Monday, March 2, 2015

Where's Jesus?

You've seen those children's books in which the challenge is to find the small, distinctive figure of Waldo in a highly-detailed, colourful illustration filled with dozens and dozens of people doing various activities. It's not as easy as it seems.  Following Jesus can be a bit like this sometimes, in my opinion. Jesus can be difficult to recognize in challenging, complex life situations that buzz with activity.

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On a recent vacation to Mexico, Dean and I visited Chichen Itza, the most famous of the ancient Mayan ruins sites. Our tour guides informed us that the first century Mayan religion was characterized by the worship of multiple nature gods (snake, jaguar, sun, rain, corn, etc.). This highly sophisticated civilization established one of the first written languages, developed complex mathematics (including the concept of zero), engaged in elaborate astrological calculations pinpointing the equinoxes and planetary orbits, and built some of the most elaborate temples and structures all without metal tools of any sort. One of the most disturbing features of the Mayan religion was the incorporation of human sacrifice as a way of appeasing the gods and ensuring good crops. The clever incorporation of numerology, symbolism, and religious ritual in all their structures reveals an incredibly intricate system which fused astronomy, mathematics, agriculture, politics, sociology, and superstition in an effort to bring harmony between deities and humans and guarantee prosperity and longevity.

The crumbling buildings testify to the futility of it all. I found Chichen Itza to be a bit of a dark place, a sad place, a hopeless place. A place where it was hard to see Jesus. One of the most complex, sophisticated religious systems in human history could not save itself or its people. No amount of blood-letting, sacrifice, religious ritual, or human ingenuity could bring about the desired peace and prosperity.

The day after we returned from Mexico, I heard someone quoting from a book by Jack Klumpenhower entitled Show Them Jesus: Teaching the Gospel to Kids. It brought my experience at Chichen Itza into perspective by showing me my own depraved tendency (as a teacher and budding theologian) to construct a moral system for others to follow instead of simply inviting them to an encounter with Jesus. I have not yet read the book myself, so let me offer a quote from the book cited in a review.

Typical religion is about doing what your god or gods require; it's following your beliefs and methods to achieve some goal or approval ... Let's  face it: Christianity is often packaged this way. Live a good life and things will go well for you. Find the right spiritual resources and you'll be blessed. Ask Jesus into your heart and you'll be saved. This is why many people say all religions are the same. In some sense, they're right. But Jesus didn't bring typical religion. He brought good news... The principle [of news] is, "Here's what happened, and it will change your life." News is not what you do, it's what someone else has done that affects you. The good news means you relate to God based on what Jesus has done for you, not what you've done to prove yourself worthy. If you are a believer, the good news says that God already accepts you fully - he's adopted you as his child - because you're joined to Jesus, who died on the cross for you. Yes, believing this means a changed life. Flat out. You'll have a hungry, iron grip on Jesus. You'll run after him forcefully. But you'll do it because you rest in him. All your effort to obey will be a response to what he's already done, never a performance to win his favor. There's no need for such scheming. No pressure. No false fronts.

The typical lesson for kids isn't like this. Instead, it tends to be what mine were for years - little more than a lecture about some way you ought to live for God. Such lessons create pressure and invite pretending. We've been dispensing good advice instead of good news. Eventually, kids will tire of our advice, no matter how good it might be. We'll wonder why they've rejected the good news, because we assumed they were well grounded in it. In fact, they never were. Although we told stories of Jesus and his free grace, we watered it down with self-effort - and that's what they heard.

The reviewer goes on to say that outward obedience without heart change is dangerous. Ouch! This is pretty much the same thing Jesus is saying in Luke 11 when he rebukes the religious leaders because of their fastidious attention to rituals and laws and their neglect to the things that really matter: justice and the love of God.

I believe one of the reasons why it was hard for me to see Jesus at Chichen Itza and why it is challenging to recognize Jesus in different situations in my life is because I am too preoccupied with other sights and sounds. My vision can be overwhelmed by darkness or confusion. My sight can be obscured by the values of this present culture. My mind can be distracted by the tasks that are always demanding my attention. My view can be distorted by mixed motives in my own heart and in the hearts of those around me, especially those whom I respect. And I can be blind because Jesus is often disguised in humble form, many times in my very own brokenness.

Like the blind man in Mark 8, I need Jesus to touch my eyes so that I can see him. I need a community of friends who will point me in Jesus' direction and who will approach Jesus on my behalf (intercede for me). I need to let Jesus take me away from the crowd. I want to let Jesus touch me in whatever way he chooses (even spit in my eyes). I want to let Jesus control the process of healing, learning, and transformation and not become demanding or impatient. I want to learn to stay with Jesus and let him touch me again and again and again until I can see him clearly.

Where's Jesus? Let me quote part of the prayer known as the Breastplate of St. Patrick.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me
Christ on my right, Christ on my left
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit, Christ when I stand
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me
Christ in every eye that sees me
Christ in every ear that hears me

This is my prayer today.