Monthly Archives: March 2013

TGIGF

While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.”   (Matthew 20:17-19)

The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see… Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.[i]  – Francis Pharcellus Church

It doesn’t take a weatherman to see which way the wind blows.  – Bob Dylan

Regardless of whether we entirely – if at all – buy into the foundational claims of the Christian faith regarding the resurrection of Christ, there are a couple of take-home messages about Easter that bear mentioning on Good Friday.

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all relate three instances [ii] of Jesus telling his disciples that he will suffer and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes; be killed; and after three days, rise again.  That level of agreement between all three Synoptic Gospels is the exception rather than the rule, which leads me to believe that there’s something message-critical about these little vignettes.  One interpretation put forth by more traditionally minded Christians is that these predictions are iron-clad proof of Christ’s divinity which allowed him to predict his own death through divine insight.  The disciples’ cluelessness every time Jesus mentions his coming death simply reinforces the vast difference between sons of men and the Son of God.

I’d argue that Jesus’ condemnation, torture, and death actually required little supernatural ability to foresee.  Like many before him (e.g. Zechariah, Socrates, John the Baptist) and many after him (e.g. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X), Jesus lost his life for speaking truth to power, truth that undermined earthly authority and reversed the social order, placing the lowliest people in the world at the head of God’s table.  It didn’t take a soothsayer to foresee the violent end of Jesus’ ministry at the hands of privileged and powerful people who felt – rightly – that Jesus’ message threatened their place in the world.  That reality was so terrifying to Jesus’ disciples, they employed time-honored techniques of denial and overanalysis to avoid acknowledging where all of this was going.  It wasn’t that Jesus was a fortune-teller and others were not.  It’s that Jesus paid attention when others did not.

But if foreseeing his death required no special insight, Jesus’ comment about rising again after three days is another matter entirely.   Counter-intuitively, Jesus seemed to understand that suffering and sacrifice bear astonishing fruits, not only in this life, but also in the life to come.  He shared this insight in the Beatitudes:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  (Matthew 5:3-11)

Jesus’ betrayal and denial by beloved friends, condemnation by his own religious leaders, conviction by a ruthless foreign governor, and death at the hands of foreign soldiers may have been inevitable, but they are not the end of the story.  The denouement that is Jesus’ resurrection is the triumph of good over evil, life over death, forgiveness over judgment, and reconciliation over condemnation.

At the risk of mixing holiday metaphors, I propose that the truth of the Easter story strongly resembles that found in the famous letter of Francis Pharcellus Church to young Virginia, whose skeptical friends challenged her belief in Santa Claus.  Church’s reply to her earnest query, “Is there a Santa Claus?” is the same we might tell ourselves in our moments of doubt:

Yes, o my soul, there is a resurrection.  It exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist.  Nobody saw the resurrection happen, no one can prove that did happen, but that is no sign that it did not happen, nor that it does not happen still.

The inevitability of Christ’s death is part of God’s invitation to discipleship.  Leading a Christ-like life in our culture of commerce and convenience is every bit as revolutionary as it was during Christ’s lifetime.  The risks are real and while most of us will not risk martyrdom, Christ-followers do make social and economic sacrifices every day.

The truth of Christ’s resurrection should not, for our purposes here, be confused with historical fact.  The historicity of that event has little compelling influence on the enduring truths undergirding the story.  That truth is everyone’s to discover, but I for one am comfortable with the Calvinist viewpoint – that God is sovereign in life and in death, and that God’s mercy surpasses all understanding.

Blessings to you all on this Good Friday.


[i]  Francis Pharcellus Church, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”  Accessed on 3/29/2013 at http://www.newseum.org/yesvirginia.

[ii]  First prediction:  Matthew 16:21-23; Mark 8:31-33; Luke 9:22

Second prediction:   Matthew 17:2-23; Mark 9:30-32;  Luke 9:43-45

Third prediction:  Matthew 20:17-19; Mark 10:32-34; Luke 18:31-34

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©  Marian the Seminarian, 2013

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Ring of Power…or Ring of Perdition?!!

Last week, a concerned caller asked Pat Robertson[i] if she should rebuke the demons in her thrift store purchases.[ii]  Pat responded with a tragic tale of a Filipino girl who bought a ring that a witch had cast a spell over and “all hell broke loose.”  Fortunately, the girl recognized the locus of the evil in her life and presumably got rid of the ring.  Frankly, it sounds like a bad retelling of The Lord of the Rings.  I mean, Pat didn’t even mention the spiritual perils of smoking Old Toby or the clearly immoral practice of fondling a palantir or the significant temptation of lust when beholding Sean Bean in all his Númenórean glory:

boromir1

One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them;
If demons occupy your shawl, ask Jesus Christ to bind them.

Pat’s sage advice to the caller was to not take chances:

“Can demonic spirits attach themselves to inanimate objects?  The answer is yes.  But I don’t think every sweater you get from Goodwill has demons in it.  In a sense your mother is just being super cautious, so hey — it isn’t gonna hurt you any to rebuke any spirits that might attach themselves to those clothes.”

I think it bears noting that Pat didn’t just pull this stuff out of his ass.  My guess is that Pat was just referencing Pigs in the Parlor: A Practical Guide to Deliverance,[iii] that now-classic American suburbanite take on the definitive medieval witch-hunter’s guide, Malleus Maleficarum.  Here’s an endorsement from a satisfied Amazon reader:

Ever wonder where some of those evil thoughts in your head come from?  They’re not always from external attacks.  Many are from the inside.  The information in this book will help anyone who has ever thought, “Well, this is just the way I am, I’ve tried to change but I just can’t.”  Be not dismayed.  By the power and authority of Jesus Christ, you can be delivered.  Are you a procrastinator?  Lazy?  Worry Wart?  Don’t put it off any more…order the book and start down the road to spiritual recovery.  Praise be to God who desires you to be free indeed.

Be not dismayed?  If the social consequences of this kind of misdirected energy weren’t so grave, I wouldn’t be.

I’m not denying that evil exists in the world.  But going after a personified evil occupying the boiled wool Pendleton jacket I just scored for ten bucks[iv] at Goodwill does not one damn thing to combat real evil in the world.  Greed.  Hypocrisy.  Idolatrous individualism.  Racism.  Sexism.  Imperialism.  Need I go on?

Granted, part of the mythology[v] surrounding the life of Christ has to do with exorcism.  The synoptic Gospels mention ten or so exorcisms between them, not including generic statements like, “He went about casting out demons,” which, for all we know, just reiterate the ten or so we already knew about.  The Gospel of John doesn’t mention any exorcisms, to my knowledge, although it does go into some detail about turning water into wine, one of Jesus’ more stylish miracles, if I do say so.  The Jesus depicted in the Gospels, therefore, did not spend the majority of his time casting out evil spirits.  Those he did cast out, he cast out of people, not their outfits, for crap’s sake.

Jesus spent a hell of a lot more of his time teaching and healing people, which meant, in many cases, interacting with lepers and beggars and women and foreigners and ceremonially unclean people – society’s rejects, in other words.  The very people who Goodwill, ARC, Savers, the Salvation Army, and Habitat comfort and clothe.

So, once again, I have to call out Pat Robertson on the implicit wealthy, white privilege that coats his comment about demon-possessed second-hand clothes.  It’s not simply bad theology and extra-biblical bullshit.  It’s patently classist and it preys upon those who already have a lot to fear in this life:  unemployment, abuse, gun violence, teen pregnancy, addiction, hunger, homelessness, predatory televangelists.  What, now we want people to fear their underwear, too?

This messaging is unworthy of the Christian witness to the world.  The demons in our sweaters are not the problem.  The demons in our hearts are.


[i] I’ve decided that I actually love Pat Robertson, because whenever I’m really stumped for a blog topic, the Spirit of the Lord  causes Pat to open his mouth and give me something to publically ridicule.

[ii] You can’t make this stuff up.

[iii] Or any of several gazillion other books on the subject of “spiritual warfare.”  Because, you know, with demons in your drawers, it’s good to go into battle armed with knowledge.

[iv] Any idiot can pay retail prices.

[v] By “mythology,” I don’t mean tall tales of gods and heroes.  I’m talking about stories that transcend time and place, which, 2000 years after his death, the stories of Christ clearly do.

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© Marian the Seminarian, 2013


Manure happens

12_jesus-throneSeveral months ago, my husband and I had a theological conversation with an agnostic friend who said (I think) that if there is a God, then God is DNA.  The idea (I think) was that DNA constitutes the building blocks of life and if God is indeed the creator of all life, then God is obviously DNA.  I think.  Honestly, when my husband and I got home that night, we spent forty-five minutes trying to figure what the heck our friend had said.  I finally threw up my hands in frustration and said, “Sometimes it’s just easier to think of God as an old man with a white beard sitting on a throne.”

To which my husband said, “We’re paying way too much for your theological education for that to be your conclusion.”

Now, interestingly, this God and DNA thing has been picked up by some Christians, but in a different way.  Google “God and DNA” and you can sample any of several thousand earnest Christian websites claiming that some sort of “DNA code” proves that God exists.  One “researcher” said that he spent twelve years decoding human DNA before finding string of characters which read,[i] “God Eternal Within the Body.”

dna

I find this conclusion troubling.  Because like my agnostic friend’s idea that God is DNA, this Christian take on the matter has nothing to do with the central tenets of our faith:[ii] our justification and sanctification by God’s grace. Rather, it’s about our satisfaction with our own scientific “proofs.”

There’s a lot we just don’t know about God.  That’s what makes faith so handy.  But the temptation to which we so often succumb is the demystification of God.  We do this by simplifying our notions of God, because a simple God is easy for us to deal with.  Whether we’ve got God on a throne or in a string of molecules, the important thing is that we’ve got God right where we want him/her.

Luke 13:1-9 is this week’s odd little selection from the Revised Common Lectionary.  It poses one of the most difficult questions people of faith wrestle with:  “Why do bad things happen if God is good?”  Jesus’ answer is interesting because it’s not even remotely clear; in fact, he basically just poses more questions.  That suggests to me that there’s something very important about questions and that something about our faith depends on our not knowing.  A synopsis:

Bad things happened to some people and some other people were worried about why the bad things happened to the particular people they happened to.  Jesus said, “No, they did not have it coming.  But unless you repent, you’re going to perish the same way.  By the way, that reminds me of a pert little tale about a guy who owns a fig tree.[iii]  This dude owned a fig tree and got mad that it didn’t have any figs on it.  He told his servant to chop it down, saying, ‘Why should it be wasting the soil?’  The servant, who apparently had a spare bag of manure and some time on his hands, offered to fertilize the tree for a year.

The “perishing” Jesus mentions isn’t about physical death.  After all, death comes to sinner and saint alike.  I strongly suspect he’s actually referring to the death of the human spirit in this life.  By “perishing,” I think he means our despair about God not caring when our grief and fear and confusion are at their worst.  And by “repentance,” Jesus is talking about way more than feeling bad about how bad you suck.  The word in Greek, which I can’t spell or pronounce, so you’ll just have to take my word for it, implies something transformative and life-altering, along the lines of being “born again,” except not nearly that annoying.  I’d suggest that life’s difficulties somehow transform the gap between our grief and our experience of God’s grace

The parable of the barren fig tree sheds some light on this, but not if we read it the traditional way.  Traditionally, it’s read with us as the unfruitful tree, God as the owner of the tree, and Jesus Christ as the servant.  But that reading doesn’t answer the riddles in the first part of the text.  What if we move things around a bit and make ourselves the owner of the tree and our relationship with God, the tree itself?  After all, in times of suffering, that tree can seem pretty fruitless.  And what if we think of God as the servant and the soil as our own lives?  As for the manure…well, as we all know, in this life, shit happens. 

Does God work with manure like the gardener in the story?  Absolutely.  God works with the manure of life.  God works with the terminal cancer diagnosis, with the motorcycle accident, with the foreclosure, the divorce, the arrest, the addiction, the bankruptcy…and with the countless little disappointments in life that can eat away at our spirits and make us seriously question if God really cares at all.

Jesus’ question, “Why should this tree be wasting the soil?” is a question for all of us, especially when we’re going through tough times.  If God, like a tree, is rooted in the soil of our lives, God will not waste the soil.  God works the manure of life into the roots of our faith so that our relationship with God will bear good fruit.

Answers, especially easy answers often come up short, leaving us to deal with our questions.  Our questions frequently don’t give us a lot of satisfying answers.  Perhaps the answers are not the point.  Perhaps the task of faith is best described by poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who offered these words of advice to a struggling friend:

 “…have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”


[i] In English, conveniently enough.

[ii] The central tenets of Christianity, btw, have nothing to do with proving the existence of God.

[iii] Whenever Jesus gets near a fig tree, things get weird.  What was it with this guy and figs?  Did he just love figs so much that he stayed up nights worrying that they would run out…not unlike I do with vanilla Oreos?  Or did he hate figs, remembering the many nights when Mary made him sit at the dinner table until he ate all his figs?  Yet another inscrutable mystery of the Christian faith.

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© Marian the Seminarian, 2013


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