Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Freely Following Jesus

"Freely following Jesus."  That's the motto of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship.  But what does it mean?  What does it mean, in 21st century, to "follow Jesus," and what might it mean to people who've largely left behind them whatever Christian identity they'd had (and those who've never identified as Christian)?

"Christianity" has gotten a really bad rap in recent years -- especially among those who look at the world with liberal or progressive eyes and who fully embrace all the scientific discoveries and insights that cascade all around us.  Doesn't "following Jesus" require us to put our minds on pause, to align ourselves with some extraordinarily oppressive institutions, and to believe (in the words of the Queen's admission to Alice) "six impossible things before breakfast"?  And doesn't it, perhaps most challenging of all, require us to acknowledge Jesus as "our personal Lord and Savior" (whatever that means) and to worship him above all others?

Well, not necessarily.  The scholar and theologian Marcus Borg defines a Christian as someone "who takes seriously what Jesus took seriously."  None of that other baggage, just taking seriously the things Jesus took seriously -- justice, especially for the poor and dispossessed; the end of oppressions and those distinctions that divide us; to "to bring good news to the poor ... to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free."  (Luke 4:18)

Here's a way of looking at all of this that hit me one day -- when someone says that they are a Franciscan, it doesn't mean that they worship St. Francis.  It simply means that they see in the life of Francis of Assisi the kind of life they would like to live; they see the kind of commitments they would like to make.  It means that they want to emulate his way, his approach to life and to the world.  In short, to follow him -- to follow his example.  

And remember, this doesn't require a slavish attempt to "do what Francis would do."  After all, as he lay dying it is said that Francis looked at his friends and said, "I have done what was given me to do.  May Christ show you what is given to you."  How much like the Buddha's dying words of "be a lamp unto yourselves."

Could following Jesus, then, mean something very much like following Francis does?  I think yes.  In my book Serving With Grace:  lay leadership as a spiritual practice, I encourage church leaders to identify a "leadership saint" or two -- people they know, or have known of, who exemplify a leadership style or strength they aspire to.  I suggested even bringing a picture of this person to meetings and, whenever it seems needful or helpful, to ask yourself, "What would my leadership saint do in this situation?"  When you, yourself, don't know how to respond or what to say or how to act, it can be instructive to imagine what someone you admire would faced with the same thing(s) you are.

This, too, then is what it means -- or, at least -- can mean to "follow Jesus."  The WWJD bracelet fad is thankfully largely over.  Thankfully, because it far too often stemmed from the sense that we know exactly what Jesus would do in every situation, that he had laid down clear instructions that we needed to adhere to.  That's not what I mean at all.  Rather, I'm thinking about a matter not of "instruction" or "rules" or "specific answers" but, rather, "example."  What would a person like Jesus, or Dorothy Day, or Gandhi, or Malcolm X, or Mother Jones, or whoever you look to -- what would a person like that do if she or he were here.

Hopefully we're now a little more clear on the "following Jesus" part.  But what about that first word -- "freely"?  There are so many people who identify as Christian not because of any real, internal conviction but, instead, because of external expectations.  Never having really thought about it, never really questioning it, they simply assume their identity as Christians.  I think the gift of progressive Christian groups -- like the UUCF -- is that they encourage a "free" following of Jesus.  Let it be a choice -- an informed, an intentional choice.  Knowing what we know about Jesus -- from the Gospels, from history, from tradition, from our own intuitions -- and know about "the things Jesus took seriously," we make a conscious decision to take those same things seriously, to strive to live the same kind of life.

If this sounds interesting to you, intriguing, you might want to check out the UUCF.  (Or the Center for Progressive Christianity, as another example.)  You might want to read one (or both!) of the books below.  And, of course, you might want to engage in conversation right here.

Pax tecum,

Rev Wik

Christian Voices in Unitarian Universalism                 Teacher, Guide, Companion
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1 comment:

Dave Dawson said...

Erik, I still remember hearing you for the first time when you addressed the CF in Worcester, Mass. As I just posted in response to Mike's post, I like renaming the Christian Fellowship there in C'ville to UUs Freely Following Jesus. It has the "feel" of following the teachings of Jesus as opposed to the much broader term (in my opinion) of Christian Fellowship. I still am violently opposed to some of the crazy Christian beliefs I was taught as a child and might avoid it myself if I hadn't attended the Fellowship so long.