Facets of Faithfulness, VI: Faithfulness

HomeFacets of Faithfulness, VI: Faithfulness
July 14, 2019

Facets of Faithfulness, VI: Faithfulness

Passage: Genesis 39:1–6; Galatians 5:22–23

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The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
There is no law against such things.  — Galatians 5:22–23

 

I think maybe I’ve told you before about Bob Hoag, the senior minister at the church near Philadelphia I served just after seminary. He was my first boss, and I didn’t always realize it at the time, but he was such a wonderful pastor to learn from.

Bob could be a bit scattered though. He needed a second brain. And he had one: his assistant Carol Magee, who served Bob for the entire 15 years of his ministry there.

Carol ran the church. She was the senior minister in everything but title. Kind of like here I guess.

In the dictionary under ‘chaos,’ it says, “See Carol Magee’s desk.” Papers and files and those little pink phone messages everybody used to have before voicemail covered every inch of her desk to a depth of at least eight inches. And it wasn’t like the papers were stacked neatly into square skyscraper shapes; it was one huge sloping mountain of paper.

If you needed some information, you’d ask Carol for it and she would reach into the very center of this lawless lump and in the fraction of a second snatch exactly the right paper you needed. It was miraculous. Carol ran the church.

Joseph the son of Jacob was the Carol Magee of ancient Egypt. You know the story, right?  Even if you don’t read your Bibles, you know Joseph’s story from the most biblical Broadway play of them all: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Patriarch Jacob has 12 sons; Joseph is the eleventh and the favorite. Out of envy and resentment, Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery and he eventually ends up in Pharaoh’s Egypt where a wealthy aristocrat named Potiphar buys him at the slave auction.

Potiphar owns a sprawling plantation on the Nile, where Joseph proves to be so faithful and accomplished that he eventually becomes the manager of all that Potiphar surveys.

And I love this line from the story: “So Potiphar left all that he had in Joseph’s charge; and, with Joseph there, Potiphar had no concern for anything except for the food that he ate.” Apparently, Joseph did everything on the plantation but cook the kofta and kebabs.

Successful people with huge jobs need managers to mind the farm for them. Bill Gates needs an assistant so that he doesn’t have to think of anything else except inventing Windows. Warren Buffet has to have someone to think about stuff for him so that he doesn’t have to worry about anything except what railroad to buy next.

When through no fault of his own Joseph ends up in prison, two of his fellow inmates, Pharaoh’s pastry chef and sommelier, trust Joseph with the interpretation of their dreams.  Then Pharaoh does the same and Joseph eventually becomes Pharaoh’s Secretary of Agriculture and saves the entire known world, including his own family, from famine and starvation.

You could count on Joseph. He was reliable. He was trustworthy. He was that rare combination of omnicompetent and conscientious.

Is there somebody in your life like this? If she agrees to meet you at Starbucks at 9:00, she is there at 9:00, without fail. When your daughter gets married, she is the one who throws the shower for 30 guests. If your 12-year-old breaks a finger on the baseball diamond, she is the one who runs to your house to watch your younger kids so you can take him to the Emergency Room. She keeps her promises. She keeps your secrets, all the way to the grave; the waterboarders at the CIA could not make her talk.

Maybe St. Paul had Joseph in mind when he told the Galatians that one aspect of the Fruit of the Spirit, one facet of faithfulness, is, well, faithfulness: reliability, fidelity, trustworthiness.

One author called it “the virtue of sameness.”[1]  I like the way he puts that: the virtue of sameness. It means that across long years of change and growth, through laughter and tears, during bright days of ease or dark nights of despair, we will stay the same true self, keep the old promises, cherish the aboriginal commitments, nurture the long friendships, honor the ancient oaths, keep faith with worthy covenants, even if the covenant partner has forsaken his part of the bargain, even if the covenant ceases to serve our interests.

I love the way Kierkegaard puts it.  He said that suddenness is an epiphany of the demonic. It is a flash of lightning in a cloudless sky.[2] You see what he means: if your feckless behavior comes out of nowhere like lightning out of a blue sky, then it looks to other people as if you are possessed; they can’t figure out why you just did what you did or said what you said or abused a promise you just made.

You lack “the virtue of sameness.” Your customer can’t figure out why you won’t deliver the order you swore would arrive on time. Your 10-year-old is baffled when the household rules change at your passing whim; lights out on Monday at 9:00; midnight the next. Your wife of 20 years doesn’t get it when you’re carrying on with your colleague after you made that promise long ago: “with my body I thee worship, till death us do part.”

Suddenness, then, is an epiphany of the demonic. Now, it’s true, in football, suddenness is an epiphany of the divine. It is a thing of beauty to watch Russell Wilson miraculously elude the safety blitz to get the pass off on his way down to the turf, or scramble for 15 yards and a first down. Tom Brady just stands there in the pocket like a statue and doesn’t move. It works for him, but Russell Wilson’s suddenness is an epiphany of the divine. If Cam Newton had played football in the Athens Olympics during St. Paul’s day, the Greeks would have made him a god. In football, suddenness is an epiphany of the divine. But in friendship, in business, in marriage, in parenting, suddenness is an epiphany of the demonic.

I was so moved by the memories of Riley Howell that appeared in the media in early May of this year. Riley Howell was the 21-year-old student who rushed that gunman who started shooting in a classroom at the University of North Carolina Charlotte on April 30.

Riley took one bullet and kept coming. He took a second bullet and kept coming. He died after the third bullet. But he was the last one to die that day. After Riley tackled the gunman, no one else was shot. The shooter complained to the paramedics that Riley had body-slammed him so hard, he probably had internal injuries.

When his family heard about it, they just said, “Of course he did. Of course. He died just as he’d lived.”

He’d been the eldest grandson on both sides in his family, so of course he became the cousin-in-chief who led all the cousin hikes and played shark in the swimming pool. He was rugged and muscular and handsome. His 17-year-old cousin Katie said, “I named all my boy barbies ‘Riley’ because he looked just like Ken.”

As a toddler, his first words were in sign language. He signed before he spoke because one of his uncles was deaf.

His girlfriend’s grandfather had Alzheimer’s, and the first thing Riley did when he arrived at a family gathering was to head straight for that grandfather. That’s not easy for a teenager but Riley wanted to make sure this older man knew that he existed in that room.[3]

When I read that, it just seemed to me that you could count on Riley. He died as he lived. He was faithful to the last of all his days.

Faithfulness is a rare and precious commodity. Alexander Pope said, “In our histories, there are more examples of the fidelity of dogs than of friends.” I don’t know if that’s true or not but it’s provocative.

So who is the most famous dog in history? If you Google “Most Famous Dogs,” the usual suspects appear near the top, like Toto, Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, Snoopy, and Old Yeller, but those are all fictional dogs, or actors playing fictional characters.

Hachi often shows up at or near the top. Have you heard of Hachi, or Hachikō, whom the Japanese revere for his legendary loyalty?

‘Hachi’ is the number eight in Japanese, a symbol of good fortune. Hachi was an Akita dog born in 1923. As a puppy, Hachi joined the family of a Japanese professor named Hidesaburō Ueno.

Every morning, Professor Ueno would board the train at the Shibuya Station in Tokyo, teach his classes at Tokyo Imperial University, and take the train home at the end of the day, where Hachi would be waiting for the Professor in front of the station. Then they would walk home together. Hachi was as reliable as a Swiss watch.

This went on every single day for about eighteen months, until one day in 1925 when Professor Ueno didn’t get off his customary train. He’d suffered a cerebral hemorrhage while lecturing and never made it home.

Well you can see what’s coming. Every day, without fail, Hachi was there outside the station waiting for his master to exit the afternoon train—rain or shine, sleet or snow, numbing cold or sweltering heat. Every. Single. Day. This went on for ten years until Hachi died of natural causes in 1935 at the age of eleven.

Professor Ueno’s widow would periodically come to the train station to take Hachi home, but Hachi would always escape and run back to the train station to wait for his hero.

Pretty soon Hachi lived full-time in the rail yard. He would get his sustenance from kind food-cart vendors or shopkeeps. Everybody knew Hachi. They kept an eye out for him.

I learned about Hachikō from Richard Gere’s retelling of his story in a film from ten years ago. Mr. Gere moved the story from Tokyo to Rhode Island, from 1923 to 2009, and turned the Japanese professor into an American, played by Richard Gere. But Hachi was still an Akita from Japan.

It was kind of a small movie, really a vanity project for Mr. Gere. The film’s budget was a modest $16 million, and it was never even released in theaters in the United States. Globally it made about $46 million, which means that Mr. Gere and his co-producers might have broken even, or almost. So it was a quiet film, but we knew about it in Greenwich because Mr. Gere lives in the next town, just across the county line in Westchester.

He would often conduct business in our town, and when he stopped to talk to store clerks or waiters or people on the street or his dental hygienist, he would say, “Hey, you should really watch this little movie I made. You might like it.” And so a lot of us did.

Every afternoon, for ten years, there Hachi would be. He just never gave up hope of reunion with his missing hero. In 1934, they erected a bronze statue of Hachi outside the Shibuya Train Station. During World War II they melted the statue down to make artillery, but they replaced it in 1948, and it’s still there, a popular meeting spot in Tokyo, like “Meet me at the Bean,” or “Meet me at the Water Tower.” “Meet me at Hachikō.”

When teachers want to tell Japanese students about loyalty, they tell Hachi’s story.

I don’t know what I want you to do with that story. You can’t really recapitulate Hachi’s faithfulness, nor would I want you to, but if Alexander Pope is right, that in our histories, there are more examples of the fidelity of dogs than of friends, then maybe we have something to work on.

 


[1]Vladimir Jankélévitch, quoted by Andre Comte Sponville, A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues: The Uses of Philosophy in Everyday Life, trans. Catherine Temerson (New York: Henry Holt, 2001), p. 20.

[2]Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, quoted by David Baily Harned in Patience: How We Wait Upon the World (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1997), p. 166.

[3]Jim Dwyer and Myah Ward, “Riley Howell’s Parents Say He Was Shot 3 Times While Tackling the U.N.C. Charlotte Gunman,” The New York Times, May 6, 2019.