John Bennison Words and Ways | 2011 | February

Fall Guy: Part III

[To print and/or read a pdf version of this commentary, click here.]

Falling Upwards

 

What goes up must come down
Spinnin’ wheel got to go ’round
Talkin’ ’bout your troubles it’s a cryin’ sin
Ride a painted pony let the spinnin’ wheel spin

 Spinning Wheel, Blood, Sweat & Tears, 1969

 Dateline: February 23, 2011

In the vast span of time it’s hard to believe it’s only been a few days since the last great pharaoh of Egypt fell from his long-held position of power and prestige.  It seems he has also fallen off the radar and the front page of the daily newspaper.

Were it not for the continued curiosity that he’d also fallen into the lap of luxury with his multi-billions in gineih, continued interest in the personal fate of a man named Mubarak could soon be relegated to the dustbin of history. If they don’t freeze his foreign assets first, perhaps someday he’ll end up in one of those where-are-they-now human-interest stories.

Now the question that dominates the news from the Middle East is who’s next?  Spurred on by the events in Tunisia and Egypt, similar protests have erupted in Bahrain, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Yemen, Iran, and … Madison, Wisconsin.

Speculation abounds.  Will Gadhafi’s regime be the next to fall?  A game of dominoes is being played out on the world stage, but all the pieces aren’t necessarily going to fall the same way, or in the same direction.

Pundits and scholars alike use words like “unprecedented” and “truly historic” to describe what’s been happening over the last few weeks.  Yet, if one were to take a longer view of history than the 24-news cycle – or even U.S. foreign aid policies propping up less-than-democratic regimes that served our self interests for a few brief decades – there seems to be plenty of precedent for the rise and fall of just a few more totalitarian monarchs, pharaohs, and dictators.

The flash mob phenom of Facebook and Twitter facilitating and accelerating the toppling of repressive regimes may be a novelty.  But the story of the fall guy is as old as Adam.  And he shows up in plenty of places besides the global arena of fallen political empires.

But the story of the fall guy is as old as Adam.  And he shows up in plenty of places besides the global arena of fallen political empires.

A quarter century ago, in 1986, the televangelist team of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were on top of the world of conservative/fundamentalist network broadcasting.  According to their son, Jay, in his recently published book, Fall to Grace, they’d been peddling a soft version of the prosperity gospel: “Do good and you’ll do well – then give something back.”

Evidently it worked, at least for the Bakkers.  That is, of course, until it didn’t.  In 1987, Tammy Faye overdosed and entered detox for drug addiction, news of hush money over Jim’s earlier affair with a church secretary hit the papers, and the perfect Christian family was indicted and later convicted on multiple counts of fraud and conspiracy, oversubscribing memberships to their family-friendly Heritage USA theme park.

Within days, Jimmy Swaggart declared Bakker was “a cancer in the body of Christ” on Larry King’s CNN talk show. A year later, Swaggart made his own tearful televised confession of his own indiscretions, pleading that the “precious blood of a merciful Lord would wash and cleanse every stain until it is in the seas of God’s forgiveness.”

There is an endless, almost ho-hum succession of such infamous fallen angels of God.  Typically regarded and dismissed as little more than hypocrites, buffoons, clowns and charlatans, they become endless fodder for biting parody.  Without them, Saturday Night Live scripts would only be left with scandal-ridden politicians, Hollywood celebs and sports stars.  The Church Lady would have joined the ranks of the unemployed long ago.

But what about the fall guy, whoever he was, in the long list of what-ever-happen-to what’s his name?  Here’s one.  Released from prison in 1994, Jim Bakkar remarried, adopted five kids, and launched a new television ministry in Branson, Missouri, preaching a different message that may come closer to the mark; this time about restoration, healing and hope.

One might say Jim Bakker was born again.  Again.  He is walking/talking proof that those prodigals who were once the seeming heir apparent, but ended up as one as good as dead instead, can still be raised to new life.  In a word, when it comes to the wretched and disgraced, the love and grace of God knows no bounds, or it isn’t grace.

In a word, when it comes to the wretched and disgraced, the love and grace of God knows no bounds, or it isn’t grace.

Of course this kind of redemption isn’t perfect.  Not in this life.  Jim still hawks religious trinkets and other merchandise online to finance construction of his Grace Chapel and keep his new television ministry on the air.  Reportedly, a $5,000 gift gets a donor’s name placed on an “Amazing Grace” plaque.  Yes, that’s right, amazing.

Meanwhile, his estranged son Jay is promoting his new book, a rambling memoir and scriptural exposition proclaiming how grace – at least a certain understanding of Pauline grace — changed his own life.

He recounts his own rebellious, “free fallin’” years, as he puts it.  It is that common tale of self-destructive, addictive behaviors; then his gradual recovery, and his discovery of what he calls “grace in the shadows.”  But it was such a revolutionary experience for him that fourteen years later – and without any formal education or training — he’s now founder and co-pastor of Revolution Church, NYC.

A modest congregation, of sorts, meets in a bar in Brooklyn.  Preaching a message of inclusion to the marginalized, he has clearly left that world of TV preachers who (as writer/preacher Robin Meyers puts it) “slice the world in half with the rhetoric of entitlement.”

But beneath the body piercings, tattoos and punk jeans and leather jacket, you can still see and hear the family resemblance.  Grace for Jay hangs on Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross; the same “precious blood” in which plenty of other imperfect, fallen evangels have plead to be washed and made clean.

That kind of atonement theology (that Jesus’ “perfect” suffering could wholly compensate for all my imperfect shortcomings) has never been a persuasive argument for me, when it comes to the efficacy of God’s grace.  Jesus’ execution was not divinely preordained for us, but was rather a calculated act of human will and political power, wielded by the state and the dominant ecclesiastical hierarchy in his own religious tradition.

That’s not to say Jesus’ non-violent resistance wasn’t subversive, redemptive, transformative, or even revolutionary.  On the contrary.  Out of an experience of utter disgrace, the redemptive power of God’s grace stood as an utter refutation of those fallible, fleeting powers and principalities that would pretend to hold sway.

Out of an experience of utter disgrace, the redemptive power of God’s grace stood as an utter refutation of those fallible, fleeting powers and principalities that would pretend to hold sway.

James, and Jay, and John (that’s me) may tread different paths.  But whether or not each of us experience such grace the same way is of little consequence, in the end.  And along the way — as I’ve also suggested previously — whether we’re pushed or trip over ourselves, there’s good fortune to be found, after the fall.

If one lives long enough, fallibility is guaranteed.  It happens to the rich, the famous, and the infamous.  It can happen to the smart and clever, the stupid and careless, do-gooders and evildoers, saints and despots, the righteous and those deemed unclean.

After the fall, it’s all about recovery; about the passing away of old things, and the raising up of new things.  Furthermore, there is no limit to the number of times one may experience this unconditional, limitless gift.

Long ago, when once I’d turned to coffin building to be sure I grasped this gospel truth, I learned one has to die a few little deaths along the way to know the transformative power of being raised up again.  It is something akin to what Richard Rohr calls “falling upward.”

A journey into the second half of our own lives awaits us all.  Not everybody goes there, even though all of us get older … Many do not even know there is such a journey. … It seems that many, if not most, people and institutions remain stymied in the preoccupations of the first half of life.  By that I mean that most people’s concerns remain those of establishing their personal (or superior) identity, creating various boundary markers for themselves, seeking security, and perhaps linking to what seem like significant people or projects.  … In my opinion, the first half of life’s task is no more than finding the starting gate.

Excerpt, Richard Rohr’s, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life

The notion of infallibility is a snake oil elixir, peddled by those who would guarantee surefire remedies for everything from personal salvation (the worst of religion) to the promise of doing everything necessary so no previous tragedy or disaster will ever happen again. From a faith perspective, it is not only a lie, but an affront to the gospel.

Fall-ability, on the other hand, isn’t simply the obvious reality of the human condition, but the unwelcome blessing and precursor of grace.

Blood, Sweat and Tears had it right.  What goes up, must come down.

But the reverse is also a possibility, the possibility of faithfully falling upward.

 

© 2011 by John William Bennison, Rel.D.

All rights reserved.

This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

To read more commentaries by John Bennison from the perspective of progressive Christianity and spirituality go to Words & Ways.

read more

Fall Guy: Part II

[To print and/or read a pdf version of this commentary, click here.]

O Goodness Infinite, Goodness immense,
That all this good of evil shall produce,
And evil turn to a good; more wonderful
That that which by creation first brought forth
Light out of Darkness!

Milton’s Paradise Lost, Book XII

 

Dateline: February 11, 2011

As the protests continued in Cairo’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square this last week, demonstrators had set up camp for the long haul.

Supporters provided makeshift tents for some, while others took shelter from the cold nights by sleeping under army tanks that remained posted on sentry duty among the crowds.  Through the barbed wire perimeter at the state-controlled TV station and the presidential palace, soldiers laughed with protesters, tossing them biscuits.

Reporters on the ground had described an almost surreal, carnival-like atmosphere.  Burnt out hulks of vehicles, rubble and empty tear gas canisters still littered the streets, where entire families later strolled amidst the chanting crowds, wanting to witness firsthand history in the making.  Street vendors quickly set up shop, scrambling to replace lost tourist revenue.

Wherever two or more gather, it seems, commerce and community are never far behind.

Meanwhile, the old regime had continued its attempts to defy gravity, up until the very end.  But the laws of physics and the way of human nature are alike in at least one respect: once a tipping point has been reached by means of forward motion, there’s no turning back.  There is an inevitability that propels certain events to their eventual, unavoidable outcome.

Calls for a “rational and orderly transition of power,” with the newly hand picked vice-president offering unprecedented promises and assurances of change, in lieu of the president’s resignation, would prove futile.

Hosni Mubarak unavoidably found himself in the unhappy position of being the fall guy for a former regime of his own making; whose end had already been announced, and was only trying to delay the eventuality of it all for a few months.

It was no longer a matter of whether or not he’d take a dive, but merely when.  The steep descent played out in slow motion over the course of eighteen days might have appeared to soften the landing.  But it still remains to be seen what happens next.

While most observers seem to be concerned with everyone else’s socio-political future in a post-Mubarak Egypt, the more telling tale for me in this global news event has been about the back-story for which little seems to be known.  It’s the personal story of one more proud individual’s fall from his long-held position of power and prestige.

There’s plenty of uncertainty now about the shifting forces of power in that region of the world.   But what’s even more uncertain for Hosni Mubarak is the new role into which he’s now been cast.  It is, in fact, a bit part in a much more common, well-worn tale.  One only need look as far as countless Hollywood scripts, where the designated fall guy is a relatively faceless stock character.

The lingering question nevertheless remains, and is very real.  After the fall, what does the future hold for this man?  In the days ahead will he fade into oblivion and exile, the faint remembrance of his lofty former self?

Or is there a greater, as yet unforeseen good fortune of quite a different sort that may await him still?  Where once he was the great pharaoh of Egypt, he’s gotta be asking himself at this point, where does he go from here?

Or is there a greater, as yet unforeseen good fortune of quite a different sort that may await him still?  Where once he was the great pharaoh of Egypt, he’s gotta be asking himself at this point, where does he go from here?

In my own imagination last evening, I had pictured him sneaking off in the dead of night to the Giza plateau, to ask the inscrutable Sphinx for the answer to such a riddle.

In Egyptian and Greek mythology, however, it is the sphinx that poses the trick question.  And it’s up to us mere mortals to solve the riddle for ourselves.  So this morning, at last report, he’d been whisked off to his winter palace at Sharm el-Sheikh.

With dawn’s early light, there was one answer he could no longer ignore or defy.  And in response, other men dropped to their knees in prayer in the streets of his native country, while the crowds erupted with the cheer, “Egypt is free! Egypt is free!”

That may be so, but what of the fall guy?  What new, wondrous, even liberating thing could possibly come from such a downfall?

Take a leap.  In Milton’s Paradise Lost, the epic poem of Adam’s fall from grace, there is the proposition that something good can come as a result of humankind’s wretchedness, and our lost and wandering ways.  And paradoxically enough, it happens not merely in spite of, but as a consequence of, our own undoing:  “That all this good of evil shall produce, And evil turn to a good; more wonderful.”

The so-called paradox of the fortunate fall goes a little like this:  First, there is this “Goodness Infinite, Goodness Immense.”  It is that divine spark that dwells in all things, and beyond all things.  It seeks us out in a revelatory encounter we cannot conjure up for ourselves.   It is part and parcel of an original blessing, and the hope and promise of – by whatever term you choose to describe it – a redemptive new life, and an endless life and second chance.  That’s the good news.

The paradox?  If we don’t mess up, there’s nothing to clean up.  “Immense, infinite goodness” can’t pick you up and dust you off until you fall flat on your face.  Dis-grace – either conveniently, or inconveniently enough, depending on how you look at it — seems a prerequisite to grace.

If we don’t mess up, there’s nothing to clean up. … Not to worry, however.

Not to worry, however.  We mortals seem perfectly capable of tripping over just about anything and everything; from our own shoelaces, to reaping whatever we sow. We just can’t seem to save ourselves from ourselves.

Lord knows we try.  “What must I do to be saved?” was the question a rich (and therefore powerful and prestigious) young man once put to a 1st century Galilean peasant rabbi.  He’d presumably performed all that had been prescribed in his religious tradition.  He thought he was on sure footing, and quite comfortable with everything in his life; except this one nagging little question that threatened to trip him up.

The rabbi Jesus suggested he dis-possess himself of all that he had, which would have included the man’s own self-assurance he could do very well on his own.  When invited to take the leap to essentially fall into grace, he quickly back-peddled away from that precipice of uncertainty and abandonment, which we sometimes simply call faith.

When invited to take the leap to essentially fall into grace, he quickly back-peddled away from that precipice of uncertainty and abandonment, which we sometimes simply call faith.

Though I doubt it, I can’t say for sure whether there are those who can really traverse a life of any consequence, without stumbling and falling at least once or twice.

However, I am equally un-persuaded by the self-flagellating religious types who raise the bar of requirements and the steps one must take to be “saved” to such a height, that one can do nothing but trip and fall.

In the end, whether we’re pushed, or trip over ourselves, may be of little consequence.  The lesson to be learned and lived may be the same.  Sooner or later, one way or another, life shifts to recovery mode.

I have found it true for myself, as well in the lives of numerous other “fallen” folks I have come to value, admire and deeply love. If one lives long enough, the “package” – as I sometimes call it – seems to include an unwelcome gift in the form of a fortunate fall.  And, by the grace of God, it can come with the more abundant life to be lived, as well, after the fall.

Some further, concluding thoughts about that are to be found in: Fall Guy, Part III

 

© 2011 by John William Bennison, Rel.D.

All rights reserved.

This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

To read more commentaries by John Bennison from the perspective of progressive Christianity and spirituality go to Words & Ways.

read more

Fall Guy: Part I

[For a pdf version of this commentary to print and/or read, click here.]

 
Butch Cassidy: Alright. I’ll jump first.
Sundance Kid: No.
Butch Cassidy: Then you jump first.
Sundance Kid: No, I said.
Butch Cassidy: What’s the matter with you?
Sundance Kid: I can’t swim.
Butch Cassidy: Are you crazy? The fall alone will probably kill you.
Sundance Kid: Ohhhh, s-h-i-t ….

The news cameras capturing the images of camels in Cairo yesterday were not the type normally depicted on tourist’s postcards.   Supporters of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak galloped recklessly into the throngs in Tahrir Square, where protesters have been demonstrating for over a week now, seeking the ouster of the man who has held power in that country over thirty years.

In a drama of biblical proportions, a reversal of fortune is being played out, and the whole world is watching.  From within the palace walls, this modern day pharaoh does not hear the plaintive plea to “let my people go,” but rather the angry cries of his people, telling Mubarak to take a hike.

U.S. State Department officials and the White House are doing the diplomatic two-step, scrambling to figure out what to do about Egypt, once their dance partner is gone. Who or what kind of government leadership will take his place, in the impending power vacuum that’ll suck up half the Arab population in the Middle East?

Will radical extremists gain a new foothold?  Will there be a drawn out disruption in the flow of oil through the Suez Canal, with global economic ramifications?  What will happen with the uneasy truce between Egypt and its nervous neighbor Israel?

With other Arab leaders in the region taking pre-emptive moves to placate their own detractors, will the endless turmoil that has represented the status quo for so long now erupt into something even less containable?

It is a remarkable thing to consider how one man got out of bed this morning, asking himself, “Well, what shall I do today?” and the whole world seems to be watching and awaiting his decision.

Will he fight and lose, or simply leave?  Either way, the stars in the heavens have suddenly realigned themselves, and when push comes to shove Hosni Mubarak will not simply step down or get tossed out.  He will fall.

… when push comes to shove Hosni Mubarak will not simply step down or get tossed out.  He will fall.

What goes up, we learn, must come down.  And the higher one ascends, the further one has to fall sometimes, particularly if rapid descent is not what one had in mind. Everyone seems to be looking for a way to convince the Egyptian leader to leave, either by force or gentle persuasion.  But ask one who’s taken a fall, and they’ll tell you it’s the landing that counts.

While everyone else only seems concerned with when, and how, an 82 year old man — who reportedly colors his jet-black hair to appear more youthful and disguise some serious unknown illness — will take a fall, Mubarak himself might want to take a lesson from Adam Potter.

Adam, 36, is the mountain climber from Glasgow who tumbled 1,000 feet on Monday, cascading down the side of the 3,589-foot summit of Sgurr Choinnich Mor, in Scotland, but suffered only cuts and bruises.  Not only did he miraculously survive, the Royal British rescue helicopter searching for the body mistook him for another climber when they initially passed over him.

“We honestly thought it couldn’t have been him as he was on his feet, reading a map,” said the observer aboard the helicopter. “It was quite incredible. He must have literally glanced off the outcrops as he fell, almost flying.”

Maybe so. But Adam had already flared and landed. And, having survived the flight and the fall, he was already mapping out his next move.  As far as I’m concerned, that may be the greater miracle to this incredible story.   Shaken, but still alive, Adam Potter must have felt like a new man.

… having survived the flight and the fall, he was already mapping out his next move.  As far as I’m concerned, that may be the greater miracle to this incredible story.

The “fall of Adam” – or Hosni, for that matter – may be a good news story; but it is hardly a new story.  Those of us who have lived long enough to stumble, trip and fall more than a few times probably know what I’m talking about.  Question is, how do you survive the fall, and where do you go from there?

Being experts with regards to human nature, political pundits have all been speculating how Mubarak could possibly manage to fall and save face at the same time.  Conventional wisdom suggests the disgrace of it all may be unavoidable, and that may be so.  So a graceful departure may not result.

Grace itself is something we do not come by naturally, it seems; but is often only acquired and learned by circumstances beyond our asking, liking or choosing.  It can be a good thing.  Some say it can be amazing.

In theological circles there have always been comfortable armchair discussions on the subject of the paradox of the fortunate fall.  It is in the real world, however, that the drama unfolds, again and again.

Watching the headlines, I’m inclined to believe the  world will muddle on somehow.  But what of the man?

If the pharaoh of Egypt survives his inevitable fall, I hope he may discover his good fortune may still await him.

Next time: Fall Guy: Part II

 

© 2011 by John William Bennison, Rel.D.

All rights reserved.

This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

To read more commentaries by John Bennison from the perspective of progressive Christianity and spirituality go to Words & Ways.

read more