Approach Avoidance

By Alston Johnson

Everybody wants to laugh

Ah, but nobody wants to cry
I say everybody wants to laugh
But nobody wants to cry

Everybody wants to go to heaven
But nobody wants to die

Everybody want to hear the truth
But yet, everybody wants to tell a lie
I say everybody wants to hear the truth
But still they all want to tell a lie

Oh everybody wants to go to heaven
But nobody wants to die

Everybody want to know the reason
Without even askin’ why
Oh, everybody want to know the reason
Oh, without even askin’ why

You know everybody wants to go to heaven
But nobody wants to die

—Albert King, Earl Scruggs

There was a period in my life, any time and any place, you would have heard Bluegrass music methodically plinking away in the background. I had the fever, and immersed myself in that music and culture like any good and faithful disciple. One day I was listening to my hero, Earl Scruggs, while writing a term paper. Scruggs played a song by Bluesman Albert King, and this is what he sang: “Everybody wants to hear the truth, but yet everybody wants to tell a lie. … Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.”

I quit tapping my foot and reading my book, reached over to the vinyl and pushed the needle back. I needed to hear that again. “Everybody wants to know the reason without even asking why. Everybody wants to go to heaven … but nobody wants to die.”

Although I had been reading, writing, and discussing spiritual and theological matters for years, the simple truth had to be plucked on a banjo for me to really hear it. How true; we all yearn for heaven, for God, in the midst of our human condition, yet at the same time we strenuously avoid the circumstances of our arrival there; namely our personal limitations and eventual death.

Sometimes I call it the old “fake right, go left.” Approach avoidance. The very thing that is inevitable, we claim to desire, is also, sometimes, what we most strenuously resist.

That is certainly what we are hearing from the Apostle Paul in Romans, one of Paul’s most endearing snapshots. This is not the irascible Paul; this is the vulnerable Paul, the humble apostle. Paul gives something of a confession. Paul gives voice to this “come hither, but not too close” duality that exists within his soul. The approach and the avoidance are common to each of us.

“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. … For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” It’s a short paragraph that anyone of us could have written. It’s the old game of fake right, go left that we play with ourselves and with God in our lives.

We can see the good, know the good, but something within us still protests in surrendering to the good. There seems to be some gap that we cannot close by ourselves, a piece of the puzzle that is missing. Closing that distance between a desire for God, and the reality of God, seems to be the perennial dilemma of the human condition.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus draws back the curtain on another kind of distance between human beings and God. It is different than Paul’s confession in Romans, in that it is not a personal existential statement of self-examination. Jesus is pointing out another kind of fact. Jesus is pointing out a collective misunderstanding. There is a gap in how the people collectively understand themselves, how they understand him, and how they understand what God is trying to do for them.

Jesus describes the people as children who are playing games in the midst of events that have eternal consequences. They are not minding the gap. In the presence of God’s messengers, God’s Son, they are acting like children in the marketplace who play a tune, and then become upset when messengers don’t soothe and oblige them.

“We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.”

We told you what we wanted, and we are upset that you have not done as we wished; you have not entertained our expectations. Jesus is unveiling the people’s avoidance behavior of choice, which is foolishly assuming that God is going to indulge them according to their imaginations. And so in frustration the people question, “cancel,” God’s messengers and his son.

Ostensibly the crowd’s desire is to be in right relationship, a “good” relationship, with God, but their refusal or inability to imagine a new thing creates a punishing distance between themselves and what they proclaim to desire. They make an approach, but they also maintain their avoidance. Perhaps they are like Paul; or perhaps they simply do not know what they do not know.

Although the epistle and the Gospel are coming at the dilemma that exists between the ideal and real in different ways, it seems to me that the source of the problem lies in the realm of “me, my, and mine.” In the case of the Apostle Paul, in the case of the crowds, there remains an insurmountable distance between what is desired, a deeper realization of God and self, and the willingness or ability to surrender the “me, my, and mine” in a way that closes the gap in that relationship.

Maintaining that distance, never closing that gap, leads to consequences with eternal implications. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus offers himself as a means of negotiating the space between ourselves and God.

If iPhones had existed during the days that Jesus was teaching in the ancient cities of Israel, there would be hundreds of short video clips of Jesus being schooled by the scribes and teachers of the Pharisees. The experts in Torah and the Law moved among the population with a very discriminating eye, calling out those who were failing to adhere to the fullness of the Mosaic code.

Every hour of the 168 hours of the week could be accounted for within the expectation model maintained by the Torah and the Mosaic code. This is when you work. This is when you pray. This is when you wash. This is when you fast. This is when you go to the Temple. This is when you go to the synagogue. Ad infinitum. The Law provided a great map of shoulds and musts upon which to chart the course of a human life; all managed, maintained, and manicured by the scribes and Pharisees.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus forthrightly shares stature and portraiture with Moses because Jesus is meeting the curators of the Law on their own playing field. Jesus presents and articulates a kind of Decalogue, 10 commands, on the Mount of the Beatitudes. Like Moses, Jesus is the one to whom all things have been handed over by the Father; Jesus receives the old covenant, and what is more, Jesus is the One in whom this new Law, the new Torah, will reside. This is the great image: the Law, the foundation of moral behavior, and the lawgiver have become one in the same in Jesus.

This greater image, this greater portrait of Jesus as a kind of Moses, is why Jesus speaks with such authority and fearlessness in the presence of the Scribes and the Pharisees, who would do all of the existential and divine measuring themselves. Jesus is not simply a commentator upon events. Jesus is one who comes redrawing their map.

In this greater portrait, Jesus is the Incarnation, a place where the Law beneath which Israel lives, and the lawgiver, God in heaven, becomes someone who is living and breathing and commenting upon that very map. Jesus becomes someone who is closing the gaps between what we know of God and who he really is among us.

This new place, this larger portrait, where the Law becomes the life we share itself, is a place of transformation. It is the opposite of maintaining a critical distance of self-preservation. It is also the opposite of maintaining a critical distance in order to simply point out the failures and missteps of others. Life is rescued from our avoidance behaviors of choice.

Christ’s Incarnation is a place of profound attachment, not critical distances, because it is a place filled with love. The Incarnation is the closing of the gaps. The Apostle Paul draws this very conclusion in Romans when he answers his own question: “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ, our Lord!” Jesus is among us as one who will take our avoidance behaviors in hand so that we might finally close the distances we seek to maintain with God.

In light of the Gospel today, I am reminded that Leo Tolstoy once said something similar to Albert King, Earl Scruggs, and the Apostle Paul: “Everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself.”

I imagine that each of us knows the burden of laboring beneath an unrealized idealism. I find that when I am in that place, I often seek to draw others beneath that weight as well, and never more so than when I find that I am failing beneath my own idealism. It is a natural reaction, projection, to expect of others the very thing that we cannot accomplish for ourselves.

How easily the words tumble out of our mouths: “You know they really should be doing this. You know they really should be doing that. You know, if they loved God, if they loved Jesus, then this.”

How quickly we would lash others to our own burden. How quickly we would lash others to our own yoke. And Jesus knows this about us. “Thank you, Father, for you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent.”

Jesus comes bearing a secret, a hiddenness, such that we will have to give up ourselves in order to find our truest selves in God. Our certainties about others’ behavior, no matter how passionately maintained, will always only take us part of the journey toward God. There is still an open space, which only the unseen hand of heaven might reach in and fill. The last piece of the puzzle of our lives, the last piece of the puzzle of others’ lives, will not be produced from our hands.

The true and final piece of that puzzle is the love that comes from God.

When love is in the conversation, there is a shift. We move from “Let me tell you how to do this, or how this should be done,” to “Let me do this with you; let me carry this for you.” In order to teach us how to make this gentle shift in perspective and participation, God give us his Son as a teacher. In the way that he lives, in what he says, Jesus goes ahead of us to show us the way of love.

There is a mystery in the power and presence of God. And in this case, for me, there is a paradox. We find our greatest freedom, our greatest buoyancy and hope in life, perhaps our greatest peace, not in the absence of hard work and labor, nor in the splendid, suspended animation of commentary and critique.

Our greatest rest, our soul’s rest, comes when we are indeed bound, yoked, shouldering a burden and accepting a particular kind of labor that comes with being loved by God, and loving others in God. It is then that we can learn the incredible freedom, rest, and peace that comes from no longer pouring our lives into our avoidance behaviors of choice; surrendering the weariness of self-preservation for the buoyancy that comes with dying and rising upon the bridge that Jesus is building between worlds.

Because Jesus has come, and because he has risen and goes ahead of us, we can be transformed beyond our avoidance and discover that the yoke of this love is easy, and the burden of this kind of love is actually light.

The Very Rev. Alston Johnson is dean of St. Mark’s Cathedral, Shreveport, Louisiana. 


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