Saturday, January 21, 2012

Polar Opposites

Do you have the same trouble with much Christian teaching and preaching as I do: the faith frequently being presented as something that is transparently clear and subject to no debate when you know perfectly well that nothing is quite so clear and that everything worth anything is worth at least a little wrestling and debate? Do you? Just asking.

As the psychologist Carl Jung, for one, and the philosopher Hegel, for another, argued, reality is not one-dimensional, but a set of contradictions or polarities that can be integrated or united, but which are still here to stay because neither pole can be eliminated and neither can be collapsed forever into its opposite. Life is made up of such polarities—good and evil, nature and freedom, the same and the other, matter and spirit, light and dark.

What leads me to start out this way is that the lessons ingeniously present us with a polarity today, one that can better be described in pictures than in labels—indeed, one that in some sense requires the medium of story simply to be halfway understood. On the one hand we have the character of Jonah, God’s unwilling little prophet, who is the picture of running away from God with all deliberate speed. On the other hand are the figures of the first pairs of disciples that Jesus called, all of whom, as pictured in Mark and captured in the words of an old hymn, “without a word rose up and followed” their new Master. How’s that for a polarity? “Ah!” some will say. “That’s no polarity. That’s just a pair of stories that illustrate what not to do and what to do in relation to God. Simon and Andrew, James and John model the proper, faithful response to Jesus, whereas Jonah totally illustrates exactly what not to do when God calls.” Well, you’ve got me there—so you may think. But I want to look behind the stories, and perhaps in front of them, and see beyond easy moralizing about “good” and “bad” responses that Jonah and the disciples represent and speak to a polarity that exists now and has always existed in human beings. It could be called by a variety of names, but for now I’ll call that polarity “resisting God” and “accepting God.”

Let’s start with Jonah. Some of you have probably not heard of Jonah, or, if you have, you got wind of the news that he was supposed to have been swallowed by a whale—which, since it isn’t even in the story itself is worse than not having heard of him at all. The little book of Jonah, only several pages long, is really quite unique among its neighbors in the Bible. It is in fact a novella, or a short story, if you will. The story starts out with the word of the Lord coming to Jonah telling him to go to Nineveh, a great gentile metropolis, and preach to the inhabitants that they should repent of their wickedness. Jonah immediately packs his bags and flees expressly to get away from the presence of the Lord. He finds a ship bound for Tarshish, pays his fare, goes aboard.

A terrible storm comes up. The sailors first throw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship. The captain goes down into the hold and finds Jonah fast asleep. The captain tells him to get up and pray to his god, as everyone else is doing, so that the ship won’t perish. Meanwhile, the sailors cast lots to see whose fault it is that the storm has come up. Sure enough, the lot falls to Jonah. They want to know what on earth he has done, what is his occupation, where he comes from, what his country is, what people he belongs to. Jonah tells all, including that he is running from God. The sailors, instead of jumping him, ask him rather politely what he thinks ought to be done with him and Jonah rather suicidally says, “Well, just throw me overboard. That ought to calm the sea.” Interestingly the sailors defer, row as hard as they can to reach land, and only when they have no success do they themselves pray not to be guilty of innocent blood, and with that finally toss Jonah overboard. Sure enough, this calms the sea. The sailors, who must have been pretty pious, really are scared then, and offer a sacrifice and make vows to Jonah’s God—a god, by the way, whom none of them knows.

But Jonah does not get off quite so easily as he intended. Rather, the story goes, he is swallowed by a fish, in whose belly he takes residence for a total of three days and three nights. Now if this reminds you somewhat of Pinnochio, you’re on the right track, because remember that this work is a novella, and like all good stories it contains not a little humor. And part of the humor of this story (at least I find it funny) is that inside the belly of the fish, Jonah composes a psalm. The narrator-creator of the story probably is not so amused as I am—and the psalm itself is pretty good poetry—but surely that same author must have chuckled when he composed my favorite part, which is that immediately after Jonah recites his psalm the fish vomits.

Thus barfèd out upon the land, Jonah hears the word of the Lord a second time telling him exactly what it had said the first time: “Get up, go to Nineveh, and proclaim the message that I tell you to.” So he does. And he is successful beyond his wildest fears. The cussed Ninevites, heathen Gentiles all, hear, respond, repent, and proclaim a fast, don sackcloth and even dress the animals in sackcloth. And God, seeing all that, changes the divine mind and holds off thrashing Nineveh. That makes Jonah livid. He tells God exactly what he thinks and flatly states that he knew better than to come to Nineveh precisely because God was gracious and merciful and would do something really stupid like relent from punishing the heathen. So just let him, Jonah, die. Because after all, if believing in God didn’t get you anywhere, and if your status as one of the chosen did not in fact make you any better off, why live in the first place? Sulky Jonah goes out of the city, sets up a booth, and waits to see what will happen. Up grows a gourd vine that shades him. Jonah likes that. Along comes a worm that bites the gourd vine in half. Jonah doesn’t like that. Up comes a desert storm. Jonah has a pity party. “Let me die.” God asks him if he is right to be so angry and Jonah says, “You’re mighty right I’m angry. Angry enough to die.”

And this merciful, gracious, inclusive God replies, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand form their left, and also many animals?”

End of story.

What is the point? In a nutshell, it is that God is not a tribal deity who is the exclusive property of Israel, but is rather the God of all the earth, of nature, and of every nation. The irony is that serving such a God seems pointless when the wicked get off scot-free, so why not just wish for death? It is exactly that sort of desperation that the narrator addresses, calling out the self-absorption and sourness of people who want to cut God down to size so they can have God all to themselves. And the patent hope of the storyteller is to lure the hearer into changing heart, mind, and theology, ironically accepting without rancor the greatness of God’s compassion.

You will no doubt note that there is something very familiar about Jonah and the people he represents. We do not like having our gods take pity on our enemies, as a general rule. We much prefer a portable, tribal deity that our team can pray to and who will bring us a win. Not only do we prefer that, we spin various stories asserting that that is exactly what kind of god we have, and invest considerable energy in trying to get others to sign on to the team that clearly owns this god, for after all the team is made in the image of this god so they look and act exactly as he and vice versa, right?

We may protest that we believe no such thing. We are not even sure whether there is a god, let alone one that is a comic book caricature. But we probably will admit that such a god gets great press in the blogs du jour, either being admired or condemned. And that is enough to light a fire under us making us run as fast as we can to get away from such a demon. And there we have it. Whether we are running away from a compassionate God simply because we cannot stand the depth and breadth of divine compassion, or running from the god who we sense is the silly invention of small minds, there it is in plain view: the “God” from whom we want at all costs to distance ourselves. Say it isn’t so!

But then there is the other story. If we only had these few verses in Mark (1:14-20) and knew nothing else about these disciples, we might imagine that they were plastic figures who lacked brains or soul or common sense or something, which lack would account for their rising up and following Jesus without the slightest hesitation. But we do know more about them than that. We know that confusion, pain, sorrow, fear, and—if a mix of story and legend are to be believed—suffering and martyrdom awaited nearly every one of them and the others eventually called.

But Mark presents the calling of the first four disciples with the spotlight clearly on Jesus’ call and their response. We know nothing about them beyond the fact that they were fisherfolk, that they were brothers, that two of them were with their father, and that they were on the job. Whether it was raining or sunny, whether they loved their work or loathed it, whether they had succeeded or failed at other things, whether or not they had ever seen or heard tell of Jesus: none of this do we know because in the end it is unimportant. The Reign of God has come and the one who reigns is Jesus. His calling, “Follow me,” and their immediate response is the reign of God. The very response exemplifies what that reign is all about. They do not have a job description of changing the world by preaching, teaching, healing, or anything else, though before it was over with they would do all those things. They simply get up and follow. Life unfolds from there.

Chances are you know what that is like, because if you have lived very long, you have done it. You have given your heart to another because you could do nothing else. You have said yes to someone or to some task or to some love that called you, and you did it without calculating the pros and cons, without over-analyzing the costs and benefits. You gave yourself away because there was in the moment nothing else to do. And I would add—and argue—that you did it—we do it—because our desire to say yes to the Promise of Meaning is the other one of those two poles running right through our existence and experience.

Ask us in the abstract if we would, like Simon, Andrew, James, or John, rise up and follow Jesus, no questions asked. We would likely say no—not a chance, in all honesty. But the issue here is not whether we respond instantaneously or take some time to think it over. The issue is: will we respond to the Presence of God here and now? Will we follow the one whose life and death embodies that Presence? Will we follow him outside the margins of acceptable society? Are we going to follow him beyond the confines of common sense and provability into the world of mystery and wonder? Are we going to follow him in breaking down the barriers that separate human beings? Will we follow his shadow, even when we do not yet know him, to the point that we will come to call him our Way, our Truth, our Life, our Bread, our Center?

Some days we are Jonah, irritated with the very notion of God, impervious to any Word from God. Other days we are at the opposite pole, ready to give our lives to God. The polarity will never completely go away, because polarities never do. No use pretending. But there is good reason to hope that our experience of following Jesus will be so life-changing, so positive, so unbelievably good, that we will want more and more to follow in his steps, even when we feel the impulse to shut our ears to a new challenge to go to some new place simply because he bids us go and leads us there.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2012

Saturday, January 07, 2012


Every year it seems a bit strange to leave Jesus in the crib one week and come back the next and have him be a full grown man going on his own to be baptized by John in the Jordan. Except for one story about the adolescent Jesus in Luke’s gospel, we have only legends and silence between his infancy and his ministry. Sometimes I think it is a kindness that we know nothing for sure about Jesus’ childhood and youth, because I suspect he would be presented as such a sterling example of goodness that we would not believe him to be a real human being. Or, if a tale or two had sneaked into the tradition about some mischief he got into, it would totally confound all those who have an idealized image of Jesus as thoroughly special. Better that we are left wondering, or at least spared the disappointment of having Jesus spoiled for us.

To Mark, writing his gospel before many questions about Jesus had gelled into full-scale controversies about his nature and identity, none of these matters seems to have been important, if they occurred to him at all. He has no birth narratives with shepherds or angels or wise men. For him, Joseph gets no mention, not even a biographical footnote. And Mary, far from being the Blessed Mother that she becomes in the three later gospels, is thoroughly dumbfounded by Jesus’ behavior and joins his other siblings in seeking to get him to leave off his preaching and come home, fearing perhaps for his safety, probably embarrassed or perhaps anxious from the rumors that Jesus was out of his mind (Mark 3:19b-17; 31-34; 6:3-5). Mark is definitely interested in showing us that Jesus is the Son of God, but that means something quite different to him than it generally means today, and even something different from what it would mean a decade or two after he wrote his gospel. The story of how Jesus was baptized and what happened to him then was of great importance to Mark, because for him the baptism was clearly the beginning of Jesus’ special status. The baptism was public enough, one supposes. But, unlike the account in Matthew’s gospel, all that happened—heavens opening, dove descending, voice speaking—were for Jesus’ eyes and ears only, not for the crowds. These elements of apocalyptic symbolism were enough to confirm Jesus’ sense of his own identity, from which he never wavers in Mark’s gospel, not even in his dereliction on the cross. From the moment of his coming out of the water, Jesus was a Holy Spirit-filled person. And that Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness on what you and I might call a search to unpack the meaning of it all.

But let’s not get ahead of our story! We were just noting that all of this happens, as it were, out of the blue—no tidy series of steps carefully bringing Jesus to the Jordan and to baptism, so far as we know. Yet we do know more than that. We know that Jesus, like any young Palestinian Jew of his time, had several options. One was, of course, to be totally submissive to the tradition of his time and society, dutifully bowing to received wisdom, essentially questioning nothing. (That is always a human option.) We know that, smart as he turned out to be as theologian and thinker, he could certainly have identified with the Pharisees, for example, the group most interested in applying the Torah, the Jewish Law, to life with unrelenting rigor. He had the talent to be a scribe, and no doubt could have made a name for himself (if for no one else) by becoming a religious lawyer. Moreover, since he was to give clear evidence of interest in communal life, it is entirely possible that he toyed with the idea of joining the Essenes, a religious community with a monastery not too far from the place where John likely did his baptizing. With the Essenes he would have had the chance to parse and ponder what we now know as the Dead Sea Scrolls, which they produced. Or with his passion for justice and compassion for the downtrodden, Jesus might well have become a Zealot, one of that band that wanted to foment rebellion against the Romans. Off to the hills he might have gone to join the political revolutionaries.

But none of these roads did he follow. Instead, he walked the dusty trail from Galilee down the river valley towards Jericho. He had either heard of John the Baptizer or he discovered him along the journey. Was Jesus searching for something? We can only imagine, we cannot know. But what we do know is what he found and what he identified with. He found someone out of the heart of the old prophetic tradition, straight off the pages of the Prophet Isaiah: “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, makes his paths straight.’” We know that he heard and identified with a call to repentance. And the story is that this John kept telling people that one was coming who was more powerful than he, and who by comparison was infinitely more worthy, one who would baptize multitudes with something way beyond the power of ordinary water—the very Spirit of God. One wonders. Did Jesus hear that statement, standing among the crowds? Did John’s words fall on him like a burden, pierce him to the quick, excite him, inspire him, galvanize his young vision for ushering in the Reign of God on earth? Was he already primed to believe he had a vocation? Did he, searching for a moment of clarity, hear what John was saying and immediately know that it was he who would be the one to baptize with Holy Spirit?

The Church has long had a habit of making up stories about Jesus, stories that fill in the gaps between the pages of scripture. And Christians have generally had the habit of believing those stories. One of the strongest and most long-lasting of those stories is that Jesus never had a moment’s doubt about anything. If you are one who believes that story, you probably have little interest in even imagining that he ever had to search for a thing, and certainly not a vocation, an identity. But there is some chance, perhaps even a large chance, that you are one who for whatever reason finds it perfectly plausible that Jesus was so uniquely powerful that existing scripts—Pharisee, scribe, conventional rabbi, Essene, Zealot—did not suit him or interest him. Perhaps you are willing to entertain the notion that he was a mold-breaker, or that God it was who broke the mold out of which Jesus was formed so that there was not nor could there ever be another quite like him. In that case, maybe you find yourself imagining that it was a restlessness that led him to leave his Nazareth home and make his way miles down the country to join a movement that dared to believe in things like radical forgiveness, utter dedication to the Reign of God, and the availability of healing and feeding for all comers. Perhaps something is going on in your own life, a dissatisfaction with things as they are, maybe even an anger at the conventions that people live by, which they use to pass as moral and upright. Maybe something is stirring in you that finds your own Nazareth far too confining, something that has made you strike out to make a difference in the world, maybe even by finding and living in the Commonwealth of God. Perhaps you see in Jesus a kindred spirit, a mentor too authentic to settle for half-truths and easy answers, and maybe you want to lurk in the shadows long enough to see if he might be the One to follow.

If that sounds like you, then the way to the Jordan is this way—right straight to the water of baptism. If you have never been baptized maybe you want to consider it. If you have been baptized, maybe you want to reconnect with your baptism. If you have been living your life faithfully, perhaps you want simply to say Yes again. In any of those cases, it is possible—not guaranteed, but possible—that you will be plunged into a totally new kind of life, one in which you will feel, even as the water is running out of your ears, the heavens split open, and an indescribable peace settling upon you, dovelike, as your Yes is answered by a Yes: “You are my child, my beloved.”

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2012