The Pastor

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They all waited in quiet patience: the pastor was coming forward. His old age prevented his moving with any sort of urgency—indeed, he seemed to shuffle everywhere he went, with eyes glassed over with the grey sea of time. His hair was more or less gone—partly from necessity and partly from age. He had cut it short when he had been roaming about, planting churches throughout the Roman empire. The hair that had not fallen to shears eventually fell from time and toil.

Now, there was but few earthly toils that remained to him. Joints riddled with arthritis, skin stretched tight from scar tissue, back bent as if he was carrying a large burden, the ancient priest had only one final road awaiting him, and it would be a brief one. His body was wasting away more and more every day—some in the congregation marveled that he could make it to the service at all. It seemed that if death was much longer in coming, he wouldn’t have a chance to die—he would just cease to be. All one had to do was blink, and he would wink out of existence.

The old pastor took tiny, scraping steps to the front of the congregation, the tapping of his sandals mixed with the shaking of his hands. A young deacon stood at his side, hand hovering above the bowed back as if he was afraid this frail, ancient man would step into some crack in the church floor and be swallowed up. The pastors fingers were knotted twigs—the result of years working in the mines on some god-forsaken island. Everything about the man exuded age; some of the elders in the congregation could remember a man filled with passion and pious recklessness, but now that sun was setting. Night had all but swallowed up the once flaming spark in the pastor’s eyes.

But for now, the setting sun took small, deliberate steps, until he stood in front of his congregation. Those who knew no better waited with hushed expectation for what was to be said: would he speak of the emperor Trajan; or perhaps of his journeys? Maybe they would even hear a story about Jesus—after all it was only a couple decades prior that the two had walked along together. The tension was evident; the pastor was oblivious to all of it. He stood at the head of the congregation and looked out at the church he had founded. From cracked lips came a single sentence:

“Little children, love one another!”

The words were spoken with much more conviction than it seemed the man should have been able to muster. Those who had never been to the church before looked at each other anxiously, eagerly—now the preaching of the Apostle was to come: visions of Judgment, stories of Jesus, convicting words and bold ideas—the excitement was palpable.

But no more was said.

Not another syllable.

The pastor began his long shuffle to his seat in the back; the young deacon returned to his side, hands at the ready—he would not be the one who would let the Apostle that Jesus Loved fall and break a brittle bone—no matter how irritating and confusing it was to hear the same line, week after monotoned week.

For years, since he had gathered two or three people together on the location the church now stood, the pastor had repeated the same phrase and nothing else. He had no sermons, he had no fresh insights, he had no variation. Just the same, single-line message: Little children, love one another. Some suspected that the time he had spent in persecution had broken a once-thriving mind; others said that he was merely waiting to die and felt no need to prepare new sermons. Still others debated on the significance of his delivery: perhaps he was using his succinct rhetoric to make a bigger point or highlight a culturally issue.

As for the pastor, he merely allowed himself to be helped to his seat in the back of the church and closed his eyes as the church began their worship. The songs were deep, slow songs that reverberated around the stone building and leaked out windows hewn from rock. No music was played, and none was needed. Some people exchanged curious glances; others looked slightly exasperated, but all sang nonetheless. As their praise hummed in dull, flowing streams, the young deacon leaned over to the old pastor and remarked quietly,

“Father, why do you say the same thing over and over again? It begins to become monotonous to some of the brethren.”

The pastor’s eyes remained shut, but a tightening around his mouth seemed to indicate a smile or sadness. He thought about how so many people had missed the brutally simple message; how they were so willing to argue doctrine and so unwilling to love. After a moment, he spoke in a quiet whisper that could barely be heard—even by the young deacon, whose head was almost resting on the pastor’s chest as he waited for a reply.

“My dear Polycarp, it was our Lord’s command.”

“But father,” the deacon responded, “Did he not command other things also?”

Now a faint smile could clearly be seen playing on the corners of the pastor’s mouth, as if he was recalling every incident where Jesus had loved—that woman dragged into the temple, that short little tax collector up in the tree, Mary Magdalene and all the others. He remembered his Lord dying for love.

“My son,” the Apostle John replied, “If this alone be done, it is enough.”

Around them, the music surged; in spite of the monotony, in spite of the confusion, in spite of the irritation, the praise continued unabated. The young deacon settled back into his seat and thought about what had been said. The old pastor remained seated with his eyes closed, dwelling in the love of Christ and passing the time until he was united with his old Friend.

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The Life of Tradition

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The motorcycle’s salute. Two fingers on an outstretched arm, pointed down. Symbolizing two wheels on the ground. It’s really a necessity; whether you want to or not, riding a bike means following the tradition of those who have gone before. And part of that is the salute. Two fingers on an outstretched arm, pointed down.

I grew up in Alaska. There are long winters that pour down from the mountains and over the face of the icy grey sea, the type that cram themselves though windows and doors and walls and into people’s minds. With these winters, the motorcycle riding season in Alaska is short. As soon as strips of asphalt show under their reluctant blanket of snow, the throaty roar of these two-wheeled animals emerging from hibernation resonates across the expectant mountains and out over the ocean. If they quickly retire to their dens, it means six more weeks of winter. If they stay out, it probably still means six more weeks of winter. But the season is short, so like so many bears shaking their fur free of sleep and lethargy, they emerge and brave roads speckled with the receding skin of winter. And as they pass each other, they wave–two fingers on an outstretched arm, pointed down–keep your wheels on the ground.

I grew up fascinated with this ritual, long before I knew what it means. I had yet to be initiated into this pagan religion that the demanded the commitment of its members, their respect, and–an ever present possibility–their sacrifice. Like Roman charioteers on their way to battle, or to the starting line at the Circus Maximus, they acknowledge each other for what they are, equals in competition and fraternity.

What drives man to do this? Why race down the road, subject to freedom and death and life? What mental process can justify the risk? The salute itself is an acknowledgement of the judgment that befalls the one who fails to respect the liturgy. Or who just lives a fragile existence.

I bring up these concepts of the salute–the respect, the tradition, and the sacrifice–because of a recent encounter with them that startled me in its stark brutality.

Every religion, can, in some way, emphasize a truth outside the realm of typical human experience. Christianity to grace, Islam to zeal, Judaism to justice, Scientology to inanity. The same thing holds for motorcycles. Sri Aurobindo once remarked that “God and truth…manifest themselves anew in whatever way or form the Divine Wisdom chooses.” Riding a motorcycle is no different. Existence is no different.

I bought my first motorcycle in Los Angeles. Riding a motorcycle in L.A. is the same as practicing any religion in L.A.; some are true to their scriptures but it’s largely watered down and commercialized. Relativism and consumerism’s dull teeth have mashed and blunted conviction and devotion. There are those who still follow the Old Ways, but they are, at best, a novelty; at worst–God forbid!–a fundamentalist.

I happen to like the Old Ways. I still flash the salute when I can–Los Angeles traffic has the peculiar ability to dictate when you can or can’t take your hand off the reigns. I still stop my bike whenever I see another broken down, even if the rider is picking his teeth with a bowie knife. As with every good fundamentalist, I don’t expect everyone to mimic me, though I often wish more would. Tradition is liberating. Ask Edmund Burke or G.K. Chesterton. Who doesn’t appreciate knowing the rules and what they are getting out of the deal? We have a thousand little religions in our lives, why not adhere to some of their tenants and learn to understand them?

Three days ago, I went for a ride. I was tired, and so was the city. The sky was a grey shawl over the suburbs; too apathetic to rain and too tired to shine. The world sighed–a woman kicking off her heels and sinking into an armchair’s embrace–and all were grateful for the break in the heat. So I went for a ride, looking for a park that my friend would often fish for carp at. I’d heard it was a restful place. I needed that. I needed to clear my head.

And so I rode, my hands guiding my horses, thrumming with the life and freedom and mortality of man, leaning into the road; straining to fly–where?–anywhere. As I rode, suspended between the earth and the sky, I danced with pagan tribesman in the shade of the mountain, penned Scripture with holy scribes, and knelt in agony at the foot of a hill, accented with three rough trees. I passed, blurring by, a streak of red in a sea of lights. And I headed for the hills ringing the city, the one place in Los Angeles that still feels reverent, like you’re a part of Nature.

I saw the other motorcycle about 80 yards off, on the other side of the street, coming in the opposite direction. I took my hand off the clutch and acknowledged him; two fingers on an outstretched arm, pointed down, symbolizing two wheels on the ground. He shifted into a higher gear without returning the wave and shot by me, t-shirt and jeans whipping in the wind like a standard defying the grey sky.

The sound that precluded the noise was soul-rending–like the temple curtain being torn in two on Good Friday–only reversed. It was the sound of bone and metal breaking, of plastic and flesh and life shearing away; of a mother crying and a younger brother shocked into dumb silence, unable to comprehend the pain that will later tear at his heart, with bitter strokes more real than if they had been delivered with iron or leather. The sun had just set. Twilight was shattered, streaked with furious light as the sun disappeared over the scene. The rider lay curled on the pavement, the car he had slammed into sat straddled across the road, the driver’s side crumpled up like someone had unsuccessfully tried to flatten out a balled-up piece of paper. The wheels of the motorcycle were in the air, pointed accusingly at the car they had struck, but it was nobody’s fault; what would it serve anyway? The driver shouldn’t have pulled out onto the road. One gear lower and it wouldn’t have mattered–the motorcycle would have been going slow enough to avoid him. Two fingers on an outstretched arm, pointed down.

I helped direct traffic around the rider’s broken body. People helped. More people watched. The paramedics were there almost instantly. The whine of a defibrillator told me they were trying to revive him. And perhaps a spark of life traveled–traveled down through broken bones and failing organs– and reanimated a broken and failing heart. Perhaps.

I’ve heard stories, passed down through time from Father to Son, of people being brought back to life when their bodies have failed and their hearts long before that. When they’d forsaken the traditions that would recall them from the grave; for the traditions are stronger than death.

It was dark by the time I sat atop the hills of Los Angeles. It was dark by the time I got home. The sun broke the horizon the next morning as it had for millennia. I breathed– beautifully alive in tradition.