“By them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great rewards.” Psalm 19
I’m nearing 65 years old now, and when I look back on my life it seems as if I’ve been a part of three wholly different eras.
I was a child in the fifties, when, in small-town America, the church was the central institution of our lives, the real authority, and life seemed incredibly simple. In America, we’d just won a war against bona fide evil. Tons of ex-GIs, my father among them, back from experiences they’d never forget, were looking for little more than peace and security. War’s madness gave way to the order of the fifties, everything in place.
What I remember of Jesus from that time is a visual image almost everyone has seen. A pale glow surrounds his head entirely as if it were lit from some unseen source, some spiritual iridescence from within because, if you’d ever harbored any doubt, what you are looking at is divinity, the King of kings. You know the drawing—Warner Sallman, circa 1940.
I grew up in the Sixties, when all authority—church, state, even family—took a beating. Somewhere I have a slide of a kid in a t-shirt, a picture I took on an anti-war march in Washington D.C.; on the back of that shirt is a fist with a raised middle finger aimed at just about everything.
The wall of my office bears a Sixties Jesus portrait, this one in a swirl of long hair, his beard bedraggled, the sort of guy who would have left on a chopper with Peter Fonda to find America’s soul.
I’m growing old in yet another era, one not so easy—for me at least—to understand. I have no pictures of Jesus from this era, but I see one in the attitudes of my students. “Jesus, Lover of My Soul” might well be their theme song, if it could be played on a keyboard. Jesus sits in a Starbucks Café, something dark and rich steaming in his hand, a sweet smile over his face, chillin’, working on relationships.
Which one is accurate? Go figure. The smart money is on the fact that we’re all, at best, fragmentary. Jesus Christ is always bigger, always more complete than whatever fantasy we have going.
Should we, like my students, think of him as a great guy? Should we, Sixties-like, hook arms with him and break up the military/industrial complex? And perhaps the most difficult pair of questions of all: Is he someone to love? Is he someone to fear?
There’s something about the balance in the diction of this verse that’s striking. I only wish there were a colon where there’s a semi-colon now, because I’m thinking that somehow the two sides of the verse go hand-in-hand. The verse reads like a bizarre highway sign: “Warning: Rewards ahead.”
Just this morning, I heard Jaroslav Pelikan say that one of the most interesting questions of the scripture, one that needs to be answered every decade or so—and maybe more often—was one posed by none other than Jesus Christ: Who do people say that I am?”
The answer to that question is always the same—and always different, isn’t it? As mysteries go, he is the greatest. But he loves us. Go figure.