At the front door he asked, “Father, may I speak with you, privately, in your office?” I was a newly ordained priest at the old cathedral in Dodge City. He had come up, a few blocks, from Highway 56, the Santa Fe Trail. Thirty years ago, the cathedral was where one went for assistance. There was also a state-run addiction program down by the tracks. As a young priest, I heard a lot of Fifth Steps from people who frightened me. They would knock, unexpectedly, at the door. My knees would do the same but without the door.
This man was large, at least twice my size. He looked a lot like the football-player-turned-actor Merlin Olsen, from “Little House on the Prairie.” Sometimes a panhandler wanted a moment with me in the office rather than the foyer so that he could assure me that he had once been an altar boy. That never influenced how I chose to respond, but it did cause me to worry about why so many altar boys went bad.
We walked back to my office. He entered and insisted that I shut the door. I probably should not have done that, but, remember, my knees were knocking. When the door was closed, he leaned over me and pulled out a wanted poster.
“Father, this is not me.” He struck the poster with his large index finger. “You gotta believe me. This is not me.”
Most people do not look exactly like their driver’s license photo, or, for that matter, their mug shot. Time has passed. They have gained or lost weight. They have changed their hair, or it has gone a bit gray. Yet it appeared that my burly companion had posed for his mug shot that very morning.
I could only scan the list of charges. Definitely theft and assault. I don’t think I saw murder, but then I didn’t have much time.
“Father, this is not me.”
“Alright…. This is not you…. So why are you showing it to me?”
“Because everywhere that I stop for help, people send me to the police station first. I spent two days, locked up in Wichita, because of this poster. I want you to understand why I need help and why I don’t want to do a background check with the police.”
“What kind of help do you need?”
“I need to get to Denver. Father, I’m not proud of this, but I got a little woman in the family way. I’m going out there to be with her, to support that baby. But if you can’t help me without sending me to the police, I’ll be on my way.”
“We don’t send people to the police. Let me see what a bus ticket to Denver would cost.”
Some truths we share with others by way of explanation. The truths of science and technology are of this sort. Explain the causal sequence, and, if your listener follows you, he understands the truth for himself.
There are truths that can only be shared by way of testimony, and these are the ones that matter most to us.
But there are other truths that can only be shared by way of testimony, and these are the ones that matter most to us. You cannot show another person that you are in love. There are not causes and effects that you can lay out to map her own understanding of your truth. This is never truer than when someone tells us that he or she loves us. Such a truth is shared only by way of witness, not explanation.
And that is the interesting thing about the resurrection accounts. The notion that someone could come back from the dead was comprehensible to people in the ancient world, but none of those who claim to see Jesus see their role as offering an explanation for the resurrection. No chain of causes is presented. The appeal does not rest upon reasoning. Instead, it relies entirely upon personal testimony. Indeed, the witnesses insist that, initially, they were themselves incredulous.
Our Gospels were written backward from the resurrection. Everything recorded in them is remembered in its light. So the man born blind, who none-the-less recognizes the Christ, when the learned ones, who have always been able to see, do not, is a harbinger for the testimony that would be offered by the disciples at Easter. He cannot explain how it is that he has come to see. He knows that he can and he knows who made that happen. His truth can only be accessed by way of testimony, not explanation.
Our Gospels were written backward from the resurrection.
That is how it always is when God acts. We cannot step out of the world and watch God act upon the world. There is no chain of causes that we can trace. God chooses David because God chooses David. God’s love is like human love. It is only accessed by way of testimony, and everything God does, God does in love.
Did I help that man get a bus ticket to Denver because he had explained his truth to me and I had understood it? That would require a good explanation for the uncanny likeness on the poster. He could not offer that. Nor could he prove that there was a little woman in Denver in a family way. But why pull out a wanted poster or accept responsibility for a coming child if he did not need to if it was not his truth? He won me by way of witness, not explanation.
We go to school to learn truths that can be demonstrated or, at least, explained, but there is no school of love. There is only the intensity of its testimony. Why risk all, unless you do love? The first disciples preached with an intense love, and that was also the content of what the first disciples preached: intense love. They claimed that love had risked everything on Calvary, that a new world had been revealed in the resurrection of the Christ. Then, they lived and died its witnesses.
Readings: 1 Samuel 16:1b, 6-7, 10-13a Ephesians 5:8-14 John 9:1-41