Friday, October 16, 2009


Mt. Richardson

A friend of mine had a very negative view of marriage. The way she saw it, people treated it too much like a finish line--the ceremony completed, they were “done.” Of course, anyone who has been married for any length of time knows this to be far from true, but the divorce rate being what it is, my friend may have been on to something. People know how to get married, but often don’t give the same attention to making a life together. If people put as much thought into being married as they did into getting married, we wouldn’t have so many broken homes.

My wife Allison arranged a trip to Québec for our fifth wedding anniversary. (She’s a dynamite trip planner.) One of the highlights was an 1184 meter trek up Mt. Richardson in Haute-Gaspésie, the mountainous part of the Gaspé Peninsula.

At the top of the mountain, above the tree line, there are few landmarks, and feet leave little impression on the bare rock and lichen. Everything is grey and pale green; when Allison took an orange out of her backpack for lunch, it looked like the most orange thing in the world.

Along the way, previous hikers had left inukshuks, heaps of stones that serve as trail-markers. On the way up, we thought they were cute and sort of quirky; it wasn’t until we began our descent that we realized how vital they were. When we shouldered our packs and made to go, we were startled, even shaken, to realize that without the inukshuks, we could not have found our way back down. On the way up, it’s obvious where the top is, but once we’re at the top, every direction is down. Without the benefit of others’ experience, the potential for taking the wrong way is huge--and the consequences can be disastrous.

We see those consequences all the time: childhood stars who ruin their lives with drugs, American foreign policy misadventures in which we “win the war but lose the peace,” ostensibly made-in-heaven marriages that fall apart. We put so much into becoming, and only after we’ve proclaimed Mission Accomplished do we realize how little we have put into being. When Smithsonian folklorist Alan Lomax tracked down Jelly Roll Morton in 1930, the biggest jazz star of his time was working as a janitor, with a hole in his front tooth where a diamond had been embedded before he’d been forced to pawn it.[i] Obviously, there had been no one to show the Dixieland giant how to proceed after reaching his goal.

We are reluctant to accept guidance from others; our whole national psyche, forged as it was on the frontier among people who, for one reason or another, wanted to get away from other people, is steeped in a Marlboro Man mythology of rugged individualism. And because we find in scripture what we bring to it, American Christians have even managed to use the Bible—a book written by the same people who invented the kibbutz—to justify this self-image. But is rugged individualism really biblical?

Maybe it will help to look at the Bible through non-western eyes. I had the privilege of interviewing Indian theologian and social activist Vishal Mangalwadi for PRISM Magazine (published by Evangelicals for Social Action.) In Mangalwadi’s view, the individualist lens through which we view scripture obscures a biblical ethos that is essentially communitarian. Here is an excerpt from my article:

Vishal Mangalwadi has a problem with “salvation” being defined only as “my soul going to Heaven.”

“In John 11, the High Priest prophesies that Jesus will die for the nation,” Mangalwadi says. “So whom did he die for—for the individual soul, or for the nation?”… In Mangalwadi’s reading, the prophetic call for social justice is the background music to Jesus’ acts of individual healing. As an example, he cites the story of the sick man who has lain by the pool in Bethsaida for 38 years, hoping to be healed (John 5:9-11).

“Was Jesus healing the nation, or was he healing individuals?” Mangalwadi asks. “When he says to the sick man, ‘Pick up your mat and walk,’ whom is he healing? Obviously, he cares for the individual, but his sickness is not the problem! The man says, ‘I don’t have anyone who will put me in the water.’ Treatment is there, free and within his sight—the problem is that he lives in a selfish, individualistic society where people don’t care for him. So Jesus is saying, ‘OK, nobody has noticed him for 38 years—now they will.’”

...This is the blindness to which Jesus refers when he tells the authorities that, because they believe they can see, their guilt remains. “Because you see this man as a cursed sinner, you don’t see that he exists for the glory of God. You don’t see his dignity; you don’t see his character. He is begging because you are blind. So it’s their eyes he is seeking to open when he is spitting on the ground.”[ii]

After our climb up Mt. Richardson, Allison and I were driving a rented car to our next destination when we stopped to admire a view. We parked immediately after crossing a bridge over the picturesque stream we wanted to see, then decided to move a few car lengths further on in case another driver should come speeding over the bridge without seeing it. By sheer good fortune, we crossed to the other side of the road before walking to the bridge. Seconds later, a station wagon came barreling over the bridge so fast that we scarcely had time to think, let alone process what was happening. Once over the bridge, the car became airborne, sailing right through our original parking space to land on the far side of the ditch that ran along the road, then bounced, whirled around horizontally and came to a halt facing the way it had come.

We were close enough that the impact splashed mud onto my pants—and like the mud Jesus spat on the ground to make for healing the blind man, that mud opened my eyes rapidement: I instantly saw a hundred other ways things could have gone that would have ended with Allison and me maimed or killed.

We jumped over the ditch, and Allison went into physician mode, though neither of us spoke enough French to really communicate with the shaken and, judging by the smell, very drunken driver; he only looked dazed and shook his head at all our inquiries. His wife was injured, but not gravely, and he was ambulatory. They were very lucky. Within moments, another car and a tractor-trailer had stopped; the trucker laid his loading ramp across the ditch to assist in moving the couple onto an ambulance, which was a long time coming, as there was no cell phone reception in that relatively remote area, so yet another motorist had to call from a pay phone in the next town.

We learned later that Canadian law requires the first motorist who witnesses an accident to stop and offer assistance, though we had no sense at all that those who stopped did so grudgingly—in fact, we were the only actual witnesses, and at least three other motorists stopped after we did. In that semi-wilderness, reliance upon the kindness of strangers is imperative, and offering help is simply what one does.

I spent several years in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania; I have seen Amish barn-raisings, and heard the stories of people whose barns had burned down and been rebuilt by the neighbors. And if we are to believe Laura Ingalls Wilder, the pioneers behaved in the same way. Talk radio commentators like to mock the notion of “community,” but the fact is that unless rugged individualism is tempered with neighborliness, we end up with a society in which people can participate in any number of “virtual communities” without ever once helping with a food drive or clean-up day at the park. Many of us sign online petitions and click Contribute Here buttons, and think that money can be substituted for time,[iii] but never actually show up in the flesh. There may be virtual communities, but there are no virtual neighbors.

The Marlboro Man isn’t real. Only a weak and sheltered people could really believe that we can go it alone. The real pioneers built towns, with churches and railroads and telegraphs, at the first opportunity. If Hell, as Sartre famously put it, is other people, well, so is Heaven—and Purgatory and Limbo and the bardo and the Tir na N’Og: we are all we’ve got. If anyone says, "I love God," yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. (1 John 4:20)

Of course, I have injected hefty doses of Hell myself into various situations, my marriage most notably. Despite my friends’ warning, I decidedly treated my marriage as a “done deal,” at least during the worst part of my depression. After persevering for eight years to get her to the altar, I took my wife so much for granted during those days that our marriage was badly strained. Happily, I figured out before it was too late that going it alone wasn’t working.

Recently, my parish’s Spiritual Formation Director helped me assemble a personal “discernment committee”—a hand-picked group of fellow parishioners, a professional colleague, and another parent from our girls’ school. Using a packet of discussion questions, we are meeting a half-dozen times to help me figure out where to go next after climbing the wrong hill ten years ago. Though I saw the value of this and went ahead with it, the idea of all those people taking time out of their busy lives to spend several evenings Talking About Me made me very uncomfortable—not that I feared the scrutiny (obviously, since I write this blog;) rather, I guess I was afraid that they, having made this offering of their time and attention, would find it not worthwhile at best, a nuisance at worst.

But I’m sticking with it, and I’m glad I am. After all, "inukshuk," in the Arctic languages, means “something that stands for a person.” If I have actual living, generous people to help me find the way, so much the better.

[i] Donald McGill and Robert Demory, Introduction to Jazz History

[ii] Scott Robinson, “Jesus the Troublemaker,” PRISM, December 2005

[iii] cf. Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community

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