The Last Supper

March 30, 2010

The Last Supper

It is evening, and you are gathered together with the other disciples in a small room for passover. All the time you are watching Jesus, while he sits quietly in the shadows listening to the idle chatter, watching over those who sit around him, and from time to time, telling stories about the Kingdom of God.

As night descends, a meal of bread and wine is brought into the room. It is only at this moment that Jesus sits forward so that the shadows no longer cover his face. He quietly brings the conversation to an end by capturing each one with his intense gaze. Then he beings to speak:

“My friends, take this bread, for it is my very body, broken for you.”

Every eye is fixed on the bread that is laid on the table. While these words seem obscure and unintelligible, everyone picks up on their gravity.

Then Jesus carefully pours wine into the cup of each disciple until it overfloews onto the table.

“Take this wine and drink of it, for it is my very blood, shed for you.”

With these words an ominous shadow seems to descend upon the room– a chilling darkness that makes everyone shudder uneasily. Jesus continues:

“As you do this, remember me.”

Most of the gathered disciples being to slowly eat the bread and drink the wine, lost in their thoughts. You, however, cannot bring yourself to lift your hand at all, for his words have cut into your soul like a knife.

Jesus does not fail to notice your hesitation and approaches, lifting up your head with his hand so that your eyes are level with his. You eyes meet for only a moment, but before you are able to turn away, you are caught up in a terrifying revelation. At that instant, you experience the loneliness, the pain, and sorrow that Jesus is carrying. You see nails being driven through skin and bone; you hear the crowds jeering and the cries of pain and iron cuts against flesh. At that moment you see the sweat that flows from Jesus like blood, and experience the suffocation, madness, and pain that will soon envelop him. More than all of this, however, you feel a trace of the separation he will soon feel in his own being.

In that little room, which occupies no significant space in the universe, you have caught a glimpse of a divine vision that should never have been disclosed. Yet it is indelibly etched into the eyes of Christ for anyone brave enough to look.

You turn to leave– to run from that place. You long for death to wrap around you. But Jesus grips you with his gaze and smiles compassionately. Then he holds you tight in his arms like no one has held you before. He understands that the weight you now carry is so great that it would have been better had you never been born. After a few moments, he releases his embrace and lifts the wine that sits before you, whispering,

“Take this win, my dear friend, and drink it up, for it is my very blood, and it is shed for you.”

All this makes you feel painfully uncomfortable, and so you shift in your chair and fumble in your pocket, all the time distracted by the silver that weighs heavy in your pouch.

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When we read stories we tend to identify with the best people in them. So when people read the stories in the gospels, they tend to identify themselves with the “good” disciples. The ones we hear about, and who went on to do amazing things, etc., whatever. But, without dwelling on it too much, we’re often just like a stereotypical Judas.

We’ve discussed ways in which being like Judas could be a good thing. But what’s described here, what we all do, is not this noble betrayal we have spoken of. This is not betraying in order to stay true. This is betraying despite saying that you’re true. The parable describes the subject as one carrying a great weight, and doesn’t this accurately reflect our reactions when we make a mistake?

It might be profitable for us, then, to remember how Judas-like we all can be, and not in a good way.

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(not so)easyJet

March 30, 2010

I have got a wonderful story to tell, but I am in no mood to tell it. Why is my mood so dark? I lost my hat. Yes, the green, communisty one. This is easily my favorite hat. Really, it is the only one I wear with any regularity. I got it in Moscow last year, and, particularly since moving to Belfast, it has become synonymous with me, in much the same way as my brown jacket is to folks at Northwestern. I know it sounds silly, but I can’t help it. I really love that hat. It is either in George Best City Airport or some random cabbie’s car, but how we got to this point is a story all its own.

I don’t really like flying. Let’s just get that out in the open right now. It isn’t that I’m afraid, although I will admit that the idea that the only thing keeping us in the air is physics does unnerve me sometimes. No, it’s that flying is a uniquely unpleasant experience. I’m not covering new ground here, and far more talented people than I have ranted about the ridiculousness of airlines. Amid all the common complaints—long lines, unhelpful corporate regulations, crap in-flight meals—I would like to add another: size. Obviously, I’m not fat. Fat folk and airlines have been in the news recently because some companies have started to charge larger people for extra seats because they take up too much room. (That’s the 4:43 AM, no sleep yet today way to say that. I’m sure there are more tactful ways, but I’m not willing to use them right now.)

I don’t have this problem, but mine is more intractable. I fully accept that some larger folk are unable to lose weight, but conceivably a fat person can lose weight and thus not pay the penalty impose by the airlines. My problem is that I am too tall, and there aren’t many ways to go about correcting that short of stepping on a land-mine or dancing with a lawnmower. “Oh, but Chris,” I hear you say. “You could just upgrade to business class.”
Would that I could, for business class seems like the land God led Israel to when I’m flying. But when you’re staring at repaying student loans as soon as you’re done with school, you don’t overspend. So I’m herded onto the plane and made to sit in a crushingly uncomfortable position for the duration of the flight instead. This is my experience of flying.

Oh that it were happening now.

My flight was scheduled to leave City Airport at 8:30-ish. Being extra careful, I let myself have some room to spare on the front end. I arrived at the airport and checked in at 6:20. The flight was scheduled to be an hour, and from there I would wait in Luton Airport until around One AM, at which point I would take a shuttle bus to Heathrow. There I would wait some more until around noon when my flight left to go to Moscow. It is almost five as I write this and I am still in Northern Ireland.

Why? EasyJet. Apparently they didn’t have a crew who could fly us from Belfast to Luton. Once they realized their error, they canceled the flight. Online. But in City Airport, the only internet connection is one that has to be paid for, thus no one is online. Two hours after they cancelled the flight, they told us. In so doing we missed all the last flights out of the airport for the night. (City Airport’s flyways go over residential areas, and as a result it is not allowed to operate at night.) Instead we waited in line for two hours while they sorted everything out. People who could wait until tomorrow were given hotel accommodations and a rescheduled flight, but for folk like myself the news was altogether darker. You see I couldn’t wait until the next day for my flight, obviously. I have to be in Heathrow. So this was my option: Board a cab and drive to Belfast International Airport, 30 minutes away, and wait until 6:00 when a plane will take off and go to Stansted. From there I have to pray that I’m able to catch another shuttle, get to Heathrow on time, and relax as the rest of the trip, hopefully, goes smoothly.

This is where the hat gets lost. My memory is famously poor. I forget plans I make with people, only to find out from their anger that I have disappointed them. Sometimes I realized that I’ve forgotten something, but can’t remember what I’ve forgotten. It isn’t fun. So, somewhere between calling the cab to take me to Belfast International and getting out of the cab, I lost track of my hat. It could be back in City Airport; but I called them, and it wasn’t in the lost and found. It could be in the cab, but I looked when I got out and didn’t see it. It may have disappeared into a wrinkle in time and my sleep-deprived brain didn’t register it, because, by the way, I have yet to sleep tonight. There’s no place for overnighters to sleep in Belfast International, so I’ve just been awake, hoping that time will go fast.

Meta-Interruption: Obviously, I wrote this in between flights. Well, actually before I started flying for real. I will now pick up the story again, and begin using past-tense to describe events.

Once I landed in Stansted I had to sprint to the bus counter in order to make it to a bus that would get me to Heathrow. And there I found out that since I was changing my ticket from a Luton departure to a Stansted departure, I was going to have to pay 10 pounds. (I am going to make sure easyJet repays me for that.) To top it off? The route that the bus had to take was littered with road construction and accident clean-up, which meant we were absolutely crawling along. A trip that should have taken an hour and a half was doubled, so by the time I got to Heathrow, I again had to run through the airport in order to make it to my plane in time.

Now I’m in Moscow, and I never thought I would feel more comfortable getting around in a country whose language I don’t speak well than getting around in a place like, say, the UK. Some of it might be muscle memory; I remember a lot of the places I’ve been in Moscow from when I was here last. I flew into the same airport; I’m going out of the same train station, even a few of the Metro stops were the same. Still, getting around here has been much more relaxing than running through UK airports and trying to sleep despite Belfast International’s completely nonexistent accommodations for folk having to do that. (Well, I am having to tell cabbies here, “No, you don’t understand; I don’t want to take the taxi. I want to take the metro.” They’re persistent.)

If I return on April 12 and my hat is still missing, EasyJet will have made an implacable enemy. Actually, they already have, if I’m honest. The handling of this matter from start to finish has been amateurish, and if I miss my flight out of London because of this I am going to be furious. When companies make an enemy of me, they rarely see me again; ask Wal-Mart. I would have flown EasyJet one or two more times in my lifetime had this gone smoothly. Instead, they’ll never be getting my patronage again.

The Empty Exchange

March 28, 2010

The Empty Exchange

Samuel and Luka had been lifelong friends. Their relationship stretched back to when they were both children and continued through adolescence into their adult years. But their relationship really deepened when, during the war, they fought side by side int he trenches.

Yet, when they returned from the war, they both fell in love with the same woman, Mila. Although she finally married Luka, Samuel continued to harbor his own deep feelings for her.

As time went on, Samuel’s parents were tragically killed, and he inherited his family’s estate. Although now a wealthy man, he found it hard to accept the death of his parents and sought emotional support from the one woman he had always loved.

Amidst the intensity of the circumstances, a brief affair ensued between Samuel and Mila. Unable to live with the secrecy of their actions, Samuel ended the affair and confessed all. Luka, devastated by the news, looked Samuel in the eyes and said, “Before God and all the heavenly hosts, I swear to you now that I will never accept your apology.”

These words haunted Samuel for many years, for he felt awful about what he had done and yearned to be reconciled once more with his friend. Yet he understood the pain and heartache he had caused and knew that his friend was a man of his word. Samuel knew that his friend would remain true to his vow and would never accept Samuel’s offer of repentance, even if Luka now wanted to.

Yet, after years of wrestling, he decided that it did not matter whether his apology was accepted or now. What mattered was that he approach his friend and express his sorrow. So, early one evening Samuel gathered his courage and went to Luka’s house. Upon seeing Luka, Samuel fell to the ground and cried out, “Old friend, I know that you cannot accept my apology because you made a solemn oath all those years ago. But I must tell you that there has not been a day when I have not been brought low by my actions. I have never been able to free myself from this pain, and I am truly sorry for what I did.”

Luka smiled with compassion, for over the years he had come to understand that those days had been darks for everyone, and that Samuel had been suffering from deep depression. So he addressed his repentant friend saying, “I made a vow never to accept your apology, and I intend to keep my word. But seeing you like this makes such an apology superfluous. Indeed, if I were to accept your apology, then this would mean that I considered you to have intentionally hurt me– something I know is not the case. So I reject your apology as unnecessary and thus keep my vow intact, not because I wish to continue our estrangement, but so that we can truly be reconciled as brothers once more.”

After this, Samuel and Luka were reunited and went on to grow old together as friends and companions once more.

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In the prodigal parable we looked at the idea of forgiveness preceding apology, an idea that I think is a powerful one. Here we see a slightly more nuanced take. The apology is a necessary step for the offender, Samuel to take, but it is unnecessary, since Luka has forgiven him already. Allowing Samuel to apologize has made it possible for him to move on from his transgression, though.

As we start to go through Holy Week, I think this idea is a wonderful metaphor for the Christian life. This story parallels, in many ways, the story told in the Bible. (For Samuel, read humanity; for Luka, read God; for Mila, read temptation– I am, however, uncomfortable making a women the sole source of temptation, but I digress.) Samuel transgressed Luka, betraying him in perhaps the most personal way possible. In response Luka made Samuel anathema. (Banishment from the garden, death and suffering, etc.) The separation between these two close friends deeply affected both of them; they both wanted to be back together. There’s much of the human experience in Samuel’s anguished wandering after he and Luka fall out. I wonder if we fleshed this story out further if we’d find instances like the Exodus story, moments in which Luka tried to call Samuel back but was not heard.

At any rate, we end with Samuel finding out that his apology was not needed, because he’d already been forgiven. True apology helps set a person on a path to change, so don’t let this seem like I’m downplaying the role of repentance. I know some– Tyler, I’m guessing– will want to talk more about this idea, but I think the kernel of this story syncs well with orthodox Christian teaching. When we repent we find that we were forgiven all along. It wasn’t God who needed to do the forgiving; it was us who needed to do the apologizing.

Mansions

March 27, 2010

Mansions

Around a large campfire late one autumn evening, Jesus comforted his disciples by speaking to them of a heavenly realm that far surpasses the beauty of anything on earth. He spoke of a place that never grows dark or cold, a vast city that is filled with beautiful mansion, with streets of gold, and with unending expanses of green and fertile land– a place of perpetual peace and fulfillment.

Jesus spoke of this kingdom late into the night, painting pictures of heaven until the fire began to turn to ash and a chill filled the air. One by one, each of his disciples drifted off to sleep with the images of heavenly treasure and luxurious mansions feeding their dreams.

In the end only Jesus and a poor, unknown, and uneducated disciple were left, each one lost in though, watching as the last cinders of the fire began to die.

After some time had passed, this solitary disciple looked over to Jesus and spoke.

“I was wondering about something,” he said.

“Yes, my friend?” Jesus replied.

“Well, there are so many people who follow you now that I can’t help worrying that someone like me, an old, uneducated sinner, may get overlooked amidst all the great thinkers, politicians, preachers, and radicals who are being attracted to you and your message.”

Then he turned his face away and continued, “I’ve never been in a mansion; in fact, I have never even seen one. So, I don’t care too much if I miss out on all that. But tell me, will there be room enough for me when I die– will there be somewhere for me to stay in this kingdom of which you speak?”

Jesus looked at the man with compassion. “Don’t worry,” he whispered, in a tone that could barely be heard over the distant contented noises of the sleeping crowd. “Tucked away in a tiny corner of heaven, away from all the grand mansion and streets of gold, there is a cramped little stable. It doesn’t look like much inside or out, but on a clear night you can see the stars shine bright amidst the cracks, and you can feel the warm breeze caress your skin. In this kingdom, that is where I live, and you would be welcome to live there with me.”

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I get a little bit emotional reading this parable; it is just about exactly how I imagine Jesus relating to people. “Yes, my friend?” On to the meat of the story, though.

Riches tempt us. Eternal riches even more so. Can we take a quick step back, though, and consider; in a world in which all one’s needs are met, what use is there for treasure and riches? Seems to me that the whole “Treasures in Heaven” and mansion talk might just be a metaphor for something else.

Jesus spent his entire earthly ministry identifying with the poor. The Septuagint is fair obsessed with the fortunes of the needy. (This should not be news to people; God cares about poor folks.) It does make a certain amount of sense to assert that their eternal reward for their faithfulness would be a bit of turnabout, but I think that interpretation rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of the stories. Wealth is never portrayed as a noble end in and of itself, and it makes no sense to me to suggest that suddenly it would become so in a reconciled earth. Instead we can think of this wealth as representing not corporeal riches, but the putting right of things.

If the picture of a world reconciled to God is not, then, one overflowing with treasure, but instead one that has been put profoundly right– a world experiencing shalom– then it makes complete sense that Jesus would say to his friend, in effect, “The Kingdom of God is a humble thing, and it always will be. The discovery of that, at the end of all things, will be the discovery of an untold treasure. And if you want, you can live with me.”

The Unrepentant Son

March 26, 2010

The Unrepentant Son

There was once an elderly man who had raised two sons and had worked diligently his whole life. Now, the younger of the two sons was impetuous by nature and said to his father, “I do not want to wait for my inheritance. Give me my share now.”

His father reluctantly complied. A few days later, the younger son packed his bags and departed from the home. Over the next few years, he squandered the money that he had been given, leading a life of worldly pleasure. However, his money soon ran out, and the young son found himself with friends, food or shelter. He eventually found a job feeding pigs and was so poor that he had to supplement his diet with the scraps used to feed the animals.

This was no life for the youn man, so he thought to himself, I have had a good time in the last few years, but perhaps I should now return to my father’s home. For there it is warm, and while he will be angry, he may take pity on me and let me work as a hired hand. And so he began the return journey.

But, while he was still a long way off, his father saw him. Overcome with joy, he ran to his lost son and embraced him. The father then said to his servants, “Bring the best robe that I own, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, but now has been found.” That evening there was a great celebration.

Later that night, after the party, while he was alone, the younger son wept with sorrow and repented for the life he had led.

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This parable is the second in the series that takes a look at the idea of the prodigal, but this time it sticks fairly close to the story that Jesus told. A couple of thoughts, then, to flesh that out:

I found at the Drops Like Stars event a few weeks ago how transgressive this story is. The son asking for his inheritance would have had just about the same effect then as it would have today. It is, essentially, saying to the parent, “You are worth nothing more to me than the money I’ll get when you’re dead. In fact, I wish you were dead.” The story is so familiar that the shock of this request is often lost on us, though. In Jesus’ telling, this story has no resolution. In fact, the story switches perspectives abruptly from the Prodigal to the Faithful son. That’s one of the strengths of the parable, really. There’s unresolved tension, and most people can see themselves in everyone in the story.

This telling of the story is unconcerned with the reaction of the Faithful son, though. Instead it is most interested in the space that the father’s reaction has created. The reaction is different than we’d expect; it is forgiveness without apology. The repentance comes afterward, and it is precisely because the forgiveness was extended first with no condition. We don’t generally operate in that way, and I wonder if that damages our ability to truly forgive and to truly apologize and repent. In this case the father requires no penance, whereas our forgiveness usually comes with strings attached. But the unconditionality of the forgiveness has opened up space for the son to repent in a real way.

There is no economy here; no horse trading. There is only love, a counterintuitive force that is able to change a person.

Overthrowing the Emperor

March 25, 2010

Overthrowing the Emperor

There was once a mighty emperor who had known only victory and prosperity during his entire life. Such was his success in battle and his absolute power over his subjects, that many considered him divine. The emperor ruled with an iron fist from a majestic palace built high up in the mountains– a vantage point from which he could survey his vast kingdom. Over time, he had built up the largest army that the world had ever known– an army before which every nation trembled. Yet, his thirst for power was unquenchable. He longed for an ever stronger army and continued to oppress and torment his land with impossible demands for absolute obedience.

Yet, one night this great leader had a terrifying dream. In this dream he witnessed his vast army laid waste before him and his great palace in ruins. Then he heard a divine voice saying, “There is a heavenly power at work in your empire that can bring your whole army to its knees, a power that transcends your earthly reign.”

The emperor awoke and said to himself, I must see this divine power for myself.

So he turned to the great religious leaders of his land, visiting their vast cathedrals and diligently engaging in all their elaborate rituals. He offered great sacrifices at the altar of the various gods and promised untold treasure to the religious authorities if they could reveal this divine power to him. However, no matter how hard he tried and no matter what rituals and incantations the religious authorities engaged in, the emperor felt no divine presence and witnessed no mighty acts. So he turned inward, seeking this divine power through private meditation, fasting, and prayer. He spent long hours practicing new forms of asceticism, prolonged periods of isolation, and every form of prayer he could discover. However, despite these great sacrifices, the emperor felt and saw nothing.

Then one morning he overheard two of his servants discussing religious matters. As he listened, he heard them speak of a great mystic who lived in the city. This man was believed to be so close to God that he could uproot trees and part seas with a mere gesture. As the emperor listened, he heard that this great man of God had contracted a terminal disease during his work in the poorer parts of the city. He was approaching death and had only days to live.

The emperor viewed this overheard conversation as a sign that God had finally heard his prayer, and so immediately, he called together an entourage of soldier and servants, demanding that he be brought to the dying man’s bedside without delay.

Within the hour, they left the palace, and, while the journey was long, they reached the city gates by nightfall. After some searching, they found the humble dwelling of the old teacher, and the emperor boldly entered.

While the emperor rarely spoke directly to anyone other than his most trusted advisors, on this occasion he looked directly at the dying man and said, “I have been told that you walk close to God. I am here because I have heard of this God’s power and with to bear witness to it.”

“Is that so?” replied the mystic. “I must warn you that the power of my God is unlike anything you have encountered before. If you truly seek it out, it will break you into pieces and destroy your reign over this land.”

“So be it,” said the emperor, “if what you say is true, then fate has spoken.”

The mystic nodded and then, with the last of his strength, beckoned the emperor to approach his bedside. The emperor complied, and in response, the old man reached up, grabbed him by his fine robes, pulled him down to his knees, and whispered into his ear, “Here is the power of my God: it is to be found in my rotting flesh, in my weakness, in the dirt and disease of this world. You have not seen this power because it is in the people you have refused to heed; it resides in those you have tortured and put to death, those who have suffered under your hand. The power of God is to be found in the face of the widow and the orphan, in the illegal alien, and in the outstretched hand of the starving man. This weakness and fragility is the power of God, a power that can overturn the most evil of tyrants.”

These were the last words of the teacher, for there and then he died in the arms of the emperor. The emperor remained silent for some time, clutching the dead man’s body. He looked around the humble dwelling and saw the poverty of the people who had stayed by this man’s bedside throughout his suffering, and he began to weep.

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We’ve been swirling around this point for a while now with these parables; weakness can overcome power; the seeking of transformation transforms. These two themes get pushed together again in this parable, and I’ll come back to them presently. This story also turns our usual hierarchy of heaven on its head. The religious leaders in their cathedrals didn’t have the answers the emperor was looking for, but the poor mystic did. In this formulation, God is not revealed through top down fiat, but instead delivered by seeping in from the bottom. I should say that I agree with the formulation, and think that it would be good for religious leaders to remember it.

But the idea doesn’t work unless you accept the other ideas that underpin it– the power in weakness and the ability of seeking to transform. First, strength in weakness: it seems counter-intiutive, but the country of India serves notice that it is true. It wasn’t Black Panthers, but nonviolent resisters, that finally won support for passing Civil Rights legislation in the 60s. Civil rights activists and Indian nationalists didn’t speak the language of power; they subverted power by being weak and showing how power was oppressing and dehumanizing them. This is no short-term strategy. It requires years, decades even, of patience and persistence. Power discourses are surely more attractive, but they are fragile in reality. All it takes is a bigger bully to pull the whole facade down. A God who incarnates and suffers and dies understands this.

Which brings us to the second point: seeking’s transformative nature. The process of seeking lays the foundation for transformation, a foundation that the weakness discourse builds upon to lay the framework of ground up, peaceful re/insurrection. The emperor’s desire to understand the power that would eventually overthrow him opened him up to being transformed by the encounter with the weakness that would do just that. It was in desiring to understand the change that was going to occur in his land that the emperor was changed.

One can imagine, then, the emperor leaving the hut of the mystic, and the friends who had attended the sick man going back about their work of subversion of power; slowly, patiently deconstructing and rebuilding the society that the emperor had constructed. Maybe the emperor would have joined them, or maybe not. The rich young ruler went away discouraged after Jesus told him to sell his possessions, after all. The beauty is that we have a choice.

The Father’s Approval

March 24, 2010

The Father’s Approval

There was once a young man called Caleb who was obsessed with gathering up possessions and gaining status. He was so driven by the desire to succeed that, from an early age, he managed to become on of the most prominent and influential figures in the city. Yet he was not happy with his lot. He worked long hours, rarely saw his children, and often became irritable at the slightest problem. But more than this, he knew that his lifestyle met with his father’s disapproval.

His father has himself been a wealthy and influential man in his youth. But he had found such life shallow and unsatisfactory. As a result he had turned away from it in an endeavor to embrace a life of simplicity, fellowship, and meditation.

Caleb’s father had taught him from an early age about the problems that come from seeking material and political influence, and he warned Caleb in the strongest possible way to embrace a life that delves deeply into the beauty of creation, the warmth of friendship, and the inspiration derived from deep and sustained reflection.

Caleb’s father was an inspiring man, well loved by all, and Caleb could see that his father, while living in a modest way, was at peace with himself and the world in a manner that his friends and colleagues were not. Because of this, Caleb often looking with longing at his father’s lifestyle and frequently detested the path that he had personally chosen. Yet, despite this, he was still driven to pursue wealth and power.

It was true that his father was a happy and contented man, but he was also concerned about his son, and on any occasion when they spent time together, he would criticize Caleb for the life he had chosen.

But one day while Caleb’s father was reflecting upon his son’s life, a voice from heave interrupted him, saying, “Caleb is also my son, and I love him just the way he is.”

Caleb’s father began to weep as he realized that all these years he had been hurting his son through his disapproval and criticism. So he immediately visited his son’s house and offered a heartfelt apology, saying, “Please never feel that you have to change what you do or who you are. I love you without limit and condition just as you are.”

After that day, the father began to take an interest in his son’s life again, asking questions about what he was doing and how his work was progressing. But increasingly, Caleb found that he was no longer so interested in working the long hours. Soon he started to skip work in order to spend more time wiht his family and began to take less interest in what others thoughts about him.

Eventually, Caleb gave up his work entirely and followed in his father’s footsteps, realizing that it was only after his father had accepted him unconditionally for who he was that he was able to change and become who he always wanted to be.

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There’s a line of thought that suggests that to change a person’s behavior it is better to affirm a person and tell them the good that you see in them as opposed to reminding them of the ways that they fall short of your expectations. Rather than convincing a person of their wrongness, constant criticism can end up reinforcing and implicitly affirming the view that is being criticized. Constantly being criticized as stupid eventually convinces a person that they’re stupid; it is difficult to see what sort of purpose this strategy serves, except to feed the aggression of the criticizer.

We can apply the same theory to religious life. If a person is consistently told that they’re a despicable sinner, they may end up being convinced of such and begin acting like it. One could imagine, then, that being told consistently that they are a beloved creation God, fashioned in God’s image, and called to bring about the reconciliation of heaven and earth might result in a similar conviction in a person. This isn’t about denying the truth of the matter when we fall short. It seems silly to me to deny the problems in the world in favor of a gauzy vision of a not yet present reality, but it seems equally silly to focus on those problems to such an extent that the vision of a better world is lost completely.

Blindness

March 23, 2010

Blindness

Near Jericho, a great scribe was sitting one day quietly reflecting by the roadside. As he contemplated life and faith, a large and noisy crowd stumbled by. The scribe became intrigued by all the activity, as this was usually a relatively relaxed and quiet place to sit, so he called out to one of the passers-by, “What’s happening?” the man he addressed didn’t stop, but shouted excitedly, “Jesus of Nazareth is approaching the city.”

This wise man had heard much talk of Jesus, and so he eagerly joined the crowd. After some walking, everyone came to a halt, and silence descended upon the crowd. As the scribe looked up, he saw Jesus walking through the masses, talking with people and healing them. As he watched, a cry welled up from deep within him, and he began to shout, “Son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner!”

Those who led the way rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but the scribe shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

As Jesus came near, he stopped and asked the man to approach. When the scribe came near, Jesus touched him and said, “Your faith has healed you.” At that moment, the scribe was blinded and began to cry out like a fool.

When all the people saw what had taken place they were horrified, but Jesus paid no heed to them. Instead, he put his hand on the shoulder of the scribe and whispered, “You will be blind for a while.” To this the man replied with a smile, “Oh, Lord, it does not matter in the least, for the moment you touched me I saw all that I ever needed to see.”

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On the face of it, this parable appears perverse. Instead of healing someone, Jesus leaves the scribe stricken with blindness. The scribe’s words reveal the truth of the encounter, though, and the experience of this scribe can be spooled out into a metaphor for the way we encounter the divine.

In this telling, the incoming of God is a luminosity, an impenetrable mystery, so bright that rather than illuminating and making clear, all is obscured and we are rendered blind by the presence. I don’t think this blindness is something to be feared, however. If God is known as unknown, defined as undefinable, then this blindness, this brilliance, should be expected. Our Western, post-Enlightenment minds want to make everything intelligible, but there are perhaps some things that elude description and must simply be experienced. Instead of attempting to name and articulate this inpouring of the Divine, perhaps we should instead quiet ourselves before it and let it blind us.

The Believer

March 22, 2010

Leon had never been interested in exploring religion. As a reasonable man, he considered faith to be irrational and damaging. However, on day a friend of Leon’s was walking past a small church in the heart of the city and happened to look in. To his amazement, he saw Leon kneeling before some candles and mumbling a prayer. Leon had recently fallen up hard times, so his friend guessed that this must be the reason for his newfound religiosity. But something seemed amiss, so he entered the church and approached Leon.

The sanctuary was dark and almost empty. Sure enough, thee was Leon, crouched on the floor, reciting a religious incantation at the foot of the altar. Upon getting closer, his friend realized that Leon was reciting an old folk prayer that was believed by many to bring wealth and health to those who would recite it daily.

His friend was amazed and interrupted Leon, saying, “I thought you didn’t believe in such superstitious nonsense. Do you really think that this prayer works?”

In reply, Leon looked up and angrily proclaimed, “Of course I don’t believe it works, what kind of idiot do you take me for?”

“Then why are you reciting it?” said his friend in shock.

“Ah,” replied Leon. “It is because the priest informed me that this prayer works even if you don’t believe in it.”

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Leon’s actions belie his words, and perhaps even his belief, here.

This set of eleven parables has explored the idea that a person’s beliefs are expressed by the things they do, not necessarily by what they say, or even what they “believe.” This particular parable is the culmination of this idea. Leon doesn’t believe in religious superstition, except he clearly does on some level or he would not recite the prayer. The priest’s assurances would have rung hollow if Leon really thought that the prayer would make no difference. Leon’s actions are like talking about how crappy corporations are while sipping a Starbucks, or discussing with a coworker how silly it is to work long hours while pulling overtime. It isn’t true if you don’t act like it’s true.

Betrayal

March 20, 2010

Betrayal

One day the temple master called his youngest disciple to sit and eat with him in private. This disciple had been a devotee for many years and had carefully followed the ways of his teacher, learning to emulate the life of the Master as best he could.

But the great Master was now an elderly man and knew that he was close to death. He was fond of this disciple, yet he feared that the disciple was still some way from achieving enlightenment–not despite the Master’s diligence but rather precisely because of it. And so, as they sat together the Master addressed his disciple, saying, “You have been a thoughtful and dedicated follower of my teachings for many years, and you may well one day become a great teacher. However, I sense that you are in danger of betraying me in your thoughts and actions.”

“Never,” replied the disciple in shock. “Since I was young I have followed your ways, never deviating from the path that you have ploughed. I never cease to reflect upon your words, and I never tire of engaging in the rituals and prayers that you have taught. I swear to you that I would never betray you, my great teacher.”

“But you fail to understand, my young friend,” replied the Master. “The fact that you have never betrayed my teachings, and the fact that you swear never to betray them: this is to betray them already.”

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I wonder if this isn’t one of the chief lessons of the Incarnation. Specifically, if one of the chief marks of the gospel is an extravagance of grace, and all we do is exactly what Jesus said, no more, aren’t we already betraying the spirit of his sayings, if not the letter?

Similarly, when the Law was handed down it was not as though the Israelites simply took it at face value. No, they interpreted it, testing the law to see where it fit with their circumstances. We do this today, too; or do you not wear mixed fibers? Clearly people “betrayed” the law before, and it is even considered a good thing.

So maybe this is what Jesus was up to with the whole ascension thing. Instead of sticking around and telling us what to do and having us do just that and no more, he left. And he left it up to us. We work it out; we interpret it; we betray it. Sometimes we’re guilty of following the letter, and maybe it is at just these moments that Jesus would say, “this is to betray me already, what did I say?”

Contextualize. Create traditions. Revive old ones. Retire ones that have outlived their usefulness. Reinterpret. Betray.