{Day by day, mug by mug…reflections for Lent 2017.}DSC07381.JPG

This is a huge mug, and one from Joan’s part of the Kellam kitchen cupboard. It came from a doctor’s office where Joan worked part time, a promotion of some sort.

Today I choose the message rather than some story behind this sizable vessel. I like the logo especially, representing four people with arms outstretched. As if we needed more prompting, there are the words: Total Care. I’m assuming it refers to health care, but if so, a mug this size better contain just water, or decaf. Too many servings of java in this thing and one’s blood pressure would skyrocket.

I teach an adult Sunday School class at our church, and the curriculum has led us in an interesting direction. The topic is focused on Jesus…who he was and what he taught. For awhile we looked at the Jesus of the historic creeds, from the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Scots Confession, etc. (For what’s included in the “etc.” do an on-line search for “The Book of Confessions,” and you’ll find confessions of faith as recent as those written within our lifetimes.) From the era of Paul the Apostle onward, the creeds dealt with the theology of Jesus’ identity, Christology, the debris of sometimes angry debates among members of Church Councils, or the measured, prayerful, Spirit-directed conclusions of experts in scripture and tradition.

Born of a virgin? Eternally begotten? The Westminster Confession proclaims the “work of redemption,” the “work of mediation.” Words such as justification, adoption, sanctification make for fun theological analysis (he typed facetiously), and our long engagements with such concepts have been valuable, but isn’t there something more about Jesus than what the creeds and affirmations of faith center on?

Page after page, paragraph after paragraph about who Jesus was/is. But very short on what he taught. Of course, what he taught and how he lived do contribute to our understanding — our belief — about his identity. But while our historic focus and various descriptions of who he was/is have preoccupied both believers and skeptics, we have conveniently escaped the hard truths of what he taught.

The curriculum we currently use, called “Saving Jesus Redux,” says:

Jesus was a purveyor of wisdom. His stories, sayings, and teachings say it over and over again: It’s not about victory. It’s not about punishment. It’s not about rewards. It’s not about what you deserve or what you get. Looking on reality with compassion, love, inclusivity, forgiveness—recognizing everything as created by God, infinite in dignity, [is] to be honored.

And further, Jesus taught,

“Be merciful, as God in heaven is merciful.” Since the root of the word “merciful” is to “have compassion,” it’s not surprising that Jesus demonstrated a degree of compassion in his relationships that transformed the people around him. He intentionally embraced those that were rejected by the authorities: the outcasts,
the unrighteous, even the Gentiles.

There is a figure of speech that sums up nicely this spirit of compassion that influenced so profoundly Jesus’ life and teachings. “…He saw a great crowd, and his heart went out to them.” (Matt. 14:14) In one of Jesus’ parables, a father sees his wayward son coming home at last, and “…his heart went out to him.” (Luke 15:20) Over and over, the older English translations use the word “heart” to mean compassion. Jesus lived and taught from his heart of compassion.

Total care, one might say.

“Heart health” is essential for communities of faith today, for we live in a time when compassion has ebbed. We are more interested in financial security, filling our own bellies, and guarding our gates against the stranger. (They might be angels, but one can never be too careful.) In my previous life as a church media producer, a colleague shared with me a slide show he had done to highlight our acquisitive society. He titled it, “What’s Mine Is Mine, and What’s Yours Is Mine, If I Can Get My Hands on It.” We cringe at the cynicism, but have to admit that we do live in a greedy world. And greed is an obstacle to compassion, a stumbling blockage of the heart.

A healthy spiritual heart is full of compassion. Some might argue (might? heck, they do argue it) that, teachings of Jesus aside, compassion isn’t a realistic response to the deep need we see debated in Congress or reported in the news or witnessed on our streets. Love your enemies? Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth? Blessed are the peacemakers? Forgive? Those teachings have never been easy. Never. But no one said it was easy. Still, doesn’t it all seem so obviously impractical today? Read on.

In a television studio yesterday, I interviewed two missionaries, married 47 years, long-time workers in Ethiopia. Many years ago they were abducted and held for ransom by some rebels. And a little over two years ago they were shot by a would-be robber hiding in the bush along the road. When the armor-piercing bullet of the AK-47 blew away part of  Gwen’s face, the projectile continued into John’s collarbone, and her teeth sprayed into his arm and head, blinding him in one eye. They survived. After several reconstructive surgeries, Gwen can speak, sing, and laugh again. John still has one of her teeth embedded in his chin, but worse, has lost the sight in his left eye permanently. Though Gwen’s call these days is to stay stateside to care for her elderly mother, John continues to return to Ethiopia, where they had built roads, clinics, churches, and wells.

Here’s the thing: even as they drove away from the scene of the attack, escaping, bloodied and in pain, they spoke to one another of prayer and forgiveness. They immediately forgave the gunman, recalling the words of Stephen as he was being stoned to death: Lord, do not hold this sin against them. (Acts 7:60) Missionaries know their Bible, and the heart, the compassionate heart, of their Lord. And his forgiveness. Impractical as that may seem. That forgiveness has led to the building of a church in the gunman’s village.

The difficult truth is that Jesus’ life and teachings do more to define who Jesus is than all the ramblings and rumblings of church councils and creeds. And living out those hard truths still defines his followers, one way or the other. If he cared totally for all, with inclusive acceptance, heartfelt compassion, and boundless love…and he did…then present day disciples will find ways to tear down walls, offer grace in place of judgment, and embrace the unlovable, as he did.

Total care, indeed. In deed!