We don't have to fumble and search, Jesus has already given us the master key.
My Dear One,
Every time I’ve started a new job, I’ve been handed a ring full of keys. Usually, even the person who hands them to me doesn’t know what they all go to. They are just the set of keys handed in by the last person who had the job. I then proceed to spend my first month trying to figure out what they’re all for. It makes me wonder if all these keys even go to this place! I think the most recent key ring I was handed may have keys to a mother-in-law’s house from three people back.
We all have our pet peeves. I don’t like fumbling through a bunch of keys to find the one that works. I once had two keys that looked identical but went to two different doors. I was forever putting the wrong key in first. Yes, I know they make color-coded covers for such things. But I think I’m a bit too old to pack around a set of keys that looks like a toddler’s teething ring. I pack keys in my pocket and also don’t like sounding like a jailer when I walk down the hallway.
As a child, I used to hear about people getting a “key to the city” and thought that would be nice. One key and you’re done. But then I saw one actually get presented and realized that, unless we’d climbed the beanstalk, there was no door in town near that big.
This past week I told my students that next week I’d be giving them “the key to everything.” They were a bit skeptical. Except for one, a girl in the back row who clapped. She was ready. Bring it on.
I think most thought I was joking, but I wasn’t.
In my search for a deeper understanding of what it means to follow the Way of Jesus, I really did come across the key to everything, the master key, the skeleton key (so named because it is stripped back to the bare essentials). It is all right there in Mark 12:28-34, the Great Commandment. Love God with all your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength. You can go farther than that if you want and make keys for all the separate doors of your life. But you don’t have to; that one statement holds everything we need to live a faithful life. Jesus said so.
The genius of the Great Commandment is that it identifies all four spheres of human existence and promises that we find our fulfillment when we direct each of these four spheres towards the love of God and neighbor:
Heart (vocational self)
The heart, in Hebrew scriptures “lev,” is the center of our whole being. It is the place from which we both make choices and have desires. God places things on our hearts and it is there they either take root, grow, and produce fruit or they are ignored and die. I characterize it as the center of our actions, the center of our vocational self. Whatever we may be called to do, it is an expression of our heart-sphere. How we love, what we do, how we act out in the world, these are all matters of the heart. And if we are to follow The Way of Jesus, then like him we are direct our every action as an expression of our love for God and others.
Soul (relational self)
The soul, in Hebrew scriptures “nephesh,” similarly means the center of our whole being yet this time not in our heart but rather our throat, the place that gives us life. Air, food and water, all essentials for living, enter our body via our throat. Perhaps this is why nephesh is our throat/soul. It is the center of our emotional, relational self. We don’t have a soul, we are a soul - one enfleshed in physical form. And so when we love someone it is an interaction between two souls, two living, breathing human beings. Our soul-sphere is the place from which we love and interact with others, soul to soul. And if we are to follow The Way of Jesus, then like him we are to direct our every interaction as an expression of our love for God and others.
Mind (intellectual self)
The Mind, in Hebrew scriptures “me’od,” is, once again, our whole self but rather than a noun it is an adverb which means something along the lines of “very” or “much.” It intensifies whatever it is near. It can have many applications and meanings. When Jesus was teaching about the Great Commandment, he used two words to unpack it - mind and strength. The mind is the center of the intellectual self. It is how we choose to process and make sense of the world. It is where we construct our own understanding and version of reality. The mind-sphere is where we draw our worldview. And if we are to follow The Way of Jesus, then like him we are to have a “kingdom of God” view of the world, also known as true wisdom, rather than falsely conclude power is drawn from any other kind of political, social or familial kingdom.
Strength (physical self)
Strength, again a translation of the Hebrew “me’od,” connotes all of our life-force, our power, our might, not just physically but spiritually as well. It is our sense of presence which, for Christians, is always an embodied, incarnate, flesh and blood presence. Our strength-sphere is where we are present and most visibly “here.” This body we have been given is a gift from God, sacred and holy. For too much of Christian history the flesh was set up as foil for the spirit. A proper understanding of me’od, strength, reconciles these two as they always should have been. And if we are to follow The Way of Jesus, then like him we are to to direct our full being-ness in love for God and others.
Everything we are, everything we have, everything we think, everything we do, is contained within these four spheres: Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength. And understanding all four spheres and how they interact with and balance one another is The Way to walk as Christ in this world. We need not search around for other keys to unlock the mysteries of life. These four will do. The Great Commandment really is the key to everything. Over the next few months I will often write a bit more directly about each of these four as we further open the door to each sphere that we might walk through it into the loving arms of God that await us on the other side. I trust that you will find it is a life-giving as I have.
I decided not to keep all the work keys on my keyring. Instead I just kept the one key that gets me into my office. The rest of the keys reside there where I can get to them if/when I need them. After a month on the job, I haven’t touched any of them. The few other keys on the ring I carry with me either get me in my house or my mailbox, four keys in total. Just the basics. It feels right to keep this part of my life as simple and easy as possible.
Let us give thanks that Jesus made it this simple as well. Love God with all your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength. This is the key to life. For centuries the Jewish people have known this and so they recite it daily. Jesus points us to it as the greatest of all sayings, the ultimate guide for life. And in other cultures and religious traditions we find they have gotten to this same place in their own way and by their own words. It continues to inspire and move me almost to tears to think of its beauty and simplicity. It grieves me to watch people struggling through their keyring in desperate search for one that might fit and allow them to enter into a fullness of life they know is just there if they can only get to it.
Let us give thanks that Jesus has already given us the master key we need. Then let us pick it up, place it into the door that leads to the rest of our life, turn the handle and walk through it boldly …
following The Way,
Our Practice this Week: The Four Spheres
Use this sheet linked below to take time to reflect more intentionally on all the ways you direct your life towards loving God and others: vocationally, relationally, intellectually and physically. Try to come up with 10 meaningful ways for each of the four spheres. If one column is over-represented or under-represented, consider if a healthier balance across all four might help you live a life of greater wholeness. Keep this sheet as we will come back to it in weeks to come.