Posts tagged culture
Posts tagged culture
Zephaniah 3:14-20 Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the LORD.
After several judgment oracles against the sinfulness, idolatry and pride of God’s people, Zephaniah concludes with an oracle of salvation. I the midst of destruction, the prophet encourages listeners to banish fear and remember God’s presence.
After presenting devastating news through previous oracles, why does the prophet attempt to end with a positive reflection? His lame attempt to provide joy in a bleak moment of judgment seems wasteful. Much like a commercial for the latest erectile dysfunction drug, the long list of awkward and painful side effects outweighs the smiles of actors sitting in bathtubs in the middle of a rainforest.
In the midst of excessive spending for unused Christmas gifts or the pressure to pretend to be a familial family despite death or anger, there is a pervasive fear during the holiday season. Another year comes to a close, and we fear insignificance, the significance of self-worth or contribution. We fear the political decisions or indecisions of 2012. We fear the loss and shame of life. What sense of joy is found in this fear?
After listening to a story about him on the radio, I wanted to research the paintings of Edward Hopper and his portrayal of the fearfully lonesome spirit. Edward Hopper was an American realist painter who conveyed the lonesome aspect of his subjects. He painted lonely individuals surrounded by an expansive canvas. And his perspective portrayed the understanding of solitude. One of his most famous paintings, Morning Sun, depicts a young woman seated on the bed by a window. Wearing only a short pink nightgown, she stares out the window at the city. Her room is poorly lit. The darkness pervades her expression as she looks out with despair, clutching her knees close to her chest for comfort. Completed in 1952, we presume Hopper’s wife, Josephine, was the model for his iconic masterpiece of a lonely woman. Ed Hopper grew in popularity throughout the Great Depression. His success kept permitted him to continue painting professionally. His wife, Jo, on the other hand never became a successful artist. She aspired to be an actress. In the shadow of her husband’s popularity, Jo grew increasingly frustrated with a lack of recognition. Without her own acting career, she insisted on being his only model. Working out of her personal fear of insignificance, Josephine created her personal legacy through her husband’s portraits of lonely individuals. And perhaps her loneliness inspired his the sadness of his artwork. Although Ed’s paintings explored the use of light and spatial/emotional association, there is some hope in his capture of the imploring woman in Morning Sun. As she looks out from her bleak room, there is a new day rising. Her face does not reflect a personal sense of hope, but the dawn of a new experience and chance to contribute provides a viewer with the understanding that life exists outside the bare walls of her room. That is the beauty of Hopper’s painting. In the midst of struggle or sadness, there is hope. That is the beauty of Josephine’s life. Although not an actress on stage, she acted regularly as she portrayed the emotion, which captured by her husband, would last much longer than a single performance.
Just as God promises the Israelites, through the prophet Zephaniah, to be present during Josiah’s reign, so the Divine joins humanity on earth through a baby. Emmanuel. God with us inspires a glimpse of joy in the midst of fear. And there is salvation from the loneliness because God goes with us.
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.
Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
Paul visited the fledgling community of Thessalonica on his missionary journey as recorded in the book of Acts. In his absence, the small church plant thrived, and upon Timothy’s visit to the community, Paul was pleasantly surprised by the report of the church’s development. In his letter, Paul gives thanks his brothers and sisters and longs to return to their company. In addition, Paul prays for his fellow believers. He prays for direction, love, strength and holiness. His prayer encompasses all needs or expressions as the young church looks toward the future full of hope and anticipation.
Unlike the tender community in Thessalonica, the Christian church of present day is not fresh and vibrant with excitement and anticipation. The songs seem old, the people in the pews do not seem to grow younger, and the financial (church or denominational) giving has waned. And in the new era of church life, Paul’s motivating prayer elicits yawns from a crowd who have read the passage many time before. And the future of the western Christian church does not look so hopeful, nor do people imagine its future as a grand adventure. Instead, numbers decline, members die, visitors (if they show up) do not stick around long, budgets shrink and ministries disappear. Has everyone given up on God? Has the world turned to Twitter, Apple products and the Huffington Post for understanding rather than tapping into the internal stirring of spirituality?
Although our language about God has changed, I don’t believe our need for God in life has faltered. Generally speaking, people no longer congregate at the church for town hall meetings. It is not the place of socialization in society. However, the language of humanity has not changed. People still grasp for hope, long for love and seek fellowship. In the midst of illness, crisis or despair, people still cry out for strength, direction and justice. And much like with the newly converted Thessalonians, God is present in the hope and anticipation that tomorrow will be a better day.
In the darkness of December evenings and chilliness of foggy mornings, the church reaches back into the history of a year’s growth and experiences. In addition, the church remembers the losses and sadness of those dead and gone. At the same time, the church anticipates the story of the birth of Christ and the hope of Christ’s eventual return. It is not a new story. The birth and reign of Christ stretches back into our religious memories until, most of us, cannot recall the first time we heard the tale. But we expect to be present in the coming months or years to retell the story of birth, death and resurrection. And in the middle realm of past memories and future promises, the church looks to the present of the advent moment, the hope of the present in God’s company. We give thanks for our ancient community and say a similar prayer to that of Saint Paul: Give us direction, increase our love, enable us with strength that may we act with justice. Although we are old, tired and possibly not thriving, we are present, drawing near to God as God draws near to us.
Luke 21:25 “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. ”Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
Luke 21 is a chapter of woeful warnings and devestating declaratioins. The apoclyptic langauge of stars, moons, and seas in distress develop anxiety within the reader whose heart begins to churn along with the swelling sea. Fear is so intense it causes people to faint as they attempt to cope with the stress of destruction. And all Jesus can say is “You know that the kingdom of God is near”? What sort of comfort does Jesus provide to those consumed with anxiety and grief except to state the obvious and offer a trite attempt at instruction, “Be on your guard… be alert.”
With the sleepiness of Thanksgiving wearing off and the excitement of holiday rising around me, I find myself flailing in my attempts to catch the Christmas spirit. Although every song I hear seems to say “Merry Christmas,” I do not welcome the festive season of glad tidings and baked apple pies.
Instead, my spirit sinks each morning as I drag my alarmingly heavy legs out from under the warm covers, to embrace the bitterly cold morning air of my bedroom. My trudge to my destination past the decorated trees and lighted angels with a heavy step and a sunken heart. Although there is no sea roaring around my North Texas town, my ravaged and depleted emotions rumble with deep sadness which Jesus speaks of in his gospel message.
Lacking in words of comfort or healing, Jesus speaks the truth about the coming age and preparation for the return of Christ. Death, sadness and sickness run rampant. Nature rebukes and fights back. And all Jesus can say is the obvious: This sucks. And it’s only going to get worse. For someone steeped in depression, this message only steeps me deeper in despair. And as I look to the Son of Man for light, inspiration and a glimmer of hope, I am greeted with his harsh truth of pain.
In the midst of recovery from Super-storm Sandy, death of adults and children in Gaza and a looming fiscal cliff, there are no words to comfort the broken hearted home-owners, mothers and fathers or concerned citizens. Instead, there is only heart ache and anxiety. And in a way, our only reponse to the looming problems of depression is similar to Jesus’ statements.
Sometimes just naming the problem, speaking it aloud strips it of so much power. By claiming the terror, the destruction or the pain, and naming the emotions felt because of it, one restores power to the self. Although often times, I feel powerless to my depression, by simply naming the anxiety as hurt, pain or fear, I stand over it. I look down on the sitaution and normalize my experience as inexplicably awful. And in that simple naming, claiming and statement, “This sucks” I find peace within myself once again. Jesus’ commands to be on one’s guard and alert doesn’t instruct one to action. He or she merely notices or states the obvious. “This sucks.” And by embracing the suckiness, it (whatever it is) no longer carries the power over you. Anxiety and fear may still remain, but the peace of courage and strenght begins with a clear and simple statement of the obvious in painful circumstances.
Sitting around biting your nails as you watch results pour in? Me too. But while I do, I listen to this playlist to remind me it is awesome to be an American.
A Poem in Honor of All Saints Day
“I remember” by Heather O’Brien
I remember cuddling on the couch, peeking through your fingers at the scary movie.
I remember talking for ages on the phone about my favorite books, which you read only because I loved them.
I remember you hugging me and telling me I was smart when I did well is school.
I remember you reading to me before I went to sleep.
But then, I also remember hiding parts of me for fear you would not love me as much.
I remember her tears when she did not hide and you seemed to love her less.
I remember her pain as you burned the thing she loved most because you thought it evil.
I remember weeks and weeks of silence because she said a word you did not like.
I remember crying out in my head, asking, “How can you be these two different people?”
But then, I also remember you being sick.
I remember when they took your leg.
I remember when they cut into your brain.
I remember when you barely remembered anymore.
And you were not yourself anymore so I could not ask you the quest screaming in my brain.
And finally, I remember you frail and broken and gone.
So there was no one left to ask and I have left is to remember.
So I remember it all: the bad and the good; the tears and the hugs; the anger and the love.
I remember you.
My family described me as a “fish” growing up. I spent my summers swimming in my grandparents’ pool where I pretended to be a mermaid moving from one end of mywatery kingdom to another. I spent a lot of time with my maternal grandparents growing up. My grandmother taught me to make cookies from scratch. And while they cooled on the kitchen counter, my grandfather heaved his large body on the floor to play childish games with his (at the time) only grandchild. It was my grandparents who taught me strict, fundamentalist values which shaped me into adulthood. They often drove me to church on Sundays or insisted on prayer before meals. They provided bibles to inmates in the local prison system, led prayer meetings and planned fellowship gatherings in their home. There were/are the people who inspired me to enter the ministry. However, at the time, neither my grandfather (Papa), nor my grandmother (Mimi) believed women could preach, lead congregations or serve in religious leadership.
In November of 1998, Papa passed away from his battle with colon cancer. I mourned deeply. My thirteen-year-old self lost my first recognized spiritual leader. At his death, I vowed to make him proud with the service of my life to the church.
Fourteen years later, I no longer idolize my Papa. After feeling a call to preach, a call to lead and a call to serve, I have wrestled with the language Papa taught me as a young church go-er. I have cried late into the night about the loss of my understanding of the God I once knew, the relationships I once cherished and the role I once felt forced to serve. But throughout my spiritual turmoil, I have remained faithful to the promise I made at Papa’s death: to serve the church with my life. However, after all these years, after all my self-development, self-doubt, and pastoral pursuits, I wonder if Papa would still be proud of me. As I jettison traditional gender roles, I wonder… if he would accept the woman, the Christian, I have become.
Although I’ll never know or receive his acceptance for my call to ministry, I remember the influence he had on my spiritual direction. And I hold more gingerly his concepts of ministry as I pursue God’s calling in my life. In adulthood, I continue to navigate the uncharted waters of my relationship to God, the church and myself. And at all times, I carry with me Papa’s influence on my religious life and his memory haunts my everyday pursuits. The good, the painful and the loving are always wrapped together in my thoughts of him, as I attempt to reconcile his hope for my life and appreciate the different influences he still inspires within me.
As we celebrate All the Saints of the Christian church, we remember the heroes of faith and their internal struggles with God’s expression of justice. Although we cannot fully reconcile both the joyous and the painful memories of those in the past, we carry their complete spirits with us: the completely flawed, the completely broken and the completely beautiful.
They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
The crowd tries to silence the man looking for healing. As he cries out for mercy from the Son of David passing by others rebuke him. But instead of giving into the pressure to silence, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus keeps calling, keeps vocalizing his need for assistance. However, the ability to raise one’s voice among cries again the self is not always easy.
A few weeks ago an Anti-Voter Fraud campaign launched in primarily Black and Latino neighborhoods in Cleveland, Columbus and Milwaukee. The billboards warned people against voter fraud and penalties such at 3 ½ years in prison or $10,000 fine. ColorofChange.org, a political and social advocate for African-Americans, recently started a petition to have the voter intimidation billboards removed. On October 15, the online campaign stated “These billboards are clearly designed to intimidate voters, and they’re part of [an…] attack on the voting rights of people of color. In the past, ColorOfChange members and our allies have responded loud and clear to attempts to suppress our community’s vote. This situation is no exception—since Saturday, more than 41,000 people have signed our petition demanding that these billboards be taken down immediately. Black folks will not be intimidated this election season.”
Attempts to squelch the voices of new citizens or those who don’t understand voting rights are easy targets for bullying. The citizens viewing threatening billboards questioned personal rights versus personal perceived threat. Someone attempts to silence their voices. However, without the help of ColorofChange.org campaign many may have continued in coerced silence.
Bartimaeus, the blind man, discovered the power within himself to speak up, to ignore the attempts to silence his need, his concern, or his right. But what about those without the personal power of self-expression? Those beaten down by racism and disillusioned with the bullying of democracy? How do those so hurt find the courage to speak up?
Jesus’ attuned ear to the voice of the marginalized and the silenced demonstrates the example of listening for hardship. Although, conscious or subconscious, the voices suppressed or oppressed by others need an attuned ear for justice and an advocate for their meek voices. As Election Day looms closer, a chance for all citizens to raise a voice, those intimidate into silence find freedom of self-expression at the polls. And, thanks to petitions, the voter intimidation billboards have since been removed.
Mark 10:46-52 They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
This is the second blind healing in Mark’s gospel (the other occurs in Mark 8). Compared to the first, Jesus perfects his skills of fully opening blind eyes to the light and activity benefited by sight. However, why included another miracle about blindness? What significance does this one offer?
It is as if the two stories of blindness sandwich the messianic secret of Mark’s narrative. To begin, Jesus struggles to heal the first blind person. Jesus’ identity is revealed and affirmed. And then the predictions or pronouncements conclude with a blind person’s fully restored sight. What once we muddied and opaque is lucid and evident. And with the immediacy of the Mark narrative, Jesus approaches Jerusalem for his death.
Apparently between two chapters of the gospel, Jesus’ popularity explodes and when a man calls out for healing among the crowd, others silence him. His cries for mercy are squelched by the large crowd of witnesses. Just as the blind men of Mark’s story reveal the truth about Jesus’ life on earth, their individual bodily responses to healing tell the story of the disciples’ reception to Jesus’ horrific death. Upon first hearing of death of suffering and rejection, Peter pulls the Messiah aside to rebuke him – a limited understanding of the Christian calling and Jesus’ life on earth. With Jerusalem in the background, Jesus makes his final prediction of condemnation, flogging and death before his followers. Much like Bartimaeus, the men’s eyes are opened to the reality of Jesus’ situation and in the cost of being a disciple. James and John approach the son of God asking for favor after an earthly life upon realizing their leader’s destination. Their eyes are wide open to the reality of Jesus’ Messiahship and his impending suffering. Much like the blind beggar, calling for recognition or healing, Jesus calls his disciples to internalize the unfortunate truth of his suffering. Like Paul they attempt to silence him; however, he enters Jerusalem as the king and leaves as the king on a cross.
Hebrews 5:1-10 Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. And one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was. So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”; as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.
I don’t know about you but I am fuzzy on my understanding of high priests and ancient Jewish culture. The language of Hebrews confuses the modern Judeo-Christian reader who is disconnected from her religious heritage. What is the function of a high priest? And why do I care?
Jesus’ function as a high priest fulfills the role of Jewish religious leader and beyond. The high priest acts as a mediator between God and the people of God. However, Jesus’ death on the cross revolutionizes the name of high priest and brings a spirit of connection between God and creation. Traditionally, high priests were viewed as separate from the people and structurally above normal human experience with God. However, Jesus positioned himself alongside the suffering of humanity as he offered up tearfully prayers in the moment of his death. He suffered. He cried. He died.
Much like God’s silence in Job’s life, the book of Hebrews recognizes a God present with the suffering. Along with the pain of humanity, “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death.” Jesus was not spared from death, but hung in loneliness on the cross. Therefore, his understanding of the loneliness of the world deeply connects with the human experience of a silent God. So why do I still feel lonely?
I recently read an interview with psychologist Sherry Turkle about her book Alone Together on the loneliness of technology. Although texting and Facebook messaging allow individuals to carefully chose words when interacting with others, the limited face-to-face dialogue prevents teens from developing emotional connections and the ability to communicate “in the moment” on a different level. One’s cell phone is ever present, in a pocket or on the bedside table throughout the night. Although one is always available, the connection prevents human contact. The article states, “All this leads to Turkle’s theory that it is possible to be in constant digital communication and yet still feel very much alone.” Despite our efforts to connect with others through social media, something is lost, leaving the typical American teenager, or myself, feeling insignificant. Although loneliness is not a unique feeling, it is a sensitive subject among younger generations who grow increasingly dependent on digital forms of communication.
Even though there are impossiblly infinite ways to connect with other human beings, why do we still feel completely isolated in our first world problems? Jesus’ death on the cross and painful loneliness of abandonment does not magically solve the loneliness of misunderstanding, isolation or death. However, his horrific death experience tells the story of a God who is not distant from the suffering of creation. Although I am privileged to live in a country where I own a smart phone and rely on it regularly, my cultural loneliness is real. And Jesus does not diminish my loneliness but joins me in it. Therefore, I am no longer alone, but experience the presence of God in the loneliness.
Job 38:1-7; 34-41 Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?… “Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that a flood of waters may cover you? Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go and say to you, ‘Here we are’? Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind? Who has the wisdom to number the clouds? Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens, when the dust runs into a mass and the clods cling together? “Can you hunt the prey for the lion, or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, when they crouch in their dens, or lie in wait in their covert? Who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God, and wander about for lack of food?
After 37 chapters of silence, God responds to Job’s pleas of desperation and cries for justice. The answer from God is not simple or demure, but a whirlwind response. In a gust of sweeping complexity – to my own disappointment – God does not entertain Job’s questions of righteousness. Although God makes God’s self available to Job, God refuses to engage difficult questions of moral integrity. Instead, God’s dismisses, challenges and disregards. Is God unfeeling? After everything Job has been through, how could his God be so indifferent?
Although some Christians condemn the questioning or altercation of God, Job’s story often reminds me of personal frustrations with everyday evil and the quest for justice. I too cry against the wicked and long for an explanation for evil’s existence. And much like Job, I too meet a maddening silence.
Elie Wiesel describes his haunting experience with his father in the German Nazi camps during 1944-45 in brief memoir Night. A mere teenager, Wiesel honestly engages his feels of disgust for the human race, need for survival, shame and the relationship with his father. Wiesel heard his aging father beaten to death in the bunk below him as he hid for fear of a beating as well. In one poignant part of his fragmented memory, Wiesel describes the death of a Jewish child on the gallows within the camp. Forced to look stare at swinging child before him, Wiesel and the coerced fellow onlookers of Auschwitz questioned the death of the innocent and ultimately the death of his belief in God.
“Where is God? Where is He?” someone behind me asked… For more than half an hour [the child in the noose] stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes were not yet glazed. Behind me, I heard the same man asking: “Where is God now?” And I heard a voice within me answer him: “Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows… .”
God is dead. The Nazis, the racists, the sexists, the hateful and the unjust hang God for the world to see. And the helpless can merely look on, wondering where do go from here.
However, Wiesel and Job’s stories do not end in death. After destruction, after the long night of despair, dawn rises with the sun. God’s inexplicable silence is not forgiven nor forgotten. However, with time, Wiesel reflects on his experience in Aucshwitz and reframes his statement. Although God remains in the gallows, God’s presence is real. Even in silence, God remains present with the suffering. God suffers with the dying. God hangs in defeat with the defeated. God is present with the suffering.
Mark 10:35-45 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
James and John do not petition an irrational request. Yet, in his mighty power and wisdom, Jesus cannot promise the glory of heaven and honored seats to his followers. Jesus puts them in their place with the “typical” gospel language of first will be last and last will be first. Makes sense right? Jesus is all about reversing the order of things and promoting a new reality for the kingdom of God. So why don’t I buy into it?
We live in a society of achievement. Children are taught from young age to work hard in school, make good grades in hopes of obtaining a substantial job. Our society idolizes the successful, the rich and the powerful. Work hard and be inventive like Steve Jobs. Write hilarious comedy sketches and make an impact on women in the comedy on Tina Fey. Borrow money from your parents to sell couture shoes on Ebay for a profit and become a reality TV star like Kim Kardashian. Our society values the intelligent, the hard working, the successful and the profitable. Value is found in your ability to contribute.
But what if you can’t contribute? What if your contribution doesn’t fit the mold of “success” in present society? What if one’s only contribution is a life of mental disability or emotional angst?
I’ve been watching documentaries recently. While my husband passed through the room on multiple occasions he sat for periods of time to watch “Autism: the Musical” with me. We were entranced by the documentary which follows five young children, each severely autistic, as they attempt to integrate in society, in family life and ultimately find self-worth by putting on a musical. Parents comment throughout the interviews on the difficult of raising an autistic child. Without the emotional or “normal” social behaviors to associate with others, many of the children in the musical find themselves bullied, left out or a frustration to others. At one point, a mother cries out, “No one values my child.” According to her mother, Lexi, the fourteen year-old girl with braces, a beautiful singing voice and the inability to communicate her own feelings (she can only mimic questions posed to her) is not valued by society because she does not possess the ability to contribute to the advancement of society. Lexi’s limitation based on a neurological disorder prevent her from the glories of becoming a surgeon, or a high power executive or even learning to drive. She can reach the “great achievement” for which so many strive.
Jesus corrects James and John. The story and life of Jesus is not about recognition or fame. It is not about greatness or glory at God’s right hand. Instead, Jesus corrects them to say the last will the first and the first last. Those you perceive with little to no value, those with the inability to “contribute,” “advance,” or “succeed,” those are the first in the kingdom of God. Life is not about greatness of the individual but the greatness of finding value in all God’s people.