Saturday, February 25, 2012

Rainbow, Rainbow, Don't Be Blue

“Rainbow, Rainbow, Don’t be Blue.”

That refrain to the tune of “Sound Off” will be instantly recognized by many persons who joined the Air Force, at least in bygone eras. It was a taunt, sung by senior trainees who had been in the Air Force long enough to be issued green fatigue uniforms, to newer recruits who were still marching around in multi-colored mufti: Rainbows.

I didn’t realize, in 1964, that the scenario was so biblical, involving as it did the image of a rainbow and the concept of promises made.

“Rainbow, Rainbow, don’t be blue,
My recruiter fooled me, too.”
(Sound off, one, two – one, two, three, four …)

The ditty (redacted for family reading) expressed the complaint that Air Force recruiters were less than candid when they described Air Force life: three squares a day, eight-hour work shifts, five day weeks, free international travel, manicured golf courses, and a social life pleasing enough to erase the memories horribilis of high school.

It sounded great to me. What the recruiters left out was none of this was going to happen, if at all, until we had earned a few stripes.

And certainly none of it was going to happen while we were in boot camp. There, the day began at 5 a.m. with drill, jogging, calisthenics, rope climbing, and obstacle courses, with periodic classroom instruction on whom to salute and where to shoot a dude to properly kill him. Eighteen hours after it started, the day ended beneath suffocating wool blankets on lumpy bunks in a sweltering open bay barracks. It occurred to even the most open-minded of us that our recruiter may have been a smidge disingenuous.

Decades later, this psychic connection between rainbows and promises impedes my reflections on God’s contract with Noah.

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.’ 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 8:11-17

It seems straight forward enough, but some lesser known theologians have raised questions. W.C. Fields, the red-nosed bastion of comedic self-absorption in 1930s cinema and radio, took to his bed during the 22-month-long illness that concluded with his death. A visitor to his sick room was surprised to find him leafing through the Bible.

“What are you doing?” the friend asked.

Fields squinted over the top of his glasses.

“Looking for loopholes,” he said.

Or so the story goes. As evidence of God’s eternal sense of humor, Fields died on Christmas Day in 1946. Sadly, there is no truth to the legend that his grave bears the inscription, “On the Whole, I’d Rather Be in Philadelphia.” I’m sure Fields would have approved of the idea, because the City of Brotherly Love was the place in which vaudevillians would rather die than perform.

Be that as it may, God’s covenant with Noah does seem to have a loophole or two.

For one thing, the assurance that “waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh” is so specific it creates potential codicils in the fine print. Okay, no water. Fine. But what about a direct asteroid hit that fills the atmosphere with opaque dust that blots out the sun and reduces earth to a lifeless sphere of ice? Or what about cataclysmic shifts in the planet’s tectonic faults that turn the earth’s crust inside out? Did God’s promise include all those eventualities?

Noah didn’t have a lawyer to read over the contract and, after what he had just been through, he was probably in no mood to ask questions. (In the second century, Hippolytus of Rome saw a connection between the ark and Jesus because the ark rocked in four directions on the churning waters, up, down, left, right, making the sign of the cross. Clearly, Noah was too sea-sick to ask questions.)

But regardless of Noah’s silence on the issue, many questions about the covenant occur to skeptics today, including this overarching query: what if humankind acts on its own accord to destroy all flesh? Will God stand by and watch, or will God’s covenant with Noah require God to intervene?

The nuclear doomsday clock, set a few seconds before midnight during the awful days of the Cold War, is back to haunt us as we watch Iran move closer to nuclear weapons capability, and shudder when nuclear powers India and Pakistan exchange hostile words.

And think of this the next time you see a rainbow in the sky: has humankind’s prodigious production of toxic smog elevated earth’s temperature to the point we can no longer halt the melting of the polar ice caps?

According to 97 percent of all scientists, the warming of the earth’s atmosphere due to greenhouse emissions is causing the water level of the oceans to rise perceptibly. The International Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, predicts that low-lying islands, teeming with God’s creatures and human residents, will slowly disappear beneath the briny sea.  All over the world, beachfront property will slowly erode and sink, taking with it 20 to 30 percent of the earth’s species. Perhaps in the lifetime of our grandchildren, the retreat of U.S. coastlines will create millions of environmental refugees.

This isn’t futuristic science fiction. It’s happening now. It’s happening a little more each day. We can lament the fact that the world’s greatest polluters, the United States and China, seem incapable of halting their relentless strides toward oblivion, but perhaps it no longer matters. Some wise people think it’s an inconvenient truth that it is already too late.

So what are we to think when we see God’s bow in the sky? Certainly we can trust that God will never again drown us out like unruly cats.

But what are God’s intentions if we persist in water-boarding our own selves to oblivion?

This is a reasonable question in the first week of Lent.
As individuals, we don’t always welcome this painful Lenten reflection on our personal sins and most guarded secrets. All of us have made choices and dug holes – some bigger than others – that have separated us from God and persons we love. Lent is about the pain of bringing those sins into the light of day in a fervent quest for God’s pardon. Lent climaxes with the crucifixion of Jesus, the ultimate expression of God’s sacrificial love for us sinners, and concludes with Jesus’ Resurrection, the ultimate victory over sin and death that God offers to us all.

As a personal journey, Lent’s painful period can lead to a restoration of the divine harmony we experience when we are closest to God, and most of us feel it is an essential pilgrimage for the repentant soul.

But what if the sinner is not singular? What if the sinner is all humankind, and the sin is a collective disregard of what we are doing together to maintain this planet’s inexorable slide into a watery grave? How do we confess collective sins?
In fact, what, precisely, are the sins? Burying recyclable metals and plastics in swollen landfills? Unleashing aerosol into the air? Smoking Coronas in crowded restaurants? Allowing your dog to relieve himself on your neighbor’s sidewalk?

Or are there darker and more cosmic sins, as when government officials yield to oil barons and energy magnates and proceed to boycott or withdraw from international treaties intended to reduce green house emissions to manageable levels? Are the great saboteurs of the Kyoto accords – President George W. Bush of the United States and Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada – in most urgent need of God’s pardon and the world’s forgiveness? Can you imagine a time, as the waters rise past your chin on the Tug Hill Plateau, that you would excoriate these two nice chaps for drowning the world without benefit of rainbow?

But assigning blame isn’t going to help much once the glaciers fit comfortably in a cocktail glass. That lesson of any Lenten meditation was rendered poetically by Reinhold Niebuhr:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

The other lesson of Lenten meditations is that the path of suffering and repentance leads to redemption and hope.
It’s interesting that the story of the flood, which predates Jesus by several millennia, is so adaptable to the Christian message. The most vivid metaphor is the ark itself, the instrument of God’s love and protection, rocking on the waves, insulating its passengers from a watery grave.

The boat is also the emblem of the ecumenical movement, representing the church as the one vessel that unites all the sects and divisions of far flung Christianity on the same deck. The ship on the sea, also evocative of the fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee when Jesus stilled the roiling waters, has been stylized as a logo by scores of ecumenical organizations including the World and National Councils of Churches.

As we begin our Lenten pilgrimage, these are useful images to keep in mind.

When ancient waters rose to across the globe, God intervened to save the vestiges of creation from destruction. In the beginning, the boat was a symbol of God’s determination to save the righteous and reestablish creation to God’s eternal glory.

And now, when the church is divided and besieged by a sinful world, the good ship Oikumene is a symbol of Christ’s prayer that we “be one.” (John 17:21)

As polar icecaps shrink and humanity’s divisions expand, there seems little individuals can do to save God’s creation from human destruction.

But the ark is more than a poetic evocation of an ancient myth. It is a vivid reminder that we are all in the same boat.

And the Lenten hope is this: no matter what we humans do to rock the boat, the creaking vessel is still in God’s hands.
See earlier blogs on the subject of Noah and the flood:

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Go Transfigure

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 (or perhaps has been one), that's not necessarily 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 perform, or for witnesses to make up out of whole cloth. Skeptics suggest this may have been the case with determined evangelists bent on convincing their congregations that Jesus was special.

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. 

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

That's one reason 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 is more 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.
And not everyone will see what Dali is presuming to convey.

In our own era, perhaps computer generated images have a greater potential for simulating 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 really 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.

For one thing, 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 miraculous 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 film about two guys, Wallace Shawn and André Gregory are having dinner in a restaurant for nearly two hours. 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 2012 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 required a change of underwear.

And 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 faced many uncertainties: crucifixion, martyrdom, persecution and suffering were certain to follow. 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 3, 2012

Jesus' Day Off

What’s on your nighttime reading table?

This winter I’ve waded my way through biographies of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, Catherine the great, King Edward VII, King George VI and – as I have most years since 1959 – John F. Kennedy. When the movie Gandhi was released in 1982, I went to the Columbia University book store and bought every book about him I could find. It was the same when the Shaka Zulu television series was released in 1986.

Why do biographies have a special fascination for us – and I’m not just talking about us history nerds?

We read biographies, President Kennedy wrote, because we need to answer a basic question: “What was he (or she) like?”

Catherine Drinker Bowen, the biographer of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Francis Bacon, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Sir Edward Coke, among others, visited Eastern Baptist College as a guest lecturer in 1970. The gig must have been mandated by her publisher and she did not hide her reluctance to mix with the scrubbed adolescents of a Christian college. She couldn’t tell the difference between a Mennonite plain coat and a clerical collar, and she was evidently dismayed by questions she regarded as witless and puerile, such as, “was Adams a born-again Christian?” 

But Bowen, ensnared by her contract, stuck with it, and after a couple of days she seemed to resonate with the students’ natural curiosity.  She smiled with resignation when someone asked her if there were any historical facts she regretted being unable to uncover.

“Oh, God, yes,” she said. “Washington. There is so much information about him – his height, his build, his wooden teeth – but nothing about how he talked.” Her voice rose with remembered frustration. “I was crazy to know how that man talked!”

Decades later, I wish she had found something about that because there must be a few Eastern alums – not just me – who fretted about that ever since. We know Washington mumbled during his first inaugural address and people in the first row couldn’t understand him. We know he spoke with an English accent much like that of the redcoat General “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne. But was he an Olivier baritone or a Capote tenor?

We will never know. It’s enough to drive you crazy.

Readers of history are faced with many unanswered questions. I’d like to know, for example, what Abraham Lincoln’s teeth looked like. Historians are unsure and there are no photos of Lincoln smiling toothily. At least one contemporary thought Mr. Lincoln had perfect white teeth, but Lincoln’s only reference to his dentation describes an unsuccessful extraction and a toothache so painful that he wrote to a friend, “my mouth is now so sore that I can neither talk, nor eat. I am literaly (sic) subsisting on savoury remembrances.”

But our curiosity about Washington’s voice or Lincoln’s teeth pale in comparison to our interest in an even more significant historical figure: Jesus of Nazareth.

By the time we reach the fifth Sunday in Epiphany, the Common Lectionary has steered us through biblical anecdotes painting a vivid but incomplete portrait of the Nazarene. We see Simeon and Anna cuddling the baby Jesus in the temple as they testify to his true identity. We see the adolescent Jesus, confounding the elders in the Temple and admonishing his parents that they should have smart enough to look for him in God’s house. We have seen the young adult Jesus standing on the shore to call disciples to service, and assuring Nathaniel, “You shall see greater things than this.” We have sensed the charisma of the young man whose call is so irresistible people drop everything they are doing to follow him. And we have seen the supernatural power of a man who orders evil spirits back to hell.

Even so, there are times when we get crazy to know something more about Jesus than we can discover in the Gospels. It doesn’t make it any easier that his basic nature is vigorously debated. If we read his biographies to answer the question, “What is he like,” we will find the answer filtered through the myriad teachings of scholarly theologians, desert fathers and ammas, ascetic saints, Borgia and Medici popes, Henry VIII, the Inquisition, the Reformation, hangings of witches in Salem, the Pentecostal tent movements, Billy Graham crusades, Vatican II, and the occasional Baptist movement to burn the Qur’an. 

All of this omits a lot about Jesus that must be obvious to all of us who have one thing in common with him: he was a human being, “tempted in all ways,” and subject to all the ordinary and extraordinary experiences we all share.

Some of these human experiences have been ignored or buried by church conferences in the second and third centuries. Ebionists argued Jesus was an ordinary man. Gnostics declared he was a spiritual being who only appeared to have a body. The hypsostatic union decreed in 451 that Jesus was both fully divine and fully human. Most Baptists accept that latter view of Jesus, but since none of us can imagine what it is like to be divine, we must focus on our first hand knowledge of what it is to be human.

But so much of being human is naturally vulgar and it is hard to imagine Jesus as subject to the same human constraints. Because if he was fully human, it is necessary that he experienced what the bible disdains to mention, including hormonal awkwardness born of desire. Too, Jesus acknowledged being accused of gluttony and wine bibbing, so it’s likely he enjoyed good food and drink. If he enjoyed them a lot, we may postulate he had occasional gastric distress after eating too much food and a raging headache after drinking too much wine. Nausea, diarrhea and flatulence would have been part of that universal equation.

The human body is an uncomfortable thing to carry around with you, and it was so with Jesus as it is with us.  He suffered the unbearable heat of Galilee like everyone else, got gooseflesh and a cold nose when the temperature dropped, felt sleep deprivation when he was kept up all night by admiring crowds, and occasionally lost his temper and snapped at innocent creatures or objects, such as the hapless fig tree.

Eleven verses in Mark’s spare Gospel (1:29-39) offer a capsule portrait of Jesus the human. The brief passage is fully packed. It shows him at his messianic best: restoring Simon Peter’s ailing mother-in-law to health so she can make lunch for the itinerate band, and then, with “the whole city gathering at the door,” healing the sick and casting out demons.

Mark does not stipulate one aspect of the story, perhaps because it’s obvious: all this activity is exhausting. Jesus is burning his candle at both ends. Sooner or later he is going to need a break.

“In the morning, while it was still very dark,” Mark reports, “Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”

For Jesus’ sake, I hope it was the kind of prayer session in which we all indulge from time to time: the kind in which we close our eyes, empty our brains, and snuggle up to God. In other words: a holy nap.

But the respite doesn’t last long.

“And Simon and his companions hunted for him,” Mark divulges. “When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’”

It’s a wake-up call. It makes me think of other biographical anecdotes, as when President Kennedy’s chief counsel, Theodore Sorensen, reported how he woke up an exhausted JFK during the 1960 presidential campaign: “Get up! Nixon has been out campaigning for hours already.”

Jesus’ response to Peter sounds like resigned determination:  “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”

But the human Jesus also needs to take care of himself in order to do “what I came out to do.”

There is ample evidence in the Gospels that Jesus was wise enough to do that, taking advantage of dinner invitations and offers of hospitality around Galilee, and not spurning offers of comforting massages.

Nicholas Allen presented this side of Jesus to children (and the adults who read over their shoulders) with Jesus’ Day Off (Random House), an extracanonical view of the Nazarene illustrated with childish drawings and departing from any generally accepted view of Jesus. Some of the drawings may offend some traditionalists, as when the twelve disciples are portrayed sleeping in small adjoining beds as if they were the twelve dwarfs, but children will quickly grasp the underlying truth: Jesus must get tired sometimes. His miracles start going awry. He tries to walk on water but sinks up to his calves. He needs a break. The story finds him running, jumping, swimming and enjoying his freedom from the cares of messiahship. At the close of the story, he feels a little bad that he has wasted a whole day. But God the Father assures him that wherever he passed, miracles happened.

Jesus got tired. That’s the easiest thing about him to understand.

Tim Rice captures Mary’s gracious attentions to the human Jesus in the musical, Jesus Christ: Superstar. She insists Jesus rest his weary bones, singing:

Try not to get worried,
Try not to turn on to
Problems that upset you,
oh, Don't you know
Everything's alright,
Yes, everything's fine.
And we want you to sleep well tonight.
Let the world turn without you tonight.
If we try
We'll get by.
So forget all about us tonight.
Sleep and I shall soothe you,
Calm you and anoint you:
Myrrh for your hot forehead
oh, Then you'll feel
Everything's all right,
Yes, everything's fine.
And it's cool and the ointment's sweet
For the fire in your head and feet.
Close your eyes,
Close your eyes
And relax:
Think of nothing tonight.
Everything's all right.
Yes, everything's all right.

Jesus the human got tired as we get tired. Even the most works-oriented Christian must realize that God expects none of us to run ourselves into exhaustion. We aren’t worth much to anyone when we burn ourselves out. Jesus sets the example: he preached, he cured the sick, he cast out demons, he raised the dead, and he rested. If you’re fully human, being fully divine doesn’t mean you can be on duty 24/7. As musicians say, even the most inspired musical score needs periodic rests to be beautiful.

Jesus was fully human. That much we can understand. But his humanity also gives us clues about the divine side of his nature.

When I was a child, I’d look at paintings of Jesus and note that he had a golden halo around his head, an unmistakable sign of his divinity. I wondered, when I was young, why so many people doubted his parentage when all they had to do was look at his glowing head.

At the same time, I figured faith was easier for Jesus than it is for the rest of us because he could see God and talk to God every day and never have any doubt that whatever happened was orchestrated by God.

But I wonder if that assurance is really possible when the son of God takes on human flesh.

Because Jesus was fully human, I suspect, he had no special guarantee, no unmistakable sign of God’s presence, no nimbi or haloes, no signs in the sky, to show him the holy.
He had to operate on pure faith, the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.

That’s not easy, and how well we humans know it. Stepping out in faith without a visible safety net is scary and many of us won’t do it.

But Jesus did it all he time. Jesus never stopped trusting God and Jesus never doubted that God’s promises would be fulfilled.

That faith is a facet of humanity that is palpably divine.
Jesus, like us, was a frail human being who walked many a hot Galilean road and worked strenuously and made himself available to all who needed him. And occasionally he needed a nap.

We work hard too, and there is nothing more holy than a Sunday afternoon nap.

But Jesus, unlike us, was also fully divine. And the message he worked so hard to impart to his fellow humans is that the spark of divinity exists in all who are created in the image of God.

We may not see it. But the divine savior who understands our human weaknesses so well is urging us to step out in faith to accomplish whatever God is calling us to do.

Whether we can see the safety net or not.