There’s doing unto others and then there’s DOING UNTO OTHERS.
I remember once as a kid giving my explanation of the Golden Rule to one of my younger siblings. “If someone does something to you that you don’t like, do it back to them to see how THEY like it!” That’s honestly what I thought it meant. Lucky for me (and that younger sibling) my older sister gently set us straight. “Uh … I don’t think that’s what it means. It doesn’t really matter what others do to you. You should only do to them what you’d WANT them to do to you.” My sense of revenge and judgment wasn’t nearly as satisfied with this explanation, but the more I thought about it, somewhat begrudgingly, the more sense it made. Duh!
Have I always lived my life by this dictum? Sadly, no; but I have at least tried. Here’s the thing, though: I still think I’ve only really gotten it half right. It’s sorta been a version of “a sin of omission vs. a sin of commission.” I’ve tried to refrain from doing mean or hurtful things to others because I haven’t wanted those things done to me. So far so good … but that’s usually where I’ve stopped. Couldn’t “do unto others as you’d want them to do unto you” also mean overtly DOING kind or wonderful things for or to others because it would be fabulous to have those things done for and to you?
Now, I’m not saying I’ve never performed an act of kindness. But it’s not as common or frequent as it could be. And most of those acts, while considerate, have been pretty minimal or, more importantly, “expected.“ You enter a public building and someone isn’t too far behind you so you wait an extra moment to hold the door open for them. Or someone’s got their hands full at a store and when one of those things they’re juggling falls to the floor you pick it up for them. Or you let a car merge into your lane ahead of you instead of making them wait until you’ve passed them. All kind gestures I’ve done to others that have certainly made me feel good when done to me. And while small gestures do indeed matter, in the big picture, not only are these examples pretty tiny, but they required virtually no real or extra effort on my part.
Which is why I was recently blown away by, what I consider, a BIG act of kindness. I’d just returned from 12 days away in the Middle East, leading another of my biblical storytelling pilgrimages. One of my fellow travelers was also from Baltimore, and the mother of a former pilgrim (and current student) of mine. Her daughter, there to pick up her mom, met us at the baggage claim at BWI. Not only did she greet us with hugs and enthusiastic inquiries about our trip, but she was also laden down with gifts for us: bouquets of flowers (a particularly welcome and cheery sight in January) and GROCERIES (lunch meat, cheese, bananas, healthy chips, and packets of fancy, flavored hot chocolate). “I know what it’s like to come home to an empty refrigerator and the grocery store being the last place you have the energy to go.”
Well … I DEFINITELY know that feeling. In fact, I’ve experienced it almost monthly for the past decade. But for someone who so thoroughly knows what that feels like, I find it kind of sad that it has NEVER occurred to me to prevent that feeling for someone else. I mean, that’s the sort of kindness act that requires empathy, forethought and REAL action … the kind of action that’s more of an effort than merely stooping down to pick something up or delaying my progress forward by 5-10 seconds. Like I said before, those acts are nice and appreciated and when done to me have made me feel good. But THIS act made me feel R-E-A-L-L-Y good … for DAYS!!
The realization that I had the power to make others feel that good was a true epiphany. The bigger (and sadder) epiphany, however, was realizing that I might not actually be willing to put forth all that effort for others. I mean, there’s doing unto others—something I’ve got down pat—but then there’s DOING UNTO OTHERS, and that’s another story entirely.True Strength
A strength taken to an extreme becomes a weakness.
This adage isn’t new to me but I experienced it in a different way on my latest pilgrimage to the Middle East. For the first time, Jordan was included in my itinerary. I’d wanted to visit this country for years, mainly because of Petra (a “wonder of the world” that first caught my attention back in 1989 when I saw Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). My style, on these pilgrimages, is not only to tell the stories associated with each site, but to include at least one additional pedagogical element that ties in that particular experience with others of the day as well as those of the overall journey. It was especially important for me to establish this pattern of expectation on our first full day, which happened to be in Petra.
Not being aware of a biblical story that occurred at Petra, I chose instead to tell the story of Jesus giving Simon, one of his first disciples, the new name of Peter, or “Petra” (i.e. “rock”), because apparently Jesus intended to build his church on the firm, rock foundation of Simon Peter. When I finished telling that story, I encouraged everyone to be on the lookout while at Petra for a rock that would fit into their pocket. This would serve as a talisman or kinesthetic reminder throughout our pilgrimage that we, as spiritual descendants of Peter, are still expected to provide a firm foundation for the work of the Church in the world.
What I hadn’t planned on was how many stories I ended up telling in the next eight days that had rocks or stones in them. And each time I’d get to that point in the story, I’d reach into my pocket and pull out the rock I’d chosen for myself that first day in Petra. That frequent reminder allowed me to ponder the role that stones/rocks played in these various stories … and it wasn’t always as positive and heart-warming as “a firm foundation.” The woman caught in adultery, for example, is almost stoned to death. So the very characteristics (strength, impermeability, durability) that make rocks a good choice for a foundation are the very things that can cause damage, pain, and death. A strength taken to an extreme can become a weakness.
And then there was the story of Joshua, Rahab, and Jericho. The stone wall, which was strong enough to support a living space for Rahab and her family and to—under normal conditions—protect an entire city, was no match for Joshua’s trumpeters and the apparent God-sanctioned annihilation of its residents. This was a different kind of strength taken to an extreme that, in my mind, became a weakness, and it tapped into another epiphany I experienced on this trip.
A couple of years ago while leading my first such pilgrimage, I found that the ubiquitous Jerusalem Cross appeared to be speaking to me. I had no idea what it was telling me but it sure got my attention, jumping out at me every time I turned around, it seemed, and begging for its picture to be taken. I obliged, taking picture after picture of Jerusalem Crosses on flags, carved in stone, lit up with lights and forged in metal. I didn’t know what it all meant or what I’d do, if anything, with those pictures but I knew I had to keep snapping away so I did. I eventually made a poster collage with several of these images, which I’ve sold for a little extra spending money. That was nice but I still hadn’t really gotten a satisfactory answer to the greater question of what it was all about.
There are several traditions associated with the five crosses that make up a Jerusalem Cross: Jesus and the four Gospels; the five wounds of Christ from the crucifixion; the Gospel being spread from Jerusalem to the four corners of the earth … as a vocational and world-traveling biblical storyteller, this is the one that resonated with me the most. But it was this very interpretation that was the most potentially problematic.
The Jerusalem Cross is also known as the Crusaders’ Cross, being the primary image emblazoned on shields, flags, and military vestments when Christians literally went to war to “spread the good news to the four corners of the earth.” I’d always known this darker side of its story but was reminded of it more blatantly while in Jordan, where over 90% if the population is Muslim and whose ancestors were on the receiving end of the Crusaders’ efforts to spread this “good” news. I didn’t see any Jerusalem Crosses in Jordan, except worn around the necks of Christians. And the few times I saw the fleetingly troubled look in the eyes of our gracious Jordanian hosts when they caught sight of those necklaces and were ever so briefly reminded of what that particular cross had symbolized, I was saddened. [I’m guessing it’s perhaps a bit like how African Americans feel when they see the Confederate flag.] As a Christian, I do have a strong, beautiful message to share with the world—and I’ve devoted my life to doing just that. But any strength taken to an extreme can become a weakness, and that’s certainly been part of the Jerusalem Cross—and Christian—story, unfortunately.
I suppose one could say that this adage is really just a problem of imbalance. Strengths are good—that’s why they’re called strengths!—but only in moderation, somewhat regulated, checked and balanced. Well, this is a problem I know a little something about. I’ve said for years that if I were a Buddhist, I’m convinced that my lesson to learn this time around is balance.
I’m reminded of this on an almost daily basis but I was hit between the eyes with it a few months ago at a gig (consisting entirely of female military chaplains, interestingly enough). I happened to be wearing my Jerusalem Cross necklace and had several of my posters on hand to sell. An African American participant cornered me at one point to ask about my apparent fascination with the Jerusalem Cross. I told her about how they had jumped out at me a few years ago, begging for my attention, and so I had obliged, not really understanding why or what it was all about. I confessed to her that I still hadn’t figured it out. She paused and then offered this piece of wisdom: “Well, the thing that strikes me most about the Jerusalem Cross is its equality, its symmetry, its balance. Each of the individual crosses is not a traditional cross shape but more like a plus sign, which is even, equal, and balanced. And the whole composition is, too. Fold it along any axis and the one side perfectly mirrors the other. Could that kind of thing be why you were attracted to it?”
DUH! If that’s not why, it should have been! But I think on some level it actually was. I’ve now been to the Holy Land six times. The first three trips I don’t even remember seeing Jerusalem Crosses. The fourth trip occurred at a time when my life’s imbalance had gotten particularly out of hand and that’s when the crosses “assaulted my senses.” (I’ve also said for years that I often have to be hit between the eyes with a 2×4 to really get a BIG message.) This past trip happened immediately after I’d intentionally made some major shifts in my life and, while I’m certainly not as balanced as I’d like, I’m MUCH better than I’ve been. As a result, I barely noticed the Jerusalem Crosses. Made a lot of sense to me.
And talk about redemption! I’ll never forget or ignore the Jerusalem Cross’s ugly past—nor should I—but what a beautiful reclamation of a symbol. Would that all who wear this emblem be about perpetuating opportunities of dialogue between differing sides, the kind of sharing that mirrors back to us more about our similarities than our differences. What if the Jerusalem Cross, rather than pushing a powerful message to the point it becomes a weakness, stood for experiences of balance and equality where give and take and compromise were not seen as diluting one side’s strength but empowering the whole?
Now that’s the kind of solid foundation the Church should be built upon. And, if perpetually practiced, could be as enduring as Petra.L’chai-im!
It’s official … I’ve outlived my mother.
On November 28, 2010, I was the exact age my mom was when the cancer finally won the war the two of them had been battling for several years. Her “denouement” occurred on Feb. 2, 1973, and I was not quite eight years old. The day it happened, I was staying with Grandma Sophie. I’d gone down to the basement to get something and on my way back up the cellar stairs the phone rang. I froze, mid-step, knowing somehow that it was “THE CALL,” the one informing us that Mom had died. The conversation was brief and Grandma’s end of it was particularly cryptic. I don’t recall any of her words, but whatever she said confirmed what I knew in my gut. I don’t know how long I stood there, numbly, on the stairs, but when I finally made my way up the remaining steps it was as if on autopilot, someone else forcing my legs to move. The stairwell opened into the kitchen, and when I emerged I immediately looked to my right where the phone hung on the wall. A clock was directly above the phone; it was 4:10 p.m.
Sadly, despite my young age, this was not the first time I’d experienced “BIG LOSS;” a year and three months earlier my dad had died in a car accident.
I’ve had people tell me that I’m an old soul. I don’t know exactly what that means. But if it implies a lifetime of experiences “before my time,” then I’d concur. I learned at a very early age that we are not promised tomorrow—and I learned it twice. It probably explains why I’ve always tried to live life to the fullest, cramming as much as possible into every year, day, and experience. Granted, all this is aided by the personality I was born with (an Enneagram 7; our vice is gluttony—I’ve always said that if a little bit of something was good, why the hell wouldn’t you want a whole BUNCH of it?!). So, in most ways, I’ve embodied carpe diem to a fault … and sometimes it really has been a fault! I’ve run myself ragged, burned the candle at both ends, insert-your-favorite-metaphor-for-overdoing-it, all in the hopes of not missing out on anything. I’m the kind of person who once spent two months in Europe and in that time visited 14 countries, averaging 4 nights per country but only 2 nights per bed. (No wonder Europeans think we Americans are crazy!)
In my 46 years, therefore, I’ve experienced a LOT. Admittedly, some of those experiences of DOING have come at the expense of fully BEING in those experiences, but that’s a topic for another time. My point here is that while I haven’t lived in dread, with the Sword of Damocles hanging over my head, I’ve also never assumed I’d live to a ripe old age. I’ve been in numerous conversations over the years with folks who have talked about their good genes, how, if they follow the family “tradition,” they’ll likely live to their late 80s, mid-90s, or even past 100. I’ve listened, sipping my drink, and then stated matter-of-factly, “Well, if I follow suit, I’ve got about 10 more years” … or 5 more years … or, as in this past year, “I’m pretty much coming up on it.” Talk about a conversation stopper!
Have I seriously thought I’d die in my mid-40s? No. But it has been a little weird to be “forced” to think these thoughts way before my time. During a recent gig, I was hosted by a lovely elderly couple. The husband was the older of the two and, through various hints in our conversations, I pieced together that he was around 80. At one point he mentioned his dad had died at 83 and I detected a “pensive knowing” in the look that flickered across his face. But that’s normal. You would expect an 80 year old to be thinking that maybe he didn’t have much time left, especially when his dad died at 83. It’s not quite as normal to be thinking these thoughts in your early 40s or late 30s … or earlier.
In addition to the obvious, the thing I especially miss—particularly as I enter middle age—is having a biological point of reference for navigating milestones. When did my mom start menopause and what were her symptoms? Did either of my parents develop arthritis, hardening of the arteries, or dementia? At what point did they have to start wearing bifocals … and then trifocals? While none of these aspects of aging is particularly pleasant, it could be argued that not even being given the option to experience them is worse. Because it also means that they weren’t around to experience weddings, births, anniversaries, holidays, delicious meals, sunrises, an intimate dance, laughter with friends and loved ones, another day.
Obviously, any of us could get hit by a bus tomorrow. So, making the most of each day isn’t such a bad way to live life. But there’s a difference between jamming each day full of “life” and pausing at the end of each day to reflect upon, and give thanks for, what those days’ experiences provided for you. I’ve said for years that I find crow’s feet, or laugh lines, attractive. Why? Because they’re an indicator that that person has been around long enough to have experienced some LIFE. And while this certainly isn’t a given, hopefully they’ve gained some wisdom in the process, and maybe even done a fair amount of laughing as a result. A sense of humor, particularly borne out of life experience, is desirable to me. So, each day I’m given to gain and cultivate those things I see as a gift.
That’s the main reason, by the way, that I don’t color my hair. My parents were barely given the chance to get gray hair; and my mom, thanks to chemotherapy, didn’t even have hair in her final months to be gray. So I view every gray hair sort of the same way I view every developing laugh line – as a mile marker of (hopeful!) life wisdom, a badge of survival, a visible gift for each day I’ve been given. At least, that’s the ideal I’m striving for. I still spend way too many of these gift days spinning my wheels, doing instead of being, and complaining about one thing or another.
Maybe it’s significant—and no coincidence, therefore—that my recent mile marker of Nov. 28, 2010, happened to be the first day of Advent … a day signifying, among other things, the start of a new year, a new cycle, a new beginning. L’chai-im!Be All You Can Be
No, this isn’t a plug for the army. Nor is it a plucky DaleCarnegieAnthonyRobbinsJackCanfield-esque attempt at motivation. It’s simply a helpful reminder.
Many neighborhoods in Baltimore, like most cities, set aside a certain night each month (especially during warmer weather) for organized revelry in the form of special deals, a variety of food, and/or live music. Indeed, if one took advantage of every First Friday, Second Sunday, and Third Thursday there would be plenty to keep one busy at least once a week, if not more frequently. One of my favorites in Baltimore is First Thursday in the Mt. Vernon neighborhood because it provides not only all of the above, but particularly good, non-Top-40 music, courtesy of our thoroughly enjoyable and eclectic Towson University-based radio station WTMD.
In October, the featured group for First Thursday’s concert in the park was Hoots & Hellmouth, a GREAT juiced-up-bluegrassy-Americana-roots band from Philadelphia that includes a harmonica, mandolin, and lead singer who looks like Philip Seymour Hoffman with glasses and a LOT of hair. According to their website: Hoots & Hellmouth see every show as an opportunity to help strengthen a sense of local community among their audiences. More than just a product, this music is at once a celebration and a mourning – championing the human potential to feel deeply and come together as a unified whole, while bemoaning the fact that much in modern life seems to work against just that. It’s a catharsis for damaged 21st Century humans and their environs. It’s new music for old souls.
How did they accomplish this at their October concert in Mt. Vernon? Well, besides providing an awesome playlist that had everyone up and dancing and grinning at the stranger next to them, about halfway through the event when things had really started to rock, the PSH-looking lead singer thanked us for our enthusiastic support and participation with this affirmation: “Balti-MORE?? Looks like Balti-MOST to me!! Whew! YEAH!!”
Besides making me cheer and give a proud fist pump for my adopted hometown, it reminded me of a catch phrase that many here in Charm City (i.e. Baltimore, or B’more) have started using: “B-more (fill in the blank).” B-more assertive; B-more creative; B-more against war … Not bad reminders for a town with a bit of a self-esteem issue due to TV shows like The Wire and Homicide, not to mention perpetually living in the shadow of more glamorous and worldly Washington, DC.
Whether it’s self esteem, town esteem, country esteem, gender esteem, race esteem, faith esteem, you name it, I’ve found that it’s been hard not to get pulled down lately. Actually, it’s not really been lately; this is something that’s been going on for over a decade. Much of it, I think, has to do with 24-hour news cycles that have to be filled with SOMETHING. And nothing makes news like bad news. So even events that might not be particularly positive, but aren’t, in the big picture, completely horrible, get blown up to “horrible status” and put in front of us (and often yelled at us) ad nauseam 24/7.
So imagine my delight a week or so ago when I heard this story about my 5-year-old niece, Sophia. She was riding in the car with her dad, who had the radio tuned to a sports station. The commentator was bemoaning the fact that many big Ohio teams had gotten beaten in the last few days. “It’s been a TERRIBLE week for Ohioans—Ohio State lost, Cleveland State lost, the Cavs lost … [he listed several others]. Like I said, if you live in Ohio, it’s been a bad, bad week!” Suddenly, Sophia (appropriately named!) piped up from the back seat: “Um … excuse me, Mr. Radio Man. But *I* live in Ohio, and I’ve had a great day and a great week. So you just need to be quiet … because you’re stupid.”
Out of the mouths of babes … I love that this five year old wasn’t about to let anybody bring her down or dictate how she was “supposed” to feel. But how often have the rest of us allowed those very things to happen to us? I sure have; and it’s made me less of the best I could have been. Too often, I’ve let outside forces make me surly and negative and divisive, turning me into a person I haven’t particularly liked. This goes way beyond a Pollyanna outlook on life (because, let’s face it, sometimes life DOES stink and righteous indignation, grief, or outright anger is the absolute appropriate response). It’s about seeing the world through realistic lenses, first of all, keeping everything in perspective. But it’s also about being the architect of our own lives, choosing attitudes, situations, and friends that will allow us to thrive rather than to get mired in a funky downward spiral. It’s about having the courage—when enough is enough—to speak up and say, “You just need to be quiet,” which may take the form of an actual quote to a person who can hear us or it might be more symbolic, nudging us to turn off the radio or TV and to take a sabbatical from the “stupid” 24/7 onslaught.
Another way to say it is in the words of Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Like I said … a helpful reminder, no?Follow Me: reflections on internalizing, embodying, and performing the Gospel of Mark
(originally published in Currents in Theology and Mission, Volume 38, Number 6)
I’ve been around “church folk” most of my life. I have received seminary degrees twice and am now an adjunct professor at two such institutions. As a director of Christian education and then a freelance biblical storyteller/workshop leader/retreat facilitator, I’ve spent the past 22 years amidst a variety of denominational settings around the globe and my closest friends and most treasured colleagues are members of the Network of Biblical Storytellers (www.nbsint.org). Throughout all those relationships and experiences, I’ve developed a fairly good sense for the Bible MVPs (Most Valued Pericopes). And there are people who even have a special place in their heart for an entire book of the Bible. This seems to be especially true when it comes to the gospels. Many women tend to gravitate to the inclusiveness of Luke; the Sermon on the Mount and the Kingdom of Heaven parables in Matthew speak profoundly to others; and John’s sophistication attracts a different type. Over the years I’ve frequently asked people, point blank, what their favorite gospel is and almost never has the reply been “Mark.” Prior to my in-depth work with that particular gospel, I’m not sure I would have chosen it either. But I can now say, with utmost fervor, that Mark is da man!
I’m not just a storyteller by vocation, I’m a storyteller by personality. I’ve been accused of not being able to say “hello” in less than 1000 words! Mind you, I’m not saying this is preferable; on the contrary, over the years I’ve striven to reign in my verbosity and only share what’s pertinent. Mark’s got this discipline down pat, and it’s perhaps what I find most attractive about this gospel. As an interpreter of these words I am struck by the fact that, since Mark has cut out all the fat, almost every one of these sparse words matters and is important. This is an interpretive challenge, on the one hand, but also a creative delight. And, arguably, it begs the question as to whether Matthew’s and Luke’s expansions of Mark’s stories are improvements. I’m not sure that they are. Mark’s succinctness offers a good general life lesson: sometimes less really is more.
Of course, you can’t spend much time with Mark and not notice the “immediate” urgency! Perhaps this theme is related to his pithiness. Mark is in a hurry to get the message out there so he doesn’t waste time, not even with superfluous words.
Speaking of “the message” – when I first started working intently on learning Mark, I quickly noticed three references to proclaiming “the message” near the beginning of the gospel (1:38, 1:39, 3:14). I think the reason it got my attention was the context of the first reference. Jesus has just cured many who are sick and has also cast out many demons. The next morning, he gets away by himself to pray. Once Simon and the others find him, they imply that he’s wanted back home (perhaps to “put on another show”) when they say, “Everyone is searching for you.” But Jesus refuses, answering, “Let’s go into the neighboring towns so that I may proclaim the message there also; BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT I CAME OUT TO DO.” The emphasis is mine but I think it makes sense. The disciples (and townspeople) seem to want him back for more healings and exorcisms but Jesus seems to indicate that his main purpose is to proclaim the message (especially since it’s mentioned separately from the act of casting out demons in verse 39 as well as in 3:15). So, what exactly IS the message?
Well, Jesus’ first public act of proclaiming anything is in 1:15, where what he “proclaims” is identified by Mark in the previous verse as “the good news of God.”
The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.
There’s a whole lot contained in those scant 19 words! And if this were a different type of essay, I’d spend more time exploring the cornucopia present there. But for our purposes here, I want to focus on the two middle pieces: God’s kingdom coming near and repenting.
When I first started to experiment with how to embody God’s kingdom coming near, muscle memory reminded me of how I portray Matthew’s version of Jesus’ birth, the part that mentions Emmanuel—God with us. I typically gesture higher up (to indicate God in a “heavenly” location) and then gesture inclusively to indicate God has come from the “heavens” to be among us. God’s kingdom coming near seems to be Mark’s version of Emmanuel (especially since Mark doesn’t include a birth narrative). But because Jesus is actually talking, and the storyteller “becomes” Jesus in that telling, I have fun playing with a version of the Emmanuel gesture: “… the kingdom of God” (gesture heavenward) “has come” (hands are brought down and as they pass the eyes, Jesus looks at them and smiles, recognizing a teachable moment) ‘… near” (gesture with palms facing the audience, fingers down, hands “pushing” slightly forward indicating an offering for the listeners, as if to say, “The kingdom of God isn’t some vague, amorphous idea that’s lurking somewhere nearby; it’s right here, where I’m standing, in the form of my actual body. And my physical presence among you is God’s gift of incarnation to you.”
What kind of message is implied by the fact that God’s kingdom is now walking in our midst? Well, first of all, a kingdom implies more than one person! So I think getting other people involved connects with the second part of the proclamation’s middle section: repent. Thanks to hellfire and damnation preaching, this word has come to mean something more along the lines of feeling remorse for wrongdoing. Of course, the implication is that you won’t continue to do that wrong thing. And that’s closer to the original meaning which has more to do with thinking differently, switching directions or, as Eugene Peterson interprets it in The Message, changing your life. It’s not easy to change our ways. We’re creatures of habit; we’re too busy; we’re not up for the challenge of bucking the status quo. During the recent 10-year anniversary commemorations of 9/11, I was reminded of what a colleague had said to me on Sept. 12, 2001. “For Christians, nothing has changed. We still worship the same God, we still follow the same Jesus, we’re still supposed to love our neighbor as ourselves. As horrific as the events of yesterday were, nothing about that has changed for us.” Ten years later, I still agree with her statement, but I’d add a caveat: The only thing that changed for Christians, perhaps, was the ease with which we’ve been able to live out truly Christian lives in America post-9/11.
And that takes me back to Mark’s message of repentance, of turning from our current trajectory and moving in a new direction. How do we know what that new direction is? Well, maybe that’s why it was significant to have God walking in our midst, to show us the way, to provide a path to follow. And that message of “Follow me” was probably the biggest epiphany I had during my intense work with Mark. I’ve obviously known for most of my life that Christians follow Jesus. Duh! But what does that really mean? What are the implications—for individuals, for congregations, even for a nation that claims to be Christian?
I’m convinced it was my embodiment of this text that produced my epiphanies. Simply reading Mark and coming upon the various references to following Jesus is what led to the superficial understanding mentioned above. But as a storyteller, those aspects of the text took up residence in my muscles, bones, sinews and flesh, which, in turn, impacted my whole being, providing a filter through which to viscerally experience the narrative. Take, for instance, the end of Chapter 8 where Jesus explains to the disciples the fate awaiting him in Jerusalem, and Peter takes him aside to rebuke him and Jesus calls him Satan. The way that scene physically played out for me showed a “tug of war” in leadership. Peter pulling Jesus aside meant, directionally, that Peter was in the lead and Jesus was following him. In fact, Jesus has to turn (around) to see the disciples. So, while in the character of Jesus, I forcefully turn my back on Peter, start heading back to the disciples, and say over my shoulder (and with a strong pointed-finger gesture), “YOU get behind ME …” as a way to convey the message that Jesus has to remind Peter who is supposed to be following whom here.
This incident is followed (no pun intended) by what I understand as the core of Jesus’ message. He gathers together not just the disciples but the crowd as well and explains very clearly what it means to follow him: denying self and taking up one’s cross. Again, due to the physical act of embodying these words, it occurred to me that, in context, it made sense to imply that this was controversial teaching because the idea of a Messiah (which is how Peter has just identified Jesus) was often linked with the knight in shining armor image. Understandably so. How else were oppressors to be bested and liberation to be granted if not by force? Might makes right; that’s what they knew. No wonder Peter chastises Jesus when he submissively foretells the unjust, violent, and deadly way he will be treated by those in power. I imagine Jesus as an effective storyteller who would not only strongly drive home this controversial point, but highlight the powerful impact of this reversal of expectations. How might he have done this? “If any want to become my followers, [you’ve got to] LET them deny themselves, take up their …” (pantomime pulling a sword from its sheath, stop, make deliberate eye contact with as many in the audience as possible while shaking head “no” and slowly putting the sword back) “… take up their CROSS …” (hands slowly rise to a cruciform position and remain there through the end of the sentence) “and follow me.”
Following Jesus (I mean REALLY following Jesus) is not easy. It involves a commitment to go all the way to the cross. This realization has dawned on at least some of his followers by 10:32. “They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was [leading the way]; they were amazed (that he was willing to take the lead on a path that would end in certain death?), and those who [DID follow] were afraid.” I can see why! This is followed immediately (of course!) by another explanation of what’s to happen to Jesus once they get to Jerusalem; it’s not pretty. Next in this fascinating narrative sequence, we have James and John asking for “preferred seating”—directly on the right and left of Jesus when he enters his glory. When I tell this, I again assume the cruciform position, but innocently, as James and John are simply indicating both sides of Jesus. I hold that pose for a moment, hoping the audience will make the visual connection, and then, becoming Jesus, I make it clear that he sees it. He winces and softly, painfully makes the point that they obviously have no idea what they’re asking. Jesus asks them, in essence, if they’re honestly prepared to “take up their cross and follow him … to the cross.” Again, not fully understanding the implications they, of course, respond that they are. Then Jesus, achingly affirms that, ultimately, they will indeed follow him to the cross. The other disciples get angry (jealous?) of the brothers so Jesus has another teachable moment with them, revealing another aspect of a life that follows Jesus: you are to go against the status quo and serve others, not expect to be served, like society dictates. The life of a follower of Jesus is one of humility, not exaltation.
Cue Bartimaeus’ entrance. I’ve told this pericope for years but always struggled with how to ask Jesus’ question: “What do you want me to do for you?” There are so many possibilities, starting with which word to emphasize. For instance, “What do you want ME to do for you?” has a distinctly different connotation from “What do you want me to DO for you?” It wasn’t until looking at the larger narrative, and recognizing what this story follows (again, no pun intended!), that I started to get some potential clarification. James and John, 2/3 of Jesus’ inner circle, his closest buddies, ask a favor of him and are denied. Immediately (!) afterwards, a blind beggar also asks a favor of him and this time, it’s granted. Why? Maybe because the brothers’ request was for elevation, exaltation, an honor beyond what they deserved. Bartimaeus, on the other hand, is simply asking for his honor as a human being to be restored after living through the indignity of being forced to beg. Interestingly, his name tells us he’s the son of Timaeus, and that name means honor. So, the son of honor had been reduced to begging alongside “the way” (but not able to walk along the way because of his blindness, even though this blind man is the only person in Mark’s gospel to “see” Jesus’ identity as the Son of David, which obviously has messianic reverberations). He wasn’t asking to be elevated higher than what a regular human being could expect or deserve; he simply wants his identity as the son of honor restored. So his wish is granted. And then what does he do? He follows Jesus along the way, which leads immediately after the next story into Jerusalem … and to the cross.
These kinds of verbal threads and connections throughout the larger Markan narrative could certainly be noticed, recognized, and examined from a written text. But they were all made much more obvious to me through the physicality necessitated by embodying the text. And perhaps the one thing more than anything else that embodying Mark’s gospel made abundantly clear to me was the humanness of Jesus. Most Christians claim that Jesus was both 100% divine and 100% human; but the majority of teachings and sermons about him seem to gravitate more to the divine part. I vividly remember a scene from Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ where hoards of people with various needs descend upon Jesus to be healed. They all come at once—reaching, grabbing, pushing—demanding a piece of Jesus, who just seems to disappear in this teeming swirl of humanity. Once the crowd finally disperses, Jesus is so exhausted he can’t even stand on his own and, breathing heavily, hangs on one or two of the disciples for support. It was the first time I’d ever really contemplated the humanness of Jesus, how he must have gotten tired … and irritable … and frustrated. Internalizing Mark’s gospel brought all those experiences—and more—to the forefront for me.
When you learn an extended piece of scripture, it’s easier to see and understand the circumstances that lead up to various events; there’s a natural emotional arc. In Mark’s case, Jesus’ continual “beating of his head against a brick wall” with the disciples, his ongoing conflicts with the authorities, his nonstop encounters with a smothering crowd made me exhausted! I couldn’t help but get irritated, frustrated, and almost desperate in my efforts as a storyteller to not only proclaim the message, but to ensure that it was received. For me, Jesus starts out good-natured, almost teasing the scribes of the Pharisees in Chapter 2 when they inquire about his choice of dinner guests. Chapter 4’s various parables suggest an earnestness in his instruction and a whiff of annoyance creeps in when dealing with the mourners at the house of Jairus. In Chapter 6, it’s Jesus’ turn to be “amazed” after he offends his hometown but I’m guessing that amazement was more along the lines of disbelief himself, mingled with sadness and perhaps a realization of what he was really up against. The gravity of his situation quickly intensifies with the beheading of his cousin and from then on his temper seems to be on a much shorter leash. His exasperation with the Pharisees over the cleanliness laws culminates in an irate litany of evil and sends him storming off—into Tyre—where he ends up insulting a local woman. Can you blame him? He needs to get away, to clear his head, to diffuse his anger. He doesn’t want anyone to know he’s there—which is probably why he went into foreign territory. And then this woman dares to bug him with her demands. Bad timing! His aggravation continues with the disciples’ obtuse answer about how the second large group of people were going to be fed in Chapter 8 and then really comes to a head in the boat when they think Jesus is talking about their only having one loaf of bread. But his last line in that sequence isn’t delivered in annoyance or anger, I don’t think. “Do you still not understand?” is more sad and resigned and tinged with fatigue. This amalgam of emotions shows up again after the transfiguration when the disciples were not able to help the boy with an unclean spirit. I almost want to add a deeply sighed “Oy Vey …” before launching into Jesus’ whine, “… How much longer must I put up with you?” And talk about an “oy vey” situation, full-grown men acting like children, arguing about who’s greatest. (Perhaps they misunderstood Jesus when he told them they would have to become like children to enter the kingdom of God!) Regardless, I find myself sighing a lot about this time in the telling!
I would suggest that it’s almost impossible to fully internalize a large narrative like this and not gain a better understanding of the emotions, the connections, the narrative arc. It would also be nearly impossible to spend this much time with a biblical text and not have your relationship with God changed. The individual benefits of doing this work are incalculable. But the really cool thing is watching these benefits start to take hold for members of an audience. And I’d like to close with three such examples.
A number of years ago, an elderly gentleman from my church mentioned to me that he just didn’t “get” Lent. “What’s the point? Let’s just get on with Easter” was his thinking. Well, that year, I performed Mark’s passion as a mid-week Lenten program for my congregation and afterwards he came up to me with tears in his eyes and confessed, “I get it. I felt like I was there, I really understand it now.” And every Lent since, he’s made a point of coming up to me, giving my arm a squeeze, and flashing a thankful smile.
Three summers ago I performed Mark’s entire gospel for the Duke Youth Academy for Christian Formation. There was one artsy teen—on Ritalin—who made it clear that he was really looking forward to it. Knowing that this went 2+ hours with no intermission, however, I was skeptical about how long he was going to be able to stay engaged. Well, he grabbed a front row seat and not only stayed engaged to the end, but led an impromptu altar call afterwards where he and a few other boys knelt around the chancel, weeping and praying, for over 20 minutes. One of the leaders said to me later, “People say that youth today have no attention span and no interest in the Bible. I think you proved them wrong tonight.” The next morning, as soon as this youth saw me he leapt over a couch (literally!), gave me a big bear hug, gushed about how incredible last night’s experience had been and finished with, “We felt so close to God afterwards that the whole way back to the dorm, every person we passed we just had to tell them, ‘God bless you!’ … ‘And God bless YOU!’ … ‘GOD BLESS YOU!!’”
Finally, I was performing the whole gospel a year and a half ago for a church in downtown Washington, DC. One audience member brought her 14-month-old daughter and when I first saw her I was a little worried. It’s hard enough to hold the attention of adults for that long but an almost-toddler? Yikes. Thankfully, she was a great audience member (and her mother was conscientious!). For much of the time she sat on the floor and quietly played with toys. When she’d start to get a little fussy, her mom would bounce her on her knee. And when that didn’t quite satisfy her, the mother would discreetly get up and walk her at the back of the room. Well, it just so happened that the baby was on her mother’s lap, facing me, when I got to Mark 10 where Jesus indignantly “blesses out” the disciples for preventing him from blessing the little children. Because I have several youngsters in my life who are near and dear to my heart, whenever I get to that part of the story I tell it with a great deal of genuine love, compassion, and tenderness, kneeling down at “their” level and with a warm smile on my face, pantomime Jesus gathering them into his arms, laying his hands upon them, and blessing them. That day was no exception. In the no more than two-second silence that followed as I got back up on my feet to continue the story, this little 14-month-old girl broke into enthusiastic applause. It was the only time she clapped that entire 2+ hours. Was the timing a coincidence? You’ll never convince me of that. I’m certain that on some level she GOT IT, knowing exactly what I’d just said, sensing that this was one part of a very long narrative that applied directly to her … in a very favorable way, no less … and she appreciated it. It was one of the most profound moments I’ve ever experienced.
We live in an era where, thanks to computers and iPads and smart phones, communication is engaging. It draws people in with its immediacy, its relevance, its multi-sensory modalities. Gone are the days when a poorly prepared monotone reading of scripture will suffice. In a few of my seminary classes I require that students write a paper outlining a plan to implement a biblical storytelling focus at their place of ministry. More than once, students have mentioned that they wouldn’t want to “overdo” something like this so they’d probably only use storytelling once a month or less. Do they ever concern themselves with “overdoing” tired, boring, non-captivating readings of scripture? A well learned, embodied, and performed piece of scripture can make old men cry, bring ADHD teens closer to God, and even cause sheer delight to bubble up in babies. Why in the world wouldn’t you want to make that an integral part of your church’s ministry? Repeated exposure to this kind of powerful, anti-status quo experience can be transformational for a congregation, a local community, even the world. Jesus, himself, was a storyteller; maybe being storytellers ourselves was also what he meant when he said, “Follow me.”