If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all.
-- Mk 9:35 (REB)
I’m looking at an artifact of my father’s, hanging on the wall, a triptych of scenes from the Sistine Chapel ceiling. In the center panel, God reaches out toward the inert hand of Adam, about to transfer the spark of life. On the right and left, God has his closeups, his one-shots: creating the sun and moon on the left, separating heavens from earth on the right. For some reason, the face of God creating the lights of heaven, the one on the left, seems angry.
He rendered those scenes in black and white, no grays, printed from linoleum blocks whose surface he cut away with special tools to reveal the figures. So the lines and shapes have no modulation; the terminator between dark and light is absolute, like shadows on the moon.
These majestic shapes of God, rendered by my father, are inseparable for me from my father himself. He still floats in featureless space with no visible support, ordering the firmament with his gestures and moods.
He was more than this forbidding majesty. My children never knew that he had once been a goofy man, clowning and punning, pranking and cracking wise -- a six-foot-four elf, gangly and awkward, who made my mother and me laugh till we could not breathe. Addicted to language, he initiated me into word games that left the rest of the family behind, sometimes in tears.
In his study I saw my first brick-and-plank bookcases; in no other home did I see so many books, too many for a polite single cabinet. They towered over me in various languages ancient and modern; but because they belonged to him they were my friends. I could not meet them all on their own terms, but was sure that when I got older they would speak to me.
He wrote his sermons the night before, until two or three in the morning, and while he wrote he would play Beethoven or Wagner, Bach or Brahms, Marian Anderson or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, at penetrating volume. And when the music woke me I would turn and go back to sleep, secure in the knowledge that the shepherd was awake and vigilant below, a man of God in the midst of God’s work. Schafe können sicher weiden, wo ein guter Hirte wacht.
But the faces of God in his triptych, suspended in darkness, are forbidding. Under each panel an inscription in Greek. In the beginning was the Word. And the Word became flesh. He made his home among us.
These were his Christmas cards to his congregation. Stern faces of God floating in darkness. Texts in an ancient language. He might as well have gone on to say, The world did not recognize him. It’s the perfect summation of his love and disdain, wisdom and folly, vision and blindness.
I imagine myself receiving this opus from my minister. What a downer. What are these letters at the bottom? What’s he trying to say? Who does he think he is? Does he even care whether we understand him? Some of those who admired him would say to me, he’s so much more than a parish minister. Now I think he was so much other.
I once asked him why he sent the verses in Greek. How would the congregants understand them? “Maybe it’ll make them curious,” he said. “Maybe they’ll read the Bible for once.” Every pastor suffers in the ministry, and he suffered exquisitely.
I could never get rid of this triptych, and now it hangs in my parlor. So well done, so severe, so sophisticated, so learned, so good for my wall, so bad for the purpose intended. I could never get rid of this triptych, so eloquent of him and speechless to the souls in his charge, because it speaks to me, and of me. I too love my books, and grieve for the loss of them. I too feel their call when I am too long away from them. I’ve been too long away from them.
No one compelled him, in his generation of ministerial formation, to take on the work that I have taken on. Nowadays there are requirements -- but then I suppose it was understood that if you knew the Bible, you knew how to give counsel. The thing we begin to learn on the first day, and continue to learn on the second, the third, the hundredth, the thousandth and again tomorrow morning, is that I am not in the center of it all. My knowledge is not the good news that might come today. My stuff is not the thing that is to do. I’m supposed to do my homework, then put it away and go to work.