According to Luke’s gospel (23:42-43), the thief who was crucified with Jesus said to him, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
If you want to discover the life that really is Life, take the New Testament and read. But if you just want to find out what’s going on, subscribe to the New York Times. My wife and I read the Times at breakfast with devout regularity. Without it we would feel hopelessly out of touch down here in the wilds of Florida. And besides, there is something about the Times that dissolves so perfectly in our coffee. Yes, the news it delivers does sometimes leave a slightly bitter, artificial aftertaste, but we’ve gotten used to that. And if you read the Times daily you will certainly find out as much about what’s going on in the larger world as you could ever wish—and then some.
For instance, the other morning it was reported that folks are paying a lot of money, and occasionally a fortune, to be buried in close proximity to dead celebrities. If they weren’t able to hang out with them in this life, their admirers consider it worth hundreds of thousands, even millions to reside among the stars in the next. In 1992 Playboy magazine publisher Hugh Hefner paid a hefty $75,000 for crypt near Marilyn Monroe’s. But more recently a Los Angeles woman, whose husband had been interred just above Marilyn, sold his crypt for $4.6 million on eBay. He had been resting in peace for 23 years, but by shifting his remains and selling his crypt to the highest bidder his widow was able to pay off the $ 1 million mortgage he had left behind–with change left over to be merry on.
Now that’s serious bucks! But resting places near the famous are available to more ordinary people for less lofty sums. Pauline Smith, 74, a retired school teacher who lives in New Rochelle, recently paid an undisclosed amount for a plot in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx proximate to the graves of jazz legend Duke Ellington and Frankie Manning, one of the creators of the Lindy hop. Miss Pauline explained her decision this way: “Who knows what life is after death. Not knowing what it is, I want to enjoy the thing that brings the most joy to me in my life right now, so I want to be close to them.”
Well, bless her heart! We may consider her reasoning a bit clouded, but Miss Pauline is right on one score—no one does know what existence is after death is like. The great mystery of this life is its Great Opposite. People of every time and culture have faced the darkness in the certainty that there is something waiting behind the curtain of this world. But what exactly? No one knows. So it has always been an overwhelming temptation for us mortals to picture the life to come in terms of the life we experience now–or our life now as we would like it to be. So who can blame Miss Pauline, avid jazz enthusiast and swing dancer, if she wishes for a hereafter where the music is always cool and dancing goes on forever under stars that never fade and go out.
It’s an interesting vision of the hereafter, you must admit–an everlasting shag dance with the best music imaginable. Maybe with someone you greatly love as your partner. But it becomes less attractive when you really stop and consider it. The problem is its forever, beloved. You never could stop. You could never say—I’ll just sit this one out. After a million years or so, you might just want to sit one out. But the dance must go on. It’s nothing new about the idea. The life to come has often been pictured in terms of an endless whirl of transcendental music. But even the tunes of the incomparable Duke Ellington would become tedious if they played on and on and on and on. In time everything wears out, and when it does, boredom and exhaustion set in. Anything forever is hell.
In his Metamorphoses the first century Roman writer Ovid recounts the tragic legend of the Cumeaen Sibyl. The sibyl was a mortal woman, but her ravishing beauty attracted the attention of the god Apollo who offered to grant her a wish—anything whatsoever–in exchange for her virginity. A prophetess should have been smarter, of course, but she agreed to his terms. In exchange for a single night of love the sibyl demanded for as many years of life as the grains of sand she could squeeze into her hand. Apollo agreed, but when push came to shove the sibyl changed her mind and rejected him. The god was furious. But rather than renege upon his promise, Apollo granted her wish—literally. He gave her a thousand years of life, but allowed her body to wither away because she had not asked for eternal youth. In time Ovid tells us the sibyl became smaller and smaller and smaller until at last she was only a voice, which was kept in a jar that hung in the mouth of a cave. People came from far and near to receive her oracles, but when a band of rowdy boys demanded to know—“Sibyl, what do you want?” she would only reply—“I want to die.”
It is a parable about the terrible result when even the best thing—life—goes on too long. Forever is a dangerous thing, and smart people who should know better continue to wish for it. But our human nature is stronger than we are, beloved. A recent article in the magazine Prevention called human death “a design flaw” in the structure of reality, a defect which may soon with the advance of science be remedied forever. It’s an interesting idea, but don’t rush on my account. Even if the beauty and boundless energy of youth could be preserved, an existence indefinitely extended would in time would be worse than the sum of all our nightmares. Life is the best of all good gifts—the jewel of God’s creation–but nothing is good that lasts forever.
But forever is not the same as eternity. Eternity is open to all of us at every moment in our lives. Its door is always ajar. So the evangelist Luke, in midst of his passion narrative, pauses to tell us the story of how one man found that door. He goes nameless in the gospel, though tradition calls him Dismus and gives him a fictional life’s story in which he had previously known Jesus and had even been baptized. But there is no basis in fact for any of that. It is pure legend. All we actually we know about him is that he was a condemned criminal, possibly a bandit. But there is absolutely no indication that he knew anything about the prophet from Nazareth that was not contained in the ironic superscription over the head of Jesus, “This is the king of the Jews.” So this so-called “Good Thief” could never have understood the full import of what he was asking when he begged—“Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom!”
An examination of the Greek verb suggests that he said it not once but repeatedly, over and over again. Probably he was delirious with pain. In such a state racked between pain and fear, he certainly could not have fully reckoned with whom he was dealing. Nevertheless, the dying man ranted on, pleading with Jesus not to be utterly forgotten, not to disappear utterly from human memory. There was nothing so remarkable about the request itself–we all wish for that. Remember me.
It is Jesus’ reply that is truly mind-blowing–“I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Originally paradise was the term used for the Garden of Eden, the timeless place where humanity had its beginnings and took its terrible fall. It was the place where we were before time and death got ahold of us. But in the first century in the Judaism of Jesus time paradise had come to mean that place, again outside of time, where the righteous dead remained until the final resurrection. Paradise was an achievement, a promise to the good, but the dying Jesus offers it without condition to one who was manifestly unrighteous. The thief is saved without baptism or sacraments or good works, without theology or creed, with hardly a hook to hang his faith upon. From the point of view of the later church, he was something of an embarrassment–the thief who stole heaven. But Jesus cuts through all the red tape that tangles us and rescues him by the purest grace imaginable. The former bandit is saved by the mere presence of the Savior.
And that is the New Testament’s mind-blowing message about Jesus–eternal life begins at the moment of our encounter with him. And eternity is always now—in that moment. “Today you will be with me in paradise,” Jesus says. Today—not yesterday or tomorrow. And the crucified and risen Lord is the open door by which we enter it. Eternity is his mediate presence. So in the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas Jesus says—“You search for God through heaven and earth, but you don’t know the one who is right before your eyes, because you don’t know to search into this very moment.” Instead of looking into this very moment, we search for God elsewhere, and our search always ends up mired in some form of superstition.
Superstition differs from faith in that superstition always focuses upon what we do, on our effort, and not what God does. It is composed of all the ways we try to manipulate the will of God for our own purposes. As the faith of our fathers becomes more clouded and remote to many, superstition is flowering luxuriantly around us. And if you need proof of that, all you need do is look at the proliferation of little shrines along our highways. These roadside memorials, marking the place where someone has died violently, have been proliferating tremendously during the last few years. Here in Florida they are everywhere. But what is the motivation for erecting them? And why so many more of late? Well they seem to be reflections of those massive outpourings of public grief that have surrounded the untimely deaths of certain much-adored celebrities. Recall if you will the vast heaps of flowers that were piled at the Pont de l’Alma in Paris where Princess Diana perished in a fiery crash. These roadside memorials are nothing on that scale, of course. But they do seem to be the same sort of attempt by grieving friends and families to deal with the sudden death of a loved one away from home.
There is such a roadside shrine here in Tarpon Springs I see almost daily–a cross made of PVC pipe with a rotting teddy bear attached to it. The words– “We love you Luther” are printed in glitter on a ribbon around the bear’s neck. (A young man by that name was shot during a drug deal gone bad on that spot a year or so ago.) There is a heap of artificial flowers mounded at the foot of the cross. New ones appear periodically. I look at that sad little memorial with vague curiosity and from a cultural distance. It belongs to a world view quite different from my own. (For better and worse America in the 21st century has become a foreign country to us all.) Obviously Luther’s little roadside Calvary is an attempt to keep his memory alive—a desire we all share, But its real meaning certainly goes deeper than that. It represents an offering to his spirit. To those who built it and maintain it, its meaning almost certainly goes much deeper than that. For them something of Luther’s personality still lingers in the last place where he was alive. And the bear and the flowers are intended to comfort him and assure him that he is not forgotten
The dying thief says to Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” But does Jesus ever forget? We certainly do. Stuffed animals rot and the even artificial flowers fade. Human memory also withers with time. So what lasts? We live in a world that is deeply confused about the survival of the self. People—even Christian believers—worry about life’s Great Opposite and form all kinds of silly notions about what waits for us there. This anxiety is nothing new. The Christians living in ancient Corinth wondered about the life to come and about whether those they loved would be there to share it with them. So St. Paul writes to reassure them: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. For if in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died” (1 Corinthians 15:16-20).
For those who follow Jesus, Paul is saying, their hope must be centered entirely on the crucified and risen Lord. In him there is neither past nor present. And the resurrection life that he promised to the thief and all those chipped and damaged saints who followed after, the life he shares with us is a life that is not enslaved by time. Resurrection life is the eternal now. We experience paradise in our encounters with the risen Christ right now. In the sacrament. In the reflection of a sunset on the sea. In the taste of strawberries. In the smile of someone we will never stop loving. In those moments everything comes together free from the dictatorship of time. In those moments there is no future of worries and fears and no past of anger and regrets. There is only the eternal now, which is where Paradise is.
Eternity is a low door in the garden wall, but it has been intentionally left unlocked and wide open.
Category Archives: Letters of Saint Paul
According to Luke’s gospel (23:42-43), the thief who was crucified with Jesus said to him, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
June 9, 2014
Everything worth saying is obvious, but we all occasionally need to be reminded of what we already know. St. Paul is always doing this in his letters—reminding his readers of what they already knew. In the midst of a discussion of how to lead an appropriately Christ-like life in the midst of a pagan world, St. Paul, the Christian rabbi, reminds the members the Christian synagogue in Ephesus of what they already knew. You may well feel out of place in this time and place, but the Lord has a purpose in putting you where you are. You are the seed of his New Creation. Therefore, “be careful how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.”
“The days are evil,” Paul wrote almost two millennia ago, and they still undoubtedly are—but no more evil than ever. My wife and I go to a gym where a certain conservative television “news” network plays continually—I doubt that I need to tell you which one. So I also don’t need to tell you that after I have sweated for an hour on a treadmill with that for background noise I am pretty d— sick of contrarian bitching. Now I would do anything before I would deprive anyone of his or her constitutional right to listen to that ear wash. I do my best to tune it out for sake of freedom of speech. But it ain’t easy, heaven knows. I have even tried thinking about my sins, and not even that works very well. Now, beloved, I don’t know how much you relish listening to a bunch of heads talking about how fast and far things have fallen since the good old days. Many of the people who do seem to think of themselves as hot-shot Christians. If you are one of them, knock yourself out. But it is worth reminding ourselves that for followers of Jesus there never were any good old days. They always have been bad.
They haven’t gotten any better of late, I’ll grant you that. The actual news is a litany of on-going disasters—the latest outrages of religious radicalism and sectarian warfare, the latest violence perpetrated against the innocent with constitutionally protected firearms, the latest crimes against good taste and public decency, the latest evidences of catastrophic climate change—over and over, endlessly repeated. It would be easy for any of us to form the idea that things have gotten a lot worse of late. So you and I need to be reminded of what we already know, that Christians have always been islands of eternity in a chaotic sea of change. We aren’t at home in this world, but this is where we have been put—and for a reason. And we are confronted with the same question those ancient Ephesians faced–How do we make the most of time we have been given in these undoubtedly evil days?
In his letters St. Paul was fond of comparing the Christian life to a footrace, and which is apt enough, I suppose. You have to remain focused on the finish line if you want to win the prize. It takes all the stamina and determination the Christian athlete can muster to capture what the apostle calls an imperishable wreath of glory (1 Cor. 9:24ff). All well and good. But from my point of view the Christian life is more like those construction workers walking along a ribbon of steel a hundred stories up above the city. Now I am a confirmed acrophobe, and so I look with awe at pictures of those sky walkers, eating their lunch like birds on a wire, perched on the edge of eternity, apparently so nonchalant. To me following Jesus is much like that, overcoming your fears, doing your job while balancing on a narrow beam. It is a terrifying place to find ourselves, beloved, but here we are.
It is a lonely place was well, so high up, looking down on the bustling world so far below. That why you and I need each other so much, beloved–for company on our narrow beam. Everyone else has someplace solid to stand; their feet are planted firmly on some patch of this world they claim as their own. But you and I are in-between worlds, here but with one foot stretched out gingerly towards eternity. It was a difficult balancing act for those Christians in ancient Ephesus, and it is for us too, beloved. Christians in every time, Christians no better than we are, have lost their balance and, like Humpty Dumpty, had a great fall.
It’s no wonder Paul cautions us to “be careful how you live,” or we might paraphrase his words by saying—watch your feet. Be mindful of your situation and make the most of its possibilities. There is a Zen teaching that goes like this:
All you who seek the Way
Do not waste this moment now.
Eternity may be the only thing that is ultimately important, but we were not born into eternity, like the angels. The ultimate purpose of our lives will be revealed there, but we were born into time. Especially towards the end of their lives or after the shock of a great loss, people have often asked me—Why am I still here? There is no real answer to that question for any of us. Why are any of us still here? We will never know fully what the purpose of our lives was until we have achieved it. Then it will come to us in that ultimate blinding flash of enlightenment. But in the meantime we are called to make mindful use of the hours as they pass, giving thanks for each of them and rejoicing in their brilliant possibilities. We are sky walkers, beloved, walking a narrow beam, stepping out toward the infinite. But while we still have one foot planted in the here and now, we need to “make the most of the time.” we have. We need to treat each separate hour of our existence—even most painful ones–as an unexpected gift, like a priceless jewel discovered by accident in the grass.
I had a wonderful teacher when I was in seminary. He told us only things that we already knew. There was no required reading for his class. There was no syllabus, no schedule of lectures. He made no requirement of attendance. The school forced him to ask us for a final paper so that he could issue us a grade, but he apologized for that beforehand. All he did was talk to us about whatsoever entered his head at the moment. He just let one thing lead to another, like water finding its own way. No one, himself included, knew where the stream would lead. But I never tired of listening to him teach. It was sheer joy, like hearing the Lord. Rabbi Lipmann had spent a large portion of his younger life on a kibbutz in Israel tending orange groves, and there he had acquired a great love of the trees he tended. Practically his whole thought during those years was of oranges, and from that intense concentration came a veritable mysticism of oranges. And it seemed as if Rabbi Lipmann could read all the secrets of the universe into the culture of that most miraculous of trees, the very Tree of Life.
One day he brought an orange to class and pealed it in front of us. (I don’t ever expect to see anyone peal an orange more artistically.) And as his fingers worked, making a single long perfect curl, he reminded us of what we already knew, or should have known–that our lives are not a single fruit, but many individual sections. He divided the orange among us—we were a small enough class for that—and all the time he was saying something this effect: We tend to worry about the meaning of life the whole, and judge its meaning and worth that way. But what is important about our existence is the significance we give to each part. Because how we spend our hours is, in the end, how we spend our lives.
Reading the New York Times has been a source of daily reassurance and comfort to my wife and me since we moved to Florida. There is a lot of unsettling information in the Times—who could deny it. Its apocalyptic visions are at times as vivid and alarming as those in the Book of Revelation. On its leaves we behold a world being ripped apart of tornadoes, incinerated by bombs, abducted by terrorists, and drowned under melting polar ice. Nevertheless, in all that mayhem, there is a word of cold comfort for residents of Florida who at times are tempted to believe that all the peculiar and alarming things in the world take place here, in the Chopped Nut and Candied Fruit Cake State. True, an awful lot of weirdness does flourish here. (I blame the climate.) But an awful lot of crazy-ass stuff apparently goes on in greater New York City as well. Of course, a lot of New York crazy will eventually migrate southwards, as everything does, and end up here in Florida, but if you read the Times you at least know what is coming, and forewarned is forearmed, as they say.
For instance, the Times recently reported that elderly Korean people have occupied a McDonald’s restaurant in Flushing, Queens, and are transforming it into a sort of septuagenarian clubhouse. The oldsters show up as early as 5 a.m. and camp out until well after dark, occupying the place so that there is no room for other customers to sit. From the point of view of McDonald’s the situation is going from bad to worse. They arrive in ever growing numbers with walkers and wheelchairs and leaning on canes, and order a coffee or share a small order of fries. Then they settle down to spend the day, chatting in their own native tongue about events, here and back home, about the weather, about their ailments, about nothing in particular. Or they just sit in silence, being together. They come to spend the day, dressed up to the nines. Mostly men, but also a few women. Other customers complain. The management fumes. But they say they are entitled to take their time. The police are summoned several times a day to tell them to move on. So the oldsters dutifully get up, walk around the block, only to return as soon as the officers have departed. This has been going on for the past five years, but during the last few months the stand-off has gotten ugly. Coffee has been spilled. Harsh words have been exchanged in several languages.
It’s not because they have no other place to go. Several local facilities provide nice, well-lit parlors for playing baduk, an Asian board game, and offer a multitude of classes from English to calisthenics. The Korean Community Center up the street has set up a cheerful little café with 25 cent coffee, but no one goes there. The seniors stubbornly return daily to McDonald’s, even though they say they do not really like the food there and feel manifestly unwelcome. But at this point it is a matter of principle. They have made a purchase and refuse to be rushed. They have a right to take all the time the need. Enough time to drink a large McDonald’s coffee—which is refillable. The sign in the McDonald’s says customers have 20 minutes to finish their food. That’s how much time McDonald’s wants to spend on each customer, no more. But how can you finish a large cup of coffee in 20 minutes? It’s impossible, the Korean seniors say.
The conflict goes much deeper than the question of how long does it should take to drink a large cup of coffee. It represents the clash between two conceptions of time and its meaning. For McDonald’s time equals profit, and profit is the highest good. This is fast food. In and out, the quicker the better. The ideal here is to reduce life to a perfect lightning flash. Now I would be very slow to take the side of McDonald’s in any matter. I myself don’t like the food there. (Except for their ice cream—which isn’t half bad and surprisingly low calorie.) But I can readily understand that from their point of view those Korean oldsters must be devilishly frustrating.
They had put themselves at odds with the whole idea of time as a lightening flash, and profit as the highest good. For them time is a preparation for eternity. The ideal is to slow time down until it reaches a motionless stillness. For them the highest good is not to be found in profit but in loss. The Buddha taught that there are four stages in a person’s life. First comes the infant, when the individual first discovers the pleasurable experiences of a body living in time. Then comes the child, when those pleasures are refined through play. When the person leaves games behind then comes the stage in which the five senses are developed most completely. Adulthood is the stage when we are in deepest bondage to the things that can be seen and heard, touched, tasted and smelled. We are gripped by them and we in turn seize them. It is the time of holding tight.
And if that were all there was to it, grasping, life would indeed be wholly tragic. But there remains a fourth stage when the senses loosen their hold on us and we are able to seek freedom from their tyrannical demands. This is the time of letting go when through meditation—what I would call thoughtful prayer—we can find the detachment from things which leads ultimately to peace. This fourth stage of life, according to the Buddha, is “more exalted and more refined than the former ones,” because it is an opportunity for the individual, freed from the sensory demands of the body, to be able to reach its highest potential. In that fourth stage of life time stops being a millstone and becomes a gift, an opportunity to reach the place where the clamor of our fears and desires is extinguished–what Emily Dickenson called “that stillness ultimately best.” And when that stillness is attained, the Buddha said, the person can greet whatever comes with calm indifference. And when it finally comes, death is as incidental and unimportant as a single leaf falling from a tree.
Now drinking a large cup of coffee at McDonald’s as slowly as possible will not bring anyone to that stillness ultimately best. But being able to take a day to drink one may be a sign we are on the Way. Whether they are fully aware of it or not, those Korean oldsters are in that fourth stage of life, where the furious demands of the senses are being replaced by detachment. They no longer care about being a nuisance. They are content to sit. To think. To be together. Or to be alone. Or simply to be. The coffee doesn’t matter. The fries don’t matter. The occasional visits of the police don’t matter. They just get up, calmly walk around the block, and come back and sit down again. They simply are. How much time is needed to finish that large cup of coffee? As much as it takes.
It all seems such a great waste of time, doesn’t it? Just sitting around sipping tepid coffee all day. It is just the sort of thing I was raised to disapprove of. When I was a kid my parents were always calling me on the carpet for doing just that, wasting time. They taught be to be ashamed of doing nothing when there is so much to do, and when they were no longer around I went on scolding myself for dreaming my life away. They were hard working people, my parents, two steps off the boat from Scandinavia, and it was their most deeply held belief that time is a precious commodity, like cattle or wheat, something so valuable needs to be converted into something equally valuable. Money. That means work, and work, my parents lived as well as taught, is the purpose of life in this world.
It is a very prevalent American idea, and I wouldn’t be much surprised if many of you were taught the same lesson. And I’m not being critical of the high value our parents placed on work. They were good people who toiled and sacrificed for us, and we have every reason to be grateful. But for myself, I have gotten pretty critical of the time is money idea. Ever since both my parents worked themselves to death, quite literally, I have begun to wonder if maybe what they taught me about using time was not so much mistaken as it was incomplete. And now that I have reached the fourth base—the place in life that is isn’t a place at all, somewhere between third base and home—I have come to believe that there is something very positive to be said for idleness.
When St. Paul tells us to “be careful how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil,” he isn’t telling us to get up off our lazy duffs and get busy. For the apostle, time is not a commodity, like pork bellies and barley, something to be converted by work into profit, but a gift, an allowance we have been given to spend in preparation for the eternal destiny we share as children of the resurrection.
And maybe sometimes making the most of the time is doing nothing at all.
Of course, some things still have to be done. St. Paul was certainly not anti-work. He was proud of working. And he taught that all Christians have a calling, or rather a series of things that need to be accomplished in the hours we are allotted. But the best use of time is what which brings us closest to Christ. Other things don’t ultimately matter. In his First Letter to the Corinthians in the midst of discussion of something else entirely Paul says–“I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on let . . . those who deal with the world [be] as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away” (7:29ff). And in a fading world there is no better use of time than what helps us detach ourselves from it–prayerful thought or mindful prayer or whatever brings us closer to what is Really Real.
In retirement I garden, as a promised myself I would. Now in order to have a garden you must make a garden. You have to plant and hoe and weed and water. But none of those things constitute a reason to garden. They are just work. I am so often distracted by the tasks of gardening that I have to constantly remind myself that the reason to garden is none of things that need to be done. It is so obvious, beloved, but that is why is worth saying. The only real reason to garden is as an excuse to sit and idly gaze at the beauty of a good creation. It is not a waste of time. Indeed, it is the only reason time was created. And we have not made the most of the time we have been given unless we have spent—or wasted, if you like—an hour or so of each day just sitting on the edge of eternity and looking.
In his letter to the Ephesians St. Paul admonishes his readers: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’—this is the first commandment with a promise: so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.’ And fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”
One of the positive things about retirement is that it gives you time to have leisurely, polite conversations about interesting subjects, subjects that might never have arisen earlier in life. For example, my wife and I were talking to some nice people our own age recently, friends of ours whose children are also raised and on their own, and the question came up: Were you raised to be happy or to be good? And after a while a second question came trailing along: So how then did you raise your own children, to be happy or to be good?
Well, nothing important ever comes with proper instructions, beloved, and rising children is certainly no exception to the rule. None of us come to parenthood prepared. Our parents did not, and neither did we. We may seek expert advice—there is plenty of it out there, heaven knows. There are books and magazines and afternoon TV shows full of it. But the experts on parenting are divided on nearly every point. The instructions they give are well-intentioned, but the advice of each developmental guru is discredited and cast aside by the next generation as worthless. So we all pretty much wing it, depending mostly on what we learned—positively or negatively—from our own upbringing. And the result is—well, the result.
Even the Bible, that vast trust fund of wisdom and experience, has little practical guidance to give on how to raise children who are not selfish or miserably guilty or hopelessly unable to form relationships with other people. Lord knows there are plenty of excellent examples of how not to raise children in the Bible. Isaac and Rebekah played favorites with Jacob and Esau, and that turned out very badly. David spoiled Absalom rotten and that turned out even worse. Jesus’ parable called The Prodigal Son, so sublime on other levels, is certainly of very limited value as a guide on how to raise boys.
The advice offered by the Bible on parenting is general rather than concrete. The Old Testament book of Proverbs says–“Train children in the right way, and when they are old, they will not stray.” Wisdom affirms the lifelong importance of a sound training, but parents are left pretty much on their own when it comes to discerning exactly what “the right way” might be. In our text from Ephesians, St. Paul pauses to emphasize the importance of respect for parental authority and the need for firm parental discipline that stops short of being abusive. But Paul hurries on quickly to other matters more in line with his own concerns, leaving us to decide how best to apply his advice. So in this, as in so many other matters, the Bible leaves parents to decide, according to their own dim and flickering lights, whether to raise their children to be happy or to be good.
But must it be one or the other, you ask? Don’t we want our children to be both happy and good? Oh, yes, beloved! Indeed, we do! But no, alas, in the end one or the other—goodness or happiness–will be our paramount intention. One motive will always govern everything else, determining the thousands of smaller choices we make along the way.
Of course we know that there are parents who fail to raise their children to be either happy or good. They are not our present concern—although the results of that failure are a danger to the goodness and happiness of our whole society. They have glutted our prison system and transformed our schools into armed camps. But I am certain that those of you to whom I am writing were almost certainly raised to be either happy or good. And if you have children you have already decided one way or the other, and are living with the result of that choice. So which was it, beloved?
Everyone’s answer is going to be different. A woman once told me something to this effect: “My parents made a lot of mistakes raising us, but more than anything else they just wanted us to be happy. And that’s what I’m doing too. I want happy children. I love them too much to raise them any other way.” That was a long time ago, but her words made an impression on me because they reflect an experience so foreign to my own. Because for myself I can say without a nanosecond’s hesitation, that I was raised not to be happy but to be good.
Now there is some evidence out there to the contrary. For instance, there is a charming series of pictures taken of me when I was three years old on a visit to Yellowstone Park in which I am seen feeding chocolate-covered cherries to the bears through the open window of the car. Now based solely on the evidence of those photos, you might believe that my parents were raising me to be happy rather than good. Everyone in those pictures looks deliciously happy. The bears, of course, look happy. My young parents look happy, and I look happy too. Supremely happy. Any why not? What child wouldn’t be? But what kind of parents would permit—even encourage–their three-year-old to stuff chocolates into a bear’s mouth through a car window?
My own, it appears. And when I look back on them from the other side of a lifetime, I realize that they were in some ways more audacious than my wife and I ever were. They gave my brother and me all the freedom they could–more than we ever gave our children, that’s for certain. I got away with a lot—I know that now, looking back—and my brother even more. As children their lives had been rather narrow and pinched, and they gave us all the things they themselves would have wanted. They were often demanding, but they were not cautious. And some of the things they allowed us to do for fun take my breath away now, looking back from a safe distance. Feeding chocolates to the bears is an early, but by no means a unique example.
That does not change the fact, however, that their highest aim, as far as I was concerned, at least, never changed—to produce a person like themselves–unselfish, disciplined, well-mannered, conscientious, and devout. In short, good. Whether they succeeded is a matter of opinion. I sometimes like to pretend they did, but in my most lucid private moments I know otherwise. None of us is good—not all the time, at least—and certainly not in everyone’s opinion. There was even some disagreement on that score regarding Jesus himself. According to John’s gospel: “While some were saying, ‘He is a good man,’ others were saying, ‘No, he is deceiving the crowd” (7:12). And since all of us depend to a large degree upon others to tell us how we are doing, and even the Lord’s own contemporaries sometimes called his goodness into question, what chance have any of us got? Zero.
Maybe it is enough to say that although we may not always be good, or even appear good to others, those of us who were raised to be good know what goodness is. And in a world where goodness and integrity are often remarkable by their absence, we feel responsible to make things better. We feel it is our duty to pick up the trash. To go the extra mile. To take up the slack. To keep the peace.
Those who were raised to be good are the constant gardeners, always pulling the weeds and covering the tender plants to protect them against the late frost. Now our sense of moral duty isn’t a bad thing, heaven knows. But the imperative to be good can and does often go haywire. And when it does, we good children of good parents end up struggling, and sometimes stumbling under the weight of responsibility for things that never were our fault and being crushed by the obligation to change things we can never change, never in a million years.
Gardening is a good, perhaps the best thing we mortals can do, but it is an enterprise doomed to futility. The weeds and the frost win out. Restoring a fallen Eden is God’s business, and he seems to have his hands full doing it. But good children go on trying to fix things anyway, and blaming themselves when things are beyond their strength to mend. I have heard it so many times by those who were raised to be good—I wish I didn’t feel as if it was up to me to make everything right. Why does always fall to me? Why for a change why can’t somebody else … fill in the blank? Take the blame? Clean up the mess? Be the unsung hero? I’ve asked myself all those questions numberless times, and never gotten a satisfactory answer.
People who were raised to be happy don’t seem to have that problem. They are usually willing enough to let someone else take the blame, clean up the mess, and be the unsung hero. They have problems, however, mostly because they were raised to believe that life is a comedy, and not a tragedy. They are always dumbfounded when, through no particular fault of their own, things stop being funny. And when things get really terrible, as things will, their astonishment turns to anger. If I should be happy, then why the hell am I not? Whose fault is it, if it isn’t my own? It’s all so goddamn unfair.
Well, blame the ones who said it was. Happiness is at best a seasonal fruit. We should enjoy it when it comes along, like strawberries, but we shouldn’t expect it to last beyond its time. And when it’s gone, it’s gone. In fact, it appears that the universe has little respect for our individual happiness. Those who were raised to be happy run into that hard truth again and again—head on and hard.
Those who were raised to be good, take it for granted. My own parents didn’t tell me so right out, but they made it transparently clear–the world we live in is a tragic place, at least in the short run. Someday things will be different, but right now there is little truth in the old saying: To be good is to be happy. Happiness may be a byproduct of goodness—or it should be at least, in the best of all possible worlds. But this is hardly that. In fact in this world happiness and goodness track separately, and often have very little to do with each other.
So which were you? It is no reflection on any of our parents that they chose one or the other. Love pulls us in both directions—toward goodness and toward happiness. But in the end you choose, and then do the best you can.
So I would be interested to know. Were you raised to be happy or good? Very young people are not in a position to answer that question, because for them it is complicated with too many other issues—getting and keeping their independence, carving a meaningful place for themselves in the world, losing and finding love. Besides when you are young there is no time to think about such things. But when life has given you the necessary perspective, when your own kids are raised and your parents are either gone or going, then you are able to consider the consequences of the decision that made you who you are, and in the light of what you learn to make some necessary corrections.
Because there is no point in knowing who you are, beloved, if adjustments are not possible. The Holy Spirit, who enlightens us with the truth, also gives us to power to change. For my own part I know that my parents did a good job, indeed too good. When I was playing football in high school, I came in for some ridicule for saying “excuse me” when I ran into people. I when I think back on it now. But that’s how I was raised. It is one thing to be good, but quite another to act as if everything is your fault. Some things are, no doubt about it. But not everything. And I do not have to fix everything. The mending of the world, like it’s making, is not my business. I have to keep reminding myself of that–once a day, at the very least. I only am to blame only for the things for which I am I to blame. Nothing else. It may not sound like much, for me it has been an important insight, made late—but not too late. I don’t blame my parents for raising me to be who I am. “All any of us can do is try,” my father was fond of saying. And as long as we try we make mistakes. We all have regrets, heaven knows. But regret like everything else has to have a limit, and it is up to each of us to set it.
As far as our own children are concerned I am not completely certain whether we raised them to be happy or to be good. And my wife and I did try—very hard. But now our children act as if they believe they raised themselves, and did a splendid job of it. Aren’t you lucky that we didn’t turn out like….here they fill in the blank? It this has been a frequent refrain for as long as I care to remember. It is the exact attitude of that nasty Pharisee in the temple who looked down his long nose at the tax collector—see Luke 18:11-12–but we won’t go there. Our children did not raise themselves, whatever they may think. And I am certain that we did raise them to be either happy or good, and someday it will be up to them to decide which. When they do, I’m sure they will grumble about the burdens our decision caused them. But as I said earlier, nothing important ever comes with proper instructions. And if we don’t give our children something to complain about, what good are we?
In his first letter to his disciple Timothy St. Paul writes: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.”
It is hard to believe that when Paul is writing these words to Timothy he is very deeply concerned with the well-being of “kings and all who are in high places,” under whose authority both he and his “loyal child in the faith” would eventually die as martyrs.
Of course he didn’t know what the future held in store for him—none of us do–but he was not a person who lived with many illusions. Not on that score at least. He had already felt the hostility of the Roman authorities. Paul wasn’t naïve. He was certainly well enough aware of what can happen to those who obey their conscience under a totalitarian regime. Look what had happened to Jesus! He understood the raw truth that self-protection is in the nature of all authority. Period. Even a relatively benign government like our own will search out to destroy those it perceives as a threat to itself—that is certainly the lesson we can draw from its treatment of “leakers” like Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning.
Now whether you regard those leakers of government secrets as heroes or traitors is a separate question. The fact remains—political power is always ruthless in its desire to protect itself. It is neither loving nor loveable. Power in the church is no different. Petty powers in the church will also try to crush those who oppose them—as some of you have had occasion to discover. Self-protection is in the nature of “kings and all who are in high places.” It is as true today and it was in St. Paul’s time.
So he could well have cursed the Roman Empire and its minions, all who routinely crushed the life out of those—like Jesus and his early followers–whom it perceived as dangerous. Paul could have damned the emperors Tiberius, Caligula and Nero—cruel tyrants and vicious persecutors. But quite the opposite. Instead he urges “first of all . . . that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings” be made for them. And why? Precisely because they were not his primary concern. Paul’s over-riding preoccupation is always and everywhere with the Church, with “the command of God our Savior” to proclaim “Christ Jesus our hope.” Everything else must serve that end. So Paul urges the Church to pray for the government—even a tyrannical government–because of the order it represents.
Order is a holy thing. Making and keeping order is what God is up to—his will that we pray may be done on earth as it is in heaven. Creation represents God’s a victory over the forces of chaos. In the beginning God acts to bring order out of a “formless void and darkness”—and everywhere that order is established God is at work. And government—even the government of stupid and evil people—is one of the ways God creates order and makes the world a bearable place for human beings. The opposite of government is confusion and sinful human nature gone crazy. A just government is of course better than a tyrannical and cruel one, but so as far as St. Paul concerned, any government is always better than no government.
Order is crucial to the preaching of the gospel and necessary if we are to lead “a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” So Paul commands the Church—and that means you and me–to pray and give thanks “for kings and all who are in high positions,” not because he would approve of their personal morality or their public policies, but rather because their existence makes the world livable and because respect is what is “due” them. In his Letter to the Romans Paul writes: “Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (13:7). It is not up to any of us to decide for ourselves whether we are to respect and honor everyone, especially those in authority over us—for the apostle Paul the command comes from the Lord, the Holy Spirit. It is a directive he takes for granted we will follow—our most basic Christian duty. Respect is another name for love.
So it is ironic that these days many of those who make the biggest show of being disciplined, serious Christians are the most disrespectful of our leaders, as if carrying the name of Christ were a license to say anything they want in whatever tone they want to use.
Now that I am retired I frequently have the opportunity to listen to other people preach. It is, to say the least, a mixed blessing. If they simply stuck to the gospel about “Christ Jesus our hope,” everything would be fine. But much of the time they don’t. I attended a Roman Catholic Mass just before the last election where we did not pray and give thanks for those in authority over us. Instead the priest spent the entire homily railing against President Obama, especially in reference to the Affordable Care Act. His harangue was frequently interrupted with applause and shouts of “right on!” from some members the congregation. Now I expect that priest thought he was being a prophet, whereas he was really just being a puppet of the demagogues. Not only did he reveal that he didn’t really know what he was talking about, it was also clear that he was drawing on the rhetoric of certain media scallywags who have turned disrespect and libel into an industry.
The command of the Lord to respect and pray for our leaders goes for all of us, no matter what our political opinions may be. When we disrespect those who have been placed over us—whether we voted for them or not–we are disrespecting the Holy Spirit. Respect does not imply liking or agreement or even consent. It is just respect–R-E-S-P-E-C-T–like the lady sings about. But nothing less will do.
Now let’s be honest. We all have slammed the government—local, state, and national–and there may well be a sound basis for our critiques. Government is a reflection of our own sinful human nature. When we find fault with it we find fault with ourselves. But all of us have also gone beyond criticism to belittle and insult our leaders. As if we ourselves were above criticism! But we will never have better government until you and I are a more respectful people. And we will never really find peace in our hearts and minds as long as we cherish pride and hatred more than humility and respect.
St. Paul was not under any illusions about the “evil empire” under which he and his fellow Christians lived. He knew all about the ruthlessness and cruelty of those who governed it. When he writes to Timothy, he might have let loose a flood of abuse and bitter satire against the emperor and his minions. But instead he commands the church to pray for them, knowing that you cannot hate those you pray for. And only insofar as we are able to let go of our rancor and self-righteousness can we share in the Resurrected Life of Christ.
As we get older it is easy for all of us to fall prey to “age rage,” to let bitterness and disillusionment get control of us. We all know people who have done that. And it is easy to understand where “age rage” comes from. There are so many humiliating things about getting older. It hurts our pride to become more and more dependent and less and less able to do things for ourselves. In countless subtle ways older people are humiliated and belittled by our society. It is natural to want to fight back. But for followers of Jesus aging is a call to practice respect for everyone and to live with humility and without bitterness.
Disillusionment is a natural part of aging, letting go of the fantasies and daydreams we had been clinging to. We either let them go voluntarily, or they get taken away from us, ruthlessly, one by one. But that process is a great opportunity to grow in our faith. When we let go of those empty dreams and fruitless wishes, we are finally able–maybe for the first times in our lives–to find contentment in the place where we find ourselves. Right here, right now. And when our delusions are dispelled, we are able to see “Christ Jesus our hope” more clearly than ever before.
Order is a holy thing. It is the will of God for us and for the whole universe. Aging gives us a chance to put things in order—not as a way of getting ready to die, but as a way of beginning to live that New Life that Jesus promises. With age we can at last be free to get rid of the things we don’t need and put what remains in its proper place. Aging can give us the insight to distinguish the important from the trivial, and the wisdom to concern ourselves with what really matters. Growing up is never easy at whatever age we do it. It always takes the grace of the Holy Spirit. But aging is the last great gift of time that allows us to establish the will of God in our hearts once and for all and then take eternity gently by the hand. And in finally tying up the loose ends and tidying up the messes in aging we can at last find that peace, which, as a wise philosopher once said, is always the by-product of good order.