The Riddle in the Mirror

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It’s 4:02 A.M. I should be asleep. I’m wrestling with an enigma, the one that looks back from the mirror. Shortly before calling it a day last night, I came upon the enigma, and having found it, couldn’t let it go, or it could be said that finding me, it wouldn’t let me go.

Looking at the clock next to the bed moments ago brought to mind the line from Chaim Potok about the “four-o’clock-in-the-morning questions.” Potok’s four-o’clock-in-the-morning questions arose from the dissonance of a traditional Hasidic Jew in a modern culture that does not know the Torah and the Talmud.

I brew a pot of coffee, pour a cup, sit down with my MacBook Air, and return to the enigma I met last night.

The riddle in my mirror

For now [in our immaturity] we see in a mirror [an αίνιγμα — ‘enigma/riddle’], but then [when we come to maturity] we will see face to face. Now I know in part [in fragments], but then I will know fully, just as I have been fully known [by God].

First Corinthians 13:12, GCS Greek to English translation

The Greek word αίνιγμα has nothing to do with dimness or poor eyesight (“now we see in a mirror dimly“). It’s deeper than that. It’s vexation. We are puzzles to ourselves, knowing some pieces of ourselves, but not having all the pieces of the puzzle(s). And the Greek text is better translated as ‘mature’ rather than ‘perfect’.

No question is more puzzling than the ancient question of who we are. Who am I, the man who cuts himself shaving in the mirror? Who are we, this evolving species changing day by day in this time of climate departure when the future of life on the planet is uncertain? Who and what are we becoming?

Sixteenth Century reformer John Calvin began his theological opus with these laser-like sentences at the tender age of 27 years old:

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other.

Jean Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion

How I came to see life is rooted in this theological tradition. Like the characters of Potok’s novels who feel alone wrestling with the ancient Hebrew texts (Torah and Talmud), in one hand, and the culture of a very different time and place, those of us who still get up early in the morning with excitement of exploring an ancient Greek text highjacked by the Christian Right often feel placeless. Vexation is not popular, but, like Chaim Potok, I tell myself that wrestling with the riddle is who we are.

The face of my father

Looking in the mirror, I know less than I once thought, about the huge vexing questions of 2019. I’ll never have all the pieces or solve the enigma, but I do have some guiding fragments. I see my father’s kindly face looking back at me and reach up to the bookshelf to fetch the Bible which contains a pearl of great price: the prayer written by his own hand in pencil:

photo of prayer by Kenneth Campbell Stewart (my father) written in his Bible in pencil.

O Thou before whom ages pass away like minutes and in whose sight the mighty hosts of men are like a sparrow in the hand, keep our faith strong in Thee, confidence unshaken — Give clear insight as [we] face the days ahead. Help us so to entrust ourselves to Thy hands that in the awareness of Thy faithfulness we find all the security we need and in Thy service all our peace.

Elijah Cummings

Then the news broke in that Elijah Cummings died at approximately 2:45 A.M. this morning at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore. Congressman Cummings was a man of deep faith, a beacon of compassion and integrity who spoke kindly words of hope to Michael Cohen about the power of forgiving grace while chairing a House of Representatives Oversight Committee hearing. Elijah Cummings died in the city he loved and served as a public servant in service to his Lord.

First Corinthians 13 concludes with words of consolation and hope, the clue to living the riddle. “So faith, hope, and love abide, but the greatest of these is love.”

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 17, 2019

Habits and Inspiration

I’ve never been a big fan of habits. In spite of what Octavia Butler believes — “Habit will sustain you, whether inspired or not” — I have scorned habits in favor of a more creative, spontaneous, non-habitual life. But this morning I came to my senses. I’ve not been inspired, and I’ve gotten out of a habit that sometimes brings inspiration.

Elijah joy IMG_9566

Elijah

I’ve felt like the psalmist . . .  or like poor little Elijah just 24 hours ago when he couldn’t keep anything down. Not even the Gatorade. When a joyful 19 month-old child gets sick, he doesn’t know what hit him. Sometimes his 76 year-old grandfather doesn’t know either.

Some viruses can’t be seen under a microscope. Some illnesses require more than an Internist’s diagnosis. Their origins defy medical explanation and resist our usual remedies: a stiff drink, an anti-depressant, vitamin and mineral supplements, exercise, or a change of diet. Which is where habits come in.

It’s been weeks since I got out of the habit of morning prayer. Flailing about at four o’clock this morning, I remember the line from Chaim Potok’s The Chosen: it’s the four-o’clock-in-the-morning questions that trouble us over a lifetime. I’ve gotten out of the habit of greeting the day with readings from the Book of Common Prayer (BCP), spending a quiet time pondering the psalms and other readings assigned by a calendar prescribed by doctors of the soul. I need to return to a healthy diet.

My best friend is hospitalized, awaiting surgery required by complications from pancreatic cancer. His time is limited. So is mine. Fifty-four years of friendship soon to vanish like the morning mist. Whatever happens today on the operating table, it won’t be long before one of us is gone. I open the BCP. “What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you or declare your faithfulness? Hear, O LORD, and have mercy upon me; O LORD, be my helper,” cries the psalmist (Psalm 30:10-11, BCP), recognizing that there is no quick fix for what ails him.

My friend knows this feeling. He also has a habit that serves him well when the raindrops keep falling on his head. When the four-o’clock-in-the-morning clouds and torrential rains come over him, he turns, as do I this morning, to that which he has not made up, and crawls inside the psalmist’s faith that “weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Ps. 30:6, BCP).

Returning to the habit I’d neglected, I read the psalm again and pray for my friend. But I’m not seeing my friend. I’m seeing someone else. I’m looking at Elijah. He has crawled inside his mother’s watchful care…in the bathtub. He is smiling, playing, and splashing the bath water with no hint of memory of last night when he couldn’t even keep down the Gatorade.

“You have turned my wailing into dancing; you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy. Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing; O LORD my God, I will give you thanks for ever” (Ps. 30:12-13. BCW).

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, December 15, 2018.