On Jesus

Life is everywhere indwelling and surrounding us, right here, right now, immanently pulsing, permeating, progressing, and present, within you, and within me, as radically close as our next breath yet as prevailing as the winds.  You don’t need to look long or hard to find it.  Simply pause and take notice.

The psychotherapist Carl Rogers believed one of his primary tasks as a therapist was to notice the impulses towards life innately growing within each of his clients and to help cultivate their unique development.  Supporting this transformative work requires creating the right conditions and providing the right care for new life to grow.  I might need to till up dry ground, remove stones from the earth, pull up weeds, and prune back dead growth.  I will need to ensure what’s growing receives enough water and sunlight to flourish.  And I will have to plant new seeds where they have adequate soil and space to develop into full maturity.  Properly cultivating new life—whether in my garden or in myself—requires a careful combination of ongoing work, attention, wisdom, patience, and time.

Jesus says, “I have come so that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.”  Elsewhere in scripture he uses a vivid agricultural metaphor to creatively describe the way we participate in living this abundant life with him and through him.  Jesus says:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful… Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. 

I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”

true vine

This striking biblical image of living in close and intimate connection to Christ, as branches to a supporting vine, partly portrays the nature of Christian identity.  It symbolizes what it means to profoundly identify with the Living Christ and participate with him in continually revitalizing all things.  To find one’s identity in Christ—the eternal Son and the world-creating, world-sustaining Logos—means, among many things, to identify one’s most profound and enduring sense of self with the recreative, exploratory, courageous Spirit of Sonship, the Spirit which is always actively at work in the dynamic processes of reordering, reforming, restoring, renewing, reinvigorating, and resurrecting, so all things may continually bear fruit that fulfills their innate purposes.  So I identify myself with Christ by becoming a partner and agent of recreation, participating with Christ in the constant renewal of the world.

Learning the art of living involves fully and actively participating in the dynamic unfolding of Life.  Indeed, the ultimate call of Life is to risk actively trusting and participating in it, which cannot be fully done from the safe place of a detached observer.  The answers to life’s most perplexing and pressing questions will not be found in a fixed set of abstract ideas.  My life and your life are not static events or still frame images, but dramatic and dynamic processes continually evolving in us and around us across time and place.  Life is a winding river, not a stagnant puddle.  Life, properly lived, is more of an active verb than a static noun.  It is only when I resist flowing with the movements of Life that my life becomes stuck, stagnant, static.  

Likewise, Christian spirituality is less of a commitment to a rigid set of foregone conclusions and more of a voluntary participation in the dynamic processes of abundant living. Christian spirituality is more of a faithful commitment to practicing the transformative mode of being and becoming modelled by Christ, a mode that involves continually deconstructing and reconstructing, dying and rising to ever-greater Life.  Following the Spirit of Christ may require voluntarily cutting away deadwood in myself, my personality, my character, my habits, and my traditions—cutting away anything that is preventing Life from becoming every good thing it could possibly be.  Partaking in this process can be simultaneously painful and reinvigorating.  Indeed, this experience illustrates the paradox of Christ’s teaching that I cannot discover greater Life until I willingly lose the life I now have.

 

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On Jesus

Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  How could a disciple of Christ faithfully understand the significance of this biblical passage while also affirming that non-christians can know and love God?  Doesn’t this statement mean a person must explicitly identify as a Christian in order to know God and be “saved”?

One of the most richly meaningful and poorly understood biblical symbols is the Logos (or Word) of God.  The Logos is associated with the Son of God, Jesus Christ, throughout the biblical narrative and writings in ways that are full of significance.  Logos is the creative, sustaining, and organizing nexus of power that is dynamically and actively present in all creation, giving all things their essential identity and bringing all things to their final fulfillment.  Understanding the meaning of Christ as the way, the truth, and the life requires understanding something of the biblical theology surrounding the Logos.

In the Bible’s opening creation story—in the beginning—it is the powerful Logos (the Word) of God that speaks creation into being from the formless potential represented by the dark, deep waters.  And, curiously, in the same story we are told that human beings have been made in the image and likeness of this creative, divine Logos who transforms formless potential into habitable being.  Human beings, like the Logos, are made to responsibly create, explore, and transform the potential of God’s world into being that is good.

Later in the biblical drama, the writer of John’s gospel, in an epic opening narrative that clearly resembles the Genesis creation account—a narrative which introduces magnificent themes and motifs that will be further developed like is done in the opening of a symphony—makes remarkable claims about the Logos.  The author says it is the same world-creating Logos that was God and was with God in the beginning, by which all things were made, and without which nothing was made that has been made.  John describes this creative Logos as a source of life and light for all humankind so powerful that the darkness has not and cannot overcome it.  And John says it is the same Logos that became flesh in the human life of Jesus of Nazareth, who revealed the glory of the one and only Son, coming from the Father, dwelling among us, full of grace and truth.  This is the context within which the author subsequently writes Jesus’s famous words—I am the way and the truth and the life—in what was later designated the fourteenth chapter.

And once again, it is the same personality, the same creative power, that Paul portrays on a cosmic scale in his letter to the Colossians.  Paul writes that the Son is the image of the invisible God, supreme over all creation, in whom all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authoritiesthat all things have been created through him and for him, that he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

It is this cosmic vision of Christ, the Logos and Son of the living God, shining forth across a sacramental universe, noticed or unnoticed, as the integrating, organizing, vitalizing power present in all created things that Jesus’s claim about being the way, the truth, and the life must be understood.

cosmos

What does this biblical understanding of the Logos mean for how we understand ourselves, as people who bear the divine image?  One thing it means is our (extra)ordinary impulses towards creativity, vitality, exploration, and transformation are varied expressions of the dynamic power of Logos inherent within our humanity, as creatures made in the image and likeness of God, and, indeed, within all living things that dynamically participate in the activity of God’s good creation.  That within us which creates, vitalizes, explores, and transforms, at its best, and for the genuine betterment of all, is divine Logos actively at work bringing life to fulfillment.

Christ, the Incarnate Word, is the picture this dynamic power of Logos fully embodied in human life.  Christ exhibits creative, life-giving power to heal the diseased and the brokenhearted, to restore the spiritually crushed, to awaken, to motivate, and to inspire all who are weary and heavy-laden.  And Christ voluntarily moves beyond the boundaries of safety to bravely explore and encounter the dark, threatening powers of suffering, evil, and death, and in doing so he transforms and transcends them by his ever-greater power of life.  It is this pattern of behaviour, this way of life—this transformative mode of being—that disciples of Christ are called to imitate and reproduce in themselves as they actively partner with God’s grace.  Christ, as Logos, dramatically displays the transformative processes of recreating, restoring, reordering, reforming, revitalizing, and renewing.  Even as the Incarnate Spirit of God, he does not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill its latent and often misunderstood purposes in revolutionary ways.

Jesus says, “I have come so that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

To resist participating in the heroic work of Christ is to ally oneself with the enemy, the antiheroic Antichrist who works to steal, kill, and destroy.  The Antichrist, by definition, is that varied power, that personality, which works in opposition to the work of Christ.  Sadly, some self-identified Christians, for various reasons, actually become rigid, lifeless, deadening individuals who resist necessary change and renewal, even as they shrivel into spiritual extinction, all as they ironically present themselves as committed followers of Christ.

One of the hardest lessons I have been learning is that sometimes I must resist certain pressures to conform with Christianity in order to fulfill the work of Christ.  For all of the benefits of having a religious upbringing, I have also internalized some excessively conservative, rigid, life-denying tendencies towards resisting change and growth and renewal, even in terms of my basic psychological and social functioning.  Thankfully I am not doomed to remain stuck in arrested development.  By the Spirit of Christ, change is possible.  Nor does this mean I must reject the Christian religion altogether in exchange for pursuing Christ.  But the power of Christ and the Christian religion are not the same thing.  So I must be perceptive in seeing where Christ is at work, where religion has become lifeless and deadening, and choose to ally myself with the recreative, revitalizing power of Christ whenever and wherever Christ and Christianity move in separate ways.

Some profess allegiance with Christ by their lips and yet still ally with the work of the Antichrist in their hearts and behaviours, usually by slowly stagnating and withering away in a wasteland of some deadening religious piety.  Jesus’ scathing warnings still echo today, though unfortunately not enough through some of our churches:

Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it…”

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead…”

Better to ally yourself with the work of Christ in your heart and behaviour, no matter what you say with your lips, than to sing praises to Christ while living in support of the forces of death.

If Christians gives Christ a bad name, if Christians misrepresent Christ to their non-christian neighbours, does that mean non-christians are doomed to never know Christ, doomed to suffer in separation from the Spirit of Life?  Absolutely not!  For every single living, breathing human being is made in the image and likeness of the world-creating Logos.  Every single person is sustained by the same Logos, pervading, enlivening, and moving being to its fulfillment.  If Christ ceased to graciously and unconditionally love existence into being, even for a split second, we would cease existing.  Christ, as Logos, already intimately supports and loves all people, right now, moment by moment, into living and being.  So anyone, anywhere, at anytime, who turns towards Christ in the innermost depths of their heart, trusting that to ally with that creative, vitalizing, transfiguring Power of Life is the best way to livesuch a person truly knows and loves Christ.  For one knows Christ first and foremost by faith.  Verbal expression, though important, is infinitely secondary to the profound, hidden, and sometimes inarticulate movements of the heart.

Since the meaning of the name of Christ is so corrupted the minds of so many people by the duplicitous behaviour exhibited by so many Christians, I cannot help but believe a person may know and live according to the Power of Christ and yet not identify with the Christian label or with the Christian religion.  Disciples of Christ should be extremely careful when dividing up people and dividing up the world into who knows Christ and who doesn’t know Christ, for risk of dividing up Christ and opposing his work.  Anyone who cannot be surprised by God does not know God.  Indeed, the Spirit of Christ cannot be contained or controlled anymore than the movements of the wind.  Not by you.  Not by me.  And not even by Christians.

 

On Jesus

To call oneself “Christian” involves—at bare minimum and before anything else—identifying oneself as someone who is committed to loving all people unconditionally.  To be Christian is to be a student (or “disciple”) of the way of Christ.  Jesus of Nazareth taught and practiced a love that pushed the boundaries and challenged the taboos of his day.  Jesus’ love was radically indiscriminate, inclusive, unconditional, active, voluntary, sacrificial, and free.  His is a love that exceeds any descriptions or standards or controls or conditions that could possibly be used to limit its power in any way, shape, or form.  Christ displayed unbounded compassion through his willingness to love those who had been marginalized and despised by the powerful, and to live with those who had been ignored and shamed by the privileged.  By the social-cultural-religious-political standards of his day, Christ loved the unlovable, touched the untouchable, reached out to the misfits and the disadvantaged, embraced the worn out, the weary, and those who had been beaten down for whatever reason.  And Christ’s task is the Christian’s task.

Any Christian’s love will surely be imperfect.  But the Christian commitment is to humbly acknowledge this and yet still not give up.  The Christian is the one who takes a risk, who stumbles, who falls, who gets back up, and who keeps trying to love without fears or conditions.  Christians should therefore be on the cutting edge of love.  But sadly this is not always the case.  Sometimes Christ’s loudest spokespersons are truly his worst enemies.  It is an extreme insult to Jesus’ message and way that “Christianity” is often first associated with privilege and power than with love.  And even worse, that “Christianity” is used to justify prejudice and hatred and oppression and violence against others.  This is not only a terrible mistake but a tragedy.  Some Christians today will give lip-service to loving as Christ loved, but then hasten to add so many conditions and qualifications to what “love” really is that they end up with a love so pathetically small and weak that it should be properly identified for what it truly is: unchristian.  The irony here is extraordinary.  Lord, have mercy.

The Apostle Paul’s following prayer is for anyone and everyone, and certainly for anyone who would dare to call themselves Christian.  May it be our prayer: “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen us with power through his Spirit in our inner beings, so that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith. And I pray that we, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that we may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”

On Jesus

I think Jesus was the smartest person to have ever lived.  This is, oddly enough, a seemingly uncommon thing to think—even amongst some committed Christians.  For many Christians, Jesus is readily thought of as the Lord of the universe.  And that’s a pretty heavy thought!  But thinking of him as smart, intelligent, and knowledgable strikes even some Christians as a novel idea.  If you’re curious to put this to the test, just ask yourself: do I think Jesus was a smart person?  An intelligent person?  A deeply knowledgeable and wise person?  Someone who might even be able to offer me some good advice on how to live in the ‘real world’?

Dallas Willard thinks that our tendency to readily think that Jesus is Lord but not smart is a big reason why many of us Christians struggle to practice what we profess: we often don’t seriously go to Jesus for guidance on how to live—in both the big things and the little things—because we often don’t readily think of him as an incredibly knowledgable person who has a deep understanding of ‘real life’ and the ‘real world.’  What we often do is we go to Jesus to take care of our spiritual needs, but we go to other experts to get guidance for dealing with our day-to-day, ‘real life’ cares and concerns.

These sort of opinions about Jesus are not just peculiar to Christians, though.  For many non-Christians these days, Jesus is often thought of as a nice, but thoroughly ignorant, guy.  One popular opinion about him is that he taught some nice things about love, but his ideas and encouragements are essentially too foolish or too idealistic for the ‘real world.’  Yet these sort of assumptions often amount to little more than learned prejudices; they’ve been passed on so many times at this point that few, in my experience, actually take the time to personally learn about Jesus and his teachings and really think through things for themselves.  It’s become such a common assumption that now many simply assume it must be true.

So the assumption remains common that Jesus was simply a nice guy—and that’s all.  We usually associate intelligence with people who elucidate excessively abstract philosophical ideas, with people who have impressive academic credentials and numerous degrees.  These are the sort of people who we would readily think are smart.  What’s more, it would not be unusual these days for someone to claim that Plato or Aristotle or the Buddha or Stephen Hawking is the smartest person to have ever lived.  And strong cases can be made in their support.  But we will never take Jesus and his teachings seriously if we do not at least leave open the possibility that he was incredibly intelligent, perhaps even the most intelligent person to have ever lived.

On Jesus

The significance of Advent is staggering.  So much could be raised and explored in reflecting upon the meaning of what we celebrate during this season.  By beholding the movement of our Incarnational-God, we learn that he is Emmanuel: God with us.  We learn that he loves with a love that is fathomless and fierce.  So fathomless and fierce that he assumed the condition of a person—even that of a totally helpless infant—to compassionately relate with us in a most extraordinary way.  Because this is what the truest love does: it motivates a lover to adjust and endure to be with their beloved, no matter the circumstance.  It motivates a lover to intimately enter the experiences of their beloved, no matter the cost.  It motivates a lover to compassionately bear the burdens of their beloved, no matter the difficulty.

Our God who is Love has done all of this to be close, to be near, to be with us.  He has acted in this incredible way so that we might know that we are not alone; that we might know that we are loved and valued beyond anything we dare comprehend.  Far from being cheap cliches, these are truths that can heal the most profound pains of the soul.  So at Advent we celebrate our God who acted as we are ultimately moved by his immense love for us.

We can also learn that our Incarnational-God has a special concern for people who are excluded and despised.  For the nobodies, the nothings, and the no-goods.  So much so that he became such a person.  This has huge relevance in our world of increasing disparity, division, and discrimination.  So may we remember that God actively expressed his love for us so that we would be ultimately inspired to follow his example, as we commit to becoming advent-people.  The kind of people who are continually learning the ways of active humility, compassion, and love.  The kind of people who wish to lovingly include everyone, regardless of their background or position or creed.  Thomas Merton powerfully expresses this startling significance in the following:

“Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because He cannot be at home in it, because He is out of place in it, His place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, who are tortured, bombed, and exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in the world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst… With these He conceals Himself, In these He hides Himself, for whom there is no room.”

As I reflect upon the significance of Advent, I cannot imagine a more remarkable act of humility.  I cannot imagine a more compassionate act of solidarity. I cannot imagine a greater expression of active love.  I cannot imagine a more radical revolution: that this is the way God goes about changing the world.

On Jesus

I work part-time in a local coffee shop.  There are two things that I really like about my job: I get to drink lots of great coffee and I get to meet lots of interesting people.  The cafe that I work at is a unique social hub too, a place that is visited by a wonderful mix of people who live and work in the downtown community.

The other day I was working one of my usual closing shifts.  It was an especially slow evening; I was all alone in the cafe, keeping myself occupied with routine closing duties.  As I was wiping down some counters, a regular customer showed up to get a decaf coffee.  Needless to say I was incredibly pleased to have some company.  He settled in at the bar and we began to chat while I prepared his cup of coffee.  We hadn’t had the opportunity to talk with each other much before this, so we started having a typical get-to-know-you conversation.

As we were chatting, I mentioned that I’m close to completing a degree in religious studies.  I immediately noticed that this perked his interest.  He promptly mentioned that he thinks religion is fascinating even though he’s not particularly religious.  So I asked him what his experiences have been with religion.  He told me that he was raised in a Catholic family and that his experiences of being involved in the church are ‘mixed’—some are good, but most are bad.  As we continued to talk about various things to do with the Catholic church, the Christian movement, and the history of religion, he shared some of his personal concerns with refreshing candour.  And given our mutual-fanscination with religion, we were both enjoying our discussion.

It didn’t take us long to move into some pretty heavy stuff.  He brought up many disturbing examples of violence, corruption, and abuse caused by religious individuals in what amounted to an impressive historical survey of the dark side of religion.  I mostly listened and nodded my head in agreement; like him, I found many of the examples he raised to be truly unsettling.  Then, in the midst of all the issues he had brought up, he said that there’s one thing that he finds particularly perplexing.  Once he indicated this, I listened with special curiosity to find out what was on his mind.  He proceeded to tell me that he does not understand how a group of people who claim to follow a man who taught love and peace have committed so much violence throughout history.  I immediately thought, ‘Me too!’  And I told him that I’m also shocked at how many Christians have failed to seriously follow Jesus’ teachings and example.  What’s more, that I’m especially appalled at the number of instances where Christians have acted in ways that are totally antithetical to Jesus’ ways.

Somewhat ironically, we actually had a great deal to agree about even though our faith commitments are quite different.  We both agreed that Jesus was a remarkable person who said and did some remarkable things.  We both agreed that there are far too many examples which highlight the many ways his followers have failed to live out his teachings.  And we both agreed that the startling gap between Jesus, the Christ, and so many of us Christians presents a very confusing conundrum.

Yet I still have faith despite the failures of the church, which are many.  Not only that, I still have faith despite my own personal failures, which are many.  I think this is really the clincher for me: facing my personal flaws and the flaws of the church doesn’t compel me to think that trusting and following Jesus is a misguided decision.  Just the opposite!  Facing my flaws compels me to confess that I truly need him.  It compels me to confess that I have much more to learn from him.  It compels me to confess that I desperately require his guidance and grace.  It compels me to confess that I am part of the problem, as uncomfortable as that is.

This is actually one of the essential claims of the Christian faith: that we are all part of the problem.  Sure, it’s possible to willfully ignore this uncomfortable claim—but the truth has a way of catching up with us.  Speaking to sobering trends in history, Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate.  History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate.  Love is the key to the solution of the problems of the world.’  We should remember that he was not merely commenting on problems of the distant past.  No, he spoke these words as one who lived through a most gruesome and violent century.

I agree that love is the key.  And this is why I continue to rely on Jesus for strength and for guidance, especially as I face the waves of hate that move within and around me.  Because I have not discovered an ethic of love that is more radical than the agape-ethics in his teachings.  I have not encountered a more moving example of love-in-action than what is displayed in his extraordinary life story.  Nor have I experienced a love that is more powerful than when the deep peace of his presence has overwhelmed my heart.

If love is the key, then Jesus is an ideal person to follow.  And I suppose that’s what this comes down to: being a Christian involves trusting Jesus and following his example—albeit imperfectly, but nonetheless persistently.  Because the Christian life is a life of stumbling forward.

On Jesus

I’ve noticed that it’s tricky to persuade some to take the man, Jesus of Nazareth, seriously.  Some couldn’t care less about the guy.  Now, by ‘seriously,’ I don’t mean automatically believing he was the cosmic-god-incarnate.  I just mean having a serious interest in learning about the man, especially since he’s arguably the most influential person to have ever lived.  But he’s been hyped up as God by so many of his followers that those who don’t believe he’s divine sometimes don’t even bother to inquire about him as an historical figure.  He’s placed in some special religious category, along with other irrelevant religious figures that are widely ignored.

Getting him out of that category is what’s tricky.  Persuading people to at least modestly view him as an interesting man who said and did some interesting things can be challenging.  Seriously considering his teachings alongside those of influential thinkers like Confucius, Plato, and the Buddha strikes some as an odd, or even novel idea.  But this is place to start at, especially if you find it unbelievable to think of Jesus as divine.  What’s more, I don’t think it’s even possible to appreciate the full significance of Jesus’ alleged divinity without appreciating the fullness of his humanity.

Now let me be upfront about my own opinions: through my own seeking, studying, and questioning, I’ve come to believe that Jesus is both divine and human; that he is the God-man.  So I am comfortable talking about either aspect of his identity.  And in my reflections and writings, you may notice that I’ll oscillate between exploring the significance of his divinity and his humanity.  But I don’t front-end load most conversations by strictly discussing his claims and acts of divinity, unless someone is specifically interested in delving into that.  It seems more sensible to me to begin with discussing his teachings and actions in his historical setting.  I like Francis Spufford’s approach to Jesus for this reason.  This is from his book Unapologetic:

‘He has no halo.  He does not glow in the dark.  Special lighting effects do not announce his presence.  If you cut him he bleeds.  His name is Yeshua, later to be Latinised as ‘Jesus.’  And what has he come for?  To say some things; to do some things.’

Simple, right?  As far as I’m concerned, this is a sensible, modest place to start if you’re interested in learning about the man and his message.