Monthly Archives: March 2015

The Unfinished Story

I like stories that wrap up loose ends before the last word. I want to close the book knowing that good will triumph over evil, that lovers will unite having gone through difficult times, that those who are ill receive healing or at least an opportunity to mourn those who die. For when the author has wraped up all the loose ends, I can close the book or eject the DVD, put it on the shelf, and turn to other tasks and adventures.

But the Gospel According to Saint Mark as originally written ended abruptly. The women had seen the empty tomb and ran away afraid to tell anyone what they had seen. Loose ends are left dangling: How did Peter and the others learn of the resurrection? How did the resurrection affect their lives?

The unfinished story must have bothered scribes copying this gospel for they added two endings. We know that these other endings were late additions because the oldest and most reliable manuscript ends with verse 8 and letters between early church leaders also note the abrupt ending of Mark’s Gospel.

I think Mark did this intentionally. An unfinished story demands attention. For example: a composer once lay on his bed awaiting sleep while someone practiced a melody on a nearby piano. But the piano player stopped one note short of resolution. Instead of sleep the composer tossed and turned in his bed until he arose and strode the to the piano, played the melody with the resolving note that begged for attention.

Mark left us begging for the rest of the story, imagining how we would respond the stranger’s message: “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised, he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

This is incredible! Tombs do not open themselves. Dead men, especially after crucifixion, stay dead. No one would believe them. Their friends and family at best would pat them on the hands and explain what they had seen and heard as a hallucination; at worst they would laugh at these silly women.

Would you tell? Would anyone believe you?

Will you tell a neighbor about Jesus this Easter?

Fast from Bitterness

English: A cropped version of Antonio Ciseri's...
From Antonio Ciseri’s depiction of Pontius Pilate presenting a scourged Christ to the people. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jesus had every reason to be bitter and angry when he stood before Pilate. He had been betrayed and denied by his own disciples. The Jewish leaders had him arrested on trumped up charges. The people had preferred that Pilate release a murderer. The guards mocked him, placing a wreath of thorns on his head, before spitting on him. Yet Mark portrays him as calm and detached.

The guards expected bitterness and anger. Such a response might have eased their gruesome task: nailing him to a cross.

Anger can be a dangerous emotion. One that unleashes harsh words that can’t be recalled. Words that can have an impact that lasts far beyond their usefulness.

The Prophet Isaiah provides an alternative response:

The Lord God will help me and prove I am innocent.
My accusers will wear out like moth-eaten clothes.
— Isaiah 50:9 (CEV)

Fasting from bitterness and anger requires learning to take time to think through how I might respond, using my advanced human brain, rather than my animal instincts. Daily meditative prayer allows me to practice letting stray thoughts amble through my mind, without dwelling on any one thought. So that when circumstances might evoke a strong emotional response, I might allow those thoughts to amble through, I might be able to give God time to help me and prove my innocence, to wear out my accusers.

Fasting from bitterness can lead to forgiving others. Not letting them off the hook, ignoring the pain that they have caused in harming, but letting go of the string that binds us together, giving me time to heal. Forgiveness need not deny guilt, merely responsibility for retribution, allowing me to separate from the incident lest my bitterness eat in to my spiritual health.

When have you forgiven someone who hurt you?

Fast from Complaining

Many people choose to fast during the Season of Lent, the “40 days” between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. But instead of giving up candy, red meat, or … this Lent I am working on fasting from complaining, from discouragement, from overspending, from judging others, from anger and hatred, and from resentment and bitterness. But instead of merely turning away from these vices, I am focusing on virtues I want to enhance: appreciating blessings, recognizing opportunities, investing in people, identifying my strengths, loving enemies, and forgiving others.

In the 17th chapter of Exodus, the people quarrel with Moses and test the LORD, complaining that Moses has led them out of Egypt and into the desert to die of thirst. Modern advertising takes advantage of human thirst for things that might provide salvation. Rarely will an ad show the benefits of a particular product over its competitors. Instead advertisements portray a lifestyle we might seek imply that if we buy their product, we will have the lifestyle we seek.

God answered their grumblings telling Moses to strike a particular rock with the staff he had used to part the Red Sea. This staff is symbolic of past times when God had answered their cries and blessed them with freedom from slavery in Egypt, with escape from Pharaoh’s army, and with Manna and quails to eat.

Poussin, Nicolas - Moses Striking Water from the Rock - 1649
Poussin, Nicolas – Moses Striking Water from the Rock – 1649

God continues to bless us every day. To fast from complaining we need to focus on the God’s blessings so we might see beyond shortages that generate complaints, to name those slivers of joy we experience each day that will help us through times of trouble and to tell others of our God-sightings to help our neighbors recognize that God is with us each and every day.

When have you experienced God’s blessing this week?

Forgiving Oneself

For many people, the hardest person to forgive is oneself. Groucho Markx captured this in his resignation from a club by writing: “I don’t care to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.” This self-defeating quip implies, “I can’t believe in a God who could love me as I am or forgive me after what I’ve done.” But the good news is Jesus came and spent time with those on the edges of society.

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
— Luke 15:1-2 (NRSV)

 Many people feel that forgiveness requires atoning for all of one’s previous misdeeds and living a righteous life every day in the future. Constantine may have exemplified this misbelief by delaying his baptism and confession of faith until he was on his death-bed. People cannot achieve perfection, only God. Thus the good news is that repentance is a continually turning toward God.

Forgiving oneself has practical implications. I experience this regularly with my back exercises. When I exercise regularly my back feels fine. Occasionally I miss exercising due to an early appointment or another distraction. And having missed once or twice in a row, skipping one more day becomes more likely. I could get angry at myself for not taking good care of my body, or I could forgive myself an begin anew, to repent and turn back toward taking care of the body that God gave me.

Naming Demons

I made a curiously controversial remark at a church conference on severe mental illness several years ago. “What spiritual healing can the Church provide?” I had asked.

The medical professionals in this meeting wanted to keep spirituality out of this process as many people, even in developed countries, want to deny the physical aspect of mental illness, to deny the healing power of proper medication. Affirming a spiritual dimension would keep them away from conventional medicine.

Yet there really are demonic powers in the world. Scientists call this the “Nocebo effect.”

Its opposite, the placebo effect is widely known. The placebo effect happens when scientists give patients in a clinical trial sugar pills to test the efficacy of a new drug. While they expect those who receive pills with the drug to get better, even a few of those who merely receive sugar pills also get better. Merely believing or trusting that a pill or procedure will benefit yields benefits.

Those same medical trials often also prove the nocebo effect, that merely thinking something might go wrong, that the pill might have serious side effects, causes those side effects.

My question about the spiritual dimension of mental illness sought to discuss those effects and others that interfere with conventional medicine. These effects are most properly named as demonic effects.

Anointing VialWhen I visit people in the hospital I offer them anointing with oil. The ritual I use from our Book of Common Worship includes forgiveness of sins. I am convinced that holding on to one’s sins interferes with healing, and that a simple reminder that our sins are forgiven aids physical healing. Our own sins and the fear that they cannot be forgiven, at least by ourselves, is perhaps the most dangerous of demons; a demon that Jesus lived and died to cast out; a demon that God sends the Church into the world to name and to cast out.

And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” Then some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, perceiving their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Stand up, take your bed and go to your home.” And he stood up and went to his home. When the crowds saw it, they were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings.
— Matthew 9:2-8 (NRSV)