I have been talking about how important it is to not just look for Christ to be present in the stories of those who are like you, but also those very different from you, even those who make you uncomfortable or whom you might encounter as threatening or an enemy. This is by no means an easy task.
How to begin?
I’ve already shared about the importance of learning to embrace yourself in all your imperfections and failings, trusting in the goodness and grace of God to be for you before you have done anything deserving or beside anything you might have done that you deem undeserving. To fully embrace yourself as perfectly imperfect (or as Martin Luther liked to say “simul Justus et pecator”, simultaneously justified or embraced by God while also sinner) is necessary to be able to embrace others in all their imperfection, hurtful pasts and equally harmful choices, as ones who, like you, can bear the image of Christ in a unique way.
I wanted to share a few practices that help me as I look and listen for the presence of Christ in the lives of those I minister to as a chaplain. At times these people are not very religious, or in their faith have very different (at times diametrically opposite) values and beliefs than I do. Sometimes these folks are very easy to see good and light in, but other times they may be a bit prickly or even downright hostile. Some have lived lives with exemplary values, leaving a crop of positively influenced lives. Some have lived out in their personal lives choices and life-scripts handed to them that leave them and those in their wake deeply damaged. In all of these cases, when I practice the spiritual discipline of looking for Christ within them and their stories, I am able to embrace them as loved, accepted, and embrace by God. When I do this, I am able to begin to watch and listen to their lives and almost without fail can see the living presence of Christ, whether acknowledged by that name or another, even when not acknowledged at all by them.
I find that often my work as chaplain is helping them also recognize this living presence, in whatever language and terms their belief system, values, and life journey enables them to do so.
Here are some practices that help me:
1. Don’t lump people together as “just like them”, yet also acknowledging the ways their unique identities have situated and shaped them.
2. Have a “not knowing” approach
3. Look and listen for what wisdom has shaped their lives from the start
4. Look for where life, freedom, wholeness, beauty has been birthed at key points in their life story
5. Sit with them, listening to the silence and pain of their story with the same awe you would listen to the cry of birds or crickets, yet with deep empathy and humility
6. Look for what strength allows them to rebound, find life anew in the midst of such experiences of loss, trauma, or struggle.
In future posts, I hope to explore each of these practices and perspectives in depth. What I want to do now is give you two images that guide my approach when I am at my best in living out these principles in my work as a chaplain.
The two guiding images to me are Moses in Exodus 3 and Mary the sister of Lazarus & Martha in Luke 10.
In Exodus 3, when Moses witnesses the sacred fire which burned the bush in the wilderness yet did not consume, he took off his feet, sat, and listened. He was on holy ground. Earlier, I suggested that our deepest selves, where the light and presence of Christ is made known, can be seen as Matthew Fox suggests, as the light and fire Meister Eckhart speaks. Fox summarizes Eckhart’s words as follows: “spark of the soul”, saying that “hidden in all of us is .. something like the original outbreak of all goodness, something like a brilliant light that glows incessantly and something like a burning fire which burns incessantly” – the fire is which connects us with “nothing other than the Holy Spirit” (Original Blessing 5).
To sit in the presence of one as they delve the depths of their deepest selves is to witness a fire that burns but does not consume, a light that shines that cannot be snuffed out. It is, just as Moses in the wilderness, a moment in which you stand on holy ground. Take off your shoes. Sit down. Watch and behold. Such moments are not about you. They are not about me. They are encounters with the holy, whenever they break out – not just in career ministry moments but in all of our deepest relationships, in every part of our lives.
Martha and Lazarus’ sister Mary scandalizes her sister Martha and likely others in their community by putting away the ascribed work of housekeeping, cooking, and serving food to simply sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to Jesus. This is choosing to embrace Jesus not as a simple houseguest but as a teacher from whom she can learn the way to life. To sit at a teacher’s feet in the Judaism of Jesus’ day is to embrace becoming their student that you may also now engage in a new pattern of life their teaching entails and, if you can find that new way of life, to share it with others. Mary glimpses this man is not just a man of Nazareth, son of a carpenter, but in fact one in whom the Christ, the living Wisdom that shapes our days and guides our lives, has taken on flesh and blood. She must stop her normal pattern of life, pause the busyness that has driven her to this point and drives those around her, and be present to listen and learn.
In each person we encounter this same living Christ is present shaping, leading, and guiding their lives. Whether in work in an official ministry of the church such as pastor, chaplain, Sunday school teacher, youth leader, potluck organizer, or simply in our own relationships with those close to us or anyone we encounter in our lives, if we have the opportunity to look and listen for their deepest selves with them, we like Mary are about to encounter the great Teacher. We must be willing to sit at that Teacher’s feet as the Christ speaks, guides, and reveals Christ’s self to us in another’s story and deepest longings, fears, and hopes.
I can say that I am not always good at this. There are times in my work I am soul-tired, my heart breaking form the pain I witness and the pain of my own life. There are times I am distracted, busy with many things. It is even harder in my personal relationships when the words my family or friends, my neighbor, that person who rubs me the wrong way every day, or even one I love dearly, can make it so easy to be focused first and foremost on what joy or pain I get from my experience. But when I can remember these examples, hearing their call, what a difference it makes! When I can choose to be Moses or Mary if but for a moment, I never fail to encounter some new truth, new wisdom, new light changing the way I see myself and others. Often changing my whole way of looking at life and the world.
These, too, can make a difference in your relationships and work, as you learn with me how to be one who looks and listens for the Christ in others.
Let us engage this important journey together!
Your progressive redneck preacher,