Saturday, June 23, 2012

Jesus, Don't You Care?

There is an old seafarer’s tale about a merchant sailing vessel half way between Galway and New York. A violent gale ensued and bolts of lightning snapped at the ship as it lurched to and fro on 50-foot swells.

Experienced sailors retched on the deck as the winds intensified and there was the sound of wood splintering from stem to stern as the ship struggled to stay upright.

One of the sailors pleaded with the captain, “We have to do something, we’re breaking up!”

“What do you expect me to do?” said the captain, who had seen his share of storms.

“Pray!” the sailor said. “Pray like Jesus did in the storm on Galilee!”

The captain was skeptical, but the crew had passed the point of panic and he figured it couldn’t hurt. So he shouted into the wind:

“Lord, the winds are strong and we are being tossed about. We pray for you to awaken and intervene so we will not be torn asunder.”

Every member of the crew stared wide-eyed at the captain and nodded at him, encouraging him to say more.

The mainsail ripped and slapped violently against the mast.
“Help us!” the captain shouted. “But remember, Lord. This is not the Sea of Galilee. This is the North Atlantic Ocean!”

Jesus must hear that kind of skepticism in many prayers that reach his ears. He certainly heard it as he awoke on the boat on Galilee:

“Jesus, don’t you care we’re gonna die?”

There is anger in that question, and fear.

There is also the unspoken insinuation that if Jesus hadn’t been asleep at the switch, they wouldn’t be in this predicament.

The story has a happy ending. Jesus awoke and, according to Mark, didn’t even shout to be heard above the storm. He said, “Peace, be still.” The boat abruptly dropped from an evaporating swell onto a glassy sea and sat motionless in the water.

Straining to hold on amid the pitch and yaw of the churning water, the disciples were caught off balance by the unexpected calm. It was like being on a small airplane ascending through turbulent clouds, rising and dropping so violently your seatbelt digs welts into your lap; and then the plane tops the clouds and sails into smooth, blue skies. The sudden smoothness makes you lightheaded, you still feel the press of the seatbelt, and your heart won’t stop pounding.

But soon you realize: you’re safe. Just when you thought all was lost, you’re safe because Jesus was there on the vessel with you.

When Mark (or an earlier source) wrote about the storm on the Sea of Galilee, he knew most of his Christian readers were living undercover in Rome. They would understand how the peril on the boat would have challenged anyone’s faith. In Rome the Emperor Nero was engaged in the wholesale torture and murder of Christian martyrs, famously using ravenous beasts as his weapons. Christians kept a low profile if they could, but no one was safe. Mom could be feeding you matzos for lunch and providing food for lions at dinner.

Nero reportedly began his reign in 54 when his mother, Agrippina, poisoned the Emperor Claudius. Depending on the source, Claudius was either a gentle scholar or a dissolute old debaucher. He would be entirely lost to history were he not sandwiched between the mad Emperor Caligula the mad Emperor Nero. We remember Claudius because Robert Graves wrote two novels about him (I, Claudius and Claudius the God) and because of the sympathetic portrayal of the emperor by Sir Derek Jacobi in the delightfully licentious BBC television series of the seventies.

Sadly for historians, no contemporary records survive from Nero’s reign and it’s hard to tell if what we know about him is true or made up by his many enemies. I can, therefore, claim without fear of documentary contradiction that he started the great fire of July 64 by inadvertently igniting his panties at a wiener roast and hastily disrobing in a public hay barn. (No reputable scholar believes he played the violin as Rome burned, but neither do they have evidence to deny the panty hypothesis.)

Even in the absence of written records, there is ample forensic evidence that the fire took place. It burned most of July 64 and leveled most of the Eternal City. Some say the emperor started it and some say he didn’t, but all agree he rounded up thousands of scapegoats to blame it on. In an early example of interfaith cooperation, he chose Christians and Jews.

Details of Nero’s atrocities are speculative but church tradition holds that he worked hard to purge the city of Christians and that he was personally responsible for the executions of Saints Peter and Paul. Christians soon came to identify Nero as the antichrist and many scholars believe the book of Revelation is full of coded messages about the emperor, including the number 666. The vastly unpopular Nero was eventually besieged by insurgencies on all sides. He died in March 68 when, lacking the courage to take his own life, he ordered his private secretary to do it for him. Most traditions say his last words were “Qualis artifex pereo,” [What an artist dies in me!] Just as likely, he said, “Life sucks,” and his secretary wrote it down wrong.

Mark’s story of the boat in the storm describes a very sucky moment in the lives of the passengers, and the idea that Jesus was apparently oblivious to the storm as he slept on a cushion may spawn many sermons about how being pure of heart will reward you with many nights of unworried slumber.

Too, it may give pause to anyone who trusts Jesus to intervene in times of tribulation and doesn’t want him to sleep through the opportunity.

Reading Mark’s account, it’s hard to avoid the impression that Jesus regarded the whole situation with detached amusement. Never mind that the other passengers on the boat were vomiting and voiding their bowels in the face of certain death. Only when they screamed at him to wake up did Jesus stir sleepily on his pillow and, with a yawn, mumble, “peace, be still.”  And that was all that was required for the storm to go away.

If Mark had been a dramatist, I could see Jesus stilling the storm, scowling indulgently at the men who woke him, and returning silently to his pillow to resume his nap. That would have been so cool.

But Mark, who is often too succinct to be subtle, reports that Jesus closed the scene with a mildly gratuitous rebuke: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

The disciples were clearly too respectful and certainly too shaken to talk back, but at least one of them must have said to himself, “Right, I shoulda lashed myself to the heaving deck and sacked out, so we could wake up dead!”

And maybe that’s what a person of faith should do. The moral of this episode seems to be this: Keep your faith amid all the storms and travails of life, because in the nick of time Jesus will appear and say, “Peace, be still,” and all the bad will go away.

That is a powerful message. There are just two things wrong with it. One, it is not easy to remain serenely faithful when your life is falling apart. And, two, Jesus doesn’t always rescue us from life’s agonies by waving his hand and saying, “Peace, be still.”

The lore of the sea is rich with anecdotes of wrecks and maritime disasters, most of which are taken as a matter of course. Classic architecture on Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod provides second floor balconies facing the sea – widow’s walks – where pacing wives can keep a perpetual eye on the horizon for ships that never return.

Some sea disasters are so big they’ve spawned libraries of books, sermons, and scores of films, as well as headlines suggested in Our Dumb Century by the Onion: WORLD’S LARGEST METAPHOR HITS ICEBERG.

By “metaphor,” the Onion was suggesting the R.M.S. Titanic was one of the 20th century’s greatest examples of avoidable tragedy and human hubris (in a century packed with both).

As almost everyone knows, the Titanic, declared “unsinkable” by its builders, struck an iceberg on April 15, 1912, and promptly sank. Of the 2,224 souls on board, 1,514 were lost. Most of those who died had been disqualified by their penises from, shall we say, manning the lifeboats. The majority of dead males were either crew (693) or third-class passengers (387), although 118 first-class chaps went down with the ship. Fifty-two of the 53 children who died were in third-class. Of the 106 women who died, 89 were in third-class and 13 were second-class passengers. Second class male fatalities totaled 154.

The Titanic death toll, like life itself, was unfair. No one yelled to Jesus to wake-up and save the ship, although witnesses said musicians played “Nearer, My God To Thee”  until they could no longer keep their chairs from sliding off the deck.

The fate of the Titanic makes us think of hundreds of disasters that have elicited shrill calls to Jesus to “wake up, don’t you care we’re dying?” In the last century alone, tens of thousands died in wartime bombing raids on London, Tokyo, Dresden, Berlin and more – including the quarter of a million who perished in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As an ex-airman, I often think of those who died in U.S. bombing of North Vietnam. The B-52s flew so high they could neither be seen nor heard, and untold thousands of unsuspecting villagers – many of them civilians – never saw the conflagration coming.

And none of us will forget September 11, 2001, when 2,996 souls perished: 2,606 in New York City, 125 in the Pentagon, 246 on the four hijacked planes, and 19 hijackers. We know very well that many of these people did cry out to Jesus for help, and we have their voices on 911 calls and answering machines.

These are all heart-breaking tragedies, and their numbers pale beside the millions of everyday heartbreaks all of us experience. No one gets out of this life without experiencing one or more calamities that are too much to bear: the death of a child or loved one, a bad report from a pathology lab, betrayal by a trusted someone you trusted, the burden of physical or mental disability, or the loss of a cherished job or career.

Life sucks. At times, life sucks so badly it’s easy to understand why the disciples on that boat in Galilee – scared they were about to die – were angry at Jesus for sleeping on his cushion while calamity loomed. Don’t you care, Jesus? Don’t you care that we are about to perish?

But Mark’s point is not that Jesus was asleep at switch. His main point is that when they needed Jesus badly, he was very much there.

The other point is that, when Jesus awoke, he demonstrated a power over nature that is equal to God’s. That was Mark’s way of reminding us that whatever is happening in our lives now, God is an enduring and undeviating part of it. There is no escaping the fact that life will suck from time to time, for many perhaps even most of the time. But there is also no escaping the fact that God who loves us will always be a part of it.

For most of us, life is a long haul and living through it requires a stubborn resoluteness and a durable faith.

In 1985, the Rev. Daniel Berrigan wrote a helpful guidebook, Ten Commandments for the Long Haul.

Berrigan’s first and most important commandment is simply this:

“Call on Jesus when all else fails. Call on Him when all else succeeds (except that never happens).”

As the boat on the Sea of Galilee appeared about to break-up, the disciples didn’t hesitate to call on Jesus. In this particular instance, Jesus' response was instant and dramatic.

Amid the inequities and injustices of real life, we know Jesus' response may not be instantaneous, and often Jesus’ response to our needs will require more patience than we think we may have.

In times such as these, we pray for the wisdom to wait and trust that God loves us and will never desert us.

Because Jesus and the Holy Spirit will always respond. And when that response comes, we may well be reminded of the gentle query of Jesus to the disciples so long ago:  “Why were you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

God grant us faith sufficient to endure every storm and celebrate every calm as God’s abiding and everlasting gift.

For even when God is furthest away from our thoughts, God is always as close to us as the air we breathe.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Over the Cuckoo's Nest

NOTE: These weekly musings are prepared as sermons for the blessed remnant at North Baptist Church in Port Chester, N.Y. -- a small but gracious group of folks who indulgently tolerate most anything they hear. May their tribe increase. P.E.J.

Mark 3:20-35

The crowd thought Jesus had lost his mind.

Why? Because he was hanging around crazy people?

Or was it because he was acting like he thought he was Jesus?

The Jesus delusion is not unusual among schizophrenics. “I have three Jesi,” my spouse’s seminary suite mate reported during her clinical pastoral education cycle.

There was an episode in the third season of M*A*S*H in which a bombardier’s head wound led him to believe he was Jesus. The officer presented a gentle wisdom and loving empathy so convincing that some soldiers in the 4077th began to believe he was who he thought he was.

As the story unfolded, many M*A*S*H viewers thought the unfortunate Captain Chandler reminded them more of their personal Jesus than Jeffrey Hunter or Max Van Sydow, who played (or, perhaps, overplayed) Christ in two Technicolor extravaganzas. In this episode of M*A*S*H, psychiatrist Sidney Freedman denied so vociferously that Captain Chandler was Jesus that one could almost hear the cock crowing. But of course the doctor was right. This burned out bombardier could not be the Lord.

Could he? As the episode climaxes, Corporal “Radar” O’Reilly, holding fast to his faith, asks Captain Chandler to bless his teddy bear.

One reason the delusional Captain Chandler was so convincing is that he acted the way we think Jesus should act: loving, tender, caring, welcoming, giving, wise. Even if these attributes were delusions, what could be the harm? I suspect most shrinks would prefer a Jesi or two on their rounds than someone who thinks he’s Ed Gein or Jeffrey Dahmer.

But the line between sane and nuts gets blurred when it involves delusions of Jesiosity. Everyone from the Apostle Paul to Thomas à Kempis urged us to imitate Christ, and for many of us that means we must be loving, tender, caring, welcoming, giving, and wise. Most of us quickly discover that being Christ-like is not easy because we are painfully aware that we not anything like Jesus. Or, to put it another way, we are miserably sane.

Even so, most of us are egotistical enough that we don’t dismiss our godlike potential entirely.

We humans are endowed with egos strong enough to persuade us that we are creatures of colossal value in the firmament. This is a good thing. As we grow up, all of us experience at one point the ontological epiphany that we are unique, that there is only one me, that no one else in creation is like me. The only thing that keeps most of us from growing megalomaniacal is the discovery that we are far from perfect – a revelation reinforced by parents, peers, and pastors who bestow upon us the gifts of guilt and feelings of inadequacy. It makes you wonder who is crazier: the Captain Chandlers whose wounded brains but undamaged egos nudge them across the Twilight Zone where they see no compelling evidence that they are not Jesus? Or the rest of us guilt-stricken neurotics who fixate on our failings and see nothing at all about ourselves that is holy?

It’s too bad if some of us are crippled by shame and remorse. All of us know we are not perfect, that we have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Those who believe the universe has made special dispensations for them will either be disappointed or doomed to a lifetime of sociopathic chimera.

In the third chapter of Mark we see Jesus’ friends and family fretting that he is out of his mind, and they try to whisk him away from the crowds before he causes further embarrassment for himself or for them.

Of course, Jesus knows he is not out of his mind. But it makes you wonder: how did he know for sure?

The crowd is simultaneously fascinated and horrified that Jesus is casting out evil spirits from demoniacs. The people are awed he has the power to do it but they do not know where it comes from. When they last saw him back in Nazareth, this exorcist was only Jesus Bar Joseph, the carpenter, the familiar local boy who, though perhaps a little eccentric, seemed unlikely to have special powers or a unique relationship to God. If Jesus the local boy is casting out devils, the crowd fears, it can be for only two reasons: either he has lost his mind or the Devil is playing with him.

Jesus is of course annoyed by the crowd’s ignorance and announces that it is by God’s Spirit, not Satan’s, that he displays such power against the Underworld.

But it’s not hard to understand how the crowd reached its ignorant conclusions. How do any of us know for sure whether the convictions of our minds are thoughts from God or constructs of the devil?

Indeed, how did Jesus know?

In The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis’ 1953 novel that has spent most of its existence as a banned book, the fictional Jesus resists the crazy notion of his messianic calling and desperately evades it. God is forced to drag Jesus into service with sharp talons dug into his scalp. Apparently, Kazantzakis believed the whole idea of incarnation was so mad that a sane human would resist it. As the schizophrenic Professor John Nash concluded in A Beautiful Mind, the only way he could function as a rational human being was to summon the will to ignore his delusions and pretend they weren’t there.

Happily, history has resolved most of these issues for us. Jesus was born to be the Messiah and he knew it. When God spoke to him, Jesus the Incarnation recognized God’s voice and never doubted it. And even in Kazantzakis’ novel, Jesus did not succumb to temptations to abandon his role, including the last temptation, which was to avoid death on the cross.

The crowd that gathered around Jesus in Mark 3 thought he was out of his mind because he wasn’t acting the way they expected Jesus to act. But Jesus was acting the way God expected him to act, which suggests it was the crowd’s attitudes, not Jesus’ behavior, that were barmy. Just about everyone on the scene that day – the crowd, Jesus’ brothers, the Pharisees – piously asked themselves, What Would Jesus Do? And everyone came up with the wrong answer.

That’s helpful to keep in mind the next time you’re tempted to WWJD your way through a problem. If you think you can think Jesus’ thoughts, you may be wrong. You may even be crazy.

“What would Jesus do” – WWJD – was the theme of a late 19th century novel, In his Steps, by Charles M. Sheldon.

The book –still a popular gift to newly born again Christians – opens with the visit of an indigent man to the home of a minister. The minister, busily preparing his sermon, listens impatiently to the man’s pleas for help before shutting the door in his face. On Sunday, the poor man stands in front of the pulpit and confronts the congregation about its lack of compassion to persons in need. Then he collapses and, days later, dies.

Driven by guilt and remorse, the minister tells his congregation, “Do not do anything without first asking, ‘What would Jesus do?’” The rest of the book traces a picaresque trail through the different answers individual church members believe they get to the question.

I first read the book in 1966, and even then the WWJD decisions of its characters seemed highly selective, if not dated. One character, Rachel Winslow, receives an offer to sing professionally for a “very large salary” and spurns it to spend the rest of her life in the church choir. In my experience, some of the best sermons I’ve heard have been preached in musicals, so Rachel’s decision strikes me as absurd.

Even more inexplicable to me is Edward Norman, editor of the local Daily News, whose WWJD inquiry leads him to reject a front page story: a report of a prize fight at the local resort.

I don’t know what this Christian editor was thinking, but his decision would have given the managing editor I once worked for – an upstanding Episcopal layman – a myocardial infarction. Regardless of one’s opinion about professional pugilism, there is just so much wrong with Editor Ed Norman’s smug and arbitrary decision to kill a major story: the rebuffing of thousands of readers who had a right to read it, the arbitrary quashing of the First Amendment, the needless threat to the newspaper’s revenue base and the concomitant jeopardy to the financial wellbeing of its employees and their families. I could go on.

The problem with asking what Jesus would do is that the answer is always filtered through what YOU would have Jesus do, and you never know if your thoughts stem from brilliant moral insight or undiagnosed psychosis. For myself, I believe that if George Bush had asked WWJD, he would never have started wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; and if Barack Obama asked the question he wouldn’t be sending drones to obliterate terrorists along with the innocents standing next to them.

But – as hard as it is to imagine Jesus starting wars or launching drones – I want to stop short of speaking for him. There are just too many examples of people whose WWJD conclusions are based on ignorance, bigotry, stupidity and madness. One Baptist pastor believes Jesus would burn the Qur’an and consign Muslims to Hell. Another Baptist pastor would barricade Gays and Lesbians in separate pens until – being unable to reproduce – they would die out. Still another Baptist pastor (we’re seeing a trend here) encourages parents to slap little Johnny silly if he acts effeminate. And let’s not overlook Pastor Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church who pickets the funerals of war heroes with posters emblazoned, “God Hates Fags.”

What a reversal of scripture. Jesus must shake his head at these guys and mutter, “They have gone out of their minds.”

As we take another look at these 15 verses in Mark 3, what do we see? Jesus is casting out demons – casting the crazy out of people he meets along the way. But more people come along whose crazy takes the form of ignorance, bigotry or family mortification and they have the temerity to think Jesus is the mad one.

But Jesus sets them straight – and offers a timely warning:
“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”

Theologians have argued for centuries what you have to do to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit. Probably Jesus was reminding them how dangerous it was to suggest that the spirit within him is “unclean.”

But there are other possibilities that could also be seen as blasphemy.

Among them: telling yourself and others you know What Would Jesus Do when you don’t know what on earth you are talking about.