Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

To Live Like Jesus

Last week and this week, I have been attending some military chaplaincy training in San Antonio Texas, as a part of my continuing education as both a UU Minister and an Army Reserve Chaplain.  The first week was a wonderful course, put on by the Rev. Dr. Chrys Parker and the Rev. Dr. Glenn Sammis of the Spiritual Fitness Initiative on learning how to spiritually reintegrate and build resilience in my own life, so that I can then help soldiers and others I serve do the same.  It was a wonderful and transformative course, and after the full, amazing, and demanding year I have had as an Army Reserve Chaplain and as the Interim Minister of the UU Fellowship of Midland, Michigan, a course that reminded me about practices of resilience, self-care, and positive meaning making was exactly what the “Doctors” ordered.

This week I’m attending a course on Substance Abuse Ministry in the military, and if less dynamic, it is still a course of vital need in my ministry, and one where many chaplains are sharing the sometimes heart-wrenching stories of ministry in our military in this time.  It has helped me to reflect on some of my own experiences around substance abuse ministry this last year, and I hope it will give me the tools for this ministry as I move forward into a new Battalion Chaplaincy and Assistant Ministry in California.

Now, the overwhelming majority of my military chaplain colleagues who are attending these courses with me are either Catholic or Protestant Christians.  Many of those colleagues are from the same kinds of Baptist, Evangelical, and Protestant traditions that I grew up in.  As we have had class discussions and private discussions this past week, there has been a recurring Christological theme… one I’ve noticed because, in my Liberal Christianity, I do not share it.

It is a difference that I believe asks more of me than it does of my colleagues… and I’ve been reflecting on that difference.

Let me recount it to you with a bit of a conversation I had a few years ago at the Chaplain School with another military chaplain colleague that highlights this difference most clearly.  We were discussing a decision that my Evangelical colleague was called to make in his discernment with his church around finding a placement in civilian ministry.  In the conversation, I brought up an example from the Gospels of a choice that Jesus had made, thinking that this might be helpful in his own discernment around the issue… and I was amazed and perplexed by his response.

“Well, that was fine for Jesus” he said, “but I’m not the Messiah”.

This has been a bit of a refrain during these two courses I’ve attended this week… and in one sense I agree with it.  No minister can be or should try to be all things to all people, and no matter what our heart says we cannot save the world, at least not alone.  We must realize our own limitations in ministry (a growing edge of mine, I know) and we must always remember that we are not alone in our work in this world.  And, the ministry that Jesus conducted lasted less than four years…  I’m shooting for a longer ministerial career than that.


And there is an inherent difference I see between my Christology and that of my colleagues about the nature and substance of Christ.  Specifically, was Jesus as the Christ of a different nature and substance than you or I?

What I have discerned from some of my colleagues who believe either that Jesus as the Christ was fully divine or was the divine in human form is that this Christology releases them from the responsibility to fully follow his example in living our lives.  My colleagues point to me on the day we were discussing his discernment was that he could not be held to the example of Christ, because he was merely human, and Christ was God… the Great “I Am” in human form.

As a Unitarian Christian, I believe that Jesus was fully human.  I believe that the way he connected to God might well have been deeper than the way I do… but it is a difference of depth and not of kind.  God is alive in me just as it was alive in him… even if he experienced that living God within him in a far more personal way that I often do.  Jesus was the Son of God in the same way that I am a child of God… and his example of how to be fully present with the divine in your life is an example to us all of how to be in divine communion.

And so, I am not freed by a “difference in kind” from the example that Jesus set, either as the Rabbi or as the Christ.  I am called to heed his words not as someone whose example I can never aspire to, but as someone who walked with the same kinds of legs that I have, who felt God within him as I do, and who lived and breathed and had the same human limitations that I have.

Now, I don’t expect to be able to live up to his example… but that does not free me from the responsibility of trying, to the best of my ability and in the context in which I live and minister.  When I read something in his teachings or in the stories of his life, and I think of where that lesson or practice could apply in my life, I am not “excused” from following his example because he was the Almighty, and I am a mere human.

No, Jesus and I walked on the same earth… and the weight of that example is with me each and every day.

Yours in faith,

Rev. David

5 Thoughts on “To Live Like Jesus

  1. I shared this post with DairyStateMom for her Presbyterian perspective. She responded:

    “An excellent piece. Thank you for sharing it!!! A great pointer to how easy it is to cop out on certain things. (What, I wonder, would the seminar attendees answer to Jesus’s command to “Be ye therefore perfect, as your Father which is in Heaven”? [Matthew 5:48])

    “I find I’d also disagree with David’s acquaintances regarding the nature of Jesus. I believe (and I don’t think I’m alone among liberal Protestants believing this) that Jesus was fully human — thus experiencing hunger, thirst, temptation, longing and love — AND fully divine — in that his will and his life were so perfectly integrated with God’s will that he was able to realize his true destiny and live the life God intended him to live. Of course that life has struggle and pain, just as our lives do, but we were never promised a bed of roses here — only God’s continuing presence with us.”

  2. “What I have discerned from some of my colleagues who believe either that Jesus as the Christ was fully divine or was the divine in human form is that this Christology releases them from the responsibility to fully follow his example in living our lives.”

    I’m grateful that you were careful to distinguish this as one particular kind of Christology. I know from my seminary training at a Methodist school that the Doctrine of the Trinity holds that Jesus was simultaneously fully human and fully divine. My understanding of this, bolstered by what I learned in systematic theology class, is that belief in Jesus as fully human is precisely what prevents the kind of convenient cop-out conveyed by your aforementioned colleagues.

    I guess my point is simply that it’s possible to affirm a conventionally Christological theology and also affirm our human responsibility to make radical space in our lives as Jesus did so that they can truly be transformed into temples for God’s Spirit to shine through into a hurting world.

    Thanks for a wonderful, thought-provoking post. And thanks for your the wonderful conversation we had over lunch at GA in June. May God continue to bless you and bless through you 🙂

  3. Thank you Rev. Kristin and DSM for your thoughtful comments. And I enjoyed our time at GA together as well, Kristin…

    There indeed are many different Christologies, almost as many as there are Christians. I think we often do not think about how our understanding of the nature of Christ has an even more profound affect on our practice than we are prepared to admit.

    I am often amazed by how, in my experience, the more conservative the religious tradition of a colleague is, the less human they seem to allow Christ to be. I’m pretty clear that I do not accept any difference in substance between Jesus and the rest of humanity, up to and including the “two natures” theory. Christ had both divine and human natures in the same way that all of us have both divine and human natures. Once again… for me the difference between any human being and Christ is one of degree, not of kind.

    That being said, I find that I can find more Christological and Theological commonalities with those who hold to the two natures theory than I can with those who discount the humanity of Christ in order to emphasize a divinity. I have thought for awhile that the move toward the Deification of Christ was a move in the early church to lessen the responsibility of the church to follow his example… and that this trend has continued to develop in the church for thousands of years.

    It is one of the misnomers about Unitarian and Universalist faith that there is a freedom from responsibility… when in my perception it is one of the heaviest moral burdens any religion places on its adherents.

    Yours in faith,

    Rev. David

  4. Great post. I was wondering if you would comment on this post by Mark Silk: http://www.spiritual-politics.org/2011/08/american_crusade.html. It highlights the use of the motto of the Army Chaplain Corps, “For God and country,” in the bin Laden operation. And it recounts one example of what I feel is a dangerous “worldview” – religious war – within our military.

  5. Hmm….interesting thoughts. Thank you for the upfront honesty regarding your background and ideology (many folks will believe one thing and claim another!). One’s Christology (how we view the being of Jesus Christ/Jesus of Nazareth) is rather central to their life and faith.
    I expect that most of your colleagues were probably, as evangelicals or conservatives (or Catholics as well), coming from what would be regarded as the “historically orthodox” position, in like of the Council of Chalcedon, and numerous other historical church councils, putting forth the “orthodox” position of the Christian church on who Jesus is/was, in terms of being fully God, fully man, eating, drinking, sleeping, having BO, bowel movements, getting tired, and the like.
    That’s where most evangelicals and conservatives (Protestants) would stand. I expect the Catholics would be similar.
    Additionally, since our primary source for knowing about Jesus is the New Testament Gospels, we look in there and find a person who repeatedly demonstrated certain amazing abilities we simply don’t find extant outside of comic books and TV and movies (resurrecting the dead, restoring paralytics, giving sight to the blind, etc.). This might seem to put the kibosh on the perspective that Jesus was a human like any other, but more divinely “plugged in.” What he did seems to be requiring more than being “plugged in” (my opinion as least, based on scholarship). Most of the church throughout history thus regard Jesus as having power on the divine side that “ordinary” humans don’t have.
    However, there are those who get nervous with the “immanence” of God, and with details of what that intimacy might require of us. The concept of an infinite-personal Godhead (as the Bible portrays God to be) brings God much closer to us. Close enough to see us every minute of the day, to know our thoughts, and know every detail about us.
    For many current evangelicals, it can be a challenge then to figure out how to “follow” Jesus. Do we follow woodenly this example, of a celibate 33-year old Jewish male (presumably orthodox in belief in his time) who follow his adoptive father’s livelihood of carpentry, who never married, and spent the last 3 years of his life as an itinerant preacher, before suffering a criminal death, and then miraculously coming back to life, before “vanishing” several months later, and leaving a group of followers that would then grow into a burgeoning movement? This is a more literal description of following Jesus, that surprisingly few adopt. Most go for an attitude, or imitating his approach to life (based on a very short amount of verbage in the Bible).
    Perhaps we simply don’t go far enough in trying to understand the entirety of the Bible that Jesus gave us and occupies. I’m sure around here there’s a great diversity of opinion, and I hereby offer mine.
    I would almost ask…why does liberal Christianity not share (assuming it doesn’t) the orthodox definition of Christ’s nature taught by the church for centuries? This seems rather interesting and different. But I’m fairly ignorant of the differences between liberal Christianity, Unitarianism, and mainline Christian denominations. So, please be gentle and gracious in your responses.

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