As a second-generation Korean American, it is hard to identify stories from my past that can serve as reservoirs of understanding for my life now. “In you our ancestors trusted,” I could proclaim from those stories, “and you delivered them.”
The etymology is perilous: pulpit from pulpitum, meaning scaffold, by which we come, at length, to catafalque— those f’s and a’s, like tongue and groove boards, like rope enough to hang, or hoist, or let a corpse down to its permanent repose. One platform’s raised; one frames a coffin’s rest. So, first the elocution, then the wake? Like lamentations or the case of Job— that vexing, god-awful, comfortless book. And yet we rise to the occasion, Sunday after Sunday after Sunday. A bit of scripture, a psalm or poem, something that happened in the week just past; we try to weave them all together as if to say a loving God’s in charge. As if we were certain of a loving God. We see by faith. We live in hope. We love. Or play the odds, as Pascal did. We fall. Sometimes it all seems quite impossible. And yet we rise again and walk the plank, and sing into oblivion good news: Unto God the glory, all praise, all thanks! while nodding congregants loll in their pews.
Imagine Tom out on the fire escape, between the world at large and inner life, edging the proscenium, downstage right. whilst curios and characters and shades
unveil themselves as dancing beauties do. I have tricks in my pocket, things up my sleeve! Upstage, sheer curtains rise, transparencies: Truth in the pleasant guise of illusion.
Like John on Patmos, John the Harbinger— voices crying out of the wilderness— Make straight ye the Lord’s way! quoth Isaiah. Eschatology and Apocalypse:
Think Esmeralda in the cathedral, Jim Hawkins in the rigging, chased by Hands or Ishmael, just flotsam at the end, alone, before God and all these people.
Or Montaigne in his tower library: “the whole of Man’s estate in every man.” Or Yeats pacing the boards at Ballylee: “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”
Thus, exegetes and preachers on their own hold forth, against a never-ceasing din of second-guessing, out there on their limbs: Have faith! Behold, the mystery! Behold!
That fresco of the Sermon on the Mount by Fra Angelico (dear brother John) shows Jesus semi-circled by his men, gilt-haloed Galileans, but for one, who will betray him later with a kiss. Atop their sandstone tuffets, rapt, engaged, he’s going on about beatitudes, fulfillments of the law, the words to pray. Outside the frame, unseen, a multitude leans in to listen to the hermeneutics, which are not without some challenges, to wit: though we be smitten, turn the other cheek, go the second mile, love our enemies; while we’re forgiven only so much as we forgive those who trespass against us. A certain eye-for-eyeness to that scheme, a tooth-for-toothedness. A quid pro quo? As if, to finally get, we must let go? Sometimes it’s so, sometimes it isn’t? So, what shall we say to these things? Who’s to know? Say who abides in love abides in God. Say God is love. Love God. Love one another. Say grace is undeserved and plentiful. Say if we’re saved, it’s mostly from ourselves.
So that things contrary to common sense Seem suddenly truth revealed And some unappealing sight Is clearly Imago Dei, devilishly alight As though lit within at core By the very darkness we abhor And symbols of my soul’s best hope are cast As models of betrayal, despair and death; Then, Eve’s fruit tasted and offered to Adam Becomes Mary’s Gift as First Fruit Of a new covenant of pardon And the abandoned Garden Because of Him Becomes the New Jerusalem;
So, let that mind be also in me, The one that takes in my off-stage acts, You know, Those walk-the-walk naked facts, Even my sneaky judas-pacts And transforms them all Into something nothing short of new, Like being born, Like out of any godforsaken Friday Easter morn.
I’ve only seen three dead bodies in my life. The first was when I was 12 years old and my grandfather died at age 69. It was the first time I ever saw my father cry. At the funeral home, my sister was brave enough to reach out and touch my grandfather’s hand as it rested on his torso. Back in our seats, I asked her what his skin felt like. “Plastic,” she said.