By Tom Robotham
Recently, perhaps because Easter is right around the corner, I’ve been thinking a lot about the lessons of the Gospels.
First, a little background. When I was growing up, church was an important part of my life—the Episcopal Church, that is. I loved everything about it: the hymns; the stained-glass windows; the rich language of the Book of Common Prayer, and the ritual of communion. When I became an acolyte at the age of 12 the service became more meaningful still, as I donned my black robe and white surplice, lit the altar candles, led the procession with the cross held high, and assisted the priest in preparation of the Eucharist. It struck me as a kind of theater, rooted in ancient tradition, and I never questioned any of it. Its beauty was evidence of its truth.
All of that began to change when I was 17 or so. The more I thought about Christian doctrine, the more it seemed untenable to me—especially the core idea that Jesus was “the only Son of God.” By the time I went off to college I’d decided that I wanted no part of this exclusivity.
And yet, as the years passed, I found that I couldn’t stay away. I attended church intermittently through my 20s, and after my children were born and I’d moved to Norfolk, I began attending regularly again. In 1997, moreover, I was hired to work with Charlton Heston on a book about the Bible—a companion to the home video edition of an A&E series he’d done.
A lot of people laugh when I tell them this because they associate Heston with his NRA affiliation and/or his now-dated performance as Moses in The Ten Commandments. But it was one of the richest experiences of my life. Heston, I learned as I got to know him, was a gentleman and a scholar. He was exceedingly kind to me, at any rate. And he knew his Shakespeare as well as anyone I’ve ever met. It was a pleasure to hear him recite it. He also loved the Bible—not necessarily as the word of God (he kept his religious beliefs to himself), but as a monumental body of literature steeped in history and timeless myth.
In preparation, I read the Bible cover to cover for the first time. And I began to see it—and Christianity—in a wholly different light, as a collection of stories that have potential value for anyone, regardless of his or her religious convictions or lack thereof.
If the Bible teaches us anything it is that doubt is part of the human condition. Doubt infuses the stories of Moses and his followers, Jonah, Job and a host of other characters—very much including Jesus himself. Praying in the Garden of Gethsemane as he awaits his fate, Jesus pleads with God to let him off the hook. “Father,” he says, “if thou be willing, remove this cup from me… And being in agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.”
More powerful still are the words he cries as he hangs from the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
In the end, though, he always came back to the core belief: “Not my will, but thine, be done.”
All well and good, you might say—but how can this possibly have any meaning for someone who doesn’t believe in God?
To my mind it can because it is fundamentally about surrendering to things beyond our control—not with abandonment of hope and effort, certainly, but with acceptance of the hand you’ve been dealt; of life as it is in any given moment. The 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr expressed this beautifully in his now-famous prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” One could easily remove “God” from the sentence and its wisdom would not be diminished. It can function purely as a call to one’s higher Self.
EASIER SAID THE DONE, of course. It is especially difficult when people betray us and hurt us deeply in the process. By betrayal, I don’t mean the sort of willful backstabbing committed by Judas. The stories leading up to the crucifixion remind us that betrayal can take many forms. Indeed, Merriam Webster’s defines it simply as “hurting someone who trusts you by failing to offer help or by doing something morally wrong.” There is betrayal born of fear, as in the case of Peter when he denies that he knows Jesus, and betrayal born of simple carelessness, as when the disciples fall asleep in the garden instead of keeping watch.
Alas, we all fall asleep at times. The human condition is such that we cannot stay awake, spiritually, ever moment of our lives. In short, we’ve all been victims of betrayal—and we’ve all been guilty of it in moments when we are blinded by our own desires or pains or mere distractions.
Knowing this doesn’t lessen the pain we feel when someone we care about deeply abandons us, or inexplicably grows cold. The question is, how can we respond in a way that minimizes the pain?
The first, as I’ve already noted, is acceptance of things as they are—if only for the time being. I can’t speak for you, but I’ll admit that I spend far too much time dwelling either in regret or worry—in a foolish desire to undo the past, in other words, or in anxious speculation about what tomorrow may bring. Of things, in short, that are beyond my control.
In such times, I turn to another Biblical passage: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?”
Again, one can easily remove “God” from the sentence and take this simply as a reminder of what we can learn from nature about the wisdom of dwelling fully in the present and having faith in life itself.
What remains, of course, is the question of how to regard people who have hurt us. It is in our nature to feel bitterness at times—or perhaps even a desire to see the person who did us wrong feel pain in equal measure.
But that serves no one.
What is the alternative? Certainly in some cases we must detach ourselves from people who continually cause us pain or other kinds of grief. But that doesn’t mean we cannot love them still.
It’s useful when contemplating this to remember the other words Jesus uttered as he hung on the cross: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” It is, after all, a basic truth about human behavior that much of what we do is ruled by the unconscious. We literally know not what we do, or why we do it, in spite of the illusion of conscious control.
Again, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t hold people accountable for hurtful behavior. Only that as we do, we should temper the urge with compassion. Very often, it seems, people who hurt others do so in response to some deeply rooted pain of their own.
In this way, the message of the Gospels is universal and fundamentally no different from other religions—or humanism, for that matter. And the message is simple: “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” If you don’t believe in God, replace the word with Life.
When we do this, in our finer moments, we are reminded that the possibility of transcendence stands side by side with the reality of our failings. In this season of renewal, then, I am determined anew to strive for compassion—for myself, in spite of all my many shortcomings and mistakes. And for people who have been hurtful to me and to others I care about. My fervent hope is that I can do so without expectation of reciprocation, as the sun and moon and stars shine regardless of who notices or cares. I pray simply that you will find on this day and on all days to come, an abundance of grace, and beauty and love overflowing.