December 25, 2018
Lo how a rose e'er blooming
This Christmas I have roses on my mind. Rosie was born four weeks ago Thursday—our first grandchild. Rosie is short for Rosamund, from the Latin Rosa Mundi, “Rose of the World,” whose birth we celebrate tonight.
Lo how a rose e'er blooming
From tender stem hath sprung
Of Jesse’s lineage coming
As seers of old have sung.
In our house, the day prior to Rosie’s birth felt to me a little bit like Christmas Eve: calm, quiet, expectant. Modern obstetrics being what they are, we knew tomorrow was the day. Over at Rosie’s parent's house, the atmosphere was busier and on the father’s side more nervous. Rosie’s father’s name is Christoph which like his daughter’s echoes Christmas. Christoph means “Christ-bearer.”
Christoph’s birth might not have happened. Somehow, Julie and I managed to get married without first discussing children: would we have them or would we not. On our wedding day, right here, on my side of the aisle, the complacent assumption was that we would of course. I would found out that the new Mrs. Keller harbored reservations. The reasons why are none of your beeswax—but they were weighty. Constitutionally, in marriage, a decision to have a child requires a unanimous vote, so my wife’s uncertainty was also mine. Now I imagined two distinctly different futures: through the door to the left was life with children; through the door to the right was life without.
Living with uncertainty on big questions takes a little faith, and I had some—about average faith, I figured, for a young man who had been raised in church by faithful parents. In college, I realized I had above average faith compared to peers from other backgrounds.
On this matter of children, my faith was neither neutral nor dependent on a certain outcome. My hope was specific: the passage to the left was what I prayed for. But through either door, faith, hope, and love abide. I believed that. I had been taught it here. As the years went by, no children in sight, life was good at home.
One day, walking by Julie sitting in an armchair working yarn and needles under lamplight, I asked, just making conversation, what she was crocheting. It was none of my beeswax, she let me know, not looking up, but I peeked and saw it was a little teddy bear. The door on the left cracked open. Through the door and down the road our family would add Christoph, Mary Olive, Laura, John, and, on November 27, Rosamund.
From the look of Rosie’s dad in the room that day, post-delivery, one might have supposed that he was the one who had had the baby. From now on, when I hear the Christmas story, I’ll imagine Joseph as more frazzled than I used to. Laura, Rosie’s mom, was exhausted but otherwise serene, like Mary in the paintings. Her parents, Ann and Jimmy Porter, up from Hamburg, were on hand and Laura asked that the grandparents come on into the room together to meet the baby. That was when Laura told us that Rosamund’s middle name is Julianna. Laura looked at Julie, looked at Ann, and said: “‘Julianna’ is for her grandmothers, who are the two best role models our daughter could possibly have.” Amen.
Isaiah 'twas foretold it, the rose I have in mind.
With Mary we behold it, the virgin mother kind.
To show God’s love aright, she bore to us a savior,
When half spent was the night.
Sometimes people with time on their hands worry about God, who seems not to be answerable to anyone. If God turned against us there is no law to hold him back! Who will protect us from the Great and Terrible Oz? Richard Hooker, a splendid English theologian, answered that worry so well centuries ago: what holds God back is love. “His being is the law of his doing,” as Hooker put it. Who God is determines what he does—and Christmas shows us who God is by what he did. . . when half spent was the night.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.
T.S. Eliot was my father Christoph Junior’s favorite poet and I inherited his taste. The lines above are from early in the Four Quartets, his favorite poem. The rose garden door was to the left, but the poet went right. We do not know why.
From there, the poem begins its journey, a long one, until arriving finally in the yard of an English country church. The name of the place is Little Gidding. A small group of saints, led by a priest named Nicholas Ferrar, had prayed there centuries before. As the poet approaches a voice in his heart—still, small—reminds him:
You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity.
You are here to kneel where prayer has been valid.
An old man walks up—a former professor of the poet he had not seen for years. In his ear, like Dickens’s ghost of Christmas past, the professor shares a secret:
Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
To set a crown upon your lifetimes effort
In old age, the teacher had grown disillusioned with himself. Complacently, he had before always strongly felt he acted only with the best intentions. He was proudly known for his integrity. Now in retrospect, that feels like hogwash. “All is vanity,” a seer of old had said. From the poem, the professor tells us all that there comes a time for each to feel:
The rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to others’ harm
Which once you took for the exercise of virtue
Then fools approval stings, and honour stains.
Although the man was no Scrooge, his encounter with the past was haunted.
From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
Where you must move in measure like a dancer.
“Restored by that refining fire where you must move in measure like a dancer”— if there is a better description of life in Christ, I would like to hear it. It means faithful, hopeful, loving through the half-spent night. It welcomes specific hopes for this and that: some child tonight praying for a bicycle with a ribbon and bow right beside the tree. Me, forty years ago, praying someday to be a dad. Those gifts happen or they don’t. Meanwhile, other gifts arrive unlooked for. Julie and I had not been married long when to my surprise and hers I heard a call into the ministry. In parenthood, we reached the empty nest ten years ago. In priesthood, the kids moved back in!
I visited another priest, older than I, the other day, whose heart is acting like it has had enough of pumping blood—day in, day out, year upon year ba-bump, ba-bump—and wants to lay its burden down. It seems to say: “Haven’t I done enough for you by now?” Some of his other appendages and parts echo the entreaty: “Us too, we love you, but we’re tired.” Our visit was in the same hospital where Rosie was born—a different unit, floor, and atmosphere. Like me, as a boy, my old friend had grown up in Boone County. Like me, his working life has been a blend of academic work and ministry. He preached by day and taught philosophy by night. He is a dear man. Before him lie two distinctly different futures: the door to the left is continued life for a little while yet with his kids, grandkids, friends and loved ones—peace on earth. “I’d miss them if I go,” he told me, “so I’d rather stay.” So we pray for that. But the door to the right doesn’t frighten him at all. Hope, faith, and love abide, and there are other loved ones, so many, waiting for him now, happy and expectant, over there where all is calm and all is bright. “I’m not ready to leave,” he tells me, “but I’m ready to go if that makes sense. I’ve been ready for that pretty much my whole life.” He’d been taught that in church, and learned it from faithful parents. Average faith sees through that final door.
In Little Gidding, the Fourth Quartet, towards the end a mystic’s voice appears:
All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well
The words are Christ’s as heard by Julian of Norwich, who knew him. In the last stanzas of the long poem that line repeats at intervals, like a drumbeat growing louder:
And all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well
By the purification of the motive in the ground of our beseeching.
These refrains surround the old professor in the poem, and his hard truth of things ill done to others’ harm, and they soften his predicament. In the end, it is not for us to judge ourselves any more than it is for us to judge our neighbor. Rosie will be bad or good but that won’t stop us from loving her. With our judgments, we usurp the prerogatives of God, who won’t allow it. Eliot, a poet of above average faith, sings out like Simeon in his Nunc Dimittis:
The dove descending breaks the air
With flames of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge of sin and error
Can something good be fearsome? If we’re not used to it, it can. If an angel said boo our hearts might stop. In her encounter, Mary was braver than the shepherds, but even she at first was troubled rather than elated.
On wings of the dove with fire, love descends from heaven.
Then from the earth it rises, and––
From the stem of Jesse
When Quirinius was governor of Syria
In the city of David
From the womb of Mary
King David’s appetite got the better of him. What he wanted was good, but not for him.
In the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas affirms that love was God’s reason for the making of the world and that his goodness permeates creation—but in pieces, disassembled like a jigsaw puzzle. He writes: “The perfect goodness that exists one and unbroken in God can exist in creatures only in a multitude of fragmented ways.”
So David was drawn to a fragmentary good. His desire was one that we instinctively appreciate, because without it none of us would be here, but the wrongness of his acting on it was severe. Our appetites cause trouble when we are heedless of the good of others, and the puzzle as a whole.
What is love? “Willing the good” of another person, according to Aquinas. David’s motive wouldn’t count as love. He wanted Bathsheba for himself. Perhaps her feelings were reciprocal, but David left her husband’s good, his kingdom’s good, and other puzzle pieces, neglected on the floor. Inconveniently, a pregnancy occurred. Plan A was to give Uriah, the husband, grounds to believe he was the father. When that plan failed the king successfully arranged to have him killed in battle.
Evil, according to Aquinas, is a corruption of the good. “Power tends to corrupt,” as Lord Acton warned, and in this story we see why. Only a king could be tempted to sin like David did, because it would take a king to pull it off. David’s failure is common to men in high places, shadowing the lives and times of several of our recent presidents and even Martin Luther King. Like kings and presidents, prophets are susceptible.
When I started SUMMA, the high school theological debate camp, I named it partly for the Summa Theologiae––“the Summa,” for short. SUMMA, the camp, highlights faith’s intellectual dimension. According to the Summa, the book, our intellect is like an appetite. As David’s eye was attracted to the beauty of Bathsheba, our mind’s eye is drawn to truth. We call this attraction “reason.” Aquinas writes; “As the good denotes that towards which the appetite tends, so the true denotes that towards which the intellect tends.”
If truth is the sun, sometimes our sight of it is fogged by other appetites. David had broken three of the ten commandments (the sixth, seventh, and tenth, if you are keeping score) but he was oblivious. Nathan the prophet found a way to lift the fog. Lawyer-like, he caught the king’s attention with the case of a poor, honest sharecropper and his beloved lamb. David’s first job had been tending sheep, so he could relate. A selfish plantation owner took the poor man’s lamb to feed his party guests. The king was livid. “Is this for real?” “For real.” David’s appetite for justice burned. “That Simon Legree will pay!” he swore. Coming from a king that was a verdict, not an empty threat. Nathan had him. He drew out his mirror and held it to the king’s face. Look close, he said. You are that man. “The moment of truth.”
“We must no longer be children,” Paul writes to the Ephesians. “We must grow up,” he says, by “speaking the truth in love.” At SUMMA, the camp, the highest honor, “the SUMMA Prize,” is awarded to the camper who best shows us how that’s done. The prize is one thousand dollars. That is one way to make our point that truth and love are intertwined.
Often, finding truth takes expertise: science, logic, math. Aquinas’s expertise was logic and it took him years to learn. Not everyone would have the skill even if they afford the time. By God’s design, love requires no expertise. Everyone can understand and anyone can do it if they will. “It is evident,” Aquinas writes, “that not all are able to labor at learning and for that reason Christ has given a short law. Everyone can know this law and no one may be excused from observing it based on ignorance. This is the law of divine love.”
For a counterpoint, Franklin Roosevelt once compared our nation’s moral progress to our scientific progress unfavorably, which might suggest that finding truth is easier than loving. According to Jon Meacham, Roosevelt had drafted a speech to give on Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, April 13. This was 1945. The speech was discovered on Roosevelt’s desk in Warm Springs, Georgia, April 12, the day he died. This is FDR:
Today, science has brought all the different quarters of the globe so close together that it is impossible to isolate them one from another . . . Today we are faced with the preeminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships—the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together in the same world, at peace. . . . Let us move forward with strong and active faith.
That’s from Meacham’s book The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels. From 1776 to now, the book tracks our national ups and downs in answering to what what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” Meacham wrote the book because he thinks we need to listen much more closely to those better angels now. Who could disagree?
Aquinas and Roosevelt were both right. Aquinas, because only an Isaac Newton could discover calculus; and Roosevelt because, once discovered, truth is ours to keep. Libraries are full of it. Love is more like breakfast—we have to make it every morning. Aquinas called theology the “Queen of Sciences” because it's the science that has to reckon with both the library and the kitchen.
SUMMA, the camp, is a crash course in truth detection. I tell the students: “I didn’t bring you here to tell you what to think, but to show you how.” They learn the three parts of an argument: claim, evidence, and warrant. Claim: ‘What are you trying to get me to believe?’ Evidence: ‘What are you giving me to go on?’ Warrant: ‘How does the evidence support the claim?’
For example, claim: I say “Tomorrow it will rain.” Evidence: You ask “Why should I believe that?” I answer: “Open the window and take a whiff.” You open the window. “Oh,” you say, “the paper mill.” Warrant: By what logic does this smell support my claim? It’s called an “inference from sign.” Does the Pine Bluff Paper Mill cause rain? No, but it lets us know the wind is from the south, and southern winds bring moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. Summer heat means afternoon convection: hot air rising from the earth. Add moisture and boom! Summer thunderstorms.
In one sentence in our gospel reading, Jesus makes two claims: (1) God sent me. (2) Faith in me is a sign of God’s activity in the heart and mind of the believer. “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent,” he says. Again: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Smartly, people ask Jesus for evidence to support these claims. Moses gave us evidence, they remind him, out there in the wilderness. Our ancestors were hungry and thirsty. Miraculously, he gave them manna for bread and water from a boulder. So show us. “What sign are you going to give us that we may see it and believe in you?”
For John, the gospel writer, this question is like a student’s who had dozed off in class. It is summer school, the air conditioning is out and the windows are open. The air is hot, moist, and heavy with that familiar smell. The boy wakes up and asks the teacher to answer something she had just explained in detail: “So why should we believe that it will rain tomorrow?”
Jesus’ questioners had been dozing. In John’s gospel, signs followed everywhere he went. In Cana, he turned water into wine. In Capernaum, he healed a dying child; in Jerusalem, it was a sick old man too weak to walk. The latest sign had been the most spectacular so far, and these people who were asking for a sign had either seen or heard about it. From five loaves and two fish, five thousand hungry appetites were satisfied. In a fog, these interrogators fail to draw the inference from sign.
Jesus backs up and tries another tack. With Moses still in mind, he offers an analogy. Analogies are warrants that work by comparison. “This is like that.” You know what its like to hungry and be given bread? They nod, still digesting loaves that he had given. I am like that he says. “Those who come to me will never hunger and those who believe in me will never thirst,” he promises. He isn’t talking now about digestion, but about that activity of God in human hearts and minds––also called the Holy Spirit.
By this, he puts us on watch for good that answers to a longing deeper than hunger even, and more thrilling even than that dizzy dancing feeling that draws us to each other sometimes. Powerful and necessary though they are, these appetites, they point to only fragments of the good we need as human beings. We are made for more.
We don’t need faith to know this. Aristotle knew it. Reason, he taught, is like an appetite for good things greater than our emotional enjoyment and even our physical survival.
We do not live by bread alone. Reason shows us that much. Faith, hope, love—the activity of God in the minds and hearts of all believers––now show us more: eternal truth, everlasting goodness, and transcendent beauty. They are like coffee, eggs, and bacon cooking in the kitchen early in the morning, smells wafting up the stairs into the bedroom as we’re dressing, getting ready for the day.