Monday, 16 October 2017

His disciples answered, “But where in this remote place can anyone get enough bread to feed them?” – Mark 8:4

Today’s Scripture Reading (October 16, 2017): Mark 8

G. K. Chesterton wrote, “To love means loving the unlovable. To forgive means pardoning the unpardonable. Faith means believing the unbelievable. Hope means hoping when everything seems hopeless.” What all of these things have in common is that they are easy in the abstract. It is amazing how often I ask questions with regard to loving those outside of our societal understanding, forgiving those that have deeply wounded us, having faith in the most unbelievable circumstances, or hope for a future that seems so bleak, and the people respond with words that seem to come straight from the interaction between Jesus and his rich young man - “all these I have kept since I was a boy” (Mark 10:20). And then something happens, and everything changes. Questioning replaces faith and fear replaces love. Forgiveness and hope belong solely to yesterday as we try to move into an uncertain future.

I have to wonder what was going on inside of the minds of the disciples as Jesus came to them to ask them to feed the four thousand. What was the difference between the feeding of the five thousand, and the feeding of the four thousand? Maybe the disciples were rubbing their hands together with glee as they asked Jesus where they were going to find enough food to feed the people, but I don’t think so. Even though Jesus had fed the five thousand through their actions, I don’t think that they had enough faith to go out and feed the four thousand. Something has happened, and everything has changed.

There are some differences between the two events. The most obvious difference is the number of people fed, four thousand versus five thousand. With the feeding of the five thousand, the initiators of the miracle had been the disciples, but here it is Jesus idea. The situation seems to have been much worse with the feeding of four thousand than the five thousand. While the five thousand had been with Jesus for a day, the four thousand had been with Jesus for three days. Two interesting thoughts arise out of this understanding. First, the disciples were apparently unwilling to bring up the subject of feeding the people with Jesus as they had when he was with the five thousand. Instead, they waited two extra days and even then it was Jesus who announced the people’s need for food. Second, one of the humanistic explanations for the feeding of the five thousand was that the people had brought food with them for their day with Jesus. They shared that food with each other, placing food into the baskets rather than taking food out so that in the end there were twelve baskets of food left over. But with the four thousand, the people had been with Jesus for three days. Any food that they had brought with them was long gone. The amount of food left over also changed, twelve baskets versus seven.  

And so Jesus asks his disciples to feed the people, and the disciples who have already lived through this miracle once still do not have enough faith to believe in the unbelievable. And neither do we. We struggle with faith; I know that I do. But luckily for us, it doesn’t take much faith to do some incredible things – if we truly want to.

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Matthew 17

Sunday, 15 October 2017

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” – Matthew 16:15

Today’s Scripture Reading (October 15, 2017): Matthew 16

On September 13, 2009, at the MTV Video Music Awards, the award for Best Female Video went to Taylor Swift for her song “You Belong to Me.“ It was an evening that few watching the award show are going to forget easily. Swift took the stage to accept the award, and then Kanye West took the stage, grabbing the mic from Taylor, to insert his commentary into the award. His words are infamous. “Yo, Taylor, I’m really happy for you and I’mma let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time. One of the best videos of all time!” The crowd booed Kanye while some seemed to try to cheer on Taylor, but by the time that Kanye had handed the mic back to Taylor, her time was up.

No one was overly impressed with West. President Obama had some unkind words for the singer, as did Katy Perry tweeting “Kanye, It’s like you stepped on a kitten.” Al Roker would later suggest that Kanye West needed to “re-evaluate his place in the universe.” For the night, the world seemed to sympathize with Taylor and Kanye was stuck wearing the proverbial “Black Hat.”

Who do people say that you are?  Or maybe the better question might be who do you want people to say that you are?  In a lot of ways, this is the real question of our lives.  In the Taylor Swift/Kanye West debacle, the bottom line of the whole thing was who people were saying that the principal characters in the story were Did Beyoncé make an incredible video – yes.  But at some point, someone chose Taylor’s video for the award.  Both had tried hard, and Kanye disagreed with the results.  In Kanye’s mind, someone made a mistake – and being who he is, he told the world what it was he thought.  This shouldn’t have been much of a surprise – it informs our opinion of who he is and confirmed who we believed him to be.

At some point, we have to make decisions in our lives that will influence how people see us. Yeah, I have made a lot of wrong decisions – but they were my decisions – and I (and Kanye) have to be responsible for the wrong choices that we make.  And how people perceive us will influence what it is that we can do in their presence.  If people think I am a fantastic guitarist (I’m not), then I will probably be asked to play guitar.  If it is a speaker, I will be asked to speak.  If I am seen as a fantastic sanitation worker – well, you know, I will be the one taking out what you have thrown away.

It is interesting to me that it was this question that Jesus asked.  Who is it that you say that I am? The answer effected what it was that the disciples would allow Jesus to do in their midst. Our answer to the question will change what it is that we will let him do in our midst. If we believe that he is a great teacher, then we will let him teach.  If we believe that he is the great healer, then we will allow him to heal.  If we believe that he is the Christ, then we will allow him to lead – no matter the circumstances.

So – what is your answer to the question?  Who is it that you say that he is? Or maybe, who do you need him to be.  Let him be precisely that. 

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Mark 8

Saturday, 14 October 2017

He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’ – Mark 7:6-7

Today’s Scripture Reading (October 14, 2017): Mark 7

Apparently, in Illinois, a car must be driven with a steering wheel. And that is disturbing for all of us who would rather drive using a computer joystick. I am not sure of the reason behind the law. I have driven for several years, and I have always used a steering wheel, adhering to the Illinois law even when I am not in Illinois. But at some point in time, something happened that caused the State of Illinois to pass the legislation. So if you are driving in Chicago, make sure that the steering wheel is correctly installed on your car.

Cultures often have laws that make no sense. Sometimes the law is simply badly written, or they are given without adequate explanations. Often, laws are simply outdated, and the reasons for the law have been lost in the fog of the past. Or maybe the laws seem to be too obvious, like a law that says that a car must be driven with a steering wheel. But for whatever the reason, we look at these laws and are at a loss to explain why anyone would take the time to pass them. They simply seem out of place in our society.

At first blush, Jewish cleanliness laws do not seem to belong to this set of regulations. In our modern society, the concept of washing your hands before eating is clearly understood. We know that germs can crawl on our hands and we understand how sickness is transferred from one person to another. But the cleanliness laws of Judaism had been divorced from the idea of remaining clean. The idea that had pervaded the culture was that sin could be committed and then washed from your hands through a ritual cleansing. The problem is that this was never God’s intention. God had always wanted those who followed him to be different in nature, not just different in ritual.

And that was the point that Jesus was trying to make and that Isaiah had made centuries earlier. There was no ethical difference between the people of Israel and those from other countries. They were worshipful with their lips, but not with their lives. When they entered the Temple, they pretended to be something that they refused to be outside the temple walls. And the reason why all of this was okay in the society is that the people were willing to wash their hands.

God’s demands on us have not changed. He wants something different for us. We are a people who believe in grace, but not a cheap grace that comes with the idea of frequently washing our hands. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in “The Cost of Discipleship” wrote about that kind of grace. Cheap grace is grace that allows us to stay the same as we were before. Instead, Bonhoeffer advocated for a costly grace.

Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: "My yoke is easy and my burden is light."

Cleanliness laws had become absurd because they were separated from the life that God intended us to live – a life of following him which never leaves us the same, but instead prompts a change in us into a people of love and light, which is precisely what our world needs right now.

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Matthew 16

Friday, 13 October 2017

Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? – Matthew 15:3

Today’s Scripture Reading (October 13, 2017): Matthew 15

Muslim Philosopher Al-Ghazali (1058-1111 C.E.) instructed his followers to “Declare your jihad on thirteen enemies you cannot see - egoism, arrogance, conceit, selfishness, greed, lust, intolerance, anger, lying, cheating, gossiping and slandering. If you can master and destroy them, then you will be ready to fight the enemy you can see.” Al-Ghazali has been described as the single most influential Muslim after Muhammad. And it is not just on Islam that he has left his mark. Through his influence on Christian figures like St. Thomas Aquinas, his wisdom has crossed over dividing religious lines into various areas of human existence.

Al-Ghazali’s words of jihad threaten to put off any contemporary Christian listener. We regard jihad as something that does not pertain to us. But I would argue that we need to hear the words of this Muslim philosopher; that the world would be such a better place if we could just live out Al-Ghazali’s instructions. Too many Christians do battle with the world without first doing battle with themselves. What would happen if we did declare our fight on the thirteen unseen enemies of our lives? What if we treated things like egoism, arrogance, conceit, selfishness, greed, lust, intolerance, anger, lying, cheating, gossiping and slandering as the enemy of our souls and committed ourselves to their eradication from our lives before we decided to criticize the lives of others?  

Okay, if we were to declare jihad on the thirteen unseen enemies, we might not get around to ever declaring jihad on anything or anyone else. The battle against these thirteen enemies would be enough to fill a lifetime. And the reality is that it is the same thirteen enemies, declared by Al-Ghazali, that stop the Christian from genuinely being the loving force in our world. Our power is usurped by our thirteen unseen enemies.

Jesus declaration is that we are stopped from accomplishing the will of God because we give a higher place to tradition than to God. The actual Greek word that is used is παράδοσις (paradosis), a teaching from tradition. We ignore what God directly instructs us to do because it does not measure up with the precepts we have put in place in our own lives. And those tenets are often a direct result of our thirteen unseen enemies. It is our ego that sets what we believe or want to believe above God’s instruction. Our arrogance and our conceit and the strong desire that exists within us to slander and gossip that stops us from being a force for the positive in this world.

Specifically, it is this tradition of the thirteen unseen enemies that stop us from loving others the way that Jesus loved. And until we declare war against our thirteen unseen enemies, we will never be able to love each other the way that Jesus instructed us to love. Instead, we will continue to allow tradition to modify the commands of God – and in the end, we will accomplish nothing.

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Mark 7

Thursday, 12 October 2017

For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. – John 6:33

Today’s Scripture Reading (October 12, 2017): John 6

Following the Las Vegas massacre, Trevor Noah of “The Daily Show” asked this question.

When is the time (to talk about guns)? If you say after a mass shooting is never the time, then you'll never have the conversation in America because there's a mass shooting almost every single day. When a plane crashes, we talk about plane safety immediately. When a bridge collapses, we talk about infrastructure immediately ... we seem to do everything to avoid talking about guns. So, just to keep track of the argument: Mass shooting, mass shooting, mass shooting...'We have to take care of this hotel check-in issue.'

I am tired. I am tired of hate. I am tired of reading about gun violence. I am tired of passive-aggressive social media entries that assume facts, not in evidence and slides toward hate. I am tired of division around the things that we seem to think is important, and even if they are important, I am tired of the negative feelings that are given life because of our division. I am tired of the way that we treat each other, berate each other, and bully each other. And every time it happens, every word that we speak in order to tear someone else down, we move closer to the next “worst ever domestic mass murder in history.”

I am for at least some kind of gun control. We don’t want North Korea to possess nuclear weapons, at least in part, because we don’t trust them with the technology. They haven’t proven that they are part of the global community and that they want to work with other nations toward peace. North Korea has not proven themselves to be a responsible nation, so keeping nuclear weapons out of their hands seems to be a very appropriate response. I believe that gun ownership is a right, but with all rights come responsibilities. And looking at the track record, we have not proven that we are responsible enough to own guns. So maybe someone needs to take our toys away.

Of course, someone should also take our social media accounts away as well, because we haven’t proven that we can be responsible there either. Social media has just become one more avenue for us to spread our hate and our fear. And in the church, the issue is magnified. We are the ones charged with the task of supplying “the bread of God” to the world. Jesus left us with a clear mandate, go and be a force in favor of life in everything that we do and with every word that we speak. While the rest of the world might want to suck the life out this world, we are the life givers. Jesus’s church will be a force for good.

I am not sure that that is the way that the world would describe the Christian church, but it isn’t too late to change the narrative and become the force for love that we were supposed to be. It is time that we left hate and fear behind, and that we began to measure all of our actions according to the life that we bring. Because “the bread of God” is inside of you, and it is time to let it loose among the people with whom you rub shoulders. It is time that the Christian Church brought life.  

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Matthew 15

Personal Note: Happy Birthday, Mom.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Jesus strictly warned them not to tell this to anyone. – Luke 9:21

Today’s Scripture Reading (October 11, 2017): Luke 9

In the wake of tragedies like the one in Las Vegas ten short days ago (October 1, 2017), it is not uncommon to hear investigators telling reporters that there are certain facts that they just can’t disclose in interviews. The problem is that public knowledge always has the dangerous potential to change what the investigation and what is happening. And in the case of terror incidents like the Las Vegas massacre, changing or informing the narrative also has the potential of inspiring copy-cat incidents. And so investigators remain quiet about what we know.

The New International Version of Luke places an unfortunate, and artificial, division between verse twenty and twenty-one of Luke 9. Verse twenty-one seems to provide a kind of language bridge between two ideas presented in the Chapter. The first idea is that Jesus is the Messiah. The second idea is that Jesus would, at some point in the near future, suffer and die at the hands of the religious elite. The artificial break seems to tie Jesus warning not to tell anyone to the prediction of Jesus death, but the comment makes more sense when it is related to the idea that Jesus was the Messiah.

The problem was that “Messiah” had become a very political term. It is apparent that Jesus was aware of two competing concepts. He was the Messiah, but he was not the Messiah that the people were expecting. If news got out from the disciples that the Messiah was here (and there were likely many people who claimed to be Messiah during Jesus lifetime), then the narrative would inevitably change. Jesus would be treated differently. People would be attracted to the Jesus movement who were at odds with the direction that Jesus knew he had to go. And Jesus mission would have become even harder.

And so the warning is issued. Don’t tell anyone that you know who I am. For now, that will be for us to know. Oh, the time will come when everyone will be aware that Jesus is the Christ, and arguments over the concept of a Messianic Jesus will erupt. But for now, that discussion needs to be reserved for the future. For now, we have work to do that will only be interrupted by the knowledge that Jesus is the Messiah. Because, in the minds of the people, dying for the sins of man is a very un-Messianic job, and yet the very one that the Messiah came to accomplish.        

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: John 6

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. – Matthew 14:13

Today’s Scripture Reading (October 10, 2017): Matthew 14

“The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.” (Tom Wolfe, American Author, and Journalist). I understand Wolfe’s words from a very experiential point of view. Every one of us spends time alone, and because it is a common experience, it is one that we need to come to terms with – to learn how to handle those moments when we are “all by ourselves.”

And that might be one of the fundamental differences between us as people. For some of us, which would include me and, maybe, solitary men like Tom Wolfe, we have come to the point of understanding with our loneliness. Even writing the words in that manner makes those alone times sound incredibly painful, but the reality is quite the reverse. For some of us, loneliness is incredibly energizing. We find strength in those moments when we are alone – and we need them to live healthily.

But that is not the only approach to loneliness. For some of my colleagues, time alone is painful. It is something to be avoided. Rather than finding a quiet corner in which to write, some of my friends need to find a busy coffee shop in which they can record their thoughts. Alone, space itself seems to crowd in on them, squeezing their thoughts to such an extent that they can no longer write them down on the page. Writing becomes a communal exercise, done amidst the noise and haste of the world in which we live. The noise, then, is not a distraction, as it can be for me, it is part of the energy that is needed to get the words out and onto the printed page.

However, beyond the difference to our natures, time spent alone is also incredibly necessary. How much time we need alone probably varies from person to person, but what does not vary is our need to spend some time alone – even in loneliness. It is only in those moments of solitude that we get to pause and evaluate the events of our lives, and it is in these moments that we begin to understand things like meaning and the powerful emotions that constantly invade our lives.

Even Jesus felt the need to get away alone. John was dead, killed by a reluctant king. Up until this point, the public attention of the movement had rested on John’s shoulders. But all of that was about to change. Jesus needed time to grieve the loss of his partner and to orient himself in the direction of the coming transformation of the ministry. The crowds that followed him were not going to allow him much time for this evaluation, but it was essential that Jesus have at least some time alone.  

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Luke 9