifteen years, the money began to accumulate.

Shortly before the plans for the printing press could be set in motion, a dreadful flood devastated a nearby town, destroying man people’s homes and livelihood. When the news reached Sophia she gathered up what she had raised and spent it on food for the hungry, material to help rebuild lost homes, and basic provisions for the dispossessed.

Eventually the town began to recover from the natural disaster that had befallen it and so Sophia left and returned to the city in order to start over again, all the while remember the vision that God had planted deep in her heart.

Many more years passed slowly, extracting their heavy toll on the beautiful Sophia. But there were now many who had been touched by her love and dedication, so although people were poor, the money began to accumulate once again. However, after nine more years, disaster struck again. This time a plague descended upon the city, stealing the lives of thousands and leaving many children without family of support.

By now Sophia was tired and very ill, yet without hesitation she used the money that has been collected to buy medicines for the sick, homes for the orphaned, and land where the dead could be buried safely.

Never once did she forget the vision that God had imparted to her, but the severity of the plague required that she set this sacred call to one side in order to help with the emergency. Only when the shadow of the plague had lifted did she once again take to the streets, driven by her desire to translate the Word of God and distribute it among the people.

Finally, shortly before her death, Sophia was able to gather together the money requires for the printing press, the building, and the translators. Although she was, by this time, close to death, Sophia lived long enough to see the first Bibles printed and distributed.

It is said to this day that Sophia had actually accomplished her task of translating and distributing the Word of God three times during her life rather than simply one– the first two being more beautiful and radiant than the last.

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I have a couple of thoughts on this; hold on, it may get a bit wonky.

Any time human beings try to articulate anything, something is lost in putting it to words. For example, we know that stealing is bad, so we make theft illegal. What happens to a person who steals because they are starving? In this case the writing of a law has made that law blind and ineffective. Writing about a piece of music, while sometimes beautiful in itself, cannot compare to the actual experience of listening to the piece and experiencing it. Human hands and language have their limits, and they fail reliably to describe things that are beyond us. I do not think I impugn the Bible if I suggest that this is also the case with the Word of God.

For what else is Jesus if not the Word become flesh?

If even God thinks that the Word handed down through generations needs to be incarnated and lived, where does this leave the Body of Christ on earth, the church? Don’t miss the forest for the trees here; I’m not suggesting translating the Bible isn’t good. The Bible is also not God, and as God’s body on earth the church has a responsibility to put a face to the Word. Rigid, doctrinaire adherence does the Word an injustice, for it fails to acknowledge the tension and contradictions inherent within that even the text itself acknowledges. If all the laws in the Torah were easy to follow on their own and not messy stumblings toward holiness, why would Jesus and the Prophets have to clarify them for the faithful? In our desire to remain faithful to the Word of God, let us not forget the exhortation(s) within, instructing us to flesh out the Word: Do Justice; Love Mercy; Walk Humbly with God.

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Jesus and the Five Thousand

Jesus withdrew privately by boat to a solitary place, but the crowds continued to follow him. Evening was now approaching and the people, many of whom had traveled a great distance, were growing hungry.

Seeing this, Jesus sent his disciples out to gather food, but all they could find were five loaves of bread and two fishes. Then Jesus asked that they go out again and gather up the provisions that the crowd had brought to sustain them in their travels. Once this was accomplished, a vast mountain of fish and bread stood before Jesus. Upon seeing this he directed the people to sit down upon the grass.

Standing before the food and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks to God and broke the bread. Then he passed the food among his twelve disciples. Jesus and his friends ate like kings in full view of the starving people. But what was truly amazing, what was miraculous about this meal, was that when they had finished the massive banquet there were not even enough crumbs left to fill a starving person’s hand.

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Pretty shocking to have Jesus do something like that, huh?

One theological line of thought that I really resonate with is the idea that from the moment of creation until now God has wanted representatives on earth. This is why humanity is made in God’s image; why God called Israel out of Egypt; why the Prophets raged about Israel’s iniquity; why God incarnated; why there’s a church. As a preacher I once heard put it, “God wants friends.”

The world is not an endlessly abundant, bottomless resource to be taken advantage of. It is incredibly bountiful, no doubt, and there’s enough for everyone. It needs to be distributed properly. If Christians are the vision of Jesus on earth, then what does it say to the poor and starving when Western Christians gorge themselves on the resources they’ve taken away from the poor, in full view of the starving people, all to feed insatiable affluence? What does it say about Jesus?

No Conviction

February 25, 2010

No Conviction

In a world where following Christ is decreed to be a subversive and illegal activity you have been accused of being a believer, arrested, and dragged before a court.

You have been under clandestine surveillance for some time now, and so the prosecution has been able to build up quite a case against you. They begin the trial by offering the judge dozens of photographs that show you attending church meetings, speaking at religious events, and participating in various prayer and worship services. After this, they present a selection of items that have been confiscated from your home: religious books that you own, worship CDs, and other Christian artifacts. Then they step up the pace by displaying many of the poems, pieces of prose, and journal entries that you had lovingly written concerning your faith. Finally, in closing, the prosecution offers your Bible to the judge.

This is a well word book with scribbles, notes, drawings, and underlinings throughout, evidence, if it were needed, that you had read and re-read the sacred text many times.

Throughout the case you had been sitting silently in fear and trembling. You know deep in your heart that with the large body of evidence that has been amassed by the prosecution you face the possibility of long imprisonment or even execution. At various times throughout the proceedings you have lost all confidence and have been on the verge of standing up and denying Christ. But while this thought has plagued your mind throughout the trial, you resist the temptation and remain focused.

Once the prosecution has finished presenting their case the judge proceeds to ask if you have anything to add, but you remain silent and resolute, terrified that if you open your mouth, even for a moment, you might deny the charges made against you. Like Christ, you remain silent before your accusers. In response you are led outside to wait while the judge ponders your case.

The hours pass slowly by as you sit under guard in the foyer waiting to be summoned back. Eventually a young man appears and leads you back into the courtroom so that you may hear the verdict and receive your word of punishment. Once you have been seated in the dock the judge, a harsh and unyielding man, enters the room, stands before you, looks deep into your eyes and begins to speak.

“Of the charges that have been brought forward I find the accused not guilty.

“Not guilty?” Your heart freezes. Then, in a split second, the fear and terror that had moments before threatened to strip your resolve are swallowed up by confusion and rage.

Despite the surroundings, you stand defiantly before the judge and demand that he give an account concerning why you are innocent of the charges in light of the evidence.

“What evidence?” he replies in shock.

“What about the poems and prose that I wrote?” you reply.

“They simply show that you think of yourself as a poet, nothing more.

“But what about the services I spoke at, the times I wept in church, and the long, sleepless nights of prayer?”

“Evidence that you are a good speaker and actor, nothing more,” replied the judge. “It is obvious that you deluded those around you, and perhaps at times you even deluded yourself, but this foolishness is not enough to convict you in a court of law.”

“But this is madness!” you shout. “It would seem that no evidence would convince you!”

“Not so,” replies the judge as if informing you of a great, long-forgotten secret.

“This court is indifferent toward your Bible reading and church attendance; it has no concern towards worship and a pen. Continue to develop your theology, and use it to paint pictures of love. We have no interest in such armchair artists who spend their time creating images of a better world. We exist only for those who would lay down that brush, and their life, in a Christlike endeavor to create a better world. So, until you live as Christ and his followers did, until you challenge this system and become a thorn in our side, until you die to yourself and offer your body to the flames, until then, my friend, you are no enemy of ours.”

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I remember first reading this parable and being incredibly disappointed about half-way through. What a lame story, and I’d heard it before. It is a favorite of a certain branch of Christians, those who imagine that all of the structures of the world are oppressing them and that they’re being discriminated against. They’re already beset, and the triumphal outcome of the story is their joining a long line of Christian martyrs. I was disappointed in Pete; I shouldn’t have been. This twist is glorious, and ties well (again) with previous parables.

What’s the line from James? “Faith without works is dead”? Of course the counter-argument is always “We were saved by grace through faith…” to do good works is how that bit ends. It usually gets omitted. Clean clay pots, we are. The story plays upon the reader’s confidence in their faith. “Of course the evidence would convict me. I’m a model Christian.”

But really, how dangerous are you? (Or I, for that matter?) Income disparity in the US has never been greater than it is now. Who’s protesting that? One billion people lack access to clean drinking water, adequate nutrition, and medical facilities. If you’re a Christian, do you think God is ok with that? US companies export their labor overseas where people are willing to work in appalling conditions to make ends meet, all so you (I) can have a cheap tshirt. Your (My) lifestyle is subsidized by the global poor. Are you making noise about that? Or do you just buy (red) products and walk around with a fair trade cotton tshirt?

Jesus was killed– remember, that’s what Lent leads up to– for being an enemy of the state. He was dangerous. He turned over tables. The first Christians dared say “Jesus is Lord,” when saying anything other than “Caesar is Lord” would get you killed. I doubt any of us is close to that threshold. Be dangerous.

The Debate

February 24, 2010

The Debate

There once was a young man who sought high and low to find a learned rabbi who would be able to teach him the ancient wisdom of Hebraic logic. The story goes that after a prolonged search the young man finally found a suitable rabbi and asked if the rabbi would be willing to tutor him. Upon seeing the youth the rabbi simply smiled
and said, “You are too young and have too little life experience for the lessons that I have to teach. Come back to me in ten years.”

The young man was full of a confidence bordering on arrogance and responded, “I may be young but I have already mastered Aristotelian logic and symbolic logic. Test me. Ask me any question you want and I will prove to you that I am ready.”

The rabbi thought for a few moments and then choose a question. He said, “Two men descend a chimney. When they get to the bottom, one man’s face is covered in soot. Tell me, which one washes his face?”

In response the young man immediately said, “Why, that is easy. It would be the one with the soot on his face.”

In response the rabbi turned to leave, saying, “Of course not. What are you thinking? It is the man without the soot who washes his face, for he sees his friend’s complexion and thinks that he too must be dirty.”

“Please don’t send me away,” replied the young man. “Test me again. Any question at all.”

And so the rabbi thought for a moment and said, “Alright, listen carefully this time. Two men descend a chimney. When they get to the bottom, one man’s face is covered in soot. Tell me, which one washes his face?”

“Why, the man without the soot on his face,” replies the young man.

Again the rabbi shakes his head, “You are not listening in the right way. It is obvious that it is the man with the soot on his face who washes. He sees the reaction of his friend upon reaching the ground, can taste the soot from his lips, and can feel it stinging his eyes. Now leave me in peace.”

“Please,” replies the young man, “test me one last time, as I think I have it
now.”

“One last time,” replies the rabbi. “This time I want you to really listen. Two men descend a chimney. When they get to the bottom, one man’s face is covered in soot. Tell me, which one washes his face?”

“The first answer I gave,” shouts the young man, “but for different reasons.”

“No, no, no,” says the rabbi as he leaves. “They both wash their faces. How could someone descend a chimney and not think that their face would be covered in soot?”

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How, indeed? This parable reminds me of the seeming wall that faces college graduates. The young man in the story has got plenty of book knowledge, but when it comes to actually applying that knowledge the result is spectacularly naive. But going just a bit beyond that this story is also about the need for knowledge to be practical on its own; this story is skeptical of the need for the young man to learn Aristotle in the first place.

Consensus theological positions within churches change– sometimes dramatically so– over time. The exacting minutiae of specific spiritual positions is completely irrelevant in the face of the suffering of the world. I know that some will claim that getting the small things right is important since it lays the foundations for the big things. I can see the logic in that, but would counter with the thought that small things are small for a reason. Continuing the idea I explored yesterday, sometimes complex theologies crumble in the face of the worldly reality that we’ve all got soot on our face and need a washing.

Better to Sleep

February 23, 2010

Better to Sleep

There was a child who was deeply pious and devout. One day he kept vigil through the night with his father, the sacred scriptures nestled on his lap. Many gathered in their home that evening. However, as the night drew on everyone else in the room grew tired. Soon, all had fallen asleep except for the child and his father.

The child turned to his father and said, “These people sleep instead of pray, it is as if they were dead.”

But his father simply replied, “Beloved son, I would prefer that you slept like them rather than slandering them.”

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This parable and the last are connected similarly to the first two, although the connection is more subtle. On the surface of it, this is a warning against extreme piety. When Jesus made this point he compared the Pharisees to clay pots that had been cleaned on the outside but not on the inside. These pious people’s obsession with keeping even the most obscure commandments meant they looked shiny and clean on the outside, but that piety allowed them to ignore the dirt on the inside. They (we) let their pride convince them that what really counted was appearances and strict devotion, but the end result was a profound lack of empathy for the world around them.

This lack of empathy cuts you off from the rest of the world.

That’s what this boy, and all of us who can see ourselves in him, are suffering from. We’re disconnected, cut off by a mechanism of our own making. Our rush to saint ourselves, to prove our devotion, makes us blind and deaf to the needs of people around us. The people in this story aren’t even “sinners.” They’re devout believers themselves who happen to feel the human need to shut their eyes at night, no matter how devoted they may be. Let’s take that shutting the eyes off metaphor a little further, shall we?

Going to school at Northwestern meant I was around a lot of very pious people. That wasn’t a huge deal most of the time, but every once in a while the folks I was around couldn’t shut off the Jesus talk for even five minutes and actually deal with a human problem staring them in the face. I cannot even count the number of times that I asked people for advice or counsel on matters and got the response, “Well, have you brought your concerns to God?” I know these people meant well, but their advice could not have been worse in that situation. Along with not helping at all, it served to make me– and others like me– feel spiritually inferior. Instead of having the apparent broadband connection to Jesus that my classmates had I felt like I was stuck using dial-up, and it would have been really helpful to have support staff there willing to walk me through things. Instead I got the Christian equivalent of, “Is the power on?”

If I’m honest I’m as guilty of this as anyone else, my example is used as a convenient illustration. It is much harder to give a person a few minutes of time and engage with them honestly. The temptation is always to reply with a prepackaged answer. Sometimes the solution is not more of heaven; instead you need to come down out of the clouds and get dirty dealing with human problems. It is messier and more difficult, but ultimately much healthier.

New Life

February 22, 2010

New Life

There was once a mother whose child tragically died only a few months after her birth. The woman was so distraught at what had taken place that she carefully bound the infant’s body to her own with cloth and went in search of someone who would be able to resuscitate her.

She travelled far and wide to doctors, magicians, and wisdom teachers but no- one could offer any help. In her travels she heard a rumour about a holy man who lived high up in the mountains and who possessed the power to work great miracles. So she went in search of this great saint, eventually locating his small dwelling in an isolated patch of land high about the town.

Upon meeting the man she relayed her story while he listened intently. After she finished he thought for a while and then spoke with compassion, saying, “I can help you, but only if you gather up a handful of mustard seeds from the home of someone who has not suffered the pain of loss.”

The woman immediately went on the quest and travelled throughout the city in search of a single home that had not been overshadowed by the pain of separation. However she could not find a single place. Nevertheless, as she travelled from house to house and heard the stories of other people suffering she slowly began to come to terms with her own. She was eventually able to take her beloved child and bury her in the soil of the world.

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It took me years to be alright with crying.

I mean, in my headspace I was ok with it. I’d say, “I certainly don’t think there’s anything wrong with a person crying, much less a guy,” but I would never do it. I think I had absorbed all that BS about people not letting their emotions show on the surface. Stiff upper lip and all. Amazingly, though, years of saying it finally sunk in right around my sophomore year of college and I started crying again. Now I’m turning into my mother; Satuday night I listened to a new Radiolab and the story of a chimpanzee named Lucy who’d been raised among humans made me cry.

You might be saying, “Chris, I’m sure the woman in this story was crying plenty; she had her dead baby strapped to her body.” Fair enough, but I think her story and mine are two sides of the same coin. There’s no one way to deal with grief well, but there are innumerable ways to deal with it poorly. In C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, one of the people the narrator runs into is a mother who has made her dead child’s room into a shrine to the idealized boy she once had. Her grief hasn’t been dealt with properly and has created for her and the people around her an earthly hell. The mother in this story is much like that. Her grief, real and powerful, has blinded her to the shared suffering of those in the world around her.

I think her situation and the situation of folks who don’t show their grief are remarkably similar; we have no-one to truly speak our grief to. People say things like, “Buck up, you need to be strong for your family. Other people in the world are suffering, too.” What a twisted thing to say to a person in the midst of grief. Some friends here in town had a meeting recently in which they spoke their grief to one another, mutual support starting the healing process after naming and confessing the sorrow that had a hold on them. Answers weren’t offered; what answers can there be?

Instead: Space, Love, Support.

A Proper Update

February 21, 2010

Sunday being a day during Lent in which one does not freak out about one’s discipline, I will not be relating a parable today. Also, I’d run out of them a few days early if I did that. Instead this will be an actual update in the comings and goings of my life, plus a few other things on my mind.

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The latest Paste Magazine’s cover story bears the title, “Is Indie Dead?” To which the answer is, yes. As soon as Volkswagen opened the floodgates for corporate appropriation of whatever Indie is Indie died. Whatever, who cares? Things change, and I’m excited for the future. Far more interesting to me was the way Rachel Maddux, the author, reformulated the old Elephant parable. Briefly, I will recount the parable for those unaware of it:

Three blind men each happen upon an elephant, but they don’t feel the same parts of it. One feels the tail, bristly and stiff. An other feels a leg, thick and sturdy. The third feels the trunk, strong and flexible. None of the men can agree on what they’re experiencing as the way they encounter the elephant is different. They’re all describing the same thing just different parts, and without being able to see the whole thing the elephant seems indecipherable.

This is often used by people when they talk about relativism, or even God. Our experience determines what we know, and even when two or three people experience an event simultaneously the human condition makes it impossible for all of the pieces to line up. One thing the elephant parable does do, though, is assume that if we could see, then the elephant would be mutually understandable. Maddux brilliantly reformulates the tale, turning the elephant into a mutant creature that would be totally incomprehensible to the men even if they could see the whole thing.

I. Love. This.

This is, I think, a fascinating way to think about God. Even if we could see the whole of God, what we would see would be beyond comprehension. Think back to Exodus; God is named as unnamed; The best Moses can see of God is where God just was; God in the Tabernacle is revealed as a cloud, the Shekinah, a heaviness beyond comprehension. You could say that Jesus reveals God anew to the world, but the view of God in the Christian world after Jesus is of a tripartite God who is possibly even more incomprehensible than a simply unnamable God.

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I’m plodding along with classes and my dissertation work right now. There’s a frustratingly small amount of English language literature on my topic, particularly contemporary studies, so a lot of what I have to do is take historical accounts and match them up to recent demographic data, which is fairly available. More frustratingly what little English literature exists is pretty much nonexistent in the school’s library. I don’t have access to two journals that will be useful, and several books are proving difficult to procure as well. I did finally figure out how to use Queen’s Lexis Nexis account, which was altogether too difficult to find. A Nexis search should be an easily used function for university students to access, and at Queen’s it is buried in the network. Stupid. I’m very much looking forward to going to Russia over Easter break, and am now working on getting some interviews set up in Kazan. Hopefully.

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One proverb often repeated by people is the creaky trope, “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” That is the laziest excuse for encouraging historical comprehension in existence. It sounds profound on the surface of it, but even brief prodding reveals its weakness. Namely this: No historical event ever repeats itself. Things may look similar at first blush, but the contingencies underpinning human events are in constant flux and are never identical to their predecessors. Far too often that line is used to justify a lack of curiosity when studying the past, as it is assumed that linking past events to present ones is an adequate explanation for both. It isn’t, and being satisfied with such a superficial understanding of history degrades our understanding of both the past and the present.

The Besotted King

February 20, 2010

The Besotted King

There is an ancient tale about a powerful king who became infatuated with one of his slaves. Although such a mixing between castes was frowned upon, the king, who could do as he pleased, decreed that this woman be freed of her duties and given a large portion of the palace as her living quarters and immediately began making plans to marry the woman.

However, the plans were overshadowed by a mysterious illness that inflicted her soon after entering the palace. Despite the best efforts of the king’s personal doctors the illness grew worse. In desperation the king sent out a decree that the one who could cure this woman would receive anything they desired up to the value of half his kingdom.

A travelling hakim happened to be in the area. He heard of the king’s decree and decided to help. When brought before the king the hakim declared, “Your Majesty, I have no need of treasure, for the heavens above are my blanket and the people feed me as I feed them, but, God willing, I believe that I may be able to find a cure.”
With this he left and spoke with the young woman. Upon returning the hakim spoke once more to the king saying, “The illness is as simple to cure as it is deadly, and I am so confident I can help that if I fail I will gladly offer my head.”

The king was delighted at this news, but the sage continued. ”The cure will be a painful one,” he said.

“I would wish her no harm,” replied the king, “but if she is willing then do what you must.”

The hakim shook his head. “You fail to understand, your Majesty. The cure will not be painful for the woman, but for you. This woman is in love with one of your servants; by taking her into your care you have separated them. Give them your blessing to marry and she shall recover.”

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One of the most trite and clichéd lines in the world is “If you love something, you have to be willing to let it go.” But, cliché alert, things get that way because there’s a kernel of truth to them.

Imagine you’re working for a human rights advocacy group, and this truly is your passion. You want nothing more than to see the world reconciled and for people all across the world to be treated with respect. You pour your life into it; you study and read up on the history of human rights theory; you work extra hours every week to ensure that cases are handled successfully. Now imagine that your firm hires someone to work under you who is truly gifted– an intellectual heavyweight. This person has a grasp of PR and can make a media darling of a case, but at the same time they can also work behind the scenes to ensure that everything goes off without a hitch. They’re great at mediation and masterful at the nitty gritty of legal statements. What’s the right thing to do in this case?

You know where I’m going with this, right?

Sometimes you have to hurt yourself in order for the thing you love to truly flower. This has implications in so many of our human pursuits, not just romantic love or human rights law. To be provocative, might it apply also to faith? Is there a point when fidelity to the letter of faith is a betrayal of the spirit of the faith? Are there moments when truly being faithful means betraying one’s faith? In The Fidelity of Betrayal Rollins talks about a Costa-Gavras film set during the Holocaust in which a Catholic priest struggles in vain against the persecution of the Jews by the Nazis. Unable to save anyone, the priest gives up his protection as a Catholic and takes the identity of a Jew, suffering with those who suffer.

Ruth Landegent once told me that instead of reporting the illegal immigrants she knew to the authorities she helped them get paperwork started so that they could become legal residents of Iowa. This is exactly what I’m talking about. This is the kind of betrayal that is truly faithful. This is the kind of love that is pleasing in the Lord’s sight.

The Debt of Love

February 19, 2010

The Debt of Love

There was once a holy man who journeyed to Mecca in beggar’s clothing. There he saw a barber shaving a nobleman. When he asked the barber to shave him, the barber immediately left the wealthy man and shaved this stranger in his midst. He refused to take any money for his work, but rather, gave the holy man some as alms.

The pilgrim was so touched that he decided he would give to the barber whatever he received in alms that day. It so happened that a wealthy pilgrim came up to him and gave him a bag of gold coins. So the holy man went up to the barber’s shop that evening and offered the gold to the barber.

But in response the barber grabbed a razor and chased him away, yelling, “What kind of a holy man are you that you come to reward me for an act of love?”

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After taking a couple sociology classes I learned that there’s no such thing as a truly altruistic deed. People do good for any number of reasons: To curry favor; to feel better about themselves; to look good in the eyes of others; to induce indebtedness; etc., whatever. I didn’t like learning this; in fact, it is something I wish I could unlearn. At first it made me extremely suspicious of any good deed anyone performed towards me. “What do they want from me? How can I pay them back?” It was such an impoverished attitude to take towards generosity. Even if a person’s reasons for doing good are less than angelic, it should not stop me from gratefully accepting any charity that comes my way.

My reaction was a normal one, though. When people move into a new neighborhood, often their new neighbors will invite them over for dinner. How much unnecessary stress does this cause? “Shouldn’t we invite them over soon in return? Maybe if we just got some flowers or something… How long should we wait before reciprocating?” Indeed, some people do a good turn fully expecting reciprocation at some point, and become indignant when it isn’t forthcoming. It is hard to know what’s going on in the murk of the human mind.

This story gives a different perspective, though. If this was happening around the time of the Hajj, then the barber could very well have been caught up in the religious fervor and good will that must surely have been saturating the atmosphere. Part of a Muslim’s duty– one of the five pillars– is to give alms, so in giving the pilgrim a free shave and donating alms the barber saw himself as simply doing what God asks any believer to do. This requires no renumeration. This is where the pilgrim fundamentally misunderstands Islam, and where a lot of Christians misunderstand the Christian commands to look after the widow and the orphan. When a person does this, they do it– hopefully– out of love and obedience to God and their fellow human. They need no further compensation, and to worry and fret about it is to take the a holy inter-action and transform it into a trans-action. What is supposed to be an outflowing of love from one person to another becomes just another monetary exchange.

The giving of alms, the work of charity, is supposed to be a radical subversion of our normal interactions. It is supposed to expose the poverty of preying upon one another in a transactional sense. By falling into this common trap we make it harder to let the transforming work of God take place.

“What kind of holy man are you that you come to reward me for an act of love?”

Indeed, the act is itself the reward, and why should we be suspicious of that? I’m not anymore.

The Contented Fisherman

February 18, 2010

Contented Fisherman

A rich industrialist from the North was horrified to find a fisherman from the South laying lazily beside his boat, smoking a pipe.

“Why aren’t you out fishing?” said the industrialist.

“Because I have caught enough fish for the day,” said the fisherman.

“Why don’t you catch some more?”

“What would I do with them?”

“You could earn more money” was the reply. “With that you could have a motor fixed to your boat and go into deeper waters and catch more fish.

“Then you would make enough to buy nylon nets. These would bring you more fish and more money. Soon you would have enough money to own two boats . . . maybe even a fleet of boats. Then you would be a rich man like me.”

“What would I do then?”

“Then you could really enjoy life.”

“What do you think I am doing right now?”

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My RD Brian once told us a similar story to this for a Church of the Stoop, and the story dovetails nicely with the previous one. When do we have enough? Stop and think for a bit; what makes you happy? What would you have to do to achieve that? I love to write. Well, I don’t love to write papers, but that’s because I think they suck all the energy out of what I would like to say. I love to talk to people and get their stories. I love to mediate. I love to debate. I love art. What do I have to do to get that? Apparently I’m like the industrialist: go to a private school; get a degree; go to a swank overseas university; get a Master’s degree; go deep into debt to do these things; still be unsure as to how this will get you doing what you love to do when it’s done.

Where does our relentless working get us? Any time the economy starts to tank we hear about how social mobility has become more difficult. We’re obsessed with getting ahead, with keeping up, with not getting left behind. We run up debt long before we’d ever run up the white flag and say, “I’ve got enough.” While I was at Northwestern Brian and I would have one-on-ones every week, and he told me once about an interview he read profiling an old Cuban man. When asked what his secret to long life was, he replied, “Good food, good cigars, and good sex.” When you read profiles of people who’ve lived into a ripe old age, how many of them say things like, “Put in 60 hours a week at my job, be ruthless to my competitors, never take a vacation”?

The answer is none of them, if you weren’t clear.

Instead we hear variations on the Cuban man’s advice, which essentially boils down to this: Enjoy your life. When you have enough, be ok with having enough. Things will sort themselves out; they always do.