My Dear One,
I’m about to say something that might surprise you since you know I’m a priest:
I do not usually think of myself as a Christian.
It’s not that I reject that title. Indeed, it is an honor to be called one. But it is not, as many suppose, the original name for the band of the people who followed Jesus. And it is the original name I find the more meaningful of the two.
“Christians” is a name given to Jesus’ disciples by people in the city of Antioch, which lies in modern-day Turkey, well over 300 miles away from the land where Jesus lived. These outsiders simply didn’t know what else to call his disciples and so they gave them this name. It was only later that the followers of Jesus started referring to themselves by this title.
Let’s begin by looking at this title first. The origin of the word Christian is simple enough. The suffix -ian can symbolize two things. First, it can mean “from” as in the word Egyptian. In this sense, the word Christian means to be “from Christ,” as if Christ were our homeland. This is a lovely thought and one worth living into more. But it also has the potential to create a separation of us from Christ that can actually work against the whole point of Jesus’ life. (I will write much more on this in a later letter.)
The second meaning of -ian means “specializing in” such as the word electrician. An electrician is someone who understands how electricity works and how to direct it for useful purposes. Here too is a lovely thought, that we might somehow be specialists in the Christ and know how to direct the power of Christ for the betterment of the world. But this meaning also has its limits, reducing Christ to something to be studied, understood, and applied rather than inhabited as the first meaning suggests.
Taken together, these two meanings do a decent job of describing who the followers of Jesus are. But still, that is not the name they chose for themselves. And their original name says much more about who they understood Jesus to be, and what they now understood themselves to be, in light of the transformation Jesus had created in their lives.
The earliest followers of Jesus were known as people of The Way. The title The Way appears no less than eight times in the early Christian history book The Acts of the Apostles. Its earliest appearance in Acts comes in chapter 9 just before Saul, the great early persecutor of the faith, is converted into a follower of Jesus. It reads,
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to The Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
The beauty of the term The Way is that it implies not just a system of belief, but also a pattern for living life in a way different than all the other ways of living that are available to us. Furthermore, it sets Jesus’ Way apart from them. Jesus shows us a particular path, a particular Way, that is so much more than the generalized image of Jesus most of us have when we call him “a really good person” or even “the Son of God.” The Way is a particular pattern of living our lives that does not match the other patterns humanity has created. It is God’s pattern and as we live into it it will seem at first as if the pieces don’t fit the puzzle life has given us. This is because they don’t. The image we are called to create with our lives looks much different than the average obituary. It looks much more like the story of Jesus’ life we find in the Gospels.
The main difference between living life in our default ways or living life according to The Way is whether we live our lives for ourselves or we live our lives for others. Many people live much of life for themselves, accumulating as much prestige, power, and material possessions as they can in an effort to shield themselves from life’s pain and unpredictability. More enlightened people will expand their circle of concern to the members of their family, perhaps putting the needs and future of their children before their own. Some others go further than that, placing their immediate community (work, school, extended family, church, nation, etc.) within their circle of concern, often making inspiring sacrifices for others.
The wisest of us all do not stop there however. The wisest find ways to ignore the imaginary lines between “me” and “you/creation/God” to such a point that they realize the deep interconnectedness of all. They experience God as “I AM” (which is the name God gave for Godself in Exodus 3:13-14). They experience themselves as a part of the I AM. They see Christ in everyone they meet, knowing that whatever we have done to the least among us, we have done to Jesus, the greatest among us. Our individuality becomes something that connects us instead of separates us. It becomes a blessing instead of a curse. We become One. This is the place we are going. This is where The Way leads.
The Way is the path to enlightenment, authenticity and faithfulness, which is why Jesus isn’t the only one to have taught it. Any good person who seeks after The Way will eventually find it. They may use different ways to describe it. The contours of the path may differ slightly depending on where you walk on the pathway. But when observed from afar, it is clear they are the same path leading to the same destination - our true identity in God. As we will see, The Way has been taught by every great spiritual leader in his/her own words.
But this is not the same as saying every path is The Way. There are many paths that claim to be The Way which clearly are not. The question that lies before us is, will we choose to walk according to The Way or will we choose a more self-serving way?
As for me, I AM following The Way.
As we continue on this journey together, let us commit to following The Way, this eternal, universally true, life path exemplified in the life of Jesus. Next week, we will begin to dig into the fourfold pathway of loving Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength that guides us ever further into The Way.
This Week's Spiritual Elders: Thich Nhat Hanh and David Steindel-Rast
Along The Way I will be introducing you (or reintroducing you) to the spiritual elders of our generation. Every mythic journey includes encountering the sages, the mystics, and the elders who will help show us The Way. So each week, there’s a new “Elder,” someone with insight and wisdom you will benefit from. This week, we have two Thich Nhat Hanh and David Steindel-Rast.
Thich Nhat Hanh is a Buddhist monk who rose to the world's attention for his peace efforts during the Vietnam War. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by his friend and admirer Martin Luther King, Jr. Since that time he has traveled the world with his compelling message of cultivating inner and outer peace "in the here and the now."
David Steindel-Rast is a Catholic monk whose message of gratefulness has been a hallmark of his ministry. Drafted into the Nazi army at a young age, he escaped so as to avoid going to the front lines of the war. His ministry has included a heavy interfaith emphasis, especially in regards to Christian-Buddhist dialogue.
In this wonderful video, we get to enjoy these two great spiritual elders as they share their friendship, mutual respect, and life-changing messages. At 23 minutes it is a longer video but it is worth every single second of your time.
Both of these people have written extensively. For a good entryway into each, I might suggest:
Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh
Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer: an approach to life in fullness by David Steindel-Rast
Note: If you purchase any of these resources from these links, Amazon will give a portion of the proceeds to support following The Way. Thanks.
Question of the Week
What are you grateful for this week? How is your life a demonstration of The Way of peace?