Monday, March 14, 2011

Gilgamesh And Jesus: Repenting Of "Spirituality"

In the desert Jesus faced an issue
that confronted the King of Uruk 2,800 years before.
His story is The Epic of Gilgamesh.
There are different versions of that story.
This is one.

Gilgamesh, the young king of Uruk, was a superman
– the greatest athlete, the greatest lover,
the greatest warrior – to busy being a superman
to pay attention to his people.
He best friend, Enkido, was another superman
and they had super adventures together
until Enkido fell ill and died.

Up to now Gilgamesh thought death was for ordinary people.
But if Enkido could die, then he too was mortal.
So Gilgamesh went on a quest to find the way to immortality.

He tried going back to nature and living like a wild animal,
but that turned out to be a subhuman life not worth living.
He tried hedonism. Eat, drink, and be merry.
If you live life with enough gusto it will go on forever.
But that just gave him a hangover.
So he crossed an ocean to find a spiritual master
seeking a religion to escape death.
But religion proved to be just beyond his capacity.
All his efforts to escape the common lot of humankind failed.

So he got back in his boat and went home.
As he arrived at the shore of his kingdom,
he looked up and saw his city.
The story ends with his words, “Lo the walls of Uruk.”

Gilgamesh, a mortal man, went back to his mortal people
and took up the task of caring for them.
He repented of his narcissism
and became a responsible member of the human race.

Last Wednesday, many of us had crosses traced in ashes
upon our foreheads and were told in somber tones
that we are dust and to dust we shall return.

In his classic book, The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker wrote,
“The idea of death . . . haunts the human animal
like nothing else.”
Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm said we suffer from this fear
because of all creation we alone are caught in the existential paradox.
We are spiritual beings, capable of reflection,
interpretation, and aspiration.
We treasure the spiritual realm like angels.
But we are nonetheless animals who die like animals.

The paradox is there in the 82nd Psalm,
“You are Gods. You are sons of the Most High.
But you will die like mere men.”
And Psalm 49:
“No man can redeem the life of another or ransom his own life
. . . . Man, despite his riches does not endure
but he is like the beasts that perish.”

Because we are spiritual, we do not feel that we should be mortal.
But we are – and nothing can change that hard fact.
Our Christian faith ultimately answers death with resurrection
to a new and better life.
But that does not happen until we have lost this life
which is so rightly precious to us.
We don’t get to Easter without walking the Lenten way
all the way through Good Friday.

If we feel spiritual, Jesus was more so.
He learned at the Jordan River that he was the Son of God.
But what did that mean?
He went to the desert to find out.
And Satan had some answers.

The desert told Jesus that he was still a mortal animal.
The sun did not spare his skin.
He was hungry and thirsty as anyone would be.
The desert did not care that he was mortal.

Then along came Satan inviting him to escape
from the common lot of humanity.
Along came Satan offering material sustenance and comfort.
Along came Satan offering protection from the death dealing
power of the nature’s laws.
“Jump off the temple. You will not die. Just claim your divine status.”
Along came Satan offering world dominion.
Surely if we can gather enough power, it will make us immortal.
Satan introduced each of the temptations with “if you are the Son of God.”
He said anyone as spiritual as Jesus ought to be exempt
from the fate of ordinary people.

But Jesus said no to all the temptations.
Gilgamesh has already tried all of those things
and knew they didn’t work.
Maybe Jesus had read Gilgamesh. We don’t know.
But Jesus didn’t escape his humanity by being the Son of God.
Instead, like Gilgamesh going home to Uruk,
Jesus went home to Galilee.
There, he didn’t call himself “the Son of God.”
He called himself “the Son of Man”
to claim his humanity, his brotherhood with us.

Being mortal together is a profound connection.
Poet laureate Ted Kooser wrote in his poem “Mourners,”
“After the funeral, the mourners gather
under the rustling churchyard maples
and talk softly, . . . .
They came this afternoon to say goodbye,
but now they keep saying hello and hello,
peering into each other’s faces,
slow to let go of each other’s hands.”

This life we share is precious because it is brief.
When we remember that,
we value each other a little more.
The brevity of life is reason enough to be kinder.
The vulnerability of life is reason enough for patience and generosity.

There is something proud and individualistic
in the spirituality of our time.
Whether it is Christian, New Age, or the Westernized versions
of ancient Eastern philosophies,
it all seems aimed at making ourselves alright
– at escaping the hardness of life and death.
Have faith. Fill up your tank with the Holy Spirit
and your life will be just fine.
Just meditate until you realize your problems
and those of your neighbors are just thoughts.
Get your mind right and be happy.

But that kind of spirituality is a pipe dream,
aptly portrayed in Paul Simon’s lyrics,
“So I’ll continue to continue to pretend
My life will never end
And flowers never bend with the rainfall.”

But Jesus did not teach, and did not live,
a spirituality of escape from the human condition.
He did not offer a way of salvation from life and death
but a way of salvation through life and death.
Jesus faced his own vulnerability and made it the point
of connection with us in our vulnerability.
The poem “In A Parish” by Czeslaw Milosz
expresses the compassion that comes from knowing
our own vulnerability and fallibility.
The poet surveys a parish graveyard and says,
“Had I not been frail and half broken inside
I wouldn’t think of them, who are like myself broken inside.
I would not climb the cemetery hill by the church
To get rid of my self-pity.
Crazy Sophies,
Michaels who lost every battle,
Self-destructive Agathas
Lie under crosses with their dates of birth and death. And who
Is going to express them? Their mumblings, weepings, hopes,
tears of humiliation?”

On Ash Wednesday the Church reminds us that we are dust
so that we will be a little kinder to the dust next to us.
In Lent we remember our sins so that we might be more ready
to forgive the sinner next to us.

The first step on the Christian way is a serene confidence
in God’s love and our ultimate salvation.
The second step is to know our own frailty – our total frailty:
physical, psychological, moral, and spiritual frailty.
The third step is to turn the knowledge of our frailty
into gentleness toward one another.

A great contemporary theologian, Nicholas Wolterstorff,
summed up the Christian way in this mortal life.
“Mourn humanity’s mourning,
weep over humanity’s weeping,
be wounded by humanity’s wounds . . . .
But do so in the good cheer that a day of peace is coming.”

This Lent, as a church, it is time to repent from escapist religion,
from Gilgamesh’s quest for individual ok-ness.
It is time turn our attention to each other and the communities
where we live, to organize and restore our communities,
as Gilgamesh rebuilt the walls of Uruk.
Isaiah 61, the Scripture Jesus chose to define his mission and our mission,
says, “They will renew the ruined cities.”
It is time to repent of saving ourselves and rather lose ourselves
in devotion God’s mission of mercy.