One of the earliest ways to teach people about Christianity was through the use of exemplars, stories of people who lived their lives in imitation of Christ.  This is still a powerful way of teaching, and the exemplars page of New Collations will be dedicated to their examples.  Not all of them will be Christians.  One of the most powerful exemplars in scripture, the Good Samaritan, was not a Christian, and the fact that Christ used his story to provide an example of radical love gives us permission to use examples where we find them.

Here is a video of my brilliant and courageous friend Marco Saavedra, an advocate for immigrant rights, a fine painter and, as is so obvious from this interview, a profound and poetic thinker.

Faith and Theology of Undocumented Youth with Rev. Raymond Kemp and Marco Saavedra from Woodstock Theological Center on Vimeo.

excerpts from Robert Jay Lifton’s Witness to an Extreme Century, New York: Free Press, 2011, pp. 326-328

T. completed his medical training in Czechoslovakia but, after the Nazi occupation, fled to Norway, where he lived in a small town working intermittently as a doctor and a logger.  Soon after the Nazis invaded that country he was arrested and sent to Auschwitz in a transport group of two hundred and fifty people, ninety percent of whom were immediately selected for the gas chamber.  T. was permitted to enter the work camp “because I was young – just thirty – and reasonably strong.”  He told me of the horrors of his first days of Auschwitz – the grotesque dying everywhere and prisoners being “depleted of everything, including the hair on your body” …so that “there was absolutely nothing left from life on the outside except your spectacles” (which he still “cherished” as his only personal link at that time to non-Auschwitz existence).

…T. took advantage of his position on the medical block to find ways to help other Jews survive.  Sometimes that meant falsifying diagnoses – using terms like “mild influenza” or “upper respiratory infection” for actual cases of malaria or tuberculosis, since any prisoner diagnosed with either of these two conditions would be sent to the gas chamber.  When lacking medicine to dispense in Auschwitz, his impulse to heal took the form of simple words of encouragement, which in some cases could be surprisingly effective.

…As was frequently the case with those who did most to help others, T. remained highly self-critical, “haunted by” certain things he did, such as kicking a fellow prisoner when trying to bring order to an overcrowded block for disrupting the meager food supply.  He considered that “my worst deed [because I] assumed the same attitude [as the Nazis].”

…At the time of liberation, he played a leading role in restraining those prisoners who sought vengeance by either killing SS men or subjecting them to “the torture they had done on us.”  An understated man, he told me with some feeling how he held on to “my right to be a human being, even if it was withheld by the Nazis.”  Yet whenever he spoke positively of his own behavior, he would feel it necessary to insist upon avoiding self-praise by adding a comment such as “But I must not make a holy person of myself.”

…I know of no one who so combined personal death camp suffering with such a continuous immersion into the experience of fellow survivors and so great a dedication to finding ways to help them.

Alfred the Great

It’s easy to think that he lived in a simpler world, to romanticize the ninth century and see it as a time of short lives, hard labor, and communal values.  The West Saxons were Christians, and they didn’t have to be distinguished as Roman Catholic Christians, because that was the only category available in most of western Europe.  The people of Wessex were mostly farmers, except for the thegns who lived with the king, and except for the monks, although many of these weren’t adverse to tilling their own lands.  These monks had much to worry about, as had everyone else.  Terrible news came repeatedly from the east of England.  The Vikings were invading in great hordes, toppling the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England and burning the monasteries.  The poor monks must have heard about the deaths of their friends and brothers with great regularity, and their mourning must have been increased when they were told that the monasteries in the east had been burned to the ground, that the holy relics and worship objects had been lost or defiled, and, most terrible of all, that the books had been burned or torn to pieces.  These books were of vital importance, since the monks kept the only repositories of knowledge in England.  Often they were the only ones who could read.  They had access to the golden legacy of all the human thoughts and hopes that had come before, and because of this, they had a sense of the diversity of the world beyond their own small kingdoms.  The deprivations of the Vikings brought a very real narrowing to the Anglo-Saxon’s sense of what it meant to be a human being.

There had been large Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, but Wessex was not one of them.  It had been a client kingdom of Mercia, to the north.  But Mercia soon fell to the Vikings, just like everywhere else.  Wessex stood alone.  Some historians say that leadership isn’t important in history, that the story of humankind is determined by vast material and economic forces, even geologic forces from time to time.  Wessex stands as a counter argument.  It was small and unimportant, but it had the advantage of a wise king, Aethelwulf, who may have been a monk before he got married.  Aethelwulf had five sons, and when he died these sons, adopting the wisdom of their father, decided that the inheritance would pass between them, since they didn’t want to endanger Wessex by allowing one of their young children to inherit the crown.  In ten years, three of the brothers became king and then died while battling the vikings.  In this way, the crown finally came to Alfred in the year 871.  He was twenty-one years old.  The year before he had distinguished himself in battle by defeating the Vikings at Ashdown.  He understood that his kingship had one great task before it.  He had to defeat his powerful enemy and somehow preserve his tiny kingdom.  Wessex had every military disadvantage.  It had no navy, and the Vikings terrorized the coast with their long ships.  The fighting men of Wessex were also farmers, and as they marched and trained they worried about their crops, and about getting in the harvest so that their wives and children wouldn’t starve during the long winter.  If the Vikings happened to attack at harvest time, Alfred’s army had a tendency to drift away, as the men laid down their spears and picked up their scythes to work in the fields.

The first seven years of Alfred’s reign didn’t go particularly well.  The Vikings raided repeatedly and then, in 878, they launched an all-out attack, led by the ferocious King Guthrum.  They penetrated into the kingdom and seized one of Alfred’s palaces at Chippenham.  The West Saxons fled before them.  Alfred himself fled into the Sedgemoor Marshes, to an island fastness with the charming name of Burrow Mump.  He was accompanied by a rag-tag group of thegns and refugee monks, and as he wandered through his remaining kingdom, organizing a guerrilla resistance, he was often alone.  He was so threadbare and bedraggled that a woman living in the swamp mistook him for an ordinary traveller, and set him the task of watching some cakes she had cooking on the hearth while she went outside to cut more firewood.  The king, preoccupied with the task of saving his kingdom, stared into space and didn’t notice the cakes burning.  When the housewife came in she roundly berated him.  This story got about, and the West Saxon’s grew in affection for their king.  Here was a man who was humble enough that the lowliest of his subjects could yell and scream at him, while he sat quietly and admitted his wrong.  But here was a man who was also strong enough that he could gather together an army at Burrow Mump, and lead them out to fight the Vikings.  He met the Viking horde on the northern edge of Salisbury plain, drove his troops between them, divided their forces, and defeated them.  The Vikings went fleeing back to Chippenham.  Alfred followed and lay siege, and the Vikings soon surrendered.  Alfred made peace, and became his enemy Guthrum’s godfather when the Viking king was baptized soon afterwards.

England was split in two, with the Vikings controlling the east and north, and Alfred controlling the west and south.  Now that he had peace and stability, his first concern was how to maintain it.  He called upon European allies to supply him with the expertise to build a navy.  And he created a system of forts, called burhs, which could defend the land.  These burhs didn’t have permanent garrisons, but were defended by the people who lived around them.  They were places that the people could flee to in times of danger.  They were also the places where the people held their markets, and these burhs became some of the most important cities in England.  Alfred reorganized his army by creating a rotating system of service.  When the army was called up, half of it stayed at home for part of the year, working the land, and then rotated into the ranks so that the other half could go home to plow or harvest.  These changes gave the West Saxons a tenacious strength and a stable environment in which to work and raise their children.

It also gave them the chance to reinvigorate learning.  Alfred was a devout Christian who enjoyed spending time with the monks, and it was through their influence that he came to learn Latin and prioritize scholarship in general.  Once he had turned his mind to learning, he was surprised to find how many of his people were illiterate, and how few books there were in his kingdom.  The church services were in Latin, and few people understood what was going on.  Alfred set about the task of translating many of the great philosophical and theological classics into the Anglo-Saxon tongue.  He himself undertook some of these translations.  He also created an enduring record of the social and economic status of his kingdom.  He had monks keep careful records in their separate monasteries, and these records collectively became the Anglo-Saxon chronicle.

He did all of this while living the everyday life of a human being, and the occasionally vexatious life of a leader.  His times were no simpler than our own.  They were in many ways harder, involving a life and death struggle against the Vikings, not to mention against disease and agricultural disaster.  And through it all, people were still people.  They still squabbled and fought over unimportant things.  They still hurt each other intentionally or unintentionally.  They still clung to their petty privileges and cared more about status than they cared about goodness.  But Alfred could see past all of that with compassion.  He bothered to understand them and their needs, and he remained humble before them, dedicated to serving them and keeping them safe.  As he himself said, “It has ever been my desire to live honourably while I was alive, and after my death to leave to them that should come after me my memory in good works.”

Robert Loftin met a Jesuit priest when he was traveling in Europe in 1958.  The priest was a victim of the thought reform that the Chinese Communist government practiced on its people and on foreigners who had been living in China.  The priest, Father Simon, had been born at the turn of the century in a small French village.  His family was very religious, and as a child he was austere and conscientious, having decided that “life was something serious.”  He felt the call to be a priest at the age of 11, at at 15 he was old enough to act on it.  He entered the Jesuit order, where he was trained in theology, but also in science and philosophy.  Part of his training took place in the United States.  He spent three years here when he was in his thirties, and when he returned to France he often annoyed his colleagues by singing the praises of American science.  He wasn’t an easy man to work with – always serious and always deeply enthusiastic about some unpopular idea or another.  The Jesuits sent him off to China during the 1930s.  Simon loved living in China.  He was given a teaching post at a university.  He often seemed cold and reserved, but he would take his students on long camping trips every year, and it was obvious that there, in nature, surrounded by young Chinese people, he could relax and be as happy as his personality would allow him to be.

He stayed in China throughout the course of the Second World War.  These must have been perilously hard times.  The Japanese invaded and then, after they had withdrawn, the nation fell into civil war.  When the Communists came to power, they left Simon alone for a couple of years.  But as they began to consolidate their grip on the nation, they turned their attention to remaking the Chinese people in their image.  They engaged in a project of thought reform, inflicting imprisonment, torture, and re-education on their own people, and on foreigners who were living in the country .  Those who disagreed with the communist system were either sent to prison or to special universities that existed for the sole purpose of brainwashing students into accepting Communist ideology.  These institutions were very subtle in their approach.  It wasn’t just the people in authority who exerted pressure on students to give up their beliefs and accept the state-sponsored ideals.  Fellow students were co-opted and used to apply peer pressure.  Anyone who thought for themselves would soon be isolated, derided, and verbally abused by everyone.  It is not surprising that most people caved to social pressures that were applied both by those in authority and by their friends and fellow students.

Simon was imprisoned with other Jesuits.  At first he was deeply rebellious, fighting the authorities harder than anyone.  He was subjected to nights without sleep and constant verbal abuse.  And then, one day, he simply caved.  He told Lifton that: “I thought that I was one of those with the best chance to stay [in China].  I had received instructions from my superiors to stay.  I realized that if I did not change my mind, I would have no chance at all to stay.  I would try to see what was right, and if doubtful, I could try to adopt the Communist point of view.”  It’s easy to abhor this reversal, but in many ways its understandable.  He loved China.  He loved his students.  Surely his individual relationship to the place and people couldn’t be completely warped and distorted by the government’s insistence on thought reform.  What he did next was less understandable.  He became an informer against his fellow prisoners, a stool pigeon who joined the prison officials in trying to force everyone else into his own conversion.

None of this helped him in the end.  While he was in prison, articles were published in the Chinese newspapers that attacked him.  When he was released from prison, he was deported to Hong Kong.  There he found himself once again among his fellow Jesuits.  They were kind to him, but the brainwashing had stuck.  He was convinced that the Communists were right about everything except the existence of God.  It was that one point which had kept him from going over to Communist ideology entirely.  Simon believed that, to belong to a group, you needed to accept all of its ideas entirely.  He called this “writing a blank check.”  He couldn’t write a blank check to the Communists because he believed in God.  Now that he was in Hong Kong, he found that he couldn’t entirely accept the blank check that he’d once written to Roman Catholicism, either.  He argued with his colleagues ceaselessly.  He wanted to return to China.  He wanted to leave the Jesuit order.  The Jesuits were patient.  They waited for him to begin to regain himself.  He wasn’t the only victim of thought reform to have found his way to Hong Kong.  Other Jesuit priests were trying to recover, to rebuild some sense of themselves and deal with the trauma of their experience.  But Simon didn’t want to recover.  He was hard on everybody.  Still, the Jesuits wouldn’t abandon him.  He was sent back to France, where they took care of him, putting up with his ideas and bad manners, waiting patiently for healing to begin.  When Robert Lifton met Simon, he had been back in France for three years.  The Jesuits had calmly made a deal with him.  He could believe anything he wanted to believe, and argue with them privately as much as he wanted, but he couldn’t express his love of Communism openly.  Simon remained alone, isolated in the balance, being pulled by the Chinese Communists on one side and the Catholic Church on the other.

Robert Jay Lifton is a psychologist who has spent his life studying the effects of unwavering, dominating systems of thought.  He has studied the actions of Nazi doctors, the experiences of Hiroshima survivors, the processes of thought reform, while wondering about the effects that these systems have on human life, and how we recover from their influence.  His work is important to me today because of the 32nd chapter of Exodus.  In that chapter the Israelites give up on Moses, who’s on top of Mount Sinai, talking to the Lord, and they have Aaron make them a golden idol out of their jewelry.  When the Lord hears of it, He wants to give up on the Israelites and start all over, making a new nation out of Moses’s offspring.  Moses talks the Lord out of this option, and convinces Him to forgive the people.  But then Moses himself goes down the mountain and sees the orgy that the people are engaged in as they worship the Golden Calf.  It enrages Moses.  He calls the Sons of Levi to his side and tells them to go through the camp and kill all of the ringleaders, the people who had been most insistent about building the Golden Calf.  He tells them to kill their brothers and their fathers if necessary.  And they do.  Three thousand Israelites fall to the sword.  It is the kind of horrifying massacre that would dominate the news cycle and bring down a government today.  As I’ve been reading Robert Jay Lifton, and thinking about this story from Exodus, I’ve been faced with a very basic question.  How can I claim that Moses’s actions aren’t thought control.  He orders his followers to murder everyone who disagrees with him.  It’s the kind of thing you would expect from a totalitarian state.

In the 33rd chapter of Exodus, right after this massacre, the Lord tells Moses to lead the Israelites up into the promised land, but tells Moses that they’ll be going alone.  The Lord has decided not to go with them.  “I shall not go up in your midst, for you are a stiff-necked people, lest I put an end to you on the way.”  The Lord is worried about being so provoked by the people that He’ll erase them from existence.  If I were an Israelite, there in the desert, after the slaughter, I would begin to wonder how I could feel any certainty about the Lord at all.  This is not God as we meet God in Jesus.  Jesus tells his disciples that he will be with them always, even until the end of the age.  When Jesus says those words, he speaks with deep reassurance.  All will be well, he says, don’t worry.  When the Lord speaks to Moses, he speaks out of anger.  Maybe its righteous anger.  The people did break their covenant by worshipping the Golden Calf.  But there’s no reassurance there, and I don’t think the people could have felt much certainty in God’s goodness.

I am not a fundamentalist.  I don’t believe that the Bible was written by God and that everything in it is perfect and literally true.  The Bible was written by human beings, and it was written over a long course of time.  It is a record of our thoughts about God.  In the 32nd and 33rd chapters of Exodus, it’s safe to say that the Israelites’ thoughts were uncertain.  How could they know that the Lord wasn’t a bully or a tyrant?  How could they know that the Lord wasn’t subjecting them to thought reform?  Did the Lord tell Moses to send out the Sons of Levi to slaughter the three thousand, or was that Moses’s own doing?  They didn’t know what we know, that the massacre was Moses’s initiative, and a wild and unjust one, given that he’d just talked the Lord into forgiving the people.  There, in that crucial moment at the foot of Mount Sinai, the people had one vital question.  Who is the Lord, and will he abandon us?

Again, Moses argues with the Lord on behalf of the people.  “If you’re not going with us, then don’t send us to the promised land.  If you’re going to go with us, first show us that we’ve found favor in your eyes.  Show us, and show the whole world, that you love us.”  The Lord agrees.  “I will go with you.  You’ve found favor in my eyes.”  But Moses keeps arguing.  He says, “Show me your glory.”  He’s wants to know the Lord in His entirety.  He wants to know the Lord so intimately that there can never be any more uncertainty about who the Lord is and what the Lord will do.  But the Lord says no to this request.  He won’t show Moses His glory, all of His power, all of those inscrutable things about God and the universe that we can never grasp.  Later on in the Bible, God will inform Job that our minds aren’t great enough to grasp and understand everything, certainly not great enough to entirely understand God.  So if Moses and the people saw the Lord’s glory, it would do them no good.  Instead of His glory, the Lord chooses to show Moses His goodness.  “I shall make all My goodness pass in front of you, and I shall invoke the name of the Lord before you.  And I shall grant grace to whom I grant grace and have compassion for whom I have compassion.”  In other words, “you shall see My morality, and you will know My name, and you will feel My grace and compassion, but that doesn’t mean you will know Me entirely.”  Some part of God’s nature will always remain inscrutable to us.  It is God’s goodness that we will know.

We do not have to give blank checks to the things we believe in.  No system of thought will ever attain even a passing similarity with the glory of God.  If God is the source of ultimate being, if God is ultimate being, than we must learn to accept that the most important things are always going to be beyond our knowledge.  When we claim that our system of thought is the only true system of thought, we deny the inscrutable glory of God.  When we try to force our systems of thought on other people, we deny not only God’s glory, but God’s goodness, by trying to replace it with the systems of morality that we have built for ourselves.  Poor Father Simon was stuck believing in God’s glory but not in God’s goodness.  He rejected Communist atheism but accepted Communist morality.  To my mind, the heroes in his story are the other Jesuits, who took him in and tried to love him and had the patience and wisdom to let him think what he wanted to think.  These were men who understood that God’s glory would always be just out of reach of their understanding.  But they had seen God’s goodness, and they chose to emulate God’s grace, and God’s compassion.

That is our task, as well.  We can’t know God entirely.  We’ll never see God’s glory.  But we can see God’s goodness, and know God’s compassion.  And when we think about what it takes to be a people of God, what it means to imitate Christ, we must realize that it’s more about goodness than glory, more about morality than dogma.  Do good in the world, and you will be a true follower of Christ.  Get hung up on ideas and spend all your time trying to argue other people into believing what you believe in, and you won’t be a true follower of Christ.  That doesn’t mean that ideas aren’t interesting and fun.  That doesn’t mean that they’re not useful for morality.  But at the heart of a life lived in faith is a simple desire to imitate Christ’s goodness, to heal and bless.

*Translations of Exodus taken from Robert Alter’s The Five Books of Moses.

Be Still

John Winthrop

When they left Egypt, the Israelites followed two pillars in the sky.  During the day, they followed a pillar of cloud.  During the night, a pillar of fire.  God was in these pillars, distant and majestic, appearing as unexplained meteorological phenomena.    The pillars in the sky didn’t follow the easy and logical way up to the land of Canaan.  The easy route, which followed the coast line, was guarded by Egyptian forts.  Instead the pillars drew the Israelites into the wilderness, towards a strange, marshy sea in the northeast, still within the bonds of Egypt.  There they camped, and when Pharaoh heard that they were there, he thought that they had made a ridiculous mistake.  With their backs to the impassable marshes, he would be able to quickly surround them, attack them, and capture the survivors.  He and his warriors drove forth to battle in their chariots, and the Israelites knew that they were coming.  They turned to Moses and said, “Was it for lack of graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness?  What is this you have done to us to bring us out of Egypt?  Isn’t this the thing we spoke to you in Egypt, saying, ‘Leave us alone, that we may serve Egypt, for it is better for us to serve Egypt than for us to die in the wilderness?’”1

Moses told them, “Do not be afraid.  The Lord shall do battle for you, and you shall keep still.”  It was then that, at the Lord’s command, he turned and parted the sea of reeds, and led the people through it, walking on dry land, and the Lord broke the axles of the Egyptians’ chariots, and panicked their horses, and then brought the water coursing in to drown them.

The Lord shall do battle for you, and you shall keep still.  Your needs will be fulfilled by God.  All you have to do is keep still and trust in God.

After the Israelites had finished giving thanks for their deliverance, they wandered onwards, into the Wilderness of Shur.  They couldn’t find water for three days, until they came to a place called Marah, where there was water, but it was foul.  The people complained again, saying that they had been led out to die in the wilderness.  And the Lord showed Moses a tree, which he threw into the water, and the water eddied around it and turned sweet.  The Lord said to the people, “If you really heed the voice of the Lord your God and do what is right in His eyes, and hearken to His commands and keep all His statues, all the sickness that I put upon Egypt I will not put upon you, for I am the Lord your healer.”

The Lord will heal you.  Keep still.  Your needs will be fulfilled by God.  All you have to do is keep still and trust in God.

After that, Moses led the people into the Wilderness of Sin, where they complained that they had nothing to eat.  They said to Moses, “Would that we had died by the Lord’s hand in the land of Egypt when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread, for you have brought us out to this wilderness to bring death by famine on all this assembly.”  And the Lord sent manna from heaven.  The people could pick it up and eat their full for the first six days, but they were strictly instructed not to try and store any of it, or even try to keep it overnight.  A few of them did, of course, and in the morning it was rotten and full of maggots.  But on the evening of the sixth day, they were told to collect all that they could and store it for the next day, for the next day was the sabbath, the day of rest, the day of stillness.  That was the first commandment that the Israelites encountered – honor the sabbath and keep it holy.  Only they’d really been encountering it all along – be still.

The Lord will feed you.  Keep still.  Your needs will be fulfilled by God.  All you have to do is keep still and trust in God.

Then the Israelites came at last to Mount Sinai, and Moses went up the terrifying mountain, and received the other commandments from God.

  1. I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods beside Me.
  2. You shall make no idols.
  3. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
  4. (Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy.)
  5. Honor your father and your mother.
  6. You shall not murder.
  7. You shall not commit adultery.
  8. You shall not steal.
  9. You shall not bear false witness against your fellow man.
  10. You shall not covet.

The Ten Commandments are a moral code.  They tell us what do to in order to live a good life.  Actually, eight of them tell us what not to do, since eight of them are proscriptive.  The only two that lack a “shall not” are the fourth and the fifth.  Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy.  Honor your father and your mother.  Both of these commandments are about gratitude.  The sabbath is a day that acknowledges and celebrates God’s creation of the cosmos.  We are grateful that the cosmos exists.  Our fathers and mothers brought us into being here on earth.  We are grateful to be alive.  The other eight commandments are all about not doing things.  Don’t worship other gods, don’t make idols to worship, don’t use God’s name unless you’re talking about something that actually has to do with God and God’s will for you, don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness, don’t covet.  In other words, be still.  Be grateful, and be still.  God will protect you.  God will heal you.  God will feed you.  Be still.

I’m no better at following these commandments than other people.  Like most people, I’m able to be still and to be grateful one week, and then the next week I’m running around like a chicken with its head cut off.  There is a reason why the sabbath commandment was the first one that the Israelites heard, back when they were eating manna, before they ever got to Mount Sinai.  God was trying to tell them that, in order to follow the other commandments, they had to learn how to follow this first one.  Be still.  And God realized that they couldn’t just hear this message once, and learn from it, and take it to heart.  They would have to hear it again and again and again, for thousands of years.  They would have to hear it, and accept it, and understand it every week.  They would have to practice it every week.  The sabbath wouldn’t be just a onetime event.  It would be recurrent.

There is a rhyming version of the ten commandments that was used by New England school children well into the 18th century:

  1. Thou shalt have no more gods but me.
  2. Before no idol bend thy knee.
  3. Take not the name of God in vain.
  4. Dare not the Sabbath day profane.
  5. Give both thy parents honor due.
  6. Take heed that thou no murder do.
  7. Abstain from words and deeds unclean.
  8. Steal not, though thou be poor and mean.
  9. Make not a willful lie, nor love it.
  10. What is they neighbor’s dare not covet.

I particularly like that sixth one – “take heed that thou no murder do.”  As if school children were so debased that, if they weren’t careful, they just might murder someone accidentally.  But this assumption fit with the Puritans’ overall view of life.  Human beings needed to be ever-vigilant, lest our corrupt natures take over and murder, thievery, and dishonesty come spilling out.  One New England meeting house had a giant eye painted on the pulpit – “a terrible and suggestive illustration to youthful wrong-doers of the great all-seeing eye of God.”2  You were supposed to sit there in church and listen to a two hour long sermon, and know, the entire time, that God was looking right at you and watching every fidget.

The Puritans spent a lot of time in church on Sunday mornings, but they weren’t advocates of stillness.  In 17th century Massachusetts, it was against the law to waste time.  If a constable suspected that you were a time-waster, you might be fined or even jailed.  For the Puritans, all time was God’s time.  To waste one moment was to waste a precious gift that God had given to you.  It was a Puritan who invented the alarm clock.  Puritans turned their houses into sundials, facing them south on a noon sighting and carving hours on the facing boards around the door.  They lived within time.  It was food and drink to them.  They didn’t know how to be still.

They went to church in buildings that also faced south, and because these buildings and the people within them were so aware of time, they arrived promptly and never shortened a service.  Many of the churches were also used as the town’s powder magazine, and therefore fire wasn’t allowed in church, since the spark from a candle could blow up the building.  In winter these clapboard churches were bitterly cold.  Babies were baptized in frozen water.  Frozen communion bread was placed into frost-bitten hands.  Services were never cancelled or shortened.  Sometimes people would stomp up and down to keep warm and then, and only then, would they have the true purpose of the sabbath roared down upon them by an irate minister: “Stand still and consider the wondrous works of God.”

Then they would become still on the outside, but on the inside they would be engaged in constant moral fidgeting.  Sundays were supposed to be a time for purification.  If you had sinned during the course of the week, you were supposed to stand at some point during the service and admit it, taking shame upon yourself.  Sometimes you might wear a sign to church, declaring your misdeeds, as one Elizabeth Julett did when she showed up for Sunday services with a paper pinned to her forehead that read “a slanderer of Mr. Zerobabel Endecott.”  If you were worse than a slanderer, you might smear dirt on your face and crawl on the ground in front of the congregation in a state of humiliation.

Sunday services went for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon.  This may seem inordinately long to us, but Puritans weren’t allowed to do much of anything else on the Sabbath.  They couldn’t play, work, or travel.  If they did, they’d be indicted, as one man was for carrying a burden on the Sabbath, and as a woman was for brewing beer on the Sabbath.  In 1670 a young couple were brought to court for sitting under an apple tree on the Lord’s Day.

You were meant to be in church, and when you were in church, you were meant to be thinking over your sins and all the many ways you had fallen short of the grace of God.  The New England Puritans were as afraid of God as the Israelites had been afraid of the Egyptians.  They thought poorly of themselves, and they expected to be punished.  Their stillness, whatever stillness they managed to obtain, didn’t assure them of God’s grace or free them from their fears.  They took every commandment and made it into the harshest burden possible.

We tend to think of the commandments as a kind of self-help manual, rather than a burden.  Type the words “Ten Commandments” into Amazon, and you get books like The Ten Commandments of Money,  The Ten Commandments of Marriage, The Ten Commandments of Financial Happiness, The Thin Commandments: The Ten No-Fail Strategies for Permanent Weight Loss.  We’ve taken God out of the Ten Commandments, but we’ve still managed to make them all about being judged.  Judged for not having enough money, judged according to the health of our marriages, judged in terms of our body weight.  God isn’t judging us, but other people are, and maybe ten commandments can help us allay that judgement.  We’re as bad as the Puritans were.  Worse, really, because we don’t try to behave ourselves out of any concern for our ultimate well-being or the well-being of the universe.  We just don’t want people to think that we’re poor, fat, and lonely.  We aren’t still.  We’ve lost an understanding of God’s grace that could lead to stillness.

The Lord shall do battle for you, and you shall keep still.  Your needs will be fulfilled by God.  All you have to do is keep still and trust in God.

The Lord will heal you.  Keep still.  Your needs will be fulfilled by God.  All you have to do is keep still and trust in God.

The Lord will feed you.  Keep still.  Your needs will be fulfilled by God.  All you have to do is keep still and trust in God.

The ancient Israelites sense of stillness, their sense of Sabbath, was tied to their understanding of the grace of God.  The Puritans lost this somehow, and saw God as their judge, rather than their protector.  Most early twenty-first century Americans have lost both a sense of God’s grace and God’s judgement.  But there are ways of getting it back.  And the first way is the most ancient way.  The first way was known to the Israelites when they gathered manna in the wilderness.  Be still.  Be still and know that God is God.  Sustainer, protector, and lover of souls.

1translations of Exodus taken from Alter, Robert. The Five Books of Moses: a Translation with Commentary. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2004.
2Fischer, David Hackett. Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. New York: Oxford UP, 1989, p. 118.

I have never been to Burning Man.  Twenty years ago I went camping in the Arizona desert with some hippy friends, and have always pictured Burning Man as being close to the experience of that week.  But after reading Seth Stevenson’s recent series in Slate, I am aware that Burning Man is nothing like any collegiate camping experience I ever had.  This year, more than fifty thousand people attended the Burning Man festival.  For the week in which it existed, the community of tents and camping trailers that sprang up in the Nevada desert became one of that state’s largest cities.  A weird city, in which normal societal rules are set aside, and people pretty much do whatever they want.  Except that they’re guided by ten principals, which Burning Man founder Larry Harvey says are descriptive, rather than proscriptive.  Attendees at Burning Man are committed to radical inclusiveness, which means that nobody is exluded, although it does cost $300 to go to the festival, so there is a kind of ticket-price exlusivity built-in to the event.  But once you’re there, you can approach any campfire and have a seat waiting for you.  You can also expect aging hippies to bring you carmel rolls, because Burning Man attendees are devoted to acts of giving.  You won’t see any coke cans or bottles at Burning Man, because the festival is committed to de-commodification, meaning that they want to free people from labels and consumer goods, and you also won’t see any trash, because one of their principals is to “leave no trace,” which means that every festival participant is responsible for hauling his or her own trash out of the state park where Burning Man is held.

At one time of my life, this was exactly the ethic I wanted to live by, and some parts of it are still very attractive to me.  But there are other principals to consider.  Burning Man is about radical self-reliance, which means that each festival particpant is encouraged to “discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.”  The result is that there’s a lot of drug use and dangerous hook-ups.  Burning Man encourages radical self-expressions, which means that people put on public shows, and let’s just say that the contents of a lot of those shows wouldn’t be appropriate for children or, well, me.  In fact, Burning Man warns festival goers when they purchase their ticket that it’s possible that they will die, and that the festival is not responsible for them.  Here’s Seth Stevenson’s description of the Burning Man festival at night:

Out in the open desert, beyond the tents and cars, we encountered the most bizarre, most visually stimulating environment I’ve ever seen. A giant metal octopus rolling across the sand, with actual hot flames spewing out of its tentacles. A pirate ship blasting eardrum-crushing hip-hop music…[a] full-scale Thunderdome, complete with shrieking spectators rattling in its rafters, and a pair of gladiators in animal costumes attacking each other with Nerf bats. Lasers careened across the sky. Choking dust storms howled into our eyes and noses. Everyone was in aviator goggles, and knee-high leather boots, and fur vests.

I don’t think I would enjoy this, but I also have to admit that, although you might die by being accidently run over by a flame-spewing metal octopus, there doesn’t seem to be any violent crime at Burning Man.  There’s no police force or festival security, but there is a medical tent, set-up by festival attendees who just want to make sure that everyone is all right.  In the free-flowing carnival atmosphere of the festival, human nature is tested and found to be generally open, free, and compassionate.  It doesn’t sound like a place for a prude like me, but after reading about it, I don’t find myself condemning it, either.

Let’s compare it to a very different way of creating a society and a different view of human nature  – that of the household that John Wesley grew up in.  John Wesley, who founded the Methodist Church and was, therefore, the forefather of the Nazarene Church and other holiness churches, was one of nine children.  His mother, Susanna, had given birth to between seventeen and nineteen children, so many in fact that she lost count.  Or maybe she lost count because so many of them died.  Ten dead babies and nine living ones.  It must have taken a tremendous amount of fortitude to accept so much death, and for her to fix her attention so unwaveringly on the living.  Because those nine children were submitted to a program of rigid, unrelenting discipline.

Susanna believed that children were born in sin, and that the chief cause of that sin was their own rebellious will-power.  She wasn’t alone in this.  When Saint Augustine looked at infants and saw them crying for milk, he also chalked this up to their disobendient will.  But Saint Augustine had only one son.  Susanna had nine boys and girls, was married to a country priest, and lived in a thatch-roofed rectory that the family could barely fit into.  To break the wills of her children and, perhaps, to maintain an orderly life, Susanna enforced a set of unbreakable rules.  When her children turned a year old, she would teach them not to cry or to cry softly rather than loudly by beating them.  She later bragged that the “most odious noise of the crying of children was never heard in the house.”  After their first year, the children had to sit still during family prayers.  They ate their meals at a separate table, and they could eat and drink as much as they wanted, but they weren’t allowed to ask for seconds, or in fact request anything at all.  When they were done eating, they were to go to their father, who was sitting at the main table, and kneel before him so that they could receive a blessing.  They weren’t allowed to eat or drink between meals, and if Susanna learned that they had begged a snack from the family’s cook, she would beat them.  Susanna insisted on all of this because she was trying to teach them to set their own wills aside and submit to the will of God.  “Break the will,” Susanna said, “if you will not damn the child.”

When they learned to speak, the children were taught to say the Lord’s Prayer in the morning and in the evening.  They memorized large sections of the Bible.  Susanna taught all of them at home.  Each child began taking lessons from her as soon as he or she turned five years old.  They were expected to learn the alphabet completely on the first day.  Then they were given the Bible.  They learned to read by starting with Genesis, chapter one, verse one, laboriously forming each of the words and sounding them out, using the alphabet that they’d just been taught.  The girls in the Wesley house received as much education as the boys, until they turned ten and the boys got sent away to school, while the girls became responsible for household tasks.  None of the children were allowed to speak or consort with children from outside of the household, and none of them was ever allowed to play.  Susanna allowed “no such thing as loud talking or playing.”

I would be as uncomfortable and unhappy in the Wesley’s house as I would be at Burning Man.  The Wesley’s house was a place of stern and unbending discipline.  Burning Man is a place with almost no discipline at all.  Yet the two places have one thing in common.  Both places were, as all human places are, subject to someone’s authority.  At Burning Man, the authority comes from Larry Harvey and his ten guiding principals.  In the Wesley’s house, the authority came from Susanna, and her child-rearing system.  No matter whether you’re a crazy twenty-first century hippy camping out in the desert or a small child in a stern and unbending eighteenth century household, chances are that you’re living under somebody’s authority.  Even Susanna was under the authority of her husband Samuel.  Most importantly in her eyes, she was under the authority of God.

The Bible has many different ways of thinking about authority.  Sometimes, as we see in Exodus 17, the authority comes straight from God.  We could read this chapter  as a story about Moses having some trouble with his followers, except that we are told in the final verse that “the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord.”  If Moses has led them out of Egypt and into the wilderness, it’s because he’s doing God’s will, and submitting to God’s authority.  Yet it should be noted that his method of dealing with their grumbling and complaining is much gentler than Susanna Wesley’s.  Instead of denying them drink between meals, he helps God perform a miracle out there in the desert.  His first recourse isn’t to break their wills by imposing an iron discipline.  His first recourse is to give them what they need.  Later, when the people seem unresponsive even to miracles, he’ll give them the law on stone tablets, and still later a long elaboration of that law.  But for the moment he doesn’t blame them for the fact that they’re thirsty, although he’s probably annoyed with the tone of their complaining.  He listens to God, who tells him, in essense, that the first duty of any authority is to take care of the people, to give them food and drink.

Thousands of years later, the chief priests and elders came to Jesus as he was walking in the temple.  They were people who had forgotten about Moses’s first miraculous acts on behalf of their ancestors, and who concentrated instead on what came later, on the giving of laws and the imposing of punishments for those who failed to obey them.  They saw Jesus as a nonentity, a person who wasn’t licensed to preach and perform miracles.  And so they asked him, “who told you that you can do this?”  Jesus knew that he didn’t need their permission to be the son of God, and he knew that other people didn’t need permission to be godly.  So he quoted precedence, just like you would in a legal case.  His cousin John had baptized people in the Jordan River without a license.  Why did Jesus need a license to teach?  We only need to be concerned about God’s authority, not about the authority of the chief priests and the elders.  We don’t need a license to speak the truth or perform acts of charity.  In a way, Jesus was anticipating the ethic of Burning Man.  Give people a chance to act charitably and kindly, and chances are they will act charitably and kindly.  Don’t gird them about by unnecessary rules and laws.

But if you leave people without any rules at all, there’s nothing to stop them from going off a cliff.  They might become slightly crazed in their behavior, like the people who go to Burning Man.  Or they might do nothing but complain, like the people who followed Moses into the wilderness.  Susanna Wesley wasn’t entirely wrong.  People do need guidance.  We need structure.  It’s a question of what kind of structure is best for us.

Which is why I’m so grateful to Saint Paul.  In his letter to the Philippians, he provides a structure – an intuitive, beautiful one.  “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”  This is not the same ethic of radical self-expression that you’ll find at Burning Man.  No one is driving a steel octopus without regard to who gets burnt when it shoots out its flames.  It is an ethic of radical other-expression.  Be so compassionate, so empathetic, so attuned to the people around you, that you can feel what they feel and know why they act in the ways that they do.  Imagine the Wesley house if Susanna was capable of this, if she understood the thirst or gnawing hunger that would lead her children to seek snacks between meals.  Imagine her learning to spare the rod because she knew that to strike her children was to strike herself.

Christ did give a rule and a law.  A necessary rule, and a necessary law.  He was the rule and the law.  Be like him, Paul says.  Empty yourself.  Humble yourself.  Let God work through you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.