Saturday, February 2, 2013

Love and Suspension of Disbelief

The diviners of the Episcopal Church lectionary have cobbled together a curious group of readings: the beginnings of Jeremiah the prophet; the famous passage from Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians that so often gets used at marriage blessings; and finally, Jesus teaching in the synagogue to a crowd, who are at first amazed, and then so royally ticked off that they nearly hurl him off a cliff.

My favorite part of that Gospel story is the last line: "But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way." That reminds me of the Mickee Faust parody of 1940s radio plays, "Jake Ratchett: Short Detective," in which our diminutive hero is surrounded by an all-girl gang with their guns aimed at his head. He gets away by simply stating, "I escaped that time!" No other explanation needed. The audience laughs at the absurdity of it all, and suspends disbelief in order to allow Jake to get away. I suppose we are to do the same with Jesus.

Suspension of disbelief, in theater, means that the audience must pretend that physical or time and space improbabilities aren't important enough to dwell upon. The audience accepts whatever world it is that the actors and actresses and the technical designers have created. This fantasy then becomes the reality. In some respect, I think to have faith requires a willingness to let go of critical analysis and acknowledge the unbelievable as totally believable.

It takes faith, and the suspension of disbelief, to be willing to accept that God would speak to one such as Jeremiah, who argues that he is not the best candidate to be the bearer of God's word as a prophet. Jeremiah himself says, "Ah, Lord God, truly I do not know how to speak for I am only a boy." But in God's reality, Jeremiah is exactly the one to be a prophet. After all, God knew him before he was in the womb, and consecrated him before he was born. And so God puts the words into Jeremiah's mouth, giving him the power to "pluck up and pull down; destroy and overthrow; to build and to plant." It isn't often these days that God places finger tips to lips to give people the words to say what needs to be said. At least, we don't, in our very rational and reasoned minds, believe that God gives us the words to say.

The night my father told me he wanted to die, I remember that he was in such terrible pain and he couldn't articulate to me what was happening. I struggled mightily to understand him, but his mouth and tongue just couldn't form the words in a language I could recognize. Now, I was not going to church in these days, nor did I pay much attention to God at all. But in desperation, I looked up at the ceiling, tears streaming down my cheeks, and begged God for help. It was then that I had the realization that what I needed to do was instruct my father to breathe out each word, one at a time, so I could get what he was saying. I gave my dad these instructions, and he spoke plainly, and clearly, to say, "I. Want. Outta. Here." I double-checked that I understood what he'd just said, and wanted to clarify if he meant out of his assisted living home, or out of the whole she-bang.

"Whole. She. Bang!"

Difficult as that conversation was to have with my father, it was also a moment of deep and abiding love made possible by the wisdom of God. I could claim that I thought of this idea to get my dad to breathe out each word, but it really wasn't my idea. The reality was, I didn't know what to do. The faith element was that I sought God's intervention into that moment to make communication possible.

When St. Paul talks about love being patient and kind, the love he is speaking of is not an emotion. It is God. God who is also known as Love. The Love that bears all things and believes all things and can make things happen in those moments when we just don't have the ability to speak words of wisdom. This is the Love that casts out fear to bring about peace and acceptance in a conversation between a dying parent and a child.

This is the same Love that was on the lips of Jesus when he riled up the crowd in the synagogue. He had just wowed them with his teaching on the prophet Isaiah by telling them that the prophesy he'd just read was fulfilled by them hearing it. They were enthralled, but then he told them the things they didn't want to hear: that Israel has had many widows and lepers amidst its people, but the ones to whom the prophets Elijah and Elisha tended to and visited were not Jews; they were Gentiles. This enraged the crowd, who were fuming at the idea that they were not as deserving of the great prophets' attention as the Gentiles. Were they not the loved ones of Love?

Yes, they were. But Love is not envious or boastful or rude. We might also extend this idea to mean that Love is not exclusive or limited to a single group. And in this case, speaking in Love means telling the truth about those whom the Israelites saw as "others." There are no boundaries when we are talking about the Love that endures all things. Because that Love is the reflection of God's very inclusive reality.

Our task is to enter into that reality, not just as audience members, but as actors and actresses in the play, and be willing to suspend...or even give up... our disbelief. That's when God's reality becomes our reality, too.

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