You Raise Me Up to Walk on Stormy Seas

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
Matthew 14:22-33

Part of my problem with biblical literalists is that I think they often fail to see the forest for the trees. They get hung up in trying to prove ( in the case of believers) or disprove (in the case of nonbelievers) Biblical stories, as if that were the most important thing about them. John, the writer of the fourth gospel, was very clear about the purpose of the miracle stories he chose to include in his telling of the Jesus story: miraculous events were important not because they were miraculous, but because they were “signs” attesting to who Jesus was and what the kingdom of God that he proclaimed means.

The message- or “sign”, as John might phrase it- is more important than the medium in today’s gospel reading. I think it’s also helpful to consider the context, which follows roughly the same sequence in Matthew, Mark, and John: Jesus learns of Herod’s execution of his cousin John the Baptist.. He tries to withdraw for a little alone time to process his thoughts and feelings about this horrific event, but is prevented from doing so by throngs of people wanting free healthcare. He spends the day helping them to the full extent of his powers, and when evening falls, his disciples urge him to quit for the day and send the crowds away so he can catch a break. Instead, he feels the need to provide not only free healthcare but free food, and multiplies loaves and fishes in order to feed the hungry crowds. Jesus tries again to withdraw and be by himself, but again his prayer time is interrupted, this time by his own disciples. They attempt to follow his instructions to go home and allow him some private time on the mountaintop, but get into trouble when a sudden storm arises over the Galilee. Jesus rescues his frightened disciples by walking across the stormy seas and calming the waters. Interestingly, John omits Peter’s near-drowning in his version of the the walking-on-water story.

If we try to understand these stories as “signs”, as John calls them, what are the signs telling us? First of all, Jesus cared about people- “he had compassion for them” and put their needs above his own. As Paul put it, “he, being in very nature God, did not count equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave born in human likeness, and made himself obedient to death, even death on a cross”.  Jesus healed sick people without asking them if they had done all the right things to keep themselves healthy. He fed hungry people without asking them why they weren’t working to earn their daily bread. And he rescued his frightened disciples from the stormy sea, including boastful, impetuous Peter, whose own impulsivity led him into trouble more than once.

Secondly, these stories tell me that God is able to do what we think may be impossible, although he generally prefers to work through people to work his wonders. As a science fiction fan, I don’t find this at all beyond the range of my imagination.  I really do not have the problem with the miracles of Jesus in the way that some of my friends do; just because I can’t understand how something might have happened doesn’t mean it couldn’t have. Rather, it demonstrates my incomplete understanding of an observed or reported event. If someone living two thousand years ago were suddenly time-transported to my house today and watched me illuminate a dark room with the flick of a light switch, what might they think? Arthur C Clarke, who was not a theist, observed that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic“. Maybe Jesus had an understanding of and control over reality that we haven’t figured out yet.

As the leaders of the US and North Korea engage in increasingly escalating rhetoric this week, as the KKK, neo-Nazis, and others engage in violence on the streets of Charlotte, NC today, as who know what will happen tomorrow, I can’t think of a better message to share with a frightening and frightened world than today’s gospel passage. Just as Jesus walked through the storm on the sea of Galilee, he walks toward our storm-tossed world today. I often find myself thinking like the frightened disciples, huddled in the bottom of the boat, hoping and praying that the storm will abate before I and all those I love are destroyed. Sometimes I find myself behaving like Peter, impulsively jumping overboard,  trying and failing to vanquish the oncoming storm on my own. What I ought to be doing is trying to think like Jesus. Where are there needs, and how can I help?

 

It’s Not About Me

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy,  make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was[a] in Christ Jesus,who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,to the glory of God the Father. Philippians 2:1-11

I didn’t write last week because I was on a youth work mission trip, along with twenty-eight youth and thirteen adults from seven different churches. I’m also diverging from my plan to use the liturgical calendar readings for this week as a writing prompt. Instead, I thought I’d share a few thoughts about our mission trip and how it relates to something I learned a long time ago on my faith journey, but of which I constantly have to be reminded: it’s not about me.

I am, and always have been, an introvert by any definition of the word. I particularly identify with the MBTI/Jungian description of a preference for introversion. I am energized by time spent alone thinking about matters of consequence, or discussing them with one or two close friends. I have learned to extravert myself pretty well when necessary, but it’s exhausting to me, particularly when it goes on for a week. Nevertheless, I will persist. It’s not about me or what I find comfortable; it’s about doing what is right regardless of how I feel. My husband describes these mission trips as “fun”; I’d probably choose the word “important.” They help the people whom we go to serve in concrete, tangible ways; they help the young people who go on them by developing leadership skills and fostering self-confidence; and they are always a spiritually transformative experience for me.

Paul reminds the Philippians of the unfathomable nature of the sacrifice Jesus made to become one of us, and tells them they ought to have the same mindset! The passage reminds me that there are plenty of things in life that I ought to do, not because I want to, or because they’re easy, pleasant, or comfortable, but because they are the right thing to do. Jesus was the antithesis of Ayn Rand’s individualistic Objectivism, which is probably why I have such a great deal of difficulty relating to her devotees, especially when they also identify as Christian. For me, to be a Christian is to be a follower of Jesus, and to be in the process of being transformed into the mindset of Christ, to be other-centered rather than self-centered. The writer of the letters of John spoke of “many antichrists” in the world in which he lived, and if we can get away from the Hollywoodized perception of “antichrist” as a specific, spectacularly evil person, we will see that the spirit of antichrist is present in our world as well. Where Christ is selfless, antichrist is selfish. Where Christ is self-giving, antichrist is greedy and grasping. Where Christ is humble, antichrist is narcissistic. You cannot serve both God and Mammon, and you cannot simultaneously claim Jesus and Caesar as Lord.

Paul goes on to say that because of Jesus’s humility and obedience to the pattern of other-centeredness laid out for him, God “highly exalted him“. Jesus’s teachings were full of the paradox of losing one’s life in order to find it, and as usual I find psychological as well as spiritual truth in his teachings. The pursuit of happiness as one’s Prime Directive is ultimately unfulfilling and counterproductive. As an introvert, I have a tendency to over-think, over-analyze, and ruminate about everything, which sometimes sucks me into an emotional black hole. Cognitive-behavioral psychology teaches that the way to escape negative feelings is not to think, but to do. I have found that the most effective kind of doing is not something to merely distract or entertain myself, but to do something for others. Sometimes this can be as simple as smiling and saying hello to people you meet; it’s not so much the magnitude of the act as the direction of the focus that is important. The more you practice the change of focus from self to others, the more you will be changed, and the more the world will be changed through you for the better.

“O Master, let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in self-forgetting that one finds,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life.”
-from a prayer attributed to St. Francis.

 

Jesus Walked That Lonesome Valley

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[i and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:43-48

On Palm Sunday, Jesus made his entry into Jerusalem surrounded by adoring throngs. By Good Friday, many of the same people were clamoring for his death. What happened?

I think many of the people who threw down their cloaks and waved palm branches were expecting a coup. When they cried “Hosanna”, which is best translated as “save us!, they meant that literally. They thought Jesus would be a military leader in the style of David or the Maccabees. He would defeat their oppressive Roman enemies and Jerusalem would rise again to its fabled Solomonic glory. When Jesus didn’t do what they expected, their emotions turned to the dark side. Their hope turned to fear; their joy turned to anger; and their love turned to hate. Since Jesus wasn’t going to “save them” in the way they wanted to be saved, they wanted to see him destroyed.

Anyone who was paying attention to Jesus’s words in the Sermon on the Mount ought to have figured out that Jesus wasn’t going to use force to establish his kingdom. God’s kingdom will come not by power and control, but through love and self-giving.

He, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!

People are by nature tribalistic, which was probably a helpful evolutionary survival trait at one time, but I think Jesus was teaching that it’s time for us to evolve beyond that programming. God’s love is inclusive, and ours ought to be too. How do we fight our natural tendency to divide everyone into “us” and “them” categories? By prayer, which doesn’t work to change God or others, but to change us. By behaving kindly toward others whenever we have the chance, even if it’s just to offer a friendly greeting. Power and control may subdue an enemy, but they cannot defeat it. Only love has the ability to change hearts and transform an enemy into a friend.

It can be dangerous, and lonely, to swim upstream against currents of tribalism and self-interest. Jesus walked his talk….all the way to the cross.

 

Joshua, Jesus, Constantine, and Christ

It’s interesting to me that Joshua and Jesus have the same Hebrew name (יְהוֹשׁ֫וּעַ in Hebrew; Ἰησοῦς in Greek, meaning “Yahweh saves.” The meaning of the name accurately describes both Joshua and Jesus, but their approaches to carrying out God’s salvation were quite different. Joshua is portrayed as a military leader who led the conquest of Canaan, killing every man, woman, child, and animal in cities under the ban, along with those of his own people who did not follow those instructions to the letter. Jesus is the suffering servant and good shepherd who  taught nonviolence  and demonstrated God’s love by “dying for us while we were yet sinners.” The two approaches seem quite opposite to me, and I wrote about this in an earlier post on the book of Joshua. How exactly does God save? Through power and control, or through love and service?

One of the reasons many first century Jews had such a hard time accepting Jesus as the promised Messiah is that he did not fulfill their expectations of a conquering military hero who would toss the Roman bullies out of Israel and re-establish a Davidic dynasty. Instead of using his divine superpowers to control people and perhaps strike a few of them dead, he healed the sick and fed the hungry. Instead of living in luxury in a palace and demanding obeisance from cowed subjects, he lived the lifestyle of a homeless itinerant teacher who told his followers that the first shall be last and “the greatest among you shall be your servant”   Instead of calling down ten thousand angels to rescue him and strike down those who tortured and mocked him, he prayed “Father, forgive them.” Paul makes the contrast clear in his letter to the Philippians when he describes Jesus as someone “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;  rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!

It’s pretty clear to me that most of the early Christians tried to apply the example and teachings of Jesus to their own lives and situations.  In fact, that’s where the descriptor “Christian” came from, and it was not originally meant as a compliment. “Christians” were people whose first loyalty was to Christ, not Caesar, and that was a very dangerous thing to do in the Roman Empire. “Christians” also tried to emulate the behavior of Jesus in their interactions with others, and that was considered a very foolish thing to do. In spite of, and probably also partially because of, continuing antipathy from those in positions of power, the faith continued to spread throughout the Roman Empire.

By the turn of the fourth century, political factions threatened to split the Roman Empire into East and West components, with several contenders jockeying for power on both sides. There were two schools of thought on the part of these would-be emperors on how to deal with the exponential growth of Christianity: doubling down on persecution, or assimilation.  In 312 AD,  legend has it that Constantine, one of the contenders for the Western throne, had a dream of a cross and the words “In this sign you will conquer”. He directed his soldiers to paint their shields with a sign of the cross, the battle went his way, and he converted to Christianity. Although the historical jury is out as to whether his conversion was genuine or practical, Constantine made Christianity the official state religion, and assimilation began. The persecuted were now the powerful, and Constantine was their Joshua, the hand of God who saved them and led them into the promised land.

However, in the retrospect of centuries, it seems to me that Constantine’s conversion was one of the most spiritually dangerous things that ever happened to the church. Those in power generally want to stay in power, and the threat of hellfire and damnation became quite a useful  tool to ensure forced obedience. Christianity and Christendom are not the same thing. Christians are followers of Christ, whose ultimate loyalty is to God alone. Christendom is a conflation of Christianity and empire, and its subjects have divided loyalties. The way of Christ is the way of love and service. The way of empire is the way of power and control. Where Christ transforms, empire compels. They are not compatible. There’s a (probably apocryphal) quote attributed to Gandhi, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians.” I can’t help but think that the Christians to whom Gandhi was referring were more ambassadors for Christendom than ambassadors for Christ.

Joshua is recorded as saying in his farewell speech to the Israelite people, Choose this day whom you will serve. As for me and my house I will serve the Lord.” Jesus warned his followers, “No one can serve two masters.” Which will it be, the way of power and control or the way of love and service? The way of Constantine or the way of Christ?

As for me and my house, I choose Christ.

 

 

 

 

Philippians: Happiness is a Choice

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians is Paul’s most personal letter, and probably one of the last ones written. It appears to have been written during his final imprisonment in Rome, following his final appeal to Caesar. Facing trial before Nero and the possibility of execution, he writes with undisguised, almost jubilant positivity: “I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel,  so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ”.  He professes that he really doesn’t know whether it is better to live or to die, not our of depression, but out of his confident faith that “to live is Christ, to die is gain”.   Paul has come to the conclusion that happiness is not dependent on circumstances: “I have learned to be content with whatever I have.  I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me”.

It’s interesting to me how much of Paul’s observations and advice make good psychological sense. From a cognitive- behavioral perspective, we are what we think. Unpleasant and undesirable feelings like anxiety, depression, and misdirected anger arise more from the things we say to ourselves about events and circumstances than from  events and circumstances themselves. If we change our thought patterns, we can change our feelings. There’s a story about two young children playing in the ocean surf who both get knocked down by the waves. One child runs screaming and terrified to his parents on the shore, while the other bobs up laughing in delight and cries “Do it again!”. The event is the same, but one child thinks “What fun!” while the other thinks “How dangerous!” I think that’s exactly what Paul meant when he said he had learned to be content. From his perspective, being in prison wasn’t awful; it gave him a chance to talk to his guards about his faith. He doesn’t see death as an end, but as a beginning. Paul gives the Philippians several other pieces of sound psychological advice. Don’t keep your worries and concerns to yourself, but talk them out with a trusted friend. (For Paul of course, there was no more trusted friend than God ). Cultivate gratitude by making a list of the things you are thankful for. Spend more time thinking about good things, instead of ruminating on bad things. Practice kindness. Do good to others whenever it is in your power to do so. It’s easier to act yourself into a new way of feeling than to feel yourself into a new way of acting.

We may be living in uncertain times, but so was Paul. Because of his faith and through much practice, he managed to find “the peace that passes understanding” in spite of his circumstances, and assured the Philippians it could be theirs as well. Change your perspective by “putting on the mind of Christ” and you will change your thinking and your actions. Change your thinking and your actions and you will change your feelings. Paul’s advice still works today, and that’s good news to me.