Making Friends with Jesus - Reservoir Church
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Making Friends with Jesus

Aug 25, 2019

Late in 2017, I found myself lonelier, sadder, more stressed and less hopeful than I wanted to be. There were a lot of reasons for this – some of it was midlife – entering my mid-40s and needing to catch up with some much needed inner work. Some of it was the times we live in – stuff in the news at the time that was newly resurfacing some old pains. And some of it was just circumstance – a chance comment in an email from an old friend, for instance, lodged inside me and opened up some hard things. All to say, though, there I was – kind of lonely, sad, and stressed out, among other things.

Eventually this sent me in search of a therapist who I saw for a good bit of last year. But it also pushed me into a year-long version of an ancient set of spiritual practices that I’d meaning to try for some time. Those spiritual practices are called the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola.

Ignatius was a Renaissance-Era failed knight. In the early 1500s, in his own version of an early mid-life crisis, Ignatius suffered a gunshot wound in war, and during his long, lonely recovery, he became captivated by the life and teaching of Jesus, and the stories of others who had followed Jesus. Eventually, this led Ignatius to found a company within the Catholic Church that they called the Society of Jesus, now known as the Jesuits.

And for priests who wanted to join the Jesuits, Ignatius designed a month-long curriculum called the Spiritual Exercises, a series of prayers and practices that were designed to help you become a friend and follower of Jesus. For people that didn’t want to become Jesuit priests and didn’t have a month to devote full-time to this experience, Ignatius designed a nearly year-long version of these spiritual exercises that became known as the 19th annotation.

And with the guidance of a book and a friend of mine, that’s what I did last year, the long, slow, part-time version of the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius.

I’m not going to try to oversell you anything. This experience didn’t wipe away my life as it stands and give me a different, shinier, perfect me. That’s not available, thank God. After all, I like my life. But my experiences with the Exercises did help ground me in a more engaged, wholehearted life. A more resilient, more joyful, less lonely way through this season of life.

And today, I’d like to teach you how to do one part of the exercises, a part that helps Jesus be less of an idea or merely a historical person, but a practice that brings the teaching and acts of Jesus to life in the present, as Jesus is alive with us today. It’s a practice that has helped me make better friends with Jesus. And a growing friendship with Jesus is maybe the best part of my life of faith.

This practice at the heart of the Ignatian exercises is imaginative reading and prayer around the life and teachings of Jesus we encounter in the Bible’s four gospels.

And today, I’d like to teach you how to do that. Let’s try it on this week’s passage.

Luke 13:10-17 (CEB)

10 Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. 11 A woman was there who had been disabled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and couldn’t stand up straight. 12 When he saw her, Jesus called her to him and said, “Woman, you are set free from your sickness.” 13 He placed his hands on her and she straightened up at once and praised God.
14 The synagogue leader, incensed that Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, responded, “There are six days during which work is permitted. Come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath day.”
15 The Lord replied, “Hypocrites! Don’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from its stall and lead it out to get a drink? 16 Then isn’t it necessary that this woman, a daughter of Abraham, bound by Satan for eighteen long years, be set free from her bondage on the Sabbath day?” 17 When he said these things, all his opponents were put to shame, but all those in the crowd rejoiced at all the extraordinary things he was doing.

So there are a lot of ways you could read this passage. Good ways.

You could read it historically, like how can we engage this passage without being anti-Semitic? Luke is the one non-Jewish biographer of Jesus in the Bible. He’s writing primarily to a non-Jewish late first century audience, so they can hear the story of the life of Jesus. And passages like this have often been read with a kind of anti-Jewish spin.

Like there were these uptight Jewish synagogues, where mean rabbis made people follow all these laws. And Jesus showed them a better way, the Christian way of healing, forgiveness, and freedom.

And that reading would be like 90% wrong and really dangerous. First off, modern Judaism in some ways emerged out of first and second century Pharisaical Judaism, but it’s had a lot of time to develop and change and become its own thing. So you can’t understand today’s Judaism by reading these Bible stories. Secondly, everyone in this story is Jewish – the synagogue leader, the woman with the major back problem, Jesus, the crowds that loved what Jesus was doing, and the opponents who didn’t like what Jesus was doing. None of them were Christian. They were all Jewish. And whatever dispute they had, they had it within early first century Judaism. At the time, they weren’t talking about being Christian or Jewish, just different ways to be Jewish.

So the history of this passage is really interesting and I think important for how to relate to Judaism today, how to connect with Jesus and this whole tradition if, like most of us, you’re not Jewish. Important, interesting, what’s the history in this passage?

Or you could read this passage for its ideals and principles. What does it mean that Jesus is a healer? How much of healing is no longer having a physical ailment – a change from sick to healthy? Or, given that we will all die of one physical problem or another some day, how much of healing is coming to peace with our failing bodies, finding purpose and joy and freedom even with our many physical problems?

And why does this woman have a bad back, and how does Jesus heal her? It says she had “been disabled by a spirit for eighteen years.” Does that mean an evil spiritual force, like a demon, had attacked her body? Or is that just an outdated first century way of understanding a physical degeneration? Or is it somewhere in the middle, a way of acknowledging the many and profound ways that our minds and spirits and life experience are tied up with the condition of our bodies? That any long state of being unwell is a kind of affront, an accusation against how life was meant to be?

Grace and I have a friend who’s a research anaesthesiologist, who studies the many links between past emotional trauma and other life experiences and how much and how persistently we experience pain. There are many, many connections. We can’t separate the state of our bodies and health from our minds and our life experiences we’d call mental or emotional. We’re embodied people – everything is connected. I personally think this has a lot to do with what might have happened in this passage when it says that Jesus freed this woman from a back problem that had been bothering her for eighteen years, and didn’t have only physical, anatomical origins.

These are ways of engaging with this passage historically or ideologically, with the history and the ideas it’s communicating. And that’s all important, but it’s not always personal. It doesn’t bring you peace or joy or direction today, and reading the passage for its history or its principles certainly doesn’t make Jesus your friend.

So Ignatius had another way we could read the life of Jesus. Ignatius encourages us to read these passages with our whole imagination engaged, trusting that a living Jesus can involve us in this story and these words, even though they refer to events that took place with other people in far off lands and long ago.

Ignatius says slowly read a passage like this, and see where you find yourself in the story. Try this with me.

Can you find yourself in the center of this story? Are you the woman with the bad back or some other physical condition? Can you imagine Jesus placing his hands on you, telling you that you are free, feeling that in your body? What’s that like?

Can you relate to the stagnancy and discouragement of a problem that runs eighteen years deep? What does it feel like to have such an old problem? How has that become your own story of your life – I’m the person who has failed, or who gets rejected, or who has this pain or loneliness? How is that old problem your public story, what others see when they look at you? Like an accusation against you. What would you need to be free, for this to not be your story? What would it take to straighten up and have praise for God not be forced but emanate from you, for gratitude and wonder to flow like water? What would do that ?

Or maybe you hear this story, and you can relate to Jesus? Maybe you’re aware of someone with a big, old problem that hasn’t been solved, in relationship with someone who has chronic pain or struggle? Maybe you feel Jesus has power you don’t have – fair enough, likely true. But what do you have that will bring greater freedom? How can you be the powerful voice and presence of love?

Or maybe in this story, you find yourself more on the periphery, watching it happen? We can imagine ourselves in the crowd, and see what reaction we have.

Are we like some, confused? Or like others, are we excited? Does this interaction confuse or offend us? Or does it encourage and delight?

I’m going to read this encounter one more time – in this imaginative reading in the life of Jesus, we often read the passage two or three or four times. And this time, try and practice with me. Can you find yourself in the story somewhere?

Luke 13:10-17 (CEB)

10 Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. 11 A woman was there who had been disabled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and couldn’t stand up straight. 12 When he saw her, Jesus called her to him and said, “Woman, you are set free from your sickness.” 13 He placed his hands on her and she straightened up at once and praised God.
14 The synagogue leader, incensed that Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, responded, “There are six days during which work is permitted. Come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath day.”
15 The Lord replied, “Hypocrites! Don’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from its stall and lead it out to get a drink? 16 Then isn’t it necessary that this woman, a daughter of Abraham, bound by Satan for eighteen long years, be set free from her bondage on the Sabbath day?” 17 When he said these things, all his opponents were put to shame, but all those in the crowd rejoiced at all the extraordinary things he was doing.

When I read this lately, the 18 years is what resonates. I don’t have a bad back or anything like that, but when I hear 18 years, I think…. 18 years is a long time.

18 years ago today, Grace and I weren’t yet expecting our first child. Soon, but not yet.

18 years ago, I had dropped out of my seminary program to become a pastor, and I was getting ready for my first day as a teacher in the Boston Public Schools.

For all of us, 18 years ago the World Trade Towers were standing in New York – it was three weeks before September 11th, 2001.

A lot has happened in 18 years. A lot has happened in our shared, public life. A lot has happened in my life too.

A lot of good to be sure. I wouldn’t want to go back. Not in a heartbeat.

But there’s some disabling spirits too. I think of the anti-immigration fears, the white supremacy, the habits of violence that have grown in our nation since 9/11.

I look at my own life, and see a lot I love, but some wear on these tires too. Some ways of being an adult in the world that I don’t know how to undo.

And to imagine Jesus with us in worship today, seeing me, putting his hands on me, and saying, You are set free. That’s really powerful to me, I’m not a nobody to Jesus, I’m seen. And I’m not a distraction, or a burden, I’m a person Jesus welcomes, has time and room for.

It’s powerful to me that 18 years isn’t too much for Jesus. It’s not an inevitability, too long or too late. That’s encouraging to me, that there’s room for more freedom, more light in my life, that crusty old problems can change. That, as in Shakespeare, so with Jesus, the past is prologue, not destiny. The past shapes who I am, who we are today – it tells a story of who we are and how we got here, but today there is freedom for a lot of possibilities.

That’s what I hear in this passage, this week, as I imagine myself as this tired person Jesus encounters, as I see our nation as this stooped over woman in need of healing. I feel Jesus, telling me, and us all, I’m here for those things that run 18 years deep. I’m here for freedom.

And you can bet this has given me some things to think about and to talk about with Jesus.

That’s sort of the point of this imaginative reading in the life of Jesus. It doesn’t tell us what the passages mean, for all people, for all time. And it’s not magic that suddenly changes our lives.

But it’s an invitation to connect with Jesus. To be with Jesus, to talk with Jesus about the ways his life and his words encourage us, provoke us, move us, trouble us, speak to us. In that, we have an invitation to connect with Jesus, to make friends with Jesus, and to see over time what this connection does.

We know from the work of Brené Brown and others that the best way to be less alone, to be less addicted, to be less discouraged isn’t solutions as much as connection.

This friendship we can share with a Jesus who accompanies us isn’t all we need. We need contemporary human companions we can hear and touch and all that, but a friendship with Jesus is pretty great still, offers some things for sure our other friends can’t offer us.

And we make friends with Jesus not just by faith profession or baptism, certainly not by accident, but through this kind of spiritual practice.

The imaginative Bible reading, this Ignatian Bible reading I’m describing and that we’re trying out a bit today is one way we can practice half of the Christian tradition of spiritual practice.

This is the half that is technically known as cataphatic spirituality.

Now you don’t have to know that word “cataphatic” and it’s fine with me if you forget it after today. In fact, if you need to tune out for a couple minutes of today’s sermon, this is as good a time as any.

But sometimes it’s nice to know some context. Sometimes it’s nice to know we’re not making things up, but we’re part of a history, part of a tradition and a legacy too.

Two weeks ago, I shared that most spiritual practice is of two types – it’s apophatic, meaning away from words, or it’s cataphatic – meaning through words, with language.

I introduced us to apophatic spirituality two weeks ago because it’s less familiar to most of us, and because I think it’s powerful and to many of us, timely and helpful.

Apophatic means away from speaking. So apophatic spiritual practice involves things like silence and being alone, being still with our bodies and minds in a crazy world.

Apophatic spiritual practice aims to empty our minds and hearts, to empty ourselves of trouble and distraction and find peace, to empty our minds and our faith of false ideas about God, to rid ourselves of too small notions of God.

Apophatic spiritual practice acknowledges that God is not many things. God is not our personal possession or – in the normal way we use the word – our friend. God is bigger, larger, more mysterious than our words can handle. We can never get to the far end of God, no matter how high or how deep we go.

And to try apophatic spiritual practice, I recommended what’s known as centering prayer – 5 minutes, maybe even as much as twenty minutes of silence, with a word or phrase you think to be true of God just centering your attention when you find yourself distracted. I called it a kind of holy spacing out and talked about this as a really useful spiritual practice for gaining peace and humility and wisdom, even in times when we don’t know everything we believe about God.

I think this kind of spiritual practice is really useful.

But to me, it’s complemented by the beauty of cataphatic spiritual practice. cataphatic uses words and imagination. So cataphatic spiritual practice involves stuff singing and prayer with words.

Cataphatic is filling our consciousness with God, welcoming God’s presence in all the mundane and extraordinary thoughts and people and events of our lives.

If apophatic spirituality is a kind of humble ascent to a large, mysterious God, cataphatic spirituality welcomes God’s descent to us, that God’s presence as a speaking, breathing human named Jesus of Nazareth means that God is forever present to us, accessible to us.

While it’s good wisdom to recognize the limits of our knowledge and our friendship with God, cataphatic spiritual practice lets us make and grow and enjoy that friendship of God with us at all times, in all things.

At Reservoir, we’ve tried to teach and model lots of ways of cataphatic spiritual practice – conversational prayer where we talk and make space to listen to God, Immanuel prayer where we imaginatively welcome Jesus to be God with us in our best and worst experiences, past and present. And today, I’m recommending to you this old Ignatian practice of reading the Bible’s stories of the life of Jesus and imaginatively finding our place in them, and their place in us.

This for me was a big part of my spiritual practice last year. And doing this several days a week, a couple things happened for me.

One is that I got re-captivated by the Jesus that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John write about in the Bible. Jesus just again and again struck me as the most alive person, the most surprising and provocative, and compelling human being I could imagine.

And two, these stories became a starting point for receiving Jesus’ friendship into my life today.

And I want to share one more story that has become a part of this growing friendship with Jesus.

It’s another story from Luke that, like the first one we read, has to do with Jesus and Sabbath. Sabbath is a weekly day off, and it’s also – both then and now – a centerpiece of Jewish cultural and religious practice. So a story about Jesus and the Sabbath is always going to be about healthy and unhealthy religion and worship. And more broadly, a story about Jesus and sabbath is going to be about rest and wellness too. And entering my year in the exercises last year lonelier, sadder, more stressed than I wanted to be, I had a lot to learn about rest and wellness.

Here it is:

Luke 6:1-5 (CEB)

6 One Sabbath, as Jesus was going through the wheat fields, his disciples were picking the heads of wheat, rubbing them in their hands, and eating them. 2 Some Pharisees said, “Why are you breaking the Sabbath law?”
3 Jesus replied, “Haven’t you read what David and his companions did when they were hungry? 4 He broke the Law by going into God’s house and eating the bread of the presence, which only the priests can eat. He also gave some of the bread to his companions.” 5 Then he said to them, “The Human One is Lord of the Sabbath.”

Now, I found that when I read this imaginatively, a single mental image comes to mind. It’s the bit from the 2000 Russel Crowe film Gladiator that I’ve watched many times. There’s a visual moment that pops up many times in the film, where the main character is walking through a field of wheat outside his home, and you see a close up of his hand moving through the grain. In Gladiator, that image evokes a lot of things – there’s a deeply sad piece of his life story it evokes, but it also speaks to themes of family and home and togetherness and life beyond the grave too.

And rather than be self-conscious or embarrassed that this is what comes to mind when I read this passage, I just let it be. When I read this passage, I’m always one of Jesus’ students. And there’s my hand, going through the wheat. I imagine myself to be walking in a field of grain, with my hand out like that. In reality, I think eating uncooked wheat is pretty gross, but in my imagination, I take a bite now and then and it’s good.

Someone’s annoyed that I’m doing so well. I don’t know why, but someone resents my free time, my peace, my wellness.

And I hear Jesus saying, any person, any system, any rule that has come to stand against flourishing has gotten off course. Jesus in charge to reverse that. Jesus, the Human One, is for our flourishing. Another version of this story says that people weren’t made for the sabbath, but the sabbath was made for people.

And I hear those words, as I take a deep breath. And I think I was made for freedom. I was made for peace of mind. I was made for joy. I was made to do something good with people I belong to. I was made for connection. I was made for flourishing. And Jesus is invested in the restoring of all that.

Jesus, bringing up this life and death, urgent situation in the tales of old King David, tells me there’s actually an urgency to this. There’s an importance in restoring my wellness and flourishing.

A connected me, a hopeful me, a joyful me, a peaceful me loves life, for sure. But a flourishing me is more good to my family and friends, more powerful in my job, more available for service and justice, more useful to the world.

And Jesus is invested in my flourishing.

Taking a nap, taking a walk. Spending time in silence each day, spending time in friendship with Jesus each day. Eating a good meal, calling and seeing a friend – these are parts of my flourishing Jesus is protective of. Jesus wants me to do good in the world, to love even with pain and sacrifice, for sure. But Jesus wants me to love life too.

Making friends with Jesus as been this kind of game-changing gift to me. I hope it can be for you too.

Here are a couple ways you can try:

An Invitation to Whole Life Flourishing

Your friend Jesus is invested in your freedom to LIVE! How will you cherish and love life today?

Spiritual Practice of the Week

Choose a story from the gospels. Read it slowly and imaginatively, discovering where you find yourself in the story and how it speaks to you. Talk to Jesus about this. Repeat as often as you like.