Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The "Pretty Good Commission": Luke 9:3-10

I've adopted a Benedictine-style prayer excersize for my daily commute. You select a short bible passage, read the passage a few times, and them meditate on it, slowly conjuring up images in your mind that reflect the passage. Today I selected this passage from Luke.

Disclaimer: I don't pretend for this to be any kind of Gospel truth or hard and fast statement of faith... just what went through my mind as I prayed on this passage.

Luke 9:3-10
3He told them: "Take nothing for the journey—no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra tunic. 4Whatever house you enter, stay there until you leave that town. 5If people do not welcome you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave their town, as a testimony against them." 6So they set out and went from village to village, preaching the gospel and healing people everywhere.  7Now Herod the tetrarch heard about all that was going on. And he was perplexed, because some were saying that John had been raised from the dead, 8others that Elijah had appeared, and still others that one of the prophets of long ago had come back to life. 9But Herod said, "I beheaded John. Who, then, is this I hear such things about?" And he tried to see him.
 10When the apostles returned, they reported to Jesus what they had done. Then he took them with him and they withdrew by themselves to a town called Bethsaida
This morning I read this passage from Luke, which typically begins jesus's story of feeding the five thousand.  This passage, which previews the Great Commission (When Jesus returns to the disciples after the resurrection and sends them out to preach the word) sort of gets lost sometimes... but I like to think of it as the "Pretty Good Commission".  Jesus says go out, help others, if you aren't welcome, no sweat, just move on to the next town... and tell people about this glorious kingdom of God.
But that's not what I prayed about when I read this.
I prayed about Herod.  Herod. The same guy who killed John the Baptist, and who in a few years is going to allow for Jesus' trial... but look at what he says. First he is surprised that such works are going on, after all he did kill John the Baptist. he thought he was done with this. Then he asks to see Jesus.
Now, maybe this is wishful thinking, but this suggested to me that for a moment Herod got it. he understood there was a power out there, a spirit moving things around him, and even though he was king (though subservient to the romans) he couldn't control it. And he desperately wanted to understand it.
At that moment, Herod had two choices. to embrace that power. or to run from it.
Such an embrace would require a humbling of himself, becoming part of a larger community, and acknowledging that there is something out there, that actively benefits the lives of all of us right here.
To run from it, was, well, easier. He was still King. Lord of all he commanded, and that was that. He didn't have to care about the world around him. he could continue to tax the life out of those around him, send his checks to the Romans, and live a pretty comfortable life.
Now picture Herod, and remember this is before there was a Christian Church. before there was any such thing as a Christian. The Jewish population was more or less controlled... with some key religious leaders who everyone listened to and obeyed, and no active displays of the Spirit other than sacrifices and observation of the Sabbath. But it was a very individual practice.  Each individual had to be a good Jew. But no one particularly cared if the Jewish people as a collective cared for each other.
That is, after all, why Jesus came down in the first place. To remind us that we are a community, a communion of souls, who can only grow that communion by caring for each other.
Think about Herod, and think about the Christian Church today. Are we a true communion of believers? Do we think of others first? Or do we too often exhibit a "me and jesus" attitude? Why is there so much emphasis on a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ"?  It is only through being in communion with others that we can even get to know Jesus in the first place, so what value is there in a personal relationship? 
As you go about your day, think about Herod, a lone individual convinced that he knew God's will because he was King... and think about the disciples, a lost group of friends praying together to empower this spirit that Jesus awakened in them.
Whether you consider yourself a Christian or not, try and listen to those around you. commune with your fellow man, go closer to the Spirit that resides inside of all of us. 
Our souls ache to be in communion with each other, this is what drives us to relationships, love, marriage, children. This is what keeps families together, and turns close friends into families over time. that aching that you feel inside to love each other.
I believe that ache is our soul trying to get closer to God. But sometimes we get so far away, we become so independent, that we are scared to go back. Because it may mean giving something up.  That's why Herod ran. he knew he couldn't give up all that he had...
Jesus' "Pretty Good Commission" stands out for me because it is not just a call to go out and preach and heal. It is a call to commune with your fellow man.  Don't just stay inside! Go out! Talk to people! They don't have to be believers, they just have to be people. 
In a sense, Jesus is saying, go out and love your fellow man, and let the spirit grow through that relationship. Let God take care of the conversion part.

Reflections in Luke 9:49-56

My Metro riding thoughts on Jesus' approach to Jerusalem. I've adopted a Benedictine-style prayer excersize for my daily commute. You select a short bible passage, read the passage a few times, and them meditate on it, slowly conjuring up images in your mind that reflect the passage. Today I selected this passage from Luke.

Disclaimer: I don't pretend for this to be any kind of Gospel truth or hard and fast statement of faith... just what went through my mind as I prayed on this passage.
9:49 And John answered and said, Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name; and we forbad him, because he followeth not with us. 9:50 And Jesus said unto him, Forbid [him] not: for he that is not against us is for us. 9:51 And it came to pass, when the time was come that he should be received up, he stedfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem, 9:52 And sent messengers before his face: and they went, and entered into a village of the Samaritans, to make ready for him. 9:53 And they did not receive him, because his face was as though he would go to Jerusalem. 9:54 And when his disciples James and John saw [this], they said, Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did? 9:55 But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. 9:56 For the Son of man is not come to destroy men's lives, but to save [them]. And they went to another village.
By an accident of circumstance, the only version of the bible available on my phone (yes, I read the Bible on my cell phone) is th King James Version. While there are theological and practical problems this presents for me... today Iwas very grateful to have this version of the text in front of me.
I approached this passage from Jesus' perspective. I'm walking down the road, knowing full well that I am walking to my death, yet unable to convince anyone of what is to come, or (possibly?) really being able to confront it myself.  This is not an experience many of us can ever replicate; knowing full well we are walking to our death, though nobody else knows it, and knowing you have truly done nothing wrong. 
From this perspective, I watch Jesus talking to his disciples not as he might have a few weeks or months or years ago, but as a man who knows his time is short. Should they be concerned about someone who casts out demons in Jesus' name?  He answers no, "for he that is not against us is for us". the unspoken second half of this sentence is, we have much bigger problems ahead. 
Then, in leaving the village of the Samaritans, the disciples are surprised by how Jesus was rebuffed by the Samaritans. They ask if he is going to punish them in someway... and Jesus provides an Angry (and oft quoted) rebuke "the son of Man is not come to destroy men's lifes, but to save them". 
But who is Jesus mad at? I mean he has certainly "destroyed mens lifes" before. and God has as well.
Which brings me to the reason I really like the KJV here. Jesus is rebuffed in the village because "his face was as though he would go to Jerusalem." 
Have you ever tried to talk to someone who was preoccupied with something else? Who couldn't give you their full attention because they were caught up in a problem at home, an issue at work, a late bill, a sick friend?
Jesus walks into this village, stunningly Human. he is not Jesus the redeemer. he is Jesus the man. who is scared to go to Jerusalem. he is most assuredly not himself and it shows.
So maybe, just maybe? Jesus' rebuke is for himself? That he, in a moment of weakness forgot why he was there? Forgot he was supposed to try and save those souls in the Village of the Samaritans... and was instead preoccupied with his own death.
The Standard lesson here is that Christians shouldn't spend time fighting each other but rather should focus their efforts on saving the lives of those around them. And this is certainly an important lesson.
But far more valuable is to remember that even Jesus was human and made mistakes. If he was not perfect, then we certainly are not perfect either.  But we can't just use this as an excuse, we are compelled to hold ourselves up to a higher standard and re-dedicate ourselves, in that moment of deepest failing, to saving those around us.

Prayerful in Panjshir: Confessions and Ramblings of a would-be preacher and a sometimes diplomat OR why I named this blog the way I did

In June of 2009, I found myself in a 1970's era Russian Helicopter flying at about 8,000 feet through a 12,000 foot mountain pass (do the math) in a complete whiteout. Snow-capped mountains began to come closer and closer to patches of fluffy white clouds, that suddenly stopped being so fluffy and became rather ominous.

Flying right into...that.

me and ten companions; the engine so loud that you can't hear anyone, a pilot who speaks many languages but none of them english, and nothing but a glorious and terrible white all around us... as perfect an example of the beauty and terror of God as I have come across in my lifetime;

this was a powerful moment for prayer.

These were not prayers (entirely) for a safe passage; but prayers for my companions, a mishmash of Afghan government officials who have managed to survive 30 years of war and ethnic conflict and come out on top; U.S. Marines serving in one more dangerzone, tackling one more impossible mission with the calm and ease that I can only achieve making oatmeal; a group of former U.S. prison guards who suddenly find themselves responsible for rebuilding an Afghan Prison system that has in the very recent past served a parts gulag, death row, brothel and torture chamber (in short a job they are ill-prepared for... yet better prepared than anyone). Prayers for family and friends, and prayers for the wider world.

Something about that view, that moment. called into sharp relief the challenges of the 21st century and how we as a society are ill prepared to face a world that is increasingly different and increasingly closer every day.

Adding extra meaning is that we were flying over the Panjshir valley, a tiny province in North-Central Afghanistan that appears to never have been conquered by anyone, due in part to only having one road in and 12,000 ft peaks on either side. And in part to not having too much to conqueror in the first place. That we were here, in a place were by any account we really don't belong, trying to pass through a whitewash of cloud and mountain were you couldn't tell where one began and the other ended, with an eclectic group that represents the last 30 years of history in a place we all forgot about; was amazing to me. This was not the kind of existential spiritual experience that the Book of Common Prayer had prepared me for!

Yet this is exactly the kind of new spiritual experiences that are going to be confronting us in the next 20, 50, 100 years. While not always so dramatic, the increasing clash of cultures, traditions, economies, religions and politics is enough to make one question if God does exist... what exactly was he thinking?? That, I believe, is my calling, to work out the kinks in this transition; to continue to make the gospel, and God in general, relevant as we are pulled into an increasingly larger global community and made more accutely aware of our differences.