Stories Matter

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost  |  Mark 5:21-43

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

Stories matter. One might argue that it is telling stories, more than opposable thumbs or raw intelligence, that makes us human.

An encyclopedia or some other repository of scientific knowledge may inform us, give us the tools to examine the biology of a flower or to create the structure of a bridge, but we would lack the notions of why we would want to do such things in the first place.

Stories tell us who we are. More importantly, stories tell us who we ought to be, who we want to be.

A galaxy on the edgeTake the book of Genesis. The whole of Judeo-Christian scripture begins, fittingly, with two stories, one right after the other. It is as though someone took Isaac Asimov and Ursula Le Guin, put them where they could witness everything from the bang that started our watches ticking to the emergence billions of years later of human beings on the plains of Africa, then asked each of them to sum up the meaning of what they had seen in a short story.

The Asimov version, Genesis 1:1 – 2:4, tells us that the universe unfolded over time, in an orderly fashion, and that life emerged and evolved into ever more complex forms over that time. It’s a pretty good summary, one that still matches up well to the timeline scientific investigation gives us—so long as one realizes that a day in a story may last a long time.

The Ursula Le Guin story, beginning in Genesis 2:4, focuses on relationship and choices. (That is no surprise for anyone who ever enjoyed her Earthsea novels.) Hearing this story, we realize that we are connected to everything that is, that all living creatures are dependent on one another, that with great ability comes great responsibility, that our choices follow us like shadows, that mortality is the price of living, and that our children and our work are what remain.

Le Guin always does manage to pack a lot into a story. That’s the wonder of symbolism and metaphor—one can say a great deal with a few words.DragonFinal

There are also two interwoven stories in Mark 5:21-43. It is what scholars describe with the sophisticated term of ‘sandwich’—one story contained within another one. Mark uses the technique a number of times, but that should not surprise us. Many other writers have interwoven stories which seem unrelated until we reflect on them.

Desperate to get help for his dying daughter, a man named Jairus is urgently guiding Jesus through the crowds to where his daughter is waiting when Jesus stops. He is distracted it seems because someone else in the crowd has managed to tap into the power that Jairus wants. A woman is healed, and Jesus stops to engage her in conversation, all while Jairus’ daughter lies dying. It is a fascinating study in love and faith and expectations.

Jairus is waiting upon the Lord, and it seems that the Lord dawdles.

In the end, Jesus accomplishes both things, of course, healing the unnamed woman and the girl. Though the girl had died in the meantime, Jesus brings her back to life. It was never an either-or proposition for Jesus, nor was the timing of his response limited by the expectations of the people in the house of Jairus.

There is no explanation, though. We only get the story, marvelous as it is. That is one of the most common complaints about scripture—so many stories, so few explanations, and even those explanations as exist are often just parables or metaphors. The Church certainly has managed to come up with plenty of explanations and rules in the centuries since Jesus walked along the street with Jairus, but those were made later by men. (A few women as well, but most of the explaining and rule making was done by men. I hope it is clear that the result is not a compliment to men.)

The best stories, the ones with the most meaning and usefulness, get told over and over. The stories change in the telling, sometimes helping us to think of an old tale in new ways. Rather than join with the crowds of folk who have and will happily tell us what we should get from the story, I’d like just to tell it again.

Here is the story of Jairus and the woman in the street, as retold in my novel I,John. The story is retold from the point of view of the disciple John, of course. I hope you enjoy something of the different perspective.

John

The streets were crowded with people and animals. A donkey’s hoof brushed my foot, and I was still holding to the animal for balance when I heard a man calling to Jesus. The man pushed his way through the crowd, and he somehow managed to kneel in front of Jesus. The people nearby pulled back a bit, seeing such a spectacle as this man kneeling in the street.
They knew him, this man. I had seen him in the synagogue myself, and here he was kneeling in the dirt in front of Jesus and begging him to come and to touch his daughter.
“She is sick, master,” he was saying. “You must come, you can save her. You have the healing touch.”
Jesus was looking at him. For a moment I wondered whether Jesus even heard what the man was saying. Then Jesus reached out and touched him on the shoulder, and Jesus leaned forward to tell the man something. I never learned what he said, but the man smiled and stood and began to beckon for Jesus to come after him.
The crowd parted somewhat, curiosity driving the ones who knew nothing about Jesus. This man they knew from the synagogue ran in front of Jesus, urging him along. The noise from the crowd was mixed with the dust from the street. It was difficult to see any distance ahead or to know where we were headed, except that we were following a man whose daughter was unwell.
Suddenly, Jesus stopped. A woman lay in the street, blood dripping down her cheek.
“Woman,” said Jesus. “How long have you lain there bleeding?”
She looked around, dust on her face along with the blood.
“I do not know, my lord,” she said. “The crowd has walked around me.”
“Who has touched this woman?” Jesus asked. I realized that there was no knowing who had touched anyone in this great crowd.
“How can she tell, there are so many?” I asked. Jesus turned and looked into my eyes for a moment, then turned away again. I felt like I had missed something obvious, that I should pay better attention.
“Then I will touch you,” he said to the woman, and he bent down and reached a hand to her face. He pulled her up from the ground, and she fell against him, holding him. I could see her face over his shoulder. The blood was gone.
“Come, my Lord,” said the man. “There is little time. My daughter may die if we do not reach her.” He was pulling at the arm of Jesus’ robe, wanting the woman out of the way. Peter was looking harshly at the man, though I knew that Peter understood about the sick child and the urgency. He just never wanted anyone shoving or pulling at Jesus, as though he could not take care of himself.
I heard raised voices and some curses from further down the street. Since we were on a small hill I could see over the heads of the people between to see that another man came pushing his way up the street, garnering the resentment of the crowds as he came. When he reached us he knelt in the street, his head down, and said, “My Lord.”
The man pulling Jesus’s arm stopped for a moment, then began to turn toward the kneeling servant. I could see that the man knew the voice, and I realized what the meaning of it must be. At least I was not so dense as to miss that.
“Your daughter, my lord.” He stopped. “She is dead.”
The man was still standing and holding to Jesus. The woman in Jesus’ arms looked at the messenger and understood as well. She pulled back, her hand on Jesus’ other arm. The servant looked up at his master and around at the rest of us, saying nothing. Then, a moment later he added, “I am sorry.”
The street seemed quieter, people realizing that something was happening, some of them recognizing Jesus, some recognizing the man himself or this woman. There were tears now on the man’s face, though he said nothing, his eyes sharing the sorrow before his mind had grasped it.
Jesus touched the woman’s head, a sort of caress or blessing, and then he in turn took the man by the arm.
“Come,” he said, as much to us as to this man. “Let us go up to your house together.”
The servant rose, and turning back led us in a procession through the crowd. Somewhere we heard the wailing of women who had already heard the whispers of grief. We walked as in a funeral line.
I have always hated funerals.
After some time we reached the house, a good one set back from the crowded marketplace. Family and neighbors were gathered around it, the women weeping. They surged forward when they saw the girl’s father, crying and saying that she was gone.
Jesus paused then, before entering the house. He took hold of the man’s arm the same way that the man had formerly held him in the market.
“Why are you crying?” he asked them. We all stopped and looked at him. I stole a glance at the crowd who were trying to work out whether this man was an idiot. Finally, the old women seemed to assume it was simply that Jesus did not know.
“The girl, his daughter, is dead,” they began to tell him. Jesus set his face, and I looked around to find Peter.
“She is only sleeping,” Jesus said. The words froze me in place, for I knew that they were not true. The crowd paused for a moment, and the father began to stare at Jesus. Then the crowd turned and began to jeer and to insult him, asking whether he were blind or simple. The father himself said nothing, only watched Jesus’ face.
Jesus pushed those in front of the doorway aside, which surprised them. It surprised me. I looked back down the street, wondering where we might run when they found some loose paving stones to throw at us. Peter stood staring, his mouth open, his expression lending no credence to Jesus.
“Out of the house, all of you, mourners and trespassers,” Jesus was saying. “Out.”
Shocked, the visitors looked to the father who, still staring at Jesus, slowly nodded to them. They began to leave, though I could not tell whether it was by Jesus’ authority or by the respect they had for this leader of the synagogue. Taking the man by the shoulder, Jesus looked around at Peter, my brother James, and myself, and indicated that we were to follow them.
We entered the house, suddenly far too quiet except for the sound of a couple of women crying, genuinely, upstairs.
“Take us to her,” Jesus told the father. He nodded once more and began walking up the stairs to the sleeping rooms. It was a spacious house, and cool, and these upper rooms could be opened to receive what breezes came blowing across the roofline of the town.
The girl lay on her bed, and it did appear as though she were sleeping. Beside the girl her mother sat crying, tears covering her face. Genuine grief does not care about appearances. Perhaps nothing genuine does. Another woman stood weeping in the room, though I never knew whether she was a servant or family. The mother looked at us, then at her husband who took her by the hand and lifted her from the chair. Jesus stood at the girl’s feet. Suddenly I realized that he, too, was crying, the quiet tears falling across his cheeks.
I thought that Jesus must have been wrong, and that he now saw as we did that the girl was dead. I was mistaken once again.
“Little girl,” he said. “Wake up.”
For a moment, all of us stopped breathing. I heard it, the quick catch of breath in our throats, all of us for a moment wondering what would happen and whether the girl was, indeed, only sleeping. Then, in the next moment, all of us realized that she was not, that she was dead, that this was perhaps the worst and most shameful moment of our lives. I started to feel the enormity of our imposition on their grief.
Peter’s eyes widened as he watched the girl. I turned back to see.
The girl caught her breath, much as we had, and we could hear the sound of air surging through her lungs and from her mouth. Jesus reached across and held her hand.
“Little girl, get up now,” he said. “Time to wake.”
She held his hand and sat up on the edge of her bed, looking around the room at her parents and the woman, whom she knew, and the four of us, whom she did not. Her mother was the first to recover, leaving her husband’s arms and nearly jumping into the bed with the girl.
“You are alive,” the mother was saying over and over, and the father began to say the same thing. Peter began muttering a curse, though only I heard him, and then he caught himself.
“Lord, you have done it,” he said.
Jesus was only watching the girl. “She is hungry,” he said. “Get her something to eat.”
“Yes. You must eat,” said the father, as though it was obvious that the child would be hungry. Then he turned and began thanking Jesus, who simply pushed the man along with his daughter and wife toward the stairs. They went on ahead of us, shouting and calling for food, soon for a feast. At the bottom of the stairs Jesus watched them a moment, then he turned away from the front of the house and went out into their garden. A gate led us out into the street, where the others were waiting for us. Without a word, Jesus turned and started walking away, as though the woman had never lain in the street and the girl had never risen from her bed. He did not speak of it.
I never saw any of them again, except at the end, when Jesus was dying. That day I saw at a distance a man standing with a woman and a girl. I wondered whether it was this family, come to show their respect, or thanks, or pity. I have never known for sure.

BoatInkOnlyClearSqCropDarkened

Storms

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost  |  Mark 4:35-41

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

We’ve heard this one. A bunch of disciples are in a boat, one of several on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus is sleeping on a cushion in the stern when they are caught by a storm.

The Gospel tells us that although God is with them, incarnate in this man Jesus, they are still wanting more. It isn’t enough that God is present. They want God to do something. After all, what use is a God who doesn’t do anything?

We may say that we want the presence of God. In truth, we really want God to do something.Cumulonimbus1

We want God to do something for the same reason that those muddle headed disciples wanted it: we’re afraid. We’re afraid of what has happened or didn’t, or of what is happening or isn’t, or of what is going to happen or not, and sometimes with good reason. If the lion slips her cage while we’re at the zoo, fear is a useful reaction. It’s appropriate. Even when the lion sleeps, we’re afraid of what might happen.

That’s the real bogey man. His name is Mr Thusandsuchmighthappen (it is German, I believe). He and his twin sister go by YouKnow and AndThen. With them, things always go from bad to worse.

The bogey man meets our expectations. God does not.

Christians make many claims on God. One of the most interesting is that God is in control, with the implication that everything that happens is by the will and choice of God.

The idea of God as Sovereign may work well for theologians in an ivory tower, and it does not trouble saints who are beyond any attachment to this present world. For the rest of us, the idea of Sovereignty is a problem, an enigma. We are left hearing Inigo Montoya from William Goldman’s The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”Cumulonimbus2

In practical theology, where storms do threaten our boats, the idea gets trampled down into something like, “God is in control.” That is a wonderful concept, right up to the moment when the boat sinks.

The lesser difficulties are still manageable. The loss of a house, a job. A survivable illness. We might come through those with our skins and our notions about God intact.

What about the worse things? What about the real storms, the ones that threaten to send us to the bottom of the sea? Many people never live to face one. Many do not live through them.

A perfect storm as a concept is survivable. A perfect storm in reality may not be.

What about these storms we do not survive, sometimes not at all, sometimes not as the people we were when the wind picked up? What if the storm comes and it seems to us that God is somewhere in the back of the boat, asleep at the tiller?

What if we drown?

There is a verse, Job 13:15, traditionally translated, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in Him: but I will maintain my own ways before him.” It may not mean what we think it means. That translation is based on one reading of the Hebrew text. Reading the text another way, the New Revised Standard translation gives us, “See, he will kill me; I have no hope; but I will defend my ways to his face.”

Quite different, isn’t it? Either way, what does it mean? Do we lie down and wait for the worst? Even Job, sitting on the ashes of his home and surrounded by pious pontificators, has the intention of at least speaking up for himself.

Maybe it comes down to translating another verse from a letter to a church in Rome. The King James gives us what we find on most refrigerator magnets, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God….” It would take an optimistic saint indeed to watch the spectacles of tragedy, natural and human-made, all around us and think those worked to anyone’s good. A better translation would be that “…God works through all things…”, even those things.

Seeking something good on the other side of tragedy, now that is powerful. It is the gospel story. The measure of the power of God is not found in the heat of stars or in the fathomless reach of space. We witness the power of God when something good remains even from the storms that drown us, or worse, the storms that sweep away those we love, the storms that leave us gasping in our misery on the deck.

Even in our loss, God creates. That is the gospel. That is true redemption, the practice of grace, the iron resolution of love.

cropped-cropped-Surf.jpg

As If

Third Sunday after Pentecost  |  Mark 4:26-34

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

Grasses

The more I gaze into the face of headline Christianity, the more I understand why people reject anything that smacks of faith. Listening to a politician using faith-speak to galvanize voters (right or left wing, though usually the right—this bird flies in circles, it seems) is enough to repel any thoughtful person.

There are some wonderful public voices in the Christian world. While I am not Catholic, Pope Francis often gives me joy. Rachel Held Evans’ journey has resonated with many Christians as they examine their own beliefs. People like Nadia Bolz-Weber (to the extent that there is anyone like Nadia Bolz-Weber) are inspiring (and entertaining.)

Most of Christianity is quieter, more in keeping with the part of the iceberg that is under the water. You don’t see it, but that massive body of ice crystals beneath the surface is the only reason any ice rises up at all.

Jesus told parables. Stories, illustrations thrown alongside our lives to help us think. The kingdom of God is like seed scattered on the ground, he said, growing into a field of grain. The kingdom of God is like mustard seed, he said, tiny and almost unnoticeable, yet growing into a plant somewhere between knee high and over one’s head, depending on which of the nearly countless sources one reads to try to learn what kind of plant Jesus meant.

There is nothing spectacular about grain growing, nothing that would make a front page article or a popular tweet, except that from it we get the bread that we eat. Nothing about mustard is impressive—tiny seeds and a plant that may be large enough to shade birds but that is nothing more than a shrub at best.Maple seeds

Scattered, tiny seeds. An unremarkable plant. Such is the kingdom of God, Jesus says. What a remarkable journey, though, from germination to plant. We pass by each day without noticing the process until one day the field is full of grain, or flowers have grown from what looked like nothing.

The kingdom of God—what is with that expression anyway? Do we really imagine God as a radiant old king, someone made in our image, sitting on a throne, gazing down at the disc of the world? Many have. Many still do. It is an image that says more about our limited imagination than it does about God.

With bird feederThe small things, the things we overlook, those are what tell us about God. A child who knows kindness grows into an adult with a good heart; that is of God. A victim offers forgiveness, regardless of the effect on the offender, lightening the burden and opening a new future for the one who forgives; that is of God. Small things and things that cannot even be seen, these are where God is present.

Life grows around us, even without our notice. The universe takes the smallest things and makes something of them. We breathe, and a plant uses the carbon dioxide we exhale, growing from what seems nothing. The world is connected in ways we barely understand. On the other hand, our greatest efforts are sometimes the most harmful: scars on the planet that one can see from space, scars within us that God can see from anywhere.

Food for a hungry neighbor, kindness toward a child, a sense of gratitude for being alive—these things matter to God, even when we do not see how such things may change the world. From small things, unseen and unnoticed, come the beauty and wonder around us.

“The kingdom of God is as if…,” the parable begins. As if what?

In field of grasses

His Right Mind

Second Sunday After Pentecost  |  Mark 3:20-35

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

Jesus did not join a cult. It was much worse than that. He started one.

Christ Pantocrator - icon from St Catherine's Monastery, Sinai
Christ Pantocrator – icon from St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai

Jesus in part subverted the cult that had grown around John the Baptist, his rogue cousin with the weird wilderness lifestyle. Jesus also grew a new following while John was still out in the wild—the advantages of better social marketing skills. Whatever the origin of the groupies and critics surrounding Jesus, the story is that word spread of strange goings-on and that his mother came with her other children to perform an intervention.

Was he in his right mind? His family had heard that he was acting crazy. Hanging out with tax collectors. Sinners. Even fishermen. Healing people. (What was he thinking?) He was sending members of his new cult out to proclaim the message, though what that message was at this point is unclear, and to cast out demons.

Casting out demons, now there’s an interesting skill for the resume.

The critics claimed that Jesus was possessed by a demon, even by Satan himself. In Mark’s Gospel they also name Beelzebub, perhaps a version of the old Canaanite god Baal that had become identified with Satan. The concept of Satan had come a long way over the preceding century or two, after the writings that became the Old Testament were generally formed. What started as a minor character, a member of the court of heaven, became the personification of evil. Here is something useful to think about: there is far more written about demons outside of scripture than within it. There is more of horror movies than theology in our notions of evil.

It is interesting that Jesus does not dismiss the idea of demons He does not say that such things don’t happen, that the diseases and mental instabilities people attributed to evil spirits had other less supernatural causes. Instead, Jesus makes an argument as to why his critics are wrong—he can’t be possessed by evil spirits, since that would represent a divided house, evil working against itself since he, Jesus, was performing good works.

It could be that Jesus merely uses his critics’ own accusations to demonstrate that they are not thinking very clearly. Which is more convincing, to tell them they are wrong, or to show them that their bucket doesn’t hold water?

After all, if I find myself on the ground, all thought lost in the twisting darkness of an epileptic seizure, it no longer matters whether I understand the cause, demon or disease. It matters that someone else helps me.Eye of the Wolf by Lauren Bell

There is also the famous passage about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit being unforgivable. The Christian trinitarian view being that the Spirit is part of and one with that which is God, let’s paraphrase the verse—blasphemy against God is unforgivable. So what do we do with that?

We might question whether Jesus even said it. The Holy Spirit is so much a part of the post-crucifixion/resurrection viewpoint of Christianity that these verses sound like a later addition. Such an approach—cutting out the parts that are problematic or that don’t appeal—is difficult for many reasons, one of the strongest being that regardless of anything else, this is the scripture that we have in a form that the community of faith preserved.

We might consider context—what is going on when Jesus supposedly makes this pronouncement? Many a person will tell you that suicide is an unforgivable sin. (Isn’t it wonderful when a true believer blunders so judgmentally into the misery of other people?) Do we hear of anyone committing suicide in this story? No. Others will say that to die “unsaved” is blasphemy against the Spirit. Again I ask, is anyone dying in this story?

One thing is certainly going on, and it is the thing that Jesus is stridently rejecting. Some religious folk are pointing to something good, something of God, and calling it evil because it does not match their expectations or understanding. They are trying to prevent other people from experiencing what does not fit the framework of their religion, and Jesus condemns them for it.

Now that is worth thinking about.

“Your mother and brothers and sisters are outside calling for you,” the crowd tells him.

There are plenty of people who go to great lengths to argue that these brothers and sisters were actually cousins, the idea being that while God could have become human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, it is unthinkable that Mary (and Joseph) had other children. Let’s just go with what it says—Jesus is in his home, surrounded by an ambivalent crowd of followers and critics, when Mary and his siblings show up to intervene.

Jesus looks at the crowd and tells them that all who follow God are his brothers and sisters and mother. There is no record of how that goes over with Mary.

Sometimes we accept the family we are given, and sometimes we choose our own. Both groups may turn out to be the same people, overlapping circles. Mary stood outside the home of Jesus, outside the circle of new believers and onlookers, just as she stood on that hill when her son was crucified. She was still in that small circle when most of the others had run away.

The Copernican Universe, via NASA.gov
The Copernican Universe, via NASA.gov

It is likely that our understanding of God, the universe, one another and life around us is terribly flawed and desperately limited. Perhaps one day science will find other life forms we had not previously understood, and we will have to shift our concepts of angels and demons, just as physicists changed our understanding of “let there be light” with a bang. One day we may consider that being right was never so important as being kind, or true, or faithful. Doing good is better than being right. Love is more powerful than judgment.

Maybe that is the unforgivable blasphemy against God—clinging to our judgment in spite of our ignorance, choosing our notions of what is right over what is good. Perhaps it is not God who does not forgive. Perhaps our hamartia, our fatal unforgiven flaw, is that we turn our gaze so far inward, we focus so closely upon ourselves, that we fail to recognize our greatest faults and our greatest needs. Perhaps Jesus does not mean that God does not forgive us. Perhaps he means that when we draw our circle so tightly that our world contains only ourselves, there is no room for our brothers and sisters. When we cut ourselves off, there is no one left to absolve us.