Following Jesus

This is not a whine, or complaint.

It is, however, a statement of what is.

25 years ago, this weekend, I was commissioned (ordained) as a Salvation Army officer (minister), alongside 51 other people with whom I ate, studied, played, prayed, preached, and traveled in ministry.  We were – are – the “Followers of Jesus”.

session flag.jpg
Our session flag.

I did so not out of a strong sense of divine calling (in fact, the night we signed our covenants to serve as Blood and Fire officers in The Salvation Army for the rest of our lives, I felt a nearly overpowering urge within me to not sign, a voice, almost, saying this is not for you…), but out of not knowing what else to do.

I was born and bred to serve.

js pledge
My very first covenant with God – signed the day after my 7th birthday, when all children in The Salvation Army can make this promise.  Big promises for a 2nd-grader…

I knew no other expression of Christianity than that which wore navy blue uniforms, called each other by rank, and populated those ranks with souls rescued from abuse, addiction, and overall life trauma.

I was young – 22 – and I wanted to make my parents proud.  This was the natural progression for a young lady who rose through the ranks as a Junior Soldier, Sunbeam, Girl Guard, Senior Soldier, and Graduate Corps Cadet.  “Officer” was next.

cadet me
Cadet Berko (we had no first names) – 22, genuinely bright-eyed and bushy-tailed!

After being commissioned, I lasted two-and-a-half years, miserable every day, knowing that my path had to be different, because the path within The Army could not possibly reflect the joy and peace of God promised me.

Not one day of joy, not one day of peace…just longing for something else.

I was 25 when I walked away.  After much prayer, and fasting, and more prayer and fasting, I resigned my commission and followed Jesus on faith alone.

Against the counsel of leaders, I walked away and followed Jesus.

Even though it broke my mother’s heart, I walked away and followed Jesus.

Not looking back to answer the questions of others and address many raised eyebrows, I walked away and followed Jesus.

The road hasn’t been easy, but along that road I have discovered the love of God in so many different ways, in so many different places, and with so many different people.

I’ve made plenty of mistakes – or what I thought were mistakes. There have been dark spots…places where this sheep was truly lost and could no longer hear or see the Shepherd…

…but it was in those times that I discovered just how creative and out-of-the box He is when He comes to the rescue.

Mistakes? Maybe. Wasted time and life? Not at all.

I do not regret my choice.

I have returned twice to lay service in The Army, and every time, it brought out the worst in me and ended badly – very badly.  No one can say I didn’t try to find a place within their ranks – I most certainly did.

That this worldwide, beloved-by-many Christian church, known for its selfless service to the indigent, the poor, the ignored and oppressed, is not my place is no longer in question.

I have found my place. After a long journey through many denominations and experience gathered from countless forms of vocational and avocational ministry, I have found my place. A quieter, more isolated and solitary place, one that relies on secret prayer, unspoken devotion, and receives no great attention.  No banners, no bands, no flags and drums.  And I continue to follow Jesus Christ with joy, just as do those of my dear friends whose place remains in that band of spiritual soldiers.  Perhaps because it was woven into my very DNA, I continue to love the unloved, never reckoning the cost…and I am happy.  I am at peace.

But.

On the 25th anniversary of that momentous event, I can’t help but miss the relationships, the camaraderie, the sense of unity and purpose and direction – almost a “lockstep” with companions that a more solitary walk with Christ just doesn’t have.  I miss the late night, post-service “afterglows”, the common stories, and the wordless glances where volumes are communicated in an instant.  I miss a common paradigm for life and service. I miss the music…how I miss the music…

commissioning music
Music was always my passion – sung, played, composed…on top, the Followers sing our session song.  I don’t know what we, the band, were playing…maybe it Leslie Condon’s march, “Celebration”, which we did play rather frequently and is my all time favorite…check it out here: https://youtu.be/Ta1q8zswza0)

It is a family – a family within the family of God.

As I look at pictures posted on Facebook of my sessionmates celebrating the 25th anniversary of our commissioning, watching many of their children celebrate that same, powerful event, a solitary tear is trickling down my cheek.  Not one of regret, or even sadness.  It is a tear of nostalgia, a tear of contemplation as I reflect on just how unique the journey for each individual follower of Jesus is.  Unique and tailored to most fully develop the image of our Savior in each one of us.

followers reunion
Can’t believe it’s been 25 years…and Nancy still has her session jacket! Wow!

The day I walked across the stage at the Scottish Rite Auditorium in Long Beach, California, to receive my commission and my first appointment, General Paul A. Rader spoke this Scripture to me, and it has echoed in my soul for the last quarter century:

For the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to shew himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect toward him.  (2 Chronicles 16:9)

Even though my path has been different, and life has taken turns and detours I never even imagined, the Lord has shown Himself strong on my behalf – so many times, and in so many ways.

His tender mercies have flanked me behind and before, and He is acquainted with all my ways (go read Psalm 139!).

I am still, in every way and now more than ever, a Follower of Jesus.

The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far…

In my few moments of free time, I’ve invested quite a bit of money and effort in researching my family tree (you can read more about that in my last blog post).

I got my saliva analyzed…

spit sample
Took five minutes to fill that vial…spit, spit, spit, spit…

…and spent hours reconstructing what is now several hundred years of ancestors, thanks to the good folks at Ancestry.com.

family tree
Just a bare snippet of the family tree I’m uncovering…

I have so enjoyed reading different stories that different distant relatives have put in the files of shared ancestors, watching how the different branches of this tree migrated from various countries to the United States and then across this country, and really just discovering how I came to be.

But my favorite part?

Pictures.  Pictures that show the miracle that we call genetics.

This is my paternal grandmother, Bubby Hannah…

bubby hannah

…and this is her mother, Bubby Pauline (yes, I’m Jewish).

bubby pauline

And here’s me:

Me (2)

Perky nose, high cheekbones, Cupid’s Bow lips, widow’s peak and pointed jawline…it’s all there.  I am their spit and image.  But it’s not just physical; my Aunt Diane, Dad’s younger sister, frequently tells me that I remind her of her mother not just in appearance, but in personality and life.  She was a violinist who worked with at-risk youth at the Jewish youth center in the Bronx.  I’m a pianist and choir teacher who has been a social worker and teacher most of her life, working with at-risk youth in multiple communities.

Not only am I the offspring and image of my forbears, but my very life creates an image of them and recalls their memory for others.  It really is quite fascinating.  This apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree…

apple tree

…and this apple easily identifies the tree from which it fell.

When I was put on the calendar to preach today, I turned to the assigned Scripture lessons and read the following:

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.  For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor[a] he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live,  so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.  For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,

‘For we too are his offspring.’

Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.  While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”                                                        (Acts 17:22-31, NRSV)

And what caught my eye?  We too are his offspring.

What does that mean, to be God’s offspring?  To understand that, we have to go to ancient Athens, where Paul spoke these amazing words.

acropolis-of-athens-mars-hill-Greece.jpeg
The Aereopagus, also known as “Mars Hill”, site of Paul’s most famous, brilliant sermon.

Ancient Athens was, much like our own society today, a polyglot of religious and cultural diversity.  Ancient Greeks were generally polytheistic, believing in a variety of gods and goddesses.  Their observances were similar to ours:

  • They met for corporate worship on designated days;
  • They expressed gratitude for blessings;
  • They asked for blessings;
  • They gave gifts to their sanctuary.

But there was one great difference.  Christians understand God to be the ultimate source of love.  We rely on His love to drive the relationship we have with Him.

The ancient Greeks, however, understood the deities differently.

Greek pantheon
The Greek pantheon – assortment – of gods…some of them…

In Greek mythology, the gods didn’t love humans.  They were fickle, subject to the same emotions and responses and poor judgment that we, as mortals, experience every day.  So, rather than worship being a loving response to a loving Heavenly Father, worship for them was a way to curry favor and avoid offense.  And Paul acknowledges that.  In the King James Version, he calls them “too superstitious”:

Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars’ hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious. For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, To The Unknown God.

In the Greek mind, that altar was necessary to avoid angering a god they may have missed.  And Paul uses that paradigm, that superstition, to introduce them to the truth.  He even goes so far to use their own poet/philosopher, Aratus, to address their practice of idolatry:

Let us begin with Zeus, whom we mortals never leave unspoken.  

For every street, every market-place is full of Zeus.

Even the sea and the harbour are full of this deity.

Everywhere everyone is indebted to Zeus.

For we are indeed his offspring.

(Phaenomena 1-5)

Amazing…if we substitute “Jehovah” or “Yahweh” or “the LORD” for “Zeus”? It might sound a lot like something King David might have written…

So, if we come from God – if indeed we are His offspring – then how can anything we make ourselves be God?  Their idols of gold and silver and stone were just that – idols – with no life or power or love.

We know, from our reading of Genesis, that we indeed are formed in the very shape and likeness and image of God, and as such, we are capable, even now, of very God-like things.  We have the capacity for doing great good in the world, for being creative and innovative and loving and merciful.  We look so much like our Father, we are destined to be like Him.  Jesus Christ, who was the spit and image of the Father, even said,

Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.  (John 14:12, NRSV)

We are God’s offspring, meant to look and act and love and give and be like Him.

It’s awesome.

But unfortunately, it’s far too rare.

In the culture of religious and philosophical diversity that we call home, how often do onlookers watch us and have created for them an image of that “unknown God” that is absolutely counter to the truth of who God is?  How many people look at those who have been baptized into Christ’s body and see:

  • Cruelty
  • Bigotry
  • Judgment
  • Double standards
  • Hypocrisy
  • Hatred
  • Anger
  • Divisiveness
  • Add your own here…

Because, although we can’t create God, just as we are created in His image, we create an image of Him for others.  What they see in us, they believe God to be – and that belief could be the fulcrum, the essential factor, in their choice to follow, or not to follow, to reject or to accept, the Gospel.

Our great example is the Savior, Jesus Christ.  He was the image of God for us.  And as we emulate His life, we can be the true image of God for others.

So, are we, as baptized followers of Jesus Christ, as those who have dared to take on His name, His identity, and His mission, living lives that show the true identity of the “Unknown God”?  Or are we confusing the issue?

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

My prayer is that this apple will lead people to the Tree of Life.