Stories Matter

Sixth 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 telling stories, more than opposable thumbs or raw intelligence, is what 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.


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.



Fifth 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 story. A bunch of disciples are in a boat on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus is sleeping on a cushion in the stern when they are caught by a storm.

The Gospel of Mark 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 want God to act. Heal. Bless. Save.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 hasn’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 possible 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 the notion 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.”


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.

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 others 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 began to rise? 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 way of understanding 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 passage 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, seeking something good even in the midst of tragedy, something to redeem the loss and the pain, now that is powerful. It is the gospel story. The measure of the power of God isn’t found in the heat of stars or in the fathomless reaches 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. Restoration where there was loss. Something from the nothing that is left. Redemption. That is the gospel. That is true redemption, the practice and presence of grace, the iron resolution of love.


God is Odd

Sixth Sunday of Easter  |   John 15:9-17

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

Some people turn away at any thought of God, not accepting any such concept, loving or otherwise. We might pause to consider that the author of the Gospel of John also rejected many ideas about God.

Ancient of Days by William Blake
Ancient of Days by William Blake

The bearded old man reading our thoughts. The angry judge. Inventor of disease. Permitter of evil. Rule maker.

I don’t blame anyone for not believing in that sort of god. As others have said, I don’t believe in the god they don’t believe in either.

The God in John’s Gospel is not a tyrant in the sky. In this Gospel we find a God who is present with us, one who suffers as we suffer, the same things we suffer. This God, not content to be called master of anyone, chooses to be called friend, chooses to call us friends.

Clearly, God’s odd.

It is easy to love the stranger, a people far away. Not knowing them, we are able to project any trait or personality onto them. We can imagine their loves, their needs, their gratitude.

It is also easy to hate the stranger, people far from us. From a distance, we imagine their failings, their enmity. We assign their guilt, dole out their punishment, decide their fate.

Real people are harder. They destroy our expectations. Up close, they are difficult to love. They are hard to categorize or generalize, impossible to idolize, harder to demonize. They disappoint us. Without distance, we lose the simple clarity of right and wrong. Choices settle into ambivalent shades of gray. We lose our secretly cherished ability to be right all the time.

Some people are monsters, true enough. That is easily seen, almost as easily accepted. What is harder is realizing that the monsters are still people, still like us, still loved by the God of John’s Gospel. God, this Gospel claims, does not love some people but everyone. Monsters included.

Up close, we lose sight of our enemies in the faces we can see. Up close, our enemies change as their hands reach out to hold their children or to support an aging parent.

Lemur groupOur friends may not be like us. They may be better looking, or smarter. They may be better athletes or artists. They may be broken, poor, unable to walk or speak. In fact, it may be that friendship is their only gift.

If the God of John’s Gospel chooses to be our friend, that does not make us the same as God. It does not make God the same as us. It does give us a new way to consider the idea of God. Someone who likes us. Someone who does not judge us. Someone who wants to see us reach our potential, follow our calling.

Someone real.

This is not a God of rules, a God of ‘shoulds’— how you should act, what you should do. This is a God who listens to our hopes, knows our dreams. This is a God who knows our failures and who accepts us anyway, an act of redemption.

Friends redeem us, to the extent they are able. Imagine what that means with God.

This is not the god that radical atheism opposes. This is not even the god that radical creationists preach. That entire spectrum of belief and denial is built upon gods they themselves have defined, gods limited to the functions of universe-maker, time-winder, anthropomorphic clay-shaper, with a handful of traits thrown in to suit one argument or another—supposedly omniscient, all powerful gods most peculiarly limited by the imaginations either of supporters or opponents.

The God in John’s Gospel doesn’t even sound like theirs, either the one some people deny or the one other people insist we accept. A god of our own making, whether for denying or following, is not real. A god of our own making, however powerful or clever or amazing, is not this God of the Gospel.

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. That is the command of this odd God, the heart of this odd Gospel. Not that the idea was new. The prophet Micah had figured it out long before the Gospel of John was written: What does the Lord require of you? Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly.

You know. All the things a friend does.


Blind Expectations

Liturgy of the Palms  |  Mark 11:1-11, John 12:12-16

Lectionary Project

We know the story. The image is iconic, even to those who have only a passing familiarity with Christianity: Jesus riding a donkey, palms and cloaks covering the ground, a crowd calling out his name and welcoming him to Jerusalem.

The trouble is that the crowd were expecting someone else. They did not see the man they welcomed, the one riding the colt and accepting—perhaps tolerating—their accolades. Instead, they saw the person they had been expecting, a savior, a deliverer, a king.

To be sure, there were many ideas in the minds of those people, just as there were many ideas swirling in the minds of Jesus’ closest followers. The inner circle had heard Jesus pronounce enough strange and dark predictions that they were not certain what lay ahead of them in the great city. The crowd along the side of the road expected a great deal, though little of what they expected would come to pass.

They were blind to what was before them, seeing only what they wanted to see. They believed that God was going to deliver them from the Romans and restore the monarchy, and they thought this man Jesus had come to accomplish it. It is what they wanted to believe, and which of us will question our own beliefs?

Cherry BlossomsThere is our problem. People of faith have certain understandings of God, certain beliefs that we hold as true, even though we may be just as wrong as those people shouting on the side of the road two thousand years ago. Like them, we make the mistake of holding blindly to our expectations of God, regardless of what God intends, regardless of what God might do right in front of us.

We confuse our expectations of God with our faith in God.

It is a paradox. Rather than consider that we might, in some particular or major way, be wrong, we hold blindly to our belief system, thinking that it is the same as faith. We substitute our beliefs about God for our faith in God.

We are happier with a belief system that does not change than we are with a God who might not meet our expectations. Questioning our beliefs feels like questioning God.

That is why there are so many angry religious people, why there are always people who will shout and strut and do great harm, physical or otherwise, rather than question their own ideas. Their beliefs give them certainty. Doubt fills them with fear, and fear too often is expressed as anger.

Here’s the thing. If God is God, then we may lay aside our entire religious framework and rest certain that when we put our thoughts back together, God will still be there. If God is God, our opinion of the matter changes nothing.

It is another paradox of faith—we may feel undone by our doubts and still pray to a God about whom we feel we know very little, or in whom we have little faith remaining.

We think that prayer is a request, a petition, and perhaps it is. We say that in prayer we offer thanks, praise, love, as we communicate our thoughts and feelings to God, and perhaps we do. At its base, prayer is a confession of faith. We pray because on some level, beyond our doubts, we still believe God exists. We still believe that God hears us. We still hope that God responds, though it may be in ways that do not meet our expectations.

They stood by the road and shouted to Jesus. Few, if any, believed that they were welcoming God into their midst: they thought they were welcoming a king. Nevertheless, like other blind men who sat by the road and called out for help, Jesus heard them. He knew what they wanted, and he knew that in a few days he would disappoint them. He also knew that despite their mistaken beliefs, regardless of their misinformed shouts, he would far exceed their expectations.

Cherry Blossoms 3

Familiar Things

Baptism of the Lord  |  Mark 1:4-11

Familiar Things

Lectionary Project

Familiar things are the hardest ones to see. We walk past them, overlook them, think we already know everything about them—how they look, what they mean, what they are going to tell us. But we don’t know them, not really. We only know what we think about them, which is not the same thing.

SunFaceDarkThere is a glass sun on a slender pole outside my front door. It is beautiful, a once blue glass disc with metal sunbursts, a face with a bemused smile on the glass. Days go by before I see that the disc of the face is turned in its frame, rotated so that it is looking at me sideways, napping. I do not know if it is the wind, or whether children come and move it, perhaps on a dare or to find out how long it will take me to notice. I seldom do. Perhaps it moves with the help of the birds, or somehow more mysterious. As I said, I often walk by without even seeing it.

I have an image in my mind of how that glass sun appears, a memory of it standing new in the corner of a shop, when my daughter was a toddler. Yet every time that I stop to look at it, I realize that it does not match the image in my mind. The color is different. The blue is more pale, or more green. The smile is less, or maybe more, friendly. I find that I do not know this sun so well as I may have thought.

John the Baptist again—the lectionary insists that we keep returning to the Gospels to read about him, even though we already know him. We already know God, for that matter, and the entire Christmas story. A child in a manger, angels singing, wise men, sheep and shepherds, we know them all.

And so we cannot see them.

We do not see our neighbor, because we know her, and if we stopLookingInSurf to see the burden she is carrying we may have to lift some of it ourselves. We do not look for God, because we already know as much as we care to know, thank you. Seeing God would be life changing, and we are not that brave or that stupid. Why look in the mirror when the image we imagine is more pleasing?

Stating the obvious, that is what I am doing. We don’t care to hear it. We already know what it means, and we have all heard this sermon a hundred different ways, so why listen now?

“He saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove upon him.” Was that John or Jesus who saw, and did the other one even notice? And the voice that came from heaven, who heard it? Who believes such a thing happened, or was it only a way of telling a story, a wrinkle in the Gospel narrative, and do we hear this voice at all? If I hear a voice, could it be God, or must it be my unconscious mind talking to me? How do I know the difference?

Anyway, how do you talk about God to people who are tired of listening? When did it happen that talking about God, or, God help you, the Bible, was the same as being intellectually insipid? Why are skeptics celebrated as insightful and brilliant, while those who are open to possibilities of the spirit considered dimwitted?

GrassesIf I can walk past a glass sun at my own front door and not see it, what makes me think I would notice God-things? We don’t see the things we know are there. Why would we ever see or hear the things that we may doubt? It is ironic—those who claim to know God do not look for what they think they already know, while those who deny the existence of God do not look for what they refuse to accept.

It’s a wonder that anyone notices God at all. In fact, it’s a miracle.

Just look at the messengers. John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness. An unlikely bunch of rough disciples. Women. Most of the New Testament written by a zealot claiming mystical experiences. More women. Prophets who wore strange clothes, or no clothes, or who otherwise exhibited odd and unusual behaviors, things that might indicate mushrooms were involved. Judging by all of these people, it seems that God does not speak through the mainstream. The people existing comfortably in the middle already know what they want to know, and they’ve heard all the voices they care to hear.

God is on the edges, witnessed by the fringe elements of the faith community. Remember, Jesus himself was an outsider, rejected and killed by the intelligentsia. It was only years later that he became a central, loved, and respected figure at the heart of what is now Christianity.

The world we think we know, the people we know too well to see, the truth we think we understand—these are what separate us from God. We fail to know God, not because God is far away, but because all that is holy is too close for us to see.