I was a history major in college because of the professor who taught my Western Civilization course my first semester at Baylor. I’ve told this story before. I walked into Wallace Daniel’s classroom expecting to be told, once again, who won what war and what it meant for the rest of us and, instead, was handed a reading list that consisted of novels. I think I took every class Dr. Daniel taught—or at least that’s the way I remember it, looking back on a life that was changed by how I learned to read novels and tell stories in my history classes.
I started reading another book on time today: The Art of Time in Fiction: As Long As It Takes by Joan Silber. She starts off by saying that meaning is the reason we tell the story (6), and then, a couple of pages later, she says meaning “is determined by where a story ends” (8), and then she points to the luxury afforded the fiction writer: he or she can end they story wherever they choose. In life, however, that vantage point is harder to come by. She leans into Kierkegaard to make her point:
It is quite true what Philosophy says that Life must be understood backwards. But that makes one forget the other saying: that it must be lived—forwards. The more one ponders this, the more it comes to mean that life in the temporal existence never becomes quite intelligible, precisely because at no moment can I find complete quiet to take the backward-looking position.
And what is the story? We circle through the liturgical calendar, saying we are once again walking with Jesus to the cross, but our journey this Lent is not the same on he walked anymore than it is the same walk we made last year or the year before that. Life has not stopped since Jesus carried his cross up the hill. Humanity has stayed in continuous motion. What our story means is hard to determine, sometimes, because the story has not ended. The meaning is still in the making.
Today marks sixty-one years since my parents married. Dad has missed the last four anniversaries; Mom, the last two. As I live with the presence of their absence, i find new meaning in the story of our lives together, but based on the tears that were my cheeks as I looked at their wedding picture this morning, our story together is far from ended. They are dead, but they are not finished with me.
Finished: that word makes me jump ahead in our Lenten journey. I’ve always wanted to know exactly what the antecedent was to Jesus’ cry from the cross, “It is finished.” What was “it”? Bill Gaither wrote a song by that title that my father loved. I can see both his chin and his fist tighten with confident resolve when he heard them sing,
it is finished, the battle is over
it is finished, there’ll be no more war
it is finished, the end of the conflict
it is finished, and Jesus is Lord
The harmonies are amazing. The melody is wonderful. I love the song, too, though my favorite part is the second verse, which begins,
in my heart, the battle was still raging
not all prisoners of war had come home . . .
For me, then and now, it is unfinished. And it is the story of my life and my faith. In the sentences that precede the quote I used yesterday, James Carroll writes,
I have outgrown a childish faith in Jesus, but he remains the one to whom my heart first opened when I became aware. What I grasped of him on my small knees before the crucifix in St. Mary’s Church, stripped by now by the dross of dogmatism, remains the pulse of my faith. This book is my attempt to say why Jesus has this hold on me, but the attempt requires a certain historical sweep, a theological scope.
Then, he goes on to say,
I will return to the New Testament, but, fully attuned to our contemporary struggles, I will read those texts through the lens of centuries of total war and corrupted power, trying to see how violence, contempt for women, and, above all, hatred of Jews distorted the faith of the Church I still love. (Christ Actually 11)
Both Carroll and Howard Thurman, one of my other Lenten companions, pay attention to the impact of World War II, the Holocaust, and Hiroshima as a break in human history: we proved ourselves capable of unparalleled destruction of life. Thurman wrote, in 1951,
This meant, and continues to mean, that no one may claim detachment. The result is deep strains and stresses in the should of a people, for which they had no preparation and from which there seems to be no sure basis for recovery. . . . Many persons are sure not only that the development of the bomb marked the initiation of a new era for [humanity] but that it also killed something precious in the life of the race. (Deep is the Hunger 4)
I was intrigued to read this sentence in a later essay in the same book:
Sometimes it takes a lifetime to determine whether or not a single act was a mistake or not. (8)
It has been seventy years since we dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, sixty years since Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, and fifty years since the Voting Rights Act was signed into law. None of those events was the ending to a story, but perhaps the distance of time affords us the chance, if we are willing to take it, to see what is still unfinished, and what has been left undone; to see what we do next.
Wait. That last paragraph sounds as though we would be doing a new thing. There are people who are way ahead of me asking these questions. I am not saying anything new. What I am seeing in ways I have not before is that instead of talking about the Holocaust in a roomful of Christians, I need to listen to the voices of those who know the stories by heart, who are informed by grief. Instead of talking about what to do about race in a roomful of white people, I need to listen to conversations that have gone on for years and years, like those we brushed up against in Birmingham and Selma and Montgomery.
We may not be able to find a completely quiet moment to look backwards, but even in midst of the noise of the present tense, we can look back and see that straight white people have done a lot of damage in Jesus’ name for a long time. That’s the story that needs to be finished. “All the events of our world must be placed in a context of incident that reveals their profound interrelatedness,” Thurman says. (2)
I was five years old when I gave my heart to Jesus, as they say in Baptist life. That language made sense to me then, and it still does now. If it’s not about the heart, then something’s missing. The Jesus I pictured then was nothing but love, or, at least, when I look back that’s what I see. I did get up from praying with my parents and turned to my three-year old brother and said, “Miller, if you don’t give your heart Jesus you’re going straight to hell,” so I must have had some sort of judgment theology lurking in my little mind.
The Jesus I have grown up with and into is Love, with a capital L. He is not, as Carroll described, stripped by the “dross of dogmatism.” He is clothed in love with his arms wide open, but he is not sentimental. He is the Love that carried those people across the bridge in Selma. He is the Love of Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, of Gene Robinson and Sarah Miles, of Dorothy Day and Daniel Berrigan, of Rosa Parks and Johnnie Carr, to name a few, along with a list of names that have crossed my heart and mind as I write—names of friends and loved ones who keep inviting me into The Story of The Love That Will Not Let Us Go.
And it’s not finished.