Souls are living.
Like all living things, souls can thrive or they can shrivel.
Quite simply, a soul is healthy to the extent that it maintains a strong connection and receptivity to God.
Jesus also said, “The Kingdom of God is like a farmer who scatters seed on the ground. Night and day while he’s sleeping or awake, the seed sprouts and grows, but he does not understand how it happens.”
But soon a fierce storm came up. High waves were breaking into the boat, and it began to fill with water. Jesus was sleeping at the back of the boat with his head on a cushion. The disciples woke him up, shouting, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re going to drown?”
Jesus’ sleep is like the sleep of the sower. He has done the work that is expected of him. The rest is left in God’s hands. This attitude of peaceful trust is the result of an unambiguous commitment to the Father’s will. On the one hand, there is a fervent and proactive sense of mission, to complete the work given me to do. This is complemented, on the other hand, by the placid expectation that the rest of the pieces will fit in place without my being unduly concerned about them.
Christianity’s beginnings were, in the very least, inauspicious. Its founder was executed as a criminal under Roman authority. And the gap between these inauspicious beginnings and the remarkable success of Christianity in gaining adherents throughout the centuries, and even today, is one of history’s most interesting stories.
Now Jesus of Nazareth both is and is not the founder of Christianity. He is not the founder in the sense that Muhammed is the founder of Islam or that Prince Siddhartha is the founder of Buddhism. In the case of Muhammed, we have someone who, over the course of his adult life, received revelations from Allah, had them written in the Quran, and in effect created a system of life for an entire people-a theocracy that could be codified into law.
Jesus’ ministry, on the other hand, lasted just one to three years, he delivered odd and parabolic discourse rather than a system of law, and he was executed shortly thereafter.
With Siddhartha, we have someone who achieved “nirvana,” and was able to communicate and engender that same experience among others through the teachings of the four noble truths.
Christians, however, do not think that they have the very same experience that Jesus did. Rather, they experience Jesus in a different way.
So Jesus is not the founder of Christianity the way those other two great founders are of their respective traditions.
Yet Jesus is certainly more than just a symbolic figure. He is the founder in the sense that his resurrection of the dead gives birth to this religious movement. In a further sense, Jesus’ human story–his words, his actions, his manner of death–remain central to Christian identity.
Now for a really long sentence:
The historical activity of Jesus of Nazareth is difficult to reconstruct with precision, but it is best understood as a form of prophetic activity within Judaism that is marked by a particular urgency and authority, and whose proclamation of God’s rule issues in a nascent community.
On Monday, we will begin unpacking each part of this behemoth sentence.
Have a great weekend!
If you’re like me, and need to look up the definition of “nascent,” I’ll save you a few clicks: It means something coming into existence showing future potential. It usually has to do with a process or organization.
There are certain basic terms that are used in all religions, but have a specific meaning within Christianity. Today we will look at an overview of these terms:
- Founder–we use this term in religion for the one who is the channel, or the agent, of revelation, and is often the organizer of the way of life. We will see that Jesus is oddly both the founder, and not the founder, of Christianity.
- Community–the body of people whose life is organized around the experiences or the revelation of the founder. In Christianity, the term used for this community is “church.” In Greek, “ekklesia” means, first of all, not a building, but a gathering, an assembly of people. So the community is the group that is gathered by this experience.
- Scripture or sacred texts–not all religions actually have sacred texts, but Christianity has a very restricted set of sacred texts. They consist of TaNaK aka The Hebrew Scriptures, which is what Christians call The Old Testament. And the 27 writings known as The New Testament. Scripture consists of those writings that are regarded as normative for the experiences and convictions of the religious tradition.
- Myth–as used by students of religion, does not mean falsehood as opposed to history. It does not mean fiction. But it means, rather, a story which tries to communicate truths that history cannot communicate. Often, myth has to do with how God is at work among humans.
- Doctrine–the word means “teaching.” It is the organized and normative form of teaching that guides people in their religion. Many religions have very little doctrine, but Christianity has a quite extensive and complex body of doctrine. This is because belief, right thinking, orthodoxy (Greek for “right opinion”) has always been very important. It is formulated in the Creed, which comes from the Latin “credo”-“I believe,” and the Creed is the formulation of Christian doctrine to which all Christians subscribe.
- Ritual–as used by religionists, it refers to the repeated communal actions (even when done by individuals) that help demarcate sacred time and sacred space. Sacred time and sacred space are the places of power within a tradition. The word “ritual” can also be called “worship or “liturgy.” In Christianity, the main forms of ritual are baptism (initiation) and eucharist (common meal). Depending on which flavor of Christianity one subscribes to, there can of course be many other rituals.
- Morality–This is the code of behavior that is thought to follow from the religious experiences and convictions of adherents. Remember Wach’s definition of religious experience from yesterday? – it issues appropriate action. One appropriate action is to organize sacred time and sacred space. “Let’s gather around this power.” Another appropriate action is behavior. “How do we act in the rest of our life because of these experiences and convictions?” In some traditions, this is very straightforward and codified into law, such as in Judaism and Islam. In Christianity, morality is a most complex and disputed issue, which we shall see in a later lesson.
- Mysticism–refers specifically to the means by which adherents of a religion seek a direct experience of the Divine, and more broadly to the practices of prayer and meditation by which that direct access may be achieved. Notice the previous: community, scripture, and ritual are mediations-structures through which the power of religious experience can be channeled to adherents. Mysticism is fascinating because it is the attempt through prayer and meditation to bypass those means of mediation. It is individual in character rather than group in character. It always seeks direct access to ultimate power rather than mediated access to ultimate power. Therefore, it is an extraordinarily enlivening feature of religions, but it can also be subversive within religious traditions.
Tomorrow we will begin looking at the birth and expansion of Christianity.
Sometimes you need to take a step outside and a look back.
You need perspective. Reminding. A different angle or lens.
Most all of us have grown up immersed in or at least surrounded by Christianity in some form. So much so, that we tend to lose sight of its basic structure, its history, its beliefs. This can happen even for adherents.
Over the next several weeks, we will be giving a survey of the basic elements of Christianity as a religion.This has been very helpful, grounding, and encouraging for me. And I very much hope it will be good for you as well to get a little bit of an outsider’s look if you have been an insider, or a bit of an insider’s look if you have been an outsider to Christianity. For insiders (those who have been immersed in it), it is easy to forget to look at Christianity as a religion.
So first off, we must begin with, what is a religion?
Here is a preliminary definition that I find most helpful:
Religion is a way of life, organized around certain experiences and convictions, having to do with ultimate power.
Now let’s break down this weighty definition. (Hopefully it can serve to “take back” this word from its many negative connotations that have accumulated over the years.)
- First of all, it is a way of life. Religious people do not think of religion as some segmented part of their existence, but as pervasive of all their life. It is not a matter of simply worshipping one hour a week, but of perceiving all of reality from a different perspective, and acting because they have that perspective. So it is a way of life.
- But it is also organized. Religion is not simply something that happens in the head, or in the feelings, or in individuals. It is a matter of bodies and communities. It is a matter of what bodies do, and what communities do when they are together. Therefore, it is an organized way of life.
- It involves certain experiences. The experiences are what give birth to religions, and what religions try to communicate. Joachim Wach, former Sociologist of Religion at the University of Chicago, has given us a marvelous definition of religious experience as: a response to what is perceived as ultimate, involving the whole person, characterized by a peculiar intensity, and issuing an appropriate action. Religious people do not think that they are making this up. They think that they are responding to something that is ultimately real. And because they are responding to this ultimately real thing, they must also organize their life in a certain fashion.
- Religion involves more than experiences, it involves convictions. Religions construct the world in a certain way. They interpret reality in a certain way, so that its adherents who share these experiences and convictions really do have a different world than those who do not share those experiences and convictions.
- Finally, the phrase ultimate power is very important. People who are religious are not organizing their life around the pursuit of money, the pursuit of pleasure, or the pursuit of political power. Rather, they are responding to that which goes beyond the human manipulation of power–to something that is transcendent, that goes beyond the pleasurable, the beautiful, the useful, even the good, to that which is in some sense ultimate.
Religion, then, is a way of life organized around the experience of ultimate power, and is characterized by certain experiences and convictions.
Tomorrow we will look at eight basic terms that are used in all religions, but have a specific meaning within Christianity.
I am using material from lectures given by Luke Timothy Johnson for The Teaching Company’s The Great Courses series.
I believe that all of your life, consciously or unconsciously, is a response to something.
All of our activity, accomplishments, and thoughts are response.
A response emanating from deep within, perhaps from where we cannot, at moment, even detect.
To what we would have.
To what we would be.
To what we would avoid.
Maybe to our “shoulds.”
What is your life a response to?
Pay attention today for what any given thing you are doing or thinking at the moment may be a response to.
What if we lived as if what Jesus and Scripture have revealed to us about God is actually true?
If we lived out the universal and Life-giving commands which have been graciously handed to us?
If we endeavored to live mindful of what we know to be the deeper reality? In the large space of God’s presence, we beheld our worries, memories, physical afflictions, and responsibilities in the context of our belovedness?
I think if we kept just a handful of foundational truths of God before us continually, as reminders of what actually is, we would live in peace, joy, and immense capacity.
Oh if we would draw near to God in His worship with a true heart, in full assurance of faith concerning our enjoyment of Christ and His salvation, how differently we would live.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, casting all your cares upon Him, committing the disposal of yourself to Him in all your concerns.
Trust by faith that your sins are really blotted out, that He totally forgives all that is confessed, He grants you the desires of your heart if you delight in Him, and you will not be shaken if you keep Him in mind continually, remaining in His love for you (Is.26:3,Ps.16:8,Jn.15:9).
Persuade yourself thru Christ that God, according to His promise, will never fail you or forsake you; that He takes Fatherly care of you; that He’ll withhold no good thing from you, and will make all things to work out for your good. We know He will! No irredeemable harm can ever come to you!
These rock solid foundational truths beget in us a right frame of spirit, thoroughly furnished for every good work toward our neighbor.
Attention to these truths, to Jesus and Scripture, places our life and world within the remembered reality of God’s grace.*
Yesterday at Ekklesia we sang “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Growing up, I must’ve sung this song over fifty times. But it was not until yesterday that the words penetrated me with the reality of God’s truth and beauty and care at a level much deeper than the surface. It communicates so well the reality waiting for us to live into–fellowship and union with Christ.
What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear! What a privilege to carry Everything to God in prayer! O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear, All because we do not carry Everything to God in prayer.
Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere? We should never be discouraged; Take it to the Lord in prayer. Can we find a friend so faithful, Who will all our sorrows share? Jesus knows our every weakness; Take it to the Lord in prayer.
Are we weak and heavy-laden, Cumbered with a load of care? Precious Savior, still our refuge; Take it to the Lord in prayer. Do thy friends despise, forsake thee? Take it to the Lord in prayer; In His arms He’ll take and shield thee, thou wilt find a solace there.
Please take this song with you today and ingest it into your soul, metabolizing its truth into your life.
Know this, that I will be singing this song all day today. So if you are ever wondering at any point what I may be doing, you can rest assured I will be singing this–in the car, at school, the chiropractor, Ripple Effect, the gym…and it will be easily and completely memorized by day’s end. I’m just sayin’, I’m gonna do that.
*Paraphrase of a Susan Phillips quote
Do not think that what your thoughts dwell upon is of no matter. Your thoughts are making you.
Overdoing often leads to undoing.
I sometimes wonder if we put too much emphasis on ourselves in our modern day Christianity.
If the pendulum has swung a little too far away from conversion to helping yourself, or helping God help you.
God doesn’t need any help.
I see why old time preachers preached for a conversion of heart to God. I’ve been thinking a lot about how if there has been no regeneration of heart, no rebirth into the new nature of God, no surrender admitting helplessness, that you cannot possibly please God. Those who are determined by the flesh can’t please God (Rom.8:8).
Many people think that the phrase “God helps those who help themselves” is in the Bible.
The message seems to be “God helps those who realize and admit that they cannot help themselves.” They totally depend and trust in Him.
I sometimes wonder if we have to do anything. Perhaps it’s true we just believe, trust, and have faith, and the Life of God is then allowed to have its way in us and will manifest in loving ways through us “neonaturally.”
Maybe we spin our wheels trying to get people to do anything…