One of my best Christmas presents is a book from my son and his wife, The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles. Wonderful storyteller that he is, Towles takes us on a lively meandering venture from rural Nebraska (where my roots are) to New York City (where I studied). Protagonists in the narrative are two brothers, the older Emmett, the younger Billy. Billy is a genuine, most discerning innocent. He has been smitten by a book he has read twenty-five times, namely, Compendium of Heroes, Adventurer, and other Intrepid Followers. The book, in short chapters, features adventurers from mythology (most especially Ulysses), plus noted inventors, people who lived life large and made a difference.
For Billy a high point of the story occurred when he, along with Woolley, Duchess, and Ulysses, went to the 55th floor of the Empire State Building and met with the noted Professor Abernathe, author of Billy’s treasured book. Amid their conversation with the genial affirming author, Abernathe delivered this most compelling oration that I take to be the most interesting paragraph in the entire book. He said:
But having confessed that I have lived my life through books, I can at least report that I have done so with conviction. Which is to say, Mr. Ulysses, that I have read a great deal. I have read thousands of books, many of them more than once. I have read histories and novels, scientific tracts and volumes of poetry. And from all of these pages upon pages, one thing I have learned is that there is just enough variety in human experience for every single person in a city the size of New York to feel with assurance that their experience is unique. And this is a wonderful thing. Because to aspire, to fall in love, to stumble as we do and yet soldier on, at some level we must believe that what we are going through has never been experienced quite as we have experienced it.
The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles, 506
Because, like the professor, I have read a great deal, I have paused over this paragraph. It is for certain that reading can bring before us the rich variety and specificity of human experience. But beyond that we see, with the Professor, that every human life is distinctive, and every human experience is unique. It is that distinctiveness and uniqueness that make for good storytelling, good imagining, good preaching, and good living. In Towles’s narrative it is the ancient myth of Ulysses that permits Billy to assign to his contemporary large, dark friend, also named Ulysses, a dimension of hope whereby he is freshly empowered to a new life after a life of failure and defeat.
Then I began to think about every human life being different, and every human experience being unique. It is so for every parent of a first child, for every kid coming home from college after the first semester, every high school athletic champion. Never before such a baby, never before such a semester, never before such a victory! My attention turned to the short narrative in Mark 8:22-26 in which Jesus meets a blind beggar. Jesus administers an ancient, Elisha-like remedy of saliva to the blind man (see II Kings 4:34, 5:10). Then the blind man can discern movement and shapes. But he still could not distinguish them. They all looked alike. They all looked like maples, or oaks, or cedars: “I can see people that look like trees walking.” The man is on his way to seeing. And then, “Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again.” Mark narrates: “He looked intently and his sight was restored.” He was looking intently like we do in a vision test to see the smallest print we can read. And then, we are told “He saw everything clearly.” Mark uses a term that is nowhere else deployed in the New Testament, “Plainly, clearly.” He could see actual folks. He could identify specific persons. His grudging blur had been overcome! All that had been required for his restoration was the ancient application of saliva and the transformative touch of Jesus!
It occurred to me that for the most part we see “people walking like trees.” We see them as statistics that lack specificity, identity, or claim upon us. We readily use our social-scientific skills to economize; we group and categorize and stereotype. We do that with people whom we do not know. And we do it with people whom we fear. For a long time, of course, we whites have just in that way categorized Blacks. They all look alike, like trees! It is easier to group those whom we do not know and whom we fear and then easier to dismiss them, denying them their rights and access, or eventually denying them their humanity. We do not have then to bother with them!
That of course is why stories count for so much. Stories are particular to time, place, context, circumstance, and person. Stories cannot be summarized. The blind man first could only see trees. Only later, after the touch, could he identify and name individuals. John O’Banion, Reorienting Rhetoric, has shown how our knowledge and perception are tilted either toward “stories” that specify, or toward “lists” that summarize and dismiss. We tell stories of that which we treasure; we make lists of that which is alien to us. Jesus enacted stories but refused lists. Jesus made it possible for this blind man to enter the rich inventory of stories, no longer enthralled to summarizing lists of maples, oaks, and cedars. He saw, rather, this tree, this person and, eventually, this neighbor!
I do not suggest that the touch of Jesus and the reading of the professor are equivalents. They are quite different in their claims. It is nonetheless the case that wide, deep, careful reading does indeed help us to see the multi-variants of creaturely life in all its richness. When we are not reading regularly outside our comfort zone, we are likely to organize our ignorance into lists and summaries that do not require further attention.
As I thought about the professor and “the assurance that this experience is unique” and about Jesus’ capacity or specific transformative interaction, I thought as well afresh about the ministry of the church. Of course I am committed to the role of the church as an advocate for social justice. It is important, however, to remember that this advocacy is not a social-scientific enterprise in which we simply summarize. It is rather an advocacy that is based on the deep conviction that every one of our neighbors counts in his/her irascible individuality and specificity. We do indeed need to generalize for the sake of policy formation; but such policy formation is for the sake of individual persons whom we see in all of their individuality. For that reason, the life of a congregation should be flooded with stories about individual persons who have names, even while we care about justice in the large terms of race, gender, class, and ethnic origin. We may generalize only after we have individualized. And after we have individualized with specificity, we can again generalize for the sake of policy.
There can hardly be any doubt that the quintessential specificity of congregational life is in the sacrament of Baptism wherein we perform, again and again, the mystery and the wonder of each person raised in grace and in celebration into the presence of God. In that moment when the celebrant says, “Name this child,” or some such formula for an adult, something both specific and cosmic happens in a dramatic instant. We become known in that moment within the community and in the neighborhood. But we are also known by the angels in the most remote regions of God’s heaven. With such a name, we are never again reduced to a generic tree but rather, as we say, we are “marked as God’s own forever.” We may imagine that Peter, at Pentecost, asked 3000 times, “Name this child, name this adult.” Peter surely never wearied of the specificity!
So imagine the church, when it can muster its best liturgical courage, can say, “Name this child, Name this adult”:
…Name this child who died in the Bronx because there was no fire escape.
…Name this adult who got caught in the madness of the insurgency of January 6.
…Name this child who was forced to go to a segregated, inadequate school.
…Name this adult massacred by missiles and tanks, under whatever flag.
…Name this child who organized book reading supplies for under-financed children.
…Name this Swiss adult who provided hospitality for Rumanian migrants fleeing north.
It is for this reason that we get the long genealogies in the Bible…every name counts! Thus we know the names of those who “came up out of captivity” (Nehemiah 7:6-65). We know the names of those who stood with Ezra and interpreted the Torah (8:7). We know the names of those who signed the covenant with Nehemiah (10:1-26). We know the names of the priests and Levites who came up from exile (12:1-16). We even know the names of those ordained to be deacons in the earliest church (Acts 6:5). In our rush we tend to skip over the names. In faith, however, we pause to name, and to recognize every one of them. We do not read in a hurry; we do not summarize or reduce to a sketch. Nor does the Holy One (Revelation 20:12)!
As the professor well knew, it is quite possible to dumb down and not read or learn anything more about the awesome variety of human experience. And then we are sure to make our own particular experience the norm whereby all others are measured. As Jesus knew, as long as we do not see at all, or only see “people walking like trees,” we surely misperceive the wonder, depth, and particularity of God’s creation in its manifold creatureliness.
A congregation might be a keeper of names, and a seer of individual persons. Such a community might regularly engage in a recital of names…of those in the news this week, of those who have contributed mightily to our common wellbeing, and those who have suffered the most in our common injustice.
Such a congregation is a preserver of human worth, an enhancer of human dignity, and a custodian of human possibility.
And all the while the world of power and wealth, of greed and fear rushes by with summaries and statistics, not delayed or impacted by the granular truth of another, different life. The names keep coming; we may stop and notice, a primal act in the formation of a functioning life-giving neighborhood.
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