Friday, November 30, 2012

Jesus and Grandma

Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. And John tried to prevent Him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and are you coming to me?" But Jesus answered and said to him, "Permit it to be so now, for it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." Then he allowed Him.  Matthew 3:13-15

In the wilderness of Judea comes a prophet. In the tradition of the prophets he preaches repentance, fire, judgment, the presence of God and the coming of the Lord. While John the Baptist is baptizing repentant souls, Jesus gets in the baptismal line. Understandably, John objects, but relents at the very first words of Jesus rehearsed in the Gospel of Matthew. "Permit it to be so now, for it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness."

Righteousness… For some, words like righteousness, holiness, repentance, etc. come with lots of baggage. Some are inclined to “prevent” these words, but we ought to “permit” and “allow” their usage. Though these words may allow for momentary heaviness, ultimately they permit life. Consider the illustration that follows:

My great-grandmother was yet surviving when I was a very young child, but she was in poor health. She had lost ability to communicate well and was not herself. I never knew her and she never knew me. Her personality had slipped through the closing door of her life leaving little more than a shell to linger. It remained only for surviving family members to honor the dignity of human life and her life by loving and caring for her until she was completely passed on.

I remember being in the dim room where she was sitting silent and motionless in her chair. It seemed all black and white, no color. She had no kind words for me. Perhaps she had no words for me. I don’t remember. She did not try to woo me or get me for a hug and kiss. Did she know I was in the room, that I was full of life and curiosity? - That I was special? Did she notice my new cowboy boots? Did she like my recent crew cut? Did she think I was getting bigger, that I had muscles, that I was strong and brave? But there were no words, no response, only her heavy presence, blank, hollow and draining.

I was afraid of her. Instinctively I knew this was someone I must reverence. She was ancient, gray and petrified. Her rocking chair seemed like a throne and she a haunting queen who could at any bitter moment render condemnation on me for…for being there. I did reverence her, kept quiet in her presence and could sense the adults were not themselves while in the room with her and talked in different tones. It seemed her lack of personality was a vacuum, absorbing the personality all who came into the room. I noticed this creepy power she possessed and I feared her.

Too often, this experience is similar to our concept of righteousness, holiness, etc. Religion has made it a creepy thing – a seemingly yet-living-but-approaching-death kind of thing. It is a thing we cannot help but reverence, yet dread to embrace. It steals our words, gives us no words, robs us of personality and offers nothing in return but obligatory gloom. We know there is something once living in all this, yet now a void and vacuum to incarcerate the living.

Now I contrast this memory of my great-grandmother with that of her daughter, my grandmother. She was not confined to a throne, but walked about freely doing this and that, all the while laughing and talking with a generous supply of smiles.

She, also, appeared old to me and this again drew from my young soul an instinctive sense of reverence for her, yet a reverence un-shrouded in gray, distressing shadows. My reverence for her was filled with light. She seemed to sparkle in my young eyes and was as irresistible to me as she was ancient.

It seemed to me I was as special in her eyes as she was in mine. She spoke frequently to me and till this day no one says my name the way she did. Usually, when others spoke my name, it meant I was in trouble and had some explaining to do. But when grandmother spoke my name it sounded no different than “I love you”. How did she do that? She had power too.

Decades later, the day came when it was obvious my grandmother was not long for the earth. I feared I would be asked to speak at her funeral. It would be a great honor, but the burden still... I was, in fact, asked and was relieved another was not officiating, for I supposed they might get it wrong. I knew others may portray her as a saint, that is to say, an untouchable, otherworldly saint the rest of humanity could not manage to immolate, somehow separate from the real life others live. It was my honor to both praise a life well-lived and to commend a way of life any could follow. I confessed in that service, it was because of her life I live for Jesus Christ.

Her spell over me was not fixed in glum despair, but in love, freedom and reverential delight. She made holiness for me not to be like the sad and down days of an impending funeral, but more like the anticipation of festive holidays or family reunions where there would be wonderful food, joy, love and laughter.

Biblical holiness does not fail to recognize and acknowledge your personality and God-given uniqueness, but rather, it facilitates these. Biblical holiness knows your name – speaks your name – and speaks your name with a sweetness that could only come from one who loves you dearly – could only be spoken by the Darling of your soul. 

The Gospel of Matthew leaves no room for antinomianism, condemns lawlessness and emphasizes righteousness. But the law is interpreted through love. There is law in Grandma’s house… No big – it’s Grandma’s house.   

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