Spirituality

A few Thoughts on Communion

Honest admission: Communion has never really… clicked for me. I sit there on Sundays and try to really think about it or feel the gratitude I know I should and usually wind up drawing a bit of a blank. Recognizing and reflecting on Jesus’ sacrifice through a physical act is all well and good, but for some reason the symbolism hasn’t ever had much impact. And it should! The strangeness, the enormity of the thing; the incredible, voluntary suffering of God should feel like a big deal. God found a way to offer us salvation despite our obstinacy and unwillingness to love and honor him. Can I better grasp the sacrifice itself? Can I feel it more deeply?

I recently heard an interesting comparison worth sharing. I can’t seem to find the source for this sacrifice analogy but in it humanity is likened to a human body with a faulty heart that needs a transplant. Jesus offers his at the cost of his own life. I kind of like that, but the question it doesn’t address for me is this one:  Does Jesus’ resurrection make his sacrifice less meaningful?

After some reading and thinking, I don’t think so. The greater our love for our loved ones, the greater our pain when they are hurting, making terrible choices, dying. If God’s love for humanity and Jesus is not only great, but perfect, perhaps his suffering is that much more agonizing, whether temporary or not. The same might be said of Jesus.

Another interesting idea is that the way we understand sacrifice today is different from its biblical meaning. We seem very focused on suffering when we talk about sacrifice, but maybe it isn’t about how much Jesus suffered or even IF he suffered. Scripture tells us that he did (Heb 2:18, Mat. 27: 46, Mat. 26:36-39), and I believe that DOES make a difference, but should it affect our view of the validity of his sacrifice? In the Old Testament, it doesn’t seem that a sacrifice is more or less effective based on the level of suffering. Sacrificing to God means to me that we present something valuable to him, saying in our hearts, “yes, this thing is important to me, but I can give it up, offering it to you as an expression of my gratitude for your love and because I know that YOU are greater. I have faith that if I surrender to you, you will do more for me and through me than this ever could.” So Jesus offered his blood, simply because that is what God said it would take and because he understood the greater benefit.

Another way of thinking about it is in terms of WHO did the sacrificing. We always talk about Jesus being the one who made the sacrifice. And that is true, according to the Bible. He offered himself. BUT – he did it on our behalf. Usually, I understand that to mean that he died for our sakes.’ Also accurate, but I think there is more we can infer from that.  Let’s consider the necessary players in a typical, Old Testament-style sacrifice.

  1. People – gotta have a sacrifice-or
  2. Lamb (as an example) – gotta have a payment
  3. God – gotta have a sacrifice-ee (someone to whom payment is owed)

So, how do we apply this format to Christ’s sacrifice? When we say he did what he did on our behalf, he took on the roles of both sacrifice-or AND lamb.  Christ gave himself over at the betrayal and urging of the people. But if he had not willingly gone to the cross, and the people still executed him, the only motives would have been those of the people and the desires of their hearts were not good, faithful or God-seeking. Could God have honored such a sacrifice? I don’t mean to limit his power at all here, but I don’t think so. I think it is against his nature and innate purity to accept anything so unclean (Gen. 4:7).  But the offering Jesus made was pure and right.

Another few thoughts on communion: We see god “eating” in Exodus, too, but in very different context. When Moses comes down from the mountain after receiving instruction from God only to find the people worshipping an idol, he has the idol crushed and the people ingest it (Ex. 32:20). They are, essentially, eating their sin. It is an interesting parallel to think that we practice God eating when we take communion, too. Jesus’ body was broken and his blood shed because we broke it and spilled it.  So when we take communion, perhaps we should reflect on the fact that our God is powerful enough to use even our most terrible evil to ultimately deliver us from it. God worked our sin for good so that we may truly “commune” with him. That is true sovereignty.

Romans 8:28: And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.

***Please don’t hesitate to point out any faulty presuppositions or errors you may notice! I would love to hear from you.

Spirituality

An Odd God

No one around me seems confused by the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. But I am. I can’t put my finger on it, but there is this big SOMETHING that bothers me about it; or at least about the way we Christians interpret it. I’ve always attended traditional protestant churches. Every year we try to get in touch with the enormity of the sacrifice and subsequent miracle. Every year, we fail to feel the appropriate impact. I could segway into a post about desensitization here, but while that might be relevant, it isn’t what I’m getting at. Maybe the reason we can’t fully appreciate the death and resurrection is because we can’t fully understand it.

I really think that God is downright odd! I mean, he’s known our hearts from the very beginning, knew we would not choose him, knew we would require intervention and salvation. And yet, it had to be thousands of years after the fall, had to be complicated and involve things like prophesy and bloodlines… it seems so strange.

And in terms of sacrifice, well, God didn’t walk away empty-handed. I frequently hear people say that Jesus did what he did for our sakes. I think that is true, but not the whole story. Is God’s joy not affected by the joy of his creation? As a parent, I feel joy when my child feels joy and pain when she feels pain. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that, but it does have an element of selfishness. I want to make her happy, in part because it makes me happy. I don’t want her to suffer, in part because I feel that, too. Is our idea of selflessness skewed? Maybe the focus should be on doing the will of God and focusing on the needs of others because that is the only way our own joy can be fully realized. And that is showing true gratitude to God. If he feels joy when I do, then I should do what I can to be genuinely happy. “Love thy neighbor as thyself” is a commandment that is interesting in this context. We always emphasize the neighbor, but how many of us can say we love and value ourselves in a pure and right way?

I can’t tell you exactly why I believe (although I’m working on that) in the literal death and resurrection of Jesus, but I do. I believe that miracle is the reason humanity can have hope. I know people have tried to explain it metaphorically, but that really makes no sense to me at all. I used to think I had a brain that could handle abstract concepts, but lately they elude me. 🙂

So, I do think it’s possible our Lenten and Easter traditions miss the mark a bit. I also think that perhaps there is a big picture element here we can’t see; but I am still full of gratitude and awe. And the mystery only deepens my ever-present desire to know and understand my creator.

 

 

Spirituality

Everywhichway

It has been quite a while since I last posted to the blog… too long. I know because my brain is swimming in idea snippets. I’ve been having some trouble deciding which one deserves my focus today, and confession: I still don’t know. I’m hoping that it will just magically come together. 🙂

Looking for a job has got me a little distracted and little stressed. It isn’t so much the thought of returning to work that bothers me, but the idea of leaving my daughter in daycare. It seems terribly unfair to me that my child should spend the vast majority of her waking hours with people other than her family. I know that lots of people can relate!

I’ve prayed for guidance, but not perhaps in the right way. I want God to reveal a clear path, neon arrows flashing. But I haven’t really been watching and listening for him.

Between illness and trying to corral my little girl during the service, this morning’s sermon was the first one I’ve heard in a while.  One of the members of our congregation delivered the message. He talked a little bit about his personal struggle to make God the focus of his life and ministry. It was very easy to relate. In my recent parenting and financial endeavors, my focus has been on the distractions at hand. I throw some prayers in there, but I’ve just realized that I’ve been praying with a closed mind. There are certain directions I don’t think I want to go, so even though those possibilities are on the edge of my consciousness, I’ve been refusing to really examine them. So… how to fix this?

I struggle a lot with the practical application of the adage “just give it to God.” It sounds really nice, but honestly, it never seems doable. The whole idea speaks to a certain undercurrent in Christianity; this notion that Jesus’ death somehow made things easier and absolved us of our responsibility. All you have to do is believe in Jesus. But what does that entail? Grace and forgiveness are very real, but Jesus asks a lot from us. Continual commitment of body, mind and soul is… well… the hardest thing ever.

So giving this decision up, saying that I’m willing to do whatever God asks of me, is NOT easy. The fact is, I still have to listen, decide and move in a certain direction. It isn’t like giving the decision about what we’re going to eat tonight to my husband, so that I can kick back and take a nap. No, giving something to God isn’t about making life easier, necessarily; it’s about a willingness to go where you’re led, and remain steadfast, working to accomplish what you think God wants from you because you know it’s the right thing.

Wish me luck.. and maybe throw in a prayer! 🙂 Happy Sunday!

1 Corinthians 15:58 “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

 

 

 

Spirituality

Reflections on the Nature of Empathy

I am sick. It is miserable. But it has got me mulling over a few thoughts that I actually have fairly often about the nature of empathy. When someone I know is sick, I might say, “Oh, I’m so sorry. Hope you feel better soon.” And I am sorry. I don’t want them to be sick. But why not? I don’t know that it is possible to separate how much of that feeling is real sorrow for their sake and how much is selfish. It is probably true that I’ve been there before and know, at least to certain point, what they are going through. But is that empathy? There is a certain removal or detachment when you hear about someone’s misfortune and you yourself are not at that moment experiencing it.

And sometimes I think it is possible to feel greater empathy for someone going through something you haven’t experienced. Because experiencing something desensitizes you, too. For example, I’ve had a bad cold before. In the moment, when I’m stuffed up and nauseous and feverish it feels… just awful. I can’t remove myself from it. But when my husband gets the same cold and I’m over it, I know it isn’t the end of the world. I might even feel (I know this is terrible) irritated. However, when my sister was diagnosed with cancer, something I’ve never been through, the magnitude of my feeling was overwhelming. Yes, I know these two situations are not comparable, but the thought of her facing the pain of treatment and possibly even death was incredibly scary, partly because of the… mystery, for lack of a better word. I am NOT saying I felt what she felt, but could the depth of feeling, the intensity, the not-knowing, actually have been greater for those of us that hadn’t been there than it would have been for, say, other cancer survivors? Maybe their perspective was more constructive, they certainly understood the situation with greater specificity, but perhaps making it through cancer causes you to look at it from a new angle. When you think you know what someone is going through because you’ve been there, it might seem less earth-shattering.

Another comparison might be the way some people can feel more moved by the plight of an abused animal than by a fellow-human. We don’t know exactly what the animal feels. They can’t tell us, which makes their suffering somehow more poignant.

Language and communication are funny things. We spend so much time on them, but words are seldom sufficient to convey emotion or physical pain. I might feel badly if no one makes an effort to comfort me, but when they do their well-intentioned remarks often fall flat. And not through any fault of their own! I can think of many personal examples. When my sister (different sister) died, my friends and co-workers were supportive and sympathetic. Most hadn’t been through that kind of loss, so the shock and dismay they felt on my behalf probably came closer to the actual feeling of loss I experienced right when I heard than someone who’d been through it before. None of them though, had any idea what the nature of our relationship was, so they couldn’t understand how I really felt. Just the way it goes.

Maybe these words belie whatever knowledge of suffering I think I have. If I seem insensitive, I apologize!

I was going to try to examine my feelings about the humanity of Jesus in terms of empathy, but I don’t have the energy and this post got much longer than I intended! I’ve probably thoroughly confused you if you’ve made it this far anyway. Suffice it to say, the deepest comfort, the deepest feeling of understanding I ever feel does not come from other people but from the wordless moments I spend with God.

Matthew 11:28-30: Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Romans 8:26: Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.

Spirituality

Is God’s Love Warm and Fuzzy?

I’m reading slowly, but I have started the first chapter of Four Views on Salvation in a  Pluralistic World. The first essayist (John Hick) believes that salvation can be achieved through religions other than Christianity. Hick’s background is in conservative Christianity. He went to seminary and preached for many years before embracing his current, more liberal views. Some of his sentiments echo those I encountered while reading about Universalism; the belief that all people will eventually (before death or after) be saved. Hick raises a few good questions, but it seems to me that the primary problem that traditional Christianity fails to address for so many people is the problem of evil. How could a good and loving God allow good and moral people who perhaps simply didn’t understand the Christian perspective to suffer eternally?

That’s a problem for me, too. I do not buy the explanation that God offers all the opportunity to come to Jesus… at least not in the narrow way that some Christians seem to define it. If I am to accept traditional Christianity, I have to believe that God reveals Jesus in different ways to different people. I am lucky, though. My experiences of God have led me to trust in his goodness and I don’t feel at all called to worry about the eternal souls of my fellow-humans. I can only share my experience, pray, and try to live in a way that reflects my faith… after that, it isn’t up to me.

That said, I still don’t feel at peace with my understanding of hell. As I’ve mulled this question over for the last few months, a few different verses having nothing at all to do with one another keep coming to mind. And perhaps they support the liberal views about which I’m reading.

The verses are listed below, but here’s my question: Could God’s love actually be the instrument of our torment? If in fact we cannot be separated from the love of God, even in hell (Psalms 139:7-8), then perhaps feeling God’s eternal love for us when we are not reconciled to him is incredibly painful. I would compare it to the concept in Romans 12:20; if we show our enemies kindness, perhaps the pain it causes them will result in their repentance. We don’t cause them pain to effect revenge, but to show our love. But this begs the question: Can we be made right with God from hell? Psalms 86:13 could be interpreted differently, but I think it speaks to the possibility.

What do you think? Am I way off base?

Psalm 139: 7-8: Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!

Romans 12:20: To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Ps. 86:13: For great is your steadfast love toward me; you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.

Romans 8:38-39: For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

 

Spirituality

Specifically Vague

Two blogs in one day!! I think this is a first.

I just finished the introduction to a book that a fellow-blogger recommended (her blog is excellent: http://lightenough.wordpress.com/) and I am really very excited about it! I anticipate lots of blog-fodder from this one. 🙂 It is called Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World. Four essayists present their theologies, the others respond, and then the original essayists get to respond to the responses. Got all that? It sounds like the views presented range from strict and literal adherence to scripture (salvation is through Christ and only Christ and Christians must evangelize) to broad and inclusive theology where everyone gets a golden ticket.

It’s got me thinking about where I stand (again) and I’ve decided to make this a small blog project. Below is my current and extremely brief stance on salvation insofar as I actually know what I believe. After I’ve finished reading the book, I will re-post it and let you know if my opinion has changed.

I believe in the divinity of Jesus. I believe that he removed the obstacles between us and God; that because he came, we can hope for ultimate peace. HOWEVER, I also believe that loving “…the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength”, and loving”…your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:30-31) is entirely possible without knowing Jesus and God the same way I do. Even the more specific verses that indicate that Jesus is the only way to God don’t specify every single way in which someone can come to Jesus. Although I have more research to do, I also am leaning toward the view that Jesus’ death on the cross was retroactive. In other words, those that died before Christ could still come to God through him.

There are lots of blanks there, I know. Hell, for example, is a topic I can’t even begin to touch right now. I’ll keep you posted!