Monthly Archives: July 2013

July 26 — Feast of Anne, Mother of Mary, Grandmother of Jesus

Today is the Commemoration of Anne, the mother of Mary and grandmother of Jesus. That Mary had a mother and Jesus had a grandmother there can be no doubt—we all have them—but the New Testament authors do not name Anne (or her husband Joachim) or give us a single detail about her in the stories of Jesus’ conception, birth, and upbringing.

St. Anne is what some people call ‘a venerable tradition’ and others disdain as a ‘legend’ or a made-up pious lie—depending on whether you honor and enjoy the religious imaginations of your ancestors and are not reflexively dismissive of stories. You know where I come down on this one.

She (along with Joachim) first appears in the Protoevangelium of James, c. 150 [?], a much-loved book in the ancient Eastern Church (in the West, not so much), and later in other non-canonical writings. Some people say that her story—an older woman conceiving later in life, bearing an heroic son—was modeled after the story of Samuel, whose mother was also an Anne (Hannah). Whatever the origins and literary models of her story, she soon became a fan favorite. 450px-Ulrichsberg_-_Heilige_Anna

Devotion to Anne can be documented in the East from the mid-6th century; but if by that time (c. 550 CE) the Byzantine emperor Justinian is busy constructing a great church in her honor, her ‘cult’ had surely already been gaining steam for a long time. In the West, there is no extant representation of Anne until the 8th century (a nice fresco in Rome), and not much fervent devotion until the 13th; but it took off after her story was included in a popular collection of saints lives and stories (Golden Legend, Jacobus de Voraigne), and Anne swiftly became one of the most beloved saints of the Latin Church.

[–Deutsch: Pfarrkirche St.Ulrich in Ulrichsberg]

The medieval imagination provided Mary’s parents with parents too—Stollanus and Emerentia; and with many marriage stories, including one in which she is married and widowed 3 times, giving birth in successive unions to Anne (by Joachim); Mary (by a fellow named Cleophas), who becomes the wife of Alphaeus and mother of the apostles James the Lesser, Simon and Judas, and of Joseph, called the Just; and Maria Salomae (by  Salomas) who became the wife of Zebedaeus and mother of the apostles John and James the Greater. The way her story was developing, she might eventually have ended up grandmothering the entire corps of apostles, and the further 72 as well.  anneMaryBaby

[Brabant, 16th c., Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Muslims also venerate Anne (Hannah), the grandmother the prophet Isa [pbuh], their name for Jesus. The Qur’an does not name her (only her father and husband get names—Faqud and Imram, respectively), but subsequent teachers tell a poignant background story to her conception of Maryam (Mary). Hannah has trouble conceiving and is about to give up when she sees a mother bird feeding hatchlings. The maternal desire grows strong again and she and her husband try one more time. You know the result.

The Qur’an recounts that before conceiving, Hannah had promised Allah that, like the Biblical Hannah, she would dedicate her son to him (she was sure it would be a boy). She is surprised when a girl appears, and maybe a little afraid to present the little Maryam to God, but in mystical insight she decides that the baby girl is a true gift of God. The Qur’an is at pains to show that Allah is extremely pleased with the birth of this girl child and has great plans for her.

After her ‘dormition’, Anne endured the fate of all great saints in the medieval church, traveling more in death than she ever had in life. Her relics are said to have been taken to Constantinople in 710. They remained there, in Hagia Sophia, until 1331, when the city was conquered by Muslims and her relics were taken to Europe for safekeeping—and dispersal. (Or if you like you can follow the tradition that Lazarus, Jesus’ moldy friend, took her body to France and buried her there.) In Douai, France, you can venerate her foot (not sure if is her left or right). Her head resided in Mainz in Germany for a while, before it was stolen by pious thieves from Duren in the Rhineland. I could go on, but these are unedifying details, so no more of this.

st-anne

[–Albrecht Durer]

One of the lovely traditions of iconography associated with Anne is called the Metterza (Italy), Anna selbdritt (Germany) or Anna te Drieen (Low Countries). Taken together, these terms describe depictions of ‘the three generations’—Anne, Mary and Jesus; or as one author put it, images in which “Granny makes three.” Another important iconographic tradition shows Anne teaching Mary to read; she learned well and was still reading as an young woman—in a great deal of iconography of the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel enters to find Mary reading, a book open on her lap. The Word comes as words are pondered.

Now, if you are a Protestant and not much inclined to saints, you have very good reason to like this one, for it could truly be said that St. Anne made the Reformation possible. When in the midst of a terrible lightning storm the young Martin Luther cried out to heaven to be spared, it was to St. Anne he addressed his prayer. She heard him, apparently, and her prayers to God in response to his prayer to her saved his life. And the rest is history.

St. Anne, Mother of Mary, pray with us this day; glorify God and edify us with your life, even if we made it all up. It’s a good story. Amen.

Feast of Saint James

pilgrim-conques500Today is St James’ Day. I meant to post this a lot earlier in the day by way of personal commemoration of the Apostle, but the train wreck outside Santiago de Compostela has been, to say the least, distracting. There would have been huge celebrations in that city today in honor of James, whose bones are reputed to be buried in Santiago (Sant Iago, San Jacobo, Saint James), but they have been cancelled, of course, until a less sorrowful time.

The New Testament has many Jameses, so for those who are not up on their saints, or even very much into them, I thought it would be helpful to sort them out.

First, there’s James, called “the Just,” who is Jesus’ brother. We read about him in the Acts of the Apostles. He appears to be the overseer of the original church in Jerusalem. When a bitter controversy about circumcision for Gentile converts arose, he eventually endorsed Paul’s “uncut version” of the gospel (ahem). Thanks to his diplomacy at the meeting held in Jerusalem to thrash the matter out, “no irksome restrictions” were imposed on new converts. For many centuries he was thought to be the author of the New Testament letter of the same name, but most schoalrs agree that that letter first appears on the church’s radar screen a lot later than 62 CE, when James the Just was martyred, so he couldn’t have been its author.

Next, there’s James, son of Alpheus. We traditionally call him James Minor, Little James, James the Lesser, and maybe that’s because we know only that much about him—very little, far less than we know about any other James. He is remembered in the calendar of saints on May 1, May Day, together with the apostle Philip and the proletariat revolution (which Jesus began and we have yet to finish).

the-statue-of-st-james-you-hug-it-santiago-de-compostelaFinally, we come to James the Apostle. In the gospels he is introduced as one of the two male children of Zebedee. John is the other one, and both are nicknamed “Sons of Thunder.” He is one of the first four disciples Jesus called. When he and his brother went traipsing after the Teacher, it appears they may have taken their mom with them. At least she was with them as they all went up to Jerusalem for the last time. She asked for special places for her two boys in Jesus’ kingdom, and Jesus asked them in return if they could drink his cup. They said, “Yes, we can,” but they forgot to ask what was going to be in it. It’s hard to know if they would have been so eager to drink if they understood how bitter it would be

In subsequent tradition, this James is called James Major, Big James, James the Greater. It his his death (and thus his birth), we commemorate today. In addition to what we learn about him in the New Testament, sometime in the 9th century, a pious Christian legend grew up about his having gone off to Spain to preach the gospel and, after his martyrdom in Jerusalem, somehow ending up buried back in Spain, in Compostela.

The power associated with his relics inspired later Christian efforts to banish the Muslims from Spain, where during eight hundred years Muslims, Jews and Christians had forged a relatively tolerant civilization (for the era, that is; believe me, they weren’t having interfaith dinners or anything). ‘Santiago Matamoros,’ his devotees called him—James the Moorslayer—turning him into the mascot of a royal policy that issued eventually in the Spanish Inquisition. But none of this awful stuff was Big James’ fault. You can’t control what other people do with your relics long after you’re gone, so this ought not be held against him.

st-james-stone-statue-500After St. Teresa of Avila died in the 16th century, her enthusiastic devotees wanted to make her Spain’s patron saint, but there was a small hindrance—Spain already had one. St James. For quite a while an unseemly ecclesiastical tussle about patronal primacy ensued. In the end, it was decided to compromise and give Spain  two patron saints. Neither James not Teresa was consulted.

Happy (belated) Feast Day, James, Son of Thunder.

Keeping the Great Commandment

Image 

 

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart…” our priest droned for the tenth time. His pedagogy was nothing if not dogged. He would have said it again, but I jumped in: “How can I love someone I can’t see?”

The other kids sat up. Would he ignore me or call my parents? I always tried to rattle him, but for once I wasn’t showing off. The first hymn I’d learned as a child wondered, “Jesus, my Lord, my God, my All, how can I love Thee as I ought?” It was a rhetorical question, more mystical than mechanical; but from the day I read in my Baltimore Catechism that I‘d been created to love God, I’d wanted an answer to the question, How?

The nuns in grammar school used to tell us that you could love God so much that you’d join the convent and ‘marry God.’ I didn’t know what she meant exactly, but at Catholic summer camp, I got a clearer picture. Camp was a piety blitz: daily mass in the chapel, devotions at the grotto, rosary in our cabins after lights-out. Spiritual aspirations ran high; dreams of joining the convent were as common as athlete’s foot—we were all potential Brides of Christ. One summer, both my fervent counselors made plans across bunks after dark. “I’m joining this Fall,” one whispered. “Are you?” She wasn’t sure: “Maybe if I were more in love with God…”

In love with God!—there it was again! Girls couldn’t grow up Catholic in the pre-Vatican II era un-scorched by the possibility of such a passion. For one thing, we were surrounded by God’s lovers. I knew their stories the way boys knew box scores: Agnes, martyred for choosing Christ over a pagan spouse; Francis of Assisi, stigmatized with the real wounds of Jesus; Ignatius Loyola, who drenched his diary with one mystic word over and over: tears; John of the Cross, crooning to Baby Jesus in his cradle; Simeon the hermit, for years perched atop a pole.

This was rich fare for the affections. Loving God, you found out early, was no tame thing. It made you say yes or no — but never maybe. It made you loopy. It ruined your health. Most of all, it made you feel something. How did they come by it? How could I come by it?

Sure that in the convent I’d find out, I married God during my first year at college, only to discover that in my religious community, passion for God implied coolness towards people. Of course, we didn’t ignore the second great commandment, “… and your neighbor as yourself.” Indeed we were resolved not only to die for all our generic unknown neighbors, but also (and this proved more difficult) to suffer Sister Peggy’s nasty quirks in close quarters.

No one missed the logic of 1 John 4: 20—you don’t love God if you loathe your roommate. Nevertheless, when it came to loving “creatures,” we found ourselves at a far emotional remove from the torrid love for God to which we aspired.

We were drilled in this odd theology: All love is divine, one in origin and end. In practice, however, people-love is a different breed and a greedy competitor. You can never love God inordinately, but you can love God too little by loving people too much. So you have to be vigilant: creatures can sneak up and steal the love reserved for God while, distracted, you make supper or service the car.

We tried hard to love others, including each other, for Christ’s sake alone. You had to aim x-ray affections through people’s skin and hit the One who alone made them lovable in the first place. If somehow you could by-pass the reality of embodiment, you could even licitly feel love for others: pure intentions kept your affections chaste, and chaste affections did not cheat God. But some of us never got it right, and others never tired of disapproving. Some of us sinned warmly, pursuing various attractions to unsurprising ends; others sinned coldly, loving no one at all really, thus attaining (we imagined) perfect love for God.

This painful affective muddle was foreign to the Catholic high school kids I ended up teaching. They were oblivious to the wary rationing of love going on around them. Whatever loving God was like, they knew it wasn’t like loving your boyfriend, your school, or your Harley. They also knew that if it meant sitting on a pole, they’d never love God. No one they hung around with would either. When I’d drone on about it, they’d object: “You can’t love a God you don’t see!” It crossed my mind to call their parents.

If they got romantic about God at all, it was on weekend retreats. Then, softened up by candles and guitars, they’d weep for love of parents, classmates, all living things on the planet, and especially God. On Monday, they’d revert to a normal state of emotional inconstancy. But they always showed up for service projects. Matthew 25 was the one scripture passage they knew by heart; and since the Judge in the story was happy with deeds of love, deeds were the way to go. In the daylight, the saints those kids admired did not weep or croon or pole-sit; they were all business, dispensing coats and crusts to the least and lost.

I left high school teaching and went on to graduate school, no closer than I’d been at six, twelve, or twenty-two to feeling what saints in love with God must surely feel. In the first month, an earnest classmate reading Andres Nygren intervened. From him I learned that human “love” for God is a false and blasphemous thing, hardly a Christian ideal.

Nygren had my number: I was all eros, no agape. All my life, it turned out, I’d craved not God, but the false rewards of experience. According to Nygren, I’d reduced God to one among many objects of human avarice to satisfy my selfish needs. Mortified to have made it to graduate school still desiring, I gave it up and hitched my wagon to obedient trust through naked faith alone.

It didn’t take me long to unhitch it. For one thing, I found that renouncing the rewards of experience was, well, rewarding. For another, I wondered why God, whose history with us is a trajectory into flesh and blood, would require from us a fleshless and bloodless response. But mostly, it just seemed silly to pretend that God was not in fact attractive (I was now reading Augustine).

I relapsed completely while writing a dissertation on the 16th-century Spanish mystic, Teresa of Avila. You’d be hard-pressed to find a saint more in love with God than Teresa. While Spain’s top bishop did time in the Inquisition’s jail for preaching that Christians could be friends with God, she was practicing spousal mysticism, exposing flustered nuns to the Song of Songs, and frightening confessors with reports of angels penetrating her heart (her heart?) with hot flaming darts.

Teresa would be easy to dismiss had she not also been so surprisingly averse to the idea that loving God is exhausted in such experiences. In good monastic fashion, she taught that you can’t build anything sturdy on the base of experience alone. Feelings are fickle, easily induced and easily manipulated. Experiences are overrated, a dime a dozen. Whenever one of her goose-bumpy novices, languid with love and hoping to levitate, tried making permanent camp in the chapel, a no-nonsense Teresa laid down the law—nix the theatrics, eat something solid, and go help out in the laundry.

Yet Teresa came down even harder on the idea that loving God has nothing to do with experience. She was never convinced that trust, obedience, and service cover the whole territory of love. To love by doing good was essential, but by itself it was too small an ambition for people who have been saved by God’s passion. So she taught the nuns also to love God explicitly, to unleash their hearts. To be sure, she also taught them humility, theology, and discernment; and she created a demanding communal life and required obedience to the hierarchy—all traditional safeguards against self-deception. But the most important thing she taught them was not to be afraid, not of feelings for God, not of feelings for each other (she herself tended to sin warmly).

Finishing graduate school, I began teaching in a Protestant seminary. Soon afterwards—Nygren notwithstanding—I became a Protestant myself. I still hoped to love God passionately some day, but by then I’d decided that steadfastly hoping for such a love was itself a pretty good way of loving, and that it would have to be enough. Now and then, however, I felt compelled to conduct comparative spot-checks among unsuspecting seminarians. They’d come in to consult about a paper or a course selection, and I’d ask, “Do you love God?”

Most said yes, but not without qualifications (“Well, yes, if what you mean by love is…”). Others spoke of awe at the natural world or at the birth of a child or other blessings in their lives. Only rarely did anyone speak of explicit feelings for God. Now, these were the same students who never said “think” if they could say “feel,” and who let you know their “comfort levels” with everything from classroom temperature to creedal affirmations. Why were they so diffident when it came to God?

Some, I imagine, were protecting themselves, and rightly so; how they felt about God was in fact none of my business. Others said they were afraid of sounding flaky. It was clear that they had no serviceable language for what they may have felt. One woman told me that the church she grew up in was still mortified by outbreaks of enthusiasm in previous centuries and newly anxious about the high number of Catholics, with their propensity for “smells and bells,” now joining the congregation. Speaking about or showing signs of passion for God in that church was to invite polite but effective ostracism.

I especially remember one frank young man who said he loved God the way his late father had loved his family: his wife and kids rarely saw him, yet they knew he cared because he worked hard and provided well. Shouldn’t that be enough? Aware of my own lack of sacred diligence, I dissembled and said I wasn’t sure. But I am sure: it may be enough, but it’s not all there is.

A few years ago I led a program for a church group about loving God. A middle-aged pastor at one session complained that it was much ado about nothing. “Navel-gazing” was his verdict on the heart’s quest for the divine (so much for Augustine, Jonathan Edwards and Bernard of Clairvaux). At my urging, he spent the afternoon free time reading the Song of Songs, a book he knew only by snippets. He returned for the evening session with red ears and a pained look, “What’s this doing in the Bible?” A sharp young laywoman wondered whether trying to love God after the Holocaust might be a morally vacuous enterprise. Someone else observed that a command to love is a contradiction. A thoughtful denominational leader wondered whether love for God is best conceived as a corporate activity — the whole church loves; the individual members participate in Christ’s perfect love for God.

Most of the participants agreed finally that loving God explicitly (with or without feelings) is probably required if Christian life is to be more than “anonymous monotheism,” in Jesuit ethicist Ed Vacek’s words. They also agreed that it’s easier to talk about God’s love for us and our love for self and neighbor than it is to get a fix on love for God. Even though the famous verses of John’s first letter teach that love for God is both inseparable and distinct from love for neighbor, we had to acknowledge that the modern habit is always to collapse the former into the latter. Inseparability then gives way to substitution, and the result is near-silence about the one thing necessary. Vacek calls it “the eclipse of love for God.”

When I first read that scary phrase, I tried counting the sermons on loving God I’d heard in the last 15 years. I couldn’t recall even one. A cursory check through a theological library’s holdings did turn up a scholarly book (Vacek’s), a dissertation, a published sermon. That was all. I had to strain hard for sounds of recent mainline reflection on keeping the great commandment. Independently, a pewmate noticed this hush too. After another in a series of fine sermons about Christian obligation in the world, he sighed, “OK, I think I know what I’m supposed to do. What I’d really like now is to know the God who wants me to do it.”

So how do you meet, know, even fall in love with God? Well, over the years I’ve learned this much from the classics and the saints: Loving God is not any one thing. As Roberta Bondi observes in a slim but juicy book on prayer, people love God differently, employing “incalculably numerous expressions” over a lifetime.

Astute Christians will say this too: love for God in any form is God’s initiative, a divine gift. If we love at all, the New Testament says, it’s because God loved us first—although as much as I believe that to be true, I’m not sure it’s much practical help. In that church group I led, the idea that love is a gift was kind of a conversation-stopper. After all, when something’s a gift, you might be given it, or you might not. More bewildering than a command to love or a hot angelic arrow to the heart is the prospect that God is going about whimsically wooing some people, but not others.

Fortunately, the same New Testament that says love is a gift also tells us it’s universally available, and that God does not consider it excessively forward of human beings to ask for it. If we want to love God wholeheartedly, whatever that means in practice, we begin by praying. I’ve found, however, that persistently begging for “More Love to Thee,” as the old hymn goes, is such a no-frills, basic step that even sensible people sometimes skip it as they cast about for fancier techniques by which to deepen their life with God.

I’ve also learned that great lovers of God tend to have imagination and a lot of cheek. They create conditions of possibility for love, waving their arms in God’s face, as it were, so there’ll be no mistaking a potential target for grace. Believing themselves unworthy and incapable, nonetheless they expect God to draw them into intimacy. They put themselves in the way of every kind of beauty, knowledge, person and pain, developing reflexes of awe, reverence, compassion, compunction, gratitude, zeal and delight. They meditate on the gospels, exposing themselves daily to the ambush of Jesus’ appeal. They hang around God’s likely and unlikely friends—the precious folks, as Rowan Williams once observed, in whose presence you sense that what God promises is possible and in whom you catch a glimpse of life as it was meant to be. And if it seems like they’re getting nowhere, God’s lovers don’t quit; they fake it if they have to, knowing that God deserves even an “as-if” love arising from utter incapacity.

The canonized saints of my childhood fascination did these things and more. To be sure, they were often bizarre, in many respects utterly inimitable—even if you are so inclined, rolling naked in thorn bushes like Francis did is not a good idea, and Lord knows we don’t need any more violent conquests of infidels born of zealous love for God. All the same, if you scratch this distancing surface, you’ll always find more than messy psyches and fervor run amok. You’ll also find the hard muscles of heroism on behalf of the neighbor, some of it as subtle as a kiss on a leper’s eyes, some dense as a notion that feeds the minds of millions over time.

Now, my old saints uniformly attributed their formidable love for neighbor to their prior love for God. Without that first love, they claimed, no heroism or longevity in the service of others is possible. How could Mother Teresa lift the dead from Calcutta’s streets day after day, year after year, if not for love of God? But we know that this claim, although edifying, is not altogether true. Atheists routinely do the same, humbling believers like me who do much less.

We must love our neighbor if we say we love God; but experience teaches that the reverse is not necessarily so. Vacek claims that the believer is distinguishable from the atheist in this alone: one loves God, the other doesn’t.  And if he’s right, the next question is a terrible one: So, if the end result looks the same, why bother?

Don’t ask me. After all these years, I still have no idea. And I still wish more than anything that I did.

Don’t you?

Do you love God?

Muddling Through

the-prophet-elisha-cleansing-naaman-1560.jpg!Blog

–The Prophet Elisha Cleansing Naaman, Giogio Vasari, 1560

2 Kings 5:1-19

Years ago when I became a seminary administrator, a colleague at another school gave me some advice about dealing with the faculty: “Always remember, faculty members are people; and even when they have Ph. D.’s, publishing records as long as your arm, and noble religious motives, they still tend to act out of simple self-interest. So when you want them to do something, bank on the fact that they’ll invariably ask themselves, ‘What’s in it for me?’ If you figure out the answer before you approach them, you’ll go far in this business.” In other words, my job was to outfox self-centered intellectuals bent on advancing their own agendas!

Now, this struck me as pretty cynical, and it didn’t take me long to discover that it was not right: it was only partly right. If people acted only from self-interest all the time, it would indeed be easy to deal with them. But things are more complicated than that. It turns out that not only members of seminary faculties but all of us as well are motivated by a bewildering array of convictions, internal contradictions, needs, and frisky passions, many of which we are unaware of, cannot name, or don’t care to, and some of which, perversely, actually undermine our true self-interest.

Given this maze of self-asserting and self-subverting motivations, sometimes the most you can do as a leader is create conditions in which people can muddle along towards the goal the best they can, intervening only occasionally to keep them on track. Thus will the ragged human convoy of high-minded posturing, insecurity, piqued honor, hurt feelings, good humor, intelligence, and good will eventually wend its way to insight and accomplishment. The trick is not so much to outfox as to outwait.

I could have learned all this a lot sooner just by opening my Bible to the story of Naaman.

Here we have a proud and powerful man making his way towards health, a restorative knowledge of God, and a new understanding of himself; but only by fits and starts. What is in his self-interest is abundantly clear: to find a cure for the disease that threatens his career, his place in human company, his very life. When we see the huge amount of capital he takes with him to Israel, we can only imagine the sums he has already spent on specialists in Aram trying to find a cure, with no results. When the servant girl tells his wife about Elisha, the prophet in Israel, it has the anguished tone of last resort: “If only the master would go to Israel…”

If simple self-interest ruled Naaman, his story would be a lot shorter than it is. He would have gone to Samaria and done exactly as he was told. But since there’s more to human motivation, there’s more to the story.

You heard his rage when the prophet did not come out to him with all the fanfare Naaman thought he deserved. You heard his contempt for the simplicity of the plan, his haughty dismissal of the river Jordan. Where he comes from, the people are better-behaved, rivers course through their channels with power and beauty, and the gods are charming and sophisticated. Never mind that there was no cure for him there; Naaman craves respect even more than he craves health. He is so sure he knows what is right and fitting, so certain of what should happen, that he almost refuses the gift God is preparing to give him.

Almost, but not quite. Because it seems that God really wants him. And God’s mercy will wait him out. When Naaman doesn’t get the flashy respect he thinks is his due, God does not close the door on the offer of health, but lets Naaman go off to vent and strut. No lightning bolt consumes the pagan general in mid-rant, no disapproving angel descends to warn him off his temerious display of pique. God abides the tantrum until Naaman rids himself of our common human propensity to work hard against our own good. And when the servants appeal to the general again, when he finally relents and obeys them, we begin to glimpse in him what God has seen all along, a man of faith.

For we’d be wrong if we regarded his healing and conversion as something sudden, a shocking miracle. What God outwaited in the story of Naaman was not just the tantrum he threw when he felt dissed; what God patiently awaited was the fitful progress of a transformation that had been advancing well before Namaan set foot on the soil of Samaria or waded into the puny Jordan.

When, back in his own house, the great warrior stooped to accept advice from women, God’s grace entered that slender opening, germinated in him, and began its wait.

When this loyal Aramean subdued what must have been revulsion at the idea of asking for help from an enemy, the grace of that enemy’s God widened the fissure in his soul a little more, made even more room in his heart for wholeness.

When he gave up his rage, overcame his sense of entitlement, relinquished his sophistication, surrendered to his own servants, and headed humbly for the water, his healing was already well underway.

Long before Naaman waded out into the Jordan, God had already established a pulse of faith in him—an irregular one, perhaps, and weak; but enough of a pulse not to be arrested by his prideful rage. When the mighty Naaman finally decides to give the prophet’s cure a chance, he is already far enough along in his healing that there isn’t a lot more for the disagreeable Jordan to do. All that remains is to go into the water and meet, knee-deep in mercy, the One God who had, unbeknownst to him, engineered all his victories and who had, unbeknownst to him, always presided over his life. Once awash in this revelation, Naaman, “a great man” from the start, becomes God’s man for good, a servant of the Living One.

Naaman has come a long, ragged way. The man who derided the unappealing river and the bush league prophets of Israel now goes home with mule-packs full of Israel’s soil, so that back in Aram he may spread it our, kneel down on it, and worship God on holy ground.

Now, I would be deceiving you if I told you that this is the end of his story. But while we live, healing is always a work in progress, our lives are always unfolding, new afflictions come at us from the outside and eat away at us from within; and the great tangle of passions, weaknesses, desires, hopes and needs that impel us raggedly through this life never quits threatening to derail us. Naaman’s skin will be, by God’s mercy, new as a boy’s forever; but the integrity of his heart, the depth of his faith, the wholesome trajectory of his life? Well, that’s another story.

He’s come a long way, but for him and for us there is always an iffy road ahead. We will always be traveling back and forth from Aram to Samaria, from our self-subverting passions to liberation in the humble trickle of pardon and healing. We will always be tempted to spurn simple mercy in favor of some other more sophisticated solution to our basic brokenness. Our progress from self-subversion to graced immersion will always be ragged, full of fits and starts.

But the story of Naaman instructs us not to worry too much about our one-step-forward, two-steps-back advance on wholeness. There is such a thing as “progress enough for now.” God does not expect even the miraculously-cured Naaman be mature in faith completely and all at once. I think that’s why the prophet Elisha, who is usually very jealous of Yahweh’s prerogatives, does not hold Naaman to the highest standards after his conversion.

You heard their exchange: Naaman is sensitive to the fact that in serving his king back home, he may need every now and then, for ceremony’s sake, to go with him and pay respects to the old gods in the House of Rimmon. And so he asks for the prophets’ blessing on this unavoidable compromise.

Elisha could have invoked the first commandment and insisted on a no-compromise-with-idols policy. But he doesn’t. It’s almost as if God takes whatever God can get. Given the erratic character of our human procession toward wholeness and some of the deadly pitfalls lining the road, even the God who demands that we put “no other gods before him” is not as touchy as we think about a now-and-then concession to the status quo.

Progress enough for now. Maybe that’s the good news in this story for us, especially those of us who expect so much of ourselves that we become enraged with others when they fall short. After all, Naaman is no stranger to us. If we are honest, we see in ourselves all the irritating and endearing, weak and tenacious behaviors in this story: desperate need, consuming self-importance, offense-taking and feeling dissed, tantrum-throwing, pleading and cajoling, seeing reason, eating crow, giving in — and we’ve all secretly hoped to be permitted a few of our necessary compromises. So to watch God leave Naaman alone while never leaving his side is a huge relief. It is also a strong antidote to perfectionism, a bracing reproach to our thousand-and-one daily judgmental impulses, a real cause for gratitude and praise.

God outwaits us while in everyday weakness our healing begins. While we futz around in life, God locates the fissures of possibility in the heaped debris of our fear and vented spleens. God infuses them with tender mercies, and in spite of ourselves we slowly learn to breathe the Spirit’s air. We are not all led to God by miracles, but we are all led to God by grace.

We will never approach the river of wholeness except “the best we can,” which is not that great all the time, Nonetheless, we are going to that river, whatever the reason or unreason that moves us. We may be just muddling through, making progress in fits and starts, but we are nonetheless being drawn inexorably into the healing waters of God by hidden grace. And we are going to wade right in.

Knee-deep in unaccountable love, we are going to meet the One who gives us all our ragged victories and is sovereign over all our lives. And then we are going to get up and go back to our countries healed and grateful, carrying within us the holy ground of faith, the sacred soil of hope.

We are going to be healed and grateful enough; that is, enough to know that we need healing and faith. Healed and grateful enough to know that we will never not need grace. Healed and grateful enough to stop demanding that God deal with us on our own self-defeating terms. Healed and grateful enough to give in to the simple, humble, unflashy and unclassy ways of God.

Healed and grateful enough to believe that whenever our stubborn rage subsides, God’s forgiveness waits.