Empty

Philippians 2:5-7 – Your attitude should be the same that Christ Jesus had.  Though he was God, he did not. . .cling to his rights as God.  He made himself nothing. . .”

I’d like to introduce a term to you.  You might not have heard this term before, and chances are you will never use it in everyday conversation (unless you’re talking to theology nerd-types. . .like me!).  That term is kenosis (KEH-NO-SIS), and very simply it means “to empty oneself.” 

Now, personally, I can rarely encounter this word without thinking of Keno, the game of chance that I have - admittedly - only experienced in Nintendo’s Vegas Dream video game.  I don’t know if the two words are related, but the conceptual connection is appropriate, since all too often the end result of participating in games of chance is empty pockets (at least in my virtual casino career)!

In any case, professional theologians – that is, people who think/teach/write about God for a living – use the term kenosis to describe what Christ did in coming to earth and living, teaching, and dying as a man for all men and women.  And while they might disagree about what exactly it is that Christ gave up or emptied himself of, the idea of kenosis points to the fact that the sacrifice Christ made commenced long before his death on the cross.

One of the most profound lessons in what scholars call the Christ Hymn of Philippians 2:5-11 is the idea that Christ “made himself nothing.”  In the original language of the New Testament, that phrase is “he emptied himself” (that’s right – kenosis).  Paul makes clear that the Son of God would have been well within his Divine rights to stay in Heaven. 

But he didn’t. 

He took “the very nature of a servant. . .he humbled himself” (Phil. 2:7-8).

About those empty pockets. . .

Think of it this way:  Imagine there’s a person in a deep pool – a pond or lake or something.  And this person is drowning.  And on the shore someone (the only person around) notices the one drowning.  Now the one on the shore is a person of some influence (with a cell phone full of speed dial numbers to prove it), wealth (with a wallet and car keys that signal it), and status (with forms of identification and certificates to verify it).  The one on the shore knows in that moment, though, that despite all of this the drowning one needs someone to get into the water and perform a rescue operation.  So, the bystander empties pockets, strips expensive clothing, and dives in, pulling the drowner to safety.

As with most analogies, this one fails to capture everything about the Christian idea of salvation.  But you get the picture:  God the Son is the one on the shore with all the Divine power and status that he holds by right.  But he doesn’t stay on the shore; he dives in to save.  He leaves Heaven to perform a rescue operation.

Is it hard to comprehend Christ willingly leaving heaven to come to earth, in his case ultimately to be rejected by the people he came to save?  Yeah, it is for me too. 

I had a hard time getting off my comfy couch to take the trash out when I was young (and I still have that problem at times, to be honest!).  My wife would be perfectly happy living at the beach, which is her favorite place in the world.  And getting my kids to leave the playground or prying them away from their favorite cartoon?  Fuggedaboudit! 

It’s not in our nature to willingly leave behind the places or people or activities we enjoy.  If it were us faced with the prospect of leaving Heaven, chances are we’d be asking “You want me to leave here and go where and do what?!”

Good thing the Savior is more loving and giving then we tend to be.

And that’s kind of the point.

Same here?

Without God’s help, we are dead in the water, so to speak – bound to follow the natural course of our frail, limited, and self-absorbed human existence.  We don’t need to follow that course, however.  God saw humanity drowning and dove in to save us.  We’re free and clear of the pond.  Sputtering and wet (read:  FLAWED), to be sure.  But on dry land, at least, and (hopefully) drying out.

What’s more, we’re encouraged on multiple occasions in Scripture to pattern our lives after Christ’s.  “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus,” St. Paul writes.  “Just as I have loved you, you should love each other,” Jesus taught (John 13:34). 

And perhaps the most challenging instance of this teaching? 

“If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me.  If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it” (Jesus in Mark 8:34-35).

This is hard for us to digest, mostly because we are taught from an early age to be possessors and consumers.  The twin notions of having and keeping are pillars of our North American society.  Heck, the American Dream is all about what one can achieve and the (especially material) life one can make for oneself.

So, the charge to be like Jesus – who emptied himself of his Divine rights (and, some would say, his Divine power) and gave even his life for others – challenges what we’ve been taught and modeled elsewhere.

Hitting the gym (spiritually)

So, how do we “unlearn what [we] have learned” from our culture to follow more closely the example of Christ?  Simply put:  practice.

One opportunity for practice is the season of Lent that many Christian traditions are currently observing.  The season of Lent is a season of emptying.  People give up something in order to experience – albeit in a small, shadowy way – the sacrifice Jesus made, and to help break again the hold in which consumerism so easily snares us. 

Hopefully by doing this, we can train ourselves to give more and more deeply.

Hopefully, we can learn how to trust more completely and implicitly the God who gave so much for us.

And hopefully we remember that Jesus didn’t teach his followers to take up their cross and go,

He told them to take up their cross and follow.

Bereans and Blogs

This blog almost didn’t happen.

Not because of technical glitches or external pressures or anything like that.  It just seems to be that nowadays everyone is writing a blog.  And the reading of blogs has become a new way to judge whether or not someone is culturally “with it” or even educated.  “Do you read [insert blogger name]’s blog?” is a question I’ve been asked on numerous occasions, usually to find out if I’ve participated in certain conversations the asker deems vital.

More than this, however, I’ve noticed that certain theories or ways of thinking are considered weighty because they come from someone who blogs.  Maybe because we used to judge the validity of an idea or artistic expression by whether or not the writer had his/her work published.  If someone has a blog – that is, if they are “published” online – they clearly are qualified to comment on their subject matter, right?  Such is the assumption that seems to explain why people lend so much weight to blogs.  That and the degree to which the blogger’s perspective is compatible with our own.

None of this is particularly encouraging to someone – like me – who has been debating whether or not to add a voice to the cacophony of more (and less) “qualified” commentators.

So, why blog then?

First of all, while I will be writing a larger percentage of these blogs, this is not MY blog.  This is a forum for a community of Christian disciples, striving to answer the question “What does following in Jesus’ footsteps look like in this wonderful, puzzling, and often challenging world of 21st century North America?”  If you do not consider yourself a student or follower of Jesus, we invite you to participate anyway.  Ask questions and think deeply along with us. 

Secondly, one of the purposes of this blog – and especially this entry! – is to challenge all participants to process carefully, prayerfully, and thoughtfully the variety of opinions encountered, well, EVERYWHERE.  Whether on television, radio shows, social network sites, or – yes – blogs, the standard response should be to test whatever you hear/read.

Our Role Models

In the early days of the church, St. Paul and one of his travelling companions, Silas, found themselves in a place called Berea during one of their journeys.  The Jews of Berea were known for being “more open-minded and they listened eagerly to Paul’s message.  They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth” (Acts. 17:11 NLT).  As a result of this tendency to test what they heard, many people came to accept and live by the truth they heard Paul preaching. 

Because of this penchant for testing, the Bereans tend to get a lot of airtime in evangelical Christian circles.  And for this blog and the community represented by it, they will serve as models for us.

We, too, will explore a variety of perspectives through our understanding of Judeo-Christian Scripture.

We, too, will test the teachings espoused all around us.

All of them.

We will test everything we discuss and match it with the story of Scripture and the life of Jesus, who embodied that Scripture.

If I could give one piece of advice. . .

it would be this:  test everything you hear.  Notice, I don’t say “challenge” everything.  Challenging implies you already know and are on the “right” side.  Testing is different.  It implies a willingness to learn.  The description of the Bereans given above says that they were “open-minded” and “listened eagerly” to what they were being taught.  That’s the basis for testing and will be the basis for ours here.  So test everything.

“Even what you say, Gene?”

Absolutely, yes; even what I say.

I consider myself a student of Scripture and a follower of Christ.  And a human being.  Which means I might be more or less in line with Scripture in my viewpoints on a given topic.

This blog represents a journey – a project of sincere inquiry in the context of Christian belief.  Remember, with God there is grace.  Bear with me.  Bear with one another.

And welcome aboard! 

(It should go without saying – though I’ll say it anyway – that as a forum for a Christian community [and friends], respectful dialogue will be the rule and not the exception.  As such, I’ll be vetting comments to make sure they maintain such a tone.)