Thursday, December 30, 2010

An End to Christmas?

Yesterday was "pack up Christmas" day at our house.  This is always an upsetting time for me.  i always hate to see our Christmas "stuff" put away, & i'm always down during the time when that is taking place.  i know that this is a bigger job for my wife than it is for me, and i understand why she is always ready to get everything put away after Christmas and to return the house to its normal state.  i prayed that i would be there to help her without the appearance of the grumpiness that i usually feel on the annual workday after Christmas.  i was largely successful in being an extra pair of helping hands and doing my share of the work without complaining.  i can't say that i enjoyed it, but when i collapsed in the early evening, and my wife got her second wind and kept going, i have to say that i felt joy in seeing that she was relishing the fact that the end of the work was in sight.  i also had to acknowledge that the work was more pleasant for me that it has ever been before.

This morning as i prayed and meditated i tried to look at my reactions objectively.  i realized that my tiredness was as much an emotional weariness as a physical one.  Seeing the end of the Christmas celebration, while at the same time being there for my wife, had left me totally worn out mentally and physically, and that's OK.  My prayer is that i can carry the spirit of Christmas forward into the new year and that i can remember that even though decorations have come down in our home, the liturgical season is not yet over.  i can have the joy that Christmas brings all year long, because Christmas is the celebration of the gift of Jesus to us

i felt an overwhelming sense of anxiety this morning, though.  i have taken on a new responsibility at church, i have agreed to fill in for a friend in his church for a couple of Sundays in January so he can have some much needed time away, i have a performance this month with our local community chorus & symphony to which i am obligated, and we have friends that are wanting us to come spend a few days with them.  This morning, all of this seemed to be weighing down on me.  i know that God is there to help me, and if i just let go, everything will fall into place.  i am praying that i will be able to open my heart to God's leading and quit thinking that it is the all-imporant me that must take care of all these responsibilities.

In my mind, i know that part of the anxiety is tied into the un-decorating of our house, and i know, too, that through these seemingly overwhelming responsibilities and obligations God is leading me to learn that God gives us a perfect day each day.  It is my wanting to control the day that causes the problem.  Today, i'm asking God to help me let go of that desire for control and acknowledge the perfection that my need to control sees as imperfection.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

To Become a Servant

This morning i read about the earliest followers of Jesus.  As i quickly looked at some of the writings that are available on the internet, i saw that many of these were intent on promoting the various writers' points-of-view concerning the differences between orthodox Christianity as is was codified in the centuries following the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman world and the "genuine" Christianity that was practiced by the earliest followers of Jesus.  Only a few seemed to be presenting objective evidence of the little that we now know of the earliest Christian practices and thinking.

As i read, and later as i prayer and meditated, it seemed that God was leading me to focus on the teachings of Jesus as we know them from the record in the gospels.  There seems to be so much emphasis in our thinking as Christians on the death of Jesus as a necessary atonement for sin that the teachings of Jesus about how we are to live our lives is pushed to the background.  i am not arguing for or against a doctrine of atonement or any other theological concept.  Instead, i believe that i am being led to think about the practical considerations of living as a follower of Jesus.

We Christians have become so focused on our narrow doctrinal debates and our emphasis on sin and redemption that we may be forgetting the essential element of our faith: that we are followers of Jesus, a teacher who taught that these religious arguments obscure the true meaning of religion.  The message of love and service is for me the central teaching of Jesus, and my focus must be on how to live out that teaching in my own life without worry about saving my own soul through adherence to a set of prescribed theological tenets.  To save my life is to lose it in love for and service to others.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Jesus, the Buddha, and Perfection

This morning in preparation for my time of prayer & meditation, i looked at some similarities between the lives and teachings of Jesus and the Buddha.  i am a child of western culture, and yet the teachings of Buddhism are very comforting to me, reinforcing my Christian beliefs.  Since i began to explore Buddhist thought, i have become more devoted to the teachings of Jesus & more accepting of myself and the world around me.  Each day it seems that God is leading me to a deeper understanding of truth and preparing my heart for continuing change.

One of my favorite blogs is zen habits.  This morning there was a new post which referred back to the top zen habits posts of the past year.  One of my daily practices will be to read one of those "top twenty" each day until i have read all of them.  Today's reading was "you're already perfect."  i'll have to re-read it several times and think about what Leo Babauta, the blog author, is saying.  My immediate reaction was that this post ties into my abandonment of the struggle to be better, my turning that struggle into acceptance that God is active in transforming my life from one of constant striving for self-improvement and anxiety about the future into one of acceptance that each day is perfect as God gives it to us, that we are here to serve rather than to acquire both our own perfection and things that we hope will make our lives better.

There are so many blog authors who are speaking to me, and i believe God has placed their writings in my path to lead me to the truth that God has for me.  My prayer for myself and for you is that we can all open our hearts to the truth that is ours if we allow God to do the work of leading us to it.

Monday, December 27, 2010

i Was Glad When They Said . . .

Every Lord's Day, i wake up excited about the opportunity of worship.  Yesterday was no different.  Though i longed to stay home with my family who were here for Christmas, i longed to be with my larger family at church.  After all, i only have the chance to worship with them once a week for an hour or so, and i had the remainder of the day to spend with my immediate family.  i wished that all my family had come to worship with me, but they didn't choose to do so, and i accept their choice of doing what they needed to do, just as they accepted my choice of needing to be in worship.

As i sat in church, some insights came to me.  Our minister was preaching on the New Testament reading of the day: the account of the murder of the Holy Innocents at the hands of Herod the Great, as recorded in Matthew's gospel.  As she preached, i was struck by the conflict between Matthew's account of the events following the birth of Jesus and Luke's account. It occurred to me that those who read the Bible, interpreting every word literally miss much of the point.  One doesn't read the fable of the hare and the tortoise to learn factual truths about hares and tortoises, and one shouldn't read the Bible as if it were a history book.  The Bible is about a much larger truth: it is the epic account of the Creator's relationship with the Created.  As we read the stories of the Bible, we should ask God to reveal to us the truth that is intended, not for literal accounts of historical facts.  We must not become worshipers of the Bible, but must instead be worshipers of the God whose story of eternally seeking to restore us to companionship with the One who created us is recorded in the Bible.  We must read the Bible with our hearts open to the truth.

Next, i thought about leaving my family at home and the anxiety i felt in doing that.  i remembered Jesus as he visited with Mary and Martha after the death of Lazarus.  One sister was busy doing the chores that had to be done for her guests, while another sat with Jesus, rejoicing in his presence.  i had chosen "the better part" by spending time rejoicing with others who were present in worship.  The other members of my family had made a different choice.  Both were the right choices according to our needs. i didn't need to feel guilty about leaving them to be in worship for a brief time, nor did they need to feel guilty about staying home to take care of necessary tasks there and to enjoy their time together.  i offered a prayer of thanks for the removal of any sense of guilt about leaving my family to be a part of worship and for the removal of any sense of moral superiority i had felt for choosing to participate in corporate worship while the rest of my family stayed home.  We had chosen what we needed, and God was blessing both choices.

One more insight was revealed this morning as i prayed.  One member of our family had to arrive later than the rest, and we didn't know when he might arrive.  My wife & i had planned our traditional Christmas meal for everyone to enjoy, and all day i was anxious because i didn't know when we would be able to serve the meal.  i always cook our Christmas dinner, and i wanted it to be perfect.  Yet, i couldn't plan for when to have it ready because i couldn't know when everyone would be present.  As it turned out, i went ahead and completed the meal preparations so that our meal would be ready about 5:00 PM.  At 4:50, our long-awaited guest arrived, just in time for us to sit down together.  The meal was as perfect as a meal can be.  By allowing myself to become anxious, i missed the peace of Christmas that i could have enjoyed all day.  God had given me a long day of quiet before the family festivities, and i had chosen to make it a day filled with frustration and tension.  The lesson for me to learn is that i need to trust God to give me a perfect day every day, to realize that everything is as it should be, and thank God for whatever comes.

May your day be the perfect one that God provides for you.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Guide and Shepherd

A couple of years ago our family traveled to a city in Europe to spend our Thanksgiving holiday.  It happened that a former student of mine was studying there at the time.  We planned to worship on Sunday in a church there on the first Sunday in Advent, the Sunday following Thanksgiving that year.  On our first full day there, i wanted to find the church, and i was walking with my family through the streets near the church, trying to read the map i had with me.  i'm usually a good map reader and have a good sense of direction, but i simply could not find my way through the twisted streets of this ancient city.  i was becoming increasingly frustrated, when i looked up to see my former student standing in front of our family group, smiling at us.  i was overjoyed to see him and, after we greeted each other, i told him of my difficulty in finding my way.  He said that we were almost where we wanted to be and guided us to the church, where he often worshipped.  He was so familiar with the church that he was able to give us a detailed history of the church as he led us through it, pointing out the wonderful artwork and alerting us to many features of the church that we would have missed had we found it on our own.  After our visit to the church, he led us to a wonderful restaurant where we enjoyed a delicious lunch and learned that the restaurant itself was filled with amazing history, having been there for over two hundred years.

As i thought of Jesus as our guide this morning, the day after Christmas, i as reminded of the great joy i felt when my student appeared as if out of nowhere at just the time i needed a guide.  Suddenly my anxiety disappeared.  i knew that i could rely on my student and friend to lead us where we wanted to go, that the pressure of finding our way was taken away from me and replaced by reliance on someone who knew the way, having already traveled that way many times before.  In just the same way, i know that i can rely on Jesus to be my guide.  i have only to look up from the study of my own map and turn the anxiety and worry of finding my way over to him, confident in the knowledge that he will guide me to the place of peace and service that i seek.

This morning, i thought of Jesus as a shepherd, too.  As i reflected on Jesus-as-shepherd, two images popped into my mind.  First, came the familiar images of Psalm 23, of the shepherd who leads us to a pleasant place, who protects us from danger, who provides for our needs and blesses us forever.  Next, i remembered Jesus' story of the lost sheep and was reminded of the phrase from Isaiah: "All we like sheep have gone astray."  Like a shepherd, God seeks us as we wander lost in a wilderness of our own making.  Once God has found us, then we can rely on God and the teachings of Jesus to be our guide, but it is God that does the seeking and finding.  Think of how David was called from his duties as a shepherd while still a boy to be anointed by Samuel to be the future king of Israel.  It was not David who sought such a future, it was God who sent Samuel to seek out David.  It was God who called David, rather than David saying, "God be my guide so that I can become someone great."

God seeks us and, if we don't run from God, God rescues us.  God provides a guide for us, if we lift our heads from poring over the map we have devised for our lives, the map that has led us into the wilderness that separates us from God.  i pray that this day i will allow God to guide me, giving me the peace that comes from following God rather than stumbling along on my own.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Hope, Joy, Peace, Love

Last night we left all our Christmas lights on when we went to bed to symbolize the coming of light into the world in the little child whose birth we celebrate this day.  This child is the embodiment of the four words that are the title of this post.  As i sat in the silence this morning, with the lights of the Christmas tree twinkling, i thought of the immensity of God, of this great mind that created all that was and is and will come to be, and i wondered how could such a mind so large as to be incomprehensible be concerned for one insignificant person like me.  i can't comprehend it, but i can comprehend the love i feel for this little child in the manger and the love that child teaches us.  Here is the embodiment of the love of God in terms i /we can understand.  i am not concerned this morning about the mystery of incarnation, about questions of theology; i am only concerned with hope, joy, peace, and (especially) love.

i made a conscious decision to quit using the capital "I" in referring to the first person singular in my devotional writing to symbolize my own quest to make the love that flows from God through the teachings of Jesus the center of my life, to acknowledge that there is one great "I am" that is the cause of all things and that this person who "i am" has no greater calling than to become a reflection of a love that is so powerful that all things flow from it.

The rule of God is just that: hope, joy, peace, love.  We are subjects of God's rule and our greatest service is to allow God who is around us in everything and in us to become the ruler of our hearts.  My prayer for each person is that you will be filled with the magic and mystery of Christmas and that all of us will carry that magic and mystery with us through all the days of our lives.

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Savior Who Is Christ the Lord

My last Advent study was that of Jesus as "savior."  As I read various views of this name for Jesus, two points-of-view were evident.  One was that of Jesus as "my" savior, while the other was that of Jesus as "the" savior.  For many Christians, Jesus is the only savior, the only way of approaching God, the Savior, with a capital "S."  For those who hold this view, persons who don't share their view are not Christians; for them, Christianity is the only true religion, and Jesus must be worshiped as God incarnate, the savior who redeems the world from sin by his sacrificial death, and this path of reconciliation to God is the only true faith.

I cannot subscribe to this belief.  I only know what I experience in my heart.  I know that Jesus is my savior, who guides me along the path of service to God by serving others.  For me, Jesus is the savior of the world because his teachings of love for God and our neighbors lead us to a profound change in our hearts, replacing the selfish egocentricity of our lives with a love-centered existence that views all others as children of God deserving of our love, compassion, and service.   Jesus saves us by setting an example of unconditional love that accepts people as they are, not demanding that they must change in order to be worthy of love.

If we follow the teachings of Jesus, if we accept his pattern for our lives, he saves us from an empty existence that values things more than people.  Can we live this life of love without accepting Jesus as "savior?"  Each human heart must make that decision, and as I observe many loving people and read about the unselfish service that many non-Christians practice in the world, I cannot condemn these who are living lives that are consistent with Jesus' teachings, even though they may not call themselves Christians.  If that makes me a "pluralist," and for some a non-Christian, so be it.  I can only follow the path along which I believe God is leading me.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Born a Child and Yet a King

This phrase from the Wesley hymn, "Come, thou long-expected Jesus," was the subject of my Advent study on this eve of Christmas Eve.  The text with its list of names for Jesus fascinates me, and I've thought about many of the phrases Wesley uses in his text.  I found little directly referring to the phrase that is the title of this post, but what I read led me to think about what the birth of Jesus means to me and in what sense Jesus is a "king."

Whether one subscribes to all the miraculous accounts in the gospels about the birth of Jesus, these beautiful stories of angels, shepherds, wise men, mangers, stars, a young mother and an often-ignored husband, seems irrelevant to me this morning.  I can only speak to the profound impact that the birth of Jesus so long ago has had on my life.  This wonderful child whose life began in such humble, gentle circumstances grew to become a poor itinerant preacher/teacher/healer, the leader of a disparate band of disciples.  How can such a person be regarded as a king?

And yet, he is the king of my heart.  If I am coming away from my Advent studies this season with any new insight, it is that Jesus still calls on us to serve him by serving others.  This, for me, is the great message that Jesus has handed down across the centuries and still speaks to us about in our hearts: that to serve others is to serve him.  The question then becomes, "how do I serve?"

Is it enough to live my life trying to be compassionate to all those I encounter?  Is it enough to search in my budget for more money to give to causes that help others?  Is it enough to pray for others?  In our western culture, we continue to consume too much of the world's resources.  In our country, we elect leaders who blame the poor for their own misfortunes, who continue policies that further enrich the already wealthy at the expense of those who have the least.  How do I change the direction in which we're headed?

Across the centuries and in my heart, Jesus is calling me to ponder these questions, to seek God's leading in finding answers.  The power of the child-king Jesus is far greater than the power of every government in the world, stronger than every army.  Look at what this poverty-stricken Jewish man has accomplished.  He is calling me this Advent to serve and love, and my prayer as I look forward to the wonderful celebration of his birth is that I will follow God's leading to answer the call of Jesus.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Day with No Regrets

Yesterday was Monday, and my feelings throughout the day puzzled me.  After filling in for ailing pianists all last week, I rushed from singing the anthem with our church choir Sunday morning to spend six hours rehearsing and singing in two back-to-back performances with our local community chorus and symphony.  I kept thinking all day yesterday that I should be full of Christmas cheer on the Monday before Christmas, and yet I felt completely "blah."  As I told my wife, I was stricken with "people fatigue," only wanting to be by myself and do as little as possible.  Of course, that wasn't possible; there were many preparations that required our attention.  As I moved through the day, I kept praying that I would open my heart to what the day was supposed to bring.  I fell asleep last night, still wondering why the day had gone as it had.  Nothing bad had happened, yet I just felt a numbness about the experiences of the day.

When I prayed this morning, I asked God to help me think objectively about my feelings about yesterday.  A little later that morning, I suddenly realized that yesterday was as it was supposed to be.  For days, I had been running non-stop, taking little time for myself.  I should have been exhausted.  I should be feeling the need for some time alone.  I'm not supposed to feel exuberant joy all the time.  God had given me yesterday to recharge.  Despite my tiredness and my desire to do nothing, I did not allow my frustrations to cause me to be inconsiderate of others, I did not balk at shouldering my share of the Christmas preparations.  Just by patiently going through the motions of the day, I had experienced what I was supposed to experience and had no reason to feel any regrets.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Hope of the World, Thou Christ of Great Compassion

Yesterday I struggled with writing about Jesus as the "hope of the world."  The title of this blog refers to a great hymn by Georgia Harkness, as well as to the Wesley hymn, "Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus."  As I wrestled with my thoughts on Jesus as the hope of the world, I thought of how different Christians think of the hope that we have in Jesus.  For some, Jesus is the only hope of the world, believing that without faith in Jesus as God incarnate, one is doomed to spend an eternity of suffering.  Some who are devout Christians experience long periods of hopelessness, living much of their lives in a "dark night of the soul."  For me, Jesus is the hope of the world in that he taught us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, parent the orphans, free the prisoners, bring water to the thirsty, for in taking care of others we are in reality ministering to Jesus himself and bringing his message of hope to the world.  Without a sense of the need to serve others, as the Samaritan cared for the injured Jew he found along the road or the father welcomed the prodigal son, we are abandoning others to hopelessness.  Can one truly be a servant of Jesus without being a Christian?  Jesus himself said that we could, telling us that when we love and serve others, we are loving and serving Jesus.  God is in our hearts whether we believe or not and God reveals God's essence in our work of giving hope through service.  This is our great hope, that we serve Jesus by serving others.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Great Physician

Today, my readings were about Jesus as "healer."  One commentary that I found particularly helpful discussed the fact that the healings of Jesus not only healed physical illnesses, but also restored the ill to fellowship in the community, removing "uncleanness" that forced them to be separated from "God’s holy community," as the writer put it.  This is the "shalom," the wholeness that is the peace of God.

I find it important that those who were healed by Jesus came to him; he did not seek them out.  While many of Jesus' healing miracles are described in some detail in the gospels, there are even more that are not.  On several occasions, the gospels report that great numbers of people came to Jesus bringing the sick, all of whom Jesus healed.  It is significant, too, that the only person Jesus addressed as "daughter" was the woman "with an issue of blood" who was healed simply by touching Jesus' garment.  It seems to me that there was a special connection between Jesus and those he healed, and I often wonder what became of all those who were healed by Jesus.  Did they go on to live abundant lives, transformed and restored to community as they were by the power of Jesus?

One writer commented on the fact that God chooses to heal some people and not others.  I don't recall an instance in the gospels where Jesus ever failed to heal one who came to him for healing.  That doesn't mean that everyone who asks God for healing will be healed instantaneously as was the case in the ministry of Jesus, but I do believe that God does heal every illness when God is asked for healing.  That healing may not come immediately; it may not take place in this life, but I believe that God grants wholeness to every person who seeks it.

It is wonderful to me that Jesus continues to bring wholeness, to restore us to community, to heal the broken and injured.  What is our role in this healing ministry?  What can we do to promote healing and wholeness, to bring the shalom of Jesus to all those who are hurting?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

No Fear

Yesterday, an amazing thing happened.  I had my day mapped out when a friend called just as I was on my way out to do some volunteer work at the church, where another friend was awaiting my help.  My friend who called is the director of our community women's chorus, in which my wife sings.  It seemed that their regular accompanist, a wonderful pianist, was quite ill.  Another accompanist had been lined up to take her place, and he, too, was ill.  My friend, the director, asked if I would be willing to fill in.  Mind you, this call came just before 10:00 AM, and the choir was to rehearse at 11:00 AM for a performance at 11:45 on music I had never seen before.  Some of the music was quite difficult, and I knew to play it with accuracy would have required hours of preparation for me.

Without hesitation I agreed to help the choir out.  I took my wife's folder to the piano and began playing through each of the pieces the choir was to perform that day, trying to identify what was absolutely essential from the accompaniments and what could be omitted without throwing the singers off or doing serious musical harm.  Within thirty minutes, I had gotten through each piece, leaving me fifteen minutes to dress and get to the rehearsal.

My wife was very nervous for me.  The amazing thing was that I was absolutely fearless about what I was about to do.  My focus was on enabling this dedicated choir to perform as they had planned and taking pressure off their director so that she could conduct with confidence.  I accepted the fact that I would make some mistakes, would have to omit much that was on the printed page, and would even have to replace the written accompaniments with my own improvised accompaniment at times, but I knew that unless I stepped in, the performance would have to be cancelled.

In the past, before I began my practice of meditation and altered my pattern of prayer, I would have been terrified to take on this responsibility.  Even had I agreed to do something like this, I would have been a nervous wreck, making many errors because of my own fear and out of the sense that much attention would be focused on me.  None of that anxiety was present.  I did what needed to be done with joy and accepted that perfection was not the goal.  The goal was helping out when I was needed and centering my attention on the well-being of my friend and the choir she directed.  What a wonderful sense of freedom this new attitude of peace and joy brought to me, this gift that God was giving me.  I no longer needed to be fearful or feel inadequate because I was incapable of attaining perfection in my playing.  I only needed to think of doing what would be beneficial to others.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

I Am the Vine

The "Jesus word" I explored today was "Vine."  In John 15, Jesus says, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener."  One of the writers who commented on the opening verses of this chapter of John discussed the somewhat violent imagery of God pruning the branches.  He compared this to other violent images of God, such as God being like a "refiner's fire" or a potter who smashes a vessel in order to reshape it into a better vessel or a father who must discipline his children.  I thought of myself, when I must cut back shrubbery in our yard.  Pruning is a job I don't like doing, so I tend to hack away until the shrubs are beaten into submission, so to speak.  This is not the image I see in the idea of God's pruning.  Rather, I see the image of the gardener who enjoys the work, lovingly and gently cutting the branches so that the shape of the plant is more pleasing to the eye, the branches are all receiving the needed light, and the fruit or blossoms are more bountiful.  For me, the image of God as the gardener pruning is a gentle, loving image, though I understand the ideas the priest in the link above is conveying, and I found his commentary to be thought-provoking.

As I considered the imagery of this parable of Jesus, I thought about this vine of which Jesus speaks.  The vine is anchored in the ground, carrying nourishment to all the branches, giving life to the branches. Independent of the vine, the branches cannot survive.  The vine and its branches are an organic whole.  Yet the vine and its branches do not grow willy-nilly.  They are being trained by a master gardener who knows just when and where to prune to insure the maximum beauty, growth, and production of fruit for the vine.

The idea that, as disciples, we share in the work of ministry that Jesus began just as the branches bear the fruit of the vine is a beautiful, yet frightening, image.  It places a great responsibility on those who would be Jesus' followers.  Still, we can have faith that there is One who is at work to equip us for the ministry to which we are called, One who is shaping us and transforming us into something more beautiful and fruitful with the action of the pruning shears, causing us to bear that fruit which brings us into greater harmony with each other and with God.  This pruning is not the hacking of a gardener who is rushing to be done with a distasteful task, but rather that of a gardener who loves the work and does it with care and compassion.  I pray that I will be open to the transforming actions of the Master Gardener.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Christ, Be My Leader

When I began to look at Jesus as Leader, I was disturbed to find so many commentaries comparing Jesus to a CEO, whatever that is.  (I'm not sure what that abbreviation stands for, and quite frankly, I'm not curious enough to find out.  The idea of Jesus as a model of corporate leadership is repugnant to me.)  I didn't want to learn about Jesus' "leadership style."  What I wanted to explore was Jesus as the leader of a band of followers with disparate personalities, needs, talents, and faults.  What emerged to me as important qualities of Jesus as such a leader were:

Jesus led by example. He modeled the human quality of tenderness as he encouraged children to come to him.  He showed both sympathy and empathy when he came to Mary and Martha after the death of Lazarus.

Jesus inspired confidence.  When he taught, he taught with authority.  Even when Jesus was a child, the religious elders in the temple were amazed at the depth of understanding evident in the boy Jesus (Luke 2:41-47).  People were aware that there was something in Jesus' manner of teaching that was different from the teaching of other religious leaders (Matthew 7:28).

Jesus led by serving.  Jesus taught that the path to greatness came by serving (Matthew 20: 25-28).  In his last visit with his disciples before his arrest, Jesus served them by washing their feet (John 13: 1-17).

Jesus inspired loyalty.  Though one of his disciples betrayed him and one denied him at the end of his life, Jesus spent his earthly ministry traveling with a group of disciples who left everything that was familiar to learn from him.  These disciples were willing to return with Jesus to Bethany when Lazarus died, even though they knew they were facing great difficulties by doing so.

Jesus equipped his followers for ministry.  After the disciples had traveled with Jesus for a time, he sent them out in groups of two to carry out his mission among the people, as if they were apprentices.  When it became apparent that he would have to leave his group of disciples, Jesus prepared them for what was to come, assuring them that he would be present with them in spirit whenever they needed him, even though he would no longer present physically.

In his brief ministry, Jesus accomplished amazing things with and for his disciples, leaving a legacy that enables millions of his followers to walk in faith with him every day.  He inspired great leaders to continue his work of serving others.  May the life of Jesus be an example for each of us who accepts him as our leader.

Friday, December 10, 2010


My word for today was "guide."  I began to search on the internet for commentaries on Jesus as our guide. My search came up pretty much empty.  There were discussions of guides about Jesus, there were study guides themselves, but little on Jesus as guide.  One link that struck me was a translation of the hymn by Nicholas von Zinzendorf that I know as "Jesus, Still Lead On."  In this translation, the text began, "Jesus! Guide our Way."  This made me think about the words, "guide" and "leader."  Pretty soon I felt like I was in the Bing search engine commercial in which "googlers" are free-associating "ala google," a problem which the focused searches in Bing are supposed to avoid.  My next association was with the word "shepherd."

My prayer/study time ran out.  Later today I decided to spend fifteen minutes in meditation and prayed before beginning my meditation that God would lead me to some understanding of those three words, all of which were study words that I had not posted about.  Maybe that's why God hadn't given me the time: God knew I wasn't finished digesting their meanings for me.

At the end of meditation time, I began to think about what the differences between "guide," "leader," and "shepherd" are for me, not the dictionary definitions, but my own personal definitions.  For me, a guide is one who accompanies us into uncharted territory on a journey of our own choosing, one who has explored this territory that is new for us and is able to lead past any pitfalls and to enlighten us about what might otherwise have escaped us had we journeyed on our own.  A leader is one who points us in ways we might not have chosen to go on our own, giving us direction without our seeking that direction.  A shepherd leads without explaining the journey; the flock simply goes where the shepherd takes it, not knowing until the journey is over what the destination is.

Now that there is some clarity in my thinking about these three names for, or characteristics of, Jesus, I think that I can proceed to explore them in subsequent posts.  I'm open to others' views about distinctions between these three words, if anyone is compelled to comment.

Everlasting Father/Earthly Son?

At the beginning of Advent, when I began my investigations of some of the names used to describe Jesus, I wanted to post some of my thoughts each day.  I knew that with the busyness of this time of year, I probably wouldn't be able to, and I resolved not to obsess about it.  Today, I'll try to do a little catching up.

So far, I've written about Jesus as Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace, Mighty God, Friend, Virgin-born, Teacher, Revolutionary, and Comforter.  Next on my list was "Everlasting Father."  This was an especially difficult name to research.  Every commentary on these words was unsatisfactory; each read into "everlasting father" meanings that I rejected.  Jesus was so clear that we should only address God as "father."  Yet here is Isaiah saying that the Messiah would be called "eternal (or "everlasting") father."  This caused me to think about the text from Isaiah.  Do I understand what Isaiah's intentions were in this text?  Have I simply accepted that this text is about Jesus because so many of us associate it with the prophecies of Jesus as Messiah that we recall every Advent?  Do I immediately associate this text with Jesus because the Messiah chorus, "For unto us a child is born," quotes this text, and throughout Advent this chorus is running through my mind?

In the end, I have to say that understanding the name, "everlasting father," is not essential to my faith in God or my feeble attempts to be a follower of Jesus.  I'm able to put the effort to understand its meaning  into one of the file drawers of my mind with the intention of returning to it again to explore what Jewish thinking about the Messiah was and is, to try to understand what Isaiah's intentions were, and to study the gospels to determine if God is leading me to a deeper understanding of the nature of the human Jesus.  I would love to have insights that anyone can share with me in this exploration.  For right, though, I'm moving on!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Comfort Ye

Last night I attempted to write a post on Jesus as comforter and got bogged down in one instance where Jesus acted as comforter, that is, in Jesus' returning to Bethany to comfort Mary and Martha when Lazarus died.  For me, this story in John 11 reveals Jesus' humanity more than any other story in the gospels.  In it we see the profoundness of Jesus' love for this family.  When I gave up on finishing this post, I began to think of other situations when Jesus acted as comforter.  One that popped into my mind was his comforting of the disciples as he told them of his imminent death in John 14.  Jesus realized how hard it was for the disciples to accept that Jesus would no longer be with them, and he knew that the days ahead would be trying for them.  He comforted them and helped them to understand that his departure was but one stage in his journey on earth.  Another was Jesus comforting his mother as he hung from the cross, assuring her that she would be cared for by the disciple Jesus loved (John 19:26).  His words of comfort to the dying thief who recognized Jesus' mission on earth more clearly than many of Jesus' disciples is another (Luke 23:39-43).

When I hear the word, "comfort," I always think of the words that begin Isaiah 40: "Comfort, comfort you my people," a portion of the passage that is used as a prophecy of the role of John the Baptizer in the gospels.  I am reminded, too, of the tenor recitative near the beginning of Messiah that quotes this text, leading to the aria, "Every valley . . ."  Comfort is a wonderful word, and one that I need to hear during the bustle of the season leading up to Christmas.  I am enjoying the comfort of Jesus' presence in my heart as I prepare for this Monday and pray that you are also.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

A Revolution of the Heart

The topic for my Advent study this morning was "Jesus as revolutionary."  As one expect, I found conflicting commentaries on this topic.  It seemed to me that many writers were imposing what they wished to see in the teachings of Jesus, interpreting Jesus' teachings to fit their views, finding in them what they wanted to find.  Some saw Jesus as little more than a reformer of Judaism in Roman-occupied Palestine, while others saw Jesus as a rebel who sought the radical restructuring of society.  Like some commentators that I read, I believe the truth lies somewhere in between.

Certainly, Jesus sought to free Judaism from the legalism that obscured the true purpose of the law.  He included at least one zealot in his inner circle of disciples.  He treated women, members of reviled ethnic and social groups, and the outcasts of society in ways that scandalized the orthodox religious leaders.  He refused to conform to the expectations of those who were seeking a politico-religious champion, making it clear that his kingdom was something completely different.

It was through the power of love, a love that is concerned with right intentions from which flow right actions, that Jesus sought to change the world.  This was a different sort of revolution.  It was a revolution that believed the world could only be transformed one heart at a time, that peace was more powerful than war, that forgiveness was more powerful than retribution, that service was the path to greatness.

Was Jesus' revolution successful?  It continues today and, for those of us who seek to follow Jesus, it is succeeding insofar as we allow our hearts to be transformed by the work of God in them.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Jesus the Teacher

My topic of today's study was less problematic for me than that of the past two days.  Today, I looked at Jesus as "teacher."  I found an excellent essay on this subject written by Nicholas C. Burbules of the University of Illinois, Urbana/Champaign.  In it he spoke of Jesus' assertion that before learning can occur, the learner must be prepared to receive the learning: "Whoever has ears, let them hear" (Matthew 11:15).  Teaching those not ready to learn, Jesus said, is futile, as he explained in the parable of the sower in Matthew 13.  Burbeles' essay discusses four types of teaching exhibited during Jesus' ministry: (1) questioning which was often leading, directing those hearing the question and response to a truth that Jesus wants to impart, (2) "discursive" teaching, like that of the Sermon on the Mount, (3) proverbs or aphorisms, like "the first shall be last and the last shall be first," (Mark 10:31), often involving paradox or using common metaphors, and (4) parables.  Jesus moral teaching seems to have been focused on the intention of the individual, that is, Jesus taught that one cannot be truly righteous even in the performance of good deeds, if the motives that caused the good deeds are not righteous.  The giving of alms in order to receive earthly praise may benefit the receiver but has no moral value for the giver, since the giver is not truly concerned for the welfare of the recipient.

I believe that through this brief examination of Jesus the Teacher, God is leading me to explore the gospels, seeking out the totality of the Jesus' teaching in them once I have finished reading and meditating of John's gospel.  This will be the focus on how I will begin to "harmonize" the gospels as a body of material that records what we know of Jesus' earthly life.

Born of a Maiden/Born of a Virgin?

It seems that I have chosen to place many of the names associated with Jesus that give me the greatest difficulty at the top of my Advent study list.  First, the appellation, "mighty god," followed by "virgin-born," my topic for yesterday.  As I investigated, I again encountered the difficulties of translation, and I cannot speak to the accuracy of any translation from ancient Hebrew or 1st-century Greek.  I'm barely competent in contemporary English!  Most of the writers on the virgin birth spoke of the inaccuracy of translating the Hebrew word most properly translated "maiden" into the Greek Old Testament.  In the Greek translation, Isaiah's use of this term was mistranslated as "virgin."  It would seem that Matthew, relying on the Greek, made much of the virginity of Mary as fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy, when the prophecy spoke instead of "maiden-born," rather than "virgin-born," and referred to a much earlier event in Jewish history.

For many of us, the virgin birth doctrine is problematic, but I must respect the millions of Christians who consider it a cornerstone of the faith from which their entire understanding of Jesus and Christianity flows.  Again, we are confronted with looking back at ancient prophecy with modern, Christian eyes, and we may not understand Isaiah's intentions at all.  Would it be consistent with Jewish understanding to have God become incarnate through a virgin birth, or would that seem to the Jews of either Isaiah's or Jesus' time to have been a characteristic of a pagan religion, something blasphemous that is not consistent with the God of Abraham's interaction with humankind?

Again, I am forced to say that on this question, like so many others that puzzle me about orthodox Christian dogma, I must wait for God to speak to my heart when I'm ready for understanding.  Until then, I will have to say, "I honestly don't know."  I have to rely on the revelation of God in my heart in God's own good time.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Mighty Warrior?

Yesterday, my morning scripture study explored the term "mighty god" from Isaiah 9:6 as part of my daily Advent reflections on twenty-five of the names often applied to Jesus.  As I began to try to write a post on that topic, I found writing it quite difficult.  I have some doubts about the dogma of the Trinity and am uncertain whether Jesus would consider it appropriate to be referred to as "god."  These uncertainties have been a part of my Christian life for almost as long as I've been a follower of Jesus, though some would say that I can't be a follower of Jesus and have these doubts.  I am always encouraged to find others, like Jason Boyett who writes a blog called, "O Me of Little Faith," and find it comforting to know that others struggle as I do.  I have confidence that God is leading me to the truth, either in this life or the next, and that assurance comforts me, too.

I am not a biblical scholar, and I feel very inadequate, especially when I read the Old Testament.  It seems to me that when we reflect back on these ancient prophecies through Christian eyes, we may not see what is truly there.  We may read into these writings meanings that reflect our own backgrounds and modes of thinking that are quite foreign to the intention of the original writer.  Too, we are reading a translation that may not be capable of expressing the nuances of an ancient Hebrew word or phrase.  I was interested in the observations of one writer about this particular phrase, "mighty god," which many make much of as evidence that Jesus should be regarded as God, but which he translated as "mighty warrior."  The writer is a proponent of what he calls "Chritian monothesim" and so approaches the text with an inclination to interpret the text in a certain way to support his point-of-view, an example of the difficulty we face as we look back at any text coming from another age and culture.

What does the phrase "mighty god' mean, then, if it is a reference to Jesus?  I haven't been able to draw any conclusions, and so the search for the truth will go on for me.  Too often we interpret Scripture to mean what we want it to mean, and I know that the message God places in my heart is the one God wants me to have.  One day, God will reveal to me what this term means and how it should be properly applied when God knows I'm ready.

What A Friend We Have in Jesus

This morning I explored the concept of Jesus as “friend.”  The first reading began by pointing out that the Bible refers to both Abraham and Moses as friends of God.  The idea of God regarding humans as friends surprised me.  I can't remember having read those passages before.  The same writer went on to point out several characteristics of Jesus that were indicative of his friendship with others, including his disciples.  He confided in them, he was not hesitant to speak frankly to them when they failed to understand his teachings, he loved them despite their failings, he even called his betrayer “friend.”  More importantly Jesus was a friend to those who needed him most, those regarded by Jewish society as “sinners,” who were so impure as to be shunned.  Jesus was condemned for eating and drinking with such people, for entering their homes.  The Pharisees accused him of being a “friend to sinners.”  This is the most remarkable thing to me about Jesus: that he reached out to those who were the outcasts of society, befriending them when the religious elite refused to associate with them.  Jesus didn’t tell these “sinners” to first abandon their sins and he would associate with them.  He accepted them as they were and shared his love with them as one would with friends.  For me that is the greatest of Jesus’ teachings, that he regarded all people as his “neighbors,” caring for them despite their station in life, their lack of devotion to God, their gender, or their ethnicity.  All were treated as friends, except those who snubbed the very people Jesus befriended.  I thank God for this teaching and for the fact that Jesus was and is a friend of sinners.  I pray that I will remember that Jesus never considered himself to be above associating with those that society considered “unclean.”