A Holy Man Lies Drunk Under a Tree

I'm a Christian apologist, which is to say I've taken to apologizing for being a Christian. Among so many non-Christians, the name of Christian is the name of bigot, judgmental fool, intellectually simple but politically dangerous bore. The perception is with merit considering the way so many highly visible Christians use and abuse the Bible. These thoughts are behind this post.

"When the student is ready, the teacher arrives," Lao Tzu said. Five hundred years later, Jesus said, "Let you who have ears to hear, hear; let you who have eyes to see, see."

When you're ready to learn, you will. When that moment comes, all the earth will become your guru--from the rocks to the trees to the birds within them to the tired drunk sleeping at its base to the learned scholar walking by with his head in the clouds to the millionaire driving by in his fancy car. What you learn and how depends completely on who you are, where, when, why, how....It's wholly about who you are--all of you--and you are holy.

The process unfolds in its time. Perhaps that's why great teachers like Jesus are also great storytellers. They offer stories and let their meanings resonate in your heart over and over again as you move through your life, talk about them, or even ignore them after you've heard them.

In this light, I believe the stories need to be read wholly--in the same way we live and have our being. Consider, for example, the parable of the prodigal son or the prodigal of the vinedresser. As whole works, they are stories about enlightenment. To look at these two parable as lessons about fiscal responsibility or fair labor is to miss the point entirely. They are stories about learning--you can and you do and there is great, mysterious beauty in that. What is that beauty? Once you are open to the story, you see it, hear it, taste it, and it is good.

Irish writer James Joyce called such moments of awakening epiphanies. It's the perfect word for this experience, I think. Literally, the Epiphany commemorates the visit of the Wise Men, the foreigners or the outsiders, to Jesus. Thus, the story of Jesus becomes a story for all people--outsiders, freaks, the sick, homosexuals, Jews, Hindus, Arabs, you, me, the drunk leaning on the tree, the little bird.

To read the story literally--to believe the Epiphany was no more than the arrival of three guys on camels with three weird gifts for a poor kid in a barn--is to miss the story and to take on an armload of fortune cookies. To see their arrival as an insight into the whole story--a symbol that breathes life into a mysterious text and makes it live for each of us--is to read with an understanding that all stories are symbols of our experience of the sacred.

The magic of symbols--demons, angels, streets paved in gold, pearly gates, heavenly kingdoms, the beast--is that on the literal level they capture something of the ineffable Truth of the spirit. To accept a symbol or a set of symbols assembled magically into something called a story is to accept a gift of the Spirit--whether Paul wrote it in a letter in the early years of the faith or Mary Oliver wrote it about receiving Communion last year, or Frank McCourt wrote it about the hoors of Limerick. Take it with open arms, eyes, and ears and your spirit will transcend them and find that Kingdom of God within. You are the pearls, the gold, the kingdom, the glory. So am I. So is the drunk under the tree and the bird within it.