Maybe you don’t believe in all of this Christian mumbo jumbo. I can’t really blame you. You may think Jesus to have been a real person, a good teacher, but not God incarnate. So why should you pay any attention to anything from the Gospel of Mark, a document that does make such an outrageous claim?
Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. You don’t have to believe anything special about Socrates in order to appreciate the meaning. Maybe it is not so different for this Gospel.
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?
Mark tells us that Jesus spoke these words, but you don’t have to be a person of faith to appreciate the meaning.
Dying was not the issue at hand. Dying without ever living was the problem. Dead men hold nothing in their hands. What material wealth they leave flows away from them like water, and money does not remember who held it. One measure of the value of a life is in the lasting effect it has on others, and that cannot truly be counted in dollars, or real estate. It lies in the vibrations of memory, influencing the choices and thoughts of the living.
Most of us make choices based on safety and comfort, and it seems prudent to do so. In the interest of making responsible choices, minimizing our risks, we pick reliable jobs, comfortable homes, retirement benefits.
Sometimes we miss our target. We trade our freedom for security. We trade meaning and worth for stability and predictability.
Jesus, like Socrates, reminds us to examine our priorities. The most valuable legacies we give our children have little to do with money.
We are small. Our lives are temporary things, fragile and passing. To keep them, we must hold them lightly.
It’s a holy paradox.
To keep the self, one must focus on others. To build something that lasts, one must accept that all things pass.
Fine, we might say. These are wonderful ideas, if a bit impractical. After all, one must eat, and these ideas can be found in any worthwhile philosophy. So what does any of it have to do with faith?
Another good question.
At the center of any meaningful life for oneself is the recognition of the other — another paradox. It’s more than just thinking of something other than oneself — it’s thinking about something greater than oneself. For some of us, it’s sufficient to think of the betterment of humanity, of political freedom, of social improvement. What need do we have of faith? After all, the idea of God is contrary to reason, isn’t it?
I suggest that we do a great many things that are contrary to reason, and few people complain. We help the weak and the sick, for one thing, a behavior not often seen in other animals. How often do we see an antelope herd stand and fight to protect the weaker animals among them when the lions charge? Yet we almost universally regard helping the weak to survive to be one of the noblest human endeavors. I believe it is, and like most decent folk I try in various ways to help the weak and the sick and the poor, but I also recognize it is not the most purely logical behavior we might pursue — a thought that leads to some dark ends. Nevertheless, helping the weak, the sick, and the poor is the most purely human behavior we can pursue. It leads us to accept an idea that is greater than any one of us. It is one of the finest things we believe. You may name the pursuit of it as compassion, or empathy, or simply love, but it is also an act of faith.
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.
The pursuit of science need not preclude faith. When Galileo looked through his telescope at the stars, he acted in faith as much as curiosity. When a scientist pursues investigation and experimentation, it is with faith in the methodology, faith that following it will result in discovery, faith that gains in the cumulative knowledge of humanity are good.
God need not be excluded from the laboratory. Science need not be shunned in the cathedral. There is no dichotomy, no contradiction between the two, despite what some people may say. Whether peering through a telescope or at an ancient text, we are acting in faith and in reason to find something more, to follow something greater, to leave a greater legacy than we were given. We are laying down our lives in the pursuit of something more.
Theology is not science, but neither are the two studies exclusionary. When groups of people use half baked theological constructs to deny science, it serves no purpose but to push the scientific community (and everyone else with half a mind) away from religion. When scientists look at such groups and point to them as the reason to deny the possibility of God, in some form, and to reject matters of faith, in any form, they have forgotten their own scientific methodology. It is as if a not very kind child insists that a game be played his way or not at all, and the other children accept these two choices as the only alternatives.
It takes faith to seek understanding.
Images in this post are from the wonderful library provided by NASA.gov
This entry is part of a ongoing three year project, a series of reflections written to match the Gospel readings of the Revised Common Lectionary. Beginning on Ash Wednesday, the Christian world recognizes the season of Lent, a walk lasting forty days and six Sundays and ending at Easter. It is a season of remembrance and of reflection.
When Mark says that the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness, he is really saying that the Spirit “threw” Jesus into the wilderness, just like we throw a ball. That is the actual word he uses.
Threw. Tossed. Punted. Drop kicked.
It has happened to all of us. (If it hasn’t happened to you, just wait for it. It won’t be long now.) We think we are minding our own business, doing pretty ok, and something drop kicks us into nowhere.
Welcome to the wilderness experience. This one is not about campfires and marshmallows. This one is about being alone in the dark, sand in all the cracks, wondering what is making that sound in the distance and whether it knows we are here—yet.
Maybe Jesus went off into the wilderness for a personal retreat before engaging in public teaching. Everyone starting a daunting task needs some preparation time. Anyone heading out on a journey that leads to rejection and crucifixion, well, all the more so. One can imagine Jesus being driven by the Spirit, his own Spirit, the deep quiet voice within him, out to a place where he could be alone.
That’s the trouble, though. We’re never alone. Jesus wasn’t, not in Mark’s account. Out there, in nowhere, were the beasts, the Satan, and the angels, to say nothing of whatever interior dialogue Jesus carried with him.
The wilderness experience is a metaphor, of course, just like the transfiguration on the mountaintop. In this case we can more easily imagine a real journey, but we get more out of the metaphor.
As I said, we all end up in the wilderness sometime. I don’t mean a spiritual retreat in some remote place. I mean that there are times when we are thrown into a hard place by forces we did not anticipate and that we cannot control. There we are, like Jesus, all alone, and like Jesus never alone. There are always the accusing voices, the wild things that run through our minds, things that will not quite be controlled. And thankfully, there are angels, even if we have to find them inside ourselves, among the voices in our heads.
We get thrown into the desert that we carry within us.
That is the whole point of a spiritual journey. There are places within us that are not planted, where nothing much is growing. Barren places. Untouched. All of this prayer, reflection, looking for God out there, within ourselves, in the eyes of strangers, all of it is about nurturing that inward plot of land. Making our wilderness into a garden.
There are times when we find ourselves in the desert. In those days, we needn’t look for the way out. We are oddly where we should be. Once we tend to the the place where we find ourselves, the wilderness is gone. All that is left is us, and the Spirit who threw us where we would never have gone on our own.
The kingdom of heaven is within us, Jesus says in Luke’s Gospel. If heaven is within us, we might take it that hell is also within us. Which one we experience on our inward journey depends on our us.
Maybe it never happened. According to Mark, at the top of a mountain three men saw Jesus changed, transfigured, wearing dazzling white clothes and talking to supernatural visitors.
We don’t know what they saw.
Maybe it never happened, and the entire passage is metaphorical. Maybe it happened just as the story says. Either way, it could be true.
At the mountaintop, everything is bright, breathtaking, amazing, and while Peter, James and John don’t understand what they are seeing, they have no trouble believing they are experiencing it. Afterward, at the bottom of the mountain, nothing is bright or clear. A boy is thrashing on the ground in some sort of fit, and faith is hard to come by.
Mountaintops and dust.
Our lives are like that, mountaintops and dust, and so of course the story is a metaphor. That has nothing to do with whether any of it really happened. Some of the truest stories never happened, and plenty of things that happen are pretty thin on truth.
What do we read the Bible for anyway, I ask you, we who claim or try to be people of faith? Is it to find out what happened? If so, we’re reading the wrong books. We’d do better to find some good histories or to read an archaeological journal.
I think we start reading the Bible because someone told us it was true. It’s just that most of the time they don’t go on to tell us what that means, to be ‘true’, and so we wander off or begin to argue about what it says.
I think that what we are really looking for is something to improve our lives. That’s the kind of truth we need. If we’re walking down in the low dark places, feet covered in dust, or if like the boy in the story we are lying on the ground like a corpse, we need to believe that something can happen, that our life can change, that somewhere there is an end to the valley and that somewhere the sun shines so brightly that we could not bear to look at it. Or, if we cannot manage to believe that we ourselves can make it to the mountaintop, we need to believe that someone will come down and take us by the hand, show some compassion, help us up from the dirt and the dust.
We have always been fascinated by the idea of change. Look at the stories that our ancestors cherished. The Greeks told stories of gods who changed into bulls, horses that spread their wings and flew. Metamorphosis. Butterflies amaze us when they emerge, and so do people. Good men who become taciturn, bitter, resentful old geezers. Self centered, manipulative youths who grow into responsible, caring people. Cells that metastasize. Stars that explode. Mr Hyde and Superman. Old grievances that do not matter any more.
That is what we want from this story. Change. We want it to change us, like every great and true story does. Why do we think telling such stories is the single most human thing we do? From firelight on cave walls to movies on widescreen televisions, we keep doing the same thing — listening to stories. And while we want to be entertained, we keep looking for the same thing — truth, the kind that matters, the kind that tells us that we are not alone, that others have been here before us, and that life can be better, or if it does get worse, that we can bear it.
Maybe Jesus on that mountain was just a symbol, a metaphor. That is fine, we need our symbols, and we need our stories to help us understand our lives. Maybe it all really happened, and Moses and Elijah stepped through some wall that separates us from all that we cannot touch in this world. Maybe we are always surrounded by light and voices, angels and demons, and it is just that we do not have the eyes to see them.
None of that matters, not really. What matters is what truth we manage to take in, to carry away with us.
When we are up there in the light, it matters that we remember the folks who are lying in the dust. When we’re the ones who have been knocked in the dirt, it matters that there is light up on the mountain. And sometimes we just need to hear the stories, because stories hold more truth than rules ever could.
Below is an excerpt from my novel I,John. The story from Mark’s Gospel is retold from the points of view of two characters: Adriel, an angel, and John, one of the three disciples invited up onto the mountain. Sometimes just hearing a story told in a different way helps us to hear something new. I hope you enjoy it.
There are four of them and they are climbing a mountain. It has nothing at the top but a view of the bottom, so I think that what they are doing is odd. Perhaps they are more like us, doing unlikely things for the pleasure it brings. The one named Peter is the strongest, but he gives little thought to his path. Along the way he has to stop, baffled by rock, and turn back to the path behind Jesus. I sit on an outcropping watching them pass. Jesus is the only one who seems to know I am there. When he glances over at me, the one named John follows his eyes and pauses, staring at my rock perch though I do not believe he can sense me. James only wipes at the sweat on his forehead. Peter mumbles curses. A cloud is moving across the peaks, hiding the long fall to the valley. Their group has scuffled their way to the top. Peter collapses, his back on the mountain, and stretches out as to sleep. I move past them when I feel the change. It is like waking from a dream when you did not know you were sleeping. Sunlight strengthens, but the shadows are cast away from the figure of Jesus, light coming from him and now from the others who are with him. They are not the three who made the climb, now lying face down on the hard rock. These are two more, men I think, though even I am not sure. Jesus turns and tells the three to rise. “These you know,” he says. “Here are Elijah and Moses. Do you not recognize them?” I do not understand how this has come to pass. Neither, it seems, do these three men. James and John are standing. Peter drops back to his knees. “Good! It is good, Lord!” Peter’s eyes move from one to the other, his arms stretched out wide. The other men say nothing at all. “We shall make a camp for you!” He is babbling. Jesus continues talking with the other beings for a while, not remarking on Peter’s plan. The light begins to increase and the wind makes the men’s robes ripple and slap against them. There are voices and more beings, a wall sliding away. I hear a great voice speaking, and I know I hear it also long ago in my memory, but I do not know the words. I cannot tell whether the sound begins from above us or comes from inside us, and I am lost. The three men are flat on the rock of the mountain, none of them looking up. I see many figures streaming through the light, then one light as though somehow the sun is within the cloud, and the energy of it sounds like static, so loud, it hums every frequency at once, and then everything stops. The clouds are gone, as is the light. Now there is ordinary sunlight, no longer appearing so bright on the top of the mountain. Jesus is gazing down into the valley, and it seems to me that he has been standing there the whole time, only looking, that nothing has happened. Gravel shifts and I realize the three men are still there, Peter beginning to stand, John and James helping one another to move. They are looking around them as though just now waking. None of us speak. None of us moves. Jesus turns and looks at the three. Saying nothing, he starts back down the mountain just as they had come. They follow, as do I. Part of the way down is a rock shelf, high and wide enough for all of them to stand together. Jesus is again watching the valley. When the others catch up to him and stand there waiting, he turns to them. “Tell nobody what you have seen.” He watches them for a moment. “One day you may understand it, and then you may speak of it. Until then, keep it within you.” He does not turn to leave but waits, looking at them. Peter is staring, mouth open. James is little better, looking from his brother and Peter back to Jesus. It is John who managed to speak. “Lord.” A pause. “That was Moses? And Elijah?” Jesus’s face softens. “Yes, in a way.” He turns to look back down into the valley. “Such things are hard to explain to you now, but one day you will understand. Elijah was here. Moses was here.” No one speaks. Jesus keeps watching the valley, the small figures gathering at the bottom of the mountain. There is a village in the valley, and the other followers of Jesus are there waiting. Jesus turns, and they begin the slow climb down.
I barely saw the rocks. I only remember the feel of them under my feet and in my hands, hard and flinting away into flakes and sand as we made our way down that mountain. What had we seen? Maybe there was no air, our minds taking leave of us at the top, but we had all seen it. Peter had talked about making a camp. The light had been so bright that everything else still seemed to be in shadow, even in the afternoon sunlight. I did not know what voice I had heard, and the more that I thought about it, the more I think about it now, the more I seem to have heard. That voice was saying things that I would not hear until time had passed. I still hear them. The right time comes and the meaning becomes as clear as though Jesus had simply turned and spoken himself. There was nobody on that mountain but us, and there was a complete world without sky and without form. Perhaps it was God speaking, I do not know. It was not a voice like anything else that I have ever heard. It spoke that day, but it spoke outside of time, and the meaning cannot be heard until its purpose has come. Perhaps God says everything at once, and it is the hearing of the words that require time. The meaning is already there, carried within us, and suddenly we understand it when the time comes. That it why we cannot make out what the voice is saying. It is all the words we will ever hear but spoken at once, and it is time that translates them to our being. I stumbled on a stone at the bottom of the mountain. James caught my arm, and then when I had recovered he nodded for me to look ahead. Jesus was walking toward the other disciples, all of them standing together with a crowd circling, voices raised. Some of the crowd saw Jesus approaching and turned to run toward him. Their faces were a strange mix, some glad and some with the look of men watching the spectacle of a circus. Jesus kept walking toward the center, the crowd falling back to let him pass. A boy was lying on the ground, his body stiff and thrashing on the ground. I had never seen such a thing, yet I was sure Jesus would touch him and stop whatever was wrong. He did not touch the boy, though, but stood a few feet from him and watched. The boy’s father came and took hold of Jesus’s sleeve, then knelt in front of him. “How long has he been like that?” asked Jesus. The boy was thrashing on the ground, clearly about to hurt himself, and Jesus was asking questions as though he were a tourist attraction. “Since he was a child,” said the father. “We do not know what to do to help him, but we keep him from rolling into the fire or hurting himself.” The father paused and looked back at his son. He was ignoring the crowd. “Can you help him? Your followers have been able to do nothing. Are you able to help him?” Jesus looked across at the other disciples. All of them looked down at the ground or away. “All things are possible,” he said. “Do you believe this?” I was not sure whether he was speaking to us or to the boy’s father. It was the father who answered. “I believe, yet I do not believe. That is the truth of it, and I would not lie to you.” The man looked at his son, then back at Jesus once more. “Still, can you help him?” Jesus reached out and put his hand on the father’s shoulder. More people were hurrying up the path from the village, all of them holding their heads up to see over the crowd already gathered there. He spoke to the boy, or to something. I could not remember his words. The father turned to see, and the boy stopped moving and lay still. The father crawled across the dust to him and lifted him. “He is dead.” It was someone in the crowd saying so. Peter looked across the faces, and I knew that it was good he could not tell which of them had said such a thing out loud. “No,” the father said. “He is not dead.” We heard the boy gasp for air, and his father turned to look up at Jesus. “He is alive, my boy is alive.” In his father’s arms the boy was limp, breathing as though he had run a race, but he was not thrashing anymore. “You had faith enough,” Jesus said. “If you had told me you had no doubt, then you would have failed me.” He turned and walked away from the boy and his father as though the crowd were not even there.
“You cannot step into the same stream twice.” —Heraclitus, c.535—c.475 BCE
It would make more sense, in many ways, to write about science, or science fiction, or psychology. More people would read this blog if I did. It may even be that more people would benefit from it.
A good number of people, with good reasons, turn away from anything that smacks of Christianity or religion. Sometimes I see and hear the expressions of Christianity around me, words of judgment, acts of exclusion, airs of superiority, and I wonder whether I want to be identified with the movement. Too often being a person of faith is equated with ignorance, lack of intelligence, lack of compassion.
My novel I,John is often characterized as Christian fiction, a label that I resist. To label any writing as Christian, or Jewish, or Buddhist, is to place walls around it, to relegate it to a ghetto. Either something is worth reading or it is not, regardless of the writer’s spiritual, geographical, political or biological place of origin. Being part of a faith movement should not sell books any more than being outside of that movement.
I wonder, though, whether the same thing holds true for the Gospel of Mark. A person within the faith community, however widely and loosely one might stretch the fence around Christianity, will read and understand the words of the Gospel differently than someone who does not embrace the possibility of God, let alone the possibility that Jesus was actually God incarnate.
There’s a concept.
God, walking around in the form of a human being: what an idea for a science fiction story, or an elaborate fantasy novel. One might imagine a plot line for a psychological thriller, keeping the reader guessing as to whether the main character is more than human or just deeply disturbed.
Mark writes of demons who know the true identity of the man Jesus. They name him, calling him the Holy One, but in this Gospel story Jesus forbids them to tell what they know—his identity is a secret. Even beyond the idea of talking with demons, doesn’t the notion of silencing anyone who identifies the true nature of Jesus seem odd?
Mark adds another strange element to the secrecy motif. While one might presume that God would welcome those who come seeking God, Jesus gets up and slips away in the night, refusing to meet the people who have come looking for him.
“You will find Him if you seek him with all your heart and your soul.” That’s what is promised in Deuteronomy 4:29. “You will seek me and find me when you search with all your heart,” echoes Jeremiah 29:13. Yet Mark tells us that Jesus, God-become-human, leaves the people who are looking for him and goes off to other places, to seek out a different as yet unbelieving audience.
The ones who know him are forbidden to speak. The ones who seek him are left behind. It’s not what we expect from the plot.
Those who do not believe they have encountered God might take some comfort from these things, if they have any interest in God. Those who think they already know something about God are bound to be a little discomfited.
Mark tells the story of a God who does not stand still, who is continually moving, seeking, touching new people and new places. There is no room in Mark’s Gospel for a God imprisoned on a throne.
The disciples never seem to understand who this Jesus is, at least not in Mark’s telling of the story. Each time they look, they expect to see the same Jesus they think they know, but he is already moving, changing, waiting until those who seek him realize that he will always be found somewhere unexpected.
God is a river running through our lives. Though we stand perfectly still, what we touch around us is always new.