Jesus cared about the means

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I’ve been thinking about the means and the ends a lot lately.  The means are how things are done, the process.  The ends are the results, the fulfillment of an action.  There is an age-old belief that the ends justify the means.  If that is so, then it doesn’t matter what you do, or how you act, or how you treat others so long as you get what you want.  If the ends justify the means, then it is perfectly acceptable to manipulate people, to dehumanize and degrade people, to abuse people, and even to use violence.  It’s the ends that matter after all.  This is the theology of this world, of politics and certain politicians (both current and from throughout history).

But what did Jesus think about the means and the ends?  If we are to call ourselves followers of Jesus, then we probably should not only pay attention to what Jesus said, but also follow it.  Or we should just be honest and stop claiming to be a follower of Jesus.

‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.

(Matthew 7:15-20)

The tree is the thing that bears fruit.  It is the means to the end.  The end is the fruit.  And Jesus is saying that bad trees produce bad fruit while good trees produce good fruit.  Going back to the main question and applying Jesus’ logic, it might sound like this.  Good means produce good ends.  Bad means produce bad ends.

Here’s another passage that makes the case even clearer:

‘Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!’

(Matthew 7:24-27)

If you were to build a house, would you only care about the end product – a house that is built?  Or would care about what was going into that house and how it was built, what products were used, and who the laborers were?  If the house is built well, it will be a good house.  If it’s done shoddy, the house will be shoddy.  The ends are far less important than the means of how the house came to be.

Yet, why does this idea of the ends justify the means persist when we know that it is wrong?  Why, especially does this idea carry any weight within the church, the institution that supposedly claims to follow Jesus?  I have heard self-proclaimed Christians, and even pastors speak of this belief system.  I have watched them carry it out.  And I have wondered, how is this following Jesus and his way?

It’s not.  There’s no other way around it.

Jesus concerned himself with the means.  Discipleship is about the means – a way of living.  Ministry is about the means.  Mission is about the means.  If the end was all that mattered, then God would make us as robots and get the result God wanted from all of us.  But God is love.  And love isn’t about being controlling, but rather invitation to deep relationship and community.  Love is the means.  The ends will take care of themselves.  Jesus calls us to be good trees, to build the house on a solid foundation, to follow his way of living and discipleship.  The means are important.  The means are what following Jesus is all about.

Same thing, different name vs. something special

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Nazi Luftwaffe commander Hermann Goering was interviewed in a Nuremberg prison during his trial after the war for crimes against humanity and other such atrocities.

He spoke about ways to get common people to war – to leave their lives to fight.  He acknowledged that most people don’t want to do it – they have nothing to gain and are lucky to come back alive.

Here’s the quote that caught my attention:

Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.

(Source:  https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/war-games/)

This isn’t new.  And it didn’t start with the Nazis.  Nor are they the last ideological group to use this line of reasoning.  As I’ve been saying recently, there is nothing special about this way of thinking.  Nothing at all.  There never has been and there never will be.  There’s nothing special about the leaders who espouse this way of thinking either – regardless what ideology they label themselves with.  Nothing unique, nothing special.  They do the same things, speak the same ways, dehumanize people the same way, divide people the same way, create fear the same way, use anger the same way, get the same results, bring about the same destruction, and have the same followers.  The only thing that is unique is the name of the person holding the ideology.

The same is true of theology that is not life-giving.  There have been plenty of theologies that believe in a vindictive and small god who is full of wrath and only wrath.  Let’s call these theologies what they really are – pathetic.  They become about the personalities of the followers and how they live, rather than about any deity.  The deity and their way becomes justification for the followers doing violence to others.  There’s nothing special about these gods and theologies.  They are pathetic at best, destructive at worst.  They are just like the ideologies – same thing, just a different name.

Fear comes in relation to these things because people buy into the lie that these people, their beliefs, and their gods are unique and unlike anything or anyone before them – so that people don’t know how to deal with them.  When we realize that they are not special, not the first of their kind, and are in fact a flawed repeat that ended in death, then they lose their power to enthrall people.  They lose conformity.  They lose respect.  They only have threats of and acts of violence against those who will not comply with them.

These ideologies and theologies do not deserve fear as a response.  They deserve to be treated for what they actually are – predictable, unspecial in every way, irrational, destructive.

They deserve to be spoken out against so we don’t repeat the same mistakes and suffer the same destruction.

More importantly, people deserve to have an alternative way proclaimed in contrast to what they offer – which is nothing special at all.  People deserve an alternative vision for what the world can be like, rather than a tired, old, unspecial way that leads to death.

What would that alternative way be?  New life, thriving life for all.  For Christians it is the image of God’s kingdom unfolding before us.  It is Revelation 21 being lived out.  What God has to offer is special because it is far different from anything all of these ideologies and theologies can never offer – thriving and transformed life.  Only God can offer that.

 

What business is the church in?

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What business is the church in?  Maybe you prefer a less business oriented question.  How about this – why does the church exist?  It’s the same question, just asked a little differently.

Does the church exist to run a church?  To maintain an institution?  Make disciples?  Redemption?  Resurrection?  Forgiveness?  The Great Commission?  Serving the Poor?  Proclaiming Good News?  Something else?  What?

The answer to the question posed is really important.  And it makes a big difference.  But it goes beyond the stated question.  The real answer lies in the non-verbals of a church – How the money is used, the culture, the expectations, the attitudes of the people, etc.  Those don’t always match up with the stated answer.  Sometimes they do.

The non-verbals tell the story of the real answer to the question of why people believe the church exists.  These tell the story of how resources are used to support the true answer to the question – resources of time, money, energy.  These determine what the staffing looks like, and how the organization is structured.  These determine how the building and its land are used.  These determine what ministry and mission takes place.  These determine what discipleship happens and how.

Take a look at organizations that are dying or have died.  You can look at churches if you want.  The common thread that runs through those churches is that they don’t know why they exist beyond the fact that they have existed for some time.

Sometimes though, there is ministry that is taking place, where people are being drawn in, where resources are flowing in.  Even in dying organizations.  Sometimes in spite of the organization.  Where this life is taking root, there is passion, impact, hope, and a future.  I’ve seen this in organizations and churches.  And what usually happens is that the dying host organization tries to grab hold the thriving element in order to get a shot of life.  The only problem is that it usually kills off the life and the organization.  Remember, it was an organization that didn’t know why it existed.  The movement within the organization does though.

I’m stating this broadly, church – to no one in particular.  We can’t kick the can down the road any more.  There is no more road.  The question remains – what is the church about?  What is the institutional church about?  Why does it exist?  What is Jesus calling it to?

I believe this much – the church will exist in some form.  Jesus has pretty much stated as such.  But there’s a good chance that it won’t continue to look like it has in recent human history.  And I don’t think it will be what it was in the early church either – times have changed, so has culture, context, and humanity.  But this opens the door to huge opportunities and possibilities.  I don’t see this as a bad thing at all.  It will be something new, different.  Maybe a variation of what exists right now.  Maybe a combination of the two.  It depends on the context of the people gathered – what is Jesus calling them to in their context?

Are we willing to set aside our attachment to what we’ve always known about church in our lifetimes and how church has been?  Or is this attachment too important to our identities?

Regardless, God will persist.  New life comes out of ashes and death.  There will be resurrection.  The question is if we participate in it, or do we try to stop it?  The kingdom is unfolding regardless of us.

Only the strong survive

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Except they don’t.  They end up dead.  Just like everyone else.  It’s just a matter of when and how.

Think about the phrase for a moment – “Only the strong survive.”

It’s patently false.  No one survives life.  In fact, it’s a ridiculous statement.

“Only the strong survive” is linked to the ends justify the means.  Except if the strong aren’t getting out of life alive, then do the ends really matter at all?  Those who subscribe to these ideologies are lying to themselves if they really think they live by them.  The strong are going to die.  And the ends don’t really matter if you are going to end up dead.

But following Christ offers a different way of thinking and living.  Jesus calls on us to face the reality of death – not to run from it.  But it doesn’t end there.  Jesus makes us a promise – that death will not have the final say.  It’s not the strong that survive.  It’s that God’s children will be resurrected.

It’s not that the ends justify the means, it’s that Jesus is the means and is far more important than the ends. Jesus says he is the way, the truth, and the life.  The means justify the ends.  This is why followers of Jesus can’t just claim the label of Christian and then ignore what Jesus says.  Or to quote Jesus: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ but do not do what I tell you?”  Jesus very much cares about the means.

We can live by “Only the strong survive” and “the ends justify the means.”  But really, why bother?  There is nothing special about these arguments.  They don’t offer us life.  they don’t offer us anything really.

There is a different way.  A much better way.

Confessions of a Pastor

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I read a blog post from another pastor confessing some things – essentially confessing how not perfect he is.  Seems like a good idea, so here’s my version.

I confess that I am not perfect.  In fact, I’m far from it.  I make mistakes.  I make bad decisions.  I can be irritable.  I can be cranky.  And, get this, even though I wear a collar pretty often, I sin.  Even when wearing the collar.  Yes, I am a sinner.  I am no better than any of the rest of the people in the congregation.  The collar doesn’t give me sin protection.  It just points out my sin very clearly to me, if I’m paying attention.

I confess that I have my biases.  Maybe this is surprising, maybe not, but I have biases when it comes to many things, just like everyone else.  I have my beliefs about politics, faith, sports, and everyday life.  Am I right all the time?  Gosh no.  In fact, I’m willing to say that there is a good chance that I’m wrong more than I am right.  I come to the conclusions I do on what I think are good reasons.  But I could very much be wrong.

I confess that I can get really frustrated.  I can get frustrated with church, with people, with objects, with animals.  The frustration is really more about me not getting my way  if I am honest about it.  I’m not in control and sometimes that gets to me.

I confess that I have doubts about God, Jesus, faith, etc.  I don’t have all the answers and I don’t think having all the answers is healthy.  Where is there room for growth if we have all the answers?  Having doubt isn’t a bad thing.  The Apostles had doubts and they spent three years walking with Jesus – literally.  Who the heck are we to think we have to have all doubt removed?

I confess that there are parts of my calling that I don’t like.  I’m willing to bet that everyone has things they don’t like to do, but do it anyway.  Life isn’t all about doing only things you like to do.

I confess that I will never meet other people’s expectations.  Being a pastor is a very public thing.  And people look at the pastor through many different lenses.  And everyone has expectations of what the pastor should do, say, and be.  Guess what – I’m not going to meet those expectations because I am human, I am broken, and it is literally impossible to meet everyone’s expectation of what a pastor is to be.  Why?  Because more often than not, those expectations conflict with one another, are an idealized expectation of a pastor, and are unreasonable to the core.

These confessions may shatter your view of me or of pastors in general.  I’m not going to apologize for that.  My hope is that people will stop putting pastors on such a high pedestal.  We are human beings.  We have flaws and we fail.  We struggle with many things.  We are not the Herr Pastors of the past.  That was an unreasonable projection that all to often ended in abuse of both pastor and congregation.

My calling is to walk with people in their journey of faith, to raise difficult questions, to share the truth especially when it is uncomfortable and inconvenient, to afflict the comfortable, to comfort the afflicted, to make disciples who go and do ministry, to offer the sacraments, to proclaim Good News.  That’s what’s listed as the core of what a pastor does.

Here’s another confession.  More often than not, the calling goes way beyond that.  To be the administrator of a long-standing organization, to have financial acumen, to be the chief fundraiser, to be the chief spokesperson and marketing person, to have expertise in web and social media, to be a good communicator, writer, speaker, listener.  To be good with children, infants, teenagers, middle-aged, seniors, and everyone in between.  To visit many people who are alone.  To be a calm presence in the midst of anxiety.  To cast a vision and direction, and to keep moving the church forward even when it may not want to go forward.  To know the perfect words to say for weddings, funerals, and special occasions.  To craft perfect prayers on the spot.  To be a great teacher.  To meet with many different people to hear their problems and challenges, their sins and struggles.  To care for strangers who knock on the door seeking help – food, shelter, jobs, housing, etc.  To be a peacekeeper or peace maker in the midst of fights and abuse.  To listen to criticism and anger and fear and not allow it to hold me or you hostage.  To proclaim forgiveness for unspeakable sins.  To be an example of discipleship.

Here’s the real confession – no one can ever do all that.  I can’t anyway.

And so I ask for your forgiveness.  Forgive me with I don’t meet your expectations.  Forgive me when I forget your name.  Forgive me when I don’t remember something that was said to me in passing or many weeks ago.  Forgive me when I can’t make it to a meeting.  Forgive me when my sermon falls flat.  Forgive me when I’m just not feeling “it.”  Forgive me when we try something different and it doesn’t go smoothly.  Forgive me when I don’t get around to visiting everyone as often as you’d like.  Forgive me when I don’t match up to the idealized image of pastor.

Forgive me please.

Control

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I think there is a valid argument for saying that the biggest sin that humanity commits is control.  It’s a sin that puts the created in the place of the creator – crafting ourselves as a god.  The sin of control is the ultimate broken relationship with God.  It’s us saying to God: “We don’t like your ways.  We’ll do it our way, thank you very much.  You go sit over here for when we need you to bail us out.”

The first commandment states “You shall have no other gods before me.”  (Exodus 20:3)  This applies to how we make ourselves into a god as well – not just idols that are created and worshiped.

We do this when we try to control things by keeping them the way they are or try to re-create the past.  Except we can’t.  Change will happen, does happen, and there is no way to stop it.  We can certainly adapt to it.  We can resist it to some degree, especially if the change is not healthy and good.  We might even be able to redirect the change.  But that isn’t the same as trying to stop change and keep everything the same – forever.

Look at the effort we give to trying to stop change from happening.

The most obvious way this happens is with ourselves.  We try to stop the aging process instead of embracing it as a part of life and adapting to it.  Our bodies change – that is a fact.  Look at yourself in the mirror.  Is this what you looked like 20 years ago, 10 years ago, 5 years ago?  Of course not.  Your body changed, regardless of how you wanted to stop it.  You couldn’t.  Even if we cover it up, have surgeries, exercise, and have procedures, the fact remains that your body is still changing.  Yet, we are told a lie that we can stop aging, that we can hold onto our youthful look, that we can make our bodies youthful again.  And many buy the lie that we can stop change in ourselves.  There’s a lot of money to be made with selling a nostalgic self-image.

We try to stop change in our institutions as well.  Church is a good example.  Many want it the way it was, the way we see it through an idealized lens in which the pews were full, the pastor did all the ministry, everyone in town came to worship, everyone dressed up, and the culture assisted the church with laws and mores that gave the church a privileged position in society.  We want church to be a steady rock that never changes, all the while we will voice a desire for change, mostly because it seems like the right thing to say.  That is until we actually consider how that change will impact us, not just other people.  We want change in church, but change that doesn’t require us to change, only other people.  Often the change that is voiced isn’t so much a change with progress forward, with adaptions, and new ministries to serve new peoples in our ever-changing communities.  Rather it is a change by looking backward to nostalgia.  We want the world and the church to go back to the way it was – ignoring the challenges and sins that existed in the church and in the world.  We want to make church a steady and stable rock again.  We want a sense of control over life.

Yet, when Jesus calls people to follow him, he is asking for a huge change – a personal change.  He’s saying drop everything – all the nostalgia and the desire to control and stop change – and follow me.  Die daily so that new life can take hold.  Don’t just voice it, actually do it.  Jesus said:

“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do no do what I tell you?  I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built.  But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation.  When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of the house.”

(Luke 6:46-49)

We try to stop change politically and as a nation.  We hear it in the slogan “Make America Great Again.”  Many desire a change to some romanticized time in which all was well, that we were great, and everyone thrived.  Except this time never actually existed.  It’s a change backward, a reverse of time.  And it’s a lie.  There has never been a time in this country when all was well and where everyone thrived.  Never.  Certain groups of people certainly have, but not everyone.  And often there have been and still are groups of people who not only aren’t thriving, but are struggling to survive – pushed down by those in more privileged positions in life.  This is what the desire to control does.  There is a cost.

Things that are alive change and adapt.  Any science book will tell you that.  Things that are dead don’t move on their own and don’t adapt.  They wear away and decompose.  In that respect, even things that are dead change.  And eventually, they become unrecognizable and become dirt.  Dust to dust, ashes to ashes.

And in the end the question remains – what is the point of trying to stop change completely?  Or of turning back the clock?  Change is coming.  It is already here.  It walks with us.  Why not spend our energy adapting to it, maybe even steering it in a positive direction towards something that actually can allow for more people to thrive?  What if we took some of the good things of the past and adapted them for our present circumstances as opposed to trying to recreate the past?

What is the point of trying to change things in a backward fashion – to a time that never actually existed and certainly can’t be recreated.  Everything else has changed around us.  The environment in which we find ourselves has changed.  We can’t go back.  We can’t be any of those things again.

Change means there is newness.  There is no “again.”  No matter how much we desire it, we can’t go back in time and have those beautiful memories become reality again.  There is change.  There is life and there is death.  And out of death comes new life.  We allow the past to die so that there is new life in the present and the future.  Shackling the present and the future with the past doesn’t bring us back to the past and the way it was.  It just holds us hostage.  And in the mean time, the world continues to change, without our consent.  Because we are not in charge. And we fall further behind.  This makes adapting to changes more difficult and costly.

This is what it means to follow Jesus.  We aren’t called to go backward in time with the church.  We aren’t called to go backward in time with our nation.  We aren’t called to go backward in time with our bodies.  We are called to go forward and to let past things die, so that new life can take root.

To another [Jesus] said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

(Luke 9:59-62)

These would-be disciples wanted to go back, to hold onto the nostalgia – to bury their dead and to say farewell.  To look back.  But Jesus knows that a look back will only hold us back.  You can’t plow looking backwards.  You can’t drive a car looking in the rear view mirror.  You can’t walk forward while you keep your eye behind you.  It doesn’t work.  You can’t be the church, or you, or a nation by having a tight grip on the past, holding the present and the future hostage, with an old model that doesn’t meet current conditions and challenges and cultures.

Jesus calls us forward, not to a time of nostalgia.  The kingdom isn’t in the past.  The best days of the kingdom of God are unfolding now and are to come.  They aren’t in the past.  It’s unfolding right now.  It’s causing a change.  Will we be embraced by it, or will we resist it?  In the end, resisting it and trying to stop it will never win out.  It can’t.  Because change is always taking place.  The kingdom is always unfolding in new ways, in ways that are different from the past.

God and people

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What do we think about God?  This isn’t one of those head in the clouds type of questions.  The answer has practical implications.

Do you believe that God is angry and wrathful and ready to destroy whoever opposes God?

Do you believe that God is love, merciful, oriented towards peace?

Do you believe the claims of God?  Do you trust God?  Or do you rather verify before really trusting?

Do you believe that God is hands-off, not really someone or something that we experience or interact with?

Do you believe that God is just an idea, not a “person” at all – but rather a set of ideas?

Now switch out God with people and see if the answers are any different.  Often we think that how we relate to God and to other people is far different.  But I don’t think so.  Sure, there are some differences.  But at the core, how we think about God will have an impact on how we treat other people.

That’s how faith works.  It comes to us and impacts us in such a way that we spread this faith we have been given to others and it guides how we interact with others.

How we think about God and what we believe about God has an impact on how we treat and interact with others.

These are dangerous times

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These are dangerous times.  I don’t think that is a controversial statement.  The world order is being rattled severely.  Nationalist politicians are winning leadership positions in many nations, especially in Europe.  Let me be clear, nationalism is different from patriotism.

Merriam-Webster.com defines nationalism as “exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups.”

By nationalism, I mean politicians that are anti-immigrant to the point of blaming immigrants for the problems in any given country, along with other nationalist oriented policies.  And not just blaming, but implementing policies that are designed to kick immigrants out of their nation.  This, by the way, is the classic definition of scapegoating – to put the sins of a community or nation on a goat and send it away, thus the community can believe that all its sins have been cast out. Except, scapegoating doesn’t actually clear a community or nation of its sins.  It just covers them up with a lie.

Many of these nationalist politicians utilize fear and anger rhetorically to push their agendas.  Scapegoating requires there to be an enemy that is to be feared.

And we just had the US President openly siding with a foreign government regarding interference in US elections, in spite of the fact that pretty much every one agrees that Russia interfered with our elections.  On top of this, long-established international relationships are not healthy at the moment.  There is a high level of anxiety racing throughout the world.

So what is a follower of Jesus to do?  Are we to be anxious?  Are we to fight?  Are we to resist?  Are we to attack?  What?

Or do we look to Jesus?  Is that different from the other options?

This much I know, there is not a nice easy answer to this.  Difficult times call for difficult decisions.  Difficult times call for solid faith.  Difficult times call for prophetic voices.  If following Jesus were easy in difficult times, then everyone would be doing it.  Instead, difficult times are not easy.  And following Jesus is certainly not easy.

The Beatitudes in Matthew 5 are not easy to follow:

‘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 receive 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 for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

(Matthew 5:3-11)

Jesus doesn’t say only follow these and be these when times are easy.

Jesus is constantly inviting people to follow him.  Yet there always seems to be an excuse.

Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. A scribe then approached and said, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ Another of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.’

(Matthew 8:18-22)

Jesus certainly didn’t say follow me to this disciple when times were good – but rather in a very difficult situation – the death of his father.

But here’s the thing – following Jesus isn’t about following him in the easy times.  It’s all about the difficult times.

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’

(John 14:1-7)

Jesus says the above quote not long before he is handed over and then crucified.  It wasn’t an easy situation.  And Thomas asks a valid question.  Discipleship often leaves us with unanswered questions and make us feel blind and lost.

Our faith isn’t there for us for the easy times when the waters are still and we can see the shore clearly.  Faith is given to us for just a moment as this – when the waters are a storm and we are perishing.

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’

(Mark 4:35-41)

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”  That’s what the disciples and many of us are asking Jesus. And, just like in the story, we aren’t getting a verbal response that we want.  Instead, Jesus asks the disciples and us an important question – “Why are you afraid?  Have you still not faith?”  Do we ignore Jesus’ question like the disciples, too easily distracted by the storm and the miracle to pay attention to what Jesus is saying?

How do we respond to the storm of this world that is currently building?

I don’t know the full answer to that.  I can’t see the shoreline and the water is coming into the boat.

But this much I know – Jesus is asking us right now this important question: “Why are you afraid?”

Why are you afraid?  Do you really believe Jesus, what he teaches, who he is, and what he commands us to do?

Then why are you afraid?

Maybe you are right there with the disciples and asking their question – “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”  Jesus doesn’t answer that question and for good reason.  He doesn’t promise that we get to escape death.  He promises that death doesn’t have the final say.  In fact – this is uncomfortable for us if we are willing to admit it – Jesus calls on us to die daily.

Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.

(Luke 9:23-26)

Jesus doesn’t promise us safety and security.  He calls on us to die daily.  To deny ourselves.  To follow him.  To step into the unknown with trust.  To look at death square in the face and tell it that it can do its worst, but it doesn’t have the final say – God does.

What is a follower of Jesus to do in these stormy times?  Follow Jesus.  That will take different shapes and forms for different people. For some it will mean speaking up.  For some it might mean protesting the powers that be.  For some it might mean serving.  For some it might mean prayer.  We are each gifted and called in unique ways to follow Jesus.

Follow what he calls us to do.  And what is it that he calls on us to do? The simple version is to participate in the unfolding of the Kingdom of God – to participate in an alternative way of living and living in community.  To love, even those that are our enemies.  To offer mercy, even to those who are merciless.  To be a peacemaker, even when peace is not welcome.  To forgive, even when it is not deserved.  To offer grace, even when it is not welcome.  To serve the least among us, even when service doesn’t seem to make a difference.  To make disciples, even when discipleship is not appealing.  To die daily to self, even when we’d rather be in charge.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers.  I don’t even know what all the questions are.  I don’t judge those who would respond differently from me – at least I try not to.  There are certainly good arguments for other responses.  And I believe people respond in the best way they know how.

This is my path.  This is the path I walk on.  It is a road I am called to walk down.  You are welcome to walk with me.  Regardless of the path you take, I will hold you in prayer.  Please do the same for me.  What is your path? Maybe our paths intersect.  Maybe they are on the same path.  Maybe they aren’t.  But let us go forward, holding each other in prayer and then carrying out the Kingdom.

How to talk to a wall

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Last week I asked several questions about the state of faith and politics.  Overall the comments from people who answered were that there was concern about how to have difficult conversations with people who didn’t seem interested in talking.  How do you do that?  Often it feels as though you are talking with a wall.

I’ve had many encounters with such people over the years – mostly from my years in politics, but occasionally it still happens.  The short answer is – there isn’t much you can do.  The very essence of conversation is that you have two people who have mutual respect for each other, who are open to listening to each other, and are open to being persuaded by one another.  When someone is more like a robot in that there is no room for any change whatsoever, that isn’t much you can do.  In a sense it is as if this type of person has put themselves in a prison and thrown away the key.  Or maybe a better analogy is that they cover their eyes and ears with their hands and scream so that no one can get to them.  It’s the idea that if I cover my eyes, then I can’t see you and so you aren’t really there.  Of course, that same person isn’t willing to see reality either though.

When a person isn’t willing to see or hear the realities of things around them, then they are locked into their own perspective as if it is the only perspective that exists.  And unfortunately, they lose out on seeing the fuller picture.  The sad truth is that there isn’t much you can do with someone like this.

So the question is, what is a follower of Christ to do?  God offers an invitation to all.  Yet there are many who refuse this invitation – they want life on their own terms and without God.

And we believe that God is a God of love.  So God does the loving thing and honors this.  God grants this person exactly what they want – life without God.  God loves us so much that God would allow us to separate ourselves from God – or rather push God away.  You see, Hell isn’t a place where God torments people. Rather, Hell is a place of self-torment – a place with people who insist they can do better without God.  And they suffer the consequences of that.

When Jesus sends out the disciples in twos, he tells them to wipe the dust from their feet from towns and people who reject them.  And so should we.  Wipe the dust from our feet, symbolically, from people who refuse to engage, to talk, to see, to hear.  Wipe the dust from our feet from people who reject being open to any conversation, or consideration.  They have made their choice – a choice of self-torment.  That doesn’t mean we stop loving these people – we continue to do that.  We continue to pray for them also.  God always offers grace, forgiveness, love, peace, and mercy.  And as a follower of Jesus, we are called to offer those things too.  Because without God, and God’s mercy, we end up with karma – the idea that you get what you deserve.  But God’s mercy is different – you get what you don’t deserve.  People who are completely closed to conversation have attached themselves to the idea of karma.  And the best way to handle these folks, is to let them have their karma, continue to offer grace, and to move on with life until such a time that there is an openness.

 

There’s nothing special about these people

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A fellow pastor and friend of mine once gave some sage advice – “When you follow Jesus, the world will break your heart over and over again.”  So true.

This coming Sunday we will hear about the beheading of John the Baptist.  I challenge you to google beheading and see the reality of this.  Look at an image.  That’s the reality of this passage of Scripture.  And it is the image of contrast of two feasts that are offered.

There is the banquet of Herod celebrating his birthday, and there is the feast that Jesus offers.  Two kings throwing a banquet in celebration, but the two banquets are far different from each other.

Herod’s feast is actually pretty lame.  It’s fake and based on lies.  Sure, the rich and powerful are there – all the celebrities of the kingdom, those that lobby for things, VIP’s, etc.  They are all there.  They say wonderful things about Herod – how great he is.  The food and entertainment are fabulous.

But it’s a lie, down to its core.  The people there don’t care about Herod, they are just like Herod.  They only care about themselves.  Sure they say wonderful things about him, but the reality is that the moment Herod dies, these same people will just jump ship and say the same lies to whoever is next in line.  Being close to the seat of power is what is important to them.

At Herod’s banquet, John, the prophet, is jailed because prophets tell the truth and say things that are uncomfortable and inconvenient to the privileged and comfortable of Herod’s court.  Prophets are inconvenient and they cause us to look at the reality that is in our face, as opposed to pushing it aside out of convenience.  Privilege and comfort have the luxury of pushing inconvenient and uncomfortable things aside so that they can continue living their lie.  They can tell themselves that the inconvenience and uncomfortableness of others doesn’t affect them.

Herod’s banquet is about cold, hard law, and compliance.  And even Herod is enslaved to that and suffers the consequences of his own law.  The man in charge is no more in charge than anyone else.  Zero tolerance law means everyone suffers harshly.  The law leads to death.

Herod, and everyone else at his banquet, is imprisoned by the lie that power sets you free.  Power entraps you and demands your life and tells you a lie.  In reality, you are a slave to it – and it is a hard task master.

Herod’s banquet leads to death.  Herod’s banquet is a fraud, just like Herod.  Herod, the king, won’t even get his hands dirty and carry out his own orders.  It might mess up his outfit.  He might get blood on his hands.  He might not be able to sleep well.  He shows how weak he really is.

The other banquet is the one Jesus holds.  It’s a feast.  All are invited.  The poor and homeless will be there.  So will the outcast, the prostitute, and more.  The rich, the powerful are also invited.  So are the people in the middle.  Jesus’ feast leads to transformed lives.  Jesus is willing to get his hands dirty – showing us over and over again his willingness to be ritually unclean by touching the impure and healing them and bringing them into community.  Jesus’ feast brings life.  And all are welcome, not just the VIPs.

Every would be Herod does the same thing, says the same things, gets the same results.  There is nothing special about Herod or any who would be Herod.  These people are all the same, the only difference is the name.

This was true of the kings in the Old Testament.  It was true of the kings in the New Testament.  It was true of the kings since the time of Scripture.  It is still true today.  There is nothing special about Herod or anyone like him.  Nothing.  At all.

There is nothing special about people who use Herod’s language, who use the law the way that Herod did, who implement Herod-like policies.

There is nothing special about people who use anger and fear and violence to get their way.

There is nothing special or unique about people who spin things that are unethical, like Herod did, in order to comfort their wrecked conscious.

There is nothing special about any of these people.  And that may be the biggest insult these people can possibly hear.  That they are not special.  They and their methods are run of the mill.

Herod sent out an invitation to his banquet.  But he rejects God’s invitation, beheading God’s messenger instead.

Herod and those like him – both before and after – are not special.  They reject an incredible gift from God.  And God honors their request for God to be out of their lives.  They live in their own version of hell and suffer the consequences that they impose on themselves.  That’s not special.

What is special is Jesus and his way.  A way far different from the way of the Herods of every age, including our own.  A way that calls on us to die daily to ourselves so that we can rise in the fullness of who God calls us to be.  A way that is risky and doesn’t come with all the answers and glitz and glamor.  A way that is uncomfortable and inconvenient. A way that opens our eyes to see things we cannot unsee.  A way that the world rejects and thinks is crazy.  A way that causes us to go and do.  A way that transforms lives, not just allows us to survive.  A way of love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, and peace.  It is the way of Jesus.

It is special because it is different.  It is special because it is so often put aside.  It is special because those that follow it know something unique – that life is so much more than power, or stuff, or strength, or being right, or money, or fear, or anger, or anything else.  Life is a gift from God.  Faith is a gift from God.  And God invites us to use these gifts to participate in the unfolding of God’s Kingdom.