Monday, January 25, 2010

Who is Jesus? – A Letter to a Friend

Dear Friend,

In your last email, you made some theological/christological statements that I would like to address. I think that you and I are, in many ways, in a fairly similar place, and from what I understood of your beliefs, I do not feel the need to “correct” you. I think that you will be led into all truth if you continue to follow the path that you are on – that of opening yourself to God's Spirit and trusting God to guide you in all things, even things that run contrary to your own desires. However, I would like to share with you my own understanding of Christ's Inward Light. This may be at some variance with yours, but perhaps you will hear something in it that you can resonate with and that might be useful for your consideration.

The way I understood what you said, you believe that Jesus was filled with “the Christ,” but that “the Christ” is not specifically identifiable with Jesus of Nazareth. This is a fairly common view among Friends, and it has many things to recommend it. First, it avoids any hint of idolatry. Let's be honest: worshipping Jesus is a really questionable practice. All of our monotheistic heritage teaches us that we are to worship God alone; and things get really complicated when we begin to understand a human being as being not only a human, but as also being God. By saying that Jesus was “full of God” rather than “being himself God,” we avoid getting tangled up in this question. We can affirm the oneness of God and the importance of Jesus as teacher while setting aside any tricky discussions of the “Trinity.”

Another useful thing about this line of thought is that it allows us to emphasize the responsibility of each human being to live up to Jesus' measure. That is, if Jesus was only human – not also God – then there is no doubt that we can, and should, live up to the same standards of holiness that he did. All of us are called to be filled with the Life and Power of Christ, just like Jesus. By removing the “Divine” from “fully human and fully divine,” we can remove any suggestion that Jesus was somehow not normative for human behavior.

Finally, this understanding of God and Jesus is very suitable to a pluralist understanding of world religions. If Jesus was only human – not also God – then it is easier to imagine that other religions might have “gotten it right,” while not necessarily negating the Christian tradition. If Jesus was simply a human who was fully living out God's purpose for humanity, then maybe so was Mohammed; or the Buddha; or Gandhi. The “exemplary human” view of Jesus allows us to disengage from controversial claims of Jesus' uniqueness and focus on the divine potential in all people, culture and religions.

So, I see a lot of really attractive aspects to your view of Jesus as an exemplary human being, full of the “Christ Spirit,” but, ultimately, just an ordinary human being like each of us. I have held this view in the past. However, my understanding of Jesus has since changed.

My experience of Jesus is one of indescribable mystery, and my ability to argue in favor of my understanding of Jesus is weakened by the fact that it is beyond any human comprehension. However, I am convinced that it is the truth. Somehow, the inconceivable happened: God became a human being. My conviction is not that Jesus “lived up to the light that he had”; instead, I understand Jesus as being the Light. When Jesus said, “before Abraham was, I AM,” I do not believe that he was speaking metaphorically. I believe that the same Being that spoke to Moses out of the burning bush was born, lived, and was put to death among the people of ancient Palestine.

And yet, Jesus was also a human being, just like us. What is so incomprehensible in my understanding of Jesus is that I do not simply think that he was some divine avatar, God wrapped in a thin veneer of the human form. Jesus was a human being. Jesus was not just God, he was a man, too. He thirsted, he hungered, he defecated. He suffered humiliation and torture, and he died on the most dreadful instrument of Roman terror, the cross. Jesus was God's Son – a human being, but at the same time, God's very presence on the earth.

It makes no sense. It is indefensible. It is foolishness to the secular and a stumbling block to interfaith dialogue. It is weak in every area where your belief is strong. But I am convinced that it is the truth.
It is humbling to find that my faith is orthodox by historical Christian standards. I never had any particular desire to be orthodox. I have always taken pride in being different. But, here I stand, taking up the faith of the ancient Church, held for thousands of years. I am not original.

What does make our faith different from many Christians today and throughout history is that we are convinced that Christ's presence is not limited to the short period of Jesus' earthly life. We know with certainty that our Lord is indeed risen from the dead and present among us in glory and with power. We can hold our beliefs lightly, because we know that God is so much bigger than our own human understanding. However, even though I see now in a mirror dimly, I believe that I must continue to be a witness to the Truth as it has been revealed in my life – even knowing that I cannot defend it with persuasive arguments. The Truth does not need me to defend it; only to be a witness.

Even so, I would encourage you to re-read the gospel accounts with what I have said in mind. I believe that you will find that Jesus' claims as to his own identity fit more convincingly with an understanding of Jesus as God's Son rather than a view of Jesus as a "completely inspired," but otherwise ordinary human being. I'd be interested to hear how you justify your view based in scriptural interpretation. I do not feel that the Bible "proves" that Jesus is the Son of God; but I do think that it confirms with a written witness the inward reality that I, the early Friends, and the early Church have experienced.

Your friend in Truth,


Saturday, January 16, 2010

Micah's Ministry Newsletter #15 – Young Adult Friends in Baltimore and New York; Christmas in Kansas

Dear Friends,

Greetings to you in the love and peace of Christ Jesus. In the month since my last newsletter, Faith and I have visited Young Adult Friends in Baltimore Yearly Meeting, traveled to Kansas for Christmas and New Year's celebrations, and attended New York Yearly Meeting's Circle of Young Friends, in western New York state. In our travels, we have felt blessed by an abiding sense of God's love in our lives, and we have sensed that God is at work through us.

Just before Christmas, Faith and I were able to attend the Baltimore Yearly Meeting Young Adult Friends retreat. The weekend event was held at Stony Run's meetinghouse, in the city of Baltimore. We camped out in sleeping bags throughout the building, cooked in Stony Run's large kitchen, and watched as a blizzard covered the Mid-Atlantic in a thick blanket of snow. It was good to connect with Friends from BYM that we had known before, and to make new connections. We spoke to the group about the upcoming YAF gathering in May, and we hope that many of them will decide to make the journey to Wichita.

Just a couple of days later, we were on a plane out to Wichita, to spend Christmas and New Years' with my family. Being back home for the holidays was a real change of pace. I don't think that I had relaxed so much in at least two years. My first instinct is to say, "I did nothing," for a week and a half. But, the truth is that I did quite a bit; but none of it was work. My brother gave me a guitar, and I began to teach myself how to play; I read several books and watched several movies; and I got to have some important time with my parents, who I don't see very often anymore. It was blessed time.

Returning to Washington, though, I had a tough time getting back into my normal routine of ongoing, purposeful work. I felt very behind, having set everything aside for almost two weeks. I felt somewhat adrift after such a long stretch of fallow time. Fortunately, I would soon be given the opportunity to re-engage.

This past weekend, Faith and I drove up to the Beloved Community House, near Ithaca, New York, to attend the New York Yearly Meeting Circle of Young Friends retreat. The Beloved Community House is the site of NYYM's new Young Friends in Residence program, which consists of three (eventually, four) Young Adult Friends who are released by their Quarterly Meeting to live together in intentional spiritual community. The biggest piece of their service to area Friends will be developing and sustaining a Quaker youth program, focusing on middle school and high school aged youth. This program will be modeled to a great degree on the programs of Powell House, but will also develop its own distinctive characteristics as Friends discover the particular needs and gifts of Friends in their region.

We spent the weekend in the house with around thirty other young adult Quakers, guided by Christopher Sammond in a program of listening deeply and intentionally opening ourselves to the Divine. Some of the young people present were not comfortable with the word "God," let alone a Christian understanding of God; however, over the course of the weekend, many hearts were touched by God's Spirit, and great advances were made by the Truth.

The joy of God's presence was palpable among us, and though not all of us acknowledged God in Christian – or even theistic – terms, it was clear to me that we were indeed sharing in communion with Christ through His Holy Spirit. The outpouring of Christ's Spirit that came over us created a space for me to share about the Gospel with a number of individuals, and I was grateful to have a number of those attending approach me and thank me for my presence and contribution during the weekend. One young Friend expressed his thankfulness that I was there to express our experience in Christian terms, “which we in New York Yearly Meeting often shy away from.”

When we talked to Friends in New York about the YAF gathering in May, we received a very energetic and enthusiastic response. One Friend's first reaction was to say, “I can fit seven people in my Suburban – let's go!” By the time the retreat was over, there was some talk of whether it might be a good idea to rent a bus. Faith and I were amazed and grateful for the energy and tenderness of spirit that we experienced with these Young Adult Friends. We look forward to seeing many of them in Wichita, in May.

Finally, this Wednesday, Capitol Hill Friends had its first meeting for worship in 2010. We had a good turnout, with nine people showing up for dinner, Scripture reading, singing, and waiting worship. I feel very heartened at the way that the group is developing, and I believe that a core is starting to emerge. I encourage any of you who are able to make it to our worship to attend, and we would be very grateful to host traveling ministers who feel a burden for building up the Church. Come, and share the Gospel with us! Whether or not you are able to visit us, please pray that God will build us up numerically and spiritually as we dedicate ourselves to the work that the Lord has for us in the city of Washington.

I pray that God bless each of you with an abiding sense of Christ's presence within you, leading you to boldness and freedom in the Truth.

Your friend in our brother Jesus,

Micah Bales