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Many of us are chronically distressed by the suffering we see around us. It confronts us in the 24/7 news cycle, in social media, in what we pass on the street every day. We live with a longing to be rid of the pain and guilt that we experience in witnessing all of this suffering.

That longing drives us to cast about for things to do that would “fix the problem.” We try and we urge others to try political action. We give and we urge others to give. Even so, we still feel our discomfort and our seeming failure to accomplish a fix.

The Gospel of Mark tells us a story in which Jesus addresses this pain and guilt, yet we tend to miss his message—in part because centuries of tradition have focused so much on him rather than on what he was teaching us.

L0065469 Ointment pot, Egypt, 2000-100 BCEHe was just reclining [at table], and a woman came in carrying an alabaster jar of myrrh, of pure and expensive nard. She broke the jar and poured [the myrrh his head.]

Now some of them were annoyed…. “What good purpose is served by this waste of myrrh? For she could have sold the myrrh for more than three hundred silver coins and given to the poor….”

Then Jesus said, “Let her alone. Why are you bothering her? She has done me a courtesy. Remember, there will always be the poor around, and whenever you want you can do good for them, but I won’t always be around. She did what she could—she anticipates in anointing my body for burial….”

— excerpts from Mark 14:3-9
The Complete Gospels: Annotated Scholars Version,
ed. by Robert J. Miller, Polebridge Press, 1994

At one level, this is a story about men who resent an independent woman wealthy enough to pour out an entire jar of nard.  At the level of evangelical storytelling, it is the author of Mark pointing his audience toward the crucifixion of Jesus.

What interests me, though, is the paradoxical play of sacred story. Jesus is direct in his criticism of his friends: “There will always be the poor around, and whenever you want you can do good for them.” He is more subtle in his challenge.

Come back to the present moment. We are all with each other now. This woman is not afraid to acknowledge my mortality—or her own, or yours. Instead of distracting herself from that reality with worldly concerns, she is blessing me right now.

Quaker faith and practice internalizes the crucifixion. Each of us is invited to embrace the death of “the Christ within” which is our true self. Until we are able to do that, we continue to be distracted by fear of our own mortality.

How much can we truly serve others while we are so distracted?


Image source

Ointment pot, Egypt, 2000-100 BCE, L0065469 Credit Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images. Library reference no.: Science Museum A634855. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only license CC BY 4.0.

Egyptian vessels from this era vary in size and shape. Very small jars held expensive liquids such as opium suspended in oil. Large jars stored wine and household ingredients. The tapered bases of oil jars such as this could be pushed into the ground to keep the jar upright. This example is made from alabaster. Other materials used included wood, clay, metal and glass.

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Friendship bench II, by Mike ShellThe notion in some traditions that saints are just a few especially pure and devout people is countered in others by the notion that any sinner who makes good faith efforts to live in God’s kingdom can be counted among the saints.

Pastor Ed Searcy of University Hill Congregation in Vancouver writes:

When Paul writes to his distant congregations and addresses those letters to the saints, he is not singling out certain particularly faithful members of the church…[He] writes to everyone in the congregation….

The saints are those who live with aching brokenness, great grief or chronic despair and yet know the saving love of the God met in Jesus.

Three years ago on this blog, I wrestled at length with Jesus’ parable of the weeds in the field (sometimes called “the wheat and the tares”).

At the heart of that struggle was my deep doubt that Jesus himself, Yeshua, would center his teaching parables—as Matthew claims in his interpretation of this one (Matt. 13:36-43)—on the matter of who is or is not included in the kingdom.

At the heart of my faith is a visceral awareness that Yeshua challenges us any time we try to exclude anyone based on our human notions of what G-d wants. To me,

Yeshua’s parable focuses upon how we are not to try to determine which are weeds and which, wheat. How we are to nurture the growth of every plant in the field. How it isn’t our business to pluck out those whom we don’t believe should be in the Kingdom.

Another way of considering this matter arises out of a tradition of Pagan Europe. Here’s an excerpt from an old Walhydra’s Porch post about the “Dumb Supper“:

The final harvest [of the year] came right at the cusp of Winter, around October 31st. But this was also when people believed the veil between the living and the dead was the thinnest, when those whom Death had harvested could return to share a meal with their loved ones.

In Gaelic, the festival was called Samhain, “Summer’s End.” It was Christianized as All Hallows Eve (Hallowe’en), preface to All Saints Day.

Folk gathered for an end-of-season feast to which they believed they could invite the dear departed by setting out extra places of food and wine. The dead could speak through the stories, jokes and laments their survivors told about them. They called it a “Dumb Supper.”

Granted, the dead these folks spoke for were most likely people they knew and cared about. Yet what resonates for me in this practice is the acknowledgment that mortality need not separate us. It is fear of mortality which separates us.

During my counseling career, I sometimes dealt with particularly hurtful behaviors on the part of a clients. I sometimes had to fall back on a counter-intuitive principle of therapy: however hurtful a behavior might be, that person believes there is a good reason for the behavior. The challenge is to help the client discern what that “good reason” is, and then to help him or her find humane means to address the need—or to cope with that need remaining unmet.

It is fear of mortality which separates us.

I believe that, at some level, everything we do which is hurtful to ourselves or others is ultimately motivated by fear of death. Of loss. Of the anticipated pain we imagine death and loss will bring us. Even the person who hurts me or my loved ones most brutally, most sadistically, is at root doing so to “avoid” death.

I’m not excusing anyone by asserting this. What I am doing is challenging myself to let G-d be the judge over if and when and how that person might enter the kingdom.

Meanwhile, I—we, all of us—do our best to sit humbly and tenderly with each other on the friendship bench, waiting for the openings which show us how to forgive and care for each other.

Friendship bench I, by Mike Shell

And so it is.

Blessèd Be,
Michael

Stephen Jay Gould

Our mind works largely by metaphor and comparison, not always (or even often) by relentless logic. When we are caught in conceptual traps, the best exit is often a change in metaphor—not because the new guideline will be truer to nature...but because we need a shift to more fruitful perspectives, and metaphor is often the best agent for conceptual transition. (264)

Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History

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