25 April 2007

Conversing on Spirituality: The Jesus Model

It’s an important question: as a Christian chaplain in a very “multi” environment -- multi-faith, multi-cultural, multi-in almost any category you can think of (not to mention occasional moments of anti-faith, anti-religion) -- how can we relate to others about our common spirituality? How do we utilise our common spiritual experience (or, at times, lack thereof) to make authentic connections with students from a wide variety of faith-backgrounds?

When I was asked to lead this discussion, I was immediately reminded of one of my favourite Jesus-stories -- his encounter with the Samaritan woman in John 4. On a journey north with his disciples, Jesus intentionally or unintentionally ended up alone in, what for a Jew was, “a bad part of town.” We know that at the time, there was great political, ethnic and religious tension between Jews and Samaritans, and Jesus was all alone on their turf. What can we learn from Jesus about “Conversing on Spirituality” from this potentially anxious and troublesome encounter?

1. Jesus courageously made first contact
The woman was shocked. Later, when they saw it, the disciples were shocked. By simply asking the woman for a drink of water, Jesus circumvented generations of political, social, ethnic, religious and gender barriers and assumptions.
Be courageously comfortable being in the minority
Bravely circumvent preconceptions and barriers

2. Jesus focused on the common desire for spiritual experience
He jumped off his request for water into a discussion about spiritual thirst and how to attain a sense of fulfilment in our quest for supernatural experience. In effect, he was saying, “There is more to life than physical thirst. There is something more satisfying than water.” He touched on the “divine dissatisfaction” which can be found in all of us.
Observe the eternal realities in people’s stories
(e.g., justice, goodness, evil, love, sacrifice)

3. Jesus avoided historical religious arguments
Once you are perceived to be a spiritual or religious person, people will ask you religious questions. “Which temple is the correct one to worship at?” “So who is right in this or that religious argument?” Even though Jesus sensed the sincerity of her query, he looked right past age-old arguments about religious systems and focused on the truth that God is more concerned with relating to people at a heart level.
Don’t get caught up in defending religious systems
Use religious questions as transition points to deeper issues

4. Jesus acknowledged the importance of integrity
Jesus did this in two ways. First, he commended her honesty about the reality of her personal situation. He could tell that despite her dodgy background, she was genuine and willing to be honest with herself and others. Second, he was graciously clear with her that, in his view, the Biblical Story, sourced in the Jews, was the true meta-narrative -- the Big Story that makes sense of history.
Listen for integrity in other’s personal stories
Don’t be afraid to explain why you choose to live according to the Story you do

5. Jesus’ good news: there is a Spiritual God who desires connection with honest, spiritual seekers
Jesus pulls the conversation together with some good news. Religious systems and physical expressions of worship are mere symbols and shadows. Beyond them is a Spirit God who is eager to connect with people. We need to realise that we are spiritual beings. Many of us have terribly underdeveloped spiritual lives and feel a sense of “divine dissatisfaction,” not quite sure of what we are longing for. We are also relational beings. The more we know of the other the better.
Listen for and relate to other’s “divine dissatisfaction”

6. Jesus was vulnerable, open and direct with an honest seeker
By this time, despite their differences, Jesus knew her sincerity and desire to connect with God. He spoke to her as truthfully and directly as she to him, “I am the Messiah.” (John 4:26 NLT). One of my friends refers to this type of person as someone with “the kingdom in their eyes.” Whatever faith-background they come from, they are sincere in their pursuit of truth and a connection with God. For this woman, Jesus skipped the parables and the “for those with ears to hear” statements and spoke plainly to her. Then, one thing led to another: a simple conversation → she shares with others → the whole town gets involved → Jesus stays on for two more days.
Meet them where they are on their own spiritual journey
Look for the “kingdom in their eyes”
Pray that one thing would lead to another

It all starts with a simple conversation.

Painting by He Qi (http://www.heqigallery.com)

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