The Da Vinci Code Controversy/How Lack of Discussion Endangers Us All

History tells us who, what, and when.  Science tells us how.  Religion tells us why.  The Big Question of our childhoods, the question too often unanswered.  But now and then, a book or movie comes along that reawakens our old Why.  We make an author or a director very rich while making clergy envious and angry at the competition.

Many churches have alienated members by squandering a miracle moment and calling for a boycott of the movie based on The Da Vinci Code.  Instead, like some congregations, they need to remember that publicity is an opportunity to welcome, encourage, and frame the discussion.  

Dan Brown’s blockbuster is a novel, but as in the Bible, fiction can tell more truth than fact-bound reporting.  Tired of textbook histories measured out by public schools and old guard TV networks, with their obsession to avoid offending, we pine for signs of passion.  Names and dates become deadening.  We long for meaning behind the data, suspecting that all the talk and multiple-choice tests are a devil’s dance.  If that’s all there is, my dear, then let’s keep dancing.  But we keep hoping for more.

In the past 50 years, we’ve seen a miraculous teaching moment squandered at least three times, and some churches still haven’t learned.

Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ reached us in English in 1960.  It imagines a very human, struggling Jesus, and readers, recognizing themselves, saw truth in that.  Kazantzakis portrayed his Jesus with love and respect, and readers took him the same way.

Movie goers, however, tend toward a less measured response and less nuanced opinion, and these faults arise from both sides of the screen.  Behind it, the creative army that distills hundreds of pages into a two-hour film must strip away much of the interior monolog, subtleties of exposition, and whole characters and events.  A book happens, as it were, inside the head; a movie, outside.  Literature is about what’s under the surface; movies are mostly surface.

In front of the screen, the audience often has little or no prior knowledge of the book that may have inspired, say, Martin Scorsese, and may have little interest in rumination and nuance.  They come to be entertained, and the director tries to make the entertainment as realistic as, or more exciting than, the lives of the viewers.

The cinematic realism of The Last Temptation of Christ profoundly threatened some and moved others to renew their religious faith.  The threatened could not abide a Jesus with feelings and urges that were just too much like their own.  Unable to accept the movie as a thoughtful writer’s invention, some of them even resorted to violence.  In my town, a pastor who called himself a Christian rammed his church bus into the front of the theater, which, of course, increased ticket sales considerably.

In 1993, The Celestine Prophecy appeared, first self-published, and the following year, mass marketed by Warner Books.  The novel stirred religious feelings in thousands, and made James Redfield a wealthy man.  Knowing he had struck a hunger, he wrote several sequels.  

Some readers felt so moved that they took the “prophesies” very seriously and loosely coalesced into a kind of cult, much as some readers of Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land did back in the ‘60s.  Neither novel is specifically based on Christian faith, but both filled a faith vacuum for a while, much like spiritual junk food.  Seeing neither a direct threat to dogma nor an opportunity to offer more solid fare for the soul to these eager readers, most churches took no notice.  Too bad.

Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code joined the discussion in 2003.  His novel came out as Christianity’s history was making headlines in the popular press, thanks to recent years’ popular editions of ancient texts found in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammedi Library, and popularized presentations of these and other discoveries.  Brown’s  fortuitous timing helped him sell millions and make him a quasi-literary rock star.  

Inquiring minds wanted to know whether the Bible told historical truth and what Jesus was really like.  The ferment in this field grew great enough that National Geographic could profitably sponsor a TV special on The Gospel of Judas, an obscure codex from the Second Century that presented an especially esoteric point of view of Jesus and the disciple we were taught to revile.

Once again, many pulpits, especially in Roman Catholic and Fundamentalist Protestant churches, have simply thundered condemnation.  More opportunity lost. 

Opus Dei, a Catholic order, set an example for all Christendom by welcoming the controversy and opening their doors.  Instead of hardening their hearts at being painted in a sensational novel as an embodiment of evil, Opus Dei invited discourse and handed out literature.  As a result, they’re having trouble keeping up with applications.

Would that all Christian clergy might act as gracefully.  

The main body of the Catholic Church, still needing decades to recover from coverups of sexual predation by too many priests and bishops, maintains its myopia, unable to see that the Middle Ages are over.  Parishioners can read now, and will take prohibition as denial of information, which whets their appetite to look elsewhere for answers.

Conservative Protestant churches suffer a similar shortsightedness, with the same result.  The United Methodist Church, supposedly more liberal, often displaying the motto, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors,” should have been leading discussions of The Da Vinci Code nonstop, deconstructing the book’s myths, both historical and invented, and growing many fold, but it doesn’t appear to have had any denominational plan to do so.

As always, the teaching moment is fast passing.  What a tragedy.  Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, all theological cousins, all worshipping the same god, all teaching peace and compassion, are being eroded by a doctrinaire fundamentalism that threatens us all.  

Israel, founded as a modern Promised Land, sees fit to kill whole families of Christians, Muslims, and even fellow Jews with American weapons in the name of taking and protecting territory, thus making more enemies.  Radicalized Muslims, having fewer resources, become terrorists with equal certitude that they are right.  Fringe group Christians cause tragedy at Jonestown, Ruby Ridge, Waco, and Oklahoma City.  Talibans all.

All from lack of timely discussion, lack of education, lack of seeing humanity in fellow humans, lack of curiosity.  All these lacks lead to fundamentalism’s self-imposed isolation and the worldwide descent into tribal warfare.

We could have talked.  We could have made friends.  But too many of our religious leaders violate their faiths and simply condemn, leading their flocks into theological stockades.

God help us.

Copyright ©2006 James L. Evans

How Real Was the Resurrection, Really?

Dear reader: This is subject to further editing, perhaps after your feedback.

 

I’m starting to write this on the Roman Easter Sunday. I’ve been thinking about this whole Lent thing, with its happy ending, which we love. But if we’re grownups, do we need all the Easter hoopla? I love the music, but still…

Christians, whether scholars and otherwise, will probably rise to attack me for apostasy, but really: Do we actually revere or even worship Jesus because he rose from the dead? If that literally happened, however briefly, I must confess that OK, it’s amazing, but it doesn’t change my faith.

Christians may rush in to say the physical Resurrection validates Christianity, that this religion is hollow and meaningless if Jesus didn’t rise again. But does it? Is it? I’m starting to see the week of Palm Sunday through Good Friday as a mind blowing series of events that works just fine to build a religion on. Leave Jesus on the cross, as the Catholics do, and end the story there. Remember what he taught, what he did, and what he risked and ultimately sacrificed.  Wow, what an example. Very few of us follow him that far, but there he is, the prize for our eyes, leaving us with a “new” commandment: to love each other.

But maybe we need the happy ending. Some say that’s the premise of Christianity, and the whole religion falls apart without it. Maybe they fall apart without it. Maybe they also need the later-tacked-on ending of the Jonah adventure, because they can’t see the point of the story without the reassurance of Jonah’s physical “resurrection.” And they need to see and feel that Jesus is dead only temporarily.

We’re talking about a classic model story here. The Hero, hailed as mighty, famous for legendary deeds, and for helping the people who need it most, goes through a time of extreme difficulty and nearly dies or appears to die. But wait, there’s more! Hero returns, along with happily-ever-after, thanks to deus ex machina, or just Deus. As it’s retold and rewritten, the story accumulates vivid detail, right down to secret conversations. And we love it. The child in us needs a happy ending, or we might be afraid to get up in the morning.

We hate the opposite of a happy ending, such as when a much-loved relative, pet, or friend dies. We children of all ages don’t just grieve; we’re often horrified, because death is so…final. But death is a fact of life, and death seems to be the fact of life least taught and most poorly learned. There’s no magical happy ending, unless we who are left make it happen by living on, carrying their spirit in strength and faith, thus honoring the memory of the deceased.

Well, here’s the horrible, cruel death of Jesus. Niggling details aside, we can most likely accept the life and execution of a man named Yeshua bar Yusef as fact. He was evidently a charismatic spiritual genius. But let’s remember that just as with news today, the story of Jesus was passed orally at first, with some added details that we throw in to enliven any story, and then, later, was written down by several people, working pretty much independently. The written versions were never published or photocopied, of course. Through many decades of hand copying and re-copying, each rewriter would have adjusted and invented details sincerely meant to enhance the story. This was standard practice. Some epistles in the New Testament weren’t even written by the name in the title. Standard practice again.

So today, we have an astounding story, originally by four witnesses, of a man who died after beating, stabbing, and torture on one of the cruelest, slowest, and most demeaning execution methods ever invented. Then, the story tells us, he was able to walk away the next day and travel, chat, and even enjoy a meal before disappearing for good. It’s a thrilling, inspiring story. Not only that, but today, the world power known as the Roman Empire is gone. But Jesus, not Caesar, lives on in us. I love that.

About those post-mortem days. We’re used to trusting writers not to fabricate events but to report them dispassionately, exactly as they occurred, as if we were reading a report from Reuters. Not so with Bible stuff. Here, we can trust only that the writer is telling what he (usually he, rarely she) thinks is a very important story. And usually, it is important, even for us, all these centuries later.

But to tell the story effectively, no good writer is going to leave the bare bones alone: He’s going to enhance the story to make it more accessible, meaningful, easier to understand, and exciting to his readers. Remember, he’s writing by hand, not running off copies, so if anything needs tweaking, he can easily do it on the fly. Besides, who’s to know? The original characters are often dead, and there’s no copyright law to worry about.

So today, we have a shelf full of Jesus stories in various forms and styles. Early church fathers weeded them out with very respectable skill and left us with four. Others, such as The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Bartholomew, The Gospel of Mary, The Gospel of Judas, and several more, didn’t make the cut.

Naturally, the four Jesus stories in today’s Christian Bible don’t agree on all the details. Did Jesus deliver his most famous sermon on a so-called mountain, or on a plain? And how many “beatitudes” were in that sermon, anyway? Who cares? We must learn to relax, step back from literal thinking, and hunt for the deep message. It’s in there, finally appearing explicitly in the story of the Last Supper: Love one another. That’s the bottom line, a three-word summary of the Golden Rule. The Abrahamic Prime Directive. Love each other. Two word version? Be kind. Any religion with any legs comes down to this.

And all four of these stories tell, with varying details, of a resurrection. The Resurrection, if you please. Capital R. Obviously a big deal. But I have trouble with this part of the story being literally true. The Bible has plenty of stuff that’s not literally true, such as two creation myths — yes, myths; that word doesn’t necessarily imply falsehood — two creation myths that don’t agree. But they’re both profoundly true in the way only fiction can tell Truth. Consider Winnie the Pooh. Fiction, but in its way, one of the truest stories ever. Some scholars tell us that the story of Samson was actually a fictional work in the first place. OK, it works to thrill and lift the spirits as well as any other superhero story does.

So let’s get to it: How true is the Resurrection? I’d say, very true. Absolutely true. But maybe not literal fact. No, much better than that. Let me set this up.

We make God real. That makes me think of The Velveteen Rabbit, another book about Truth, but moving on. We make God real, by loving God. Let’s stipulate that God has no gender, no body, no physical existence at all except in us. To quote from The Color Purple, a religious book in the very best way (unlike the movie), we don’t go to church to find God, we go to church to share the God we brought in with us. Amen? Amen. God is our spirit, the spirit that works in us, if we let it. Each of us carries a share of God, and when we combine them, they become more than the sum of each of our spirits. GOD in all caps.

But when Jesus was executed, the disciples lost their spirit and felt utterly lost. Like many of us, they had resisted seeing all the signs of looming disaster during those final days. They were so unprepared. Doesn’t that sound like us? So when Jesus died, they did, too, in spirit. The Twelve Apostles, the ones closest to their Prophet, simply shut down, their spirits broken.

Typically, the only disciples with the strength to deal with such a situation were women. Death was no stranger to them. Women lost husbands in war, children to disease, babies in childbirth and infancy, and had to deal with it up close and personal. While Jesus’s life leaked out of him, we’re told that the friends who stayed near the cross were women. So guess who got up the next day to go to the cemetery and do what needed to be done. And. They. Had. A. Stroke. Of. Genius.

Here’s where the story may have picked up the biggest package of physical details to tell a spiritual story, and I love the way it works.

The announcement, “He is not here!” could have been true in two ways: The body was indeed missing, or these women were the first with the presence of mind to put it all together. By now, you can guess I’m going with option two. The radical realization of these women, supposedly three of them (a heavily symbolic number), was to recognize that they were looking for Jesus in the wrong place! That he was alive! And in them! And their job was to spread the Good News.

They told the other disciples, who had been sitting numb, dumb, and defeated, what they had figured out, way ahead of the rest of them, that Jesus was as alive as if he were standing there, with the nail holes and spear wound and telling them all to get on with it.

Once this Great Truth sank in, the disciples roused and shared this new reality with each other: He is alive, among us; he is alive, in us. Suddenly, they had a new way of looking at life and the world. The whole world, and life, looked different. They began to see Jesus even in strangers on the road, as we do today, if we look.

I began these thoughts in a very skeptical frame of mind. Imagine my surprise at coming out here, on the Eastern Orthodox Good Friday, that the Resurrection is a fact, but not in the magical thinking way we see on the page.  And although I’ve learned I’m not the first to notice this, imagine my surprise at stumbling over a startling possibility about the beginning of Christianity: that thanks to a few smart women, a new religion was born. I like the bookends here: Jesus was born to a young woman named Mary, and another Mary may have announced his rebirth in us. He has risen. He has risen, indeed. Happy Easter.

Amen.

 

Copyright 2019 James L. Evans

Imago Dei

The title of these remarks is familiar to anyone who’s had seminary training. It’s one of those fancy terms they have to cover. I say they, because I’ve never been to seminary, and I’m just learning about a debate that’s been raging for centuries. This can be rarified stuff, but I thought it would be fun to try to break it down for the rest of us. Yeah, this is fun for me. My mission as a teacher was to demonstrate the fun of learning things.

Imago dei is Latin for Image of God. It’s the idea that we’re created in the image of God, and it’s an ancient concept in Judaism, Christianity by way of Judaism, and Sufi Islam, by way of both Judaism and Christianity.

The nudge for me to do some work on this topic came from a true story. Paul Peck, a friend in California, is one of the holiest people I’ve known. The air around him actually seems to glow. He wrote of a doctor visit and chatting with someone in the waiting room, who poured out her heart, as constantly happens with Paul. As he left her when the nurse called, he told her, “You are the perfect image of God.” All righty then. I wondered how he could say that to someone he hardly knew, and I wondered for years, What did he mean by that? I’ll try to end up with some sort of an answer.

For the past two or three thousand years, theologians have debated the difference between “image of God” (that our spirit is like the spirit of God) and “likeness of God” (that we actually look like God). I’m thankful that most scholars have decided not to worry much about this. After all, saying “image and likeness” is called a Hebraism, in which the ancient Jews would name one thing or action with two different words, for emphasis. This practice survives in modern law. For example, the defendant may be ordered not simply to stop, but to cease and desist. Congress has an important committee called Ways and Means.

You’ve heard the Genesis selections, probably many times. “Let us make humanity in our own image to resemble us.” Notice “in the divine image” and “to resemble us.” This wording comes from the Common English Bible, which has a reputation for careful translation from the Hebrew. Notice that in English, we have “in the…image” and “resemble.” A hair splitter would say Wait a minute: Doesn’t “in the image” mean a duplicate image, an exact copy? But doesn’t “resembling” mean copying approximately? So which is it? That’s what the debate is about. I’ll give you a tiny sample of the debate.

It doesn’t help us that the original Hebrew uses words for “copy” and “resemble” in the same way. And yes, for centuries, Jewish, Christian, and Sufi scholars have argued about this, debating like the good lawyers they were and hoping never to reach a verdict, because this was too much fun. The original nerds were probably these people.

One, Saint Augustine, said that the human mind is the location of humanity; therefore, the location of the image of God.

Iranaeus was an important theologian who was in on the action very early. He lived only five or six generations after Jesus. That’s only three lifetimes. I knew someone born before the Civil War, so I’m thinking Iranaeus was dealing with ideas that were still pretty fresh. He said, “…[M]an, and not a part of man, was made in the likeness of God.” Our actual bodies are images of God. Our likeness to God is evident via embodied acts. So our likeness to God is something we grow into, by purposely acting with our bodies. You following this? We require Jesus, because he’s the embodiment of God. Being physical bodies, we can’t fully understand how to live and grow into the fullness of the image of God without Jesus’s physical representation. Does this make your brain hurt? Maybe that’s because old Iranaeus sounds as if he wants it both ways.

You heard the stuff in Genesis, but wait, there’s more.

The Second Book of Enoch doesn’t carry much weight with Jews or Christians — it didn’t even make it into the apocrypha — but it’s interesting, and it makes a startling statement about our resemblance to God. It was probably written by a Jewish group, when the year was still just two digits, and records some of the imago dei debate already going on. “The Lord with his own two hands created mankind; and in a facsimile of his own face. Small and great the Lord created. Whoever insults a person’s face insults the face of the Lord; whoever treats a person’s face with disgust treats the face of the Lord with disgust. There is anger and judgement for whoever spits on a person’s face.”1

This writer, saying “facsimile,” seems to be saying that no matter who we are, we are a copy, an exact physical duplicate, of God. Personally, I see God as infinite, so I don’t have a problem with that.

But later in the same book, it says, “And however much time there was went by. Understand how, on account of this, he constituted humans in his own form, in accordance with similarity. And he gave them eyes to see, ears to hear, and heart to think, and reason to argue.”2

So the writer of this passage argues for similarity, not duplication, somewhat like Genesis, “in the divine image of God…male and female.”3

Wisdom of Solomon, or the Book of Wisdom, is in the Roman Catholic Bible, but the Protestants have it only as part of the Apocrypha. We do know it wasn’t actually written by Solomon, but probably by a Jewish scholar who hung out in the great library of Alexandria not long before the birth of Jesus. In one verse, it says, “For God created people to be immortal, and made them to be a perfect representation of his own unique identity.”4 Lots of food for thought there, but it doesn’t settle anything.

In one letter, Paul writes, “Christ is the image of God…,”5 and that “We always carry Jesus’s death around in our bodies so that Jesus’s life can also be seen in our bodies. We who are alive are always being handed over to death for Jesus’s sake so that Jesus’s life can also be seen in our bodies that are dying. So death is at work in us, but life is at work in you6…So we aren’t depressed. But even if our bodies are breaking down on the outside, the person we are on the inside is being renewed every day.”7

The same letter says“But we all with unveiled face, beholding and reflecting like a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as from the Lord Spirit.”8 To me, this soaring language argues for similarity, and our likeness to God being on the inside. I like this.

In his letter to the Hebrews, Paul elaborates: “God, having in the past spoken to the fathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, has at the end of these days spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom also he made the worlds. His son is the radiance of his glory, the very image of his substance.”9 Some ancient theologians said this meant physical resemblance, as in 2nd Enoch10. Others decided imago dei was the internal likeness: spiritual/moral reflection, development, and growth. Christian doctrine holds that as God’s image, we can reason and discover, and even assert total independence, rejecting God, and that Jesus’s mission was to renew our relationship with our Creator and enjoy the gift of reconciliation.

Paul wrote to the Colossians “…and translated us into the Kingdom of the Son of his love; in whom we have our redemption, the forgiveness of our sins, who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.”11 So Jesus came to us to make God visible, because we needed that, but I see the resemblance of us to God in our actions. That’s what Jesus showed us and talked about.

Didn’t it have to be? I mean resemblance rather than duplication. So this is what God can look like: a cop answering a call, a kid comforting a parent, a grownup making a kid feel safe, or like Jesus himself, a regular, dusty little brown guy, trained to be a tradesman, with no money, but with a fortune in fortitude and love. God looks like any one of us. Let’s act like it.

**************

Genesis 1:26-28 “Then God said, ‘Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us…’ God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female, God created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fertile and multiply,’ etc.

5:1-3 “…On the day God created humanity, he made them to resemble God, and created them male and female. He blessed them and called them humanity on the day they were created. When Adam was 130 years old, he became the father of a son in his image, resembling him, and named him Seth.”

1 2 Enoch 44:1-3

2 2 Enoch 65:2-2

3  Gen 1:27

4 Wis 2:23

5 2 Cor 4:4

6 2 Cor 10-12

7 2 Cor 16

8 2 Cor 3:18

9 Heb 1:3

10 2 Enoch 44:1-3

11  Col 1:13-15

Why Are We Here?

170827WhyAreWeHere

When I was an English teacher at Ithaca High School, I always got agreement from my more thoughtful students when I asked, How many ways could you be dead by now? Isn’t it a crazy miracle that we’re all here today?

Getting teenagers to appreciate being alive isn’t always the easiest job, but I enjoyed doing it. And I got to read some inspiring essays on the subject. I made a practice of doing their assignments myself and sharing my difficulties and successes, so we learned a lot about each other.

My own essay might include the summer I camped alone at Chimney Pond for two weeks of hiking and climbing in the Mt. Katahdin area, in Maine. I was 17. Before bedding down the final evening, I put my last bit of food between my sleeping bag and the back wall of my leanto. In the morning, my food was gone. I soon found my lunch, a can of condensed soup, on the trail nearby, but the steel can was full of pencil-sized holes and all crunched up like a wad of chewed aluminum foil.

Now I knew what had happened, and I went back to my leanto for more evidence. Sure enough, the dirt floor showed bear tracks on the near side and the far side of my sleeping bag, and I stopped breathing for a few seconds.

When I visualized it, I gave thanks that I’m a deep sleeper. Wouldn’t want to startle a hungry bear, especially while he’s standing above me.

Or I might write about when I was nine, and I came down with measles. When my fever reached 106, I lost consciousness. Our farm was miles from medical help, so the doctor replied to my parents’ frantic phone call, “Pack him in ice!” I still enjoy the memory of waking up and loving the refreshing relief of being covered in chopped ice.

And of course there were the dumb things we did as kids, because being kids, especially boys, we thought we were immortal. We all hunted with guns and bows, and one of our games had us line up in two ranks 40-50 yards apart, and shoot arrows almost straight up, so they’d come down on the opposing side. We allowed just one arrow in the air at a time — What do you think we were, foolish? — and the receiving team tried to judge the arrow’s trajectory and stand close to where it would fall. And nobody got killed. Nobody even got hurt.

More recently, I got hit by a fast car while walking, which broke a still unknown number of bones, and I took years to recover.

More recently still, our house burned, and if it had occurred at night, or if our dog hadn’t alerted oddly, which led my wife to discover the fire, I wouldn’t be here trying to move you to reflect on how blessed we are to be here.

Let’s consider Moses. Here’s a baby who should have been swept up in the extermination order. But his mother does something absolutely crazy and hides him where he’ll be found, not by a soldier but by a princess, and gambles that her baby won’t be killed, and that the baby’s sister will get Mom hired to nurse him, and that the princess will want a cute baby as a pet.  And the princess goes for it! What are the odds?

If it hadn’t been for this. If it hadn’t been for that. We all have these stories. So isn’t it a crazy miracle that we happen to be in this room together today?

Do yourself a big favor, and take the time — you’ve earned it — to write down a collection of reasons you could so easily not be here at all. You might need a lot of time. These miracles happen every day. Reasons to be thankful.

So why are we here, when we, like so many we love, could so easily have succumbed to accident, illness, poor choice, fatal coincidence? — Life can be fragile. Now we arrive at the purpose of religion.

The arts tell us who we are. History tells us what and when. Science and math tell us how. And religion and philosophy tell us why. So “why are we here” is an appropriate question for us today.

We can argue for hours about whether our amazing luck to survive so far is or is not thanks to God’s direct manipulation. But the least we can do is be thankful, right? What do we do when something good happens? Notice it and give thanks, I hope, for a start. Incidentally, an attitude of gratitude pays huge dividends in mental health.

In my favorite part of Alice Walker’s great novel, The Color Purple — this is a part that’s not in the movie — Shug says to Celie that God wants, more than anything, our love and appreciation. Our delight and love for this world, and our gratitude for being alive in it, is Step One, and the great creation allegories in Genesis tell us that God wants good company. Okay then, doesn’t good company thank the host for everything? That’s the least we can do.

So, we’re here to practice an attitude of gratitude just for being alive, as difficult as that can be sometimes. But if it were too easy, what would it be worth?

Why Are We Here, Step Two, is to pay it back, to pay back the immeasurable blessing of being alive, even if we live with physical or emotional pain. You know the saying, What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. But back to Step Two, which may look impossible: Pay back God? What does God need?  An app that creates a universe in less than six days? I like the idea that God wants our love and appreciation, but what does God need? How can we, or Moses, pay God back?

By paying it forward.

God needs help. We can offer our thoughts and prayers, but as God’s people, we are God’s hands. We can wave these hands and sing praise songs, and make ourselves feel close to God, but this exhilarating group therapy doesn’t travel well.

We need to get out there, with our time, money, and sweat, and make actual contact. God needs help. We are here to make life better for each other. This is how we pay it forward. We are here to do favors for our neighbors, to share our talents, to show — notice I’m saying show, not tell — show our kids that life is good, that it’s fun to learn stuff, and fulfilling to be kind to each other. One of my real life idols, the Dalai Lama, says his religion is very simple: kindness.

That’s how we pay it forward. This is why we are here. If we practice kindness and compassion, in real life and on line, we are helping God. We become God by being God’s hands and speakers. I don’t mean forcing Bible verses and pieties on anyone — that can backfire — just behave like a Christian. Never mind the bad attitudes of others; our empathy, gentleness, kindness, and positive attitude will have the more profound effect in the long run.

You could also look at all this as creating God. Does that sound like blasphemy? I’ve heard cynical scholars say that we created God in our image, but I like to think of it as a two-way street. We keep repeating that God is love. Well, if A equals B, then B equals A, and that means that love is God, right? If love is God, the more love we create and practice, the more God we have, right? I don’t see God as a physical being like the old white man on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel but as a spirit we all share. We have God in each of us. The God we make isn’t created from nothing as much as realized, brought forth from within us, and greater than the sum of the parts we contribute. I like to think of the total of the God-ness in all of us and in all life forms as the Holy Spirit. That’s what God is for me.

I think of the Trinity as a metaphor. The Father is our gendered, inadequate label for the creative Force that set off the Big Bang and set evolution in motion. We humans are tool users, so we use the term Parent Creator God as a tool to help us hold in our heads the impossibly huge idea of Creation.

I see the Son as a man who was a spiritual genius, endowed with the guts and the ability to articulate, practice, and demonstrate  godliness, which is very simple, really. It’s compassion. It’s kindness. But Jesus came along to show us how high we could set the bar.

And as I said, the Holy Spirit can be our label for the godness-goodness that lives in each of us and gives us reason to be here. Our job is to help the Holy Spirit inside each of us join with the Spirit in everybody else, and — Make God Happen. Make God happy. That’s how it works. That’s why we’re here.

And wow. What a blooming miracle it is.

 

Acts 27:9-28:9       Genesis 1:1-2:4a

Mark 5:35-43        Genesis 2:4b-23

 

What Is Forgiveness?

I’ve spent years, decades, really, trying to understand forgiveness.  As a little kid — well, I was never little, but you know what I mean — as a young kid, I heard Bible passages mentioning forgiveness, and I heard people say, “Do you forgive me?” or “Please forgive me.” It seemed to me that if person A would ask, person B would say, “I forgive you,” and poof, that was the end of it.

That bothered me. How could the matter be over, just like that? Person B would suddenly feel fine about person A, and A wouldn’t even remember having done something hurtful? A and B were, in that instant, friends again, as if nothing had happened? And I, the observer, was left still asking, Is this magic? How can everything be fine again so easily?

That’s the kind of kid I was.  Absent minded, very busy thinking Deep Thoughts.

Turns out, maybe everything wasn’t fine. Maybe they didn’t understand forgiveness any better than I did. I noticed A and B didn’t trust each other quite as much any more. They might act cordial, but slowly, they might drift apart. When I first tried forgiveness, giving or receiving it, it felt strange and unnatural, and the hurt didn’t simply vanish, as I’d expected. This forgiving business obviously wasn’t magic.

I put the whole matter away to wait for more information, experience, wisdom, maturity, or all of the above. Maybe I’d understand forgiveness when I got older.

I’ve been called a late bloomer, and I guess it fits, because I think I started getting a handle on this forgiving thing somewhere in my fifties.  Someone had hurt me profoundly, and the experience for me when we parted ways was traumatic.  I carried the pain for years, but then one day, I told a therapist that, to my astonishment, I could now think about that person without reacting at all. I knew that if we met, I’d feel relaxed, and I, at least, could have a friendly conversation. I never tried to make that happen, but I started to think, Maybe this is what forgiveness is all about.

Then I found this definition of forgiveness and copied it in my blog: “Forgiving you just means I no longer dwell on what a jerk you were to me. It doesn’t mean you’re no longer a jerk.” Listen to the first part again, the more important part. “Forgiving you simply means I no longer dwell on what you did to me.” Look at the wonderful freedom there. That’s life-giving. That freedom is what you get when you forgive. Hey, maybe forgiving is a bigger favor to yourself than to the one forgiven. Those wrongs against you are in the past, and you’re not lugging them around with you; you have set that burden down, and you can walk with a much lighter step.

But how about “forgive and forget?” Is that realistic? John F. Kennedy, Jr., said, “Always forgive them, but never forget their names.” And yes, why would we, or why should we, forget? We say God forgives our sins, but do you really think God forgets them? Would you really say God forgets things? I don’t.

If we forgive, we let go of the hurt and stop dwelling on it. The hurt is behind us. It may still exist, but it’s where it belongs, behind us. And whether it’s in front of us or behind us, if we keep looking at it, we won’t be watching where we’re headed, and we could walk into even worse harm.

But this isn’t always easy. Ceasing to dwell on the hurt takes strength and maturity. Mahatma Gandhi said, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

Wow, is that ever true. If forgiveness is letting go of hurt from others, doing that can be really hard. To forgive, you have to grow up, and that’s hard, too. The media present us with mostly negative examples of maturity. Consider TV’s so-called reality shows, such as the “Housewives” franchise. Forgiveness is usually impossible for those poor women, because being shallow and immature, they fall for the slightest encouragement to make even more drama.

So who can we learn from about how to forgive? I first think of Bishop Desmond Tutu. After the official end of apartheid in South Africa, he formed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In my view, this used trauma to treat trauma, but it had a positive effect. People who had suffered torture and other horrors could tell their stories and have them recorded by sympathetic authority. People who had committed atrocities could confess and request amnesty from prosecution. Bishop Tutu is a small man, but I see him as a tower of strength just for setting up and participating in that commission. What a lesson in discipleship.

I think of Doctors Martin Luther King, Senior and Junior, who both refused to let the injustices and ignorance of many white Americans poison their minds.

I think of Nelson Mandela, who said, “Forgiveness liberates the soul; it removes fear. That’s why it’s such a powerful weapon.”

And we see what a truly powerful weapon forgiveness is in the fearless Yeshua ben Yusef, whom we call Jesus. He was executed by the slow, sadistic method the government loved to use for criminals they wanted to make an example of, which they certainly did. Hardly able to breathe from the pain, Jesus asked God to forgive his torturers. Talk about being strong…

One more example, though, one really close to home: family members. Parents can have terrible things happen thanks to thoughtless, careless, or just inexperienced children and yet love them and care for them just as much. Forgiveness can happen just as often, maybe more often, between spouses. And sibling rivalry can get ugly, but as children mature, forgiveness can flower.

I remember thinking, as a youngster, that my parents were so cruel, so unfair, and so unreasonable. I promised myself that I’d remember, and I’d grow up to be a better parent, who would really listen to my kids.

Then I grew up. My parents became real friends, and I heard their words coming out of my mouth when I dealt with my kids. My brother and I fought viciously as boys, and as adults loved each other deeply.

See, dwelling on what a jerk somebody was to us is carrying the pain, nursing it, keeping it alive and active. What healthy person would do that? It’s a way to create one’s own hell.

Speaking of which, I read of a wise woman who thought that God did not create Hell for people, or people for Hell; she said that Hell was always chosen. Many chose to have their reward on earth: they chose money or power over God. “There’s a parable in the Bible about a rich man, who, while he was alive, had all good things,” she says. “The finest of wines, or whatever. And there was a beggar who would sit at the table of the rich man, and he would get the crumbs. They both died, and the poor man, Lazarus — he had a name by the way; the rich man was just the rich man — Lazarus was taken to Heaven, to the bosom of Abraham, and the rich man ended up in Hell. From Hell, the rich man looks up — apparently, Hell is nearby — and he sees Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham, and he says, ‘Abraham, can you send Lazarus with something wet, just to ease the thirst I’m feeling?’ And Abraham says no. “There’s a great chasm that cannot be passed once death happens; there’s no more traveling back and forth.” When I read this, I saw a connection with forgiveness, which is our chance to cross that chasm while we’re alive.

Setting the anger down and walking on took me a long time to learn, but what a privilege it is, and what a reward you get in walking lighter. I wish I could tell you more about how to do it, because forgiveness is a demand of discipleship. Comedians are some of our brightest thinkers, and Lily Tomlin offers a hint about this: “Forgiveness is giving up all hope for a better past.”

How NOT to do it? Stay with people who encourage drama and carrying a grudge. Just as chronic anger is a symptom of mental illness, refusal or inability to forgive is sentencing oneself to a personal hell.

To meet this demand of discipleship, prayer and wise friends help immensely. Give yourself time. Keep a journal. Each day, write down something you’re thankful for. That’s huge. Send thank you notes. Developing an attitude of gratitude is a magical mental medicine.

Something my brother told me seems to fit here, too. As a pastor, he went to lots of funerals, and he might see people overcome with grief, out of control. “You know why people cry at funerals?” he said to me. “Unfinished business.”

While we’re still here, we need to do our best to learn all we can about giving and receiving forgiveness, and thus make our souls lighter. No more unfinished business. One day, maybe soon, it’ll be too late.

Copyright ©2016 James L. Evans

Luke 16:19-31, Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message

There was once a rich man, expensively dressed in the latest fashions, wasting his days in conspicuous consumption. A poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, has been dumped on his doorstep. All he lived for was to get a meal from scraps off the rich man’s table. His best friends were the dogs who came and licked his sores.

Then he died, this poor man, and was taken up by the angels to the lap of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell and in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham in the distance and Lazarus in his lap. He called out, “Father Abraham, mercy! Have mercy! Send Lazarus to dip his finger in water to cool my tongue. I’m in agony in this fire.”

But Abraham said, “Child, remember that in your lifetime you got the good things and Lazarus the bad things. It’s not like that here. Here he’s consoled and you’re tormented. Besides, in all these matters there is a huge chasm set between us so that no one can go from us to you even if he wanted to, nor can anyone cross over from you to us.”

The rich man said, “Then let me ask you, Father: Send him to the house of my father where I have five brothers, so he can tell them the score and warn them so they won’t end up here in this place of torment.”

Abraham answered, “They have Moses and the Prophets to tell them the score. Let them listen to them.”

“I know, Father Abraham,” he said, “but they’re not listening. If someone came back to them from the dead, they would change their ways.”

Abraham replied, “If they won’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, they’re not going to be convinced by someone who rises from the dead.”

Christian Lifestyle Choice

I hope you remember late June 2016, when our great country was shocked, again, by yet another mass shooting, this time at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. I’m sad that shocked may now be too strong a word. After the child murders in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, we were shocked, but we did virtually nothing about it, and these shootings continue, and become part of the evening news to be quickly covered so we can all move on. Each time, the shock becomes somewhat less. As long as it happened to someone else, the farther away the better, we could get back to our real lives, especially the ones we live on line, safely segregated from people who might disagree with us.

The day after this Orlando shooting, a United Methodist Church pastor was notified by her bishop of pending charges against her, for a very different crime. She had given her all to her congregation, and they loved her deeply. She had done nothing illegal, nor anything to hurt any of her parishioners. They knew she was gay, and it didn’t matter. She was just Pastor Anne, and she did her job very well. Like the female disciples, preachers, and healers in the book of Acts, some of whom might have been gay, she embodied the spirit of Christ.

In a horribly ironic coincidence, that day after the Orlando shootings, Pastor Anne stood to lose her job, her credentials, her space of spiritual belonging, her vocational calling, her faith community, her faith home, and her pension. Not for her gender — everybody in her life knew that already — but for being honest about it and letting it be publicly known to her conference, and saying publicly that the United Methodist Church is instilling in some people the feeling that they are unloved, unloveable, unworthy, incompatible, shameful, sick, sinful. This begs the question, Who’s being unchristian here?

I’m wading into this for three reasons: One, because it’s important to us, our friends, and our relatives who may be struggling against facts. Two, because I can. Not just because being very tall, I can wade into deeper water than most, but because I have less to lose than a pastor, and as a straight person, I can say what I’m about to say without being self-serving. And three, because it matters how we deal with all of this as Christians.

By the way, with apologies, I’m using the term “gay people” to avoid tiresome repetition of the politically correct string of letters. Yes, God made us in its image on all points of the gender curve, and we might like to be inclusive with our labels, but instead of repeating L,G,B,T,Q,X,Y,Z,+, whatever, let’s just stipulate that when I say gay people, I mean everybody who’s not created exclusively straight and identifying that way.

But I can’t apologize for the facts, which many of us are just catching up to. We now know that gender is bewilderingly various, and each of us is born somewhere on the bell curve. Yes, as the song says, we’re born this way. Anyone who works with animals knows, or should know, that gay cows, cats, dogs, penguins, or whatever, did not make a “lifestyle choice.” What a sad, ignorant,  and hurtful term.

However, in the face of these facts, we have Biblical verses that appear to condemn and forbid what I’ll call complete and intimate expression of intragender affection. I’m putting this circumspectly to maintain a G rating, for the sake of the age range of listeners here and readers of my blog. Yeah, I know, those of us who’ve raised kids know how hard this circumspection can be. As parents, to have private conversations, we spell out words, or we use long, fancy words. Of course, meanwhile, young listeners become good spellers with precocious vocabularies.

Anyway, intragender relations do get mentioned a few times in the Bible, and not with approval. Paul wrote of it a few times, saying that the people involved deserve to die. Being Jewish, he got his information from Leviticus, the same book that forbids tattooing, cheeseburgers, bacon, lobster, shaving, and wearing blended fabrics.

Yes, I know Leviticus also says to tell the truth, don’t cheat, keep the sabbath, and “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This book is a collection of regulations of that time, and these rules had three obvious uses. One, they helped a young nation keep order and agree on what was good or bad behavior; two, they helped this nation identify itself as unique and distinct from its neighbors — those neighbors did some pretty wild things I’ll carefully mention in just a minute —  and three, they helped the nation stay healthy and multiply without modern science. Population was power in those days.

Remember, even the laws that now seem silly made good sense at that time. Also remember, science and education weren’t the same back then. For instance, take seafood. We know it’s safe to catch a fish and eat it later, maybe much later. But the ancient Jews noticed the occasional correlation between eating shellfish and illness or death. The educated class (the rabbis), with no refrigeration or microbiology, needed a rule uneducated people could understand; so to prohibit shellfish poisoning, they declared that only seafood with fins and scales was safe to eat. So goodbye clams, oysters, lobster, and calamari. Never mind that fresh shellfish from clean water are OK; never mind that eels and sharks are OK, even though they don’t have scales. Let’s not quibble, it’s just not kosher. So lives were saved. See? Kosher makes perfect sense in context.

Neighbors of the Jews were known to practice elaborate body modification and decoration, human sacrifice, and gaudy, shall we say provocative outfits at certain festivals. But the rabbis didn’t want their people to be tempted to assimilate and dilute their Jewishness, so they mandated plain bodies and plain clothes. No shaving, no piercing or tattooing, no exciting outfits.

This way, the Jews could know they were Jews and be proud, because they looked and acted like Jews and no one else, and they worshipped a single god, which was a radical idea. And unlike their neighbors, they required strictly male-female intimacy, and not between close relatives. This not only helped preserve Jewish identity, it also increased the birth rate of healthy children, and, you remember, population meant power. So no intragender fooling around.

That’s where Paul got his information, and the same source, plus his endorsement, led to the laws on our books today, and the attitudes in many of us. In me, too, until I learned more of the facts of life. But please notice, we’ve come a long way. For instance, thanks to science, we know the trichina worm’s life cycle, and that feeding pigs spoiled food can lead to infected pork. Otherwise, pork is safe medium rare.

We also know that gender has infinite shadings, and each of us is born somewhere on that bell curve. Maybe the only “lifestyle choice” we have is whether to honestly face our true natures, or self destructively deny them.

A friend of mine once said, “Lifestyle choice!? Did I choose to be gay? If I had had a choice, would I have chosen this? Are you kidding?? And go through the bullying and prejudice and loneliness I’ve suffered my whole life? Never!”

This from a devout Christian, one of the holiest people I’ve been privileged to meet. The Dalai Lama says his own religion is very simple: Kindness. This friend embodies kindness so completely that the air around him seems to glow.

Yet this great country has people in it who call themselves Christian but still agree with the ancient Jewish condemnations in Leviticus and elsewhere, and would wish even death for my friend. And not just this country. We don’t have a monopoly on ignorance. For example, some cultures, such as Hispanic, may also often have a dangerous, ingrained, machismo tradition that the largely Puerto Rican clientele of Orlando’s Pulse nightclub knew all too well.

OK. We may know that the Old Testament laws have to be considered  in the light of knowledge. Thanks to science, we know it’s OK to sow seed mixtures, eat bacon, breed mules, or to cross cattle breeds, and that gender orientation is not a choice. As Dr. Neill DeGrasse Tyson says, the great thing about science is that even if you don’t believe it, it’s still true.

So why don’t we simply update our Book of Discipline to match the facts? Well, it’s not that simple. The United Methodist Church is a world-wide denomination, and that can make things difficult. Some countries in Africa, for instance, are almost as primitive and undereducated as many of our fellow Americans. In Uganda, for instance, newspapers print pictures of suspected gay people, with names and addresses, and not so subtlely invite readers to “cleanse” the population. It doesn’t help that some white missionaries, so-called Christians, who I suspect are in deep denial about themselves, preach virulent homophobia there today. Other countries have the same problem, not just against gay people, but also against albinos and twins. Many Methodist bishops there, and here, either have the same attitudes, or they’re afraid to defend these people against  misguided violence, or getting killed themselves.

That’s why our Discipline still contains language from before we knew better. This prevents Methodists from officially acknowledging the truth and openly welcoming all who want to come to Jesus or serve as clergy. But many African bishops just can’t deal with this. Neither can some bishops from elsewhere, including the USA. We need to respect that.

But I give thanks that change is in the air, change that can make the United Methodist Church less hypocritical and more completely Christian. Or, it might split the church. I hope not. I see no need for that. It seems to me that we could simply remove the sentences in our Book of Discipline that deny gay people the right to be fully loved as Christians and fully functioning children of God. Let’s not put in language requiring what is sometimes mocked as political correctness, let’s just take out what’s not true. I see this as a Christian thing to do.

I see this congregation as a model. We’re a long way from perfect, and we may see politics and living fully with God in different ways, but we worship here together and love each other. I celebrate that. We can learn from each other, if we listen. I love that, too. Without those old kosher-style sentences in the Discipline, we can be free to stop pointing fingers and start learning more about ourselves, about our neighbors, and about the universally welcoming message of Jesus.

I also give thanks that the UMC isn’t the only denomination that’s trying to face facts. Pope Francis is pushing his world wide flock to weed out the guilty and find an adequate way apologize for its damage to children. The Presbyterian Church in America is trying to atone for its foundation on slavery and racism. It’s time for us United Methodists to join in making our churches more truly Christian. Our motto, “Open hearts, open minds, open doors,” can be made closer to the truth. We can never be perfect, but as God’s hands and feet, we can at least try.

May it be so. Amen.

Copyright ©2016 James L. Evans

 

Galations 3:23-29 (The Message translation)

Until the time when we were mature enough to respond freely in faith to the living God, we were carefully surrounded and protected by the Mosaic law. The law was like those Greek tutors, with whom you are familiar, who escort children to school and protect them from danger or distraction, making sure the children will really get to the place they set out for.

But now you have arrived at your destination: By faith in Christ, you are in direct relationship with God. Your baptism in Christ is not just washing you up for a fresh start. It also involved dressing you in an adult faith wardrobe — Christ’s life, the fulfillment of God’s original promise.

In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us, you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ. Also, since you are in Christ’s family, then you are Abraham’s famous “descendant,” heirs according to the covenant promises.

Galatians 5:14 The entire Law is fulfilled in a single decree: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Muslim saying: You will not enter Paradise until you have faith, and you will not have faith until you love one another.

 

Can you really act “Christian” on social media?

I’m a very lucky man. I was raised by loving parents in a house full of books and magazines. I survived middle school and high school, and had a wonderful career as a teacher. I retired and have stayed very busy. For years, I resisted the temptation to participate in social media. I had been a high school teacher, so I’ve seen enough drama.

Instead, I established a web site as a place to store and publish my thoughts about faith. One reason to go public was that I miss my brother.  Like two of our uncles, he was a pastor, and any time we met, in person or on the phone, we debated theology. Oh, what wonderful discussions. Now he’s gone, so I hoped that somebody’s search would stumble upon my blog, and he or she would find something provocative, inspiring, or enraging enough to react to me.

Well, most of the comments have been spam, so I thought of maybe getting on FaceBook, which, I should explain for some of you, is like Instagram for old people.  Maybe it would help steer traffic my way. Now I’m filtering through inane, repetitive posts about politics, news, and cute animals that often lead with clickbait but deliver little substance. And even though my web address is displayed on my cover photo, the rarity of comments makes me think I get very little traffic.

But reading comments on Facebook makes me think I’m living a sheltered life. One of my favorite bumper stickers describes Ithaca as ten square miles surrounded by reality, and I’m learning that reality is filled with immaturity, ignorance, and hate. Commenters seem unable to remember that they’re addressing humans with feelings. They seem comfortable with the vilest name calling and displaying a perverse pride in their lack of knowledge. They sound impulsively violent, and perpetually enraged.

These same people often call themselves Christians. Many of them even go to church. In a textbook example of cognitive dissonance, they claim to follow the Prince of Peace while supporting exclusion and violence against people who are different.

So what are we to do? If we are practicing Christians — and let’s remember that like the phrase “advance planning,” “practicing Christian” is redundant. Got that? You can’t call yourself Christian if you don’t do something about it. “By their deeds you shall know them,” you know. Anyway, if we’re Christians, we must do something, or leave social media. We can’t just label these trolls as ignorant. For one thing, they’d take instant offense, because too many of them probably think that ignorant means dumb, when it just means you don’t know something. For instance, when it comes to the game of cricket, I’m very ignorant.

We need to remember that most of these angry, abusive people are afraid, and they need reassurance more than they need fellow haters. Here’s why they’re so nasty. It’s perfectly natural for us to fear the unknown. And what’s different from ourselves is often strange, or unknown. What we fear, we often grow to hate, because loathing looks easier than learning. So hate, including the mild form we call prejudice, is usually a cover for fear.

For example, suppose you’re poorly educated, white, and stuck, with little hope for change. Then along comes a President who has a Harvard law degree and darker skin than yours, and a mosque is going up across town, and immigrants are buying up the cheap housing, and a big family with two mommies moves in across the street. In their position, how would you feel? It’s as if everything you always thought is now wrong.

When you feel threatened, your natural impulse is to defend yourself.  In the face of so much that’s new, and disorienting, you don’t have the time, money, or desire to get educated and learn to live with it, so you can join forces with the new and become stronger. It’s simpler to live against it.

Many of the trolls on line, maybe most of them, live in fear and behave like cornered animals, spewing poison and pain. It makes me sad. But back to the question, as Christians, what do we do? I have five suggestions.

One, if someone says something horrible to you on social media, try not to take it personally. The troll has forgotten you are a real person whom they might like if they got to know you. You’re just an abstraction they throw things at in a futile attempt to make themselves feel better. Remember, chronic rage is a symptom of mental illness. You can neither beat them nor cure them with a simple tweet. So don’t get upset. You could pray for them.

Two, choose your battles. As a Christian, you can’t fire back at pure vitriol. I reply to a comment only when it’s constructive, or it has a kernel of reason to engage. Then we can discuss, and perhaps disagree, but respectfully.

Here’s a recent case.  Someone said in a post, “I’m not racist, but…”  I couldn’t leave that alone, and I reacted with

‘”I’m not racist” and “There’s not a racist bone in my body” are two clear indicators of racism. The best we white folks can say is that we’re recovering racists.’

I stand behind that statement, which sounds provocative, but I mean it in the same sense as recovering alcoholic. You may behave perfectly, but then you might let someone’s bad joke pass without comment. And I intended to provoke discussion. It worked. A new person jumped on my comment with,

“Speak for yourself. “We” are not racists. We as a group do tend to have more than our share of racist idiots, but to paint the entire group as “recovering racists”… what an utter pile. Sweeping generalizations made in reference to skin color ARE THE VERY BASIS OF RACISM. And if you’re judging “white people” by their skin color, you’re judging other skin tones too.”

Touché. I love this. Sounds like my brother and me. I replied,

“I do speak for myself, and you have a valid point. My world may be limited, because I haven’t heard of a white person who doesn’t feel an uneasy “otherness” about visiting a Black home or a Black church, or a Muslim neighborhood, or about racial intermarriage by one’s own children. You give me hope.”

Very nice,right? But this lady wasn’t going to let me go that easily. She said,

‘”uneasiness” is not prejudice. It’s simply ignorance – a state of not having learned something yet. It’s natural to fear the unknown. Where “prejudice” enters in is how we react to that uneasiness. We can run from it or view it as a chance to learn. Always embrace those chances to learn something new. That way you never stop growing. :)’

At that point, we agreed we were on the same page. Notice the lack of name calling.

Three, comment only as a Christian, although you don’t need to advertise your faith. Remember, ethical atheists can behave just as Christlike as Methodists! Simply try to imagine Jesus reading over your shoulder.

Four, get over yourself. The world isn’t waiting to see whether you liked every post, or to see a dozen pictures of the clothes you just bought. And if you comment, remember Jesus looking over your shoulder? Ask yourself, will my comment actually add to the discussion? Or at least make someone laugh? And maybe someone has already made your point, so read the top few comments at least, and support the ones that sound thoughtful, constructive, and kind.

Five is another application of the Golden Rule: Make your point, and keep it short. Like the debate I quoted just now. How much do you like posts that don’t get to the point but tease you to click on something longer, that takes forever to load? Kathleen Parker is one of my favorite pundits, but if her column were on Facebook, I wouldn’t read it. Social media aren’t made for deep discourse. Just say what you need to say in as few words as possible.

I’ve already said far too many words, so I’ll close by saying that as Christians, we can make a difference on social media. It’s only a drop in the bucket? Right, and if you’ve seen rain, you know those drops can fill that bucket. And remember, Jesus might be looking over your shoulder.

Copyright©2016 James L. Evans

[Delivered as a sermon June 26, 2016]

Pain AND Suffering?

Here’s some news you can use: Suffering is an unnecessary personal choice.

Twenty-seven years ago, I was walking across the road in front of my house. I was most of the way across and in plain sight, so I wasn’t worried about the car coming up the hill at about 55. I should have been. I remember how I thought at the last fraction of a second, when it was too late to run or jump away: Holy shit, I’m gonna get nailed.

A second or two later, lying on the ground some distance from the point of impact, I thought, Well, it’s been a good run. I’ve always wondered what dying would be like. I’ll finally get to see what it’s like on the other side.

The doctors guessed that I had a 50-50 chance of survival. I was too drugged up to speak coherently, but inside, I was saying You’re crazy. Of course I’m going to live.

They stopped counting fractures after around 15, and their next guess was that I’d never walk again. I was dressed in plaster for months.

I’ve heard that you don’t remember pain. Some of you may know that yes, you do, if it’s really deep. One of my most vivid memories as a guest of the local hospital is the pain. It surprised me and taught me about myself. I had no idea that pain can be so sharp and all-consuming that it blows right past nauseating to hallucinogenic. The light show that played in my head was spectacular, and a tiny corner of my brain was actually fascinated by that.

The pain was also my friend. Considering my injuries, a lack of pain would have told me I had crossed over to the Wild Blue Wonder, to borrow a Walt Kelly phrase. But every morning, I awoke to that familiar, roaring pain, which told me I was still alive.

So I can claim to have learned something about pain and suffering, and what I’ve learned informs my reaction to the Exodus episode where Moses loses patience with his wandering, whining people. I have great sympathy for Moses, but most of us are more like the horde of escaped slaves who followed him.

The people of Israel were suffering. Here they were, in the Sinai Desert, not much better prepared for these conditions than if they were the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Listen to them: “Give us water, that we may drink! …For-what-reason then did you bring us up from Egypt, to bring death to me, to my children and to my livestock by thirst?” (I’m quoting a 30-year-old Jewish translation by Everett Fox, called The Five Books of Moses.) In the next verse, “Moshe cried out to YHWH, saying: What shall I do with this people? A little more and they will stone me!”

As I see it, everybody was equally thirsty — I can’t imagine Moses hoarding water for himself — but I submit that the people suffered, and Moses did not. His thirst was as painful as anyone else’s, but he didn’t suffer, and that gave him power as a leader and favor before God. I want to explain that. It applies to us in a very practical way.

In 2008, two books came out that I’m arrogant enough to think I don’t have to read. One, by Bart Ehrman, is God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer. I nominate it as the decade’s most misdirected thesis, and I’ll get back to it.

The other is The Book of Calamities: Five Questions About Suffering and Meaning, by Peter Trachtenberg. His five questions are

“1. Why me?

2. How do I endure?

3. What is just?

4. What does my suffering say about me? And what does it say about God?

5. What do I owe to those who suffer?”

First, let’s get it straight: Pain is inevitable; suffering is voluntary. I like to think that’s one of the most important sentences I’ve ever written: Pain is inevitable; suffering is voluntary. I learned that in the hospital, through several orthopedic operations, excruciating and continuing physical therapy, treatment for PTSD, and 14 years of walking with a cane. A painful lesson.

Bart Ehrman, in his title, calls suffering God’s problem. I respectfully disagree. It’s no more God’s problem than climate change and racism. Problems for God to grieve, maybe, but they are of our making and ours to deal with.

Ehrman can’t find a Biblical justification for suffering and calls this God’s problem, too. He’d have an interesting point if the Bible were written by God, but sorry, Professor, it was written by people. They may have written under divine inspiration (however we, or they may define that), but would the Bible’s contradictions, hatreds, and magical thinking appear in what’s believed by some to be a perfect work written by a perfect God?

So Dr. Ehrman’s false premise takes him down. I felt no need to buy his book.

Peter Trachtenberg’s five questions obligingly provide a plan for my attack. His first, “Why me?”, lays open his side and exposes his vitals.

First, let’s stipulate that pain happens. Life is difficult and can be full of pain. Like death, that’s a fact of life. To fully live, we must learn to accept the facts of life, let them move through us, and let them make us stronger. You know the saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

Suffering, however, is a “why me” condition. That’s almost the definition of suffering. “Why me” is about self-pity and opens wide the way to superstition. “Why me” is the thirsty Israelites’ attitude, and the attitude Job’s so-called friends tried to get him to adopt. They tell Job he must have done something bad to deserve all this bad luck. But Job refuses to drink the Kool-Aid. He refuses his friends’ clear implication that God could be so petty and small-minded as to play tit for tat.

“Why me” is an immature reaction. The undeveloped personality takes pain personally and believes that the accident was an event actually intended to hurt him or her, and no one else. Self-centeredness is a natural part of being a child. The childish, self-centered person will moan, “Nobody knows, nobody knows,” advertising his or her suffering with a perverse pride and wearing it like a badge.

The grownup says, “Why not me? Shit happens”, accepts the pain, and works through it.

No, that’s not easy, but that’s how to endure. Pain happens. It’s treatable. Even if it’s life-long, it can move aside, if not away, with the help of good medication and mental training. The grownup knows the pain isn’t some horrible gift just for him or her, and refuses to be consumed by suffering. Pain is inevitable, but suffering is voluntary, and really, what sane person volunteers to suffer?

Choosing to suffer, then, says to the world that you have a lot of growing up to do, and that your God is a primitive deity that has the time to give you sustained misery because, say, you spread private information. Your God probably needs burnt offerings, or good luck rituals.

Job knew his bad luck was unjust, and he refused to blame God for it. And it looks as if he did have moments of suffering, at least by our standards, what with his sackcloth and ashes, and wishing he had never been born.

But who would want to wear clothes when covered with running sores? Back then, all cloth was hand made, so clothing was much more expensive than ours. To keep from ruining good clothes, a hunk of relatively cheap sackcloth around his waist would maintain modesty and probably be more comfortable. And the ashes would stanch the flow from the boils and sores. So sackcloth and ashes may not signify self-pity, and Job may not have chosen suffering.

He certainly chose to endure. He never lost his faith, and this faith won against the mere belief of his three friends, for belief is blind, childish, and unthinking, while faith allows room for doubt and growth. In this psychologically sophisticated story, Job is the only grownup in the room.

We all experience pain, and to endure it, we must refuse to suffer. Acknowledge the pain without fear; feel it fully, let it pass through you, or pass through it, and come out the other side. Sooner or later, you will. Don’t stop and suffer. To suffer is to take up residence in the pain and take perverse pride in feeling worse than those around you. It’s related to clinical depression, in which the pit of darkness seems preferable to the effort of climbing out.

Of course, it’s not fair. Pain knows no justice. The brilliant author of Job teaches us that. Life is difficult and painful. Accept that and learn not to suffer, and you will enjoy this precious life at a much higher level, with real power.

Since suffering is the mark of a person who hasn’t learned that it’s optional, we must give them what children of any age need: a gentle hand, sympathy, and assurance that you’re there to help them get past this.

Montaigne said that one who fears suffering already suffers from what he fears. Wow. Yes. The sobbing child with the bleeding knee cries not just from the pain but even more from fear that the pain won’t stop, or that the bleeding won’t stop. We all need to learn that life is full of scraped knees and crushed hearts. Knowing that the pain, though sharp, will dull in time gives us enormous assurance and power. We don’t need to suffer. That’s a choice.

Moses teaches us this, as do Job, and, of course, Jesus. Each of us carries God within us, and even if you’re a Muslim, a Jew, or a None of the Above, Jesus showed how to acknowledge the pain fully and use the holy spirit we all possess to feel it, share it, even scream, but never to lose faith or wallow in self-pity. I understand what we mean when we say he suffered on the cross. That method of execution is extremely cruel and sadistic. But that’s the official language. Strictly speaking, I don’t think he sank into suffering. The church’s “He suffered and was buried,” for me, is more accurately “He was tortured and buried.” As he hung there in agony, he remained lucid and never asked Why me. He knew he embodied Why not me. As an example, he set the bar really high, and we have just one lifetime to try to learn to follow it.

Step one, remember: Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. We have a choice.

Oh yeah. Be nice to people and other life forms, too. But I thought you knew that was part of the deal.

Copyright ©2016 James L. Evans

On Fundamentalism

Sixty years ago, my school day always began with a Bible reading, the Lord’s Prayer, and the National Anthem. The teacher often read these words of Jesus, and I never understood the business about the mote in one’s eye and the beam in someone else’s. I wasn’t educated enough to know that Jesus was making his point by using one thing to mean another. That’s an allegory. My favorite rendering of these words is in the Lambdin translation of the Gospel of Thomas, #26: Jesus said, You see the sliver in your friend’s eye, but you don’t see the timber in your own eye. When you take the timber out of your own eye, then you will see well enough to remove the sliver from your friend’s eye.

And here’s Luke 6:41-42, in Eugene Peterson’s Message translation. It sounded strange to me at first, but it’s refreshingly different enough to make me think:

It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the nerve to say, “Let me wash your face for you,” when your own face is distorted by contempt? It’s this I-know-better-than-you mentality again, playing a holier-than-thou part instead of just living your own part. Wipe that ugly sneer off your own face and you might be fit to offer a washcloth to your neighbor.

 

 

Motes and Beams Jim Evans 2015

Consider these passages from sacred writing. I’ll tell you which sacred writing later.

“Do not deviate from [the Teaching] to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Let not this Book of the Teaching cease from your lips, but recite it day and night, so that you may observe faithfully all that is written in it. Only then will you prosper in your undertakings and only then will you be successful.”

“They answered, ‘… Any man who flouts your commands and does not obey every order you give him shall be put to death. We will be strong and resolute!’”

“Thus says the Lord… Spare no one, but kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and donkeys!”

“They cut down their populations with the sword until they exterminated them; they did not spare a soul.”

“The total who were [slaughtered] that day… came to twelve thousand.”

“O Lord, You know I hate those who hate You, and loathe your adversaries. I feel a perfect hate toward them; I count them my enemies.”

Like many fundamentalists, radical Muslims look and act tragically ignorant. They don’t know their own religion’s central principle, which, as in Judaism and Christianity, is compassion.

But what I just quoted is not from the Qur’an. It’s from the Bible.

I’ve heard priests thunder that Christianity is not a cafeteria religion, that you can’t choose what you like and ignore the rest. Fortunately for the priest, his burning pants were extinguished by the lack of oxygen under his robe.

Well, being compassionate, let’s cut him some slack. As Sancho Panza says in Don Quixote, “Everybody’s the way God made him, and sometimes even worse.”

If you’re still growing up, as are we all, I hope, you might like the absolute moral certitude of these quotations. The Qur’an has similar passages. Some Jewish, Christian, and Muslim fundamentalists, acting on such words, have been giving religion a bad name for centuries.

But just as some political liberals might watch a certain news channel and wrongly conclude that all Republicans are lunatics, some atheists might hear a far-out fundamentalist and announce that all Christians are nuts and that religion is a source of evil.

Meanwhile, those who’ve taken more time to think realize that belief is blind, but real faith requires critical vision. They choose not to cry “eye for an eye” but to imitate Jesus. This brave and brilliant man is revered by all three faiths for preaching and living the Abrahamic religions’ underlying principle: compassion. We could say that Jesus really went back to the roots.

The somewhat primitive Jews of the quotations I started with had not learned true, universal compassion. Nor have the followers of so-called radical, or fundamentalist, Islam. Nor have so-called Christians who would bomb Muslim countries back to the Stone Age.

But more mature readers of the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Qur’an see those quotations as the primitive relics that they are and instead seek out passages that support the enlightened practice of compassion. As the famous Talmud story ends — I’ll paraphrase to preserve the intent of the Hebrew — Whatever is hateful to you, don’t do it to anybody else. The rest of the Torah is commentary, which you must go and study.

Aleksandr Solzenitzin had it right. Immediately after the attacks of September 11, 2001, he said that Islam was not to blame. He pointed at fundamentalism. His deep, cool thinking while many of us screamed for revenge impresses me still.

Time for a definition. Fundamentalism is rigid belief in a set of principles, no discussion or negotiation allowed. Most Americans probably pin the Fundamentalist label on certain Protestant churches. But the world seems to have room for fundamentalist Catholics, fundamentalist Jews, and fundamentalist Muslims, to name a few. I know of fundamentalist right-wingers and fundamentalist left-wingers and fundamentalist atheists, but I’m focusing on the three great Abrahamic religions.

Back to the definition, let’s look at “rigid belief,” which is really a redundancy, like “plan ahead,” or “one AM in the morning.” Belief is blind. It’s rigid by its very nature. Once you believe something, you have no doubt. No one can challenge your belief. You guard and cherish your beliefs like a dragon with a hoard of gold, and only some kind of earthquake in your life might change them. Sometimes, that earthquake is the act of growing.

Faith, on the other hand, is dynamic, not rigid. Faith has its eyes and ears wide open and welcomes challenge. Faith has room for doubt, actually must have doubt. Faith is always testing, questioning, and therefore growing. That’s why faith is so much stronger than belief, but it’s difficult. Faith is for grownups.

True believers cherry-pick their scriptural passages, just as all of us do, but they usually choose the simplest black-or-white ideas, principles a little child would understand. They tend to ignore the guiding message, or the spirit, of the entire scripture, be it the Old Testament, the Qur’an or the New Testament, which is compassion. They instead try to play the part of the vengeful god of their imaginings, or maybe of their own tortured childhoods. Consider the true believers of the Westboro Baptist Church screaming God hates gays at a funeral for a fallen soldier. (They used a much more hateful word.) Consider the true believers repeating “God is great” as they steered jetliners into buildings full of people. Consider Tim McVeigh, a fundamentalist Christian who thought killing all those people in Oklahoma City with a truck bomb was the thing to do. That’s where fundamentalism can lead.

But it doesn’t prove fundamentalism is evil. I know fundamentalists who are really nice folks in most ways. They obey the law, love their families, and help their neighbors. They just stopped developing theologically, usually before puberty, and never progressed from belief into faith. They almost always believe they’re not racist and don’t understand that the Creation stories and Revelations, and much of what lies between them, are allegories. They may even not know that Genesis begins with two creation stories, vastly different, from different times. Yet they say they’ve read the Bible cover to cover and believe it’s meant to be taken literally.

Here’s a quotation that applies: “Do not praise your own faith so exclusively that you disbelieve all the rest; if you do this, you will miss much good. In fact, you will fail to realize the real truth of the matter. God the omnipresent and omniscient cannot be confined to any one creed, for he says, ‘Wherever you turn, there is the face of God.” That’s Ibn Araby, a 13th C. Muslim philosopher, quoting the Qur’an.

When fundamentalists try to force others to believe, or punish those who don’t believe, they often become evil, because they’re violating the foundation of their own religions.

Illiterate Muslims might memorize the Qur’an in its original Arabic even when they don’t understand that language. Jews might be taught to take the Zionist lines in the Torah literally and to practice ethnic cleansing as it’s described in the passages I opened with. Christians usually get their poison from the Old Testament as well.

Consider these Old Testament quotations: “I hate them with a perfect hate.” “May all their children be orphans.” (My favorite, of all the curses in the Bible.) And of course, the golden oldie, “An eye for an eye,” which originally came from a Babylonian dictator who wasn’t even Jewish, and certainly not Christian.  I’m surprised the out-of-context quoters haven’t given more play to the verse, “Meals and wine are made for laughter, and money is the answer to everything.” At least that sounds like fun.

See, the Bible and the Qur’an both have passages that are like weapons, dangerous in the hands of the ignorant, such as fire. And Facebook. Yes, ignorant people can do dumb things, just like us, but let’s remember, ignorant means uneducated or unknowing, not dumb. Fundamentalists are often ignorant, and often under the influence of a smart and cynical leader who wants them not to learn too much. Sometimes, they can do evil things, because they’ve stopped thinking. They just believe.

In conclusion, fundamentalism isn’t necessarily dangerous, although it can be. If we see the splinter in someone else’s eye, the sliver in ours can make us compassionate. I hope it does.  Compassion, though, can feel truly dangerous. Not many of us can be as fearless as Jesus, speaking truth to power and abstaining from violence, even in self-defense.

It’s complicated. Go and study.

Copyright ©2015 James L. Evans

Which gospel gets it right?

All four of our official gospels tell of Jesus’s baptism by John, and about Andrew, the first disciple, and Simon, the second, who went into history as Peter.

Mark is the oldest gospel. Willis Barnstone’s translation has the baptism thus:

Johanan the Dipper (John the Baptist) appeared in the desert, preaching an immersion of repentance for the remission of sin. The whole land of Judea and all the people of Jerusalem came out to him and were immersed by him in the Jordan River and confessing their sins.

And it happened in those days that Yeshua (Jesus) came from Nazareth in Galilee and was immersed in the Jordan by John. And as soon as he came out of the water, he saw the skies torn open and the spirit like a dove descending on him. And there came a voice out of the skies: You are my son whom I love. With you I am well pleased.

[Later,]…as Jesus went by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting nets into the sea, for they were fishermen, and Jesus said to them, Come follow me, and I will make you fishers of people. And at once they dropped their nets and followed him.

Matthew adds the detail that John preached from Isaiah and even quotes a verse. And he adds two groups of especially holy and respected men, the Pharisees and the Sadducees. When they came to be baptized, instead of welcoming them and giving thanks for their presence, John no doubt shocked everybody. He cursed them.

And Matthew adds a conversation to the next event: Then came Jesus…to John to be immersed by him. John tried to stop him, saying “I need to be immersed by you, yet you come to me?” But Jesus answered, “Leave things as they are. It is right for us in this way to fulfill all that is just.” Then John consented. And when Jesus was immersed, [the Spirit descended like a dove, as in Mark.]

And then the first two disciples get recruited off the beach the same way, and as abruptly, as in Mark.

Luke gives the episode a date, the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, while Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and he names other officials on duty at the time. As with Luke’s telling of Jesus’s birth, the richness of detail far outshines his sources, which were Mark and Matthew. He even includes some of John’s preaching, which sounds a lot like the Jesus of months hence: “One who has two coats should share them with one who has none. One who has meat should share it the same way.” To the tax collector’s question, John says, “Collect no more than you are ordered to.” And to the soldier’s question, “Do not slanderously blackmail, do not extort, and be satisfied with your wages.”

Wow. Think about the nerve and courage of these people. The tax men and soldiers are government employees, working for Caesar, and they risk their jobs by showing up to get dipped at a public place by a man with no official credentials who looks like a bum. Yet John also has the courage, and the grace, to give them his honest answer to their dangerously, achingly honest question, “What shall we do?”

Luke’s telling of the actual baptism of Jesus, and the first disciples, seems like that of his predecessors, but goes on to report a record fish catch, thanks to this Jesus, before he promises to turn them into people catchers.

Then decades pass before the writing of the fourth gospel that made the cut in our Bible, supposedly by the apostle John. In this Gospel of John the Apostle, John the Baptizer calls Jesus the Lamb of God. Now we have a heavy title, a prescient, foreboding label. After all, old John the Baptizer was good at foreboding. He looked scary, and he cursed the power structure and shouted about a bad end for everybody unless they got right with God.

But the fourth gospel’s story sounds and feels different from the three earlier versions, and it’s not the sound of John’s yelling. This version doesn’t really say that John baptized Jesus. No matter how many times you look again, the story skips the actual baptism. Instead, both Johns, the writer and the Baptizer, focus on the credentials of Jesus as the Lamb of God, revealed to Israel by the Holy Spirit, and as the Son of God.

The differences continue. We have no details about fishing here. In fact, the first two disciples come not from their nets but from among the disciples of the Baptizer. They just walk away and follow this new master. One of these was Andrew, who went to find his brother Simon Peter the next day with the biggest news a Jew could have: “We have found the Messiah!” And with that, the story’s setup ends, and the gospel has its real beginning.

Of course, John was neither a Baptist, Southern or otherwise, nor a Christian. He was a Jewish baptizer who practiced the mikvah, or bathing ceremony for ritual purity called for in the Torah and the Qur’an, but he kicked it up a notch. Maybe several notches, because all four gospel writers report folks flocking to hear his message and get dunked in the muddy river. According to the Gospel of John, some of these people stayed right there and became his disciples.

But unlike many evangelists now, or even then, John the Baptizer wasn’t in the saving game to get rich and famous. When a man named Yeshua showed up to get dipped and dedicated like everybody else, John publicly called him his superior then and there. And he didn’t object when some of his disciples followed Jesus home. He even hailed Jesus as the Lamb of God, who would take away the sins of the world! Now there’s a celebrity endorsement.

Maybe we can explain this new tone of John’s gospel. First, maybe he didn’t write it. If he did, he’d have been 90 to 120 at the time. Unlikely, especially in those days. But it shouldn’t surprise us that someone else might have written this gospel. Writers often adopted a famous person’s name and wrote serious works from that imagined point of view.

People in those days would say we’re very silly to nitpick about who really wrote the many gospels, books of acts, letters of Paul, or apocalypses. They were much more concerned with Truth, with a capital T, the Truth that a great story, including great fiction, has to tell.

Whoever wrote the Gospel of John wrote it much later than the others, when the followers of Jesus had increased and were becoming a bit scattered. They couldn’t all see each other and talk every day, or even every year. Consequently, some groups got different ideas and ran with them.

One bunch, called the Gnostics, started thinking about the freedom to approach God all by oneself. They said maybe you could get into heaven on your own, just by asking What would Jesus do, and not relying on leaders. They got a lot of their inspiration from the Gospel of Thomas and considered Thomas to have been Jesus’s favorite, his “beloved disciple.”

So Thomas was becoming a symbol of questioning and independent thought, while the other main group considered Peter their leader and thought of Peter as standing for the rocklike security of rules and ritual.

Well, this controversy had to stop, so the writer of the Gospel of John stripped the piled-on costumes and props from the Jesus story and started over, with an agenda. He skipped the manger stuff entirely and wrote a new introduction about the Light shining in darkness and then introduced John, who baptizes with water, and, in turn, introduces Jesus, who baptizes with Spirit. From the first sentence, the writer spotlights Jesus as the One and Only.

He gets right to the point and sticks to it, establishing Jesus immediately as a mature Messiah who gets straight to work. The everyday jobs of the first apostles are unimportant. John the Baptizer names Jesus the Lamb of God and the Son of God; Jesus has charisma, and two of John’s disciples defect. Andrew announces Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, and that’s enough for Simon.

Lest anyone think an interloper such as Thomas should lead the infant church, John has Jesus nickname Simon Kefa right away. All the locals spoke Aramaic, and kefa is Aramaic for rock. The Greek for kefa is petros, from which we get the name Peter. The gospel writer wanted to tell us whom Jesus chose as the solid, rocklike one, and it wasn’t Thomas.

The followers of the Peter faction also made good and sure that Thomas’s gospel would not make the cut as part of our official New Testament.

And that Lamb of God line. Let’s not forget that. Jesus, a Jew, was called the Lamb of God by a fellow Jew in front of a Jewish audience. Nobody would have missed that title’s significance. Lambs were killed and eaten at Passover, their blood used to mark the door of every observant Jew’s house. Maybe John the Baptizer said this, or the obviously brilliant writer could be using the term to foreshadow not only Jesus as the Chosen One but also the Chosen Sacrifice. At the end of the story, the writer even moves up the day of the Crucifixion so that Jesus actually becomes a Passover sacrifice.

So how do we know what’s true? Did a real dove come down? Did Jesus find his first followers on the beach of the Sea of Galilee and recruit them, or did they recognize Jesus on the bank of the Jordan River, and volunteer? As we often do when dealing with something very old, we’re asking the wrong questions.

Like every good story, including Santa Claus, the larger truth matters more than historical, literal fact. Doesn’t it sound silly to complain that Ebenezer Scrooge never lived, and all those ghosts are just impossible? As the saying goes, It’s true, even if it didn’t happen, and that’s what matters.

Today, a visitor to the part of the Middle East called the Holy Land by Jews, Christians, and Muslims might know that those holy sites look nothing like their original form and may not even be in the right place. Often, we just don’t know. But believers and people of faith alike visit these places, and worship, and remember the stories, and are often changed, and that counts for more than the exact location where Andrew and Simon Peter signed on with Jesus.

Whether the gospels we read today tell literal truth, pure fiction, or a real event much retold and retouched, we can get inside this story and marvel at the faith on display. We have John, standing in the water, who may have guessed he’d be arrested for sedition, but who went ahead and comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable. We have Jesus, who takes an equal risk getting dunked by this crazy-looking man and accepts being called the Lamb of God. He must have known that the Roman occupiers wouldn’t tolerate his increasing fame for too long before having him rubbed out and trying to make Jesus’s own people take the blame. And we have Andrew and Simon, who risked everything as disciples of John and then took a leap into infinity by leaving John to follow Jesus. Or maybe they left a hard but familiar occupation in their boats to follow Jesus; it doesn’t matter. How could they know what lay ahead for them? They must have understood at least some of the risk.

John and Jesus were probably well aware of what they faced. It may have kept them awake at night, and Jesus sounds deeply frightened in his last days.

But all of them went ahead. And in going ahead in spite of the risk and their fears, they inspire us. These are some of the oldest and best profiles in courage. The Bible is full of them. Who cares whether they’re all literally true? Whether Andrew and his brother joined Jesus beside a big lake or beside a river has no importance; they’re both true. Only the Truth of the story concerns us: they joined up.

Are we like them? That’s our challenge. Maybe we can’t be Jesus, but can we be Andrew, or Simon, or Thomas, or the women who also preached and healed in His name? Can we stumble after Jesus, not caring about social or official pressure or even cost? The author of the Gospel of John has Simon getting the nickname Rock. What might ours be? What shall we do?

Copyright ©2016 James L. Evans