Friday, April 13, 2007

Are You Not The Messiah?

Rating: GT, QGT
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
[Luke 23: 39-43]

Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!
Jesus never answers him. Luke has the other criminal tearing into him and then Jesus responds to his request with, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise,” but that first guy gets nothing. Maybe because he was being derisive. But then I start to wonder, who decided that the first man was deriding him? Maybe he was seriously crying out to Jesus for help.

So then I notice there’s a footnote on this word “deriding” and I’m all, Oh good, there’s some kind of alternative reading here, and I look down at the bottom of the page and it says, Or blaspheming. And when I look at the Greek, the word is eblaspheme. Well, yikes. That seems pretty harsh. Compare “Save yourself and us!” with “Remember me when you come into your kingdom,”—aren’t they basically saying the same thing? They’re both requests for salvation.
Sure, the second guy phrased it a lot more nicely, and I can see that it’s better to have some humility and respect when speaking to God Incarnate, but come on. It’s not hard to imagine that the first guy, nailed to a cross, was perhaps not at his shiny bright best, and his social skills may have suffered. And I’m not saying that’s OK, but… as Chris Rock says, “I ain’t saying he shoulda done it… but I understand.”

I understand because I am vividly aware of times in my own life when I am not at my shiny bright best and my conversation with God resembles a rant more than a prayer.

Some years ago my mother fell outside her home and hit her head on the concrete, sustaining a brain injury from which she never really recovered. She spent the next couple of years safety-belted into a wheelchair, in a slow but very steady mental and physical decline.
Which brings us to a Saturday in February of 2001. I was working as a stage manager and the show I was with was in its final weekend of performance. In between the matinee and evening shows, I picked up a voicemail message from one of my sisters saying that Mom had stopped eating and they were pretty sure she was getting ready to go. My first recognizable feeling was gratitude. The show was closing the next day so I would be free to fly to down there on Monday. My second recognizable feeling was resentment. I had accepted that Mom was dying. I believed that she was ready and that she would continue to grow in love and service, finally free of the limitations of her damaged body and brain, rejoicing in the presence of God.
I resented how long and difficult her dying was made. I had been struggling with this resentment for the better part of two years.

It was hard to imagine that God had not forsaken my mother, that Christ was not asleep with his head on a cushion while the water rose over the gunwales in my mother’s storm-wracked and very leaky boat. And I wanted him to WAKE UP. “Master, master, we are perishing!” That’s what the disciples said. And Jesus rebuked them for it. But first he calmed the storm and made them safe. In response to their anguish.

Master, master, she is perishing!
I have faith. I believe you can make her well, make her whole. And whether that means healing her body and her brain in this world or releasing her from it and taking her home, it’s up to you, your will be done. Just…do your will.
Are you not the Messiah? Save her. Save us.

Like the first man in today’s gospel reading, I received no answer.

Why? Why do you not help her? Why are you just hanging there on the cross? Save her. Save us.
I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be disrespectful. I’m not trying to put you to the test. I just… I don’t understand. I believe you can help her and I don’t understand why you’re not.

What I can see now is that when I was saying, “your will be done,” what that meant to me was, “pick one of these two options—physical healing or physical death—because that’s what salvation looks like to me in this situation—I can’t imagine salvation looking like what I see in front of me right now.” I wanted a salvation I could recognize, something I could visualize and wrap my head around. I suspect that what the first criminal meant by “Save yourself and us!” was “get us down off these crosses,” and who can blame him for wanting that? The problem is not in what he wanted. The problem is in the demand that does not allow for something greater, something beyond the moment, something that only the mind of God could conceive. Of course I did not want my mom to suffer. But I forgot that God’s mind is larger than mine.

Sure, it sounds kind of stupid when I just say it like that, but think about it. It’s hard to have faith in something without picturing what it looks like. It’s very hard to be certain of something that is utterly beyond your ability to imagine it. And in the midst of my mom’s suffering, I just wanted it to stop. I wanted her down off that cross because her cross was all I could see.

I think it’s appallingly easy to fall into this trap of dictating the terms of our salvation, without even realizing it. It’s really hard not to. Let me trot out an example for you:

I believe, firmly, that in Christ God reconciled all things to God’s self, and that whatever our differences in this life, we will finally experience the kin_dom of God. I believe that ultimately, I will be reconciled with ++Peter Akinola, that the love of God will triumph over all and we will be joined together in Christ.
… But the truth is that in this, my picture of heaven, Peter Akinola has come round to my way of thinking. I don’t require that he recant or apologize. I just believe that in heaven the scales will fall from everyone’s eyes and one of the things that will mean for Peter Akinola is that he’ll finally understand that I am a child of God, created in God’s image, just as he is, and it will no longer cause him pain to embrace a sibling in Christ who happens to have been queer in earthly life.
I can’t help it, that’s what reconciliation and heaven and the kin_dom of God looks like to me.
And I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with wanting that—except that it’s such a slippery slope from having that vision
to limiting salvation to something that looks like that.
Limiting salvation to something that looks like what I envision. So when I don’t see that thing that looks like what I want, I can slide right into feeling abandoned, that God isn’t active or doesn’t care. That Jesus has just given up and is hanging there on the cross waiting to die because he’s had it with us and is ready to just get out, and maybe that’s why he has nothing to say to the man who says, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

I’m sorry. God, I’m so sorry. I just…
I don’t understand. I’m trying.

But…I just don’t.

Because it’s hard to hear a brother in Christ say that I am an abomination and that my very presence here is rending the fabric of the Communion and then to believe in a reconciliation that doesn’t involve him changing his mind.
It’s hard to look at a strong, smart, vibrant, hilarious woman strapped in a wheelchair trying to pick a bouquet of the flowers that are part of the pattern in her dress, and understand that as anything to do with salvation.
It’s hard to look at a man tied to a wooden cross, with metal spikes driven through wrists and ankles, and see that as active engagement in the work of saving the world.

Ursula K. LeGuin says that "truth is a matter of the imagination." [For more on the relationship between truth and faith and imagination, see Put Your Finger Here, Part 1.] It’s not so far, for me, from "imagining” something to “believing” in it, or at least, believing in the possibility. Imagining, believing in the possibility that God could actually be in our midst, right now, that God could look like a scruffy carpenter who forgives sin and heals wounds and calms storms and tells us not to be afraid and who overcomes death. So when I don’t understand and faith eludes me, I imagine. I think of this gospel story, and I imagine what it might be like if I did understand, if I did have faith that salvation could look like this.
And something starts to unfold itself in my imagination, a part of this story that is not reported in any gospel account I’ve ever heard or read, a part of the story I hear told only in the deepest recesses of my own heart. I imagine a man crying out in anger born of unendurable pain and terror: Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!
I imagine Christ turning his eyes to him with a look of love and infinite compassion. I imagine Jesus saying to him, like a mother to her child,
I am.
I am.”

yours in the struggle,


At 3:40 AM, Blogger Jamie said...

Beautiful post. I understand your struggle with your mom. I've been through a similar thing w/my daughter this year.

Beautiful and honest.

At 11:53 AM, Blogger Kirstin said...


I needed this, right now. Thank you.

At 1:15 PM, Blogger Blue Wren said...

I like your ending to the story. It rings true, according to what Jesus actually tried to teach us about loving and caring for one another.

Thank goodness for imagination.

At 3:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you. Brilliant.


At 11:20 AM, Blogger swandive said...

trying to coax you out with a meme. wanna play? stop over to swandive and see. miss you!

At 4:17 PM, Blogger Kirstin said...

You. Have not blogged in forever. I miss you.

At 10:35 PM, Blogger Blue Wren said...

I miss you too. Time for you to lighten up and have some fun. You're tagged, Max darling.

At 5:30 PM, Blogger lj said...

Max, Wow. This is wonderful. Good to find you (via the Mary/Clare urinals).


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