Friday, February 18, 2011

Iona Story

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn and settle on the far side of the sea, even there your right had will hold me fast. Psa. 139:7-10.


It is a long way to Iona. Even if you live in Great Britain you spend a good deal of time on various modes of transport to finally make it to the holy Island. For me it involved a long, crowded flight to Heathrow, another one to Glasgow, a bus ride into the city, a three hour train trip to the west coast city of Oban, a ferry to the Island of Mull, an hour and one half bus ride on winding single lane roads across Mull, and, finally, another ferry to Iona itself. By the time you arrive it seems you have put as much time and space between yourself and your old life as possible. It seems that Glasgow is lost in the misty past—let alone Chicago. For me the distance was important. It became a great deal more than physical distance—it was psychological distance, spiritual distance. After fourteen years of joys and disappointments, celebrations and frustrations, I was near neither to myself nor to my God. Sometimes it takes distance to be able to see that. Sometimes you need to be far away to see again how near God really is. Iona is that kind of place—both far and near. It is remote and familiar. Splendid and ordinary. Immanent and transcendent. In its aching and simple beauty the carefully constructed defensive structure I had erected slowly dissolved. The rough places became, if not smooth, at least smoother. The thick places became thin. Of course, it is not hard to rebuild those structures. But for a moment—they were down.


I knew no one on my trip or on the Island. I knew I would be in a room with three other men. When I arrived at the abbey I found myself assigned to a space on the second floor of the rebuilt dormitory section of the abbey. I could go out of my room, turn left and go through a door, down a flight of steps, into the abbey chapel. I could turn right, go up a few stairs into the abbey library. My three roommates were from Norwich in England. They were all well over 70 and had known each other all their lives. When they conversed with one another they were nearly incomprehensible to me. There were two bunk beds and I was in the top bunk. I had a flashback to being 10 years old and sleeping in cabins at Bible camp. It was close quarters but congenial ones. These were good men who, with their vicar and other members of their church, were like me trying to get close to God again. I treasured our time together.

There were about 45 of us in the abbey that week: mostly from Great Britain, but also from Switzerland, Germany, Norway, and the US. We worshipped together and worked together. I was part of a team that set up and washed up for the noon meal. I also was responsible for mopping the upstairs bathrooms every morning. But there was plenty of time to be alone: sitting in the cool, glorious abbey chapel with sun streaming through the windows, praying where prayers had ascended for 800 years; walking to the north end of the island to watch the surf crash, hear seabird cries, and gaze at distant islands or the pastel mountains of Mull; or sitting on my favorite bench in the still-ruined nunnery—the bench that read “In memory’s garden it is always summer 1973.” I loved being with my colleagues in worship and work. But even for this extrovert there was something profoundly healing about those times alone, with my books, my prayers, my memories—and my God.


I was instructed to bring a torch to Iona. I had momentary thoughts of Gandalf leading Frodo and company through the mines of Moria, and then I remembered that a torch is a flashlight for our British cousins. And if you left the confines of the abbey after dark, you needed a torch. There is very little ambient light on the island. Once you have escaped the pale pool of light over the main abbey door you are in pitch dark. There are only a few buildings on the Island, no glaring streetlights, nothing to relieve the darkness or blot out the stars. One evening, after our 9 PM service, we were invited by young Swedes and Norwegians on a confirmation retreat to the Island to participate in a Taize’ service in the St. Oran chapel. The chapel is in the middle of the ancient graveyard of Iona and is the oldest building on the island, dating from the 12th century. It is tiny and perhaps 50 of us were jammed into the small, cold, and dark space. Soon the warm, soft glow of fifty candles lit our faces. We sang, and chanted, and read. It was so simple. It was so profound. I remembered the Psalm—surely the darkness is light to you. Strong young voices and creaky old ones sang out of joy and hope and love. It was the highlight of my pilgrimage.


In the end heaven and earth are wed. In the end we don’t go to heaven, heaven comes to us. In the end, God makes his dwelling place with his people. You can certainly go to Iona and see nothing but pretty scenery and interesting old buildings. But then, I could have stayed in Chicago and be transported into glory while praying in North Park’s Isaacson Chapel—as unlikely as that may seem! But those of us in education and ministry, who make a business out of praying and preaching and teaching, need to be reminded of the thin, gauzy veil between this world and the next. We can become numb worrying about the worship band or the sermon or the business meeting or that troubled marriage in the third row. We can begin to treat the living God like subject matter and our own lives like experiments in holy living. We can live once removed from genuine engagement. We can end up with the pastorate or the professorate, or the deanship as just one more role we play—a role we lose ourselves in. But every now and then, on a tiny, remote, holy island, we can remember once again, who we are, what we are about, and why we signed on with God in the first place. We can pull back the curtain, and for a brief moment hear the heavenly choir cry holy.

John E. Phelan, Jr.
North Park Theological Seminary

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Jews, Palestinians and Identity Politics

In his posthumous book The Memory Chalet the late Tony Judt, author of such highly regarded works as Postwar and Ill Fares the Land, describes his teenage experience in a left-wing Jewish kibbutz in Israel. Initially taken with the vigorous sense of purpose, egalitarian vision, and physical rigor, Judt became disenchanted with the movement’s “smugness of self-regard” and “ethnic solipsism.” He became wary of “true believers” of any kind knowing “what sort of price one pays for such intensity of identification and unquestioning allegiance.” Much to the dismay of his colleagues in the kibbutz he returned to his native England to attend King’s College, Cambridge. Because of his experience in Israel, he writes, “I was . . . immune to the enthusiasm and seduction of the New Left, much less its radical spin-offs: Maoism, guachisme, tiers-mondisme, etc. For the same reasons,” he continues, “I was decidedly uninspired by student centered dogmas of anticapitalist transformation, much less the siren calls of femino-Marxism or sexual politics in general. I was—and remain—suspicious of identity politics in all forms.” Judt through his long and distinguished academic career remained a liberal. His experience with “Labor Zionism” made him “a universalist social democrat.” He eschewed the rigidities of Marxism, Socialism, and Fascism alike. His commitment to social democracy is well described in Ill Fares the Land, which espouses the value of a government that is grounded in a commitment to the people’s freedom and at the same time intent on providing opportunities for citizens to rise from poverty, ignorance, and fear.

Identity politics are, of course, very popular these days. Everyone seems to be angling to portray themselves as the victim of someone or something. From the bewildering variety of liberation movements on the left to the tangled skein of the “Tea Party” on the right, everyone seems to be casting about for a villain—someone to blame for their misery and oppression. This is not to say, of course, that misery and oppression do not exist. Certainly there are economic, political and social forces that contribute to the suffering and rage of a variety of persons across the gender, ethnic, and class spectrum. Nevertheless, like Judt I am suspicious of identity politics. Such politics are characteristic of postmodernism, with its fragmenting allegiances and splintered identities. Someone once said that in the future we would all receive our “fifteen minutes of fame.” Today, perhaps, we will all be granted “fifteen minutes of victimhood.” The problem with identity politics, among other things, is that it abstracts me and people like me from the community as a whole. It requires me to declare exclusive allegiance to a particular sense of outrage and entitlement. It identifies everyone outside of my circle as “other” and by definition a threat. Rather than create sympathy and understanding it frequently produces resentment. It can, ironically, make the despised “other” feel victimized and put upon and thus contribute to further balkanization.

For years the left has espoused the cause of the Palestinians and denounced Israel. Good liberals could lose their union cards as political liberals if they said anything positive about Israel or raised questions about the actions of the Palestinians. Of course, the same is true of the right: Israel can do no wrong and all Arabs are terrorists. For me this is one of the worst and most dangerous manifestations of “identity politics” and “true believerism.” The “true believer” is not someone who has deep convictions about the truthfulness and appropriateness of their cause. A “true believer” needs more than conviction. A true believer needs an enemy. Their cause must always be in the right and the other side must always be unambiguously evil. I am sympathetic to the suffering of many in the Palestinian territories. I am saddened and appalled by the violence they frequently endure. That being said, I grow weary of some of their advocates apparent unwillingness to acknowledge the justified fear of the Israelis that their fragile democracy will be destroyed and their people once again slaughtered in an anti-Semitic purge. The Israelis have good reason to fear what is going on these days in Egypt. Identity politics are not serving the Middle East well. But true believers are incapable of seeing the world from the perspective of the other—be they Jews or Palestinians.

John E. Phelan, Jr.