Trauma Residue in the Early Life of Jesus

Sometimes because we have it so good, we quickly lose sight of just how bad things were throughout history. I don’t intend to lessen or invalidate the pain that any of us in the modern West have gone through, but the threat of famine or of violent hordes coming to destroy our villages is not something that ever crosses our minds. Such is a testament to the progress that we human beings have made in the modern world. Because we have it so good, I often wonder if that means our tolerance for pain and tragedy is greatly lacking. Rather than growing up in a world that is enchanted and full of tragedy, we grow up in a disenchanted world where we expect life to “work out” well.  I witness this in the various conversations I have in my role as pastor and teacher.  I recognize, too, that I am not somehow the exception to this thinking. It is within me, too. 

I write this because of the research I have done concerning the life and background of Jesus of Nazareth.  When thinking about the early life of Jesus, we tend to conjure up images of baby Jesus in a manger and of him getting lost in the Temple.  His father is a carpenter, his mother a dutiful wife, life is seemingly uneventful for them once they settle down in Nazareth.  That may not have been the case, though. Instead, plenty of evidence would suggest that Jesus grew up amid a serious traumatized people constantly under threat. He may have been very familiar with the darker side of humanity because of the unjust treatment of the Roman Empire.  In other words, there would have been plenty of reason to doubt God, to forsake him, and to curse him, but somehow, Jesus of Nazareth comes out of that darkness to do amazing things.  Here’s that world…

An Empire on the Rise

The Roman Empire’s ascendancy was well underway around the time of Jesus’ birth.  Some consider having taken place around 4 B.C.E.  Geopolitically speaking, Jewish Palestine was of considerable import to the Empire as it was on its eastern edges.  Such concern was due to the Parthian Empire, which was to the east.  In essence, Jewish Palestine was a buffer zone, and Rome wanted to maintain a firm grip on the area in light of the Parthian’s potential threat.  What is more, given the Jewish people’s history and the Maccabean revolt, it was known for being a challenging area to rule.  Thus, Rome spared no expense in maintaining control and dominance in that area of the Empire (Myers 2008, 56).  Nonetheless, Roman imperial rule was not looked upon favorably by most Jewish Palestinians for many factors, from harsh military rule to oppressive taxation.   

Rome’s dominance over the area would be made quite clear in 4 B.C.E. After Herod the Great’s death, his son Antipas went to Rome to have his father’s will ratified by Caesar Augustus and the Senate (Batey 2001, 40).  While gone, a widespread rebellion broke out in Galilee and Judea led by a rebel named Judas.  In retaliation, the Roman general Varus burned down and destroyed towns throughout the countryside and crucified about two thousand men believed to be rebels.   Going further, Varus would burn down the city of Sepphoris and the surrounding area enslaving thousands of its inhabitants (Horsley 2003, 29).  Bear in mind that Nazareth was four miles north.  Such a response was not simply physical warfare but also psychological warfare.   Rome knew that such brutality would serve to intimidate “the surviving populace into acquiescence in the reestablished Roman imperial order” (Horsley 2003, 28).  We can only imagine the traumatic impact Rome’s actions must have had on the people as they saw relatives, friends, and fellow villagers suffering under such brutality (Horsley 2003, 28).  When Herod Antipas finally returned in 3 B.C.E. he found Sepphoris mostly destroyed and decided to make it his capital city.  As a result, he embarked on a large building project that lasted for decades and employed many laborers and artisans from the surrounding villages like Nazareth (Batey 2001, 403).  Certainly, the child Jesus grew up in such trauma residue, hearing the pain and mourning of relatives and villagers.  Such would not have been quickly forgotten, especially considering that Roman military forces repeatedly enslaved the people and destroyed the villages around Nazareth (Horsley 2003, 34).  One wonders what kind of impact this had on the human subject Jesus of Nazareth.  Is this in part why in the face of constant calls to revolutionary activity Jesus develops his teaching on nonviolence?  After all, he would have understood quite well the futility of fighting the Romans on violent grounds.  Is this also why the cross is so central to his public teaching?  Growing up, the roads he traveled most likely had the rotting corpses of those crucified on them. Jesus would have understood firsthand the brutality of the Roman Empire.

We know from the gospel accounts that Jesus’ father, Joseph, was a carpenter or laborer (teknon). Based on the evidence, he likely worked in Sepphoris, given the proximity of Nazareth to the city. Instead of growing up in a small secluded village, Jesus grew up in what today we would call a suburb of a city.  Jesus probably traveled with his father to Sepphoris as he got older to learn their family’s trade.  This is significant because, by all accounts, Sepphoris was a cosmopolitan and sophisticated city since it was connected to a central road system.  There Jesus would have encountered all kinds of people from the surrounding Gentile territories and Greek cities (Batey 2001, 406).  Did Jesus’ experiences in this city have a strong influence on his later public ministry?  Shirley Jackson Case seems to think so writing,

“The unconventionality of Jesus mingling freely with the common people, his generosity towards the stranger and the outcast, and his conviction of the equality of all classes before God, perhaps owe their origin in no slight degree to the proximity of Nazareth to Sepphoris” (1929, 19).

Such was the world that Jesus of Nazareth grew up in…

Sources:

Batey, Richard A. 2001. “Sepphoris and the Jesus Movement.” New Testament Studies 47 no. 3 (June): 402–9.

Case, Shirley Jackson. 1926. “Jesus and Sepphoris.” Journal of Biblical Literature 45, no. 1-2 (January): 14-22.

Horsley, Richard A. 2003. Jesus and Empire : The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder. Fortress Press.

Myers, Ched. 2008. Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. Maryknoll: Orbis.

Irreverent Reverence

I’ve never been one of those super-serious clergy persons. The type that is very stoic in all that they do, especially when they lead worship.  Actually, that’s something that I will never understand; how pastors can remain so serious while leading God’s people in worship.   This isn’t to say that worship isn’t a serious endeavor, but when we’re up in the chancel area we see and hear everything going on in the pews and throughout the sanctuary. Whether it’s the older gentlemen coughing up a storm, the loud ding from a person’s cell phone letting them know they got a text, or those who walk down the aisle in the middle of the sermon.   It’s hard not to be distracted by these things, but it’s also hard not to laugh at these things.  That in the midst of what should be a reverent time there is a whole lot of irreverence.   

In the throes of leading such a worship experience this past Sunday, an image of the first Christmas popped up into my head along those words from John 1, “the word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” I suppose I could get upset at the lack of reverence and become righteously indignant but I believe that the incarnation teaches us otherwise.   The incarnation teaches us that God dwells among us in the midst of the “isness” of life.  There is always the ideal or the “what should be” that can all too easily pull us away from the gift of the present in all of its blessed imperfection.  Yes, the Word became flesh, but He also became flesh in the throes of a less than ideal world where rulers immediately wanted him dead and a band of notorious shepherds were the first non-family members to welcome him into the world.  I suppose it could’ve been better, but into such an irreverent situation our God decides to come.

When Prayer Time Is Hard

There are times when my prayer time takes a hit or maybe I should say there are times when my prayer time really seems dry and pointless.  Yesterday, it was really hard for me to remain focused and to remain centered.  That sense of simply going through the motions without any sense of God’s presence really pervaded.  Part of it is my own anxiety and the increasing burden that the pandemic is placing upon us with each passing day.  The “what-ifs” keep growing and the lack of answers are torturing and exasperating.  That said, this morning I felt much better.

The rollercoaster moves onward!

Something that I have come to really value is the Ignatian principle of “Finding God in All Things.” Yesterday, when I wasn’t really feeling all that great I took and step back and paid attention to the world outside my window.  We have lots of wildlife, at least for this neck of the woods.  And with the advent of May they seem to be everywhere.  We’ve got squirrels, rabbits, chipmunks, tons of birds, cardinals, blue jays, even a turkey.  They just keep keepin’ on, doing what they do and, you know, in the bigger picture of things I find this very comforting.  It provides me with much needed perspective because what immediately comes to mind are those words of Jesus, “Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them.  Of how much more value are you than the birds!”

And so I consider the squirrels, the rabbits, the chipmunks, the birds, the cardinals, the bluejays, even the turkey and they all seem to be doing okay.  God is taking care of them.  As a result of this, my question to myself is: why wouldn’t he take care of me?  And the answer is that there is no good reason or answer.  He will take care of me, and he will take care of you, simply because we are loved in Christ.

Peace,
Pastor Geminn+

Emma Learns To Ride Her Bike

A few weeks ago in one of his many press briefings Governor Cuomo encouraged us to take stock of the unexpected blessings of the pandemic.  Using himself as an example Cuomo explained that he was spending quality time with his daughters, quality time that simply wasn’t there before for him and his family.  I felt a resonance with his words.  I know my wife, Becca, did, too.

Yesterday, as we sat in front of our house and watched Emma ride her bike up and down our little street, Becca noted that if not for pandemic we wouldn’t be sitting and watching Emma do just that.  What Becca meant was that before the pandemic hit Emma was still riding her bike with training wheels.  Now because of all the time she has had riding her bike, she has learned to ride it without her training wheels.  And I should stress, this was all Emma’s doing, she learns things on her own time and terms.  As a result, her and I are able to set out on our own bike riding adventures.

Sometimes we need circumstances to push us onwards in life, to learn the things that God needs and wants us to learn.  Strangely, tragedies are often the best fodder and the best soil to do so in.  Think about the moments when you really grew in life, when you made great strides, were they the easy or hard times?  The predictable or unpredictable times?  The happy or the sad? Or somewhere in the middle?

In the Gospel of John Jesus tells us that he is the vine and we are the branches and he follows this up with some important information.  He says every branch of his that bears fruit the Father prunes so that it may bear more fruit.  In other words, if we are to bear more fruit, if we are to grow further in Christ, our God is in the task of pruning us, of taking away the things that may be keeping us back from true growth in Him.  This may be painful in the moment, but it will prove to be worthwhile and fruit bearing in the long run.

Going back to Emma, in her efforts to learn how to ride her bike without much help or assistance from Becca and I she got plenty of bumps and bruises.  She definitely fell and had some scary moments, but she did it, she learned how to ride her bike. Now, Becca and I can sit back and watch her ride her bike, with a certain amount of pride and happiness.

I wonder if that’s how our God looks at us; when we finally grow as a result of his pruning and learn the things he needs us to learn and become the people he calls us to become.

Peace,

Pastor Geminn+

“O Lord, Open My Lips”

It has been such a dreary and cold spring here in New York.  In many ways, it matches the way many of us are feeling here in the epicenter of the pandemic.  Spring just doesn’t seem to want to breakthrough.  But this morning I woke up to find clear skies and a warming sun.   I felt relieved and grateful, it looks like it is going to hit 70 degrees today.  When I sat down to begin my morning prayers I said the words, “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise” with a renewed understanding and appreciation for them.  Such words are easy to speak without giving much thought to them, but this morning it was different.   Different because of the clear gifted-ness of the day.  For all of our technological advances we still can’t control the weather.  We simply have to make do with what it gives us.  And though everyday is a gift, today I feel the poignancy and blessing of that truth.  I find myself comforted by my creatureliness and for but a moment, I feel centered.  I feel that I am where I should be, not controlling, not working, just receiving.

“O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare your praise.”

Absurdity?

There really is an absurdity to life, to the very ways in which we fail to see or to perceive the very truths that are right in front of us.  Instead, we latch onto narratives or stories or value systems that help us to justify the seemingly tragic, obvious, and superficial.  In many respects, such things inhibit us from growing as human beings because we spend so much time apeing around to acquire some form of happiness and contentment that we’re told we should have if we just follow along and play the part assigned.

Here I am reminded of a great scene from Camus’ The Stranger.  During his trial Meursault (the main character) notices that everyone around him is playing a sort of game.  The lawyers on both sides are clearly part of a club of sorts, they have their understood roles and all work and act accordingly.  Everybody knows everyone’s bullcrap but like a bunch of actors in a Shakespearean play they play the part that they know they have to play.

Such is life for many of us but there’s problem to this, a risk that we don’t really hear or learn of until it’s too late.  The old adage, “bad company ruins good morals” is applicable here but in a different sort of way.  It might be better put as, “group think ruins deep insight”(I’m still working on that one).  Or maybe it could be understood in the Faustian sense of selling your soul to a specific way of doing things while losing touch with what really is.

And I think such things can all too easily get in the way of our becoming human because instead of leading towards real connection it leads to false connection, all based on a manufactured way of doing things.  Everyone is disposable in so far as they do not play the part or play along.  This is very much part of the culture that we human beings have created and continue to create.  I think that we if we are paying attention we can be reminded of such dynamics on a daily basis.  Those things that inhibit us from being open and honest with others tend to stem from such dynamics.  We all too easily subsume ourselves to a system, a group, a form of propaganda without realizing it.

“Take heed, watch and pray.”

Holy Saturday

For me Holy Saturday begs the question: is it good that we know the ending to the story?  Does the knowledge that Jesus will rise from the dead cause us to skim over the emptiness and seeming meaninglessness of Jesus’ death?

I never paid much attention to Holy Saturday until taking part in the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola.  This year it’s different because through the Exercises I have developed the habit of imagining myself as a person or witness in the various gospel stories.  What I came to realize through this process is that the first Holy Saturday may have been a terrible affair for the women disciples.  It isn’t just that Jesus, the hoped for Messiah, was put to death but it is also the means and the methods that went into accomplishing such a thing.  It’s sitting in that knowledge and the reality that “there’s no justice, it’s just us.”  Men claiming to uphold the Torah broke their beloved Torah in order to maintain their status quo.  Pilate, in order to maintain peace, put a man whom he claimed did not deserve death to death on a cross.  Jesus’ most intimate disciples proved to be rather faithless in the face of great danger.   What was there to latch onto if you were one of Jesus’ disciples?  Everyone was gone and those who remained were corrupt and just awful.  Certainly, on that first Holy Saturday it did not appear that “the ark of the universe bent towards justice.”

I think for many of us Holy Saturday can be much more representative of our lives thanholy-saturday the resolution and brightness of Resurrection day.  There’s much that we encounter in our daily lives that doesn’t make any sense, is tragic, and simply unfortunate.  Bad guys win, the corrupt get re-elected, church leaders lie and obfuscate, children unexpectedly die, cancer afflicts all kinds of people and on and one we can go.  We do our best to make sense of these things but sometimes we just need to sit with them.  Christians are a people who look for the Resurrection of the dead but sometimes that can be used as a distraction from the seemingly ugly aspects of life in this world.  It can serve as our “get of jail” card from the inexplicable ways of this world.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t anticipate Resurrection morning or be excited and joyful.  Instead, maybe we need to spend more time in the unknown, learn to get comfortable with it, and not seek to explain it away.  Rather it may be okay to very simply believe that somehow someway Resurrection comes.

“What Are We Doing Here?”

That was the question that my sister-in-law posed to myself and my wife as we were standing in the hot sun at Disneyland.  We were already a few hours into our Disneyland adventure and this foray was already proving itself to be more exhaustive than imagined.  Standing in line for 30 minutes with a restless 2, 3, 4 and 7 year old for a ride that would last no more than 3 minutes at best proved to be progressively life sucking.  Strangely, though, we continued onwards despite our discomfort and despite our ever growing aches and pains acquired through endless walking, pushing, and carrying.  It is amazing to consider how normalized buying a bottle of water for $3.50 becomes after a few hours in the happiest place on earth.  But this is what such an adventure does to you.  It makes the irrational rational.

Back in our courting days whenever I would fly out to see Becca in California we would make sure to get a Disneyland visit in.  Becca was an annual passholder and I even managed to become one as well so it was no big deal for us to take a ride up the 5 and saunter around the park for a few hours.  We’d make sure to go on Space Mountain, Thunder Mountain Railroad, Splash Mountain and other great and iconic rides.  It was always a fun time and I must confess I don’t think we ever asked ourselves why we were doing this.  Heck, once we even sat on a bench for a prolonged period of time, drank coffee, and talked.  Man, those days were crazy.

As I indicated earlier, these days going to Disneyland is quite different.  Becca and I haven’t been on any of the aforementioned rides since we’ve had children.  Now when we go a good portion of our time is spent meeting characters, going to the shows they offer, and going on the more kid friendly rides.  Whereas previously we could watch fireworks while holding and leaning upon one another now it consists of holding 30 pounds plus of human being for 20 minutes straight while standing in the same spot.  In such instances I find myself drawing upon my centering prayer practice as a sort of survival method so that our girls have a good and enjoyable view.   No pain, no gain, right?

But seriously, to echo my sister-in-law’s words, “What are we doing here?” Or “what were we doing there?”  It’s entirely irrational to put ourselves through such an experience.  As far as I can tell the only ones who really enjoy the experience are the children.  They’re pushed around in a stroller, held, and can even fall asleep if they’d like (which ours did btw).  Strangely, we’re the ones who make this possible to our own detriment.  But we do it and Becca and I will probably do it again.

There’s plenty out there that can serve to give us a really low view of humanity and can even lead us into a spiral of cynicism.  But I think that if we are willing to see there’s much good to be realized all around us.  This turn around occurred for me at the end of the night as we traveled back on the tram to the parking garage.  Sitting there tired and forlorn I realized I was one parent among many on that tram who had endeavored, much to our potential harm, to make our children happy and provide them with a special day.  Looking around I saw parents tired from a day of giving of themselves to their children because their children matter that much to them.  That’s a good thing, that’s righteous.  While Disney is brilliant at exploiting it for their own ends it doesn’t change the reality that more often than not it’s a self-effacing love that results in its parks being filled with children.  And it’s the joy on our children’s faces that brings us back.

“What are we doing here?”  Foolishly loving our children.

 

Stay Low: Mystical Moments From Childhood

In the early years of my stalwart baseball career I can remember learning the fundamentals of baseball.  This learning was so great that it has emboldened me ever since to be the game’s best critic.  After all, what I learned as a six year old on a field not too far away in the Bronx was all that I needed to understand the game.  Though, to be fair, it does amaze me how much a team that does the fundamentals on a consistent basis is able to find ways to win.  There’s something to doing the fundamentals well.  It can serve a team well in the long run sort of like the tortoise that beats the hare through a simple, slow and consistent pace.

With that said I find myself brought back to those early days of learning how to play baseball.  The beautiful simplicity of what we were taught; two hands on the glove when catching a fly ball, choking up on the bat for better control, hitting the cutoffs, running the ball out, and the list goes on.  But one thing stands out to me at present and has provided me with a mystical moment of sorts.  It was how to stand and field a ground ball.  Were told to stay low, to bend our knees and widen our stance.  That’s how one most effectively fields a ground ball.  Even if one doesn’t catch the ball chances are that he or she most likely stopped it in some capacity because of the positioning of one’s body.  Such a basic fundamental can save a run, stop a runner from advancing or getting a double, and it can still result in the hitter getting thrown out.

Stay Low.  It’s so basic and sort of boring yet go to any major league baseball game and pay attention to the infielders and that’s what they do every time the pitcher begins his windup.  It works more than you may realize.  Stay Low.

Discipleship sort of works this way.  It’s keeping with the fundamentals. It’s really not all that glorious.  It’s trying to embody the simple teachings of Jesus that will enable us to continue on faithfully like the slow going tortoise.  Stay Low, do the basics, don’t seek after greatness, just get the job done.  If you seek out the flare and ignore the basics of Jesus you may do well for yourself but you’ll probably miss out on the kingdom that stands right before you and within you.

Stay Low.

The Stories We Live By

Author’s Note: When I use myth I simply mean a symbolic narrative or a story that gives meaning.

When I was in Kindergarten recess time amongst the boys was spent riding blue tricycles all across the playground.  All of the tricycles were the same except one.  All of the tricycles had a rainbow logo on the front except for one that had a lion’s logo on the front.  It was understood amongst us that this lone tricycle with the lion on it was the best and the fastest tricycle there was.  This meant that if you were the chosen line leader for the week that you got first ‘dibs’ on the greatest and fastest tricycle there was in all the playground.  This lionized tricycle also granted its rider a certain leader of the pack authority that was gained only to be lost at the close of each school week.  Kindergarteners would come and go but the tricycle’s lure and authority remained for it was the lion that gave it its power.  Eventually we would move beyond Kindergarten to 1st grade and with due time this myth or story of the fastest lion marked tricycle would lose its power over us.  In case you didn’t know, it turns out that the almighty lion tricycle was not faster than the other tricycles.  Though, the lion on its front was way cooler than a rainbow.

It would be easy for me to dismiss the collective belief of the 1987-88 Kindergarten class of St. Mark’s Lutheran School in the faster lion tricycle because we were five years old but I don’t think that would be fair.  As we get older we may leave behind certain stories or myths but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t replaced by others more fitted to our psychological development.  I may no longer believe in the greatness of the lion tricycle but I may believe in the greatness of the United States of America because of the stories and myths that indicate this to be so.  Similarly, I may no longer believe in the greatness of the lion tricycle but I may believe that everything happens for a reason with my own hindsight validating this storyline or myth.

We could go on with more examples but my main point is that we all live according to a story or multiple stories that help us to make sense of the world we live in and serve to give us meaning.   The conundrum of life in the 20th and 21st centuries is that so many of our stories have been deconstructed with the advancement of science and we’ve been left picking up the pieces in ways that previous generations never had to before.  We’re sort of left trying to make sense of it all without the certainty that such stories were able to provide previous generations.  While I’m sure there are those who would disagree it was probably much easier to believe in the Genesis creation story before the scientific revolution.   Similarly, no one apart from remote tribes in South America or elsewhere believes that the sun, moon or stars are gods or netherworlds consisting of aliens.

In reaction to this there seems to be two responses: a desire to go back to the ways things were, a sort of toxic nostalgia or throw everything out and move on into a materialist’s paradise.  One extreme resists the urge to change and is in denial while the other extreme wants to unburden itself completely to the whims of change and a hollowness that only modernity could leave us with.  But such results, on either end, seem so dire, boring, and hopeless.  Maybe the problem isn’t so much that we live by stories or myths that can be deconstructed but in the fact that we don’t really have much to offer in response to this deconstruction.  Instead, we carry on with the same stories with the hopes that some will just come to believe what we believe despite evidence to the contrary.  I don’t know, maybe I’m off but denial is a powerful thing.  Still, I am burdened by the fact that toxic nostalgia is almost always inaccurate, anachronistic and leads to a dead orthodoxy.  At the same time I am burdened by how secular materialism simply doesn’t account for the empathic and emotional qualities bound up with being human and those things which really do set us apart from the rest of creation.

We need stories to live by.  It seems to me, though, that now more than ever we need stories to live by that seek to answer and help us with some of life’s deepest questions at this moment in time.  Is it fair to expect a 21st century person to view the world with the ancient eyes of a 9th century B.C. Jewish peasant? Better still, how would they have responded to living in our world today?  What would something like Genesis look like if it were written today? How can ancient wisdom inform our modern approach to life?  Or are these questions not allowed to be asked?  Are they too much to bare?