Following Jesus Christ 3

This is the third post in this series. It contains what I am sending to my high school classmates as we celebrate 55 years as graduates. Although this is written for mostly Christians, its truth is available to all. The Spirit of Christ that I will refer to below is available to all. Gandhi was never a traditional Christian, but he certainly admired Jesus. Gandhi’s life was marked by some of the same characteristics that can be seen in Jesus–and one was the way of gentleness, which is a pathway into the presence of God.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the gentle; they shall
have the earth for their possession.”
(Matthew 5:5)

Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn
from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart.”
(Matthew 11:29)

In my teaching, I have insisted that way too many people “believe” in Jesus, but don’t “follow” him. And sometimes I fall into that crowd. But that does not mean we all can’t do better. We can learn gentleness and humility from Jesus. Again, I say—read the gospels.

The character of Jesus is marked by patience, colored with gentleness. Does Jesus ever get angry? Well, yes, we can see that from time to time. A gentle person can get angry when the situation calls for that kind of confrontation. But for followers of Jesus, Christ-like gentleness is never far beneath the surface.

In looking out at today’s America (and the world), I see that we are flooded with anger, violence, and hatred. Even some Christians, sadly, are more characterized by a bullishness and rage than they are Christ-like gentleness.

As followers of Jesus, our character should mirror Christ’s gentleness. That is possible because the Spirit of Christ lives in us. Listen to what characterizes the Spirit work in our lives (hint: it does not include aggression and hatred!) “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control….If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:22-25)

Peace, LaMon

Following Jesus Christ 2

It has been over a month since my last post about following Jesus. I mentioned then that I was writing short pieces for a virtual class reunion which I would then use in this blog, because following Jesus is one way to experience the presence of God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God (Matt. 5:9).

You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evil doer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also (Matt. 5:38-39).

You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven (Matt. 5:43-45a).

In some ways, the call to practice non-violence and love of enemy is the most difficult of Jesus’ teachings. This is true for Christians all over the world—though there are wonderful exceptions in denominations like Quakers and Mennonites.

America was birthed in violence and war. It is part of our national DNA. We patriotically support any war or military conflict that America engages in. We promote a gun culture that seems to support a level of violence that the early Church would never accept.

Now I know that some of you may be a bit angry at this point, but I hope that you will persevere and read the rest. Some wars can be justified and the defense of our family and the weak can be justified. Nevertheless, if we want to follow Jesus, we must take his teachings seriously and not simply ignore that which doesn’t fit our world view.

Violence should always be the last resort. When violence is finally the only answer, we must strive to use the least amount of violence possible to promote genuine peace. We are called to love our enemies, not hate them. Killing may be necessary, but we will never, if we follow Jesus, rejoice in the death of our ‘enemies’. Following Jesus is rarely easy or popular. But I have found it one great way to experience the presence of God.

Following Jesus Christ I

This year my high school class is celebrating our reunion virtually. In fact we are celebrating it for several months. One of the ways, is that some of us have been asked to write meditations from time to time. I decided to write on following the teachings of Jesus. The theme of all of my blogs is ways or paths to experiencing the presence of God. One way is to follow the teachings of Jesus. So I will be sharing these on my blog in the months to come.

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Luke 6:20

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:3

Luke and Matthew affirm that Jesus taught this to his disciples. Matthew’s version simply amplifies the plight of the poor, i.e. they are dis-spirited, crushed, without hope.

If we are to take this saying of Jesus seriously, what must we do? Jesus could say that the poor were blessed, because he knew that his followers would care for them as much as they could. We are called to a practical compassion for the poor. We are called to individual actions of charity, but also to support programs the seek to alleviate the suffering of the poor.

This becomes clear in Matthew 25 where the peoples of the world are judged, not on what they believed, but on what they did. The sheep—those on the right of the Son of Man—cared for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, and the imprisoned. Because they acted this way, Jesus said they were blessed by the Father. The goats, on his left, did no such thing and they were cursed.

I honestly don’t claim to know what this all might mean in terms of eternity, but this I know: people following the teachings of Jesus will be more interested in blessing the poor than in shaming or blaming them. We are called to compassion.

Peace, LaMon

Ecclesiastes Haiku

Recently I decided to read through the Book of Ecclesiastes and write haiku that captures it’s thought. It begins in verses 1-11 with an almost numbing melancholy. Creation seems to be, for the writer, an unending cycle of meaninglessness.

life is meaningless

begins Ecclesiastes–

weariness is the norm

Today perhaps we can appreciate this view in light of pandemic, injustice, and race riots. Disease and violence return like months of the year. But Jesus rescues me from this debilitating worldview. Ecclesiastes expected nothing new, but Jesus brought a fresh breeze from God, that cleanses the staleness of our inner rooms if we will but open the windows of our souls. It is a cleansing that renews my hope for a better day, a better world. It enables me to speak confidently for compassion, justice, and reconciliation.

As always, if you like what I have written, feel free to share it with others and encourage them to become followers.

Peace, LaMon

Affirmation of Many Paths

It has been months since I last sent out a blog! But this morning as I was reading in Carl McCorman’s book The Little Book of Christian Mysticism: Essential Wisdom of Saints, Seers, and Sages, I ran across this quote from Rufus Jones on page 41:

There is no one exclusive ‘way’ either to the supreme realities or to the loftiest experiences of life. The ‘way’ which we individuals select and proclaim as the only highway of the soul back to its true home turns out to be a revelation of our own private selves fully as much as a revelation of the ‘via sacra’ to the one goal of all human striving. . . . God so completely over arches all that is and . . . is so genuinely the fulfillment of all which appears incomplete and potential that we cannnot conceivably insist that there shall be only one way of approach from the multiplicity of the life which we know to the infinite Being whom we seek.

The spiritual life demands humility of us all. Indeed, humility is an essential for spiritual growth. It is like plant food for our souls.

And, for my Christian friends, Jones’ words does not negate a full-hearted commitment to Jesus Christ. For according to the Christian scriptures, Christ is the logos or Word of God present in all of creation–not only in the Church.

I hope in the coming year to begin writing again perhaps talking about the ways of beauty, truth, and goodness.

Peace to you all, LaMon

Trials and Temptations

This is the last in my series of meditations on Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer or the Our Father. Since prayer can be one of the ways we connect with God, it seemed to good idea to look at the prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray. It is one of those pathways into God’s presence.

The last phrase according to Luke’s version reads, “and do not bring us to the time of trial.” (NRSV) A footnote indicates that it could be translated as “do not bring us into temptation.” The connection between the two translations is clear. Trials may tempt us to abandon our trust in God. Trials may tempt us to fall out of love with God our Father (or Mother, if you prefer).

The disciples were going to face a lot of trials and temptations in the years to come. In this prayer, Jesus encourages them to ask God to protect them from those trials or temptations that might destroy their faith or dry up their love.

One question that needs asking is, does God intentionally lead us or bring us into temptations or prayers? I say, “No.” In fact when I pray the prayer (as in Matthew’s version), I follow the French Catholic practice recently adopted by the Pope. So I pray, “Do not let us fall to temptation.”

I can pray this with confidence because I know the love of God revealed in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ.

Forgiveness

We have been meditating on the Lord’s Prayer or the Our Father as it is found in the Gospel of Luke. Prayer is one of the ways we experience the presence of God. In today’s passage we will be reminded of the importance of forgiveness, which action, I believe, is another significant way to know God.

This month we have come to “And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” This does not have the words “transgressions” and “transgress” that many of us have used over the years. Neither does it have the words “debts” and “indebted” that others are used to. The word “sins” and “transgressions” are close enough to be used as synonyms. And in Luke’s version the prior word “sins” must be used to interpret the phrase “indebted to us.” So, to make it clear, in praying Luke’s version we are asking God to forgive us our sins because we are forgiving those who have sinned against us.

So, two ideas are at work. On the one hand, we have a need to be forgiven because of our own sins–doing wrong against God and others. And we have a need to forgive others who had done us wrong. I would simply point out that in this prayer, we are basically asking God to treat us like we treat others!!?!

While that sounds frightening, it need not be, as long as we understand what forgiveness entails. Forgiveness is seem most clearly on the cross. There, God in Christ was forgiving the world for its sin. This involved two types of acceptance. First, God in Christ accepted the pain of our sin without retaliation. The pain stopped on the cross. Second, God in Christ accepted the responsibility to help those who had caused the pain. (Remember Christ praying, Father forgive them.)

In forgiving others we accept two things. First, we accept the pain without trying to get revenge. We absorb the hurt as it were. Second, we accept the responsibility to help the other person. This can be most easily done by praying for that person’s own well being.

Forgiveness in it’s most basic elements does not involve forgetting (which we can’t will anyway!) nor the emotions of liking or loving.

Paul understood the connection between our forgiveness and our forgiving: “forgive one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” (Ephesians 5:7).

May we know the presence of God as we pray even for our enemies that God’s mercy would prevail in their lives.

Bread for the Day

We continue to think about Luke’s version of the Our Father or the Lord’s Prayer. Today we will look at the phrase, “Give us each day our daily bread.”

In the ancient world of Jesus’ day, food security was not a given. Lack of nutrition and gnawing hunger would have been near at hand for many of the common people of that time–even as it is in parts of the world today. So, Jesus was encouraging his disciples to pray for daily needs. God cares about the total person, not just disembodied souls.

However, I imagine that all who read this blog will have access to the food you need, so, we can pray this portion of the prayer with a sense of thanksgiving for the physical blessing we have. In praying thus we recognize our dependence on known and unknown factors that impact our well being. We ask God to bless us–bodies included.

On an earlier occasion Jesus affirmed that we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. That word is another kind of bread or nourishment–not for our physical being but for our spiritual being. So, we look for words from God to feed us. These words may be found in the Bible and other written material, in our inner life, and in conversations with others. At my church we respond to the reading of Scripture in this way: “For the word of God in Scripture, for the word of God within us, and for the word of God among us, thanks be to God.”

Finally, I must mention one other use of bread in the Gospels. It became a synonym for the presence of Jesus Christ with his followers. The bread of Communion is called the body of Christ. Whatever your theology of the Lord’s Supper, all of us can affirm that in some way, Jesus is with us as we participate.

When I pray the Lord’s Prayer, I am not literally taking the bread and the cup of Communion. But every time I pray “give us each day our daily bread,” I am asking Jesus Christ to be with me and near me in that day. It adds a wonderful dimension to the prayer and one that has come to mean a lot to me. I hope it may help you too to experience that Presence.

Imagining God

One pathway to God is through prayer, but not all prayers bring us into God’s presence. One day the disciples of Jesus asked him to teach them how to pray. The story and subsequent teaching is found in Luke 11:1-4. Here we find the earliest version of what is traditionally called the Lord’s Prayer. It is not the version most people know. The more liturgically full version is found in Matthew’s gospel. However, for the next several blogs I am going to look at what is surely the original version in order to think about how, in adapting and using this prayer, we can find ourselves in the presence of God.

It begins with one word–Father. (There is no “our”, nor “who is in heaven”). This prayer does have a corporate side as later blogs will show, but it begins one on one–the one praying and and the One listening. And the One listening is not far away, but is as near as a the air we breathe.

For those who balk at the use of the word “Father” as patriarchal, I would quickly add that in English I sometimes use Mother, for as Julian of Norwich correctly affirmed, “As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother.”

But let’s stick with what Jesus said and try to imagine what he meant. In Jesus’ native language, Aramaic, there are two words for the male parent; abhi and abba. The first word is the ‘higher’ word. It is a word of respect and honor. The second word is one of the first words an Aramaic baby would learn to say (along with imma). It is the child’s word. It is also the word adult children would use for the male parent when there was a close feeling of love and trust between child and parent. It was the word of intimacy. Perhaps our English words daddy and papa correspond best to the meaning. This Aramaic word is found three times in the Greek New Testament, indicative that it was the normal word Jesus used in his prayer language and the word he taught his disciples to use. (A side note: as far as we know Jesus was the first person to use this familiar language for God.)

Jesus taught his disciples to imagine that God is exactly like what Jesus had experienced God to be. God is entirely trustworthy. God is infinitely loving. God is eternally open to an intimate relationship with seekers.

So, when you pray, no matter how you might address God, imagine God to be like that. Perhaps it will help you to find a path into God’s presence.

A Trans-Religion Spiritual Practice

Last month I wrote about my experience with the Jesus Prayer. Here is another affirmation of the Jesus Prayer from perhaps my favorite modern poet, Scott Cairns.

Prayer in general, and the Jesus Prayer in particular, has become the sustaining focus of my waking days, and it has become a surprising accompaniment to my nights. I sleep less, waking every few hours–sometimes more often–to find the prayer on my lips. I spend a good bit of each night walking through the dark house, standing before the wavering vigil light of our family altar and icon wall, remembering friends and family–the living and the dead–in prayer. The more I do this, the more I want to do this. (p.257)*

It is important to note, as Scott does, that the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”–my preferred short form) can be used as we imagine the faces or names of our friends and family. God or Jesus will be merciful on “me” by blessing them.

My focus today is on two practices found in the Christian tradition that can be used with the Jesus Prayer or with other short prayer patterns. They are the Anglican Prayer Beads and the Orthodox Prayer Rope

Anglican prayer beads

And one hundred knot prayer ropes:

Ancient ways to pray

The use of something like prayer beads or ropes can be found in Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Sikhism, and Bahai. In those religions as in Christianity it is a way to focus one’s attention on prayer or meditation.

The Orthodox prayer rope is an ancient practice of the Orthodox church. The one I own is composed of 100 individual cloth knots separated into groups of 25 by 4 plastic beads. I use it in the evenings with a specific prayer for courage and peace and a heart full of love for God and compassion like that of Jesus. This is the prayer on the first three plastic beads. I follow this with 25, “Jesus my Lord, have mercy on me”, 25 “Jesus, my friend, have mercy on me”, and 25 “Jesus, my love, have mercy on me”. The last 25, I pray “Jesus, our savior, have mercy on us.” As I pray that last 25, I picture different people and needs in our world that I want God to bless or meet. On the last bead I give thanks for a God who always listens.

Anglican prayer beads have only been around since the late 1980s. I discovered them in the 90s. They are a blending of the Roman Catholic Rosary and the Orthodox Prayer Rope. The are composed of 33 beads–the number of years of Jesus’ life on earth. When I bought the prayer beads it included a wonderful leaflet that gave a variety of ways to use the beads including “rosaries” for the seasons of the Church year and patterns based on the Jesus Prayer, a prayer of Julian of Norwich, a Celtic Prayer, and several others. I have used these prayer beads off and on for over twenty years. (My first set eventually ‘wore out’ when the string holding the beads together broke!)

The use of either of these ways is not a magical cure-all or a sure-fire method of spiritual growth. They are simply a time-tested method that has helped me to focus more clearly and more often on my life of prayer.

*Scott Cairns, Short Trip to the Edge: Where Earth Meets Heaven–a Pilgrimage. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007. I also encourage you to check out his poetry.