The Prologue to 2021
So here we are. It’s a new year, and after some uplifting psalms and readings, we get hit with this hefty specimen called the prologue to John. If the Bible were a museum, John’s prologue would be one of the exalted showpieces that everyone looks at and talks about whether they understand it or not. The whole purpose of a prologue is to separate the men from the boys. An effective prologue is so boring and mysterious that only a truly earnest reader will wade through it into the more palatable story that follows.
Unfortunately, the rest of John’s Gospel ends up being fairly difficult to deal with too. There are some stories, but they’re loopy and symbolic. John’s Gospel has been claimed by everyone from inquisitors who used a passage from John to justify burning heretics to athlete Tim Tebow, who painted the famous John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world, etc.”) in his eye black to John Shelby Spong, a bishop in the Episcopal Diocese of Newark who posited that John’s Gospel was written by a Jewish mystic, and that what appear to be Jesus’ claims to divinity are in fact his invitations for us to be like him, to have life and have it abundantly.
The prologue itself has been the source of dispute—was it written by a different author from the rest of the Gospel? Was it based on a hymn? Why do those few sentences about John the Baptist interrupt the poetic structure of the rest of the prologue? But this passage does undeniably set the stage for the rest of the Gospel—it uses many words that become themes later on: life, light, believe, truth; and its lyrical beauty sets the stage for a Gospel that author Richard Beard has called “creative nonfiction.”
Today is January third; we’re in the prologue to 2021. Beginnings are in fashion now. If I had a nickel for every social-media post I have seen about closing the door on 2020 and starting fresh, I could retire today. Of course, the whole new-year thing is arbitrary—it’s not like everything magically got better a few midnights ago when the ball dropped and the fireworks went off and the colors on the Empire State Building changed. And if our calendar was different and the New Year was beginning on February first, we’d be just as willing to close the door on this whole month and start fresh then. While I understand why people want to move on from this quicksand of a year that 2020 has been, the idea of starting fresh on January first is not new. Every year people make New Year’s resolutions, and every year by March the gyms are empty and the smoke shops are back in business. And it’s not just in the New Year; it’s not just in Lent: How often have you resolved to change and then slid back into your old habits? That’s one thing about working at LTM and the shelter. Every day some guest or other has a new beginning. They cut off their destructive relationships; they quit their drug; they leave their bench and start looking for work. The positive pattern lasts for awhile, and then, nine times out of ten, people go back to their old ways. Abusive relationships last longer than healthy ones; relapse is part of recovery, unless it’s just another relapse; the bench beckons more strongly than the nine-to-five. And it’s not jsut the guests; I’ve done it too. The number of new beginnings when I have gone into work saying, “From this moment on, nothing will bother me. I don’t care if people cut the line or the coffee spills or the volunteers show up late; today is the first day of the rest of my life and nothing will ever bother me again.” Pastor can tell you how well that works. Studies have shown that regardless of how their external circumstances change, people’s internal qualities—their levels of happiness, anxiety, and so on—don’t change much. This is not to say that people’s lives can’t get better, and it’s not to say that we shouldn’t strive to make the world better—it is to say that there will always be a need for places like LTM, where we accept people as they are without trying to fix them.
Accepting people as they are has been more difficult these past few months. We can no longer share a pen to sign in and write imaginary names on the sign-in sheet; we can no longer wrestle, hug, sit and talk for hours the way we used to. We have this invisible enemy, the coronavirus, breathing down our necks. I tell the guests and volunteers: You have to assume, all the time, that either you are sick or the people you interact with are sick. Thus, you have to keep the mask on, give everyone space, and limit how much time you spend with people. It’s not a matter of fixing things after the fact: It’s a matter of working now with what we have. A paradox: From this culture of suspicion comes a culture of respect. What an awesome responsibility we have, to protect the people around us. A responsibility that, too often, we cannot or will not recognize.
John’s Gospel is sometimes interpreted as emphasizing Jesus’ divinity; Jesus appears in it as being above everyone else, doing impossible things like reading people’s minds and not suffering throughout the crucifixion. But if we are to accept that the Word truly became flesh, a miracle like that makes any other miracle possible. Theologians like Meister Eckhart and Thomas Merton have pointed out that because we are children of God, there is divinity in each of us. Eckhart says that we are not merely made in God’s image; we are called to give birth to Christ in our lives. Merton has written about how when he was in Louisville, Kentucky, crossing the street at rush hour, he saw everyone around him lit up. He wrote, “How is it possible to tell everyone they are walking around shining like the sun?”
How is it possible? I don’t know, but I find that hard to accept—it is difficult for me to stomach that I might have some of that glory in me, and it is even harder to stomach that the people around me might. But you know what’s just as crazy? The idea that Jesus could have been human. Even though, like most Christians, I was raised to believe that he was both fully human and fully divine, I was also told that he was conceived without sin. So, in my mind, he was a person who acted perfect, and no one acts perfect, so he was really God in a person’s body. While I was in college I attended a Baptist church here and there, and one day the pastor was talking about one of the passages in Matthew where Jesus goes away from the crowd to be by himself. Almost as an aside, the pastor said she sympathized with Jesus’ going away; the fact that he could get tired made Jesus more approachable. It was a small thing, but I remember thinking, That’s kind of cool. Jesus gets tired from talking to people. So do I.
Seeing things this way was a new beginning for me. But when I began working here, where you are constantly being asked for things, often by several people at once, it was not particularly comforting to remember that two thousand years ago, Jesus too got tired. I mean, you walk down Washington Street, you get on the PATH, you step out of your apartment and you see someone from LTM and they want to know if you can get them some razors or if there are any beds open at the shelter. You try and explain to them about boundaries, but looking at it from their perspective, boundaries make no sense. They don’t get a break from being homeless, so why should you get a break from helping them?
So I got really annoyed about this and started to think, I’m just a walking vending machine, or, more accurately, a walking Gap to the people I serve. And I had a talk with this amazing friend of mine who runs a food pantry in town, and she said, “You have to remember that when you go down the street, you’re a beacon of light to the people who know you.” This changed my perspective again. I mean, it’s so much cooler to be a beacon of light than to be a walking Gap. But even if you think of yourself that way, it doesn’t always help in the grind of the day-to-day. When you work in a social service or interact with people on the street, you are constantly asking yourself: How far should I go to help this person? Often, the problem is not that you lack the resources to help them: The problem is that you don’t want them to take advantage of you. Enablement exists. It’s a double-edged sword—most of the worst experiences I have had with guests have happened when I have gone too far to help them. Except for the even worse experiences when I have not helped someone enough.
But that boots-on-the-ground stuff is beside the point—all this giving out pairs of socks and becoming tired doesn’t matter to John, does it? John doesn’t care about social justice, does he? He’s all about the symbolism and the poetry, isn’t he? No—if any of these symbols mean anything, if there is even the possibility that in each of us exists an ounce of divinity, then there’s nothing more down-to-earth than that. Because that means we’d better wake up and start treating each other better. Perhaps that’s a beginning we can strive for. But how do we make this beginning happen without letting it peter out?
As I said, I’ve become disillusioned by new beginnings. But their very existence—the fact that we keep trying, even though we know we might fail—says amazing things about the human spirit. My favorite example of this deals with a baseball player named Tyrus Cobb, who played for the Tigers about a century ago. Don’t worry: I’m not going to ask you to find the divine image in Ty Cobb. He was not a very nice person. But he was a great baseball player. Even now, ninety years after he played his last game, he is considered one of the best hitters ever. Three reasons for that: He was a good athlete, he was very bright, and he was an extremely hard worker. He would do anything to win, from swinging three bats when he was on deck, thus making his bat at the plate feel lighter, to spending entire winters with weights attached to his shoes. Think about that: During the coldest months of the year, he would walk around for dozens of miles every day, with lead in his shoes. Why? So that when the season began, his feet would feel as light as air, and he could outrun everyone on the base paths. Now, as the season wore on, of course, he got used to it; his feet no longer felt like they had wings. But he went through that same routine every year because he knew that for a while, it would help him. He didn’t start out like many of us do on January first saying, “I’m going to put last year behind me and change my outlook, and my life will change as a result.” He changed how he lived first, and that changed his outlook. He kept trying, and that was what gave birth to a new beginning.
Perhaps that is a piece of the divine in us: the desire to become better. Not just to follow rules or get what we need—animals are good at that. But the fact that we make resolutions, that we believe we can be beacons of light, that we look at an ancient piece of writing and try to bring its meaning into our lives today—that’s a huge, holy thing. It’s a tremendous gift and a tremendous responsibility. There are so many people in the world; you are one of them, and you are connected to so many others. Keep your eyes open and your hands ready to work—you may not recognize it, but God is among us.