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Friday, March 20, 2015

Against the Commodified Jesus

Map of Jerusalem, Israel            Matthew 15

I've never liked the term "Jesus freak."  Maybe because, aside from name-calling, it suggests that anyone who loves Jesus is automatically a fanatic.  At the same time, I get it.  If we're talking about a commercial production of Jesus, one that we wear or drive or chew loudly like so much stale gum, well, I don't like that either.

For a lot of society, Jesus is a commodity.  He takes the shape of whatever is convenient or trendy at the time, whatever we want him to be.  Hippie Jesus is heavy on the sandals and long hair.  Rebel Jesus revels in spitfire comebacks and, when he's not staging revolutions, spends his time as a loner in the mountains.  Peace Jesus just wants us all to love each other, hold hands, and sway to the music.  "Don't judge" Jesus doesn't want us to judge anyone.  Ever.  (Though I'm not sure how the "by their fruits ye shall know them" and "pearls before swine" comments factor in.  I guess they don't.)  Then there's the Jesus who is boiled down to almost slapstick one-liners paraded on church signs  ("2 nails + 2 boards = 4given" or "today's forecast: heavenly reign").   Bite-size Jesus hangs out on bumper stickers or bobbles from dashboards, an accessory next to mufflers or candy wrappers.  Funny Jesus is the butt of jokes but a good sport because, hey, he loved everybody.  There is, as always, the Jesus who offends.  My nephew was once talking about Jesus to his friend, a 9 year old whose parents have taught him to distrust religion.  My nephew innocently tried to explain why he likes church, but his friend curtly replied, "Jesus is creepy."  So, apparently there's even a Creepy Jesus.  (Okay, the images all over Google of Jesus with the flaming red heart on his chest.... those are kind of creepy.) 

Even people who have read his words over and over again, who have tried to live his teachings, who have taught other people his sermons and parables, still misunderstand Jesus and, without realizing it, try to fit him into a mold that has grown comfortable and comforting.  I know because I've been one of them.  For two weeks I've been mulling over something that happens in this chapter that is surprising to me each time I read it because I'm not sure where it "fits."

A woman comes to Jesus begging him to heal her daughter of an evil spirit.  This seems almost run-of-the-mill by now in the record of his ministry.  But this woman is a Canaanite, and rather than turning to her and saying any one of his now famous lines of forgiveness and healing, Jesus says nothing to her.  In fact, when she persists, he explains that she isn't one of the people he is sent to teach.  She's a Gentile.  His mission is to work with "the lost sheep of the House of Israel."  He's not being cruel, but that's his calling, and he's obedient to it.  The Gentiles will get the gospel later.  But right now, Jesus is teaching and healing his people, the ones who've had all those prophecies about him and who are supposed to accept him and tell the world about it.  And yet, this woman will not take "no" for an answer.  She continues to plead with him.  And when she says, "Lord, help me," he replies with a metaphor that almost stings.  He tells her "it is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs."

That this woman has been compared to a dog is not lost on her, or me.  For years this response has shocked me.  Where's the love, Jesus?  How can you say something like this?  Up to now, these kinds of comments have been reserved for the "hypocrites" who tout the Law of Moses like bling in public and then patently disregard it in private.  The guys who, at the beginning of this chapter, get after Jesus because his disciples aren't washing their hands before they eat bread.  The guys who are so jealous of Jesus and his disciples -  healing, casting out evil spirits, drawing out thousands into the desert -  that their childish defense is to nitpick everything they do. So, logically, Jesus puts them in their place.

But this woman is begging, and there is no indication that her purpose is anything but selfless and loving and faithful.  Particularly so because she isn't even Jewish.  And above all of that, she isn't offended.  Instead, she agrees with him and says, "yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table."   In other words, she'll take what she can get, even if she's not "worthy."

I could easily write about this woman's humility, how she is a perfect example of not being offended at the word.  In the end, she got what she wanted.  Her faith was so great that her daughter was healed immediately.  I could write about how Jesus had a mission, how his life was organized (teach Jews, not Gentiles) and how he was obedient to that but also compassionate.  He did heal her daughter.

But what draws me to this is the conversation itself.  It is intimate and ironic.  It is surprising and emotional.  It's almost as if you can hear them talking to each other, see them turn and face one another and recognize one another for who they are.  It is an encounter between two people who are as real and as individual as anyone.

And when Jesus says to her "O woman, great is thy faith," there is a profound sense of respect there that is both mutual and divine.  "Lord," she says to him. And he replies, "O woman."  She worships him, and he understands her.

I can't say I understand everything Jesus said and did.  He is a god, the Son of God, and what he does might not always make perfect sense to me.  But I can honestly say I prefer that living, breathing, honest, complex and still surprising Jesus over any two-dimensional representation of him.  Maybe that's why, in Isaiah and all those prophecies that celebrate him, he has dozens of names.  He is many things.  Not the least of which, he's real.






     





Sunday, March 8, 2015

There Is No Scoreboard

Image result for old scoreboard image      Matthew 14

In this week's chapter, Herod celebrates his birthday, and over the past week we have celebrated the birthdays of two of our sons: one who just turned 1, and the other, 7.  I can tell you that the birthday parties we threw were nothing like Herod's.  In fact, I've never been to a birthday party that resembles anything like Herod's. Birthdays in our world are largely full of balloons, homemade cakes that match the birthday theme (I do my best, but they are still so obviously homemade ), and a gathering of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and our elderly neighbors who love to dote on my sons.  Stuffed into our tiny front room, we laugh, hug, and chatter, and do our best not to spill cake in the process.  Bright wrapping paper and bows peek out of a garbage bag, and the kids are off playing with all the new toys.  It's the essence of innocence.  So it struck me more than ever this time, that, in verse 6 when it reads "But when Herod's birthday was kept..." (that word "birthday" sitting there on the page like a bright balloon), I am still not fully prepared for the sinister and awful plots that ensue.

John, on the other hand, has to know what's coming.  At least to some degree.  For the last several chapters he's been locked in prison, awaiting his fate at the hands of someone he knows is merciless.  Someone who has slaughtered all the babies in Israel is certainly not going to bat an eye at killing one man.

And while he is there, alone, sitting in the cold dark, John knows that Jesus is out there, preaching and doing miracles and drawing out multitudes.  Many of them the same people who used to follow him.  They are calling Jesus's name and worshiping him.  What John spent his life working for - the coming of Jesus - is now unfolding.  But he is not there to see it.  And yet, by all records, there is not one note of jealousy or resentment from John. In fact, he sends his own followers to Jesus to confirm he is the Christ, and then, it would seem, admonishes them to follow him.

I spend my days taking care of my three sons.  If I'm not feeding, changing or tracking down the 1 year old (Cooper) and checking his mouth for tiny wads of wet paper (he has an affinity for paper and carpet, but, apparently, not for most fruit), I'm feeding, reading to or cleaning up after my 4 year old (Beck).   The 7 year old (Cael) is getting more independent and now does almost everything for himself.  The problem is that he doesn't do it very well yet (spilled food, globs of toothpaste, piles of books in every room abound) so, in some ways, he's like a 1 year old, he just eats more and has bigger clothes.  On top of that, laundry, carpooling to school, meals, and my part-time job mean that I am running all day long.  Some days I forget to even eat lunch, and most nights I go to bed so tired that my husband has to literally prop me back up into kneeling position as I'm saying my prayers.  I wake up early to write, but my poetry manuscript (10 + years in the writing) is coming along at a snail's pace, and I often feel so behind in my writing that I am embarrassed to tell anyone I do it.

In the meantime, one of my dear friends from graduate school just saw her first book of poetry published.  She's had wonderful success doing public readings and collaborations with other artists.  She's enjoyed the kind of attention that I've always felt she deserved.  Having exchanged poems and manuscripts with her now for almost 10 years, I know the quality of writing she produces and the talent she has. And I am genuinely happy for her.

And yet, there are days when I think of her success and wonder if it will ever happen to me.  I sit in this freezing cold, unfinished basement, surrounded by toys and laundry, trying hard to focus on my own writing, and I wonder if I'm kidding myself.  What if I'm just doomed to live a life of hopeless mediocrity?   Do I embarrass myself by even trying?  What if all of my chances are passing me by, right now?  And loudest and worst of all: What if I am, at the core, just a loser?

It's not as if this only happens in the adult arena either.  Friday night Cael went to a friend's birthday party at a family fun center.  On the way back home, when I asked how the party was, he grew quiet for a minute and then choked out, "I hate laser tag!"  When I asked why, he said, "I'm no good at it!"  And when I tried to help him brush it off, I realized there was something deeper going on.  He recounted for me how embarrassing it was that he was the only one who raised his hand when they asked who had never played before, how even though they suited him up, they didn't explain the rules very well, and how he spent the entire game confused and frustrated.  Then he ended by saying, "At the very end, they showed the scoreboard in front of everybody.  Everyone's name was listed and they had, like, 100 thousand points.  But 'Cael' was at the bottom and it had a big zero next to it."  Then these big tears fell down his cheeks and he covered his face with his hands and sobbed.

It was almost more than I could bear.  While I know that my son is extremely bright, articulate, funny, and talented, I have no doubts that that single experience at that moment was louder to him than anything else.  It told him he was a loser and that he was the only one who wasn't good enough.  I tried to explain to him that it didn't matter, that all the other things he's good at do matter, and that if he practiced laser tag he was sure to get better, but that bright scoreboard loomed large all night.

Of all the posts I've done so far, this one has been the timeliest.  John the Baptist taught me this week something I desperately needed to remember, something I need to be better at teaching my children: one person's success is not another's failure.  Our own good work stands alone and is not countered by anyone else's good work.  Or talents. Or time to shine.  In life, really, there is no scoreboard.  Things ebb and flow for us just like everyone else.  It just doesn't look like that sometimes.

It's easy to get caught in that moment when things are going extraordinarily well for other people and not so well for us and feel like we are nothing and that it's all been a waste.  But that's unwise and short-sighted.  Maybe the key to this, aside from John's perfect example, lies in the very things I say to my kids every day: "You can't both have the exact same things all the time.  It's not possible."  "Just be happy for each other." "It's his turn."