Speak Through Me

Years afterward, I was asked by a peer “How many people go to college, Brian, and come away with a fully-developed philosophy of life?” I was shocked. It had never occurred to me that someone would go to college for any other reason.

I could have seen the difference, I guess, except that it was pretty embarrassing. Every conversation with a stranger unfolded at a million words a minute – a flood garbled in my haste, a defect of expression that I am confronting fully only now in my review of the videos at Love Returns.

My uncle Phil had borne the brunt of these exchanges more than once. Naturally concerned when I was preparing to read a passage at his brother’s funeral, he came by to advise me to draw out my vowels. My aunt had chosen some beautiful words, though, and I was well beyond that in my preparation of the reading. When I delivered the final “He is at peace,” the gathering paused in silence.

That was my first experience of having words work through me. Knowing that my aunt’s choice was an emotional one, I took in the meaning of the words but also received the deep, mature wisdom of the author’s emotional experience. A crescendo of loss wracked the middle of the passage, and when it came through me, the congregation leaned back.

In reading Scripture, the emotions are all that relates to our modern age. The situations are described only briefly; essential social context is often missing. To make them relatable, we project our own situations, along with our own emotions. This can lead us astray.

Monday night at Bible study, we focused on Matt. 20:20-34. The passages relate Jesus’s response to two pleas: one from the mother of James and John that her sons should sit on the left and right of his throne. The other is from two blind men that cry out for healing. In both situations, the onlookers rebuke those making the request. Jesus turns to heal the two blind men. His response to James and John is ambiguous.

Ambiguous? It may not seem that way, for Jesus challenges them with this question [Matt. 20:22]:

Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?

To which the brothers reply: “We can.” Jesus does not dispute this, observing only [Matt. 20:23]:

My cup you will indeed drink.

Commonly, this is read as a rebuke, something like “Oh, you sorry fools – sending your mother to plead for power.” But it can also be read as an affirmation of respect: “Yes, you can.”

The study leader noted that the mother was Jesus’s aunt; her sons were Jesus’s cousins. Given this, the emotions swept in, and I saw the situation in a different light.  They may have known what others were planning, and as family were pleading: “You know that you can trust us. Please let us protect you.”

When I shared this perspective, the woman sitting next to me seemed to expand. I felt her reaching back into that moment, and she began “And did Mary know this as well?” Here was another piece: Jesus had cast aside his mother’s protection, but still she loved him. Was it Mary that had organized this plea by John and James?

From this perspective, the parallels between the two stories are heightened. John and James are blind to the spiritual consequences of their service, but they wish to serve, just as Jesus commands of those that rebuke them [Matt. 20:27-28]:

…whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.  Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.

James was martyred by Herod, the first of the Apostles to so suffer, and perhaps demonstrating the determination needed by the others. John suffered a different bitterness, being the Apostle left to grieve the persecution of the early Christians, including all of his Apostolic brothers. In that grief was a trial of bitterness. It was a trial that he passed, qualifying himself to bring the wisdom of Revelation to the world.

Sorrow Drowned

Matthew 14:13-21 begins:

As soon as Jesus heard the news [of John’s death], he left in a boat to a remote area to be alone. [NIV]

Sister Gloria chose this for our reading last night. She asks two of us to repeat the reading, and when she offered me the first repetition, I knew that I was in trouble. Jesus’ grief came over me, and – struggling to control my breath – the first line came out four words at a time.

I, too, have been drawn to the solace of the water. The day that I wrote Darkened Lives Matter, I was overcome with sorrow and left work to walk the pier at Port Hueneme. Fishermen tended their lines above the rhythmic swells, the ocean full of billions of years of assurance that whatever life it surrendered would be replenished.

But that was not solace enough for Jesus, for in the loss of John – his cousin and only vocal supporter – Jesus had a foretaste of his trial. In the march to Jerusalem that follows, I feel a certain grimness in him, as though hope had been stolen.

For over what had John lost his life? A meaningless confrontation with the queen over the minutia of the law. If not John, then who among his followers would grasp the essence of the New Covenant, the covenant of forgiveness, healing and love?

Then comes the next sentence, and I found his grief braced by the consolation of purpose:

But the crowds heard where he was headed and followed on foot from many towns.

He was not alone. These many had arrived, not just to reflect on the greatness of the one lost, but to tender John’s authority among them to Jesus. Embraced by their faith, Jesus offers them the healing communion with the father.

As the day comes to a close, the disciples counsel him [NIV Matt. 14:15]:

This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away so they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.

I did choke on these words. The suggestion itself seemed painful. Jesus’ response as offered in the King James is revealing:

They need not depart.

This is a foreshadowing of the miracle of the loaves and fishes that follows, but I felt something in the emotion below. It was as if to say: “But…I find comfort in them. We need each other, these people and I.”

When the morsels of food are gathered, Jesus “look[ed] up to heaven” and broke the offering. This final act of beseeching was the culmination of the grief. It was a supplication: “Dear Father, give these gathered a sign that they are not alone.”

And so those that partook did so with angels gathered at their shoulders, awash in the infinite ocean of God’s love.

He, Too

I go down to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels for Christmas and Easter each year. It forces the Church to confront certain realities. They manage these buildings, and so control whether and when the flock comes and goes. That tends to create some confusion regarding the nature of the shepherd, and many among them take offense when confronted with the authority of love.

So it is at the end of every age.

But while I was down in the crypt, I encountered this stained glass window in the baptismal chapel. Who knows which child, survivor of the school of tyranny, will rise to teach redemption to humanity? Who would turn away that hope?


The Holy Family seeks safety in Egypt.


In the last week of his life on Earth, Jesus brought his verbal sparring match to Jerusalem, where was gathered the authorities of his age. Welcomed enthusiastically by crowds expecting him to transform their political and religious reality, Jesus instead proclaims the kingdom of heaven and his impending destruction.

Sensing weakness, the temple priests swoop in for the kill. Perhaps advised by spies that Jesus had been proclaimed the Son of God, and certainly with the evidence of his tirade in the temple, they summon him to pose the question directly: Is he the Messiah, the “King of the Jews?” However, if they thought that Jesus was on the ropes intellectually, they were mistaken. For in answer to their questions, and the questions of Pilate and Herod, he simply answers “You say I am.”

The Gospels give us no punctuation for this statement, and so it is generally read passively, without emotion. But we cannot imagine Jesus without emotion in this moment, not given the throes of passion just evidenced in the Garden of Gethsemane. There must have been something there, besides simple resignation.

So what would the emotion have been? That of the man pleading “Father, take this cup away from me!” – a petulant “You say I am.” That is to observe “Would you face the consequences of that admission? Then why do you expect me to say it?”

No, Jesus was a man of greater heart than that. Perhaps, then, it was “You say I am!” The proof of the statement was in their actions, this desperate attempt to preempt the rallying of the people to him after his non-violent provocations against their authority. If they did nothing, he would indeed become king, a king brought to authority by God, rather than by human methods.

Or was it a prophetic proclamation? As David had proclaimed his suffering twenty generations before, was Jesus merely observing to Pilate, “You say I am!” The ultimate authority of Rome, the Emperor himself, will one day proclaim Christ the Lord!

But there is another thread, the thread that starts with Israel being told “I am that I am”, and continuing with the challenge to Peter “Who do you say I am?” It is the prompting of God through the ages that beseeches us to trust our hearts – to hear the still, quiet voice that Samuel counseled the Israelites to rely upon over the institutions of men. It is a voice of hope, still hoping against hope that the pain and suffering could be avoided. Not just the endurance of the cross, but all the religious wars, the starving children, the women demonized and abused for sexual gratification, and the wasted words of political dispute when only compassion can light the road to justice.

It is the hope of rejoining human institutions to the divine purpose.

It is to encourage:

You! Say I am!

Are we prepared to do that now? Not just if he came down in glory – but if he came as he did before, a man with all the frailties of flesh. Would he be recognized? And if not, why would he return?

Only to die again?