losing one’s focus (and one’s mind)

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life[a] will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

Mark 8:34-38

The call to follow Jesus is singularly one of focus and then acting accordingly. Certainly within the entire picture is all of Scripture, sorting out what is Jesus-like and in accord with the fulfillment Jesus brought from that which is not. Just because some person of God did something in Scripture does not make it right, or at least not right for us today. Remember Elijah calling down fire from heaven, and Jesus rebuking his disciples for wanting to do the same?

How Jesus’s words to his disciples during that time translate into our day is no small order, though I think there’s surely some direct corollary. We don’t have crosses now, but we must embrace the path of suffering for following Christ, and not just in some kind of western religious, salvation kind of way where nowadays so much about that at least expressed is about religious freedom. No, the way of Jesus can often strike right in the face of religious leaders, and certainly runs against the grain of the world’s way of thinking and action. Might doesn’t make right in God’s kingdom in King Jesus, nor lording it over others. Sacrificial, even suffering servant love wins the day in God’s eyes.

I have to ask when I see the mess today: “Are we losing our collective minds?” It’s so easy for us to lose our focus. And then go off on all sorts of directions other than where the Lord is going.

If we’re going to be true followers of Jesus, we need to learn to put first things first, get back to basics in what we’re focusing on, thinking about, and then practicing. It’s a matter of unswerving devotion to Christ, nothing else having that same place. It is also about being changed by the renewing of our minds so that we do not live in the ways of the world. We are called to follow Christ with the difference God’s kingdom brings- into our world, into all the world. In and through Jesus.

against “success”

Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”

They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”

Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.

He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

Mark 8:27-38

I wonder what Jesus would say to us today if he were present in person. We can leave that to our imaginations, and I’m sure many would just think that he would basically rubber stamp whatever agenda they’ve embraced. But would he? Wouldn’t we all have to face his penetrating gaze? Though we don’t really understand him all that well, if at all, he can see right through us.

I wonder if what we consider success nowadays would be seen as success by Jesus. It is often seen in worldly power, or the power of the state, pushing agendas through. Unfortunately when we major on that kind of power, it seems to me anyhow, that we’re clearly leaving behind what Jesus taught his disciples here, and what he would tell us today.

There certainly is a tension between wanting to see good laws and policies, and accepting and learning to live with the reality when what we consider less than good is in place. And of course no political power of this world is part of God’s kingdom in King Jesus.

I like to think that this is not my problem, but I do have a certain view of success which I need to question and bring to God in prayer. It may be good in some ways, and yet still fall short of what the Lord’s description of it would be for me.

It is set here in terms of taking up our cross and following Jesus, yes, to death. Success in the Lord’s eyes seems quite the opposite of success as the world sees it, or as we would naturally expect.

For Jesus it was a rejection of what the world holds dear. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were not on his priority list. Peter must have expected the Messiah to meet messianic expectations of that day. To at least fulfill the prophecies of their Hebrew Scripture in something like was anticipated, an actual physical rule that put worldly empires in their place. Actually the Lord was going to do that, but in precisely the opposite way of what Peter imagined. It made no sense to Peter, but the Lord put him in his place in no uncertain terms. It was either the way of the cross, or a mere human, Satan-inspired way. There was nothing in between.  It was one or the other.

To the present, while I may not care about power politics where I live in the United States, and though I do participate in the democratic process here, I don’t think I have any desire to be a part of a dominant political party. I do have concerns in how the political process plays out, the impact it has on the world, on people, locally, nationally and internationally. I don’t think participation in such a process is necessarily contradictory to our Lord’s teaching, though it could be. It all depends both on what our goal actually is, and also how we think it should be achieved.

For me, success often looks like something I’ve more or less embraced all my life: working hard, providing for family, giving to the church, hopefully helping others, all good things in themselves. But just maybe the Lord wants me to pick up on some things which he considers success which are all but out of my line of vision. Maybe for me it’s more like giving up concerns and pursuits which might not be bad in themselves, but crowd out the better. And to quit thinking that it all depends on me, my effort, which deep down I know is all from God, since actually everything that’s good is a gift from God. Maybe in my pursuit for things which are good in themselves, I’ve lost sight of the greater things. Justice, mercy and faithfulness were called major priorities by our Lord (Matthew 23:23-24). Maybe I’ve seen success in too much of the way the world sees it, by my own effort and poor attempts at loving. Maybe I’ve lost sight of depending less on myself, and more on God. Do I really believe that I can do nothing apart from Christ? Do I make my relationship with him the priority it needs to be? Do I see my relationship with other Jesus followers as central to both their growth and mine, all of us being in this together? Do I embrace humility, and really value others as more important than myself?

Just some thoughts on a subject in which I feel like a mere beginner. But want to learn and follow Jesus.

the Anabaptist (Mennonite) difference

Dirk.willems.rescue.ncs

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:3-12

For some time on my spiritual journey, really beginning around 2000 or so, I’ve been nudged back toward my Anabaptist, specifically Mennonite roots. Now no church or denomination or tradition has got it all right, in fact I prefer to insist on the thought that none is better than another. And that we’re all in this together, for better or for worse. But the Anabaptist tradition has a history to appreciate, and I would like to say, a difference, too. Not unique to itself in that it has never existed elsewhere. But stamped all over its origins.

Back at the time when the church and the state were essentially one in the “old country,” Anabaptists and especially their leaders were persecuted, specifically, executed either by drowning, or being burned at the stake (or even racked, I read) by both Catholics and Lutherans. Yes, it was a different time, and this was the punishment then for “heretics.” The Anabaptists learned the wisdom of being explicit about their acceptance of the creeds of the church. But the hot button issue was their refusal to submit to the baptism of babies. All who lived in a nation then had to submit to that, at least for the most part. And the Anabaptists would not fit an exception to the rule.

The picture above is that of Dirk Willems, a Dutchman who escaped prison, but rescued the one chasing him who had fallen through ice, only to be tortured and executed. This epitomizes the heart of Anabaptism in the best sense of its tradition: Seeking to follow the way of Jesus come what may. As some like to say, not just the religion about Jesus, but the religion of Jesus. With an emphasis on the way of the cross, love for one’s enemies, love for all.

So I’m getting back to my roots: Mennonite. Yes, it’s not exactly the Mennonite I was raised in the first seventeen or so years of my life. But probably with more of an emphasis at being distinctly Anabaptist in a Sermon on the Mount kind of way especially with the distinctives of love for one’s enemies, and never resorting to violence. As well as seeking to be peacemakers. But minus the emphasis on rules of what was thought to be literal obedience to Scripture such as distinctive dress. And more, I’m sure. I have some catching up, and actual learning ahead.

Certainly on many things we are in agreement with the Church. That our salvation is through Jesus in his incarnation, life and teachings, death and resurrection, ascension, and promised return. The promise of the kingdom of God in the new creation. Whatever tradition, through faith and baptism we are all one body in Christ. We’re in this together, in spite of what differences we have.

I’m thankful for my upbringing, and now would like to end there. In that expression within the full body of Christ. In and through Jesus.

learning from our errors

Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.

Matthew 3:8

John the Baptist (Baptizer) was preparing the way for the Messiah, Jesus, in the mission God gave him. A sea change was coming, and the people needed to be prepared. Most of these Israelites were desiring the end of the Roman occupation and rule. They wanted God to fulfill his kingdom promises. So that alone surely increased their willingness to listen to this unusual man in his dress and manner, tell them to get ready, that he was there to introduce them to the Messiah, no less. Hushed anticipation, and readiness to do whatever to be in line, in this blessing. But for too many, on their terms.

We need to understand something of that backdrop and context to bring it forward to today. We too have our expectations, or way of life we think is good, and from God, indeed God’s will, or at least we think his blessing on it. But we may have pretty much missed the boat. What if our conception of the Christian life is hit and miss, surely some overlap by the Spirit, but still falling short of what King Jesus has for us which is a kingdom crowned in suffering, in the way of the cross no less?

I want to be ultrasensitive to the seemingly smallest points in which I fail. Never to excuse them for an instant, but instead, to change, change, yes, change. In keeping with my professed repentance in wanting to follow Jesus, and not my own agenda.

That will hurt and be painful to work through at times. But that is surely a part of the change we need to be together more and more like Jesus in this world. Living solely in his kingdom. In and through Jesus.

Christ’s victory in the world’s eyes

Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

1 Corinthians 22-25

What if Jesus were present today? What if he showed up in today’s world in a rerun of his first appearing? What if he came for the first time into today’s setting? Would things be different? Would he be well received by the world elites- governing and even religious?

Back when Jesus did come, the cross was the means and method of execution. Only enemies of the state were executed. Jesus ended up being counted as an enemy of the state. Why?

Well, to begin with, what Jesus did flew right in the face of the Jewish ruling authorities who were religious and wanted nothing more than God to come and remove the Romans and fulfill the promises they had long awaited. Jesus comes and proclaims repentance from their way of thinking along with the kingdom of God. Not only contradictory to what they anticipated, but actually in opposition to it. If a Roman soldier asks you to carry his baggage one mile, do it for two miles. Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, pray for those who persecute you.

And then Jesus’s modus operandi: He not only spent time with the lowlifes, but even seemed to enjoy their company. Completely scandalous. And Jesus broke all the rules. He paid no attention to cleansing laws. What on earth was he up to?!?

Even though Pilate wasn’t on board with the Jewish leaders in their determination to put an end to what Jesus was about, it wasn’t long before he and the Jewish ruler in a kind of monarch position, Herod, previously enemies, had actually become friends. Why? Well possibly because of their incredulity over this Jesus. Not because of the hate directed toward him by the leaders of Israel, but simply because Jesus was not only a puzzle to them, but someone not to be taken seriously at all, in fact maybe even a threat since what Jesus seemed to be proposing as king with a kingdom was indeed preposterous to the world, and maybe even a danger of some sort that they would do well to get rid of. After all, you can’t run a nation or empire that way. Maybe somehow someway this even got under their skin a bit, even if they didn’t take it all that seriously. An enigma for sure. Of course Jesus’s way did indeed press the buttons of the religious elite.

Would it be any different today? Though it’s a different setting, the core or heart remains the same. To some extent even the church has taken on the spirit and attitude of the state, of governing authorities. Power is valued in terms of force and might. The cross is not about a way of life, but for one’s salvation so they can get on with the normal pattern here on earth with their ticket for what follows afterward in the next life.

So no, I don’t think by and large Jesus would be treated any differently today. In fact I don’t think he would be recognized as Jesus at all by many, even by those who today name his name. The question would be, do they have his spirit? If indeed they do have the Spirit, then, even with much difficulty, they would come to recognize him. But do we have his Spirit when we follow the pattern of this age, and fall in line with that? That in itself is not of the Spirit, but of the world, the flesh and the devil.

What is different about your faith in Christ? Is it just a matter of living a better life, even of love, yet within the system of this world, as a participant in that? Even imagining that with effort and the right people in place, the system can be Christianized? Or is it in the way of Jesus? A way which makes no sense to the world. Refusing to participate in the world’s way of power, but embracing the power of God’s love in a world of hate. Following in the way of Jesus. Not just about preaching the cross, but also about living it out. In love, the God who is love. In and through Jesus.

what is the narrow way which only a few find?

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

Matthew 7:13-14

The small gate and narrow road which only a few find is simply about being true followers of Christ. And with an ear to his teaching, in context: the Sermon on the Mount.

Many might have faith enough to be included in God’s salvation and kingdom in Christ. Just to have faith is no shoe in, though. Many believed in Jesus at one point, but turned against him. We should never be satisfied with simply just believing so that our after life is supposedly taken care of. That is not the faith required. Our faith might start small, and often does. We are all on a spiritual journey, for sure. But the faith Jesus desires is a faith of following him. The way of the cross; the Jesus way. In and through Jesus.

what does Jesus say? (not, what does the Bible say?)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[h] But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

Matthew 5:38-42

Ever since I prayed to know the Lord better, to know him at all it seemed to me, shortly thereafter I’ve been undergoing a slow revolution. It’s liberating, but difficult on a number of levels. One of them is to reject all the more what’s called a flat Bible. 

By a flat Bible, I mean the tendency to want to see a straight correlation between any passage and us today. At the same time there is some application we can receive from any given passage, even if it’s remote and indirect. But to get there, we Christians have to see everything in the context of what Jesus taught, and the revelation that Jesus brings in his fulfillment of all things. The difference that makes, and it does make a marked and even contrasting difference at certain points.

For example consider the woman caught in the act of adultery. Wasn’t the man there, too? But that’s another issue, yet relevant when you consider Jesus’s life and teaching. But to the point: Jesus rejected the Law’s prescription: stoning. Instead he tells the men present that whoever has no sin should cast the first stone. And we know what happened. Beginning with the oldest, they all departed. Then Jesus told the woman to go and sin no more (John 8:1-11). We know that Jesus ends up taking on himself all condemnation, guilt and sin heaped on him at the cross. And because of who he is through that takes on himself what we deserve, so that we’ll never have to receive that ourselves.

Don’t get me wrong, it is important what the Bible says. But as Christians we read every bit of Scripture in light of the revelation of Christ, God’s final word. We have to see everything in light of Christ’s teachings, and his life. It’s the way of the cross for us always, the way of love and forgiveness, the way of mercy and grace in the reality that justice is no longer something Christ followers have to satisfy. That is taken care of in Christ himself. 

All of that to say, this certainly doesn’t make it easy. Easier in a way in that we’re now hopefully walking more squarely in the way of Christ. But harder- given the world, the flesh and the devil. Even for Jesus that way was heaped with ridicule, scorn and eventually the abuse and thorns before the cross. That is the way for us as well.

Difficult to understand. Yes. We need the Spirit’s help. Even more difficult to live, though again through the Spirit we can begin to walk in these steps. As we seek to read and understand all of Scripture in the light of Jesus. In and through him.

scratch where it’s itching

What is God teaching me today? I have to admit I really don’t like that question because it all too easily panders to an individualistic emphasis contrary to Jesus’s teaching. Each of us is important, but we’re in this together, and that can’t be emphasized too strongly given the paramount place individual freedom is given in our culture. 

That said, God still deals with us as individuals, yes, in community, but still as individuals. But when the question might come up about what God is teaching me, most of the time in the past, I’ve probably drawn blanks. I just don’t know. Whatever. 

But the truth of the matter is, God is speaking in many ways if we would only listen. Too often we’re distracted by this and that, and a number of other things. 

A good question to ask is, “What’s itching?” I mean what is troubling us, or how might we be troubling to others. Love for God and for neighbor is the watchword here. If I’m violating that in any way, shape or form, I can be sure that God addresses that in Scripture either directly or indirectly. I can at least pray, and then try to error on the side of love. 

In seeking to follow in the way of Jesus, we need to have an ear to hear what the Lord might be saying to us and to each other. We’re in this together, but each one of us needs to hear more clearly the word that might be spoken to us personally. What we might need to hear as we seek to continue on in the way of love, maybe even seek to get back into that way, following our good shepherd. In and through Jesus.

Jesus says no

From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Matthew 4:17

Recently I took a simple, perhaps oversimplified Enneagram test (#2). It came out “reformer” with a description which seemed apt. I found it freeing since I’ve always resisted resisting. I really dislike challenging the status quo, challenging others. I would rather just try to make things work the way they are. But often when I’ve opened my mouth, it’s to challenge something or another, hopefully gently for the most part. Though as I’m getting older I’m trying to be more quiet. It is freeing though to recognize that we’re wired a certain way, so that we don’t have to keep wishing we were someone else, or had this or that trait or gift. “It takes all kinds.”

Jesus was a reformer for sure, indeed he not only led a revolution, but was the revolution in and of himself. His message was to repent, and that wasn’t only about personal sins. The heart of that call to repentance was to say no to all else except God’s approaching kingdom in him, in King Jesus. So Jesus was saying no to their views of God’s kingdom, indeed to their own kingdoms.

That message echoes to our present day. Directly understood relevance for that day, but really just as relevant today. Anything we idolize and hold up as the ideal, whatever it might be. Jesus tells us to repent, to change our minds, to realize that the true light and life is in him, in God’s kingdom coming and present in him. Everything is to be judged in that light, and not in any other light.

I’m sure our reply, and this includes many evangelical Christians is that the world doesn’t work that way. We can’t live in and run the world according to Jesus, his life and teaching, for example, the Sermon on the Mount. So we’re telling Jesus, no. “No, that doesn’t work. I can only go so far and no farther.” And in doing so, we’re telling Jesus no. It’s not enough to say a little faith won’t hurt for life. It’s either all the way, or not at all.

That’s what Jesus was getting at. A difficult message for sure, even impossible apart from Jesus. But Jesus says no to all our imaginations of what we think we need, what our world needs, what the world needs. It’s either Jesus, his kingdom, which means the way of the cross not just for salvation, but for all of life. Or nothing at all. It’s up to us. Will we repent or not? A call I need to hear as much as anyone else. In and through Jesus.

reading the Bible through the revelation of Jesus

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[a] But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

Matthew 5:38-42

One of the problems Jesus followers have is Jesus’s fulfillment of the Old Testament. It’s not really a problem in itself, but it should end up impacting how we read the Old Testament, indeed how we read the entire Bible. If Jesus conquers in the way portrayed in the Old Testament, blasting his enemies, then that holds good today. We can justify such actions, and even try to Christianize them, put the name of Jesus somehow on them. But if Jesus’s way is the way of the cross involving loving our enemies, praying for them, and doing good to them, then we realize it just doesn’t work to engage in what is called a flat reading of the text, that is to think we can literally apply the Old Testament just the way it’s read. If Jesus didn’t, then as followers of Jesus, we shouldn’t do so either.