Stanley Hauerwas in his seminal volume, A Community of Character, observes that life is a gift – not a right, not an entitlement – but a gift from God. Or, if you must keep God out of it, life is given from the very origins of all that is, seen and unseen. And we now know that most of Creation remains unseen as dark matter and even more so dark energy – which are called dark not because they are evil or bad but simply because you cannot see them. About which I choose to join with my late friend, colleague and teacher, Richard Chiroff, that Dark Energy, that which appears to hold the universe together and allows it to expand all at once, is what some of us call the Holy Spirit.
Those who choose to see life as gift, as given, have a particular world view. Whether or not we call this religious or not does not matter. Knowing life as gift, as given, leads to living in says that some have called righteousness, or right-mindedness, or even mindfulness.
In his most recent volume of Sabbath Poems, A Small Porch In The Woods, Wendell Berry, gentleman farmer and thoroughly American poet and visionary, offers the following definition: Right mindedness: a mind in place, in right relation to Nature, and it’s neighbors. And as the African-Scottish folk song Jesu, Jesu puts it, “All are neighbors to us and you.” With “you” being Jesus, the Anointed One who falls on his knees to wash our feet in an effort to open our eyes to see once again that the stewardship of creation granted to us “in the beginning” is always to be a life of thanksgiving for the gift of life itself. And that the character of our lives of thanksgiving is always to be a life lived in service of others, all others, including all of creation.
Or, as Berry puts it, accepting life as gift leads us to recognize that we are in relationship with that which brought us here in the first place, and with one another. Life known as gift leads us to desire to be in “right relation” to Nature, and its neighbors – others, all others.
Whether we care to admit it or not, we are not doing a very good job in our relationships to Nature and its Neighbors. Job-like, we are in perpetual anguish over this breakdown in our relationships with Nature and one another. We imagine that such things as God and Science are somehow adversaries, at war with one another, rather than complimentary world views within the totality of all creation, that which is seen and unseen. We keep making advances in the realms of that which we can see. Yet, these advances seem to further alienate ourselves and one another from all that remains unseen.
Perhaps the Book of Job offers what might be called a Daoist resolution. After 41 long and at times tedious chapters, the Book of Job lands in chapter 42 with a confession of humility the likes of which seems utterly foreign in the current atmosphere of angrily competing voices of certainty. Job finally surrenders when faced with the sudden and inscrutable felt presence of YHWH: When I asked you to meet me in court, O Yahweh, I simply didn’t know what I was talking about. But things are clearer to me now. I no longer wish to challenge you; I only wish to learn from your wisdom. I will be quiet while you answer my questions. Therefore, I yield, And I admit my mistakes. [Job 42:1-6, as paraphrased by Walter Brueggemann et al in Texts for Preaching: pp 558-559]
We could all stand more often to be quiet and do much more “yielding,” and admit our mistakes. Even more so, admit that in the end we simply do not know it all. And as the author of the Dao De Jing puts it: we all know that beauty is beautiful and yet makes ugliness; being and non-being arise together; hard and easy complete each other; before and after follow one another; the things of this world exist, they are, you cannot refuse them; to bear and not own; to act and not lay claim; to do the work and let it go; for just letting go is what makes it stay.
Ursula K. Le Guin sums up this portion of the Dao: “To believe that our beliefs are permanent truths that encompass reality is a sad arrogance. To let go of that belief is to find safety.” [Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching a new translation, p 5] It is in letting go that Job finds safety and his life flourishes once again. Not because of something he does or believes, but in his letting go and “not doing.” It is in that moment of “not doing” that he becomes the recipient not of God’s justice, but rather he experiences the welcoming gift of God’s mercy. Job shows us how to experience life as gift with humility and thankfulness. He yields to the very fact that he does not and does not need to know it all to be in a right relationship with Nature and its neighbors.
Again, Brueggemann et al conclude, “In other words, Yahweh loves Job as Yahweh loves all people. Yahweh has blessed Job as Yahweh intends to bless all people. To be sure, human willfulness and sin often distort our relations with God and with one another and frustrate God’s mercy. But Job’s new happiness is no more the result of some new righteousness on his part
than his sufferings were the result of some terrible act of sin. God’s ways are mysterious and past our understanding, but one thing is not in dispute: the God of Israel, the Father of Jesus Christ, is a God of compassion whose ultimate will for all persons is peace and joy.” [Ibid p 559] Replace “God” with “Nature” if you must to allow what this ancient wisdom tale means to convey – to “do not doing;” to yield to that which is unseen; to admit our mistakes and allow a new wisdom and presence lead us to safety; to give up the need to fight for what will always be an incomplete wisdom, knowledge and truth. To abandon our sad arrogances and open ourselves to others – all others. To do so is to dwell in the safety of the ultimate will of all creation to know peace and joy.
To do so, we need to be like Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, that beggar who hears Jesus and his followers walking in the way of Jesus from Jericho to Jerusalem in Mark 10:46-52. It is a caravan, with more people joining it every day until it is a long procession as Jesus enters Jerusalem. They are walking together in the hope of recovering what it means to walk in the way and to acknowledge life as gift. Bart cries out for mercy, for compassion. The followers who seem to fancy themselves as arbiters and gatekeepers of access to Jesus the root, the shoot, the offshoot if you will, of the source of all life as gift, try to keep Bart away. But Jesus hears his cry for mercy and stands still – he yields to the moment. It is a noisy and somewhat chaotic scene this caravan headed to Jerusalem and the three-times announced showdown with those in power, those representatives of Caesar, who in Biblical terms is the new Pharaoh. In the midst of this whirlwind of activity Jesus stands still and calls Bart to come forward.
Some find it odd that Jesus then asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” Shouldn’t it be obvious? We should note, however, that Jesus does not presume to know what Bartimaeus really wants and really needs. And Bart’s answer ought to surprise us as he says, “Let me see again.” Again. He has somehow lost the ability to see, which has made it impossible for him to walk in the way, but rather must sit by the side of the way and beg. Like Job, he seems to know that simply being in the presence of the one who was “in the beginning” and through whom all life has emanated and moved out from a single point and burst of energy and light and life and continues to move out and expand and evolve can, must, somehow reestablish his capacity to see again what we all wish to see: The Way.
Job just wants to know. Bartimaeus just wants to stand before the life-giving light so he can see once again. Like Job, that is all he needs to do. Wanting to stand before the gift of life is all it takes to know mercy and to see once again how to make our way in right relationship to Nature and its neighbors. All are neighbors to us and you. Jesu, Jesu, show us how to love, show us how to serve, the neighbors we have from you. Right mindedness. Knowing, accepting, life as gift makes all the difference in the world, seen and unseen. When we lose the capacity to know this we lose our sight, our vision. Without vision the people perish. Seeing life as gift again restores our vision, our hope, our vitality – and our capacity to be in right relation to Nature and its neighbors.