Monday, August 13, 2012

“Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Matthew 3:15

The first published words of Jesus to appear in the Bible represent an appropriate start to a spiritual journey.

The setting was the Jordan River, where a man we know today as John the Baptist was carrying on his ministry of baptizing believers. When he saw the man whom he knew to be the Messiah among the congregants, John was awestruck. Jesus turned that awe into shock when he asked to be baptized.

John initially declined, saying that he was unworthy to baptize one who was greater than he. Rather, John said, it was he who needed a baptism from Jesus. But Jesus persisted:
“Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." (NAB)
If you accept the canonical order of the Bible, those were the first words of Jesus in his public ministry, his debut. A beginning.

For me, this is the beginning of a new path, too. For the last several years, a number of factors have pushed me away from the Christianity of my youth. In a world that seems to have gone awry, I came to believe that people were inherently bad, and that good was the exception.

This view extended to Christianity itself over time. Instead of seeing the religion as a proponent of social justice, I saw it as an obstacle.

Though there is some truth to that, the negativity became my focus. Instead of praising the good works of people of faith, I condemned the bad. I sought out hypocrites to chastise them for failing to follow the words of Jesus.

But after one day too many of being mad at the world, it hit me. I was criticizing Christians for not helping the poor, but not doing anything for the poor myself. I assaulted people's arrogance, not realizing that it was my own arrogance that drove me in my quest for what I thought was righteousness.

It was time for me to make peace with the world.

I always knew that the word of Jesus was good. It is accepted by even followers of other faiths that Jesus was a man of humility and wisdom whose teachings were those of love for one another. So that got me thinking: What if I went through each quoted word of Jesus in the Bible (there are surprisingly few) to find out what he wanted us to do.

Jesus' instruction to John the Baptist is a significant starting point for such an endeavor. By insisting that he receive a baptism, Jesus made it clear that he would begin his ministry as any person would. He was not a revolutionary who had arrived in Judea to kick out the Romans or destroy Judaism. He was there to change the way people thought and treated each other. And he would do that within the framework of the existing religion.

With that in mind, it became clear to me that I should see the world the way that Christians do. My goal is not to change my values to match whichever faith or denomination is the most compelling. This is not a search for a church. Rather, I want to find the good works and the wisdom that all faiths provide at some level.

My wife and I took that leap of faith (literally) this past Saturday, by attending a service at Daybreak Fellowship, a Southern Baptist Convention congregation in Cape Coral, Fla. Just going to a Baptist church - much less one with a contemporary service as was the case - required that both of us cast aside our preconceived notions. We were expecting either a doom-and-gloom sermon about how the world is going to hell, a bunch of people who raise their hands to heaven but refuse to make eye contact with you, or both.

But cast them aside we did, and we were enriched by our decision.

The congregation was welcoming without being smothering. The pastor, Randy Miller, gave a sermon covering John the Baptist, of all people. After the service, he hurried to the exit to introduce himself to us before we left.

Perhaps the most refreshing part of the conversation with Pastor Randy was that he didn't try to steer us into joining the congregation. When I told him of our plan to visit different churches, he even gave us some suggestions.

Though I am far from declaring myself a Baptist, it gave me great joy to know that I am on to something. Just by opening my mind and taking a step out of my comfort zone, I learned that there is much more to learn.

I will conclude each post with some words of wisdom that I have heard from people around Cape Coral who have devoted their lives to their faith. Most are Christian, but I will seek wisdom from other faiths, too. Some places of worship will be easy for me to go to, but others required me to leave my comfort zone and defy my own prejudices.

Words of Wisdom

Pastor Gary Jones, First Christian Church Cape Coral, on kindness: "Busyness is the death of love. Hurry is the death of kindness. ... If you're going to be a kinder person - which means you're going to be more loving - you've got to slow down."

- online recording of Aug. 8, 2012 Bible study

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