Over the last few months, it has been a privilege for me (on an interim basis) to be part of the youth ministry of our church family. One of the goals for my involvement has been to challenge our youth to develop critical and biblical thinking within the world they live. It’s been an exciting journey! Last week, we sat around late into the night, eating pizza, listening to and talking about music – the difficulties involved in making good, God-honouring choices as well as the temptations to be swept into the subtle (and overt) agendas that are being conveyed through mainstream music. Instead of me “teaching” – we learned together, laughed a lot, and learned how to shine the light of Truth into the often private, ear-budded world of music. For most, it was refreshing, for some, hopefully penetrating and foundational. More than that, this group of young people actually were moving out of Charles Taylor’s view of the degeneration of Western Church, which he describes in his book, The Secular Age.
“The point is, once more, not that we need to leaven Christianity with a dose of paganism, but that our Christian life itself has suffered a mutilation to the extent that it imposes this kind of homogenization. The Church was rather meant to be the place in which human beings, in all their difference and disparate itineraries, come together; and in this regard, we are obviously falling far short.” (Loc. 12293-12296)
Some, perhaps many would write-off these students based on their outward expressions. However, when, with our leaders, we can actually take some time to interact around real life matters you recognize all the more, as Taylor notes, that they have depth to them that is not being filled by the world or even by the church in its traditional forms:
“Many young people are following their own spiritual instincts, as it were, but what are they looking for? Many are “looking for a more direct experience of the sacred, for greater immediacy, spontaneity, and spiritual depth”, in the words of an astute observer of the American scene. This often springs from a profound dissatisfaction with a life encased entirely in the immanent order. The sense is that this life is empty, flat, devoid of higher purpose.” (Loc. 8065-8068)
The message from our youth is consistent with Taylor’s research. Our churches need transformation, our church leaders need transformation and where better to learn transformation than through the Great Transformer, Jesus. The transfer of “form” for Jesus, from that of a divine being into that of a human being is not easy for us to comprehend. Central to our faith is the fact that Jesus retains the fullness of his deity, while living the fullness of his humanity. Instead of wielding his power to create distance between himself and those he was called to serve, Jesus instead causes us to think differently about power as we reflect on how he leverages his power by divesting himself of it, in order to fully identify with all people through a willing submission to the power of God.
This willing action of self-emptying goes beyond the notion of giving for the benefit of others. It speaks to a sacrificial generosity that is willing to suffer so that others might gain. This level of generosity is part of what makes the incarnation so awe inspiring. Jesus doesn’t give out of abundance, but gives himself abundantly. He gives himself respectfully within the confines of excarnated (to borrow a word from Taylor) religious practice as well as giving himself incarnationally to those, who are truly searching for meaning and purpose in life. As human leaders, we have the capacity to participate in and be transformed by the presence of the divine nature through our faith in Jesus Christ. In so doing we gain access to those virtues which shaped his character and informed his actions.
Taylor, in examining the life of St. Francis says: “The transformation beyond our usual scope was a crucial part of what seized him (Franceis); not as a greater personal power (this is a danger of deviation), but as a participation in God’s love.” (Loc. 11598-11601)
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.
We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only,
who came from the Father
full of grace and truth.
John 1:14 (NIV)
The beginning of the Gospel of John makes a direct connection from the eternal aspect of Jesus Christ as the “Word” or “logos” of God (John 1:1). The One who was actively involved in the creation of the world makes a startling transition at a certain point in time, by stepping down into the middle of the created order to tangibly live among the very people he created. This is not just another religious act rather his life becomes a transformational focal point from which everyone needs to give account. The experiences of forgiveness of sin, salvation, and the capacity to daily move through life take on new definitions because of the incarnation of Jesus. Taylor would say that leadership that has ever made a difference is a reflection of the incarnational effect of Jesus: “The irony is that where clerical leadership really managed to transform a community, it was through the personal holiness of the incumbent, and not through his parading the horrors of Hell.” (Loc. 7919-7920)
In his humanity Jesus demonstrated grace in all matters while being fuelled by the truth of God. It is Jesus’ extension of both grace and truth beyond the limitations of his own needs and toward the needs of others that makes His life a compelling example to emulate. “Christians today… live in a world where objectification and excarnation reign, where death undermines meaning, and so on. We have to struggle to recover a sense of what the Incarnation can mean.” (Loc. 11999-12001)
Leadership that reflects the virtuous life of Jesus can turn the tide on the listless, predictable, lifeless, religious orders of our times and serve to stimulate, awaken, encourage and spur on the many people who are seeking to find sacred vitality in the world around them.
- Who or what has helped you to break free of religious lifelessness (excarnation) and discover sacred vitality in daily life (incarnation)?