We hear about the families of only four of the disciples. We’re told Peter’s mother-in-law was healed by Jesus (Mark 1:29-31) but we’re not told her name. In Mark’s Gospel hers is, in fact, the first healing by Jesus to be recorded.

Mary, the mother of James the Less, was at the cross (Matthew 27:56).

The only other disciples who have family members mentioned in the Bible are the brothers, James and John. Mark says Jesus called them from their father, Zebedee’s, fishing boat and they followed him (Mark 1:19-20) though John indicates he had talked with Jesus earlier (John 1:35-37). John’s mother was one of the woman standing with Mary as she watched Jesus die on the cross (Mark 15:40). Interpreters have concluded she was either Mary’s sister (making her Jesus’ aunt) or Mary’s cousin. Mark says she had been following Jesus since his ministry began in Galilee (v. 41).

That close family connection may explain the audacious request that Matthew says she put before Jesus (Matthew 20:20). Mark only mentions James and John making the request (Mark 10:35 ff), but Matthew, who was there at the time, says it was mama who asked Jesus to seat her boys on his right and left when the time came for him to rule in glory. If Mary’s son was Israel’s Messiah, wouldn’t places of honor naturally go to his close family??

Jesus said, “You don’t know what you are asking.”

Matthew is clear he said this to them — so presumably to mama as well as her sons. Then he asked them, “Can you drink the cup that I am about to drink?” The question seems one for those asking to sit in the two seats of honor, but I think Jesus was possibly also posing it to the mother who was making the request.

He might well have asked her Do you remember what my mother told you about what Simeon said to her? Are you ready to have a sword pierce your heart as well??

James and John didn’t hesitate to nod their heads. They were ready.

But only John was standing by his mother the day she watched Mary’s agony over seeing her son die. And before Jesus died, Salome faced another conflicted, emotional moment. She got to listen as Jesus spoke to John, her son, and tell him that his mother was now Mary. (John 19:25-26) Jesus had overturned the normal human family relationships before, when Mary and Jesus’ brothers thought he was crazy and tried to rescue him from the crowd gathered to listen to him.

These are my mother and brothers and sisters,” he had said then (Matthew 12:49). Now he was doing it again.

Salome may have felt like she was losing one son, that day of the crucifixion. Then a day came when it happened for real. Her son, James, became the first disciple to die, martyred by King Herod. (Acts 12:1-2)

Salome had been one of the women who discovered Jesus’ empty tomb (Mark 16:1). Perhaps she was one of the people present and watching the day Jesus called his friend, Lazarus, from his tomb. Perhaps she hoped Jesus would do the same for her son?

He did not. (Not yet.)

Instead, Salome got to wait, and take another drink from the same cup set before Jesus, the one set before her sons. The one they all thought they were ready for. The one set before every follower of Christ. A cup that drowns every self-oriented impulse and proud inclination. A cup to be drunk while joys are delayed. A cup always, therefore, to be drunk in tears.

You have to be careful what you ask for. Jesus said to start by asking that God’s will would be done. There’s not much we need to ask for after that.

Nor should we dare.

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Closeups in the big picture

I realize I have been used to thinking about different parables Jesus told, and different moments in his life, in isolation from each other, as if they all stood separately and independently of each other. This way of thinking can be inadvertently encouraged by reading from a daily scripture lectionary that focuses on just a handful of verses at a time.

I have started to see there’s more to be understood when the separate pieces are put side by side. It’s a bit like pulling back from a closeup so you can see a bigger picture. The closeup details are true. But none of the details are necessarily complete.

Today, listening to a homily, three “closeups” fell into place that, together, made for a clearer big picture for me. It wasn’t a new truth that I saw. I just hadn’t seen how these three “closeups” contributed to this big picture.

The first “closeup” was the parable of the single lamb who wanders away from the 99 others in the flock. (Matthew 18:12-24) The lost lamb doesn’t look for the other sheep, or the shepherd. The implication seems to be that this sheep doesn’t know or notice that it is “lost.” The initiative is all on the shepherd’s side. He is the one who notices the sheep is missing. He places such value on that one that he chooses to leave the 99 others while he goes to find the one that strayed.

It is a picture of grace. This is how unearned, undeserved favor works. The initiative and effort are not ours. The rescue is underway before we notice that we need it. It is underway before we ask or can ask for it. This what exited Martin Luther. Sola gratia! he declared. We don’t effect our salvation. We cannot. It’s all from God, an undeserved gift.

True. But then look at the Parable of the Sower. (Matthew 13:1-23)

The sowing initiative is all from the farmer, true. And he is generous. He throws seed everywhere. And it’s very good seed. It does start to grow even in poor, unreceptive sites. It just doesn’t mature into the crop the farmer desires.

On the one hand, you can’t blame the farmer. The seed is good. The farmer is not stingy with it. He’s almost ridiculously generous, to the point of being careless and profligate with it. In the parable, Jesus hints that, in places where the crop failed, it might have done much better if only somebody had removed the rocks, thorns, and weeds, and protected the ground by keeping people from stepping all over it and hardening it. Some kind of responsive, cooperative effort to make reception of the good seed more fruitful would have helped. It was even necessary. The provision of seed is gracia but more is needed to see the desired results from that gracia.

This is painfully clear in the encounter Jesus had with the rich, young ruler. (Mark 10:17-27) The man had already received the good seed of God’s Word. When he reported that he was already keeping all the commandments that Jesus reminded him of, Mark mentions Jesus was very pleased. He “loved him.”

Obviously, this love had not just started at that moment. God had provided good seed in His Word already. The young man had paid attention and received it. He wanted the crop to be all it was expected to be and had come seeking expert advice. Jesus had not been too busy to talk with him. He had brought attention to the last remaining “weed” the man needed to remove to get the results that he — and the Father, the Sower — desired.

And the man’s face fell. And he turned away, not without the answer he needed, but without the result he wanted.

The shepherd had taken time to locate the sheep and call him. But this sheep preferred to stay where it was.

Free will was a gift the Father had already given to mankind. Jesus would not take it back, even to accomplish the purpose for which he had been sent. His cry to all was, “Repent!” But the response to his cry, his invitation, his gratia, was up to us.

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Mystery stories

I’ve enjoyed mystery stories since I discovered the Hardy Boys in the fourth grade. I wrote some stories myself when I was a kid. I went on to become a fan of John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

When I discovered that G. K. Chesterton had written not only Christian apologetics but detective stories, too (Father Brown), I thought I had found treasure. (Dorothy Sayers also was in this special category.) (John Dickson Carr modeled his detective, Gideon Fell, on Chesterton.)

Mystery stories are often just thrilling narratives with no real clues about the outcome until the last scene. By contrast, detective story writers play a game of wits with you. Clues are carefully and deliberately placed in front of the reader and the reader is invited to solve the puzzle before the detective in the story reveals all. In his first novels, Ellery Queen would even insert a page in the book with “a challenge to the reader,” announcing that all clues necessary to solve the mystery had now been laid out. Alert readers were invited to solve the crime before reading Ellery’s solution.

Genre fans have generally agreed that only crimes of murder are serious enough to warrant the attention of reader-sleuths. Some “cozy mystery” authors deal with this by keeping murder and crime scenes short, with more time spent on solving the puzzle. The Hallmark TV mysteries are like that.

But some authors have also looked for puzzles that do not require a murder to get the story going. The best example of this approach right now is Martha Williamson’s Signed, Sealed, Delivered series, also on the Hallmark mystery channel. The characters here work in a post office dead letter department and try to deliver mail that has an address damaged or lost.

In recent days, I’ve been listening to an audio book by Chesterton that also played with alternatives to murder as a puzzle hook. The Club of Queer Trades collects half a dozen short stories built on the premise of odd businesses started by entrepreneurs. The stories were published in magazines in 1903 and 1904, and gathered in a book in 1905.

In the first three stories, the mystery arises from a lie. Things are not happening for the reason first described to the reader. The challenge is to reinterpret the actions, taking normal human habits into account. The cases, and the “queer trade” described in each one, are droll and fanciful, although modern readers will recognize that the “trade” outlined in the first tale is remarkably like one that has become important in computer gaming today. Nothing is new.

The fourth tale, “The Singular Speculation of the House-Agent,” reverses this gambit. Here the mystery arises when a character tells the exact, literal truth about where he lives, and no one believes him.

The puzzle-solving character remarks that, “Truth must of necessity be stranger than fiction, for fiction is the creation of the human mind, and therefore is congenial to it.”

Chesterton’s close observation of humanity and of the ways we are easily distracted are always a delight. In his detective stories, he played with the very problems that God has in trying to communicate with us. We believe the lies and ignore the truth. When it happens in a mere story, we laugh at it.

But it’s not funny. That’s the last mystery Chesterton wants us to solve.

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Silent movies

I became a fan of silent movies as a young child. In those days you could buy 50-foot long 8mm reels to show on your (silent) home movie projector. These films had excerpts, three minutes of scratchy old footage lifted from early, surviving prints of various early Hollywood comedies and adventures. Though expensive (for me) I slowly put together a collection that introduced me to Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and other early stars. When videotape and DVDs came along years later, I was able to collect entire libraries of their work. It is a hobby not shared by many but one that continues to delight me.

And, as with many other subjects, from time to time I find my thoughts turning to spiritual insights as I watch these old films.

For example, here is a Buster Keaton gag from his 1924 film, Sherlock, Jr. He plays a fellow trying to learn how to be a detective. In this sequence he is “closely shadowing” another fellow who has stolen a watch from his girlfriend’s father.

Keaton loved trains and liked to build gags that included them. In this one, he has followed the villain to a railroad crossing. When the guy stops for a moment, Keaton jumps back to “hide” next to the boxcar. The villain moves on. But before Buster can move, another boxcar rolls up to couple and connect with the first one, startling him and the viewer by its unexpected arrival. The whole gag is over in a few seconds.

The next sequence appeared in 1923 in the feature Why Worry? by the third great silent movie comedian, Harold Lloyd. On vacation in Mexico, Harold, his girlfriend, and a friendly giant he has met there hold off a mob stirring up a revolution in the town.

To scare the mob, the friendly giant blows cigar smoke through a length of tubing while Harold throws coconuts over the wall and the girl beats a bass drum. A view of the mob shows they are frightened by the “cannon fire” and flee. Again, it’s a short gag. It helps if you see this one with an audience.

My third example is built on a silent movie comedy cliche, the pie in the face.

In 1927, Laurel and Hardy took this old gag to the limit in their comedy short, Battle of the Century. In a variation of the tit-for-tat formula they often used, this film ends up on a street corner next to a bakery. The baker is loading his delivery truck with fresh cream pies. One after another, the pies get “delivered” to various innocent people nearby. It was an unwritten rule that the innocent victims of the pies always had to include at least one, sophisticated, upper class society matron.

Buster Keaton, who did a few pie-throwing scenes early in his career with Fatty Arbuckle, talked about the difficulty that actors had in not blinking their eyes too soon when filming these scenes. That would betray the fact they were expecting to get hit. Their expression couldn’t give this away before viewers could see the full pie splat. It would spoil the joke.

It’s time for my spiritual meditation on all this. It started with the Harold Lloyd “cannon” gag. That one is a very “cartoon”-type gag. It would not work in a sound-era movie. A drum does not sound like a cannon. No one would be fooled by it in real life. It makes for an amusing fantasy in a movie-world where we have agreed to get along without sounds.

Likewise, the Keaton boxcar gag, as delightfully surprising as it is, would not work in a sound film. He would have heard the noise of the other boxcar rolling on the rails. A similar, but much bigger, gag made up the finale of Keaton’s first solo comedy short, One Week, in 1920. Buster and his wife, trying to move their two-story house to a new location, have gotten stuck at a railroad crossing. They see a locomotive approaching from far down the tracks. Their frantic efforts to push the house to safety all fail. Resigned for the worst, they step off the track and cover their eyes.

The train roars up — and passes safely by on a second set of tracks parallel to the one where the house is stuck. Buster and his wife give elaborate sighs of relief. As they do, a second train, going in the opposite direction on the other tracks, plows into view onscreen and plows into the house, reducing it to splinters. Audience laughter. The end!

But obviously, in real life, Buster and his wife would have heard that second train coming and would not have been acting as if the house was out of danger. It is a silent movie gag that works because part of our usual, sensory data in everyday life has been withheld from us.

[UPDATE: The day after I posted this blog, I was watching a Buster Keaton documentary. It included a gag clip from his third sound feature, Parlor, Bedroom and Bath released in 1931. Buster recycled the One Week gag, this time with a car stuck on the railroad track. The camera work is more awkward and, sure enough, you hear the train coming. Both times. The surprise element is gone. The gag is not as funny. With all the normal real life sounds present, it’s hard to create the misdirection needed to set up the joke. It makes me realize why things in this life sometimes worry me — but God stays calm because He is aware of all that is going on, including all the supernatural stuff that is presently invisible to me.]

The actors waiting for the pie in the face also pretend. They pretend that what can’t yet be seen onscreen does not exist. They play by what the camera (and viewers) can see. They ignore the guy holding a pie in his hand who is standing next to the camera, waiting for the director to say, “Action!”

In my own life, I too often forget that I’m just watching a movie. My attention is all on what I can see. I base my judgement about how well my life is going on what I can see, and touch, and feel. I have to remind myself there is a Director “off screen” Who has the entire script, beginning to end, in His hand. He knows how to make all things, and all scenes, work out toward a happy ending for me. Something is happening off camera, something has been written, that I can’t see yet. It’s really there. Jesus promises that I’m going to love it.

Just wait, Rick. Don’t leave. Have some more popcorn.

[I wrote about this limited viewpoint issue using a different example last summer. It was the last time my mom left a comment for me at this blog. She has a better seat for the show, now. Better popcorn, too.]

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The transfiguration of Jesus (Matthew 17:1-13) is such an extraordinary event it is easy to forget the context of the moment.

After repeated encounters with critics hostile to his ministry, and having his disciples sympathize with them (Matthew 15:12), Jesus had directly tested them. He asked his disciples to say who they understood him to be (Matthew 16:15).

Peter, enabled by the Holy Spirit, was able to answer clearly and correctly. But moments later Peter had fallen back on the habit of trusting his own sense of right and wrong (Matthew 16:22-23). This mixed bag of judgements, tipping back and forth among the voices of spirit and the voices of flesh, was a problem that could not be allowed to go on. A church could never be built on such a compromised foundation.

So the Heavenly Father stepped in.

On two other occasions He spoke up about His Son’s activity in the hearing of bystanders. (Matthew 3:17, John 12:28) Now, after Peter’s nervous proposal of a plan to honor Jesus along with Moses and Elijah, The Father spoke again. And this time His words came with a direct command.

“This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.”  (Matthew 17:5)

It was essential to God’s redemption plan that no one be confused about Who they should pay attention to. So now, God forever removed any uncertainty over what He wanted.

But He did not remove the gift of free will that had been granted to mankind. The choice remained with the disciples, and all who would come after, to heed the clear directions that were given.

I am not sure even Jesus knew it was his Father’s intention to intervene so directly at this moment. Jesus did not always know what to expect and he didn’t hesitate to ask questions when he had one. (Luke 8:45, Mark 8:23) He declared he had not come to follow his own will, but that of his Father. (John 6:38) We can conclude that Father God had told him to take his friends up on the mountain with him, but not necessarily why.

Jesus was sowing good seed, but clearly some of it was falling on hard ground.

For now, the good seed that had settled into good ground still needed watering and time to grow strong enough to harvest. For the second time, Jesus commanded his friends to say nothing about what they had seen and heard.

Not yet.

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Without a word

Chilean artist Daniel Cariola painted a wide screen close up of the woman who reached out to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment as he walked by. The painting hangs in the Encounter Chapel on the lower floor of the Duc in Altum, the Roman Catholic spiritual center in Magdala, modern day Migdal, six miles west of Capernaum on the shore of the sea of Galilee in Israel. The chapel floor is the exposed original first century street in the marketplace of the village.

The moment depicted has fascinated me. This is the one healing that happened in the Bible without Jesus being asked first. (Read the story in Matthew 9:20 ff, Mark 5:21 ff, Luke 8:40 ff) It is also the “interruption” that delayed Jesus, who was already on his way to heal the daughter of Jairus, the local synagogue ruler.

It is not the first healing miracle from Jesus. This woman approached him because there were already stories spreading about his encounters with other sick people. But this woman’s problem was a socially embarrassing one that required her to keep a ritual distance from other people so as not to make others “unclean” by contact with her.

She had already exhausted all her money on doctors over the years, seeking help. She had found none. I would imagine her furtive behavior this day was because she could not emotionally stand the thought of another possible rejection if she spoke up. That rejection would be hard enough to face from Jesus. But it might start with the others in the crowd who would want to push her away from themselves and, in the process, from Jesus, too.

She was desperate. And in that desperation, she tried to act secretively and not draw attention. Anyway, how could she hope for Jesus to stop for her when he was in the company of someone important, like the synagogue leader? He had a daughter near death. There was no time to waste on some anonymous, unclean woman in the crowd. So she silently reached for a mere touch, a second of contact, a last hope. Politely. Unobtrusively. And the whole plan fell apart.

Though she touched him lightly, intending her touch to be lost and mingled with the touch of everybody else crowding around him on the street, Jesus felt it. Her touch was different. Her purpose was different.

Her heart was different.

All the Gospel writers record the growing opposition Jesus was meeting from the Pharisees and other religious rulers. Surrounded by a growing number of healings and the witnesses who saw them happen, Jesus’ critics still asked for signs to justify his right to teach. When Jesus refused their demands, they took to claiming Jesus got his power from the devil.

And Jesus delivered a startling warning. It was not breaking the traditional rules of men that “defiled” a man. Defilement happened as a result of words that came forth out of a person’s mouth, words that were born in a person’s heart. The heart of man was the starting place for “evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, sexual sins, thefts, false testimony, and blasphemies.” (Matthew 15:19)

The woman who reached for his garment hem had not said a word, until she was frightened into confessing her actions to Jesus. But her actions had spoken honor and hope and faith in the kindness and love Jesus came to reveal.

Jesus was glad to see what she had done. He was glad to give her what she needed.

He was glad to call her, “Daughter.” He could see she was already acting like you can do in a family. Because, sometimes, in the family, you don’t have to say a word.

A touch says it all.



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The “enemy”

Stanley Hauerwas knows how to express a pithy insight.

Melanie and I were listening to an interview he gave. He mentioned the familiar, basic command Jesus left us: love your enemies. (Matthew 5:44) When he gave those instructions, Jesus made it clear who he was talking about.

“Bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you.”

Rev. Hauerwas had his own thoughts about who we usually thought of as the enemy.

“The first enemy for most of us is God.”

We want God on our terms. But His ways are not our ways. We do not always recognize or agree that all the things He is allowing will turn out for our good. Someone who crosses and conflicts with our will like that is usually seen as an opponent, not an ally.

I had noticed something recently that Matthew mentions twice in his Gospel. After clashing with the Pharisees and hearing that King Herod had executed John the Baptist, Matthew says that Jesus “withdrew” from the area. He went to a deserted region and, when crowds followed him anyway, he had to perform the miracle of feeding the 5,000. (Matthew 14)

Pharisees followed Jesus to his home ground on the northern shores of Lake Galilee. (chapter 15) When they criticize the disciples for not fasting, Jesus delivers the memorable declaration that it is not what goes in the mouth that defiles a man. It is what comes out (expressing what was already in the heart).

Then Jesus withdraws again, this time to the far northwestern corner of Israel. It is at Tyre and Sidon that he has the strange encounter with the Syrophoenician woman that he bruskly puts off, telling her bread for children is not meant to be given to dogs.

What has my attention is the way Jesus deliberately, and repeatedly, withdraws from his antaonists. He never backs down. But he refuses to prolong the argument.

And I’m wondering, was it because he loved them?

If he had continued arguing, by his own declaration of how things work the Pharisees would only have defiled themselves further. God had given them free will, as He has to all of us. But it is not His will that any of us should perish (II Peter 3:9). He wants to give us another chance, seven times seventy chances, to repent and come into agreement with Him (Matthew 18:22). Until we are ready to do that, it is better that we not be tempted to pile up further complaints and frustrations with Him. Perhaps He hides from us until we are ready to see Him. God’s mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23). He allows weeds to keep growing next to the wheat, delaying final separation until the harvest (Matthew 13:24ff).

There is a final day and a final chance. Until then, God’s love is seen in His patience and forebearance. He waits for us to be ready to talk.

He gives us time to learn to love our Enemy. And to learn that He loves us.


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