Life on the Fast-Track

“We are going up to Jerusalem,” [Jesus] said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”
Mark 10:33-34 (NIV)

Much of my life has been spent hurrying. Not in the micro sense (though, I confess, my record is dotted with speeding tickets), but in the macro sense. As a kid I was overly anxious to grow up and get to the next stage. I was always looking for the fast-track. I couldn’t wait to get to do what others were allowed to do. Before I had my driver’s license I had friends who loaned me their cars. I graduated from high school early because I could. I wanted to get through college quickly, too. I was driven to find “the one” I would marry and was married before I graduated from college. I was equally driven to start my career, start a family, and make my mark on the world.

What was the rush?

In retrospect, I think being the youngest child positioned me to envy my older siblings. That was part of it. I think my personality also played a part. No matter, my fast-track mentality shaped many of my life decisions with consequences that range from benign to tragic. As I meditate on it in the quiet this morning, I’m not sure I could argue that anything good came of it. I don’t know. I might have to talk that through with a good friend over a pint and a cigar on the back patio.

Here’s what I have learned, however: There are no short-cuts on the spiritual journey except those I try to forge myself, and as Frodo and the lads discovered in the forest “short-cuts make for long delays.”

Perhaps my wealth of experiences at trying to forge short-cuts in life give me greater clarity to see it in others. In today’s chapter, I saw it everywhere.

The institutional religious leaders ask Jesus a direct question about his views on divorce. Jesus is in Herod Antipas’ realm. Herod just had John the Baptist imprisoned for preaching against his unlawful divorce and remarriage to his brother’s wife. Jesus’ enemies saw an opportunity to fast-track Jesus to the same fate.

The rich young man who asked Jesus how to earn eternal life was looking for the fast-track to heaven.

James and John were looking for the fast-track to positions of honor in Jesus’ “glory.”

On the heels of these three events, Jesus points His followers to the place He is heading:

Delivered into the hands of those who hate Him.
Condemned to death.
Delivered into the hands of the Empire.
Mocked.
Spit-on.
Scourged.
Beaten.
Crucified.

He then tells His followers: this is the path.

No short-cuts.
No fast-tracks.
No get-spiritually-rich-quick schemes.
In God’s Kingdom, one does not get moved up to the next grade until the lessons of the current level are effectively learned.

Short-cuts only make for long delays in the spiritual journey.

In the quiet this morning, I look back at my own path and review the results of my attempts at forging spiritual short-cuts. “Benign to tragic.”

It is ironic that today’s chapter ends with a poor blind man who keeps shouting to Jesus: “Have mercy on me!”

The attitude and posture of the poor blind man’s spirit led to his eyes being opened.

There’s a lesson for me in that.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

“Ins” and “outs”

“Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”
Mark 9:38 (NIV)

Over the past five years, I’ve quietly watched as divergent lines of political, social, and religious thought have become more and more entrenched behind walls of prejudice and across what appears to be a “no man’s land” dictated by either and/or both sides of the great divide. It grieves me to observe, and to experience, the lack of grace, tolerance, love, and simple human kindness for other human beings.

Like every other human being, my life journey has been dotted with observing and experiencing the “ins” and “outs” of social groups. Favorites emerge in family systems. Sides are chosen on the playground. The new kid on the block must navigate how to earn acceptance from the neighborhood gang who’ve known each other their whole lives. Social groups with unspoken rules of “in” and “out” emerge out of the shared identities of being jocks, nerds, band geeks, and stoners. Sororities and Fraternities create shared loyalty through their pledging, hazing, and strict hierarchies. Corporations have well insulated “C-Suites” where executives are sequestered in corner offices with private bathrooms. Churches manage who’s in and out with membership cards, doctrinal litmus tests, and unspoken religious rules about dress, speech, morality, and acceptable political stances.

In today’s chapter, there’s an interesting exchange that, in my experience, doesn’t get much air time. In my forty years of following Jesus and regularly attending the gatherings of various groups of fellow followers, I have never heard one sermon, lecture, or lesson on this exchange.

It comes from the mouth of John who bears the moniker, “the one whom Jesus loved,” and one of the three who comprised what’s known as “Jesus’ inner-circle.” It was that “inner circle” (James, John, and Peter) whom Jesus took to witness His transfiguration in today’s chapter. I have to wonder how that went over with the other nine. I think I can guess.

Jesus and His “twelve” are together in someone’s home, away from the crowds. Jesus is holding a little child in His arms, telling his disciples that in the economy of God’s Kingdom the “greatest” are those who are humble and willing to welcome and serve “the least” of society with open and embracing arms.

John then looks at Jesus (who is still holding the child as a living word picture of this lesson about humility, love, openness, and inclusion), and says, “Teacher, we saw some guy we didn’t know today performing an exorcism in your name and we told him to stop, because he’s not one of us!”

He doesn’t belong “in” our group.

You didn’t choose him, like you chose us.

He hasn’t left everything and followed you like we have.

We don’t know where he is from or what he truly believes.

Be proud of us, Jesus, we’re keeping “out” those who don’t belong “in” your entourage!

Jesus, still holding the child in His arms, rebukes John for what he’s said and done. John can’t see the disconnect. Jesus then tears down the wall of John’s “in” group distinctions: “Whoever is not against us, is for us.”

In the quiet this morning, I find myself contemplating all of the walls of distinction that have been erected by various social groups on every side of every issue. And this is where my heart lands as I consider Jesus’ words in today’s chapter, and picture Him holding a little child in His arms:

First:

When I go downstairs this morning to have coffee with Wendy and peruse the news of the day…
I am only going to see what their cameras want me to see.
I am only going to hear what their editors want me to hear.
I am only going to read, watch, and listen to the sources I choose
who, let’s face it, I choose because it makes me comfortable in.my.own.groups.

Second:

What I will see, hear, and read is an infinitesimal and skewed vision of the daily lives, experiences, conversations, and interactions that I and billions of other human beings will have on this planet on this day.

Third:

I can’t control what others may think of me or what they perceive me to be. People may very well choose to hate me and be against me in any way one chooses. Nevertheless, no one is going to get me to hate them any more than they could get Jesus to hate them.

As a follower of Jesus, that’s my calling, my mission, and my heart’s desire.

Forgive? Yes. Hate? No.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

The Inflection Point

The Inflection Point (CaD Mk 8) Wayfarer

[Jesus] 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.”

Mark 8:31-33 (NIV)

Inflection point has become a buzzword in business during my career. And, it’s often misunderstood. The inflection point is the point on a line where the line changes its sign. It’s when the curve of that line reveals a shift of direction. When it ultimately shifts direction, that’s called the “turning point.” The turning point happens later. The inflection point is the subtle shift that precedes the turning point. If you see the inflection point, you can predict the turning point.

When the moving line turns red, that’s the inflection point.

In today’s chapter, the narrative of Mark’s version of Jesus’ story hits an inflection point. The majority of the first eight chapters is an endless stream of miracles, wonders, and exorcisms seasoned with Jesus parables and teachings. It has been all about Jesus interacting with people’s lives in this world. He’s feeding hungry people, healing sick people, delivering possessed people, and teaching people spiritual principles of God’s kingdom in contrast to the human religious system controlling most of their lives.

Out of the blue, Jesus tells his followers quite plainly that He will be rejected by the religious power-brokers in Jerusalem, He will be killed, and then in three days He will rise from the dead. We’re just half-way through Mark’s biography of Jesus and Jesus let’s fly with the greatest spoiler of all time without once issuing his listeners a Spoiler Alert.

This event is a narrative inflection point. From this point forward, Mark’s version of events will drive towards the very events Jesus predicts.

What really resonated in my heart and mind this morning was Peter’s reaction. Upon hearing Jesus explain the end game of His mission on earth, Peter pulls the master aside and “rebukes” Him. In the quiet, I imagined what Peter’s rebuke might have been…

“You can’t die! We’re just getting started!”

“The twelve of us have left everything to follow you assuming this was a long-term gig! How are we going to retire if you leave us in the lurch?”

“Jesus, dude, you’ve got what it takes to ride this wave all the way to the throne. With your powers and the people behind you, there’s nothing that can stop you from ruling the world!”

“Look! Your parables and stories are confusing, but they’re great. People love them. The miracles and the free fish sandwiches, that’s what the people want. If you go off-message and start tweeting about your death like some crazy-man, it’s over. You’ll lose your momentum. These people will stop following you. Then where will we be?”

He’ll be right where the powerful men atop the human religious racket can arrest Him, usher Him through their kangaroo court, and leverage their local power to convince Rome to execute this threat to all that they care about.

He’ll be right where He just predicted He’d end up.

It struck me this morning that this is more than just an inflection point in the storyline. This is also a spiritual inflection point in Jesus’ teaching.

I am so focused on this life. I am so concerned with my immediate circumstances. Virtually every moment of my day is concentrated on my place in this world. My time, energy, and resources are spent trying to make this earthly life last as long as possible (even if it ends up being no Life at all). I do all that I can not to think about death, talk about death, or consider the undeniable truth that my body is going to die.

“You’re right, Tom,” Jesus says through the text of today’s chapter. “Thanks for being honest. Because that is what needs to change. That is the inflection point…

“Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?”
Mark 8:34-37 (MSG)

If I follow Jesus at this inflection point, then down the road a whole bunch of turning points in my words, decisions, actions, and relationships will reveal themselves. Consider Peter. It’s at Cornelius’ house in Acts 10 that the turning point is revealed.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself contemplating this spiritual inflection point at which Jesus asks me to consider God’s eternal Kingdom more real than this physical life, more important than the things of this world, more valuable than anything this life could afford.

This is also a point of tension. It doesn’t mean that I ignore this life, coast through this journey, live as if nothing on earth matters. It does! It matters enough for Jesus to come and do exactly as He predicted. The spiritual inflection point gets down to the motives at the core of my being.

What is it I want?

What is it I’m living for?

What does my head answer? What does my heart answer?

If there is ultimately no evidence of a turning point on my calendar, on my credit card statement, and on my task list, then the truth is that I missed the inflection point.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

The Contrast

The Contrast (CaD Mk 7) Wayfarer

“Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.”
Mark 7:18-19 (NIV)

When I was a young man, I spent a short period of time working in a county office building where I participated in the the legal investigation and documentation of real estate transactions. I did it for less than a year, but it was an eye opening experience. I observed and learned how government worked under the control of a political machine. I observed and learned how people use the letter of the law to circumvent the spirit of the law to achieve their own selfish ends. I learned and observed how people try to use real estate to con others, and once or twice I actually caught people doing it. It was a crash-course in “how the world works.”

In yesterday’s post/podcast I mentioned that it’s easy to get stuck looking at the text with a microscope while ignoring the bigger picture. I can lose the forest in the trees, as the old saying goes. In today’s chapter, what resonated most with me was, once again, not mired in the minutia of Jesus words, but the larger context of what is happening in the story.

Jesus ministry, at this point, has taken place in the rural backwaters of Judea. If I were to use the United States for context, I would say that Jesus has been spending all of his time and energy in fly-over country while avoiding both coasts. All of the miracles, crowds, and exorcisms have Jesus trending off the charts and the establishment powers-that-be have begun to notice. Since the beginning of time, power-brokers at the top of the political, commercial, and religious establishments have known to ceaselessly look for any threat to the stability of their power and the continuity of their cashflow.

I found Mark’s observation fascinating:

“Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it.”

The more they talk about it, the more of a potential threat Jesus becomes to the religious powers-that-be. In the beginning of today’s chapter, Mark notes that an entourage of political and religious leaders from Jerusalem come to see for themselves what the hub-bub is all about. They are big fish coming to the small pond of Galilee, but along the blue-collar shores of Galilee they are not in their own environment while Jesus is definitely in His.

The Jerusalem entourage are here to find ways to discredit this threat to their control on the religious institution and the lives of all who adhere to it. They quickly call Jesus out for not washing his hands before supper, which the establishment long ago elevated onto the checklist of religious rituals and behaviors they used to maintain their self-righteous judgement of who is naughty-or-nice, who is in-or-out.

Jesus response resonated with me because He calls them out on a point of legal order. Nowhere in the Ten Commandments or the laws of Moses was ritual hand washing a thing. The religious-types, over time, had created rules that were part of legal codes which codified and expanded the interpretation of the original spiritual principle. Jesus turns this into a very simple illustration that gets to the core of the difference between His teaching and that of the institutional human religious establishment.

The religious leaders made a spectacle of their ritual hand-washing before meals to show how pious and righteous they were. Jesus quickly points out that at the same time these same religious leaders had used the letter of the law to allow children to avoid the obligation of adult children to care for their elderly parents. They allowed people to bring “offerings” as a charitable donation to the religious establishment which would otherwise have been the money needed to pay for their parents needs. They then declare a form of bankruptcy as to escape their financial obligation to their elderly parents with the absolution of the religious institution who benefitted handsomely for it.

This is a version of what I observed and learned in the county office building when I was a young men. This is how the Kingdoms of this World work.

Jesus’ response was a simple word picture. Along with hand-washing, the power-brokers from Jerusalem also had many dietary restrictions which also fell into the category of religious rule-keeping. Jesus’ observation is so simple. Food, he says, goes in the mouth, through the stomach, and out the other end. Whether eaten with ritually cleansed hands or dirty hands, the food never passes through the heart.

From a spiritual perspective, the distinction is essential, Jesus says:

“It’s what comes out of a person that pollutes: obscenities, lusts, thefts, murders, adulteries, greed, depravity, deceptive dealings, carousing, mean looks, slander, arrogance, foolishness—all these are vomit from the heart. There is the source of your pollution.” Mark 7: 20-23 (MSG)

The entourage will return to Jerusalem. Their dossier on Jesus will speak of a popular teacher among the poor and simple masses who follow Him in throngs, hang on His every word, and are won-over by His miracles. He will be labeled an enemy of the institution. He threatens the stability of their power, their control over the masses, and ultimately the stream of cashflow from their religious racket. We are still a couple of years away from this religio-political machine condemning Jesus and conspiring to hang Him on a cross, but the pieces are already moving on the chess board.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself once again inspired by Jesus. The more I read the story, and read His teachings, the more I see the contrast between the heart-principles of the Kingdom of God and the religious rule keeping of the institutions of this world. I am compelled to continue following the former with all my heart while exposing the latter for what it is. In other words, I want to be more and more like Jesus while shunning the religious institutions and establishments who point to their moral codes and religious rules and say, “this is what Jesus meant.”

I believe that humans will perpetually turn eternal Truth into earthly rules and religious systems. C’est la vie. It’s part of the fabric of a fallen world in this Great Story.

Nevertheless, I get to choose every day which I follow.

“Hang on Jesus. I’m lacing up my shoes for another day. I’m right behind you. Where are we headed?”

Soil Samples

Soil Samples (CaD Mk 6) Wayfarer

…Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him.
Mark 6:20 (NIV)

Here in Iowa, the science of agriculture is big business. Each autumn when harvest rolls around the crop yield is a make-it or break-it reality for farmers. Which is why I know friends whose livelihoods are spent studying soil and seeds to try and grow as much as the land can possibly yield. As I have often confessed, agriculture is not something about which I have vast knowledge. Just enough to appreciate a good parable.

As I’ve trekked my way through the Great Story again and again over the past forty years, I’ve learned that sometimes the lesson is not in microscopically mining the minutia of the text, but in stepping back and looking at the bigger picture.

Back in chapter four, Mark records Jesus parable of the sower, in which the Word falls like seed on different human hearts that each are like a different quality of soil. A quick recap:

  • Like seed fallen on a hardened footpath: A soon as this person hears it, the enemy snatches it away like a bird.
  • Like seed fallen on rocky ground: Life sprouts in them, but it doesn’t put down roots and can’t survive through difficult weather.
  • Like seed fallen among thornbushes: Sprout and grow, but the things of this world choke it and render it unfruitful.
  • Like seed fallen on good soil: Sprout, put down roots, grow, and bear fruit.

Starting in chapter Five and continuing in today’s chapter, Mark records stories of different people who rejected Jesus, His teaching, and His miracles.

Despite the fact that Jesus drove the demons from the heart of the man living among the tombs of the Gerasenes, the townspeople wanted nothing to do with Jesus. Their hearts are like the hardened footpath. It’s as if the demons snatched the Word from their hearts on their way from the man to the pigs.

In today’s chapter, Jesus goes home to Nazareth. The people of Nazareth listened to Jesus’ teaching, and some were amazed as if the Word was sprouting new life in them. But ultimately, nothing took root as their hearts couldn’t see past their prejudices: “How could Jesus Bar Joseph, the Carpenter’s boy who fixed my chair that one time, be a rabbi?”

Then we get to Herod Antipas, the local ruler of Galilee. Herod sits atop one of the “kingdoms of this world,” the descendant and co-heir of a ruthless tyrant who amassed wealth, political power, and all the luxuries it affords through corruption, deceit, and bloodshed. When Satan went “all-in” and offered Jesus with all the “Kingdoms of this World,” Herod’s kingdom was there in the pot, and Jesus knew it. Jesus grew up knowing all about Herod’s wealth, power, fortunes, women, and fame.

Mark then does something unusual compared to what we’ve read thus far in his biography of Jesus. Mark tells a story that is not about Jesus, but about Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. It gives us a picture of seed that falls among the world’s thorn bushes.

Some quick gossip from the tabloids at the checkout line at the Galilean grocery stores: There was a whole sex scandal in Herodian royal family, and Herod Antipas ends up marrying his brother’s wife. John the Baptist is a local religious figure who is extremely popular and extremely revered by all the deplorable religious types in Herod’s constituency. John publicly preaches against the immorality in the Herodian palace, and Herod can’t risk a drop in his approval rating so he has John arrested. He even has John brought before him (and his guests on occasion) to hear his religious rants. Mark tells us that Herod, “liked to listen to him.”

To Herod, John and his message are playthings. They are one more thing that wealth and power afford him. He has his own holy man at his beck-and-call. John is God’s little vine surviving amidst the entrenched hedge of Herod’s prickly power. Herod might have John preach for him and his party-guests. He might have John beheaded at the whim of his lust for his own step-daughter. It is of little consequence for him. He can always find another holy man: “I keep hearing about this Nazarene,” I can hear him say to his dinner guest after John’s head is carried out on a platter. “Maybe I should arrest him. John’s sermons were so entertaining. I’ll miss them.”

In the quiet this morning, I am reminded that Jesus had as many enemies, detractors, and people who dismissed His teaching as He had disciples. Perhaps 3 to 1 if the parable is any indication. My experience is that Jesus’ followers rarely think much about this reality.

And so I find myself thinking about the soil of my own heart.

Is my heart hard and unyielding?

Is my heart shallow and unwilling to put down spiritual roots?

Is my heart choked, overshadowed, and/or overgrown by the things of this world?

Is my heart fruitful with the mixed-fruit of faith, hope, and love?

As I meditated on the metaphor again this morning, I found myself mulling over the fact that the seed among the thorns and the seed on the good soil both sprout, take root, and grow. The only difference Jesus described was that the good-soil plant was fruitful while the plant choked by the thorns of this world didn’t yield fruit.

I also find myself thinking about these chapter-a-day blog posts and podcasts that I scatter across the internet each weekday wondering where in the world they might land. Hard soil? Rocky soil? Thorn bushes? Good soil? I have learned that there is both grief and freedom in not knowing the answer. Such is the lot of the sower who must wait until harvest to know the yield.

I hope this lands well with you, my friend.

Have a great day.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.