The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

"I Just Do Favors For Friends": Eight Million Ways to Die

A reader has asked me what I think of Lawrence Block, especially his Matthew Scudder novels. I'm always glad to get suggestions of topics you who are kind enough to follow the blog would like to hear about, so, here goes--but with a caveat. I'm not going to talk about all of the Scudder books, but focus on one, Eight Million Ways to Die (1982). You'll see why in a minute.

Twenty-one years ago tonight I was not yet sober. But I was slowly beginning to realize that things were sliding out of control, and signposts were beginning to break through my denial. One of the first signposts was a friend giving me a paperback of Eight Million Ways to Die, the novel in which retired cop turned (unlicensed) private eye Matt Scudder runs out of places to run from his alcoholism, and must face it or die.

Even as he's falling apart, he gets a difficult new case--a young prostitute named Kim asks him to help her out of the life, he seemingly succeeds with her pimp, only for Kim to turn up dead mere days later. The pimp, a cultured African-American known as "Chance,” hires Scudder to solve the crime. Scudder digs in with all his usual tenacity, but his addiction is crippling him, as he floats from AA meeting to bar, to hospital. Scudder takes Chance's mooney, unsure if he's being paid by Kim's killer. The two develop a genuine rapport, and Scudder, stubborn even as his own body is betraying him, pursues her killer.

The depiction of AA meetings is moving and reminds me of rooms I have been in over the past 20 years. Matt's silence and fear brings back my own earliest days, sitting behind a pillar that no longer exists in a building since torn down, peeping around the solid object to see the speaker. I have not been brave often in my life. Going down those well-remembered stairs for the first time required, quite possibly, the only genuine courage I have ever shown.

So I can't be objective about this well-loved book. All of the things that Scudder is forced to face in himself--the acceptance as routine things he would have once perceived as calamities--blackouts, waking up in a hospital, and sneaking out as the afternoon shadows lengthened--Matt Scudder helped me see where I was heading.

Years later, I wrote Lawrence Block an email telling him some of this, asking if I could bring to a book signing for his last (to date) Scudder novel the hardcover of Eight Million Ways to Die I had snatched up when I found it. His reply was extraordinarily kind, and ended with an instruction: make sure I made myself known to him when he signed the book. I did so, and he didn't just sign it, he inscribed it with warm words of encouragement.

So, not objective.

But the novel is awfully good.

Block uses New York City skillfully, mixing real places with fictitious--you could, if you wanted, follow Scudder's odyssey through the City, and many of the places were ones I knew when I lived in Manhattan. Its denizens are cruel and kind, sometimes both in the same scene. Scudder's people, like Smiley's are almost all alike victims and villains, hunter and hunted.

If Kim doesn't get enough time to become fully realized, her fellow "employees" of Chance do, and Chance himself grows through the novel, turning from an exploiter in denial of his exploitation into a young man who has a conscience, and needs to find his true self.

The plotting is taut and well-crafted, and Block mixes dark comedy in with the noir palette and tragic glimpses into shattered lives.

The Scudder novels are all good, but this one is the hinge on which the series turns from first rate genre fiction into literature (mind you, A Stab in the Dark begins that movement).

The alcoholic PI is a staple of genre fiction, but none has been so deeply psychologically fleshed out, so thoroughly believable, in his flaws and virtues, as Matt Scudder.

"I just do favors for friends," Scudder says when asked about his fee structure in Jimmy Armstrong's bar (where I used to eat, and a close friend was a bartender). Scudder did me one hell of a favor when I met him, so this is the least objective of reviews, as I said at the beginning of this post.

Still. The book is great, the series is cumulatively superb. A New York treasure.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

A New Teaching—With Authority: A Sermon for Epiphany 4, 2018

[Delivered at St. Bartholomew’s Church, January 28, 2018]

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

There come times when the things we have grown up around, that we know intimately, whether we love them or resist them, suddenly look threadbare, and past their best. One day the stuffed animal that was friend and companion in childhood loses its magic, and becomes a simple object, a reminder of a time that has passed.

It’s true of the systems around which our lives are structured just as it’s true of our childhood toys.

Polls conducted late last year by the Washington Post and this year by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion demonstrate that Americans have lost faith in democracy itself and in the institutions, public and private, that make up the democratic-republican order that defined the world of our grandparents and parents.

And those polls aren’t outliers or just limited to the United States; in 2017, the Edelman Trust Barometer, which surveyed tens of thousands of people across dozens of countries about their level of trust in institutions—both public and private—found that a decline in trust across the board in all institutions for the first time in the 17 years it has been collecting the data.

We are seeing an unprecedented loss of faith in ourselves and in each other.

Well, unprecedented in our lifetimes, that is.

Because we are not the only people to have lived in such times.

Jesus lived in such a time, as the Gospels show us, and as historians have confirmed. The Temple hangers-on, gouging pilgrims who needed to purchase sacrifices, the uneasy relations between the Pharisees and the Saducees, the corrupted Sanhedrin, anxiously collaborating with the Roman occupiers, the puppet Herodian kings, whose legitimacy was dubious, even aside from the fact that they owed their continued hold on power to the Romans, and not to the people—all about them, the people saw hypocrisy, the lust for power and money. They lived under a spent, bankrupt moral and political order.

In such a time, as William Butler Yeats put it, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

And it often feels like that we live in such a time, as we look at the now almost weekly school shootings that rob our nation of our youngest, most vulnerable denizens. When well over 140 girls and young women are sexually molested by just one Doctor working for US Gymnastics. One Doctor.

Or when the “people’s pope” promotes against the will of the people a clergyman accused of condoning sexual abuse by another priest.

In such a time, it’s hard to disagree with Yeats that “the ceremony of innocence is drowned.”

Can the center hold? We look at the news, and, again, it’s we see the rise in hate crimes, and the newly empowered white supremacist groups who march, assured that they are “very fine people.” When backlash to marriage equality is increasing, and even possibly receiving government sanction.

The outlook grows even dimmer when we see that the so-called Doomsday Clock is ticking ever closer toward midnight.

That’s a real thing, by the way, the Doomsday Clock. It’s a measure expressed in a metaphor for how close humankind is to destroying the earth. It was created by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in 1947, and currently has us at “just two minutes to midnight,” the closest we have been to apocalypse since 1953, when the U.S. and Russia were both actively testing hydrogen bombs.

Now, relax. It’s not a literal two minutes, or this sermon would be considerably shorter. But it is a measure of “how vulnerable to catastrophe the world is deemed to be.”

Among the reasons the Bulletin gave for moving the clock forward to two minutes to midnight was “the weakening of institutions around the world in dealing with major global threats.”

In such times as ours, and Jesus’s, another Yeats line rings true: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.” In Jesus’s time the Zealots and several self-proclaimed Messiahs tried to overthrow Roman rule, only to meet terrible ends. Flavius Josephus tells us of the “Fourth Philosophy” of Judas the Galilean who encouraged his followers, the Zealots to revolt, leading ultimately to the uprisings and the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.

It was just such a Zealot whose life was spared by Pilate instead of Jesus. The Fourth Gospel tells us that Pilate wanted to spare Jesus, but was overborne by the crowd. That he knew Jesus to be guiltless, but the clamor of the people in favor of the violent revolutionary Barabbas led him to act against his better judgment. He lacked the conviction to stand against their passionate intensity.

So the doubts and fears we all live with today are not unique to our time and place, however it may feel to us. And the Gospel has something to day to us about those doubts and fears.

That when the institutions we rely on—whether secular or ecclesiastical, Church or State, seem to be breaking down, it’s time to pay attention.

That when old ways of living, of ruling, of thinking, are worn out, and the extremists begin to make way, theirs is not the only path that is open to us.

That’s the time to watch for the next thing, the movement of the Holy Spirit.

I don’t mean to offer you a platitude, or some cheap assurance that everything will be all right.

I do mean to say to you that what we are living through is a time of transition. A time when the economy, politics, and the face of Christianity is changing. We live in a post-New Deal, post World War II Global Order, post-Christian, America, in the sense that these once defining labels are no longer safe assumptions to describe who or where we are as a people.

Yes, such a time is dangerous. Yes, such a time is frightening.

But it is also a time of hope.

Because we can’t take anything for granted anymore.

And that includes the old inequities hidden by the long-established system.

Terrible as it is to discover that men we admired have harassed and abused women, the fact that these women have challenged their abusers, and drawn back the curtain that hid the abuse—that’s hope.

That over 140 women and girls testified to the effect of Larry Nassar’s exploitation and abuse on them, and that he had to hear them, that’s hope.

Even our seemingly-permanent entrenched divisions can be transcended. Because Jesus, who rejected the violence of the Zealots, nonetheless converted one of them so completely that he became a member of Jesus’s inner circle, Simon Zealotes, one of the Twelve (Mk 11:12).

We follow the path of the Jesus who says that nobody is beyond redemption. Not us, not those who most fervently disagree with us. And when our struggling old order changes, yielding its place to new, in that new, we may be surprised at the realignments that we see.

Jesus taught with authority, not as the scribes, today’s Gospel tells us. Let me rephrase that. Jesus was not following a dead letter that had been laid down so long ago that its original source and meanings were lost in the mists of time.

In my other calling, that of a lawyer, I know that often laws outlive their purpose, but because we lawyers tend to venerate precedent, the old ways continue beyond their usefulness. That’s why one of the greatest of American legal thinkers, Oliver Wendell Holmes, had to remind his colleagues that “[i]t is revolting to have no better reason for a rule of law than ‘so it was laid down in the time of Henry IV,’" and that "It is even more revolting if the grounds upon which it was laid down have vanished long since, and the rule simply persists from blind imitation of the past.”

Jesus challenged the established order of his day—disputing with the Pharisees and Saducees, driving the moneychangers and merchants out of the Temple. He emphasized that the law could be summarized in two sentences: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” (Lk 10:25)

And that was an accurate summary of the Law as it existed, and as it was meant to be. The strict logic-chopping and punitive readings of it that Jesus encountered and rebuked, and the same logic-chopping and punitive readings we encounter today are examples of what Holmes was describing in secular law—what happens when you forget the “why” of a law and start worshipping the precedents.

That’s why Paul in the Epistle for today is following in Jesus’s path of by emphasizing that the Christian life is a free one, free from the old rules that were laid down to prevent eating food sacrificed to idols. In emphasizing this liberty, he reminds us to use it guided by love. Knowledge, he reminds us, can puff us up, but love builds up. So be careful how you use your freedom, he advises us; and ask yourself—are you using it lovingly?

St. Augustine put it even more boldly, and more challengingly: “Love God,” he wrote, “and do what you will.” Not so that we could engage our every passion and indulge our every wish. It’s harder than that, and ultimately more fulfilling. Act in love, because love begets love. An angry persecutor like Saul is converted by love into Paul.

And that’s the brightest kind of hope.

That we will be able to love others when they are unlovable to our eyes, and that we ourselves will be loved when we are unlovable to theirs.

Jesus cleared away all of the technicalities, so that we could remember who and what we are called to become. He didn’t say it would be easy.

But walking that path changes the world from Yeats’s fearful dystopia to a world filled with possibilities and opportunities to make change for the better. To heal old wounds and sorrows, and move forward.

Or, as we have so often heard from the pulpit here at St. Barts:

Life is short and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us. So be swift to love, and make haste to be kind.

In the Name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

'Salem's Lot: A Revisit

It's a long time since I read 'Salem's Lot, Stephen King's 1975 second novel. When I read it in my early teens, I loved it--the way the town itself was a key character, the slow, drawn out evocation of the time and place, and the investment in character drawing to get me, the reader, invested in the various characters' fates. I liked the book so much that, when I first moved upstate over a decade ago, I used to refer to the beautiful gabled house that commanded a hill not far from my own victorian house as "the Marsten House," and yes, I would have bought it in a heartbeat.

I have always had an affinity for a really well told vampire story, and after trying, on a recommendation by a writer I respect, Charles L. Grant's vampire novel, The Soft Whisper of the Dead, I was disappointed. But it did make me think of the earlier 'Salem's Lot, and of my youthful enjoyment of that book.

So, when I found an early copy in fine shape (alas, it's the Book Club Edition), for a very reasonable price online, I bought it. I always like to read a book in a state that is as close to how it first appeared as I can, and this copy does achieve that--apparently King's first few books were printed at the same size as the book club editions, so the resemblance is complete barring the error on the dust jacket, present in the first edition, but not on my copy--referring to "Father Cody, the bad priest," not "Father Callahan, the bad priest." (By the way, that's a pretty gross oversimplification of the single most complex character in the book, in my opinion.)

So, you may ask, how does it hold up?

Pretty damn well, to tell you the truth.

Do I have to give a spoiler alert for a 42 year old novel that has been adapted twice for television?

Consider yourself warned by the Queen of Spoilers:

When I first read the novel, my heart broke for Father Callahan, the priest whose despair at the banality of the modern world, and the collective rejection of the spiritual life except as a prop to absolve guilt, when he is finally confronted with evil on the grand scale. Now, reading the book as a member of the clergy, the whiskey-priest (echo of Graham Greene very much intended) touches me even more. Father Callahan is at first energized by the conflict, providing strong support to the little group that opposes the invasion of their town, and acquits himself pretty well against Barlow--he does save Mark after all, and it's only his momentary hesitation, and then his lack of faith, despite his initial success, that causes his downfall. His shame and guilt at his failure are genuinely tragic--the years of booze and doubt have eroded his faith to the point that when the test he's always dreamed of arrives, he just isn't up to it.

Callahan is just one thread in a complex skein, but his story was the one that resonated most with me. He is a good man, whose failure is understandable, but condemns him in his own mind utterly. (King's later revival of the character in the interesting but problematic Dark Tower series depicts a harrowing road toward redemption.) But the other main characters, Ben, Matt, Susan, and Mark, are each interestingly drawn, as are the less significant players. Ben in particular interested me far more in this re-read than in my earlier encounters with the novel. Susan's struggles with her mother (shades of Carrie?) are more significant and deeper than I had remembered.

Barlow--not, as in the 1979 Tobe Hooper-helmed mini-series, a silent Nosferatu knock-off, but avoids the other trap of being a Dracula clone. Instead, Barlow dates back to pre-Christian times, or so he says, and he really doesn't appear to be lying. His viewpoint is profoundly alien, and contemptuous, but he is not a cipher. His familiar Straker loses something by not being James Mason, but he is a far cry from a pathetic Renfield. His clipped tones, occasional cold laughs, and cool efficiency make him a threat in his own right.

It's a classic variation on the vampire story, with a town that starts off as charming, if rough among the edges, and becomes by degrees spooky and then chilling.

The frame story and basic conceit (the haunted town as a character) were successful to the point that Peter Straub's superb Ghost Story echo it--the highly dubious spectacle of a man on the run with a child not his own in the beginning, resolved in the last act, long after the main story has ended. (I'm not accusing Straub of anything, understand, just thinking that King genuinely influenced him.)

It's a period piece now, of course, but having been written in that period, and a period I remember, it captures a lot of what it was like to grow up in the 1970s. King is a very observant writer; his prodigious output and variable quality (Seriously, Cujo?), as well as his working in a genre that doesn't command critical respect have led him to be greatly underrated, in my opinion. His clunkers, er, clunk, but his best work is really very good indeed. 'Salem's Lot is, in my opinion, high among his best work.

Monday, January 22, 2018

"The Power to Hurt is a Kind of Wealth”: Naomi Alderman's The Power

"Gender is a Shell Game. What is a man? Whatever a woman isn't. What is a woman? Whatever a man is not, Tap on it and it's hollow. Look under the shells: it's not there.”
Naomi Alderman's 2016 novel The Power presents what at first glance seems to be a simple thought experiment within a clever framing device, possibly the best since Boulle's Planet of the Apes, asking What if men had to fear--physically fear--women the way that women all too often have to fear men?

The paradigm switch takes place in the novel by women developing a power like that of electric eels to shock, originating with the development of a latent tissue called a "skein." Women develop the ability to generate varying amounts of electric energy, and to control it. At first, we seem on track to a utopian story: Oppressed women rise up against their oppressors, overthrow the patriarchal regimes that render them subservient, or kill those who traffic in their flesh.

Others use their power to heal, to play, innocently and not-so-innocently, but consensually.

But even from the very beginning, a darker strain is present. In the very beginning, a Nigerian young man, Tunde, who becomes our only male viewpoint character, finds himself shocked by a young woman with whom he is flirting. She uses her power to immobilize him, to frighten him, to make him afraid.

As Margot, a middle aged politician whose canny exploitation of the power of women and girls alike fuels her meteoric rise says, "the power to hurt is a kind of wealth." Margot, who we first see as a loving mother whose daughter's power is erratic and weak, later exploits her political power, groping a young man who has been drawn into her orbit. It is Margot who reflects to herself, “It doesn't matter that she shouldn't, that she never would. What matters is that she could if she wanted. The power to hurt is a kind of wealth.”

The foster child Allie becomes "Mother Eve," leading a religious reformation with the feminine aspect of the Divine ascendant, first rescues young girls and women, and then props up Tatiana Maskalev, an eastern European dictator's former model wife, who has killed her husband, takes control of the country, and become as cruel a dictator as the man she replaced.

Roxy, the daughter of a British crime boss, whose power is the strongest of anyone's in the novel, uses it as a weapon for her family, only to be betrayed by those who envy her strength.

And the patriarchs who have been displaced seek to reclaim what they have held.

The story builds to a surprising and yet inevitable conclusion.

The novel is, in addition to being a first rate piece of speculative fiction--engrossing in its plot and characters--an extended meditation on power, its meanings, its dangers. More than any writer since than C.P. Snow, Alderman distrusts power's shadow side while acknowledging its needfulness for reform. Alderman's novel works out the ramifications of the passage in Snow's work that encapsulates my own political world view. It's from Snow's The Light and the Dark (1948), making the point that self-knowledge, stripped of arrogance is crucial to those who hold power. Here's Snow's stand-in Lewis Eliot, debating the balance of power in 1937 with a young Nazi:
"No one is fit to be trusted with power," I said..."No one. I should not like to see any group of men in charge--not me or my friends or anyone else. Any man who has lived at all knows the follies and wickedness he's capable of. If he does not know it, he is not fit to govern others. And if he does know it, he knows also that neither he nor any man ought to be allowed to decide a single human fate, I am not speaking of you specially, you understand; I should say exactly the same of myself."

Our eyes met. I was certain, as one can be certain in a duel across the table, that for the first time he took me seriously.

"You do not think highly of men, Mr. Eliot."

"I am one."
Alderman extends the observation to women.

And yet, she is optimistic, too; as she says in an interview:
“Do you know what? I’m hopeful,” she says. “I can’t say that I’m specifically hopeful for specifically 2018, but I think we have been on a long movement towards greater justice and recognition of the huge amounts of human potential we’ve been throwing away with this gender bullshit.

“I feel that we’re finally recognising – imagine the Mozarts and Picassos, and incredible engineers and everything that we’ve missed out on by not valuing women’s brains, and imagine the amazing parenting we’ve missed out on by not valuing men’s parenting abilities.
Alderman is an interesting writer, whose critique of power and its gendered uses, are thought provoking without losing the narrative impetus. Barack Obama picked The Power as one of the best books he read in 2017. I think it's the best I've read thus far in 2018, and will be hard to top.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Paper Chase: Not Prince Hamlet

When I was a boy, I discovered my profession in stages. The first was the television series The Paper Chase, in which the tyrannical (or was he?) Professor Kingsfield is both foe and--not friend, he's too harsh for that--but mentor, manipulatively guiding his students with a sharp tongue but secret hints to assist them in their endeavors. In the film (above) and in the novel, Kingsfield is the anti-hero; his daughter Susan (a sublime performance by Lindsey Wagner) tries to lead the well meaning One L Hart to reject the "paper chase" values which she sees her father inculcating in him.

In the television show, Kingsfield's point of view slowly, over the three and a half seasons the show ran (with a long hiatus between the first and second season), becomes normative. I was young and impressionable when that first season was shown, and John Houseman's magisterial Kingsfield was fascinating to me. So too were the legal discussions, the "Addenda," that PBS used to fill the time that had been allotted for commercials. They led me to explore books on law in the library--John Jay Osborn, Jr.'s novel to begin with, but Holmes's The Common Law, and a handful of volumes of Supreme Court reporters. In reading these, I slowly formed my own political worldview. Douglas over Rehnquist, Brennan over Burger.

I was 12 years old, and the justices of the Supreme Court were forming my political commitments, the values I held and still hold now.

And the film, through John Williams's version of Bach's Little Fugue, got me to take notice of classical music in a truly wonderful way.

So all in all, I owe Osborn, Houseman, Williams, and James Bridges quite a debt.

I got to hear Houseman lecture twice, once at Molloy College, where I just missed shaking his hand and getting an autograph, and once at Fordham, where he charmed us all by staying at a poor enough reception where mediocre wine and good cheese fueled his anecdotes of The Mercury Theater, of Orson Welles, of Julliard.

He was Kingsfield, minus the menace, and an infectious laugh.

The later seasons of The Paper Chase are good. In them, John Houseman gave me one last gift, introducing to one of the few poets words I retain. In an episode in which a grieving father tries to decipher his student son's suicide note, reading simply, "Not Prince Hamlet," the mystery is solved when Kingsfield recognizes the quote, and Houseman solemnly recites the relevant passage from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous –
Almost, at times, the Fool.

The words, the rhythm touched me. They kindled an interest in Eliot that became an admiration that I still feel.

Well, the last half season is finally being released, and I will be able to view this totem of my youth in its entirety, for the first time since it was rerun and then three new series commissioned on Showtime, years after the seeming failure on CBS.

I wonder if my younger self and I will agree on its merits?

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Can Anything Good Come Out Of Nazareth?: A Sermon on John 1: 43-51

[Delivered at St. Bartholomew's Church, NYC, January 14, 2018]

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Fourth Gospel, the Gospel according to John, has often called the charter of Christian mysticism. It opens with a beautiful hymn interspersed with the arrival of John the Baptist, called by scholars “the Logos Hymn.”

If you leave out the story of John the Baptist, and use the King James version, the hymn reads:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.
He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.
He came unto his own, and his own received him not.
But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:
Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

The poetry is important, though it requires you to pass over the the sexist language that uses male pronouns to include women; but if you do, the hymn comes more clear as a poetic summary of the entire Gospel story, from the beginning of creation to Jesus’s lifetime, his rejection by his own people, and his death. And, although it isn’t spelled out for us, Jesus’s resurrection is subtly portrayed, too, in the fact that the world itself was created through him, and he is somehow both inside and outside time. And the end of the story is a gift for a hope-hungry world: the power Jesus brings each and every one of us to become children of God, ourselves, flawed as we are daughters and sons of God.

In my old King James Bible, that amazing poetic hymn ends on the same page as the funny little story of Nathaniel we just read begins.

We’ve descended from the poetic heights of the Logos Hymn to the “Israelite in whom there us no guile,” to stay with the King James for the moment. And not just because I like the sound of it better, but because the word “guile” means more than just deceit, although it certainly encompasses that as well. It means, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “cunning,” “wily,” “artful” (in the sense of “tricky”).

A guileful person may be untrustworthy, but he or she is clever, rooted in the real world.

And that’s how Nathaniel tries to come off.

You can almost hear the bored yawn in his voice as he asks, “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” After all, Nazareth is tiny, a rural little nothing in the middle of nowhere, Some might even call it a hole, or worse.

And yet this would be sophisticate from the City looking down on that hick town of Nazareth, is sized up by Jesus at first glance: “Behold, an Israelite in whom there is no guile!” Jesus says as Nathaniel approaches.

Nathaniel, shocked, asks “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus simply answers “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

And, somehow, that’s all it takes for Nathaniel. “Rabbi, you are the Son of God!” he exclaims. “You are the King of Israel!”

Even Jesus is a bit taken aback by this. "Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these," he promises.

But Nathaniel doesn’t need anything more. He believes. And, as the Logos Hymn I just read out to you makes clear, in John’s Gospel, the power to become children of God is granted “to those who believe in His Name.”

We’re still in the first chapter of the Gospel, and we’ve got a new-minted child of God already.

How do we explain Nathaniel?

Not very often, but sometimes, we meet people who, although they have grown up, have not entirely lost the child in their eyes. The world remains fresh to them—its hurts as well as its pleasures.

Rather than embarrass a living person, I’ll give a fictional example who has stayed with me since I first met him in Anthony Trollope’s novel, The Warden. A Church of England clergyman, the Reverend Septimus Harding. He is a good man whose great love is music, and whose lifelong friend, now his bishop, assigns him a very well paid, easy job—he runs an almshouse for old men. He’s kind, and generous, but more of the almshouse’s budget is spent on his salary than on the charity. When the newspapers get a hold of this, they criticize Mr. Harding severely. And the institutional church, in the character of Mr. Harding’s son-in-law, the Archdeacon, rises to his defense, full of anger and self- righteousness.

The criticism hurts Mr. Harding terribly, but, as he later tells his daughter, if he believed that right was on his side, he would bear it, and fight on. He can’t though, because Mr. Harding, who open to even criticism, comes to believe that that his critics are right. And so he resigns, over the objections of the Archdeacon and his lawyers.

When, many years and five novels later, he dies, his worldly son-in-law speaks his epitaph: “He couldn't go wrong. He lacked guile, and he feared God—and a man who does both will never go far astray.” And the Archdeacon reflects on what Trollope calls “the sterner ambition of his own life,” and uncomfortably asks himself if he has lacked guile.

We live in a world where the Archdeacon’s question can cut to our own hearts too. After all, we swim in an ocean in which cunning, wiliness, trickiness, deceit, and, in a word, guile, are passed off as worldly wisdom. Step outside these doors, and you can feel the atmosphere of distrust and cynicism—the cheap laugh at a village, a community, a continent, as some kind of hole. The power play, the easy lies can seep into your lungs.

All this worldly wisdom can make truly human relationships impossible; we can all become guarded, afraid to be vulnerable, to be open. To be without the protective armor of guile.

And we can’t say that it can’t be done, that it’s not worth doing. It’s so worth doing that, 2,000 years later we read the story of Nathaniel, and, even if we smile at the ease with which he recognizes Jesus as the King of Israel, we are here doing the same thing in our 21st Century way.

And we especially, sisters and brothers, who gather here should not take refuge in cynicism, in trickiness, in guile. After all, we stand here today in a building commemorating a man without guile.

Oh, didn’t you know?

Nathaniel is better known by his surname, son of Tolomew, or, in the style of his people, bar-Tolomew.[1]

St Bartholomew’s Church, our own St. Barts, commemorates that man who’s openness to his experience didn’t require a great miracle, a transformation of water into wine, or even, as Jesus promised him, “heaven open[ing] and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

I’m sure he was very impressed by all those things, but St. Bartholomew didn’t need them. Jesus’s recognition of him, as the man he was, lacking in guile, was enough. He loved because he was known and understood.

And this great building, this community of faith, honors that loving response, and urges us to try to find it within our own hearts, however cynical our times, however guileful the world becomes.

At the end of the day, our faith isn’t about doctrine or intellectual precepts. They have their place, of course, and I wouldn’t deny that for a minute. But Christianity done right is about loving God and our neighbor. It’s about being willing and able to make that leap of faith into love, into relationship, being willing to offer radical welcome to the stranger, knowing sometimes it will have costs.

Whether it’s a smile to a stranger, doing a shift at one of our community ministry programs, visiting the sick, or even just being kind to that really annoying co-worker, and persevering with it, we can find our own ways to respond to the recognition and love with which we have been welcomed.

Because guile loses, in the end. As Stephen Moffatt recently put it, and as St. Bartholomew demonstrated so many years ago, hate is always foolish, and love is always wise.

In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.

[1] Rev. Alban Butler, The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints, vol. 3, p. 233 (1928).

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

"I know my hats."

So, many years ago I bought myself a first-class chocolate brown Dobbs fedora, which I generally wear unless the weather is so cold I need the full-on Elmer Fudd, or it's summer, and a straw hat is the way to go. After work this evening, I was running an errand, wearing my old Dobbs hat, which has actually aged better than me. As I walked down Madison Avenue (in Albany, that is), I was accosted with a cry of "Hey! Nice hat!" Across the street, where I needed to go, in fact, was a gentleman who was clearly not doing well financially. He offered a fist-bump with a "Happy New Year," asked what I did for a living. I returned the fist bump, and he used the moment of physical proximity to quietly ask for some money.

--Let me just add that I have been advised by a friend who is a social worker not to give money to people on the street. I can't say that I have a compelling response to that, other than, had life been more unkind to me, I could be the one asking. So, when the person seems basically sane and safe--if I can, I do.--

As we parted, him again wishing me a happy new year, and smiling, I said "Thanks for the compliment about the hat." (No idea why.)

His smile stayed, but his eyes sharpened, and he looked closer. In a confident voice, he said, "Dobbs, right?"

I laughed, surprised and impressed. "You have a good eye," I answered, "it is."

His smile became a grin. "I know my hats."

I tipped it to him, he bowed slightly, and we went our separate ways.

Sometimes you get more than you give.