* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Mark 14: How to Build (and how not to build) Friendships

Every gospel that was approved for inclusion in the Bible has a version of Jesus' arrest in a garden. The gospel of Matthew copies Mark in specifying the garden as a place called Gethsemane. The gospel of Luke indicates the Mount of Olives, and it is believed that the garden Gethsemane was at the foot of the Mount of Olives. The legend of Jesus' arrest is varied in a few details from one telling to the next, but the event is obviously an important piece of the Passion narrative. The version in the gospel of Mark is the one we'll focus on here.

The second half of this passage is narrative. Judas, one of the inner circle of disciples and a member of a Jewish Zealot sect, betrays Jesus to Jewish authorities, who show up with a lynch mob. One of the disciples draws steel and cuts off the ear of a high priest's slave (a story that becomes elaborated as it is retold in other gospels), and Jesus is arrested. Jesus reprimands the authorities for their cowardice, but he does not resist them. His disciples scatter, one of them fleeing naked into the night. (This story, incidentally, does not make it into other gospel accounts.) One can draw personal meaning from this narrative, but frankly it is easier to find value in the elaborations of this story as it appears in Matthew and Luke. What value there is in the tale about accepting reality, experiencing abandonment (or being the one who abandons another), and personal integrity we can also draw from the first half of this passage, the time in the garden before Judas and the authorities arrive.

When Jesus takes three of his closest disciples and spends some moments in solitude at the olive press (this is what gethsemane means), he seems to realize that things are coming to a head. He has said and done too much to be ignored by the Jewish temple authorities, who are relatively comfortable with their arrangements in the Roman empire and are not keen on upstart messiahs (of which there were many in the first century). In the story, Jesus is agitated and restless, but his companions seem unconcerned. Jesus is having a hard time accepting reality at the moment; his disciples are just oblivious.

Asking for a cup to pass or to be removed is essentially asking to be spared from one's fate, or to be spared the consequences of one's actions. Although prayer is often thought of as a way of communicating with an external supernatural, prayer is actually a way of communicating with oneself. This understanding of prayer holds despite the fact that it isn't reflected in the way some people pray or the expectations some people have of their prayers. Jesus is thus connecting with a deep part of himself, and inquiring (with great emotion) whether there is any way out of the trajectory he has set in motion.

How often do we resist reality, either by rejecting our own circumstances or trying to control other people? We are (fortunately) only able to control our own actions, beliefs, and decisions. Yet, all of us experience situations that we dread or just don't like, and in those times, we often become anxious and upset. We make demands that reality shift to something we would prefer. We insist that other people change what they are doing, in order to alleviate our anxiety. We insist that someone change our circumstances, and when it seems humanly impossible, we plead with or yell at a supernatural. Despite all the energy and passion we pour into this anxiety, our forward motion can only resume when we accept reality for what it is and determine to work with our circumstances rather than against our circumstances. This doesn't mean we can't change our circumstances; it does mean that we have to be honest about where we are starting if we want to make meaningful changes.

Ultimately, Jesus determines that there is no way to reject reality, and that his deepest, most noble self requires him to maintain integrity to the same principles he has held throughout the story. He cannot escape into the darkness and become a fugitive, and still remain faithful to himself. Meanwhile, his best friends are falling asleep. In his time of greatest anxiety and agitation, his closest companions can't keep their eyes open. After waking them up a few times, the story suggests that Jesus gets fed up and acquiesces to his impending arrest. The disciples are not intentionally insensitive to their teacher and mentor; they just don't seem to understand the magnitude of the moment. And why should they? They are characters in a story that is unfolding. We don't know what major events will wind up being important turning points in our lives until after the fact. The disciples in the story are no different.

Still, it's hard to feel cared for when people seem unimpressed with your agitation, and it's frustrating for someone to be agitated when you can't quite understand the problem. Once the mob shows up, we see that the disciples haven't really learned all that much from following Jesus around. One of them cuts off a slave's ear, and all of them run from the scene instead of sticking with their leader. Self preservation is a powerful motivator in times of high anxiety.

For people who hold Jesus up as a superhuman, nearly omniscient savior, it would be difficult to ask what he could have done differently. As people who can accept that the Jesus myth is a story from which we might learn something about the way we relate to ourselves and others, we can potentially see room for improvement in Jesus' behavior. This is not to critique the story, but to see how we might correct some possible missteps in our relationships with others.

First of all, Jesus has never asked for care from his disciples, and now suddenly he wants them to care for him by staying up with him in his agitation. We also might expect people to read our minds and know what we want and how they can provide it, even though many of us are not really good at asking for what we need or want in our relationships. If we want to cultivate mutually meaningful relationships, we have to be vulnerable enough to let people know what we want and need, and we have to be willing to listen when other people express what they want and need. It's obvious that the disciples were unaccustomed to Jesus really needing or wanting anything personally, and when he finally needed them to come through as friends, they were completely unprepared.

So, secondly, we cannot exist as islands. Even if we are highly skilled and capable individuals, none of us can experience holistic well-being without meaningful relationships with other people. We need community. We need connection. Sometimes, it might be more important to let other people do things that we could do for ourselves, just to establish and reinforce the human connection we need.

Third, it never pays to keep things from people who are important to us. We might think that we are strong enough to carry the burden of our secret fears and anxieties, but we only set ourselves up for frustration when we keep to ourselves the things that most concern us. Based on the reactions that he was getting from certain powerful people, and given that he knew Judas' intentions, Jesus had quite a bit to be concerned about. That his closest friends didn't really get it suggests that they were either dumber than dirt, or that Jesus hadn't really allowed them to share his burden. When we are most fearful and anxious is when we most need other people -- not so that they can become anxious with us, but so they can help us gain perspective, so they can communicate that we are not alone. Sometimes all we really need is for someone to stay up with us and remind us that they care about us.

Which leads to a fourth lesson: We need equality in our relationships. If one person is always staying up late and comforting the other, there is an imbalance in the relationship that might not be able to withstand the test of time. Although the gospel narratives never depict Jesus staying up late to comfort the disciples when they are anxious, it's fair to say that there is a certain imbalance to the relationship dynamics as they are presented. When we ask other people to meet some of our needs, it's important that we are willing to hear what they need from the relationship as well. This means that we have to be committed to growing in our emotional maturity, becoming (as much as we are able) a non-anxious presence in the midst of stressful circumstances. The point of relying on other people is not that we give ourselves permission to be immature and anxious all the time, but that we recognize that, even as we grow and develop toward the best possible versions of ourselves, we can't do everything alone.

In this story, Jesus is an exemplar of making a difficult adjustment into alignment with reality and acting with integrity to one's deepest most noble self. He also provides an example of what not to do in terms of the friendships we cultivate. We have to trust others and foster mutual vulnerability if we want meaningful relationships. As we build meaningful, balanced relationships, we learn that it is in community with other people that we truly understand our values and guiding principles. It is in relationship with others that we come to envision the best possible version of ourselves.

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