Caution: Falling Icons Ahead

We who live on the planet are in the midst of a huge, grief-inducing identity crisis, and it’s frankly overwhelming. Extremists on both ends of the political spectrum notwithstanding, most of us—both conservative and liberal—are stuck in the middle, not knowing what we can do. It is so easy to be dispirited and paralyzed. We don’t know how to help.

I used to love Bill Cosby so much. But it turns out that the “Cosby” l liked was just “Show”: the Pudding Pop pitchman, the guy who says the darnedest things. It’s not just Cosby, though. Icons are falling like dominoes: the Confederate flag, Atticus Finch, “traditional” marriage. Other painful and divisive issues—like gun control, race relations and gender politics—have not fallen but persist like an incurable virus. And as Nanci Griffith says: compassion fails us with the meanness in the air.

It is not entirely a bad thing that nostalgia is taking such a beating. We will never return to the Good Old Days when men were men and women were girls, when black people knew their place, when there was no such thing as gay people, nobody talked about rape or sexual abuse, and white Christians were in charge. Yes, in many ways those were simpler times. But in many other ways, those times were not the best of times, they were the worst of times. The upside of today’s overwhelming clamor is that many voices are only now finding their voices. The downside is that we have lost every single helpful filter too: we’re back to Babel.

I recently preached a sermon after which someone accused me of “making white people feel bad.” Honestly, I had no idea what he was talking about, because if I’m trying to make you feel bad, I’ll know it. I got to thinking, though: we all feel bad about something. And we are addicted to arguing about All The Things. But we also agree–that is, most of us would agree–that people are mostly good, and that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good [people] do nothing.” We want to do something, but we’re paralyzed.

Allow me to offer a word of encouragement: we are not in a crisis of a thousand things. Amidst the Babel-clamor there are not, even though it seems like it, a thousand competing causes. It’s not like we will find answers, because these are not problems that can be solved by any of us.

Let’s not simply feel bad; let’s go ahead and do good.

I can’t do something about everything. But I can practice one thing. I can do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with my God. And then pick a task and do it. Pick a kindness, any kindness.

And what’s so bad about “feeling bad,” anyway? Yes, we hate to admit that something we have believed turns out to be a lie. But once we get over ourselves, stripping away falsehood is a good kind of feeling bad: it strips us fresh and clean, like Aslan stripping Eustace Scrubb of his dragon skin:

“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off…Then he caught hold of me — I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on — and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone…I’d turned into a boy again.” (C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader)

Doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly teaches you not to turn a blind eye to your fellow human. And for me—admittedly, not for everybody—my life in a religious institution is the place to do it. Just because some people have ruined religion for other people doesn’t mean all religious life is bullshit. Edmund Burke (the father of modern conservatism who may or may not have said the thing about “good men doing nothing”) did in fact say: “I take toleration to be a part of religion. I do not know which I would sacrifice; I would keep them both: it is not necessary that I should sacrifice either.” True religious practice is not self-centered, it is Other-centered. Which, in turn, means God-centered.

Doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly enhances my peripheral vision so I can see beyond just me and my little bubble. I don’t have to do everything. Just the one thing.

On July 9, 1776 an angry mob, incited by a public reading of the Declaration of Independence, pulled down a statue of King George III in Bowling Green Park in New York City. Its lead was melted down and molded into musket balls.
On July 9, 1776 an angry mob, incited by a public reading of the Declaration of Independence, pulled down a statue of King George III in Bowling Green Park in New York City. Its lead was melted down and molded into musket balls.

Indy’s step and the path that wasn’t there

The vision is here, the dream is here, the unseen presence is here. What we are to become is dancing along with us even now, just out of sight. If we listen, if we are attentive, if we are obedient to this new, true self in Christ, it will lift us overhead and help us fly.
(Br. Mark Brown, SSJE)

You know how when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail? I’m that way with a worthy metaphor. When an image or a story hits me in that really profound way, all of a sudden I can flex that truth to fit any situation. To quote Phoebe Buffay: A good metaphor is “very bendy.”

And so it is with Indiana Jones and the invisible path. It is one of the all-time great metaphors, and often comes up in discussions of faith (topics like “having faith” and “stepping out in faith.”) Of course we have the deeply spiritual existentialism of Stephen Spielberg to thank for this. In 1989’s “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” Indy is searching for the Holy Grail of Christ, because the Nazis shot his dad. (That’s Spielberg for you: Nazis and father issues.) Indy’s quest grinds to a dangerous halt when he is suddenly confronted by the brink of a bridgeless, bottomless pit. The prize is on the other side of the abyss, and Indy is frozen in place. Can’t go back, can’t go forward.


I don’t know about you, but this scenario is painfully familiar to me, this feeling of being stuck. Can’t go back, can’t go forward. Going back (to a previous way of life, to a bad decision: whatever) isn’t an option, because I’m all in: the Nazis have shot my dad and I have to keep going. But moving forward doesn’t seem to be an option either because there’s no damned path, just a bottomless pit and your brain is screaming “DANGER, WILL ROBINSON!!”) I may not be a genius, but I know better than to step out into open air.

The magic moment in the scene occurs when Indy decides that his only option is to step into the blank space…and the path appears.

Indy's foot

Now, most often one hears this scene used as a metaphor for “stepping out in faith.” And that’s fine. Indy may well be stepping out in faith and finding a path that he just didn’t see before. But THAT kind of “faith” has the whiff of fear and luck to it: what if there is only one path and I don’t happen to hit it? Better not to step out at all. I’ll stay stuck, thank you very much.

I think what’s happening with Indy’s step has a far deeper significance. I think that by committing to taking the step, Indy actually helps create the bridge across the abyss. Indy somehow refuses to accept that he is stuck. He has no choice but to move forward, and his stepping out creates the way.

The Creator of the universe doesn’t expect us to be omniscient. It is not as if we have to guess at every right step along some top-secret path for which we don’t have security clearance. Faithful travel means to take the steps that seem right, and keep asking God for help as we go. (Think of God as a divine GPS, maybe with Emma Thompson’s voice.)

Sometimes having faith is a matter of having confidence that, as Br. Mark says, “what we are to become is dancing along with us even now, just out of sight” and that the presence of God will give us flight. We are co-creators with God, creating something that did not exist before: ourselves. The one who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning, will dance with us as we travel.







Let’s Stop Shouting at Each Other in Comic Sans

[The human] mind is plainly an ass, but it will be many ages before it finds it out, no doubt. Why do we respect the opinions of any man or any microbe that ever lived? I swear [I] don’t know. Why do I respect my own? Well–that is different. (Mark Twain)

Bumper stickers are such a bad way to convey theology and politics. Are there more opinionated people in the world these days? Or are they just more vocal than they used to be? And why are people so willing to look like jerks to strangers?

I’m really careful about what I put on my car, for the same reason I don’t wear t-shirts with polarizing messages. (I do, however, believe there is a place for the smart and funny t-shirt, such as the one below.)


Maybe I think about these things more than other people do. I once removed from my car the sticker of a school with which I was associated. I was angry, and did not want anyone to know I was related. A small act of defiance, to be sure, but it was meaningful to me. I haven’t had a sticker on my car since the day a total stranger pulled up next to me at 60 mph and yelled at me about my “Prejudice Rarely Survives Experience” message. It all happened pretty fast, but suffice it to say he didn’t agree.

The roads and parking lots are full of bumper stickers that are meant to declare, pronounce, draw a line in the sand. The ones I find particularly troubling are the malicious statements of so-called Christians. I don’t always know WJWD, but I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t be snotty about it.

It has been said that any time you draw a line in the sand, you will find Jesus is standing on the other side of it.

Let’s start drawing circles instead of lines. I know it’s unnerving to expand our airspace, but let’s do it anyway. How about some bumper stickers that quote people like Lily TomlinWendell BerryYogi Berra and Malala Yousafzai. Or as our polarizing friend the Apostle Paul says: “Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse…Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.” (Philippians 4:8, The Message)

For heaven’s sake people, we are more alike than we are different. How about a hug?