By Dave Hughes
All of us face the same human dilemma. We all exist in this world with a neurological contraption inside our skull that allows us to be conscious. Allows us to be alive. To exist. We find ourselves within a body, able to experience the physical world, to sit back and reflect on it and have all of these dramas that we face through the course of our own personal histories.
We exist! What a mind-blowing phenomenon. Regardless of your stance on the existence of God or other kinds of beliefs, our shared experience of human existence is a case for wonder, for awe, even for gratefulness that we can experience this at all.
But this experience does beg the question: What do we exist for? Why do we have the capacity to think, reflect, to will and desire? What is the meaning of life? With this existence that we have, we then have to figure out what we’re going to do with it – what an enormous challenge.
It’s a confronting picture isn’t it? No wonder so many of us face all kinds of crises of meaning that gather at the very core of our identities. And whilst the cultural, academic elites of our day may think that religion, god, transcendence, and even Jesus has no significance in our world, they still can’t solve the problem of existence and all of the symptoms and challenges that come with it. And it’s into this space, this question, this conundrum, that the way of Jesus can speak most loudly and profoundly.
Lost in Translation
But often it doesn’t sound like it does it? Often when we hear the stories of Jesus or talk of God or even talk of transcendence or something greater or bigger, it can often feel a little jarring.
Language is a funny thing that in-groups use to make sense of their existence to each other. But we need to be careful not to just write something off – a way of thinking, being, living, seeing, just because it’s not the same language that our culture and in-group use, the kind of language that seems meaningful to us because of our culture. When you look into it, the language and imagery that Jesus used had very profound connotations in the day and age that he lived, but it’s meaning that often gets lost in translation. There is a need for us to translate the language of first century Roman, Jewish culture into a contemporary Western variant to feel the full force of the meaning of the Jesus way. There is even a need for us as a collective to do some translation even from Bruxy’s Meeting House Canadian context. And you’ll see that today.
Once we do the translation of the meaning of Jesus and even survey the history of the best ideas that humanity have ever brought to the problem of human existence, I think you’ll begin to see that the way of Jesus still offers us the best understanding for making sense of and embracing the reality of our existence.
Fellowship of the King
Bruxy calls the series we’re basing our conversations on ‘The Fellowship of the King’. He thought it was a pretty cool title. And it kind of is because we all think that the Lord of the Rings was alright, even if it has been overused by Christians, who probably don’t understand its profundity, ever since.
But the when you think of the words ‘fellowship’ and the ‘king’ apart from the LOTR triology and associate them with Christian faith it doesn’t quite have the same cool factor does it? Fellowship? Jesus is my king? You start to cringe. But do you think situated in the Roman empire, when you have a Caesar who enforces his will through grotesque violence, where anyone who claims a way that is contrary to the peace of Rome it would be cringe-worthy? It would be revolutionary, subversive, life-threatening action.
In our day, the fellowship of the King, means an alternate community, an alternate society, centring around a different way of being, seeing, and living together, where we don’t orbit around individualism, consumption, capitalism, but instead community, simplicity, generosity, service, and justice, where we learn to be the kinds of people who will pursue peace, stand with those who are different to us and care for the planet.
Did that sound cringe-worthy? Why? Why not? I think it’s because I’m using language that resonates within our culture and time. But the content derives its meaning from the same language and images of Jesus.
If we do the work of translation there is a way of seeing and conceiving the Fellowship of the King or living the way of Jesus as a profound image that responds to the the problem of existence.
The Flow – Trust Grow Give Go
Bruxy mentions that the reason why The Meeting House exists is to make ‘disciples’ and this series is about how they go about it. But if you’re anything like me, when you hear the talk of ‘making disciples’ you cringe a little on the inside. It’s just another one of those Christian cliches that doesn’t really excite the imagination or cut to the depths of our existence. But I think the idea of ‘making disciples of Jesus’ can be translated in such a way to become a profound, life-giving, non-coercive, world-transforming project.
In Bruxy’s language the church fulfills its mission of making disicples by facilitating a cycle of trust, grow, give, go. And this cycle is something we do together.
If we were to do a translation into Open House language, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that:
- We trust that Jesus enough that he presents us with a way of being human that responds to our common human dilemma of existence
- We grow through imitating each other in trying to live out this way
- We give of ourselves to the community of others-centredness to learn and experience this way
- And we go to live out this way of love in our worlds
So, together we: trust, grow, give and go…with the flow!
I get to observe the social environment of primitive, evolving humans in their natural habitat everyday. These alien life-forms, known as ‘teenagers,’ cannot help but form connections, that become clicks, groups, hierarchies, relationships. They may sit nice and quietly, and look all friendly when they’re sitting in class in front of an authoritarian teacher, but peel back the social media layer, check a few Instagram posts or Facebook messages, and you quickly see that people do all kinds of crazy, self-risking, social-dangerous things for connection.
One student came up to me during the week and asked: where do you think positive and negative body image comes from? And as I started to babble out some kind of response, and join a few dots, it kind of came down to two things that are universal to all humans: (1) we all feel that we’re lacking something, it’s a kind of existential lack, that means we don’t stop wanting stuff to try and fill the chasm in our dilemma of existence, and (1) we all want to belong, we want connection, we don’t want to be the one left out.
To exist you have this contraption in your brain that gives you the capacity to think, feel, reflect, be conscious, but if we don’t feel connected then what’s the point of existing? Many people in our world today feel this meaninglessness. There is something about the human condition, whether we want to attribute it to survival of the fittest, evolution or design, that means we are wired for connection, for community, for togetherness. Now, there is a slight problem: everytime that humans try to do life together it doesn’t work very well. And I think the reason why it doesn’t work very well is because we don’t learn to be human the way Jesus was.
It Makes Sense
There are lots of things that start to make a lot of sense about the Christian view when you situate it within our existence, connection and emptiness dilemma. Perhaps the Christian way is the only way that we can form communities where difference and diversity can co-exist in intimate relationships that address our need for connection?
- Viewing yourself as somehow not whole, not complete, prone to self-destructive things, as a ‘sinner’, leads to a kind of humility needed for togetherness.
- Leaning into suffering, rather than trying to escape it, saves us from all kinds of destructive social and emotional behaviours…
- Forgiving those who cause us suffering and pain, saves us from bitterness and becoming twisted and forgetting how to love and trust…
- Modelling yourself on someone who is perfect, who has demonstrated that they love unconditionally until death….
- Getting together in communities of people who know that they need others to give to and receive from in learning this unnatural way of being human…
All of this makes a lot of sense to me, regardless of your views on God, the supernatural, life after death.
And it all flows from the meaning derived from the words of the New Testament. The Greek New Testament has this word for what happens when this kind of community comes together to do the work of serving the world: ‘homothumadon’. Homo literally means ‘one’, and thumos means ‘grunt/work’. It’s Doing the hard work, together, of being one community, aiming at the same hope, the same vision, of a peace-filled humanity living in a peace-filled world and finding solutions for the problem of human existence.
It is the fellowship of the ring where the community of adventurers quest together to find a way to battle the evil and corruption inherent in living beings fighting for peace in Middle Earth. So, the fellowship of the King – the community modelled on the way of peace and love, responds to this deeply human need for connection in a way that other human communities can’t.
And it begins with trust.
When we are born into existence we all have to trust others to develop, grow, stay alive and find our way. To navigate our way as a human to the point where we can choose a path in this life we have to trust others. And we don’t stop trusting others. Even as I write my PhD thesis on the self and virtue, I’m trusting the argument that others are writing in these big fat books. It’s not a question of will you follow someone or will you trust someone, but who will you trust, and who you will follow.
So, when the New Testament talks of trusting Jesus, or having faith in Jesus as king, or Jesus being Lord, it’s not so weird and as we might think. Pistis = the word in Greek, means to to fully rely on someone or to have faith in someone. When we talk about trusting Jesus then, we don’t have to say that we believe all of these minute little doctrinal, theological points about the supernatural world. What we are saying is that we trust the story about him, his teachings, his way of living and loving and being to enter into a way of living, loving and being ourselves modelled on the perfect example. It’s to see something in Jesus that resonates profoundly with our experience of being human.
To trust in Jesus is to make a choice that we think living the way of others-centred, self-sacrificng, enemy love is the best way to deal with the problems of our world and the best thing I could do with the gift of life I’ve somehow received.
Once we are drawn to this way of Jesus, it begs the question: how do we grow in this way of being human?
Most Christians think of the Bible as containing a message and “discipleship” is learning as much about the message of the book as we can. And so then you have these Bible studies, and sermons, and teaching courses, that help you to know as much knowledge about the Bible as possible. Don’t get me wrong, the Bible does contain a message, a certain narrative about the world and about humans, which I think is the most profound and history defining narrative ever contained in a book but it also contains a method. It is a method of learning, a way in which we progress towards living a fully human life.
And this method is purposeful proximity. Being close enough to someone so that it begins to rub off on you. We learn from imitating and modelling our lives off of others who are seeking to live out the way of love based on the message of Jesus in the Scriptures. If you look at the example of Paul in the New Testament, he says ‘imitate me, as I imitate Christ’. If you look at Jesus himself he had a crowd of disciples of about 100 throughout his life, then a band of brothers of 12, and then a close group of 3 who he invited into experiences of deeper intimacy. We progress towards living the way of Jesus more fully through imitating each other, through sharing of stories, through sharing of ourselves, through vulnerability of our hopes and fears.
It follows that we can’t grow in living the way of peace without giving of ourselves to a community. As part of Emma’s spirituality month in her blogging adventures she read a book by Donald Miller called A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. In that book Miller recounts a story where he met a man name Bob Goff in very peculiar circumstances:
He was part of a group kayaking trip in San Diego. You can see the image, paddling through the ocean. They happened upon the Goff’s family home (a stunning lodge set into the cliff and unable to be reached except by boat or plane) and spent the better part of eight hours with the family, who lavished them with food and conversation upon their arrival. Stories flowed, and they discovered the inspirational way of life that the family adhered to, whether it be inviting world leaders to sleep over when Goff was appointed as Uganda’s Consul, concocting impromptu New Year’s Day street parades in their neighbourhood (a tradition that now continues with participants numbering in the hundreds), or jumping fully clothed into the water as a tradition to farewell their guests.
The Goffs gave of themselves to people. And I think the way of Jesus is a way that gives of ourselves to people.
What we do today to learn to be Christians would be weird to Jesus. Jesus didn’t have a classroom, or a Sunday service – all of the learning that he and his disciples experienced was in close proximity, everyday situations – Jesus lived in closeness with people, he intentionally thought of ways he could position himself in experiences he could use as teachable moments . Paul talks of spurring one another on towards love and good deeds and not giving up meeting together (Hebrews 10:23-25). And he also argues that we we should all be teaching each other (1 Corinthians 3), being close enough to learn together, imitating the lives of each other, learning from each other’s trial and error of living out the Jesus way of life. Sharing our stories, carrying each other’s burdens, journeying together in the midst of life’s suffering, and pointing the way forward to hope and peace.
We are to all be learners, and all teachers, because to teach is the best way to learn, and as we learn we teach – through the sharing of stories and lives. If we are truly to grow in Jesus’ way of peace, then this community can’t just be an added extra that you fit into a crowded and busy life if there is space. It has to be prioritised and given your ultimate allegiance. The way we structure our experiences of togetherness are around our ‘collective rhythms’ – our house churches, our dinner gathers, our BBQ meetups, and our service projects – Mainly Music, Finglish to English, and all of these are to help us to learn how to intentionally live out our individual rhythms according to the same vision of being human like Jesus. But it still takes all of us to give of ourselves to each other, to the community.
So, together we trust, we grow, we give and we go…
If you’ve grown up in churches at all, you’ve probably heard the ‘go’ talk countless times and what ‘go’ has meant is to ‘evangelise’ and to ‘evangelise’ is to tell people the ‘gospel’ – regardless of if they want to hear it or not. We really need to do a translation on the word ‘evangelise’.
In Jesus’ context, the euangelion was the proclamation of the good news of the peace of the emperor across the empire, and the word was subverted for the use of Jesus’ empire, an empire of peace, enemy-love, non-violence, radical inclusion. No one would really have a problem with ‘evangelism’ if what we associated with it was cultivating deep, mutually-beneficial connection, in self-giving relationships, where you share life, share meals, share authentic depth of meaning, share the suffering of human existence and somewhere along the line you’ve got beliefs about the world, life that you share with someone about the way of being human based on the peace teachings of Jesus.
But where evangelism means manipulation, enforcing views on people, beating the Bible over people’s heads, trying to get people to believe when you don’t even know them and they haven’t asked you about it – yeah, that’s a big problem. Does anyone actual love door-knockers? Why not? We change, become a better, more alive, more fully human people through close proximity and in our teachable moments of crisis and conviction. Our ‘going’ isn’t to convert, but it is to love. Go like Jesus, not like Christians.
Christianity, in a contemporary Western world, has become largely about belief. For many, in our contemporary landscape, this is one of the key reasons why Christian faith has lost it’s appeal. Many of the Christian metaphysical or supernatural beliefs just don’t fit for those born into the 21st century world. The default assumptions people have is that humans are physical, the world is physical, science can solve everything and technology will save us, so when they look at Christianity they see something antiquated, out-dated, archaic, naive and stupid. But if you do a translation of the way of Jesus into a contemporary postmodern language, in a way that makes sense, the way of Jesus offers a path to wholeness, to fullness, to meaning like no other path.
I want to suggest we need to move beyond our fixation on belief. We need to give Christians the possibility of something more than just believing and then dying to go to heaven. And we need to give non-Christians the possibility of following the way of Jesus without having all these correct beliefs about things we can’t really know for certain sorted, whilst still exploring, questions and having conversations about what it all means.
Get in the Flow
So, in responding to the conundrum of human existence, we see in Jesus the best example of being human, we see the kind of human we all need to become if we are to see peace on earth. And together we trust Jesus enough that following his way we will grow by imitating him and each other, we will give of ourselves to each other, and we go and live the way of love to the world. We be intentional to position ourselves in purposeful proximity in readiness for our teachable moments – those times of crisis, convictions and revelations – where we are in the space to learn and change to become more like Jesus.
In closing, I wanted to share something that has really moved me and struck at the heart of my existence. In the last few months I’ve been hearing so many stories of emptiness, hurt, lack of feeling, lack of meaning. This is more than just a few isolated incidents, I think it’s a phenomenon resulting from the cross-pressures of our modern culture. It’s the scientific rationalism, the consumer culture, the individualistic-feeling based morality, the hedonistic pursuit of pleasure, that results in: mental health epidemics, family breakdowns, mid-life crises, domestic violence and the many other social woes we face today. In response to this human madness, I think we really need to be people who truly give the way of Jesus a real chance. We need to translate it into the language and mode of our modern world and learn to live it together.
Emma has been writing a blog, The Very Cranky Mummy, and this month she was focusing on spirituality, she writes:
When the creator of the galaxies descended to experience life as a human, he didn’t waste time setting out doctrines of theology and double-checking to make sure that all of his followers were toeing the line. He spun tales of wonder, woe and mystery, inviting all who were willing to listen into a hope for a better existence. He spoke in shrouded tales, provoking reactions in the crowd as each imagined themselves as characters in the drama. And then, he sat down with friends and crowds to feast and drink wine, savouring the moments that we so often rush through, prioritising connection and relationship above the impartation of information.
May we live the way of Jesus: trusting, growing, giving and going together, finding the moments of connection and becoming more fully human and living out authentic stories of courage and hope.