Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

Shouting Stones: A Woman’s Lavish Love

This is one in a series of Lenten reflections at Patheos on the men and women who became the “shouting stones” for Jesus on his way to the Cross. How do the actions of these everyday folk invite us in our Lenten journeys? In this reflection, I was asked to reflect on the woman who anoints Jesus for his burial.

She Has Done a Beautiful ThingImage 
Mark 14:3-9

It is so easy to lock in on Jesus’ words, “The poor you will always have with you,” and miss the impact of this scene. A woman barges into a meal and does what, by all practical intents and purposes, looks like a completely wasteful and useless act. She breaks a beautiful alabaster bottle and dumps rare and expensive perfumed ointment on Jesus’ head. Those present for the mea

l complain, but Jesus praises her and tells us why: “She has done a beautiful thing . . . she has anointed my body beforehand for burying.”

Apart from Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection, very few scenes appear in all four Gos

pels, but this one does. Maybe it is because Jesus said that wherever the Gospel is preached, this woman’s ac

t of loving service would be told the world over. Whatever the reason, it stands for us as a challenge, with two questions for faith: Are we paying attention? What is the quality of our love?

Nard was a rare perfume, produced in far away Nepal and carried overland or by sea to the Middle East. The alarm over how the woman used it was, in an economic sense, understandable. An item worth three hundred denarii would take six months’ wages for the average worker to buy. And since the average worker would have to use a significant amount of each day’s wages for food, clothing, and shelter, a woman would have taken considerably longer to save this amount. To dump it all on Jesus in such a profligate way would have seemed, to a sensible person, a completely absurd and offensive act. And to break an alabaster jar, a costly item in itself, no doubt added fuel to the fire.

Not to mention that this woman had already offended sensibilities, most likely, by showing up to the meal at all. So, as is often the case with scenes from Jesus’ life in the scriptures, everything about this one is all wrong according to conventional thinking, which is precisely why it is so powerful in stimulating us to think.

I cannot resist importing bits of how the other Gospels tell the story. Mark tells us that this woman poured the nard on Jesus’ head. Luke and John say that, weeping, she wets Jesus’ feet with her tears, anoints his feet with the nard, then wipes his feet with her hair. (No self-respecting woman would have let her hair down in public like that.) Whether we take these texts compositely or look at each individually, she has acted shamelessly, extremely, begging us to see what she sees.

First, we see in her actions the burden of anticipatory grief. Jesus tells us that this

woman is preparing his body for burial. The contrast with those gathered at the meal, presumably many of Jesus’ disciples (Matthew’s gospel makes reference to them), could not be more stark. She sees what is coming. They do not, even though Jesus has told Peter and the others three times that he was on his way to Jerusalem to die.

Seeing what is coming, the woman expresses her love for Jesus in the most extravagant way. It’s all in how you frame it. If it’s just a meal we’re looking at, then her actions make no sense. But if it’s Jesus’ supreme act of redemptive love, enacted through the cross, then the costliness and the shamelessness of her act of love is perfectly appropriate. She has done a beautiful thing for Jesus.

Hence the two challenging questions. Are we paying attention? Had we been standing where this woman was standing, could we have seen what she saw, what was coming for Jesus? Would we have been as “dialed in” as this woman was to the significance of the events unfolding before her eyes?

And what is the quality of our love? Are we stingy with it? Do we dole it out in little bits and snatches? Or do we just dump it, lavishly, extravagantly, shamelessly, offering to God and neighbor the love with which God loves us?

It was a risky, controversial thing this woman did, but it was a beautiful thing. As

we journey forward in Lent, may this woman’s witness provoke us to love and good deeds in the name of our Lord.

This is one in a series of Lenten reflections at Patheos on the men and women who became the “shouting stones” for Jesus on his way to the Cross. How do the actions of these everyday folk invite us in our Lenten journeys?


April 19, 2011 Posted by | Religion | Leave a comment

Worried about Sex, Again

They call it “gender neutral housing,” an ironic term, since it’s anything but gender neutral.   According to the news accounts I’ve read, Rutgers University is trying a pilot project the coming Fall semester in which students can choose roommates of either sex.  In this new arrangement, people will be able to live with their partners (gay or straight) or have roommates of the same or opposite sex based on any other consideration they choose.  As a guy, I could choose a female roommate who is not my girlfriend, or she could be my girlfriend.  As a guy, I could choose a guy who is my boyfriend, or not.  Any way is OK.

The appeal for this change came from the GLBT community and, from their perspective, it makes perfect sense.  It allows for the expression of the most equitable roommate arrangements with regard to as wide a range of sexual expressions as possible.  I see their point, but I’m worried about other consequences.

Mark Regnerus, a sociology professor at the University of Texas, has studied and written about emerging adult sexuality and, if you’re any kind of Christian (liberal or conservative; pick any label you wish) his findings should be a matter of concern.  (To get a sample of his work, go to www.changingsea.org/regnerus.php.)  One study shows that only 16% of adults between the ages of 18 and 23 have not had sexual intercourse.  In the same age group, among those who are romantically involved, only 6% are not having sex of some sort.

As Regnerus points out, this news is really not new news.  In fact, most of us who work with young adults are sick of hearing about it, because we feel 99% hopeless that we can change these statistics.  Aside from the occasional sex-and-dating stuff that some campus ministers still try to do, we have largely abdicated this field.

But the idea that there is not a cost for this approach to sex among college students (to limit my emerging adulthood reference to my work context) is false and dangerous.  And I’m not merely talking about the utilitarian consequences (e.g. STDs) of sexual activity.  I am talking about the emotional/spiritual wounds.

(At this point in the blog, I feel the need to say, “I’m not a prude.  This post is not about pining away for some purer, simpler time, nor is it a right-wing diatribe.”  There, I feel better.)

Another author has written of the “no regrets” mantra of young people (Christian Smith, Souls in Transition).  In interviews, young people, after describing some of the most painful, heartrending experiences, commonly say something like, “But I have no regrets.  It (the painful experience) has made me what I am today.”  Many of the “its” have to do with sexual activity leading to unhealthy relationships, unwanted pregnancies and a list of other collateral damages.  It starts with sex, but it does not end there.

Back to Regnerus: serial monogamy is the thing.  Students are generally not promiscuous.  The free love days are long gone.  They still want to get married (even though they’re marrying much later than earlier generations).  They have one partner at a time and they still have a sense of loyalty and boundaries while in that relationship.  But virtually all are having sex with that partner.  Sexual intercourse.  So, it turns out that sex still is more than just recreational.  It’s relational.  And when the relationship breaks up, it can be and usually is soul-searingly painful.

So, rather than just going with the democratic flow, like Rutgers has done, I think it’s high time for colleges and universities to re-examine our housing practices.  I know.  We are not in loco parentis, but I think this excuse is really a dodge.  We in higher education are held responsible in a million other ways for our young charges, even though we’re supposed to stay the heck out of their private lives.

I don’t have an answer, but I see the problem and we in higher education need to start talking about it.

April 9, 2011 Posted by | emerging adults, Higher and Theological Education, Ministry, Pop Culture | , , , , , | 5 Comments

Needed: More Talk of Religion, Not Less

Here’s another example of religion in the news and the urgency of people becoming more religiously literate.

In this morning’s USA Today (“Muslim Teacher’s Lawsuit an Overreach”), scholar Stephen Prothero tells the story of a math teacher who has filed suit for religious discrimination, since her school district would not permit her to be gone for 19 days on a hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca).  I won’t delve into Professor Prothero’s judgments on the particulars of this case.  You can read the piece yourself.

I’m most interested in how he ended his column: “Religious minorities must learn, in turn, that there are some cases where American law cannot accommodate them without infringing on the rights of others.”  Dr. Prothero believes that the plaintiff will have to find a way to observe her religious dutiesthat does not infringe on the rights of other citizens.  But do the rights of others legitimately limit the way a person practices her faith?

Adjudicating this complex question is a matter of high concern and the problem is, most of us don’t know what we’re talking about.  Dr. Prothero goes straight at this problem in his most recent books, Religious Literacy [2007] and  God is Not One [2010].  If we don’t make some progress, the likelihood is that people ignorant of religion (judges) will make increasingly controversial (and unwise)  decisions about how religious practices fit within the American constitutional framework.

This means that it is absolutely crucial that we find a way for religion(s) to come back into public conversations.  So, what to do?  For starters, every judge should have to engage in some serious tutorials on the beliefs, practices and cultural concerns of the world’s most populous religions.  I’m not kidding.  The job of a judge is to judge judicisouly.  It is impossible to make good, sometimes precedent-setting, decisions about the dance between religious practice and the public good without adequate knowledge of religion(s), no matter how well a judge knows the law.

And what is needed for judges extends to the rest of us.  Whereas I do not believe for a nanosecond that knowledge alone leads people to make good choices and act wisely, I do think that we pretty well guarantee bad outcomes with the institutionalized ignorance abundant in this country regarding religion(s).  Yes, for starters, we’re going to have to find a way for religion(s) to re-enter our country’s educational system.  And we might even have to consider some such requirement for college and university general education programs.

I know that my appeal goes in the opposite direction of conventional wisdom and it also means a change in long practice.  Interpretations of the Constitution that in practice limit religious talk need to be re-thought.  In more popular terms, we’re not supposed to discuss religion or politics in polite company, but that, too, is another piece of bad advice that has to go.  If we don’t learn to talk and think about these things, we will be left with religiously ignorant people making bad, even dangerous, decisions.  That is not a pretty picture.

April 4, 2011 Posted by | Education, Religion | Leave a comment