Monday, October 21, 2013

That new river

River of Life, Revelation 22:1
'The world my parish, or my parish my world.' Years ago when I managed Ethos, the Greek Orthodox bookstore in Portland, I remember having a few copies of a book—I think it was a children's book—with a yellow cover and a photo of a Greek bishop in his blacks and skoufi with some children, and the title of the book was something like ‘The World My Parish.’ Trying to find that book again, instead I discovered that this phrase seems to have originated among the Methodists, probably from one of the Wesleys. I'm not surprised. I have a soft spot in my heart—some people would say a soft spot in my head—for basic mainline Protestants of all sorts, especially the small town types, Methodists, 'Piscopalians, Presbyterians and 'Lutherns.' These people have always been kind to me whenever I've interacted with them. The more rigorous types would say these people were 'just being nice' and, alluding to C. S. Lewis' observation in Mere Christianity that it's not nice men but new men that life in Christ produces, consign them to the category of 'probably not saved.' Why kill when slander does the job better and lasts longer? Anyway…

Forgive me, brethren, but back to the topic, is it my parish, or my club, or my cohort or my family that is my world, and let all outsiders stay away, or is it that daring opposite, the world my…? For the second is to have your door blown off in a hurricane and possibly even your house blown down or carried away in the whirlwind, but hey! didn't Elijah leave mother earth in just that way? For to shut your door and bolt it tight is the magnification of what you're doing to your heart, and that open door, if you unwisely keep it unlocked or even wide open, will attract all kinds of unsavory types. Welcome, for all decent people, consists in showing hospitality to your relatives and friends, but as for the others? How could you? You never know who the wind just might blow in. You have only one life to live, so why not stick close to your kith and kin. Let the other guy welcome angels who might possibly be Christ in disguise—but probably aren't, since that only happens in fairytales—while you smile on the deserving.

Why am I thinking of this just now? I have an old friend, someone I've known nearly my entire adult life, and for some reason he has always tolerated me and grudgingly—but sometimes with a surprising hint of genuine warmth—accepted me into his very narrow circle of friends. Yes, he's a Christian, started out a small town, one of the 'aforenamed' Protestants, very mellow, almost a 'Bilbo Baggins of the Shire' sort of man, of hardy English stock. Well, started out that way but married a lass, yes, alas! a no-nonsense, 'my way or the highway' sort of missionary Baptist zealotess, a sweet woman who characteristically could smear Jesus all over your face at the picnic table when she found out you were not exactly a real Christian like herself, and did it with a smiling frown that Da Vinci would've loved painting. Probably would've out-classed even the Mona Lisa, if he had. That changed him for ever after. My friend, that is.

We worked together, and we probably learned a lot from each other, woodworkers as we were, though he would never admit it. I learned a lot from him, of course. It all happened while he carefully tried to polish me up to his standards of Christianity, but he was unsuccessful and finally gave up with a shrug. But I never seemed to learn enough. The thing that irked him most about me was how I kept welcoming people and including them in my life, as promiscuously and shamelessly as a common prostitute or sinner. Of course I didn't 'fool around' with anyone, but I didn't seem to understand that not everyone can be trusted, and I recklessly let people get to know me, and even invited them to my home and church. I didn't seem to know where to draw the line, and lines must be drawn, or else we'll get dragged down the slopes with those galloping pigs. Drowning in a lake may be too good for them, but Christ shows mercy even to demon-filled hogs.

Our lives are nearly over. My friend is retired early, and I may be too, sooner than I think. He has become firmer and more righteous than the rock of Gibraltar, and his dear wife must now be a pinnacle of biblical inerrancy and churchly rectitude. I don't know, as we haven't seen each other in years. She is a brilliant woman and a medical professional. My friend, of course, has remained what he always was, a country squire, just a little more disconsolate at the state of everything and everyone around him. The world was going to hell in a hand-basket when we worked together all those years. Now, it's probably arrived, because the last he saw of it, it was going in the same direction in a dump truck. We do see each other once in a while, and I think we're always happy to see each other, at least I know I am. I see him as I will see him on the Day of resurrection, loaded with only good memories. He sees me, well, I don't know how he sees me, but I sometimes feel pity looking at me through his eyes. Yes, I am a failed human, but because he still likes me, he'll be able to hear, 'Enter into the joy of your Lord…' Who knows, maybe I'll be let in too, as his stray dog.

This is my experience of the world. When I wrote, our lives are nearly over, I meant, from man's point of view, I've done what was expected, and my friend has too. Now we can rest, he on his laurels, me, well, on my futon. The only laurel leaves I have are tucked in the pages of my bible where I use them as book marks. I picked them up off the floor of Hades after they showered down on the Son of God to celebrate His victory over sin, death and hell, as He was emptying the place. I hope that when it's my turn to go down below, I'll be turned away at the door by a sign that says, 'Sorry, hell is too small for you. Please see the Receptionist at Gate 22.' I see those laurel leaves and the flower petals whenever I read the psalms, and I remember all the blossoms that the Lord showered down on me in my long life, all the wonderful human souls whom I tried to make welcome and who welcomed me. Nothing virtuous on my part. I just read what the Lord says, 'Make peace with your adversary while you are on the way with him to the court,' and that's what I did. It's not hard to follow instructions when it's a matter of life and death, and especially when you know that life is with your brother, and death being without him.

This ramble is, of course, just another rant about welcome, about hospitality, about brotherly love, about turning the other cheek, going the extra mile. It's about being willing to see your neighbor as your other self, just as good and just as bad as yourself, just as deserving and undeserving of love, acceptance, even forgiveness, as you are. Yes, we are again approaching the edge of the highest cliff in the universe, the one which Lazarus approached and looked down from, never seeing the bottom, and across seeing the land of infinite sorrow. Like him we will be reprieved, called back temporarily—who knows for how long—from our bodily death, so that having faced it and overcome it through the One that calls us out one by one by name, we can remember to keep open our door to the stranger, our hearts to those who are different and for that reason unwanted. For we are the person that is turned back at the door, we are the unwelcome, we are the stranger in a land far darker than Pharaoh's Egypt, the state of misery. Let's get ready to journey together to that other mountain, not Sinai of the trumpet-blasts and rock-hard commandments, but the place of the Tree of Life, from whose branches more than manna can be gathered, and whose roots do not drink water but deliver it to all who thirst.

Come, brethren, let us drink from that new river…

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