Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Jesus I Have Met

The last two posts have been about the difficulty of talking about Jesus without getting mired in arguments and assumptions.  This one is about where I now understand Jesus to speak into my life.  
I know, I do know, that this is only a small piece of who Jesus is.   This bit from C.S. Lewis' Prince Caspian resonates with my own experience so far:
         “Aslan,” said Lucy, “you’re bigger.” 
     “That is because you are older, little one,” answered he. 
        “Not because you are?” 
    “I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”
But this is what I have seen so far.  It helps me to articulate this from time to time, and also to hear what others see as they grow into God.  If any of you make it to the end of this post--or even if you don't--I would be glad to hear more of the God whom you have known. 

There are many clear teachings in the Gospels which I find easy to understand and very hard to live out.  I need to watch out for the temptation to use the more perplexing passages as a distraction from living out what I already understand. 
"‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’…Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
"Do not be afraid." 
"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free."  "Let your yea be yea and your nay, nay." 
"Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you, that ye may be the children of your Father in heaven; for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust."
"Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's." "Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth…" "Freely you have received, freely give…" 
"Truly, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me." 
"If any one doth will to come after me, let him disown himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me; for whoever may will to save his life, shall lose it, and whoever may lose his life for my sake, he shall save it; for what is a man profited, having gained the whole world, and having lost or having forfeited himself?"

Living according to those teachings is at least a life's work.  And it is a help and a comfort and a challenge to read of lives that actually embody that teaching. 
At the moment the exemplary aspects of Jesus' life that stand out most strongly for me are his constant return to prayer, his deep and nonviolent resistance to an unjust and deadly economic and political system, his rejection of the false security offered by money and arms and prestige, and his direct, forceful, loving and unapologetic response to each individual who addressed him.  These are all directions in which I know I need to move.

Sometimes one of the Gospel stories will come alive for me so that I feel myself directly addressed by Jesus in it.  During my struggles with anxiety and obsession I've had this sense of participation in the healing stories.  The madman in the tombs who, when asked his name, answered "My name is Legion, for we are many…" has spoken for my lack of singleheartedness, and in his healing I have found hope and courage for my own.  Jesus' question to the paralytic, "Do you want to be well?" has echoed in my mind; occasionally I have realized that my answer is No, and I've had to wrestle with the roots of that denial until I was ready to say Yes.  
Sometimes I've identified with Peter's heartfelt statement, "We have left everything to follow you…" even as I have imagined Jesus thinking "Oh, really?" And Jesus' question in Gethsemane, "Are you asleep? Couldn't you watch with me even one hour?" has echoed in my mind when I realize I have been unavailable and oblivious to someone who had need of me. 
Sometimes, too, I find myself identifying with Jesus in the stories--especially, for now, the stories of the baptism, the blessing and the temptation. 

When I hear or read the stories of Jesus' death and resurrection I understand myself to be in the presence of a truth that does not quite fit into my language or my concepts. When I hear people explain their significance I often think "There's more to it…" These are a few small pieces of the meaning I think I have understood, though I know that the whole is beyond my understanding:
I see that when people speak and stand against injustice they risk being killed, and that their deaths are not the end of the story.  
I identify with Jesus. I know that following God requires us to die to our self-centered lives.  So far I have not experienced one conclusive rebirth; it's been more like a series of little deaths...which may be related to what Paul meant when he said "I die every day…" or to what Jesus meant when he spoke of taking up one's cross daily.  I see that this dying is terribly frightening, and that new life really does lie on the other side of it. 
I identify with the people who condemned Jesus.*** I know what it is like to resent someone who lives in a way which makes it clear that I also could choose to live more faithfully.  I know what it is like to resist God's breaking in to the order I have tried to make in my life. I know what it is to fear the truth enough to hate a truth-bearer. And I know that avoiding the truth by attacking or avoiding truth-bearers doesn't work in the long term.
I identify with the disciples who ran away and hid and despaired and were restored by the visitation of the risen Christ.  I know how it is to be willing to work for the Kingdom in a way I can predict and control, but not to want to follow leadings that do not offer control or obvious success.  I know what it is to shrink back from what I am called to do, and to be forgiven and called back to the work. 
All these start with my encounters with Jesus in the Bible.  Then there is this other thing that begins with encounters in prayer, or with neighbors. 
Jesus is the name that I know best for that aspect of God that wears a human face, that knows from within our loneliness and brokenness and blindness, that suffers and dies and rekindles new life in us. 
Jesus is the name I know best for the God who stands at my shoulder urging and guiding and comforting me, the one who has been through all the delusions, discouragement and temptations of being human and yet at the same time remained anchored in the depths of God. 
Jesus is the name I know best for God given over into our hands--within ourselves, and in the people we meet, and in the rest of the created world.  For God whom I can help or hinder now, in every living encounter.
I've heard some people say that seeing Jesus in others means seeing others only as abstractions or ways of getting credit with God.  I can see that such a thing could happen. Certainly I'm often tempted to get credit for being a Good Person rather than actually knowing and loving and working with the people I meet--though more often I'm seeking that credit in  other people's eyes or my own, not in God's. 
When I speak of seeing Jesus in others I mean seeing that indwelling, vulnerable and powerful presence of God at work in each of them, and seeing at the same time the brokenness they bear.  I mean seeing them as fully alive and real, not as bit-players in a drama starring me.  I mean something like what I understand Martin Buber to mean when he writes about I-Thou encounters.  I mean being responsible and responsive to them, being open to the challenge and the blessing that they offer me.

I don't do that consistently.  I get stuck in my ideas, my hurts, my wants, my self.  My brokenness and blindness undermine my best efforts.  Knowing that, I turn back to Jesus, and to the God to whom Jesus turned, and ask for grace and strength so that I can get back up and start walking toward the Kingdom one more time. 
***In case it still needs saying, I do not believe the narrative that blames Jews or Judaism for Jesus' death.  I know that narrative has done great harm. Other people have explained why it is wrong clearly and forcefully. I am convinced by them. I'm not going to try to summarize them here.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Do You Love *My* Jesus? (Talking About Jesus, part 2)

When we talk about Jesus with people of other faiths we recognize that we are encountering a different culture and worldview; this can remind us to pay attention and to show courtesy.  It can be harder to talk, worship and work well with people who are worshipping and following Jesus in a way that is not ours.
I know, love and respect some people who see Jesus so differently that if it weren't for the shared name anyone might think they were describing separate people.  Some talk primarily about Jesus as a savior of souls, someone who came to die for us, reconcile us with God, and thereby enable us to live more faithfully now and to enter heaven when we die.  (Some--not all--of these downplay or spiritualize Jesus' role as a social and political revolutionary.) Others talk primarily about Jesus as a preacher and exemplar of a new social order, a nonviolent revolutionary, a defender of the poor and the marginalized. (Some--not all--of these downplay or allegorize Jesus' role as healer of the sick, walker on water, raiser of the dead.) 
I find something to agree with and to admire in what both groups say.  Sometimes when they get talking about each other I am discouraged.  I hear the line from the Jacob's Ladder spiritual echoing in the back of my mind: "Sinner, do you love my Jesus?" (emphasis mine) I find myself thinking in response, "Well, maybe not  your Jesus, exactly…"  I try to broaden my perspective by reading books written by authors on several sides, and I find more helpful truths and more frustrating arguments.  I get frustrated and confused. Then I remember that I don't need to define or defend Jesus.  I do need to heed, be healed by, follow, imitate and become one with Jesus. That process requires me to see Jesus in and stay in relationship with all my brothers and sisters, including the contentious Christian ones. 

  We all have our own narratives about Jesus. We mostly have our own, sometimes rather skewed, versions of the Jesus narratives of other people.  Sometimes we assume that we know what someone else's Jesus narrative and basis for living is based on a few phrases we've heard them use or a few positions we've heard them espouse.  We're often wrong.  
I hear talk about conservative Christians who care only about saving people's souls and have no concern for courtesy or for social justice.  I have friends who talk about accepting Jesus Christ as their personal saviors and who try to witness to other people and bring them into a saving personal relationshop with Jesus. They often also take responsibility for caring for neighbors in need and speak with courtesy and humility with those who disagree with them.  
I hear talk about liberal Christians who are so concerned with political correctness and inoffensiveness that they have no true convictions by which they're willoing to live, no moral backbone, no spiritual fire. I have friends who carefully use universalist lanaguage for Spirit and emphasize inclusivity and outreach to the marginalized.  They often also are deeply grounded in prayer and willing to work and suffer for their beliefs.  
I have friends who don't fit well on either side of the liberal/conservative divide--who are passionately antiwar and also passionately pro-life; who take a rigorous and literal view of Biblical commands for their own lives and also deeply respect the differently ordered lives of people following other religious traditions.  
Because of all this I try not to make assumptions about what other Christians know of Jesus; I try to listen carefully to what they actually say, to watch how they actually live, to work and pray with them and to ask them questions.
I have been helped and blessed by this contact with people whose Jesus stories are very different from mine.  Not so much by theoretical conversations as by the sharing of Jesus' working in each of our lives, our experiences of joy and clarity, our inward conviction of wrongdoing, our attempts to live in faithfulness, and the grace that sustains us when our attempts are inadequate.  Often I find that we are on a similar journey, though we describe it very differently.  Sometimes their different languiages and stories quicken my awareness of truths which I had come to take for granted.  Sometimes they open up possibilities I hadn't seen before. I am convinced that, just as God is greater than any of our names for God, Jesus is greater than any of our narratives about Jesus.  
But sometimes I hear people speaking or see people acting in Jesus' name and I think they are doing harm.  Then I am confronted with two temptations.  One is to avoid confrontation at all costs.  The other is to denounce Those Christians and make it clear that I am one of the better Christians.  Both can be deeply destructive. I am trying to find my way between them.
It's partly a question of focus, of motivation.  If I act to preserve my comfort, either by avoiding conflict or by dissasociating myself from behavior that troubles me, I may do harm outwardly and I certainly increase my own selfishness.  If I act to preserve my self-image or the image of my religion, either by making a show of unity or by making a show of purity unsullied by the behavior that troubles me, I may do harm outwardly and I certainly make myself more prone to hypocrisy.
Instead of doing those things I can act from the knowledge that I and the person whose words/actions seem hurtful and the people who might be hurt are all one in God.  From that understanding I can reach out to those who may have been hurt, can listen and offer what help or reparation is possible.  From there I can speak to the person whose behavior troubles me, if either their manner or our relationship make me believe that they might be able to hear a concern firmly and lovingly expressed.  To do this I need to be aware of, and may need to speak of, the times when I have been hurt and the times when I have been hurtful.
I'm clear about this.  I am not clear about when or how it's right to speak publicly about people whom I believe to have spoken or done wrong in Jesus' name.  I can see a case for doing that, for the sake either of the people who are hurt or of the people who are likely to judge all Jesus-followers by the hurtful actions of a few people. I also see that this can easily become self-righteous and can intensify the hurt or alienation which is probably already felt by the people whose behavior troubles me.
I don't know the right answer to this.  Perhaps in one way that's a good thing.  When I know I don't know the right answer I am driven back into prayer.  I ought to anide there anyway, as Jesus did, but too often I don't.
I would be glad to hear how any of you resolve these questions in your own lives.

Link to part 3