Children

WHEN THE DISCIPLES, overearnest as ever, asked Jesus who was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus pulled a child out of the crowd and said the greatest in the kingdom of heaven were people like this (Matthew 18:1-4). Two thousand years of homiletic sentimentalizing to the contrary notwithstanding, Jesus was not being sentimental. He was saying that the people who get into heaven are people who, like children, don't worry about it too much. They are people who, like children, live with their hands open more than with their fists clenched. They are people who, like children, are so relatively unburdened by preconceptions that if somebody says there's a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, they are perfectly willing to go take a look for themselves. 

Children aren't necessarily better than other people. Like the child in "The Emperor's New Clothes," they are just apt to be better at telling the difference between a phony and the real thing.  

- Originally published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words


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Chastity

MARK TWAIN SPEAKS SOMEWHERE of "a good man in the worst sense of the word." A chaste person in the worst sense of the word is one whose chastity is fear and prudery masquerading as moral one-upmanship. A chaste person in the best sense of the word is somebody on the order of a priest who gives up sex in general and marriage in particular so that the church can be his better half and the whole parish his children.  

- Originally published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words


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Charismatic

MOST OF THE TIME WHEN WE SAY people are charismatic, we mean simply that they have presence. Maya Angelou, Tony Blair, and Desmond Tutu all have it in varying degrees and forms. So did Benito Mussolini and Mae West. You don't have to be famous to have it either. You come across it in children and nobodies. Even if you don't see such people enter a room, you can feel them enter. They shimmer the air like a hot asphalt road. Without so much as raising a finger, they make you sit up and take notice. 

On the other hand, if you took Mother Teresa, or Francis of Assisi, or Mahatma Gandhi, or Nelson Mandela, and dressed them up to look like everybody else, nobody would probably notice them any more than they would the woman who can make your day just by dropping by to borrow your steam iron, or the high-school commencement speaker who without any eloquence or special intelligence can bring tears to your eyes, or the people who can quiet a hysterical child or stop somebody's cracking headache just by touching them with their hands. These are the true charismatics, from the Greek word charis, meaning "grace." According to Saint Paul, out of sheer graciousness God gives certain men and women extraordinary gifts, or charismata, such as the ability to heal, to teach, to perform acts of mercy, to work miracles. 

These people are not apt to have presence, and you don't feel any special vibrations when they enter a room. But they are all in their own ways miracle workers, and even if you don't believe in the God who made them that way, you believe in them.  

- Originally published in Whistling in the Dark and later in Beyond Words


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Chanting

CHANTING IS A FORM of high-church popery that is supposed to set mainline Protestant teeth on edge. It shouldn't. 

Words wear out after a while, especially religious words. We've said them so many times. We've listened to them so often. They are like voices we know so well we no longer hear them. 

When a prayer or a psalm or a passage from the Gospels is chanted, we hear the words again. We hear them in a new way. We remember that they are not only meaning, but music and mystery. The chanting italicizes them. The prose becomes poetry. The prosaic becomes powerful. 

Of course, chanting wears out after a while too.  

- Originally published in Whistling in the Dark and later in Beyond Words


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Cain

ABEL WAS LIKE HIS SHEEP—the same flat, complacent gaze, the thick curls low on the forehead, a voice like the creak of new shoes when he prayed. The prayers were invariably answered. His flocks fattened, and the wool fetched top price. His warts disappeared overnight. His advice to his brother, Cain, was invariably excellent. Cain took it about as long as he could and then let him have it with his pitchfork one afternoon while they were out tedding hay. 

When God asked Cain where Abel was, Cain said, "I don't know," which didn't fool God for a minute, and "Am I my brother's keeper?" which didn't even rate an answer (Genesis 4:9). Even so, God let the crime be its own punishment instead of trying to think up anything worse: with no stomach for haying that field anymore, Cain took up traveling instead, but lived in continual fear that he'd be spotted as a fratricide and lynched. 

When he complained to God about this, God gave him some kind of severe facial twitch that marked him as the sort of man you don't kick because he's down already and thus ensured him a long life in which to remember that last incredulous bleat, the glazing over of that flat, complacent gaze. The justice and mercy of God have seldom been so artfully combined in a single act. 

Genesis 4:1-16

- Originally published in Peculiar Treasures and later in Beyond Words


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