by Gary Swaim
I am pleased to briefly introduce myself, one of several newly selected bloggers for NEXT Church. Sadly, I have been able to attend only one NEXT Church National Gathering, in Minneapolis. I was greatly impressed with the spirit and content of the meeting, immediately locked into later activities of the organization and am hopeful I can present evocative thinking for your consideration. That is my role. I will do my best, knowing that I should not expect complete agreement. We are many in number, each different than the other, yet one (I trust) in essential purpose. My theme addresses one of my significant interests and experiences: The Arts and Their Insufficient Recognition/Utilization. And, by the way, I am Gary D. Swaim, Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Philosophy, 85 years of age still teaching currently at S.M.U. in Dallas and a Ruling Elder at the Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church of Dallas. And, I prefer to be called Gary. Below, please join me in the careful reading of a fantasy I have written for the first of my blogs, in the form of a Prose Poem and one of my paintings of years past (but painted for the ever-present).
No pretenses. No veil draping my face to separate me from you, you from me. Each word spoken, seen or heard by you, will be more than merely a word. It will be the stumbling of my Self, trying to weave threads, strand by strand, word by word, into the fabric of whole cloth, a shawl worthy to be worn about the shoulders of any who might need warmth. No pretenses, only bumbling efforts to braid difficult syllables together, for your understanding and mine.
I feel the fool speaking of God, and yet, I breathe this one I’ve learned to call God, every day. You see, I am a Job and a Thomas, a Peter and a Paul. I am, no doubt, a doubter, and I am doubtless a believer. I find myself lying in the philosophical bed next to Kierkegaard, and as I toss about sleeplessly, I hear him saying out of his depth of sleep, “It’s foolish to speak of God. No one can speak of the Wholly Other.” And, yet, he continues through the night, talking of this God, using the only thoughts available to him –human thoughts, struggling to place arms around a being untouched, untouchable, yet whom he loves. In the darkness of his sleep, he both lifts his arms to the sky where he thinks his God must reside and laughs aloud at his foolishness for the gesture. I am Job. I am Thomas. I am Peter. I am Paul.
I don’t think I can speak of God knowingly. I do not know God’s gender or if there is such a thing as gender in the place of God. I don’t know God’s latitude or longitude or if my God is a spatial being. I’m sailing a sea, expecting to fall from the earth’s surface when I reach the horizon. I’m lost. I cannot speak of God knowingly.
The shawl I weave as I sail unravels. And, so, I speak of the Wholly Other in faith, assigning to God’s being — Love, Mercy, and Justice, attributes I want my God to have in a world too often filled with Hate, Reprisal, and Injustice. I cannot speak of God knowingly, but I can and do believe.
As I quietly begin reweaving my shawl, I see Jesus. It is He who offers me calmness and increased understanding, as should be so. The weaving, after all, takes a more substantive shape, one I begin to recognize. It has the face of a child which grows into the face of a man, a complexion most unlike my own, and it (he?) speaks a language I cannot comprehend. Yet, I understand, and though I have only suggestive evidence of his walking this earth, I believe – even as I believe in a Sophocles I have never seen.
Of the numerous stories I know, it is the stories of Jesus touching the lives of those surrounding him, touching those whom no one else dared touch, those at the very edges of both life and death – it is these stories that have caused me to be whoever I am.
It is in the Garden of Gethsemane that he takes my unfinished shawl from my hands and places it around his shoulders, telling me, in his own moment of sorrow that it is enough that I believe. And as he returns to his disciples, I see him in the dark of night remove the shawl and place it over a shivering, fast-asleep Peter who would later deny Him. Jesus knew. I believe.
Of the Spirit (spiritus)
I begin a weaving again, this time for the sail on my little craft. It has navigated about this world for 72 years now and has grown old and thin, not unlike myself. As I weave each strand, one into or through the other, each seems to go its own uncharted way rather than the way I might have it go, as do my words when I speak of spiritus.
I am told that to name Spirit is to name the breath of God. And now, I must capture, with aimless words, the masked breath of a formless God. I continue weaving but tire, as I know no words and stop my weaving. Perhaps something to eat. I’ll try. The day is extraordinary. Large and small billowy clouds shape themselves into bananas and fish and monsters as my little skiff of a ship rides low in the waters. No wind blows, and my old sail flags itself in weariness about its diminutive mast. I will eat and rest and will not worry about the horizon, still in the distance. I will not worry today. The horizon will be there tomorrow.
My craft is motionless in the waters except for the lightest swells that push and pull me into sleep gently. I dream of the horizon. The sun is setting, and my matted eyes cannot entertain its beauty or horror. What is just beyond the horizon? As my dream asks the question, I awaken, startled by a grand breath of fresh air, shaping my sail into the fullness of a sail made for an enormous frigate.
The sail seems young again, almost newborn, and the wind I cannot see pushes me away from the horizon, if only for moments. I do not see spiritus. I feel a breath on my shoulder I do not understand, pushing me toward the safety of the shore. I believe.
It’s under the slightest of lights, candles I’m almost sure, that I see a group of men (and women, too, but I’ll not say so if you won’t) writing with rapidly flourishing quills. They see what they write as through some glass darkly. Their hurried writing attests to the fires in their grain-filled bellies. “Write about Moses and the mountain,”
one almost shouts. “No, tell about how he separated the waters,” another says. “Jaweh separated the waters” a woman says. And they write into the depths of the night. Each writes from his or her own perspective, and on occasion, I think a breeze brushes over their shoulders.
I’m reminded of the breath of wind that filled the sail of my little ship and am made to think it is spiritus calling on them this night. Name it as you wish: God’s breath, the night-sharpened mind of a man or woman writing a story of what is loved, stories remembered and held close to the breast for the memory of a nation.
The words come from a specific time and place and throw only shadows against darkened glass, unable to seize, in spite of all the love and passion with which they are written, God, Jesus, the Spirit, or humankind. Words cannot capture the ephemeral. All is interpretation, even when loving and so wonderfully profound.
I hold in my library some twelve or fourteen Bibles, multiples of concordances on the Bible, books written from literary perspectives (novels, plays, and poetry) filled with allusions to the Bible. So much of my own writing, both serious and comic, takes its seeds from the Bible. Scripture (both Hebrew and Christian) feed the fire in my belly with questions to pursue and answers to embody.
Of the Church
As I sail rough seas, I find I am weeping, not from fear but from bitter disappointment. I have allowed my mind’s eye to drift over heaving waves to distant lands I have ever known (there is so much I do not and cannot know). My thoughts have traveled, as well, to the land from which I’ve sailed, my own home. In all these lands I see rifts deeper than the deepest swells in the sea that tosses me about. I cry out for smoothness of waters as I plead for peace among those who would worship their God.
I am not at all certain that Jesus sought to establish a church, not a church, surely, as we know it. The Kingdom of His life and love was to be in the hearts of individuals. I put away my weaving for now, as my old sail no longer requires replacement. It has life, the life that Jesus wanted for His followers, each stepping alongside Him and toward Jaweh with the surest steps possible. It is enough, and each person is God’s church, ekklesia, called out for service to the world.
As I think about taking up my weaving again, I contemplate the possibility of only one person on this earth, serving (or trying to serve) God and Jaweh’s saying, “It is enough. You are my church. We need no candles or choirs. We need only you and me in quiet union.”
Then, I think of the many who light candles across the world and sing Handel’s The Hallelujah Chorus or lift unknowing but believing prayers above the dark clouds that now throw shadows over the tiny speck of my helpless skiff, and my soul rises. Yes, my soul that I cannot see, but that I believe drives my Being. I take time to pray with thanks for the church and start weaving once again, hoping for a completed fabric that, with color and form, will give unity to the church across all the lands I have seen, great distances from where I now sail and in my own loved land.
Of a Sense of Personal Call
I believe I have been called to sail the waters of our world in trying times. To explore, to question, to bring newness to those who are about me (with the limited abilities I might possess). To seek healing where there is pain. To be present in all of life.
I cannot know specifically what God would have me do or be, so I must be open to possibilities, even as I must be true with those whom I encounter. I must understand also that all these things I seek to be or experience might not be found, that I will know my own short falls and seek reconciliations. Jaweh’s net is wide and strong. I must sail the seas, oblivious to the dangers of the horizon, oblivious to mystery. Oblivious, as Job knew so well, that we cannot know, but we can believe.
Gary D. Swaim holds a Ph.D.in Comparative Literature and Philosophy and a post-doctoral M.S. in Counseling Education/Therapy, but he prefers to be called Gary. He is a Ruling Elder and has served two churches as Pulpit Minister, sales representative for I.B.M. and over 55 years as a professor and two-time Dean, including his last 10 years at S.M.U. He is a widely published writer and painter with 5 solo exhibits.
Gary is also a member of the NEXT Church blogging cohort, and his writing focuses on the intersection of faith and the arts.