Text Study for Luke 21:1-36 (Pt. 2); November 28, 2021

Re-narrating Recovery

The move from the Markan composition to the Lukan history is a move from “immediately” to “now what?” While the tragedies and traumas of the late 60s did not result in the automatic End of the Age, as some might have expected, the Markan composition did not propose a long delay before the Final Consummation. The urgent task was to get the Word out to as many as possible before that last act took place.

With the passing of a generation, the task had changed. The End of the Age would surely come in God’s good time. But that time was apparently further in the future than anyone could have imagined twenty-five years earlier. Life in the Empire had continued uninterrupted. A new stability had been achieved for the Empire, while the small movement of Jesus followers remained in a precarious and sometimes persecuted position.

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The story of the End of the World as We Know It was not a temporary discomfort but rather a long-term reality. The necessity to deal with the trauma was becoming more pressing, I suspect, not less, for the Lukan communities. Someone had to try to draw the narrative, historical, and theological threads into one garment. Someone had to tell the story in such a way that the mission could continue.

At the same time, the Jesus movement was entering a third generation of followers. This generation no longer had the first-person testimonies of original witnesses. This generation was losing the voices of those who could tell the stories from memory as they had heard them from those witnesses. The movement was growing in numbers and continuing to deepen its presence in the Imperial system.

It is, therefore, not surprising that this point in the historical process produced two efforts to put the story in order for the new audiences and readers. The writers of the gospels of Matthew and Luke used material from the common store of early Christian memory – some form of the Markan transcript, early sayings material that scholars sometimes refer to as “Q” (from the German word for “source”), and materials specific to each of their own communities and traditions.

The writer of Luke’s gospel was the most intentional in this task of re-telling. One of the functions of these Advent messages in the three-year lectionary tradition is to give opportunities to reintroduce our listeners to the purposes and themes of the Lukan account which will occupy us during the next year. One of those purposes is the giving of an “orderly account” of the Gospel to those who might be interested.

It’s always good to return to the preface of Luke’s gospel in Luke 1:1-4 to understand and appreciate what we have before us this year. The writer of Luke’s gospel acknowledges that others have tried to write down an ordered account “of the events that have been fulfilled among us.” This is certainly a nod to the Markan account, Q, and other such records.

The writer also acknowledges a debt to the tradition that has been “handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.” We have here a description of the first two generations of storytellers. The writer has decided to take another whack at pulling things together, this time for “most excellent Theophilus,” one who has received instruction in following Jesus and now is ready for the full story.

The contrast between this leisurely and diplomatic Lukan introduction and the prologue to the Markan composition could not be much more pronounced. “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” – ready, set, go!” The Lukan account is a careful compilation and consideration, designed for people with the luxury of time and an eye toward following Jesus for the long haul.

The move from Mark to Luke is also the move from an oral/aural transcript created to be heard (and perhaps created by hearing) to a written history drafted and crafted in order to be read (probably aloud, but still read). “Though contemporary scholarship has become aware of the deep significance of the origin of the gospels as oral stories,” Richard Swanson writes, “interpreters have noted that Luke feels and reads more like a ‘page text’ than an oral text” (page 22).

As I noted, the written account arises from a need to pull things together. “Luke’s story also comes out of a painful history, a time of disaster, a time when religious tradition gave desperate birth to hopes for the consolation of an abused people,” Swanson continues (page 23). “To see signs in the sun, moon, and stars would indicate that somehow the terrible chaos on earth had shaken all stability out of place. These are children at worship,” Swanson notes, “who have seen these signs, who have learned, painfully, that comfortable stability is an illusion” (page 53).

And as I noted in the previous post, Luke’s readers are learning about, remembering, and dealing with trauma now three decades old. Clearly that trauma, however, has not been tamed. A traumatic experience is not merely remembered. It is relived and repeated until the sufferer can accept the memory as a companion rather than an enemy. But how does that happen?

“At the heart of the clinical material on recovery,” Serene Jones writes, “are three insights about this process, insights useful for the theological-imaginative task” (page 32). First, Jones notes, those who have experienced trauma need to tell their story. Second, those who have experienced trauma need accepting, safe, and reliable witnesses to hear their story. Third, she continues, the testifier and the witness must launch into “the process of telling a new, different story together: we must begin to pave a new road through the brain” (page 32).

Human memory is a complex reality. We are not audio and video recording devices. We are story-tellers. Each time we remember and re-narrate an event, we grow the story in some particular way. We are not simply re-tracing the neural connections laid down to preserve our memories. We are strengthening the existing connections and creating new ones.

In the case of trauma, this telling of a new, different story “does not mean forgetting the past,” Jones writes, “rather it means re-narrating the events in such a way that agency is returned, and hope (a future) is possible” (page 32). Jones summarizes what this means for the Church:

“To translate these three insights about recovery and healing into the language of theology, as the church, we are called to be those who testify, who try to tell the story of what happened in its fullness; those who witness, who receive the story of violence and create a safe space for its healing; those who reimage the future by telling yet again—without denying the event of violence now woven into it—the story of our faith” (page 33).

This conversation about the nature of the telling the new and different story reminds me of the insights I have learned from work on the psychology of hope by C. Richard Snyder and his colleagues. They describe the psychology of hope as having three components: “willpower” (the capacity to choose a course of action), “waypower” (the existence of one or more potential courses of action), and “why power” (the goal, purpose, or end to be achieved by the potential course or courses of action). The new and different story assists, perhaps, in expressing these elements to people who have lost their sense of will, way, and/or why.

Jones notes that the Lukan account has a paradigmatic story about Jesus followers who thought they had lost their sense of will, way, and why. It’s the Emmaus Road story in Luke 24. As we live with the Lukan story this year, it’s important always to keep in the backs of our minds the plaintive resignation of the two disciples: “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21, NRSV).

We learn, of course, that Jesus is precisely the one who is to redeem Israel and to be the source of repentance and forgiveness for all the Gentiles. But it doesn’t happen in the expected ways. Nor does it happen according to the expected time frame.

This is going to take longer than we thought.

It’s obvious that I am grieving the necessity to put the Markan composition aside for another three years. But it is clear that this Lukan account has much to offer for this time of the life of the Church. In North America, we certainly live in a “now what?” and “what’s next?” moment for congregations, denominations, and the Jesus follower movement as a whole. The voices that declare the end of the church world as we know it are swelling to a chorus, while the voices discussing how the new world will appear rise barely above a whisper.

This is going to take longer than we thought.

We can begin to see the outlines of “life after” (perhaps) – life after The Pandemic, life after The Insurrection, life after…Well, we’re not really in the “after” stage of very much yet. We’re still in the stage of longing to return to things as they were. But going back will only multiply the trauma and hinder the process of recovering. The same story leaves us in the same spot. It is only the new and different story that can take us forward.

Perhaps part of the Lukan account, especially in the Apocalyptic Discourse, is to urge us to resist distractions. The bangs and booms, the lighting and thunder, the disruptions and persecutions – these certainly might seem to us like the most important features of the story. But they are not. They are signposts, not the road. “Now when these things begin to take place,” the Lukan author encourages us, “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” Luke 21:28, NRSV). That’s the good news of this text. But…

This is going to take longer than we thought.

References and Resources

Jones, Serene. Trauma and Grace, 2nd Edition. Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2006.


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Throwback Thursday Books: Man’s Search for Meaning

I bought a copy of Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, my sophomore year at Central College. It was for one of my history classes taught by Dr. Mike Schrier. I don’t remember the class, but I am grateful for the book. I still have that copy and have read it at least a dozen times over the years. I have often wished I could have learned something from Frankl the first time I read it rather than merely studying the book because it was assigned. I continue to learn from Frankl each time I read his words.

Frankl wrote before inclusive language was a consideration. I apologize in advance for the quotes which use masculine terms to describe human realities. It is true that he dealt almost exclusively with men in the camps, but he wrote with all human beings in view. I will amend some of the quotes where that is practical, and humbly suggest that Frankl did in fact value all human beings as ends in themselves regardless of the terminology.

Frankl, as I’m sure you know, wrote as a survivor of the Nazi death camps. He was a practicing psychotherapist before his enslavement, and he brought his clinical and theoretical insights to bear as part of his struggle to survive. He tried to understand how it was that he survived when so many others did not.

He confessed with no false humility that the survivors know that the best of them did not make it out alive. Those who did, Frankl suggested, did so because they found reasons to continue living. He saw the workings of chance, of history, and of (for lack of a better word) fate in the the realities of survival. But this search for and discovery of meaning in the midst of a massive and unspeakably cruel absurdity was, in his view, one of the most significant factors in his survival.

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Frankl wrote, “any attempt to restore a [person’s] inner strength in the camp had first to succeed in showing [that person] some future goal.” More than once Frankl quoted a line from Nietzsche to the effect that the one who has a “why” to live can endure almost any “how.” This fundamental orientation toward the future was central, in Frankl’s view, to survival in the camps. He saw it as “the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic and psychohygienic efforts regarding prisoners” (page 121).

Frankl saw links between this future orientation and physical health outcomes in the camps. He noted that it was essential to enduring the torture and abuse handed out by the guards and between the enslaved inmates. It was central to maintaining one’s sanity and stability in a radically insane and unstable environment. This insistence on hope for the future gave him power to survive in the present.

But this future orientation required more than wishful thinking or fantasies. Frankl put it this way, and I quote at length. “What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and furthermore, we had to teach despairing men that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life,” he concludes, “and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly” (page 122).

In hindsight, that was what I needed to learn from Frankl in that first reading — and what I missed altogether. Had I caught even a part of what Frankl intended, I might have been spared some unnecessary pain and suffering. I know my dear professor hoped that some of us might catch a glimpse of Frankl’s insights into a life well-lived, but I’ve often been a bit slow on the draw in that regard. “Life ultimately means taking responsibility to find the right answer to its problems,” Frankl argues, “and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual” (page 122).

The Nietzsche quote was one anchor for Frankl’s reflections. The other was a quote from Dostoevsky — “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” A relentless battle for meaning had to be coupled, in his experience with an acceptance of the reality of suffering. “If there is a meaning in life at all,” he wrote, “then there must be meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death,” he asserted, “human life cannot be complete” (page 106).

Frankl did not advocate either martyrdom or the passivity of the victim. Instead, he pointed to the power we have no matter what circumstances we must endure. “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread,” he wrote. “They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a [person] but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way” (page 104, my emphasis).

During his enslavement, Frankl often thought of his wife. They had been separated as they were herded off the cattle cars, and he never saw her again. She died in the camps. But Frankl maintained an image of her in his mind and a relationship with that image which was often quite vivid. That relationship brought home to him “the truth that is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers…that love is the ultimate and highest goal to which [the human] can aspire.”

Many times over the years I have recalled this “greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart:” that the salvation of human beings and of humanity “is through love and in love.” (pages 58-59). When I remember that this insight settled on Frankl’s mind, heart, and spirit in the midst of some of the most developed machinery of hate in human history, I am stunned into silence. And I tremble in gratitude for the gifts of love I receive.

Frankl anticipated nearly every trend and topic in what is now called “Positive Psychology.” For example, he noted and explored the power of humor in the battle for survival. “Humor was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation,” he wrote. “It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human makeup, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds” (page 68). In our time, the witty scalpel employed by Trevor Noah on the rotting corpse of Trump administration has demonstrated the truth of Frankl’s assertion.

I have returned numerous times over the years to Frankl for both inspiration and pithy quotes. But his work was most powerful for me as I struggled to come to terms with the sudden and untimely death of my first spouse, Anne, ten years ago this past November. Only two books spoke to me for months — Frankl’s little book, and C. S. Lewis’ searing words in A Grief Observed (I’ll come to that one on some other Thursday). At first, it was my memory of Frankl’s thoughts about his wife and the power of love. But over the weeks and months, it was the words about suffering and meaning that sustained me.

Frankl teaches us how to choose hope. He has no interest in the power of positive thinking as a discipline of denial or a placebo of platitudes. But he leads us to see what many wisdom traditions (including positive psychology) say to us. We can indeed choose hope, and must choose hope, especially in the most desperate of situations. Pessimists may have the most accurate descriptions of reality, but optimists have the best survival rates.

There’s much to gain from Frankl in our own times of being locked in and locked down. There is no comparison between our current limitations and life in the death camps. But we can learn much from such an extremity of human experience to sustain us in our own times of pain and despair. We can, indeed, find ways to choose hope. We can indeed take responsibility for the future.

My copy is the paperback revised and expanded edition from 1976, published as a Pocket Book by Simon and Schuster.

Throwback Thursday Books: Great Expectations

In Advent I make it a habit to re-read Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. In a season of hopes fulfilled by Divine initiative, this is a story of human hopes disappointed. I was first introduced to this crowning Dickens masterpiece as a ninth-grader at the LeMars Junior High School. Margaret Hoorneman was our freshman English teacher. For a whole semester she read aloud to us the misadventures, misperceptions, and misjudgments of one Philip Pirrip, aka “Pip.” I was enchanted by the story, the writing, the language and the pathos. That has not changed in fifty years.

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Years later I learned that the book was much more than a piece of the curriculum for Mrs. Hoorneman. In her retirement, she created a script for a theatrical adaptation of the work. It has been produced in dramatic and cinematic forms, but perhaps not with the passionate love which Mrs. Hoorneman devoted to the work. She was able to secure family and professional assistance in the project. It was developed into a musical that has been performed in a variety of off-Broadway venues. The charming story can be found in an article from the LeMars Daily Sentinel in 2010.

You can find the article here: https://www.lemarssentinel.com/story/1434917.html.

Great Expectations is Dickens’ second to the last completed novel. In it, we find him at his full intellectual and imaginative powers. He relies far less on character names as transparent puns and two-dimensional characters as comic foils (although a few still make their appearances). Dickens had walked some of this plot path earlier, in David Copperfield, his only other “first person” narrative. In Copperfield, the hopes of the protagonist are eventually fulfilled, and they all lived happily ever after. In Great Expectations, the ending is somewhat different and, to my mind, far more compelling.

Of course, that depends on which ending you read. The book was originally serialized in the Dickens-published weekly periodical, All the Year Round. After the original ending was “tested” with the public and the critics, Dickens wrote a second and more “optimistic” ending that can be found in many of the editions. We prefer happy endings to less than happy ones. Dickens was in the business of selling books, and he knew how to respond to his market. But he noted that he preferred the original ending, as did many critics.

I am circumspect in describing the endings because I know that the book is not as widely read as it once was. I hope you will read it, and I don’t want to spoil it for you entirely. In the past week I have listened to the recorded version on Audible.com as narrated by Michael Page. I would recommend that experience if you have about eighteen hours to devote to the listening.

The chapters show the effects of serialization, often leaving the reader hanging on some narrative cliff or another. So it is well-suited to listening in installments. If you want the actual serial experience, discipline yourself to hearing one chapter at a time (for 59 sessions). The book is filled with archaic expressions appropriate to the time. If you are new to the book, I would recommend an annotated edition that can lay out the historical setting and explain some of the most obscure turns of phrase.

Here’s an inexpensive annotated edition: https://www.amazon.com/Great-Expectations-Annotated-Charles-Dickens-ebook/dp/B00GA8DLTI.

Why do I return to it? Certainly, it is a mature and clear-eyed examination of the nature of human hopes, of self-deception, of revenge and regret, of forgiveness and reconciliation. The book offers unblinking views of the trials of class and privilege in nineteenth century England and narrates from a firsthand perspective the pains and prospects of social climbing and social collapse. The book is filled with memorable characters, some of great complexity and none more so than Pip. The artistry is worth the time by itself.

When I was young I found it a revelation of my own hopes and failings. Pip sought to leave his roots and re-invent himself in a new setting. I have traveled that sorry path too many times to count. He never knew how good he had it at home and thus never did find a real home for his heart. Pip was well-schooled in the notion that as he was he was never worthy, so he had to perform a part in order to deserve approval. Pip’s hopes were always wishes to be fulfilled rather than a calling to be answered. Thus, he was almost always profoundly disappointed.

It is a deeply theological book as well. It is, though Dickens certainly did not intend such, a meditation on the theology of the cross. Pip’s salvation always comes from the most unexpected quarters. His rescue is always hidden under the form of its opposite, and he is always looking for grace and love in all the wrong places. The one who most nearly approaches the role of Christ figure in the novel is in many ways one of the least attractive characters. He is one who reminds me of the words from Isaiah 53 — “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

The book is filled, in the final chapters, with affecting scenes of confession and forgiveness. After years of malice and manipulation, several of the main characters come to awareness of their profound brokenness and the havoc they have wreaked in the lives of others. In a few instances, things can be put right and are. In most cases, there is some measure of healing but little opportunity for reparation. Forgiveness may be genuine, but it may not always displace regret in the end.

Great Expectations is a meditation on the nature of personal suffering and the various ways we humans respond to that suffering. Some characters respond to their loss with desires for vengeance and acts of violence. Some are dulled into despair and made dumb in the face of their pain. Some use suffering as a bludgeon or a scalpel to control people and circumstances. And a few are softened by their suffering into a deeper and fuller humanity.

One of the great quotes in the book comes from Estella, the anti-heroine. “And if you could say that to me then,” she murmurs to Pip, “you will not hesitate to say that to me now—now, when suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but—I hope—into a better shape.” To be bent and broken but into a better shape — that’s a hope that I can share. I suspect that no other words in the book were closer to Dickens’ own sentiments as he wrote.

“Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears,” Pip says as he recovers from his own weeping of remorse at another point, “for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts. I was better after I had cried, than before–more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle.” In the face of the famed British reserve, Dickens pleads for authentic humanity to open us to life and to bind us together across our differences. Confession and repentance can cleanse our hearts. It is a pertinent plea for our time as well.