A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 253: Sunday God Quote

To be wounded quote

Inspired by yesterday’s illustrated quote, I drew another quote for today. This one is considerably heavier as the subject matter requires it to be. The quote is from Canadian Catholic theologian Gregory Baum. The image that came to mind when I read the quote was from a painting I had done for Good Friday. In that painting I had presented an abstract Christ with crown of thorns. It seemed an appropriate image for the words presented here so I borrowed from myself to create this drawing.

To all of you who carry the wounds and bleed on behalf of others and their pain, thank you.

 

The Ragman

Happy Easter, everyone! In my career as a pastor, I’ve always followed my Dad’s advice on this day. He’s a preacher, too. His words to me regarding this Christian holiday were these: “Tell the Story”. In other words, on this Day of Days, let the story do the talking.

In that spirit, I want to share with you a profound and moving allegory written by Walter Wangerin, Jr. The words belong to Walt, the illustrations are mine.

The Ragman by Walter Wangerin, Jr.
I saw a sight so strange and experienced something so amazing that it is hard for me to explain it. If you can give me a few minutes, I’ll do my best to describe it to you.

Ragman 01
Before dawn one Friday morning I noticed a young man, handsome and strong, walking through the back alleys of the city. He was pulling an old cart filled with clothes both bright and new. As he pulled the cart he was calling out in a clear, powerful voice: “Rags! Rags! New rags for old! I take your tired rags!”
The air was foul in these dark streets, tainted by the filth and trash that living unleashes on the world. And yet as the man called out, the air became tinged with the faint scent of cleanliness, as though the breeze that carried the sweet music of his voice also carried with it the promise of a cleansing rain.
“Rags! New rags for old! I take your tired rags! Rags!” The man continued to move through the dim light of early morning, his strong voice echoing from building to building and street to street.
“Now, this is a curious thing,” I thought, for the man stood 6’4″ and his arms were like tree limbs, hard and muscular. His eyes flashed with intelligence. What was he doing here, in a city that had no need for such a useless profession. Who recycled rags anymore? Could he find no better job than this, to be a ragman in the heart of a city? Driven by my curiosity, I followed him. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Ragman 02 (2)
Soon the Ragman saw a woman sitting on the porch of a small house. She was crying into a handkerchief. Her body language said it all as she seemed folded in on herself, shoulders down, back slumped forward, knees and elbows making a sad X. She had no hope. Her heart was breaking and she was wracked with sobs. Her body may have been alive, but her soul wanted to die.
The Ragman stopped his cart. Quietly he walked over to the woman, stepping round empty beer cans and old newspapers, dead toys and broken furniture. “Give me your rag,” he said gently as he knelt beside her, “and I’ll give you another.” The woman looked up into his powerful, compassionate eyes and saw something there that paused her tears. The Ragman slipped the handkerchief from her hand and used it one last time to dry away the flow of tears from her face. Never taking his eyes from hers, he laid across her palm a linen cloth so clean and new that it shined. She looked down at the new cloth and then back again to the eyes of man who had given it to her. The Ragman slowly leaned forward and kissed the woman’s forehead and then turned and walked back to his cart.

Ragman 03
As he began to pull his cart again, the Ragman did a strange thing: he put her old, stained handkerchief to his own face and then he began to weep.
He sobbed as grievously as she had done, his shoulders shaking as the tears flowed down his face in a torrent of grief.
But looking back to the woman on the porch I could see that she was left without a tear. She sat with her shoulders high and a look of wonder on her face.
“This is amazing,” I thought, and I followed the sobbing Ragman. Like a curious child who cannot turn away from a mystery, I watched the Ragman from a distance.
“Rags! Rags! New rags for old!” rang forth his voice. Though it was still strong, it also shook with emotion as he wept. “Rags! I take your old rags! Rags!”
In a little while, the sky showed gray behind the rooftops. It was light enough to make out the shredded curtains and damaged blinds that hung in dark windows.

Ragman 04
The Ragman came upon a girl sitting on the curbside whose head was wrapped in a bandage, eyes as vacant as the windows around her. Blood soaked her bandage and a single line of blood ran down her cheek.
The Ragman paused and turned his weeping eyes upon this empty, injured child. Reaching into his cart, he withdrew from it a beautiful yellow hat and walked towards the girl. “Give me your rag,” he said softly, “and I’ll give you mine.” The child did not move and could only gaze at him vacantly while he loosened the bandage, removed it from her head, and tied it to his own instead. I gasped at what I saw: with the bandage went the wound. The girl’s head was left unblemished, while the Ragman’s head began to bleed.
He set the hat on the girl’s head and suddenly her eyes took on an understanding and intelligence that had been missing before. She placed her hand to the side of her head where the bandage had covered the wound that was no longer there. Smiling in wonder, she watched as the Ragman rose unsteadily to his feet and moved back to his cart.
“Rag! Rags! I take old rags!” cried out the sobbing, bleeding Ragman. “New rags for old! Rags!” With his powerful arms pulling the cart, he continued on his way. He seemed to be moving faster now with an urgency I hadn’t noticed before.

Ragman 05
He stopped again in front of a man who was leaning against a telephone pole. “Are you going to work?” he asked. The man shook his head. The Ragman pressed him: “Do you have a job?”
The man looked him up and down, making note of the Ragman’s weeping eyes and bleeding head before replying. “Are you crazy?” he sneered as he leaned away from the pole, revealing that the right sleeve of his jacket was flat, the cuff stuffed into the pocket. He had no arm.
“Give me your jacket,” said the Ragman firmly, “and I’ll give you mine.” Such quiet authority in his voice! The one-armed man looked into the other’s eyes and then slowly took off his jacket.
So did the Ragman. I rubbed my eyes in disbelief as I trembled at what I saw: the Ragman’s arm stayed in its sleeve, and when the other put on the Ragman’s jacket he had two good arms, strong as tree limbs. The Ragman was left with one. “Go to work,” he said as he moved back to his cart.

Ragman 06
Struggling to make do with his one arm, the Ragman began to pull his cart again, this time much faster and with greater urgency. He came upon an unconscious old drunk lying beneath an army blanket, hunched, wizened and sick. He took that blanket and wrapped it round himself, but for the drunk he left new clothes.
And now I had to run to keep up with the Ragman. He was weeping uncontrollably, and bleeding freely from the forehead. He struggled to pull his cart with one arm while stumbling from drunkenness, falling again and again, exhausted, old, and sick. Yet he moved with terrible speed nearly sprinting through the alleys of the city covering block after block and mile upon mile.

Ragman 07
I wept to see the changes in this man. I hurt to see his sorrow and ached each time I saw him stumble and fall. When he began to move through the industrial area of the city, away from the houses and apartments, I wanted to stop following and turn away, to leave him behind and go back to my life. But I could not. I needed to see this story through to its end. Who was this Ragman? Why had he done what nobody else would have done? Where he was going in such a hurry? How would it end?
The once strong Ragman was now old and frail, weeping and bleeding, staggering and falling, his body wracked with pain, sorrow and disease. I watched as he came to an old abandoned lot that was filled with piles of trash, old furniture, and the rusted out shells of cars and construction equipment. He moved among the garbage pits and piles of human refuse and finally climbed to the top of a small hill made from the trash of a thousand lives. He struggled to pull his cart and its sad, pathetic burden. With tormented labour he cleared a little space on that hill.

Ragman 08 - Copy
With a deep sigh, he slowly made a bed from the contents of his cart and lay down on it. He pillowed his head on a handkerchief and a jacket. He covered his old, aching bones with an army blanket. His body shook under the load of its injuries and pain and disease. His eyes wept and the wound under his bandage continued to bleed. With one last, deep sigh, he closed his eyes and died.
Oh, how I cried to witness that death! I sat down in an old, abandoned car and wailed and mourned as one who has no hope. I wept because I had come to love the Ragman. As I had followed him, I had watched him work wonders and change lives so profoundly that it didn’t seem fair that he was gone.
He had taken those things that were soiled and damaged beyond repair and had replaced them with the new and the whole. He had offered hope to the damaged and lost of the city.
But if the Ragman was gone, then my hope was gone as well. I felt such an overwhelming sense of grief and loss that I remained in the seclusion of the old car and sobbed myself to sleep. I did not know – how could I know — that I slept through Friday night and Saturday and on through Saturday night as well.
But then, on Sunday morning, I was awakened by a violence that shook me to the core of my being. Light – pure, hard, insistent light – slammed against my face and demanded that I awake. When I was finally able to open my eyes, I blinked against the light and squinted in the direction of the pile of trash where the Ragman’s body had been. As I looked, I saw the last and the first wonder of all.

Ragman 10
The Ragman was there, yes! But he was no longer dead. He was alive! There he stood, folding the old army blanket carefully and laying it atop the neatly arranged handkerchief and jacket. Besides the scar on his forehead, there was no other evidence of what he had previously taken upon himself. There was no sign of sorrow or age, no evidence of illness or deformity. His body was whole and strong and all the rags that he had gathered shined for cleanliness.
I wept to see him again. When I thought that hope had died along with Ragman, I had abandoned any hope for my own life. And yet there he stood, healthy and whole. Climbing from my shelter I moved toward the Ragman, trembling from what I had seen and because of what I knew I needed to do. Walking to him with my head lowered, I spoke my name to him with shame. Looking up into his clear, loving, compassionate eyes I spoke with yearning in my voice, “Rags. Please take my tired rags and replace them with new ones.”
And he did just that. Taking the old, tired rags of my existence that covered the griefs and wounds of a life sadly lived, he replaced them with the new clothes of a life spent following Him. He put new rags on me and I am now a reflection of the hope he offers to us all.
The Ragman.
The Christ.

I Am Not in Love with Jesus

Jesus-442x600Jesus isn’t my hero. Jesus isn’t my co-pilot. And I most definitely am not in love with Jesus.

I call myself a Christian, a term that literally means “little Christ”. That designation was originally used as a derogatory term directed at the early followers of Jesus. I suppose it was kind of like calling someone a “wannabe”. The term that the first disciples of Jesus used for themselves was “followers of the Way”. They were mostly Jews who believed that the Messiah had come at last and certainly weren’t looking to start a new religion. It is more likely they were interested in transforming their lives and the world around them in the way Jesus did. In the gospel of John it’s said that Jesus came defined by the twin characteristics of Truth and Grace. Maybe the followers of the Way simply wanted to have those two things define them as well. There are many, many times I wish those two characteristics more closely defined the world-wide Christian church. There are many more times I wish those two characteristics more closely defined me.

I love Jesus. Let me make that clear from the early going. But my love of Jesus is not hero worship.  I have heroes, like most of us do. But I am well aware of the flaws and shortcomings of my heroes. In fact, that is something I really enjoy about my heroes: They were exceptional in many areas yet horribly unexceptional in others. They are my heroes because they inspire me in two directions, as it were; an inspiration to achieve something great and an inspiration to realize that I’ll fail miserably at times in the striving to do so. I don’t look at Jesus in this way. Instead, I see him as existing beyond my aspirations. I cannot totally be like Jesus, not in a thousand lifetimes. But I can keep my eye fixed on him. I can continually hold him at the center of all that I am. I can align my priorities, shape my abilities, craft my person around him. I can’t do this with any one of my heroes, no matter how outstanding their accomplishments. I can only do this with the one who is totally human but also totally God. He gives me my greatest example to aspire to at the same time that he exists somewhere beyond my reach; not in a far-off way, however, but in a way that gives me peace; in a way that reminds me I am ultimately not in charge of my life.

The above is why Jesus can never be my co-pilot. Really, I’m not flying this thing called “my life”. If I were, I would live in perpetual fear of crashing the bloody thing into the ground, nose first. Let’s face it: No matter how much we try to improve or become better at this or more educated at that, we have the incredible ability to foul up our lives in short order. To me, faith in Jesus means giving him the controls. It isn’t even a case of the bumper sticker that says, “If Jesus  is your co-pilot, switch seats”; no, in fact that whole analogy doesn’t do the trick anyway. I don’t see myself in some metaphysical cockpit with Jesus, navigating the crosswinds of life. Instead, I see myself turning over control of my life completely to him and thereby releasing fear, anxiety, and the thought that I can keep myself from breaking up into tiny pieces. If he’s truly human, he gets me totally. If he’s truly God, he totally can handle anything.

I love Jesus, as I’ve already made clear, but I am not “in love” with him. There is a disturbing trend in contemporary Christian worship music to write and sing songs with a definite romantic air about them. It is as if the songwriter originally wrote a song with the word “Baby” in it a few times but wanted to spiritualize-it-up a bit so he changed the word to “Jesus”. The Christian Romantic Power Ballad may be a genre in and of itself, to tell you the truth. Sorry, my fellow followers, but that is not the way I feel or the way I see my connection with Jesus. I am in love with my wife. She is my romantic partner, my life partner, my advocate and friend. I have no one else in my life to which that kind of love is directed. We share an intimacy with each other that we reserve for only each other. I cannot and will not put my love for Jesus in the same category. The idea of romantic love just doesn’t fit my relationship with Jesus. On one level the idea is just plain ridiculous but on another level it doesn’t work because my love for him fits in its own special category. There is no one else in my life that I have that kind of love for and there never will be. It is not the love of friendship or family or parents or sports team or chocolate or country or anything else.  I realize that the songwriters of those ballads are trying to convey a deep, deep love of Jesus but it is just plain inappropriate and inaccurate. How ridiculous would it be to state that you are “in love” with your son or daughter (no matter how deep that love is) or “in love” with chocolate (no matter how close to truth that may be for you)?

I love Jesus like I love no one else. This is totally appropriate and accurate because he is like no one else. He is not my hero, he is not my co-pilot. He is, however, my Lord. That is,  he is the one and only one I owe my all and all to who is over all and in all and above all. Get it, y’all?

I love Jesus. I’ll put that down in triplicate so as to make it all biblical-sounding. I follow him with my whole heart and my whole life because there is no one else in the world completely worthy of all of that from me. He became human for me and you. He gave his life for me and you so that we can be closer to God than is humanly possible. He came back to life again to assure us that life defines God’s creation, not death. He is the one and only. He is Jesus.

Happy Easter time to you from me. Peace.