The Private Intellectual
Ecclesiastes-Based Real Estate Advice

Monday, January 26, 2015  

Rev. Ben Dueholm
January 24-25, 2015 (Epiphany 3B)
Messiah Lutheran Church, Wauconda

Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. 

Jesus said to Simon and his brother Andrew, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him.

I want to talk about what it means to follow Jesus today. It is, believe it or not, a topic that has absorbed a good deal of my adult life. It has absorbed so much of my life because I keep learning about it from people who have tried to do it. 

Earlier this month I was at a meeting of Lutheran clergy in Lake County. We watched a short film during our worship together about the role of the African American church in the civil rights movement and about the assassination of Martin Luther King (it was his birthday). And one of the pastors there, a man who’s been retired for almost 20 years, reminisced about being a Lutheran pastor in churches on the South side of the city in the 60’s and particularly when Dr. King brought the freedom movement to Chicago in 1966. He talked about the real crisis that was caused by the corrupt real estate practices at the time. African-Americans were confined to certain neighborhoods, and kept out of others. Speculators would scare white homeowners into selling their homes cheaply and quickly because they were afraid that black people were moving into the neighborhood; then those same homes could be sold to black Chicagoans at a huge markup, largely because black people were excluded from getting mortgages. People were losing their equity. They were afraid and angry. But often, instead of directing their fear and anger at the corrupt real estate practices, they directed it at their new African-American neighbors. This pastor tried to preach through the crisis. When you preached about loving your neighbor—which had to mean loving your black neighbor—some people, he told me, treated it like a political message. And he said he used to compare notes with his Roman Catholic colleague in the neighborhood, to see how many bottle caps came in the offering plates when they preached about loving your neighbor, as the faithful would express their displeasure with the message. 

Those bottle caps, and the fear and the anger they represented, have been on my mind ever since that meeting. That pastor, who did his best in those days and had some scars to show for it, has been on my mind—as have all those who took bigger risks and paid higher prices, starting with Dr. King himself. He’s a national hero now, but when you read what the Chicago Tribune wrote about him, you see that it wasn’t always so. It was controversial, it was dangerous, it was a crisis.

My throat clenches a bit when I read this first chapter of Mark’s Gospel. Because Mark’s Gospel begins with controversy. It begins with crisis and danger. We hear today of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. And it comes when John the Baptist is arrested. John is arrested and the movement he had gathered, a movement aimed at what he called the kingdom of God, had been deprived of a leader. So it falls to Jesus, who takes up the message of the Kingdom of God. And it was inescapably a controversial message and you could even say a political message. Galilee had a king. It not only had a king, it had an emperor too. And whatever this Kingdom of God was, it was something they may not have been interested in hearing much about. 

The Kingdom of God, Jesus preaches, has come near. It is close at hand. It is within reach. It’s time to repent—to change your mind—and to believe this good news. 

As Jesus goes along, preaching his gospel, he sees Simon and Andrew fishing. And he asks them: Follow me, and I will make you fish for people. They left their nets and followed Jesus. And he goes to James and John the sons of Zebedee and he says come and follow me and they leave their father and the hired man in the boat and they follow. John the Baptist is in prison and this is risky business and something big and unknown is maybe going to happen and they follow. 

Now here’s my question: does it ever strike you as odd that they decided to follow? 

They could have been good and faithful people if they’d just pretended not to hear, the way I do when I hear something uncomfortable out on the street. They could have watched Joel Osteen on the weekend and subscribed to a nice devotional magazine and said their prayers and caught their fish and been perfectly good people.

But they didn’t. Somehow they didn’t. They decided to drop their nets and follow. They decided to follow Jesus and become part of something called the Kingdom of God. Three of these four men would eventually be executed for the sake of this kingdom, executed by the human kings and emperors who did not care to have God for a rival. 

They left their nets and they followed him. 

Last weekend Messiah played host to a beautiful and unexpected event. A 21-year-old man with bi-polar disorder went missing from his home in Cary. Scores of friends and family searched for him in abandoned homes, restaurants, anywhere they could think. A good-hearted person in Wauconda had the idea to check homeless shelters and came here with a flyer. Our PADS ministry hosts 35 homeless men every Saturday night from October to May, with area churches staffing our makeshift homeless shelter each weekend. And the volunteer—last week it was Transfiguration Parish who provided the volunteers—said, I think this guy is here. Soon after the man and his deeply relieved family were reunited. 

This story is so powerful to me. It’s not powerful because it’s a happy ending—it is not an ending at all. The struggle of mental illness doesn't go away because something good happens. And it’s not powerful because I imagine God’s finger nudging a Good Samaritan to the door of Messiah on a PADS night. It’s so powerful because PADS was there. People voluntarily handing over their Saturday nights, voluntarily cooking food, voluntarily doing laundry and cleaning up and keeping people company so that a lost and very unwell man could land somewhere and be found—that is amazing. And not just that. But people voluntarily handing over their money to pay the heat bill and the light bill and the mortgage on a space that does not have to exist, so that a very unwell man could land there and be found—that is amazing. People who are perfectly free to stay at their nets, or in their beds, or to put their few extra dollars in their IRA somehow hear something about the Kingdom of God and they follow, in whatever way is available to them. 

This, my friends, amazes me. 

I regret sometimes that people who do what I do are looked at as sort of expert followers of Jesus, because we’re really not. To tell the truth, my job doesn’t require all that much generosity or altruism or courage. It doesn’t. I get paid a reasonable salary to do what I do, and if I had to fake the religion bit I probably could, at least for a while. To tell the truth, I would just as soon go and sit with some ill people at the hospital as do the things you have to do for a real job. 

It doesn’t take much courage for me stand up here and say “the Kingdom of God has come near; change your minds and believe in the good news,” and to ask myself and ask you to imagine that Kingdom of God being not just over the horizon of this life but now, near, and not just for me and you but for the prisoner, for the poor child, for the person living in a war zone halfway around the world, for the desperately unwell lost man at PADS, for the unborn child, for the neighbor who came here without documents because it was the only way he could see to care for his family—it takes no courage on my part to ask you to believe that good news. You could get tired of hearing it or I could get tired of saying it and I can do something else and we’d all be just fine. There are nets and boats there for us all—including me. There are bottle caps to give if we want to give them. I’ve given a lot of bottle caps, so to say, in my life and I’m not done giving them yet. What takes courage is believing the good news and following when you hear it.

The amazing thing is not that a man was found. The amazing thing is not that somebody does what I do. The amazing thing is that people follow when Jesus calls to them. The amazing thing is that somebody—that is you all—gives something they are absolutely allowed to keep for themselves. The amazing thing is that the people of this church put their money together so that I can go and sit with a man most of you don’t know, who has forgotten who I am, and pray God’s blessing on him, a man who can never pay you back for your generosity. The amazing thing is that the people of this church keep the light on, the furnace running and food on the table on a Saturday night when you could be doing literally anything else in the world. The amazing thing is that we hear about this Jesus who got promoted because his teacher was arrested and we can try to open up this good news that makes us face ourselves and each other with sometimes terrifying clarity and yet you all don’t fill the plates with bottle caps. 

Because this is the thing: there is no special punishment for Simon and Andrew and James and John if they don’t follow. There’s no hell for staying home and mending the nets and watching Joel Osteen on the TV. The punishment is only this: you don’t get to see the Kingdom of God near at hand. It’s that the world goes on exactly as it did before, exactly as you’d expect, with Herod as King and Caesar as Emperor and God safely up in heaven and no room in the world for the lost person. The only punishment is that there is no freedom movement, no PADS, no electric bond between us and our neighbor, no dream that can become a reality, little by little. 

Those are the blessings of listening when we have the right to close our ears. They are the blessings of following when we have the right to stay with our nets. They are the blessings of opening our hands when we have the right to give only bottle caps. They are the blessings of believing that the world does not have to be what it has always been, that there is more than one course a life can take, and that the coming of Jesus changes things, not just here in our hearts but in our hands and everything they touch with his love. 


posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 10:13 AM

Thursday, December 25, 2014  

Make Haste
Rev. Ben Dueholm
Christmas Eve, 2014
Messiah Lutheran Church, Wauconda

“When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘ Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger.”

Help Wanted: Consolidated Sheep Products of Judea is seeking dedicated, hard-working individuals to shepherd their growing Bethlehem-based flock. Well-qualified applicants will have: 
* a good working knowledge of sheep, their grazing habits, physical needs, and life-cycle. 
* a willingness to work as a team under supervision and in varying circumstances
* a passion for the outdoors  
* a strong tolerance for cold, heat, wind, and rain and long periods of total solitude
* no compromising political commitments
* no religious obligations
* a desire for flexible compensation and lots of intangible benefits
* a willingness to wait with the flock through any and all occurrences, up to and including the coming of the Messiah

No experience necessary; we will train the right person.

The stars are some comfort and some company, it must be said. The Judean countryside is pleasant. And sheep are not the worst animals to care for. But the waiting—that must have been hard. But then something happened—a voice, a vision, a song of glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace, good will on earth to those whom God favors. Then, all of a sudden, it is time to go. 

I love these Judean shepherds. I love them because the story of the birth of Jesus finds them in the middle of things, in the middle of life. Which is where it finds us. All of us came from somewhere else today. Maybe we tore ourselves away from a roaring fire or a mildly diverting college bowl game or a table well-laden with food. Maybe we wrapped up a last little bit of work, a last email or spreadsheet for our colleagues before a night and a day off. Maybe we are trying, this day at least, to do without something our body demands every day. 

Maybe we’re waiting. Maybe we’re fidgeting in our seats, trying politely not to check our phone, projecting the length of the rest of the service after the wild-card of the sermon.  We all have our roles to play in this world, however small. The great machine of the world grinds on out there and each of us has a place in it. 

But tonight we are not playing those roles; tonight we are not occupying those places. Tonight we have come here—to this manger, this mother, this meal, this child. Maybe we came with haste, maybe we came with hesitancy, but here we are all the same. 

The shepherds went with haste to see the thing that the Lord made known to them. They left their animals on a hillside and met God in a stable. They left their little patch of earth and came inches away from the King of Heaven. They ran from their little role, their little gear in the great machine of the world and went to a place where they were embraced as humans. They ran because they were not made with all of God’s majestic artistry, they were not framed in a miraculous assembly of muscle and bone and blood and brain, in order to sit in their place and give their lives to their sheep. They were not gifted with the Law of God and the call of the Prophets and the tender love of their own mothers and the singing desires of their own hearts in order to tap out emails and update spreadsheets and run for a last-minute gift that has no hope of expressing the love it is meant to represent. 

Their mighty, agile legs were not made to run in circles—to make haste in going nowhere. Their eyes were not meant to stare up at the stars in waiting, or to flutter while a screen refreshes. Their legs were made to run to their Savior, and their eyes were made to behold him. 

Jesus draws them near. Without saying a word, without even being able to recognize his own creation, Jesus draws the shepherds near. He calls to them in their need, in their hope, in their waiting. He calls to them in their love that was homeless until this night. 

He calls to them. He calls to you. He calls to me. He calls to the woman in the senior apartments who has forgotten virtually everything else about her life. He calls to the prisoner. He calls to the family he has left behind. He calls to the addict. He calls to the parents who pray for her. He calls to the person who can’t bear the thought of the long holiday flight and he calls to the person who can’t afford to travel and the one who has no time to visit family and the one who has no family left to visit anyway. He calls to them because the world wants to make them small—to make them as small as their job description and their credit card statement—but he wants to make them great. He calls to them because they know they are sinners but God is rich in mercy. He calls to them because the world wants to keep them right where they are but they know, deep in their bones, that they are not meant to stand still. 

So they go with haste. They see the child wrapped in swaddling clothes and Mary and Joseph and the manger, and they go away rejoicing.

The stars don’t show themselves too clearly here, but the television is some comfort and some company. The forest preserves offer good jogging and biking. And the work is not so bad. It’s good to have work. But the waiting, that’s hard. The hurrying to nowhere in particular, that’s hard. But then something happens—a voice, a vision, a song of glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace, good will to those whom God favors. And it is still not too late to make haste, to bump our heads and scuff our knees as we approach the manger and smell the animals and the hay and see the mother and Joseph and the infant; it’s still not too late to let go of earth and take hold of heaven; to let go of our smallness and take hold of greatness; to let go of waiting and finally see, and embrace, and love, and be loved by the One we were waiting for. 


posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 12:43 AM

Sunday, September 21, 2014  

Five Years

Friday was the fifth anniversary of my ordination to the ministry, as we Lutherans tend to call it, of Word and Sacrament (that is, to pastoral/priestly/clergy-like ministry). I pulled up a  picture of the bishop praying over me--kneeling, slightly more hair, everyone in red--for social media and submitted, graciously I hope, to an anniversary recognition today at church. I've spent too much time around committed ministry lifers to be anything but slightly embarrassed at marking such a trivial milestone. But then again, people who came into professional ministry in 2009 are, I've read here and there anyway, about as likely to be doing something else today as to still be working in the church. This is partly because careers are a bit of a joke for people launched into the job market in that particular year, partly because by upbringing or economics or whatever else people my age and younger are less likely to stick with one job for decades at a time (see also), and partly because the church world is going through painful transformations that are likelier to leave junior clergy un- or under-employed (there is also a non-trivial but not large, as far as I know, segment of the cohort of 35-year-old ordained clergy who just aren't good at the job).

But here I am, despite my own very close brushes with leaving (if the University of Chicago had had an opening for an undergraduate adviser four months earlier than they did, I'd be helping freshmen switch their biology sections right now). I'm glad I'm here. And I'm lucky/blessed to be, however you prefer to depict the morally random quality of these things. I don't think I've learned a whole lot that would be worth imparting, but five years of daily work in this world has surprised me in a few ways.

First, ordinary human suffering is no joke. Like plenty of people who do what I do, I imagined spending more time in the midst of life's acute traumas than I have done. We expect high emotion and problematic coping and stress and all the rest from such traumas--extreme poverty, public conflict, level-one trauma centers, deathbeds--and perhaps not coincidentally we write a heroic role for ourselves in them. What I didn't expect is the emotional toll of the daily sorrow--the divorces, the estrangements, the hatred of work, the bouts of depression, the substance abuse. Actually sitting down and talking over these experiences with people is a relatively small part of my work, smaller than I would have guessed. But it comes up at the oddest times, and it can blindside you with its force. Unlike what a lot of us perhaps had in mind, or unlike how we may imagine a more conventionally "helping" profession, there is often no solution, either. Some people will never get sober. Some people will never mend their marriage or make peace with their life. Being faithful and compassionate in those situations is really demanding, because you can't encounter people solely through their pathologies. You have to walk with the whole of their damaged humanity, which requires a kind of acceptance most people don't have to practice.

Second, people are kinder and more accepting than I would have guessed. My wife was sick last Sunday so I had the boys with me at the beginning of our 7:30 liturgy, the baby still unfed. As I began the announcements, I found myself gesturing toward the narthex with a banana in my hand. "You are probably wondering why I have a banana in my hand," I said. People laughed. They were not mad. Someone watched my baby and fed him so I could preach and celebrate the sacrament. I had been grumbling to myself about how ungodly the hour was and how punishing our worship schedule is, primarily because I expect myself to be capable of doing everything, but the people were happy to help. For the most part, I've found that to be the case. Some of my colleagues have ended up in churches that are dominated by small, sore-headed people but that's not the norm. And the truth is that it's hard to be on the receiving end of such kindness, especially if you're the sort of person who, for whatever reason, wants to talk about a guy who got crucified all the time. So there has been some growth along with the learning there as well.

Third, stuff changes, a lot more quickly and drastically than I expected. Ordination is very much like marriage in that you are making promises that a different you will have to fulfill. I do things today that I wouldn't have countenanced five years ago, and yet I'll still find myself surprised by the vehemence with which I'll hold to something that a lot of people don't see as a big deal (tip: don't ask me to rebaptize you). Why? Who knows! I express my faith differently than I did when the stole was first placed over my shoulders, and that has made me (I hope) more patient with what seem like people's odd beliefs, and also more committed to those things that don't change as a loom of sorts on which all the inevitable changes can happen without the whole thing falling apart. I almost wonder if that is what is meant by being "pastoral" as one hears it now, especially the Roman Catholic world in discussions and debates over Pope Francis's leadership style--negotiating the inevitability of change and variation against the necessity of some kind of stability. This is genuinely hard, and it only gets harder when money, institutional culture, and real estate are involved. I've never been the biggest admirer of the outgoing Archbishop Francis Cardinal George, but it must be acknowledged that he's had an impossible job--a job no one will ever do to anyone's complete satisfaction.

So there it is--an impossible job! Five years of attempting the impossible is something to enjoy, I suppose. I hope there are a lot more.

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 11:29 PM

Monday, September 08, 2014  

Tomorrow and Today
Rev. Ben Dueholm
Isaiah 25:6-10a; selections from “Archaeology” by W.H. Auden; Matthew 6:24-34
Rockefeller Memorial Chapel
September 7, 2014

Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God, creator of heaven and earth, and from Jesus Christ the redeemer and savior. Amen.

I want to thank you all for welcoming me to your community this morning, and I especially thank Bromleigh for the invitation. The University of Chicago, and this chapel itself, are places that I have no hope of untangling from the accounts I am sometimes asked to give of myself and my journey to faith. I didn’t go to church very much when I was a kid. I became a Christian while I was a student here, and church folk sometimes want to know how that happened. And while I ad-lib this story every time, there is always a pivot here: “well, I went to an Ash Wednesday service at the campus chapel,” or “I read the Sermon on the Mount in a bookstore in the basement of a seminary.”  This story, which I have often told and which is always different and yet always the same, is not one I am going to tell from this pulpit. If you should, for whatever reason, ask me for it after worship today, I will be abashed and reluctant and then I will, with relish, launch right into it. 

Because stories connecting the person we are with the person we were and the person we expect and hope (or fear) to be are essential to our lives. These stories give us something to cling to in tough times, when adversity challenges our identity. They give us a way to interpret things that happen to us and around us. This is not just a cultural thing. The capacity to make up stories is, apparently, part of our biology. We need it in order to make sense of a world that is throwing more stuff at us than our brains can process. 

And what’s true of us as individuals is true of our families and communities as well. We tell stories about our families that connect past to present and future. We identify with political ideologies that tell stories about the world: if you think of yourself as a “progressive,” you may tend to tell stories about how much power of growth and change and improvement is locked up inside of our world, waiting to be liberated. And if you think of yourself as a “conservative” you may tend to tell stories about how fragile the world is and how important it is to preserve those practices and beliefs that have carried us to this moment.

I know I’m not alone here in being a compulsive consumer of stories: stories about lives, about places, about civilizations, about the beliefs that have shaped me and all of us. It’s why country music is so awesome—it tells stories. If you’re anything like me you have been listening to a whole lot of Kris Kristofferson songs lately. I can’t get enough of “Me and Bobbie McGee,” the song about how freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose: “Somewhere near Salinas, Lord I let her slip away / Searching for the home I hope she’ll find / And I’d trade all my tomorrows for a single yesterday / Holding Bobbie’s body next to mine.” 

There’s just one problem with our innate urge to make the world into stories: it tends not to be especially accurate. I’ve seen it called “confabulation.” A writer named Will Storr describes it this way

We live, moment to moment, in an emotional reality of love, hate, feuds, sorrows and dreams. We spin seductive, reductive narratives of heroism and villainy, struggle and victory, to parse reality and give ourselves esteem and our lives meaning…In the chaos of the daily world and our irrational behaviour within it, our brains conjure the illusion of order; they wrench a plot from the chaos and then place us heroically at its centre. 

Stories have limits but life ignores limits. The song ends but life goes on. You found Bobbie McGee on Facebook and you see pictures once in a while, she’s had a little too much sun and some scary health problems. It turns out you’re just as content to be living in all those tomorrows you would have traded, once upon a time, for one last day with her. 

And, OK, there’s actually a second problem: religion is one of these confabulations, a story that imposes order on the chaos of life by turning it into a coherent narrative. We were in a garden and had everything and it all went to hell. I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see. Things may be bad now. But in the words of the prophet this morning, “It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God for whom we have waited; this is the LORD for whom we have waited.” And we’d trade all our yesterdays for a single tomorrow on that mountain, at that feast. 

Now I love these stories. They’re good and they’re necessary. But even the best, holiest, truest, most beautiful story we tell ourselves has the potential to lie to us, to make the past from which we are coming or the future into which we are going way, way more important than they really are. And much more under our control. 

This is part of why Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, which we hear today, is so challenging. Jesus was plenty fond of stories. His life is deeply entwined in the story of Creation and the story of the people of Israel. He told stories to interpret the world. A man asked him “Who is my neighbor?” and Jesus answered “A certain man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho.” 

But when the time came to talk about ethics in the clearest way he could, the stories are gone. The appeal to yesterday and to tomorrow is gone. In fact, Jesus urges his followers not to worry about tomorrow at all, or about how we will be fed and clothed tomorrow. 

“Look at the birds of the air,” Jesus says. “They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?” 

Don’t worry about these things, Jesus says, because Gentiles do that. “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

That last line is a rather pedestrian translation. The old King James is actually better: “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” And here’s the thing: we are hard-wired to worry about tomorrow’s evil! We need to! Anxious people aren’t sick, they’re wise! At least that’s what I tell myself and my therapist. 

And it would be easy enough to shelve this whole passage as good advice about living in the moment, being serene and lily-like, and cultivating our inner peace. Advice that I’ll never take, but good advice, and if you can, by all means go for it. 

But that’s not it what this is about. That’s not why this is the most important sermon pretty much ever. Jesus is making a drastic, thrilling, maybe even frightening claim about the importance of today; the importance of Now. 

Not the importance of living into a brighter, fairer tomorrow. 

Not the importance of preserving what is good for a dangerous future. 

Not even waiting for the LORD who will act to save on that day, some day. But the importance, the eternal, infinite significance of Today.

And in this eternal now, our self-justifying stories and our heroic tales don’t matter. They no longer justify anything and they no longer explain anything. They can’t lie to us any more. There will never be a better day to open our hand in generosity. There will never be a better day to quit drinking or say those words that need to be said or to make amends or come clean or fall in love or tell the truth or speak up. You can’t serve two masters, both God and wealth—or, as I’ve come to think of it, the God of Today and the God of Tomorrow. Strive first for the Kingdom of God. Strive first for today, with its daily bread and daily troubles and daily mercies, and everything you need will follow. History, as W.H. Auden tells us today, is made by the criminal in us, that part of us that is enslaved to tomorrow. Goodness is timeless. Goodness is always in season, always right now. 

Underneath this whole awesome command to be good, to be fully and joyfully and un-anxiously good right now, is Jesus’s message that this timeless Goodness is capable of loving us back. The eternal Day that arrays the lily in unfading glory, and feeds the sparrow with perpetual abundance, is for us, too—we who have such little faith. In the heart of that day, in the silence where we hush the stories we tell ourselves, there justice, there is freedom, there is peace, there is heaven. There is the gracious voice of God.


posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 11:59 AM

Friday, April 18, 2014  

Rev. Ben Dueholm

One Art, by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Today we see Jesus losing everything. He loses his disciples, and then he loses his freedom. He loses his good name and his standing in his community. He loses his city and his people and his future, he loses his safety, he loses his mother, he loses the breath in his lungs and in the end he loses his life. I think the poet has her tongue firmly in her cheek when she says that the art of losing isn’t hard to master, but in today’s story it is an art that Jesus had to master very quickly.

And in the middle of this parade of loss, something unusual happens. Jesus is being interviewed by the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, the cruelest man in the province. And Pilate asks him if Jesus believes, or says, that he is a king. And Jesus tells him, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asks him, “What is truth?” 

In this horrible day, this day of mastering all kinds of loss, in this hot and stuffy room surrounded by brutal wicked men, the wickedest man of them all opens a door to Jesus. Those who belong to the truth listen to your voice, do they, Rabbi? Well, tell me, what is truth? 

A way out is suddenly there for the grasping. Beyond this question lies the return of lost disciples. Beyond this questions lies a warm bed for a man who hasn’t slept and a hearty meal for a man who hasn't eaten. Beyond this question is another chance, another day, the opportunity to piece together some of what has been lost, if only you can satisfy this sophisticated and vicious man’s curiosity, if only you can give him what he asks for, if only you can become more valuable to him as a living guru than as a dead rebel. If only you can be a successful philosopher instead of a failed prophet. 

And the answer Jesus gives in his moment of direst need is—nothing.

Now we may imagine that Pilate asks his question with a cynical sneer. And we may imagine that Jesus refuses to answer because as he preached to his followers you should not give what is holy to dogs, and you should not cast your pearls before swine. We may even imagine that Jesus was the one testing Pilate, and not Pilate testing Jesus. 

But in any event, Jesus sees this door open, and then he lets it close. The art of losing is not too hard to master. 

And thank God. If Jesus had answered Pilate in this moment, all would truly be lost. Jesus has lived and breathed and eaten and walked truth up until now and if he had turned that truth into mere words—if he had summed up the deep truth of God for Pilate—it might have won him back the day or the year or the lifetime. But he would have lost the truth. Because every truth spoken in words turns stale. It gets picked at and criticized and debunked. It becomes a cliché. It is made to sound foolish. Answering Pilate’s question may get you out of that room, but after you are all gone and the room is no more and Pilate is dust, your truth will grow old too. Words grow old. Words die. And in the middle of a tempest of death and destruction, Christ refuses to make truth a victim. He refuses to add truth to the sacrifice. He offers instead his silence, his nothing. If you are willing to imagine it, he offers his failure. His losing.

It has been a season of losing in our community. Funeral upon funeral lately, prayer after prayer, card after card, tear after tear. My church mouse even died. I used to hear him behind my wall. We were companions—unwilling ones, it is true. But for a moment in this life, we were two conscious bits of the universe sharing some space, breathing the same air. And then the mouse died. Everything dies. Every presence becomes an absence. Pilate was here, and now Pilate is gone. Pilate’s fortress was there, and now it is no more. 

And there are a million half-true and well-meant things you can say to this flood of loss. There are words that offer the illusion of an escape, a way out of the room. But they aren’t the truth. They are not words of life. 

Because the truth that Pilate sought was not in words, but in the Jewish teacher before him. It was not a secret to be divulged. It was hidden in plain sight. It was in his faithfulness, his steadfastness, his giving of himself. It was in his willingness to lose, his willingness to be lost so that the world might somehow be won that the truth was laid bare. It was in his willingness to be silent and truthful and to go to his death, rather than to betray the truth with words and live. And this is a truth that can be crucified, it can be murdered, but it cannot be buried forever. It’s a truth that cannot be spoken, but that speaks for itself. It’s a truth that we are forever losing, but that finds us in turn. 


April 18, 2014 (Good Friday)
Wauconda, Illinois

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 10:21 PM

Thursday, February 06, 2014  

On Good Books and Bad Readers

A professor who taught T.S. Eliot at the University of Chicago once told a student that he'd been reading Four Quartets for his whole adult life, and that those poems meant something very different to him as a young man, as a scholar in the prime of his career, and again as he neared that career's end. The poems are great because they change with us, he said. This is the sort of insight that comes with the luxury of a lifetime of study, especially once it's freed from the demand to stake out and defend an ideological reading, but it's available to anyone who falls in love with a work that is rich enough to sustain repeated reading. And it's a comment that I remembered as I read a particularly poignant note on yesterday's "creation debate" between Ken Ham and Bill Nye. Both men were asked what would change their mind about the origin and age of the universe, and while Nye said that fossil or cosmological evidence could change his view, Ham said that basically nothing could convince him that his supposedly Biblically-based view was wrong. As Steve Thorngate, writing at the Christian Century, pointed out, this answer wasn't simply a rebuke to science as a method of understanding the world:

Ham’s answer also presents a discouraging view of what it means to be a Christian and to read the Bible. No one is ever going to convince him to understand the Bible differently than he does now? (I know those aren’t his words, but that’s the implication of how he shuts down the question so entirely.) Not new information about the Bible or the world, or new experiences or relationships, or even new revelation from Ham’s relationship with the living God?

In my relatively short life as a Christian, I’ve changed my mind about lots of things, repeatedly—including what exactly we mean when we say the Bible is true. Lots of Christians have done this, of course (and not just liberal ones). The Century publishes a whole series of articles about how and why. It’s part of the joy—and the responsibility—of a living personal faith.

You can read a thousand critiques, serious and merely jeering, of Ham's performance. It can't account for natural phenomena with any kind of adequacy. It's an irrational lurch toward a philosophical foundation that it can't really provide. And it's worth pointing out that his argument effectively attempts to enshrine his understanding of Scripture as official Christianity for the purposes of law and public policy, such that even Christians who don't especially care about origin-of-life debates should be wary of it. All of this is true.

But I am stuck on this issue with the poverty of reading. Like Thorngate, I'm a Christian of comparatively recent vintage, and like him my understanding of the Bible has changed a lot even in that time. And why wouldn't it? I read Eliot differently than I used to. I found Hamlet to be a brilliant and empathetic figure when I was 17, now as a father and a middle manager in the customs house of life's moral ambiguities I have a lot more sympathy for Polonius. If the Bible is not "merely" a great book--whatever we might mean when we say that--it surely is not less than a great book, not less pliable to our own changing endowments as readers. The story of the binding of Isaac terrorizes and mystifies me more now than it did before my first son was born. The Sermon on the Mount strikes me today as much more a picture of the world as Jesus saw it and urged us to see it than it is a manual for spiritual athletics or a prefatory condemnation of human sinfulness as I may have seen it before. Moreover I don't imagine for a moment that how I read these things today is in any way final.

The same process is at work, perhaps even more powerfully, in Genesis itself. While I've never been one to read it as a day-by-day account of life's beginning, I've also never minimized it as some just-so story about why we don't like snakes and why childbirth is so painful. But I was, like many others, steeped in a theological tradition that saw in the story of the creation and fall the picture of a perfect world and the interruption of something we call "sin," variously interpreted, inaugurating all of our difficulty in refraining from murder and inappropriate intercourse (not to mention self-righteousness, self-delusion, and moral judgment). I don't think that's wrong, exactly, but I've come to see this passage less as about a curse placed on the man and the woman than as a curse placed on the land. It's the beginning of privation, work, the incessant demand for surplus, the root of all distinctions of function and class among people, the great unresolved war over access to life's goods that permeates most of the verses that follow. Some people think Genesis 1 represents a resistance to the Babylonian gods, their wars of creation and enslavement of the human race, and that Genesis 3 (the older part) narrates in mythical form our transition from a hunter-gatherer existence to an agricultural one--in other words, the beginning of almost everything we think of as history or culture. In that sense, maybe it's a much more "historical" story than even the great church fathers and mothers seemed to appreciate.

This is a minor journey I've been on. But it's nothing the great faithful have been immune to. When he wrote On Christian Doctrine, Augustine solved the problem of obscure passages in Scripture by reading them in light of clearer ones. It's a fine way of reading and very useful; it is commonsensical among Protestants who talk about "Scripture alone" but are less committed to a six-day creation than Ken Ham. It's pretty much the opposite of how we read, say, Hamlet, though. And indeed, as Augustine's career wore on he seems to me to be more likely to read the clearer passages in light of the more difficult texts on election and judgment. Where light once illuminated the mysteries, in time the mysteries impose themselves on the light. It's the same thing with Luther, who grappled mightily with God's hiddenness in Genesis and Isaiah long after insisting on the clarity of God's self-revelation.

So there is a sense in which this debate, if that's even what it is, goes deeper than "the Bible versus science" or "what the Bible really means" into what it means to be a reader of the Bible. I have no particular objection to people believing that the world is 6,000 years old and the seemingly-ancient universe is God's little tromp-l'oeil, so long as they don't seek to impose it by law or custom on anyone else. I believe some strange things too, as do we all. But we should all object, if we treasure the Bible or even books in general, to the idea that it's only true or good or real if we insist on seeing it the same way no matter what changes in or around us. That's not what books do, and it's not what we demand if we truly honor them.

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 12:39 AM

Tuesday, January 14, 2014  

Love for Sale

My most recent feature in the Christian Century explores the ethical questions around prostitution, trafficking, and laws on sex work. I had the chance, in writing this, to conduct some really powerful interviews, and I'm grateful to everyone who spoke to me (as well as to Robert Kolker, whom I did not interview but whose astonishing Lost Girls proved invaluable). A taste:

The gathering debate over prostitution makes one thing clear: the culture wars over sexuality won’t end with the inevitable advance of same-sex marriage, contraception coverage and the acceptance of sex before marriage. The sexual revolution once aimed to re-center sexual ethics on love rather than heterosexual marriage. But revolutions are loathe to end where their early enthusiasts planned. More and more, the sexual revolution seems apt to turn on love itself as a norm. Hanna Rosin and others have described the preference among many young adults for casual sexual liaisons over courtship and commitment as a way to focus on a lucrative career rather than on relationships. Emily Witt, writing for n+1, delved into San Francisco’s extreme pornography industry—finding in it a way people escape from the shackling of sex to love or even to pleasure and personal autonomy. Enthusiasts for polyamory speak of “primary” and “secondary” sexual partners, much as one would speak of insurers. Prostitution may still be illegal. But the language of commerce is already commonplace when people talk about sex.

How you feel about the selling of sex is likely to depend on how you feel about selling and how you feel about sex. This accounts for the divisions the sex industry creates on both the left and the right. Some small-government enthusiasts are eager to interfere with business when that business is sex; some liberals and feminists are eager to interfere with sexual autonomy when it takes the form of business. The debate over how much prostitution is somehow coerced is in large measure a stalking horse for the deeper ethical question: Should selling sex be acceptable? There are strong intuitive and emotional reasons to say no, to keep the logic of lawful commerce out of this most intimate, vulnerable interaction. The traumatic stories and dead bodies may persuade us that sex work—that sexuality itself—can never be truly safe.

On the other hand, everything else in our world is for sale, and sex is already the responsibility of consenting adults. Perhaps we prohibit prostitution because a last cobweb of mystification clings to the plain truth that sex is not special—and that confining its expression within the bounds of love or even lust only serves to protect some outdated ideology. Perhaps the trauma and the danger persuade us only that the sexual revolution is not yet complete.

Read the rest here

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 10:27 AM