A few friends are loosely organizing ourselves in a kind of laboratory where we’ll be the scientists as well as the subjects. We’re hoping to take a fresh look at Jesus and his message and to come up with some life experiments to temporarily force ourselves into some of the practices that he commends. Inspired by a friend’s poem where he talks about shifting his life today so that he’ll be satisfied with it when he’s at retirement age, the group is otherwise known as ’64′. Which has provided a stumbling block for some closet Beatles fans, but which is a lot easier than using some long name, though ‘Jesus Experiment’ is gaining a foothold, too.
This Saturday, a few of us took a kind of first step, transposing graveyard on gospel. We took a walk in a cemetery to consider our lives and their brevity– to try to see our current life through the lens of the future. And we suspected that reading one of the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John) would provide a little perspective on this whole project as well.
Well, this little experiment worked much better than I would have expected. Walking through Arlington National Cemetery on a cool summer day was pleasant enough. It is right in our old neighborhood, and The Wife and I used to enact a rigorous walking program through these winding lanes, so it all felt completely familiar, at least until we split up for an hour or so. We started in the oldest part of the graveyard– from the time before the American empire, when the place was just an ordinary civilian cemetery. And I was struck breathless by the number of headstones that simply said, “UNKNOWN”. It was sobering and disconcerting to think that after only a few hundred years, these bodies were completely nonexistent, and even the memories of the people had been extinguished. In another section, what seemed to be the original headstones sat without any markings whatsoever. I hoped that someone had some kind of map or record, but I knew that they probably didn’t. As I walked by, I felt my deep yearning to make a mark on this world– to leave some kind of legacy behind– and realized the foolishness of this. If I’m very lucky and very industrious, I might have a little soundbite behind my name for a few years, but that’s about it. Even as I pushed The Girl in the stroller and grasped at the hope that I could leave something to my progeny, I saw the truth: our lives are a vapor that is short, intense, and then invisible. My heart was racing, and not from the steep hills here.
The Girlie fell asleep after a few minutes, so I parked her in the shade and pulled out a Bible. Predictably, I opened it to Matthew, which is my favorite and most studied gospel. But it didn’t seem so familiar today. It might have been the unusual translation I was reading, or the fact that I haven’t read it for a long time, or this new and alarming context I was standing in, but it seemed altogether different, even confusing.
The gospel started with some promise of an answer to my fresh and burning question, with John the Baptizer delivering this promise about Jesus:
“I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. The real action comes next: The main character in this drama—compared to him I’m a mere stagehand—will ignite the kingdom life within you, a fire within you, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives. He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.”
But once I got into the body of the book, I felt like I was grasping at straws. Jesus talks a lot about a ‘Kingdom’ that he’s reluctant to describe explicitly, and about himself and his place in this grand scheme, though he’s obviously secretive about this as well. He certainly raises the stakes– there is a ton of talk about divine judgment, and lots of miraculous healings are done at his hand. But he never offers a silver bullet or a soundbite. Instead, he talks about ethics and attitudes and coyly suggests again and again that his hearers understand all of this much better than they realize. That they can live into this Kingdom, just like him.
Right now, I’m about 2/3 of the way through Matthew, still desperate and raw enough to hold out hope that there’s some answer to my question.