Latest Entries »

3172029369_f1432cb227

Yokes have become more like decor than vital equipment in industrialized cultures. Yet Jesus’ metaphor of taking on a yoke remains helpful for spiritual practice today.

Reprinted with permission from Darkwood Brew

Something that never ceases to amaze me is the way that scientific findings continue to converge with spiritual wisdom these days. They’re like two streams that keep flowing in and out of one another in a river delta. The more the volume of understanding increases in one stream, the more new insights flow back and forth between the two channels.

Take this week’s topic, “The Yoke of God.” Naturally our first inclination is to focus upon the section about taking on the “yoke” portion. The yoke has become an almost-lost metaphor for industrialized cultures. We’re out of touch with yokes, with how they’re made and what they do. In Jesus’ time, as in most developing countries today, a yoke forms a vital piece of equipment because it transforms a pair of carriers – be they oxen, cattle or human shoulders – into a single force for hauling loads.

As a spiritual director, I see Jesus’ words as an invitation to do two things: to make relationship with God the focus of one’s life, and then to practice those spiritual disciplines that maintain a focus on the divine. By “yoking” ourselves with Jesus, we tap into the wisdom of his spiritual teachings that offer practices for bearing the burdens of life.

Sounds simple enough, right? Yet we spiritual directors are taught, and we teach others, that spiritual discipline requires letting go of one’s ego, forsaking the thoughts and actions that put self before Self. Years ago, I heard a prominent African American United Methodist pastor, the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell of Houston, define ego as “edging God out.” Personally, after 40 years in the hard-driving profession of journalism, I’ve decided that ego creeps into a sense that one is indispensable – the idea that if one takes time off to rest and recuperate, the world will fall apart. This sense of indispensability often manifests as “busy-ness” or, in today’s parlance, multi-tasking.

Multi-tasking has been a buzzword in business and technology circles for decades. Workers are urged to increase their productivity, to accomplish as many things as possible during their shifts. People who are “goal-oriented” are held up as role models. While giving a fair day’s work and completing assigned tasks are worthy pursuits, within the contemporary predilection for multi-tasking lurks the demon of indispensability. Therein lies the rub – that is, the place where the “yoke” doesn’t fit properly, to use our scriptural metaphor.

Recently a publisher’s note came to my email box (I’m a devoted bibliophile) about a 2009 book on the topic of multi-tasking: Your Brain at Work by David Rock (Harper Business). The email contained this excerpt from pages 35 and 36, which I’ve abridged:

“The idea that conscious processes need to be done one at a time has been studied in hundreds of experiments since the 1980s. … A study done at the University of London found that constant emailing and text-messaging reduces mental capability by an average of ten points on an IQ test. … ‘Always on’ may not be the most productive way to work. … The wear and tear from this has an impact. As [another scientist] says, ‘This always on, anywhere, anytime, anyplace era has created an artificial sense of constant crisis. What happens to mammals in a state of constant crisis is the adrenalized fight-or-flight mechanism kicks in. It’s great when tigers are chasing us. How many of those five hundred emails a day is a tiger?’ “

That’s where the “yoke” rubs these days, even in churches, synagogues, temples and mosques. We fill our calendars with so many programs and activities that we forget why we come together in the first place: to experience God in our midst. In order to be attuned to a communal experience of the divine, I believe we also must practice personal attention to God that Jesus described as his own: “humble and gentle in heart.”

With a healthy sense of self, a humble person can more easily let go of the ego that edges God out. Humility offers a great defense against a soul-and-body destroying sense of indispensability and the anxiety that comes from the hyper-alertness of being “always on.” I often wonder if the anxious state of American society these days stems in part from the fact that we’re “always on” our tech toys. That’s not a criticism of others, mind you; I have to be strict with myself about getting off-line on weekends as much as possible.

In the end, reconnecting with an unhurried God may require courage – the courage to let go and the courage to say “no.” Perhaps if strive for these traits in ourselves, we’ll encourage others to “yoke” with us on the journey.

Cynthia B. Astle, OSL, of Dallas, TX, is a certified spiritual director and longtime religion journalist. She blogs at Water-marked.com.

Wild and Dangerous

Reprinted with permission from Darkwood Brew.

About 100 miles southwest of where I live sits the town of West, Texas. Until the evening of April 17, West was known for its vibrant Czech heritage, which includes an annual folk festival with plenty of mouth-watering stuffed rolls called kolaches.

Now as I write on April 19, West is known as the town where a fertilizer plant exploded with such force – equivalent to that of a 2.1 magnitude earthquake – that the blast concussion was felt some 50 miles away. A fire at the plant set off containers of the main ingredient in its fertilizer, anhydrous ammonia.

For me, what happened in West has grown beyond its human tragedy, because the substance that exploded symbolizes the wild and dangerous nature of God and the Creation called “good.”

Farmers everywhere know the benefits of anhydrous ammonia. According to a helpful factbox at MSN.com’s Science and Technology page, farmers use it as a fertilizer to boost soil’s nitrogen levels. It’s readily available and easy to apply when compressed into a clear liquid. Once applied, it converts to a gas in the soil and helps to “fix” or increase nitrogen, which adds to soil’s ability to grow food plants, especially corn.

The chemical’s description, “anhydrous,” means that it readily combines with any moisture. In fact, this benefit is also its bane, for anhydrous ammonia sucks up water so efficiently that it will dehydrate human skin, freezing the skin and causing severe chemical burns. It will dehydrate mucous membranes and dehydrate the respiratory system as well. Those exposed to it must be treated with large amounts of water to counteract its injurious effects.

For all its benefits, anhydrous ammonia is hideously dangerous to contain. The chemical boils at -28 Fahrenheit, says MSN.com’s factbox. Above this temperature, to be kept liquid and safe it must be stored under pressure in high-strength steel tanks because of its corrosive ability. It’s no wonder that a fire at the West fertilizer plant would set off an explosion.

Anhydrous ammonia has one other claim to notoriety: It is the fertilizer used by domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh to bomb the Paul Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. McVeigh’s reckless, unrepentant hated abused something that, when rightfully applied, causes the Earth to produce food more abundantly, a sign of Creation’s goodness. If there exists a better definition of sin, I’ve yet to find it.

Make no mistake; I don’t mean that God is the ultimate cause of the tragedy in West. I believe that God is suffering with the people of West even now. Yet we must not ignore the deeper reality evident in this disaster, that God’s Creation remains as wild and dangerous as the Divine Self, because it contains within it a spark of the Divine that is beyond our control.

This fallacy that we control the world of which we are a part is the sin of hubris, of the self-delusion that we are the Masters of the Universe. There is only one Master/Mistress of Creation, and we are not S/He. When we forget that, we run smack into the wildness against which the Divine tries to protect us, endangering ourselves and the world that God loves.

Creature Features

Reprinted with permission from Darkwood Brew

Sheena the Wonder Dog, my darling companion.

Sheena the Wonder Dog, my darling companion.

Each morning, barring inclement weather, Sheena the Wonder Dog takes me on our morning “walkies.” Our street abuts Prairie Creek, so we start out walking along the grassy strip of park that our family calls the Greenway, like in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. A feisty Border Collie mix rescued from the city shelter, Miss Sheena loves the Greenway because it’s filled with delicious, traceable smells from feral cats, squirrels, rabbits, birds and the excretions of other dogs.

I love the Greenway, too, because it reminds me of childhood ramblings in Florida, gamboling over a lush green carpet beneath a blue-sky canopy. My parents undoubtedly had no idea what freedom they granted me with my “big girl” bicycle, a blue-and-white Schwinn given for my tenth birthday. In fact, I’m sure that my mother would have been terrified to know some of the wild places my bicycle took me. Sometimes today I marvel that I wasn’t eaten by an alligator down by the lake, or bitten by a rattlesnake in the woods. As it is, I have only cherished memories of a magnificent paradise of palmettos, tall pines, flowing waters, bright red and pink hibiscus, and lush greenery.

Today that paradise is lost, buried under too much concrete and too many humans. Wide-open fields have been covered with houses; dense pine groves have been invaded by roads or cut down altogether. Barrier-island beaches where we once gingerly tiptoed over pine bristles to swim in the Gulf of Mexico now groan beneath the weight of sky-high condominiums, the contemporary epitome of Jesus’ s parable about foolishness building houses upon sand. As the great Southern novelist Thomas Wolfe wrote in “Look Homeward, Angel,” one really can’t go home again, because “home” is as much an experience as it is a place.

The more I study the Holy Bible, the more I come to understand that this longing for home lies behind much of scripture. It’s here that Celtic Christianity, in my view, has an edge over the Roman version of Christian faith that has shaped the Western church. The difference between the two perspectives on faith has come down to a dichotomy: “descriptive” versus “prescriptive.”

The Celtic Christian view is descriptive: It sees the wonders of creation and embraces humanity’s “creatureliness” – that is, the reality that humans, for all our evolutionary skills, are still creatures of the Creator. The Roman Christian view is prescriptive: It seeks to impose order on a chaotic creation, granting humans both stewardship of God’s handiwork (the true meaning of what is commonly translated as “dominion”) and dominance (control or the power to determine other creatures’ fate).

These same lenses can be applied to the scriptural passages often quoted as justification for humans’ desecration of the Earth. Genesis 1, where this series begins, offers us a glorious hymn of life that too often is misused as a wedge against what science tells us: that somehow, in ways beyond our understanding, our universe, our planet, our species were created with the ability to adapt to changing environments, thereby assuring the continuation of life in its infinite diversity. Genesis 1 describes the universe as it appeared to humans so long ago, and still appears today even as our means of comprehending it become more far-reaching and sophisticated.

On the other hand, the Roman Christian viewpoint sees Genesis 1 as “prescriptive,” that is contending that God created the universe “ex nihilo” – out of nothing, like magic. This theological perspective prescribes that humans are charged with imposing order upon unruly nature. This prescriptive interpretation of scripture lies behind the propensity of Western civilization to lie in opposition to, rather than in collaboration with, the world around us.

Roman Christianity sees Celtic Christianity as heretical, for it dethrones humans from their mastery of creation and makes them nothing more than creatures. Yet the more we delve into biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy and other sciences, we find that we are creatures, made of the same star-stuff that comprises the rest of creation. It is only our own hubris that sets us apart from the creation into which we are born. It is that same hubris that causes us to desecrate our natural world – to despoil its inherent sacredness – for our own greed, as in the recent tar sands oil spill in Mayflower, Ark., from Exxon Mobil’s Pegasus Pipeline (“Raw Aerial Footage Shows Extent Of Exxon’s Pegasus Pipeline Spill”).

Descriptive and prescriptive interpretations of Christianity intersect when humans are called upon to defend nature against our own predations. In other words, a more complete understanding of description of creation should engage us with the prescription to truly care for it. We will explore this more as our series proceeds, but for now I find that much that I hold sacred about our beautiful world can be summed up in Wendy Francisco’s evocative ballad “GoD and DoG”:

I look up and I see God.
I look down and see my dog.
…God thought up and made the dog
Dog reflects a part of God.
I’ve seen love from both sides now.
It’s everywhere. Amen. Bow-wow.

————————————————————-

For your further edification, I highly recommend Darkwood Brew, which describes itself as “a groundbreaking interactive web television program and spiritual gathering that explores progressive/emerging Christian faith and values.” I’ve been a guest blogger there for about three months, and have learned much and been greatly blessed by its programs. It’s Christianity for those of us wrestling with life in the 21st century. Worth a look at 5 PM CDT Sundays.

Reviewing all the various spiritual direction emails and newsletters I receive, it seems that most of us have a greater need this year for a Lent of somber reflection and yes, even grieving. In fact, I’m so personally burdened this year in heart, mind and soul that I’m not able to join in the revelry of Mardi Gras. The spirit of celebration has departed.

My heart’s burden stems from new awareness of how bloody American society has become, and of how little we believers are doing to stop the carnage. Let me try to explain.

On Feb. 2, two men, Chris Kyle and Chad Littlefield, were shot to death at close range by a third man, a mentally troubled veteran named Eddie Ray Routh, who police say has admitted to the killings. The three men had gathered at a shooting club outside of Glen Rose, Texas, a town some 50 miles southwest of Fort Worth.

The full nature of this tragedy deepens when one learns its circumstances. Chris Kyle was an ex-Navy SEAL, a celebrated marksman known as “the most lethal sniper in American history” for his killing of some 160 enemies during the Iraq War. He wrote an autobiography called “American Sniper” that became a best seller.

However, Kyle left his military career a few years ago in order to spend more time with his wife and their two children, now ages 8 and 6. Upon his return to civilian life, Kyle helped create a foundation that seeks to aid other veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder by providing counseling and exercise equipment. As those who suffer many ailments know, physical activity can be a good antidote for mental distress, thanks to the release of pain-relieving chemicals called endorphins.

In keeping with this idea, Kyle took Routh to the shooting range as an act of physical and mental therapy. Apparently, according to one of my knowledgeable clergy friends, the seemingly counter-intuitive therapy of shooting can help veterans with PTSD by giving them an outlet for their lingering fear, anger and depression.

Unfortunately, in the case of Chris Kyle and Eddie Ray Routh, this intended act of assistance had the opposite effect. Routh has told local law enforcement and his family that he used the semi-automatic weapons the three men brought for sporting purposes to kill Kyle and Littlefield.  Then Routh escaped in Kyle’s pick-up truck.

From my spiritual perspective, the story worsened with Chris Kyle’s memorial service held at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, where 7,000 people gathered Feb. 11. I wasn’t put off by the military honor guard, nor by the many veterans and service members who came to pay their respects to a fallen comrade. I was distressed that among the funeral flowers there was a display of Kyle’s battle helmet, flak jacket and weapons, yet even that was consistent with his work.

What really sent me over the edge, however, were local news reports of a mother who brought her eight-year-old son, dressed in clothing of desert-style camouflage design, to the funeral. She said she brought him because he wants to be a Navy SEAL like Kyle when he grows up.

The words “appalled” and “nauseated” only begin to cover how her actions made me feel. I have no idea if any other parents did the same thing, but for a mother to bring her child to a public event in a manner that glorifies warfare strikes me as simply horrific. Not even the proud boast of Roman mothers to their legionnaire sons — “With your shield or on it” — can compare. The words of Jesus from the gospel of Matthew keep ringing in my ears: “… All who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:53).

Thus I am facing this Lenten season of self-denial, prayer and repentance with profound, burning questions:

What will it take for us Americans to see that we perpetuate a murderous society? What will it take for us to repent of our terrible lust for violence? Where can we find the strength and courage to say, “No! Stop! No more guns! No more blood!”

Some readers may be offended by my reaction. Many Americans see Chris Kyle as a hero, and he was undoubtedly a man who loved his country enough to go to war for it. He believed that what he did to fight his country’s enemies was a noble, patriotic calling. He even believed that shooting, as a sport, had the power to help heal those still suffering the mental anguish of warfare. That belief was Chris Kyle’s fatal mistake, and something to be deeply mourned.

There are so many bloody trails that reach back from the murders of Chris Kyle and Chad Littlefield, back to the shooting death of a teen-age band member in Chicago just days after she performed at President Obama’s inauguration, back to that horrible day, Dec. 14, 2012, when another mentally ill young man took a cache of weapons and ended the lives of 20 children, six educators, his own mother, and himself. I feel as though my hands are drenched in blood because I haven’t done enough to stand against this epidemic of violence. I can endure this pain no longer, and I plan to devote my Lenten observance to contemplating how to respond to this evil.

It may seem strange that someone devoted to prayer and contemplation should be so moved to activism on this matter. It’s true that many mystics find their efforts at union with the Divine lead them away from the travails of human life. Yet many contemporary spiritual masters such as Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr, Helen Prejean and Joan Chittister teach that spirituality which connects us with God should also propel us toward greater love for our neighbors. As with Jesus, Peter, James and John on the Mount of Transfiguration, we cannot stay upon the illuminated peak. We must go back down into the valley.

This year for many of us, the valley of Lent bristles with weapons whose only purpose is to kill humans. Our task is to repent of our cultural belief that such weapons bring us security, and to find ways to rid ourselves of them as much as possible. We begin this journey with the prayer we Christians have spoken for two millennia:

Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

stop-gun-violence

Necessary Lessons

Despite being aware of a heightened spiritual sensitivity since I was a child, it has taken me a long time to learn some of life’s necessary lessons. In fact, some of them I keep learning over and over, because they don’t seem to stick.

Not until I studied with the Rev. Joe Stabile, one of the co-directors of Life in the Trinity Ministries, did I have broad categories for the lessons that kept confronting me. Here is Joe’s list from our class on the theology and practice of spiritual disciplines:

  1. Life Is Hard.
  2. You Are Not That Important.
  3. Your Life Is Not About You.
  4. You Are Going to Die.
  5. You Are Not in Control.

Think about these five statements for a moment. How do they compare with the messages that we get from the world around us? Perhaps this side-by-side comparison will help:

  1.  Life Is Hard vs. Life Is Easy When You Get a Lot of Money.
  2. You Are Not That Important vs. What’s in It for Me?
  3. Your Life Is Not About You vs. I Got Mine; Sorry About You.
  4. You Are Going to Die vs. You Can Live Forever with Enough Exercise, Tofu and Money.
  5. You Are Not in Control vs. This Product Will Give You Control Over Your Life.

Christians who read their Bibles frequently will find these five necessary lessons echoed in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount from Chapters 5, 6 and 7 of the Gospel according to Matthew. Many today believe that Jesus’ teachings from these three chapters form the true heart of the Christian faith. Here’s one example:

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” – Matthew 5:38-42.

The Five Necessary Lessons of the Spiritual Life, as Joe Stabile titles them, are all about one thing: Learning how to let go. In fact, the idea of letting go may be the most reliable gauge by which to assess the authenticity of any spiritual path or theological system.

At the same time, these instructions are shocking, and they are extremely hard to follow in everyday life. For instance, the baptismal rituals of many Christian denominations today include a vow to “resist the power of evil by whatever means God gives you.” That is clearly the opposite of what Jesus teaches in Matthew. How do we reconcile these two statements? For that matter, how are we to know what is the right action at any given time?

Discerning right action in a situation develops from practicing spiritual disciplines. By spending time apart with God through prayer, contemplation, journaling and other means, we can review our actions and our relationships in the light of what God would have us do and be. In particular, we can test both what we’re told and how we respond through the lenses of these five essential spiritual lessons. In this way, we learn to let go of the false ego that always must be justified in its actions, and give ourselves freely to God’s loving correction and improvement.

 Today’s Thought: What kind of messages am I getting from the world around me? How am I responding to them?

New Year’s Day, Jan. 1, 2013

Starting off on a journey for me is usually exciting. I’m a very seasoned traveler after decades of practice as a working journalist, so I can travel well.

Today, however, I’m starting a different kind of journey. After two years of study and work, I’ve been certified as a spiritual director. God called me to this ministry for some 10 years before I quit resisting the call, and then God arranged it so that I could receive the education I needed despite adverse financial circumstances. In this respect, I’m already a witness to God’s miraculous mystery. Now I’m embarked on a new phase of this journey as someone equipped to help others find their own paths to God.

For those unfamiliar with the ministry of spiritual direction, which dates as far back as third-century Christianity, I would describe a spiritual director’s purpose as threefold:

  1. To listen carefully to another person’s life story;
  2. To watch for and point out signs of where God is at work in the directee’s life; and
  3. To suggest ways the directee can improve their own awareness of God’s presence through specific spiritual disciplines.

A responsible spiritual director never recommends a spiritual discipline that he or she doesn’t personally practice. Otherwise, how would the director know what to look for in a directee’s own spiritual account? Hence, I’ve decided to start 2013 by establishing the new Spiritual Direction section of Watermarked.com.

Journaling regularly offers one of the best spiritual practices for people in today’s warp-speed world. It gives time and space to capture the most remembered moments of one’s day, providing the opportunity to recognize God at work in human circumstances. Posting frequently about spiritual topics here will give me the opportunity to practice one of the disciplines I most suggest to those I counsel individually.

In addition, I plan to use this spiritual journal as a place to discuss and refine curriculum that I’m writing for two workshops I plan to lead in the near future. One, titled “Blessed Is She,” is a two-day workshop intended for women to explore, craft and share their spiritual histories. The second, tentatively titled “Teach Us to Pray,” will explore the many ways that we can enter into regular encounters with God, which is the true nature of prayer.

I hope you’ll join me on the journey.

Today’s Thought: No matter where you are, you are in the holy presence of God. Can you perceive it?

This mural, painted on the interior of the John the Baptist Church at the Jordan River, depicts Jesus’ baptism by the hand of John. Wikimedia Photo by David Bjorgen

When we last looked at Jesus’ Baptism, he’d just been immersed by John the Baptizer in the Jordan River, according to Scripture. What happened next varies, according to the telling.

In biblical studies, the gospels attributed to Matthew, Mark and Luke are known as the Synoptic gospels. “Synoptic” means that these three accounts give fairly consistent pictures of the events of Jesus’ life. The Gospel of John is a completely different account, written much later than the first three, and quite different in tone, style and content.

  • In Mark’s Gospel, which scholars believe to be the earliest gospel account of Jesus, the Baptism is described in a few words, including the famous appearance of God’s Holy Spirit and the announcement from heaven that Jesus is the beloved son of God (Mark 1:9-11).
  • In Matthew’s Gospel, there’s a dialogue between Jesus and John about whether John is fit to baptize Jesus. Once again, there’s a divine blessing on Jesus after his Baptism (Matthew 3:16-17).
  • In Luke’s Gospel, the Baptism itself is glossed over in favor of the divine approval.
  • In John’s Gospel there is no account of Jesus’ Baptism. Instead, John reports that Jesus’s disciples baptized people, and were gaining more followers than John had. When some question John about this, he responds with a discourse on Jesus’ divinity and John’s role as the Forerunner of the Messiah.

So what in the frilly heck is going on?

The picture we can infer is that Jesus’ Baptism was an important event in his life, according to his biographers, but that the priority of that important event differed depending upon the audience. Mark, being a pithy, straightforward account, is laconic to the point of terseness about Jesus’ Baptism. Having been written for Jews who knew more about religious observances, Matthew makes more of Jesus’ Baptism by recounting a dialogue between the Messiah and the Baptizer about the latter’s fitness to preside at a ritual of repentance for a supposedly sin-free savior. Luke, whose audience is more likely non-Jewish believers, mentions the Baptism but doesn’t make a big deal of it. Finally John barely mentions it as all, and only in the context of the Baptizer’s witness to Jesus’ divine nature and purpose.

The variations in these accounts have contributed to the widely divergent theologies about the importance of Baptism to early Christians. These differences  begin to make a little more sense if we can understand the following:

a) As an observant Jew, Jesus was following a well-known Jewish practice of being baptized, or consecrated with water, as he began his public ministry. This is one of the best explanations for why Jesus asked John to baptize him, and it holds true no matter how it’s represented in any of the gospels, including John.

b) Baptism for Jesus’s and John’s followers served a different purpose than Jesus’s Baptism. Water immersion represented a symbolic cleansing of past sins and an outward, visible sign of an inward, invisible resolve to live a more righteous life. This interpretation explains why Matthew makes such a big deal of it by reporting a dialogue between Jesus and John on whether John was “fit” to baptize Jesus. The implication, of course, was the Jesus, being the Son of God, was a divine personage without sin for whom there was no need to repentance.

What’s interesting about this major event is that Mark, Matthew and Luke all report, with almost no variation, what happened after Jesus emerged from the river water. Each gospel writer relates that the Holy Spirit shows up in both visual and auditory ways to confirm Jesus’ identity as a beloved son of God.

Talk about getting a seal of approval! Way better than anything Good Housekeeping ever came up with!

After God’s guest shot at Jesus’s Baptism, another consistently reported event took place: Jesus went into the desert for contemplation, where accounts say he was tempted by Satan. (Interestingly, the name “Satan” is believed to derive from a Hebrew name, Ha-Satan, meaning “the Adversary”). So getting “watermarked” led Jesus to some serious encounters of the spiritual kind.

It’s this deeper spiritual significance of Baptism that I find lacking in many Christian churches today. Whether their official doctrines say so or their priests and scholars preach and teach it, the importance of Baptism to following Jesus has been lost in a welter of bad theology that verges on the magical.

My late pastor, the Rev. Wil Bailey of blessed memory, often talked about how some couple, not church members, would approach him to baptize their infant. He said his response to them was usually, “So when are the grandparents arriving in town?” In other words, people often seek to get their infants baptized as a kind of magic ritual that will protect their children from harm and simultaneously please the church-going grandparents (who may be persuaded to foot the kid’s college fund).

Some of this common misunderstanding has been fueled by bad theology in the Church itself over centuries. While regrettable, this interpretation probably stems from the reality of life in earlier centuries, particularly with marauders of all kinds capable of ending someone’s life for a crust. At the same time, the Church once held absolutely authority over all of civilized life, so therefore you’d better make sure that you were in its good graces through Baptism, just in case the Unthinkable caught up with you.

Meanwhile, the practice of “believer’s baptism,” in which a person isn’t baptized until he or she is old enough to make a personal statement of faith in Jesus Christ, emerged in part as a reaction to the Church’s claim of salvation efficacy in Baptism. In plain language, you were saved spiritually if you were baptized, so you’d better get baptized as soon as possible because life can be unjust, brutish and soon over.

Fortunately, today our understandings of Baptism, particularly infant baptism, have come full circle to some of the interpretations given by the earliest Christians. We’ll look at these in depth in subsequent posts.

——————————————————————————————————————————

Yes, it has been almost a year since I last posted on this blog. Life happens. Fortunately, I’m now in a situation where both my energy and my interest have returned to Watermarked’s mission: to explore Baptism and its critical importance to following Jesus today. Join me on the resumed journey…

Why Was Jesus Baptized?

Baptism of Christ

Francesco Albani’s 17th century Baptism of Christ

One of the most significant, yet puzzling, episodes of Jesus’ earthly ministry is his Baptism by John. We’re about to wade into some deep theological waters here, friends, so strap on your life preservers and follow along while I do my best to unpack the God talk.

Jesus’ Baptism is considered one of five key events in his earthly life and ministry (the others are Transfiguration, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension). Through all the ways in which the Christian Church has split down through the centuries, Jesus’ Baptism has remained a constant. However, the ways in which Baptism is practiced today have been a major source of contention through the generations, even to being one of the issues that has caused schism, or splitting, among Christians.

Just think about the ways in which we practice Baptism today. Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, Episcopalians, United Methodists, Presbyterians and other “liturgical” denominations practice what is known as “infant baptism,” that is, babies and children can be baptized with their parents’ consent. At the same time, the Baptist tradition in all its branches (Southern, American, Free-will and so on), practice what’s known as “believer’s baptism,” meaning that a person must be old enough to make a public profession of faith on their own through baptism. All these and more point to the singular gospel episode in which John baptizes Jesus, described in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and referred to in the gospel of John.

The ultimate question about Jesus’ Baptism is this: If Baptism represents repentance and the forgiveness of sins, why did Jesus, a sinless divine nature in human form, seek it out? John the Baptizer clearly had misgivings about performing Jesus’ Baptism, because John had already predicted that a messiah was coming in Matthew 3:11:

 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire …”

 Then when Jesus presents himself for Baptism in Matthew 3:13, John at first resists:

 “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’  Then [John] consented.”

 So Jesus himself says his Baptism is intended “to fulfill all righteousness.” Now what does that mean?

Truthfully, nobody knows for sure. For 2,000 years, priests, theologians and scholars have tried to work out this enigmatic phrase. Their interpretations have given form to what the Church today says about the meaning of Jesus’ Baptism for his followers.

For example, a common interpretation runs like this: though sinless himself, Jesus accepted John’s Baptism as a way to identify completely with sinful humans. This was the first instance in which Jesus, although called the Son of God, stood on the side of humans in the great cosmic scheme of things. This interpretation sometimes is linked to one of Jesus’ many names, Emmanuel, which in Hebrew means “God-with-us.”

The Rev. Gregory Neal, a United Methodist clergyman and my former pastor, gives the following explanation on his website Grace Incarnate:

 One of my favorite sacramental approaches to the baptism of Jesus is articulated in line with his own reason for his baptism: “to fulfill all righteousness.” As sacramentalists we may not be far off base by affirming that Jesus may well have been baptized in order to sanctify the action as a Means of Grace. Through baptism into Christ we are entered into a life that, if lived by faith in God’s Grace, fulfills God’s righteousness in us. Jesus’ baptism affirmed that we should be baptized … but it doesn’t stop there: Jesus’ baptism actually energizes — it consecrated — the sacrament for our sanctification. In other words, he was baptized so that our baptism would have meaning as a Means of Grace.

 Another interpretation comes from Matt Slick, writing on the website Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.

 Quite simply, Jesus was baptized so he could enter into the Melchizedek priesthood so He could be the High Priest and offer Himself as a sacrifice for our sins.

 This explanation has a strong mystical component that comes from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), where Exodus 29:1-7 talks about candidates for the Jewish priesthood being washed with water and then anointed with oil. The idea is that Jesus’ Baptism represented his own consecration (today we might say “ordination”) into the priesthood. In other words, it was a way to give him some credentials as a teacher, preacher and healer among the Jews.

Wayne Jackson of the Christian Courier, a website associated with the Church of Christ denomination, sees three reasons for Jesus’ baptism: as the commencement of his public ministry; as a sign of Jesus’ total dedication to God’s plan for humankind; and as a symbol of his coming death, burial and Resurrection by being immersed under water and then coming out of the water again.

See what we mean about all the different takes on Jesus’ baptism? And these are only three sample perspectives.

My good friend and colleague, the Rev. Dr. Daniel R. Gangler, suggested that we look at Jesus’ Baptism best from its Jewish perspective. Among Christians, Baptism has become a “once-and-it’s-done” act, but among Jews of Jesus’ time, the ritual washing away of sins was frequent. What’s more, there was the Exodus tradition of consecrating candidates for the priesthood with water-washing and oil anointing.

Seen in this historical context, Jesus’ Baptism by John becomes not a mysterious act but a clear sign of Jesus’ commitment to his ministry. We Christians tend to forget that Jesus was an observant Jew, and that his ministry originally was intended to bring reform to Judaism. (It’s another one of those time-and-culture things, y’know?).

Things get tricky, however, when we encounter the scriptures that describe what happened after Jesus came up out of the water. That’s what we’ll explore in the next post.

All scripture quotations are from The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

John the Baptizer had a tough job. Aside from his strict lifestyle (see Part 1 and Part 2), John was filled with what we might call a dangerous vision: the idea that God wants people to live in ways that enhance, not destroy, their lives and societies. For John, this meant a return to following the Law, which we Christians call the Ten Commandments. Baptism was the symbol of this return to a more holistic way of living in which people were mindful of God’s instructions and tried their best to live accordingly.

But where did John get this idea about Baptism? It turns out that the concept was quite common in the Hellenized, or Greek-influenced, culture which surrounded the Jews of John’s and Jesus’s day. As we mentioned previously, the word “baptism” means to wash, immerse or plunge. From the period of the Greek poet Homer onward, when the Greeks conquered or colonized much of the Mediterranean world, Baptism came to refer to any ritual that involved being immersed in water. This act was found in many religions of John’s day, including Judaism, according to The Encyclopedia of Religion(McMillan, 1987, page 59).

So neither Jews, including John’s followers, nor the followers of Jesus who became known as Christians, invented Baptism. What they did was to adapt it to match specific meanings for their faith. Consequently, despite John’s rough appearance and forthright, uncompromising preaching, many people came to him to be baptized as a sign of repentance. Yet the second part of Baptism’s meaning, spiritual redemption or forgiveness, still was linked to a person’s ability to follow the Law. Today we Christians refer to this as “works righteousness,” that is, the familiar system of reward and punishment, as in one of the favorite “tragedy songs” of my rock n’ roll youth, “Last Kiss,” about a couple who suffer a car wreck in which the girl dies. The lyrics went something like this:

“She’s gone to heaven, so I’ve got to be good, so I can see my baby when I leave this world.”

Now, friends, that’s about as bad a “triage theology” as we Christians can get. And unfortunately, the idea lingers today in many churches, that we follow the Ten Commandments solely so we can make it to heaven in the afterlife. This concept of “punishment/reward” denies the assurance of God’s forgiveness that is at the heart of following Jesus. Holding onto such bad theology leaves us trapped in a paradigm that comes far short of what we understand Baptism to mean, be and do. Phooey on that!

From a distance of 2,000 years, it’s easier for us to see how John prepared the way, literally and theologically, for Jesus. And John played his part brilliantly, because by stressing what was wrong with people’s individual and communal lives, he turned their attention toward God. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus likens John to the great Jewish prophet Elijah:

“And the disciples asked him, ‘Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first [before the Messiah appears]?‘ [Jesus] replied, ‘Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. …’ Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist. (Matthew 17:10-13).

 This passage always makes me wonder about the possibility of reincarnation. After all, the Jewish concept of time was not a straight line, as our concept of time is today. My esteemed professor of Jewish mysticism, Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis, explained that Jews often viewed time as a series of great cycles. So was Jesus merely making a metaphorical reference when he said that John was Elijah, or was John Elijah reincarnated? Could it be possible that some truly great souls have such key roles in God’s cosmic scheme that they are sent back in human form many times? People such as Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mother Teresa certainly had qualities that we associate with prophets and saints such as John the Baptizer. I find this concept intriguing but unprovable; a lingering mystery.

Moving on to Luke 7:22-34, Jesus gives us the most complete portrait of the Baptizer and his impact:

“I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he. (And all the people who heard this, including the tax collectors, acknowledged the justice of God, because they had been baptized with John’s baptism. But by refusing to be baptized by him, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves.) …”

Like many prophets not honored in their own communities (and that’s a story for another post), John ran afoul of The Powers That Be and came to a horrific end. In this case, the PTB was Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, who married Herodias, the ex-wife of his brother Philip, which under Jewish law made her Herod’s sister as well.  Matthew, Mark and Luke all report that there was bad blood between Herodias and John. The prophet had publicly condemned their union as both incest and adultery because of Herodias’ previous marriage to Philip. Incest AND adultery? That’s, a pretty hefty double play even in our morally loose time. It’s no wonder that Herod and Herodias were ticked off at John for denouncing them.

The 19th century painter Francisco Nery created “Salome with the Head of John the Baptist,” now in a Brazilian museum. 

Herod himself had wanted to kill John, but Herod was afraid of John’s followers. Now the king faced a dilemma: he had rashly promised the dancing daughter whatever she wanted, up to half his kingdom, because of the pleasure her performance had given Herod and his banquet guests. Her request for John’s head left Herod between the proverbial rock and hard place. A king couldn’t go back on his word, so Herod ordered John beheaded and his severed head presented to the daughter before the court, to show that Herod had fulfilled his oath.

Shocking as it is, the story of John the Baptist’s execution has captured people’s imaginations for centuries. Irish playwright Oscar Wilde wrote a play (in French, no less) about it that he titled Salome, which German composer Richard Strauss turned into an opera by the same name. The opera was instantly infamous for its “Dance of the Seven Veils,” in which the title character performed the equivalent of an operatic striptease. (No wonder Herod liked the dance so much!). However, there’s no biblical basis for such a revealing dance, although both stage and screen have made it seem so. (The opera is also famous for its final scene in which Salome professes her love for John, whose severed head sings a soprano-baritone duet with her. And people say the Bible is freaky!).

The real drama in John’s death is the way in which people with perverse motives tried to silence a righteous prophet. Yes, John was killed, but his righteous practice and his witness to God’s ultimate authority lived on in his disciples. The episode certainly is a mirror of how oppressive rulers and the righteous still clash with each other today.

Matthew 14:13 records that John’s disciples claimed their master’s body and buried it. Then they brought the news to Jesus, who went off to a deserted place to grieve for the prophet, who was his distant relative as well through their mothers’ relationship. No doubt Jesus, in his grief, recalled their last face-to-face meeting, when John, despite his misgivings, baptized Jesus in the Jordan. With that act, the two men established a new understanding of Baptism for Jesus’ followers. We’ll learn that story in the next post.

When we left our hero, John the Baptizer, he was standing in the Jordan River that runs between present-day Israel and Jordan. John and his followers immersed people in river water as a symbol of their desire to repent of past sins (see ” ‘Wash Me’  – and a Whole Lot More”). There was more to John’s ministry than dunking people in brown river water (yes, I’ve been to the region and seen the Jordan River, and it’s as brown as the land around it).

His preaching urged people not only to seek forgiveness for their past sins, but to commit themselves to living in new ways more in line with the ten rules that scripture says God gave to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Jews call these rules the Law; Christians refer to them as the Ten Commandments (the real thing, not Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 movie starring Charlton Heston, Yul Brenner and a cast of hundreds).

Repentance was not new, because Jewish priests, prophets and sages had been promoting turning away from selfish, greedy, idolatrous lifestyles among their people for centuries. By the time of Jesus, there were thousands of interpretations of the Law by priests, rabbis and other learned men (yes, they were all men, as women were not included in scholarly pursuits at that time). However, Luke 3:3-6 likens John’s mission to one foretold in the book of Isaiah:

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.

Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low;
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ “

Whoa! That’s some serious imagery, isn’t it? But what does it mean?

As I said at the outset of this series, it’s hard to understand the mindset of people who lived thousands of years ago. For one thing, most of us in the 21st century live very urban lives, so landscapes don’t always capture our imaginations the way they did when the world’s population was mostly rural. Back then, people who lived in villages, towns and great cities like Jerusalem knew what it was like to travel down through valleys and up over hills and mountains. No planes, trains or automobiles to keep them detached from the physical world around them.

Yet to the Jews, Isaiah’s words had enormous significance beyond a staggering visual image. The text comes from Isaiah 40:3-5, in which God tells the people of Israel that they will be saved from their enemies. “Preparing the way of the Lord” can mean to perform the literal acts described in the passage, but it also has connotations of personal repentance, improving one’s own behaviors and those of the community. In other words, the balancing of geography described in Isaiah’s poetry also has been interpreted to signify the restoration of relationships between individuals, in society and with God.

Here’s where John’s mission turned dangerous, because Luke 3:7-20 speak of the Forerunner’s explicit preaching. John wasn’t the moderate, benign preacher of most boulevard churches; he was confrontational, and he didn’t care whose feelings he might offend. Listen to John preaching to those who came to him to be baptized (Luke 3:7-9, NRSV*):

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

 Boy, howdy, that’s some preachin’, as we say in Texas where I live. Can we understand today what he was saying? To some extent, yes, but only with a little effort. As we noted earlier, being washed clean from prior sins was only the first part of Baptism in John’s ministry. His exhortation to “bear fruits worthy of repentance” was a clear instruction that those who sought Baptism couldn’t get away with going back to their old habits. If they kept on cheating their customers and business associates, lying to their spouses, coveting their neighbors’ lands, and failing to care for the poor and helpless, then the effect of their Baptism was nullified, according to John.

What’s more, John told them, they weren’t protected from the consequences of their sins just because they were Jews, members of God’s Chosen People. As he goes on, John  gives specific instructions to certain groups of people on how to get right with their neighbors, and thus with God. He’s blunt about it: if the ritual act of Baptism didn’t affect the ways they lived as well, their effort was worthless.

Several meanings have been given to phrases such as “flee from the wrath to come” and “the ax is lying at the root of the trees.” In some cases, these predictions of a dire future have been given terrible anti-Semitic interpretations that have led to persecutions of Jews for centuries, thanks to the (horrible to say) Christian idea that Jews who rejected Jesus were collectively condemned to hell unless they converted. Recounting the millions of ways that Christians have sinned against their spiritual elder siblings, the Jews, would take another blog. Suffice it to say that, IMHO, John’s words should not be interpreted as a license for Christians to feel in any way superior to Jews (or anyone else, for that matter). Too often we forget that Jesus was a Jew, and saw his mission in a Jewish, not Christian, context.

So back to John the Baptizer. His powerful preaching had an immediate effect on his listeners. They begged him to tell them how to live, and John was quick to respond:

“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” (Luke 3:11)

Think about this. Most of us have pretty good wardrobes, often including several sweaters, jackets and coats. Have we ever given our extras to people who have none? Have we even considered our abundance of clothing as “extra?” And what about our food? Many churches sponsor food pantries or contribute to food distribution ministries, and churchwomen for generations have taken food to sick, hungry and grieving people. Yet how often do we question why we continue to allow economic systems that force people into poverty and hunger?

Good examples of this idea are the “Occupy” demonstrations going on now around the United States and elsewhere.  Until recently, there was little evidence of faith-based support, but now that has changed. Churches and synagogues and mosques are on board with the Occupy groups because religious leaders have recognized that their primary aim, equalizing the unjust American economic system, aligns perfectly with their own religion’s teachings.

Most church members are uncomfortable with these kinds of witness because they require a personal stand. These aren’t the kinds of encounters that we can write a check for and feel we’ve done our charitable best. Knowing the needs of others, and our own responsibility for any social system that results in oppression, poverty, hunger and the like, requires that we know the people around us. We must establish relationships with people in order to know how we can serve them.

Awareness and actions such as these are the kinds of “fruits worthy of repentance” that John insisted should be the direct result of Baptism. These concepts weren’t unknown to the Jews; they can be found in several places in the Hebrew Bible that we Christians call the Old Testament. However, their practice clearly had declined by John’s lifetime; otherwise he wouldn’t have called attention to them.

John’s call for other-oriented compassionate living in community has stuck to our understanding of Baptism ever since. Today, though, it seems that we practice it as erratically as it was practiced in John’s era. What’s more, preaching this understanding of the responsibilities of Baptism to American Christians has become as dangerous these days as it became for John. We’ll find out more about that in the next post.

All Scripture quotations on this blog are taken from the New Revised Standard Version of the Holy Bible. Copyright 1989 by the Christian Education Committee of the National Council of Churches. Used by permission.

Photo Credit: Bumper Sticker from Northern Sun.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.