As a Child

Proper 21 (26)  |  Mark 10:2-16

The Gospel of Mark puts strange things together. In the story of Jairus trying to get help for his daughter, we read about a sick woman in the street. There are blind men in odd places. Jesus sends his disciples out to preach, only to have their adventures paired with the death of John the Baptist, prophet and preacher in his own right.

In this passage, Mark pairs a conversation about divorce with a story of children who come to Jesus — the disciples are brusque with the kids, and Jesus is in turn brusque with his disciples.

Why put these two ideas together — divorce and children? What links them?

Maybe it has to do with the natural state of human beings. People are made to match — not a match of birth, or of necessity, but of choice. “…a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife…”

We choose one another. There is a natural progression to it. None of us lives forever, not in this state of being at any rate, and we hope our children will run beyond us, will choose new friends, new family, people to love and to love them when we are gone.

And there it is — a link, from the admonition against being hard-hearted and rejecting one another to the way Jesus embraces the children who choose to come to him.

The children have no thought of forever. No idea that they must commit to anything more than the moment. No notion that they might loose interest, might turn away, might find someone else more attractive. This moment is eternity for them, and in this present infinite moment, their choices are as eternal as they are pure.

Children come to us, come to God, with no notion of pretending to be someone they aren’t. Or, if they do pretend, it is an honest pretense — we know the child is not really a pirate or a dinosaur.

How many relationships would have lasted if only we had come as the people we are instead of the people we thought we needed to be, the people we pretended to be. We don’t necessarily mean to deceive. We simply do not think that anyone would accept us, cherish us, choose us, for being the person we are. Surely they want someone better, we think. More interesting. More rich. More friendly, energetic, charming. Not us—they couldn’t love us. Not the real us.

And yet that is the charm of children. They are as they are, and we love them for it. And God loves them for it. 

Maybe if we can accept that God can love us, the same as loving a child, then we can choose to love ourselves. Given that love, maybe we can start to think that someone else can love us for who we are, not for who we pretend to be.

If we can find our real selves, we can begin to love one another. Just as we are. Oh, let’s improve if we can. Let’s better ourselves. Let’s make something of ourselves. But let’s stop trying to fool other people into liking us.

Not Very Nice

Jesus Mural of Faith, Hope, Love, and Peace

Mark 2:23-3:6  |  Second Sunday after Pentecost

Why do so many people want to insist that Jesus was always nice? They like to talk about Jesus healing people, and they love to say that he suffered the little children to come unto him. (We can thank the King James for that fascination, I think.)

Mark is describing another sort of Jesus, an angry one.

Someone saw Jesus and his disciples picking ripe grain as they walked through a field. It’s an odd snack, but they were hungry. A group of religious men (and yes, we may be fairly sure they were all men) accused them of breaking the Sabbath, reaping on the day of rest, work that was by the letter of the law proscribed. Their accusation made Jesus angry.

The Reaper, by Vincent Van Gogh. 1889. Collection of Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
The Reaper, by Vincent Van Gogh. 1889. Collection of Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

To borrow a line from Sidney Poitier’s character in The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn, it’s ok to be angry. There are places and times when anger is the appropriate response. These days it isn’t difficult to find such a place or time.

The caution comes when we consider why Jesus was angry and who crossed him — religious people. If Christianity has it right, God Almighty incarnate was ticked off with some religious people.

There’s plenty of irony.

Rules. Rules can be a fine way to achieve an end. Rules can be tools, a method. Consider the rule of a monastery—some things laid aside, others picked up. Rising before sunrise to pray. Perhaps keeping silence. Obedience. Or consider keeping the Sabbath. Even today, observant Jews may find the rules of the Sabbath challenging, restraining, or they may find keeping the Sabbath to be liberating, freeing, restorative, which is the entire point, of course.†

The religious people complaining to Jesus wanted to bind God in rules for which they had forgotten the meaning. They were like men who set out on a journey but forgot their destination.

Rules aren’t the point. They’re just the method.

Here’s something else that is fascinating — Jesus answered them with a story, not an argument. He told them a story about David eating the bread of the Presence, bread reserved for the priests. It’s a story about one of God’s favorite people breaking the rules. (You can find it in 1 Samuel 21.) Maybe that’s one of the reasons God loved David: all those rules he left scattered behind him like broken pottery.

David is on the run, hungry, fleeing for his life from Saul, the unhinged, autocratic king. The priest Ahimelech gives David sacred bread to eat, and he also gives David the sword of Goliath that oddly enough had been kept in the sanctuary — holy food and an oversized weapon. When word reaches Saul of what the priest has done, Saul orders Ahimelech and his fellow priests to be slaughtered, along with their families. It’s not a pretty story.

The Harvest, by Vincent Van Gogh. 1888. Collection of Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
The Harvest, by Vincent Van Gogh. 1888. Collection of Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Jesus tells the religious folk who were objecting to hungry people picking grain on the Sabbath that the Sabbath day was made for humankind, not the other way around. Jesus is reminding them of the reason for the Torah, the law — to enrich the lives of people, to open a relationship with the Divine. They could not grasp it, having long before traded the law for their rules.

Their rules were easier. Focus on the Torah would have kept their eyes on God, which may have been wonderful or terrible, but never comfortable. Focusing on their rules let them divert their attention from the Divine. They subverted their own experience of faith.

We’re supposed to criticize the rule-keepers. At least, that seems to be the way of present day Christianity. Point at the ridiculous critics, shake our heads at their short-sightedness. Maybe that’s part of the reason that Jesus was angry. He knew that all these years later, we’d share one thing, at least, in common with the rule-keepers — we think that we are better at being good. And in focusing on behavioral delimiters, boundaries of acceptable Christian behavior, we loose track of our goal. Generally speaking, Christian ethics, like the ethics of every major religion, result in good behavior, good citizens, good neighbors, but that isn’t the point. You can achieve that same level of ethical behavior as an agnostic or an atheist, it’s just that the basis of your rules would be different.

One person may feed the hungry because that strengthens society, or because one day he may find himself hungry. The person of faith feeds the hungry because she sees the image of God in their faces.

There is a deeper point in the Torah, a more sublime meaning in doing unto others as we would have them do unto us. In loving our neighbor, we draw closer to the Divine. The closer to God, the fewer rules we need. And those first disciples walking with Jesus? It wasn’t a handful of grain that sustained them. It was the presence of God.

† For more along this line of thought, you may enjoy Surprised by God, by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg. Here’s a link to her website and to more information about her book:


Jesus Mural of Faith, Hope, Love, and Peace
Jesus Mural of Faith, Hope, Love, and Peace, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

490 Butterflies

Monarch Butterfly by DocentJoyce, Wikimedia Commons

490 Butterflies  |  Matthew 18:21-35

That’s the number — 7 times 70, or 490. There’s some variation in how we understand the conversation Matthew recorded, so maybe the number is just 77. Either way, it’s substantially larger than Peter was prepared to hear.

If someone sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times? Jesus said to him, Not seven times, I tell you, but seventy times seven.

It’s a big number.

Butterflies, Table 1, by Dr F Nemos, Wikimedia CommonsPeter was just trying to get a handle on this whole forgiveness thing, which was itself a way of getting a handle on the whole God-thing. We like measuring out the gifts we give. We especially like taking the measure of God.

This is the line. These are the rules. How else are we going to know who is right and who is wrong? To put it another way, how else are we going to tell us from them?

We’re hard-wired to identify with our group. Millennia of evolution behind us, we know that the best way to survive is to stick with our group. Our tribe. Our family. Our kind. Against whatever is out there—saber tooth tigers, wolves, other people. We’ve learned to follow the behavior markers of our group, the way we dress ourselves, the things we do and don’t do, and most particularly the things we do and do not say.

If we are people of faith, there is the God-tribe. Mostly, it still means the same thing—our group. Not whoever is worshipping the same God differently. Depending on the brand of our denomination or faith, that may leave out the Methodists or Presbyterians, or the Roman Catholics, or the Jews, or the Muslims, or the Buddhists. It certainly leaves out those rogue, snake handling, King James Baptists, unless you are one, in which case your God-tribe likely excludes nearly everyone.

It’s about behaviors and boundaries, the behaviors that reassure us that we belong in our God-tribe, the boundaries by which we keep other people out.

Forgiveness. Putting down the club. Letting someone else shelter in our cave, enlarging our tribe. It is interesting that when we forgive others, we’re the ones who benefit the most. The object of our moral outrage seldom pays any kind of price. They may not even care.

Forgiveness held back is like rocks in the arms of a swimmer. The rocks may be intended for bashing an opponent, but they serve only to drown the one carrying them. Resentment is a burden carried by those who hold back forgiveness, measuring out grace as though it is a thing best kept close.Monarch Butterfly by DocentJoyce, Wikimedia Commons

They are the same thing, resentment and forgiveness, just as a caterpillar and a butterfly are two aspects of the same life force. Kept inside us, resentment is a worm that eats into our hearts. Released, it flies. Those we forgive may see the beauty in its wings, but it is our own heart that is lighter.






From the Inside Out

From the Inside Out  |  Matthew 9:35 – 10:8

Where are the miracle workers when you need them?

Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. (Matthew 10:1, NRSV)

If Christians went around with the ability to cure every disease and every sickness, people would pay attention. More people would become Christian, some because they had seen a miracle and it stirred their faith, others because they had seen a miracle and wanted one.

Instead, miracles are as scarce as they ever were, and fewer people are interested in Christianity.

The decline of Christianity may be due to the lack of miracles, but it is more likely due to the abundance of Christians, the loudest and meanest ones anyway. Every day I hear someone condemning other people—usually people who are different, in upbringing, orientation, geography, politics—in the name of Jesus. Forget the fringe groups who would hate everyone else regardless of their own religion. There’s plenty of hate and fear in the mainstream, and only the television charlatans claim to heal in the name of Jesus.

It’s enough to make me want to call myself anything but Christian. Most days Buddhism is looking pretty good. I can imagine Jesus embracing it.

So what do we do with passages like the one from Matthew’s Gospel, claiming that the followers of Jesus will work miracles? It says that Jesus gave his disciples the power to throw out “unclean spirits”—however we might understand that phrase today—and to heal every disease. Imagine it. Imagine being able to stroll through a children’s hospital and heal every kid in there.

Be healed in the name of Jesus. Regardless of your disease. Regardless of your sexual orientation, or faith background, or country of origin. Of all the people Jesus encounters in the gospel stories, he only questions the nationality of one—the gentile woman whose daughter is ill or possessed. It seems his question is pointed outside the gospel, pointed at us, we who listen to the story today, because he goes ahead and heals her daughter anyway.

So did the disciples have the ability to heal people? The gospels say so. The early Church reports it as so. (For example, see Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, 2.32.4, written in the second century.) How do we understand the stories? Is it true, literally true, that they could heal the sick? Could Jesus? Did they perform these miracles? If so, why was there not a Pied Piper effect, a daily triumphant-entry-Palm-Sunday kind of parade?

Some people say our lack of miracles is due to our lack of faith. They may be right. I can’t contradict them, certainly not with the pitiful amount of faith I myself possess.

There are plenty of religious people eager to point to the modern lack of faith, or to some temporary dispensation of power to the early Christians not shared with us, we later poorer children, but we’re left feeling that the explanations don’t hold water or that we’d have to wear blinders to buy into them.

In the meanwhile, there are other ways to think about it.

Could these be symbolic stories, disease and unclean spirits as a metaphor? Fables or allegories? Simply stories with a meaning? Does that work? Could we think of them that way, and remain among the faithful?

Otherwise, we have no good explanations, but even without an explanation, there may be an application.

Albert Camus said this, though he wasn’t speaking to miracles—

We must mend what has been torn apart, make justice imaginable again in a world so obviously unjust, give happiness a meaning once more to peoples poisoned by the misery of the century.

The prophets put it this way:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
(Micah 6:8, NRSV)

Maybe we lack the power to walk into hospitals and heal the sick. That is a God-thing, and maybe it always was.

Maybe our work is the lesser miracles—mending what we have torn, restoring justice where we have failed, giving happiness to a child who has known nothing but war and hunger and fear. A home for the homeless. Food for the hungry. Clothes and education and peace for the poor. And medicines for the sick.

Those are pretty good miracles. We already know how to perform them. What is holding us back? Where are the miracle workers when you need them?

UNICEF Take Action
UNICEF – A Good Place to Start Working Some Miracles






Circles in a Circle by Vassily Kandinsky, 1923

Seventh Sunday of Easter | John 17:1-11

As a child I watched magicians on television. Well, magicians, and other folks like them who performed tricks of legerdemain. There were standard tricks—the disappearing lady, things in hats, impossible numbers of plates spinning on implausibly thin poles. Then there were the rings, the metal circles, clearly solid, solidly linking, joining and rejoining into chains.

Several Circles by Vassily Kandinsky, 1926
Several Circles by Vassily Kandinsky, 1926

John talks in a circle. It’s a trait that is apparent even on a casual reading of this Gospel. The story, and the language that tells it, loops back upon itself, circling, always circling, and nowhere more than in chapters 14-17, the farewell discourse of Jesus with his followers, passages John places in the narrative just before the arrest and crucifixion. Chapter 17 itself is one long prayer.

You have given him authority over all… to give eternal life to all… and this is eternal life, that they may know you…

I have glorified you,… now Father glorify me… All mine are yours and yours are mine and I am glorified in them…

And finally: …that they may be one, as we are one.

In this Gospel, everything is connected—God as Father, God as Jesus, all of us—everything is made one, touching, containing, interconnecting, rings within rings.

Each link of a chain is a separate thing, an entity in itself, a ring without beginning or end; a link can be positioned so as not to touch the rings passing through it. Nevertheless, each ring is itself part of the greater chain, whether a particular link is aware of it or not. In John’s Gospel, the ends of the chain loop back, a circle made of circles, and for this Gospel, unbreakable.

We might reflect on a single link in an unbreakable chain, which is our own place in John’s view—part of a chain, part of the circle, part of a living vine. We might be held in a perfect position so as to touch nothing. We may not feel the embrace of any other link—the world may pass by us, through us, touching nothing. Though we feel nothing, still the other links pass within us, encircling us, holding us. Nothing can remove them. Nothing can separate us.

Circles in a Circle by Vassily Kandinsky, 1923
Circles in a Circle by Vassily Kandinsky, 1923

There are some chains that enslave us, chains that weigh us down, rattling and dragging behind us, chains of our own making, like Marley in Charles Dickens, or chains made by human hands, by human slavers, to trade and profit from human misery. Then there is this chain, weightless, unseen, that binds nothing but itself, connecting us to God, to all that is good, to one another—this chain is not what we wear, it is who we are.

Embracing God, we realize that God already embraces us.