Sun 13 Sep
Last week I told a humorous story from Bob Fulghum. It’s good to have a smile. Here’s another:
The most time-bound man I know lives in my neighbourhood. He’s always in a hurry – and always late. Always harassed and fuzzed out. I’m not exactly sure just what he does for a living, but it seems to involve buying and selling something downtown. He’s a businessman.
His choice of appropriate transportation for his coming and going is a brand-new Range Rover, a vehicle built by the British for high adventure. It is equally capable in steep canyons, quicksand, and blizzard conditions. This particular veldtmobile is equipped with a winch, a gun rack, an impressive stereo system, 2 cell phones, a fax, and a coffee maker in the glove compartment.
Mostly my neighbour takes his Range Rover as far as downtown. So far it has faced the dangers of the underground parking ramps of the First National Bank and the hostile natives at a car wash.
Daily I see my neighbour rushing out of his house, burdened with the impedimenta of high adventure, carrying golf bag, gym bag, lunch bag, raincoat, umbrella, coffee cup, a sack of garbage for the dumpster, and his briefcase. On the day I shall describe, he has two little scraps of tissue stuck to his chin from a hasty encounter with his razor, and a knitted brow from a hasty encounter with his wife. So far it has not been a good morning.
About the briefcase: It is made of the purest, unblemished belting leather, a quarter of an inch thick, the best part of the hides of four carefully selected cows who gave their lives for this talisman of success. Solid-brass hardware, combination lock, lined with watered silk, and his name embossed in gold; twenty pounds full; a heavy item in every sense of the word.
So it’s a Tuesday morning around 7 o’clock on a fine June day. A neighbour lady and I hit the street headed for work about the same time. She’s a social worker for the Episcopal Church and drives an eight-year-old Ford just-get-me-there-and-back-please-God sedan. And I drive a 1952 GMC two-ton go-ahead-and-hit-me panel truck.
At the same time the owner of the Range Rover rushes up. His life is leveraged to the max these days, and his mind is in three continents at once. Time is of the essence. He is in no mood to make small talk. He grunts at us as he loads his lorry for the expedition downtown, leaps into the front seat, and cranks the mighty engine in the spirit of the holder of a pole position at Indy.
Uh-oh – he has left his coffee cup and briefcase on the roof of the Range Rover, and there they remain as he rolls away.
To the rescue comes the nice lady social worker for the Episcopal Church in her old Ford. She chases after him, urgently honking her horn, which he ignores because he is already on his cell phone talking to London. As a pin affects a swollen balloon, so does her unceasing honking affect his existential circumstance. He throws the phone to the floor of the car, leans out the window, and displays the middle finger of his left hand to the lady. But the lady is focussed on her rescue mission and honks on while waving at him to stop.
I, in the meantime, driving close behind as a kind of third float in this little parade, likewise try to get his attention. Mine is an ‘aaoooogaaah’ horn salvaged out of an old Model A. The combination of ‘HONK, HONK, HONK.’ and ‘AAOOOOGAAH’, AAOOOOGAAH’ is too much. He jams on his brakes, flings open the door of the veldtmobile, and tries to get out – without first unlatching his seat belt.
At the same moment, his morning cup of coffee slides off the roof, bounces across the hood, and smashes into the street; followed by his brassbound briefcase, which crashes onto the hood, scrapes across the paint with a fingernails-on-blackboard screech, and flops into the street on top of the broken coffee cup.
The dear lady, mission accomplished, coasts slowly around the scene of the accident, smiles, waves, and sings out “Have a nice day!” to her neighbour dangling still from the car in the clutches of his seat belt.
And, no, she did not, as you might anticipate, run over his briefcase. No, she did not. I did.
The nice lady social worker and I meant well. It’s not always easy or simple doing good. When I told her about the briefcase she grinned. None of us is pure.
The owner of the veldtmobile is a little distant these days, though his wife smiles and waves. I hear it cost him plenty to have his hood and fender repaired. I see that he has a new briefcase. Just exactly like the last one, but without coffee stains and street grit scratched into the leather. In time, no doubt, the dust will settle, and he will sort this out. He’s not a bad guy. Like me, he takes on more than he can handle sometimes. Like me, he gets confused about what’s important. I see myself in his mirror. It’s less embarrassing to talk about how he runs his life than to talk about the cartoon quality of my own.
In the meantime he’s unhappy with us. I hear he thinks we ruined his day. And thinks we cost him money and time, and kept him for getting his business done.
I think he may not know as much as he needs to know about the most basic business concern of all: profit and loss. Here’s a very old profit-and-loss statement to put on the wall of his business and on the wall of mine: “What does it profit a man or woman if he/she gain the whole world and lose his/her own soul?”[i]
You might have heard of the word ‘theopoetics’. In case you are wondering, it is more than a composite word, a combination of theo (God) and poetry, although that’s a good start. Theopoetics points to our understanding that G/god and the spiritual life is more mystery than knowledge, more hunches than facts, more about beauty than debate, silence than speech. So song, story, poetry and paintings are not just educational aids to assist our understanding of words about G/god, they are often better signs, gateways, into the ineffable than words and reason and tomes of the same.
We know that once words are set to music, the music not only can transcend the words but make them almost irrelevant. We know, as Jesus knew, that stories can produce a stirring within that no exposition of that story can quite match. We know that rhetorical devices, like alliteration or rhyme, are not only more pleasing to our ear but take our hand, our heart, and lead us into wonder and wondering.
Sometimes when I struggle with the language of a psalm I try to think what it would have sounded like when first spoken or sung in its original language, what allusions were contained in it, what was the music, and what was the context. The great gift of the King James Bible is not its accuracy of translation (far from it), but that it attempted to honour the psalms but making them into contemporary poetry – that is to say the poetry of the early 1600s.
Similarly, the verse from the story above, “For what shall it profit a man (woman), if he (she) shall gain the whole world, and lose his (her) own soul?” is poetically killed in modern, more accurate, translations. The verse (in its accuracy), like the parable of the man who builds bigger and bigger barns then dies, has a message about giving your life for something that really matters – not bigger and bigger barny gains.
But the creative poets of the 1600s translation invite us to think about ‘soul’ – a word shunned by most theologians today for its history in supporting dualistic understanding – a word though still beloved of poets and mystics, who use it (like its synonym ‘heart’) to try to talk about spiritual matters, the mattering of spirit.
Bob Fulghum identifies with his character in the story – let’s call him Mr Frazzled – who runs so hard towards what he believes is necessary. Frazzled lives the modern life of time and pressure, stress and success, and in that merry-go-round-and-round loses perspective.
Bob both identifies with Mr Frazzled and laughs at his predicament. Many of us too laugh at this story because we see ourselves in it. Mr Frazzled is in a hurry, like we often are, and the wheels come off.
If I was Frazzled’s counsellor or confidante I would ask the question, “Why?” And, I suspect, I would get the usual responses about responsibility to provide, commitments to meet, and the need to get ahead. He has skills and abilities, and thinks being busy and frenetic is the way to use them.
When I read the Bible I see Jesus interacting with a number of people for whom the wheels have come off. Remember that leader of the synagogue whose daughter was critically ill. A spiritual leader, but more importantly a father, faced with losing his daughter. All his learning and status counted for nothing.
Or remember Nicodemus, another leader, who came under cover of darkness to ask what Jesus was on about. He had a niggle that there was something, theologically/spiritually, he was missing. So he risked derision by going to find out.
Or remember Zacchaeus, the tax extortionist, who climbed a tree to see what he couldn’t. He lost a lot of money that day, in the name of Jesus. He lost a lot of the gains – wealth, status, friendships – that he’d known.
Imagine now all these people, all these story characters, both in the Bible and out, Mr Frazzled, the Episcopalian social worker, Nicodemus, Zacchaeus… being invited to dine together.
Our Scripture reading today is of the rich landowner who puts on a banquet and his friends shamed him with last minute lame excuses (bought a field, five oxen, getting married) – excuses that said in effect ‘I don’t want to be with you’. The landowner – knowing that whatever he did he was shamed (and maybe not wishing to waste the food?) sent his slave out to invite anyone and everyone to attend, into the ‘highways and hedges’ (as the King James Version says). ‘Highways’ infers travellers, strangers, those engaged in commerce. ‘Hedges’ infers the homeless, the poor, of whom many were sick.
The table that they are being invited to deliberately contrasts with the mythology of a great feast at the end of time where the diners will be invited on their merits. Rather than being in the here-life this banquet table is in this life; instead of attendees being there on their merits, they will there with no merit. It is a table with an unconditional welcome, no ticket, no dress code, no manners, no privilege required.
Mr Frazzled therefore is welcome, if he can find time in his diary. Just as the field owner, the oxen trader, and the wedding couple are. This is not a means-tested dinner where everyone in a high income bracket is excluded. There is no means-testing, there is no exclusion.
The kicker is that Mr Frazzled might be seated next to the Episcopalian social worker, or her homeless clients. Or the leader of the synagogue might be seated next to a divorcee Samaritan, from the well. Or Zacchaeus might be seated beside Nicodemus. Discomfit would be rife.
And it is in that discomfit of difference, the discomfit of bringing the haves and have-nots together, the discomfit of inclusion, that the table of the wealthy landowner from the parable is transformed into the communion table of G/god.
So, theopoetically, we might say:
The table of God
becomes visible when all gather:
children, visitors, regulars, riff-raff,
including and not excluding,
the popular and the pretentious,
the bigoted and the broadminded,
the dependables and the expendables.
In that uncomfortable mix
we might find a thread to follow
out of our labyrinths of need and loss,
of greed and gain, out to the place
where our souls can run free.
[i] Fulghum, R “Uh-oh”, p.115 ff