On Re-discovering Jesus

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All of life is a journey. And so we must ask ourselves: what is the nature of this journey and of what does it consist?  First, the journey includes not only the active events in one’s life, but the life of thought, of emotion, of belief as well. These are as important as the actions themselves.  Then, there is the path taken by the journey.  We are all familiar with timelines.  Timelines are usually depicted as straight lines, but is that always so?  There is a cyclical nature as well. Think of the cycle of the seasons, the economic or business cycle, (for those who believe in reincarnation) the cycle of birth and death, the seasons of the liturgical year, in education the academic year, the growth, maturity, death, and reseeding of annual plants, and much more. The path upon which we start out often has a strange way of leading one back to whence it came, only to view what had been before in a different light.  It is not that where we started out was bad or inadequate; the need to move, to change, springs from a deep motivation to discover all that is, to branch out, to assimilate, to discover.  Like a snake casting off  layers of  once beautiful skin, we grow, we outgrow, and we re-grow.  The search for the truth encompasses the need for more depth, for more adequacy.  Those who, for example, were born or raised Christians might move to another faith, or to no faith, only to devote themselves again later in life to the faith of their childhood.  The application and examples of this concept are numerous.

History has been shown to have a cyclical as well as a linear nature.  Historians such as Arnold Toynbee have demonstrated that nations rise, enter a period of greatness, then succumb to the pressure of forces which lead to their destruction, only to be replaced by other ascendant nations which assume the same path but which will eventually lead to the same fate.  At the risk of being political for a brief moment, those of us who naively assumed that the gains in civil rights, access to economic opportunity, environmental protection, and anti-discrimination were here to stay have been sadly deluded.  Racism and hatred for minorities and immigrants has not only resurfaced but have taken on a strange new acceptability in political discourse.  And, to those who celebrated the end of World War I a century ago as the war to end wars, we now see the rise of nationalism, persecution of ethnic minorities and the disadvantaged, denial of voting rights, the failures of institutions of international cooperation, and the rise of autocratic leaders, exactly those conditions which led to the start of both world wars.  History is, indeed, cyclic.

We all look at life through different windows.  This is a personal statement only. My windows are not identical to your windows, for truly all “see through a glass darkly”.  Each of us has a view which may be different from or similar to that of others.  I will attempt to briefly describe different stages of realization as they have occurred.  I have given each view a title, followed by that stage of development and its significance. While they are separate events, or, more accurately, periods of time, each one has a relationship to those which are to come and to those which have come before. This manner of progression may allow that a previous view may be differently colored by the experience and perspective which has been gained.

Window #1: “Holy, Holy, Holy”:  I count myself fortunate to have grown up in a progressive church, one which examined the Bible in its historical and not literal context, yet one grounded in a firm Christian faith, where, in the title to a book written by its pastor, Milton Gabrielson, Beliefs Can Be Reasonable. These beliefs were balanced by a strong commitment to social justice.  It was a big part of my life—Sunday school, youth groups, confirmation, singing in the church choir.  Sometimes pictures are more powerful than words in capturing memories.  Here in an impression drawn from that time:  Sunday morning, the choir in the chancel, led by a thundering pipe organ, sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows, singing the words of the Gloria Patri: “as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end, Amen, Amen.”  It was as if we were in another world.  If heaven had come to earth, this was it, a strong sense of being held by Christian commitment, confidence, and belief. “How firm a foundation”, as the hymn goes, how unshakable, how assuring.  This was the beginning, and, as I shall explain, the eventual return, only in an expanded and more fully developed way.

Window #2: “Into the Mystic”: Perhaps it began when I read A Testament of Devotion by Quaker mystic Thomas Kelly. But maybe it was when I smelled the incense in a Chinese gift store.  I really don’t  know.  At the time the air was filled with eastern spirituality, along with its teachers, scriptures, and practices.  There are several names which may be familiar to you: Yogananda, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Swami Prabhupada, Alan Watts, Ram Dass, Adi Da Samraj, Bede Griffiths, and others you may recall.  They all served to provide an entry point to the great ocean of human consciousness which those from ancient times explored.  One could dive deeply into this ocean to live either briefly or for extended periods of time.  Here all was connected, unified, natural.  It was as effortless as breathing, for it was the breath of life itself. It was enquiry into the root of existence, Being itself.  The door was opened to extensive study and reflection.  I recall especially the lyrics to Donovan’s song “There Is an Ocean”:

There is an ocean of vast proportion
And she flows within ourselves.
To take dips daily we dive in gaily,
He knows who goes within himself.

The abode of Angels, the mystical Promised Land,
The one and only Heaven, the God of man
Is but the closing of an eyelid away.

There was the Book of Tao and the Bhagavad Gita, but most important to me were the Upanishads, those ancient scriptures passed down at some immemorial time from oral tradition to the written Sanskrit language.  For me they were the key which unlocked this inner world and, as the Bible, in which I have never ceased to find new discoveries.

Window #3: “Amazing Grace”: Responsibility for one’s spiritual destiny is a heavy one indeed.  The inescapable conclusion is that few are capable of managing that.  It is clear that the major spiritual traditions have not only discovered but have seen the necessity of grace.  Grace is not a Christian concept alone. The karma of the universe—the scientific fact of cause and effect—is in play both in physics and the fruits of our own actions.  Grace must come from something superior to and beyond that.  Even the austerity of Buddhism evolved to the teachings of Shinran which led to the establishment of the Pure Land sect, a major force in Buddhism today.  There, the grace of Amitabha Buddha makes it possible for all who call upon him to be reborn in the Pure Land.  This has been seen by several Christian theologians as a parallel to their own doctrine of grace.  For me the beacon which led the way was Harold Dittmanson’s Grace in Experience and Theology (1977).  One review states: “Grace is at the center of Christian experience and, indeed, sums it up in a single word. The doctrines of Christianity do not exist as a set of unrelated propositions. They are closely interrelated and give witness to a single reality – the gracious reality of God.”  While the book is an extensive scholarly survey of the development and the variations of this doctrine, it is far more that: there is communicated a sense of fullness and warmth. Its message, and something of which we must be convinced, was the realization of the expansiveness, the completeness, the all-sufficiency, the saving nature of grace, without condition, without exception. Grace is a mighty force and all are drawn irresistibly into it.  This was liberation indeed:  The scriptures mention being spiritually buried with Christ in order to be raised and live with him.  Baptism is, in this sense, a burial with Christ and, likewise, a resurrection with him to that life which is unlimited and free. I can stop trying to manage my ultimate destiny.  All that is necessary is to live with Christ and trust that he will take care of that.  He bids us come, that all has been prepared.  It is not, however, a one-way event.  The graciousness of what we have been given deserves a response.  It is only natural to express what we ourselves have been so freely given. Our only adequate  response is to live in gracious actions toward others, which completes the circle and gives us more grace.  Indeed, grace given toward others is grace received.

Window #4: “Reverence for Life”:  Somehow, in some way, religion must translate into the everyday realities of life.  Here, Albert Schweitzer stands out as a giant.  His formulation of the philosophy of the reverence for life eclipsed all ethical philosophy which preceded it.  It was so simple, yet so universal.  His radical, all-encompassing principle is the E = mc2 of ethics: “I am the life that wills to live in the midst of life that wills to live.”  The hard yet inescapable demand that we enter into relationship with all beings was all-encompassing and placed a total demand on the individual.  Not only was he moved by the suffering of  humans and animals, he once expressed sadness at the sight of a field of wildflowers which a farmer had mowed down by the roadside. This relationship to and compassion for all life is a very real, alive connection, an ethical mysticism which can become intuitive and impart the sense that we are indeed linked to everything that is.  And more than that, it is the model for a better world.

Window #5:  “The Divine Person—the End of the Search”: In the Upanishads, the Svetasvatara Upanishad (chapter 3, verse 8) contains the following verse: “I know the mighty Person of the color of the sun beyond the darkness.  Only in knowing Him does one pass over death.  There is no other path to eternal life.”  The importance of this verse cannot be overstated, for it claims that at the end of the search there is a Person.  Now the question of whether there is or is not a Person as the foundation of reality is a key debate among the various schools of Hinduism, as well as other world religions including contemporary Christianity: do we dissolve into oneness or at the end of  life or do we encounter the Supreme Personality of Godhead ?  Each person must decide what, or who, is the ultimate nature of reality. The argument in favor of the Supreme Personality of Godhood  has eloquently been made by Swami Baktivedanta Prabhupada.  Prabhupada was the foremost exponent of the Krishna consciousness movement in the 20th century, so his teaching does not point to Christ; but a curious effect occurred from my reading his translations and commentaries.  Setting aside the extensive Krishna mythology (not that Christianity, Judaism, and other faiths do not have their own), a straight line can be drawn to the Divine Person in both the Old and New Testaments manifested in revelations culminating in the Word made flesh and dwelling among us both during and after his time on earth. Throughout the ages people have been seeking God.  It is not that through all this time God has not been seeking us.  But now in this season of the Incarnation it can clearly be seen that the entire polarity has changed: the One promised is not only the culmination of Jewish prophecy but is the revelation of other world religions as well.  Supporting this is the record of scholarly Christian commentary and teaching, far too extensive to mention here, which points to this incursion into human history.

What we are trying to discover here is the real.  This is the search of the ages.  Musical director Farkhad Khudyev speaks of encouraging musicians to create the “divine sound” as opposed to the human sound.  He says, “The best analogy I can come up with is the difference between seeing a painting of clouds versus seeing actual clouds in the sky.  The white color of the clouds in the painting, however beautifully executed, is not as intense or pure as the white color of the clouds in the sky.  That is the divine aspect.”  I would add that the same has been said of water: water as a chemical formula, water as a definition, passages in literature on water—none of these can compare to drinking fresh, cold water from a glass or from a mountain stream.  That is the reality of water—there is simply no comparison.   And in the book of John, Jesus speaks of this water.  In John 4:14: “But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” And again in John 7:38: “He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.” This is what we long for, the Person of God revealed in Jesus. And here is a radical proposition:  Some say we are in a post-religious age, where Western Christianity laments its decline and the shrinking number of its adherents.  Could it be that they’re not buying because they don’t like what the church is selling?  What if, instead of the theology of Jesus, the humanity of Jesus, the history of Jesus, the sayings attributed to (or not attributed to) Jesus, salvation through Jesus, not to mention the Jesus who can make you successful or rich, the focus of the church became the person of Jesus—Jesus himself, real and alive?  And what if the church, or more accurately, wherever devotees of Jesus are gathered, became a power center for the Divine present with us, as he was in the manger in Bethlehem, in a place where we could re-establish that relationship every time we visited it. It would rekindle that enthusiasm and commitment that the first Christians felt, some of whom had seen visions of the risen Lord.  And how would that energize and motivate us to make a daily habit of loving service to our world, to change it as we ourselves have been changed?  Could this be possible?  I believe it is.

Light on the Christian path, as I and others have discovered, frequently comes to us from an eastern window.  Swami Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada, while being the founder of the Krishna Consciousness movement, alludes to the person and work of Christ as he amply describes in his many works who the Divine Person is, what this Person does, and what our relationship to this Person should be.  But it is Paramahansa Yogananda, founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship, who has provided a vision so stunning that I feel all Christians should be aware of it, yet it is not widely known[1].  Here is his account: “I was sitting in my darkened room in meditation, praying deeply from my soul, when suddenly the blackness gave way to a celestial opal-blue effulgence.  The entire room was like an opal flame.  In that light the radiant form of the blessed Lord Jesus appeared.  His face was divine.  His appearance was of a young man in his twenties, with sparse beard and moustache; his long black hair, parted in the middle, had a golden light about it.  His feet were not touching the floor.  His eyes were the most beautiful, the most loving eyes I have ever seen.  The whole universe I saw glistening in those eyes.  They were infinitely changing, and with each transition of expression I intuitively understood the wisdom conveyed.  In his glorious eyes I felt the power that upholds and commands the myriad worlds.  As he gazed down at me, a Holy Grail appeared at his mouth.  It descended to my lips and touched them; then went up again to Jesus.  After a few moments of rapt silent communion, he said to me: ‘Thou dost drink of the same cup of which I drink.’  At that I bowed down.  I was joyous beyond dreams to receive the testimony of his blessings, of his presence.  Exactly the words that he said to me in this vision he also said to Thomas, which I never read before.  His words meant that I was drinking of his wisdom through the Holy Grail of his perceptions which he has dropped in my consciousness, and he was pleased.  [Yogananda had not yet read the Gospel of Thomas because at the time of his vision the Nag Hammadi scriptures had not yet been published.  Footnote to Yogananda’s account: “Jesus’ words are recorded in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas, verse 13: (Jesus speaks) ‘Compare me to someone and tell me whom I am like.’ Simon Peter said to him, ‘You are like a righteous angel.’ Matthew said to him, ‘You are like a wise philosopher.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Master, my mouth is wholly incapable of saying whom you are like.’ Jesus said, ‘I am not your master.  Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring which I have measured out.’  Elsewhere in the Gospel of Thomas (verse 108), Jesus declares:  ‘He who will drink from my mouth will become like me.  I myself shall become he, and the things that are hidden will be revealed to him.’] [Yogananda continues] He approved very dearly and blessed me for writing these interpretations.  This I can say without pride, because the interpretation of Christ’s word herein is not mine.  It has been given to me.  I am happy this book is coming through me; but I am not the author.  It is Christ.  I am only the vehicle through which it is explained.”

The importance of this vision is twofold: one, that Christ is indeed a universal savior who, in the words of John 10:16, “other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd”; and, two, that he is the “mighty Person of the color of the sun” of the Upanishads.  For him to be as the Judeo-Christian scriptures say he is must hold true here as well.  Once again, a non-Christian religion points the way to Christ himself.

Direct revelation such as Yogananda’s account is not common, but we cannot disregard it.  The incursion of God into human history as testified in the Judeo-Christian scriptures must continue as a force which is active in our own times.  Fortunately, there are accounts which support this.  In a recent interview with a New Camaldoli monk in a Monterey Weekly article on monasteries in Monterey County, he states, “I started reading and started praying and eventually I had an all-night mystical experience.  I was in ecstasy all night—June 10, 2010—when I met the Lord face to face.  It was game over.  This was the truth.  It was divine intimacy.”  Few of us may ever experience this, but we can catch the glow of revelation from those to whom this has been granted.

One of my favorite paintings and the most evocative of what has been said here is one that you may know as well: Jesus knocking at the door.  The caption of my picture reads: “JESUS AT THE DOOR—The Master is represented as going to every heart and every home and knocking, “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock.’—Rev 3:20.”  Of all the stories of men and women seeking God throughout the ages we now have God seeking us! The course of spiritual evolution has wound itself through the myths of primitive people, through sacrificial rituals, through the mystic conscious explorations of Hinduism and Buddhism, through the Divine Personality of Godhead in the Hindu scriptures and the Pure Land doctrine, and now to Christ in the manger at Bethlehem. The polarity of spiritual seeking has reached a tipping point and now comes rushing back at us in a mighty stream of grace, no longer relying upon human volition.  The affirmative, transcendent fact is that we may dispense with all methodology and may cross the stream (or as the Upanishads say, “leap over”) purely by reliance upon grace.  The thrust of action no longer depends on us.  I am tired of all this spiritual perfectionism, which I could never attain anyway.  The pressure is off.  I can rest in this assurance.  There is nothing more for which I must struggle.  In the words of the old Fanny Crosby hymn, “blessed assurance, Jesus is mine, oh what a foretaste of glory diving.”  All has indeed been prepared.   The Jesus of my childhood is there, as he has always been, but now more real and alive as I have completed the circle and gaze lovingly upon him.  I can once again sing with childlike faith that song learned long ago: “Come into my heart, come into my heart, come into my heart, Lord Jesus.  Come in today, come in to stay, come into my heart, Lord Jesus.”  Amen.

[1] Paramahansa Yogananda.  The Second Coming of Christ: Resurrection of the Christ Within You: A Revelatory Commentary on the Original Teachings of Jesus.  Los Angeles, Self-Realization Fellowship, 2004.

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