A charge to the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary graduating class of 2015
Guest commentary by Robert Hoch
Today is a day of completion. Of degrees earned. Of privileges and responsibilities accrued. Of strengths confirmed.
And yet for your charge, rather than reaffirming your significant achievement, I am moved instead to share with you two modern day parables, not about strength, but rather of strength won out of weakness, of wisdom out of folly, and hope out of despair.
“I am his hands; he is my eyes,” says Jia Haixia of his friend, Jia Wenqi. Together they suggest the first modern day parable, these two men from a small village in northeastern China: two disabled men, one blind, the other a double amputee. They work together.
“We are good partners,” they say of one another. Their work? Planting a forest.
One imagines, perhaps, something less ambitious for two disabled men, something with a faster pay-off – they get a small income from the local government for their work – even so, perhaps we think they might labor at something more modest, something less likely to be compared to charging windmills.
Their neighbors in the village thought they were crazy. The riverbanks had been barren for years. The villagers were resigned to the river’s annual floods, its destruction simply an inescapable part of nature: “Why bother?” they asked. And yet, Wenqi, a double arm amputee, and Haixia, his blind friend, bothered. Indeed, every day for the past 13 years, they bothered, taking the same path to work, to plant a forest sapling by sapling, to practice a routine as repetitive as prayer, and perhaps nearly as deep.
See if you can imagine them walking to work together: Wenqi, double arm amputee, leading the way, sometimes guiding Haixia, his blind friend, who holds Wenqi’s empty sleeve as they walk, sometimes carrying Haixia on his back as they cross a river. Or imagine Wenqi’s eyes guiding the hands of Haixia as he climbs a tree to harvest cuttings for new plants. Imagine scenes like this, repeated every day for 13 years.
They estimate they have planted 10,000 healthy trees and, of these, 3,000 have died. The work isn’t fast and neither is the pay. But then again, today, you see forest where once there was only barren land.
“When we work together,” they say, “two become one.”
Maybe even more than that happens: The village that once laughed at them now helps them fix their tools, water trees, trim weeds. They have even bought saplings to plant.
So often, we imagine our strengths will complete us, bring us wholeness. But what if the parable is right? What if God gives us weakness in order that we might find a better strength, the sacrament of mutual interdependence, a form of interdependence that makes broken people into whole people, and broken societies into reconciling and healing societies?
What if the parable is true?
It goes to other things as well, such as mental illness. Chris Hoke, a street minister in Seattle, believes “all of us [have] a fragile nerve inside of us, like a spiritual antenna deep within our core. Some people,” he writes, “simply have . . . abnormally large antennas inside – poets, prophets, psychopaths, your slightly crazy aunt. . . .” Maybe even a few preachers, present company excused, of course!
In his work with people in jail, or homeless street kids of downtown Seattle, he’s met a lot of young people with schizophrenia:
“I’ve wondered when talking with them about the abuse and the trauma they’ve survived, if some wounded people’s antenna-nerves are damaged. Maybe they are exposed, jutting out like a bone from a broken arm, picking up way too many of the otherwise faint spiritual frequencies coursing through this world – from beyond, as well as from the person across the room. I’ve wondered if some of these people slam heroin or meth . . . as a way of jamming cotton into their ears.” (From “Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders.”)
The problem, he says, is not that they cannot hear, but that they hear too much.
It’s an ancient idea that, in some way, the troubled are indeed connected to the spirit world in a way that “normally” functioning people are not. Like the prophets, who also heard too much, they cry out, as often afflicted by the acuity of their “spiritual antenna” as they are comforted.
Maybe that’s why Chris shows genuine interest in the voices that the schizophrenic hear. What if what they hear is more than illusion? After all, he says, Galileo thought comets were an illusion. Perhaps we too imagine knowledge at the expense of wisdom. Indeed, he wonders whether folks like you and I hear too little, not nearly enough. It’s almost as if we’ve suffered an amputation or that our antennas have been badly bent, damaged. And so he goes to the schizophrenic to hear what he cannot hear, to listen to the stories of people who, in the etymology of the word, are torn in two, one side in this world and the other side suspended in another, haunted, often terrifying world. According to Chris, most of the voices they hear are cruel. But there are other times, he says, when another voice seems to break through the crackling static of schizophrenia, a voice that tells them, “You’re okay. You belong to me. And I love you.” He writes that, through these friendships, he is learning “to pray, with broken hearts, together.”
These parables may seem extreme, but it happens more often than you might guess. Like many of you, I pray the Psalms. When I come to the laments, they give me better laments than my own. When I read the praise Psalms, they give me doxologies strange to my tongue. I am learning to hear, though I am deaf. I am learning to sing, though I am mute. I am learning that I am fearfully and wonderfully made, though often within me a sea of accusation roars that I am not.
Today is a day of completion. A day of privileges and responsibilities accrued. Of strengths confirmed.
Yet, however certain these strengths, you shall be different. By God’s grace, you shall win wisdom from folly. And strength from weakness. You will see not merely with creaturely light, but with the uncreated light of God’s own holy illuminations, with this light you will see.
See the marks in your hands. See the wounds you carry in your heart. Hear the voice that sings our names against the crackling static of self-accusation, self-doubt, and shame: “I love you. You are mine. You shall pass through waters, through fire, through storm. But none of them will touch you. For you are mine and I have called you by name.”
The One who speaks these words is the Crucified and Risen Lord. By God’s grace, we will hear him.
May it be so for all of us. And may it be for you. Amen.
ROBERT HOCH was born in Fairbanks, Alaska. Growing up, he asked his step-father about whether it was “love at first sight” when he met his mother, an Alaska Native: “No,” he answered, “not really. She knew I had a moose in the deep freeze, so she figured she would have enough to feed you and her through the winter.” Maybe we should rephrase the saying to subsistence at first sight. Robert’s writing reflects something of the spirit of this story: earthy, humorous, occasionally heart-breaking, but always hopeful. He is ordained as a teaching elder in the PC(USA) and serves as a theological educator at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. His most recent major publication “By the Rivers of Babylon: Blueprint for a Church in Exile” lifts up the symbols of the church as exilic community.