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Beginners’ Mind for Christians

 

“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Jesus, Matthew 18:3

It’s worth noting that Jesus said this to his disciples – his circle of confidants.  By the 13th of the 28 chapters in the gospel of Matthew, you’d think the disciples would have had a spiritual head start on everyone else.  But no.  Jesus told them they had to go back to the beginning.  To live in the kingdom they had to become spiritual children – ever humble and open and curious.

In Zen Buddhism, practitioners are told to maintain “beginners’ mind”.  Every “sit” is a fresh start, a new now.  Believing you are an expert at the practice just gets in the way of your practice.  Wisdom not much different than what St Benedict, a founder of Christian monasticism, observed about the contemplative life:  “Always we begin again.” Or what the 20th century Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, wrote about prayer:  “We do not want to be beginners. But let us be convinced of the fact that we will never be anything else but beginners.”

My grandsons bring me back to beginners’ mind on my weekly visits with them.  Jacob, 1.5 years, is a joyful, fascinated beginner with water.  I supervised his bath a few days ago, and watched him experience it in every way he could devise – non-stop.  Splashing it, pouring it over himself with his bathtub toys, waving his hands through it, watching it do the many things water does.  His wide-eyed little brother, two months of age, is a beginner at everything.  Holding him, I enter into holy awe for him and for the awesome universe he is discovering.  Jesus said we must be born of water and of spirit.  Through the water of childbirth, we entered the world: through birth of the spirit, always we begin again to encounter it.

I work at an “elite” university – whatever that means besides the fact that only 12% of students who apply are admitted.  And that 12% don’t get in because they went to Sunday School.  So the religious knowledge of our students – even those who claim to be Christians – is pretty thin.  I started writing books and blog posts about progressive Christianity 21 years ago.  Things have changed.  I started by offering an alternative form of the faith to those who knew something about it.  But now, I must address students – and many others – who are starting from scratch.

And if we’re serious about following the way of Jesus, we are all, and always, starting from scratch.  We wake up in the morning and have to deal with the same challenges and temptations that distracted us yesterday from practicing the unconditional love who is God.

Here’s Christianity – for beginners:

In the land of the Jews, over 2,000 years ago, Jesus was born in humble circumstances.  He began his three years as an itinerant rabbi, or teacher, by spending forty days in the wilderness, engaged in a powerful inner struggle to get clarity about his identity and mission.  Then he wandered his homeland, healing people and preaching to growing crowds.  He found God at the center of his soul, and taught others to do the same.  He spoke and acted with an inner authority, inspiring people to rise above their fears in a time when the country was occupied by the Roman army.   He challenged the people to follow him in living out the radical, unconditional love that is God:  a love not only for friends and neighbors, but even for strangers and enemies.  He challenged the religious authorities of the day to repent from their hypocrisy.  The Romans and their Jewish elite collaborators considered his popularity a threat to public order.  So the Romans tortured him to death on a cross.  Living out divine love to the end, from the cross he asked God’s forgiveness for the people who crucified him.  After his death, at first his followers scattered, but then they awakened to the eternal quality of his life, and they regrouped to continue following him, forming the movement we now call Christianity.  They created and circulated gospel stories – “good news” – to express the overwhelming significance of his life for them.  They gathered church communities around the Roman Empire and beyond.  To this day, around the world, Christians gather in church communities to emulate Jesus’ boundless, timeless, divine compassion.

Christianity is a good religion for the practice of beginner’s mind.  Because at its core, it is simple.  It is about worshipful awe before a love so intense and inclusive that it extends even to the seemingly unlovable.  It’s not complicated, but it is extraordinarily difficult to practice.  That’s why Christians gather in churches to support each other in living out the radical compassion of Jesus.  The Christian religion is fantastically rich with history, art, music, liturgy, writings, and spiritual disciplines.  It would take many lifetimes even to begin to explore its layers.  But when Jesus preached his Sermon on the Mount to a crowd of people who would never hear or see any more of his words than those that fit in a few chapters of the New Testament, his message wasn’t complicated.  No dogma.  No doctrine.  Just an alluring and challenging call to love of God and neighbor.

So let us begin again.  Let us be born of the spirit again, today, here – asking now how to love our neighbors as ourselves – and ourselves as neighbors….

 

Rev. Jim Burklo is the Senior Associate Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life at the University of Southern California.  An ordained pastor in the United Church of Christ, he is the author of six published books on progressive Christianity, with a new one coming out soon:  Tenderly Calling: An Invitation to the Way of Jesus (St Johann Press, 2021).  His weekly blog, “Musings”, has a global readership.  He serves on the board of ProgressiveChristiansUniting.org and is an honorary advisor and frequent content contributor for ProgressiveChristianity.org.

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