Liberation of Life

Posted: January 8, 2019 in Uncategorized

Baptism of Jesus C, 2019

Luke 3:15-16, 21-22

Liberation of Life

Here we are again. At the beginning of another calendar year and already into Epiphany of the Christian year. As is the custom we are in the week after the day of Epiphany and as is required in the lectionary into the Baptism of Jesus. This time it is in the Luke year and we began introducing John a couple of weeks ago when we spoke of John as the cousin of Jesus in their particular mother’s womb. I have also on occasion suggested that John and Jesus were similar in faith but different in approach or different in theology. For John, it was a sad world and one that is fear driven whereas I suggested that Jesus’ world was potential-filled and love driven.

Today I want to begin by asking some questions and then suggest a way forward. One of the options by way of theme for today is Baptism but what I don’t want to do is build a case for what I think Baptism is or what it does but rather begin by accepting it as a rite that says more than its practice reveals. I want to start my thinking on the basis that Jesus offers an alternative to a fear-based life. Not in the sense of ignoring the fact that struggle is a part of human living. Not everything is smooth sailing. But rather, there is a life driven not by a response to evil or to all the negative things that make up life or seem to dominate it on many occasions and I think that this is what Jesus is on about. I want to see if I can find an alternative mode of living that I think Jesus is advocating.

I know this is perhaps idealistic and may even seem unrealistic because it seems that evidence is against a love-driven world. Our road toll goes up more than down, our prisons are full and we need more, debates about lock them up and throw away the keys battle with the costs and efforts required for rehabilitation and restorative justice. The punitive approach seems to fail us even when we do it in the cause of public safety. Even community safety seems elusive and so we add more rules and regulations to living seeking this eldorado that always seems to elude us.

I told a story some years back after 9/11 where a man at an airport checkpoint had simply forgotten to take the loose change out of his pockets and had set off one of the metal detectors. Unaware he had done this, he kept on walking toward the gate lounge. It was nothing really.  No big deal. But when the security officer shouted “Stop!” everybody in the whole area froze, and the airport grew deathly silent. You could almost touch the fear in the air. Upon reflecting an observer said: “You know, I think the old world where we thought we were safe and secure is gone forever.

What happened back there suggests that a major transformation in thinking is required. It also suggests that we don’t know what’s going to happen next in the world, and this makes us anxious and afraid. The fact of the matter is, we were already afraid and after 9/11 more afraid than we used to be. John the Baptist’s message was different from Jesus’. Interestingly, for the most part, John’s message was one of fear!

Returning to our text in Luke and his story, we remember that Jesus was about 30 when he went to hear John the Baptizer, preach and on one of those occasions, it seems to be more implied than actually said – Jesus was baptized. Luke doesn’t say where Jesus was baptized. Neither does Luke say who baptized Jesus. However, tradition has it that Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan and that the agent of that baptism was John. We note here that this interpretation comes for a blending of stories from the other gospels. Not from Luke.

So, allowing for what really was probably an embarrassment for the early Jesus/Christian movements… we focus on two questions: • What might there have been in John’s message that prompted Jesus to ask for baptism? • And what might have he experienced during his baptism and days spent in the wilderness that reportedly followed?

According to John Beverley Butcher in the introduction to his book, An uncommon lectionary, the evidence is clear that something profound happened within Jesus which provided direction and energy for a ministry of teaching and healing. Butcher suggests:

“Without Jesus’ baptism, there might have been no ministry, no getting into trouble with the authorities, no crucifixion, no resurrection experiences, no church, no Christian religion, and no church history!  The course of human civilization would have gone quite differently” (Butcher 2002). For Butcher, this event was of “pivotal significance… in the life of Jesus”. For storyteller Luke, it too was a significant moment. But one that has got him and others in the early Jesus-cum-Christian movement, into a fair amount of trouble, it seems.

And just in case you think assigning a fear-based motivation to Johns approach to life is simplistic and perhaps over-done, another commentator, Bruce Epperly, (Epperly 2007) tells this story that I think builds on my case for a fear-driven fixation by offering a more positive approach. Epperly says that: “The North African Desert Mothers and Fathers tell the story of a monk who came to his spiritual guide with a question about the next steps in his spiritual journey.  The monk described his monastic solitude and daily rituals and then asked what more he could to in order to experience God in his life.  His spiritual guide simply responded with the words, ‘Become fire!’” And then he goes on to offer this comment: “Today’s scriptures invite progressive and mainstream Christians to ‘become fire.’  This is the heart of John the Baptist’s response…  While the meaning of John’s affirmation is unclear, -and here I think Epperly is questioning John’s fear-based approach, ‘fire’ surely points to the energetic nature of God’s presence in our spiritual lives.  Our faith journey is meant to embody the energy of the ‘big bang’ or ‘big birth’ of the cosmos.  God’s energy flows through our lives in each moment.  We are the children of cosmic stardust and cosmic energy, who are meant… not only to live but to live well and live better” (Epperly P&F website, 2007). A fire-based approach to life is not a fear based one.

And here we recall the opening scene of Jesus’ public ministry, when he appears before his home synagogue gathering, the storyteller Luke has Jesus using the words of Isaiah

to describe the significance of this baptism event. Surprisingly, baptism is not a word or call to the mission, sending him into the future. It is about the delight of God in this beloved, this chosen, this person called by name. We read this as baptism not be a calling to ‘do’. But a calling to ‘be’… and it is this calling that liberates for life. One does not have to ‘do’ anything as a result of baptism. One has to be this chosen one, this transformed person, this reoriented one as a result of an awareness of one’s preciousness in the eyes of God.

I want to take this idea of being a bit further and see it as the outcome of life as a progressive Christian. A follower of the Jesus Way as opposed to one who somehow is a better person because of a belief. I think this has something to do with how one avoids doing in order to be good and the being good.

Two distinct threads of interest that have dominated my thinking in recent years and the first is my evolving Christian faith as a progressive Christian, In this question, are all the challenges of what it means to be a non-theist, non-literalist Christian and what is belief and what do I believe? and the second is mental health, what is fully human life when one has Alzheimer’s or dementia or some sort of mental struggle. I always saw these two threads as separate, but recently they have become more and more intertwined. As strange as it may sound, both threads have led me to ask questions about mindfulness and mindfulness seems to be more about being than doing.

But is mindfulness just an evolution of yoga? Is it another way of saying meditation? Or is it something different. Is it perhaps contemplative ministry evolving into the 1st Century? Is meditation a combination of mindfulness and cognitive therapy? What is true is that a focus on mindfulness has a lifeline for some people with something like depression, and in some cases, techniques like these have become a matter of survival. Others have found that whatever the situation, mindfulness can give them a better perspective and leave them feeling more alive, awake and present.

So, what do we mean by mindfulness? A definition that seems ok to me says that the basic principles of mindfulness are very simple and yet utterly counter-intuitive. Mindfulness is about intentionally bringing our awareness to the present moment by paying attention to the sensations, sights and sounds around us, and calmly noticing – without judgment – the thoughts and feelings that arise. The aim is to interrupt the mind’s natural tendency to be somewhere other than here and now, and to recognize that our thoughts and emotions are products of our minds and do not necessarily represent reality. Observing and interacting with our own thoughts in this counter-intuitive way allows us to take control of our minds and improve our experience of life. I am not sure that the space between conscious and unconscious is a simple as that nor do I think it challenges the fear-based thinking but it is a very good cognitive approach, I think. And it does base itself in the assumption that a non-fear-based approach is possible. It may even support my contention that goodness has a natural priory and that doing or attempting to do can get in the road of being.

In regard to the mindfulness being explored today we need to recognize that it while being largely secularized, many Christians still feel uneasy about its Buddhist roots. Many of us were taught when growing up, that Christianity and Buddhism were in opposition to one another. But as a progressive, they both offer valuable insights into what it means to be fully human and fully alive, and as far as we can see are entirely compatible. We acknowledge also that within Christianity itself there is a rich tradition of practices very similar to mindfulness, but in modern western Protestantism, these have largely been forgotten or at least sidelined by an exclusively belief driven agenda. Experience has been assigned to the emotional charismatic movement whereas contemplative Christianity contains within it much of the same mind-training principles that are found within mindfulness. There are differences, but the basic approach is very similar.

But what happens when beliefs no longer provide an anchor in one’s faith? What happens when one’s skeptical being thrives? Well! First of all we might see Christianity as offering a revolutionary way of being in the world rather than living life in response to a concrete set of beliefs. And let’s be clear here, this is not easy but it seems to have integrity if one is on a Faith Journey, if one is on a pilgrimage. I for one have thought of life as a journey but have not always held this view about belief. My recent life has been about my experience of “deconstructing” the static belief system I was taught to hold above all else, I was fortunate not to have had a strong literalized biblical faith from which to evolve but I do recognize my literalism, my dogmatism, my reliance on creeds, and my exclusive cognitive world. I recognize my arrogance; bullying nature and I lament the obnoxious righteousness of my behaviour as one who has the answers. I also recognize the struggle in dealing with the confusion, grief and existential chaos this process of deconstruction and rebuilding has entailed.

During the last 20 years, I have effectively tried to think my way through what felt like one long “crisis of faith”, looking for solid answers to construct a new belief system I could hold onto. I eventually realized there would be no end to this search. I saw that this desire for answers was less about being human and more about being culturally on top of things.

I discovered I would have to learn to be at peace with uncertainty, or my thinking would become increasingly obsessive and unhealthy. I discovered I would have to embrace ambiguity or I would burn out in the face of a never-ending test. I have yet to find out for myself but many say that mindfulness helps them to find that peace. Rather than forever trying to understand and explain everything, one can focus on what is actually going on around them and allow their authenticity to become part of the picture of the mind. With contemplation, one can be more awake to everyday experiences, more present with other people, and more appreciative of the beauty of it all. I had a recent experience of this when telling my personal story, I got the sense of it being too introspective, too much all about me and I began to ask questions of the others in the room. Questions as to who they were, and not what they do.

I still have beliefs and hopes about God and the spiritual aspects of life, but they are no longer my anchor. I can say I don’t believe in the traditional God yet believe there is a Serendipitous Creativity that I might name God. I can jokingly say I don’t think God exists, yet say that what I name God does. I can say that I am a follower of Jesus but not of the person with the surname Christ. I can say I question all that is said about the post-Easter Jesus while affirming a single starting point of the pre-Easter Jesus. So, when beliefs shift, as they inevitably do, One, need not be as disorientated as they once were. Our anchor is this moment, this breath. we cannot control the nature of God or the reliability of biblical texts, but we can control how we respond to life in each moment. I for one, am finding this to be a much healthier way to be, and indeed a more authentic Christian way. We can be centered, calm and fully alive without feeling the need to understand everything. So, here’s a vote for mindfulness, here’s also a vote for what it can say to the church as a means of awakening to the divine presence.

The main difference between contemplative prayer and mindfulness is that the aim of prayer has a focus on being and seeks the union with the divine rather than simply bringing your attention to the present moment. It reminds us also of the authentic engagement with one’s context, environment and with all of the natural world. Baptism asks the questions about how to be and contemplative mindfulness reveals where one might be. Where better to seek divine engagement than in the beauty of nature and the gift of each breath? Where better to seek the divine engagement than in the coolness of the breeze, the sound of laughter or the faces of those we pass by on the street?

Nothing provokes a sense of awe and gratitude like being fully awake and present to the world in front of my eyes. It can feel a lot like the presence of that which we name God. Amen.

Notes:

Bradley, I. 2000.  Colonies of Heaven. Celtic models for today’s church. London: D L & T.

Butcher, J. B. 2002.  An Uncommon Lectionary. A companion to Common Lectionaries. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press.

Ludemann, G. 1998. Virgin Birth? The real story of Mary and her son Jesus. Translated: John Bowden. Harrisburg: Trinity Press International

Miller, R. J. 2003.  Born Divine. The births of Jesus and other sons of God. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press.

rexae74@gmail.com

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