patty kirk

patty kirk lying down, getting up, sitting at home, walking down the road doing deuteronomy 6:7

Friday, December 16, 2011

"since there is no other metaphor—also the soul"...mourning Christopher Hitchens

My husband is on a business trip, so I spent breakfast reading though some of the BBC’s offerings this morning of “pithy aphorisms, wise reflections and wounding one-liners” of Christopher Hitchens, who died last night, aged 62, of esophageal cancer.

The first listed in the article referenced the Bible and encapsulated in a phrase what I always liked about Hitchens—namely, his consequentiality and unflinching determination to bash and shatter anything he perceived as a false idol: He called the New Testament "a work of crude carpentry, hammered together long after its purported events, and full of improvised attempts to make things come out right."

That said, though, I have to say I have always found the man, like many an idol-smasher, mean-spirited and unlovable. A man smitten with one faultless hero (George Orwell) and countless irredeemable villains (everyone else). Always on the attack.

I mentioned Hitchens in one of my own books, A Field Guide to God, in which I explore the difficulties inherent in sensing the presence of an invisible, inaudible, and intangible God. In a chapter on Mother Teresa’s heartbreaking struggle to sense God’s presence, I wrote,
Could she have actually lost her faith? I wondered as I read her confessions. Or never had faith to begin with? Perhaps she was simply the manipulative hypocrite that her main detractor—her atheist counterpart in fame, Christopher Hitchens—presents her as in the book-length attack on Mother Teresa he wrote during her lifetime. In a review of Come Be My Light entitled “Teresa, Bright and Dark,” Hitchens diagnosed Mother Teresa’s spiritual dilemma as “the inevitable result of a dogma that asks people to believe impossible things and then makes them feel abject and guilty when their innate reason rebels.” He summed up her work as “a strenuous and almost hysterical effort to drown out the awful fear of ‘absence.’” He mocked even the anguish of her letters and found in her loss of a sense of God’s presence gleeful support for his own view that “the absence of evidence is evidence of absence.” In another review, he dismissed her as a “fraud.”
The BBC’s list contains many similarly dismissive sounding one-liners. We should dismiss scripture: "Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and—since there is no other metaphor—also the soul." We should dismiss Christianity’s or anyone else’s claims on the individual: “Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you." We should dismiss even our selves: “Suspect your own motives, and all excuses.”

But, especially as he neared death, Hitchens’ voice sounded less secure about such dismissals. “It could be that all existence is a pointless joke, but it is not in fact possible to live one's everyday life as if this were so,” he once seemed to lament. Later, though, undergoing chemotherapy, "My main fear is of being incapacitated or imbecilic at the end. It's not something to be afraid of, it's something to be terrified of." Oh, let it be a joke!

Hitchens didn’t dismiss Mother Teresa, finally. He went on and on and on and on about her in books and articles. He talked about her so much that the Catholic church chose him as the best possible naysayer required—who knew?—in its canonization process as Teresa made her first post-death steps toward sainthood.

And that is the hope I take on his behalf. That, finally, he couldn’t just let the hope for something better lie.

As the writer of Hebrews points out of the Canaanite prostitute Rahab and Sarah—who laughed derisively when told that her lifetime of prayers for a son had been answered—and many others who predated Jesus:
They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. . . . [T]hey were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. (Hebrews 11:13, 16).

Sunday, December 11, 2011

my first complete prayer

My dad told me the other day, in his first week of chemotherapy, that, although he was “not good at praying,” he had just prayed “the best prayer I ever prayed in my life,” and it was this:
Thank you for giving me cancer, because it gives me time to make peace with my neighbor.
It’s such a thrilling prayer, I think, simultaneously expressing acceptance of, even gratitude for, the horrible reality he’s been given and a plea for the promise of the season: peace on Earth, goodwill towards men. He called it “a complete prayer.” Although I don't know what he meant by that, exactly, it seemed right.

I’m not much good at praying, either—particularly, strangely, about such big scary things as my dad’s cancer and my mother-in-law’s Alzheimer’s—so I decided to just pray his prayer with him. I have tried it various ways.
Thank you for giving him cancer because it gives him time to make peace with his neighbor.
Thank you for giving him cancer because it gives me time to make peace with my neighbor.
Thank you, Father, for time. For my neighbor. For your promise of peace between us.
Whatever way I tried to pray it, though, the only thing that would come out of me—my first complete prayer, perhaps—is Come, Lord Jesus!

I have never really prayed this prayer before, and, though it is a common phrase, the wording strikes me as odd. Odd coming from me, that is. To pray Come, Lord Jesus! is to pray for the end times, it seems to me. It is to pray the book of Revelation, not my favorite part of the Bible. It is a plea for God’s authority in all things, his will, which seems in my messed up brain to be at odds with his love. To pray, Come, Lord Jesus! is to pray to the Lordness of Jesus—his power, his differentness from me—not his humanness.

I was talking to my colleague Jake about my weird new prayer the other day.

“I’ve never called Jesus 'Lord' before,” I told him.

He looked shocked. Then he caught himself and made some joke. Surely she must be joking, I heard him thinking. Then he got serious again (Jake is Presbyterian, a preacher’s son, etc.) and said, “Well, it’s that you can’t deal with authority.”

Which is true.

“I mean,” he went on, “you’ve told me you don’t like the whole set up of church: some man standing up above everyone else, literally, and telling them how it is and everyone else just having to accept what he says without any chance to say anything back.”

Which is also true.

But my surprise at praying Come, Lord Jesus!—my surprise at praying anything at all to this Lord Jesus—was not about welcoming the sort of authority I object to in churches. Nor was it about authority, really. Rather, it was that Jesus was Lord: not merely God's son but God himself, the creator and provider and ruler. In praying Come, Lord Jesus!, I was welcoming the Jesus Paul was talking about when he wrote that by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him” (Colossians 1:16 NIV). Somehow, in spite of myself, I was suddenly seeing God’s power and God’s love as synonymous in a word.

Lord. A word we no longer use much, except for things religious, and then only in reference to power. Etymologically, though, it comes to us from the Middle English “ruler of the household.” And, before that, “guardian of the loaves.” I like that homey conflation of God’s power and love.

Praying Come, Lord Jesus! is about praying to the Maker and Giver and Guardian of the Loaves, all in one.

Come, Lord Jesus!