Sunday, March 22, 2015

The theme of the Gospel of Mark: Who is Jesus?

"Who is Jesus?" may be the most debated question in the history of the world. The Gospel of Mark, probably the earliest written biography of Jesus, has the question of Jesus' identity -- and authority -- as one of its major themes. That question is the central point of many individual episodes, and a strong contender for the theme of the writing as a whole.

The action along that theme builds as we read:

  • Jesus' introduction makes you wonder who he is: his introduction by the biographer, by John the Baptist, by the voice from heaven
  • Jesus' actions make you wonder who he is
  • Jesus' actions make both his disciples and his opponents wonder aloud who he is (or who he thinks he is); the disciples do not yet openly discuss their questions with Jesus. 
  • Jesus privately raises the question with his disciples: "Who do people say I am? Who do you say I am?" We get Peter's answer of "Christ" or "Messiah" on the table. 
  • After Jesus clears the Temple, at his next visit he is met by people wanting to know, "Who put you in charge?" In his reply he reminds them of John the Baptist -- basically where Mark had started his narrative, with John's testimony -- and the voice from heaven. 
  • Jesus publicly challenges the idea whether "Messiah" is really merely David's descendant. 
  • The question, "Who are you?" is a key part of the confrontation at Jesus' trial, where Jesus' answer has the high priest rending his robes at the blasphemy and saying they don't really need witnesses anymore. 

Mark records more events that address the same theme than I have mentioned in the sketch above.

I have read claims by scholars of some reputation, claims to the effect that the earliest Jesus remembered by the earliest followers was one who simply traveled and taught, and that his having some sort of special identity was a late addition tacked onto Christianity as time went on -- a late corruption by people who didn't really know Jesus. And yet Jesus' identity is a major theme of the Gospel of Mark, which is (to the best of current knowledge) the earliest biography that we have. A significant number of scholars are willing to admit a date for Mark that is before or near the date when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in the year AD 70, and well within the lifetimes of people who personally knew Jesus. So the question of Jesus' identity is there from the earliest stages.

What later gospels add -- the Gospel of John in particular -- is whether Jesus himself ever gave his own answer to the question. That will be the topic for an upcoming continuation of this post: in reviewing the "I AM" passages of the Gospel of John, there are some things that I have noticed now that had escaped by notice before.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Love and the problem of commanding it

It's such a human reaction: we're ordered to do something, and our first reaction is to say "No." We say it with all the thoughtfulness of a two-year-old who has just learned to use the word. We say it for the same reason: We don't see how else we can assert ourselves, other than being contrary. So if you tell a two-year-old, "Enjoy yourself!" you might well hear "No!"

What God requires of us -- that is met in loving each other. Think about what God is telling us to do, the lives he is telling us to build. Do we want reconciliation with our families, a large circle of friends, a rich network of fulfilling personal relationships? Do we want to be a positive force in the world and in each others' lives? Do we want to become skilled and accomplished at lifting up other people? Do we want to learn to speak words that people will hold onto like a life-raft when life swamps them? Do we want the pure joy of having a hundred people that are the "friend that is closer than a brother"?

In some ways, God's command is that we live out our deepest desire.

Why exactly do we have such a problem with it?

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Love with mind: The value of remembering

In my quest to explore the mind's role in love, I'm considering the value of remembering.

Here are things we might remember:

* The name of someone we just met
* Someone's birthday or anniversary
* Someone's favorite food
* Someone's usual order at a restaurant
* Someone's pet peeve
* A time that the other person helped us
* A time that the other person accomplished or achieved something
* The kind words that they spoke
* The favor that they did
* Someone's favorite musician or song
* Someone's favorite book, author, or movie
* Someone's favorite outfit, if they're into that kind of thing
* Someone's favorite hobby
* Someone's favorite game
* Someone's favorite topic of conversation
* Someone's area of expertise

Our minds can help us focus on noticing the other person. If we value them, if we consider it worthwhile to get to know them, then we will become familiar with them. We will notice and remember their likes and dislikes.

This is the internet, so it bears mentioning: this is not to be done in an intrusive, stalker-ish way. It is not love to pry or dig for information that the other person has not given us. Instead, whenever someone reveals or shares information, we can consider that as worthwhile, and keep the knowledge and understanding of the other person as a treasure.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

God's love in action - and the tie between understanding and forgiveness

I had the privilege this weekend to meet Bob Miller, founder of Texas Equusearch. In itself, the organization is extraordinary, having earned a place along others in the "God's love in action" series where I have highlighted some of my personal heroes. His organization searches for missing persons and is financed completely by donations. They have recovered many people alive. In other cases, they have recovered bodies, bringing the families the only things they can offer at that stage: support and closure. To hear him speak, Miller is deeply moved by his Christian faith. He is also moved by his own tragedy: some thirty years ago, his teenage daughter Laura went missing. It was over a year before her body was discovered. He knew not only the nightmare of having a missing child, but also how much room there was for somebody to be doing something more. He vowed to be that something more, that no other family should go through it alone, as his family had. So from his own tragedy, that organization was born. The organization did not come right away: first, there was the heartbreak and the devastation. Miller spoke movingly of how close he came to suicide. It's from that depth of anguish that he has come back.

So for all the hundreds of families he has helped over the years, he has never forgotten his daughter, Laura. Her photo is part of all the publicity work for the organization. His daughter's body was one of several found in a serial killer's dumping ground. They have yet to positively identify Laura's killer, but Miller believes he knows the identity based on the evidence and the police work to this point, regardless of whether there is enough evidence for a court case. What is his reaction to the thought of his daughter's killer? He feels sorry for him. He has read the man's childhood history, and feels compassion for him. He says he forgives him. (A photographer at the event where I met him was openly disdainful when Miller said that -- or was the disdain at the the part where Miller said he believes good is strong than evil? Anyway.)

Knowledge -- loving with the mind -- led Miller to compassion. The mind has a reputation for being cold and detached. And here, that may have been the only thing that opened the door to understanding: the mind's ability to put enough room to breathe between itself and the visceral pain of having lost his daughter. He still feels that visceral pain, let there be no doubt. But with his mind at work, he was able to gain understanding, gain perspective, react with wisdom and grace rather than raw pain alone.

Real forgiveness comes from love. And compassion is built on understanding. So it seems that, if we want to forgive someone, we need to understand them: not excuse them, but understand.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Forgiveness - what happens to justice?

When we hear about the crowd who brought an adulteress to Jesus, most Christians can tell you what happened next: the teachers of the law spoke of Moses, and stoning, and the death penalty. And they asked Jesus what they should do with the woman. And Jesus answered very simply: whoever was without sin could cast the first stone. And they all walked away, one by one, starting with the oldest. 

The crowd probably would have claimed that they wanted justice. Were they going to leave the guilty unpunished? But when they dropped their stones and walked away, they as much as admitted: there was a time when they were the guilty ones, and had gotten away with something, whatever it may have been. The older ones -- I think they left first, not just because they had more sins to remember or more time to regret. I think they left first because they already knew that, in the end, everybody would have to drop their stones and walk away. They'd lived enough to know that everybody had done something. 

Here's the thing about justice: Sure there's an aspect of punishing the guilty -- but not for the sake of blood-sport. (Is that why not only crime but also "justice" can attract such unsavory characters?) The "justice" aspect is about treating people fairly, treating all people the same. And if everybody in the crowd had gotten mercy at some point -- they still had their respectability, which is some kind of redemption for a sinner -- well, if everybody in the crowd had received some measure of mercy, then forgiveness was closer to justice than punishment would have been. If justice is treating people evenhandedly, then that was its own kind of justice: everybody has received mercy. 

I can't help but wonder how the people looked at each other. When Jesus said, "Whoever is without sin, let him cast the first stone" -- did they dare to meet each others' eyes? Were they looking around eagerly for the "hero" to step forward? What did they think when their neighbors wouldn't look them in the eyes? They came as a crowd, but we read that they left one by one ... which almost sounds like they slipped away in shame. The next day, did they understand mercy any better? Did they look each other in the eye with more compassion? 

They were all ready to condemn, at first. Jesus was ready to redeem. But the only one who got to hear that from Jesus' own lips was the adulteress, because she stayed to the end: "Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more." I hope she did run into her former accusers in the following days, and that they asked what he had said. Because they left in shame over their own sins, they did not get to hear the words: "Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more." Did she get a chance to pass it along? There is more justice in mercy than I had realized.  

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Love with mind and strength: Insight and determination

It is just a fact of human life that people have the capacity for good in them somewhere -- even if it is undeveloped. It goes with being created in the image of God. It is also a fact of human life that this capacity for good is often undeveloped not only in others but in ourselves as well -- and that pride, jealousy, a bad history, or a competitive nature can make us more likely to find things to criticize than things to praise. We tend to find what we're looking for. 

Love has the impulse to look for the good. It is like a precious-metal detector that finds what is beautiful in the other person, even if it is buried deep. When it finds that gold, it uncovers it and lifts it up. I'm reminded of one of my grandmothers, who was always rehearsing stories in her husband's praise. In the way that a jeweler takes all kinds of study and applies it to how to cut a gem, how to show it to best advantage so that it catches as much light as human skill can arrange -- so my grandmother would take just that much care with the "jewel" events of my grandfather's life. I wonder if she was polishing as she was retelling. I don't recall my grandfather ever blowing his own horn; considering my grandmother, there was hardly any need. She could communicate that my grandfather was a treasure in a way that made clear she thought she was quite the lucky woman as well. I doubt my grandfather -- or any of his friends -- ever harbored any doubts about her devotion. My grandmother was a master jeweler in that kind of craft. May I be that, starting with my children.  

I think to some extent we're all the treasure-hunters and jewelers in each others' lives. It takes insight to see what is good. It takes determination to keep looking. It takes wisdom and skill to present someone else's life in a way that it shines. Love does that. 

More than that, love is the alchemy that changes the baser matter into gold. It adds that hope to the other person, that desire to develop their own capacity for love and kindness, for wisdom and understanding. It is in our hearts' desire not only to be treasured, but to deserve it. In this way love shows itself nearly the opposite of flattery: where flattery plies someone with undeserved praise to manipulate and deceive, love gives every bit of deserved praise to build up the other person. 

Sunday, February 08, 2015

"Knowledge becomes love": Part 2

When we talk about loving with "heart, soul, mind, and strength", it's not always clear how "mind" fits into the picture. How do we love someone with our mind? Last time we considered the value of getting to know and understand the other person as an expression of love, and as a way to build love. Here I'd like to look at two ways we talk about love that show how important it is that we use our minds:

"Thoughtful" is a compliment that we pay to someone to recognize that they are loving and kind. It's not only that they have a good heart, but that they use that good heart to direct their thoughts. They employ their minds in thinking of ways to be kind. They actually seek out ways to help as a matter worthy of serious thought. The way a researcher might pursue a puzzle, the way a treasure-hunter might pursue a legendary treasure, these people pursue kindness. They use their minds to plan special occasions, to remember special days, to choose meaningful gifts. They seek out ways to recognize the value of other people. They give thought to ways to lift up, to encourage, to reassure.

"Considerate" is another compliment that we pay to someone who is loving and kind. And again, it amounts to someone using their mind: to consider. Here we talk about someone who considers another point of view, considers another perspective, considers how his own actions will affect other people. It is a habit of mind that we can cultivate, and whether we cultivate it reflects the value we place on it.

The whole area of "loving with our minds" is under-developed because so often we think of love as a matter only for the heart; we imagine the mind as dispassionate. It does not help our ability to love when we see things that way. It is doubtful whether the mind is ever truly that dispassionate, or whether it would be a good thing if it were. "Dispassionate" is a close cousin to "unmotivated". There is a passion that confuses our thoughts, and there is a passion that gives direction and speed to our thoughts. It calls for wisdom.