Faith of Jesus

One of the seasons of the Way–the earliest name given to Christianity–is Lent.  The season’s beginning is marked with a worship service known as Ash Wednesday.  As the name suggests, ashes are central to the imagery and the ritual where the sign of the cross, put on the forehead with ashes, is a sign of our mortality.  This is not a service everyone chooses to attend, for the focus is often inward, the worship prayerful, and the leaving in silence.

Yet, worship is a way to make you available to God.  Sometimes it is in the quietness that God can most effectively speak.

My ponderings today come after attending a delightful Ash Wednesday service which, along with the usual scriptures from the Psalms, featured an image of a Phoenix (the mythical bird that becomes flame when it dies and is reborn out of his ashes).  This image of resurrection led me to ponder about the faith of Jesus.

Pastors and theologians often talk about having faith in Jesus.  Jesus is our Savior, the one sent to allow us to become close to God.  In this theological imagining Jesus is a type of Intercessor, one who, like Moses, frees us from the slavery of sin and allows us access to God’s words and ways.

Given this vision, Lent regularly features an honest self examination to see where sin has a hold on us.  Ash Wednesday is an occasion to read a familiar parable of Jesus about the Pharisee and the tax collector in the temple.   Both men come to pray.  The Pharisee prays, “Thank God I’m not like that tax collector over there.”  The tax collector prays, “Forgive me… for I am a sinner.”  In his telling, Jesus makes the hated tax collector the hero, highlighting the humility necessary for one who wishes to truly know God.  Plenty of ink has been spilled on the need for us to admit our sin in order for God to enter in. Continue on with this penitentiary practice for all of Lent and you have an experience that fits within the vision of the Council of Nicea (325 AD) where the Lenten season was established.

But the Bible provides more of a multifaceted voice than did the council that met so long ago.  There is room to re-imagine Lent–these 40 days (not including Sundays)–before Easter as a time when we are called to a faith like Jesus.   This theological imagining leads us not just to the cross but to the resurrection.

Three times in the gospel of Mark, Jesus says something like this…

“The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”  (Mark 9: 31)

In all three times that Jesus talks about dying, the disciples choose to not understand.

In fact, when Jesus first says these words, Peter rebukes him, trying to stop what was to happen.  And Jesus responds, “Get behind me Satan!  For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Mark 8:33)

The final reference to death and resurrection opens up a heated argument between the sons of Zebedee about who gets to sit on Jesus right when Jesus enters “into glory.”  (Mark 10:35)

While the disciples couldn’t hear Jesus, because they were likely so afraid of losing the way they’ve come to experience God, perhaps we can.

Notice when Jesus speaks about his death, he also speaks of his resurrection.

This is the key to having the faith of Jesus.

Jesus never talks about his death without speaking about his resurrection.  We might even speculate that Jesus kept going, kept doing the difficult things, because he believed in the resurrection.

To have the faith of Jesus, then, is to believe that, even when you are living in the ashes of what once was, resurrection is possible.  And, to push it one step further, when you are heading into the fire because it is the way God has called you to go and even your friends sound like the enemy, go anyway, believing God will have the last word.   Lent reminds us to stop playing it safe.  It is time to let go of what we fear losing and instead follow the one voice that gives us life.

Such a faith did not make Jesus superhuman, unaffected by the hostility of those who would send the “King of the Jews”  to the cross.  Jesus still cried out in the Garden of Gethsemane for another way.   Yet, Jesus’ faith allowed these words…”Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”  (Mark 14: 36)

During this Lenten season, those of you who like to mark the season with a offering can still give up  candy and eat fish on Fridays.  But as you do, as those cravings come, use the feeling to allow your vision to go beyond your own failings.  Look up!  Listen.  Listen carefully.

What is it God would have you do?

 

In Christ,

Heather

If

My daughter’s school assigned her fifth grade class to create a poetry notebook, to contain both poems she wrote and those she found and enjoyed. To further this I read a poetry anthology from my childhood with her, and we came upon Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If—.“ On revisiting this poem for the first time in a long while I began to feel both connection—and unease. The words read, on their face, as sage advice. And, yet, it feels wrong–like it is pointing in a direction that is, in some sense, different from the way God, my life, and my faith has made me. It made me want to figure out just what makes it troublesome. Perhaps that reflection would help me to see and proclaim the truth that guides me.

Here’s the poem: If—

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, not talk too wise;

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you have your life to broken,
And stoop and build ‘em up with worn out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them:  “Hold on”;

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings—nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fell the forgiving minute
With sixty seconds; worth of distance run—
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

Rudyard Kipling

There are, indeed, golden lines here. Pondering which is your favorite will tell you something about you. They are verses to carry, a voice that recognizes what it means to be sane in the midst of brokenness. Wouldn’t we hope that ups and downs and twists and turns wouldn’t take away our purpose or our finely cultivated adult selves? Wouldn’t we like an iron will, an ability to hang on, despite the fatigue?

Henry Morton Stanley, dubbed by those he met on his journeys “The Breaker of Rocks,” had such an iron will. In 1887 he went into Africa seeking Dr. Livingston, and as would befit a man of his nickname, Stanley survived to tell the tale. An extraordinary man to be sure, but what caught my eye was how the authors Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney chose to use his example to explore what helps humans have an iron will. They quote various studies, the last one of which tells how the will is strengthened by a “focus on lofty thoughts.”

Researchers including Kentaro Fujita and Yaacov Trope “found that self-control improved among people who were encouraged to think in high level terms (Why do you maintain good health), and got worse among those who thought in lower-level terms (how do you maintain good health)…. The results showed that a narrow, concrete, here-and-now focus works against self-control, whereas a broad, abstract, long term focus supports it (Smithosonian, December 2011, 86).”

The lofty goal of Rudyard Kipling’s poem is to become a man. The poem suggests when we can gracefully negotiate misfortune and fortune alike, we have arrived at adulthood. I suspect his words are of a piece with the time and culture in which he writes, a place where one could believe in the possibility of humans to overcome the vagaries of our own soul. Unfortunately, at this moment in time adults are often portrayed as a Simpson or Kardashian, whose dirty laundry is put out on the (internet) line for all to see. Far from the humanist vision where adults are able to put away childish pettiness, to be an adult today is to be able to share in the laughter around our own ineptitude.

While Jesus speaks about welcoming the children, Christian theologians have another way to talk about what it means to be human. The answer most often given goes something like this…when we desire and seek to come into relationship with God, when our will is aligned with God’s will, we come into our fullest humanity. To be human is to be in relationship with God. You can’t get any loftier than that!

So Kipling’s focus on what it means to be a Man is akin to a focus on the “how” to maintain good health rather than the “why.” As such it feels awfully heavy, like being told to read the list of exercises one must do every day. It makes me wonder, do I really want to be a Man*

But if to be a Man (or Woman) means to be in relationship with the Creator of all things, the one who imagined and spoke the world into existence, and from clay and breath gave life to humanity, I’m interested. To be able to hear God’s word for me through scripture—and through prayer–is an amazing possibility, an amazing experience. God really can speak to us! To be guided by a divine will that understands and creates possibilities beyond our own psyches sends us out on new journeys–new adventures. Morton was to find Livingston, but Livingston went first because he was sent by God.

Finally, this image of human will holding on is seems to conflict with the motto of those that follow the twelve steps, “to let go and let God.” Their first step is to connect with their higher power, with God as they understand God.

Connect, not with your will, but with the will of God. They may not be identical.

The reason why the poem “If” has resonance is it too talks about surrender, not holding on to what has been lost, or seeking retribution for wrongs done. It acknowledges that much will be broken and we won’t have the perfect tools to fix them, but there will be tools. It preaches that neither triumph nor disaster make you what you are. But the Will… and if it is not mine but thy will be done… if it is God’s will that holds on, that gives us the courage to hold on… if I am surrendering to that which seeks to hold, guide, and love me… then…

Take my life, and let it be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take my moments and my days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise.

And, may we be Man and Woman enough for God.

*Irony (his and mine) intended.

In the Care of Angels

I’ve always been skeptical about talk of angels. When the popular television show “Touched by an Angel” aired some time ago, I found myself avoiding it. Angels are too often used to sentimentalize Christianity. The Way becomes a set of grandmotherly clichés about how to live a wholesome life.

And yet, as I read scripture, I am stuck by the relevance of scripture’s picture of angels to those who seek to experience the spiritual reality of God breaking into this world. Carlos Casteneda’s description of native people’s vision quests has nothing on Christianity. For Jesus, too, went on a quest in the desert and there entered into a conversation which gave form to his future.

After Jesus is baptized, the “Spirit” leads him into the wilderness (Mark 1:12, Matthew 4:1, Luke 4:1). We, who have seen the heavens torn apart and God’s voice saying “this is my son, with whom I am well pleased,” now journey with Jesus into a desert place. There we enter into a spiritual world which opens the door to Satan (here appearing in an analogous role to that of the trickster in some native American traditions) and to angels (messengers from God).

In Matthew and Luke, using the Jewish imagination, Satan is pictured as intruding upon Jesus’ wilderness prayer. Satan tempts Jesus to be less than who he is and tempts Jesus to make God less than God. Jesus responds to the trickster using words from Deuteronomy. Here’s a summary.

Satan: You’re hungry. Turn these rocks into bread.

Jesus: “It is written man shall not live by bread alone.”

Jesus will not be turned into an animal who lives by instinct. Jesus will not be less than who He is meant to be.

Satan: All these kingdoms can be yours if you will worship me.

Jesus: It is written, “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve. “

Jesus will serve only the one who frees the captives; allowing God to lead.

Satan: If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down and let the angels catch you.

Jesus: Again it is written, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.”

Jesus will not make God or God’s angels into pet servants.

Scripture is the guide to resisting the trickster’s efforts at taking away our humanity and our God– to resisting the temptation to make either less than they are. Angels aren’t depicted as being an active part of the visionary experience guiding Jesus’ words. They are shown to be there with Jesus on the journey.

With regard to angels Luke, who is not prone to sentimentality, drops out, preferring to point to the time when Satan would seem to get his way in the events that lead to the crucifixion [4:13]. Matthew, however, tells of angels coming to minister to Jesus after the temptation [4:11]. Mark, which didn’t have time to relate a dialogue between Satan and Jesus (simply referring to wild beasts), chooses to slip in a word about the angels who ministered to Jesus [1:13]. So while scripture does not provide a uniform witness, two of the gospel writers believed angels important enough to the Christian experience that they tell of the angels ministering to the Son of God.

Recently, an older man, an engineer, told me with wet eyes how, as he grows older, he feels watched over by a guardian angel. Another friend, when going through a difficult loss, saw her lost loved one driving in the car behind her. She described it as an angel, a sign of her mother’s love. Over my years of serving church I’ve heard many stories of angels, usually told with some trepidation and a desire to know if this really could have happened. The easier stories to tell are of a very real person intervening at the right time. Other times, the stories shared are of a more otherworldly nature. Most angel stories make for wet eyes.

I’m not an expert in angels. I do not wish to try to describe a heavenly hierarchy. But I do want to encourage those of you who have had angelic experiences to believe in– to receive– the gift you have been given. To believe in angels is to believe God acts in our lives. It is to say that they who ministered to Jesus also minister to us.

There are the more familiar stories of angels heard during Christmas. The angel appeared to Mary and told her of the son she carried in her womb; angels appeared to the shepherds on the hills announcing Jesus’ birth. In both cases, angels announced something extraordinary had happened. Yet, even amidst the Hosannas from the heavens, the angels minister to those they meet, saying “Do not be afraid.”

Do not be afraid, for God is here.

It doesn’t seem beyond the realm of possibility to believe that, after the temptation, the angels whispered into Jesus’ ear these same words: “Do not be afraid.”

The work of an angel is to release us from fear, to allow us to be who we are meant to be, and to allow God access into our lives. Angels welcome us into a spiritual realm where we need not test God by jumping off a cliff. We know intuitively that if we do fall, even if we feel like we are falling right now, there is one who will always catch us–and lead us to new life. If you feel that is just sentimental tripe meant for the weak-hearted, remember: even Jesus, Son of God, needed to hear the angel’s whisper.

In Christ,

Heather

Life-giving Transformation

Before Jesus begins his ministry, people from all over Judea go out to the wilderness to John the Baptist.  There they hear John’s message to “repent,” to turn toward a new direction, and receive a baptism for the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 3: 1- 6, Mark 1: 2 -6, Luke 3: 1-6, John 1: 19-23).  John is pictured as a wild man wearing camel’s hair, eating locusts and honey, announcing to all who come that “there is one coming who is much greater than me.”   As scripture focuses on John’s role of being a herald of Jesus, it is easy to overlook that a multitude of people left the city and went away from the temple in order to have a spiritual experience with this wild man that they could no longer get through their religion.

They wanted something new–something to shake up their traditional ways.  Perhaps their experience of the temple had become too much like their experience of the world around them.  That some of the religious elite were in partnership with the Roman government to keep the peace is made clear from the battles Jesus would soon fight.

And, yet, the river Jordan is not a pictured as a place of a political rally, but rather as a place of transformation: a place of personal new beginnings, and a place where Jesus comes before he calls his disciples.

Transformation is at the very heart of Christianity.  Two ways scripture leads to it are through the ideas of repentance (to turn around) and forgiveness of sin (release from the past).  It is the releasing of what has kept us apart from God that allows God to move us in a new direction.  The multitude came to the river Jordan.  There they heard John the Baptist affirm their intuition—it is good to turn around and try a new way.  Enter the water, be cleansed of all that holds you to your past, that you may be free to go with God.

Let’s be clear that transformation is as crucial for those who have tried to live pious lives as it is for those who are doing the things their mothers would cry out against.  For all of us there are times when our lives have become too close to what the world expects and, in those times, we lose touch with God.

As a result, the life that once was ours seeps away.  Often, our religion, whatever it is, urges us to do the same old things that have become polluted by community expectations.  We go to church because “good wholesome people” go to church and it is good for our children.  Even spiritual practices meant to help us hear God’s voice can become too familiar, or a way to brag about our spiritual prowess, rather than allowing God the opening to take us on a new journey.

When our way of being which fed our strength and mission has run its course–and it will–to find a new way requires transformation.   Just as it is not easy for the caterpillar to turn into a butterfly, so it is not easy for us to choose to enter into the effort of change.

It takes God to move us.  God-given insight comes in innumerable ways.  After all, God is the Creator, and thus there is no limit to God’s creativity in engaging us.  It could be with a change in employment–or a word from a stranger.  It could be an opportunity that has come your way–or a remembered dream.  The call to take a new path on your journey with God happens more than once in a lifetime.

There were two doctors, one the head of family medicine at UCI, and the other the head of geriatrics in the Presbyterian hospital in New York, who spoke on the radio of the need to continue to keep the brain flexible as we grow older…stay engaged, try new things.  When I was in school they warned us our generation needed to be flexible because the work world would change as we grew older.  Expect to have more than one career, the experts told us.  Even the secular world understands: our ability to walk a new path keeps us alive.

Still, if you are anything like me, when you feel vulnerable (and the need to change yourself makes you feel vulnerable, indeed), your first reaction is to go back to the strengths you’ve developed over the years whether or not they are of God.

It often takes a “God movement” to lead us beyond insight into action–to help us let go, turn around, and walk a new path with our God.

The ministry of Jesus begins with a God movement.  Multitudes came to the river Jordan because there they received a baptism which sanctified, made holy, their need to let go of the familiar and to try a new way.  Jesus began his ministry in the same water.  The baptism in the river Jordan empowered people to turn and follow God’s voice into the wilderness and beyond.

Perhaps today you would like to join in with this God movement of transformation.  Knowing we all need to splash in the river Jordan every now and then, to prepare for what God wants to do with us next, use your imagination and washing time to prepare not just to meet the day, but to find a new mission with God.  Perhaps you can use your day off to find one of the many flowing rivers in the nearby mountains and touch the cold water to your forehead as a sign of your desire to turn around.    Or use the pastor you know or the church to which you belong to take a moment to confess what it is you want to let go, hear the words of forgiveness, and turn a new direction.  However you enter the waters, understand that you don’t go in alone, but in your action you join with the multitudes of the centuries who come to transform their ways,

You go with Jesus.

Heather