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.
Just taking the long view (I mean – the long, long, long view), I consider the time-scale of the cosmos and the saga of biological evolution and we have the precious experience of living in this 10,000 year period in which our intelligence and the natural resources stored up from the past are available for us to do really deep work on our personalities. Simply to be alive in this time is such an incredible gift – to be able to play at being a creator, each in our own limited way.
Even if only to be able to plant a field, or tend a herd, or write a blog. Even if only to be the voice that reminds “There are still problems to be solved” in a way that motivates others to seek for solutions. Not to place fault, but to exhort greatness in others – to guide them into the only form of self-creation that opens to God.
Yes, the window is closing, as it was prophesied in Revelation. No, it’s not the fault of any single individual, and if we collectively had been more considerate of the forms of life that occupied the planet before us, maybe it wouldn’t be so traumatic. But that’s not under my control, so the question I constantly confront myself with is: what am I doing with my opportunity? Am I offering my creative capacities in the service of Life, or do I expect Life to serve me? Because when I finally lose my grip on this body, it is Life and Love that awaits to embrace me with the eternal embrace, if only I know how to receive it.