The following is written in response to a particularly evocative blog post by my professor, colleague, editor, and friend, Dr. Paul Louis Metzger, entitled “Jesus’ Open Posture and ‘The Open Table.’” I think you’d enjoy it. It’s found here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/uncommongodcommongood/2014/04/jesus-open-posture-and-the-open-table/ under a copy of 15th Century painter Andrei Rublev’s “Troika,” also known as “Rublev’s Trinity.” I think you’d like that, too, so I’ve included it as well.
Dear Dr. Metzger,
As you know, we all have our formative influences. Andrei Rublev for you; Van Gogh, Escher, Dali, Rackham, and the darker among their extended crew for me. Johnny Cash, and others with a decided edge on your end; Frank Zappa, Harry Chapin, and—notably, in contemplation of your blog post—Alice Cooper on mine. As I read, I heard, “Is someone calling me? I hear my name!” That is, I recognize myself in the examples you cite. And that, in part, has caused me to delay responding. I apologize. Here are a few of my thoughts.
Sadly, many do yield to the temptation to say, as you note: “Jesus’ posture may be open, but not God’s.” We have built whole theological systems to explain precisely this point. We are compelled to rationalize our fearful withdrawal from among those whom God calls us to engage openly, because otherwise we are left to obey scripture, instead.
|Rackham, after Poe's "Masque of the Red Death"|
The Apostle Paul is indisputably clear (I Corinthians 5:9-10) on the necessity of our engagement with one another. Why must he state it so strongly? Because our tendency to disengage from those in the world needed to be, and still needs to be corrected constantly, forcefully. Our tendency to merely pretend to engage within the Church is in view as well, since one sure symptom of analgesia in the body of Christ would be the self-congratulatory accommodation of incestuous fornication.
And I think I understand, too clearly, and far too personally, one of the reasons why we withdraw, abandon, and betray the personhood of one another. We do fear being misunderstood, but less so than we fear the potential of inadvertently understanding others. They may be someone, something, or somehow other than I imagine. Since others’ answers might invalidate our stereotypical assumptions, we leave our questions unasked. We leave others’ experiences, circumstances, beliefs, and persons undiscovered.
It is not safer that way, but it is more comfortably convenient. Consider our preprogrammed dialogue. “How are you?” “Fine, and you?” Innocuous, except that it frequently passes for actual conversation. And it does so, even among patients and families I serve as Hospice chaplain. I have not yet screamed in response, “NO! We’re not all fine. We’re all dying; in fact, one of us is dying damn quickly!” But I have been close at times. And yet, I worry that one of the things that prevents me from such brutal (and inappropriately vulgar) honesty is that I, too, “hide (my) secrets and lock everything up in dark closets and shacks of painful experiences and throw away the keys,” as you have noted.
|"First resting place," indeed.|
Among my dirty little secrets? I am dying, too. Just like the rest of us. But if we don’t talk about it, we can pretend that maybe it won’t happen. Just as my choice, not to ask others who they are, means that I can pretend they’re just exactly who I imagine them to be.
If I allow myself to understand any part of you, by openly engaging you rather than politely dismissing you in a socially acceptable manner (“Have a nice day!”), I risk several things. I risk the possibility that even my questions will betray some part of me that you might then understand. I risk the shock to my system of potentially learning that I am not entirely alone in each of my fears, assumptions, prides, and pains. I risk the probability that if I open myself to another human person, I will lose some of my vain hope that I can hide any part of myself from the God who draws us all together.
But perhaps worst of all, I know that in openly engaging others…I risk being ostracized. Because to betray my fellows, the other denizens of denial, means that I might carry with me an understanding of what they, and we, all share together: an entirely unnatural mortality, and with it, an absolutely indispensable dependence on the God who engages.
That one God, eternally existing in three persons as He does, has no fear of self-disclosure. So, as one created to bear His image and likeness, why do I? It is not, as some would assume, because of the brokenness of sin’s damage in the world and in me. It is, for me, because of the petrifyingly paranoid paralysis that accompanies this thought: If I actually seek to know and understand you, then I may inadvertently allow you to know and understand me.
|Yes, sometimes, it is a nightmare. But you are welcome.|
So, can’t we just continue to pretend? “For a little while longer? Maybe an hour?” Maybe only a few will recognize the voice of Alice Cooper’s little “Steven.” Very few have ever heard the voice of my own memories of being little Billy. But like all the rest of us, to whatever extent we are familiar with those nightmarishly dark closeted places, “I hear a voice; it’s outside the door.”
And it says, “It’s time to come home now.”