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366 Daily Inspirations from a Fellow Pilgrim
By Philip Yancey
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2009 Someone Cares Charitable Trust
All rights reserved.
Step back for a moment and contemplate God's point of view. A spirit unbound by time and space, God had borrowed material objects now and then — a burning bush, a pillar of fire — to make an obvious point on planet Earth. Each time, God adopted the object in order to convey a message and then moved on. In Jesus, something new happened: God became one of the planet's creatures, an event unparalleled, unheard-of, unique in the fullest sense of the word.
The God who fills the universe imploded to become a peasant baby who, like every infant who has ever lived, had to learn to walk and talk and dress himself. In the incarnation, God's Son deliberately "handicapped" himself, exchanging omniscience for a brain that learned Aramaic phoneme by phoneme, omnipresence for two legs and an occasional donkey, omnipotence for arms strong enough to saw wood but too weak for self-defense. Instead of overseeing a hundred billion galaxies at once, he looked out on a narrow alley in Nazareth, a pile of rocks in the Judean desert, or a crowded street of Jerusalem.
Because of Jesus we need never question God's desire for intimacy. Does God really want close contact with us? Jesus gave up Heaven for it. In person he reestablished the original link between God and human beings, between seen and unseen worlds.
In a fine analogy, H. Richard Niebuhr likened the revelation of God in Christ to the Rosetta stone. Before its discovery scholars could only guess at the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphics. One unforgettable day they uncovered a dark stone that rendered the same text in three different languages. By comparing the translations side by side, they mastered hieroglyphics and could now see clearly into a world they had known only in a fog.
Niebuhr goes on to say that Jesus allows us to "reconstruct our faith." We can trust God because we trust Jesus. If we doubt God, or find him incomprehensible, unknowable, the very best cure is to gaze steadily at Jesus, the Rosetta stone of faith.
Magnifying Glass of Faith
I also envision Jesus as the "magnifying glass" of my faith, a phrase that needs some explanation. I am the proud owner of The Oxford English Dictionary, which contains every word in the English language. By joining a book club, I obtained a special one-volume edition for only $39.95. It contains the full text of the dictionary, with the one drawback of typesetting shrunken so small that no one on earth can read it unaided. Next, I purchased a splendid magnifying glass — the kind jewelers use, the size of a dinner plate, mounted on a swivel arm. With that, and the occasional assistance of another, hand-held magnifying glass, I can pore over the shades of meaning of any word in English.
I have learned about magnifying glasses, using my dictionary. When I train the glass on a word, the tiny print shows up crisp and clear in the center, or focal point, while around the edges it grows progressively distorted. In an exact parallel, Jesus has become the focal point of my faith, and increasingly I am learning to keep the magnifying glass of my faith focused on Jesus. In my spiritual journey as well as in my writing career I have long lingered in the margins, pondering unanswerable questions about the problem of pain, the conundrums of prayer, providence versus free will, and other such matters. When I do so, everything becomes fuzzy. Looking at Jesus, however, restores clarity.
I admit that many standard Christian doctrines bother me. What about hell? What of those who die without ever hearing about Jesus? I fall back on the response of Bishop Ambrose, mentor of Augustine, who was asked on his deathbed whether he feared facing God at judgment. "We have a good Master," Ambrose replied with a smile. I learn to trust God with my doubts and struggles by getting to know Jesus. If that sounds evasive, I suggest it accurately reflects the centrality of Jesus in the New Testament. We start with him as the focal point and let our eyes wander with care into the margins.
By looking at Jesus, I gain insight into how God feels about what goes on down here. Jesus expresses the essence of God in a way that we cannot misconstrue.
God Came Close
What difference did Jesus make? Both for God and for us, he made possible an intimacy that had never before existed. In the Old Testament, Israelites who touched the sacred Ark of the Covenant fell down dead; but people who touched Jesus, the Son of God in flesh, came away healed. To Jews who would not pronounce or even spell out the letters in God's name, Jesus taught a new way of addressing God: Abba, or "Daddy." In Jesus, God came close.
Augustine's Confessions describes how this closeness affected him. From Greek philosophy he had learned about a perfect, timeless, incorruptible God, but he could not fathom how an oversexed, undisciplined person like himself could relate to such a God. He tried various heresies of the day and found them all unsatisfying, until he met at last the Jesus of the Gospels, a bridge between ordinary human beings and a perfect God.
The book of Hebrews explores this startling new advance in intimacy. First the author elaborates on what was required just to approach God in Old Testament times. Only once a year, on the Day of Atonement — Yom Kippur — could one person, the high priest, enter the Most Holy Place. The ceremony involved ritual baths, special clothing, and five separate animal sacrifices; and still the priest entered the Most Holy Place in fear. He wore bells on his robe and a rope around his ankle so that if he died and the bells stopped ringing, other priests could pull out his body.
Hebrews draws the vivid contrast: we can now "approach the throne of grace with confidence," without fear. Charging boldly into the Most Holy Place — no image could hold more shock value for Jewish readers. Yet at the moment of Jesus' death, a thick curtain inside the temple literally ripped in two from top to bottom, breaking open the Most Holy Place. Therefore, concludes Hebrews, "Let us draw near to God."
Jesus contributes at least this to the problem of disappointment with God: because of him, we can come to God directly. We need no human mediator, for God's own self became one.
How would Jesus have scored on a personality profile test?
The personality that emerges from the Gospels differs radically from the image of Jesus I grew up with, an image I now recognize in some of the older Hollywood films about Jesus. In those films, Jesus recites his lines evenly and without emotion. He strides through life as the one calm character among a cast of flustered extras. Nothing rattles him. He dispenses wisdom in flat, measured tones. He is, in short, the Prozac Jesus.
In contrast, the Gospels present a man who has such charisma that people will sit three days straight, with empty stomachs, just to hear his riveting words. He seems excitable, impulsively "moved with compassion" or "filled with pity." The Gospels reveal a range of Jesus' emotional responses: sudden sympathy for a person with leprosy, exuberance over his disciples' successes, a blast of anger at cold-hearted legalists, grief over an unreceptive city, and then those awful cries of anguish in Gethsemane and on the cross.
I once attended a men's movement retreat designed to help men "get in touch with their emotions" and break out of restrictive stereotypes of masculinity. As I listened to other men tell of their struggles to express themselves and to experience true intimacy, I realized that Jesus lived out an ideal for masculine fulfillment that nineteen centuries later still eludes most men. Three times, at least, he cried in front of his disciples. He did not hide his fears or hesitate to ask for help: "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death," he told them in Gethsemane; "Stay here and keep watch with me." How many strong leaders today would make themselves so vulnerable?
Jesus quickly established intimacy with the people he met. Whether talking with a woman at a well, a religious leader in a garden, or a fisherman by a lake, he cut instantly to the heart of the matter, and soon these people revealed to Jesus their innermost secrets. Jesus drew out a hunger so deep that people crowded around him just to touch his clothes.
Seeing Upside Down
Taking God's assignment seriously means that I must learn to look at the world upside down, as Jesus did. Instead of seeking out people who stroke my ego, I find those whose egos need stroking; instead of important people with resources who can do me favors, I find people with few resources; instead of the strong, I look for the weak; instead of the healthy, the sick. Is not this how God reconciles the world to himself? Did Jesus not insist that he came for the sinners and not the righteous, for the sick and not the healthy?
The founder of the L'Arche homes for the mentally disabled, Jean Vanier, says that people often look upon him as mad. The brilliantly educated son of a governor general of Canada, he recruits skilled workers (Henri Nouwen was one) to serve and live among damaged people. Vanier shrugs off those who second-guess his choices by saying he would rather be crazy by following the foolishness of the gospel than the nonsense of the values of our world. Furthermore, Vanier insists that those who serve the deformed and damaged benefit as much as the ones whom they are helping. Even the most disabled individuals respond instinctively to love, and in so doing they awaken what is most important in a human being: compassion, generosity, humility, love. Paradoxically, they replenish life in the very helpers who serve them.
In India I have worshiped among leprosy patients. Most of the medical advances in the treatment of leprosy came about as a result of missionary doctors, who alone were willing to live among patients and risk exposure to study the dreaded disease. As a result, Christian churches thrive in most major leprosy centers.
In Myanmar, I have visited homes for AIDS orphans, where Christian volunteers try to replace parental affection the disease has stolen away. In Jean Vanier's center in Toronto, I have watched a scholarly priest lavish daily care on a middle-aged man so mentally handicapped that he could not speak a word. The most rousing church ser vices I have attended took place in Chile and Peru, in the bowels of a federal prison. Among the lowly, the wretched, the downtrodden, the rejects, God's kingdom takes root.
Overwhelmed by how many people the church never touched, Marcel Roussel began work in 1949 amid the poverty and despair of post-war France. He concluded that the church could not merely wait, but rather must actively pursue people of need, especially in the workplace. Had not Jesus served as a carpenter and Paul as a tentmaker? "Everywhere," concluded Roussel, "in prisons, hotels and work sites, we can help reestablish a dialogue with God." He recruited a group of young women known as Missionary Workers for just that purpose.
At first the Missionary Workers took jobs in factories and came together only for prayer and study. But within a few years Father Roussel envisioned a restaurant where the Missionary Workers would live and "shine as a light to the world."
The first such restaurant, L'Eau Vive, opened in Belgium in 1960. Its success soon led to others, including the Agua Viva in Lima, Peru, where I dined on a visit in 1987.
Agua Viva soon began to attract the wealthy and powerful of Lima. Only a few clues announce to the visitor the restaurant's spiritual intent. The inside cover of the menu proclaims "Jesus lives! For this we are happy." And each evening at 10:30 the waitresses appear together to sing a vespers hymn for their patrons.
Besides these clues, says Sister Marie, the work itself should stand as a witness. "Don't ask us how our prayer life is going; look at our food. Is your plate clean and artfully arranged? Does your server treat you with kindness and love? Do you experience serenity here? If so, then we are serving God."
In the spirit of Brother Lawrence, the workers cook, wait on tables, scrub floors, worship, all to the glory of God. But the Missionary Workers have introduced a modern twist: they proffer gourmet meals in order to serve the poor of Lima.
Later that day, mothers from the slums of Lima will fill the same elegant room for classes on basic hygiene, child-raising, and physical and spiritual health. Once off duty in the restaurant, all staff members devote themselves to the poor, carrying out social programs that are funded by profits from the restaurant.
Getting a Life
The glory of God is a person fully alive," said the second-century theologian Irenaeus. Sadly, that description does not reflect the image many people have of modern Christians. Rightly or wrongly, they see us rather as restrained, uptight, repressed — people less likely to celebrate vitality than to wag our fingers in disapproval.
Where did Christians get the reputation as life-squelchers instead of life-enhancers?
Jesus himself promised, "I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly." What keeps us from realizing that abundant life?
Author Frederick Buechner decided once to turn his literary skills to exploring the lives of saints. The first three he chose — Brendan, Godric, and the biblical Jacob — surprised him, for the more he researched them, the more skeletons in the closet he uncovered. What made this unsavory trio saintly? he asked himself. He finally settled on the word "life-giver." Passionate, risk-taking, courageous, each of the three made those around him feel more alive, not less.
When I heard Buechner give that definition of saintliness, I thought immediately of my friend Bob. His parents worried about his spiritual state, concerned that he was spending too little time "in the Word" and in church. But I have never met anyone more fully alive. He took in stray animals, did carpentry chores for friends, climbed mountains, sky-dived, learned to cook, built his own house. Although Bob rarely used religious words, I noticed that everyone around him, including me, felt more alive after spending time with him. He radiated the kind of pleasure in the world of matter that God must feel. By Buechner's definition, at least, Bob was a saint.
I have known other life-giving Christians. A devout Presbyterian named Jack McConnell invented the Tine test for tuberculosis, helped develop Tylenol and MRI imaging, and then devoted his retirement to recruiting retired physicians to staff free medical clinics for the poor. Overseas I have met missionaries who repair their own vehicles, master several languages, study the local flora and fauna, and give shots if no doctor is available. Often these life-givers have difficulty finding a comfortable fit in staid American churches. Paradoxically, the life-givers I have known seem most abundant with life themselves.
World's Hardest Profession
I once had dinner in an Amish home where I heard about their unusual procedure for choosing a pastor. In that part of the country few Amish acquire education beyond the eighth grade, and almost none have theological training. The entire congregation votes for any male members who show pastoral potential, and those who receive at least three votes move forward to sit at a table. Each has a hymn book in front of him, and inside his randomly chosen hymn book one of the men finds a card designating him as the new pastor. For the next year he gets to preach two sermons a week, averaging ninety minutes in length.
"What if the person selected doesn't feel qualified?" I asked my Amish friend. He looked puzzled, then replied, "If he did feel qualified, we wouldn't want him. We want a humble man, one who looks to God."
I don't recommend the Amish method of pastoral call (though it does have intriguing parallels with the Old Testament system of drawing lots), but his last comment got me thinking. Thomas Merton once said that most of what we expect pastors and priests to do — teach and advise others, console them, pray for them — should in fact be the responsibility of the rest of the congregation.
In our modern fixation with job descriptions and career competency, do we neglect the most important qualification of a pastor, the need to know God? I recall that the Hindu Gandhi, leader of half a billion people, even in the heat of negotiations over independence refused to compromise his principle of observing every Monday as a day of silence. He believed failure to honor that day of spiritual nourishment would make him less effective throughout the other six days.
Excerpted from Grace Notes by Philip Yancey. Copyright © 2009 Someone Cares Charitable Trust. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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