Reflections by Jerry Webber

Monday, September 15, 2014

Thoughts about Genie-Gods and Darkness

The story is too long to tell today. In brief, while in a restaurant recently, I heard a monologue at the table next to me in which a person was "instructing" others at his table in how to get good things ("blessings") from God. This fellow described God as "a blank check" who is just waiting for us to ask for "all the treasures in God's storehouse." We don't have more, he said, "because we don't claim what is already ours."

I won't describe the mix of emotions I felt as this scene unfolded within a few feet of me . . . those of you who know me well will be able to guess a few of my feelings pretty easily.

What I finally came to as I walked out of that scene was the desire to reach out to the 5 or 6 people around that table and say, "You know, if this doesn't work out for any of you in the days ahead, come see me. Here's my card."

Because I know a whole bunch of people -- many of the folks I hang out with day in and day out -- for whom religion and cultural expressions of Christianity have not worked out. From old-school Catholics to prosperity-Gospel evangelicals to hard-shell Baptists . . . and everything else along the spectrum . . . I spend a lot of time with folks whose personal experience has not lined up with the teaching of a particular expression of the Church. Many of these folks have dropped out of organized religious expression, yet they have not given up on some expression of their faith. They wait and they hope. They are people of soul who long for something authentic that will not shrink from the darkness of our world -- or the darkness of their own interior. They are people for whom religious expression and spirituality are not an escape from the real world, but a healing engagement with it. They are people who take seriously the inner life and its expression in the outer world, not because it gets us "the treasures of God" as some kind of self-interested blank check, but because it connects us to a Source that is generously endless and life-sustaining.

I wanted to say some of this to those sitting at that table . . . to offer them a place to go and a people to be with when their God-as-Santa-Claus systems stopped working. Alas, I didn't intrude on their party, so I let them be. (I likely would have been written off by them as an infidel, anyway.)

The entire scenario, as I've reflected on it for a couple of weeks, has also reminded me of how much more appealing is a life of goodies and treasures, a life of all sunlight where a huge Genie-God makes all the roads smooth, takes away all the disease, removes all the stumbling blocks at work, gives us what we want on command . . . as if we shouldn't have to deal with difficulty, crisis, tragedy, or death. (In the Genie-God scenario, Jesus dealt with death, tragedy, and darkness so that we would not have to. His death means that we get the goodies.)

Maybe it's just my personality, but I tend to be drawn to those who are honest about both the darkness and the light. It seems to me that those who are in touch with darkness -- the world's and their own -- offer a tremendous gift to the world. They don't gloss over the darkness, nor do they run from it. They are comfortable in it, not needing to change it into sugar-canes and sweetness. Sometimes the darkness does get transformed into light, but those who can abide in the darkness do not demand that it be so in order to be happy. They find their happiness and delight regardless the weather.

I've noticed in recent years, for example, that poets who are familiar with darkness catch my attention. I've thought of all this today because I re-read a poem by R. S. Thomas this morning. Thomas was a Welsh pastor whose poetry is tinged in darkness. No, more than tinged, his poetry is immersed in darkness. It would be too breezy to call him a pessimist. I simply think of him as a realist, fully engaged with God and with life so that he doesn't hide from the difficult questions. He sometimes is comforted by God's presence, for example, but more often he confronts God over God's perceived absence. His poetry has the feel of the Hebrew Psalms that confront God and question God and demand answers from God, knowing that they may or may not come. And whether they come or not ceases to be the issue. At the core Thomas, like the psalms, engages God.

This is the poem I have considered again today. The last few lines are the lines I'm living with today.


R. S. Thomas

There is an island there is no going
to but in a small boat the way
the saints went, travelling the gallery
of the frightened faces of
the long-drowned, munching the gravel
of its beaches. So I have gone
up the salt lane to the building
with the stone altar and the candles
gone out, and kneeled and lifted
my eyes to the furious gargoyle
of the owl that is like a god
gone small and resentful. There
is no body in the stained window
of the sky now. Am I too late?
Were they too late also, those
first pilgrims? He is such a fast
God, always before us and
leaving as we arrive.

There are those here
not given to prayer, whose office
is the blank sea that they say daily.
What they listen to is not
hymns but the slow chemistry of the soil
that turns saints’ bones to dust,
dust to an irritant of the nostril.

There is no time on this island.
The swinging pendulum of the tide
has no clock; the events
are dateless. These people are not
late or soon; they are just
here with only the one question
to ask, which life answers
by being in them. It is I
who ask. Was the pilgrimage
I made to come to my own
self, to learn that in times
like these and for one like me
God will never be plain and
out there, but dark rather and
inexplicable, as though he were in here?

-- R.S. Thomas, Later Poems: 1972 – 1982 (London: Macmillan, 1983), 125 – 26.


Anonymous said...

Thank you
Thank you
Thank you

Anonymous said...

Great post, I have enjoyed browsing your blog, especially the Rilke poems. Thank you.