Where to Begin

“Rather, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

Acts 1:8 (Common English Bible)

When the king in Alice in Wonderland was asked where to begin, he said gravely, “Begin at the beginning… and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” Begin at the beginning. Naturally, that guidance seems reasonable. That is, until you have to actually open your mouth, and speak. With thoughts racing from one place to another, it quickly becomes apparent that there are many fine places to begin. Jesus tells his disciples, here in Acts, “you will be my witnesses.” Where do the disciples begin? Where are we to begin? Sharing our faith in Jesus seems reasonable until we actually confront that moment – that moment when we are asked, “Who is Jesus?”

That moment came to me one Easter morning. I was enjoying breakfast in a Doylestown, PA diner, looking over the message I would preach in just a few hours. Mary, the waitress assigned to the table where I was seated, approached with coffee and said, “I guess this is your big day, pastor!” “I guess so,” I remarked. Then Mary asked, “What is Easter all about anyway?” Initially, I dismissed her question, not thinking she was serious. But I was mistaken; Mary was very serious. It was then I took the time to really notice her, to look into her eyes and really see her. I will not forget those eyes – eyes that betrayed her silence; silence of considerable pain. “Where do I begin?” I thought. I began with her pain. “Easter means that you can stop beating yourself up. Whatever guilt you may have now, whatever mistakes you have made in life, Easter means that you are to stop immediately from beating yourself up. God has removed it all.”

“But there is more,” I said to Mary. “Easter is an invitation to pay attention to Jesus.” I shared with Mary that as she paid attention to Jesus, by reading of him in the Bible, she will discover that she will want to be more than she is now. “Pay attention long enough to Jesus and you will experience a compulsion to be something more; you will begin to live differently.”  Mary needed to hear that Jesus doesn’t leave a life unchanged. Any significant time spent with Jesus always results in a desire to be made new. “Your whole world will appear different. You will want to be different.”

“Finally, Mary, begin to follow Jesus as you learn about him.” I shared with her that what that means is to “do what he asks in his teaching.” Imagine Jesus as a mentor in life and do everything that is asked of you. Something inexplicable happens when someone commits to doing all that Jesus’ asks: they receive an uncommon power to do so. People who obey all that they understand of Jesus’ teachings receive a power from outside of themselves; a power that actually makes them something so much more than what they were. Mary began to cry and asked how to begin. That is when I knew I had come to the end. And there, in a diner in Doylestown, PA, Mary gave her life to Jesus.



Once Upon a Time in Denmark …

The following meditation is written by Doug Hood’s son, Nathanael Hood, a seminary student at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” Philippians 3:7, 8(NRSV)

There once was a man from Denmark who told a story about a mighty king. The king, said the Dane, was the mightiest in the world. No other prince or leader, knight or peasant dared oppose his will. He clothed his body with rich jewels and lavish robes, and whenever he toured his kingdom he rode in a royal carriage with an armed escort. The king wanted for nothing—no earthly good or luxury escaped him. Yet the king, the Dane explained, was lonely. Then one day, he fell in love. But not with a queen or princess of a faraway kingdom. Not a rich merchant or skilled artist. The king fell in love with a poor maiden from an even poorer village.

Now, the king knew he could have anything he wanted. There were none with his wealth, none with his power, none with his strength in battle or conflict. Yet his love left him paralyzed with uncertainty. If he arrived in her village with his rich jewels, his lavish robes, his royal carriage and armed escort, the maiden would surely accept his hand. But would it be for love or fear? Would she spend her life resenting or hating him for giving her no choice? What if she only agreed to marry him because she wanted his wealth, his power, his palace? Yes, the Dane sighed, he could never truly know her love if he came to her as a king. So this threw off his finery and abandoned his entourage. He clothed himself in rags and went to her village alone. It was there, as a powerless, penniless beggar, that he managed to woo the maiden and win her heart.

Cherish Christ

This story was told hundreds of years ago by Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, a man whose name tends to glaze over the eyes of laypeople who know nothing about him other than his notoriety as a Philosopher with a capital “P.” But Kierkegaard was one of the oddest philosophers of his age, a gloomy, death-obsessed man who juxtaposed the increasing secularization of Europe’s intelligentsia with a fervent yet unusual faith. He passionately loved Jesus yet passionately detested organized religion, particularly the Danish church of his day and age. In the above parable of “The King and the Maiden” he provides a bold explanation for one of the central scandals of Christianity: God’s choosing to be born human and live and die as one. For Kierkegaard, it was only by approaching humanity as a “beggar” that God could truly win its love and devotion. If God had demanded fealty of all creation—not just God’s covenant people the Jews—as a conquering king, it would require fearful surrender instead of joyful acceptance. Only by exercising free will could humanity establish a relationship with God that truly mattered.

But there’s a different reading to this story, one that Kierkegaard perhaps didn’t intend. What if humanity—with all its egotism and excess, selfishness and pride—is the king and Christ the maiden? We certainly see this idea reflected in the story of Paul, a dogmatic Pharisee who abandoned his fundamentalist insistence on rules and regulations after an encounter with Jesus. After finding Christ, he cast off all his wealth and love of legalism for a closer, truer relationship with God. Everything he once held dear in his life he “regarded as rubbish” after his conversion, casting them off as Kierkegaard’s king did his wealth and finery to court his beloved maiden. So too must we all reassess and reevaluate what we cherish in our own lives. Is our quest for wealth and power keeping us from loving our neighbors as we do ourselves? Is our desire for material luxuries or sex preventing us from living the kind of simple, righteous lives Jesus called us to? Are we too busy living as kings to remember that we’ve been called to live as beloved children of the Almighty?