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No One & Yet Everyone Knows What to Do

alin-luna-VwpvVCIExUE-unsplashI haven’t written here since March 3rd. I’ve been trying to avoid polarizing stuff, but it’s hard, and the COVID-19 Pandemic has begun to take its toll on me. In early to mid February I was hanging with a friend and he asked me if I was worried about it. I wasn’t. Everything I had heard from US officials was that I didn’t need to be, and we had seen scares like this before that turned out to be serious but not the crisis many feared and which we are experiencing today. By early March I began to be a little concerned. By about March 13th I had cancelled our Church’s annual Spring musical and in-person worship for at least two weeks. It didn’t take long to realize we were in this for the long haul. The adaptive changes were kind of energizing at first as I and our leadership began to shift our way of being a community. Shortly after that, Easter loomed and that bred a whole other kind of energy, as we sought to find ways to make QuarantEaster a meaningful experience. But since then things have changed. 

First of all leadership at the highest levels of government has seemed to do nothing but breed confusion and anxiety nationwide. The crisis continues but now cries to open grow increasingly louder. We are in unprecedented space, with the stakes higher than anything I’ve experienced in my life, and it seems that both no one and everyone knows what the real story is. All I know is this: We’ve taken the most severe efforts to stop/slow the spread of a virus in 100 years and we still have 70,000+ dead in two months, with numbers on the rise in many parts of the nation. 

But what’s really starting to wear on me is this: There is a massive disconnect and degree of confusion about what the next few months should hold. I’m being told that I should be working on a re-open plan for our church building, while numbers rise and guidelines seem to change daily. I’m being told by some that we may be in this to some degree for another year, and I’m hearing that it may be just until June. Minnesota righties are rallying for Minnesota to open and to be liberated from a tyrannical Governor, while Minnesota lefties are now critiquing Gov. Walz for moving too fast on “turning the dials up”. While I’m being told I should work on a re-open plan, I feel like I should be working on a long range online community plan. What the right thing to do seems as invisible and elusive as the virus itself. 

All the while 70,000+ Americans are dead, and here’s where I hit my breaking point: Of those 70,000 a significant portion are from long term care facilities, and for some reason people seem to be taking comfort in that, as it’s often followed with “we can protect our nursing homes”. Friends, with all due respect, we already didn’t protect our long term congregant care facilities! And how do we think the virus got there in the first place? Was grandma out clubbing or spring breaking on Florida beaches? No, the virus was brought there from an outside source. The only way to open and “protect” our nursing homes is to put their staff on full quarantine, which brings a hole other host of problems. It’s one thing to be held at home, it’s quite another to be forced to be held elsewhere. Our elders are highly at risk here. Highly. At. Risk. No one seems to deny this, but (and I do not see this as hyperbole) we still seem to be willing to offer them up on the altar of freedom and economic growth. I, for one, am not.

I am not claiming to know what the answer is. I have no idea. I am confused. But what seems to be true is the most sure thing in protecting lives right now is to continue to “Stay At Home”. But of course this does bring with it dire economic consequences. And that issue, to me, exposes just how dangerously fragile and flawed our economic system is. I’ve said this before and it’s never been more clear to me than it is now: We have the resources to house, feed, clothe, care for, and educate everybody. We just choose not to. The housing exists. The food is there. The systems to keep the supply chain moving are there. The doctors and nurses are there, even furloughed. We have what we need. We just lack a system and the vision to deploy the resources fairly and equitably, and in order to save this fragile and flawed and inequitable economy, we are willing to sacrifice our elders and most vulnerable. Again, I do not think this is hyperbole. I have thought long and hard about this, over many a sleepless and weeping night. 

I’m at my wits end with it. I don’t want to go back to normal anymore. I just want people to stop suffering and dying. I want there to be clear and unified, not muddied and contradictory, messages from the top about what to do. I don’t even want this to hurry up and be over. The hurry only breeds more anxiety in me. I want us to slow down and breath, and simply watch out for one another. If we could just die to the idols of economic growth and political power, we could slow down and really see one another and do what we need to do to care for one another and protect lives. We could. We have what we need. We just need to slow down, breathe, and trust that though the storm may be fierce and long, if we huddle together we can weather it. And, well, you may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. 

With that, I’m going to shut it all off for a bit at watch the LG Twins game out of Seoul South Korea. You see, South Korea and the US had their first reported cases on the same day, but South Korea responded quickly and boldy, and they’re playing baseball now. Go Twins. 

Mark 10:32-34 |To Jerusalem

Finally, after 10+ chapters they are heading to Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the religious center of the day, so, as ones starting a religious movement, it’s pretty amazing that they have not yet been there. This alone says something about the nature of this kingdom of God movement. Normally when some one wants to impact and affect change upon an established institution, they head to the center of that institution. If you want to influence the US government, you go to Washington DC.

But the kingdom of God is not like any kingdom of this world. It is something radically different. It happens not by saddling up with the seats of power, but by being yoked with the powerless and disenfranchised. Jesus has spent his time building this movement on the fringes, on the outside. But at some point he will have to deal with the institutional center, and that journey begins here: “They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem.” And as they were doing so, Jesus is as clear as ever as to how this will go: “…the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him”.

Sounds like defeat. But, remember, this kingdom is not of this world. This kingdom will find victory not in the power of the sword, but in the power of sacrificial, fearless love.

Mark 10:17-31 | Bad News for the Rich?

This is one of those texts that we in affluent American suburbia tend to either avoid or finesse. In Christian circles there is often a lot of talk about heaven and hell, and how to get to heaven. In the end, that’s all up to God, so it’s largely as wasted effort, if you ask me. But in our conversations on heaven and hell, it’s funny how rarely we cite this story,
yet is Jesus is ever more clear than here? In order to “inherit eternal life” you must “sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven”. If that’s true, most of us are in deep doo-doo.

So what is Jesus getting at here. There is a LOT in this passage, and I don’t want to finesse it, because I do believe we have real affluent/wealth problems in American Christianity, but I think it comes down to this: We don’t necessarily need to sell all we have and give it to the poor. That’s what this man needed to do. Jesus is speaking to a specific person whose heart seems to be wrapped up in himself: “I have kept all the commandments… what else must I do so that I can have eternal life?”

This story is not about wealth as much as it is about the posture of our hearts. It matches up with Jesus’ words in Matthew when he says, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”. That is, whatever it is you value is what your heart wants. And for this man Jesus has identified that what he values is his wealth and his own well being. So in order to value God’s kingdom, you must give up valuing your wealth and your worry about “inheriting eternal life”. And this man couldn’t do it. The reason Jesus says, “how hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God” is not that God is opposed to wealth. It is that God is opposed to valuing wealth, protecting wealth, and sustaining wealth at all costs. God is opposed to my security and my being ok with me being rooted in my possessions and my effort.

It is simply human nature that the more we have, the more we trust what we have and how we got it. And conversely, the less we have, the easier it is to trust in something else. The more we have, the more we have to lose, and Jesus has already established that this kingdom is a kingdom about losing our very selves, not protecting and sustaining them. Remember, God wants our hearts, the whole heart (and a heart that is whole). But if our hearts are aligned with our own wellbeing such that we’re implementing systems to protect our wealth, then Jesus may have some harsh words for us.

May we all hold the things of this earth loosely, and may we move to the liberating space of letting go.

Mark 10:13-16 | Do Not Hinder Them

We love this passage, don’t we? It makes us feel really good. But are we really willing to embrace what Jesus is saying here? Do our actions, our policies, our polity, our structures, our strategies and our systems really reflect the Kingdom of God belonging to little children? Jesus says, “let the little children come to me; do not stop them”. Some annie-spratt-gq5PECP8pHE-unsplashtranslations will read “do not hinder them”. These three verses should give us great pause.

The disciples were hindering, were getting in the way of, were preventing little children from coming into Jesus’ presence, and it made Jesus “indignant”. Do we ever really wonder how we, the Church (that is, Christ’s disciples) still today prevent children from coming into Jesus’ presence. We certainly value children today to a higher degree than they did in Jesus’ day, but might we still have a long way to go? When a child gets squirrelly in worship our initial reaction is “that child is distracting me from worshiping”. Or to put it another way, “that child is hindering me from coming into Jesus’ presence”. Do we ever think that the squirrelly child might be squirrelly because we are hindering him or her from coming to Jesus? And, based on what we read here, with whom would Jesus side?

This passage is obviously talking about bigger and deeper things than squirrelly children in worship, but I believe he is also not not talking about that. With an entire generation largely giving up on church, we the Church must wonder about the ways in which we systematically hindered them. As followers of Jesus, may we never stop wondering about such things, and may we be willing to do whatever it takes to make sure our children have a clear path to Jesus.

Mark 10:1-12 | On Marriage and Divorce

In many Christian circles this passage (and its parallels in Matthew 19 and Luke 16) is the guiding passage for marriage. The institution of Marriage a topic of great interest in our culture, as its definitions have been (thankfully) challenged and expanded. So as we look to the scriptures for guidance, we have to pay attention to this passage. But another shannon-mcinnes-FOvVKp7IA68-unsplashreason we have to is that quite honestly the Bible simply does not talk specifically about marriage very much. And when it does, it is highly contextual. So the challenge for us today is trying to get to the heart of such passages, not the letter.

The way marriage (and divorce) worked in 1st Century Israel was so radically different than it does here today, that to stick to these teachings to the letter is like trying to use traffic “laws” from the horse and buggy days here and now. That is not so say that we are (or are not) “more evolved” today, but simply to say that we are dealing with a whole different “machine”. That being said, the important question to ask with a teaching like this is “what is the heart of what Jesus is getting at here?” And while he does refer back to “God made them male and female” and “for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife” (Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 respectively), Jesus isn’t talking about gender in marriage here (for more on my thoughts on how this passage has wrongly been twisted and perverted to work against sam sex marriage, go here). The heart of Jesus’ teaching here is the oneness in marriage. He is talking about the beautiful union that happens when two people join together.

This passage is not about who can get married and who can’t, and it is not about when it’s okay to get divorced and when it’s not. This passage is about what much of the Gospel of Mark has already been about, and about which Jesus has been talking very clearly for the last the two chapters: Dying to yourself. I believe the heart of Jesus’ teaching here is “forget about the nuances of when you’re allowed to get divorced and the repercussions therein, and remember what marriage is all about in the first place- becoming one”. In our culture today we like to boldly claim our individuality. It’s a good thing. But I think the hard message in this passage here for our world today is that when it comes to marriage, you must die to your individuality and become one flesh with the person with whom you’re joining, and begin a journey of becoming new creations together. This does not mean that we lose our identity as a person. It means that our identity changes. And I think one of the big problems we have in marriage in our culture today is an unwillingness to die to the self and let a knew person arise out of this most intimate of bonds to another person.

I am still me and have an identity as a individual person and so does my wife. But I also believe that much of who we both are today is a result of a journey of dying to who we were 22+ years ago and entering a lifelong journey of becoming one flesh. “One flesh” is hard work, but it’s beautiful work. It requires laying who we are down into the hands of the Spirit and into the life of the other. Much of the Gospel of Mark is about laying one’s self down and being willing to die to yourself, and this marriage talk of “one flesh” is no exception. That, I believe, is what Jesus is getting at here in Mark 10. He’s saying “stop worrying about what is lawful, because the reality is that if that’s what you’re looking at, then you’re missing the point of what marriage is all about”.

That being said, let me clear: There does come a times when separation is the best or even only option. From the more obvious times where abuse in any and all forms is present, to the less obvious where the relationship has simply cracked beyond repair, separation can be necessary. We need to get honest and real about those times and cast no shame or guilt upon others or ourselves in them. It’s hard, it’s sad, and in many cases it is also the right thing to do. There are no formulas here. This is hard stuff, which needs to be taken on a case-by-case basis. The ideas we glean from the Biblical narratives must never become more important than the narrative immediately before us. By that I mean, if the letter of Jesus’ words here in Mark 10 become more important that the reality of the struggling couple in my office, then I think I’m missing something crucial. These words did not come, and do not work, outside of a specific context, and therefore must be understood and used out of and within specific contexts. Marriage is deeply intimate, deeply personal, and has at its core the highest of stakes. May we all deal with it and one another gently, carefully, gracefully and compassionately.

Mark 9:42-50 |…Cut it Off… Tear it Out…

Happy Ash Wednesday and Lent, Beloved! I hope you find the space to worship somewhere today to hear the call to repentance, receive the ashes, and be blessed. Here’s today’s post…

One of the most famous parts of the Gospel of Matthew is the Sermon on the Mount. It is among the first things Jesus does in Matthew and takes up three full chapters (5, 6 & 7). Here in Mark, we get it in eight verses from chapter 9 and a couple more coming in 10. Because of Mark’s quick, short and crude writing style, we get a quick, short, and crude natalie-parham-LCn1zhTHU-g-unsplashteaching. The problem with that is that then we come away with a quick, short, and crude understanding of what Jesus is teaching here.

What Mark misses that I think is key to these teachings is what we find in Matthew, which is first of all a connection to the 10 commandments, and secondly, a getting to the heart and spirit of the commandments, not the letter of them. Mark misses that. The Jesus in Mark here seems suddenly concerned with mere moral behavior, which is ambiguous and undefined. It lacks depth. This could be good in that it forces us to look within ourselves to figure out how God might be working in and on us, and this is a very suitable idea for Ash Wednesday, but it’s also so crude in its telling that I find it a bit of a turnoff.

That being said, it’s important that it’s there. All along the Gospel of Mark has focused on Jesus moving from the Son of God who heals the sick, casts out demons, walks on water and calms storms to the Son of God who will be arrested, killed and ultimately will rise. The Gospel of Mark has been about the Kingdom tearing open and unleashing the Spirit of God onto the world. It has been about wholeness, healing, and restoration. In this sense, it’s been a big-picture book (as opposed to a big picture-book). These verses remind us of the importance of the small-picture as well. What’s going on within us matters. How we live our individual lives day-to-day matters. Holiness of heart, mind, and soul holiness” matters.

We must be about the big-picture work of recognizing Jesus as the “Son of God” who both performs miracles for the world and yet will also suffer for the world, but we also must be about the small-picture work of letting the spirit of Christ dwell within us to guide and steer our lives to holy living. Mark reminds us here that though what is going on around me in the world matters, so too does what is going in within.

Mark 9:38-41 | One of Us

So now the disciples are worried about some one else who cast out a demon in someone but is not “following us” . When we put this in context of the story in 9:14-29, it makes me wonder if the disciples were jealous. They have just failed in an exorcism, yet here is some one who is not even a follower out having success. Jesus is quick to shoot them down.

How often do we get jealous when some one who is not “one of us” has success in ministry when we struggle? Or, perhaps we could even apply to this or own business or organization. A spirit of criticism and judgment can come upon me when the church down the road seems to be succeeding while I’m struggling, so I “try to stop him because he is not following us”. I do so by criticizing them because they do not do it like I do. They didn’t check with me first. I find myself nitpicking fruitful ministry in my midst out of mere envy and jealousy- not all the time, but sometimes.

As a pastor and leader in the church, I have seen others have great success in their ministry where I have not, and it’s easy to slip into a spirit of criticism. This short, easy to miss story is a good reminder that we must be careful about our critique of others who are doing good work in the world. Criticism has its place, and that place is not out of a spirit of envy, jealousy or control. So what if they are not “one of us”? If our hearts are truly after Christ, it should not matter what kind of cup in which the drink of cold water comes or from where the cup comes. The cup and the cup bearer are not what matters. The water is what matters. Celebrate the drink of cold water.

In a world gripped in a spirit of criticism, may I learn to be slow to critique and quick to celebrate.

Mark 9:30-37 |Who Is The Greatest?

randy-jacob-A1HC8M5DCQc-unsplashI love that the disciples were “afraid to ask him” about his words regarding being betrayed, killed and rising from the dead. Based on some past behavior I’d say they have reason to be a little afraid. Words like “How much longer must I put up with you” (9:19)
are probably still ringing in their heads. So the disciples move on from their questions and move toward more pressing matters: who among them is Jesus’ favorite. They are pretty much embodying Dwight Schrute and Andy Bernard from the great TV show, the Office arguing about whose title as more authority: “Assistant Regional Manager” or “Regional Director in Charge of Sales”. 

But here are the disciples, essentially behaving like children in that they know this is something they shouldn’t be wondering about, so they were silent when Jesus asked them what the were arguing about. You can almost here them going into pig latin about it: “Icksnay on the atestgrey, Peter…” But Jesus knows. And what does he do? He turns yet another cultural norm on its head: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all”. Then he picks up a child and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

I said earlier that they were acting like children. Children were not held in high regard in those days. In fact, they were seen in a very low light, perhaps maybe just above a pet- loved and cared for, but not dignified. Jesus says that we “must be last” and then he equates himself with the last- with a child. And not only does he equate himself with a child, he puts God Almighty on this level as well: “whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Jesus is once again turning this religious version of a kingdom of the world upside-down and inside-out.

A friend of mine once wisely said to me in a conversation “always be skeptical of those seeking higher office in the church”. I think this is a reflection of what Jesus is saying in this passage. If our level, our office or our position is what matters to us, then we are in trouble. It’s ok to get promoted, but when that promotion, title or office is what gives us our value and worth in this world, we have completely missed what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is about. It’s about one who (according to Matthew) has been given all authority and lays it down in sacrificial serving love.

When we are seeking “higher office” we are walking on the thin ice of falling into being more worried about what I am ascending to rather than what I am laying myself down to. When we are trying to ascend, we can easily and naturally do so by trying to place others below us, and this is antithetical to the Gospel of Christ. The Gospel of Christ is about doing what Jesus did, which is taking the privilege and authority we have and using them not to ascend, but in laying ourselves down to empower others.  What if we all, myself included, were guided everyday by the thought, “how can I empower another today?” What might the world look like then?

Mark 9:14-29 |Ornery Jesus

Ok, lots of weird stuff going on here. First of all, what’s up with Jesus? “You faithless generation, how much longer must I put with you?” He simply does not exude the gentle, meek and mild Jesus we so often think of.  He seems impatient, frustrated and thomas-kelley-xVptEZzgVfo-unsplash-2unsympathetic. There are many potential reasons for this, I suppose. His question here, though, makes me wonder if he’s becoming increasingly aware of the suffering that is imminent, and this is feeding some anxiety and impatience. “How much longer” may not be mere rhetoric, but might be a more honest question about how far off the suffering is.

In any case, here we are with another exorcism, but perhaps more than any other, our modern minds can see that this has all the marks not of an evil spirit, but epilepsy. Though, as we’ve said, in the first century they wouldn’t know this, and the only conclusion for them would be some evil force having taken over this boy. The trick here is that if it is epilepsy, Jesus still heals it via a command against an evil spirit along with the call for faith from the father of the boy. And it’s in this that broad interpretations of this healing can lead us to all kinds of dangerous paths. If Jesus heals this boy’s epilepsy, why not all those people who live with it today? We just don’t know. There is no sufficient answer to this question, except to say that we must be careful when interpreting texts such as these.

But what is going on here is, once again, a display of Jesus’ power as compared to anyone else. The disciples are impotent to healing this boy, but Jesus simply commands the spirit to leave and the boy is healed. Jesus says that “this kind can only come out through prayer”, but Jesus doesn’t use prayer to God to do it. He simply says, “go” and the spirit goes. He doesn’t need to pray to God because he is God. He doesn’t need to access the power of God because he is the embodiment of the power God.

This is a reminder to us that if we are to do anything of God’s work, we can only do it by the power of the Spirit of God. We must actively tap into the presence of God so as to align ourselves with who God is and what God is up to in this world if we are to do anything in the way of being the Body of Christ for the world. Anything is possible, but only when we align ourselves with the active work of the Spirit in the world today. And that takes discipline.

It is in a sense, then, the essence of what it means to be a disciple. A disciple is one who does the ongoing work of aligning themselves with the active work of the Spirit in the world today, in so doing we collectively become the Body of Christ for the world. So be it with us today.

Mark 9:9-13 | Heading Down the Mountain

clay-banks-OOS6bEK6QrU-unsplash“As they were coming down the mountain…” This is a crucial verse. Mountain tops are synonymous with connections with God in the scriptures, the prime example being that it’s where Moses met with God and was given the 10 Commandments. And here the disciples have just had a mountain top experience, seeing the very messianic nature of Christ before their eyes. In 9:5, Peter says, “It is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings”, which is to say, “let’s not go, let’s stay”.

Jesus doesn’t really address that directly, except that here in 9:9 it reads, “As they were coming down the mountain.” We can’t stay up on the mountain. We can’t stay in those safe places where we feel all warm and fuzzy with God. No, there is a world out there, filled with brokenness and darkness and because of which desperately needs healing and light.

So we head down the mountain into the world as an alternative kind of community to the brokenness and darkness of the world’s systems. Elijah is to prepare the way for this restoration, and John the Baptist becomes such an Elijah figure. And his fate was death. This speaks to just how high the stakes are in being this alternative community to the world’s systems. That’s the world into which Jesus and his disciples are heading down from the mountain. And as the Body of Christ for the world today, that’s the world into which we are called as well.

How will we be the embodiment of healing and light for the world around us? That is the essence of our call. Beloved, let us find and pray for the courage to head down the mountain together.