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Beyond worship: An Easter reflection

So when you get past your turnoff to all the televangelists, what do you see of value in the life of Jesus?” I asked a young person a few days before Easter several years ago. She said, “I’m not interested in all that back there 2000 years ago. I want to know if anyone is willing to take it seriously and live that way today.” She was expressing what so many of those dubbed “American nones” (for checking “none” on surveys about religious affiliation) say about their disaffection from organized religion.

A year ago, fifty yards or so from the Sea of Galilee in Capernaum, I had the opportunity to wander about the remains of the synagogue where Jesus taught in the small fishing village where he made friends. A couple of miles down the road is the site believed to be where he delivered the Sermon on the Mount. I felt a sense of awe in these places, yet as I remember that feeling an idea I read years ago (from a theologian whose name I have been unable to find again) comes back to me: The more we are in awe of Jesus and worship him, the more we distance ourselves from him.

Do you know anyone who wants to be worshipped? Nobody would put it that way, but we all know what it is like to be in the presence of someone who needs constant adulation or who constantly talks about themselves. I don’t want to think of the man at the center of my spiritual upbringing as needing to be worshipped.

If we take a fresh look at Jesus we find an invitation much deeper than worship: imitation. A metaphor so well-known that it has lost most of its power—I am the vine and you are the branches—comes alive again if we imagine that Jesus is telling us: “What flows through me can also flow through you.” A vine and its branches share the same roots, course with the same life energy. When we emphasize only our sinfulness and worship Jesus’ divinity, we deny our connection to the energy that powered his life and sidestep the invitation to live as he did.

Christian mystics have for centuries walked the line between being seen as brilliant spiritual teachers and heretics. It still amazes me that St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) was in trouble in her lifetime for her ideas about “inner prayer” (experiencing union with God in her soul) but became the first woman to be made a Doctor of the Church in 1970. The Church even gave her an additional title: Doctor of Prayer. Yet most Christians I encounter instinctively talk about God as an entity “out there” or perhaps walking next to them. Few imagine that the Infinite for which we long could be hidden in the cleverest of places: within us. Teresa’s words—Settle yourself in solitude and you will come upon God in yourself—are with me daily in prayer and meditation. But in her own time, she was told to just say her prayers the same way everyone else did and give up her ideas about union with God. She was talking too much like Jesus—living too close to his sense of the Divine dwelling in his own soul and in everyone else.

Jesuit theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote: “Joy is an infallible sign of the presence of God.” What is he saying? That when our consciousness is moved deeply (not just to joy, I imagine, but to non-judgment, compassion and forgiveness as well) we are flowing with the energy of God? Yes, that’s his version of the vine and the branches, and he was in trouble for his ideas too. Meister Eckhart, a Dominican monk and mystic who died in 1326 with the Inquisition still trying to get him to recant some of his teachings, preached constantly about emptying ourselves of ourselves so that God could flow into us. “Let God be God in you” is how he put it. He was not deemed to be a theologian in good standing with the Church until the 1990s.

How easy it is to forget at this time of year that Jesus was executed in part because he talked about a relationship with God (“Abba”) that was far more intimate than the religious leaders of his time could tolerate. By calling God his Father they felt he was making himself equal with God. Blasphemy they called it. Two millennia later most people think of their Christian faith in familiar terms: we are all sinners and Jesus saved us by dying for our sins. But there is a different tradition of what was saving about Jesus’ life: the exemplary idea of salvation. According to this theology, it was by giving an example of how to live with remarkable non-judgment of others, love for the lowly and broken, and radical forgiveness even unto death that Jesus’ way of living saves us from a belief that humans must always live from lower or “sinful” energies. His statements encouraging us to love our neighbors as ourselves and love our enemies were invitations to live as he did. They had nothing to do with worship.

Because I easily become habituated to familiar language I am always looking for new metaphors to help me get to deeper understanding than my logical mind can offer. This nested meditation fromNow is Where God Lives captures some of what I’ve been writing about above:

My spiritual path is becoming steep.

My spiritual path is becoming steep-

ed in God, like a teabag.

My spiritual path is becoming steep-

ed in God. Like a teabag

I’ve gotten myself in Divine hot water.

My spiritual path is becoming steep-

ed in God. Like a teabag

I’ve gotten myself in Divine hot water

and cut off the dipping string.

Happy Easter!


Kevin Anderson, Ph.D. is a psychologist, author, and speaker who lives in the Toledo, Ohio area. His latest book Now is Where God Lives: Nested Meditations to Delight the Mind and Awaken the Soul is available at Amazon or