15 June 2010

Staying Off Love's Hook

"And Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. And he saith unto them, 'FOLLOW ME, AND I WILL MAKE YOU FISHERS OF MEN.' And they straightway left their nets, and followed him." (Matthew 4: 18-20)

". . . for with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again." (Matthew 7: 2)

". . . but speaking the truth in love, [we] may grow up into him in all things . . ." (Ephesians 4: 15 - all KJV)

One often hears talk of how hard it is to reach people with an urgent message. Of how difficult it can be to "get through." You can hear this complaint from people with every sort of message, from all walks of life, at every level of success and endeavor. Sometimes even, amazingly, from some very grumpy, disagreeably-mannered individuals. Folks whose whole presence, tone and demeanor are enough to make you wonder how they ever manage to stomach the people they're trying to reach - much less ever get round to reaching them. Misanthropes are always despising the human creature and then wondering why he doesn't take their advice. As if the fellow who is perennially disgusted with me is sure to have the best idea of what will give me real joy, real fulfilment, real wholeness and peace. Indeed, it's rather a fair bet that, however good or necessary his message may be, I'll always find a way - conscious or unconscious - of fortifying myself against it.

No, whatever the reason may be, disdain of ordinary people, and virulent disgust at all their pathetic little vices and failings, remains a sorely ineffective way of convincing them that you either know or want their best interest. And here you'd think the great god Contempt, with his singleness and ferocity of purpose, could easily batter down any human defense but the most implacably hardened and wicked.

And yet - again and again - I find that, no matter how wicked or well-fortified a given heart may be (my own included), somehow Love always finds a way in past the sentries. Even when it winds up being utterly expelled - ridden out on a rail, as they used to say - Love always manages to secure a foothold of some duration, large or small. And not just any foothold, but as often as not, I'm told, one reaching all the way into the citadel of our most august, resolute, indomitable ambitions and life-strategies.

I mean here, of course, not just any old clumsy, overbearing, obnoxious love, but the very oldest kind - otherwise known as the kind that gets results. I mean that wise, patient, watchful, stand-ready-and-waiting-to-act-when-bidden sort of love, which most of the time is so quiet you barely know it's there. The kind that knows you better than you know yourself, and doesn't despise you for it. Indeed, from what I hear, it actually enjoys the knowledge - at least after a fashion, and no doubt, again, a very old fashion. After all, what is the love that works, if not the power to see past the glorious mess you and I have made of ourselves, to the exquisite blueprint the Knower had in mind in the first place? It works, again, because it's got something to work with - in this case, the very same work from which God rested on the seventh day. You remember, that work of which He said (and apparently meant it) that it was "very good."

Now from what I gather, that includes even you and me even now - or at least until we get our grubby fingers in the pie. For some reason it almost never occurs to us children of Adam, that the One who made us very good might also know how to make us even better.

And so He does. Though exactly how Love gets past our noses, and sometimes all the way into the heart of the camp, remains a mystery. Indeed, it's likely just as well we sapient humans are not able to get His particular method down to a scientifically repeatable formula - as in lather, rinse, repeat. In no time at all our Scientific Love would become, like almost everything we do, a matter of mere power, technique and manipulation, eventually coming to resemble something much more like - well, hate - in our ever-so-industrious hands. As it is, our most sophisticated precision instruments remain very poor tools for following, much less charting, Love's movements.

And so, partly because He moves so quietly, and not only seems but is so useful, Love maneuvers past all our best sharpshooters, extends to the proud watchman the countersign, and slips in. And unless our command centers move quickly to intercept Him (as we usually do at this point), we'll find He has changed - quite beyond recognition - not only the plan and point of attack, but lookout points, supply lines, battlefield, indeed the enemy himself. After all, the very worst enemy - of anyone or anything human - is that one who, however good he may be at massaging our self-importance, is even better at (to use Mick Jagger's immortal phrase) laying our souls to waste. Love knows that. Love understands our real enemy. He knows it is something, and someone, far bigger than those familiar, annoying weaknesses of ours that stand in the way of our most cherished self-images and self-projects. Love remembers, and not just the outward impressiveness but the inward hatefulness of Satan - and particularly in those busy, world-depends-on-us moments when we're most apt to forget.

But now suppose instead we're on "God's side," to put the matter very loosely. Suppose we're on the other side of the line, and trying our darndest to get in to somebody's heart. Not all the way in, which might actually move us to greater kindness than we'd planned on, or greater mercy than we'd made provision for. But just enough to make our chosen target seriously uneasy, without inflicting much of any real discomfort on ourselves. Suppose, in short, our plan is merely to "use" love to "get at" or "get through to" somebody - to make our indelible point, to drop our verbal bomb, and then move on. It may even be someone with whom we have a standing "issue": perhaps somebody we still find, after all these years, very hard to forgive, or haven't found the time to ask forgiveness of. Remember, there's nothing like the double-pointed arrow of Truth spiced with offended grievance for driving home one's point - besides making it doubly painful. Nor is there anything like the cudgel of blunt, heavy-handed Truth for covering over the offenses we've caused, or papering over the wounds we're much too busy too heal.

In either case we do well to keep one thing in mind. Love never goes anywhere - not even deep inside the most landmine-enclosed, barbed-wire-barricaded heart - without taking us with. Once inside, of course, and under His direct orders, we'll also be under the very strictest directions as to where we go, and for how long in each place. But once in, we're in it for the long haul. And that's true regardless of how weak or strong our own native capacity to love may be. Even the feeblest, most primitive love doesn't mix well with "hit-and-run," and then going off in search of new, more exciting war-fronts. Though it remains a formidably effective recipe for keeping communication and supply lines open. Besides being the worst of all bacterial cultures for nursing the war-germs of unforgiveness.

In sum, if your aim is to cut to the chase, get in and get out, etc, etc, by all means do not add love to the mix of your various motives for speaking the Truth. Especially if you have some difficult or painful truth to impart, be sure to convey it in the bluntest, most in-your-face, right-between-the-eyes, "it's-all-the-same-to-me-if-you-accept-it-or-you-don't" manner you can. Also be sure to choose all the most door-slamming, lay-down-the-law, "now-listen-that's-just-the-way-it-is" words you can think of for the occasion. Above all, do your level best not to understand what's it's like to be that individual: what she's afraid of, has to contend with, etc. I mean, that's God's department, right? Besides, really savage bluntness not only vastly improves the odds of that door's being slammed in your face, but actually helps to ensure that it stays slammed. In addition to making it that much harder to reopen from either side. And of course the greater the lapse of time, the harder it will be to reopen. Nobody waits forever. And then, before you can say "Prodigal Son's Elder Brother," one of you will be safely dead, and the other of you will be - dare we hope? - off the Hook.

Oh, to be sure, the other way - the Way in which we choose to convey an urgent message - must have some measure of importance, however hard to determine. But then again, really - in this fast and furious Age of not-a-second-to-lose deadlines, and life-or-death profit margins, how important can that measure be?

Out of Control

I'm not a complete pessimist when it comes to Man's earthly prospects - any more than I'd worry over the future harmfulness of an intelligent, resourceful, and comprehensively nasty pit-bull in the hands of the right trainer and owner. I believe most things we do are good - or would be good - within the bounds of their proper times and circumstances. "He maketh every thing beautiful in its time," says the King James Version of Ecclesiastes. He in this case being our Maker. The converse point of which, it seems to me, is that we make every thing ugly when we take it out of its time. That is, we humans manage even our best-laid plans badly when we fail to wait upon - or run rough-shod over - the proper times, and manners of unfolding, of those persons and things who have been appointed to our care. Indeed, one of the last points we may learn before the final Scroll gets rolled up, is that while the Lord Man may have succeeded in making most things efficient, it yet remains for the Lord God to make all things well.

But, again, that doesn't mean most things we do are not good - or even beautiful - within their rightful places and times. It is the occasions when they step, or slip, or spill out of those boundaries that make for either slow-leaking or sudden-erupting disaster. Somewhere, in other words, there may be a place where even the most boldly aggressive and presumptuous good we intend to do has no disastrous issue. Where even our most odds-defyingly courageous attempts at cost- and personnel-cutting result in no casualties, and no leaking rigs. I have little doubt, for instance, that even our most unbridled technological growth would be an unmitigated blessing in the hands of saints and angels of some future heaven. It is what that same unbridled growth can do, and has done, in the hands of human beings of this present earth that leaves me more than a bit worried. And yet, concerned as I am over the effects of our so-called Progress on the things around us, I'm even more uneasy about its effects upon the things inside us. Let's face it: hardy and strong as we may be when exposed to other viruses, we humans on the whole have shown the very poorest resistance to most strains of sin, both new and old. The result is that, in our present delicate condition, we continue to learn much more from failure than from success, much more from defeat than from victory. Certainly it is the former things that have taught us most of the little we know about love, and patience, and mercy. It would be nice, of course, to think that one day success, wealth and power shall have the same consistent - and even humbling - effect upon Man that they continue to have upon the Son of Man. But so far it seems to be the one result that even the hardest of work, and the most frenzied multi-tasking, cannot accomplish.

What is it, then, about the human nature prevailing in this present world, that so often the "better" we make our conditions, the worse we make ourselves? What is it about modern man today, that the "better" we get at straining the gnats of racism, sexism and homophobia, the worse we gorge ourselves on whole camels - head, hooves, tail and all - of the most shameless conceit, and arrogance, and vindictiveness? Try thinking, for a moment, of all those features of this past decade which even now make it most distinctively Today, as opposed to the yesterday of the 1980's, or the day before yesterday of the 1960's. Regardless of whether we call ourselves Right or Left, isn't this the Age in which we've exalted our favorite political righteousness into a kind of sanctimonious, hounding, even persecuting religion? While meantime world-class religions have become debauched into militaristic ideologies sanctioning mass slaughter. Certainly, I hope, at least with hindsight it will become clear that our McVeighs and their bin Ladens were not cut from so different a cloth. Observe for instance, in both cases, how righteous indignation at the direction in which the world was going became the pretext not only for murder, but for mass butchery of the most fiendishly indiscriminate kind. And the sheer wonder of it all is that these acts of purifying righteousness - and others - took place not in the godless, socialistic Sixties and Seventies, but in those gloriously God-fearing, free-marketeering decades on either side of AD 2000.

What is it about us, then, that through all our many phases of self-reinvention, the more intent we are on controlling, manipulating, and altering our material circumstances, the more inept we become (or half-hearted?) at restraining our own worst impulses? And in particular those urges that secrete the most subtle, insidious and infectious kinds of evil? So that even today - whatever the success of our massive ad campaigns against those age-old vices, anger, bigotry, sloth - we're becoming ever so quietly indulgent of, and ever so adept at disguising and dressing up, those other, more industrious and forward-looking sins - like pride, greed and envy? (With our latest fashions in lust and gluttony meanwhile taking increasingly bizarre - to say nothing of perverse - turns and twists.)

It was H G Wells, I believe, who once wrote that mankind's best immediate hope of surviving the 20th century lay in the outcome of a race between education and disaster. Personally I think it's still much too early to pronounce education the winner. But even if we could, I'm not nearly as sure as Wells that man's survival prospects lie wholly within his present grasp - or even within the compass of his own future wisdom and ingenuity. And so for me the big question is not how far man can make it on his own; it is how bad the earth and its inhabitants will manage to get, under the benevolent lordship of Old Adam, before the New Adam finally steps in. And that is a question, for me anyway, which can only be decided by the outcome of a very different sort of race than Wells had in mind. I mean a race between knowledge and control. And more specifically, a race between

(1) the most unflinching, unsparing knowledge of ourselves - including all our most ambitious and seemingly productive vices; and
(2) our urge to control everything else - including those parts of us that may not be the most ambitious or productive, but which are definitely the least vicious and controlling.

After all, what does it matter how productively and efficiently the brilliant but spoiled child runs the entire household, when all the while he's becoming ever more dangerously out of control himself? What difference does it make how fast he gets stuff out the door when the entire warehouse is in daily, imminent danger of burning down or blowing up?

Today, more thoroughly than ever, I suspect, Man is become that brilliant spoiled child, and sadly this time around there seem to be few if any adults left in the house. Certainly none among his own kith and kin, and meanwhile God help the dogs and cats, the hamsters and goldfish. So what do you suppose, then, are the chances of our child-prodigy-sociopath at last bringing under manageable control, not those sins of which he's always been more or less ashamed, but those sins he has always tended - at least in his rare moments of self-honesty - to be most proud of? Those sins that, say what you will against them - well (dammit), they sure do get results.

For my part, I'm pretty confident of our species' eventual success in beating, more or less brutally into submission, our most lower-animal-like vices and sins. Maybe not enough to make us happier and wiser, but certainly enough to make the vast majority of us fairly confused and miserable, if not in many cases largely dehumanized to boot. But, again, what difference will it finally make if Wrath and Sloth end their natural human careers as the most irretrievably shamed and disgraced of fallen women, while Pride, Envy and Greed (PEG) go on to become the most ostentatiously gilded, honored, above all respectable dowagers and society matrons?

Some will tell me the answer is a world run, dominated and permeated by Christians. And not the merely professing kind either, but (one can almost hear the snarl in their voices) reeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeal Chris-ti-ans! But frankly I can't imagine even the most intensively Christianized world ever getting a proper handle on PEG. Indeed, given the historical success rate of most well-meaning theocracies, I'm inclined to think such a world would be as likely, if anything, to make us still more Pharisaic - which is to say, more proud, envious and greedy. All speculation of course. What I'm really wondering is this: Given the furious rate at which today's world is improving, in a generation or two shall any of us have even the presence of mind to recognize our three deadliest as sins at all, and not virtues?

Not, mind you, that we haven't managed to step back from that brink before - though we Christians, I'm sad to say, have not always been at the forefront of those who saw the approaching cliff most clearly or most early on. Churchill was no sort of Christian that I am aware of, yet at the critical moment he seems to have been as handy and flexible a mere human instrument as ever God took in hand. At all events he backed us off from the edge quite as well as any contemporary bishop or preacher.

And yet there's something about our particular Now which makes me feel that that's not going to work this time. Something which makes me wonder if we, both Christians and non-Christians, are not faced with a rather different kind of urgency than that which confronted Churchill's generation. Maybe now the critical question, for all of us, is not whether we shall or even can step back again, but rather, as we stand once again on the brink, and muster the courage to look all the way down inside, how widely open our eyes shall be, or how tightly shut. Shall we have the grace to reinvent ourselves just this once more, simply in order to see more clearly? And not just one more time, but just in time? That is, before what, in any other Age, would have been recognized as the uttermost monstrosity of human Pride becomes so well-dressed, and so impressively groomed and polished, as to be unrecognizable? Before an Arrogance against which Hitler would have seemed meek and mild gets spun to look and sound like Mahatma Gandhi? Or worst of all, becomes transmuted into some apocalyptically urgent and virtuous necessity for the Survival of Humankind?

And what if even we Christians don't quite pull it off? What if those eyes and ears, on whom the whole world depends to keep watch and guard through the night, themselves begin to drift off? What sort of world will begin to disclose itself, to emerge and take shape, through the drooping lids? What will that world feel like, when the last of the watchers have all but gone to sleep, and the whole of mankind has finally succeeded in controlling just about everything - except, of course, the very worst of itself? What will that world taste and smell like, when every thing in it that presently seems least manageable is at last brought under the proud, hard dominion of Man - everything, that is, except those very things in us which have always been most proudly obdurate to the dominion of God?

And long afterwards, I wonder - in the days that follow upon the End of History as We Know It - how will the very last, the millennial earth, remember us lately-departed Christians? Will it remember us gratefully, as having been its salt - or its solvent? As having been honest, decent, clear-sighted folk who did our best, as the old world stood teetering on the edge, to keep its eyes wide open? Or as essentially pious-but-blind guides, who unwittingly did our worst to fasten those eyes wide shut?

09 June 2010

"It's Him"

When was the last time you said to anybody (or, for that matter, heard anybody say to you):

"That's just fine. No need to rush. Take your time." ?

I know, so what? Why am I bothering to bring up an issue so patently irrelevant not only to the way we live today, but to the way we all kno-ow-owwwww we must live, if we are to go on being productive and wealth-creating?

I bring it up, because it's suddenly occurred to me that time is one of the most precious, if not the single most valuable gift, we humans can give anybody. After all, there is nothing we can do without it, and there is nothing we can do well unless we have enough of it. Most of us realize, for example (however much we may try to hustle and hype people into doing what's good for them/us), that there is no real love apart from patience. And of course there can be no real patience apart from time. And we don't enable anyone to do anything well, or to be or feel better in the doing of it, by hurrying them up.

That may seem an obvious enough point, at least once we step outside a corporate, government, or other modern organizational setting. But I do wonder how long it's going to take - I wonder how many lives will have to be used up, wrung out, wasted or otherwise incapacitated - before the folks with the requisite degrees in economics and public policy wake up and realize its obviousness. Instead, it would seem, they'd much rather chase after some exalted standard of efficiency and time-compression supposedly set by those veritable human gods, the [drum rolls and hushed tones] mainland Chinese. What our economists, policy-makers, managers, etc, don't seem to understand, is that while any and all of us can be born again in a way that makes us more or less Christian, not one of us who is not already thus gifted shall ever be born again in a way that makes her even remotely Chinese.

Needless to say, our patient, modestly-ambitioned, ever so privacy- and individuality-respecting economist is not remotely amused. "Well," he sniffs, "we Westerners are just going to have to get with the program. We're just going to have to . . . "

Excuse me, but have to - what? Throw what's left of Territorial Representative Democracy out the window with the bath-water? And that reminds me: Just how many times can Westerners reinvent themselves before the sap of reinvention is all dried up? How many times can we reshape ourselves before we run out of shapes? or self-reinventiveness? or energy? or even (there's that confounded word again!) Time?

Meanwhile Fallen Adam's age-old rule of thumb remains: In times of scarcity and uncertainty, be greedy! And so we time-starved and -impoverished souls, instead of giving to our fellow-plants the sweet light and air and water they need, try hoarding as much of it for ourselves as we can. And then we wonder why our overweight, over-spent, over-scheduled lives are more time-compressed - more time-oppressed - than ever before in living memory. Or why we do so many excruciatingly complicated things - like global finance - so badly, and irresponsibly. Why, of course we do. We lack the Time. We lack, in the words of the Very Best Friend Martha, Mary and Lazarus ever had, the "one thing necessary." And remember, nobody was ever more conscious of time-wastage and time-accountability than Bethany's own Local Girl Makes Good, Sister Martha. Of course none of us knows how she made out from there, or how sturdy or feeble a disciple of the Master she went on to become. But wherever she may be right now in the bosom of the Father, I'd like to think that Martha in particular, of all the saints, has come to find a very personal enjoyment in the words of the Hatter's strange boast to Alice:

"If you knew Time as well as I do, you wouldn't talk about wasting it. It's him."