Thursday, April 21, 2011
Follower of Jesus
I didn't use to love Easter. Maybe it was the reoccurring failure to successfully give up anything for the whole of Lent, maybe it was the disappointment so often of the New England springtime weather, but more likely it was confusion I felt about the story of Jesus rising from the dead. Did he really? And even if he did, what did that mean for me and all my mortal friends? I could never accept the equation given to me in a shouting match my freshman year in college when I was collared by a member of Campus Crusade for Christ who with great frustration tried to get me to believe that Jesus was a kind of blood sacrifice in atonement for Adam's original sin. That God was somehow powerless to keep us from burning in hell, and that therefore He had to let His son die a miserable death in order to retract us all from the pawn shop. It seemed bizarre and completely unbelievable to me. And what about all those good people who believed in and loved God or Spirit or Allah or the Tao or Kindness and Goodness with all their hearts and souls and minds and strength? Or even the mean people who had bad lives and so were bad to others? They were doomed to hell because of some equation? No way.
And yet I have always loved Jesus. I felt his love as a little child, seeing myself in the scripture where he tells his disciples that one must enter the Kingdom of God as a little child, and then takes the children into his arms to bless them. I always loved the poetry of the Sermon on the Mount, the poetry in the story of the blind man whose sight Jesus restores (“I see men walking like trees!” he exclaims when he first gets his sight back.) I love the moment when Jesus pauses to stoop and write on the ground in the dust when asked if it is right to stone a woman for adultery. And most importantly, when I am most troubled, most challenged, the version of God I need always turns out to be Jesus.
This year, starting in early March, Tom and I joined a book group. The book group was led by our minister at the West Cummington Church, Steve Philbrick. Together we read The Gospel According to Jesus by Stephen Mitchell. This book takes as its premise that while there is much to love in the gospels, there is also much not to love, and much to be taken with several shakers worth of salt. It's Mitchell's version of what (with a nod to Thomas Jefferson, Leo Tolstoy and a group of scholars known as the Jesus Seminar) he believes to be the authentic sayings of Jesus minus what centuries of games of telephone, Roman Emperors, church councils and warring factions plugged into what we now read as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, littering them with polemic and attempts to prove Jesus's paternity and divinity (which, by the way, are already at odds with each other--how can Jesus be descended from the House of David via his earthly non-father Joseph AND be the son of God?) Indeed, in my own lifetime of reading the gospels I have always been troubled and confused by what appeared to be two Jesuses: the Jesus who says, "Why do you call me good? There is no one good except God," (Mark 10:18) and "No one gets to the Father but through me," (John 14:6).
Mitchell's book produces a streamlined Jesus, one who feels like a real person, more coherent, an enlightened human, completely lovable and charismatic, with a journey that makes sense to this reader. Born into bastardy at a time in history when this was akin to being a leper, he undoubtedly suffered unspeakable social torments as he grew into adulthood, watching his mother produce other brothers who were not afflicted similarly. He certainly must have wondered with frustration who his father was. Jesus's epiphany--his moment of awakening--comes at his baptism, where he hears the voice of his true Father, and realizes he is God's child in whom God is well-pleased. But, Mitchell argues, Jesus doesn't necessarily believe that this makes him any different from you or me. We too are children of God; we just have to realize it.
"But I tell you, love your enemies, do good to those that hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you, so that you may be sons of your father in in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the wicked and on the good, and sends his rain to the righteous and unrighteous. (Matthew 5:44)
As Jesus came to forgive his childhood tormentor, he demonstrates that we all have this capacity to forgive within our hearts. His forgiveness of that which is most challenging can be a more slow-going process. A reading of the text supports the argument that it takes Jesus until the end of this gospel to come to a forgiveness of his mother (in the story of the woman about to be stoned for adultery.) Remember that when Mary and his brothers bang on the door for an audience, Jesus says, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" and points to the crowd in the room listening to him. "These are my mother and my brothers" (Matthew 12:48-49)
Forgiveness is Jesus's great new teaching, the piece that Christianity brings to the world with more clarity than any other religion. God's forgiveness of us when we come to Him as supplicants is old hat at the time of Jesus. All religions posit a God who yearns for our repentance and delights in forgiving us. What is new to me in this translation is the concept that we must forgive each other and ourselves. Maybe this kind of forgiveness is uniquely Jesus's to teach precisely because Jesus had within himself so much anger and resentment. This possibility makes me like him even more than I did before. I am much more willing to follow someone who has actually struggled with what I struggle with and has overcome it. (Mitchell reads the story of the woman being stoned for adultery as a moment of insight into Jesus’s own anger with his mother--when he writes in the dust, perhaps he is rewriting his own "story", realizing as he does so his own teaching, that as we judge, so are we judged. He forgives the adulterous woman and in doing so makes peace with his own biography.)
Jesus preaches over and over that the Kingdom of God is at hand--here, now, in all that is around us, good, bad, boring, distracting. The tsunamis, the cancer, the babies born, the lilies of the field, the billboards, the filibustering on CNN, the miracle of life. When we align ourselves with the flow of it all, we lose track of time: this is the eternal life we gain. When we let go of our self-pity, selfishness, obsession with our status, wealth, waistlines; when we act out of love for our brothers and sisters, for our enemies and for the strangers we encounter on the road; when we see that we are all connected and that any small act we do for anyone else we do for Jesus (and for ourselves), we are reborn. We are made new. We are in heaven.
Mitchell does away with some of the most familiar parts of the Jesus story: the Christmas scene, Bethlehem, The Last Supper, and most importantly, the physical resurrection. This last is the part I flinched at. My own childhood fear of death, fear of annihilation, hope for an afterlife where I would be reunited with everyone I loved and where we would all live in peace and harmony with no billboards and filibustering, and where somehow we were not bored by the monotony of perfection, still remains. I don't want to not exist. I don't want to be nothing. I passionately want to BE! Death terrifies me. I want a heaven. I want a resurrection. I want to live forever with Tom, Jay and Elle, not to mention Katryna and Abigail and my parents, and all the writers and friends I love. I want to see my grandparents and Mimi again. Call me spiritually immature, but that is my truth. I have been tortured with fear ever since reading this book; real existential fear. What if this really is it, if it really does come down to this moment and nothing else? Then I am truly screwed every time I space out, check my Facebook status, worry about food and money and clothes, leave the Kingdom for my myriad of plans for tomorrow. I am wasting my one and only life.
I hate this thought so much.
So I have been praying. God, please show me what You really mean by resurrection. Show me what you mean by Heaven. Give me a new idea, one that I can embrace and pursue with all my heart, all my soul, all my mind, all my strength.
I called a friend of mine, a lifelong Catholic and told her about my doubts. She surprised me by concurring with my questions about the veracity of the resurrection of the body of Christ. She said she had prayed during a retreat for answers to this, and experienced Jesus saying to her, "Here are my wounds. Take them. It doesn't matter whether I rose or not. What matters is that you have risen." Steve had said a similar thing when our group ended last week. “What matters is not whether Jesus rose,” he said, pointing at each of us. “But that you do. That Karen does. That Betsy does. That Tom does.”
Later, as I was pondering these thoughts on my run, I thought about the pain of Ego, the pain of wondering if my shows would sell out, if my work would be received well or poorly, the pain of judgment about my physical appearance, the pain of comparing myself to others. I thought about the pain of wishing I had what I don’t—everything from a gas/electric Wolf range to private school for my kids to free health care for all, to having everyone around me acknowledge at all times that I am right about everything. And suddenly, I got it. When I am thinking about these things I am not here. I am in my head, not my body. I am not in the present moment. And even when I am thinking about others and not my tiny limited self, I am still not present. I am not dwelling in Jesus’s Kingdom of God.
As I practice mindfulness, as I love my sisters and brothers and elders and children, as I act as a good steward of the Earth, as I do my Yoga (writing songs, tending the garden, teaching my workshops, coaching my clients), as I try to follow the teachings of Jesus, I move incrementally into a state of less self-centeredness, less ego. And perhaps someday I will lose my passion for having things go the way I think they need to go. If I do my work well, and am blessed with a very long life (for it will take this gal a very long time to practice thus!) then maybe I have a shot of rendering my mind fit for an afterlife of stillness, of unity, of oneness.
On Good Friday, Tom and Elle and Jay and I went to the airport to fly to Virginia for our show at Jammin Java's in Vienna Saturday night, and Easter with the grandparents Sunday morning. As we moved along in the terminal after our security check (we always mark each passing of security with a hearty family high five), I rose out of my habitual whirl of worrying, mom-planning, spinning in my small self, and gazed up to see Tom, Elle and Jay running and jumping and dancing as they made their way to the gate. At that moment, I didn’t need any help to be present, gleeful, with my chest blooming with love and joy. Perhaps this is my Easter moment, and perhaps it is enough.