Thursday, April 16, 2015

Vintage CC: "You always have the poor with you"

This post from March 2010 came to mind the other day after I read a commentary pointing out that a pizza place had nearly a million dollars raised for them by those who support their denying service to LGBT people while homeless shelters and soup kitchens struggle for funding. The Bible passage discussed here is a common answer for Christians wishing to justify this view. So here I go analyzing what Jesus really meant.

At our Communal Word discussion group last night, we talked a lot about John 12:1-8, which is this Sunday's Gospel text according to the Revised Common Lectionary. For several reasons, I anticipated that the group would spend some time with this passage over the other two, and I was not disappointed.

First off, here's the passage in full:
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
A few literary and contextual notes first.

Some version of this story appears in all four Gospels. In Matthew and Mark, they're pretty similar: Jesus dines at Simon the leper's house, and an unnamed woman comes in with the ointment and anoints his head. Somebody (not Judas) makes the point about the expense and the poor, and Jesus gives an explanation similar to what's in John.

Luke is vastly different. Jesus dines at a Pharisee's house instead, although the Pharisee's name is still Simon. A woman identified only as "a sinner" comes in and anoints Jesus' feet with ointment, but the complaint is that Jesus is letting an unclean sinner touch him, leading to a conversation about forgiveness, gratitude, and hospitality.

In John, this passage comes right after the story of Jesus raising Lazarus. Jesus hasn't wandered far; he is now sharing a meal at Lazarus' house, with Mary and Martha attending. This is the only instance where the woman who anoints Jesus is given a name: it's Mary the sister of Lazarus. Given the story's placement, Mary may be doing this out of gratitude for Jesus raising her brother, but of course Jesus gives a different explanation.

As a sidenote, I think that many condense elements of Luke and John's description of the woman, suggest that the Mary here is Mary Magdalene, and the result is the theory that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, the suggestion of which doesn't actually appear anywhere in the New Testament.

Anyway, during the course of this episode in Matthew, Mark, and John, somebody raises a stink (pardon the pun) about the ointment being used in this way, and Jesus responds, "You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

It's kind of an unsettling statement, especially if you consider all of Jesus' admonitions and allusions to helping the poor or being among the poor. It was certainly unsettling for my discussion group. They wondered why Jesus would say such a thing given all the things that he says and does that suggest that the poor are very important to Jesus and to God's kingdom. Is Jesus really dismissing the poor here?

No. He's not.

I've been hearing and reading this verse tossed out a lot since Glenn Beck made his comments about social justice churches. Christians who support Beck's statements or who otherwise want to downplay the importance of helping the poor have used this statement by Jesus as justification for such a view. The argument as I understand it is that faith in Jesus is the more important thing; nurturing that faith and an awareness of that presence is what Christians should be about. There will always be poor people, helping them is an endless task & thus shouldn't be taken too seriously, belief in Christ is the more important thing, and Jesus says as much here.

That's not what Jesus is really getting at here, though.

First off, Jesus was surely familiar with the instruction of the Torah. He was a faithful Jew, after all. Among other things, he would have been familiar with Deuteronomy 15:11:
Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, "Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land."
As a faithful Jew, Jesus would have known this verse. Not only that, but he basically quotes it in the story in question. The command in this verse is not to give in and give up due to how vast the task of helping the poor is. Instead, the command is to keep helping; to always be openhanded toward them.

Second, one needs to consider the context in which Jesus' statement appears. Mary has anointed Jesus' feet with a very expensive ointment, somebody complains about selling it and giving it to the poor, and Jesus gives his statement. In Matthew, Mark, and John, this episode occurs shortly before the passion story begins. In these three versions, Jesus talks about being prepared for his burial, and thus admonishes people to leave the woman alone.

In other words, Jesus' statement is made in anticipation of the events that follow: his journey to Jerusalem, and his final days leading to his death. He's basically saying, "My earthly time with you is running out. I'm only with you for a little while longer, and this anointing is a foreshadowing of things to come. So pay attention to this for now." The poor are no less important, and are not a side project in the grand scheme of things. It's just that at the time of this incident in the three Gospels where Jesus makes this statement, some big and tragic things are about to happen and Jesus' disciples need to be ready for it.

In conclusion, it's a mistake to lift Jesus' statement out of its context to justify ignoring or downplaying the need to help the poor. That's not what Jesus means, and Christians would do well to let that common misinterpretation go.

Monday, April 13, 2015

My Failure Reflected

As some readers may be aware, I'm part of a blogging network that reviews books. I receive a number of emails every year offering the latest selections available, and I can pick and choose which ones intrigue me enough to read for review. Some of these books fade from my memory as soon as I'm finished with them. They end up being an obligation to fulfill. Others, however, linger in my thoughts and make their way into sermons and other writings. These have much more of an impact and expand my view of the world. It's always my hope that every book I select would do this, but unfortunately not all do.

Last month I read and reviewed a book called Desire Found Me by Andre Rabe. I knew nothing about mimetic theory before picking it up, and changing that was certainly a big reason for requesting a copy. There were even parts that caused me to think it might end up more in the obligation pile than the impact pile, but in the weeks following the completion of my review, I find myself returning to the basic concepts introduced therein.

Essentially, mimetic theory proposes the idea that our desires are the product of what we see and learn from others. We learn our earliest desires from those who raise us: if we see a parent investing a lot of attention and energy in something, we learn to do the same. A simple example might be the way Coffeedaughter always seems to covet the food she sees Coffeewife and I eating: the desire wasn't there before she observed what we have on our plates that we appear to be enjoying, and she wants to enjoy it as well.

Mimetic, or mimesis, has the same root word as mimic. We mimic what we see in others. We are not self-made, independent, standalone figures, but rather products and reflections of what we see in others. Desires change over time, of course, but this is how we organize ourselves into groups with shared values and how we process new relationships.

Such reflections can also be the source of conflict. Rabe invites the reader to picture two people putting their hand on the last cookie at the same time. They both desire the same thing; they reflect the desire in the other, and that reflection is now the cause of a conflict between them. 

This reflection can also cause anxiety within a person or group that they subconsciously decide they need to relieve. Sometimes we see certain traits we possess reflected back to us that we don't like or don't want to face, and so we project that trait onto something or someone in order to make ourselves feel better. This is how groups choose a scapegoat: the anxiety of the community gets projected onto an individual or minority in order to avoid dealing with the root issue; it simply becomes that person's or those people's fault. This, too, can be the source of conflict between individuals, as the surface issue may seem to be one thing, but underneath the real issue is that each sees something of themselves in the other that they're ashamed of.

I am pretty much as far removed as I can be from a group of authors that have come under fire in recent months for seeming to rally around one of their own. The person at the center is facing serious allegations, and many including me have been disappointed and disheartened by how the others in this little tribe have responded. Some have issued statements of support, others have fallen over themselves to promote the accused's latest book, and still others have fallen silent in the face of new evidence supporting the accuser's claim.

The internet is a strange place when it comes to this stuff, because here we deal in personas and narratives more than 3D people in all their nuances, hangups, motivations, and hesitancies. There has been enough offered that I am inclined to side with the accuser, but I have to remind myself that there is so much more to the story that I will never be privileged to know. But I am content to bid farewell to the accused, because I had a mixed relationship at best with this person's work and am fine with never reading or supporting what he does ever again.

Several of the supporting players, however, have caused me to be much more reflective, because I really don't want to give up what they offer to the church. Their writing has impacted me over the years and I know many who greatly value their voices. It is easy to dismiss their reactions to this as protecting their own brand, but I think about these imperfect humans who perhaps have wrestled and are still wrestling with this situation, who maybe have handled this in ways more personal than public, who perhaps are still weighing decisions alongside a bevy of emotions swirling within them. 

Of course, I don't really know much of anything about that either. But what I do know much more about is my own reaction to it all, and I can consider how I may be projecting my own desires and fears onto these public figures. I can wonder how I would handle this if in their shoes, and reflect on how disappointment with what I think I see in them is really disappointment in what I see in myself. Whatever I think I know about others protecting their place of power and privilege, or about others not wanting to give up their book deals or speaking gigs, or about others being hypocritical or cowardly regarding standing up for the voiceless, I am challenged to look back at myself and see the ways I might be tempted to do those same things.

I think about these decisions that I hope I wouldn't make, and I can even pinpoint the reasons why I would make them. I have a family to support and a mortgage to maintain. I would want to hold on to a friendship, unhealthy as it might be to try, while knowing I have a constituency to whom I answer. I would rather deal with such things privately and only acknowledge certain aspects in the public eye, resigning myself to the fact that I'd lose someone regardless. I would certainly be prone to hasty decisions made to ease my own anxiety or insecurity, or to appease those around me whether it was the right thing to do or not. These are tendencies that I know I have, and to which I've succumbed more than I want to admit, and that I'm sure I'll exhibit again.

I look at these figures I admire, and I see my reflection perhaps moreso than I truly see them. I hoped they'd be able to live up to an ideal that at its core I really want to attain for myself. This disappointment, this realization that they're human and fallible just like me, is a reminder that I'm no better. And that reminder is, in its way, the most painful thing.

(Image is Full Failure All American Hero by Derek Hess)

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Small Sips Made Too Short of a List

Yes. Gordon Atkinson reflects on the importance of an open heart:
A friend recently told me that he had good evidence to suggest that perhaps 25% of Muslims worldwide support acts of terror as a means to achieve what they perceive to be righteous goals. I don’t know where he got his numbers. I don’t have the energy or knowledge to dispute them. But what do these numbers mean to me?  
Tomorrow I will pick up my daughter and her friend Zohal and drive them home from school. Zohal and Lilly have been friends since elementary school. She and her parents are kind and good people. And she is brave to wear her Hijab in this climate of anger and fear.  
For the sake of Zohal and her parents, shouldn’t I keep my heart open? For the sake of the one, shouldn’t I remain hopeful that not all is lost?
It's easy to stereotype an entire group, but what about the actual flesh and blood people who are harder to treat as inhuman? Of course, if one simply avoids ever meeting someone outside one's own demographic, I suppose it's not that hard. That's unfortunate not just for the people you're judging/condemning, but for your own soul too.

Speaking of which. John Pavlovitz reflects on a tactic commonly used against him when debating Christians about LGBT issues:
Apparently to some Christians, the only logical explanation for a person of faith speaking on behalf of the “homosexual” community, is that they themselves must also be so: a sort of, covert queer self-preservation.  
It never occurs to those people that we don’t need totally commonality to align ourselves with other human beings; in order to champion their humanity and uphold their dignity.  
I feel incredibly sorry for followers of Jesus like Ralph, who are so filled with hate and bigotry, that they would even feel the need to ask such a question of another human being. It shows that their hearts have become so hardened, their need to discriminate so great, that they cannot fathom any other option, than some alternative narrative to justify that person supporting LGBT people; as if total affinity is ever a prerequisite for loving someone unconditionally.
Here's the thing about how empathy works. You see someone who may or may not be part of your same demographic group who is being demonized, discriminated against, getting a raw deal or suffering from unprovoked violence simply because of their identity, you imagine what it must be like for that person, and you take action to help stop it. It doesn't make you one of them (THE HORROR), it just makes you loving. Jesus said some stuff about being loving.

Remember those times when people called Jesus out for who he hung out with, as if he was guilty by association? Same thing.

Brilliant. Jeremy Smith reflects on how libraries have adapted to the internet era, and then wonders how the church can do the same:
Faith happens anyway. Discipleship is inviting people into a process where they learn or experience things that they won’t learn on their own. If churches are serious about reaching the Creatives and Innovators in our midst, it takes offering them something different than they would get on their own as holy solitaries.  
Libraries like Oxford have figured out some unique ways to be in the world that benefit creative engagement–will the Church follow suit and create a culture of organic difference in contrast to the mechanistic world around them? Or will the pews gather the same dust as the narrow stacks down below where only the dedicated wander?
He lists five ways libraries have adapted, and finds five parallels with the church. The whole thing is great.

You's worthwhile? Jamie reflects on her prayer life:
I've seriously struggled with this question for like ever. Why pray? If I don't see God as a cosmic wish granter whose magical genie powers can be conjured by the fervent prayers of men, then why should I bother to pray at all?  
But, as much as I've managed to cheapen it over the years, I've never been able to fully shed prayer as a core value. For a while, it's just been sort of lingering in the background of my Faith, hoping to be picked up, longing to be embraced once again. More recently, though, I've dusted off the practice of prayer by actively, intentionally entering into conversations with God – and not as a sleep aid. I still can't say I understand it, I still have no idea how it works, but I think I can honestly say I've returned to prayer.  
Over the past few months, I've had good reasons to pray - not for myself, but for others – through grief and heartache, through loss and through gain, and through celebration, through ups and downs and a bunch of WTF's, through gratitude and grace, through life and through death... I prayed for them. No, actually? I prayed with them...  
And that's when I remembered why we pray.
The post includes her old approach to prayer, which is probably pretty common: paying lip service to praying for others without actually doing so; an easy way to express support with no follow-through.

Some suggest that we just stop praying; that it doesn't do anything and that it keeps us from actually acting on the needs of others. But Jamie suggests that it helps connect us to one another, when we take it seriously. Even moreso, a regular prayer practice helps transform our outlook on the world and the way we interact with it. Or at least, that's what it can do if we get rid of the old notion that prayer is just asking God for stuff without any expectation that we ourselves need to take time to listen or change in any way.

Trapped, indeed. A double dose of Gordon Atkinson, as he reflects on an issue facing many pastors that isn't discussed very often:
There are thousands of ministers out there who no longer wish to be ministers. They no longer want to work in churches. They don’t want to do it anymore. But they don’t know how to leave. They don’t have anywhere to go. They don’t know what to do.  
Yes, I said thousands. I thought about it. Hundreds is too low a number. It’s thousands. Thousands of ministers working in churches and wishing they could leave.  
It’s very common. I know this because I used to be a minister. And I reached the place where I wanted to leave. And I wasn’t alone.
From there, he reflects on why many don't think they can leave, particularly a belief that their skills don't translate well to a non-ministry setting. I don't completely buy that. If it came to it, I'd share that I have extensive experience in public speaking, facilitating meetings, giving presentations, leading workshops, planning publicity, leading teams in developing visions and action plans, and interpersonal skills, among others.

But the larger point is that many pastors feel trapped and don't know how to leave ministry. I do get it. I'm sure it's frightening, and comes with a great deal of stigma for many from others. So one question is how can these people find greater support?

Only 15? Dave Jacobs shares 15 myths that pastors understand. The keyword is "myth:"
1. The back door can be closed.  
2. Teaching on stewardship results in increased giving.  
3. If you work really hard you can grow your church.  
4. Great preaching and great music will bring great growth.  
5. People with a background in business are the best people to have on your church board.
 The whole list is good. I bet we could come up with 50 more.

Speaking of which, part 2. Jan Edmiston reflects on some of the ideas she shares with congregations as a judicatory staff person, and what usually happens:
You want to know how to reorganize your governing board? I have several ideas. Want to grow your congregational spiritually? I have suggestions. What to shift your congregation’s culture? I can prompt you. Want to learn how to connect with the neighborhood? Not a problem.  
But the professional minister who decides to adopt one of my Big Ideas is the one who pitches the shift to an often skeptical audience, sweats the details, takes the heat, risks her job, places a target on his back. Failure is almost guaranteed.  
One of life’s realities is the belief that positive change will come without the excruciating work it takes to make those changes happen.
Ideas are easy. I have a ton of them myself. Sometimes I actually try to implement them, and when that happens I think I have a 50% success rate, but that's probably being generous. The difference between the awesome earth-shaking, life-changing idea in my head and actually trying said idea is that people need to be convinced, logistics need to be laid out, sometimes anxiety needs to be tempered, and even after all that nobody might be interested.

And yet here's the thing: a church that says it wants to change for the sake of the future actually needs to change. And it's the actually needs to change part that gets people nervous. But we can talk about changing all day with no problem, because talking doesn't cost us anything.

Silence and power. David Hayward shares a cartoon on how to silence a dog or person, particularly when the latter raises questions about church abuse:

I've read, heard about, or experienced all of these. David has a way of holding up a mirror to church culture through his art.

Misc. PeaceBang on unconstructed jackets. I now desire several. Admit it: your favorite celebrity is problematic. Momastery on that time she cancelled her birthday. Did I mention that I finally added Momastery to the blogroll?

Monday, April 06, 2015

No, the Risen Jesus Isn't a Zombie

In the past few years (probably longer), it's become a common joke to refer to Easter as Zombie Jesus Day or something to that effect. It might actually have been around longer than that, but to me it's been more noticeable lately. The pic to the left was one such mention of it that I saw on Facebook yesterday.

See, he rose from the dead, just like a zombie. Get it?

Sometimes the line between humor and criticism is blurry, and whether this is meant as one or the other varies from instance to instance. Nevertheless, the claim that Easter features a zombie Jesus is misrepresentative of Christian theology and the zombie genre. As it happens, I'm a big fan of both, so I feel some measure of responsibility to delve into the differences between Christian belief about the resurrection, and zombie mythology.

Let's begin with how zombies are conceptualized. At its most basic, a zombie is a corpse that has been reanimated. While not every story features an explanation of how this happens, a fair amount identifies its origins as viral. According to Max Brooks' Zombie Survival Guide, this virus overtakes the brain, alters it, and ultimately destroys its normal functioning. In addition, it stops the heart, rendering the subject dead. Through its alteration of the brain, it reanimates the body, although this newly revived corpse bears little resemblance to what it did before both in terms of mechanism and appearance. The virally-corrupted brain asserts enough control over the body's capacity to walk and, at times, grab, but it essentially drags the body along. All other organs no longer work, and the zombie doesn't have the same use of its motor skills as it did before.

Furthermore, the reanimated corpse is still a corpse. This means it will continue to decay. It no longer discerns relationships; no longer differentiates between loved one and enemy. It doesn't remember who it is or its place in the world as a person. It only knows what the virus causes it to know: a hunger for other living flesh. In other words, the body is no longer what or who it was physically or mentally. It was dead, and now it is, in its revived form, undead. Animated, but still dead.

Let's contrast these characteristics with claims about what Jesus is like after the resurrection. First, in two separate Gospel accounts, Jesus is said to be unrecognizable to people when they encounter him: Mary Magdalene in John 20, and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24. It is not until he does something familiar that they finally do recognize him. In Mary's case, he says her name, and in the disciples' case, he breaks bread with them. This suggests some altered, new physical form, or at least some inability to recognize him on the part of the observer. Furthermore, Jesus remembers past relationships and continues to interact through normal means.

The Apostle Paul expounds on his own theory of altered physical form after resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:39-49:
Not all flesh is alike, but there is one flesh for human beings, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, ‘The first man, Adam, became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is* from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.
The term "spiritual body" is an oxymoron. How can a spiritual thing also have a physical body? The essence of what Paul is saying here is that one's resurrected form is something new, imperishable, glorious, powerful. This may be what the Gospel writers had in mind when Jesus was not immediately recognizable to some who encountered him. Contrast this with a zombie, which remains in its old, worn out, degenerating flesh.

We next move to John 20:19-31, which is commonly known as the "doubting Thomas" story. Jesus twice appears to the disciples in a shut room, again indicating that he has taken on a new imperishable form. At the same time, however, he shows Thomas his crucifixion wounds. Some may argue that Jesus here is still in his old body, and yet he has appeared in closed quarters. He is recognizable to Thomas, which may suggest that the presence of those wounds suggests that the former body has somehow been redeemed in the process of its transformation. He is still who he was, yet also something new. Once again, note that Jesus takes up familiar relationships and interactions. To save us some time here, note that he does this in every post-resurrection account in the New Testament.

One final story worth discussing is the end of Luke 24, where Jesus suddenly appears among the disciples. He shows them his wounds as in John, but they think they're seeing a ghost. To prove he's more than a ghost, he eats a piece of fish in their presence. Not only does he elect to eat fish rather than take a bite out of Peter's arm, but he is also shown once again to have taken on a new form that confounds an easy dualistic spiritual/physical explanation.

All of these show that Easter is not the celebration of a reanimated, still-decaying corpse that cannot discern relationship. A zombie is still very much subject to the power of death, just in a different, even more horrific way. We do not proclaim, "Jesus is undead!" We proclaim "Jesus is risen!" And what Christians mean by "risen" is newly alive in an incorruptible, imperishable form that is somehow both physical and spiritual, no longer subject to the power of death in any way.

Furthermore, when Christians claim that Christ is risen, we also mean that in a transcendent sense. At communion, we not only remember who Jesus was and what happened in his death and resurrection, but we proclaim his continuing presence with us, beyond the limitations of a single physical form. We proclaim that he is still watching, guiding, presiding, and loving. A zombie is not even its former self, incapable of interaction with us as it could in life.

We dress up like zombies for Halloween. We celebrate Jesus' transcending death at Easter. These are the differences between the two.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Easter Sunday: Life

I can feel the sun on my skin. The warmth of my face is a relief after such cold days. My pores open; I am being cleansed.

The frost is disappearing, the birds join in song at morning's arrival.

I no longer fear the light the way that I did. I thought that I was safer in the shadows, but out here I am free to move.

I wanted this all along. I didn't know it until now.

The day is new, and so am I.

It is time to live.