It’s amazing what turning 33 can do to the personal tilt of your own internal axis.
Mine was recently set adrift by not only the rather persistent drumbeat of mortality and back pain, but also because I found myself wearing sweatpants in the middle of the workday while my son took a nap. Normally the equation of sweatpants + a warm Wednesday afternoon + a solid toddler nap always = eternal life (trust me on this, I AM A DIVINE MASTER), but this day, one extremely adjacent to realizing that I am almost in my mid-30s, produced this sinking feeling that turned increasingly darker until the growing gravitational vortex began pulling everything (including a dynamite 2.5 hour nap by my three year old son) into the upside down from Stranger Things.
In the midst of my existential black hole, I had this sudden realization that much of my ongoing occupational discomfort stems (almost entirely) from the foundational narrative that what I am, what I produce, and how much my life is worth is tied to both how busy I am, as well as how much I’m paid for my ongoing busyness. So, as with this most recent sleepy Wednesday, when my phone doesn’t ring and my inbox has cobwebs on it, the content of a life spent attempting to help people (in both large and small groups) put flesh and blood on redemption, has little to offer a son who will probably have to overpay for (more than one) graduate degree that allows him the privilege of being semi-employed for the rest of his life.
But I’m probably projecting here.
Discovering (however slowly) that America HAS NEVER been a meritocracy (even for some of us white dudes!) is a stunningly difficult pill to swallow. So, as a way of apology to every OTHER people group in our civilization who were told to work hard, make good grades, go to church, and to pick our noses ONLY in our cars (where no one can ever see you, even at red lights in heavy traffic) without the inherited benefit of the right last name, pigmentation, gender, or public school district, I want to say that I’ve never been more sorry to be wrong about something.
Like Jesus’ request to doubting Thomas, you might say the one thing I have always believed in without seeing was American meritocracy.
I’m also incredibly disappointed to say it took me being less-successful-than-I-always-imagined-I-would-be to finally and only partially identify with the plight of the oppressed, but at least I’ve finally developed what Jesus always called “eyes to see” the breathtakingly prophetic work of people without the institutional advantage I enjoy as someone who began life at least somewhere between second and third base. These people, the ones who have not simply retired indefinitely after being told “no thanks, forever, and ever, amen,” are what we in the historic Christian community have referred to as, saints.
If you aren’t familiar, saints are ordinary people who do something so extraordinary we let them into the VIP section of human existence. Typically, saints are misunderstood, and greeted with fear (and sometimes a funeral pyre set ablaze because they talk directly to God in public), they’re ahead of their time, or maybe just so dissatisfied with their time that they refuse to live as if “time” or “culture” or “zeitgeist” have any sway whatsoever.
They’re like meeting living, breathing bottle rockets who pop and make everyone around them go “AHHH,” as I heard Kerouac put it once.
Like when the universally revered Saint Mother Teresa decides that people sleeping in garbage have something sacred to teach her about what it means to be alive, so she spent the rest of her days listening and cleaning up after them.
Like when the less well known Canadian philosopher Jean Vanier decides that people bereft of the cognitive and physical capabilities most of us enter the world possessing have something sacred to teach him about what it means to be alive; so he spends the rest of his days creating communities where these souls can love, learn, eat, dance, and teach one another (both able and disabled) what it means to be fully human.
These are remarkably (if not somewhat obvious) revolutionary postures to take in a world that views the Dalits of India and the disabled of our own worlds as somehow less worthy of our affection, attention, and admiration. When it comes to saints like Vanier and Teresa, I’m obviously impressed, but in much the same paralyzing way that I am when I hear George Clooney talk about his wide-ranging humanitarian work.
“That’s cool, I’m going to go eat at Chipotle later and give extra to the St. Jude Children’s Fund when they ask me to at the end of the line, so SAME!”
-Eric, of Knoxville
However, lately it’s like the scales have fallen off my eyes, allowing me to see the saintly work of ordinary pastor friends who resolutely persist in working in and for communities where their gender becomes a pointed political statement about the nature of who God does and doesn’t call to attend more meetings than seem reasonable during a given week. Or, when my teacher friends resolutely persist in working in and for communities where their request for reasonable financial support becomes a pointed political statement about whether or not those who teach our youngest to read should be able to buy milk and bread in snowstorms like the rest of us. Or, when my social work and therapy friends resolutely persist in caring for a group of people we only use as political props whenever mass shootings dominate the news cycle, all without fair compensation, good health care, or time with their own families.
In a world in which our value is clearly on display by the zip code in which we live, the number of bedrooms relative to the number of humans in our families, the dollar amount in our paychecks, and whether or not we possess the ability to overpay for competitive traveling sousaphone teams for our toddlers, it is an incredibly prophetic stance to take a vow of poverty in order to work for the collective uplift of human civilization.
The problem is, many of us don’t know we’re taking one of those vows until we try to buy groceries and send our children to college without the help of a STEM degree, or the right last name, or a gig in finance (like the rest of our “best and brightest”).
One of the complaints typically leveled at the soon-to-be-saints before their eventual canonization was, that in their very being they were undermining all of the conventional understandings of what it means not only to believe in God, but to be a living, breathing person on Earth. In the earliest centuries of the new millennium, people of Jewish decent in the Roman Empire, because of their strange customs, unusual religious life, and dogged persistence in monotheism (as opposed to the pantheism of Roman cultural practice), were the first “atheists”.
Atheists, in the sense that they refused to believe in the gods of the Republic, and to practice the cultural rhythms that make up life in Rome and her empire. Atheists, in that by their very physical presence in the world, they were calling into question what it means to believe in a divine order to life, and to be a living, breathing human making sense of this divine order in a starkly different way.
Their very physical presence made the “known world” uncomfortable, and their "lack of faith" was often blamed for famine, foes, or firestorms befalling the Roman towns in which they lived.
When I see people sign up for careers in the “helping professions,” as they are (sometimes pejoratively) known, I want to host not only a graduation ceremony in their honor (you earned it!), but an ordination service as well. Because when people choose to practice solidarity with the least, and the weakest, and the hungriest, and the youngest, and the oldest, and the sickest, knowing that they’re putting their own futures and health and children at risk in the doing, they should be reminded that their very presence calls into question an entire religious system built on the idea that God is the Free Market:
Blessing day traders and cursing kindergarten teachers.
Blessing engineers and cursing baristas with English literature backgrounds.
Blessing lawyers and cursing social workers.
Blessing wealth and cursing poverty.
This God constantly reminds all of us, over and again, that our “mistakes” in choosing “the wrong major,” or “the wrong field,” or “the wrong profession,” or “the wrong institution” are what got us into this state (both "middle class poverty" and "actual poverty") in the first place, as the God of the Free Market never makes mistakes himself. Typically, our learned respond to these sorts of reminders is a cowed back and a simple “you’re right, my dad did always say you can’t make a living as a teacher (or a pastor),” all the while reaffirming the power of the God in which our country and our families and our churches most believe.
What if, instead of being told to sheepishly apologize for our “poor” career choices as a way of passively competing for the table scraps of the capitalist industrial complex, we started owning them, and championing them as exactly what they are, a kind of salvation from a life spent believing that hoarding money and power saves anyone from anything? When people say our country doesn’t possess the “political will” to provide health care for all of our citizens, or to pay educators (and grocery clerks) a living wage, or to ensure that our public water utilities aren’t poisoning children in Flint, we aren’t experiencing a political issue at all, but a theological one. Namely, because we do not have the ability to call the God of the Free Market, and the very real mistakes this God is making, to task.
Into this moment, must step a saint, but one who is completely comfortable being called an atheist from time to time.
So may you, if you educate, or help folks get clean, or just clean up after them, or simply spend your life asking questions about why God keeps blessing the same parts of town year after year after year, may you remember that in order to bring resurrection into the world, things have to die.
May you come to believe that those dying things aren’t others higher up or lower down the economic food chain, but you, and me, and all of us willing to unapologetically place our own futures and 401(k)s on the altar of the world’s greatest needs. May we do so not in order to apologetically feed the ideology underpinning the God of the Free Market, but to resolutely hasten the death of our country’s deeply held conviction that those with the most mean the most.
May you, even if you aren’t “particularly religious” come to the realization that you are a priest, a prophet, and a pastor, and that your work with our community's most vulnerable has already been ordained by a God who sits with children, eats with prostitutes, sleeps outside, hands out bread to crowds, and dies with criminals.
And into this new world that we are co-creating with the God of Jesus, may those of us who know the names and the faces of the least, and the youngest, and the hungriest make their way, perhaps for the first time, into the light of a tomorrow characterized not by anxious scarcity but joyful abundance.
Heaven on Earth is what the first Christians called it.
But until that day is this one, may your stiff backed resolve and quiet confidence in the face of our culture's charges of "atheism," inspire the rest of us aren't there yet, to believe in something without first seeing it.
Because Jesus told doubting Thomas that those folks would be blessed.