Living in a Jesus World

Jesus would love West Michigan!  After all, Jesus said that he came that we may have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10).  And we do enjoy the good life in West Michigan, at least according to The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, which interviewed more than 353,000 Americans in 162 large and medium-sizedU.S. cities during 2009.

The survey asked individuals to assess their present life, jobs, physical health, emotional state of mind, healthy behaviors, and access to basic services.  Many of the top ranking cities are out West, are fairly prosperous, and have a major university, military installation, or state Capital.

It’s no surprise that Boulder, Colorado ranked as the happiest city in the U.S. and that Honolulu, Hawaii, Provo, Utah, and Santa Rosa, California were in the top 5.  So how in the world did Holland-Grand Haven slip into the #2 spot? 

In fact, when the survey was released earlier this year, ABC’s “World News with Diane Sawyer” did not travel to Boulder but chose to feature Holland, Michigan instead.  How could a small city in an economically depressed area of the state with the highest unemployment rate in the country rank second in health and well-being?

In her broadcast, host Sawyer said that Holland, known for its “horrible blizzards and horrible unemployment,” also has an abundance of churches, a religion that reaches out, many willing volunteers, a reputation for generosity, strong family bonds, and a low crime rate.  Sawyer said, “Think of it as a city still living in the Norman Rockwell world.”

Since reading the survey, I’ve been ruminating about the role that religion may play in Holland-Grand Haven’s #2 ranking.  Although we have a lot of United Methodist churches in West Michigan, our region is dominated by a Dutch Reformed church ethos, which does impact our culture and way of life.

Since my own vision for ministry in the Grand Rapids District is healthy churches and healthy pastors, I wonder if people of faith are, indeed, having a positive effect on the health of the region.  I’d like to think that we experience a greater sense of well-being inWest Michigan because we are serious about living like Jesus and because others are inspired by our example.

Rev. Ed. Dobson, pastor emeritus of Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, has written a book called The Year of Living Like Jesus; My Journey of Discovering What Jesus Would Really Do.  During the year 2008, Dobson chronicled his attempt to actually live as he thought Jesus would if he were alive today.  He read the gospels 32 times, grew a beard, dressed in a white shirt with Orthodox Jewish tassels, ate kosher, practiced Sabbath and Jewish holy days, and engaged in Jewish, Orthodox, and Catholic prayer practices.  Dobson even took up drinking alcohol, which was a bit of a problem when he accepted a position as Vice-President of Spiritual Formation at Cornerstone University, where faculty were pledged to abstinence.

Dobson’s book is a fascinating exploration of the feasibility of translating a first century Jewish lifestyle into 21st century West Michigan.  But the greatest challenge Dobson faced in 2008 was not his lifestyle choices but how others perceived those choices.  Case in point: how would Jesus have voted in the 2008 presidential election?

Ed Dobson worked for Jerry Falwell for many years before becoming pastor of Calvary Church inGrand Rapids.  He was a conservative, Republican, evangelical Christian who never once voted for a Democrat!  In 2008, however, Dobson decided that the 3 major areas of Jesus’ teaching should guide his voting decision:

  • Treatment of the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed
  • Treatment of one’s enemies
  • Commitment to peacemaking

Dobson’s reading of the gospels led him to vote for Barack Obama.  He wrote that he did not vote for Senator Obama because he promised to bring change or hope, or because he would be the first African-American president.  He voted for Obama because he, of all the other candidates, best represented the teachings of Jesus.

When Charles Honey, religion editor for the Grand Rapids Press, interviewed Dobson about his year of living as Jesus would have lived, the resulting feature was carried by newspapers all over the country and elicited hundreds of responses, most of which were critical.  Evidently, living like Jesus is controversial.  However, the controversy was not with those outside the church, but with “Bible-believing” Christians who were offended by the revelation of his drinking and by the fact that that Dobson voted for a pro-choice presidential candidate. 

Does West Michigan have the second greatest well-being in the country because it’s such a religious place?  I wonder if religion can sometimes be more of an impediment to health and wholeness than an encourager.  When faith leads us to become biased, unloving, prejudiced, close-minded, and judgmental, the result is never shalom.

From June 3-6 the 42nd session of the West Michigan Annual Conference took place at Calvin College in Grand Rapids.  We were inspired through worship, giving, workshops, a mission fair, and the ordination service.  Our plenaries revolved around how congregations are called to respond to Jesus’ primary teachings concerning our treatment of the poor, the homeless, the hopeless, and the helpless in our local communities and around the world.  We also voted on significant legislative items that have the potential to impact the future of our conference for years to come.  We had the opportunity to live like Jesus lived or be driven by our own agendas and personal preferences.

Despite differences of opinion, we engaged in respectful dialogue.  We listened carefully, honored those who disagreed, and did not attribute false motives to others.  Rules, regulations, and the temptation to become enslaved to budgets did not blind us to the possibilities for ministry.  We became living, breathing embodiments of compassion, caring, health, and wholeness.  In short, we allowed Jesus to be present at annual conference, sit beside us, and inform our decisions.  We lived in a Jesus world at annual conference.

The most important question, however, is this: when we leave annual conference (or when we leave our churches after Sunday worship, for that matter), can we create a Jesus world for all people?   Can we pull it off?  Most of us don’t have time to read the gospels through every week, we can’t grow a megabeard like Ed Dobson, and we are not able to eat kosher for a year.  But, as Dobson discovered, spiritual disciplines are simply tools to transform our hearts.

In the midst of increasing polarization, egged on by talk radio, cable TV, and politicians, where radical rhetoric increases ratings by presenting only 2 diametrically opposed opinions on any given topic, where is the voice of the church?  Can we make a commitment to promote a Jesus world where we love our enemies, practice shalom, and reach out to the very least of God’s children?  Will we continually ask ourselves, “How will the teachings of Jesus impact my words, actions, and decision-making today?”

If we could only trade our Norman Rockwell world for a Jesus world, not only would our own hearts be transformed, but our families, neighborhoods, churches, communities, and world would be transformed as well.  When that happens, maybe we’ll catch up to and even surpassBoulder as having the greatest health and well-being in the country.

Not that Jesus was competitive.  I’m still trying to live like Jesus myself.

Blessings, Laurie

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