Sunday, January 26, 2014

Following Jesus

What would it be like if we could recapture a sense of the risk and adventure involved in following the way of Jesus?  What would the church be like if it were a community of people committed to helping one another figure out how to take concrete steps to follow Jesus in their daily lives?  What difference would it make in our world?  What would happen to you, to me, to us?

Recently, I’ve been inspired by the work of Mark Scandrette and the Reimagine community here in San Francisco.    Reimagine is a center for integral Christian practice, helping people to bridge the gap between what they say they believe and how they live their lives.   Not unlike Gandhi, who titled his autobiography, My Experiments with Truth, Reimagine invites people to experiment with what it means to follow Jesus, and discover what supports them in their spiritual growth.

For example, some of the folks at Reimagine were reflecting on Jesus’ admonition to sell your possessions and give to the poor.  They decided, well, let’s see what happens if we do that.  So they developed Have2Give1, a program in which participants inventoried their possessions and sold off duplicates of stuff they already had with a goal of selling roughly half of their goods.  For some participants, this included selling some big-ticket items like televisions and even a car. 

Some interesting things happened as a result.  For one, participants realized how much stuff they had, and how much they could do without.  Beyond the immediate simplification of their lives, they became conscious of the lure of consumerism and its false promises.  They became far more discerning about what they needed, what they chose to do with their resources, and the effect of those choices on other people.  In other words, they grew in awareness and in the exercise of freedom.  And they managed to make a very concrete difference in the lives of some of the world’s poorest people through their pooled contribution. 

What is more, they did this together.  It wasn’t simply a personal decision, but the fruit of communal discernment and a commitment to support one another in figuring out what it means to follow Jesus in their ordinary lives.   They were accountable to one another, not in a moralistic way, but in the service of personal and social transformation.  They didn’t try to force conformity to a rigid, fixed rule, but rather engaged one another in a process of creative risk taking for the sake of the common good. 

Finally, notice their motivation.  It came from a desire to follow Jesus, to become fully human in the way that he taught and lived.   They actually believed that Jesus is a reliable guide in the process of healing the world, including our selves.  He helps us to recognize and nurture our deepest desire – our desire to align ourselves with the creative, life-giving power of God that we call love.

The good folks at Reimagine are just like you and me.  They are ordinary people who work regular jobs and try to support their families.  They are students, and parents, and retirees – ordinary people like Peter, Andrew, James, and John, casting their nets from the shore of the Sea of Galilee as generations before and after them have done.   This is what Jesus does.  He slips into the ordinary lives of ordinary people and awakens them to their extraordinary desire for God, for God’s kingdom of justice and peace.  And they can never be the same again. 

When we meet Jesus, we look in the mirror and realize our own desire for freedom, forgiveness, wholeness, and love.  We want what he has and not just for ourselves, but for everybody.  We realize that we were created to be transparent to God’s love.  That is what it means to be human, to be created in the image of God. 

This is what makes Jesus such a dangerous instigator, the original outside agitator.  In revealing to us our desire, he also reveals the gap between who we wish to be and how we live our lives.  But he doesn’t just leave us there, wallowing in guilt.  He gently whispers, “Follow me.  Don’t stay stuck.  Get a move on.  There are things to do, places to go, people to see.   I’m gonna make you fish for people – and we are going to caste a very wide net indeed.  There really is a much better way to live.”

Once Jesus gets a hold of us, our ordinary lives reveal extraordinary depths.  It isn’t so much the external circumstances that change (although they may; you never know where following Jesus may lead you).  We may see the same people, follow the same routines, punch the same clock, but our attention to the quality of our relationship to these people, places, and things is transformed.  As our desire becomes aligned with God’s will, as our perception of the nearness of God’s kingdom becomes more acute, our transparency to love becomes greater.  On one level, nothing may have changed; yet, everything is different.  Our perception shifts, and our capacity to love grows.

That is what it means to repent:  to change our mind – to expand our conscious awareness – to shift our perception and discover God’s invitations to love in the most unlikely places.  That is the message, but translating it into mission – into action – takes time and practice.  Peter, Andrew, James, and John may have immediately dropped everything to follow Jesus, but the process of transformation they underwent to become like Jesus took a long time.  Meeting Jesus for the first time was just the beginning of a long series of experiments with truth.

Becoming the kind of person we want to be – becoming like Jesus – requires a lot of practice, a lot of mistakes, a series of risks and discoveries that are not always easy or pleasant.  Net fishing – casting a wide net of loving relationships – is hard work.  We need a discipline and a community of disciples to help us along the way.  

In another of their experiments, a small group at Reimagine covenanted together to observe a peculiar kind of fast for forty days.  They abstained from meat – nothing unusual there.  And they agreed to radically limit their use of the Internet.  OK – maybe a bit more of a stretch, but one can see the value in that.  Then, they threw in a really interesting twist:  they agreed to wear only two sets of clothes for those forty days.  

One participant reported that he was grumpy the whole time.  He discovered that he needs an adequate amount of protein in order to love people well.  Sometimes, we need to relearn the simple things, and come to value anew what we too often take for granted.  There are a whole lot of people in the world without adequate protein.  Being able to identify with that that may feel like for a period of time isn’t such a bad thing.

The big struggle for the group, however, was the limited clothing option.  I suspect it was a little humbling to realize how much of our identity is tied up with our self-presentation to the world.  What will people think of me if they see me wearing the same thing day after day?  It was a powerful exercise in discovering how much our sense of value is tied to a cultural script that may have very little to do with the values of the kingdom of God. 

“Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?  Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not of more value than they?  And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?  And why do you worry about clothing?”  - Matthew 6:25b-28a

The way of Jesus is just as relevant today in San Francisco as it was in first century Palestine.  Just wait until you have a fifteen year-old son trying to decide what to wear to school in the morning, and you will get the point. 

The question guiding all these Jesus experiments is simply this:  Am I free to love?  What supports me in my response to the invitations to love?  What risks am I willing to take for the sake of justice, which is the form that love takes in history?  Again, these are not easy questions, but struggling with them is what gives our life meaning and purpose, demanding our most creative efforts to make our life together an enactment of God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.  And it can be a lot of fun.

In another of their creative experiments, Reimagine members had a costume party where they dressed as their shadow self – the part of themselves of which they are ashamed (my favorite was one woman who came as a puppet).  The next week they held another party, this time dressed as the person they wish to become.  They took pictures as icons to remind them of the gap between these images  - a gap inspiring both humility and hope – and to remind them not to take themselves too seriously. 

When Jesus says, “Follow me,” the implication is, “Come out and play.” 

When the church is a community of people helping one another to figure out what it means to follow Jesus, the results are certainly not boring.   Meeting Jesus puts us in touch with the motivation to translate his message into mission – into love in action.  There is vulnerability and risk here.  But there is also a joy and a peace that the world cannot give.  This is what church is for.  Amen.

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