Thirty Minutes before Sunrise

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February 10, 2019

Mid-January I went duck hunting with my cousins, my son, and some friends—three hunts in two days with six or seven guns each time, over rice and in flooded timber. We saw some ducks, and worked a few, but no one ever fired a shot. It was a bad season from Missouri south: too warm for too long up north and way too wet down here.

You may have heard the old Jim Penick-Dean Higgins story about ducks and the Cathedral. The Penick men were in church on Sundays as a rule, until duck season when they disappeared. One year when the season was over and Jim reported back to church, the Dean, shaking hands at the door following the service, grumbled: “We’ve missed you in church. People tell me they find God in the woods. I don’t know about that.” “Well Dean,” Jim replied (and I will clean this up a bit) “I may or may not find God in the woods, but I durn sure won’t find ducks in the Cathedral.”

So, if not ducks, what do we find in the Cathedral?

Still the best answer I have heard yet was Marilynne Robinson’s in her novel Home, when the father tells his daughter why they go to church on Sundays. “God doesn’t need our worship. We worship to enlarge our sense of the Holy, so that we can feel and know the presence of the Lord, who is with us always.” From that I glean that worship here should widen our perception of God’s presence elsewhere, including in the duck woods. Still explaining, the father adds: “Love is what it amounts to. A loftier love.”

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty.

That is Isaiah the prophet, whose sense of the Holy had been tripled by two angels. “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts,” they chanted. These were seraphim, equal to the cherubim as angels of the highest rank. Angel tradition tells us the cherubim get excited by truth, the seraphim by love. What Isaiah saw was holiness in love, his senses of holiness and loveliness thus reciprocally
enlarged.

For thus says the exalted and lofty one who inhabits eternity and whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell in the high and holy place . . . and also with those who are crushed. . . and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the crushed. (Isaiah 57:17)

Isaiah gets excited. “Here I am, send me,” he volunteers for ministry, like I did forty years ago without a vision. Now we face a problem. I am remembering Howell Raines, a southern sportsman of Jim Penick’s generation. His sport was trout fishing. Raines moved north to run the New York Times. On Sunday mornings, you’d find him somewhere on a stream. “Like many southerners,” he explained, “I was ruined for church by early exposure to preachers.” 1

That is the problem!

“Make the mind of this people dull,” God instructs, intending irony, “and stop their ears and shut their eyes.” God knows this is what we so often do, we preachers and we Christians. Rather than enlarging we obscure. A little girl in Pine Bluff once gave a compliment to my friend Richard Milwee, her priest. After church one morning she piped up: “Mama, I like Mr. Milwee. He’s not like other preachers.” Mama said: “How’s that?” “You know, how like when they start talking, you just wish they would stop.”

So Howell Raines fled church and fished. And this week his old newspaper, the Times, ran a column by a woman who as a child had been beaten over the head with the thought that she was a sinner:

Sin. That tiny word still makes me cringe with residual fear. Fear of being judged unworthy. Fear of the eternal torture of hell. Fear of my my father’s
belt. 2

The Times titled her column “Raising Children Without the Concept of Sin.” Her daughters, the author brags, don’t even know the word. We can understand because her faith was a casualty of abusive preaching.

“Sin,” though, is like the cat you put out the front door, only to find that it has come back inside through the living room window. In telling her story, the author appeals to the reader’s disgust at her parent’s misbehavior. “That’s wrong!” we think, making a moral judgment.

Call bad behavior what you want. The bible calls it sin, while enlarging our sense of God’s merciful activity in dealing with it. There he is intervening for a woman guilty of adultery. Now comes Paul, paring the gospel down to two essentials. 

I handed to you as of first importance. . . that Christ died for our sins . . . and that he was raised.

Paul means to stretch our sense of God to full capacity. In Christ, already we knew God’s passive disposition to forgive us, but now we see him actively assume the consequences of our misbehavior. For our sins he died. That intervention has been colorfully described as paying our debts, or serving out our sentence, or buying our freedom.

There is a curious resemblance between Christian teaching on sin and a strain of Mahayana Buddhism called “Pure Land” Buddhism. I first read about Pure Land Buddhism in a footnote in Karl Barth, and then in a book by John Cobb, a Christian theologian who preaches that Christians and Buddhists have a lot to learn from one another. 3

Something our two religions certainly do share is struggle. As Christians we wrestle with sin and often lose the battle. Buddhists strive towards Enlightenment, Nirvana, often coming up short. According to Cobb, Pure Land Buddhism arose to offer hope to those who fail. Those who shunned gross misconduct in life, and called in faith to the Buddha at the time of death, were granted entrance to the Pure Land. This stage of life after death was a way station towards Nirvana. The Pure Land moral and spiritual environment was friendlier to progress than is life as we know it here on earth, where moral and spiritual conditions can be harsh—too wet, too dry, too warm, too cold. 4 I am thinking for example of life for combat soldiers, business owners working in corrupt political environments, and teens growing up in gang infested neighborhoods. In the milder climate of the Pure Land the moral choices are not as difficult, and there are guides who lead the way. These are the bodhisattvas, who from compassion have vowed not to enter
Nirvana if that means leaving multitudes behind. They come back for the lost sheep. 

According to legend, one bodhisattva was supreme. An Indian prince named Dharma Kara perfected the Pure Land and to the greatest possible extent simplified the rules for entering. (Think of how easy we make it to be baptized here, for his yoke is easy and his burden is light.) They called his pure land prince “Amida Buddha. According to Cobb, Amida Buddha was regarded as the savior.

That was the gist: that we humans need help, morally and spiritually, and that we have this help in the person of a savior. Barth described this Pure Land gospel as, “as far as I can see the most comprehensive and illuminating” parallel to Christian faith in another world religion. 5

It was C.S. Lewis who once said that his believing Christianity absolutely true didn’t entail his believing other religions altogether false. He wasn’t suggesting as some do that each religion has its own truth. He meant that God doesn’t hide from human beings. Our sense of the holy picks up the scent and answers to it. Theologians call this “general” revelation. The “special” revelation is the great Epiphany in Christ which confirms, corrects, and perfects the general. It shouldn’t surprise us to find suggestions of the special in the general, as we do with the legend of Amida Buddha. I think it would concern us if there were none.

I handed to you as of first importance . . . that Christ died for our sins … and that he was raised.

Christ’s death for our sins is strong medicine that we all need. His resurrection also is medicinal and we need that too.

How so?

It tames our fear of death, for starters. But I am thinking also of another problem. 

The resurrection presages a world where “is” and “ought” are reconciled. “Is” and “ought”: what is the case, what ought to be. In our sin-prone world we find them often out of kilter, like a broken zipper. I will give an example painful to my Louisiana kinfolk. The New Orleans Saints, as everyone agrees, ought to have gotten a penalty flag, a first down, and an easy kick with seconds left to beat the Rams and make it to the Super Bowl. Assuming they make that kick, “ought” was Brees versus Brady in Super Bowl LIII. But “is” was the ho-hum game we got last Sunday.

That chasm between “is” and “ought” can open up beneath our feet in our lives at any moment, with bad calls in sports the least part of it. Every illness, crime, and many heartaches are examples. Christ’s arrest and death was an example—and in his resurrection, is and ought were reconciled. People made whole and wrongs made right: that’s how resurrection is medicinal. Something like that was Dean Higgins’s point to Jim. We don’t find this sort of information in the duck woods. That would be asking more of trees and birds than they know to give. They are just not privy to it.

Jim’s point was that what they do bestow is still exquisite: the peace and quiet of daybreak on a winter morning, wind rustling through tree tops; plaintive sounds of snow geese honking in the distance overhead; suddenly “Right here!”—the squeal of a wood duck zooming by, and gone before you even think to raise your gun; the slow day chatter among hunters swapping jokes and memories of mishaps with boats and leaky waders, and yarns about Louisiana gumbo mud stronger than gorilla glue. (It broke Jennifer Wilson-Harvey’s father’s leg, and that’s the truth.) Such Arkansas days are beauties of creation. It is right that we would love them and enjoy the respite that they bring.

 

1 Howell Raines, Fly-Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis (New York: William and Morrow, 1993),
17.
2 Julia Scheeres, “Raising Children without the Concept of Sin,” The New York Times, accessed
on online January 29, 2019.
3 John B. Cobb, Jr., Beyond Dialogue: Toward a Mutual Transformation of Christianity and
Buddhism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982), 122ff.
4 See also the parable of the sower, Matthew 13:1-23.
5 Barth, Church Dogmatics, 1 part 2, 340.

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