By Brian Cole
“I hope you have brought some paper with you and something to write with.” That is how many conferences and talks begin which seek to assist us in our quests to become more spiritual and more holy. Want to follow Jesus? Good, well pick up your #2 pencil and write, write, write these things down and write your way into the kingdom.
From a lifetime of attending conferences and talks on the Christian life, I have filled up many pages of notes, mostly borrowed sheets of paper from some woman in front of me who understood the Christian journey required a steady supply of writing materials.
After filling up those pages, I have tucked them away somewhere, in a folder or a notebook, so I could refer back to them later. When I had more time, I would study those notes again. When I had more time, I would sit down with those notes and read my way deeper into the arms of Jesus. For you see, the Kingdom of God apparently has a paper trail.
And some of those notes are from my childhood, in the early days of cursive, with youthful insights, such as, “Jesus is love,” and it’s underlined. And some of those notes are from very recent days, with coffee stains on them, and they contain mature adult reflections, such as, “Jesus is love,” and it’s underlined.
And as I look back on all those days of note taking, something emerges and is now rather obvious to me. As Christians, regardless of our diverse theologies and competing bumper stickers, we all want to be faithful, to know the rules, to follow the instructions, to carry the right list of things to do into this dangerous and beautiful world which God has placed us in.
Tell us, tell us what to do, let us write it down and then go forth. Give us a list, a list of things to do, to accomplish on behalf of goodness and order and all things holy and we will be secure.
And most of our notes about life and living relate to positive actions, to desired outcomes, to a list of things we want to complete by day’s end, or by the close of the work week or before we die.
And taken in total, I am sure we would together compile an admirable and impressive list. In small steps and in great leaps, we would know we had mastery over our lives by the steady stream of good and Christian acts that flowed from us as we go through our days. If only we could live from our lists. If only our notes ruled the world.
When asked to consider the various lists we encounter in the Christian tradition, the Ten Commandments might be thought of as THE LIST. If there is a list to keep close by at all times, then the Ten Commandments are number one. Thankfully, there are only ten items on the list. How hard can it be to do ten things, or in this case, to either do or not do ten things?
Apparently, it’s rather hard. No matter how earnest we are, we fall short, even with a list as concise as the Ten Commandments.
To be honest, the Ten Commandments end up encompassing all of life. These ten sayings are really ten pathways into the whole human experience.
I believe we also forget something critical about the Ten Commandments. We forget how they begin. They begin with the acknowledgement of a relationship. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”
In other words, if we are not careful, we might try to keep the rules while ignoring the centrality of the relationship. The relationship comes first.
Where did God find us? God found us in a foreign land, as slaves. God found us while we were out of control, not able to decide for ourselves. God found us in chains. In other words, left on our own, we fall down, we fail and we make mistakes. Left on our own, any list for living will eventually become a stumbling block.
We keep the Ten Commandments, not as a result of our own moral striving; rather we keep the Ten Commandments when we recall that we were slaves and have been set free, not because of our actions, but because of grace. God broke the chains.
The grace of God offered to all is radically displayed on the cross, when what is foolish and scandalous is transformed into the very image of God’s most complete and confounding wisdom.
St. Paul speaks of this foolish wisdom in writing to the believers in Corinth. Our lists of wisdom, our desires for signs are all shown to be wanting in the light of the crucified Christ, who has found us all in a reconciled relationship.
Our lists will fail us or we, at some point, will fail our lists. What does not fail is the God who was willing to fail and look foolish on the fatal cross.
In his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton wrote about his first impressions of the chaplain at the English school where he attended as a teenager. He wrote—
He was a tall, powerful, handsome man, with hair greying at the temples, and a big English chin, and a broad, uncreased brow, with sentences like ‘I stand for fair-play and good sportsmanship’ written all over it.
His greatest sermon was on the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians—and a wonderful chapter indeed. But his exegesis was a bit strange…[His] interpretation of the word ‘charity’ in this passage (and in the whole Bible) was that it simply stood for “all that we mean when we call a chap a ‘gentlemen.’” In other words, charity meant good-sportsmanship, cricket, the decent thing, wearing the right kind of clothes, using the proper spoon, not being a cad or a bounder.
There he stood, in the plain pulpit, and raised his chin above the heads of all the rows of boys in black coats and said: ‘One might go through this chapter of St. Paul and simply substitute the word “gentleman” for “charity” wherever it occurs. “If I talk with the tongues of men and of angels, and be not a gentleman, I am become as a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal…A gentleman is patient, is kind; a gentleman envieth not, dealeth not perversely; is not puffed up…A gentleman never falleth away…”
Merton’s remembrance of the English clergyman is humorous. But it is also telling about our eternal temptation to turn the quest for the Holy One into an exercise of rigorous moral uplift. Follow the rules, do the right or the proper or the expected thing and the blessings of God and the approval of proper society will shine upon you.
“Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” Jesus is not being a proper gentleman when he cleans out the temple. While he might have a good point, making a scene, especially a violent scene, just isn’t done. Such an action is never on any proper list.
But Jesus is aware that the gospel is not a proper story. It is a foolish story. It requires foolish, deadly, life-giving action. God does not call us to strive towards heaven. God, through Jesus, instead chose to descend to us, to be placed on a cross, and to be the only sacrifice necessary to enter the Temple.
He is the sacrifice. He is also the temple. He is the bridge. He is the gift.
Despite our best efforts at organizing, we lose things. How many times have you misplaced your to-do list? You have to begin again and start a new list of things to do. The first item on the new list involves finding the old one. If you had that, then all would be well.
All would be well but not because of the list or your ability to complete the tasks with grace and good humor. All is well and all things shall be well because the Christ has become a temple for us all. And it is not called the Temple of the People with the Proper Lists and Right Actions. The Christ is a temple of the reconciliation, of a place where the only word on every list is forgiveness and it’s underlined.
In the Resurrection life of the Christ, all our lists of things, both done and undone, both desired and undesired, get lost and are consumed by a perfect and holy fire, a brief moment that is, somehow, eternal.
We do not enter the Kingdom once our notes for spiritual maturity are memorized or the list of good things is completed. Before pencil is lifted to paper, the Christ is already raised up, drawing us all to his side.
We are here, not because we were always faithful in keeping the lists. We are here because of the faithfulness of God in keeping us. Because of that relationship, the rest of life is gracious gift. All words, both words already offered and any other words added, can never adequately describe that gift. For we are not the sum of lists kept. We are the sheep kept at all costs by the Good Shepherd.
Because of that relationship, we can be in relationship with all, we can cross all the boundaries of clean and unclean, because we are simply following the Christ, who has already crossed those boundaries and made us one.
We can lose words. The Word, however, does not lose us.
The Rt. Rev. Brian Cole is the V Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee.