From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Spirituality: Off his rocker

by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register

(From the Feb. 6, 2003 edition of the Inland Register)

In recent weeks the eighth graders in our parish school have developed the devilish habit of trying to trip up their pastor when he makes his regular classroom visits. I usually encounter these characters in the library, where they consume their precious minutes practicing research skills. Last week I found them engaged in the study of idioms.

Upon inquiry, no one could exactly explain to me the grammatical nature of an idiom, but they had identified a good number of them. They quickly set about trying to prove my ignorance, tossing one idiom after another at me to see if I knew their meaning. I think I passed the test with a high B.

An idiom is an expression that is peculiar to itself and cannot be understood by a study of its elements. We use them all the time, even if we don’t always know their origin.

When I left the library that morning one student popped a last-minute quiz. “What does ‘off your rocker’ mean?” I passed that one with flying colors, but had to admit that I did not know the origin of the phrase. I went immediately to my personal library in search of a book a friend gave me years ago. It was packed with information about the origins of words, expressions and clichés. I paged through paragraphs about knocking on trees, hobnobbing, pulling legs, etc., but nothing about rockers. Sigh.

My guess would be that the origin of this phrase has something to do with being out of sync with the regular, smooth rhythm that a rocking chair provides. Peace and tranquility. Perhaps that’s why we tell someone that they are “off their rocker” when we surmise that they are out of touch with the mainstream of reality, popularly accepted opinion, or are acting contrary to their usual character. We might even describe them as bring “one brick short of a load,” or just plain crazy.

The next time I see my ornery eighth grader, I’m going to tell him that Jesus was off his rocker – and see what response I get. If nothing else, I might make him think.

We would hardly picture Jesus as being “off his rocker,” right? If anyone is the epitome of peace, tranquility and stability, it is Jesus. We see him as not only as the paragon of virtue; he also is the perfect picture of balance in word, speech and action. It’s a bit challenging to comprehend anyone describing Our Lord as being “off his rocker.” That, however, is precisely the response he seemingly got from many of the people around him during the course of his ministry.

St. Mark’s Gospel, in particular, portrays this as a typical reaction to Jesus, both from Jesus’ own kin as well as from the increasing number of people he disturbed by his statements, healings on the Sabbath and other seemingly scandalous behaviors. We miss the impact of the reaction Jesus must have caused because we live in a culture less sensitive to the behavior patterns he displayed. People shook their heads at him and said he was “off his rocker.” To them, a Kingdom-preacher who embraced children, ate with tax collectors, let prostitutes touch him, and spoke to women in public could not be in his right mind. To say nothing of his frequent healings on the Sabbath and (gasp!) his bold implication that people had direct access to the saving, merciful and unconditional love of God!

At almost every turn Jesus rocked the boat (there’s another idiom!) – not because he set out in life to be counter-cultural, but because the truth of God’s way stood in opposition to the thinking and practices of blind self-righteousness. In sum, Jesus was not a social revolutionary. The Good News that he preached, however, had a transforming effect on the world around him. The truth he proclaimed about God turned people’s world upside down (or perhaps, more accurately, right-side up). The world they thought they knew (and intensely protected) was coming to an end by the decisive hand of God. Long before politicians of our era stole the phrase, he established a new world order: God’s world and God’s order! – not ours. The conflict between the two eventually led to his death. His own killed him.

We who follow Jesus should probably feel a bit uncomfortable if people do not see something about us that is manifestly counter-cultural. If we pass through life in peace and tranquility, winning the praise and adulation of all around us, it perhaps is an invitation to take a closer look. After all, the kingdom Jesus preached – and that we are challenged to live – is not measured by the mindset and value system of this world. If we are not rattling a few cages (there’s another one!) because of the witness of our lives, the moral truth we defend in conversations, and the values we witness in the way we spend our time and money, then we perhaps should re-examine our Christian commitment. People should comment that we Christians are “off our rockers.” The culture and society in which we live would praise us if we simply went along with its values of the world and made no waves (yes, another one). We all know that temptation! We need not set out to be antagonistic, confrontational or just plain ornery. Being off one’s rocker is neither a vocation nor a personal hobby. It is the result of being faithful to the life-giving truth of the Gospel and a living relationship with the One who has called us into discipleship.

(Father Savelesky is pastor of Assumption Parish in Spokane. His book, Catholics Believe, is available from Harcourt Religion Publishers.) (Download an order form in pdf format to print)

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