Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Flail Away with Jesus

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’ John 2:13-16

Turn the other cheek? Please.
Jesus is so incensed when he sees entrepreneurs in the temple that he starts smacking them upside their heads.

Interestingly, the dealers turn tail and run. It makes you wonder if Jesus was bigger and meaner than he is generally portrayed, or perhaps the vendors simply knew better than to get in the way of a messiah on the edge.

The cleansing of the temple is told in all four Gospels and it is the sole instance of Jesus using physical violence to make a point. In John’s account, Jesus barks out orders to clarify the point: “Get out. Stop making my Father’s house a market place.”

Obviously Jesus felt strongly enough about the issue to start flailing at miscreant traders with stinging ropes. That in itself would place the tenet among Jesus’ Big Three: love your neighbor, forgive your enemy, and don’t you dare make my Father’s house a market place.

This makes me nervous. I’m too introverted to make a big display of loving my neighbors and people generally have to injure me in the extreme before I dub them my enemy. 

But the third tenet is hardest to accept. I’ve been a church bureaucrat for 40 years. My bread and butter has long been mined in the market place of God’s house. I’ve sold bibles and books, begged money for special offerings, and designed ecclesiastical tchotchkes to sell at church meetings.  I am a money changer in the temple.

As hard as that is to confess, perhaps I can take some comfort that my profession is likely the second oldest in the world. Almost from the beginning, the church paid pious lip service to Jesus tantrum in the Temple while secretly admiring the shrewd mendacity of the merchants.

What was it the money changers were doing that was so bad? They were simply changing Greek and Roman coins to the currency required in the Temple gift shop. Others were selling doves to people who couldn’t afford the more expensive sacrifices of sheep and goats. All of these transactions earned a slight profit for the retailers, which enabled them to return day after day to provide a necessary and holy service to the faithful. We call it the cost of doing business.

But these bygone Temple hawkers were pikers compared to the genius of Christian marketers. Sales kiosks identical to the stalls that annoyed Jesus lined the paths to medieval churches and cathedrals. Priests and popes added to church coffers by selling indulgences required for the cleansing of souls, essentially high-priced tickets to heaven. Long after church reforms and the Protestant Reformation put an end to such practices, vendors were still charging the faithful for spiritual thrills, such as touching the wood of the True Cross or caressing the spear alleged to have pierced the Savior’s side. 

These dubious practices survive in modern times, as anyone knows who watches television evangelists. Over the centuries, the most useful Latin phrase uttered in the church has been caveat emptor: let the buyer beware.

Jesus clearly felt the hawking of wares and high-profit currency exchanges were demeaning to God’s house. And if we know Jesus as well as we think we do, we might also guess that he was angered by the exploitation of poor people, and especially women and widows, who were forced to pay dearly to carry out their religious duties.

This, I think, may be a central message of Jesus’  Temple rage. It was an anger aimed at the patrons of privilege, the rich, the priests, the scribes who lived off the sweat and deprivation of the poor. Jesus entered the temple in the name of the 99 percent who had so little and swung ropes at the agents of the 1 percent who had so much.

Jesus had a weak spot for the poor and so, usually, does the church. But, truth be told, the church also has a weak spot for the rich. For many congregations, the tithes of a humble membership are not sufficient to keep the pastor in comfortable accommodations. For many denominations, for which the Great Recession of 2008 never stopped, congregational mission giving falls short of supporting missionaries, staff and important ministries. Budgets and staff have been slashed to the bone, and some church bodies are in danger of fading away completely.

That’s why the churches love rich donors, who we prefer to call “high net worth friends” because “rich” sounds so tacky. 

Unfortunately, there are few biblical anecdotes to suggest God ordained the rich as the savior of the church. Jesus said – with apparent humor and gentleness – that it will be easier for a camel to slide through the eye of a needle than for the rich to get into heaven. Dorothy Parker said it less charitably: “If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.” Parker also spoke for most of us when she said, “I don’t know much about being a millionaire, but I’ll bet I’d be darling at it.”

Most of us don’t know much about being millionaires and, I suspect, most millionaires don’t know what it’s like to live one job or health crisis away from poverty. I have interviewed a billionaire heiress, for example, who complains that people don’t understand the heavy burdens of privilege or appreciate how very rich women are not admired for their talent or intellect. Most people listen politely to her grievance (people are often polite to the very rich), but when the woman steps out of the room they shake their heads and say, “Boy, I wish I had her problem.” 

None of this is to say, of course, that rich people can’t be good souls or faithful Christians. American Baptists and much of American Protestantism owe much to the largesse of the Rockefellers (I daren’t suggest that the Robber Baron John D. Senior might have been buying himself a few indulgences) and there are scores of philanthropic enterprises that put even the dirtiest of fortunes to good use. 

Saint Teresa of Calcutta, who devoted her life to the world’s poorest people, understood that the rich and poor have a common denominator: their humanity. “Even the rich,” she said, “are hungry for love, for being cared for, for being wanted, for having someone to call their own.”

If you replace the word “rich” with any other category of human, Mother Teresa’s insight grows more profound. Even nihilists are hungry for love. Even robber barons need to be cared for. Even despotic autocrats need to be wanted. Even money changers in the temple need to be cuddled.

Perhaps one of the things that enraged Jesus when he entered the Temple was a system that established barriers between the rich and the poor and deprived both groups of the fundamental humanity that made them one people.

Barriers in the temple between the rich and poor, and barriers anywhere in society, are godless devices that prevent us from acknowledging that we are all the same, that there are no “others,” that God has called us to love all our neighbors as we love ourselves. It’s the barriers that prevent us from suspending judgment about other people until we can imagine what it might be like to walk in another’s shoes or live another’s life.

When Jesus entered the Temple in Jerusalem, he expected to see a system that welcomed all the faithful to blessed encounters with the loving God.

Instead, he found the money changers standing in the way of the people God loved the most, the poor, the women, the widows.

The situation deprived everyone, money changers and widows alike, of their common humanity, and Jesus reaction was swift, righteous, godly and quintessentially human.

He picked up a whip and flailed away.


Monday, February 19, 2018

The Good Republican

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is the Grant’s Tomb of canonical scripture. The General’s Napoleonic memorial on Riverside Drive is thought to be New York’s best known and least visited landmark. So, too, the Parable of the Good Samaritan may be Jesus’ best known and least tracked lesson.

The parable is not for Christian minimalists who want to limit their Jesus experience to Facebook memes and simpleminded hymns. It is comforting to croon,
Every day with Jesus ... Is sweeter than the day before ... Every day with Jesus ... I love Him more and more ... Jesus saves and keeps me ... And Hes the one I'm waiting for ... Every day with Jesus ... Is sweeter than the day before. (Robert and Wendell Loveless, 1936)
But the parable of the Good Samaritan is anything but comforting. It’s like having cold water splashed in our faces as we try to sleep in on Sunday morning. It forces us to encounter a more demanding Savior than the wished-for sweetheart who dotingly rocks our cradle and never asks us to get up to do something.

The lawyer who first posed the question to Jesus was jolted awake by the answer. He was probably expecting a more technical analysis of the theoretical question, “Who is my neighbor?”

Frederick Buechner, the Presbyterian pastor, theologian, and writer, put it best:
When Jesus said love your neighbor, a lawyer who was present asked him to clarify what he meant by neighbor. He wanted a legal definition he could refer to in case the question of loving one ever happened to come up. He presumably wanted something of the order of “A neighbor (hereinafter referred to as the party of the first part) is to be construed as meaning a person of Jewish descent whose legal residence is within a radius of no more than three statute miles from one’s own legal residence unless there is another person of Jewish descent (hereinafter referred to as the party of the second part) living closer to the party of the first part than one is oneself, in which case the party of the second part is to be construed as the neighbor to the party of the first part and one is oneself relieved of all responsibility of any sort of kind whatsoever.” Instead Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, the point of which seems to be that your neighbor is to be construed as meaning anybody who needs you.- Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking. A Theological ABC (San Francisco: Harper, 1973), pp. 65-66. 
For the lawyer who first posed the question, the rest of the day was not going to be as sweet as it started.

As everyone knows, Jesus deliberately made a Samaritan the good guy because Samaritans represented everything his listeners feared and despised. The enmity between Judeans and Samaritans can be traced back to two of Jacob’s sons who sold their brother Joseph into slavery (Genesis 37:3-4) but hostilities intensified over the years because of racial, ethnic and political animosities. 

When Jesus used a Samaritan as an avatar of neighborliness, it must have driven his audience crazy. It would also have been fair warning that the Christian life could make some distasteful demands on the faithful. 

Father David Kirk, founder of Emmaus House, collected dozens of parables, sermons and declarations of Jesus and out them together in a wonderful but now nearly out of print book called, Quotations from Chairman Jesus. 

Strung together in the style of Quotations from Chairman Mao, the little red book of the Chinese revolution, the words of Jesus looked as radical as they sounded when they were first uttered. In 1969, Kirk contextualized the Good Samaritan by making him a figure feared and hated by bourgeois American Society: The Good Black Panther.

It was a brilliant conceit fifty years ago, but there aren’t many people who hate and fear Black Panthers now. Many of us remember the Panthers as social justice heroes.

Today, it takes a little more imagination to contextualize the Samaritan. Today, it could be the Good Tort Attorney, the Good Jihadist, the Good Wastrel of Nonrenewable Resources. Or, perhaps:

The Good Republican

A Certain white dude from Ottumwa, Iowa, was heading home from a late-night party on 178th Street when he was set upon by a gang of thieves. The thieves beat him, ripped his seersucker suit to shreds, shook the cash and cards from his wallet, grabbed his iPhoneX, tore the $95 knock-off Rolex watch from his wrist and snatched the imitation Testoni shoes from his feet. The thieves rolled their bleeding, unconscious victim down some alley steps and disappeared down Cabrini Boulevard into the darkness.

As dawn came, a middle-aged day worker passed by the alley on his way to the bus stop. He heard the man groaning and jumped back in fear. Not wishing to get involved, he quickened his pace. “If it wasn’t so hard to get a license to carry a gun,” the day worker mumbled to himself, “that guy could have taken care of whoever did that to him.”

A while later, a woman in a white uniform walked by on her way to her employer’s house. She, too, saw the man groaning at the bottom of the steps and grabbed her cellphone to call 911. But she was already late so she put the phone back in her purse and walked quickly away.  “It was probably illegals,” she said, spitting on the sidewalk. “This country lets in every lazy scumbag who wants a free ride.”

Soon a Seminary student passed by and looked sadly at the man in the alley. “This is what happens when we cut programs for the poor so we can give tax breaks to the rich,” the seminarian grumbled. But he was late for a class in situation ethics so he offered a brief prayer as he sped off. “God, forgive those who did that to this poor man,” he said, and as an after thought added, “And forgive Trump and Ryan and McConnell for unjustly blocking programs that help the unfortunate and deprived.”

Finally, as the sun rose over the horizon, a Republican hurrying to his desk at Goldman Sachs saw the man lying in a crumpled heap at the bottom of the steps. The Republican set his mug of Starbuck’s latte on the curb and jumped down top touch the man’s neck. He felt a weak pulse. He whipped out his cellphone and called 911. “Need an ambulance immediately,” he told the dispatcher. “There’s a badly hurt man here.”

When the ambulance came, the EMTs asked the Republican if he knew the man. “I just found him,” the Republican said. The EMT’s inserted an IV in the man’s arm and the Republican volunteered to hold the drip bag as the man was loaded onto a stretcher. Still holding the drip bag, the Republican jumped into the back of the ambulance.

At the Emergency Room, attendants again asked the Republican if he knew who the man was. “No,” he said. “I found him on the street. But if there is any question about how he’s going to pay for his treatment, let me know.” The Republican handed the nurse his business card.

“I’ll be back later to see how he is,” the Republican said. “Now if you excuse me, I have rush to my computer to see what Bloomberg is saying.” The Republican was thinking that if did get hit with the poor guy’s hospital bills, he needed a good day on the market.  But the Republican was as good as his word.

For many, the parable of the Good Samaritan is an unpleasant reminder that every day with Jesus is is not necessarily sweeter than the day before. Along with it may come a sour aftertaste if we have to mingle our human weaknesses and prejudices with the purity of God’s unconditional love for all God’s creatures. Whenever someone we don’t even know is in need, it can be damned inconvenient to stop to see if we can help. If the person in need turns out to be someone we will never see again, it becomes all too easy to walk on by.

But good neighbors do not walk on by, and in many cases these good neighbors may be people we despise.

The Christian life is sometimes too complicated to face when we wander from our feel-good hymns and cocoonish happy places.

So who is my neighbor anyway?

The problem is, if we have to ask, we probably won’t like the answer. 

Friday, February 16, 2018

Climate Change and the Ark

And the waters swelled on the earth for one hundred fifty days. In the second month, on the twenty-seventh of the month, the earth was dry. Then God said to Noah, “Go out of the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons’ wives with you.” (Genesis 7:24; 8:14-16)
One of Johnny Cash’s several autobiographical songs recalled a flood he and his family experienced when he was a boy in Arkansas.
How high’s the water, mama? 
Three feet high and risin’
How high’s the water, papa?
Three feet high and risin’ 
Well, the hives are gone, 
I’ve lost my bees, 
The chickens are sleepin’ 
In the willow trees, 
Cow’s in water up past her knees, 
Three feet high and risin’
There’s even a hint of biblical allegory in Cash’s song:
Hey come look through the window pane, 
The bus is comin’, gonna take us to the train 
Looks like we’ll be blessed with a little more rain, 
Four feet high and risin’
(Listen below)

It may seem odd that on the first Sunday in Lent the Revised Common Lectionary leads us to the story of Noah and the flood. Perhaps it is because Lent, concluding with Easter and April showers, is a good time to reflect on the Great Flood as it is recorded in Genesis. The flood is basically a story of God’s anger with human sin and God’s early efforts to wipe sinners from the face of the earth. The notions of sin, death, and repentance are also on our minds during this Lenten season.

Both Lent and the flood have happy endings, though many of us are hard pressed to regard the flood as anything more than a charming iron age myth. Scores of comedy routines and cartoons have lampooned the far-fetched notion that Noah was called to build an ark and fill it with sexually active animals of every known species. 

Okay, the whole idea is funny. Or is it horrifying? An ark filled with a frazzled human family and hundreds of rapacious and prolifically defecating animals, tossed about on high seas, without benefit of cabin stewards to serve you drinks or sculpt your towels into charming bunnies and monkeys? When you think about it, the ark would have been a hell beyond imagining, even for Southern Baptists.

Even so, how many thoughtful Christians still believe in the Great Flood? By the time we got to the seventh grade our Sunday school teacher hinted the flood was mere allegory, a myth to remind us that God wants us to maintain a certain standard of behavior – or else. By the time we get to metaphysics classes in college, we’ve discovered that the flood myth – far from being the creation of iron age Jewish mystics – is repeated in dozens of climes and cultures and countries all over the world.

But what if it really happened? Some geologists think it did. As recently as twelve millennia ago, the Ice Age began to wane and the great glaciers – those irresistible forces that deposited the immovable rocks we see strewn across Westchester County – began to melt. The water level of oceans and seas began to rise. According to the National Geographic Society:
About 7,000 years ago the Mediterranean Sea pushed northward, slicing through what is now Turkey. Funneled through the narrow Bosporus Straight, the water flooded into the Black Sea with 200 times the force of Niagara Falls. The Black Sea rose, flooding coastal farm land. Seared into the memories of terrified survivors, the tale of the flood was passed down through the generations and eventually became in Hebrew scripture, among numerous similar legends from other cultures, the Noah story of Genesis 6-9.
There is no hard proof this really happened, so both the scientific theory and the biblical myth will have to remain unconfirmed. But these legends should never be entirely dismissed because many have their origin in some long forgotten human cataclysm.

I don’t mean to be glib about whether the ark was metaphor or reality. A lot of smart people who accept the Genesis story as literal fact. One of the celebrities who attended the Southern Baptist Convention in Philadelphia in 1972 was James Benson Irwin, an Air Force colonel and astronaut who was the eighth human being to walk on the moon. Irwin was the lunar module pilot for Apollo 15, which in July and August 1971 was the fourth moon mission of the United States. Irwin, a devout Christian, often said his many trips to space had strengthened his faith.

Irwin was a relatively short man, as was required of astronauts so they could squeeze into economically designed spaced capsules. Recently retired from the Air Force when he came to Philadelphia, he wore his hair long, not unlike a wooly lampshade, and was dressed in a brightly colored sports jacket, plaid baggy pants and the requisite Southern Baptist white belt and shoes. He declared his retirement would give him the “opportunity to get out and share a message of science and religion with persons all over the world. My flight through life has been sustained by my knowledge of Jesus Christ.”

Irwin was one scientist who believed Noah’s ark and the flood were real, and soon he began organizing search parties on Mount Ararat in Turkey where the ark was supposed to have grounded. He never found it, but there are satellite pictures of the terrain around Ararat that – if you have sufficient imagination to see Jesus in a billowing puff of Donald Trumps wind-blown hair – might make you think you see the outline of a large boat. There are even reports of expeditions that discovered a large wooden structure on Ararat that could be a boat. But the object suffered the same forensic humiliation as the shroud of Turin: carbon dating revealed it was far too young to play its intended role. Maybe it was an old barn.

One thing is clear: if we try to read the story of the flood as a real event, we’ll get bogged down in literary and quasi-scientific debate. Yet despite the murkiness of the physical evidence, there is a clear message in the story: humanity sinned; God despaired that creatures so beloved by their creator could turn away to sin and resolved to reboot creation; God meticulously preserved what was best and most promising of earth and deleted the rest; and God promised never to do it again. It’s a morality story that calls human beings back to righteous living and a loving relationship with the God who loves us more than we can comprehend. On the one hand, the story is a myth; on the other hand, there is more truth in it than we can handle.

Happily, though, the story ends with a comforting assurance. 
God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’ (Genesis 9:12-16)
What a relief: no more floods. Or perhaps we should put it this way: no more floods initiated by God to reboot creation and make it better. 

More recently, however, we’ve become aware that our future may not be exactly flood free.

According to 99.9 percent of all scientists, the warming of the earth’s atmosphere due to greenhouse emissions is causing the polar ice caps to melt into earth’s seas. If there is a sin worth stamping out by another intervention by God, it would be the arrogant ignorance of Trump appointees who think climate change is not caused by humans.

The water level of the oceans is rising measurably. The International Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, predicts the steady shrinking and imminent disappearance of low-lying islands. The retraction of island habitats will result in the destruction of 20 to 30 percent of the earth’s species. Evaporating water resources will affect millions of people in Africa and Asia, and the retreat of U.S. coastlines will create millions of environmental refugees. It’s unsettling that these predictions come from an international organization that has no political ax to grind but prides itself on its careful research and fastidious research. It’s also unsettling that that the IPCC is not predicting events that will happen some day. It’s already happening.

Tuvalu, a Polynesian island nation in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Australia, is home to more than 11,000 people, whose very existence, which at one time was tied to the ocean and its bounty, is now threatened by rising ocean water levels.

The world’s fourth-smallest country – at 26 square kilometers – is shrinking, and the people of Tuvalu are facing a future as environmental refugees. The injustices in this situation – and others like it worldwide – were at the heart of discussions at the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation (IEPC) in Jamaica where the theme was “Peace With the Earth.”

According to a World Council of Churches news report, the Rev. Tafue M. Lusama, general secretary of the Congregational Christian Church of Tuvalu, said his country is now facing longer droughts, and that saltwater has intruded into the underground water table. “Now we depend on rainwater only, and we are facing unpredictable weather patterns.”

A once-sustainable existence is now endangered by forces beyond Tuvalu’s control, Lusama said. “The people are not able to use their traditional skills in order to survive.”

The cause of the rising waters around Tuvalu rests far from this south Pacific paradise, finding its roots in the industrial heartlands of the northern hemisphere. It is here from which the greatest contribution to climate change is being made and the greatest challenge rests for reversing its negative impact.

For Lusama, the rising seawaters threatening Tuvalu mean the loss of home, culture, lifestyle and dignity. And it’s not just happening in Tuvalu. People in Tonga, Guam and other islands of the Pacific rim are watching their beaches recede more and more each year.

Many millennia ago, according to scripture, God allowed the earth to be flooded because of the sins of humanity. Now, God is not flooding the earth – we are. And scientists have been pleading with politicians and polluters for years to stop pouring poisons into our atmosphere. If we don’t stop, scientists tell us, no continent on earth will escape the effects of a worldwide flood that will dwarf to insignificance the sea on which Noah sailed. And if we don’t stop, we must shoulder the moral burden it was our sin – and our faithless disregard of God’s gift of creation – that caused it.

The coming flood is not God’s judgment upon us. It is our judgment on ourselves. God’s promise to us is inviolable:
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, ‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ Genesis 9:8-11
God will keep the promise. 

Now the question for humanity is, do we have the will to keep our end of the bargain?

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Transfiguration: More Than God's Special FX

What Does God Need With a starship? - Theologian James T. Kirk, Star Trek V, The Final Frontier, 1989

Heaven, like star systems millions of light years away, is unreachable without a special means of getting there.

Jesus is the holy wormhole that makes the voyage possible. Hallelujah!

A wormhole, as Star-Trekkers know, is a hypothetical and unobservable phenomenon related to Einstein’s theory of relativity. While no one has ever seen a wormhole, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and other science fiction doyens posit they exist.

Wormholes are conceived as celestial corridors that enable one (if one is so inclined) to travel incalculable distances in an instance, as if the fabric of space was folded together like a blanket to unite distant point A with unreachable point B. Star Trek Deep Space Nine fans will recall (as if we could ever forget) that the space station is positioned near the Bajoran wormhole that provides passage to the distant Gamma Quadrant, making it possible for starships to travel to places normally beyond their reach.

The science makes sense to me but I must stipulate that long-buried New York State Regents records will reveal I understood less than 30 percent of Mr. Palmer’s high school physics lectures. But I find the whole idea wonderfully mysterious and miraculous.

But not quite as miraculous as the Transfiguration, which revealed Jesus as the bridge between earth and Heaven. 

Luke tells the story:
Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him.They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” - not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen. (Luke 9:30-36)
The Transfiguration of Jesus knocked the disciples’ out of their loin cloths. Suddenly awake and perplexed by what he had seen, Peter was reduced to gibberish. He convinced himself, at least temporarily, that it would be a good thing to build three grottos around Jesus and the apparitions of Moses and Elijah. 

But soon the light faded and Peter returned to his senses, gaping tongue-tied and pantyless as the voice of God ordered everyone to shut up and listen. 

What exactly had they seen? And what did it mean?

Today, simulating a transfiguration is a tedious special effect. Shine a spotlight, open the camera lens, and everything becomes dazzling white.

But how did Jesus do it without a gaffer and grip? What did it mean? And why was he in such a foul mood afterwards? Beaming one day, cursing the disciples the next?
On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God. Luke 9:37-43a.
Why the mood swings? These are the FAQ’s of the Transfiguration. The answers depend on your faith tradition.

According to Luke, the event took place eight days after Jesus revealed himself to his disciples as the “Messiah of God” and charged them to say nothing about it. Together with Peter, James, and John, Jesus climbed a mountain to pray. 

No one is sure which mountain, although the Franciscans built the Church of the Transfiguration atop Mount Tabor in Israel, and their guess is as good as anyone’s.

If it was Mount Tabor, a wheezy climb of 1,886 feet was required to get to the summit and the disciples may well have been drenched in sweat and a little light-headed as Jesus began to pray. When the ambient light intensity was magnified around Jesus, Peter may have felt he was passing out.

If, indeed, the Transfiguration of Jesus marks a rare occurrence in which a portal to Heaven is opened and Jesus is transformed into a luminous bridge between earth and Heaven, it’s an incomparable event. The disciples know they are peering into Heaven because God is there, and when God speaks, the luminosity is so painfully penetrating that a cloud is required to shade the intensity.

The idea of Jesus being a bridge between heaven and earth works fine for mainline Protestants and evangelicals. Jesus is, after all, the gatekeeper who makes it possible for us to pass through to eternal life. 

The intriguing notion of a divine bridge between two distant and otherwise unapproachable dimensions also makes some of us faith-based Star Trek fans wonder: have we encountered an unexpected connection between theology and astrophysics?

The special effects of the Transfiguration were far beyond that which could be duplicated on three-dimensional, high density IMAX screens. As the disciples watched dumbstruck, Jesus began to metamorphose before their eyes and the portal to heaven was opened.

As Jesus stood in the heavenly portico, Moses and Elijah came to his side. For the metaphorical minded, the appearance of the Law Giver and Premier Prophet neatly symbolizes the fact that God’s Son has been elevated over the Law and the Prophets.

But the casual manifestation of two dead guys denotes another theological reality. Contrary to traditional Jewish concepts of Sheol, where the souls of the dead retreat to a semi-conscious existence, Heaven is revealed to be the place where the dead not only continue to live but cavort intelligently and bask in God’s reflected glory.

The presence of Moses and Elijah may be problematical to Christian traditions that believe the souls of the dead sleep, as in a providentially induced coma, until they are raised on the last day, when Jesus comes again. If you believe that, you might have to conclude that because the souls of Moses and Elijah were comatose, their images must be hallucinations in the minds of the apostles.

But to other Christian traditions, it seems illogical that this one aspect of the Transfiguration would be hallucinogenic while all other aspects would be real. And there is something about the appearance of Moses and Elijah that seems very real indeed.
Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. (Luke 9:31)
According to Luke, the Law Giver and the Prophet talk to Jesus about a topic known to heaven but incomprehensible to his disciples: Jesus’ death and resurrection. It seems hardly likely that the disciples were hallucinating Moses and Elijah or their conversation about what was to come.

And if Moses and Elijah ambled out of Heaven to chat with Jesus, it is convincing forensic evidence that Heaven is occupied by the living souls of humans who have been liberated from their earthly bodies.

The implication is clear: Jesus is the Lord of the living, not the dead.

Of course, Jesus had been trying without success to get that message across to his obtuse disciples. The Transfiguration offered a glimpse into Heaven rarely seen on this side of the grave: and it was full of the living.

And just to be sure the disciples didn’t miss the message, God put in a cameo appearance behind a cloud:
Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (Luke 9:35)
For Peter, James, and John, the Transfiguration was a stunningly disorienting experience. Luke, a physician, understood that their human brains are poorly equipped to take it all in. That’s why a dazed Peter slipped over the edge of reality to suggest dwellings be constructed for the dazzling troika.

For Peter, James, and John, this is the rapturous “Mountaintop Experience” we humans often seek to compensate for the doldrums of life.

But mountaintop experiences are rare in life. And Peter, James, and John descended from the ecstatic warmth of the mountain to a cold shower of realty in the valley below.

And if Jesus mood turns bad the very next day, we may see this as one basis for the Christian platitude that one must not seek to spend a lifetime on the blissful mountaintop or at Star-Trek conventions; real life is often lived in the stark reality of pain and misery and failure.

Luke’s anecdote tells it like it is. Sometimes we, like the disciples, don’t have enough faith to do what God has called us to do. Sometimes, in fact, we are so faithless we can sense Jesus’ annoyed rebuke: “How much longer must I bear with you?”

That’s what daily life in the dreary valley can be like, and often is.

And that’s why a mountaintop experience, however rare, is so much to be desired. Such experiences renew our faith and keep us going.

That’s also why the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mount is one of the most important events in the gospels. 

The message of the Transfiguration sets a firm foundation for faith and strengthens our sometimes-beleaguered souls:

Jesus is our wormhole to an otherwise unattainable Heaven.

Heaven is the eternal home for the living souls of the faithful.

The passage from earth to heaven is occasionally turbulent and our human failures may leave us wretched and despondent while we wait for the gateway to open.

But the day of our own transfiguration will surely come, as Jesus promised.

And we will all be astounded by the greatness of the God of life.

And, as Theologian Kirk perceived so many years ahead, we will be convinced by God’s incomprehensible and unconditional love, not by cheap special effects. Which, in the end, are only flashing lights and electronic noise.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Go Transfigure

(Updated from a 2012 essay)

The Transfiguration of Jesus is one of those “wish I had been there” events of history.

The gospels record many mind-blowing events in the life of Jesus. But, as anyone knows who has tried to argue with secular humanists, that is not definitive proof of divinity. A lot of the miracles could be figments of fertile imaginations. Turning water into wine, walking on water, curing lepers, raising the dead – all are remarkable to be sure. But none of these events would be difficult for a skilled illusionist to duplicate. In a recent Broadway reprise of Godspell, the wine and water events are convincingly displayed.

It’s also possible that purported witnesses to these events, eager to portray Jesus as special, made them up. In the years before and after the birth of Jesus, magicians, mystics and prophets wandered Palestine hoping to draw attention as potential messiahs. Many of them used miracles to convince crowds of their specialness. 

That doesn't necessarily diminish the uniqueness of Jesus of Nazareth. But he wasn’t the only rabbi working the crowds.

That is why the Transfiguration is hard to ignore. The unique event is less likely to have been made up by a group of retired disciples quaffing new wine while reminiscing about major miracles. The Transfiguration seems likely to have been based in reality than on some one’s creative fancies. You couldn’t make it up. 

Here’s Jesus with Peter, James and John, all by themselves, on a high mountain. No one knows which mountain, although the Franciscans built the Church of the Transfiguration on Mount Nebo. Others think it was Mount Hermon, which was closer to Jesus’ stomping grounds of Caesarea-Philippi. But wherever it happened, there are consistently remarkable reports about what happened there.

“Jesus was transfigured before them,” Mark writes, succinct as always. And lest his readers fail to grasp what that means, he adds a somewhat tedious clarification akin to a Clorox commercial: “And his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” (Mark 9:3) 

Matthew adds that Jesus’ face “shown like the sun” (17:2), and Luke reports, “they saw his glory” (9:32).

None of the gospel writers actually witnessed the event and their descriptions were based on traditions that had been repeated through several generations. They undoubtedly captured the essence of what Peter, James, and John told people all their lives, and even their references to bleached garments are passably poetic.

But do mere words capture what actually happened in the mountain? Artists have struggled with the challenge of depicting the image. Titian (1490-1576) sought to capture the drama by back-lighting Jesus and elevating him in mid-air, where he appears to welcome the apparition of Elijah with high-fives. Salvador Dali’s “Transfiguration” is giddy with abstract movement and color, though nearly a fourth of the lithograph is devoted to his own signature. It probably helps to be as mad as Dali to see what he sees.

In our own era, computer generated images may simulate what the Transfiguration must have looked like, but even then it would be an illusion based on digitally produced light and virtual images. It wouldn’t answer the ancient question, what was it that the disciples really saw?

Luke mentions (9:32) that Peter, James, and John “were weighed down with sleep” when Jesus began glowing and Moses and Elijah appeared at his side. Were they dreaming? Back in the psychedelic sixties, when I was in college, this kind of question seemed reasonable because we knew the mind was capable of generating some fantastical illusions. But as one who never admitted inhaling, I doubt a simple toke is the equivalent of divine inspiration.

An acid trip may be full of colors and wavy motions, but there is nothing miraculous about it. One of my summer school roommates was a dabbler in LSD and his excursions from reality were evidently terrifying. Late one July night I returned to our room in the midst of a violent thunder storm. I was wearing my Air Force raincoat, which billowed behind me like a cape, and when I stepped into the room my roommate awakened to see me silhouetted by a flash of lightning. He stood wordlessly, walked deliberately to the window, and jumped out. (Fortunately we were on the first floor.) The next morning, after a night of fitful sleep in the dayroom of a neighboring dorm, my roommate returned. “What a night,” he said. “I thought Dracula had come for me.” Whatever his experience had been, it was not a metaphysical revelation.

As a slight digression, these kinds of events were not unusual on a Christian college campus in the sixties. Actually, nothing was unusual in the sixties. In My Dinner With André, Louis Malle‘s 1981 film about two guys noshing, Wallace Shawn and André Gregory are having a two-hour dinner in a restaurant. The entire film is devoted to their circuitous conversation, and one of Shawn’s observations is about the sixties. The decade provided, Shawn speculated, “the last burst of the human being before he was extinguished.”

Sometimes, in the foothills of my old age, I think that may have been true. It was particularly true on a Christian campus where the metaphysical was always at our backs. Despite our immersion in traditional Baptist theology, I recall sitting in séances led by seminarians and believing I sensed the invisible spirits who surround us. I knew people who said they enjoyed driving around on Sunday mornings to enjoy the auras that emanated from churches where worship had just taken place. I had a professor who interrupted lectures to describe his most recent astral-projection to Florida and other places you’d think he could have visited by car. I don’t think you could get away with this stuff in 2018 because today people are likely to sneer at you or lock you up. But fairies danced on Christian campuses in the sixties, often without benefit of chemical inducements.

But to regress, the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain transcends and surpasses any glib encounters with magic or spirits. For one thing, the event could not have been simulated by sleight of hand or optical illusion. When Jesus’ face glowed like the sun, the sheer potency of the unexpected event scared Peter, James, and John out of their wits. And when Moses and Elijah appeared, Peter succumbed to babble. 

Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. (Mark 9:5-6)

Peter stopped just short of calling on John to send out for matzos and mackerel. The three disciples had seen Jesus perform miracles before, but this one was a stunner that required a change of underwear. 

That’s what sets the Transfiguration apart from other miracles: it shook the very souls of its human witnesses and left them without doubt that they were viewing a pivotal moment in the history of creation. Here on the mountain, God and humanity connected. Time bonded with eternity. And the medium that brought heaven and earth together was Jesus of Nazareth, the evidently normal man with whom the disciples ate, drank, walked, and slept. The Transfiguration showed a dimension of Jesus they couldn’t imagine, and with frightening clarity before their very eyes.

And ears:  “Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came as voice: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!’” (Mark 9:7)

The disciples swung around to see Moses’ and Elijah’s reaction but, with exquisite timing, they were gone. “They saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.” (Mark 9:8) In the snap of a synapse, the Transfiguration was over.

But the effects of the Transfiguration were eternal. The disciples stood on the mountain with Jesus so briefly but in the few moments that passed they saw who Jesus was and is and will be forever. That is why Christian theology assigns such significance to the Transfiguration. It is the bridge between Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, a holy glimpse of the perfection of heaven, a clear declaration from God that Jesus is “my son, the Beloved.”

The Transfiguration is also a bond between the disciples, and between other Christians who lived and died across the centuries.

In his book, Reaching Out, Henri J. M. Nouwen tells of an encounter with an old friend he had not seen in a long time. They greeted each other and sat in the sunshine.
“It seemed that while the silence grew deeper around us we became more and more aware of a presence embracing both of us,” Nouwen wrote. “Then he said, ‘It is good to be here,’ and I said, ‘Yes, it is good to be together again,’ and after that we were silent again for a long period. And as a deep peace filled the empty space between us he said hesitantly, ‘When I look at you it is as if I am in the presence of Christ.’ I did not feel startled, surprised or in need of protesting, but I could only say, ‘It is the Christ in you who recognizes the Christ in me.’ ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘He is indeed in our midst,’ and then he spoke the words which entered into my soul as the most healing words I had heard in many years: ‘From now on, wherever you go, or wherever I go, all the ground between us will be holy ground.’”
When Jesus and his three disciples climbed the mount of Transfiguration, they sensed what would follow: crucifixion, martyrdom, persecution and terrible suffering. But for a moment, the Transfiguration transcended all that and reminded them of the salvation promised by God.

So it is with all of us. Life has its ups and downs, its moments bitter and sweet, and none of us know when or how our lives will end.

But in Reaching Out, Nouwen reminds us that all our worries and fears are in God’s hands: 

“Jesus showed us all that the very things we often flee – our vulnerability and mortality – can, at any moment, become the place of holy transfiguration, for us and for our world.”

Friday, February 2, 2018

When Spirits Call

That evening, at sundown, they brought to Jesus all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. Mark 1:32-34

Remember when you believed in demons and evil spirits?

I mean, really believed in them? 

For many of us, it was in early childhood when these creepy creatures danced in the shadows of our darkened bedrooms. We saw them, heard them, felt their sinister presence, and often communicated with them.

Some philosophers say we are born with an awareness of the other side – the angels as well as the demons – but our cognizance dims in direct proportion to our ability to communicate it. By the time we develop a rudimentary vocabulary, all memories of the other side have disappeared except for those occasional childhood glimpses of disembodied entities.

Somewhere in the recesses of our minds are memories of moving shadows that interrupted our childhood sleep. We’d cry out for our parents who, long blind to the other side, would shuffle wearily into our rooms to assure us there was no such thing as monsters under the bed. After Mommy or Daddy repeated that blessed assurance a few hundred times, we started to believe it. By the time most of us entered elementary school, we stopped seeing the spirits, and by the time we reached the seventh grade, we stopped believing we ever had. Or so goes the theorizing of some philosophers.

In the days before radio and television – and, God knows, long before three-dimensional, quadraphonic experiences with Harry Potter – evil spirits were an essential ingredient of childhood imagination. The reason fairy tales had the power to terrorize kids is that haunted forests filled with ravenous wolves, ogres, trolls, and witches already existed in their minds. 

Perhaps these horror stories were intended to entertain the young, but they were also used to warn kids about life’s dangers and to keep children under control. Some parents warned children about the boogey man who would “get you” if you didn’t behave. 

There are dozens of theories about where the boogey man came from, but my favorite can be traced back to Napoleon Bonaparte. When England prepared for a potential invasion by Napoleon in 1803, “Boney” – later “Boogey” – was used to scare naughty English children into submission. In the words of a charming nursery rhyme:
Baby, baby, naught baby,  
Hush! you squalling thing, I say; 
Peace this instant! Peace! or maybe 
Bonaparte will pass this way.
Napoleon never invaded England. He was defeated twice and exiled twice. There is a story that when Napoleon was exiled for the last time on St. Helena Island in 1815, the children of his British guards remembered the rhyme and Bonaparte soon became aware of it. Witnesses occasionally saw him placing his index fingers like horns against his head and chasing laughing kids away from his chateau. 

But the hair-raising persona of “the Boogey Man” is based more on his other-worldly origins than on Bonaparte’s earthly power. The Boogey Man creeped children out because of they knew instinctively evil spirits exist and can be dangerous.

That evil spirits exist I have no doubt. But is it always possible to recognize one when you see one?

Jesus immediately discerned the malevolence lodged in the man who came to the synagogue in Capernaum, and the spirit recognized Jesus. Mark’s minimalist Gospel describes a dramatic scene, but nothing as harrowing as scenes in The Exorcist. Jesus says to the spirit, come out of him, and the unwilling host convulses as the spirit screams and departs. Just like that. 

Mark would have been a lousy screenwriter. When unclean spirits are portrayed, Hollywood producers want to see American Horror Story; they want to see Linda Blair twist her head 360 degrees and vomit green slime; they want to see huge, hideous faces with multiple rows of blackened teeth; they want to see monstrous gargoyles that freeze hearts and make audiences scream.

But what do unclean spirits really look like? Given their incorporeal nature, it would be hard to tell, but chances are we’d be surprised at their appearance.

When I was two or three I had an imaginary friend. I have no memory of him beyond a vague impression that he looked like Dagwood Bumstead. My parents said I seemed to have a relationship with this figure, who remained with me until my baby brother Larry was old enough to be a more relatable companion. There is a photograph of me at 2 playing with a hose near an old barn, and if you look closely there is a ghostly image of a child standing patiently by the barn door. No one saw the figure that day. It does not appear to be double exposure, but what is it? My imaginary friend? A guardian angel? An evil spirit? 

These are unknowable and generally meaningless questions, except for the role they play in my genetic memory. But I suspect they are not unique. Of course we all have similar memories hidden in the caverns of our unconsciousness. They are like dreams: windows into a world we knew before we were born and to which we will one day return.

The biblical allegories offer vague and imprecise descriptions of that world beyond. Jesus’ encounter with the unclean spirit in the synagogue is one of those allegories. It tells us this much: evil spirits exist; they have the potential of doing great damage to souls and their surroundings; but good spirits also exist in the form of a loving creator, a solicitous advocate, and a savior with the moral authority to rebuke evil and order it away from us: 

“Be silent and come out.”

Even so, the origin of evil in the world, the question of why God allows it, and the fundamental nature of evil spirits – it’s all a puzzle. 

There are wonderful biblical and extra-biblical accounts of fallen angels like Lucifer who hate God and exist to seduce humans away from God’s love and refuge. But since humans would not be seduced by hideously and horrifyingly ugly devils, one has to wonder: what does evil look like?

I suspect devils are quite beautiful: desirable creatures who lure us away from God with the promise of instant gratification and the assurance that we can do anything we want as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else.

In C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, an allegorical book of letters from a junior devil seeking advice from his senior on how to seduce humans away from God, an interesting image emerges. The two demons augment their influence over their “patients” by concealing their identity and encouraging humans to be content with their apathy toward God and religion. “Talk to (your human) about ‘moderation in all things,’” Screwtape advises. “If you can once get him to the point of thinking that ‘religion is all very well up to a point,’ you can feel quite happy about his soul.”

In his introduction to the book, Lewis writes: “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.”

Unfortunately, upon these “opposite errors” are where many of us stand. 

Many obsess daily over books and films about vampires, zombies, witches, wizards and ravenous fiends – some with unexpected twists, such as Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. The millions of dollars generated by vampire and zombie films are evidence of what C. S. Lewis calls an “unhealthy interest.” 

But many more of us – perhaps most – scoff at the existence of evil spirits and attribute evil behavior to psychosis and inadequate psycho-pharmacology. 

The more reasonable path, Lewis suggests, is down the middle.

That path involves trusting our earliest instincts that evil spirits exist and attempt to seduce us away from God’s protection.

And the path requires a calmness of faith that shields us from the temptation to panic at the presence of evil, or the temptation to obsess over media-generated distractions that portray evil as harmless thrills before the credits roll.

In Mark’s first chapter, it unfolds like this:

Jesus, still an unknown itinerant from Nazareth, is preaching eloquently in a nearby synagogue. 

Unexpectedly, a possessed man wanders in, and the evil spirit within him recognizes the preacher.

“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth,” the spirit cries out. “Have you come to destroy us?”

Calmly – perhaps without raising his voice – Jesus responds. “Be silent, and come out of him.”

And the spirit comes out. Just like that.

The reaction in the synagogue is amazement.

“What is this?” They asked. “A new teaching – with authority? He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

This is the proper balance when it comes to confronting evil: a calm recognition that the Lord of our Lives teaches with an authority that leads us to salvation as surely as it delivers us from evil.

That is the path to which we have been called, and with God’s help, that is the path we shall seek.

And no wonder.

As one cinematic scene of exorcism reminds us: 

The power of Christ compels us.