Sunday, December 28, 2014

Son of Man


Behold, the dwelling place of God is with mankind.    Revelation 21:3

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79 times. That’s how often Jesus refers to himself as the “son of man” in the four Gospel accounts. Theologians and scholars have debated the meaning of this reference for many years. Amateur that I am, I am going to weigh in on the discussion.

We know that birth had significance in the first Century AD and through all of Biblical time up to then. You were who you were born to be. In Matthew’s Gospel account, the first 16 verses summarize Jesus’ ancestry. It is no small thing that he is descended from Abraham. It is no small thing that he is descended from David.

It is likewise no small thing that Jesus’ ancestry was tweaked by some odd interventions. Isaac was not Abraham’s first born. It was Sarah’s insistence on dismissing the maidservant Hagar that cleared the path for Isaac to inherit his father’s fortune.  Jacob stole Esau’s birthright. Judah was an unlikely ancestor of David.

You could say that both Tamar and Rahab were necessary wild cards, and, had not Ruth persisted in following her mother-in-law, her story would have had no telling in Matthew’s account. Moreover, David’s acquisition of Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, who gave birth to Solomon, another of Jesus’ ancestors, was as shocking as it was fateful. And Mary’s conception of Jesus was likewise not without controversy.

I think Matthew wanted his hearers to understand that Jesus’ lineage was profoundly directed, even forced, by God. Suppose you went to Ancestry.com to research your family tree and found some of these kinds of twists and turns. You might be embarrassed or even proud. But ultimately you would say, “Well, I am all these things. I am all these people.”

Like many, I routinely skimmed the 16 verses that begin Matthew’s account, believing them to be just a routine appendage. But when I read them, I was actually moved to see this parade of humanity that brought Jesus into our midst. We can tell ourselves that Jesus was born of a woman as we are, tempted as we are, human as we are, but I, for a very long time, failed to grasp that.

Not only was Jesus human, he was the product of all that humanity is, the brave, the false, the flawed, the holy. Who better to save all of creation than he who embodies it so exactly? Jesus became everything that we are. He gathered all of our history into himself and became man, the Son of man.

His identity as Messiah is kept quiet during his ministry. He asks his followers not to reveal his identity. Instead he calls himself the son of man, as if everyone he is speaking to is not likewise a son (or daughter) of man. His identity as human is that crucial to his message and his salvific role. To save us he had to be us. He had to feel our pain, know our sorrows and our joys, taste our life.

I also like to think that he enjoyed the title, that he couldn't get enough of the concept. He is human. He is with us. He is like us. All this because of his love for us. 

But Jesus didn't incarnate simply to rub elbows with us. Whatever salvation history you believe in, whatever redemption song you sing, you know that Jesus made something happen and that something, is articulated in terms of birth. We die to sin and are born in Christ. Unless a man is born again etc. etc. (John 3:3) In John's account, Nicodemus cannot believe what he is hearing. How can a physical birth not matter? How can a rebirth even happen? Re-birth language is so familiar to us that we smile at his fatuousness, but Nicodemus was just like everyone else in 1st Century Palestine.

John the Baptist greets his crowd with accusations and pre-empts their retort with this:

Don’t say to me, ‘We are children of Abraham’ for I tell you that God from these stones can raise up children to Abraham.

The birth that we thought we understood is different from this new birth. We are now heirs of the kingdom. We are children of God. The Son of man has made this so. By becoming us, he changed us. His incarnation has changed the nature of creation forever.  

Our main tie is no longer to our bloodline. Jesus gave us a new identity, one that trumps any other identity we might claim.


There is another twist. 

Jesus was not “made” in the same way that we are. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, made, in some way, directly by God. And who else in the Bible was so made? Why Adam and Eve of course.  And what, in our story, did Adam and Eve do? They began the human story, they were responsible for all they beheld and then they sullied it. It is Jesus, this second Adam as he is often called, who reverses it all. 

He became us to remake us. The incarnate Jesus makes it possible for us to live again perfectly in his perfect kingdom. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

Peter Pan - Some Thoughts



On December 4th I watched the live television production of Peter Pan. I have absolutely no complaints about it. It was fine. This is not a review. Plenty of those around.

The show actually got me thinking about religious themes in the story. Whereas I don't propose that J. M. Barrie tried to steer our desires toward God when he wrote his famous play, I do find some gut-wrenching, and, in consequence, spiritual tropes in it.This is not a theology of Peter Pan, but the themes of longing, innocence and make-believe suggest a larger intent that we usually find in a children’s story.

Of all possible names for Peter’s home, “Neverland” is the most counter-intuitive. It dares anyone to find it, challenges entry, and, by its name, denies its own existence*. It’s a place that cannot exist, and yet it does.

It’s not on any chart
You must find it in your heart.

Dreams are born there; time is unplanned there. Neverland is a far cry from Isaiah’s “new heaven and new earth,” but Peter longs for it the way we long for the Kingdom of God. What’s more he shares his longing -- he even preaches it. 

It might be miles beyond the moon,
Or right there where you stand.
Just keep an open mind, 
And suddenly you'll find
Never Neverland.

When we long for something, especially something that is not entirely clear to us, C.S. Lewis tells us that we are longing for God. Longing is a major theme in Peter Pan. Peter longs for freedom, autonomy, and adventure on one hand; on the other, he wants stories, pockets and a mother.

What do we make of this? Our human needs are both abstract and concrete, both of the spirit and of the flesh. When Peter ran away from home “on the day he was born,” it was because he feared becoming someone else’s idea of himself. Peter wanted to become his own person, free from obligations to anyone, not bound to ”silly rules.” No hedonist, he is all about ideals. Note the strict code of conduct in place in Neverland. Peter has gone overboard on the spiritual, the abstract. He would be quite at home in a Gnostic cult.

In his innocence, Peter pleases us but most of all he pleases himself.

I’m just the cleverest  fellow
‘Twas ever my fortune to know.   or

I think it's sweet
I have fingers and feet I can wiggle and wag.

How like this is the beautiful verse from Psalm 139…

I thank thee that I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

Peter’s delight in himself is pure. He is the apple of his own eye and, therefore can be the apple of God’s eye as Scripture tells us we must be. It is his self love that flows over into his love of others: Tinkerbell, the Lost Boys, Tiger Lily and her tribe, and Wendy. Isn't this how we are meant to be? Isn't it God's love for us that teaches us to love ourselves and others? 

Truly I tell you, unless you turn and come to me like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Matthew  18:3

It’s easy to admire the delight that small children take in their own accomplishments, from finding their toes to riding a bike. They are fearfully and wonderfully made and they know it. 

A tension exists for us between these two themes of innocence and longing. We long for innocence, but, when we find ourselves in a state of innocence, we long for experience, maturity and reality…unless we’re Peter Pan. It’s not that Peter “won’t grow up,” it’s that he can’t. He has thrown down his marker and his fate is sealed. He can only make-believe. He agrees to be the Lost Boys’ father so long as it’s only pretending. Wendy badgers him “Are we only pretending?”

Pretending

This might be the most tragic state of existence and we've all been there. We all pretend and, at the same time, we all hate pretending. Pretending to be good. Pretending to have a happy family, a purpose, a meaning. Pretending to be carefree, brave. Pretending to be having fun. Pretending to be in love.

It’s a child’s game, pretending. You pretend to be a fireman, a cowboy, a ballerina, Joan of Arc. It’s a way of getting to know yourself and stretching your imagination. Looking back, I can’t remember if I was sadder while pretending or when the game was over. But I remember the sadness. And this is why I think so many of us grown-ups got a bit choked up when we watched Peter Pan the other night. Some of us are still pretending.

'Cause growing up is awfuller
Than all the awful things that ever were.


Peter rejects reality in order to live in Neverland, the place which denies its own reality. His charm is that he embodies the innocence and idealism that we've lost. His tragedy is that he has fooled himself. He has removed challenge and pain and contented himself with pretending.

Where is my true home?
Will this longing ever go away?
Am I just pretending?


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* The word “Utopia,” incidentally, means literally “no place.” So Barrie gets an A+ for that one.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

I Decided to Listen Up




In the prayer practice of lectio divina, one result is to “get a word”. Hearing a passage from scripture, a word will emerge. It will present itself to you. You will take that word for your own. It is a gift from the Spirit. It is yours to learn from and hear and re-hear. Yesterday, my word was “voice.”

The readings appointed for the Second Sunday in Advent are all about voices. There is the voice crying out in Isaiah 40:

A voice cries out:
"In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.

And then in Mark’s Gospel account, Chapter 1, John the Baptist is the voice in the wilderness:

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 

Last week, at prayer group, I was struck with the different voices in our small circle. Different cadences, different tones. We were all talking about the same thing – Advent, darkness, light, Incarnation, but our voices, our sounds were unique.  Voices are like fingerprints. One gift of prayer group is that we don’t try to sound like each other.

Then I asked myself: do I hear everyone’s voice? Am I open to some and closed to others? Do I put up a sound barrier against some voices? Do I listen with love?

I was not entirely happy with my answers. I dismiss a lot of what I hear. It’s hard to get my attention. I like to think I have a general love for all God’s creatures, but then I skim over their voices, just taking what I must so that I won’t seem too unfeeling.

If we are made in the image of God, our voices reflect that. If people are image bearers, I should attend to them. So this Advent, I am making it my business to listen to every voice that I hear. No matter what people say to me, I am going to find some truth, some message, some bit of the holy in every voice.

We know that many people heard John the Baptist. But what about those who turned away? What about the ones who were busy or tired or who dismissed him as a crackpot? I don’t want to turn away from anyone – not during this Advent anyway. I want to hear every voice. People say empty words. They gossip; they lie; they self-promote; they try to sound hip and clever. 

This season of Advent I don’t even care. I am going to listen for the voice inside every voice. For these next weeks, everyone is John the Baptist.

Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,

for the mouth of the LORD has spoken. 

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber - a Reaction




Before you read this post, please know that it will contain “spoilers” as to the plot developments of Michel Faber's novel. It will not tell you everything but it will tell you some things, so if you’re the kind of person who doesn't like to know anything about a book before you read it, save this post until after you read The Book of Strange New Things.

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We all know that when things start out one way in a story, they are going to have to go the other way before the story is over. So when we meet Peter and his sweet wife Beatrice who are both deeply in love with each other and committed to their Christian vocations, we know, even though we don’t want to know, that things are going to change. Probably for the worse.

Peter, after many years of petty crime and addiction, has found salvation in Beatrice and Jesus (almost simultaneously). Beatrice, after an early life of abuse answered a calling as a nurse and found true love in a messed up patient (Peter.) It’s almost too good to be true.

We meet these lovely folks just as Peter is preparing to depart for a mission. He’s on his way to Orlando, but, no, not there. That’s just a launch site. Peter is off to some distant planet to bring the word of God to the native people living there. 

This is a serious work of literature. Despite the heavy Jesus talk and the alien overlay, it is not “Christian fiction,” nor is it the predictable sci fi space ship story.

Neither is this a typical dystopian novel. In fact, judging by the kindly natives and the temperate climate, the new planet, Oasis, might actually be a Utopia. A mysterious private company, USIC, has colonized Oasis, and we learn that the natives will withhold their food crops from the colonists unless a preacher is promised. 

Enter Peter who is about as full of the Gospel as a person can be. He is ready to enter into his mission, and the natives are delighted to welcome him.

When I saw the glowing comments in an advertisement in The New Yorker, I decided to read this book. Thinking that “the book of strange new things” referred to the novel itself, I expected some sort of fairy tale, perhaps a David Mitchell-esque allegory. But the book referred to is actually the Bible; the natives call it “the book of strange new things.”

On every page, I worried how this novel might let me down. I worried that the gentle natives would turn out to be evil, that Peter would descend into cynicism, that he would have an affair, that Beatrice would die, that a rival religion would come along and convert everyone. I worried most of all that Peter’s very na├»ve faith would fail him.

And it did. Sort of.

The Oasans, as Peter calls the natives, are eager for the Gospel, for the teaching. Their societal organization is developed almost to the point of genius. They manage their resources, help each other, guard their emotions and welcome strangers. 

Peter’s job is easy. His flock are without sin; moreover, they are without questions or doubts. The book of strange new things (the Bible) is to them a collection of verses to memorize. Their mysterious love for the book is plain though they don’t seem to need it, at least not the way we need it. I never see them challenged by any of it. I never see them changed by any of it. 

Peter would be better utilized ministering to his fellow USIC employees where the need is painfully obvious. His friends and colleagues on Oasis are either frozen into a mindless apathy or feverish with self hatred. But Peter sees himself as the servant of the natives. It is to them he devotes himself and it is in them that he is nearly lost. Their climate, their food, their speech, their habits subsume him. He is sunburnt, filthy, wasted skeletally thin, dehydrated and sleep deprived. He has forgotten his wife and even himself.

Back on planet earth, just about every disaster that we might ever predict is occurring. Financial collapse, climate disasters, rampant crime and brutality abound, and there is poor Beatrice left to deal with it all alone.  Oh, and she is pregnant! The electronic communications between her and Peter devolve into short angry directives. “Don’t come home,” she says.

Peter realizes that the purpose of the colonization of this planet is to ensure a place for the human race to come to when earth is destroyed. So the technology that USIC staff are developing and the relations it is building with the natives couldn't be more important. 

Peter decides to leave Oasis and his mission. Even though he sees himself a failure, he cannot ignore the needs of his wife back home. He cuts his contracted time short and leaves his congregation. No longer certain of his belief in God, he heads back to an uncertain future at home. 

We know that faith is tested. Some of us face horrendous tests; some of us are barely tested at all. Someone like Peter, whose faith saved him once, is vulnerable. Can his faith save him twice?

The author is a professed atheist (I looked this up mid way through the book; such was my dread of a bitter ending); he does not, however, leave us with an atheistic message.

Peter is heading home to find Beatrice, to be with her, to help her. Although they are both foundering, this reader hopes that together they can be restored and possibly restore others. He is doing the human thing, which is a thing he had almost forgotten how to do. If he can find God again at all, it will be by living into his humanity once more. 

That is the ending that I choose for Peter and Beatrice. I have known so many people whose faith is renewed when they are in dire straits, and God’s attention to us at those times is well-attested in Scripture. In the end, Peter does not need the book of strange new things; he needs his own human self to reach out to his wife and, then, I hope, to God.