Easter: “me” or “we”?

In an editorial The great shock of Easter, the Sydney Morning Herald used the Christian Easter proclamation to make a provocative point to a wider audience. “Simply put, ours is a culture that pretends to liberate the “me” from the “we” by inviting each of us to forget about the tried wisdom of the past and to simply feel good about ourselves here and now.” [See complete editorial] As a Christian it pleases me that the SMH featured an editorial about Easter on its Opinion page. Certainly the point being made is a good one. Even Christians tend to forget the wisdom of Christ’s passion and resurrection, which is why we need Lent. In a way, waking up humankind to the existence of a far larger “we” and its wisdom is what Easter truly means.

Sleepers awake!

What Easter is pointing toward is a stunning truth: the transformation of mankind and, through us, the entire universe. Walter Kasper, a noted theologian, summarizes the signficance of Easter as “the event which opens the world to the future . . . a future which is based in the infinite destiny of man . . .the future of all reality has already begun with Jesus and is decisively determined by him, but far more: the person and activity of Jesus are that future.” [Kasper, Jesus the Christ, Paulist Press, 1976] The world and humankind was asleep until Easter morning, when the truth dawned. Even today, we find statements such as Kasper’s almost impossible to believe. The Sydney Morning Herald is right about one thing — our narcissistic “me” has become transfixed in contemplating ourselves, and is missing the wisdom of who we truly are. Not some shimmering image in a mirror but an unimaginable “we’ — the body of Christ, emerging in history.

Christian freedom

As Walter Kasper also points out, liberation is part of the Easter message — “Self-will is not free but quite unfree, because it means slavery to one’s own ego and the whims of the moment.” I think we feel today that we are free because we have so many choices at hand. Many of us have disposable income to pursue these choices. But Easter raises the question of who we are meant to be and whether our choices ought to be only self-willed (a pathological focus on “me”) or meant to be something else. So, especially on Easter morning, sleepers awake! Christian freedom is Christ’s freedom. Christ is the example of living for others, and what it means to truly be part of a “we.” Jesus demonstrated that in dying and rising, in solidarity with all mankind. Take a few minutes this holy season, then, and walk through what happened from the Last Supper through Easter morning. See if it helps you get beyond “me” to what “we” is meant to be.

 

The second great act of creation

Most of us are aware that the universe began in a ‘Big Bang’ about 14 Billion years ago. But how many people realize that another equally great ‘big bang’ happened just 2000 years ago?

I once taught a weekend ‘Enrich Your Faith” workshop to a small group of Christians in the basement of a Baptist church in Virginia. I wasn’t a Baptist but a friend had vouched for me with his pastor who kindly lent us a meeting room for two days. I wanted to begin the workshop where Peter had started on Pentecost and help the group to understand what living in the last days means by exercising their imaginations. Having worked at NASA, I decided to use a metaphor about space.

A Story about God’s Second Great Act of Creation

“Have you ever seen a solar flare?” They looked puzzled so I continued. I drew a big circle on the whiteboard. “This is the Sun, an immense ball of fire. Every once in a while a giant explosion takes place inside the sun and a huge eruption of flame bursts out of the Sun and travels millions of miles into space, eventually falling back into the Sun, pulled by its enormous gravity.” I drew a big arc from the circle on the white board out and then back. “This is a solar flare.” I paused. They looked even more puzzled. What had they gotten themselves into?

“Let me explain this metaphor and how it relates to the last days in the Bible. In my story about the solar flare, God is the sun. Scientists tell us that the universe is about fourteen billion years old but they can’t explain what happened at what they call the Big Bang. The Christian explanation is that, in a gigantic act of creation, the universe and reality we live in erupted out of God like a solar flare. I call this God’s first great act of creation.” I could sense they sort of understood so I continued. “Two thousand years ago, the human race experienced God’s second great act of creation. Jesus entered the universe to bring it back to God, and transform everything.” I pointed at the place in the arc on the whiteboard where it stopped going out and turned back to rejoin the big circle. “We live in the last days where God has sent His Son and Spirit to the human race to reunite everything in the universe with Him.” I paused to see if there were any questions. The group was wrestling with the metaphor. I could see things shifting in their minds by the expressions on their faces. “The question I want to ask you is, what does it mean to be a Christian in the last days?” That’s where I left the metaphor and began the first lively discussion of the workshop.

The Last Days

We live in a time when it seems like we might literally live in the final days of our planet’s existence, or at least the human race’s. We have invented technologies that could possibly wipe out a large portion of the human population. We call them WMDs. Nuclear and biological weapons. At the same time, we may also be modifying the climate on the planet, to the point where the entire biosphere may heat up in global warming, leading to widespread death and destruction. And scientists tell us that, periodically asteroids have collided with the earth, destroying all life, the last time about four hundred million years ago. But this isn’t what “last days” means in the Bible.

Peter tells us what the last days means to Christians. The Holy Spirit is being poured out on all people, not just Christians. As Paul said, God’s plan has been revealed to Christians – “And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the time have reached their fulfillment – to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.” [Ephesians 1:9-10] In the language of my metaphor of the solar flare, God has performed his second great act of creation and entered space-time in Christ to transform everything and bring it back to himself through the action of men inflamed with the Holy Spirit. The question is, how exactly is God doing this? What is the Christian role? To understand that, we need to understand more about what is going on in the last days.

The Christian Role

First, let me describe how science sees our times and the evolution of human consciousness. I will summarise a well known secular model, called The Graves Model or Spiral Dynamics.

Like Buddhism, Spiral Dynamics sees a certain inevitability in reality. Buddhism theorizes that reality is always the same in essence, with man ascending beyond himself into timeless nirvana. [1] Spiral Dynamics sees reality as evolving, and mankind’s social reality evolving as well, inevitably upward to greater consciousness and mindfulness of ‘the whole.’ Both these theories see reality as indifferent to humans and their fate. Everything will eventually turn out as it will regardless of what mankind does.

It should be obvious that both these theories are radically different than Christianity’s. In Christian belief, mankind is deeply involved in what happens to reality and are the co-creators of the future with Jesus, according to God’s eternal purpose. Christian belief is a basis for action. It says that we are responsible for transforming the world, while Buddhism and Spiral Dynamics are much less emphatic, theorizing that it doesn’t actually make any difference in the long run. “Some people seem to believe in an automatic and impersonal progress in the nature of things. But it is clear that no political activity can be encouraged by saying that progress is natural and inevitable; that is not a reason for being active, but rather a reason for being lazy.” [2]

Chesterton describes the Christian belief this way. “I had always believed that the world involved magic; now I thought that perhaps it involved a magician.” [3] Scientists and Psychologists like Graves don’t believe that there is any magic in the world. Everything is explained by the actions of energy and matter evolving to more and more complexity, even the increase in human consciousness in Spiral Dynamics. There is no magic and no need for a magician. The last days are just like any other period of galactic history except that consciousness has evolved to the point that it knows there is something going on. Thousands of years ago, primitive man realized that he had consciousness, so gods were invented (so the scientists and Psychologists theorize). Now scientific man believes that natural forces like evolution can explain everything they observe.

Contrast that with the Christian explanation. Two thousand years ago, God (the magician) changed the rules of the space-time continuum. After a long period of preparation, God entered His creation as a man like us. His name is Jesus. Exactly what his purpose was in doing this is evident in his life, his teaching, and his death and resurrection. Now, in the last days, time itself is unwinding on a different scale. Scientists may theorize that the universe will take another fourteen billion years to stop expanding and contract back to the original state of nothingness. Christians believe that we are in the last days, when God is acting to bring all created things back to himself in a new glorious state. In terms of ordinary time, we have no idea when that will finally happen but we believe that it is ongoing right now. Our role, and our privilege, is to use our freedom to participate in God’s great adventure and plan.

But there is an even more powerful way of saying what living in the last days means. Before Jesus, mankind was in a cocoon, of religious separation from God. Even Israel was afraid to approach God, or even say his name. Then God acted, and changed everything. Man’s cocoon was cracked by Jesus’ love, and a new man began to emerge into history. Jesus freed men to float like butterflies, to escape the limits of myth and religious impotency into intimacy, even sonship with God. And we know that this reality is the deepest truth of God. “God has done great things, meeting our deepest hungers. All is God’s doing. We walk in the flow of divine creativity, even when we think it is all our doing. God’s promise is received and fulfilled in the slowness of our daily learning . . . faith, born of love and giving birth to love, is the God-intended crown of our long journey toward a fullness for here and hereafter.”  [4] That is a magnificent hymn composed by one Christian, celebrating what it means to live in the last days. What is our response?



[1] The Buddha, a great and wise man, sat under a Lotus tree and developed his theory. Unlike what Christians believe, Buddhists don’t claim that the Buddha’s vision was revealed by the source of all truth, God. Of course The Buddha may have been influenced by God but he doesn’t attribute his wisdom to any higher being.

[2] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p. 100

[3] Chesterton, Ibid., p. 55

[4] Michael Paul Gallagher, Faith Maps, Paulist Press, New York, 2010, p. 77

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Anonymous Christians

“You aren’t a Christian but you are the most Christian person I know.” I hear this statement occasionally and it always makes me pause. I wonder what the person saying it means — and how the person being referred to feels. There are lots of possibilities.

Then I realize that the person I need to question is myself. Why do I care if a good person is a Christian or not? More importantly, does God care? Depending on your brand of Christianity, you may have clear answers for these two questions. How another Christian answers these questions probably determines, in your mind, if that person is really a Christian.

How would God answer these questions?

It isn’t absolutely clear how God views these questions. On the one hand we have a very clear statement about how God will judge all people at the end of time in the story about “sheep and goats.’ God values our behaviors, it seems, rather than our beliefs. On the other hand, Jesus said, “The work of God is this; to believe in the one that he has sent.” [John 6:29] Perhaps, then, these questions are more about God’s mercy than about understanding what’s in God’s mind. Should we be so confident about our understanding of God’s mind?  Job learned that understanding God’s mind was completely beyond him, saying after his dialogue with God, “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.” [Job 42:3b] We do not understand and cannot define boundaries for God, or say with certainty, “That person is (or is not) pleasing to God.” Perhaps we should place all our confidence in God’s mercy, and not try to divide the world up into Christians and non-Christians.

So why be a Christian?

All this leads me to my basic point. What is my motivation for being a Christian? Is it about being  more confident that I’ll get to heaven? Like a spiritual insurance policy? Or is it my response to grace? The gift of faith and the gift of knowing Jesus. My life-long journey has led me to see that my reasons for being a Christian are more about being in relationship — with Jesus and with fellow Christians — than any other factor. And that is what I seek in my local church — ways to deepen these relationships.

Why aren’t you excited?

I had a ‘eureka’ moment the other day, as I was reading Hans Kung’s The Beginning of all things: Science and Religion. He had discussed science’s view of the beginning in the Big Bang, and the beginning of the human race in Darwin’s The Origin of Species.  Then Kung summarised Polkinghorne’s view of  the role that God played in the beginnings as  “. . .a patient and subtle creator who is content to pursue his aims by initiating the process and by accepting that degree of vulnerability and uncertainty that always characterises the gift of freedom through love.” A number of things clicked for me when I read this.

  • “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.” [Acts 2:17]
  • “They are not of this world, even as I am not of it.” [John 17:16]
  • “You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” [John 14:14]

Eureka! We are in the time God and Jesus promised, when the very Spirit of God will empower us to do great works and ‘move mountains’!

So why aren’t you excited? Probably because your common sense tells you that this simply cannot be true. But where did your common sense come from?

Everyone faces three choices when they consider how to view and put into practice Jesus’ promises. First, they may decide it’s all too fantastic and refuse to think about it anymore. You might view them as the cynics of this world. Such people withdraw, become passive, remain victims, and generally wait for someone else to do things. [1]

Second, some people at least reflect on Jesus’ promises and begin to realize there might be some truth in them. But then they become overwhelmed by the reality of the world.  You can recognize such people because they actually talk about the Spirit and Jesus’ promises and seem to understand that they might not be the ordinary people common sense says that they are. In the end though, they say that Jesus’ promises are so improbable that it isn’t worth the risk of putting them into practice. These are the people who settle for the status quo, the skeptics.

Finally there are some people who realise what Jesus’ promises mean. You can call them visionaries or heros. Heros, in the great myths, went on a quest. The hero’s quest was seen to be an extraordinary journey requiring great courage. The first step in Christian heroism is imagining that Jesus’ promises mean exactly what they say: Ordinary people have the power to influence things. The second step is acting despite personal risk. The third is persevering despite difficulties and failures because Jesus’ vision is so vital and compelling.

A person who believes in Jesus’ promises says, “Even if I am only one person, I might make a difference. Therefore, I must try!” They begin to believe that a powerful force — the most powerful imaginable — is at work changing them and empowering them. They understand what Jesus meant by saying we can create whatever is in God’s will by asking him to do it. It isn’t our strength but his.

Isn’t that exciting? If you’re not excited, I encourage you to reflect on why that is. Are you actually a cynic or a skeptic even though you are a Christian believer?


[1] This is based on Melanie Klein’s model, taken from “Mourning, Potency and Power” by Laurent Lapierre in The Psychodynamics of Organizations, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1993, pp 26-31.

 

 

Applying Jesus’ Principles to decisions

Imagine that Jesus is sitting in your Parish Council meeting. Eleven people are discussing some decision that needs to be made, e.g., should we construct a quiet room in the church so parents can attend services but their babies won’t disturb the rest of us? This room will cost a significant amount of money. Jesus sits silently and listens to the discussion, which winds on and on. The hour is getting late. Finally Jesus speaks. He doesn’t say what the decision ought to be; he just lays out the pros and cons from his way of thinking. He leaves the decision up to the rest of us.

Jesus is showing us how his mind works in this specific situation. If he does this for enough different issues, over time we begin to get a sense of the ‘mind of Jesus’ when it comes to the ordinary life of our parish. We can infer certain common principles about how Jesus thinks about the pros and cons of the everyday issues in our local church. Eventually, Jesus doesn’t have to speak up in the Parish Council at all because we understand and apply his principles to our choices. He may occasionally nod, “Yes, you’ve got it right” or shake his head, “That’s not quite the way that I think about this situation.” We gradually become comfortable that we are making the choices that Jesus desires. When that happens, the local church is thinking and making choices with ‘the mind of Jesus.’ There are no guarantees that we are 100% right all the time, but in prayer, before and after serious decisions, we sense whether Jesus is nodding ‘Yes’ or shaking his head ‘No.’ We are doing the process of Principle Based Decision Making based on common principles that we have tested with Jesus.

When Christians accept Jesus as their leader, in practical terms they believe that they can understand Jesus’ plan and his guidance on how to ‘execute’ it. Otherwise, saying Jesus is our leader would be just an empty statement, because Christians would have no practical way of following him. A usual way that all Christians use to understand what Jesus wants of them is by using the Bible. From reading, discussing and praying about relevant passages in the Bible, Christians understand Jesus’ teachings and his way of life, especially how he made practical choices.

Life in modern society is complex. We are faced with many practical choices each day, e.g., How to use our time, how to use our money, how to relate to people, how to relate to political and legal systems, etc. Part of becoming a mature Christian is learning what the mind of Jesus is about our choices in life and how to follow his example and teachings. This is a life-long undertaking. All of us miss the mark sometimes; nonetheless, we know in our hearts that following Jesus as our leader means that we must take his guidance and plan seriously.

When it comes to the choices that a local church makes, following Jesus’ leadership is even more important because the choices that a church makes affect many people. There are many ways that different churches try to guard against making the wrong choices. In this regard, most churches are conservative and avoid making abrupt or sweeping changes. But when transformation seems called for, we obviously need to understand the mind of Jesus.

I am advocating Principle Based Decision-making as an appropriate way for local churches to make difficult, perhaps controversial choices and, at the same time, be respectful of the mechanisms that are in place to guard against the risks of wrong choices. Obviously, how this process is implemented will vary from church to church. Nonetheless, by applying the principles I provide, which overtly bring the mind of Jesus into every serious choice, churches will take a fresh look at how they are living out the plan and guidance of their leader. That is an important step towards transforming the local church. [Click here to download a pdf of a starter set of Principles and Process for Christian Decisionmaking]

Jesus was focused on helping people find the freedom that God intended, and healing whatever ills they were suffering from. He wanted to shock the local church into paying attention to God’s priorities, which weren’t following rules but feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, freeing the imprisoned, healing the sick, etc. This would require changing how people thought about the structure of society and the church’s role in society. Jesus knew that this would transform everything in his disciple’s lives.

Each local church needs to decide how to transform itself and engage in actions that further Jesus’ mission. This requires that we know how Jesus would decide and act if he were present with us in the various situations we face, so that we can decide and act like him. This, in turn, requires we agree on a set of principles that will guide us as we make choices, as individuals, as small groups and ultimately as a whole local church.


[1] There are many other ways as well, which are not universally practiced across all churches, such as tradition, authoritative teaching, discernment in prayer, and others. Because this book is for all Christians, I will only use the Bible as my source for understanding his mind and purposes.

Christians and Muslims; A Way Forward

Jesus shines his light on the  most difficult issues we face in the early 21st century. Let me illustrate this by discussing a possible way forward toward peaceful collaboration between Christians and Muslims, to solve many of the economic and social issues our world faces. The issues between Islam and Christianity are extremely complex and I will not discuss them in depth.  Rather, I want to illustrate how one might discern the mind of Jesus regarding the entire global relationship, both cooperation and conflict, that exists between us today.

The mind of Jesus is especially plain in the Bible about the relationship between Christians and Muslims. In Chapter 4 of John’s Gospel, Jesus has an extended conversation with a Samaritan woman. She states the situation between Jews and Samaritan’s very succinctly at the outset, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink? (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans).” [John 4:9] Jesus’ mind is completely clear in his response. He simple ignores such conventional distinctions, and proceeds to engage in a deep spiritual conversation with this stranger. He offers her ‘living water’ and invites her into the Father’s household, “Jesus declared, ‘Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem . . . A time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.’” [John 4:21-23] Then he reveals who he is to her, the Messiah, which he reveals to very few others in his public ministry. At that point, his disciples joined Jesus and the woman and were surprised to see him talking with a woman (let alone a Samaritan!) Jesus uses the opportunity to teach them, about the harvest: “I tell you open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest” obviously speaking about the woman and her friends that were coming out to see the person she told them about, Jesus. [John 4:35] [1]

In this story, and in many other ways throughout his ministry, Jesus showed his followers that man’s distinctions and prejudices are not his. The parable of the Good Samaritan showed that goodness trumps religious membership.  He emphasized that following him means associating with whatever wounded person needs to be healed. “[The Pharisees asked] ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ On hearing this, Jesus said, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick. But go and learn what this means [from Hosea 6:6] ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’” [Matthew 9:11-13]

To illustrate how a local church might begin to apply the mind of Jesus toward issues between Christians and Muslims in the current global situation (and toward all religions for that matter); I will quote from Hans Küng’s magnum opus Islam.

  • “In an age of ecumenical awareness – more than ever after the attacks in New York and Washington on 11 September 2001, in Madrid on 11 March 2004 and in London on 7 July 2005 – I want to argue for the overall responsibility of all for all. . . Such inter-religious responsibility means we must all be interested in the well-being of Islam.” [2]
  • “No religion – neither Judaism nor Christianity nor Islam (nor the religions of Indian and Chinese origin) – can be satisfied with the status quo in this time of upheaval . . . Like Judaism and Christianity, in this transitional phase of world history Islam is involved in a fundamental conflict of tradition and innovation.” [3]
  • “Will the Islamic peoples, who are caught up in a tremendous crisis of existence at the height of modernity as a result of their confrontation with western imperialism and colonialism and with European science and economics, technology and democracy, succeed in accepting the challenge of a new era and work creatively toward a new post-modern form of Islam? In this globalized world, all the great religions are in transition from the crisis of modernity into a ‘postmodernity’ of some kind (or under whatever name) and are thus exposed to the same kind of structural problems.” [4]

I think the lessons to be learned by a local church from this brief discussion are this. First, we can have hope that even the greatest global conflicts can be transformed, when the mind of Jesus changes our narrow way of thinking about our neighbor and strangers. Second, because we Christians are going through the same emergence from a ‘cocoon’ as our Islamic neighbors, we can empathize with each other, and perhaps even heal each other. And finally, in our own small corner of the world, we can heal some of the wounds that underlie this global conflict, by following Jesus’ Principles as we seek out the Muslim ‘strangers’ and learn from them about our own path toward transformation. The local progress we jointly create with our Muslim neighbors can ripple throughout the world and help transform it too.


[1] I am not trying to make the case that Christians must ‘convert’ Muslims. To the contrary, I believe that this story shows Jesus’ invitation as well as acceptance and respect of the Samaritan woman personal journey to the Father. He offers her living water (the Spirit) unconditionally, while also telling her that he is the Messiah. This is obviously an issue that some churches may wish to debate, to discover the mind of Jesus in this situation. I am simply inviting local churches to remain open to the possibility that Jesus’ mind looks beyond our certainties.

[2] Hans Küng, Islam, Past, Present and Future, Oneworld, Oxford, 2007, p. 24

[3] Küng, Ibid, p. 22

[4] Küng, Ibid, p. 22