“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…” (Jn. 16).
What would your life look like as a movie? This week I found out the answer to that question. Back when I lived in Boston I had a friend named Rick who longed to be a better surfer. On car rides we would talk about storms thousands of miles off the coast, the physics of breaking waves, our equipment, the history, art and culture of surfing. We also shared our selves.
After not hearing from him for fifteen years, this week he reached out to tell me that he had won an award as a screenwriter. He also said that he had recently written a movie script with a character based on me. Immediately I worried whether he would get it right. After the Gidget movies, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Point Break, etc. most people I know who really take surfing seriously despise the way surfers are depicted in popular culture. The stereotypes, language, even the style and the way the ocean looks almost always seems completely wrong.
Much of the movie refers back to a scene in which a surfing priest and a surfing atheist talk about “the afterlife.” The surfing priest in Rick’s movie is Episcopalian. Strangely enough he is writing a doctoral thesis on Thoreau. He constantly smiles and seems to exist in a constant state of total bliss.
In reading the manuscript I can see why. My friend manages to a half dozen different scenes from places we used to surf in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine. I have such beautiful memories of those days – gentle breezes floating through green forests, the summertime sounds of cicadas as perfect little waves roll in, laughing with friends while looking out to the infinite sea.
Although for me, Rick mostly gets the surfing right he has a harder time with religion. He makes some obvious and unimportant little mistakes like confusing an Epistle and a Gospel. The sermon in the screenplay doesn’t quite sound right. I think that the hard part for him is really imagining what it might feel like to be a person of faith.
This year at the White House Correspondents Dinner (2016) President Barack Obama teased Senator Ted Cruz. Apparently Cruz was standing on a court in Indiana and referred to the basketball hoop as a “basketball ring.” Obama’s punch line is “what else is in his lexicon? Baseball sticks. Football hats. But sure, I’m the foreign one.”
Getting religion right is even more difficult than using the correct sports terminology. My nonreligious friends think that following Jesus mostly means trying to believe the right things, to have the correct thoughts, so that God will reward you with what they call “life after death.” They think that I spend my days wondering if God really exists. They act as if I was convinced that dogma matters more than how you treat the people in your life. And these are the friends I have who feel vaguely sympathetic to religion.
For me faith is not about life after death, it is about really living before we die. It means being unconstrained by the persistent illusions of our time so that we can freely experience holiness. Faith is not primarily about believing in the existence of God. It is living in the spirit, it is existing in the fullest possible relationship with God. We encounter the spirit of God in the world, society and our innermost self.
- The Spirit of the World. In the Book of Proverbs we hear about how Wisdom (in Greek Sophia) or the Spirit of God exists in the very bones of the world. Wisdom speaks, “When God established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep… when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight… rejoicing…” (Prov. 8). In a world of such astonishing beauty we spend far too little time rejoicing.
Yesterday I gave a surfing lesson to a young couple in Bolinas. The fog hovered over the steep wooded hillsides. The sunlight reflection with blue patterns of sky and cloud in the wet sand was breathtaking. Ten feet away a sea lion surfed right up to us on a wave. We so rarely even see what is right in front of us.
In Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town Emily dies in childbirth. She asks to go back to one day of her life, her twelfth birthday. She discovers that no one is really noticing the world or each other. Emily implores, “Mama look at me.” She breaks down sobbing. “We don’t have time to look at one another.”
She asks to be taken back to the cemetery. “Goodbye Mama and Papa. Goodbye to clocks ticking… and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths… and sleeping and waking up. Oh earth you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.” She asks, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?”
- The Spirit in society. I definitely don’t blame my friend Rick for not understanding the spirit. Jesus’ disciples didn’t get it either. In his last dinner with his friends Jesus says, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…” (Jn. 16). The Greek word bastazein means to give birth to a child. The disciples are not ready to give birth to this truth. It has to become revealed over time
The Greek word hodos means the way or the road. Hodegessei is to guide. Jesus says, “I am the way.” Jesus calls his guiding spirit, “the Advocate” (the Paraclete) or the Defense Attorney.
The Stanford philosopher René Girard (1923-2015) believed that so much of our society is based on violence and that it remains invisible to us. It is like water to a fish. Scapegoating whether it is of immigrants, the police chief, your ex-wife, mother-in-law or boss lies at the heart of so many human interactions. We do not need the defense attorney to make our case to God. We need the defense attorney to help us respond to the prevailing injustice and violence of the world.
For Girard Jesus introduces something completely different into history – a way of seeing persecution from a perspective beyond that of the persecutor. This is not merely for Christians. Every person alive in some way carries this wisdom from Jesus. This is the impulse behind the civil rights movement. It is the revolutionary idea that ethics is far more important than belief. How you treat another person matters more than how you think the world is. At the end of his article on the Advocate Girard begs his readers, “The time has come for us to forgive one another. If we wait any longer, there will no longer be any time.”
- The Spirit Within. Christians like C.S. Lewis, Karl Barth, Søren Kierkegaard have all pointed out that the spirit which animates a person of faith, the “passion for the eternal” can be almost invisible to other people. And yet a tremendous strength comes from this inner spirit.
This week my friend Patrick Thompson and I talked about a mutual friend. He went to a great college, a stellar graduate program. He holds a prestigious position. According to all the ways the world measures it he has succeeded – and yet we wondered if he does not really know who he is apart from this.
The Apostle Paul writes, “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5). This is the peace that passes understanding. We mostly recognize it in those we know best. We feel it as we persist in prayer, as our connections with the spiritual world grow deeper.
I do not know what more to say about this spirit of God beyond how I have met this holiness in the world, society and my own heart. Perhaps another voice might help. I leave you with a poem about forgiveness by Keetje Kuipers (KAY-tchah KAI-purrs). It is called “Prayer.” I hope that that it helps you to recognize the spirit in your own life.
“Perhaps as a child you had the chicken pox / and your mother, to soothe you in your fever / or to help you fall asleep, came into your room / and read to you from some favorite book, / Charlotte’s Web or Little House on the Prairie, / a long story that she quietly took you through / until your eyes became magnets for your shuttering / lids and she saw your breathing go slow. And then”
“she read on, this time silently and to herself, / not because she didn’t know the story, it seemed to her that there had never been a time / when she didn’t know this story – the young girl / and her benevolence, the young girl in her sod house – / but because she did not yet want to leave your side / though she knew there was nothing more / she could do for you. And you, not asleep but simply weak, / listened to her turn the pages, still feeling / the lamp warm against one cheek, knowing the shape / of the rocking chair’s shadow as it slid across / your chest so that now, these many years later,”
“when you are clenched in the damp fist of a hospital bed, / or signing the papers that say you won’t love him anymore, / when you are bent at your son’s gravesite or haunted / by a war that makes you wake with the gun / cocked in your hand, you would like to believe / that such generosity comes from God, too, / who now, when you have the strength to ask, might begin / the story again, just as your mother would, / from the place where you have both left off.”
By the end of the week I realized what I liked about Rick’s movie script. The important part of a priest and an atheist surfing together is not a debate about what happens when we die. What matters is their friendship and the way that, for a believer, God’s spirit permeates all good things.
What would your life look like as a movie? Would someone watching it recognize the animating spirit of Jesus?
 Would it be a tragedy, a drama, a fluffy romantic comedy, a short cartoon or a long documentary? What actor would play you? The lyric from the 1974 Eagles song “James Dean” says, “I know my life would look alright if I could see it on the silver screen.” As I’m getting older though I know this isn’t necessarily true.
 Rick Groleau, The Tides of Fundy 11 May 2016.
 Barack Obama, “Remarks at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner 1 May 2016,” The Washington Post, 1 May 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/reliable-source/wp/2016/05/01/the-complete-transcript-of-president-obamas-2016-white-house-correspondents-dinner-speech/
 In the twentieth century we became much less confident about our understanding of the physical universe. We experience mystery at the very heart of this world of dark matter, particles, waves, forces and our observations.
 Thornton Wilder, Our Town: A Play in Three Acts, 95-96.
 René Girard, “History and the Paraclete,’ The Ecumenical Review, Volume 35, Issue 1, January 1983, pages 3-16. http://poenitzmentoring.com/uploads/History_and_the_Paraclete.pdf
 Ibid., 16.
 Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 6th Edition tr. Edwyn C. Hoskyns (NY: Oxford University Press, 1933), 149.
 Keetje Kuipers, Beautiful in the Mouth (Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, 2010). http://writersalmanac.org/episodes/20160516/