Last night after dinner* I was standing at the sink washing dishes. I had just picked up Wally’s tray when it became clearer to me than it usually is that this is not how I wanted to be spending my time, so I put the dirty tray back on the counter and joined Caroline, Jay, and Wally on the playroom floor.
The boys were occupying themselves, intensely focused and independent as they tend to be in the last minutes before bed when they intuit, perhaps, that even the slightest little whine will provoke a quick exit to the changing pad. I turned on Pandora, the algorithmically enabled Internet jukebox. The first song up was “Shake it Out” by Florence and the Machine, easily my favorite radio hit of the last year. It’s anthemic and exalted and conjures exactly the kind of out-of-body sizzle that’s missing on an ordinary weekday night at home. (I also predict it’s a song my sister will (or does) like a lot. I hope she’ll let me know.)
I was sitting across an oval of wooden train tracks from Caroline and as the song played I realized I’d rather be sitting beside her. I inched across the carpet towards her and upon reaching her side we put our heads together. The noise of the room filled in around us: the music, Jay repeating, “Daddy can you help me,” Wally (who talks here and there these days) chirping to be read the large hardcover book he’d managed to tote all the way across the room. We ignored them as long as we could, then Wally jabbed Caroline in the cheek with the corner of his book and we resumed being parents. I thought afterward that this is how life feels most of the time: simultaneously abundant and just out of reach.
Which reminds me of one other thing I wanted to write about today. I had a dream last night about Jesus’s disciples, which *definitely* counts as the first Bible-themed dream I’ve ever had. They were two guys dressed in modern clothes, walking down a city street, talking to each other and trying to decide whether this guy Jesus they’ve been following around is the real deal or not.
For the last month I’ve maintained a tenuous commitment to reading the Bible. I’m reading the Old Testament on my own and Caroline and I have been reading Mark together a chapter at a time a few nights a week before we go to sleep. It’s a pious picture, I know, husband and wife reading the Bible together before bed but in practice it feels less momentous and the pleasures we take from it are more secular: the narrative is interesting, it’s important, and it’s always nice to read (and be read) aloud to.
The exciting thing about reading the Bible in a start-to-finish way, rather than jumping from passage to passage, is that you really feel the momentum of a whole new belief system coming into the world. Judeo-Christianity has been such a dominant cultural force for so long that it’s hard to imagine it as the underdog. But when Genesis opens there are no Jews and when the New Testament begins there are no Christians. You know that in time these religions will come to dominate the ways in which billions of people frame their very existences on earth and it’s breathtaking to read about their nascent days in that light.
There is a striking symmetry between the Old and New Testaments. Both tell the story of an upstart trying to prove himself: In the Old Testament God is trying to prove himself to the skeptical Israelites; in the New Testament Jesus is trying to prove himself to the skeptical disciples. Both God in the Old Testament and Jesus in the New Testament come bearing specific and sweeping morality codes: God delivers the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai; Jesus gives the Sermon on the Mount. And both God and Jesus have their own techniques for demonstrating their might: In the Old Testament God rains plagues on the Egyptians, parts the Red Sea through Moses, and provides manna from heaven; in the New Testament, Jesus performs miracle cures, walks on water, and transforms five loaves of bread and two fish into enough food to feed a multitude.
Caroline and I have joked in light of these demonstrations of overwhelming power both the Israelites and the disciples seem a little obtuse.
Last night I read the chapters in Exodus where the Israelites are wandering in the wilderness after escaping from Egypt. They’re complaining to Moses about a lack of food (Ex 16:3), “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Not days earlier these same Israelites had seen God part the Red Sea for them and then bring it back together to swallow up the advancing Egyptian army. But now here they are, hungry in the woods, wishing they’d never left home. You can imagine an exasperated God muttering to himself, “How many oceans do I need to rend before they’ll believe in me?!”
The same is true in the New Testament. In a passage in Mark that I blogged about this summer, Jesus and his disciples are out in a boat and caught in a storm. At the time the storm hits the disciples have already seen Jesus perform a number of healing miracles, but still they’re terrified that they’re going to drown. After Jesus has calmed the storm he turns to his disciples and says, “Have you still no faith?”
The Israelites and the disciples are both a little slow to catch on. At the same time, the leap of faith they’re being asked to take is so great. I’ve found it fun to wonder how much evidence I would have needed before I would have been willing to entrust my life to an upstart God or a heretical fisherman. A lot, I think. So much, in fact, that it’s almost hard to imagine the standard being met.
*Korean-style short ribs that took all of 20 minutes to prepare and received the top honor handed out in the Hartnett house: “We could serve this to guests!”