I have a leather satchel that’s getting a little worse for wear. It’s sitting here on the bench beside me. It goes with me.
I wear jeans most days, and most of the pairs of jeans I have outlasted in these past years have perished because the fabric on the right hand hip wore away, was rubbed out, by her. I’m sure I have a twist in my spine also. I’m growing into her. The blue dye of my jeans has stained the back panel of the bag. The leather there is highly polished, hard, like the saddle between the thighs of an old drover. But the grain on the front is soft and tender, grained and lined familiarly, like the inside of an old thigh. Hard travelling makes the world harder. Maybe polishes it to a brilliance. And maybe it makes the traveller tender.
Like age spots, the rain has stained along the spine. Leather drinks in the storms; a pardonable fault, we all have our ways of coping—except for nylon, which has no give or take. Look, I admit it, I’m sorry, what can I say? I like to walk in the rain, I don’t make things easier. And yes, I will be the death of you. I will wear you out. I grieve. Sometimes I don’t know whether I can see the life in death, or the death in life. Like the duck/rabbit. But we are reconciled when I sit down with the leather preserver (Dubbin) and a soft old rag (usually broken-in underwear) and massage the life back into her skin. Working the Dubbin into the lines and grains, seeing the colour come back, like a soul responding to caress. You can tell if something has a soul by how it responds to touch. That’s the secret of the Christian religion right there.
In the bottom of my satchel are two painted wooden blocks: a blue semi-circle with white dots, and a pink rectangle with yellow stripes; a child’s toys… my son. He put them there some months ago. Not while I was around, I discovered them later, like little eggs laid by a duck/rabbit, like the gifts of God: unlooked for but causing a lot of grinning when noticed. I looked in my bag and grinned like a true idiotes, like a man who walks in storms with the treasures of a duck/rabbit slung on his hip.
Putting things inside other things fascinates him, the congruence of objects, the fittingness of the world, the possibilities of the inner… he wouldn’t put it like that but I know what he means. It is the language of God. I learned theology so I could begin to speak to infants: “the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these”. I love watching him grow into the world: fitting it, turning things over and over, pulling apart and hiding away. I love that he hugs me back, and sometimes pats me on the back, like I do when I hug him. I love that we can make each other laugh. These are the building blocks of a man made to walk with his Creator, who can learn to love this old leather world—treat her with care and be polished tender in his travels—and find the gifts of God in her soft folds.Comment and Share
Indeed, fully reliable love can only be the resurrected life of one who has died for the beloved ones. Contemporary society speaks much of ‘unconditional’ love, and is always disappointed. If I commit myself in love, I may die of it. If I do not, my love remains uncertain; if I do, it is lost—unless I rise again. When the gospel proclaims actual unconditional love, it proclaims a specific, individual love, the love that is the actuality of the risen Jesus. No one else can love unconditionally as does the Lord; not even the church can so love her members or they one another.
—Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology: Volume 1, The Triune God, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997). 199.Comment and Share
Do you remember the story in Genesis 19 of the family of the righteous man Lot who lives in the wicked city of Sodom? Angels visit, as the evening draws down, coming to Lot in the gate of the city and finding hospitality in his home. In the night the men of the city gather to rape the strangers—the utmost denial of hospitality—not merely do they refuse to host and provide for the needs of the divine Another, but they seek to penetrate and violate the most intimate home of this stranger—his body. There is no room for Yahweh here. Even later, when he pitches his tent in flesh, they evict him on the point of a spear.
The divine messengers pronounce doom over the city, they tell Lot and his family to leave to avoid being caught in the destruction. Throughout the night the family prepares to run. Lot tries to warn his extended family but they can’t see the danger and interpret Lot’s midnight urgency as prankery, mischief at their expense: they are too wise to run.
Day breaks. Lot hesitates.
Because of the Yahweh’s compassion for him, the men grabbed his hand, his wife’s hand, and the hands of his two daughters. Then they brought him out and left him outside the city. (Genesis 19:16 HCSB)
On this evidence it is hard to claim that the Just Man fled from the destruction of the wicked. He was extracted, dragged, torn from its bosom. (Doesn’t this raise a question mark against the fate of his wife?) The messengers leave them at the outskirts, urging them “run for your lives” “Don’t look back, and don’t stop anywhere on the plain!”
Do you see the family flying, fleeing, running from the city in grey pre-dawn? And as the sun rises, the giant shadow of Lot, the Just Man, flying away before him? And who can see what lights him from behind? The shadow dances to shafts of sulphur, the burning rain waters the city, the fertile plain, consuming everything: people, city, vegetation.
But Lot’s wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt. (Genesis 19:26)
Travellers to the region still encounter her: the woman, neck arched, fixed immobile, her stare forever turned toward the home she lost.
And the just man trailed God’s shining agent,
over a black mountain, in his giant track,
while a restless voice kept harrying his woman:
“It’s not too late, you can still look back
at the red towers of your native Sodom,
the square where once you sang, the spinning-shed,
at the empty windows set in the tall house
where sons and daughters blessed your marriage-bed.”
A single glance: a sudden dart of pain
stitching her eyes before she made a sound . . .
Her body flaked into transparent salt,
and her swift legs rooted to the ground.
Who will grieve for this woman? Does she not seem
too insignificant for our concern?
Yet in my heart I never will deny her,
who suffered death because she chose to turn.
translated by Max Hayward and Stanley Kunitz
I would sit here a while in that sulphurous desert beside the weathered pillar. And think of all those who have run for their lives—for their lives. And lean my head against her flank and try to gather the fragments of my salty heart that bursts against the choice: to look back or to live?
Remember Lot’s wife! Whoever tries to make his life secure will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it. (Luke 17:32–33 HCSB)
As Jesus approached Jerusalem, he makes the command to remember Lot’s wife the central injunction to his followers as he prepares them for the events that must occur in that City at the Centre of the World (Luke 17:20-37).
Run from your life without even a backward glance, lose your life so thoroughly that you cannot even possess it one last time with your eyes, lose everything to save your life—everything—even the backward glance. Just the memory, just one last look, gathered in mid-stride, to carry with me?
I saw in my Dream that the Man began to run.
Now he had not run far from his own door, but his Wife and Children,
perceiving it, began to cry after him to return; but the Man put his fingers
in his ears, and ran on, crying Life! Life! Eternal Life!
—John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Scene 1.
What a world is this?
Jesus offers no easy affirmations.
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