Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Human Jesus Is My Savior

I believe that the living Christ (the one I call “Lord”) is more interested in our commitment to God’s covenant, than our veneration—a covenant that calls us to love God with the totality of our being and to love our neighbor (that includes the “enemy”) as ourselves. Jesus never encouraged his disciples to exalt him; he called them to follow him, to be his apprentices, to learn from him how to live in and for God’s kingdom, to trust “Abba” (the loving Father/Mother), and to embrace his cause and passion for justice and mercy, while living in humility.

At one time, I had such an exalted view of Jesus and his divine status that it did me no earthly good. I could not touch or reach Jesus, because Jesus was so high and lifted up. (Sounds like a praise song doesn’t it?) I imagined Jesus as sinless, having never demonstrated a cultural bias, or acted in a selfish way, or entertained a single, lustful thought. He commanded the elements of nature, even walking on water. Well, I knew I couldn’t walk on water. So I worshiped and venerated Jesus, but I couldn’t imagine being like Jesus.

That started to change when I read two books that were part of a Doctoral Seminar at Southern Baptist Seminary (this was in 1991, before the fundamentalist “takeover”; I doubt one could find these books in their library today). One was by a Liberation Theologian from Brazil, Leonardo Boff, titled, Jesus Christ, Liberator. The other was by James Charlesworth, a New Testament scholar specializing in Christian origins, titled Jesus Within Judaism. Then a few years later, I read a book by Marcus Borg titled, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.

I was drawn to and captivated by the Jewish Jesus; Jesus as “the Son of Man”—the human one. And as I began to understand Jesus in his culture, as a sage, a teacher of nonconventional wisdom, a prophet, a Spirit-immersed person, driven by a vision of God’s new world and moved by a deep compassion, especially for the poor, impoverished, and marginalized, the one I regarded (and still regard) as the light of the world began to shimmer with new meaning.

I began to look at Jesus differently, not as one who was perfect, but as one who was completely given to the good and well-being of others. Not as one who was sinless, but as one full of compassion and forgiveness. Not as one who could walk on water, but as one devoted to healing the sick, loving the unlovable, caring for the diseased and demonized, challenging and confronting the injustice of the religious establishment, and exuding a contagious faith, hope, and love. I began to cultivate an understanding and vision of Jesus that I found compelling, calling forth the best that was in me and transformative virtues that I had yet to nurture and develop.

As I studied the Gospels, it startled me that Jesus was never concerned about or centered on his own veneration or exaltation. In fact, when the persons he healed wanted to proclaim him as the Messiah, he told them not to tell anyone. He told his disciples that the people of the world seek positions of power, authority, and veneration, but it was not to be so with them. He instructed them to be servants of all, for “the Son of Man” did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life for the liberation of many.

It is Jesus’ human vision of God’s kingdom, the dream of a world made right, of distributive justice (where all have a fair share of the planet), of forgiveness and reconciliation, and of radical sharing and grace that convicts me, humbles me, and is slowly changing me. Slowly, because old habits and ways of being in the world do not die easily, at least not in me, and I have a long way to go.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Reflections on Wendell Berry's Reflections on the Afterlife

Wendell Berry’s novel, “A World Lost,” is the story about a family coping with the death of one of their own. In the final chapter, Berry reflects on the manner of man he was. This meditation gives way to a reflection on death as a pathway into the light of a more advanced spiritual realm.

Berry writes, “I imagine the dead waking, dazed, into a shadowless light in which they know themselves altogether for the first time. It is a light that is merciless until they can accept its mercy; by it they are at once condemned and redeemed. It is Hell until it is Heaven. Seeing themselves in that light, if they are willing, they see how far they have failed the only justice of loving one another; it punishes them by their own judgment.” “And yet,” says Berry, “in suffering that light’s awful clarity, in seeing themselves within it, they see its forgiveness and its beauty, and are consoled. In it they are loved completely, even as they have been, so are changed into what they could not have been but what, if they could have imagined it, they would have wished to be.”

How I wish more Christians would apply Berry’s good reasoning, common sense, imagination, insight into human experience, and his healthy image of the Divine to their interpretations of the judgment texts in Scripture.

Berry says that “light can come into the world only as love” and that “not enough light has ever reached us here among the shadows,” and yet “it has never been entirely absent.”

When Divine Love finally reaches us and has its final say, “All will be well.”

If we could grasp Berry’s vision, then our biblical images of judgment would not be terrifying, tormenting images to be feared, but purifying images to be welcomed, invested with new meaning.

The “furnace of fire” would be a furnace that burns up all the dross, leaving the precious metal. The fire would consume our sin and selfishness, bringing us through the flames purged and pure.

The journey through “outer darkness” would serve to dispel the inner darkness and illumine our minds and hearts to the mystery, wonder, and power of God’s goodness and grace.

The “weeping and gnashing of teeth” would be a necessary prelude to the joy and celebration that results from the experience of grace and real gratitude.

We need the darkness as preparation for the light. At first, the light may feel like a condemning light. But it is a condemnation that leads to salvation, and passing through “hell” we reach “heaven.”

The journey of personal redemption is a journey from the selfish ways of childhood to the adulthood of self-giving love. It is a journey from the partial to the complete, from immaturity to maturity, from brokenness to wholeness, from the false self to the true self, from egoism to compassion, from our own suffering to solidarity with the suffering creation, especially our disadvantaged sisters and brothers within the human family.

Each journey is unique. Each has its own twists and turns, defeats and victories, setbacks and advances. None of the “hells” we each pass through are exactly alike. But I am convinced that the God who has come to us in Jesus, who knows the number of hairs on our heads, who calls us “dearly beloved,” will bring us, each one, to final redemption.