A Pirate Looks at Forty-(Nine)

Yes, that’s right, as of today I am officially starting to feel…old. I know there […]

Jeff Hual / 10.3.18

From Leo Cullum at The New Yorker.

Yes, that’s right, as of today I am officially starting to feel…old.

I know there are some readers who will regard forty-nine as young, but please bear with me, because it’s still so new to me. A quick scan of the Internet this morning reveals all that I have to look forward to in the coming few years: This year, forty-nine, is the year that I am most likely to stray in my marriage. Please don’t worry about that; I married the love of my life nearly a quarter of a century ago, and she is still just that: the love of my life.

But there’s likely a reason why forty-nine is a difficult year for men in terms of extramarital affairs. In my own life, I’ve come to understand that men have a biological clock. I think men at forty-nine are starting to feel the weight of that clock. Next year, age fifty, will be my earliest eligibility for both an AARP card and a colonoscopy. How romantic! Then, three years later at age fifty-three, researchers have determined that this is the age by which a man has lost his looks. So, at forty-nine, the clock is ticking, and somehow, on some deep substratum, we men know it, and we are fighting against it, whether we know that or not. But, hey! I’ve never been this close to retirement! Of course, between now and retirement, my wife and I have to figure out college for my son, and the thought of that comes with enough angst to write a separate post in the future.

For some reason, these thoughts today keep circling me back to Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount, and to the so-called Beatitudes. Every time I encounter the Beatitudes, I can’t help but be reminded of that scene from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. Their Beatitudes scene considers what people in the back of the crowd might have heard Jesus saying, because they were too far back to hear. Thus, blessed are the peacemakers becomes “blessed are the cheese makers, or indeed, any manufacturers of dairy products,” and “blessed be the meek,” becomes “blessed be the Greek, whoever that guy is.”  It’s funny, but it serves to highlight a deeper truth—the silliness sheds light on the profound. The truth is that we may be hearing the words of the Beatitudes clearly but not understanding Jesus’s meaning. The Beatitudes are Jesus’s first public words, especially evident in Matthew’s Gospel. They are the very words with which Jesus’s ministry starts.

And, of course, as with most of the New Testament stories, there’s a language issue, and that language issue is what keeps me coming back to the Beatitudes today. It’s that the Greek word translated as “blessed,” makarios, does mean blessing, but in the underlying language, there were two Hebrew words for blessing. One was baracha, which means what we normally mean when we use the word blessing in English, a direct blessing or the blessedness of God. The other word is ashrei, which occurs often in the psalms, and actually conveys more the meaning of being fortunate, or being in an enviable state, in and of one’s own self, without direct conference from God. My interpreter’s Bible links the use in Matthew’s account of the Beatitudes to ashrei, which helps to begin unlocking the deeper meaning. “Blessed are those who mourn,” doesn’t mean that somehow God is directly blessing those who mourn. It means, rather, that the mournful are fortunate, because someone will comfort them. And that’s an important interpretive difference, one that finds special meaning for me on this day.

Just consider Jesus’ words through that interpretive lens. If those who mourn are fortunate because they will be comforted, the underlying, unstated fact is that something has to happen to make them mourn. If those who are poor in spirit are fortunate because theirs is the kingdom of God, it means something has to happen to make them poor in spirit. Jesus begins his Sermon on the Mount by highlighting the universal human need for God’s intervention, and so he begins it by painting a portrait of the human experience of suffering. The underlying point is that, at some deep substratum that defies demographic or economic labels, the common human life experience can be viewed through the lens of suffering. Now think about that for a moment. While all suffering is relative—the wall street banker who is hurting from divorce is not at all the same as the impoverished mother whose heart aches when she sees her children starving—but at the same time, the experience of suffering is for each of us nevertheless a very real, visceral, and cruciform experience.

And at the root of such an experience of suffering is the chasm between the way we wish things to be versus the way things actually are. We see the ways we wish things to be, and we suffer greatly from the knowledge that reality is quite different. And this is Jesus’ starting point. In reality we would wish never to mourn, but we will all of us mourn. We would wish never to be poor in spirit, but we will all of us experience it.

Whenever I think about this chasm in my own life between reality and desired reality, I’m reminded of a song from the early 2000s that has oddly tracked with my life. The song is “One Hundred Years,” by Five for Fighting. Don’t worry if you don’t remember it, it’s an old song being referenced by an old-ish guy, but stay with me. In the song, a man has one hundred years to live, and at times he is in conversation with his fifteen-years old self. The song actually begins with the man at fifteen for a moment, and like a typical teenager, he is dreaming of all the things that his life might become. When we’re young, and largely protected from the real world by the grown-ups who love us, it’s easy for us to imagine that the life trajectory established to that point is going to continue as it is into perpetuity.

But then real life happens. Next the man is twenty-two for a moment, and he is in love. Now the man’s focus, which used to be wholly on his own dreams, is entirely on the newfound love of his life.  I was in my early twenties when I met my wife, so in remembering myself at twenty-two this song carries a special meaning for me. After this, the man is thirty-three for a moment, with a kid on the way and a family on his mind. And when I was in my early thirties, my son was born and my wife and I were building our family, so the special meaning continues. But then the man is forty-five for a moment, the sea is high and he’s headed through a crossing. That’s when the song becomes all too real for me. When we’re young, we think the river of life is calm and that it leads to a castle in the sky. We cannot yet see the sharp turn or the rapids ahead. Google Thomas Cole’s series of paintings entitled “The Voyage of Life” and look especially at the one entitled “Youth.” Then consider the next one, entitled “Manhood.” You will see exactly what I mean, the very chasm in my own life’s experience between long-ago fifteen and today’s forty-nine.

This is what Jesus is saying in the Beatitudes, in a very veiled way. It’s like the old Arab insult, “May you outlive your children,” which sounds like a blessing, until you think through it. Jesus is pointing to the human condition of suffering, and point by point he is turning it on its head, from general suffering, to suffering for his sake and for the sake of his kingdom. It’s as if to say, “You’re already all of you acquainted with suffering, like it or not, and any human being who is honest with oneself must acknowledge this universal truth. Follow me, turn it into suffering for my sake, and your reward will be great, because you will find the kingdom of God, you will find righteousness, you will find a heavenly reward.”

In the Beatitudes, Jesus is talking about the real cost of discipleship. And his methodology is genius, because the experience of life and limitations that I have described is not something unique to Christianity. We can see such an experience of life in Judaism, especially in the longing laments of the psalms. Jesus’s listeners would have immediately connected the two through that word, ashrei. But we can also find it in Islam, especially in the work of the twentieth-century Turkish theologian Said Nursi, who sought to connect the suffering of his people with the secularizing effects of modernity. Such a view of life as suffering is also abundantly evident in Buddhism, it being the first of the four noble truths, that all life is suffering, pain and misery; and it is further conveyed in the Korean cultural concept of han, which interprets the experience of human life as one of grieving and resentment.

So, the chasm between human existence and human longing really is something that is universally human, but at the same time the answer to it turns out to be uniquely Christian. In the Beatitudes, Jesus is saying that for us such an impasse will be where the good news of God becomes real, because that impasse is where we are most likely to meet God in the person of Jesus Christ. And Jesus is saying this right at the outset! He is beginning his public teaching with this truth. He is making his listeners, and us, acknowledge the chasm, but as he moves through his Beatitudes, we cannot help but understand that Jesus will be there in the chasm with us. After all, he is the kingdom of God, he is righteousness, he is our heavenly reward.

It’s not that God isn’t present with us at all times, but it is usually only in the moments when we are able to acknowledge the chasm between reality and desired reality that we are able to see God, in the form of Jesus Christ, there in the chasm with us. He is there with outstretched, wounded hands to love us as we are, where we are, at life’s every turn. He is there with us to dry every tear, and he is there with us to some day lead us home. What makes Christianity unique is not so much that we worship one God, but rather that we worship the God who has gone there before us, the God who knows just what it means to be a poor, tortured, suffering human being, and who through the Cross thereby takes the chasm of our human experience and forever remakes it into liminal space.

That liminal space is where I am crouching today. It’s where I find hope. It’s where I hope to stay for a while, forever, and beyond.