March/April Issue

Friday
Apr182014

Look for the Helpers

“Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen.” (John 20:25)

Joseph of Arimathea appears in all four gospels, but I am particularly drawn to the account in John, which includes some details beyond what the synoptics provide. Here Joseph is accompanied in his ministrations by Nicodemus—that other recorded member of the Secret Disciple Club. Nicodemus shows up with seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloes, and the two of them together get the job done. We can imagine them, grim and hurried, managing the mangled body, one spreading the spices while the other pulls a fold of linen over and around. Perhaps on another occasion they would have had their own servants or a hired expert do this work, but I like to think of them glancing at the rapidly setting pre-Sabbath sun and agreeing, “Let’s just do it ourselves.”

Luke describes Joseph as “a member of the Council, a good and upright man, who had not consented to [the Council’s] decision and action” (23:50-51). Matthew mentions that he was rich (27:57). John says that Joseph “was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews” (19:38). John is the only one who notes Joseph’s discretion about his loyalty to Jesus, but if this is an offense, John seems to forgive it easily, perhaps exactly because Joseph rose to the occasion in this terrible hour. No one else could have done what Joseph did. Who among the terrified disciples or the women had the standing to dare a request to Pilate for the body of a crucified enemy of the state? Joseph must have known how to negotiate his way through the halls of power and make the ask. He also had the means with which to obtain the proper embalming materials and was able to secure rights to a nearby tomb, a new or at least never-used one, according to Matthew, Luke, and John. He, and let’s say Nicodemus and a couple servants, must have marched back out to that gruesome hill, right through the dispersing but still-gawking crowds, and talked the soldiers into taking the body down and handing it over. At this point, Catholic tradition allows us to imagine them pausing to allow a heart-broken mother a moment to embrace her son’s tortured body.

Once the body is buried, Joseph of Arimathea’s role in the official gospel accounts is over. But he has enjoyed an adventurous afterlife in the imagination of the faithful. In one early account, he is later imprisoned by the Jewish authorities, but the risen Lord appears to him, personally bathes him—in a lovely inversion of his service to Jesus—and frees him. In medieval traditions, Joseph manages to gain possession of the Holy Grail and, apparently feeling the urge to travel in his retirement (in some versions in the company of the Bethany sisters), he marches the Grail all the way to England—or perhaps it was his son who went. Accounts differ.

In any case, I wonder if traditional fascination with Joseph has something to do with our need to enter into the passion story. Each character in the story is a potential entry point in our devotional imaginations, but of course some figures are more inviting than others. We are often compelled by liturgy to enter the roles of Peter or Judas or Pilate or the angry crowd, and we do so reluctantly, with appropriate shame and guilt. The point of such exercises is to remind us that it was for our sins that he died. In fact, most of the big-name characters in this drama do not perform well. And the ones who do might make us hesitate: are we worthy to stand alongside Jesus’ mother or the beloved disciple?

So we look instead to those with bit parts, as it were: Simon of Cyrene; the women who “had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs” (Matt. 27:55), all of whom seem to be named Mary; and then Joseph. Through these minor characters, who quietly step along the edges of the story, we witness the wonderful generosity of a God who not only suffers humiliation and death for our sake, but amid that suffering allows unimportant people to offer to his very person their tender, intimate gestures of mercy.

We often emphasize the loneliness of Jesus in the passion narrative. Yes, the Lord is a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, betrayed, abandoned, defenseless, tortured, murdered. He could easily call down angels at any time; we have known that since the forty days in the desert. But he does not, because these terrible things have to happen so that the scripture will be fulfilled. Nevertheless, how beautiful that Jesus does allow a woman to wash his feet, an unwitting fellow to carry his cross, and two men of modest authority to wash and wrap his body. In two days, he will transform another woman, formerly possessed by demons, into the first evangelist of her resurrected Lord.

The beloved children’s show host Fred Rogers famously advised parents to comfort their children after a tragedy or disaster by inviting them to “look for the helpers.” The passion stories are full of villains, but when we look for the helpers, we find them. At this point, it would be obvious to ask how we might become Christian helpers, how we might imitate Joseph of Arimathea and Simon of Cyrene and the various Marys. And then we would arrive at the conclusion that we do so by “serving the least of these.” We minister to Christ by ministering to others in Christ’s name, especially the poor and broken.

That’s right of course. But I wonder about the state of extremity in which these helpers offered their gestures. Their actions had nothing to do with ambitious, kingdom-building missions guided by well-wrought vision statements and eager volunteers. As is true in modern-day tragedies, sometimes helpers are those who perform almost desperate actions out of heartbreak and bewilderment. Each of the helpers in the gospel accounts must have felt as if it was all too late and they were doing something pointless in total darkness. All their hopes for a new day had just been snuffed out. How do we enter the story through that?

Yesterday at the Good Friday service, we followed a liturgy based on the Orthodox “Akathist Hymn to the Divine Passion of Christ.” As we meditated on the burial, we prayed:

Grant us your grace, O Jesus our God. Receive us as you received Joseph and Nicodemus, that we may offer to you our souls like a clean shroud, may anoint your most pure body with the fragrant spices of virtue, and may have you in our hearts as in a tomb, as we cry: Alleluia!

Those ancients with their genius for allegorizing every detail! I love the idea of anointing Jesus’ body with fragrant spices of virtue. It struck me here and throughout the service that the prayers were inviting us to lift the actions of the characters out of the particular exigencies of the narrative and into a long history of Christian reflection. What Joseph and Nicodemus did hurriedly in darkness, we seek to do slowly, all our lives, in the light of the Resurrection.

We can only offer these ministrations because Jesus by grace deigns to receive them from us and indeed by grace supplies the means. We have no clean soul-shroud or fragrant virtue or new tomb to offer unless Jesus makes it so. Joseph provided a new tomb, cut from the rock. But Jesus himself must cut the rock of our hearts so that we might offer him a new tomb, a place where he might lay on this Holy Saturday, until on Easter morning no rock can contain all creation’s Alleluia.

Saturday
Apr052014

Noah: An Author Interview

I’ve been reading a lot of author interviews lately to prepare for Calvin’s Festival of Faith and Writing. So when I went to see the movie Noah, which opened last weekend, I thought I would arrange for The Twelve to interview the author of the book on which the movie was based.

The Twelve: So you’ve heard about the controversy over the film version of your book?

The Author: Oh sure. I’m pretty well tuned in. I hear about things. The movie is actually about one section of one of my books, by the way.

12: Right, I knew that. Anyway, the movie has been banned in several Muslim countries and of course there are objections to it from the usual quarters here in the U.S. The complaints in Muslim countries have to do with depictions of holy figures, but here in the U.S. the complaints are about whether the movie is faithful to the book. Do you care about that?

Author: Well, there are more and less important ways to be faithful, you know? Look, my work has been around for a long time and a lot of people have made adaptations. I’m used to it. That’s what happens when you write stories. In fact, that’s the power of stories. They’re generative. They’re designed to be stretchy and flexible so that they last. People in different times and places find their way into them—they find the dimensions of the story that speak. When people retell stories, they throw the emphasis on one or another of the big themes, and great stories are large enough to sustain that.

12: So you don’t mind fan fiction?

Author: Well, there is some terrible fan fiction out there based on my work [laughs]. But I don’t mind fan fiction generally, no. In fact, there was this Jewish fan club—they were around a long time—and they were really good at it. The fan fiction that irks me is the stuff that turns my main concerns upside down. That’s really annoying. On the other hand, fans have a tendency to answer each other, and that throws everyone back to my stuff.

12: What about accuracy in retellings? Do you appreciate the fans who defend every little detail of the canonical materials and point out tiny flaws in movie versions and such?

Author: Well, you know, it’s flattering when people obsess about your writing. But authors know that a story is a living thing and if you’re really insistent on controlling interpretations, you shouldn’t use narrative forms. Actually, even a pretty straightforward list of do’s and don’ts turns out to be open to interpretation! Personally, though, I think a narrative form is worth the risk. Stories are stretchy, but they’re also sticky. They stay with you and keep speaking to you. They get into your heart. I’ve always loved that about stories. That’s why stories are my main medium, though I work in other genres, too.

I guess the accuracy fanatics bother me when they act as if some movie or whatever is going to displace my original versions. I just don’t see that happening and I’m not worried about it. The canonical versions will always be there for people to study and talk about. So I find the creative retellings interesting, and I like the way they make people see new things in the originals. Besides, as every author knows, movies sell books!

12: So you’re looking forward to increased book sales?

Author: [laughs] No, I don’t worry much about sales and royalties (though my agents do!). But I do want people to keep reading my books.

12: So let’s talk about the movie. First of all, weird story to work with.

Author: Yeah. One of my favorites, though.

12: Really? What do you like about it?

Author: I like the animals. [laughs] I guess that puts me with the little kids. But I really love the moment when the animals stream into the ark. Great moment.

12: What do you like about the movie?

Author: Well, lots of things, actually. The strong emphasis on human moral responsibility. The reflection on what this experience does to Noah, the burden it places on him, and his own terrible sense of guilt on behalf of all human beings. Related to that, I appreciate the way the movie confronts the viewer with the gravity of human violence and its consequences. That’s really useful. The portrayal of the devastation people can cause when they are arrogant and cruel makes the whole dark side of this story—the terror, the destruction—more comprehensible. And of course, I appreciate the reflection on balancing justice with mercy. I’ve thought about that a great deal, and I’m glad to see this film give such a compelling picture of mercy’s miraculous power—the miracle of new beginnings.

12: Some people have been complaining that the film puts such a strong emphasis on environmentalism that it amounts to propaganda. What do you say about that?

Author: Well, just about all my work has that theme, though readers have tended to ignore it. I’m actually glad to see a lot more attention to it. It’s always been important to me, even essential.

12: What about some of the other ways the writers fill in the gaps? Like putting the animals to sleep on the ark?

Author: Right! I’ve heard that idea before, and I love it. I also love how Noah’s family is great with herbs. Makes total sense.

You know, I leave a lot of open space in my stories, partly because it’s fun for me to see how readers fill them in. I like to watch them rush into the silent spots.

12: Like the Nephilim?

Author: Exactly! [laughs] That was one of my crazier ideas. Not even sure anymore why I put them in the book. But it’s been a hoot to see what readers do with them. In this movie, the writers came up with these rock-encrusted glowy beings, the Watchers. That’s one of the nuttier explanations I’ve seen for the Nephilim, but it solves certain dramatic problems in the movie and it gave the special effects people a challenge.  

12: So is the Noah story fiction or nonfiction?

Author: Well, neither, exactly. It’s a way of telling the truth about a strange time that is foreign and incomprehensible to modern sensibilities. I think of the Noah narrative as the best way to convey what we need to understand from that time. It’s mythical, and thus inexhaustible. I created a story that people can trust, a story that speaks in a way readers can understand.

12: So what’s next for you?

Author: Oh, I’m always working on projects. I’ve got some big things in mind. You’ll see.

To 12 readers: There are a lot of helpful reviews out there. Try this article by Cathleen Falsani in Sojourners, along with her two interviews with writer/director Darren Aronofsky and writer Ari Handel. Also check out this review in Variety. Here’s a skeptical but intriguing take from The Guardian. And for Emma Watson fans, here you go.

Special thanks to and fond memories of Prof. Ralph Williams at the University of Michigan.

Friday
Mar212014

A Fresh Poem for the New Season

Reading The New Garden Book on the First Day of Spring

It takes courage to say, “The shrubs and grass
must go.” But courage is what’s needed.

This yard has fine trees, but the shrubbery
is scraggly and dull, the lawn patchy.

Vexing slopes, eroded soil, patchy turf.
The trash can is more necessary

than lovely. The stairs in the back
are a missed opportunity. Lacks charm.

A “before” nightmare!

Take stock, then: what do you have?
Write down all considerations.

Where do the shadows fall? How
do they change through the seasons?

On paper it is cheap and easy to try
any variety of dreams. Don’t restrict yourself.

Plant fruit trees in the sun. Take advantage
of microclimates. Put tender plants on the south side.

Plan ahead. Mistakes may not become glaring
reality for years, wasting all that growth.

For big or complicated jobs,
call in experts.

 

This is mostly a found poem based on lightly edited and rearranged phrases and sentences from pp. 28-31 of The Better Homes and Gardens New Garden Book (Des Moines: Meredith, 1990). Feeling inspired as the ice age recedes here in Michigan and reveals flattened, thatchy grass, scraggly shrubs, and thawing mud, I took this old book off the shelf yesterday and found myself impressed by its metaphysical profundity.

Saturday
Mar082014

Communion of Dust

At church my family always sits on the side over by the musicians. Church-going people fall into habits like that, sometimes for no particular reason. But I like it over there, because I imagine myself as both a pew-sitter and a musician at church, so I can slide conveniently from one role to the other as needed. I also like to sit over there because I get a pretty good view of the rest of the congregation. Once in a while, I just watch people during worship, watch them shift in their seats or look up at the ceiling or frown in concentration. What are they thinking? I wonder. In a relatively quiet, non-demonstrative worship setting, our inner lives during worship are something of a mystery. 

My favorite moment in worship is usually the communion circle, when I can see people’s faces more clearly. Then I can notice more. Wow, Mimi’s son is getting tall. And Cele, recovering from cancer, she’s looking pretty good. And there’s one of my students. And the older couple who celebrated their fiftieth anniversary. And there’s the millionaire, right next to the ex-con. There we all are, expectant, some of us singing with the congregation, some of us just waiting for grace to come around to us in the form of bread and cup. We know it will. It always does.

This past Wednesday evening, I got up from my usual seat on the side to serve as liturgist for our Ash Wednesday service. Oh, now this is a whole different perspective on the congregation. I’ve done this before, but it still feels odd and a little startling. Standing at the lectern, I am surprised how close together everyone seems, how small the room feels. I hear my own voice speaking the words, but it seems to come from someone else, filling this dark, cold sanctuary.

We sing and meditate on dust and ashes, especially on Psalm 103. We are fragile and weak, reminds the Psalm, fading and dying like flowers. Yet the Lord has compassion on us: praise! He remembers that we are dust. Greg, our worship pastor, has wisely thought to weave Matthew 11 into the songs and liturgical words, so our meditations on mortality and sin settle gently into Jesus’ invitation to come and rest. We are dust, but it’s all right. We find rest for our souls in him.  

After prayers comes time for the imposition. I turn to our pastor and thumb ashes onto his forehead, the sign of the cross: Jack, remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. He places the mark on me, says the words. Then we turn to the people, lined up and waiting. Their faces: so close! Each one in turn, tilted up, submissive, expectant. I say the words, over and over again. If I know the person’s name, I say it: Donna, remember that you are dust. Kurt, remember that you are dust. Have you ever noticed how different people’s faces are? I don’t think we really look at each other’s faces very much. So many different kinds of skin: porcelain smooth, ruddy and rough, grayed and creased, brown, olive, caramel. Each face shaped so differently. Pointed chin or round cheeks, stubbly or bearded, almond eyes or bulging or deep-set. I thumb the ashes onto foreheads, some of them a broad expanse, others a narrow channel between eyebrows and thick hairline. I brush back bangs: remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. I say this to a tiny, beautiful Korean child on her mother’s hip. I say it to a teenager with fiercely magenta hair. I say it to friends and strangers, my own aunt, a colleague. I say it to a man who only a few months ago had surgery for a brain tumor, and in the second when our eyes meet, I see pain and astonishment in his. How real these words are to him. Each person, in their small smiles or red-rimmed eyes, in their silent acceptance of the ashes—so vulnerable. And here I am in this moment, enacting this sacramental intimacy. I feel the communion of our creatureliness, but each person looks right through me, it seems, searching for the face of Christ. I keep dipping and thumbing, speaking the words, but in my spirit I move aside, trying to be transparent, letting the mystery of each person’s inner life linger and rest here, in this space of holy honesty.

The last person, a young woman, gives me a smile. I say the words, another smudged cross, we’re finished. I step back to my seat on the side with a blackened thumb, and all I can think of is gratitude. For an ancient wisdom that teaches us to turn our ashes into the sign of the cross. For the saints who have walked the Lenten path before us, endured the desert, taught us how. For the mysterious presence of Christ when we go silent and turn our faces toward him.

Friday
Feb212014

A Biblical Approach to Winter: Scattering Frost and Hurling Hail

Who can withstand his icy blast?
Ps. 147:17

To those among our readers who do not live in the wintry climes of North America, I apologize for another lament on this blog about cold, snowy weather. Please forgive us. Still in the grip of this relentless winter, we Midwest dwellers are suffering from claustrophobia, boredom, restlessness, irritability, lack of exercise, and sun-and-flower deprivation. At least I am. Today, gusty winds are depositing a mix of ice and snow on my windows and slicking up the roads and walks. Again.

In times like these, one must turn to scripture for comfort. So with the help of online tools, I searched for references to “winter,” “snow,” “ice,” and “frost” to see what inspiration the entire sweep of scripture might provide. Perhaps because we are dealing with ancient Near Eastern literature here—a milieu quite devoid of lively winter sports or nostalgic associations with sleighs and Grandma’s house—this search drew me into the more dire and obscure corners of the Holy Word, mostly having to do with suffering and terror.

My oddest discovery was a story from 2 Samuel 23, a passage terrifying in its own way as an account of “David’s mighty men.” These guys constituted a sort of Davidic superhero franchise, and their exploits are listed apparently as a way to flex the muscles of David’s military-preindustrial complex. Among these mighty men is a fellow named Benaiah, who “went down into a pit on a snowy day and killed a lion” (vs. 20). What snow has to do with this episode, I’m not sure. Were Benaiah and the lion fighting over a sheltered spot? Did the snow allow our hero to track the lion? Was this a case of interspecies slip-and-fall? Despite the lack of detail, the story was evidently exciting enough to its ancient Israelite audience to warrant a repeat mention in I Chronicles 11. (This was before Marvel comics, obviously.)

Wintry weather conditions seem to come up most often in the Bible in association with God’s judgment and various techniques for rendering it. In Isaiah 18, for example, the people of Cush receive their prophesied doom, which includes birds eating their corpses during the summer and hungry wild animals all winter (vs. 6). (Would this include lions? Where’s Benaiah when you need him?) The Lord is also apparently not happy with people who keep summer and winter houses. In the book of Amos, after numerous sarcastic remarks along the lines of “The lion has roared—who will not fear?” (again with the lions!) the prophet finally gets around to an inventory of what Israel is about to lose in a fury of divine destruction, and he makes pointed mention of seasonal real estate, both summer and winter houses (Amos 4:15).  

The winter cabin theme also appears in Jeremiah 36, in a lengthy episode in which Jeremiah and a guy named Baruch team up to present a Scroll of Doom to King Jehoiakim of Judah. The scroll announces the imminent destruction of Judah at the hands of the Babylonians, and Jehoiakim reads this scroll while “sitting in the winter apartment, with a fire burning in the firepot in front of him” (vs. 22). Understandably displeased with the scroll’s contents, he burns it piece by piece. Alas, beware the temptations of the firepot. The Lord punishes Jehoiakim for his incendiary defiance with, among other things, frost: “his body will be thrown out and exposed to the heat by day and the frost by night” (vs. 30).   

Speaking of death and disaster, both Matthew and Mark record Jesus in one of his more apocalyptic moods, letting it rip about the “abomination that causes desolation” (Matthew 24, Mark 13). When the nightmarish chaos begins, Jesus warns, people will try to flee to the mountains. “Pray that this will not take place in winter,” he remarks (Mark 13:18). Right. One would prefer to flee from the Coming Wrath in pleasant weather.

You may be asking: Doesn’t the Bible anywhere take delight in wintry wonders? What about “Fire and hail and snow and vapors, Stormy winds that hear his call” and other cheerful references to the frostier aspects of God’s good creation? Well, it’s true that Psalm 148 invokes the assistance of lightning, hail, snow, clouds, and stormy winds in praising the Lord. And Psalm 147 presents a whole curriculum vitae of busy divine activity as evidence for God’s greatness, noting that God “spreads the snow like wool and scatters the frost like ashes. He hurls down his hail like pebbles” (vss. 16-17).

However, we need to put these passages in the context of the book of Job. Remember the end of Job, where the LORD finally replies to Job’s anguished question, Why am I suffering? The answer is four chapters of booming thunder under the rubric, And just who do you think you are, mister? Sample divine statement: “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow or seen the storehouses of the hail, which I reserve for times of trouble, for days of war and battle?” (Job 38:22-23). Predictably, lions are also mentioned: “Do you hunt the prey for the lioness and satisfy the hunger of the lions…?” (Job 38:39-40).

The point is that when wintry blasts are described in these passages, the underlying theme is this: God is much bigger and greater than you are, so your choices for a response here are either praise or silence. Job’s choice? “I put my hand over my mouth” (Job 40:4). You know, Job, you could use a scarf for that purpose. It’s cold outside.

Amid these fearful reveries, I should not neglect to note the occasional reference to winter as a sign of God’s faithful sustenance, taking its ordained place in the cycle of seasons. We might think of the Noahic Covenant in Genesis 8, for example, where “seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease” (vs. 22). Here winter serves as one-half of a witness to God’s grace in the seasonal cycle.

The key word is “cycle.” Winter has to end. March is almost here, the month that is supposed to “come in like a lion and go out like a lamb” (note: final lion reference, surprisingly not from the Bible). We have to arrive, eventually, where Jim Bratt brought us a week ago by quoting from Song of Songs: “See! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come, the cooing of doves is heard in our land” (Song of Songs 2:11-12).

Until the flowers pop and the doves start cooing, though, we will simply have to ponder the usual character-building spiritual lessons winter demands of us: patience, perseverance, hope, and faith. “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1). We do not see, at the moment, so much as a blade of green or a swollen bud. Come to think of it, we also do not see all the yard problems spring will uncover, the tasks and projects now buried under two feet of snow. Well, there it is: a winter blessing for which to give thanks.

All quotations from the New International Version.