Tuesday, October 30, 2001

Jehovah and a Wrinkled Blue Collar

Heaven has been kind to me this week. The annual Sokeisen (“War” (sic) between Keio and Waseda), and annual baseball championship, had to be extended, giving me a day to play at home with a complete sense of freedom.

Just as I began to get seriously engaged in contemplating the luxury of so much free time, the doorbell went. I thought it was the cleaning lady (she comes on Tuesdays), ¬ so I shouted out that I would be right there so she wouldn't drop dead of a heart attack when she used her key and saw me standing there unexpectedly. And I hear this male voice, shouting out, "Mr. McCornick? Can I speak with you?" in native-speaker American-English.

I open the door and this Greek god is standing there, wearing a suit and tie and a cotton shirt with an imperfectly ironed collar. My first instinct was to tell him to come in and take off his shirt. The iron was still hot. But then I saw there was a modest young lady standing just behind him.

"Mr. McCornick?"


"I've come from Kamakura to talk to you."


"Would it be all right?"

"Talk about what?"

"About the truth of modern times."

Now normally I give out that I don't give a rat's ass about truth or modern times, but I won't pretend to you that I'm sincere about that. And when I smell organized religion my mind tends to roar through the halls of memory and courses of action available to me for dealing with it. Like push you down stairs. Poke you with sharp objects. Fart. Remove all clothing and stand naked. Inform you that I have a small child cooking on the stove.

But all these circuits get shorted when faced with a Greek god. What is there about Greek gods that does this to me? Must go into meditation and find the answer.

"Would you two like to come in and have a cup of tea?"

(Would you like to come in and take your clothes off and lie down on my bed... and you, miss, please wait here?")

"Oh, really?"

Bright eyes of excitement. Happy anticipation. Deep churning satisfaction that I could make GG smile like that. If there's anything better than a GG on your doorstep, it's a GG with a smile from ear to ear.

"Yes, and bring your Bible. I'll put the kettle on."

I run downstairs to get into some respectable pants. Pajamas won't do for a serious exploration of truth. If I'm going to go gaga, I need some dignity in my uniform. And there's a small chance my gaga is showing.

So he begins to talk. I watch his mouth move. He has a charming teenager English. One of hundreds of Japanese kids I have listened to over the years who learned to talk in the high schools of Westchester, Winnetka or San Diego. He's dead earnest, and his brow furrows each time he struggles to find just the right word. He's well-rehearsed, and his fingers fly through the good book with total familiarity. He starts with Daniel. Daniel tells me that God's kingdom is going to be established on earth.

"Right now?"


"I don't see where you found the dates."

"Oh, Daniel doesn't say when, but it is clear that he means now."

I decide to continue focusing on the mis-ironed shirt collar. I wonder if his mother did it. I decide he probably ironed his own shirt, and I see him in my mind's eye standing there in his underwear, biting his lip the way he did when he told me about Daniel's prediction. Such an earnest young man. So good to look at. Hunky. Big thick eyebrows. Soft eyes and strong hands.

He sits across from me with a tall posture, thanks me for the tea and sips from the cup, using each sip to collect his thoughts. He's hard at work and I admire his dedication. His female companion sits between us at the table, so when he quotes from Scriptures, she is able to follow and open her Bible so I can read for myself along with GG. It is a well-rehearsed performance.

We're talking about Isaiah now, but I'm only half listening.

"Are your mother and father also Jehovah's Witnesses?"


"And yours too?" I ask the young lady.

"Well, my father isn't but he sometimes comes to church with us."

"I think it's wonderful that you are working so hard about something you care about."

"Thank you," they both say. Again, it's ear-to-ear smiles.

It's obvious they have been doing this together for a while, and this response is not something they're used to. I begin to feel devilishly powerful.

"What made you Jehovah's Witnesses?" I ask.

"I learned about it from my mother and I want very much to do God's work."

A boy who looks like a god who loves and respects his mother. Allah is great.

What's not to love about this guy. I wonder if he would like to move in. He hasn't a clue how gorgeous he is. Clear, open, honest eyes, a genuine smile that makes even your cold worldweariness melt, this little voice says, a modesty that keeps his message from cloying, a desire to please and to share what he knows.

"Some more tea?"

"Do you mind if I ask about your religion?"

Aha. Time for T h e C h a l l e n g e. Can I tell him about "my religion" and keep him interested long enough for it to sink in that I am not the steward of the devil.

"Let me tell you what I think I share with you."

They're listening intently.

"I think there is good and there is evil. I am not surprised that people explain the world in those terms, because they come from direct human experience."

"So you believe in God?"

"Well, yes. And that's something else I share with you. You believe God is beyond our understanding, right?


"That he is bigger than any of us and that no matter how hard we try we can't understand the true nature of God."


"And that the best we can do is think and talk and share our ideas with people, and check with those who have gone before and see what they have discovered, and then come up with a 'best guess.'"


This is too easy. They're listening as much as they are talking. When was the last time a Bible salesman came to the door and actually listened? What is this, affirmative action for Angel School month? Reaching out to Jehovah's Witnesses this year maybe? My mind races for an explanation. Too much cognitive dissonance. A face and a body like that and an ability to listen as well as talk?

He's waiting for me to go on!

"And because God is so big and so far beyond our understanding, all our attempts will be imperfect ones, because just as God is perfect we are imperfect and everything we do is imperfect."

"Yes, that's true."

"And the Muslims and the Jews and the Buddhists have all made their best guesses, and their imperfect conclusions are unsatisfying to us."


"And the Christians who went before us, with their Crusades and their Inquisitions and their arguments over whether the pope was the sole owner of the keys to the church, and all those battles over who should speak for Christ, all that, too was a sign of our limited understanding of god and his plan for the world."

"I guess so."

"See how much we share about God?"

"I'm glad to see you believe in God."

"Well, I'm glad to see you want to be good and to do good."

So far so good. Haven't said a damn thing yet I don't sincerely believe. What is it about male beauty that drives me to be all that I can be?

I change the subject, ask them about their English-learning experiences, about life in San Diego as a child. We are having a good time. I don't want them to leave.

"May I read you another passage from the Bible?"

"OK, if you want to."

This one is the one about beating swords into ploughshares. I'm tempted to ask them if they could draw me a picture of a ploughshare, but as I've been telling you, his beauty keeps me on the high road. Besides, I want to steer clear of the imagery of beating swords into anything.

"Very beautiful poetry, don't you think?"

They do think so.

They turn to the creation story and want to tell me how man disobeyed God. I let them read the part about the casting out from Eden and then I say to them,

"Wasn't it interesting how consistent God was? He created us 'in his image' and that means, you just told me, we have the features of God. And the most important of those features is our mind, that which, as you said, separates us from the animals. God's plan was for us to live in the garden as children. We would know no evil, and be like children who can count on being fed when we're hungry and paid attention to when we're needy. But God's plan was that we would have the freedom to choose, and we made a choice. We said to God 'This choice between living here in Eden with you or eating the fruit of knowledge? We choose knowledge.' Isn't that marvelous? God actually gave us the freedom to choose knowledge. With all his power, he could have removed that choice-making ability from us, but he didn't."

"But we were evil, and we chose to disobey God."

"And we used the gift God gave us of choice."

"But God told us not to choose disobedience."

"Then it wasn't a real choice. It was a temptation. Do you really think God acted the role of a Tempter?"

"I never saw it like that."

"Is that your image of a loving parent? One who toys with you, "I give you a free choice, but if you make the wrong choice, I'll make your life miserable?"

"That's not the way Christians see it."

"How do Christians see it?"

"We think we had a choice but we should have chosen God."

"Then there would have been no need for Jesus Christ. Obviously Christians also believe God came to terms with the choice of knowledge. He didn't give up. In fact, he came around to forgiveness. That first image of an angry god throwing his kids out into the street was later changed to a God full of remorse about having lost his children and willing to go to great sacrifice to get them back."

"Yes. That's what the Bible tells us of God's love."

"God loved us so much that he gave us freedom to disobey him. And he knew we would, obviously, since God knows everything. Doesn't that make you suspect that our disobedience was part of God's plan?"

"But he wanted us to obey him."

"The image is of a father who wants his kids to like him, and tests to see if they do. When they don't live up to his expectations, he kicks them out. Later, he regrets the harsh decision and takes steps to bring them back. That is a beautiful image to me. Not consistent with my idea of god as an all-knowing creator, or a force of nature, or a manifestation of beauty. What I see in the biblical creation story is a wonderful image of an imperfect but loving parent. It's more of a Greek god on a human scale than a Middle Eastern god of total power and knowledge. But I love the imagery used by the Hebrew writers of Genesis."

"So you love the Bible. That makes you a Christian."

"Yes. If you mean that a person who loves the imagery of the Christian faith is a Christian."

"Well you also have to believe Jesus was the son of Jehovah."

"Then I'm not a Christian. I don't believe he was not, it's just that that's too much particular information for me to swallow. You see, I am also a Jew, because I love the imagery of justice and righteous behavior that the Jews cling to. And I am also a Muslim, because I love the imagery of the total surrender to a force larger than your own comprehension, the humility of recognizing human limitations. And I am also a Buddhist because I love the wisdom of recognizing balance is superior to imbalance, and that day is always becoming night and night is always becoming day and there is nothing on earth than never changes. I am impressed by how much wisdom humankind has collected over the centuries."

"You have a very wide idea of God."

"And so do you. You just told me God is beyond understanding."

"But if you believe all these different religions know God, then you don't believe that the Bible tells us Christ is the answer?"

"That's the answer to the questions that the Christians raise. Buddhists and Muslims and Jews and Hindus all have other answers to other questions and they all have scriptures where they wrote all these questions and answers down and they all have people just as earnest as you telling me what they think."

"We are not trying to convert you. We are just trying to tell you what we believe."

"I know that. And it wouldn't matter if you were trying to convert me. I saw earnestness in you, so I invited you in to tea."

Oops. Here it is. The moment of truth, if you'll pardon a pun. If I were totally honest, I would have to say, 'your earnestness, and more importantly, the unearthly beauty of your mortal coil.'

I leave off the bit about the mortal coil.

They smile again. And thank me again. And it looks like it may be time to go.

"Do you see God in nature?"

Now where did that come from? Something outside the routine string of biblical readings.

"I don't see God; I see what I think is God. I am humbled by the magnificence and power of nature and by the thought there might be a single creating force, and that almost makes me a deist. And I like to think there is a powerful a force for good, and that makes me an ethical being. And I like to think of God as the essence of beauty. (And that definitely makes you a vessel of God, young man.) But these are images I get of God through just two or three little holes in the curtain of ignorance separating me and God. I don't really understand the connections between creation and good or between good and beauty. I just sense that there may be something tying them all together, and I'm not surprised that people are claiming all over the globe they've found that unifying force and it is the basis of their religion. But I've been blessed to have had conversations like this with Muslims and with Jews and with Buddhists and with Hindus and with Christians who tell me that Jehovah's Witnesses are mistaken but they are right. If you never go out into the world, if you never meet anybody who thinks differently from you, you can carry on in your certainty. But when you do go out and you do listen carefully, you see conflicting descriptions of truth. Having lived so long among Hindus and Muslims and Christians and Jews and Buddhists, it's not possible for me to take any one description too seriously. Instead, I come away with the idea that we are all blind children describing an elephant. You think he is built like a tree trunk; somebody else says he's like a wall, a third person says he's like a fire hose. All I can do is observe how we all do best when tell it like we see it and allow others complete freedom to do the same."

"But you believe in good and evil."

"I was raised in Western Civilization; it's hard for me to escape the division of the world into good and evil, black and white. But I am fascinated by Buddhists and the ancient Greeks and others who didn't separate them so clearly. One time when I was grieving the loss of someone dear to me and I felt I had died and was living in hell, I came to realize that this encounter with the dark spirits was also giving me insight into the nature of things. I understood my fellow man much better in that grief than I did normally. And I saw a creative force in me, and saw how it was that painters and writers and other artists can work through depression and misery to create things of beauty. And I developed a new respect for the Buddhists and the Greeks and others who did not divide the world into black and white, good and evil, like the sons and daughters of Abraham do, the Jews, the Christians, and the Muslims."

"What you say is very interesting."

"And now I seem to have a choice. I can say, "You're all wrong! You're all running around like chickens with your heads cut off pretending to know God when you're all mired in ignorance." Or I can say, "Isn't it wonderful how much we have all accomplished, each in our own way, to put together an understanding of God." When I'm feeling angry and depressed, I tend to look at it the first way. When I'm feeling good, I tend to look at it the second way. You will agree with me, I suspect, that, given the choice, the second way is better."

"Oh, yes."

"Then let me tell you again how glad I am you are wearing that suit and blue shirt and tie and going from door to door trying to share good news rather than wearing a military uniform and carrying a gun and dropping bombs on people in some far-off country."

"I'm glad you feel that way."

"And I hope you will think about how many different ways there are to think about God and be glad he gave us the freedom to choose the tree of knowledge rather than live in childish ignorance in paradise and the freedom to think and share our thoughts with all his children all around the world and work together to map out a way to be good."

"I will. Thank you for teaching me."

OK. We're done. I haven't let on to either of them that it was his earthly beauty that stopped me in my tracks. Or that it was the odd circumstances that I suddenly found myself with an extra day in the week to do with as I pleased. Or that the sun was shining in and I felt more generous than usual and I was going to make an extra cup of tea anyway and was delighted to have the company of people who wanted to share something they valued with me. Or that one of them could have had the gold in my teeth for the asking. But outside of those omissions, I haven't lied.

We exchanged names and he asked if he could come back some day. I told him he would be welcome anytime, but that normally I am working on Tuesdays. "What about Fridays?" he asked. I'm home on Fridays, but I do my work at home on those days, so normally I don't have an hour free like I did today. But I will always have time for a cup of tea, so if you're in the neighborhood, do knock.

And I'll iron that collar right for you next time.

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