We’ve been spending Saturday mornings during Lent with Job at our church: coffee, fruit, pastries, and suffering – what a way to spend a weekend. I’m the discussion leader and the guy who starts the coffee pot, so I get there early to get both the pot and my mind percolating. This morning we looked at the first cycle of conversations between Job and his three alleged friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar (Zogood).
I was rereading passages, browsing through commentaries, and trying to pull my thoughts together when I came across a section in one of the commentaries that talked about the significance of Job’s physical sufferings. The world came crashing in on Job first, with the loss of his possessions, then the loss of his family, and then the infliction of the seeping, painful sores that left him scraping his skin on the dung heap. The reality of his crumbling body brought him face to face with his physical finitude. But there’s more to it than that. The commentator said the significance of the bodily ailments pointed to the fact that our bodies are “organs of perception”: each of us understands the world physically, through our senses and our experiences. We are not objective. What we see and taste and smell and touch and hear and feel is what we experience.
One of the most fascinating things about reading This Is Your Brain on Music was Levitin’s explanation of what happens physically in our brains when we hear a song, and when we are moved emotionally by a melody. The Hebrews understood something we are having to relearn as Westerners drenched in Greek dualism: body, mind, and spirit are intrinsically connected; they cannot be separated. What we experience spiritually has physical ramifications and vice versa. Our bodies are not merely temporal shells for our eternal souls; every last bit of our beings makes us who we are and influences who we can become.
When Ginger was doing her doctoral work at ETS in Detroit, she took a class called “The Body as a Means of Grace.” The textbook was Job’s Body: A Handbook for Bodywork. I remembered the title as I was reading the commentary. During our study time, Ginger talked about the physical work they did – movement, Reiki, meditation – and the spiritual experiences that came about as a result. Our bodies’ knowledge is intimate and direct. It even shows up in our language in ways that slip by us: we are touched by songs and books, moved by music and movies. The words are as physical as the experiences.
When I was on staff at University Baptist in Fort Worth, Texas, one of the pastors from University Christian Church, down the block, came to our staff meeting to talk about similarities and differences in our worship services. When we asked why they observed Communion every week, she answered, “Because we want to experience Christ with all of our senses in worship, not just by sight and hearing.” Then she quoted Psalm 34: “O, taste and see that the Lord is good.”
My Australian blog buddy, Simon Carey Holt, just began a new pastorate and writes beautifully about his first taste of community there:
Once installed last Sunday as the pastor of Collins Street, the very first thing I got to do was to lead the church at the table … the breaking of bread and sharing of wine. I am glad that’s where it began.
For me, there is no better image of salvation than of a table prepared by God. It is a place of open invitation where all estrangement disappears. It’s a place of extraordinary intimacy but never exclusivity, one of challenge but never judgement; a shared table of healing, sustenance and hope. What’s more, as people of that table we are called to beckon the stranger with the same open hospitality that draws us.
Communion is both a metaphorical and material image of the physicality of our faith. We eat together, we feed each other, and there are always leftovers. The reality that my perception of the world, and of God, is only available to me through my physical senses, meaning there is no way I can be objective and that truth is always going to be larger than I am, means faith, like life, has to be a team sport. Figuring out our faith is the live action version of the fable of the blind men and the elephant: each of us hold of a different part and we need each other for a more complete view.
Don’t eat alone; don’t faith alone, either.
Around our table this morning were some who know firsthand the despair of depression, some who are living through the pain of broken relationships, some who are grieving over the loss of loved ones, some who are living with cancer and other serious illnesses, some contemplating major life changes, and there were only ten of us around the table. As we read aloud what the three friends had to say to Job in the midst of his pain, we found ourselves on both sides of the conversation. We knew what it felt like for well-meaning people to say things that did not help because they felt like they needed to say something to cope with their own sense of helplessness and we knew what it felt like to be one of those well-meaning people wondering what to say and wishing we could do something to help. Sometimes, the best we can do is remember a line from Alice in Wonderland: “Don’t just do something; stand there.”
Tonight, I am reminded of an old story from Martin Bell’s wonderful book, The Way of the Wolf, called “The Porcupine Whose Name Didn’t Matter.” I offer it here, even though it makes for an extra long post, because it belongs.
Once upon a time there was a cautious Porcupine name Joggi. Joggi lived with the mystery of his own life, much as any other porcupine, but he was exceedingly cautious. Joggi lived and loved, laughed and cried tentatively. One might say that anger, frustration, and tenderness had been so delicately woven into the fabric of his person as to make it difficult for us to perceive.
Joggi was cautious in the face of the mystery of life. So cautious, in fact, that almost nobody knew his name. Most of the animals in the forest who had seen the near-sighted porcupine moving slowly about, poking his pointed black nose into the vegetation, bristling and puffing, squinting and stumbling. Few had spoken to him.
Now and then, someone would say hello and attempt to strike up a conversation. It never really led to anything. When asked what his name was, he would answer: “It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what my name is, can’t you see, what difference does it make? It doesn’t matter”. More often than not, that would be the end of the conversation.
Joggi could not embrace another, he would not tell anyone his name. And the result was almost always the same — the other animals avoided him. With one exception, this was Gamiel, the raccoon. It did not bother him when the prickly little porcupine was silent for hours at a time. And he never even thought to ask about Joggi’s name. Gamiel could remember very little before the accident, and much of what had happened since was blurred somewhere in the recesses of his brain, all but lost to memory.
Raccoons are generally alert and resourceful creatures with keen perceptions and excellent memories. But all of this had changed. There had been a flash of light and then something hard ripped into the side of his head. His whole body convulsed with pain, white-hot, thrashing, ‘God-when-will-it-stop’ pain, that pitched him bleeding from the tree into the under-bush. Screaming pain that shrieked behind his eyes the one and only word of hope he knew, and then as suddenly as it had come, it was gone.
Everything changed. He did not even look like a raccoon. The whole left side of his head was missing, he could barely pull himself along with his right front leg. Gamiel had only to look at himself in the forest pond to realize why everyone hurried past when he called out to them. Except, ever since the accident, Gamiel had been totally blind.
Joggi found Gamiel about 2 days after the pain had stopped, and approximately 3 hours after the raccoon had given up all hope. “Is someone there?”, Gamiel whispered. At first, Joggi didn’t say anything, the near-sighted porcupine moved closer. “You are a raccoon”, he said out loud. “Oh yes, indeed I am”, Gamiel stuttered. “Only I think something awful has happened to me. I cannot see anything at all, and I can barely move. Please tell me what has happened to me. Am I going to die? Why won’t anyone stop when I cry out? Why can’t I see? Please, I’m afraid”.
And in Gamiel’s searching, empty, sightless eyes, tears began to form. Joggi sniffed and said to himself: answer him. Don’t just stand there with your spines bristling and your heart pounding, answer him. Joggi spoke with a steady and quiet voice: “I believe you have been shocked. I cannot be certain, of course, but that is my opinion. Are you in a great deal of pain?” “No, at first there was pain, but I can’t feel anything now. In fact, my whole left side is numb. No, no more pain. Just, well, nothing”.
Joggi was silent. His tiny body shivering, breathing labored, short, difficult breaths. Gamiel spoke in a hoarse voice: “Are you still there?”. Joggi’s heart beat faster. “Yes, I’m here. I was just wondering what to do now?”. “Oh, you don’t have to do anything. Honestly, I mean that, you don’t have to do anything at all. Just stay with me for a little while. Just stay there. Just don’t go away. Please. I’m afraid. You won’t go away, will you?” Joggi swallowed hard. “No, no I won’t go away”. “Thank you”, Gamiel said quietly. And then the wounded raccoon fell asleep.
Joggi stood beside Gamiel all that day. Then when evening came, a cool breeze made his spines whistle slightly, the sound woke the raccoon. “Are you there?”. “Yes, I told you I wouldn’t go away”. “I’m hungry”. “I thought you might be”, Joggi replied. “Can you move at all?”. Gamiel stretched his right leg forward and pulled himself along the ground. “Good for you”, said Joggi, “that will do nicely. I can bring you food, but you will need to maneuver for yourself in order to get water. I believe you have enough strength to reach the pond, it isn’t very far, and I can guide you directly to it. Come on, let’s see how it goes”.
That was how it began. An unusual partnership perhaps, certainly the rest of the animals in the forest were surprised to see the pair of them moving slowly about, managing to live from one day to the next without really doing much of anything. Occasionally Joggi would describe something for Gamiel, or answer a question, or direct the crippled raccoon toward a tasty morsel of food. Gamiel, for his part, chattered happily, basked in the sun, and generally enjoyed his friend’s company.
They made a home for one another, Joggi and Gamiel. Not a regular home, exactly, not a place. More like a shelter from the excessive pain that each of them had known. A coming together of two lonely and frightened creatures. A bond of trust that asked no questions, expected nothing at all except the merciful being together that made waking up tomorrow possible.
Joggi was with Gamiel for one full year before the injured raccoon finally died. It was a quiet event, almost a surprise, but that Joggi had been expecting for so long. Gamiel’s strength just finally gave out. “You know, I’ve been expecting this for quite some time now”, Joggi said to the raccoon, who lay their on the ground no longer able to hear. “I’m surprised that you managed to stay alive as long as you did. I knew the day that I found you that it couldn’t last, and yet, well, I hoped it might have been a little longer. Do you know what I mean? You see, I never knew anybody very well before. Not that we ever talked much, or anything like that, but I felt like I knew you anyway, even without talking. I have a really hard time talking to anybody, or getting to know anybody. And nobody ever wants to get very close to me because of all these spines that I have sticking out of me. I don’t suppose that you ever knew that I had spines sticking out all over me, did you? They’re sort of like needles, and they’re sharp. I guess they scare everybody a bit. I hope you don’t mind my talking so much.”
“I really don’t know why I’m talking to you now. I really suppose it’s just that I had a little more to tell you before you died. I have been wanting to say this for almost a year and never quite found the right time to do it. It’s too late now, I realize, but I’ve been wanting to tell you that it has been an honor to meet you, and that you indeed are a very handsome raccoon. And that I would like to consider you my friend.”.
The porcupine cleared his throat. Tears dropped onto his nose. “Tell him,” he said to himself, “don’t just stand there with your spines bristling and your heart pounding, tell him.”
“Oh, and by the way, I’d like to tell you what my name is. It’s a funny name, I suppose, but I’d like you to know what it is. It’s Joggi.” Without another word, the tiny porcupine turned away from Gamiel’s lifeless body, and began to cry.
“Hospitality is salvation,” says Diana Butler Bass. I think she’s on to something, as are the rest of us.
THANK YOU so very much.
gorgeous writing & living, Milton