Monday, December 19, 2005

None Dare Not Call it Heresy

Bill Herzog, that paragon of orthodoxy, strikes again. In a truly moving euology for a deceased student (whose name I have removed) Dr. Bill equates Taoist writings with Scripture and imagines Lao Tzu and Mark (as in the Gospel of) welcoming the student to the heavenly shore. His biennial outburst wasn't an aberration; he truly is heterodox in so many varied ways.

There are moments, and I suspect today is one of them, when nothing will do except the truth, the full truth and nothing but the truth. We are here to honor a brother in Christ who knew that truth, a truth we share with him. So here it is. So far as I can tell, after studying the New Testament for more than 30 years, the gospel promises one thing and one thing only: nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing. Absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. [The student] knew
that truth, but more importantly, he embodied that truth in his long battle with cancer and his call to ministry.

He was, and he is, in good company. The apostle Paul put it more fully when he wrote to the Romans, “for I am persuaded that neither the vagaries of death nor the vicissitudes of life, nor angels, nor ruling classes, nor present anxieties, nor future fears, nor earthly powers, nor astral spirits nor chthonic demons, nor
anything else that we can conjure in the whole of creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (my translation). Paul knew this. [The student] knew this. So did Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He called it costly grace, the antidote to the popular gospel based on cheap grace. Bonhoeffer put it this way:

Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without discipline, communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ. Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again. . . . Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs us our lives, and it is grace because it gives us our only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his son, but it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life. . . . (The Cost of Discipleship, p. 46-48)

I emphasize this point because we are immersed in a culture that thrives on cheap grace and a gospel of cheap grace, the gospel of empire, not the reign of God. The purveyors of this so-called gospel preach it over the airways and through the mass media of our culture. It proclaims that becoming a Christian leads to success, wealth, power and health. As one born-again Christian once said to me, “I have passed beyond all illness now that I know Jesus Christ. My life will be long and successful. Jesus will shower every blessing upon me. Every day with Jesus is sweeter than the day before.” Oh yes, the gospel of cheap grace is alive and well, thriving all around us, equating winning with salvation.

But [the student] was made of sterner stuff. He lived the true gospel and experienced the meaning of costly grace which was his sustaining manna in the wilderness. Like the apostle Paul, he was given a thorn in the flesh; and, like Paul, he learned that it would not be taken away, but he would learn from living with it that “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect
in weakness” (II Corinthians 12:7b-9).

I remember what would be the final conversation we had in my office. He was returning home to get the results of tests exploring some ominous new symptoms. We spoke about the tests and what they might reveal. Throughout the conversation, [the student] exhibited what Bonhoeffer would call hilaritas, a deep-seated sense of serenity and “steadfast certainty” in his own work and purpose in this life. This was the same steadfastness that prompted Bonhoeffer to say as he was taken from his cell to be executed, “This is the end; for me, the beginning of life” (Letters and Papers from Prison, p. 123).

As I listened to [the student], admiring his serenity in the midst of great uncertainty, I remembered another time he had come to my office to propose an assignment he wanted to do for my course in the Gospel of Mark. He wanted to compare the vision of the spiritual life in the Gospel of Mark and the Tao Teh Ching, the Taoist classic composed by Lao Tzu.

At first I was skeptical when he proposed the project. After all, Mark is a Middle Eastern work composed in the first century of the common era, while the Tao Teh Ching was an ancient Chinese work composed about the 6th century BCE. What could Lao Tzu have in common with Mark? I tried to discourage [him], but with [the student], never was heard a discouraging word, at least as a final word. He was determined, and I had seen that look of determination in his eyes before, and I knew that nothing I could say would make a whit of difference. So I relented, but asked why this assignment was so important to him.

[He] then explained how the wisdom of Tao Teh Ching had sustained him after his doctors had given him up for dead in his first struggle with cancer. It was his reading of the Tao Teh Ching that convinced [him] to begin living and to stop trying to avoid dying. His cancer went into remission, and he continued to seek the path of the Tao even while he was studying the way in the wilderness proclaimed in Mark’s Gospel. He was certain there was common ground to be found in them. His story was so powerful and his motivation so profound that I laid aside my professorial scruples and supported his proposal. The presentation that he eventually gave to the class on Mark more than justified his intuition and put to shame my reservations.

[He] gave a creative, original presentation to the class, and for a few glorious minutes East met West in a framework of mutual mystery and respect. It was one of the highest moments I have experienced in a classroom. Truly, on that day, in Christ there was both East and West, and in the Tao there was neither East nor West, but we were bound together in serenity and wisdom.

But like many forms of evil, cancer is relentless. It may beat a strategic retreat but it does not surrender; rather, it continues to stalk us. As [he] and I sat together in my office, I realized that his serenity had put down deep roots and would sustain him through the days to come. He was an embodiment of the Tao, following the path of ancient wisdom. He had discovered hilaritas (serenity). Seeing the subtle is called illumination. Keeping flexible is called strength. Use the illumination, but return to the light. This is called “practicing the eternal.” (Tao, p. 52)

The day before I was born, on March 9, 1944, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to Eberhard Bethge, “Keep well. Enjoy the beautiful country around you, spread hilaritas around you, and keep some for yourself, too” (Letters and Papers from Prison, p. 127). This is exactly what [he] did—to his final breath. It needs to be said that his hilaritas included a wonderful sense of humor that has already achieved legendary status on the campus.

...Now we come to the difficult part, for [he] has died, but [he] is not dead. No, he has entered into that great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us at all times, a company that we call “the communion of the saints.” Like theirs, [his] faith was “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen”
(Hebrews 11:1). Like them, the writer of Hebrews can say of [him], “These all died in faith, without having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar. They confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. . . . But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for God has prepared for them a city” (11:13-16).

As the author of the Tao put it,

Holding to the Great Form
All pass away.
They pass away unharmed, resting in Great Peace.
(Tao, p. 35)

But how to capture this solemn journey, this pilgrimage surrounded with mystery so profound we can only catch a glimpse of it out of the corner of our eyes. If we turn to stare at it directly, it simply vanishes, like an elusive presence.

As the apostle Paul once said to the Corinthians, so I say to you, “I wish you would bear with me in a little foolishness. Do bear with me” (II Corinthians 11:1). We are gathered on one shore of a great divide, an infinite divide that we acknowledge but cannot comprehend. We are gathered here in sorrow even as we celebrate [his] life, and we are gathered to say, “farewell, dear friend, fare well,” and we think as he leaves, “there he goes.”

What we fail to see, being so immersed in sorrow and a sense of loss, is that another group has gathered on the other shore of the great divide; and, while we weep, they are anxiously scanning the horizon looking for the sign of his arrival. As he appears, the group turn to one another excitedly, saying, “here he comes.”

Standing so close to the shore line that their toes almost feel the waves of the infinite ocean breaking over their feet stand two men. They know each other well. One turns to the other and asks, “why are you here?”

“One of my pupils is making the journey today, and I want to be here to salute him.” As he speaks, his philosopher’s robes seem to enfold him. He continues, “Today he learns, more fully than he could ever imagine, the meaning of this aphorism of the Tao, ‘In studying each day something is gained. In following the Tao, something is lost. Lost and again lost. . . . Though you lose the body, you do not die.’”

“Venerable wisdom, Lao Tzu,” Mark said.

“And you,” Lao Tzu asked, “why are you gathered with the company on the shore?”

Mark scanned the horizon once again and then replied distractedly,

“I, too, have a disciple arriving today. Today he will learn what Jesus meant when he said, ‘If anyone wants to be my disciple, let that one deny self, take up the cross and follow me. For those who would save their lives shall lose them, and those who lose their lives for my sake and for the sake of the good news will save them. For what will it profit to gain the whole world and forfeit one’s life?’”
Lao Tzu paused and then reflected, “Too wordy for me as usual. Why can’t you write as I did, in cryptic aphorisms.”

“Different ways to approach truth,” Mark replied. “People still accuse me of being too cryptic. My Gospel was the shortest.”

“Here they come,” someone in the welcoming crowd shouted; and, sure enough, as Lao Tzu and Mark turned toward the harbor, they could see the craft entering its safety. As it docked, Lao Tzu and Mark headed for a young man. Mark reached him first and threw his arms around his neck, “well done, good and faithful servant,” he said in greeting.

To Mark’s great surprise, Lao Tzu walked up to the same person and bowed before him as a sign of respect. He spoke softly,

The Way of Heaven is like stretching a bow.
The top is pulled down,
The bottom pulled up.

The student bowed, gazed at the master and replied, “the last shall be first and the first last.” Mark smiled; Lao Tzu joined him. Then Mark and Lao Tzu threw their arms around [the student] and welcomed him to the eternal domains. In spite of their considerable differences, honed and explored throughout the ages, they agreed on one thing. It was clear to them both that [he] bore the mark of a true champion. Amen.

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