Jesus’s teaching ministry

With many such parables he spoke the word to them as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

Mark 4:33-34; NRSVue

The teaching ministry of Jesus is often relegated to a secondary status maybe behind his miracles, but definitely so when considering especially his death and resurrection. So much of the gospel accounts are hardly considered gospel, oftentimes even considered law with the only gospel, Jesus dying on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins and being raised to life to bring us the new, eternal life. But we need Christ’s teaching as well, to try to begin to understand what forgiveness of sins and new life really means, that there is a vision we’re to live in, different from all the many visions and dreams out there in the world. One prime example is “the American dream,” not necessarily bad depending on context, but I think can get in the way of what is being spoken about here.

It’s interesting that Jesus used parables. Some scripture seems to indicate that it was to hide truth, but I think that pertains only to those whose hearts were not open or ready to truly receive it, but would inevitably misunderstand and misapply it, something like was occurring to a significant extent in Israel during Jesus’s time. I think the parables are primed to reach those who are struggling to understand, whose hearts are being opened to understand.

And Jesus taught the crowd, speaking the word as they were able to hear it. I think this makes an important connection between taking in scripture, seeking to hear God’s word from it, but all of that correlating with our experience. I frankly write most of the posts I write out of my experience, or seeking to make sense of experience, or find a better experience. But none of it is grounded in my experience, but only in faith and in trying to discern truth from God’s word for life.

But we must never forget that it’s out of compassion that Jesus taught the multitudes (Mark 6:34). And we want to do the same. To teach others what God is teaching us with patience, remembering that we most often are slow to learn it well ourselves. In and through Jesus.

trying to see the big picture

Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD!
Why do you want the day of the LORD?
It is darkness, not light,
as if someone fled from a lion
and was met by a bear
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall
and was bitten by a snake.
Is not the day of the LORD darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?

I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them,
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like water
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Amos 5:18-24; NRSVue

Trying to see the big picture, things as they really are will require both an openness and sustained effort on our part. Amos is a prophet who certainly saw, something inherent within prophets, earlier called seers, receiving a vision from God. And often that vision had everything to do with the times in which they lived, seeing the current situation in light of God’s revealed will, eventually in light of the kingdom of God which was and is meant to bring flourishing to all of humanity, to all of creation.

Amos’s words, indeed his calling was not an easy one, certainly true of all the Hebrew prophets. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. echoed Amos’s words in the most difficult task he undertook of seeking racial justice, equality, and reconciliation. King’s passion was rooted in the gospel, the good news of Christ, and the vision cast through that, calling America to the best in its tradition, though it’s not certain that the US Constitution advocated for individual liberty for all, but that’s another topic, and well beyond what I could address (interesting article on this). But after decades and decades, not to mention centuries of wrongdoing to the Africans enslaved in America, the United States went through the upheaval it did hitting against the climax of the Civil War. Yet not ending with that as more was in the works given that much was not healed and made right. True to a significant extent right up to the present day, in fact becoming most evident in recent times.

There’s no question that just like during Amos’s time, we are up against what seems to be intractable forces, or to try to make it clearer, it seems like the fallout is here, that we are going through a perfect storm as it were, that the result of our ways (I include myself in that, too) has pressed in on us. That people on both sides have had enough. During Amos’s time the poor and oppressed could do little. During our time there is both the sense in which they think they can do more, but those who give up are often tempted to despair with a few giving into violence. And those whites who feel their lives are needlessly threatened by all of this, a few of them are ready for violence as well.

Both Amos and Dr. Martin Luther King’s call is entirely different. It is about stepping back and trying to see the big picture both in terms of what actually is, and what God would have be. That comes through being in scripture (Hebrew scripture and the New Testament- considering the Apocrypha with that) and prayer. And doing so in community, but all of this with an eye to try to see the current reality. Listening to everyone, especially those who are marginalized or feel that way. The poor, the stranger, and in this time where I live, first of all the people of color beginning with African Americans and the indigenous, and along with them all others: refugees, Muslims, Chinese, etc.

Unless we do this, we’re not actually seeing as either the prophets or Jesus saw. With the goal of acting in the love of God which Jesus brought with the willingness to suffer in love and out of that same love, for others. Knowing that the good news in Jesus is one of reconciliation of all, involving working through everything that means. In and through Jesus.

the unexpected, the new road, a new goal

There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.

Job 1:1; NRSVue

Then Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshiped. He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.”

In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing.

Job 1:20-22; NRSVue

Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God and die.” But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive good from God and not receive evil?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

Job 2:9-10; NRSVue

After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth.

Job 3:1; NRSV

And the LORD restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends, and the LORD gave Job twice as much as he had before.

After this Job lived one hundred and forty years and saw his children and his children’s children, four generations. And Job died, old and full of days.

Job 42:10, 16-17; NRSVue

The wisdom story of Job is as profound in the wisdom we might gain from it, as it is difficult and even perplexing in the story it tells. We who grew up in church and were taught this story as children became inoculated to the problem of the story. And to some extent I still seem to be. After all, God brags about God’s servant Job to Satan. Satan attacks Job’s character, and then God takes up Satan’s wager, and lets Satan take Job’s wealth then his children and after that Job’s health? Job first responds as one would expect since he is after all a righteous person. But when left alone and before three friends initially present with him and seemingly empathetic, but otherwise all alone, Job begins what amounts to a long dialog, more like monologue since he and his friends eventually enter into something more like a debate. And Job ends up not only debating them, but God as well, though God is not yet speaking. After all the bottom has fallen out of Job’s world. And when you think about it, how can you blame him? It is hard for us to put ourselves into the story.

What was Job’s perspective and view before that? I think we at least can see the influences afoot through the remarks and charges of his three friends. God steps in at the end and gives Job a perspective Job had never dreamed of, somewhat prepared just before that by a young man who had spoken, misspoken to some extent I think, but had pointed in the direction in which God would go. And in the end, it ended well. But was all really well that ended well? After all, Job’s first seven children were gone, all the love, hopes and dreams with them. Seven in the end with more and more children to come, but a hole, nevertheless. But for me this is simply a wisdom story, and not an actual event. And much, much wisdom for us in this book, a different kind complementary wisdom to the other wisdom literature in scripture, especially in the Hebrew Bible.

All of that said to try to say something like this. What about when new and unexpected events shake our world from the outside in, to the inside out? When we’re at a loss and are having a hard time coming to grips with what we see in front of us, what we’re experiencing.

I think that’s when we want to praise and thank God, but also come to God with our own honest thoughts. And then try to listen. And for us listening means plumbing the depths insofar as we can through going through a book like Job, as well as the rest of scripture. That is a lifetime endeavor, not something we can do in a day or a weekend or even in a year. But we start that journey and stay on it, even as Job blessedly does throughout this book.

We can be sure that there is a good ending, even if we never completely understand it. Part of our life now. In and through Jesus.

who are we the sheep following?

“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”

John 10:1-5

We sadly hear and read about “sheep” leaving churches. In biblical language, God and Jesus are called “my shepherd” (Psalm 23) and “the good shepherd” (John 10). There are women and men gifted to be what has been called “under shepherds” commonly called pastors. And the rest of us are called sheep, though in a certain sense that designation includes everyone.

The question today is simply: Why is there the scattering and division of God’s flock? If the sheep were all listening to and hearing the voice of the good shepherd, they would be together, one flock with Jesus. And under shepherds as we take in the rest of the New Testament are in the mix and arrangement as well. Of course the under shepherds themselves, that is the pastors need to be listening and hearing the good shepherd, Jesus, so that they might lead their flocks and be examples to them. But alas, today we have a crisis of sheep being scattered.

And why? Unfortunately we sheep are too often not animated by just the Lord’s voice, if by the Lord’s voice at all. But there are a cacophony of voices causing discord and confusion, along with division. The consensus is gone which can only be present when everyone is intent in following the Lord’s voice only.

What is the cure for this? Simple yet profound, and not easy once we’ve gotten off track. We need to get back to the basics, assess just what we’re hearing, what’s influencing us, and repent of whatever is interfering with the Lord’s voice, so that we can’t even hear him, or are not properly understanding what he is saying.

Not one of us is exempt from this. We need to pay attention to those who are over us in the Lord, as they commit themselves to hearing our Lord’s voice. As we too seek to hear that same voice day after day, and find our way back into safe, verdant pastures. Now and forever with, in and through our good shepherd, Jesus.

being preoccupied with Jesus and his teaching and vision, along with a complaint about the industrial revolution, and encouraging words about Mary and Martha

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Luke 10:38-42

Especially in the past, there’s been many a discouraging word about Martha from this passage, along with encouraging words for Mary and those like her. I’ve noticed a redress to the point where you almost think the passage must surely be somehow exonerating Martha, and not giving the Mary there, the appreciation she deserves.

I think a careful look at John 11 along with this passage will help us appreciate both women, that they were both faithful followers of Jesus. Martha seems to have more of an assertive, take charge personality, while Mary seems more laid back, and more withdrawn. We probably side with one or the other, or see something of both in ourselves.

The problem with Martha which I think is evident in this passage is that she gets so preoccupied with necessary things, that she loses sight of what is altogether the most necessary. And as much as I can easily be withdrawn like Mary, which isn’t necessarily bad, I find too that certain matters can easily take up my complete attention to the point that I’m totally preoccupied with them, and not with the Lord.

That said, I want to say a word of praise for Martha. She surely was a master at what she did. She probably knew how to make up a meal and had the gift of hospitality with a flair. And when you think about it, that served Jesus and his disciples, along with whoever may have joined Martha, and her siblings Mary and Lazarus, very well.

Nowadays it sometimes seems that people change jobs and interests almost as often as clothes. While older folks like me tend to stay with one thing, the younger folks are much more flexible, which in itself is not bad. But for both what can be missing is really becoming good at something, and I mean good in the sense of decades of experience.

But for us who have done basically the same thing for decades, often it’s in terms of the Industrial Revolution in which work was depersonalized in most difficult, even dangerous work, or simply doing one simple thing all day, and all of that for a paycheck from an employer which all too often saw the bottom line as the only thing that mattered. But people were more than happy to do the same thing day in and day out to get what might have been a relatively good paycheck and benefits especially during the heyday of the unions. Essentially gone were the times when people specialized in this or that. With mechanization on an assembly line, it could all be done exponentially faster. Jobs were plentiful in those spaces, so that the breadwinner, normally always male, would get their job, and stay in it. Not only accepting the boredom, but enduring what was rugged, rough, even dangerous work, if it deserves to be called work. And oftentimes probably not living as long as a result. Even though we now live in “the post-industrial age,” we can’t assume that manufacturing jobs are of the past. Worldwide they are present, and still the backbone of much of what is going on in the business sector. All that to say, I think we tend to not even appreciate the gift of individuals like Martha as people once did, and don’t forget that Jesus was a carpenter, and surely a master at it.

The point I want to make here is not: Be like Mary and not like Martha. It’s more complicated than that. Instead whatever we not only have to do, but get to do in life, we need to in everything be preoccupied with Jesus, and with Jesus’s teaching and vision he cast. That is what should be our main preoccupation, even as we continue on day after day with the occupations and responsibilities we have.

And this is to be our preoccupation every day. For some reason I can easily slack off on weekends, and let up in that. I think it’s because there’s an element of rest from the busy and often hard workweek, and a kick back and relax kind of mentality. And we need some of that, indeed regular rest, even a weekly sabbath of sorts. But somehow within all of that we need to purposefully keep our Lord and his teaching and vision before us. Not only to help us, but so that we can find where we fit in our Lord’s vision along with everyone else. In and through Jesus.

carry each other’s burdens

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

Galatians 6:2

We’re told explicitly in at least two places in Scripture to cast our burdens on God. So why do we need to carry each other’s burdens? As one of the ladies leading our church, and who is studying for the pastorate likes to say, it’s maybe not a question of one or the other, but both. We need to be present for each other.

How can we do this? In the context (click link) it is about those who are led by the Spirit gently restoring another who has sinned, doing so in all humility, not thinking for a moment that they’re better. And there’s a sense in which we are trying to help each other in our struggles.

Praying for each other is so underrated. And simply being present, listening, as well. Not necessarily having a word to say, but being sympathetic, by God’s gift empathetic. Taking seriously all their thoughts, seeking to understand their situation. Agreeing where one can agree. All this takes wisdom from God. We need to try to be steeped in God’s wisdom from the wisdom writings in Scripture, and from day to day interaction with God, seeking the wisdom we need here and there, ourselves.

This seems to be all but a missing art and practice in our churches. But when someone does it even a little bit, what a difference it can make. God can and will bless that honest attempt in love to help another. And we all need this from time to time, some probably more than others, but none of us excluded. In and through Jesus.

in these times and any time just pray

Jesus told them a story showing that it was necessary for them to pray consistently and never quit. He said, “There was once a judge in some city who never gave God a thought and cared nothing for people. A widow in that city kept after him: ‘My rights are being violated. Protect me!’

“He never gave her the time of day. But after this went on and on he said to himself, ‘I care nothing what God thinks, even less what people think. But because this widow won’t quit badgering me, I’d better do something and see that she gets justice—otherwise I’m going to end up beaten black-and-blue by her pounding.’”

Then the Master said, “Do you hear what that judge, corrupt as he is, is saying? So what makes you think God won’t step in and work justice for his chosen people, who continue to cry out for help? Won’t he stick up for them? I assure you, he will. He will not drag his feet. But how much of that kind of persistent faith will the Son of Man find on the earth when he returns?”

Luke 18:1-8; MSG

We have “Christian” militants today, some who stormed the US Capitol, and some of them seemingly bent on more violence to come. Then we have people like me who decry and reject all of that as being not of the Spirit of Christ. We both act and react. What if we all took the words of Jesus here seriously, and simply prayed? Instead we either think we have to take matters in our own hands to win a “culture war.” Or we shake our heads. What if we as God’s people, whatever our political persuasion or thoughts about democracy and what is now happening in the United States would just pray and love and be known for our good deeds and keep praying?

For me, aside from the mess in the world, it’s much more personal and close to home. I can fritter away too much time on good things which are important in their place, but miss what is better, what is best, what is most important. If we’re not spending time in prayer and making it the ongoing priority of our lives, then we’re missing out on what God is doing and wants to do, and us being a part of that. And perhaps the most important part of prayer is listening. We bring our requests, our cries for justice to God, and we listen and keep on listening. I believe listening is a part of true prayer. We keep listening. As we do, God will give us what we need.

Jesus ties the need to always pray with faith and his return. Some Christians are making much of Jesus coming back, and that is indeed an important part of our faith. But is prayer the priority as we anticipate that? While I don’t at all share their view of the Second Coming, at the same time I want to be in prayer, with heart awake, ears listening, eyes open. But much of the time we’ll find this all a struggle, that we have the sense of failing, that indeed it’s an uphill battle. And we must not forget the spiritual warfare side of this (Ephesians 6:10-20). God’s grace is always present for us in Christ. We need not despair, and we must not give up. Let’s all learn to pray, pray, and keep on praying. Remembering that listening is a major part of that. In and through Jesus.

leaving the war of words

My companion attacks his friends;
he violates his covenant.
His talk is smooth as butter,
yet war is in his heart;
his words are more soothing than oil,
yet they are drawn swords.

Cast your cares on the Lord
and he will sustain you;
he will never let
the righteous be shaken.

Psalm 55:20-22

Here in the United States we live in a democratic republic which includes free speech up to a point. One can say what they like, any wise or foolish thing, whatever, unless it amounts to harassing or threatening others. Nowadays we know that hardly anything is spared, be it on Twitter or other social media. And even when trying to engage in reasonable discussion, what one believes is true is considered false by the other. It certainly takes the wisdom of Solomon, and the wisdom James shares about the tongue and a life that makes the needed difference (James 3).

It is hard to know how to thread the needle. Some seem to think that one should say hardly nothing at all about the issues of the day. This seems to me to be mistaken, even wrong. But the question would be just what we should address, and then what we should say. While I’m not sure Jesus and the faithful in Scripture would have passed the test here, I think this post is definitely worth considering, not denying the need to speak at times, but making the test stringent. When you think about it, it’s probably much better to err on the side of less said, and try to understate everything. Maybe just point people certain directions so that they can make up their own minds. After all, none of us is Jesus. Though at the same time to never point out what might be wrong just seems to me to be off the mark. And consider what others are saying. Though maybe many of us are just called to pray.

I’ve decided that I need to say less, listen more, and above all, pray more. I so easily get caught up in the windstorm of news and all the violence of words, including words spoken to try to tame down the storm. We do need people of wisdom who might be able to redirect all of us into something better, to true wisdom. But again just how to thread the needle is surely beyond our own ability. We need God’s wisdom and help. It’s too easy to get caught up and swept away, and really end up not helping at all. Jesus’s words come to mind, that we as his followers are to be wise as serpents, yet harmless as doves (Matthew 10:16). But God’s Spirit and wisdom on us doesn’t mean that all will go well for us. Stephen’s case comes to mind here, the first martyr (Acts 6:1-8:3). Of course none of us should imagine ourselves in the same shoes as Stephen. We have to humbly look to God, and find our place. What are we all about? Is it really about following Jesus and what that means for us at the moment? And that will certainly involve different responses from different people. Some of us will just pray. Others might speak out on one issue, others on another. And as Jesus followers we will all seek to be living in God’s love in Jesus.

We need to remember that silence and prayer are probably the better part of wisdom most of the time. And that if there’s a time to speak, we’d best choose our words carefully. We don’t want to get caught up into the war of words. We want to find and perhaps share God’s wisdom: the help we ourselves receive. Remembering that God alone can bring the needed change in us and in others. In and through Jesus.

“listen to your life”

Frederick Buechner is a writer of a number of books, whose favorite phrase may be “listen to your life.” There’s surely an ample amount of wisdom in that thought. 

As followers of Jesus, we need to be in Scripture, all of it, and especially the gospel accounts and what follows in the New Testament. We need to have our ears turned there, seeking to hear what God might be saying to us.

And we also need to be simply listening to our lives, what is happening, what we’re facing, paying attention to ourselves, how well we’re doing, even just how well we are.  We need to try to hear God’s voice, or just get a sense of God in that, also.

Direction from God is always related to life. Life in the big scheme of things, and our part in that. And life in general. So we want to be listening. Just that very attitude and act will help us with the potential to help us immensely. In and through Jesus.

“this too shall pass”

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.

James 1:19-20

“This too shall pass” is a Persian proverb, and common in wisdom literature. And certainly said at least indirectly again and again in Scripture. We live in a day when headlines are hot day after day, and people are hot, angry and upset. That’s the whole goal of some, and the something which is behind that. To get people all hot and bothered, and really a matter of control for confrontation, showdown for a good butt-kicking. I know that’s crude, but it’s an especially crude time in which we live. Even if we “kicked butt” what good would that do? We end being caught up into the same catastrophe.

James gives us much needed help here. Our natural fallen human response is to react in anger to whatever the provocation might be. To be carried along a certain track, manipulated as it were, almost like puppets. Instead James tells us that we need to be quick to listen and slow to speak. Those two need to be held together. We always have a response to perceived evil. Instead we’re to listen. Yes, listen, not speak. Can’t do both at the same time. And we’re to be slow to become angry. Anger just breeds more anger, not only in us, but in those who are upsetting to us. James goes on to tell us what we need to do instead.

Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

James 1:21

In essence, we need to keep listening not just to others, but to God. And respond as God would have us. We do that by responding to God’s written word, as well as by hearing his voice. That requires ongoing listening and effort on our part.

This takes discipline and time. Yes, time. Commitment. It’s not a snap of the finger, simply fixing something matter. But remember, and we’re going have to keep remembering: “This too shall pass.”