Before We Chose God, God Chose Us

living bread

“Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.  This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died.  But the one who eats this bread will live forever….  For this reason, I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” –Jesus (John 6:57-59, 65, NRSV)

It would be weird if someone insisted that they chose to be born.  I think most of us would respond something like, “Um, wait here just a moment,” then go and call the local psych ward.  That’s because we have no problem understanding that well before any of us were born, the love of two people conceived us.  Our choices within our family of origin are ours to own.  Yet, the initial choice to be a person on this planet was not ours to make.  We, rather obviously, are delusional to think otherwise.

The same is true on the spiritual plane.  Just as life is a gift given to us, so to be born again and have eternal life is a gracious grant given to us by God.  Yes, if we are Christians somewhere along life’s journey we chose Jesus.  Yet, long before our own individual choices were made, before the foundation of the world, God himself conceived of us and decided to give us the gift of faith to believe.

Before we get in a huff about the perceived lack of control on our part, stop and consider what a crazy hot mess of an apocalypse there would be if you or I were in charge.  Whatever issues people might have with God, having someone else in the driver’s seat is a bit like putting Homer Simpson as the sentinel guarding the donuts.  Probably not the best of ideas.

I would rather stick with Jesus, even when his words seem edgy and scandalous.  After all, telling folks they need to “eat me” could really go sideways in a hurry.  It’s no wonder that the early church often got accused of practicing cannibalism at the Lord’s Table.

God in Christ chose us so that we could enjoy an incredible restored relationship with our Creator.  Jesus, the Jew that he was, often spoke with deep layers of meaning.  What on the surface might seem super-strange is meant to convey things in a much richer and fuller way.  If it confuses some people, then maybe we need to sit with Christ’s words for a bit before simplifying them into some mish-mash of blither that ends up having no real meaning at all.

Beyond the sheer literal description of eating the body of Christ and drinking his blood, and merely flattening it out to mean Christian communion with wine and wafers, it could just be that Jesus wanted us to grab hold the grace of discovering the following five realities of his merciful passion up close and personal.

  1. Participation

To ingest Jesus is to participate in him.  It is to have a close, intimate connection and union with him.  Jesus identifies with his people so closely that it is as if we have absorbed him into our very being as much as any food nutrients.

I once lived near an old fence line.  The fence was long gone but one lone fence post remained.  A tree had grown up alongside and then around the post.  The post remained because the tree assimilated and engulfed it.  The only way to remove the fence post would be to cut down the tree – they were that much a part of each other.

We are in union with the Lord Jesus.  No one is snatching us out of his clutches.  We participate in his life.  We live because he lives.  We make choices because he first chose us.

  1. Provision

When we eat, what we eat, how we eat, and whom we eat with are anything but ancillary issues to the ancient Near Eastern mind and practice.  Food is a gift, a gracious gift given to us by a merciful Father who has our best interests at mind.  At the very heart of God is a hospitable bent that invites the misfit person, the misunderstood, the misanthrope, the miscellaneous, and any other “mis-sed” person into his wonderful provision of food.

Eating meals for most people around the world isn’t just about food; it’s about offering the acceptance of hospitality and communicating encouragement and recognition through lively conversation with the dignity of listening to another.  We severely truncate the power of meals when food is just gobbled quickly down alone by ourselves to satiate our growling stomachs.

Christ’s words about himself being the living bread that comes from heaven is chocked full of meaning.  On the heels of just having fed the five-thousand with bread, Jesus not only connects himself with the manna God gave the Israelites in the desert, but also lets his followers know that he is the only provision that will truly satisfy the most intense hunger.  “Blessed are those that hunger and thirst for righteousness,” he explained in his greatest Sermon, “for they shall be filled” (Matthew 5:6, NIV).

Through the provision of food, God invites us into his life.  What’s more, we are ushered into the realm of those who are recognized, seen, and accepted – regardless of our glaring warts, quirky idiosyncratic ways, and shadowy sins.  That’s because when God creates, he provides.  And when he provides, he graciously gives his blessing.

  1. Protection

Maybe it goes without saying that, by now, God will protect those whom he engrafts into his very life.  Yet, it still needs to be said with deliberate unction: God protects his own.

Getting back to the food thing, God’s meal-deal includes a generous portion of protection.  To come under a person’s roof to enjoy a meal together is to come under the owner of that home’s protection.  God never intended to save us, feed us, and provide for us without giving us everything we need for life and godliness in this present evil age (2 Peter 1:3).

All the implements we need to both defend ourselves and move forward with offense are graciously given to us.  The helmet of salvation, the breastplate of righteousness, the belt of truth, the shield of faith, the shoes of peace, and the sword wielding Word of God are all for our protection.  We only need to put them on, pick them up, and use them (Ephesians 6:10-20).

  1. Profession

The nub and the rub of Christ’s discussion about being living bread is that people need to eat him, that is, him only.  In other words, you only get to God through Jesus.  Period.  No exceptions.  Understandably, this was a hard teaching.  It was so hard that, when his followers grasped what in the heck he was saying, a big chunk of them left.  They didn’t sign up for this kind of exclusive rhetoric and crap about only being one real bread.

It has always been the scandal of Christians throughout the ages to insist that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one can come to the Father except through him (John 14:6).  But there it is.  And no amount of watering it down makes it go away.

I love and adore a variety of people.  I have many friends from different faith traditions and belief structures.  I would die for every one of them.  I would come to their side at any time they call me.  And I believe they need Jesus.  I believe everyone needs Jesus.  I understand that not everyone wants Jesus, or acknowledges him, or believes he is who he claims to be.  Nevertheless, to try and mitigate or diffuse or minimize Christ’s very hard words is doing a disservice and an injustice to what Jesus was truly saying and claiming.

To profess Jesus as Lord and Savior is a gift that is being received from a gracious and merciful gift-giver, who is God.

  1. Perpetual

The simple observation about eating is that you don’t just eat once, never to eat again.  Nope, we continually eat every single day, most of us doing it multiple times in the day.  We in the West have refrigerators full of food, some of which ends up getting moldy and no good.  Maybe we stockpile food because we don’t connect it with Jesus.  If God is the One who truly gives the grace of a decent meal, perhaps we would feel less prone to buy food and eat it like it’s going out of style.

We are to eat Jesus.  Not once.  Not twice.  But continually.  Every day.  Christ is the perpetual feast.  We are to come to him day after day, receiving his gift of sustenance for us in every sense of the concept.

We can choose to come to Jesus because he has first given himself to us.  Before we chose God, God chose us by giving us deliverance from our misguided ways through the merciful work of Jesus.

Why I Do What I Do

Kierkegaard on life

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards… Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” ― Soren Kierkegaard

Motivation matters.  What gets us up in the morning tells a lot about why we choose to do what we do with our day.  The spiritual care of others out of the overflow of my heart, full of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit is the driving force of my life.  It’s grounded in the goodness of God and God’s good creation.

As a Christian, I believe that all spiritual care begins with the God of creation and ends with the God of hope.  The Christian tradition emphasizes that in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  The apex of his creation, the height of all God’s creative activity, is the formation of humanity upon the earth.  Human beings alone have been created in the image and likeness of God – reflecting him in their care for all creation (Genesis 1:26-27).  Therefore:

All human beings on the good earth which God created are inherently good creatures and deserve utmost respect and common decency. 

People also carry within them a nature, due to the fall of humanity, of brokenness, fear, shame, regret, and pride.  Thus, people are complicated creatures with the capacity for both great good and benevolent altruism, as well as great evil committed through heinous acts, and everything in-between in their culture-making and their civilization (Genesis 3-4).

I have personally found the resolution to these realities of the presence of both good and evil, are resolved in the person and work of Jesus.  In Christ, I was made aware of my own guilt due to things I have done, and things I have left undone; given grace through his redemptive events; and, thus, extend gratitude to God through living into his original design of creature care (this is the structure of the 16th century Reformed Confession, The Heidelberg Catechism).   Therefore:

My identity as a person is firmly rooted and grounded in the soil of God’s grace. 

I freely give grace to congregants, patients, and others because Jesus Christ freely gave to me.  My Christianity has the practical effect of acknowledging that each person on planet earth is inherently worthy of love, support, concern, and care.

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Furthermore, as a Christian, everything in my life centers (ideally) around Jesus.  As such, I take my cues for how to extend care to others from him.  For me, Jesus is the consummate caregiver.  He entered people’s lives and their great sea of need with the gift of listening; a focus on feelings; and, the power of touch.  Christ was able: to listen to others because he first listened to the Father; to be present with others because he was present with the Father; and, to give love to others with the love he enjoyed within the Trinitarian Godhead (John 14).

This does not mean that I act as God acts; it means I love as Christ first loved me.  I am human, a creature.  God is divine, the Creator.  I do not have the role of God.  Rather, I emulate the caring practice of Jesus in his earthly ministry.  I embrace my human role to listen, establish empathic connection, and offer a supportive spiritual presence.

It is God who is active in giving the grace of healing and mending broken bodies, damaged souls, and fractured lives in his own good time and benevolence. 

In short, I embrace the process of care, and God brings about the outcome of transformation (1 John 4:7-21).  I am neither, therefore, responsible to change a person’s feelings nor involved to fix their broken body and/or spirit.  I am there to wed competency with compassion, detachment with support, and discretion with comfort.

Listening to, acknowledging, honoring, and inviting the communication of feelings is what I did, for example, with a healthcare patient named Esther (not her real name).  Esther was being surly and mean to staff and threw her food in defiance.  When I entered Esther’s room she yelled and complained of not being cared for.  I came and knelt beside her bedside, took her hand, and simply said, “Tell me what’s going on.”  A cascade of emotions came pouring out of Esther.  No one had the time (nor, perhaps, the desire) to listen to her.  Esther shared her frustration of chronic illness, a deep and hurtful wondering of where God is, and a profound pessimism that anything would ever change for her.

The only other words I offered Esther was: “I hurt with you.”  I was present, I listened, and I sought to live into what the Apostle John said: “Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and in action” (1 John 3:18).  When I left Esther’s room, after I had stayed with her until she was calm, another dear woman was waiting for me, sitting in her wheelchair, outside of Esther’s room.  She looked at me with tears in her eyes and said with heartfelt declaration, “You are my Pastor!  A few weeks ago, when I was sitting alone after an event, you came and asked me if you could wheel me back to my room.  That’s not your job, and I know you are a busy man.  You didn’t have to do that, and I am so thankful you are here and giving kindness to an old woman like me.”  And she began to break down and cry.

In these visits, I believe I am emulating the compassionate presence of Jesus because:

People’s stories of joy and pain, laughter and sorrow, certainty and wondering, are sacred narratives – continuously being written and revised in the heart, trying to make sense of life and faith. 

Patients in need, residents in care facilities, those with disabilities of body and/or soul, and all who are the other side of the spiritual tracks may not be able to fully give themselves to their own motivations; yet, they are still full-time human beings who need the emotional connections which a caring and supportive person can provide.

Christ’s very pastoral response to nearly everyone he encountered was not to explain evil and trauma, but to confound and confront it with love. 

Christ with others

Jesus did not walk around performing unsolicited healings, but dignified people with asking them what they wanted, and if they desired to be made whole. “Do you want to be made well?” discerns that others need to explain their situations and their stories and does not assume that someone wants a change in identity (John 5:1-9).

The craft of caring for others is not only objective clinical-like work directed toward another person; it is also profoundly, personally, and subjectively transforming for the caregiver.  Every person, no matter who they are, is precious and carries within them the image of God.  The personal journey and discovery of God-likeness within each person is an emotional adventure worth taking.  Perhaps the greatest Christian theologian of the 20th century, the Protestant Swiss Karl Barth, believed that we are not fully human apart from: mutual seeing and being seen; reciprocal speaking and listening; granting one another mutual assistance; and, doing all of this with gratitude and gratefulness.  Barth used the German term Mitmenschlichkeit (co-humanity) to communicate that we are not human without the other.  In other words, human flourishing requires mutual giving and receiving.

Only in relation to each other, including those in need, do we thrive as people.

Christianity is a fellowship with God and one another, and not an isolated odyssey.  Thus, any kind of care-giving, for me, is a symbiotic relationship between the care-seeker and the caregiver, within the foundation of Trinitarian love, expressed with grace and hope given by Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit.  The person in need not be Christian for this to occur, since all share the common human experience of birth, life, and death as people distinct from all other creatures, worthy of compassionate support and spiritual uplift.  This is the reason why I do and feel what I do and feel, as a believer in and minister for Jesus Christ.